Between a Rock and a Hard Place (by Cheaux)

Summary:   When the Ponderosa faces financial ruin, only drastic measures can save the day . . . measures which turn deadly for Joe and Candy as Ben and Hoss watch from a distance.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:    7000

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

 

It was early morning on a brisk spring day when disaster hit.

Hoss Cartwright, his younger brother Joe, and ranch hand Candy Canaday were hauling equipment up the mountain to the Ponderosa’s main timber camp.  Hoss was in the lead freight wagon and Candy in the middle, with Joe bringing up the rear.  Normally chatty, the three kept their repartee in abeyance as they focused their attention on keeping the wagons centered on the narrow switchback road that led up to the Tahoe ridge.

This was not a chore any of them relished or were used to doing, but a pressing deadline on a timber contract and a labor shortage due to the winter’s fatal influenza epidemic meant every man on the ranch was doing double—and even triple—duty.   Getting the equipment to the flume site today was crucial to the ability of the Cartwrights to fulfill their contract with Tipton Industries.  To fail, meant not only the loss of income—sorely needed after the herd was decimated by the harsh winter—but a blow to their reputation as well.

As he rounded the outside of the last switchback, Joe watched at first in disbelief and then horror as one boulder after another dropped onto the road in front of him.  Struggling to control the frightened animals and keep the wagon away from the edge of the trail, Joe’s only thought was survival as he began to back the wagon down the grade to the last level straight away as fast as possible.  The very earth beneath him seemed to buck and twist like a bronco and it took everything he had to hold his team on the steep incline as more rocks and trees crashed down around them.

Reaching level ground at last, Joe leapt from the wagon and grabbed the lead horses.

“Whoa.  Easy, easy now.  Nothing to be scared of.  It’s all over now.  Shhh.  Easy.  Easy.  Whoa.  Easy.”  Joe worked his way around the team, stroking and talking to each horse in turn, trying to quiet himself as much as them.  Then, soaked with sweat and shaking, he finally collapsed at the side of the road with his head in his hands until his breathing slowed at last and rational thought took over.

With a snap, his head came up.  Hoss!

“Hoss!”  Joe yelled frantically, running up the trail.  All he could see was rock, parts of trees, debris, and dust—choking, blinding dust.

“Hoss!”

“Hoss!!!”

“Here.  I’m here, Joe,” Hoss shouted, waiving his hat in the air above his head to clear the air as much as to signal to his brother.

Thank God! Joe thought as he realized Hoss had made it to the top of the ridge.

Hoss cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Is Candy with you?”

And that’s when Joe’s heart dropped into his stomach and stayed there.  He couldn’t see Candy.  In fact, he couldn’t see Candy’s team or the rig.

The road on the inside of the switchback had vanished completely.

*****

“I can’t see anything.  What about you, Hoss?” Joe yelled back.

“Nothin’, Joe,”

Not knowing where the second wagon was on the trail when the rock slide happened had them at a disadvantage.  Since they couldn’t see much beneath their own position, Joe searched the rock face below Hoss and Hoss did the same with Joe’s section.

Continual mini slides unnerved them both, but they kept working their way carefully toward the horseshoe section of the switchback where the road had completely disappeared.   As the distance across the ravine narrowed, shouting became unnecessary.

When the sun had climbed midway to zenith, the brothers both knew time was against them.  Joe sat back on his haunches and looked across at his brother.

“Hoss, you need to get your wagon up to the camp and unload that equipment.  Tell Pa what’s happened and send someone over the ridge on foot if necessary to take my wagon around the long way.”

“What are you going to do, Joe?”

“Keep looking.”

Hoss wanted to argue with Joe, but there was no point.  He knew his brother wouldn’t give up until he had exhausted all hope of finding Candy.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Hoss said.

“We’ll be waiting,” Joe replied.

Hoss hesitated a moment at hearing the word “we.”  He wanted to caution against false hope, but seeing the tilt of Joe’s head and the jut of his chin he was reminded once again of the indefatigable optimism that was his brother.

Time stopped as Joe watched Hoss pick his way back to where the lead team waited.  Only after he acknowledged Hoss’ waive and saw the wagon disappear around the bend did he sit down fully on the ground hugging his knees to his chest, taking in big gulps of air which had finally begun to clear.  Once again Joe fought to control his body.   He took off his hat and wiped his brow with his sleeve.

