Summary: This story is just barely post time line. The details about the Palouse horses (today called Appaloosas), the first Ft. Boise, and Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce are all historically accurate. The timeline is probably a little off. With thanks to Robin Wexler for encouragement and inspiration, and the Indigo Girls for much more than just the title….
Word Count: 47,600
When my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughs in my face
You say “each life has its place”
Ben drained the coffee cup and sighed. “I don’t know what to do for him, Paul.” His deep brown eyes focused on some distant vista. “He’s been working so hard these past months, keeping the ranch running.” That in itself wasn’t the problem, though. “We all have. But even when he’s working with his horses, there’s no joy in it.”
Late afternoon on that spring day had wrought a clear azure sky that glowed like a finely cut jewel against deep green treetops and blazingly white snowy mountain peaks. The rain that had fallen earlier in the week had damped down the dust, and the air seemed to be scrubbed clean and glowing. Colts about to be weaned scampered awkwardly after their mothers, bumped against each other, full of themselves; cowhands returning from the day’s work contentedly joked and jostled elbows from the barn to the bunkhouse. The smoky scent of cook fires wafted on a gentle breeze.
And Ben was oblivious to it all. He sat back in his chair on the porch, staring at the open barn door. He knew very well that Cochise was not inside, that Joe was not about to appear, dusty and grinning after a long day of ranch work. If he let the memories come, he could easily conjure up Hoss and Adam trudging wearily behind his youngest, the three of them still with plenty of energy for teasing and laughing, enjoying the relief of the end of a day of good, hard work, and the promise before them of rest, and one of Hop Sing’s abundant dinners.
…Joe summarily dumped in the water trough by his older brothers, sputtering and giggling; Adam and Hoss and Joe ganging up on each other in ever-changing alliances, throwing snowballs or buckets of water, delighting in playing elaborate practical jokes; the terrible fear and boundless relief when one of them was in danger and somehow escaped it alive, and how they would risk themselves to take care of each other; the boys riding home together, late, after a raucous evening in Virginia City, backing each other up with outrageous stories that he didn’t believe for an instant, but pretended to, sometimes, just for the pleasure of watching them protect each other…most of all, the way it felt to have the dinner table, and the house, full of sons – full of life, of love…
He shook himself out of his wistful reverie. God, I miss them… “I’m sorry, Paul, I was just thinking – “
Martin’s voice was gentle as he regarded his old friend. “Ben, Joe will be all right. You know him. He just has to work it out for himself, and it’s not easy.”
Ben nodded, but his arms, resting open on his chair, felt empty and bereft. Adam long gone, and now Hoss is dead – and Joe is out there, demons chasing him from fence line, to line shack, to…God knows what.
“I know, Paul, but…I miss him.” The unaccustomed acknowledgement of raw emotion caught the words in his throat, and startled Paul with their frankness. It’s not so easy sitting here and waiting, and hoping, either. “Ever since Hoss died, and then Alice so soon after, he hasn’t been the same. Not that I would expect that he’d be unchanged,” Ben mused. “I remember how sad he was after Alice…” he shook his head. “It was terrible.”
He glanced at Paul, then stared out at the surrounding mountains again. They glowed in the waning afternoon sun, but their beauty did not move him. “But now it’s different. He’s quiet, but I can see a deep anger in him.” His gaze turned inward as he remembered a hot-tempered young man who could barely control his emotional impulsiveness, especially if he saw injustice being done. But there’s no one to fight against this time, nowhere to protest the injustice he’s seen. “There’s a…a rage, just under the surface. Once in a while I see it in his eyes. I think it’s why the restlessness is so much worse. It’s as if he doesn’t know what to do with his anger – with himself.” Ben looked down at his hands, wondering why they felt so useless. “He’s never been a loner, and now he won’t come home. It’s as if…as if he doesn’t know where he belongs anymore.”
Martin toyed with the empty coffee cup in his hands, staring through it to a vision of the man who was out there, somewhere, trying to find a place for his grief and his anger. He winced when he remembered the look of bewildered pain that had settled in Joe’s green eyes with Hoss’ death. Meeting and falling in love with Alice was the only thing that had displaced it, but then with her murder…he remembered standing with Ben at the top of the ranch house’s stairs. He had given him the narcotic he’d prescribed to help Joe withstand the agony of the burns he had suffered tearing his way into his burning house, his wife and unborn child inside. Delirious and incoherent, the words Joe had uttered while Paul was treating his burns had nevertheless made enough sense to give the doctor cause to fear the intensity of his patient’s despair. He remembered that terrible night too well, remembered warning the anxious father to keep the medication hidden from his son, lest Joe seek more than temporary surcease from the pain of his injuries – and in his heart.
The doctor sighed and sat back, focusing on the lengthening shadows draping their way across the mountains peaks in the distance. A few trees reached above the gathering dark, their tips still catching the last glowing rays of the sun. Joe hadn’t tried to end his pain that way – that Cartwright stubbornness; he always did have more than his share. Instead, he’d responded to the grief with his characteristic impulse to act, and had single-mindedly hunted down his wife’s killers. Paul had always admired Joe’s courage, even more so now in how the man was attempting to cope with a challenge far greater, and more insidious, than armed outlaws, or a stampede of cows. But the last time the doctor had seen him, the bewildered look was back, and the haunted eyes were edged with a darkness that he hadn’t been able to interpret.
Paul turned to his old friend, wishing his art offered something that could help him. He was sure that Ben was right about his youngest – and his last – son. He’d seen it often enough, the sadness after a tragedy turning to anger. More than anger – despair could sometimes become a bottomless, unending agony of destructive rage, especially if there was nothing that could be done to mitigate the pain of the loss.
Ben continued to stare at the distant mountains. They stood out in bold relief against the darkening blue of the endless skies beyond them. Paul knew that Joe had taken to drinking too much to try to dull the pain and grief, knew that Ben worried about that too – worried that a drunken, miserable Joe could get himself killed out there all alone, and it would be months before they found whatever would be left by then of his body. Ben swallowed hard. What Paul didn’t know – what Ben hadn’t been able to bring himself to share with even his closest, oldest friend – was just how lost Joe had become, how close he had already come to being claimed by that terrible despair. Paul didn’t know about the day that Ben had found Joe kneeling in the ashes of the burned out shell that had been his home.
It was a raw, cold winter afternoon, and the bitter chill seeped into his very bones. Ben had been making his way homeward, looking forward to reaching the warm welcome of the ranch house. Great drifts of snow from the day-long winter storm had transformed the Ponderosa landscape, and he glanced upward, wondering how long before it started again. Vast dark clouds loomed forbiddingly. Thick snow the same color as the clouds strangled the sound of his horse’s hoofsteps. An unnatural silence hung in the air. No geese flew, no breeze whispered in the pines, no furry creatures darted over the cold expanse of white.
Hunched in his saddle against the cold, his hat pulled so low over his eyes that he had nearly missed it, a flash of green drew his eyes. Ben squinted against the cold that needled his eyelashes. There, along the tree line on the other side of the meadow’s white expanse, Joe and Cochise were picking their way through the snow and ice. They were headed away from the house. Ben drew a breath to call out to his son but stopped, realizing that Joe wouldn’t hear him. He hesitated. Suddenly the bite of the cold against his skin was muted by something else, something that was pushing him to follow his son. He pulled the horse around and set out after him under the desolate leaden sky. He followed at a distance, making no move to catch up. It wasn’t long before he realized where Joe was leading him.
The house rose starkly from the muting snow, a blackened skeleton that seemed to still silently scream the violence of its death. Half-fallen planking seemed to reach upward, a twisted hand frozen in throes of agony, grasping desperately at the sky. During all the days since the fire that had claimed his wife Alice’s life – and his happiness – Joe had been there only once, and Ben had found him there, had tried to comfort him, had brought him home. Home. This was to have been his home, Ben thought as he rode up to the last copse of trees that stood between the forest and the skeletal remains of the house. This…burned out ruin, this ghost of all he had hoped for, this was what was left of his son’s hopes, of his heart.
He found Cochise ground tied at a distance from the house. He hesitated. Perhaps it would be best to respect Joe’s privacy; he had thought he was coming out here alone, after all. But something pushed him onward, and he dismounted, leaving his horse to stand alongside the paint. He stepped silently over charred fallen planks and around the half-fallen wall. And there he found his worst nightmare: Joe, silent and at the end of his strength, kneeling on the ground, staring at something lying on the ash and soot stained snow. The green eyes were dark, fathomless. His body curled slightly forward around something he was holding in his lap. His shoulders were slumped as if he no longer could find the strength to hold himself up.
A dull glint of light reflected blue against the black-gloved hands, and Ben realized. Joe was holding his gun in his hands. As if in a final, desperate bid for release from the grip of the implacable demon that had gutted his soul as thoroughly as the house around him, he had pointed it at his own heart.
Ben stepped forward, searching his son’s face, but Joe, entranced, didn’t acknowledge his presence. He looked where Joe was staring as if at a religious relic before which he’d dropped in some kind of obeisance. There, lying on top of a charred timber, was a small object made of silver and mother of pearl. Ben’s heart contracted when he realized – it was a special, ornate teething ring he’d ordered from San Francisco when Joe had proudly and excitedly shared with him that Alice was pregnant. It had been engraved with the name Cartwright, and a space for the baby’s name. He never had gotten a chance to find out whether they’d received it before…
He felt his heart breaking for his youngest son all over again. He had always been able to find words to help Joe through the difficult moments, but not this time. Exhausted beyond words himself, Ben simply dropped to his knees beside Joe in the bitter cold snow and put a hand on his shoulder. He waited, barely breathing, praying hard, wordlessly. After a long, long moment in which Joe neither moved nor spoke, Ben felt the shoulder give slightly under his hand. The gun wavered and dropped. Without a word, Joe rose and walked away, back toward Cochise. Neither of them ever spoke of it afterward.
The doctor who had brought Joseph Cartwright into the world saw the emerald eyes again in his mind, remembered the easy laughter they used to reflect. Now they were steely and distant most of the time, and reflected something that Paul couldn’t treat. He mightily wished that he could.
He turned his gaze back to Ben. “How long has he been gone this time?”
The two old friends had gone out to the porch to share coffee and conversation in the afternoon breeze, for though the heat of the late spring day was past, it was still close, indoors.
Ben could hear Hop Sing opening windows throughout the house, followed his progress by the gentle bang of shutter against wood. There were two windows that wouldn’t be opening, though, no longer how long he waited, no matter how much he strained to hear: Adam’s room, shut up for years now, kept just the way he had left it; and Hoss’ room, more recently closed, even as a part of his father’s heart had closed on that day. Ben heard a pause, and then another window banged open, almost as if to defy the absence of the one who slept there. Ben smiled to himself. He realized that he had, once again, not been listening to his patient friend. He glanced over at Paul, and gave him a small smile. He didn’t bother to apologize again. Paul’s eyes were soft and understanding.
“How long has Joe been away, Ben?”
“This time? He left a week ago. But before that, he’d been out following the fence line in the far northern pastures for nearly three weeks. I was beginning to wonder if I should go after him, make sure he was all right.” Like in the old days, when I would have sent Adam and Hoss after him to make sure a hot-blooded, impulsive young man hadn’t once again gotten in over his head somehow, somewhere. “And then one evening he rode in, just at nightfall, looking too tired to move. He was here for three days – long enough to rest up, I guess – and then he was restless again, and the next morning he told me he was going back out to continue the fence-riding.”
“A thousand square miles – that’s a lot of fence,” Paul observed quietly.
Ben shot him a glance hooded by dark brows, and nodded with something between resignation and despair. “And I think he means to do all of it.” He set down his empty coffee cup, stared distractedly at the delicate red pattern in the white porcelain. Once he’d known someone who claimed to be able to read a person’s destiny in the patterns coffee grounds left on the inside of a cup turned upside down after the coffee was drunk. He had a sudden urge to upend his cup, to look for his youngest son’s fate in it. Let me keep just one son, please, God. Keep him safe and please…please, God, bring him back to me.
The shadows were lengthening. Ben could see the hesitant, momentary glow of a few fireflies, flitting and blinking in the encroaching dusk. When he tried to discern the firefly itself beyond the flickering light, he found he couldn’t, no matter how hard he tried. Just a momentary flash, like a memory of something that’s over. They reminded him of shooting stars, how they streak across the sky and disappear so quickly, before you’re ready to let them out of your fascinated sight. Like sons, he thought to himself, and the thought nearly ripped away the control he’d marshaled against the sobs that sat at the back of his throat. His second-born son materialized in his thoughts. Why? Why was your life such a brief flicker of light, my boy?
Something in the set of Ben’s shoulders made Paul’s heart ache just looking at him. He reached out a hand to soothe the tension and the sadness, and the muscles under his hand relaxed just slightly, responding to the compassion in the touch. Ben took a breath, then shook himself slightly and straightened in his chair. He smiled at Paul and stood, forcing himself to breathe deeply of the cooling evening air.
“Stay for supper, Paul? Hop Sing would love to have another mouth to feed.” The ironic laugh was half-strangled in his throat. “And…I would love the company, too.”
Paul smiled. “Sure, Ben, and thanks.” They gathered up the coffee cups and turned to head inside. Ben gave one long last look over toward the mountains where he knew his youngest son would be. Again, this evening, there was no sign of him. Ben swallowed a sigh and turned to follow Paul into the house.
Darkness was falling. It was that hour when light faded into ambiguity, and everything was vague and murky. Shadows merged with the encroaching darkness, and the blue of the sky, the green of the trees, and the dark brown of tree trunk and dirt path all lost their color, fading with the light until edges melted and nothing was easily discernable – a time neither day nor night. The animals were beginning to settle down for the evening, and so were the cowhands. The birds’ song fell quiet, and a cooling breeze carried the evening song of the crickets in its place. Throughout the ranch, lamps began to wink against the night. It was the hour when nothing is certain: neither darkness nor light. Neither memory nor desire. Neither past nor future.
Half a Second
The horses made their sure-footed way along the rough path, high up on the side of the mountain. Sprays of spring wildflowers raised their delicate yellow faces to the shafts of afternoon sun piercing the dense branches, heavy with new growth. The rider’s body echoed his horse’s movements easily, and with the pack horse trailing behind they balanced together on the steep slope, attuned to each other without need of conscious thought. Contrasting with his horse’s distinctive black and white paint markings, the rider presented a more colorful picture: a dark green jacket echoed the rich color of the leafy cover through which they moved, and a tan Stetson hat shaded a face framed in dark hair flecked with grey, curling over emerald eyes so deep that the most fertile leaves of the lush spring growth dulled in comparison. The rider considered his surroundings.
No one had been here in years, Joe was certain. There was no sign of clear markers or witness trees, much less fence line here, in the remotest part of Ponderosa territory. There was also no sign of any trespass. That wasn’t so difficult to believe, he thought to himself. No silver here to mine, and the ground’s too rocky and uneven for pasturing cattle. He stopped Cochise at the tree line; the pack horse stopped obediently behind. He breathed deeply and took a look around him. But it is beautiful, beautiful country. He stared out over the surrounding mountains, stroking Cochise’s neck idly as the horse patiently shifted from hoof to hoof. He remembered the incredible beauty of the country around him when he had gone wandering after Alice had died, trying to outdistance the grief that tightened his chest so badly that he couldn’t breathe deeply for months. Still, he had noticed, however dispiritedly, the beauty around him as he had followed backwoods trails and paths forsaken by all but the most intrepid pioneers. The soaring spaces – tall snow-covered mountains, deep green valleys, transcendent azure skies – had helped him to put the endless depth of his sadness into some kind of perspective. It didn’t hurt less, but somehow, he sensed that there was an answering, profound kind of endlessness in the circling of hawks above him, the unstoppable movement of the creeks and rivers he crossed, the way the sun kept coming up every morning, and the moon each night.
And here I am again, doing it again, he grimaced to himself. At least this time I’m staying on Ponderosa territory, doing something to help Pa run this ranch. He shook himself and urged Cochise forward with a gentle shift of his hips in the saddle. The horse gave a swish of his tail and began picking his careful, sure way down the path again, followed by the obedient pack horse. The sound of hooves was muffled by the deep carpet of fallen pine needles, and horses and rider moved nearly noiselessly along the property line. Birds darted through the branches above them, singing songs of warning to each other regarding the unaccustomed presence of a human being.
He didn’t know why he couldn’t tell Ben what kept chasing him away from the familiar comfort of home, from the company of the father he loved. But he did know that the rage that had been building up in him was dangerous. Instinctively he knew that he had to stay away from that which he loved, lest he destroy it. Until he had dealt with the tearing anger that weighed down his heart and clouded his sight, he knew he couldn’t come home.
The sun was decidedly past its zenith and heading determinedly toward the trees on the opposite ridge before Joe began to think about shelter for the night, and the bottle of whiskey in his saddlebag. There was a line shack, he remembered, that should be fairly close by, along the property line and over the next hill. Oblivion, it was called. He hadn’t been there in years. Wonder when anyone last stocked it, or even checked to see if it was still standing. Wonder if it’s one of the ones Adam designed – he could think of his oldest brother without anything more than a dull ache; Adam had been gone so long, and he had never really believed that his oldest brother would return – if so, I’ll have to try to find some of those built-in hidden drawers that he loved to include. Maybe find something long forgotten…
Long forgotten… his ride toward the line shack, like the rest of his long day in the saddle, was quiet and undisturbed by human or animal life. He rode without a thought for his surroundings, or, for that matter, his horse – he and Cochise so attuned to each other after so many years that they communicated with the most subtle of movements and gestures. Somehow, merely the thought of that line shack oriented his mind, and his body, toward it, and it was enough for Cochise to make his way unerringly in that direction, without overt signals of guidance, or even a sign that his rider was aware that he was still on horseback. Meanwhile, that rider continued in his reverie.
Just up ahead, the fence line resumed. As he drew near, he could see a section of fence lying, with its post, half-covered by overgrown brush. He pulled the horses to a halt and ground-tied them, unpacked the repair materials he would need from the pack horse.
He was tired, bone-tired, but not tired enough to stop his thoughts. Wearily, he set about clearing away the underbrush, excavated the still-serviceable post. His mind kept conjuring up his brothers, lost to him, and to his father. He deepened the hole and set the post into the ground, wrapped the end of the new coil of barbed wire around it, and heaved the heavy sledgehammer against its head.
Adam might as well be dead, for all that we hear of him…even when a letter did arrive in the post – over the years that they had been apart, their lives had inevitably diverged in ways more profound than just geographical distance.
He swung again, harder.
And Hoss’ death had been so sudden, so entirely undreamed of – there were enough times that the two of them had been shot, beaten, stomped, run over, fallen in rivers – had survived so many near misses that, he realized, they had probably both just assumed that they would dodge the next bullet too, no matter in what form it might come.
The hammer bludgeoned the post again, and again.
And then, in a half a second, you were gone….it had happened so fast. There was no way to get used to the sudden tearing away of Hoss’ presence from their lives.
Once again he swung the heavy hammer over his head, chest muscles rippling, now glistening with the formation of a fine sheen of sweat. Again he brought the hammer down, harder this time.
His breathing grew ragged; it was as if a half-healed wound had reopened, and the too-fresh memory of grief and loss came pouring out like heart’s blood. There was no way to understand Hoss’ early death. It just isn’t fair. You should have been around for a long time to come.
He swung again, so hard that the hammer striking against the post sent a shock wave through his entire body.
He knew no one more deserving to live a long life, Joe thought, and the shaft of blinding pain that sliced through him without warning was like a gun shot, nearly knocking him down with its suddenness and intensity. No one except, maybe, a baby that isn’t even born yet, and a woman, just married, killed for no reason, no reason, no reason…
The hammer dropped at his feet, and he stumbled forward blindly, put out a hand, and gripped the post with all the desperate strength of unresolved grief, of unmitigated rage. He leaned against it, staring with eyes unfocused by agony, his breathing coming in gasps as he tried to control himself. The tightness in his chest was back, so deep and profound that he couldn’t breathe past it, couldn’t form coherent thought. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, trying to block the thoughts, trying to re-bury the anger and the pain. But he saw her, the memory as clear as day.
They were standing together in the half-finished room that would be the baby’s, talking about where to put the crib. The happiness in her eyes when she looked up at him fit perfectly with the elation he felt at the feeling of her, warm and gentle, leaning against him. She leaned back against him as his arms encircled her. Somehow, although he was holding her, he felt as though he was the one being held, wrapped in secure arms that rocked him, that kept him safe. This was where he belonged; this was his place.
Then it came, unbidden, inescapable: the vision of the flames. He struggled to keep from being sucked into that memory again, and found it tangled with a vision of Hoss, lying still, so frighteningly still. Cold invaded him, and he shivered despite the warmth of the sun’s rays on his face. I should have been able to do something, if only I had acted in time, I should have known…
He didn’t know how long it took before he could see again, could raise his head and take a deep breath, and think about returning to some semblance of normalcy. He realized that he had been gripping the wire he’d wrapped around the post so hard that the barbs had pierced through the black leather glove. He pulled it off his hand and regarded the blood that streamed from his fingers with dispassion, noting dully that he didn’t feel any pain.
His eyes moved then to find Cochise and the pack horse both standing a few steps away, grazing calmly. The afternoon shadows were lengthening; the pine-scented mountain air was growing cooler. He could feel the haze of rage in his mind abating with the heat. Then Joe saw his brother in his mind’s eye; Hoss was grinning at him, blue eyes twinkling. He could never stay angry for long. He shook his head to clear it out, wiped the bloody hand against his leg, and pulled the glove back on. Silently, he went back to the task of restringing the fence.
The emerald eyes were dry. In them was something that cut deeper than the kind of pain that can be alleviated by the release of tears. He returned the hammer to the pack horse and continued heading toward Oblivion.
The Tahoe lake stretched wide and deep and dark in the night. In the stillness, he could almost hear the lapping of gentle waves against the shore.
The night air was cool against his face as he approached them. Stopping a way off, he tethered the horse and walked forward quietly. The moon, just rising, gave off only a pale silver glow against the velvet darkness, but he had been this way many times before, and his feet were sure and noiseless upon the pathless ground.
The tombstones glowed with a pale luminosity. He moved to stand before them, studying each in its turn. Marie….Mama…to stand before his mother’s grave was to invite the first sorrow of his life to rouse to wakefulness, to touch the lingering grief that still emanated from his heart’s first wound. He stared through the headstone, lost in a haze of ancient memories.
After a time he moved to the second grave, where lush new growth had already reasserted its claim over the disturbed earth. Hoss…he was slowly realizing that he didn’t yet know how to let Hoss go. But, unaffected by his angst, the mound of earth over the relatively fresh grave of his beloved brother had settled. Joe gazed, wondering, comparing it to his mother’s: Hoss might as well have been buried for years from the appearance of the grave. His eyes focused beyond the gathering of headstones toward a vista of the long, long sleep of death, in which his brother had joined his mother. He felt a deep longing for this man who had been friend and confidant, protector and companion. Despite the pain, Joe smiled gently at the memories: when Hoss had been at his shoulder, he had felt supremely fearless before the challenges they had faced together.
But Hoss wasn’t here to support him in the challenge he now had to face alone. Finally, with reluctant steps, he moved to stand before the stone beneath which they had buried Alice and the baby…What would your name have been, my child? What would we have called you? He found himself without coherent thought, and simply stood, staring quietly, unmoving.
I should have been able to do something, if only I had acted in time, I should have known…
Finally he turned and headed for a nearby boulder, settled himself on it and pulled out his bottle. He uncorked it and toasted Hoss’s grave marker. “Wish you were here to get drunk with me, ya big ox.” He brought the bottle to his lips and leaned back, tipping the fiery contents down his throat. As he bowed his head again, the tears began, scalding his face.
The risen moon, nearly full, plowed a shining track across the lake, lent an incandescent glow to the scattered clouds sailing overhead. It completed a good part of its journey through the starry sky that night, and still the solitary figure sat, trying to drown the memories. Streaks of lighter charcoal were beginning to trace their way across the velvet deep black of night when he gave up. Rising to leave, he staggered slightly as the world lurched around him. He grabbed at the rock behind him to steady himself, then stopped for a moment longer, and, suddenly more sober than he had planned to be, contemplated the mute stones. He didn’t notice the breeze gently ruffling the long, curly hair that rested against his collar. As he turned to leave, he only knew that whatever he was looking for here, he hadn’t found it.
Early evening, and the sound of hooves in the front yard brought Ben up out of his desk chair, accounts forgotten. He headed for the door, hoping.
And sighed in relief to see his youngest son in the waning twilight, dismounting wearily from his horse.
“Joseph! Welcome home, son,” he called as he crossed the yard.
Joe turned to meet him, and the father’s arms opened instinctively. Was it a sign of how tired Joe was that he walked into those welcoming arms so willingly, this painfully independent man who tried to deal with everything in lonely isolation? Ben didn’t know and didn’t care; he just held his son gratefully, drinking in the living warmth of him.
Wordlessly, they made their way to the barn, Joe to care for Cochise and the pack horse, Ben to watch for his chance to care for Joe. With the horses rubbed down and fed, they headed for the house.
Ben opened the door for his weary son. “Come on, Joe,” he urged, “Hop Sing made a great stew tonight, I’ll get him to warm up some for you.”
Joe placed the hat on its hook, the gun belt and saddlebag on the sideboard, and the familiar motions threatened to bring back the blinding pain that had all but knocked him out of his saddle, days before on the trail. In his mind’s eyes, he could see Hoss doing the same things, all too clearly.
Forcing himself back to the moment, Joe shrugged, glanced away. “I’m not hungry, Pa,” he murmured. “What I’d really like is a hot bath and a good sleep.”
Ben forced a small smile, eyes searching for his youngest’s, but Joe wouldn’t meet his gaze. The father hooked his thumbs in his pockets, forcing himself not to reach out to pull Joe around to face him. Whatever had let the son accept the father’s embrace just a few moments ago had passed; Joe seemed to be holding himself together with difficulty, as if he were just a breath away from breaking down.
“I’ll have Hop Sing heat some water,” Ben offered.
As if responding to the gentle attempt to reach him, Joe turned toward his father, and then, slowly, as if he had to rally his strength to do so, he met his father’s eyes. What Ben saw there nearly caused him to drop his own gaze. He didn’t remember ever seeing the emerald eyes look so cold, so hooded. The smoldering rage in them, glowing like a banked fire, leapt out at his father.
“Joe,” he breathed. Without thinking about it, he reached out to touch his son.
Joe didn’t lean in to the touch. In fact, Ben thought, he might have felt his body stiffen against it.
“Pa, I can’t…” He took a step back.
Ben nodded, but his eyes didn’t leave his son’s. “I’ll get that water, son. You go on upstairs.”
Joe nodded, dropped his gaze. He turned to go.
He turned back toward his father.
“I’m glad you’re home.”
Joe nodded, glanced away. “Thanks, Pa. I’m glad to see you.”
Without another word, he made his way up the stairs.
