Summary: A day at the lake with his brothers is shattered by gunfire, leaving Joe in God’s hands. Follow Joe’s muddled thoughts through his family’s struggle to keep him alive, and his own struggle to focus on where he belongs.
Word Count: 6,505 words
Soft. It feels…soft.
There’s the smell of pine. And a sweetness to that smell, that sweet, soft pine. It’s like a blanket around me.
No. Under me. I’m resting on top of a blanket of sweet, soft pine needles. Soft as a cushion. Maybe a mattress, like I’m in a bed made of pine needles. A bed of pine. A pine bed.
Or a pine box.
That’s where they put you, isn’t it? When you die. They put you in a pine box.
Does that mean I’m dead?
Dadburnit, Little Joe! Ain’t you got nothin’ under that hat but hair? You can’t be dead if you got enough sense still in you to think maybe ya’ might be.
Hoss? Did you find my hat? The wind took it. You saw it too, didn’t you? It flew off like a bird. Well, not like a bird. Birds have wings. My hat didn’t have wings. But it did fly. Or sail. I watched it sail out over the water. It skipped across the lake, almost like one of them skipping stones.
Adam was always better at skipping stones. He didn’t skip my hat, though. A bullet did.
It was a bullet, wasn’t it? A bullet took my hat. Maybe part of my scalp too, from the feel of it. The feel of a pickax. Like someone’s digging for gold in my skull.
Gold. There was gold, wasn’t there? A whole wagon full. Only those weren’t army men with it. They were outlaws. I guess they didn’t like that we saw them with all that gold.
My brothers and me.
Hoss was laughing. Said he was gonna throw me in the lake. He almost did, too. He let go of me so fast I about fell in anyway. By the time I got my balance back, I lost it again. When I lost my hat.
I didn’t hear the shot.
That can’t be. I had to hear it. Can’t shoot a bullet without it making a shot—making a sound. But all I remember hearing is Hoss laughing. And then not laughing.
Hoss? Why’d you stop laughing?
Hoss let go of me when he stopped laughing. Because Adam…Adam said something.
Riders coming. And that wagon full of gold. And then Hoss let go. And he stopped laughing. And I lost my hat. But I never heard the shot. I just saw my hat skipping across the lake like Adam was skipping stones. ‘Course, I didn’t skip. I sank.
But I’m not sinking now. And I can breathe. I can smell that sweet pine and feel those soft needles…only there aren’t any pine needles in the lake. Or on the lake. Or by the lake. Just in the trees.
I sank in the trees?
Ain’t you got nothin’ up there north of your ears? You can’t fall into a lake and then sink into trees.
So how’d I get in the trees?
No. Not in the trees. On the ground, under the trees. On a soft bed of pine needles.
That pickax feels like it just hit the mother lode. On account I finally heard the shot, I reckon. Only it’s not just one shot. It’s shooting. A whole lot of shooting. It’s not close though. Not close enough to make my hat go skipping across the lake. Not close at all.
Adam said riders were coming. But no one’s coming. They’re all going. Further and further away, from the sound of those shots.
But Adam’s not here, is he? Neither of them are here, my brothers, Hoss and Adam. They were here—or there by the lake anyway. But they don’t seem to be here now, here in the trees, in all this pine. They must have gone after those outlaws, after those bandits who stole all that gold.
They wouldn’t though. Would they? Go off like that, ride off so far away I can hardly hear them shooting? Leave me here on all these pine needles? Not both of them. Not unless…unless they’re drawing the outlaws away from here. Away from me?
They’d do that, I reckon. They’d do about anything to make sure I was okay. I’d do it for them, too. I didn’t do it today, though. I wasn’t wearing my gun. Dadburned fool thing to do, not wearing my gun. But we were just fishin’. You don’t need a gun to go fishin’.
They weren’t wearing their guns either, my brothers. But Adam was by the horses, close enough to grab his gun. And Hoss…I guess Hoss grabbed me. Put me on all these pine needles.
I’m okay here. Or I’d be okay, anyway, if that pickax would stop pounding away at my skull. And my back. But it’s not as bad on my back. Maybe not so much a pickax there as a garden hoe, like Hop Sing uses in that vegetable garden of his, when he’s not chasing off rabbits.