Slowly, a sound crept into Joe’s consciousness; a chirping . . . an animal?  Joe put his hat back on and stood up turning this way and that.  He looked back to his left toward where his team was waiting, but then heard the sound again to his right.  A squeak.  No; not to his right . . . below him . . . a grinding squeak.  A wagon wheel!

Joe ran down the incline and grabbed a coiled rope and a canteen from beneath the front seat of his rig.  Returning to the precipice,  he unbuckled his gun belt and tied one end around his waist.  Then he secured other end to a nearby tree that looked solid.  Wrapping the rope around his left arm and hand, he threw the remainder of the rope over the edge and began his descent backwards with eyes closed.

It was slow going.  Joe couldn’t see where he was headed which was probably just as well, he reasoned, given his fear of heights.  At one point the rock face curved inward and he lost his purchase.  Oh, God, what do I do now? he thought as he grabbed the rope above him with both hands and swung free.

When he stopped twisting and swaying, he somehow mustered the courage to let go of the lifeline with his right hand and feel behind his back for the free end.  Once he had it in his fist, he then willed the fingers of his left hand to loosen their grip and began sliding inch by inch downward.  Within a few feet his boots hit something hard.  A ledge?  Letting out a little more rope, he felt around with his toe until he was assured the ground was wide and firm enough to support his weight.

It was only then that he opened his eyes and saw he was standing on what was left of a lower section of the road.  There, teetering precariously on the rim were the mangled remains of the wagon, its undercarriage jutting out over the road’s edge.  Caught in the twisted metal and hanging upside down was Candy.

*****

“What do you think you’re doing?” a voice said from above.

Pushing his chin to his chest so he could look up, Candy saw—to his great relief—Joe looking down on him.  “Oh, just hangin’ around,” he replied.

“A fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into,” Joe said.

“I’m not in a position to argue,” Candy agreed.  “You got a plan?”

“Plan?”

“To get me outta here?”

“Your leg is caught.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“Broken?”

“Dunno.  Can’t feel it.”

“Don’t move,” Joe said as he pulled back from the edge of the rim and vanished from Candy’s limited view.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Candy muttered, letting his head fall back.  There was rock behind and below him but even with arms outstretched, he couldn’t reach either.

*****

If Joe thought descending had been hard, going up was sheer torture.  Hand over hand he pulled himself along the rope scraping against rock and vegetation until he reached the tree trunk and collapsed.  With a palsied hand, he picked up the canteen.  It took several tries to get the cap off, and when he did he drank deeply then shed his hat and poured water over his head, leaning back against the tree.

Joe had no idea how long it had taken him to go down and back, but Hoss should have been able to get to camp in a half hour . . . forty-five minutes at most, another ten minutes to explain the situation to Pa and give the men their assignments, then a half hour back tops.  Joe looked up at the sun which was now directly overhead.  Way too much time has passed, he thought.  Ok.  Think.  Candy can’t hang upside down like a side of beef forever. 

Joe wiped his face with his hands and stood up resolutely.  It was up to him.

*****

Once Hoss hit fairly level ground at the top of the ridge he drove the team as hard as he could and made it to the logging camp in less than a half hour.  As he set the brake and jumped down, he saw his father going toe to toe with a citified man who was waiving a sheaf of papers in his face.  Pa was looking a mite purple.

“Request denied, Mr. Cartwright.  Paragraph 57(G)(24)(a)(iii) says clearly that in the event of a breach of contract the party of the first  part has the—”

“—We have not breached the contract!” Ben Cartwright’s voice boomed.

“Not yet, but you clearly will not be able to fulfill your commitment by Friday’s deadline.”

“And if you grant the extension, then we won’t be in breach and we won’t have a problem.  Three wagons with all the equipment we need are due here any minute—“

“Equipment is only part of your resource problem.”

“I’m only asking for a three-day extension . . . just until Monday noon.  You can’t do anything over the weekend anyway.  Three days, that’s all I’m asking of Tipton.”

“And my advice to Mr. Tipton will be an unequivocal ‘No!’”

“Pa!” Hoss barged in.  “Pa, I need you.”

“Not now, Hoss!”

“Now, Pa,” Hoss said, grabbing his father by the elbow and pulling him away forcibly from the lawyer.

