Synopsis: A black crow brings an ominous warning to Joe and a friend who are returning home from an auction.
Word Count: 13,250
This is my first story. All feedback is welcomed and encouraged
Many thanks to all the authors I have read over the past year. I have spent many pleasurable hours involved in the life of my favorite Cartwright thanks to them.
Special thanks to Susan Grote for her extremely constructive criticism of my first draft. Hopefully, I’ve made the story at least marginally better. Credit goes to Susan also for writing the last few lines when I couldn’t quite struggle over that finish line alone, as well as for a great title.
Thanks also to Rona for her proofreading skills.
The High Trail
Joe Cartwright and Harry Simpson trotted their horses along a high mountain meadow, each leading a string of two other horses. The air was markedly cooler up here than it had been down in the dry desert they had crossed yesterday on their way home from the horse auction. Both men’s spirits were lifted by the coolness of the day, the beauty of the surrounding mountains and by the fact that they would be home by late tomorrow afternoon.
Just in time for one of Hop Sing’s special dinners, thought Joe. That is, if brother Hoss doesn’t eat it all before I get home.
“Joe, I’m sure glad you talked me into taking this short cut. It would have been three more days of riding if we had stayed on the main road and gone around these mountains instead of through them.”
Joe’s green eyes twinkled and he squinted slightly against the bright sunshine as he looked over at his friend and smiled. “Yeah, well my brother Adam showed me this old Indian trail a few years ago. I didn’t want to mention it ’cause I didn’t know how you’d feel about taking your new stock through a bit of rough country, but when we started nearing the cutoff, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much time we could save heading this way. Glad you agreed.”
“I know our Pa’s are already worrying since we didn’t get back night before last night like we planned,” Harry chuckled. “Not to mention how Mary must be feeling about now. She’s probably fretting up a storm!”
“Who? That little ole gal of yours? Why I bet she’s been so busy making plans for the wedding and fixing up that little house you two are going to live in that she’s scarcely given you a thought since we left!” Joe laughed.
“Sheesh Joe, you sure know how to hurt a guy. Mary wouldn’t forget about me,” said Harry with an exaggerated look of sadness on his face.
“Oh come on Harry, I know you’re missing her, but just think. You’ve got the rest of your lives to be together. With that chunk of land your folks are giving you to raise horses on, you’re all set. Why I bet you’ll have yourself a houseful of kids before you know it and all the work you can handle. Enjoy this bit of freedom while you have the chance, pal.”
Harry’s expression lightened. “Oh, great. I feel a lot better now, Joe. Thanks for showing me a bit of reality! Next time just leave me in my dream world, ok?”
“All right,” Joe laughed out loud.
Riding along the mountain trail as it rose higher and higher toward the summit, the two friends were quiet as they concentrated on keeping to the path that wasn’t always showing clearly through the overgrowth.
Sometimes it took a keen eye to determine which way the path continued, and Joe was very much aware of how easy it would be to become lost up here for someone who had never been shown the way.
At the top of the meadow up ahead, Joe remembered a cross roads of sorts. More like a cross paths since not many people knew about these old trails.
At the cross roads, Joe led Harry and the horses off to the right, just east of the path and down to a little creek bottom to give everyone a well deserved water break.
Joe and Harry slid off their own mounts and led their strings to the cool gurgling stream.
“We’ll take a short break here for a while and give everyone a rest. This is pretty much the summit, so other than a few gullies and hills, it’s mostly downhill from here,” Joe said as he stretched his fatigued muscles and then kneeled down for a drink.
“I’m all for a rest. I’m ’bout worn out from this trip,” replied Harry.
When Harry had drunk his fill, he stretched out in the meadow grass. Lying on his side, he gazed at the horses he had purchased as they cropped at the grass hungrily.
Joe chuckled at his friend who looked just as comfortable as could be.
“Joe, we done good,” Harry said wistfully as he admired the horses. “I’m sure grateful to your Pa for letting you come along with me to that horse auction.”
“Oh, you would have done just fine without me along, Harry. You know horses. Heck, you might even be almost as good a judge of good stock as me…maybe,” Joe smiled over at Harry who craned his head back to give Joe an answering grin.
“Well, I may be ‘almost’ as good as you at picking em out, Cartwright, but I know you saved me some money. I ain’t got nearly your experience with the finer points of bidding at an auction. Knowing how much the beasts are worth, when to keep bidding, when to quit. All that kind of thing.”
“Guess I have learned a bit about auctions. Been going with my pa and brothers since I can remember,” Joe said from under his hat that he had tipped over his eyes as he rested, lying back in the grass.
“So you think your pa’s sent the cavalry out to find us yet Joe?” asked Harry.
Joe snorted. “Hmpff. Wouldn’t surprise me. Let’s see, how long did we wind up spending in Barnesville? We got there on Tuesday, the auction was supposed to be on Wednesday morning, but then….”
“But then the rains of biblical proportions started, and we got to spend an extra two days in the garden spot of Nevada where a horse auction is the social event of the year,” Harry finished Joe’s thought.
“Yeah, and not that you would have noticed, but there wasn’t one gal in that town that wasn’t either married or old enough to be my ma,” Joe complained as he yawned.
“Yep, that was some kind of hard rain. Always sort of surprises me how quick a river can rise up like that. Good thing we got across when we did or we’d a been holed up on the other side, hunkered down like drowned rats instead of dry and warm at the hotel. Feel sorry for those hands that had to wait with all them horses on the other side. I know lots of them didn’t get to that river ’till Wednesday morning and it were plum too late at that point. That river was about out of its bed by then. No way to push them horses they wanted to sell across it without risking losing a few. And on top of all that, the flooding knocked out the telegraph afore we had a chance to get word out about the delay. That telegraph operator said it’d take a couple of months to get all those poles back up again. Joe, do you s’pose our families got word about all that rain causing all that trouble? Holding up the auction and all? Joe..?”
Detecting a soft snore coming from his traveling companion, Harry suddenly noticed Joe had been quiet and still for a while.
Smiling, Harry thought to himself, well, a little siesta sounds like a good idea to me.
It was only another ten minutes or so before a raven cackled above Joe’s head, startling him from his slumber.
Sitting up, Joe looked around, placing his hat back on top of his head. He saw Harry in the same position he himself had been enjoying a moment earlier.
Stretching his muscles, Joe glanced up the hillside. Might be a pretty view from up there he thought and stood to walk up and have a look while his friend snoozed.
Following the east/west path, he kept going a few hundred yards after the intersection with the north/south trail they had just left. The hill crested here and afforded a panoramic view of the valley below.
As Joe stood soaking up the view and stretching some more, his eye caught a movement down the hill to the west, just under some trees. Pushing his hat, which had been balancing at the back of his head forward so the brim blocked the glare of the sun, Joe narrowed his eyes in an effort to see what it was. Down the hill in a copse of trees just off the road, he could now make out the rumps of three horses, their tails lazily swatting the flies trying to land on them.
Joe was curious about who would be up here. This road led down to Stewartstown, but it was a good 15 miles away. The road Joe and Harry were traveling on, heading north only led down into a river valley, to more roads and ranches, including the Simpson’s spread as well as the Ponderosa just beyond that. As far as Joe knew, no one lived up on this mountain.
Advancing down the gently sloping hill, Joe was wary, but did not pull his gun from his holster. He could now see there was someone leaning against one of the trees, resting with his hat covering his face.
