Summary: A trip to recapture something lost when Inger was killed will hopefully recapture the bonds that held two brothers close as well.
Word Count: 11,000
Ben Cartwright was worried. Regan Miller had left town, but the damage left in her wake was still not repaired. He wasn’t sure it ever would be. He had gotten his two older sons to come with him to repair fencing. It was a task Ben intensely disliked, but it meant they had to work together. They were doing that, but it was an efficiency of working together for so many years before this day. They didn’t talk to each other — and not to him — either if it was about Regan. He had gotten each of them to talk with him briefly since he had found them fighting. No, he had to correct himself. He had found Hoss beating his brother. There was nothing to indicate that Adam had done any fighting back, even to protect himself. Adam had taken the punishment. Ben knew he was feeling guilty, even though he said Regan had kissed him. Hoss must have felt very bad too about hitting his brother so much over a woman who would betray him so easily. Since that day, they hadn’t talked about that or much of anything else. It was very quiet in the house, but the quiet tension made everyone uncomfortable. Ben had hoped that throwing them together like this would make them talk, but so far, it had been more tense silence.
Joe came riding out about two hours after they started working, and Ben knew his effort had failed.
“Pa, we got company. Some family you met on the way west. They said they remembered you and Adam and wanted to say hello. They said Hoss was just a little guy when they headed off north and you headed south.”
“What’s the family’s name?”
“Evans. They’re three of them there. It’s a husband and wife and their grandson. They said their sons are in the southern part of Oregon. They got a ranch there.”
“Adam, do you remember the Evans? They had two boys just a little older than you.”
“Yes, I think those were the two who liked to pound on me whenever they got the chance.”
“Oh, Adam, it wasn’t pounding. It was just boys wrestling and being a little rough.”
“Sure felt like pounding to me. No, we can’t leave the fence down like this. I’ll stay to finish up. I barely remember Mr. and Mrs. Evans anyway.”
“Hoss, I know you wouldn’t remember them, but perhaps you would like to come see them? They remembered you.”
“Nah, I better stay and help Adam. He looks like he’s about ready to keel over, and if he does, the cattle might trample him.”
Adam was thinking that it felt like he had been trampled already. Those blows to the head, shoulder, and ribs had left some lingering pain and discomfort, and even days later, he had a severe headache made worse by being in the hot, bright sun.
Hoss saw Adam’s little smile that was a partial grimace. He smiled a bit too because he had a good idea what Adam had been thinking.
Ben saw the two regarding each other a bit warily and thought perhaps it was best to leave them alone. Maybe they would at least be forced to be nice to each other. He left the sack with the lunch that Hop Sing had packed, and mounted up to ride back with Joe, who was relieved that his father had not made him help his two brothers. It wasn’t so much because it was hard, hot work, although that was a good reason. No, it was more because it was so uncomfortable being around those two for the last few days.
As Ben and Joe rode off, Adam excused himself to go take care of what was necessary. It was the second time he had done that this morning. Hoss wondered if he was all right, and after grabbing his canteen, followed him after a minute. He heard the retching long before he found Adam kneeling on the ground. He put a hand on Adam’s shoulder and offered him the canteen. Adam took it and poured some water in his mouth without touching his lips to the canteen. He swished the water around and spit it out.
“Why didn’t you say you was sick?”
“I wasn’t sick until I got out here.”
“Well, you coulda said it then. Were you feeling this way when you came to town the day that Regan left?”
Adam nodded and quickly halted that movement with the pain it caused him. “Pa wanted us to talk.”
“Yeah, I know he did, but it didn’t seem right to say what I was thinking where he could hear me.”
“Nah, it’s just that I got a few questions, and I figure the answers ought to be just for me, if you was willing to answer them.”
“I could try.”
“I saw you kissing Regan. Why would you do that? I know you said she kissed you, and she said the same, but why were you there where it could happen anyway?”
Sitting back on his heels, Adam looked at the ground. “Because I was stupid. I wanted to talk with her to see what it was she wanted. I didn’t believe she was in love with you. I thought she was after something else.”
“You said you didn’t believe she was in love with me. And now?”
“I think in her own way, she loved you. I think that perhaps she was trying to find a way to be a different Regan, but after everything she’s done, I guess she couldn’t do it. She was back to the old Regan so fast. I wasn’t ready for it.”
“I saw you letting her kiss you then.”
“No, I pushed her away. I wish you hadn’t seen that kiss, but if you did, I wish you would have seen the rest. I pushed her away. I told her it wasn’t going to work. All the way home, I was thinking about how I was going to tell you. I knew it was going to hurt you so much.”
“They why tell me? If I hadn’t seen you two kissing and you didn’t tell me, me and Regan woulda been married.”
“Hoss, she was going to hurt you so badly. She hurt every man she was ever with. She got several men killed. It never bothered her for very much or very long. I couldn’t let that happen to you if I could do something about it.”
“It bothered me the way you talked to me when you got back. It’s why I got so mad. I’d been stewing about what I saw for over an hour, and then you talked to me like you did, and I just got real mad.”
“I know. That was stupid for me to do. As I was riding back, all I could do was think so much about how to tell you, and I never considered that you might already know. When you asked what I had been doing and if I had been with Regan, it got my back up, and I acted like an ass. I guess it was my way of being defensive about feeling guilty and admitting that I let that happen with her. Hoss, I would never hurt you. I promised Inger that I would watch out for you and help you. I’ve tried to do that ever since that day.”
“The day she died?”
Nodding, Adam finally looked toward Hoss who could see tears in his older brother’s eyes. “I would hate to face her right now. I have made such a mess of things.”
Hoss stood and squeezed Adam’s shoulder. “Why don’t you move up the hill and sit under that tree? I’ll bring lunch after I fill the canteens with cooler water.”
“I don’t think I could eat anything.”
“Then you can sit and watch me eat. Now get on up there. It won’t take me long.”
Hoss helped Adam to stand and then made sure he was walking all right before he turned to grab the lunch sack their father had left for them. By the time he got to the top of the hill, Adam was sitting under the tree leaning against the trunk. His long legs were stretched out in front of him, and his eyes were closed. Hoss set the lunch sack down and put Adam’s canteen next to him. Adam opened his eyes and took the canteen drinking a fair amount.
