The Man Cub (by Krystyna)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  17,000


“Hi, Hoss!” Joe smiled, a patronizing, brotherly smile to which Hoss responded with an acute feeling of distrust and misgiving, Hoss swallowed a gulp and mustered up a smile

“Joe!”

“How’re things?”

“Fine, Joe, jest fine!” Hoss narrowed his eyes and glanced over at his brother who continued to saunter along with his head high. When Adam walked out from the stables, Hoss whistled and beckoned him over. “What’s going on?” he whispered

“How’d ya mean?” Adam frowned, and gave Hoss an intense look, before following the blue gaze towards his little brother, who was leaning against the corral fence, smiling to himself and looking over at them and nodding in an unusually friendly manner

“Thet thar is what I mean!” Hoss mumbled, bending down to bring up Pal’s left hind leg and to check the animals shoe. Adam leaned down too as though inspecting the hoof and Hoss brought his head closer to that of his brothers “Something’s wrong!”

“Yeah, you need to get that shoe changed before we leave tomorrow, or you’ll be riding back here and wasting more time,” Adam replied curtly

“I mean – him – over there! Notice how smug he’s looking jest now?”

Adam glanced up, and caught Joe looking straight at him, they smiled at one another before Adam ducked back down again

“Yep, he’s looking smug all right.”

“When Joe gets that look on his face, you and I know that means trouble, and usually, for us!” Hoss emphasized the last two words with a sharp nod of the head and narrowing of the eyes.

“Could be right,” Adam replied, looking up and over at Joe, who happened to be watching them with suspicion on his own features, but catching Adams eye, he now smiled and nodded in that singularly ‘pleased with himself’ expression on his face. Adam smiled and nodded back, then ducked down to Hoss’ level “Something’s certainly going on and….”

“Adam! Hoss!”

Ben’s deep voice resonated over the yard and both brothers looked at one another and raised their eyebrows as though in confirmation of their thoughts and previous comments

“Didn’t I jest tell ya?” Hoss whispered. He glanced uneasily over at Joe, who was now standing with his back to the corral fence, his elbows propped onto one of the bars and smiling smugly over at them both as they walked towards the house

As the door closed, Joseph Cartwright gave a chuckle and rubbed his hands together with glee. It had taken time, weeks in fact, to wear Ben down to his way of thinking, but Joe was a master at the art of getting his father to bend to his way of thinking; after all, he had been working at it for nigh on fourteen years. He strolled nonchalantly to the stable and saddled up his horse, knowing that the best maneuver now was to leave the deck clear…then by the time he returned home his brothers would be in a far calmer frame of mind and there would be less chance of tempers exploding into recriminatory words and actions. As he trotted out of the yard, he was whistling to himself.

“Anything wrong, Pa?” Adam looked thoughtfully at his father as he settled down into the chair on the other side of the desk, whilst Hoss waited by his side with the growing suspicion that what he was about to hear was something he would not like.

Ben rubbed his face with one large hand, then stroked his chin and looked at them both with his near black eyes piercing into their own. Hoss gulped and tried to think of all the things he could possibly have done wrong that Joe may have found out about and reported back to their father, whilst Adam sat still, tense as a coiled spring, his own brown eyes looking back into his fathers, unwavering, whilst inside he waited for the sword to fall!

“Boys….” Ben cleared his throat, Hoss looked anxiously down at Adam who continued to stare into his fathers face “You know – er – how I’ve felt about Joseph going along with you in the past ..” he paused, trying to think of some other way of putting what he wanted to say without them both erupting. Hoss frowned and looked at his father and then at Adam. Adam merely narrowed his eyes but said nothing; he now knew exactly what was about to be said, no matter how it was said, and was preparing his defenses. “I guess in a way I’ve tended to be overly protective of Joseph, him being so young and impetuous…” Ben chewed on his bottom lip and tapped the desk with the pencil he held in his fingers

“Go on, Pa…spit it out…what’s on yer mind?” Hoss asked, impatient to know the worse.

“Well, when I think back to the things the two of you have had to put up with over the years, and at far younger ages as well…..”

“You want us to take Joe with us this trip, huh?” Adam said slowly, not a feature on his face changing

“You ain’t, are ya, Pa?” Hoss’ blue eyes opened wider than usual before he narrowed them and looked at his father again “You ain’t, are ya?” he repeated

“Well, Hoss, he is fourteen now.” Ben stared at the paper that lay on the desk, anything rather than look into the dark eyes of his eldest son and see the sardonic gleam in them. “Adam, you were facing things far worse than you’ll encounter on this trip at a much younger age….and Hoss, you were the same…”

“But, Pa, times were different back then. I was different…I mean…different from Joe!” Hoss frowned and looked at Ben anxiously “Pa, I don’t think you should let him come with us, I think…”

“Hoss, I’ve already thought a lot about this. I really don’t want to know what you think. The fact is, that it’s about time Joe learned what life was really all about. Riding range and branding calves is one thing, but going on a cattle run, well, it’s about time he learned his way around these things. He can’t be cocooned in cotton wool all his life!”

“Huh?” Hoss exclaimed, his eyes widening again

“Well, haven’t you anything to say about it?” Ben barked at Adam

“No.”

“Then why are you sitting there looking at me like that?”

“Like what?” Adam crossed one leg over the other, and folded his arms across his chest and looked at his parent over the desk with his brown eyes expressionless and barely a smile on his lips

“Like you’d like to object but…”

“Exactly…but…what point would there be…I could say he’s too young, but you’ve already reminded us that we were much younger and doing far more dangerous things than he’s ever done. I could point out that he’s rash, impetuous, insolent, arrogant, too sure of himself, wet behind the ears and a hundred other things besides, but he’s a Cartwright, and you’re right, he has to learn how to handle himself on a cattle drive sooner or later.

“Yep, that’s what I’d say too.” Hoss frowned, trying to remember exactly what had been said.

“So long as he knows that while he’s working, he’ll be treated like any other hand, no special treatment…I think I’ll put him in drag…” Adam frowned as though he had decided to give his little brother the very best position a man could wish for, whilst Bens face registered horror at the thought. “That’ll teach him more than anything else, I reckon.”

“Drag? But, Adam, he’s…” Ben choked back on what he was about to say, whilst Adam continued to stare at a spot over Bens shoulder as he imagined the scene of his little brother riding drag behind their herd of cattle. Hoss grinned and then raised his eyes to the ceiling as he, too, began to picture the scene.

The worse position anyone could wish for….riding drag! All day long the only view would be through a cloud of dust and grit that got down your throat and into your clothes and made your eyes smart and run tears, that would streak through the dust on your face. When the way was clear to see anything, it was only the rear ends of countless cows! Then you had to pick your way through mounds of cow dung, chase any mavericks that run loose and make sure not one got away to mess up or foul any water holes along the journey.

By the end of the day, your throat would be sore and as rough as anything could be, your body ached from having to be on the move all the time, and your eyes…phew, if you could see clear out of them then you were obviously not doing the job right!

“Adam, don’t be too hard on him….” Ben cautioned

“Pa, you said he had to learn and riding drag is the best way to learn. Start from the bottom…,” he paused at the mental picture of a hundred rear ends, “…and work your way up!” He smiled and stood up “Pity you couldn’t come along, Pa…,” he added sympathetically

“Yeah…pity!” Ben growled

Adam smiled and stood up and looked over at his brother, who smiled and looked at his father. Ben chewed his bottom lip and stared glumly at the papers on the desk

“If there wasn’t this business deal to sort out with Connors…..” he muttered.

“Yeah, pity about that…never mind…,” Adam placed a consoling hand on his parents shoulder and smiled, rather like a wolf thinking about the lamb he was about to have for supper.

“Pa, don’t you worry, we’ll take care of Little Joe!” Hoss smirked in a manner that did not go a long way to reassuring his father.

Ben now began to chew on his thumb, thinking of his youngest son and the indignities he was about to encounter, apart from the hardships and dangers. He frowned and glanced once more over at his sons who seemed in no particular hurry to leave.

“Look, couldn’t you make it a little easier on him…”

“Pa!” Hoss exclaimed as though he had just heard his father blaspheme “Everyone has to start some place and when you’re starting out on driving cattle, the obvious place is at the rear. The men would never respect Joe or us if’n we treated him soft!”

“That’s right,” Adams deep voice said smoothly and he gave his father a reassuring look, which did little to placate the older man, who stared at them and then shook his head

“I don’t know…I’m not so sure if this is a good idea…” he muttered

“Well, Pa…you always said you didn’t want Joe riding out with the horses or the cattle until he was at least 16, so what changed your mind?” Adam folded his arms across his chest whilst leaning against the book case and surveyed his father thoughtfully, knowing only too well what – or rather – who – had changed his mind!

“I know I said that, but Joe’s restless, he wants to be treated like an adult …”

“Pa, he’s only 13!” Adam growled

“14 !” Hoss muttered, and received a dark glare from his brother for his pains.

“He’s been listening to you two yarn away about what you did when you were much younger than he is now. He wants the chance to prove himself and I’ve no right to withhold that chance considering all that you two have done…”

“There’s a big difference though, Pa,” Adam said quietly, resuming his seat at the desk.” I had little choice in what happened when I was younger, and I went where you took me…” he looked evenly into his fathers face and saw a momentary flash of guilt in his parent’s eyes “And as for Hoss, well, it was different for him too, because of his size and strength and the circumstances we lived in, he had to rough it out. But Joe…”

“What Joe wants to do now, he chooses to do voluntarily…and I respect him for that, young though he is…” Ben growled, realizing that his son was trying to corral him into a corner.

“Wal, so do I,” Adam drawled, looking thoughtfully down at the papers in front of his father.

