Summary: Adam and Joe Cartwright face the worse possible kind of danger, a silent enemy, one unseen and lethal … but which of them will survive?
Word Count: 22,570
“Just put it down and leave it alone.”
Joseph Cartwright spun round as though a whip had lashed him. His face screwed into a tight ball of mixed emotions that flashed across his features with the clarity of words written on the pages of a book. Rage, irritation, contempt slipped across the handsome features. The nostrils flared. The lips thinned and curled from his teeth. The green in the hazel eyes positively blazed. His hands balled into fists that now swung in the direction of his brother.
“I said –“
“I know what you said.” Joe hissed between clenched teeth “I heard you. Do you think I’m deaf as well as stupid?”
Adam allowed a slight smile to grace his lips and he folded his arms across his chest and raised his eyebrows
“Well now, that wasn’t exactly what I was saying, brother, but if that is your opinion of yourself.” he shrugged “Stupid, huh? They say from the mouth of babes –“
“That does it” Joe howled and with fury etched on his face he leapt towards his brother, his fists flailing as he did so.
Adam neatly side stepped and grabbed Joe’s arm as he passed, twisting him round to face him and then grabbing hold of him by the upper arms in order to restrain him as best he could. He moved his legs back as far as practicality allowed, for he knew his brother would not hesitate to kick out as hard as he could in order to gain his freedom.
“Now just you calm down, Joe, and you listen to me….”
“I ain’t gonna listen to anything you have to say. I’ve been listening to you all my life long and I’ve just about had a bellyful of it.”
“I said, listen to me and listen good.” Adam gave his younger brother a shake, which only gave Joe the added impetus to wrench himself free and swing his fist in a perfect uppercut that caught his brother square on the chin.
It also caught Adam by surprise for he staggered back some paces before regaining control of his balance. “All right” he growled, and he narrowed his eyes and clenched his fists and walked towards Joe.
Joseph gulped. Fights between Adam and himself were not unknown. They had fought at times to a standstill, but always came out of it with some mutual respect, a handshake, a smile and a wink. There just happened to be some times when both knew that they were skating on thin ice and that there would come a day when they would fight such a fight that any bonds between them would be totally severed.
It was an instinct. A something that made them both aware of a border beyond which neither could, or would, go beyond. On this particular day, Joe had a sudden, terrible feeling that they were both about to go over the edge and what had been said in anger, would never be easily erased.
“You want to fight, huh?” Adam advanced a step closer. His dark eyes were nearly total black now and his cheeks were heightened in colour due to the rage he was feeling at that moment. He clenched his teeth and his lips snarled back and then he launched himself forwards and caught Joe squarely in the midriff.
Both went down. They rolled first oneway and then the other. The thud of punches landing on flesh could be heard in echo to the grunts and gasps of the two opponents. Through the haze of dust that the fight created Adam stood up, only to be pulled back down as his brother kicked his legs from beneath him and sent him toppling onto his back.
Adam rolled, free from his brothers writhing wriggling body he struggled to get to his feet, but before he could do so Joseph had landed squarely on top of him, and had struck him a blow in the face with such force that he could taste blood in his mouth.
He grabbed blindly for some handhold and his fingers curled upon Joe’s hair and tightened. With a yelp of pain Joe was tossed to one side and fell heavily against some rocks. For some seconds he lay there, his head hang down, his chest heaved and burned within his ribs, and perspiration dripped from his face.
Only yards away, Adam struggled to his feet and swayed too and fro as he wiped a hand across his mouth and face. He looked through narrowed eyes at the sight of blood on his hand and then looked over at his brother.
“Are you done now?” he gasped
“Are you sure?”
Both of them remained where they were for some seconds. Adam swayed back and forth, gasping and puffing. Joe on the ground, head down, grunting and wheezing.
Cochise and Sport continued to graze some yards away as though such scenes were as commonplace as watching rabbits hopping from burrow to burrow, or young calves frolicking from daisy decked grassland to daisy decked hillock. They were saddled and ready for the journey home to the Ponderosa, but having been given the time and opportunity to dally, they did so, in a manner any sensible horse would enjoy.
Adam flexed his shoulders, and took a deep breath. Warily he watched as Joe regained his feet. He put his head to one side, wondering whether or not Joe were really serious about continuing with the fight. Like his brother, Adam was always cautious about allowing any fight to go beyond the borders of what both would consider an honorable end. He cleared his throat and extended his hand in order to help the lad to his feet more quickly, but Joe slapped it aside angrily. Hostilities were obviously still waging. Adam withdrew his hand and stepped back and clenched his fist and as Joe sprung at him he threw a punch that sent Joe staggering backwards and falling back into the dirt.
Adam walked over to him and looked down at him “Finished?” he asked
“No” Joe said in a muffled tone of voice
“Don’t be so obstinate, Joe, you know you can’t win!”
“Oh yeah, of course, you say. Like you say this, you say that, you who knows everything there is about everything…”
Adam sighed and stepped back and rubbed his knuckles into the palm of his other hand. It was always the same thing with Joe, always the same refrain. He cleared his throat and spat blood and dust
“Look, Joe, let’s stop now before we do any real damage. Pa won’t be too happy if we go home looking like we’ve been in a war”
“I didn’t start it” Joe said sulkily, still lying flat on his stomach in the dust.
“I beg your pardon, little brother, but if I recall rightly, it was certainly not me who started it.”
Joe rolled over onto his back and scrambled up onto his feet and glowered over at his brother. He swallowed dust and grit and a bit of his back tooth.
“Why’d you have to come anyways? Why’d you have to come and check up on me?”
“I wasn’t checking up on you, Joe.” Adam said in a conciliatory tone of voice “I told you once already, pa wanted me to come on over and give you a hand to finish the job. I’d already finished my stretch of fencing and pa –“
“I was alright, I was nearly finished, another day and I’d have been done” Joe snapped
“Another day? You mean another two days!” Adam snapped abruptly “What I’d like to know is exactly what you’ve been doing over the past few days. You had the shortest stretch of fencing to do and you’ve taken longer to do it than a green horn rookie cowboy could.”
“Why do you always have to come and interfere anyway” and before another word could be spoken Joe launched himself forwards and flew at his brother once again.
Adam raised his hand and swiped him away with a swing of the fist that would have made even Hoss stagger some paces. Before Joe fell back Adam grabbed at his shirt and held on to him, and shook him a little for good measure.
“Now you listen here, little brother, I don’t come interfering with your work, as you put it. I came here because pa was concerned about you. I came here because I had finished my work and we thought I could help you finish yours. I thought if we finished in time before the week ends we could go into town Saturday and enjoy ourselves. But if you want to stay here for another two days on your own, so be it………….” He gave his brother another angry shake and released his hold on the shirt.
Joe landed with a thud amongst some shrubs, which somehow softened the landing. He rubbed his face, his chin, his brow, and finally his head. He watched as his brother walked, stiff legged, straight backed, towards Sport. Adam stooped on the way to pick up his black hat, which he whacked several times against his leg before sliding it slowly over his disheveled hair. As he put his foot into the stirrup he glanced over his shoulder at his brother
“What do I tell pa?” he said quietly
“Tell him what you usually say” Joe snapped back
“What? That you were too lazy and too stupid to get the job down?”
Joe snorted with anger. Had it been possible fire would have streaked from his nostrils and steam from his ears. As it was his face reddened and he rose to his feet quicker than Adam had anticipated. In a trice Adam swung himself into the saddle and turned Sport round so that Joe bounced rather unceremoniously into Sports rump and was sent sprawling into the dust again.
“C’mon, Joe, let’s call it quits and be done with it” Adam said quietly, wishing more than anything that he had left it to Hoss to come and help Joe with his section of the fencing.
“Just go away and leave me alone” came the snapped off reply.
“As you wish” Adam replied and turned the horse in the direction of home.
The retort of a rifle that sent ripples of sound echo-ing eerily across the vast vista of land made them both pause. They glanced around them and peered, narrow eyed, at the high ridges about them. Adam inclined his head to measure sound and distance and frowned
“That came from the way station” he said quietly
“Maybe they’re hunting” Joe said quietly, picking up his hat and dusting it down.
Another retort. Before the echo had died away, still another.
“They need help” Adam said quickly and looked over at his brother who, perhaps gratefully, was putting his hat on and running towards Cochise.
Three shots. It was the plainsman’s plea for help. As swiftly as they could both brothers turned their horses round and galloped towards the little relay station from where the signal had been sent.
When Adam raised his hand and pulled Sport to a rearing standstill, Joe was so close upon his heels that it was with some difficulty that he pulled Cochise away from a collision. As it was the abrupt halt did nothing to cool his temper, for he edged Cochise so close to Sport that Adams knee actually grazed against his own
“Why are you stopping?” he demanded, his eyes blazing into his brothers’ face “This is not time to stop. Those people need our help”
“We’ve been pushing our horses hard for the past I don’t know how long, Joe, but in all that time I’ve not heard a single thing –“
“How’d you mean? What are we supposed to have heard?”
“Gun shots – “ Adam frowned, his face turned towards the way they were headed “I don’t know –“
“YOU don’t know! And we’re supposed to just sit here while they could be in desperate need of our help?”
“No, I didn’t mean that, I –“
“Well, I ain’t gonna waste anymore time. You can do what you like, Adam, but I’m going on right now –“ and putting words into action the younger man spurred his horse forwards. Cochise sprung forwards and within seconds had left the other horseman looking after them as the dust settled around them.
With a sigh of exasperation Adam spurred Sport into a gallop. It took no time at all to catch up with Joe and together they galloped onwards to the relay station.
There are times when riding, and particularly in situations of this kind, when both brothers felt that no matter how fast they rode their horses, distance remained at a standstill. No matter how low in the saddle they sat, no matter how they urged their horses onwards, no matter how the wind streamed into their faces and made their eyes sting and weep, the miles and the time remained static. How Joe wished he could spring from one area, or situation, immediately into the other with no wastage of time. How Adam longed to will away the miles so that riding from A to B was like walking from one room to another.
It seemed to no account that their horses stretched their legs to leap over boulders, swerve around obstacles, gallop so hard that their withers began to tremble and sweat began to streak white upon their coats. Still miles to go and both horses were beginning to labour and pant, and their eyes began to roll wildly as they struggled to fulfill their masters’ determined will to stretch them to the limits of their power and endurance.
At last the relay station hove into sight and both men hauled on the reins to bring their horses to a trembling laboured halt. As Sport and Cochise snorted and panted, so their two riders struggled to gain their own breath as they looked down upon the peaceful scene that lay serenely stretched out beneath them.
In the corral the horses grazed undisturbed and unperturbed. Chickens clucked about, scratching up dust into tiny dust devils with their claws. The relay station appeared to be basking in the mid-day sun with all the appearance of blissful ignorance of the onlookers concern. Washing hung limp upon the line begging for a breeze to sift away the collected dust that clung upon it.
Joe and Adam scanned the scene with narrowed eyes and then looked at one another. Both wore slight frowns of puzzled concern upon their brows. Joe pushed his hat to the back of his head and scratched through his thatch of hair
“Tom must have been hunting” Adam leaned upon his pommel and stared thoughtfully at the house.
“He may be a bit of a green horn out here but even so, he knows better than to fire off three shots at random”
“Sometimes it’s easy to forget when there’s so much else new to learn.”
The two brothers said nothing more for some seconds. Adam caressed Sports’ smooth neck and inwardly cursed himself for putting his horse to such pains for nothing. He could feel the horse sweat wet to his fingers and sighed heavily. He glanced over at Joe and cleared his throat noisily to gain his brothers attention.
“One thing I do know” he said quietly “Mary’s still enough of a lady not to want us tramping into her home looking like two no account cow pokes rolling home from a saloon bar fracas. If I look as bad as you look, we’d scare her and the kids to death –“
Joe scowled and nodded and reached for his canteen. There was no denying that Mary Murphy was prim and dainty, just as there was no denying that Adam looked bloodied and bruised and he fully realised he would be looking equally as bad. Both of them soaked their handkerchiefs in water and wiped around their faces and necks.
“She can be a mite starchy about etticky-kett” Joe admitted as he raised the canteen to his lips and swallowed down several mouthfuls
“Well, she’s a well brought up gal from Louisiana and doesn’t think living out in the wilds here any excuse for bad manners” Adam followed his brothers example and drank some water. “Let’s get down there, our horses could do with something to drink and my canteens dry” and without another word he urged Sport down the scree clad descent to the track that led to the relay station.
