Summary: A sequel to “Part of the Rainbow”
Word Count: 17,819
The sun was beginning to set low over the horizon as Joe Cartwright settled in for the night. His campfire was burning softly, his horse was bedded down and Joe was sipping the last drops of his coffee from the tin cup that he held in his left hand. Next to him, his older brother Hoss was already sleeping, snoring loudly as the gentle giant lay wrapped in his bedroll. Joe glanced down at the slumbering giant, snickering softly.
“I don’t know how you do it, big brother,” Joe mumbled softly to himself, “this ground is solid as a rock…and yet you’re snoring, sleeping like a baby.”
Joe tossed the remains from his cup and sat down on his own bedroll to pull his boots off. He rubbed one bare foot and then the other.
“Oh…that feels good,” he moaned as he stretched out on top of his blanket and nestled his head against the underside of his saddle that served as his pillow.
Within minutes, Joe was sleeping as soundly as his older brother, totally unaware of the danger that lurked in the shadows and whose presence would soon be made known to both brothers.
The fire was just about out and the shadows had grown larger and darker. The dying embers emitted only enough glow that the figures that crept into the little clearing and circled the brothers appeared larger than real and took on spooky, grotesque shapes that reflected off the trees and brush nearby.
The four men stood over the brothers, two over Joe and two over Hoss. One man stared disbelievingly down at the slumbering form of Little Joe, shaking his head from side to side.
“I thought I recognized that pinto,” he whispered to the others. “These here, boys, is the Cartwrights!”
Joe’s dulled senses were too addled by sleep for him to wake up fully. His sub-conscious mind was only dimly aware enough to know that they had visitors.
Hoss on the other hand, shifted his huge frame from his right side over onto his back, opening his eyes and seeing the strangers standing over him. “What the blazes!” he shouted as he made an attempt to reach for his gun.
The shouting and loud blast of gunfire was enough to jar Joe from his slumber. He managed to grab his pistol from its holster and jump to his feet, but was too slow to be of help to his brother. A sharp stabbing pain across the side of his head quickly rendered him defenseless and unconscious. His body sagged to the ground, landing onto his bedroll and looking as if he were asleep, peacefully. All he’d be able to recall later were the silhouettes of four men, hovering over his brother’s body.
“Come on…search them…” ordered the ringleader.
Quickly, a man searched each one of the brothers while the boss stood back and watched.
“Bill…look in their saddlebags…see if they have any money on them. They’ve sold some horses back there in that town…I heard someone talking about it…they should have some cash…somewhere.”
“Here it is,” grinned the tall, slim man who pulled a money belt from around the inside of Hoss’ bloodied shirt.
He tossed it to his leader, glancing down at Hoss. “He’s dead, boss…sure is a big galoot.”
“This one here ain’t got nothing on him…he’s unconscious…want me to finish him off, Dave?”
Dave Brackett was counting the money in the belt. He let out a low whistle. “Whew,” he said, “There’s better’n five grand in here.” He glanced down at Joe, grinning. “Let him be,” he said as he wrapped the money belt around his own waist, hiding it beneath his shirt. “I’ll take care of him when he comes lookin’ for me…”
“Why wait. boss?” Henry wanted to know. “Lets finish him now…otherwise, we’ll have to be watchin’ our backs all the time…I remember that kid…how he was always doggin’ us in school…”
“No…I want him to come looking for me…that way, I’ll be sure he knew it was us what killed his brother over there. I want him alive…I have plans for him…” laughed Dave.
He turned to Bill and Cliff. “Find anything else?”
“Naw…just supplies,” Cliff informed his leader.
“Take them, we’ll need it,” ordered Dave as he stooped down and grabbed Joe’s chin. He turned the young man’s head so that he could look at Joe’s face. “Still as handsome as ever,” he muttered, “but you won’t be…not when I get finished with you,” he sneered.
Dave reached into his pocket and pulled something from deep within, tossing it onto Joe’s chest. “Here, you’re gonna need this…when ya come lookin’ for me,” he laughed outright.
Joe had no idea how long he’d been out, only that when he woke up he had an enormous throbbing in his head. Still dazed, he pushed himself to his knees and rubbed his head. His eyes were squinted tightly shut as if he thought by so doing, he could will the pain away, but it was useless, the pounding continued. Slowly, Joe opened his eyes and glanced around…
“HOSS!” he shouted and then groaned as a flash of pain spurted through his temples.
Petrified at the sight of his brother, lying deathly still, eyes shut, lips slightly blue amid the puddle of blood that had already begun to congeal, Joe let out another horrifying scream.
“NOOOO!” he bellowed, ignoring the burst of pain shooting through his head.
Frantically, Joe scrambled over to what he feared would be his brother’s corpse. He gazed through his blinding tears into the face of the man he’d always considered as his very best friend.
“Hoss…” whispered Joe, feeling the neck for a pulse and finding only a very weak one. “Oh God…please…please…don’t let him be dead!” sobbed Joe.
He then ripped opened the remainder of Hoss’ shirt, revealing the hole where the bullet had entered the chest. Joe’s face formed a frown and for a brief second, he had to look away, unable to examine his brother further. The entry sight into the body had already begun to bruise; the ripped and torn flesh was reddish brown with dried blood. Looking more closely, Joe breathed a sigh of relief to find that the bleeding had stopped for the time being…but then something his father had once told him, came back to haunt him and stir is heart with fresh fear…dead men don’t bleed…
“But you aren’t dead,” muttered Joe as he worked at cleaning the wound. “You got a pulse…so I know you’re alive,” he continued to muttered, more out of fear for Hoss than to convince himself.
“Hoss,” Joe said, gently wiping the dirt and dried blood from Hoss’ rotund face where it had splattered. “Please…open your eyes…talk to me…”
Joe mumbled on and on to himself as he worked at the wound and with getting his brother comfortable. Hoss had been shot at close range; Joe wondered why the entry had not done more damage to the flesh but then remembered that his brother had been wearing the money belt that contained the cash they’d made from the sale of their horses.
“It must have slowed down the bullet…but I can’t get it out, Hoss…it’s too deep…” sighed Joe despairingly.
Sweat dotted his brow; once or twice he had to stop what he was doing and close his eyes until everything about him stopped spinning. His temples were pulsating with sharp twinges that nearly blinded him and it was only his inner determination that drove him on and refused to allow him to quit.
Joe’s heart was in his throat, his eyes kept darting to Hoss’ face, hoping that his brother would open his eyes and talk to him…to tell him who had shot him…and left him for dead.
Suddenly the young man felt a surge of hate boil up and overflow into his heart. The feeling left him nauseous as though he might throw up. Joe swallowed to force the urge back down into his stomach. Tenderly, with tears building again in his hazel eyes, Joe’s fingers lightly traced the outline of his brother’s face. He leaned his head down and spoke in a soft, determined voice.
“I’m gonna get him, Hoss…I swear on my mama’s grave, I’m gonna get the man who did this to you…if it’s the last thing I ever do…I’ll get him.”
Bravely, Joe ignored his own pain while he worked steadily on a travois in which to haul Hoss back to the ranch. They had been nearly home when they stopped for the night. Inwardly Joe blamed himself for the stopover. He’d been worn out and had made the suggestion that they stop for the night and do a little fishing while they had the chance. At first Hoss had not seemed to want to stop, he was complaining about being hungry for some of Hop Sing’s home cooking, but after Joe had put on his sad, little boy face that he often used to get his own way, Hoss had given in and they had camped for the night. Now, that he had gotten his way, Joe was ashamed of himself for suckering his brother into doing something that he knew Hoss had not really wanted to do.
“I’m sorry, big guy,” he whispered as he worked.
He had no idea how he was going to move Hoss. Hoss was a big man, nearly twice his size and heavy too. Being unconscious added to the weight…what was it Adam called it…dead weight? Joe made a grunting sound; he didn’t like that thought at all.
“This is gonna hurt, Hoss,” Joe muttered as he took Hoss’ arms and gently tugged him along.
Chubb had been moved closer to where Hoss lay; the travois had been tied to Hoss’ big saddle, now all that was left for him to do was to get Hoss on the crudely built rig that would carry him home, which would not be an easy endeavor.
Joe worked for several minutes pulling Hoss up onto the travois and then tying him down so that his body would not move around too much when they began the ride home. When Joe looked down at his hands, he was surprised to see them trembling. Even his stomach seemed to be doing flips and he suddenly wished he’d taken time to drink at least one cup of coffee before snuffing out the dying embers of the fire. It was too late for that now; he’d just have to chew on a piece of jerky, if there were any left in his saddlebag. Quickly Joe grabbed what few personal belongings they had and rolled them in his bedroll before tying it to the back of his horse. He stooped down to grab Hoss’ blanket to cover him, but in so doing he spied something on the ground. When he picked it up and looked at it, he saw that it was a matchbook.
“The murdering bastard must have dropped this,” he muttered to himself.
Joe turned the matchbook over to inspect it for any clues and found on the front, what he had been looking for. In faded red letters the name, Whiskey Pete’s Royal Palace, was printed in small letters.
“El Reno, Oklahoma…whew…long ways from home…” pondered Joe, slipping the tiny piece of evidence into his jacket pocket. He tapped it lightly and then turned his attention back to getting his brother home.
After several miles, Joe was forced to stop. Hoss had begun to moan and Joe’s head was hurting so that he could barely focus his eyes. He grabbed his canteen and knelt down next to Hoss and pulled the cork from the mouth of the container. “Here…try to swallow a bit,” he encouraged his brother.
The water trickled down Hoss’ chin. Discouraged, Joe dampened his neckerchief and wiped gently at his brother’s face. When he opened the soiled shirt, he puckered up his face into a frown. The wound had begun to seep blood again. Joe ripped a clean cloth into strips and laid it over the wound, covering that with Hoss’ shirt and the blanket.
“We’ll be home in a couple of hours, Hoss,” Joe promised.
Hoss couldn’t hear him, nor did he make any response to suggest otherwise. Joe swallowed down the anger, the guilt and the hatred he’d been harboring all morning and mounted up. His brother needed a doctor, and soon, or the bullet to his chest would prove more powerful than the battle to live that was going on inside the gentle giant.
“Come on, Cooch,” Joe urged his mount.
The sun had begun to climb higher in the sky and its hot rays were beating down on both young men. Hoss appeared unaffected by the heat, but Joe with his pounding headache that seemed to shoot out spasms of pain each time his heart beat, was beginning to wither quickly as his horse trod along setting his own pace. Joe’s body swayed from side to side in rhythm to his horse’s movements. His eyes were closed tightly, his head was bent low over his chest and his shoulders sagged as if they bore the weight of the world across their width.
