The Sword Of Damocles (by Krystyna)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  19,000


It was a strange thing, but he had never had a fear of death. Although so young and so full of life, he had seen death in so many different forms that he had accepted that when his time came it would be quick, and he would know nothing about it. His mother’s death had numbed him and unbeknown to him, the grief over that death remained in him still. Death was the doorway to his mother. That was all. Thus, he had never feared it.

The sharpness of gravel and small stones grazed through the skin on his cheek, and when he moved, very slightly, they tore into the flesh. Small stinging sensations of pain forced him to open his eyes and realize that he was still alive. It also prevailed upon him to accept that death was very close.

Joseph Cartwright was barely 21 years of age and as he closed his eyes to shut out the reality of what he had seen, it crossed his mind that, in all honesty, he was too young to die.

He wanted to slip back into that black state of unconscious unknowing numbness. He longed to shut off his brain and to stop it from whirring round and round and round. Why, he groaned, why could he not stop it from telling him over and over again that death was just a movement away.

Just a movement away. Instinctively his arm twitched. His hand unclenched and his fingers unfolded and inched forwards. He felt stone and grit and dirt move away from the pressure of his flesh. Then – nothing. Air. Nothing but air.

Could he move his head? He raised it slightly and opened his eyes and squinted up to see the towering cliff face above him. He turned his head slowly, very slowly. His eyes saw the vastness of sky above and then more of the cliff, more rocks, more flintlike scree. Then his eyes saw just ahead of him and he saw the jagged edge of the ledge upon which he had fallen.

Just a ledge? Carefully he turned his head a little more, so that now he was no longer facing the rock from which the ledge protruded, but could see what was on his other side. Far across from him he could see the opposite cliff face soaring up into the sky. It was a vast distance away, a river’s span away.

Shock hit him with such force that his body began to shake. He was not afraid to die but oh, to spend his last moments, hours, like this was too cruel. He clenched his fists into balls and tried to make his body smaller so that the ledge would be wider and bigger. He struggled to control the shaking and to think logically. All his brain told him was that he was a small speck on a ledge far from anywhere, suspended far above the river, and no one knew.

“Oh God,” he whimpered, “Don’t let me die like this.”

Adrenalin pumped through his body. His heart stopped pounding against his ribs and gradually slowed so that the roaring in his ears faded to normality. Sweat that beaded his brow and soaked through his shirt cooled on his body. The shaking stilled to a shiver. Then he was still. Yet his brain continued to send fevered, frantic messages throughout his body. There were urgent signals to move legs, twitch arms, raise head and a thousand things that pounded like pulses through every fiber of his being. Over-riding everything was the hysterical message “Don’t move. How wide is this ledge? What if I fall?’

He could feel his left leg twitching. There was the pain of cramp trickling from ankle to knee and the longing to stretch his leg to its full length became so strong that it took an enormous effort of will to remain still. Fear that the ledge was too narrow, too short, and that any movement, even the most slight, would send him toppling over its edge, gripped him in a panic sodden terror.

He kept his eyes tightly closed and his arms huddled in close to his chest. It was the closest to the fetal position that he could have assumed. He could smell his own fear in the perspiration that once again seeped from his pores. He was beginning to feel other pains now. There was the dull throbbing pain in his head and very gingerly he touched it with his fingers, and his flesh came into contact with warm, wet blood. He took a deep inward breath and gasped as a sharp pain stabbed at his side and he recognized it as either broken or fractured ribs.

Well, he had fallen some distance. He had slid and tumbled and rolled over rocks and boulders to land on this ledge. It was a miracle that he had survived. He groaned involuntarily and once again clenched his fists tightly into his chest.

He could feel the heat of the noon day sun on his back now. To add to his terrors was the realization that he was a victim of the intense heat which not only came from the heavens, but was also bounced off the rocks. He told himself not to think about it but somehow he could not switch the thought off. It was mid-day, and the sun was at its zenith and he had no water.

“One way or another, I’m going to die.”

He was Joseph Francis Cartwright and he was just 21 years old. He was not frightened of death. But, right now, he did not want to die. Very slowly he stretched out his arms to see how far the rock-face was from him. If he had enough room to move from his side and get into a sitting position, with his back against the rock, then he would be able to evaluate the situation more easily.

If he moved his leg, just a little… His leg twitched. Fear seemed to freeze movement. What if, by some accident, he rolled in the wrong direction? Being too close to the edge of anything always had this strange pulling, dragging effect on him. It was as though unseen hands would reach up and grab at him. Invisible fingers would seize his ankles and pull him down. Or some huge cavernous mouth would open up and suck him into a vast wide throat and swallow him whole. He shivered despite the heat and felt nausea rise into his throat.

“I can’t stay here like this. I have to move.”

He opened his eyes and forced himself to look at what his hands were touching and to measure the distance. He could shuffle a little over, closer, and then, if he were careful, he could sit up. He licked his lips and tasted the salt of sweat.

“I’m not five years old anymore, for goodness sake. There’s nothing to be afraid of …” but a small insistent voice whispered inside his head, “Yes, there is. I could fall. I could just roll over and drop over the side and – oh, I can’t, I can’t.”

*****

The heat of the day was intolerable and even the breeze, slight though it was, felt warm to his skin. Adam Cartwright wiped his brow on the back of his bare arm and groaned. He looked over to where Hoss was driving the fence post into hard dry soil and shook his head. There was only one job worse than mending fences and replacing old rotten posts, and that was digging holes to put in new posts for new fencing. When it was this hot, and the ground this dry, it just seemed to take three times as long to accomplish. He ran his tongue over his teeth to try to get some moisture into his mouth and spit the dust out, but the dust won.

Hoss Cartwright frowned and turned to look at his brother. He shook his head and threw aside his shovel, and pushed back his hat. The sweatband left a white line across his brow from where it had adhered to his skin due to the heat and perspiration. “I’m danged fed up with this dadblamed job.”

“Yeah, you and me both,” Adam yelled back. He took off his hat and began to wave it too and fro in front of his face.

“And thar ain’t no dadburned water in the canteen either,” Hoss grumbled, tossing the empty utensil onto the ground.

“Well, don’t blame me. You were supposed to fill the canteens before we left.”

“I did.”

Adam said nothing, but scowled over at his brother. Then with a heavy sigh he squatted down onto his haunches, his hands clasped together and elbows on his knees. Hoss ambled slowly to his side and crumpled down onto the grass. “It’s too hot.”

“Pity Joe isn’t here to give a hand; at least then we would have finished the job today.” Adam frowned, looking up and down at the work that had been done, and the work that had still to be completed.

“Yeah.” Hoss plucked a blade of grass between his fingers and then, with a sigh, tossed it to one side. “Surely Pa wouldn’t have expected us to finish all this today?”

“Well, if he did, then he’s going to be disappointed because I haven’t the energy to lift another post for at least the next four hours.” Adam rubbed his face with his hands, as though attempting to get some life back into the hot and sweating flesh.

“Another post?” Hoss exclaimed. “An’ jest what post exactly did you happen to lift at all today?”

Adam opened his mouth to make a snappy retort when the dull thud of a horse approaching prevented him from doing so. He nudged Hoss with his foot, and slowly stood up. By his side Hoss struggled to his feet. Both turned towards the rider, looked at one another and sighed heavily.

“Hi, Pa.” Adam raised a lethargic hand in greeting as Ben stopped his horse to survey his two sons.

“Hi, Pa. Sure is hot today,” Hoss ventured. He gave his father a wide gap toothed smile as though to convince Ben that the statement was true and explanation enough for the incomplete task before him.

“You haven’t finished here yet?” Ben leaned on the pommel of his saddle and scanned the fence. He noted the five posts still to be dug in, and noted also, that there were five holes still not dug out!

“Pa, the ground’s rock hard, Adam explained, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping around the back of his neck.

“It’s backbreaking work, Pa,” Hoss sighed, “ad we’ve ran out of drinking water, and I’m so dry I can’t even swallow any spit.”

Ben shook his head, and without a word unfastened the canteen from his saddle and held it out to Hoss, who grabbed it with such alacrity that Adam was left a non-starter.

“Well, you’re not going to be able to come with me to meet your brother off the stage. I’ll have to go on my own. It’s a shame as I was going to treat you all to a meal at the new restaurant to celebrate Joe getting that contract from MacLarens.”

Adam paused in the act of swallowing cool water and looked at his father with narrowed eyes. “We could come back and finish here tomorrow, Pa.”

“No, it needs to be finished today. I don’t like this weather any more than you do, believe me. In fact, I’ve a feeling in my bones that we’re heading for a storm, in which case it’ll be impossible to get here to finish the job tomorrow. I’ll explain to Joe.”

“He’ll be feeling like a good cool beer by the time he gets into town. That thar stagecoach is like a furnace on a day like this.” Hoss pulled the canteen back from Adam’s grasp and raised it to his lips.

“He’s done well to get that contract from MacLarens.” Adam smiled slowly, and looked up at his father, “Tell him I’ll stand him a beer when we get into town.”

“Yeah, whenever that is…” Hoss added.

“I’ll do that.” Ben’s smile broadened; it gave him a considerable amount of pleasure to hear his eldest son’s praise of Joe and as he wheeled his horse about to head for Virginia City, his heart swelled with pride.

Adam and Hoss watched their father ride off, the dust drifted in clouds from Buck’s feet. They sighed again and looked at one another,

“Best get on then,” Adam said quietly, giving his brother’s chest a slight tap with the back of his hand.

“Yeah. You dig the holes and I’ll carry the posts over.”

“Let’s both dig the holes together, that way the job will be done quicker.”

Hoss surveyed his brother thoughtfully, narrowed his eyes, and then nodded. It made sense, he decided, and he walked over to his shovel and picked it up and began to measure out the distance for the next hole.

“Adam?”

“Yeah.” Adam turned to regard his brother thoughtfully.

“How come you ain’t moved yet?”

“Because I’m thinking.”

“Thinking don’t affect your legs any, does it?”

Adam scowled, slapped his hat back onto his head, and picked up his shovel. He unbuttoned his shirt so that the slight breeze sent it fluttering behind him. It was too warm to be refreshing but it was better than nothing. He brought the shovel down and grimaced. “It’s like rock,” he groaned.

“It is rock. You’ve just drove your shovel right down on a boulder,” Hoss tutted, and pulled the shovel from his brother’s hand and slung it aside.

“What did you do that for?” Adam protested.

“Because I kin work faster without you being in the way. Go and find a hole of your own to dig.”

Adam sighed and walked over to his shovel and picked it up. He slung it over his shoulder and began to pace the distance to where the next hole would be positioned. He drove the shovel in and shook his head. “I bet Pa will treat Joe to the best meal in the restaurant.”

“Yeah.” Hoss stopped digging and gazed heavenwards as a vision of steak and onions floated towards him, “Hey, Adam, what’s that thar called when you see things in the desert that ain’t really thar?”