Not wishing to startle the person, Joe opened his mouth to begin to shout a greeting. Just then he thought he heard the pounding of horses hooves in the distance and he turned his attention back to the path where two riders could now be seen, pushing their horses hard. The men were dressed in dirty clothing and Joe could see the horses were foamy with lathered up sweat, breathing with obvious effort from running full tilt up a mountainside.
When they reached the group of trees where the first man had been resting, they reined in the worn out mounts. As they started to dismount, the taller of the two riders looked over at Joe in disbelief before immediately taking his rifle from its scabbard, raising its sight to his eye, and firing off a shot in Joe’s direction.
Joe’s reflexes helped him in his immediate dive to his left. Pulling his gun in the split second after he hit the ground, Joe fired off a shot just before he rolled quickly to a pile of large rocks, scarcely high enough to conceal him from bullets still being fired at him. His aim was true and he heard a shout of pain.
Breathing hard and shaking slightly from the sudden rush of adrenaline, Joe tried to make sense of what had happened as well as come up with a plan for what he would do next. He suddenly remembered Harry and hoped his friend would not rush into the deadly situation Joe found himself in without using extreme caution. His hopes vanished in an instant as Harry came running over the hill, rifle in hand.
There was very little cover between Joe and Harry and immediately, Joe heard shots fired from the trees below him. Harry managed to return fire once and Joe quickly tried to provide cover by shooting 4 more shots in quick succession at the trees, but in the next second, he heard a yell and turned just as Harry’s body fell to the ground. Joe could see he was still alive as he writhed in pain and groaned loudly.
“Harry, no!!” Joe screamed.
Without thinking of his own safety, knowing he could not wait to think out a plan, he ran toward his injured friend, crouching as low to the ground as possible. More shots rang out, hitting the dirt around Joe until one finally found its mark.
The world exploded in a sea of pain for Joe as the bullet flew through muscle and flesh in his upper right arm, exiting the front with a spray of bright red blood. He crashed painfully to the ground near his friend and fought to remain conscious.
The edges of his vision were fading away, but Joe held on, closing his eyes against the pain. He forced himself to slow his breathing. Harry was no longer moaning, but lay silently a few feet from Joe.
It felt like an hour had passed but Joe knew it had to be closer to only a few minutes before he heard the sound of boots on the gravely dirt just downhill of where they lay.
When the crunch of dirt sounded to be right beside him, he could sense that someone was standing over him, blocking the sun. A boot forced its way under his rib cage and was about to roll him.
As he tightened his grip on the pistol in his hand, Joe opened his eyes and rolled over onto his back before the startled assailant could kick him over. In a split second, Joe had the gun pointed at the man standing over him.
The man jumped back in surprise.
“Drop it!” Joe said, never taking his eyes from the face of the man standing over him.
He was tall and thin with dark eyes and by the looks of him, he hadn’t had a shave or a bath in weeks. The command had not sunk in as the man still held a rifle in his hand, pointed at the ground. The audible click from Joe cocking the pistol he held brought the man back from his shock enough that he immediately threw his weapon on the ground.
Now Joe started to sit up, but he still kept his full focus of attention on the man standing there. The movement was difficult since the pain in his arm was now demanding ever-increasing amounts of Joe’s attention as well. Knowing his life depended on keeping the pain at bay, Joe kept his voice as calm and even as possible.
“Take two steps backward, and then turn around and face the other way.”
The man studied Joe for a moment, watching his eyes for any sign of weakness that could be exploited for his escape. He saw none in Joe’s steady gaze.
Doing as commanded, he took two steps backward, then turned away from Joe.
Joe breathed deeply but made every attempt to keep the groan he was holding inside to himself. There was no movement from the trees, and Joe assumed that the other two men were dead or incapable of shooting since no shot had been fired.
Glancing quickly over at his friends still body, Joe looked for any sign that Harry was still alive. The injured man lay completely unmoving and Joe became extremely worried. Watching carefully, Joe thought he could see a rise and fall of Harry’s chest as he breathed, but couldn’t be sure this was not just wishful thinking.
Keeping his gun trained on the tall man, Joe moved to get up from the ground. It proved to be too difficult to contain a stifled moan that escaped his lips this time and the man turned his head slightly to get a look at Joe’s condition. Joe grit his teeth against the pain and hissed, “I said to turn around!”
A small evil grin appeared on the man’s face as he complied with the command, but he still said nothing. Though his wound was not as serious as it might otherwise have been had it hit him in a more vital area of his body, Joe was still losing blood and the pain was still as bad as any gunshot wound could be.
A plan. Gotta come up with a way out of this! Joe thought desperately.
Helping his more seriously injured friend seemed to be a high priority, and he needed to figure out what to do with his prisoner. There wasn’t a whole lot of time left in the day as Joe figured it would be nightfall in only a few more hours. If he hadn’t settled on a plan by then, his desperate situation could turn deadly in a hurry.
The prisoner needed to be dealt with first, Joe reasoned, since doing anything else while the man stood there would have been a huge risk.
“Start walking down to those trees. And keep your hands out where I can see them.”
“What’re you gonna do now boy? Seems you’ve got yourself in a bit of a spot here,” the man growled in a mocking tone as he slowly started walking.
Joe was in no mood to have a conversation with this man who had caused all his problems. “Just shut up and walk,” he replied.
Chuckling softly at some private joke, the man slowly made his way toward the bodies of his companions.
When they were getting close to the trees, Joe knew what he needed to do. With the man still facing away from him, Joe reached down and picked up a good-sized rock from the ground.
He knew his pa would not approve, but Joe felt that since his life and Harry’s were at stake, he would have to do what he had to do. With a burst of energy, he took three fast strides right up behind the man and hit him hard with the stone.
The man flung forward and hit the ground with his shoulder.
Falling to the ground, weak from the pain, Joe panted from the sudden exertion. “That ought to hold you for a little while,” he whispered.
Joe honestly hoped he hadn’t killed the man, but knew he needed the man to be rendered harmless for as long as possible, and this seemed like the surest way he could think of to do it, short of shooting him down in cold blood.
Looking around now, Joe saw the bodies of the two other men close to the trees. Flies were already buzzing around, breaking the stillness of the air. The five horses had scattered a short distance away when the gunfire had begun, but were now slowly eating their way back to where the bodies lay.
Joe got up shakily and slowly walked up to one of the horses, talking softly so as not to spook them. The one he reached first had been one of the horses that had been waiting when the gunmen had arrived. The saddlebags were full of supplies and there were two canteens of water slung over the saddle horn.
Quickly untying the bedroll from the back, Joe then pulled the rawhide strips off the saddle. They were the perfect length to tie up the prisoner, and he set to the task quickly since he had no idea how long the man would remain unconscious. He bound the man’s hands tightly in front of him, then his ankles.
As soon as this was done, he went back to the horse and rummaged through to find a clean cloth of some sort to bind his still bleeding wound.
Finding none, Joe thought, Figures. Dirty as those guys were, they probably wouldn’t know what a clean shirt was if it stood up and introduced itself.
Using a knife, Joe cut his left sleeve from his own shirt, then ripped it into a strip long enough to go around his wounded arm and tied it off tight.
Working as quickly as he could, Joe often glanced up the hill toward where Harry lay, hoping for any sign of life. He was getting very tired, but knew he had no time to waste. Grabbing the bedroll he had earlier thrown on the ground along with one of the canteens, he began his trek back to Harry.
When he reached his friend, he quickly checked for a pulse. It was there. Joe felt a wave of relief flood his exhausted body and suddenly he felt he had just a bit more energy.
