Summary: The Cartwright brothers struggle to put their lives together, after surviving a brutal Indian massacre.
Rated: PG (violence)
Word Count: 17,500
Eventually, folks would call it a massacre.
A collective memory of the incident would linger for years. In schoolyards, children would regale each other with tales of real and imaginary horrors, and mothers across the territory would use the incident as a way of frightening little ones out of straying away from home. Decades later, old men rocking in front of the mercantile would grow strangely quiet when asked about the day they carried twenty-six bodies out of the mining camp, mutilated beyond human recognition.
The massacre wasn’t without provocation. A band of Paiutes had disrupted a new rail line, killing several workers. In response, a battalion of rangers had ambushed a nearby Paiute village and had killed thirteen innocent members of the tribe, mostly women, children, and old men, who had stayed behind while the younger men were away on a hunt. The raid on the mining camp was a direct retaliation for that slaughter.
The incident would eventually be forgotten. In time, it would lose its gut-wrenching horror and would fade in the memory of those who hadn’t been there. By the time the treatises on Indian and settler relations were written, the massacre would hardly warrant a footnote in the margins.
Long before the massacre, empty-pocketed prospectors had named the mining camp Desolate Flats, and the name had stuck and settled on the place.
Desolation marked more than a worthless mining settlement. It also staked a claim on the souls of those who would always be marked by the events of that day.
Ben Cartwright sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. Resting his elbows on the table, he allowed himself to smile at the irony of the position he found himself in. How many times had he reminded his boys to keep their elbows off the table while they were growing up? However, no one was there to point this out to him. Ben sat at an empty table.
If he had a whittling knife on him, he’d be tempted to carve a tally for all the times he’d eaten dinner alone, over the past few months. No matter that he’d once caught Joseph carving a picture of a horse underneath the table when he was ten years old and had punished him soundly for the offense. Ben smiled at that and reached underneath the table. He found the old carving with his finger and traced the rough outline of the horse’s mane, the legs forever poised in joyous flight. It had been a remarkably good carving for a ten-year-old, a fact he’d never chosen to share with Joseph. Now, he was glad that it was there, hidden under the surface, a reminder that the house had once been a home for lively boys.
After all, without his sons around his table, the fine piece of furniture was nothing more than wood and might as well be used for kindling. So much of what had made his house a home had been whittled away, since the incident at Desolate Flats. The fortune he had created out of the wilderness had never been gauged by possessions or by the extent of his holdings. His true wealth rested on the shoulders of his sons. Without them, his legacy was nothing more than empty miles of lovely trees.
Ben wondered where his sons were taking their meals or if they were eating at all. Hoss, in particular, had lost a great deal of weight since the incident. His clothes hung over his large frame in swaths of loose fabric. For some reason, this hit his father particularly hard. From infancy, the boy had worn clothing that stretched across his massive frame. Hoss had been his child of robust health and good appetite. On the long trip out west, that easy temperament might have been the motherless baby’s salvation.
Ben shook himself out of his reverie and gestured to Hop Sing that he was ready for dinner. He might as well start eating. It was apparent that nobody would be joining him for this meal. He bowed his head and tried to thank God for his blessings. And he had certainly been blessed, compared to others. There were families all around the territory that were sitting down to tables and empty chairs that would never be filled again.
Besides, Hoss had never been one to waste away. On the surface of things, a failing appetite seemed to be the only physical change in his gentle-hearted son. Hoss alone, among all the survivors, had survived the attack without any tangible injury. He had saved the lives of his brothers and many other men. His enormous strength and courage were touted as the main reasons that the Indians had retreated while their enemies were still living. Hoss had been praised as a hero, for miles around.
Yet, his middle son had rejected all the hoopla, right from the beginning. The day after the incident, he woke up early and was out of his bed, practically before dawn. Ben had forced himself away from Joseph’s bedside and hurried out to the barn, arriving just as Hoss finished saddling his horse.
“Son, please,” he begged. “Come to bed. You need to rest after… after all that’s happened. Come inside. I’m sure your brothers will want to see you, after they wake up.”
Ben had chosen his words carefully. Adam was awake, had been awake through most of the long night, but refused to open his eyes, after the terrible moment when he woke up screaming. Joe had hardly moved, since they had brought him home in the back of the buckboard. He had lost so much blood, and the gaping wound on his back was already so infected that the doctor had admitted there was a good chance he would never wake up at all.
“Pa, let me be,” Hoss said, and Ben realized he had never heard this son sound so tired and old. “There’s work to be done. Adam and Little Joe ain’t gonna be doing much for a spell. I need to do this for them.”
“Hoss, your brothers need you to be with them. I need you.”
But, Hoss shook off his father’s grip. “Pa, you just gotta let me be.”
Ben let Hoss ride away, because his son had asked it of him, and he really had no other choice. Yet, the sight of his son disappearing down the road drew tears from the father’s eyes, although he had not cried, even after the horrible moment when one of the hands came galloping in hollering about a slaughter at Desolate Flats. For the first time in his thirty years as a father, Ben Cartwright did not know to reach his own boy.
When it came to his other two sons, it didn’t take a father’s insight to realize that things were very, very wrong. Joe took weeks to heal from his injury, and Adam took several days before he made it out of bed. Neither would talk about Desolate Flats. From what Ben had gathered from other worried fathers and family members that seemed to be typical of all of the survivors.
Hop Sing placed a cup of coffee in front of him. He smiled absently at his longtime employee and friend. Even Hop Sing knew better than to launch into his customary vitriol over the lack of appreciation for his good dinner. That particular performance had no meaning with such a meager audience. Silently, Hop Sing brought his own cup of tea and sat next to his employer. The two men sipped their drinks in silence.
Ben sipped the coffee and tried to remember what his meal had tasted like. He hoped he had said thank you to Hop Sing. He had tried to be grateful. After all, he still had three living sons, an astonishing blessing. The Hanson family had lost all four sons, all of whom had worked in the mine. He smiled sadly at the memory of the Hanson boys, all rough and tumble, tousle-haired young men who had staked their livelihood on the possibility of buried treasure.
During the first month after the massacre, Bob Hanson had dwindled to nothing after the death of his boys. He continued working on his ranch, attending church on Sunday with his wife, and ordering seed for spring planting. Everyone remarked on how beautifully Hanson was doing. After all, he was unfailingly polite and even remembered to laugh at other folks’ bad jokes.
Then one day, three months after the incident, he went to the mercantile and bought ten pounds of flour and five pounds of green coffee beans and loaded them into the back of his rig. Before he left town, he paid off several accounts that were past due. He tipped his hat to several people who marveled at it later, and he drove his wagon out of town. Once back at his ranch, he neatly stacked his goods in the storehouse and remembered to shut and bolt the door.
On that fine afternoon in early summer, Bob Hanson walked into the main house and into his kitchen, lifted his pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger. His wife, Sarah, found him hours later, when she had gone into the kitchen to prepare supper.
Hanson had not been the only man to succumb to the events of the day. Two other survivors had killed themselves, within the span of week. Those suicides, while tragic, did not have the same impact on the community as Hanson’s death. Bob Hanson had been a good man, a pillar in the community. His family had always been well regarded. The Hanson boys had grown up in the territory and had been lively and friendly children. Two of them had gone to school with Little Joe and had wreaked occasional havoc around town with his youngest and wildest son.
Yes, Ben Cartwright had many things to be grateful for and was not such a fool that he didn’t know it. Yet, looking back over the events of the past several months, he realized he had been a fool for thinking his sons would be better once their wounds had finally healed.
That wasn’t to say that his sons’ injuries were any small matter. The infection from the arrowhead had almost killed Joe. It had lodged so deeply in his back that Hoss had been unable to pull it out at the mining camp, without killing his brother from the damage he would have caused. Ben would never be able to forget the sight of his youngest when they brought him home, lying in the bed of the wagon, with the broken shaft of that arrow still jutting out from his back. His body had been absolutely lifeless.
Ben’s first terrible thought had been, my God, he’s already with Marie. His knees gave out underneath him, and sank to the ground and willed the Lord to give him the strength to make it through the day. And that was before he even noticed his oldest son, lying parallel to Joe, in the blood-soaked wagon.
Joe almost didn’t make it. He had drifted in and out of consciousness for days, whimpering and sometimes screaming about things that made Ben feel like he wanted to crawl out of his skin. Joe would never repeat any of it, after the fever finally broke, a full week later. The doctor wasn’t even sure if the boy would ever be able to move around without pain. The arrow had splintered bone and had damaged layers of muscle. It was hard to say how much of the damage would be permanent.
Adam had fared better physically, but the gruesome nature of his injury had already made him infamous among the survivors. The story quickly spread, detailing how Hoss Cartwright had just barely rescued his older brother from being scalped. Rumor had it that Hoss had broken the neck of the man wielding the tomahawk. Thanks to his brother, Adam had escaped a terrible death with only a two-inch gash at the base of his skull.
“A miracle,” Doctor Martin pronounced, shaking his head. “I know it looks bad now, Ben, but it will heal. Keep it good and clean, and soon enough his hair will cover the worst of it.”
Doctor Martin proved true to his word, and Adam’s wound did in fact heal. In fact, he was out of bed within a week. Ben didn’t realize that he should have been grateful for his oldest son’s previous confinement. As soon as Adam could sit a horse, he was as good as gone.
Adam had always been a child prone to introspection. Even as a boy, he tended to his own illnesses and hurts like a barn cat. He would simply go off into a quiet, dark place and settle in until he had fully recovered. It had always been difficult for him to accept much coddling. Adam would only emerge from his self-imposed exile when the problem was solved, the fever gone, the wound scabbed over and healing. It was a matter of too much pride, Ben realized. He truly regretted that he had never tried to check this tendency in his oldest son. If he was being honest with himself, between the struggle to build the Ponderosa and the difficulty of raising three boys single-handedly, it had been a relief to have an oldest son who was so independent.
