The Man in the Middle (by Krystyna)

Summary: Hoss Cartwright finds himself in a situation which proves that he really is . . the man in the middle.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  13,000


“Dangblasted thing, dadburn, plumb stoopid, confumitigated idiot…” the huge man lunged through the doorway of the flimsy building and slammed the door behind him, hurridly turning as he did so to bring down the bar across it to prevent it flying open again. “Freezing stoopid snow…shoulda known it were a-coming…staying out so long…daggumit…” he pulled off his tall hat and skimmed it through the air so that it landed in the farthest corner, “Brrrr. Whar’s them thar matches…gotta git the fire lit as quick…dang it…fingers so froze…cain’t feel a danggum thing…”

He knelt at the hearth and fumbled over the makings of the fire and then struggled to get his frozen fingers to obey the commands of a brain that was working more slowly than normal. It seemed as though the sudden onslaught of the blizzard had wiped out all sensations of touch and thought as he struggled time and again to get a match to ignite.

“Bin here too long that’s what it is…got damp…shucks…” he fumbled about in his pocket and finally found some matches that were in better condition than the ones that he had groped for and found on the wooden lintel above the fireplace. Now he struck one and sighed with relief as a small flame flared from the tip of the match and this he hurriedly struck into the fire kindling. Without a word, but breathing heavily, he watched as the tiny flame caught hungrily at the dry kindling, and then slowly, bit by bit he began to build up the fire until within a few minutes of his arrival, he could feel the sensation of warmth coming from the wood.

Carefully, in order not to drown out the courageous little flickers of flame, he placed some more moss, more kindling, and then twigs and finally some logs. He stretched out his hands, large hands, much larger than most men’s hands, but totally in proportion to the rest of his build, and he felt life slowly flow back through frozen veins to the tips of his fingers. Nothing could be more painful than frozen blood coming back to vigorous warmth too soon, and so now he placed his hands under his armpits for a while and watched the flames as they began to bite hungrily at the wood he had piled onto the kindling.

Gradually he sunk back onto his haunches and relaxed. The fire was roaring up the chimney now and he could feel its warmth beginning to permeate the frigid interior of the line shack. He unwound his muffler and unbuttoned his big brown heavy outer coat, the one that Adam used to warn him about wearing during the bear hunting season. He smiled and heaved a sigh of relief and then realized that, as the warmth was seeping through his frozen body, that he was really weary.

Papoose Peak was two days ride from the Ponderosa ranch and he had been checking out the winter feed situation for the cattle that grazed that far from the main herd. There had been spasmodic showers of snow over the past week but nothing that any of them had been unduly anxious about, so when the sky had blackened and the wind had keened up, he had ignored it as just another shower which would blow over, and that all that he needed to do was find temporary shelter for an hour or so.

But the sky had not just blackened over, it had gone totally black and the wind had blown up into a full-scale storm sending ice hard pellets of snow driving at him and Chubb with the force of buckshot. He had sought immediate shelter under some rocks but it was obvious that this was no ordinary late autumnal storm, it was the prelude to something much worse, much bigger.

Wondering what to do, where to go, he had recalled the line shack that lay on the boundaries of their land. It was the furthermost line shack and he had wondered whether or not it had received the same consideration with regard to its upkeep and purpose as most of the others. By the time he had fought against the elements to reach the small shack he was past caring, praying only that it would afford him and Chubb shelter and warmth from the storm.

Consideration for his men was something upon which Ben Cartwright prided himself. This line shack may have been the furthest one north of the ranch house but it was in a good condition, and he had obviously instructed his men quite recently to check it out and to make sure it was weather tight and fully functional in order to provide safe quartering for a man and his beast should the weather turn unpleasant.

Now, as Hoss looked around the small cabin, he realised once again just what a generous, kindly man his father was and how much they all took for granted and yet should appreciate so much more. Logs were stacked on the inside wall of the cabin, providing not only sufficient fuel for anyone caught for a prolonged period, but providing an extra amount of insulation against the extremes of cold that could blow through the wooden planking. The shelves were laden with dry goods, tinned stuffs, flints, matches, paraffin. Lamps, of which there were two, stood on the table, waiting to be lit. There was a coffee pot and a full complement of mugs and plates and forks. A low trestle bed was set close to the fire, with bedding neatly arranged at its foot. A single chair was opposite it.

Hoss walked over to check the food stuffs and smiled to himself, he was more than relieved to know that he would not be starving. On a small box cupboard was soap, shaving utensils, towels. He shook his head in wonderment, and wondered whether or not there could possibly be anyone else so magnanimous as his father in providing so much for his men, or, come to that, any stranger who happened to stumble upon the shack and happened to be in need of sustenance. He picked up the soap and sniffed it and grinned, it brought back spring days when he and Joe had been assigned the not so very pleasant task of soap making, and Joe had grumbled at just how much soap would anyone need anyhow!

He picked up the coffee pot and checked inside for spiders…after all how could he possibly be guilty of drowning a spider to death when his own life had been spared so generously. Water came meagrely from the sluice pump but come it did…he added coffee grains and then set it down on the flames. The far corners of the cabin were cold and chill, but close to the fire it was pleasantly warm at last.

He listened to the wind and realised that it was blowing north easterly, the worse combination. It screamed and howled around the cabin now and buffeted it with a fury that made Hoss wonder just how safe his little haven actually was going to be….when he went to the window all he could see was blackness and a few white flakes that seemed to have been thrown towards him with a malicious and deliberate hand.

He decided to draw the shutters and bar them across, rather than have to look to the black emptiness of a furious black storm. As he did so something flickered in the direction where he had stabled Chubb. He pressed his nose against the glass and then sprung back when he realised there was a real danger of his nose freezing there, but he was sure something had moved across his line of vision. Perhaps some Pauite had wandered down and sought shelter, or perhaps come to steal his horse.

He drew out his pistol and walked to the door, pulling his coat across his chest as he did so, and hurriedly fastening it together.

A screaming wind greeted him as he pulled the door open, and he was forced to step back into the cabin as the full brunt of the storm’s anger seemed to be purposely directed against him. Snow struck him forcibly, making him raise his arm across his face for protection. He knew that there was no chance of his reaching the stable, or Chubb, in such conditions. Had he gone out into that blizzard the chances of his walking right past the stable and onwards to his death were more than he dared risk. He stepped back, and fought the wind as he pushed hard against the door in order to wedge it back into its frame and then bring down the bar across it once more.

It had obviously been a trick of light, and considering how dark it actually was in a black out that was some trick. Muttering under his breath at his own stupidity, Hoss returned to his task of shuttering the windows and preparing himself some coffee.

He fell asleep some hours later with a fire roaring up the chimney. Through the gaps in the walls and roof cold blasts of the wind kept the room chilled. He was constantly shifting his body, in an attempt to get all over warmth but finding that when his front was roasted his back was frozen, and vice versa. But he was exhausted, and it did not take long for his sleep to be less fretful, and eventually deep and sound and his snores rivalling the loudest blasts of the wind that threshed the little cabin in which he lay.

He woke up when the cold had seeped through to the very marrow of his bones and squeezed like a vice around his skull. The fire had died down to a minimal effect and with a mumbled groan he threw off the blanket and stumbled to the fire, rubbing his face in order to regain some circulation there. Within ten minutes the fire was roaring again, and he had made a fresh brew of coffee and succeeded in cobbling something together to eat. Slowly warmth was restored to his body and he took a deep breath and sighed with relief. Overhead the storm was rumbling into the distance and when he peeped around the shutter there was daylight again.

