*A complete tale told in 5 progressive short stories (each of which can stand alone)
Summary: Wounded, trapped in the desert and surrounded by a renegade band of Bannocks, Paiutes and Shoshones, Adam and Joe prepare for death, unaware of the unfolding chain of tiny miracles that is setting them up for an improbable, last-minute rescue.
Word Count: 23,500
The Story of Adam and Little Joe
It’s a strange thing knowing you’re going to die. I guess I just never thought it was possible. Not now, anyhow. I figured I’d get to be like Pa. Not that I thought I could ever fill his shoes. But…I wanted to try.
I wonder if that’s what Adam figured. “Adam?” It’s odd how his name scratches my throat. I suppose it’s from all that shouting we were doing up until now…up until there wasn’t any point to it anymore.
“Yeah, Joe?” He sounds…sad.
I don’t want to make him sadder, but I want to know. And there won’t be any chance to find out later. There won’t be a later, will there? “Did you want to be like Pa?”
His brows are all pulled down when he looks at me. I can tell he doesn’t know how to answer…maybe ’cause he doesn’t really know just what I’m asking.
I figure I’d better help him out. “Did you see yourself takin’ over the Ponderosa one day…with sons of your own?”
His sigh tells me he didn’t. And when he can’t look at me anymore, that tells me even more.
But it doesn’t tell me enough. “Or maybe…building a Ponderosa of your own somewhere? Maybe…not even a ranch, but…something that matters, something of your own?”
He’s looking at me again, wearing one of those small smiles of his. And I can tell his answer isn’t going to be the one he wants to give, but it’s the one he has to give. You can’t lie when you know death is coming. It’s already too late for lying.
“To tell you the truth, Joe….”
Now he sounds tired. Not a sleepy kind of tired, but a worn out kind of tired, the kind that says there ain’t nothing left to do. Nothing left he can do, anyway. I ought to know. I’m that kind of tired, too.
“The things I saw myself building are more….” He closes his eyes, like he’s looking for a word inside his head. “Ethereal,” he decides, opening his eyes again, “than the Ponderosa. Less…permanent.”
“You’re wrong.” I don’t know how I got it all figured out, but somehow I do. I know exactly what he’s saying. And because I know that, I know he’s got it figured wrong.
But he doesn’t know what I mean. “Joe….” He sighs and shifts his position up against the rock behind him. I envy him that. Lying on my stomach like this kind of hurts my neck to keep looking at him. But I have to look. He’s all I have right now, and the last thing I want to see before….
“All I ever built in my dreams….” Adam’s voice is low and soothing. It makes me almost believe I’m dreaming…it makes me want to believe. “…Was dreams.”
Pa built a dream too. Didn’t he? “It’s the same thing.”
“No. It’s not.” He’s getting riled now. I don’t know why, but he is.
I don’t mean to rile him. I don’t want to. But…. “It is. It is the same, Adam. Pa built a dream. Your dreams could be just as lasting. Just as permanent.” But I’ve said it wrong, haven’t I? Both our dreams are in the past now. “Could have been.”
The sharp edge around his eyes softens at my correction. “My dreams involved seeing the world.” It sounds like a confession, but I don’t know why. “Not locking myself onto a single piece of land, however large that piece might happen to be.”
“Why can’t that be lasting?” There’s that pulled down brow look again. I guess I need to explain myself better. “You’d write about it all, wouldn’t you? About all the things you saw, the people you met?”
“You’d tell us stories about it…and we would tell other people those stories.”‘
“I imagine so.”
“Stories have a sort of permanence to them, too. Don’t they?”
“Yours would.” I’m sure of it. And I show him I’m sure.
And he shows me he’s surprised. Maybe…maybe even appreciative. I like to think that, anyway. I like to think that maybe I made him feel a little better about his dreams…even if they can’t be his dreams anymore.
My arm’s going to sleep, but shifting positions—or trying to, anyway—makes my shoulder hurt something fierce where that arrow caught me from behind. For a few seconds, I remember hearing Adam hollering that them renegades were swarming toward the south. We had our backs to each other, but I didn’t need to look at him to know what he wanted me to do. I started firing over that way, and then….
I don’t mean to grimace, but I just can’t help it. As my vision clears, I can see Adam’s feeling guilty again.
“How’s your leg?” I figure the best way to stop him feeling guilty is to remind him he wasn’t the only one who had to make a bad wound worse by pulling an arrow out of his brother’s flesh.
“Better than your shoulder.”
I have to smile at the way he tried to turn it back on me again. “I doubt it.” And I do. That arrow caught him good, digging deep into his thigh. I figure we’re both lucky I wasn’t hit until after I’d dug that arrow out of him. I don’t think I could’ve done it, otherwise. It’s bad enough us having to wait to die like this. It’d be worse if Adam still had that arrow sticking in him.
We let the night slip around us for a while. I like the feel of this cool, desert breeze brushing up along my cheek. Maybe I should feel cold. And maybe it’s good that I don’t. Good in some ways, I suppose. And bad in others. But it doesn’t much matter. It’s not the wound that’s gonna kill me. Maybe it would eventually, given enough time. But it won’t get enough time.
“Adam?” His eyes are closed and he doesn’t answer, but I know he’s listening. “You think if we run out at ’em like in that book I told you about, they’ll kill us right off? Make it quick?” Adam doesn’t like dime novels. But I like to read ’em. They always end good. I want this to end good. This is our story, the story of Adam and me fighting off a whole bunch of renegade Indians by ourselves, both of us hurt, and….
Yeah. I want it to end good. But I know it won’t. So I reckon the next best thing is for it to end quick. I don’t like the thought of dying slow, the way some Indians like to kill a man, slow and hard, full of the worst kind of pain.
Adam’s wearing that sad look again, but it’s even sadder than before. He’s shaking his head and sighing in that way of his that tells me he’ll play along even if he doesn’t want to. “I don’t know.”
Of course, he does know. He knows dime novels always end good because all they are is stories. They’re not real, not as real as this story of Adam and me.
And I know that too. But just because it’s not real doesn’t mean you can’t get a good idea or two out of a dime novel. Like running straight into all them Indians. That is a good idea for a man who wants to die quick. Trouble is, neither one of us is gonna be getting up on our own anytime soon, let alone go running anywhere. At dawn, when those renegades come for us, they’re gonna find us right here in these rocks. Unless….
Unless something happens to stop ’em.
“Pa always says….” Dang. My throat’s really getting scratchy now. I sure could use some water. But the canteens were with the horses, and the horses are long gone. “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
“Yes. He does.”
“I don’t suppose he was thinkin’ about…getting’ caught up in a bunch of rocks by a…pack of angry renegades.”
“I figure if the horses kept running like they were…they might of reached Pa and Hoss.”
“Don’t, Joe.” The way he says it, I think he’d be looking at me, giving me a hard stare that says I’m wrong. But he’s not. He’s looking at the sky. “Don’t hope so much that you lose yourself in a dream. It’ll only make it harder, when….” Now he is looking at me, but…. It’s like he’s confused.
“I’m sorry, Joe. You said something about the horses?”
I think that leg is hurting him more than he’s letting on. Or maybe…maybe it’s the idea of dying that’s hurting him. He’s thinking too much on it. I can’t seem to think on it at all. I don’t want to think on it. I want to think on not dying, like maybe…. “If the horses kept heading west, they’d a’been bound to run into Pa and Hoss,” I tell him again, “or maybe even them soldiers.”
“Maybe.” I can tell he’s playing along again.
I don’t want him to play along. I want him to believe it’s possible. I know this is real. It’s not a dime novel. But…that doesn’t mean it can’t end like one. “Pa didn’t lose himself in a dream, Adam.”
He still looks confused…and maybe a little surprised. “What?”
“You could say Pa found himself in a dream. Don’t you think?”
He’s shaking his head again. “Joe….”
“Maybe we could, too.”
“Dreams aren’t the answer. Not here. Not with this.”
“What’s wrong with dreams?”
He’s getting riled again. “I didn’t say anything’s wrong with dreams. But Pa’s dream…and this…. It’s just not the same, Joe. And you know it.”
“It doesn’t have to be the same. It just has to be…well…hope.” I think maybe he wants to hope, too. But he’s…afraid. Not like a cowardly kind of afraid, but…afraid to hold on to something that he can’t never hold on to. I guess I’m just as afraid as he is. I want to hold on to him, and we both know it won’t be enough.
Drums…. That’s what I’m hearing now. Them Indians are letting us know they’re still out there. They sure don’t have to. We knew it even when they were quiet. But now they’re playing those drums of theirs like it’s time for a celebration or something.
“Get used to it.” Adam’s jaw’s gone hard. He won’t look me in the eye now. “They’ll be at it most of the night, working themselves up into a killing frenzy.”
“Just for us?” I make it sound like a special thing, like there must be something remarkable about us to make those renegades want to celebrate like that. I don’t mean to; it just comes out that way. And Adam looks as surprised as me to hear it.
He’s looking at me again. I see his shoulders begin to shake…and then his chest. Finally a big old laugh comes out of his mouth. I can tell he tried to hold it back but couldn’t. I’m glad he couldn’t, because now I’m laughing, too. It hurts like the devil, but I don’t care. It’s the last laugh I’ll ever have, and I want to make it last as long as I can—which ain’t too long, of course. That devil’s hurting pretty bad now. I wonder if it’ll be worse when the Indians get here.
I’m not sure if it’s their drums or my heart thumpin’ up against my chest, but whatever it is, it’s making me have to fight to breathe. I ain’t ready to stop fighting yet. Maybe I should be, but I ain’t. So I fight back against that devil until I’m so tired I just want to close my eyes. But I ain’t ready for that, either, so I open ’em up as wide as I can, and I look over at Adam again….
And I realize that all this hope I’ve been trying to hold onto isn’t doing as much good for me as it’s doing bad for my brother. Because he’s doing something he’s almost never done in front of me before. Almost never? Maybe never. I can’t really remember seeing Adam cry before. But I must have at some point. It looks…familiar. Not common, but familiar. And there ain’t nothing comforting about it. And I can’t do anything to comfort him either, except something I promised myself I wouldn’t do—I look away.
I’m pretty sure he already knows I’m crying, too.
“Joe?” Adam’s voice pulls me away from something I can’t put a name to…or maybe I do have a name for it, a name Adam gave it earlier: Ethereal. Whatever it is, it fades at the sound of Adam’s voice, drifting like a fog.
I guess I fell asleep. I don’t know how I could have. How does a man fall asleep when a bunch of Indians are banging on their drums and whoopin’ and hollerin’ over the fact they’re gonna kill that man come morning?
“Joe!” Adam sounds like he’s in a hurry all of a sudden. He wasn’t in that kind of hurry the first time he said my name. Maybe not even the second. But this time he is, and I figure I’d better not keep him waiting.
I almost laugh again when I look up at him. Throughout the night, all we’ve been doing is waiting. What difference would it make if I kept him waiting a minute longer? But seeing the worried look to his eyes takes that laugh right out of me. That look eases some when he sees me, but not a lot, and not for long.
“There isn’t much time left.”
At first, I don’t know what he means. Then I realize the stars are fading just like whatever ethereal dream Adam had woken me out of…and for an instant I’m angry at him for waking me. Wouldn’t it have been better to sleep through death? Could I have slept through it? But then I realize my sleeping through it would have made Adam face it alone, and I’m glad he woke me.
But I look into those eyes of his, and I know that’s not why he woke me. “Joe…listen, I…want you to know…I’m proud to be your brother.”
I want to shout at him, because I know he’s only saying that because he won’t ever get another chance.
