Summary: Joe is forced to accept that sometimes a man’s fate is out of his hands. But sitting back and waiting for God to do what He would didn’t have to mean giving up hope.
Word Count: 2,600
It wasn’t about giving up hope or losing faith. It was about accepting that sometimes a man’s fate is just plain out of his hands. Whatever that fate might happen to be…well, it ain’t up to any man what God has in store for him, is it? Comes a point in everyone’s life when you have to accept that it’s time to set back and let God do what He will.
Joe had never figured that point would come for him before he’d seen the other side of twenty-one. Seemed to him men weren’t supposed to set back until their bones were bent so much they didn’t have the strength to do much more than set back, anyway. Joe’s bones weren’t bent at all. When he rode, his back was straight as could be. He could sit the saddle longer than anyone and outride the best of ‘em.
Well…he’d been that way right up until a few days ago.
He’d been young and fit and bursting with so much energy he couldn’t set back with his family for a moment longer. They’d been riding slow and steady, like they had all the time in the world. Pa might enjoy moving slow, but Joe couldn’t bear it. He’d always felt like he had to chase time from here to Sunday and back again. Time was something to be attacked full force, not savored. And so, with a challenging shout for a race back home, he’d kicked his heels into Cochise until it felt like he and his horse were flying with the eagles.
No one had taken Joe up on that challenge.
And maybe God had had a reason for that, too. Joe had ridden far enough ahead of his pa and brothers to save them from ambush. He hadn’t known Percy Gladstone had a whole passel of men lined up just the other side of the ridge with rifles loaded, waiting for the Cartwrights to cross over onto his land…or land he’d decided was his, anyway. It didn’t much matter to Percy what the law said.
No. It did matter. Just not the way it should have. When the judge had ruled that stretch of good grazing meadowlands was within the boundaries of the Ponderosa, Percy had decided to appoint himself judge and write his own laws, the kind that made rulings based on how many men he could buy and how many bullets they could shoot.
Of course, when only one rider had crested that ridgeline, they hadn’t had to shoot a single bullet. Joe had ridden right into the thick of them before he’d even known they were there. And that had made Percy change his ruling. Rather than gunning the Cartwrights down in cold blood and starting a war fighting law against law, Percy had decided he could use Joe to convince Ben Cartwright to sign that piece of land over to him fair and square.
Fair and square in Percy’s mind, anyway.
He’d had two of his men take Joe up into the timberlands. “Find a tree somewheres up yonder,” Percy had told ‘em. “I don’t much care where. Tie him to it, good and tight. Then head on over to that line shack we was talkin’ about to hole up ‘til you hear from me.”
“Don’t you want us to guard him?” one of the men had asked.
Percy had shrugged. “Can if you want to. But looks to be a storm comin’. I figured you’d rather sit through it inside than out.”
“Won’t it make more sense to jest take him with us to the line shack?” the other had asked.
But Judge Percy Miller sure didn’t like the idea of a man telling him he didn’t make sense. “You questionin’ my orders, boy?” he’d shot back.
“N-no, sir. It’s jest — them clouds don’t look too good. Storm could be a bad one. Leavin’ a man out in that, well, seems to me…”
“Seems to me,” Percy had answered, although his eyes had been locked on Joe and looking like the storm was coming straight from inside him, “a storm might be damned good incentive to get Ben Cartwright to do what we want quick-like, without causin’ any fuss.”
Joe hadn’t been too accepting right then. He’d fought back hard as he could. But one young man, no matter how fit, wouldn’t stand a chance against twenty armed codgers, and there hadn’t been a single codger amongst Percy’s men. In fact, the whole lot of ‘em were almost as fit as Joe. And some were just as young.
It wasn’t surprising that Joe had gotten a whole lot more than he’d given back. He wasn’t even conscious when they’d flung him belly down across the saddle with one of the riders. He’d come to a time or two on the trail, but riding like that after having the wind punched out of him had left him so lightheaded he couldn’t stay conscious for long. It wasn’t until they’d dropped him like a sack of grain at the foot of a towering ponderosa pine tree that Joe had been able to start focusing his thoughts enough to try fighting them again. But beat up and breathless as he’d been, he’d stood less of a chance against those two fit riders than he had at his best against twenty.
They’d pressed him back against the tree and knocked him to his butt so hard he could almost believe the force would drive his spine right through his skull. Then they’d dragged his arms behind him and around that tree, wrapped him with rope from his chest to his hips, and tied knots so tight nothing short of an ax was going to get him free. Heck, he could hardly even move.
Then they’d started talking like they really were planning to abandon him there.
“At least leave me a canteen,” he’d told them. “And give me the use of my hands so I can actually lift it to take a drink!”
They’d just mounted up and started riding away, like Joe hadn’t said a word.
Joe still hadn’t quite been ready to accept anything right then. Instead, he’d shouted louder and louder, making good and sure they could hear him.