Harry had taken a bullet in his left side. From what Joe could see, it looked like it went clean on through, but there was an enormous amount of blood on Harry’s shirt, and Harry had still not come around.
Uncorking the canteen, he put it to Harry’s lips. Harry swallowed instinctively, but still did not stir. Since he had no clean cloth, Joe cupped his hand and spilled a bit of water into it then gently patted Harry’s cheeks and forehead with the moisture.
Joe looked around desperately. He needed something to use for a bandage for Harry’s wound. Thinking about it, Joe remembered he had an extra shirt in his saddlebag.
“Cochise!” Joe cried out at his revelation.
Cochise was over the rise of the hill and down by the creek bottom and Joe could not see his horse.
An ear-piercing whistle split the air as Joe tried to signal to his horse.
He listened intently to the silence around him for a few moments, and then whistled again. Very soon afterwards, he heard a distant whinny, followed shortly after by the sound of hooves trotting along the soft ground. Joe looked at the crest of the hill expectantly, and was soon rewarded with the sight of his black and white paint horse gazing down toward his human companion.
“Good boy, Cooch,” Joe smiled.
Once Cochise arrived, Joe worked quickly. He pulled a shirt from the saddlebags and ripped it into long strips. Wadding up a hunk of the cloth, Joe held it in place by wrapping the strips of shirt around Harry’s waist.
Standing up, feeling a little shaky, Joe got his jacket off the back of his saddle and tried to put it on. His left arm was no problem, but it was much too painful to try to get his injured right arm into the sleeve, so he just draped it over his shoulder.
He glanced up and saw the other 5 horses come over the hill, wanting to be with Cochise.
Getting Harry down to the trees was the next chore Joe knew he needed to tackle. The sun was just beginning to set and he knew night would fall quickly. The trees would provide at least some shelter, and he needed to get down the hill to be closer to the prisoner as well.
Knowing he couldn’t drag Harry the distance down the hill, Joe decided he would need to use his horse. He positioned Cochise on the low side of the hill Harry was laying on, then got behind and lifted his friend from under his arms.
Ignoring his own pain as best he could, Joe grunted and pushed Harry up onto the back of the horse, belly down over the saddle.
“Thank God you’re unconscious, Harry,” Joe said. “Hope I’m not causing more damage than was already done.”
Breathing hard from the exertion, Joe led the horse and his friend down the hill. While it was only a short distance, Joe still needed to stop a few times to make sure Harry didn’t slide off onto the ground.
When Joe got to the trees, he glanced over at the outlaw he had knocked out and tied up a short while ago. Still out, thought Joe and this realization caused him to relax slightly.
Once Harry was laying on the ground with a warm blanket over him, Joe gathered up as many dried sticks and hunks of wood that he could find without straying too far.
He soon had a blazing fire going.
With the arrival of twilight upon them, Joe now turned his attention to the bodies of the two gunmen who had been killed during the shootout. He wasn’t quite sure what he should do about them. He certainly did not have the necessary energy to bury them, even if he had a shovel, which of course he did not.
Moving the bodies far off from the immediate area would also require more effort than Joe wanted to expend and besides, Joe thought morbidly, animals would surely be attracted by the smell of blood, and
Joe didn’t think even these men deserved such an end.
Joe finally decided to simply drag them a short distance behind the trees where the light of the fire would hopefully keep animals at bay, yet they would be out of Joe’s direct line of vision and out of his thoughts. The effort of simply dragging them a few yards was difficult enough and when he was done, it was full dark and Joe lay down by the fire, panting from his labors.
Besides being completely and utterly exhausted, Joe realized he hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning. Rallying a bit of energy from deep within, Joe got up once more. As he passed by the prisoner Joe had to look hard into the shadows cast by the fire upon the man’s worn face to see if he was awake or not.
Satisfied that the man was still out, Joe walked over to where Cochise stood, ground tied in his place. The other horses instinctively milled nearby, keeping close to the trees for protection. As Joe approached, the horses Harry had bought startled and bolted a short distance away. Joe spoke softly and went right to Cochise. The horse belonging to the outlaws were all close by as well and Joe suddenly realized he had still another chore to attend to before he could rest his body.
Seven of the eleven horses were still saddled up and apart from Cochise and Harry’s horse, both of which were trained to ground tie, the others were wandering around with reins dragging and being stepped on. Joe just couldn’t stand the thought of these animals breaking a leg or injuring their necks by tripping over their reins and knew he needed to care for the animals. One by one, he slowly approached each horse, taking the bridle off after removing the saddle. For Cochise and Harry’s horse, Joe got a pair of hobbles on each to prevent them from running off after having their tack removed.
All this seemed to take an eternity in Joe’s mind and he was in agony from the throbbing in his arm when he finished.
Joe was especially glad to have found 4 full canteens of water. At least I won’t have to go all the way back over the hill to get water, he thought thankfully.
Finding some hard tack biscuits and some jerky in one of the saddlebags, Joe came back to the fire and practically fell to the ground beside it. Glancing over at Harry and seeing that his friend appeared to be resting quietly, Joe allowed his eyes to close for the first time in hours. He felt as if he could sleep for days.
Joe’s next thought went to his prisoner. He snapped his eyes open and looked across the fire to see the prisoner staring back at him.
The door of the ranch house opened and Ben Cartwright immediately rose from the table. “Hoss… Adam…That you?”
“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss called to his father as he and Adam set their hats on the pegs by the door.
Ben sat slowly back down in front of his uneaten supper.
“Hop Sing,” Ben shouted toward the kitchen “Hoss and Adam are back.”
His two sons sat down at their places at the table and waited for the Chinese cook to bring the warmed up dinner back in.
Normally, Hop Sing would have had some choice words for anyone daring to be late for a meal he had prepared, but when he saw that Joe had not returned with his brothers, he simply set the food down and quietly retreated to his duties in the kitchen.
“‘Fraid not,” said Adam. “Mr. and Mrs. Simpson are pretty worried themselves. They haven’t heard a word from Harry. They figured just like we did that those storms probably held the boys up, but that doesn’t stop them from being concerned all the same.”
Pa frowned at the beefsteak on his plate.
“Pa, if you don’t mind, I think I’d feel better if I rode out after supper and see if I can’t meet up with them on the trail. Make sure they’re all right,” Hoss said. “If I know Joe, he’d a taken that high mountain trail we showed him a few years back. If somethin’ happened to one of ‘em, the other wouldn’t want to leave him behind… or maybe they got lost. Those tails can be a might rough up there. Joe could a gotten turned around and mixed up pretty easy.”
Hoss pushed his peas around on his plate, and then continued. “All I know is, I hate sittin’ around waitin for him to show up, dadburnit. I’d feel a whole lot better if I was doin’ somethin’. I can check those herds in those upper meadows on my way if you think I’m being a might foolish and want me to have a better reason for riding up there than checking on my little brother, but….”
Ben held up his hand and interrupted his son. “Hold on, Hoss. It’s fine for you to check up on Joe. He’s overdue and frankly I’ve had a bad feeling about it since I got up this morning. I’m plenty worried too. You go as soon as you’re ready. Adam, you and I will ride into town this afternoon and see if anyone at the telegraph office has any word from Barnesville.”
“Right, Pa,” said Adam.
The three men finished their supper in silence. Hoss gathered what he needed for spending a night or two on the trail while Adam readied the horses.
“Well, Hoss, bring us back some good news, alright?” Pa said.
“Sure will, Pa,” Hoss replied as he turned Chub out of the yard and trotted off toward the mountains.