I want to thank him, because hearing those words means all the world to me; it means so much that it almost makes all of this worthwhile. Almost. Or maybe not worthwhile, but…acceptable. It’s like I feel stronger all of a sudden, from the strength of those words.
Mostly, I want to tell him the same thing, because it’s true.
But it’s hard to say any words at all. My throat wants to close around ’em. All I manage is, “Me, too.”
And then I try to push myself up on my elbow. It hurts, but I don’t care. It’s too late to worry about hurting. I don’t bother trying to get up; I just drag myself across the ground until I reach him. Then he helps pull me up to sit beside him. And I don’t have to worry about leaning my shoulder against the rock, because Adam sees to it I don’t have to…he sees to it I’m leaning up against him, instead.
There’s a million things we should say, but not a one of them seems important anymore. So we hold quiet, watching a purple line spread itself out across the horizon, and then a trace of red and orange floating along behind it. As we sit here, the sky gets so full of color I can almost believe I’m dreaming. And I don’t even care that I’m not.
When the first sound of gunfire sends a jolt through me, Adam grips my arm. “You know all that talk about hope, Joe?”
I just look at him. There’s no need to answer.
“You were right.”
I’m still looking at him, not sure what he means, when I start to hear more guns.
“They didn’t have that many guns,” I realize. “Did they?” I’m sure most of them renegades only had arrows to shoot.
“Not as many as we’re hearing now, little brother.” I almost feel like I’m intruding, watching him lean his head back and close his eyes like a man in silent prayer. One new tear cuts through caked-on blood and dirt and the dark streaks of old ones.
And then, when I start to hear more gunfire than Indians whoopin’ and hollerin’, I do the same as Adam…right up until I hear our pa’s voice calling out to both of us.
I’d thought this morning’s sunrise was the most glorious thing I would ever be privileged to discover. I was wrong. I knew that the instant I saw Pa and Hoss climbing up this hill of rocks, trailed by a group of U.S. cavalry men.
“Maybe you’ll listen to me next time, older brother.” I don’t have much of a voice left.
Adam heard me, just the same. “Let’s just pray there isn’t a next time, younger brother.” He squeezes my arm again. “And I promise to listen to you, from here on out.”
“Always.” He matches my own, hopeful grin. “Everything you say that makes sense.” I expect him to wink, but, instead, another tear slips out the corner of his eye. He pulls his brow down, looks up at the sky again, and adds, “And Pa, too.” His next words are almost too soft to hear. Almost. But not quite. “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
Maybe none of this is real. Maybe I’m still asleep and we’re both lost in a dream. But I don’t think so. I think we both just found ourselves in one, instead…a dream right out of the pages of a dime novel. And the story of Adam and Little Joe just ain’t finished, yet.
Awestruck. That’s the only word I can think of, the only one sufficient to describe what I feel as my father—my father!—touches my shoulder…my arm. He’s on his knees beside us, Joe and me, one hand grasping each of us.
A moment ago, I knew the next touch I could expect would bring pain with it, probably agony, and, eventually, death. But I find this instead. Not a renegade Indian’s cruelty, but my own father’s gentleness.
The renegades had taunted Joe and me throughout the long night, a night sure to be our last here on this Earth. They’d played their drums and chanted those unnerving, disturbing calls to the great spirits that had left us at their mercy.
Mercy? No. There would be no mercy. We were dead from the moment we’d taken to climbing these rocks. We found shelter here for a time, for a night of despair and pain…and aching revelations. But a night of shelter in the rocks could not save us. Nothing could save us. And yet…my father has. My father, Hoss and the cavalry men standing before us now…they have all saved us.
It seems impossible. It is impossible, a scene from a dime novel, a rescue perfectly orchestrated to provide for the requisite happy ending. It is a gift, a dream made real, a dream my young brother couldn’t bear to let go despite my warnings that holding to it too strongly would only make things harder when the time came for us to face an end that seemed inevitable. I told him to accept the truth. I told him….
I told him to give up hope.
Maybe not directly. Maybe not in so many words, but…the effect was the same. I told him to accept that it was considerably less than likely we’d be leaving here alive.
Before Joe was hit, there might have been a chance—a small chance…a chance nonetheless. But after…. Joe’s gun was gone, dropped to the desert floor when he fell. Even if he’d still had it, our bullets would be gone soon enough. And our strength.
So I’d told my brother, the young brother I’ve watched over since his birth, a young man I still see, I can’t help but see as my responsibility, my charge, a brother worth protecting, worth giving my own life to protect…I’d told him the best thing either of us could do—the practical thing—was to prepare ourselves…by making peace with God.
I sat on that hard rock, on the edge of a world that seemed to be crumbling away from us, bit by bit, intent on pulling us into the abyss…. I sat there, on the edge of life itself, with my good leg curled up beside me and my bad leg stretched out before me, and Joe…Joe was lying so still beneath my hand, the skin of his back warm, his blood seeping into the balled up remnants of my shirt.
I’d cast away the arrow I’d torn out of him, sickened by the thick, ugly wound it had left beneath Joe’s shoulder blade. Arrowheads are cruel things. Their cuts could be small—relatively—going in, but are often horrific coming out; and my efforts at surgery here in this godforsaken desert with no fire, no thread for stitches, no…anything…had served my brother poorly. I came to know a touch of what he must have felt, digging that first arrow out of my leg—but a touch, only. I would give anything to have traded wounds
Covered with Joe’s blood, I couldn’t look at that arrow for even a minute longer. So I’d thrown it away from me, down to the desert floor. That had been…a mistake. Not my first; maybe not even my last. It was a signal to the Indians below us that they’d already won. We were both injured; all they need do was wait for our bullets or our strength to run out.
When a new arrow clattered against the rock beside me, I bent myself over my brother, as though by allowing the next one to hit me I could save him…even when I knew nothing could save either of us…nothing short of an act of God. But the next arrow didn’t strike me. Instead, it embedded itself into a niche of hard sand.
And then…a startled cry called out from where I’d thrown Joe’s arrow. There was a shout in reply, and then another. And finally…laughter. And that was it. They wasted no more arrows. They knew Joe and I were already theirs.
And I knew it, too. As much as I tried to pretend…to hope…even pray…I knew they had us.
I eased Joe over onto his back, careful to keep my shirt in place on his wound. Although I was gentle, the rocky ground was not. Joe stirred, coming groggily back to consciousness.
“Adam?” He looked up at me. “Are they…?” He closed his eyes tight, pulling his lower lip between his teeth, clearly fighting the pain I knew he must be feeling.
I nodded, unconcerned whether he saw the gesture. Yes, they’re still down there. They’re just…. “Waiting.”
“Waiting?” He looked at me again. “For what?”
No longer able to meet his gaze, I turned away, holding my tongue.
He deserved to know. I couldn’t shield him from this reality any more than I could from the reality of his mother’s death all those years ago. He’d been a child then, but it would have done him no good for us to allow him to watch over her, waiting for her to open her eyes again. He’s a man now. Playing make-believe wasn’t going to help either one of us.
“For us to weaken.” I let him see the unspoken words in my eyes before turning my attention to the western sky. The sun was starting to dip below the horizon; its dimming light spread out in a wash of colors I would challenge any artist to match. “They’ll probably leave us be for tonight.”
He understood. I know he did. I had seen that in him before I’d looked away. Whether or not he saw it in himself, I can’t say for sure. If he did, he hid it well. “That’s good…right?” He was actually smiling, looking hopeful and…eager for me to justify that hope.
I closed my eyes, shaking my head slowly, sadly. “They’ll come for us at dawn.”
“We’ll be ready for them.” Joe was still smiling. He took a quick breath, one that pulled at that smile but would not remove it. “A little sleep…,” his eyelids slipped shut, “and we’ll be ready. We have…the advantage.”
“No, Joe. We don’t.”
He came fully awake in an instant, his eyes gone from hopeful to stormy just as quickly. “Of course, we do,” he argued. “We have the high ground.” Leave it to Little Joe, ever the fighter, even when it was a struggle for him to catch a full lung of air, and, with too little air, a struggle to speak. He paused, breathing hard. “We can pick them off…one by one…as they come up the—”
“We only have one gun.”
One? The word formed on his lips but never passed between them. He looked…confused.
“Yours,” I explained, “is gone.”
He closed his eyes once more. His chest rose, filling again—or trying to. “Bullets?”
“Pa,” he said softly, maybe even disbelievingly, but…hopefully. “Pa and Hoss will come.”
I took a long pull of air, grateful that I could. “By the time they realize…. It could be too late, Joe.”
“Then what, Adam?” he whispered. His eyes looked…lost…more lost than I’d ever seen them. “What do we do?”
I had guided him out of the woods before. But this time, it was different. So very different. How could I tell him? He was trusting in me to give him an answer, to help him see there was still a way out of this mess we’d stumbled into—or ridden into—just because we’d taken an extra day in that new silver mining town they’re calling Austin.
One extra day out from under a saddle after that dusty cattle drive had been awfully appealing. It had been appealing enough to cause the four of us to draw straws to see who would stay and who would head home, where there was always more work to be done. What had made it especially appealing was that extra day in Austin involved nothing more laborious than waiting for a stage carrying a man who’d wanted to discuss Cartwright timber. But now….
That one, extra day hadn’t even resulted in a contract. It had simply delayed us getting home…and delivered us into the hands of renegades, a band of Paiutes, Shoshones and Bannocks who must have decided the Pyramid Lake War hadn’t ended to their liking.
And by delivering us into their hands, that extra day had delivered us right into the hands of God, for surely mere men could do nothing to help us now.
“It could be too late, Joe,” I’d told him.
It already was too late. Yet he was still asking me what we should do. I should know. I always knew what to do. I was the older brother, the one he could always look to for answers. This time, the only answer I had was the last one I could ever want to give him. “We prepare ourselves.”
“How? With what?”
“Pray for Pa to come?”
“Yes. And….” I sighed, knowing better, but giving him that, nonetheless. “If that’s not enough, then…for your mother. And mine.”
Yet even when Joe had accepted the truth, he hadn’t. Not really. His heart was too full of the spirit of youth and an unhealthy dose of Cartwright stubbornness to allow for him to give up. He told me there was still room for hope; there was always room for hope, as long as….
“Pa always says where there’s life there’s hope.” Even as Joe had said it, his life had been slipping away, spilling out from the hole in his back that had sealed the end for both of us. Even then he couldn’t give up hope. “If the horses kept heading west, they’d a’been bound to run into Pa and Hoss…or maybe even them soldiers.”
“Maybe,” I’d told him. But in my heart I knew better. Don’t hope so much that you lose yourself in a dream. It was just a dream, after all….
Or…it should have been. Pa and Hoss should have been halfway back to the Ponderosa by then. And those soldiers we’d encountered…. They had been on patrol from Fort Churchill. Cavalry men on patrol don’t tend to stay in one spot for long. They, too, should have been too far to reach. Joe had been counting on too much. His hopes had been misplaced, centered on impossible dreams.
I’d tried to warn him, to prepare him…to help him accept that this wasn’t a dime novel, that the cavalry doesn’t always make it time.
Don’t hope so much that you lose yourself in a dream.
But I’d been wrong. I’d thought our incalculable odds posed too big a risk. I’d needed to be ready—to make my peace with God. More importantly, I’d needed for Joe to be ready. Because I knew I couldn’t protect him anymore. I couldn’t even stand up on my own. How could I hope to protect him?
But Little Joe had called God’s bluff, betting on impossible dreams. And his gamble had paid off. Pa was right here. Right…here…like an ace that had been hiding up some unseen angel’s sleeve. Or….