Some minutes ticked past and he was thinking of nothing more urgent than getting Sport to the trough for the animal to slurp up as much fresh water as he could, when a disturbing anxiety niggled its way through and to the surface of his mind and he turned to Joe who was trailing some distance behind
“Joe? Do you know when the next stage is due?”
“Not for some hours yet.”
“Even so –“ Adam paused and looked at the house, now coming closer into view as they reached the track
“Even so what?”
“Well, granted it’s hot enough to fry an egg on these stones, but that never has stopped a woman from having a stove alight”
“So? What’re you thinking?” Joe frowned and narrowed his eyes and turned to look at the house again
“From the chimney. No smoke, no stove alight, no cooking – “
“Or boiling water for washing”
They looked at one another anxiously and Joe bit his bottom lip thoughtfully before urging Cochise into a leap and a gallop.
He cast an anxious look over at Adam and saw his brother unclip the catch on his holster and seeing his brother’s stern features the younger man nodded and followed his example. It was better to be prepared, just in case.
But just in case of what? Seeing Adams example of caution as he approached the relay station, Joe settled Cochise into a steady trot so that both of them rode into the yard, side by side, hands on their gun butts, and eyes turning from side to side. Looking for what? Expecting – what?
Dogs barked frantically. They strained at their leashes and whined and snapped before retreating back to settle on their haunches and watch, with dark brown anxious eyes as the two men approached the hitching rail.
“It feels all wrong” Joe said involuntarily “Too quiet”
One of the dogs whined plaintively and settled onto its belly. It’s eyes twitched from one rider to the other. The other dog began to bark, its hackles were raised, slathering from its jaws.
Adam was about to mention the possibility of the family having ridden into town. It would have been a journey that necessitated an overnight stop en route so the wagon would have been essential. However, the wagon, collecting several chickens who were perched around about it, stood basking in the heat of the mid day sun. He eased himself in his saddle and looked over to the horses.
The horses had moved towards them. As though at a given signal every horse in the corral had abandoned their close cropping of the sparse greenery to stand at the fence and nod in silence over at them. One of them lifted what seemed a weary head and snortled down his nostrils at them, and received an answering whicker from Cochise.
The brothers edged their horses to the trough, and then glanced at one another. The water trough was empty. Not only empty, bone dry. Adam nudged Sport towards the water trough that stood within the confines of the corral and then looked over at Joe and shrugged. It was not good. No man, woman or child would abandon their stock with insufficient water. When the sun could burn up moisture within minutes it was a criminal act of inhumanity to treat dumb animals in such a way.
“No water in any of the troughs. Nor has been for over a day I would say” Adam said quietly
“I guess that goes for the stock in the byre as well?” Joe indicated the barn and Adam glanced over his shoulder over at it and frowned “I’ll go and check it out.”
“I’ll get some water to these creatures.”
Adam dismounted and hitched Sport to the rail. At the well he threw down the bucket and heard the satisfying splash of water. The two dogs stood up immediately, their tongues lolling from heat-starved mouths, their eyes moist and expectant as they watched the man turn the winch and bring the water to the surface.
How it gleamed and glistened and bedazzled the eyes. Diamond sparks and spangles as the sun gleamed upon its surface and caught the splashes in gleaming prisms of light. They yelped excitedly and when Adam poured the water into their bowls they came near to choking in their efforts to gorge on the life enhancing liquid.
The horses shifted restlessly. Adam glanced up from his labours to see Joe walking towards him, leading Cochise on his rein. He could see the thin line of Joe’s mouth. Obviously what was in the barn had not impressed his little brother. He winched up another bucket load of water and walked to the trough and emptied it out. He could hear Joe working the handle of the sluice that would send water gushing into the other troughs. Best to deal with one thing at a time. A man cared for his beasts before anything, anyone else.
The horses pushed and shoved one another. There was a pecking order to be observed. Their thirst had to be constrained by discipline but they pushed their big heads forward as water splashed into the trough and time and time again Adam lowered the bucket and winched it back upwards. Once he stopped and poured a ladle of the cold fresh water over his face. He saw Joe dipping his own head under the sluice as the water flushed through….
The troughs filled and re-filled. The dogs’ bowls filled and re-filled. They lay bloated and satisfied. Their tails twitched and they closed their eyes and slept knowing their bowls had plenty in them. Adam bit his lip and wondered how much longer they could have survived.
However, there was still a mystery to be solved. Dogs may be mad with thirst and horses and cattle dazed and lethargic from heat exhaustion and lack of water. But none of them could have pulled the trigger of a rifle three times…
He walked slowly towards Joe, wiping the back of his neck with his kerchief. Joe was stroking Cochise’s neck, as his horse slurped water by his side.
“What about the cattle?”
“One dead calf. It’s mother looked half dead but livened up after a drink. There’s another milk cow in there. Another looks like giving birth anytime.” Joe sighed. “The other stock must be grazing down below”
“Thank goodness for that, I’d hate to think of more beasts suffering unnecessary.” Adam glanced over at the house “They must have just up sticks and gone”
“No. I can’t believe that Tom and Mary would do that, Adam. It may not have been the ideal as far as Mary was concerned, but Tom was happy with the work and the location. He was enjoying his life here and he was a conscientious man.”
“He left the animals without food and water for who knows how long?” Adam replied coldly by way of reminder
“There must be a reason. Perhaps an accident – someone fired those shots.”
Adam glanced around the yard. His eyes flickered to the house and he nodded. “Let’s go and see what there is inside “ he suggested. “If there ain’t no sign of them, we had better go looking further afield.”
“They’d have known we were here by now, Adam. They must be absent for some reason.”
“Let’s make sure first” and Adam withdrew his gun slowly from its holster and looked over at Joe “Just in case –“ he said quietly
Joe nodded and took his gun into his hand. Slowly they approached the house. Their heels made staccato raps onto the wooden planks of the verandah. The wooden rocking chair witnessed their approach. From the house there was nothing.
They paused at the door and looked about them. Adam took a deep breath and glanced at the window of what would have been the Murphy’s kitchen. He frowned slightly as he saw something the significance of which his brain could not yet register. He nudged Joe and indicated the window and looked at his brother with a question in his eyes. Joe shrugged and shook his head.
It was hot. It had been stiflingly hot for days. When it got hot there were flies. Sometimes when food was left unattended there would be more flies than normal. There were more flies around the window than normal.
The window on the other side of the door crawled with flies. Maggots inched against the framework or lay fat and creamy sluggish as flies walked over them.
Involuntarily both brothers stepped back and licked their dry lips. Adam felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end and Joe felt sweat prickle his scalp and make him itch.
Carefully, tentatively, Adam stretched out a hand and touched the door handle. He pushed it open and stepped forward. He held his gun ready. Behind him Joe stepped forward.
The exclamation slipped like a gasp from Adams lips as he recoiled hastily back onto the verandah, almost knocking Joe into the rocking chair that began to creak back and forth eerily.
“What – what is it?” Joe whispered, his large eyes widening in fright.
“It stinks in here!” Adam replied
Joe suddenly realised he had not needed to have been told. The stench touched his own nostrils and he turned his head away. The dogs, secure on their chains at the far corner of the house, instinctively sat up, their forefeet paddled the dry ground nervously. They whimpered and whined as they raised their noses to the air and snuffled at the smell that drifted into the clean air.
“Come –.” Adam said quietly “I’ve a bad feeling about this, Joe.”
Joe nodded. He pulled out his kerchief and held it to his face, against his nose and mouth. As they walked into the room, Adam put away his gun and pulled out his handkerchief and followed his brother’s example.
He had smelt this stench before, this cloying, sickening stench of death. He turned his head to one side as though the smell would be less if he did so. He brushed aside flies that buzzed angrily towards him. Behind him Joe did likewise as he hurried to the windows and threw them open. The flies lingered. Bloated, lazed and dazed by heat and too much to gorge upon. Joe stepped back to avoid maggots and dead flies cocooned by webs from opportunistic spiders.
“Adam? What’s going on here?” he whispered and his voice wobbled slightly as he glanced around the room.
Rotting food upon the plates. Meat heaved as maggots crawled over their banquet. Wilting flowers that shed their leaves like a wreath upon a meal of death. He held his kerchief closer to his mouth and fought back nausea that hit his throat and burned with an acidic scorching.
Adam pushed open another door, paused a moment and went ashen faced. Hastily he stepped back and slammed it behind him.
“Don’t go in there.” He whispered hoarsely
“No?” Joe whispered back, his over large eyes asking a hundred questions that could all have been answered by the horror on his brother’s face.
Adam now inched forwards to another door. There was no enemy. No man crouched there awaiting anyone arriving with rifle or gun. But the sight he anticipated was one more fearsome. No one would want to rush in upon the sight he expected to see and he swallowed hard, Joe could see the jerk of his brothers Adam’s apple, and felt the sweat break out down his spine.
Adam put his hand on the door and pushed it slowly open. He paused for an instant and looked into the room, upon the bed, and then turned to Joe.
“Is it – is it Tom?” Joe whispered
“No, it’s the boy. Joshua.” Adam said with a voice thick with misery and the phlegm that rose in the throat when emotion signalled to the body to rush in with its defenses…adrenalin, endomorphines….They squeezed his throat and made his heart beat so fast that he wanted to vomit there and then. He closed the door and wiped his face and shivered.
“Is he – is he dead?”
“Probably the first” Adam muttered and then he glanced about him “The little girl? She must be here somewhere. She must have been the one to have fired the gun”
“No, he’s been dead too long.” Adam’s voice trailed away and he glanced fearfully at the closed door where Tom and Mary lay together on their marital bed. “And Mary –“
Joe felt the colour drain from his face. He swallowed bile. His lips went even drier than they had been already. He could only stare into his brother’s face and see the horrified misery he felt reflected back at him.
“Then where’s Martha?” he whispered
“Perhaps she’s still alive,” Adam said, and he looked at the door behind Joe. It was the door that led to the back storeroom that Tom and Mary used as an office. “Open it, Joe, unless you want me to?”
Joe said nothing. He knew that whatever his brother had already seen had been so miserably sad that Adams request had been only to spare him the same horror. He put his hand to the door and pushed it open.
“Martha?” he whispered as he saw the child sitting hunched in the corner of the room “She’s here, Adam, she’s alive”
Exultant joy! They hurried into the room and Joe, having reached her first, went onto his knees and took her into his arms and smiled down at the child’s face. Adam, so close, watched the young mans smile fade and the relief disappear from his eyes. He placed a gentle hand on the younger mans shoulder and knelt down beside them.
“Martha?” Joe whispered hoarsely. “Martha, can you hear me?”
The child’s eyes flickered and opened. Already death was waiting to claim its latest victim. The once blue eyes were already mud coloured and opaque. The once fresh rosebud lips were dry and withered as an old crone’s. Joe stroked back the golden blond hair and his own lips trembled and he looked over at his brother and shook his head. Martha sighed and whispered a few words that begged for him to lean down closer to her. Her words brushed his cheek as warm soft air as soft as a kiss. Then she shuddered in his arms.
They stayed there for some minutes. It presented a silent tableau of misery, grief and despair before them. Then Adam placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder and rose to his feet.
“Joe, leave her be for the present, we have to bury them”
“Yes, yes, of course we must.”
He didn’t want to leave her. It was as though they were about to abandon her. How she must have suffered. How alone she must have felt. He shivered, and shivered again. It was though his body could not stop from reacting to what its eyes had witnessed. He finally lay her down and looked at her as he did so. She was such a little child with her golden hair. He could remember her running towards him with smile on her lips and her cheeks bright from her exertions. Laughter had tumbled from her mouth and her eyes had been bright with the excitement of life. He could recall her tumbling down the hillside with the dogs running by her side and her brother, Joshua, his feet pounding the ground as he raced to reach him first. That had only been a few days ago -. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He wanted to go somewhere private and throw up.
“Are you alright?”
Adams voice floated towards him and he glanced up and nodded. They were outside again now. All the doors and windows had been left open. The flies were drifting reluctantly out into the hot day. The dogs were still whining. He looked at his brother and licked his lips
“Yeah?” Adam turned his attention back to his brother and frowned “You alright?”