This time it seemed that the quiet, dark place that Adam had retreated to was not going to let him go that easily. He had never seen his oldest son so distant. It wasn’t catatonia; somehow it seemed worse than that. While Adam had always enjoyed his own solitude, after the incident, Adam seemed to fold into himself in a way that Ben frankly found disturbing.
He remained courteous, almost to a fault. He never argued with his father, never uttered a word that could be construed as disrespectful. But every word he did say was edged in a bitterness so scathing, it made his father’s heart ache. Usually, his son didn’t say anything at all.
Ben had taken to rising at the earliest moment of dawn just to catch a glimpse of his oldest. Every morning, Adam declined breakfast, nodded and tipped his hat to his father, and vanished out the door into the gray edge of morning. Ben had no idea where Adam spent his days. He never asked for work to do, a fact Ben found so disturbing, he couldn’t bring himself to offer any. Nothing was required of Adam, nor did he seem to require anything of himself.
Three mornings ago, as he watched his son hook his gunbelt around his hips, he brought himself to ask, “Is there anything I can do for you, Son?”
Adam turned, and the ghost of a smile twisted on his face.
“Pa, the only thing you could have ever done for me,” Adam said, “Was to have gotten on that ship and sailed to the other side of the world, rather than marry my mother.”
Ben stared at his son in confusion before the meaning of Adam’s words settled in his heart. He should have sailed away. Adam wished he had never been born. If his son had never come into this world, he’d never have experienced the events of that day. What was the difference between wishing you had never been born and wishing that you were no longer alive?
Adam tipped his hat to his father and smiled again, sadly this time, and slipped out the front door.
It had been three days since Ben Cartwright had seen his oldest son. Adam, calm and dependable since boyhood, had turned into a man his father couldn’t begin to understand.
Joseph, on the other hand, had reacted to the incident in a way that his father understood all too well. His youngest son had always been emotional. Usually, those emotions were grounded in high spirits and the goodwill of men. Little Joe had always believed in possibilities. He whistled when he worked at his chores, laughed so hard at bad jokes that he sometimes fell off his chair, and talked to his horse when nobody else was around. He took great pleasure in life and usually life took great pleasure in Joseph Cartwright. He lived his life in a way that was so unrestrained, innocent bystanders often had to cover their heads and dive for cover.
That lack of restraint had often led to what Adam had once caustically labeled as “the dark cloud” that came over Joe, when the emotion at hand wasn’t quite so bright. Everyone was well acquainted with Joe’s temper, the darker side of his joy. His anger could be fierce. While trying to deal with some of his son’s rages, his father had occasionally feared that Joseph might someday turn his back on all he had been taught. During his eighteen years of life, Little Joe had managed to avoid the serious mistakes that could accompany such a personality. Something had always held him back, had always melted his fury into repentance, before he let his anger get away from him.
Until the incident, Ben had always been able to get through to his youngest son.
After he regained consciousness from the attack, Joe’s moods plunged downward and from there headed downward still. The slightest provocation could trigger his temper and usually did. To make matters worse, as soon as he was well enough to stagger out of his bed, he chose to spend nearly every free moment in Virginia City. More mornings than not, Ben had been fetched by the sheriff’s young hand to bail his boy out of jail.
Beatings upon beatings, nearly every time was the same. Again and again, Joe managed to fling himself into the path of every hot-blooded cowhand and every professional gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger that came into Virginia City. Joe was a good fighter for his size and age. He gave as good as he got, but Ben didn’t know how much more his son’s poor body could take. It distressed Ben, beyond any possible words, to see the boy’s physical condition on those mornings when he entered Roy Coffee’s jail to retrieve him. At what point would it be too much?
It already felt like too much to bear. He remembered the wailing that had fallen over ancient Egypt when God chose to strike down the oldest son of every household. He wondered which commandment had been broken to bring down such a plague on all their houses.
Again and again, he had tried to redress such thoughts, reminding himself that tragedy could fall upon the most upright family. But as he watched his sons wasting away, Ben wasn’t so sure that it was out of his hands. He had always been a strong man and a powerful one as well. For some reason, his sons had been saved. Wasn’t there anything a father could do to save his sons from themselves?
Ben felt the warmth of a firm hand resting on his own, and he looked across the table, startled. Hop Sing gazed evenly back at him. Ben had forgotten he was still there, sitting at the table with him. He forced himself back into the present and managed a smile for his old friend.
Hop Sing spoke to him very gently. “They good boys. You see. They come back to you. Those boys always come back home.”
“Thank you for that, old friend,” Ben whispered, not believing a word the man said. He picked up his knife from dinner that still lay on the table. He turned it over and over again and carefully tapped his finger against the edge. It was sharp, but not even a knife could cut through the sorrow and pain in his house. Without realizing what he was going to do, Ben raised his knife and buried it into the surface of the old, planked table, ignoring Hop Sing’s horrified gasp. He yanked it out and examined the gash it left behind with utter indifference.
Without his sons sitting around it, the family table was nothing more than a gouged piece of wood, waiting for time and the elements to weather it away.
Adam picked up a stone and considered it. He rolled it in the palm of his hand. He rubbed his fingers against the rough edges until they bled. He turned it over and over, until he was sick of it and never wanted to see it again. Then he tossed it into the lake. It barely rippled before the mirrored mountains once again reflected on the surface of the water, and the stone was gone. There was nothing left to prove that it had ever existed. Nothing at all. Adam reached out and picked up another rock.
Such were the days of Adam Cartwright’s life.
He had never been an indolent man. He had worked hard since early boyhood, struggling alongside his father to survive in situations that might have proved the undoing of lazier men. Even during his years at the university, he had applied himself to his studies with great vigor. His father might have argued about the value of those days, but Adam had always set a rigorous course for himself in mind as well as in body.
These days he could barely find the energy to pick up an axe and chop some wood. Truth be told, he could barely get out of bed, although he would never admit that to Pa. There were so many things he couldn’t tell Pa, and yet his father just wanted to talk and talk and talk. Adam often felt like the memories might burst out of his skull with any more talking. He couldn’t bear it. So he escaped every morning, mounting his horse before the first light of dawn fell over his face.
Riding alone in that fainthearted light provided the only peace of his day. The silence of the grey morning surrounded him. Even the fog swirling around him was agreeable; it was numbing, and made the world seem somehow unreal. Even his memories of blood flowing over the ground seemed muted somehow, like they were a study in perspective and not connected to his life. Before the sun rose, he could hold those images off at a distance and appraise them. The bright alacrity of daylight brought him more clarity than he could deal with.
It wasn’t like he could ever forget what had happened. Whenever he tried to think about anything, he remembered the screams of men, their lives ending a few feet from where he lay. He remembered Hoss fighting off in the distance, his arms streaked red with the blood of other men. He remembered the pain at the back of his head, as savage as any he’d ever known. He remembered Joe, lying as still as death at the mouth of the mine. He remembered the little brother he had half-raised, the baby of the family, lying on his side, his cheek pressed into the mud with an arrow shaft sticking straight out of his back. He remembered the blood that seeped out from the wound and dripped onto the ground leisurely, like the season’s first rain. He remembered closing his eyes and believing he would never open them again.
Adam could not afford to remember, and yet forgetting was a siren call to madness. Remembering was a death howl, a banshee cry in the wind. Adam had no choice but to turn away from the thoughts that rattled around in his mind.
At first, he thought reading might help and give him a respite from his memories. Reading had always been his greatest pleasure. If he had been a poor man, he would have used his first dollar to buy food. With the second, he would have bought books. Both were needs; they simply satisfied a different kind of hunger.
Since the incident, Adam tried stashing many old favorites into his saddlebags on his early morning sojourns. He had attempted to revisit all his old favorites: the sonnets of William Shakespeare, the essays of Mr. Thoreau, even the work of John Milton. He devoured all the familiar words, but they filled him with such an overwhelming sense of longing he could not keep reading. They satisfied not a whit of his hunger; they were words on a page, not sustenance. When he tried to read aloud from works he had loved all his life, they tasted like gall. He could not bear them.
In the end, he decided that literacy demanded too much from a man in his condition. To read meant he had to think. To think meant he had to remember, and that was simply too great a price to pay.
The evening breeze rippled across the lake, ruffling the mirrored sunset into a kaleidoscope of color. Another day had already gone by. Adam couldn’t remember if he had been sitting by the lake for all of it. It didn’t seem to matter much anymore.
He reached to the back of his head to touch the scar. It had become a habit that he had tried hard to stop, with little success. He had always frowned upon the nervous habits of others. Joe tended to tip back in his chair until he inevitably fell backward. Hoss had been known to maul the brim of his hat with his massive hands when something made him uneasy. Even his father was occasionally known to twist his pipe between his fingers, when worried. Adam had never been a nervous man, had never allowed nervous habits to have free rein. And yet lately, he couldn’t stop touching the scar and tracing the path of the tomahawk that ran along the base of his hairline. He knew the scar by rote. He knew the jagged edges and was familiar with every irregularity. The young brave who had gripped his hair had obviously not had much experience with scalping. He had been so focused on getting Adam’s head in the right position that Hoss had been able to come up from behind before he could get much accomplished.