Cochise felt his rider’s body shift to one side, automatically stopping as he had been trained to do. Joe slipped from the saddle and landed with a thud at Cochise’s feet. The horse snorted softly, nudged his master with the end of his velvet nose and then moved away so as not to step on the boy. Chubb, whose reins were tied to the horn on Joe’s saddle, moved along with Cochise. After waiting for several moments for his young rider to get up, and getting no response, both horses began munching on the tender green grass, paying no further attention to the unconscious boy on the ground or of the wounded man who lay dying on the travois that followed along after the big steed.
Ben Cartwright pulled his large buckskin stallion to a halt and twisted around in the saddle to face his oldest son, Adam.
“I knew better than to let those two hooligans take those horses to that sale!” stormed Ben.
His boys, as he often referred to them, were two days late in returning from Placerville where the pair had taken a small herd of some of the finest horses to a sale. Hoss and Little Joe were to make the sale, collect their money and head straight home. It was nearing round-up time and their services were needed at home. Ben had made it plain, in no uncertain terms to both young men, that they were not to dally along, nor were they to stop for the sheer enjoyment of spending their time fishing, a hobby that both boys enjoyed doing. Ben shook his head; his expression showed his disappointment.
“Joe…I can see doing just the opposite of what I asked him to do, but Hoss…I thought I could have counted on him to do the right thing…” Ben grumbled.
“Well, you know how Hoss is when it comes to our younger brother, Pa…he can’t say no to the boy…no matter what…it’s always been like that and you know it,” Adam declared with a grin on his face that he tried to hide by wiping his face with his neck scarf.
“You don’t have to remind me…what is it with that boy anyway? He always manages to wrap Hoss…and me and you too, Adam, around his little finger…” Ben proclaimed and then snickered to himself.
“I agree, Pa…we can’t blame Hoss, we’re just as bad as he is,” laughed Adam for real this time. “Come on, we’ll most likely run into them along the trail before much longer.”
Adam urged his mount ahead of his father. He heard Ben mumbling to himself from behind and it caused him to smile. His father might rant and rave about the unwillingness of his youngest offspring’s lack of following orders, but Adam knew that once Ben had simmered down, he would be relieved to see that his ‘baby’ was well and safe and that Joe’s transgressions would once again be forgiven.
They had ridden in near silence for about an hour when Adam suddenly pulled his horse to stopped and pointed ahead. “Pa…look…what do make of that?”
Ben sided his horse next to Adam’s and stopped. He strained his eyes, looking ahead at where Adam was pointing. “Well, what do you know?” he said with a touch of irritation in his voice. “Just as I suspected, they’re dilly-dallying as usual. Come on!”
Ben kicked Buck’s sides causing the horse to break into a run. Adam urged Sport to follow. Within a matter of seconds, both had entered the clearing where they had seen Cochise and Chubb grazing. It was only when Ben dismounted and circled his sons’ horses that he spied the travois with its passenger.
“ADAM!” shouted Ben, horrified to see Hoss lying unconscious on the travois.
Quickly both men approached the carrier; Ben went straight to his son while Adam quickly untied the rigging from Hoss’ saddle.
“Dear God…he’s been shot, Adam!” Ben practically shouted as he glanced up at his eldest son. “Help me pull this thing into the shade; he’s burning up with fever!”
Together Adam and Ben managed to pull the travois under a tree where shade was provided. Adam ran back to his horse and grabbed his canteen, handing it to his father who promptly offered water to his wounded son. Hoss moaned softly as his father managed to force a few drops of the cool liquid into his son’s mouth. He glanced around and then turned to Adam.
“I wonder where Joe is…see if you can find him, he might be down at the creek,” Ben said as he began to inspect Hoss’ bullet wound.
Adam disappeared into the brush, only to return minutes later with Joe in his arms.
“Pa…Joe’s hurt too,” he said as he dropped to one knee and lowered his brother onto the ground next to Hoss.
Ben stepped over the travois and knelt down next to his youngest son.
“He’s been hit over the head…hard; there’s a goose egg the size of Hop Sing’s dishpan on the back of his head, see, right here,” Adam explained, showing Ben where Joe’s head was swollen.
“My God,” Ben said worried. “We have to get these two home, they need a doctor.” Ben was examining Joe’s head wound. “My guess is he’s got a concussion…and probably a tremendous headache,” Ben added.
“Pa,” Adam said softly. He had moved to Hoss’ side but now turned to his father. His dark eyes were clouded with anger. “The money belt’s gone…they were robbed.”
“I know, son, but I’m not concerned about the money now…it’s these two I’m worried about.” Ben glanced around.
“There’s no camp…so my guess would be that this happened last night, looking at this wound…and Joe was trying to get Hoss home…”
“And he passed out before he got there; makes sense considering the size of this bump,” Adam finished. “I wonder…”
Ben glanced up as he wiped Joe’s face with a cool rag. “You wonder what, son?”
“If Joe saw the ones responsible…”
“I don’t know…only Joe can say, but I’d guess that Joe might have been sleeping, or caught with his back turned…”
“Pa, it could have been the other way around. Joe could have been hit from behind first and Hoss wandered back into camp…saw who it was that hit Joe and was shot…”
Ben stood to his feet, glancing from Hoss’ ashen face to Joe’s whose own face was drained of color. “Doesn’t matter, son…we still need to get a move on…Hoss especially needs attending to. Come on, you can ride double with Joe and I’ll tend to Hoss,” Ben said as he went after the horses.
When Joe was settled in front of his older brother, Ben led the way, keeping a watchful eye on the travois as they moved slowly closer and closer toward home. Adam rode for miles with his brother’s head leaning back against his shoulder, his own arm wrapped protectively about his younger brother’s waist. It was only when Joe began to moan and started to wiggle around that Adam signal for his father to stop.
Ben dismounted, casting a quick glance at Hoss whom had neither moved nor made a sound. He hurried to Adam’s side where he helped to lower Joe down on the ground.
“Easy, son,” Ben said in his deep soothing voice. “Get some water, Adam, please. Joe…take it easy, boy…your Pa’s here now…and Adam. Everything’s going to be alright.”
Ben accepted the canteen and offered the lip to Joe who swallowed thirstily. His head began to loll from side to side, but his father’s gentle hands held him firmly. “Open your eyes, Joseph…there…see, I told you everything was going to be fine,” Ben said, offering the addled young man a comforting smile.
Joe stretched his arm upward, his fingers seeking to touch his father’s face. Ben grasped the fingers in his hand and held them.
“Pa…it’s really you…”
Ben saw Joe swallow hard and then try to turn his head as if looking for someone.
“Shh…we found him, son…”
“We know, son…”
Adam moved closer. “Hey buddy…”
Joe’s eyes fixed themselves on his brother’s face.
“Joe…do you know who shot Hoss…and who hit you?” Adam asked anxiously for he was seething with anger and ready to hunt down the ones who had so callously left his brothers to die.
Joe squeezed his eyes tightly shut for a moment and then opened them, looking up at his brother. “No,” he muttered in a whispered voice. “I was sleeping…I woke up when the gun went off, but someone knocked me over the head…before I…had a chance…to see…who it was.” Joe swallowed again and looked this time up at his father. “When…I came to…they had…taken the money…and left…Hoss to die…”
“And you have no idea who they were?” Adam demanded harshly.
“Adam…he said he didn’t see anyone…now come on…we have to get home!” Ben chided gently.
“I know…I’m sorry Joe…its just…”
“It’s alright…Adam…I felt the same…way when…I found him,” Joe said weakly.
Ben started to help Joe to his feet; Adam took his brother’s other arm and helped pull Joe up.
“Do you think you can ride son?” Ben asked, dusting off small partials of dirt from Joe’s clothing.
“I can try,” Joe offered.
“Good boy,” Ben walked Joe to his horse and as he helped the boy mount up, he turned to Adam.
“Son, we should be home in about an hour. I want you to ride into town and fetch the doctor. We’ll meet you back at the ranch, please.”
“Alright, Pa…that’ll save us some time. Joe, take care and for heaven’s sake, hang on…” Adam said. He stood next to his brother’s horse, his hand rested gently on Joe’s leg.
“I’ll do my best, big brother,” Joe said and offered a small smile.
By the time that Ben led his sons into the yard, Joe was again slumped over in the saddle, barely hanging on. When they stopped in front of the house, Hop Sing and one of the ranch hands hurried over to help Joe down and into the house.
“Hop Sing, put him to bed,” Ben ordered as he watched Joe staggering along with Hop Sing, allowing Joe to lean heavily against him.
“Jim, get some more men and help me carry Hoss inside, Adam’s already gone for the doctor,” Ben issued.
“Sure thing, Mr. Cartwright.”
It took three more men besides Ben and Jim to carry Hoss inside and up the steps to his room. Hoss groaned as spasms of agony shot through his fevered body. Ben tried talking to him, urging him to open his eyes but Hoss had allowed his mind to close to everything about him except for the anguish that his huge body was being made to endure.
An hour later, Doc Martin entered the room. The room was lit only by the soft glow of the lamp that Ben had lit earlier as darkness began to claim daylight. Joe was sleeping at last in his own room, having worn himself out by arguing with his father about seeing Hoss. Ben had won at last, promising his son that as soon as the doctor arrived and given the okay, Joe could go to his brother’s room for a short visit…if the physician agreed. Joe had laid his head back against the pillow, squeezing his eyes tightly, fighting back both the pain in his head and the tears that threatened to overflow. His heart was filled with remorse…guilt…blame…anguish and then hate for the ones who were responsible. Ben knew nothing of his youngest son’s inner turmoil, and was only aware of the suffering that showed on the boy’s young face.
“That bullet’s in deep, Ben,” Paul whispered. “I’ll have to operate…now, he’s lost a lot of blood, but that bullet’s been in his chest much too long as it is.”
“Is it risky?” Ben wanted to know as he stood near the bed.
“I won’t lie to you, Ben…” Paul Martin motioned for his friend to follow him out of the room and into the hallway where Adam joined them.
“What are his chances, Paul?” Ben asked. His face was beginning to show the stress and worry that he had for his son.
“I’m sorry, Ben…but you know I’ll do my best. Hoss is young and strong…but even so…Ben, he needed a doctor immediately…when it first happened,” Paul explained with remorse.
“Joe did the best he could, in getting his brother help, Paul…”
“Oh, I don’t blame him…after all…they were miles from a town…or home. I’m just saying, Hoss would have had better odds twenty-four hours ago…” sighed the physician.
Ben gulped down his frustration and glanced at Adam and then again at the doctor. “Do what you can, please,” he said quietly.
Paul nodded his head. “You know I will, old friend.” He turned then to Hop Sing who was just coming from Joe’s room. “How’s my other patient?”
“Sleeping like baby…he put up lit’le fight…no like medicine you make him take…” smiled Hop Sing.