He sat beside the fire and thought over the strange behaviour of blizzards and how they can creep up on a person so craftily and blot out the sun and the sky and everything would get blacker than night and then suddenly, out comes the sun again and apart from the dazzling whiteness everywhere it would be as though the storm had never happened. He wondered fleetingly as to whether Adam and Joe had reached the safety of the house before the storm had struck and if not, would they be safe.

As he sat, cradling his mug of rapidly cooling coffee, he realised that he had seen to the needs of his horse in an extremely hurried manner. He sipped his coffee with a frown furrowing his brow and thought about the provision of this particular line shack and how Adam had devised the stabling from the little cave that backed onto the building. He had chosen to build the line shack there in memory of Lord and Lady Dunsford who had been with him on a disastrous hunting trip a year or so previously.

Pulling on his thick coat and grabbing at his hat, Hoss decided that rather than risk night fall before seeing to Chubb, he would go and check the animal out there and then. It would also give him the opportunity to check out the weather conditions and the possibility of travelling home in the morning. Papoose Peak was eerie enough at the best of times, but in freakish winter blizzard conditions it was enough to spook the sanest man.

Once again he had good reason to consider his father as one of the most far sighted and generous men he knew for the cave like stable was amply provided with food and a good trough for water. Chubb looked at him with a rather appraising look on his face, but was soon happy enough being rubbed over with straw to remove the clods of soil that clung to his coat, and when Hoss leaned down to check the animals hooves Chubb gave him a friendly nibble and nudge that caught Hoss off balance and caused him to step back to prevent himself from falling. It was then he noticed her…

***********************

She lay in a position which, to a man in a hurry, would not have been discernible to the eye. But now that he had seen her, he wondered how he could possibly have missed her previously. Of course it had been as black as pitch outside with the storm whirling overhead, and he had stabled Chubb with no thought of looking to see if anyone could be hidden there.

He knelt down by her side and touched her face, which was cold and stiff. He shook his head and thought it more than likely that she were dead and that, had he noticed her earlier, she would have survived the brunt of the storm in the cabin. He touched her wrist and felt the thready beat of a pulse, very light, very weak.

Without hesitation now he stooped and picked her up and carried her in his arms to the cabin and lay her on the trestle bed. In order for her to benefit more fully from the warmth of the fire he pushed the bed closer. Finding the spare blankets took little time, and these he covered over her whilst he filled the pot with snow – having discovered the sluice pump was now frozen – and set it to melt by the fire.

He rubbed her hands gently, marvelling at their smallness compared to his own, but noticing also, and with something akin to horror, the scars of some form of shackle or rope around her wrists. They were not old scars, and still unpleasant to look at, and as he prepared some coffee and something to eat, he wondered just who she was and where she actually came from.

She stirred slightly as the warmth of the fire and the blankets slowly thawed the blood within her veins. Her eyes flickered open and then closed again. She sighed heavily and slipped into sleep.

Hoss bit his lip and frowned again, then stacked more wood upon the fire and checked the wood pile. Outside night was falling and the sky was darkening to that beautiful denim blue colour so often experienced during a winter when the moon and stars brilliance was reflected back by the luminance of the snow. He sighed, turned and settled down on the chair, pulling a rug over his legs and before very long he also slipped into a deep slumber.

“Where’s Aaron?”

Hoss started, jerked awake and shook his head in an effort to bring himself to his senses more quickly. He looked about him and saw her, sitting upright in the bed, holding the blankets to her chin and her eyes looking in total terror at him.

“Aaron? Where is he? What have you done with him?”

“I’m sure sorry, ma’am…I don’t rightly know what or who you’re talking about…”

“My son? Where is he?”

Hoss ran his fingers through his hair and gulped.

“Your son? Ma’am, weren’t no one there but yourself…I didn’t see no boy…”

“Aaron ain’t no boy, mister, he’s a baby…barely six month old…you must have seen him there, there was no way he could have got up and walked away…” She made an attempt now to leave the bed, but her legs, weak from exhaustion and illness, buckled beneath her and she fell, thankfully, into his arms and very gently he managed to get her back into the bed. “My baby…” she whispered, “Aaron…”

“It’s alright now, miss, no need to git so upset…I’ll find him for you…no doubt he’s still under the straw, well hidden!”

“He was cold, so cold, and I couldn’t get him warm. I found the cave before the storm came, then I saw the light in the cabin but it was too difficult to get to…….I tried to warm him, but he was so cold.”

Hoss said nothing, but picked up his hat, and braced himself to face the chill air as he stepped outside. How beautiful it was all around. Snow squeaked cleanly beneath his feet as he walked towards the cave. Here and there the snow sent glittering sparkles like the sequins twinkling upon white gossamer gauze…he looked up and took a deep breath…on a night such as this one it was really good to be alive. How cool and clean the air tasted and smelled, how high the moon and stars seemed to be and as he watched a star twinkled and made a slow descent earthwards. He watched it fall, mesmerised at its tranquil beauty.

Chubb glanced over at him as though surprised to see him again so soon, but he continued to eat, and apart from humphing down his nose when Hoss passed behind him, showed no further interest in his master’s presence.

Carefully Hoss searched the small cavern, a six month old infant could perhaps have rolled someplace, maybe, possibly even crawled to some dark corner. With his limited knowledge of infants of that age, Hoss was nonplussed when, after a good ten minutes had passed, he still had not found the child. He held up the lamp higher, hoping it would shed light further. His breath came in clouds from his mouth and he was very much aware of the temperature beginning to plummet as night enveloped the earth.

A fringe of a shawl caught his eye buried beneath the damp straw at the furthest corner and he approached it gingerly, his hand outstretched carefully to brush aside the mouldering dank stuff. He paused, his hand hovering over the still form wrapped in the blanket and concealed in the shadows. Tentatively he extended his hand, a hand that some had described as the size of a good ham, but which knew so well how to be remarkably gentle. Now he lifted away the corner of the blanket that was folded across the infants face and touched the cold cheek of an infant who had obviously never known what it was like to be plump or chubby or dimpled or cherubic. Yet he was named, and he was the woman’s child and very carefully Hoss raised him up into the crook of his arm and looked down at the wizened little face that looked more like that of an old man weary of life.

“Poor little critter,” Hoss muttered involuntarily. “Wal, you’ll soon fatten up with some of Hop Sings broth inside of ya…let’s jest git you inside with yur ma before she starts a-fretting more than she is already!”

The small form in the blanket did not stir. Not a flutter of the eyelids, nor the twitch of a finger and Hoss recalled how she had said that the child had been so cold…and a flutter of fear, of panic, touched the bottom of his heart. He set the lamp down carefully and with his free hand now, pulled aside the blanket and gently touched the tiny body…even he knew that a six month infant was usually bigger than this, even he knew that he could have expected a six month baby to have some reflex reaction to his being there…but there was nothing, and when he felt for the heart beat…he swallowed hard and bit his bottom lip and shook his head …

Chapter 2

“Did yu find him, mister?” She was laying huddled in the blankets, shivering although the room now was very pleasantly warm, and when she saw the blanketed form in his arms she gave a cry of pure animal pleasure and held out her arms to receive the precious burden and hold him close. “You did…? Oh, thank the Lord, you did find him…oh, mister, thank you, thank you.”

“Ma’am…” He paused and looked down at her as she now sat upright, her arms outstretched and her face alive with the intensity of her love for her child, “Ma’am, I don’t know how rightly to tell yu this, but…”

“Give him to me…give him to me…” she cried, shivering still, and her eyes fever bright. “Oh, my baby, Aaron…I couldn’t feed him…my milk dried up days ago…I had walked so far…I was frightened that he would die, he seemed to shrink before my eyes, but I kept on walking, kept on praying…and …”

“Ma’am.” Hoss knelt by her side and held the little bundle on the bed and as her hands touched it, he placed one big hand on top of them and held them “Listen, ma’am…I got to tell you summat that will – will hurt a lot – you being this little ones ma an’ all…fact is, ma’am, he didn’t make it.”