Ben watched him go, and then went to find Hop Sing. Emerging back into the great room, he turned as if to go back to his desk, and the accounts. He looked over at the books and realized that he wasn’t going to be focusing on end of the month calculations any longer that evening. He headed for the brandy instead, poured himself a generous splash and settled on the sofa. He stared into the fire, holding the glass loosely in his hands, and lost himself in his thoughts.
He was always so sensitive, he had the biggest heart of any of us, was never afraid to show his feelings. Ben shuddered, remembering those dulled eyes. Where have you gone, Joseph?
He put the glass to his lips, focusing upon the fiery path the liquid traced as it trickled down his throat. It occurred to him that Joe’s capacity for feeling hadn’t disappeared at all – but that he was witnessing the other side of his son’s intensity: the dark side of the moon. The contrast was breathtaking, he thought to himself. The unresolved rage was like a ten-foot wall – dark, forbidding, impenetrable.
The room grew dark, illuminated fitfully by the flames from the fireplace. Hop Sing had built it up carefully and well; it would burn for a few hours yet, Ben thought.
Watching the flames dance, he was suddenly staring through them, awash in a flood of memories. Images of Marie, of the horrible months of unrelieved pain and sadness he had struggled through after her death. I never would have wanted that for you, my son. He shook his head slowly, sadly. What a terrible thing to have in common. He found himself searching, in his mind’s eye, for happier images – those few years when Marie had made them a happy, nearly whole family. And we did survive, after all, Joseph – a vision materialized in his mind of his youngest son: the easy, confident tilt of his hat, the swaggering, low-hipped, gunslinger’s walk, and the light-hearted, brilliant smile. And above all, the flashing emerald eyes he loved. I miss those days. It all seems so very long ago.
Ben rubbed his eyes tiredly. The longing not to be in mourning was a nearly physical pain. How did I get past it before? How can I help Joseph survive this? He stared into the fire as if he might find an answer there. He suddenly realized the terrible irony: those same flames that warmed and comforted the dark night had destroyed his son’s happiness. But I didn’t stop riding horses after Marie was killed…And why not, after all? What had made him continue on? He saw his son’s faces in his mind: Adam’s eyes, dark and fathomless; Hoss’, sky-blue and twinkling; Joe’s, differing shades of emerald green, shining or darkening with his ever-changing moods. We made new memories, didn’t we, boys? We found new things to look forward to…Then I could think of Marie, and of Elizabeth, and of Inger, without despair.
He didn’t know how long he had been sitting there when suddenly he became aware of a light tread on the steps. He was surprised when he glanced up to see his son standing there, regarding him from the shadows. Joe had bathed, and wrapped himself in his robe. Making his way in quiet bare feet across to his father, he sat down next to him.
“Hi, son,” Ben smiled. “I thought you might have been asleep by now. Join me in a brandy?”
Ben went to rise but Joe stopped him with a gentle hand. With a movement as light and fluid as a panther’s, he rose and brought a glass and the decanter over, gently set them on the table in front of them. Ben watched the quiet grace of his movements, saw the sadness in the way he held the broad, muscular shoulders. Joe poured himself a glass and his father a refill, and they both settled back to watch the fire.
Without taking his eyes off the flames, Joe spoke.
“Pa.” He stopped and started again. “I’m sorry….”
Ben stared at him, astonished. “What in the world, Joe, could you possibly…” he trailed off.
Joe didn’t look at him. Ben could see the flames mirrored in the green eyes. Almost as if the spark was there.
“Pa, I’m sorry because I’ve been thinking only about my own…about me, and it’s not as if you haven’t…” He couldn’t voice it. His face was twisted with pain and the effort to control it. He bowed his head, his features dipping into the shadows that danced across the room; he stared at the glass in his hands.
Ben regarded him with a mixture of love and relief. This was more than Joe had been willing to say since…since Alice’s death. For so many months we’ve both been holding it back, there’s so much to do on the ranch and we’ve both buried ourselves in the work – and now, finally, it’s here.
“Joseph, Joseph…you can’t blame yourself.”
“But Pa, you’ve been right here, working, steady as a rock….and I’ve left you alone.”
Ben smiled gently, patted his son’s knee reassuringly. “Well, you were doing work that needed to be done too,” he pointed out, “and it suited you, didn’t it?”
Joe bowed his head, and his father could sense his distress. “But it was wrong to leave you alone.”
Ben stared into his brandy, swirled it around his glass. It glowed in the reflected firelight. “Joe, there’s lots of help around here. You didn’t leave me unsupported.” He took a sip of the fiery liquid. “And if you hadn’t gone out to do the fence riding, we just would’ve sent Candy, or someone else.” He shot a sideways glance at his son to see if he was buying it. “It was work that needed to be done.”
Joe relaxed, the burden of guilt lifting. If his father wanted to give him this one, he would take it. He sighed and returned the glance.
“I guess I did need to get away for awhile. But when I thought about it, it didn’t seem right.”
Ben stared into the fire, his gaze somewhere far beyond it.
“Joseph, you know as well as I do that we all grieve in different ways.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, absently swirling the brandy in his glass again, without looking at it. “You are who you are.” He turned to look fully into his son’s eyes, deliberately. “And I love you exactly as you are.”
The spark did not miraculously leap back into the emerald eyes he loved, but the depths seemed a little less pained. “I love you too, Pa.”
Ben took a breath, decided to go for broke. Maybe it’s time to create some new memories, find something new to look forward to.“Joe, I’ve been thinking. Since you seem to need to keep moving for now, I’m wondering if you’d like to make that trip we’ve been talking about for a long time now – to go up to the Oregon Territory and pick up those horses you’re interested in.”
That brought a definite glint of interest into those beautiful eyes. “You mean the Palouse horses we heard about?”
Ben nodded. “Yes, I was thinking that you could take Candy and make a trip up there. The work here is under control, and the weather seems to have warmed up enough to make the passes, well, passable.”
“It would take at least two months, Pa,” Joe warned. “Are you sure?”
It was appealing to him, Ben could see. His eyes softened as he looked at his youngest son. “I’m sure, son.”
Joe sat back and considered it. “We’ll need to spend a few days planning, and getting ready. We could leave by the end of the week – that would give me enough time to make sure that the work with the yearlings is all finished…” He gazed into the fire again, lifted a foot that found its way absently to the coffee table before him. “They say those horses are really superior stock, Pa. That there’s no other horses that can hold a candle to ‘em for speed and agility.” His voice trailed off and Ben could almost see the horse breeder’s wheels turning in his son’s mind. “What they could do to our horses’ bloodlines…”
It had been years since Ben cared any longer about where Joe put his feet. He smiled fondly at the memory, and in his pleasure at his son’s interest in his suggestion. “And then, Joe, when you get back – “
Joe looked up at him, shaken out of thoughts of breeding and training strategies.
Ben continued. “And when you get back, Joe, maybe you’ll stay, for a while.”
Joe was quiet, but he didn’t demur. Ben could see that something in the lines of his face had relaxed.
They settled back to watch the fire again, shoulder to shoulder. The pain was still too great to be faced – but Ben was beginning to believe that the day would come when they would both be able to breathe deeply again. He found himself daring to entertain the hope that, sooner rather than later, he would hear Joe laugh again.
“They’re supposed to be some of the fastest, strongest, most sure-footed horses around,” Joe explained to Candy as their horses picked their way along the ridge which served as the Ponderosa’s eastern property line. They had started out at dawn on the first stage of their journey north. Already, the brush that covered the ground was drying out as the weather warmed up and rain became scarce. Rabbits and other small furry animals, foraging in the cooler morning air, darted for shelter at their approach.
The early morning dew was drying fast off the tall Ponderosa pine trees as the heat of the day rose with the summer sun. The woody scent of pine, cool and soothing, filled the air they pulled deeply, appreciatively, into their lungs. Soon enough, they knew, they would be breathing mostly trail dust.
Candy pushed the brim of his hat back to take advantage of the last of the morning’s cool breezes, rubbed his brow. “What’re they called again?”
“Palouse horses. I think it has something to do with the name of the river the tribe lives near.” Absently, Joe noted that the fence along which they were riding needed some minor repairs. “The tribe that breeds them is called the Nez Perce.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Candy dismounted to open the gate.
“It’s French for ‘pierced nose’.” Joe rode through and waited while Candy secured the fence, smiling at his friend’s snort. “Didn’t you learn a little French in high school, Candy?”
Candy laughed at the thought as he swung his leg over his horse’ back. “I mostly concentrated on fishin’ and huntin’ in high school – you know how it is…”
They turned the horses’ heads toward Reno. “I reckon I do at that,” Joe smiled at the memory of spring days spent with friends, sneaking away from school to go fishing at the nearest stream. Joe would stay out as long as he dared, careful to stay clear of his father’s known activities for the day, lest Pa or an annoying big brother discover him. Then again, I could usually convince Hoss to come along…
“…and I didn’t stay in school that long anyway. My Pa didn’t put much stock in it.”
Candy didn’t notice that a shadow had passed over his friend’s face. “And then, well, let’s just say that most of my learning ain’t from books.”
He chuckled, but when there was no answering riposte, he shot a look at his friend in time to see him visibly pull himself together.
His traveling companion tried to settle his shoulders. The effort to control himself betrayed its presence in the way he ducked his head, avoided Candy’s eyes. “Dammit, I can’t seem to get past it, Candy,” he confessed. “I can’t seem to put it behind me. Every time I think I can…laugh again, it hits me in the stomach.” He could feel the rage starting deep in his chest.
Candy tugged the brim of his hat down to hide his unease. “I still miss Hoss a lot too,” he offered.
“You’ve got an advantage over me, Candy,” Joe continued, bitterly. “You’re a loner. You’ve had practice at being by yourself.”
The Ponderosa foreman shrugged in his turn, stared ahead. Their horses, continuing at a steady, mile-eating walk, had brought them into the flatlands that would take them to Reno. “When you don’t have a choice, you just sorta get used to it, Joe.” He squinted up at the sun, calculating how long they had before the sun began to beat down upon them in earnest. He wasn’t sure how much more he could take, talking like this. Knowing how much his friend was hurting was the only thing that could make him steel himself against the desire to change the subject.
“Well, I reckon I’m going to have to get better at it,” Joe said, his voice ragged, struggling to control the building anger that echoed in his tone and his posture. “I just can’t get used to how he was here one day and gone the next – and then how Alice was gone so quickly, too.” His voice trailed off. The pressure in his chest threatened to cut off his breathing. His throat was tight. “I don’t understand why they’re dead, and I’m not.”
I’m no more deserving of life then they were. Joe’s tone grew darker, the edge of anger sharper. “I’ve faced so many men who wanted to kill me. It would only take a half a second more that I need to draw my gun, and I’d have been lying dead in the dirt years ago. Is that all there life is – a half a second? Why am I alive, why aren’t they?”
To that, Candy didn’t know what to say. He was mightily relieved when Joe urged his horse into a gallop, and spurred his own mount to follow. He hoped a good long run in the late morning sun would help his friend put the demon back under wraps. At the very least, he noted wryly, they’d get to Reno in good time at this rate.
Once Joe had finally pulled Cochise from his headlong run down to a sane pace, Candy wasn’t sure how long they had ridden in silence. The sun was high in the sky when they heard a woman’s scream and the echo of gunshots. They exchanged glances, and Candy jerked his head toward the ridge ahead of them.
“Up ahead, around the bend on the stage road.”
Joe nodded. “Looks like smoke. Let’s go!”
They urged their horses to a gallop and, rather than follow the road, headed directly for the ridge around which the road had been cut. Within moments they had reached the crest of the ridge. Slowing as they headed for defensive cover, guns in hand, they worked their way carefully forward until they could see the source of the sounds of conflict. Then they heard the scream again.
The two cowboys squinted against the piercing midday rays of the sun. Before them was a vista of hell. A stagecoach lay on its side, on fire, its back wheel revolving at a crazy angle, the axel broken. Entangled in their traces, two horses struggled against the dead weight and their own injuries. Even from a distance, Joe could see that one of them was trying to get a broken foreleg under itself, and was panicking as it sensed that the leg would not hold its weight.
The horses’ terrified screams of pain mingled with the crackle and pop of the fire consuming the stagecoach and the nightmare staccato of revolver fire. As their eyes focused on the scene, the two men realized that several unmoving bodies were strewn around the coach. Four men stood nearby, and as they watched, one of them deliberately and slowly took aim and fired his gun – at what, they couldn’t see. The woman’s scream sounded again, more horrified and desperate this time.
The breeze turned in their direction, and the acrid black smoke reached their nostrils, unsettling the horses. Still unsure of what exactly they were witnessing, Joe settled for shooting in the air. Four figures turned toward the sound. All four aimed their weapons at the two men on the ridge.
Joe and Candy met each other’s eyes and nodded. They simultaneously yanked their horses to opposite sides, leaving an empty space where they had been seconds before, just as four bullets sliced the air between them. They saw the outlaws below leap for cover; one made a dash for a horse. The woman’s scream sounded again.
The two men had faced enough dangers together; as Joe sped through the cover along one end of the ridge, darting among the trees, he knew that Candy would be echoing his movement along the opposite side. They would approach the scene from opposite sides, keeping the men at the stage off balance, having to defend themselves from multiple angles.
His path brought him closer than he’d realized to the burning stage coach and the outlaws using it for cover. A bullet sang through the air close to his ear, and Joe pulled Cochise to a stop long enough to toss off an answering shot. He saw one of the men fall, watched the other two duck back behind the coach. He scanned the area but couldn’t find the source of the scream they’d heard.
Then something he saw made Candy pull his horse up and head directly down toward the stage, firing wildly. Joe instantly reacted, throwing Cochise into a headlong run from the opposite direction to cover his friend’s charge, shooting into the air to create the sense of covering fire. Until they knew where everyone was – and what the story was – he didn’t want to risk hurting innocent people.
But the noise of gunfire was enough, and created the impression he’d wanted. Candy’s horse had headed for the coach, and for a few long and worried moments as he raced toward it, the burning, slowly collapsing hulk blocked Joe’s view of his friend. The sound of gunfire coming from behind the coach continued, though, and it wasn’t aimed in the air. Joe fired back, into the billowing black smoke, directly at the source of the sounds this time. Whether it was Candy’s shooting or his, he wasn’t sure, but another body fell from behind the coach, sprawling face down on the ground.
Then he saw her – a woman running away from the coach as fast as she could, her skirts gathered in one hand, her dark hair flying loose behind her. The next thing he saw was one of the outlaws urging a horse after her. In her blind panic, she was running directly into the path of Cochise’ onrushing charge. The outlaw behind her was gaining on her. Joe sent a warning shot over his head, but the man didn’t flinch. He also didn’t fire back, and Joe realized that the other was out of ammunition.
Casting aside all thought of the last armed man behind the coach, knowing Candy would cover him, he quickly shifted his body’s weight, tightening his legs and leaning to the side. Cochise responded instantly, describing a smooth arc at full speed, bringing Joe between the outlaw and the fleeing woman. He reached down and with one smooth motion scooped her up into the saddle in front of him. The pursuing outlaw shouted something angrily and, still at a full gallop, pulled his horse to one side. Taking a long look at Joe, he headed away from the scene as fast as he could urge his horse to move.
The woman in Joe’s arms screamed again, and he struggled to keep her safely on the galloping horse as he looked for the closest nearby cover. “Take it easy, there, miss, I’m not gonna hurt you,” he murmured in her ear as he headed Cochise toward a nearby copse of trees. Distracted by his concern for the armed man they still had to face, he found time to notice that she was beautiful, and that she didn’t seem to be hysterical, despite good reason to be. She was gasping for breath and nearly sobbing, but as Cochise came to a halt, her arms found her way around his neck, and she looked up at him.
“Who are you?”
The frantic, deep brown eyes unnerved him momentarily, before he clamped back down on his heart. “Name’s Joe Cartwright, ma’am. You mind tellin’ me what’s going on?” He continued to fire at the source of the shots coming toward them, worrying about Candy’s whereabouts – and welfare. A part of his mind registered the horse and rider racing away in the direction of Reno. Automatically, he rehearsed pertinent details for the sheriff – red-haired, moustache, middle-aged, not too tall, blue jacket, bay horse… Suddenly he noticed that the gunfire had stopped.
The woman turned to gaze at the wrecked and burning stage. “Those men robbed the stage, they killed…oh, my God…”she began to sob. “They killed…”
“It’s all right,” Joe tried to soothe her. “You’re safe now.” But she continued to weep, her body shaking with heart-rending cries. He held her tightly and guided Cochise down toward the downed stage. The sounds of gunfire had ceased, leaving only the crackling sound of the flames as they consumed the stage coach. Joe realized that the screaming of the horses had stopped. He looked over and could see Candy standing over them, watched him put a bullet into each one to end their suffering. He considered the weeping woman in his arms sadly. She won’t be so lucky, he thought darkly.
Joe pulled up upwind of the downed stage. Cochise stood obediently, blowing noisily, sides heaving from the exertion. Joe helped the woman slide down the horse’ side to the ground. She made her way, sobbing, among the bodies as Candy checked them. The Ponderosa foreman looked up at Joe as he came alongside.
“Looks like four stage coach robbers who managed somehow to wreck – and burn – the stage coach. Three are dead, one escaped.” Joe nodded, listening as he reloaded his revolver. Candy continued his grim assessment. “Whatever they were carrying must’ve been mighty attractive. Driver’s dead, so are these people – the passengers…” At this, the woman began to cry in earnest. Candy looked over at her, then met Joe’s eyes quizzically. Joe shrugged.
Candy walked over to her and took her by the elbow. “Ma’am…”
Whatever words of consolation he was going to offer went unsaid as he caught a flash of blue-tinged light out of the corner of his eye.
The roar of a gunshot sounded, too close, and simultaneously Candy saw Joe whirl, revolver in hand. It wasn’t until after he saw a man, half-risen from the dirt near the smoking coach, fall back to the ground that Candy realized what had happened. One of the outlaws had still been alive, and had regained consciousness. He had quietly brought his gun up and aimed it at the nearest target he saw – Joe, as he stood there, gazing at the distraught woman. By the time Candy was able to focus his thoughts, Joe had reacted to the signs of danger in his peripheral vision and fired – faster than he thought possible, faster than thought itself. By the time he could take a breath, Joe was standing there with the gun still in his hand, his body relaxing as he realized that the danger was past.
The two men looked at each other wordlessly. Joe’s eyes were unreadable. Half a second, Candy thought. He kept the thought to himself.
She noticed him when she came to the bar to fetch a round of drinks for the poker players at the back of the room. He was standing with another man; the two of them had just come in from the gathering darkness outside to the light and welcoming warmth of the saloon. They were walking to the bar, and he was grinning at something his companion had said. The brilliance of his smile caught her eye. She glanced at him sideways, not willing to give herself away by gazing directly just yet.
At first she was ready to categorize him as just another cowboy enjoying a night on the town after a hard day’s ride. She appraised him with an experienced eye. Broad shoulders tapering to a narrow waist, the hard muscles of his long legs speaking of a lifetime spent in the saddle. Luminescent green eyes centered on his friend, but took in the room as well. Long dark curls flecked with just a touch of grey escaping from under the light-colored Stetson hat, spilling over his collar. Suddenly her fingers itched to touch them. Better looking than the average cowboy, she thought to herself, and he stands there like he owns the place. One boot was hooked over the bar’s railing, and he leaned casually on his right arm, resting the elbow on the bar’s polished wooden surface. Then she noticed that his revolver’s holster – slung low, for a gunslinger’s fast draw – hung on the left side of his body. She realized that he kept that side free of encumbrance, and his left hand casually – but carefully – close to the gun.
No, not a cowboy, or not just a cowboy. He looks younger than he does old, but he ain’t no innocent – he knows how to take care of himself, I’ll bet. Her eyes lingered on the gun and the lean, muscular thigh it was strapped to. Then the clink of glass brought her back to the job at hand, and she thanked the bartender and made her way to the men waiting for their drinks. Her gaze caressed the gunslinger at the bar one more time, and her hips swayed just a bit more seductively as she moved away.
The saloon was crowded, but it was a quiet night, and no one was pawing at her. She shot a look at her boss but he seemed unconcerned that she was making her way casually back to the bar. She found herself drawn back toward those green eyes. He was tipping the last of his beer down his throat. He caught the bartender’s eyes and nodded toward his friend. “How about another round for two hardworking cowpokes, friend?” His companion grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Long as you’re buying, boss,” he chuckled.
The gunslinger laughed outright at that. “Candy, I reckon it’s only for a beer that I’ll ever hear you say that to me.”
She was even more intrigued. Young, handsome, obviously good-natured despite the low-slung evidence at his hips that he knew how to kill. And somebody’s boss to boot? She came closer, the whiskey she’d had earlier making her bold.
“Hey, stranger,” she purred, “buy a girl a drink?”
He turned the emerald gaze on her and she nearly melted. Then he smiled, and his nod was both for her and for her request. “Whatever the lady is drinking,” he called across to the bartender.
“You’re not from around here.” She didn’t want to take her eyes away from his gaze. The bartender set a beer in front of him, a shot glass of whisky before her.
He nodded, not looking away from her, either. “We’re from over Virginia City way.”
“Well, welcome to Reno, then.” She leaned against the bar, turning to face him fully. The unfastened shirt buttons at his neck allowed her to begin undressing him with her eyes. She had to fight her impulse to reach out and touch him somewhere, anywhere. It was the policy of the establishment that the saloon girls were available for more than getting a cowboy a drink. She smiled to herself and hoped that she might be able to mix business with rather more pleasure than she usually anticipated from a night’s work.
He was remembering the entrance they’d made to Reno a few hours earlier, with a disheveled and emotionally exhausted young woman in tow. They’d headed directly to the sheriff’s office to report on the stage robbery and the deaths, and Joe had described the one that got away as carefully as he could. He’d even perused some wanted posters, but hadn’t seen anyone who clearly resembled the man who’d chased, on horseback, after the woman who was the lone survivor of the attack.
The sheriff had cautioned them to keep an eye out for the gang’s survivor. He had an idea of who it might be. “A real mean hombre, doesn’t leave witnesses, always starts by burning down the stage, or the house, or whatever he’s robbing. They call him Red, and not just for his hair. His gang’s been seen up and down the stage coach lines as far north as the Oregon Territory.” He had regarded the two cowboys in front of him with a measured look from under the brim of his hat. He took the wanted posters back from Joe’s outstretched hand and met his eyes. “Just watch yourselves.”
“If it weren’t for this man, Sheriff,” the woman they’d rescued had said, “and you, too,” she looked at Candy, “they’d have killed me too.” She looked at Joe gratefully. “I thank you, sir.”
Joe had nodded, tipped his hat to her, and had suddenly wanted to get out of that office in the worst way. She clearly wasn’t so eager to have him leave, but he gave her no opening, shaking the sheriff’s hand and promising to be available for further questioning while they were in Reno overnight. They’d be at the hotel later, and yes, they were probably headed over to the saloon. He got out of there as fast as he could, not bothering to examine what was pushing him out the door, despite Candy’s curious glance.
He looked around the room again, maintaining the vigilance of his stance, and then returned his gaze to the woman in front of him. He was noticing the graceful curve of her neck, the swell of her breasts in the tight dress, the upturned chin and full lips, the implied offer of her posture.
“How long you all plan to stick around?” she asked.
“Not long.” The look in the green eyes was level, unconcerned, but interested in what her next move might be. He put the beer glass down carefully and gazed into her eyes. She let her own gaze drop somewhat lower, lingered over the lines of his lean, muscular body.
She saw him look over her shoulder briefly, guessed that he caught his friend’s eye out of the corner of his own, knew she was right when she felt movement away from her back. The friend was leaving them a bit of privacy. Her heart beat faster as he looked down into her eyes, giving her his full attention. She felt caught up in those green depths, and found her breathing going ragged.
I’m no innocent either, she reminded herself. ”My name’s Belle.” Her lips were parted, the tip of her tongue inviting.
He touched his hand to his hat. “Mine’s Joe.” The eyes were caressing, but careful.
She realized that she was forgetting to breathe. I’m a working girl, I do this all the time, she thought, trying to take a deeper breath. Get a grip on yourself, girl…
“I’m sure you’ve had a long day,” she offered. “You’re probably looking for a good night’s rest.” Despite herself, her eyes dropped. At the last moment, she managed to focus to one side, to his pearl-handled revolver.
He smiled easily, gently. “I’m not really that tired. My friend and I came here hoping to find a bit of entertainment, actually.” He glanced over and saw Candy insinuating himself into a card game. “I think he’s found what he came for.” His eyes returned to the beauty standing before him. “Me, on the other hand, I’m not in the mood for poker just now.”
She knew her chance when she heard it. “I…I’d be more than happy to acquaint you with the…other kinds of…entertainment available in this establishment,” she murmured.
He gave another quick look around the bar, picked up his beer glass and drained it. “What did you have in mind?”
Her eyes were full of teasing promise. “What do you have in mind?” Her body swayed toward him, and he felt his own beginning to answer.
“You’ll have to find some place more private than this if you want that question answered,” he murmured.
She reached out then and took his hand, and felt the heat of her desire for him hit her, full-blown. The hand was work-toughened and strong, but gentle. She clung to it, and he let her lead him past the poker tables to a door that led to a dark hallway. The last sight she had of the main room of the saloon, over his shoulder, was of his friend’s grin in their general direction.
Belle stepped into the first empty room she came to, and with one long stride he was at her side. She turned to light the lamp next to the bed, but he caught her arm and pulled her against him. He shut the door behind them with his back, and reached to lock it as he took her in his arms. In the darkness, his mouth came down hard on hers and she opened to him, her hands reaching up to run through his silken hair. Her fingers knocked his hat off; she heard it hit the floor, softly.
He reached into his jacket and then toward the table, and she knew that he was leaving his payment for her services. Then his hands were on her waist, pulling her closer to him. She brought her hips up against him, and slid her hands down his chest, coaxing the rest of the shirt buttons free….
His eyes were focused somewhere beyond the bed. She looked at him closely. Long dark curls fell into his eyes, brushed against his collarbones. She studied his profile in the dim glow that the small, grimy window grudgingly allowed into the dark room. There was a quietness about him that communicated maturity to her, a sense of restrained power that would meet and master any situation that might present itself. Yet there was that about him that seemed startlingly young, but there was no serenity in it. A young face, but a wounded heart, she mused.
“Who are you?”
He met her eyes, but she could see that his thoughts were already somewhere else. The long lines of his lean body in the bed spoke somehow of sorrow; she could sense an underlying sadness in the dark profile of his face against the darker shadows. Then he seemed to gather himself, to push it away.
Perhaps he was about to answer her. She never got to find out. She felt his body tense almost before she heard the muffled sounds of struggle out in the saloon. She noticed for the first time that the piano had gone silent, replaced by the thuds of what sounded like a good-sized barroom brawl in full swing.
With a quick grace that reminded her of a cat, he was up and into his clothes, and easing carefully, silently, out the door, gun in hand.
Candy ducked as a chair came flying across the room at him. His poker luck had been pretty good until one of the men in the game had decided that the dealer – it had been Candy’s turn – was cheating. Candy, trying to keep things from escalating, had attempted to calm the angry cowboy, but he had lost too much money, and drunk too much whiskey, to care. He had started swinging, and didn’t much care who he hit.