“He’ll sleep for several hours…which is what he needs, that goose egg was pretty big, but thank goodness his concussion was only minor.” Paul turned to Ben, taking a deep breath. “Why don’t you go sit with Little Joe for a bit? I have an operation to perform.”
“I think I will…just in case he wakes up. Joe was pretty set on seeing Hoss. You will…call me, won’t you…as soon as you know something?”
Paul placed his hand on Ben’s arm, squeezing gently. “I promise,” he said and then turned, disappearing into Hoss’ room. Hop Sing bowed to his boss in a humble manner and followed after the physician.
When Paul tapped lightly on Joe’s bedroom door and received no answer, he pushed the door opened wider and looked inside. Ben was sitting in a chair close to the bed and from the angle of his head Paul knew that his best friend had fallen to sleep. He glanced at Joe who was sleeping also and then checked the young man’s vitals, which met with his satisfaction. “Good thing all you Cartwrights have hard heads,” he muttered softly to himself.
Ben stirred, shifting his body in the chair. When Paul touched him lightly on the shoulder, Ben jerked upright, startled by the gently nudge. The instant he spied the doctor standing over him, he stood, casting a quick glance at Joe and then followed Paul from the room into the hallway.
“How is Hoss doing?” Ben asked immediately.
Adam, who had been in his room resting, entered into the hallway. “Well?” he questioned the physician.
“I’m surprised, Ben; the boy’s doing much better than I thought he would,” Paul smiled. “I got the bullet, which wasn’t as deep as I first thought…something must have slowed the entry.”
“The money belt, most likely,” Adam said. “He was probably shot first and then robbed.”
Catching the tone of his son’s voice, Ben quickly jerked his head around to stare at Adam.
“We can just be thankful he had it on, son,” Ben said, hoping to ease some of the anger he saw brewing in Adam’s eyes.
“Whatever it was, probably saved his life…that along with the care that Little Joe gave him,” the doctor added.
“Then Hoss is going to be alright?” the anxious father inquired.
“If his fever doesn’t get much higher and baring any infection…I’d say so, Ben,” Paul smiled. “He’s one lucky young man; if that had been Little Joe who was shot at close range…money belt or not, I’m afraid Joe would not have been so fortunate.”
The kind doctor reached his arm out and squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “I’ll check on Joe before I leave. Hoss will be out for some time, Ben, so don’t worry if he doesn’t wake up for a while. You and Adam can go in, but don’t disturb him, please. I’m heading back to town as soon as I see Joe…send word if you need me…”
Ben shook the doctor’s hand. His grip was firm as he pumped the physician’s arm up and down. Relief mixed with gratitude shown in his dark, expressive eyes and in the tone of his deep voice. “Thank you, Paul…God only knows what would happen to my family if it were not for friends like you…doctors like you…” Ben corrected.
“Both,” Adam said taking Paul’s other hand. When Adam smiled his thanks, the kindly physician nodded his head, humbled by the grateful words of his friends.
Things hadn’t gone as Ben had hoped. Paul Martin was called back to the Ponderosa late the same night. Hoss’ fever had sky rocketed, sending the wounded man into convulsions and scaring his father and older brother half to death.
By the time that the physician arrived, Ben and Adam had seen fit to pack Hoss in ice from the cellar, a move that seemed to have worked for the time being. There wasn’t much more that could be done for the man at that point, except keep a close watch on Hoss’ temperature and make sure that fresh ice was brought up regularly.
It was the middle of the next afternoon before Joe woke from his drug induced sleep and finding himself alone in the room, he slipped silently from the bed, determined to see his brother. He paused just outside his room, which was near the top of the stairs. He could hear voices below, and knew that his father and Adam were talking to the doctor, whose voice he recognized. He listened closely but the men were talking softly and it was hard to hear. Joe crossed the hall, better positioning himself to hear what was being said.
“I’m sorry, Ben…I’ve done all I can for him. Now it’s up to Hoss,” Paul said. “He’s much worse now than before…I…don’t think he has the strength left to fight…”
“But he has too!” Joe heard his father proclaim in a strained voice. “He can’t be dying!”
“Ben…I’m sorry…but…we should know something in a few hours…by then…”
Joe had heard enough, not caring that he wore anything other than the trousers that he had pulled on under his night shirt, Joe made his way to Hoss’ room, flinging the door wide as he staggered toward the bed. Hoss’ eyes were closed. Joe kneeled down close to his brother’s head, appalled at how pale and sick the big man looked. He swallowed down his grief and gently placed his hand on Hoss’ head, fingering the fine, thinning hair in a loving manner.
“Hoss,” whispered Joe. Tears welled in his eyes. “I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have asked…you to stop for the…night…you didn’t want…to,” he said, sniffling.
“Please, Hoss…you gotta try…you…can’t die…you big ox…don’t you know…I…I need you, Hoss…I need you!” sobbed Joe. He laid his hand across his face, swiping at the tears that rolled down his cheeks as he fought not to cry. “Hoss…listen to me…”
The faint whisper was strained and filled with pain, but hearing the sound of his beloved brother’s voice filled the younger man with fresh hope.
“Hoss!” smiled Joe through his tears.
Joe tenderly placed his hand over Hoss’ lips. “Shh…don’t try to talk big guy…”
Weakly, Hoss brushed away Joe’s hand. “Joe…Dave…Brackett…”
Joe’s expression was one of doubt. He wasn’t sure what Hoss was trying to tell him. Why now, after all these years would his brother mention Dave Brackett, Joe’s long ago school chum?
“Hoss…what about Dave?”
He watched as Hoss swallowed and tried to form his words. Joe frowned as he eyed the suffering on his brother’s face. Once again the guilt and hatred he’d been feeling filled his heart and soul and inwardly he vowed to find the ones responsible.
Hoss’ eyes seemed to be having trouble focusing. They moved slowly, searching for Joe’s face. His large, beefy hand groped the air for a handhold; Joe quickly grasped for it. “I’m here, Hoss…what about Dave?”
“The…money…Dave…Cliff…took…the…money…” Hoss was gasping for air, his blue eyes rolled uncontrollably around in his head, scaring Joe.
“Hoss…look at me…” Joe said frantically as he squeezed Hoss’ hand and waited until his brother could steady himself enough to focus on his face. “Are you saying…Dave Brackett and Cliff…his old side-kick…are the ones who…shot you…and robbed us?” Joe asked in total disbelief.
He had heard that Dave and Cliff, along with Henry and Billy had left the area and headed elsewhere…Indian Territory…Joe thought. The foursome had been trouble for him and another boy…an ex-slave boy by the name of Bass Reeves…who had moved away as well. Over the years, Joe had heard little of Dave and his gang except that they had crossed over the line of the law and had taken up a life of crime.
Hoss was growing weaker but he managed to nod his head yes. When his eyes closed, Joe felt the strength leave his brother’s hand as it went limp in his. Carefully, Joe placed the large beefy hand on the bed. He choked back his tears and swallowed his fears. Never before had he seen Hoss in such poor shape. The man looked as if he was dying and that thought frightened the younger one.
Joe leaned closer. “I swear to you, Hoss…I’ll get them…come hell or high water…I’ll get them for what they’ve done to you…”
The deep voice behind him jarred Joe from his misery. Joe pushed himself up and slowly turned around, just in time to see his father come into Hoss’ bedroom. Ben looked worried.
“Joe…you shouldn’t be out of bed, son,” Ben said gently, casting troubled eyes down at Hoss.
“I had to see him, Pa…”
“It’s alright son…he’s still out…”
“He spoke to me…”
“What? That’s wonderful, Joe,” Ben said as he moved to the side of the bed. “He’s sleeping now, though…what did he say?”
Joe had to think fast. No way was he going to tell his father what Hoss had actually said. He was already determined to find Dave Brackett and his gang of murdering sons-of-…..
“Nothing really, just that he was trying to get better…and not to fret so over him…”
Joe knew it was a lie…but when he saw the relief that flooded his father’s face, he wasn’t sorry he’d told the little fib. He vowed to himself to confess later…when Hoss was well again and back on his feet…if Hoss got better. Joe glanced down at his brother’s near lifeless form and a sudden urge to run washed over him. He roughly pushed his father’s hand off his arm where Ben had gently placed it and hurried from the room, nearly colliding with Adam who was just coming in.
Adam stepped aside. “What’s with him?” he asked his father as he approached the bed.
“I suppose he couldn’t bear to see Hoss suffering any longer; you know how he feels about your brother,” Ben explained as he pulled the chair to the edge of the bed.
“I suppose,” Adam said, glancing over his shoulder toward the door as if he expected to see Joe return. “He seemed troubled…maybe I’ll go have a talk with him…”
Ben smiled his appreciation and nodded his head. “Thank you Adam…”
Adam quickly disappeared from the room. He stood outside Joe’s room for a brief moment to catch his breath. Deep within his own troubled soul, he knew how his younger brother felt; it was all he could do to keep from running from Hoss’ room too. It pained him something fierce, unnerving him to see the shallow, haunted look that replaced the pleasant, ever happy-go-lucky smile that was always gracing the big man’s face. Adam gulped down his private heartache and rapped softly on the bedroom door.
Adam pushed the door wide and slipped inside, closing it behind him. He crossed the room quickly but stopped short in his tracks, stunned to see his brother dressed and busy tossing some personal belongings into a small satchel.
“Joe,” Adam said as he moved closer to the bed and watched Joe slinging articles into the satchel. “Are you going some place?”
“I might be,” Joe said as he cast a quick glance at his brother.
“You ‘might be’? What kind of an answer is that?” Adam demanded. He knew his younger brother was not in any shape to go anywhere other than back to bed. And what puzzled Adam was why would Joe want to go away now…with Hoss’ life lingering on death’s door and the doctor not even giving them much hope that the big guy would pull through?
Joe paused just long enough to give Adam a hard look. Adam could see from the pain that radiated back from the hazel eyes that his brother was still suffering. He wasn’t sure if the pain he saw was physical or emotional…most likely a little of both. Adam’s voice softened some. “Where are you going…and why?” He watched Joe closely, noting that Joe had become very quiet and that the boy’s hand trembled slightly.
“There’s something I have to do, Adam…that’s all…”
“Just something…now just get out and leave me alone…” Joe took a deep breath, glancing in Adam’s direction. “Please,” he added.
Joe turned his back to his brother, afraid to let Adam see the tears that swelled in his eyes. His older brother could read him like an open book; he’d always been able to do that, ever since he’d been a little kid. Joe didn’t want Adam to see him now, see his guilt, his anger and most of all, the hate that brewed within him.
Adam gave his brother a moment to calm himself before moving closer. “You’re going to hunt down the one…or ones that shot Hoss and hurt you, aren’t you?”
