Summary: When Joe disappears during a cattle drive, the Cartwrights must follow a disturbing trail to find him.
Word Count: 17,0000
I can hear the retort of the shots echoing over the ridge. It’s the signal I’ve been waiting for, the one that’s kept me pacing around the camp all morning. Two shots and all is well. Three shots and we’re in for a world of trouble. Even as I tie on my saddlebags and tighten my cinch, I pray that I counted wrong. I can hear the shots recoil in my mind, and I count them again. I hope that the lack of sleep has gone and muddled my thinking. But that’s foolishness talking, and I’ve no time for that sort of thing. Three shots mean one thing and one thing only. My little brother needs help.
I packed my saddlebags, almost an hour ago, when Pa and Adam still hadn’t come back from Placerville. They should have been back well before nightfall, and here we are, already well into the morning. The ride to Placerville is a short one from where we’ve camped, maybe two hours at most. How hard could it be to bring back two nineteen-year-old boys, from a town with four saloons and one jail?
I fill a second canteen and tie it to my saddle, pushing it aside to make room for a couple of extra blankets. Something is wrong. I can feel it in my gut, and the wrongness of it’s something that feels an awful lot like pain. I should have gone with them to look for Little Joe and Eddie, in the first place.
The night that passed was a cold one. I still can feel it in my bones, and Little Joe left his jacket behind, tucked underneath his bedroll. I was fit to be tied when I found it. Sometimes I think Adam’s right. Little Joe just never thinks things through to their rightful ending. I get so riled up thinking of him spending the past night without his jacket that I think I’d pound him myself, if I had the chance. I hated having to see the look on Pa’s face, when I handed him the jacket, before they rode out.
I should have gone with them. Pa told me to stay here. Said I was needed, so we could keep the cattle drive moving on time. Told me to act as trail boss, until he got back. Now, unlike Little Joe, I pretty much do what Pa says. So, I spent most of the afternoon herding strays, and checking in with the hands, and rehearsing things I should have said, before letting them ride away.
I’m coming with you, I hear myself tell him. The cattle drive be hanged. Something just ain’t right. He’s in trouble. But I didn’t say any of those things.
I said, “Yes sir,” like I always do, and thumped Pa’s horse, and waved a while, and watched them ride away.
All of us know that Little Joe would have done anything to make it back in time and be in his bedroll, before the sun came up. He’s been sneaking off for too long to let himself get caught now, and he’s good at it too. If he had any choice at all in the matter, he would never have given himself away.
We waited half the day for Little Joe and Eddie to get back. It was a pure misery of a wait, with Pa pacing around the camp and getting himself more and more worked up, as the hours passed and they didn’t come riding in. Adam kept insisting that they were set in the middle of a poker game in some Hangtown saloon and hadn’t noticed that the sun had come up already. I don’t reckon any of us believed him. I don’t even think Adam believed it himself.
“They’ll ride in,” Adam said anyway, more angry over Pa’s worry than for the fact that we had to cover for Joe, all morning. “That’s the thing about Joe. Just wait until we’re ready to pull out, and all the work is done. He and Eddie will show up with some long, tragic tale about a pretty girl in some sort of trouble and a poker game that they just couldn’t lose.”
Pa grunted in response. He was beyond anger. Even the new cook we hired for the drive, who was rattling away in the chuck wagon, knew enough to stay clear of him.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Pa said, pointing his finger in the direction of Placerville. “That boy is going to be riding drag for the rest of his life, if I have anything to say about it.”
So we kept waiting. The morning felt a whole lot longer than it should have. We had plenty left to do, before we began the last stretch into Sacramento. The men were getting restless, anxious to be on their way. What with all the rain, I guess everyone was feeling kind of edgy.
I knew how they felt. I was just about ready to jump out of my skin, with the waiting.
The longer we waited, the more convinced I was that something bad had happened to Little Joe and Eddie. I could agree with Adam up to a point. Little Joe was irresponsible and had always been forgetful. He probably was born that way and us fixing things for him his whole life didn’t help either. Yet, I knew that he would never hold up five hundred cattle and twenty men, who were waiting to get back to their homes and families. He just wouldn’t do it. My little brother always had a good heart that way.
I couldn’t keep my mind in one place, and my work sure showed it. I nearly lost a calf and its mama, when they stumbled downstream in a river. I let them stray too far away from the rest of the herd. It was a foolish mistake and one I’d never have made, if my mind stayed where it was needed.
But I kept thinking of all the times I’d covered for Little Joe and pretended not to notice when he was sneaking off. I thought I was being a good brother, that I was protecting him from getting in trouble with Pa. But now I’m not so sure I was doing him any favors. I wish it was as easy to keep one little brother from straying, as it was to ride herd over five hundred head of cattle.
The cattle drive gave us a rough start from the beginning, and it was made worse just a few days into it, when bad weather set in. March was a mite early for getting started on a drive. Adam and I tried to talk Pa into holding off until April. He wouldn’t hear nothing about it though. Pa could be just as stubborn as Little Joe, even more so when he had his mind set on something.
Pa said that we didn’t have time to wait. With no herds being allowed out of the confederate states, the market in Sacramento was desperate for Ponderosa cattle. The timing was just right, Pa said. No doubt about it. With so many experienced drovers looking for work, we could begin the drive in March and be back in plenty of time to avoid the heat of early summer.
With the snow barely melted, the spring grass in the high elevations was still pretty thin. By the time we passed over the summit, we had plenty of grass, but other problems kept slowing us down. We had too many calves in the herd and not enough steers to provide a sense of direction. It made for a jittery herd and a tedious and dangerous drive. It didn’t take more than the snap of a twig to start a stampede. So we were all on edge, waiting for the worst, from the beginning.
And then it started to rain.
Without question, rain can make a cattle drive feel unbearable, quicker than just about anything else I know. The herd churns up the mountain dirt right away, and nobody likes to swamp through knee-deep muck and manure, hunting down strays. There’s simply no place to escape from the rain. Old sweat and horse grit make your clothes stick to you, like a second skin. No matter how hard you try to wash off, you just can’t get clean and dry again. After a while, you start to itch something fierce, and that misery can make even the most sweet tempered man get plumb ornery. It was part of the job, and nobody liked it, but I don’t think anyone hated it more than Little Joe.
Oh, he could put up with it for a day or two. But after a week of nothing but the same, I could feel Little Joe’s mind start to wander away from us, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before his feet began to wander too. He got moody, when kept away from a good time for too long. It’s not like he stopped working. He always did his share. Nobody handled a horse better than Little Joe, and we depended on him to keep the herd moving along. Every year, he seemed to be getting better at it, and Pa told me it wouldn’t be long before he’d be riding point. But Lordy, how that boy hated riding in the rain!
I could see him getting impatient. It showed in the way he’d rein to a stop again and again and push his wet curls out of his eyes.
After watching him do that a number of times, Pa rode over and said, “Young man, if you’d gone and gotten your hair cut in Virginia City before we left, like I asked you to, you wouldn’t be having this problem.”
I knew the state Joe was in, when he didn’t even smile or come up with an excuse for not listening. Joe was like that. When something was bothering him, the first thing to go was his sense of humor. Pa and Adam thought his bad mood was all about the rain, but I knew better. Something had been eating away at Little Joe, even before we left the ranch.
It’s a funny thing about my little brother. I know what the Ponderosa means to him, same as it means to me. I can’t remember ever wanting anything different. But lately I could see a curiosity building up in Little Joe. He’d get a look about him, when Pa and Adam talked about living in other places. He used to love to hear the stories they’d tell, but lately he seemed kind of jumpy while they talked, like there was somewhere else he needed to be.
I don’t have time to think about that right now. It’s time that I get moving. With my saddlebags all packed, I have my foot in the stirrup, when I remember one more thing. I head back to the hooligan wagon, where we keep our supplies and pull out some bandages and ointment. I sure hope we don’t need them, but it can’t hurt to bring them along.
I see Charlie watching me from the side of the wagon. We don’t need to talk about where I’m going or what we might be facing. Charlie’s a good man, just about the best we’ve ever had. Been working for Pa, since before Little Joe was born. He’ll take care of things and keep the drive moving, while we’re gone.
I nod at Charlie and ride out of camp, in the direction of the shots. From the sound of it, I figure Adam and Pa are about a mile away. Sound carries like nobody’s business around these foothills.
As I ride, the smell of wet cattle and unwashed men begins to fade away. A smattering of light breaks through the clouds. I am thinking to myself that it might turn out to be a fine day after all, when I see them. I see my father and my brother leading a third horse. I see the outline of a body tied over the saddle. I see a trail of blood.
I dreamed the dream again, the night Joseph went into town.
It is not the kind of nightmare that wakes you up, with its violence, the kind that leaves my youngest son sweat soaked and yelling into the night. Instead, it is the kind that leaves you sad upon waking, like you have lost something irreplaceable that you may never find again. It is unlike me to indulge myself like this, to think so hard about a dream and what it might mean. A man works hard through the day, he deserves a sound night’s sleep. Nothing should keep an honest man awake at night. At least, that’s what I’ve always said before.