“Yeah, me too,” Hoss mumbled, watching his fathers face beginning to redden and wondering whether or not was the best time to disappear

“It’s going to be difficult for him though,” Adam glanced up again and looked at Ben who nodded

“He knows that.” Ben struck out his chin, just as Joe had struck out his chin earlier that day when insisting he be allowed to ride along with his brothers on the cattle drive to the Fort in Yuma.

“So long as he does…” Adam said quietly, and without another word, he pushed himself away from the desk and walked away, with Hoss following along behind him.

*****

“Pa?” Joe dismounted from Paint before the horse had stopped, and as a result found himself losing his footing. Only Ben’s grip tightening around his arm prevented him falling flat on his face, but that did not stop the boy from grinning hugely up at his father “Pa. Did you tell ‘em?”

“I asked them,” Ben said quietly

“And what did they say, Pa? Were they surprised?” Joe grinned, his eyes sparkling up at his father who was looking affectionately down at his son. Ben smiled, and put his arm around the boys shoulders and drew him close as they walked together towards the house

“They were,” he replied gently

“Were they pleased?”

“Yes and no ..”

A slight frown creased the boy’s smooth brow and he looked a little perturbed. Now they walked together to the house in silence as the boy thought over his fathers rather enigmatic comment. Of course, it was probably Adam, putting his lumbering big feet into the situation and trying to persuade Ben from letting him come. He glanced at his father who looked down at him and smiled

“Was it Adam?” he asked, his voice, as yet still unbroken, squeaking on a high note

“No…no, it wasn’t Adam, nor Hoss…they agreed but they were concerned. And rightly so, young man; after all, you’re only a boy and the risks of a cattle drive are considerable. Neither of your brothers want you to go to any unnecessary risks.”

“I know that, but they……”

“Things were different for them, Joe. Adam had no choice in his life. He had no childhood such as the one you’ve enjoyed. From the time he was an infant, I was dragging him across the continent and exposing him to dangers that, when I think about them now, make me shudder. And Hoss, well, he has had to work hard from an early age to help get the Ponderosa established and….”

“But that’s just it, Pa, dontcha see?” the boy cried eagerly, pausing now at the porch and gripping his fathers arm tightly with his hand in his earnestness to explain. “Compared to them, I’ve had it soft, too soft. I don’t want folk around here to look at us three brothers and say that I was just babied along, that I had it easy compared to them.”

“But, Joe, compared to them you have.” Ben placed a gentle hand under his sons chin and raised the child’s face upwards to look up at him and he smiled, and sighed. “Joe, you can’t escape from the facts, nor from what people will say.”

“I can prove them wrong though…I can prove that I’m no baby!” Joe pouted, his face draining of color and the freckles that chased over his nose stood out like gold dust and Ben felt his heart twist inside him as he saw the eagerness in the boys eyes and the light shining therefrom, so much like Marie’s that he had to swallow the emotion that tightened around his throat

“You don’t have to prove anything, son. You’re a Cartwright, and you’ve all the time in the world to prove that to any manjack who comes along to prove different!”

“But, Pa, I want to prove it now…to Adam, and Hoss and to you…”

Ben took a deep breath and tried to force away the pain the boys words brought to him, that a child of his should want to prove anything to him. He drew the boy closer towards him, so that Joe found himself resisting, very slightly, the embrace into which he was drawn

“Joe, you’ve nothing to prove to me…that you’ve not proved a hundred times already!”

“You don’t understand, Pa.” Joe pushed himself away and stepped back and with a sigh walked into the house. Ben watched him go and shook his head thoughtfully.

He understood only too well. Watching his son drag himself into the house as though the weight of the world rested upon his young shoulders reminded him of the time years ago when he begged to go to sea, just to prove to his father and his brothers that he was a man, even though he were only twelve at the time. They had humored him along, teased him a little, told him that when he was old enough …sometime…someday…until the day came when he could wait no longer and had packed his old canvas bag and ran away and signed on as a cabin boy.

Thankfully the captain of the ship he had fled to was a man with a gentle heart and a sensible head, and he had returned the boy home with a sound scolding. But had the man been less than kind, and even less sensible, and he had gone to sea with them, what good use would he have been to a ships crew at that age? As it was he had returned to a house of mourning, for his running away had nearly broken his mothers heart.

He understood too, that his youngest son would never respond to the tight rein he had used over Adam. This child of his, his last born, would do just as he had done years ago…pack his bag and slip away to prove to them, to the world, that he was as good as any of them. A courageous little lion cub ready to take on the jungle about him.

“How much are they worth?” Adams dark voice sounded close behind him. Ben started, and turned, his anxious face creased into a smile and he watched as his eldest son approached him, a bridle and bit hanging loose in his hands

“Not much!” Ben replied, looking affectionately at the young man as Adam finally reached his side.

Together they leaned against the bars of the corral and, for a few minutes, they were silent. They both knew that words were not always needed between them; they were comfortable with the silence, sometimes it spoke louder than any word said between them. Finally Ben sighed and looked at his son

“Joe really does need to go on this cattle drive.”

“So you said, Pa.” Adam frowned, his dark brows formed arches over the deep set brown eyes. He pursed his lips and looked with decided concentration at the contraption in his hands.

“If we don’t give him this chance, he’ll only run away and join up with some other outfit who won’t treat him with as much consideration as family.” He glanced at Adam again, his dark eyes darkening as Adam only frowned more deeply

“What are you saying, Pa? Did he threaten to run away?”

“No, but he reminds me of a boy just like him who did….and could have lived to regret it!”

“Not you by any chance?” Adams lips twitched into a half smile, although he did not look up at his father but continued to work on the equipment in his hands

“Joseph reminds me a lot of when I was young.”

“Well, I thought it was all decided that he was coming along with us – have you had second thoughts about it?”

“No, well, yes, but I’ve not said anything to him. He IS too young, but he’s chaffing at the bit, Adam; he’s longing to prove to himself that he’s able to do what he wants…and at the moment, it’s going on that cattle drive.” He smiled slowly. “He says he wants to prove to people that he’s not a baby any longer, but it’s himself he wants to prove it to most of all!”

Adam sighed, and said nothing but glanced over at the house and then back at his father. He nodded and sighed

“Well, Pa, as I told you before, I ain’t intending to baby him on this trip. You do realize that, don’t you?”

“I know, but, Adam, I want you to make me a promise here…“ Ben looked into Adams eyes, and Adam composed himself ready to listen and to deal with any conditions imposed upon himself and Hoss. “Promise me that no matter what – you’ll take care of Joe. I know how irritating he’s going to be over the coming weeks, but be patient with him and make sure he takes no unnecessary risks. Don’t let him come to any harm.“

“Do you think I would? Or Hoss for that matter?” Adams voice hardened and became brittle, as though the thought of endangering his brothers life could ever have entered their heads.

“I know – but – I’ve treated Joseph so differently from either of you. When Marie was killed, I wanted to protect Joe from all the pains and dangers that could ever come his way, and now, for the first time, he’ll be out of my…”

“Control?” Adam said, a hint of tension in his voice

“Well, no – not control – just that I won’t be there to keep him safe.” Bens voice deepened as emotion caught in his throat “Promise me that…”

“Sure, Pa, I promise you, I’ll keep him safe,” Adam said quickly. Then he smiled, and placed a hand on his fathers arm. “He’ll still ride drag, but I’ll make sure he’s kept safe”

“And don’t let him take unnecessary risks, you know how impetuous he is.”

“He’ll take the risks, Pa, just to prove he is what he wants to prove himself to be….but I’ll do my best to make sure he comes to no harm at the time!” Adam grinned

“Just promise me that he’ll come home safe.” Ben turned abruptly and walked hurriedly into the house.

*****

“Drag? You mean, I’m going to have to ride drag?”

Hoss frowned and pulled his hat a little further forward, shading his eyes from the sun and staring into his brothers face

“That’s what we said, ain’t it?”

“But riding drag stinks, Hoss!”

“I knows that…but it’s the position all green horns have to take up on their first cattle drive, Joe.”

“Greenhorn? I ain’t no greenhorn! I’ve bin cutting out calves and branding and…”

“Hush there, little brother; I know you kin do all of them things, and shaping up to be one of the best in the territory too. But the fact is, when it comes to a REAL cattle drive, you’re jest a novice.”

Joe scowled, and the handsome face flushed a mutinous red. Hoss shook his head and placed a gentle hand on the boys shoulder to steady him down a little.

“Look, Joe, I’ve bin riding on these things for some years yet, but I ain’t even got to being ramrod, have I?”

“Adam’s trail boss; you could be if he wanted you to.” Joe pouted

“Nah, Adam’s trail boss sure, but this is the first time for him, and old Charley Atkinson’s ramrodding becuz he’s always bin trail boss afore. That way, if Adam’s stuck; he’s got Charley’s expertise to fall back on.”

“But, Hoss, riding drag?” Joe opened his eyes in appeal to his ‘big’ brother but Hoss only shook his head

“You’ve a lot to learn, buddy, and riding drag is jest about the safest place to learn it! If the herd stampedes for any reason, well, ya never hear of ‘em stampeding backwards, do ya?” Hoss chuckled and slapped Joe on the shoulder, expecting to get at least a half hearted grin, but Joe just shook his head in despair, refusing to be mollified.

“What’s going on?” Adam walked towards them, buckling on the heavy leather chaps some gauchos and cowboys preferred to wear over their trouser legs to protect them getting torn about by cacti or the horns of the animals or, should they fall, protect them from the rocks and stones. He glanced up and over at Hoss, who raised his eyebrows and jerked his head at Joe

“Little brother here doesn’t want to ride drag,” Hoss muttered

“Oh!” Adam raised HIS eyebrows and lowered his eyelids in that rather superior kind of look that Joe recognized as a signal for some cynical comment to be leveled in his direction “Why’s that?”