I look into the depths of my father’s eyes for answers. “How?” I ask, my voice the rasp of sandpaper across splintered wood, the result of too little water, too much shouting, and a night spent waiting to die.
“We found your horses.” Pa’s words mirror Joe’s dream. He lifts a canteen to my lips, spilling sweet moisture over my dry tongue, my parched throat. “Or rather, Corporal Rogers found them. He sent a couple of men to stop Hoss and me from heading home.”
For a fleeting moment, the water fuels my own dreams. I can almost believe a swirl of dust takes the shape of a woman standing at my father’s shoulder…a woman I recognize from a daguerreotype photograph…my mother.
“That’s enough for now, Adam.” Pa’s pulling the canteen away.
I don’t fight him. I want to tell him she’s there…but she’s not. Not anymore. A dream, I tell myself. A mirage. I give my attention back to my father, watching as he tries to ease Joe’s thirst as he had mine. But Joe….
“He fell asleep again.” There’s surprise in my voice, enough to remind me of Joe’s surprise at hearing those Indian drums.
“Just for us?” He’d said it as though he’d believed the drums and the chanting marked a special celebration in our honor—rather than in honor of our defeat. That tone of surprise had given Joe and me a chance to laugh, to actually…laugh…before his pain had overwhelmed him…and before my own laughter had turned to quiet sobs.
“Just for us?”
Joe’s surprise repeats in my thoughts, again and again, like another, smaller gift than the dream-turned-rescue. It prompts me to smile…until I notice the water dribbling from Joe’s chin to his neck, where it finally cascades to his chest. He’s not stirring, not even to welcome Pa’s gift of water. Just a moment ago, Joe had been awake enough to know—not just to hope, but to know—Pa was coming. He’d been awake enough to hear me admit that I should have listened to him…to hear me promise to listen to him from here on out.
“Always?” he’d asked.
“Always,” I’d promised.
I expected him to fight to stay conscious after that, if only for this moment, this awe inspiring, thirst quenching rescue. But….
“He’ll be alright, Adam,” Pa assures me. For an instant I wonder how he could be so certain. Then I remember Joe’s recitation of our father’s own words. Where there’s life, there’s hope. And, this time, I accept them to be truthful.
“It’s a good thing Buck came up lame,” Pa says while I close my eyes, relishing the fresh moisture he’s given me, “or those troops might never have found us.” His voice falls across me like a blanket, full of the warmth and comfort I’ve longed for but dared not hope to find. He says more, but the words are meaningless. All that matters is the voice. I fall into it, revel in it, feel like a child again, a youth with hope in my heart…until…
Joe is gone. My side where he’d lain grows cold. I feel…. Exposed. Alone.
“Joe?” I call his name as I had near the end, after the night had already started waning…after Joe had been silent for too long and his back had stopped rising perceptibly with each labored breath. He’d been lying on his stomach then, beyond my reach. He should have stayed on his back, allowing the ground to keep pressure on his wound. But he’d been in so much pain! The hard ground pressing into the gaping hole I’d helped to put into him looked to be…excruciating. And whether or not the bleeding stopped…well, it had hardly seemed significant anymore.
“He should have left me,” I say aloud. “He could have…gotten away.” He had been getting away. When those renegades had swarmed up behind us, Joe had kicked his heels into Cochise, and I’d kicked mine into Sport, and…for a moment, for an instant, I’d thought we could make it. I’d been so sure we could. It had to have been an amazing sight, the two of us flying across that desert. But…when I was hit, I fell back. I couldn’t keep up. And Joe…Joe was riding so fast, and so focused…. “He should have…kept going.”
“No, Adam,” Hoss answers. “He shouldn’t of. An’ you an’ I both know he wouldn’t.”
I open my eyes to see that Pa, too, is gone. But Hoss is here. And his eyes…those rich, blue eyes of his are as sure of his words as I am unsure of mine.
“Would you have left him?” he asks.
I shake my head—or I try to, anyway, but the effort leaves me tired. “That’s…different.”
“No. It ain’t. You know it ain’t. Just because he’s youngest, don’t mean he worries any less about us than we do about him.”
“You should’ve seen him, Hoss.” I try to smile, but…at what? Joe played the role of a hero, and heroes only truly win in dime novels. Real life tends to be far more…tragic. “He practically dragged me up into these rocks. And then he…he fought like…an army.” I chuckle, but the sound falls flat. “Like an entire army. He covered three sides to my one. It was…the only one I could reach.”
I look into my brother’s caring blue eyes and see the pain etched there. He’s hiding something. I know he is. And I know what he’s hiding. But I don’t want to know. I lower my gaze, noticing Joe’s gun tucked into his belt. He must have found it at the base of this rocky hill, where it had fallen when Joe had…fallen.
“You’d have been…proud of him, Hoss.”
“I already am.” He’s serious with his words. Deadly serious. “Always have been. Of both of you.”
I ignore the implication, reaching absently for my own gun. It still sits in my lap, and still holds the five bullets I’d hoped to put into the first five renegades to reach us.
“Every time he stopped to reload,” I go on, pretending I can’t see what I can, “I held my breath, afraid he’d been hit. There wasn’t anything I could do except to let him keep at it. He kept firing. And firing. And then…. Nothing. When I finally turned to see….”
I’m crying now. It’s ridiculous to cry, isn’t it? We’ve been rescued, after all, a perfect ending for an imperfect novel, fraught with plot holes and…exactly as Joe would write it, were he a writer. But I can’t help thinking that perhaps this last minute rescue has been too late for Joe. And I can’t help crying.
And, unlike Joe, Hoss is not turning away to let me shed my tears in private. His pride has been misplaced in me. Little Joe saved me. And I, his older brother, the one responsible for his care, have failed to save him.
“He’s dead,” my throat compresses on the word. “Isn’t he?”
Hoss pulls down his brows and shakes his head slowly. He’s not surprised by my question. And that tells me…so much…. “He’s with the medic, Adam.” His voice is soft…gentle…but not soothing. There’s a hardness to it, an edge that suggests he’s run out of hope.
Even so, I find my useless tears already drying. “With the medic?” I ask, hopefully.
Hoss nods, looking puzzled by my reaction as a smile tries to tickle itself loose on my lips.
I’d thought Joe dead once before, but he’d opened his eyes, allowing me to give him the night’s final revelation, the one I couldn’t face death without speaking. “Joe…listen, I…want you to know…I’m proud to be your brother.”
“Me too.” Those were the only words Joe’d had in him then, but they had buoyed me, renewing my strength to face what was coming…almost as much as they’d seemed to buoy him, giving him the strength to crawl toward me, to join me where I sat—where I’m sitting now—with my back to a rock, watching for the sunrise…and the death it would bring. I’d drawn him up to lean against me, sparing him the unforgiving sting of the rock, and I’d held him there until…until I’d heard Pa’s voice…until this moment, as I feel the coldness of Joe’s absence.
“He’s with the medic, Adam.” Hoss’s words float through my mind, telling me something more than even Hoss has seen.
And now I look to Hoss, and my smile is as real as…as the feel of Hoss’s palm on my forehead.
He’s strong, that little brother of ours. And he’s already fooled me once. But he’s not fooling me this time.
“That means he’s still alive,” I say with more confidence—more hope—than I should feel.
When Hoss nods again, I close my eyes, take a deep pull of dry, desert air, and repeat the last words I’d said to Little Joe only moments before Pa’s hand had gripped my shoulder, the words Joe had first given me just a few hours ago. “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
And then…I allow myself to drift into a dream filled with swirling sand, my mother’s smile, Marie’s whispered, “Adieu“…and a treasure chest filled with dime novels, their covers awash in cavalry blue to boast of last-minute rescues and the requisite happy endings. I pick up the first book and open it, letting fall a single ace of hearts…the one from my own angel’s sleeve.
Trusting in Angels
Ain’t nothin’ to be scared about. Not no more. But I am. I’m scared about what might have been I reckon…what maybe even almost was.
A couple of those cavalry men are getting Joe seen to, and Pa’s over there makin’ sure it’s done right. He’ll be okay. He has to be. I got to focus on Adam now. He’s sittin’ right here in front of me and he’s still alive, too. He’s quiet now. I guess he…he’s passed out. But…what he said a minute ago….
“He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Ain’t much in this world as worrisome as seein’ my brother, Adam, cry. It was so worrisome when he did that I half want to cry, too. But I can’t. I won’t. Strange, though. Almost as worrisome as seein’ Adam cry was seein’ the way those tears of his stopped as soon as I said Joe was with the medic.
“Then he’s still alive,” Adam reckoned.
Of course, he is. And he’s gonna stay that way. I wanted to say all’a that, but I couldn’t…on account of the fact I was scared. I am scared.
That wound in Adam’s leg sure needs tendin’ to. I’ll do what I can, and that medic’ll help me when he’s done takin’ care of Joe. I gotta keep tellin’ myself they’re both still alive.
Adam don’t need that gun in his lap no more, does he? The fighting’s over now.
“Joe!” Adam’s voice is soft when I pick up his gun. It makes me jump just the same. His eyes ain’t open, but it’s clear he’s still worryin’, still figurin’ it’s just him and Joe up here against more Indians with more weapons than they could hope to fight. I’m sure he don’t like the idea of someone takin’ his gun.
“Easy, Adam.” I keep my voice soft, too.
He’s heard me; I can tell that. He stops fightin’ his own self…sort of turns his face toward me…but he’s keepin’ his eyes closed.
“It’s alright, Adam. You gotta trust me. Those Indians are gone now. Ain’t nothin’ to worry about.”
He lets out a long breath I never even saw him take in. That gets me scared all over again.
Ain’t nothin’ to worry about, I tell myself. But it’s hard to reckon.
When I first came up that path and saw Adam and Joe sittin’ together, facing me, with Adam holdin’ onto Joe, lettin’ Joe lean up against him like…well, like…like it was the only thing he had left to do…I could tell Adam knew he couldn’t protect our little brother anymore. Maybe he even thought Joe was already dead. Joe wasn’t conscious. He wasn’t moving. I didn’t even know if he was still breathin’, not just then. But…Adam’s eyes lit on mine and…. I ain’t never seen that look in his eyes before. I don’t know what it was. Surprise, maybe. But more than that….
It’s like I can hear Adam reading to us from that book again, that one about the great whale, Moby Dick. “Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself….”
I guess that’s what I saw in Adam’s eyes right then. I saw somethin’ of that Ishmael fella in that moment of awe when he first laid eyes on an albatross in a storm. And maybe Adam did see some of the secrets of God right then…not in my eyes, but…in me showin’ up just then, me and Pa and all them troops from Corporal Rogers’ cavalry patrol and Lieutenant Hayes’ reinforcements.
“God works in mysterious ways.” Mrs. Olverson said that after Private Johnson first found Pa and me still camped out with her and her husband. That private told us Cochise and Champ had wound up in their camp, lathered and skittish. And there was blood on Champ’s saddle.
“We knew they were your sons’ horses right off,” the private said. “That pinto has mighty distinct markings. After we met up with you folks on the trail the other day, we sure couldn’t mistake him. Why I—”
“Get to the point, man!” Pa shouted back at him.
“A band of renegades has someone trapped up in the rocks back in the desert,” Private Campbell told Pa. “We’re pretty sure it’s your sons. Corporal sent us to Austin to find you folks, to make sure it’s just two a’you out there and not all four. But that man in town, Colburn, said you’d split up. I figured we’d try to reach you, even though it wasn’t too likely. I sure never expected to meet up with you so soon. It’s a mighty st—”
Pa wasn’t much listening anymore. “Renegades? Are you sure?”
