Interlude (by Debbie L)

Summary:  A hunting trip turns into a different type of quest for Adam, Hoss, and Joe: a struggle to survive against an unknown gunman and the ominous arrival of winter. Refers to events portrayed in “The Return” and “Abide.”*
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:
  PG
Word Count:  11,900

*Please note: This story is part of a series and refers to events portrayed in “The Return” and “Abide.” 


 

The clouds seemed to be reinventing themselves, silver upon grey granite, dark as a stone. Unlike the hot and wretched fury of bad weather in New Orleans, this storm had been gathering all day, calm and serene, glacial almost, as if it were beneath its dignity to simply let loose. The cold, so foreign to a southern boy, seemed to seep into his very bones, and Joe shivered from the anticipation of it all. Forgetting himself, he sprung to his feet and stuck out his hand, as if accepting an offering from an unknown deity.

“What the hell are you doing? Stay down!” Adam hissed and yanked Joe’s arm so hard that he collapsed in the dirt next to his brothers. “What’s wrong with you? Whoever shot at us is still out there. You’ll get yourself killed.”

“Adam,” Hoss said, and his voice was grim, “Do you reckon the snow’ll be here before nightfall? It’s been a late winter. You think it’ll hold out a bit longer?”

“Of course it’s going to snow,” Adam snapped, before softening the retort with a wry grin. “The way this little hunting trip is turning out, I imagine it’ll be the blizzard of the century. In fact, the plague of locusts should be here any minute.”

“Do you really think it’s going to snow?” Joe asked hopefully, and he rubbed his arm. Although his wound had healed impossibly quickly, a phantom of pain sometimes lingered in the spot where he had been grazed by a bullet the month before. His brothers stared at the longing on Joe’s face in astonishment, before breaking down, glad for any excuse for a laugh.

“Well at least someone’s happy about this situation,” Adam said, shaking his head, before turning to Hoss once more. “We have to get out of here, find some kind of a shelter. These rocks aren’t going to provide us with any protection for bad weather, let alone from a lunatic with a gun. We can’t stay here all night.”

Hours had already passed while the three brothers huddled in the shelter of large boulders that spilled from the shelf of rock against their back. Earlier that morning, before all hell erupted before them, Joe felt they had ridden through a lifetime of forests. The miles of trees had gradually climbed on and on, until he supposed that he could ride through them clear to the other side of the world and back again. It had been such a surprise when they had finally come upon the cliff. The ancient sequoias and pines grew in mass unchecked, before giving way to the vertical crags that stretched upward towards the sky. It was as though God himself had decided it was time for a change in the scenery.

Now reclining against the rocks, Joe fingered a green pinecone that had blown over from the forest, mere yards away. Even in the bitter cold, the sap ran, tacky between his fingers. After four months of living on the Ponderosa, the raw vitality of the land still surprised Joe. Born and raised in a city that spread, flat and teeming, in heat that could drown a man, his senses now marveled in the vast and rugged variation of the land.

The green wall of trees towered in almost vulgar contrast against the grey sky. The wind snapped in brittle cold against his unprotected ears. Insects teemed under the carpet of needles and leaves, and new conifer seedlings still poked out their heads through cracks in the rocks, daring the threat of winter to frighten them away. Joe brushed away the duff of stray needles and dry leaves and wondered at the heat that lingered in the soil. He couldn’t imagine how the earth would be able to keep itself warm, underneath a blanket of snow.

Next to Joe, Hoss adjusted the scope of his rifle and thought to himself how lucky they were to have the weapon at all. He had been leaning against it, when the first shots were fired at them earlier that morning. The panicked horses had startled away, spiriting away the other rifles and supplies that were tied to the saddles. The rifle was the only weapon left between them, and now Hoss handled it tenderly, like a shy man courting his best girl.

“I sure can’t see him,” Hoss said to his older brother. “But, I can feel him out there. If I could just get a look at him! It’s all those dadburn trees. We’ve got to find out where he’s hiding at. Can’t defend ourselves if we can’t see a thing. How’s your head feeling anyhow, Adam?”

“Been better. Could be worse. Oh will you please sit down?” Adam pulled his youngest brother back to the ground. Exasperated, he ran his fingers through his hair and tried to ignore the trickle of blood that had not yet congealed. He shrugged it off. It was the kind of wound that hurt like nobody’s business, but it wouldn’t kill him.

Joe stirred beside him, still too restless for Adam’s liking. He placed a restraining hand on Joe’s arm, and frowned at the kid, who seemed utterly unconcerned with the predicament they were in. Whenever he thought he was beginning to understand this new brother of his, Joe seemed determined to take all of Adam’s knowing and fling it right back at him.

In Virginia City, the boy had been the ultimate survivor, treating a casual stroll down the street like a challenge that his life might depend upon. Now, trapped deep in the Ponderosa, with bad weather approaching fast and an unknown adversary intent on gunning them down, Joe had settled into a sort of ease that Adam had not seen in him before. For an irrational moment, Adam wondered if it was perhaps worth the price of their lives just to see the kid let down his guard. Maybe, Pa had been right after all.

*****

At its inception, the hunting trip had seemed a reasonable thing, a routine part of protecting the livelihood of the ranch. For a month, the mountain lion had been preying on their herd, picking off the small and the weak, and driving other cattle into the remote areas of the mountain territory. Claiming that he was overwhelmed by a backlog of paperwork, Ben had suggested that the three brothers venture off into the woods together, have an adventure, kill themselves a lion.

Of course, it had never been about the hunting. Ben Cartwright fully understood the hold the Ponderosa could have on a young man’s heart, once he had experienced the breadth and the depth of the land. And Ben was desperate for that land to anchor his son to this world, to this family. The boy’s ongoing residence in their lives was a blessing the father did not take lightly.

With great satisfaction, Ben had marveled at the distance he and his young son had already traveled together, the roads both rejected and taken. Since Dalman had attacked Joe, the old barriers in the boy seemed to have eroded a bit, and his walls had become less easy to defend.

An experienced father, Ben found Joe’s mild displays of rebellion amusing and almost encouraging, although he would not have tolerated them in his other sons, at sixteen. When the boy refused to have his hair cut, protesting that he liked it long and untamed, Ben could sense the fight in the boy, and as a result, the hair still curled defiantly against his neck.

Joe had also complained bitterly over the ongoing visits of the doctor; it had taken the three of them to restrain him long enough for the doctor to get a look at the wounded arm. His resolve impressed them all, as he declared that no doctor had touched him before and he was bound and determined not to let one touch him then. That was a fight he did not win.

Other battles he did not surrender so easily. Joe insisted on working with the roughest horses of the new string and stayed firm in the face of his family’s refusal. He did not yield, and reluctantly they agreed to give him a chance. His prowess at breaking those horses almost made Ben believe that the creatures had conspired with Joe, just to make the boy look good.