“I don’t want to ride drag, is all,” Joe mumbled

“Well,” Adam frowned and his face softened, He even put his arm over Joe’s shoulder just as Ben would have done, which made Hoss open his eyes wider than ever. Joe shifted uncomfortably and gulped. “I know it’s not the most pleasant of positions to ride, Joe. I appreciate how you feel. Which position would you prefer?”

Joe darted a nervous look over in Hoss’ direction. Hoss just shook his head, totally nonplussed by Adam’s gentle handling of the situation

“I…er…I don’t rightly know, Adam. Mebbe up front, nearer to you two….” Joe’s eyes looked pleadingly up into his brothers face and he forced a rather wobbly smile. “It’s just that, riding drag….you know…it kinda …” He suddenly felt as though his shirt was getting too tight, and he found himself breathing heavily “I jest kinda thought…”

“Joe, riding drag is the worse position anyone could be given, which is why we decided you’d be the best person to ride there, along with Jake Atkins and Tom Riley.”

“Tom Riley? You mean, Tom Riley’s riding drag too?” Joe’s eyes brightened, for Tom Riley was a good friend of his from school, and just two years older than himself.

“Thought you’d like company your own age coming along too, Joe.” Adam smiled, his dark eyes twinkling at the sight of Joe’s pleasure. “Jake’s an experienced old hand and he wants to train you both up to be the best cowboys in Nevada. I reckon, the two of you being so keen and eager, he’ll do it…what do you reckon, Hoss?”

“Too right!” Hoss nodded his head sagely, as though he had masterminded the whole plan, which had come as a complete surprise to him.

“Without men riding drag,” Adam said quietly, stepping back a few paces now to check his gunbelt, “we could lose a lot. They’re the rear guard, so to speak, and have a lot of responsibility. Knowing how much you wanted to prove to everyone that you’re…“ he paused and looked thoughtfully at his little brother, “growing up, we knew you’d be just right to handle the job, and –“ he lowered his voice a tone “keep young Tom in check. I doubt if he’d take too kindly from taking orders from us.”

“Shucks, I never thought of that,” Hoss declared, grinning hugely and looking at Joe with his blue eyes wide in admiration “That’s darn good!”

“I thought so!” Adam smiled and gave Hoss a wink

“Tom’s all right, once you get to know how to handle him,” Joe said smugly, feeling that he was probably going to be promoted to trail boss by the end of the drive.

“I knew I could rely on you,” Adam smiled and gave Joe a playful punch on the shoulder “Now, Joe, you know that you’ll have to stand your shifts, don’t you…and no gripes. You’ll be responsible for your section of the herd and to keep it running smooth.”

“Sure, Adam, Pa told me all about it.”

“Night shifts too?”

“Yep, I know”

“We could be in for some bad weather, I don’t want you running up and grumbling about how cold it is, or how wet you are.”

“I – I won’t, Adam.”

“And no trying to get the night shifts changed. We all have to take a turn, and a man has to be ready to take it on again in the morning. It’ll be hard, Joe; do you reckon you and Tom can handle it?”

“Sure we can, Adam”

“You won’t let us down, boy, will you?”

“I’m a Cartwright, ain’t I?” Joe frowned and looked over at Hoss, who grinned and winked at him. Adam smiled and slapped him gently on the back. “I’ll just go and tell Pa we’re on our way!”

His brothers stood side by side and watched as he ran to where Ben sat astride Buck, watching them. His face was even sterner than usual, but it softened as Joe ran up, and he dismounted in time to catch Joe in his arms and hug him

“Long time since he did that to us, huh?” Hoss grinned down at Adam. His elder brother nodded, and smiled, thinking back to the times when they had been younger and there had been such hugs in an abundance for them

“Right, let’s saddle up,” Adam said slowly. He turned away from the scene of the father and child saying their farewells further afield, and looked over at the men who were riding into their positions. He nodded as though to himself, mounted Beauty, and galloped to the head of the herd, where Charley Atkinson sat in the saddle of his horse, waiting for the trail boss to take the lead.

Ben Cartwright watched as his youngest son rode down and took up his position at the rear of the herd. The sight of the boy’s bright eager face, the shining eyes and the wide smile of the handsome mouth, was a sight Ben would never forget. How happy the boy was as he turned in the saddle now and waved at his father, how alight with excitement he appeared to be. Ben smiled and raised a hand in farewell to them all.

He watched his eldest son lead them out, followed by Charley close by his side. The herd began to move, rippling muscle, horn and hoof suddenly convulsing into a forward movement, protesting volubly as they were forced to move away from the lush green pasture upon which they had been grazing. Hoss rode on the left hand flank, his lariat in his hand, on Pal, his coat gleaming white, as firm as any bastion could be. And then Joe, with Paint as nervously excited as his master, his feet constantly on the move and his eyes rolling as he smelt the sweat, heat and the fear and excitement of the cattle.

It was a journey that, at the most, would take six weeks to complete. Ben lowered his hat and watched as the whole mass of cattle, horses and men became enveloped with dust and then, eventually, the dust settled and there was nothing to be seen.

*****

“Are you alright, shortshanks?”

Joe peered through the slits between his eyelids at where Hoss stood and nodded slowly. For a few minutes, he sat in the saddle and watched as Hoss talked, and as he talked, he ladled spoonfuls of beans into his mouth. Joe felt his eyelids growing heavier and heavier. He was sure Hoss was saying something important, but his voice seemed to be coming from a long way off, and not just because his mouth was constantly being filled with beans. Joe didn’t even realize he was falling out of the saddle until he looked up and saw Hoss looking down at him.

“Wha-what happened?” he mumbled

“Hey, fella, you near enough fell asleep in the saddle,” Hoss said very gently, as though talking to a baby whom he had disturbed in sleep.

“I feel kinda odd, Hoss,” Joe sighed and within an instant was asleep in his brothers arms.

Tom Riley slid out of his saddle and walked, stiff legged and as though sleep walking, towards them. He could barely move his mouth, for he had clenched his teeth together for so long that day, and so often, that they seemed to be locked together. When Adam pushed a mug of hot coffee into his hands, he barely registered the fact and stood there staring down at it.

Very gently, Adam steered the boy towards an upturned barrel and helped him to sit down. Then he looked into the boys face and then took the mug away from him. Like his friend, Tom Riley was asleep on his feet and had Adam not caught him in time, he would have fallen flat on his face from the barrel.

“It’s been a long day for them!” Charley said, washing his mouth out with the coffee and spitting into the ground. “They’ve done well, though.”

“They have, both of them,” Adam replied quietly. He smiled softly, and looked over at the two dark mounds close to the chuck wagon. Tom and Joe, snuggled in their blankets, snoring loudly and still covered in the dirt and dust of the days labors. He shook his head and smiled again, then slowly walked over to where Hoss sat playing checkers with Hank.

“Well, whaddya think, Adam?” Hoss muttered, nodding over to where Joe slept

“I think the two of them did pretty well today, but they’re going to ache like thunder tomorrow,” Adam grinned, taking a gulp from the coffee.

“Are you going to put them on night shift this week?”

“Nah, I reckon we’ve enough men to cover the shifts until next week. By then the two of them should be in better shape.”

He stood with the mug of coffee in his hands, leaning against the wagon, watching his brother and Hank, whilst he thought about Joe, and indirectly, by association, his young friend, Tom. They had done well, really well. They had worked their horses like two experts, dodging here and there, plying their lariats, edging close to the cows and calves that attempted to break away from the herd. He had ridden back more than was usual for the trail boss, just to make sure that the two boys were safe and that they were handling their positions comfortably.

Comfortably! He shook his head, there were no comforts in this job, none at all. The dust and grit got down one’s throat and into every crevice a human body possessed. The yelling and shouting above the racket of the animals rasped one’s throat and made it as dry as a tinder box. The din of the animals, constantly, every minute of every hour, made one’s ears ring and the horrible thing was that there was no escape from it. The smell of the beeves, the stink of their excrement, the resulting flies, the discomfort of one’s own sweat – he drank down the last drop of the coffee and shook his head and wondered about the perversity of youth.

Joseph Francis Cartwright, born early, as though impatient to arrive, was now impatient to prove himself a man. As a result, he had returned to the camp that day covered from head to foot in dust, resembling one of the bodies covered by the ash at Pompeii, and falling from the saddle much as though he were a corpse! Joseph, Joseph….so quick to fire up, so eager to live, so slow to recognize the dangers, so impetuous…

Adam walked over to where his youngest brother slept and looked down at the boy. Then he walked over to the chuck wagon and took one of the canteens and a towel and returned to the blanketed form. He squatted onto his haunches by his brothers side. With the tenderness of a woman, he gently wiped the dust and dirt from the handsome face. He poured water over the filthy, blistered hands, cleaning them and checking them over and chiding himself for not reminding the boy to wear gloves. For minutes, he stayed by his brother’s side, and Joe, so sound asleep that had Adam thrown him into a river he would not have known, merely snored on.

Darby, the cook in charge of the chuck wagon, nudged Hoss and directed his attention over to Adam, who lingered still near his youngest brothers sleeping form. They had watched as he had washed the boys’ face and hands, and then cleaned Tom, and returned to Joe. Hoss, with a sigh, concluded his game of checkers, stood up, and wandered over to his elder brother

“You all right, Adam?”

“Sure.” Adam stood up and gave his brother a smile, “Are you?”

“Yep.” Hoss stretched and yawned “Glad to get into my bedroll though…”

“Go ahead.. sleep well!”

“Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t worry, he’ll be all right.”

“Yeah, sure, he will.”

They shared a brief smile. Then Hoss strolled over to his saddle and bed roll and settled down for the night, boots still on, gun and hat close at hand, for no one knew just how quickly a man had to mount up should the herd get spooked at any time.

For a while, Hoss lay awake and listened to the sound of the camp settling down for the night. Men’s voices murmuring, Darby clattering about in clearing away the last of the supper dishes, the fires hissing against the sap of the wood dripping into the flames, and in the distance, the lowing of the cows; the occasional tuneless whistle of the cowboy on watch, and then the snores and grunts of sleeping men.