Is that Hop Sing now? Shooting at rabbits?
No. It’s Hoss and Adam, and a whole bunch of outlaws with a wagon full of gold. They’re too far away now; can’t hardly hear them anymore. Sounds more like a woodpecker than a six-gun.
And now, not even that.
It’s too quiet. Like there’s no one out there at all. Like it’s just me and all this pine and…the chortle of a wild turkey…two crows cawing like town gossips…the rustle of rodents in the underbrush…and….
Adam hollered at me to get down. I didn’t though, did I? Why didn’t I? I was watching my hat skip out over the lake. Then something…something hit me in the back. I couldn’t breathe…couldn’t catch my breath. And I sank.
Feels like I’m sinking again. Cold, too. And I can’t seem to pull myself up. Maybe Adam will pull me up. Again?
Hoss? That you?
“That colonel feller said he’d send a medic over.”
Over where? To the lake I reckon. My hat skipped over the lake. I don’t think it needs a medic though.
That’s right. You don’t think. If you’d only start thinking once in a while, then maybe Pa wouldn’t get as angry as he does.
Adam? Is Pa angry? Why’s he angry? I didn’t do anything. I was just wrastlin’ with Hoss. Or more like he was wrastlin’ with me. He was gonna throw me in the lake. If Pa’s angry, he should be angry at Hoss.
Can’t blame Hoss, though. Wasn’t his fault my hat went skipping out over the lake. No need for Pa to get angry. He’s not even here. He went to Virginia City. It’s only us went to the lake. My brothers and me. And the outlaws. And some colonel fella’. And maybe his medic, if he ever sends him over. You think maybe he’ll find my hat?
The lake’s getting colder. No. It’s not the lake, is it? It’s the pine. The pine needles. The pine bed.
A pine box would be warmer about now. Maybe warm enough. I’m not warm enough. My hands are shaking. My finger tips are skipping across those pine needles like my hat skipped across that lake.
I should build a fire. Use that pine box. Yeah. Soon as I stop sinking, I’ll start a fire. Make some coffee.
“Sure picked a fine day to go to the lake.”
Sheriff Coffee? We just wanted to go fishing. My brothers and me. Thought we’d catch some fish, maybe start a fire and cook it right there. Right here?
There’s that woodpecker again, pecking away like a far off six-gun. Or maybe not so far off after all. It’s loud enough to set my teeth to rattling. And that pickax just found a whole ‘nother mother lode.
My teeth sure are rattling, aren’t they?
“Tell Hoss to hurry with that blanket!”
Hey, Adam? You ever smell a blanket of pine? There’s a soft, sweetness to it. Like Sylvia Hawkins. Remember Sylvia Hawkins? Too bad her folks went back east. I was gonna take her here, to the lake. Try skipping stones. But you’re better than me. And Hoss, he’s stronger. Always will be, I reckon. But me? I got you both beat on the draw. Wish I’d been wearing my gun. Why wasn’t I wearing my gun? If I was wearing my gun now I’d shoot that woodpecker. If I could stop shaking. Can’t shoot straight if I can’t stop shaking.
Fire. Gotta build a fire. Use a pine box. A pine box like what they bury folks in.
They gonna bury me in a pine box?
No. Can’t bury me in it if it’s already burning. I can smell it burning now. Smell that burning pine. Hear it crackling. Ready to heat up all that fish. All that coffee.
I heard Sheriff Coffee, didn’t I? Did he come for some of that fish? Hoss cooks it up just fine. Might have a hard time getting it away from him, though. He’ll probably eat it all.
“Help me hold him down! He’s squirming around like a fish.”
Yeah, Hoss’ll eat all that fish, alright. At least, long as he can catch it. Did we catch any fish? It’s awful cold. Something about the cold makes ’em taste better, but they’re harder to catch then. They just go jumping across the surface…like my hat.
Or was it me that did the jumping? Feels like I’m jumping now, only I don’t know why. I reckon I’m cold, is all. Why’s it so cold? There’s a fire close by, but it’s not close enough. I’d like to jump right on top of it. But they don’t want me to, Adam and Hoss. Maybe that’s why they’re holding me down.