“A mirage.”

“Wal, I jest seen one.”

“One what?”

“One of what you said – a mirage.”

Adam shook his head and continued to dig. For some time there was heard nothing but the sound of shovels striking solid earth, and dirt and stones being flung to one side. They worked staunchly on in silence. Two holes dug and two posts in position. Adam pulled his shirt off and wiped his face and chest with it and then flung it to one side. Seconds later, Hoss did likewise.

They dug out the third hole together, stopping only to gulp down some of the precious water from Ben’s canteen. Hoss carried the post over and slipped it into position and then picked up the mallet.

“Joe did really well getting that contract from MacLaren,” Adam said suddenly, holding the post steady for Hoss to whack at it. “MacLaren’s a hard man to budge. I wonder what Joe did to persuade him to sign.”

“Has he got a daughter?” Hoss asked, bringing the mallet down with a whack.

“Two.”

“Wal,” Hoss brought the mallet down again, “two in the hand is worth one in the bush.”

“You got that wrong,” Adam pointed out, testing the post carefully, and indicating with a nod that it needed one more good whack before they could start filling in.

“Not whar Joe and gals are concerned.” Hoss grinned, bringing the mallet down again.

They smiled companionably at the thought of their little brother with a gal in each arm. In a steady rhythm they began to fill in the hole around the post.

Time trickled on and when the last post was put into position Adam threw his shovel to one side in disgust and then slumped down beside it. He closed his eyes and groaned. He could sense the movement of air and earth as Hoss slumped down beside him. “I can’t do anymore.”

“Nope, I’m jest too tired. Doggone it, when I think of Pa and Joe eating steak and onions and all the rest of it and we’re stuck out here with this fencing to do, it makes me so dadburn mad I could spit. If I could, thet is; my mouth’s as dry as a leather strap.”

“Hoss, I’ve got an idea.”

Hoss turned onto his side and surveyed his brother with narrowed eyes. Adam’s ideas were usually very good, but they didn’t always work to his brother’s benefit as well. Somehow he had an inkling at the back of his mind that his brother would soon be riding off leaving him to nail up the fencing to the new posts.

Adam half opened his eyes and glanced over at Hoss. “How about a swim?”

“What? Now?”

“Can you think of a better time?”

“Can I what?” Hoss whooped. “That’s the best idea you’ve had all day.”

Grinning like truant schoolboys, they hurried over to their horses and within minutes were galloping towards the river with the wind blowing through their hair and cooling down their bodies. It took ten minutes to reach the glistening smooth waters and they slid from the saddles and ran to the water yelling and whooping like two crazy men. Two pairs of boots were somehow pulled off and thrown aside along with their pants and then – bliss!

The water was unexpectedly cold. Much colder than either of them had expected. After the initial gasp, they swam to the middle of the river, turned onto their backs and floated.

“Adam, you should have thought of this two hours ago.”

“Two hours ago Pa was likely to ride up and find us gone.”

“Oh yeah. I hadn’t thought of that – gone missing from our posts,” Hoss said, and bellowed with laughter at his own joke. A play on words that was not lost on his older brother who allowed himself a chuckle before turning over and beginning a lazy over arm stroke through the water.

The blue of the sky was perfectly reflected upon the water, so that also shone blue to any onlooker. Some deer strolled by and peeked shyly through the trees at the two men, before they wandered away, nibbling daintily at the grass. Some rabbits bounced by and stopped to twitch their noses and clean their whiskers before remembering how these pink two legged creatures liked rabbit stew.

“Best get back,” Adam announced slowly, making his way now to the shore, “There’s the fencing to get nailed on before we get home tonight.”

*****

Little Joe sat with his backbone pressed hard against the rock. His head drooped so that his chin rested upon his chest. His hands hung listless between his raised knees. His breathing was shallow, not only in order to prevent the pain from his ribs, but also because his nervous system was under such a severe strain. It had taken him so long to inch his way over the ledge and then turn so that he could sit up with his back against the rock that it had exhausted his meager store of energy. Now sweat beaded his brow and trickled slowly down his face.

He had yet to look up at the view beyond the edge of the ledge. He had tried, heaven knows he had tried. Each time it had seemed that his body was about to become weightless and he would float right over the rim and then fall. His heart had hammered overtime against his ribs, and the pain had seared across his chest to leave him gasping for breath.

He raised a hand now, to touch where the pain was, as though wondering why it had subsided. The sun was scorchingly hot and he could feel the heat burning through his pants to the skin of his legs. He moved slightly sideways. From the sun’s movement he could tell that shortly he would be sitting in shadow. That would somewhat ease that problem.

He wiped the sweat from his face, irritated at the slow trickling sensation against his skin. He forced his eyes to open and stared along the ledge to where it tapered into nothing. His breathing became faster as his heartbeat accelerated, but he was somewhat reassured to see that he could have stretched full length along the ledge and he would still have had room to stretch even further. The width of the ledge was a good six feet at its widest, but it was a sharp cut off on the right side, whereas it tapered on the far side.

The thought came to him that he could even stand up and walk about, instead of sitting cramped and tight against the rocks.

“I could do that, I could,” Joe whispered to himself, but then pushed himself further into the rocks and clenched his hands together. A shudder passed through his body. “I’ll count to ten and then stand up.”

Perhaps a man terrified of the dark and shut in a small cupboard in a dark room would have understood the fear Joe experienced at that moment. How many permutations of perhaps and maybe would have to pass through his mind before he forced himself to put a hand to the door and try and push it open, only to find himself in yet another darkened environment.

“What if, when I stand up, the ledge can’t take my weight?” Joe asked himself, “Or I fall forward, what will stop me from going over the edge?”

He raised his head and stared up at the sky. Small clouds were gathering and beginning to mass together. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. If he had only waited for the stagecoach instead of taking that fool horse from the livery stable. Pa would be waiting for him and wondering where he was now. Joe licked his lips. They were so dry. If Pa was worried about him, he would start looking for him. Maybe he would send out a search party.

Joe put a hand to his eyes and pressed his fingers against his temples. How his head ached now. Perhaps he should stand up a while and see how he managed. He should walk about a little and get the blood flowing through his legs instead of staying all cramped up. He put his hands down on the ground and drew up his legs and then clutched at some boulders and slowly stood up.

“Well, that was not so bad.”

He spoke aloud. It didn’t matter here if he spoke aloud to himself. It was a way of giving himself confidence. So long as no one answered him, of course. He grinned at the thought and took a deep breath.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” he winced and bent double and caught his breath. “If I just take a few steps forwards, keep close to the rocks here, just one foot.”

A shadow swept across him, black and ominous. He glanced up, his hand to his eyes to shield them from the light. The loud cawing, squawking of two black crows as they swooped down and over him, forced him to cringe back into the wall of rock behind him. Involuntarily he looked down and the view far below swept up to confront him before receding back down.

His head was spinning. He slid down, back into the crouched position with his head bowed and his face in his hands. The feeling of lurching forward towards the very edge and falling had been so intense as to be totally, and cruelly, very real. The fact that he had barely moved a matter of inches in distance went totally unnoticed.

*****

Ben Cartwright was reading the newssheet when Adam and Hoss walked into the house. He nodded a greeting to them, folded the paper away and stood up, surveying them both with an affectionate smile. You look like you could both do with your supper inside of you.”

“Yeah, that’s a fact,” Hoss replied, stifling a yawn. “Where’s Joe?”

“Oh, still in Placerville. The stagecoach broke a wheel apparently and they just about managed to get to Placerville. He’ll be in town by tomorrow morning. Did you two get the job finished?”

“Yeah, we did,” Hoss replied, rubbing his chin. “So you didn’t get your slap up dinner at DelMonico’s after all?”

“No, I cancelled.” Ben frowned and tugged at his ear lobe distractedly. “It’s annoying that the stage should break down now; I really wanted to have that contract and all the paperwork to do with the job on my desk this evening, so that I could get the final figures sent back by the end of the week.”

“Never mind, Pa; Adam and I will go into town tomorrow and meet Joe and bring him and the contract straight back here.” Hoss grinned and pulled his chair from the table and sat down.

“You’re very quiet, Adam? What’s on your mind?” Ben looked thoughtfully over at his eldest son, who had maintained a consistent silence since coming into the room.

“Nothing at all, Pa.” Adam smiled and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders, “Joe didn’t send you a cable then?”

“No. It was Hanson who told me the stage had broken down. He was waiting for his daughter to arrive today.”

Hoss and Adam smiled at one another and both raised their eyebrows in acknowledgement of what was passing through their minds. Joe would obviously be making the most of his forced delay in Placerville if Hanson’s daughter was as pretty as the one he already had in town.

“Well, no need to worry about Joe then.” Adam forked a steak onto his plate and glanced over at Hoss, “How many do you want this evening, Hoss?”

“Wal, seeing as Joe ain’t here, I’ll have his’n as well. No point in waste.”

They ate in companionable silence for a few minutes before Ben raised the subject of the fencing. Once he was quite satisfied that the job was completed to his exact requirements, and that the posts would withstand any amount of bad weather, eager mavericks, and the odd rampaging bull, he settled back to his meal.

“All I hope is that the weather doesn’t get too bad to delay that journey from Placerville. Joe knew I needed those papers urgently.”

“In which case, if I know Joe, he’ll hire a horse and make sure he gets here with the papers. He’s a good lad, and responsible enough to see the job through properly,” Adam said reassuringly.

“IF he keeps his mind on the job, that is,” Hoss guffawed, his blue eyes twinkling. “If Hanson’s little gal is as pretty as her sister…” and he winked.

“Oh, no,” Ben raised a dark eyebrow and chuckled along with his sons. “That’s a point I should seriously have to consider.”

Adam glanced over to the window and grimaced as the distant roll of thunder announced the arrival of the storm. It meant the hot weather had broken at last, and the cool rain would replenish the water holes for their cattle. It would also encourage new growth of tree stock as well as grass. He smiled slowly, and poured more coffee into his cup.

“We’ll meet Joe tomorrow, Pa. Is there anything else you would want us to do while we’re in town?”

“No, not really. Check the mail and just get that boy home as soon as you can.”

*****

He had fallen asleep. Despite fighting to remain conscious, he had drifted into oblivion. Exhausted by fear, dehydrated from lack of water, weak from hunger, Little Joe had no defenses against such attacks upon his body and nervous system. Taking into account the shock of the accident and the pain of his injuries, sleep had provided him with an essential amount of time to recuperate some energies. Even so, it was the rain falling upon his face that had roused him to wakefulness.

Just as a nursing infant turns instinctively to its mother for nourishment, so Joe opened his mouth to garner as much water as he possibly could from the rain. Thin strips of skin were ripped from his lips as he did so, for the heat and lack of refreshment had dried the moisture from them and beads of blood seeped to the surface as small splits appeared. Now he just remained where he was with his eyes shut and his mouth open and enjoyed the sensation of the water sluicing down upon him.