The end of the first day and Hoss Cartwright was tired. Just as Adam had ridden back to the rear of the herd more often than usual to ensure the safety of his youngest brother, so also had Hoss. It had been hot and, being bigger built than most men, Hoss felt the heat. He lay there now, his head upon the saddle and struggling to sleep.

At twenty years of age, Hoss was a distinctive looking youth. Stronger than most — for sure he could wrestle any man there out of the ring and he could beat two men at one time in an arm wrestling. He had at times hated being so big, and, to his eyes, ugly. There were very few men built like himself, and at an age when most wished to conform to the average and be at least as handsome as the next, he had felt truly at odds with himself. The love of his father and brothers had helped him get the true perspective of what he was, and who he was, and now he probably knew and liked himself more than most.

Yes, at twenty, Hoss was more mature than many other men at forty. He knew his strengths and his weaknesses, he was confident in his abilities, and he was aware of his limitations. He was respected and accepted that respect by giving respect back tenfold. He lived by the adage to return evil to no one, to love his neighbor as himself…and that included any four footed creature in the vicinity as well.

Because of his size and strength, more had been expected from him at an earlier age than most, and therefore he had grown older sooner than many. Just as Joe was struggling for people to accept him as being ‘grown up’, and would, because of his size and nature, struggle with that for many more years to come, so Hoss had had to struggle with the fact that most just did not see him as young…not even when he had been Joe’s age of 14!

He yawned, turned over, and stared at where Joe’s dark form lay shrouded in his blanket. He was aware of Adam mounting his horse and very quietly riding out of camp. His eyes closed, and he drifted into sleep at last.

*****

The clatter of tins and the rattle of cutlery, the smell of bacon, coffee and beans sifted into his unconsciousness and alerted him to the fact that he should be on his feet and eating. Stiffly Joe struggled out of his blanket and, with half closed eyes, viewed the campsite. Cowboys were already saddling up and moving out. Darby was pouring out coffee for the last of the stragglers. Hoss was walking towards him with a smile on his face and two tin mugs of coffee in one hand and platters of food in the other. Joe turned and realized that Tom Riley had had just the same problem in rousing himself from sleep, and was now scratching his head and yawning and struggling to appear alert but failing dismally.

“Breakfast.” Hoss grinned as the boys grabbed at the coffee and the food and set to with an eagerness that Hoss understood and appreciated

“Are we late, Hoss?” Tom mumbled

“Some. Adam thought you could both do with a mite longer.”

“We don’t want special treatment,” Joe scowled “I told ya, Hoss, I don’t want to be wet nursed along this drive.”

“You ain’t being wet nursed,” Hoss sighed

“Then what do you call this then?” Joe scowled “Most of the men are already at work and we’re hardly up….”

“Wal, we reckon’d you save time not having to shave!” Hoss grinned

“That ain’t funny, either,” Joe grumbled

Adam rode by and paused and looked down at his little brother with a slight frown. The day had just begun for most of them, but for him it had started several hours earlier. Now he appeared before them, clean shaven because he was a man disciplined to regular habits, but already dust covered and heavy eyed from lack of sleep.

“What’s wrong?”

“L’il bro here is complaining about being allowed to lie in.”

Adam looked down at the two youths and their mutinous glares, and then jerked his thumb over to Darby

“In that case, get your things cleaned up and get yourselves in line. We move out in half an hour!”

“Half an hour! But……”

“If we make good enough time, you can wash and bathe when we reach the river; otherwise you’ll have to give it a miss. Tomorrow morning you get up with the others!”

“But, Adam…”

“If you can’t appreciate a favor, then quit grumbling now and get to work. Tom, your horse has a loose shoe, take one of the others.”

Tom Riley looked at Joe and raised his eyebrows, before downing the last of the bacon and hurrying with his plate and mug over to Darby and slipping the soiled implements into the greasy water. Joe did likewise, glaring over at his eldest brothers retreating back as Adam rode away.

“One minute he’s nannying us and the next minute it’s all blood and thunder,” Tom growled.

“I guess we should have been grateful, instead of complaining. After all, yesterday was our first day, and it wasn’t easy!” Joe said in defense of his brother.

“I feel as stiff as a board,” Tom muttered

“I can hardly move my legs,” Joe said quietly.

The day passed as the previous had, enveloped in clouds of grit and dust and chasing calves who insisted on running loose from their mothers, then confronting mothers who wouldn’t give way to their horses but stamped their forelegs in aggressive defense of their young. By the time the midday break came, the two boys were exhausted.

They ate their meal gratefully, swallowing down the grit between their teeth along with the beef and bean stew. Like sleepwalkers, they had their mugs refilled and refilled again, drinking down the thick dark coffee which brought some semblance of life back to their dulled brains.

“Are you alright, Joe?” Adam touched his brothers arm to get his attention and was greeted with a tight lipped smile “Not too much for you, is it, Joe?”

Joe immediately bristled, too sensitive to appreciate the concern in his brothers voice, only attributing to it sarcasm and deference. “Of course we’re all right!” he snapped “Why shouldn’t we be?”

“Anytime you want to, or feel the need to do so, you can hitch a few hours up on the wagon with Darby.”

“Why’d I want to do that?”

“Because..” Adam smiled gently and, for an instant, Joe was able to see the kindness in his brothers eyes and tried not to weaken his resolution by doing so. “Because you’re not a man yet, even though you want to be. You want to prove to us that you are, but the fact is that you aren’t, and nothing you do or say is going to change that. Grown men starting out on their first cattle drive are only too glad to have a turn in helping Darby do some shifts, and travel aboard the wagon instead of riding nursemaid to a bunch of ornery cows.” he placed a gentle hand on his brothers shoulder and smiled again “I did, and so did Hoss.”

“I’m all right, Adam,” Joe said quietly, softening his attitude and voice and appreciating for once Adam’s generosity towards him. “Honestly, I can do this.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard, Joe.”

“I won’t!” Joe smiled, a pang of guilt for his lack of appreciation for the kind thoughts extended to them. He watched as his brother walked away, and felt a surge of admiration for him that made his heart beat faster.

The days settled into a regular pattern, one of monotonous routine that was as frustrating and irritating to the two boys as the amount of dust and dirt they swallowed in a day. It was fine when traveling parallel to the river, when one could swim off the days dirt in the evening before bedding down, but once they left the river and greenery, and struck out for the drier lands, then the dust and dirt became more than an irritation, for it gathered into the creases of ones skin and after a while rubbed places raw.

“Dangblast the boy!” Zeke exclaimed volubly and started his horse forward to check Tom as the lad galloped by at a fast pace towards some cows that Zeke had already gathered in to return to the main herd.

“I’ll git ‘im!” Hoss yelled above the noise. He urged Pal forward so that the big white horse was soon galloping towards Tom at an angle that would cut him off and bring him to a halt before he came upon the cows and sent them scattering again.

Joe turned as he saw the flash of Pals white form from the corner of his eye. He turned Paint around, ready to move, only to see Tom and Hoss’ animals collide together and all of them fell in a cloud of dust as they tangled together.

Tom leapt to his feet, frightened out of his wits. His pony was struggling to get back onto her feet, staggering a little, panting, but holding her own. He reached out for the bridle and held her head as he stood aside a little to watch Hoss

“Hoss? Hoss?” Joe dismounted from Paint and ran frenziedly towards his brother who was just beginning to show signs of life. As Hoss brought up a hand to rub his head, Joe ran up to him and threw himself at him

“It’s okay, shortshanks, I’m fine, I’m okay…” Hoss muttered and pushed the boy away with a kindly gentleness to the gesture that soothed Joe enough for the boy to step back. “What happened?”

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” Tom Riley stepped forward, the tears welling up in his eyes as he saw the blood beginning to trickle from Hoss’ head “I’m real sorry, Hoss,” he stammered again

“It’s okay, fella. These kind of things tend to happen on a cattle drive, all part of the days work,” Hoss said quietly, placing a gentle hand on the youths shoulder. Feeling the tremble of the boy’s body beneath his hand, he frowned and looked into the lad’s face “Are you alright, Tom?”

“I feel kinda sick…” Tom replied

“Joe, you’d best take him back to camp, get Darby to see him.” Hoss took a deep breath and exhaled, relieved when he felt so pains in his own body, only the annoyance of the cut on his head.

“What’s happened here?” Adams terse clipped voice reached their ears. Tom and Joe exchanged a look before they looked at Adam as he strode towards them, his face registering, not so much anger, but anxiety and fear “Hoss? Are you all right?” His fingers clutched at his brother’s arm. Hoss nodded and smiled

“Sure, I’m jest fine, I jest kinda…“ he paused and his blue eyes widened and then filled with dismay. “Pal?” he breathed and, pushing them aside, he hurried to where the white horse lay on his side, breathing heavily, a trickle of blood beginning to flow from its nostril “Pal, old gal?” Hoss fell onto his knees and looked at the horses heaving flanks and gulped back the thick well of tears that now caught at his throat “Shucks, Pal…what’s happened to ya?”

Adam was kneeling by his brothers side, and while Hoss seemed incapable of action, unable to think apart from stroking the horses sleek perspiring neck, Adam ran his hands over the horses body. Then he looked up at his brother and placed a gentle, but firm, hand on his brothers shoulder

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” he said very quietly

“What do ya mean?” Hoss winced, his face contorting with grief before he turned to look down at his horse. With a deep groan low in his throat, he pushed his brother to one side and hurried towards her.

“Hoss, I’m so sorry,” Tom whispered, stepping forward “If I could change a thing….”

“Joe, take Tom to the chuck wagon…go on…” Adam snapped, and he gave his youngest brother a glowering frown that sent Joe away with his friend, despite a niggle of annoyance at his eldest brother’s high handedness.