Candy found himself in the middle of a quickly growing brawl, which he rather enjoyed, generally speaking. The only problem with this one was that the angry cowboy’s friends seemed more than happy to join him in ganging up on the dealer, who was, after all, a stranger in town. And alone…by now Joe should have heard the noise, he thought in some small part of his brain as he feinted away from, and then slugged, his nearest attacker.
Candy had been enjoying the way his odds were coming up with the cards, but now, he reflected to himself, the odds had quickly gone south. An uppercut he never saw coming dropped him. A black-booted foot headed for his ribs.
Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot reverberated through the saloon. It was a single bullet that kicked up dust between his unprotected body and the oncoming boot, stopping it, and its owner, cold. He sighed in relief. Only one person he knew could shoot like that. He heard the voice that went with the shot.
“Back off.” Joe’s tone was flat and full of menace, and the group who had been ready to beat Candy into the ground obeyed without a sound, staring at the revolver held steady in his hand.
Candy got to his feet, retrieving his hat and wiping blood from the corner of his mouth, while Joe covered his movements, eyes never leaving the drunk and angry cowboy who had been ready to kick Candy into insensibility. The man was seething. He drew a dirty forearm across his face, wiping away sweat and blood, and glowered at Joe. The gun held steady in the direction of his chest kept him in place.
“You okay, Candy?”
“Yeah,” the Ponderosa foreman winced. “Just a little misunderstanding’s all.” He stopped to pick up his winnings, glancing back at the drunk with the boots who had started it all. He walked over to the bartender and slapped the money down on the bar. “This oughta cover your damages. Sorry about that.” He straightened his hat and headed for the exit.
Joe walked backward behind him, the gun still trained on Boots, eyes taking in the room. An air of barely suppressed rage lent a dangerous edge to his movements.
Belle had found her clothes, and, still full of the pleasure of the last hour, walked languidly out into the barroom. She was just in time to see him back through the saloon doors without a look in her direction. She stopped by the bar, next to one of the other girls, who was staring at him appreciatively. “He sure knows how to use his gun,” she murmured.
“Yeah, he sure does,” Belle grinned. She watched the doors swing. And just like that, he was gone.
A ragged, choked sob that tore from his own throat woke him. His fists were clenched so hard that his whole body ached. He’d been dreaming of Alice again. The familiar feel of a woman in his arms must have triggered it this time. And the stagecoach, burning and billowing black smoke, conjuring the horror of the night when she’d died. The dreams all started out happy, but then ended in a sudden pounding darkness that took over his vision like a live thing attacking him, and a sense of falling, falling without end, and Alice falling away from him, screaming his name. In the dreams he was always mute, always reaching out to her, always watching in voiceless horror as she slipped beyond his grasp.
His heart was hammering against his chest. With an effort, he took a deep breath, trying to relax the tension that coiled from his shoulders directly down into his heart, and opened his eyes.
Dawn’s golden fingers were pushing through the shabby curtains of the hotel room. Joe rolled over to regard Candy. The Ponderosa foreman was a reassuringly normal sight, still sleeping soundly in the other bed, bundled against the early morning chill. Joe contemplated the unmoving form and decided to give him a little while longer. He could go over to the livery himself and ready the horses before waking Candy. Maybe by then he would have been able to settle his emotions.
He pulled himself to sit on the edge of the bed, running a hand through his tousled hair, rubbing his eyes as if he could banish the terrifying sights his dream had conjured. He pulled on his jeans and fumbled under the bed for his boots. The sound they made as they scraped across the wooden floorboards seemed loud in the morning stillness, but Candy didn’t stir. In another moment Joe had shrugged into his shirt and found his hat. He stood and took a deep breath, reaching for the gun belt. It settled on his hips with an easy familiarity, and, snagging his jacket in one hand, he moved silently to, and through, the door.
The town was still asleep, except for a few merchants arriving early at their stores to prepare for the day to come. Shrugging on his jacket, Joe looked around, could smell coffee brewing somewhere nearby. He promised himself to go in search of a cup after checking the horses, and made his way over to the livery on a street that was so quiet that he could hear the soft thuds of his booted feet in the dust. The sun had fully risen now, and its early rays on his back were surprisingly warm already.
Something about the entrance to the Reno livery in the quiet morning tripped a memory, and suddenly he was watching Hoss lead Chubb out of the shadows beyond the stable door in his mind’s eye. The vision was as clear as life, and his heart lurched. He gritted his teeth against the sudden wave of sorrow that broke over him and straightened his shoulders, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.
He never heard the sound of the hammer being pulled back on the gun that followed his movement down the street, but the sound of the blast as the gun was fired echoed through the street.
He whirled at the sound, sensing the bullet before he saw it kick up the dust at his feet. His revolver was already clearing the holster as his eyes searched the early morning shadows for his assailant.
It was the erstwhile drunk with the black boots who stepped off the opposite boardwalk and out into the street, brandishing his gun.
“That was just to get your attention, cowboy,” he called out. Joe turned to face him, his body unconsciously assuming a stance of readiness for battle, even as he spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture.
His eyes narrowed beneath the brim of the Stetson hat as he appraised the other man. “I don’t know you.”
The other was either still drunk, or suffering from the aftereffects. Whichever – it had only made him meaner. He took the gunfighter’s stance, the big black boots planted in the fine brown dust of the quiet street. Deliberately and slowly, he re-holstered his gun, his right hand hovering near it. “Your friend cheated me last night, and you helped him.”
Joe took a breath and returned his own gun to its holster. “Look, mister, what happened last night – “
“What happened last night was that you meddled where you and your fast gun don’t belong!” Boots was getting angrier. His hand dropped toward his gun, fingers flexing just above the butt. “You got in my way, and you made me look bad in front of the whole town.” The snarl grew in intensity. “Now you’re gonna get what’s coming to ya, right here and now.”
Years of experience took over, and Joe found himself unconsciously shifting into position, facing the other squarely, balancing his body to facilitate the fast draw. His voice dropped deadly low. “Don’t try it,” he warned. His own hand drifted down toward his gun.
First the stage robbers on the way into town, now this misdirected drunk. He could hear the echo of Hoss’ voice in his mind. You got a talent for trouble, little brother…
Time seemed to slow down as the two men faced each other. No sound disturbed the quiet of the early morning street. The bright rays of the morning sun threw a deep shadow across the other’s face below his hat brim, obscuring his eyes, making them harder to read. But the stance was confident enough.
For a moment the silence seemed almost palpable. No birds sang, no breeze ruffled nearby tree branches, no horses nickered in the nearby barn. Inky black shadows stained the yellow-grey dust of the street, stretched from the feet of the two men who faced each other to the row of buildings behind Joe’s left shoulder. He could sense, rather than see, that the street was completely empty.
Images flooded his mind. Ben teaching him to shoot; Adam warning him when he got too good at it; times when his ability to hit just about anything without seeming to need to aim had pulled him or his brothers out of a tight spot; the men he had killed because his bullet got there first; Adam telling him that sooner or later, someone would be faster….
His practiced eye considered his challenger. This guy probably ain’t it, Adam. Then, suddenly, the distraction that had been plaguing him lately scattered his thoughts. Vaguely, he noticed that the usual alertness, the curl of healthy fear at the pit of his stomach, wasn’t there. Instead, a vision of his brothers kept threatening to materialize in his mind’s eye. They’re gone…
Joe took a deep breath of the cool morning air, felt the dry ache that threatened to close his throat. He tried to force himself to concentrate on the deadly situation confronting him. “Mister, I don’t know you, you don’t know me – seems pretty pointless to kill or get killed over a poker game…I wasn’t even there…”
“Dammit, I done called you out; you better draw, cowboy! In another half a second I’m gonna kill you!” Boots was furious, beyond reason.
His head lifted sharply and the emerald eyes flashed with a sudden, unbalancing rage. The sense of unreality grew stronger. As if in a dream, Joe felt himself surrendering to the inevitability of the situation. Something unreadable passed over his countenance. Eyes focused on some distant vista, his hand dropped decisively toward his gun.
Candy had just pulled his boots on and was rubbing a hand over his face, yawning himself into wakefulness, when a blast of gunfire shattered the serenity of the morning. Eyes widening in surprise, he focused on the room’s other bed and, in one searing flash of insight realized both that it was empty, and that there was a chance that a connection might well exist between that fact and the ominous sound outside. Not bothering to find his shirt, Candy grabbed his gunbelt and threw himself desperately out the door and down the hall of the hotel. He headed toward the street, and the sound of that blast.
He didn’t even notice the chill of the morning as he darted out the door. His eyes darted from side to side, searching through the morning shadows for any sign of danger. A small knot of the townspeople who were already awake and about stared in the direction that he knew he needed to go. The livery.
Then he heard the second shot. It echoed loudly off the silent, empty buildings.
…and, coming around the corner, could smell gunpowder hanging heavy and acrid in the air. He glanced quickly around, ready to draw his own gun. Before he cleared the corner he saw the other in the stark slanting shadows of the early morning sun, recognized him from the poker game and the brawl of the previous evening. He was standing there, gun still in his hand, his stance clearly that of a formal gunfight.
And then, stunned, he saw him. My God, my God, he’s gone an’ –
Joe’s body lay, face upturned to the morning sun and unmoving, in the middle of the quiet street. A spreading circle of bright red blood saturated his jacket and shirt, soaked into the packed dirt beneath him.
The shooter was instantly banished from his mind. Candy flung himself down on his knees in the dust at his friend’s side. “Somebody get the doctor!” he flung the scream back over his shoulder toward the onlookers who had gathered. Distractedly, he heard someone run off obligingly, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from Joe’s gun, lying close by. Driven by an impossible thought, he reached out to touch the barrel.
It was cold. It hadn’t been fired.
He looked closely at Joe, groping for evidence of a pulse; laid his bandana on his friend’s wound and pressed down hard, trying to slow the bleeding. The unconscious man didn’t even groan. Joe’s hat had been knocked off as he fell, and the dust of the street dulled the sheen of his dark curls. Past eyelids barely slit open, empty green eyes stared sightlessly up at the sky.
This must’ve been what he meant. Candy shook his head and looked away, struggling to take a breath past the lump that suddenly blocked his throat.
Half a second…
The fast draw had decided not to draw fast.
The bullet had smashed into him with such force that it slammed him backward, down to the ground. Everything was going dark and he felt himself falling, falling endlessly. He’d been shot before but this was…this was somehow different. His body seemed relieved, seemed somehow to welcome the violation. It embraced the agony that washed over him and dragged him down into darkness. The searing physical pain that sliced through him left him gasping raggedly to pull a breath into his lungs. It displaced the deep sadness he’d been carrying for so long, lifted it from him. It was as if the bullet was offering him release.
Finally. He wouldn’t have to hurt anymore. He felt no fear, no regret – just a terrible fatigue. He was so tired. He felt his body open up, give itself to the gaping, gushing bullet hole in his chest. The sadness was drowning in the blood that rushed forth with each beat of his heart. It would take him away…
The revolver dropped from his nerveless hand.
For several days he hung between life and death. His father, summoned by Candy’s telegram, sat by his bed. Shrouded in the semi-darkness of the heavily curtained hotel room, a fierce light burning in his dark eyes, Ben watched and waited with grim determination, ignoring the progression of indeterminate days which followed nights indistinguishable from one another. He held on to his last son’s hand for dear life, trying to haul him back from the beckoning darkness by main force of will.
Joseph, Joseph, it’s not your fault. It’s mine, it must be mine – I’ve let you down in some way, I’ve failed you.
Joe, can’t you see? You’re not guilty of anything…one look at your beautiful face in sleep, or in this less comforting sleep of unconsciousness, and anyone could see that you are innocent.
Joseph, let it go. Joseph, can’t you see that I’m empty without you, that I can’t go on if you won’t? There’s no one left for me but you.
We can make it, Joe. I can’t change the way you feel, but I’m not going to leave you alone in this misery of guilt and anger that you’re fighting.
Joseph, Joseph, we all make mistakes, we all hurt – but you’re not to blame for what we’ve suffered, you’re not guilty. Joseph, if you would only let yourself believe…
Joseph. This isn’t the way. Joseph, my son…
On the fourth day, finally, almost reluctantly, the emerald eyes opened.
Each life has its place
Still we know it’s all right
Someone will get a message to your soul
In Nevada, high summer brings bright golden days, long and hot, one after the other. On the Ponderosa, deadline followed deadline – contracts for timber, horses, mining, and of course cattle, each presented their own specific demands, each required specialized attention. Men spent long days in the saddle or crouched in the dirt, wielding ropes, axes, branding irons or picks, and came home exhausted in the evening, reveling gratefully in the cool evening breezes that swept from the surface of Lake Tahoe when the wind blew just right.
By the beginning of summer Joe Cartwright was fully recovered from the gunshot wound that had nearly killed him on that spring morning in Reno. “Physically he’s as good as new, Ben,” Dr. Paul Martin assured his friend.
But Ben couldn’t quite let himself be reassured. He was still rattled by the close call – how close he had come to losing this last of his beloved sons. He found himself watching Joe whenever they were together, and looking for excuses to spend time in, or at least drop by, areas where he knew Joe would be working.
As he recovered, Joe had returned to running the ranch, a role which he had slowly been assuming over the past several years. He immersed himself in the work, seeming to be everywhere at once, organizing and supervising with the easy grace that made cowhands and lumberjacks alike willing to follow their boss anywhere.
Everything seemed to have returned to normal – even better than what had passed for normalcy these days, Ben thought to himself. Forced off the fence lines during his convalescence, Joe seemed to have forgotten the restlessness. He was even drinking less, as far as Ben could tell. Was this a new phase – had something happened to help Joe recover in more than his body – or was this just a lull in the storm, Ben wondered.
At least to all outer appearances, Joe’s demeanor had quieted considerably since his return to the Ponderosa. There had been no discussion of the gunfight in Reno; Ben had tried once to find out what had happened, but Joe had resolutely refused to talk about it. On one level, Ben was simply curious as to how Joe had come off worst in that confrontation; he couldn’t remember the last time his son had even come close to losing a street standoff. There had to have been something more to it, but Joe kept his silence. Ben thought to himself that it was as if Joe was mulling something over, considering some realization that he had come to, but wasn’t ready yet, perhaps, to share. It was a familiar enough habit that it reassured him, in a way.
Ben had tried to corner Candy once, but the foreman was, characteristically, tight-lipped regarding what he delicately referred to as the “difficulty” in Reno. His eyes had begged his employer not to put him between his boss and his best friend, and Ben hadn’t had the heart to insist.
Ben thought back to the terror of two months earlier. He had refused to be separated from Joe in Reno. From the day he had arrived in breathless haste, horrified by Candy’s telegram, he had stayed at his son’s side. He had sent Candy back to the ranch to run it in their absence, with a firm assertion that he himself would not return without Joe.
Three weeks later, he had hired a buggy to bring Joe home. The trip was uneventful, but Ben still found himself on edge during the entire time that they were on the road. He felt deeply as if he was literally holding his son’s life in his hands, and stopped regularly, obsessively, to check the half-healed wound for bleeding after nearly every discernible bump in the road. The anxious father drew a deep breath only when they arrived at the ranch and saw that Paul Martin’s buggy was in the front yard, as he had arranged, to meet them.
He hadn’t really relaxed since then, even though his son was clearly physically recovered. Finally the day came when Joe turned to him and brought up the subject that he’d been dreading.
It was an unusually warm morning, even for a midsummer day. Rain had been falling for two days straight. Although a wind from the Sierras had finally blown the cloud front away, the resulting humidity kept the air uncomfortably close and cloying. Men working the pastures that day found their shirts plastered to their chests with sweat soon after they roped their first bleating stray of the morning.
The Cartwrights were finishing breakfast when the messenger came from the herd, both he and his horse breathless and covered in mud.
“Mr. Cartwright! Boss!” He was calling at the top of his lungs as he pulled to a stop from a dead gallop in the yard, and nearly fell from his lathered horse. Hearing the urgency in the shout, hands converged from barn and bunkhouse. Joe and Ben were out the door at a run, Joe’s gunbelt slung over his shoulder.
Joe got to him first. “Matt, what is it?”
Matt was heaving for breath, nearly falling onto Joe’s supporting arm, stretched out to catch him. “Boss…”
Joe murmured in a low voice to calm him. “Take a breath, Matt. It’s okay.” He traded an anxious look with his father.
Matt caught his breath and blurted it out. “Rustlers in the…northern pasture.” He gasped, hand to his side. “Stampede…fence…down…” He gulped.
Joe was already hollering for someone to saddle his and Ben’s horses as he helped the exhausted cowhand to sit down. Ben ran back to the house, came out seconds later with his gun and both men’s hats, handed Joe his as they headed toward the horses.
In scant moments, they were galloping out of the front yard. The ride up to the north pasture was muddy, and in some places, the going was treacherous, so that they were forced to slow the horses or risk breaking their legs. They and the horses were liberally splashed in mud by the time they crested the ridge that allowed them to see what had happened.
Pulling up, they looked around them, giving the horses a momentary breather. Joe gestured toward where the fence line should have been.
Ben nodded, his tone grim. “I see it.” His eyes swept the valley, which was nearly empty of cattle or men. Here and there, a few cows grazed. “Look over there.” He pointed.
In the distance, they could see several mounted figures. “That’s probably Candy, and the hands,” Joe guessed.
Ben nodded. “Let’s go.”
As they made their way carefully down the muddy, slippery slope, they saw that their foreman had seen them coming. He and the handful of men with him started forward to meet them. When they got closer, Joe and Ben could see that Candy was shaking his head.
“Joe, Mr. Cartwright,” he nodded to them both.
Ben pulled up alongside him. “Candy, what happened?”
Candy pushed his hat brim back, drew his forearm across his sweating brow. “Charlie surprised a couple of rustlers right near dawn, and when he tried to stop ‘em, they took a shot at him and started trying to stampede the herd.” He gestured to the downed fence. “They had already pulled down the fence, and it wasn’t too hard for them to push a good part of the herd through it.”
Ben looked around. “First of all, how’s Charlie?” he asked.
Candy nodded. “They winged him, but he’s okay.”
Ben steeled himself for the next question. “How many head are we missing?”
Candy and Joe exchanged glances. “Pa, there were over five hundred head that were supposed to be in the north pasture.”
Ben looked around at the nearly deserted pasture and took a deep breath. “Which way did they go?”
Candy pointed more or less due north. “It hasn’t been more than two or three hours, they can’t have gone too far.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed into a steely glare of determination. “Boys, let’s go get ‘em. Joe, you head up the northwest ridge. Candy, take the northeast spur. I’ll go due north. Each of us will take a couple of hands with us, and the first one who sees any sign will send a hand after the others.”
“Right, Pa.” “Okay, Mr. Cartwright.” And they were off.
It was nearly noon, and in the flat land through which they passed, huge muddy puddles of standing water were steaming in the heat of the burning summer sun. The water in their canteens was warm, and did nothing to soothe the cowboys’ discomfort. Cochise was covered in so much mud that the paint’s natural markings were utterly obscured. Rivulets of sweat trickled from under Joe’s hat band, dripped into his eyes, plastered his shirt to his chest. The men with him strained their eyes against the sweltering sun, looking for any sign of the missing cattle, or the men who had taken them.
Just when Joe had nearly decided that his search path was going to turn up nothing of interest, he saw it. He signaled a halt. The three hands with him pulled up alongside. All three were part of Joe’s regular horse breaking crew, and would have followed their boss much further, under much worse conditions.
“That box canyon up ahead,” Joe pointed.
Walt, a tall rangy young man who had been working on the Ponderosa for his entire adult life, squinted ahead. “Good place to hide a herd of cattle, you thinking, hey Boss?”
Joe grinned. “You can bet that’s where I’d be.”
Walt grinned back. “Let’s see if’n they’re that smart.”
Joe directed an appraising gaze at the canyon. He patted Cochise’s neck absently. “Wait here, and I’ll go ahead to see if there’s anyone there. If there is, I’ll signal you.” He looked around at the men with him. “Chet, your horse seems the freshest. If they’re there, you hightail it back to my father and let him know what we’ve found.” Chet nodded, body already tense for the mad dash through the mud.
“The rest of you, wait here until I signal, then come up so that they can’t see you,” Joe ordered. Turning Cochise’ head to the side of the box canyon, he urged the horse to a gallop. The others watched as he made his way toward the natural cover provided by a copse of trees on a ridge which provided a good view of the canyon’s interior. They lost sight of him as he entered the thicket, and waited.
“There!” Walt blurted suddenly, pointing. “He’s waving his hat.” The movement was brief, then the figure was invisible again.
Chet took off back they way they had come, traveling as fast as his horse would carry him. The other two men followed their boss’ tracks, readying themselves for the confrontation to come.
The old familiar, searing rage was building up in him as Joe crouched down behind a sheltering branch and peered into the canyon. Below him were at least four hundred head of cattle, being guarded by no more than two men – no, there was a third, over in the shadow cast by a scraggly thicket of scrub trees. Two more were huddled over a fire nearby, heating their running irons in readiness to counterfeit the Ponderosa brand on the milling cattle.
He felt his left hand flexing unconsciously, near his revolver. Impatience driving his anger to a white-hot flame, he shifted his weight and shot a quick look back in the direction from which he’d come. Walt and John were making their way carefully, silently, toward him, but he knew he’d have to wait until either Candy or his father showed up before they’d have enough men to make a move.
He found his thoughts straying to other encounters they’d had with rustlers: the time they’d found that one of the Cattlemen’s Association’s own members was stealing cattle from his colleagues, and Joe, Hoss and Ben had been forced to second guess the Association’s own hired enforcer to get to the truth. Joe remembered that thirteen men had died because of that particular rustling activity.
Joe stared down into the canyon. He found himself hoping that none of his men would get killed in the confrontation to come. He thought of the cowhands who had followed him so trustingly, of his father, of Candy. His hand rested lightly, determinedly, on the butt of his holstered revolver. No one’ll get killed today if I can help it – except for them down there, the cattle-rustling, no-good sons of…. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck. He watched a lizard scuttle across a warm flat stretch of rock, and waited. He let the sun hone his anger to a fine, razor-sharp edge, and waited.
The sun was still high and hot when Joe saw the approach of horses from a distance. Down in the canyon, the branding activity had begun, and it was all he could do to restrain himself from a headlong flight down toward the bastards who were erasing the hard work the Cartwrights and their men had put in, raising those cattle and caring for them from birth through branding season through…well, through the rescue they were about to stage.
The horses in the distance drew closer, and Joe suddenly found himself alert, his body tense. For some reason, they were heading directly toward the canyon, and they weren’t slowing down. They’re going to ride directly into them… Horrified, he jumped to his feet. The men with him had come to the same conclusion, and they were already turning toward the horses. “Let’s go.”
Anxious, fearing for his youngest, Ben had deliberately decided to throw caution to the wind and head straight for the canyon Chet had described, four Ponderosa cowhands pounding along behind him. For some reason, from the moment the young man had appeared, breathlessly spilling his story, Ben had felt an urgent need to hurry. Something told him that his son’s nearly uncontrollable anger would find an outlet in confronting the rustlers – and that same anger very well might cloud his judgment regarding the odds he would be facing. Please, Joe, please don’t try to do this by yourself – please wait for us…He had urged Buck to greater speed than was probably safe, given the muddy conditions and the unforgiving heat. But for Ben in those painfully long moments, nothing was as important as catching up to Joe.
They burst upon the rustlers in the act of branding one of their stolen cattle. The lookout was the first to take a shot at the group of men that suddenly appeared in their midst, and in another moment everyone had their guns out, and the sound of gunshots filled the air. Ben looked around, frantic. Joseph, my son, where are you?
Nearing the melee from the ridge above, Joe could see men lying prone in the mud, felled by the deadly rain of gunfire. The all-consuming anger lit a fuse in him, caused a rush of adrenaline as he raced to meet the danger threatening his father. All the way down the slope, counterbalancing in the saddle as Cochise plunged and leaped, he had kept up a steady covering fire, forcing the rustlers to take cover and spoiling their aim at Ben and the men with him. Heedless of his own safety, Joe urged the paint to greater speed, and man and horse charged through the mud, slipping and struggling to keep their balance on the slippery slope.
As he raced to his father, Joe saw that Ben and the hands with him had galloped their horses to the far side of the herd of cattle and were circling around them. In a quiet, detached part of his mind, Joe took a moment to feel admiration as he realized that his father was using the cattle as a natural shield, turning the rustlers’ own trick of this morning against them.
Horses whinnied in fear, cattle bawled nervously, and men shouted and fired their weapons at each other. The acrid smell of spent gunpowder, mingled with the metallic odor of blood, and the distinctive, nightmarish scent of panicked animals, assaulted his nostrils. As Cochise raced headlong into the canyon, Joe saw his father’s horse stumble in the slippery, uneven footing, and throw Ben headlong into the mud at the edge of the agitated herd of cattle. Horrified, he turned Cochise to head directly toward Ben, and, hooves flying and splashing through the mud, they sliced between cattle, rustlers, and Ponderosa hands without a second thought.
Concentration focused to a razor-sharp edge by his fear for his father, his brain registered strangely detailed impressions of the scene before him – the panic in a young hand’s eyes as his horse bolted in uncontrollable fear; the rolling brown and spotted sea of lunging cattle, all mooing and tossing horns; mud puddles in which he could clearly see a thicker swirl of crimson. Joe suddenly clearly saw two of the rustlers on the edge of the herd. One of them was pointing something at Ben. It looked like a coil of rope, but Joe wasn’t taking any chances.
Without hesitation, even without conscious thought, he fired off two shots, saw one man drop from his horse, and the other leap for cover. He didn’t take the time to watch the dead rustler hit the ground.
Vaguely, he heard men shouting, saw a blur of cattle hides and horns as he and Cochise plunged through them – and then he was at Ben’s side, pulling the paint to a stop so sudden the horse was thrown nearly back on his haunches. Joe dove from the saddle, reached out a hand to his father. “Pa! Grab hold!”
The father reached for the son’s arm, more out of a reflexive response to the familiar, beloved voice than anything else. Ben was bigger and heavier than Joe, but a lifetime of physical labor had made the younger man powerful and fast.
Quickly, Joe heaved a dazed Ben upright and out of the mud, and pushed him onto Cochise. He slapped the horse’s side so hard that he lost his footing and fell forward onto his knees. “Go!” And the horse was off, bearing Ben away from the increasingly upset herd of cattle.
Gasping for breath, Joe struggled to his feet in the mud, looked around him, trying to get his bearings. The deafening cacophony of sound disoriented him – the bawling of the frightened cattle, the shouting of angry men, the deafening reverberation of gunfire. The herd was ready to run and was just looking for a direction. He knew that he didn’t stand a chance amidst the sharp hooves, and sharper horns, once they took off. He looked around quickly, trying to gauge the herd’s direction. His life would depend upon his sense of where the cattle were headed.
