Mule’s Crossing (by jfclover)

Summary: A story in two voices: Joe and Adam Cartwright.  A simple horse buying trip leads to unexpected events.  Can two brothers find the strength to survive an unbalanced man in a desolate land when hope for a future is lost?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count: 33,000.

 


Book 1

Joe

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

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

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

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

“What’s goin’ on out here, Joseph?”

“Just watch.”

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

“Just wait.”

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

“Now I understand.”

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

“Think you can catch him?”

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

“Ain’t gonna be easy.”

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

“Ya gotta point there, little brother.”

“Yep.”

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But, Pa.”

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t catch your name,” I said.

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

“Prescott?”

“Yes,” she said hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t know.”

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

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

“Everyone out.”

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

“Throw down your weapons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

“No talkin’, boy.  Get back in line.”

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

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

“Give me your boots, Cartwright.”

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

“Joe,” Hoss whispered urgently.

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

“Move.”

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

Welcome to the west, Miss Prescott.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On your feet.”

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

But, I was wrong.

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

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

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

“Can’t answer that one.  Any others?”

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

“That depends.”

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

“Watch that tone, boy.”

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

“No more questions?  Sleep well.”

*****

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

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

“What’s in there, boy?”

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

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

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

“You’re a smart mouth, ain’t ya?”

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

“Yeah, what of it?”

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

“Why?”

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

“Give me the damn bag,” he said.

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

“Hold it right there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Silencio,” said one of the guards.

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on, Joseph.  Time to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

”Si, I seen it happen.”

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

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

“That’s good, Joe.  Let’s walk some.”

“Okay.”

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

“Sammy—“

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hoss?”

“That’s good, Joe.”

“I’m okay.  I can walk.”

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

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

*****

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

“All aboard.”

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

Hot, cold, hot cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

“Welcome.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of work,” I asked.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

None of us spoke.  I wanted to laugh.

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

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

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

Still, no one spoke.

“Mr. Montoya?”

“Remove your shirts.”

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

“No, señor.  I no make joke.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

“My arm’s about to fall off, Joe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Matthew.”

“What is this place?” the boy asked.

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

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

I shook my head.  “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

“Do not know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Father punish him.”

“Punish him how?”

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

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

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

“Hoss?”

“No.  It’s Matt.”

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

“He’s being held over.”

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

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

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

“Time to go.”

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

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

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

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

“Joseph?  Have you forgotten your manners?”

“Where’s my brother?”

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

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

“The big one?”

“Yeah—the big one.”

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

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

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

“Yessir.”

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joe?”

“Yeah, it’s me.  You okay?”

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

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

“You been drinkin’?”

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

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

“Nite, Hoss.”

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

“Yessir.”

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

“Yes, Father.”

“Brandy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

“Yessir, a fine job.”

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.  Goodnight.”

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

“Thank you, sir.”

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

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

“By all means, son.”

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

“Martha is a fine woman, Joseph.”

“Yessir.”

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

“Sir?”

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

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

“Do you?”

“I believe I do, sir.”

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

“Yessir.  Of course, I do.”

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

*****

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

“Thank you, Father.”

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

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

“Yes, Father,” they replied in unison.

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

“Good evening,” I said to all four.

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

“You still don’t trust me, do you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yessir.  You needn’t worry.”

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

“Godspeed, son.”

“Thank you, sir.”

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

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

*****

 Adam

“Pa!  Pa!”  I didn’t bother tying Sport before racing across the front porch and into the house.  “Pa!”

Like my youngest brother, I flung the front door open, hitting the credenza with a crushing blow but today I didn’t care.  Nothing else mattered but the paper I held in my hand.  Pa came around from his desk where he spent most of his days, writing out messages to smaller towns within a 500-mile radius in hopes of finding my brothers. They’d gone missing just shy of a year ago, and Pa had never given up hope of their return.

In my hand, I carried the most important telegram that had ever been sent.  “They’re alive,” I managed, still out of breath, still gasping for air as I handed my father the wire. I’d done a disservice to my horse, racing him home from Virginia City, but it couldn’t be helped.  The day had finally arrived, and our lives made sense once again.

“Where are they?”

I was still trying to catch my breath and took a good look at my father.  “Here, sit down, Pa.” I pulled a chair out from in front of the desk and eased him down before he collapsed on the floor.  His eyes hadn’t left the missive he gripped with both hands.

“New Mexico Territory?”

“Looks that way,” I said.  I’d read the same wire Pa held out in front of him although there wasn’t much information to go on.  Pigeon’s Ranch was located close to Glorieta Pass, and that’s where both brothers were staying until we arrived.  “I sent a wire, told Monsieur Vallé, this man who sent the wire, we were on our way.”

My father hadn’t looked up; he read the telegram repeatedly.  Maybe it was shock. Maybe he couldn’t get his mind around those few simple words that appeared in plain sight.  I knelt down in front of him.  “When do you want to leave?”  That’s when I saw the tears. “Pa, they’re alive.” I repeated, hardly believing my own words. “They’re waiting for us.”

“How . . . after all these months?”  Pa raised his eyes from the paper and took a deep breath.  “I’ve prayed every night.  I’ve asked God . . . I’m sorry, son, I just can’t believe—“

“Pa . . . believe.”

I glanced up to see Hop Sing standing next to the stove in the den.  He also had tears streaking his face.  “Boys home soon.  You go get.  Bring home Mr. Hoss and Little Joe.”

I should have known to include Hop Sing.  He was family too although there were times I didn’t use common sense.  “Yes, Hop Sing.  We’ll bring them home.”

“I start cooking now for boys’ homecoming.  Mr. Hoss plenty hungry by now.  He miss Hop Sing good meals.”

“I’m sure he’ll be pleased.”  Only Hop Sing could think of food at a time like this although, I’m sure Hoss was thinking the exact same thing.

We could have taken the stage, but when Pa finally came to his senses, he didn’t think my brothers would want any part of returning home on a northbound coach.  I had to agree. Even though we’d heard about the stage accident soon after it happened, nothing was clear; nothing fell together like it should have.

Why would a stage burn like that?  We’d all seen accidents before but nothing as final as this. Six dead horses, still harnessed to nothing but a few scattered pieces of hand-forged hardware.  It was a gruesome sight, and I wish Pa and I hadn’t made the trip but at the time, we were at a loss.  There were no survivors and that didn’t sit well with either of us.  Surely, there should have been some clue as to what happened that night in the canyon.

One body turned up about two miles north of the crash site.  A man with a bullet hole in his chest was later identified as a passenger, a Ralph Frederick, of Pittsburg, Pa.  He had been killed by a rifle shot at close range, according to the sheriff’s report near Raton, NM. Whether it had anything to do with the accident, no one could give a definite answer.

*****

Pa and I rode out before dawn the following morning.  We had enough supplies to make the trip and then some.  Hop Sing sent gingerbread cookies for Hoss and Little Joe.  He must have been up all night baking, wanting to be a small part of the unexpected joy we all felt inside.

When Pa was on a mission, words were sparse.  We rode as hard as we could without injuring our mounts.  Pa’s eyes were straight ahead as if he had no peripheral vision whatsoever.  I rode alongside, thinking a little chitchat might ease the tension, but my father was in no mood for gaiety.

When a letter had arrived nearly a year ago from Abe Chandler, wondering where the boys were and did Ben still want the mares, my father sent two of our wranglers riding down to bring the four horses back to the ranch.  “The boys will be glad they’re here when they return,” he’d said.  “Joseph was so excited about breeding them with some grey stallion he and Hoss had seen one night out by the corral.”

I’d said nothing that night.  My brothers were dead; I knew it and so did Pa, but he carried on like they were on a simple fishing trip or were out hunting a deer.  It was a tough time for both of us and as time went on, I couldn’t continue to play the game any longer.  My brothers weren’t coming home, but Pa continued to talk of them in present tense.  “When Hoss, blah, blah, blah . . . As soon as Joe . . .” on and on until I was ready to lose my mind.

“Enough,” I said, slamming my hand against the dining room table one night after supper.  My brothers are dead, Pa.  You have to accept—“

“I’ll never accept it, Adam.  Never.”

But as the weeks and months passed, my father resigned himself to the fact Hoss and Little Joe were never coming home—until the wire from Pigeon’s Ranch told us differently.  When the immediate shock wore off, Pa was in command—command of one—me—and of course, I obeyed orders like any young soldier would under his commanding officer.  “Yes sir, right sir, already done, taken care of—the list went on forever until we were mounted, circling the barn and heading for New Mexico Territory.

I could almost see Pa’s mind at work, planning a welcome home party for his two missing sons.  I thought I might even offer a night at Piper’s Opera House—my treat—as a welcome home gift but in reality, I was jumping the gun.  There was a reason they’d been gone for a year and so far, we had no explanation for their disappearance.

The wire left everything to the imagination, and my mind was a whirlwind of unanswered questions.  I’d conjured up just about every scenario imaginable, regarding a place called Pigeon’s Ranch, and by the time we finally arrived, the small, adobe casita was a grand sight to see.

A man named Alexandre Vallé —Pigeon, being his nickname—owned a narrow strip of land he’d named Pigeon’s Ranch.  He was a very accommodating man and made Pa and me feel welcome in his home where Joe and Hoss had spent the last several days, maybe weeks, I wasn’t sure.

“I offer my home to you and your son, Mr. Cartwright, and I wish for you to make yourself comfortable during your stay.  I bet you are anxious to see your sons, no?”

“Very anxious,” Pa said, taking a step closer to our host.  “I can’t thank you enough for helping my boys out this way.”

My father was a presence in any room, not only in stature, but his voice carried an air of authority and self-assurance.  Although he was gracious to our host, his body language eliminated any thoughts of keeping him from his sons a minute longer than necessary. “May I see them now?”

“I’m afraid one of your sons is in very poor health, Monsieur.  My wife, Marie, tries to help him eat a fine chicken broth she simmers all day on the stove, but she’s had very little luck. He seems despondent, not willing to go on living.”

“Then it’s my job to turn things around,” Pa said.  “Tell her to keep the broth simmering.”

“I like your style, Mr. Cartwright, and I wish you much luck with your son.”

“Thank you.  May we see them now?”

“Certainly.”

Taking a quick glance at Pa said it all in fact; there were times my father knew the kid better than he knew anyone else.  If Joe was upset or out of sorts, which was not uncommon, he quit eating, and Pa was the only one who could reason with him and return his broken or ill body around.  His soothing words and gentle touch were a signal to Joe from Pa to not let go, to fight with everything he had inside.  I’m sure Hoss had tried all he could think of, but it usually took my father to set things straight with the youngest member of our family.

*****

I wasn’t at all prepared, and neither was my father when our host opened the bedroom door. Joe sprang to his feet and into my father’s arms.  I, of course, hesitated, letting them have a moment alone although my focus was on the bed until I met Joe’s eyes.  Tears glistened as he pushed himself away from Pa.  “It’s all my fault,” he whispered.

“I will leave you alone now, Mr. Cartwright, but I’m available should you need anything.”

“Thank you for everything,” Pa said, as Monsieur Vallé backed out the bedroom door.

There should have been a simple explanation but as I stared at Joe, who obviously felt responsible, I knew something had gone terribly wrong and Joe blamed himself for Hoss’ condition.  Nearly a year had passed, and I wouldn’t presume to know what had transpired in that amount of time.  How did they escape death on a burning stage? Where had they been, and why was Hoss in such a miserable state?  I wanted answers, but I would have to be patient and let Joe set his own pace.  Pa hadn’t let go of my brother’s arm as though the kid might suddenly bolt if he didn’t hang on tight. But his eyes tracked to Hoss, lying, unmoving on the bed before he spoke to Joe. “It’s good to see you, son.”

“Good to see you too, Pa, Adam.”

Pa may have been afraid to ask; I know I was.  I moved toward the bed and surveyed the damage.  My brother was half the size he’d been a year ago.  Dark circles formed above sunken cheeks; his lips were dry and cracked.  His shoulders remained broad against his slender frame, but nearly skin on bone.  He had on what looked like drawstring pants I’d seen peasant farmers wear, and his feet were bare.  What had been large, beefy hands were reduced to a skeletal form, again, skin on bone.

