The Long Ride to Home (by Susan)

Synopsis:  A simple hunting excursion turns deadly.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  T
Word Count:  10,000


Author’s note: This story was published in the 2002 Bonanza Convention Anthology. This story features Jamie in a prominent role; Mitch Vogel was one of the honored guests at the Convention and the story was written with that in mind.

 

“Pa, I’m going to take a few days off to go hunting,” Joe Cartwright said as he filled his dinner plate.

At the end of the table, Ben Cartwright was startled by his son’s words. It wasn’t that Joe was going hunting that surprised him. It was that Joe announced his intentions, rather than asking permission.

Looking at his son, Ben suddenly realized that it had been a long time since Joe had asked for permission to go anywhere. His youngest son was a man almost thirty – a mature, responsible and reliable adult. Ben turned his gaze to the other side of the table where Hoss sat, enjoying his dinner as always. Hoss already was in his thirties, and a grown man in every sense of the word. Ben sighed a bit, wondering when his boys had turned into men.

“Pa? Anything wrong?” asked Joe with a bit of frown as he heard his father’s sigh.

“What? Oh, no,” replied Ben quickly. “I was just thinking of something else. How long do you think you’ll be gone?”

“Just a couple of days,” Joe told his father. “This will probably be my last chance to get a deer before we get busy moving the herd to the winter pasture and the cold weather starts settling in.”

“Where do you figure to go, little brother?” asked Hoss, as he swallowed the bit of bread in his mouth.

The phrase ‘little brother’ brought a smile to Ben’s face. No matter how old Joe was, Hoss always would call his younger sibling by that name. Ben briefly pictured Joe as a gray-haired grandfather and still being called ‘little brother’ by Hoss.

“Charlie Mains said he saw a herd of deer up on Waycross Mountain a week or so ago,” answered Joe. “I thought I’d go up there and see if I can thin the herd a bit.”

“Waycross Mountain, eh,” Hoss remarked. He gave Joe a wry smile as he shook his head a bit. “I remember the first time I took you hunting up there. You weren’t much older than Jamie here.”

At the sound of his name, the boy sitting at the far end of the table looked up. Jamie Hunter was a new addition to the Cartwright family, an orphan taken in by Ben only a few months ago. The red-haired boy was still struggling to find his place in the close-knit Cartwright family, and his contributions to the dinner conversation were usually minimal.

“How old was Joe when you took him hunting?” asked Jamie curiously.

“On Waycross Mountain? I guess about 13 or 14,” Hoss answered. Then he grinned. “I think Joe used up a whole box of ammunition on that trip and never hit a thing.”

“Oh yeah,” retorted Joe. “The way I remember it, I got the deer and you were the one shooting at air.”

“Your memory is as bad as your aim,” advised Hoss, still grinning. Then he sighed. “I wish I could go with you, Joe. I’d much rather be hunting than delivering them cows to Fort Churchill.”

“Well, somebody has to deliver them,” Ben declared firmly. “Joe did it last time, so it’s your turn.”

“I know, Pa,” agreed Hoss with resignation. “I was just saying that I’d rather be hunting.”

With a speculative look on his face, Joe turned to Jamie. “Hey, Jamie, how’d you like to go with me?”

“Me?” said Jamie, his eyes widening in surprise.

“Sure, why not?” replied Joe with a smile. “School doesn’t start for another week yet. You did a good job helping with the branding. I figure you’re due a little vacation.” Joe quickly turned to his father. “If that’s all right with you, Pa,” he added.

The smile on Ben’s face widened; he was pleased that his grown son still recognized his authority over at least some things in the Cartwright family. He also was pleased that Joe wanted to spend time with Jamie. While Joe had a lot of affection for the boy, he still was trying to figure out how to be a big brother. It was an awkward transition for Joe to go from being the youngest in the family to now having to watch out for and guide someone else.

“It’s all right with me,” agreed Ben with a nod. “That is, if Jamie wants to go.”

“That would be great!” exclaimed Jamie in a voice filled with enthusiasm. “I’d love to go hunting with you, Joe. I’m sure I can get a deer.”

Laughing a bit a Jamie’s eagerness, Joe told the boy, “Just be sure I get a crack at one or two of those deer. You’d better hit the hay early because I want to leave at sunup. It’s a long way to Waycross Mountain.” Suddenly, a grin spread across Joe’s face. “Oh, yeah, and you’re doing the cooking.”

“So that’s why Joe wanted you along, Jamie,” observed Hoss. “He don’t want to eat any of his own bad cooking. If I were you, I’d make sure Joe stays as far away as possible from anything that even resembles making a meal. You don’t want to end up being poisoned.”

“Aw shut up,” said Joe in disgust as the others around the table laughed.

*****

The two riders made their way up the mountain in the bright afternoon sun. Joe led the way, his pinto slightly ahead of Jamie’s brown horse. As the pair reached the edge of a small meadow, Joe pulled his horse to a halt.

“There’s a clearing at the top of that ridge,” Joe advised, pointing ahead and up a bit. “We can make camp there tonight, and start looking for deer tracks in the morning.”

“All right,” Jamie agreed.

Suddenly, Joe grinned. “You know, I almost burned down these woods once,” he observed.

“You did?” Jamie said in astonishment.

“Yeah, don’t tell Pa, but once when I was up here hunting with Hoss, I saw a bear,” explained Joe. “I ran to get my rifle and tripped over the fire we had made. It knocked the embers everywhere. I was too worried about that bear to think much about it. By the time I had run off that bear with a couple of shots, the embers had set the grass on fire. I turned around and saw the flames and smoke, then started yelling for Hoss.”

“You must have gotten it out,” commented Jamie, looking around. “The woods are still here.”

“Yeah, we did,” Joe replied. “Hoss and I started beating the flames with our blankets. It must have taken us two hours to put that fire out. We never said anything to Pa, but I think he still wonders why we came home with no deer and covered with soot.”

“I bet Mr. Cartwright figured it out. He’s pretty smart,” Jamie said as he laughed.

“You’re probably right,” Joe conceded with an answering smile.

As the two riders started across the meadow, Joe began to spin more tales about his misadventures on hunting trips. Jamie listened with rapt attention, enjoying the stories in which Joe made himself out to be either a bumbling or great hunter, depending on the story. The boy didn’t pay much attention to the landscape around him. In his mind, woods were woods, and he had seen trees before.