“But you found him for me…”

“Sure, ma’am, I found him but he must have died some days ago…back when you were on the trail.”

She stared at him, as though she could not believe what he was saying, as though every word had to be dissected and thought out to make any sense and then she closed her eyes and the tears, held at bay for so long, slowly dropped from her eyes and down her cheeks and dripped from her chin onto the blanket that held her child.

Gently Hoss put his arm around her and drew her into his embrace and held her as she cried. He had seen other mothers weep over their dead children for so many different reasons and they all wept the same, whether inwardly or outwardly, a mother wept from the depths of a broken heart, jagged, anguished, torn.

“I’m real sorry, ma’am, real sorry!” he whispered until eventually the harsh sobs died away and all that he could hear was a low creening sound, as though she had not the strength left to weep nor the strength to stop.

“I wanted him to live, I wanted him to live,” she whispered after a while, “But I knew…I knew back a few days along, when my milk dried up and the cold got so bad, and I had a fever and lost track of the days…he was so still then, so quiet, but I could hear him whimpering, and his eyes still looked into mine…I knew he was still alive…but…I didn’t know when he died…and I wanted him to live and know what it was like to be a born free man!”

Hoss looked at her thoughtfully and sighed, a born free man … and he lifted the fold of blanket from the child’s face so that she could look at her son, and when she saw him the look of love on her face was so intense that something in his own heart tightened and broke and he felt the tears roll down his face so that he had to turn away and look at the fire.

“Thank yu, mister,” she whispered, “Thank yu.”

He turned and looked at her, but she had fallen back against the bed cushion, whether from fatigue and exhaustion so that she slept, or because she had fainted, he did not know, but the little baby was in her arms, close to her breast.

He pondered on what to do now….and realised that the wisest thing was to take the child from her, and to put him safe so that when she felt able, he could be buried. She stirred a little, as though even deep in her sleep, she sensed the taking away of something precious to her, but apart from that there was nothing, and Hoss quietly took the child to a corner of the room and lay him in a basket for all the world as though he were just sleeping.

*****

“What’s your name?” she asked, looking at him with dark eyes as he carefully spooned the food into her mouth.

“Hoss…folks here call me Hoss…I have another name, it’s Eric, but mostly I’m known as Hoss Cartwright.”

“And this is Nevada?”

“Yes, ma’am, you’re on the Ponderosa.”

“The Ponderosa? What’s that?”

“Our ranch. My pa and brothers and me own it.”

“Is it like a plantation?”

“No, ma’am….we don’t grow cotton nor tobacco here. We…”

“I meant, is it a lot of land?”

“Sure is, ma’am.” Hoss put down the bowl and spoon and looked at her and smiled, “Reckon that makes you feel much better, don’t it?”

“Yes, I can’t remember the last time I ate something cooked…mostly I’ve eaten roots and berries and tree bark…” She plucked nervously at the threads in the blanket and forced herself not to look in the direction where her child lay.

“Wait till you get back home, Hop Sing will feed you up so well that…”

“Hop Sing?”

“He’s our cook.”

“Is he a slave?”

“Shucks, no, ma’am….though if you listen to him he’d like to get you to think he is, why, Hop Sing could….” He paused then, realising suddenly the significance of what she had been saying and he took a deep breath. “No, ma’am, there ain’t no slaves on the Ponderosa, nor in Nevada…we ain’t pledged to being a state as yet…reck’n that’ll come eventually, but as yet we ain’t pledged but we ain’t a slave owning county, that’s fer sure.”

She took a deep breath and lay back against the blankets, drawing one up closer to her chin, and she looked at him thoughtfully.

“Hoss Cartwright” she whispered.

“Yes, ma’am.” Hoss smiled a shy smile, “What’s yer name, if’n you don’t mind my askin’?”

“Hannah…”

“Hannah?”

“Jest Hannah….” She closed her eyes, warm now, with food in her stomach and a bed to sleep upon, no need to walk awhile, she was so tired that she just drifted slowly into sleep again.

Hoss moved away, and as he did so he disturbed the blankets and noticed for the first time the state of the boots…the state of what was left of her boots…rags tied the remnant of worn leather together, and they were bloodied and mud stained and worn. With the greatest care he eased them from her feet and then winced at the sight before him….

“Shucks, ma’am, I ain’t never seen anything thet bad before…reckon Paul’s gonna be kept real busy gitting them fixed up…reckon your walking days is jest about over for some time now…”

He boiled water and heaped salt into it and when it had cooled sufficiently he began to clean the injuries. Scabs softened, bled and sloughed off, taking torn and rotten flesh with it. Sores, lacerations, gaping jagged cuts, all of these he carefully cleaned, throwing away soiled water and boiling more…so deep was her sleep that she felt nothing. He tore into shreds the spare shirt he carried in his saddle bag and carefully wrapped her feet, ankles and mid calves with the strips of linen. When he had finished he sat by the fire and stared into the flames and began to think…

She was a small framed woman, with hardly any spare flesh on her….she was young, pretty. What made her walk so far, endure so much, risk her life and that of her son…what could cause a woman to place herself in a situation where she would suffer, perhaps cripple herself, maybe even die.

There was a time, Hoss recalled, not so long ago, when a one armed man had come to town and befriended them, well, befriended Joe, and talked a load of the mining entrepreneurs to meeting with him and practically signing their profits away to the Confederacy. He recalled the evening Kyle had been there for a meal, and how they had talked about the oncoming threat of war, and how, by the end of the meal, the line had been clearly drawn between Adam and Joe. And what had he, Hoss, said? He had said he was plumb slap bang in the middle and he had asked Kyle “Where do you draw the line, anyhow?” and the reply had come back “I reckon the line is drawn in people’s minds…”

No, Hoss shook his head, no…there was no line, not for him…never would he be drawn to taking sides against either of his brothers…nor for either of them…Adam had asked him once if he felt comfortable sitting on a fence that didn’t exist…and he had laughed, thinking Adam was joking, but now, Hoss frowned, now he was not so sure!

As her sleep became lighter so she began to cry out and groan in pain, which eventually drove her back to consciousness. Her cries brought Hoss immediately to her side, where he bathed her brow and face gently with cool water and talked soothingly to her until, at last, the cries and groans stopped.

“My feet…my legs…they hurt so bad,” she whispered, clutching the blankets so tightly in her hands that her knuckles cracked.

“I know, ma’am, I had to clean them, and it’s caused fresh bleeding. Just wait a mite, I’ve some laudanum…” He hurried to his saddlebags and drew out the thin bottle that contained the opiate, and this he brought to her side, shaking it as he approached the bed, for too many had suffered the lethal consequences of the opium that settles, undisturbed, at the bottom of the bottle. He gave her two doses, strong enough to numb the pain, and send her, hopefully, into a healing sleep. Then he helped her lay back down upon the bed. “Ma’am, I need to ask you something, if’n you don’t mind?”

“What is it?”

“Your child? I – I need to get him buried ….and …” He glanced over at the basket, remembering the sad little body that lay within it “This here place is known to us as Papoose Peak. Papoose is the name the Pauite call their babies…seems fitting that your baby should be sleeping here…don’t it?”

She nodded, and slowly stretched out her arm, her fingers brushed against his hand.

“Mr Cartwright, bury him safe. Say a prayer over him…tell him I loved him…” her voice trailed away and her hand, her arm, slipped gently to her side.