Instantly Adam saw his brother stiffen his back and knew that he had assumed correctly.
“No,” lied Joe, “I don’t know who shot and robbed us…I just…need to get away…that’s all, Adam, really,” Joe answered, turning and tossing another shirt into the carpetbag.
Joe moved away from Adam, swaying slightly as he crossed the room and stood before the window.
Concerned for his brother’s welfare, Adam crossed the room as well. “The only place you need to go is to bed, Joe…you’re not well enough to be up and about…”
“I’m fine!” snapped Joe. He turned around and looked at Adam. “You don’t understand…I have to do this!” he said and then returned to his packing.
“You’re right, Little Joe, I don’t understand…just what is it that you have to do?”
“Leave, damnit…” shouted Joe, spinning around to face his brother again.
Adam noted the tears that welled in Joe’s eyes and hurried on with his questioning. “Why, Joe…why do you want to leave…Hoss…in the shape he’s in?”
Joe lowered his head, his shame was beginning to overwhelm him and he needed to get away fast.
“Hoss is…dying, Adam,” Joe murmured, looking up slightly. “I can’t watch him die…knowing that…I caused his…death.” Joe grabbed the satchel from the bed and headed for the door.
Adam grabbed for Joe’s arm, forcing his brother to stop as he spun the boy around. Joe refused to look up at Adam. “What the hell does that mean? How are you responsible?”
“He didn’t want to stop for the night…I…insisted…’cause I wanted…to do some…fishing. I…practically begged him…” Joe said, sniffling. At last he looked into Adam’s dark eyes, his own overflowing with the tiny beads of water that rolled slowly down his face. “He wouldn’t have been shot, Adam…if we’d come straight home…like Pa asked us to do…but no…I had to have it my way! And now…Hoss is gonna…die…and…I’m to blame,” stammered Joe as he tried to wrench his arm free of his brother’s fingers.
“No one blames you, Joe…”
“Not yet…but you will…and so will Pa…when Hoss is gone…and he learns that his death could have been prevented…IF I had done as he asked.”
Joe tried to jerk his arm free once more, but Adam held tightly. “You can’t leave like this Joe…I…won’t let you!” Adam said in a determined voice.
“I have to go…don’t you see?”
“No…I don’t see. What I do see is what you’ll end up doing to yourself…to Pa. Joe…he can’t bear to lose both of you…he’s lost enough as it is…”
“Don’t you think I know that? Do you think I can stay here…knowing that he’ll blame me…knowing what he’s thinking every time he looks at me? I can’t do it, Adam…I can’t…now…let go of me!” shouted Joe.
Joe pushed his upper body into Adam, causing his brother to break his hold on the arm he’d been clinging too. Joe shoved again, pushing Adam out of the way as he grabbed for the door and flung it opened. He raced out into the hall and down the back stairs. By the time that Adam recovered enough get his footing and get into the hall, Joe was not to be seen.
As Adam headed for the stairs, the door to Hoss’ room opened and Ben stepped into the hall. “Adam, come here a minute, please!”
Pausing at the head of the steps, unsure of who needed him the most, Adam hesitated until he heard the kitchen door slam shut, instantly realizing which direction his brother had taken.
“Adam, please, I need your help, son,” Ben said, returning to the sick room.
“Damn you, Little Joe,” grumbled Adam under his breath. He balled up his fist in anger and went to do his father’s bidding.
It was hours later when Ben had finally left Hoss’ side and ventured downstairs with Adam. Together, they sat in solemn stillness at the dinning room table. Ben toyed with the food on his plate while Adam sipped coffee. Both wore tired, worried expressions on their faces. At last, Ben looked up, as if for the first time, realizing that someone was missing.
“Did Joe go back to bed?” he asked Adam casually, thinking that perhaps his youngest son might have returned to bed after visiting with his ailing brother. Adam had mentioned that Joe had slipped in to see Hoss but he had not wanted to worry his father further by telling him that Little Joe had left.
“No,” whispered Adam, filling his mouth with warm coffee.
Ben seemed puzzled. “Then where is he?”
Adam swallowed slowly, dreading to inform his father of the news. “Gone…” he whispered again.
The worried father’s eyes opened wide as he set his fork down in his plate. “Gone? Gone where? That boy was in no condition to be anywhere except in bed!” Ben growled growing slightly angry.
Adam sighed and set his cup down. He turned to look at his father. “I don’t know where the boy’s gone, Pa…he wouldn’t tell me where he was going…”
“Then just what did he tell you? And why on earth didn’t you come and warn me!” Ben snapped.
“You were busy tending to Hoss, that’s why I didn’t tell you. You had enough on your mind without having to deal with Joe and his stubborn streak…”
“Adam, what on earth are you talking about!” It was more a statement than a question. The already worried expression deepened as Ben leaned forward. “What did Joe say to you?”
“He simply said that he was leaving…that he couldn’t stay here any longer knowing that he was responsible for his brother’s…death…”
“Hoss isn’t dead, for Pete’s sake!” Ben stormed angrily.
“I know that…and I told Joe so…but he said…it was only a matter of time before Hoss…well…anyway, for some stupid reason, Joe blames himself for Hoss getting shot and for them losing the money…”
“Damn the money!” shouted Ben, pushing back his chair and jumping to his feet.
“Pa…please, simmer down…”
“Don’t tell me to simmer down, young man!” Ben ranted as he stormed from the dinning room into the great room where he stopped and spun around, glaring at his eldest son. “What else did he tell you? Why on earth does he feel responsible?”
Adam pushed back his chair and went to stand before his father. “He said he begged Hoss to stop for the night…so they could do some fishing…and that Hoss hadn’t wanted too because you told them to come straight home…but obviously Hoss gave in to Joe’s begging so they stayed. Joe feels that if he hadn’t persuaded Hoss to stop for the night, none of this would have happened,” Adam explained. “So, he feels guilty…”
Ben’s temper cooled somewhat; he lowered his head. “I hope you explained to him that we don’t blame him…”
“Of course I did, but you know Joe, Pa…once he gets an idea in his head…there’s no changing his mind…”
It was Ben’s time to sigh. “I suppose you’re right, son. But…Joe had no idea something like this would happen…he can’t hold himself responsible for Hoss being hurt…”
“I know that…and I suppose, deep down, Joe knows it too, but right now, he’s feeling guilty, he’s afraid Hoss is going to die and he can’t bear to stay around and watch that happen…so, he took off…”
Ben had moved to the fireplace and was poking at the embers. He turned; his expression was one of fear and his voice, when he spoke was full of emotion. “I want him back here…where he belongs…he’s been hurt too, Adam, and he isn’t thinking clearly, what with that head injury and all. I don’t want something more to happen to him as well…”
“Do you want me to go after him?” Adam asked as he rose from the chair where he had been sitting.
“It’s pitch dark outside now…I want you to leave first thing in the morning, if you don’t mind. I’d go myself…but with Hoss in the shape he’s in…”
“I understand, Pa…don’t worry, I’ll find that boy and I’ll bring him home…even if I have to tie him across his saddle…” Adam forced a smile for his father.
Ben couldn’t help himself, he grinned as well, imagining the picture that popped into his mind of the struggle that his oldest son would have in putting his younger brother across the back of his horse.
“Do what you must, son…just bring him home…before it’s too late. Hoss might wake up at any time and ask for Joe…tell him that…please,” Ben said as he slowly sat down in his chair.
“I will, Pa…guess I’d better go pack some things. Good night,” he said as he moved toward the stairs. When Adam reached the landing, he stopped and turned back around. “I’ll stop by in the morning to see how Hoss is doing before I leave…try to get some rest, Pa, you look beat…”
It was uncomfortable riding along in the blowing wind. It seemed to only aggravate the pounding pain in his head but he clung tightly to the saddle as Cochise continued to trudge along. They had traveled for miles; Joe pushed both himself and his horse, determined to put as many miles between him and home as he could before stopping for the night. The memory of Hoss’ pale, ashen face haunted Joe’s thoughts. Even the faces of the men whom he now knew to be the ones who had inflected such pain on his brother and who had taken their money, their faces danced before his mind’s eye. They taunted and tempted his thoughts of revenge and hate and several times Joe pondered how he would kill them once he managed to find them. It was a long way to Oklahoma Indian Territory, but he’d go to the ends of the earth if need be, to find Dave Brackett, Billy Morris, Cliff Deaton and Henry…Joe couldn’t remember Henry’s last name, but his face was as clear to him as if the other boy had been standing before him.
When he stopped at last, the weary traveler slid from his horse; his legs practically gave way under him and for several moments Joe was forced to lean against Cochise until the constant throbbing that caused his head to spin diminished enough that he was able to stand on his own. Quickly, Joe pulled the saddle from his horse’s back and flung it to the ground. Weary beyond the point of endurance, he made quick work of bedding down his horse and then, rather than to take the time or effort to build a fire, Joe kicked opened his bedroll, collapsed into it and wrapped himself up tightly within the folds. The hunger pangs that gnawed at his gut subsided soon afterwards and within minutes of closing his eyes, Joe was fast asleep.
‘NO! HOSS…NO! Please…open your eyes…talk to me!’
Joe moaned as his head moved from side to side. He struggled to open his eyes. Hoss’ pasty white face flashed before his mind’s eyes. His brother was staring straight at him with dulled lifeless eyes. Blue lips puckered in the way they often had in life. His words were slow and he spoke with a drawl and he moved as if in slow motion.
“Noooo…letttsss gooo onnn hommmeee, Joeee.’
And then Joe suddenly appeared in his own hellish nightmare, pleading, cohering his brother…tempting the big guy.
‘Ah…come on Hoss…please…let’s stop for the night…we can do a little fishing…’
‘Josephhhh, youuu knooow whaaaat Paaaa said…commmeee straaaighhhhttt hommmee!’
Joe tossed about, kicking his bedroll free of his body. The night breeze caused him to shiver. His head pounded.
‘Alrighhhttt…Joe…buttttt if Paaaa getttss madddd, I’mmmm atellinnnn’ him itttt wasss yourrrr ideaaaa….yourrrr ideaaa, yourrr ideaaa!’
‘NO! HOSSSS NO!!! OH GOD…YOU’VE BEEN SHOTTTTT! YOU’RE DEAD…NO! NO! I’M SORRY…I’M SORRY…OH GOD…PA…FORGIVE ME!’
Joe’s scream pierced the night and in the next second he bolted upright. Intense pain caused him to grab his head and moan. As the pain moved on, he glanced around, his heart beat rapidly, deep within his chest. Beads of sweat had dotted his brow. Even his breath came in swift, shallow gulps as the frightened young man sought to regain his composure.
“It was only a dream…” he told himself.
