To Hell and Back (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  31,460


 

Location: Carson and Humbolt River Basins, Churchill County, Nevada 

The 40- mile desert, beginning here, is a barren stretch of waterless alkali wasteland.  It is the most dreaded section of the California Emigrant Trail; it is traveled by night because of the great heat. 

The route was first traveled by the Walker-Chiles in 1843 with the first wagon trail.  Regardless of its horrors, it became the accepted route, as it split five miles southwest of here into the two main trails into California-the Carson River and the Truckee River Routes. 

Starvation for men and animals stalked every mile.  A survey made in 1850 showed these appalling statistics: 1,061 dead mules, almost 5,000 horses, 3,750 cattle, and 953 graves.  The then-value of personal property lost was set at $1,000,000. 

The heaviest traffic came from 1849 to 1869.  It was still used after completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869…several years after Joseph Francis Cartwright nearly met his fate, attempting to cross this arid, desolate land…a land that he later described to his father, as having been ‘to hell and back’.

 

 

Adam summed it all up in a matter of just a few words.

“He’s stubborn and bull-headed. He’s determined to make this trip, Pa; you might as well accept it.”

Ben shook his head, his disgust showing on his weathered face. The shine of his eyes reflected the fire that burned brightly in the massive fireplace where Ben stood, warming his hands.  The red glare enhanced the hardened features of the senior Cartwright’s expression. “I don’t understand him at times, Adam.  He’s so…so…”

“Impulsive, self-willed, incorrigible, insufferable…”

Ben’s brow wrinkled in a deep scowl and he turned, shaking his index finger under Adam’s nose. “That’s about enough young man. You make it sound as if Joe’s…OH, I don’t know.  You sound as if you don’t even like your own brother!” stormed Ben, flinging his hand about in the air.

“You know that’s not true, Pa…Joe’s just…Joe…that’s all.  He’s still a kid, leastwise to me he is, and he’ll always be, I suppose.  But fact is, we’ve all tried to talk him out of this, but he refuses to listen to reason,” retorted Adam, as disgusted sounding as his father had been moments before.

Hoss entered through the kitchen, just in time to hear his older brother’s words.  He too wore a look of doubt on his face and the expression in his eyes, showed how worried he was. “Ain’t ya got no idey why Little Joe thinks he has to make this trip, Pa?” the big man asked as he lowered his huge frame gently down onto the settee.  “Seems to me, ya could refuse to let’em go,” he added, looking a bit skeptically at his father.

“Sure…I could forbid him from going.  But then we’d all have to listen, for days…possibly even weeks, to his moaning and groaning about how we never let him do anything, how he’s not a boy…how unfair it is that the two of you get to do everything you want and how he’s not allowed to do anything.  Then he’ll start sulking and pouting and start ignoring everything we say to him…Oh dear Lord…why couldn’t I have had daughters instead!” groaned Ben, as he dropped into his favorite chair. He rolled his eyes upward, his lips barely moving, his voice low…almost a whisper. “Why me, Lord?  Why me?”

Adam grinned at Hoss, though he knew that what his youngest brother had planned was indeed a serious matter.  The 40-mile desert was the most dreaded stretch of land that the pioneers had ever encountered, and to think of his kid brother retracing the steps of the men who had, or nearly had, lost their lives shook Adam to the core of his being.

He watched his father closely and saw the worry and dread etched into his face and knew that once Joe had left, there would be weeks and weeks of sleepless nights and hours of constant worry on all their parts. Adam briefly wondered if his father was up to the stress and whether or not Joe was as prepared for the long hot days and freezing nights that lay ahead of him. Without realizing what he was doing, Adam shook his head.

“What are you thinking about, son?” Adam heard his father ask.

The question broke through his ravine and brought him back to the present.  Adam’s eyes were dark and his tone pressing when he responded to the question.

“That perhaps I should go with him,” Adam announced.

The thought had been floating around in his head for the last several days, but he had yet to voice the suggestion, until now.

“I really don’t think the boy should do this, but since there seems no way of stopping him, I just thought it might be a good idea if one of us goes with him, and I…I think I’m the one to go,” Adam persisted.

“Oh, you do, do you?  And why is that?” Ben said, his thick brows raised slightly.

“Because…it is my idea…and because I’m the oldest.  And if that isn’t reason enough then…because there will be more of a chance of the two of us making it across that wasteland than there will be if only one goes,” Adam explained.

“So…just because you think of an idea, then I’m suppose to agree to the suggestion; is that what you are really saying, Adam?” his father asked.

“No, Pa…that’s not it at all and you know it.  I’m…worried about Joe making such a trip all alone.  For God’s sake, anything could happen to him…”

“Don’t you think I’ve thought of that?” roared Ben, his temper rising. He rose from his chair and turned toward the fireplace and began poking at the embers.  The fire buzzed softly and then started glowing brighter as the fire took and began to intensify.

Adam moved to his father’s side, wanting to reach out and comfort his parent, to ease some of the anxiety he could see in the dark eyes that refused to look at him.

“Pa,” Adam said lowly, “I’d take care of him for you. I’d try…I’d die…for him, to protect him, or to save his life, you know that…”

Ben turned his head quickly, seeing the serious and sincere expression on his oldest son’s face.  The mask had fallen away and Ben could see the deep abiding love that the boy had for his youngest brother, glimmering in the depths of the hazel coloring.

Ben opened his mouth to speak, surprised to find that he nearly choked on his words.

“I…know you…would, son!” Ben said, instantly proud that he had fathered such remarkable sons. “But Adam, if you went with Joseph, I’d worry twice as much because then I would live in fear of losing two sons, not just one.  Son, if anything happened to you…or to Joe…I’m not sure that I could go on living.”

Ben glanced at Hoss who remained seated and who watched with troubled eyes two of the people he loved most in life, bickering about life and death.  Their words sent shivers of fear coursing though his veins and without realizing he had done so, Hoss’ massive frame quivered.

“Adam, Hoss,” Ben addressed each one, “you two, and Little Joe, are my life’s blood.  Without you, I am nothing…do you understand?  If anything happened to all of you, I would not want to live…there would be nothing…do you understand, nothing left in this world for me.  No, Adam, I want you to stay here, every bit as much as I don’t want Little Joe to make this journey, please son…” stammered Ben, practically reduced to tears, so intense was he pleading.

Adam’s lips pressed firmly together in a tight straight line; he didn’t like his father refusing him the right to go, but then he understood the words of love that Ben had spoken of in his roundabout way of expressing himself.

“Alright, Pa…I’ll stay.  I’ll not be the cause of more worry for you.  But understand this — if Little Joe isn’t back in six weeks, eight at the most, I’m going after him, agreed?” Adam declared.

Hoss took this opportunity to jump to his feet.  He stepped around the coffee table and stood with his brother.

“And when he goes, I’m going with him!” Hoss acclaimed to his father without faltering determination.

Ben stared deeply into the faces of each one of his two sons.  He smiled at last, easing the tension somewhat.

“Well, don’t think for one minute that when you two leave, you leave without me, because I’m going too!” announced Ben.

“Going where?” Joe asked as he pushed opened the front door and entered just as his father had made his proclamation of intent.

Ben quickly looked in Adam’s direction and then Hoss’, desperately searching for something to say without confessing to the youngest member of the family what they had planned.

“To bed, it’s getting late and…I’m tired,” Ben said, pivoting on his heels and heading toward the stairs.

“What’s ailing, Pa?” Joe questioned as he plopped down on the settee and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl.

Adam and Hoss watched as Joe rubbed the bright red fruit up and down on his shirt before biting into it.

“Nothin’,” stammered Hoss.  “Night,” he called as he followed in his father’s footsteps.

Joe looked surprised at Hoss’ sudden departure.  He turned to Adam who stood with his back to him, poking at the fire in the fireplace.

“Alright, big brother, what’s going on?” Joe asked.

Adam stopped and glanced over his shoulder, seeing Joe from the corner of his eye. “Nothing,” he fibbed.

Joe pushed himself up from the couch and sauntered over to the fireplace.  Adam heard Joe take another crunch into his apple.

“It’s this trip I’m taking, isn’t it?” Joe inquired bravely.

“Must you talk with food in your mouth?”

Joe swallowed.  “Then answer my question, what’s going on?”

Adam placed the poker back in the rack and turned dark eyes on Joe.  He placed his hands on his hips, looking much like his father, thought Joe.

“Alright Joe… it’s about this dang trip you have your head set on taking.  Pa’s worried sick about it, not that it matters to you,” Adam said with a sneer.

“That’s where you’re wrong, big brother.  It does matter to me. I don’t mean to worry Pa, but this is something that I have to do, not that you would understand,” Joe responded with a glare.  His tone matched his brother’s condescending one.

“You are absolutely right on that point, little brother.  I do not understand…and before you say anything else,” Adam held his hand up to silence Joe.  “I think Pa is wrong in allowing you to do this…but that’s just my opinion, Joe. I don’t want to argue with you about it.  It is plain to all of us that you have set your head on this and that it isn’t likely you’ll be changing your mind.  So…on that note, I bid you, good night.”

Adam made a bow and before Joe could say another word, Adam was up the stairs and out of sight.  For nearly an hour afterwards, Joe sat alone in the great room, pondering his decision from all perspectives.

It had all begun over six months ago when he’d first met Tate Cameron, quite by accident, one might say, though Joe would disagree.  It happened on a Saturday night, as Joe recollected, in the Silver Dollar Saloon.  Joe leaned his head back against the headrest of his father’s leather chair and closed his eyes, recalling the chance meeting.

*****

“Hey!” shouted the stranger as he pushed his way into the Silver Dollar Saloon.

He was tall and thick built, though not an ounce of fat could be seen on his frame.  He was muscular and he carried himself with an air of assurance about him.  His handgun was tied down low on his right hip, and if one were guessing, they might think him a gunfighter, but he reeked of cattle, giving a clue to his true profession as a cowboy.

All eyes turned to watch as the young man paused and scanned the curious faces in the crowd.

“Wonder what’s going on?” Joe asked his two brothers.

They sat together around the table in the back corner of the room where they had been sipping their beer.

“Which one of you fellas own that swayed back, black and white pinto tied out front?” the cowboy shouted.

Joe’s eyes widened slightly as he glanced at his brothers and then gently pushed back his chair, rising to his feet.  He swallowed down the last drop of ale and then sat the mug on the table, turning to the young man.  The crowd parted, giving way to the two facing each other. “I do,” he called in a cool manner as he moved forward to stand before the stranger.

“Why, what’d he do…kick ya?”  Joe’s hazel eyes swept the crowd, his lips tilted up in a sly grin and then his eyes sought the other man’s face.

Joe never knew for sure what hit him until much later.  He felt his body being lifted from the ground and sent cascading down across the tables and into the floor.  Every muscle in his body seem to be on fire with burning pain as he tried to force himself up and turn to face the man.

He was barely on his feet before the second solid blow, to his mid-section, doubled him up in the floor, groaning with anguish.  It was then that he recognized the boots that Hoss was wearing.  The sharp pointed toes were barely under his nose when he felt the gentle hands pull him upright and stand him on his feet.  Joe groaned softly, looked up into his brother’s clear blue eyes and then blacked out.

As his slender body crumbled, Hoss quickly caught his brother, glancing over toward Adam who now stood nose to nose with the raven-haired stranger.  Hoss scooped the unconscious Joe into his ample arms and headed for the door; his brother needed the doctor and Hoss aimed on getting him there.  The amiable giant glanced over his shoulder, just in time to see Adam deck Joe’s attacker and send him sprawling along on the sawdust covered floor of the saloon.  The cantankerous man stayed down, rubbing his chin, but not daring to get to his feet.  Something clicked inside his head and he knew that he was no match for this stranger with the ebony eyes that spoke louder than any words the man might utter.

“Whatever the problem with the boy, mister, that should settle things,” Adam said in a warning voice.

Cautiously, Adam backed his way to the front of the establishment, pausing at the bar to toss some coins down on the counter. “That should cover things, Cosmo.”

Adam nodded his head at the bar tender and pushed backwards through the double swinging doors.  He spotted Hoss entering the doctor’s office across the street and hurried to join his brothers.

*****

“He’s just addled some, but he should be fine,” Paul told Adam and Hoss, who hovered over their younger sibling like worried hens with wondering chicks.

“Ya sure?” Hoss questioned the doctor.

Paul, who had his back to the pair, smiled to himself. “I’ve been a physician for more years than you’ve been alive, young man, and I can assure you, he’s going to be fine.  Just let him rest here for a spell and when he’s come to his senses enough, take him home.”

Paul turned back and faced Hoss and Adam, smiling.  “I gave him something to ease the pain.  He’ll be sluggish for a while, but I think you can get him home in time for supper…though I doubt that he’ll want anything to eat,” Paul explained, turning to check his patient.  “His jaw is going to be mighty sore for the next few days.”

“He’s waking up now.”

*****

“Honest, Adam, I have no idea who that fella was, or why he wanted to wallop me,” Joe said as he climbed slowly onto his mount’s back.

“Well, he must have had some reason.”  Adam swung gracefully into the saddle.

“Ya been sneakin’ behind his back, seein’ his gal?” Hoss said with a snicker.

“NO!…Oh,” Joe moaned, leaning low over Cochise’s neck.  “I ain’t even seeing a girl right now.”

Adam leaned over and took the reins from his brother’s hands, shaking his head in sympathy of Joe’s plight.

“Just try to hang on, little buddy; I’ll get you home.”

“Thanks, Adam,” muttered Joe, clinging to the pommel on the saddle and swaying gently as Cochise clomped along behind his stable mate.

*****

“And you have no idea why this man attacked you?” Ben asked for the second time.

Joe sat in his father’s leather chair, following Ben with his eyes, as his father paced back and forth in front of the fireplace.  Joe shook his head slowly from side to side. “No sir.”

Ben looked in Adam’s direction and then towards Hoss. “Either of you have any knowledge of this?”

“Nosir,” Hoss replied.  “I thought maybe Joe might be messin’ ‘round with this fella’s gal…”

“Well, I’m not…I’ve already told you that I wasn’t seeing anybody, Hoss. Why can’t you believe me?” Joe said irritably.

“Aw…dadburnit, Joe, I believe ya,” Hoss replied with a grin.

“Adam, what about you?” Ben turned his questioning to eldest son.

“Beats me, Pa.  We were minding our own business when this fellow came into the saloon and asked who own the black and white pinto…”

“The sway back, black and white pinto,” Joe piped in to add.

“Sway back,” agreed Adam with a grin, knowing how the statement rubbed the younger man the wrong way.  “Joe told the guy he did, and the next thing we knew, Joe was picking, or I should say, trying to pick himself up from the floor.  That’s about it.”

*****

The stranger, Tate Cameron, appeared at the door of the Cartwright house two days after he had an encounter with Little Joe in the saloon.  Ben opened the door, unaware that before him stood his son’s attacker.

“Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes, may I help you?” Ben asked, opening the door wider.

“Well, I hope so,” the stranger grinned.  “I was told in town that you were doing some hiring…I need a job, sir.”

 His voice was pleasant and Ben liked the way the young man addressed himself.  Opening the door further, Ben waved his hand out in a circular motion. “You heard correctly, come in, please…and meet my sons.”

Tate moved into the house and waited while Ben closed the door.  Ushering Tate into his office area, Ben paused when Joe, who had been sitting at his desk, looked up with shock on his face at the stranger.  Adam followed Joe’s stance and straightened to his full height.  Hoss glanced from one to the other, not knowing quite what to expect.  Tate froze to the spot, until Ben turned toward him.

“Is there something wrong?” Ben questioned to no one in general.

“I’d better be going, sir,” Tate said quickly.

“But I thought you said you needed a job?”  Ben seemed confused.

“I do…ere…did, but…”

“But nothing. Now come over here young man, and meet my boys.  Adam, Hoss, Joe…this is…I’m sorry,” Ben said, glancing at the stranger.  “I didn’t get your name?”

“Tate…sir,” he said, watching Joe from the corner of his eye as he tried to look as if nothing was wrong.  “Tate Cameron, sir” he stammered.

“Well, Tate…these are my sons, Adam, Hoss and…”

“We’ve met,” Joe said in a huff.

Ben looked even more surprised than ever.  “Have you now?”

“In the saloon, the other night.  This is the man who attacked me,” Joe explained as he rounded the desk to stand in front of Tate.  “And I’d like to know why,” he said, almost demanding an explanation from the man.

“It was a mistake,” Tate said, swallowing hard.

“What?” stammered Joe.

“Yeah…you see, I got conned in a business deal,” Tate began to explain.  “I was buying some property from this fella…I guess my first mistake was buying it sight unseen…well, anyway…all I got for my hard earned money was swamp.  My second mistake was sending the fella money through the mail to pay for it…”

“You what?” proclaimed Ben.

“I know, Mr. Cartwright…it was a dumb thing to do,” admitted Tate.

“That still doesn’t account for why you attacked me!” Joe said, his anger dissolving somewhat.

“That was my third mistake.  See, I was supposed to meet up with the seller in Placerville, but he never showed up.  I found out there that he was a con, so I started out looking for him.  I chased him all the way to Virginia City.  I wasn’t sure what he was riding, but I stopped a fella and asked about this guy. I was told the guy I was looking for was in the saloon and that he had just ridden into town on a black and white pinto.”

Tate looked remorsefully at Joe and swallowed.  “I didn’t find out until I’d already clobbered you that the man I asked, was the same man I was looking for.”

Hoss and Adam snickered, but Ben’s stern scowl wiped the smirks off their faces.

“Go on,” Ben urged.

“Well, sir, Joe…when I went inside and asked who rode the black and white pinto…”

“Sway back, black and white pinto,” Joe corrected, glancing at Adam.

“You stood up,” Tate said to Joe.  “How was I to know I’d been lied to?”

All eyes turned toward Joe.  Ben studied his son’s face, knowing that Joe was having a hard time staying mad at this man who seemed so remorseful.

Adam watched with interest and Hoss waited with baited breath.

“He’s not sway back, you know,” Joe said in a serious tone.

Hoss burst out laughing, joined seconds later by his father and older brother.

“Heh?”

“My pinto, Cochise, he’s not sway back,” Joe said and then grinned.

“Oh…yeah, well, I’m sorry about that…I reckon I was just so dadburn mad about losing my money and all, that I…”

“Forget it,” laughed Joe.  “I mean about hitting me.  I suppose if it happened to me, I’d do the same thing.  It was a mistake, that’s all.”

“You mean it…you ain’t mad at me…you ain’t gonna hold it against me?” Tate said in wide-eyed wonder.

