To Sit in Darkness (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,297


 

“See it?” Hoss Cartwright asked his younger brother. Joe was on his feet, scouting around some bushes, looking for a lost calf that they could hear bawling.

“I see it,” Joe replied, glumly. He retraced his steps and tethered his horse to a tree. “There’s a hollow over there. The land falls off pretty steeply. I dunno how it got to the bottom in one piece, but it doesn’t appear to be hurt.”

Grunting, Hoss stepped down from his black horse and tethered it loosely beside Joe’s pinto. Both animals immediately dropped their heads and began to graze. Hoss took the rope off his saddle and Joe did the same. Together, they walked over to the edge of the hollow, which was hidden by bushes.

“Dadburnit, they had ta be prickly bushes, didn’ they?” Hoss grumbled.

“Dunno what you’re complaining about,” Joe grumbled back. “I’ve already been through them once!” He removed a particularly persistent prickle from his backside and ignored Hoss’ sniggers.

The hollow was sun-warmed and pretty, but not the ideal place for a calf. “I’ll got down an’ git it,” Hoss offered.

“I don’t think so!” Joe retorted, crossing his arms over his chest and giving Hoss a hard look.

“Why not?” Hoss asked.

“The calf’s gonna have to be pulled up that slope, with someone pushing from behind.” Joe eyed Hoss significantly. “If you think I’m gonna pull you and that calf up there, you’ve got another think coming, big brother!” He tapped Hoss on the chest. “In case it’s escaped your notice, you’re the biggest Cartwright and I’m the smallest! If anyone is gonna pull someone up there, it isn’t going to be me!”

Laughing, Hoss handed Joe the rope he was carrying. Joe took it, dropping his own one as he shook the rope loose and began to tie it around his waist. He was just beginning to knot it when he noticed something.  “Hoss, this rope,” he began.

“What?” Hoss asked, coming over to look.

Unsure what it was, Joe held the rope out. It had felt funny in his hands, but it wasn’t until he saw it that Joe realized that the rope had obviously been wet at some point when it was coiled up and it had started to rot. The strands were soggy and separating.

“Dadburnit,” Hoss cursed. “Lay it down here, Joe an’ use yer own rope.” Joe did just that, checking the length of his own rope to make sure there were no problems. Satisfied, he handed the end to Hoss and began to lower himself over the edge.

It didn’t take long to catch the calf and entwine it in the rope. Joe took careful hold of both the young beast and the rope and then waved to Hoss. “Bring us up,” he called.

Feeling itself suddenly hoisted into mid-air, the calf began to panic, thrashing its legs about violently. Joe whispered soothing words to it, but he was less than successful in his endeavors to calm it. They were about half way to the top when the calf’s foot struck Joe’s shin.

The pain was blinding and Joe could feel blood start to flow from the place the cloven hoof had struck. He let out a loud gasp of pain, breathing shallowly through his mouth in an effort to keep control. He had no breath for any further soothing noises, and the calf continued to struggle. It was only pure luck that kept it from striking Joe again.

They gained the top at last and Joe sprawled on the grass for a moment before sitting up. He didn’t dare look at his leg. Even thinking about it caused the wound to start throbbing double time. Joe just wanted to get home and let someone else put a bandage on it. He rose unsteadily to his feet as Hoss let the calf go, having released it from the rope harness.

“C’mon, little brother, better git this baby back ta its mama.” Hoss dropped the rope to the ground and looked at Joe. Immediately, he saw that all was not well with his younger brother and his eyes raked the slender form in front of him until he saw the blood staining Joe’s pants leg. “Joe, yer leg!” He took a step closer. “Let me look.”

By that time, Joe had regained his feet and taken a hopping step away from the edge of the hollow. He cringed when Hoss moved towards him. The leg was too sore for him to want anyone to look at it. “No, don’t,” he pleaded. “Just leave it, Hoss.”

“Joe, yer bleedin’,” Hoss coaxed. “I gotta look at it, little brother. I cain’t let ya ride home till I see what’s what.”

Joe took another half step back. “No, please,” he repeated. He moved back again and vanished from Hoss’ sight with a terrified scream.

*****

For a shocked instant, Hoss didn’t believe what he had just seen. He took two strides forward and saw what they had not noticed before – a natural well of rock, hidden by the long grass. “Joe!” Hoss knelt at the edge of the well and peered down. “Joe?”