“Hoss?” Adam put his hand once more upon Hoss broad back and leaned forward “Do you want me to …”

“No, no,” Hoss put his hand up to arrest any movement of his brothers towards his gun, “No, Adam, I’ll see to her. I jest want to sit here with her for jest a minute or two, if’n that’s okay with you?”

“You know it is.”

“Alone?”

“Sure.”

Adam swallowed the lump in his own throat, and walked away, mounting Beauty and riding back to where he had to work. Occasionally he turned his head to glance in his brothers direction, but could only see the dark shape of the young man outlined against the bare dry land with the prone horse lying on the ground.

“Pal?” Hoss whispered softly, caressing the sweating white neck gently and then raising her head to settle it upon his lap. “Pal..shucks, gal, you were jest about the best friend a fella could wish to have….why’d ya have to go and do a fool clumsy stunt like that fer? After all these years, I’d have thought you’d ha known better’n that?” He sighed and wondered what he should do, feeling clumsy and useless, and unable to understand why his horse should be dying now…and why it was that he was so impotent to help her.

“You were the first hoss I ever had of my own…jest a little white filly looking lost and forlorn thar amongst all them others who were pushing ya around, as though ya didn’t matter none. Remember how you came soon as I called out to ya? All I said was ‘Hey?’ and you pricked up them ears of yourn and came right on over. ‘Course Adam said I had to have ya because you and me had summat in common, and I said “What was that, Adam?” and he said ‘Food!’ ‘Course I didn’t understand what he meant, which ain’t nuthin’ unusual, so I said “Hey” agin, and he said “Yeah, that’s right!” and grinned, and I knew then he meant Hay…shucks, anyhows, who cared what he meant, I only know that I thought there and then you were the horse fer me…sure felt proud when pa said I could have ya to train up all my own!”

Hoss bowed his head and slowly the tears trickled down his face as he recalled times he had spent with the little filly, watching her grow just as his family watched him grow. She was a loyal friend, always ready to listen when he came to the stable to talk to her about some problem or other, never interrupting like the members of his family were prone to do. She would nibble at his hair, her soft muzzle moving over his face, and sometimes, to tease him, she would nip his ear, or any other part of his anatomy that offered itself to her when she fancied. He used to say that one of the things he loved about her was her sense of humor! For some reason that used to make everyone laugh!!

*****

“How’s Hoss?” Joe asked Adam when he saw his brother walking into the camp an hour later “It was an accident, you know,” he added defensively

“I know,” Adam replied quietly and glanced over his shoulder to where the young man and the horse were still together “She seems to be taking a long time dying.”

“I – I guess – Hoss – do you think I should go down and sit with him?”

“No, not yet. He wants to spend some time with her…later may be.” Adam sighed and walked wearily to the chuck wagon and took the coffee with his shoulders heavy with weariness.

Joe was about to say something when there was a single shot of a rifle. It rolled a little in the air and all the men in the camp turned in its direction. Joe glanced over at Adam, who was staring at the sight of the tall man with the rifle in his hand, and for some reason, Joe felt the most urgent need to sit down and weep.

*****

“Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“Kin I have a word?”

“Sure, Hoss…” Adam edged Beauty closer to his brother and squinted at him in an attempt to get him in focus. The rain drove against his face and stung his eyes so much that it was near to impossible to see anyone close to.

“Are you gonna leave Joe and Tom out there on night shift?” Hoss hunched his shoulders sending a cascade of water sluicing down his waterproof slicker and splashing down upon his boots before joining the puddles on the ground

“Why not?”

“But Adam, they’re exhausted, they’re jest boys.” Hoss wiped the rain from his face with his free hand, a useless exercise for the rain was driving down too hard to be removed for long

“They want to prove they’re men, don’t they?” Adam narrowed his eyes and raised his chin, as though preparing to take on anybody

“But with this storm…if those cows stampede and anything happens to them….” He left the question hanging in the air and Adam darted a look at his brother that spoke volumes. He took a deep breath “Adam, I reckon they should be backalong with Darby. They’ll be safer there…”

Adam raised a hand to his face and wiped away the rain

“All right, Hoss, if you insist,” he muttered and rode away, back to his position at the front of the herd.

It was now three weeks into the cattle drive. They had encountered various obstacles along the way, but Charley had been pleased with the resolute manner in which Adam had acted as the trail boss and driven the cattle onwards. They were exactly a week ahead of schedule but now the heavens had opened and a storm was scudding overhead. Every man there was tense as a coiled spring, dreading the worse thing that could happen to a herd of cattle apart from disease….a stampede.

Tom Riley looked over at Hoss as the big man approached him. The youth was cold and shivering with a certain amount of fear. When Hoss suggested that he ride back to camp and stayed with Darby, he was more than grateful. Without a second offer, he sent his horse galloping back through the treacley mud to the camp, ignoring Joe’s yell as he passed the younger boy.

“Joe?” Hoss bellowed over the sound of thunder that rolled overhead of them

“What d’you want?” Joe yelled back, his white face speaking for itself of fear, anger, and stubborn pride.

“You gotta go back to the wagon.”

“Why?”

“Git summat hot inside of yer….and it’ll be safer.”

Joe’s face flushed red as he edged Paint closer to Hoss and glared up at him, his green hazel eyes sparked clearly even through the darkness of the night made even darker by the rain.

“What? You now? For pete’s sake, Hoss, tell Adam I ain’t gonna quit! And tell him to get off my case. I’m tired of him sending men along to tell me to get back to Darby.”

“Y’mean, Adam told you to get back before now?”

“Every time I go on night shift, he sends for me to get back to camp earlier than I should…and tonight he’s sent someone practically every hour! How can I prove to you all that I’m a man now if you keep on babying me like this?” His voice screeched above the sound of lightning scudding across the black sky, sending it purple, blue then electric white before sinking back into blackness once more.

“Joe…I’d really prefer it if…”

“NO!” Joe yelled back. He sent Paint galloping forward and away from his brother who sat astride his horse and watched him with a perplexed expression on his face.

Then Hoss frowned a little and realized how unfairly he had judged his elder brother who, along with all his responsibilities as trail boss, had not once forgotten nor neglected his youngest brother’s safety. He was riding back to his position when the lightning streaked across the sky once more, crackling like a firework as it forked left, right, and beyond…and above the sound of the lightning came a single yell from over a dozen throats, “STAMPEDE”

Now it was every man for himself as they fought to control the maddened herd of cattle which surged forward as a mass of rippling muscle and sinew, an undulating picture of black and white surging with thunderous hooves away from the sounds they dreaded. Horns gleamed evilly white and eerie at each streak of lightning. Men’s faces appeared like ghostly wraiths floating over the mass of bone and flesh and horn that flooded en masse all around them.

Joe urged Paint in every direction he could, avoiding a horn that slashed down towards him, sidestepping a terrified calf that threatened to unseat him, and leaping over deep puddles of water that could send both horse and rider falling and upon falling, being crushed to their deaths beneath the milling grinding hooves of so many massively frenzied animals. He yelled and screamed at the top of his voice, his throat became red hot from the effort of his shouts as he sought to hold his corner against the herd. He wielded his lariat, striking out against a too close steer, now here, now there…

Not one man could have told another what the other had done that night, but each and everyone of them had some part in bringing the mass of sinew and muscle, bone and horn, to a standstill.

Men, horses, and steers paused, catching at their breaths, gasping and retching. Little Joe steered Paint away, heaving to get his breath again, feeling his body shaking, his head spinning. Without even realizing, he began to slip sideways from the saddle, falling into the mud and the rain pouring down on him, forming puddles all around his huddled form.

*****

“Joe? Joe?”

The sound of voices calling his name seemed to come from a long way off, hollow as though coming through a long tunnel. When he finally managed to open his eyes, it was to look up into the white faces of his two brothers who were leaning over him, their eyes overlarge from fear and anxiety

“I’m all right,” he mumbled through a mouth that seemed stuffed full of cotton wool and the words burned his throat as they passed through his wind pipe. “I’m all right….”

“Drink this, Joe,” whispered Adam. He supported the boys head in his lap, and carefully poured something liquid into his mouth, something that was sweet and hot and syrupy. Joe swallowed, gulped, and closed his eyes.

“He’s asleep,” Adam whispered to Hoss. He very tenderly settled the boy under the blankets and then stood up and passed a hand over his face, turning away from Hoss’ scrutiny as he did so.

“You should’ve stopped him going on night shift, Adam,” Hoss said quietly

“I tried to….” Adam replied, walking away from the campsite and longing for the privacy of somewhere to think and remove the huge burden of guilt and remorse that weighed his heart down like a stone.

“You should’ve forced him.” Hoss grabbed at Adams arm, only to have it shrugged off. Adam turned, red rimmed weary eyes glaring into Hoss’s pale frightened face

“I tried to…..” he said once again

“That ain’t good enough, Adam. What if something had happened to him?”

“Don’t you think I hadn’t thought about that?” Adam growled, his eyes widening with anger. Then he turned away and bit his bottom lip to prevent angry words pouring out because he had been so scared that his little brother would not survive the nights ordeal.

Charley stepped towards them, hot steaming mugs of coffee in both hands. He pushed them into their hands and nodded towards Joe

“Gittin’ to be a reg’lar little man cub, ain’t he?” he muttered

Adam nodded and glanced over towards the incumbent form of his little brother and smiled. Yes, he thought to himself, that was Joe all right, a regular little man cub!

*****

Three steaming tubs of hot water .

The pleasant smell of pine scented soap.

Three Cartwrights soaking up to their chins in a froth of hot sudsy water.

Heaven on earth!!!

Adam’s eyes had closed almost involuntarily as soon as his body realized it had the opportunity to relax and allow the hot pine scented water to caress his body and seep into his aching bones and muscles. His brothers voices twirled round and round his head and then in some strange manner drifted somewhere else, just occasionally the odd word siphoned through, in a weird echoing manner.