“Hop Sing musta been thinking about you. He packed up some biscuits and preserves. There’s a few ham sandwiches here too.”
Hoss handed over the biscuits and preserves. There was a spoon tied to the handle of the small jar of preserves. Adam broke a biscuit and spread preserves on it. He ate a few small bites while Hoss devoured the first sandwich. “You want any of this?”
Adam declined and Hoss ate the rest of the ham sandwiches. When Hoss finished eating, he sat and stared in the direction of the house. “You reckon those Evans can tell me anything about Ma that I don’t already know?”
“I don’t know, but the women on the train talked together a lot when they were cooking or doing laundry, so maybe she would.”
“I think I’d like to finish that fence and get on back there to talk with them.”
As Adam moved to stand to go help, Hoss put a hand on his shoulder to push him back down.
“I’m thinking I could do it faster myself. You sit in the shade and wait for me. We’ll ride back together.”
Accepting that what Hoss said about finishing the fence, Adam sat back down. “Thank you, Hoss. For everything.” He knew he had been forgiven and that he didn’t deserve it. He was humbled by his brother’s forgiving nature. Hoss simply nodded and moved to finish the fencing.
As the two brothers rode home, Hoss knew there was something he needed to tell Adam, but he thought it needed its own time and shouldn’t be done almost as an afterthought. So he was quiet, and Adam rode quietly, thankful that he and Hoss were returning to the relationship they had before Regan had disrupted it. They had always had a quiet understanding and respect for each other. He had worried that it might be gone but knew that it wasn’t. He smiled a little as he remembered Hoss as a toddler.
Hoss looked over at him and had to ask.
“I was thinking about the wagon train and you toddling around the wagons. Pa said you walked like ‘a drunken sailor’ as you tipped one way and then the other but never fell.”
“Did my Ma get to see me walk like that?”
“Just a little, but yes, she did. She always looked so proud whenever she looked at you.”
“What did she look like? I mean, in color, ‘cause I got that image of her in that picture where it’s only black, white, and gray.”
So Adam told him again as he had many times before. “She was a tall woman. I remember her being taller than the other women, and she had such wonderful hair that glowed like gold when she was in the sun or even sitting by the campfire at night where the light would light up her face and the halo of golden hair around it. She had these blue eyes that looked at you, and you would swear you could see the love pouring out of them. When she talked, there was this cute little lilt to how she said words that made you sit with your mouth open, as if she had cast a spell over you with those beautiful words. When she tucked us in at night, there was always a kiss and a hug.” Adam felt her love then just as Hoss felt Adam’s love for Inger. It always made him warm inside to know how wonderful she must have been for Adam to love her so after all these years.
“What about them Evans? Didn’t sound like you liked ‘em much.”
“Their boys were bullies and bigger than me. They probably aren’t taller than I am any more. If I recall correctly, Pa towered over both Mister and Missus Evans. I wouldn’t mind running into those two boys someday.”
“Aw, Adam, you know how bullies are. They just feel like they aren’t good enough so they gotta pick on somebody they think is less than them. Makes ‘em feel bigger somehow.”
“I know but Mrs. Evans called me a crybaby for telling Pa those two pounded on me. Pa was acting as wagonmaster so he didn’t want any trouble. He told me to avoid those two, but it didn’t help. They found me whenever I was alone. Mr. Evans never punished those two for anything. He made excuses for them, no matter what they did.”
“Maybe those tannings we got from Pa weren’t so bad then, thinking what we mighta been like without ‘em.”
“Maybe, but a stern talk like he gave Joe a lot would have been enough for me.”
Hoss chuckled. They reached the stable then, and Hoss offered to take care of Adam’s horse for him.
“No, I’m feeling better now. It was working in the sun that was a problem. Once I was in the shade with my eyes closed, I felt a lot better.”
“Maybe you should see the doc about that.”
“So he can tell me I have a concussion and ought to stay in the house and let Pa and Hop Sing fuss over me? No, thank you. I’d rather deal with it myself.”
“What if it was Ma fussing over you?”
“Hoss, I don’t think Ma would have ever fussed over me like Pa does. No, if she had been here, she would have taken us both to task for how we behaved. Then I would have been in bed, and you would have been the one taking care of me.”
“What? How could you know that?”
Adam was a bit embarrassed to admit the next part. “Well, when you were born, we were on the move. It was hard, and at the end of the day, everyone was tired. Ma would hold you and nurse you first thing when we stopped for the day. Then she would make dinner and pretty soon it seemed, you were hungry again.” Adam chuckled and Hoss knew why. “Nothing much has changed there, has it? Well I wanted her attention too, and she was so busy with you and taking care of all of us that I felt alone. I didn’t like you much then. You were so needy. I guess I didn’t see how needy I was. Finally I told Ma that I hated you and wanted her to send you back to wherever she got you. Well, she got tears in her eyes, and I said I was sorry, but that wasn’t enough for our Ma. She made me start taking care of you. I had to hold you when you cried, and I even had to help change your dirty diapers and rinse them out when they needed it. I had to hold you while she made dinner and then again for breakfast. I had to sleep with you beside me so you would be warm enough. It made me love you. You needed me. You would put your arms out for me to hold you whenever you saw me. I began to love my brother. Ma was pretty special. She knew just what to do for both of us.”
“I was a lot of work then?”
“No, you were family. We had fun too. When we found water clean enough for a bath, you would sit between my legs and splash water and laugh. I would wash you and you would swat at the bubbles on the water. Ma would be right there on the bank with towels to dry both of us, and Pa was there to make sure we were safe. I never wanted those days to end.”
The brothers finished with the horses then and walked to the house. As they entered, they couldn’t help smiling at their father’s worried expression. As soon as Ben saw his two older sons, he knew, though. They must have talked for that tension was gone.
“Adam, you remember the Evans. Hoss, these are the Evans, John and Ruth. And this is their grandson, Tommy.”