Adam put his hand on Pa’s shoulder as they both watched him ride out. “Don’t worry Pa. You know Joe. He probably met some pretty girl along the way. He most likely doesn’t even realize we would be worried by now.”
“I’m sure you’re right Adam,” said Pa, but his furrowed brow betrayed how he still felt, despite the attempt to ease his fears.
“Might not be such a good idea, you going to sleep, boy,” The man snarled. “I ain’t in such a good mood what with this headache you gave me, and all.”
“Well, I don’t much care what kind of mood you’re in mister,” Joe replied. “You’re not in a position to do much of anything about it anyway.”
Fear coursed through his body like lightening as he looked into the man’s hate filled eyes, but it had passed quickly. Now he felt mostly angry at this man who was responsible for the bad situation Joe and Harry found themselves in at the moment. Joe allowed himself a fleeting wish that he had killed the men with the blow to his head, but immediately pushed the dark thought away.
Glancing over at Harry, Joe saw him move slightly. Grabbing up a nearby canteen, he crawled to Harry’s side.
“Harry….Harry? Can you hear me?”
Joe gently nudged Harry’s arm. Slowly his injured friend blinked his eyes, then opened them, looking at Joe with a pain filled expression of confusion.
“….Joe…what…. what happened?” He barely had enough strength to give voice to his question.
“Harry, just lay still.”
Joe gave him a few gulps of water. “Everything’s going to be alright. We ran into some outlaws and they shot you. I’ve packed your wound with some clothes, but we need to get you to a doctor as soon as we can.”
Joe put the back of his hand to Harry’s cheek and noticed it was warmer than it should be. Harry blinked at Joe, still looking confused. Joe adjusted the blankets he had wrapped over Harry.
“I’ve never… never been shot before. Hurts. Bad.”
“I know,” Joe sighed and was grateful that Harry had now closed his eyes.
Feeling a throbbing in his arm, Joe chanced a look at it. His make shift bandage was blood soaked, but holding. He couldn’t tell if it was still bleeding or not. All his exertions had not done him any good, he knew.
The last faint smudges of light reflected on the few wisps of clouds high above them faded and a definite chill could be felt in the air now that there was no longer the warmth of the sun to keep it away. Joe tossed another stick on the fire. It was going to be a long night ahead of him and Joe now began to consider how he was going to manage to keep himself awake. Though he would have given anything right then to lie down and sleep for hours, Joe knew it could be deadly for both he and Harry.
Filling a small coffee pot with water from one of the canteens, Joe threw some grounds into it. The coffee would help, but he knew it was going to be a battle to keep from drifting off.
For a long time, the prisoner had stayed quiet, watching Joe the whole time.
“You know, boy, the minute you go to sleep I’ll likely be making my move.”
Joe jumped at the sound of the man’s voice despite being acutely aware of his presence. “Yeah, well you won’t be getting the chance.” Joe glanced back at the man.
“Heh, you ain’t got enough strength in ya to stay awake. I been watchin’. You about done in now and the night’s jest beginnin’. You might’s well untie me now and let me ride outa here. I promise I’ll leave ya be and jest go on my way. What do ya say, boy?”
As much as Joe longed to believe the man, he knew better than to gamble his life on whether the man would honor his word or not. Anyway, it didn’t take an astute judge of character to know that the man was pretty much as dishonorable as they come, so it didn’t take Joe more than half a second’s musing to disregard anything coming out the man’s mouth.
Joe just gave a low chuckle that lacked any semblance of humor and poked at the fire with a stick. “No, you’re going back to that town you robbed the bank in today to stand trial.”
The man looked only slightly surprised that Joe knew about the hold up. “So you found the money, huh? Tell you what friend. Since my partners are layin’ over under that tree, they won’t be needin’ their share. What ya say you and me split it, 50/50? We didn’t stop to count it, but I reckon there’s about $20,000 there. Why just think what cha could do with half of that. Come on boy. Untie me.”
Joe wanted the conversation to be over. He was sick of the man’s attempts to get Joe to let him go. “How many people did you kill in the robbery?” he asked, staring the man in the eye with a cool expression.
The man swallowed hard and narrowed his eyes. “Now what makes you think we done killed anyone?”
Joe looked over at Harry who was mercifully sleeping deeply. “Just a hunch,” he said softly. “‘Sides, it doesn’t matter one way or another. Tomorrow I’m taking you back. I’m sure the sheriff will have a good idea whether you killed anyone or not. But I’m guessing you did and I’m betting you’ll hang for it.”
Suddenly the man began struggling against his bindings, a look of panic having settled on his face to replace the self-confident sneer of moments before. “I ain’t goin’ back there – you hear me!” he shouted. “You’re going to be sorry you ever crossed my path, sonny!”
The constant pain and burning in Joe’s arm made him very much aware that he was already quite sorry.
The man sputtered on in an angry tone of voice for a time, but Joe just focused his attention on his coffee. He got up and walked slowly over to the shadowy area where the saddlebags were laying in a heap. Hunger demanded that Joe search through each of the saddlebags for more to eat than beef jerky and hard biscuits. He didn’t find anything else to eat but he did find a bottle of whiskey. Carrying it over to where Harry lay,
Joe saw the prisoner was staring at him calmly once again.
“Joe…” Harry was waking up again.
“Harry, I found a bottle of whiskey. You want a drink? Might help take the edge off the pain.”
“Yeah, ‘kay,” grunted Harry.
Joe poured some of the golden liquid into a cup and helped Harry drink.
“Easy. Just a sip,” Joe cautioned. He didn’t want Harry going off on a coughing spell and opening up his wounds.
“Hey Joe. How’s about sharing some of that drink,” said the outlaw from the other side of the fire. Joe glared at the man, again wishing he would just go to sleep.
Harry looked over in confusion at he tied up prisoner. “Who is he, Joe?” he muttered.
Joe’s eyes went back to Harry and immediately his expression softened. “That’s one of those men who got us into this mess, Harry. Don’t you worry about him. Just rest now.”
Within a minute, Joe could see that Harry had returned to sleep. Joe longed to join his friend but knew it was impossible.
“Come on, Joe, just a little drink.”
Turning his attention back to the dirty man across from him, Joe gave the request some thought. Letting the man get drunk might be a way to make him less of a threat to Joe and Harry. But Joe wasn’t about to stand over the prisoner, holding the bottle while the guy drank himself under, and he couldn’t very well untie him to let him drink under his own power.
No, Joe knew he was in for a long night.
His arm was throbbing now and Joe thought the pain might actually help him. He knew that if he didn’t have the burden of keeping watch, the pain would most likely prevent him from sleeping anyway.
But a distinct heaviness in his eyelids told him another truth. The loss of blood combined with the pain had made him more tired than he could remember being for a long time and Joe thought he was going to have a very hard time staying conscious.
Time passed slowly for the two men who passed it staring at the fire. It was a cloudless night and a crescent moon shown brightly among the millions of stars. The night air had turned quite chill and Joe kept the fire burning high.
The prisoner had tried to get Joe to engage in conversation, but Joe had no interest in hearing anything he had to say, so he kept his end of it short, usually only grunting a one word answer to the many questions the man threw at him.
The man eventually grew tired of Joe’s stalwart refusal to let him know anything about himself and he closed his eyes, surrendering to sleep.
As Joe stared into the fire, he turned his thoughts to his family. He knew Pa would be worried by now, but he wasn’t sure that his father or brothers would have set out to find him yet.
Just a few more hours till the sun comes up, thought Joe. Then what?
Joe’s arm pained him bad and began to feel tight against the bandage from the swelling.
