Summary: Little Joe’s in a precarious position, and he can only pray that rescue will come before it’s too late.
Word Count: 2300
An involuntary shiver skittered down Joe Cartwright’s spine. Stop it, he chided himself. Ain’t that cold—not yet. Gonna get that way soon, though. Stop it! Don’t think about darkness coming. Don’t think about cold. Don’t think about . . . that . . . no, don’t think about that, whatever else your mind drifts to. Ain’t cold. It’s just a nice spring day, with a little breeze rustling through the trees up on the ridge. Wouldn’t bother me a bit . . . if only I were up on that ridge.
Another shiver coursed through his taut body, and Joe again willed himself to complete stillness. He couldn’t afford to move, could scarcely afford to breathe. Even the shallow rise and fall of his chest, as he inhaled and exhaled, made his body sway slightly. And his arms! How could he possibly keep still when his aching arms screamed for a change of position?
Joe almost laughed at his ludicrous longing for the impossible, except laughing would have set his body bobbing like a cork at the end of a fishing line. He winced at the all-too-apt image. Change of position . . . change of location . . . change of almost any kind would look mighty good about now, but wishing for it was just plain laughable . . . if it weren’t so doggone serious. You think Pa or Hoss or Adam will be laughing when they find . . . stop it! Change of scenery. Yeah, he could go for that about now, too. How long had he been staring at this rough rock wall inches from his face? Felt like hours, but couldn’t be, not yet. Well, maybe one . . . or two . . . not the dozen or so it felt like, anyway. The sun was still warm on his back. If that pesky breeze would just quit tickling his bare feet, quit making him shiver top to toe!
Joe bit his lips to stop their quivering and risked a glance to the side. As he’d suspected, the sun was starting to slip downward. Not too close to the horizon yet. Still an hour or so of daylight left for someone to find him. After that, forget it. Darkness would claim him . . . and not just the darkness of night, unless you meant that long eternal night poets and preachers talked about. He closed his eyes, as if shutting out the scene could shut out the dark prospect.
Slowly, he turned his gaze again to the wall in front of him. Not much of a view, but it was better than the one above, and it was sure better than the one through his toes, pretty as it was. Green pastures, narrow stream meandering through a flower-speckled meadow, perfect spot for a picnic. Give anything to be down there right now.
As if in answer to his unspoken wish, Joe felt himself drop. Not far, no more than an inch or so, but he cried out at the sudden jolt and gasped for air as his heart seemed to leap into his eyeballs. Fighting frantically against the terror tensing his stomach muscles, he tried to relax, to hang motionless again, the only thing he could do to stop the sawing motion of the sharp ridge on the braided tether holding him aloft. I didn’t mean it. Don’t want to be down there . . . not . . . right . . . this instant.
His body started to shake, and there was no blaming it on the cold this time, though his feet felt like blocks of ice. It was happening, what he’d known would happen from the first moment those rustlers dropped him over the edge of the cliff. The rock up there wasn’t razor sharp, but it was only a matter of time ‘til the friction of fiber against granite sawed the rope asunder, strand by strand. Now it had started and before long he’d be splattered all over that scenic landscape below, spread out like a picnic for the vultures.
Stop it. Stop it! So you’re gonna die soon . . . you gonna spend these last few precious minutes thinking trash like that? Think about Pa . . . Adam . . . Hoss . . . home. He felt tears forming in his eyes, and if he’d dared, he would have tossed his head to dash them away. He had no choice but to let a few dribble out, but he couldn’t give in to the flood of emotions, had to concentrate, instead, on just hanging loose, dangling motionless. Not that it would do any good. Eventually, that rope was going to break, and he’d go plummeting down. Nothing to break his fall, no hope of surviving. Why put off the inevitable? Why not bounce up and down, force the rope to break and end this death-by-inches? Because I can’t. Because I’m plumb full of Cartwright stubbornness, my brothers would probably say, but, really, because I just can’t. It would be like letting them all down, to just give up. None of them would. Not Pa, not Adam, not Hoss. They’d all hold tight to hope ‘til all hope was gone, so I got to, too.
‘Course, none of them would get hisself in a fix like this. Hoss has too much common sense, Adam never rushes in without thinkin’ first, and if Pa was ever dumb as me, he learned better a long time ago. Joe scowled in self-disgust. Why had he thought he could handle those rustlers alone? Well, there’d only been two of them . . . or so he’d thought when he’d snuck into their camp. He’d taken those two by surprise, had them under his gun, but then he’d felt the muzzle of a revolver boring into his spine and realized that his impulsiveness had once again made him overlook hidden danger.
Another slight lurch made Joe look up, his eyes following the rope past his tightly bound hands, all the way up to the ridge. Another strand had frayed through, obviously, but it was stupid to think he could see how many were left from this far down. Did he really want to know how little time he had left, anyway? Probably not a good idea. Just make the waiting that much harder. He brought his eyes down and stared again at the wall before him.
Not knowing didn’t make the waiting easier, though. Maybe he’d have been better off if those rustlers had just killed him straight off. They hadn’t wanted to draw attention to their location by shooting him, though, and one of them had been a bit squeamish about taking a man’s life, had argued for just tying him up and leaving him so they had time to make their getaway. Joe’d been relieved when they’d bound his wrists, thinking the young rustler had swayed his elders, but then the head man had mounted up and wrapped the other end of the long rope around his saddle horn. “We leave him tied up,” he agreed, “but not here. Too easy to find him down here in the low country.”