I knelt down next to the bed and laid my hand on Hoss’ chest.  I looked up at Pa.  Not only were Joe’s eyes brimming, my father could not hold back tears of joy and sadness all rolled into one.  “Hoss.  It’s Adam,” I said.  “Can you hear me?”  There was no movement, nothing. I glanced at Joe; he looked away.  My God, both brothers were in crisis but for different reasons.

I wanted an explanation, straight and simple.  What had happened to result in the severity of Hoss’ condition?  Why did Joe feel responsible?  What kind of hell had my brothers witnessed during a year’s time?

Pa finally released Joe’s arm, and he knelt down next to me.  I relinquished my spot then moved to stand beside my young brother.  The room was stuffy and warm; I needed some air. “Care to take a walk?”  I said.

“Okay.”

Joe’s voice was barely above a whisper, and I had to gently prod him to take that first step. He wore normal looking clothes, not the ones he’d left home in, but they were nothing like the threadbare rags Hoss used as pants.  Joe’s shirt was navy-blue and his pants were deep tan in color, even his boots were new.  Rough-outs, I think they’re called, and they seemed to suit my youngest brother well.

“Over here,” Joe said, pointing to a shady spot where a wooden table and chairs had been placed to avoid the harsh summer sun.

Joe’s face was thin and drawn, but nothing compared to Hoss.  Did I dare ask questions or did I act like we’d seen each other only yesterday?  I wasn’t usually searching for words, but this time I had no idea where to begin.  A guilty man is a silent man, but what could Joe be guilty of?  My youngest brother, who was quick to relay a story, quick to defend himself, looked to be struggling just to breathe, just to maintain his composure in front of Pa and me.

“It’s good to see you, Adam,” Joe said after taking a seat in one of the wooden chairs. His hands lay in his lap, motionless, but I could tell he was nervous, maybe afraid, and not at all ready to talk about their experience.

I still couldn’t form the right words.  “How ya been, kid?  What the hell’s the matter with Hoss and why is it your fault he’s an inch away from death?”  My heart was thumping inside my chest as though the world I knew had changed forever, as if nothing could be set right again.  I nearly looked over my shoulder, feeling as though someone was watching the two of us in this unfamiliar land.  This was ridiculous.  I was a grown man, but I felt like a frightened child.  Joe stared straight ahead, not saying a word.  I finally worked up the courage to speak.

“Want to talk about it?”  Whether it was the right thing to say didn’t matter.  At least I’d broken the deadly silence.

“No, not right now.”  Joe sounded so sad, so damaged, words failed me again.  He didn’t look up, only stared down at his hands, running his thumb slowly over hardened calluses on his left hand.

“Sometimes—” God, I was struggling.  “Sometimes it helps to talk, Joe.”

“You sound like Pa.”

“Guess I do at that.”

Joe looked up, way up.  He stared at the sky and when he spoke, his eyes began to tear. “Hoss is gonna die, Adam.”

“Not if we can help it.”

He shook his head as if my declaration of hope had been a fool thing to say.  My brother was tormented, either by what he’d seen or heard or what he’d lived through. I needed a way to bring him around, make him talk, make him see . . . see what? What I’d just seen of Hoss certainly justified Joe’s statement.  Hoss might die but surely, Joe wasn’t responsible.

“Is there anything I can do?”

Joe’s right hand formed a fist; his left covered his right then pulsed, tight, relaxed, tight, relaxed.  There was an inner demon threatening to explode; a giant wall of stone I couldn’t break through.  Just what was going on in the kid’s mind, causing him sit and stare and carry this extraordinary sense of guilt, at least it appeared to be guilt, but why?

“Just remember I’m here if you need me.”

Joe nodded his head though there would be no more conversation, not at this point. My young brother was not faring much better than Hoss, and I was afraid I might lose them both.  I knew I should check on Pa, but did I dare leave Joe alone?  I coaxed him into returning to the house, thinking he’d be safer inside rather than sitting alone with his thoughts.

Pa had pulled a chair next to the bed.  He was stroking Hoss’ arm and talking in a low, singsong voice.  And when he heard us arrive, he barely looked up, but a gentle smile formed when he met my young brother’s eyes.  No immediate questions were asked, Pa knew better.  Forcing answers from Joe would only send him deeper inside himself.  I knew that now.

“I’ll leave you three alone.  I’ll be back shortly,” I said.  I wanted to talk to Vallé.  He had to know something, and I was determined to find answers.

*****

“Adam,” he called, waving his hand after I’d circled around the house and found him working in his garden.

“Hello,” I replied.

“Is not so hot I cannot pick vegetables for Marie.  We will dine superbly this evening,” he said smiling.

“I wondered if I could speak to you about . . . my brothers.”

“Certainly.  I am quite finished here so I will find us something cool to drink.  I am sure you have many questions.”

“Yes, I do.”

When Vallé returned, we took seats in the shade where Joe and I’d sat earlier.  He handed me a glass of lemonade.  “Merci, Monsieur Vallé,” I said.

“Please, call me Pigeon, Adam.”

I wanted to ask how he’d earned the nickname, but there were things more important to discuss, and it was none of my business anyway.  “Very well, Pigeon.  As you might already guess, I’m concerned about my brothers’ welfare.”

“Very understandable,” he said.  “The young one refuses to speak while the bigger one needs only rest, but both are troubled men.”

“Yes they are, and I don’t know why.  Joe is usually the chatterbox of the family, but he refuses to say anything.”

“I will try to be brief, but not so brief you will not comprehend the seriousness of their plight.  How long have your brothers been missing?”

“Nearly a year.”

“Oh . . . that explains very much.”

“What do you mean?”

“If your brothers were captured a year ago, they have been held as slave labor in the copper mines for a very long time.”

“What?”  There’s no slave labor in this part of the country.  Sure, Vallé had an accent, but he spoke English quite well.  I hadn’t misunderstood what he’d said.

“Mule’s Crossing,” he continued.  “I did not know myself until the revolt.  Oui, I knew of the mine, but not of the circumstances.  Not until I find your brothers do I realize they’ve been held prisoner.  You see; the diggings are only a few miles from here. Wagons pass my ranchero all the time.  The ore is processed to the east.”

“You’re saying my brothers have been held against their will for an entire year?”

“Oui, Monsieur.  Why else would they not return home?”

“You knew about this?  This place?”  I said, trying to remain calm after hearing such a bold account of slavery.

“I did not know the owner; I had no business with the man.  I am a rancher; I am not concerned with mining.  I tried that once and how you say . . . I lose my shirt.  I soon change occupation.”

“I understand.”  We were getting off track here, and I wasn’t getting the answers I needed. “You said something about a revolt?”

Vallé nodded his head.  “It seems someone rode away from the compound.  He find soldiers who patrol the area for Apache.  He told how the mine operated.  The soldiers were quick to ride in and ask questions.  They soon find out the informant had not lied to them that, in truth, the workers had been held prisoner, some as long as two or three years or until they collapsed and died.

“I learn from passing soldiers, who gave chase to men in charge of camp, that every man and woman ran from the sight, scattering into the desert and mountains.  One soldier said it was complete chaos.  He warn me these men carry guns, and not all supervisors had been captured.  Some escaped the army soldiers.”

“And my brothers?”

“Your young brother I find in my field, sitting next to the big one, who was nearly dead from exhaustion or maybe starvation.  They could go no farther.  I return with my wagon, and we load up the big one.  I drove them to my home, and then I send telegram and tell where young men are living.”

“My um . . . younger brother is Joseph, and the big one is Hoss.”

“Hoss?”

“Yes,” I smiled.  “It means big one, friendly one.”

“This Joseph, he say where to reach Ben Cartwright, but he say no more.”

“I’m glad he was able to tell you that much, Monsieur.”

Vallé sat back in his chair and sipped his lemonade.  “Joseph is a hard worker, Adam.  He feeds the chickens and mucks out the stalls every morning.  I tell him it is not necessary, but he insists on paying his way.”

I nodded and smiled.  “That’s Joe.  He wouldn’t want to take advantage of your generous hospitality.”

“They will return to you in time, Adam.  Your brothers are suffering now, one suffers a broken spirit and one is physically damaged, but I think the work helps Joseph forget his problems, oui?”

“Yes, I’m sure it does though I don’t know how we can ever repay you for your kindness.  Joe may be trying to help out, but it’s nothing compared to the debt we owe.”

Vallé turned to me and his voice became softer.  “You would not do the same for someone you find on your land?”

“Well, yes.”

“Then there is nothing special I have done.”

“Oh, but you have.  My father and I will always be grateful.”

*****

By early evening, Pa had coaxed Hoss into tasting Marie’s soup.  My father had a way with each of his sons, and he was slowly bringing Hoss back to life.  Joe sat in the corner of the room, not wanting to be seen or heard.  I’d glanced at him when I walked through the bedroom door; he wasn’t the same kid I knew a year ago, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the awkward situation between my brothers.

“Pigeon has asked us all to dinner,” I said.  “Pa?”

“Not right now, son.  I’ll have something later.  You and Little Joe go ahead.”

I glanced again toward the corner where Joe was sitting with his legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles and his hands in his lap.  I don’t think he’d heard a word I’d said.  “Joe?  Time for supper.  Joe?”

“What?”  His mind was in some far off place.  I crossed the room and reached for his arm, pulled him to his feet and guided him out to the dining room where Pigeon greeted us with a smile for Joe and a nod for me.

“Have a seat, gentlemen.  Marie has bested herself tonight.  I hope you enjoy the bounty she has set before us.”

Joe didn’t move forward so I led him to a chair and took a seat across from him. There were only the four of us at the table, and I explained my father’s absence. Pigeon and Marie understood.

“May I help you, Joseph?  Marie fixed plenty to go around so don’t be shy.”  Joe nodded his head, and Pigeon forked a slice of pork and a spoonful of potatoes and peas onto my brother’s plate.  He then passed the bowls to me.  “Sometimes, I have trouble eating in front of strangers.  How about you, Adam?  Do you have that problem also?”

“Yessir, sometimes.”

“I hope you don’t think me a stranger, Joseph.  I am your friend.  We share supper together with your brother, Adam.  He has come a long distance to be with you.”

Pigeon glanced at me and gently shrugged his shoulders.  Joe hadn’t moved.  His plate was full and hands lay beneath the table as if he was in some kind of trance.

“Think of me as a second father, Joseph,” Pigeon began.

Joe’s eyes rounded into giant spheres.  He bolted from the table and ran out the front door. Something had frightened him, but what had thrown him into such panic I hadn’t a clue.

“What did I do?  What did I say?”

“I don’t know, Pigeon.  I . . . I’ll be right back.  I’m sorry dinner was . . . I’m sorry,” I said, running from the room to find my brother.

I stood in front of the house, looking for Joe.  He was nowhere in sight.  I began circling to my left, around the adobe structure until I found him with his back, leaning against the wall and his knees pulled to his chest.  He was rocking back and forth with his head bent low, and his arms encircling his knees.  I walked slowly, not wanting to frighten him again or scare him away.  I sat down beside him and touched him gently on the shoulder.

“Oh, God,” he cried, looking up.

“What is it, Joe?  Tell me.”

Tears streaked my brother’s face; he shook his head.  “You don’t want to know.”

“But I do.  Come on, Joe.  It’s time.”

“I can’t, Adam.”

“You have to talk.  You’re the only one who can help Hoss.”  Again, his head fell to his knees, and I waited.  When he finally looked up, he stared across the garden, not wanting to look at me.  That was fine.  Somehow, I understood.

Joe took a deep breath.  “I was the chosen one, Adam.”

“Chosen?  I don’t understand.”

“Father chose me.”

