Word Count: 3500
It was hotter than a black rock that sits bakin’ in the sun all day long. A flat black stone that burns your fingers like fire when you pick it up. I know ‘cuz I’m always lookin’ for flat stones when I’m up by the lake. You’ see, flat stones are for skimin’ across the water — maybe all the way across the lake if you’re lucky. You have to aim them just right — sort of tip your whole self over and then keep that flat stone aimed just the way you want it to be when it hits the water. If you throw it perfect, that ol’ stone will fly over the water like a seagull does when it’s flyin’ low, lookin’ for a fish. When the stone touches the water, it bounces back into the air and it flies some more. Sometimes you can get a stone to bounce and fly like that 10 times! Even though I’m only seven, I can get a stone to bounce a couple of times…well, every once in awhile. Mostly, I’m happy when it bounces once. If you don’t throw your stone just right or if you don’t find one that has enough flat, it sinks — just like a hot black rock.
Like I said, it was hot. The only reason I didn’t just die from all that hot was an itty, bitty, gritty dry breeze comin’ in the window. I coulda’ got more breeze if it weren’t for my big brothers sittin’ in the way. See, I’m the smallest and I had to sit in the middle. I wanted to sit by the window, but my brothers always make me sit in the middle. I try to tell my pa, but he just makes his eyebrows go together and says, “Hush up and sit down.” And you know you better do what he says. It ain’t fair.
It bein’ so hot wasn’t the only problem. The other problem was that I was squished. See, stagecoaches ain’t real comfortable, not like sitting on some big fancy settee or something. Every time the wheels hit a bump in the road, we all get jostled around. It’s either one big brother sliding into me or the other. I suppose I should have been glad they pinned me down, ’cause I probably would have slid off the seat and landed on the floor like a sack of potatoes about a hundred times if it weren’t for them. It didn’t help that my feet couldn’t reach the floor either. It ain’t easy bein’ little.
When you gotta sit in the middle, there ain’t much to see. Well, ‘cept for my Pa, who was sittin’ across from me. Actually, all I could see was the back of a newspaper he was readin’. I’m guessin’ my Pa was behind the paper. Oh yeah, next to my Pa, there was some blond lady who kept making oogley eyes at my oldest brother. You’re probably wondering what oogley eyes look like. Well, first of all, only girls make oogley eyes. They make their eyes real big and then flutter their lashes like some gritty sand got in there. The girl sitting next to my Pa was real good at it. Every time my big brother said something, she smiled real sweet like and tilted her head and made those oogley eyes. For some reason, he kept talking to this oogley girl and she laughed at everything he said. Only, my big brother never says anything funny. The only funny thing was her and her oogley eyes. Girls are a waste of time.
You’re probably thinking my oldest brother must be a real serious guy, ’cause I swear he never says nuthin’ funny. You would be right. He’s really old, too. Not as old as my Pa, of course. My Pa is old with gray hair. My big brother is old with black hair. In fact, everything about him is black — his hat, shirt, pants and even his boots are black.
I thought I was gonna’ get sick if I had to see my brother and that goofy blond girl any more. So, I switched to looking at my other big brother. He’s sort of old too, but not as old as my all-black brother and really not as old as my newspaper Pa. In fact, this brother can actually be fun sometimes. But not today. He ate all the cookies in the picnic basket we brought and now he’s sleepin’ it off. His head sort of wobbles against the window ledge. Every time the stagecoach hits even a little pebble or a clump of tumbleweed, it bounces poor Hoss’ big head around. This brother is much bigger than my other one. It’s like he never stopped growing up. He has muscles in his arms that could pick up a whole bull, if he wanted to pick up a bull. It might be safer to pick up a cow. Maybe.