“Hoss, let go of me this instant!”

“Pa, we got real trouble.”

As angry as he was at the lawyer, one look at his middle son’s face and Ben knew it was serious.   “What?”

“That shaker caused a rockslide.  Sheared off half the cliff and took out the old trail.”

Ben blanched at the news.  “Joe?”

“He’s okay.  Shaken, but okay.”

“Where is he?”  Ben said looking around wildly for his youngest son.

“Pa.”

“Where are the wagons?”

“Pa!” Hoss grabbed hold of his father again.  “Joe’s stuck on the other side of the slide.”

“The other side?”

“Pa.  Candy disappeared with one of the wagons in the slide.”

“Disappeared?”

“The wagon’s gone, Pa, and so is Candy.  Joe is on the other side of the slide.  He’s looking for Candy, but I don’t know . . . I don’t see how—”

“What does Joe say?”

“He says to send someone over the ridge to bring his wagon around the long way.”

“Of course.  What else?”

“Pa, I gotta go back.  When I left him he was looking for Candy.  I’m afraid he might do somethin’ stupid.”

*****

A half hour later on a borrowed horse, Hoss was back at the slide area.  Hank and Big Mike had gone over the top of the ridge on foot to retrieve the wagon; Ben had gone along to retrieve his son.

Hoss dismounted, tied his horse to a tree, and picked his way carefully on foot back to where he’d last seen his brother.  Just as he feared, Joe was stepping precariously near the edge of the trail on the opposite side of the switchback and there was a rope lying at his feet.

“JOE!”

“Geez!”  Joe managed to squeeze out as he slipped on the rocks and landed on his butt.  “Give me a heart attack why don’t you!”

“What do you think you’re doing?” Hoss yelled angrily.

“Rescuing Candy,” Joe replied as he scrambled to his feet.

“Candy?  Where?” Hoss said in disbelief.

“Down there about a hundred feet,” said Joe, pointing.

Hoss moved carefully to the edge until he could peer over into the chasm below.  Sure enough, there was the wagon—or what was left of it.

“Candy?”

“He’s there,”

Hoss looked again and was doubtful Candy could have survived.  “Joe, that wagon’s pretty smashed up.”

“He’s alive.”

“How do you know?”

“’Cause I been down there and back.  His leg’s pinned in the undercarriage and he’s hurtin’ some, but he’s alive.”

*****

Candy could hear voices, but couldn’t make out what was being said for all the blood rushing in his ears.

Hanging upside down made it hard to think, but he knew he needed to take inventory of what was working and what wasn’t if he was going to be able to help extricate himself from this mess.  His left leg was wedged between what looked to be the bottom of the wagon and the braking rods.  Without thinking, he kicked at the assembly with his right foot and was rewarded at first with a shower of gravel and dirt and then the whole assembly shifted, dropping another thirty feet before the metal rods of the wagon’s undercarriage twisted like rope around his ankle halting his free fall.  As he was jerked to a stop, his whole body screamed with pain.

Candy’s heart raced and his head felt like it would explode.  He forced himself to calm down until his pulse slowed and the throbbing in his head eased.  Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked down at . . . nothing.

The nearest ground was at least a five hundred feet below him.

Candy suddenly felt very alone and very, very afraid.

*****

When the aftershock hit, Joe and Hoss were both thrown to the ground and watched in renewed terror as the ledge where Candy’s wagon had come to rest in the previous slide disintegrated and the wagon plummeted out of sight.  Hoss was certain they had lost Candy altogether, but when the dust again settled, he spotted the remaining mangle of wood/metal a good bit lower than before and now teetering on a jagged shard of rock.

“Joe!” he yelled.  “To your left.”

“I don’t . . . where?”

“Farther down, Joe.  Look farther down.”

“I see it!” Joe shouted excitedly, then despair set in.  “Hoss,” he choked, “that’s a good 35-40 feet lower than before!  . . . there’s not enough rope.”

*****

“Joe!” Hoss yelled sharply.  “Snap out of it!”

Joe finally looked over and Hoss could see he was shaking.  More gently, he continued, “Untie the rope from your waist.”

“What?”

“Untie the rope and throw it over the edge so I can see how much you’re short.”

Joe nodded as he finally understood what Hoss wanted.  “How close?”

“Not close enough.”

“Maybe I can just shimmy down the rope and then drop,” Joe said hopefully.