The fire burned bright and slowly Joe became mesmerized by its dancing, flickering flames. The heat it projected felt warmer and warmer. In a few moments, it became uncomfortably warm. Soon, Joe felt like the fire was inside him and his vision became fuzzy. Standing, Joe tried to move away from the burning that felt like it would consume him.
All at once he realized that his legs could not hold him up and the image of the hazy fire began to whirl as Joe collapsed to the ground.
Fever, fatigue and pain at last sent Joe into an oblivious unconsciousness.
When Joe at last brought himself back up to the surface, the first thing he became aware of was cold. He was shivering uncontrollably, causing him to grit his teeth so he wouldn’t bite his tongue. He tried to will himself to stop shaking, but his body would not respond to his brain’s commands.
Immediately after this awareness, he knew great waves of pain from his arm. Sweat trickled into his eyes despite feeling so very cold, the salt making him squint against the sharp stinging.
Can I possibly feel any more miserable? thought Joe, and with that thought immediately came a wave of nausea. Joe groaned in response to the latest assault on his fevered body.
As seconds ticked by, another part of Joe’s brain began to become aware of his surroundings.
It was dark.
Very, very dark.
The sky full of stars he’d seen before passing out had been replaced by a cover of clouds that Joe could have sworn was threatening snow.
In the darkness, Joe could not see even a few inches in front of him. All was deadly quiet as Joe strained his ears to hear any nearby sounds. But the whispery rustling made by the shaking of his body was all he could make out.
While he was decidedly sluggish in his awakening, in reality only a few seconds had passed before Joe suddenly, and with a jolt of adrenaline recalled the situation he was in. In the blink of an eye, he became hyper-alert, senses heightened by the perceived danger he now found himself facing. “Oh boy,” he muttered in a whisper to himself.
As Joe’s senses strained for any sort of information, Joe became aware that the fire was not completely extinguished as he had at first assumed. Propping himself up on his good arm, he could see the soft red glow of embers where once the roaring campfire had been.
Must have been out a couple of hours, Joe thought. Must be getting close to morning.
Crawling over as close as he could to the embers, Joe gathered a handful of dry leaves he felt at his side. Laying them gently over the amber bits of spent wood, he gently blew air over them until flames began to lick at their dryness, and then blaze.
Now able to see slightly better, he found his small pile of sticks and twigs nearby and began feeding the fire. Within seconds, a decent blaze was burning and Joe looked around him.
The first thing he noticed was that the prisoner was gone.
Once more, a jolt of fear went through him, all his senses on high alert.
Turning his head, he looked over to where Harry was laying and immediately crawled over to his injured friend. Laying his hand first on his shoulder, Joe could feel the man’s body trembling. Next he moved his hand to feel Harry’s cheek, immediately noticing the heat of fever burning there. Joe pulled the blanket that was barely covering Harry up to his chin, taking care to tuck it securely around his trembling body.
“Harry? Harry,” Joe whispered his friend’s name, hoping perhaps Harry was near to consciousness. Joe didn’t necessarily want to wake him. While Joe was very concerned about Harry, he was also feeling the need to have a friend right about now to lend some moral support.
Harry moaned softly and mumbled something unintelligible in his feverish sleep. Joe gave up his attempts at waking him.
Gazing over the flames into the inky blackness as he lay on his left hip facing the fire, Joe tried to acclimate his vision to see into the dark. Movement caught his eye and he stared intently into the shadows where he had sensed it. The horse tossed its head once more and Joe let his held breath out slowly.
He sat up and felt his vision spin briefly. He shut his eyes tight and then opened them again, willing the world to stay still.
Joe now realized he could see slightly better and just then also became aware that he could hear birds singing in some distant trees.
Dawn’s almost here he thought, and just then he noticed another movement out of the corner of his eye. Slowly, Joe reached down and pulled his gun from his holster.
Did I reload last night? he wondered.
The pain from his arm combined with the fever wouldn’t allow him to think clearly back to before he had passed out and he didn’t dare take his eyes off the area where he had seen the movement in order to check. Guess I’ll find out soon enough.
The light of day was barely visible, but it was enough for Joe to make out shapes better than he could even a few minutes earlier.
Again, he caught a glimpse of movement and now he could make out a large shape on the ground over by the tree where he had left the saddles after removing them from the horses.
Getting up to his knees, Joe knew he needed to move slowly, to avoid passing out again, but he also knew he needed to move quickly.
Now standing, Joe felt his head swim and his vision take on a yellowish gray quality that was not due to the gradually increasing daylight. He took slow deep breaths and his head and vision returned to something like normal.
Holding his revolver as steady as he could in front of him, he walked toward the shape on the ground. As he got closer, Joe could tell it was his prisoner. The man was frantically trying to rummage through some of the saddlebags. He was having a tough time of it with his hands tied together as they were, but as Joe got close, the man apparently found what he was searching for.
Joe was now close enough to see that the man had gotten hold of a knife. As he approached, Joe leveled his gun at the man. “Drop it, now!” he yelled.
The man didn’t even look up, but continued cutting through his bonds.
“I said drop the knife!” Joe shouted once again.
This time the man looked up, but didn’t drop the knife that had by now cut through the rawhide binding his hands.
Had Joe just awakened from a full nights’ rest, he might have avoided the attack or been able to fight back, but just as fast as a cat pounces on a mouse, the outlaw was on Joe in a heartbeat.
Joe reacted enough to pull the trigger of his gun but the man had plowed into him at waist level at the same moment and the bullet hit a tree sending bits of bark and wood flying.
His gun flew out of his hand at the impact of the body slamming him into the ground. Joe managed somehow to grab the wrist of his attacker. Their arms quivered and moved back and forth as if in a crazy dance, first towards Joe’s body, then away as he used all the energy he could muster to keep the knife from slicing into him.
Despite finding the energy to hold off the knife, the man had now grabbed Joe’s injured right arm and was holding it tightly.
Joe had no strength in this arm to resist and before he could somehow summon some inner reserves that he now desperately needed, Joe was suddenly plunged into a deeper pool of pain than he could have imagined existed.
While the pain before had been bad enough, it could momentarily be pushed away. But as the knife slid slowly into his shoulder, just below his collarbone, he could no longer keep the pain from consuming him as a forest fire consumes a dry pine tree.
Joe let out a scream of agony that he barely recognized as his own voice before the world and everything in it went away completely.
His adversary grinned wickedly in the dim morning light. He pulled the knife out swiftly and wiped it on his filthy pants as he noted a large dark stain take over Joe’s lighter colored shirt all across his chest.
Knowing a posse could be catching up any time now that it was the break of day, he never bothered to make sure that Joe was dead, but instead, quickly walked over to where Harry lay.
Harry’s eyes fluttered open slowly. “Joe? Joe what’s going on?” he asked weakly.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on, boy,” said the outlaw menacingly. Noticing a bottle of whisky laying to the side where Joe had left it the night before, he picked it up, uncorked the top and guzzled down 4 or 5 swallows of the golden hot liquid before shoving the cork back in. He stood, whiskey bottle in one hand, bloody knife in the other, and now began to approach Harry. “Now you ain’t gonna give me no trouble and no hard feelings, eh boy?”
Harry moaned and tried to roll over, away from the menace that was now swaying slightly from the whiskey. He could only manage to move a small bit before pain and exhaustion from his wound overcame him. The last thing he did before the man reached him and began to kneel down by his side was to look over towards Joe. “Joe!” he cried. “Help me! Please Joe…”
Joe was falling down a deep well. He could see the dim light above him as he fell, a circle of lightness bold against the dark tunnel.