Slowly, Joe pushed himself to his feet, reaching for his canteen in the dark. He drank thirstily and then replaced the cork.
“A fire…I need a fire,” he muttered and quickly began to gather sticks.
He groped in his pocket for a match and found the matchbook he had picked up when he had awakened after being hit over the head. Joe held it in his hands and stared at the writing on the front. The irrefutable hate returned to consume him. Suddenly, Joe wasn’t cold anymore, but rather filled with a strange sort of warmth that stirred his blood. Anger darkened his eyes as he whispered lowly to himself and stuck the matchbook back into his jacket pocket.
“I’m coming for you, you bastard…I’m gonna kill each and every last one of you!” he swore, striking a match and bringing tiny sparks to the twigs he’d gathered.
As the flame grew, Joe added bigger sticks to the fire until he had a small blaze burning. He sat down close by and held his hands over the flames, warming them. Thoughts took him miles away, back home, to Hoss’ room. Joe saw himself standing over his brother’s bed, looking down into the face of his best friend. Without realizing they had done so, his eyes clouded with tears. Slowly, one by one, they spilled over onto his cheeks and dripped unhurriedly down his face.
“I’m sorry, Hoss…I’m…so…so…sorry……………”
For several more days Joe rode in a steady line. His mind was boggled with troubled thoughts. He worried about his brother, Hoss, fearing that the gentle giant might already have died. His heart was heavy with sorrow and grief under coated with guilt that ate away at his soul. Time passed slowly it seemed but his mind, body and spirit took a spiraling, downhill plummet as the harsh emotions eroded and gnarled his ambitions and determination.
Little Joe’s head was crooked low over his chest; his spine forced his back to be slouched forward; his body sagged heavily, inches from his horse’s neck. Disillusionments mounted, confusing the boy. The constant, nagging pain in the side of his head caused his thoughts to become jumbled and distorted. He rode another mile or so, struggling to stay seated, but at last, exhausted both physically and mentally, the disparaging young man felt himself sliding downward, unable to prevent his fall. Cochise snorted, bringing himself to a standstill, aware that something was amiss. His rider landed on the hard, cold ground at his feet. The animal moved away, sniffing at the boy. Joe, vaguely aware of his surroundings, moaned softly, startling the pinto and causing the horse to bolt and run toward the rocky hilltop.
Joe strained to raise his head; his arm stretched forward in a futile attempt to reach the horse. Everything around him swirled, sending his world into a whirlwind of mystification and mixed sentiments.
And then the world in which he was familiar had, without warning, become void of anything but total blackness. The road to self-destruction rather than the constant pain that lingered in the back of Joe’s head claimed the depleted soul as its victory.
“No sir,” the farmer said. “I ain’t seen no strangers ‘round here…and I think from what you said, I’d remember a young man on a black and white pinto.”
“Well…I thank you just the same,” Adam said as he mounted up.
Politely, Adam tipped his hat at the farmer and rode off. “Thanks again.”
He’d been traveling for days, searching for his brother but had not found one person who had seen the boy. It was as if Joe had dropped off the face of the earth, disappeared into nothingness, vanished and Adam was beginning to get a little more than worried.
He had wired his father the evening before from the town where he had spent the night. Determined to wait for an answer, he had been rewarded quickly with a reply from his father stating that Hoss had finally awakened from his deep sleep and appeared by all indications to be improving. When questioned however, Hoss could not remember having had a conversation with his younger brother, nor could he remember exactly what had happened to him. His father did indicate that Hoss seemed troubled about being unable to recall the specifics and it was causing the gentle giant undo stress. Ben urged Adam to keep looking for Joe…Hoss had asked for him and Ben had been forced to admit that Joe was gone…but he had no clue as to where Joe might have gone or why Joe had left. It bothered Hoss that his brother had not waited around to find out his condition though Ben had tried to excuse that away as well.
Adam rode on, determined to find the headstrong young man. Deep in his soul, he feared that Joe had gone looking for trouble, and knowing the boy as well as he did, Adam admitted that most likely the trouble his younger brother was seeking, would no doubt find the boy first.
“Come Sport…let’s ride,” urged Adam.
Joe’s brow was drenched with beads of perspiration. His soft moans drew the attention of his caregiver who came quickly to his bedside where Joe had been placed. The tall, lean man sat down in the chair next to the bed and as he dampened a cloth in cool water, his dark, expressive eyes never left his patient’s face.
“Easy now, Joe,” the deep, compassionate voice said as he mopped the drops of water from Joe’s fevered brow and then gently washed the hot, flushed cheeks.
“Hoss…oh…no…Hoss…” whimpered Joe, tossing his head from side to side.
“Shh…ol’ Hoss ain’t here, buddy,” the man explained, though his words had no affect on his patient. “I sure wish he were; you might get better if’n he was with ya.”
Joe continued to moan and toss about on the cot. The man leaned back in his chair, watching the barrage of diverse expressions that played across the young man’s face as he withered about on the bed. “I don’t know what’s eatin’ away at ya, Joe Cartwright…or what’s driven ya so far from home; nor do I know what’s causin’ that head of yours to be hurtin’ so,” the man muttered. “But somethin’ awful must have surely happened to ya…”
Bass Reeves scratched his chin and stood up to toss another log on the fire in the stone fireplace. He’d found his old school mate two days prior, unconscious and burning up with fever. Joe had been lying in a clearing; his pinto was munching on tender stalks of grass nearby and when Bass had crested the rim of the slope, the horse was the first thing that had captured his attention.
The sight of the beautiful animal instantly sparked a memory, taking him back to another time, another place and it seemed, another lifetime long since forgotten. Well, not forgotten entirely, he had thought often of the young skinny kid who had deemed it his duty to befriend a young, frightened black boy who cared little at the time of having a rich white kid for his best friend. But Joe’s perseverance had paid off. It had even saved his ornery black hide as Joe had so often in the months that followed, reminded him. Had it not been for his friend on the cot, he might have killed a man, Dave Brackett, but Joe, beaten himself beyond endurance, had risked his own life to stop the ex-slave from committing a fatal sin and thus saved Bass Reeves from going to the gallows.
“I wonder what ya going to think of me now, when ya wake up, Little Joe,” Bass’ thoughts tumbled through his head.
The marshal glanced over at Joe who seemed to have settled into a deeper less troubled sleep and wondered again of the reasons that his pal had ventured so deeply into Indian Territory.
“Wonder who ya be chasin’ after?” Bass asked no one. “Wonder what ya’d think if’n ya knew who I was after! You sure have given me cause to wonder ‘bout a bunch of stuff ol’ friend.”
It was late the following afternoon that Joe began to wake up enough to raise his head slightly and peer around at his surrounding. He knew he’d never seen the inside of the old cabin; everything about it was strange and unfamiliar to him. Grunting softly, Joe pushed himself upright and swung his legs over the side of the cot. The floor was cold but he paid little heed to the discomfort as he tried to steady himself enough to stand. Slowly, using the chair near the bed to lean on, he glanced around, hoping to find his trousers. He spotted them laying atop a small chest just feet from the bed. Joe was starting to make his way across to the chest when the door of the cabin was flung opened. Too quickly, Joe spun around, attempting to see who had entered. It was a wrong move, for everything before his eyes began to spin out of control. Joe grabbed for the chair but missed, sinking slowly downward.
“Whoa…there friend, you shouldn’t be out of bed!” Bass said as he dropped the wood that he held in his arms and dashed across the room, catching Joe’s limp body just seconds before the boy hit the floor.
Bass scooped Joe into his arms and carried him back to the cot where he placed Joe down on the bedding. Carefully, he put Joe’s legs straight out and covered him with the blanket. Bass smiled down at Joe whose eyes had opened wide in startled recognition.
“Bass…Bass Reeves?” muttered Joe.
“Sure ‘nough,” Reeves smiled as he sat down. “How ya feelin’, ol’ friend…ya been pretty sick?”
Joe’s eyes remained fixed on his old friend’s face. “My head doesn’t hurt anymore…much…” Joe said weakly. “How’d I get here…and where in hell did you come from?” he asked, smiling for the first time.
“I found you…unconscious…and I brought you here…I…stay here sometimes…when I’m workin’,” Bass explained.
“I suppose…I should thank you then.”
“No need…what in blazes are you doing this far from home?” Bass inquired.
It was then that the marshal saw a change in Joe’s expression. He noted how his friend’s eyes narrowed and darkened and recognized the look for what it was…hatred. He had seen it before, in his own eyes years earlier. Instantly he knew he had struck a raw nerve in his old friend.
Joe looked away, unable or unwilling to meet the dark inquisitive eyes of his friend.
“Never mind,” Bass said, “I suppose it’s none of my business, I shouldn’t have pried.” He stood then, moving to pick up the firewood he had dropped in the floor. “You hungry?” he asked Joe.
“Don’t matter…I have a stew on the stove…you’re gonna eat anyway,” he said, turning around and looking at Joe. His face opened with a wide smile. “Even if I have to force feed ya…” he said sternly and then laughed.
Joe’s expression softened with the smile he gave to his friend. “I suppose, now that you’ve mentioned it…I am a little hungry.”
“I thought so,” chuckled the marshal as he began dipping some of the stew into a plate for his patient.
It was nearly a week before Joe was able to move around without feeling weak or dizzy. During that time, he and Bass had talked for hours about their lives both past and present, though Joe had somehow managed to stir the conversation away from his current goals, to hunt down and kill the ones responsible for murdering his brother. As of yet, Joe had not mentioned to his old school chum the incident concerning Hoss. He was unable to speak of it; it hurt him, remembering the big man, the gentle giant…his best friend, for when he remembered, the over-powering guilt swept over him, taking him down into his own self-imposed hell.
Bass had only made suggestions as to Joe’s reasons for straying so far from home, but being the knowledgeable lawman that he had become over the course of years, he sensed in his friend a reluctance to speak freely. And the hatred that lingered in the hazel eyes, warned Bass that beneath the cool exterior of his friend’s persona, stewed anger deeper than any he had ever known himself.
The closest that Joe would come to admitting he was on the trail of murders was when Bass happened to mention Dave Brackett’s name in conversation. They were just finishing supper and Joe had stood up, taking his plate over to the dishpan to be washed.
“I’m heading back west tomorrow, I’ve been over in Indian Territory but now it’s time for me to move on, Joe,” Bass had declared.
“I guess I’ll head out too, then,” Joe had replied.
“I’ve got an idea that our old friend, Dave Brackett and his gang…”
Joe suddenly without warning dropped his plate, causing the tin to clang loudly when it hit the floor. He spun around, startling Bass with a look of pure, undeniable loathing.
“Dave Brackett?” Joe stammered as he clumsily stooped down to pick up his plate and eating utensils.