There are many things I’ve said and done that I’d gladly take back if I could.
For one thing, I wish I could take back my answer when I told Little Joe to stay out of Placerville. At the time, my refusal seemed perfectly reasonable. After all, we were on a tight schedule that left little room for delays. The cattle buyers in Sacramento expected us to deliver the herd on time to serve the booming mining towns of Auburn and Colma, and I could not risk the contract, on something as frivolous as night on the town for two boys. Besides, old Hangtown was still a rough mining town. Justice was so swift there that a man could be hung before anyone bothered to ask what exactly he’d done.
“Pa,” Joseph had argued. “We’ll be back in plenty of time for us to move out in the morning. Eddie and I just want to have a little bit of fun, before we move on. If our work suffers for it tomorrow, I promise that I won’t ask again.”
“Since when does ‘no’ have any other meaning?” I asked, so settled in my denial that I barely looked up from my paperwork and almost missed the hurt flashing in my son’s eyes. “We still have a long way to go before we make it to Sacramento and – ”
“Pa, I know that,” Joseph said. “And I’ve worked hard to make this drive a success for you. I’m not asking to go into town alone. Eddie wants to go too. What could happen to the two of us, riding together? Pa, I’m nineteen years old. When are you going to think of me as anything other than a boy?”
“I do not think of you as a boy,” I told him, pushing my papers away, with a sigh. The boy could be such an aggravation. He stood in front of me with his chin jutted out, leaning back on his heels. If I had thought about it, I would have recognized Joseph’s look as the one he assumed when he was bound and determined to have his way. If I had thought things through, I would have realized that look meant trouble.
I leaned forward to place my hand on his arm, but Joseph stepped away from me and crossed his arms tightly against his chest. His voice was surprisingly soft.
“Pa, what would you say to Adam or Hoss, if they asked you the same thing?”
“I would have the same answer for Adam or Hoss,” I replied. “You are needed here to help us with the herd, not gallivanting around in a miner’s town with Hangtown’s reputation!”
“They changed the name,” Joe snapped at me, and he pushed his hair out of his eyes. “It’s called Placerville now. The way I hear it, they even have a courthouse. Things change, Pa. Towns change and have a way of growing up, after a while. They’re an awful lot like people that way.”
He turned his back on me, and I watched as he strode angrily towards his mount. Vaulting into his saddle, he whispered in the pinto’s ear, and without looking back, he rode away. My eyes stung in the dust of his wake.
As I look back on it now, I should have told him that changing the name to Placerville changes nothing. The question of character, whether in a town or a man, has little to do with a name and everything to do with the sum of his actions. I’ve watched my youngest son, and I’ve seen him grow both in character and responsibility, over the past year. I should have told him that I was proud of the man he was becoming.
Yet for the past several months, I had been noticing a change in him that I frankly found disturbing. I suppose every young man has the urge to strike on his own, to find a life for himself, to seek out his own dreams. I could see the expression on Joseph’s face, as he listened to stories about places he had never known. The look on his face was beyond mere interest; it was more like he was settling his plans to go.
Many years ago, I stared in a mirror and saw the same look on my own face. I remember the look clearly because it was the day I left my father behind, with not much more than a handshake goodbye. My own father could not have stopped me, even if I had allowed him to try. After all, what kind of fool tries to stand between a young man and his dreams?
And yet when my grown son asked for a night on the town, I barely looked up from my paperwork, said, “No,” and expected him not to stray.
Fathers do not provoke your sons to anger, the Bible instructs for good reason, and I am guilty of that particular sin and many more. Sometimes, I think I am too old to be this boy’s father.
Joseph made himself scarce for the rest of the day and evening. He finished all of his responsibilities. In truth, he finished more than his share. I planned to speak to him later in the morning. That was always my plan. I did not know then I had run out of time. I spent the night dreaming. In the morning, Little Joe was already gone.
And that night, I dreamed the dream.
The dream woke me up earlier than I planned, the smoke from the campfire drawing tears from my eyes. I could smell the biscuits already baking in a Dutch oven on the coals, the bacon snapping in the pan, the coffee already brewed and waiting. Not a cloud in the sky, the rain gone at last. And for the first time, that morning, I could remember what I dreamed.
The vision came at me like a fury. I remembered the smell of fear rising from the ground. I remembered the grim concentration in my other sons’ eyes. I remembered the horror of the search for my youngest boy, guided by one thing. The memory of that thing made the bile rise in my throat. I remembered praying that we could find him by the path of his blood.
I sat up, my stomach clenched with the horror of it, and I looked around. Hoss snored next to me, his hat pulled low over his face. He’d worked so hard on the drive, and he always needed every scrap of sleep that he could get. Adam slept soundly on his other side. My oldest sons were close by. All should have been right with my world.
However, the dream let me know Joseph was gone, before I even turned around. I knew his bedroll would be empty, just as I knew his pinto would be missing from the remuda of horses, in the rope corral.
I woke up Adam and Hoss. We discovered quickly that Eddie was missing as well. I tried to act angry. I put on quite a show, for my sons’ benefit, if not for mine. In the clarity of daylight, I tried to ignore the dream and the unease that had settled over me. After all, I was not a man who believed in divination. I told myself that my disagreement with Joseph had simply taken its toll and made my sleep more restless than normal. Surely, the dream signified nothing, at least nothing that would compel me to change my plans for the day.
So we waited for Joe to return. Shorthanded, we went on with our tasks, as if the drive would move forward just as planned. We made progress with the branding, we rounded up the horses, and we took time for the cook to gather wood and organize his supplies. I told myself, as I told the others, that Joseph would be along. I told them that Joe and Eddie would ride into camp any minute, full of sheepish looks and sorry excuses. But I knew that I fooled no one. We waited far too long.
We waited until it was clear he was not coming back on his own.
By the time Adam and I left for Placerville, the sun was already at an angle in the afternoon sky. The road was churned up with mud. All the rain of the past several days had exacted a heavy toll on our travel. It would be a difficult ride, if we hoped to make it into town by nightfall. We had to choose our path carefully, lest the horses stumble in the deep ruts made worse by the runoff from the mountains.
Adam and I rode out of camp together, our saddlebags packed with some jerky and a couple of extra canteens. I also found room for the faded, green jacket that Hoss handed me before we left. I could feel my mouth set into a line, just thinking of it. How many times had I told that boy not to leave without his jacket? I could just picture Joseph deciding a mile down the road that going back for it would be too much trouble. He would consider the chill of the early spring night and shrug it off, telling himself that a little cold never hurt anybody.
In the failing light of the late afternoon, Adam and I rode, spurring our horses along, keeping a careful eye along the trail for any sign of something that might have gone wrong. Not for the first time, I wished we had brought Hoss along as well. He was, without question, the best tracker in the family. Yet, Adam still insisted that Joe and Eddie would be easy enough to find in the town, that they had simply lost track of the time. He knew better and so did I, but we didn’t know then that we were all running out of time.
By the time we arrived at Placerville, the setting sun unfurled a reddish cast over the main street. I glanced over at Adam. If we did not find them soon, we would be searching in the dark.
“Ol’ Dry Diggins has come a long way,” Adam muttered under his breath, as we surveyed the town’s crooked main street, lined with a hobbled assortment of wood framed buildings. “It’s sure gone through a lot of names, as well. First Dry Diggins, then Hangtown. I wonder if the name ‘Placerville’ will stick this time.”
“Maybe it would stick,” I said, as we tethered our horses in front of the barbershop. “If folks around here stopped taking justice into their own hands.”
“Might be easier said than done,” Adam said. “In a town as rough as this one, I have a feeling there’s more justice that needs to be carried out than there are judges to carry it. Where do we start?”
“The sheriff,” I said, wanting to get right to the business at hand of figuring out what could have happened to two nineteen-year-old boys.
Adam shook his head.
“No Pa,” he said. “Let’s think this through. We need to figure out where they went. We don’t even know yet if anything is wrong. We need to think like Joe. Remember how he was complaining yesterday about the rain and the mud and smelling like a sick cow?”
I smiled at the memory. Of course, I remembered. Anyone who came within a half a mile of Joseph could have answered that question. He had never been taciturn with his complaints.
“So what would be more important to Joe,” Adam continued. “Than a hot bath and a shave? You don’t think he would go chasing girls looking and smelling the way he did?”
I met Adam’s eyes and without another word, I knew we had agreed. He held the door open for me, as we walked into the barbershop. I inhaled the familiar mixture of alkali soap and bay rum. It was amazing to me that you could walk into any barbershop in any town, and they all smelled the same.
“Sure I remember them,” the barber told us, placing his strop down on the basin. “Two young fellows came in late last night, past midnight. One was tall, the other kind of skinny, but a nice looking fellow. I stay open all night for the miners, who can’t come in during the day. Normally, my partner works at night, but he caught the fever that’s been running through the mines, so I covered his shift as well. I’m going to tell you fellows the truth, it makes a man mighty tired – ”
“Can you tell us anything either of them said?” Adam snapped. “Look, we just need you to tell us what you remember.”