The wound itself wasn’t more than a couple of inches long. It had healed well, even better than Dr. Martin had expected. Already, it was almost undetectable to the casual observer. Only someone looking for it would notice it at all. But of late, it seemed that each man he encountered was bound and determined to catch a glimpse of it. He couldn’t blame them. After all, how many men had survived being scalped? It was that legendary Cartwright luck that had always rescued each and every one of them, right in the nick of time. He was a walking miracle, all right. He had been snatched out of death but wasn’t entirely sure that death wasn’t claiming its due.
Adam had always been a practical man and as one, he worked hard to remember how to live. He remembered to drink water when his throat felt dry, to eat when his empty stomach rumbled, and to sleep when his eyes ached too much to keep them open at night. For his father’s sake, he tried to keep his feet planted on the side of the living, but it was more difficult than he would have ever thought possible.
Adam had always had a plan for the course of his life. He had never been so lost before. He’d always been a man who knew where he was headed. Lately, he had lost confidence even in his sense of direction. The miles of woods seemed formless and void, like a man could wander in them forever. Although his feet still stood on Ponderosa soil, not a single road seemed to beckon him towards home.
During the months that followed the incident, Adam asked himself the question: At what point is a man too ruined to think about going home again? He didn’t know the answer, but he was certain of one thing. If necessary, he would leave the Ponderosa without hesitation. He would spare his father more pain and ride to Virginia City, taking the first stage to nowhere.
Adam wasn’t sure he had reached that point yet, so he continued haunting the lonely places of the Ponderosa and biding his time. He stayed as still as he could and willed his thoughts to stay away.
The sun had almost finished its passage behind the western ridge, and Adam leaned back and watched as a mountain chickadee swung and spun from the underside of an upper pine branch. Hoss would have declared that the bird was showing off, and for once, Adam was inclined to agree. Finally, as if deciding its acrobatics weren’t good enough, the plump, little bird stepped off the branch and dropped. Adam held his breath as the little bird plunged downward to the ground below. At the last imaginable second, the bird stretched out its tidy wings and ended the freefall with a breathtaking upsurge of joyful recklessness. If he were an irrational man, Adam could have sworn the bird had caught his eye, before soaring away.
Adam gave the little bird credit for knowing when it was time to stop falling and start flying again. It took grit to change directions in the middle of a free fall. Given the opportunity, Adam was not certain he would have enough courage to do the same.
Hoss straightened, braced his hands on his hips, and arched his back, trying to ease the unrelenting ache of his exhausted muscles. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his handkerchief and surveyed his day’s work with no satisfaction at all. It was true that the creek that ran along the western section had been clogged and full of debris for months. It was in bad need of clearing. The beavers had been especially active lately and had been building their dams faster than he could clear them. Not that he was complaining. The beavers had their job to do, and he had his. If he could have caught hold of one of the little critters, he would have thanked it for providing him with another day’s work. Clearing out a creek was exhausting and mind-numbing. It was work that suited him just fine.
He gazed up at the sky. Clouds had circled and threatened for days on end. Pa had joked last night that they were being besieged by rain. Then, he had glanced nervously at his middle son, anxious that his words had stirred up memories of another time his boys had been under siege. Hoss smiled softly, remembering. Pa needn’t have worried. There was no end to all the remembering. The memories woke themselves every time he drew a breath. He lived with them. There was nothing that could be done about that.
Hoss ambled back to his horse and untied the canteen from his saddlebag. He took a long, hard draw of water and wiped off his mouth. It left a tinny taste in his mouth as did just about everything, lately. He tied it back onto the saddle and was just about to pack up his other supplies, when he suddenly had a longing to walk by the creek. It had been months since he had walked through the woods, just for the pleasure of it, but for some reason, the sight stirred him, and he decided to take a break between jobs. Patting his horse on the neck, Hoss left the animal ground tied and headed into the copse of trees.
Before the incident, Hoss Cartwright would have been unable to walk through the woods, without offering up a prayer of whispered thanksgiving. Back in those days, the Ponderosa had been a cathedral for him; it filled him up with a sense of peace and purpose that an honest man couldn’t put into words. Those were the days he envied Adam his book learning and fancy ways with a phrase. He would have liked just a couple of those words to describe the wonder of the pine trees in the late afternoon, just before the sun slipped behind the western ridge. Thinking on it, Hoss wasn’t even sure that his older brother could have done justice to all that unfolding beauty. What words could Adam have found to describe the waves of pine trees rippling in the wind, their branches lit like quicksilver in the fluttering light? How could he ever describe to another man the sounds the forest made, even on a still day, when the wind whispered through every tree, and the branches tingled with hundreds of birds, their quivering wings covering hidden nests? It had been a glory of a life, spending days and nights under the canopy of such divine sights.
It had never taken much to make Hoss happy. His heart would fill with gratitude after a ride through the woods or after taking a lungful of fresh air after a rainstorm. His need for companionship could be met by sharing a campfire with his father and brothers. He knew some folks considered him a simple man, but Hoss had always believed that if he lived out his days among such simple pleasures, he’d die a satisfied man.
There were a lot of things he didn’t believe in, anymore.
Hoss had never been one to brood. He had always accepted his father’s dictum that everything happened for a reason. He wasn’t one to argue with his father, yet nothing made sense anymore. The memories kept coming, no matter how hard he tried to push them away. Working his body past exhaustion was the only thing that gave him any kind of relief.
So he worked from early morning until dusk and sometimes into the night. He found endless tasks to fill up the hours of the day. Adam and Joe had contributed nothing to the working of the ranch since they were able to get out of bed, so there was plenty of work to be done. Hoss didn’t blame his brothers, not one bit, but he was surprised that his father didn’t ask more of them. It was unlike Pa to take such a hands-off approach to his sons, but maybe he had learned that there were things that even Ben Cartwright couldn’t control. There was only so much any one man could do when all was said and done.
However, Hoss could control his own body, and he could keep it busy. He had already moved the cattle to the south pasture, where they’d be more protected from the elements, come winter. He had tended to just about every waterhole along the southern edge and had almost finished clearing the beaver dams. Over the past few weeks, he had visited just about every line shack along the perimeter of the Ponderosa and made sure they were well stocked and in good repair. He would have built a couple of new line shacks, if Pa hadn’t insisted that they make do with the ones they already had.
Such a project could have filled huge stretches of empty hours, but he didn’t argue with his father. He knew that Pa was tuckered out from all his worries about Adam and Little Joe. It wasn’t like Hoss blamed him. He was just as concerned, but couldn’t let his mind camp on those worries. He had saved his brothers, but he had no idea how to help them now. He had certainly noticed how Adam still fingered the healing wound at the base of his scalp. He himself would never forget the image that blazed in his dreams at night. The warrior holding his brother by his hair, tomahawk angled down… the blood rivering down his brother’s neck. Adam’s cry of agony as he readied himself for his death…
Hoss stopped walking and almost doubled over from the memory. He stood and braced himself against a tree in the middle of a clearing. It was all so lovely and so awful that it made his gut ache. He leaned against an old pine that must have been more than two hundred years old. The late afternoon sun filled the gaps between the pine branches like glinting jewels, a vision straight out of one of the fairy tales that Marie used to read to him after supper.
It was unfair that such beauty still existed, and yet there it was. The breeze still stirred the scent of cedar and pine from the ground, dry and dusty from a long season without rain. He knew every inch of the wooded hills that unfolded behind him climbing upwards to the mountains. Nothing had changed, and yet nothing was the same. Hoss had never entered these woods, without feeling satisfied, and yet here he stood, empty and desolate inside.
Hearing a familiar bugle call, Hoss stared up at the circle of sky, as a flock of geese flew by. From their position, Hoss supposed they had lit from the lake a few miles away. His vantage point played tricks on his imagination. For just a moment, before they veered out of sight, the flock seemed to organize itself into the outline of an arrow. It seemed like even nature mocked the stuff of his nightmares.
He sat down in the middle of the clearing, ignoring the twigs and needles pricking against his legs. He felt weariness that reached into his bones. He had worked and worked and worked to head off the memories, but it was no good, no good at all. He would never be able to escape that day.
The massacre had taken place on such a beautiful day, just as fine a day as this one. He had commented on the weather to Little Joe, as the three of them rode out to the mine. The only reason they had been at Desolate Flats at all that day was because of the fine spring weather. Joe had suggested, and the other two had agreed, that a long day’s ride to check on the mine would be a fine way to occupy the time. After all, Pa was the largest shareholder, and there had been reports of some nearby trouble between the army and the Paiutes.
The mine had been somewhat of a joke in their family for quite some time. It was one of their father’s rare investments that hadn’t proved profitable. But with the recent unrest, Ben agreed that it might be a good idea for them to check on the situation, firsthand.
Hoss remembered that Little Joe could barely contain himself, and even old Adam was downright tickled to be able to avoid another tedious day filled with clearing clogged water holes and getting around to branding the yearling calves.
Right before they left, Pa had clapped Hoss on the back and smiled at Adam. For some reason, he suddenly frowned and pulled Little Joe towards him by the back of his neck for a quick hug. Joe looked puzzled but hugged his father in return.
“Bye, Pa,” Joe said, cheerfully. “We’ll be home by supper.”
“See that you do, young man,” their father replied with feigned severity. “I expect to see the three of you at the table, before Hop Sing can complain to me about the food getting cold.”
“Don’t you worry none, Pa,” Hoss exclaimed, “I ain’t about to miss Hop Sing’s beef stew. If these two brothers of mine have any other ideas, I’ll hurry them along. I got my own ways of getting things done.”
Their father had laughed but still looked troubled. He placed his hand on Adam’s reins, as they were ready to ride away.
“Take care of them, son,” he said with odd solemnity. Adam had nodded, smiled and tipped his hat in response. Yet, Hoss could still remember a sad expression drifting across his father’s face, as they galloped away from home.