The intense look of repugnance did not go unnoticed by Bass. With long years of self-discipline, the lawman held himself in check.
“I see you remember him,” Bass said coolly.
“How could I forget him?” Joe asked, turning and placing the plate into the pan. He kept his back to the marshal sure that Bass could read his thoughts. “What did he do…I mean…why are you after him?” Joe said as casually as he could.
“He’s a wanted man, Joe. He and his gang…you remember Cliff, Henry, and Billy, don’t you?”
Joe nodded his head as he sat back down anxious for any news that might unknowingly put him on the trail of the very persons Bass was referring to. When he glanced at his hands they were trembling. Thinking that Bass had not seen, he placed them in his lap.
“Well…they killed a man over in Oklahoma a few months back…I’ve been following them. I lost track of them for awhile…and then I got wind that they’d been back down around their old tromping grounds…so that’s where I was headed when I found you,” Bass explained. He kept keen eyes on his old chum’s face, watching the expressions that changed so readily.
“You mean you were headed back toward Nevada?” Joe asked.
“Yep…say…why don’t you ride along with me…you are going home, aren’t you?”
“I wasn’t thinking on it…I’m not sure I could go home…not just yet that is,” Joe explained.
“Why not, Joe?” Bass saw the tiny beads of moisture that unexpectedly dotted Joe’s brow. He watched as the man across from him frowned.
Joe looked up and into the compassionate eyes of his friend. It had been weeks since he’d seen a look of understanding cast his way; he suddenly longed to tell this man of his inner feelings, his guilt, his part in Hoss’ demise…his shame. Joe swallowed and cleared his throat. “I haven’t told you, Bass…but…Hoss is…is…dead…”
“What? How…when? I mean…I know you were calling for him when you were out of your head…but I had no clue he was…dead. I’m sorry, Joe…I hate to hear that. Hoss was always a kind fellow…what happened to him…if you don’t mind my asking?”
Joe had to get up, to move around…he had to breathe. Opening the door and inhaling deeply, he turned back to face his friend and leaned against the door facing. “It was my fault,” he said lowly.
“Your fault?” Bass said. He stood up and faced Joe. He could see the pain Joe tried so hard to hide, but the glistening of tears betrayed his friend. “How, Joe…why was it your fault?”
Slowly, Joe closed the door and moved back into the room where sat back down in his chair. “We…that is, Hoss and I, had been to a horse sale. We got a pretty good price for our small herd…about $5,000 and we were on our way home. I wanted to stop for the night…there’s this special fishing hole that Hoss and I have…had I mean…and I wanted to camp there for the night and do a little fishing. Hoss didn’t want to…he said he was tired and hungry for Hop Sing’s cooking…but I nagged him about it until he finally gave in. Later, after we were asleep…well, I was sleeping…I didn’t hear anyone come into camp…it was the blast of the gun that woke me up…”
Joe nodded his head up and down. “Yeah…when I woke up…before I could get my senses…someone hit me over the head…”
“That would explain the head injury. Where you able to see who it was?”
“No…I didn’t even know Hoss was shot until later…much later. I guess I was out for most of the night. When I woke up…that’s when I found him…”
Bass could see how just the telling of the story affected the other man. The pain cut deeply into his friend’s heart and soul and Bass felt part of Joe’s grief within his own troubled soul. “And Hoss was…dead?”
Joe had lowered his head to hide the misery he knew must surely be showing in his eyes.
“Joe…was Hoss dead?”
“No…but nearly. I tried to get him home…but I passed out on the way. My father and brother found both of us. I…was unconscious for quite awhile. When I finally came to, I slipped in to see Hoss…he looked so…so…” Joe gulped, unable to finish he sentence. “Sometime later, he woke enough to tell me…hmm…” Joe caught himself before he said too much and quickly rephrased his statement. “He said…not to fret so…that he…didn’t blame me for…what happened,” Joe lied. “I left the same night…”
“Then you don’t know for sure that Hoss is dead, do you?”
Again, Joe rose, this time moving to the fireplace and turning his back to the marshal. He failed to answer the question; he knew in his heart that Hoss had died.
“Was he able to tell you who shot him, Joe?” Bass turned and followed Joe to the fireplace.
Joe said nothing for several long moments and then, with head low, shook his head no. Somehow, just by Joe’s actions and his sudden unwillingness to look at him, Bass did not fully believe his friend. “Joe,” he said, moving to Joe’s side to better see the younger man’s face, “If you have an idea who it might have been…I could…help you find them. Together we could bring them to justice…”
Joe spun around, his anger glowered on his face; his eyes had turned black and burned with hate. “JUSTICE!” he shouted as he stormed passed the marshal. “Oh…believe you me…I’ll get justice for my brother!” he ranted loudly.
Bass eyed the boy carefully and when he spoke, his voice was soft, unthreatening. “And how do you plan to do that…if you don’t even know who shot and robbed you and your brother?”
“Doesn’t matter…I’ll find them…if it takes me the rest of my life…and when I do…”
“You’ll do what, Joe? Kill them? Murder them in their sleep…like they tried to do to you and Hoss…how Joe…just how do you plan on killing them!”
Joe was pacing the floor like a caged animal. His chest swelled with emotion as he stopped to glare at his friend. “I DON’T KNOW! I DON’T KNOW…BUT I’LL MANAGE!” he stormed.
By this time, Joe was gasping for breath, his eyes were clouded and dazed and for a brief moment, Bass thought his friend might pass out.
“Are you so filled with hate that you could actually kill a man in cold blood, Joe? What’s happened to you…you used to believe in right and wrong…you once said to me…?”
“THAT WAS BEFORE! BEFORE THEY MURDERED MY BROTHER!” Joe ranted.
He took a deep breath and moved away from Bass. “You have no idea what it feels like to lose a brother…or someone you love…you have no idea what it is to hate someone so much that you could kill them with your bare hands…”
“Don’t I, Joe? I lost my mother when I was just a child…she didn’t die, Joe…she was sold…”
Bass’ ebony eyes seemed to take on a faraway look about them as he continued; his voice grew softer and softer, filled with the haunting memory. “That’s worse than death Joe…the only lasting memory I have of my mother was watching her being carted away in a two-wheeled iron cart like some animal locked in a cage. I can still hear her cries, her voice pleading with our master not to take her from her family. I can still see my father weeping, falling to the ground and being yanked up by white hands that I soon came to hate with a passion…don’t preach to me, white boy about not knowing the difference between love and hate! I was seven years old, Joe…and I never saw my mother again…ever.”
Bass placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe looked up seeing the pain in the dark eyes that looked back at him. “I wanted to kill Dave Brackett once myself, Joe, remember? I thought he’d killed my grandfather…and I would have killed him too, if it hadn’t been for a skinny, meddling white kid…” Bass smiled kindly. “I can’t, Joe…and I won’t let you kill him either…”
Joe’s eyes flashed wide with shock. “How’d you know it was him I was looking for?”
The marshal, still smiling, picked up his plate and set it in the soapy water. “When a man run’s a fever like you did, boy,” he grinned, “they tend to say a lot of things,” Bass explained.
“I said something about Dave?” Joe asked in wonder.
“Not necessarily…but you did mention Whiskey Pete’s…and I happen to know that is the place Dave and his bunch hang out at when they’re in Indian Territory…the rest, well, I’ll confess…I wasn’t sure it was Dave until just this moment.”
Anger shot into Joe’s eyes. He slapped away the dark hand that rested on his arm. Joe stomped across the room, facing the fire he jabbed at the blaze with the homemade poker. For several moments, he didn’t say a word. “I never could understand what it was that I liked about you,” he muttered, keeping his back to the marshal. “I still don’t know.”
Joe heard Bass clear his throat, but still he did not turn around.
“I didn’t much like you either, in the beginning…but…well…after everything you did for me and my family…I sort of thought there might be more to you than what first met the eye,” Bass said solemnly.
Joe turned. “What do you mean by that?”
The dark brows on Bass’ face rose slightly. “It just seemed that no matter what someone said to you, or how badly they beat you…you still fought for what you believed in…you fought for me, Joe…no one…except my father and grandfather had ever done that. And later, when you told me about God’s rainbow and how all mankind, no matter what color they were, were all made in God’s image. You said that God’s main goal was that men loved Him and each other…I’ve never forgotten that. I think maybe I really did like you from the start, I was just too stubborn to admit it…” Bass grinned. “In my mind, I believed that Dave and the others would prove that you weren’t any different from them…but they couldn’t. I don’t think you’ve changed that much, Joe…no matter what they’ve done to you…or your brother.”
Joe grew quiet as he walked around the room in a circle. He stopped at the door and opened it again to look outside. For several moments, while Bass tended to the dishes, Joe was silent. Bass left his friend alone with his thoughts and waited until Joe felt up to talking again.
“Look, there’s a rainbow,” Joe said at last.
Bass stood in the doorway next to Joe and looked out at the rainbow.
“It’s dark on the other side,” Joe said casually.
“Yeah…but the colors still shine…I’m glad I’m on the bright side. What about you, Joe…are you going to stay on the dark side of the rainbow?”
Joe sighed and turned to smile up at Bass. “You’ll help me find them, won’t you?” he asked in a thick voice.
“I said I would, didn’t I?”
“But I have one condition, Joe…”
“That we bring them in alive…that you give me your word that you won’t kill him…”
Joe turned away to gaze at the rainbow. It had begun to fade making the colors less radiant. He was unsure if he could commit to the request, his hate still sat in the bottom of his heart, rotting away at his soul. “I can find them without you, you know,” he muttered.
“Sure you can, but Joe…if you kill him…then I’ll have to hunt you down and bring you in for murder…I don’t want to do that,” Bass said with a serious tone. “If you don’t agree to the condition, Joe…I can take you in right now. I can have you locked up for premeditation…conspiracy to commit a murder…”
Joe snickered softly and then smiled. “Okay, okay…I promise…”
“Good,” grinned Bass, “then we’ll leave first thing in the morning…”
“Together,” smiled Joe.
“Together,” echoed the marshal.
For a solid week Joe and Bass rode hard. They had picked up the trail of the gang they were hunting just two days after heading west. But Dave and his boys were always just one step ahead of them, forcing the marshal and his companion to push themselves and their mounts steadily.
Having stopped over in a small out-of-the-way town, they learned that Dave Brackett and his gang had robbed the bank and killed a teller. Though the sheriff of the town had gathered a posse and gone looking for the men, Dave and the others had somehow managed to slip away. Disgusted with the outcome, the posse had turned back and called it quits, leaving the hunting to the sheriff and one deputy. By the time that Joe and Bass had finally caught up with the sheriff, the man and his deputy was headed home, ruling the robbery and the murder an unsolved case.