I know a lot about bulls and cows. See, my family owns a big ranch. We have lots of cows and some are bulls. Girls are cows and boys are bulls. I think. Our ranch is huge. There must be about a hundred thousand cows and bulls. And you have to watch them all the time, so’s nobody steals them. Cows and bulls ain’t very smart. You gotta make sure they have grass to eat or don’t fall off a cliff and stuff like that. We got lots of fences. Fences keep them critters where we want them, ’cause we gotta know where they are when it comes time to take them to San Francisco to sell. My Pa and my big brothers and some other ranch hands are gone for a long time when they do that. Pa won’t let me go. He says it’s too dangerous and I’m too little. I hate bein’ little.
We’re goin’ to San Francisco right now. But not with the cows. We’re goin’ on a stagecoach. Guess I already told you that. Pa says it’s a vacation, whatever that is. I don’t know what is worse on this vacation — the giggly girl, Hoss’ snoring, Pa’s newspaper or the dang heat. We’ve been riding in this thing for too long. I have to take a deep breath and close my eyes for a minute before I get a bad headache.
Adam shouted, “Joe, get down behind this rock with me. The rustlers are just behind that clump of trees. Did you bring the rifles?”
“I got them, Adam. Where’s Pa and Hoss?” asked Joe, breathing heavily from his dash for cover.
Adam pushed back his black hat a bit and ran his dirty red handkerchief across his sweaty forehead. He gestured toward another large boulder further up the incline.
“Over there. Behind that big boulder. They’re both trapped. Every time they move, the rustlers let go with rifle fire.”
Joe took a moment to assess the situation. The four Cartwrights had been on foot, following the tracks of some suspected cattle wrestlers. The trail led them into a small canyon with stacked boulders lining the sides of the V-shaped landscape. It was the type of area where run-off spring rains from the high mountains create flash floods that tear through like a runaway steam engine. But it was summer, now; the hot and dry time of year when the sun beats down with an unrelenting glare that bakes the ground and reflects off every part of the dirty white canyon walls. It rarely rains in the summer. Joe pulled down the rim of his hat to provide a small parcel of shade.
“Dang, Adam. We walked right into a trap. There are at least three men up there, near the rim, with a perfect view of us. All they need to do is get lucky and they can pop us off, one by one,” Joe stated with no uncertainty.
Adam grimaced as he shifted his weight slightly, then gave Joe some more bad news. “That isn’t all, Joe. I’m afraid I twisted my leg running up here and it hurts like the devil. There is no way I can walk. Sorry.”
Joe took his first good look at his oldest brother. He hadn’t noticed before, the grim expression on his face. Adam wasn’t joking; he was in a lot of pain. “Don’t worry, Adam. I will take care of you and Pa and Hoss.”
Adam nodded in agreement. “You are our only hope, Joe. I know you can save us.”
At that moment, a rumbling sound began to echo in the canyon. It got louder and louder.
Joe rushed to Adam’s side and covered him with his body to protect him from whatever was about to happen.
“Joe! Joe! Get off me! Dang it Joe, sit back down!” Adam yelled.
“Joseph! What is your problem, son? Get off your brother,” commanded Ben Cartwright.
“Huh?” Joe blinked through sleepy eyes as he was lifted from his older brother.
Ben sat his youngest down on his lap and brushed unruly hair from Joe’s eyes. “Son, you must have been having a bad dream when that thunder woke you up.” He gave his little boy a hug and continued. “Just a little longer and we will be in Sacramento. Why don’t you just sit here for a while and watch out the window.”
I heard what Pa said, but it wasn’t a bad dream; it was a good dream. For once, I felt comfortable, sittin’ on my Pa’s big lap. My back was turned away from everyone else in that stuffy ol’ stagecoach. I pretended I was the only one there and watched out the window. Clouds were gathering in the sky and a cool breeze was coming in the window. It felt so good. I rested my eyes a little bit.
“Joe assessed the situation. He saw the low black clouds rushing across the sky, and covering up the sun. Another loud crash rumbled through the narrow canyon, echoing back and forth against the walls. A rare rainstorm would be there in a matter of minutes, and if the rustlers didn’t get them, the lightning would. There was also the dire threat of flood water that would come barreling down from the mountains and into the canyon. The Cartwrights were in trouble.