There was no answer. Hoss couldn’t see more than a few feet; the light didn’t seem to penetrate. Indecision held Hoss captive for a moment, then he shook off his hesitation, grabbed the nearest rope and secured it around a tree. The other end he tied around his waist.

“Joe?” Hoss hoped against hope that his brother would answer him, but there was silence. “I’m comin’ down, Joe,” he called, just in case Joe was conscious, but not yet able to speak. There was still no response. Taking a deep breath, Hoss began to lower himself into the well.

He had gone down several feet when he felt a vibration in the rope. Halting his descent, puffing to get his breath back, Hoss peered down. The rock was opening up, providing a larger space at the bottom than he had expected. But it was still dark. “Joe?” Hoss called. His voice bounced back at him, telling him he was closer to the bottom than he thought. Reassured, he started moving again.

The strands of the rotten rope that Hoss had picked up unknowingly in his anxious desire to rescue his brother parted company from each other and Hoss tumbled down the last few feet into the well. The rope landed on his unmoving form as the final insult.

*****

Hidden in the brush above the hollow, Red Deer, a young Indian brave of nineteen winters, saw it all. The slight youth knew who the Cartwrights were. He also knew that he could not rescue them alone. Frantically, he thought. All the older braves were out hunting; the only braves in the village were old men. Besides, the Ponderosa ranch house was closer. Making his decision, Red Deer swiftly mounted his pinto pony and headed towards the ranch house. He was afraid, for he didn’t know what kind of reception he would receive there, but he knew that his tribe owed much to the Cartwrights. He had to get help for them.

*****

As awareness returned to him, Joe realized that he was cold. He couldn’t quite figure that out and his eyes cracked open to be met with almost complete darkness. Joe blinked, terrified that he had been struck blind and his vision cleared enough to show him a tiny patch of blue sky, several feet above him. Memory came back with a rush and Joe suddenly felt pain from his body. He groaned.

It came as quite a shock to hear an answering groan from beside him. Joe flinched from the sound and winced as his body protested the movement. It didn’t make sense, he thought. Why was someone else groaning beside him? Or was it an echo?

Trying to sit up, Joe was hit by a wave of pain that started in his head and rushed its way down to his feet. He groaned again and fought the nausea that the pain had triggered. After a time, he conquered it and decided that caution was the order of the day. He reached slowly out with his right arm, relieved that it would move without too much pain. Something twinged in the area of his ribs, but it didn’t feel like a breakage – more like strained or pulled muscles. Joe kept stretching, patting the ground tentatively.

And then he felt him and was in no doubt as to who was in the hole with him. There could be no one else – Hoss!

*****

“Hoss?” Joe forced the word out between his dry lips and heard again the groan from the man beside him. Then there was a sudden gulp of air and Hoss began to draw in deep breaths, exhaling sharply in between and Joe felt a huge rush of relief. Hoss had been winded; perhaps he wasn’t too badly injured.

“I’m right here, Shortshanks,” Hoss puffed. His breath had finally come back and he no longer felt as though he was smothering. “Ya hurt?”

“I’m not sure,” Joe admitted. He didn’t want to admit that he had only just come round.

“Lemme see,” Hoss suggested, rolled over and got up.

Although it was not totally dark in the hole, the light level was extremely low. It was almost impossible for Hoss to see if Joe was bleeding and the only way he could check for injuries was with his hands.  “Sorry, Shortshanks, I reckon this might hurt,” he apologized.

“It’s all right,” Joe replied. He tried to lie still as Hoss gently probed his body, but it was difficult. His body seemed to be one gigantic bruise. Several groans escaped him as Hoss checked him over. By the time Hoss sat back on his heels, Joe could feel sweat beading his forehead.

“I guess ya can feel yer legs,” Hoss ventured at last. Joe had thought he was never going to speak.

“I guess so,” he agreed, his voice hoarse and his tone breathless. Joe knew that his left leg was broken somewhere below the knee. Hoss had hauled his boot off and Joe had almost lost control at that point.  His right shin still throbbed painfully from the cut on it. “What else?”

“Reckon yer left shoulder is separated,” Hoss mumbled. “Or yer upper arm’s broke.” He sounded deeply miserable. “Mebbe both.”

“It’s not your fault, Hoss,” Joe replied. He hated to hear Hoss sounding so defeated.