The sun was disappearing by the time Jamie and Joe reached the clearing. In the dim light of evening, the two quickly made camp. Joe built a fire, then, as promised, turned the chore of heating up beans and brewing coffee over to Jamie. He spread out their bedrolls under two large trees, then leaned back and watched in comfort as Jamie cooked.

By the time the dark of night engulfed the woods, Joe and Jamie had finished dinner and were relaxing by the fire. The solitude of the woods as well the warmth of the fire had filled both of them with a feeling of companionship.

“Hop Sing’s cold chicken, your hot beans, and a good cup of coffee,” Joe remarked with a sigh of satisfaction. “This is the best meal I’ve ever had on the trail.”

“I told you I was a good cook,” declared Jamie. “When my father got sick, I did all the cooking.”

“Well, it’s hard to mess up bean,” noted Joe wryly.

“According to Hoss, you’ve done it a couple of times,” countered Jamie, giving Joe a sly look. He laughed at the frown that crossed Joe’s face.

Taking a sip of coffee, Joe looked at Jamie. “Do you like being at the Ponderosa?”

Startled by Joe’s question, Jamie didn’t answer at once. He poked at the fire with the stick he was holding, nervously pushing the embers. “Yeah, I do,” he said slowly after a minute. “Why do you ask?”

Seeing surprise and a touch of fear on Jamie’s face, Joe quickly re-assured the boy. “We like having you with us, Jamie. Hoss, and Pa and me, we couldn’t imagine not having you around. But I was just wondering about you. I know how Pa can be sometimes when he gets an idea in his head. He rolls along, pushing every obstacle out of his way and not asking how people feel about it. I just wondered if maybe you just got swept along without getting a chance to tell him how you felt.”

“Well, I did kind of get swept up in things,” admitted Jamie. “After Dusty and I finally made it rain, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Dusty didn’t want to do the rainmaking any more and those men had burned my Pa’s book. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Next thing I knew, Mr. Cartwright was inviting me to live at the Ponderosa.” Jamie took a deep breath. “I’m sure glad he did.”

“Do you miss traveling around?” asked Joe curiously. “Seeing all those different places, meeting all those people? From what I understand, your Pa was a traveling man all his life.”

“Yeah, he was,” agreed Jamie. “He did a medicine show for a while, then switched to rainmaking. I can’t remember being any place for very long. Seems we were always moving to the next town. When my Pa died, I was lucky Dusty came along and was willing to try the rainmaking with me.”

“Do you miss it?” Joe asked again.

“No,” said Jamie, shaking his head. “I hardly ever knew where we were. Pa always kept his wagon outside of town and I never got to see much. I didn’t meet many people either. A lot of times, people got mad because Pa didn’t make it rain quick enough and we had to leave in a hurry.”

Sipping his coffee, Joe stayed silent. His personal opinion was that Jamie’s father was more of a con man than a rainmaker, but he knew enough to keep that opinion to himself. Jamie flew into a rage at the slightest criticism of his father, defending the man with an intense loyalty.

“How about your mother?” Joe asked. “You remember her?”

Looking down, Jamie answered softly. “No. She died when I was little. I don’t know much about her. I only remember her smelling nice and stuff like that. Pa never wanted to talk about her.”

Once more, Joe sipped his coffee and stayed quiet. His own mother had died when he was a baby, and he had little direct memory of her. But unlike Jamie, Joe knew a lot about his mother. His father had talked of her often, telling Joe stories and helping him to understand the woman who had died before he had gotten a chance to know her.

“How come you were asking about traveling around?” Jamie asked suddenly. “Are you thinking about leaving the Ponderosa?”

“Me?” Now it was Joe’s turn to be surprised. “No, I don’t plan to leave. It’s just that we get those letters from Adam about all the places he’s visiting, and you’ve traveled so much in your life, I wonder if there’s something wrong with me for just wanting to stay here.”

“Would Mr. Cartwright let you go?” asked Jamie.

“Pa would never force me to stay,” Joe answered. “He let Adam go when Adam wanted to travel around the world. Pa misses Adam a lot, but he didn’t stop him from leaving. He wouldn’t stop me.”

“Where would you go?” Jamie asked.

Sighing, Joe shook his head. “That’s just it. The problem is that there’s no place special I want to go. I like visiting places and don’t mind taking trips, but I’m always glad to come home to the Ponderosa.”

“I’m glad to come home to the Ponderosa, too,” agreed Jamie, his voice serious.

“And we’re happy that you feel that way,” Joe assured the boy. He yawned and stretched a bit. “Time to turn in,” announced Joe, dumping the last of the coffee in his cup on the ground. “I want to start hunting as soon as it’s light.”

“I’ll make breakfast,” Jamie promised.

“You bet you will,” said Joe with a grin.

*****

Kneeling in the grass still damp with the morning dew, Joe studied the ground. “Looks like six or seven deer went this way,” he stated without looking up.

Jamie bent forward a bit to look over Joe’s shoulder. “Are you sure?”

“Yep,” said Joe, nodding a bit. “See those tracks in the grass? Those are deer prints.” Joe looked up and pointed. “They’re heading toward those trees. You can tell by the direction the blades of grass are bent.” Squinting a bit, Joe studied the trees. “Those trees are pretty young. That would attract them. The deer like the tender bark and low branches with leaves they can reach.”

“I’ll go get the rifles,” offered Jaime eagerly.

“All right,” agreed Joe as he slowly rose. “But remember what I told you. Keep the barrels pointed up when you’re walking with a rifle.”

With a quick nod, Jamie hurried to where two horses were tied to a bush. The animals were loaded with bedrolls and saddlebags; Joe had decided to break camp after breakfast and take everything with them. Since he wasn’t sure how far the two would need to travel to find the deer, Joe didn’t want to have to worry about returning to the campsite if the daylight faded while they were hunting.

Grabbing the rifle from the scabbard tied to Joe’s saddle, Jamie hurried to his horse. He had been pleased and proud when Mr. Cartwright allowed him to take a rifle of his own on the hunt. As Jamie pulled the gun from the scabbard on his horse, he remembered Joe’s warning. Walking slowly, with the rifles pointed skyward, Jamie returned to where Joe stood waiting.

