Summary: A story of brothers and their devotion to one another, as told by Adam Cartwright.
Word Count: 9436
It’s hard to think back about what happened. It all seems as if it were a dream but in truth it was reality, or maybe I should have said it was a nightmare, a living nightmare. That would be more accurate.
My kid brother and I were riding the rim rock looking for strays and not having much luck. The steers that had wandered that far had done so in early spring looking for young, tender grass to munch on and having found it to be to their liking, had not ventured back down to the meadows when most of the herd had done so.
Joe was complaining about having to ride such a long distance just to look for the ornery bovines so I tried to explain to him that it was necessary to do so because what steers we found would add to the count that Pa needed to make up the herd that we’d eventually take to market. I might as well have been talking to one of those stubborn critters we were looking for because Little Joe kept right on complaining. I finally turned a deaf ear to his words but that only seemed to make matters worse. I don’t understand that boy sometimes; just when I think he’s finally managed to prove to me that he’s a man, he does something so childish like complain about the work that we’re suppose to be doing. Honestly, sometimes I think that he just does it to get a rile out of me…I can’t remember too many times when I’ve heard him complain in front of our father, unless it’s just to mention how tired he might be. And I know that’s really not so much a complaint as it might sound because it’s usually true, working like we do this time of year, we’re all tired.
Joe and I had only managed to round up about two dozen of the critters when three riders, all strangers, approached us. I’d seen them earlier on the mesa. They had been watching us for some time and then disappeared. Joe called my attention to them later that day and it was obvious to both he and I that they had been following us. I told Joe we best stick close together, just in case there might be trouble. Sure enough, as I said, they approached us but when they did, they had three more men with them that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Joe and I were out numbered three to one, which in the best of circumstances wasn’t very good odds.
I whispered to Joe to stay calm as the men approached and circled us. Knowing my younger brother’s fiery temper, I wanted to be sure that he didn’t do something foolish and get us both hurt, or worse, killed, so I inched my horse as close to his as I could and gave him a look that warned him to keep quiet.
The strangers looked like regular cowpokes, but I sensed an underlying presence about them. I had seen hardened men before, men who worked against the law for their own gains and I determined right then that these men were the same sort.
I remember asking them what they wanted. With the barrier they had formed around us, it made it impossible for either of us to escape had we wanted to. Up until that moment, when the men circled us, I hadn’t given any thought to the fact that we might need to get away, but suddenly, I was wishing that I had suggested that Joe and I make for the ridges instead of staying there with our small herd. I sensed danger in the air, I smelled death and it frightened me, not for myself mind you, but for the boy next to me whom I had spent my entire…or I should say his entire…lifetime, helping my father raise him up to the ripe old age of eighteen.
When one of the men looped his rope around my brother, I knew right then that we were in trouble. Joe started to struggle, but the man holding the end of the rope, yanked hard on his end causing the loop to tighten around Joe’s arms that were suddenly penned to his sides. The rope was looped twice more, making it impossible for the boy to get free.
I remember telling Joe not to fight against the rope, but just do what they said to do. The ringleader make a smirk and a grunting sound and I recalled the evil look in his eye when he turned to Joe advising him that it would be in his best interest to listen to me. Joe settled down then but I noticed a fire burning deep in his eyes and I began worrying that the boy’s hot temper might end up getting him hurt…and possibly me as well, not that I cared what happened to me, but I did care what happened to my kid brother. I might not always act like Joe means a whole hell of a lot to me, but fact is, he does. I’ve loved that boy since the minute I laid eyes on him the day he was born. He’s always been more like my own son than just a brother to me…and thinking in those terms, has more than often caused the two of us some mighty hot disagreements.
The leader of the gang motioned for us to follow along with them. I wasn’t sure why they tied Joe’s hands behind his back and not mine, but as we rode along, it became apparent to me that these men, these evildoers, knew all about Joe and I and about our father and the ranch. They knew us so well, that they knew that as long as I feared for my brother’s life, I’d never try anything that might get the boy harmed…and they were right. So we had no other recourse at the moment but to do as they instructed. I’d think of some way out of this mess later, I’d have to; otherwise I knew if the men did not get what they demanded, they would kill us both.
The six men were quiet as we rode along, heading higher and higher into the mountains. It was as if they knew without having to discuss it, where they were taking us and what they planned on doing with us. I hadn’t a clue but I did have enough sense about me to know that whatever they were planning, it was most likely not going to be to our liking. Little did I know until much, much later just how true that statement would prove to be.
I kept a close watch on my brother. Joe seemed…I don’t know; he just acted strange, like he was immune to what was going on around him. That in itself was odd, but thinking back I recalled that he’d been complaining earlier about how tired he was. Now I was wondering if perhaps he wasn’t feeling well. I know Joe is young and strong for his size. He’d always been healthy and certainly not one prone to being sick but when he did get sick, which was rare, he was usually pretty darn ill. I glanced again at the boy’s face, studying it intently. I was beginning to suspect what I’d feared; Joe was looking more than just under the weather. Using my knees to nudge Sport in the sides, my horse moved close enough to Joe’s horse that I could talk to him.