I shook my head at my oldest son’s impatience. Sometimes the only way to gauge Adam’s concern in a matter is by his lack of courtesy. Adam’s good manners were always the first thing to go, when he was worried. The barber noticed it as well.
“All right, all right,” he said, holding both hands in the air, in a mock surrender to my oldest son. “I didn’t realize you fellows were in such an all fire hurry! I’ll tell you everything I remember. They came in like I said, just after midnight. They were both laughing a lot, seemed like they were out for having a good time. They both paid up front for a bath and a shave. Gave me a right good tip, too. The little fellow paid extra to get his hair cut.”
Adam and I exchanged amazed looks. I believe nothing could have astonished me more than the very idea of Little Joe seeking out a hair cut on his own, in the middle of the night.
“He needed it too,” the barber continued. “I couldn’t do as good a job as I’d have liked, because the tall fellow was in such a hurry to move on. The little one kept telling him that he didn’t think it was such a good idea, them coming to Placerville and all. The tall fellow kept telling him not to worry.”
Adam looked at me with a small frown, and lifted his eyebrow. It had not occurred to either of us that the trip to Placerville could be anyone’s idea but Little Joe’s.
I asked, as politely as I could, “Did either of them tell you where they were going?”
The barber stared at us, with apparent amusement. “To a saloon, of course. Where else would two young fellows go, in the middle of the night, in Placerville?”
“Which saloon?” Adam asked. “The town has several. Did they say which one?”
“The little one asked which saloon had the prettiest girls,” the barber replied. “I told them to head over to Frank’s place, for a good time. Just around the bend on Main Street. Hey, either of you fellows want me to get a bath started? Sure seems like you could use it!”
“No thanks,” Adam told him and placed a coin on the chair. The barber waved us on, placing the money in his apron pocket.
It didn’t take us long to find the right saloon. We walked around the bend and almost collided with a woman walking out of a pair of swinging doors. Her carefully painted features and low cut dress would certainly have attracted my youngest son’s attention. I tipped my hat to her, as she sashayed by. Adam and I nodded at each other, and together we pushed through the double swinging doors into the saloon.
That early in the evening, the room was far from rollicking. Behind the long paneled bar, the barkeep stood at the far end, polishing glasses with a worn rag. A tired game of poker was going on in the corner between three ancient prospectors, who looked like their glory days were well behind them. A lone saloon girl sat at the piano, singing softly and playing a forlorn tune.
The words were familiar enough, but she sang them in a way I had never heard them before. “…Oh don’t deceive me… Oh never leave me… How could you use a poor maiden so?”
I had always thought of that tune as a barroom song, a playful ode to the inconstancy of youth. Yet, the way this girl sang it, it was something else altogether. It was a dirge, a song of loss and lamentation, with echoes that carried over from the grave. For a moment, I remembered my dream and felt the vestiges of my earlier premonition.
Adam did not seem to notice my trembling, for he had already turned to the barkeep.
“Two beers,” he said and slid his coins down the length of the bar. “And some information. We’re looking for two boys, who would have been here last night. Nineteen years old. One of them was a lot taller than the other.”
“The small one a real handsome fellow? Curly hair? Big smile?” the barkeep asked.
“Yes, that’s my son Joseph,” I said, biting back my fear. “So he was here? You remember seeing him?”
“Sure, I remember him and the other fellow,” the man replied and handed Adam and I our beers. I sipped it a moment, while the barkeep took a moment to collect his thoughts. I grimaced at the warmth and flatness of the brew; it held all the appeal for me of a glass filled with wet wood. It was certainly not the quality of the drinks that would have kept my son’s attention last night.
The barkeep continued, “The two boys came in after midnight. They looked right pleased to be here, as chipper as a couple of jaybirds, if you know what I mean. Now the tall one, he bought his drink and sat right down to a game of poker. Must have done pretty well at it too, cause he was buying drinks for the house by the end of the night. Your son kept trying to quiet him down. I didn’t blame him. Not real smart to let folks know too much about your business. Especially with the rough ones we got coming and going around here.”
“Did my brother say where he was going?” Adam asked. “What was he going to do, after he played cards?”
“Oh, your brother didn’t play,” the barkeep said, with a shrug. “He just drank his beer and listened to Lucy sing. If I remember right, he sat with her all night. They talked quite a spell, while she played. She’s right over there. You can ask her about it, yourself.”
He pointed at the saloon girl, who was still playing the piano, and I took a closer look at her face. I could tell she had been listening to every word that we had said, but she did not open her eyes. She seemed to be enthralled by a world of her own creation.
“Miss?” Adam came along side of the piano and pulled up a chair, straddling it from behind. He didn’t wait for her to open her eyes. “We were told you had a conversation with my brother last night. My name is Adam Cartwright and this is my father, Ben Cartwright.”
At last, she stopped playing. Deliberately opening her eyes at last, she turned and gazed at us, without speaking. I inhaled in surprise. She was a lot younger than her mournful song let on. She stared so long that I was not sure if she would answer us or not.
Finally she said, “Yes, I talked to him last night. He talked about you. Although to tell you the truth, I don’t see much resemblance to either one of you.”
I leaned in eagerly and asked, “Did my son tell you where he and his friend were headed? They’ve been missing for a day now, and you can understand that we’ve been worried.”
“I understand,” she said, with a look I just couldn’t place. “I liked your son. I liked him very much, as a matter of fact. He’s the kind of boy that could cause a lot of trouble for a girl like me.”
“What do you mean,” I asked, with some concern. “Was my son disrespectful?”
“Not that kind of trouble,” she said, and her sudden smile made Adam take a deep breath. I could certainly understand why Joseph preferred her company to a game of cards with a bunch of unwashed miners. “I’m talking about a whole different kind of trouble, but I wouldn’t expect a father to understand. No sir, your son was a perfect gentleman. I can’t tell you when I’ve had a better time. We sat and talked for a while. I guess he took a fancy to my singing.”
“What did you talk about?” Adam asked.
I frowned at his presumption, and he retorted, “Pa, I’m just trying to find out what happened to Little Joe. Anything might help. Miss, can you think of anything he might have said that would let us know what happened to my brother and his friend?”
She hesitated for a moment. I held my breath, until she finally answered, “We talked about a lot of things. He talked about the cattle drive, about your ranch in Nevada. I don’t know why he didn’t make it back to you. He was planning to be back, before morning. His friend – the one who kept winning at poker – had talked him into coming into town. He didn’t want you to find out. He was real worried that you’d found out he was missing. He didn’t want you to be disappointed in him.”
She leveled a meaningful look at me then, and I swallowed hard from her unspoken accusation.
Adam asked, “Did he tell you anything else Ma’am? Anywhere else he might have been headed?”
She shook her head, before saying, “No, I’m sure of it. He was on his way back to you. But, there was one other thing…”
“What is it?” Adam and I asked, almost in unison.
“There were other things we talked about,” she said. “We talked about… dreams… his and mine. Silly things, really. The type of things that never seem to matter much in the morning. Your son… Joe, well he…”
“What does my brother want?” Adam asked, and I wondered at his apparent curiosity. “What are his dreams?”
“You’ll have to ask him that yourself,” she said, and she gave us a lovely, if reluctant smile. “I do hope you find him and he’s all right. He’s not the kind that comes round very often. Mr. Cartwright, I believe I’m going to remember your son for a long, long time.”
She turned her back to us then and returned to her song, and her sorrowful refrain followed us out of the saloon and onto the dusty main street.
“Where to?” Adam asked, after we had checked out the livery stable. Joe and Eddie had certainly visited Old Hangtown and had ridden out well before sunrise. Everyone they encountered remembered them as polite and cheerful boys. Nobody could recall even a suggestion of trouble. By multiple accounts, their visit was peaceful, and they had left while it was still dark, fully intending to be back before dawn. Yet there had been no sign of them at all, on the road to Placerville, not even the smallest indication that anything had gone wrong.
I sighed. There was only one other place I could think to look, although the prospects of it yielding any information seemed slim, at best.
“Now, let’s go talk to the sheriff,” I said.
We walked down the street to the jail we had passed when we first rode in. It was late enough into the evening that I worried that the sheriff might already be asleep, but we had to give it a try before leaving town.
As we walked into the room, something in the airless room almost made me stagger out again. The room seemed almost haunted by the violence of wasted lives, and I felt the spirits of Hangtown’s lynched men pass through me.
I am not a superstitious man. Yet, I had not forgotten my dream. And as I stood in that jail room, I became aware of something so primal, it took my voice away. I became aware of my boy’s blood crying out to me from the ground.
My heart pounded so hard in my chest that I held on the sheriff’s desk just to keep from falling over. I could hear Adam introduce himself to the sheriff, could hear the man promise to keep a look out for the boys, could see them shake hands, and all the while, I shook in rage and fear.
Adam turned then and saw me braced over the desk. He saw the look on my face, and his bewildered eyes widened with sudden understanding. Something was terribly wrong. The room careened wildly in the memory of the dream, and I could feel my hold on this world faltering. Adam grabbed for me to keep me from falling, but we were hopelessly off balance. Together, we fell hard against the sheriff’s desk.