They had delivered the cattle a week ahead of schedule and had lost only 20 head! Charley had said it was excellent and everyone at the Fort had seemed to echo the sentiment. He had been paid in full and, having paid off the men, had been able to bank the profits in the hotel safe in the town that had mushroomed up just fifteen miles south of the Fort. He had wired his father and received his father’s ‘well done’ cable in return.

Not one man had been killed nor injured during the drive, and the only loss of any subsequence had been that of Pal, Hoss’ faithful retainer and mount.

And Joseph Francis was safe and well – Adam allowed the merest twitch of a smile to touch his lips as he thought of his little brother who had grown an inch and whose voice had ‘broken’ at last!

Now he could really relax and look forward to the evening before they set off for home.

Hoss yawned as loudly as he possibly could and he stretched out his arms and sank a little deeper into the hot water. The water lapped up to his chin and he smiled and closed his eyes and sighed contentedly.

“Hush up, Joe. I gotta do some meditating,” he mumbled over to Joe, before folding his arms behind his head and with a smile on his face of sheer bliss, began to think over the past few weeks.

By hickory, those doughnuts at the Garveys had been good, and the way she had cooked the fish that Joe, Susie and George had caught was nothing short of heaven . No way was he surprised to have learned that the Garveys had owned a restaurant in Kansas the way she could turn her hand to cooking. What a memory to ponder on …

Everything had gone so swell. Adam had succeeded in running a close tight crew and coming out of it really well, even Charley had commended him and told Hoss that next trip round HE could be ramrod!

But then he had lost Pal and, for an instant, his smile faded and he swallowed the lump in his throat. Who would have thought Pal could have died so quickly due to such a stupid error of judgment. His mind trickled back, once again, to the day he had first seen the little white filly prancing about so daintily in the corral, being pushed around by the other horses that they had caught. Marie had commented to Ben how pretty the little filly was and suggested that they kept her, and then, within a few weeks Marie had died…and the little white horse had become something more precious to Hoss as a result.

It had taken three years for her to grow and develop into the beauty she had become….white like snow, with a pink velvet nose and a silken tail and mane. She had one splash of velvety soft brown just under her left ear and Ben had said that every beauty used to wear a black patch to attract attention to their best feature. They had laughed and yet it had stuck in Hoss’ mind.

Even during those last minutes with her, as her head rested upon his knees as he sat by her side, he had stroked just under her left ear and her eyes had brightened just momentarily. He had told her how much she had meant to him, and he had told her thanks…thanks for long years of service, friendship, companionship and so much more…after all, what could any man expect from a horse?

He sniffed several times now at the memory of her death, of having to take his rifle and shoot her before her pain became too agonizing for her to bear, and for him to watch. How would he ever find another to take her place…?

Joe ducked beneath the water and splashed back up and splattered out the water. He washed his hair again, and ducked down again, a procedure he repeated several times before he seemed satisfied that he had at last removed every vestige of trail dust and dirt from his head. He sniffed and inhaled the tang of pine soap and sighed contentedly, that was much better!

What a strange few weeks! So many memories all trickling into one another….the smells and the discomfort, the way the smell of cattle excrement clung to ones clothes and body so that that seemed to be all one could smell! The way the dust and grit crept down through ones clothes and rubbed the creases of ones skin, leaving them raw and sore. The greasy half cooked half cold food and the strong black coffee.

He recalled the fight he and Tom Riley had one evening, because Tom had complained about Adam making them do the night shift and treating them like regular cowhands…and how he had whopped Tom for shooting off his mouth about Adam, even though he had himself been feeling hard done by and not considered sufficiently by his elder brother. And yet, what else could he have expected when every time Adam extended a kindness to them, went out of the way to ensure their safety and comfort, he had snapped and snarled and shouted in protest .

Still, he had proven to himself and to them that he was no longer a baby, no longer just the little boy tagging along. He had done his share and Adam had praised him to the skies before sending him off to do another man-size task. Yes, Adam had made him work to prove his boast, but he had achieved it, and he could respect himself as a result.

He glanced over at his brothers and smiled….both appeared to be sound asleep with the bath water cooling around them. Adam with his black hair curling over his brow and ears, and Hoss with his thinning hair sticking up in tufts.

Joe ducked under the suds again and came up smiling, spitting out the now not so pleasant to the taste water. He stretched and like his brothers settled back to relax, just for a brief moment or two….

Maybe three or four….

*****

“What now?” Joe asked, glancing at his two brothers and looking pleased with himself, with life in general, and with his new gruff voice.

“Now WE go to the saloon and get ourselves a reeaaaaaaal nice cooooooool beer!” Adam smiled over at Hoss, who rubbed his hands together and licked his lips in anticipation.

“Now that’s what I call a real good idea..” Hoss said

“And YOU …” Adam smiled down at Joe “go upstairs to your room and get to bed.”

“WHAT?” Joe’s eyes opened wide and his mouth fell open. “You don’t seriously mean that, do you?”

“Naturally I mean it,” Adam said, looking severely down at his brother and placing both hands on his hips, which meant serious business

“But I thought I was going to spend the evening with you two guys…”

“You thought wrong!” Adam said sharply

“Yeah, Joe, you gotta realize that you’re still only a little shaver. We two men cain’t possibly take you to the saloon. What would Pa think if he got to hear?”

“Leave Pa out of this,” Adam said smoothly “The fact is, Joe, you’re too young to go into the saloon!”

“Hey, that ain’t right. If I’m old enough to ride that herd alongside you all, then I’m sure as like old enough to go over there and have a drink with you..” Joe pushed Adam to one side and stepped forward only to find himself prevented from moving any further forward as Hoss and Adam hauled him back “Dang it, Adam, Hoss…leggo…”

“Now, Joe –“ Adam pushed his little brother against the wall and glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was around to witness the scene. He lowered his head so that he and Joe were nearly nose to nose. “You don’t want me and Hoss to take you up to your room by force, do you?”

“No!” Joe squeaked, his new gruff voice momentarily deserting him

“Right, so I suggest that you get yourself upstairs to your room, and get into bed and have a good nights sleep.” He opened his eyes wide to emphasize the point “Understand what I’m saying?”

“Yeah, sure, but…..”

“Joe?” Adam raised his eye brows and jabbed Joe in the shoulder with his forefinger “What did I just say to you?”

“Shucks, sure, but…”

“Another one of them ‘buts’ and…”

“Okay, okay, Adam, Hoss…I’m going.” Joe turned and headed quickly for the stairs and scampered up the first four before turning “I still reckon…”

“JOE!”

“All right, all right…I’m going…I’m going….”

Adam and Hoss smiled at one another and winked. Without another word, they turned towards the door, and side by side, their steps practically synchronizing as they left the hotel and walked quickly over to the saloon.

“Two large cold beers, bar tender,” Hoss declared, slapping down his money upon the counter as Adam headed for a table

“I didn’t think Joe would give in so easily,” Adam grinned over at Hoss as his big brother pulled out a chair and sat down, pushing Adam’s drink over to him as he did so. They both raised their glasses and took a long, slow, lingering draught of the cool beer and then placed the glasses back onto the table with a slight thud, before wiping their mouths with the back of the hand “That was good.”

“That was more than good, Adam, that was…..”

“And a cold lemonade.” A voice demanded from behind them

Joe turned and smiled a beaming cherubic smile at his brothers and took the lemonade from the bartender without a word.

“I knew you guys wouldn’t really want to be without my company this evening,” he said with far more confidence in his voice than he felt.

“Is he with you?” the bartender yelled over to Adam and Hoss, who both nodded, the smiles on their faces having long faded at the sight of their brother lounging against the counter with the glass in his hand and a twinkle in his eye “Make sure he don’t drink nuthin’ stronger and git him outa here before 9!”

Adam and Hoss exchanged furtive, irritated glances and narrowed their lips. With a smile on HIS lips, Joe sauntered over to their table, pausing halfway when a young woman with bleached golden hair, far too much powder and paint on her face, and a scarlet and black very, very short dress stopped him, placing a hand with garish red paint on the nails onto his chest

“Why, little man, what bit of heaven did you just drop in from?” she whispered in a sultry manner. Joe’s smile of confidence faltered somewhat, and he raised his hand to his chest to push her hand away. “Ain’t you jest about the best looking fella in the place….”

“He’s too young for that,” Hoss growled, grabbing at Joe’s arm and pulling him towards the table

“No, he ain’t,” she remarked, grabbing at Joe’s other arm and pulling him towards her so sharply that Joe lost his footing and slipped, falling so heavily against her that she toppled against the cowboy who was sitting at the next table and about to take a long swallow from his beer, most of which now slopped down the front of his shirt

“HEY! WHADDYA THUNK YA DOIN’?” he yelled, pushing back the table and standing up and grabbing hold of Joe by the front of his shirt

“I – I – just an accident,” Joe stuttered, finding that his gruff voice had apparently gone altogether, leaving him with barely a squeak left!

Adam buried his face in his hands and stared very intently at what remained of his beer, whilst Hoss stood up, undecided as to whether or not to intervene.

The girl had disappeared with a promptness reminiscent of the genie in Aladdin’s lamp.

The cowboy’s fist clenched and his arm was raised high. Joe shrunk back as he saw it approaching him. He felt himself yanked back and tossed aside, so that he rolled along the edge of one table before falling flat on his back onto the floor.

Hoss had grabbed the cowboy by the wrist and was succeeding in forcing the mans arm behind his back when the cowboy’s friend decided it was time for him to get in on the act. He picked up a chair which he brought down heavily across Hoss’ back.

Joe gave a yell, got to his feet and lunged forward, only to be stopped by Adam who picked him up bodily and carried him, over his shoulder, to the counter. Wriggling as much as he could did not prevent Joe being dropped unceremoniously behind the counter with Adams stern voice advising him to keep his head down. This wise counsel was endorsed immediately when he peeked up and part of a chair flew in his direction. He ducked, the chair continued onwards and smashed into a mirror that splintered, sending shards of glass falling everywhere. Joe ducked down and put his hands over his head and closed his eyes.