It had been a fine ride for a spring day, and they rode faster than they would have had their father been along. Twice, Joe spurred to a gallop alongside Hoss and snatched his older brother’s hat, laughing and waving it over his head, until finally submitting to Hoss’ winded shouts that he give it back.
“Little Joe, you do that again, and I’m going to pound you,” Hoss threatened, but Adam gestured ahead.
“We’re almost there,” Adam said, pointing ahead to the ridge just beyond the foothills. “It’s high time you two stop all your foolishness and start acting like grown men. Otherwise, Desolate Flats is going to think it’s under attack. That would be about the only excitement this sorry mine is likely to see!”
“Now, you mind us, you hear, Little Joe?” Hoss warned, still fiddling with the top of his hat, trying to push it back into shape. His little brother liked nothing more than smashing down the top, whenever he got a hold of it. “I don’t know why Pa don’t sell his share in this place anyhow. Ain’t never made any money, and I don’t know… Something about it just gives me the shivers.”
“I don’t know and I don’t care. I’d do about anything to get out of an honest day’s work,” Joe chirped, as they set off at an easy gallop towards the settlement.
Adam had rolled his eyes at that, and Hoss had laughed, but no one had argued the point. Truth be told, they had all been glad to get away from the routine chores that sometimes seemed unending. It was enough to spend a pleasant day away from the ranch in each other’s good company. They were about a half-mile from the camp, when Hoss heard the first sign of trouble. Joe was laughing to Adam about some girl he’d been sparking in Virginia City, when Hoss reined to a stop. His brothers looked at him with easy curiosity, and Joe started to say something, but Hoss lifted his fingers to his lips.
“Quiet! I think I heard something,” he hissed and they immediately stopped alongside of him. Joe still looked unconcerned, but Adam’s face was already set in wariness. He knew Hoss didn’t issue orders without good reason.
The landscape seemed serene enough, but Hoss had learned from early boyhood to listen to silence. Every type of quiet had its own information to offer. Not listening to what the quiet had to say was the kind of foolishness that could end your life. Then, Hoss heard it again, and his gaze leveled towards the distant hills.
“What is it, Hoss?” Adam asked, a low voice.
Hoss squinted into the bright sun, unwilling to voice his fears, unless he was absolutely certain. And then he saw it, a sight that confirmed his grim suspicions.
He pointed and said, “Right there.”
His brothers turned in the direction he was pointing, and they saw it too. If Hoss hadn’t been listening or had been facing in a slightly different direction, he would have missed it entirely, a signal light glinting off of the rocks. They had grown up in Indian country. No need to talk about what it meant.
In the end, it bought them ten minutes.
Ten little moments in time that some folks said made the difference between having a small number survivors and having none at all.
The three brothers didn’t need to take time to discuss things. Immediately, they spurred their horses to a fast gallop. They rode hard to the mining camp, where they swung off their mounts, and raced from man to man, shouting warnings of the raid that was surely coming. Even in the chaos of men loading their guns and securing their horses, the afternoon seemed so quiet and so serene that Hoss hoped his interpretation might be wrong. His brothers obviously felt the same.
When Joe heard the first whoop, he thought it was geese in the distance and said so.
“Not geese,” Adam replied grimly and placed his hand on Joe’s arm. “They’re here.”
The three brothers stood together and held each other’s gaze as long as they could. There was no time for goodbyes. The Paiutes were on them before they looked away. They were riding into the camp at full speed, in a cacophony of screaming war cries and horses in flight. The silence was over. Everything else was beginning.
Hoss had fought many types of battles in his twenty-four years of life, but he had never fought the kind of battle he fought that day. He witnessed atrocities he would never repeat to another soul; none of them would. He did his best to keep fighting. He couldn’t keep track of how many men he killed. But they kept coming.
His brothers battled by his side in the fray of bleeding and dying men. Bullets and arrows seemed to be flying from all directions. All a man could do was to try to hold his ground and try not get hit by any of them. No one had planned for any of this. Their ammunition was running low, and there was no chance to reload, no good place to hide and take shelter.
Hoss heard an unearthly scream, and he and Joe both turned to see Miles Hendrick sagging in the hands of a nearby brave, who held his tomahawk high. Joe had gone to school with him, had gone hunting with him just last month. He started to lunge for his old friend, but Hoss held him tight.
“It’s too late,” he shouted at his little brother and shook him hard to make his point. “He’s gone. You can’t save him. Now keep fighting, boy. Save yourself.”
Joe’s eyes filled with angry tears and he shook himself out of Hoss’ grasp. But he did what Hoss told him, fighting to survive, despite the carnage that was spreading across the camp.
As the fighting continued and the body count grew higher and bloodier, Hoss’ memory grew mercifully vague up to one single moment. The clarity began the moment he heard Joe’s voice cry out in the middle of the fray. The chaos and noise of battle was deafening, but Hoss could have made out his little brother’s voice anywhere. Hoss spun to see Little Joe sinking to his knees and then to the ground. An arrow angled out of the small of his back.
The blood already swelled through his jacket and spilled to the ground. Hoss flung himself across the sea of fallen men and horses and struggled to get his arms underneath the boy’s body without breaking the shaft of the arrow. Warm blood soaked into the sleeves of his shirt, and Hoss felt it sticking to his skin. Joe’s life was seeping away. With great effort, Hoss managed to carry Joe away from the worst of the battle and he collapsed with him up against the cleft of a boulder that abutted the mine. Joe’s body was slack in his arms and Hoss wasn’t sure if it still contained life. Half expecting that his little brother was already gone he groped for a pulse. When he found it, it was fading away.
“Little Joe,” he moaned. “Don’t do this.”
But his little brother’s eyes were closed to the horror around them. He was away from it all, and for a moment Hoss envied him his escape. For just a moment, Hoss considered joining him. He leaned back against the rock, holding his brother’s dying body and watching as a sepia haze settled over the world. Adam would have said Hoss was in shock, and he might have been right, but Hoss would never be able to set a single word to how he felt that day. He held Joe, as the boy’s body started to convulse and seize in his arms. Then they both surrendered into stillness.
Hoss watched as atrocities unfolded around him. It might as well be over. His ammunition was almost gone, and the Indians had already captured his horse and rifle. He remembered hearing about the events that had probably precipitated this raid – the attacks on the railroad, the dead Paiute women and children slaughtered in their own village. He saw it unfold in his mind, the endless cycle of violence and revenge, blood taking and blood letting. Hoss was sick unto death of it.
He grasped Joe’s still body to his chest. He would protect this boy’s body with his own, but that was all he had strength for. He wanted no part of this battle. He was a gentle man, with a natural bent for protecting life, rather than taking it. He wrapped one arm tightly around his brother and braced the other one against the ground as if to tether them to the earth. He closed his eyes.
For the first time in his life, Hoss Cartwright was giving up.
But he had forgotten that he had two brothers.
“Hoss!” Above the sounds of death and the dying, he heard his oldest brother cry his name.
His eyes flew open and stared into a hellish vision of frothing horses and the contorted bodies of dying men. In the middle of it, he saw Adam, held in the grasp of a young Paiute brave, his head pulled forward by his hair. He saw the sunlight glinting off the tomahawk, and Hoss realized he had no choice left. This battle was his from the beginning. He never had the option of escape.
Sparing no more than a second, Hoss eased Joe onto his side, careful not to jar the blood-streaked arrow. He looked down at his little brother, lying prone and quiet on the ground, and flung up a desperate prayer that the boy would somehow know that Hoss had not willingly left him alone to die. There was no time to say goodbye; he was already too late for almost everything.
And Hoss heaved himself back into the world.
He saved Adam. They said he saved thirteen men, in addition to the twelve who saved themselves by hiding in the darkness of the mine and not joining the battle at all. They said it would have been a veritable slaughter if it weren’t for him. Later, they tried to have a ceremony to commemorate his bravery, but he refused to participate. It did not escape his attention that he’d never been thanked by any of the men that he had saved, including his brothers. None of the men, still suspended between this world and the next, were convinced that Hoss had done them any favors.
Several months had come and gone, and now Hoss sat in the clearing and buried his face in his hands. Who would have believed a beautiful afternoon in the woods could have stirred up such terrible memories? He had received nothing but acclamations. He knew that without his actions, many more men would have died. Everyone said so. And yet, the killings continued on and on.
After the massacre, the army launched itself into the cycle of retribution and revenge. They killed many Paiutes and burned many villages to avenge the massacre at Desolate Flats. The Indians retaliated in turn, and on and on the bloodshed continued and would continue, until one side was either satisfied or annihilated. Hoss was not satisfied. He wanted no part of any of it. He was soul sickened by the violence, and yet his powerful body would always deny him the life of a harmless man.
Hoss watched as a buck meandered into the clearing. The animal lifted his antlers and regarded him idly, seeming to understand that it was in no danger. Even if Hoss had a rifle in his arms, he wouldn’t have raised it.
Hoss pushed himself to his feet and watched as the stag froze and then bolted away. There was no peace left for him in this world, no beauty in the wilderness. He might look ahead towards future happiness, but believing in it required more faith than he could muster. The best course left to him in this life, he realized, was to do no harm. He slowly made his way back towards the creek, where his horse was waiting. There were still a few hours left of daylight that needed to be occupied.
The fences around the southern pasture were still in need of repair. The yearling calves needed to be branded before winter. With any luck, the beavers would continue to build dams that would need to be cleared. There was still work to be done, perhaps even enough to last a lifetime.
Joe roused himself from the scant mattress of the jail cell. The ticking was frayed and stained from years of abuse, and straw poked against his cheek. Once again, he had survived until morning. For all of his father’s worries during his eighteen years of life, it had turned out to be surprisingly difficult to kill Joe Cartwright.