*****

The night was so still. Not even a breath of a breeze disturbed the stillness. Coyotes bayed at one another. Leaves frozen to the twigs, remnants of summer and caught unawares by the sudden onslaught of the frost and snow, rustled as he passed through the undergrowth.

He built a stone cairn for the ground was as hard as iron, but the little infant in the basket was placed lovingly in his secret sleeping place. Concealed from view of prying eyes, from hungry wolves or coyotes that would seek him out.

Hoss glanced heavenwards, and frowned thoughtfully. Then he sighed deeply and looked down at the small mound.

“Father in heaven…….this little one barely had time to know he was alive. He certainly never had time to know joy, happiness, or laughter. I know that you know him, will remember him with love. Forgive us all our trespasses.” He paused, listening as a sound trickled close by before it faded back into nothingness. He murmured a few more words to the one whose son said counted the hairs of our heads….then he returned very quietly back to the cabin.

Chapter 3

Hannah woke up as the morning sun streamed through the shutters at the windows and sent golden lines of light shimmering against the floor and walls of the cabin. She was warm for the first time in many days, and the pain of her feet and legs were numbed by the laudanum she had taken. She lay still and silent and after a few minutes turned her attention to the man who was still asleep in the chair by the fire.

He had the profile of a strong man and a brave man. Perhaps, were he thinner, more would have noticed that, but it was what his brothers and father already knew and understood. She liked the strong line of his nose, the slant of his cheekbones, and the firm line of his mouth. She already knew, by his actions, that he was a kindly man, and generous too.

Perhaps he felt and became aware of her observations even though asleep, for now he stirred and opened his eyes and looked at her with calm, blue eyes, then he smiled and nodded at her shyly.

“Nice mornin’, ain’t it, ma’am?”

“The sun is shinin’,” she said, returning his smile.

“Are you feelin’ much better now, ma’am?”

“Stronger yes…thank you.”

“Reckon we’ll have some tea and summat to eat then….” He stood up and stretched, and she watched with wide open eyes as though she had never seen a man roused from sleep and stretching like this before…but then not many men came in Hoss’ shape and size, and the sight of the size of him startled her, as in the dark she had not been quite so aware of how big he was…only aware of how gentle.

He whistled and hummed to himself as he prepared something for them to eat, and she sat still and watched, fighting off sleep which seemed to tiptoe up on her and try to entice her back into some slumber.

“Now, ma’am, eat this slowly…seems to me you ain’t eaten in a while and if’n you eat too quick you’re liable to be a mite unwell…”

She ate as she had been told and when it was finished longed for more…but the cup of sweet tea was sufficient and she sat and held the cup in between her hands and realised that she had not felt so safe, so content, in a very long while.

“Ma’am.”

“Hannah……..my name is Hannah.”

“Shucks, sorry, ma’am, I clean forgot….Miss Hannah…..”

“Jest Hannah!” she said quietly.

“Hannah…….kin I ask you summat agin?”

“Yes, Mr Hoss.”

“Jest Hoss, ma’am.”

They smiled at one another and Hoss topped up the cups with more hot sweet tea.

“Hannah, I ain’t meanin’ to pry but what exactly are you doing here? You shouldn’t have had to walk all that way and hurt your feet like such, and your baby…shouldn’t have had to die…not like he did……..”

“Wal. I ain’t got no money for tickets for riding on the trains and such” she muttered a little sarcastically.

“I realised that, ma’am……I mean…..Hannah.” He frowned, his brow furrowing, “Are you…were you running away?”

“Why not just ask straight out, Hoss?” she said quietly.

“I think I’d rather you jest tell me, ma’am.”

She turned away. There had been no mistaking the gentleness in his voice, nor the kindness in his eyes, and it was the combination of these that caused the tears to once again come into her eyes, and stream down her cheeks. She put a hand to her face in an attempt to stifle her sobs, and when she felt his hand, gentle on her shoulder, she turned and clung tightly to him, whilst he said nothing, but held her until the sobbing had abated and she could draw breath again.

“I ain’t used to kindness no more…” she whispered, taking the scrap of cloth from him and wiping her face and blowing her nose.

“Wal, you ain’t got nuthin’ to be afeared of here,” he replied and took hold of her hands and turned them palm up. The scars on her wrists were just as obvious as they had been earlier; he raised his eyes to hers. “These are pretty recent….”

“The bounty hunter did ‘em,” she whispered, and a tremor down her spine made her thin body shake.

“The bounty hunter?”

“You ain’t heard of ‘em out here?”

“Sure, I know what a bounty hunter is, ma’am! Jest that I can’t see what a bounty hunter has to do with you and a baby….”

She nodded slowly, and looked thoughtfully into his eyes.

“Mister Hoss, you ain’t got much idea about nuthin’, have you…I mean…about folks like me…”

“I guess not, ma’am,” he muttered, and bit his bottom lip with a frown furrowing his brow.

“Fact is, I didn’t know much about folks like me either…not till bout a year ago…” She leaned back and closed her eyes and he wondered then whether or not she had drifted into sleep, it was obvious she was sorely in need of rest.

He stood up and poured out more coffee, the lid clattered and rattled a little and she stirred and sat up again and accepted the mug he offered her with a gratitude that he had seen only in those who had only ever had the scraps leftover from others.

“Can you tell me about it?” he asked, sitting down again on the chair and drawing it closer to the bed.

“If’n you tell me the truth…”

“What truth?”

“What side you is on?”

“Side? You mean…in this dangblasted civil war they’re all talking about?” He shook his head and shrugged. “I ain’t on no side, ma’am.”

“That ain’t possible, mister, you gotta be on one side or t’other!”

“Wal, I guess what I’m saying is that I jest don’t want to be involved….I don’t agree with people enslaving others to benefit themselves, and I don’t agree with …with war and force being used to make folks change their way of lives…”

“Seems to me you really don’t know much about nuthin’,” she muttered again and sipped at the hot coffee, rapidly cooling as the temperature in the cabin began to drop

“Ma’am, I got one brother who was born north…a real hard nosed Yankee, and I got me another brother who’s a real hot headed gets himself into a lather about everything lad from Dixie….between the two of ‘em, I got to keep in the middle to keep ‘em from doing summat stupid, like going off and fighting…”

“So, you’re the man in the middle?” she whispered softly.

“Guess so, I was born on the prairie, out of Missouri…in a wagon…on the way here with my ma and pa, my ma got killed not long after, by indians…”

“But you don’t hate indians?”

“No, ma’am!”

She sighed deeply and looked at him with her eyes large in her thin, sharp featured face which made her rather flat nose seem overlarge. She then looked at the mug before handing it back to him.

“Mister, I bin born a slave and my ma was born a slave on the same plantation. My pa, he came from a land far way, and he was a boy when they caught him and put him on the ship and when he became a slave he tried to runaway, more than three times. Each time they brung him back and whipped him hard. My master and missus were kind and God fearing, they never whipped any of their folk. My master says we is his family, he said we was to think of him as our daddy, and we did. We had homes of our own, with gardens and we grew things to eat, and we had chickens and a pig of our own. We was sure a happy family.

“One day my master brung home three new slaves…my pa was one of ‘em. He tells me he was scared when my master was so kind, and the missus would treat them so good. He wanted to keep fighting ‘em all and feelin’ hate for ‘em all. But he met my ma, and they married and was happy and then my brother and me, we was born.

“By then my pa was content. He felt my master and missus’ kindness and it healed his hatred. Yes, Mr Hoss, we were happy. We were so happy we did not never think we were slaves.”