“Joe…are you feeling alright?” I asked him.
I saw the boy swallow and it looked to me like it hurt his throat to do so. He turned then and I got a really good look at his face. It was pale and his cheeks showed a tint of pink, but Joe nodded his head.
“I’m fine, Adam,” Joe told me.
“No you’re not,” I said. “You look about ready to fall off that horse…”
“Hey you two…shut up that blabbering!” one of the men shouted at us.
I was forced to slow Sport down in order to follow behind. The man in front of me, riding next to Joe, slapped Cochise on the rump so that he’d move a little faster. My brother and I were separated then. Two men rode up front ahead of Joe, two behind him and in front of me and then two more behind me. It would be hours later before we reached our destination and I’d get another chance to talk to Joe. I whispered a silent prayer that God would watch over my kid brother until such time that I could be close to him and find out what was really going on with him.
I had no doubts now about the boy. The longer we rode, the lower it seemed that Joe’s body slumped forward until it was almost resting on his horse’s neck. I watched how his body swayed too, from side to side as Cochise lumbered up the steep trail that the men were using. The air was cooler too with the higher altitude and more than once I saw Joe shiver. It was only when he had given completely out that his body leaned too far to one side and Joe slipped from the saddle, hitting the ground with a thud.
I really didn’t give a thought to what these men might do; I immediately jumped from my own horse and rushed over to the boy, who had rolled down an embankment. His body was lying against a boulder that prevented him from rolling any further downhill, thank goodness. Quickly, I turned him over, horrified to see how ashen his face looked. When I pressed my hand against his forehead, the heat that emitted from his brow burnt my hand.
“I need water!” I remember demanding.
Naturally the small group of strangers had all stopped. One man tossed me his canteen, which I quickly pulled the plug from the spout and wet my neckerchief so that I could wipe the dirt and dust from the boy’s face. Joe moaned softly and opened his eyes. They looked cloudy and I knew he was trying to focus but was having a hard time doing so.
“I’m here, Joe,” I said and then offered him some water.
The boy was in a strain, what with his hands tied behind his back so I moved to untie them, half expecting one or more of the men to stop me. But I suppose they could see how sick Joe had become and figured he wasn’t much of a threat to them, so they didn’t say anything when I untied the ropes and helped Joe to sit more upright.
One of the men, the one I counted as the ringleader, moved closer, though he never dismounted.
“What’s wrong with the kid?” he demanded of me.
“I don’t know…but he’s burning up with fever,” I informed him.
“Well, get him on his horse…we’ve still a ways to go yet…and hurry it up!”
I glanced at Joe who looked at me as if in a daze and then I pulled him to his feet, letting him lean against me for support.
“Can you walk?”
“Barely,” he said weakly as I led him back to his horse and helped him to mount up.
“Hold on, Joe…” I cautioned him.
We rode another four, maybe five miles I suppose, going higher and higher into the mountains. They must have a hiding place up there, maybe a cabin. Hopefully they’d have a warm fire because Joe needs to get warm enough to run the chill out of his bones. We hadn’t needed out jackets when we set out for the upper meadows earlier that morning. It was a warm sunny late spring day, but as the day grew older and we rode higher the chill in the air became more apparent to both of us, especially Joe since he was running a fever, so naturally, I was anxious to get him warmed up and hoped that this gang of hooligans would be spending the night someplace where we could have a warm fire.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. A warm fire was the last thing I found. Instead, once we reached the men’s hiding place, Joe was ungraciously hauled down from his horse and practically dragged into an old barn that had seen better days. The place was aged and musty smelling and the wind, which had started to blow, blew through the cracks in the thick-boarded walls. The clay mortar had long whence dried and crumbled, leaving wide gaps in the boards that allowed the outside to creep inside the dilapidated structure.
Joe was lowered, or I should say dropped onto a sour smelling stack of straw in a tiny stall once used by some beast of burden. I started to join him but strong arms held me back as I watched in horror as two men held Joe down and fastened and an iron neck brace about the boy’s neck. Attached to the iron necklace was a thick chain that was connected to a steel ring hammered deeply into the wall.
The only thoughts running through my mind at the time was that thankfully Joe had, at some time, passed out and had no clue to the cruel treatment he was being subjected to. I could only envision his fear and reaction once he came around again and found himself chained like an animal and at the mercy of such brutal and spiteful men.
I wanted nothing more than to get my hands on the men who so thoughtlessly dumped Joe on the ground but I knew that there was no chance I could overpower the six of them and still be of any use to tend to my brother, so I said and did nothing. I was led to another stall just on the opposite side of the wall from Joe and was shoved down onto an equally sour smelling bundle of straw. One of the men started to attach my iron neck cuff but I held up my hand, stopping him.
The boss stepped forward and glared down at me. I met his stance with my own, as if daring him, which in a sense, I was.
“I don’t know what you men want with my brother and I, but may I make a suggestion?” I asked him.