“Naw…I ain’t mad and I ain’t gonna hold it against you,” promised Joe.  “Pa…didn’t you say something about needing to hire a couple of men to haul some freight for you?” Joe asked, turning to Ben with a grin on his young face.

“Yes…yes, I did.” Ben nodded his head.  “Mr. Cameron, can you drive a wagon?”

“Can I?  You bet I can, Mr. Cartwright, sir,” gleamed their new friend.

“Then the job’s yours.”

“Thank you…all of you.”  Tate turned back to Little Joe.  “And thank you,” he said. “Golly, just wait until Julie hears about this…”

“Julie?” Ben said, puzzled.

“Yes sir, my wife.  See, when I came here to see about the property I had bought, and after I got settled, I was sending for my wife and daughter.  They’re back in Oreana, waiting word that it’s time to come.  But now, since I’ve lost all our money…and our land, I’ll have to save enough just to go home,” Tate explained with a sad expression.

*****

From that day on, Tate Cameron and Joe became fast friends.  They worked side by side and come Friday and Saturday nights, the pair could be found in the Bucket of Blood together, engaged in a round of drinks, or a game of poker.  The ladies flocked to the handsome young men, but Tate refused their generous offers of visiting with them in one of the upstairs rooms.  He’d find himself sitting alone, or with Adam and Hoss on a few occasions when his sidekick would take one of the girls up on their invitation.

Tate would wait patiently for Joe to finish his ‘business’ and then the two friends would ride home together.

It was Saturday afternoon when the friendship came to an abrupt end.  The sun was shining high in the sky, glaring down on the townsfolk and making most of them irritable because of the blistering heat.

Tate had driven the wagon into town for the Cartwrights, and Joe had ridden along to keep his friend company.  Adam and Ben had arrived ahead and were waiting at the mercantile store, having already ordered their supplies.  Once the wagon had been loaded, Ben had asked Tate and Joe to drive the wagon down to the freight office where he had a small load to pick up there as well.

Ben went inside while Joe and Tate waited in the shade.  Adam had stopped at the post office to pick up the mail and agreed to meet the others at the Silver Dollar as soon as the business at the freight company was finished.

“You two run along and get a cold beer.  Harry’s gonna help me load up and I’ll drive the wagon down and meet you there,” Ben told Joe and Tate.

Joe grinned at Tate and nodded his head toward the saloon.  He needed no prompting, and neither did his friend.

“Thanks, Pa…I’ll order you a beer,” Joe called over his shoulder.

The two young men, engrossed in conversation, had only walked about halfway down to the saloon when a loud rumbling sound stopped them in their tracks.  Two heads spun around, just as the freight wagon, the team of frightened horses and shouts of warning, bore down on them.

Everything and everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion and both Joe and Tate tried to scramble to safety.  Joe started in one direction, Tate the opposite, when Tate turned back to look and saw Joe trip and nearly fall.  His first instinct was to save his friend, and Tate made a daring dive at Joe, shoving Joe clear of the runaway wagon.

Joe went down with a thud rolling head over heals.  He heard a woman scream, the sound sharp and piercing to his ears.  His shoulder throbbed with pain and for several moments he lay, dazed on the dusty street.

Pinching his eyes tightly to ward off the burning sensation in his shoulder, Joe tried to get to his feet.  Moments later, he felt hands gently pulling him upright.  He cried out as the pain intensified and looked up into the face of his oldest brother.  Adam’s eyes locked with Joe’s, but he said nothing, allowing Joe to lean heavily on to him.

“Tate saved my life, Adam,” Joe mumbled.

“I know, buddy.”

“Tate?  Where is he, Adam?” Joe said, suddenly aware that everyone around him had become strangely quiet.

Joe’s eyes scanned the crowd.  He saw his father and Hoss, who had just come from the saloon, and several other individuals squatting on the ground around a still form.  His haunted eyes, strained to see whom the man was that his father was holding in his arms.

“TATE!” shouted Joe when he recognized his friend’s clothing.

Joe pushed himself free of Adam’s grip and staggered as quickly as he could to his friend’s side.  As he bent down over the broken body, he met his father’s eyes.  Ben shook his head gently from side to side.  Joe had no reason to ask, he already knew, his friend was dying.  Tears blinded his vision, remorse swelled his throat and he choked down the bile that had risen to his mouth.

“Joe…” Tate muttered in a broken voice.

“I’m here, buddy…don’t talk. The doc’s on his way,” Joe said, trying to assure his friend.

Tate moved his hand, gripping Joe’ arm as firmly as he could with his dwindling strength.

“Julie…promise me…you’ll go…to her…tell her, I…love…her.” Tate’s voice was getting weaker.  His eyes began to roll back in his head.

Joe, fighting back his own tears, glanced at his father, who watched with regret the young life that was slipping away.

“Promise…me, Joe,” murmured Tate as his fingers lost their grip on Joe’s arm and his body arched as his head slowly rolled to the side.

“I…promise, Tate…I’ll go to her,” Joe managed to say, seconds before Tate took his last breath and passed from one world into the next.

Joe lowered his head, willing himself not to cry in front of the crowd of spectators that had gathered about them.  When Ben rose slowly, he placed his hand lightly on Joe’s shoulder, glanced at Hoss and nodded toward Tate’ body.

Hoss leaned down, next to Joe who still clung to his friend’s hand.  He spoke in a voice laden with emotion.

“Let me help ya, short shanks.”

“No, I can take care of him,” Joe rebuked his brother. “He died saving my life.”

Joe started to lift the limp body into his arm, but the burning sensation in his shoulder sent a fiery blast of pain shooting down his arm and he nearly dropped his friend.  Hoss was quick to offer his help and this time, Joe relented, allowing Hoss to gather Tate into his arms and carry him away.

*****

Joe sighed deeply as he rose from the leather chair where he’d been sitting for over an hour.  He wondered if his father might already be sleeping.  His deep seeded desire to talk to Ben about his up coming trip had begun to nag his conscience.  Joe knew that his father was worried, it was typical of Ben, but nonetheless, Joe felt duty bound by his promise to his dying friend to make the trip.  It was not to be for pleasure; he could think of a hundred and one other places to go for fun other than the most dreaded stretch of desert know to modern man.

Joe climbed the stairs and walked softly, so as not to awaken his family.  He paused at his father’s door and knocked gently.  A long silence followed and Joe, taking that as a sign that his father was already sleeping, turned toward his own room, down the hall.

“Joe?” Ben called from the partially opened door.  “Did you want something, son?” Ben said in a low voice.

Joe stopped and turned at the sound of his father’s voice.  He smiled and returned to the room. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” he apologized.

“You didn’t, son…I was reading,” Ben explained as he led the way into his bedroom.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Joe ventured, figuring that he was the reason for Ben’s restlessness.

Ben smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Sit,” he offered, pointing to a spot next to him.

“Thanks.”

“You were right, you know…I couldn’t sleep,” Ben said, watching how Joe kept his head lowered, a sure sign that the boy had something on his mind and was not sure as to how to go about getting whatever it was off his chest.

“I suppose I’m the reason you can’t sleep,” Joe said, braving a glance in his father’s direction.

There were times that Joseph could be very direct in his questions.

“Not necessarily you alone, son, but this trip, your reasons, your insistence…what could happen to you…”

“Pa…nothing’s going to happen to me…”

“Joseph, how can you be so sure it won’t?’

“How can you be so sure it will?”  Joe stood and walked across the room, turning back to face his father. “Pa, I don’t mean to worry you, honest; and I don’t mean to be the reason for you losing sleep either,” Joe said, returning to the bed where he kneeled down at his father’s side.

With hands resting on Ben’s knees, Joe’s expression took on a look of intense yearning as he tried to explain to his father why he had to make this journey in to hell and back. “Do you remember back before I was born…before you met my mother; and her first husband was your friend?”

“Of course, but what does that have to do with this, Joe?”

“He was your friend, he died saving your life…well, Pa…Tate was my friend, too, and he died, saving my life as well.  If he had not shoved me out of the way, that day in town, when the freight wagon was bearing down on me, I’d be dead now.  He died…for me that day, Pa…and he asked me to tell his wife that he was sorry for not making their dreams come true and that he loved her.  Pa…don’t you see, there’s no difference in what happened to you and what happened to me.  You carried a message to the woman who would later become my mother, a dying man’s wish.  I’ve been asked to do the same thing…”

Joe paused; he had heard his father sigh deeply.  He leaned back, giving Ben space to rise from the bed and walk around him.  Slowly Joe stood to his feet, watching his father’s back as Ben moved around the room.  When Ben stopped and turned around, Joe could see the pain in his father’s dark eyes that Ben tried so hard to hide from him.

“I could forbid you to go, you know,” Ben said in a low voice filled with emotion.

Joe swallowed the knot that had risen to his throat and nodded his head in agreement. “Yessir…and I’d respect you enough not to go,” Joe took a deep breath and pushed ahead.  “But I think we both know that you…won’t issue such an order…”

Ben moved to within inches of his son, and stared the boy straight in the eye.  His voice was barely above a whisper when he spoke. “What makes you so sure of yourself, young man?”

Again, Joe was forced to swallow. “Because it would be between us for the rest of our lives, and we both know that,” Joe said with no anger or malice in his voice.

He lowered his head, afraid to look into the chocolate eyes that he felt scrutinizing his face.  When he felt his father’s fingers tighten into the flesh of his shoulders, he raised his head and looked into the face of the man before him.

The fear was still present, but this time, Ben smiled softly. “You will promise me that you’ll take all precautions to keep out of harm’s way, won’t you?”

Joe felt the wind expel from his lungs.  He’d been unaware until that moment that he’d been holding his breath.  A smile spread across his face and he grabbed Ben’s arms. “I promise, Pa…I promise,” he said with a laugh that hinted of relief.  “Thanks, Pa…I knew you’d understand.”

“Joe…I do understand…I always have.  From the moment we watched Tate slip away, and he mumbled his request to you, I knew you’d go.  Son, I fear for your

well-being…no, don’t say anything, please…let me finish.  I know what you are going to be faced with, the dangers, the heat, the Indians…and it isn’t going to be easy for me to watch you ride out of here, knowing what lies ahead for you.  I can only trust that God will watch over you, and that you will come back to me safe and sound.  I realize that I’m acting as if I thought you’ve no sense in how to take care of yourself, but I don’t mean to imply such.”

Ben pulled Joe closer to him, holding him tightly. “It’s a father’s right to worry about his children…regardless of how old they are, indulge me that much, won’t you, son?”

Ben felt the slender body he held pressed to him, relax, and he lessened his hold.

“Alright, Pa…I agree to indulge you…but please, try not to worry too much, I’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

Ben turned to his dresser, opening a drawer and reaching inside.  Joe watched, having no clue as to what his father was searching for.  When Ben turned again to face Joe, he reached for his son’s hand, holding it in his own. “Give this to Tate’s widow; tell her that her husband earned it,” Ben explained.

Joe’s fingers closed around the bills.  He had no need to count the money; it was more than what had really been earned, but Joe knew his father well enough to know that at a time like this, the young widow would need money to support her family.  It was little to offer, compared to what Tate had given to him, Ben told his son.  Joe stuffed the money into his pocket and smiled at his father.

“This is all the more reason for me to make this trip, Pa.  I know you’ll worry, but try not to, I’ll make out just fine, Pa…just fine.”

What the youngest Cartwright failed to realize, until it was too late to turn back, was that in fact he did not know.  He had no clue as to what really lay ahead for him.  Even his father, in his own worst imaginings, could not envision the misery that would force itself upon his least expecting son.

*****

The days had been warm, but not too hot.  A steady breeze had kept the heat at bay, much to Joe’s relief.  The nights were cool, but not cold.  Snuggling down into his bed roll, Joe had slept comfortably and had awaken each morning feeling refreshed and ready to face whatever the day was to toss at him.  So far, his traveling had gone well, in spite of the fact that he could not shake from his memory, the look on his father’s face when they had said their goodbyes.  Joe knew that deep down inside, his father had been dead set against him making this mission, but had relented, stating his understanding as to why Joe felt he must go.  The worry that his father had tried so hard to shield had been apparent in his expression.  His eyes looked dulled and when Ben hugged him, Joe had sensed his father’s apprehension along with Ben’s clinging tightly to him, longer than what was considered normal.

Joe took a long drink from his canteen and then pushed the cork back into the opening.  After placing the strap around the saddle horn, Joe urged his horse onward.  The pack mule was slower to respond, but eventually picked up the pace and trotted along side Joe’s mount.  He would reach Silver Springs before nightfall, stable his horse and the mule and find a room at the hotel.  Joe sighed; he needed a nice hot bath, some home cooking and a good night’s sleep in a real bed.  Tomorrow he would make his way toward Fernley where he would stopover for a couple of days to restock his supplies, give the animals a much needed rest before venturing into the last stretch of his journey.

His father’s warning remained ever present in his thoughts.  “Plenty of water, son.  Cut back on the salt, go slowly, follow the ruts, travel at night if you must and be ever mindful of where you are…”

Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  His father was such a worrier, he decided, always treating him as if he were still a child and not the man of twenty-one that he was.  Deep down, Joe didn’t really mind, his father was no man’s fool; Ben knew exactly what he was talking about.  It would be a wise move on his part, to heed his father’s words and Joe had already set it in his mind to do as Ben had suggested.

*****

“Make sure they get plenty of fresh water and oats,” Joe reminded the stable boy.  “And put my gear in a safe place, I hold you responsible for any missing items,” he warned as he tossed some coins to the young man.

The boy glanced down at his hand, quickly counted the coins and then grinned broadly up at Joe. “Yessir!  Ya ain’t got to worry about a thing, I’ll make sure nobody bothers ya belongings, mister.”

“See that you keep your promise,” smiled Joe, turning and leaving his animals to the boy’s care.

Joe made his way down the street toward the building that had been pointed out to him as the best place in town for a home cooked meal.  It was a boarding house, he’d been told, and most likely could get a room there as well as a meal.

When he reached the clapboarded dwelling and knocked, the door was quickly answered by a lovely older lady who smiled welcomingly at her guest.  Joe grabbed for his hat, instantly aware of the woman’s dancing emerald eyes and auburn hair, highlighted with streaks of silver.

“How do you do, ma’am?” Joe stammered.  “My name’s Joe Cartwright…and the boy down at the livery stable said you served hot meals…and might possibly have a room for the night?”

Joe felt much like a schoolboy, gawking at the woman, for she was beautiful, even for her age.  Not that she was old, Joe chided himself, but lovely to look at, just the same.

“Why, yes.  Are you hungry, Joe?” she smiled in a motherly fashion, opening the door wider to permit Joe to come inside.  Joe felt his heart flutter.  The woman placed her hand on his arm and urged him inside.

“Well, yes ma’am,” he said, dusting some of the road film from his trousers.  He grinned shyly at her, “I could use a hot bath too, that is…if you have a room?”

“Of course.  Come in,” she invited.  “My name is Molly…Molly McClure,” Molly introduced herself.  “My friends call me Molly. I expect you will too.” she smiled.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you ma’am…Molly,” Joe corrected himself.  “My friends and family call me, Little Joe.”

“Little Joe?”

“Well, I’m sort of the runt of the litter,” he said with a laugh.  “My family decided a long time ago that the name fit, and as I got older, my friends picked it up…guess it stuck.”

“Well, Little Joe, I like it.  Now, if you will go up those stairs and turn right, third door on the left, you will find fresh water and clean towels.  You can clean up enough for supper.  It will be served in about half and hour.  Afterwards, I’ll see that a nice hot bath is made ready for you,” Molly said.

“Great…I’ll go wash up,” Joe said, turning toward the steps.  “Ma’am…ere…Molly, what’s for supper?  Something sure does smell good,” Joe said with a twinkle in his eye.

He liked the woman, she was vivacious and friendly, and for a fraction of a second, he wished his father could meet her.  He’d have no objections to having a stepmother, especially if Molly McClure could cook as well as she looked, Joe decided in an instance.

“Mulligan stew, with blueberry dumplings,” she laughed.

“Wow…sounds terrific, I can’t wait to try them,” laughed Joe as he hurried to clean up.  His stomach was already reacting to the delicious sounding meal, and Joe was in no mood to listen to its rumbling.

*****

“More?” Molly asked, holding the pot out to Joe.

“Just a little…not much, I’m about to pop now,” Joe said, grinning as he wiped his mouth.  “I’m almost ashamed of myself…”

“Land sakes, Little Joe, whatever for?” Molly answered.

She ladled more of the tasty stew into Joe’s bowl and smiled behind his back.  She had never seen such a small man eat so much in her entire life, and watching how the boy enjoyed his meal, gave her pride in her cooking ability.

“For making a pig out of myself,” Joe responded. He swallowed what was in his mouth, remembering to wipe his lips.  “I think I ate more than my older brother, Hoss, ever ate at one meal.  It was awfully good, Molly,” smiled the young man.

Molly had set the pot down and was now standing behind Little Joe.  She placed both hands on his shoulders and squeezed gently. “Well my goodness, Joe, you’re a growin’ boy; you’re expected to eat a lot,” she giggled. “And who is Horse?”

“Not Horse ma’am, Hoss, H-O-S-S.  He’s my brother, but he eats like a horse,” Joe returned the laugh.

“Don’t you worry…you eat all you want.  If you’re going where you said you were, then you need to fill up and stay filled up.  That old desert is no place for a handsome young man like you.  Why, I can’t imagine any father allowing his son to go traipsing off into no man’s land like that.  I do declare!” fussed the kind old lady in a gentle manner.

She moved to the chair across from her new border and sat and watched as Joe finished his meal.

“Pa didn’t want me to go, Molly.  But I have too…I made a promise to a friend and…”

“Well for heaven’s sake, why would he ask you to do such a fool hearty thing as travel across that 40 miles of pure hell?  What kind a friend is he anyways?” Molly declared, shaking her head in disbelief.

“Dead,” Joe said, setting his fork aside.  He was suddenly full.

“Excuse me?” stammered Molly.

“Tate died saving my life, ma’am. His dying request was that I go to his wife in Oreana and tell her in person. They have a daughter, and she’s expecting another child and Tate was afraid the shock would cause her to lose the baby, so he asked…”

“It’s alright, Joe.  I’m sorry…I understand now,” Molly apologized, reaching across the table to clasp Joe’s hand in her own.  “It was thoughtless of me to even ask.  It was none of my business and as for your father…he must be a remarkable man, to permit his son to fulfill such a request.”

Joe patted the hand that covered his and nodded his head. “My father is a remarkable man, and my friend was special to me.  Pa understands that. He was against it at first, but he…well…Pa had an experience several years ago that was somewhat like mine. It resulted in my birth.”