He lifted his head and regretted it immediately. The room reeled in and out of focus, and he could feel the vestiges of whiskey and violence in his headache. He couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, but from his battered body and the fact he woke up in Roy Coffee’s cell, he was pretty sure it had been one hell of a night.
It wasn’t the first time in the past months that he had woken up in jail. Far from it. The small cell had become like a home to him. It expected less of him than his real one. Joe bit back a moan, as he pushed himself up to a sitting position. He figured Sheriff Coffee was sleeping in the other room, and he didn’t want to wake him. He knew the older man would be disappointed in his new prisoner, and Joe wanted to hold off that moment as long as he could.
He rubbed at a throbbing on the side of his face and immediately knew he shouldn’t have. The abrasions on his face felt freshly raw. Looking at his hands, he saw that they were wet with blood. He looked back down at the ticking and saw the brown splatter of dried blood where his face had rested for the night. He had obviously re-opened some new wound, but it didn’t really matter. It was just blood. He had plenty of it to go around.
Joe tried to find a comfortable position on the swaybacked cot, but it was no use. His lower back still kindled with pain where the arrowhead had splintered bone and ripped up muscle. Doctor Martin told him that lingering discomfort was inevitable. That it would fade only with time. It occurred to Joe that the good doctor didn’t know a thing about pain. He didn’t know a thing about the many nights that Joe woke with his face buried in his pillow, with his jaw aching from silent screaming and his hand groping frantically to pull a phantom arrow out of his back.
Whiskey took better care of the nightmares than the medicine the doctor left with his father. He learned that lesson as soon as he was well enough to sit a horse and make his way to Virginia City. In the past, most barkeeps had refused to sell him anything but beer. After all, Joe had just turned eighteen, and none of them wanted to be accountable to Ben Cartwright who wouldn’t take kindly to his youngest drinking liquor that would burn the britches off a hardened man. And yet, after the incident, everything seemed to change. Joe found he could walk into just about any saloon in Virginia City and find an open seat at the bar, a pretty girl on his lap, and any number of sympathizers willing to buy him whatever he wanted. He could lose himself in the smoky haze of unwashed bodies, cheap perfume, and full spittoons. In the saloons of Virginia City, nobody cared if he was getting better.
Joe could drink himself out of dreaming, but nothing constrained the nightmares that edged into his waking hours. He was haunted with memories. He had no idea how either of his brothers managed to cope. After all, Joe had been unconscious through what must have been the worst of the massacre. He knew now that death wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to a man. If he had died that day, his death would have been no different than any other. Folks would have mourned him and then moved on. Even his pa would have moved on, given enough time to get over it. Might have been better that way. It would have put an end to all the trouble he had put Ben Cartwright through. He would never say that to his pa. He didn’t want to be the cause of any more pain, but he just couldn’t veer off the road he seemed to be taking.
His indifference to death almost frightened him. He’d always been the sensitive one, the Cartwright most likely to shed tears over tragedy. He knew his father and brothers had always tried their best to shield him from the worst that life had to offer. In some ways, they’d been too successful at protecting him.
By any account, Little Joe Cartwright had led a charmed life. He’d been blessed beyond all reckoning. He had a face so handsome it made older spinsters long for the days of their youth, a name that drew respect all across the territory, and the protection of a family that loved him more than he sometimes deserved.
“To whom much is given much is expected,” his father used to remind him, and Joe had thrown himself into what he’d been given with little expectation it would ever be any different.
He had loved his life even with the sorrows that were an inevitable part of the passage. Even after the raid began at Desolate Flats, Joe had truly believed that everything would be all right. God, in the form of his father, would come riding into the camp and save the day, even if it happened at the last minute. When the bodies started falling and the blood kept flowing, the best part of him continued to believe. The best part of him died that day. He no longer expected to be saved.
Joe cried, when he first woke up, in his own bed. His father held him, as he sobbed out of grief and pain, and because he remembered everything that was lost to him.
He clearly remembered waking up in the mud and knowing his own blood pooled around him. Hoss had been holding him, he was sure of it, but when he opened his eyes, he was all alone. He had opened his eyes into a slaughter. His breathing seized up in his chest, as he looked across the carnage of the mining camp. Then he saw a sight in the midst of it that he would never forget. He saw Adam in the grasp of a young warrior, a tomahawk slashing through the air.
Joe had tried to scream for his brother, tried to will his useless legs and arms into action, but he was already losing his claim on the world. He shut his eyes tightly, willing it to be over. When he opened them again, Hoss stood over the broken body of the Paiute and cradled Adam in arms that were soaked with blood. Joe would have cried out for his brothers, but the pain in his body reached its crescendo. It pitched and rose and squeezed the breath right out of his lungs. He reached for his brothers, his fingers clawing into the mud.
As he closed his eyes, Joe moaned between gritted teeth, “Pa… come save me.”
It would be a long time before he opened his eyes again, and when he did, he opened them right back into remembering.
He had been sure that his brothers were dead, that everyone was dead, and at first, he sobbed out of that certainty. His father held him through those first moments like he was nothing but a child, pushed his hair from his face, and to Joe’s amazement and fear, cried a little with him.
Finally, Joe managed to whisper, “I’m sorry, Pa. I couldn’t save them.”
“You saved yourself,” his pa had choked out. “That’s what matters. You’re alive. Your brothers are alive. We’re still a family.”
Then, Joe struggled out of his father’s grip and stared in disbelief.
“Hoss and Adam?” he whispered.
“They’re… they’re fine,” Pa said.
“Then, where are they? Where are my brothers?” Joe asked, still bewildered and somewhat disoriented. The pain roared across his body. It was harsh and demanding, but he wasn’t sorry for it. Not really. It anchored him to the world and reassured him that he was still among the living. He was so confused. He didn’t understand how he had survived. The only thing that convinced him he wasn’t dead was that he couldn’t imagine there would be this much pain in Heaven.
When he asked for his brothers a second time, for the first time in his eighteen years, Joe watched his father come undone. It wasn’t the crying that frightened him. It was his pa’s absolute helplessness that tore into him. And Joe knew for certain. If his pa had been at Desolate Flats, he wouldn’t have been able to save them. Either he would have been slaughtered along with the others or he would have survived to struggle through another day. Either way, there would have been no happy ending. Joe should have been too old to believe that his father was invincible, but somehow he had always believed it anyways. He felt that belief crumble away, along with everything else he had lost at the mining camp.
Joe managed to comfort his father. Gradually, he felt his fear begin to slip away. Something older and colder whittled its way into his heart, and Joe couldn’t name it at first. It wasn’t exactly anger. It was more like rage.
In time, he would welcome its companionship like an old friend.
Most days, it felt like the only friend he had. His brothers came to visit the night he woke up. Adam, surprisingly, rushed to the bed ahead of Hoss and hugged Joe hard, almost trembling with his obvious emotion and relief. Joe had eyed his oldest brother with trepidation, and observed the large white bandage swathed around his head. Joe was so very sorry for what had happened but didn’t say so. He couldn’t cry any more, but he didn’t pull away.
Hoss had stood at the threshold of his bedroom, looking so tired and sad that for a moment Joe could hardly believe this was his middle brother. Hoss was hardly scathed by the incident, only by marked by small scrapes and contusions as a result of the fighting. But nobody looking into his eyes could argue that Hoss was not a wounded man.
“Little brother,” Hoss had told him, “you gave us quite a scare.”
It was the sort of thing Hoss would say, had always said, and yet it was completely different. There was no sigh of relief in his words, no satisfaction in the happy ending. None of them had been saved this time, not really.
“Hey big brother,” Joe said sadly, and then there was nothing else to say, nothing to say at all.
They hardly saw each other after that. In each other’s presence, the memories would come roaring back with such a vengeance, none of them could breathe, let alone get through the minutes in a day. And that was the task that was left to the men who survived. They had to keep breathing and living long enough to see another day.
And Joe was angry at the onslaught of days that wouldn’t stop coming.
It was an understatement of course. His anger ebbed and flowed and sometimes receded for days at a time. But it was always present, and Joe often realized that it might have already ruined him. The inside of a jail cell might be the most merciful way to contain all that rage.
Whatever had happened this past night couldn’t have been all that different than any of the others, and yet he felt far worse. Joe’s mind was still cloudy, and the details blurred in his mind with all the other nights he’d gotten into trouble in Virginia City.
He remembered colliding into a couple of drovers who’d been riding herd from a spread outside Genoa. He didn’t recall who started the fight but could remember that the men’s faces had been as gnarled as the stunted pines that thrived in the high desert. One in particular looked so mean, Joe imagined he’d be willing to eat off the same plate as a rattler. The other man wore his gun low and loose over his hips. They were the type of men he would have known to stay clear of, in his life before Desolate Flats. His brothers would have given him a nice punch in the jaw for just looking in their direction. But his brothers hadn’t been around for a long time.
Joe leaned back and idly chipped paint off the wall. His pa would be here soon to take him home. It would take a couple hours for Roy to find a messenger brave enough to ride out to the Ponderosa and risk the wrath of Ben Cartwright. They had played out this scenario so many times before. His father’s face would be stark in the streams of harsh sunlight that poured into the jail by late morning. Joe did not want to hurt his father. He just wanted to stop hurting, and the constant battering of his poor body distracted him from pain he couldn’t bear.
The door creaked open, and Joe sighed. Roy Coffee stood, backlit in the threshold, a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. For the longest time, Roy stood there, regarding his young prisoner. Joe couldn’t take it after a while. He hated silences, always had, and still considered it his duty to break them.
“Morning Sheriff,” he said and started to apologize, but Sheriff Coffee wouldn’t hear it.