Their hands are warm. Hot, even. How come they’re so hot and I’m so cold? I reckon it’s on account I fell in the lake. It wasn’t Hoss’s fault, though. Someone ought to tell Pa it wasn’t Hoss’s fault. It was Hoss who fished me out, wasn’t it? Or was it Adam? Maybe Adam pulled me up, and Hoss fished me out.
I reckon they both caught a bigger fish than they’d expected. But I’ll stop jumping just as soon as I can warm up. Maybe some coffee will stop my teeth from chattering.
“I won’t lie to you, Ben. Looks bad off.”
Sheriff Coffee? Are you talking to my pa? Pa’s supposed to be in Virginia City. But I reckon you should too, shouldn’t you? Unless you knew about the outlaws. Is that what brought you out here? You and that colonel and that medic? And my pa?
“Bullet’s too deep.”
Adam? What bullet? I never heard the shot.
“First one just skimmed him, but dazed him enough I don’t think he even felt the second one.”
Hoss? I felt it. I feel it. Only I never heard it. I don’t remember hearing it. I just remember you laughing. It’s a good laugh. It would sure warm me up now if you would laugh again like that. How can I get you to laugh again?
“Use horse blankets for all I care! Just bring over more blankets!”
Pa? Don’t be angry at Hoss, Pa. He didn’t do anything but laugh. And it’s a good laugh, isn’t it, Pa?
“You feel that?”
Feel what, Adam?
“He’s not shakin’ so bad anymore.”
Hoss? What do you mean, I’m not shaking so bad? My teeth are still rattling. Or is that the woodpecker? Or the pickax?
Adam? Is that my teeth rattling?
“I thought…it looked like he was trying to say something.”
You mean I haven’t said anything? I’ve been talking all this time, and not saying anything?
“Joe? Son? Can you hear me?”
Pa? Of course I can hear you. Can’t you hear me?
“Keep talkin’ to him, Pa. Seems to be calming him down.”
That’s my voice, isn’t it? Feels strange, down in my throat. Feels. I guess that’s it. I didn’t feel it before now. Maybe I haven’t been talking all this time after all. Why is it I just now found my voice? Where’d it go before?
“Little Joe? That you, punkin’?”
Yeah, Hoss. It’s me. Of course it’s me. I still want to hear you laugh. “F-find my hat?”
And there it is, that laugh. And suddenly, I’m not so cold anymore.
Rain. There’s a steady patter on the roof. It’s a good sound, comforting. Comfortable. Long as it’s out there and I’m in here. But strange, too. Like it doesn’t belong. Or I don’t belong. Like I’m supposed to be somewhere else. Am I? Supposed to be somewhere else?
Hear that? Low rumble of thunder…. When thunder echoes like that, it can last a good long time. Longer than you can hold your breath.
Can’t now. Can’t…hold my breath. Can’t hardly catch it, let alone hold it. Used to, though. Hoss and I. See who could hold it longer. I always won. At least, got him to lose. All I had to do was get him laughing.
Knew a man who rumbled when he laughed. Big man. They called him Gus. Hoss is kind’a like Gus in some ways. But not in the way they laugh. No. Hoss and Gus are different when they laugh.
Hoss and Gus.
Almost sound the same. Their names. Hoss and Gus. Never thought how much they sound the same. Not their laughs, though. Gus would rumble when he laughed. Hoss don’t rumble. When Hoss laughs, he don’t hold it down to a rumble. He lets everyone hear him. He don’t hold back.
No. Hoss don’t rumble when he laughs. Not like that rumble out there. Cattle can rumble like that. In a stampede. Horses, too. Lots of horses. Like an army.
Rumble like that makes the ground shake.
There was an army out by the lake, wasn’t there? Didn’t see them, but I sure heard ’em. Maybe felt ’em, too. Maybe it was them made the ground shake. I couldn’t keep my balance, not after Hoss let go. I couldn’t…had to find my balance. Couldn’t see ’em coming.
Saw the wagon though. Came rumblin’ around that bend so fast it couldn’t make the turn. Not a wagon heavy with gold, not a turn like that, fast as they were.
Outlaws couldn’t keep running, not and leave that gold behind. Must’a started shooting instead. Only I didn’t hear it. Don’t know why I didn’t hear it. Just felt it. Caught me in the forehead and took my hat. Spun me around. Toward the lake.
