Summary: When Hoss’s life is hanging in the balance, Joe gives no thought to the limits of his own strength.
Word Count: 2800
The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
“Hey!” Joe called out yet again. His throat was raw, his voice ragged and fading.
He looked to the rocks above him, hoping beyond rational thought that something would have changed to enable him to see beyond the face of the cliff. He had no way of knowing if anyone was even up there to hear him. The lumber camp was a mile away, too far for Joe’s paltry shouts to reach.
“Hey!” This time the word was hardly a whisper. His throat was simply too dry to accommodate his voice, and the effort did nothing more than force Joe to start coughing. But coughing now could prove deadly, certainly to Hoss, and very probably to Joe as well. He fought to hold it in, clamping down his jaw as hard as he could. His lungs seemed to spasm. His throat burned. And his eyes began tearing despite the unforgiving dryness in the air. For an instant, every muscle in his body tightened from the effort. And then every single one went slack—even the fingers he had curled around Hoss’s wrist.
Joe felt his brother slipping away. Panic bred instinct, and instinct drove him to reach for Hoss with both hands, a move that nearly sent the two of them plummeting down the mountainside. Only a last minute grab for the rock that had been anchoring him kept Joe in place as stones and rocks slid relentlessly past, threatening all the while to pull him along in their wake. Only sheer desperation enabled Joe to regain his grip on Hoss.
Joe now held Hoss’s hand in his. It wasn’t enough. He knew it wasn’t enough. He’d had a firmer hold of Hoss’s wrist.
Oh God, Hoss! Joe prayed for the hundredth time. Please wake up! Please, Hoss! I need you to wake up!
So on we go
His welfare is my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
If Joe could only get Hoss anchored, then he could reach for his gun. Three shots into the air would call someone toward them. But then again, it could just as easily start another rock slide…like the one that had brought them here.
It had been stupid, Joe realized now. Just plain stupid. Whether it had been Hoss’s idea or his own, Joe wasn’t sure anymore. Maybe they’d both considered it at the same time. Maybe that was why it hadn’t taken any effort to convince each other to try it out. They’d just wanted to find a faster route to get the lumber off the mountain. It was simple as that. Pa needed that lumber moved fast. Too fast. They could lose the whole contract if they didn’t find another way to move it. That was why the two youngest Cartwrights had listened to a stranger, a drifter who had reached them at the camp by traveling this old road.
“Oh, it ain’t too narrow at all,” the stranger had insisted. “Plenty a’room. Plenty wide enough for haulin’!”
Joe and Hoss should both have known better, and yet…somehow that stranger got them thinking something had changed. Like maybe the mountain had gotten thinner or the road had gained a foot or two since they’d last checked. But mountains don’t shrink overnight, and roads don’t get thicker—they get thinner. Rocks shift and tumble. Storms scour chunks loose. Even wind plies against the dust, little by little plucking pieces up and away. Yet Joe and his brother had chosen to believe that particular passage might be wider than they’d remembered.
And so they had stupidly found themselves on the edge of a collapsing road, determined to see how sturdy it might be.
Hoss had gone first. He’d dismounted, handed Joe his reins, and cautiously stepped toward the edge.
“Forget it, Hoss,” Joe had called out to him as the first tendrils of fear started coiling around his throat. “It’s no good. It ain’t worth it.”
“I don’t know, Joe,” Hoss had answered without turning. “I’m thinkin’ that stranger might’ve been right. If we keep tight to the inside, it might just work.”
Fear had quickly grown to terror. Joe had found it hard to breathe through the tightness in his chest. His palms had started to sweat. “It’s too risky,” he’d said.
“Maybe not. If we just—” When Hoss’s foot started to slip, Joe’s terror had given way to desperation, the same desperation that held him now, rooted to rocks that had no roots at all, rocks that seemed destined to carry both Joe and his brother to the very bottom of that mountain.
And now, as seconds passed to minutes and minutes slipped away like wayward pebbles, desperation began to give way to desolation. They were alone out there. Even if Joe had the voice to keep trying, no amount of shouting was going to call anyone to them.
“Please, Hoss,” Joe whispered. “Please wake up!” But what if he couldn’t? What if Hoss was already dead? “No!” Joe tried to shout. The sound was less than the brushing of leaves in the wind. He’s alive. I know he’s alive. He’s got to be alive.
Why does it matter? the swish of cascading rocks seemed to ask him. If no one’s around to help you, what does it matter whether Hoss is still alive or not? You’ll both just tumble to the bottom of the mountain with the rest of us. It won’t matter at all.
“I’m not letting go, Hoss! I promise. I’ll never let go.”
Joe’s arm was shaking. His whole body was shaking. Or maybe…maybe it was the mountain itself. But worse than the shaking was the feel of Hoss’s hand slipping away, sliding through the sweat on Joe’s fingers.
No, he realized then. Not sweat. Blood. Blood that pooled and dripped, gliding from his arm to his hand, falling like a warm summer rain. Joe stared at it, puzzled. Were the rocks bleeding? It never occurred to him the blood might be his own, that Hoss might not have been the only one injured in that first horrific tumble from one ledge to another. All Joe knew was he couldn’t let go, no matter how much that blood worked against him.
“I won’t! I can’t!”
But the mountain had other ideas. And suddenly, all Joe held in his hand was air.
“Hoss!” Joe’s cry echoed only in his own heart. The mountain was oblivious.