As we pulled each other up, we both saw it at once. A familiar pearl handled gun, sticking out slightly from a drawer that we knocked ajar in our fall.
My voice returned to me at once. Like a man recovering from a malady of the brain, I struggled with every word.
“That is my son’s gun,” I said.
“This gun here?” the man asked, and picked it up, twirling it carelessly. I saw Adam’s eyes narrow. Obviously, the sheriff had no idea he was dealing with a pair of very dangerous men. “I pulled this off one of the men in the back cell I arrested earlier today, over outside the saloon. They were throwing around a big wad of money and starting a fight with a bunch of miners. I broke it up and locked them up. Turns out this is my lucky day. It seems those three fellows are wanted for bushwhacking and robbery, from here to the Barbary Coast. They’ve had themselves quite a time, but I expect the next occasion they have to look forward to is their own hanging.”
“We need to talk to those men,” Adam said. He kept a hand on my arm, as if he were afraid my legs wouldn’t hold me.
“Mister, those fellows will be out cold for the rest of the day,” the sheriff replied. “They drank so much whiskey during the hour they were back in town, it took half the saloon to help me drag them over here. Don’t worry, though. They won’t be going anywhere.”
“Back?” Adam asked, sharply. “Does that mean they were in town before?”
“Yep,” the sheriff replied and stifled a loose yawn. “Turns out they were in a few of the saloons last night. I had three barkeeps come by and identify them. Say, you fellows really should get yourselves a room to spend the night. It’s getting mighty late.”
“We’ve got to find Little Joe and Eddie,” I hissed to Adam.
“I can tell you one thing, Mister,” the sheriff said. “They weren’t much for leaving witnesses. Seems they did the same thing, time after time. Took their victim’s money and bashed in the side of their head. From everything I’ve heard, they never left a man breathing. I hate to say it, but if they met up with your son and his friend, you’re probably too late. You might as well get some sleep, before you go off searching. Ain’t like rushing off in the dark is gonna change much, anyhow.”
Adam gripped my arm tightly, and I was glad for it. Without his restraint, I might have knocked the surety right off the sheriff’s silly face.
“Pa, he’s right about one thing,” Adam said softly in my ear. “We’re not going to be much help to Joe and Eddie, this time of night. We need to get a couple hours rest, and then we can look again before dawn.”
I didn’t like it, but I knew he was right. I wouldn’t be a bit of good to my son, with my wits dulled from lack of sleep. However, before I left that jail, there was one more thing I had to do. I turned and looked directly at the sheriff.
“Show me those men,” I said.
“But, Mr. Cartwright, they’re sleeping! They won’t help you at all!”
“Show them to me!”
I’ve been told I have a voice that lends itself to being taken seriously. The sheriff must have agreed. Shaking his head, he fumbled with his keys and unlocked the door that led to the cells in the back of the building.
We followed him to the cells that housed the men. Each man slept with his head back and mouth ajar, dead to the world. It was small comfort to me that they would soon be dead to the world entirely. The stench of whiskey and filth on them was palpable.
Adam saw it, before I did, and he pointed at the third cell.
“Pa,” he said, unsteadily. “Eddie’s jacket.”
I looked and sure enough, I saw the boy’s familiar brown jacket, draped over the shoulders of the man. Suddenly, I was glad my boy left his own jacket behind. I was not sure I could be responsible for my actions, if I saw it being worn by one of those monsters.
“Do you want the jacket, Mr. Cartwright?” the sheriff asked and reached for the keys. “I can get it for you.”
“Leave it,” I said, and my voice was little more that a scratch in my throat. “Burn it. We’ll buy Eddie another.”
We turned to leave the miserable room, when Adam stopped and looked back at the prisoners. He hooked his thumb on his gun belt and regarded the sheriff, as well.
“Sheriff,” he said. “My father and I expect these men to be here, when we get back.”
“They’ll be here,” the sheriff replied. “I guarantee you they ain’t going nowhere.”
“Yes, but I want you to guarantee that they’re still breathing,” Adam said and tipped his hat to the man, his meaning perfectly clear.
Together we walked out of the jail.
Adam and I ride out of Placerville before sunrise. As we travel, my eyes are so fixed on the side of the road that I barely notice when the grey mists of dawn explode into color. I am looking for any sign, any glimpse of movement, for any indication of where things went wrong for my son. The landscape doesn’t yield up a thing. As far as I can see, there is not a soul around.
The sunrise continues to put on its grand show, fringing the clouds in pink and grey. The sky is huge when you get away from the mountains. Adam reins to a stop and gestures upwards, with a flick of his hand.
“I hope Little Joe is seeing this,” he says, with a small smile. “He’s always complaining that he never wakes up in time for the sunrise.”
“Adam, those boys have been out all night,” I tell him. “I just wish we’d brought Hoss along. I keep looking for something, anything, but I just don’t know what I’m looking for.”
Adam sighs and closes his eyes. He rubs his forehead absently, and I think to myself, my son looks so tired. He remains like that for quite a while, and I don’t rush him. We are both weary to the bone, and there’s no telling how long it will be before we can get any rest.
Finally, he opens his eyes and stares across the road. A strange look passes over his face and I turn to look in that direction. At first I see nothing out of the ordinary, but then I see it, as well. Along the side of the road, I see a poor excuse for a path, marked only by a trampling in the undergrowth. We ride closer and can clearly make out the myriad of hoof prints still stamped in the mud.
“There’s more than one horse, Pa,” Adam says, with increasing animation. “Three at least, maybe more. That one’s shoe is nicked on one side. Remember I told Joe to take care of that, before we left the Ponderosa?”
“I remember,” I tell him. For once, I am grateful for the irresponsibility of my youngest son. “Come on. Let’s ride.”
We turn down the path, but we don’t have far to go. Just a short distance away from the main road, we see it, the outline of a body lying broken and abandoned, in the tall grass. His bay gelding roams a few feet away, still grazing.
Adam and I dismount, and we approach soberly, silently. We do not rush at the boy. Even from a distance, we already know. We take off our hats, as we walk over to him. There is nothing left we can do for Eddie Carson, in this life.
I tie him onto his horse, crossing the rope over the boy’s neck and under the horse’s belly. I have to remind myself that I am not hurting Eddie, that no one can hurt him anymore, this boy I have known since the day he was born. The damage from the blow to his head would have rendered him unrecognizable to someone who didn’t know him as well.
“Sorry Eddie,” I whisper, as I clench the rope, taut across his back. I can’t help myself. I cannot get used to the fact that he is no longer alive.
How will I tell his father? The boy would be turning twenty next month, just a few months before Joseph’s own birthday. Eddie’s life had just begun. He was lanky and well mannered and had barely grown into his knees and his elbows.
Adam rides up then and shakes his head.
“I can’t track him,” he says. “I’ve looked everywhere. There are plenty of prints, but they go round and round in circles, and then they disappear. They don’t make any sense to me. We need to go back to camp and get Hoss.”
I nod and tie the last knot, as securely as I can. I bow my head and say a prayer to the God of the living and the dead, who looks after old fools and half-grown boys. I take the lead and tie it to my own horse. I am not sure how to go about surviving this day.
We ride until we are a mile outside of camp. Adam lifts his gun above his head and fires it three times, the signal for trouble that I taught each of my boys, as soon as they were old enough to carry a gun.
We continue riding until Hoss meets us on the road. I see the look on his face. And the look of grim knowing in his eyes is what finally does me in. I let go of the reins. I bow my head to my chest and wish that I could cry.
The world is a blur of outlines and shapes, like riding through a dark dream. I’ve been riding in circles for hours and have no idea where I am. With my right arm wrapped around Cochise’s neck and my knees pressed hard into his sides, I hold on the best I can. If I slip off the saddle now, I’ll never be able to mount him again. I’m not sure how I managed it the first time. I just don’t have that kind of strength anymore.
The blood from the wound on my head drips into my eyes. It stings and I blink furiously to clear it away. My shoulder has been bleeding too, but my shirt is soaking up the worst of it. I think it’s finally beginning to clot. The gash on my head doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.
Head wounds like to get their fair share of attention. I remember Pa saying that once or twice. They always seem to bleed for more than they’re worth. I try to remember how much blood can leave a man, before his life flows out with it. Seems to me Pa told me there were danger signs to look out for, and I try to remember them. But my thoughts twist and squirm away every time I try to grab hold of one. I can’t remember for sure, but that also seems like one of the signs.
Cochise lowers his head and blows hard, as we walk. I can sympathize. He doesn’t like riding in circles any more than I do, but the way I’m leaning over, I can’t make the reins do what I want them to. We weave on and off and around the trail, like a pair of drunken cowboys.
My fine horse and I must look quite a sight. I am soaked through to the skin with my own blood, and Cochise’s coat is tacky with it. I expect we look like a demon horse and rider, come back from the other side of the grave. Just like the stories Hoss and I used to tell each other over the campfire. I imagine I’d frighten anyone away, before they figured out I was only human and needed rescuing, in a bad way.
