Word Count: 1860
The whine of a bullet ricocheting from a boulder sent Hoss Cartwright ducking down to avoid the chips of stone striking into his face. He waited a second or two before daring to raise his head and attempt to locate his assailant among the rocks. He had narrowly avoided being shot from his horse minutes earlier and that only because he had leaned down to check his stirrup. As a result, a bullet had winged over his head, taking his hat along with it.
Now as he waited behind the boulder for the gunman to reveal himself again, Hoss wondered just how many men there could be out there among the rocks. His heart was doing a little jig beneath his ribs and the tension within himself was mounting. He had fired off several bullets and now checked his gun, made sure it was fully loaded, and waited. Waiting was always the hardest thing to do in situations like this one, and waiting with the sun beating down on one’s unprotected head made things even more prickly and difficult.
Another shot and this time he was able to see the direction from where the bullet had been fired. He lowered his head and waited a little more. Two more bullets shot in rapid succession. He glanced up and frowned — all from the same location, and no supporting fire from anywhere else. That meant there was only one gunman hiding up there in among the rocks and boulders.
Very slowly, Hoss inched his way along the dry boulder-strewn ground to where he could get a better bead on the gunman. Two more shots were fired down upon his previous location. He didn’t wait for the last echo to whine out of earshot but fired back instantly.
Very faintly he heard the startled cry of a man in pain, that involuntary gasp and cry as a bullet finds its mark. He craned his head forward to hear any other sounds, like the clatter of the gun falling upon rocks or more groans to indicate the level of injury sustained. There was only silence.
Stepping out of the protective shelter of the rocks, Hoss began to inch his way towards his combatant’s position. Holding the gun at the ready, he kept his ears open for the least sound of danger in order to leap for cover.
The gunman was leaning back against the rocks when Hoss came across him. Blood was spreading from the wound in his chest, staining the white linen shirt a bright crimson; it looked repugnantly out of place and pitifully foreboding. Hoss’ nose wrinkled in distaste at the sight of it even as he stepped closer to his ambusher. The wounded man was stubbornly struggling to reload bullets into the empty chamber of his revolver even as Hoss leaned forward and gently, but firmly, took it from him.
The other man turned pitifully towards him, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. He may have wanted to speak, but no words came forth from his lips; he groaned and slumped forwards upon his face.
Hoss shook his head and stepped closer to the other man, slowly and carefully turned him onto his back. The labored breathing, the blood stained froth upon the man’s mouth, the glazing eyes were all indicative of the closeness of death and Hoss sat by the man’s side, his arm cushioning the man’s head against the harsh brutality of the rocks
But he was not a man. Not a full grown man who had toughed life out, who bore the scars of a harsh life upon his face. This was a youth, barely as old as Joe, barely any sign of stubble upon his jaw, his skin smooth and tanned. Someone that one would look upon and remark on his being a fine looking boy.
It was hard to take a life. For Hoss Cartwright, it made his heart literally ache in guilt and remorse, for life was something to treasure and to value. He wondered why a complete stranger, a youth, would want to hide away in the rocks and shoot at him with the intention of killing him. As he looked at the young face, he could recall seeing it, but it had just been fleeting glimpses here and there. Nothing substantial, nothing that would give a clue to him as to why this could have happened.
Now the last breath was drawn. The slight resistance to death and then nothing. Gently, Hoss hauled the man over his shoulder and began the laborious descent down to where Chubb was waiting.
“You’re late.” Ben said quietly as Hoss closed the door behind him, “What’s the problem?”
Hoss frowned as he took off his hat and tossed it up onto the peg. He looked around the room as though seeing it through fresh eyes. He looked at it like a man would who could very well have lost everything he loved just a few hours earlier. He appreciated anew the solidity and the reality of the home he loved. Then he saw his father’s gentle eyes, anxious now for the stain upon his son’s clothing told a story of its own.
“It’s alright, Pa. I’m jest fine. I jest run into a bit of trouble earlier.”
“What kind of trouble?” Joe demanded immediately, his eyes wide and gleaming with curiosity.
“Someone taking pot shots at me.” Hoss replied.