“Father?  Joe, I—“

“I can’t, Adam.  Hoss is gonna die, and it’s my fault.  Innocent people died because . . . I never meant—“

I held back any comments I would have normally made, wondering what Joe was trying to say, whether he would continue, but there seemed to be an invisible line he couldn’t or wouldn’t cross.  “Maybe if you told Pa,” I suggested.

“No.  Nothing matters anymore.”

“What about Hoss?”

“I can’t do nothin’ to save Hoss.  Don’t you see?”

“No, Joe, I don’t see,” I said sternly.  “Tell me.”

And like a skittish, frightened animal, he was gone.  I was left sitting alone.

*****

Days passed, and Hoss showed signs of improvement.  Pa had worked his magic, and it wasn’t long before he’d convinced Hoss to eat and drink.  Pigeon was right.  My brother was exhausted physically but the fact remained, he hadn’t once asked about Joe, which caught my attention right off.

Joe remained outside most of the day and into the evening, staring toward the horizon as if on lookout, as if their escape had only been temporary and they’d be returned to that hellhole by nightfall.  He wouldn’t sleep or even walk into the bedroom now that Hoss had come around.  My youngest brother was concerned yet unresponsive; his entire attitude toward the matter was troublesome and unnerving.  I walked on eggshells.

I’d explained the situation to my father, who thought I was gathering information from Joe piece-by-piece, but I had nothing new to report, I’d made no progress at all. My brother remained silent.  I’d relayed what I’d learned from Pigeon although most of it was third party hearsay, nothing that would explain actual events or the type of brutality Hoss and Joe had encountered.

“He has an issue with the word ‘father’,” I said, thinking Hoss was asleep and there was no need to leave the bedroom to talk.

“I don’t understand, Adam.  What—“

Pa never finished his sentence.  We both turned our heads when a deep-sounding moan came from across the room.  Hoss’ hands clenched the sheet that covered him, and his breathing became shallow and fast.

Pa leaned over the bed, resting his hand on Hoss’ arm.  “What is it, son?”

“Father,” Hoss whispered.

“I’m right here, Hoss.”

His head shook back and forth.  “Father.”  The sound was so faint; Pa glanced up at me with questioning eyes.

I shrugged my shoulders.  “I don’t know.”

Hoss was still too fragile.  His condition hadn’t occurred overnight, it was a lengthy process, and my father wasn’t about to sacrifice the progress he’d made so far by pressing him for answers to questions we both needed in order to make any headway. Hoss was healing; questions would have to come later.

My father would seek answers eventually, and his target would be Joe.  He had a way of connecting with the kid that I did not.  Pa tended to overcompensate when it came to his youngest, and it started long ago.  Pa and I would arrive home from a long day’s work, and Little Joe would race out the front door and into Pa’s open arms. “Papa, Papa,” he’d cry.  “I missed you, Papa.”

I remember the look in my father’s eyes.  The little boy, who craved attention, who let loose his emotion sometimes to a fault, was my father’s pride and joy.  Pa would grab the boy up in his arms and carry him into the house, asking how his day was and what new things had he learned from Hop Sing while he was away.

They would chatter together like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in decades. Pa could barely remove his hat and gun belt before Joe would lead him across the room to my father’s big, leather chair by the fire.  Together they would sit and review the day’s events until Hop Sing called us for supper.

Of course, it was only natural for Pa to spend time with his baby son.  Joe snuggled deep into Pa’s lap and Hoss, taking his seat on the hearth, made for a cozy setting.  It was that certain intimacy between Pa and Joe I’d never shared with my father.  I was the eldest of three, Pa’s right-hand man but at times like these, I felt like an outsider.

Pa’s baby boy was grown now, but there were still times Joe had to be handled with care; I believed this was one of those times.  Family meant everything to him, but he felt forced to keep the truth of the previous year hidden from us both.  In my heart, I knew my brother was an honorable man.  He’d never harm anyone intentionally—no matter what registered deep in his mind.

I thought about the gray stallion Joe had been so determined to bring in from the herd of wild mustangs.  I hadn’t seen the horse myself; only Joe and Hoss had witnessed his superb qualities that night nearly a year ago.  Perhaps Joe mimicked the gray in some remote way—a free spirit, but not a loner.

*****

I smiled when Hoss eased his legs over the side of the bed.  It seemed like a milestone, and it was.  My brother was recovering from a year spent in hell.  I’d pulled a bit more information from Joe as time went on.  I’d learned each of their jobs at the mine.  While Joe drove a steel rod with a four-pound hammer, Hoss lugged ore on his back; he was labeled a mule.  Joe’s job was tough; twelve hours in the blazing sun, but Hoss . . . I couldn’t imagine the humiliation or the strength it took to manage such a job for that amount of time.

Pa steadied Hoss, holding his left arm securely as he took his initial steps forward.  I crossed my arms over my chest, egging him on so he’d take the three or four strides to cross the room.  “Steady as she goes, big boy.”

“Easy for you.”  A hint of a smile showed; my brother was coming back slowly, but at least it was a start.  Pa and I had prayed this day would come, for Hoss to regain his strength, but my father wasn’t ready to let go.

“Where’s Joe?”  Hoss asked, stopping to look up at me.

“I don’t know whether you should be—“

“I’m fine, Pa.  Where’s Little Joe?”

“I believe he’s out by the garden,” I said.  “I’ll help you outside.”  I nodded to Pa.  It was time for healing, time for Joe and Hoss to make amends.

I took my brother’s arm with both hands, still shocked by his weight loss, and when he stood to full height, it was even more pronounced than when he was prone in the bed.  He wore one of my father’s shirts and although his work pants had been washed, the grime was embedded, and he had nothing else to change into.  But clothes never mattered to Hoss, and after I guided him through the bedroom door, he pushed my arm away.  “I ain’t no invalid, Adam.”

“No, I guess you’re not.”

We stood in front of the house, and I pointed to the table and chairs where Joe spent most of his days.  This was between Joe and Hoss, and as much as I wanted to be a part of their conversation, I would stay away.  They’d work things out without my help or Pa’s. They were made of the same cloth.  One fed off the other, a bond I admired more than I cared to admit.

But, I was suddenly taken aback.  Hoss stared at Joe, sitting in the shade, his hand clutching a tall glass of lemonade and a plate of fresh-baked cookies sat on the nearby table.  As he brought the glass to his lips, Hoss shook his head then stepped off the front porch and walked in the opposite direction.

I wanted to shout at one of my brothers; I didn’t care which one.  I’d watched Joe look up just in time to see Hoss walk away.  There would be no conversation between brothers today, only a growing hostility from a year’s worth of . . . what? What had driven them so far apart? My heart ached, as I stood alone, watching the distance intensify between two men who would have given their lives for the other only a year ago.

*****

My father stood on shaky ground, as did I.  When I’d mentioned how Hoss had walked away from Joe, Pa was determined to find a reason for the upset.  He spoke to Hoss first, but my brother yielded nothing.  “Ask Joe,” he said.

“All right, but I won’t let this type of behavior continue.”

“Ain’t your call, Pa.”

“No?”

“Joe’s got the all the answers.  You think you know someone—“

“But what, son?  Talk to me.”

“Can’t.  I appreciate you and Adam comin’ all the way down here, but I can’t be a part of this family no more.”

“Then tell me why?”

“Talk to Joe.  If he don’t tell it to ya straight, it won’t mean nothin’ comin’ from me.”

“Hoss, please.”

“Sorry, Pa.  I done made up my mind.”

Pa didn’t talk to Joe straight away.  He came to me with the information he’d received from Hoss, and as much as I wanted to help, the wall was becoming thicker and wider. Tears rimmed my father’s eyes; I’d never seen him at such a loss.  He needed time before confronting Joe, and he waited an entire day, gathering his thoughts on how to proceed and break through the mortar and stone Joe hid behind.

I stayed with Hoss.  We strolled slowly through Pigeon’s garden before taking seats in the shade while Pa and Joe took off walking in a different direction.  They’d been gone for nearly an hour when I glanced up and saw my father had returned alone.  It wasn’t a good sign; I felt he’d learned nothing at all, but I didn’t leave Hoss’ side although we’d barely made conversation.  I leaned my head back against the chair’s wooden slats and closed my eyes.

*****

My father wasn’t a quitter; he tried more than once to connect with his sons but in the end, neither was willing to talk, and it was time we returned home.  Pa paid Pigeon for two strong mounts.  Although our host backed away, said he was not about to take our money, Pa insisted and paid him generously for the horses.  Pa couldn’t thank him enough for rescuing his sons when they had been in such desperate need. How do you repay a man for his kindness?  My father did his best.

We rode out early the next morning, heading north, heading home.  The four of us together seemed an extraordinary concept after a year’s separation, but the ride was filled with uncertainties.  Pa and Joe took the lead while Hoss and I followed behind.

The trip seemed to take a lifetime.  My father tried more than once to break the silence, especially after we’d set up camp for the night.  Each of us had a job: scouting wood for the campfire, caring for the horses or replenishing the canteens but still, neither brother chose to share their experience with either of us.  We’d fallen into a routine, accomplishing what needed to be done.  My brothers moved mechanically, never having to be told what to do, but nothing was the same; nothing concerning our family was as it should have been.

Although my brothers were allowed to roam free, to come and go as they pleased, to speak their minds, to heal their wounds, there was silence.  They were still deeply imprisoned by circumstances we did not understand.  Neither gave way to the other, neither offered a sign of peace or forgiveness.  Hate is a strong emotion and when it’s ingrained over time, how does one break the cycle?

Guilt continued to flood Joe’s eyes.  The way he’d glance at Hoss, hoping for a sign, a gesture, anything that might set him free.  But it was Hoss, always the peacemaker of the family, who wanted no part of his little brother, who kept his distance, who wouldn’t make eye contact, not even with Pa or me.  His world was closed to everyone, no questions asked, no answers given.

I was under the impression my brothers had been pitted against each other, Joe rising to the top, Hoss left behind.  Joe had mumbled broken words while he slept, guilt-ridden and asking forgiveness.  Tears often slipped from his eyes during frantic dreams as he curled into himself in his bedroll.  Pa and I would listen carefully, catching bits and pieces although never enough to patch a story together.

As we neared the house, Joe galloped on ahead although forcing a tired animal to run was far from typical for a man who would never use a whip or spur under normal circumstances. Our lives had changed, not just my brother’s, but the four of us had been altered by the separation.

Had Joe run off to find the gray stallion; is that what had kept him alive all these months?  I was fooling myself if I considered a horse the sole reason for Joe’s existence.  He and Hoss had escaped a living hell, together or separate was one of the unanswered questions.  And as I recall Pigeon’s account, he’d found my brothers together, one watching over the other, which told me there was hope for a future.

We were fighting a war one day at a time.  There were skirmishes big and small and days of triumphs that raised my hopes of a resolution or even a compromise.  But the story was far from over, and I feared what the aftermath might bring.

* I took liberty with the stage line and dynamite.  No stage traveled southwest from Virginia City, and dynamite hadn’t been invented yet.

*****

Book 2

The Aftermath

Joe

We arrived home from Pigeon’s Ranch on July 1, one year to the day after Hoss and I had boarded a stage for Arizona.  Pa and my brothers rode on to the house while I turned my mount in another direction.  I needed a few minutes alone.  I needed time to set things straight in my mind—whether returning home with Pa and my brothers had been the right decision or not.

I needed time to think without answering questions, time to think without being judged. During the last few months when I’d turned to play-acting when I tugged at Father’s heartstrings with the promise of being a dutiful, loving son, I thought I was doing the right thing.  Maybe my way of thinking had been wrong all along but in the end, the weeks of pouring my heart out to a madman had proved successful.  Hoss and I had escaped; we were free from a yearlong sentence away from family and away from everything we once knew.

“Yes, Father, trust me, Father, you and me—father and son forever.”

No one will ever know what went on between the two of us inside Father’s parlor or how it made me feel, or how I cried for my own father when I voiced those words to a stranger.