Suddenly, Joe heard the splashing of heavy hooves near his ear – a horse’s hooves, standing out from the pounding of steers’ hooves all around – and a hoarse voice uttered a vicious curse. The distinctive sound of flying rope whistled near his ear. He felt his arms yanked down to his sides, and his chest constricted. His head snapped up, muddy curls flying around his face. He realized instantly what had happened – one of the rustlers must have managed to send a rope over his head. He didn’t have the luxury of a moment to look around to identify his attacker. Instinctively, he dropped his gun, grabbed for the rope – and just in time, as it slipped upward, snug against his chest. Another moment and it would have been up around his neck.
Small comfort, he thought in some distracted part of his mind as he was jerked roughly forward. He was slammed onto his face, full into the cloying, sticky mud. He could feel himself being dragged, feel the clinging mud against his tightly shut eyes and mouth, feel it oozing past his neck, down his chest. He concentrated on holding his breath, on keeping the mud out, lungs heaving, heart pounding.
Then a searing pain sliced into his consciousness and he felt hooves on his body. He gripped the rope and twisted as hard as he could, trying to avoid them. He knew that it was only a matter of time, now. He could feel that the horse pulling him was picking up speed.
Ben pulled Cochise up at the edge of the canyon and turned to look behind him. Shaking his head to clear it from the stunning effects of his fall, he had just begun to gather his thoughts into some form of coherence. Joe…
He searched the swirling melee of panicked cattle and riderless horses, men shooting from behind cover, men shouting, men lying prone in the mud. At first his eyes would not focus. Joe, where are you?
Then he started. A figure mounted on a horse was urging his mount away from the center of the milling, plunging herd, slapping his horse’s haunches with his reins. The horse struggled to find secure footing in the mud, to pull the weight roped to its saddle. Ben stared at what the horse was pulling behind it and, with a cry, recognized the figure of his son. Desperately gripping a rope that encircled his chest, Joe was being pulled under the flying hooves of the panicked cattle, choking and drowning in mud.
From the corner of his eye, Ben saw that Candy also realized who it was being dragged to his death behind the rustler’s horse in the midst of the milling herd; hell bent for leather, Candy was splashing his own horse through the cloying mud as fast as he could, fighting his way through the swirling, panicked steers, toward Joe. But Ben could see that it would take time – more time than Joe likely had left.
Without a second thought, Ben’s gun was in his hand. He squeezed the trigger once, and the rider fell. Horrified, Ben saw that the panicked horse, now riderless, only ran faster. A sob choked in his throat. He took aim and fired again, and the horse, hit square in the heart, dropped instantly.
Ben saw Candy moving toward Joe, held his breath that he would get there before the impending stampede they could all feel coming broke out in full force.
Suddenly, the horse’s movement stopped, and Joe struggled to his hands and knees, great gasps for air convulsing his body. Slimy liquid mud streamed down his face, into his eyes, his ears. It dripped into his mouth as he struggled for breath, and he choked and gagged on it. He couldn’t see or hear what had happened to save his life, couldn’t spare the energy to wonder. Head down, he poured all his strength into keeping his shoulder and arm muscles tensed, holding himself above the mud, and gulping great, chest-heaving draughts of air.
The sound of gunshots penetrated the muddy veil drawn over his senses, and the terrified bleating of hundreds of cows as they began to run in earnest.
Stampede! He tensed, trying to decide which way to dive, hoping it would be away from the deadly rampaging hooves and not directly under them.
A thundering pounding shook the ground under him, and he clenched his teeth, tensing his body for the inevitable impact. But suddenly a pair of strong arms reached around him, steadied him. He felt the rope yanked loose.
“Joe, hold on, we’ll get ya out of here.”
He would’ve known that voice anywhere. Candy… Then he was swept up onto his friend’s horse, held tightly as the horse wheeled in the mud and scrambled to escape from the sea of pounding hooves. Candy struggled to keep the horse under control as it screamed in fear, plunging and twisting away from the threatening horns. Joe held on grimly, dizzy from the violent movements he couldn’t see or anticipate.
The rumble of hooves reached a crescendo all around him, so loud that, with his eyes still tightly closed against the sticky mud, Joe found that the deafening cacophony disoriented his sense of balance. There was no up or down, no safe direction, just the bleating of bovine terror and the rolling waves of pounding hooves echoing off the canyon walls. The hundreds of steers and cows were like a single live thing, a giant, multi-horned creature that rolled and seethed.
There came a time, when trying to contain a possible stampede, that all a cowboy could do was to get out of its way, and, having judged that time to have arrived, the Ponderosa hands stopped trying to calm the herd and started struggling to save their horses’ lives. The cattle had finally found the exit out of the box canyon. More quickly than the cowhand nearest them could swing a rope over the head of one wayward cow, they were disappearing out of the canyon in a thunderous brown whirl of hooves and mud.
Safely beyond the danger, Candy was pulling his horse to a stop, lowering both himself and Joe to the ground. They were both gasping for breath, and Joe’s eyes were still too full of mud to see. He released his death grip on Candy’s horse’s mane and took a deep, shuddering breath. Relaxing into Candy’s sure strength, he let his friend guide him to safety. He opened his mouth to speak and coughed up more mud. “Candy…Pa, is he…
“Mr. Cartwright’s fine,” Candy assured him, pulled him along. “Come on, almost there.”
Holding on to his friend’s shoulder, Joe did his best to stagger blindly in the direction Candy indicated, and the confusion of sounds began to decrease just slightly. Straining to listen, Joe realized that the sound of gunfire had stopped.
The sound he heard next made his heart leap. “Joe!” His father’s voice was a mixture of worry and relief. “Here, let me…” and Joe felt himself folded into the strong arms, felt himself settled gently to the ground.
“Pa…” he began.
“Shhh, Joe, let me clean the mud off your face; you’re a sight.” Ben tried for a chuckle, but the waves of fear ebbing from his body kept it subdued. His son was a monochrome vision of mud, every inch of him covered in viscous slime. Ben poured the contents of his canteen slowly over Joe’s face, pulled the bandana off his own neck to clear away enough of the mud that his son could see.
Eyes still closed, Joe felt gentle hands explore the places on his body where blood mixed with the mud, felt him find the gashes on his legs through the slashed material of his pants. He felt his father clean each one and tie them off with strips of cloth.
Concerned, Ben examined another collection of hoof-shaped gashes that had torn his son’s skin and reduced his shirt and pants to tatters, but had to admit to himself when they were clean that they didn’t seem particularly deep.
He watched his son from the corner of his eye as he cared for him. Chest still heaving, eyes still closed, Joe sat quietly for his father’s ministrations. He was feeling the adrenaline fade from his body, and exhaustion was setting in – and with it, something that kept his fists clenched at his sides as he struggled for control.
When, finally, he opened his eyes, their green intensity was a startling contrast to the dull brown mud that stained his hair and face. The sight that met Joe’s eyes made him wish he had kept them closed.
The afternoon sun poured golden light onto the scene he beheld, but there was no beauty in it. He blinked, shaded eyes still raw from mud and grime with one raised hand. Men, horses and cows lay on the ground; some struggled for life, others lay still. Several of the Ponderosa hands were making their way through the muddy ground, checking the bodies. They were dispatching the wounded animals with a single bullet through the skull, and Joe stared, watching quietly. He hated to see animals hurting, and while he knew the mercy killing was the only answer, it always made him sad.
His eyes turned from the suffering of the cows and horses to the men lying motionless in the mud. “Pa.” His father looked up from tying off the last bloody hoof mark he’d found on his son’s body. “Pa, how many rustlers were there?”
“Five.” Ben looked up at Candy for confirmation. The foreman nodded.
Joe’s eyes swept over the vista of destruction before him. Men were staggering toward where he and Ben sat against the canyon’s wall with Candy, some holding places on their bodies where they had been shot, or gored, or otherwise injured.
Joe stopped counting the bodies beyond five. He took a deep breath. “Who did we lose, Candy?”
“Walt. Jessie.” The Ponderosa foreman was reloading his revolver. He jerked his head toward his left shoulder, and his voice dropped low. “Andy’s pretty bad, got shot in the gut.”
Joe looked stricken. His eyes followed the direction of Candy’s gesture, searched the surroundings until he found them – two men bent over a third who lay in the mud clutching his belly.
“John’s got a bullet crease in his leg but he’ll be okay. Chet was gored in the arm, but we got it tied off.” Candy pushed his hat back and rubbed an arm across his forehead, squinted over the bloody floor of the canyon. “Couple others are limping but still ready to go.” The foreman gazed upward to gauge the extent of sunshine left to them. “And that’s good, since we still got a mess of cows to round up before nightfall.” He looked down at Joe, the small grin on his muddy face unsuccessful at hiding the concern in his tone. “How about you? You got some fight left in you?”
Joe’s anxiety for Andy distracted him from his own pain. The exhaustion had abated, and anger at the waste of life, and the rustlers who had caused it, was taking its place. He watched as a couple of hands carried Andy gently over toward where Ben sat cutting a bedroll into makeshift bandages. Taking a deep breath, he dug more mud out of his ears, reached up to Candy. “You better believe it. Give me a hand. We gotta help Andy.” He pulled himself to his feet and stumbled through the clinging mud toward the fallen cowhand. He looked over at his father, who was binding Andy’s wound, speaking to him softly, trying to soothe the cowhand’s anguish as he did what he could to stop the bleeding.
“Pa, we’ll send for a wagon, we’ve got to get help for Andy.” Ben nodded. Joe looked around, took a deep breath. He smiled when he saw Charlie, looking bedraggled and favoring a place on his arm where a bandana was tied, but whole enough. “Charlie, go into town fast as you can, let the sheriff know what’s happened. And ask the doctor to come out – and make sure you’re on his list.”
Charlie nodded and grinned at his boss’ muddy – but safe – condition. “After Andy, I will, for sure, Boss. You try’n stay out of trouble for the rest of the day, Joe.” Joe grinned back, and Charlie turned to make his way through the mud to his horse.
“Boss!” Joe and Ben both looked around. “Boss!” It was Chet, holding his gored arm awkwardly, running toward them excitedly. “Over in the back of the canyon I found the rustlers’ supplies, and a wagon, and their horses – and they’re still there!”
Joe met his father’s eyes and smiled with relief. “Pa, apparently your chariot awaits…”
They carefully loaded the delirious Andy, and the bodies of their hired hands, into the wagon. Pausing as his father climbed into the driver’s seat, Joe took one long last look. Walt had been right there beside him today, steady and calm, and had been there for him on so many other days. Jessie had been more than willing to beat his boss at poker, or share an off-color joke with him. And Andy…Andy had such gentle hands with a newborn calf or foal, but Joe remembered seeing him punch the daylights out of more than one foolhardy drunk with those same hands. Walt. Jessie. He felt determination, fueled by the returned anger, clench his fists. Andy…we’ll save you, Andy.
He took a deep breath and tried to focus. There was work yet to do. There would be time for worrying and for mourning, later.
Ben watched Joe carefully. The men who worked with his son were more than hired hands to him; the camaraderie he shared so easily with them made them more like friends. He knew his son felt more than just a sense of responsibility for their well-being.
What will these deaths do to him? Will they send him back into a tailspin of anger and despair? Ben watched as Joe stared at the bodies of the three men, two of whom had worked at his side almost daily for years. He saw his son take a breath and settle his shoulders, raise his head. He looked up to see his father looking at him, and Ben started – there was something in the emerald eyes that he didn’t recognize, yet somehow seemed vaguely familiar.
Then it hit him, almost like a physical blow. A mask had settled over Joe’s features, burying whatever he was feeling behind it. Ben realized that it was a look he had seen many times. Just not on Joe’s face. It was Adam’s – the reserved look, the one he had perfected over many years of denying his emotions in order to meet the needs of a moment.
Joe turned away from his father’s searching gaze, away from the still bodies in the wagon. Ben felt his heart sinking. It seemed that Joe was withdrawing further and further away from him.
“Chet, John, you ride with Mr. Cartwright. Hurry up, Andy needs the doc soon.” They heard Candy organizing the rest of the hands. “The rest of you, get some water, grab your horses, get a wiggle on! – let’s see if we can track down some of those pesky dogies!” He climbed up onto his own horse, settled his hat on his forehead. He looked down at his boss. “Joe?”
Joe glanced around, wondering where his gun was lying. His father had the same thought, and held up his own revolver, offering. Joe accepted it wordlessly. The men traveling with Ben would protect him, and Ben would feel safer knowing that Joe had a sidearm with him. Now if only I had a chance of finding my hat…he squinted into the sun, saw that someone had brought Cochise to him. Nodding his thanks, he took one more swipe at cleaning the mud off himself, and, shrugging at the uselessness of it, swung up into the saddle.
He glanced around at the hands who were ready to ride, just waiting for his signal. All bore marks of the struggle they had just survived – bandanas were tied around various mud-splashed body parts on most of them. But they met his eyes, game for whatever he would ask next. His throat tightened as he struggled to push down the feeling their trust in him triggered, and he deliberately met each one’s eyes, nodded imperceptibly at them all.
Joe consciously straightened in the saddle and pulled Cochise’s head around, body poised to gallop away. “Pa – take it easy.”
“Joe, you’re hurt, don’t you think you should….”
“Don’t worry, Pa,” Joe cut him off, but gently. “I’ll just stay with the hands until we find the cattle; I want to see how far they’ve scattered.” He met his father’s eyes. “I’ll be home by the time Doc Martin gets there.” He glanced down at the makeshift bandages on his own body. “Although you did a great job with this…” The mask gave way just slightly, and Joe smiled and lifted a hand to the imaginary brim of the hat he wasn’t wearing in salute.
He was about to ride off when he hesitated, moved Cochise close enough that he could touch his father. Ben reached back and clasped the gloved hand, still streaked with mud, that reached out to him. They exchanged a small smile, and headed off in their separate directions.
Ben watched his son’s back as he rode away. He found himself whispering the same words he’d first uttered months before. Please, God, please…bring him back to me.
About to wheel around and follow Joe, Candy noticed as Ben watched his son gallop away from the bloody, muddy battleground where he had almost lost him. He watched his boss’ face change, watched as the longing in the dark eyes suddenly darkened, changed to a look of fierce determination. Candy wasn’t sure what it meant, but he knew that Ben Cartwright had made a decision.
From the moment he returned to the ranch house that evening, Joe devoted every free moment to helping Hop Sing care for Andy while the cowhand struggled with the horrible pain of a gunshot wound to the gut. He hovered with such intensity that Ben began to be concerned. It had become clear to him that Joe was lavishing on Andy the attention he hadn’t been able to offer Hoss when Hoss died so suddenly. And now, if Andy died – and the doctor didn’t hold much hope for the cowhand – Ben feared for his son’s mental balance.
Ben had arranged funerals for Walt and Jessie the morning after the battle with the rustlers. He and Joe and Candy had stood quietly with widows in their grief, with children too young to understand why daddy wasn’t coming back. Though the weather had stayed seasonably hot, a shift in the prevailing winds meant that the humidity had finally abated. The stampeded steers, all that survived, had been recovered by grim-faced cowhands that hunted them through gorges and canyons, determined that their buddies had not died in vain.
On the day after the battle with the rustlers Ben returned to the house a little after noon, tired and hungry. He’d been supervising the moving of the reconstituted herd to their summer grazing grounds and the finishing of the marking of the timber that would be cut for the contract Joe had concluded a few days earlier. For a moment he had been thinking of nothing more than the lunch he was looking forward to.
Ben took off his hat and gun belt at the door and stood still, his mood suddenly darkening as he stared toward the downstairs bedroom where he knew Joe was sitting with Andy. From time to time he could hear a moan of pain. A damn shame. Ben shook his head, remembering the preceding days all too clearly. Andy had been wounded while riding with Ben. It wasn’t even his fight; he was just doing his job, standing by us. And now he’s going to die for something that wasn’t worth his life…The horror of it was too close for anyone’s comfort: that could have been any one of them, lying there, beyond help, with nothing left to do but die.
The doctor had left packets of pain powders by Andy’s bed. Joe emptied another one into a glass of water and held it to Andy’s mouth, coaxed the injured man to drink. Andy grimaced, looked up at Joe bending over him.
“It don’t really help, Joe…” he gasped. Seeing the disappointment in the green eyes, he made an effort. “Well, it maybe takes the edge off for a bit.”
Joe looked at the older man, wondering what more he could do to help him. Andy had a good ten years on him, but, like any good Ponderosa cowhand, had always respected the authority of the Cartwrights regardless of age. He had always been there for Joe, had always been dependable, reliable as the day was long. Not too tall, built wiry, Andy had always had salt and pepper hair as long as Joe could remember, with a bushy moustache that bristled under a prominent hawk nose. He was unerring with a rope but his real love was for the small young critters that he helped to birth and raise; for a grizzled cowboy he was surprisingly gentle, and had a real soft spot for the small and the vulnerable. Strangely for a cowhand, he usually wore a raccoon skin cap – complete with tail hanging down his neck – rather than a cowboy’s regular hat. He was someone you couldn’t miss on the trail. Joe smiled, remembering more than one foolish cowhand who had seen fit to tease Andy about his idiosyncratic choice of head wear and who had ended the encounter face down, getting acquainted with Andy’s foot wear instead.
They both looked up as Hop Sing quietly entered the room, bringing ice chips and a basic of towels soaked in cool water. He set them on the bedside table. Joe glanced at him wordlessly, and Hop Sing met his eyes, gave a reassuring nod, and left the room as noiselessly as he had entered.
Joe scowled at the empty packets crumpled in a pile next to the basin, the spilled powder that dusted the table. “I wish we had something stronger for you, Andy.”
“It don’t matter, Joe,” the cowhand muttered, a hand pressed to the agony in his belly. “I reckon I’m gonna die anyway.” He couldn’t keep from groaning as another wave of pain washed over him.
For a moment, Joe was speechless. Then he rallied. “Andy, you’re not gonna die. The doc says – “
But Andy cut him off. “Joe, I know what you’re trying to do, and I appreciate it.” He groaned again, body writhing as if it could move away from the pain. “But I saw the doc and the way he looked at Hop Sing.” He took a gasping breath, trying to balance the pain with the need to talk, to get it out. “I know. I’ve seen men gutshot before, Joe.”
“But Andy…” Joe stopped, not sure what he was going to say next. Andy looked at him, waiting, despite the obvious distraction of the pain he was in.
“Oh Andy, it’s just not fair. You were shot just by chance…”
Andy shrugged. “A man stands by his bosses – and his friends.”
Joe felt pain pierce his heart. He took the injured man’s hand. The hand was toughened by years of riding and roping, marked with the small scars of a lifetime of herding cows and breaking horses. “It’s just not fair,” Joe repeated, softly, thinking of all the years. His eyes were focused somewhere beyond the walls of the room.
Andy coughed and grimaced. “It could’ve happened to any of us, Joe. That’s life for you – you play the hand you’re dealt. There ain’t no ‘fair’ about it.” He groaned again, louder, as he rode out a wave of pain. It left him gasping for air. Joe held the glass again to his shaking, sweat-stippled lips but Andy shook his head slightly, waving it away.
Joe set the glass down again and stared at Andy. The color had drained from his face, and his mounting fever kept him restlessly uncomfortable, even though they had brought him ice, and shuttered the room as best they could against the relentless summer heat.
“Guess I’d been sittin’ at the table long enough, and it’s time to cash in.” Andy said. “Wish I’d had a chance to git hitched, though,” he added under his breath. He stared at the opposite wall, and Joe could see a tremor that wasn’t from the physical pain he was suffering.
Joe realized that Andy was right. He was going to die. And he was alone in the world, no one with him to help him in his last moments on this earth. Why isn’t he angry about it? It’s so damn unfair… He felt the old familiar rage starting to build, pressure building up in his chest, clenching the hand that rested between his knees into a white-knuckled fist. With an effort, he took a deep breath and unclenched. Then he smiled and squeezed the hand he held as gently as he could.
“I’m here, Andy,” he said. “You won’t be alone. I’ll stay here with you.”
It took another full day before Andy died, twenty-four interminable hours in which his pain increased until the agony pushed him into delirium. Joe never left his side, held onto him as his body writhed and he gagged and choked and begged to die, as his pulse weakened and his heart raced and his lungs labored, and the sweat poured off him and his belly distended and his eyes sank into his head and turned into bottomless wells of agony. It was a horrible way to die, and there was nothing that the doctor, or any of them, could do. The dying man gripped Joe’s hand, the only constant left in the narrowing vision of his eyes and his mind.
And then the darkness overwhelmed him and his grip weakened, and then, finally, in the raw, early morning hours, it relaxed completely.
The next morning Ben found his son sitting in the chair next to Andy’s bed in the semi-darkness. “Joe?”
Joe looked up sadly at his father. “He’d dead, Pa. Andy’s dead.” And then, quietly, he rose from beside the bed and walked from the room, leaving Ben to stare at the body, finally stilled after two terrible days of agony. “May God rest his soul,” he murmured.
Ben turned to glance in the direction of the door through which Joe had vanished, his gaze troubled. What’s it going to take for you to find some rest, son, this side of the grave? He shuddered and went in search of his son.
It was another bright and beautiful summer day when they buried Andy the next morning. There was no one to stand beside his grave except for Joe and Ben and the cowhands who had been Andy’s family. After the short graveside ceremony they all doffed their jackets and rolled up their sleeves to help in shoveling the dirt until the grave was filled. Then the hands headed out to their assigned tasks, filing past their boss – and his father – with a nod of respect. They donned their hats, swung up on their waiting horses, and disappeared into the sun-washed meadows and forests of a midsummer day on the Ponderosa.
Ben watched his son quietly, waiting. He found himself recalling other times, in the too-recent past, when he and Joe had stood like this. With an effort, he pushed away the memory of his son standing, disconsolate, by the freshly-dug grave of his wife and unborn child. And they were both were still struggling with the death of Hoss… He gave himself a mental shake. He couldn’t let the memories, and the sadness, overwhelm him just now.
There was no sound other than the thrumming of distant hoofbeats fading into the breeze. Joe stood by the grave, balancing a shovel against the ground with one hand on its handle. The handsome face, lined now with more than just the accumulating years, was torn between sorrow and anger. He knew that Ben was standing just behind him.
“Do you know what he told me, Pa?”
Ben took the opportunity to step forward to Joe’s side. “What, son?” His voice was gentle.
Joe turned haunted eyes to meet his father’s. “He was dying, Pa, and he wasn’t angry. He said, ‘you play the hand you’re dealt’.” He shook his head, staring unseeing at the grave.
Joe felt his throat closing up, the familiar rage closing in, like a hand squeezing his chest, cutting off his breath. “I’ll see ya, Pa.” Not trusting his voice further, he nodded and, jamming his hat down on his head, headed for Cochise.
Ben watched him ride away and turned to pick up the shovel he had left behind. Lips narrowing into a thin line, eyes focused on some distant, internal vista, he set about lifting a few last shovelfuls of dirt onto the grave.
Trying to outdistance the anger that had nearly unhinged him by Andy’s grave, Joe rode back toward the ranch house without a conscious sense of direction or purpose. He turned his face toward the sun, drawing in deep breaths of the cool, cleansing summer morning air. A voice in the back of his head reminded him that timber work crews had to be supervised, herd assignments had to be made for tomorrow, and the new bunch of mustangs he’d been gentling needed finishing before he could send them to the Army. But he needed a little time before he was going to be able to focus on that.
So he let the horse pick his own pace, and lost himself in reverie. When he rounded the bend just past the turn off to the lake, the sight of Hop Sing surprised him. Hop Sing was driving the small buckboard; a large empty basket rested next to his feet.
Joe pulled Cochise to a halt next to the wagon and smiled at his friend.
“Ni hao, Hop Sing.”
Hop Sing smiled back. “Ni hao, Joe.”
When Joe was a small boy he had found comfort after his mother’s death in the warm kitchen and gentle embrace of the family’s housekeeper and friend. Spending many hours with Hop Sing while his father and older brothers struggled with their grief and with the challenges of keeping the ranch running despite everything, Joe had been left to his own devices. Hop Sing had taken him under his wing, and the small boy with the intelligent green eyes had quickly learned Cantonese from him. Since then, it had been their preferred method of communicating when alone together, but they had hidden it from the others, by some implicit agreement that had never been discussed.
“How are you, Joe?” Hop Sing searched the face of the man, seeking the eyes of the one who had once been a small boy in his kitchen. Many years had passed, and the little boy was now a man grown strong and tall, in his prime, and the young Chinese immigrant who had cared for him, still strong and wiry, was growing old. Kind eyes in a wizened face met the troubled emerald gaze.
“My heart is heavy, honorable one,” responded Joe. For some reason, he felt freer to admit to his emotions under the cover of the different language. At any rate, he was sure it was written all over him, and he had no reason to hide from Hop Sing.
“You have come from Andy’s funeral, no?”
“Would you like to come with me now, Joe? I go to the lake to pick blackberries. They are ripe and ready now.” He regarded the troubled countenance before him, and pleaded. “Come with me, Joseph.”
Joe nodded again, and turned Cochise to follow Hop Sing’s wagon. They rode silently up to the meadow by the lake. The fertile ground there was always rich, always offering itself, and this midsummer day was no exception. Joe took care of ground-tying the horses when they arrived at Hop Sing’s preferred place, and followed his friend into the berry patch.
The basket was set down, and Hop Sing gave an unmistakable gesture: fill it! They both settled themselves in the long, sweet-smelling grass and set about pulling rich, ripe black berries from the wildly tangled brambles that ran riot over the bushes and through the grass. Small insects, disturbed by their searching hands, buzzed and flitted through the branches; the sun-warmed berries were plump and brimming, staining their fingers a sweet, sticky purple. His mind elsewhere, Joe found his fingers pricked over and over again by the small, sharp thorns, and finally, with a small smile ghosting over his face, he started to pay attention to what he was doing.
Hop Sing watched as Joe become absorbed in the simple but compelling process of picking the berries carefully, watched his shoulders relax and the lines of his face soften. Hop Sing focused on picking as many berries as he could find, thanking the brambles in his mind for yielding such sweet, wonderful fruit for the enjoyment of the humans who would consume them. He waited, content to share the sunny morning with the Cartwright to whom he had always been closest.
Suddenly, without looking up, Joe spoke.
“I just want to know why, Hop Sing.”
The elderly Oriental continued quietly to clean the bramble in his hand of its edible berries. Then he reached for another branch.
“Why does this bramble give berries which are black?”
Joe looked at him quizzically. Was his Chinese slipping? Was Hop Sing talking about black berries?
Hop Sing dropped a few more berries into the basked and dropped the branch. He looked directly at Joe. “There is no why, Joseph. Consider this branch, these black berries. Why are they black? Why are they not blue, or red? Because this is the life that they know. This is what they are.”
Joe pulled another branch free of the tangle and carefully pulled berries from it, listening quietly.
“We can ask why about every part of life, Joe, but it is a question that has no answer.” Hop Sing sat back and looked out over the meadow toward the glistening blue of Lake Tahoe. “We are given the gift of life. Many chances will come to us during the time that we are alive, and many challenges. We cannot ask why this fate has come to one, and that fate to another – we can only ask how – how we will respond.” He smiled at Joe, who had stopped picking berries and was absently sucking a finger he’d just stabbed on another thorn.