Hoss looked at her thoughtfully, and leaned back in the chair to pick up some logs and toss them onto the burning embers of the fire. Sparks flew up into the chimney, and settled down again, burnt logs slumped into ash, and the flames licked at the logs and began to consume them.

“So what happened?”

“We heard the talk about Mr Lincoln wanting slaves to be set free. We got worried and master said he would make us all free folk, we could stay in our homes and work for him, or leave and find work elsewhere. I worked in the big house, same as my ma, and we met the men who came and talked to the master and missus, and we heard their talk. When we told the others about the talk of war, they got afeared.

“By then I met Reuben, he was my man, and we married. My master and missus gave us papers that said we was free, it was their gift to us…..it meant that our children would be born free! But I did never ever feel that I was a slave….we jest thought we was jest about the luckiest poor folk in the world, we thought we was better than any other slave in the south, because some of them were whipped, starved, sold off to other farms. Children never saw their parents again, men never saw their wives…they jest were not allowed to know where they went…that all happened on other plantations, never on our’n. We were the free’est slaves ever to have bin born, an’ that’s a fact!

“Then my master went out to the town one day and some men got him and they shot him down dead. They said some of his slaves had done it, but we know that were a lie. Folks from the town came and rode through our place and took some of the men and tied them up, Mr Hoss, and they whipped ‘em hard. My pa was one. He had been my master’s friend, and loved him. He died in my ma’s arms, and I knew then that…well… after all, we were jest slaves, jest slaves…..” Her voice trailed away and she closed her eyes again and the tears trickled down her face, slowly.

“What happened then?”

“Reuben said it weren’t right what had happened, he said he would go and show the police that he was a free man and that he had a right to speak as a free man….and he wanted the police to find the men who did kill our master. He left and when they brought him back ……….guess he realised that a bit of paper meant nuthin’ after all…he told me that so far as the folk in the town was con’sarned we were slaves still…” She sighed, a trembling long drawn out sigh. “One night, missus came and said that master’s brother was now the new owner of the plantation and everyone there….she said not to expect him to be kind like daddy had been.”

“And he wasn’t?”

“No, he was cruel. Guess when I saw the way he was, I realised then what the good book said…about pride cometh before a fall… we had been proud, Mr Hoss, thinking we were better’n all them other slaves, thinking we would always be alright…now we found out just what it was to be bought and paid for slaves. Missus was heart broken. She began to waste away to nuthin, and my mammy would tell her to get well, to help us she had to help herself…” She paused and looked at him. “Kin I have some water, if’n you don’t mind?”

He got up and poured water into a mug and handed it to her and watched as she drank from the mug and as he watched he thought of his brothers, and wondered what they would be saying and thinking if they had been there. He knew both would feel for the woman, would want to help her, would agree with the wrongness of what had happened to her, and to all those others…but, he chewed on his lips as he thought over the ‘but’ which was the pivotal point which sent his brothers in opposite directions and which he, Hoss, could not discern no matter how he tried.

She sunk back against the bedclothes, the empty cup falling from her hand and for a moment he thought that she had fallen once more into a deep sleep. He leaned forward and touched her hand.

“Why’d you touching me, mister…?” She jerked up, drawing the bed coverings to her chin and staring at him with frightened, overlarge eyes.

“Jest to see whether or not you were still awake…” Hoss replied gently, in the voice he used to pacify frightened mares when they were about to birth, or a scared creature fighting for its life in the traps man had set to snare it.

“I’m sorry…” she whispered and closed her eyes again. “Jest can’t trust no folk…”

“You kin trust me, Hannah.”

She looked at him again, and sighed. For a long drawn out moment they sat opposite one another, and then Hoss turned and placed another log on the fire. As the flames scattered, settled and then reared up to consume the wood, he returned to look at her.

“Hannah, what happened to make you leave?”

“Everything that was bad, that we hear’d about from other plantations, happened to us. It was a time like I had never known before. Then one night, when it was very dark, missus came scratching at the door. She was scared, and her face was so white that it looked like she were covered in flour paste…she came and held me close to her and began to cry and then Reuben came and she told us that we had to leave, we had to go that night, right away.

“Why’s so, missus?” I asked and she said that the new master, he was going to sell Reuben and some other men to a plantation far away. I begged her to say where, and would I be able to go but she said the master would not tell her and that we would be parted, and the baby we were expecting would never know his father….she said my mammy was going to be sold too, and some other women…he was going to separate everyone there so’s there would be nothing of the old master’s left… ‘Whar we gonna go?’ Reuben said, ‘If’n we leave tonight…’ and she pulled some papers from a bag and pushed them into our hands, ‘You ain’t slaves, remember? These are legal papers, and you ain’t slaves.’ Then she told us that there were people willing to help folks like us to get to the north. She gave us some money and told us what to do, where to go….

“All the time she is talkin’ I was bundling things into a bag and I wanted to say goodbye to mammy but missus said best not to, then mammy could not tell boss where we had gone. Reuben said that was good, it kept mammy safe…and so we left, creeping away from our home as though we were thieves.

“We crept through bushes and woodland to where missus had told us to wait for a man who would drive by in a green cart with red wheels. We waited for a long time, and in the distance we could hear the dogs baying. Reuben said that meant the boss knew we had gone and was getting the dogs ready to hunt us down. Then the cart came by and stopped and the man told us to get up and hide under the stuff that was on the cart while he ran around a little bit with some kinda rag which he trailed along the ground. Reuben said it was aniseed and would stop the dogs from smelling us anymore.

“We travelled two days in the cart. We jest stayed there, rested there, ate there…then we came to a railway depot and the man gave us some papers and said we was to stop there and wait, and look as though we were slaves waiting for our missus. No one took no notice of us, we was both so scared that we looked for real just like any other slave…not hoity toity folk who think they were too good to belong to any white man like some dumb parcel.

“A woman came and said “You got some papers for me?” and Reuben passed them to her and she nodded and smiled and said to go with her. We were took to another wagon, and then we drove away, she made Reuben take the reins, as though that were his job to do…she was kind.”

Hoss listened, leaning forward with his eyes fixed to her face. As he listened the wind outside shook the house, as though it also raged against the inhumanities of man, and its keening shrill shrieks echoed in his head like the cries of men and women being whipped, being torn from the arms of loved ones, snatched for the embraces of loving mothers and fathers…

“It went on like that for a while, being passed from one person to another much like a parcel. Then one day while we were waiting for a contact to come and take us another step towards freedom, we heard the sound of a mob of people…they was chasing after a man, a white man. We knew from the way he was dressed that he was the man we had been waiting for, but…” She stopped and bit her lips and her face creased into a grimace of pain at some terrible memory. “Reuben pulled me into a doorway, it was dark enough for no one to see us but we saw them…saw what they did and what they called that man…may God bless him.”

“Amen to that…” Hoss whispered very softly.

She was quiet for a moment or two, and then looked at the empty cup and sighed, but she did not hand it to Hoss, only stared with blank eyes at the wall beyond them. Rain splattered now against the window, heralding the fact that the snow would soon be gone, it was a mere freak of autumn weather to send a blizzard on that particular day…Hoss shifted in his seat, wondering whether or not to speak. But she picked up the threads of her story, without looking at him.

“Two days later we were hidden in a barn when Aaron was born. We knew that without the contact to take us to where we had to go, we were on our own. Sometimes I wondered whether it were all worth it, but when I held Aaron in my arms, I knew that it was….he was born free, Mr Hoss. Only a slave would know what that could mean…a slave born of a slave…having a free born child.” She smiled, albeit briefly, and glanced at him with a gentleness on her face that touched his heart.

“Then what happened?” he said very softly.