Adam and Hoss nodded saying they were pleased to see the Evans. John had stood, and as Adam and Hoss neared him, he had to say something, as he had to tip his head back to look up at the two men towering over him.
“Well, it seems the crybaby and the roly-poly baby have grown up into two very big men.”
Adam’s piercing glare made John back up and nearly fall as he sat in the chair again. When he looked at Hoss, the scowl was almost enough to make him faint.
Ben stepped in before his sons could say what they were thinking. “Now, those names from the past ought to stay there, don’t you think. John and Ruth, I’m sure Hoss would be happy to hear any stories you could tell about his mother. He has no memory of her, so if you know anything to help him have some good memories of his mother, then we would be very appreciative.”
“Well, I am sorry, but Inger didn’t like to spend time with us. She liked to lecture me about my two boys, and I didn’t appreciate that much, so we didn’t talk much.”
“Yes, and well, with the trouble Adam caused for our two boys, I didn’t spend much time near your campfire either.”
Ben had heard enough. “I don’t think that you should be insulting my son and talking about Inger as if she was in the wrong. Your two boys were bullies through and through. Adam told the truth about them, and I wish I had tanned them because that’s what they needed more than anything.”
Ruth turned to her husband. “John, we should leave. This isn’t going to work. They’re just as unfriendly as they were on that wagon train.”
“But Ruth, it’s the only chance our boys have.” Turning toward Ben, John put out his hands in supplication. “This is our only grandchild. He’s Marcus’ son. Now Matthew never married. We need your help to keep our boys from going to prison. They need to be free to take care of Tommy and the family. We live up at Harney Lake, and they got in a bit of trouble over selling some cattle. The buyer turned them in saying the brand was altered. He says they were Ponderosa cattle because he had bought some from you in the past.”
“Your sons are rustlers?” Ben was shocked. “And they stole cattle from us?”
“No, Ben, no, they bought some cattle to resell, and those cattle were stolen. My boys would never do anything like that.”
Adam had suddenly remembered. “Does one of your boys have a bullet wound in his right arm?” Adam and Hoss had shot at some rustlers over two weeks earlier, hitting one and making him lose his pistol, but the brothers had lost them as they trailed them and rain had wiped out their tracks.
“Well, Matthew does have a cut in his arm. It’s not a gunshot wound, though. He cut himself when he was butchering a cow for the family.”
Hoss had moved to the gun cabinet and pulled a pistol from the drawer. He held it up showing the initials ME crudely carved into the pistol grip. “Now when we found this, we thought it was kinda funny that a rustler would say his pistol belonged to ‘me’ only now we know it stands for Matthew Evans. I’m thinking we’ll be sending this and what we know up to the sheriff there and making sure two rustlers get the punishment they deserve.”
Mr. and Mrs. Evans were distraught and decided to leave. None of the Cartwrights could muster up much sympathy for them as they left. They did feel a bit sorry for Tommy until he kicked Hoss in the leg as he passed him. Then they decided that the best thing would be for all of them to face justice. As they drove away, Hoss wrapped an arm around Adam’s shoulders.
“Older brother, it took a while, but those two jaspers who picked on you are gonna be getting their just desserts in prison. As short as those two are, their boys gotta be small too. I remember them riding away, and at first, we thought they might be boys until they yelled. They’re gonna have a rough time of it in prison.”
Adam nodded. “Maybe we ought to contact Dan Miller up there and tell him he can keep those cattle for his help in getting rid of two rustlers.”
The family agreed. They moved to the table then to have dinner that a beaming Hop Sing was serving. He had not liked the Evans at all and was very pleased to see Hoss and Adam once more at ease with each other. To him, it seemed balance had been restored in the universe.
Leaning on the doorframe to Adam’s bedroom, Hoss looked to his brother who was getting out of bed after sleeping late, which was rare for him. Hoss had done Adam’s chores instead of waking him earlier but had awakened him when he returned to the house so that their father would not realize that Adam wasn’t feeling all right after suffering a head injury. “Adam, I got a big favor to ask of you. There’s something I’d like you to do for me once your head feels better. I’ve been thinking on it since we talked out there by the fence line yesterday.”
“What is it, Hoss? You know I would do anything for you that I could.”
“Well, you saw your mother’s grave when you went to college. It’s a long way off, but you could go back there if you wanted to do that. Joe’s got his mother’s grave out by the lake, and he can go there anytime he wants. I want you to show me my mother’s grave.”
Adam sat back down on the bed then and stared at Hoss. “I don’t know if I can.”
“You don’t know if you can what?” Ben had stepped to the door and heard Adam’s response but not Hoss’ question. Both Adam and Hoss were quiet until Hoss repeated the request he had made of his older brother.
“Pa, I want Adam to show me where my Ma is buried. I want to be able to stand at her grave and say words over her. I want to see where her resting place is.”
“Hoss, I understand that you want to see where Inger is buried, but it was out in the wilderness. There was nothing there.”
“Pa, you said there were some ruins there of a place, and that you piled stones over each grave and marked ‘em. We could find all of that.”
“Maybe, but I doubt it. Adam was only six years old when that happened. I don’t know that he could find his way back there.”
“Pa, you know Adam remembers everything. If we backtrack the California Trail, I reckon he’d recognize the place. I want him to try at least.”
“Well, I don’t like the idea at all. I need the two of you here. You can’t expect Joe to take over all the work while you and Adam go off on a trip with almost no chance of success.”
“Hey, I get to take over? How soon can they go?” Joe had gotten up too and stood next to Ben in the doorway. Hoss had moved into the room and was leaning with both hands on the footboard of Adam’s bed. “Where are they going? Hey, Hoss, where are you and Adam going? Is it that new place that opened up in Reno? If it is, I want to go too.”
From the bed, Adam ended the conversation. “Pa, Hoss and I are going. It’s something we need to do, and whether or not we’re successful or not, it still has to be done. We’ll find Inger’s grave or we won’t. Hoss has a right to know if it can be done, and I’m the best bet to find that place.”
Ben nodded and turned to leave, taking Joe with him as he went, to leave Hoss and Adam to talk as needed.