It was not only refreshing to the inner man, but was cleansing and restoring the outer man as well. He heard the distant rumble of thunder but it barely registered on his mind. His own survival was all that mattered.

“If I had my hat I could save some water for later,” Joe thought to himself, and he sighed and allowed the rain to fall upon his upturned face. Another clash of thunder and he subconsciously began to count before lightning streaked across the horizon. He could remember sitting by the window of the Ponderosa as a little boy upon his father’s knee, counting the miles between thunder and lightning. Now he smiled at the memory, and registered the fact that the storm was quite a distance away. That brought him some measure of relief. Contending with a storm in the situation in which he was in was something he did not relish…

He wriggled back against the cliff and wedged himself between some rocks, grateful that such a temporary base provided him with some protection from the downpour. He cupped his hands and within that fleshy chalice, caught the rain and drank it down. He felt revitalized and in a strange way, the darkness robbed him of his fear. While he could not see the drop from the ledge, and the vast expanse that surrounded it, he felt safe.

If only he had been patient enough to have waited for the stage to be repaired. He sighed, replete now despite his stomach rumbling in hunger. The pain from his ribs had become a dull ache, noticeable only when he negligently breathed in too deeply. His mind drifted back to Placerville and the broken down stagecoach.

It had been tempting to stay in Placerville once he had met Miss Hanson. The thought had crossed his mind that such a pretty traveling companion would certainly make a pleasant friend with whom to share luncheon. Sadly, unlike her sister, this Miss Hanson had been to a Ladies Finishing School in Europe. She certainly had no intention in being coerced into spending any more time with a cowboy, no matter how handsome, than was necessary.

“How long before the wheel can be changed, Sam?” he had asked the driver, who was lounging against the vehicle, picking his teeth with a small pointed matchstick.

“Ain’t the wheel that’s the problem, Joe. It’s the whole axle.” Sam had spat into the dirt of the street and then scratched his head, pushing his hat back so far that it nearly toppled right off. Adroitly he managed to catch it and continue to scratch the pink flesh of his scalp at the same time. “I’ve got the blacksmith working on it now, but I doubt if the thing will be ready before mid-day. Then after lunch we can git the wheel back on and then git started about 2 o’clock.”

“2 o’clock? That’s far too late.”

“Cain’t be helped, young’un; this job ain’t any good for rushin’.”

“But – I have important papers to get home to Pa,” Joe protested, as though anything he could have said would have changed the matter anyway.

“Sorry, ain’t nuthin’ I kin do about that; you’ll jest have to be patient. The only thing I could suggest, if’n you’re in that much of a hurry, is thet you go and hire yourself a horse and saddle from the livery stable over yon.” He stabbed a dirty thumb in the direction of Howard’s Livery Stable, “Other than that, you’ll have to wait until 2 o’clock this afternoon, unless summat else goes wrong, in which case, it’ll be later.”

Joe had sighed heavily in exasperation. Ben had stressed the importance of the papers – had he been successful in getting the contract – being brought to the Ponderosa as soon as possible so that he could wire off any queries, problems, and various other factors before the end of the week. Now it seemed rather unlikely that Joe would even get to Virginia City before the end of the week. There had seemed no better solution that to hire a horse.

She had been a sprightly little horse with a good chest and a strong neck and a good turn of speed. With delight he had set off within the hour, passing Sam and the small cluster of patient travelers waiting at the depot.

Oh, if only he had waited a few more hours. He worked it out in his head that he now would be comfortably settled down on a bunk at the Way Station. He would have had a substantial meal and pleasant company. He thought of Miss Hanson and sighed. Just possibly, during the journey, she may have thawed out enough to have become a very pleasant traveling company.

On the other hand, he mused, Sam did intimate that there could have been other problems than the wheel and axle. In which case, they would no doubt still be waiting in Placerville. He would have eaten a good meal at the restaurant, with or without Miss Hanson for company. Then he would have gone to the best hotel in town, booked a room and slept soundly. The thought of a comfortable bed and food made him groan and become even more aware of his acute discomfort.

The rain had ceased to be welcome. It had saturated through his clothes and was steadily trickling down his neck. His hair was plastered down his face and he could not keep his eyes open for long due to the pressure of the rain. He pressed further into the rock.

The horse had done well, galloping at a steady pace so that both she and her rider were comfortable as they journeyed together on such a hot day. Joe had been sensible enough to make camp and to eat en route, and to ensure that the horse was not overly tired or winded in any way. They had continued on with the journey and were approaching the top of the bluffs when the mare got the bit between her teeth, and plunged into a headlong flight.

Joe had been caught momentarily unaware but quickly got the measure of the situation and made every attempt possible to calm the animal and bring her to a standstill. It was to no avail. The creature strode forwards as though her life depended upon it. She thundered over rocks and boulders and crashed into shrubs and saplings and low branches that whipped across his legs and body as they passed. Once he was nearly unseated as a low branch slapped across his chest and he had a struggle to maintain the saddle. Then, as he saw a rock approaching, he had to slip his stirrup and bring his leg about to avoid his foot being crushed.

The horse had scraped her rear leg on the rock as they had passed and she had given a snort and whinny of protest. As Joe struggled to get his foot back into the stirrup she reared up and bucked angrily. The pain had been an unexpected nuisance and irritation to her, and all she was interested in was ridding herself of her rider and hurtling onwards.

Joe had slid from the saddle at just the moment he had most dreaded. He had descended, not to the hard rock packed earth, but downwards. His fall had been tempered by low stunted shrubs protruding from the rock face, but even so, his eventual landing on the ledge, had been excruciatingly painful.

Joe buried his face in his hands and relived that moment of fearful dread. He could see it all now as though he were looking down upon the scene. He saw the body leave the horse and curve gracefully over the edge of the cliff. He could see himself falling, snatching at shrubs, snagging at saplings, and then landing. He screwed his eyes tight at the remembrance of the pain.

“In the morning, I’ll have to do something to get up to the top. I can’t sit here through a whole day. Once the rain stops, I’ll sleep and restore my strength. Then, tomorrow I can think about getting to the top.” Joe tried to take a deep breath but pain shot through his side and he was sharply reminded of his broken ribs.

In the dark, everything was so different. He couldn’t see where the ledge ended and could therefore ignore the dangers of falling over. He pulled up the sodden collar of his jacket to protect his neck but he was already well soaked. He yawned, realized how tired he was, how cold, how hungry.

‘If I fall asleep now, I doubt if I’ll fall over the edge. I’m a good distance away. I need to sleep to get strength. I must climb up that rock-face tomorrow. Otherwise I’ll never get to the surface. Who’ll find me here? Who’ll think of looking for me here? If I don’t climb up then I may as well just roll over the edge now, because I’ll just die here anyway.’

Thunder was rolling further away now and the lightning flickered but the light no longer touched the ledge to illuminate the surroundings about him. He watched as the storm began to die out and even before it finally faded away, he was asleep.

*****

Adam pushed aside the covers on the bed and walked over to the window. He pulled back the curtains and gazed out at the inky blackness, ignoring the shadowy reflection of himself gazing back at him. The white blaze of lightning splattered across the horizon, so briefly, that he nearly missed it. He waited for a while as the darkness covered the area once again. With a sigh, he allowed the curtain to fall back into place and walked back to the bed.

He paused, then decided that he could no longer sleep even if he did get into bed, so he pulled on his dressing gown and left the room, tying the cord as he went down the stairs.

He paused at the half-landing and frowned over at the lamp still burning at his father’s desk. “Couldn’t you sleep either?” he asked, his deep voice carrying across the room and causing the other man to lift his head to look over at him.

“No, the storm kept me awake. I’m a light sleeper at the best of times,” Ben paused and looked back down at the papers on his desk. “I thought I’d get an early start tomorrow and ride over to Blackburn’s and see if they have got any of this equipment ready for us.”

“Mmm, what if Joe doesn’t get through with the papers on time for the contract to be completed. You said that you needed to send them back before the end of the week.”

“I know.” Ben rubbed the back of his neck and then shrugged. “Well, it won’t do any harm to make sure that Blackburn has the equipment. That way I can assure McClaren that everything’s in order this end. We can start the job as originally planned.”

Adam said nothing but nodded and pulled out a chair to join his father at the desk. Together they shuffled papers about and compared figures for some minutes before Ben asked Adam what had caused him to get up. It was a known fact that Adam could sleep through an earthquake most times.

“Oh, I had a weird dream and woke up thinking of Joe,” Adam muttered, checking off some figures with a pencil and a small frown furrowing his brow.

“Well, the hotels at Placerville are very comfortable, and the halfway station’s beds are pretty good too, come to that.” Ben grinned, thinking with affection of his tousle haired son with the hazel green eyes and impish smile.

“He should be in by noon tomorrow at the latest,” Adam said with his mind more on the figures before him, and the reasons why he had been disturbed from his sleep already a distant memory.

“I give you permission to treat yourselves to a meal at DelMonico’s.” Ben smiled. “He’ll have earned it and it’s about time you and Hoss had a treat.”

Adam smiled and put the papers down on the desk and looked at his father with a twinkle in his eye. “Remember what it was like when we were traveling, Pa? Just you and me?”

Ben lowered his eyes and then glanced back up at his son. The memories were rather a mixed bag to him – some were horrific, some were happy, some he would rather be without altogether and some he treasured. He smiled slowly as Adam leaned his chin on his cupped hands and stared at the wall, as though he was mentally traveling back through the years.

“Well, one thing’s for sure, I wasn’t able to give you many treats then, son.” Ben said gruffly, for the hardships his little boy had shared with him still filled him with trepidation and shame.

“Oh, that’s for sure,” Adam laughed softly. “But the memories I have of us back then are a treat in themselves.”

“I remember going into a store once and you found a book you really wanted. I remember feeling mighty ashamed of myself for not being able to get it for you,” Ben commented.

“I remember that time – but I did get the book if I recall rightly.” Adam looked at his father with an affection that he would not have so openly displayed had there been others present in the room. At times like this, when he and his father were alone, such intimacies could be shown without leaving him feeling vulnerable.

“The storekeeper’s wife gave it to you as a gift. She thought a boy of your years should be encouraged to read,” acknowledged Ben.

Ben closed the ledgers abruptly, and shuffled the papers together. He paused for an instant and looked at Adam, who was still looking rather dreamily at the wall.

“It’s nearly time we were up anyway. I’m going to get dressed and have that early start. Tell Joe I’m proud of him getting that contract from McClaren.”

“Sure – yeah, sure I will, Pa.” Adam’s brow furrowed again. Joe, and his dream, and the lightning. Odd how he had forgotten the feeling he had woken with after that dream. Now it was back again, some deep foreboding right in the pit of his stomach.