I was…on my knees Couldn’t take my eyes off the lake. Off my hat. Tried to get up. But Adam…Adam said to get down instead. Then my back…something hit my back
Rumble sounds louder now. Closer. Meaner, too. Like a growlin’ old grizzly bear.
I like that sound. It’s a good sound. A sound you can trust.
Can trust a grizzly more’n a stampede. Or an army. Or outlaws. All you gotta do is stay put. Don’t move any closer, he won’t bother you. He’s just makin’ sure you know he’s there. That’s his place.
Where’s mine? Where’s my place? Not out there with that rumble. Not on a bed of pine needles. Not by the lake. Not now.
In here? If this is my place, why doesn’t it feel right?
It’s the smell, I reckon. Smells wrong. Like I should open the window, let in that fresh, rain-washed air. Fresh smell of…pine. Fresh bed of pine needles.
Is that what’s wrong? This bed? But it doesn’t feel wrong. Just smells wrong. Like…well, not how a bed ought to smell. Not a real bed anyway, not a bed in a room where anyone’s actually living.
Like in that old cabin up near the creek, when those raccoons got stuck in the chimney. Couldn’t get out to save their lives. No one there to notice. Not ’til we ran in out of the rain, anyway. Me and Hoss. Just wanted to get out of the rain. Ran into that old cabin. Smell made us want to run back out again.
Smells kind’a like that now. Not as strong, though. It’s a sweet smell, but not a good kind of sweet. Not like Hop Sing’s cookin’ up some fancy dessert. And not like pine neither. More like…like dyin’. It’s a dyin’ kind of sweet.
Am I dyin’? Is that why I think I’m supposed to be somewhere else?
There’s that grizzly again, rumblin’ louder than he was, like he’s mad.
Mad at me, maybe. For not dyin’ out there. Gonna come in here to get me instead?
Gotta open the window to chase away that smell. But what if that lets in the grizzly?
That’s you, isn’t it? Standin’ over by the window? Has to be you. Hands are stuck down in your pockets like you always do when you…when you think something’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Like maybe you don’t know what to do. Or maybe you think there’s something you couldn’t do, something you should’a done.
What do you think you should’a done?
I’ll tell you what you can do now. Open the window. Let in that fresh, pine air. Let out this sick, sweet smell. The grizzly comes, you can wrastle it like you wrastled me. Only he’ll put up a better fight. You won’t have to hold back. I know you did, you know. You held back on account I ain’t as big as you. Thanks for that. Holdin’ back. I didn’t want to go swimming. Water’s cold this time of year.
Bet it’s cold out in that rain right now. Cold out on those pine needles.
Hey, Hoss? How come I don’t remember getting from those pine needles to here?
Did ya’ see that flash just now? Made your shadow reach all the way to here, to my bed.
Wish it were you, not your shadow.
I’m scared, Hoss. But not of the lightning or the thunder. I can’t…can’t find the pieces.
No, that’s not true. I can find the pieces. Just can’t puzzle ’em together.
And there’s that grizzly again. He’s gettin’ closer. It’s okay though. Isn’t it?
Yeah. It’s okay. You could wrastle it if it comes too close. Like you wrastled me. Only I don’t count. Couldn’t wrastle you back. Grizzly could though, wrastle you back.
Was that what it was? There by the lake? Was it a grizzly pulled you away? I lost my balance on account I didn’t have you holding onto me anymore.
No. That’s not it, is it? I lost my balance on account of the bullet.
I’m glad, Hoss. Glad that grizzly pulled you away. If it didn’t, bullets would’a caught you instead. Then who’d wrastle the grizzly when it comes for me?
You stay right there, Hoss. Okay? Stay by that window. Keep out the grizzly. ‘Cause I’m not…I’m not ready for him to come get me. Not yet.
Rain stopped. It’s darker now, too. Night, I guess.
No. Adam. He’s sitting by the bed, eyes locked on a book in his lap. Only…No. He’s not readin’. His eyes, they’re not…not moving. His eyes have to move if he’s readin’, don’t they? Back and forth and up and down…. And then…turn the page. But his hands are locked too. Like his eyes. Can’t turn the page when you’re holdin’ the book all tight like that.