With my face buried in his mane, I’ve been breathing in the vapors of horse sweat and my own blood for so long, my lungs are full of it. Breathing alone seems like a hopeless feat. I have been slumped over to one side, trying to keep off my bad shoulder. This kind of riding is awfully hard on a horse, and I feel Cochise step from side to side, compensating for his unnatural load. We are both about at the end of our endurance.
“I’m sorry Cochise,” I say out loud. “It won’t be much longer. You can do it. Just take me a little bit farther.”
I barely recognize my own voice. It is thready and weak, the voice of someone who has been sick a lot longer than I have. For the first time, I understand how I desperately need water. I just have to find the creek.
Hangtown Creek, they call it, and I’m not so out of my wits that I can’t appreciate the irony. They might have changed the town’s name to Placerville years ago, but you can’t take the death out of a place that easily. I was just plain wrong when I told Pa that a town could actually change. It takes more than a name change for a town to shake off its legacy. Old Hangtown might prove the end of me, after all.
A new wave of dizziness passes by and threatens to take me along with it. I can barely stay in the saddle. The birds that fly from branch to branch above me seem to tilt their heads and consider me with amusement. It’s like I have already passed out of their world, they know it, and are waiting for me to realize it too.
I say to them, “I’m still alive,” and then I laugh, despite what it costs me. What would Adam say if he knew I was worried about what a couple birds thought of me?
I wish I could talk to Adam and tell him he was wrong. He came to me yesterday before he turned in for the night. Of course, he guessed what Eddie and I were planning to do, and he warned me to stay out of Placerville. He said folks there would string me up for chasing the wrong man’s girl before the sun came up in the morning. Trust Adam to be all wrong and all right, at the same time. I cough and realize I’ve been biting my lip. I can taste the blood at the back of my throat. I shake my head at my own stubbornness.
Even on my deathbed, I wouldn’t give my older brother the satisfaction of knowing he was right. Just plain stubborn, Pa would say. Pa, on the other hand, was usually right. It’s funny how I don’t have the same trouble admitting that.
Pa. I can picture his face in my mind and seeing it there, makes me hold on a little bit longer. It’s so clear, it’s like it’s all playing itself out before me. I wonder how it is that I’m seeing things that aren’t really there.
I can almost see Pa’s reaction when he wakes up in the morning and finds out that Eddie and I are gone. His anger is something fierce when he’s riled, and I don’t know anyone who makes him angrier than me. I can see him out searching for the two of us. Maybe he takes Adam or Hoss. Maybe he makes it to Placerville, maybe not. Maybe he has a gut feeling and turns off the main road, down the slope where the three men forced us to ride. I did my best to get Cochise to trample through the brush to leave a better trail. Hoss will pick it out, I’m sure of it. I know they will find Eddie’s body, where the men left it. It’s only a matter of time.
What will Pa say when he first finds Eddie, his head split open, lying in that puddle of blood? I can still see Eddie’s eyes frozen open in shock, like he couldn’t believe he was actually dead.
When I came to, I crawled to him. I was still confused, and I shook him a while, but he was past all waking.
I’ve had my share of regrets, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel sorrier for anything than agreeing to go with Eddie into that town. I wouldn’t have done it, but I was still so mad at Pa. I was so bound and determined to prove myself right. Looking back on it, I can’t even remember why I was so mad, in the first place. I just knew that I needed to claim my independence, once and for all. So like a fool kid, I snuck off in the middle of the night to get my fair share of freedom in Placerville.
We had a fine time in town. I’m sorry now to admit it. Like any mining town, it didn’t come to life until late into the night. I was just so glad to get to the barber’s and wash off the last couple weeks of cattle muck and grit. I figured I was willing to face the wrath of Pa just to feel clean again. I even got a haircut, to make amends. After all, Eddie and I were nineteen and just looking for some fun. And honestly, that’s all we were looking for, when we walked into that saloon.
It wasn’t just the fact that she was pretty that made me want to sit with her. I’ve had more than my share of pretty girls, and that alone wouldn’t have done it. Maybe it was the song she was singing that made her seem kind of sad and far away. Maybe it was the shadow of her smile that seemed like a half-remembered dream. Maybe it was nothing more than the color of her hair. I don’t know, and now it really doesn’t matter. We started talking, and that’s how I let things get out of hand.
I was so dead set in telling her about all my fool dreams that I forgot all about Eddie. He never could hold a drink. For such a quiet guy, he got plumb chatty, with more than a couple of beers under his belt. I guess by the time I was paying attention to what he was saying, just about every drifter and hard luck miner in Placerville had heard that Eddie Carson was having a good night with the cards. All that was needed was for someone willing to come along and relieve him of all of those winnings.
When I realized what Eddie was doing, it was already too late. If there was one thing my brothers taught me, it’s that you don’t wave your money in everyone’s face. I just wish someone had taught that to Eddie. I looked up from talking with the girl. We were sitting so close, our foreheads were almost touching, and the next thing I knew, Eddie was buying the whole dang saloon a drink. I could hardly get him out of there fast enough, and I could feel the eyes of every man in that saloon, bearing greedy holes into our backs. I figured if we left right away and kept our eyes open, we’d make it back all right. Of course, I figured wrong.
And I left without asking her name. Even now, in the middle of all this pain, not saying goodbye to her is something of a sorrow. She was the kind of girl that a fellow would remember when his life was over and he’s counting up all the things he ought to have done. I ought to have found out her name. I ought to have kissed her goodbye. There are so many things in my life I’d do differently, if I had it to do again.
My stomach turns on me then. It twists and heaves, and nausea flows over my body, just like a current in a stream. It almost washes me off my horse, and I retch as far over his side as I can, without falling off. Cochise stops and almost rears up, but then he waits until I finish. I am trembling and cold and hot, all at the same time. My fingers barely do what I want them to any more, and I rest my head against his warm mane. The flies are stirring around me, attracted by the sweat and the blood and the sickness, and I can’t remember how to brush them away.
I whisper, “Easy, easy,” to myself, as much as to Cochise. It seems to work, and we both calm down. I remember how to breathe, my stomach stops convulsing, and he returns to a gentle walk. I’m not sure how much longer either of us can keep going.
If I’m being truthful with myself, I can’t even remember where I’m heading. I have to be a long way off from where I left my father and my brothers. I have been trying so hard to remember how to get back to them. Thinking of them draws tears from my eyes, and I have to turn away from the picture of them in my head. My stomach stirs up again, and I tell myself to just take it easy.
There is nothing left in me. No room for food or remorse or anything else, and I have to stop all my useless thinking. Regret is a luxury I don’t have, not if I have any hope of staying alive. Instead of thinking so much, I try to focus on breathing through all the pain. On staying awake. But I just can’t stop thinking.
So I think about pain. I think about how this pain has turned into a world for me, ever since the man aimed his gun and pulled the trigger. Since he walked across the clearing and lifted his gun and brought it down over my head, with all the nonchalance of a man putting down an injured horse. Since I woke up from the blackness, shivering and moaning, in a pool of my own blood.
It colors everything. It turns the blue spring sky a funny shade of grey and takes the bloom out of the new spring flowers. It makes everything seem to live and die, outside of its season.
This pain’s not predictable, like other times I’ve been hurt before. It’s not something you can brace yourself for or try to ignore. It makes a nuisance of itself, insists on turning itself into a surprise. It demands more than its fair share of attention.
Sometimes, it goes away completely, and I feel almost numb. I can’t imagine that’s a good sign. Pa says that pain is useful to a man, lets him know that he’s still alive. Keeps him fighting to try and get better. But this pain is the kind that lets me know that I’m not getting any better. It jolts me awake every time I start to drift off, and I can almost remember what I should be doing. But I keep thinking of useless things.
I think of the symphony that Adam dragged me to last year. I can’t imagine anything more useless than that. He was so excited to share it though. Virginia City was coming into its own, he kept telling me, if it could attract a visiting orchestra. We just had to go, he said. He insisted I go with him, not promising that I’d like it, but that I’d learn something, all the same.
The whole time the music was playing, Adam leaned against me, whispering words, into my ear. I can hear them again like it was yesterday.
I repeat the words out loud as I ride. Movement and counterpoint. Cadence and crescendo. Overtures and serenades, woodwind and strings. The words prove their worth at last. They keep me awake.
Adam was so angry with me, that night, when he thought I had fallen asleep on his shoulder. He elbowed me in my ribs so hard, it left a bruise the next morning. He was mad enough that he missed the smile that passed over my face, which was fine by me. I couldn’t let my older brother get too dang sure of himself, by letting him think that I was actually paying attention. That’s one thing smart ol’ Adam wasn’t smart enough to figure out. I always listened to him more than I let on.
I groan out loud, and Cochise lays back his ears. The pain is getting worse, with every passing minute. My wounds throb and pulse, in perfect counterpoint to the crickets and the frogs. I laugh into my horse’s mane, and tears trickle from my eyes. I am filled with absurdity today, that’s for certain. Just think about it, my own symphony of pain. Pa would say that’s what comes of too much book learning, and he’d give a dark look at Adam, if he were here. I never could pass up a chance to get Adam in a little bit of trouble. I smile at that, and my eyes begin to close.