Those flares of defiance, so typical for a sixteen-year-old, brought Ben the most solace. They reassured him that Joe might indeed be willing to put up a fight for his place in a house of stubborn men. Yet, there were other concerns that could not be resolved as easily. Ben Cartwright was not a fool, and he took note of the competing longings in his son, the predilections of the heart that could not be as easily worn away.

Joe’s trips to town had been ongoing, and not at all discreet. Every hand at the Ponderosa had smirked of it, under their breath, when they wagered the boss wasn’t listening. Rumor had it that professional card sharps as far away as Placerville and Auburn had traveled by stage to watch the boy play. How Joe managed to maintain this other life, Ben could not explain. After all, he had used every fathering tactic at his disposal, other than bolting the boy’s window at night or giving him the trashing of his life. He doubted that either would have sufficed.

Working for the Ponderosa, Joe completed every chore assigned to him without complaint, kept every task at bay. There was nothing asked of him that was left undone, save that he stay out of the saloon at night. That dictum, alone, Joe was unwilling to obey.

“Bert, please,” Ben had pleaded to the bartender, during a stop in Virginia City. “Don’t let him play cards here. He’s just too young. You’ve got to turn him away.”

“I’m sorry Ben,” Bert had replied, buffing the rim of a glass with his rag. He held it against the flicker of the lamp to get a good look at it. “I’m a businessman Ben, same as you. I have to look out for my bottom line. That boy of yours is good for business. I sell about twice as much of my best whiskey, when he’s on hand for a game. Seems no one wants to be sober after they finish playing him. But they keep coming back, that’s the kid’s genius. Something about him makes them underestimate him every time. I’ll tell you, it’s something to see. I’d pay him to play, if he didn’t come in on his own. No Ben, I won’t turn him away. If you want your boy to stay out of my saloon, you’ll have to keep him out yourself.”

“Don’t you think I’ve tried?” Ben said, striking the bar hard with his fist. “No matter how many times I tell him, order him to stay away. He doesn’t listen to a word. He’s back here again, right as rain. And the women he’s keeping company with…”

“Oh they’re all over him, that’s for sure,” Bert laughed. “He’s a natural, all right. Between Annie and the girls in this room alone, that young man could get enough female attention to last him a couple lifetimes.”

“Terrible,” Ben muttered, and took a slow draw from his beer. “No good can come from it. This is no life for a sixteen-year old boy. All right. Let me ask you this, Bert. Does he or does he not cheat at cards? Maybe I could get the sheriff to intervene.”

“I don’t rightly know, Ben.” Bert sighed thoughtfully and wiped his forehead with the rag. “I reckon I should know. It’s my job to know these things. For how good he is, I’d almost say he has to be cheating. But I’ve never seen him do it. Honestly, I don’t know how he wins. I will say this, Ben. If that boy had been rigging the deck all this time, he wouldn’t stand a chance of being alive today.”

“I have to get him away from this,” Ben muttered. “Have to find a way.”

“Ben,” the bartender sighed. “We’ve known each other for a long time. I know what kind of man you are. I know Adam and Hoss. It’s my job to know people. But let me tell you something. This kid’s different than the rest of you. You’re going to have take him as he is, if you want to take him at all. You can’t change him. It’s in his nature.”

Ben had shuddered at those words as he left the saloon. In his nature. During the long ride home, he ruminated over the brief and bloody lives of men who lived for cards. He needed to find something to draw his son away, to create an interlude from the insidious lure of that saloon.

He rode toward the part of the road that provided the most sweeping view of the azure lake, the ridges of forests, the mountains still dusted with the previous year’s snow. A man could make it to eternity and back and never grow weary of that sight. The answer came to him then, and Ben smiled. It was an old strategy that just might work. Turn an ongoing problem into a solution. It was dangerously close to winter, but he felt there was still time. Ben would enlist the aid of the great Ponderosa, the good company of two brothers, and the nuisance of a determined mountain lion, to lure that boy to the life of the land.

Now, staring out the window at the inclement rush of clouds, Ben wondered if he had made a mistake. The storm had been slowly approaching for days, but it would surely be there before any of them were ready for it. He had gambled his sons would find the animal and would be home before the first snow.

He reconsidered his own decision. What kind of fool was he, anyways, to try to interfere with the workings of nature? He considered the tenuous hold any of them had on anything, after all. Tracing his breath on the icy pane with his finger, Ben willed himself to believe in his boys, and he prayed that nature would change its mind.

*****

The three brothers had been crouching over the body of the mountain lion, the conquest hard-won, after their strenuous week in the woods. The hunt had been more difficult than any of them would have believed. Who would have thought the animal would have remained so long in the forest, instead of retreating to his indigenous rocky ground? Finally, at the edge of the treeline, ahead of his brothers, Hoss had spotted the lion. From his mount, Hoss lined up the animal in his sight and fired. It only took one bullet, which was a blessing, because the lion had no warning to make an escape.

Adam and Joe immediately dismounted, neither pausing to secure their reins. Together, the three leaned over the body of the lion. Hoss ran his hand along the animal’s side, the lovely ripples of muscles now lifeless and slack. He noted with satisfaction that his bullet had found its target, dead center in the animal’s chest. A clean shot, Adam had said. Joe dropped to his knees and touched the animal’s head, with a look that expressed the conflicted pride that Hoss himself had always felt whenever he was forced to shoot and kill.

Then it began. When the gunfire erupted, in the first moment of confusion, Hoss had almost believed that the mountain lion was shooting back at them. A bullet shrieked past his face, and he could feel its heat on his cheek. Grabbing Joe by his collar, he pushed the boy down, forcing him to the ground with his massive body. Lying next to the dead lion, Hoss could smell the musk of the animal and the fecundity of the earth. He wondered if it would be their turn to die.

“Hoss, over here!” Adam shouted, and Hoss turned his head to the outcropping of boulders at the base of the cliff. Adam crouched behind the nearest rock and gestured furiously at his brothers. “Get over here now!”

Holding tight to the back of Joe’s coat, Hoss half dragged the boy across the clearing to the rocks. Just missing the arc of another bullet, he dropped his brother at Adam’s knees. Staring back across the clearing, Hoss noted grimly that the horses had panicked at the first gunfire and were already long gone. His rifle, their sole remaining weapon, lay uselessly on the ground. Bullets still cracked through the air, yet even with his experienced eye, Hoss could detect no motion in the trees, no glimpse of anything that might give their adversary away. If only he could tell where the shots were coming from!

“I need to get my gun,” Hoss muttered and startled when Joe’s hand grabbed his arm.

“No,” the boy whispered, his voice shaky with fear for his brother. “Don’t do it Hoss. They’ll kill you.”

“Don’t worry,” Hoss replied. “Done this lots of times. I’m too big a target.”