“Onto what, Joe?  That rock is barely wider than what’s left of the wagon.  You don’t know if it’s stable and you dang sure can’t see what’s under it.  Even if you could, Joe, how would you get back up?  Nah, you need more rope and not just rope.  You need something to tie off that iron so it don’t slip no further in case we get another trembler.”

Joe was certain Hoss was right, but he was also certain of something else.  Candy would die if another aftershock shook that wreckage loose.  If he wasn’t dead already.  No matter the cost, he had to try.

Joe pulled the rope up and fastened it once again around his slim waist.  “We can’t wait any longer, Hoss.  I’m going down.”

“Joe, you’re crazy.  You don’t know what’s down there or if he’s still alive.”

“Hoss, I’ve got to try.”  And with that, he threw the rope over the edge, closed his eyes, and began his backward descent once again.

*****

“Just where do you think you’re going?” Ben asked, gripping his son’s elbow with a firm hand.

Joe’s eyes popped open.  “Pa!”  In one step he moved into his father’s embrace with such force he nearly knocked the older man down.  “Candy’s alive,” he whispered.

“You’re sure?”

“I think so.”

“Tell me,” he said, placing an arm around his son’s shoulder and listening intently to the explanation of Candy’s predicament, what Joe had done so far, and what he intended to do next.

“So you don’t know his condition now?”

“No,” Joe admitted reluctantly, hanging his head.  “But even if he’s . . . I can’t . . . I can’t leave him there to be—”

Ben lifted Joe’s head and cradled the sides of his face in his hands, looking deeply into his eyes.  He felt worry etching deeper into every line of his own face as he played out various scenarios in his mind.  He knew Joe loved Candy as a brother and wouldn’t think twice about putting himself in danger to save him.  He also knew his son was afraid of heights and he understood the courage it had taken for Joe to rappel over unstable rock not just once but to be willing to do it again, uncertain what he would find at the end of his rope.

“All right.  If we’re going to do this, let’s get you rigged up properly.”

“Pa?” Joe said, incredulously.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  A few minutes later, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing either.

*****

“Dadburnit,” Hoss muttered to himself.  He felt so darn useless on his side of the slide not knowing what was happening.  He could hear Joe was talkin’ and even at a distance he could tell Pa looked worried, but he couldn’t understand what they were saying.  Then all of a sudden there was movement behind them as Hank came around the bend leading two of the draft horses he had unharnessed from Joe’s team.  “Glory be!” exclaimed Hoss, for following Hank was Big Mike carrying the toolbox from the wagon and draped over his shoulder was a large coil of rope.

Hoss cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled across the chasm.  “Pa!  What’s going on?”

“We’re going to rig up a bosun’s chair so Joe can have the use of both arms to tie off the wreckage.”

“I’m coming around, Pa.”

“No.  There’s no time for that.  Besides, Big Mike’s as strong as you and we have the horses as well.  I need you there, Hoss.  You have a better vantage than we do and can see where Joe has to go.  You’ll have to be his eyes.”

Ben picked up the rope that lay at Joe’s feet and handed it to him.  “Do you remember how to tie a Flemish Bend?”

“Flemish Bend?  Sure,” Joe said a little too tentatively for Ben’s liking.

“Show me.”

Joe hesitated slightly as he thought through the process, but made short work of it and held the knot out for inspection.  Ben made a slight adjustment and then told Joe to do it again.  While Joe was working, Ben went over to Hank and Mike and told them what he had in mind.  Walking back, Ben removed his neckerchief.

After Joe finished the second knot, Ben said, “Good.”  Then, blindfolding his son, he said firmly, “Now do it again.”

Joe started to protest but quickly shut his mouth when Ben knotted the scarf smartly.  The message was clear:  don’t argue!

“What’s wrong with the knot?” Ben asked when Joe was through.

“Wrong?” Joe asked.

“Leave the blindfold on.  Feel the knot with your hands and tell me what’s wrong with it.”

Joe moved his fingers over the loops and elbows.  Finally, he said, “The end’s too short?”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

“Do it again.”

Joe puffed out his checks exasperated, but untied the rope and started again.  This time he concentrated hard, seeing the knot in his mind.  When he was done, he held it out for inspection.  Again Ben said, “What’s wrong with it?”