The boss looked long and hard at me as if trying to decide if I was up to something but then after a few worrisome moments he answered me, asking me what I had on my mind.
“My brother is sick, as you can see,” I said.
He nodded his head but said nothing. I was forced to continue.
“I’d like to stay with him…if you would permit it.”
I remember swallowing hard because it made me feel as if I were begging and I’m not a man to beg for anything…but in this case I knew it could mean life or death for the boy, so I had to swallow again to wash down my pride.
“He could die…” I stated firmly. “And if he does…”
The boss held his hand up to stop anything else I was planning on saying. I suppose he must have been smarter than he looked because in the next instance, he motioned for me to get to my feet.
It was only two words, but it was what I wanted to hear. I was instructed to sit down, which I complied. A rather nasty, stinky man stood over Joe holding the barrel of his long rifle just inches from the boy’s temple. It was an unspoken message to me not to try anything, or else…and I certainly knew what that ‘or else’ was! Within a matter of seconds or so it seemed I found myself chained to the opposite wall only a few feet but well within reach of the unconscious boy.
I waited until the six men had left, shutting the heavy door and bolting it from the outside before I crawled over to Joe. Feeling his forehead in the dark, I scrunched up my face at the heat that emitted from his brow.
“Joe?” I whispered, wishing I could see his face.
He made no response other than to shiver from the cold and the fever so I laid down next to him and snuggled as close to his quivering body as I could, hoping that some of my body heat would penetrate into his body and add a bit of warmth.
I’m not sure how long we lay together in the dark. Nor do I remember sleeping, but sometime far into the wee hours of the early morning, Joe began to moan and mumble, calling out to me.
“I’m here, buddy.”
I could hear the quivering in the boy’s voice and the sound of his teeth clattering together yanked on my heartstrings. I was helpless to tend to my own brother when he was so sick, with his body burning up with fever and I could do nothing but sit and cradle him in my arms. It was at that moment that I feared I might lose my brother; that Joe would die in my arms and suddenly I was filled with a surge of helplessness that I’d never known before.
I had made a promise many years ago to always do my best to take care of this young stallion and to always be there for him when he needed me. I was there…but I was of no good to him.
“Yeah, Joe?” I answered and pulled his weak and suddenly frail body closer to mine.
I tightened my hold on him, pressing his mass of thick curls against my pounding heart. I knew Joe could hear the loud thuds and I feared he would sense my own growing fear.
“I know, Joe…he’ll come along soon…when he realizes we aren’t coming home tonight, he and Hoss will start looking for us…now rest, Joe…close your eyes and rest.”
I hadn’t the heart then to tell him that it would be another whole day, maybe more before our father and brother would miss us and then start looking for the two of us. I couldn’t let Joe know, he had enough to concentrate on…and that was staying warm and getting better. Though I wondered about both…if we weren’t permitted the use of blankets or given water and warm food soon, I, myself would not be in much better condition than Joe was in at present. And what condition would the kid be in two days from now? Things looked bleak for both of us; that was a certainty!
By morning we were both so cold that it was almost impossible to move. Two of the men came to our stall; one was the boss. For what seemed like forever, he stood over Joe and I but said nothing, just watched us shivering. He surprised me when he knelt down and felt Joe’s forehead because he glanced over at me and I saw something akin to apathy in his eyes. I suddenly had the feeling of doom as my despair washed over me. The stranger surprised me further when he stood to his feet and turned to his partner and stated that Joe and I were to be moved into the cabin. His words still ring in my ears.
“Get them inside and make sure they stay warm. I want them alive when their old man comes looking for them.”
That was the first clue I’d been given as to why Joe and I were taken prisoners. This man obviously had something to settle with our father. Joe and I were being used as the bait to lure Pa and Hoss here…but why? What had our father done to this man that he would carry a grudge?
The neck collars were replaced with shackles around my ankles and my wrists, but I didn’t care. I was still able to lift Joe’s half-frozen body into my arms and carry him to the cabin where I was ordered to place him down on a narrow cot close to the fire. The boss shouted to another man who quickly tossed me several blankets in which to cover my brother. Another man brought me two tin cups, both filled with piping hot soup made from some sort of meat.
The heat from the tin felt good to my hands and fingers when I wrapped them about the cup. I thanked the man and then tried to get Joe to sip some of the broth. At first the boy fought against me but after several attempts, I was able to get him to swallow a few drops. Joe tossed his head from side to side trying desperately to find the rim of the cup with his lips. His mind was confused and he coughed quite a bit but it was clear that he was starving for food and drink, so I let him take some more, but not too much because after going so long without either, I was afraid of making him sicker than what he already was. The warmth from the mug seemed to satisfy him. I remember the haunted look in his eyes when he finally opened them and looked at me. The sickness showed in the shallow depths of his once bright and shining eyes.
“Hang on, Joe,” I whispered to him as I tucked the blankets in around his fever-ridden body.