As he took one of the rifles from Jamie, Joe nodded his satisfaction at the way the boy had carefully handled the weapons. But Joe wasn’t finished with acting as the big brother yet.

“Now, remember all the rules I told you this morning,” Joe said in a serious voice. “Don’t shoot unless you’re sure of your target and you know where I am. Aim to kill because it’s cruel to simply wound an animal. Only go after the bucks. We don’t want to kill a doe and leave her fawn to starve.”

“I remember,” acknowledged Jamie, rolling his eyes a bit.

Suddenly, Joe grinned. “I’m starting to sound like my Pa, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, a little, I guess,” agreed Jamie, giving a small laugh.

“I don’t mean to preach,” continued Joe, growing serious again. “But it’s important to know the rules and abide by them. Hoss and Pa pounded them into my head often enough. I guess I’m just passing on what they taught me.”

“That’s all right,” said Jamie, shrugging a bit. “I know it’s important to know the rules.”

“Then let’s go get us some deer,” suggested Joe.

The two hunters moved slowly toward the trees, walking quietly to avoid frightening any of the deer in the area. Joe noted that Jamie held his rifle up as he walked. Nodding again in satisfaction, Joe turned his attention to the woods.

As he and Jamie neared the stand of young trees, Joe suddenly stopped. “There’s a big buck over there,” declared Joe softly. “See him?”

At first, Jamie didn’t see the deer; the trees and brush camouflaged the animal. But when he stared into the trees a bit longer, the outline of a large deer with antlers came into view. “I see him,” Jamie stated, his voice barely audible.

“Let’s get a little closer,” Joe advised. “Move slow and quiet.”

The two hunters walked about ten feet before Joe stopped again. “You take this one,” he suggested in a voice that was almost a whisper.

Nodding, Jamie turned his gun from pointing skyward to pointing at the woods. From the corner of his eye, he saw Joe move away from him. Remembering Joe’s rule, Jamie waited until he saw Joe stop a few feet away. Then he pulled the rifle to his shoulder and aimed.

The buck in the woods moved a bit, either looking for fresh grazing or because he heard something. When the deer changed position, Jamie lost his clear shot. Mindful of Joe’s warning, Jamie took a step toward the woods. He wanted to make sure he had the deer in his sights before he pulled the trigger.

Keeping his eyes trained down the barrel of the rifle at the deer, Jamie took another step forward. He never saw the hole he stepped into. All Jamie knew was that suddenly his leg buckled under him and he started to fall. As he lost his balance, Jamie abruptly lowered the rifle, jerking it sideways against his chest. He fell forward, hitting his elbow on the ground, and his finger twitched. A loud noise filled Jamie’s ears as the rifle fired.

Standing a few feet away, Joe had been watching the buck in the woods. He didn’t know Jamie had fallen and the gun had gone off. All Joe knew was that one minute he was staring into the woods and the next minute, something ripped through his side. The impact spun Joe in a circle before knocking him face forward to the ground. At first, Joe only felt surprise as he lay in the grass. Then he felt pain – a searing, agonizing pain which radiated from his right side.

As he scrambled to his feet, Jamie looked around. He gasped in horror as he saw Joe lying on the ground a few feet away. Dropping the rifle, Jamie ran to the fallen man.

Jamie’s horror grew as he reached Joe and looked down at the man on the ground. Joe lay unmoving, and a large stain of red was spreading from his right side to his back.

“Joe!” cried Jamie in a frantic voice. “Joe, I’m sorry! It was an accident”. He knelt in the grass and reached for Joe’s shoulder. Pulling Joe toward him, Jamie turned him onto his back. Joe gasped and let out a small grunt of pain.

“Joe, I’m sorry,” Jamie repeated. “I’m sorry. I tripped and the gun went off. It was an accident!” Tears started forming in the boy’s eyes.

Gritting his teeth and wincing, Joe tried to make the pain bearable. He took some short breaths, then slowly opened his eyes. He saw Jamie’s pale, stricken face peering down at him. “I…know…” Joe started to say, then gasped again as another spasm of pain attacked him. He gritted his teeth again and waited for the agonizing spasm to pass. It took a minute, but finally, Joe was able to swallow hard and take a breath.

“It wasn’t…your…fault,” Joe said slowly. He opened his eyes and looked up at Jamie. Tears were running down the boy’s face and he looked sick. Joe tried again to comfort him. Not…your…fault,” he muttered again.

“Joe, what should I do?” asked Jamie. His voice was quivering and there was more than a touch of panic in it.

Closing his eyes again, Joe tried to think. “Did the…bullet…go through?”

Seeing the splotch of red spreading on the front of Joe’s shirt and remembering the one on his back, Jamie nodded. “I think so,” he advised the injured man. He wiped his cheek quickly, clearing the tears from his eyes. “Joe, tell me what to do,” Jamie pleaded in a desperate voice.

“Bandage,” replied Joe in a slurred voice. “Stop…the…bleeding.”

“With what?” asked Jamie, clearly confused.

“Use…my shirt,” Joe suggested. His left hand moved to his chest and he started fumbling with the buttons.

“I’ll do it,” said Jamie quickly. Thankful that he could do something to help Joe, Jamie quickly unbuttoned Joe’s shirt and pulled it open. But as he did so, Jamie felt his stomach lurch and he had to look away.

Slowly, Jamie turned back to Joe, his gazed fixed on the hole in the older man’s side. The skin around the hole was ragged and the wound was oozing blood. Jamie stared at the wound with a horrible fascination, unable to move.

“Jamie,” Joe whispered, his words barely audible. “Jamie…help…” Joe’s voice trailed off.

The sound of Joe’s voice seemed to rouse the boy. With an effort, Jamie pulled his eyes from the wound. Taking a deep breath, he began to peel the shirt off of Joe. Each time he moved Joe or shifted him a bit on the ground, Joe let out a grunt of pain. Jamie’s hands were shaking and he could barely hold the cloth as he pulled it toward him. Once he had Joe’s shirt in his hands, the boy froze again, unable to think clearly and unsure what to do.