“That’s enough out of you, Little Joe Cartwright,” he said and waved his coffee cup for emphasis, splashing some of it on the ground. “I don’t want to hear a single ‘good morning’ from you, not this time! Just take a look at you! What do you think you’re trying to do to yourself, boy, kill yourself? There ain’t hardly enough left of you to send home with your pa!”
“I can take care of myself,” Joe mumbled, irritated despite his fervent desire to keep his emotions under control. It was bad enough to have grown up with two older brothers who protected him like mama bears and a father who could roar like one. Even the sheriff who arrested him thought nothing of treating him like a fool kid. He would have preferred being treated like a prisoner than a child.
“I’m not so sure about that, Little Joe,” Roy said and fiddled with the door. He placed a tray of food on the small table next to the cot. “Seems to me you’ve been taking care of yourself for quite a while now, and maybe it’s about time you let someone else have a turn at it. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you was bound and determined to get yourself killed! Those fellows you took on last night were meaner than a bitin’ boar. They half did you in boy, before I got there to stop it. Now, how would your pa feel if I had to bring you home in a box next time?”
“Might be the best thing for everyone,” Joe mumbled, flicking away crumbs from a piece of burnt toast. He hadn’t had much of an appetite lately, and his jaw throbbed from that powerful left hook. It would be hard to chew, even if he did feel like eating. His body was a riot of injuries, and he was starting to realize how much damage he’d done this time. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember exactly why he’d gotten so angry. But he remembered the rage all right, vivid and visceral, welling up from a part of him he’d never known existed before. He wondered if this was how killers were born. Something happened that awakened a font of violence that they couldn’t control. Joe didn’t know if he’d be able to stop himself next time. Maybe it would be better for everyone if somebody else stopped him, once and for all.
“What was that?” Roy asked, his voice edged in disbelief. Joe’s head snapped up to look at the old family friend who stood before him. His head reeled with the movement, and Joe felt every round of whiskey revolting in his belly. It took everything he had to not keel off the bed. He resisted mightily. The last thing he needed was for Roy to call in Doctor Martin. After all, he had new scars layered on the one that everyone knew about. Some things were private; he couldn’t have shared them if he wanted to.
“Little Joe, if I didn’t know better, I’d believe you was trying to get yourself killed,” Roy said. “Now, I ain’t leaving this cell, until you explain what you mean by that.”
“Never mind, Sheriff,” Joe said. “I don’t know what I mean anymore.”
“Well, I know what I mean, and I mean to tell it to your pa this time,” Roy said, as he turned to leave the room. “You’ve been a thorn in my side, ever since you’ve been well enough to get out of bed. Even if you’re determined to get yourself killed, I don’t want to be the one to do it. The way you’re headed, Little Joe Cartwright, you’re going to wind up cut down in the middle of the road or hanging from the end of a rope!”
Joe struggled to stand. Pain raced along his side, and he figured he might have cracked a couple ribs this time. He staggered to the bars of the jail and held on, reaching through to touch the sheriff’s arm. He had no anger left right then, just sadness and a longing so immense, he didn’t think the world was big enough to hold it. He felt a sudden desperation to bring it to an end.
“Roy,” he called out softly. “Let me out of this cell. Don’t call my pa. Just give me my gun, and I’ll ride out of here. I promise you won’t have anything to do with it, if anything happens to me.”
“I can’t do that, Little Joe.” Roy shook his arm free but looked hard at the boy.
“For God’s sake, Roy, why not?” Joe felt the tears that had been absent for months well up in his eyes.
“You think you’re all alone in this,” Roy said. “I’ll tell you one thing, boy. You ain’t never been alone in your entire life. There are some types of sorrow that are meant to be shared, and you got yourself a family to share it.”
Sheriff Coffee locked the door behind him, leaving him alone in the cell. Joe kicked at the tray with a fury that cost his aching body more than he’d care to admit. He flung himself onto the cot, shaking with fury and every kind of pain. He covered his face with his hands and waited for his father to come get him.
He most certainly did not cry.
Ben hesitated before the rough-hewn door of the Virginia City jail. He wasn’t sure why he was waiting. After all, his horse was already being watered and fed at the livery. Doctor Martin had apparently been out to see Joe that morning, so that was taken care of at least. According to the messenger, Joe had been pretty banged up after the fight. Ben would need to head over to the Bucket of Blood at some point and find out how much it would cost to clean up the mess that Little Joe had left behind.
He was getting good at taking care of these things. It wasn’t like it was the first time.
However, this time something was different. Ben had taken it upon himself to change the circumstances they’d all been caught in, over the past several months. He heard shuffling and turned to take a look at his two oldest sons, who waited behind him on the main road.
It was the first time either of them had set foot in Virginia City since the massacre, and Good Lord, what a time he’d had getting them to come along! They hadn’t come willingly, that was for certain! Ben had used every trick at his disposal to convince them that he needed their help. He had even used one shameless ploy that he would have been ashamed of, if the circumstances had been less dire. He had told his sons that his heart had been giving him trouble. Told them he was worried that he didn’t have the stamina it would take to ride into Virginia City and deal with Little Joe alone. It wasn’t exactly the truth, but it wasn’t a lie either.
In all honesty, Ben Cartwright didn’t know how much more his heart could take.
It took him the better part of a day to find his sons. He finally found Hoss at the southern corral, fixing a section of fence that had fallen into disrepair. When he asked his son to help him bring Little Joe home, Hoss had initially been reluctant. He protested that he still had to clear out a bog in the afternoon, but after listening to his pa’s tale of heart trouble, his wide, sweet face contorted with so much worry that Ben was ashamed of himself. But he wasn’t sorry enough to take back his story. Somehow, in some way, this had to end. Even if was only for a day, he needed to have all three of his sons beside him again.
Adam was harder to find and harder to persuade. Ben finally discovered him in a cleft of a cove on the other side of the lake. It was a secluded spot that Ben hardly remembered visiting before. He slid down the steep bank to the boulder where Adam was sitting.
The way his oldest son sat staring at the lake unnerved him. Adam didn’t even look up. Just kept tossing stones listlessly into the lake. Ben could just barely see the angry bolt of a scar underneath Adam’s hairline. Oddly enough, it was the one scar he was least worried about.
“Adam,” Ben said quietly and cleared his throat. His son still didn’t even glance over. He repeated again, louder this time. “Adam. I need you son. I need you to come with me. Joseph needs you. He’s in trouble. He’s in a great deal of trouble.”
Adam still didn’t respond, and Ben realized he had never seen him look so lost. What happened, he asked himself, to his dependable son with the good head on his shoulders? What happened to his family? He shook that thought right out of his head. All his life, he had believed in the possibility of second chances. Who better than a father to step into the gap to redeem his own sons? He steeled himself against the urge to reach out and stroke his son’s hair. The man who had remained by his side throughout tragedy and prosperity was still in there somewhere. Ben just needed to find out where he had gone.
“We’re all in trouble, Pa.” Adam’s voice was so quiet that Ben had to strain to hear it. But he did hear it, and despite the despair he felt at the words, he was heartened that his oldest son was speaking at all.
“I’m here to help you, son,” Ben said, sitting on the rock next to his son. “I want to help all of you. Hoss, Little Joe… I want us to help each other. Don’t you see, son? You’re not alone in this.”
“Oh Pa, don’t you see?” Adam asked, and his laugh was so bitter that Ben could have cried. “We’re not little boys you can save this time.”
“I’d save you,” Ben said, stubbornly, almost to himself. “If it took every last breath in my body, I’d save all of you.”
He looked to his son for an answer, but Adam was through with talking. He picked up a larger stone and heaved it into the water. Ben sighed. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone in his life. Somehow, he just knew what had to be done. Until they were together again, he couldn’t see what hope they had.
Ultimately, it took the explicit threat to his health to persuade his oldest to come with him. Even in his despondent state, Adam wasn’t willing to risk his father’s life. They met up with Hoss on the road to Virginia City. Ben noted that the two brothers didn’t speak a word to each other. They just tipped their hats and nodded gravely, sadly. Ben was heartened to see the look of understanding that passed between them. For all the time they’d spent apart, they didn’t seem to be at odds with each other. It disturbed him all the same. Neither seemed the least bit surprised at the bleak turn their lives had taken.
He didn’t understand God’s ways in all this. He could not understand the purpose behind his sons’ pain, why their young lives already seemed so broken. So Ben paused in front of the jail door and flung up a quick prayer before entering. .
“What’s wrong?” Hoss asked quickly. “Your heart ain’t bothering you none, is it?”
Ben allowed himself a small smile, as he felt Hoss grip his shoulder. It had been such a long time since any of his sons had reached out to touch him, in any way.
“No, son,” he said, “my heart’s fine… fine. I have a feeling it’s not going to be giving me trouble much longer.”
They entered the jail, and Roy Coffee glanced up from his ledgers.
“Well, if this ain’t a surprise!” he exclaimed. “I wasn’t figuring on all of you Cartwrights coming to town. Hoss, good to see you. Adam, how’s your head?”
Adam shrugged and obviously struggled mightily to control his irritation. Ben was glad his oldest wasn’t as hot-tempered as his younger brother. Otherwise, he’d have a hard time keeping him from bolting.
“My head’s fine,” Adam finally answered. “Roy, where’s the kid? We need to be on our way.”
“Sorry boys, but it ain’t that simple,” the lawman replied.
“What do you mean, Sheriff?” Hoss asked. “Little Joe ain’t really in trouble, is he?”
“Boys, your brother’s in more trouble than I’ve got words to describe!”