I waited until he was asleep before I picked up my own tin and sipped the broth. It wasn’t hot any longer, but it still tasted good and I managed to drink every drop of it. I was surprised at myself for wanting more, but I didn’t dare ask. Instead I kept myself busy tending to Joe and keeping an eye on the men in the cabin. The boss had his head together with three of the men, talking in low tones. I wasn’t able to make out much of what was being said, but my father’s name was mentioned once or twice and I knew just by the way the gang was acting that when my father and younger brother, Hoss, put in an appearance, they would be riding into a trap.
Three men left after a short time and I heard them riding away, probably sent to keep a look out for my father and brother. The boss man and one more stayed in the cabin. The boss moved to a vacant cot and lay down, leaving the other man to keep an eye on me. I wondered where the sixth man was.
My question was answered moments later when he burst through the door and into the cabin with his arms loaded with firewood. He stomped across to the fireplace and dropped the load of wood, making a crashing sound on the hard, uncarpeted floor. The boss sprung to his feet, shouting at the man and using words that made me glad that Joe was so deep in sleep that he couldn’t hear what was being said.
I kept my eye on both men until finally the boss ordered the wood-carrier out of the shack and down the slope to help the others keep watch. Joe and I were alone again with just the boss and one man to guard my brother and me.
I sat quietly by Joe’s bed, desperately trying to think of a way to get Joe and I out of there and still warn my father of the trap that had been set for him. I glanced down at Joe, surprised to see him awake and staring at me.
“How you feeling kid-o?”
“I ain’t cold any more,” Joe answered and offered me a strained and tired smile. “What’s happening, Adam? Who are these men and why do they have us chained like animals?”
I guess I failed to mention that during the course of time that Joe and I had been moved inside, the boss man had insisted that leg irons be put on Joe as well as myself. I don’t know why, the poor boy was so sick that he couldn’t have made an escape had he attempted to do so.
“I don’t know who they are, Joe,” I explained to my brother. “But they’re after Pa for some reason…”
“You mean…when Pa comes looking for us…they’re gonna kill him?”
I could see the fear that sprung into the boy’s eyes, but couldn’t see lying to him so I didn’t try, he’d see through the lie anyway.
“I reckon so,” I answered with a grim voice.
“I don’t know, Joe…I suppose that fellow’s carrying a grudge against Pa.”
The head honcho must have heard us talking because he got up from his cot and came over to where we were. He studied our faces with a dark glare and ebony eyes that were filled with hate. I almost shuddered but didn’t, I just scooted my chair a little closer to Joe’s bed, making sure to keep myself between my brother and the man towering over us.
“How’s the kid?” he asked me, glancing again at Joe.
“Sick…and running a fever,” I explained. “He needs a doctor…and some medicine.”
“Too bad,” the man grumbled. “He’ll just have to suffer through…maybe your old man will be here in time…”
“Time for what?” I asked him.
“Time enough to see his boys…before he dies,” sneered the boss.
I could feel myself beginning to bristle at the man’s words. I started to stand up, but Joe, sensing my inner feelings, reached over and placed his hot, sweaty hand on my arm. It was an unspoken warning to tread softly. I never took my eyes off the man, but I did heed my brother’s warning.
“What did my father ever do to you…that you’re so anxious to see him die?” I dared to ask our captor.
I was amazed at the rapid change in his expression. His face went from ornery to plain mad…I mean really mad. When I looked into his eyes, there was a deep burning hate in them. Glancing at Joe, I saw him flinch slightly and knew that he also had seen the sudden change.
“Your old man stole something from me…”
“Our father’s never stolen anything in his life…” Joe was quick to respond.
His voice was weak and sounded as if it squeaked when he talked. He coughed several times, deep, rasping sounds rattled in his chest and for a moment I feared that he might not be able to catch his breath. I quickly poured a cup of water and handed it to him, standing between the boss and my brother. The hateful look deepened on the boss’ face and I thought he might take his anger out on Joe, so I used my body to shield the boy.
“Your father killed my boy…and stole my land…he’s gonna pay for that!” Growled the head honcho.
“Killed your son?”
I couldn’t rightly remember anyone that Pa had killed, at least any that didn’t need killing, and it was for sure Pa hadn’t acquired any new land holdings, at least not any that I was aware of.
“Jessie Hambright…he was only eighteen when ya Pa gunned him down in that bank…”
“Jessie…Hambright?” I was digging deeply into the recess of my mind trying to put a face to the name when Joe’s hand touched mine. I glanced down at him, startled to see a look of uncertainty wash over him.
“I see the kid remembers…” Boss stated and then commenced to shove me aside so that he could get closer to the bed and Joe.
“Ya remember…don’t ya boy?”
Joe swallowed and nodded his head and then looked up at me. “Jessie’s the kid that tried to rob the bank over in Placerville about two years ago, Adam. Remember, Pa told us about it…how he had to shoot the fellow before he shot Hoss.”
“He’s our middle brother,” I explained to the man.