“You think you can find my Ma’s grave?”
“Hoss, I don’t know, but you’re right that I don’t forget much. Once we get close, I’m hoping that it will trigger some memories that will help. I’ll do my best.”
“Thank you. That’s all I can ask.”
“Well, you better get packing. We’ll leave at first light tomorrow.”
“What about your head?”
“We can take breaks as needed. I’ll be fine as long as I get enough rest as we go.”
“I’ll pack an extra thick bedroll for you. We’ll take a packhorse so we can carry all that we need. Adam, there’s one more thing. If we find that spot, could you draw it for me? I’d like to do a carving of the scene and put my Ma’s picture right in the middle of it.”
“Hoss, I will if we find her grave.”
“Thanks, Adam. I’ll go downstairs and calm Pa down so you don’t have to deal with him.”
“Thanks, Hoss. That’s a very good idea, and I appreciate that very much.”
After Hoss left, Adam began setting aside things he wanted to take with him, including some maps and a compass as well as his new sketchbook. He hoped very much that he would be able to use it. He knew how important it had been to stand at his mother’s grave the first time. He had been there a number of times with his grandfather and a few more times alone. Each time, he felt he had a chance to say things to her he never could say to anyone else. He felt closer to her by doing that, and he hoped that Hoss could have the same experience.
The next morning, the two brothers set off on their quest. Ben was up early, as was Joe, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he hugged first Hoss and then Adam.
“I’m lucky that I don’t have to travel so far to visit my mother’s resting place. I know how important it is to me, so, Hoss, I hope you find Inger’s. I’ll be praying for you.”
“Thank you, little brother. Now you keep out of trouble while we’re gone. I don’t want to come back to bail you outta jail or nothing like that.”
“I’ll be too busy doing the work of three. Of course, for me, it’ll be more like doing the work of two. I work twice as fast as either of you.”
“You just keep thinking that way, little brother, and we’ll be back to see how you did in about three or four weeks, I hope.”
Ben stepped up to Adam. “You be sure to let us know where you are and how things are going.”
“I know, Pa. You’ll worry about us while we’re gone. We’ll get back as fast as we can so you can stop your worrying.”
“Oh, I worry about you when you’re here too. It’s just that I worry a bit less when I can see you every morning. Now, you take care, and take good care of your brother.” Ben moved to Hoss then and hugged him next. “You take care, and take good care of your brother too.”
“Pa, don’t you fret none. Me and Adam will take good care of each other.” With that, Hoss mounted up and took the lead rope for the packhorse. Joe and Ben waved as Adam and Hoss rode out.
They made very good time that first day because the horses were fresh, and it was overcast, which meant that Adam was much more comfortable. That night, they made camp with the practiced precision and efficiency of two men who have done it many times before with each other. Adam carried their gear into a campsite as Hoss groomed the horses and made sure they had grass to eat. Adam started a fire and began cooking their evening meal. Hoss got there with extra firewood to keep the fire going as Adam got out plates and utensils. Hoss spread out the bedrolls next to each other and rolled a log near the fire. As Adam served up their dinner, Hoss set their canteens by the log where they sat to eat. It was quiet, for all of that, because they were busy and there was no need to talk. When they finished eating and cleaned up, Hoss had something to say.
Hoss stared at the fire when he talked. “I been meaning to say something important to you, and we ain’t had the time alone for me to do it until now. I lost my temper the night of the party. I knew you wouldn’t do nothing to hurt me, so in my heart, I knew it was Regan that had betrayed me. I didn’t want to know that, though, and I wanted to hurt someone because I was hurting. I never should have hit you. I should have talked with you. I’m real sorry about that. It hurt me to see you hurting afterwards and knowing that I was the reason for it. I was real mad at myself, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I ain’t never gonna act that way again for no reason at all. I hope you can forgive me, ‘cause I am real sorry for what I done.”
Putting his hand on Hoss’ shoulder, Adam squeezed it. He wasn’t sure he trusted his voice at that point, but he knew Hoss understood. After about a minute, Adam looked at Hoss. “We’re quite a pair, aren’t we. We have to start talking with each other again. We used to talk about everything. Somehow, we got out of the habit of having all those talks.”
“Yeah, we need to make sure we got time with just the two of us sometimes so we can talk. Let’s make a promise that we’ll do that from now on.”
“It’s a deal. Now, let’s get some sleep and see if we can make as many miles tomorrow as we did today.”
They didn’t make as many miles the next day, but they did set a good pace. After about ten days, they were getting close to where the wagon train had suffered those casualties. On horseback with good supplies, they were traveling about three times faster than a wagon train would have been able to do. Their horses were tiring though, and they knew they would need to take a day off soon to let themselves and their horses rest. There were signs of bad weather coming in so they made a lean-to shelter for themselves and a rough corral for the horses in a small canyon.
The next day, it rained hard all day. They let the horses out to graze, keeping a watchful eye on them until late afternoon, and then they put them back into their small corral. Their supplies were dry, but they were forced to eat cold meals. There was no possible way to have a campfire. At night, they slept close together, sharing their warmth much as the horses huddled close together. On the next day, it was bright and clear. They had a good hot breakfast with bacon and coffee before heading out. Rested and refreshed, they expected to be at their destination within a few days.
A few nights later, Hoss and Adam were making camp. Hoss kept looking over his shoulder as if expecting someone.
Adam saw him.“You too? I’ve had this feeling for an hour or so that someone was there, but when I’ve looked, I haven’t seen anything. The feeling won’t go away, though.”
“I got a feeling in my gut that somebody is watching us. Same thing. I haven’t seen anything, but it’s just that things don’t seem right.”
“Could be, because we haven’t heard a bird or seen any small animal scurrying around, even when we came into this grove of trees.”
“Do you think it’s Indians?”
“No, they either wouldn’t be so close as to quiet all the birds and such and let us get our guard up, or they would have hit us already. Try to act as normal as possible but keep your pistol and rifle in easy reach, and we won’t build up the campfire. Let’s just have a small one so it looks normal, but at the first sign of trouble, we’ll douse it.”