A ripple of pain caused Joe to twitch and grunt loudly. He gritted his teeth yet again and squeezed his eyes close. When the spasm eased, Joe opened his eyes and looked at the frightened boy. “Jamie,” Joe gasped. “Help. Bandage.”

Nodding, Jamie slowly began to fold the cloth in his hands. Moving almost in slow motion, he doubled over the material until the shirt was a thick pad. Only the sleeves hung loosely.

Swallowing hard, Jamie inched closer to Joe. He put part of the padding across the front wound, then turned Joe to his side a bit to position the rest of the cloth on the back wound. Jamie slid one sleeve under Joe, then eased him again on his back. On trembling legs, Jamie climbed over Joe, reached under him and pulled the sleeve toward him. He stretched his shaking hand to grab the other sleeve, then began to pull the cloth together.

“Tight as you can,” advised Joe softly. “Don’t…don’t worry about….” Joe winced, then continued. “Tie it tight.”

Biting his lip a bit, Jamie began to tug on the sleeves, pulling them together as tightly as possible. Joe grunted and winced, then nodded encouragingly at the boy. Jamie kept tugging at the cloth until it felt taut, then quickly tied the sleeves into a knot.

“Good,” said Joe quietly. “Now get the horses.”

Scrambling to his feet, Jamie began to run across the grass to where the horses were waiting. He hurried not only because Joe needed help but also because he wanted to get away – just for a minute – from the sickening scene of the injured man laying on the grass.

Almost too quickly, Jamie reached the horses. He untied the reins and led the animals back to Joe at a trot.

As Jamie neared Joe, he could see the injured man was struggling to sit up and not succeeding. Each time he moved, Joe twisted in pain. Finally, he fell back to the ground.

“Joe, I’ve got the horses,” announced Jamie, his voice still quivering.

With his eyes closed, Joe didn’t answer for a moment. Then slowly, he opened his eyes and turned his head. “I can’t…sit a horse,” admitted Joe almost apologetically.

Jamie’s stomach lurched again. “What should I do?” he asked, the panic returning to his voice. “I can’t leave you here. What should I do?”

Hearing the distress in Jamie’s voice, Joe tried to calm the boy. “Listen to me, Jamie. It’s…going to…be all right.”

“No it’s not all right,” cried Jamie as tears started to form in his eyes again. “It’s never going to be all right. I didn’t mean to…” The rest of Jamie’s words disappeared in a sob as the boy began crying harder.

“Jamie!” said Joe sharply. “Stop it!”

In surprise, Jamie jerked his head toward Joe.

Mustering all of his strength, Joe began to speak as calmly and rationally as possible. He knew Jamie was the only help, the only one who could keep him from dying on the mountain. He couldn’t afford to have the boy fall apart on him.

“Jamie, you have to do exactly what I tell you,” ordered Joe. He took a breath and continued. “You have to make a travois. Remember how Hoss showed you? There’s a hand ax in my saddlebag.” Joe winced and tensed his body for a minute. “Make a travois,” he repeated in a fading voice. Suddenly, Joe shivered a bit. “Cold. So cold.” Joe’s eyes closed.

“Joe!” exclaimed Jamie in alarm. The figure on the ground laid still. Dropping the reins in his hands, Jamie knelt beside Joe. He put a shaking hand on Joe’s chest and let out a sigh of relief as he felt Joe’s chest moving and the faint beat of his heart.

Rising to his feet again, Jamie took a deep breath and swallowed. He felt a resolve building in him. He had cared for his dying father for months; he could take care of Joe.

Moving the horses a little way from Joe, Jamie dropped the reins again. He knew the horses would stay put. They had been trained to stand still when the reins were dropped. Besides the animals were already nibbling at the lush grass.

Opening the saddlebag tied to Joe’s pinto, Jamie reached in and pulled out the small ax.
He took a step toward the woods, then stopped. Glancing at Joe, Jamie returned to the horses and began untying the bedrolls.

It took only a few minutes to wrap Joe in the two blankets and to slip the rolled-up ground cloths under his head. But to Jamie, the task seemed to take forever. Joe’s lack of reaction to being wrapped and moved a bit scared the boy. Jamie knew he was using up time — time that he needed to make the travois, and time that he needed to get Joe home. Time that Joe might not have.

When he was satisfied that Joe was warm, Jamie picked up the ax that he had dropped to the nearby ground and headed toward the woods.

*****

At first glance, the young man atop the brown horse and guiding the pinto pulling the travois through the woods looked like he was in control of the situation. However, a closer inspection would have revealed a very frightened and nervous boy who was desperately wishing for someone, anyone to come along who could help him.

Glancing over his shoulder to where Joe was either sleeping or unconscious on the travois – he wasn’t sure which – Jamie wished for the hundredth time he had never asked to go on the hunting trip. He also wished Joe would wake up again and tell him what to do.

Returning from the woods with the tree limbs to use in making the travois, Jamie had been surprised and pleased to find Joe awake. The brief sleep and the drink from the canteen Jamie had given him had seemed to revive Joe a bit. He talked Jamie through making the travois with the tree limbs and ropes from the saddles, and even seemed pleased with Jamie’s handiwork as the boy had taken the ground cloths from under his head to spread on the travois. It had been the move to the travois which had been Joe’s undoing. Despite the fact that Jamie had positioned the travois directly next to Joe and had tried to help him on to it, the move to the travois had been agonizing for Joe. The injured man had groaned softly and broken out in a sweat as he pulled himself onto the travois. In the end, Joe had more rolled on to the framework of ropes rather than climbed in, and had passed out almost immediately. He never moved as Jamie had wrapped in the blankets once more.

Guiding his horse at a walk, Jamie wished he could move faster. He knew at this pace that it would take all day and then some to get to the Ponderosa. But Jamie also knew that the faster the pace, the more the travois would be jolted and rocked, and that would be bad both for Joe and for what Jamie considered to be a fragile piece of construction.

As he rode through the clearing where they had camped last night and started down the trail, Jamie’s thoughts began to turn to what would happen when he reached the Ponderosa. His mind began to form scenes of accusation and anger from the Cartwrights, arrival of the sheriff, and a jail cell. Jamie had seen his father jailed often enough when the rains didn’t come to know that angry people usually found someone to blame for trouble, even if it wasn’t that person’s fault. He tried to picture difference scenarios with less dire consequences but all of them ended up with him being ordered to leave the place where he had been so happy for the past few months.