He felt weightless and detached, but was aware that he would be hitting the ground at any moment and it would all be over. He couldn’t survive such a fall, he reasoned, but at least the pain would end.
He just couldn’t seem to remember how he had gotten into this situation.
Just then he heard someone calling to him. The voice echoed off the walls of the well and sounded desperate – pleading and begging for him to help.
Pa? No, it wasn’t his Pa, but whoever it was needed him.
The circle of light was very small now and Joe closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them, he was no longer in the well, but lying on his back, looking up at he dull gray of the morning sky.
The pain was unbearable and Joe just wanted to run away from it. He brought his knees up and pushed himself over on his side. His right arm and left shoulder were on fire and he felt incredibly weak.
A voice broke through the fog in his mind and he once more heard his name being called. He also heard a chilling, evil laugh.
Once more, Harry called out for Joe. He had no idea where his friend was or why he wouldn’t answer. Through his pain, he looked up at the man approaching him. Harry was having trouble focusing, as if the pain had painted a window of fog in front of his eyes. Soon enough though, the man was kneeling at his side and Harry could see he was holding a knife.
Harry let out a moan as the knife made contact with the skin on his neck. He heard laughter, but the pain when the knife blade began to cut into his neck barely registered above what Harry already felt from the bullet wound in his side.
Seeing terror and pain fill Harry’s eyes made the man with the knife rock back on his heels slightly, swaying from the effects of the whiskey he had consumed. He laughed again, wishing he could make this kid die more slowly, but an annoying thought in his head reminded him that the posse could show up at any moment and he needed to move a little faster. He leaned forward, enjoying the smell of blood that made its way to his nose over his own stench and that of the whiskey. He put the blade on Harry’s neck once more as Harry made one more weak plea for Joe to help him.
As Harry shut his eyes and turned his thoughts to his sweetheart, Mary, and to his parents and sisters, he heard the deafening bang of a gun being fired followed immediately by the feeling of a huge weight pinning him to the ground. He snapped open his eyes and saw the man laying across his chest, making it almost impossible for him to breath.
Harry turned his head to the side, desperately trying to suck air into his constricted lungs. Squinting to improve the focus of his pain shrouded vision, he could see a shape, low to the ground a few feet away. He made an effort and could now see that the shape was Joe.
Joe was on his knees, arms hanging limply at his side, his gun dangling from his left hand about to slip from his fingers and fall to the ground. Joe’s chin was at his chest, as if his head were much too heavy to hold up any longer.
Harry could see that Joe was hurt, his shirtfront covered with blood.
“Joe…” Harry gasped as much from the shock of seeing his friend in such a horrible condition as from the weight on his chest. As Harry watched in horror, Joe swayed slightly, and then fell face down in the dirt.
Harry shut his eyes and felt the sting of tears as he realized what a desperate position he was now in. His friend had saved his life and now appeared to be dead. And as horrible as that made Harry feel, the thought that he wouldn’t live much longer himself pushed away that brief interlude of grief. A few more pain filled moments passed until Harry slipped into the beckoning darkness that descended upon him. His last thought was of the face of his smiling fiancée, Mary.
Hoss awoke with a start.
What was that? he thought as he pushed himself up on his elbow. It was cold and the light of morning was coyly approaching, slowly pushing away the night. He couldn’t recall what had caused him to wake so abruptly. He listened intently, but the sounds from his horse Chub nearby, gently nibbling at some grasses was all he could hear.
Rubbing his eyes, Hoss then sat up.
Guess I’d better get some coffee on, now that I’m up, he thought.
The fire from the evening before had died out but he quickly got some sticks together and brought the small blaze back to life. Picking up the small coffee pot, he lifted the lid and peered inside. Enough for a cup he mused. He set the pot carefully on a small grate he had brought along on the fire and slowly made his way over to Chub. “How you doin’ this mornin’, boy?”
He gave his horse a large handful of oat mash then went about saddling up his mount. As he walked back over to the now steaming coffee pot, he heard the unmistakable crack of a gun being fired, off to the north and up the mountainside.
His brother’s face came suddenly to Hoss as he paused in that split second after hearing the dreaded sound. With amazing speed, he dumped the coffee on the small fire, mounted Chub and headed off in the direction of the shot.
Moving up the mountain at a brisk pace without overburdening Chub, Hoss talked to the overwhelming feeling of dread that now gripped his heart.
Joe’s fine, probably just shooting at a rabbit fer breakfast, that’s all. Heck, could be anyone out here, probably ain’t even Joe and Harry.
He kept up the litany of thoughts aimed at distracting his rapidly rising feelings of near panic that he kept reminding himself were based on nothing at all tangible.
Judging by the sound of the shot, he knew he didn’t have far to go. The gunshot he had heard couldn’t have been more than a mile away at the most, but he hadn’t heard another sound since then.
Soon he came to the crest of the mountainside and could see where the two trails crossed just up ahead. While it was much brighter now, the light level was fairly low because of the heavy cloud cover.
“Come on, boy.” Hoss urged his horse forward, looking at the ground for signs of tracks and also looking around him, searching for hints of any activity nearby.
When he came to the crossroads, he stopped and dismounted. As his foot touched the ground, Chub suddenly let out a very loud whinny that shook his body and startled Hoss. The sturdy gelding was looking intently to the right, ears perked, then flicking back one at a time, obviously listening for something only he could hear.
Hoss listened too, and let his gaze go in the same direction as his trusted friend.
What is it, boy? Hoss didn’t want to verbalize his thoughts for fear of disturbing the silence.
Then he heard it. A chortle from another horse. His eye suddenly caught the movement, down by the trees to the east.
Hoss mounted up in the blink of an eye and nudged Chub down the hill. In a moment he could make out the glow of a dying campfire and in the next moment, he could make out shapes on the ground.
“Oh God, Joe…” He dismounted the second he was near enough and ran to the still body of his younger brother lying face down in the dirt.
As gently as he could, he took Joe by the arm and shoulder and rolled him over.
Joe made no move and Hoss was horrified at the site before him. Joe’s entire shirtfront was completely covered with blood.
His face had a large bloody scrape embedded with bits of dirt from his forehead to his chin.
Hoss held the back of Joe’s head and gently laid it on the ground. “Joe?” he whispered. There was no response. Don’t be gone Joe. Please don’t be gone, his mind screamed.
It took a moment to calm his inner voice enough to realize he had to check for a pulse. He shut his eyes for a second, took a deep breath then put his fingers to Joe’s neck.
Hoss’ mind screamed again and he battled it back once more knowing he had to remain calm for his brother’s sake. He moved his large fingers around, pressing a little harder, desperately searching for a sign that his best friend in the world was still alive.
A tiny bumping under the skin. Very faint, but he felt it. The relief was so intense that Hoss reeled slightly on his feet as he squatted over his brother.
Hoss got up and ran for his canteen, wetting a bandana as he hurried back to his brother.
Looking up, he saw for the first time Harry laying to his left with the body of another man lying across his chest.
Hoss changed direction and quickly made his way to the men. Lying the canteen and bandana down, he grabbed the shoulder of the man on top and pulled him off Harry.
Hoss knew he must be dead. The bullet hole in his back was huge and the amount of blood was startling.
Harry moaned softly as the man was pulled off his chest and he could finally take a breath.
“Harry where are you hurt boy?” said Hoss.
“Joe?” Harry opened his eyes slightly.
“No, Harry it’s me, Hoss. Hoss Cartwright.”