“I feel a bit better now. Sorry –“ he took the canteen of water his brother handed him and took several long refreshing gulps. As he screwed the lid back onto them he looked once more at Adam “Do we have to bury them? Can’t we take them into town for a decent Christian burial?”
“We could put them in the wagon and I’d drive them there if you’d rather?”
“I said ‘no’.” Adam frowned, his brow furrowed and Joe could see where the perspiration had settled into the creases of his brother’s skin. He could see his brother’s lips had formed a resolute line in preparation for resistance. Joe swallowed and prepared to give him some
“Tom and Mary were good living people, Adam. You can’t just dig a hole and bury them in this – this place”
“I can. We can “ Adam corrected himself.
“But, Adam, it isn’t decent –“
“Dying as they did isn’t decent. Not having a doctor to care for them. That isn’t decent. Being alone – dying alone – that isn’t decent either. But the fact is that they’re all dead and –“ his voice faltered and he lowered his eyes “And we don’t know what they died from, do we?”
“No” Joe’s voice, along with his resistance, slipped away
“A whole family doesn’t die like that without any reason, Joe. There’s no gunshot wounds, there’s no evidence of any other person having been here for days. All the evidence points to Joshua dying first, then Tom. Maybe two days, three days ago” he put his fingers to his head as though trying to sort out the thoughts that crammed into his brain “Look, Joe, Mary couldn’t bury them. She must have been too weak herself. She left little Martha alone while she went into that room to die with her husband. Everything was just left. They died from some sickness that – “
“Hang on” Joe put his hand on his brothers arm “What exactly are you saying, Adam?”
“I’m saying – “ Adam stood up, straightened his shoulders “I’m saying you had better dig one big hole while I go and get the bodies ready for burial” he glanced back at the house “Or do you think we should just burn the lot down?”
“With them in it? Are you crazy?” Joe’s fingers tightened around his brother’s wrist “You can’t do that.”
“I could, I can.”
“No, they deserve better than that, Adam”
“They deserved better than what they’ve had, they deserved to have had proper doctoring, medicine, care and attention. Now they’ve died and – and we have to take care of them.” He took a deep breath and looked at Joe and then pointed over to the shovel “Dig it really deep”
“Yes, sir.” Joe said quietly and without a word more he walked over to the shovel and walked away to where he thought they would have liked to be sleeping altogether.
It was a daisy-decked hillside with views over the lake that glistened on the horizon. As his shovel cut into the first sod of soil, he felt the tears mount into his eyes and fall unheeded down his face. Martha, little Martha, had died asking for water, for her mama and papa. He could still feel the soft breath warm to his cheek. He could still feel the lightness of her body in his arms. She was just a little girl, barely six years old.
Adam stood awhile in the bedroom of the couple and looked down upon them. They lay close together, and she, who had lived longer, had slipped into her husband’s arms and entwined her own arms upon his neck and laid her head upon his shoulder. He wondered if the smells of death that stunk in his nostrils were of his imagination. Or was the stench real, conjured up by the intense heat of the room with its closed window and the flies.
He stepped forward and wished that this task could have been given to another, and not to him. Yet it was self designated, after all, who else could he delegate the task but to his brother. How could he have done so? He had taken fresh linen from an ottoman and hastily he covered her with a sheet and drew her away from the last embrace of her dead love.
He had buried bodies before. There had been those who had been victims of disease or victims of Indian attacks. Of accidents and gun fights. But there was something terribly awful about these deaths for it touched his own heart with a frightening foreboding. He forced his mind to face the immediate task and not wander down paths that, at present, he had barely allowed himself to consider. Now she was wrapped in a shroud and he lifted her into his arms and carried her out to the wagon whereupon he lay her down.
He returned to the room. Flies hovered and buzzed about his perspiring face and he brushed them away. He realised now that he was more aware than ever of the heat. He could feel sweat prickling his armpits, his scalp and running down his spine.
He rolled Toms body into the sheets, and bundled them close and tightly together as quickly as he possibly could, knowing that if he hesitated then he would see things that would fill his brain and be food for nightmares for weeks to come. The fetid smell of death clung in his nostrils and seeped down his throat and he longed for the opportunity to run outside, throw him-self into the saddle and ride home.
As he carried the body to the wagon, he could hear the scrape of the shovel on the soil. He placed Tom next to Mary and listened. Joe was working industriously at his task. He bowed his head, and a shiver trickled up and down his spine.
He collected little Martha next. He held her close for a moment and looked at the child’s face and stroked back the blonde hair and felt emotion tighten into a lump at his throat. Carefully and gently he placed her in a quilt and wrapped her tightly as though she were that infant from long ago who had been settled in a manger in swaddling bands.
How he dreaded the next room. The child lay on the bed and he waved aside the flies and threw open the window, knowing that it was impossible to work in the claustrophobic heat and stench of the room. His heart was thudding against his ribs as he pulled the boy up – and then dropped him back into the sheets on the bed. It was no good. He couldn’t bear to touch the child’s corpse like this and he hurriedly pulled over the soiled linen and bundled it together all the while with his brain screaming ‘sorry, sorry, Josh, sorry’
Joe glanced up as he heard the wagon approach and he lowered his head and looked into the hole he had dug. It was certainly big and wide enough. He had had a task of his own to clamber out of it.
The dogs had sensed their own loss in the way only the canine species could explain. Now they sat side by side and raised their muzzles to the sky and whined that plaintive low warble of distress one associated with wolverines and full moons. It added an air of eeriness and unreality to the situation that made Joe feel sick to the pit of his stomach. As the wagon passed them the dogs stood and began to pad the ground, yipping and whining, and falling into miserable uncanny silence once it had rumbled out of their sight.
Adam narrowed his eyes as he approached his brother. Then, hurriedly, he bowed his head knowing that his brother would not want him to have witnessed the shed tears that streaked his cheeks. Without looking up he put a brake to the vehicle, and clambered down.
Now he paused and placed a hand on the tailgate and felt tears well up into his own eyes. He pressed his fingers against his eye lids and stood there awhile until he had mastered the desire to weep and could get down to the grisly business of taking the bodies from the wagon floor.
“I’ll help.” whispered Joe and their eyes met, and very hastily they both turned away for recognising the sorrow and weakness in the other, weakened their own resolve.
Carefully and as gently as they could they took the bodies, and lowered them into the gaping wound in the soils surface. When little Martha was settled down to rest upon the body of her mother, Joe’s restraint faltered and a sob escaped his lips. When Adam placed a reassuring, comforting hand on the younger mans shoulders, Joe turned away. He straightened his back and took a deep breath.
“Are you – are you going to say anything – for – for them?” he muttered hoarsely.
“Do you want to say anything first?” Adam asked
“No – I mean – I – I can’t – not just yet”
Adam nodded. Side by side they stood, shoulder to shoulder, and with their hats held to their chests. Adam took a deep breath and began to speak the familiar words
“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down. He fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. So man lieth down, and riseth not; till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep. “
A bird called out in the silence as the two men stood by the graveside. A breeze drifted by and the daisies nodded to the rhythm of its passing. Another bird answered the call of the first. Butterflies drifted in a lazy arc and faded from their vision
“And the Lord said “ Marvel not at this; for the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” he stooped and picked up a handful of the dry soil and held it over the grave “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes – may God bless you all and remember you all, Tom, Mary, Joshua, Mar – Martha” and he let the dust fall, sifting down upon the quilt that covered the child. He blinked back tears and pressed his fingers against his eyelids “Amen” he whispered hollowly.
“Amen” Joe echoed and bowed his head and tears slowly slid down his cheeks forming runnels through the dust that had coated his skin as a result of his labours.
They stood in silence for some more time. The birds were singing now and both of them heard the sound of the birds’ song, and pondered over the irony of beauty continuing on through a macabre moment of time. Adam shivered and turned to look at Joe. He placed a gentle hand on his brother’s arm
“Look, Joe, you had best take the wagon back and see to the stock. They’ll need some feed and more water. The stage will be here in less than an hour, and we have to talk”
“Why must I –“ Joe’s protest faded from his lips, and he took a deep breath and nodded “Sure, we have to talk. I’ll see to the stock and we’ll talk later.”
“Sure, we’ll talk later.” Adam watched as his brother walked away and mounted the wagon.
Joe had just loosened the brake on the wagon and flicked the reins when he heard the sound of the shovel biting into the soil. He turned hurriedly and bit his bottom lip. As the wagon rolled slowly back to the yard of the relay station, Joe struggled to shut out the mental image of his brother shoveling back the mound of soil into the grave.
Billy hauled on the lead reins and drew the horses up in a cloud of dust close to the corral where the fresh horses milled around. The heavy vehicle rocked slightly on its suspension, as the dust enveloped it in a filmy gray sheen.
“All right, folks, time to git out and git some food and drink – stop over time just two hours and –“ he paused in mid-sentence and turned as the recognisable click of a trigger being pulled back sounded eerily through all the other noises “What in tarnations going on here?” he cussed as his feet reached the hard packed soil and he turned to face the relay cabin and saw, with gun pointed directly at him, the tall sombre looking eldest son of Ben Cartwright “What’s going on, Adam?” Billy said, stepping forward to the cabin
“Not another step, Billy” Adams voice rasped
“You must be joshin’” Billy grinned, then stopped as he recognised something in the young mans face that indicated that he was very far from joshing. Even as he stood there the makeshift cabin door opened and Joseph Cartwright stepped outside into the glaring sun. His own pistol pointed directly at the stagecoach and his face was a replica of his brothers.
“Tell your passengers to stay on board. Change the horses if you must, but get moving as soon as you can” Adam Cartwright said in a tone of voice that brooked no argument and he swung round slowly, his gun carving an arc in the air as he turned to aim it at one of the passengers
The perspiring form of one of the leading citizens of Virginia City thrust open the door and peered out, glowered at Adam, and Joe, and then at Billy.
“I thought you said there was food and drink here.” he growled, pulling out a kerchief and mopping frantically at the beads of sweat that rolled down his face.
“You stay right where you are, Mr Jackson” Joe suggested
“You Cartwright’s taking over the relay business as well is it? Think you can tell us –“ Jackson stopped when a bullet whined through the air and spat dust inches from his feet. Hastily he clambered back inside “What’s going on here? This is crazy!”
“Some way to run a stage coach business” a woman whined as she tried to stifle the sounds of crying from her two year old child.
“Adam? Joe? What’s going on here? Where are the Murphys?” Billy demanded, thrusting out his gray bristled chin stubbornly
Adam beckoned him to step forwards, and then raised a hand to stop him after several paces
“That’s far enough, Billy”
Billy looked at one and then the other of the two brothers. Both of them bore signs of stress. Their eyes were strained, sad, and wistful. Dirt and grime clung to their clothes, and he could see marks on the face of the younger that looked like the course of tears. He frowned and glanced over his shoulder as the sound of a baby crying added to that of the two year olds bawling.
“What happened? Summat bad?”
“As bad as you can imagine” Adam said quietly “We just buried Tom and his wife and children”
“What? What happened?”
“We rode in a few hours ago. Martha died in Joe’s arms. Billy, I don’t know what killed them, but I’m pretty much convinced that –“ Adam paused and glanced sideways at his brother and Billy saw there the look of tenderness that fell over the older mans face as he looked at Joe. The fear in his eyes, and Billy knew that it was the fear for his brother more than anything else that now haunted the older man, for when he next looked at Billy his eyes were haunted and wild “Billy, don’t let anyone come any closer just in case.”
“In case?” Billy pushed his hat to the back of his head and surveyed them both.
“Joshua died first, several days ago, then Tom, they must have been too weak to bury the boy, and then Mary died…Billy, it wasn’t pleasant finding them like that and – and we don’t know what they died from, but it was sure something unpleasant.”
“Do you want me to send Dr Martin back to you boys?”
They looked at one another. Joe, his face showed his trust and love for his older brother, respect for whatever he decided upon, and the confidence that he would be right. It was the older man who showed lack of conviction, and that was only due to the love he had for his brother, his fear that the boy could become sick to the death with the illness that had been in the cabin. His responsibility to protect and care for the boy lay upon his heart like a stone. Joe turned away and looked at Billy and shook his head
“There’s a lot of folk out there, and only two doctors to see to them. Best you just leave it to them to decide what to do.”