“I just don’t have the manpower,” the sheriff explained disgustedly to the United States Marshal. “My deputy and I are exhausted, Marshal…I guess it’s up to you and the boy there to find them…”
“And we will, if it’s the last thing we do…” Joe spoke up with firm determination.
Though he had promised Bass that he wouldn’t kill Dave or the man responsible for shooting Hoss, he still was just as set as ever to hunt down, capture and bring to justice the ones responsible for killing his brother.
Bass gave Joe a stern look that warned the boy to say nothing more. Joe, unsure why Bass had looked at him the way he had, fell silent.
The marshal continued talking to the sheriff and then in a friendly gesture, tipped his hat at the pair and watched them ride away. He turned to Joe and for a brief moment, studied his friend. “Your hate is showing through, Little Joe. Need I remind you of your promise?” Bass asked quietly.
“I promised not to kill him; I didn’t promise to stop hating him,” Little Joe answered but not so quietly. “I’ll never stop hating that bastard…”
“Joe…hating a man as much as you hate Dave Brackett is like a disease that eats away slowly at a man…until it either destroys him mentally or kills him physically. If you want to see your brother’s murders brought to justice…if you want to see them pay for what they did…you have to learn to control that hate you have inside of you…otherwise…”
“I know, I know…but…it isn’t easy forgetting that look on my brother’s face…his pain…his…”
“You’re feeling guilty again, Joe…how many times do I have to tell you, what happened to Hoss was not your fault…”
“But I practically forced him to stop for the night…”
“Somehow, I can’t see you forcing that big man to do anything he didn’t really want to do himself, Joe,” smiled Bass as he recalled the image of Joe’s brother. “Hoss wasn’t just humoring you, pal; he was doing exactly what he wanted to do…and that was to make you happy…to please you. Wasn’t that the way that man really was? Always ready to please a family member…not just you, but your father and Adam as well?”
“Well sure, but…”
“No buts, Joe…Hoss didn’t lay over because you convinced him to do so, but because he wanted to as much as you did,” grinned the marshal.
“You sure are beginning to sound just like my father and Adam…” snickered Joe. “Alright, I’m sorry…I’ll try to control my hate…but it isn’t easy.”
“No, it isn’t…but over time, I’ve learned that a man has to control his hate…Joe, listen to me…it’s the only way that we can do what we have to do and do it properly…”
“You mean, within the law, don’t you?”
“Alright, you win, let’s get going…” Joe said as he nudged Cochise and took the lead.
Bass waited a moment longer and then urged his mount into action. Minutes later the pair were riding side by side. They made a striking contrast, a white boy on a black and white horse along side a black boy on a white stallion.
From high above them, four men lay flat against the mesa watching the Negro and his companion far below as the pair made their way across the flatland.
“Well, I’ll be,” smirked Dave. “Will ya look at that? It’s our old friends, Joe Cartwright and that Negro pal of his from way back when.”
“You mean that black kid what became a US marshal?” Henry asked.
“Yep…Bass Reeves…our old school chum,” answered Dave. He pushed himself up from the ground and dusted off his trousers. “I knew Joe Cartwright would be along…took him longer than I figured and I sure as hell didn’t think he’d bring ole Bass The Black with him…”
“What are we going to do, Dave? I tried to tell you we should have killed the boy when we killed that big ox of a brother of his!” grumbled Billy.
“Don’t matter…’sides, I dun told you…I wanted Cartwright to come after us. I want him to know who it was that killed his brother…”
“But you weren’t planning on Reeves, were you?” Cliff inquired as he mounted his horse.
“You know his reputation, Dave…he dogs a man ‘til he catches’em and then he brings them in. He’s about as good a marshal as any man around, black or white. I think we’d be wise to hightail it outta here and forget all about Cartwright…he ain’t important enough to me to get hung for…”
“Me either, Boss,” agreed Billy.
Dave scowled as he looked from one to the other with disgust. “What about you, Henry…ya turning yella too? You want to forget what that scum did to us…sending us off to jail for three years…”
“No, I ain’t forgot, Dave…but I ain’t got no notion of hangin’ either…and that’s just what’s gonna happen if we don’t leave them two alone,” complained the youngest member of the gang.
Dave mounted his horse and watched as Joe and Bass disappeared around a bend. “We’ve already killed three men, robbed half a dozen banks…makes no difference now if we kill ourselves a black US Marshal and a rich white boy…they can’t hang us but once. So, I’m going after those two…I want to see that black son-of-a-black mama’s face when I hang him…” Dave snickered. “I’ll treat him just like he oughta be treated…like a slave…see this?” Dave asked as he picked up the bow whip he had laced to his saddle. “First…before I hang him, I’m gonna peel the flesh of that Negro’s back and then I’m gonna do the same to the kid…and then…”
“Alright, Dave…we get the picture. I want them both to pay for sending us to jail too…so stop the gabbing and let’s get it over with!” growled Cliff as he kicked his horse and started down the slope on the opposite side of the butte.
Henry and Billy followed. Behind them they could hear the wicked laughter of their sidekick. Billy looked at Henry and shook his head. “He’s gonna get us all killed,” he muttered so that the boss could not hear him.
“Don’t look now, Joe,” Bass said as he sipped from his canteen. The pair had stopped for the moment to refresh themselves and to give their mounts a moments rest. “We’re being followed…”
“I know…I saw them about a mile or so back. Wonder who they are? Indians maybe?” Joe asked as he popped the cork back into his canteen and dropped the strap over the saddle horn.
“No…it’s not Indians, Joe…”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t for sure, but I’ve got a gut feeling,” he said and then snickered at the frown on Joe’s face. “Don’t worry, kid…”
“I’m not worried, just curious. If it’s not Indians…when, who, and more importantly, why?” Joe pondered aloud.
“Maybe whoever it is, is just curious as to why they’re seeing a black man and a white boy…”
“Boy!” grumbled Joe. “You’re beginning to sound more and more like my family, you know that? I’m not a boy, nor am I a kid…I happen to be the same age as you…almost!”
“You’re a year younger…maybe two, Little Joe,” teased Bass, “and to me…that makes you a kid…boy…youngster…child…”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” grunted Joe as he spurred his mount into moving.
Bass laughed and then joined his partner. “Let’s head for those rocks, Joe. We can take cover there and see if we can find out who those men are…”
“And why they’re following us…”
“Sure, I’ll hide and you go ask them,” snickered Bass.
“Well…you know what I mean,” laughed Joe, grinning at his friend.
“They’re not alone, Joe,” Bass informed the young man next to him.
They were hiding low behind the rocks that surrounded them and watching the dust that the four riders’ horses kicked up behind them.
“Yeah, I see the dust behind them, but looks like they haven’t noticed,” Joe said. “Wonder who that fellow is…he’s too far away yet to tell anything about him?”
“I don’t know, but it’s getting too crowded around here for me,” snickered Bass.
“I know, I thought we were supposed to be doing the hunting, but looks more like we’re the hunted…”
“Hey, look, they’ve pulled off in that grove of trees,” whispered Bass, pointing as two riders suddenly turned and guided their horses in among the trees.
“And the other two have taken cover in those rocks. Looks like they’re lying low for that stranger…” muttered Joe.
“He’s riding into a trap, Joe…whoever he is!”
Dave and his boys were ready. They had no clue as to who the stranger might be that had started following them, but they planned to find out. As the lone rider rounded the bend and began to pass through the grove he was surprised when he was unexpectedly, knocked from his horse.
Before Adam Cartwright could collect enough sense to know what had happened to him, he found himself bombarded with fists that slugged his gut, his face and every other part of his body that he could not protect.
When the attack ended, Adam was face down in the dirt, groaning and gasping for air. Dave grabbed the man’s black vest and roughly turned the stranger over onto his back. Blood oozed from Adam’s nose and a small cut over his left eye.
“Who are you?” Dave demanded, failing to recognize the man as Joe Cartwright’s older brother.
Adam remained on his back, glancing around at the faces that had circled over his head. His mouth hurt from the punches that landed on his chin and face thus he refused to speak.
Angered, Dave nodded his head at Cliff and Henry and without having to be told, each one grabbed Adam by his arms and hauled him to his feet. Dave assessed the man dressed in black with suspicious eyes. “Don’t I know you?” he asked after he’d made a complete circle around Adam and had stopped in front of him.
“I couldn’t say,” muttered Adam.
Adam failed to see Dave double up his fist, but he felt the power in the punch that his captor delivered to his mid-section. The blow doubled him up and he would have fallen to his knees had it not been for the strong-arm hold that Cliff and Henry maintained.
“I asked you a question, wise guy!” demanded Dave. “Who are you?”
Again, Adam refused to answer. Another solid punch to his gut and this time his arms were released and Adam fell to the ground, groaning and clutching his stomach.
“Get him on his feet…and get me that whip!” shouted Dave to Billy. “Tie him to that tree over there…I’ll make him talk!”
Cliff and Henry grabbed Adam again and pulled him to his feet. They attempted to drag him to the nearest tree, but Adam wasn’t making their job very easy. He struggled against the two pairs of hands that were manhandling him. He dug his heels into the soft dirt, dragging his feet and making it harder for his captors to force him to the tree.
Cliff and Henry had reached the tree and were trying to get their prisoner’s arms high over his head in order to tie Adam’s hands when a shot rang out, shattering the stillness that had enveloped the small grove of trees.
Dave spun around, shocked to see Bass Reeves standing behind him, a pistol pointed directly at his chest.
“Let him go!” Bass ordered in his deep commanding voice.
Having crept down from the rocks where he and Joe had been hiding, they had taken the gang of outlaws by surprise when Dave and his bunch were too busy tending to their own prisoner.
Instantly, Cliff and Henry released Adam, who then grabbed their guns and walked toward Bass. He paused in front of Dave, who had holstered his gun to ready his whip. Adam knocked the whip from the man’s hand and slowly pulled the pistol from its casing tossing it on the ground. For some reason unknown to Dave Brackett, Adam grinned and then without warning, doubled up his fist and drove it deeply into Brackett’s stomach.
Brackett doubled up, groaning and sank to his knees. Adam grabbed the man by his shirt and yanked Dave to his feet. He started to raise his fist again, but stopped. Joe was walking into the clearing; his pistol was drawn and pointed directly at Dave.
Adam was stunned to see the look that clouded his brother’s eyes and the expression on his young face that distorted his usual handsome features. But the older and somewhat wiser Cartwright knew the look for what it was… He released Brackett and placed himself between the outlaw and his brother who continued to advance toward them. Adam heard Joe cock his pistol. Dave spun around, horrified to see Joe with his pistol drawn and death etched into his fine features. Joe’s hazel eyes seemed to spit fire as he glared at the man with such raw unrefined hatred. “Joe…don’t…”
“Get out of my way, Adam…” Joe warned.