Adam stood at the far end of the counter and watched the proceedings for some minutes. Three to one against were fair enough odds for Hoss and he was really handling everything well. Tables were being tossed about quite a bit, and chairs broke with alarming ease, but Hoss seemed to be enjoying himself.

Adam leaned against the bar and caught the bartender’s attention

“Another two beers….and make sure the little runt under the counter stays put.”

He was halfway through his beer when Hoss decided enough was enough and laid the last cowboy out for the count. He was brushing his hands together and wiping the mess of spit, teeth and blood from them when the doors of the saloon burst open. A horde of men flung themselves into the saloon so the yell of “FIGHT. FIGHT” rang out, summoning every available man to the free-for- all at the Silver Bullet Saloon.

Just occasionally Joe raised his head above the counter to watch what was going on. It invariably meant a bottle, glass, keg, chair leg or something would be hurled in his direction as a result. Within ten minutes of the fight, the bartender joined him, cringing as far as he could into the recesses under the counter in the forlorn hope that he would be spared.

Shots were fired at random.

There came screams from the girls who were huddled beneath the stairs.

There came the shrill whinny of a horse as a cowboy galloped his way into the saloon in order to join the fray

Joe was about to throw up in a bucket when someone grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him aloft, threw him over their shoulders and ran.

The cool night air kissed his face as he was set down upon his feet and he found himself looking up into Hoss’ cheerful, smiling face. He turned to see Adam walking towards them, a smile on his lips, one hand wiping the blood from his cheek.

“All right, little brother?” he said with a twinkle in his eyes

“I – er – yeah, I reckon so,” Joe replied, his voice gruff again.

“Good fight, weren’t it?” Hoss commented, glancing over his shoulder as the sounds of the mayhem continued to resound through the evening air, and the thud of feet on the sidewalks as men continued to run to the saloon, reached their ears.

“Let’s get inside,” Adam suggested as it became obvious that the fight was about to spill over into the street. He grabbed at Hoss’ arm to restrain his younger brother from any further involvement.

Joe glanced over at his brothers. Hoss had a lump on his forehead the size of a small egg, and his mouth was bleeding and his clothes were ripped here and there. Adam had a cut beneath one eye which was bleeding and a bruise beginning to purple on his cheekbone. They were smiling, as though the evening had ended on the perfect high note for them both.

“I’m sorry about causing that fight,” Joe murmured as they entered the hotel

“Bound to happen whether you were there or not, Shortshanks,” Hoss muttered, rubbing the grazed knuckles of his left hand with his right.

“Oh….” Joe glanced over at Adam, who nodded

“Yeah, bound to have happened!” Adam repeated and without flinching strode confidently into the hotel.

*****

Warm soft mattresses on sturdy beds.

Soft breezes fluttering through the windows of their rooms through which could still be heard the ruckus of the brawl.

Soft and not so soft snores could be heard as a gentle accompaniment to the medley of sound from without.

Joe lay on his bed with his arms folded behind his head, staring up at the ceiling and contemplating the evening. His eyes were heavy and he felt the tug of sleep upon his body. He yawned, grateful to have a room to himself and not to have to share a bed with Hoss.

Hoss was sprawled all over his bed, legs sticking out and arms flung all over. The covers were wrapped round him and tangled up so that he resembled a half wrapped corpse. His head hung over the edge of the bed and his snoring was loud, rumbling, whistling, snorting.

Adam lay on his side, one arm flung out to the side and hanging over the edge of the bed, the covers up high to his chin, the other arm tucked under the pillow.

Joe yawned and considered closing the window of his room to shut out the noise. He yawned again…the noises were fading away now….he was tired, really tired…he yawned once more and slipped effortlessly into sleep.

*****

Somewhere a clock chimed some hour past midnight and Joe opened one bleary eye and then the other and yawned. He could hear gun shots and there was the vague realization at the back of his mind that there was glass breaking, something big, something that could well have been a window – or two.

He yawned again and sat up and scratched his head, and then he scratched his chest and stretched. He looked around him and tried to remember exactly where he was. When he recalled that he was in a hotel room, he then recalled the reason, or possible reason, for all the ruckus outside.

*****

Adam Cartwright woke up coughing. He lay on his back for a moment or two wondering why he was finding it so hard to breathe. He took one deep breath and started coughing involuntarily and at the same time he could smell the cause. He rolled out of bed faster than he had done for a long time, pulling on pants and boots, stumbling against the bed posts and stubbing his toe, yelling all the time at the top of his voice.

“HOSS! JOE! FIRE! FIRE!”

He grabbed a shirt, ran to the door and paused. He glanced downwards at the floor and saw the slick curl of smoke writhing up towards him and knew that were he to open the door it could well be to an inferno.

He tried to think, tried to remember whereabouts Hoss and Joe slept. Did they have communicating walls? He thumped on the walls and yelled his brothers names. Then he returned to the door and gingerly touched the wooden panels. They were scorching hot now and beginning to blacken. It was a mere matter of time before they would erupt into flames. He stepped back as the smoke thickened and blackened about him, making his head spin as the smoke filled his lungs and made breathing and clean oxygen impossible to attain.

Hoss Cartwright dragged himself from the bed and to the wall that intercommunicated with Joe’s. Thudding as loud as he could on the wall to be heard, he yelled his brother’s name whilst pulling on boots and buckling on his belt. He was about to step to the door when he saw the first curl of flame burst through one of the panels.

“ADAM?”

“Hoss? Get out of here, Hoss!”

“I cain’t, Adam…the doors afire…”

“Try the window, hurry…”

“What about you?”

“Just get moving, Hoss….”

Adam knelt on the floor and held a towel to his face. There was so much going on in his head that he could have screamed. Should he run for the window? What about Hoss? What about Joe? Where was Joe? Should he try for the landing? What about the other guests in the hotel?

Tentatively he reached out for the door and touched the handle. Still on his knees he reached out with the towel now wrapped round his hand and carefully turned the handle. As the door billowed open, he fell flat onto his stomach on the landing floor. He could see Hoss’ door well and truly ablaze now which meant that the flames were well along at that end of the landing. If so, then Joe’s room was already on fire.

He crawled his way beneath the smoke towards Joe’s room, moving as fast as he could upon all fours. But before he had reached Joe’s door, the flames were so intense that he was forced to lay flat on his stomach and consider turning round and retreating as fast as he could to where the flames had yet to reach.

He could barely breathe now. Every breath was labored. He closed his eyes and saw his father’s face looking over at him and he heard Ben saying very firmly “Promise me you’ll bring Joe home safely, that’s all I ask, Adam.”

He brought the towel closer to his mouth and nostrils, and charged full pelt through the flames and into the room where his little brother had only hours before bade them a cheery good night. He had run so fast that he fell across the bed, landing flat on his back on the other side. He saw a wardrobe teeter back and forth, and without a second’s thought, he lunged through the glass window.

He rolled and was stopped from falling by the balustrade that encircled the upper outer floors of the hotel. Beneath him were the windows of the lower floor and then the verandah and the street. Without hesitation he stepped over the balustrade railings and dropped.

A water chain was already in progress. The dust of the street was being churned over into mud as water slopped from the buckets that were being passed from hand to hand to be flung over the burning building. Men and women and adolescents were all taking part in rescuing the hotel and preventing it from spreading to the other buildings close by. People slipped in the mud, spilling water clumsily over themselves and others; water was slopped indiscriminately everywhere. Men shouted orders to men who took no notice, and women shrieked and carried out their assigned tasks without hesitation or query.

But all the while he could only think of one thing…Joe’s bed was empty, so where was Joe?

Someone was hauling at his arm, helping him to his feet, mumbling some incoherent words of comfort and urging him towards a building, But he shrugged them away and ran towards the hotel, all the time yelling “Hoss! Joe! Hoss! Joe!”

Two men ran from the chain and grabbed at him, pulling him back, forcing him to retreat from the blaze

“My brothers are in there!” he shouted at them. Then he saw Hoss’ face, streaked with soot and blood. Just as he saw Hoss and saw the relief on his brothers face, he yelled “Where’s Joe?”

“I ain’t seen him, Adam.”

Adam shrugged off the other man, who returned hurriedly to his water chain. Adam grabbed at Hoss’ arms and felt the bigger man flinch back with pain

“You’re hurt?”

“My arm…gashed it on the window, dadburn it!” Hoss muttered “I ain’t seen Joe anywhere, Adam.”

“He must be here somewhere.” Adams grip tightened and Hoss flinched some more. It seemed as though Adam was not able to absorb one simple fact and that was that his brother was in pain. The only fact that was uppermost in Adams mind now was that Joe was missing and had to be found.

“Adam…I’ll, I’ll go and look over there….could be he’s helping with the water chain.”

“If he got out!”

“Sure, he’ll have got out, Adam. He’ll have had more sense than to have stayed….”

Adam stepped back and, to Hoss’ relief, let go of his arms. He turned around and looked at the hotel and then at Hoss.

“Go and see if he’s on the water chain over there, Hoss.”

“Sure, but where are you going?”

“I’m going back in.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Are you?” Adam spun round on his brother. Behind them, the hotel burned vermillion flames, the heat of the flames was peeling the paint on the buildings closest to it, and all around them people were running with buckets, slopping and sliding and yelling and shouting. “Are you crazy, Hoss? Joe could still be in there.”

“If he is, what good are you going to do getting back in there? You won’t be able to find him…not in that…” and Hoss gestured towards the burning inferno. “Adam, like it or not, if Joe is in there…”

“No, no. He’s got to be safe, Hoss. I promised Pa…I promised Pa I would bring him home safe. I can’t stay out here without knowing for sure that he’s safe.”