“Many things are sent to you by the universe, and you must respond to them. But there is no why, Joe.”
The green eyes followed Hop Sing’s gaze back out over the shining waters of the lake, deliberately staring into the bright glare. “That’s what Andy said, Hop Sing: ‘you play the hand you’re dealt’. He didn’t ask why he got that hand to play. And he didn’t seem angry that he was leaving the game so soon.”
“Do you think that Andy was happy with his life, Joe?”
Joe wasn’t expecting the question. Startled, it took him a moment to focus. “Uh – It seems to me that Andy was content as a cowhand, I guess. Why?”
“Do you think if he could have seen his future, he would have chosen to live differently?”
Joe shrugged. He gazed out over the lake to the mountains on the other side. The rising heat of the day obscured them in a soft blue haze. “Andy had good friends, and he was good at what he did.” He paused, thinking of Andy saying he wished he’d had the chance to marry. “But he shouldn’t have died…”
“Joe, each life has its place. Each of us is free – free to make our choices with what the universe brings us. Each life comes, and then it goes. Andy’s life, and the choices he made, fit precisely in the universe. So does yours, and mine. So did your mother’s…”Hop Sing paused, and did not continue naming the list of souls he could have added, but in his mind he saw them all. ”What we do not know is how many days we will have to learn from what the universe brings us. This is the great challenge of a life.”
Joe listened, emerald gaze still lost in the distance. A half-formed thought struck him, and he quieted for a moment, then shook his head, pushed it away. His hands tightened on the branch he’d been holding, completely oblivious to the piercing thorns.
“No…” he whispered, not sure to what he was responding, or what he was denying. He rose to his feet, almost as if to meet some oncoming threat.
Hop Sing gazed up at the man he was closer to than any other, squinted against the noonday sun. His tone was gentle. “If you must ask why, ask yourself why you are responding to Andy’s words – and his death – in this way.”
Joe hesitated, then met Hop Sing’s compassionate gaze. For a moment, the tormented green eyes were intense with sorrow and rage, and then Hop Sing watched the mask fall into place.
He is not ready, the Oriental said to himself. Before Joe could retreat physically as well as emotionally, he rose to his feet and reached out to touch the younger man’s shoulder.
“Mei guan xi.” It’s all right. “Mei guan xi, Joe.”
Joe returned the touch, clasping Hop Sing’s shoulder briefly and handing him the branch he’d stripped of berries. He pulled his hat down against the sun, shading eyes that gave away nothing. Then, wordlessly, he was gone.
Life will come and life will go
…your soul like a message in a bottle to me
And it was my rebirth
So we know it’s all right
Life will come and life will go
Still we know it’s all right
It was several days later, at the dinner table, that Joe turned to Ben and brought up the subject that the father had been dreading.
Joe had been brooding since the funerals, especially Andy’s. His moods, always so mercurial, had settled into a surprisingly predictable pattern, Ben thought to himself: nearly normal, even positive, in the morning, as if he had promised himself to give it a good go – but darkening as the evening shadows lengthened. He’d been carrying on the business of the ranch as usual, even arranging for the fall timber contracts with practiced ease. But he seemed to be merely going through the motions; his heart was somewhere else.
As usual, at dinner Joe was quiet, without much appetite. But this evening, as they sat before the fireplace, something had roused him.
“Pa.” The hooded green eyes stared into the fire over the rim of his coffee cup.
“Yes, Joe.” Ben sipped the hot liquid in his own cup carefully.
“Pa, I’ve been thinking about heading back up to the Oregon Territory.”
Ben regarded his son guardedly, knowing that the moment had arrived. He kept silent.
“To get those Palouse horses, remember?”
Ben set down his cup and looked at it as if it were the most interesting china cup in the world. “Yes, Joe, I do remember.”
“Season’s getting on, but there’s still time, I reckon, for a trip up and back before the weather turns bad.”
Ben nodded. “Unless there’s an early snowstorm.”
The hooded green eyes skewed sideways to regard him then. “Have you changed your mind about this, Pa?”
Ben sighed. He didn’t want to have this conversation.
“Joe, the last time…” He took a deep breath and tried again. “Joe, you’re still unsettled.” His own dark eyes were pleading for understanding. Finally, despairing, he spoke his heart bluntly. “Joe, I can’t lose you.” Too, was the unspoken final word. But they both heard it clearly.
The fire crackled and popped as the resin in one of the logs ignited. Both men stared at it, struggling at the edge of a conversation neither wanted to have.
Ben knew that this was what he had been waiting for and dreading – and he’d already decided what he would do when the moment arrived when he couldn’t avoid it any longer. This was apparently that moment. “Joe, I don’t see where we can spare Candy just now. There’s too much work to be done with the herd this time of year.” Before his son could respond, he continued, “but I’ve been thinking that I could use a change of scenery.”
He rose and picked up the poker, pushed a fiery log further into the flames. “I was thinking that I’d go with you.”
Joe’s eyes widened a bit at that, but he kept silent.
“I know you can take care of yourself, Joseph, it’s not that.” Ben stood still, and stared into the fire. “But I’ve been thinking about how fast it can be – one minute we’re here, the next minute, who knows.”
Half a second, Joe thought to himself, the green eyes darkening.
“I’d just feel better if I went with you.” Ben turned and looked directly at his son. “I don’t want to be separated from you for that long. Not right now.”
He searched the emerald eyes of his youngest. You used to be so easy to read, Joe – what are you thinking, what are you feeling?He waited.
Joe set down his cup and stood up, stretching. He didn’t smile, and the lines of his face gave nothing away. But he kept his tone light. “I reckon it’s only fair, since it was your idea, Pa.” Rallying to meet the moment, he shot his father a sideways look, teasing. “And it’s the only way I’ll be able to keep an eye on you. Got to keep you out of trouble, Pa.”
Ben smiled in relief. “I’ll meet you at the breakfast table bright and early, then, son.”
They left just after dawn the next morning. Joe had left detailed instructions for the timber crews regarding the upcoming contract deadlines with the foremen, and Candy had promised to look in on them weekly to make sure everything was on track. They’d be in touch, Joe assured him, from each town they passed that had a telegraph, and stay long enough for a response.
He’d chosen two paint stallions for them to ride, one Tobiano and one Overo, fine young horses that would impress any experienced horse breeder and improve any stock’s bloodlines. What better offer to make to skilled horse breeders like the Nez Perce than horses that might improve even their special horses? Ben admired them as he watched Joe lead them out of the barn, saddled and ready to go; the horses were young and full of vitality, but well-schooled and responsive to a rider’s gentlest touch. They would be a pleasure to ride.
The morning was brisk and cool as they mounted up in the front yard. They had decided to travel as light as possible. At the last moment, Hop Sing appeared, offering a saddlebag full of provisions, and Joe smiled and accepted it. From atop the horse he looked down and met his old friend’s eyes in the pale light of sunrise. “Thank you, Hop Sing,” he said slowly and deliberately, in a way that seemed to Ben, watching, to have nothing to do with the food. Hop Sing smiled back and nodded wordlessly, and the two men were on their way.
They had ridden for several hours in a companionable silence, making their way to the Ponderosa property line. Joe had decided to make a swing by the northern mine crew, but otherwise there had been nothing to disturb their quiet progress. There was no sound but the creaking of saddle leather, the occasional swish of a horse’s tail, and the calls of the birds.
Without warning toward noon on the second day, Joe broke the silence.
“Kinda funny, Pa,” he began without preamble. “When I was a kid, it seemed that my two older brothers were constantly around, always butting in and telling me what to do, and how to do it.” Joe smiled and, shooting him a quick glance, Ben saw it, and decided not to indulge the temptation to defend the absent brothers. “But now that they’re not around, I think about what they would say if they were here. Sometimes I can almost hear them.”
“Yeah?” Ben prompted. “Like what?” He ducked a low-hanging tree branch. They were cutting through some dense forest growth to take advantage of the relatively cooler air on a day that was threatening to become uncomfortably hot.
“Like when I was in Reno with Candy. I remember…” he took a deep breath and decided to continue. “I remember that morning. The drunk who had fought with Candy the night before in the bar challenged me.”
Ben started as he realized that Joe was finally relating the story of the shooting, and, with an effort, held himself as quiet as he could. He tried not to react, not to do or say anything to cause Joe to realize what he was saying, and reconsider.
“He swaggered out from the shadows and called me out, and I kept hearing Adam saying that sooner or later someone would be faster than I was. And I said to myself, to Adam, that this guy probably…” too late, he stopped, bit his lip.
Ben was silent for a moment, hoping Joe would go on. But, though the breeze had turned warm, he saw his son pull up his collar and settle his hat lower on his head, as if to ward off Ben’s unspoken plea. The silence that hung between them was heavy as they guided their horses around the last stand of trees, and came out onto a ridge that paralleled the main road below them.
Waiting a few moments longer, Ben hazarded a return to the subject.
“You’re carrying both of them with you, you know,” he offered. “Everything they taught you – Adam taught you how to bust broncs, and Hoss taught you how to track. When you do the things they taught you, you bring them to you.” Ben’s eyes grew distant, remembering. “More than that, I can see them in what you do.”
Joe regarded him, listening.
Ben warmed to his theme. “The way you respond to children, or to animals, especially if they’re hurt – that’s Hoss all over.”
Joe smiled again. The Tobiano tossed his mane and he stroked the horse’s neck absently.
Ben shot him a sideways glance. “And the way you’re keeping everything inside you – you got that straight from Adam.”
Joe’s smile faded. His father continued to talk, relieving him of the necessity to frame a response.
“The way you’ve taken over running the day to day operations of the Ponderosa is also something that reminds me of Adam. He used to help me with directing the ranch. But,” Ben reflected, “the ranch you are running today is so much more complex than what he and I supervised.” He gazed at Joe. “Your brother would be so proud of what you’ve become,” he said softly. “They both would be.”
Joe swallowed. “I miss ‘em, Pa,” he murmured, almost too softly to be heard.
Ben looked at his last son. An overwhelming, tangled wave of love and grief and longing washed over him. “I know, son. I miss them too.” He stared at the trail ahead of them, and decided to say the rest of what was in his heart. “I carry them with me every day, just as I carry your mother, and theirs.” He took a deep breath. “We’re carrying them with us, Joe. It hurts, but somehow, it gives me strength.” He looked back at Joe, longingly. “Let it give you strength, son.”
Joe shot him a fleeting look. His shoulders were hunched as if against a blow. Ben was almost sure he could see the same longing he felt reflected in his son’s eyes. For some reason his mouth closed over the next thought. It’ll be all right, Joe. It’ll be all right.
The storm was here, now it’s passed
And your face is again calm like the sea
With the light, we’ll press on
The road is still long
Our journey is not yet over
It’s not easy, our path is not easy
And your eyes are sometimes so sad
But there are more blossoming fields yet before us
More high mountains
With cool summits
In the unshed tears in your eyes I see fragments of light
Your smile gropes its way towards me
There is still good before us…
Very soon the light will die out
The blessed quiet will pass
The challenge of another day will break through
You won’t meet it alone
I’ll be there with you…
They rode without incident for two weeks, sometimes talking, sometimes going for miles without either of them feeling the need to break the silence. One day they noticed that they had come into country neither of them knew, further north than either of them had ever been.
They had stopped in Reno, in a two-bit excuse for a town called Nyssa, and then, crossing the deep wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail and continuing northward, had followed a river for a few days until they found a mining town called Payette. In each place they’d sent the promised telegrams home and enjoyed a night or two in a real bed. In Payette they’d stayed four days, waiting for a powerful summer storm that swept out of the mountains to pass over.
Now they were heading due north on a trail that they had been told would take them directly to Fort Boise, a supply post that had been built “right on the Snake River, way back in ‘thirty-four, to service the wagon trains heading west on the Oregon Trail,” as a prospector heading the other way had explained over a shared fire one evening.
The day was getting warm already. Joe shrugged off his jacket and, reaching around to the back of his saddle, tied it down behind him. “It’ll be good to have something in the saddle bags other than hard tack, huh Pa?” He grinned at Ben.
They had left Payette the day before, reassured by Candy’s telegram that all was well at home. The rain had finally cleared, and they were glad to be on the road again. Joe’s mood had lightened with the sky. Ben had noticed that his son seemed calmer, easier as they made their way further north, into territory uncharted for them both. Leaving home behind had allowed him at least temporarily to put the painful memories and the unresolved grief behind him. They were both feeling a sense of relief, though neither was willing to talk about it.
“At least we’ll have different kinds of hard tack,” Ben grinned back. “What else did you hear about Fort Boise, Joe?”
The night before in Payette, over a poker game in the saloon next to their hotel, Joe had talked with a grizzled, buckskin-clad trapper who had come from the Oregon Territory some months before. He had stopped at Fort Boise long enough to trade his beaver pelts for some tobacco and coffee. He’d had a few belts of the local whiskey and he was garrulous, and more than willing to tell Joe anything he wanted to know about the area.
“The trapper said that there was fighting between some of the local tribes in the area some time back. He said the area around the post was still considered one of the more dangerous stretches on the Oregon Trail.” Joe stared between the Tobiano’s ears at the sun-dappled trail the paint was placidly following through a densely wooded area. “He said the army came in and had been fighting with the Nez Perce. Said they broke a peace treaty.”
Ben snorted. He knew that usually it was the white men who could be relied upon to break treaties agreed upon with the native inhabitants of the land. He looked up, squinted at the position of the sun. “We should be able to see the fort soon.”
Joe didn’t respond, and Ben looked over at him. Joe had straightened in his saddle, his body still. He pulled to a halt and held up a hand for silence. Ben stopped his horse and listened. Suddenly the horses were alert, too – their riders could feel their bodies tense, poised for flight.
“There!” Joe hissed, jerking his head toward a flash of color in the near distance, bright against the shaded greens and browns of the forest.
“I see it.” Ben’s right hand dropped toward his revolver. “What do you think we should do?”
They exchanged quick glances. “Make the first move,” Joe suggested, and Ben nodded. The two men spurred their horses forward and the stallions responded, leaping into a headlong rush down the trail, plunging deeper into the forest.
Soon enough, they heard a cry behind them, then two voices, then more – and an arrow whistled past Ben’s ear. They bent over their horses’ necks and urged them to greater speed, deliberately keeping as close as they dared to the trees. Protectively hanging slightly back behind his father, Joe emptied his revolver behind him, hoping to give their pursuers a reason to think twice about continuing to follow.
But if the sounds of war whoops and pounding hooves coming up fast from behind them was any indication, their attackers weren’t easily deflected, and seemed to be gaining on them.
Searching the ground ahead, Ben saw that the trees were thinning, and spurred his horse to greater speed. He shouted. “We’re coming to the river – the fort must be just ahead!”
“Not a moment too soon,” Joe yelled back as his revolver clicked on an empty chamber. He felt a sense of relief – no doubt the Indians would think twice about pressing an attack close to an outpost where there would likely be other men with guns and horses. He reached for more bullets, but it was too difficult to retrieve them from the saddlebags while they raced at full speed through the forest, ducking low-hanging branches and veering around massive tree trunks.
They made for the final bend at the edge of the woods as fast as their horses would carry them, came flying around the outcropping of granite and into the gentle, grassy slope that they had figured would lead down to the Snake River. Ben scanned the banks, his head snapping from side to side, while Joe gave up on the bullets, but kept an eye peeled behind them for signs of their pursuers.
“Where’s the damn fort? Where’s the – oh, my God…”
The shock in Ben’s voice pulled Joe’s eyes forward to see. There before them lay the river, swollen by the recent rains, and beyond it, a collapsed and destroyed log building, the only structure visible in either direction along the water.
Ben automatically began to pull his horse up in reaction to the shock of seeing the outpost in ruins, and Joe yelled.
“Pa! – come on!” Joe looked around wildly for the nearest cover, “Over there!” And he urged the young stallion he rode toward the bend, upriver, where a small copse of trees afforded the promise of at least some sparse cover.
Just then, the Indians chasing them burst from the woods from which they’d just emerged, and they got a good look for the first time at who they were – and how many. Too many, Joe scowled to himself and bent lower over the Tobiano’s neck, asking him for whatever he had left – and the gallant paint stallion responded, leaping forward, straining and heaving to answer his rider’s demand.
They never had a chance. Their pursuers knew the area, must have known they’d try for whatever cover they could find, and while some continued to chase behind them, a few cut away at an angle to meet them halfway to the river.
Ben had the impression that they were closing in from all sides; he’d drawn his gun, brandishing it as a warning. Over his right shoulder he saw a brave closing in behind Joe, knife flashing as he raised it, horse racing alongside. Without hesitation, Ben aimed as best he could as his horse lurched over the muddy slope at high speed, and fired. He was rewarded with the sight of the surprised brave dropping his knife, then himself dropping from the horse that continued to race alongside.
Then something hit him from behind, and strong arms grabbed him, dragged him down.
“Pa!” Joe yelled, and yanked his horse toward him. But the Tobiano stallion slipped and nearly fell on the long grass that was still wet from the heavy rains, and Joe couldn’t get there in time to stop Ben from falling to the ground, his arms and legs entangled in the long brown limbs of the Indian who’d leaped onto his horse behind him. His heart lurched as he saw his father’s gun go flying through the air, his hat sail away. The two men rolled over and over in the wet, muddy meadow and came to a stop, winded from the impact of hitting the ground at high speed.
If he’d had any breath, Ben would have shouted at Joe to leave him, to get away – but if Joe’d had a moment to have that argument, he knew, he would have told him to save that breath for himself. There was far more between the two men than the simple blood ties of father and son, more than the deep ties of love developed over the years. Far too much for the fate of one to ever be disconnected from the others.
Struggling with the brave who’d dragged him from his horse, Ben couldn’t look up – didn’t see as Joe was overwhelmed. They seemed to come from every direction, bodies flying at him, war-painted arms flashing into his peripheral vision as he was tackled off his horse’s back. He rolled as his right shoulder hit the ground and felt himself come free of the grasping hands. Cursing his empty revolver, Joe leaped to his feet in the muddy grass and put everything he had in the fist he buried in the first body that came within reach.
For a moment, he even seemed to hold his own. Time slowed down, and he felt it surge up inside him – the rage he’d struggled to bottle up and contain. Now it came exploding up and through his fists as he fought off his attackers. Summoning up all the barroom brawling skills he’d accumulated in a lifetime of experience, he feinted and ducked, used one attacker’s momentum to plow him into another, and crashing a clenched fist angrily into whatever body part came within reach.
Joe fought desperately, but finally they dragged him down, kicking and struggling. Even after he was pinned under the sheer weight of their numbers, he kept fighting, kept straining against them, even as they continued to strike him.
Ben’s assailants had subdued him and pulled him to his feet in time to watch his son’s beating at the hands of their pursuers. He flailed and struggled, but was helpless to stop it. He could only watch, holding his breath, hoping that the Indians would be satisfied to hurt Joe, and stop short of killing him.
Finally Joe was pulled to his feet, arms held fast by men who suddenly stopped to focus upon one of their companions who approached with a burden over his shoulder. He stopped between the two captives and carefully laid down the body of the brave that Ben had shot, looked up balefully at the older Cartwright. He muttered something to the others, and they stared for a moment at their dead companion.
One of the braves knelt by the body, then rose and slowly approached Ben, threat in every angry line of his body. Frantic lest any harm come to his father, Joe shouted as loud as he could.
“Coward!” Startled, the Indian stopped, and turned toward him. Joe figured that the man could not possibly understand his words, but he made the contempt on his face as plain as day. “Only a coward beats an unarmed captive,” he sneered. The distracting tactic seemed to have worked, as the brave turned to approach him, bloodlust in his eyes.
It worked too well. A blow snapped Joe’s head violently to one side, and he felt blood flood his mouth. Recovering, he looked the brave directly in the eyes, the emerald gaze cold and unflinching. The other took advantage of his captive’s pinned arms to bury a fist in his midsection, and the sudden explosion of agony doubled Joe over with a gasp.
The blow reawakened his body’s memory of the late spring’s gunshot wound, and there was a deep-seated throbbing in his chest. He struggled to pull air into his lungs past the spasming muscles; it took all the strength he had left to straighten, pulling himself up against the hands on his arms.
Joe steeled himself to deliberately and coldly look his assailant once again directly in the eyes, ignoring the blood streaming from a cut on his forehead. Muttering something explosive and curt, the other struck him again and again across the face until Joe’s blood flowed freely from his nose and mouth, and he sagged against the grip on his arms.
Gathering his strength for one final effort, Joe suddenly braced himself against the unsuspecting warriors who held him and pulled both legs up for a mighty kick at his attacker, scoring a direct hit to his groin. The other dropped, screaming, and Joe made one more desperate, fruitless attempt to free himself, even as others closed in to deliver retribution for his successful resistance.
It was a doomed effort, and, too quickly, the one he’d kicked was coming back, death in his eyes. He’d pulled a knife free from his belt; with his other hand he grabbed a handful of Joe’s hair, yanking his head back painfully to expose his neck, bending his body back toward the ground behind him, choking off his breath, until he thought his neck would break. Held fast, he saw the knife move toward his unprotected throat.
Watching murder descend toward his son, helpless and terrified, the frantic father struggled with the implacable arms that held him immobilized, feet slipping against the wet grass and leaves as he desperately tried to fight his way free, to his son.
No! Not like this, it can’t end like this…His mouth opened in a scream of horror and despair.
The Indian holding the knife froze. The others holding Joe straightened in alarm, trading quick, concerned glances. They stared at Ben and then at Joe, who was trying not to move. For a long, slow moment, the heaving chest of the younger Cartwright was the only movement, the only sound his gasping for breath. The knife was still hovering at his exposed throat.
One of the braves holding him spoke to the knife-wielder in low, urgent tones. The only word the two captives understood was Joe’s name, the full name, the one Ben had just called out in his despair. The braves repeated it several times and the one with the knife returned it to his belt, let go of his murderous grip on Joe’s hair.
Joe took a deep breath, shot a confused, but relieved, glance at his father. Ben’s dark eyes telegraphed his own perplexity, and Joe shrugged fractionally at him, then returned his gaze and his attention to their attackers. The knife-wielder was giving orders, and soon the two men were securely bound and returned to their horses. Without hesitation, the group made its way up the ridge and away from the ruins of the fort.
They had ridden for some time due north, with no sound passing between the Indians, when Joe hazarded a low-pitched question to his father. “What do you suppose happened back there?”
Ben’s lips narrowed into a grim line. “I have no idea, Joseph, but I thank God for it.”
Joe managed a pale imitation of his lopsided grin through the dried blood caked on his face. “Yeah, I can’t say as I mind myself, Pa.”
Bloody but unbowed, Ben thought to himself. His son’s defiance in the face of their captors was so much the old Joe that Ben found his spirits rising despite the danger they were still in.
“Pa,” Joe said, his voice suddenly sounding excited. “Pa, look at their horses.”
Ben took a good look at the horses under the Indians riding ahead of them.
“Pa, look at the way their coats are marked – look at their hooves, they’re striped!” Joe was fascinated. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. They must be Nez Perce; this must be that Palouse horse of theirs!”
Ben shook his head. “You’re impossible, Joseph. Even now, you notice the horses!”
Joe shrugged and tried to grin again, with slightly more success this time. He hurt all over, and his head was pounding, but for the moment, at least, they were still alive and breathing. And those were good-looking horses.
The inhabitants of the camp looked up as the riders entered the arrangement of teepees near the river. The Nimi’ipuu descended from their horses, and the young boys raced forward to take them away and care for them. Women and old men sitting by cooking fires looked fearfully at the two white men as they were dragged unceremoniously from their horses to the ground. With greater care, the horses were taken to join those of the Nimi’ipuu.
The two strange men were pushed in the direction of the chief’s long house. Their hands were bound tightly in front of them, and they walked awkwardly. The younger one moved with difficulty, and the older one stayed close to him, tried to help him. Both carried themselves with dignity, their heads held high, their eyes piercing. They were not familiar – not of the bluecoats, and not of the now-abandoned house by the river.
There was a low gasp among the onlookers as the dead body of one of their own came into view, carried across one of the horses. A moan broke forth from one of the teepees, and a young woman ran to the body, followed by an older man. They received the gently lowered body and sank to the ground with it cradled in their arms.
The Nimi’ipuu had been at war with the white man that came from the direction of the rising sun for some time. It was a surprise to see living white men brought into the camp. Had they attacked the young men of the tribe? So many Nimi’ipuu had died already….
Joe and Ben were pushed roughly toward a long house in the middle of the clearing; a hand on each of their shoulders forced them to the ground near its entrance. Two of their attackers stood over them, knives drawn, while the one who had nearly killed Joe disappeared inside.
Ben looked at his son worriedly. He’d favored his right side markedly as they were marched from the horses, and blood continued to ooze from the cut on his forehead.
But Joe seemed oblivious to whatever pain he was feeling. His eyes skewed sideways, regarded his father. “Do you think they destroyed that fort?”
Ben shook his head, shrugged. He moved on to the topic that concerned him most. “How are you feeling?”
The world had begun seesawing while they were riding to the camp, but Joe wasn’t going to admit that to his father. He had already learned that taking deep breaths only made him feel worse, so he concentrated on breathing evenly and trying to control the throbbing in his head. He raised his bound hands to wipe sweat from his forehead and forced a wan smile.
“I’m okay, Pa.”
Ben would have argued, but they were both suddenly and unceremoniously pulled to their feet and pushed in the direction of the long house’s door. Ducking the animal skin tacked over the entrance, they stepped over a hewn log threshold and entered the shadowy interior.
Near-darkness assaulted their senses like a blow after the bright, early afternoon sunlight outside. The scent of a small, banked cooking fire tangled in their nostrils with smells of sweat and rawhide, and the piney scent of the earth floor. Joe blinked hard against the blurring in his eyes, and focused on keeping himself upright. When his vision cleared and allowed him to make sense of the torch-lit contours of the room in which they stood, he realized that they had been brought before the leader. He stood as straight as he could and fixed his gaze upon the dignified, obviously powerful man sitting on a pile of furs in the center of the spacious room.
Ben stared in fascination at the impassive face before them. The chief’s long, dark, luxuriant hair gleamed in the firelight, and framed broad cheekbones, a prominent nose, and a wide, straight mouth. Earrings with broad discs shone, reflecting firelight, hung nearly to the rows of beads around his neck. He looked to be about Joe’s age, and was of similarly powerful build. He watched the leader appraise him, watched him come to a similar conclusion as his gaze swept over Joe.
He startled them both by introducing himself in a deep baritone voice, in fluent English. “I am called Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt. I am chief of the Nimi’ipuu here.”
Ben inclined his head slightly. “My name is Benjamin Cartwright. This is my son, Joseph.”
The chief’s dark eyes regarded Joe. “Your name saved your lives.” He watched the confusion in their faces as they shot brief glances at each other. He leaned back in his chair and accepted a cup from one of his attendants. “I am also called Joseph. I am known as Chief Joseph by the whites. When the young men heard your name, they thought that perhaps you were referring to me – that I perhaps knew you.”