“Adam, I am going to make a break for it and run up to the rock Pa and Hoss are behind. I want to let them know that you are hurt, give them some rifles, and tell them my plan for getting out of here alive.”
“Be careful, Joe. I’ll give you some cover.”
Joe ran out from the protection of the rocky outcrop, and keeping his head down, quickly made his way to the rest of his family. All the while, Adam fired his gun toward the general direction of the rustlers, keeping them too busy to fire back. The noise was deafening as the cracks of thunder added to the chaos.
“Pa! Hoss! Joe slid around the rock that protected the other half of his family. Joe paused a moment and considered what he had just observed. It looked like he had woken Hoss up.
Pa grabbed him and held him in an embrace. “Joe, I am so glad you are here.” Joe could hardly breathe. Just at that moment, the heavens broke loose and buckets of rain began to fall from the sky.
“Pa!” screamed Joe.
“Joseph, you are okay, son. It is just a storm.” Joe awoke to find himself in the embrace of his father. The side curtains had been rolled down to keep out the rain as it came down from the sky in buckets. The space inside the stagecoach had become stuffy as well as hot. There was no breeze at all. And, it was hard to see in such dim light. So Joe shifted his position a bit and put his head on his father’s shoulder. The rocking coach lulled him back to sleep.
“I’m fine, Pa. At least for now. I brought rifles, but we need to get out of here. That rain is going to cause the canyon to fill up quick. We haven’t much time.” Pa nodded his head in agreement and Hoss looked worried.
“More bad news, Adam is hurt. He twisted his leg and can’t walk. We need to make a stretcher with some tree limbs and this rope that I always carry for emergencies” Joe unhooked the coil of rope from his belt and handed it to Hoss. “Hoss, you work on getting that done while I talk with Pa about a plan I have.” Hoss nodded in agreement and said, “Joe, you sure are a clever guy. “ Joe just smiled.
“Pa, I am small enough to make it to the top of the canyon without being seen. I’m going to take the path that follows the waterfall. The flash flood water won’t come for at least another hour. When I get up on the rim, I’ll find cover and start shooting toward the rustlers. While I keep them busy, you and Hoss pick up Adam and follow the easy trail. When you get to the top, I will probably have them taken care of. If not, you can finish them off. Got it?”
Pa’s face beamed with pride and said, “Joe that is a brilliant plan. You are the only one who can save us. But son, be careful.”
As he scrambled away, Joe shouted back, “You too, Pa. I love you Pa.”
Ben smiled and replied, “I love you too, son.”
Adam smirked and said, “He’s dreaming, Pa.”
“I know, son. It must be a good dream. Let him sleep.”
It was harder to climb to the rim of the canyon than Joe imagined, but with grit and perseverance, he made it to the top. He quickly found cover behind a large black rock. Joe grinned. The cattle thieves were only twenty feet away and clearly in view. They had never noticed the stealthy Joe Cartwright as their attention was riveted on his family below.
Keeping true to the plan, Joe began a barrage of fire aimed at the rustlers. He knew his family was gathering up his injured brother and taking the easy trail to the top of the canyon. They would be there soon.
Joe was not trying to kill the outlaws, just keep them busy. But he noticed that one had been hit in the arm, one was limping and the other was holding him up as all three tried to run away. Joe kept his aim and continued the assault — knowing that it was him alone that his family depended upon.
“Hoss! Over here! Hoss!”
Hoss blinked his eyes. Something had made him wake up. He quickly realized that his little brother was calling his name. “Joe! I’m right here!” Confusion clouded Hoss’ face and he looked up at his Pa. “Why’s he yelling, Pa?”
“It’s a dream, Hoss. Joe is having a dream.”
Joe was well known for his dreams, so Hoss slid back on the seat. The rain had stopped, so Hoss pulled the cords that lifted the side curtains back up.
In a matter of minutes, Joseph had outrun the three evil men and tied them to a tree. They were no match for the smaller cowboy.
The storm had lifted and the sun peaked out from the clouds as the rain-swollen river could be heard filling the canyon below. But the Cartwrights were safe. The stolen cattle were safe.