“We walked at night, hid by day. We were lost, and we didn’t know whether we were safely in the north, or still in the south. Then Reuben said we had to be in the north, we had gone so far….he said he would go to the next town, and ask.” She licked her lips and stared up at the ceiling. “He came back later, smiling. We was in the north and folk in the town were right friendly, he bought food, and Aaron…bought Aaron a shawl.”

Hoss thought of the fringed shawl that now shrouded the infant in the small cairn and bowed his head and sighed. A log shivered into ash sending sparks rushing like an army of red ants up the soot grimed chimney. The wind continued to lash the shuttered windows with rain in an unremitting fury.

“Would you like something more to eat, Hannah?” he said very softly and she shook her head slowly from side to side. “Something to drink?”

“No, Mister Hoss…jest let me talk some… I gotta talk about it to make it real and not jest some kind of nightmare dream …” She closed her eyes and brought her arm up to shield her face, as though to protect herself from his gaze as she sought to remember the events of the past months. “We decided to stay there and find work, make a home for ourselves. We walked to the town but just as we reached where we were looking down on it, a man rode up to us and pulled a rifle on us and demanded we let him see our papers. We were free we told him, but he said we were runaways and didn’t we know that runaways bring a good amount of money? He pulled out some poster and showed us what was on it…and he was right, the boss had promised anyone a lot of money for bringing us back, dead or alive.”

“How could a man do that to another human being…?” Hoss whispered, “You can’t …”

“You can, mister Hoss, if you live where a dog and cat and horse is treated better than a human! We were so close to freedom, to living a real life…”

“This man…this bounty hunter…what was his name?”

“Godfrey. His name was Richard Godfrey. He shackled us and made us walk behind his horse on a leash, like we were animals. He made us feel as though that was what we were…just animals.”

“How long did that go on fer?”

“Some few days, then Reuben said to me that if we didn’t try to escape and get help, we would soon be back in the south agin, with no chance of help at all. He said that he was going to do something, and when he did… I had to just get Aaron and run, and not look back nor stop for anything. He said he would catch me up…”

“And that’s how you got away?”

“Yes, sir. When night came Reuben said to Godfrey that he needed to excuse himself, and when Godfrey untied us, Reuben pushed him away and threw himself at him and yelled at me to run…so I did…I ran so fast, and for so long…I couldn’t feel my feet, I couldn’t feel anything at all, I didn’t know where I was running, I just kept on going until in the end I fell down like a log. I waited then, a whole day. I fed Aaron when he cried and nursed him to sleep, and waited, but Reuben never came, nor did the bounty man.”

“And then you came here…”

“I walked, ran, crawled…I think I forgot how to think…my head was numb and I couldn’t remember everything…then it got so cold and the snow began to fall and Aaron wasn’t crying nor nuthin’ anymore. I saw a light ahead and just stumbled towards it. Then I got afraid in case it was the bounty man again, but I had to get warm…I hid in the straw of the stable and prayed that – that everything would soon be alright and then you came and found us.”

“Yes, ma’am, so I did.” Hoss swallowed the lump in his throat, and looked at her and shook his head “Hannah, I won’t let any bounty hunter ever come and take you away again. You’re safe now, here on the Ponderosa. My pa and brothers and me…we’ll make sure you’ll never be hurt ever agin. We’ll git the doc to see to your hurts and make sure you get real better and then we’ll find you a nice little place you can have for a home…and…soon as you’re home safe at the Ponderosa, Adam and Joe and me, we’ll go and look for Reuben and …” He paused and looked at her. “Miss Hannah?”

She turned her face to him and smiled, and nodded slowly.

“I hear ya, Mister Hoss,” she whispered, “But…guess I’m real tired now. That fire looks so warm and made me feel so nice and tired…guess I’ll jest sleep a mite now…”

“Sure, you do that – a good sleep, and when you wake up I’ll make you summat really good to eat, see if I don’t.”

“Thank you, Mister Hoss.”

He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment as her eyes closed in sleep. He drew the blanket up over her shoulders and hoped she was feeling warm. He then walked over to the table and lit a lamp, for the shuttered windows made the cabins interior gloomy, even though it was not yet the mid day hour.

He thought of what she had told him, of her husband and the baby …of kindnesses and cruelty walking hand in hand, and knew that whatever he thought about it, would not make any difference to the world at all. Yet hundreds would die, thousands would die, families would be torn asunder, no matter what their colour or creed…..for what reason? Was not any war senseless, degrading in the sight of God and man? Was slavery in any form, acceptable as it was? He sighed, and shook his head, knowing that no matter how much he, Adam or Joe and Ben discussed the faults of their nation, or the blessings of it, none of them could give a truly moral reason for war, and the worse kind of war, a civil war.

But he was the man in the middle. Taking no sides. Yet if Joe decided to go to war, he would fight to keep him home, and if Adam chose to go to war, he would fight to keep him home as well. So how much in the middle was he?

He walked back to the bed and looked down at her. She slept peacefully now. The flames of the fire glowed and made the ebony of her skin look smooth like black silk. He swallowed hard again and touched her hand gently.

He knew then that the sleep she had fallen into was one from which she would never awaken and that she was beyond any hopes or promises that he could extend to her. Her life of pain and grief were at an end and the only solace he could gain at that moment was that he could bury her beside her infant child.

He sunk slowly back into the chair and put his hands to his face and wept. Silent tears from a big gentle man who had been touched by the sorrow of a slave.

Chapter 4

The rain was beginning to form puddles on the rock hard soil, but was itself not the gentle soft rain of spring or early fall, but the sharp stinging rain that contained within it the sharp edges of hail and sleet. It took time to build up a cairn of rocks about her, touching those of her child. Just as when he had lived he had nursed at her breast, so now the infant, in his last sleep, slept at her side once again.

Head bowed and ignorant of the rain trickling down upon him, Hoss uttered a prayer to his God. He stood for some moments thinking of Hannah and Aaron, and by extension he thought of Reuben …

The fire was dying into a bed of embers and ashes now and he wondered whether or not to build it up and make something hot to drink before he rode home. It would take two days to reach home and he was tired…he knelt and picked up some logs and then felt the hard rim of metal jab against his spine.

“Stand up slowly – put the logs down – move away and keep your face to the wall.”

Hoss moved slowly, moved away from the log pile and kept his hands above his head, and then felt a rough hand grope around his waist for a gun belt…then finding nothing, the intruder pushed him further into the room.

“Just keep your face to the wall, mister!”
“Hey, thar, why not jest calm down – no need to come charging into the place in that manner – all you had to do was knock on the door like any other man would!” Hoss frowned, “Perhaps if you put your gun down and let me put my arms down, we could talk this over a cup of something hot to drink?”

The man wavered, Hoss could sense his uncertainty by the way the gun lost its pressure against his spine. He waited a few seconds and then turned. For a big man, Hoss Cartwright had learned to move fast. With just a single blow to the man’s arm the gun clattered to the ground and Hoss was the first to reach down and pick it up, and then aim it at the excuse of a man that stood before him.

“Like I said earlier, mister, perhaps we could talk this over a cup of coffee?”

The intruder stared at the man in front of him, and with his gun no longer in his possession, his resolution deserted him. He sunk down slowly upon the chair, shivering, wretched and grey with exhaustion and cold.

“I’m sorry, mister, I shouldn’t have crept up on you thataways. Fact is I’m that cold and hungry and thirsty.” He stretched out his hands to the dying fire and shivered, Hoss was close enough to hear the man’s teeth chattering.

“That’s okay, I’ll build up this fire and get some coffee brewing.”

“You ain’t got nuthin’ to eat, have ya?”

“Sure, I’ll get summat for you …” Hoss struck the pistol in his belt and after placing several logs tepee fashion on the fire, he went further into the cabin and began to prepare the makings for coffee and something to eat.