“Yes, sir. We been hearin’ reports about ’em—a group of Paiutes, Bannocks and Shoshones that joined together when their tribes withdrew after Pyramid Lake. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of ’em, though. Leastwise not ’til now. But they’re out there, sure enough. One of our scouts came on ’em shooting up into the rocks.”
Just before we rode off with that private, that’s when Mrs. Olverson said what she did. “God works in mysterious ways.”
It almost seems like maybe she was right. Maybe God’s work’s what kept delayin’ us. While my brothers were talkin’ about timber in Austin and then gettin’ pinned down by a bunch of riled up renegades, Pa and me were gettin’ delayed in ways we could never have expected…a loose wagon wheel, a baby, and then finally a lame horse that shouldn’t have been lame at all.
But if it was the Lord’s doin’, keeping us close to Austin all that time, why did He let us leave my brothers at all?
I don’t know. I sure don’t. All I do know is what I saw in Adam’s eyes when we come upon him just now. I could see he hadn’t expected any help. He couldn’t have expected anything other than…. Well, he must’ve thought he and Joe were gonna…gonna die up here together.
I feel like I’ve got a big old chunk of dry bread sitting in my gullet. I try to swallow it…but it doesn’t want to stay down.
I can’t imagine thinkin’ what they had to be thinkin’. Both my brothers had to figure there wasn’t much hope left. They had to figure last minute rescues only happen in dime novels, and this sure ain’t no dime novel.
I shouldn’t be scared. It’s a fool thing to be scared now. The fighting’s over. Half the renegades are gone, the other half, dead. And my brothers are still alive. But, dadburnit, I am scared. I’m scared at how hot Adam is, even though he’s just passed a cold night in the desert. I’m scared of the way that medic is shoutin’ for a hot fire to clean the knife he has to use on Little Joe. And I’m real scared of that odd word Adam whispered just before he went quiet.
I’d swear that’s what he said. And if I remember right, Marie used to say that whenever she was leavin’ to go somewhere.
Danged if Adam sayin’ that hasn’t scared me even more’n anything else.
But we got here in time. I keep tellin’ myself that over and over again. We got here in time.
Since Adam’s quiet again, I check the chamber on his gun. Five bullets. All they had between them and the renegades was five bullets. And Adam’s gun.
That scout who came with Lieutenant Hayes’ when the corporal’s patrol met up with the rest of his regiment—the Indian fella wearin’ a cavalry uniform—he gave me Joe’s gun last night.
“Dropped,” he told me. “From above.” When he pointed up to these rocks, my heart about dropped down to my knees. Joe would never let go of his gun like that. Not unless he was hurt…or….
Dang that dry bread! I wish clearin’ my throat would be enough to get it out’a there. But I reckon it’s gonna stay put until we get my brothers out’a here.
One gun and five bullets. Against twenty renegades. That’s kind’a like goin’ up against a whale with a rowboat and a tomahawk.
Strange thing that…me out here in the middle of the desert thinkin’ about whales. I reckon it was that Mr. Olverson who got me thinkin’ this way.
The day before yesterday—funny…I hardly even know what happened to yesterday—Pa and me, when we were stuck there on that road out of Austin, Nevada, we were talkin’ about whales and sailin’ and fishin’ with Emil and Hilda Olverson…folks we’d never met before, but…now it almost feels like they’re old friends. We were doin’ that while my brothers were fightin’ for their lives right here, not twenty miles away.
We were laughin’ while they were out here facing….
No. Don’t think like that. We got here in time. That’s what matters now. Pa and I got here right when my brothers needed us most. Everything’s turned out just like it should. …Even though if everything had gone the way it was supposed to, Pa and me wouldn’t be here at all. We’d be home.
But that ain’t right, either, is it? If everything had gone the way it should, we’d all be home by now. None of this would’ve ever had to happen. Pa and me, shucks…only reason we split up was ’cause’a that dadblamed Mr. Buell.
Doggone him, anyway! He shouldn’t have been out’a town just then! He was supposed to be there when we delivered his cattle. He should’a been there…not just to take delivery, but also to talk to Pa about timber for all the building he’s got to do in that new town of his. But he wasn’t there.
“He’ll be in on tomorrow’s stage,” that fella, Colburn, said. “If you could just wait until then….”
Pa sure was angry. Almost as angry as Joe was happy. Pa just wanted to get on home. Maybe Adam and I weren’t as set on stayin’ as Joe, but we weren’t as eager as Pa to hit the trail again, either. A saloon in a tent is still a saloon, and them miners were havin’ a whole lot of fun in them tented saloons.
But… Dangnammit! Whatever we were gonna do, we should’a done it together! If we hadn’t drawn straws to see who would wait for Mr. Buell and who would go on home…if we’d all stayed…or we’d all left…. There should’a been four of us fightin’ off those renegades instead’a just two. And if there’d been four of us, then maybe Adam and Joe wouldn’t be as bad off as they are right now. But there weren’t four of us, because Pa and I rode for home.
We rode for home, dadburnit!
Yeah, we rode for home…but we didn’t make it too far did we? Things kept gettin’ in the way of us gettin’ home. First, helping the Olversons. And then Buck goin’ lame. I wonder if it was angels or fate or…something…that kept us from goin’ too far. It’s like maybe…maybe they wanted us to be close enough to get here now.
But…seein’ Mr. Olverson…Emil…fightin’ with that wagon wheel like he was…. Would an angel make him do that? We couldn’t just keep goin’. We couldn’t ride on by and leave him to wrastle with it by himself, especially with his wife pregnant as she was.
I sure didn’t expect to lose most of the mornin’ helpin’ him though. And by the time we got his wagon back on the road, that meal Hilda was cookin’ up sure had my belly anxious for a taste of it. I wasn’t in any kind of hurry no more, that’s for sure, when she said we ought to share a meal for our troubles.
Our troubles. That’s what she said. But it wasn’t any trouble helpin’ with that wheel. This here’s much bigger trouble than we could ever imagine having. And this sure wasn’t the Olverson’s fault.
Could’a been angels, I reckon. But maybe they were more worried about keepin’ us there for the Olverson’s troubles than our own. Right when we were finally ready to go, after that fine meal, Mrs. Olverson was ready, too. Her baby wasn’t gonna wait ’til they got to Austin like they’d planned.
Emil tellin’ us he’s a doctor made Pa and me both feel better about the fact that a baby was about to be born right there on that road. But we sure couldn’t leave ’em.
It’s somethin’ how long it takes some babies to get born. As anxious as that baby seemed to be at first, he got dadburned stubborn after that. It was past sundown by the time the Olversons and their new son were settled. We lost a whole day out there with them Olversons.
And I thank Heaven for that. Maybe it was angels that helped make sure we were there for the Olversons. But those same angels also made sure we were there to get that message from Private Johnson. ‘Cause they weren’t done with us just then, either.
Even though the sun was gone, Pa and I were both anxious to get movin’. It was kind’a odd though, how Pa was so fired up about gettin’ home and I wanted to go back to Austin. Why’d I want to do that? I don’t know. I really don’t. I just…it seemed important that we get back to Adam and Joe. Maybe Pa had that same feelin’. He was just tryin’ to fight it because it didn’t make any sense.
It was like we both knew Adam and Joe were gonna need our help. Like maybe angels were whisperin’ in both our ears. We just didn’t know how to hear ’em right.
Maybe the Olversons heard better than we did. When they told us they were namin’ their son Benjamin Eric Olverson for Pa and me…well, it didn’t much matter about where we should go after that. We didn’t go anywhere at all that night. The Olversons seemed pleased to have us stay with them. Pa and I were awful pleased right then, too.
If we’d known this was gonna happen, we wouldn’t have had to argue about where to go at all.
No. I can’t think like that. We couldn’t have known. And besides, I’m pretty sure Joe and Adam would have been pleased about where they were right then, too. They’d have been sharin’ beer and whiskey with miners in a tented saloon. So maybe it’s not a bad thing Pa and I were out there with the Olversons, listenin’ to the caterwaulin’ of a baby named for us and sharin’ coffee and stories about the sea.
Kind of funny when I think about it. We were out there in the middle of the desert talkin’ about the sea. Maybe Adam and Joe will find it funny, too…soon as I get a chance to tell ’em. And I will get that chance. Them angels wouldn’t have made so doggone sure we got here just in time if they were gonna take either of my brothers now. They can’t take ’em now. Wouldn’t be right.
“God works in mysterious ways.”
Maybe so, but it still wouldn’t be right.
I’ll never forget the funny look Pa got in his eyes the first time he heard Hilda Olverson talk. It was like he was lookin’ somewhere deep inside his head. Then he smiled and said she sounded like my mother…and then I liked the idea of listenin’ to her talk, too. They weren’t from Sweden, though. They came from Norway, from a place called Bergen.
Adam would like Emil. Imagine that, Emil bein’ from a family of seamen. I remember thinkin’ Adam should’a been there listenin’ instead of me. I wish…I wish he could’a been. Him and Joe, both. Joe would’a liked those stories, too. Especially the ones about whaling.
I still don’t really understand why Joe keeps sayin’ that Moby Dick book Adam gave him is one of his favorites. Little Joe mostly likes those dime novels, thin books that read easy and always end good. The kind of books that take a man somewhere but don’t make him think. Moby Dick…well, that book ain’t thin. And it sure does make a man think.
Does Joe like that book so much because it’s about somethin’ different from what he’s used to? About somethin’ he don’t ever expect to see for himself? Or is it because…well, because of Adam?
“Don’t tell older brother, but when I read this, I like to imagine Adam’s readin’ it out loud, like he did last winter.” Joe was right about that. I like to imagine it, too. Especially now.
Adam’s still quiet. He ain’t even stirrin’. I think I got that wound of his clean as I can for now. Maybe Lieutenant Hayes’ medic has some alcohol or somethin’ I could use. But…he sure is busy with Joe. And the rest of them troopers…. Looks like most of ’em have gone after the renegades that got away. The others are seein’ to the ones they shot. I just…maybe I’d better just wait a few more minutes. Adam’s okay for now. He’s exhausted, I reckon. After what he and Joe were facin’ last night, I reckon he’s got good reason to be exhausted. He needs to sleep for a while.
Seems odd somehow, needing sleep so much now out here in the desert, and just last winter we all got too much sleep under all that snow. Like two different worlds, almost. Like two different lives, even. But I’d rather have that life. That boredom.
Sure was a long, hard winter. When Joe picked up Moby Dick to pass some time, I thought maybe he’d finally stop pacin’ like a cornered cat. But he only read a couple of pages before settin’ it down again…or throwin’ it down, more like. I remember him complainin’ about how boring it was. He was probably more upset about how bored he was with all that snow outside and not enough to do inside; but what he’d said sure got Adam’s gander up.
When those two started arguin’ like they do, I about wanted to knock some sense into both of ’em. Then Adam started readin’ out loud. Joe didn’t say anythin’ else after that. None of us did. ‘Cause that book wasn’t boring at all. Not the way Adam read it. He sort of made that story come alive. Took us all in. He read and we listened, and the days didn’t seem so long then.
It took almost two weeks to read the whole book like that.
I think those two weeks passed faster than last night did. And not just for Adam and Joe. But I’m not exhausted. And I sure didn’t take an arrow. Fact is, I’m not even tired.
I guess it’s my turn to feel like a cornered cat. Ain’t nothin’ I can do but wait. But it’s okay, because I know my brothers are safe now. They’re safe, and they’re gonna be just fine. I just…I just wish they’d both wake up…wake up just enough to let me see for sure that they can…that they will.