Again Joe rubbed his fingers over every twist and turn of the rope.  He couldn’t find anything wrong with it.  What was his Pa seeing?  He renewed his search.

“Nothing?” Joe offered.

“Are you sure?”

“Y-yes,” he said hesitantly.

“Feel it again and tell me what’s wrong with it.”

Joe took a deep breath, but didn’t move his hands.  “There’s nothing wrong.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” said Joe firmly.

“Take off the blindfold and look.”

It was a perfect, text-book knot.  Joe looked up at his father expecting to see a smile, but instead his Pa was deadly serious.

“Joseph.  You—and you alone—will be tying these knots.  You must have 100% confidence in your ability.  There can’t be any room for doubt.  There will be no second chance.”

“Yes sir.”

“When you get down there—whatever you find—you must decide what should be done.  Hoss and I can advise you if needed, but the decisions are going to be yours alone.  You must have 100% confidence in your ability to do whatever is necessary.  And whatever you decide, I’ll stand beside you.  Do you understand me?”

Joe knew this time his Pa wasn’t talking about knots.

“I understand, Pa.”

*****

Joe moved behind a tree to relieve himself and then walked down the trail to where the remaining draft horses were waiting.  He needed to clear his head and just being around his beloved four-legged friends was always balm to his soul.

Buttercup and Pepper whinnied as he approached, tossing their manes.  He greeted each one by name and rubbed their noses.  They returned the affection by blowing softly.  At 18 hands, they were a good deal taller than he and as Joe stood between them, he had to reach up to pat their necks.  For their part, the horses moved closer together and each rested a head on his shoulder.  Joe closed his eyes, drawing strength from the warmth of this unconventional group hug.

“Joe.”

It was Hank.

“Your Pa’s got the bosun ready.”

Joe squared his shoulders and turned to walk up the trail.  As he passed Hank he whispered, “Take care of them.”

Hank wasn’t sure if Joe meant the horses or his family.

*****

Ben had constructed the bosun by creating a Spanish bowline—a long rope with two loops at the end, one for each leg.  Joe stepped into the open loops and pulled them up as his father adjusted them around his backside, “We’ll control your descent.  Jerk the line once if you need more slack.  You’ll be able to use both your hands and feet as you go down,” he instructed.

Ben then tied a smaller length of rope around Joe’s waist.  From it he had created several butterfly loops which now held tools:  a hammer, a spanner wrench, a knife, several rings, some rawhide, and a lasso.  Finally, Ben draped the canteen across Joe’s chest.

“When you’re in place, jerk the line twice and we’ll throw a second rope for you to tie off the wreckage.  Try to balance the load as best you can.  When you’re ready, give two more jerks on both lines simultaneously and the horses will start pulling in tandem.”

Joe just nodded, not trusting his voice.  He pulled his father into a fierce embrace one last time, quickly gave Hoss a waive, and then walked backwards over the edge of the sheared cliff.

*****

The first part of the descent went quickly.  Joe knew where the hand holds were and he had the added security of knowing his father and Big Mike were controlling his speed.  He still didn’t look down, but this time he didn’t have to close his eyes.  He focused straight ahead and concentrated on the next hold.  Part of him weirdly thought this could be really fun if it weren’t for the life or death decisions that awaited him at the bitter end.  The bitter end.   Joe had always wondered how the end of a rope acquired that nickname.  Now he knew.

When he got to where the ledge used to be, he stopped not sure where to go next.  He needn’t have worried; Hoss was watching and shouted.

“Move your right hand down about a foot.”

Left hand; right hand; left hand. The instructions kept him inching ever lower until his boots finally touched something solid.  At this point, Joe knew he would have to look down before he put his weight on whatever it was.

“Hoss!  He stopped moving.  What’s happening?” Ben’s voice boomed across the chasm.

“He’s just hanging there, Pa, just above that shard of rock.  I dunno.  Maybe he’s looking for a place to put his feet.”

Joe wasn’t looking at his feet; he was in fact retching.

When he had finally mustered the nerve to look down, what he had seen was the bed of the wagon splintered and smashed against the rock.  Anything under it would have been flattened.  Where was Candy?