I remembered then about Jessie Hambright and how our father had been forced into killing him. It began…about two years ago if I recall correctly. But my father and Hoss had gone to Placerville on business and had been in the bank the day that young Jessie had burst into the office waving his guns about, frightening all the customers. The triggers were cocked and ready to fire on any victims that might pose a threat or get in the would-be robber’s way.
Pa and Hoss were coming from one of the back offices when they spied the young man. Hoss was in front of Pa and as soon as he saw Jessie, he shouted, drawing the boy’s attention to himself and away from the customers. Jessie turned and pointed his gun at my brother but when he fired at Hoss, the bullet went astray almost hitting Pa. By that time, Pa had seen what was happening and had his gun out and pointed at Jessie. He shoved Hoss aside right as Jessie fired a second time, thus saving Hoss’ life. Pa had no other recourse but to fire at the boy, which he did.
I remember as I was growing up and learning all about guns and how to handle them, one thing Pa always reminded me about and that was never point a gun at a man unless you were ready to use it…which is exactly what Pa had done with Jessie. The boy dropped to the floor, dead before he hit the ground.
We later found out that Jessie was the son of the man who had once owned the parcel of land that my father and Hoss had gone to Placerville to buy that day. It was ironic, that Pa had been forced to kill a young man and then find out that he had just bought the dead boy’s father’s property for back taxes that the elder Hambright had failed to pay.
Pa spent many nights losing sleep over the ordeal, but had finally come to terms with what had happened. Now, here Joe and I were, a whole two years later being used as bait to lure Pa into a trap over something that could have easily been prevented had the taxes on the Hambright place been paid for in a timely manner. “I remember…your son forced our father to kill him…”
“My boy was only trying to save our ranch…which your old man ended up stealing from us!” the Boss shouted.
I could see he was growing angrier the more he thought back to that day, so I tried to change the subject, but it didn’t matter, Mr. Barry Hambright rattled on and on for several long moments, all the while staring blankly down at Joe until the man became so lost to his rambling that he jabbed Joe in the stomach with the barrel of his long rifle.
Joe cried out, grasping his mid-section. The quick movement set off his coughing again, which by the way, had grown worse. Hambright glared at Joe and threatened to blow his head off if he didn’t shut up that hacking.
I moved over to the cot, quickly raising Joe upward and offered him a sip from the cup of water that had been sitting on the small table next to the cot. Hambright jabbed my brother again, this time in the shoulder but he said nothing and thankfully he moved away, leaving Joe and I alone.
“He’s nuts,” Joe whispered between the hacking coughs.
“Shh…” I warned the boy. “Here, try some more water.”
That night was as long as any I remembered. Joe’s fever was still climbing, his coughing was practically non-stop and he shivered violently. I was kept busy wiping the sweat from his brow and feeding water into his dry throat, hoping to soothe the burning that he complained about.
Neither one of us slept much; I don’t think the boss man did either for he crept over to the cot several times to check on Joe. Not out of concern but because the dry, hacking sounds that Joe made disturbed the other man’s sleep. The man standing guard swapped every couple of hours with another of the remaining men, giving each one a chance of at least a couple hours of sleep. They gave up trying to drown out the piteous sounds that Joe was making and moved to the old barn to catch a few winks, swearing at us for taking the warm cot by the fire while they were made to sleep in the outbuilding like farm animals. Guess they forgot who was chained and who wasn’t.
We did get a chance to talk…Joe tried to convince me that our only hope was of me making a break for it. But I kept telling him over and over that I couldn’t leave him, even though what he said made sense.
“Adam…you have to go.”
“Joe…I can’t just leave you here to die!”
“I’m dying anyway, Adam.”
“Don’t talk like that!” I growled at him, knowing it was the truth. But I wasn’t about to admit it to myself.
“Adam, listen to me,” Joe said weakly between bouts of coughing. “I’m not a little kid anymore…I know I’m dying…please Adam…you have to make a break for it. If you don’t, they’re gonna kill Pa and Hoss and with Pa dead…what’s to keep them from killing us?”
“Nothing I suppose…”
“Then you have to go, you have to warn Pa…you have to save them…it’s better that I die here than all four of us. It isn’t likely that they’ll kill me any ways…they have to have at least one of us alive to lure Pa…go Adam…please go…do it for me!”
I remember swallowing hard. Everything the kid said was true, but I wasn’t sure I could leave him alone to die such a horrific death…alone…without me close by.
“Adam…just promise me one thing…”
The tremors in the boy’s voice shook me to the core of my being. In his heart he knew I’d do as he asked… “Anything, Joe.” I could hear the trembling in my own voice…
“Come back for me…later…when Pa’s safe…don’t leave me here…take me to the lake so I can be with…Mama.”