The morning’s events came back to Harry. “Hoss…Joe, he’s dead. I’m sorry Hoss, so sorry….” A tear spilled from Harry’s eye as he closed them again.
“Harry, no, Joe’s still alive. He’s hurt bad, but he’s still alive. Harry, what happened here?”
“Sorry, Hoss. Joe was my friend. He saved my life. I’m so sorry Hoss.”
Hoss could see that Harry was out again and wasn’t able to understand what he was trying to tell him.
Hoss reached down and pulled the blanket back from his body. He noted the apparent wound in Harry’s side and the blood soaked makeshift bandage covering it. Putting his hand on Harry’s forehead, Hoss felt the warmth of fever. He was relieved that it wasn’t higher but now began to consider how grave his situation was. There were two badly wounded men, both of whom needed his attention at the moment.
He covered Harry back up and picked up the canteen and bandana and went back over to Joe.
As Hoss gently dabbed at the scrapes on Joe’s face, Joe moaned and began to move his head from side to side trying to regain his consciousness.
Hoss stopped working on Joe’s face and began to unbutton Joe’s shirt. The smell of blood sickened Hoss’ stomach slightly, but he continued working and soon had his brothers chest exposed. He quickly saw the source of all the blood. A jagged gash, clearly made by a knife and not a bullet wound as Hoss had assumed at first. Blood was still oozing from the opening.
Jumping up, Hoss ran to his saddlebag, opening it and pulling out a small towel he had brought. He also grabbed his clean spare shirt and then he pulled his bedroll from behind the saddle. Kneeling at Joe’s side once again, he pressed the towel to the wound.
How am I gonna get you boys home alive?
Hoss’ mind desperately searched for ideas on how to help the two critically injured young men. Before he could arrive at any solution that he felt could work, Joe blinked his eyes and suddenly opened them.
“Joe! It’s me. Just take it easy little brother,” Hoss said gently.
“Hoss.” Joe breathed the name softly, his eyes barely focusing on the large man leaning over him. “Cold. Hurts.” His eyelids fluttered, glazed green eyes rolling up into them.
“Joe? Joe! Stay with me. I need your help here!”
Hoss knew that Joe would never refuse a request for help from his brother and sure enough, his idea to keep Joe from slipping away worked. Joe blinked again and looked up imploringly at the big man. “Ohhh…“ he grunted at the pain. “Don’t know how much help I can be to you, Hoss.”
With his hand still firmly pressing on the wound, Hoss reached the canteen with his other. “Here, drink some of this.” Joe gulped like he had been in the desert for a week, until Hoss moved it out of his reach.
“Cold,” Joe said again and began to shiver.
“We’ll get you fixed right up in a sec, little buddy,” Hoss said as he began ripping up his shirt to wrap around Joe’s shoulder. As Hoss worked, he talked softly to his brother, trying to keep him awake, finally covering him up with his bedroll.
Sitting beside Joe, Hoss took his hand. Haltingly, Joe recounted what had taken place on the mountain since the day before.
“Joe, we gotta come up with a plan to get you two outa here,” declared Hoss. “You both need a doctor and I don’t know how long either of you can last out here in the weather.” He looked up at the gray sky. “It could start to rainin’ anytime but I’m just gonna go on hoping it don’t.”
“I can ride.” Joe said matter-of-factly.
Hoss laughed. “I know you think you can, but you’d bleed to death before we got two miles down the trail. That knife wound needs stitchin’.”
Joe knew he was right. He felt weak as a newborn lamb and didn’t know if he even had the energy to get to his feet, let alone mount a horse.
“Need to build a travois,” Joe sighed.
“Yep, that’s what I’m thinking too. Either that or I ride fast as I can for help, but I shore don’t want to leave you here alone, so I’d best get going on buildin’ that travois.”
Wishing he’d thought to bring along a small hatchet, Hoss worked as quickly as possible, cutting branches from trees with his knife that were long enough for his purpose.
It was almost noon before he finished one and he stopped to see how the injured men were. Both were unconscious again. They had both been awake from time to time throughout the morning as Hoss had taken time occasionally to make sure they drank enough water. Now before he took a break to eat a fast bite of lunch, he first went over to Harry.
Feeling his face with the back of his hand, Hoss became alarmed at how hot the young man felt. Pulling back the blanket, he peered under the bandage to see the wound was red edged and enflamed.
“Dang,” Hoss swore under his breath. He wet a piece of cloth with cold water and draped it over Harry’s forehead. “Just hang on Harry. Please, just hang on.”
Checking quickly on his younger brother, Hoss found Joe also to be a bit feverish, but roughly the same as earlier.
Hoss kept his thoughts focused on getting the second travois made faster than he had done the first. He knew this would be difficult given that he now had to venture further away from the camp to find branches and brush that would work. It took several trips, but Hoss finally dragged the last of the branches into the camp.
It took another hour or so to rig together an uncomfortable looking method of transport, but Hoss was happy to have the hard work behind him. The horses had wandered all over the nearby meadow and were still happily cropping away at the wild grasses and flowers they found there.
Hoss went and slowly approached the nearest one he came to. Slipping a bridle over its head, the horse easily took the bit.
As Hoss now headed toward the camp again, the horse suddenly halted in its tracks, its head held high, ears alert, listening.
Hoss listened, but heard nothing at first. “Come on, boy,” he clucked to the horse.
The horse took two tentative steps, but then stopped again, gazing intently into the distance.
Hoss frowned and listened once more, looking in the same direction as the horse. Then he heard it.
A faint, low rumble that quickly grew louder.
Hoss immediately realized it was a group of riders, coming hard up the mountain.
Within a few moments, they rode up to where Hoss still stood. The group was made up of about ten men and Hoss noticed that a few wore metal stars pinned to their jackets.
As the men rode up, they immediately pulled out their guns and trained them on the surprised man before them.
One of the riders shouted, “That’s one of the horses them murderers used. I remember the brand, clear as day!”
Hoss glanced at the rump of the horse he had been leading, noticing the shape of a sideways S with a bar under it.
“String him up!” another rider cried. Hoss had barely had time to understand what was happening when a few of the men jumped down from their mounts and ran over to him, taking his gun out of it’s holster and grabbing him roughly by each arm.
The loud report of a gun being fired sounded from another of the men who was still mounted, causing Hoss’ would-be executioners to jump and look up suddenly.
“Now I’m in charge of this here posse, and I say whether or not we hang anybody.” Keeping his rifle pointed skywards, the man slid off his horse and walked slowly over to where Hoss was still being held.
“You don’t look much like an outlaw,” the man said as he eyed Hoss closely.
That’s ‘cause I ain’t an outlaw. Look, you a sheriff or just some yay-hoo with a badge?” Hoss replied.
The man narrowed his eyes and a frown became apparent under his unkempt and bushy moustache. “The sheriff was one of them that got hisself killed yesterday during the bank holdup. John over there,” he gestured to an older man still standing by the horses, “he done lost his son. Now somebody’s got to pay for them lives. Jimmy says you got a horse that was ridden out of town by one of those murderers. Sounds like could a been you what done the murderin’.”
Hoss was now past his initial fright over the posse and he was now enraged by the display of outrageous and deadly stupidity with which this group of men reasoned he was guilty of murder based on his possession of a horse.
Pulling his arms out of the grasp of the men holding them, Hoss shouted, “Now you listen and you listen good. My name is Hoss Cartwright.”
A few of the men looked at each other, recognizing the name.