*****

Candy was pretty sure the last freefall had dislocated his hip.  Actually, it wasn’t the fall itself, he thought, it was the stopping that did the damage.  How Joe had been able to climb down to him earlier, he had no idea.  Then he had vanished in search of a plan.  Candy really wished he hadn’t done that; vanish, that is.  Because I don’t want to die alone.  He couldn’t imagine what kind of plan Joe would devise, but he was as certain as the sun coming up tomorrow that Joe would find one.  Just then a spasm hit him.  Pain!  He jerked involuntarily and found himself swaying again, each arc bringing fresh waives of white hot agony.  The last thing he heard was the screech the metal rods made as they began to slide.  So much for plans.

*****

The water in the canteen was cold and wet.  Joe rinsed his mouth and then winced as he became aware of the rope loops cutting into the back of his thighs; he needed to sit down.  He jerked on the rope and a few seconds later the slack he needed allowed him to sit on the hard surface.

Just as he collapsed on the ledge the wagon started moving.  At first Joe thought he was imagining things, then he realized the entire wreckage was shaking and so was he.  Aftershock!

There was too much play in his lifeline and he began skidding towards the edge of the shelf.  Terrified, Joe rolled to his belly and, spread eagle, sought desperately for a crack—anything to grab onto.

He watched in horror as pieces of the splintered wood in front of his face shimmied violently and one by one slid to the edge and fell away.  Powerless to stop his slide over the same edge, Joe fixated on the debris and watched the pieces float silently toward the talus far below.

*****

The horses panicked when the ground shook again and it was all Hank could do to hold them.  Big Mike lost his grip on Joe’s lifeline and when Ben saw the rope snaking over the ground, he threw himself on top of it yelling for help.  Hoss staggered like a drunken sailor, but stayed on his feet powerless to do anything to assist his family across the divide.

The wait was driving Ben crazy.  His stomach had been in his throat since stopping Joe’s rope before it slipped into the chasm.  They had secured the line around the tree as a precaution, but that shortened the amount of slack they could give Joe.  Now with all the dust in the air from the additional slides, Hoss hadn’t been able to see what his brother was doing and Joe was not responding to calls.

Before the shaking, Hoss reported Joe appeared stunned but he didn’t know why.  Joe had told Ben that after the initial slide Candy’s leg was caught on the underside of the wagon, so he knew that much.  What had happened to Candy during the subsequent aftershocks was anyone’s guess and no one knew what Joe had seen down there or whether Candy was still alive. “Better dead already than dying,” Ben thought.  He had tried to prepare Joe for the possibility that there would be nothing that he could do for Candy, but in all honesty Ben didn’t know how his son would respond if faced with a mortally-wounded friend and no way to save him.

*****

The first thing Joe felt was the cool rock against his cheek.  The next thing he was aware of was his inability to breathe in the dust-laden air.  Then he realized that the lifeline was taut and straining across his chest.  Slowly he crawled away from the edge and sat up with his back pressed against the cliff.  Unbelievably, he still had his canteen and after pulling a long drink, sat cross-legged and immobile for several minutes.  After his heartbeat returned to some semblance of normal, he opened his eyes and was confounded by what he saw.

The shelf appeared longer and wider than he had first believed.  Joe jerked once on the lifeline and was rewarded with a bit more slack.   Continuing to press his back against the rock face, Joe crabbed his way to the left bit by bit until his left hand and foot met nothing but air.

Instantly, Joe leaned to the right and held tightly to the lifeline until he could manage to swing himself back onto the shelf.  What the hell?

As the dust began to settle and the air became clearer, Joe could see that it was an optical illusion that had fooled him into thinking the ledge was longer than it was.  In fact, there was a second ledge about ten feet below the one he was sitting on.  It was littered with gravel, rocks, roots, and iron!

Joe rolled to his stomach and crawled toward the edge, cautiously peering over at what lay beneath.

“I thought I told you not to move,” Joe said looking at the sweetest sight he ever saw.

“This was your plan?” Candy countered.

“Nah, that was just embellishment.  This is the plan.”

Joe sat up and gave two jerks on the line.

**********

After the last trembler, several men from the logging camp joined Hoss on the trail opposite all the activity.  They knew there was nothing they could do from this vantage point, but they could bring the big man some water and sandwiches and offer their support.  Their presence also afforded Hoss an opportunity to sit down which he was loath to admit he sorely needed to do given how wobbly his knees felt.  While someone else took up the watch, Hoss rested against a boulder and promptly began sneezing.  “Dadgummit,” he complained as he searched his pockets.