What’s wrong, Adam? Why aren’t you readin’? Or…why are you just pretendin’ to read?
Can’t tell if you’re…angry, or…scared maybe.
I was scared before. Couldn’t…couldn’t grab hold of Hoss’s shadow. Started falling….
Adam! Help me! I don’t want to fall again. It’s too dark. Too cold.
Cold? No. Hot. Too hot.
Did Hoss ever open that window? Grizzly didn’t get him, did it? Adam? Is Hoss okay, Adam? Is that why you’re not readin’?
How can you read when it’s so hot? You should be by the window. Watch for that grizzly. Can’t hear him anymore, but I know he’s comin’.
He’s comin’, Adam. Grizzly’s comin’. Wants to take me back to the lake.
“I don’t….” Don’t wanna go.
Too dark. Too hot.
Please, Adam. I don’t wanna go.
“Come on, Joe. Say it again.”
But then it’s not too dark. Like somehow Adam chased the dark away. Or maybe took me from it. Like when he pulled me from the lake.
His hand’s on my arm, too. Like it was. Like when he pulled me from the lake. And his eyes, they’re not on the book anymore. They’re locked onto mine.
“Welcome back, Joe.” He’s smiling. And he doesn’t look scared or angry now.
“Back?” Grizzly’s gonna take me back to the lake. “Don’t…don’t wanna go back.”
Then it’s dark again. But his hand’s still on my arm, so it’s okay. He’ll keep me from falling.
“No. I can’t accept that.”
“His fever’s down, and Adam…Adam said he was coming around.”
“I’m sorry, Ben. You know I’m not going to make promises I can’t keep.”
Doc? Why can’t you keep promises? I can keep promises. I always…always keep my promises.
Except…I promised Pa we’d bring home dinner, didn’t I? Said we’d bring home some fish. Let Hop Sing cook it up. But…didn’t keep that promise. I didn’t…couldn’t keep that promise.
Pa? I’m sorry.
I’m sorry, Pa.
“He’s in God’s hands, Ben. Not mine.”
God’s hands? He was a fisherman, wasn’t He? No. Was a fisher of men. But that’s not right either, is it? Wasn’t God. That was Jesus. Jesus was the fisher of men. Is He fishin’ now? Fishin’ for me, maybe?
It’s better than that grizzly, anyway. Grizzlies fish too, though. They like fish. Catch it right out of the stream.
“It’s still touch and go, Ben. That’s all I can say.”
What’s touch and go, Doc? Adam…Adam touched me. I could feel his hand on my arm.
Was it Adam? Or was it God?
Go with God.
Preacher says that. I hear him say that all the time.
“Well, I tell you what I got to say….”
Go with God.
But I don’t want to go. Not yet. Not ready yet. I don’t…don’t want to go.
“…If Little Joe’s in God’s hands, then God ought’a know better than to take him outta ours now.”
“Hoss, keep your voice down, will ya’?”
Adam? Can you take me out of God’s hands? Give me your hand, instead? Just put your hand on my arm. Like you did before. Hold me back. And Hoss…Hoss can keep a lookout for that grizzly.
“If doc’s right, don’t matter how loud I talk does it?”
Hoss? Why are you shouting?
“But if you’re right in what you said, that he was comin’ around, then maybe I ought’a talk even louder than I am. Talk loud enough to show God and the doc both that Little Joe is gonna be just fine!”
“He’s gonna be fine, Pa! You can’t tell me he’s not!”
Hoss? You’re startin’ to sound like that grizzly.
“No. You’re right. I can’t…I won’t.”
Pa? Is that your hand on my arm? It’s your hand, isn’t it?
Don’t let go, Pa. Please…just don’t let go.
No. Not the grizzly. Horses. Someone…someone’s comin’. Must be a lot of ’em.
“It’s that Colonel Mayfield.”
Hoss? He sounds close, but not too close. Maybe standin’ at my bedroom window again, lookin’ out. But it’s not raining now. That’s not thunder. Those are horses. Colonel Mayfield’s horses.
I just…I don’t know who Colonel Mayfield is.
“Why don’t you go down and see why he’s making a personal visit to the Ponderosa?”