Dangnammit, already! Why can’t I stop feelin’ so scared? Ain’t nothin’ to be scared of anymore.
It’s that scout, I reckon. That Indian who calls himself Abraham. He’s part of the cavalry. He ain’t one of the renegades. But…he is one of them, in a way. He shares their blood, don’t he? And those eyes of his…they like to pierce right into you, like he can see what’s inside. Like last night, when he found Joe’s gun. He knew how it tore me up inside to see that. He knew what to say about it, too.
“Your brothers yet live.”
“We can’t know that for sure,” I told him. Because we couldn’t know. Not really.
“We can.” He said it like he knew. Like he could know. Like maybe the angels whispered in his ear, too, and he heard ’em loud and clear. “They sing to the great spirit because they know they will not all survive when they climb into those rocks at dawn. The first to face your brothers expect to die.”
It was hard not to believe him, but…I couldn’t. I guess maybe I was too scared to believe him. Listenin’ to those Indian drums out there sure didn’t help none. And seein’ the way them renegades were dancin’ around that fire…. “Looks like they’re celebratin’, to me.”
“Do not trust all you see.”
We spent last night watchin’ and listenin’ to them Indians, and all I wanted to do was climb up into these rocks and see to my brothers. Then maybe I could trust what I saw. But Lieutenant Hayes said we had to wait for dawn. Abraham agreed. Even Pa….
“It’s a new moon tonight, Hoss.”
“That’s good,” I told him. “It’ll give us better cover. They’ll never see—”
“No, Hoss!” Pa sure looked angry then…but I don’t think he was really angry with me. He took a deep breath and when he let it out the edges around his eyes softened up some. “I won’t risk you…not you, too. Please. Listen to the lieutenant. We’ll strike at dawn. We’ll have surprise…and numbers, in our favor.”
“But that’s hours away, yet.”
“It’s our best chance…. It’s your brothers’ best chance.”
“But, Pa…. What if they’re already hurt? What if…what if waitin’ is gonna hurt ’em more than help ’em?”
Pa didn’t have an answer any more’n I did. “It’s our best chance,” he’d said again. “I won’t risk you, too.”
As those hours passed—like a full month in the worst of all winters—I couldn’t help but think it was worth the risk. I was as ready to climb up into them rocks as Joe had been to turn back when Adam was hit.
“He should have kept going,” Adam told me before he got quiet. He thought Joe should’a left him. If Joe had left him, our little brother wouldn’t be up here now, lookin’ half dead. But Joe leavin’ Adam like that…well, that’d be like…like cuttin’ out his own heart. He couldn’t do it. Joe couldn’t do that any more than I could. Or Adam.
“You’d have been proud of him,” Adam told me.
He ought to have known better. But I reckon him bein’ hurt and tired like he was, well…. Truth is, I didn’t need to be told what Joe did in order to be proud of him. “I already am,” I said to Adam. “Always have been. Of both of you.”
Joe risked his life and I was ready to risk mine, too…but I couldn’t. Because I couldn’t do that to Pa. “I won’t risk you, too.”
“Hoss?” Pa’s voice pulls my thoughts. Turns ’em. And the feel of his hand on my shoulder…it’s like…like…I don’t know. Like all these rocks and all this desert ain’t makin’ a canyon out’a me anymore.
All that from a single touch?
“God works in mysterious ways.”
Maybe. Maybe He does.
“Let him see to Adam, Hoss.”
What? Oh. Right. The medic’s here. He’s here for Adam. That means…. “Joe?” My voice sounds like I ain’t talked for weeks…or like I still got that chunk of old bread in my throat.
Gettin’ up makes me feel like an old man. I wonder how Pa must feel. His eyes look…tired. He looks tired, but…better. Yeah. He looks better’n he looked last night.
Abraham’s standin’ behind him, and he’s lookin’ at me again with them piercing eyes of his. “Do not trust all you see.”
But I want to trust it! I want to trust that Pa’s lookin’ better, and Adam’s sleepin’ off a bad night, and so is Joe. My brothers are both gettin’ the rest they need. And….
I’m not scared no more.
“God works in mysterious ways.”
Yeah. I gotta trust in all of it.
This ain’t a story in a dime novel with a last minute rescue and a good ending. No. it’s better. Because not only did we get here in time, we met a doctor on the road who’s gonna be lookin’ for us in Austin, and who’s gonna give Adam and Joe the finest care they could hope for.
Yep. Sometimes the cavalry really does save the day. And I reckon there must’ve been some Indian somewhere who slew a whale with a tomahawk.
And one gun with five bullets was even more than my brothers needed. Because God really does work in mysterious ways. It’s not for me or anyone else to question those ways. We just gotta go where the angels lead us, and trust in them to get us there in time.
The Spark Within
It seems to reach out to forever, this stretch of dry, hard desert. I feel almost as though I’m standing in the bow of a tall ship, looking out over a once great but now empty, dusty sea, full of nothing but death. But…that’s not quite true, is it? Life came into this desert just yesterday. An infant was born to parents who’d turned away from the sea to build a life amidst this…desolation. Like me, perhaps? I could have stayed in the east. I could have built a life where the waves are abundant with…life.
And where storms and whales and all manner of sirens can take life for life.
I’m a fool to think like this. There would have been no point to my staying back east. No good could have come from it. Not after Elizabeth. Not with Adam, himself newly born, needing me at home…needing a home.
That’s why I came west. I brought Adam to this country, to this…desolation. If I hadn’t, he would be plying the waves as I once did. I have no doubt of that, none at all. But…if I hadn’t, I would never have met Inger…or Marie.
Would Adam have been my only son?
By the time this day ends, will Hoss be my only son?
God help me, I can’t bear to think of it! This desert steals life so readily, sucking it right out of a man, draining him dry until there’s nothing left but an empty husk.
I could almost believe that’s what I saw when we first climbed up into these rocks, when my sons first came into view after I’d spent all night wondering what I might find, worrying over what I might find, and never coming close to the truth. My eldest and my youngest…Adam and Joseph, were drawn together like sailors adrift, clinging to one another as though desperate to avoid being sucked under waves of sun scorched sand. Adam, still conscious, had looked at me with the eyes of a man who had suddenly found himself in the presence of angels, the eyes of a man who had expected death yet found life instead. But Joseph…. He was so still…his lips cracked from these dry sands…his eyes closed…the divine spark of life always so prominent in him suddenly hidden from me as never before.
Heaven help me if that divine spark remains lost, sucked dry by this godforsaken land.
I very nearly lost them both out here in all this desolation. I still could lose them. And for what? A timber contract. No business transaction is worth the lives of my sons. It should have been me. If that contract was so…so wretchedly important, I should have stayed in Austin alone…. I should have…should have sent my sons home—all of them—after that cattle delivery. But…I wanted to get home. I wanted to enjoy the comforts of the home that I left the sea to build, the comforts of the home I built for Adam and Hoss, the home I made ready for Little Joe. I built it for them, for all of them, and yet I’ve been so…so selfish. I was willing to leave Adam and Joe behind so I could get back to that comfortable home.
“I’ll stay, Pa!” Joe’s young exuberance rings through my head like a clarion. That spark within him had been a raging inferno. Yes. He wanted to stay in Austin. Because Austin meant excitement, enticement. It meant whiskey and poker…and yes, maybe even a woman or two. The young son for whom I’d prepared that house is so readily called away from it. What I see as a haven, he sees as a…what? A place to rest in between work and play and…adventure.
I wonder if he saw this as an adventure. Perhaps, in the beginning. I can imagine him racing alongside his brother, excitement building within him while they outran—or tried to outrun—those renegades, a group of enraged Paiutes, Shoshones and Bannocks who’d banded together to fight what they saw as an unjust…unacceptable ending to the Pyramid Lake War…who had chosen my sons to exact their vengeance.
I can almost…almost imagine Little Joe smiling as long as those Indians’ arrows struck harmlessly behind him…behind them both…as long as he felt assured of a good ending. But…I’m being unfair. Joseph is not a fool. Even he would not find pleasure in the danger of such a chase. No. Joseph is not a fool.
Still…he does love the idea of adventure, that boy. He attacks life with such zealousness…almost a cavalier disregard for what could happen when the adventure turns dark, when it jumps from the pages of a book to harpoon him with an arctic sting of reality. I suppose I’m to blame for that, too, for allowing him such free rein…for encouraging him to read even such rubbish as those ridiculous dime novels that fill his thoughts with impossible adventures and implausibly happy endings.
“I’ll stay, Pa!”
I shouldn’t have let him. I shouldn’t have….
Heaven help me I shouldn’t have enabled him! We drew straws, yes. But I’m the one who prepared those straws. I knew exactly which one to pick and which to encourage Hoss to pick. I wanted Joseph to have his adventure in Austin. And I wanted Adam to be there to watch over him in my place.
God help me, I’m responsible! I not only led my sons into this…adventure…I drove them to it!
When did Joe’s smile turn? When did adventure become…hopelessness?
Well…I know for a fact that smile would have died the moment he knew his brother had been hit. But the adventure…no. That could not have ended so easily.
“You should’ve seen him, Hoss,” Adam’s voice should have consoled me while I’d held Joe and watched Lieutenant Hayes’ medic clean and attend to that horrific wound in my youngest son’s back, cutting out infection before it could grow worse. “He practically dragged me up into these rocks. And then he…he fought like…an army.” So…Adam had been hit first. His youngest brother had saved him.
My heart swells from the words, even now. But…even now, those words offer no consolation.
“Like an entire army,” Adam had crowed. “He covered three sides to my one. It was…the only one I could reach….”
Yes. Joseph had his adventure. But then he’d been hit, too.
“You’d have been…proud of him, Hoss.”
Adam was proud. Hoss was proud. And I, too, am proud. But…I’d rather have a living son with human flaws than a prideful heart and a freshly dug grave.
Am I wrong? Am I so wrong to think this way? If Joe had not made us all proud by saving his oldest brother, then Adam might already be dead. And yet, for that very act, they might both die.
“Dear Lord, why?” I look up into a blinding sun and hear nothing in reply but the low whistle of a sudden breeze…a hot breeze that stirs up a swirl of dust, almost taking the shape of a woman as it brushes my skin with the feel of a bellows blowing over an inferno.
The inferno of Joseph’s hidden spark, perhaps?
“God works in mysterious ways.” I can still hear the Scandinavian, song-like cadence of Mrs. Olverson’s sweet voice calling out to Hoss and me before we rode away…before we rode here, to save my sons.
I want to believe it. I want to believe in that breeze, in that spark and…. I want to believe my sons will make it back to Austin. I want to believe they’ll both make it into the hands of Doctor Emil Olverson, a man whose troubles became our own for a day and a half, and who I know will be more than willing to take on these troubles as his own. He can make them well again. He can give them back to me.
“God works in mysterious ways.”
“Please, dear Lord, work those ways on my sons!”
This supply wagon moves too slowly, trundling through the sands of a great, dusty sea. And…it is a rough sea. Among the roughest I have ever known. The wheels bounce and jump enough to make my own, old bones ache. I want my sons to come awake, and I dread it all the same. I can’t imagine the pain they would both feel if they were to do so, yet I would take it all on myself if I could.
But…they won’t feel anything, will they? Not for a while. If at all. Both lost so much blood. So…so very much….
I wish I could shake away that image…the moment I pulled Joe from his brother to discover Adam’s chest red with blood. I thought…we all thought Adam had two wounds then. But no. He’d only been hit in the leg. It was a bad wound, surely, but it was also his only wound. The blood on Adam’s chest had spilled from the open gash in Joe’s back when he’d rested against his older brother.