Stay alert boy, Pa seems to tell me, stay awake! You’re drifting off fast.
I try to stay awake, if only for Pa’s sake, and I wish to God that Pa, and not just his voice, was here with me now.
I stare down at the ground. It hurts too much now to even lift my head. The mud is still pure slosh and downtrodden from the rain. It’s hard to believe it’s finally a dry day. It poured for so many days on the drive, I believed the rain was something eternal. I can’t believe how hellish the rain seemed to me then. Compared to what I’m feeling now, it was heaven.
Cochise’s hooves kick up the mud even more, and I start to doubt even Hoss could follow our trail. My blood keeps trickling down from my head, and I watch with some fascination as it plops in little splotches onto the dirt. The white markings of Cochise’s coat are painted with my blood. I’m sorry for that. It will be very difficult for someone to brush all that blood out, and it will probably be Hoss who has to do it. It seems I’ve made a mess of everything.
I think about Hoss. I know he will do his best to try and track me down. He always tried to teach me what he knew about tracking, spent hours pointing out to me the different markings a single horse could leave behind. I tried to listen to him, I honestly did, but I always seemed to have other things on my mind.
Adam always said that Hoss could never see the forest for the trees, and I could never see the trees for all the pretty girls passing by me. I always said that Adam couldn’t see the forest or the trees, because he was so busy figuring out how much money he could make selling all that lumber.
I smile at that but wish I had actually listened to Hoss. If I had, I might just know where I’m going. My mouth is so dry and my tongue sticks to my mouth when I try to swallow. I can hardly even talk to Cochise any more. I need water, and I need it bad, but I just can’t remember how to find that creek. The irony hits me, and I even laugh a little more. I can remember all the things Adam told me about that symphony, but I can’t remember how to tell where I’m going.
I’ve been a fool about a lot of things…
Maybe my luck begins to change, or maybe my horse is as smart, as I’ve always told my family. We have been riding for a while down a slight decline, over broken branches and upstart seedlings. I see light rippling through the spaces between the trees and the chorus of frogs seems to be getting louder as we ride; the foliage becomes even wilder with new growth.
Cochise lets me know we have gone far enough. He stops in his tracks and begins eating. My feeble whispers and flicks at the reins don’t accomplish a thing. He’s not going any further.
I cannot decide if I should dismount and look for myself, or wait until he gets thirsty and decides to take me. The choice should not be hard, but my mind just can’t work its way around choices, the way it used to. Nothing makes any sense. If I get down, there’s no way I’ll be able to mount again. If I choose wrong, and the creek is not at the bottom of the knoll, then I will have made my last decision.
My body chooses for itself. Truth be told, I just can’t sit a horse anymore. I let go of Cochise’s neck and the reins. I let go of everything and feel myself falling to the ground. And the ground is spongy and warm and alive, and it catches me, and when I cry out, I know that no human voices can hear me…
…I open my eyes. Cochise is gone, and the sun is a bright slit behind the western ridge. I am lying in the muddy wake of my own undoing. From where I lie, I can see shadows pool in the spaces between the distant trees. The sun will be down, before very long. For a moment, I can’t remember how I let this happen to me. Then I remember everything, and I begin to cry, with my own remembering.
What kind of fool leaves a cattle drive, in the middle of the night, without his jacket or his canteen? What kind of fool lets a friend talk him into sneaking off like he was nothing more than a kid? What kind of fool is in such a hurry to get back before getting caught that he doesn’t notice three armed riders sneaking up on him from behind?
I raise my head slowly and realize that I am bleeding, and it’s heavy this time. The fall to the ground has done its share of damage. I struggle to raise my head from the ground, and I stare down the hill. I try to make my decision. Either I lie here and wait for death to take me, or I fight my way to the water and try to live.
I hear Adam’s voice in my head, and he is trying to make me mad. Go ahead and lay there, he tells me, and I can just about see that smirk on his face. You always were one take the easy way out of things.
I force myself to my hands and knees and begin to crawl down the hill, gasping at the pain in my shoulder. The undergrowth is festering with stiff shrubs and crawling through them scratches my hands and my face. I have no idea how I’m still moving, but now I can hear the creek. Cochise served me well, the best horse I ever had. He brought me as close to life, as he could manage. I can hear the creek, trilling and bubbling below, the sound of living water.
I can feel my fever rising as well, its currents threatening to pull me in. Every bone in my body has its own ache, and I know each of them by name. I keep pressing forward, but I would give anything to lie down and just go to sleep. But I figure I owe this much to my father and brothers. They are my witnesses, and their voices encourage me softly, as I work my way forward. They tell me to persevere, to endure, to give it everything I can. When my family finally finds me, I want them to know I did my best. I hope they’ll find some kind of comfort in the fact that I never stopped fighting.
When I finally reach the water, the sun has gone away, and the phantom glow of twilight is all that remains. I lean over the water, far enough that I could easily fall in. I drink and drink, longer than I should. I drink until I’m satisfied. I fall back against my bed of spongy moss and long grasses, and I lie still for a while. I’m strangely comforted by the stillness of the air and the gurgle of the creek. It’s warmer here by the water, my pain begins to drift away, and I know how good it would feel just to sleep…
Get up! The words are so loud and familiar that I startle out of sleep and look around in confusion, for my biggest brother. Don’t fall asleep! Get yourself up. Clean out those wounds! Get up!
But Hoss is nowhere to be found. The voices in my head sure know what they are doing. If Adam’s voice had come calling right now, I probably would have ignored it. But, I know it’s serious when Hoss means business. With my good arm, I push myself to my knees and lean over the water.
I cup the water and watch it pool in my hand, before I remember what I’m supposed to do with it. I lift my hand and let it flow over my head and my shoulder. I feel grit, dried blood, and fever trickle away. I wash my wounds over and over again, until I can no longer see blood on my hands, in the moonlight. My clothes are a little wet, even though I tried to keep them dry, and I am so cold. I cry for a while, and don’t bother to hide it. Tears are warm against my cheeks, and it feels better to let them just flow. There’s nobody around to impress with a big show of bravery.
In the moonlight, I see a patch of flowers growing by the edge of the water. They are somehow familiar, even though I can’t see them too clearly. I think I remember Hoss showing them to me and saying they were just the thing to put on wounds to stop bleeding. I pull them out of the ground and tear them as finely as I can. I press them against my shoulder and my head, as best as I can, and I lie back down.
I should not go to sleep. So I fight sleep off, like I’m a child staving off his natural bedtime. It takes everything I’ve got, but I will not close my eyes.
I sing songs. Some I sing out loud, some only in my mind. I sing every song I know. It makes for a strange performance for the frogs and the crickets, but I don’t really care. I sing church hymns, and I sing barroom songs. The overlap of the sacred and the profane doesn’t strike me as strange at all. They keep me awake. They are all divine. My voice grows weaker and weaker. I know I don’t have much time.
I remember the girl in the saloon. Already, she seems like a dream, and I laugh softly at that. I spent the night telling her my dreams, and now I can’t even remember why. All those dreams hardly seem to matter anymore.
I wanted to see the world, I told her, to explore things on my own, to make a name for myself beyond the Ponderosa. Nothing original really or even that surprising. A rich kid’s foolish dreams, born of having too much time on his hands. How I wanted my family to treat me like a man, and what did I do? I snuck off like a fool kid, the first opportunity I had.
I see it all so clearly now. All the blessings I have are laid out before me. The voices in my head are something that many men spend a lifetime looking for and never find. How many men have the assurance to know that however lost they get, they will surely be found?
I find the voice for one last hymn. I sing the old words from my childhood Sundays spent on uncomfortable church pews. “…Wretched wanderer, far astray… found thee lost, and kindly brought thee from the paths of death away…”
Then, I have nothing left to sing. The night sky is purple and lovely, and I can see every star. I can point some of them out, Adam taught me their names. Vega and Sirius. Arcturus and Polaris. I remember more of them than I thought, and the names make me smile. I watch the stars, until tufts of clouds straggle over them, drawn by a sudden wind. I bite my lip through a new wave of pain. It is cold now, and it’s only going to get colder. I can’t imagine I will ever be warm.
The clouds drift and spin, until they cover the sky. I can no longer see the stars. It doesn’t matter. Even if I can’t see them, I know they are there.
Dawn does its best to break through the gloom. I feel proud that I’ve made it through the night. I’ve done everything I can. I stayed awake. I’ve nothing left to give. My family will need to do the rest. I know in my heart they will find me, whenever they can.
This is all so much easier than I thought it would be. The pain is lilting away into a distant refrain, and I’m happy to let it drift by. Nothing seems quite as important as it did before. The things that I’ve wanted, all my dreams, will have to take care of themselves.
The night is giving way to the morning. Even with the clouds that are blowing in fast, it should make for a beautiful sunrise.
I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’m certain my family will forgive me, even if it takes them some time. I’ve already begun to forgive myself.
I’m truly a lucky man.
“Here I am, Pa,” I whisper, and my world narrows to a circle of sky. “Come find me.”