Adam gave his brother a long look of pride and respect and then turned to Billy and nodded
“It’ll take another 22 hours to get to town and another 22 hours for them to come back plus time spent finding them, by which time –“ he licked his lips, they were dry and he coughed to clear his throat “Billy, when you see Pa and Hoss, tell them – tell them we did what we thought to be right and tell them we’ll see them when the next stage comes through” he paused and frowned and bit his lip and looked over at Joe, who inclined his head.
“That’s not for another week.” Billy said quietly
“Yes, a weeks time. Tell them that, and tell them not to do anything without the doctor’s approval. Tell them –“ Adam paused and took a deep breath “Tell them we will be thinking of them” he stepped back into the shadows of the cabin, his hand on his brothers shoulder and Joe, looking at the frightened faces peering out of the open windows, and then at Billy, nodded his farewell and stepped with his brother into the cabin.
The door closed quietly.
Within ten minutes the stagecoach rocked back into motion and sent a cloud of dust and dirt and grit billowing skywards across the yard towards the gray clapboard building.
The sounds of the stagecoach finally drifted away. The two brothers exchanged glances and reholstered their guns. Adam nodded curtly to Joe and indicated the table and chairs with a gesture of the hand. It was obvious it was now time to talk. Both brothers sat down and looked warily at the other.
“Well?” Adam asked first, raising his eyebrows
“Well what?” Joe replied, with a sinking feeling in his stomach
“What have you got to tell me?”
“Nuthin’” and the hazel eyes glared defiantly into his brothers’ face.
Adam nodded thoughtfully for a second or two and then sat back, his arms folded across his chest and scanning the sad and anxious face of his youngest brother with a cynical twist to his lips.
“What?” snapped Joe eventually “What are you looking at me like that for?”
“Because I’m waiting for you to tell me what’s been going on this past week that I need to know about…”
“Need to know about? What are you getting at, Adam?”
“All right. This is how I see it. You left home on Friday with two ranch hands to assist you on fencing the smallest section and you were expected back, with your two ranch hands, by Wednesday at the latest…”
“Judd Clancy and Dave Jackson were the two worse hands you could have given me. They hate each other –“
“I didn’t give them to you, you chose them yourself”
“Chose them myself? Are you crazy? Those two idiots never work on the same job to gether, everybody knows that!”
Adam looked coolly at his brother and raised one eyebrow. He sighed and shrugged “So, what happened to them? Where are they now?”
“I don’t know!” Joe shrugged and then sagged a little in his chair. Then he looked quizzically up at his brother, his hazel eyes large in appeal as he leaned forward, and placed his elbows on the table. “Look, David decided to go into town Saturday evening. They had been arguing at each other all day and it was driving me crazy. When he said he was going into town I reminded him that it would take him at least 24 hours to get there and another 24 hours to get back. He said it didn’t matter, so long as he was out of Judd’s way. He saddled up and left us to the job!”
“Mmmm, didn’t you try and stop him?”
“You kidding? I was glad to see the back of him. Between the two of them I spent so much time trying to keep the peace that hardly any work got done. At least with Dave gone I had hopes of Judd and myself getting the section finished in time to get home by Wednesday.”
“I’m thirsty. Can’t we have something to drink, Adam, we’ve had nothing since we got here?”
“Use the water in the canteens. The stove hasn’t been lit for some days but once I get it started we’ll get something to drink and eat.” Adam frowned and glanced around the room and shivered “We’ll have to scrub this place out”
“Yeah, give it a thorough scrubbing with boiling water, soap, salt, vinegar, you name it, we’ll have to use it….” He sighed again and then looked back at his brother “Go on, what happened to Judd?”
“Tom came along next morning and said he was going hunting. Judd suggested we go along with him –“ Joe’s voice faltered and he went rather red around the face
“YOU went as well?”
“Sure, I didn’t see any harm in it. Tom bagged a good sized deer and said how it would be a good idea for us to go back to his place for a meal. We rather liked the idea of some venison steaks so we went back with him.” Joe took a deep breath and opened his eyes wide at the expression on his brothers’ face “Look, Adam, I had no idea anyone was going to be sick at the time. It was hot, and I was in need of some decent company. Judd is not my idea of decent company!”
“But, Joe –“ Adam scratched his neck slowly, as he pondered over his brothers’ revelations “Joe, don’t you see what’s happened?”
“Look, Adam, I’m not a prophet. I’m not a doctor either!” Joe replied tersely.
Adam raised a hand and took a deep breath in order to control his emotions. It had not been Joe’s fault but oh, the avenues of anxiety and fear that now opened up before them! He nodded slowly “What happened next?”
“Halfway through the meal two wagons pulled up. They were Quakers en route to California.”
“And?” Adam prompted as his brothers’ narrative suddenly ran dry.
Joe licked his lips and took another deep breath. He stared at the table and several flies that were doing some kind of waltz around some crumbs scattered from some past meal seemed suddenly overlarge. He gulped noisily.
“Well, a lady came to the door and asked for some water and food. She asked for someone to help guide them to Virginia City as the man they had hired was sick.”
The silence dropped around them like a shroud. Adam leaned back in his chair and surveyed his brother as though he had suddenly sprouted two heads. Joe just stared at the flies but jumped slightly when some portion of the bread moved involuntarily of its own accord. He glanced up at Adam who was obviously waiting for more damning disclosures. The bread heaved over, disclosing a fat maggot and Joe’s stomach heaved.
“Mary gave them some food and water. She went to help the sick man and came in later saying she thought he was dying. Josh and Martha went to play in the yard with the children whilst we talked over who could help them. Anyway Judd said he would take them into town. Tom said he would come over and give me a hand with the fencing the next day, but he never came. That’s why the work wasn’t finished by the time you got there” his voice trailed away miserably and he ran his fingers through his dark hair “Anyway, what do you think it is – this sickness?”
“I don’t know. How would I know? I’m no more a doctor than you are!” Adam retorted angrily “One thing I do know for sure, it’s obviously very contagious and if you didn’t have it before, it’s more than likely both of us could have it by now.”
“How’d you make that out?” Joe asked, his eyes sliding back to view the fat maggot and the flies that were attacking another crumb of discarded food.
“You held Martha as she was dying, she coughed and breathed all over you, didn’t she? And I’ve – I’ve been clearing away the mess in their rooms, and on their bodies.” His voice faltered and he looked at his brother’s face and felt contrition touch his heart “Look, Joe –“
“Okay, I know, I know what you’re about to say. It was my fault. I should have kept my nose out of their business and stayed at my job. If it had been Hoss he would have done just that, and no one would have been any the wiser –“
“That’s not what I was going to say” Adam replied gently. He rubbed his hands over his face and realised he was tired, very tired, and there was still a lot to do. He looked about the room once again “Look, there’s no point in worrying about things that may never happen. If we take sensible precautions neither of us need be ill.”
“And what precautions do you suggest, brother?”
“Well, for a start – why don’t you go and bury that dead calf and check the mother? It’s hot and we know enough about heat and dead bodies and flies to know that they spread disease, whatever the disease may have been…”
“And what will you be doing?”
“I’ll get the stove alight and boil some water. There should be enough salt or vinegar to use with it…I’ll start cleaning out the rooms…I’ve no wish to stay anywhere with maggots and flies as my bedside companions”
“Adam?” Joe frowned and pulled away the table “Do you think we could get this sickness?”
“I can’t pretend that there isn’t a possibility, Joe. We’ve both been – “ he brushed some flies away from his face “too close for comfort. It could be either one of us, both of us or neither. Time will tell, I guess”
“And, you don’t know what it could be?”
“I know it isn’t diphtheria, nor smallpox nor scarlet fever. I’d have burnt the place down had it been any of them, and it wasn’t poison of any kind, because had it been they would have all died at the same time, within hours of one another.”
“Dysentery?” Joe suggested
“Could be! My guess is that it started with that wagonload of Quakers. In which case –“
“In which case, Judd will have it and so will the town”
Adam chewed on his thumb for some seconds and then glanced over at Joe and shook his head “Joe, there’s no point in worrying about them now. We can’t change that situation and, thankfully, there are doctors in town. We need to care for ourselves.”
“Sure, you’re right.” Joe put out a hand and took a deep breath “Adam, I’m sorry I fought with you earlier. I’m sorry I raised my hand against you.”
“I know.” Adam took the hand and shook it warmly and then, in a rare gesture of warmth, he gave his brother a hug “Let’s get on now, huh?”
“Sure, Adam. And then I’ll come in and give you a hand.” He smiled at his brother and quickly left the room, closing the door firmly behind him.
Adam watched him go with no answering smile on his face. The tasks ahead were unpleasant and could even be in the realms of unnecessary if they were already contaminated with the disease. He forced himself to get the stove alight and began to fill pans with water and as they boiled he went in search of salt and vinegar and any other herbs that he could find that were the plainsman’s only defenses against any disease at that time.
One room scrubbed clean. He closed the door and wiped his brow. There had been dried faeces on the floor. It had turned his stomach to see maggots on the linen and mattress. Flies everywhere. It was cleaner now. He had used the old seaman’s trick of scattering the floorboards with salt and then sluicing them with boiling water and then scouring them with the hard bristled brush. Outside in the yard the fire devoured the soiled linen and bedding. Smoke like incense coiled from the corner of the room from the dried bunches of herbs he had found in Mary’s cold store. Hop Sing had told him how effective they could be as a preventive against disease.
The stove was burning hot, and water bubbled in their pans and he picked up more salt. He fumbled and dropped some and paused to think – was it a sign of mere fatigue and hunger, or of the sickness?
Joe came into the room as Adam closed the door on the other room. The two brothers looked at one another and Joe sighed
“You look a mess.” He observed
“So do you” Adam responded with a smile.
“I saw the fire. What are you burning?”
“Anything that’s been soiled. I found some clean untouched linen in a closet. Look, Joe, any chance of getting some milk from those cows? We could do with some, and best feed those dogs. Once we’ve eaten, we’ll no doubt sleep for hours!”
“I could sleep on my feet right now –“ Joe yawned and stretched, “I’ll go and see about that milk –“
Joe made his way slowly to the barn and to the cattle byre where the milk cow stood in her stall, chomping at the hay. She turned liquid brown eyes to view him and continued to chew the cud as she watched him pull out a stool and bucket.
He had gentle hands and she was quite happy to let him strip her of the milk that would have been her calfs. The white liquid frothed in the bucket, rich and creamy. She was a good yielder and Joe felt some peace of mind steal over him as he sat with his hands doing their work, and the warmth of her body reminding him of days gone by when he had been a child and one of his chores had been to bring in the early morning milk.
When he left the barn he stood for a moment or two and surveyed the scene about him. It was daylights ending, the sky was darkening and the first star was already twinkling high overhead. In the yard he saw Adam throw something onto the flames that licked hungrily upwards and he wondered just how bad things could have been in those rooms. He realised then that his brother had protected him from seeing the worse and for that he was truly grateful. He leaned down and picked up the bucket.
Strange. His head was spinning round and he felt dizzy. Don’t be stupid, he told himself. Don’t let your imagination run away with itself. You have had nothing to eat since morning and little to drink. You’re bound to be dizzy. He took a deep breath and walked down to the house. Adam was already going inside, the door swung open and closed behind him.
When he pushed his way into the house Adam glanced up and smiled. Joe looked around the room and frowned thoughtfully. It looked so much cleaner, and smelt – he raised his face and inhaled the aroma – it smelt of sweet pleasant things instead of vomit, excrement and death.
Adam jerked his thumb over to the stove where the coffee pot was steaming on the hot plate. Then he threw some boiling water over the table and began to scrub at it. He was now stripped to the waist for his shirt had become so wet with sweat that it had been more of a nuisance and had to be discarded. He scrubbed so hard at the table that Joe wondered if he would wear the brush down to the stub of the bristles. He picked up a cloth and began to dry away the excess water. They worked together without a word.
“Pa told me once “ Adam suddenly broke the silence by speaking out “how he was on board a ship when typhus broke out. The men were falling like – like flies, he said. Gran’pa Stoddard ordered the men who were able, to get out and keel haul the deck. Then everything had to be scrubbed inside. Scrubbed and scoured with boiling salted water and strong soap. They kept away from other ships for a week to ten days. Every day the deck and everything inside and out was scrubbed and scoured.” He wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his arm and straightened his back “Perhaps it’ll help here too….”
“What? We gotta clean this place out every day?” Joe protested, his eyes widening
“Gran’pa Stoddard saved most of his men. And Hop Sing told me how burning herbs in a sick room could purify it. I’m not sure of what, but I think we need all the help we can get.”