“Yes it is,” Hoss replied. He sat down heavily beside Joe. A cloud passed over the sun, plunging their small prison into total darkness. Hoss gulped.  “We ain’t got any way ta git out a here.”

“Didn’t you come down on a rope?” Joe asked, puzzled. He was sure he’d felt rope lying on Hoss’ legs… Joe wondered if the bang on the head he had had was worse than he thought. “Didn’t you?” There was silence for a moment. “Hoss?” Joe was more than just puzzled now, he was worried.

“When I saw ya fall,” Hoss started, his voice low, “I grabbed up the nearest rope, tied it around a tree an’… an’…” He trailed off into miserable silence.

“And what?” Joe asked. He could hardly think for the pounding in his head. Feeling a sudden surge of panic, Joe reached out with his good hand and clutched Hoss’ sleeve. “Hoss?”

“I chose the wrong rope, Joe,” Hoss whispered. His voice was almost lost in the hushed confines of the hole they were in. “I picked the one what was rotten.”

“Rotten,” Joe echoed and remembered the feel of the soggy rope in his hands. The pain suddenly intensified and his heart plummeted to his boots. “Then we’re … trapped,” he concluded and the bleakness in his voice caught at Hoss’ heart.

“Someone’ll find us, Joe,” he soothed desperately. He glanced up at the light and air above them and noticed that the sun had moved on. It would be dark soon. There was no hope of rescue that night. “Pa’ll look fer us when we don’ come home tonight.”

“How are they going to know where to look?” Joe asked. He shifted uncomfortably and caught his breath at the pain. When the pain finally subsided to more manageable levels, Joe felt worn out. He closed his eyes. “Can I get a drink?” he asked.

There was another long silence. Joe dragged his eyes open, and focused on Hoss. It was getting even darker in the hole and it was difficult to see. But Joe couldn’t think of any time he had seen Hoss so miserable looking. His heart went out to his older brother, even though he had no idea what was wrong. “Hoss?” he ventured. “What aren’t you telling me? Are you hurt?” The thought was enough to cause the panic to flare up again, but Joe ruthlessly controlled his thoughts.

“There ain’t no water, Joe,” Hoss admitted. “I didn’ bring none with me.”

This time there was no controlling his thoughts. No water! Joe’s mind spun away from the idea, flitting frantically in every direction, seeking a way out of their dilemma. He struggled to sit up, forgetting his injuries as his body’s ‘flight or fight’ reflex took over. Joe put down his left hand to help him sit up and the pain erupted through his arm and shoulder.

The last thing he remembered was Hoss’ gentle hands catching him as he spiraled into darkness.

*****

Pulling his sweating pinto to a stop, Red Deer looked at the ranch house nervously. He still wasn’t sure that he had chosen the right path, but he didn’t feel he could back out now. His unease communicated itself to his horse, which sidled about. Red Deer smoothed a hand down the silky neck in front of him. The decision had been made – now he had to show his courage and carry it through to its conclusion. He urged the horse on.

There was no one in the yard when Red Deer rode in and he dismounted slowly, wondering what was best to do. He had never been that close to a white man’s dwelling and wasn’t sure how to go about attracting the attention he needed.

A sound from behind him made Red Deer whirl. A white man – not one of the Cartwrights – was coming from the structure opposite the house. Inside the open door, Red Deer could see a horse and so he assumed this structure was a barn. He had long been interested in the different way that white men lived, but apart from being taught the white man’s language, he had had little to do with his white neighbors.

Summoning his courage – it would never do for a brave to appear afraid – Red Deer stepped forward.

Instantly, the white man drew his gun, his eyes wide with surprise. “Stay there, red!” he ordered. “Don’t try yer Injun tricks on me!”

Not having the least idea what the man was talking about, Red Deer decided that his best bet was just to tell this man why he had come. “I need to see Ben Cartwright,” he told the other. “His sons need help.”

The hand, Jeff King, had never had first hand dealings with the Indians before. He knew all the horror stories, though and had accepted as gospel truth every single nugget of exaggeration he had been fed. With that as his sole frame of reference, King assumed that this Injun meant that Joe and Hoss had been taken captive for whatever nasty reason the Indians could conjure up. With two and two making five, King leapt at the innocent Red Deer and knocked the youth to the ground.

Wiry and strong, Red Deer fought back as best he could, but he had been taken by surprise and King’s greater weight told against him. Blow after blow got through Red Deer’s defenses until the youth slumped to the ground, unconscious.