An older man separated from the group and offered Hoss a handkerchief which he gladly accepted.  “Dust,” Hoss explained.  After a loud, long blow he added, “Thanks, Mister ___?”

“Just Bill,” the man said.  “This is quite a predicament.  What caused it?”

“Dang earthquake caused a slide that took out the trail along with one of our wagons,” Hoss said as he wiped his eyes.

“What are you looking for—equipment?” the man asked.

“Nah, that’s gone; horses, too,” Hoss shook his head thinking of the beautiful Percherons that Joe had imported from France to improve the stock.  “Darn fine animals, too.  No, we’re looking for the teamster.”

“He still alive?”

“Dunno.  My brother thinks so.”

“Your brother that big man across the way?”

“Big man?  Oh, you mean Big Mike.  Nah, he’s a logger.  My Pa’s the white-haired fella, Ben Cartwright.  My brother’s the one doin’ the rescuin’,” Hoss said, gesturing with his thumb toward the chasm.

The man moved a few steps closer to get a better look.  His eyes followed the rope down the rock face to a man spread eagle on a small ledge several hundred feet below, and he whistled.

“Guess this is going to set you back some.”

“Huh?” Hoss said absent-mindedly.  There was increased activity across the way.

“Going to cost you plenty.  Lost wagon, equipment, contract.”

“Them’s just things; not like people,” Hoss replied.  There was definitely something happening.  “Excuse me, Mister, I’m kinda busy right now.  I’ll see you get your handkerchief back,” he said as he took up his position on the edge of the trail.

“No matter, sonny,” the man said as he wandered back to the group of loggers hovering nearby.

*****

Ben was startled out of his reverie when he felt two jerks on the line.  He immediately yelled to Mike and Hank to get ready as he threw the other line over the edge.

And then he waited.   He was rewarded with a single jerk.  That meant Joe wanted more slack, but there was none to give.  When there was no further signal, he asked Hoss what he could see.

In the growing twilight, it wasn’t much.  Although the dust had abated, it was still early spring and the days had not yet grown longer.  Even as the air cleared, darkness hugged the edges of the ridge.  There would be nothing left to report to his Pa tonight.  Hoss shuddered to think of his brother left on that ledge in the pitch black—lifeline or no lifeline.

And then the unimaginable happened.  The lifeline went slack.

*****

When Joe had asked for more line and none was forthcoming, he knew he had reached the bitter end after all and had to act quickly.

He knew Hoss could not see him in the growing twilight.  He was out of sight, but hopefully not out of mind.  Joe laughed out loud.  Well, it was arguable if he was out of his mind or not, but he hoped his family would keep him in their thoughts and prayers even if that were true.

Pa had said the decision would be his alone.  He would bet a month’s wages his Pa never considered this one.

Joe grabbed the line that had been thrown down for the purpose of securing the wreckage.   He was in luck; it was long enough to reach the second ledge and then some.  He tossed it to Candy and asked him to hold it.  He knew Candy was badly hurt; there was no mistaking the pain etched on his face and in his voice, though he tried to hide it with jokes.  Just like me.

When Candy was ready, Joe reached up and without hesitation cut his life line before shinnying down to the second ledge.  He landed near Candy and toppled over on him causing Candy to scream in pain.

“Sorry, Buddy,” Joe said.  He removed the canteen from around his neck and held it to Candy’s lips with one hand while supporting his head with the other.

“Please tell me you have a better plan than the last one,” Candy managed to spit out.

“Have you ever wanted to fly?” Joe asked.

“Oh, God,” Candy groaned before passing out.

Joe had cut his lifeline long enough to tie to the end of the other rope.  He used a Sailor’s Knot, the first knot his Pa ever taught him.  Even though it was already hard to see in the growing darkness, Joe closed his eyes anyway and felt carefully with his fingers, following every twist and turn until he was confident it was perfect.

He lay down on his side next to Candy and removed the bosun’s loop from his left leg and drew it up Candy’s right leg so they were facing each other.  Next, he took the lasso and looped it over both of their shoulders.  Pulling Candy toward him, he tightened the lasso around both their chests under the armpits and fastened it to the lifeline with a Buntline Hitch.