He looked them over carefully. The fathomless dark eyes showed no sign of either mercy or murder. “But I do not know you.”
Sensing that the interview was ending, and that they were about to be sent away – most likely to their deaths – Joe spoke up.
“Yet we have traveled far in order to find you, Chief Joseph.”
In the shadows of the long house, the chief’s eyes were unreadable. “When white men seek me these days, it is to try to kill me.”
Joe met the dark eyes fearlessly. “The chief did not see the horses that we were riding when we were brought in. We have come a long way to offer a trade.”
The chief’s hand waved dismissively. “We have the best horses in this valley. And we have learned that the white man lies.”
Joe persisted. “You have beautiful horses, Chief Joseph. But I am also a horse breeder, and I have brought you horses – two stallions that can improve your stock.”
Ben realized that their lives likely depended on whether the two Josephs would find common ground in what appeared to be a shared love of horses. If anyone’s liable to match this tribe’s horse know-how, it’s Joe, he mused. He took a deep breath and allowed himself to hope that they would both live to see the end of the day.
A flicker of interest crossed the features of the Nimi’ipuu leader. He turned his head slightly and spoke a few words to the air, and one of his attendants rose quickly and left the house. Then he returned his gaze to the two men standing bound before him. He spoke tersely to their guards.
One of the men guarding them spoke urgently to the chief. He listened and nodded, and the two white men were not left to wonder long at the meaning of the exchange. Hands gripped them by the shoulders and propelled them out the door of the long house, pushed them toward a clear area where ropes dangled from several of the larger trees.
Chief Joseph moved to stand in front of the white man who shared his name, and stared impassively, directly, at him. “If you are lying – if you are spies – you will die, and not quickly. My brother Olikut knows how to strip all the skin from a man’s body. Your father will watch you dying and he will beg us to kill you.”
A few short, sharp words from the chief and two of the young men sprang into action, moving quickly and fluidly away. Almost immediately they reappeared, leading the two paint stallions Joe had chosen as his bargaining chips in his hopes to obtain horses from the tribe. Ben found himself holding his breath and the horses appeared, watching for the chief’s reaction. He shot a look at his son. Joe was standing straight and proud, his look supremely confident despite his bound arms.
The horses were brought to a standstill in front of the chief. He walked around them, one hand sliding over chest, mane, and back, and from withers to fetlocks, as he gave each one a careful, thorough appraisal. He checked their mouths, then stood back and looked them over from each end, all silently. Joe and Ben watched, never moving.
Finally the chief looked over at Joe. “They are beautiful and unusual horses.” He stepped away from the Overo and gave him a final pat. “They are not like the horses we have seen with the white men who have attacked us.”
Ben held his breath.
“But my warriors do not trust what you have said. They say that you were going to the fort when they found you.”
“That’s true, but…” Joe began. Quickly, one of the warriors standing nearby thrust the flat of his knife against Joe’s throat, effectively silencing him.
Chief Joseph continued. “Also there is the matter of the warrior you killed.” This time his piercing dark eyes were trained on Ben. “There must be an answer for this death.”
Anxiety rising, Joe opened his mouth to protest again, but the knife dug threateningly against his skin and he couldn’t strain his neck backward any further.
The chief, still staring at Ben, continued to speak. “My father was also called Joseph. This was the name given to him when he chose to follow the way of the white god. He told me many of the white stories about the one called Joseph in the book of their ancestors.”
Joe was racking his brains to try to remember the story.
“Joseph was a great chief, and great warrior. He had a brother,” the chief glanced at Joe, “named Benjamin.” He looked back at Ben. “The great warrior protected his beloved brother from his enemies.”
“The safety of my people depends upon whether you are telling the truth about your journey. The spirits of my people will guide us to know.” He turned again to consider Joe. “Truth is strong. Lies cannot protect you. Are you like the white men who betrayed my father, or are you like the great warrior for whom you and I are named? Is your truth strong enough to protect your life – and the life of the one named Benjamin?”
Joe stood stock still, but his eyes shot toward his father’s. “Yes.”
“Joe…” Ben began, but his son ignored him and faced the chief.
Chief Joseph went on. “The ordeal will determine if you are telling the truth or not.”
He nodded to his warriors. Two young braves freed Joe’s arms in order to spread them out at right angles to his body. They secured him firmly to two sturdy, thick pine tree trunks, to which his wrists and forearms were tied with long lengths of rope. Another warrior approached Joe’s back, his eyes shining with anger as he reached out and gripped his collar. With one violent downward yank, he ripped the shirt from his captive. Behind him, Joe could see from the corner of his eye the man who had nearly killed him on the trail. He was brandishing a bullwhip. It cracked loudly in the quiet clearing.
Joe straightened. “How will you know?”
The chief glanced at him as he turned away. “If you live.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Joe could see Ben struggling fruitlessly with his own bonds, a look of horror on his face. He lunged forward and a warrior struck him hard from behind. Crashing to his knees, he called out to the chief desperately.
“The great warrior you speak of followed a god who would never do this!”
Chief Joseph walked away from Ben, stood with his arms crossed, regarded both the captives. “The god of the white man is not strong enough to care for all who follow him. The way of the white man did not help my father. They lied to him and they betrayed him, even though he followed their way, and told their stories. Their god did not help him.”
More warriors were gathering to witness the test, standing with their arms crossed over their chests and appraising Joe, muttering to each other, no doubt discussing his chances. One brandished a knife casually, the hostility of his stance broadcasting his hope that the white man would fail the test, and die. A woman led a younger child out of the clearing, glancing back over her shoulder as she hurried away.
“Our spirits are strong with us, and they are just,” Chief Joseph continued. “If you are telling the truth,” he looked again at Joe, “the spirits will protect you, and you will not show weakness. Olikut will stop, and you will live. But if you are lying, weakness will overcome you and you will not be able to withstand the ordeal. Olikut will continue until you are dead – and then your father will also die.”
“No!” Struggling with his bound hands past the dizziness to his feet, Ben launched himself blindly toward the chief. Another blow buckled his knees and he fell, hitting the ground hard. He lay gasping for breath, dazed, only half-conscious.
Joe couldn’t turn to look at his father, couldn’t force more words past the dryness in his throat. He took a deep breath. The heat of the day was passing, but Joe couldn’t take the time to appreciate the slight cooling of the air. All his energy was channeled into meeting whatever was to come. For Pa’s sake. His sight had suddenly cleared, and the pain in his head had disappeared. His whole body felt light from the surge of adrenaline that poured through him.
The crack of the bullwhip sounded again behind him and Joe understood the challenge that the chief had set. He’d heard about such tests of endurance – if a white man could survive a torture of the Indians’ choosing, they would let him go free, in admiration and respect for his strength. It wasn’t a test that was meant to kill, and there were those who survived. He’d met a man once, an Army officer, who’d endured a torture test with such dignity that he had been set free and given a fine horse. The man was never the same, though…
His thoughts were interrupted by the first slash of the whip against his back.
His body jerked involuntarily, pulled against the ropes. Breath hissed through his clenched teeth.
Again. It was as if fire was searing across his shoulders.
Again. He stared straight ahead, concentrating all his strength on maintaining his will to stay silent.
Again. He steeled himself, but the pain still staggered him.
Again. The slash seemed to tear a hole right through his body, and the breath came up through his open mouth in a soundless spasm.
Again. Through a red haze, Ben opened his eyes to see a terrifying vision of his son writhing helplessly in the merciless grip of a many-taloned monster. He fought his way to awareness past the throbbing ache in his skull – and found that the nightmare was real.
Again. His own body lurched against the hands that restrained him with each crack of the bullwhip against his son’s back, his own face twisted with pain.
Again. He watched as the powerful chest muscles tensed and jerked, as his son’s head flew back with each lash, as the corded neck bulged and distended.
Again. Tears streamed down his face, unnoticed.
Again. The whip tore open skin, ripped muscle. The rough hemp drew blood from Joe’s wrists and forearms.
Again. His back arched away from the agony, shoulders straining against the ropes.
Again. The warrior with the bullwhip began to make his way around Joe in a wide circle, striking his body with great care and precision from each new position.
Again. Joe was focused only on the rhythm of the slashes now, head down, world narrowed to the gasping effort to breathe, not to scream, after each blow.
Again. The emerald eyes were glazed, stared unseeing through the dark curls that hung down into his face.
Again. Sweat stung his eyes, poured from his body, mixed with the blood dripping freely from his wounds.
Again. The slashes were coming at him from in front now, the whip coiling around his unprotected chest and abdomen, now ripping a fiery path along his upper arms, now slicing through his pants, burning across his thighs.
Again. Head thrown back, he pulled with the strength of desperation against the ropes.
Again. Blood stained the ground beneath his feet, bright red drops flying from the lash’s tip to glisten on the deep green leaves of the nearby trees.
Again. Through helpless tears, Ben watched his son’s body jerk and convulse as the torture continued. He can’t possibly survive this – Joseph, Joseph, my son…
Again. Joe twisted, nearly lost his footing in the soft pine needles of the forest floor, caught himself desperately on the ropes that held him fast. Ben’s heart nearly stopped.
Again. He looked for the moment as if he was about to give up the fight to stay upright, to stay alive.
Again. Ben heard screaming, realized that he was screaming in his own mind. Stop, stop, you’re killing him…
Again. He had nearly shouted aloud, when Ben saw something come over his son, something that seemed to suffuse his agonized body with new strength.
Again. Somehow, Joe kept his feet, somehow braced his legs to keep himself upright.
Again. His breath came in harsh gasps, yet somehow he did not scream.
Again. God, oh God, oh God…his face reflecting his misery, the desperate father rose to his knees, reduced to silent, incoherent begging.
Again. Swallowing convulsively against billowing nausea, Ben fought against the urge to look away. Dully, he saw that the warrior with the whip was still moving, and had nearly made a complete circle around his victim.
Again. The arm was raised again. Make it stop, oh God please make it stop…
Again. The tortured body was still, somehow, upright.
Again. He was about to open his mouth to beg for it to end. I can’t stand it anymore, oh God please…
Again. The warrior stepped to the place from which he had begun wielding his whip.
And stopped. The clearing was absolutely silent. The only sound was Joe’s choked struggle for breath as he leaned against the ropes that cut bloody tracks into his wrists. His slashed body was illuminated by a surreal glow against the deep forest cover as a shaft of golden afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees.
Anguished and trembling, Ben looked up at the chief, who had watched impassively throughout the entire ordeal. He stepped forward to stand before Joe. Pouring all he had left into the effort, Joe straightened and met Chief Joseph’s eyes. Ben nearly gasped himself as he recognized the look in his son’s battered face. Through the blood that streamed down his face from the wound on his forehead, the fathomless rage Joe had been struggling with for so long leaped out of his eyes, searing, dark and forbidding.
The chief met his eyes for a long moment. Ben and the circle of warriors watched them. No one moved, no one seemed even to breathe. Then Chief Joseph spoke tersely.
A knife flashed, and Joe’s arms were freed.
Ben felt his own bonds released, but didn’t spare the time to see who had cut him loose. Frozen, he watched his son.
Joe still stood, upright and unmoving, before the chief. The torn skin of his chest and back dripped with blood, rivulets running down from his arms and legs, yet he seemed unaware of his injuries. The powerful shoulders were thrown back, the legs trembling slightly but holding steady. The head was held high, the emerald eyes dark with a burning intensity that clenched his fists and kept his gaze level and piercing.
Chief Joseph took a step back and regarded his captive. His warriors watched him and waited. One approached with a length of rope, moved toward Joe. The chief stopped him with a curt movement of his hand.
He raised his head then to address his people. At his words, the group began to murmur and nod their heads. Joseph turned back to meet Joseph’s eyes.
“You are no longer our prisoner.” The dark eyes were no friendlier, but there was a new respect in them. “You and your father are free to go.” He called out again in his people’s language, and then added, “You will take four of our horses with you when you go, in trade for the two which you brought.”
An appraising gaze assessed the results of the ordeal. “You may stay here, in peace, until you are ready to go.”
The chief turned away, gestured, then disappeared inside his long house. A woman walked toward Joe with a bowl of water in her hand, offering.
Ben watched as triumph momentarily flashed in Joe’s eyes. Then, suddenly, he saw his son stagger as a wave of weakness washed over him.
The pounding in his head was back, and his vision blurred. Vaguely Joe saw his father lurch toward him, hands outstretched to steady him, ease him gently to the ground in his arms.
Ben put out a hand for the water bowl, held it to Joe’s mouth. “Here, son, drink this,” and he steadied his own shaking hands to support his son. Joe drank a swallow or two and then pulled away, letting his head settle back against his father’s shoulder. His face was ashen. Blood was matted in his hair, drying against the skin of his neck and shoulders. Ben stroked back the sweaty curls, tried to take a deep breath, to calm his still wildly-beating heart. He looked down at his son’s ravaged body, fighting down the fear that rose in the back of his throat, nauseating him as he beheld the extent of the damage. Some of the deeper slashes were bleeding badly, staining his skin and covering Ben’s hands. More seeped onto the ground, and colored what was left of Joe’s pants a dark crimson.
Hands reached out to them, offering more water, blankets and long wide strips of soft brown tanned animal hide to use as bandages. Ben looked up and met dark eyes no longer forbidding or fearful, but respectful. He hoped his own face reflected his thanks. He took a soft piece of hide, wet it, and gently wiped the blood and sweat from his son’s eyes.
There was no trace of anger left in the green depths. Through a haze of pain and vertigo, Joe looked up, focused with effort on his father. “Hell of a way to get ourselves some of those horses,” he whispered, making a valiant attempt to grin. He could feel the pain dulling along with his senses as shock overwhelmed his body. He knew that his father was holding him, but he couldn’t feel it. He tried, grimacing, to take a deep breath, then let it out in a long exhalation of air. His eyes closed as his body shuddered, and then sagged.
Panicked, Ben held his own breath, gripped Joe’s throat, searching for a pulse.
It was there, steady and strong. Ben let the breath out, massive relief settling him down onto the ground, clutching his wounded son.
In a moment, he would rally and help the two women who were kneeling at his side, offering to help him care for Joe’s wounds. In a moment he would begin to figure out how to get the two of them the hell out of there. But for just this one moment, he would sit still and give thanks, in boundless relief and gratitude, for the life that he held in his arms, the life of his child. Not yet, Marie. I get to keep him for at least a little while longer…
He looked down at his son’s closed eyes, the agonized lines in his face softened in unconsciousness. There had been no sign of rage in those green eyes. Ben realized that when Joe had looked at him, the emerald depths had, for a moment, been clear and lucid, despite the pain. What made his heart suddenly leap was the realization that they had also been without the hard, dark edges he had come to know. Something had stilled in them, like the calm of the waters of Lake Tahoe after the passing of a summer storm.
And just as the cool breeze that sweeps over the peaceful waters in the wake of a storm’s violence caresses and reassures the trees and meadows and the creatures that live among them, he suddenly felt hope filling him, elating him, making him forget his own pain.
He looked again to make sure: in his arms his son’s bloody chest was rising and falling regularly, rhythmically. Resting his face against the tousled curls, he held the unmoving body of his exhausted, wounded – but alive – son closer to him, murmuring. “It’ll be all right, Joe – I’ve got you. It’s all right.”
It’s all right
The place where you hold me
Is dark in a pocket of truth
They left the Nez Perce camp the next morning. Neither of them had wanted to stay longer, and though Ben was sure Joe wasn’t physically up to it, he couldn’t help but agree with his son’s heartfelt wish to put distance between themselves and the testing ground where Joe had nearly lost his life, and where his blood was still visible in the clearing. Dark spots on the dirt and rusty stains on the leaves bore silent witness to the nightmare he had watched his son endure. Now Ben wanted to get to a town big enough to have a doctor as soon as possible.
When those watching them saw that they were preparing to go, a string of four Palouse horses was brought over to them by two silent warriors, along with their saddles and gear. Ben saddled two of the horses and helped Joe, struggling with the pain and trying to hide it as he was, to mount. A few of the people watched silently from a distance, but no one approached. Chief Joseph did not appear.
Joe’s chest, arms and back were covered with tied off and bloodied strips of hide, and his legs were crisscrossed with slash wounds that oozed blood, and looked red and angry. He didn’t have a shirt, but pointed out to his father that he was probably too sore to wear one anyway. He gently rejected his father’s fussing.
“Pa, let’s just go.” Joe winced as he shifted in the saddle, trying to find a comfortable posture. Before long he gave up and simply sat, waiting for Ben to finish filling their canteens.
They headed away from the camp, Ben leading the two other Palouse horses. He squinted up at the sun, gauging distances, hoping they could make it to Payette by nightfall. Joe was quiet about his injuries but Ben was worried about the risk of infection. His eyes were dark with anger and resolve. He could yet lose Joe to the ordeal he had survived, and he had no intention of letting that happen.
Though he tried to hide it, it became clear as they traveled that Joe was hurting far too badly for them to travel at a normal speed. As much as Ben wanted to get his son medical help quickly, he realized by late afternoon that they would have to make camp on the trail that night. Displaying his habitual stubbornness, Joe had focused solely on staying in the saddle for as long as he could that day, and although Ben insisted on stopping to rest regularly, the injured man was utterly weary by the time they had reached the river where the ruined fort’s remains lay in the dirt.
Ben started for a moment when the destroyed outpost came into view. So much had happened, in only two days, since they had last been here. Reluctantly realizing that the ruins would make as good a shelter as any they were likely to find that day, Ben led the way there.
Spreading his bedroll for him, he settled Joe in a corner of what had been a large log building. Part of the wall still stood high enough on both sides to offer as much shelter as they would likely need on a mid-summer night. As he helped his son ease himself to the ground, Ben’s eyes searched out Joe’s.
“How are you holding up, son?”
Despite his weariness, Joe’s automatic attempt to lie on his back sent him flying back into a sitting position, white-knuckling his father’s arm for support and biting back a cry. After a day of sitting up, the torn skin and muscle of his back couldn’t tolerate a touch, much less the weight of his body. There was no part of him that did not hurt, and no way to avoid the pain it would cause him to lie down if he was going to try to rest, he realized. Not meeting his father’s concerned gaze, Joe just nodded at him, mouth tight as he tried to find a position to lie in, tried to control the pain that consumed him.
Making a decision, Ben took a deep breath and walked over to the saddlebags, where he found the bottle of whiskey he’d bought before they left Payette. He brought it to Joe, uncorked it and held it to his lips.
“Here, Joe,” he urged. “This’ll help with the pain.”
Joe shot a look at him even as he accepted the bottle, drank deeply, gratefully.
Ben left him only long enough to secure the horses and fill their canteens. When he returned, Joe was already gratefully feeling the whiskey taking an edge off the agony that throbbed through every inch of his body. Balanced precariously on his side in the position that hurt the least, he was already falling into an uneasy, exhausted sleep.
Ben roused him just long enough to make him drink another slug of the whiskey, and some water from the canteen, then let him alone, hoping he’d be able to sleep through the night. He shook his head, mouth twisted in irony. Hard to believe I’m encouraging him to drink… after the last few months, the last thing he thought he’d ever want to do was to tell his son to get drunk. But the wounds looked so painful, and Joe was clearly in agony. And all the father wanted in those moments was to help his son. Past be damned, future be damned…In his mind’s eye he clearly saw the little boy he would catch up into his strong arms to console and calm. For all the suffering, he still saw the small, hurting child in the luminous emerald eyes. Wish I could make it all better now, son.
The anxious father watched his son sleep for a while, lost in thought. Finally he shook himself and, looking around to see what needed to be done, set about collecting enough firewood to see them through the night. He found himself thanking God that there had been no more rain since the deluge of the week before. He was able to coax a small fire from the mostly-dried wood. It burned fitfully, sparking and smoking but offering enough light and warmth to see them through the night to come.
With a long look at his unmoving son, Ben settled down, resting his back against the half-destroyed wall next to Joe, and chewed some hard tack that he found in one of the saddle bags. One hand rested gently, protectively, on his boy’s tousled curls.
Through the early evening, as shadows lengthened and he watched over his sleeping son, Ben stared around him at the burned ruins of the outpost, deep in thought. This was supposed to be a busy trading post serving the Oregon Trail. What could have happened? Indian attack? Outlaws? A planned abandonment? And where are all the wagons that should be here at this time of year?
A light, warm breeze moved among the trees, and the setting sun’s golden rays played along the ruined wooden beams of the outpost. Ben watched the patterns of light disinterestedly, listening for any signs that they might be disturbed. He rose and added more wood to the small fire, looking from side to side guardedly. All was quiet, but Ben had spent enough of his life in the Western wilderness to know that quiet could be deceptive, and calm could be ripped to shreds by life-threatening challenges at any moment.
With a start, he realized the source of his unease. In his mind’s eye he was standing in another burned-out house, haunted by charred timbers and ash-glutted mud and dirt – and his son’s agony.
It was almost too much to bear. Needing suddenly to move, he stood and stretched, shaking his head to clear out the too-painful memories. His eyes were drawn to the contours of light and darkness on what was left of the wall opposite where he kept watch alongside Joe’s still form. Suddenly he saw light glinting, reflecting in the fire’s reinforced flicker. He focused on it, brows narrowing. Finally he gave in to his curiosity, and moved closer to investigate.
Not everything had been destroyed in the cataclysm that had consumed the fort. There, half-buried in the mud and ashes and detritus of whatever cataclysm had destroyed the outpost, he saw a knife glinting dully. Probably exposed during the storm last week, he thought to himself. His eyes sought the knife’s handle, idly curious to identify its make, when he started and caught his breath. A hand was just discernible in the mud, still gripping the knife. As his eyes searched further, he saw the severed arm to which it was attached.
He sank to a crouch alongside it, squinting to see more clearly in the uncertain light. No, there were no further human remains nearby. Somehow this arm and hand, along with the knife with which some final stand was made, was here all by itself, a desperate, disembodied symbol of futile resistance.
Who did you belong to? Ben wondered as he stared at the knife and the decomposing fingers that still curled around it. Some man or woman making a final stand against the destruction, maybe protecting a child? A sudden lump caught his breath in his throat. Or a half-grown child, perhaps, trying to protect a parent, a home? Or perhaps one of the attackers…There was no way to tell. It struck him, how alike all human bodies were in death.
He buried the arm, along with the knife, outside the wall of what was left of the outpost where the person to whom it must have once been attached had fallen.
As night fell, he was still staring at the ruins of the fort, still wondering at the lightning fast changes that come into a man’s life. Not everything is destroyed… Thinking of fireflies, he glanced over at Joe. The father’s eyes softened as he reached out a hand to caress his forehead. The brows drew together in consternation as he realized that his son’s skin was flushed, and radiating heat.
By the time they found the doctor’s office in Payette late the following day, Joe was into a full-blown fever and was slumped over his horse’s neck, shivering and unaware of anything except his stubborn resolve to stay mounted. Only Ben’s outstretched arm, steadying him, kept him in the saddle.
That morning, he had coaxed a staggering, delirious Joe over to the river, thinking to bathe the wounds and perhaps stave off the encroaching danger of infection. The first touch of the cold water against the heated, angry-looking torn skin had forced an agonized cry from Joe’s lips.
Ben had held him, steadying him as he forced himself into the water, gasping and shuddering. “Easy there, son, hold on to me. I’m right here. I’ve got you.” He didn’t have the heart to try to keep him there any longer than Joe himself thought he could stand it.
Better than nothing, the anxious father had tried to console himself. He helped Joe onto his horse, watched his son gather what seemed to be the last of his strength. Joe somehow summoned up a smile of thanks, and Ben’s heart nearly broke. He settled his shoulders, grabbed the lead reins of the other two Palouse horses, and mounted up.
Now, as he climbed stiffly down from the weary horse, Ben could hear music and laughter coming from the saloon across what passed for the mining town’s main street. The street itself was deserted. Peering through the flat, waning light of the long summer dusk, Ben realized it must be near the dinner hour. He was relieved to see the windows illuminated under a sign that proclaimed Dr. Stone – Medical Clinic. Quickly securing the horses to the hitching rail, Ben hurried to help Joe as he slid, gasping with pain and only semi-conscious, from his horse to the ground.
The heat coming from Joe’s body covered his face in a glistening sheen of sweat. He leaned against the horse, unable to move, his face buried in the rough mane. Ben pulled Joe’s arm across his own shoulder, and winced as his son choked on a cry of pain.
“Nearly there, son. Easy does it,” Ben guided, half-carried him up the few stairs to the boardwalk outside the door to the doctor’s office, while Joe tried to make his feet track, his head lolling to the side, onto his father’s shoulder.
The outer door was open. They burst into the doctor’s inner office, Ben pushing the door open with his other shoulder, to find a slightly built older man who was just finishing wrapping the arm of another man who was sitting before him. The man with his hands full of white cotton strips looked up. His eyes swept over the two trail-weary men before him, assessing both the bloody bandages and glazed green eyes of the younger, and the anxiety, and evident exhaustion, of the older.
Without missing a beat, he greeted Ben. “Good evening, sir.”
Ben seemed to relax just a fraction at the calmness in the doctor’s voice. Joe was collapsing against him, nearly a dead weight in his arms. Worry tangled with relief in his face. “Doctor, my son needs help…”
The doctor handed the end of the long white bandage he was holding to the younger man who hovered hear him. “Aloysius, you finish this.” He patted the shoulder of the man he’d been treating and nodded at his thanks, already focused on his next patient. He reached to gently take Joe’s other arm, and the doctor and Ben carried him toward the examination room, his feet dragging the floor behind them. Dr. Stone called back over his shoulder as they went through the door.
“Maggie, I guess you’d better make sandwiches. I don’t think I’ll be in to dinner for a while.”
Joe’s world lurched dizzily as he was guided to lie back on the examination table, and suddenly nausea bloomed in his belly, competing for the attention of exhausted nerves with the fire that tore across his body and the heat of the fever that chilled and enervated him. He gasped for breath, fighting against the pain of the contact with the bed, and his hand came up, weakly searching. Ben caught it, held it to him tenderly, desperately.
A female voice called out, “all right, Samuel. Do you need my help?”
“It’s all right, Joe.” Ben pitched his voice low, trying to soothe his delirious son. “We’re at the doctor’s. You can stop fighting so hard now. You can rest. It’s all right now.”
The doctor was already pulling bloody strips of tanned hide off Joe’s chest, his practiced eye assessing the welter of wounds and contusions. His mouth tightened into a grim line as he realized that the man under his hands had been systematically tortured. He’d heard about a case like this from a colleague once, years ago, over a drink in a bar. The colleague had been an army doctor, had told him about an officer he’d treated, a man who was captured by the Paiutes and tortured. He never was quite right after than, ended up terribly mistreating men himself who were serving time in the army camp prison he oversaw. He was finally shot by one of the escapees he was chasing. It had happened south of here, he thought to himself, somewhere in the Nevada Territory.
“Don’t think so, dear, not just now,” he called back to his wife. “Aloysius will be in directly.” In a much lower voice, he murmured to Ben, “This is Indian-tanned hide. What happened? What is the meaning of this?”