*****

There was no way out. Hoss had explored thoroughly the small space in which they now dwelt and there was nothing. No hand holds, no cracks, no fissures leading to another cave. Just the hole in the ground into which they had both fallen. No other prospect but to wait for rescue that might not come in time, if it came at all. It was a dismal reality that weighed heavily on them both.

The lack of water was probably hardest on Joe. He was badly injured and although Hoss had done everything he could to ease his younger brother’s pain, there wasn’t much he could do. He used the rope to immobilize Joe’s injured arm, but there was little he could do for the broken leg. The bones didn’t appear to be very displaced and Joe’s foot was warm to the touch, despite the cool air. Joe dozed intermittently. His injuries were painful and whenever he moved, he was jerked back to reality. He was exhausted by the pain and wanted nothing more than to sink into a deep slumber.

By the time darkness fell, both men were feeling utterly depressed. Hoss wanted to talk to Joe, to reassure him that they would be all right, but he couldn’t find the words because he wasn’t sure he believed them. Hoss was seldom less than truthful. Joe couldn’t summon the energy required to talk. His unusual silence was often the key the family used to tell when Joe was not feeling well.

For a long time, there was just enough light for them to discern the other’s face, but gradually, that small glow faded until the only point of reference was the patch of sky high above them. Stars were glimmering gently, but cast no light down as far as the Cartwrights. The darkness was tangible, a living, breathing entity.

There was a growing chill in the air, creeping damply from the earthen floor. Joe shivered convulsively and winced as he did so. At once, Hoss’ warm hand came to rest on his chest. “Are ya all right?” he asked.

“I’m cold,” Joe admitted. He was too tired and too dispirited to lie and say he was ‘fine’. He shivered again. “My muscles are cramping,” he added, for he was getting good and tired of lying so flat on the ground.

“I can help ya sit up an’ ya can lean against me,” Hoss offered.

“Well…” Joe didn’t want to admit how tempted he was by that offer. But there was something else he had to take care of before he could get comfortable. And he couldn’t handle it by himself. “Hoss, I gotta go.”

“Go?” Hoss sounded puzzled. “Go where, Shortshanks?”

“You know.” Joe made a frustrated gesture that Hoss couldn’t see. “Go.” He tried to imbue that single word with a world of meaning. Evidently he succeeded, for Hoss coughed abruptly and mumbled something that Joe didn’t catch. “What?” Joe asked.

“Its gonna hurt,” Hoss warned.

“I know,” Joe replied, almost feeling amused. “But I don’t want to lie in a puddle, thanks all the same.” Hoss snorted, which Joe took to mean that his brother could understand his attitude and felt the same way.

All the same, Joe was not prepared for it to hurt as much as it did and he found it utterly humiliating to have to be supported while he tried to pee. Quite why he should find it easier with his eyes shut, when they were in almost complete darkness was something Joe didn’t think about too hard – if it worked, that was fine by him. Hoss helped Joe back to where they had been sitting and took his turn. Returning, he carefully sat Joe up and eased behind him, leaning his back against the rock.

It was a relief to Joe to have a change of position and he reveled in his big brother’s warmth. In fact, he became so relaxed that he started to drift off to sleep when something that had been niggling at the back of his mind suddenly brought him back to awareness.

Hoss was shivering.

Leaning against Hoss, Joe couldn’t figure it out. Hoss was much warmer to the touch than Joe had been, although he was feeling much more comfortable by then. Hoss was always warm to the touch; it was a standing joke in the family that Hoss was always warm because he kept stoking his internal fires. So why was Hoss shivering? Unless the cold was creeping up through his butt and his legs, which was always a possibility. Joe’s legs, which rested on the bare earth, were cooler than his body, which rested against Hoss.

But somehow, Joe didn’t think that that was the reason for the shivering. “Are you comfortable, Hoss?” he asked, wondering if he was somehow pressing against a nerve or a sore spot that Hoss hadn’t mentioned.

“I’m fine,” Hoss replied and something in his voice gave Joe an added clue and he wondered how on earth he could have been so stupid and insensitive.

“Hoss, you don’t need to be afraid,” he said, gently. “I’m right here with you.”

“Who says I’m afraid?” Hoss snapped. “What are ya sayin’? That I’m a coward?”