Arriving at the meadow at the bottom of the trail, Jamie pulled the horses to a halt. An expression of confusion crossed his face as Jamie looked at the meadow and the circle of trees around it. He suddenly wished he had paid more attention during the ride up the mountain, and had noted some landmarks along the way. Because Jamie Hunter had no idea which direction to take across the meadow and how to find his way down the mountain once he crossed it.

Slipping off his horse, Jamie hurried to the travois.  Joe laid with his eyes closed on the framework of ropes, covered with a thick sheen of sweat. At some point, Joe must have awaken during the trek, because he was turned on his left side and not laying on his back as he had been when the journey started.

Jamie put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and shook it gently. Joe reacted a bit, grunting softly. Jamie shook the injured man harder and Joe began to move, his eyes squeezing tightly in pain as he did so.

“Joe, wake up,” called Jamie, hysteria building in his voice. “Joe!” Jamie shook him even harder.

Slowly opening his eyes, Joe stared dully at Jamie. His mouth worked silently several times before he croaked the single word, “Water”.

“I’ll get you some water,” Jamie agreed quickly and hurried back to his horse to grab the canteen. When he returned to Joe, the boy uncorked the canteen, lifted Joe’s head a bit and put the canteen to Joe’s mouth. When Joe pulled his head back, indicating he had had enough water, Jamie corked the canteen.

“Joe, we’re at the meadow and I don’t know which way to go,” explained Jamie.

Staring back at Jamie, Joe tried to make sense of the boy’s words. “What?” he asked in confusion.

“I don’t know where to go across the meadow,” Jamie repeated. The hysteria was starting to build in his voice again. “Joe, how do I find the trail? How do we get home?”

With an effort, Joe tried to cut through the fog of pain and fever in his head. “Meadow,” he said slowly. He nodded a bit. “Got to cross the meadow.”

“But which direction?” asked Jamie desperately. “How do I find the trail?”

“Two trees,” Joe answered in a thick voice. “Form an arch at the top. Go through them. Ride southeast.”

“Southeast?” echoed Jamie with a frown. “How do I know which way is southeast?”

“Sun,” mumbled Joe as his eyes began to close. “Use…sun.”

Seeing that Joe was drifting off again, Jamie turned and walked to the edge of the meadow. He studied the trees surrounding the grass until he saw the two that Joe had described. The thick trunks of the trees grew straight and tall but about half way up, the branches had intertwined and formed the rough outline of an arch. Sighing with relief at spotting the trees, Jamie looked up to the sky. He knew it was late morning, so the sun was still rising. If he traveled toward the sun, he would be heading east. He thought that he’d eventually see a familiar sight that would tell him when to turn south.

Climbing back on his horse, Jamie checked to make sure the reins of the pinto were still tied to his saddle horn. Then he gave his horse a kick and started across the meadow.

Traveling slowly through the woods and then the open ground of the hillside, Jamie rode toward the sun. Every so often, he would glance at the man on the travois behind him. Joe laid still but his labored breathing was just loud enough for Jamie to know he was alive. He had stopped once to give Joe another drink as well as have him confirm that he was going in the right direction, but Jamie had been barely able to rouse the man. Joe had wakened only enough to swallow the water. He didn’t seem to hear or be able to answer Jamie’s desperate question about landmarks to help guide him.

As Jamie rode, he looked around him. The countryside seemed familiar, but he couldn’t be sure. To his mind, there was nothing remarkable about the bushes, trees and rocks he passed. It could be that he had seen them on the way up the mountain, or they simply could resemble the landscape of almost any country he had ridden through in his young life. The only consolation Jamie had was that he was sure that once he reached the bottom of the mountain, he was bound to find some help.

At some point, Jamie realized the sun was starting to lower in the sky. He switched his focus from riding toward the sun to keeping it to his right. Pleased that he had been smart enough to figure out the sun was now in the west, Jamie pushed his horse onward.

It wasn’t until Jamie reached the creek that he realized he was lost. As he came to the narrow band of water running through the ground, Jamie’s heart dropped. He knew they hadn’t crossed a creek on their way up the mountain.

Halting the horses, Jamie climbed down from the saddle and hurried back to the travois.
He stared at Joe, wondering if he could wake him, and even if he did, if Joe could help him find the way home. Joe was deathly pale, with only the fever spots on his cheeks showing any color on his face. Beads of sweat covered Joe’s face and neck. His breathing was ragged and labored. Jamie shook Joe gently and then fairly hard.

“Joe, wake up!” begged Jamie. “Joe, please wake up. We’re lost. Joe, you have to help me.”

Awakened by both Jamie’s shake and the boy’s voice, Joe stared up at the pale young face watching him. He felt confused, puzzled by both the pain in his side and the fright that was apparent on Jamie’s face.

“What’s wrong?” Joe asked in a dull voice that was barely audible.

“We’re lost,” Jamie admitted, his voice quivering. “I rode toward the sun like you said, but I don’t know where we are.” Even as he spoke, Jamie realized his mistake. He had ridden toward the sun too long. He should have paid more attention to the movement of the sun and adjusted for it. “I think we’re west of where we should be.”

Only bits of Jamie’s words made sense to Joe’s fevered brain, but they were the important ones. He understood “lost” and “west”.  He tried to think, tried to figure out where they were and, most of all, tried to figure out what to tell Jamie that would guide the boy to the Ponderosa.

“Joe, what should I do?” Jamie asked, panic rising in his voice. Tears started forming in his eyes again.

Desperately, Joe tried to clear his head. He knew Jamie needed a landmark, something that would show him the right way. The problem was that Joe had no idea where they were, and even if he did, his muddled brain wouldn’t give him any clear instructions.

“The lake,” said Joe finally in a voice that was weak and strained. “Find the lake. Follow the…” Joe’s voice trailed off.

“Joe!” cried Jamie. “How do I find the lake? Tell me how, Joe.” But Jamie’s plea brought no response from the now unconscious man on the travois.

Looking around, Jamie desperately tried to figure out where Lake Tahoe might be. He saw some rocks in the distance – tall boulders that seemed to be piled on top of each other. Jamie ran toward the rocks.