He shook off Joe’s hand and crouched to the ground. With a speed that belied his enormous girth, Hoss crawled through the gunfire into the clearing towards his rifle. He had never been a graceful man. In a good fight, he got his point across with mass rather than speed. Yet that morning, to save his brothers, Hoss Cartwright was the fastest man alive. While no more than a second had passed, a lifetime stretched between his brothers and that rifle. Finally, his fingers brushed the handle and he pulled it underneath his chest. With a barest whisper of a prayer of thanks, he tucked the rifle under his arm, and scrambled back to the rocks.

Adam clapped him on the back, and for the first time, Hoss took a good look at his older brother, and saw the blood that trickled over his ear and down his cheek.

“Adam,” Hoss gasped. “What happened to your head? You’ve been shot?”

“No,” Adam growled, rubbing at the cut though it only made it bleed more. “Hit my head on a rock, when I was getting out of the way. You all right?”

“Never been better,” Hoss replied, and together they laughed, two men who had faced worse odds before. Then they remembered the boy who was new to all this, but Joe had already turned from them and was down on his hands and knees, poking under a rock with a stick. Almost like he’s looking for lizards, Adam considered, but then shook his head. He must have hit his head harder than he thought!

“So what do we do?” Hoss asked. The gunfire had stopped, and the land was again filled with the low hum of the wind and the warning calls of birds singing of the approaching storm. He wrapped his scarf more securely around his neck.

“We do nothing. We stay right here,” Adam said and settled back into the grim task of waiting.

*****

Hours passed, each longer and colder than the one that came before. The wind had picked up, as well, tossing leaves and debris into their makeshift shelter. The birds flew from branch to branch nervously and seemed to be watching them with pity. Adam wondered for a moment if their calls were mocking him for his folly. I’d fly away too if I could, he wanted to tell them, and then he smiled at his break from rational thinking.

“Adam, we need to make a run for it,” Hoss said, pulling his hat down over his neck as far as it would go. “That storm’s coming in fast and we’ll never make it out of here.”

“But the shooter – ” Adam protested.

“We haven’t heard a shot for hours now,” Hoss said. “Whoever it is could be long gone by now. Adam, you have a head wound, and Joe’s not used to the cold. Hey Joe. Where are your gloves, boy?”

Joe had been gazing intently at the cliff behind them but looked over at his brothers and shrugged.

“They were in my saddlebags,” he said. “Guess they ran off with my horse. Hey Hoss, where do bugs go anyway, when it snows?”

“Don’t rightly know,” Hoss said, distracted as usual by his younger brother. “I ain’t never thought about it before. I reckon they just die.”

“Will you stop changing the subject?” Adam snapped, his anger ripening into worry, as he reached for his brother’s hands. Cursing under his breath, he rubbed the half-frozen hands vigorously between his own. “Fool thing! You could lose your fingers, if it gets any colder than this. You know that, don’t you? Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

“Didn’t really think about it,” Joe admitted. “I’ve never had gloves before, and it seemed like there were more important things going on, like someone trying to kill us and all. Besides, I’m not all that cold.”

“You will be,” Adam sighed and removed his own gloves from his hands. “Here. Put these on. Let your hands warm up. We’ll take turns wearing them. Joe this is serious. We’re in a lot of trouble. Put them on.”

“Adam, I don’t need your gloves,” he protested.

“Now!” Adam said, and Joe wondered at the layers of meaning that could inhabit a single word. If he had grown up in this family, Joe might have railed harder against his brother’s authority, might have scorned it with the instinctive anger of the youngest born. But Joe had not been indulged as a boy. He had no storehouse of brotherly protection to draw from and did not take such attentions for granted. Without another word of protest, Joe put on the gloves.

Adam smiled then, and he leaned in to pat his brother’s cheek. Too cold, he thought soberly, they were all too cold. He had to clear his head, to think through the persistent ache of the wound over his ear, to come up with the plan that would get them out of this mess. To see them through, it was what he would have to do, and Adam Cartwright always did what was expected of him. He had to save his brothers.

“We need to get out of here,” Adam muttered. “It’s too cold. We only have a couple hours left of daylight. We’ll never survive the night. Damn. I wish our supplies weren’t with the horses.”

“Do you think my horse is all right?” Joe asked, quietly.

Hoss anchored his arm around the boy’s shoulders and said, “Now I expect that horse is halfway to the Ponderosa by now. He’ll be in the barn, having a good meal long before us, I reckon. Pa will come for us by morning, for sure. Don’t you worry none. Hey Joe, when you gonna give that pinto a name, anyway?”

“He’s a fine horse,” Joe said. “He needs a fine name. It just hasn’t come to me yet. A name’s not something to take lightly.”

“No, I reckon it’s not,” Hoss said. Realizing that the boy shivered under his arm, Hoss reined him in tighter to try to hold the heat in the slight body. It was quite a fix they had found themselves in, and Hoss took seriously the new role of older brother that had come to him late, at the age of twenty-two. He could barely remember the basics, whether the boy had eaten Adam’s poor biscuits that morning, if he had managed even a swig at the canteen before they had resumed their hunt. How could he keep Joe alive, when he could hardly keep him warm?

“I can’t take much more of this,” Adam said, with a sigh.

With a groan of exasperation, Joe shrugged off Hoss’s arm and stood up, tossing the gloves back at Adam. He couldn’t sit still for another minute of listening to those two talk about what to do next. While Adam and Hoss had endlessly debated their next move, Joe had been studying the labyrinth of crevices and clefts in the massive stone behind them. Over time, he found the pattern he been looking for and could make out the imperfections in the rock that were surely formed at the time of creation, just to provide a good foothold.

Looking up, he figured the cliff before him couldn’t be too much of a challenge. Know your enemy, his mother had always said. Joe just had to find out where his enemy was hiding. As quick as he knew how, he began to climb.

Joe heard his brothers shouting his name and could feel them reaching for him, but he was nothing if not fast. With his fingers gripping every crevice he could find, he ascended the sheer face of the cliff. Immediately, gunshots screamed through the air, and gravel and dirt erupted in his face as a bullet struck just overhead. The shots echoed against the crags. In a tumult of noise and confusion, Joe heard the fusillade below, could not tell which gunfire belonged to the gunman or his brothers, so he just continued his ascent.

In his short life, Joe had scaled just about everything but cliffs: bricks, stone facings, wood planking, and iron facades. He had made his way up the sides of the many storied buildings of the city for years, had climbed up and down from the windows of pretty girl’s rooms and the upper rooms of saloons, throughout the whole of the French Quarter. Ever since his arrival at the Ponderosa, he had climbed in and out of his own bedroom window during so many sleepless nights that he could manage it with an evening’s whiskey coursing through his blood. The terrain of New Orleans was unbearably flat; it stretched out as far as a man could see. There had been no mountains for an ambitious boy to climb.