The exasperation that Joe felt was just fleeting. He knew how hard it was for pride to allow a man to admit to a fear that others might laugh at. How long had it taken him to admit that he had a fear of heights? He worked to overcome it every time he faced a situation like the one they had faced that day. Had Hoss realized how nervous Joe had been about going down into that hollow?

“I know you’re not a coward,” Joe replied. His voice was even, not showing hurt or anger or anything but love and understanding. “But I know you’ve never been completely happy in the dark. Hoss, you don’t have to hide with me.” He longed to say that he didn’t care if Hoss was afraid, but right then, he wasn’t sure it was entirely true. He was helpless and totally reliant on Hoss to help him when he needed it and if Hoss was incapacitated by his fear, then Joe was in an extremely vulnerable and unenviable situation. And he didn’t know how to communicate that to his brother without making Hoss more self-conscious or – worse – angry.

“I ain’t afraid o’ the dark,” Hoss denied, stoutly. He looked around him at the blackness that was all he could see, whether his eyes were open or shut. His heart was beating much faster than usual, but he was sure he had hidden his fear. How had Joe come to realize that he was not totally in control? Another shudder shook his broad frame and Hoss suddenly knew how Joe knew. He blushed, embarrassed that he had been lying, not only to his brother, but to himself.

Leaning against Hoss, cocooned in his brother’s love and caring, Joe wondered how on earth he was going to persuade Hoss that his own concern came only from his love and caring. Joe was well used to being the cherished, protected youngest, but he was more than capable of taking care of others. Family love and loyalty went deep in all the Cartwrights, with each of them looking out for the others. For the first time, Joe didn’t know how to express it. His emotions were so open, that this was possibly the first time that this situation had ever occurred. “Hoss…” he began.

“Yer right,” Hoss confessed. “I dunno why, but I’m afraid.”

“Its all right to be afraid,” Joe crooned. “I’m right here to help you.” He leaned his cheek against his brother’s chest. “I just don’t understand why you’re afraid.” He felt Hoss tense and instantly regretted his candor. “I’m not saying you don’t have reason,” he rushed on, the words almost tripping over each other. “I just don’t know why.”

“I ain’t sure I know, either,” Hoss responded. He began to think about how best to answer his brother.

*****

“King, slow down!” Roy Coffee barked, looking at the panting man in front of him. “What’s this Injun done?” The red skinned youth was badly beaten and barely conscious. “Better git the doc fer him, Clem,” he ordered his deputy.

“He’s hurt Joe an’ Hoss!” King babbled, finally getting his breathing and his excitement under control. “They might be dead!” he added dramatically, quite forgetting that Roy and Clem were personal friends of the Cartwrights.

Frowning, Clem hesitated, exchanging a worried glance with Roy. “Did Mr. Cartwright send you into town with him?” Clem asked.

“No,” King admitted. “He’s in town at the Cattleman’s Association meetin’.”

“Better git Ben, too,” Roy suggested and Clem hurried out. Roy helped King to assist the Indian youth to the couch on the other side of the office. Red Deer groaned as he lay down. Roy was concerned, not just because the young man was so obviously hurt, but because he knew that Ben had a good relationship with the local tribes and this incident, whatever it was about, could harm that relationship irreparably. Ben was often very useful in defusing tense situations locally and a cooling of that friendship could be detrimental to the whole town.

The first person who came into the jail was Paul Martin, the town doctor. He and Roy were old friends and he didn’t waste time asking questions. He simply knelt down by the couch and started to examine his patient. King, trapped under Roy’s forbidding gaze, squirmed uneasily. The dark look the doctor sent in his direction did nothing to calm his growing certainty that he had somehow made the biggest mistake of his life.

The door opened again a few minutes later to admit a Ben Cartwright who looked deeply worried, as well he might. He hurried across to peer over Paul’s shoulder at the injured youth. “That’s Red Deer!” he exclaimed. “Winnemucca’s great-nephew.” He raised his head and glared at King. “What have you done to him?”

Once again, the unfortunate ranch hand began to stutter about Hoss and Joe being hurt. Ben, although his heart was quaking, stopped him. “Take a deep breath,” he advised King. “Tell me exactly what Red Deer said!”

Doing exactly as he was told, King took a deep breath and fought to remember what had been said. “He asked for you,” he reported. “His English is real good, too, now I think on it.” Seeing Ben’s frown, he hurried on. “Said your sons needed help.”

There was a mutual exchange of looks between the four other men. “So Red Deer didn’t say anything about Hoss and Joe being hurt?” Ben asked.