Now it was Hoss’ turn to grab his brother by the arms and hold him tightly, and even give him a shake to try and rattle some sense into his head

“Adam, listen to me! If Joe’s in there, if he’s in there…then you ain’t going to be able to find him nor git him out safely. If you go in there, you’ll be killed as well.”

“What do you mean, ‘as well’?” Adam struggled to get out of Hoss’ grip “Let me go, Hoss, let me go!”

“No, dadburn it, Adam, do you really want me to lose both my brothers tonight? Ain’t it enough to have lost one?” Hoss bellowed, and his eyes spilled over with tears, which formed white runnels against the blackness of his face.

“No, Hoss…I’ve got to go back in … I promised Pa…you don’t understand, you don’t…can’t …understand…” Clenching his fist into a ball, Adam swung it towards his brother’s jaw with all the force he could muster.

Hoss staggered back, weakened already by shock and exhaustion and the pain of his burns. He released his hold on his brother and was forced to stagger some steps back which gave Adam sufficient momentum to run forwards and back to the burning building.

He was some feet from the building when the full force of the heat hit him like a wall. He paused, then raised an arm in an effort to shield himself from the blazing flames. Another step forward and Joe’s name burst from his lips. There was a rending, tearing sound as the hotels name board exploded into flame and fell like a fiery ball plummeting earthwards

“JOOOOOE!”

*****

“Wake up, Adam, wake up!”

He forced open sore swollen eyelids and gazed up at his brother’s face and blinked rapidly. Then he closed his eyes again and told himself to keep them shut as long as possible. He could feel the slow course of a tear trickling from the corner of his eyes down to his hair as he lay on his back on the floor of the hardware store.

“Give him some water,” a woman said, thrusting a mug of the liquid into Hoss’s hands. The gentle man raised Adam’s head and forced the rim of the mug against the semi conscious mans lips.

“C’mon, Adam drink this…it’s alright, brother, c’mon.”

The cool liquid was soothing to his throat but even so, he did not want to open his eyes. It were as though his brain told him that once he opened his eyes, he would have to come face to face with the reality of what had happened.

“Adam? Adam?” Hoss’ voice was gentle, but it trembled somewhat, indicating the fact that the other man was suffering too. For a moment, Adam could only see that as proof positive of his failure and that his brother Hoss was in pain due to him.

He opened his eyes finally and looked up into his brothers face and saw relief there — momentarily, that was true — but it was there, and for a brief instant he felt lucid enough to be grateful. Then the relief was replaced by the agony of loss, the misery and pain of distress and anguish.

“You didn’t find him?” Adam whispered, reaching up and clutching hold of Hoss’ shirt with one soot blackened hand

“No, no, I couldn’t find him, Adam. I looked everywhere I could ..but…” Hoss’ eyes filled with tears and he bit down heavily on a trembling lower lip.

Adams eyes glanced furtively around the room, noticing that the hardware store had become a temporary emergency room where a doctor and several women were taking care of the injured and exhausted to the best of their ability. He put a hand to his face and felt the evidence of tears on his skin and hastily wiped them away, whilst his eyes darted from face to face, searching vainly for the face he longed most to see.

“You could have killed yourself, Adam,” Hoss said softly, his voice trembling with tears.

“I have to go and find him,” Adam muttered, pushing his brother aside

The doctor approached as Adam turned to get to his feet, and with steely fingers, pushed him back down. He gripped hold of Adam by the jaw and raised his face to the light. Without a word, he looked carefully at Adams eyes and felt his pulse and then with a frown released him

“Your brother here has been hurt; he needs to be taken somewhere and made to rest.”

Adam blinked, and then looked at Hoss and felt ashamed. As the eldest brother, he had as much responsibility over Hoss’ welfare as Joe’s, and he realized that he had failed there, as well. Hoss shrugged and shook his head

“Ain’t nuthin’, Adam, nuthin’ for you to worry about,” he muttered, as though he could see the shame Adam felt as clearly as though it had been branded on Adams forehead.

“And you’re suffering from shock, exhaustion, smoke inhalation and burns to the arms and hands and …”

“I’m all right,” Adam said thickly and forced the little man away from him, whilst he struggled to his feet. “Hoss, go and get some rest. I’ll be back in a little while…”

“Adam, no, wait for me…”

“Stay here, Hoss…..please.” He turned and looked at the gentle man and placed a hand on his brothers’ arm. “Please stay here, Hoss, so I know for sure you’ll be okay.”

“Are you going to look for Joe?”

“I promised Pa I’d look after him, Hoss…I said I’d bring him home safe…” he gulped, struggled to maintain his dignity, and put a hand to his face again to stem back the tears.

“No one can blame you for what happened tonight, Adam,” Hoss whispered,

“Maybe not… but how can I convince Pa of that? I can’t even convince myself…Hoss, I should have done more…”

“You did all you could. What else could you do? You went back for him, didn’t you?”

“I should never have left the building. I should have stayed where I was. I should have checked the other side of the hotel. Hoss, how can I tell Pa?” His face crumpled, and he clenched his teeth together hard to force the tears not to rise above his throat and disgrace him again by falling from his eyes

“Adam……let me come too…..” Hoss cried as his brother turned and hurried away and out of the building.

“No, Hoss…leave me alone, leave me be….”

“But you can’t go alone.”

“You don’t understand, do you.” Adam whipped round, his eyes wide and the color drained from his face, “You don’t understand. I failed, Hoss. I let Pa down, and I let Joe down. It was my fault we came here, my fault that we had single rooms, my fault that… that I…I… “ He put his hand to his eyes and lowered his head “I promised Pa to bring Joe home, Hoss, so let me be.” And without another word, he turned upon his heels and almost ran from the building.

*****

“Four dead so’s I heardsay!”

“Four? Did they find the bodies?”

“Jest two of ‘em”

Adam listened to the two old men as they stood in front of the smoking ruins. Then he slumped back against the wall of the building that had withstood the previous nights fire. He put a hand to his face and closed his eyes and felt the tears trickle down his face and through his fingers

“Any idea who they were?”

“Wal, the bodies they found were that of a young couple, newly weds.”

“Not that Jed Lynch and young Cathy?”

“Yep.”

“That’s a doggone shame. Who were the other two?”

“Strangers in town.”

The voices trailed off and Adam opened his eyes and forced himself to stare once more at the building. For a moment, so many emotions whirled through his head that he thought he would lose complete control and collapse there and then in the street. He turned towards the wall of the building and leaned his brow against the blistered paintwork, and beat his hands against the burnt wood until he could no longer feel any pain, only a numb tingling burning and then he began to sob, broken sounds of guilt and regret and anger.

“Oh Pa..Pa…oh Pa,” he cried through tortured lungs and a throat so tight that the words can through his lips like a howling pain. “I can’t bring him home, Pa….I can’t…I promised…oh Pa…I’m sorry, I’m so sorry….”

He slithered down onto his haunches and buried his face in his hands, letting the tears fall hot and unheeded and wet down his cheeks. A man approached him and touched his shoulder gently

“You need help, boy?”

“Leave me alone,” was the only response the heart broken man could growl.

“Do you want to talk about it?” the same conciliatory voice murmured

“I said…leave me alone.” Adam punched the man’s hand away angrily, and then turned his face towards the smoldering remains of the hotel.

He walked towards it slowly, wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt as he walked. The remains of the building were stark. Some of it still remained intact, blackened with soot and smoking slightly in the early morning sunlight. It was as though the front of a giant child’s doll house had been ripped away, exposing to the world what remained in its little sectioned off rooms. How strange to see parts of a bed balanced half way in emptiness, and curtains billowing out to nothing. The wreckage of what once had been, still smoldered, sending spirals of black smoke skywards and blackened beams and rafters pointed like dead fingers towards the clouds. He squatted onto his haunches and bowed his head and once again covered his face with his hand

“Hi, Adam.”

Adam froze. Ice seemed to trickle like little pellets down his back and around his neck and his hair seemed to stand on end. He slowly rose to his feet, wiped his face clean of tears, and took a very deep breath and yet dared not turn around

“Where have you been?” The words were uttered with cold slow deliberateness.

“I –er – I went for a ride on Paint. There was so much noise going on in town and I just wanted to get away and think.” Joe whisked off his hat and turned it round and round in his hands, nervously. He knew his brother well enough to know that when he was like this, so cold, so distant, there was no predicting what he could or would do. He licked his lips “I saw Hoss just now, he said you were looking for me.” He waited but there was no response. He glanced at the hotel and gulped. “I saw the fire from where I was…but didn’t realize I’d ridden so far out….there’s a nice lake out there, reminded me of home.” He licked his lips. “So I jest kinda stayed there too long, and then I saw the fire…then I thought best get back and help, but didn’t realize how far I’d gone.” He paused as he realized that he was now repeating himself. He forced a smile, one of those half hearted, fleeting smiles he threw out when he knew he was onto a loser. “I’m sorry, Adam; guess you were wondering where I was, huh?”

Adam turned slowly to face his brother. Any evidence of his previous emotion was buried now under a cold, expressionless face, with dark eyes that bore into the boys hazel orbs. He took a deep breath and his nostrils flared, his lips tightened. He clenched his fists and swallowed hard.

Then he opened his mouth but nothing came out. He wanted to punch the boy in the face and get the pent up emotion released, but he could not bring himself to do that. He could only feel his heart welling up with relief, so much relief

“I’m sorry, Adam; guess you’re real mad at me, huh?” Joe tried another little fleeting smile and tried to twinkle his eyes at his brother, but Adam continued to just stare at him “You really are mad at me, aintcha?”

“Yeah, I really am mad at you, Joe,” Adam said finally, coldly. He looked back at the fire and frowned. Then he turned and smiled and pulled his brother close to his side. “Let’s go home, Joseph. Pa will be waiting!”

***The End***

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