Molly’s eyes widened, but she did not ask. Whatever Joe had left unsaid, she would never know.  The subject was closed as she watched Joe push back his chair and stand. “I think I’ll have myself a bath and then turn in.  Thanks for the supper, Molly, it was wonderful,” he said, nodding and then disappearing from the room as he climbed the stairs to the upper level.

*****

By late afternoon of the next day, the sun had risen to its highest and the hot rays beat down on Joe’s head.  He had been plodding along slowly, conserving both his energy and that of his horse and the pack mule.  The mule had started to limp and twice, Joe had to stop and check the mule’s hoof.  He dug a tiny stone out from behind the shoe, but the mule had continued to favor one leg.

From where he had stopped to rest, Joe could make out the outlines of the town, far in the distance.  Fernley was not a big place; not too many people found the desert and the intense heat to their liking enough to settle there.  Joe was hoping that he’d find at least a favorable room and a saloon. A tall frothy mug of beer would go good right now, he thought, imagining himself at the bar, enjoying the cool ale.

“Alright you stubborn mule, let’s get moving.  If you’re good,” Joe said, amused with himself for talking to his pack animal, “I’ll find a doctor to see about your hoof, come on,” Joe urged, tugging gently at the lead rope.

*****

“Looks like this ole creature ain’t gonna be goin’ nowhere’s mister,” the old man said.  “Looks like the hoof is cracked.”

Joe let out a long sigh.  “Great…” he muttered.  “Say mister, do you have any mules?  I’ll leave you this one, just until…”

“I ain’t got no use for a lame mule, sonny.  What’cha take me for, a fool?” the whiskered old man said with a snort.

“No sir, I didn’t mean to imply such a thing.  Look, I’ve got some money,” Joe explained as he pulled a small role of bills from his pocket, “I’ll rent a mule from you, or a packhorse…just for a couple of weeks.  That’ll give EllieMae here…”

“EllieMae?” snickered the old timer.

“My brother named her…after a girl that dumped him,” Joe explained.

The man laughed heartily, and scratched at his whiskers.

“As I was saying, EllieMae would have time to recuperate, and I’d bring your mule back when I come back for Ellie,” Joe went on to explain.

“Where ya headed, young fella?”

“Oreana,” Joe answered.

“WHAT?” the old codger shouted at Joe.  “Through that arid, dry desert?  Ya lost ya senses, boy?”

“No sir…it’s something I have to do…”

The older man shook his head back and forth and began pacing the floor in front of Joe.  He paused, looking directly into Joe’s young face. “It’s a foolish man that sets out alone across that desert, makes no never mind the reason.  Better men than you, sonny, tried it and died.  What makes ya think ya can do it…when they didn’t?”

“I…” Joe gulped, when he had made this promise to his friend, he had no idea that everyone would make such a fuss over a promise. Even strangers, thought Joe, tried to talk him out of it.  To Joe, it had become a quest…a do, or die situation.  He was a man of honor, his word stood for something, and he’d never betray a friend, even in death.

“It’s something I have to do,” was all he told the old codger.  “Will you lend me a mule or not?”

The old man tossed his hands up in the air and shook his head.  “Dang fool kid,” he muttered under his breath as he led EllieMae into a stall.

“Well?” Joe dared to ask, “Will you?”

“I see ya got ya head set on dying. Sure hate to see a good mule…and ya right purty pinto… become buzzard bait, but if’n ya aimin’ to go, I can’t stop ya.”

The whiskered stable attendant sat down on a box, scratched his face and glanced up at Joe, as if deep in thought. “Tell ya what, sonny. I got a mule, and I got a right sturdy good horse.  I’ll loan’em to ya…and if’n ya come back alive…then ya can have your’ns back.  If ya don’t, the pinto and EllieMae are mine to keep.”

Joe was slightly taken back by the other man’s assumption that he would not be able to cross the desert and return. Tate had crossed it and lived, thought Joe…and then he recalled Tate telling him that had he not been with a small wagon train, traveling together, he would have most likely not survived.

He stared back at the man for several long moments, thinking.  It came to mind that if the worst were to happen, and he didn’t make it back, what difference would it make who owned Cochise?  It didn’t, though he would prefer for his favorite mount to be returned to his family. There wasn’t much else he could do, other than to take the man’s offer, or risk killing Cochise.

“It’s a deal.  But you better take extra good care of my horse,” Joe warned.

“Don’t worry…I just hope ya come back.  I ain’t meanin’ ya no harm, boy.  Ya come by when ya ready to leave, and I’ll have everything ready for ya.”  The man smiled at Joe and turned, busying himself with caring for EllieMae’s festered hoof.

*****

Joe knew he was being watched.  He had seen the two fellows follow him into the saloon, so he had purposely taken a chair at a table in the back of the room where he could put his back to the wall.  Joe sipped slowly on his ale, and wasn’t a bit surprised when the two sauntered over to his table and plopped themselves down without being invited.  Cautiously, Joe’s left hand moved to where his fingers rested on the .45 secured to his hip.  Nimble fingers released the tiny leather strap that kept the sidearm securely within its leather holster.

“How about a game of poker, friend?” one man asked as he pulled a dirty deck of cards from his pocket and began shuffling them.

“No thanks, I was just about ready to call it a night,” Joe answered, taking another swig from his mug.

“That ain’t being friendly,” the other man said with a smirk.  He leaned across the table, nearer to Joe.  “Just a quick game…how about it?”

Joe felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck rise but he maintained his composure.  Something about the pair sparked a warning signal in his gut and he knew to tread lightly.  He turned up his mug and downed the last of his beer, trying to appear apologetic. “Sorry friends…I had just enough money for one beer, and I’ve nothing to hock, so I’ll have to decline.  Thanks anyway.”

Joe casually tipped his hand to his hat and walked nonchalantly out into the dimly lit street.  Once he was a good distance away and out of sight, keeping to the shadows, he paused and watched as the two men strolled out onto the boardwalk.

Both men were older than Joe, and much larger built than he was.  One man appeared to walk with a slight limp, the other, and most menacing in appearance, made Joe shiver. Perhaps it was his neat, well-tailored clothes that set him apart from his partner, or the long thin brown cigarette that Joe watched him roll and put in his mouth when he had sat down at the table with him.  The man had struck his match by flicking it with the end of his fingernail.  Either way, the two bore watching.

Joe hunkered back in the shadows and watched as the strangers glanced in both directions and then headed off in the opposite way from where he stood.  Letting the air, flow from his mouth in a rush, Joe hurried across the street and slipped unnoticed into the lobby of the small hotel.  With any luck, he thought, he had seen the last of the pair.

Joe made it to his room, and slipped inside, locking the door behind him.  Sitting on the bed, he pulled off one boot and then the other.  His plan was to get an early start; first he would have breakfast and as soon as the telegraph office opened, he would send a wire to his father in Virginia City, informing him of his whereabouts and letting his family know that he would soon be approaching the desert.

Joe lay back, propping his head on the pillows that he stuffed behind him.  His thoughts wondered home as his mind called into being, the images of his father and two brothers.  Joe wondered what they were doing now, sitting by the fire, no doubt.  Ben would be smoking his pipe, and Adam, he knew, would be reading.

Hoss was probably ransacking the kitchen for a snack, and the thought of Hop Sing chasing the gentle giant from his kitchen, caused Joe so smile.  He missed them, plain and simple and he couldn’t help but wonder if they missed him as well.  They were all so much a part of each other, it was hard to picture one of them living apart from the others.  Joe knew that Adam often spoke of leaving home, though he couldn’t picture it actually happening, he realized that Adam sought more out of life than what was offered on the Ponderosa.  None of them faulted him for it, it was just a part of who Adam was, and Joe knew, though he didn’t want to admit it, that one day, Adam’s restless side would take over and his oldest brother would leave for good.

It wasn’t like that with Hoss, thought Joe.  Hoss was as much a part of the land as the land itself.  His middle brother was a gentle sort of man, slow to anger, quick to forgive.  Hoss could be a source to reckon with though, when pushed to far.  Like the rest of them, the big man would only take so much and when he’d had enough, one best back off and give the giant his space, or pay the consequences.  Joe had learned the hard way, more than once.

His father had always been his hero and Joe strove to be like the man whom he most admired.  They had their moments, reasoned Joe, what father and son didn’t butt heads now and then?  He and Ben certainly had, and recently too.  But Ben, wiser by far than most men, had conceded and given in to his youngest son’s whim.  Being the kind of father that he was, Ben was prone to letting his sons make their own decisions, learn the hard way if they must.  Indulge them somewhat, but never once had Ben given them bad advice or purposely tell them something that wasn’t so.  Joe knew his father feared for his well being, but had decided to give in to Joe’s demand to make this trip, even if it did not set well with him.

Joe recalled the tender scene when they had parted.  Ben’s strong arms about his shoulders in a tight hug, the way his father’s voice had quivered when he had wished him God’s speed, and the dark ebony eyes that had filled with tears and the man within his father that refused to let them flow.  Joe closed his eyes, his father’s face flashed before his mind’s eye, smiling and waving as he watched his son ride away, fearing the worse, but believing that God would somehow bring his boy home, safe and sound.

Ben’s parting words repeated themselves over and over in his head. “Promise me son, you’ll come back to me…” It was a father’s plea as he whispered farewell to his beloved, youngest son.

“I promise, Pa…I promise,” muttered Joe as he drifted off to sleep.

*****

The first day and half into the hot, arid, desert had already begun taking its toll on the young man.  Sweat dripped from his brow and stung his eyes.  Joe was constantly wiping the salty droplets out of his eyes, for they obscured his vision.  He had slowed down, traveling a much slower pace, saving the animals’ strength and the water that it took to satisfy their thirst.

Joe glanced over his shoulder for the hundredth time.  Was his imagination playing tricks on him, or was the heat so overpowering that his weary mind had conjured up visions of two lone riders on the horizon behind him.  Was he being followed, or were there other travelers moving in the same direction as he?  Joe rubbed his wet neckerchief over his eyes and studied the movements behind him.  The thought that he could wait right where he was, for the pair to catch up to him, crossed his mind.  But, there was no shade to be seen in which to wait, no place any cooler than where he was at this moment.  And looking back once more, only told him that the vision he believed he had seen, had suddenly vanished.

“A mirage,” he mumbled to himself.  “Had to be. Couldn’t be another man, or two, as fool-hearty as I, thinking they could cross this hell-hole same as me…could there?”

He laughed softly to himself.  The sound of his voice seemed shallow and empty, both at the same time.  There was nothing, nor anyone to keep him company other than his horse and the stubborn old mule, LuLu Belle.  Joe glanced in the creature’s direction and snickered, remembering that the old man had laughed at EllieMae’s name.

“Heat must be getting to me, Charlie,” Joe muttered to his horse, “I’ve gone to talking to myself,” he snickered.  “Worse, I’ve started seeing things!”

*****

By nightfall, Joe was worn to a frazzle as he slipped from Charlie’s back and began to make camp.  He was glad for the small bundle of kindling he had brought along.  It was just enough, if he used it wisely, to furnish himself with a small fire for several nights.  He’d brew his morning coffee in the evenings and then, to save the wood, he’d drink it cold come morning.  It wasn’t the best of plans, but Joe figured to make the wood last, he’d have to give up something and as for the coffee, cold was better than none at all, he reasoned.

By the third night, Joe was so weary, so extremely hot and dry that he practically fell into his bedroll.  He had seen the vision off in the distance, and suspected that he was being followed.  As to by whom and why, he could come up with no answer, and he was too tuckered out to care.  On this night, he would forego the small fire, keeping a cold camp might mislead whoever it was that was trailing him.  When Joe snuggled down into his blanket, for the nights were cool, he had his gun close to his side.

“I’ll sleep with one eye opened,” he told himself, minutes before lapsing into an exhausted sleep.

*****

“Quiet,” whispered the first man.

Joe had heard them coming.  He lay motionless, faking sleep and waiting for just the right moment.  Timing was everything, he remembered his oldest brother telling him on more than one occasion.

The two men crept silently toward him.  Joe peeked from beneath his lowered lashes, sure that his face could not be seen in the dark.  One man held a gun pointed downward but not directly at him.  The second man carried what looked like a club in one hand and a small lantern in the other.  Neither seemed to worry that the soft glow from their lantern might wake him, and they certainly weren’t worried that he could possibly be armed.

“Hit ‘em hard,” the first man said.

When the second man swung back the club, pausing to take aim, Joe jumped from his bedroll, gun in hand and pointed directly at the pair.  The two intruders, taken off guard by Joe’s sudden movement, froze.

“Drop it,” Joe ordered.  “NOW!” he shouted when the pair failed to respond to his order.

He recognized one of the men as one who had tried to entice him into a game of poker.  The second man, Joe recognized, and was dumbfounded at seeing the old whiskered stable master whom he had bargained with over the mules and Cochise.  Anger surged through Joe’s veins and the shocked expression must have shown, for the man holding the gun at him grinned.  The other man snickered and shook his head no.

“You drop it, kid,” a deep voice from behind him said.

Joe, taken by surprise, spun around, gun pointed at the third man, whom he knew as the other man in the bar.

“I said, drop it,” the stranger ordered.

Joe lowered his gun, still holding it lightly by his fingertips.  He sighed deeply, regretting the fact that he had been out-smarted.  Trouble had sought him, and found him.

Joe’s body crumbled to the ground.  The blow to the back of his head, by the club the man was holding, had left the boy’s head cracked and bleeding.  Joe groaned once and then sank deeply into a darkened world that would take him hours from which to return.

While the two gathered Joe’s things, including his jacket, and the shirt he was wearing, the third man stood over Joe’s crumbled body and laughed.  Joe’s boots were removed and tossed into a sack and tied across LuLu Belle’s back.

“Gonna finish’em off?” one of the men questioned.

“Naw…he’ll die…way out here, miles from civilization, no food, no water…he’ll be buzzard bait in hours.  Ain’t no man alive that has traveled through this hellhole without the necessities and lived to tell about it.  Come on, let’s see what he’s got in the way of grub.”

*****

It was well into the next day before Joe began to stir.  His head throbbed with a pain so intense, that it suffered the boy to even open his eyes.  He lay where he had fallen, aware of the tingling sensation across his chest and down his arms.  When he was able to manage the slightest movement, he moved his left arm across his face, shielding his eyes from the hot rays of the sun.  Joe could barely see his arm, and when he touched it with the fingers of his right hand, the skin was blazing hot.

Jerking himself into a sitting position, groaning, Joe grabbed the back of his head.  Dried blood coated his hair.  Sections where it still oozed, stuck to his fingers and Joe could feel the stickiness as he dabbed gently at the knot that had formed.

“Oh…” he moaned, pushing himself to his feet.  His hand still pressed against the egg-sized knot as Joe tried to get his bearings.  When Joe took a step, he was forced to stop; his body wavered slightly as he staggered around, looking in all directions.

His mind was boggled and his thoughts seemed as if they had been tossed into a poke and shaken, then dumped out onto the dry, crusted earth beneath his…

“My boots!  They took my…boots!” he groaned in anger as he felt for the first time, the heat that emitted from the ground, stinging the soles of his feet.

For a spell, his mind cleared and he was suddenly aware of the plight he was in.  Fear began to take root in his heart and grow quickly.  The air expelled from his lungs in a rush of obscenities that would have shamed his father, had Ben been there to hear what language his youngest son had resorted to.

“They took…it all…everything…” stammered Joe.

*****

He had walked for what seemed like hours.  His feet were tender and several times, Joe had to stop and sit down, picking at the pebbles that cut into the bottoms.  Joe felt the burning pain in his back and across the expanse of his chest where the sun slowly cooked his flesh.  The skin, to touch was hot and painful, as were his feet.  The hot, dry alkali earth had begun to burn the bottoms of his feet along with the stone bruises and walking was quickly becoming a nightmare for the exhausted young man.

Joe dug through his pockets until he found his pocketknife.  Holding the instrument in one hand, and one trouser leg in the other, Joe began to cut away the thick material.  Once he had cut away a length from his knee down, he did the same with the other leg.  That finished, Joe commenced to wrap the strips of cloth around his feet, hoping that the thick material from his pant’s legs would offer some protection to his feet from the burning earth that he was forced to walk on.

Joe carefully tied the material securely in place and glanced up at the sun.  He shielded his eyes with his hands, estimating the time to be about noon.  His stomach must have thought so as well, for it took that precise moment to remind him that it had been hours since his last meal.

Pushing himself to his feet, Joe groaned, rubbing his hand gently to his head.  The egg-sized knot where he had been hit, was still tender, his headache seemed to have intensified along with the heat that bore down upon him.  When Joe tried to swallow, his throat felt dry and his tongue, thick.

“I need water,” he murmured, “and soon.”

*****

Joe wiped the sweat from his brow as he stumbled along.  The stiff fabric around his feet had served its purpose, for the time being.  The dry, crusty, burning earth had not yet penetrated to the bottoms of his feet and walking had become somewhat easier.

For another hour, Joe stumbled along, looking much like a drunk who was inebriated.  He staggered from side to side, his head throbbed with each step he took, his heart raced, beating at an alarming rate, until at last the boy tripped and fell face down onto the scorching ground.  His body, too exhausted to obey his brains command to get up, succumbed into a place unreachable, where Joe found relief from his torture.

The sun’s rays strengthened as the day grew longer.  The ground became hotter and hotter, and combined with the overhead heat of the sun, the two, acting as one, baked the body that was caught unaware in nature’s oven.  Joe’s skin grew a deeper red and after a time, hundreds of tiny bubbles, blistered and covered his skin.  The pain was beginning to mount and spread through the body, yet Joe, in his unconscious state, had thus far been spared the agony of his fate.

Late into the evening, Joe began to stir.  His mouth was as dry as a bone, his tongue thick and swollen and the intense heat that burned throughout his upper body caused the boy to cry out in stunned misery.  The cry, silent to the barren land around him, rang sharply in his own ears as Joe slowly tried to pull himself up from the sweltering earth on which he lay.  Eyes reddened, by the suns fiery flame, looked in fear at the landscape around him.  From every direction, it was the same.  For miles beyond the point on which he stood, Joe could see nothing but wasteland, hot, desolate land where the sky reached down and the earth stretched upward, until the two became as one.

No mountains beckoned to him, no trees whispered his name in a gentle breeze and no water to quench his overpowering need for a drink.  Joe felt his eyes fill with tears.  One lone tear escaped and rolled down onto his cheek.  Before the weary boy could move his finger to catch the salty drop, the hot, cracked flesh on his face swallowed it up.