As soon as he reached the boulders, Jamie began to climb. He scrambled and crawled up the slabs of granite, scraping his hands as he inched his way upwards. When he finally reached the top, Jamie stood, balancing himself precariously on the uneven stone.

Turning toward what he believed to be east, Jamie searched through the trees with his eyes. He was looking for a patch of blue water that would indicate the location of the lake. But Jamie saw only trees and brush.

As he turned slowly, Jamie inspected the landscape. He twisted his upper body, afraid that moving his feet too much would cause him to lose his delicate balance. Jamie felt the panic and fear rising in him as he searched for some sign of the lake. He saw trees, bushes, scrub brush and rock. But Jamie saw no patch of blue, nothing that indicated the direction of the waters of Lake Tahoe.

Jamie was almost completely twisted around when he finally saw it. Over his right shoulder, he spotted a large blue lake. Moving carefully on the rocks, Jamie turned his body. He wanted to be sure about what he saw; Jamie couldn’t afford to make another mistake. If he did, he knew Joe could die on the trail.

Staring hard, Jamie looked at the bits of blue water visible through the trees. He was sure it was Lake Tahoe. Nothing else could be that large, that blue. Feeling a sense of relief at finding the lake, Jamie began to climb down the rocks.

As soon as he reached the bottom of the boulders, Jamie started running. He was desperate to return to Joe and start transporting the injured man home.

“Joe, I found it!” shouted Jamie as he neared the horses. “The lake is behind us. That’s why I missed it.” When he reached the horses, though, Jamie stopped. He could see Joe laying pale and still on the travois. “Joe?” said Jamie in a quiet voice. The injured man made no response.

Falling to his knees, Jamie began to cry. “Joe, please,” he begged. “Answer me.” Jamie put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, relieved to feel the heat from Joe’s body. “Joe, please don’t die,” Jamie sobbed. “Don’t die. Everyone else has died and left me. Don’t you do that. Don’t die.”

The sound of the sobbing voice somehow broke through to Joe. He heard the fear and despair in Jamie’s voice. Using what little strength he had left, Joe managed to open his eyes. He reached out his arm and took Jamie’s hand. The boy was startled by the movement and pulled back. Then Jamie grasped Joe’s hand tightly.

“I’ll get you home,” promised Jamie in a determined voice. “I’ll get you back to your home at the Ponderosa.”

“Our home,” Joe corrected him in a raspy voice. Then he closed his eyes again and his body went limp.

*****

An owl hooted in a tree as Jamie turned his horse to the trail leading to the Ponderosa ranch house. This was one trail Jamie could find with his eyes practically closed, which was good since the dark of night had long since descended. He knew he should feel elated to finally be on this trail, but Jamie was numb, exhausted by the nightmarish journey back to the Ponderosa. Finding the lake had been one thing. Getting to it had proven to be quite another. Without a trail to follow, Jamie had ended up zigzagging around fallen trees, boulders and other obstacles as he made his way to the blue waters which he kept in view. When he had finally reached the wide trail that he knew led around the lake, Jamie had felt like shouting with joy and relief.

Glancing over his shoulder to look at Joe, Jamie frankly was amazed that the man hadn’t   lapsed into a coma or worse during the tortuous journey through the woods and then on the long ride around the lake But, although he remained feverish, weak and semi-conscious, Joe somehow had managed an encouraging nod or pat on the hand each time Jamie had stopped to give him water. Jamie had needed that encouragement to keep from giving into despair.

As the lights of the house appeared ahead of him, Jamie’s stomach started to churn with fear. His vivid imagination had pictured the anger, accusations and worse that would occur when he finally reached the Ponderosa ranch house. In a few minutes, those imagined scenes would become reality. Jamie’s hands began to tremble and, for a brief moment, he considered sending the horses to the house while he escaped into the night. Jamie remembered the times he and his father had fled through the night to avoid an angry mob when the rains had failed to come.

But this time, Jamie knew, he had to face the Cartwrights. He couldn’t abandon Joe even so close to the house. Jamie had to insure the wounded man got help, and to do that, he would have to ride to the house. Jamie clung to the slim hope that his punishment wouldn’t include leaving forever the only real home he had ever had.

As he pulled the horses to a stop in the yard in front of the house, Jamie sat still for a moment. One ordeal had ended and the next had not yet begun. For just a minute, Jamie wanted a respite from all the emotions swirling inside him. Then he heard the sound of Joe’s labored breathing. Quickly, Jamie slid from the saddle and ran to the door of the house.

Playing checkers in front of the fire, the last thing Hoss and Ben had expected was to see a distraught Jamie flinging open the front door. Both men watched in stunned silence as the boy ran into the house.

“Mr. Cartwright! Hoss! Come quick!” Jamie shouted. “Joe’s outside and he’s hurt bad.”

Almost in unison, Ben and Hoss jumped to their feat and rushed toward the door. Neither man said a word as they brushed past Jamie. The boy stood in the middle of the room, head down and shoulders slumped, as he listened to exclamations and shouts from outside.

*****

Nervously pacing in front of the fireplace, Jamie looked from time to time toward the top of the stairs. It had been hours since Joe’s father and brother had carried him into the house and to his room. In the ensuing turmoil, Jamie had sat quietly in a corner, hoping no one would notice him and trying to think of a way to disappear from view. He finally decided hiding in his room was the safest course, but the fates seemed destined to prevent that course of action. Every time he made a move toward the stairs, someone seemed to be coming up or down them. In each case, Jamie beat a hasty retreat to the corner of the room.

The first time he moved toward the stairs, Jamie heard Hoss’ heavy footsteps. As he cowered in the corner, Jamie saw Hoss quickly descending the stairs, yelling in a loud voice for Hop Sing and disappearing into the kitchen. Just as Jamie thought it was safe to try the stairs again, Hoss returned. Ignoring the boy on the far side of the room, Hoss climbed the stairs, carrying rolls of white cloth and cotton. He was followed in a few minutes by Hop Sing, who carried a bowl of steaming water up the stairs. For the next hour or so, Hop Sing and Hoss traveled up and down the stairs. They seemed to be returning to the rooms at the top with an endless supply of bandages and hot water.