*****

Joe forced his eyes open and wondered why he felt so stiff. He ached everywhere and his left leg had cramp in it. He put a hand to his face and rubbed his eyes and jaw. His teeth ached. It felt as though he had slept clenching his jaws together so tightly that every tooth in his head ached as though he had gone ten rounds with Hoss in a boxing booth.

Then he remembered and fear fluttered at the edge of his brain and forced a groan through a dry mouth.

“I need water,” he told himself and forced his eyes open. All around him the world was awakening to another day. Clouds were still tinted with a rosy hue and spread gossamer trails across a pale blue and pink sky. The rocks and cliffs were softened by the touch of rouge blushing their somber grayness. He closed his eyes again and wished he could return to the blissful unawareness of sleep.

The nagging need for water forced him to open his eyes once more and look again upon his surroundings with a more critical, a more appraising eye. The rain from the previous night’s storm had fallen heavily and his clothing was still damp enough to be evidence of it. He sat upright, then stood up and moved stiff joints and limbs as he began his essential search for the life-sustaining liquid.

Water had collected in small pools in the crevices of rocks, in the worn down surfaces of boulders. He hurried towards them greedily and put his dry lips to their liquid surfaces and drank the small natural hewn cups dry. When the sun rose he knew only too well that what moisture remained in the hidden places would be dried up and the necessity to get as much of the liquid into his own body was never more urgent than it was now.

Wherever there was a small store of water he drank it, lapped it up, slurped it down, cupped his hands to capture the drops that escaped his lips. When there was nothing within his reach, he stepped back to view the rock-face for evidence of the glistening substance.

Stepping on a large boulder he wormed his way upwards to where a pool had collected, dripping sequined drops into mossy ferns below. Without hesitation he plunged his face into the puddle and remained submerged for seconds as he allowed the moisture to seep into the pores of his skin and refresh himself sufficiently before he drank all that the rain had provided.

Now it was gone. Nothing more within reach and what may have been higher, collected in pockets of rock, or small crevasses, would already be drying up as the sun began to beat down. He pressed his handkerchief down into the dampness of the soil around the ferns and hoped that the moisture retained in its folds would provide some comfort before drying out altogether.

He returned to where he had slept. Walking with his hand touching the rock-face as security, he reached his haven and sank down upon the ledge.

The day had begun. The soft touch of rose had finally faded and the bright hard light of the sun began to throb down upon him. The heat bounced from the rocks and he looked along the ledge seeking some place where there was some shelter, some shade for the morning. His ‘haven’ would not provide such shadow until later that day and he knew that were he to remain there now, his chances of survival would plummet.

“This is not Eagle’s Nest. I’m not five anymore. What’s the matter with me? Why can’t I get myself out of this mess?”

He looked towards where his ledge came to an abrupt end. Six feet away at most. Plenty of room to walk and nothing to fear if he stood. But why stand or walk. Action required energy. Energy sapped strength. He needed inertia to survive.

“I can climb up. I shall climb up.”

His lips were drying. He could feel the moisture being sucked out of his body. He forced himself to grimace, to smile. The thin skin around his eyes was taut. His lips were cracking again. He could taste blood when he ran his tongue over them. Instinctively he took a small pebble and put it into his mouth. It would prevent his tongue from cleaving to the roof of his mouth when dehydration became too severe and his tongue began to swell. There was no point in pretending that the situation would get any better than this. There was no natural shade for some hours yet, the heat remained remorseless. He had no hat. No water. And he was weak from shock, from his injuries and from his cruelest enemy – fear.

*****

“What?”

Adam raised his eyebrows at his brother’s question and Hoss shrugged and opened his blue eyes wide and repeated the question aloud once more.

“What?”

“I was thinking.” Adam paused, drew in his bottom lip over his teeth and narrowed his eyes as he surveyed his brother who was sitting opposite him with a slice of ham on the tines of his fork which was midway to his mouth.

“I realized that,” Hoss shoveled the food into his mouth and chomped on it while he scowled at his brother. “You bin staring at me as though I were a sheet of glass for the past five minutes. So what’s on your mind?”

Adam picked up his cup and raised it to his mouth and swallowed some of the hot coffee, then he looked at Hoss and nodded. Hoss nodded back. “Hoss, think like Joe.”

“Huh?”

“Put yourself in Joe’s place right now – or rather – yesterday morning. He gets up early, pleased with himself – right?”

“Should do; he got that contract Pa wanted him to get. Sure he’d be pleased with himself.” Hoss nodded, so far so good; he was on Adam’s way of thinking so he cut into some more ham and eggs.

“He goes to the depot to board the stagecoach and finds that he’s stranded in Placerville. What does he do?” Adam looked at Hoss, pinning him into attention with the earnestness of his stare. “Right – you’re Little Joe – what would you do?”

“Shucks.” Hoss surveyed his plate and frowned thoughtfully. “Go back to the hotel and have another breakfast, mebbe?”

“Be serious, Hoss. This is Little Joe I’m talking about.” Adam put down his cup and pointed his index finger at Hoss. “He’s got this contract for Pa and knows that it’s really important. Apart from that, he’s real pleased about having got the contract because McClaren would not have been easy for him to handle. Joe would be bustin’ his breeches to get back home to tell us all about it and to produce the goods.”

“Yeah, but there’s a pretty gal in town, don’t forgit, and the stage has only broke a wheel. It’s jest a delay of a few hours.”

“More than that, the delay would mean them having to stay overnight at the way station. Whereas if he hired a horse …”

“Yeah, but as I said, there’s a pretty gal in town and you know Joe…”

“Would you prefer a pretty gal to pleasing Pa?” Adam raised his eyebrows questioningly.

Hoss considered for a moment and raised his eyes ceilingwards. He shrugged. “Wal, if she were pretty enough.” Then he grinned. “Knowin’ Joe, he would have hired a horse, even if it were jest to git him home a few hours earlier.”

“In which case he should have been home in time for supper.”

“Yeah, but he weren’t, which means the pretty gal won and Pa’s contract would have to wait until today.”

“Hoss. Think seriously. This is Little Joe I’m talking about …”

“Yeah, I know. And if’n I were Little Joe, like you said I was jest now…”

Adam shook his head and pushed himself away from the table. “Come on, Hoss. Let’s get going.”

“Going? Whar?” Hoss stood up, gulping down coffee as he did so.

Adam paused in mid-stride, hesitantly he ran his hand across his mouth and then, with more resolve, he looked at Hoss. “We’re taking the road to Placerville. Somewhere along the way we’ll meet the coach with Joe in it, or…”

“Or?”

“Or we’ll find Joe.”

Hoss frowned, his blue eyes darkening as he accepted, without question, the unspoken words in his brother’s comment. He reached for his hat and gunbelt and followed Adam out of the house.

*****

Joe Cartwright leaned against the rock-face, his back turned against the vastness beyond. He had his head bowed and his face buried into his folded arms. He felt defeated.

For some moments he stood there, the sun burning his back, as he once again struggled to summon up the strength to clamber some way to the surface. He had made six attempts. He had fallen on four. Lost his footing and courage on the fifth. Succeeded on getting at least several feet above the ledge before making the fatal error of looking down and then toppled back.

He was able now to stand without feeling as though he were going to fall over the edge. This was possible ONLY if he stayed within the four feet perimeter, beyond that he began to feel faint and had to retreat back to the safety of his haven of rocks. The sun was higher now and as merciless as ever, but the hint of shadows to come could at last be seen. The water from the previous night’s storm had long evaporated and everywhere was as dry as though the storm had never been.

He had torn his handkerchief in two and bound his hands to prevent the palms from being ripped to ribbons as he tried to climb the ascent. He was aware now of a terrible aching pain in every finger joint and across his wrists and he knew that soon, very soon, he would find it impossible to take another step.

Sweat beaded and trickled from his pores down his back soaking his shirt which was torn and bloodied. He could feel the wheals of sunburn upon his skin and the blisters were already forming around his mouth.

“Oh, God, if only I could get some water to drink.”

Words whispered on the wind. Except that there was no wind, not even a breeze, to send some cooling air to his burning body.

His knees began to buckle and he slowly slid into a crumpled heap and closed his eyes and with a long harsh sigh drifted into deep, dark oblivion.

*****

“See anything?”

Hoss looked over at his brother and shook his head. He hesitated to ask exactly what it was that he was supposed to see. Both of them scanned the horizon yet again, their eyes searching for the tell tale signs of a horseman riding towards them. The small dust cloud, the dark shape emerging from within, and growing larger as they moved towards each other. There was nothing at all like that ahead of them. Nothing but dry scrub and tumbleweed.

“Look, Adam, don’t you reckon we should hightail it back to town? More’n likely the stagecoach will be there by now.”

“If the stagecoach were there, it would have passed by an hour ago at least,” Adam remonstrated sharply, pushing his hat further back from his brow and gazing upwards at the blue sky.

There was not even a puff of cloud there. Just intense blue and the scalding white of sun. He took a deep breath and the hot air sifted down his throat into his lungs. He reached for his canteen of water and slowly unfastened it. The water was cool and welcoming and he drank just enough to assuage his thirst.

Something was wrong. He knew it. Hoss did not seem to have grasped the importance of this search, but then it was as vague as an algebraic problem. He was as certain of Joe’s danger as any man could be who knew Joe as well as he did. He bit his bottom lip and pulled down his hat to shield his eyes and after replacing the canteen he put his heels to Sport’s flanks and set the horse trotting forwards once more.

They rode together at a comfortable trot scanning the surrounding area with narrowed eyes and the heat burning into their skins. Hoss turned to Adam and was about to suggest that they turn back when his eyes widened as he saw a familiar object lodged amongst some rocks. “Adam, over thar.”

His brother followed the line of the pointed finger and felt a thrill of many different emotions trickle down his spine. They dismounted with an alacrity that was sufficient evidence of their anxiety, and hurried to pull Joe’s battered hat from where it had been caught.

“It’s Joe’s all right,” Adam said in a very low voice, as though he were disappointed that his speculative theory had been proven correct.

“Fool kid shouldn’t be riding around without any headgear in this weather. He’s liable to get his brains fried.” Hoss held the hat close to his chest, and looked with anguished eyes at Adam in the vague hope that having found Joe’s hat, Adam would now conjure Joe up before his very eyes.

“He’s around here somewhere.” Adam glanced about him, twisting his body to scan the cliffs and ridges and buttes. “He could be anywhere…”

“JOE!” Hoss had his hands cupped around his mouth to amplify the sound of his voice but only received echoes back as his words bounced from the white hot boulders.

Adam was scanning the ground as his brother called for Joe. He felt there was little likelihood in finding any clues there as the rain would surely have washed away any footprint of Joe’s or hoof mark from the beast he had ridden. Hope and despair fought a tangled battle as he searched over the terrain for some faint clue before he had to turn back to Hoss and shake his head. “If there was anything here, then the rain last night made a good job of washing it away.”

“Shucks. I sure hate to think of our little brother out here on his own in this heat.”