Around and around Joe turned, becoming dizzy and tilted as he lumbered forward, pushing on to…no where, his mind screamed.

“Ruts…Pa said, follow the ruts,” raced Joe’s mind.

Joe stumbled again, his vision blurred as the sweat filled his eyes.

“There ain’t any ruts,” whispered Joe in a hoarse voice, staring at the ground beneath his feet.

A sob caught in his throat.

“Pa…help me,” he muttered, as he pushed onward, not caring what direction he was headed.

A few feet further and Joe stopped again.  His face, hot and his eyes now swollen nearly shut by the sun’s reprisal, he sank to the ground, unmindful of the burning soil that consumed his flesh and bones.  A muted grunt, a cry of mercy slipped passed his lips.  Hazel eyes, void of vision, dulled by blindness, closed and then…there was nothing.  Joe had fallen again, this time, into a blazing hell.

*****

“Doli…look,” (Doli, Navajo, meaning Bluebird) the Indian man pointed to the crumbled form lying lifelessly in the sun.

“Kachada!” (white man) muttered his wife, pulling back on her husband’s arm.

“Doli…no…he is injured, and perhaps dying, or dead already,” Honovi ( Hopi, meaning Strong Deer) exclaimed as he slid down from the horse he was riding.

Cautiously the Hopi brave moved toward the kachada, aware that a trap might be waiting for him.  When Honovi was inches away from Joe’s motionless body, he gently nudged Joe with the soft toe of his deerskin moccasin.  When Joe failed to respond, Honovi squatted down, and gently turned Joe onto his back, aghast at what he saw.

His wife, Doli, approached with care, stopping beside her husband.  Honovi glanced over at the woman with a look of remorse on his bronze colored face.

“This man is dying, wife…fetch me the water,” he ordered in a gentle tone.

“Leave him, my husband!  He is trouble…”

“Silence mahal!” (woman) barked Honovi.  “We cannot leave him…we must help him!  Now go, bring the water.”

Honovi turned his attention back to the unresponsive man, taking care as to how he touched the charred flesh, for fear of causing more pain to the young white man.

Doli returned with the water receptacle and handed it to her husband.  Honovi gently raised Joe’s head, holding him carefully as he tipped the container to Joe’s lips.  The water ran slowly from the opening, into Joe’s mouth and back out and down from the corners of his chapped and cracked lips.  The Indian brave looked into the white man’s mouth and winced.  Joe’s mouth had dried out to the point that the skin had peeled free from the roof of his mouth and hung in tiny pieces.  Honovi looked fearful as he looked up at his wife.

“His tongue is niichaad (Navajo, swollen) and he cannot swallow, Honovi.  We must go, it is hopeless, kachada will die.  Your efforts are for naught,” Doli explained to her husband.

She grasped his arm, trying to pull him away from the young white man.  “Come!  We must hurry before the sun rises any higher.”

Nonovi brushed his wife’s hand from his arm and laying Joe down, turned to her with dark eyes that betrayed his anger.

“No…we will take him with us…we must try Doli, to save this boy.  He is some man’s shiye (son)…a shizhe’e  (father) perhaps…”

“I do not care…”

“Well, I do, mahal!  What if this pahana (Hopi, lost white brother) were our shiye?  Would you not want someone to give care to your own flesh and blood?” demanded Honovi.

“But he is qochata (Hopi, white man) and qochata only means trouble for our people.”

Honovi’s expression softened as he placed his hands tenderly on his wife’s shoulders.

“We have no people…have you forgotten, my wife?  When we married, against the wishes of our people, we were hok’ee (abandoned) by those who claimed to care so much for us.”

Doli pulled away from her husband.  “I have not forgotten,” she said sadly.

“My wife, you carry within your womb, life…perhaps a shiye…I will soon be a shizhe’e. I could only pray that if this were my son, a hastiin (man) would give the same consideration to my son.  Doli…I am yanisin, (ashamed).  This boy’s body is helaku (full of sun), and he most likely will die.  But I, Honovi, being apenimon, (worthy of trust) cannot walk away and leave him to die alone.”

“I am sorry, my beloved, you are right.  I will help you care for him, but do not ask me to like him.  And when he is dead, we will put his body in the ground, as is the white man’s way and then we shall leave here.  We will find a home in the mountains, where your shiye will enter into this world.”

Doli moved back to the horses and led them closer to where her husband had gathered Joe into his arms.  Once Honovi had secured Joe onto one of the horses, they started again on their way, back to where they had their dwelling.

Unknown to Joe, he had been very close finding water.  A hot springs bubbled a short distance from their hogan (hut), where they had set up a small dwelling.  They boiled the water with certain roots to make the water drinkable and then used it for their animals as well as for themselves.

When they arrived, Doli hurried inside to prepare a bed, where Honovi would place Joe.  While her husband made Joe as comfortable as possible, Doli hurried out to gather blossoms from the yellow-spine thistle that grew along their dwelling, in the bright sunlight.

Honovi began bathing Joe with the warm water that Doli quickly provided.  He was careful how he touched the blistered flesh as he gently wiped away the caked on dust and grime that had collected on Joe’s battered body.

Joe began to shiver and Honovi quickened his efforts and then covered his patient with blankets that he had brought with them when he and Doli had been cast from the tribes and shunned by their people.  While he busied himself, making a fire, Doli prepared the blossoms and added them one at a time to the boiling water.  From the mixture, Doli helped Honovi apply the residue to Joe’s back, chest and arms.

“This is going to cause great pain to the kachada,” Doli whispered, holding out the wooden bowl containing the herbal mixture used for burns.

“It has to be.  If the pahana can bear the pain, perhaps Maasaw (God of death) will spare his life,” Honovi replied.

At the slightest touch to his charred flesh, Joe opened his mouth to scream.  The dryness in his mouth, muted his words, and only a soft murmuring sound escaped passed his lips.

“He is so weak,” Doli muttered, watching the painful expression on Joe’s face.  “He cannot even put sound to his misery.”

“That might be for the best.  The cries of a dying man are just as painful to the ears of those who have to listen,” Honovi cautioned.

“Perhaps it would be wise to prepare your sik’is  (Navajo, friend) some tea from the wild lettuce we have stored, so that he will sleep without pain?”

Honovi smiled as he dipped his fingers into the cooling solution and smeared it about Joe’s chest.  Joe’s body arched in pain and he groaned again, this time louder.

“Hurry mahal, our pahana needs something to dull the stinging,” Honovi ordered.

Once Joe had been given the sedative, and seemed to be resting better, Honovi and Doli finished the task of smearing Joe’s sunburned body with the cooling solution they had concocted.  The procedure was time consuming.  Many of the tiny water blisters had burst and the water inside the blister that ran from the bubble had to be dried off first before the solution could be properly applied.

Honovi carefully unwrapped the strips of cloth that Joe had used to protect his feet.  The sight sickened him, and when he glanced at his wife, Doli’s expression matched his own.  She turned her head, as tears filled her eyes.

“How could another man…do such a thing to one of his own people?” she asked her husband.

“I do not know Doli.  It is certain that this boy was left to die…a grisly death, here in the desert, with no food, no water and no horse.” Honovi replied.

“It is the way of the kachada, they do not believe themselves to be shilahs (Navajo, brothers) and they treat one another as if they were all enemies.  Another reason to hate them,” Doli said, turning from the sight of Joe’s wounded and festered feet.

Honovi watched as his wife left their dwelling before turning back to tend to Joe’s feet.  When he finished, he sat back on his haunches and studied the swollen, red face of the white boy.  His heart was moved; something about the young man had stirred a feeling deep within himself, something that Honovi could not explain.

The kind Indian watched as Joe struggled with each breath that he took; he saw the painful expressions written across the young face, so inflamed by the sun that the boy’s eyes were swollen shut.  Soft burble sounds came from the back of Joe’s throat but Honovi could not make out the words that the boy muttered.

Honovi dipped two fingers into the cooled herb tea brewed with the water from the hot springs and placed them into Joe’s mouth.  Instantly, Joe tried to suck on the fingers, hungry for the water that his subconscious knew his dehydrated body was so in need of.  Repeatedly, Honovi offered his moistened fingers to the boy who complied willingly in an effort to satisfy his thirst.  When the man who worked so hard to save the young white boy, was sure that his patient’s thirst was quenched for the time being, he sat next to Joe, his legs folded in traditional Indian fashion and watched as Joe slept.

“Tsiishch’ili,” (Navajo, curly haired) muttered Honovi as he tenderly ran his long slender fingers through the thick mass of hair that crowned Joe’s head.

“It will be a long night, yes?” Doli said as she entered and saw her husband sitting with their patient.

“Yes, and the ashkii (Navajo, boy) is a ahote (Hopi, restless one) this night.  He is very sick, Doli, and it is possible that he will die.  I shall remain by his side until yiska,” (Navajo, the night has passed) Honovi told his wife.

Doli moved closer and lowered herself next to her husband.  “Eat,” she said as she handed him the Piki break she had made for him.

“I am hungry,” he smiled, taking a large bite.

Joe moaned softly in his sleep, capturing the Indian’s attention.  Honovi placed his hand on Joe’s forehead.

“The sun has heated his flesh so, that he is shivering,” he explained to his wife.  “Bring more blankets.”

Doli complied with her husband’s wish and went to fetch the blankets that had survived their journey to this barren land that they now called home.

*****

“It’s been weeks, Pa,” Adam said as they stood together on the front porch of their home.  “I think we should go after him.  He’s had plenty of time to reach Oreana and send a wire telling us so.”

“I know, Adam.  I’m just as worried as you and Hoss,” Ben assured his son.

They stood in the soft glow of the moon.  Ben had his fingers stuffed into his pockets and was gazing at the stars.  Adam stood in much the same fashion, next to his father.

“The stars are beautiful tonight, aren’t they?” Ben asked softly.

“Pa,” Adam said, his tone serious.  “Don’t try to change the subject.  You know as well as I do that something must have happened.  Joe promised he’d send a wire when he got to Oreana…and we’ve heard nothing since he sent the wire telling us he made it to Fernley, and that’s been weeks ago…”

“Alright Adam, I suppose you’re right.  I was just hoping that…”

“It’s Roy,” Ben interrupted himself to point at the sheriff who was just riding into the yard.  “Wonder what he wants this time of night?”

“Howdy, Ben, Adam,” greeted Roy as he dismounted and shook hands with his friends.

“What brings you out this time of night, Roy?” Ben questioned.

Roy slipped his hand inside his vest pocket and pulled out an envelope, handing it to Ben.

“This, Ben…I thought you might need to see it, and possibly read it,” explained Roy.

Ben glanced down at the envelope, noting the return address.  His expression was one of bewilderment.

“But Roy, this is addressed to…”

“I know Ben, all the more reason you should read it,” Roy said.

Adam, curious as to whom the letter was from, stepped behind his father and read over Ben’s shoulder.

Ben ripped the envelope neatly opened and pulled the single page letter out.  Glancing again at the sheriff, Ben read the neatly written words.  When he was finished, he held the paper tightly in his hands.

Adam reached around his father and pulled the letter from Ben’s hand and read for himself the short message. “We need to find Joe, Pa,” he said, folding the paper and handing it back to his father.

Ben took a deep breath and nodded his head.  He turned to Adam.

“We’ll leave first thing in the morning, Adam.  Please tell Hoss and start getting things together,” Ben instructed.  “Roy, thanks for bringing this out to me,” he said solemnly.

“No problem, Ben, you take care now,” Roy called as he mounted up and rode from the yard.

*****

“Pa!  Pa!”

“He’s dreaming again,” Doli whispered as she rose up slowly and glanced at Joe who was tossing and turning.

Her husband had risen and gone to the white man’s side to check on the boy.  Joe had been calling out for several minutes and Honovi could not bear to listen to the piteous pleas that had awakened him.

“He sounds much like a machni,” (Hopi, talking bird) Honovi whispered to his wife.  “His voice is very cracked, it strains him to speak.”

The kind Indian leaned down close to Joe and brushed his hand gently down the side of Joe’s face.

“Shh…try to rest,” he muttered to Joe.

Joe’s hand pawed the air, searching blinding for the tender hand that had caressed his cheek.

“Pa?” he murmured as Honovi clasped his hand.

“No, ashkii (Navajo, boy), I am Honovi, Hopi brave.  Once, I was great warrior,” Honovi said softly, allowing Joe to cling to his hand.

Again, a rush of emotion surged throughout his veins, and he tightened his hold on this helpless boy who clung to him as if life depended on the handclasp that they shared.

“Wat…er,” Joe said, barely able to force the word from his dry throat.

Honovi was quick to respond.  Still holding onto Joe’s hand, he filled the gourd ladle with water and held it to Joe’s lips.

His eyes still swollen and being unable to see, Joe moved his head from side to side, seeking the water that he hungered for so greedily.

“Easy sik’is (friend), drink slowly,” advised Honovi helping Joe to raise his head enough that he was able to sip from the gourd.

Joe swallowed too quickly and choked.  He began to cough, alarming Doli with the forcefulness that over powered his body.  She rushed from her bed to Joe’s bedside, fear shining in her eyes.

“He is choking!” she cried.

“No, he is fine now,” Honovi assured her.  “Your tongue is still swollen, drink slowly,” cautioned Honovi as he placed the ladle to Joe’s lips for the second time.

This time Joe did as warned and was able to swallow, if he took his time.  When he had taken his fill, he shook his head no, indicating that he was finished.  Honovi handed the ladle to Doli and helped Joe lower his head back down.

“Tha…nks,” he muttered weakly.

“You try to rest now…I do not know what you are called,” Honovi said, remembering that until this moment, Joe had been unable to utter a word and he and his wife had no inkling as to what the white man’s name might be.

“Joe,” Joe whispered, “Cartwright.”

“Joe Cartwright…a strong name, for a strong brave.  The sun will rise in a few hours and then Doli will fix you something to eat.  You get better now.”

Honovi arranged the blankets about Joe and moved back to his own bed, where his wife joined him.

For a long time, Joe lay awake.  Though the swelling in his face and eyes, had lessen somewhat, he was still unable to open his eyes enough to see.  But he could hear, and he listened to the soft murmuring sounds that came from the opposite corner of what Joe guessed to be these people’s home.  Honovi and Doli whispered softly among themselves and once Joe heard Doli giggle.  The gentle sounds gave him a measure of comfort, for he had no clue as to who these people were or where he was for that matter.  He could only be grateful that this couple had found him, brought him here and had been tending to him.  In essence, they had saved his life.

But all he could remember was being hot, hotter than he had ever been before, and thirsty.  He remembered the hurting in his head, and his feet…how they had pained him when he had tried to walk.  He recalled the blazing heat beating down on his head, the sizzling ground charring his feet and Joe thought again about how dry his mouth had been and how swollen his tongue had become.  Worse, Joe remembered being robbed and left alone to die in the desert while death toyed with his senses until he had fallen and given up, resigning himself to his fate.  It was a living nightmare, hell on earth.

Joe sighed deeply; he had wanted to make this journey.  He had promised his friend that he would carry the news of his death with him and deliver it personally to his friend’s wife.  Joe felt defeated; he had failed, had broken his promise.  After making his brags to his father and brothers, assuring them that nothing would happen to him, how he was prepared for this trip…into hell…he had even failed in that.  For he had not been prepared, not for the intense heat, the dry, alkali wasteland, nor for the loneliness that had just swept over him.

Joe felt his eyes mist; he was keenly aware of the pain throughout his body, even though that had lessened somewhat.  The fiery sensation he had suffered when the burns were at their worst, had begun to diminish with the solution that the man and woman constantly applied to his blistered flesh.  But laying there in the dark, unable to see, barely able to mutter a word, he missed his family and his heart suddenly yearned for home…and for his father’s gently touch.

*****

“Yessir, I remember’em.  He wasn’t much older’n me, rode a black and white paint horse…and had a pack mule with’em.  Yessir…that was him.”

“He hasn’t by any chance been back through, has he?” Ben questioned the stable boy.

“Not that I know about, mister.  Ya might check over at the boarding house, he stayed there one night.  Might be he came back through and just left his animals in Mrs. McClure’s barn for the night.”

“Mrs. McClure, is she the owner?” Adam inquired.

“Yessir, sure is, and she’s the best cook around, too,” the boy smiled.

“Thank you, we’ll stop by and talk with her,” Ben said, leading the way from the barn.

“Ya take good care of these horses now, ya hear?” Hoss said over his shoulder as he followed Adam and his father out of the stable.

“Don’t ya worry none, sir; I’ll treat ‘em like they was my own.”

*****

The three stood together on the porch and waited for someone to answer their knock.  Ben knocked again, harder.  Moments later, Molly answered her door, her face was covered in flour and the once crisp white apron that she wore was smeared with floury handprints.  A curl had fallen lose from her hair pens, and the ringlet hung about her face in a flattering fashion.

She smiled broadly as she pushed opened the screen door, using her ample hips.  Her emerald eyes danced.

“Well, will ya look at this?” she said, her voice light and teasing.  “I’ve never seen a more handsome group of gentlemen.  What can I do for you?” she asked.

Ben grabbed his hat from his head and returned the smile with one of his own.  He couldn’t help but glance at Adam and Hoss; it was evident that they were as taken with the friendly lady as he was.

“How do you do, ma’am.  I’m Ben Cartwright, and these are my sons, Adam and Hoss, and we were wondering…”

“Did you say, Hoss?” Molly questioned as the screen door banged shut.

“Well, yes ma’am, why?” Ben asked, puzzled at Molly’s expression and sudden interest in his middle son’s name.

“Odd…”she muttered.

“It is sorta an odd name, ma’am,” Hoss agreed.

“No…oh no…not the name…it’s just that I think I’ve heard the name before.  But where…for the life of me I can’t remember,” she explained.

“Maybe you heard my little brother mention it.  He was through here several weeks back and from what the stable boy said, stayed the night here,” explained Adam.

Molly’s eyes brightened and she smiled.  “Yes…yes…now I remember.  A right nice boy, he was too…and handsome,” she teased, “like his father and brothers.”

Ben laughed softly and nodded, “Then Joseph was here?”

“Little Joe…yes, Mr…Cartwright, didn’t you say?”

“That’s right,” assured Ben.

“Goodness gracious, where on earth is my manners?  Please, won’t you come in?” Molly invited.  “Did you need rooms for the night, Mr. Cartwright?”

Adam grabbed the door and opened it, allowing Molly to enter first and then his father.  Once inside, they waited until she was seated and then found a place to sit on the settee.

“As a matter of fact we do,” smiled Ben.