The man was no longer shivering when he returned and the fire was blazing between the logs once more. Carefully Hoss set the coffee pot on the flames and a pan of beans…from the corner of his eye he saw how the man passed a hand over his face and mouth, as though to suppress the surge of hopeful appeasement of his hunger that had filled his mouth with saliva.

“This shan’t take more’n a minute or two…” Hoss said quietly and he got to his feet and surveyed the man who sat, his eyes fixed on the food, on the chair.

His would be assailant was a lean man, tall, well on over six feet in height. His hair was dark, worn long, and greasy. He had a face that at first glance would have appeared kindly, and had he been a neighbour lost from the blizzard, Hoss would have had no reservations about extending hospitality to him. Had he been a man he had met at the saloon, Hoss could well imagine the generous mouth stretching in a smile of true bonhomie proportions.

“I’m mighty grateful, mister.” he took the hot coffee, wrapped his long fingers around the warm metal mug and held it close to his face, allowing the steam to wrap the bitter odours of the beverage around his nostrils. He breathed it in and then began to drink, “Would you mind…?” He held out the mug, which Hoss dutifully refilled. This time he drank it more slowly, letting the heat travel through the innards of his body which still remained deep frozen…he shivered once or twice and then nodded, “That’s good coffee, mister, thank you kindly!”

“You’re on Ponderosa land, mister….” Hoss said quietly, “You can thank my pa for his generosity.”

“Oh!” He looked around the cabin, “I thought this was your place, a bit outa the way, but…”

“Nope, it’s just one of the line shacks we had built along the borders of our land.”

“I see!” now he frowned and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Ponderosa, huh? Would that belong to Ben Cartwright?”

“That’s my pa!”

“He’s done well for himself, then,” came the quiet reply and he looked at the beans hopefully, taking the hint Hoss turned and spooned out two platefuls of beans with belly pork. Licking his lips he tried not to snatch the plate from his benefactor’s hands but it was too difficult, he had been hungry for too long. “Haven’t eaten for three days…” he mumbled with a mouthful of food and he heaved a sigh of contentment. “That sure hit the spot…”

“Do you know my pa?” Hoss leaned against the mantle, loath to take a seat on the bed that had so recently borne the weight of Hannah’s frail body.

“No! Why? Should I?”

“I guess not…just that you said that he had done well for himself.. made m e think that….”

“That I knew him? Nah, know of him though! Soon as you reach the borders people are talking about Ben Cartwright and his Ponderosa.”

Hoss nodded, and frowned. It was some co-incidence, but too big a co-incidence to ignore, that this man and Hannah should stumble upon this remote lineshack and not have some link, one to the other. That would only mean that this man eating, drinking, accepting hospitality…was the bounty hunter, Godfrey!

Hoss felt the revulsion stir in his heart and he turned away and concentrated on drinking his coffee. Words hung over his head like the sword of Damocles! Words such as ‘north’ ‘south’ ‘yankee’ ‘reb’ ! He had said he was the man in the middle, but he felt now that he was far from that . ..he felt now that he could cheerfully have throttled the man sitting in the chair, and had any man asked why he would have told them ‘Because I detest what he has done, what he stands for, what he intends to do….’ And they would rightly say “Why?”

Why? The word hung in the air accusatively. Had he drawn a line and crossed it! Had he decided then, that all the heated discussions he had heard between Joe and Adam had all crystallised into some meaning that had made him cross the line and to say – yes, I’ll gladly wear the dark blue and call me yankee anytime…because of Hannah! Was it all hide bound because of what she had said….even though Adam had pleaded that same cause whenever the subject arose.

Slavery….words and pictures all suddenly coming together and becoming a reality which he knew now to be seared across his heart. Hannah, and Reuben and Aaron meant something more than money…more than issues…they meant something abhorrent in human society, unequal, unloving, uncaring. He took a deep breath and looked again at the man

“What’s your name?” Hoss asked, realising that the man was waiting for him to speak, and that he had been thinking, feeling, too hard, for too long. Perhaps it was a coincidence, his being here….it would be best to find out for sure!

“Godfrey…Richard Godfrey. And before you ask why am I here…it’s becos I’ve bin huntin’?”?”

“Hunting.?” Hoss stepped back a pace, quelling the desire to shake the mans life out of him. So it was Godfrey, so he had been right, so….now what?

“Alright, put it another way…I’m paid to look for runaways…I got meself one, and tracked down the other to this cabin…thought perhaps you had her hidden here somewheres…”

Hoss put the mug down on the mantle and looked at Godfrey coldly, his blue eyes, usually so affable and warm, were like pale blue chips of ice. Godfrey picked some meat from between his teeth with a grimed blackened nail.

“ Here in Nevada, there ain’t no slaves…” Hoss could hear his own voice, it sounded as though it came from deep down in his chest as he fought the rage that now seemed threatening to engulf him

“Mister, Nevada ain’t a recognised pledged state yet…who are you to say they wouldn’t recognise slaves?”

“Alright, that may be as may be…but this is the Ponderosa, and there ain’t no such thing as a slave here!”

Godfrey shrugged and glanced around the cabin and then smiled slowly.

“If this is the standard your old man places on a cabin, I’d sure like to see what the main house looks like!”

“Wal, you ain’t likely to see it, mister….”

Godfrey frowned again, and looked at Hoss suspiciously. Then his eyes widened and he nodded as realisation struck him.

“She’s bin here, ain’t she?”

“She was here…if you mean Hannah.”

“Hannah? That was her name, huh?” Godfrey shrugged. “Whereabouts is she?”

“She’s dead. I buried her not long since, her and her baby.”

Godfrey frowned and then shook his head.

“That’s a pity!”

“I thought so too,” Hoss replied coolly, looking down his nose at the man who crooked an eyebrow and smiled like a wolf who accepted the loss of his meal with pleasure when he realised that no one else had gained over him.

“Mister, you think yourself pretty high and mighty, don’tcha? Fact is, stuck here on top of this silver mountain of your’n, you ain’t got no idea of what’s going on in the rest of the country.”

“I know enough, enough to make people like you sicken me!”

“You don’t know nuthin’ about people like me, Cartwright!” Godfrey hissed, half rising from his seat, but pausing at the thought that Hoss was the one with the gun. He sat back down again and pushed a nervous hand through his hair. “All this talk of war, and freeing slaves…do you know how well off them slaves are compared to us? They gits fed reg’lar, got homes ain’t they? Folks like me and my woman, we got ourselves a small piece of land, and work from morning to night trying to get something from it, apart from torn hands and fever and bills we can’t pay. Hunting down runaways provides easy money, and it puts food into my kid’s mouths….” He wiped his mouth again with his dirty hand and shook his head. “Folks hereabouts git to thinking that down south all there is is rich folks with their slaves and fancy big houses and plantations of cotton and ‘baccy…well, that ain’t so, mister…there’s folks like us, who fight every day to keep going. My woman even works at one of the plantations when things git too bad, she works alongside them slaves of theirs, and as hard as any of ‘em….for a pittance, whilst they go to their homes and eat and drink their fat hides off…”

“Your wife can leave to go to her own home, mister, they can’t…”

“Do you think they would want to? Bawlin’ and weepin’ like babies some of ‘em, don’t want to leave their cosy comfortable homes…..don’t want to have this so-called freedom and end up struggling for a living like folks, honest folks, like us have to….”

“A slave hasn’t the freedoms you enjoy…”

“Poverty brings its own slavery, mister. Hunger and sickness binds you down with heavier chains than a rope. Seeing your kids dying of hunger in front of yer eyes and not being able to help, bites into your heart more’n any whip lash can cut their flesh!”