The cliff was certainly steeper and higher than it had appeared from the bottom, and it seemed to him that hours had passed as he made his way up. At last, Joe’s hand groped the very brink of the ridge. Every muscle in his arms throbbed with fatigue, but he managed to brace himself long enough to heave a leg over the edge and pull himself to the top. Joe collapsed near the edge, breathing hard, completely spent. The veiled clouds seemed so close, and for the first time in hours, the cold didn’t seem to matter. Joe marveled in the glory of still being alive. He was sixteen, and the world was still a world for him. And he laughed out loud.

“Joe! Joe!”

For a moment, he had forgotten why he had made the climb in the first place. Joe peered over the edge, and could just make out the desperate faces of his brothers at the bottom. Waving at them happily, he pushed up to his knees and peered out through the canopy of the trees below. His mother had always sworn that her young son could see a good opportunity from a mile away, and he figured this was as good a time as any to put that theory to the test. The unfamiliar terrain of the forest all but tricked his eyes into seeing everything as still and serene. But then he saw it. A flash of a blue jacket, a blur of a single brown horse riding away fast, in the opposite direction. Joe did not understand why, but the shooter seemed to be riding away from them.

He let loose with a delighted holler and called to his brothers, “All clear! You can come up. It’s safe.”

He collapsed back to the ground. From his lofty position, he could not hear the angry oaths of his brothers or see the incredulous looks on their faces, as they contemplated the climb he was asking them to make. For Joe Cartwright, all was very well.

As his rapid breathing eased, he could feel the cold return as well. Up so high, he almost felt that he could reach up and poke a cloud and force it to snow. The dark clouds churned overhead, but just couldn’t seem to make up their mind. He rolled over onto his elbows and gazed at the whole of the Ponderosa, from the great lake to the mountains to the woods below.

Joe thought of his mother then and how she had always thrilled to be in high places. A love of heights had not come as naturally to him, and she would often have to goad her son to keep up. How she would have loved this view! Joe rolled onto his back again and rested his head back on his hands.

Whenever Joe and Marie had lived in a building adorned with the wrought iron ornamentation so typical of New Orleans, the two would wait until no one else was looking and would climb the intricate grid work right up to the roof. Better than a ladder, his mother would say. As they climbed, the pungent smell of the gutters and the trash-lined streets would fade away and the sweet breeze of jasmine and gardenias seemed to waft through the air. Once up high, they would lean over the lacy iron railing on the roof together, and his mother would point out to him the hundred-year old buildings of the city, the bayous in the distance, the great Mississippi beyond.

“This is a sanctuary, Joe,” she would tell him. “You have to remember that. When you’re in the world, and there’s no hope to be found, you can find a high place and look down on them all. You don’t need to be afraid of anything…”

With a violent start, Joe shivered and realized he must have fallen asleep. His mother’s voice had been so vivid in his mind. It had already been weeks since he had last heard her call. Then, he opened his eyes and stared up into the faces of the two angriest men he had ever seen.

Glowering over his brother, Hoss wheezed, “Joe Cartwright! I’m going to pound you!”

Fully awake then, Joe backed away from his brothers, still on his hands and feet.

Panting hard with his hands braced against his knees, Adam looked down at him with menacing eyes. He said, very quietly, “Get. Over. Here. Now.”

Now, Joe had faced dangerous men before, and with any luck, he would face them again, but he knew at that moment, the odds weren’t stacked in his favor. Even as they struggled for each breath, his two brothers moved upon him as one. Joe solemnly noted the way that each man seemed to be holding a clenched fist, like a rapier in a sheath, ready to be drawn.

Any reason he could have given his brothers for heading up that cliff alone, abandoned him then, and the instinct for self-preservation took its place. He shoved himself up to his feet and ran.

Joe could hear his brother’s voices bellowing behind him, as he skidded and slid down the chaparral lined switchbacks that slashed across the other side of the cliff. Adam and Hoss were powerful men, and they had size and anger in their favor, but Joe was fast and he was young. He could always get away. The icy wind whipped dust and bits of shrub into his eyes, and he wiped at them furiously, fighting simply to see. He willed himself not to stare straight down. The ridge hadn’t seemed as steep when he had been climbing up the cliff on the other side.

A small avalanche of dirt and gravel tumbled over him, and he could make out his brothers above him, carefully managing the decline. Joe considered his own course with a frown. All in all, he could see two options. If he stayed on the main path, Adam and Hoss would catch him in no time. Yet before him was a steep drop of an incline, which would land him at the bottom of the ridge. He knew he could not navigate it on foot, but if he just sat back on his haunches and slid straight down the cliff, he might stand a chance. Think of it like a ride, he told himself, and grinned at the thought. If nothing else, sliding down a mountain would be an adventure, and Joe had never in his life said no to trying something new. With an exhilarated prayer to his own patron saint, Joe sat down and launched himself off the vertical drop.

In horror, Adam and Hoss skidded to a stop. They had both seen the boy fall. Neither could understand why Joe had run away from them in the first place. Sure, they were angry, as any man had a right to be, but neither would have laid a hand on him, even in the first flush of their anger. Now, it looked like Joe had thrown himself off the cliff.

“Joe! Joe!” Adam yelled, his voice hoarse and cracked from the constant shouting. “My God, Hoss! I can’t see him anymore.”

“He’s down there,” Hoss said, grimly. “I don’t see him either, but I’ll find him.”

Adam grabbed Hoss’s arm, as he prepared to follow their brother straight down, and held him in place.

“No Hoss,” he said. “We have to take it slow. It won’t do Joe any good if the two of us kill ourselves trying to get to him. We need to all be in one piece, before this storm sets in.”

“Reckon, you’re right,” Hoss said, with reluctance. “All right Adam. We’ll take the path, but lets go!”

Moving as quickly as their exhausted legs would allow, Adam and Hoss made their way down the rough trail.

*****

With a groan, Joe awoke to a mouthful of dirt and a body so bruised, scratched, and bloodied, he had to admit that sliding down the cliff had not been his finest idea. He pushed up on his elbows and stared at his ruined hands in dismay. Since Adam and Hoss had been so out of sorts with him about losing his gloves, he expected they would have something to say about this.

Then he saw it, and the sight confused him so much that at first he thought his mind might have been affected by the fall. Just a ways farther down from the path squatted a small shack, almost hidden in the overgrowth of shrub. Leaning slightly to one side, with gray two by four siding barely hanging on from the wind and sun, the shack seemed to be decomposing into the terrain. Even with the daylight muted by the approaching storm, Joe wondered that he had not seen the shack before.

Before he could see them, Joe could hear his brothers’ approach, as they shouted out his name. This time, however, he was too exhausted and confused, to even try to run away. All ambition had tumbled right out him, and he was so tired he could barely manage to lift his head. Resting his cheek against his arm, he noticed that the sleeve of his new jacket was shredded and torn. He would hate to ask his Pa for more clothing.