Adam? Must be sittin’ right next to me again. Like Hoss, same place he was before. Still readin’? Or pretendin’ to read?
“Ain’t you curious?”
Hoss sounds closer now. Must’ve stepped away from the window.
Why can’t I see him? I want to open my eyes, to see him. Why can’t I?
“Of course, I’m curious, but—”
Can’t see Adam, either. Can’t see anything. Can’t open my eyes.
“But what, Adam?”
There’s a thin rush of air. Adam breathing. Can feel his breath blowin’ out across my arm. It’s warm, but quick. Too quick. Because now…now it’s gone.
Warmer than God’s hand, but harder to hold than Hoss’s.shadow.
“I want to be here when Joe wakes up again.”
I’m awake, Adam. I’m awake. I’m tryin’…just tryin’ to open my eyes.
“Doc would say ‘if’.”
If I wake up again. On account of the Doc doesn’t want to make promises. But I am awake, Hoss. I just can’t…can’t show you.
“Maybe so. But I’m not the doctor.”
I’m glad, Adam. Glad you’re not the doctor. You make promises. Keep ’em, too. And somethin’ about the sound of your voice…. You’re smiling, aren’t you? If I could open my eyes, I’m sure I’d see that sort of half-smile of yours.
“I reckon maybe that’s a good thing.”
Sounds like Hoss is smiling, too.
And I can feel myself smiling right along with them. It’s a good feeling as I settle back into the darkness. Don’t worry so much about not bein’ able to open my eyes. Because this kind of feeling…it’s startin’ to make that grizzly seem as far off as God’s hands.
Voices are drifting up the stairs. Pa and Hoss…and someone else. A stranger. The words are coming in pieces. Pieces I can’t fit together.
“…The president…extend…personal thank you…your sons’ efforts…confederate sympathizers…protected the gold….”
The stranger sounds…strange. More like he’s giving a speech than just talking. Or…maybe like he’s readin’ from something.
“…You’re wrong, Colonel….”
Hoss isn’t readin’ from anything. Just sayin’ what’s on his mind. Won’t even stop to think he’s arguing with a colonel. I like that about Hoss. Can trust him. Can always trust him, always know what he’s thinking.
“…Weren’t fightin’ for…the army…war…even the president… Just…away from Little Joe.”
Colonel’s talkin’ about gold, but Hoss…Hoss is talkin’ about me. Must be something to do with those bandits. That wagon full of gold.
Bullet caught me in the back, didn’t it? I don’t remember it hurting. Not then. Not bad anyway. Not like…not like this.
Why now? Why’s it hurt so bad now?
Something…something the colonel said? Or Hoss?
Adam? You still there? It hurts, Adam. Make it stop. Stop that…that pickax from diggin’ into my back. Or is it the grizzly? Get Hoss, Adam! Get Hoss! He’ll get the grizzly off me. Please, Adam! Please!
I remember my fingers sliding across pine needles. But now…now they’re curling around sheets. I have a fistful of fabric in my left hand. But it doesn’t…it can’t stop the pain. I can’t…my fist can’t punch that grizzly. Can’t wrastle it. Can’t fight it at all.
Adam? Adam, please!
Oh, God, Adam! Get your gun! Do something! Please!
His hand. Adam’s hand. It’s wrapped around my arm again. Feels warm. Feels…strong.
“Joe? Can you hear me, Little Joe?”
Adam? Don’t let go, Adam! Please. Don’t let go!
Can’t…can’t fight him, Adam. Can’t….
Pa? Help me, Pa! Please! Help me!
“Look at that! He’s fightin’, Pa! Told ya’ he’d fight!”
Hoss? I can’t…can’t fight. Help me, Hoss!
I feel more hands now. Suddenly they’re all…all three of ’em…holding me down. But no one…no one’s chasin’ off that grizzly.
“Keep fightin’, Little Joe!”
Hoss? Are you laughin’ again? This ain’t funny, Hoss! There’s a grizzly diggin’ its claws into my back, and you’re laughin’! Ya’ got to wrastle it, Hoss! Ya’ got to wrastle it!
Why won’t you wrastle it?
Doc said I was in God’s hands.