I saw his lips quivering as he reached for my hand. My eyes misted and for the first time, I was speechless. I could say nothing but I nodded my head. Joe’s eyes brightened a bit and he gave me a smile. I’ll never forget that moment, his weak and fading body, his dry, almost convulsing cough and the smile on his dry parched lips. Nothing more was said on the matter. Somehow it had been decided between us…I’d risk an escape, leaving my brother behind to face whatever fate God had deemed his. It was like a hard knot in the pit of my stomach, an ache in my heart, fear in my bones…it saddened me greatly but yet I felt more than a touch of pride in the boy. His bravery was unmatched, his willingness unequaled by any other man alive. His thoughts were not on himself, but on his family and their safety that life after his might continue to exist…that the Cartwright name might grow and flourish…because of one young, eighteen-year old, high spirited, worthy young man, my kid brother…whom I loved more than any other person on earth, except perhaps our father who, had it not been for him, Joe would never have existed to be.
The night wore on and by sunup, Joe was practically delirious with fever. I knew that the boy was dying; he lay gasping for every rattling breath he took, often struggling after a bout of hard coughing. I wish there were something I could do for the kid. It was ripping my heart out, seeing him fighting so, seeing his lips turn blue, but the worst was seeing the fear in his dazed and clouded eyes when he opened them, calling out for Pa…always for Pa and begging me to take him home.
Damn! What was I going to do? I thought about over-powering the guard and the boss. Hell, I even thought about killing them both…anything to get a break so that I could get Joe out of here. But with my ankles and my wrists shackled…there was little chance that I could get away alone, much less get away carrying my sick brother in my arms. But I had made an unspoken promise to try. Could I do it?
I wish there were some way to warn Pa and Hoss of the impending danger they were headed for without having to leave Joe behind. I knew they were fixing to walk blindly into a trap but as of yet I hadn’t been able to figure a way to prevent it.
I thought my chance might have come when I was ordered outside. I wasn’t sure what was going to take place once I was out of the cabin. At first I hesitate, reluctant to leave Joe alone with the man guarding him, but when the boss man jabbed the end of his long rifle barrel into Joe’s temple and glared at me…I went willingly for fear that the man might actually commit murder and I wasn’t about to have my kid brother’s blood on my hands.
“Just leave the boy alone…I’ll do whatever you say!” I quickly told the boss after seeing the pain and the fear that shed itself into my brother’s expression.
“MOVE!” the guard shouted as he grabbed me by the arm and practically shoved me out the opened door.
I was only able to get a glimpse of my brother as the boss hurried to shove the door closed behind me. But it was just enough that I saw the trusting look in his hazel eyes and I knew what I had to do. It was now or never…I had a promise to keep and it bore down heavy on my very soul!
I quickly surveyed the surrounding area and could not see any of the other four men. I reckoned them to be standing watch in various places, waiting for a glimpse of my father and brother whom I knew would be looking for Joe and me by now. The man next to me poked his rifle into the middle of my back and ordered me into the barn. As we stood in the doorway, letting our eyes become adjusted to the dim lighting, I was informed that I was to feed the horses and clean out their stalls. The man shoved me deeper into the interior and reached for a shovel. I saw my chance; we were alone in the barn. When the shovel was handed to me, I took it and acted as if I were turning, but instead, I brought the shovel upward and bashed in the man’s face. He screamed in agony. For a fraction of a second, and only a fraction, I felt guilty that I had broken practically every bone in the man’s face, but I acted quickly.
There was no way to get the shackles off my legs so riding out on my horse was impossible, but I did manage to turn all the horses loose and shooed them out of the barn. In the early morning mist, I saw them scatter in all directions. Quickly I started running, down the back way, toward the lower ridge where I knew my father and Hoss would be coming from. It was hard to run with the shackles and I tripped several times. Behind me, I could hear the angry shouts of the men who were in pursuit of me. My thoughts were dancing around in my head…I had to be careful so as not to be caught before I could warn Pa…if I was caught, it would mean certain death for Joe and myself. I wonder what the boss man might do to my kid brother…would he take his anger at my escape out on the boy…would he out right murder the boy?
Damn…I tripped again. This time, my pants leg was torn and my leg was cut deeply. I saw the blood oozing from the wound but I forced myself to my feet and kept running. I was beginning to understand how the fox must feel with the hounds chasing him…it was terrifying. I kept running, snagging my clothing on branches and limps, thorns and thistles until the black shirt and trousers I was wearing became nothing more than rags covered in dirt and dust, stained with blood from all the scratches and cuts. My ankles were bleeding from the heavy iron shackles that encased them, but I pushed on…all our lives now rested on my shoulders. I was doomed and destined at the same time. I was going to be either successful or a failure…I choose success…mainly for Joe. I’d be damned if his dying would be for naught!
There’s no telling how far I ran. At last I was forced to stop, to catch my breath. The men behind me were a determined lot to say the least. I could still hear them thrashing through the heavy underbrush. My breath was shallow as I gasped for each breath I took, I thought of Joe…was he still alive…
The chase was winding down; I was quickly tiring; I was bloodied practically from head to toe. Again I tripped, cursing myself for my clumsiness as I hit the hard ground. Hands reached out for me; I struggled, not realizing I was screaming Joe’s name as I fought those that attempted to drag me to my feet.