“He must be in this locality somewhere, Hoss. We’ll ride on a little and see whether or not we can pick up anything more.”

They were both grim faced and tight lipped as they mounted Sport and Chubb. Once again they set off together at a smart trot, urgency now forcing them to put some haste to their heels. It was not long before Adam stopped Sport with such abruptness that the horse snorted in protest.

“Over there.” Adam pointed to some stunted shrubs that struggled to grow through the boulders but where a horse was nuzzling at the sparse grass.

They looked meaningfully at one another before turning towards the animal who raised her head as though in wonder at seeing them approaching her. A calmed but weary animal now, she allowed them to draw near and did not protest when Hoss reached for her reins.

“Nice looking horse,” Hoss observed as he ran his hand along her jawline.

Adam only grunted in acknowledgement, and began to unbuckle the saddle bags. He found what he was seeking – a large buff colored envelope addressed to Ben Cartwright. It was unsealed, and took not a second to have the contents slip into his hand sufficiently to see that the papers the envelope contained were the much sought after contract between Ben and McClaren.

“This is Joe’s horse. He must have hired it from the livery stable in Placerville. Why would he have left her here?”

“She ain’t lame,” Hoss muttered as he watched the horse walk sedately away to a fresher patch of grass.

“No, and if she had been, Joe would not have left her here on her own. Nor would he have left these papers unattended.”

They looked at one another and each saw the panic and anxiety rise in the other’s eyes. Hoss swallowed. “He must be around here someplace.”

“Maybe so, but if he’s hurt or unconscious, we may never find him.”

Hoss said nothing but drew his gun and fired three shots, one after the other.

*****

Little Joe raised his head and frowned. Perhaps he had dreamt it after all, but surely he had heard three shots being fired close by. He forced himself into a sitting position and struggled to hear some other sound that would indicate that someone was close at hand. Three shots was the signal for help. He bowed his head as the thought came to his mind that he would be of no help to anyone. Not in his condition.

He looked at his hands and then at the rocks and wondered if it was logical to try and climb up them again. His hands were bloodied with the other attempts he had made and the bandages, makeshift though they were, had become torn and stained with blood. Better to sit and wait for death with some dignity, he told himself, attempting to run a dry tongue over torn and crusted lips.

“JOE? JOE?”

Funny how much that sounded like Hoss. He forced open his eyes to look upwards, but the salt sting of sweat made them weep and water so that he had to raise a hand to shield his face from the sun and make some attempt to see whether it was dream or reality.

“JOE? Where are you, buddy?”

His heart began to hammer beneath his ribs as hope forced adrenalin to pump through his veins and send frantic messages to the brain. He opened his mouth, but no sound other than a croak, passed his lips. He licked them in a futile attempt to make the passage of words easier, but even then nothing audible was uttered.

“JOE? JOE?”

The echoes taunted him as his name was flung back to him, as well as to them. He took a deep breath and mustered all his strength and will to shout “HERE.”

The word bounced about the ravine and faded away.

“I’M HERE!”

No one was near to hear the sob at the end of the words. He dwindled back, shrunk against the boulders, and bowed his head. No one would hear him. They would go and pass on wondering where their brother was and never knowing how near they had come to saving him.

Too late, too late ….

*****

Hoss watched as Adam secured the rope to the pommel of Chubb’s saddle. “Sure you want to try this?” he finally asked, as his brother uncoiled the lariat and then slipped the noose around his chest and under his armpits.

“Can you think of anything else?”

“What if he ain’t thar?” Hoss’ blue eyes looked at his brother with unconcealed concern. Wasted time could mean Joe’s life.

“You heard him, where else would he be?”

“With everything echoing so much, it was hard to pinpoint the place accurately, Adam. It’s just that we could be wasting time here, when he could be someplace further along.”

“Sure, and which direction would you prefer?” Adam snapped angrily.

Hoss said nothing, but dutifully led Chubb closer to the edge of the cliff, thus giving his brother a few more yards of rope by which he could be lowered. Adam slung the water canteen around his neck and then looked at Hoss and frowned slightly, knowing that he had been too abrupt in how he had spoken. Hoss would be worried enough about Joe without him adding to the problem by his peevishness.

“Sorry, Hoss. I’m just as worried as you about our little brother, but this seems about the most likely spot I can think of …”

“Sure. Jest be careful, Adam.”

They looked at one another and all the years they had shared together came and crystallized and formed a completeness that no one but them could have understood. Hoss took Adam’s hand and gripped it gently between both of his before releasing it, and taking up the rope in its place.

Over the edge, carefully, gingerly. Take no risks. Use hands to push away from the ragged rocks. Use feet to swing free from anything that could snag or prevent an easy descent.

Hoss carefully let the rope down. It seemed to take forever and once or twice he paused to yell out Joe’s name again in some futile attempt to get some bearing as to his whereabouts. There came no answer, only the cawing of crows.

The rope jerked taut. He stood by the saddle and took the brunt of it and waited. Three jerks on the rope which meant he and Chubb needed to haul in together and bring Adam back to the surface.

“Nuthin’?”

Adam shook his head. It was hard to breathe and sweat trickled down his face and round his neck from his exertions.

“Have some water,” Hoss suggested, kneeling down to give Adam some help to get to his feet.

“It’s so hot,” Adam grumbled. “Going down there was like droppin’ into a steamin’ cauldron.”

“You didn’t see Joe?”

Adam paused from drinking and narrowed his eyes and looked at Hoss’ face. It hurt him as much as it hurt Hoss, but he had to shake his head. He had not seen Joe.

They walked along the edge and stopped every so often to peer downwards. They scanned the horizon, the rocks above them, the wide span of land alongside them.

“He could have walked on, collapsed somewheres along the track,” Hoss suggested, not for the first time.

“We would have seen him as we came along here,” Adam replied patiently.

“What if he had walked some, then the heat got to him, he’d head for the rocks and some shelter, wouldn’t he?”

“Maybe, perhaps – I don’t know, Hoss.”

“But you think he went over the top around about here?” Hoss queried, his blue eyes fading in color from concern for Little Joe.

“Seems most logical. You heard that cry? That was Joe’s voice. It sounded as though it came from the depths rather than the heights – and not that far away.”

“But you never saw anything when you went down just now?”

“Because it was the wrong place, that’s all.” Adam pushed his hat back and wiped his brow and around his neck with his black patterned handkerchief. “He’ll be hurt…”

“Yeah, I reckon.” Hoss bit his lips and thought of the damage someone even as slight as Joe would have incurred from a fall down the cliffs.

They paused and stopped for a moment to get their bearings. They were just yards from the track that ran through from Virginia City to Placerville. A good wide track that would take a stagecoach and six horses at full gallop quite easily. There was no reason why Joe, an accomplished horseman, would have fallen over the cliffs.

“Let’s try here,” Adam said suddenly. “Get the rope ready, Hoss.”

“Why here?”

Adam pointed to where black crows swooped and circled around and around in the chasm beneath them.

“They ain’t gathering around there for no good reason,” Adam said quietly.

“True enough,” Hoss agreed, his voice lower than normal as the thought hit him that perhaps his little brother was down there, and in no shape to be anything other than a crow’s dinner.

Adam slid over the side and disappeared from view. His feet scrambled against rocks and sent small stones and grit and dust slithering downwards. His hands found places to hold onto, and then push away from, as he made his descent. More quickly this time, more urgently.

*****

Something fell against his cheek, and made it sting. Joe raised a hand and wiped away blood from where some small stone had struck him. As he glanced up more stones and dirt slithered downwards, enveloping him as he struggled to get to his feet.

He could not speak nor call out. He could only watch, dumbstruck, as his brother slowly came into view. He reached out a hand to grab at the end of the rope and steady it, but missed, and stumbled against the rock.

The ledge was wider than Adam had first thought and he was relieved to be able to put both feet down on solid ground. He turned and saw the young man half crouched amongst the rocks and wordlessly, reached out towards him.

Grief, pity, horror and love tumbled one after another within him as he engulfed his brother in his arms. The tightness with which Joe held onto him was more than he had expected, but it was pleasurable. It meant that the boy was alive.

“Here, Joe, sit down here.” Adam hurriedly unscrewed the stopper to the canteen and held it to Joe who seized it greedily and held it to his mouth. “Just a little, Joe, just a little at first.”

Joe spluttered, coughed, gulped down a little more and then paused for breath. He swayed on his feet and then came and slid down amongst the rocks, holding the canteen close to his chest as he did so.

“Hoss? Joe’s here. He’s safe.”

The words floated upwards and filled Hoss with a relief that was immeasurable. He gave a whoop and then hugged Chubb, while Sport looked on with a vague look of hauteur in his dark eyes.

“I – I didn’t think – didn’t think – anyone could find me,” Joe whispered, his voice as thin as a reed as it forced a way through his dry and swollen throat.

“Well, we did. Now all we have to do is get you home and…” Adam looked at his brother and saw the look that drifted over his face, “It won’t take a few minutes to get you up to the top, Joe.”

Joe closed his eyes and, for a second or so, froze. He ran his tongue over his lips and then opened his eyes to look up at his brother. Adam smiled thinly, his eyes trying to stop the concern from showing. It was obvious that there was something wrong, seriously wrong and he was not thinking along the lines of broken bones.

Joe raised a hand, and gestured to the water canteen. “Can – Can I have some more now?”

“Sure, Joe, sure you can.” Adam held his brother securely, thinking as he did so that had it been Hoss or himself who had come over the escarpment they would not have come out of it as well as this slim bundle of energy. He sighed thoughtfully, and watched as his brother drank down deep draughts of the cool liquid before taking the canteen away. He knew that Joe could have continued drinking until the canteen was empty, but there were hidden dangers in allowing a man who had abstained from water so long to drink his fill.

Joe nodded, indicating that he understood why the canteen had been removed. He passed a hand over his face and massaged the muscles as though they were beginning to come alive again at last.

“How long have you been here, Joe?” Adam asked quietly, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to be chatting on a ledge hundreds of feet above a raging river.

“Yesterday – about just after mid-day. The horse bolted.”

“That means you were here during that storm last night?”

“Yeah, thank goodness. It saved my life. That rain…” Joe licked his lips, the thought of that rain water reminded him of how thirsty he still was, and how hungry too for his stomach growled somewhat now. “Adam, I think I cracked some ribs.”

Very carefully and gently, Adam ran his hands over his brother’s body and paused whenever Joe gave a gasp of pain or slight groan. He nodded in agreement and then squatted down by Joe’s side.

“We need to get you to the surface, Joe. No point in hanging around here more than is necessary.” He said it light-heartedly, but the thought that nagged at the back of his mind was why his brother had stayed put on the ledge for so long. He had noticed the bandaged bloodied hands, and realized that Joe had made some attempt to climb up and escape the torment, but the boy he knew would not have baulked at the task normally.