They had clung together at the top of that path like sailors adrift, riding the crest of a sun-frozen wave, waiting for….
Waiting for us. I must believe that they were waiting for us. I want to believe it. But….
I am too old to ignore…reality. They could not have known we were coming. They had to have expected those renegade Indians would come at daybreak to…to finish them off.
“Pa?” Hoss’s voice is strong. Comforting. The sound of it lifts me from depths I’d never thought to know. “It’s Private Johnson, Pa.”
I look past the bulk of my middle son there in the driver’s seat—an anomaly, certainly, for an army supply wagon, but he had insisted…and I had agreed…and the lieutenant had to have recognized Hoss’s need to take responsibility for his brothers, even if all that meant was driving a wagon team.
Yes, Private Johnson has returned from yet another errand delivering messages. He’s a good man, lean and wiry, an easy load for any horse to bear and a perfect fit for speed. He proved that barely twenty four hours ago, when he’d ridden hard to find Hoss and me where we’d been encamped on the road to Virginia City with the Olversons. That ride had been to tell us the corporal’s patrol had encountered Champ and Cochise, riderless, lathered, and with Champ’s saddle spattered in blood. This ride had been different, but no less urgent.
He pulls alongside the wagon and then matches our pace, Hoss never slowing. “Doc Olverson says he’ll be ready, Mister Cartwright. Says to bring your boys straight to Mister Buell’s house when you get to town.”
“Mister Buell’s?” I want nothing to do with that man. The very sound of his name burns like acid in my stomach. My boys would be fine if Buell had been in town as promised. We would all have ridden for home ahead of the renegades. We would all have missed the Indians and encountered the Olversons, instead. We would all have marveled at Emil’s stories of the sea. And we would all have rejoiced at the birth of their infant son.
Benjamin Eric Olverson. Imagine that. He was named for Hoss and me, honoring us for simply doing what was right and lending a helping hand to fellow travelers on the road. I wonder what that child’s name would be if all of us had been there, all four of us, as it should have been.
“Mister Cartwright? Did you hear me?”
“What? Oh, yes. I’m sorry. You said to go to Mister Buell’s, didn’t you?”
“Yessir. On account of the fact Mister Buell’s got the only fully built house in town. That town’s too new to have anything much else built up yet. Even the saloons are in tents. Doc Olverson didn’t want to tend to your boys in a tent.”
Yes, yes. I know about the tents. We just rode out of Austin two days ago. Sighing, I hold my tongue and start to grasp what the private has just told me. “You mean to say Doctor Olverson convinced Mister Buell to give up his house?”
“I wouldn’t say give it up, exactly. But the doc did convince Buell to give him and his wife and that baby of theirs decent shelter until he can get a house of his own built up. And soon as I told that doc about your boys, well, I guess you could say he upped the ante, some.”
“I knew I liked that fella!” I can hear a smile in Hoss’s tone, and it lifts me even further than he had a moment ago. It lifts me enough that I feel a small smile of my own come to the fore.
“God works in mysterious ways.”
Perhaps he does. Perhaps he does, indeed.
What’s wrong with me? My thoughts are a jumble, swirling like desert dust from the sea to the sand and then back again before landing in a finely adorned house with mahogany furnishings and crystal chandeliers.
“It’s brandy, Mister Cartwright.” David Buell is standing over me, handing me a heavy, leaded crystal glass.
Buell’s house. Yes. Of course. “The doctor?” My throat stings and I realize…I can’t remember when I’ve last taken a sip of water. The brandy helps but little.
“He’s in the dining room, of all places. He’s taken it up as a surgery. Even equipped it with cots. I don’t know how I let him talk me into this. It’s the most out—”
“Show me where.” I set down the glass and rise from a sturdy wing-backed chair to a very unstable Persian rug. My legs wobble like a man on his first excursion at sea.
Buell presses down on my shoulder, forcing me—with very little effort applied—back to my seat. “No.” It is a simple declaration.
“Show…Me…Where.” My words sound far more forceful that his push.
But he doesn’t move. “I’ve been given strict orders to see to your health while the doctor sees to the health of your sons.”
“There is nothing wrong with my health. Now take me to my sons or I will find them myself.”
“There is an army in there already. Literally, in fact! A medic, a corporal and a private. Not to mention Doctor Olverson and your other son, Hoss. You will only get in the way.”
“Will you please stop this nonsense and just take me to—”
“Mister Cartwright…. May I call you Ben?” He nods without any acknowledgement from me. “Ben, your sons are in good hands. Very good hands. Please. Rest. Why, you went from redder than an Indian to paler than a ghost when you walked in here. Now, if you don’t want to add to the doctor’s troubles by making him tend to you, too, I would encourage you to sit back for now, and then, in a few moments, relax with a fine meal. Mrs. Olverson, tired as she is, oversaw everything with my own cook in the kitchen to see to it this meal was special.”
He’s talking so much that the words roll over me in waves and I am helpless to stop them. I feel like a sailor adrift, and I have no sons to cling to. None at all.
“Pa?” Hoss’s voice…and the feel of his hand gripping my arm…pulls me from the depths of sleep.
I open my eyes to see him smiling warmly down at me. Yes. Down. I’m in a bed. No…a cot. Buell’s dining room?
“They’ve taken it up as a surgery. Even equipped it with cots.”
“Joe?” I try to push myself up. “Adam?”
Hoss gently holds me back. “They’re restin’ up, Pa. Doc thinks they’re gonna be fine. Need to watch over ’em for a few days, but…should be just fine.”
“Why am I here? What happened?”
“Heat exhaustion….” Emil Olverson is now standing beside Hoss, and he, too is grinning. “…Dehydration, lack of sleep, worry. The body can only take so much, Ben. You reached your limit.”
“That’s absurd. I didn’t work any harder in the sun today—or yesterday—than I have before.”
“Add your excursions in the desert heat to the anxiety you felt that whole time you were with my wife and me. Remember? And it only grew worse when the private delivered Corporal Rogers’ message about finding your sons horses….”
“Funny thing, isn’t it?” Hoss adds. “We both got awful jittery before we even knew Adam and Joe were in trouble. You reckon somehow we knew they were gonna need help?”
“God works in mysterious ways.”
“I don’t know, Hoss.” But I do. Somehow…I do. Something had been holding us close, keeping us from finishing our journey home.
“All that anxiety,” Emil was saying, “all that worry, combined with a night spent listening to my new son testing out his lungs—which, you can certainly tell, are strong as can be—and another restless night waiting for the sunrise to give you your chance to rescue your sons…. As I said, you reached your limit. A little rest and a lot of liquids, and you’ll be ready to race your sons home.”
“No.” I hear an infant crying and close my eyes to find my thoughts swirling like dust until they land in the days just after Little Joe’s birth, when the Ponderosa had felt more like home than ever before. But…. “No racing. Please. Nothing is so important that we have to take any risks getting home.”
“Pa?” Little Joe’s voice drifts over the baby’s cry, pulling me toward him.
But I can’t be certain I’ve heard him at all…until I see Hoss turn and his smile widen, sparking into life in his eyes. Then adrenaline fuels my strength, but still I rise slowly, accepting the doctor’s help. As the room whirls around me, I’m grateful Hoss can move more swiftly. I hear him before I reach him at Joe’s bedside.
“You sure are a sight, shortshanks!”
“Am I dreaming?” Joe’s words are barely more than a mumble, and his eyes, heavy lidded, are clouded with pain and confusion, but…the spark is there. It is weak, but it’s there.
“No, Joseph.” I take his hand in mine…push a strand of hair from his forehead. My own eyes cloud with relief. “This is very, very real.”
“It’s your dime novel rescue, Joe.” Adam? Yes. Adam, too, has come awake. “Just in the nick of time.” His words are slurred, his eyelids as heavy as Joe’s, but he looks at me with an easy smile, one that leaves me…wondering….
I take his hand and he wraps his fingers with mine, his grip weaker than it had been when he had been that crying infant with lungs strong enough to drown any siren. I can almost smell the damp salt…the fishermen’s catch…the stewing chowder…. I can almost feel the roll of waves beneath me, hear the creak of rope going taut, the clang of clamps on the mast….
As I look from one son to another, the smell of sea becomes the scent of pine. The roll of the waves gives way to a horse’s canter. The creak of rope becomes the creak of leather. And I know my sons, both of them…all of them…are right where they belong. Not in desolation, but in verdure. Yes, even the desert cannot extinguish the spark that is within each of us.
Joe, too, is grinning now. “Y’see?” He pauses, gratefully accepting a sip of water from his brother, Hoss. “The story of Adam and Little Joe,” he adds then, his lids drifting closed, “just ain’t…finished, yet.”
In moments, after Adam, too, has had a sip of water, they are both asleep once more. But this time I know they will come awake again. Both of them. They will come awake to tell this…story…of Adam and Little Joe that has somehow given Adam, a far more vocal critic of dime novels than I, an appreciation of Joseph’s adventures. And then Hoss and I will tell them of angels in the guise of cavalrymen, a wayfaring doctor, a golden haired woman whose words float like music in my ears, and an infant who filled an empty desert with the promise of life.
The divine spark is alive in them all. And in every one of my sons.
Heroes Often Do
Aw Stink, Nevada is a better name, I’d say.
I came to this ugly, brown, dust covered hole at the end of the world to get rich. There is no other earthly reason why anyone would come here. Even that new doctor has to have a reason he’s choosing to keep to himself. No one is so righteous that he would willingly drag his pregnant wife to the pits of Hell simply because he heard Mr. Buell had need of a doctor in his miserable excuse for a town.
Yes, I came here to get rich by digging silver. Only a desperate man—or a foolish one—would want to dig anything out of rock so hard it can give you blisters just thinking about it. And, dang-blast-it, yes, I am that desperate. I have tried my hand at more jobs than I can count. I guess my biggest problem is I just don’t like to work. Maybe I am somewhat foolish, too, because I had no idea digging for silver was going to be such wretchedly, back-breakingly miserable work.
These wretched, back-bent, miserable miners I have to work alongside are even worse than the town. When I’m not working, I get plowed into by drunks at every corner.
“Shorry, ’bout that!” A short, almost toothless old-timer with several days’ worth of stubble on his face breathes noxious fumes directly into my nose as he pats my arm.
I pat him right back…maybe a touch harder than I should. At least he manages to keep his feet enough to stagger into yet another tented saloon.
“Hey, Codger! Look fellas! It’s Codger!” Apparently, my toothless attacker has a friend or two in this dust-bucket of a town—which is more than I can say for myself. I’m not lonely, exactly; but it’d be nice to have someone to talk to now and then.
“What’cha got to tell us, Codger?”
I slip in behind him, unnoticed, as a crowd of his filthy cohorts gathers around the old man. “Oh, I got lots to tell ya’, I do!”
“Well, spit it out, ya’ old coot!”
“Talkin’s thirsty bidness. Give me a drink, and I’ll tell ya’!”
As Mister Codger downs a shot of whiskey and then another, I slip into a chair in the back to watch and listen to his story, quickly discovering it to be as absurd as any story can be…a story of cowboy heroes and rampaging Indians, of arrow wounds and desperate acts of courage, and then, finally, of a miraculous rescue by a cavalry outfit that has apparently managed to be in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.
I laugh in amusement, even while I puzzle on the old man’s words in amazement. There is some truth to it all. There must be. I, too, saw those cavalry troops ride into town and deliver two wounded men up to the Buell house. Something happened out in that desert. I can even believe Indians were involved. But this? This wild tale? It’s outrageous. Preposterous. It simply cannot have happened as these men are saying.