But now…now it’s my own family. I’m in their hands. But I’m in the grizzly’s hands, too. Or its claws, anyway. And I can’t fight it. And I….
…I’m not sure I want to anymore.
I like the feel of my family’s hands. If that means I have to have the grizzly, too…well, then I guess maybe I ought’a…ought’a let him keep hold of me.
“I just wish I could understand…why Joe? I was the only one within reach of our guns. Joe wasn’t any kind of threat.”
Adam? He’s sitting next to me again. Still?
“I don’t think they bothered to look close enough to know.”
Hoss is here, too. Again. Or maybe still. But from the sound of his voice, he’s not by the window this time. Must be right next to Adam. Right next to me.
“They were nervous and on the run.”
Pa, too? But he’s on the other side of me.
They’re all around me. Grizzly’ll never reach me now. It’s sort of strange to have them all here, in my room like this. Strange, but…a good kind of strange. Their hands aren’t on me anymore. But they’re here. All of ’em.
“I imagine it wouldn’t have mattered what any of you were doing, or where any of you were standing.”
When Pa imagines something, you gotta believe it’s probably true.
“They’d a’ shot anyone they saw, I reckon. Wouldn’t much matter who it was.”
Hoss knows. He knows Pa knows what he’s sayin’.
“But they shot him, Hoss. They shot Joe, the only one of us who might have…who might have at least appreciated what they were trying to do.”
Adam? What were they trying to do? They were bandits. Making off with a wagon full of gold. A wagon that couldn’t take the turn so fast. Why would you think I might appreciate that?
“That ain’t true, and you know it. Little Joe might have a soft spot for the south, but he sure don’t have no soft spot for bandits. ‘Cause that’s what they were, and you can’t tell me different. They weren’t soldiers. They weren’t fightin’ in that war back east. They were bandits, stealin’ gold from the United States Army. Joe wouldn’t cotton to that, no how.”
You’re right, Hoss. Bandits stealin’ gold…. I don’t much cotton to bandits. Why would I? Why would Adam think I do?
Adam? Why would you think I cotton to bandits?
“That’s just it, Hoss. They didn’t see themselves as bandits. They were Confederate sympathizers. To them, they were fighting a war.”
Confederate soldiers? But the war’s nowhere near here.
“No, Adam.” Pa sounds disappointed. “They weren’t fighting a war. They were only pretending to fight. No formally trained soldier would even think about shooting blindly like they did. They were amateurs; you can be assured of that.”
Sympathizers. That’s what you called them, isn’t it, Adam? Folks who want to help the south.
“Even so, Colonel Mayfield made it clear their intent was to help the war effort. They aimed to get that gold into the hands of the Confederate Army.”
I wanted to help the south. But…Adam, you couldn’t understand, could you? You almost left…almost left on account I couldn’t understand you backing the north, and you couldn’t understand me and how I thought the south deserved to live the way they’d always lived. I didn’t want you to leave, Adam. I don’t.
“Whether they were pretend soldiers or real ones they were the worst kind you could ever have, the kind that shoot civilians for no reason other than the ground they’re standin’ on.”
Hoss? I was standin’ with you. We were standin’ on the same ground. Only…only you pulled away. To see what all that rumblin’ was about. You saw before I did. I was…I couldn’t…I had to get my balance.
“We were all standing on the same ground. But they didn’t hit you or me, Hoss. They hit Joe. Not once but twice.”
Adam? I couldn’t hardly stand at all. Couldn’t get my balance.
“You know as well as I do there’s a reason for that.”
Hoss? You sound…cold. You don’t sound like you. I don’t like this sound in you. You shouldn’t sound cold like that.
“He was the only one who didn’t take cover.”
I should’ve, Adam. I know I should’ve. I just…I couldn’t…I couldn’t understand.
“I should’a seen it. I don’t know why I didn’t see it.”
“Because you were still trying to figure out who was shooting at us.”
“I didn’t even know he’d been hit. Not that first time. Not ’til I heard you tell him to get down. But I couldn’t reach him then. There was no way I could reach him in time.”
“No. You couldn’t.”