On the surface, Hoss checked that the rope was secure around the pommel of the saddle and that he was in a good position to take the weight of anyone coming up top. He waited patiently for some minutes before realizing that it was very hot, he was getting very thirsty and it would soon be lunchtime. He stepped towards the edge. Far below him small particles of grit and gravel slithered down upon the two men on the ledge.

“Hey, you two thinkin’ of ever gittin’ a move on thar? It’s kinda hot up here.”

“It’s kinda hot down here too, Hoss,” Adam yelled up.

“Is Joe alright? Is he hurt?”

“Some broken ribs and concussion.”

“Shucks. Do you want me to play out more rope?” Hoss wiggled the rope a little as though to put emphasis on his words. Behind him Sport and Chubb snorted and looked at one another. Perhaps the scene was amusing to a horse sense of humor for the two animals moved in closer together and Sport curled a contemptuous lip.

“If you can…” Adam replied. “Wait a while and I’ll let you know what’s happening.”

“Oh yeah, sure. I’ve all the time in the world,” Hoss replied in a disgruntled tone. It seemed as though that meal in DelMonico’s was fading rapidly, like a wonderful mirage.

“Alright, Joe.” Adam looked at his brother affectionately, but behind the smile and the gentle eyes there was a sharpness that denoted that he was not prepared for any nonsense. Joe had seen that look too often before to waste time now and he prepared himself for his brother’s probing questions that he knew were sure to come. And they did.

“What’s wrong? A few cracked ribs and a knock on the head doesn’t usually stop you making some kind of effort to get out of trouble.”

“What do you think this was caused by?” Joe thrust his hands at his brother, showing him the torn nails and the bloodied flesh. “I’ve not been sitting here on my butt doing nuthin,’ you know.”

“Sure, I realize that you’ve been doing something but it doesn’t seem to me as though that something was near enough. Are you hurtin’ someplace you haven’t told me? I can get Hoss to ride to town and get Paul here to see to you… when we get to the surface.” Adam’s smile widened, but the eyes were becoming increasingly wary and concerned.

“I was knocked out cold when I landed here and then there was no water and no shelter. The sun was baking my brains and I couldn’t move up, down, sideways – for Pete’s sake, Adam, I was jest about at the end of my rope when the storm came. I – I tried, but I was just too weak.”

Adam surveyed him thoughtfully. There was a note in his brother’s voice that he had heard too often before to ignore now. Something was bothering him, something he felt he could not openly admit to his eldest brother. He nodded and stood up.

The sun was as hot as ever and he wiped his neck and face with his handkerchief and turned to face the view that spun out before him. Vast eons of blue, blue sky with nary a cloud in sight. The sun was a white hot cauldron that dazzled the eyes with its light which was bouncing from the rocks all around them. Beyond them was the wide chasm between where they stood to the sheer cliff face opposite and between the two was the river. They could hardly hear the sound of it from where they stood.

He picked up the canteen of water and took a gulp, careful not to spill any.

It was beautiful being suspended in space like this on the ledge. So much vast emptiness all around him. Birds flew past at a lazy beat of a wing, while some just floated on the thermals and looked down or over at them as though wondering at the two creatures watching them. It made everything seem so eternal and he wondered why, when riding along the track so much higher up than this, that the same feeling of vastness did not enthrall him so much. Perhaps it was because of the awareness of a steep drop on one side and the wonderful panorama of the Ponderosa spreading out into endless woodland on the other side. Again, a completely different dimension and perspective.

He took a deep breath and stepped forward several paces.

“STOP!”

Joe’s warning cry stopped Adam in his tracks and he swayed slightly on his feet at the abruptness of his halting. He turned, the canteen of water still in one hand, the handkerchief in the other, and looked at his brother in bewilderment.

“What’s the matter?”

“You – you can’t go no further, Adam. No further than there,” Joe stammered, getting to his feet now and holding out his hands towards his brother as though to draw him back to his side.

“Joe, this ledge is wider than a man’s full grown height. I’ve three feet at least yet before I get to the edge.” Adam smiled as he spoke and stepped forward.

“No, no, Adam, don’t!”

“It’s a great view from here. You know, Joe, when God created the earth he must have had this spot in mind as an alternative paradise. D’you know what I mean? Why not come over and take a look for yourself. It’s breathtaking.”

He turned to look over at Joe, only to have the smile slip from his face as he saw the youth crumpled against the rock with a look of horror on his features. Unable to utter a word, Joe crouched there shaking his head in speechless terror.

“Alright, Joe, what is this all about?”

Adam walked back to his brother, sat down by his side and instinctively drew him into his arms. It was a tentative embrace for Adam was not in the habit of such physical demonstrations of affection. This was obviously a unique moment that called for more than the usual affection between them.

“Can’t you talk about it?” He prompted gently.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, have another drink of water and think about it. If we’re going to be here for some time yet to come, I really do need to know, otherwise Hoss is going to start eating his boots.”

Joe gave his brother a tentative smile and then took the canteen and slowly swallowed down some more water. It was wonderful to feel the cool liquid sliding down his dry, scorched throat. He caught the mental picture of water seeping into dry hot sand and wondered how long it would take to become really satisfied and completely refreshed again.

“Better, huh?”

He nodded at Adam’s question and then sat back a little. Gently Adam removed his black hat and placed it carefully on Joe’s head, tilting it so that his brother’s face was in shadow from the sun.

“Lost my hat – and gun,” Joe sighed.

“Yeah. We noticed.” Adam smiled indulgently. “Why didn’t you just wait for the stage, Joe?”

“They didn’t know when it would be available. I wanted to get the contract and papers to Pa as soon as possible. I didn’t want to waste time in Placerville when it was so important to get the papers to Pa. Then that stupid horse bolted and lost its footing and the next thing I knew I was down here.”

“Joe, can you tell me now what’s wrong? You nearly threw a fit just now when I wasn’t even near the edge of this ledge.”

“You – you were pretty close, Adam.” Joe’s hazel eyes widened and the pupils dilated. His lips moved wordlessly for a second and then he lowered his head. “I don’t know what’s the matter, Adam. I jest know that when I get so that I can’t touch the rocks behind me, my legs go weak and I feel dizzy and want to throw up. I’m jest so scared.”

Adam said nothing but put a hand gently on his brother’s shoulder. His nimble brain trickled back over the years and reminded him of a time when Joe was nearly five years old.

“You’re ashamed of me, aren’t you?” Joe whispered. “If’n it had been you or Hoss, you would have been up that cliff and walking back home within the hour.”

“No, I wasn’t thinking that, although it seems odd that you can climb trees, repair the roof, swing from the haybarn without a qualm and yet…”

“It’s here, Adam. Being here among all these rocks, and so much emptiness. But it’s not just that; it’s a fear that I get sometimes when I’m dreaming and I just know that if I get too near that rim, then I’m going to be dragged over like some great mouth is ready to suck me in … does that sound stupid?”

“Sounds like a perfectly normal nightmare to me,” Adam smiled mirthlessly.

“I kept saying to myself – I’m not five years old anymore, I’m a man. I can climb those rocks. I can get to the top. Then when I tried I jest couldn’t. My legs went weak. I felt – I felt as though I were a kid, a scared kid.”

“Joe, can’t you remember what happened at Eagle’s Nest?”

Joe looked at his brother blankly. He tried to remember, but no memory came to the surface. He shook his head. “Eagle’s Nest? No. What happened?”

“You’ve never been there, have you?” Adam raised a dark eyebrow, and looked into the younger man’s troubled face. “You’ve never tried to climb it at any time?”

“No. We don’t often go that way, Adam, and when we do…”

Adam waited for some conclusion to the comment but nothing came. He turned away to survey the sky and the sun and judged from its position that it was now mid-day.

“When we do go pass Eagle’s Nest,” Joe continued suddenly, “I just get this kind of foreboding in my gut. I don’t like the place and Pa always goes quiet when we ride by, and looks kinda strained as though he doesn’t like it either.” He grew silent then, remembering how several times during this nightmare he had chided himself for acting like a five-year-old and had not Eagle’s Nest crept like some black cloud into his mind?

Adam turned slowly, and gave his brother a long appraising look as though suddenly something long overlooked became ultimately important. He lowered his head and took hold of Joe by the hand, a gesture that seemed so significant to the younger man that Joe actually shivered.

“You were four, getting on for five years old when it happened,” Adam said in his deep, clipped manner, and, as was usual with him, he did not waste time in building up to the story, but began straight away, at the very beginning.

*****

The year was 1846 and the day was hot.

The day had begun in much the usual manner. The boys gathered for breakfast at the table with Marie and Ben presiding and Hop Sing serving. Hoss ate his breakfast with his usual alacrity. Despite not having completed his homework for the day, he appeared blissfully unaware that anything was, or could be, wrong with that and beamed his bright morning smile to everyone gathered there.

“Well, young man, did you get your homework done?” Ben asked, raising his black brows and scowling at the child.

“No, couldn’t do it.” Hoss picked up his glass of milk and glanced over at Adam. “You said you’d do it for me.”

“I said I might, if I had time,” Adam replied slowly, and he sighed and glanced over at Marie who was twitching her little boy’s collar straight and thinking him the most beautiful child in the world.

“But you said you would,” Hoss protested, pouting a little with his milk moustache very white against the tan of his skin and the red of his cheeks.

“I’m sorry; I just didn’t have time, Hoss.”

“Aw, shucks, you promised.”

“I said, IF I had time,” Adam snapped. “You should be able to do your own homework anyway by now.”

“I was looking after my horse. He’s lame in one leg and you said…”

“That’s enough.” Ben’s deep voice cut across the dialogue and brought the matter to a close although Hoss darted an angry blue gaze over at his brother who appeared not to notice.

“What are you going to do today, Joe?” Marie asked her son, who had stayed unusually silent during the ongoing discussion.

“Going for a ride.” The child beamed a cherubic smile in his mother’s direction and the large eyes widened at the pleasure the ride had brought to his mind.

“Oh, whereabouts?” Hoss asked, surveying his little brother enviously, for he hated school and Joe still had not got to even one day of it as yet.

“Only to see Cal.”

“Cal?” Adam scoffed, tearing a chunk of bread in half and shaking his head at the same time, “That’s who you’re always talking about – Cal this and Cal that.”

“He’s my fwiend.”

“Some friend,” Adam snorted.

“Enough,” Ben growled.

He looked at his little son and frowned. Already Joe was showing signs of being a person not so easily dismissed. Small and slight in stature he may be but a more obstinate, stubborn little mule had never existed. Ben looked at Marie and shook his head slightly. He had no liking for Cal Armitage, but Joe had befriended him and his brother no matter what.

“Joe, can’t you think of doing something else today?” Marie suggested in her coaxing voice and smiled at her darling boy who scowled back in return and shook his head.

“No, Cal’s my fwiend and he and Jake and me’s gonna go for a ride.”