But then a deep, mellow voice reached my ears and my struggling ceased. My head was being cradled gently; fingers caressed my face, toyed with my raven hair. I felt or heard a familiar sound, the steady beating of my father’s heart, my head pressed tightly against his broad chest. My name was spoken softly as I felt myself relax and allowed myself the pleasure of the security I suddenly felt as I lay within my father’s arms. When I looked up, into those dark chocolate eyes, I saw his tears.
“Pa?” I remember saying, as I felt my own tears cloud my eyes.
“Shh…you’re safe now, son,” my father assured me and I knew it was so. Nothing could hurt me now, not with my father holding me so.
“I know…and we’ll get to him…soon.”
It was a promise made by a man who had never lied to me, and I knew that my father would keep that promise. I closed my eyes but I could still hear the gunfire behind me, and the shouts of the angry men as they scattered throughout the forest. I knew Hoss was there too, though I’d yet seen him. Pa explained that he was chasing the other men back toward the cabin.
Quickly, Pa explained that they had found the cabin late the night before and had stood watch. They knew of the men in hiding, waiting for them, so they had secretly taken out two of the men. I had known nothing of this before that moment. I remembered smiling up at my father and seeing the glow in his eyes. “You don’t think I would have just walked into their trap do you?” he laughed softly.
“I wasn’t sure…” I admitted.
“Aw…shucks, Adam, we knew you and Joe were there and in trouble…” Hoss had returned, taken hold of my hand as he helped me to sit up.
I laughed softly, welcoming his presence. “We gotta get Joe out of there, Pa…he’s sick…real sick,” I informed my father.
I saw his smile fade and a look of concern crossed his face. “I was afraid he might be getting sick before he left.”
“He didn’t let on…but when he started to complain, I knew that wasn’t like Joe…I suspected he was getting sick. Pa, we need to hurry…”
I know Pa saw the worry etched into my expression. I was too worried about the boy to hide it from my father. Besides, my Pa knows me better than any other person on earth and he would have easily seen beyond the mask, had I chosen to wear one that morning.
“Okay, if you’re up to it, let’s go get the boy!” Pa said. “Hoss, you hold back some, let Adam and I show ourselves first…I don’t think they realize that I’m not alone.”
“Anything you say, Pa…just you and Adam be careful…”
Pa managed to help me get back to the cabin. I still wore the chains but this time, the going was easier with Pa and Hoss helping me. I was determined to keep my promise to Joe…to get him out of there and take him home. I only hoped that he’d still be alive…
As Pa and I entered the clearing, the boss man met us. I heard my father gasp when he saw Barry Hambright. I don’t know whom my father was expecting to see, but it was obvious that Hambright took my father by surprise.
Two other men showed themselves at various spots around the cabin, all pointing their long rifles at us. Pa and I were outnumbered, but it was better odds than Joe and I had. Hoss was hiding in the brush off to our left side and it looked as if Boss and his gang were unaware of my brother’s presence in the woods.
“Drop your guns, Cartwright!”
I glanced at my father, expectantly. He hesitated.
“I want to see my boy, first!” Pa demanded.
Hambright laughed. I remember how wicked it was and the chilling feeling it left me with, ringing in my ears. “The boy’s dead…fever got him!”
I cringed…I was too late! My father’s expression hardened and I knew in that instance that he felt he had nothing to live for. I saw him go for his gun.
“Don’t do it Cartwright!” Hambright warned.
The boss held a torch in one hand and waved it around in the air. I wondered what it meant?
“I’ll torch the cabin…you’ll not even have a body to bury…not that you’ll live long enough to bury anyone!”
Pa’s jaw twitched and his draw was so quick that I barely had time to blink. The sounds of shots shattered the serene stillness of the early morning hours. From behind us, Hoss’ rifle emptied itself of its bullets. Men dropped like snowflakes.
I saw Hambright turn and watched in horror as he tossed the torch into the cabin. It exploded in a fiery blast of light as the cabin erupted into a ball of fire. My heart was in my throat…my insides flopped over and over as terror washed over me. My brother was inside that ball of fire!
I heard the shot blast again from my father’s gun and saw Hambright drop to the ground. I ran as fast as I could, the shackles hampered my efforts. Behind me, I could hear Pa shouting at me, but I didn’t have time to pay him any attention. I was set on getting Joe out of the inferno no matter what. I had made him a promise…to take him home, regardless of the condition I might find him in and I had no intention of letting anything stand in my way of keeping that promise…not even a fire that was as hot as I imagined Hell would ever be!
Inside, I could hear his screams. Joe was alive! Praise God! I fought my way around the burning inferno to where his cot had been. I tripped, burning the palms of my hands, but the pain was nothing I would feel until much later. I found him at last but was horrified to see what Hambright had done to the boy. At some point, he had unchained Joe’s wrists and ankles and had reattached the chains on the shackles around the head and footboards of the bed leaving Joe flat on his back and helpless! My brother was trapped like an animal in a cage and without the key to unlock his shackles he was doomed to die a horrible death by burning!