As I knelt down on one knee next to my mama’s grave, a wave of questions poured through my mind, demanding answers.  Who was I more like? Which father did I resemble most?  Had I betrayed my own father?  I’d conned my way into Father’s good graces as I’d done so often with Pa.  How easily my pleading voice and a simple shower of tears came when needed. I’d had years of practice; even my eldest brother had accused me of working Pa’s sympathetic side without shame and maybe I had, maybe Adam was right.  Suddenly, I felt dirty; I felt ashamed.  I felt unworthy of my own father’s love.

I’d already lost Hoss, my best friend and now, would I lose my father too? Would Pa’s own instincts lead him to the truth; was there room in his heart for a traitor? Although that wasn’t how I saw it at the time, I wondered if I could ever talk about anything that went on inside Father’s house at Mule’s crossing.

Hoss had been unaware; he knew nothing of my plans, of the trickery I’d used to deceive Father in order to set us both free.  I never discussed my nights spent away from the cabin, not with Hoss, not with anyone.  And, as I look back, I knew I’d been wrong not to confide in my brother but at the time, he didn’t want the truth; he saw everything in a different light.  He’d turned his back on me.  His head was all messed up and in his eyes; I’d deserted him, I’d pulled rank only to further myself up the ladder of Father’s good graces.

*****

A soft whinny welcomed me home as I stabled the sorrel next to the bay Pa had bought Hoss for our journey home.  I swallowed the lump in my throat, moved to the adjoining stall, and buried my face in Cochise’s silky, black mane.  If only I’d ridden him down to pick up the mares.  If only my father hadn’t insisted we take the stage.

Pa walked out of the house and met me halfway across the yard then wrapped his arm across my shoulders.  And just like Father had greeted me over the past few months, I felt a gentle squeeze.  My heart beat faster than it should have, and I hoped Pa wouldn’t notice the sudden discomfort I felt.

“Hoss is taking a bath,” he said.

I wanted to smile; I wanted everything to be as it should, but I pulled away.  “Think I’ll go . . . go to my room, Pa.”

“Hoss should be finished by now,” he said, not insisting I bathe next, but there was an edge to his voice.  I didn’t want to be told what to do or when to do it.  I was a free man, and I could bathe when I was ready; I didn’t have to be told.

“Joseph?”

“Not now, Pa.”

“Son?”

Pa didn’t understand; no one did.  I walked away from my father, entered the house alone, and went straight to my room.  I took the next bath, but I waited until Hoss had come upstairs and I heard his door close before I asked Hop Sing to heat more water. Though he was glad to see me, he soon ranted and threatened bodily harm as he handed me the wooden bucket and pointed to the well.  “You get; I heat on stove,” he said.

“All right, all right.  I’m going.”

“Why you wait till supper almost on table, Little Joe?”

After all this time—a year to be exact—our cook was scolding me.  “I’ll make it snappy,” I said though, if I’d had my way, I would have immersed myself in hot, soapy water for hours, but I wasn’t given that choice.

“You no make mess.  You hurry now.  Mr. Hoss plenty hungry for Hop Sing cooking.”

“Okay, I’m hurryin’, I’m hurryin’.”

I dressed for dinner in clothes that had been pressed, folded and placed in drawers awaiting my return.  My room had been aired out and clean sheets covered the bed. No more climbing to the top bunk, lying on a mattress filled with straw and wrapping myself up in a threadbare blanket.  No more shivering all winter and sweating all summer.  I was home at last.

I took a deep breath and ventured down the stairs to eat with the family.  I was the last one to the table; Adam and Pa greeted me with smiles while Hoss opted to stare down at his empty plate.

“You look refreshed, son.”

“I feel better.  I’m hungry too.”

“Looks like Hop Sing made enough for an army,” Pa said, but first he bowed his head, clasped his hands and with his wrists resting against the edge of the table he wanted to offer a prayer.  “I just have a few words to say on this auspicious occasion—“

I wanted to glance up at Hoss; I wanted to see his face, but I kept my head bowed and stared at my own china plate.  We had survived on jerky and hardtack for weeks.  We had made our way through canyons and deserts and iron boxes, never thinking this day would come.  But here we were, the four of us together again although everything felt wrong.  Nothing felt right at all.

“—for bringing my sons home and helping them through these difficult times,  Amen.”

Even though I’d let my mind wander, I’d heard Pa’s final words, “difficult times.”  Our conflict affected the entire family and for that simple reason, I felt remorse along with guilt.  Hoss and I had brought our battle home—into this house, to Pa and Adam—and that wasn’t fair.  It was up to Hoss and me to find our way without saddling our misery on everyone else.

I piled my plate with food, more than I could begin to eat but if questions were asked, I had an excuse not to answer.  I glanced across the table and saw the meager amount of food Hoss had set on his plate.  He still had difficulty eating solid food without losing all he’d taken in.

Pa reached out and patted my brother’s hand.  “Eat what you can, son.  I’ll have Paul come out tomorrow and check you boys out.  I want to make sure,” my father’s eyes began to tear, and his voice faltered.

“I’m not real hungry, Pa.”  I started to push away from the table, but my father surprised me when he stood too and fled the dining room before I could even get to my feet.  My brothers turned in their chairs, and we all watched Pa cross the room and haul himself up the stairs.

“Sit down, Joe,” Adam said forcefully.  He laid his fork down on his plate and ran his napkin over his mouth.  “Neither of you have a clue.”

“What?”  I said.  “What do you mean?”

“Granted, you both went through a terrible ordeal, I understand even though I have no idea what transpired over the past year.  But I know what went on inside this house, and I won’t let either of you cause Pa another minute of worry or pain.  You have no idea how that man has suffered.  You don’t know how many letters and wires he sent off looking for the two of you.  You weren’t here to see him turn down a perfectly good meal or turn in early because he blamed himself for your disappearance.”

“Blamed himself?”

“Because he forced you two to take the stage.”

“But, Adam,” I said.  “None of this was Pa’s fault.”

“No?” he said, “maybe not.”  Adam’s eyes bore even deeper into mine.  “But, he blames himself every minute of the day.”

I dared to glance at Hoss then back at Adam.  “Maybe I should go talk to him.”

“Maybe.”

“What’s that mean?”  I wasn’t thrilled with Adam’s tone of voice.

“Maybe talking to Pa isn’t the real issue here.”

“I can’t solve the real issue, big brother.”

“Maybe you should try harder.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business,”  I said, glaring back at Adam.

“Fine,” he said.  “I’ll do just that.”

Adam pushed back his chair and without another word, he walked out and slammed the front door.  Our food had grown cold and no one had eaten a bite.  Hop Sing remained in the kitchen; there’d be no ranting this time, only silence remained now that Hoss and I were left alone.

“You blame me for everything,” I said.  “And you don’t know the half of it, do you?” Hoss shook his head and started to push up from his chair.  “Gonna run away?  Gonna give me the silent treatment?  Gonna pretend nothing’s wrong?”

A deep sigh came before my brother’s forced words.  “I just don’t care no more, Joseph.”

I stood up too and faced Hoss.  “Well, maybe I do.”

“That’s your choice.  I’ll be leavin’ soon as I get my strength back.  Ain’t no place for me here.”

“You’ve got all the answers, don’t you?”

“I got enough.”

“You don’t know nothin’.”

“Don’t push me, Joseph.”

“Wanna hit me?  Go ahead.  Hit me.”  I jutted out my chin, giving him every opportunity to knock me clear across the room.  “Give me the best you got.”  Hoss started around me, and I grabbed hold of his arm.  “Hit me, Hoss.  That’s what you want, isn’t it?  Hit me!”

Hoss grabbed me; his eyes flamed with anger.  I was amazed at his strength, as his fingers clamped tightly around both arms.  I stared up at my brother; tears filled his eyes and suddenly, he released his hold and turned toward the adjoining room; his anger abated for now.

“We need to settle this, Hoss.  Please don’t walk away.”

*****

Hoss

I didn’t have the stomach to listen to any of Joe’s excuses.  I followed Adam out the front door before I got so angry I hurt the kid.  Yes, I wanted to hit him, but I ain’t never done that before, and I weren’t about to start now.

I know what Joe done behind my back, and I couldn’t forgive him for playin’ up to that man and callin’ him Father.  He didn’t care nothin’ about me; he only wanted to become head-man.  I was through with him.  If in a year’s time, watching him climb his way to the top didn’t prove he’d become a traitor, not only to me but to this family, what else would?  He wanted all the privileges a man could earn in that godforsaken land, and he didn’t care who he had to push or shove to win his place in Father’s family.

I’ve stood by that kid since the day he was born, and he cares nothin’ about being brothers or carin’ for one another.  He’s spoiled and full of hisself.  I seen what he did to better hisself at Mule’s Crossing.  I’d smelled alcohol on his breath, and I knew about his late nights with Father.  Course, that weren’t all I heard.  I knew about his visits to the saloon and evenings spent with women while the rest of us worked ourselves to an early grave.  Maybe I’m wrong and maybe my thinkin’ ain’t clear, but that ain’t my idea of brotherly love.

Generally, I’m a forgiving man.  Generally, I can find the good in people even when they done wrong, but brother against brother?  I did all I could to keep Joe alive on the trip through the desert and in the dank cellar where he nearly lost his mind.  I did all that and how does he repay me?  He don’t.  He acts like he don’t even know me.

I seen him ride out of camp just a couple days before the soldiers came.  Figured he was halfway home by the time all hell broke loose, and everyone scattered into the desert and mountains.  A chance at freedom Joe and I should have shared, but it was too late.  He was already gone.

By then, I didn’t care much about nothin’.  My little brother had turned against me, and I didn’t know why.  I walked away from Mule’s Crossing, and when my strength gave out I crawled, and when I couldn’t crawl no farther, and I laid down to die.  At least I was a free man.  I didn’t know nothin’ more ‘til I heard Pa beggin’ me to wake up.

Since I’d already told Pa and Joe I was leavin’, the only one left was Adam; I figured he should know my plans.  He was leanin’ his elbows on the corral’s top rail and diggin’ the toe of his boot back and forth in loose dirt.  He didn’t bother to look up when I stood beside him, restin’ my elbows next to his.

“Howdy,” I said.  Adam continued scuffin’ his boot tip while I gazed straight ahead, pretendin’ he weren’t there, just like he done with me.

“Ever wonder why we’re put on this earth, Hoss?”

“Huh?  No, guess not.”

“Ever wonder why three fairly intelligent men can’t get along with each other?”

“Don’t get me started, Adam.”

“Why?  Afraid?”

“Some, I guess.”

“Of what?”

“I dunno,” I said.  “Maybe my temper.”

My brother chuckled.  “Coming from you, I find that somewhat hard to believe.”

“You don’t know what it was like.  You pretend to know, but you don’t know nothin’.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Adam said.  “I don’t know nothin’.”

The two of us stood side-by-side, diggin’ our toes in the dirt only my hole was deeper’n Adam’s.  My frustration was deeper.  My anger was deeper, and I began kicking at the hole I’d made.  “He caged me like an animal, Adam.  He rode out and left me.  He don’t care nothin’ about bein’ brothers.”

“Seriously?”  Adam turned and crossed his arms over his chest.  “I don’t believe a word you just said.”

“Ask Joe.  Ask him why he deserved special favors.  Ask him why he put me in that iron cage. Ask why he rode out and left me behind.  Ask him, Adam.  Ask him why he done all those things to someone he calls brother.”

I pushed away from the rail and walked toward the house.  I’d said too much already, but Adam had got me riled.  I was acting more like Joe, lettin’ older brother get under my skin like that.

I slammed my bedroom door and took a few deep breaths before I lowered myself on the bed.  Every ounce of strength was gone, and it took a great deal of effort just to kick off my boots before I curled up and lay my head on the thick, feather pillow.  I was spent, body and mind.  I didn’t want to see no one else tonight.

*****

Joe

Pa had a couple of our wranglers ride down and bring up the four cutting horses Hoss and I were to collect from Abe Chandler.  I’d given a year of my life for those mares, and I wanted to see if they were worth the price I’d—we’d—paid.