Ben stood by the bed, one hand still wrapped in Joe’s, the other laid gently alongside his face. Joe turned his head toward it, fighting to maintain the thinnest thread of consciousness, to hold on to the warmth and reassurance of his father’s hand. The gentle, steady touch anchored him in the midst of his agony.
Ben looked down at the heaving, torn chest, the powerful shoulders sloping to the narrow waist, the lean, muscular legs, the body shaking with pain and fever. In the father’s mind he saw through the grown man to the little boy he’d tried to protect all his life. So many years, so much sadness. His eyes darkened as he gazed at the beloved face and stared into the past. He stroked curls back with a gentle caress, smoothed them away from eyes drooping shut as Joe succumbed to unconsciousness. The dark eyelashes were still as lush as the child’s had been. Hold on, Joe… Emotions raging, torn between love and fear, he tried to decide how to answer the doctor’s question.
Finally he looked up at Dr. Stone, a half-smile playing around his face. He didn’t let go of Joe’s hand.
“We were playing the hand we were dealt.”
When Joe opened his eyes, the first thing he noticed was a shaft of golden sunlight slanting across the unfamiliar room. The green eyes skewed sideways to take in his surroundings, found Ben asleep on another bed nearby.
He blinked himself awake, took a deeper breath – and the answering pain that tore across his ribcage brought him to full awareness, and full remembering.
Ben startled awake at the sound of the soft gasp that escaped Joe’s lips despite his best efforts. Eyes snapped open, he looked up and across the small distance to Joe’s bed.
A smile lit his face as he saw Joe’s eyes were open. He rose quickly and half-stumbled to the side of his son’s bed, taking care to sit down next to him as gently as possible.
“Joseph.” He took the hand that was raised, reaching for his.
The voice was weak but steady. “Hi, Pa.”
“Hi yourself.” The dark eyes telegraphed concern. The father searched his son’s face. “How are you feeling, Joseph?”
“Okay.” Joe did a mental inventory and realized that it was the truth. “A lot better than last night.”
Ben smiled again, eyes searching to ascertain how much pain his son might be trying to hide from him. “Joe, it’s been two days since we arrived. You’ve been out all that time.” Ben caressed his son’s forehead, thanking God to find it cool. He pushed the tangle of curls back from Joe’s face and neck, considered teasing his son that a haircut was long overdue. He decided against it.
Grimacing, Joe put all his strength into the effort to sit up in the bed. Ben hastened to push a few pillows behind him, careful of the painful slash wounds starting to heal on his son’s back. “I feel as weak as a kitten, Pa.”
Ben’s gentle voice was full of relief. He met his son’s eyes. “That’s understandable, son. You had a roaring fever there for a while.”
A hint of irony lit the green depths. “Damn good thing I didn’t show Chief Joseph, or that son of a bitch with the whip, this much weakness.”
Pain flitted across Ben’s features. He took a deep breath, gripped the hand he held tightly. “Joseph, I don’t know where you got it from, how you stood up to that…”
Joe looked away, interrupted him, uncomfortable. “I just did what I had to, Pa.”
“It was horrible, Joe.” Ben’s voice had dropped to an anguished whisper as he relived the nightmare he hadn’t been able to stop. He felt terribly guilty that he had urged his son to go in search of the Palouse horses, and his son had been in mortal danger because of that idea. “I wish I had never suggested going to look for those damn horses. If only – “
Joe shrugged without thinking, nearly gasped aloud at the searing pain that shot across his shoulders. He shook his head, anxious to argue his father out of the guilt that shadowed his eyes. “There was nothing you could have done, Pa. It wasn’t your fault. That was just the hand we were dealt.”
Startled, Joe fell silent. He couldn’t believe he was hearing those words come out of his own mouth.
A soft voice interrupted them, rose in volume upon seeing that Joe was conscious. “Good morning….Samuel, he’s awake!”
Then the door to their room opened fully, and the cheery face of the doctor’s wife looked in, bearing breakfast. Joe sat still in the bed, his face averted from his father’s. His gaze was somewhere far away.
They heard the quick footsteps of the doctor approaching, and Ben had to let the moment go unanswered. But his heart was suddenly lighter than it had been at any time since Hoss died. The welcome scent of hot coffee reached his nostrils and he breathed in appreciatively.
The full extent of Joe’s injuries, and their effects, hadn’t been clear to either of them until it took over a week for him to be declared sufficiently recovered to travel homeward.
Finally, on the tenth morning after they had ridden into Payette, the doctor allowed as how his patient could probably sit a horse safely. “You’ve been riding a chair in the saloon easily enough for the last two days,” Dr. Stone observed sardonically to Joe, winking at Ben, a twinkle in his eye. “And you’re completely off the pain medication.” He was taking out the stitches he’d used in the half-dozen or so most serious of the wounds left by Olikut’s whip.
Ben winced at the reference to the time Joe had been spending in the saloon. He had hoped that Joe would stop drinking so much, but as soon as the younger man had been able to walk steadily, he had headed across the dusty main street of the two-bit mining town into the saloon and straight up to the bar.
“You’re going to have some scarring here, and here,” the doctor indicated as he inspected the progress of Joe’s healing, and finished changing the bandages again. He glanced at his patient. “But the infection is under control, the fever is gone, and you’re healing nicely. You’re getting off pretty lightly, in my opinion. My final diagnosis is that you, sir, were lucky.”
Joe was sitting on the side of the bed, staring in space over the doctor’s shoulder. His hand absently strayed to a particularly sore spot on one shoulder where the whip had cut more deeply. He didn’t respond, didn’t even betray a sign of having realized that words were directed at him.
Ben shot a glance at his unresponsive son. “We’re very grateful for your help, Dr. Stone.” He put a hand over Joe’s lightly where it rested on his shoulder, and Joe stirred.
He looked into the doctor’s eyes quietly. “Thank you, doctor.” The emerald eyes looked straight through him.
Stone smiled gently. He decided not to say anything about the fact that a person might come through an ordeal like the one this man had suffered physically intact, but mentally changed forever. “You take it easy on your way home, both of you,” he cautioned. “Don’t want to see you back here, now!” He escorted the two men to the doorway of his clinic, shook hands cordially.
Joe settled his hat on his head with a sense of relief. Putting on the rest of the new clothes Ben had bought him there in Payette had been a more gingerly proposition, and the gun belt was downright uncomfortable. He had insisted on wearing it anyway. After the experiences they’d had on the trail so far, Ben couldn’t begrudge his son the ability to defend himself, and he secretly allowed himself to feel encouraged that Joe was thinking that way. As far as Joe was concerned, the discomfort was all worth it. They were finally going to be able to be on their way home.
They settled up with the doctor and took their leave, then headed over to the livery to collect their horses. The four beasts had spent the time in Payette mostly lazing around the stable, munching their way through a measure of grain a day and not doing much more than flicking the flies away with their spotted tails. They were fat, sassy and rested.
Ben expected some comment on the high spirits of the horses as they saddled up, but Joe remained quiet, his air distracted, as they rode out of town. Ben was still leading both of the other two horses. He’d insisted that it was no problem, and the still healing skin on Joe’s chest and back didn’t need the strain of all that sideways pulling. Joe hadn’t argued too much.
He hadn’t said much at all for several hours when Ben signaled a halt by a stream to let the horses drink, and rest. He shot a look at his son.
“You’re awfully quiet, son,” he ventured.
Joe returned his gaze quietly. After a moment, he responded.
“I’ve been thinking, Pa.” He gazed past the stream, stared past the brim of his hat into the depths of the forest. “I’ve been thinking about the thin line between life and death.”
Ben nodded and waited.
Joe took a deep breath and went on. Somehow, he felt he owed his father some explanation – for the weeks he’d spent wandering the fence lines, for the unanswered questions about Reno, for that cold and bitter day in the charred remains of the house he’d built for his dead wife and unborn child. “You said that you didn’t know how I was able to survive. The truth is that I wasn’t sure I could, at first. It hurt like hell.”
Ben winced, shoulders hunching involuntarily in remembered pain.
Joe didn’t notice; his gaze had turned inward as he stared past his hat brim and into the depths of the forest. The horse shifted and took a step forward into the stream as he drank, and Joe’s body automatically compensated, hips moving with the horse without conscious thought. Leaning his shoulders back slightly, he moved his rein hand forward to allow the horse the freedom to stretch his neck freely down to the water.
“I knew I had to stay strong – they’d said that if I weakened, if I died, you’d be next.” Joe didn’t look at his father. “I couldn’t let that happen.”
Ben shuddered at the memory, and the guilt. “There was a moment when you seemed to lose your balance, when I thought you were going to…fall, to…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. Just thinking about that moment brought the sense of panic crawling up the back of his throat.
Joe interrupted him abruptly. “I thought so too, Pa. I think I was that close to it. But then…I don’t know why, but I thought of…of Hoss, Pa.” Ben held very still and listened.
The horse was finished drinking, and Joe collected the reins as the head came up. It wasn’t as easy to collect himself. “I’d been feeling angry, real angry, about his death, Pa, and the anger suddenly hit me like a – like a stampede of runaway steers.” His voice was flat, a jarring contrast to the emotion he was recalling. “I felt so angry that I couldn’t feel anything else.” Joe’s voice trailed off. “I was so angry – so angry…”
Ben pulled up the heads of the other horses, and they headed for the trail. He looked over at Joe. “And now, son?”
“What do you mean, Pa?”
“Are you still angry now, son?”
Joe held still, and considered the question. “No, Pa. It’s strange, but I don’t feel angry any more. It’s like when you blow out a lamp at light, it feels that sudden. It’s strange, though – I was angry for a long time.” Distractedly, he heard the creaking of saddle leather, the muffled thuds of horses’ hooves, the occasional bird’s song carrying through the still summer air.
“Well, that anger sure was good for something if it helped you stay strong, son,” Ben observed quietly. “It saved your life.” The intensity of rage that had driven Joe seemed to have passed. “Maybe that was its purpose,” Ben offered.
But Joe seemed strangely quiet in its aftermath. Carefully, the father hazarded the question. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, Pa.” It was the end of the conversation. But the set of his shoulders, as Joe’s horse carried him slightly ahead of his father, was exhausted, and Ben could see that the mask was back in place, the eyes unreadable. It frightened him. Is the anger truly gone, Joe? Or have you just buried it inside you, where it will destroy you?
Their journey proceeded for over a week without incident. The weather stayed hot and dry, and, true to their reputation, the horses were dependable and sure-footed. They divided the days between riding and doing the hunting the allowed the two men to vary their diet beyond hard tack and beans. Each day Joe moved with a little less discernable discomfort, and each night Ben stayed awake, watching his son surreptitiously until the younger man fell asleep. Ben couldn’t shake the need to watch over him, didn’t really want to.
It was during one of those quiet nights that Ben realized what he had been waiting for, and dreading. Lately a memory had come to him, an old memory of a Captain Bolton who, a long time ago, had chased some Army deserters right onto the Ponderosa. Adam had been bushwhacked by them, and when Ben, Joe and Hoss had joined the search for the three, they had come up against Bolton. The captain was a cruel, erratic man who had killed one of the deserters on the stop. When Ben had ridden to the Army outpost to share his misgivings regarding Bolton, the commanding officer had told him that Bolton had been captured and tortured by Indians. He’d lost the use of one arm. What the commanding officer didn’t know was that Bolton had also lost his mental balance. The Cartwrights had found that out when the situation had spiraled dangerously out of control, and a gunfight had killed Bolton as well as another of the deserters.
Ben tried to reassure himself. Joe hadn’t lost the use of an arm or a leg; his wounds were healing well – the physical ones were, at least. But he was afraid of what this latest challenge might have done to his son’s mental balance. What kind of scars have all this left on your soul, son? He suddenly realized that had been sure that Joe’s sleep would be plagued by nightmares as soon as his body was recovered enough to spare the mental energy. But their nights had been undisturbed. Ben leaned against his upturned saddle and stared at their small fire, gratefully considering the reality that his son was sleeping quietly.
Maybe that’s a good sign, son. I sure hope so. His eyes softened as he gazed at Joe’s motionless form in the play of light and shadow cast by the flames. The wood popped and crackled quietly as it was consumed, slowly and methodically. A few fat sparks flew, drawing his attention back to the fire. It burned hot but contained, offering warmth and comfort against the dark and chilly night. Ben found himself wondering where the sparks went, and the image of fireflies echoed in his mind. His brow knitted as he forced his mind away from the image of dying light, concentrated on the fire itself instead.
He watched the fire consume the wood, and felt again the terrible irony of the realization he’d had many months earlier, watching the fire in the great room of the ranch house. It destroys and it warms…it threatens life and it keeps us alive He remembered that terrifying day in the Nez Perce camp, and how Joe’s anger had, ironically, saved his life – had saved both their lives – during the ordeal to which he was subjected.
Ben had known it instinctively as a younger man, that anger was a force that had helped him fight for his family’s safety and for the ranch he was building. Where the sadness of the death of his wives had made him feel weak and helpless, there was something about the anger he’d known that had given him a sense of power. But Joe’s anger had always frightened and mystified him, since he was a young man – both its intensity and the mercurial nature of it. He could become enraged in a moment, and then just as quickly subside, flashing the gentle, good-natured smile that made women swoon.
The anger in his son reminded him of the horses he broke. It was a wild, untamable force that had to be controlled. Maybe that’s what attracted Joe to the horses; maybe that’s why he understood them so well. The anger could be harnessed, could be a powerful force – the spirit that could keep a man alive. He glanced over at Joe, watched his face, peaceful in sleep. In his mind’s eyes, he saw again the ashes of the burnt house. Or it can destroy…just like the fire.
He sighed and added a few more small sticks to the fire, pushed the unburned edges of others closer in. It flared up slightly and then settled back down. Just like your temper used to be, Joseph. He never thought he’d wish so fervently for its return.
Gradually the scenery became more and more familiar, and finally, one day, they were riding the stage road that would lead them to the edges of the Ponderosa. They were making good time, and within probably a day and a half’s ride from the ranch when Ben brought it up again. He was feeling a misery of disappointment about the missed opportunity in Payette, wishing he’d had the chance to push the conversation forward after Joe had said those words, Andy’s words that had come out of Joe’s surprised mouth – “we had to play the hand we were dealt.”
He was watching his son, and watching for his chance, when he saw Joe straighten, and stretch himself in the saddle, with an ease of movement that he hadn’t seen in what seemed like a long time. There was a hint of coolness in the air that lifted his spirits and encouraged him to plunge ahead. He smiled and urged his mount alongside his son’s.
“Well, Joe, it looks like you’re feeling better?” he offered.
Joe settled his shoulders carefully, and gave him his peculiar lopsided grin. “I was checking to see if I could do that, and it doesn’t feel half bad, Pa.”
“Be careful, son, don’t go pulling anything apart that Dr. Stone put back together for you.” Ben tried for a mock-stern glower, brows knit, but he’d pushed his hat too far back on his head for it to take.
Joe rose to the bait, sighing in feigned frustration. “Stop fussing, Pa, I’m fine.” Suddenly the head lifted as if with a new thought, and the intense green eyes were fixed upon his father. “How about you, Pa? How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay, I guess. I can still protect myself pretty well, for a man my age.” The grin that surfaced on his face faded quickly, and his voice grew distant. “I used to be able to protect you, too, son.”
Joe smiled tiredly. “You did a hell of a good job when I was younger, Pa. No one thought I was going to make it to twenty. I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you and Adam and Hoss looking out for me.”
To cut some time off their journey, they left the road and were guiding their horses across a trackless meadow, moving in the direction of one of the passes that would lead them to the northern pastures. The meadow was a riot of color, the blossoms of late summer decorating the long green grass, butterflies hovering among them.
“If it weren’t for you and Adam and Hoss…” Joe’s voiced trailed off. They rode on in silence. Suddenly he exclaimed, “Pa, it’s just not fair.”
“What isn’t fair, son?”
That stopped him for a moment. “Well,” he hesitated, “life, I guess.”
Ben nudged his horse around a fallen log nearly obscured by the summer growth. They carefully picked their way around it. Without looking at his son, he responded. “Life isn’t fair, you say.”
Joe sighed and stared out over the sloping mountainside they were traversing. “Sounds stupid when I hear it out loud from you, Pa.” He ducked his head, and Ben’s heart swelled with a poignant sense of the passage of time, seeing the distressed movement he remembered from a much younger Joe.
“It’s not stupid, son,” Ben said as gently as he could. “What do you mean?”
“Life comes and life goes, Pa, and what happens to us sure ain’t necessarily what we deserve. Hoss didn’t deserve to die…” His voice quavered, and Ben heard the rest of the unspoken thought. And neither did Alice and the baby.
“No.” Ben’s mouth settled into a grim line. He pushed his hat back and scrubbed a forearm across his eyes. “No, son, life surely isn’t fair.”
Joe took a deep breath and tried to get himself back under control. “Andy and the others, too. They didn’t die for a reason, they just happened to stop a bullet.” Ben heard anger starting to build up in his voice, saw it in the suddenly rigid set of his shoulders. He looked up at the sky, his tone despairing. “Whatever happened to the idea that we were supposed to do the right thing and have faith, and life would turn out okay – that what goes around would come around again, that bad people would get what they deserve.” His hands had unconsciously tightened on the reins he held until the knuckles turned white. Reaching the edge of the meadow, they guided the horses onto the road heading south.
Suddenly something clicked into place in Ben’s universe. If it weren’t for Adam and Hoss and you, his son had said. We did this to you, son. We watched over you so carefully when you were younger that we created a safe world for you – an unreal world.
“Well, son, I guess I did that to you.”
Joe glanced over at his father, startled out of his anger. “What do you mean, Pa?”
“Joe, when you were small the most unfair thing of all happened to you.” The horses had fallen into a parallel stride and were walking side by side, and Ben took the opportunity to meet his son’s eyes. “Your mother died.”
Joe didn’t visibly flinch, but the emerald depths echoed the old pain.
“My son.” Ben took a deep breath and continued. “All of us – me and your brothers – wanted to protect you after that, and because of that. Adam never knew his mother, and Hoss didn’t really, either, but they sure did know what it was like to feel motherless. We couldn’t stand the unfairness of having it happen again, and it was even worse because you were old enough to know, and to feel, the terrible tragedy of losing your mother.”
His voice trailed off as he relived his own share of the painful memories. Joe was silent and still, listening. For several moments the only sounds were the creaking of saddle leather and the gentle buzz of insects hovering around the horses. Squeezing his eyes shut, Ben shook himself mentally, opened his eyes and went on.
“We took care of you, we protected you. You always knew that there was someone there to help you – and when you got older, you always knew that there was someone there to rescue you.” He smiled in spite of himself. “Maybe that’s why you got into so many scrapes. Maybe you just had this sense that things would work out all right, that one of us would appear in the nick of time.”
Joe smiled back quietly. “And you always did, you know.”
“Well, you returned the favor often enough later on.” Ben shrugged. “But son, I think we must also have given you the idea that there is some kind of fairness in the world around you because we were watching out for you. Hoss could take care of any schoolyard bully who unfairly threatened you – and I remember when Adam found the evidence that you had been unfairly charged with murder. Remember Mary Parsons, and how Jerome Bell framed you when he murdered her?”
Joe blew out a breath, took off his hat and ran a distracted hand through his hair. “God, Pa, that was a long time ago.” But as he settled the hat back on his head, his eyes were thoughtful.
“And everything worked out fairly, in the end, in other situations we all faced too, because we were all watching out for each other. You did your share protecting your brothers, and me too, Joe. Remember when we were framed for murder in Alkali? You saved all our lives then.”
Ben took a deep breath and looked out over the road before them. The highest peaks that surrounded them still clung to a trace of last winter’s snow. The sun shone brightly and he thought he could feel the first harbinger of autumn in a slightly cooler breeze. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking – like thinking that life will turn out fair, he thought. Oh, Joseph, we were just trying to help…
“But we couldn’t protect each other from everything, Pa, could we?” The harshness of disappointment roughened Joe’s tone. “Maybe it’s all just dumb luck – and timing.” Half a second, he thought to himself again.
“No, Joe, it’s not.” Ben suddenly knew the way forward, knew what to say. Knew what he believed. “Maybe there’s no guaranteed fairness in life, maybe that’s why the Bible says that God’s ways are mysterious.” He felt the reassuring sense of renewed certainty in his bones. “But Joe – we can still believe that fairness is right, and that we, given a choice, can choose to live and act in ways that are fair. We can still guarantee that our laws will be fair, and that we will defend the idea that we should treat each other fairly.”
He filled his eyes with the sight of the son he loved so dearly, gazed at the dark curls, the high cheekbones, the handsome profile against the dark green leaves and deep, cloudless deep blue sky. It was nowhere near as deep as the longing that suddenly rose, aching, in the back of his throat. “Joe, there’s nothing out there to guarantee that life is fair. But that doesn’t mean that what’s in here,” he tapped his own chest and then pointed at Joe’s, “can’t work for it as hard as we can.”
“No guarantee out there, Pa?” Disappointment tangled with desperation in Joe’s voice. “So Chief Joseph was right after all – the white man’s god can’t take care of the people who follow him.”
Ben started, tried to swallow his shock. They rode for a few moments in silence while he attempted to calm down. Joe’s not challenging your faith, he reminded himself, forcing himself to ease the grip of his fists upon the reins. He’s trying to figure out his own life.
Finally he sighed, and took up the challenge. “Son, we’ve both known for a long time that it’s not as easy as the preacher sometimes says it is in church, that if we do the right thing we’ll all live happily ever after.” He squinted up at the sun. “Maybe God is giving us a challenge, and it’s up to us to carry it out. We know we can’t just sit around and wait for God – or our family – to help us out of a fix.” He grinned momentarily despite the seriousness of the moment. “We have to take responsibility for it ourselves.” He delivered the next words deliberately, slowly. “We have to play the hand we’re dealt.”
He was met with utter silence. Ben held his tongue and waited, listening to the sound of the muffled clop clop of horses’ hooves on the dry and hard-packed dirt road.
“Each life has its place,” Joe finally said, staring straight ahead with a faraway look in his eyes, sounding to Ben for all the world as if he was quoting something. “Each of us is free – free to make our choices with what the universe brings us. Each life comes, and then it goes.”
Ben stared. “What was that, son?”
Joe’s old grin began to tug at the corners of his mouth. “Just something a very wise person said to me once, Pa.” The emerald gaze was focused inward, remembering a blackberry patch. “You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you deal with it.”
“Yes, Joe,” Ben felt a dawning hope rise within him. “And the fairness comes in the way we react to what happens to us, how we deal with it. It’s not out there somewhere; it’s right here.”
His eyes were shining with a hesitant delight as he gazed at his son.
But Joe shook his head, not quite able to let it all go. A shadow of something unreadable still stubbornly darkened the emerald eyes. Seeing it, Ben’s heart plummeted. He tried again, looking for the ray of light he’d seen just a moment earlier.
“Joe – don’t you see what you’re doing? Don’t punish the living because the dead died unfairly”, Ben urged.
It was all catching up with him. He was growing desperate, and the fear that he had lived with too long – the fear that he would lose his last son – was making him suddenly bone-weary. It made him drop his usual guard. The need in his voice went through Joe like a knife. “I’m not just talking about myself. I don’t want to lose you – I’ve lost Hoss,” his face twisted and his voice shook, “and, goddammit, I don’t even know where the hell Adam is.” It was all coming to a head for him. As much as he understood what his son was struggling with – God knows he had struggled too – it was driving him to the end of his rope. “But I don’t want that to mean I lose you, too, Joe.”
The hurt was plain on his face as he turned to regard his son. “I’m not just talking about what I want from you. I want you to want it for yourself, too. I want you to be fair to yourself, too.” He knew he was asking the hardest thing of all from Joe, who preferred to shift attention away from himself and onto anyone else. “Joe, I want you to count yourself, also, among the living that don’t deserve to be punished.”
There was a vulnerable wistfulness in Ben’s tone. Joe winced, and the sadness that swelled in his chest was suddenly unbearable. For a long moment, he struggled for breath.
Finally – it was almost inaudible – he spoke, and Ben heard the hopelessness in the voice. It was like teetering on the edge of a cliff over an endless abyss, threatening to send him down to the dark depths of despair. It made him want to weep.
“I just wish I could understand why, Pa.”
The house rose starkly from the muting snow, a blackened skeleton that seemed to still silently scream the violence of its death. Half-fallen planking seemed to reach upward, a twisted hand frozen in throes of agony, grasping desperately at the sky.
Ben shook himself out of the memory of nightmare, forced himself back to the present. The stiff evening breeze was cold on his face, whispered through the naked branches of tree trunks looming darkly overhead. The smell of the wind promised the approach of rain. Small animals scurrying into the brush seemed to be seeking shelter not only from the stormy night to come, but also from the darkness of the winter season heralded by the chill in the air. There was something faintly sinister about the rush of the wind through the trees. The sense of undefined threat made him uneasy, kept him on his guard.
They’d tethered the horses at the edge of the clearing. They could have gone to the ranch first and then come back, but Joe was somehow resistant to the idea. He wanted to make this trip first, before ending their long journey and arriving at home. Standing by Marie’s headstone, Ben watched his son stop first before his mother’s grave, then at Alice’s. Finally he moved to Hoss’ resting place, and stood there.
The stiffening breeze tugged the season’s last tiny leaves from the cherry trees they’d planted there so many years ago for Marie. Their brown tint flashed in the last rays of the setting sun that bathed the clearing in a soft golden glow. They tangled with the curls that the wind drove across Joe’s eyes.
Joe didn’t notice. Hands burrowed into his jacket’s pockets, he stood still, deep in thought, balancing lightly on feet spread to shoulder width. The stance was half-defiant.
Finally he sighed and cast a glance at his father. “I remember coming up here as a kid.”
Ben smiled gently. “I remember too. You would come up here when you were troubled by something – or when you wanted to get away from something.”
“Running away from something would be a more accurate way to put it, Pa, at least sometimes,” Joe responded ruefully. “But I learned that running away didn’t help.” His thoughts turned to the whiskey in the saddlebag. “Drinking too much didn’t help either.”
Ben matched his half-wistful tone, carefully tried for the faintest of comic edges. “And it’s not something you can shoot.”
The corner of Joe’s mouth turned up in the faintest echo of his lopsided grin. Then his gaze turned inward. “No.” He took a breath and faced the pain of the memory squarely. “Hunting down Alice’s murderers didn’t help.” Even when they died, it didn’t help.
He suddenly took a step forward – the gesture of a man who wanted nothing more than to escape from his own mind. But there was nowhere to run. He turned away from the graves and reached for a low hanging branch of the nearby cherry tree, gripped it tightly. “Pa, it’s worse than a nightmare. It’s like a nightmare that I can’t wake up from.”
The wind was growing rougher, more threatening. It whistled and moaned loudly through the nearby canyons. The horses shifted uneasily.
“Joe, what is it?”
Joe heard the sound of thunder rolling in from the distance and glanced up. Dark clouds were thickening over the lake. He had always hated to tell his father about his nightmares when he was younger. They had made him ashamed of the scared kid he thought he was. He had wanted to show his Pa that he could be strong, like Adam and Hoss. They didn’t have nightmares. Adam, especially, would suck it up and never let anything bother him so much, and he certainly wouldn’t bother Pa with it.