“All right. I’ll get a pot of water by the fire. You make sure you got a place to hide if trouble starts. I’m aiming to use that big boulder to our right.”
“I’ll take that pair of trees to the other side then. It’ll make it harder for whoever it is to get us pinned down.”
The brothers fixed a quick dinner, paying attention to their surroundings and any anomalies in it. Their horses whinnied a few times, and it sounded as if there was an answering call from a great distance. Suspecting that whomever it was could be advancing on them, they doused the fire until it was only glowing coals and took the positions they had discussed earlier. Shots were fired into their bedrolls, and they answered the fire by aiming at the flash from gun barrels. They heard a man cry out and then another yelled a demand that they drop their weapons and surrender.
“Adam, they must be crazy or think we are.”
“Hoss, be quiet.” Adam tried to listen for their adversaries’ movements but their horses were making too much noise. Then he heard a sound which chilled him immediately. It sounded as if Hoss was hurt. He called out for Hoss but heard nothing until a strange voice called to him.
“You care what happens to the big man, take a look.” Their campfire was reignited into a bigger blaze so Adam could see that Hoss was standing there with two guns pointed at his head. Hoss didn’t dare make a sound, but he prayed that Adam would retreat. Adam couldn’t.
“Don’t hurt him. I’m coming out.” Tossing his guns out ahead of him, Adam moved into the circle of light and was quickly accosted by three men. One hit him, even though he was not resisting. Adam dropped to his knees to submit before he got hit again.
“What did you do that for? He came out like you said.”
“Can’t trust a gunfighter. He could have had another weapon on him.”
“He’s not a gunfighter. He’s my brother.”
“Well, that explains why you’re with him. You’ll be free to go once we get him locked up.”
“He’s hurt. Let me help him.”
“All right, but don’t do anything funny, or we’ll have to shoot both of you, and there’s quite a few here who wouldn’t mind doing that at all.”
Moving quickly to Adam’s side, Hoss knelt beside him as two men roughly pulled Adam’s arms behind him and handcuffed him. Hoss grabbed a handkerchief and dabbed at the blood on Adam’s lip. “At least they didn’t hit me too hard. Skinny little guy hits like a girl. What the hell do they want with me?”
“They think you’re a gunfighter. I don’t know why they’re after you, though. I’ll try to get ‘em to talk. You just rest as easy as you can. They can’t travel now anyway, so you’ll be able to get some rest before they take us wherever they’re planning on taking us. They said I’d be free to go once you’re locked up.”
“Well, at least they don’t plan to lynch me out here. Find out what you can.”
Hoss was back later with information. “I tried to tell ‘em who we are and what we’re doing out here, but they think you’re a gunfighter ‘cause you wear black clothes and carry your pistol low. There was a boy shot in town by a gunfighter, and I guess his father is a very important man and sent this posse to catch the man who killed his son. From what I can tell, the boy called the gunfighter out, and that was darn stupid. They said they got eyewitnesses, so when we get to town; it should all be cleared up. If it don’t, I’ll tear up that town if I have to. I’ll get you free one way or another.”
“Hoss, do not get yourself killed trying anything stupid like that. You get yourself killed, and I’ll never forgive you for that.”
Shaking his head, Hoss looked at Adam. “Do you have to make a smart remark about everything? This is serious.”
“I know. I was only trying to break the tension a little.”
“Just don’t do nothing to get them to hit you again. I know you got a hard head, but dadburnit, it hurts me to see you get hit.”
“I didn’t do anything to make them hit me before. I will try to get them to see reason though before this night is done.”
“Well, don’t take no chances. We’ll like as not get this straightened out in town. No need not to have a campfire now. I’ll see if they’ll let me cook up some grub, and maybe they’ll take them handcuffs off of you so you can eat.”
The posse did allow Hoss to cook, but they would only move the handcuffs so Adam’s hands were in front of him. The sheriff said it was only because they hadn’t given them any more trouble after shooting at them at first. Hoss and Adam tried to explain who they were, and that they were from the Ponderosa in Nevada. When they explained what they were doing though, the skeptical looks they got showed the men weren’t accepting their explanation.
Next, Adam tried logic on the group. “We only shot because you shot first. No one said you were the law. How were we to know you were a posse? As far as we knew, you were attacking us to take what we had.”
“Now, the way I see it, you knew you were being chased because of what you done, so you started shooting thinking you’d get away.”
“We didn’t even come from the same direction you did. You said you came from the south. Well, we came from the west. How does that make any sense to you?”
Caught off guard for a moment, the sheriff had to take some time before he could answer. “Well, we’ll just check that out in the morning. Now we’ll have a guard on you all night, so don’t think you can try anything. Couple men here wouldn’t mind dispensing with the trouble of a trial and a hanging by just shooting you down like you did that boy.”
“If it was a gunfight, why are you hunting the man who won?”
“Weren’t a real gunfight when the boy never even got his pistol from his holster and got shot in the chest.”
“So the gunfighter was supposed to let the boy shoot him? That’s a crazy way of looking at things.”
“His father helped every one of us out at one time or another. We’re helping him with this one. It only seems fair.”
“I thought you were the sheriff and sworn to uphold the law? There’s no law that covers this. There was no crime.”
“We got a law in our town that makes gunfighting illegal.”
“But you said the boy called out the gunfighter, so the man was defending himself. Is there a law against self-defense too?”
“You’re twisting everything around so you we’ll let you go. It ain’t gonna happen.”
“I’m not the one you’re looking for, anyway, but I think that perhaps delaying you from finding him is serving justice a lot more than anything this posse is doing. Or are you willing to bring back any man to satisfy the blood lust this important man has?”
“I ain’t talking with you no more. You just remember what I said, and don’t try nothing.”
Hoss moved beside Adam and lay back on his bed roll. “At first, I thought you was just riling him up for nothing, but by the time you finished, I could see he’s doubting what they’re doing and not just that they might have gotten the wrong man.”
“I hope so. I hope all that this is only a delay in our trip and nothing more. Now I need to sleep. I’ve got a headache.”