When volume alone wasn’t turning them around, he’d changed his choice of words. They grew darker and more profane every time he’d opened his mouth. Joe used words he’d never had reason to use before, words he’d never heard outside the Bucket of Blood…words that would make his pa’s blood go cold if he’d heard them coming out of his own son’s mouth.
They were the right kind of words to finally turn those men back.
Trouble was, those men hadn’t turned around to honor Joe’s request. They’d only done it to shut him up for good, gagging him with his own bandana.
Even then, Joe hadn’t found any sort of acceptance. Instead, he’d tried to tear at the rope with his fingertips, hoping that maybe he could fray it enough to weaken it. But the tree was so wide there had to be more than a foot of rope separating one hand from the other. And his fingers couldn’t bend down far enough to grip the rope binding either of his wrists. He’d have willingly broken his own bones if it meant getting free, but he couldn’t even seem to do that. After a while, the only tearing he’d done was to his own skin and fingernails. Wriggling his wrists this way and that didn’t work either; it just scoured him raw.
The rope was too thick, there was too much of it and it was tied tight enough to hold a grizzly…or ground an eagle. By sundown, Joe had to figure he wouldn’t be flying anywhere anytime soon. He was just going to have to set it out.
But the only acceptance Joe had found then was in realizing he was going to have to wait for his pa and brothers to help him. He hadn’t liked that thought any. He’d hated feeling so helpless. Still, he hadn’t felt hopeless. No. He’d never really run out of hope. Even coming to that sort of acceptance hadn’t meant running out of hope. It just changed what he’d come to hope for.
Yep. The nature of his hope might have ebbed and flowed, but the strength of it never faded.
At first, he’d hoped for his bonds to weaken. Then he’d hoped he might shout loud enough despite the gag to get his family’s attention. Finally, he’d hoped for the storm to shift. But neither of those hopes had been fated to happen.
The storm hit him good and hard, first with winds so strong even pine needles left stinging marks on his face. Twigs and branches had done much worse, shredding his already torn shirt and trousers, and tearing into every bit of exposed skin. Then the rain had sent its own stinging needles. Before long, Joe had been drenched to the bone and so cold he was still shivering long after the storm had passed, deep into the night and well into the following day.
Then that day had faded and another night had begun to settle in, and Joe wasn’t really noticing the cold anymore. It was almost like he’d forgotten what it meant to be warm, so he didn’t miss it as much. There were other things that had started to disturb him more, like the yipping of coyotes to his left and his right, behind him and in front of him, making it clear a whole pack of ‘em had surrounded him. They just couldn’t quite decide whether he was too big a target or worth the risk, especially seeing as how he wasn’t likely to fight back. There were several times when Joe heard deep, rumbling growls. Some he figured might have come from a bear, but most sounded like wolves.
Whatever they were, they’d left Joe expecting to feel claws or fangs boring into his battered if not yet bent bones every time he heard a rustling in the brush or the snap of a twig.
But, somehow, all that strong hope of his seemed to have held all those predators off. They’d left him alone. Well, not as alone as Percy’s men had. But at least they hadn’t bothered Joe more than making all that noise that night. It was the same the next night, and the one after that. And…well, frankly, Joe had lost track of how many nights he’d heard those growls and yips. He’d lost track of time.
Time…. All that time Pa liked to savor and Joe had once raced against started swirling around Joe until he didn’t even know why time should matter so much. He couldn’t put a number to how many sunsets he’d watched from his vantage there on the forest floor, or how many times the moon had poked its way through the canopy above him. All he knew was last night — it had been last night, hadn’t it? — the moon had been full, and it had shined straight down on him through the branches like it had singled him out. Maybe that had been God’s way of telling him he wasn’t really alone at all.
And maybe that’s why he’d come to this moment of acceptance. Whatever was going to happen was simply going to happen, whether Joe wanted it to or not.
No. He wasn’t giving up. He still had hope. He hoped Percy hadn’t shot down his pa and brothers after all. He hoped his pa would come to his own kind of acceptance about Joe being gone. He hoped Adam wouldn’t find some reason to blame himself. He hoped Hoss would find a way to fill the hole this mess was bound to poke in his heart.
And he hoped the first thing he saw when there were no more moonrises to lift him up out of the darkness was his mother’s smile.
Instead, he opened his eyes to the sight of his father’s worried brow. A gentle embrace replaced the tight pull of the ropes, and warm, salty tears began to fill in the rivets the frigid rain had left on his cheek. And Joe accepted that a man didn’t have to be old and bent to set back and let God do what He would — but that didn’t mean God didn’t want him to get old and bent. It just meant Pa was right about time being a precious thing worth savoring.
One day, soon, Joe would get another chance to go flying with Cochise. But he wouldn’t chase time. No. He would savor every minute.