“Dadburn it anyway. I should’a known better. I should’a paid better attention. I should’a—”
“You should have done exactly what you did do.” Pa doesn’t sound disappointed anymore. Instead he sounds…stern. Like when he knows exactly what he’s sayin’. It’s times he talks like that you know you’d better listen.
“You accepted that he was old enough to take care of himself. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not a child anymore. He doesn’t need any of us to constantly watch over him.”
Pa? I would say that. You know I would. But I didn’t…I never expected to hear you say it. Not like that. Not in that stern voice of yours, that voice no one ever wants to argue against.
“Maybe so, but he did need me then. He needed me and I wasn’t payin’ no attention.”
Pa’s right, Hoss. You got to listen to him. You can’t watch me every second. And it would’a happened whether you were watching or not. Or maybe you might’ve been shot instead. And maybe…maybe you would have died. Then I’d be blaming myself; wouldn’t I? You can’t blame yourself. It wasn’t your fault. You ought’a know that. It wasn’t—
“This wasn’t your fault, Hoss.”
I’m glad Adam can hear me, even if you can’t, Hoss. You ought’a listen to him. Listen to Adam. He’s usually right. He was right when he told me to get down. Only…only I couldn’t make sense of up or down then; could I?
“Maybe I didn’t do the shootin’, but it sure seems to me it didn’t have to be as bad as it was. Should’a been somethin’ I could’a done.”
“You…did.” I said that, didn’t I? I can’t hardly hear my own voice, but I can feel it. Feel it scratching at my throat. Feel the words climbing out…or tryin’ to, anyway.
“You hear that, Adam?”
Hoss? You heard me?
Adam, too? I gotta try harder. Get more words out.
Pa’s hand…it’s wrapping around mine. Feels warm. Good.
My fingers are working too now, same as my tongue. I can feel them wrapping around Pa’s in return.
“Did…did do somethin’.” There. More words crawled out. A whole mess of ’em.
My voice still sounds like a whisper to me. Maybe not even strong enough to be a whisper. It’s too hard to whisper. Don’t know why it’s so hard, but it is. I want to open my eyes, but as hard as it is to talk…or whisper…or try to whisper, I can’t think about my eyes right now.
“What’d I do?” Hoss sounds confused. But when his hand settles on my shoulder there’s nothing confusing in that. I imagine it makes us both feel better.
Maybe Pa imagines that too. And Adam. I’m sure that’s his hand on my arm.
I also imagine they’re having a hard time hearin’ me, if I can’t hardly hear myself. Have to try harder this time. “Wr-wrastled…grizzly.”
My throat hurts now. Not like my back. Or my head. But feels like those words had to claw their way out. It’s okay, though. It wasn’t the grizzly’s claws. He’s gone, now. Don’t know where he went. But he’s gone. And I’m pretty sure he ain’t comin’ back.
“Grizzly? Pa? Is that what you heard? I swear I heard him say I wrastled a grizzly.”
“No.” It’s gettin’ harder with each word. But if I can get out two more. Just two more. “Not…anymore.”
“Joseph? Son? Do you know where you are?”
Pa’s leanin’ over me. Can hear him breathing. Feel the warmth of it on my neck. And the warmth of his hands, the one already holding mine, and the other coming to rest on the top of my head.
He’s pushing at my hair with his thumb. Must be too long again. I don’t think it’s bothering him much right now, but it will. You can bet soon as I get out of this bed he’ll be sendin’ me off to get it cut. Or maybe I’ll send myself, before he gets the chance. That ought’a surprise him some.
I feel myself smiling. I think it might even have reached my lips this time. But I reckon I’d better give them one more word after all.
They’re probably all smiling right along with me now. But I’m too tired to look.
“Joe? What grizzly are you talkin’ about?”
“Don’t…matter.” Those are last words I can manage. But I still have enough in me to squeeze Pa’s hand and nudge my smile a little wider before I fall back into a softer, safer darkness than I’ve known for…how long has it been? Hours? Days? It doesn’t matter. I’m in my bed, not on a bed of pine needles. And wherever those bandits went, they’re not here. Grizzly’s gone too. And God’s hands? Maybe they’ve been here all this time after all. Doc just didn’t realize. Hoss’s hands, Adam’s, and Pa’s too, they’re all a part of ’em.
I’ve always been in God’s hands. Ever since the day I was born.