The drizzle of rain doesn’t surprise me when it begins. It’s been coming for some time. As my eyes close, I feel it. Rain, like blessings, all falling down…
“This damn rain,” I mutter to myself. The rain has softened to a fine drizzle, but it’s more than enough to wash away what’s left of Joe’s trail. Pa hears me and shakes his head. Isn’t it just like Pa to worry over such niceties when so much more is at stake? “I’m sorry Pa. But this rain’s not getting us any closer to Joe.”
Pa gives me another exasperated look and turns to Hoss.
“Well son,” he says. “Can you pick up his trail?”
It’s a form of denial we’ve all shared, ever since we found Joe’s horse, ever since we found the blood. Even though we have been following the trail of blood for over a mile, we all do the same thing. We talk about the trail. But we all tread lightly around the hard fact that it is Joe’s blood that we’re following. It feels like a lifetime since we made our grim discovery, but it has probably only been a few hours.
It did not take us long to leave Eddie’s body at the camp and return with Hoss to the spot where we found him. I will never forget the look of devastation, on my father’s face, when we came across the pinto, just a couple miles away.
That horse never seemed at ease without Joe in the saddle. He seemed to be biding his time, eating some grass and looking uneasy, when we rode up. From a distance, my first thought was that the horse had been splattered with mud from the road. It wasn’t until I got closer that I knew for sure what I was looking at. The pinto was covered, from his neck down to his flanks, with dried blood.
Hoss let out a moan and dismounted. He strode to the horse and fingered the horse’s mane, talking tenderly to him at the same time.
He looked back at us sadly and nodded.
We started pacing in concentric circles, trying to pick up Joe’s trail. The tracks were riotous in their lack of direction. It looked as though the horse had just been wandering around. Hoss just couldn’t get a sense of which way the kid was heading.
I couldn’t concentrate on what I was supposed to be looking for. To me, the clearing looked about the same as any other. Despite the late showers, the ground was abloom with lupine and wild poppies. Everywhere you looked, you could see rolling tapestries of flowers, the typical eruption of spring in the foothills.
I could not help but shake my head at the sight of Hoss, on his hands and knees, crawling through the mud and the flowers, searching for any sign of our little brother. It would have made Joe laugh out loud, if he had been there to see it.
Hoss didn’t notice me watching. He was too intent on what he was doing. Once, he told me that when he’s tracking, it’s almost like he’s drawing a picture in his head. He said the first time you look across a stretch of land you see what you expect to. What you really want to find, the blind spots, are the things that hide underneath the surface. You’re looking for the spaces between places you’ve known all your life. That’s the challenge in tracking. It’s a matter of looking at what’s familiar, in a new way.
Hoss always said I was too impatient to be good at it. He said that was one thing that Joe and I had in common. It takes both patience and great persistence to track down something that’s lost, and Joe and I were always looking for the quickest way out of a problem. I supposed he was right. Already, I could feel the frustration building inside of me. Hours of the morning were lost already, we had found nothing, and we were no closer to finding Little Joe.
I was about to comment on our lack of progress when Pa suddenly fell to his knees. For a moment, I was sure that the shock of the morning had finally gotten to him, and I walked over to help him to his feet. Before I got there, Pa picked a flower and absently rubbed the petals between his fingers. Astonished, we watched as the suggestion of a smile passed over his face.
“It’s blood,” Pa said, in a soft voice. “His blood is all over the ground. Look. If you look close enough, you can see it. Don’t you know what it means? He’s been here, and he’s still moving. The trail leads away from the main road.”
Hoss and I knelt next to our father. The clouds were tossing shadows on the ground, but I could still see it. Drops of dried blood everywhere, sprinkled upon the dirt and the grass, upon the buds of the flowers.
“Pa,” Hoss said, and his voice held the first hint of hope I had heard all morning. “This might be enough. I might be able to track it. It might be enough to lead us to Little Joe. How’d you ever see it?”
“I remembered a dream,” Pa said absently, stroking the flower. Then, he seemed to break out of his fugue, and he looked at us directly. “Come on boys. We don’t have much time. Let’s find your brother.”
For the next hour, we followed my brother’s blood. It was slow going. Hoss went on foot to be sure we were on the right track. I saw the way Pa trusted his every call, without question. There was no doubt about it. No one in the entire territory was better than Hoss at tracking. If anyone could follow such a trail, it would be him. And I’d never known him to ever give up on our younger brother.
“Joe was still riding at this point,” Hoss told us at last. “See how the hoof prints dig in all funny like that on one side? That only happens when a rider’s slumped over. I can’t say for sure when he got off Cochise, but I’m pretty sure he rode this far. Those other prints are paced evenly. I think that’s where the horse doubled back.”
The wind blew hard against our shoulders just then, and we all adjusted the collars of our coats. I could see Pa reach behind him and touch his saddlebag, where I know he had packed Joe’s jacket. He had made same gesture, on and off, through the entire search, as if to reassure himself it was still there.
I knew it drove Pa crazy, the idea of Joe being cold and hurt, out there all night long. It wasn’t like Joe wasn’t capable of looking after himself. He was no fool, although leaving his jacket in his bedroll was clearly not his finest decision. No, Joe had to grow up thinking smart, from the time he was a boy. Growing up out here in the West taught you about independence pretty quickly. Those who didn’t learn fast enough tended to die at a young age. Although we still tended to refer to Joe as a kid, surviving nineteen years in this part of the country was not something to take lightly. There was no question in my mind. Joe was capable of a lot more than we gave him credit for.
“Those clouds look like rain,” Pa said. “Thank God it held off all night. That would have been the last thing we needed…”
And the last thing that Joe needed, I added but did not say it out loud. My God, I thought, shaking my head. What chance could there be that Joe was still alive? That he could survive the night so obviously wounded and still come out all right? I didn’t tell Pa or Hoss what I was thinking. They had made it this far on nothing but blind hope and faith, and I didn’t want to be the one to remind them how badly it could all turn out. Besides, what good would it do? We were going to find Joe, one way or another…
Hoss bent down, with his face about an inch from the ground, before turning around and nodding. We were on the right track. We were still finding blood, an unsettling blessing.
“Adam,” Pa said suddenly. I turned around, surprised. We had been riding side by side all morning but his voice was amplified in the quiet that always comes before the rain. “When this is all… over… I’m going to make some changes about some things. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’m going to tell Joe, and I’ll tell you the same thing. The Ponderosa was always my dream, and I just expected it would be your dream too.”
I nodded. I didn’t know exactly what Pa was getting at, but I hoped to head him off before he got there.
“Listen Pa,” I said. “Don’t put too much stock in how Joe’s been acting for the past couple weeks. You know how he can be. Doesn’t take much… no more than rain, really to set him off, if he’s already in that kind of mood.”
“I know that Adam,” Pa said, keeping his eyes trained on Hoss’ back, as he crouched again on the ground. “And I appreciate what you’re trying to say. But it’s more than just that, and you know it too. You’re trying to spare my feelings. Joseph is nineteen, old enough to not need to be asking his father for permission, old enough to be working out things his own way. I know it’s the same for you, son. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. I know you haven’t made up your mind either, what you want to do with your life.”
I smiled slightly and looked away. I had also seen the look on Joe’s face, during the past several months. The look mirrored the longings I knew very well. The nagging questions that just would not go away.
Is this what my life will be? Is this all there is?
I looked away from Pa and toward the vistas and edges of the world I had never seen. Yet I knew they were there, waiting for me. I still planned to visit them some day, to explore and know those places by name. But that particular dream would have to wait. It would not beckon me today.
“Pa,” I said. “All that matters right now is finding Little Joe. And I have a feeling that he’s waiting for us, thinking about how much he’d like to be found.”
The two of us smiled at each other then, and we spurred on our horses. And as we rode further toward the bend in Old Hangman’s Creek, we all became aware of the change in the weather. The clouds, wisps of grey in the earliest dawn, began to gather into themselves and come into their own. The wind picked up as well, undulating through the trees. Cold and demanding, it tossed around the blossoms that had opened too early this spring. They had bloomed before they were ready.
And then it began to rain.
It has been raining for at least an hour. Not heavily, but it’s enough to wash the last traces of blood away. We have searched so long to find nothing. Pa and Hoss stayed optimistic for the first hour, but recently their faces have settled into a kind of bleak resignation.
Cochise rides beside me, tethered to my saddle. I glance back at him occasionally, wishing that the horse could talk, like Joe sometimes claimed. Where is he, I would like to ask him. Take us there. Take us to him. We’d follow you anywhere to find him.
In response, the pinto snorts, and I can’t blame him one bit. I’d do the same at my lapse in rational thinking. I stretch my neck from side to side. My whole body aches from too many hours bent over in the saddle. I just cannot find a comfortable position. Then something in the underbrush catches my attention and I stare at it hard. I’ll never be a tracker like Hoss, but I see it, and this time I know exactly what I’m seeing.
“Pa! Hoss!” I yell.