Later that day, after delivering the cattle rustlers to Sheriff Coffee, getting Adam taken care of by Doc Martin, and leading the cattle safely back to the main herd, the four Cartwrights gathered by the warm glow of fire in their massive Ponderosa home.
Hoss, Joe, and Adam sat on the settee; Joe was in the middle and Adam had his painful leg propped up on the low table in front of them.
Pa rose up from his blue chair and slid onto the table, facing his sons. “Joseph, you were superb today, son. You saved the cattle, Adam, all of us. Thank you for being you.” He put his hand on Joe’s knee and gave it a squeeze.
“Adam, Hoss! Wake-up! The stagecoach is about to stop. We’re in Sacramento. I am putting your brother back on the seat between you. Help him wake up.” Ben Cartwright then gathered his hat and newspapers as he prepared for the next part of the vacation — a steamboat trip down the river and into the harbor of San Francisco.
When the vehicle came to a stop, Ben was first to rise and climb down to the ground. He was stiff from sitting so long. He turned to help disembark the lovely young girl who had been sitting next to him. But he found it was not necessary as his oldest son was taking care of her with all of his charm. Knowing that Hoss would see to Joseph’s needs, he hurried off to buy tickets for the boat trip.
“Joe, Joe, come on Joe. Wake up! I ain’t going to carry you; now open your eyes and stand up.” Hoss gently shook his little brother who was slumped over on the seat next to him.
The next thing I remember is I opened my eyes and there was Hoss tellin’ me to wake up. At first, I wasn’t sure what was goin’ on. I wasn’t even sure I knew where I was. Then Hoss told me we were done with riding on the stagecoach and now we needed to get on a boat. Then I remembered about the vacation.
Hoss was kinda’ draggin’ me along beside him. I saw Adam helping that goofy girl get up on a buggy. Then he kissed her hand and she did that oogley eyes thing at him. I felt a little sick, but then the buggy drove away. Good riddance to that lady! I don’t know what she was doin’ to Adam, but he just looked all dreamy-like.
Then I saw Pa. He was yellin’ Adam’s name. He said, “Get the luggage, boy!” He said it with his deep rumble voice and Adam stopped lookin’ so dreamy real quick. Then he looked his usual serious self. I’m glad Pa saved Adam.
After that, we got on a big boat. I’ve never been on a big boat before. There were lots of people going all directions. Pa held onto my arm too tight. I was thinkin’ he might pull it right off of me, but he didn’t. Finally, we got to sit down. We were way up high on the boat and I could see water all around us. There were other boats on the river, too. I wanted to walk around and look at all this new stuff, but Pa told me to stay where I was.
Pa wasn’t done talkin’ to me. He said, “Joseph, you are to stay close to me or your brothers at all times. San Francisco is a big city and you could get lost very easily. Some people in this city are not nice.” Then Adam said, “Yes, you need to watch out for pirates.” I saw Pa give Adam “the look”.
But what Adam said cheered me up a lot. I read about pirates before and Pa has told us stories about pirates. They aren’t nice people, but I sure would like to see one. So, I asked Adam, “What do pirates look like?”
Adam said, “They look mean, Joe. Kind of like cattle rustlers.” I had a good idea what those men looked like, so I was glad to know what to look for on this vacation. Yes sir, this vacation was going to be one big pirate hunt!
Pa said, “Boys, this trip will take about two hours, so you might as well get comfortable.” Hoss put his feet up on the bench across from us. Adam took out a book he had in his pocket. Adam always has a book in his pocket. Pa picked up that same ol’ newspaper and started reading. I leaned up against Hoss and started looking at all the other people on the boat. I was lookin’ for a pirate, of course.
Hoss, there’s a pirate over there, look! He had on pirate clothes and a long dagger hung from his waist. His hat had a feather in it and from under the rim hung long dirty dark hair. He had a patch over one eye and a terrible ragged scar went from his good eye all the way to his chin. And then I noticed that while one of his sleeves held an arm, the other sleeve did not. This pirate only had one arm. I got to thinking about how he might have lost that arm…