Thinking the man intended to drag him behind the horse, Joe had swallowed hard and braced himself for the pain to come. But there’d been no pain, no urging him to go faster than a man could go to keep up. No, they’d simply made him walk at a steady, breath-squandering pace as they rode up the steep path from the valley below to the ridge above, joshing around that they should have taken his boots and made him trot in his bare feet. That idea had struck them all funny, even the one who’d argued against killing him.
Joe had dropped from exhaustion when they finally reached the top of the ridge, and he’d barely paid attention when the man in charge tied the other end of the rope to a tall pine near the rim. So they were going to leave him tethered up here, but all things considered, he was getting off light. It would take him awhile to work free, probably give them a chance to get away scot-free with the cattle, but he’d get loose eventually and then just walk home. He’d endure endless teasing from his brothers, of course, and a stern lecture from Pa, but since his stupidity had earned him that much, endure it he would. After all, he’d be alive, when he didn’t much deserve to be, and for that, a man could endure a lot.
Then the boss had grabbed his shirt front and hauled him to his feet. “Okay, sonny,” he’d said with a taunting leer. “You’re going over the side.” He jutted his chin toward the edge of the ridge, and Joe realized, with mounting horror, that getting home had just gone from a little tough to next-to-impossible. “Now, we can either toss you over fast or let you down easy,” the man announced with a mocking grin, “but easy will cost you.” When Joe looked puzzled, the grin widened. “Them fancy boots is the price. You want it easy, peel ‘em off.” He turned loose of Joe and stood facing him with folded arms and derisive sneer.
Joe had stared at him for a long moment and then slowly sat down and, awkwardly because of his bound hands, began to pull off his boots as the three rustlers roared with laughter. Even the young one seemed to have lost his inclination toward humanity in the high-spirited camaraderie of demeaning him. Let them laugh, he’d thought. I’ve already used up my quota of stupid for the day. Maybe they’ll honor what they promise, maybe they won’t, but I won’t buck ‘em over a pair of boots, not if it gives me a chance to live.
They’d kept their word. Once they had his boots, taking his socks for good measure, they’d held the rope tight while he stepped of the cliff—hardest step he’d ever taken—and they’d eased him down ‘til the rope was stretched full length with him dangling at the end. “Sorry to leave you all by your lonesome, sonny,” the leader had jeered down at him, “but we got some cattle to move; ain’t got all day to hang around here, like some folks.” Raucous laughter had echoed down at him, but Joe had ignored the anger surging up his craw and set his mind to keeping as still as possible, hoping against slim hope that his family would somehow find him before the rope gave way.
It did once more as another strand of rope shredded, and Joe groaned when he slipped a little further downward. It wouldn’t be much longer. Though he didn’t dare look, he was probably hanging by a thread now. Soon it would break and he’d go hurtling through the amber light of the setting sun . . . where? To heaven? To his mother? He’d dreamed of seeing her again someday, but hadn’t planned on it being quite this soon. Pa . . . it was Pa he wanted to see, but that hope was gone. Guess it’s you, then, Mama. You waiting for me? Will you catch me when I fall?
His body lurched again. This is it, he thought as the rock face swam dizzily before him. He closed his eyes to shut out the swirling image, expecting any moment to feel the rush of air against his face as his body plunged earthward. Then his fear-numbed brain registered something odd. He was moving, yes . . . not down, but up! He opened his eyes, and his gaze slowly traveled the rope ‘til he saw . . . hands! Big hands, strong hands, hands he’d recognize anywhere. Hand over hand hauled the rope ‘til he reached the rim. Then those big, loving hands that had supported him all his life reached down, grabbed him under the armpits and pulled him to safety.
Joe collapsed against his brawny brother’s solid chest and felt those strong arms close comfortingly around him. The tension of holding still all those hours drained out, like a flash flood coursing down a dry rivulet, and his strained muscles began to tremble uncontrollably.
Hoss held him tighter, his iron embrace all that kept Joe upright. “It’s all right, Joe,” he soothed softly. “You’re all right now, little brother.” He gave Joe a chance to catch his breath while he unfastened the rope from his chafed wrists and then held him at arms’ length. His face was hard as he demanded, “Who did this to you, boy—and why?”
“Rustlers,” Joe croaked and after a few more deep breaths, he told his story from foolish first decision to final, near-fatal dilemma. Typically, he was eager to go after the outlaws by the time he finished
Hoss shook his head, blue eyes twinkling with tender compassion and a hint of amusement. “I don’t think so, little brother. I think we need to get you home, get you some food and rest . . . and some boots . . . before you do any trailing.” He chuckled as Joe took a sheepish glance at his bare feet, but remembering that his young brother had been through a lot worse than just losing his boots, Hoss’s countenance hardened once more. “We’ll get ‘em, little brother; I promise you that. We’ll start after ‘em at first light and we’ll get ‘em.” Seeing Joe’s chin bob with satisfaction, the wide smile returned, and the blue eyes twinkled again, with pure mischief this time. “Now, where was it you said you left Cochise tied up when you went after the bad guys all by your puny little self?”
Moaning, Joe shook his head. It had started already, the inevitable teasing. As Hoss helped him into Chubby’s broad saddle, he reminded himself that he deserved it and had earlier counted himself lucky to pay so small a price for his foolishness. Hoss settled in behind him, and Joe leaned back into his big brother’s protective power, still grateful. He was going home, and that was worth any price.