“I knew that poke to the jaw was gonna be a problem. You rest easy, and I’ll take care of everything for you.”
Hoss was as good as his word, of course, and the next morning, saddled up both of their horses and put the packs on the packhorse after he cleaned up from breakfast. He took his time getting all of that done so that Adam had more time to rest. By the time they headed out with the posse, Adam gave Hoss a small grin. It was all that Hoss had wanted to see.
As they rode, they heard grumbling among the posse that, if it was the wrong man, they had lost a lot of valuable time and that the man they were actually seeking was likely a long way off by then. Finally the sheriff halted the posse and looked over the men he had with him.
“All right. I can take this one into town, and Dustin can ride with us and get the doc to see to his arm. I know it looks a lot like this one here isn’t the one we’re after. He’s traveling with his brother, and they’ve got three horses. The trail we followed out of town was one horse. Now somewhere along the way, those trails might have crossed. Do the rest of you want to go find out if that’s true and follow the trail if you find it?”
Soon most of the posse had headed off in a westerly direction as the others watched them go. Adam had a question. “Sheriff, you know I’m not the one you’re after. Why don’t you just let my brother and me continue our journey?”
“Well, you did shoot Dustin.”
“We’ve been over that. He shot at us, and we were defending ourselves. You can hardly hold us accountable for that.”
“Well, someone has to pay for the doctoring he’s gonna need, and he won’t be able to work for a couple of weeks.”
“How much is what? I don’t take bribes if that’s what you’re asking.”
“No, let’s call it a fine. How much?”
“Well, if you did it in town, it would be thirty days or thirty dollars.”
Looking over at Hoss, Adam got his nod. It would take most of the cash they had with them, but if it meant they could keep traveling, then it was worth it. He pulled his wallet from his saddlebag and counted out thirty dollars. That left them with less than ten. The sheriff saw that and handed back ten.
“You sure you boys come from a big ranch? That’s not much money to be carrying for a trip.”
“We brought the supplies we needed, and the money was to pay for hotel rooms when we got a chance. I guess we’ll be sleeping on the ground a lot more than we planned.”
“Well, best of luck with your trip whatever you’re aiming to do. There’s an old trapper by the name of Sage out here somewhere. Sometimes he gets as far south as our town, but usually he roams further north. If you can find him, he might be able to help you find the place you’re looking for. He’s one of the first mountain men, and he’s been out here as long as anyone I know. He used to live with the Indians, but when his Indian wife died, he went by out by himself.” The sheriff pulled Adam’s holster and pistol from his saddlebags and told the other man to hand over their rifles and Hoss’ pistol. Adam and Hoss thanked the sheriff, and within a few minutes, the brothers were headed back on the trail in their original direction.
“Anything look familiar?”
“No. I’m very sorry, Hoss. For days now, I thought that some of the terrain at least would seem familiar. It looks like any other place we’ve been traveling. We should have been there by now.”
“I suppose it was a long shot anyway. Maybe tomorrow we should head back. No point in wandering around out here and not finding anything.”
“I guess we can make that final decision in the morning. Let’s sleep on it and see if we have a better idea in the morning.”
“Adam, maybe if we find that Sage, he could help us.”
Adam nodded but finding Sage might be just as difficult as finding the place where Inger was buried. If it gave Hoss hope, though, it was worth considering.
“Hey, Adam, why do you think Pa didn’t offer to come with us?”
“Hoss, Pa doesn’t navigate well on land. He takes one of us with him any time he has to travel through country that he doesn’t know well. He probably figured we were on a fool’s mission and he couldn’t help us, anyway. The memories of a six-year-old and the tracking skills of a sailor on land are not things that inspire confidence.”
“Then why did you agree to come with me?”
“Because you had a right to know, and we had a chance, even if it was an unlikely one. We needed to find out if it could be done. Pa probably was thinking about the same way. He wanted to give us a chance. It probably won’t stop him from telling us we wasted all this time, though.”
Hoss had to smile then because he could picture the look his father would give them when they returned. “Thank you. Even if we failed, we found something we had lost. That makes it worthwhile.”
“Yes, it does. Now let’s get some sleep.”
The next morning, Hoss rolled over to sleep more when dawn first broke. He was in no hurry to get going. They had failed in their quest, and he needed to accept that he would never find his mother’s grave, never be able to say words over her final resting spot, and never have an image to help him remember her.
Hoss was sound asleep again when he heard Adam call for him several times. He leaped to his feet, nearly dumping his blanket in the fire. He quickly pulled that away from the campfire and headed toward the sound of Adam still yelling for him. He had his pistol out ready for whatever trouble his brother had found. When he broke free of the trees and brush that had shielded their campsite from dust blown by the winds they had faced for the last two days, he found Adam standing atop a large boulder. Hoss looked up at him in consternation because Adam was grinning.
“Hoss, I am such a fool. You must have hit me harder than I thought and scrambled my brains a bit.”
“Well, if I didn’t before, I reckon I’m thinking it wouldn’t be such a bad idea right about now. Why did you scare me like that? I come up here thinking I needed to save you, and you’re standing there grinning at me.”
“Hoss, I kept saying that nothing was familiar. Of course it wasn’t. We were headed west when it happened. I’ve been looking at the terrain all wrong. I was looking east. This morning when I looked west, I remembered.”
“You remembered where Ma is buried?”
“No, not yet, but I remember that swayback mountain. I remember Ma saying it looked like a worn-out old horse. We laughed about that. Hoss; she was alive when we were this far, and it was shortly after that, I think, that we had all the trouble. We camped near here because we talked about that mountain with the sun going down behind it. Hoss, let’s pack up and start looking. It can’t be too far. Up in these hills, we could only travel thirty or forty miles in a day at best, and sometimes it was less than that. I remember wagon wheels being damaged and they had to fix them. We even had a drag bar on a wagon once until we got to the next settlement so we could get a new rim for the wheel.”
“Adam, before we go, could you draw that mountain. I want that picture to go with the story you told about Ma. We might not find the exact spot, but I’m in the area now. I feel better just knowing that.”