Adam reached Joe first and grabbed him, shaking him hard once, as if to jar him into life. Then he pulled the boy fiercely against his chest. Adam’s heart pounded with such violence against his ear that Joe worried for him.

“Are you all right Adam?” Joe asked.

“Am I all right?” Adam asked, and pulled away from him. For a terrifying moment, Joe feared that his brother might cry. Then, the moment passed and in his inscrutable way, Adam began to laugh.

“You must have hit your head hard on that rock,” Joe said, amazed. “I thought you’d be ready to kill me.”

Breathing hard, Hoss ran up at last and collapsed next to his brothers. Immediately, he pulled Joe from Adam’s arms.

“Let me take a look at you,” Hoss said, panting and assessing critically the abrasions that covered Joe’s face. “Little Brother, I figured you’d be half dead. And by the look of you, I’d reckon that you nearly are. Lordy boy! What made you do a fool thing like jumping off a cliff anyhow?”

“Not to mention climbing up it in the first place,” Adam added. That particular conversation would have to wait. “We need to get you taken care of.”

Joe frowned. Something seemed missing. “Hey, Hoss,” he said, at last. “Where’s your rifle?”

Hoss glowered, his little brother’s offense once again fresh in his mind. “My rifle? I had to leave it behind, when someone decided to make me follow him up a dadburn mountain!”

Distract and deflect, Joe told himself quickly. It was a strategy that had served him quite well during poker games when he had been dealt a less than ideal hand. He glanced about nervously, until his eyes fell back upon the shack, he had spotted when first regaining consciousness. How ridiculous of him to have forgotten it already!

“You know, it’s really getting cold out here,” Joe said. “What do you fellows say we go inside?”

Hoss frowned. “Adam, do you reckon he hit his head on the way down?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. Look how far he fell,” Adam replied.

“No, no, no!” Joe said, in frustration. They were acting like he wasn’t even there. “I did not hit my head! I’m talking about that shack over there. Just look!”

At last, Adam and Hoss looked in the direction he was pointing and saw the shack. Joe noted with satisfaction that their faces finally reflected, at last, the odd sense of wonder that had remained with him all day. You see, Joe thought with a smile of satisfaction, I did know what I was doing!

*****

“Stop moving. Joe! Hold still,” Adam ordered, as he tried to maintain his grip on his brother’s wrist. The knife was not the right tool for cleaning out the dirt and gravel from underneath the skin of his brother’s palms, but it was the best they could find in the poorly equipped room, so it would have to do. Adam could barely see through the murky light of the fire that Hoss had managed to light.

Cleaning out Joe’s hands without causing even more damage to his ragged skin was a tedious and grim task, and Adam knew it had to hurt like the devil. There was so much debris lodged underneath, it seemed to him that Joe had tried to take the mountain along with him on his wild ride.

“Adam, please,” Joe said, hoping that a pathetic expression would change his brother’s mind. “Can’t we just soak them again? It hurts something fierce, when you poke at it like that.”

Joe’s brothers had already worked hours into the night, fussing and tending to the scrapes and abrasions that adorned every exposed inch of his body. Adam’s head injury had been a mere afterthought, when Hoss had finally thought to check it, and he had grunted with satisfaction that the lump already seemed to be subsiding. Joe just wished he had the same luck as his older brother.

“You know, Joe,” Adam said, as he flicked another small rock out from under the boy’s skin. “If you had kept my gloves on, like I told you, this wouldn’t have happened to your hands.”

Joe rolled his eyes, and tried again to pull away. “Yeah, and then your gloves would be in the same shape as my hands! Just look at my clothes!”

Joe stared forlornly at the shredded pair of pants and the poor remains of his shirt, lying in a heap by the door. There was so little material left from his new coat that they hadn’t even bothered bringing it inside. It was a good thing that his drawers had mostly held together, or he wouldn’t be wearing anything at all. Joe was certainly glad that his poker earnings were safely stashed underneath his bed; it would be no small matter to replace all the clothes he had ruined that afternoon.

Adam stopped digging at his brother’s hand and stared. “Do you think I care in the least about what happens to a pair of gloves? How can that even cross your mind? What you did out there… you should be dead right now, twice over. I can’t even understand why you are sitting in here, in one piece.”

“Just lucky I guess,” Joe mumbled and gazed sadly at his hand. There was still so much gravel trapped underneath the skin that his palm resembled the curds of churned butter.

“Hey Hoss,” Adam said, with a frown. “I need that whiskey again.”

“Sure thing Adam,” Hoss sighed, and moved toward the ancient bottle of whiskey he had found stored on the dusty shelf. The bottle was so discolored that at first they could not tell what it contained. One whiff of the contents, however, had told them everything they needed to know. Hoss handed the bottle to his older brother and positioned himself behind Joe, prepared to hold him down if need be. They had been through it already twice that night, and Hoss hated every minute of it, but he knew Adam always did what was best.

Joe winced in dismay, as Adam carefully poured the brown liquid over the knife. Then Adam reached for his hand. Joe glanced at the door and wondered if he could make a run for it, but Hoss read his intentions perfectly and gripped his shoulders hard from behind. When had these men leaned to read him so well? All his life, he had survived quite well by keeping his secrets close to his vest. How had that all come undone?

“Adam,” Joe said, trying hard to change the subject and buy himself some time. “It sure was a good thing that I found this cabin. Oh damn! That hurts like-!”

Adam had quickly poured the whiskey over the boy’s palms. Like Hoss, he hated doing it, but if Joe’s hands became infected, there would be little that could be done.

“Sorry Joe,” Adam said, gently this time. “I won’t do it again for a while.”

Adam noticed the barest hint of tears that had pooled in his brother’s eyes, and he turned away. Joe was a tough one, no question about it. Adam truly believed that on his dying day, when he looked back over his own life, in all its tedium and glory, he would still remember that moment when Joe threw himself over a cliff to get away from his older brothers. The insane bravado of the act took his breath away. Adam considered that if he and Hoss could only keep him alive for another few more years, Joe Cartwright might make one hell of a man.

“All right, Joe,” Adam said, releasing the boy’s wrists. Hoss relaxed, as well, and sat on the cot next to his brothers. “Let’s talk about what happened today. When you climbed up that cliff, you almost got yourself shot and killed. What made you do it? We were all talking about what to do. Why didn’t you wait for Hoss and I to decide?”

“Talk, talk, talk!” Joe snapped, the fire in his palms, almost enough to make him cry. “That’s all you fellows want to do. We were sitting out there forever, and I was cold. Sometimes a man has to take control to survive!”

“Sometimes, a man…” Adam said, letting his voice rest on that last word. “A man needs to think, if he has any hopes of becoming a man.”

“Adam,” Hoss began. “Don’t you reckon a man can think and act at the same time? Don’t you reckon sometimes that’s best?”