When things quieted down, Jamie made another move toward the stairs. But just as he took a few tentative steps, the front door was flung open and a harried looking Doctor Martin walked quickly into the house, followed by the ranch hand who had gone to town to get him. The arrival of the doctor seemed to trigger a new wave of people rushing up and down the stairs.

Finally, Jamie decided to stay where he was. The last thing he wanted was to attract attention to himself. He was sure that as soon as one of the Cartwrights realized he was in the room, Jamie would hear the angry outbursts and accusations that he was dreading. The thought crossed Jamie’s mind to rush into the night, grab a horse and start riding as fast as he could. But he rejected that idea, not only because he was so tired but also because he knew he couldn’t leave without finding out whether Joe was going to die.

As tired as he felt, Jamie was surprised he couldn’t sleep. Worry and nerves kept his body tense. He sat in the corner as long as he could, but finally felt the need to move around. He had waited until everyone seemed to be busy upstairs, then started to pace by the fire.

“Jamie,” a quiet voice said.

Jamie spun around, surprised. He hadn’t heard Hoss coming down the stairs. Jamie’s heart sank, convinced that the big man’s quiet movements mean that Joe had died.

“How’s Joe?” asked Jamie in a quavering voice.

“The doc’s still working on him,” answered Hoss. He shook his head. “It’s too soon to tell.” Hoss hesitated, then asked, “What happened? All Joe could say was something about an accident.”

“It was my fault,” Jamie replied. He started to cry. “I didn’t mean it, Hoss. Honest. It was an accident.”

Crossing the room, Hoss put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “We know that, Jamie. Now tell me what happened.”

In a halting voice, Jamie told Hoss about tripping and the gun going off. He briefly described building the travois, then talked about the long journey back to the Ponderosa. Jamie admitted in a hesitant voice that he had gotten lost, and told Hoss about finally spotting the lake.

“I tried to get him home as fast as I could,” Jamie finished in a quick outburst. “I just couldn’t find the trail.”

As Jamie had talked, Hoss stood listening quietly. Now, he patted the boy on the shoulder. “Jamie, listen to me,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It was an accident that Joe got shot. Me, Pa, anyone could have had the same thing happen to them. We don’t blame you. It was just an accident. It’s not your fault.”

“But, Hoss, I got lost,” Jamie lamented in a plaintive voice. “If I had paid attention on the trail, it wouldn’t have taken so long for me to get Joe home. It’s my fault that he’s so sick.”

“Anyone can get lost,” Hoss stated firmly. “You can’t expect to know your way around after being here such a short time. The important thing is you found your way and you got Joe home.”

Jamie looked away, his face still reflecting the misery in his heart.

Seeing the unconvinced look on the boy’s face, Hoss decided that now wasn’t the time to discuss things further. He could see Jamie was exhausted, worried and afraid. “Jaime, why don’t you get some sleep,” suggested Hoss. “We can talk about this more in the morning.”

“All right,” Jamie agreed. He started toward the stairs.

Frowning a bit, Hoss held Jamie’s shoulder and stopped him. He knew what was going on upstairs in Joe’s room, and Jamie would be able to easily hear the unpleasantness from his own bedroom. “Why don’t you just stretch out on the sofa down here,” Hoss said. “It’s…kind of busy upstairs right now. You’ll probably get more rest down here.”

Giving Hoss a startled, then frightened look, Jamie nodded his head. “I guess you’re right.”

“I know I am,” Hoss declared quietly, and he began leading the boy toward the sofa. “You just get some sleep.”

As Jamie lowered himself on to the sofa, he looked up at Hoss. “Is Joe going to die?” he asked.

Hoss hesitated a minute before answering. “I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “He’s in pretty bad shape. But Joe’s a fighter, and he’s come back from worse than this.” Hoss look directly into Jamie’s face. “But whatever happens, you can’t blame yourself. It was an accident, Jamie. That’s all. No one blames you.”

Jamie didn’t answer. He simply turned away from Hoss and closed his eyes.

Hoss watched the boy for a minute. Then he sighed and turned back toward the stairs.

*****

When Jamie woke, he knew it was still night. He glanced at the clock by the door and saw that he had slept for only two hours. As he sat up, Jamie realized the house was quiet – too quiet. He was afraid what that quiet might mean.

Slowly, Jamie got up from the sofa and walked to the stairs. He climbed quietly to the floor above and moved stealthily down the hall. Stopping in front of Joe’s room, he saw the door was ajar. Jamie heard voices from inside the room but the sound was muffled. He pushed the door open and saw the doctor and Ben standing by Joe’s bed.

“….it’s a question of time, Ben,” the doctor was saying as he looked down at Joe in the bed.

“But he’s young and strong,” countered Ben in a worried voice. “He’s always bounced back so easily before.”

“I know,” agreed Doctor Martin with a sigh. “That’s what’s going to make this so hard.”

“Isn’t there something you can do?” asked Ben, his concern evident. “Some treatment?”

Shaking his head a bit, the doctor answered, “I’m just a doctor, Ben, not a miracle worker. In this case, we just have to let nature take its course. I’ll stay with him tonight and make him as comfortable as I can.”

With a heavy heart, Jamie pulled the door closed. He knew what the doctor’s words meant. Joe was dying.

For a moment, Jamie stood in front of the room, his shoulders slumped. He loved being at the Ponderosa, and being with the Cartwrights. But now that was over. He had killed any affection the Cartwrights had for him, just as surely as he killed Joe. He remembered Hoss’ words about not blaming him for the shooting, but Jamie knew he couldn’t stay. He couldn’t bear the grief he would see on the face of Joe’s father, or stand to be a constant reminder to Hoss about why his brother was gone. More importantly, Jamie didn’t want to be around a place that reminded him that yet another person he felt close to had died. Taking a deep breath, Jamie turned and walked slowly toward his room.

*****

The sun was just rising when Hoss walked out of his room and headed toward Joe’s bedroom. The few hours’ sleep he had gotten refreshed the big man. He stopped as he saw the doctor and Ben coming out of Joe’s room.

“How is he?” Hoss asked.

“Doing as well as can be expected,” replied Doctor Martin.

“Then he’s going to be all right?” pressed Hoss.