“Do you really think it’ll be that bad, Adam?” Joe said quietly
“I don’t want it to be, Joe, but if we don’t protect ourselves in whatever way we can, then we have only ourselves to blame if it does come to the very worse thing.”
“I guess you’re right.” Joe forced a smile “Coffee? I brought the milk”
“Good, but first of all –“ Adam heaved some pans back onto the stove “we’ll wash ourselves down. And before we use that milk, Joe, pour it through that cloth”
Joe opened his mouth to protest and then clamped it shut. He had never experienced the misery of epidemics that swept through towns and settlements like a prairie fire out of control. But he could remember little Martha dying in his arms only hours ago. Oh, was it really only hours?
They used the strong green soap and washed themselves thoroughly. The soap smelt of lye and pine. Joe hated the smell. Adam scrubbed his shirt clean as well, hanging it on a hook near the stove to dry off. As they sat at the table and drank their coffee they watched the steam coming off the shirt as it dried. On the stove ham sizzled along with some eggs. Joe was so hungry that he longed for the food to cook more quickly. He looked over at his brother and saw the weariness in his brother’s eyes and sighed
“I wish we were home now.” he said quietly, cradling his fingers around the cup.
“So do I” Adam replied and he nodded slowly, his eyes half closed in sleep.
“Mr Cartwright? Mr Cartwright?”
Ben Cartwright moved away from the table with such force that everything on it rattled. He threw down the serviette and was halfway to the door when it was thrust open and Matt Taitt, one of the ranch hands, stepped into the room
“Judd’s back, Mr Cartwright, he’s been shot”
Ben paused momentarily, before hurrying from the room behind the ranch hand and to the bunk -house where he could see several of the hands assisting Judd through the door into the room. Questions and fears raced through the rancher mind. Judd was with Joe, but had returned alone. He’d returned alone and shot so what had happened to Dave the other ranch hand, and more importantly to the loving father, what had happened to his son?
With these questions tumbling through his head Ben hurried to the sick mans bed, where Hop Sing was already peeling aside the bloodied shirt in order to examine and tend the injury. It was an unpleasant sight, and the men there stepped back and murmured amongst themselves. The man was all but dead, but had ridden hard to reach the Ponderosa. The question they were now asking themselves was exactly what had happened to Joe, and to Davy, if Judd was here now in such a bad condition.
“Velly bad, Mr Cattlight” Hop Sing murmured softly, “No need get doctah.”
Ben nodded and approached the bed and leaned over the dying man who raised his eyes in an attempt to get the face of his employer more into focus.
“Yes, Judd. It’s all right, you made it home safely” Ben said gently, taking hold of the mans hand in his own, for Judd was young, as young as Joe, and when he died there would be grieving parents to mourn his passing.
“I’m here” Ben said patiently, knowing that the dying could not be rushed, but oh, if only he would tell him what he needed to know “Judd? Where’s Joe?”
“Back at the fence. He’s okay, Mr Cartwright, honest to God, he’s okay.”
Ben nodded slowly and took a deep breath of relief. He signaled to the men to step back and to stop crowding the bed. Hop Sing continued to gently bathe the wound, although there was little point, but it offered some comfort and hope to the young man.
“Mr Cartwright, there’s some folk on the far side of Goose Peak. I had to take them there, didn’t risk taking ‘em into town like how they wanted me to.”
“Slowly, Judd, slowly now. What folk are these?”
“Quakers. Three families. Sickness in the wagons, several died even as we were on the road so I thought best take them to open land and fresh water. Get here and ask you for advice.”
Ben took a deep breath. Sickness. He bit on his bottom lip and glanced down at Hop Sing and then looked down on the pallid sweating face of the youth
“What kind of sickness, Judd?”
“I dunno, sir. Sweating, fainting, fever and it sure moved when it gets going. Didn’t seem no one was sick but one man when we left then suddenly everyone was coming down with it. Some kids there, they got sick too.”
“Did Joe meet them?”
Matt Taitt put a hand on Bens shoulder, obviously the rancher would want to know about his son, but there were other questions that needed to be asked, and other people to consider. Ben glanced up anxiously
“Ask him who shot him? Quakers are supposed to be peaceable folk “ Matt suggested.
“Judd” Ben leaned closer to the man for the rapid breathing indicated that there was less time now than ever to find any answers to any questions any one would ask “Judd, who shot you?”
“I left the wagons there. Miss Prudence said it was a good idea. I wanted to get the doctor. Couldn’t take the wagons into town. Couldn’t take them there, too many could get sick and die – “
“That’s right, Judd, you did right.” Ben whispered reassuringly
“Then I saw Dave riding up and told him what had happened. He said I had the sickness too now and that I would kill anyone who touched me. I ain’t got the sickness though, have I, Mr Cartwright?” he turned appealing eyes to the older man, who laid his hand reassuringly on his shoulder and shook his head. “I told him I had to come and see you, you’d know what to do for the best and as I rode off, Dave shot me. I fell – “ his voice trailed away and Hop Sing got to his feet and shuffled away. “Mr Cartwright, don’t worry about Joe, he’s okay. He was at the Murphy’s having a great time –“
“Judd, did Joe come into contact with these people? Do you know if –“ his voice trailed away as Judd gave a shudder that made the bed rattle. Then his body went slack and everyone there knew then, that Judd was dead. Ben gently closed the young mans eyes and with a sigh got to his feet. He looked over at Matt and the other men grouped there and then at Hop Sing
“Well, you heard what Judd said. We’ve sick people on the Ponderosa and a killer roaming loose.”
“Mr Cartwright, I don’t much like the idea of them sick folk being around. Seems to me if they have food and clean water, it would be best for them to stay put as they are, no need for any of us to get involved and get the sickness too.” Matt observed, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully.
“If Judd had caught the sickness we would probably have it too.” Another exclaimed with panic touching his voice and the murmur from the other men was a clear indication of how quickly fear could arouse emotions amongst them. Ben raised a hand
“I doubt if Judd was stupid enough to get in contact with any of the sick people. But, if he had been, there is very little we can do about it now. He’s dead now. Joel, I’d like you to attend to his burial. Matt, I want you to ride into town and inform the doctor and also Roy Coffee of what has happened here.”
“But what if I’ve got the sickness, boss?” Matt’s eyes opened wide in horror “In this heat and in some areas of town, it could spread like a wild prairie fire”
Ben nodded thoughtfully and looked at the other men there. He took a deep breath and placed a hand on the ranch hands shoulder
“I understand what you mean, Matt. All right, this is what I’ll do – I’ll get one of the boys who hasn’t been in contact with any of us, to go into town. Then I want several of you to ride with me to track Dave down, and to locate these wagons.”
Several men grumbled loudly about this, and shifted uneasily about the room. Matt Taitt looked sullen and Ben shook his head sadly
“Look, boys, if we have got this sickness, which I very much doubt, it won’t matter too much about going to those wagons, will it? “
“If we ain’t got the sickness we sure will if we go near them wagons” Jake yelled and his comment was supported loudly by the other men there.
“We’ll make sure that we don’t go near enough the wagons to catch any sickness. But they need some contact with other people, just so that they know help is on the way. We also need to know what kind of sickness it is and what they need in the way of supplies.” Ben’s black eyes pierced each one of them through the marrow of their souls, and they quailed somewhat “You’re all good Christian men, and as such would go to the aid of those in need just as we would expect them to come to our aid, should we require it.”
There was a murmur of assent and Ben nodded, and, followed by Hop Sing, left the bunk- house. Joel glanced about him and then at Matt
“I ain’t wanting to get any sickness –“ he grumbled
“No one’s expecting you to, so shut up!” came Matt’s swift rejoinder.
They heard the ringing of the triangle summoning the men from their duties on other parts of the ranch.
“All right, men, let’s saddle up and get ready. Mr Cartwright will want us riding out of here like yesterday!” Matt yelled and showed a good example by grabbing at his hat and leaving the building immediately.
Hoss Cartwright pocketed his change and nodded his farewell to Sally Cass. He leaned down and picked up a sack of flour with an ease that would have been the envy of Widow Clementine’s husband, ‘Arry, had he been alive to see it.
Stepping out of the General Store he dumped the sack in amongst the rest of the dry goods and straightened his back and looked around him. Normally life in Virginia City was a matter of routine for its inhabitants. He would expect to see Roy lounging on the porch of the Sherriffs Office. There would be various townsfolk strolling along the sidewalks. Cowpokes and miners would be mingling together for drinks in the numerous beer houses and saloons. Sometimes a wagon would roll by loaded with goods for some homesteader. Then there would be the carriages containing the prosperous wives of the more elite personnel in town. That was on a normal day in Virginia City.
He pushed his hat back in amazement at the stampede that was taking place down the sidewalks and Main Street and all headed towards the Stagecoach depot. He pulled out his watch and checked the time. For once, Billy was early! Despite being a major feat, it was not so great that it would cause this much interest.
Had he missed out on an announcement of someone important coming to town? He scratched his head and viewed the commotion with renewed interest before deciding for himself that he should amble along and see what was going on.
It seemed that everyone was talking at one. A great babble of voices all rose to a crescendo of sound that could only be the prelude to panic. He elbowed his way through the throng and came stomach to stomach with Mr Jackson. Jackson stopped wiping his face, and glared at Hoss with such a hatred that it was practically tangible
“You! You and your brothers!” Jackson yelled, stabbing Hoss in the chest with his index finger
“Hey, steady up thar, Mr Jackson” Hoss protested, pushing the offending finger away with a firm but gentle hand “’Fore you go making accusations, perhaps you could tell me what’s going on?”
“Your brothers – that’s what’s going on” a female snapped as she held her child tightly to her “Firing guns, not letting folks have their proper stop, and telling ‘em to clear on out. A fine how d’you do, I must say”
“And scaring folks by telling ‘em there was sickness about –“ Jackson yelled.
“Sickness – what sickness?” Hoss asked and his question was echo’d around the crowd “C’mon, tell me, what sickness?”
“Billy seems to be the only one who knows – ask him” came the short reply.
The crowd, including Hoss, now surrounded Billy who told them what he could to the best of his knowledge. It was sufficient however to cause the stampede to now flow in the opposite direction as the crowd mithered around and then scattered in all four directions of town. Billy found himself alone on the street with Hoss. He shook his head and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face and neck
“I rode as fast as I could to get into town to tell the doc and Sherriff Coffee, but that fool Jackson kind of got the drop on me there, Hoss” he explained apologetically
“Did Adam or Joe say they had the sickness, Billy?”
“Nope, jest what I said, the Murphys had died and they had jest buried ‘em all.”
“The Murphy’s” Hoss said sadly, and he shook his head “Joshua and Martha…shucks, they were only little kids”
“Martha died in Joe’s arms, so Adam said”
Hoss nodded and stood quietly on the sidewalk. He stood for some time with the sun beating down on him as he thought over all the implications of what had been said and what had been left unsaid. Eventually he moved and strode back to his wagon, only to find a crowd of the townsfolk gathered around it. He elbowed his way through and clambered onto the seat
“Yeah?” he turned to look down at the anxious face of one of the newer homesteaders
“Is it true your brothers have got the sickness?”
“No, it ain’t, mister” he picked up the reins of the horses and frowned slightly “You jest git that idea clear outa your head, you hear?”
“You just tell your old man we don’t want any Cartwrights coming into town nor anywhere near if they got sickness on the Ponderosa.” Another voice yelled
“You Cartwrights should be quarantined.” A shrill voice; that of a woman, hovered over the murmers of the crowd.
“I understand you’re all worried an’ all, but there ain’t no sickness on the Ponderosa. If there were, my Pa would make sure no one came into town, ma’am”
Roy Coffee appeared through the crowd, elbowing them out of the way in his inimitable fashion. They parted to let him through and he approached the wagon and looked up at Hoss
“What’s all this news, Hoss? Everything all right back home?”
“Yep. There ain’t no sickness on the Ponderosa, Roy, but seems there is at the relay station. The Murphy’s have all died from it and –“
“And I understand Adam and Joe are there now?” Roy’s blue eyes hardened somewhat behind the gleam of his spectacles “Do they want the doctor there?”
“I don’t know, Roy. It seems you should be talking to Billy, he seems to be the one who knows what’s going on.” Hoss replied, his lips thinning in his impatience to be going home.