“Well, I’ve work to do. I’ll leave you to sort out this little matter,” Ben said quickly to his wife and pushed himself away from the table and stood up.

Tall and dark, with graying wings at his temples, Ben Cartwright was a handsome middle aged man and very much in love with his pretty blonde wife. He kissed her in the manner of a man who was reticent about leaving her and then made for the door, picking up his hat and gunbelt as he went.

Adam followed his father, first tweaking his little brother by the nose, then ruffling Hoss’ blond curls and then kissing Marie on the cheek. Tall and thin, all arms and legs, like a clumsy young colt was Adam Cartwright at this age and he was self conscious enough about his height to render him even clumsier, especially when confronted by anyone of the opposite sex.

“Joe, why not come with me into town. We could leave Hoss at school and then go and visit,” suggested Marie.

“No, don’t want to.” Joe scowled and his green hazel eyes widened in protest. Nothing could be so boring as going to town with his ma and listening to her and her friends for hours and hours. He looked at Hoss. “Do you have to go to school today, Hoss?”

“Yep.” Hoss sighed, and gulped down the last of his milk and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “I’ll be ready to go in a few minutes, Ma.”

Marie looked at her son and frowned. Joe was not yet five and was already showing signs of rebellion. A little boy of his age should be forced to sit on the wagon seat beside his Ma and brother and go into town with them, not tell them that he was going to go riding with friends. She brushed a curl from his brow and smiled at him. “I’d rather you came with me today, dear. You can go with Cal another day.”

“But, Mama, it’s hot and too far to go and it makes me itchy.” Joe frowned as he tried to conjure up more reasons, good solid valid reasons, for not having to go with his mother on that long boring ride into town.

“In that case,” Marie replied, looking thoughtfully at her darling boy whilst remembering only too well how horrible a hot and itchy child could be become, “I’d prefer you to stay home with Hop Sing while I’m out of the house. You’re only little and…” Marie paused as she recognized the mutinous line of the child’s mouth and the light of battle in his eyes. “Joseph, I want you to stay home with Hop Sing. Do you hear?”

“No. I pwomised to go with them today. We’re going to look for feathers and make injun head-dresses.”

She looked at his determined little face with its sprinkling of freckles scattered over his nose and cheeks like gold dust splattered upon a golden tanned canvas. “You’re a very naughty little boy,” she declared brusquely.

“Oh, but, Mama, you said you wanted me to be happy and I’m happy when I’m with Cal. We have lots of fun together.”

“Huh, more’n I have at school,” Hoss growled.

“But, darling, you’re still only a very little boy. I can’t go into town and leave you on your own.”

“I’m not on my own. Hop Sing’s here and then Cal will come with Jake and we’ll go riding. It’s not far, Mama.” Joe widened his eyes in appeal and pulled out his Ace card, “ ’Sides, Cal is a big boy; he’s ten and that means that 5 times 5 equals 10 so’s he’s two times bigger’n me.”

He looked up at her with beguiling big green eyes and smiled a sweet smile. Surely no one could deny the logic of his calculations. Cal was ten years old and quite able to look after a child not even half his age. He decided to push the argument just a little bit further to firmly establish his ground. “Cal’s Ma lets him look after Jake, and Jake is older’n me and so that means two boys lookin’ after me, doesn’t it?” He smiled at them, triumph already gleaming in his eyes.

What a baby he looked and she hugged him close and kissed him and scolded him with a laugh in her voice. “You are a rascal, darling, but I’ve told you, I don’t want you to leave the house. Cal and Jake can stay here and you can play in the yard if you so wish, but you are not to go riding with them. You are far too young to go riding with anyone other than Papa or your brothers. Hop Sing will be here to keep an eye on you.”

She dropped a kiss on the top of his unruly mop of curls and caressed his plump cheek. Joseph said nothing. His sweet lips were pursed into a tight button as his nimble nearly five year old brain set to work on a plan that would see him getting his own way – again.

Two hours later and Joe was riding on his fat little pony alongside Cal Armitage, aged 10 and his brother Jake, aged 7. Hop Sing was far behind, in the house and in ignorance of their going. The Armitage brothers’ parents were itinerant laborers, and neither child had ever seen the inside of a school. This was an ambition shared by Joe, who was determined to avoid the place at all costs.

It had been pure chance that had enabled him to slip from the house unnoticed by the normally careful Hop Sing. When Cal and Jake had arrived and shown their disapproval of staying within the confines of the house, Joe had sweet talked Hop Sing into making up a batch of sugar doughnuts for them, while he made schemes on how to run away.

With promises of good behavior being made by the little tyrant, Hop Sing had bustled into the kitchen. Joe had sat on his chair with a book in his lap which had snapped shut the instant that Hop Sing could be heard rattling pans and pots in the other room. In stealthy haste, the little boy hurried out of the house and across the yard to where Cal was saddling up the child’s fat little pony. Only when they were safely out of hearing did they let out a whoop of triumph and urge their ponies on at a faster pace.

They left the ponies at the foot of an escarpment known as Eagles Nest. It was not the most dangerous place to be, having a gentle slope with soft grasses and small stubby shrubs along the way. The boys ran some of the way up and clambered over rocks and boulders with an abandon that came from complete innocence and ignorance common to childhood. Along the way they gathered eagles’ feathers that the birds had dropped over the weeks. The foot of the escarpment was gently sloped and safe for them, only the towering rock above that cast down foreboding shadows reminded them of the dangers of proceeding beyond that point.

Joe was flushed with excitement. Once again he had got his own way and with an ease that led him to the false premise that life was one long enjoyable journey. He laughed and ran, giggled and played chase, picked up feathers and dropped them again. It was fun, fun, fun.

Cal and Jake did not mind tagging along with this little friend. Even today, after so cleverly duping Hop Sing, they were confident that upon their return they would be treated with sandwiches and cookies and doughnuts, washed down with raspberry cordial, sweet and cool and refreshing. Mr. and Mrs. Armitage did not mind their sons’ going off with Little Joe either. It left them free to work or lounge about their wagon without having to worry about them, knowing that they were quite safe and well cared for by Hop Sing and would not dare to be too reckless with someone as young as Joe in their company.

“You’ll never guess what I’ve just seen!” Cal exclaimed breathlessly as he dropped on the grass beside the two younger boys.

“What? What?” they demanded in unison.

“You’ll have to come with me and see for yourselves.”

They jumped immediately to their feet and once he had caught back his breath, he led them up the track to where the boulders and rocks were craggier than usual. Both Joe and Jake paused, their courage abandoning them as they realized they were going to go higher than they had ever dared to go before.

“Aw, come on,” Cal scolded.

“No, I’m going back,” Jake declared, half turning.

“Come on, Joe, you ain’t scared, are ya? Even if you are a baby – you want to see what I found, don’t’cha?”

Joe hesitated. He knew his father would not want him to go beyond this point; in fact, he had already gone beyond the point Ben would have wanted him to go. But Cal calling him a baby, well, that didn’t sound quite so good, and saying he was scared too….

“You’re scared, ain’t’cha? Shucks, I knew I shouldn’t have brought you along. You’re still in diapers, I bet.”

“I ain’t,” Joe retorted stoutly.

“Bet’cha are. Why don’t you go home to your Ma and suck eggs.”

“I don’t wanna,” Joe responded valiantly. Suck eggs? Who in their right minds would want to go home and suck eggs?

“Then come on then…”

Joe turned to look for Jake who was standing a little apart from them, but stoutly refusing to go any further. He turned back to where Cal was already disappearing amongst the rocks and hurried along to catch up with him.

Joe was small and slight for his age. He had been born ‘in a hurry’, several weeks too early and had never quite caught up size-wise. But as for courage and stubbornness he had both in abundance. He chased after Cal as fast as his little legs could carry him, threading his way in and out of boulders and up and over the rocks like a mountain goat.

The range of cliffs that formed The Eagle’s Nest had once been the site of the aeries of the most majestic of birds. The Pauite had worshipped there years, generations, before the white men had come. Now only the occasional eagle would make their nest there for the coming of the white man had brought them into greater danger than anything else they had encountered.

Neither Joe nor Cal realized as they threaded their way through the rocks that they were ascending a steep incline. Even when their feet slipped on loose shale it never occurred to them that there was any danger in where they were going. When Cal stopped and pointed, both boys were panting, and glad of the respite. Joe followed the direction of Cal’s finger and his eyes widened.

A nest and within it, four eggs.

“Aw shucks,” Joe exclaimed, putting as much enthusiasm into the words as he could for even though not quite five he was doubtful whether a scrappy old nest with eggs in it was really that wonderful a sight to get excited over.

“Eagle’s eggs. Look, over there.” Cal pointed to where several feathers were scattered close by.

That was more to Joe’s liking and he ran ahead recklessly to pick them up. High in the skies golden eyes detected movement near her nest and swooped. With a loud keening noise, the eagle bore down upon her prey, her pinions bared and ready to protect her young. The dark shadow swept over them and Cal, older and wiser, recognized the danger and screamed one very effective word in warning,

“Run!”

Both boys scattered. Joe was not even sure what he was running from; he was only aware of everything gone wrong in his world. Joy and pleasure and excitement had turned into fear, horror and panic-stricken running. A dark shadow swooped above and over him and sped on by. There was a shriek of terror but he was not sure whether it was from himself or not. He fell and tumbled over and over the rocks to end in a crumpled heap by the edge of the escarpment.

*****

A light flickered in the darkness and very slowly that light filled his vision and he opened his eyes and was aware of the stillness all around him. Grasses swayed and wild flowers danced but the stillness was something beyond that kind of movement. It was a stillness only danger and the awareness of danger could produce.

He raised his head and looked about him and when he reached out a hand it hovered in air and space. He looked down and realized his face was looking down upon emptiness. He tried to call out but no sound would come from his lips. He closed his eyes to blank out the sight and tears slipped down his cheeks falling unheeded into the vacuum below.

The sun beat down upon his body but he dared not move. To raise his head was such an effort of will that it left him sick and dizzy. He cried. He bawled. He was only five years old and he was alone and very, very scared and crying seemed a good way of exorcising the fear. Only it didn’t.

Shadows began to form and he knew that the day had moved on towards its close. He was aware of movement now. He could sense the thud of feet on the ground upon which he had frozen and not moved all day. When his father’s arms wrapped around him and picked him up and held him close, he was rigid with fear and then went limp.

Whispers all around him. Whispers close by – a curtain drifting across the floor in a breeze that whispered home to him. His mother’s dress as it swept over the floor towards his bed. The movement of blankets and covers and pillows. All whispers of sounds. He could hardly dare bring himself to move for fear.

“He’s a very sick little boy.”

“Joe, Joe, my boy, wake up.”

“Will he be well soon?”

“Sweetheart, it’s mommy.”

“Will he die?”

“Darling, don’t cry, don’t cry”

*****

“So, what happened to Cal Armitage?” Joe whispered as the narrative came to an end.