“Like I told you last night, he’ll recover just fine,” answered the doctor. “The bullet tore up a lot of muscle but missed all the vital organs. The fever was the result of pain, shock, and loss of blood. The fact that the bullet cracked the top of his hip is the biggest problem. Joe is facing at least six weeks in bed while that bone heals.”

“It’s going to be hard on him,” Ben added, shaking his head. “Laying in bed for six weeks will drive him crazy.”

“You mean, it’s going to drive us crazy,” observed Hoss, with a grin. “Joe ain’t exactly the best patient in the world.”

“You’d better tell Jamie that Joe’s going to be all right,” suggested Ben. “You told me he was pretty upset last night.”

“Yeah, he was,” agreed Hoss. “He’ll feel much better once he knows that Joe is going to be all right.” Hoss turned and hurried down the hall.

Stopping at the top of the stairs, Hoss could see the sofa in the room below was empty. With a puzzled expression, he turned and walked back to Jamie’s room. He knocked softly on the door, then pushed it open. Hoss’ bewilderment grew when he saw that the bedroom held no occupant either. Looking around the room, Hoss’ face took on a worried look. He could see a partially open drawer and a cleared desk where Jamie usually kept his favorite pieces and pictures. The closet door was open, revealing an empty space. Quickly, Hoss hurried out of the room.

“Pa, Jamie’s gone,” announced Hoss.

“Gone!” repeated Ben in an astonished voice. “Where? Why? I thought you said he was worried about Joe?”

“He was,” replied Hoss. “And he was blaming himself for what happened. He must have figured we’d blame him too and run away.”

“He couldn’t have gotten very far,” said Ben. “Go find him.”

“I’ll find him,” asserted Hoss, “and I’ll bring him home.”

*****

Sitting under the tree, Jamie dozed fitfully. He had meant to ride until he reached Carson City, but hadn’t gotten more than a few miles from the Ponderosa before his tired body began to protest. He had decided a short nap wouldn’t hurt and had found a soft patch of ground. He didn’t realize when he settled on to it that his short nap was going to last hours.

The sound of footsteps approaching woke Jamie. He opened his eyes to see the large frame of Hoss standing over him.

“Didn’t get very far, did you?” Hoss said, smiling.

Scrambling to his feet, Jamie gave Hoss a determined look. “I’m leaving,” he declared defiantly. “You can’t stop me. If you take me back, I’ll just run away again.’

“No, I guess we can’t stop you,” agreed Hoss in a reasonable voice. “You’re free to leave anytime you want. But I think the least you could have done was say goodbye.”

Looking away, Jamie replied in a quiet voice, “I couldn’t, Hoss. I couldn’t face you and Mr. Cartwright.”

“Jamie, there’s a lot of bad things that a man has to face in his life,” advised Hoss. “But this ain’t one of them. I keep telling you that we don’t blame you for what happened. You can believe that or not. If we can’t convince you, though, and you want to leave, you can do that. But I think you owe it to us to say a proper goodbye to me and Pa….and Joe.”

“Joe?” echoed Jaime, looking at Hoss with wide eyes. “You mean he’s going to be all right? He’s not going to die?”

“No, he’s a long way from dying,” answered Hoss with a grin. “He’s going to be pretty miserable for awhile, though. That bullet broke his hip and the doctor says there’s nothing he can do but let nature take its course. Joe’s looking at six weeks or so in bed, and I can’t think of anything that’s going to be harder on my little brother.”

With a flash of insight, Jamie realized how he had misinterpreted the doctor’s words when he listened at the door. A sudden feeling of relief and happiness flooded through the boy. He knew he could go back to the Ponderosa now, and Jamie couldn’t think of anything he wanted more. “Hoss,” he stated happily. “I want to go home.”

The ride back to the Ponderosa was a short one. Jamie urged his horse down the trail at almost a gallop. Hoss followed a bit more slowly, but he was anxious as Jamie to return to the house.

When the riders got to the house, Jamie quickly dismounted, tied his reins to the hitching post, and raced in the house. He ran up the stairs and into Joe’s room, wanting to see for himself that Joe was going to be all right. As Jamie entered the bedroom, however, he stopped, suddenly feeling shy and embarrassed to talk with the man he had shot.

Propped by pillows, Joe was sitting up in bed. He smiled weakly as he saw Jamie rush into the room. “Hi, Jamie,” he said.

Taking a step forward, Jamie asked, “Joe, are you going to be all right?”

“I’m going to be fine,” replied Joe. He glanced at Ben who was standing near the bed. “Pa says I’m going to be laid up for awhile but I should be good as new in no time.”

“In six weeks,” Ben declared sternly. “You aren’t moving out of that bed for at least six weeks.

“Joe, I’m sorry about what happened,” Jamie apologized, taking a step closer to the bed. “It was an accident.”

“I know it was,” answered Joe. “You followed all the rules, just like I told you.” Joe shrugged. “Things happen. It was nobody’s fault. I’ll tell you one thing, though. I would have died out there if you hadn’t kept your head. You got me home, and I thank you for that.”

“I got lost,” Jamie admitted. “I should have paid more attention.”

“I get lost all the time,” Joe said with a grin. “Ask Pa. He’s always wondering where I am.”

“I was so scared,” Jamie added. “I was afraid you were going to die and that I’d have to leave the Ponderosa.”

“Jamie, the Ponderosa is your home now,” Ben told the boy seriously. “Nothing you do can change that. You’re part of our family.”

Pushing the door open a bit, Hoss entered the room. He had walked more slowly into the house and bedroom, secure in the knowledge that Jamie would find Joe hadn’t died. Now, seeing his brother sitting up in bed, Hoss grinned. “Well, little brother, I see you found yourself away to get out of doing chores for awhile,” Hoss declared.

Smiling back at his brother, Joe answered, “Yeah, six weeks in a nice soft bed instead of a hard saddle. Not bad. Of course, Jamie here will have to pick up some of the slack. I know I can’t rely on you to do all my chores.’

“I’ll help out,” Jamie agreed eagerly. “I want to make the Ponderosa the best ranch ever.”

“It already is the best ranch,” Joe pointed out with a smile.

“Yeah, it is,” Jamie said. He looked around the room. “Home is always the best place.”

*****End*****

Return to Susan’s homepage

Return to the WWB Author Index

Return to the WWB Library

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.