“And do you think a war will end all that?”

“War?” Godfrey shook his head and buried his face in his hands as though trying to sort out his mind and then he looked at Hoss and shook his head. “Do you know who gets fat from war? Not folk like me, nor them slaves you’re fretting so much about, not even the rich fat landowners …it’s the politicians, and the gun runners, and the black marketeers….”

“Then why fight about it…why not…”

“You don’t understand!” Godfrey sighed and once more buried his head in his hands. “Look, mister, you get rid of the slaves working on the plantations, you set ‘em all free, you know what? Two thirds of the population down south are black slaves…they’ll want food, homes, work. War will destroy the cotton fields, and the tobacco…money from abroad will dry up because they ain’t gonna pay money over for what they ain’t gonner git! The small homesteaders like me will go to the wall….we won’t have nuthin’ left…even the big nobs with their fancy big houses will be ruined, because with no one to bring in the cotton…they won’t be able to keep them big houses going anymore…”

Hoss frowned and looked at the man thoughtfully. He leaned down and picked up the coffee pot and refilled their mugs. This was the same argument that Joe kept on about, the loss of everything that made the south prosperous, they would never recover, they would become a millstone on the necks of the northern states….better to keep the status quo…Hoss looked at the bed, at where the imprint of Hannah’s body could still be seen.

“It’s fear…” Godfrey muttered, sipping at the coffee and speaking softly, “Fear of what lies ahead, that’s what makes folk do things they would never think of doing before….people talk and tell you about a war, about what we’d lose and what we’d gain, and all you think about is how hungry you are, how sick your kids are, how pathetic your whole life is….but it’s what you have…it’s all you have…and then you git scared because you could lose it. Git scared so much, you want to fight to keep it. You can’t stop a mob with words, you can’t reason with hundreds of men marching over ya…”

‘You can’t reason with hundreds of men marching over ya..’ the words just stopped there and the two men stared at one another as though each were stripping the soul of the other …Hoss stared at the imprint of Hannahs body on the bed, and bit his lip. It was true, so true. He had heard men in town say that they had been considered just ‘pore white trash’ down south, and had come to Virginia City to be free from that burden of poverty. Perhaps they did strike it rich in their holes seeking that gold or silver seam, perhaps they never did strike it rich but came to be a mere victim of the many diseases that struck the miners down in their hundreds every year..but they had made choices of their own making!

Just as Godfrey had done when the owner of Hannah’s plantation had hired him to hunt down the two runaways. Hoss struggled to come to terms with what he had heard, and once again he looked at the man and realised he was likeable, affable, a genuine sincere hard working man who was suffering from the inequalities of an economic and social system that not one of them could adjust.

And yet he was also the man who had killed Reuben, caused the deaths of Hannah and Aaron!

“And if there is a war…you’ll fight?” he asked

“Sure I will! What else could I do? A man has to fight for a principle, a cause, for home and family….”

“But to fight for slavery, for the right to continue the enslavement of humans…” Hoss could remember hearing Adam say those self same words only a few evenings before, and thought that they had sounded good….but now, he could only look at the mans accusative eyes and feel confusion strike his heart.

“It goes deeper than that, mister….but you jest don’t understand!”

No, Hoss thought to himself, he did not ! He would have fought to the death to protect and defend Hannah, had she been living when Godfrey came to the cabin. He would certainly fight for any who was more vulnerable, who was weaker than he…to defend the weak….but Godfrey and his family…weren’t they also weak? Vulnerable?

“It hasn’t got to that yet…”

“You don’t know…You ain’t got a clue…” Godfrey wiped his mouth and stood up. “Mister, I bin hunting for them two slaves for weeks now. Mr DeMarche promised me enough money to set me up good. But the man got killed back there when he attacked me, and I’ve bin trailing the woman, and now you say she’s dead too….” His mouth formed a bitter thin gash in the dark stubble of his jaw, “What am I supposed to do now? What do I live on, huh? What do I tell my wife…and Mr DeMarche?”

“That’s your business…and your problem.” Hoss replied and turned to put more wood on the fire.

Godfrey seized the chance that was afforded him at that moment, for Hoss, his mind churning over and over with the things that he was sorting out, was distracted enough to have forgotten the gun tucked in his belt, and it was this that Godfrey seized, pushing the big man against the wall as he did so…Hoss staggered, losing his balance momentarily, but in the time it took him to gain his feet, Godfrey was already making for the door.

The rain had stopped. But the ground was still rock hard from the freezing conditions from the previous night. True, most of the snow was gone, and puddles lay on the surface of the ground, but the sudden heavy hand of winter still had the earth in its grip. Godfrey was running to where he knew the horse was stabled, the gun still in his hand.

Hoss opened the door to follow him, only to step back quickly when a random shot whistled past his ear. He looked over to the far corner of the cabin where he had cast down his saddle, rifle and gun the previous evening and was about to take up the rifle when there was the sound of a shot.

Hoss paused. He recognised the sound only too well, but Godfrey, unused to the ways of the woodland, stopped in his tracks and looked around for some sign of his antagonist. A tree, frozen too soon, too quickly, its sap frozen and swollen within it, was descending in its full majesty earthwards. It was nothing unusual for trees to explode in severe and sudden freezing conditions and this tree was certainly not wasting time in its descent.

Hoss had time to yell to the man to run, but Godfrey dithered too long….his startled yell, terrified scream, was blocked from Hoss’ ears by the thunderous crash of the tree crashing down onto the ground, and Richard Godfrey.

*****

Chubb stood patiently by, waiting for his master to come and mount up into the saddle and ride home. He pawed the frozen ground and then lowered his head and snuffled for some grass, finding nothing, he raised his head and waited.

Hoss Cartwright surveyed the third grave on the site beneath Papoose Peak. He wanted to say a meaningful prayer for the man, but found the words stuck in his throat. So he stood by the graveside and thought of the man’s wife and children waiting for their father to return home, and how soon it could be that there would be thousands of homes where wife and children would wait for a man who would never return to them again.

He wanted answers…he wanted to be in a position to say to Joe “Little brother, you’re so wrong….” And to Adam to be able to say “I agree with you, Adam, but you see ……..” but where could such answers be found? Was the line really drawn up in people’s minds or in their hearts?

Would there ever be a time when people such as Hannah, Reuben…Richard Godfrey…and even himself…would know perfect peace, perfect equality between races, when their children could really grow to adulthood knowing full trust between all mankind?

Hoss shook his head sadly and looked once again at the mounds he had built over the bodies he had buried that day. North? South? Or just victims of mans inhumanity to man?

“They say that all is vanity and a striving after the wind….” Hoss paused and placed a hand on the mound beneath which lay Hannahs frail body and he bowed his head . North and South had met that day in the little cabin at Papoose Peak. The hate and fear, the whole issue of something abhorrent to a man born free in ‘the land of the free’ had seared his heart, swaying him across that line and setting him firmly on the side of the vulnerable. Then another voice had reasoned and coaxed him into thinking over the position once more and seeing only too clearly where the issue was bound to lead them all.

More hatred. More fear. Intolerance that would breed more intolerance. And war – brother against brother, father against sons – what had Mr Lincoln said in that speech Mr Kyle had referred to? ‘And if a house becomes divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand’.

He shook his head, and turned and slowly walked towards his horse and swung himself into the saddle. He decided not to hurry home, just to mosey along some, and think a lot about what he had heard and seen during that brief blizzard that had led him to the line shack at Papoose’ Peak.

He knew one thing for sure, and that was the love he had for his family, for his home, would never shift him from being what he was…the man in the middle!

***The End***

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