“Seems you dealt with it. Did you kill him?” Joe put down the checker on the board and looked more attentively at his brother,
“Yeah, I killed him.” Hoss’ brow furrowed and he bowed his head, “I killed him.”
Adam raised his eyebrows at Joe, who bit his lip and chose to remain silent. They both watched as their brother walked into the kitchen. They could hear the sound of the pump working, water trickling into a glass.
The light tapping on the door was persistent. Hoss was sitting on the edge of his bed knowing that it was either his father or his brother, Adam. Joe wouldn’t waste time knocking; he would have just bounded into the room. Hoss cleared his throat and was about to tell whoever it was to go away when the handle rattled and the door opened.
“Mind if I come in?” Adam asked and stepped into the room before Hoss could say no. He closed the door gently behind him, and observed his brother thoughtfully, “Did you know who it was?”
“No, I mean, I didn’t know him personally.”
“But you found out later?”
“Yeah. I found out later.” Hoss sighed, a heavy sigh, that of a man whose heart was troubled.
Adam raised a hand to his brow and down across his face. He pulled out a chair and sat down, opposite his brother. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked in his deep voice while his brown eyes looked anxiously at Hoss.
“No, not really.”
“Don’t you think you should?”
“I said…” Hoss raised his voice, then glanced up at his brother and shook his head, “Sorry, Adam. I didn’t mean to shout. Jest that it got to me is all.”
“It’s hard to take a life, Hoss.”
“He obviously had no qualms about taking yours.”
“I know that…”
“Doesn’t make it easier, huh?”
“Nope. It don’t.” Hoss tightened his mouth and the blue eyes widened; he shook his head again, “Adam…it weren’t no man I shot; it was a boy. A young’un not much older than Joe.” He looked and sounded confused, puzzled. “He wanted to kill me and I didn’t even know him. I fired two, maybe three, shots at him and it was just a chance shot that got him. I swear, I wouldn’t have killed him else.”
“I know it,” Adam replied, nodded, passed a hand over his jaw and sighed.
“I took his body into town and Roy came to see what it was all about. He knew the kid, said his name was Grant Jefferson. He’d moved in to town with his folks only six months ago.”
“I know Luke Jefferson. Met him once or twice at the school board meetings.”
“Yeah, guess so.”
“Did Roy tell you anything else?”
“Didn’t have anything else to say but one of the kids he hangs about with came to the office while I was there. He looked all kinda scared and flustered like.” Hoss frowned, scowled; just for a moment, there was a fleeting glimpse of anger on his face and he looked at Adam with some belligerence on his countenance rather out of place with his previous misery, “He told us that the kid – Grant Jefferson – was a loudmouth, always boasting about what he could do, what he wanted to do. Claimed that one day he’d make a big name for himself.” His brow puckered up again and he shook his head. “One day he got to boasting how his folk would one day own as much land as the Cartwrights. Folk in town, he said, were scared of the Cartwrights, too scared. He was going to show them all that there was nothing to be scared of; no Cartwright would tell him what to do.”
“And so he decided to get rid of one of them?” Adam gently prodded.
“They taunted him a bit, said he was just a loud mouth, that he was just blowing hot air. Then yesterday they dared him to do something about it and he said he would, he’d show them alright. He’d make a name for himself and take out a Cartwright. They laughed at him, said he was all talk.”
Adam nodded. There were always men like that who had to prove themselves to be big men. Odd how children wanted to run as soon as they learned to walk, youths wanted to be considered men as soon as they left school. Give them a gun and they had to prove themselves as someone bigger than anyone else. Cast a bigger shadow… He leaned forward and placed a gentle hand upon his brother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I’m sorry it had to be you.”
“Who he shot at?” Hoss asked, looking at his brother with a slightly puzzled look on his face.
“No, I’m sorry it had to be you who shot him.”
Hoss watched his brother as Adam left the room and quietly closed the door behind him. He stared down at the rug on the floor, and then covered his face with his hands. He wondered if he would ever forget the sight of the Grant’s face, or forget his name. It was a horrible terrible thing to take a life, but for such a sad, empty reason. Just because the youngster wanted to make a name for himself? Now the only time anyone would remember his name was when they saw it carved on the gravestone.