“No…I can’t let you do it…there’s no reason to kill him, Joe…” Adam tried to persuade his brother.
Joe’s eyes looked glazed when Adam looked directly into them. “No reason? What’s the matter with you, Adam…isn’t our brother’s life worth revenging?” growled Joe.
“Put the gun down, Joe,” Bass ordered. “You made me a promise…or have you forgotten?”
Bass had moved forward, toward Joe. Cliff, Henry and Billy had huddled together to the sidelines. They knew better than to try to make a break for it…Bass’ reputation wasn’t unheard of.
“I haven’t forgotten…but it’s not the promise I made to you that I plan on breaking, it’s the one to my brother, Hoss…that I plan on keeping!”
“Hoss wouldn’t want you to kill him, Joe!” Adam stated. He inched forward.
“Adam…stay where you are!” Joe barked, waving his gun at his brother.
Dave watched the trio, closely keeping his eyes on Joe, for he knew that the boy would kill him if he dared to move. He also knew that if he didn’t escape, he’d hang for his crimes. He waited for his chance and when he saw Joe glance to check the marshal’s whereabouts, he suddenly screamed and charged Adam, who still had his back to him, facing his brother.
Adam’s gun was knocked from his hand as he was sent tumbling to the ground. Dave quickly grabbed it and walloped Adam over the head, knocking him unconscious. He pointed the gun at Joe, who was too stunned to react. The bullet shot from the pistol, grazing Joe’s left forearm and sending his gun tumbling into the brush. Dave raised his arm again, grinning this time, as Joe held his wounded hand in the other hand.
“Time to die, Cartwright!” laughed Dave.
Cliff and the other two men leapt forward, surprising Bass as well. Two jumped the marshal, knocking him down as well and scrambling for their pistols. Joe seemed frozen to the spot, until he heard the click, click of Dave’s pistol. It dawned on him that the gun was jammed and unable to fire.
New life sparked the hatred he’d held in his heart. Like a man possessed, he slammed into Dave, driving his body into his opponent’s and forcing both of them backwards. The wound to his arm momentarily forgotten, Joe hit Brackett on the chin with his right fist. Again with his left and another right, this time to the outlaw’s mid-section.
Dave barely had time to react, let alone protect himself. He screamed out in anger as Joe’s relentless blows pounded away at his body.
Across the clearing, Bass was fighting a battle of his own. It was all the black lawman could do to keep the three men off his back. Billy tried pointing his gun at the marshal attempting to fire at him, but each time he thought he had a good shot; Bass would spin one of the other men around. Billy was jumping around and around, yelling at his partners to get out of the way. Cliff and Bass were fighting for the gun Cliff held, while Henry had dropped his in the bushes and was scrambling around trying to find it. He spotted it at last and grabbed it, spinning around and pointing it at Bass’ back.
Billy, not aware that his cohort had found his gun, jumped between Bass and Henry just as Henry fired his gun. The bullet ripped into Billy’s back, killing him instantly before he dropped to the ground.
Everything stopped for only a blink of an eye and then the battle between Cliff and Bass resumed. Angered, Henry dropped to his knees beside his dead comrade. Hate filled his heart and devoured it instantly. Looking more deranged than most mad men, Henry jumped to his feet and pointed his gun once more at Bass. The trigger cocked and then, a blast resounded amid the small grove of trees, seeming to echo off the rocks nearby.
Henry’s body became rigid and appeared to freeze in motion. He turned his head just enough and looked down. Adam was lying on his belly, his arm extended; his pistol held tightly in his hand was still smoking at the barrel’s end. The outlaw’s body sagged downward at last until he lay dead in front of Adam.
Adam managed to get to his feet. He spied Joe a short distance from him, still fighting with Dave. He heard Bass yell something and then heard another shot. Cliff’s body folded and when Bass stepped back, Cliff too dropped to the ground along with the gun that had gone off killing him.
Adam’s head was throbbing and he swayed as he tried to make his way to his brother. Bass, seeing that Joe had Dave down on his knees and his arm locked tightly about the man’s throat, rushed forward. Joe had the outlaw in a chokehold, squeezing the life out of the man he hated.
A memory from his past suddenly jolted him into action. Bass grabbed Joe’s arm, attempting to pull him from the other man. He could see the horror in Dave’s eyes, noted the look of death that appeared in his graying face as the air continued to be denied to his lungs.
“JOE…STOP! YOU CAN’T KILL HIM….” shouted Bass as he tugged at Joe’s arm.
“GET AWAY!” screamed Joe, flinging his other arm at Bass, shoving him away. Instantly the arm returned to Brackett.
Adam staggered forward, trying desperately to help the marshal in keeping Joe from murdering the other man.
“JOE!! DON’T…THERE’S NO REASON…” Adam shouted.
Joe’s hold on Dave’s neck only tightened as he glared up into Adam’s face. So much hate, thought Adam in an instant. It was like his brother was a stranger, someone unfamiliar to him.
“HE KILLED HOSS! I’M GONNA MAKE HIM PAY!” cried Joe.
It was then that Adam realized that his brother thought Hoss to have died. No wonder the boy was consumed!
“HE’S NOT DEAD, JOE…HOSS IS ALIVE…DO YOU HEAR ME…HOSS IS ALIVE!!”
Bass was still behind Joe, pulling on the boy’s arm. He felt some of the pressure lessen. “Joe, your brother’s not dead…Dave didn’t kill him…listen to me…if you kill Dave…I’ll have to take you in and you’ll hang…please, old friend…don’t make me do it!”
Joe’s eyes were wild with raw emotions and had filled with tears. All the hate he’d been harboring and all the guilt he’d been eaten up by sudden came to an end. He released Dave and shoved him forward, sending the man graveling in the dirt, struggling to catch his breath.
Bass looked at Adam, their eyes met briefly. Adam moved forward to Joe who was on his knees, doubled over. Adam could hear the deep, heart wrenching sobs that racked his brother’s body. He placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. The tender, compassionate touch was all it took. Joe fell into his brother’s arms and sobbed.
Bass, slightly embarrassed by the display of emotions, grabbed Dave Brackett’s arm and practically dragged him to the horses where he was cuffed to a tree and made to wait while the marshal gathered up the bodies of the other three men.
“I wanted…to…kill…him,” sobbed Joe.
“I know, Joe…but I’m glad you didn’t, buddy,” Adam said in a soft tone. He had pulled Joe up from the ground, but still held him close. “Hoss begged me not to let you…he remembered you coming into his room and what you said to him about what you planned on doing to Brackett when you found him,” Adam explained.
Joe at last moved away. “How’d you know where to look for me?” he asked.
“I didn’t, I guess I was just lucky. I stopped over in a town a ways back and I was in the saloon washing down the trail dust when Dave and his gang came in. They didn’t see me thank goodness…I was sitting in a corner. I thought I knew them, but I couldn’t remember from where…and then I heard them mention your name. I realized …it had to be them that shot Hoss and robbed you both. Hoss kept muttering something about four men…old friends of Joe’s, he said…I just put two and two together and decided to follow them…”
Joe swiped his hand across his nose to dry the moisture. He looked beneath lowered lashes at his brother. “You sure Hoss is alright?”
“I’m positive…in fact, I got a wire from Pa that said if I didn’t find you soon, he and Hoss were joining me…”
“Have I been gone that long? I mean…is Hoss able to get about?” Joe asked in wonder.
“You’ve been gone about six weeks, Joe…and to answer your question…yes, he’s able,” smiled Adam.
Joe swallowed the thickness that sprang into his throat. “I’m glad he didn’t…die. Say, Adam?” he said in a low voice.
“All of this is my fault…every last bit of it…from Hoss getting shot, to losing the money from the sale…all because I wanted to do a little fishing…”
“Forget it Joe. Look, Hoss doesn’t blame you…in fact he admitted to Pa that he purposely went by that fishing hole, knowing you’d want to stop…and if you remember, he didn’t put up much argument when you suggested it, did he now?” Adam said, grinning.
“Naw…I guess not.”
It thundered loudly, causing all the men to glance at the sky.
“We best find cover…looks like a storm brewing!” Bass shouted.
Dave was sitting on his horse; his hands were now handcuffed behind his back. Bass had wrapped Cliff and Henry in their bedrolls and was currently rolling Billy up in his. “Help me get these bodies on their horses. There’s an old shack about half a mile up the road…we can wait out the storm there,” Bass suggested.
Adam and Joe hurried to do as requested and within minutes, all men were mounted and riding toward the shack. The rain lasted for the remainder of the day, throughout the night and had just ended shortly after the sun burst through the clouds.
Joe was anxious to be on his way, he wanted to go home, to see his brother he thought had died. There were things he felt he wanted to say to Hoss, things he needed to explain to his father.
“HELLO INSIDE THE CABIN!”
Joe jumped to his feet, glanced at Adam and Bass with wide eyes. “That sounds like…naw…it couldn’t be!” he muttered as he rushed to push wide the door.
Adam and Bass rose and followed Joe to the door. Adam grinned at the marshal as they hurried outside to welcome the visitors.
“HOSS!” shouted Joe gleefully. He almost knocked the big man down as he swung down from his horse. Joe flew into his brother’s arms where he was wrapped in a tight bear hug.
Ben dismounted, grinning from ear to ear as he moved toward Adam and shook his son’s hand. “I see you found the rapscallion!” he laughed in his deep voice.
“Well…more like he found me,” snickered Adam.
Ben’s expression changed to one of bewilderment.
“It’s a long story, Pa…I’ll explain it to you later…on the way home.”
“Alright, son…will you look at those two?” Ben laughed, pointing to Hoss and Joe who where acting as if it had been years since they had seen each other.
“Hey you two…” Ben called.
Hoss and Joe stopped their horsing around and turned to their father. Ben grinned and held his hand out to Joe.
Joe walked humbly toward his father, a happy smile on his face as he accepted his father’s hand. “Howdy, Pa…”
“Howdy, Pa…is that all you have to say for yourself young man?” snickered Ben, clasping Joe’s hand in his.
Joe swallowed the lump that had sprung into his throat and looked into his father’s eyes. He saw the relief that quickly turned to joy as his father pulled him into his arms and squeezed him with a hug, which Joe readily returned. “Hey, look!” he said, pulling away from his father and pointing over Ben’s shoulder.
“Well what’ll ya know, a rainbow!” muttered Hoss softly, in awe of God’s handiwork.
“Look at those colors!” Ben acclaimed, “so radiant of God’s promise…”
“That all men are made in His image,” murmured Adam.
Joe turned to look at his old friend, Bass Reeves, and smiled knowingly.
“Regardless of color…red and yellow…” Joe chanted, smiling.
“Black or white,” Bass said, finishing the line for Joe, “all are precious in His sight…”