Everyone, it seems, has heard pieces of the story; and the more these drunken miners talk, adding to Codger’s recent discoveries—gleaned from eaves dropping, I imagine—the more outlandish the story grows.
“I heard the little one threw the bigger’un right over his shoulder and climbed one handed all the way on up the face of a cliff!”
“Like a billy goat’s what I heard.”
“Shot up half that tribe what come after ’em! Didn’t need the cavalry, no how!”
“Aw, yer pullin’ my leg! ‘Course they needed the cavalry! Was the cavalry that saved their hides!”
“‘Nope. That little’uns like a one-man army!”
“Or a one-armed billy goat!”
“Ain’t no man can be an army by hisself!”
“‘Course he can, if he’s positioned right. He got the bead on them Paiutes and started knockin’ ’em down one right after the other!”
“Weren’t just Paiutes! Was Shoshones and Bannocks, too.”
“Three tribes? Naw. Yer gettin’ thick if ya think I’ll believe two cowpokes won out against three tribes of Indians!”
“Two? What happened to the one-man army?”
“The other was hurt but he was shootin’ alright once the billy goat got him up top of them rocks.”
“What about them three tribes?
“Aw, quit that, would ya’? Weren’t three tribes! Was renegades. A herd of ’em. Might’ve been Apaches in there, too!”
“Ain’t no Apaches out this way!”
“It’s renegades! Renegades don’t much care about territory!”
“Apaches ridin’ with Shoshones?”
“And Bannocks and Paiutes! All of ’em ridin’ together!”
“Two men can’t go up aginst all’a that and come out alive!”
“You go right on over to Mr. Bull’s and see fer yerself! They is too alive! Both of ’em!”
“It’s Buell’s, ya’ mule brain!”
“He ain’t no bull, not no more!”
“Aw, hell! He owns this town! ‘Course he’s the bull!”
“Maybe, but that new doc’s cowed him some! Moved right into the bull’s house, he did!”
The story grows in my head even as it grows from the black-toothed mouths of these men as I absorb all there is to see…the genuine fascination in the men’s eyes…the amusement…the entertained and entertaining gleam in each guffaw and gaffe….
A burly bearded man takes up a newspaper from the table before him with one big-handed swipe and rolls it up to pound his companion harmlessly over the head. When it falls to the floor near me, I almost feel included. I can’t help but reach down and take it into my own hand. But I’ve no one to pummel with it, so I unroll it, instead.
It’s a two-month old copy of The Territorial from out of Virginia City. My eyes skim over news I have no interest in and land instead on an advertisement. Beadles has released two new dime novels: A detective story about New York City and an Indian tale from when the lands east of the Mississippi were considered a pioneering west.
The ruckus around me quiets down some in my head as, quite suddenly, almost like I’ve been harmlessly smacked over the head with it by a friendly companion, I realize that I have found gold here amongst all this rock-buried silver. I know exactly what my next job shall be. And it most certainly does not involve my swinging a pick-axe!
A year. I can’t believe it’s been a year already. Riding through this desert makes me think it was only yesterday or…maybe today, even. Like maybe those renegades are still out there, like they’re out there right now watching us, just waiting for us to get close enough, just waiting—
“Joe?” Adam’s looking back at me.
I’ve fallen behind. I didn’t even know I was slowing down. And now Pa and Hoss are turning, too. I’ve fallen behind all of them. Heck, I’m usually the one racing out in front. They all must think—
“Something wrong, Joe?”
‘Course not. What could be wrong? Just because last time we rode this way all together like this, you and I ran into a bunch of renegades on the way back…just because you and I both knew we were gonna die out here…just because….
I give Adam a tight smile as I ride up alongside him. I’m sure he sees through it. Doesn’t matter. I can pretend he’s not noticing. Maybe he’s even looking at all those rocks out there, too. “I’m just enjoying the view.” My tight smile gets tighter. So does that iron-hard knot in my gut.
Adam’s smile is tight, too, but not as tight as mine. There’s even something real to it, something that loosens that knot in me the smallest bit. “I hear the view is far better in Austin. There are at least four blonde-haired blue-eyed views to enjoy, as a matter of fact.”
Hoss’s smile isn’t tight at all. “Ya’ think Doc Olverson made all that up about his nieces comin’ out here to visit?”
“And just why would he do that?” Adam’s playing now.
I can’t get myself to play along. My fingers tighten so much on the reins I can feel the leather biting into my skin. I want us all to race out of this desert fast as we can, but…last time we did that, Adam got an arrow in his thigh, and the only way I could stop him from getting another was to drag him up into the rocks.
Stupid. I should’ve grabbed his reins and kept riding. We didn’t stand a chance of getting out of there alive. We were gonna die up there together. On account of me making a mistake. On account of me….
Adam’s hand covers mine. “You grip those reins any tighter you’re going to draw blood.” His voice is low enough that I’m sure no one else can hear him.
I don’t know why he cares so much about Pa and Hoss hearing him. They’re both keeping their distance, pretending just like I’d tried to do a few minutes ago. Pretending….
They’re embarrassed. They can all tell I’ve turned yellow. You can’t hide fear. You can try all you want, but you can’t hide it.
No. You can’t hide fear. But maybe…maybe you can outrun it.
Pushing Adam away, I kick Cochise hard. Just let them Indians come after me. Just…. Me.
Riding hard and fast eases the knot some, enough at least to help me put some sense into my head. There hasn’t been a problem with renegades here since that band of ’em attacked Adam and me. Cavalry still patrols through this way, but not as often. And Pa, Hoss…even Adam have made more trips between the Ponderosa and Austin than I can remember, hauling lumber and sometimes supplies, too. They made all those trips and never had any problems. No reason we should now. But I just can’t stop myself from thinking we shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t ever come back this way again.
Yeah, some sense that is. I’m bein’ thick. Stupid.
I kick Cochise hard again and think about my family riding this same road slow as molasses in those heavy loaded wagons. They didn’t have to do it, not themselves. Could’ve sent other men. But…I guess Pa and Hoss like visiting with the Olversons and that baby of theirs, a baby they helped deliver out here in this desert. The Olversons even named that baby for them: Benjamin Eric Olverson. I’m glad something good could happen like that out here. But it doesn’t take away the bad. Pa and Hoss helped deliver a baby. And I almost got Adam and me both killed. No. Nothing can make up for that.
Why Adam comes out here is different. He acts like it’s just so he can watch over those business dealings with Mr. Buell, but there’s more to it, something he keeps to himself. Something that has to do with what happened to us, although I still haven’t figured it out.
It’s kind’a strange. We seem to talk better now. I reckon that’s on account of how we found ourselves saying things we never figured to say out loud, the kind of things you have to say when you know you’re not gonna get another chance…the things you say when you know death is coming. Yeah. We talk better now. But not about what happened out here. We just can’t seem to talk about that. Not much, anyway. Not enough, I guess.
Adam says I saved his life. Pa and Hoss play along. But…I know different.
Wish I knew what keeps pulling Adam back here. I’d be glad to never see this stretch of desert again. But I finally ran out of excuses. How am I supposed to come up with an excuse about having other work to do when Pa’s already made it clear we’re letting work go for a few days?
“It’s little Benjamin’s birthday! We can’t let the Olversons down, now, can we?” Pa sure likes saying that baby’s name. I reckon he ought to. It’s his, after all.
And Doc Olverson…well, I reckon Pa’s right about not letting him down. Doc saved more than our hides, didn’t he? He also saved that timber deal with Mr. Buell. I guess he got Buell to feel guilty about turning down our bid after keeping us waiting for him to get back to town. If Adam and I hadn’t waited for him, we would’ve left Austin with Pa and Hoss. We never would’ve run into them Indians at all.
Maybe Buell reconsidered our bid. Doesn’t matter to me. I still can’t stomach that man. If it hadn’t been for him….
Dang. Look at that. I can’t help but stare at that town as it comes into view. It looks like a real town now. Yeah. A real town, not a mining camp. The closer I get, I see a whole slew of buildings and not a single tent. They sure have been busy with all that lumber of ours…and all that work Pa, Hoss and Adam have done alongside them.
But not me. Never me.
“Sure is a sight, ain’t it, Joe?”
Once again, I’ve slowed down without even realizing it, not until Hoss is right up next to me.
“Yeah.” I try to swallow my guilt. “Sure is.”
If he sees any that I haven’t managed to swallow, he doesn’t show it. He’s smiling enough to make it seem we’re out on a Sunday picnic. “Wait’ll you see the doc’s house. Adam sure did a fine job designin’ it.” There’s a proud look in Hoss’s eye. I reckon it’s as much on account of that baby having “Eric” as a middle name as it is about Adam working on those house plans while he was still stuck at home with a bad leg.
Pa and Hoss got the timber work going. Adam designed the house. And all I was thinking about at the time was how I was gonna manage to eat enough to fill my stomach when I couldn’t even sit up properly on account of the pressure it put on that wound in my back.
Ah, hell. I know no one blames me for that. For any of it. No. No one blames me but me.
“I’m proud of you, Joe.” I can still hear Adam sayin’ that. Heck, they all said it. But I messed up. How could they not see that? I got Adam and me stuck up there in them rocks. I made it so we didn’t stand a chance. Well…one chance. Our only hope was some dadblamed dime novel rescue, with the cavalry riding in out of the blue to save the day. I can’t count on something like that ever happening again. And I sure shouldn’t have counted on it back then. No. I messed up. I acted without thinking, just like I always do. Why can’t they see that? Why won’t they?
“Joe?” Shoot, now Hoss is looking at me funny.
Guess I wasn’t paying attention again. Been that way since we got out here. I sure wish we could go back. None of this bothered me back home. “Well what are we waitin’ for?” I grin at him like none of it’s bothering me now, and then kick my heels into Cochise.
Maybe I can’t outrun shame any more than I could fear. But I can sure try.
I’m glad Austin’s a real town now. It doesn’t look anything like it did. Doesn’t remind me of my last visit. Not so much, anyway. Not like out in the thick of the desert.
I’m thinking better now. No one’s looking at me funny anymore, either.
And Doc Olverson’s nieces are all pretty little things, just like we thought they’d be. Trouble is, the doc never did say how old they were. Turns out they really are little things. The oldest is only sixteen, and…well, pretty as she is, her only bein’ sixteen’s got me kind’a jittery.
They’ve got a porch swing out front, and, with everyone bein’ out back for now, I figured it’d be a good place to go to ease up on some of those jitters. But I sure hadn’t figured on Shella following me out here.
Yeah, Shella’s not her real name, but it’s as close as any of us can come to pronouncing it right. Adam’s got closer than any of us. He says it’s all about how you position your tongue against the roof of your mouth, but it’s an awful lot of trouble trying to concentrate on how to position your tongue just to say someone’s name. Makes it hard to remember what it was you were gonna say to her to begin with. And I already have trouble remembering what I want to say to her.
Sure is a pretty little thing.
“Do you like to read, Little Joe?”
“Hmmmm?” She sure talks pretty, too.
“To read? Do you like to read books?”
“Oh. Oh, yeah. Sure, I like to read.”
“I learn English reading books.”
Sure has a pretty smile. And…and she keeps sliding closer to me on this swing. I try sliding sideways some, but I’m already right at the edge. “Yeah, I…I suppose that’d be a swell way to learn it.”
“My far…my fa-der…or, how you say? My pa?” Even the way she crunches her brows down looks pretty.