“Listen, young man, a word of advice. You keep away from that relay station, d’you hear? If the sickness is that bad, then we want it kept contained as much as possible. The more folks go there and then travel about the more likely it is to reach town and –“ someone shrieked and despite Roy flapping his arms about like a demented turkey for peace and quiet, the crowd began to mumble rather like Versuvius with cries of “it’s in town” “The sickness” “The children –“ and suddenly they were scattering, to spread their wrongly interpreted news far and wide.
“Dangburn it, Roy, what you go and do a thing like that fer?” Hoss groaned
“Wal” Roy pushed his hat to the back of his thinning hair “The worse sickness in the world is fear and panic. And it looks like we’re about to get a full blown epidemic of both!”
Paul Martin hurried across the road, waving his hat in an attempt to prevent the young man leaving. Hoss waited as patiently as he could for the portly doctor to reach the wagon
“Is it true about the Murphy’s, Hoss?”
“According to Billy, yes, sir.”
“All four of them dead?”
“What about your brothers?”
“Adam and Joe were there when little Martha died. Buried ‘em before the stage got there. Reckon they’ll stay put for a while – “ Hoss chewed on his bottom lip and looked down at the doctor “Any idea what it could be, Doc?”
“None at all. This is the first I’ve heard of it. There’s no sickness of any kind in town, other than what is usual at this time of year”
“Then – “ Hoss gulped, thinking of Adam and Joe alone in the relay station “What do you reckon we should do about my brothers, Doc?”
“I’ll try and get to them as soon as I can, Hoss. At present I’m run off my feet with some other things, but as soon as I can, I’ll get to them.”
Hoss nodded. As soon as he could, huh! He flicked the reins and urged the horses’ forwards. As soon as he could and that could be too late! Once out of town he flicked the reins and sent the horses into a gallop.
Some miles from home and a rider in a cloud of dust emerged galloping towards him. He pulled the horses up sharp and veered to the left in order for the horseman to thunder past him. He screwed up his eyes in order to make out who the rider was, and recognised young Les Hallaran. He yelled after him to stop, but Les was going too fast and was too intent on his assignment to listen to Hoss.
“I’m Prudence Callaghan”
The young woman stepped forward, and stopped at what she must have felt was a safe distance from the group of men. She was a pretty woman, with soft eyes, and dark hair bundled in a snood, dressed in a gray frock with white collar and cuffs. She looked at the men and settled on Ben as the leader
“I appreciate you letting us stay here, Mr Cartwright. Judd explained all about you, and said you would rather we stayed here than ride on into town.”
“I would, Miss Callaghan. Do you have any idea what this sickness is all about?”
“Not really. We were four wagons when we started. Everything went well until some weeks ago when we stopped at a small place just on the Utah border. It was deserted so we made camp there. We stayed several days as there were wells there and plenty of water.”
“I think I know the place you mean. No one has lived there in some years. It’s never been a healthy area, the homesteaders get sick and leave.”
“I can well believe it. Nothing seems to live there but mosquito’s and rats.”
She glanced over her shoulder to survey her people who were standing around listening to the conversation. “Then after a few days we found that the water we had in our barrels from the wells was stagnant – everyone seemed to be getting sick.”
“You stayed at the relay station – the Murphys – “
“Oh yes, they were very hospitable.”
“Was there a young man there with them and Judd?”
“Yes, a young man called Joe. But I never saw him – Judd just spoke to him before leaving.”
Ben nodded and straightened his back. It was not exactly reassuring information and it left him feeling unsure as to what to do. He turned to Matt and waved him forward so that they were both sitting on their horses looking down at the young woman
“We’ve brought you fresh fruit and food that we felt you may need. I’ve also sent one of my men into town to get the doctor to see to you. Hopefully if you stay here, and make sure that your people stay put, we can contain this sickness here. Are there many sick at the moment?”
“A woman and her child. But they do not seem to be so ill as the others were previously.”
Ben nodded and turned to Matt “Get everything unloaded and leave it here for them to collect when we leave.” Matt nodded acknowledgement and rode to the wagon whilst Ben concluded his conversation with Miss Callaghan.
The temptation to ride to the relay station, and on to where Joe and Adam would be working on the fences was very strong in Ben’s heart and mind. But the fear that Judd may have brought something of the sickness with him, thereby contaminating him and the other men, cautioned him to follow the course of wisdom. He turned Bucks head towards home.
Adam surveyed the cow thoughtfully. No doubt about it, she was due to deliver her calf sometime that day, or evening. He chewed on his bottom lip and walked around her, hoping that he could gauge whether or not her delivery would be an easy one. An easy one meaning one that she could do without any help from either of them.
He had fed the animals, watered them, fussed over Sport and Cochise, and milked the cow. He was tired. He wiped his brow and stared at the cow. The cow stared back.
“Look” he said in a very even patient voice “If you intend having this calf today, I want it to be a clean delivery. No fuss. No bother. No bawling out for help in the middle of the night. Do you understand?”
The cow chewed her cud and stared at him thoughtfully. Her brown eyes looked reproachful. He reached out and stroked her neck and ran his hand along her flanks and sighed – no doubt about it, that calf was a big one and from the way it was laying, it was going to arrive in a hurry.
He left the barn with a bucket of cool milk and stood at the doorway and looked down at the relay station. It had been a strange night. They had slept on mattresses of straw over which they had thrown clean linen and their own blankets. They had slept the sleep of the exhausted and woken up just as weary as when they had gone to bed.
Perhaps, after coffee and some flapjacks inside them, they would feel much better. He was striding down towards the building when the door opened and Joe emerged. He was hanging onto the doorframe, and seemed to swing on it for a second, and then slithered onto his knees.
“Adam. Adam” he doubled over, clutched at his stomache and vomited violently into the dirt.
Bucket and milk were scattered as Adam put his legs to good use and ran all the way down to the place where his brother lay, doubled up, groaning in pain. Adam tried to think of anything at all his brother may have said to have warned him that this was possible, that he could be ill, but there had been nothing. There had been nothing, except for the restlessness of his sleep during that night.
In one swift move he gathered his brother into his arms and hurried him back into the house. There he settled him back down onto the truckle bed and felt his brow and pulse. The pulse beat was rapid, too rapid. His brow was hot, feverishly hot. Already Joe’s lips were becoming dry, like those of a man so hot with fever that all moisture was being drawn from his body.
“It’s alright. Joe, it’s alright” Adam murmured gently, wiping a wet cloth around the younger mans face. How could he be saying it was alright; when it was so obviously NOT alright. Joe had passed from being healthy one minute to this fever ridden body the next. It had been as swift as a bullet, only silent, and deadly.
“Adam?” Joe’s hands clutched at his brothers arms and tightened as a spasm of pain swept over him, causing him to groan involuntarily and double over once again.
Adam felt bile touch his own throat as vomit slewed from the younger mans mouth and onto the bed coverings and floor. Joe’s legs threshed against the bedding and he groaned so pitifully that Adams eyes filled with tears and as he gently wiped clean the boys face and placed a cool cloth on his brow, he realised that his brothers needs were now extended to another extremity as his bowels had turned to water.
With a gentleness that not many would have associated with the eldest Cartwright brother, Adam began to undress his little brother. He covered him with a blanket and went and boiled water with a scattering of herbs, sweet smelling and comforting. When he returned to the bedroom Joe had vomited more, vomit alarmingly streaked with the ominous streak of blood.
Don’t panic. Panic and you’ll frighten him as well as yourself. Adam bit his lips and set to cleaning his brother. Washing him gently. Letting the water cool on his feverishly hot body. He dribbled cold boiled water through the parched lips. Wiped away the sweat that beaded the youthful brow.
I remember when you were a baby, Joseph, and your mother held you in her arms and nursed you at her breast. I remember you when you lay helpless and weak, with a red angry face as you denied your existence so soon in this world. I remember you when you cried for no other reason than that you wanted to be fed, to be cleaned, to be loved. Just like now I would hold you, and just like now I would clean you. You were weak then, and you are weak now. When you needed me then, I came when you cried. Cry for me now, I’m still here. I’m still here.
“Adam?” his name was whispered through hoarse lips, from a voice parched by the burning acid of bile and vomit “Adam, you – you won’t let them get me, will you?”
“No, Joe, no one will get you, I promise” he whispered with a break in his voice as his brothers tear filled eyes turned to his face “I promise”
“So many of them. They’re buzzing about and crawling everywhere. I can feel them crawling over my body, Adam. Don’t – don’t let them get me, will you?”
Adam frowned, and then realised that his brother was talking about the flies and the maggots that had made both their skins crawl the previous day. He drew in a deep breath and stroked back the dark hair. Joe’s hair was wet from perspiration, spiked with beads of sweat. It curled rebelliously as Adams fingers stroked through it.
You bawled for twenty- four hours after you were born. Got redder and redder in the face, and we couldn’t see your eyes for nigh on a week. But you had a mass of dark hair even then. Don’t go quiet on me, Joe.
“What’s wrong with me, Adam? I feel – weak – I just feel so tired and weak” his voice was less than a whisper, Adam had to lean his head down and let the silently breathed words drift into his ear
“I don’t know, Joe” he replied quietly “But you’ll get better soon, I promise you.”
“Don’t let those flies come back”
“Am I – Am I going to die?”
“Not if I can help it, Joe”
“I didn’t get to finish the fencing.”
Adam swallowed a lump in his throat. Darn the fencing he wanted to shout, and darn this place. He bowed his head and closed his eyes tightly, as tightly as he could to try and shut out the anger and the disgust and misery he felt at that moment. He could feel his brother’s body trembling in his arms and hurriedly pulled the blanket from his own bed and covered his brother with it.
He looked down at the pallid waxy face with its long lashes forming a gentle crescent shadow on the pale cheeks. The sheen of perspiration gleamed on the usually tanned skin. Gently he removed the soiled clothing and blanket and took it to the other room.
The one word, exclamation and accusation all in one, stopped Ben in his tracks. He felt a dreadful fear grip him as he walked hurriedly towards his son
“Wrong? Jest about everything, pa! Where’ve you bin, fer Pete’s sake” Hoss ran his strong fingers through his scant hair, making it stand on end as a result. “Pa, you heard about any sickness on the Ponderosa?”
“Tell me what you know, son” Ben said quietly, unbuckling his belt and trying to still the silent voice that niggled at the back of his brain. Ignored also the tightening of his stomach as though in preparation for some granite fist to strike a felling blow.
“The Murphy’s way station was hit by some sickness. They’re dead”
“All of them?”
“Thet’s not all, pa. Adam and Joe are there. They buried them, seems little Martha died in Joe’s arms” Hoss put out a hand as he saw his father stagger slightly, just a slight faltering, for then the dark eyes turned back to him and demanded more “Billy and the stagecoach saw them yesterday. Adam and Joe told them to keep driving.”
“Were they alright?”
“They were then, pa, but they told Billy they wouldn’t leave until next week.”
Ben said nothing, but stared at the far off wall. That’s how he would expect his sons to act. Perhaps they were dying now. They would need him and Hoss. He glanced at Hoss who was watching him with anxious, frightened blue eyes. He took a deep breath and nodded
“They did right. No need to take unnecessary risks, not with something like this.”
“But, pa, that was hours ago, I bin waiting for you for ages so’s we could ride on out there and be with them”
“No – “ Ben reached out a hand and seized Hoss’ arm “No, we need to stay put right here. We could well have the sickness ourselves and the more we travel about, the more likely we are to spread it abroad. Did Hop Sing tell you about Judd and Dave?”
“Yeah, but that don’t make no sense, pa. I know they didn’t see eye to eye at times, but I can’t imagine Dave shooting Judd down.”
“Humm” Ben shook his head “Fear of the unknown, the unseen, makes people act in strange ways.” He took a deep breath and was about to speak when the sound of horses entering the yard make him turn, hopefully, in the direction of the door.
“D’you reckon it could be Joe and Adam?” Hoss said hopefully, trailing behind his father as they approached the door.
“I pray so” came Ben’s fervent reply and he pulled the door wide and stepped out onto the verandah.
Hoss noticed the droop of the shoulders and knew that their hopes were dashed. He stepped to his fathers’ side and paused. Doctor Paul Martin drew up his buggy and beside him rode Dave, his rifle nestled in the crook of his arm.
“What’s going on here?” Ben demanded, striding forwards with his dark eyes bright with anger “Davy? You’ve some explaining to do, boy. Paul? What are you doing here?”