I felt an intense hatred wash over me as I watched in horror, my brother coughing and gagging and gasping for air. I suddenly became like a wild man and kicked with all my waning strength at the boards of the old cot. The fire was creeping closer and I knew I had only seconds before the flames engulfed us both. Joe’s eyes were wide with fright; I shall never forget the haunting look as he watched the flames creeping nearer and nearer to his cot until they lapped at the bedding. I heard Joe scream out in terror as the edge of the blanket caught fire and began eating away at the fabric.
I kicked again, this time harder. At last the headboard shattered, freeing Joe’s chain from the boards. I grabbed the burning blanket and tossed it aside, momentarily putting the fire at bay. I remember glancing behind us and then at Joe’s face. It was turning blue. I screamed at him not to give up and I kicked the footboard. It resisted again and again but after what seemed like a lifetime with the hot flames dancing on my heels, the boards broke and I was at last able to scoop Joe’s body into my arms.
I recall glancing back toward the door. I thought I could see my father’s silhouette in the doorway, as if beckoning for me to hurry, but it must have been my imagination, for the smoke was so black and thick that I could barely breathe. I knew it would be impossible to get out that way. As I stood with Joe in my arms, contemplating my next move, I quickly scanned the room, not really seeing it with my eyes but in my memory. I remembered a lone window at the back of the cabin, and that’s the way I ran.
I don’t remember much, until waking up and finding my father bending over me. But I must have crashed through the glass, delivering Joe and I both to safety. JOE! Dear God…was he dead? “Pa…Joe…is he…”
“He’s alive, son…he’s alive, but barely.”
I sighed a deep relief. From the far corners of my mind, I recalled something that someone once told me. In that instant, the words came rushing at me…where there is life, there is hope. I clung to that promise, though for the life of me I could not remember whom it was that had left me with that inspiration.
“Get him…home,” I sputtered between coughs. “I…promised…him.”
I’ve sat here, next to my brother’s bed, for near onto four days now. I’ve rarely left his side, except at my father’s insistence to either eat or sleep, of which I’ve done little of both. I can’t bring myself to leave him. I want to be here when he opens his eyes. I want him to see me, to know that I kept my promise to him…to know how very much I love him…
By some miracle of God, Doc. Martin assured us that Joe only had a horrible cough…a cold he called it and not pneumonia as I had suspected. I’ll be honest and admit to you that I’ve spent the better part of the first night after getting Joe home on my knees thanking God that Joe was not as sick as I first thought. If ever I’ve prayed, I had reason to thank the man upstairs for His mercy!
I wait patiently now for Joe to wake up. It’s a relief to see his steady breathing…how easy it’s become, how rhythmic. His face is no longer blue, his fever has come down but he still looks like warmed over death. The once rosy complexion is gone, replaced with a sickly whitish tint that caused the bruises he wore to stand out in stark contrast; the vibrant look of youth appears now to resemble an aged man though Doc Martin assures us that once Joe wakes up and begins eating better that his health will greatly improve. I have no reason to doubt the doctor; he’s never been wrong before when dealing with my brother’s ailments and I seriously doubt that he’s wrong now. It’s just me; it’s just so hard to watch my little brother lying in his bed doing nothing. The boy is usually so full of vim and vigor that it rips me apart to see his suffering…or what he’s been made to suffer.
God, I wish he’d wake up. There’s so much I’d like to say to him, so much that I want to tell him. I’m not very good at expressing how I feel, or what I’m thinking…especially when the something is as close to my heart as my brother and how I feel about him. I hope I can find the words to convey to him my inner most thoughts…
He said my name so softly that until I looked at him and saw him watching me, I only thought I was imagining that he said it. I know I must have looked surprised, for Joe grinned at me. His weakness and all he’d suffered strained the smile, but to me it was one of the most beautiful smiles that I’d ever been given.
I moved to the side of his bed and when he reached up for me, I took his hands in mine. That’s when Joe’s eyes clouded with tears and he pulled his hands free of mine and laced them about my neck. I felt the swell of tears in my own eyes as I returned the hug and I knew right that second that I need not fear finding words to express myself, Joe had done it for me. In that moment, in that embrace, all the love that we’d ever shared as brothers, as friends…as family, I felt in his grasp.
Love as I had never known, flowed evenly between us, from my heart to his and from his heart into mine. No words could ever express for either of us what we were experiencing right at that moment. We need not give an explanation or an account of our actions, we understood each other perfectly…for the first time in many years there was nothing between us but love and respect and devotion to one another. We were home safely…not just Joe but me as well. And it was a good feeling…a comforting sensation that allowed each of us to express ourselves without having to say a word.
I never gave up trusting…for where there is life, there is also hope…I shall never forget those words given to me at a time in my life when I thought death was immanent…
Who said those words to me? I have no clue…perhaps they came to me from God in a whispered answer to my prayers. I shall never know for sure……….but I’d like to think that perhaps God had spoken to me at a time when I needed a comforting voice to chase away my fears and give me a smidgeon of hope! On that, I will forever hold fast.