It’s not much. A crush of branches and brush, a bunch of wildflowers knocked clear off their stems. Twigs broken and bent. A disturbance in the landscape I would normally pass by, without giving it a second thought. Yet, looking at it in a new way, I realize it’s exactly the right amount of space for the slim body of a nineteen-year-old kid to crawl through while making his way down to the creek.
Pa and Hoss turn to me, and I whisper, “He was thirsty.”
We all dismount and tie the horses to an ancient oak that leans in the direction of the water. We carefully follow Joe’s hard forged trail. I know we are all terrified that if we stray from his path, we could miss him altogether.
I hear the bubbling of water spraying over the rocks. It carries over the patter of the rain hitting the leaves. The whole world is a dirge of the sound of water. I push through the lattice of branches that frame the creek. One word comes to my mind, and I say it.
We rush forward towards the prone figure on the bank, his boots dragging in the shallows of the creek. Pa slips into his authority immediately and looks up at me.
“Adam,” he says. “Go get blankets. Bring every one that we have.”
I plunge back through the trees. I run as fast as I can. Normally, Joe would be the one that Pa would send off in a hurry. I don’t believe I have ever moved so quickly, and I slip on a root and fall hard into the mud. I push myself to a stand, barely feeling the gash on my hand where it came down on a rock. I wipe the blood on my shirt and keep running. I am covered with mud and I’m bleeding, but there’s no time to worry over things that don’t much matter.
By the time I follow Joe’s trail back to the creek, Pa has my brother in his arms and is whispering to him fervently. I cannot hear what he is saying. I look at Hoss, and he nods at me, without smiling. I don’t have to ask what it means. Joe still needs the blankets. If nothing else, we made it in time to try and get him warm.
Hoss reaches past Pa and unfastens Joe’s shirt, which is torn and tattered and soaked with the rain. I quickly hand Pa the blankets, which are also fairly damp, although we covered them with our coats, when it first started to rain.
Pa lifts the edge of the blanket to reveal Joe’s shoulder.
“Bullet,” he says, and Hoss and I lean over to appraise it.
It looks better than it should, considering how long it has been left untreated and exposed. A small hole, where the bullet made a fairly neat passage, little sign of infection. A miracle really, when you consider all that he must have been through, since it had happened.
“Fever?” I ask.
Pa shakes his head. “Not much. He’s just terribly cold. He’s got a head wound that I don’t like the looks of. But, it seems to have stopped bleeding.”
I place the back of my hand against my brother’s forehead. He is clammy and cold, but I agree with Pa. He seems remarkably free of any fever. I think of all the blood that has led us here, and I don’t understand it. I don’t know where all the blood would have come from. I gently lift Joe’s head to look at the wound. The gash is vicious and angry, but it’s no longer bleeding. The rain has washed all that away.
“Joseph, wake up son,” Pa keeps saying, again and again. He looks up at us, with mounting urgency. “If we can, we need to wake him up, before we try to move him. He’s taken quite a blow to the head.”
So we all join in, calling Joe’s name. Hoss rounds up every promise and threat that he used during Joe’s boyhood. I try the voice that Joe hates the most, the one that makes it sound like I know what I’m doing. Pa just keeps repeating Joe’s name in all its incantations.
Joseph. Joe. Little Joe. Son. Wake up.
Finally, I can’t take it any longer, and my impatience starts to kick in. His pulse is regular and strong, and his wounds are no longer bleeding. The kid can just be so damn stubborn sometimes. And he always hated getting up in the morning.
I take hold of his chin and I shake it. And I yell, “For God’s sake Joe, wake up!”
The frogs pause in their nervous croaking and Pa and Hoss turn to glare at me, but we hear it, almost immediately. Joe groans, low down in his throat, and squirms in Pa’s arms, as if he’s trying to get himself comfortable. Then he blinks open his eyes and stares right into my face.
“I thought I heard you,” he says. “Is it still raining?”
Joe’s voice is faint, but we all hear him clearly. Pa nods. I doubt he trusts himself to try to speak.
As is often the case in a family like ours, one of us is always available to step in when needed. I am more than willing to speak for my father.
“It’s not too bad,” I tell my brother, and I speak to him kindly this time. I touch his forehead again, to reassure myself that there’s really no fever. Hoss’ hand rests on the blanket that covers Joe’s leg. “It’s only been raining for an hour or so. I think it’s beginning to slow down. We’ll get you out of it in no time.”
“I don’t mind the rain,” Joe says, and for once I am so surprised, I don’t know what to say. Joe looks away from me and up at our father. “I got a haircut, Pa.”
Somehow, we all manage to find a laugh in that, and Pa finds his voice as well.
“I can see that, son,” he says gently, pushing the surprisingly short curls off Joe’s forehead. “And I’m not saying I’m not grateful. But, we can talk about all these things later.”
“Pa, did you find Eddie?” Joe’s voice breaks as he asks it, and he begins to cry. I can tell how exhausted the kid must be, by how readily he cries in front of us.
“Yes, we found him,” Pa said, and he continues to stroke Joe’s hair, his cheek. “There was nothing we could do for him, by the time we got there. He was already…”
“I know it Pa,” Joe says, and he buries his face into the folds of Pa’s shirt. “I saw him. I know he’s dead. I saw it happen. I tried to stop them. There were three of them. They followed us from Placerville and surprised us on the trail. They were after the money Eddie won at the saloon. One of them had Eddie, and he lifted his gun. I tried to throw myself at them to stop him, but the other one shot me, before I could make it. Then, he hit me over the head, and when I woke up, Eddie was already dead.”
“It’s all right, son,” Pa says to him, holding Joe’s head to his chest. “There was nothing you could do. None of us could have done any differently, in your place.”
“Oh, Pa I’m so sorry,” Joe says, and from his voice, I can tell he is now sobbing. “It was Eddie’s idea to go into town, but I wanted to go just as bad as he did. I’m so sorry for everything, for the way I’ve been acting, what I’ve done…”
“It’s all right, son,” Pa says. “I imagine we all have things we’re sorry for. We can talk about them later. It’s over now, and we found you.”
Joe lifts his face to stare at my father. Tears still stream down his face, but I note that some warmth has returned to his cheeks. He is no longer ashen and grey, the color of the rain.
“I had these dreams, Pa,” he says. “They seemed so important at the time, they wouldn’t let me alone. But I know they’re just dreams. They don’t really matter.”
“Everyone has dreams, son,” Pa replies, with a strange tremor in his voice. He reaches for the edge of a blanket and pulls it closer to protect Joe from the rain. “Don’t discount the importance of dreams. You never know where they might lead you.”
“Pa…” Hoss leans forward and looks at me, before glancing up towards the main road.
I take the cue and say, “Pa, we need to get him into town. He needs to see a doctor and get that bullet out, before it gets infected.”
“Pa, those men – ” Joe begins to say.
Pa tells Joe, “Those men are in jail. They’re locked up and waiting for you to tell the sheriff what happened. Don’t worry about anything, now, Son. We’ve got plenty of time.”
Hoss leans forward to get his arms under Joe. It’s a struggle with all the blankets, but he manages it and stands up, holding him in his arms.
Hoss smiles at him and says, “I’ll tell you one thing, little brother. It’s a good thing you don’t like the food on the trail all that much, or I might not be able to carry you. You’ve grown a spell, since the last time I did this.”
Joe smiles a bit and rests his head against Hoss’s shoulder. I can see him fighting to stay awake.
He mumbles to Hoss, “Just thought I’d make your life, easier for once…”
Hoss has one more question, as he turns back into the woods.
“Hey Little Joe,” he asks. “How’d you get those wounds cleaned out like that, anyway?”
We can barely hear Joe’s answer as he drifts back to sleep. But we hear it all the same.
“You told me I had to wake up,” he says. “Told me to clean myself up. Reminded me about that flower that helps heal things. Don’t remember the name of it. All I could remember were the names of Adam’s dang symphony…”
Then he is asleep, and the three of us look at each other. I frown, but Pa just shrugs. Delirium can do strange things to a man. Then again, who really knows about these things? All of us have lived long enough and seen enough to have some respect for what we don’t understand.
They begin working their way back to the horses. Pa goes first to hold back the branches, so my brothers can pass by. I can hear Hoss still talking softly, even though Joe cannot hear what he’s saying. I know, for Hoss, it doesn’t much matter. He will keep talking to Joe, all the way back to town.
The rain has finally stopped coming down. I can see blue patches of sky behind the clouds. Looks like a day with every kind of weather.
I bend over to pick up my hat from the ground, when I see it. I see a small drop of blood that was not washed away by the rain. For some reason, it shakes me, and I walk over to a tree, leaning against it to catch my breath.
I begin to ask myself questions that could drive a man crazy, if he let them.
If the storm had started up during the night, would we ever have found our way to Joe? If any one of us had missed his trail, would we have been too late? If any one thing had gone a little bit differently, would we have been able to find our way?
All at once, I am certain of my answer. We would have found my brother, even with the rain.
I push aside the mottle of branches and prepare to follow in my family’s footsteps. After all, there is more than just blood that binds us. There are dreams that tie us together that cannot be explained. There are trails that we follow that cannot be washed away.