“No problem, I’ll have supper in about an hour.  I have two rooms on the upper floor that are joined; there are three beds, is that alright?” Molly inquired as she rose.

“That will be fine, thank you,” Ben said.

“Then up the stairs and to the left, rooms three and four,” she smiled.

Hoss nodded his head and with Adam on his heels, he started to their rooms.  Ben lagged behind for a moment longer.

“Is there something else, Mr. Cartwright?” Molly had seen Ben hesitate and thought perhaps there was something more that he needed.

“My son hasn’t come back by this way by any chance, has he?”  Ben’s tone was filled with worry and the observing woman had noticed.

“No, I’m sorry, but I wish he had.  He was a very nice young man, Mr. Cartwright.  But if I may be so bold as to speak my mind?” Molly said, fidgeting with the corner of her apron.

“Of course,” Ben said, unsure what had brought such a sudden change to the otherwise, friendly woman.

“I’ve been very concerned about where that young man was heading off to.  How could you allow such a thing?  Are you aware of the dangers that desert has to offer?  I could not believe my ears when Little Joe told me that you approved of his making such a fool hearty journey and alone I might add,” Molly blurted in a rush of words.

Ben’s eyes widened and he smiled softly.

“Now hold on just a minute,” he issued in a gentlemanly manner.

“I did not approve of my son traipsing around in that desert, either alone or with someone.  As a matter of fact, I tried everything I could short of having him locked up, to talk him out of going.  But Joseph is a very strong willed young man, used to getting his way, most of the time and when he sets his mind to something, it is next to impossible to change it.  I did, however, understand Joe’s reasons for wanting to take such a trip…”

“Well, in all fairness to you, he did tell me that you tried to get him to reconsider and that he had to go because a friend had requested him to do so…and from what I could tell, your son was not a young man to break his word,” Molly explained.  “But I have thought about him often and wondered how he was faring.”

“So have I, Mrs. McClure, that’s why my other sons and I are here.  We are going to go look for him.  It’s been weeks now since he left and he’s had plenty of time to do what he had to do and get back home.”

“You don’t think something might have happened to him, do you?” Molly said fearfully.

“I hope not, but something must be wrong.  It isn’t like Joe to worry me like this, he knew I’d be on pins and needles and he promised to go straight there, wire me that he made it and then come straight back,” Ben explained.  “Too much time has past; I have to find my son!”

*****

The days failed to pass any more swiftly than the nights had for Joe.  There was nothing for him to do, but lay where he was and wish the pain away.  The swelling in his face was reduced, his eyes were barely able to open, but the skin on his chest and back where the bubbles had burst and the old skin peeled away, had left the new skin beneath, reddened with a new stinging sensation.

Honovi smeared more of the solution about Joe’s back and chest in an effort to relieve the boy’s discomfort.

“Burns,” Joe said in a weak voice.

Joe’s voice was beginning to get stronger and his swallowing was much improved, now that the swelling in his tongue had gotten better.

“I know, but it is slowly getting better.  Soon, you will see again,” Honovi promised.  “And when you are well, you will be able to return to your people.”

“My people,” Joe said sadly.  “My Pa…father must be worried sick about me.  I should have been home…say, just how long have I been here?”

Joe lay on his stomach while Honovi patted dry the dampness caused by the bursting of the tiny water blisters.

“The moon was full on the night we found you.  It has been full one more time since.”

“A month,” Joe said, letting the breath out slowly.  “I’ve been gone from home for more than two months.”

“Your people will be searching for you, yes?” Honovi asked.

“Probably…yes, knowing my father, he’s most likely out there now in that blazing desert, searching for me.  He thinks I’ve gone to Oreana, he had no idea that I never made it that far…he’s likely sick with worry…all on account of me.”

With his face turned away from his new friend, Joe fought back the tears that threatened to fall.  He had failed miserably at everything he had set out to do.  With the money that Tate had earned stashed away in his belongings, to give to his friend’s widow, and with all his supplies, his mule, his horse, even half his clothes, he had lost it all.  In fact, Joe thought, he had come very close to loosing his life as well. He had even failed to deliver the message to Mrs. Cameron that her husband had been killed in an accident, which, pondered Joe, had been his fault.  Now, his father, and no doubt his two brothers, were having to endure the scorching sun, the hot, dry ground, miles and miles of wasteland, for what?  To search for him, a mindless, hardheaded, stubborn fool, who hadn’t any better sense than to ignore the wisdom of his wiser family members.  Joe knew that his family had been keenly aware of the disaster that he was bound for, yet he had paid them no mind, so set was he to do this, that he set himself up for a fall.  Now it was up to his father and brothers to pick him up, as they always had, and set him on his feet, steering him in the right direction.

Suddenly a thought hit him.  Joe flinched slightly at the stinging in his back, but ignored the pain.  He had just determined that once he was well enough to travel, he would borrow a horse from his friend and continue on his way.  Setting his lips firmly, Joe reminded himself that he had made a promise to a dying friend; he would deliver it, one way or the other.

*****

“No, Henry just said if’n the boy comes back, give’em back his pinto and his mule.  If’n he ain’t back in a month, I’m to sell the paint and the mule for whatever I can get out’em,” the livery keeper explained to Ben.

“And how long ago was that?” Ben quizzed, for he was quickly becoming angry.

It seemed that everyone he had asked about Joe had given him misguided questions, until he had made his way to the livery.  Here, he and his sons had found Joe’s horse, Cochise, and the pack mule.  What he was being told was that Joe had struck a deal with the former livery attendant, for a more stout horse and a different mule.  It seemed as if EllieMae had come up lame and Joe, after giving it some consideration, had decided against taking Cochise into the alkali desert with him.  From what this man was telling them now, the deal was, that if Joe…and it was the if part of the deal that bothered Ben the most, but if Joe made it back to Fernley before a set date, the stable keeper would trade him back his own horse and mule.

“Been more’n six weeks, sir,” the man said, giving Ben the information he had asked for, and thus, causing more worry for the already anxious father.

“I ain’t sold the horse and mule yet; since Henry took off, I figured I’d give the kid a while longer.”

“Well, I appreciate that,” Ben said with a nod of his head.  “If you will keep the horse and the mule here, I’ll pay you for your time and trouble.  My sons and I will be gone for several more weeks, but we’ll be back and when we do, we’ll stop by for the animals.”

“Ya gonna go into that desert and look for ya son, mister?” the man inquired.

“Yes…he’s been gone…”

“Don’t mean no disrespect, mister…but ya know it ain’t likely that ya find’em…especially alive.”

Ben’s lips pressed tightly together and he had to swallow the fear that filled his throat.

“I have to try…I have to find out what happened to him,” Ben said softly.

“Yessir, I reckon ya do…I know I would, if’n it were my son.  Ya don’t worry none about ya animals, I’ll see after’em.”

“Thank you,” Ben said, digging into his pocket and pulling out a roll of bills.

The stable boy watched as Ben counted out several of the bills and then held his hand out to him.

“This should be enough to take care of them for a couple of months.  If we’re not back by then…I suppose you should sell the mule, but if you could hang on to the pinto…I’d appreciate it.  Cochise was Joe’s favorite…”

Ben felt the swelling return to his throat and he was unable to carry on.

“Like I said, Mr. Cartwright…don’t ya worry about this here horse; he’ll be here when you, or your son, gets back.’

Ben nodded his head and thanked the kind man again.  Unknown to him, it would be weeks before he’d see either the good-hearted man, or his son’s horse again.

*****

“I will be gone many days, Joe.  Doli cannot travel that far in her condition.  You will stay until I return?”

Honovi and Joe sat together in their dwelling, talking.  Joe was able to sit up now and better able to eat and drink.  His back and chest was still peeling, the raw skin under the blisters still stung and he and Doli were fighting against the chapping and drying that usually occurs when one develops a bad sunburn.  Joe’s arms had caused him little discomfort and flesh there had only peeled once, in patches and then turned a golden brown.

It was customary for the Hopi brave to make a journey into the mountains and bring back certain supplies, meat, furs, herbs, roots and such. Honovi’s wife, Doli, would usually accompany him on his annual trek, but because of her condition, this time she would have to remain behind.  Honovi had prayed to his God, a prayer of thanks that Joe had had lived through his ordeal and that now he had come to like the young white man.

Honovi had known from the start, he reasoned, the day he and his wife had found the boy, burnt by the hot sun, his flesh raw and cooked, that there was something about the white man that he could trust.  It was a feeling in his gut, a lurching of his heart while he tended to the boy’s needs.  Perhaps it was the soft murmuring sounds that the young white man had made in his delirium that had tugged at Honovi’s heart and told him, here is a man in whom you can put your trust.  And so it was.

“Of course I’ll stay, I owe you and your wife that much,” Joe agreed heartily.  “Besides, Honovi, I’m still not able to travel,” Joe reminded his friend.

His smiled faded.  He had set his heart on continuing his journey, but he supposed that under the circumstances, he had no other choice but to wait.  Joe determined that he had waited this long, a little longer would not matter.

“I thank you, Friend. I worry about Doli…it is her first child.  I will travel fast, so that I can be back in time for the birth,” Honovi told Joe.

“I hope so. I’ve never birthed anything other than cows and horses,” Joe grinned.  “I’m not sure I’d know what to do with a human baby,” he grinned.  “And too, let’s remember, Honovi, your wife doesn’t like me much.”

“It is not you, Little Joe, it is all kachadas…all white men,” Honovi explained.  “But I think she has softened towards you.  I do believe that Doli counts you as a ski’is, (friend).

“I hope so, but nonetheless, I’ll take care of her for you, while you are away,” promised Joe, though a smidgeon of doubt still lingered as to how the beautiful Indian woman felt towards him.

Joe could find no fault in the way that the woman had opened her home to him, or in the way that she had cared so tenderly for him.  But he had not forgotten that she made it clear to him, that she would have done the same for any dying animal.  Joe smiled when he looked at his friend, he’d do his best to keep this promise, he told himself, for he had not forgotten his recent failures, and the memory of his broken promise still remained a sore spot in his heart, and sometimes late at night, when he was asleep, Tate’s face would appear to him in a dream, reminding him even as he slept, that he had not fulfilled his promise.  It ate away at Joe’s conscious.  He swallowed down the rising bile and the sick feeling of failure as he turned to his new friend.

“When will you leave?”

“When the sun rises and heralds a new day.”

*****

The three riders stopped and each took small sips from their canteens.  Hoss pushed back his big ten-gallon hat and brushed his arm across his forehead.

“Whew…dang, I didn’t know what hot was til now,” he said, taking another small drink.

“Go easy on that water, son; it’s a long way yet, across this desert,” Ben cautioned.

“How far do you think we’ve come, Pa?” Adam said as he plugged his canteen and wrapped the strap about the pommel.

“My guess, the rate we’ve been traveling, probably half way,” Ben answered. He stood in the stirrups and glanced around as if looking for something. “Nothing,” he muttered under his breath, unaware that both Adam and Hoss had heard.  The two exchanged worried glances.

“Are you looking for anything in particular, Pa?” Adam inquired.

Ben glanced in Adam’s direction and lowered himself down into the saddle.  His father’s expression, Adam noticed, was one of hopelessness. “No…I was just looking,” he commented.  Ben half grinned at his sons.  “I guess I was hoping we’d run into the rascal.”

Hoss returned the smile, a bit reminiscent of his youngest brother as Joe’s face came to mind. “Maybe Joe’s still in Oreana…maybe he plumb forgot to wire us saying he made it. You know how Joe is, Pa…anything could have happened,” suggested Hoss.

“That’s what I’m afraid of Hoss…that something has happened to the boy.  I should have forbid him making this trip, I should have locked him in his room and threw away the key, I should…”

“You know better than that, Pa,” Adam scolded gently.  “Joe would have found a way out of his room and gone in spite of everything.  You know how bull-headed the kid can be when he sets his mind to something.”

Ben laughed in spite of himself and turned to Adam.  “I know you’re right son,” Ben said as his smile died, “but if anything has happened to that boy, I’ll never forgive myself for letting him go.  I’d rather have him mad at me for the rest of my life than not to have him at all.”

Ben nudged his heels into Bucks sides and rode slowly off, leaving Hoss and Adam behind watching his back.  Neither said a word, for inside each one, they both wondered what would happen to their father if they never found Joe, or if they learned that the boy they all loved more than life, was found to have died in this hell hole.

Adam glanced away, unable to meet the blue eyes that he knew had swelled with unshed tears.  When he urged his horse on, Hoss followed in line, tugging on the lead line and making the pack mule lumber forward behind the first pack mule slightly ahead of them.

They had gone only a few miles, it was hotter than blazes and they moved slowly, favoring the horses and pack animals.  Ben raised his hand in the air, signaling a halt.  Adam pulled his horse up to one side of his father’s mount as Hoss moved to the opposite side.

“See sumthin’?” Hoss inquired.

Ben pointed out in front of them.

“Am I seeing things, or is that something lying on the ground?” Ben asked.

“I’m not sure, but there’s one way to find out, come on,” urged Adam as he took the lead.

They all stopped and sat in muted silence when they reached the dead animal.  Ben felt his heart’s rhythm pick up in tempo, as he dismounted and moved slowly to decaying carcass.  He felt sick, like he might retch.  The stench was over-powering, but he had to find out…was it Little Joe’s pack mule?

Taking his neckerchief from around his neck and covering his nose, he moved closer, using his foot to kick gently at what remained of the packages still tied around the mule’s mid-section.

Adam dismounted as well, covering his nose in like fashion.  He leaned down and opened one of the smaller boxes.  Nothing of value remained and Adam reached for the satchel that he recognized instantly as belonging to his younger brother.  Inside were some of the clothes that Joe had packed.  When he pulled a shirt from the satchel and turned to look up at his father, he was instantly aware of the strained look on Ben’s face.

Adam stood up, the shirt still clutched in his hand; he glanced up at Hoss, who had remained on his horse and then back to his father. “It’s Joe’s,” he said, moving away from the dead mule.

Adam placed the shirt in Ben’s outstretched hand and stood silently as he watched the range of mixed emotions filter across his father’s face.  He was at a loss for words.

“Pa, it don’t mean a thing, other’n Joe’s pack animal didn’t make it…it don’t mean anythin’s happened to Little Joe,” Hoss said. He too, had seen the look of despair that their father now wore.

Ben sighed deeply and tucked the shirt into his saddlebag. “Of course it don’t,” he said as he mounted up.  “Let’s move on.”

Only a few more miles along the rutted trail, and Ben signaled another stop.  This time they had come across the remains of a dead horse.  When Adam looked over at his father, he could see that the color had drained from Ben’s face and the senior Cartwright looked as if he might be sick.

“I’ll check it out, Pa,” Adam volunteered as he dismounted, “you stay seated.”

Adam didn’t have to study the remains to know that the saddle on the horse also belonged to his youngest brother.  From the scabbard, he pulled out Joe’s rifle.  He was unaware that he held the rifle tightly and had pulled the weapon close to his chest.  Deep in the back of his throat, he felt the repulsion building and when he lowered his head, unable to look at either his father or his middle brother, Adam groaned loudly.

A hand gripped his shoulder and when Adam turned, his father and brother were standing together, behind him.  They each wore the same expression that was on his face.  The truth had a horrid way of presenting itself at times, and the trio had just been delivered a powerful punch.

“Pa?” began Hoss.

“Don’t say it, Hoss…all we know is that Joe made it this far, and nothing else,” Ben said without looking at the big man.

Ben turned and mounted up, waiting for Adam and Hoss to follow suite.  For the rest of the afternoon they rode in silence, each one lost in their own thoughts, drumming up images of their lost love one and what fate Joe had met.

*****

“How long is your husband usually gone?” Joe inquired of Doli who had just brought his meal in to him.

“Many days,” she answered shortly.

Joe made sort of a face.  Doli was very hard to talk to and he was sure that his friend’s wife did not like him.  “Thanks,” he said, accepting the wooden bowl that she handed to him.  He sniffed at the contents, glancing up at her.  “Smells good,” he offered, trying to make conversation.

“Corn meal mush,” she replied without even looking at him.

Before Joe could say another word, she was gone.  He sighed, wishing that he could be anywhere, doing anything other than where he was and what he was doing.  And then he thought of the hot, arid desert, where he had been and what had happened to him, and he changed his mind.  These people had been good to him; they had worked hard to save his life, it was wrong of him to think harshly about the woman.  Perhaps she had a right to hate the white men, who was he to judge another?  To ward off his hurt feelings and the loneliness that had, over the last several days begun to consume him, he filled his mouth with the mush, swallowing without chewing.

“Yuk,” he muttered softly.  “Hop Sing,” he whispered, suddenly homesick, “I sure could do with some of your good home cookin’ about now,” Joe sighed, stuffing his mouth with a second bite.

*****

The weary men had finally stopped.  The heat was beyond bearable, the horses were passed being tired and the mules had all but stopped and were practically having to be dragged alone behind the horses.

“We’ll rest here until nightfall,” Ben instructed, “and then go on as far as we can after the sun goes down.”

With no more wood to burn and no brush in sight, the three ate hardtack and left over bread that Hop Sing had baked for them just before leaving.  There was no shade, nothing that could offer a small reprieve from the baking hot sun that beat down upon their heads.  The animals were restless and by the time an hour had passed, Ben was ready to march on. “We’ll walk the animals,” he said.  “We won’t get far, but walking is better than sitting around waiting for the sun to cook us alive,” he said with a groan.

Exhausted within the hour, Ben issued them to stop.  “We can’t go on like this,” Ben said, his voice weak and sounding crackled.  “It’s no use; we should probably go back…Joe’s…”

Hoss quickly moved to his father’s side, clamping his large, strong hand down on Ben’s shoulder.  Sweat dripped from the big man’s brow and mixed with the fearful tears that collected in his eyes and dripped slowly downward.

“Don’t talk like that, Pa.  Joe’s gotta be alright…he’s just gotta,” Hoss babbled.

Adam had walked off to relieve himself and had returned.  His face was pale, sweat had beaded on his brow as well and it was obvious that he was beside himself with grief.

Both Hoss and Ben had stopped talking and had turned to stare at Adam’s expression.

“Son,” Ben said as he moved closer to Adam and took his son’s arm.

Adam, his eyes dark, moved his hand from behind him, and held up, for his father and Hoss to see, the dirty green jacket that he had found.

Ben’s mouth fell opened; Hoss’ eyes grew large and instantly refilled with tears.  Ben reached out his hand, his fingers gently caressing the fabric of his son’s jacket.  From deep within a loud cry of grief billowed upward and spewed from his mouth.