“You may well ask” Paul Martin growled. He clambered down from the buggy and grabbed at his medical bag. “I was on the way to see the people on that wagon train you warned me about –“
“I see. My man found you then?”
“Oh yes, he found me, the trouble is, this other found me as well.” He jerked his thumb in Dave’s direction “And forced me to come here instead.”
“Why, David?” Hoss frowned “Those folk need a doctor to see to them, Pa promised them that help and –“
“And they ain’t got no rights to a doctor. NO good you saying any different, Hoss, nor none of you either. Just git into the house –“ he swung the rifle in a steady arc “I mean it, Mr Cartwright, git into the house”
Hoss and Ben exchanged looks and without a word returned to the house. They were followed closley by Paul and then David. At the doorway, Dave turned to check around the yard in order to ascertain that he had not been noticed.
The door closed with a soft thud.
“You kin sit down, Mr Cartwright. I want you to be comfortable, you know.”
“All right, Davy, enough of this charade, boy. Why don’t you just tell us what it is that’s on your mind and why you killed young Judd?” Ben asked with a scowl on his face as he took the young mans advice and sat down.
“You killed Judd?” Paul Martin said looking at David with a mixture of emotions on his countenance.
“It wasn’t meant to happen” David said with a slight frown on his brow and he looked at Ben with the clear -eyed look of an innocent, unaware of the harm he had achieved in his actions. “Mr Cartwright, Judd had been with those people who had the sickness. He said he was going to ride on here and get you to send someone for the doctor but I knew, Mr Cartwright, that if he did that, then he could be bringing the sickness to the Ponderosa.”
“But, Davy, what else could he have done?” Hoss asked gently, his blue eyes fixed upon the anxious face of the young man
“One things for sure, Hoss, he should never have thought of bringing those folk onto the Ponderosa. I told him that if he did that, he was signing your death warrants. I ain’t messing –“ he licked his lips, the first sign of nervousness he had displayed “Mr Cartwright, did I ever tell you about my folks?”
“No, Davy, I don’t believe you ever did.” Ben glanced over at his son, the tone of his voice was gentle, it was a tone Hoss knew well. It was the voice of a man seeking to calm and reassure a nervous young man with his finger on the trigger of his rifle. Hoss sat down on the edge of the big coffee table and waited.
“Well, sir, my folks settled on a small place in Utah. I had brothers and sisters then. I guess I was about seven years old and for the first year or so, we all had the best of times together. Yes, sir, they were the happiest days of my life.”
Seconds ticked by as he paused. His narrative had obviously released memories of those happy days and he wished to dwell, fondly, upon them. He sighed, and unconsciously, everyone else in the room did likewise.
“Happened a wagon came by and the folk asked if they could settle along with us. The folks all agree that it would be fine for them to do so, and if more folks came along, then the settlement would soon grow into a good sized town in no time at all.” Dave’s voice was a slow drawl, and the three men sat and listened as though there was nothing incongruous about being there under threat by the rifle the young man held in his hands so steadily. “Within a few days on, one of the got sick. Then another. The whole lot of them died within less than a week. A few days later my ma got sick and then someone else. Within six weeks there were only half a dozen of us left alive. We waited awhile to see if we would die too, but we did not. Our hopes did though. So did the settlement. My brother and I went to live with an old aunt and when she died we just roamed. The Ponderosa was my first taste of what home could have been like. I could not let Judd ruin it like he would have done if he brought the sickness here too.”
His voice ended on a high note. It prompted him to get back on his feet and grip his rifle as though it was necessary for them to understand how important everything was to him. Hoss rose to his feet slowly and put his hands on his hips and looked at the young man
“Dave, your concerns for the Ponderosa did not give you the right to shoot down a man. You know that, don’t you?”
“He was coming here. He had the sickness, Hoss”
“Mebbe so” Hoss said quietly, taking a step and two towards him “Mebbe so. The fact is that we’ll never know now, will we? He’s dead, Dave. He died here.”
“He died here?” Dave’s face was a portrait of misery as he looked from one to the other of them. Hoss stepped a little nearer and reached out a hand “That means you may all have the sickness then?” Dave groaned. The hold on the rifle tightened and he back paced a little way, distancing himself from Hoss. “You’d best get back there, Hoss, and sit awhile – there ain’t no place we’re going jest yet.”
Silence settled upon the big room as Hoss took his seat. The four men sat and said nothing. The rifle was held steady in Dave’s hands and pointed directly at Hoss. It occurred to Ben that whatever was happening to Adam and Joe about that he knew nothing, the possibility of Hoss being killed suddenly became far too real for him to contemplate.
“Why’d he have to come here? Why’d he have to do that? I told him he was risking all your lives by bringing those folks onto the Pondorosa, wasn’t that bad enough?”
“This was his home, Davy.” Ben said quietly “Judd always thought of the Pondorosa as his home. Where else would he have gone when he was dying?”
“I didn’t mean to kill him. He just shot off with his big mouth as always and then said I didn’t care what happened to other folk. He said I had no right to say anything anyway seeing as how I wasn’t there when the folk arrived at the way station. But I told him, I seen what they did, I seen what they’d left, at the way station.”
“What way station, Davy? Tell us, what way station do you mean?” Ben coaxed gently.
Davy wiped away a film of sweat that had settled upon his upper lip like a greasy moustache. He shrugged and nestled the rifle closer to his body, as though in a defensive attitude
“The Murphys. I was on my way back to help with the fencing but needed water for my canteen so went off the trail a mite. I knew the Murphys was close by so went to ask them for some water from their well. Weren’t no one about when I got there so I went to the house but it all seemed shut up. I walked about the place and looked through one of the windows and saw the bodies on the bed.”
“Did you go inside to see if they needed help?” the doctor asked, his voice thin with condemnation
“No. They were beyond help. I saw them there and it was like I was back in that settlement all over again. I was turning away when I heard crying. I walked all around the place and peeked into all the windows and saw the girl crying in a room all on her own.”
“And you left her?” Hoss growled, clenching his fists tightly
“I fired off three shots and decided the best thing to do was git a doctor. I hadn’t gone into the house so I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to go into town but on the way there, I saw where Judd had taken the wagons off the track onto Pondorosa land. Then he told me what had happened, and I told him clear. I told him those folk had brought sickness to the way station and wiped ‘em out. He was about to do the same to the whole Pondorosa. He yelled and shouted at me and drew on me, so I drew quicker.” he lowered his head and frowned slightly “I was scared. Seeing what had happened back at the Murphy’s and then remembering what had happened to my folks. It can all happen so quickly, Mr Cartwright. It’s unseen, you don’t see your enemy, until you’re on your knees and dying!”
“You said, you fired off three shots –“ Hoss murmered, turning his back on the young man and facing the big hearth
“Sure, I had to do something for the little girl. But I didn’t know what else to do. I was too scared to go on in there myself. You do understand, don’t you, Hoss?”
“I understand all right. “ Hoss took a deep swallow of air “Your three shots must have been what sent Adam and Joe to the Murphys’. They went there, found the family, and …….”
“Joe and Adam? How’d you mean?”
“They’re there at the way station.” Ben said quietly, gruffly. “If this sickness is as fast moving as it appears to be, I should imagine that they’re both pretty ill right now.”
“No” Davy stood up and shook his head “No, no, I didn’t mean for that to happen. Believe me, Mr Cartwright. I would never want anything to happen to Joe or Adam.”
“Davy, just give us your rifle and let’s – “ Hoss stepped forward, his hand stretched out towards the gun man, his blue eyes looked at the confused frightened face and just as the rifle exploded into action Hoss thought how this was one time he could not predict how things were going to end up. It’s a sense a man gets after riding horses for so long and can sense when a horse is about to break. There is a look in their eyes, the position of their body, and the fight has gone out of them. But sometimes the signals are too confused and all a man can do is reach out and take that final risk.
Adam forced the food into his mouth and ate it slowly. There was no taste to it nor any enjoyment. He had to eat to keep strong. He needed to keep strong to care for his brother. There was so much to do. The foul stench of the sickness clung to his clothes and filled his nostrils and contaminated the food he was eating. However, he continued to eat, methodically.
He chased the food down with some strong coffee. It tasted bitter. But after the first cup, he drank down another. He had to keep awake. He needed to keep awake to care for Joe.
Outside in the yard the dogs began barking and reminded him that there were other chores to attend to before the day was over. He hauled himself up from his chair, and took himself to Joe’s room.
The youth lay covered by a blanket on the bed. His arms were flung outstretched to either side of him. His legs were drawn up. The normally tanned skin looked dry and stretched across the fine features, and was pallid and waxy with its sheen of sweat. Adam could see the eye- lids flickering and the lips twitching. He stepped up to the bed and gently lifted each arm and folded them over Joe’s naked chest. Then he drew the blanket higher and stroked back the boy’s hair.
He was burning with fever. Even though his face was so gray, red patches of fever burned in his cheeks. He muttered words that were totally incoherent. He groaned aloud when pain rolled around the emptiness of his intestines and curled about his abdomen.
The dogs were barking again. Adam stood up and looked around the room. It was clean. It smelt of sickness and it was far too hot. He dared not open the windows for air in case the flies came in. He shuddered even as he thought about it, for the memory came back to his mind of the rooms when he had found Tom, and Mary, and Joshua.
“Joe? Can you hear me, little buddy? I’ve chores to do. The animals need feeding and watering, do you understand? I’ll be back, do you hear?”
Joe’s lips stopped twitching as he heard the words that seemed to float somewhere above his head. He half opened his eyes and through a haze watched the dark shape of his brother walk away from him and leave him .
You said you’d never leave me again. You promised never to go away. I can’t believe what you tell me because you went away when I asked you to stay and you didn’t come back.
I put my arms about your neck and said ‘Stay, please stay’ I cried and begged but all you said was ‘I’ll be back’ You got on the stage and left me. You promised to come back but you did not. I asked pa next morning ‘Is Adam coming back today?’ and he said no, not today. I asked pa the next morning the same thing and he said no. I lost count of the days I asked until I stopped asking. I stopped asking because you didn’t come back. Then I stopped caring because suddenly it didn’t matter anymore.
Joe’s eyes fluttered shut. He shivered once or twice and plucked at the blanket and drew it close to his face. He was so hot but he could not stop the shivering.
Adam sluiced water into the troughs and buckets. He fed the animals and saw to the dogs. He looked at the sky and wondered if it would ever get to rain again and be cool and refreshing once more.
In the barn the cow laboured to deliver her calf. She looked at him with reproachful eyes and he looked at her with disgust and anger.
“It’s not fair” he yelled and kicked a bucket against the wall. “How can I help you with Joe so sick? What am I supposed to do….”
The cow was not interested in answering. She raised her head to the ceiling and emitted a mournful sound heavenwards. Her flanks heaved.
Adam buried his face into his hands. For some reason that he could not understand life seemed suddenly to have spiraled out of his control. If he stayed to help the cow, and Joe sickened and died, how could he live with himself? How could he tell pa? He put a hand to his gun handle and drew it out slowly. Perhaps this would be the only solution. A swift one. He raised the gun and aimed it and then lowered his arm.
Odd how quickly birth can take place once the mechanisms got under way! The calf plopped into the straw and lay there panting and wheezing. Mother turned and nuzzled it. With a whispered prayer of thanks Adam slipped the gun back into its holster and decided that mother and child could handle the proceedings well enough without him.
Joe groaned aloud as the pain crept through his body and he doubled up into the foetal position and pulled the blanket closer.
It was such a weak cry for help. More like the mewing of a kitten than the bawl of a man. It sounded loud to his own ears and he groaned again when there came no answering call, no sound of footsteps rushing to his aid. He turned and flung himself from the bed.
I didn’t know you when you came back. You were a stranger. The boy I loved and had held me when mama died was gone. You didn’t seem to know how to laugh and you didn’t seem to want to know me. You were always angry. ‘Joe, do this’ you would say ‘Joe, do that.’ Then pa went away and you were always working. Sitting at pa’s desk and writing in the books. At night I’d sit on the stairs and watch you and wish you’d come and tuck me into bed like pa would…..
He lay there for what seemed hours to him. He reached out for the bed and hoped for the strength to haul himself back but his arm dropped effortless and weak back onto the floor. He closed his eyes
Pa always spoke so much about you. You were his pride and joy. He loved you more than anyone else in the world………..