“No, but what else could he mean?” King protested. “He’s an Injun!”

“I live at peace with the Paiutes,” Ben hissed. “But I might not after this, depending on how badly hurt Red Deer is!” He leaned over Paul. “How is he?” he asked. It hadn’t escaped Ben’s notice that the only person in the room who actually knew anything about his sons was the injured youth on the couch.

“Mostly bruises, as far as I can see,” Paul replied. “He has had a bit of a knock on the head and he’s drifting a bit. But he should be all right with some rest.” He gestured to Clem. “Get me some water please.” Reaching into his bag, Paul brought out the small bottle of smelling salts and waved it under Red Deer’s nose.

The pungent smell roused the youth at once and he sneeze violently. Paul held the glass of water to his lips and Red Deer drank several mouthfuls before it was removed. By then, his eyes were open and he was gazing in bleary confusion at the white men.

“I’m Ben Cartwright, Red Deer,” Ben introduced himself. “I am sorry for what happened to you when you came to the ranch.”

Blinking, Red Deer looked around the room without moving his head. “This is not the ranch,” he replied, his voice soft.

“No.” Ben thought fast, trying to limit the damage the ranch hand had done. “My man realized that he had made a mistake and brought you here to town to find a doctor for you and to get me. Since he didn’t know where I was to be found, he brought you here to the jail, since the sheriff knew where I was.” Ben detested lying, but Red Deer’s acceptance of the story – and later Winnemucca’s acceptance of it – would decide whether the white man would once again be at loggerheads with the red man. It was a situation that Ben did not want to see ever again.

For a horrible moment, they thought that Red Deer was not going to accept Ben’s story, but in the end he nodded shortly. “My head hurts,” he announced and indeed, he did look pale.

“You took quite a bump, young man,” Paul told him. “But you’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep.”

“Why did you want to see me?” Ben asked.

“I wanted to see you?” Red Deer echoed. He glanced away, clearly thinking around and about the notion. At last he looked up and met Ben’s eyes again. “I do not remember,” he admitted.

******

“I don’ ever remember not been’ afraid o’ the dark,” Hoss admitted quietly. “It seems I allus was.” He unconsciously clutched Joe tighter to his chest. The younger man fought back a wince of pain. “It were better when we were still travelin’, though I don’ remember much ‘bout that. But Adam were allus there, an’ I could hold his hand if’n I were scared.” Remembered warmth and security colored Hoss’ voice. “The plains was never quiet, Joe; there was allus somethin’ out there makin’ a noise, whether it be wolves an’ coyotes, or even jist the wind.”

“You were pretty small when you were traveling in the wagon,” Joe commented quietly. “Its amazing that you remember anything.”

“I don’ remember the travelin’ itself,” Hoss admitted. “Jist them nights in the wagon; the nights Pa weren’t with us. I was real scared then. I didn’ know if’n he would ever come back, or if’n somethin’ bad would happen while he was on watch.” Hoss moved slightly. The temperature was dropping rapidly and the earth they were sitting on now felt damp. “Ma mama died out there on the plains. I allus knew that, Joe. Bad things could happen out there. Mama was shot by an Injun arrow an’ died. It could a happened ta Pa jist the same.” Sorrow flooded Joe’s heart. “But I kinda remember when we got ta the Ponderosa. Pa worked real hard cuttin’ down them trees ta build us a real house. I wanted a candle left burnin’ in the wagon at night, but Pa said it were too dangerous. The wagon cover could easily catch fire. Pa said there was nuthin’ ta be scared of, but I was still scared. If’n there was nuthin’ ta be scared of, how come Pa stayed awake as long as he could, holdin’ his rifle? What was out there that would hurt us?”

“Do you know?” Joe asked, his voice low. This was a part of his brothers’ heritage that he knew very little about. Adam had rarely spoken to Joe of Inger and the time after her death.

“He was afraid o’ the Injuns,” Hoss replied. “That was afore they knew Pa an’ learned that he weren’t gonna hurt ‘em. And there were nuthin’ atween us an’ them but the canvas walls o’ the wagon.” Hoss shuddered. “I dunno how Pa done it, Joe. Worked all day an’ stayed awake half the night. I just dunno.”