“He died. Perhaps the eagle had sent him over the escarpment or maybe he just lost his footing, but whatever had caused the fall, he could never have survived it. If it had not been for Jake, we would never have found you. Pa brought you home and I took Cal and Jake back to his parents.”

“What did they do?”

“They buried him and moved on. Never seen them since.”

Adam sighed and picked up a handful of grit and let it fall through his fingers. He grimaced, squinted at Joe and frowned. “Guess you were so ill that you jest clean forgot all about it.”

“No one mentioned it. I never heard anyone mention it,” Joe said quietly.

“No.”

Adam said nothing. He sighed again. He didn’t like to remind his brother that a lot had happened during that time period. Marie had died and everything had gone upside down in their world for some time to come after that, and the incident at Eagle’s Nest had receded into the past. He cupped his hands and rested his chin upon them and stared out into the vast beyond.

“I never thought of it, never remembered it,” Joe said quietly. “Perhaps my dreams were trying to remind me.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Adam said, still staring out ahead of him.

“HEY!”

Adam jumped and then looked guiltily at Joe, who smiled and shrugged.

“Hoss?” Joe said with a wink to Adam.

“What’re you two doin’ down thar? Havin’ a picnic or summat? I’m a hungry man up here, I’ll have you remember. Do you want me to come on down?”

“Oh sure, and just who’ll haul you back up again, you great lummox,” Adam yelled in reply.

“Wal, I don’t intend hangin’ around here forever. Chubb and I need our grub.”

Adam looked at his brother and extended a hand which Joe took, rather tentatively, in his own. Their fingers curled upon each others and they looked at one another and smiled.

“You’ll be alright, Joe. I’ll be right behind you. But, first of all, let’s make sure that going up won’t cause any more damage to those ribs. Take off your jacket.”

With Adam’s help, Joe slipped the green jacket off and carefully Adam rolled it in such a way as to act as an adequate padding for the delicate area around Joe’s ribcage. Then he tied the rope under Joe’s armpits and checked it thoroughly before giving Joe a nod and smile of satisfaction.

“What about you though?” Joe asked. “You’ve no rope.”

“Sure, but despite all the confidence in the world that I have in Hoss’ strength, I think he needs to be able to concentrate more on getting you up there safely than worrying about hauling on two ropes at the same time. Unless you’d prefer that I come up after you and leave you to try it on your own.”

Their eyes met and for a brief moment Joe’s sense of bravado shone through, making the hazel sparkle green. Then reality dripped over him and he bowed his head. “I don’t like the thought of you going up there without any rope, Adam; what if you fall?”

Adam pursed his lips and nodded, a slight frown furrowed his brow and he looked up to check once more the distance and kind of terrain he would have to climb. “Hoss?” he cupped his hands around his mouth and heard Hoss’ name bounce around the canyon.

“Yeah? You two finished conversationalizing yet?”

“Tie my rope to the pommel of my saddle and throw it down. If I need help…”

“I ain’t no circus act strong man, remember,” Hoss grumbled good-naturedly.

However, it was not long before the rope snaked down to land at Adam’s feet on the ledge. He smiled at Joe and raised his eyebrows, and tied it around his waist.

“Ready when you are, Joe. And don’t forget, I’m right behind you.”

Joe nodded, and attempted to smile. He bit his lip rather hard when his ribs pained him, but taking a firm grip on the rope with both hands, now bandaged with strips from Adams bandana, he gave it a firm tug. “I’m ready, Hoss.”

“Yeah, and about time,” Hoss hollered down at them, although there was relief in his voice and the two brothers on the ledge looked at one another and shared another smile.

“Thanks, Adam.” Joe took hold of his brother’s hand and gripped it tightly. “Thanks for telling me about Eagle’s Nest and what happened there.”

“Just hurry and get up to the top, otherwise Hoss will lose his patience and we’ll be stranded here for days,” Adam replied, grateful for the warmth of Joe’s hand in his own.

“Just one thing – they didn’t blame me, did they?”

“Why should they have blamed you, Joe? You were just a small kid.”

“I just wondered, that’s all.”

“They didn’t.” Adam looked at his brother sternly, and then nodded. “You’d best get going.”

Joe looked upwards, tested the tension of the rope with his hands once again. He gasped rather as he took the first tentative steps up the rock-face, inching his way up painfully.

As he had promised, Adam came behind him, so that whenever Joe found it necessary to pause and catch his breath, Adam would be by his side to talk him through it. There were times when Joe’s fingers would fumble on a rock, or some slight fingerhold, but Adam would guide his hand to some place that was more secure and then wait to make sure that his brother had succeeded in getting a good footing before he himself moved onwards.

“Don’t look down, Joe,” Adam would say when Joe paused for breath and inadvertently allowed his head to droop forwards.

With Hoss taking his weight on the rope, and Adam inching up by his side Joe gradually made his way to the surface. When Hoss’ hands gripped hold of him and helped haul him over the edge, Joe was near to collapse with exhaustion and pain.

“Here, little buddy, take a drink of this,” Hoss said with a softness in his voice usually only reserved for injured horses and animals. He held the canteen of water to his brother’s lips and watched as Joe gulped down the cool liquid. “Are you hurt much?”

“My ribs. Think I cracked some when I fell.”

“It’s a wonder you survived the fall at all, Joe. That’s a pretty sheer drop.”

Joe said nothing to that but closed his eyes and leaned back in his brother’s arms. How comforting it was to lean his head against his brother’s warm flesh and feel the beat of that steady brave heart. He felt that exhaustion that comes from utter relief and without another sound, drifted into unconsciousness.

“Let’s get him home, Hoss. He’s done well, but he needs some care and attention now,” Adam said quietly, his hand resting gently on Hoss’ shoulder as he peered down at the pale faced youth.

“Did he say how long he’d been down there?” Hoss asked as he stooped to pick his brother up in his arms and carry him over to Adam, who had now mounted Sport and was ready to take the limp body in front of him.

“Since yesterday afternoon.”

“Dadgumit, you mean he was there on that ledge all during the storm?”

“Mmm,” Adam nodded assent, and carefully maneuvered Joe into a comfortable position before taking the reins and putting his heels to Sport’s side, urged him on towards home.

*****

Reclining back against the pillows, Joseph Cartwright watched his father reading the papers that had been in his saddlebags. The pillows were soft and the bed more than welcoming to his aching body. Paul Martin had been and checked him over and declared him unfit for work for several days.

“Pa?”

“Mmm?” Ben frowned slightly and forced his eyes from the papers to look at his son. He smiled then, a natural involuntary smile of genuine pleasure at seeing his son there.

No father could have felt more pride in a son than Ben did at that moment for Joseph. He put out a hand and gently brushed aside the dark curls from Joe’s brow. “What’s the matter? Something bothering you?” he asked gently, in the way that he could speak to Joe but not to Adam, and not that often to Hoss, who was the gentlest man alive.

“Adam told me about what happened at Eagles’ Nest.”

“Oh, he did?”

“Yes, he told me that Cal and his brother took me there to look for eagle’s feathers and that Cal and I got attacked by an eagle that sent Cal over the edge. That’s why I get scared sometimes.”

“Scared?” Ben frowned.

“Paul said it’s called vertigo, a fear of heights. I don’t worry about going up ladders and such, but – but I always had this fear of being in the mountains, on rock ledges. It was as though something was there, waiting to pull me down. Sometimes I dreamt of things like that happening to me and then, when I found myself on that ledge yesterday, it was as though my worse nightmare had come true.” Joe turned anxious eyes to his father who was looking down at him with a look of tender affection on his face. “Pa, I just froze. I couldn’t move I was just so scared.”

“It happens, Joe. Everyone has a weakness, a fear of something. You beat your fear though, despite your cracked ribs.” He smiled down at the youth, and took hold of his hand. “I’m very proud of you, son.”

“It’s an odd thing. I can’t remember anything about the Armitages at all. Were they a nice family, Pa?”

“Yes, nice enough,” Ben replied quietly.

“They never blamed me for what happened?”

“No, son, they never blamed you for a thing.”

Joe smiled slowly, and settled further into the plump comfort of his pillow. Soon he was asleep, breathing soundly and evenly and for some seconds Ben watched him with the look of love only a father’s face could show. Vulnerable, humble, gentle. Dear God, keep him safe, the father prayed.

“How is he, Pa?” Adam asked as he walked into the room. His face showed his anxiety for his brother while beside him Hoss’ blue eyes seemed to have lost some of their color.

“He’s well; he’s going to be fine. Just very tired.”

Ben walked over to the Tantalus and poured himself some whiskey and then turned to look at his sons. Adam and Hoss looked at one another, and then at their father.

“What’s wrong?” Adam asked, one eyebrow slightly arched in question.

“Nothing’s wrong, son. Just that memory and time can be cruel servitors. You know, I had forgotten all about the Armitages. It had never occurred to me to tell Joe anything about that incident with Caleb and Jake Armitage and as a result he had never remembered except as some kind of vague nightmare at the back of his mind over all these years.”

“Well, he knows now,” Hoss said quietly, pursing his lips in thought, for he also had forgotten the little family from so long ago.

“That we could forget that a child had died here, a family had grieved their loss and Joe had nearly been killed…” Ben shook his head and raised the glass to his lips. “He could have died last night as well.”

“But, he didn’t, Pa.” Adam sat down on the arm of the old leather chair and watched his father thoughtfully.

He could still remember quite vividly that day when Ben had brought Joe home from the Eagle’s Nest. Adam could remember how Ben had carried the terrified little boy in his arms and offered him up to his mother in silence. The child had turned, closed his arms upon his mother’s neck and began to weep and the weeping had turned to sobs, deep heart churning sobs that brought tears to Ben’s eyes and Marie’s.

“Momma, I runned away. I runned away and got lost,” Joe had sobbed before fainting away in his terrified mother’s arms.

Adam could remember how another mother had accepted her child into her arms. The child that he, Adam, had had to take home to be buried. He remembered the silence and the misery of that family turning in together upon themselves. Even when he had walked back to the door after Jake had explained all that had happened, there had been that terrible silence. It had been as he was about to mount his horse that the woman’s scream had reverberated through the air in the most terrifying ululation of misery he had ever experienced.

It had brought back too many memories and he had hurried home in time to see his father bring back the living child to a frightened and worried mother.

And then, not so long after that, their own house had been plunged into the utmost misery and other people, other losses, had suddenly become quite meaningless. So easy to forget the misery of others when in the throes of one’s own despair.

The three men sat together in the big room. The old clock ticked the seconds of their lives away and the fading sunlight sent motes of rose tinted light to touch the crystals of the lamp and the glass that Ben held in his hand. There was nothing to say. Their silence was one of companionship and shared pleasure of being together. They needed no words. He who had been lost was now found and safe. They were, once again, complete.

***The End***

Return to Krystyna’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.