“Damn it, Hoss!” Adam exploded. “You’re defending him again! There is no excuse for what he did out there! He almost got himself killed and us as well. If you care at all about this boy, then you wouldn’t fight me on this. I’m trying to keep him alive!”

“Now look here, Adam,” Hoss said, grateful as always that his own temper generally stayed in check. “I know you’re mad right now and you’re scared too. Don’t tell me you’re not. But everything’s turned out all right so far. I reckon we can survive the storm tonight, and Pa will track us down sure enough. You know that he won’t forget the line shack is here.”

“I didn’t forget about the line shack,” Adam muttered, his anger already subsiding. “I just didn’t realize it was on the other side of that ridge. I got my directions reversed in the woods, that’s all.”

“And that’s why it’s a good thing I made that climb,” Joe said, with such complete vindication that Hoss laughed out loud.

“All right, all right, I give up,” Adam said, raising his hands in mock surrender. “Hoss, I need you to go out and bring us more water. We’ll need to soak his hands again, later. And could you check for supplies one more time? There might be food stashed somewhere that we missed the first time around.”

“I’ll look again,” Hoss sighed. He had already looked through every corner of that room and had found nothing but some ancient jerky and dried beans. It didn’t look like anyone had stocked the line shack in quite a long time, and Hoss was determined to remedy that neglect himself, in the spring. If they survived that long, he reminded himself.

“Well, lookee here,” Hoss said, after a few minutes of searching. With a smile, he held up a frayed deck of cards that had been discarded behind the old stove. “At least, we’ve got some entertainment for the night.”

“Hey,” Joe exclaimed. “Hoss, you’re the best! Who’s in? I’ll deal.”

“Just a minute,” Adam interrupted. “You are in no shape to hold a deck of cards, Mister, and even if you were, Pa’d skin us alive if we encouraged you to play poker. You two seem to be forgetting that the man who shot at us is still out there, and we’re stuck here with no way to defend ourselves, with a blizzard coming on.”

“It hasn’t even started snowing, yet,” Joe said, gloomily and picked at a fleck of gravel just under his frayed skin.

“Stop that,” Adam said, and moved Joe’s hand away. “Believe me, it will snow, and we’re still in a whole mess of trouble. We need to get you cleaned up and then get some sleep. Hoss, you and I will take turns standing guard.”

“What for?” Hoss asked. “We don’t even have a gun.”

“Well, we can’t very well just sit here and do nothing. We have to protect ourselves somehow.” Adam couldn’t remember feeling as tired before, and the throb over his ear had settled into a dull ache behind his eyes. They all needed a decent night’s sleep.

“I’ll take the first watch. You get some sleep,” Hoss said. He knew his older brother and realized Adam was exhausted, even though the man would never admit it. Joe, on the other hand, looked as relaxed and easy as Hoss had ever seen him. He’s enjoying himself, Hoss realized all at once, even though he’s in so much pain.

“I have to finish with Joe’s hands,” Adam protested, picking up the knife again. “They’ll get infected if I don’t get them cleaned out.”

“I’ll do it,” Hoss said, and took the knife from Adam’s grip. “I know my hands are big and all, but I can hold a knife, and I want to do it for him. You go get the water for me, and then go to bed.”

Too weary to even argue, Adam handed his brother the knife and headed out the door.

Hoss turned to his brother with a reassuring smile, and began to tickle out the bits of dirt and rock with the tip of the knife.

“Tell me something, little brother,” he said, after a few minutes. “Why don’t you stop playing poker at the saloon? You know it worries Pa something fierce, and Adam and me don’t like it neither. Do you gotta do it Joe? I know you’re good at it and all, but can’t you just wait until you’re older?”

“No,” Joe said, and looked his brother in the eye. All the good nature that resided on his face only moments before, abandoned him then, and Hoss saw once more the guarded young man who had hopped off that stage from New Orleans. “No, I won’t stop. None of you can make me.”

“But why, boy?” Hoss asked, and realized his question was, in fact, a plea. “Just tell me why, that’s all I’m asking of you.”

“It saved me.” Joe’s voice was so soft, it was almost lost in the rattle of the wind outside the shack. He turned his face away from his older brother and stared hard at the wall. “Playing cards. It saved me.”

Closing his eyes, Joe considered how easily he could return in his mind to the grit and the desperation of life in New Orleans. He wondered if his past would always shadow him, wherever his life might lead. He knew Adam and Hoss considered him a boy, nothing more than a kid. Yet, boys like him did not have childhoods. His youth had been an encumbrance that deprived him of the opportunities he needed to simply survive.

The night he won his first game of cards had been the happiest of his life. He was twelve years old, and the men in the gaming parlor said he was born to it. Joe could still recall the warm rush of assurance when he saw the hand he had been dealt. He knew the handsome features of his young face would give nothing away, and rejoiced at the smug satisfaction on the face of the riverboat gambler who condescended to play poker with a kid. His winnings that night paid for their meals the next day, and his mother cried in her relief when he showed her what he had done. And Joe never had to steal again. He had learned other ways.

Their fortunes had changed overnight. A good hand could transform a damaged man into a winner, and in New Orleans, Joe had immediately come of age. He acknowledged his prowess at poker as a gift from Heaven itself and thanked God for it, night after night, on his way home, after he had counted his winnings. He made his living in The Swamp, the underbelly of New Orleans, so infamous and unsavory that even the constables knew well enough to leave it alone. His mama had insisted that he carry a knife and a pistol to fend off the thieves, who prowled outside the gaming rooms, looking to live off another man’s lucky night. And most of Joe’s nights were lucky.

He knew what his friends had to do to survive, and nothing in his life had prepared him to believe that his life would be any different. Joe vowed to never take his gift at cards for granted and would never turn it away. Miracles were hard to come by, in his world, and only a fool would turn his back on such a blessing.

Joe opened his eyes and stared at Hoss, saw the trusting blue eyes, gently surveying his face. Hoss had put the knife down on the bed and still held his wrist. Joe realized that Adam had returned already with the water and was leaning against the wall, also waiting.

What could he possibly say? He would not lie to these good men, yet he could hardly voice the truth to his brothers, who still believed he was a boy.

Joe smiled at his brothers with real kindness, and he said, “There are worse things I could do than play poker.”

*****

Adam opened his eyes reluctantly. His head ached in the brittle cold. The fire in the stove must have dwindled away, as they slept. Adam knew he should have kept watch through the night. He should never have left the fire untended, should have continued to shoulder the responsibilities that would always be his own. But he had been so tired.

He studied his brothers, still asleep, in the filtered gloom of the stormy morning. Hoss dozed in the chair, his head back and his mouth ajar. He had worked so hard that night, doctoring Joe’s hand. Joe sighed in his sleep, and Adam touched his cheek until he was sure it was free of fever. Instead, he was far too cold. Clad in his boots and drawers, under a ragged blanket, Joe looked so young while asleep. Adam wished he had known his brother as a child, and hoped that he would know him now as a young man. The boy mumbled a word, frowned, and rolled over. Adam wondered if Joe told the truth in his dreams, or if they were just another guise.