I woke up early, dressed and headed out the front door, past the barn and out to the paddock where the majority of our stock was able to feed and exercise on their own accord.  Although I’d never seen the mares, I thought I’d be able to pick them out. They weren’t the only cutting horses we kept on the ranch but as I leaned against the top rail, I realized they could be down in the wash or behind the tall pines, hiding in plain sight.

From my vantage point, I couldn’t tell one darn horse from another.  Of course, there were pullin’ horses, always heavier than the cutters but still, I would need Pa to point them out to me later in the day.  There’d been no description other than what Mr. Chandler had said in his letter—fine cutting horses.  That’s all I knew before we’d left the ranch, not much to go on except his word as a friend of Pa’s.

The sun was just making its way over the horizon, blinding me from distinguishing anything in the pasture so I started back toward the house.  When I opened the door, Adam stood in front of the credenza, strapping on his gun belt.  “Where you headed this early?”  I asked.

A slow smile crossed my brother’s face.  “Nowhere.”

“But?“

“Pa though you’d . . . um—“

“Run off?”

“Yeah.”

“No.  I think you have the wrong brother.  I ain’t the one leaving.”

“Why don’t you and I take a ride?”  Adam grabbed his hat and handed me mine.

“Where to?”

“Just around.”

“All right.”

It wasn’t long before Adam and I were riding the shore of Tahoe where the beach widened to at least thirty or forty feet of sand.  I gazed out over the lake as the early morning sun sparkled like diamonds on the crystal-clear water.  It was a sight I’d longed to see; its beauty awed me after the severe nothingness of the desert.

“Why don’t we rest the horses, Joe?”

Adam lifted the flap of his saddlebag and offered me a piece of jerky.  “No thanks,” I said.  “I seem to have lost my taste.

“Oh?”

“Hoss and I lived off the stuff for a long time.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I didn’t know.”

“It’s over now,” I said, taking in the tall pines, their slight movement, and their glorious smell.

“Is it?”

“Is it what?”

“Is it over now?”

The breeze coming across the lake was cool, and I pulled my jacket tighter around my neck as we led our mounts along the sandy shore.  “I was so hot for so long, I prayed for snow and cold but it never came.  Oh, maybe a dusting in the winter months but nothing like here, nothing like the Ponderosa.”

“You’re home now and that’s all that matters, right?”

“Right.”  I forced an inner smile.  Adam was pushing for answers I still wasn’t ready to give.  “When do you think Hoss will leave?”

“He didn’t say.”  Adam kept moving forward.  He wasn’t looking at me or anything else.

“Soon, I guess.”

“Well, I suppose that’s for the best with the way things are.”  Adam’s voice was controlled and matter-of-fact.  “If he’s not happy here on the Ponderosa then . . .”

“It’ll kill Pa.”

“Things change, Joe.  Hoss has changed, and it’s his choice whether to stay or go.”

“But he’s leaving for all the wrong reasons,” I said, feeling a sturdy lump catch in my throat.

“Why do you say that?”

“I just know, okay?”

“I’ll talk to him,” Adam said.  “Maybe I can—“

I stopped as looked straight at my brother.  “What do you know about any of this?”

“More than you think.”

“Hoss talked to you?”

“Some.”

“And?”

“He’s hurtin’, Joe, and from what he said last night, he’s got good reason to leave.”

“Oh yeah?”  Now I was mad.  If Hoss was filling Adam’s head with a bunch of lies . . .  “Well, maybe I should set my overgrown brother straight on a few things.”

“It may be too late.  I think his mind’s made up.”

“No, it’s not,” I said, nearly shouting.  “He ain’t thinking straight.  His head’s all messed up inside.”

I waited for Adam to tell me different but he chose to remain silent.  If Hoss were leaving on my account there’d never be peace in the family.  Hoss wouldn’t be happy anywhere else but here, and Pa would blame me for everything that went on this past year without having the facts, without knowing what it took to get us out of there.  “I gotta go.”  I mounted Cochise and rode off, leaving Adam standing alone by the lake.

*****

Hoss

“Mornin’,” I said, seeing only Pa sittin’ at the breakfast table when I came through the kitchen after gatherin’ Hop Sing’s eggs and milkin’ Susie.

“Have you seen your brothers this morning?”

“Nope.”

“Hop Sing make Mr. Hoss nice breakfast.  Pancake with hot maple syrup.”

“Thanks, Hop Sing.  I’ll do my best.”

Sittin’ down to eat had become my least favorite part of the day.  Besides everyone watchin’ me, I couldn’t keep nothin’ down, and sometimes just the smell of food turned my stomach.  I hadn’t eaten meat for so long, it didn’t set right no more. Mostly we’d lived on bread and a meatless stew, at least most of us had.  Others were more privileged and ate chicken and steak and drank whiskey and wine.  My stomach began to seize up just thinkin’ about them things what weren’t fair.

“Everything all right, son?”

Pa was worried and it was my fault.  I remembered what Adam said the night before, and I redirected my uncalled-for attitude.  “Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.  “Just tryin’ to work up an appetite.”

“It takes time, son.  You’ll be back to your old self in no time.”

“You’re probably right,” I said, watchin’ Pa drown his pancakes with hot syrup.

“I can’t imagine why your brothers took off so early this morning or where they would have gone.”

“I don’t know why you’re so all-fired worried,” I said, cutting through a pancake, but wishin’ the plate was already empty and I wasn’t bein’ watched all the time.  “They’ll take care of themselves just fine.”

“Oh, I’m sure they will.  I just—“

Pa and I looked up when the front door slammed into the credenza, and my little brother crossed the room in a furry.  “I wanna talk to you.”

“Not now, Joseph.”  No wonder I couldn’t eat with him bustin’ in and disruptin’ Pa’s and my peaceful existence.

“Now!”  Joe rounded the table and stood beside me.  “Will you excuse us, Pa.  You might not want to hear what I have to say.”

“What’s the meaning of this, Joseph?”  Pa said, standing up from his chair and meeting my brother head-on.

“This is between me and Hoss.  There’s a few thing we need to set straight.”

Pa glanced down at me, ‘cause I hadn’t moved a muscle before lookin’ back up at Joe. “All right.”  He threw his napkin on his plate, picked up his cup and saucer and walked out the front door.

The last thing I wanted to do was sit here and talk to Joe.  Nothing he had to say would change a dad-blamed thing.  He could rattle on until doomsday, but my mind was made up.  I wasn’t living in this house with a brother I couldn’t trust.

With his fists pressed against his hips, Joe began pacing the room, back and forth until he finally stopped and pointed his finger right at my face.  “You think you know everything, don’t you?”

“I know enough.  Now, why don’t you be a good little boy and let me finish my breakfast.” The kid was steamin’ mad.  I don’t know what he and Adam had been up to this early, but he sure was riled up over somethin’.

“You think it was all fun and games for me?  Is that what you think?  You have everything wrapped up in your mind in a neat little package.  Joe did this; Joe did that. Joe did a lot of things, Hoss, but you’ve got the reasons all wrong.”

“Joseph, it’s over and done with.  Just leave it alone.”

“No, you’re gonna hear me out.  You’re not leaving this table until you have all the facts straight in your mind.”

The kid was pacing again.  It was almost comical to watch if’n he hadn’t been about ready to blow up inside.  He was ornery and sneaky; he might be able to con Pa with his little tricks, but I knew the real Little Joe, the conniving, underhanded brother who didn’t regard me as an equal.

“First off,” he said, “I didn’t do nothin’ you wouldn’t have done yourself to get us out of that place.”

“Right, Joe.  I enjoyed my time in the iron cage while you was sittin’ up on that hill havin’ steak and wine with that madman you called Father.”

“I had to do it, Hoss.  I had to put you in there.  Why don’t you get it?”

The kid was fumin’; his face was red and his eyes shot daggers into mine.  He leaned forward, placing one hand on the table and the other gripped the back of my chair.  I guess he thought he could cage me once again.

“I had to win him over, Hoss.  I had to use you to do it.”

“Well, little brother, you did a fine job of gettin’ what you wanted.”

Joe turned his back to me, but only for a moment before he was back in my face, shouting.  “How else was I going to free us, Hoss?  How else was I going to ride out and tell the soldiers what was going on in that hellhole?  I had to win Father’s trust. It was the only way.”

“You what?”

“You heard me.”

I let out a long breath and thought about what Joe had said.  Had he been the one who’d brought the troops or were these just more lies, more convenient tales to smooth things over now that we were home, and he wanted to look good in Pa’s eyes?

“Don’t you see, Hoss?  I had to work my way into Father’s good graces.  I had to make him trust me more than he trusted Montoya.  I had to become his right-hand man.  I had to put you in that box so he’d know I was faithful only to him and no one else.

“You lying to me, Joe?”

“God, Hoss.  What do I have to say to convince you?”

“I don’t know.  Right now, I ain’t too convinced about nothin’ you say.”

“I know you’re not, but it’s the truth, all of it, everything I’ve said is the God’s honest truth.  I had no other choice; I had to make Father believe I’d turned on you.  It was the only way I could prove he meant more to me than you.”

“You ain’t the one who spent three days in that box without food and barely any water,” I said, my voice becoming louder with each word I spoke.  “You ain’t the one who was treated like an animal.  No—Joe Cartwright rode on top of an animal and played God with other men’s lives.”

Joe backed off and wiped his hands down his face so only his eyes showed above his fingertips.  Maybe he was drummin’ up more lies because so far, I wasn’t believin’ nothin’ he had to say.

“I watched you ride out of camp,” I said, although quieter this time.  “Know what that did to me, knowin’ you was leavin’ me behind?”

Joe glanced at the front door, and I waited for him to bolt, to give up tellin’ his lies and leave me be.

“I looked for you that morning,” he said turning back to face me.

“You didn’t look real hard cuz I saw you, and I weren’t more’n a few yards away.”

“You were?”

“I was.”

How was Joe gonna get out of this one?  I’d just picked up a canvas bag we’d all piled in an empty wagon the night before.  I watched him from behind as he looked up the mountain.  He never turned my way.  He never saw me starin’ right at him.

“Just let me say one more thing, Hoss.”

I wasn’t givin’ him the satisfaction of lookin’ up; I studied my cold pancakes.  I told him I didn’t care, what more did he want from me?  I was smarter now; I wasn’t as easy to fool. I didn’t plan on livin’ the rest of my life pretending nothin’ had changed between us because everything had.  We may have been brothers once, maybe even best friends, but them days were in the past.

“I never lied to you before,” Joe said barely above a whisper, “and I’m not lyin’ now.”

I glanced up at his face.  He’d sounded sincere, even tears glistened in his eyes, but I knew better.  I’d seen him use them tricks before, and I wasn’t fallin’ for the same devices he’d used on Pa since he was just a little kid.  I wasn’t a pushover no more.  I’d learned a few things over the past year, and gullible Hoss died the day his little brother turned his back and rode away from Mule’s Crossing.

Apparently, the conversation was over, and with his head hangin’ down and his shoulders slumped forward, Joe crossed the room and picked his hat up off the credenza where he’d thrown it down earlier.  He took a quick look over his shoulder, waitin’ for me to say somethin’, but I had nothin’ to say.  He closed the front door behind him.

Pa and Adam strolled back into the house soon after Joe had left.  Hop Sing brought out fresh pancakes and platters of bacon and ham, and for the first time in a long time, I thought maybe I could eat.  I’d said my piece, and it felt good.  Let Joe rot in his own kinda hell.  It was exactly what he deserved.

*****

An empty stall was the first thing I saw when I walked into the barn.  Joe had taken off to who knows where.  He was like that sometimes; I guess we all were.  Time alone gave a man time to think things out, and maybe he’s finally seein’ my side of the story.  Maybe he finally realized what he’d done to me and why I wasn’t fallin’ for his tricks no more.

Pa always said keepin’ busy was good for a man’s soul.  I grabbed the rake and cleaned out Cochise’s stall first.  Later I’d turn all the horses out into the paddock and finish muckin’ the rest of the barn.  I could rake and think at the same time; I didn’t have to run away to do my thinkin’.