“NO!”

Unable to contain himself, Ben turned and allowed the contents of his stomach to empty out onto the hard baked earth.  Again and again Ben retched, until nothing was left in his stomach and his retching became hard, dry heaves that left him weak and trembling.

“Hoss, get a canteen, hurry,” Adam ordered as he took his father’s arm and led Ben away from the puddle of vomit he had left.

Hoss was back with the water in an instant and held it out to his father.  Ben took a swig and then spat out the residue from his mouth.  After taking a swallow, he wiped his mouth and with a look of pained grief on his face, he muttered his thanks.

“Maybe Joe just dropped his jacket,” suggested Hoss, though he had his own doubts and fears coursing through his mind.

Ben stared at his middle son through eyes of ebony without saying a word.  Hoss lowered his head, unable to meet his father’s glare and stood, fidgeting with the button on his shirt.

“Pa,” Adam said gently, taking the dirty green jacket slowly from Ben’s hands and folding it up.  “Hoss could be right; it’s so hot, and there would be no use in carrying it,” Adam hinted as he tucked the jacket into his saddlebag.

Ben swallowed his grief and nodded his head.  He glanced at Hoss, who looked as if he might cry at any moment.  The remorseful father put his hand on his son’s arm and gave Hoss a weak smile.

“I’m sorry, Hoss…anything is possible.”

“I know, Pa…but we gotta keep believing that somehow, someway, Little Joe made it outta this hellhole,” Hoss said.

“I pray that is so, son.  Let’s keep going,” Ben said as he climbed into the saddle and led the way.

Hoss and Adam lingered a moment longer, taking that time to exchange thoughts.

“I’m not sure Pa is going to make it, Hoss.  If we keep finding Joe’s belongings like this…”

“He’s alive, Adam…I just know he is…if he weren’t, I’d know,” Hoss said with a touch of determination in his voice.

The big man said nothing more, but mounted up and followed after his father.  Adam sighed, whispered a silent prayer for all four of them and hurried to catch up to his father and brother.

Mile after mile the trio lumbered on.  The landscape never changed, it was always the same, hot, dry, hotter, drier…until each began to question, in their own minds, their sanity at continuing on a journey that seemed destined for failure since the first day.

Had it not been for the deep abiding love that Ben Cartwright held in his heart for the son he sought so diligently to find, he might have called off the search and led his remaining two sons away, from this scorching wasteland.  But Ben pushed on, love drove him, faith led him and the need to know the truth about what happened to his youngest son forced one foot in front of the other.

The miles melted slowly, each one felt as if it were longer than the one they had just traveled.  At last, Adam declared aloud that they had to stop, the animals could not continue as they were for much longer, and they, themselves were about to drop.  Adam’s tone was firm when he spoke. “That’s it, Pa.  No more today, if we don’t stop now, these animals will be dead come morning, and then what?  How will we be able to save ourselves, much less look for Joe?”

Ben stopped.  They had been walking again.  He turned to look at his son, and noted the weariness embedded behind the layer of dust and dirt that had collect on Adam’s bronzed face.  The smudges were enhanced by the day’s old growth of hair that gave his handsome son the look of a bandit on the run.  Ben glanced at Hoss who fared no better and suddenly, Ben felt defeated.  Here he was, driving himself to search of one lost son, endangering the lives of two more.  He must be out of his mind, he swore to himself.  Looking around at the wide expanse of nothingness, Ben sighed deeply.

“It’s no use…I have to face the truth…Joe’s…gone,” Ben said softly, turning away from the two pairs of probing eyes.

Hoss stood with his head lowered.  He had suspected for some time, that Joe had perished in this hellhole, but he had kept hoping against an ever growing fear that maybe, just maybe, they’d be able to find the boy whom he cherished most of all.  Now it appeared that they would find nothing, other than the green jacket, the dead mule and horse that been Joe’s, nothing other than those items to tell them that their loved one had passed this way.

Hoss glanced down at the ground.  The ruts that marked the paths, for the previous travelers, were nowhere to be seen now.  Joe had ventured too far off course, and not even his father could understand why.  Hoss recalled that Ben had specifically instructed Joe to always keep the ruts in sight; they were his guides through the desert and to the other side.  Hoss pondered the idea that they may never learn the truth about what had happened to Joe, or why he had not followed their father’s instructions.

Raising his head and glancing around him, Hoss knew, that somewhere out yonder, his baby brother’s life had ended and that by now, Joe’s body had…  Hoss squeezed his eyes shut, fighting against the picture his mind conjured up, unable to put words to his thoughts, and not really wanting to.

“We’ll stop for now.”

Ben’s words broke through Hoss’ sub-conscious and jolted him back to the present.

“We can rest until after mid-night, then we’ll go on.  We haven’t much further before we’re out of this place and then we can rest up a few days and…start home,” Ben said as he turned and began pulling his saddle off his horse. “Unsaddle your mounts and give them some water,” he ordered.

Adam began unsaddling Sport, but Hoss moved slowly toward his father. Pa,” he said, standing behind Ben.  “Once we’re outta here, don’t ya suppose we should go on to Oreana…just to be sure?”

Ben sat his saddle down on the hot ground and turned toward Hoss.  He could easily see the near pleading expression that his middle son wore.  Ben glanced at Adam. What do you think, Adam?  Should we go on to Oreana, as Hoss has suggested, or stay over a few days in Lovelock and then start home?”

Adam glanced at Hoss and then again at his father.  As much as he wanted to find his little brother, Adam recognized that it might never be so, but the look on his middle brother’s face was enough to keep him from giving up completely. It wouldn’t hurt; we’ve come this far, we might as well check it out,” he said and then saw the hope spring forth, again in Hoss’ eyes.  “We’ll need fresh horses, and added supplies for the trip back, so I see more reasons to go on, than to turn back now.”

Hoss smiled his gratitude and nodded his head.  “Please, Pa…for…Little Joe’s sake?”

“Alright then, we’ll go to Oreana…for Little Joe’s sake…and I suppose, our own,” Ben said with a tight smile.

*****

Joe pushed aside the flap covering the door and peered outside.  The sun was beginning to set in the west and the sky was a colorful array of mixed reds and pinks, blues and grays.  Watching the sun move slowly downward, Joe marveled at the wonder of the sunset, so unlike the barren, hot wasteland that was, during the day, as a devils claw, clamping shut on the inhabitants that forged a living in this arena of alkaline waste.

Joe sighed deeply, yearning to be free of this fiery furnace that his friends called ‘home’.  Their home was unlike any that Joe had ever encountered and he wondered how anyone, even an Indian, could be happy in this God forsaken land.

What Joe wanted most was to go home, back to his family, back to the mountains where the gentle breeze soothed his soul and the whispering pines called softly to him.  Where his father and brothers laughed with him, teased him, and where love and respect purged themselves and doused each of them with full a measure.  Home had become his sanctuary and as Joe stood and watched the hand of God work his miracle in the sky above, he felt again, a deep desire to return to his homeland.

As the thoughts flowed through his mind, Joe was reminded of the couple whose dwelling he shared.  He thought about the tender care that both of them had bestowed upon him.  Their tender, kind hands, their soft voices and the gently laughter that they shared amongst themselves.  It occurred to Joe then, that regardless of where one lived, home, in the true fashion was not a place, but was instead the people whom you loved.  Hadn’t his father often said that he could be happy living anywhere, as long as the four of them were together?  Joe glanced again at the sky; the sun had almost disappeared behind the horizon.  His eyes traveled along the skyline and his eyes saw a beauty that he had not expected, for this land that he had come to hate, held a certain quality of beauty, a tranquility of its own, in its own way, and Joe knew then, that Honovi and Doli had seen the same thing when they settled here.  Thinking of the couple, Joe looked around for the woman, but could not see her.

Doli was nowhere to be found.  She had left a short while back and had yet to return.  Joe had offered to go with her, as he was now able to move about more freely, since the soles of his feet had begun to heal and was no longer so tender.  But Doli had refused, telling him in no uncertain terms that she wanted as little to do with him as possible.  Joe had not pushed himself, for he had resigned himself to her attitude and was sure that no matter what he said or what he did, Doli would never trust him, let alone come to like him.  So he had stayed behind and waited for her return.  But he was slowly beginning to worry, for usually, the lovely Navajo woman would go to the hot springs, fetch her water and return.  She was taking too long, Joe thought and in that instant, decided to go look for her.

He was sure that she would shout at him, rebuking him in her native tongue so that he could not understand the vile words that she spit at him, but he did not care.  He had promised Honovi that he would look after his wife until the brave returned, and this was one promise that Joe aimed of fulfilling.  In her delicate condition, Doli had to be careful, for her time was drawing near and Joe’s biggest fear was that her husband would not return in time to deliver their child, something that Joe had no desire to attend to.

“DOLI!” Joe shouted as he made his way carefully along the hard packed earth to where the hot springs bubbled up.  “Doli!  ANSWER ME!”

Joe flinched, for he walked along the path near the springs, and though he wore soft moccasins on his feet, they had begun to hurt and his legs felt wobbly.  His strength had not yet returned and Joe was weak, exhausted from the short trek.  He was forced to stop, leaning heavily on the pole that Honovi had fashioned into a cane for him.

Joe scanned the area with his eyes, glancing up at the sky.  The sun was completely gone now and it was growing darker as the minutes ticked by.  The worried young man moved forward several more steps and then stopped, horrified by what he’d found.

Doli lay in a crumbled heap upon the ground; blood coated her clothing and she cried out as Joe sank to the ground beside her and carefully lifted her head into his lap.

“Doli?” Joe said softly, brushing the locks of long black hair from her face where the sweat had glued the loose strands.

Black eyes sought his face.  Joe could see the fear in her eyes, and he felt sure that his own eyes reflected back to her, the fear that had suddenly consumed him.

“The baby…is coming,” cried Doli.

Joe’s eyes widened in disbelief and he shook his head gently from side to side.

“No…it can’t be, Doli, it’s too soon,” stammered Joe, suddenly frightened.

Doli moved to say something, but a contraction hardened her belly and she cried out in pain. “Aww…”

The woman clinched her lips tightly together to muffle the sounds.  Joe held the woman’s hand in his and when she squeezed, it took a lot of effort on his part to keep from crying out as well. When the contraction had passed, she looked fearfully up at Joe. “They are getting closer,” she muttered.

“We have to get you back to the hut,” Joe insisted.

As carefully as he could, Joe slipped his arms under Doli’s body and lifted her from the ground.  A cry escaped from between her clinched lips.  She glared at Joe.

“I know you don’t like me, Doli, but right now, I’m all you’ve got, and as much as you wish I was not here, I do too,” Joe said.

He glanced down, noting the puddle of blood on the ground and his heart filled with worry.  It was all Joe could do, to walk back up the path he had used.  Though the woman was not heavy, Joe was weak and the extra weight he carried bore down on his feet, sending sharp pains up his unsteady legs.

By the time they reached the hut, Joe was huffing.  His chest, where tender skin was just beginning to heal, burned with new heat that Joe fought mentally to ignore.

Carefully, Joe placed the young woman on the bed of furs that she shared with her husband.  He looked into her eyes, seeing the hate of him that she failed to hide.  Joe swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to ignore the look.

“I’ll boil some water,” he said.

“NO!” Doli bellowed.

Stunned, Joe turned to her.  “Why not?”

“There,” she pointed to the other wall, “are some sticks, bring them to me.”

Joe quickly did as Doli had requested.

“Place them into the ground, there and there,” she ordered, pointing over her head.

Again Joe moved as swiftly as he could and then waited to see what else the mother-to-be required of him.  Joe watched as Doli grasped each of the stakes with both hands and held tightly.  Seconds later, another contraction overtook her and Doli gritted her teeth, clinging tightly to the stakes over her head.  She raised her upper body slightly from the bed and pushed.  Sweat beaded on her brow and Joe hurried to wipe away the tiny beads.

Doli expelled her breath and glanced up at Joe.  He saw her expression soften somewhat and was taken by surprise when she smiled at him.

“It will not be long now,” she murmured.

“What should I do?” Joe said, unsure of himself.

“There is a knife in that pouch; place it in the fire.  You will need it to cut the cord and…”

“Cut the cord…me?” stammered Joe, turning from the pouch and staring in dumbfounded disbelief at the woman.

For some unknown reason, the look on Joe’s face, along with the expression he wore, caused Doli to laugh.  The soft, reassuring sound must have been what Joe needed, because he laughed too.

“I will tell you how, mochni.”

“I know what you just called me, and I’m no talking bird,” Joe grinned.

In spite of her pain, and her dislike of him, Doli returned Joe’s smile.

He squatted down by Doli and took her hand into his.  Tenderly, Joe raised the delicate hand to his lips, his eyes never leaving her face, as he kissed the back of Doli’s palm. She smiled and then grabbed for the stakes as another wave of pain engulfed her body.

“Breathe in and push,” Joe instructed.

For some reason, he remembered hearing someone tell a woman to count to ten when she pushed.  “Count to ten,” he issued.

Doli’s eyes looked into Joe’s and as her pain began to fade away, she relaxed and giggled. “You say, breathe in, I breathe in; you say push, I push, then you want me to count to ten.  How is it that you think I am able to do all three when there is such pain?”

“I…don’t know…” Joe stammered, feeling somewhat embarrassed.

“Why must I count?”

Joe looked perplexed.  “I dunno…I just hear someone tell a lady once, to count to ten…”

“Aww…he comes now,” Doli screamed as another wave of pain devoured her body.

When it was all over, Joe could recall little of what he had done to help in the delivery.  Everything seemed to happen at once.  He remembered hearing the sound of Doli’s voice shattering the stillness of the night.  He recalled the blood and the afterbirth that had almost caused him to retch.  But he most remembered the beautiful dark skinned baby boy that entered their world that night and the fear and the joy that mingled together in his heart as he gazed down into the ebony eyes that stared trustingly up at him.

At first, the baby had not cried.  The infant had not moved and Joe, frozen with fear and not knowing for sure what to do, glanced down at the new mother and saw the pleading in her silent expression.  Joe, the warmth of new life, resting in his gentle hands, turned the baby over and swatted the tiny behind with his opened hand.  The baby did not respond at first, and Joe swatted the delicate flesh a second time.

Angered for having been swatted twice in less than a minute, the baby opened his mouth and bellowed loudly.  Joe turned the infant over and quickly wrapped a warm fur blanket around the rosy body.

The entire time that Joe cared for her baby, Doli watched every move he made with worried and fearful eyes.  When the baby cried for the first time, she smiled at Joe and lifted her arms up, silently demanding her new son.

Joe, his eyes gleaming with joy, and filled with tears, smiled down at her and placed her child into her outstretched arms. “It’s a handsome baby boy,” he said in a whispered voice, filled with emotion.

Doli glanced at her son and with her free hand, gently held the tiny hand within her own.

“He’s alright now, Doli,” Joe smiled.

Her happy smile said it all, as she turned her back to Joe and put the infant to her breast for the very first time.

Quietly, Joe slipped from the dwelling, into the night.  The air was warm, but he felt refreshed almost instantly.  Joe glanced up at the trillions of stars that twinkled high in the sky.  The moon looked like an enormous yellow ball that was suspended from heaven.  Joe felt as if he could stretch out his arm and touch it with his fingertips.  It was a beautiful sight, and why, he wasn’t sure, but he suddenly thought of his father and wished that Ben had been there with him, to share in his joy that washed over him when the baby had been born.

He felt a swelling in his heart and tears filled his eyes.  Joe was suddenly overwrought with emotion and when the tears slid downward from the corners of his eyes, he could barely speak as he offered up a prayer of thanksgiving for what he had just been privileged to witness.  The land on which he stood was no longer so God forbidden, for this night, He had given new life to walk upon this dry, crusty, place that Doli called, home.

With the birth of her son, Doli’s attitude toward Joe changed.  She no longer looked at him with eyes filled with hatred.  Her whole persona had changed and often, Joe had caught her watching him, and when he smiled at her, Doli smiled in return.  Joe wasn’t sure if the young woman liked him, but he was sure that she no longer feared him, and he was glad for that small gain in winning her friendship.

*****

“It’s Joe’s alright,” Hoss said to Adam. “Why’d he take his shirt off, Adam?  Don’t the boy know he’ll burn up without it?”

“I don’t know, Hoss,” Adam whispered.  “I can only guess why he’d do such a fool thing.  He was probably suffering from the heat and not in his right mind…or worse.”

“Don’t talk like that, Adam…don’t…”

They had stopped to rest.  It was nearing daylight and the horses were as tired as they were.  Hoss had walked away from the camp for a brief moment and had come back, carrying the shirt in his hands.  Ben had been sleeping, and when he showed the garment, to Adam, they had both agreed to keep the evidence from their father.  Hoss rolled the shirt up and stuffed it into his saddlebag.

Adam looked across his brother’s shoulder and saw that Ben was waking up. “He’ll want to move on soon.  Keep quite now about finding Joe’s shirt…it’ll only upset him more than he already is,” cautioned Adam.

“Don’t worry,” Hoss whispered, “I ain’t sayin’ a thing.”

“You boys about ready to ride?” Ben asked after they had eaten a small breakfast.

“Ya, Pa.  I dun saddled the horses and Adam’s got everythin’ packed on the mules,” answered Hoss, giving Adam a glance.

Ben stood to his feet and tossed the remnants of his cold coffee onto the ground.  The dry dirt acted like a sponge and the wetness was devoured in an instant.

“Good, then let’s ride, it’s not now to the Humboldt Sink and then Lovelock, we can rest there a night and then go on to Oreana,” Ben said as he handed his tin cup to Adam who stuffed it into a pack on the mule.

“Mount up, boys; I’ve had about enough of this God forsaken place,” Ben said in a growl.

“You’re not by yourself, Pa…I’m not any fonder of this desert than you are,” responded Adam as he swung his leg over the saddle and plopped down.

*****

It was late in the day when the trio rode down the main street of Lovelock.  Most of the shops had already closed and there were only a handful of people walking about.  Hoss spotted the hotel sign and turned his horse in that direction. “I’m starved,” he said.  “Maybe we can get a nice, fat beefsteak there,” Hoss grinned.

Ben and Adam smiled, and the tense that had built, seemed to lessen some.  They stopped in front of the building and Ben dismounted, turning to the boys.

“First thing, I’ll see if they have a couple of rooms; you boys take these animals down to the livery stable and see that they are well cared for, then meet me here.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” said Adam, taking his father’s horse from him and nodding to Hoss, to come along with him.

Half an hour later, the three were sitting in the dining room of the hotel.  They had given the waitress their orders and each sat in silence as they waited for their meal.  Unknowingly, Ben let out a long sigh.