The hunting trip had been overall, an ill-conceived disaster, a comic tragedy of errors. Adam shook his head and smiled ironically to himself. Not quite what Pa had hoped for, when he sent them on their way. And yet, he could almost sing out in praise of his father’s uncanny wisdom, as he watched his youngest brother dream.

Surely, there had been some change in the boy on the trip, a shade of a difference that Adam could not quite place. Even during the worst of the previous day, during the chaos of the gunfire and his plunge down the cliff, Adam could not shake the ridiculous notion that Joe had almost seemed…happy. It was not a word he would have used before to describe his brother.

Adam walked across the room. Staring through the dirt-streaked window, he saw that the clouds were impossibly grim, yet the ground was still dry, barren of snow or rain. Amazing, Adam thought. He could not recall a storm that had been so long in the gathering.

Adam mistook the first shot for thunder, it seemed so far away. Yet the second shot left no doubt. It nicked the empty horse trough in front of the window and he could see splinters fly. Hoss and Joe sprung to his side, immediately awake.

“Get down,” Adam said, gesturing frantically towards the floor. “He’s back.”

*****

Ben Cartwright sagged in his saddle, barely able to sit his horse, let alone keep his eyes focused on the ground for tracks, for any sign of his sons. Unable to stay home and wait any longer, he had saddled his horse during the last hour of light and left on a fool’s quest to bring them home. It was impossible, of course, to expect to find three men in the dead of night. From the house, he had tracked the storm all day, and though the system had dawdled, something told him not to take the threat of bad weather lightly. Storms in the Sierra had taken many a dawdler by surprise. Riding alone at night with a blizzard coming on! He would have exploded in justifiable anger had his sons dared to suggest such a thing. And yet he knew they were in trouble.

Ben rode cautiously through the bitter night, the cold barely assuaged by the layers of clothing he had worn. The dawn only lightened the darkness by a matter of degrees, the clouds hung so low over the land. He rode for miles, traveling much further than he believed Adam would have come in this kind of weather.

Just at the point he decided he had gone too far, Ben happened upon his sons’ horses meandering together, grazing on the last grass of summer out by Harper’s Spring. Rifles and bedrolls hung from the saddles, neatly tied in place. Fear rose to his throat when he considered the implications. Something had gone very wrong. He secured the horses to a nearby tree and continued on his hunt, studying the ground for anything that would lead him to his sons.

Finally, Ben passed through the line of the trees that ended at Devil’s Bluff. The dead lion lay in the clearing, half devoured by carrions desperate for one last meal before the long fast of winter. He stared at the animal for a moment before his eyes took in the spent casings that littered the dirt. He could read the history of the gunfight on the ground. He had taught his sons to hunt. Adam or Hoss would have only needed one shot to kill the lion. It was another kind of battle entirely that had taken place where he stood now.

He noted the odd trail that still marred the dirt and followed it to the bottom of the bluff. At the pile of boulders that buttressed the cliff, he picked up his youngest son’s hat. A familiar glint caught his eye and he reached for Hoss’s new rifle, carefully tucked in a niche between two rocks. His sons had stopped there, that much was certain, and they had left in a hurry. But where could they have gone? Then Ben looked straight up.

No, he chided himself. Adam would never have allowed his brothers to attempt so perilous a climb. Ben didn’t think Hoss could have managed it, even if he wanted to. But he considered his youngest son. He considered the recklessness that resided in the boy, and he gazed upward again at the peak of the ridge, veiled in grey mist. Would his youngest son have made the climb? By no means a gambling man, Ben would have chanced the Ponderosa on the answer.

He mounted his horse, with renewed determination. It would take a few hours of hard riding to get to the other side of the bluff. Scaling a cliff that high was a young man’s game. But he would ride. Ben Cartwright would find his sons.

*****

Adam could not remember ever finding himself at such loose ends. He was a man who prepared for all things, rarely even left the house without checking first for his gun. With no rifle, no weapon of any kind, and no way to defend himself or his brothers, Adam had done everything he could think of to postpone them from being gunned down. He and Hoss had stacked the few pieces of furniture in the room, a table and a few chairs, against the door. Together, they upended the ancient cot to block the window. Adam prayed the old mattress would blunt the trajectory of any bullet fired, but he realized they were anything but secure. No more shots had been fired, but the man was out there; he was simply biding his time.

With the window obscured, the inside of the line shack settled into gloom. Adam could just make out Hoss’s face cast with a bleakness that Adam knew must be mirrored on his own. Next to him, Joe shivered violently, despite being wrapped in his brothers’ coats and the frayed blanket they had pulled from the cot. Adam moved closer and slung his arm around the boy.

“Doesn’t get too cold in New Orleans, I’d imagine?” he asked.

Joe grinned, partly to keep his teeth from rattling together. In New Orleans, the humidity was an entity, a presence so pervasive that one’s lungs ached to take it in. A man could tell the story of the city in the heaviness of the air.

“We’d be sweating the day away in the French Quarter about now. Sometimes the nights are cold, this time of year, but not like this. I never felt anything like this before.”

“How are your hands?” Adam asked.

“Don’t think I’d be much good in a duel right now,” Joe replied. “But I’ll get over it. Was worth it though. That was sure some ride!”

“It was worth it?” Adam and Hoss sputtered, almost in unison.

“Yeah,” Joe affirmed, as he pulled his arms in tight towards his chest. “You know, I wanted to thank you for this trip. I know Pa arranged it for my sake, and you both had other things you needed to be doing. But it’s been great. Really. I’ve never had a week like this before.”

For a moment, Joe believed that his brothers might be angry with him again. Hoss gaped at him in disbelief and Adam leaned into the cot, as if in pain. Then, Hoss erupted in a huge guffaw and after a long moment, Adam joined right in. On and on, they laughed together, stopping only to grip their stomachs, as if in pain. Then they would look at each other, and at him, and start right over again.

Finally, Joe said, “You know what I think? Both of you have lost your minds! I don’t know what I said that was so all fire funny.”

Hoss stretched his arm along his younger brother’s shoulder and squeezed him tight.

“Joe,” he said. “You sure beat all. I said it from the first time I saw you, that you were a Cartwright, and sure enough I was right. We Cartwrights don’t give up easy, do we boy?”

Joe frowned, still not sure if he was being made fun of. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that I’ve had a good time, that’s all.”

“Younger brother,” Adam said, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “It is entirely possible that we are going to die within the hour, and you are thanking us for a good time. It staggers the imagination to think what we have missed for the past sixteen years, not having you around.”