Ben struggled to control his rising fear and asked, “Roy, what kind of trouble is Little Joe in? I was led to believe in was another bar brawl… that he was banged up and there were damages…”
“Oh there are damages all right,” Roy interrupted, “and what I’m trying to tell you is they’re the type of damages that you’re not going to be able to fix with a trip to the bank.”
“We don’t have time for this,” Adam said and tried to push past him. “I want to see for myself what’s wrong with my brother.”
“Now, you hold it right there, Adam Cartwright,” Sheriff Coffee drawled, not budging one bit. “This here’s my jail, and you all are going to listen to me, before you take one step into that cell. Ben, you know I’ve been holding onto Little Joe for you, when he gets himself in trouble. I’ve done it because we’re old friends and what with all the trouble at the mine.”
Roy gestured at Hoss and Adam, but they didn’t react to his statement, so he continued, “Now, that boy is banged up this time, but that’s not the half of it. Ben, he took on the Henley brothers. They’re a couple of drovers from Carson City, and Ben, I’m telling you they’re so mean they could have a man every morning for breakfast. The way Bert from the Bucket of Blood tells it, Little Joe didn’t just have a run-in with those fellows. He went out looking for them.”
“How could Little Joe have gone looking for fellows he didn’t even know?” Hoss asked.
“That’s just it,” Roy said. “It puzzled me too, until I was talking to him this morning. Ben, that boy is plumb desperate to have someone take things in hand, to end things for him once and for all.”
Ben finally found his voice and sputtered, “Roy, you’re not saying my boy’s trying to kill himself. Because I can’t believe that… Not in a hundred years – ”
“Pa, you don’t understand.” Hoss said quietly. “You can’t know what… what Little Joe might be thinking.”
“Well for God’s sake, help me then,” Ben heard himself pleading. He held onto Sheriff Coffee’s desk for support. “For God’s sake, one of you. Help me understand.”
Roy slid the key into the lock, turning to fix his old friend with a steady gaze. “I ain’t saying he’s trying to kill himself, Ben. But I’m pretty dang sure that he’s trying to get someone else to do it for him. Don’t reckon it matters to him if it’s a couple of fellows in a bar or if it’s at the end of a rope. He’s caught in his own loop, Ben. I figure he needs someone to help him get out of it.”
The sheriff opened the door, and they all crowded into the small room. True to the sheriff’s word, Little Joe looked terrible. He was sleeping on the cot, his shirt unbuttoned and open over his pants, and Ben could see the story of the fight depicted on his son’s body. The boy’s face was a smattering of cuts and contusions, and on his chest, his father could detect bruising that spread sideways and underneath his ribs.
“Unlock the cell,” Ben said grimly.
“Nope. Not until we wake him up first,” the sheriff immediately replied. “Sometimes, he… well, let’s just say he don’t always wake up so nicely.”
“What in Heaven’s name do you mean-” Ben began to ask, but his oldest son interrupted him.
“I know what he means, Pa,” Adam said, and there was understanding in his voice that made his father queasy. “Hoss, you be the one to wake him up.”
Hoss nodded sadly at his brother and pressed his face against the bars of the cell.
“Hey little brother,” he said, in a soft voice, the kind he used for gentling skittish animals. “Time to wake up. We’re all here now. It’s time to head on home.”
Little Joe moaned in his sleep and began moving in obvious agitation. He was dreaming. Mouthing words that belonged to another place and time, they watched as the memory took control of the young man. The memory seized and held him, and Ben could see the story of the massacre play itself out on his son’s face. With a shudder and a moan, he clawed at the painted cinder blocks by the side of the cot. He tossed his head back and forth, finally screaming out, “No!”
Joe’s eyes opened suddenly, and he looked wildly around the cell.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad this time,” Roy said amiably, unlocking the cell. “Sometimes, it’s taken me and two deputies to hold him down.”
Ben shot a horrified look at his old friend and pushed past him to crouch next to his son.
“We’re here Joseph,” he said and tried to reach for his son’s shoulder. His youngest boy, who had always welcomed his father’s touch, shrugged him away.
Obviously struggling to wake up, he stared at Adam and Hoss.
“What are you two doing here?” he asked.
“Pa needed company,” Adam said.
“Oh,” Joe said, still confused, and struggled to sit up. “Sheriff Coffee has my gun. The doctor said I could probably sit a horse. I’m ready to go. Let’s get out of here.”
Ben’s single word had been spoken before he had a chance to think about it. He didn’t know when the idea had come to him. Maybe it was on the silent ride to Virginia City. Maybe it was in the jail office, when Roy had tried to tell him that his youngest boy was trying to put an end to his life. Maybe it was in the realization that his two oldest boys understood why Little Joe had been waking up so badly. All three of his boys were lost to the same memories, the same dreams. It didn’t matter which one was the most likely to succumb first. In the end, they were all heading towards the same fork in the road. They were all in this together.
“What do you mean, Pa?” Hoss asked in confusion. He had reached for his little brother’s boots and was helping ease them onto his feet. “Little Joe needs to get home. He’s awfully hurt this time. He can’t stay in here.”
“We’re going back,” Ben said, the idea taking root in his mind as he spoke. “But we’re not going home. Not yet. We’re going back to Desolate Flats.”
“No!” Joe shouted and tried to stand with one boot only half on. “I’m not going back there! I’m never going back there, and you can’t make me!”
“Joe’s right,” Adam said quietly. “We can’t go back there, Pa.”
“Pa, you don’t know what you’re saying,” Hoss said. “Ain’t nothing left there but ghosts and dry bones.”
Ben noticed how his three sons had backed themselves into the corner of the cell. They looked trapped to him, like wounded animals, nothing like the strong young men he had raised. It only confirmed in his heart that this was the only way. If he waited any longer, his sons would be lost to him forever. It might take a month, it might take a year or even more, but he had no doubt how it would end, all the same.
“I’m still your father,” he said, “and I say we’re riding today. We still have enough daylight to make it there and back.”
“I ain’t going,” Joe said quietly and stepped forward into the center of the cell. “Pa, the only way you can make me go is by holding your gun on me, and even then, I’m letting you know I’d make a break for it, any chance I could.”
Ben had witnessed the anger that had come to abide with his youngest boy. Perhaps, he could have learned to live with it. But Joe’s look stopped him cold. He had never seen such a look on any of his sons’ faces. He felt his breath shudder in his chest, and he bowed his head. Maybe it was already too late.
“I can’t hold a gun on my own son,” he said.
“Well, I can!” Roy Coffee came alongside his old friend, his six-shooter already out of its holster. “I ain’t got no problem holding a gun on you, Little Joe. As far as I’m concerned, you’re still in my custody. Ben, this here boy’s bound and determined to get himself taken out of this world, and I’d rather cut him down with a bullet than put a rope around his neck.”
Ben hated to hear it, but he knew it was the truth. He nodded in agreement and turned back to his sons. All three glared back at him with palpable anger. They were formidable men. Lesser folks would have caved from the look they were leveling at him.
But Ben Cartwright wasn’t that kind of man.
“All right, boys,” he said. “We’re riding to Desolate Flats. And we’re riding together.”
Roy Coffee fought to stay upright in the saddle. It had been one hell of a day, and it looked like it was only going to get longer. It wasn’t easy keeping pace with the Cartwrights while keeping one hand resting on his six-shooter, in case Little Joe tried to get away again.
True to his word, the boy had already tried to make a run for it, twice. Roy was astounded that the boy was able to sit a horse in his condition, let alone try a fool trick that made it look like he was no longer riding on his horse. It flummoxed Roy the first time until Hoss shouted out that his little brother was still there. He was simply hanging on to the other side of the saddle. The second time, Little Joe just bolted away, hoping that sheer speed and determination would be enough to allow him to escape.
Roy had looked to Ben who nodded at him, grimly giving him permission. Jerking his gun from its holster, Roy aimed up and fired twice into the air. He breathed a sigh of thanks when the warning shot seemed to stop Little Joe in his tracks. The boy reined to a stop and lifted his hands to the sky. Roy couldn’t tell if the gesture was intended as a supplication or a surrender.
Before they had left Virginia City, Roy had pulled Ben aside and asked, “Ben, what do you want me to do, if Little Joe tries to get away?”
“Stop him,” Ben answered. “Do what you need to.”
“I don’t know, Ben! Are you sure? I don’t want to hurt him anymore, after all that boy’s been through!”
“No, Roy, I’m not sure. I’m not sure about anything, anymore,” he replied. “But I do know this. I’m already losing my sons, just as surely as if they’d died that day. And I can’t sit back and watch it happen.”
Ben turned towards the livery where Hoss and Adam were waiting with the saddled horses, but Roy grabbed hold of his arm.
“Let me ask you this,” Roy said. “Just what do you plan to do, once you get those boys to Desolate Flats?”
Ben’s smile was both sheepish and unexpected.
“I’ll tell you the truth, Roy,” he said, clapping the lawman’s back. “I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do once we get to Desolate Flats.”
As he watched his old friend stride towards the livery, Roy took off his hat and scratched his head. Those Cartwrights were a contrary bunch, every one of them! Just because Little Joe was the most ornery didn’t mean the rest weren’t every bit as stubborn.
Now, as he rode behind them, Roy Coffee prayed that the legendary Cartwright stubbornness would be enough to pull them through this time. On the long ride, he had come to realize that Adam and Hoss were every bit as unnerved as their little brother. Hoss was doused with sweat, even though the day was on the cool side, a perfect autumn afternoon. Once, when Roy had pulled alongside him, he had noticed that the giant man’s hands trembled as they held the reins. But Hoss wasn’t much of a complainer. He would go along with his father’s plans, even if it killed him.