Adam straightened the boy’s legs and gently washed the handsome body with the warm water. Was it his imagination or had the fever abated a little? Was it just a trick to delude him into thinking Little Joe would recover and that there was no longer any need to fear death snatching him away from them.
He took his brother into his arms and raised him gently up and poured cool water into the parched mouth. Had the flush of fever really left his cheeks or was it merely the hand of death clutching more tightly at him. Joe, Joe….
Pa always wrote so often about you when I was away from home. You are his pride and joy. He loves you more than anyone else in the world……
He brought his steaming cup of coffee into the room and sat down beside the bed and took the limp hand in his own. With a sigh he closed his eyes and remembered back to the time when Marie had died, and he had held that child close in his arms and had wept. He could feel the tears welling up in his eyes even now.
You were so angry with me when I left home. Perhaps it was too soon after Marie had died. Perhaps I should have stayed longer at home with you, but sometimes circumstances happen over which no one has any control…….
He sipped the coffee and stared fixedly at the wall.
He remembered the sullen little boy who greeted him upon his return from college. Then when Pa had been forced to go away to get money to finance the Ponderosa, and left him in charge, that sullen little boy had become an angry little dynamo who seemed to resent everything that Adam ever suggested. He would look up from working on the books at night and see the little white night shirted figure sitting on the stairs with his big green eyes and the tight little button of a mouth and he wanted to go up and hug him tight and tell him stories and play tag but there was always so much work to do.
There had been the morning when Joe had looked at him and told him ‘It’s all your fault pa’s gone from home’ Then he had coolly left the house and made his way to school leaving Adam devastated and wondering how he would ever win his little brothers heart over to him again.
Adam closed his eyes and felt his body lighten as sleep stole upon him. He struggled a little, just a little. His head nodded and he jerked awake for a second, glanced at his brother, his eyes closed and he was asleep.
The horseman dismounted and tethered the horse to the hitching rail. He took himself and his baggage to the house and stood for a while on the verandah as he looked about him.
The smoke from what looked like a funeral pyre still rose mournfully skywards. It was dying out now. A mound of gray ash and a few burnt remains was witness to what had once been and was no more.
The dogs barked and the horses shifted uneasily round and round in the corral. He merely watched them for a moment or two and then pushed open the door.
He rekindled the fire in the stove and set pans and pots to boiling. Then he pushed open the door to the other room. For some moments he stood in the doorway, framed within its framework. He saw the sleeping youth, wan and haggard as he lay upon the bed. He saw the sleeping man sitting in the chair by the bedside, his hand holding tightly to the hand of the other. He smiled and nodded to himself
I remember the little one crying for his big brother. When he left home he went up to his mother’s wardrobe and buried himself amongst her clothes and wept because he thought another person he loved had gone forever.
I remember how big brother cried when he came home and found that little brother had forgotten how to love him. But he had not forgotten how to love him, just forgotten how to show it.
I remember when father left the house and went away. Long hours of work for the big brother and before he would go to sleep he would go to the bedroom and sit by the bed and take hold of little brothers hand and hold it just like now. He had never stopped loving either, just forgotten how to show it.
Adam Cartwright opened his eyes and took a deep breath. He rubbed his face and tried to work life into it and then blinked and looked at his brother.
The younger man stirred slightly and the hazel green eyes opened, narrowed and focused upon his brother. He coughed a little and then closed his eyes again. A little sigh slipped through his lips.
Adam frowned and leaned forward and put a hand to his brother’s brow. It was cool to the touch and he allowed himself a little surge of exhilaration before tempering it with caution. He felt for his brother’s pulse and the thready beat, though weak, was steadier than it had been and he allowed himself a prayer of thanks.
He sat by the bedside and bowed his head and closed his eyes. He had slept but he was so tired. Random thoughts and fears that had chased round and round in his brain had tormented him in his sleep. He roused himself and stood up. At the sound from the doorway he turned, his hand already at his gun, and then he stepped back in surprise
“What are you doing here?” he gasped involuntarily
“I come – say to Mistah Hoss, you stay, I go – “ Hop Sing bobbed a bow and smiled “I go now and make good tea for you and Liddel Joe….you come eat and I see to boy”
Adam glanced down at his brother and shook his head, he sat down on the chair and took his brothers hand in his own
“No,” he said quietly “I want to be here when he wakes up.”
Joe’s lips parted into a brief joyful smile. How sweet were the smells of the pasture on the Truckee. How sweet was the perfume of this little girl’s hair as she sat so close to his side. He reached out a hand and touched her face and she turned large brown eyes to wards his face and her young girls face looked earnestly up at him
“Amy, I love you too much” he whispered
“No one can love too much” she laughed, a soft shy laugh.
Joe took a deep breath. To the anxious watchers by his bedside they saw his chest heave and sink and exchanged worried looks. They saw the smile on his lips and relaxed, knowing that in his dreams Joe was happy, and happiness gave strength.
“I do love you, Amy. I’m almost afraid to love you”
“But I love you too, Joe, and it only makes me happy. You can’t imagine how happy I am coming here every day, waiting for you to join me….”
“What if I lose you –“
“How can you lose me, silly Joe” she leaned forwards and her hair brushed his cheek as she settled her head upon his shoulder.
Oh, so young and so innocent. Joe kissed her nose, stroked her cheek, and felt his heart tumbling over and over in his breast for the love of her and he raised a hand to take hold of hers –
Adam took hold of the hand reaching out towards them and held it gently in his own. He glanced over at Hop Sing
“He’s dreaming of Amy. Hop Sing? Do you think he will survive this?”
“He’s young and strong –“
“Others have been younger and stronger, but died anyway!”
“Hush! He will hear what you say” the Chinese placed a finger to his lips and Adam sighed and looked down at his brother and laid down his hand by his side.
“Don’t talk of death.” Joe whispered to Amy, holding her close “I’m frightened of death. My mama died and left me, I don’t want you to die and leave me, Amy”
“I won’t, I won’t” she promised and raised her lips to his own.
“Everyone I love, dies” Joe groaned aloud and his brother leaned towards him and wiped away the sweat and tears from his face.
Hop Sing tip toed from the room and to where he had left his bag, which held all the herbs and drugs he had gathered up before leaving the ranch. With the patience of a skilled herbalist he began to measure out a pinch of this and a scoop of something else….
“Joe?” Adam leaned down and whispered his brother’s name and Joes’ eyes opened and for the first time since his illness began, they focused on his brother’s dark anxious eyes
“Hi, Adam. I was dreaming….” He whispered through chaffed lips
“Was it a good dream, buddy?”
Joe smiled and closed his eyes dreamily, “Yes, for a while. Then she left me and I was all alone again” once more he opened his eyes and looked up at Adam and frowned “Am I dying, Adam?”
“No, you aren’t going to die”
“I wouldn’t mind dying. I feel so tired and weak. I dreamt of Amy, just now, I had almost forgotten how brown her eyes were…” he sighed
“It’s been a while, Joe, since she died”
“I loved her so much”
“I’m sorry I hit you, Adam.”
“I’m sorry I hit you too –“
“Aww, it didn’t hurt!” Joe smiled again, and a twinkle gleamed in the hazel green of his eyes and then faded “I – I do love you, brother”
“It just seems hard at times – I didn’t want you to go away – to college – and I get angry.”
“I understand, Joe”
“If I go to sleep now, will I die?” he took hold of Adams hand and held it tight
“No, you won’t die, Joe, I won’t let you die”
“Don’t be angry with me if I do, will you?” Joe’s eyelids lowered and the long lashes cast shadows on the sunken hollowed sockets and Adam felt a lurch to his heart as he looked at the youths face and realised with a shock just how haggard he now appeared.
He glanced up at Hop Sing came into the room, and sat back as the Chinese gently raised Joe into his arms and carefully poured the liquid into his mouth. He watched as Hop Sing lowered Joe back down onto the bed
“He is going to be alright, isn’t he?”
“Better he sleep now” Hop Sing said softly and sat down on the chair on the other side of the bed. He looked over at the older brother and smiled “You sleep now”
“No. I’ll go and check the stock and then come back….” Adam got to his feet and then glanced down at the younger man “Hop Sing, call me if he wakes. I don’t want him to wake up and find me gone”
Upon the assurance that he would be called as soon as needed, Adam left the building and stood for some minutes on the porch. He surveyed the hills beyond and then the dogs both of whom had risen to their haunches at sight of him. He lowered his head as though overwhelmed by misery and sadness, but by force of will, he walked to the barn.
Still Joe slept. Now he had no dreams. There was only the comfort of deep dark sleep and unconsciousness. If he were aware of gentle hands touching him, turning him over in the bed, or cleaning him, he gave no indication. Only the rhythm of his breathing gave any indication that he was living, or perhaps a sigh would pass through his lips, and apprehensive and afraid, Adam would lean forwards and touch his brothers’ cheek or brow.
He listened to Hop Sing telling him about the events between Judd and Davy, about the stagecoach coming into town and Hoss returning home with the news that plague had broken out on the Ponderosa.
“Is it plague?” he had asked his old friend and the wise old eyes darkened and Hop Sing shrugged his shoulders
“Who is to know?” he had replied quietly
“I remember reading about a village in England, called Eyam, and how a tailor in London had sent a relative a bale of material. It was during a summer in the late 1600’s and as a result of that tailors’ kindness, almost all that village was wiped out. The villagers cut themselves off from all those around them, and so contained the illness. Is that what could happen here? Now?”
Hop Sing nodded “It happens, and you did what was wise and right.”
“But Joe could still die”
“Who is to know that?” Hop Sing replied again
He must have fallen asleep. So long without proper sleep takes its toll. His head had lolled forwards, his eyelids closed. He heard voices as though from a long way off, and someone placed a heavy hand upon his shoulder.
Joe opened his eyes and looked up into a face he loved and smiled. He reached out his hands just as he had done when an infant in his crib. The large eyes filled with tears that coursed their way down his face. A voice he loved assured him he was now safe. There was nothing to fear anymore.
“Is Adam here?” he whispered
“Yes, he’s here”
“He didn’t leave me then?”
“Not for a second” the deep voice assured him
“I thought I was going to die, pa” his voice trembled and his father gathered him into his arms and held him close, and stroked back the unruly mass of hair
“You’re safe, son, safe now”
Hoss licked his lips and then his fingers. He grinned over at his youngest brother who sat up in the bed and who watched his brother dispatch sugar doughnuts as though he had only just discovered the joy of them
“Shucks, Joe, if’n I’d known Hop Sing was coming over here to rustle up these doughnuts for you and Adam, I’d’ve been here even sooner!”
“Somehow I believe you” Joe grinned
“Sure you don’t want one?”
Joe’s stomach lurched sideways and he shook his head. He leaned against the pillows and closed his eyes. What relief to be able to move his head without the fear it would explode in pain, or bring about the need to vomit. He took a deep breath and smiled slowly. He opened his eyes and watched Hoss pick up another doughnut, lazily brushed aside a wandering fly…..he shuddered and closed his eyes again and fought nausea.
Dr Martin closed his bag and set it to one side and picked up a cup of coffee. He watched as Hoss ate doughnuts and Joe sat up in the bed and he nodded to himself and smiled over at Adam
“You did well, Adam. Joe could have died.”
“I know. The thought never left my mind for a moment.” Adam said quietly, picking up his cup and raising it to his lips
“A tragedy what happened to the Murphys” Ben said quietly
Adam nodded and turned aside to survey the view from the window. He thought of the grave and wondered how long it would be before the bare scar of earth would be covered with grass and wild flowers. He glanced up at the sky, still blue, and he sighed.
There could have been another grave, he thought, another grave on that hillside. There could have been another body for someone else to find….for who was to know where that silent bullet would have stopped next. He turned back to his father and met the dark anxious eyes.
“It shouldn’t have happened. They were a good family” he said quietly.
Ben nodded and stepped to his son’s side and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“But for the grace of God –“
Adam glanced up at his father, repeated the words in his own mind, and nodded. He walked to the door and opened it wide and stepped out onto the porch. The dogs barked a welcome and the horses milled about in the corral. The cow grazed on the green grass and raised her head and turned moist large eyes towards him as her calf nudged at her flanks for sustenance. Adam threw away the dregs of his coffee and turned back to the house as the sound of Joseph’s laugh trickled like sweet music through the stillness.
A fly made it’s way across the table and paused to reconnoitre its passage via a sugar doughnut……………….