Candy’s gun was still in his holster secured by a loop over the hammer.  Joe pulled it out, fired two shots into the air and replaced it.   Even though Candy was unconscious, Joe could feel his heart beating next to his, one slow but steady thump to every four of his.  Taking deep breaths, he managed to slow his own heart rate to approximate Candy’s.  At last in sync, he took a deep breath and jerked twice on the line . . . hard!.

He hoped his father was watching.

*****

They’d all heard the scream; they just didn’t know who had uttered it.

After the lifeline had gone limp, Ben was desolate.  Hank and Mike had lit the lanterns from the wagon and placed them near where he sat watching over the ropes.  A small campfire had been started for warmth as well as light, but Ben knew there would be no warmth for his son this night.

No one said anything.  The silence was suffocating.

Then the air was shattered with a gunshot and before the report had faded a second shot rang out, its echo lingering in the clear, cold spring night.

Across the way lit by a solitary lantern, Hoss dropped to his knees and buried his face in his hands.

*****

“Mr. Cartwright!” Hank shouted.  “The rope!”

Jolted upright by Hank’s cry, Ben caught just a glimpse of the second jerk.  He reached over and confirmed the tension on the rope.

“Pull!” he shouted.  “For God’s sake, pull!  Get those horses moving!”

Big Mike and Hank each took a horse and urged them forward, but it was readily apparent only Pepper’s line was taut so Big Mike let go of Buttercup and ran to the edge of the rim to lubricate the line with axle grease and guide it if necessary.

Ben grabbed a piece of kindling and threw it over the edge.  With nothing but rock below, there was no danger of fire at this time of year, and the glow would light up the rock face briefly.

“I saw them!” Hoss yelled jubilantly.  “Both of them!  Pa, do it again!”

Ben tossed another piece of kindling over the edge and threw more branches into the fire to start as torches.

Twice the rope stopped until Joe managed to kick free or release the tension by finding a hand or toe hold; once, the two men swung wildly and Pepper had to be held in place until the pendulum stopped; but eventually, Big Mike and Ben pulled Joe and Candy onto solid ground and dragged them far, far away from the edge.

Candy was unconscious the entire time; Joe, bruised and battered from trying to protect Candy from banging against the rocks on the way up, started laughing hysterically as his father extricated him from ropes.

“Just what is so funny, Joe?”

“I won’t believe you anymore.”

“When?”

“When you say that you’ve reached the end of your rope because I know what that means now,” and he was off on another laughing jag.

But when the euphoria and adrenaline left his body and the muscle fatigue set in, the giggles turned to sobs.  As Joe started shaking, Ben pulled his son into in his arms and held him tight as he would always . . . until the bitter end.

*****

Epilogue:

Ben poured himself brandy and sat down at his desk.  He was weary but content.  Hoss was at the logging camp attending to business.  The doctor had set Candy’s ankle and hip and the prognosis was good.  Joe was asleep and mending.

Open on the desk was the telegram he had received just hours ago:

Ben Cartwright
Ponderosa Ranch

Any organization that puts people before profit is all right in my book STOP One week extension granted STOP Discuss draft horses when able STOP

William S. Tipton
Tipton Industries

Ben picked up the piece of worn, frayed rope that lay on the blotter and frowned.  Tracing the loops and elbows of the Sailor’s Knot with his fingers for the umpteenth time he pondered anew how the two ropes had held together long enough to carry its cargo to safety.

As the warmth of the brandy spread through him so did the realization that even though the left-handed knot wasn’t perfect, few things in this life were and sometimes—just sometimes—blind faith is the only plan you need when the situation is impossible.

—The End—
Historical notes:

The Great Lone Pine Earthquake struck on March 26, 1872 and was one of the largest earthquakes in California history estimated at 7.6 to 8 or greater on the Richter scale.  The quake was felt from Sacramento, CA to Elko, NV and stopped clocks and awakened people as far south as San Diego, CA.  There were giant rockslides in what is now Yosemite National Park.  Thousands of aftershocks occurred, some severe.

Percherons were first imported into the United States in 1839, with one out of four horses surviving the ocean trip.  In the mid-19th century in the United States, Percheron stallions were crossed with local mares to improve the local stock, resulting in thousands of crossbred horses.  There was significant need for large draft horses following the American Civil War due to the expanding west.  To fill the need, large numbers of Percherons were imported to the United States beginning in the early 1870s.

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