Thoughts was pushin’ their way into my head like waves, lappin’ on the shoreline, one not finished before the next one came rushin’ in.  I blinked back the tears that threatened to spill.  I’d learned to hate, and I’d never hated no one my entire life but now, I hated my own brother.  I’d been lost for so long, lost and afraid, and I didn’t want no one else knowin’ how hardened my heart had become.

*****

Ben

Joseph left the ranch nearly three weeks ago.  He’d left no note; he’d told no one of his plans to be away this long.  He simply saddled his horse and rode out.  Earlier that day, he had asked me to leave the room so he could discuss matters privately with his brother.  I’d honored his request; I’d even had a long talk with Hoss after the fact, but Joe’s disappearance was unexpected, and Hoss wouldn’t reveal any more than necessary when I asked what they’d talked about.  Adam and I were still in the dark as far as gaining insight into the past year’s events, and whenever I pressed Hoss for details, he begged me not to ask any more questions.

“Ain’t no more to be said on the subject, Pa.  One of us had to leave.  I’d planned to be the one, but it seems Joe took that away from me too.  I’m sorry it has to be this way; I’m sorry Joe left ‘cause I know you’ll miss him somethin’ fierce.”

“Hoss, I won’t miss Little Joe any more than I would have missed you had you been the one to run off.  I don’t know what’s gotten into either of you, and it seems as though I’ll never know the truth behind the dilemma we’re facing now.”

“This ain’t a dilemma, Pa.  It is what it is and ain’t nothin’ you or no one else can do to change things.”

“I don’t find your sentiment very brotherly, son.”

“Joe and me ain’t brothers no more.  We’re two grown men who’ve gone our separate ways.  It’s the way things gotta be, Pa.  I’m sorry you and Adam got stuck in the middle. That weren’t fair and again, I’m sorry for that.”

“The middle of what?”  I was so mad at both my sons, my heart was racing and my voice was rising.  “Neither of you will talk.  You’ve both moped around this house since we returned home, and I’ve had just about enough.”

“So have I, Pa.”

Hoss stood and crossed the room, strapped on his gun, and walked out the front door.  I was still overcome by his weight loss but over the past few weeks, his overall appearance had improved tenfold.  His face showed color, the gray shadows under his eyes had disappeared and his cheeks weren’t as sunken as when Adam and I had first seen him.  But, I’d never felt as lost as I did standing beside this grand fireplace, watching my second son walk out the door of this house.  The bonds that had held this family together for so many years were broken, and the desire to put things right was fading as days passed.

Over the years, I’d tried to instill honor and trust between my sons.  I’d told them more than once that, as a family, we could conquer the world together.  If we stood alongside one another, we were a formidable alliance against evildoers or obstacles that stood in our way.

One very selfish man had taken a year of my sons’ lives.  The time spent away had taken its toll and had stripped each young man of my teachings.  Hoss was lost and had let hatred enter his soul.  Joseph was lost and riddled with guilt.  Changes had occurred, and I was plagued day and night as to how to handle the situation.  My sons weren’t children any longer.  I couldn’t sit them down and tell them to behave or tan them both although the thought had crossed my mind.

I began walking away from the hearth, but my breathing suddenly faltered, and I steadied myself against my high-backed chair.  The sunlit room began to dim, and I staggered, placing a second hand alongside the first.  I gasped for air and felt a thickening inside my head and chest just before my legs became weak and unexpectedly, my knees buckled, and my feet went out from under me.

*****

 Adam

After a well-deserved night on the town, I returned home, and once I’d rolled up my gun belt and threw my hat on the credenza, I called out to Pa.  The lamp burned next to his chair but he was nowhere in sight.  The fire wasn’t banked, leading me to believe he was somewhere about; I called out once again.

With still no answer, an eerie feeling crept through me like a winter chill against my bones.  I walked toward the hearth seeking warmth from the low-burning fire.  There, I saw my father.  He lay on his side, fully dressed, still breathing but unconscious.  “Pa—Pa!”  My strident voice was the only sound in the room and still, there was silence.

I stood alone, no brothers to share the burden.  I left my father alone and ran out the front door to the bunkhouse, forced to wake one of our ranch hands for the grueling night ride into town.  And when I returned, Hop Sing was just coming out of his room. “It’s Pa,” I said hastily.

My father hadn’t moved and only the crackling fire shown across his face, gray with death.  “I’ve sent for the doc,” I said.  “Help me get him upstairs.”

His arms and legs were limp and while I reached under his arms, Hop Sing lifted his booted feet, and we managed to get him up the stairs and stretched out on his bed. “That’s enough for now,” I said.  “We’ll let Paul take it from here.”

Hop Sing may have heard me, but he insisted on pulling Pa’s boots off and removing his belt while I started a fire to warm the room.  And when I returned to my father’s bedside, Hop Sing had covered him with two heavy quilts from the foot of the bed.

It seemed like hours before the doctor arrived.  He asked Hop Sing and me to leave him alone while he examined Pa.  And when he was finished, he summoned the two of us and together, we managed the dead weight of my father, removing his remaining clothes and made him as comfortable as possible in the bed.

“Where are your brothers?”  Paul asked as he rolled down his sleeves and fastened the cufflinks through his pressed, white shirt.  “Adam?” he repeated when I didn’t answer right away.

I sighed heavily.  “I don’t know.”

Paul’s head popped up, a questioning look sprang from his narrowed eyes.  “Don’t know?”

Again, I released an exaggerated breath.  “You heard right, Doc.  I have no idea.”  An explanation was mandatory, and so I enlightened the doctor.  After we’d made ourselves comfortable at the dining room table, Hop Sing had set out coffee and a plate of sugarcoated donuts before he’d headed into the tiny room to sit with my father.  I spoke of the trouble regarding my two brothers and how the upset had affected Pa.

“You probably already know what I’m about to say, don’t you, Adam?”

“I have a fairly good idea.”

“I’ll talk to Harriet Guthrie in the morning and see if she’s available while you’re away.  I have no doubt she’ll help out.”

I leaned my elbows on the table and stared at Paul.  “I can’t leave my father like this.”

“Adam, if your brothers don’t return, I’m afraid Ben won’t have reason to either.”

God, I knew Doc was right, but I was torn between leaving my father alone and searching for both brothers when I didn’t have a clue where to begin.  But Paul wasn’t leaving this matter up for debate.  I nodded my head.  “You’re right.  I’ll leave as soon as Mrs. Guthrie arrives.”

*****

I rode out late the following afternoon.  Paul had brought Harriet out to the house so he could explain my father’s condition and give her the needed instructions and medications.  I could see the look in Hop Sing’s eyes as the good doctor explained in detail what needed to be done.  Our cook wasn’t happy.  He wanted to be the one in charge, not an outsider.

I didn’t have time to soothe his ruffled feathers completely although I did my best with the precious amount of time I had left before the sun set and another full day would be wasted.  “I’m sorry it has to be this way, Hop Sing, but I have no choice. This is what Paul wants for Pa and what he thinks is best.  Please bear with us for now.”

“I do as Mr. Adam want, but Hop Sing do better job than cranky old lady.”

“Yes, I’m sure you could, but I don’t have time to argue.  Are the supplies ready?”

“All ready.  Three day supply just like you ask.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing.”

“You bring brothers home second time.  Father not get well until brothers quit foolishness and understand importance of family.”

*****

I rode non stop through the evening hours, thinking back to what Hop Sing had said just before I’d left the house.  With few words, he’d summed up everything in a neat little package.  You’re right, Hop Sing.  You’re right about most things we tend to drag out and mull over for much too long.  Foolishness . . .

I wasn’t looking for tracks; Joe’s would be gone by now and Hoss knew how to hide his if he didn’t want to be found.  So, with our line shacks spread nearly ten miles apart, I figured I’d try them first.  I’d been to Virginia City just the other day to pick up supplies though I didn’t see hide or hair of Joe, even when I’d checked the livery for his mount.  So, exploring Ponderosa land was the next best thing.

My back ached, my head throbbed, and I was tired of the drama my brothers had created. Riding any farther was out of the question, and I would have to give up tonight’s search and sleep in the next cabin I came too.  Tomorrow was another day although, with my father sick in bed, every minute became more crucial and like always, I was left holding the bag.

I eased my leg over Sport’s back and led him to the lean-to on the far side of the log cabin where . . . my brother’s horse stood bobbing his head and nickering at his stablemate.  Even if I had a mind to, I was too tired to laugh.  One down and one to go.  Maybe this wouldn’t be as difficult as I’d first thought.

After I loosened the cinch, I reached up for the blanket and saddle, but when I heard a gun cock behind me, I froze in place.  Turning my head slowly and looking over my shoulder, I stared at the tall, white hat and rounded blue eyes.  “Gonna shoot or put that thing away before someone gets hurt?”

“I thought you was a bandit or somethin’.  Why you sneakin’ up on me like this?”

“I wasn’t sneaking,” I said roughly.  “I was hoping for a place to sleep.”

“Huh?”

“Help me with Sport.  We need to talk.”

*****

Hoss was eager to ride back to the house, but I finally convinced him tomorrow morning would be soon enough.  Pa wasn’t going anywhere and between Mrs. Guthrie and Hop Sing, he was in capable hands.

“Only one of us can ride home tomorrow,” I said.

“One?”

“Yes, Hoss,” I said sarcastically.  “There’s still a missing brother.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Even with the weight loss, Hoss was still a big man and the two wooden chairs in the line shack were small and delicate.  He adjusted himself in the seat, leaned forward and dropped his elbows to his knees.  “Which one of us goes home?”

“I’ll let you decide.”

Hoss looked away before he stood and opened the cabin door.  He extended both arms, pressed either side of the wooden frame, and stared out into the darkness.  His body language said it all; it was a hard decision for him to make.  “You go on home, Adam.  I’ll find Joe.”

“You sure?”

His head bobbed up and down, but I couldn’t see his face.  I couldn’t see his eyes or hear his hidden thoughts.  “I’m sure,” he replied.

“Let’s get some sleep,” I said.  “Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day.”

Hoss had packed his meager belongings and had left the cabin before I woke the following morning.  I rode home to be with my father.

*****

 Hoss

If’n I had any sense, I would have asked Adam where he’d already looked for me and Little Joe.  I rode into Virginia City first and stopped in to see the sheriff.  Roy was very good at keepin’ an eye on in his town.  If Joe was here or had been here recently, Roy Coffee would have been the first to know.

“Ain’t seen him since Ben and Adam found you boys.  I did see Adam the other day parked down by the feed and seed, but he seemed in an awful hurry.”

“Guess Little Joe ain’t been here,” I said.

“I barely recognized you, Hoss.  If it weren’t for that hat—“

“I know.  Hop Sing’s doin’ his best to fatten me up some.”  I didn’t need to hear nothin’ about my appearance, not even from Roy Coffee, and I let it pass as best I could.  “Say, Roy, if’n you see Little Joe, tell him it’s important he get hisself home.”

“Any trouble?”

I knew Roy would find out eventually so I told him what I knew.  “Pa’s sick in bed, and none of us is exactly sure where Joe is, but I ain’t got time to stand around talkin’ so if’n you see him—“

“I’ll send the boy home.  Don’t you worry none, Hoss.  If Little Joe’s in town, I’ll find him.”

I pulled Chubby’s reins from the rail and mounted back up.

“Tell your pa—“

“I will.  Thanks.”

I rode my horse slowly down C Street not knowin’ which way to turn.  I could ride down to Carson or Genoa, I could check more line shacks or I could stop in at the Silver Dollar, have a beer and talk to Bruno.  That became my plan, not a good one, but I hadn’t had a beer in over a year’s time and if Joe had been in town, this was the first place he’d come. Pa was in safe hands with Adam so why couldn’t I spare five minutes just for ol’ Hoss.  I tied Chubby out front and headed inside the saloon.

“Hoss?  Hoss Cartwright, is that you?”

I smiled at Bruno and shook his hand.  “It’s me all right.”