Reminded once more of what a remarkable man their father was, Joe said nothing. He was much warmer, leaning against Hoss, but the pain hadn’t eased any. He hoped Hoss would keep talking and help keep his mind off his woes, but he certainly wasn’t going to push Hoss into any confidences his brother wasn’t ready to make.

“Once the cabin was built, it were better,” Hoss went on. “Adam an’ me had a tiny room we shared, with thick shutters over the window. I was allowed a candle then. I’m sure Pa came in an’ blew it out every night once we was asleep, but I never thought about that then. I wondered how come the candle didn’ burn down that quick, but I was a kid an’ I never really give it much thought. An’ when the big house were built, I found it real strange ta be on ma own in a room. I were – I dunno, four or five? – but I really needed that candle fer company then! I couldn’ tell Pa why a big boy like me were afraid o’ sleepin’ alone an’ Adam were more’n old enough ta want his own room.

“It were when yer Mama come that I stopped needin’ a candle,” Hoss confessed. “Not right off, but gradual like. She never made fun o’ me, Joe, jist told me I were a big, strong boy an’ she were right proud o’ me. An’ I wanted ta make her proud, ‘specially cos Adam weren’t bein’ so nice ta her right then. So, I made maself sleep without a candle and when Mama praised me fer bein’ such a brave boy, I felt about ten feet tall.” The remembered pride was in Hoss’ voice. Joe ached to hear that. He couldn’t remember his mother ever telling him that and he suddenly missed her sorely. He blinked away tears.

“I got ta the stage where I didn’ mind sleepin’ without a candle at night,” Hoss continued. “It weren’t often that dark. The moon would be out, or the stars, or there’d be a bit o’ light somewheres. But I ain’t never liked mines an’ holes and places where there ain’t no light at all.” The fear was creeping back into Hoss’ voice.

“There’s nothing in here to harm you,” Joe murmured. He shivered and then winced. He longed to fall asleep, but he was sure he wouldn’t be able to, such was the pain. Nor did he want to leave Hoss ‘alone’ in the dark.

“But there is,” Hoss replied.

“What?” Joe sat up a little straighter and twisted his head to peer up to where he knew Hoss’ face was. It was too dark for him to see anything and Joe was suddenly terrified. What was Hoss talking about? What was in that hole with them that might kill them?

“There’s nuthin’.” That cryptic comment just alarmed Joe further and he struggled to free himself from Hoss’ grasp. Hoss, feeling Joe struggling and not understanding why, tightened his grip. “Easy, Joe.”

“What are you talking about, Hoss?” Joe cried. “Let go of me!” He twisted to break free and pain shot through his injured shoulder and he collapsed with a cry of pain.

“Hush, Joe, easy. It’s all right, little brother. I didn’ mean ta frighten ya. Take it easy.” Hoss smoothed his hand gently over Joe’s hair.

It took Joe some time to get the pain under a modicum of control. He came back to himself to find that he was slumped on the ground, lying with his head on his brother’s lap. “Hoss?” Joe’s voice was thin and frail, telling his older brother more about the battle he had just fought against the pain than mere words could have done.

“I’m sorry,” Hoss apologized miserably. “I didn’ mean ta frighten ya, Joe. I jist meant – well…” He paused and gathered his thoughts, his hand resting gently against Joe’s shoulder. “There’s nuthin’ down here, Joe, ‘ceptin’ us. An’ that could harm us – probably is already, truth be known.”

“I still don’t understand,” Joe murmured. He felt utterly wiped out, exhausted beyond measure. He was also growing cold again quickly. He shivered.

“We ain’t got no water,” Hoss reminded Joe. “An’ we ain’t got nuthin’ ta make a fire with. We ain’t got no food.” He swallowed hard. “What chance do we stand, Joe? Ain’t no way ta git out a here.” And the big man put his head into his hands and wept.

*****

“What are we going to do?” Ben asked Paul Martin in a whisper. Red Deer was sleeping on the couch, his headache eased by white man’s medicine. “Isn’t there anything you can give him that will restore his memory?”

“I wish there was!” Paul replied, his frustration clear in his tone. “I’m sorry, Ben, but there’s nothing in medical science that will repair memory.”

Biting his lip in frustration, Ben glanced out of the window. It was dark and the stars were shining brightly. Ben knew that the spring nights were still bitterly cold and that a sharp frost had fallen over the land. If his sons were in trouble, and somehow, Ben was sure they were, then the weather was conspiring against them.

“What were Hoss an’ Joe doin’ today?” Roy asked.