The other two weren’t so accommodating. Even though he didn’t try to escape like his little brother, Adam stopped the small party twice to interrogate his father about his intentions. Ben didn’t waver one bit, nor did he explain what he had planned. Roy noticed that Ben didn’t seem all that upset to have his son arguing with him again. He knew that Adam had hardly spoken for months. Roy figured anything had to be an improvement.
As they continued, the horses began to churn up more dust and the vegetation grew sparse and barren, Roy noticed that even the air seemed heavier. An upstart wind whistled through the scrub, and the underbrush leaned into it. It was no wonder that all the foliage was so misshapen, growing under these conditions. It was a desolate place, that was for sure, and the mining camp had been well named for its surroundings.
As the land changed, the demeanor of the Cartwrights changed as well. Adam stopped arguing, and Joe stopped trying to get away. Hoss and Ben rode steadily, with bleak resolution. Even Roy felt the surge of foreboding. After all, he had been part of the original party that had responded to the first frantic plea for help. He remembered the wild look on the face of the miner who had desperately ridden into town that day. The flanks of his horse were drenched with sweat. People streamed out of buildings to hear the horrible news. Paiutes at Desolate Flats! A massacre!
Roy had been among the first to arrive at the camp. He would never forget the sights he had seen that day, nor would he repeat them to another living soul, if he could help it. Roy couldn’t blame the Cartwright boys for not wanting to come back to this hellish place. It was the last place he would have headed, if he didn’t owe it to the Cartwrights to come along.
As they came to the final turn that led into the settlement, Joe suddenly reined to a stop. Prepared for another escape attempt, Roy reached for his gun, but Joe simply slid off his horse and staggered over to a nearby patch of scrub. Each one of them looked away, as Joe retched over and over again, doubled over, with his hands braced against his knees. Roy glanced at the other Cartwrights. Ben’s chest was shaking; it looked like he was having trouble keeping his breathing under control. Adam looked away, looking much older than his thirty years. Hoss showed the most distress. Panicking, he glanced from man to man, wanting someone to do something to help his brother. Finally, he dismounted and hurried alongside Little Joe. He picked up the boy’s hat, which had fallen off, and he waited.
“Easy, little brother,” he said, when Joe finally forced himself to stand. Joe turned, and Roy saw that the boy’s face was drained of color. Immediately, Roy thought back to that terrible day in the mining camp when he had stumbled across him, lying beside his brother, Adam. Hoss had been sitting next to them, covered in the blood of other men, staring ahead. Hoss had believed that both his brothers were dead, and he sat like a sentinel, unmoving and unseeing, beside them. Roy had reached past Hoss and exhaled in relief, when he felt a faint pulse on each man’s neck. When he shook Hoss out of his torpor, the big man had been dumbstruck to learn that his brothers still lived. If Hoss Cartwright hadn’t been thinking too clearly at the scene of such carnage, well who could have blamed him?
“I’m all right, Hoss,” Joe said, accepting his brother’s arm. For a couple minutes, the two brothers stood, just holding each other steady. From what Ben had told him, the Cartwright boys had spent more time together during this one day than they had in the past several months.
“I know you’re all right, little brother,” Hoss replied in his sad, sad voice. “Hope you don’t mind me sticking around a spell, just to make sure.”
Adam turned and glared at his father. The outrage in his expression was so pronounced that Roy wondered why they were always thinking of Joe as the angry one.
“What’s the point of this?” Adam spat out. “What are you trying to accomplish by putting them through this? This isn’t something you can fix, Pa. This is outside of your control. You can never change what happened.”
Ben’s voice was steady in the high desert wind. “I can’t change what happened to you, Adam. I’d give my life if I could. But I can fight like the devil to save the future that’s left to you.”
Adam shook his head, as Hoss helped Joe back to his horse.
“You all right, son?” Ben asked kindly.
“I’ll live,” Joe replied. “All right, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it. It’s going to be dark soon.”
They continued to ride. Roy looked out towards to the great basin of the desert. They were running out of time. The mountain range that they had traveled down was veiled in a pink mist. The sun was already setting. It was a mystery to him what was going to happen, but whatever it was, it needed to happen before long.
They reached the low-lying ruin of the mining camp, as the sun hovered over the horizon. Later, Roy would swear to himself that the sun had halted in its circuit, just long enough to give them the time that they needed. It was impossible, of course, but Roy had long since decided that disbelief should be suspended when it came to the Cartwrights. He figured that God owed the Cartwright family a miracle or two.
The four men dismounted, while Roy remained on his horse. He had been to the camp many times since the massacre occurred and had no need to look around. It had taken days to complete the investigation and to load all the possessions of the dead into wagons. The camp was desolate now. All traces of death and dying had been worn away by the relentless wind. The blood that had spilled here had vanished into the dust of the earth. As the breeze whipped sand and grit into their eyes, Roy felt his vision begin to blur.
Despite the difficulty of persuading them to come, the Cartwright brothers now seemed to be in no hurry to leave. Adam meandered around the camp, running his fingers over the dirt-strewn debris. Most of the miners who had survived had chosen to leave their equipment behind. Many of them left the territory altogether, preferring to go back to their homes rather than stake their fortunes in the savage West.
Hoss walked about the camp, almost like he was tracking a prey. He’d study the ground in one area, nudge the dirt with the tip of his boot, and then move along to the next spot. Roy wondered if was tracking the course of his battle. According to all accounts, Hoss was largely responsible for the fact that there were any survivors that day. He stopped at an area near the entrance to the mine, and stood there, seemingly lost in thought.
Joe had immediately headed for a cleft by the side of the mine, and Roy recognized it as the place where he had found the boy, lying in a pool of his blood. Joe sat down and stared into the clearing. Roy would have never had the guts to ask what horrors were playing themselves out in the young man’s haunted eyes.
Ben saw his youngest son’s expression too. He strode across the camp until he reached Joe. Without a word, he dropped to the dirt alongside him. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. Roy shook his head. It was a good thing that Ben Cartwright was a praying man; this family was due for its share of answered prayer.
After a time, Adam finished cataloguing the remains of the camp and wandered over to his father and brother. Hoss wasn’t far behind. They collapsed onto the ground next to Ben and Joe. For the longest spell, the Cartwright family sat like for that, just looking off into the distance beyond the wasteland of the mining camp.
Finally, Adam asked, “What’s supposed to happen now, Pa? We’re here. We’ve done what you asked. We’ve come along with you. How exactly are you planning to save us? Is this when we’re supposed to have the big, emotional moment and tell you everything that’s been eating away at us? Are we supposed to have an epiphany here? Was that the grand plan?”
Ben looked at his son. At first a retort seemed to form on his lips, before he thought better of it. At last, he smiled sadly and shrugged.
“I suppose it was,” Ben said. “I guess what you’re telling me is that my plan didn’t work.”
His youngest son turned and regarded his father with a bemused expression. Then Joe started to laugh.
At first, the laugh seemed like a hitch in the boy’s chest, and Roy could have sworn he was crying. Roy thought that maybe this was the big emotional moment Ben had been waiting for. But it was obvious the boy was laughing instead of falling apart. Little Joe’s familiar high- pitched cackle rose in the wind, and the other three stared at him, obviously bewildered and more than a little concerned. Roy personally wondered if the boy had finally come unhinged.
Finally, Little Joe sputtered, “I suppose you’re all waiting for me to start crying. That would be the next thing on the list for Pa’s grand plan.”
“Yes, I suppose it would,” Ben said and smiled, draping his arm around his smallest son’s shoulders.
Hoss let loose with a loud guffaw. From the look on his face, it was finally sinking in that his all-knowing father hadn’t completely known what he was doing, when he insisted they accompany him to the camp. The grand plan to save them hadn’t been much of a plan at all. Even Ben Cartwright didn’t have all the answers.
Adam stiffened next to them, and Roy figured that the oldest Cartwright would be impervious to the laughter of his younger brothers. However, the sheriff wrinkled his forehead in amazement, as Adam suddenly leaned back against the rocks and let out a laugh that rivaled Joe’s.
“God, we’re a pathetic bunch, aren’t we?” he asked not waiting for an answer. “Have you ever seen a sorrier bunch, Pa?”
“I have,” Ben said, his cheek coming to rest on top of his youngest son’s head. He was not laughing hard like his sons, but Roy had never seen a smile like that on his friend’s face. “But, I’ll admit that the four of us are definitely in the running.”
“What are we going to do, Pa?” Hoss asked, wiping tears from his eyes. “What’s going to happen next? How do we get things back to the way they was before?”
“I don’t know,” Ben answered truthfully. “But one thing I know for sure. We can face just about anything, as long as we’re together.”
Adam placed his hand on his younger brother’s leg. Roy couldn’t be sure of it, but it seemed to him that Little Joe might be crying after all. In fact, it seemed like they might all be crying as they huddled together in one of the most desolate places on earth. They leaned against each other, their foreheads almost touching.
If they were indeed crying, Roy Coffee wouldn’t have been able to testify to it. He was already turning away, reining his horse back towards the road to Virginia City. After all, it wasn’t his place to stay.
He and his gun were no longer needed.
Roy would have to hurry to make it up the mountain pass before nightfall. The horizon glowed pink in the distance and rose in shades of gray to blue to deepest indigo overhead. It would be dark before the Cartwrights started back, but he had no doubts they would make it home safely. The waxing moon already hung in the sky, an imperfect beacon to guide them. A full moon would have been better and would have provided more light, but they were all used to making do with hardship.
It wouldn’t be easy.
In the wavering light, they would only be able to see the path that lay directly ahead of them. The rest of the road would be shrouded in darkness. It would have to be good enough. They had each other, and they’d be all right. Together, the Cartwright family would find a way to get back home.