“Hot damn.  Good to see you.  Bet you need a beer.”

“Sure do.”

“Here’s one on the house,” Bruno said, handing me the coldest beer he could muster.  “Hey?  Where’s Little Joe?”

“I’s hopin’ you could tell me.”

“No, ain’t seen him since you boys got back.  Is he missing again already?”

“Well, sort of.”

“Hey, Jimmy,” Bruno called to a young fella sippin’ beer at the end of the bar.  “You seen Little Joe Cartwright?”

“Nope.”

“I have,” came a voice from across the room.

I started toward a table with four men playin’ poker and drinkin’ shots of whiskey. “You seen my little brother?”

“Sure did,” the man said without lookin’ up from his cards.  “Over Carson way.”

“When?”  I asked.

“Just yesterday.”

“How do you know Little Joe?”

“Don’t really,” he said.  “Met him playing cards.”

“Oh, well thanks,” I said, walkin’ back to the bar.

“Hey, big man,” the fella called out.  I turned and looked over my shoulder.  “That brother of your’n.  He didn’t look so good.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I dunno,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.  “Means he didn’t look so good.”

The old Hoss might have picked the man up by his shirtfront and asked a few more questions, but the new Hoss didn’t have the energy or the time to waste.  “Thanks, Bruno.”  I set my glass on the bar and walked out the batwing doors.  I was off to Carson City.

Joe had been gone a few weeks now, and I wondered whether he’d holed up in Carson all that time.  He didn’t have no friends down there, at least none I knew of, so he’d have to be stayin’ in some hotel, and I was surprised he had enough money with ‘im to afford the luxury. ‘Course the fella said he met him playin’ poker, so maybe Joe had a decent winnin’ streak, providin’ him with needed funds.

Carson was a fast-growin’ town surrounded with nothin’ more’n sagebrush and greasewood, not a tree in sight.  The boardwalks creaked as my boot heels beat along the sun-weathered wood.  There were white-frame stores and new brick buildings going up but for a square of land held out in the middle by a man named Curry, thinking if Nevada became a state, this would be a darn good place for the capitol. Guess I didn’t care one way or the other.

I ran my finger down the registry of The Warm Springs Hotel, but there weren’t no Joe Cartwright registered.  I described Little Joe to the clerk behind the counter, and he shook his head but before I left, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask.  “Any other place to say here in town?”

“Well,” he said, clearing his throat.  “There’s Mrs. Beaumont’s Boarding House although she usually takes in a higher caliber of . . . I mean she—“

“I understand,” I said, knowin’ what he was tryin’ to say.  I hadn’t bathed or shaved in a couple of days, and I s’pose I looked like some rag-a-muffin to a man who sported a suit and tie.  “Anywhere else a fella with not much cash would hole up?”

“There’s the Noble House.  They take in transients and . . . men without—“

“I gotcha.  Where can I find this . . . Noble House?”

The clerk gave me directions; I thanked him and got out of his lobby as quick as I could. Next to the livery on the far side of town was a wooden sign with letters barely visible on the weathered plaque above the front door.  Noble House.  It was nothing more than a flat-roofed barn with two rows of beds, five to a side.  I didn’t see hide nor hair of Joe, in fact, the building appeared empty ‘sept for a colored man sweepin’ trash up off the floor.

“Excuse me,” I said, and the man stopped to look up.  “Any other rooms here for sleepin’?”

“Yep,” he said and went back to pushin’ his broom.  I was about to ask my next question, but he volunteered a decent answer before I could open my mouth to speak.  “Two more rooms in back.  They got doors with locks and cost ya double.  Man still sleepin’ in one of ‘em but the other one’s free.”

“This man.  Is he a young man . . . wears a green jacket?”

“Why ya wanna know?”

“He’s my brother.”

The man looked unconvinced.  “Don’t look like brothers to me.”

“Yeah, well, that’s true enough, but we are.  His name’s Joe.”

“That’s the boy’s name all right.  Ain’t seen ‘im for a couple days now.  Don’t reckon he’s alone neither.”

“Huh?”

“Lady friend,” he said kinda irritable like.  “He’s got a lady friend in there with ‘im.  You deef?”

“Yeah . . . no, I heard ya.”

“Well?”

“Which room?”  I asked.

“One on your left.”

I gave the old man a dime for his trouble, stepped over his broom, and walked to the back of the larger room.  When I tapped on the door, no one answered.  Slowly, I turned the tarnished nob.  The door wasn’t locked, but the powerful stench nearly knocked me off my feet.  The smell of stale whiskey and unclean bodies poured from the tiny room.  A yellowed window shade was pulled to the sill, and a lamp burned low next to the bed.  I raised the wick although it might have been best had I left it alone. What I saw next was two naked bodies lyin’ face down on a narrow cot-like bed with sheets rumpled and laying half on the floor.  I cleared my throat.

The woman lifted her head and stared, blinking repeatedly before wiping her hand across her eyes, smearing the black soot she used to decorate her lashes.  Realizing I was a stranger and I didn’t belong in the room, she quickly grabbed the fallen sheet to cover herself properly. “Who . . . who are you?”

“Time for you to leave, ma’am,” I said calmly.  “Time to gather up them clothes and get out.  I’ll step outside while you get dressed.”

When the woman rushed past me in her rumpled saloon clothes, callin’ my little brother a worthless piece of trash, I wondered what she considered herself.  “He promised me a twenty dollar gold piece, and he ain’t got nothin’; not one thin dime.”

“Sorry ‘bout that ma’am.”

“Sure ya are.  Everybody’s sorry.”

My brother was sprawled across the bed, taking up the empty space after the woman cleared out.  His knuckles was cut and bruised and on the part of his face that showed in the lamplight, his cheek hadn’t fared too well either.  His clothes had been flung on the floor; his empty wallet lay there too.  I raised the shade and lifted the window, letting in the afternoon sun and a breath of fresh air.  This was the last of the line; the last place a man could find a bed with a roof over his head.  Only the iron cage at Mule’s Crossing was worse than this place.

This is where a man came to die.  When hope was lost; when he had nowhere else to turn; when he’d given up on life, on family, on everything that meant anything.  This was my little brother, who I’d watched over for the entire nineteen years of his life, ‘ceptin’ for one. Through broken bones and heartaches, I’d cared for him without askin’ nothin’ in return.  I swallowed the lump in my throat before a subtle moan caught my attention and brought me back to the present.

I flipped Joe over on his back.  He raised his arm to cover his eyes from the powerful ray of light landin’ straight on the bed from the open window.  His right hand searched for the sheet, but it was hangin’ too far off the bed out of reach.

“Get up,” I said, bumpin’ my leg hard against the side of the narrow cot.  Joe tried to roll away from the sound and the disruption, but I grabbed his arm and held him flat on the bed. “Get up, Joseph.”

“Hoss?”

“Get up.”

“Go away,” he said, thinkin’ he could roll away from me and magically I’d disappear.

“Get dressed.  It’s time to go.”

“You go,” he said still tryin’ to break the hold I had on his arm.

“I ain’t leavin’ here without ya, and I ain’t a patient man, so get your filthy carcass movin’ before I fling ya over my shoulder and drag ya out of this dump without no clothes at all.”

Joe finally rolled into a sitting position and, realizing he was buck-naked, he reached again for the sheet.  “Why are you here?  How did you find me?”

“It don’t matter.  Get dressed and let’s go.”

His eyes was half-closed and his hair sprung every which way before falling across his forehead in a tangled mess.  The smell of soured whiskey seeped from his pores and a polished sheen of sweat glistened across his face and neck.

In my way of thinkin’, Joe deserved everything he got, but as I gazed down at what was left of my youngest brother, I felt somethin’ I hadn’t felt for a long time.  Protective.  I was saddened by what I saw, what he’d let his life become.  Drinkin’ anything he could find and fightin’ anyone who got in his way.

We saw life differently, him and me.  While I longed for quiet solitude on the land I called home, Joe needed people surroundin’ him, even if they were barroom scum and over-the-hill women, he didn’t never want to be alone.

I picked his pants up off the floor and threw them across his lap.  “Come on.  Get dressed.” I stood patiently and watched him do as I asked, pants, shirt, and boots.  His jacket and gun belt were draped over a wooden chair.  “Here,” I said.  “Finish up and let’s go.”

He never once asked why I was takin’ him outta that place.  He never said a word.  I held onto his arm and dragged him next door to the livery, but that’s when any movement stopped.  “I ain’t going nowhere with you,” he said.  He leaned his wore-out body against his horse and didn’t move.  I pushed him away, saddled both Chubby and Cochise and told him to mount up.  “Ain’t goin’.”

I’d manhandled the boy before, and I weren’t past doin’ it again.  He bucked and flopped like a fish outta water when I grabbed him up from behind.  His arms was flailin’ and he called me every name in the book as I hoisted him onto the saddle.

“You stay put or I’ll tie you belly down, ya ornery little cuss,” I said, easing Cooch out of the narrow stall.  I kept hold of the reins, seein’ how Joe had enough to contend with just hangin’ on to the horn and centerin’ hisself in the saddle.  If this is what it took to get him home, I was the right man for the job.  I pulled out a few coins and handed them to the smithy, who was about ready to sell Joe’s horse since he hadn’t been paid.  We rode out together.

*****

Although we weren’t far from home, I was in a hurry to see Pa.  I hadn’t told Joe why, and I’m not sure what kept me from blurting out the truth about Pa’s condition, but I’d kept it a secret.  He’d asked more than once after he’d sobered up and came to his senses, and even though Adam had explained in detail, everything the doc had told him, I hadn’t let on to Joe.

I was to blame; Joe was too and in his fragile state, I wasn’t sure if he’d bolt or ride along peacefully so I didn’t take a chance by tellin’ him.  He would know soon enough whether Pa was still alive or not.  A few more miles and we’d both have the answer to that question.

I was surprised he didn’t fight me on this after all the lies he’d tried to put past me only to ease his own conscience.  I’ve studied long and hard over what he said the last time we talked to each other, the morning before he rode out and decided not to come back.  It was just like Joe to sulk and make a mess of his life until someone dragged him back home and smothered him with attention, enough so he’d stay put.

Seeing how he was still in one piece was a miracle, knowing how he’d abused hisself over these last few weeks.  The truth will set you free, Joseph.  Of course, I said nothin’ like that, but it was hoverin’ in the back of my mind all the same.  If’n he’d just come clean, but that wasn’t Joe.  He was determined to keep tellin’ his lies, to keep the past hidden from Pa and Adam.

When we crested the hill and looked down on the house and outbuildings, there was no movement; no ranch hands in the yard, only a gentle breeze pushin’ its way through trees. There’d been no earthy smells in the desert, only dust and heat and when I breathed in the heavenly scent of pine, it’s freshness, it’s glory, I wondered if’n I should tell Joe about Pa. But, when I squinted my eyes and looked closer, I saw a visitor’s buggy parked outside the house.

Joe, who was fully conscious now, turned in his saddle and stared straight at me. “Why’d you bring me here?”

I hesitated before I spoke.  “Things have changed, Joseph.”

“Things?  What things?”

I saw a fresh look in his eyes, a hopeful look, but was I ready to make peace?  Was that what he thought this was all about?  Was I ready to forget the past so the family could survive?  I gazed at the tops of the trees—my home—Joe’s home—my father’s dream, which had become my dream too but no, I wasn’t ready.

“Let’s go,” I said.

*****

“You found him?”

“Sure did,” I said, shaking Adam’s hand.  “Found ‘im down Carson way.”  Not only had my brother come out the front door as Joe and I rode up, Doc’s buggy was hitched to the rail. “How is he?”

“Holding his own,” Adam said.

Joe was a bit like dynamite.  Calm until somebody struck a match and the explosion took away half a mountain.  “Who’s holdin’ his own?” he asked.  “What going on, Adam?”

“You didn’t tell him?”

“Nope,” I said.  “Figured he’d find out soon enough.”

“What?  Is it Pa?”  Joe’s eyes grew round and his nostrils flared—the match was lit.  “Tell me, Adam.  Is it Pa?”