“Something wrong, Pa?” Adam inquired.

Ben glanced over at his son and shook his head no. “Just tired, son…and very disappointed, that’s all.”

Hoss waited the way his father’s brow furrowed and the look on Ben’s face worried him.

“Pa, we’ll find Joe…”

Ben’s eyes, dark with emotion, turned toward his middle son. “Stop fooling yourself, Hoss…Joe’s…gone, Adam knows it, I know, and you know it, too!” growled Ben.

Hoss lowered his head to keep from meeting the grieving eyes that glared at him.  He knew it, or so he thought he did, but deep down inside of him, Hoss wasn’t so sure and he told his family such. “I don’t know no such a thing.  You think what ya like, Pa, you too, Adam, but my gut tells me that Joe’s out there…somewhere, and I aim to find him, with you, or without you!”

Hoss shoved back his chair and started to walk away.  Ben jumped to his feet, his anger gone. “Where are you going?  Our supper will be here in just a minute.”

“I ain’t hungry no more,” spat Hoss, walking away.

Ben went after his son, grabbing Hoss’ arm and forcing him to turn around.  When Ben looked into his son’s face, he could see the hurt that the boy tried to mask. “Hoss…I’m sorry, son.  I didn’t mean to snap at you.  We’re tired, and dirty and hungry, I shouldn’t have talked to you the way I did.  Please, come back and sit down and eat.  I know you’ve got to be as hungry as Adam and I are.  Please?” Ben pleaded.

Hoss scrunched up his face, relenting and nodded his head. “I’m sorry too, Pa…but Joe ain’t dead. I just know he ain’t and I want ya to promise me, not to talk like he is,” Hoss said, forcing the condition on his father.

“Alright son, if you want to trust your gut, that your little brother is still alive, then please do it on a full stomach.  I won’t say it again, I…promise,” Ben said in seriousness, and then smiled at Hoss.

“Thanks, Pa,” Hoss replied in a whisper.  “It’s just that I’m not used to y a givin’ up so easy…”

“I haven’t given up, Hoss.  I’m just trying to face the truth.  We’ve been weeks now searching for your brother…and all we have for our trouble is a dead horse and mule, Joe’s saddle, his rifle, his jacket…but not…my son.”

Ben swallowed and took a deep breath.  “Come on back, Hoss, our supper’s getting cold.”

Two days later Ben, Adam and Hoss stood in the sheriff’s office at Oreana.  They had asked around town, inquiring about Joe, just in case, and had also questioned certain parties about Tate Cameron’s widow, Suzanne.  They learned only one thing…that the young woman had left town, child in tow, but no one could tell them where she had gone, except for the clerk at the stage lines, who had kept a record.

It was as stated in the letter to her husband, Mrs. Cameron had returned to Denver to care for her ailing parents and waited word from her husband there.  No one had seen Joe, and considering the date on which Mrs. Cameron had departed Oreana, Joe would have most likely missed seeing her altogether.

“Sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” Ted Holder, the town’s sheriff said, “but you and your sons there have been the only strangers in town for over three months.  No body comes here, less’n they have to, or they’re lost,” he said with a chuckle, “too damn hot.”

“Thanks anyway, Sheriff, for your help,” Ben said, shaking hands with the officer.

“What do you plan on doing now?” the sheriff asked.

Ben glanced around at Adam and Hoss; his eyes lingered briefly on his middle son before he turned his attention back to the sheriff. “Keep looking…”

“You know you’re wasting your time,” commented the sheriff.

“I know nothing of the sorts.  He’s my son; I’ll never give up, until I know something for sure, about what’s happened to him,” Ben said in a snappy tone.

The sheriff drew back slightly, realizing that he might have offended the man who stood before him. “No offense, Mr. Cartwright, I’m just telling you…a young man, alone, on foot with no food or water, on that desert, has virtually no chance of walking out of there alive.”

“You don’t know my baby brother, mister,” Hoss stepped forward to reprimand the man.

“Have it your way, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up, not after so much time has past.  I’m sorry. Mr. Cartwright, honest I am; I know how you must feel…”

“Do you have sons, Sheriff?” Ben growled.

“Well, no, but still…”

“Then you have no clue how I feel. Good day.”  Ben turned his back on the man and jerked the door opened.  “Are you coming?” he barked at his sons.

Nodding their heads at the sheriff, Adam and Hoss followed their father out into the street.  When Ben stopped, they did the same.

“What now?”

“We’ll get fresh horses, restock our supplies and get out of this place.  I don’t like it here,” Ben said, stomping off toward the livery.

By the next evening, the Cartwrights were back on the desert.  This time, Ben had decided that they would travel by night, as much as possible, in order to avoid the extreme heat.  They made better time, that way.

On more than one occasion, they tired of just sitting in the hot sun waiting for the night and cooler temperatures and though the days were every bit as hot as the week before they managed to reach the Humboldt Sinks in record time.  Ben had decided to change directions and work their way south toward the Carson Sinks, where Ben knew there to be water. “We’ll cut south, toward Fallon.  Maybe Joe got hurt and went there instead, what do you boys think?”

“It might be worth a try, Pa.  At least we know for sure there’s water…” Adam paused, staring at something far off on the horizon.

“What’cha see, big brother?” Hoss said, shielding his eyes from the sun.

“I’m not sure,” he said in a low voice to Hoss and his father who had also joined him at his side.

The trio stood side by side, shielding the sun from their faces and stared at the miniature figure of a man on horseback, moving slowly along the horizon.

“Looks like a man,” Ben muttered.

“That’s what I thought,” responded Adam.

Ever hopeful, Hoss smiled.  “Maybe it’s Joe.”

“I can’t tell from here,” said Adam.

“There’s one way to find out,” Ben said, turning and mounting up.  “Let’s go see.”

It seemed as if they had ridden miles before the man could be seen clearly.  The Cartwrights pulled their mounts to a halt as the Indian rode cautiously toward them.  From a distance, Honovi had seen the three riders and had watched as the strangers slowly made their way towards him.  He had glanced around, but there was no place to hide, no cover in which he could protect himself, so he faced the men.  When he was within range of speaking to them, he pulled his mount to a stop as well and waited.

One man, the older of the trio, urged his horse forward while the two younger men waited behind.

“Howdy,” Ben greeted the brave.

Honovi nodded his head.

“Do you…understand the white man’s language?”

Again Honovi nodded his head.

“Good,” smiled Ben, relieved.  “My name is Ben Cartwright, and these are my sons, Adam and Hoss…”

“Cartwright?” Honovi said in a low voice.

Ben glanced quickly at Adam and Hoss and turned back to the Indian.

“That’s right, have you heard the name before?” Adam said, moving his horse forward.

Honovi wished he had not spoken aloud, for his white friend had told him of three men who had attacked him and taken all his possessions.  Standing before him, were three men, three horses and mules that obviously carried heavy loads.  The Hopi brave wondered if these men were the evil whites that had so callously left the young man alone in the desert to die.

“I asked if you’ve heard the name Cartwright, before?” Adam repeated his question, this time more forcibly.

“Adam,” Ben cautioned.  He dismounted and moved closer to the Indian, who had backed up slightly when he had seen Adam nudge his mount forward.

“You will forgive my son?  We have been many days in the desert, and we are hot and tired; our animals are thirsty,” Ben explained.

When the Indian said nothing, Ben went on to explain.

“We are searching for my youngest son, his name is Joseph…we call him Little Joe,” Ben said, smiling.  “He went on a long journey that was suppose to take him through the desert into Oreana,” Ben pointed over his shoulder in the direction of the town.  “Joe was suppose to send us a wire, a…a message, when he got there, telling us that he arrived safely, but we never received it…”

“So you come into the desert to search for your son?” Honovi said.

“Yes…yes, that’s right.  It’s been many days, weeks, since we’ve heard anything and we were afraid for him…”

“The desert is not a good place for a man, alone.”

“You’re alone,” Adam suggested.

He had his suspicions that the Indian was holding something back, and if that ‘something’ concerned his younger brother, then Adam aimed on finding out what it was.

Honovi watched the raven-haired man from the corner of his eye.  He judged the man to be about his age, and wiser than most white men he had known.  The dark one bore watching, concluded Honovi.

“I live here…”

“You what?” stammered Hoss who, by now, had dismounted and joined his father.

“There,” Honovi pointed off in the distance.  “Near the mountains.”

“Oh,” muttered Hoss.

“My boy is about this tall,” Ben held his hand up to indicate Joe’s height.  “He has curly brownish hair, and is…”

“Nawat,” Honovi said, eyeing the older man.

“Nawat?” Ben said, puzzled by the Indian’s statement and not knowing what the word meant.

“It means, left-handed, Pa,” Adam said, glaring at the man.  “How would you know that, if you had not seen my brother?” he questioned in an angry tone.

“I did not say that I had not seen your shilah; you did not give me chance to answer your question,” Honovi snapped back at Adam.  “I had to be certain that you were his shizhe’e,” he said to Ben.

Ben’s expression was still one of bewilderment.

“Father,” said the Indian, translating the word for Ben.  “Shilah,” he pointed to Hoss and Adam, “brothers.”

Ben smiled and sighed in relief.  He moved closer to the Indian’s horse, placing his hand on the animal’s neck. “Then you have seen Joe?”

“I have seen him, many moons ago.  He laid dying, his body burned by the sun, his flesh cooked raw, his mouth dry and cracked and his face disfigured by the bruises where he had been beaten and hok’ee…abandoned, and left to die.  His eyes niichaad…swollen…and his vision no longer…”

The smile on Ben’s face faded and he felt his heart leap into his throat.  Fear raced through his veins.

“Are you trying to tell me that my son…perished in this hellhole?” Ben said with deep emotion.  “After all we’ve been through…are you telling us that he’s…dead?” stammered Ben.

“My wife and I gathered the phana onto our horse and took him with us, to our hut. There we cared for him.  For many days he withered in torment, his skin made tiny bubbles and when the bubbles opened, the skin beneath was raw and drawn tight.  The ashkii, suffered, as I have seen no man suffer for many seasons.  He cried out from the world where is soul slumbered, as the fever claimed his body.  Many nights I sit by his side, wondering who he was, and why had the young qochata ventured into the desert.  I ask myself, where is this ashkii’s shizhe’e and why would the white father allow such an ashkii to dare such a journey?  But I have no answers, until the pahana wakes from his sleep…”

“Then my son is alive?” Ben blurted out, interrupting the tale that this Indian had spun involving the horrors that his youngest son must have suffered.

Honovi’s eyes swept the small group and he smiled for the first time. “Little Joe…Ahote…restless one, lives,” he said, his eyes shining.

“Aw…golly!” shouted Hoss, tears gleaming in his sky blue eyes, “did ya hear that, Pa?  I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!  Little brother’s alive!” Hoss laughed as he danced around his father and older brother.

Ben laughed along with his son, and turned, just in time to see Adam shake Honovi’s hand and hear him mutter in a low voice. “Thank you…for taking care of the kid for me…us…the boy’s sort of special.”

*****

The baby continued to cry.  Doli was near tears and Joe was on the verge of pulling his hair out.  The infant was not satisfied with anything that either of them tried to do for him.  The mother had offered the baby her breast, but the baby would only nurse for a short time and then pull away, screaming as loudly as he could.  Joe was amazed, that such a tiny person could make so much noise.  He had taken the child from his mother and walked back and forth across the expanse of their small dwelling, all the while talking and cooing in soft tones to the newborn.  Joe bounced the baby gently in his arms, but still the infant cried.

“What is wrong with my son?” Doli sobbed as she watched Joe march to and fro.

“I don’t know, he isn’t wet…I checked,” Joe assured the worried mother.

Doli’s eyes widened in fear for her newborn.  She rose from her bed and crossed over to where Joe stood with the baby in his arms.  She placed her hand gently on the baby’s brow. “Perhaps, he is sick?” she said, looking into Joe’s eyes for an answer.

“No…I’m sure he’s not sick, please try not to worry, Doli, he’s just…just…”

Joe had moved the infant to his shoulder and was gently patting the baby’s back.

“What is he then, if he is not sick?”

“I’m not sure, but he’s…”

“Bbbuurrpp…bburpp!”

Joe’s eyes widened and he looked first at the baby and then down at the mother.  He was smiling and when the surprised mother saw Joe’s face, she too began to laugh.  The baby hushed and nuzzled his face against the curve of Joe’s neck.

“I think he’s ready to eat now, Mama,” he said in a light voice as he handed the child to his mother.

Doli took her child from Joe’s arms, pausing to smile up at him. “I have not liked you because you are a white man…I hate all white men, or so I thought.  But you are not like other white men…you, my friend…have a heart, and you are kind and gentle, like Honovi.”

Doli lowered her head so that Joe could no longer gaze into her eyes. “I am sorry, I was wrong…Little Joe.”

Joe cupped Doli’s chin and raised her head just slightly and smiled at her. “I too have been wrong.  I came into this desert, expecting to find nothing akin to what I have found here, with you and your husband.  I considered this land, a hellhole; a God forbidden place where nothing but misery could survive, but I was wrong.  Instead, I found life, my own and this new life, that I helped bring into the world.  I saw a beauty here, where I never expected to find it.  I found a gentleness, and kindness, compassion and trust, in a people that I had not thought capable of rendering.  It’s opened my eyes, Doli, it’s changed my way of thinking, and I have you and Honovi to thank for all of it.”

Joe allowed the woman to sit back down on her bedding in order to feed her child.  But he continued talking. “I set out on a mission…”

“Mission?” she repeated the word.

“A journey…I was going to Oreana to see a woman…the wife of a friend who died, saving my life.”  Joe made a disgruntle sound, deep in his throat, that caused Doli to look over her shoulder at him.

“Seems like lately everyone is saving poor old Joe Cartwright,” he said, remembering that Tate had given his all to prevent his death and this couple had spent the last several weeks trying to keep him alive.

Doli put the baby up on her shoulder as she had seen Joe do, and patted the baby’s back.  The tiny little boy burped, she giggled as she laid the child down on the soft bed.  She turned to Joe, smiling. “You must be a very special kind of man, if the Great Spirit has provided you with so many guardians.”

“I’m a trouble magnet, at least that’s what my family calls me.  No matter where I go or what I do, trouble always finds me, even when I’m not looking for it,” Joe explained.

“Were you going to the woman, to tell her of her husband’s death?” Doli asked.

“Yes, and to give her the money her husband earned while working for us.  She has a small child and she’ll need it, but…I was robbed and the money was stolen.”

“What will you do now?”

“I’m not sure; probably find some way to get to Oreana and…”

Doli’s eyes grew wide.  “You are not well enough yet, to continue on.  It is many miles, several days ride…you cannot possibly travel so far.”

“But I have too…”

“I do not understand…”

“Doli, I made a promise…to a dying man, that’s why,” explained Joe as he turned toward the door.

All the old feelings came back to him in a rush, and suddenly the light-hearted mood he’d been having was gone.  His guilt, his failure at not being able to keep his promise to Tate, shrouded him like a blanket in such a manner that Joe walked out of the hut and into the night, without saying a word to Doli.

He was exhausted.  The last several days had been hard on him, what with delivering the baby.  That had drained him emotionally, for he had been frightened and unsure what to do.  He feared that the woman or the child, both, might die because of his lack of knowledge.  His heart had raced and once Joe had almost collapsed from weakness.

And then there was the work he had taken over, fetching the water from the hot springs and carrying it back, placing it on the fire to brew with the herbs that Doli had told him to use so that the water would be fit for drinking and cooking.  Joe had cared for the woman and the baby, tending to their every need, preparing the meals, doing the washing…it was all wearing him down, for Joe had a long way to go to being declared physically well.  He knew he should go back and rest, but it was so damn hot, he grumbled softly to himself.

All the wonders that he had found here seemed not to matter at the moment.  Joe was lonely for his family, homesick and he wished he were any place on earth right then but where he was.

Tears filled his eyes, his chin quivered and though he tried not too, he lowered his head and cried softly.  For several moments he stood in the shadows of the hut and allowed himself to be pitied as he thought of those whom he loved and missed and of the widow who had no clue as to her new title and the promise he’d made and broken.  The crying of the baby jarred him back to the present and Joe swiped his face with his hands, taking a deep breath to fill his lungs and refresh his mind before he allowed himself to go back inside.

“I’m sorry, Tate,” he muttered softly.  “I’m sorry, Pa, I let everyone down…I can’t do anything right, just like Adam’s always telling me,” Joe said with a catch in his throat.

By the time he entered the small dwelling, the baby had quieted and when Joe checked, Doli had fallen to sleep beside the infant.  Joe covered her and the baby and then sank, with relief, into his own bed.  Only briefly did he stare up at the top of the hut, for sleep claimed him almost instantly.

*****

Ben was so overcome with emotion that he could barely speak.  This was an answer to his prayers, Joe was alive, and apparently from what this Indian was telling them, his youngest son had suffered horribly but had fought his way back from the gates of hell to the present.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” Ben said, taking Honovi’s hand and pumping it up and down.  “Please, can you take us to him?”

Honovi nodded his head in response.  “I have been away, much too long.  Your son has stayed behind, with my wife who is expecting our first child…Doli and Little Joe are in no condition to travel, so I go alone, into the far distant mountains to bring back the things we need.  You come; follow me.  It will be several days yet, before reaching my home and your son.”

*****

Exhausted, Joe dropped the water container, spilling the precious liquid over the ground.  As if it were magic, the water disappeared into the soil within seconds.  Joe stooped to pick up the container, his body was roasting in the hot sun, and he was in much need of a drink, but they had run out of drinking water.  Now, he had to make another trek back to the hot springs, collect the water a second time and then return to the hut.  He’d have to put the water on to boil and that would take time, more time for his hot, thirsty body to have to wait for something to drink.  He turned, too quickly, his vision blurred, and he felt himself stagger to one side and stop.  Joe stood for several long moments, trying to steady himself before going on.  When the weakness had passed, Joe resumed his walk along the well-traveled path.

The sweat beaded on his brow and rolled down into his eyes, causing the weary man to swipe them away.  He was angry with himself for being so careless and making more unnecessary work for a weary body and soul.  Joe had already been too busy, caring for the woman, who had spiked a fever, three days after the birth of her child, and was now taken to her bed. The infant, cried constantly, nearly driving Joe over the edge.  All this, plus the fact that he failed to look after his own needs properly had weakened Joe to the point that now he was about to be sick.