But her talking about her pa gets me thinking about my pa and…and my pa wouldn’t want me to get too close to Doc Olverson’s sixteen-year-old niece all alone out here on this porch swing. Maybe I’d better stand up for a while. “Yeah, th..that’s how I say it.”
She takes a quick glace toward the front door—like she’s nervous someone might hear her—before looking up at me. “My pa does not so much like de books I choose to read.”
“I show you.” She reaches down into a sewing basket sitting right there next to the swing and pulls out a small book with a heavy paper cover…not leather or cloth like I’d expect to see. Then I see the picture on the cover and I realize what she’s got.
“A dime novel?” I start giggling. “You like dime novels?”
She’s giggling, too, now, and nodding excitedly. “Ya! Dime novels! So much fun to read!”
“But your pa doesn’t like the fact that you like ’em?”
“Ny, he does not.” Her nose crinkles up real cute when she laughs.
“My pa and my brother Adam think they’re a waste of time but—”
“Oh no! No vaste at all! I learn English quickly vit dese! I show you, ya?”
Before I can say anything, she’s got the book opened and starts reading.
“Vit Abraham slung over one shoulder, Little Jack smacked de back of his pinto to get bot’ animals running .” She giggles and looks at me again. “Reminds me of you and your horse, Little Joe!”
I’m thinking the same thing and it makes me nervous for some reason. “L..lots of folks have horses like mine.”
“Ya?” She looks surprised. “I see many horses here, but I don’t tink I ever see anoder like dat. I like to see more horses like Co…Cochee….”
“Cochise,” I help her with the name and she smiles again. I sure do like that smile. I’m still thinking about that smile when she turns back to the book.
“Vit any luck, de Indians vould continue to follow de horses. Little Jack needed time to find suitable cover. He scrambled up into de rocks, un—unen…cumbered by de larger man’s veight. It never occurred to him dat Abraham might already be dead. He knew only dat he must….”
The story is bringing it back…bringing it all back. It’s not the same, of course, but it’s close. It’s so close I can almost feel myself back up in them rocks. I didn’t carry Adam up there, but I did support him on account of that arrow in his leg. And he is bigger than me, but it didn’t seem like it then…he didn’t seem heavy…it wasn’t—
“Joe? Little Joe?” She’s looking at me funny now, just like my family did out in that desert.
I realize I’m breathing hard. Panting, more like. And I try to stop it, taking a deep breath, but…I can’t seem to fill my lungs. Can’t seem to answer her, either. All I can manage to do is stumble back into the porch swing.
“You need vater,” Shella tells me, jumping to her feet. “My pa looked like dat. Onkel Emil said it was de desert heat. You need vater, ya?”
I nod, grateful to see her disappear through the door. But it’s not the desert heat that’s bothering me.
My eyes land on her discarded book on the seat beside me and I can’t help but pick it up. Renegade Ambush! The Adventures of Little Jack and Abraham. The picture on the cover shows a cowboy in a green jacket riding on his pinto. Beside him is a cowboy dressed all in black and riding a chestnut.
It can’t be a coincidence. Can it?
Suddenly I’m standing again. I don’t even remember getting up. I start pacing as I page through that book.
“The story of Adam and Little Joe just ain’t finished yet.” I remember saying that to Adam when we were both up there, both injured…bleeding out. I kept praying for a dime novel rescue. Adam kept saying we needed to pray for…well, for something else, too. He said we should pray for our mothers to come…to…to guide us up to Heaven, I reckon.
And he…he cried. I remember him crying up there.
It’s all coming back, every minute of it. And it wasn’t a dime novel rescue that got us down out of those rocks. It was the hand of God. That was the only thing that could’ve saved us, because I trapped us both up there.
Dang. Shella was supposed to just bring water. I guess she brought Adam, too. I close my eyes…try to catch my breath and push these thoughts aside. But when I turn, I see Adam’s alone. Good. I’m glad Shella’s not with him.
He’d sounded concerned when he said my name, but now he’s wearing a half grin. “Shella said she thought you were having de heat stroke, ya?” Adam’s grin gets fuller as he crosses his arms in front of him. “I’m guessing that’s not quite true.”
I give him a quick smile. “No, it’s not…not the heat.”
“Please tell me it’s not the kind of heat Pa’s worried about.”
My smile widens without my even thinking about it. I know I can’t hide how embarrassed those words make me feel. “You can tell Pa not to worry. She’s pretty, but that’s…that’s not what’s got to me.”
I can see Adam relax. “Good, because—”
“Don’t, Adam,” I shoot back at him, my smile and my embarrassment gone. This has nothing to do with pretty girls. But I don’t have to tell him that. He can see it in my eyes, I reckon.
He nods, waiting for me to explain. But I…can’t. I can’t seem to find the right words to start. Finally, I hand him the book. It’s all bent up now. I guess I had it all bunched up in my fist. I reckon I’ll have to buy Shella a new one. I’d rather buy her a different one. Wonder if this town has—
“Where’d you get this?” Adam sounds concerned again, but…a different kind of concerned. A kind that…. that almost makes me feel like we’re up in them rocks again.
“Shella.” It’s all I can tell him.
“James Colt Trent,” he says, reading the name on the cover. “The name sound familiar to you?”
“I’d remember a name like that.”
He’s not looking at me now, though. He’s looking inside himself. Thinking. “Probably a pseudonym. Could be just about anyone. Must have been someone who traveled through here and heard all the talk.”
“He did more than hear the talk, Adam. He had to have asked questions. He’s changed things around. Gave you an arrow in the back and me one in the leg, but…. It’s our story. Isn’t it?”
He looks me in the eye…opens his mouth to say something…closes it again, then finally nods. “Too close to be coincidence.”
“Why, Adam?” I sound…childish. Like a little boy asking the impossible of his older brother. Like the little boy I became up in those rocks, asking my older brother to make the impossible happen, to give me a dime novel rescue when I knew…when we both knew we were going to die.
He can’t lie to me now any more than he could back then. He shakes his head, and then…smiles. “It’s a good story. You can’t argue that. Caused a whole lot of talk around here.”
“I’m tired of all that talk, Adam. I just…I just want to forget, to just….”
“Good luck with that.” He sighs. “I don’t think you’ll ever get that luxury. Neither of us will.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“But it is over, Joe. We survived. We did everything we could possibly do. And when we couldn’t do anything else…it didn’t matter. We survived.”
“I did everything wrong, Adam.”
“I got us trapped up there! I should have grabbed your reins and kept riding. We could’ve outrun them. We could’ve—”
“No. We couldn’t.”
“Sure we could! I just—”
“Joe, face it. My only hope was for you to get me up in those rocks. You could have gotten away, but the minute you turned back for me you lost that chance. Not even you, alone, could have outrun them at that point.”
“I got us trapped up there, Adam!”
“You saved my life at risk of your own.”
“Stop that! I’m sick of hearing that! It’s not true!”
“It is true! Why can’t you get yourself to see that?”
“Because it’s only natural.” Pa’s voice surprises us both. He’s standing in the doorway. I can see he’s not alone, but I can’t bring myself to look past him. “Joseph, like it or not, what you did out there in that desert took courage.”
“Courage?” I chuckle coldly. “I was afraid, Pa. I was…terrified to see that arrow in Adam’s leg. I just wanted to hide. I wanted to get us both hidden in those rocks. I wasn’t thinking about it as taking cover. I was…I was thinking like a child trying to hide under the bed. I was—”
“You were a man facing his fear and doing what he had to do to save his brother. That, Joseph, is what it means to be courageous.”
“No. I’m a coward.” My voice is so soft I doubt anyone can hear me. I’m not sure I want anyone to hear me.
“A coward would have kept riding,” Adam says. “I wanted you to take that coward’s way out, Joe, because I knew it would keep you alive. But…I’m proud that you didn’t.” He shrugs and then grins again. “And I’m alive because you didn’t.”
“Face it, little brother,” Hoss says, stepping past Pa, “you’re more of a real hero than any of them dime novel fellas.”
“Even Little Jack,” Adam adds.
“Who’s Little Jack?”
Adam hands Hoss the crumpled book.
“Well, doggone! Look at that, Pa! It’s Adam and Little Joe! Only they’ve got different names. Hey, Adam? Says here Abraham’s Little Jack’s ‘erstwhile companion.’ What’s that mean, anyways?”
“It means Joe’s the hero of the story.”
“The cavalry were the heroes of the real story, Adam, and you know it.”
“Come on, Joe! How many times do I have to tell you that only happens in dime novels?”
The rest of the afternoon is spent telling our story to Shella and her family. There’s a lot we don’t say, a lot I wouldn’t want to worry young girls with hearing. But I realize what we do say really does sound like a good story. I imagine telling it someday to Adam’s children. And I imagine I might want to make myself sound like the hero then. Or…maybe not. Them bein’ his children and all.
But I don’t imagine I’ll ever feel right about people confusing cowardice for courage. Or that I’ll ever like riding through this part of the desert.
“Adam?” It’s dusk now and Adam’s sitting on that porch swing by himself, reading a clothbound book. I sit down next to him and wait for him to finish his page. Finally, he looks up at me so I can ask my question. “How come it doesn’t ever bother you to ride out here?”
“It does bother me, Joe. It bothers me every single time.”
“Then why’d you come out here all those times when you didn’t have to?”
“I guess I kept hoping that the more times I made the ride, the less…bothersome it would be.”
“Is it? Any less bothersome, I mean?”
“A little. But I doubt it will ever be a comfortable ride.”
“Well, it is the desert.” I grin at him. Tryin’ to get more comfortable with the conversation, I reckon.
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. I do.”
We listen to the silence for a while. Then it’s Adam who breaks it. “There’s something I’ve never told you about that night, Joe.”
I don’t say anything. I just look at him and wait for him to finish.
“Do you know what it was that led me to realize neither of us was going to die up there?”
“When you saw Pa?”
He shakes his head. “No. When I heard your mother’s voice.”
My mother…? I mouth the words, but don’t manage to say them out loud. What he’s just said isn’t possible. He knows that. Maybe even more than I do.
“I heard her, Joe. To this day, I swear I heard her.”
“What…what’d she say?”
“I know what it means. But…why?”
“I believe she was telling me Heaven wasn’t ready for us yet.”
“Y…you know, Adam. That sounds even stranger than…well, than Little Jack and Abraham!”
Adam’s looking up at the sky now. I can tell he’s searching for words up there, like he does sometimes…like he can find what he wants painted in the clouds. “‘Tis strange, but true, for truth is always strange; stranger than fiction. If it could be told, how much would novels gain by the exchange. How differently the world would men behold.”
“What’s that from?”
“To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Lord Byron, I think, but…. I can’t seem to place it.” He looks puzzled. “Now that’s what’s strange.”
“My brother, Adam, spouting poetry and not rememberin’ where it’s from!”
“Stranger than fiction?”
“Stranger than anything.”
“Stranger than my little brother mistaking cowardice for courage?”
“That’s not fair.”
“Make no mistake, Joe. You are not a coward.”
“Then why do I feel like one?”
“Heroes often do.”
I still don’t know if I’ll ever understand any of it. But one thing I do know: Adam wouldn’t know what heroes feel like if he weren’t one himself. I guess I come from a family full of heroes. And maybe it’s okay if I feel a little proud for having the same blood.
1.) The poem Adam quotes is from Lord Byron’s “Don Juan.”
2.) Shella’s name is actually Kjellaug, a name I borrowed from a relative. Over here, on this side of the ocean, we tend to call her “Shella” for the reasons Joe describes.
3.) “Far” in Norwegian does, in fact, mean “father” (just as “mor” means mother).