For the next three days, after Adam and Hoss had ridden toward that swayback mountain, they crisscrossed the area up and down the river on both sides and found nothing remotely resembling the place that Adam recalled.
Finally as they sat at the campfire, Hoss was discouraged. “I guess it really was a long shot, but I was really hoping we could find it. Now I guess it really is time to head for home.”
“I’m sorry, Hoss. I tried, but nothing looks the way I remember it. I thought it had to be here, but it isn’t. I did draw several scenes for you, and we know we’re close to where it happened.”
They laid their bedrolls out then, and fell asleep side-by-side as they had for weeks. In the morning, a rifle barrel poking him in the back awakened Adam.
“Now you two been poking around my river for days now. I want you gone, you hear me?”
Carefully sitting up and assuring the man that he would do nothing stupid, Adam called out to Hoss, who awoke slowly until he saw the man in ragged buckskin holding a rifle on his brother.
“Sir, I assure you that we didn’t know the river was yours. We were planning to leave today if that makes you feel better.”
“You find my gold?”
“Ah, we weren’t looking for gold.”
“Then why you been poking around my river?”
“My brother’s mother was killed near here about twenty-five years ago. We were hoping to find where she was buried.”
“Twenty-five years ago, huh. Well, nobody been killed near this river for further back than that as far as I know.”
Hoss knew who it had to be. “Are you Sage?”
Swinging his rifle toward Hoss, the man stood in anger. “How did you know my name?”
“Sorry, Mister, I didn’t mean no offense. We met the sheriff of a little town south of here, and he told us that if anyone knew where my Ma was buried, it would be you.”
“You two brothers?” Adam and Hoss nodded. “Then how come this one here says your ma got killed near here? Ain’t it his ma too?”
“His mother died when he was born. Pa got married again, and that was my Ma and she got killed near here someplace.”
“Lost two mothers, did you?”
“Yes, and our little brother’s mother was killed in an accident too.”
Adam sat quietly listening to Hoss talking with the man and gradually calming him down. He knew better than to say anything, so he remained quiet, letting Hoss handle him.
“Well, don’t that beat all. Your pa’s got real back luck with his women. I had one woman. She died on me, but she didn’t leave me with no boys to raise. Kinda wished she had, though. Now tell me about what happened and why you think it was on this here river.”
Hoss nodded to Adam then, who explained what he could remember.
“Well, no wonder you ain’t found nothing. You’re on the wrong branch of the river.”
“Branch? I didn’t see another branch of this river.”
“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t any more. Wagon trains used to follow the southern branch of the river ‘cause it was so shallow and easy to cross if they needed to do that. The northern branch here is a lot deeper. The flood of forty-six blocked up that southern branch with brush and such. Over the years, the sand kinda kept filling it in more and more and the water just naturally flowed through this here branch.”
Hoss got very interested at that point. “Mister, can you show us where that southern branch is?”
“Heck, I can do better than that. I know right where them bodies are buried. There ain’t that many killings out here, you know. But first, I’m right hungry. You two got some bacon and coffee?”
Anxious to get going but unwilling to do anything to antagonize the one man who could help them, Hoss and Adam quickly got some breakfast cooking. Apparently Sage never did learn how to make good coffee and was very appreciative of the coffee that Adam could make. In fact he liked it so much, he had three cups of it. As he finished his third cup, he asked if there was more bacon. There wasn’t, so he got up and handed the cup to Adam.
“Well, let’s get going then. We ain’t got to be wasting all this time just sitting here.”
They rode for two hours, meandering at times until Sage pronounced that he had found the spot.
Adam looked around expecting to recognize something and didn’t. When he looked at Hoss and saw his hopeful look, his heart sank as he shook his head and Hoss looked so dejected. If there were graves in the spot Sage had showed them, it wasn’t apparent.
They walked around for a time and did find several spots where stones had been scattered. Sage told them that people had traveled through here quite often back then, and picked up the stones to make fire rings. He himself had thought he would know right where the graves were, but the stones were scattered so much that he couldn’t be sure. Finally he stuck a stick in the ground at a few spots saying that was his best recollection of where the bodies had been buried.
“Now I was living with my wife’s tribe at the time. We come around here about a day or two after this all happened. The graves were obvious then, with the stones laid over them, protecting them from the varmints. They run their wagons over the spots to disguise it some, but those stones laid like they were on the ground let us know there was people buried here. We didn’t tarry none. Her people don’t believe in being around a spot where the dead are buried.”
Sage left then, saying he was sorry they hadn’t found what they were looking for. Adam went to the pack horse and got out a small spade. Hoss asked him what he was doing.
“Now this is a huge long shot. I told you about taking baths in shallow water. Well we did that right here. I found some stones that looked like gold to me. Pa said they were fool’s gold and not worth anything. Ma said they were pretty, though and that I should keep some if I thought they were worth keeping. She wrapped them up in a piece of old burlap. I have them at home some place in my room. I think they’re in an old trunk in my closet.”
“Adam, I appreciate you telling me the story, but what does that have to do with what you’re doing now?”
“I put one of those stones in Ma’s grave. When Pa said we couldn’t put up a decent marker and that they would run the wagons over the graves to hide them, I thought I would do something to mark her grave in my own way. I put one of those fool’s gold rocks in the ground under the rocks used to cover the grave. I buried it in a few inches of sand. So, you game to try to find it?”
“I’m game. Let’s try by those sticks Sage set out for us.”
They dug up the soil by about six feet in every direction from the sticks Sage had stuck in the ground. Adam was sure they only needed to dig up the first few inches to find it if it was still there. They found a number of stones and small rocks but none that resembled the one Adam described.
As dusk arrived, they stopped for the day, planning to finish the next day. Early the next morning, they skipped breakfast, and after watering the horses and setting them out to graze, they began digging again. It was almost noon when Adam sat back on his heel and poured some water over a stone in his hand. “Well, I’ll be god-damned.”
“You found it?”
“I found it. This is where Inger is buried.” Adam had to take a few deep breaths then to get his emotions under control again. “Well, somewhere here. The stone could have been moved, but this has got to be the one I left. Look at it, Hoss. Pa was wrong.”