Aware he was still being teased but mollified all the same, Joe settled back between his brothers, into the warmth of their good company.

*****

For miles, Ben followed the low road that edged the base of the ridge. The air itself seemed to exude a sense of menace, and he shuddered to think of his boys unprotected from the oncoming storm. Then he remembered the old line shack another mile beyond the bend. It had been years since it had been used, and he was sure it had fallen into disrepair, but it would protect a body from the worst of the elements. Ben would bet anything that Adam would remember it from years back.

Ben rode with an intensity of purpose that had been missing since his search began. His horse bucked and hesitated in the driving wind, but he urged him onward, just a little further ahead. Finally, he rounded the corner that led to the line shack and stopped his mount short.

Just ahead, Ben could see the outline of a shack, far more dilapidated since he had last seen it. Next to the shack was a sight that made him hold his breath. Time seemed to swallow itself then. For a terrible moment, he felt lost as if in a dream, powerless to move at all, as he watched a man with a rifle breaking the window of the shack.

Ben shook himself and quietly got down from his horse. This was no dream and he would need to move fast. He had no doubt that his three sons were in that shack. He drew his own gun and held it steady.

“You there,” Ben yelled. “Put your hands up and turn around. Now!”

The man stiffened and everything stopped while he made his decision. A squirrel bounced and jabbered on the roof, near the man’s head, and Ben had time to wonder why the animal had not taken shelter, like other sensible creatures had done long ago.

Then the man sharply turned to face him and reached for his rifle. Ben cocked the trigger of his gun and prepared to squeeze it hard. However, the scene that played out before him kept his finger steady.

The door of the shack slowly opened. Hoss crept out first, holding in his hand a cast iron pot. Ben squinted in disbelief, as his bear of a son, held the utensil over his head, and with a primal yell, struck it over the shoulders of the man. In a heap, the man collapsed, as if all his bones in his body had come unstrung.

As the man fell, Adam sprung outside. In his hand, he held an old bottle aloft as if it were a sword, lowering it slowly as he gazed down at the man at his brother’s feet. Together, they stared down at their adversary, not yet noticing their father, who still held his gun.

Immediately behind Adam, his youngest son pounced from the shack. Clad in his drawers, a jacket that hung far beneath his hips, and what looked like a small kitchen knife, Joe flung himself onto the unconscious man, holding the knife under the man’s chin.

“You’re a little late, buddy,” Adam said, placing the bottle on the ground. “It’s over.”

“Hoss,” Joe said, and tossed aside the knife. “Did you have to hit him so hard? I was right there!”

“Just one minute,” Ben thundered, noting with satisfaction that his three sons seemed to jump out of their skin. In the rush of their attack and its victorious aftermath, they had not noticed their father poised so close to them. He strode towards them, walking at first before breaking into a run, and all three beamed at his approach.

Adam clapped his shoulder, with exhilarated relief. He could not believe it was all turning out so well. Ben glanced at his oldest son and immediately observed the dried blood that matted his hair. Adam noted his father’s concern, quirked his lips into a half smile, and shook his head slightly. Ben exhaled. His oldest son would be fine. Then Adam glanced sideways at his brother and mouthed to his father a single word. Joe.

Hoss reached to hug his father, before Ben could take a look at his youngest son.

“Pa,” Hoss said. “Are we glad to see you! How’d you find us? Do you think we can make home before the storm? We’ll have to take this fellow into the Sheriff. Have you ever seen a storm that took so long coming?”

“Never mind that,” Ben replied, returning the embrace with some confusion. “Would someone like to tell me what’s going on?”

Joe still crouched over the man, his forehead wrinkled in consternation. Ben knelt beside him and noted that his young son was hardly clothed at all, underneath what had to be Hoss’s winter coat. His face was a myriad of cuts and abrasions that made him look like he had taken on that mountain lion alone.

As Ben inspected his young son, Adam replied, “We don’t know what this is about, Pa. I have no idea who this man is. Hoss had just killed the lion and we were ready to go home, when he just started shooting at us. Scared the horses away. He’s been tracking us ever since. This is the first we’ve even gotten a look at him.”

“And whose idea was it to go charging out like that when you didn’t even have a gun?” Ben asked, the tenor of his voice leaving no doubt exactly what he thought of that idea.

“That was Joe’s idea, Pa,” Hoss said, and Ben stared at his oldest sons, suddenly befuddled. Since when had Adam allowed a boy to make such a foolish decision?

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Adam shrugged, already knowing his father’s question. “Don’t ask me why. It’s kind of been his day. Hey, Hoss, you seen this fellow before?”

“Nope,” Hoss said with a mystified shake of the head. “I’m sure of it. What call would a stranger have in shooting at us anyhow?”

“Now, I know!” Joe exclaimed, and stood up suddenly, swiping his hair away from his face. “He looked so familiar, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.”

With a gasp, Ben got his first look at his son’s palm and grabbed his wrist, reaching for the other one as well. The boy’s hands looked as though they had been skinned, they were so battered and raw.

“Your hands,” Ben whispered. “What in God’s name happened to you, boy? Who did this to you?”

“Oh that’s nothing,” Joe said, trying to free his hands. “I slid down the cliff, and I guess I changed my mind halfway down. Never mind about that Pa. I know who this man is. I thought he looked familiar when I first saw him on the mountain, but he was too far off to tell. Now, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, who is he?” Adam asked, impatiently.

“Who’d have thought it?” Joe asked, shaking his head. “I beat him at poker, must have been two weeks ago. You know, he was a nice fellow. Real polite about losing, not like some of those miners I’ve been playing lately. More like playing with a plantation owner back home. Who’d figure? Well, Mama told me, you never really know how a fellow will take to losing until the game finally ends. I guess she was right.”

“Joseph!” Ben thundered, and Joe gave his father a reassuring smile.

“Don’t worry Pa,” Joe reassured him. “I didn’t cheat him. Didn’t need to. He was a terrible player.”

Still smiling, Joe turned away, not really caring that his father and brothers seemed unable to speak. There would be plenty of time to talk. The low growl of thunder resounded in the distance, and Joe knew the storm was getting ready to break.

Cold wind whipped right through the cotton of his drawers, and Joe hugged Hoss’s jacket to himself, feeling gratitude for its oversized heft. Wonder how I’ll get home dressed like this, he thought for a moment, but dismissed the concern immediately. Pa and his brothers would surely find a way.

The hunting trip had been a respite for him, an interlude from a young life that had more than its share of old grief. Even the coldness of the air was a wonder, and he took it in gratefully. There were so many things waiting for him at home, so many challenges and trials that had yet to be faced. Some might consider him a damaged young man, but something good had stirred in his heart during the past few days, and it had made him glad. Right then, that was more than enough for him to get by.

Joe Cartwright stood, with his family behind him, and he lifted his face to the skies, wondering what would come next. And, at last, he felt the snow fall.

***The End***

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