If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
Hoss? Joe tried to open his eyes, but they seemed weighted down. No. That couldn’t be right. It was Hoss whose eyes were closed, and Joe who was awake. Instinct again caused him to tighten his grip, but…it wasn’t Hoss’s hand in his fingers. It wasn’t even rocks. It felt…soft, like a blanket.
No. That couldn’t be Hoss. It was the mountain. Had to be the mountain. That’s all there was. Just the mountain. There wasn’t anything else. There wasn’t anyone else. Even Hoss had slipped away. Everything slipped away. And then the blanket slipped away as Joe’s fingers loosened, lost their grip.
It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
“Pa? I think he’s startin’ to come around again.” The mountain taunted Joe with Hoss’s voice.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. I didn’t let go! Joe curled his hand tighter around Hoss’s hand…no…around the blanket.
Stop it! Pa’s not here! No one’s here. It’s just me, just me and Hoss. And I didn’t let go. I swear I didn’t.
“I can’t….” He heard his own voice then, but it was no louder than the gentle swish of pebbles floating past.
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share?
“Open your eyes, Little Joe.”
No! It’s not Hoss! It can’t be Hoss. But I didn’t…I swear…I….
“Can’t…can’t let go.” Joe tightened his grip around Hoss’s hand. Only…it felt like…like Hoss was tightening his own grip, too. “I won’t let go, Hoss. I swear, I won’t.”
“You better not, little brother. Don’t you even think about lettin’ go.” And then it was two hands, like Hoss had both of his hands wrapped around one of Joe’s.
“Hoss?” Slowly, the weights…the rocks…slipped away. Joe’s eyes fluttered open. “Hoss?” His brother wasn’t just awake, he was standing…standing right there, over Joe’s bed. Had it been some kind of horrible dream? A nightmare that felt so real…so…hellishly real?
Confused…angry, Joe shot up…or he tried to, anyway. Someone else’s hands pressed him back against the bed. And…pain. Pain pressed him back, too. Everything seemed to hurt at once, his leg, his arm, his shoulder, even his chest.
“Not so fast, son. You’ve had a rough time of it.”
“But…,” Joe met his father’s concerned gaze, and then turned to his brother again. “Hoss? You were….” His eyes landed on the bandage wrapped around Hoss’s head. “You fell.”
Hoss grinned. “An’ you caught me. I don’t know how you did it, but you caught me.”
“I never would have believed it,” Adam called in from the doorway, “if I hadn’t seen it myself.”
“Adam? You weren’t….” Joe’s voice still sounded like pebbles. “You weren’t there.”
Adam smiled as he walked toward the bed, his thumbs pressed into the back of his belt. “Yes, Joe. I was there. Pa and I were both there.”
“You heard me?”
Joe watched Adam’s eyes shift toward Pa before returning to him. “We heard you rode out there. We went after you.”
“It’s sure a good thing they did,” Hoss added.
“By the grace of God, son,” Pa said then. “By the grace of God.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We were almost too late,” Adam said. “I don’t know how you held on to Hoss as long as you did, hurt as you were.” He shrugged. “Frankly, I don’t know how you held on to him at all, seeing as he’s almost twice your weight. You certainly couldn’t hold on forever.”
“But you held on as long as you needed to,” Pa added.
Adam nodded. “It wasn’t until we got there that you reached the end of your endurance.”
“You mean I…I let go?” Joe looked to Hoss, horrified by Adam’s words.
“No, Joe,” Adam assured him. “You didn’t. Pa and I…we just took over. Once I got Hoss secured and Pa started hauling him up….” Adam glanced toward Hoss. “You were about half dead, Little Joe,” he said a moment later, his voice nearly as soft as Joe’s. “When I got back to you, I almost thought you….” He clenched his jaw, like he didn’t want to say anything more. Then he drew a deep breath, filling his chest and shaking his head, as though the air might chase away whatever thoughts were bothering him. “I thought…. For just a minute I thought you’d died while my back was turned. I’ve never been happier to prove myself wrong.” Adam tried to smile again, but there was a heavy look to it.
“All I got was a little bump on the head,” Hoss said then, “but you…”
Curious about Adam’s weighted smile, Joe was slow in moving his attention to Hoss. When he did, he saw Hoss was bothered by something too. His brows were pulled down in that way of his, like when he’s trying to puzzle something out but no matter how hard he works at it he just can’t seem to find an answer.
“You got all kinds of busted up,” Hoss went on, “all on account of the way you come runnin’ up to grab me.” Then he smoothed out those furrows in his forehead, and his eyes almost seemed to grow brighter. “I still don’t know how you did that.” His voice came out hushed with those words.
“I don’t…don’t remember,” Joe studied Hoss’s eyes, somehow expecting to see whatever special thing Hoss seemed to be imagining. “All I remember…is I…I couldn’t let go.”
“And you didn’t, Little Joe,” Hoss went on, his gaze more focused. “You never did let go.”
“Good.” Joe said nothing for a long moment. He kept studying Hoss, trying to convince himself what he was seeing was real. Then he shifted his attention to where Hoss’s hands were still locked on his. He could feel their warmth. Even better, he could feel their strength.
“Good,” Joe said again. “I’m glad.” He closed his eyes, letting the words slip off his tongue like the pebbles on the mountain. Yes. He could finally let go.
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
He’s my brother….