“My brother and his friend were ambushed by the men you all are looking for. They were injured but wound up killing those outlaws you were after. If you don’t believe me, just go on up that hill into the next clearing and you’ll find the bodies. My brother and his friend need help and they need to get to a doctor, so if you fellers are done pretending you’re serving justice, get out of the way and let me do what I need to do to help them.”
With that Hoss started back up the hillside with the horse in tow. Before he had even gone a few paces, he looked up and saw a figure just ahead of him.
“Drop your weapons!” came a weak shout.
The men from the posse stared, their guns, still trained on Hoss’ back, slowly lowered to the ground.
“Joe!” Hoss cried.
Joe stood before him, sweating and pale a blanket draped over his shoulders and the bloody bandage peeking out from underneath, in his left hand he barely held a gun and it swayed unsteadily in his weak grasp. Hoss surged forward and went for the gun, easily knocking it from Joe’s hand and in the next second, scooped Joe up in his arms as he collapsed.
As Hoss carried him back up the hill, Joe mumbled “… heard a shot. Thought you were in trouble.”
“Thanks, Joe. I think between you and me, we got it under control now. Just rest easy.”
After he settled Joe back down, Hoss turned and saw all the men had followed him and were wandering about the campsite.
The man with the moustache was leaning over the bodies he found down by the trees, turning their faces to get a look at them. “Coop, come over here,” he shouted to one of the men. A big man with dark hair walked over. “You remember seeing these guys in town the other day, over at the saloon when you and me were havin’ a beer?”
“Yeah, they shore look like em, Enoch.”
“Hey Enoch,” came a shout from over by the pile of saddlebags. “Looky what I found.” The man who had shouted was holding fistfuls of money in the air.
Hoss never even glanced up at the man holding the stolen bills; his only concern was for his injured brother.
This fact was not missed by the would-be sheriff named Enoch. Any lingering doubts about who Hoss claimed to be quickly vanished with the mounting evidence that the three dead men were the ones they had been chasing.
“Anybody have a clean neckerchief?” shouted Hoss to the men milling about. He took the one that was silently offered and as gently as possible removed the blood soaked towel that had become useless as a bandage on Joe’s shoulder, replacing it with the new bandana.
“We’ve got to get these men to a doctor,” Hoss advised. “I made a couple of travois. If some of you men would go over and hitch ’em up to a couple of those horses… Use the branded ones. Them others are breeding stock and I don’t know if they’re broke yet or not.”
The group of men that had seemed listless suddenly came to life with their new purpose. Hoss saw them move into action, a few going over to attend to Harry while the others saddled up the horses. Hoss felt a small measure of relief come over him now that he had help.
Joe’s eyes blinked open and he tried to focus on his big brother’s face.
Never realized how much energy it takes just to open your eyes… or to breathe, Joe thought. He would have said it out loud, but thought that would take more than he had in him at the moment.
Hoss continued caring for Joe’s shoulder and hadn’t noticed Joe’s eyes open, but when Joe let out a grunt of pain, Hoss looked to his face. “Hey, sorry about that buddy.” Hoss said gently. “Glad to see you’re still with us.”
Joe just stared into his brother’s eyes, drawing strength and comfort from the love he found in the deep blue depths.
“Now don’t you worry about a thing. Old Hoss’ll get you home and into your own bed in no time, so you just relax and take it easy and let me do all the work.”
Joe was so tired. He closed his eyes and surrendered to the darkness where he felt no pain.
When Joe opened his eyes, it was bright. Sunlight so bright he squinted his eyes against it and groaned. Someone immediately dimmed the brightness by closing the curtains and when Joe looked again, his heart leapt at the sight of his Pa leaning over him.
“Pa…” Joe breathed.
“Yes, son. I’m here.”
Joe tried to sit up but the immediate and brutal pain that shot through his shoulder reminded him why he was in bed during a bright sunny day. He felt a warm hand on his forehead and another grasp his own hand. He heard words, spoken softly, soothing words, but the pain made it too hard to make himself concentrate on what the words were. “Owwww,” he moaned.
“Harry…” Joe said as soon as the burst of pain faded enough for him to speak again. He looked up at his Pa’s face and saw an expression of sadness and concern. Worry was etched into his face and Joe now noticed how tired his father looked as well.
“Shhh… Joseph, please just lie still. You’re not well enough to be moving around.”
“Harry…” Joe repeated his implied question. He tried to read the answer to the question in Pa’s eyes, but there was too much concern and exhaustion on his fathers face to read anything more there. “Pa, I…I need to know if Harry’s all right. Please Pa, you’ve got to tell me.”
“Joseph, please stay calm. I’ll answer you if you just give me a chance. Harry is alive. When Hoss brought you both in two days ago…”
“Two days…!” Joe gasped
“Yes, two days, Joe. When Hoss brought you in, you were both in pretty bad shape. The Doc came out and sewed you both up as best he could, but it’s been a fight to bring you both back after the amount of blood you both lost and the long exposure to the cold and damp weather. You were both were both fighting off a fever. Yours broke last night, but Harry, well Harry’s still ill. He’s still here; we thought it best not to move him just yet. His folks and Mary have been here constantly too, taking care of him. Joe, I was so worried about you.”
“Is Harry going to make it, Pa?” Joe asked.
“Joe, I don’t know how to answer that,” Ben admitted. “I’ve been concentrating on you getting well. I’m afraid that’s all I’ve been able to focus on these past two days. The Doc is due out here again this morning. We’ll see what he has to say then. Meanwhile we need to get some broth into you.”
Joe felt exhausted and didn’t know how he would stay awake to eat anything. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, Pa returned to Joe’s bedside with a steaming cup of broth.
After finishing the broth, Joe slept again and when he woke, it was late in the evening.
Pa was sitting in a chair by his bed, snoring softly.
“Pa?” Joe called softly.
Ben was awake in an instant, smiling down at Joe. He immediately put a hand on Joe’s forehead to check for fever and was relieved that it was only slightly warm. Smiling, he asked “How you feel, son?”
“Tired. Sore. Pa, how’s Harry? Did the doc come by?”
“Harry’s fever broke finally, Joe. Doc thinks he should recover just fine.”
Joe sighed with relief.
There was a soft knocking at the door, then Hoss and Adam came into Joe’s room.
“We’re just going to turn in and thought we’d see if you needed anything. Hey Short Shanks! Good to see you with your pretty eyes open for a change!” Hoss said, suppressing a strong urge to scoop his brother up and give him a huge hug.
Joe smiled as brightly as he could at his older brothers. “I’m sure glad to be here to open them. Hoss, I don’t think I had a chance to thank you. If you hadn’t come along when you did, well, me and Harry probably wouldn’t have made it.”
“Aw, Joe, you know when you and Harry didn’t get home when you were supposed to, well, I just figured you’d take that high trail. Just wanted to make sure you didn’t get lost.”
“I almost lost more than just my way up on that trail,” admitted Joe. “ I’m really glad you came along and found us when you did, Hoss.”
Hoss was quiet for a moment while he got his emotions under control – before he had to hide the tears in his eyes at the thought of having almost lost his brother forever.
“I am too,” Hoss answered quietly, looking with sudden interest at a nail in the floor. “There’s a lot of things in life it wouldn’t hurt none to lose little brother, but you ain’t one of them.”
“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe whispered as he slowly let his eyes shut. He slept deeply and at peace knowing he was home again. He knew he was safe and the danger was passed for both Harry and himself. But more importantly, he knew that, no matter what trail he took in life, there would always be someone to make sure he didn’t lose his way home.