Adam glanced up at me then his eyes met Joe’s.  “Maybe you should clean yourself up some before you—“

“It’s Pa, ain’t it?”

“Easy, Joe.”  Adam reached out to steady my little brother, but Joe turned on a dime and his left fist bashed across my jaw.

“I hate you, Hoss.  I hate you.”

The explosion was quick and deliberate but the mountain didn’t cave, only a meager rockslide leaving no permanent damage.  I rubbed the side of my face with my fingertips, wondering how many more times the dynamite would ignite before the day was out?

*****

 Adam

“I see nothing’s changed,” I said to Hoss as he rubbed the soreness from his jaw.

“Dang fool.  Know where I found him?”

“Do I really want to know?”

“I best settle the horses,” Hoss said, picking up Chub’s reins.  I untied Cochise from the rail, and we walked toward the barn together.  “Dang fool kid,” Hoss mumbled a second time.

Joe had rushed straight into the house, not even stopping to rinse off in the trough. He smelled like hell, but Hoss and I both knew what Pa meant to Joe.  Not that we cared any less about our father’s well-being, but there’d always been something rather unique between Pa and his youngest son.

I kept my thoughts to myself while I groomed my young brother’s horse and Hoss fiddled mechanically with Chub.  It seemed like a lifetime since anything about our lives had been normal.  My brothers were home, but for how long?  It’s obvious they hadn’t made amends.

“I found him lyin’ naked in a room no bigger’n this stall, Adam.  He smelled of whiskey and sickness and . . . and some over-the-hill whore . . . woman had just cleaned him out and left him nothin’ but his clothes.  He coulda been beaten to death or worse in a place like that, but he didn’t care.  He don’t care about nothin’.”

“Maybe we should wait and let Joe explain.”

I considered what Hoss had said and the tone he used to describe Joe’s unsafe surroundings. I heard fury but I also heard sadness, and I knew Hoss still cared and not all was lost.  He may not say it outright but in his heart, he was grieving what had once been a true friendship between brothers.

“Guess the ride home was pretty miserable?”

Hoss turned and glared at me.

“I’m sorry.  I was just asking,” I said as an afterthought.

“How’s Pa really?”

“First things first, Hoss.”

“What’s that mean?”

I leaned over Cochise’s back, still holding the brush in my hand.  “Ever wonder why you found Joe in that condition?”

“’Cause he’s a dang fool, that’s why.”

“Come on, Hoss.  You know better.”

“No, I don’t.  You’re so smart, why don’t you tell me.”

“I could use a drink,” I said, hoping the walk to the house would ease Hoss up a bit.

“No.  Say your piece now, Adam.  Tell me what’s eatin’ at that overworked brain of yours?”

“Okay,” I said, quickly trying to select the right words.  “So far, I’ve only heard your side of the story.  Joe hasn’t said a word; he may never open up and tell us what happened at Mule’s Crossing so why don’t you give me a detailed account.”

“He don’t talk ‘cause they’d all be lies, that’s why, and I ain’t about to tell you or Pa what a traitor our little brother is.  He made is bed, and I’m done with him.”

My, God.  I’d always thought Joe was mule-headed but Hoss could be just as stubborn when he got his hackles up.

“You’ve seen Joe like this before . . . maybe not naked and broke, but there have been times in that kid’s life when he feels no one believes him, no one takes him seriously or takes his side.”

“He’s just poutin’, Adam, poor innocent Joe.  Well, no more poor Little Joe for me.”

“Why do you think he agreed to ride back with you from Carson?”

“’Cause he’s broke,” Hoss said assuredly.  “‘Cause he didn’t have nowhere else to go.”

I took a deep breath and continued.  “He would have found a way,” I said.  “He may be young but he’s resourceful.”

“Fine then.  He wanted to see Pa.”

“But you never told him about Pa.”

“Dadburnit, Adam.  What are you tryin’ to say?”

“Julia Bulette.”

“Huh?  What about her?”

My, God.  He was thick as a brick today.  “Remember when we found Joe in the saloon, drinking alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Remember why he was there?”

“I s’pose.”

“Let me refresh your memory,” I said slowly and calmly.  I stepped away from Cochise, lay the brush on the half wall and crowded inside the stall with Hoss and Chub.  “Because someone he cared for, someone he loved turned him away, had no use for him any longer. He’d done nothing wrong.  He’d given away his heart and that same heart was trampled for no . . . good . . . reason.”  Did I have to spell it out?

Hoss stared over my head; his blue eyes glistened.  “You think it’s all my fault?  You think I done him wrong?”

“I think you were beaten down so far you were blinded to the truth.  This is Joe we’re talking about, Hoss.  His heart breaks easily; he takes rejection hard.  While you find peace in the solitude of nature, Joe drowns himself in a bottle.  Do you really think, deep down in your heart,” I enunciated every word slowly, “Joe would ever leave you behind?  And now, he has no one to turn to, Hoss.  He’s lost his best friend.”

My brother relaxed his firm stance, but I continued my little speech.  “How did you get to Pigeon’s ranch?”

“I walked,” he said after clearing his throat.

“But when you couldn’t walk any farther.  When you were so exhausted you couldn’t take another step, how did Pigeon find you in that field.  You were belly down.  How did he see you in the tall grass?”

“I don’t know.  I passed out or somethin’.  I don’t remember.”

“Well, I do know what happened.”  I was so upset with Hoss I could barely get the words out. “Because someone was sitting next to you.  Because someone wouldn’t leave your side until help arrived.  Who was that person, Hoss?  Who cared enough to stay with his big brother, to die right alongside you?  Who didn’t want to go on living without you?  Who?”  I nearly shouted.

*****

When Hoss walked out of the barn, his shoulders slumped forward and his eyes were aimed toward the ground. Repeatedly, he hit his hat against the side of his leg; I knew I’d stuck a chord.  But, I wanted nothing to do with him; I wanted nothing to do with either of them.  I was tired, too tired to live like this any longer.

When I finally ventured upstairs, Joe was kneeling at my father’s bedside and Hoss was leaning against the far wall observing the two without interrupting their time together. Joe held my father’s hand to the side of his face, and I could hear him muttering words, more of a litany quietly spoken.

Paul Martin fastened the leather buckle on his bag and reached for his suit coat before patting Joe on the shoulder.  “I’ll stop by again tomorrow, son.”  The doc nodded at Hoss and walked toward the doorway where I stood.  I followed him down the stairs.

“How’s he doing?”  I asked.

“About the same, Adam.  His heartbeat seems stronger than yesterday but as you can see, he’s not out of the woods yet.  I’ve told Mrs. Guthrie she’s no longer needed. She’ll be leaving with me.”

“I guess that’s the best we can hope for at this stage.”

“Well, having those two boys home might encourage Ben to wake up.  Of course, I can’t say for sure.”  I nodded.  Doc and I both knew what had caused the attack, even if the words weren’t spoken aloud.  “Keep pushing liquids,” Paul said, “and pray for a miracle.”

“Stubborn, mule-headed,” I mumbled.  When Paul smiled but held back a laugh; I returned a smile of my own.  “You better keep your bag handy, Doc.  I may be the next in line.”

“Well, let’s hope not.  One sick party this household is plenty.”

“Thanks, Paul.  I know you’ve done everything possible.”

Mrs. Guthrie had gathered her things, came down the stairs and stood alongside the doctor. “I hope you boys know what you’re doing,” she said.

“We’ll take care of him, but your help has been invaluable,” I said.  “Thank you.”

Mrs. Guthrie leaned forward and whispered in my ear.  “I suggest Joseph takes a bath.”

“I’ll see to it, ma’am.”

“See that you do.”

“I’ll be out tomorrow,” Paul said.  “Take turns tonight, but someone needs to be with Ben.  Don’t leave him alone.”

“That won’t be a problem.”

I saw Paul and Harriet to the door before I spoke to Hop Sing who came darting out of the kitchen like a wild banshee.  “Time woman go,” he said.  “She try running Hop Sing out of kitchen all time.  She not welcome.”

“She’s gone,” I said, patting the Chinaman’s shoulder.  “The kitchen’s yours.”

“Good.  No room for woman in Hop Sing kitchen.”

“Yes, I know.”  My patience was growing thinner by the minute.

“Supper ready half hour.  You tell brothers clean up before come Hop Sing table.”

“I will.”

And he was gone, and I was too tired to climb back up the stairs.  I flopped down in Pa’s chair, propped both feet on the table, and laid my head back against the soft leather.  If I wasn’t careful, I’d fall asleep, but there wasn’t time for sleep, and even though I felt myself relax, I couldn’t give in.  Clean my brothers, eat supper, watch over Pa, the list never ended, and there were times I, too, wanted to run away, but the possibility of that happening were . . .

*****

One, two, three, four five, six . . . The chiming jolted me awake, and the smell of fresh-brewed coffee alerted my senses to a new day.  I blinked repeatedly and tried to focus on the clock across the room.  Six a.m.  I’d fallen asleep after all, sitting upright in my father’s chair.  I stood and rotated my shoulders, relieving the stiffness before stepping into Hop Sing’s kitchen for a cup of coffee.

“You see brothers first.  Then have coffee with breakfast.”

I should have argued, I should have demanded a mug to take with me instead; I turned and did as the Chinaman had asked.  I hauled myself up the stairs.  After sleeping in my clothes and boots, I wanted to strip down and sit in a hot tub although; remembering how Joe smelled when he rode in yesterday, he would definitely have first dibs on a bath.

I passed Joe’s room and then Hoss’.  I was surprised to find neither was sleeping or cleaning up or getting dressed.  Pa’s door stood wide open and there were voices softly speaking.  I stood in the doorway and wondered if I was dreaming or what I saw was real.

With pillows propped behind him, my father was sitting up in bed, still pale, his hair disheveled, but he was alert and listening to Joe rattle on about something I couldn’t quite make out.

My father looked up and smiled then lifted his hand from the bed and waved me over. Hoss turned in his chair and Joe, sitting on the bed next to Pa, motioned me into the room too. My brothers had bathed, shaved, combed their hair and each sported fresh, clean clothes.  Maybe I really was dreaming.

“Morning, brother,” Joe said.  “Look who’s awake.”

“I see.  Should you be sitting up?”  I asked my father.

“Should I not?”

My father’s voice was hoarse from lack of use, but he found the wit to question me with a touch of sarcasm.  His eyes glistened with the joy of having his family surround him, and I was reminded of years gone by when Joe would snuggle deep in Pa’s lap, telling of his day’s adventures.  I wondered if he’d done that last night, if he and Hoss had come to terms, had fought the demons and made peace with each other.  It certainly appeared they had, but I didn’t want to jump the gun.

It seemed much had transpired while I slept the night away.  A true sense of harmony filled my father’s room, and it appeared as though matters had been settled without any help or interference.  Maybe the road wasn’t paved with gold and maybe there would still be ruts and bumps, but there was a beginning and that’s all anyone could ask.

My brothers spent a year in hell.  They each returned home damaged goods and in need of repair.  I heard Joe first and Hoss followed suit.  It was laughter, quiet, subdued, far from boisterous, but laughter all the same.

I rounded the bed and saw both of their faces clearer than I could from the doorway. The hard edges and anger had faded for now.  Whether it was a just a façade, a noble pretense they each acted out for Pa, I would never be sure.  Only time would tell, although my fingers were crossed, and maybe my prayers had been answered, not only for Pa but for our entire family.  When Pa looked up and winked, I smiled.  A subtle nod of his head assured me that not only he but my two brothers were on the road to recovery.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” I said, “but I could sure use a hot cup of coffee.”

“Bring up the pot, big brother,” Joe said, winking at Hoss and thinking I wouldn’t see.

“What?”  I replied, forcing typical disdain at Joe’s request.  “Your legs broke?”

Pa closed his eyes and laid his head back against the pillows.  His lashes dipped to his cheeks, a smile touched his lips, and I knew our lives made sense once again.

***The End***

2013

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