Joe felt himself deteriorating, and he feared for the woman and child.  His mind raced, who would care for the sick woman, who would feed and change the baby?  The goat needed to be milked, water needed purifying, meals cooked, the horse would need tending to…who…who…

Joe’s skin was still tender and with the sweat, more blisters had formed along his back and chest; even his face had new signs of sunburn.  His flesh felt as if it had been set on fire, his head pounded and before Joe could right himself, he stumbled forward, falling down onto the hard packed earth.  Gasping sounds stopped his cries for help and when Joe tried to stand, he fell again.  This time, he made no movements; no pleas came gurgling forth from his dried throat nor passed his parched lips.  Hazel eyes closed to the dull ache of his muscles and the sharp, stinging pain of his burning flesh.  Joe had slipped into a state of unconsciousness from which his confused mind had no desire to leave.

*****

“How much further?” Hoss questioned the Indian.

“You aren’t getting anxious to see you brother, are you, son?” laughed Ben.

“Aren’t you, Pa?” asked Hoss, totally unaware that his father was teasing him.

Ben glanced at Adam, who chuckled softly. “He has no clue, Pa,” he said.

“I know,” he answered and then turned to Hoss.  “Yes, son, I’m most anxious to see Joe; we all are.”

“See,” Honovi said, pointing to the horizon.  “It is there, against the mountains.  We should reach my home before the moon has time to rise in the sky.”

They trudged onward, seemingly for hours.  The four were tired but their excitement pushed them on without stopping.  The sun slowly began to set in the sky and when they looked to the horizon, they could now make out the outline of Honovi’s hut.

Honovi led the small band of white men within yards of the hut, and threw his arm into the air, signaling for them to stop. Nothing moved; it was as if death stalked the place and the Hopi suddenly had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Something is wrong,” he said with dread.

The Cartwrights swapped looks and dismounted, drawing their guns.

“What’s wrong?” Ben whispered.

“It is too quiet, and Doli and Little Joe should be outside…feeding the goat and the horse.  See,” he pointed to the fire pit, “there is no fire.”

“Hoss check inside the hut,” Ben ordered.  “Adam…”

“Quiet!” snapped Honovi.  “Listen…”

All four men stood stark still and listened to the low whimpering sounds that they could not identify.  Seconds ticked away.

“It sounds like a…baby crying!” Ben said, turning to look at his new Indian friend.

“Baby!” Honovi blurted out loud.  “Doli…DOLI!” he shouted and ran for the hut, where he burst through the canvas that covered the door.

Ben was following on the brave’s heels and entered the hut right behind the Indian.  Both men paused, for it had grown dark inside and it took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the light.

“Doli…” whispered Honovi as he rushed forward to the bed that they shared together.  The baby lay snuggled in the warm blankets, crying in soft, muted tones.  Doli looked as if she were sleeping, but when Honovi placed his hand on her arm to gently wake his wife, he felt the burning heat that emitted from her body.

“Her body is on fire,” Honovi cried with rising fear.

He jerked around, as if searching the darkness for something or someone.  He glared at Ben and his sons.

“Your son has gone; he has left my wife and child alone, to die!” growled Honovi as he turned back to his wife and child.

Ben looked at his sons in certain disbelief and shook his head slowly from side to side.

“He would not do that, would he, Pa?” stammered Hoss.

“Of course not!” snapped Ben.

“Adam, you and Hoss go outside and see if you can find him, he could be hurt…or worse, I’ll help Honovi with his family,” instructed Ben.

Adam and Hoss hurried to do their father’s bidding.  All joy for a happy reunion had been forgotten and the sentiment was replaced with fear and dread, old companions of the two brothers.

“JOE!”

Ben heard Hoss calling for his brother.  He felt sick to his stomach, but he pushed away the feeling and went to help his friend.

“Leave her be…do not touch her!” the Indian shouted at Ben.  “He has killed her!”

Ben drew back as if he’d been slapped, his eyes wide.

“You don’t honestly believe that, do you?” Ben asked in amazement.  “It would take an animal to walk away from a sick woman and new born baby.  My son is not an animal, and after what you have done for him, he’d never turn his back on her, never in a hundred years, no matter what condition he was in.  He’d have to be near death not to be able to help your family and…”

“That might not be so far from the truth, Pa,” Adam said as he entered the hut, holding back the flap to permit Hoss to enter.

In Hoss’ arms, he carried the limp form of his youngest brother.  Joe’s body was covered in a film of dirt and dust, sticking to the dampness caused by his sweat and the bubbles that had burst.

Hoss moved to the other bed and gently laid Joe down.  Ben gathered close, brushing back the wet strands of curls that had plastered themselves to the boy’s brow.

“Is there water near by?” Adam asked the Indian, who had watched the big man carrying Joe into the hut.

“The hot springs, follow the path, but it must be boiled with herbs first,” Honovi instructed.

“Hoss, come help me. I’ll fetch the water, and you get a fire started.”

Together, the brothers went to work on the fire and bringing fresh water up from the springs.

“Honovi…was wrong about ashkii…I am much sorry,” the brave ventured to tell Ben, who had set about making his son comfortable.

“Never mind for now,” Ben said.  “How are your wife, and the baby?”

Honovi carefully picked up the baby and held him in his arms. His face brightened with the smile that spread across his face.

“He is beautiful…for a boy,” smiled Honovi as he moved to Ben, who had stood up, and came forward to see the infant.

“See, he is hungry,” the brave said, glancing toward his wife, who was still unconscious.

“Maybe this will help,” Adam said, holding a container out for the Indian to peer into.  “I milked the goat.”

“Wonderful…” Ben proclaimed.

“How’s Joe?” Adam inquired, setting the container down and going to his brother.

Adam pressed his hand to Joe’s brow and then turned to look up at this father. “He’s warm but I think it’s more from the sun than it is from fever,” Adam told his father.

Ben squatted down next to Adam and glanced at Joe.  “So do I.”

“What do you think is wrong with him, heat stroke?”

“No, I think the boy is suffering from exhaustion.  Look at him, Adam; he’s skin and bones.  He doesn’t look as if he’s had a decent meal in days,” Ben whispered, glancing over his shoulder to see Honovi preparing to feed the crying baby.

“What about the woman, how is she?” Adam asked.

“She’s burning up with fever, Adam.  She needs a doctor.  My guess is an infection from having the baby…something must have gone wrong…”

“You don’t think Joe…delivered the baby, do you?”

Adam could not fathom his younger brother doing such a thing, but then there was no one else around to help the woman, and Adam had no doubt that Joe would not have stood by and done nothing at all.

“Probably why he’s so spend,” Ben whispered.  “Joe?” he cooed, taking the boy’s hand in his own.  “Your Pa’s here now, son, everything is going to be alright.”

Honovi and his new friends worked throughout the night to bring his wife’s temperature down, and to tend to Joe who was just beginning to wake up.

Joe’s eyelids fluttered and he stirred, trying to get up.  Ben was by his side, and gently forced Joe back down onto the soft bedding.

“Lie still, Joe,” whispered Ben.

“Doli…I have…to help…her…the baby…crying…” muttered Joe in a garbled slew of words.

“No, Doli’s being taken care of, and the baby is being fed.  They’re going to be alright, son, you have to rest now,” ordered Ben.

Joe tried to focus on the face behind the voice.  It sounded so much like his father that Joe could only wish.  A rush of emotion washed over him in the next instance and he squeezed his eyes tightly shut.

“Pa…Pa…” he sobbed.

Ben, over come by emotions as well, gathered Joe tenderly in his arms and pressed the curly haired young man to his heart.

“Shh…Joe, I’m here now, son…I’m here,” cooed Ben.

Joe managed to open his eyes at last, and spied his father smiling down at him.  Painstakingly, Joe moved his arm enough that he could grasp Ben’s hand in his own.  Tears flooded his eyes and rolled freely down from the corners.

“Pa…”

“It’s alright, Joe.”

“No…no…my promise…I broke…it,” sobbed Joe.

“Joe, no you didn’t, son.  The woman and the baby are going to be alright…”

“Not that…promise…Tate…I broke my promise…to him.”  Joe snuggled closer to Ben, as his father tried to comfort him.  “I was…robbed…and left…to die.”

All the grief that had mounted over the weeks came bursting forth in a rush of words.

“Oh, Pa…it was so hot…and I was so thirsty…the sun…it never stopped burning, my skin was on fire…they took it all…my horse, the mule, my supplies, Tate’s money…

even my boots,” sobbed Joe.

Adam and Hoss had slipped quietly into the hut and were crouched around their father and younger brother.

“It doesn’t matter, son…none of it,” Ben said in a tight voice.  “All that matters is that we’ve found you, and you’re alright…”

“But Tate…his wife…she still doesn’t…know,” Joe continued to sob.

“Joseph, listen to me for a minute.  Tate got a letter, from his wife that explained that she was going back to Denver to wait for him.  Her parents were ailing and they needed her care, so she wasn’t even in Oreana…she hasn’t been for months now…”

“Letter…Tate didn’t mention a…letter,” Joe said, calming down enough to listen to what his father was trying to tell him.

“It came afterwards…Tate was already dead, Joe, and you were gone, on your way to Oreana.  We went there, looking for you.  When we didn’t hear from you, we got worried, so your brothers and I set out for Oreana, hoping to catch up with you…but you had too much of a head start.”

“Pa wrote a letter to Mrs. Cameron while we were in Oreana, Joe, explaining everything to her, and mailed it from there,” Adam added. “You did your best, Little Buddy, that’s all any man can ask of another…you have no reason to think otherwise.  We’re proud of you, Joe…I’m proud of you.”

Adam swallowed hard.  The harsh, unkind words he had used to describe the boy to his father, suddenly came back to haunt him.  He had almost lost his brother…could he have lived with himself, if the desert had claimed him, Adam didn’t see how, after the things he’d said.

“Thanks…Adam,” Joe whispered, trying to smile at his older brother.

“He sent her the money he earned while working for Pa…so she should have enough to get by on, Joe.  She’ll be fine; she’s with family and they’ll help her.  ‘Sides ain’t that what family’s all about?” Hoss included his part to the conversation.

“Then she knows…that I tried…that Tate wanted me…to tell her…” Joe cried.

“Yes, son, she knows and I’m sure she’s grateful for your efforts.  Joe…I told Mrs. Cameron that you tried to get to her, but that…we feared you died…in the desert.”

Ben became choked up and he pressed his son a little tighter to him. “Thank God…I was so wrong,” he said, near tears.

“Hell…Pa…that’s what it was…a living hell,” muttered Joe, closing his eyes.  “Tired…so…tired,” he murmured as he drifted off.

By late the next day, Joe was feeling somewhat better.  He was able to sit up, sip the broth that Ben had made for him and converse with his brothers.  Doli’s fever had broken and she was able to nurse the infant again, all under the watchful eye of her proud husband.

*****

“When can we go home?” Joe asked his father late one night.

They had been there over a week already, and even Hoss was getting restless and wanting to move on.

“Probably in a couple more days, Joe.  I want to make sure that you’re up to the trip, before we attempt to cross that desert again,” Ben explained.

“Your friends are going with us, Joe.  Did he tell you?” Adam inquired.

Joe smiled and glanced over at Honovi and his wife who sat together with them outside in the moonlight where it was cooler than in the hut.

“Yes, he told me.  He’s going as far as the Ponderosa with us and he and Doli are taking the baby and working their way into California.”

Joe turned to his father.

“Honovi said that there’s a place there in the mountains, where the water boils up out of the ground and spews into the air.  He said that there’s plenty of buffalo and elk and that they’d never want for anything. He’s going to do some trapping and trade the pelts in the spring for supplies at the trading post.  You ever hear of such a place, Pa?” Joe asked.

“I have,” answered Adam.  “It’s called Yosemite and from what I’ve read about it in books, it’s everything Honovi said, and then some.  They say it’s beautiful there,” he added.

“But dangerous,” Honovi, who had been silent until now, added his words.  “It is called, Yohemite and it means, ‘some of them are killers’.”

It grew quiet within the group, and Honovi went on to explain.  “For many years, our red brothers lived in the area, and then the white men come, and begin to kill the red man…”

“Then why go there?” puzzled Hoss.

“Because the land beckons to me, and there, we shall have all we need to survive.  Not like here in this land.  We can live among our brethren and if need be, we will die with them.  I now have a son and I, like you, Ben Cartwright, want to leave behind something that no man can take from him.  It is a way of life; my people believe that the stewardship of our lands lies within our children and their children and theirs.  It is important that we instill in this generation, a true sense of wonder and ownership of such lands, that they might take it with them, into the future.  Without that knowledge, our lands will be destroyed, taken away by the rich, and enjoyed by only those wealthy enough to buy it from those that kill us to take it from us.  But we will die to keep it…it is our legacy to our sons and daughters, for when we are gone, the land shall still be here. It is Mother Earth that feeds us and clothes us, and gives us new life with each season. We honor the earth and all that the Great Spirit puts in it, to fulfill our needs.  That is what I want to give to my son, that is why we must go to the high mountains where water spews high into the sky, from the belly of the earth.”

“Those are good reasons; I too have tried to teach my sons to respect the land and never take from it, without giving back to it.” Ben said.

“Then you understand why I must go there?”

“I do,” answered Ben.

*****

Several days later, the Cartwrights and their traveling companions rode into Fernley.  They got some strange looks from the people passing by on the street.  Their attention was drawn to the Indian man and woman who rode along with the Cartwrights as they made their way to the livery.  They were hot and tired, not to mention hungry, but Joe was so anxious to get back to Cochise, that he refused to eat or rest until he knew that his favorite mount was still being housed at the local livery.

“Well…what do ya know!” the stable keeper who had supplied Ben and his sons with fresh mounts, declared.  “I see ya found ya boy…and looks like ya picked up some strays along the way,” he said with a hearty laugh.

“Ya gotta problem with Injuns, mister?” Hoss said, not wanting his new friends to feel threatened.

“Me…Lord no, sonny.  My ole pappy was half Injun, himself.  They don’t make no never mind to me. I can take’em or leave’em,” he laughed.

“Say Mister,” Joe said.  “The other man…don’t recall his name, is he still around?

“Lands no, boy, he dun up and left weeks ago with two other fellas; ain’t got no notion where he went. Why?” the man asked.

“Cause, he was keeping a black and white pinto for me.  You do still have him, don’t you?”

Joe missed the quick exchange between the man and his father.

“Well, boy…I can’t lie to ya…I sold’em a few weeks back to a real nice man.”

Joe’s happy expression faded and a frown furrowed across his brow.  He glanced at his father, fighting back the tears that wanted to fill his eyes. “Someone local?” Joe asked, hopefully.

Ben watched the play of emotions that Joe struggled with.  His son had suffered through so much over the many weeks that he’d been gone, and to see him suffer now, because his favorite horse had been sold, was too much for the compassionate father.  He had to speak up.

“Joe…”

Joe twirled around to face his father; the tears had done their job.  “He’s gone,” stammered Joe.

“I bought Cochise, son,” Ben said as he placed his hands on either side of Joe’s shoulders.

“You what?”

“I didn’t want someone else to buy him, so when your brothers and I passed through a while back and got fresh horses for ourselves, this gentleman explained about the agreement you had with the other fellow, so I just went ahead and bought Cochise back…just in case.  Joe, I didn’t want anyone else to have him, even if you never came home to me.  I couldn’t bear the thoughts of another man, riding my son’s horse,” smiled Ben.

“Oh, Pa…” Joe fought against the tears and when he could contain himself no longer, Ben pulled the boy into his arms and hugged him tightly.  “Thank you…”

“It’s the least I could do for you, son.  You’ve been to hell and back…I wanted you to have something of home, when you came back; and this is the best I could do for now,” Ben said, smiling and very content that he was able to hold his child in his arms once more.

Joe pulled back and looked into his father’s eyes.  He cared not that the others stood around, trying not to be obvious. “I learned a great deal while I was gone, Pa.  I learned what it was to be hungry and thirsty, and to be without.  I learned to depend on the man upstairs.  I even came to a point while wondering through the wilderness, that I told God to just take me…I was ready to die, Pa.”

Joe saw the look of horror cross his father’s face and he hurried to finish. “I didn’t want to die, but I was ready…if it was His will.  But instead, He sent an angel…”

Joe glanced at Doli and smiled. “A reluctant angel, at first,” he laughed softly.  “But an angel just the same.  She, along with my new friend, Honovi, saved my life.  I hurt like I’d never hurt before and hope never to suffer like that again.  I was ready to give up, but they wouldn’t let me.  My angel kept muttering in my ear that I couldn’t die, cause if I did, her husband would blame her…she didn’t like me, Pa…I don’t know, maybe she had good reason to hate white men.”

Joe turned his back to the group of men and stood before the woman.  His eyes were full of empathy as he smiled tenderly at her. “I was in a place I once called a ‘God forbidden, hellhole’.  But He showed me that even there, life could begin, as well as end.  And He, who brought be back from the dead, make me a witness to life’s miracle. I held in my hands a new life, and…it changed me, Pa.  I knew why God hadn’t let me die, when by rights, I should have been dead weeks ago.  He had a plan for me…He knew that my angel would need someone to help her in her time of pain and suffering.  I was part of God’s plan.”

Joe’s voice had grown thick with keenness.  He looked over his shoulder at his father.  His chin quivered as he fought to continue. “I’d do it again, if I had too, Pa.  Can you understand that?  I walked to hell and back and I found love there, in a place I’d come to hate.  It amazes me…I can’t explain how I feel…it’s…”

Ben smiled and pulled Joe to him.  He knew what his son was trying to say, but he had no words either, to explain it.  One thing that Ben was sure of, Joseph had experienced something special, something that only a few men are privileged to experienced.  As he held his son in his arms, Ben could not help but wonder if God had hand picked Joe for the job, because he was special.

‘Yes.’  A small voice whispered.

Ben glanced around, sure that the others had heard what he had, but they seemed unaffected by the soft murmurings.  His eyes moved slowly upward, toward heaven, and in that instant, Ben knew…God had spoken to his heart, as one father to another.

***End***

NAVAJO:

Doli…Bluebird

Ashkii…Boy

Hastiin…Man

Helaku…Full of sun

Kachada…White man

Kok’ee…Abandoned

Mahal…Woman

Niichaad…Swollen

Shilah…Brother

Shiye…Son

Shizhe’e…Father

Ski’is…Friend

Tsiishch’ili…Curly haired

Yanisin…Ashamed

Yiska…The night has passed

HOPI:

Honovi…Strong Deer

Ahote…Restless one

Apenimon…Worthy of trust

Maasaw…God of Death

Mochni…Talking bird

Nawat…Left handed

Pahana…Lost white brother

Qochata…White man

 

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