Hoss rolled the stone in his hand and looked in amazement at Adam. “It is gold.” He had a small piece of granite with quartz, and running in a vein between the quartz and the granite was a thin gold line. ‘You left gold for Ma!”
Adam stood and Hoss moved in to hug him. They were standing at Inger’s grave. The impossible dream had been achieved. Soon both brothers were crying.
Working together without speaking, they began collecting rocks and stones, piling them across the area they had dug up at that stick that Sage had placed. Soon it was a recognizable cairn. Adam got some wood for a cross and Hoss spent the rest of the day carving it. Adam was doing sketches and drew in the cross that Hoss made. As the sun set, Hoss stood at the cairn with Adam at his side. They said some prayers together, and then silently each sent their messages to their Ma.
That night as they lay on their bedrolls lost in their own thoughts, Hoss asked Adam a question. “Adam, do you think that was the same rock? I mean you found others here. What if that was another one that washed out of that river when it flooded or even one that was left here by whatever washed those others into the river?”
After a short pause, Adam answered. “Hoss, I’ve been thinking the same thing. I don’t know. It could be the one I left or another one. We’ll never know, but sometimes you have to believe in miracles. Sometimes, you just have to believe. Sometimes faith is all you have.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking too. Night, Adam.”
The next morning, Adam had his map out and marked the spot on the map, drawing in the dry branch of the river. Before they left, Hoss knelt at his mother’s grave. Adam heard him talking softly so he went to take care of the horses so they could be ready when Hoss finished. It took about a half hour, and then Hoss walked up to Adam and slapped him on the shoulder.
“We did it, brother. Now, let’s go home.”
“Pa, hey, Pa, Adam and Hoss are back.” Joe had opened the front door to yell for his father and then rushed into the yard to hug his brothers. “It’s about time you got back. Pa’s been worried about you.”
“And I suppose you haven’t been worried at all, little brother, about me and Adam?”
“Heck, no. I’m tired of doing all the work around here.”
“Oh, so you’re tired of doing all the work around here. I guess you must have been home alone then.”
“Ah, no, Pa, well, you know what I meant. I was doing the work for these two old men.”
“Oh, so you’ve been ‘doing the work for these two old men’. Well, ‘these two old men’ are my sons, so what does that make me?”
“Gosh, Pa, you didn’t give me this much trouble while my brothers were gone. Maybe they ought to leave again.”
Ben had hugged both of his older sons as he was teasing Joe. “Oh, no, I let them go this time against my better judgment.” Ben paused knowing the look he would get from Adam. Then smiling, he added the rest. “Next time, I’m going with them.”
Ben wanted to usher his sons inside then, but both of them wanted to take care of their horses first. It was a lesson Ben had taught them as boys so he could hardly object to it now. He and Joe went to the stable with them, though, helping with the tack and the packhorse. “Now tell me how you managed to find where Inger is buried. I never thought I would ever get a telegram saying you had been successful.”
“Well, Pa, it never would have happened if Adam hadn’t got arrested.”
“Adam got arrested?”
“Oh, it was all right, though. The posse didn’t try to lynch him or nothing.”
“The sheriff told us about an old prospector wandering around in those hills. We never would have found him, but he found us. You should have seen the look on Adam’s face when he had that rifle poked in Adam’s back. Lucky for us that he liked Adam’s coffee, I guess.”
“A rifle in his back?”
“Yeah, then Sage was the key to the whole thing.”
“Hoss, how could sage be the key to the whole thing?”
“Well, Pa, Adam says sage ain’t just a plant; it also means a wise man, or in this case, I guess, it was a man with a darn good memory. If his wife hadn’t died, we might never have found him or him found us.”
“Whose wife died and what does that have to do with this story?”
“Pa, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Ain’t you been listening to me? So anyway, when we found the river that’s not there anymore and then the gold, we knew we were in the right spot.”
Ben stood with his hands out, not even knowing what question to ask next. Joe looked confused, and Hoss was frustrated. All three turned angry looks at Adam who was laughing so hard he was leaning against Sport. Adam had tears in his eyes because of the laughter. He sobered up quickly when he saw that his family didn’t appreciate the humor of the situation. He sat on a hay bale and proceeded to tell the story, filling in all the details that Hoss had missed. When he finished, Ben had a satisfied look.
“Doggone it, Pa. He told the same story I told, but you didn’t ask him no questions.”
“Hoss, I guess I had to hear it twice to understand everything that happened. Now, Hop Sing is probably cooking up a welcome home dinner right now. Let’s head to the house, and you can tell us any more stories about your trip that you want to tell.”
“I’m thinking that we ought to look at Adam’s drawings next. Maybe you might remember something if you take a look at ‘em?”
So they sat inside and looked at the sketches. Ben didn’t remember the swayback mountain but did remember the two boys bathing in a stream. He didn’t remember the story about the gold, but Hoss pulled the stone from his pocket to show to his father.
“Ma told Adam he should keep ‘em. Adam says he’s got more up in his room somewhere.”
After dinner, Adam went to his room and came downstairs with a small burlap wrapped bundle. He opened it up to show four more of the small stones. He gave the largest to his father. “That could make a nice paperweight for your desk. We know that Ma handled these.” He gave one to Joe and one to Hoss and kept the last one for himself, planning to put it in a prominent place in his room now that he knew the significance of it.
Hoss was turning over the two stones in his hands. “I’m gonna make a carving and put Ma’s picture right in the middle of it, like a frame. I’m gonna put these two stones in the bottom corners. It’s gonna hang in my room, and it’ll be like my Ma is right there with me like a guardian angel.”
For generations after generations of Cartwrights, that story of the trip to find Ma’s grave was repeated and repeated as the special carving done by Hoss Cartwright was passed down as a most valuable family heirloom. The oldest child of each son received the stone from his father and those were passed down as well. In the offices of Cartwright, Inc., the stone Ben used as a paperweight for years always rested on the desk of the Cartwright who acted as president of the company. Up in heaven, Inger watched over her family and rejoiced in their success and the love they had for one another as it had been shown by one brother who helped his brother find his dream.