“Joe, please tell me.”
He had tried to deal with it by himself, and he had failed. He had stayed away from his home and his father and all he had managed to do was to bring more pain to the person he loved more than anyone in the world.
The wind drove the first rain drops against their faces, splattered more against the brims of their hats with small, dull thumps. Joe grimaced. “I should have been able to do something. If only I had acted in time…I should have known…” Acknowledging his failure out loud brought a despairing bitterness to his tone.
Ignoring the rain, he looked down, suddenly utterly miserable. His grip on the tree branch tightened. Ben stepped closer, straining to hear against the howling wind as Joe’s voice dropped and the tone went flat. “Hoss died in my arms, asking for you. I should have…there had to be something more I could have…” his voice broke.
Ben reached out hesitantly, then squared his shoulders and placed his hand firmly on his son’s arm. Joe didn’t respond, didn’t turn toward his father, but he didn’t shake the hand off, either.
“Joe, don’t…” Ben started. He took a breath, suddenly fearful that this conversation might be a huge step backward in the progress he had thought they were making. “Joe, you can’t do this.”
A great peal of thunder crashed suddenly nearby, nearly drowning the cry that ripped from Joe’s lips. It sounded like an animal in pain. “That’s exactly the point, Pa! I couldn’t do anything!” Both hands held on to the tree branch now as if it were an anchor in a stormy sea. He felt as if he was drowning in the terrible guilt.
“Joe! Listen to me!” Ben roared over the growing noise of the wind and the rain that was beginning to come down in earnest. He was frightened beyond gentleness. “You have to listen to me!” Heedless of the healing injuries, he grabbed his son’s shoulders with both strong hands, fighting the urge to shake him, hard. “You couldn’t do anything to save Hoss because no one could have done anything. Joe! You’re not God!”
Joe’s shoulders were trembling. His face twisted. Rain ran down his face, but he didn’t feel it. The pain of his father’s grip on his wounded back was nothing compared to the agony tearing through his heart. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, turn toward his father.
Ben didn’t notice the raindrops either; his urgent gaze was fixed intently upon his son. He took a deep breath and got himself back under control. More calmly, he insisted, “Joe, you can’t carry this all alone and survive it.”
Silence. Even the storm seemed to be momentarily holding its breath. Joe stood still; the pain in his chest seemed to be squeezing the life out of him. He couldn’t breathe.
Another harsh gust of wind blasted through the clearing. Raising his voice to be heard above it, Ben pleaded. “Joe, you have to let me help you. Just as you’ve helped me, you have to let me help you.”
Every muscle in the younger man’s body screamed to escape, to jerk out of the urgent grasp of his father’s hands, away from the pain, and run. But running away didn’t help. The branches of the cherry tree were swaying in the harsh wind. Reaching down deep inside himself, Joe forced himself to stand still against the storm inside him. He drew a long, careful breath. He owed his father at least that much.
Ben could feel the rock-hard tension in the powerful muscles beneath his hands soften ever so slightly. He prayed for the right words, and went on.
“Joe, you can’t face it alone, and neither can I. And we don’t have to! We still have each other, son. We can make it, Joe. I can’t change the way you feel, but I’m not going to leave you alone in this misery of guilt and anger that you’re fighting.” Fear subsided in his voice, and the love underneath it welled up. “Joe, you don’t have answers for why Hoss had to die so young, or why Alice died so tragically. I don’t have answers either.” He hoped he was getting through. “But we don’t have to face it alone, Joe.”
I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to her. To tell her that I loved her. Joe took another deep breath and found that he could see again, felt tears mixing with the rain that tracked down his face. He consciously settled his shoulders, let himself lean for a precious second on his Pa’s strength. Then he turned to face him, put an answering, steadying hand on Ben’s arm.
The rain was coming down in sheets now, and they were getting soaked. The two men moved toward the outcropping of rock where the horses were tethered. It afforded them scant shelter from the quickly worsening weather.
Still not meeting his father’s eyes, Joe stared at the graves. Ben stared at him, watching his profile in the dusk as the wind whipped his long curly hair all around his face. He felt the violence of the storm, but he didn’t care. He waited.
Finally Joe thought he knew what he wanted to say.
“You’re right, Pa,” he began. “You’re right that I can’t face it alone.” Joe looked up at the massed storm clouds. They blotted out the stars, and made the evening sky seem eerily darker than usual. Raindrops fell into his eyes, but he didn’t move.
A flash of lightning suddenly lit the clearing, and the pealing crash of thunder seemed to be right on top of them. Impervious, Joe didn’t even move. “And I found out that I can’t run away from it.”
He turned to look directly at Ben. “I’m sorry, Pa.” Ben started to respond, but Joe put a hand on his father’s arm to stop him. Ben closed his mouth and listened. “I’m sorry that I’ve caused you all this worry. I never meant to. And I’m sorry that I left you alone.”
He looked back at the graves. “I’m also sorry because I know that you want to make it all better, like you could when I was little.” Joe smiled quietly. The thunder sounded again, threatening, but his voice carried clearly. “You can’t, Pa. I wish you could, but you can’t.”
For a moment his gaze was distant, focused on something far beyond them. Then, seeing the disappointment in Ben’s eyes, he went on. “Pa, I don’t mean that it doesn’t help that you’re there for me. It does. And I want to be there for you, too.” The mask had dropped completely from his face, and Ben could clearly see the pain, but also the gratitude, in his son’s eyes. “It’s just that…” a glint of irony shone in the emerald depths as he shifted, twisting to turn his back to the worst of the gale coming off the lake, and winced slightly. “Some wounds leave scars.”
Joe stared off across the lake, where the stiff wind was whipping the surface into small, vicious whitecaps. “And there are some things a man has to face alone.”
There was a commiserating look in Ben’s dark eyes. “It’s okay, Joe. I know that.” He took a deep breath. “It’s true I want to protect you; I want to make it all right. But I know that whatever is going to happen next in your life is up to you.”
They could see lightning flashing against the burnt orange glow at the edge of the sky, behind the mountain range. The horses snorted nervously, and they both moved to calm them. Joe grasped the reins both of his and his father’s mounts while Ben retrieved the lead lines of the two others.
Joe handed his father his horse’s reins. “We better head for that line shack up the way and take cover from this storm.”
Ben took the reins. Despite the wind that was now whipping the rain with such power that it was falling sideways, lashing at their bodies, he stopped for a deliberate moment, looking at his son directly, face to face. “We all have scars, Joseph. But I need you to remember that you have nothing to be sorry for.” Long ago words came back to his heart. “Joseph, we all make mistakes, we all hurt – but you’re not to blame for what we’ve suffered, you’re not guilty of anything – other than having the courage to love.” His dark eyes bore into his son’s. “I need you to remember that.”
Joe returned his gaze. The green depths were clear of shadow. They shone quietly against the darkness. “I’ll try, Pa.”
The smell of rain-drenched earth filled the air. The trees heaved and groaned against the violence of the storm, deep shadows against the deeper night. The two men hunched their shoulders against the cold and the wet and turned to leave. Joe hesitated, turned to look back at the graves once more. Then he turned away from them, and toward his father and the horses. The healing wounds on his torso and thighs protested, but he vaulted into the saddle anyway.
They were headed home. After a final night on the trail, holed up against the storm in a line shack, they were following a ridge that ran parallel to the road that led from Virginia City to the Ponderosa. They had made a roaring fire in the fireplace at the shack to dry themselves and their gear, and had spent the better part of the evening sitting in front of it, warming themselves. They had passed the whiskey bottle between them, staring at the flames for hours and listening to the incessant raindrops beating on the roof and the windows of the small shack. A fragile sense of peace had descended upon them both, despite the violence of the weather.
It was mid-morning, and Joe was feeling an unnerving sense of déjà vu by the time they saw the thick black smoke billowing upward. For a few moments they had already noticed the smell of something burning, carried on the slight breeze that ruffled Joe’s curls; it was causing the horses to snort and snuffle, noses flaring. When they saw the smoke, they glanced at each other, and simultaneously put their heels to their horses.
Urging his horse to a gallop toward the hill that separated them from the source of the smoke, Joe’s sense of recurring nightmare intensified. Down the hill was the main road to Virginia City, and on it, a stagecoach was lying on its side. The black smoke that fouled the clear blue sky came from the fire that had already half-consumed it. He could see two bodies lying motionless on the ground, most likely the driver and shotgun rider. They were sprawled in nerveless, twisted positions that spoke clearly of death. The coach’s traces were empty and bore signs of having been ripped clean through by panicked horses, who were no doubt miles away by now. Canvas mail bags were scattered around, letters that would never be delivered spilling out of the ripped bags in a hemorrhage of paper that fluttered in the hot drafts of air from the fire. A strong box lay split open, an axe still buried in the heavy wood of its lid.
Joe looked wildly around…red-haired, moustache, middle-aged, not too tall, blue jacket, bay horse…Later when Ben thought back on what exactly happened at that moment, he realized that the last coherent thing he remembered was Joe’s groaned “no!” – a sound halfway between despair and rage.
“We heard a shot,” Ben explained to his old friend Paul Martin as they sat in the great room of the Ponderosa’s ranch house, a comforting glass of brandy in his hand. They had arrived home the preceding day, and Paul had just finished giving Joe a thorough examination – Ben was sure that Dr. Stone’s work was just fine, but he would just feel better, he said to Joseph, if Paul would take a look at him. “Humor me, son,” he’d growled in a way that had always meant that Joe didn’t really have a choice. Not that Joe really minded.
“We realized that someone was shooting at us. We’d come upon a stage coach robbery just as it happened, and the outlaw was still there. Joe was after him like a bat out of hell.” He took a sip of the amber liquid, felt it warm his insides all the way down. “I had no idea what was happening, but I had those two extra horses on lead lines, and couldn’t move as fast as Joe anyhow.”
Taking care to use the scattered trees as cover, Joe had taken off at full speed toward the source of the gun blast. He guided the Palouse to describe an arc, gratified that the horse was nearly as responsive as Cochise would have been. He headed to the higher ground to the left of where the shot seemed to have originated. A second shot bit into the dirt just below and before the horse’s feet, and the frightened animal spooked. Joe’s body moved effortlessly with the horse, his steady hands on the reins allowed a moment’s waver, then settled the Palouse back down, keeping him at a steady gallop toward the next covering copse of trees.
Glaring straight into the shadowy rocks ahead, he made out the back end of the gunman’s bay horse, took careful aim. Two shots later, the horse was running, panicked, the saddle empty. Joe heard a stream of colorful curses from behind the rocks, punctuated by a series of wild shots in his direction, badly aimed by an arm clothed in a blue jacket. Even a bad shot can get lucky, little brother. He heard Hoss in his head and dove off the horse, waved it away, and rolled to the cover afforded by the base of the largest nearby tree. Dammit, this better not cost me one a’ them horses…
He looked around for his father, saw him and the other horses behind cover way up on the ridge from which Joe had started his angry charge. Satisfied that Ben and the horses were safe, he turned his attention back to the man he was sure was Red, the same outlaw who had attacked the stage he and Candy had come upon months before. He reloaded his revolver, the Reno sheriff’s words echoing in his mind. “A real mean hombre, doesn’t leave witnesses, always starts by burning down the stage, or the house, or whatever he’s robbing.”
“This is your last stage, Red,” Joe muttered to himself, staring over toward the rocks. He raised his head just enough to let his voice carry.
“Red! There’s no way out – come out with your hands up!”
A bullet pinging off the rock face before him, accompanied by a vicious curse, was his only reply. Ducking, he took careful aim and returned fire.
“I was up there in the trees, watching this,” Ben continued as Paul listened, shaking his head. “Joe had taken off down there and seemed bound and determined to catch this guy and bring him in. There was just the one outlaw, as far as we could see, and Joe was suddenly acting as if getting him was some kind of personal thing. So I tied the horses and headed around the long way to try to outflank the guy. I couldn’t just sit there and watch Joe shoot it out alone.”
Paul shifted in his chair, accepted a refill of his own brandy snifter from Hop Sing. “What happened then?”
Ben sighed. “The guy ran out of ammunition. But that’s not the end of the story.”
Joe heard the other’s gun clicking on empty chambers, and a rush of adrenaline moved him up out from behind his cover and over to the rocks shielding the outlaw. He leaped over the outlaw’s sheltering boulder and directly at the man as he scrabbled frantically to reload. For one second, the red-haired face was frozen with shock, looking up at the apparition of fury that soared toward him. Before he could bring the reloaded gun back up to sight it, Joe was on him, knocking the revolver from his hand and tackling him to the ground, and then they were rolling over and over in the dirt.
“I was close enough by then to see what was happening. Joe took an awful chance there, but I don’t think he even thought about that. And that outlaw, he fought like a man who knows it’s the end of the road for him if he loses. But Joe – Joe fought like…” Ben shook his head. “…as if he was fighting all the demons that had been chasing him since, well, you know.”
Red was strong, and he had no compunctions about fighting fair when facing an opponent as implacable as this one. He knew that he had to win this fight to stay alive. As the two men scuffled in the dirt, he did everything he could to disable or kill his opponent, knees and elbows and feet flying. Getting a hand free, he used it to fling a fistful of dust into Joe’s eyes, then fumbled for the knife strapped to his boot.
Joe turned aside, rubbing an arm across his face, trying desperately to clear his vision in time to meet the attack he knew was coming. He barely saw the knife raised, then starting to descend toward him. He put up an arm to block it, and gripped the other man’s wrist with the strength of desperation. For a moment they stood, swaying, concentrating on the knife between them. Ben watched, too far away to help and afraid to distract his son. Then, with the pantherish grace that had undone more than one of his opponents in close fighting in the past, Joe twisted to one side. The movement threw the other man off balance, and Red’s momentum carried the knife down toward his own belly. He twisted frantically and it sliced the inside of his right forearm instead. He winced and grunted in pain. Following up his advantage, Joe shifted his weight forward and carried through with an uppercut that lifted Red away from him and flung him backwards to the ground.
Seeing that the outlaw was lying still, apparently stunned, Joe paused to stare at him. Breathing heavily, he got to his feet, drew a forearm across his face, scrubbing at the dirt and sweat that stung his eyes. Different places on his body were beginning to throb from the stress of the fight on his healing wounds. He ignored it, eyes searching the high ground above him, looking for Ben. He didn’t notice when Red stealthily picked up his gun from where it had dropped.
“And that was when it happened,” Ben continued. “Somehow the guy got his gun. Joe told me he saw a flash of light out of the corner of his eye, the sun glinting off the barrel, I guess.” Ben set his glass on his leg and looked the doctor in the eye. “Paul, I’ve never seen anything like it. Joe’s a fast draw, I knew that; but I also know that something’s been very wrong with him.”
“What do you mean, Ben?”
The dark brows furrowed. “He wouldn’t tell me what happened in Reno, Paul, but I asked around, and what I found out was that he had lost a gunfight that morning when he was shot.”
Paul couldn’t hide a sharp intake of breath. “A formal gunfight?”
Ben nodded darkly. “Now, Joe doesn’t lose gunfights. He’s fast as hell, and accurate. There was something wrong with him – I knew that, you and I both did – and…” his voice trailed off. The father did not want to have to say out loud what he feared, no, what he knew, to be true – that the Reno gunfight was as close as his son had come to finishing what he had started that night, long before, in the burned out shell that had been his home.
Joe had frozen in the face of the revolver pointed directly at his heart. “Who the hell are you?” The confused Red got to his feet, grunting with pain. “You ain’t a sheriff…” He squinted, took a good look at his assailant. “Wait a minute…” he stared. “I know you.” The arm holding the gun swayed slightly as the outlaw gripped his bloody right arm and fought to keep it steady. “You’re the interfering sonofabitch who got in my way outside Reno, and killed two of my buddies.” Keeping both hands on his gun, he straightened, turned his stubbled chin into the grimy shoulder of his shirt to wipe the blood from a sore spot on his jaw.
He grinned, confidently ignoring Joe’s slow turn toward him, the settling of his shoulders into poised readiness, the hand that imperceptibly moved toward his holster. “I reckon this is my chance to clean up from that last mess.” The grin turned into a scowl of pain, and the revolver dipped and swayed. “Since you know who I am, you probably also know that I don’t like to leave no witnesses.”
Some distracted part of Joe’s mind wasn’t listening to the outlaw’s words. Take ‘em, little brother. Hoss’ words of encouragement, of belief in Joe’s abilities, was suddenly echoing within him, more in his heart than in his mind. The dark thoughts and the voices that had plagued him with guilt – that he should have, could have done more to save his brother’s life, to protect those he loved – were drowned out by a sudden sunburst of clarity in the confident, loving words he’d heard his brother say more than once.
His concentration narrowed to the business end of the revolver in front of him, and, strangely, he felt a dawning sense of peace. He wanted to live – he was going to live. He suddenly knew, deep down in his bones, that his life still had a place and a purpose, and he’d be damned before he’d let this murdering, fire-setting, low-life mudsill bastard decide what or where that was for him.
Somewhere along the way, the anger had resolved itself, had become part of the energy of the confident, regular beat of his heart. Somewhere between the blackberry patch and the Palouse River, the flames and the sadness – and the guilt – had found a place too. A place he could live with.
The emerald eyes were calm. “This ain’t the guy, Adam,” he whispered. The gun pointed at him wavered slightly again.
“Joe told me later that the guy’s name was Red, that he was a well-known stage robber, and that he’d run into him before.”
“So what happened?”
Ben shrugged. “Something happened – I don’t exactly know what, but something was right, after that, that hadn’t been right for Joe since all this happened. Since before Hoss died. Joe drew down on that guy so fast that I don’t think the other guy even realized what was happening. I was there watching and couldn’t see it myself.” He shook his head in wonder. “The other guy already had his gun out and pointed directly at Joe, and he still outdrew him. The other guy got a shot off, but it went wide.”
He grinned. “Joe nailed him, dead center of his chest. He took a hell of a chance, but that was how I knew.” He grinned wider. “I knew I was looking at my Joe again. The Joe that used to take the kind of chances that turned my hair white.”
“That was how I knew.” The dark eyes were shining with happiness. “I’m gonna get him back, Paul – all of him.”
It was the end of a brisk autumn day, and long shadowy fingers of dusk were slowly covering the last rays of the sun. Ben glanced up at the sky as he ambled over to the breaking corral, breathing deeply of the cool air; he could feel the slow, inexorable approach of the year’s first snowfall in his bones. The cooler weather felt good. It made the horses toss their heads with a snort, refreshed by the end of the long hot summer days. It perked up the cowboys too.
Anyone who could manage it was over by the corral at the end of that particular working day, watching Joe Cartwright put four Palouse horses through their introductory paces in the golden twilight. The wranglers admired their fire and spirit; the cowpunchers noticed how beautifully they balanced through a tight turn. Everyone stared curiously at their coloring.
“Joe, what the hell kind of horse is that? Even their eyeballs are spotted!” Candy exclaimed in mock consternation, provoking a general chuckle among the cowhands slouching against the railings. He pushed back his hat and scratched his head, peering at his boss and friend. Ben watched from his spot leaning on the corral gate. The coolness in the air was making him feel a bit light-headed with delight. They were home, and it felt good.
Joe grinned from atop one of the stallions. “Don’t you worry, Candy,” he teased, “they see better’n you do.” He guided his mount to the fence near where Candy lounged, leaped down lightly to his feet. “That’ll do for today, Hank,” he called to a nearby wrangler. “Let’s rub them down and turn them out into the near pasture.”
“Sure, boss.” Hank took the reins. Joe patted the horse and watched as it was led away, admiring the view from that perspective as well. He pushed his hat back and settled his hands on his waist.
“Look at those powerful hindquarters. We’ll get some good cutting horses from that stallion, you wait and see,” he assured Candy. “Yessir, there’s gonna be some interesting developments in the herd next spring.” Joe’s gaze caressed the other horses, watched as the hands took care of them. “Can’t wait to see how it all works out.”
“So that long trip was worth it?” The foreman’s tone was light and bantering, but somehow they both knew that he was referring to more than just the horrific events of the trip to the Nez Perce region and back.
Joe ducked between the corral railings and felt the slight pull of scar tissue across his chest, or maybe it was just the memories that still hurt, just a little. It wasn’t something he couldn’t handle, though. He shot a look at his father. “There were parts of it that I wouldn’t have minded missing.” He grinned, and Ben mirrored it. “But all in all, it worked out just fine.” His voice trailed off, and Candy could just barely hear the last, nearly inaudible whisper. “We played the hand we were dealt.” He looked again at his father. Their eyes locked, and Joe’s were warm and green and alive.
Characteristically, Candy blustered past the moment. “I don’t know if I’d want to ride one a’ them spotted cow ponies into town, though, Joe.” His voice was somewhere between a tease and a whine. “They’re even flashier than your nag.”
Joe laughed outright at that. “I know, I know – with a horse like that, you can’t go anywhere without everyone knowin’ exactly where ya are, and what you’re up to!” They turned toward the house, from which the smells of Hop Sing’s dinner were wafting invitingly. “It kept life interesting when I was a kid. When I was riding Cochise, there was no way to sneak around Virginia City – or anywhere else.” Joe chuckled.
Candy couldn’t resist the opening. “As if that’d stop you.”
At that, Ben roared with laughter himself. “No, Candy, it didn’t stop him. Nothing could’ve stopped Joe from getting into trouble. But at least his brothers and I could find him…”
Too late, he realized what he was saying. He held his breath, watching Joe’s grin turn thoughtful. But the emerald eyes remained clear, and the handsome face stayed open and calm, unmasked. He raised his chin and threw back his shoulders in a teasing echo of a defiant young man’s gesture toward his father. “It’s true, Candy,” he offered quickly, before the silence became too heavy, “there’s an advantage to being easy to find – sometimes.”
Walking toward the house, they moved through a swirl of tiny lights that dipped and swerved around them. The fireflies’ light blinked like bright sparks cast from a fire, contrasted against the warm circle of light that pooled before the massive front door cast by the lantern Hop Sing had lit. Their footsteps struck the porch with the distinctively heavy, hollow sound that cowboy boots make on wooden planks. Ben loved the associations that came to his mind when he heard the sound of multiple boots heading for the house. And one of them was his own boy, his last child, restored to him, whole – or as nearly whole as he could expect life to allow.
He watched his Joseph as the men went through the familiar routine of doffing hats, jackets and gun belts, and washing up for supper. Candy wasn’t letting up. “Not in the saloon, for instance, when you’re on a hot streak at the poker game.” Wandering into the kitchen to steal a potato from the roast, Ben met Hop Sing’s eyes, saw his own delight mirrored there as they listened to Joe’s laughing retort. “Yeah, but when you’re about to be pounded into the ground after you win too much money in that poker game and your friend shows up just in time to save your ass…” then that unmistakable giggle, muffled by the wet towel flung across the room and right at his face. The swagger in his son’s step might be a bit muted with the life lessons that had come with the years, Ben thought, but the confidence behind it was back – the sense that he didn’t just walk into a room, he owned it. That he was where he belonged.
Contentedly, Ben watched his son laughing and teasing Candy easily. His eyes were bright, without the shadow of guilt and despair that had darkened them, and nearly taken his life. Maybe he’d never completely leave behind the painful memories of what he’d survived. But he was there, in the house, part of the life of the Ponderosa again. Ben was beginning to let himself feel more confident that Joe would survive, and survive intact. Maybe that’s the difference between Joe and Bolton – now that Joe knows he’s not alone.
Ben was coming to grips with the enduring disappointment of parenthood – that, even as he hadn’t been able to protect Adam or Hoss, now, with all the accumulated intensity he brought to bear on this last of his boys, he still couldn’t protect him from the pain that comes with life, with growth, with love. He knew that he had to accept that Joe would always tend to deal with things by himself, and maybe there would always be an anger in him that would never subside. The hair-trigger of that anger had given Joe’s personality the mercurial edge that was so much a part of who he was that Ben couldn’t really find it in himself to wish it away.
Despite what he’d said to Paul, he knew better; he wasn’t ever going to get the old Joe back. It had been a year now, a year since Alice had died, even longer since Hoss’ death. They had survived the first occurrences of birthdays, holidays, other times when the absence of loved ones was as fresh a grief as the day they’d died.
Together they had discovered that the passage of time brought with it much more than just a softening of a terrible burden of painful memories. There was something very good about the difference in Joseph now, some sense that he’d turned from looking behind him at the past. There was a hard-won wisdom, a maturity that Ben could wish had been bought at a lesser price – but it was there, and it was possibly the only thing that could protect his son from what life might still bring him, Ben realized. And he was more confident now that Joe would be ready for whatever would come, and more than equal to it.
The day after they had returned from their journey north, Joe had gone to check on the herd, and had disappeared for several hours longer than it should have taken him. Ben had forced himself to stay put, to wait, to show his son that he meant what he’d shouted into the wind on the night of that terrible storm that had caught them up by the graves. Whatever is going to happen next in your life is up to you. Some part of him had strained hard against that, had even flirted with panic, but he had managed to limit himself to pacing around the great room when he could no longer sit still.
Joe had returned in the middle of the afternoon, apology shadowing his quiet smile as he took off his hat and turned to meet his father’s expectant eyes. He reached inside his jacket and stretched out his hand. Ben hesitated, searched his son’s eyes a moment longer. There was no dark shadow, no hard edge, and Ben allowed himself to breathe more deeply. Then a glint caught his eyes, and he looked down at his son’s proffered palm. In it was the silver and mother of pearl teething ring, cleaned of ash, dried of snow and rain and tears.
Suddenly, they merged in Ben’s mind: the burned house in which Joe’s future had been destroyed, and the burned-out fort on the Snake River that had been their refuge on that first terrible night after they had fled the Nez Perce camp. He remembered the hand still gripping the knife in the ashes, the determination that had outlived death. Not everything is destroyed… The flames behind Joe’s eyes had finally calmed. He had defied the cruel, clawing hand of death, had walked directly into it and wrested from it a promise of renewed life, renewed hope.
And that, Ben would remember years later, was when he knew that his son would be all right. That was when he knew that, somewhere, Joe had found the ability to turn toward the future, and to give himself permission to look forward to it.
He shook himself out of his reverie and settled himself at the head of the laden table.
As he sat down at his father’s right hand, Joe looked toward Ben, the emerald eyes shining with a suspicious brightness. The empty spaces at the table – and in his heart – remained. There were scars, he knew now, that they would always bear, ghosts who would always haunt their hearts. But there were others who shared their table, and surely, there would be other loves that would help them carry the memory of those who had been lost – loves that would deepen the meaning of the life they shared, and the land they worked.
They would carry on the meaning of the lives of those they had loved, the meaning of the relationships that were lost. You’re carrying both of them with you. Like his father had said, he would keep those he had loved with him in what he did, in who he was. Joe silently made the promise to them, and to himself.
He filled his wine glass and lifted it, and Ben and Candy echoed the movement, watching him and waiting.
“Here’s to coming home,” Joe said, and smiled. “Here’s to being home.”
 from the Israeli song Darkeynu (“Our Path”), written by Yankele Rotblit