“Checking on the herd in the north pasture,” Ben replied, distractedly. “They might have been there half an hour – they might have been there for several hours. It would depend on what they found.” He started to pace. “I suppose that’s the place we ought to start looking in the morning, but it’s a big area.”

Behind his back, Paul, Roy and Clem exchanged glances. Roy wasn’t the only one to wish Adam was there, but the oldest Cartwright boy had departed for points east just before winter and there was no sign of his imminent return. Adam wouldn’t be able to do anything more practical than any of the rest of them, but he would be another member of the family for Ben to lean on.

“Its possible that after a sleep, Red Deer might remember what it was he wanted to tell you,” Paul volunteered. He glanced at the clock, for he would have to waken the young brave after a couple of hours because of the risk of concussion. The hapless hand, Jeff King, had been sent home and Roy was pretty certain that he would be gone before Ben arrived back at the ranch, whenever that was!

“But you can’t guarantee that,” Ben retorted. He shook his head. “What can have happened?” he whispered.

*****

The night grew colder and darker. Both the Cartwright brothers were feeling the effects of the cold now, although Hoss was still warmer due to his greater body weight and the fact he wasn’t injured. The rock walls were damp and the brothers were now lying down in the middle of the space, to try and retain as much heat as they could. But the tremors that were wracking Hoss’ body didn’t have much to do with the cold.

Joe had dozed for a while, but the penetrating cold and the pain from his injuries had brought him back to wakefulness and he lay against his brother and listened to the uneven tenor of Hoss’ breathing and empathized with him. Joe had been in that place himself, not that long before and the memory was still fresh. He could remember the terror he felt as he lay face down on the rock, half way up the mountain, unable to go either up or down. If Ben hadn’t come… Joe didn’t know what would have happened.

“I’ve never been so scared in all my life,” Joe said, abruptly. “I couldn’t move and I was crying like a baby. All I had to do was climb up a few more feet and take hold of the rifle. I wasn’t that close to the edge that I would fall. Yet I couldn’t move, Hoss. I felt sick and I could barely catch my breath. I tried to shame myself out of feeling like that – I’m a grown man after all. But it didn’t work.”

“It ain’t nuthin’ ta be ashamed of,” Hoss comforted him. “An’ think how ya went down that cliff after Adam that time.”

The shudder that ran through Joe was not put on at all. He still had nightmares of seeing Adam lying, injured, on that ledge. Several times on his way down to get Adam and on the way back to the top with him, Joe thought that he would freeze again as he had on Eagle’s Nest.

“I still don’t like heights,” Joe replied. “I’m still afraid when I’m up really high.”

By now, Hoss was intrigued. “Joe, when we went ta meet Pa an’ the Watsons with the nitro fer the mines, ya seemed ta be all right when we was right up there on the top o’ the mountain.”

“I was putting on a face,” Joe admitted. “And after what happened to Andy, I was more scared of the nitro than the height. And when that stone went under my foot, and I fell…” Joe swallowed dryly after a moment. “My life flashed before my eyes then, that’s for sure!”

“Not jist yours!” Hoss growled. He had never felt as useless in his life as he had standing at the top of the cliff watching Ellis Watson easing his way down the cliff. Joe had been clinging onto a rock, not in any real danger of falling, but with the box of nitro resting precariously against his legs. How the whole thing hadn’t exploded as it tumbled head over heels down the mountain was anyone’s guess. “I was a-feared…” Hoss didn’t have to finish his sentence.

“Me, too,” Joe agreed. “But I came through it because you and Pa were there and we’ll get through this together.” His hand squeezed Hoss’ arm.

“Difference is, Pa ain’t here,” Hoss grumbled, although he did appreciate Joe’s attempts to make him feel better. He did feel marginally less afraid, simply because he knew that his brother understood his irrational fears and wasn’t making fun of him.

“But he will be, come morning,” Joe chided Hoss gently. His absolute faith in his father rang in his voice. “When Pa knows we’re missing, he’ll come looking for us. He might not find us right away, but he’ll come, Hoss.”

“Yeah, I know he will.” But although Hoss knew that Ben would look diligently for them, there was no guarantee that he would find them in time. And the lack of water was already starting to tell on them both.

 *****

Opening his eyes at the persistent hand that was shaking his shoulder, Red Deer looked blankly into the face of the white man before he recognized him as the doctor. “What is it?” he asked, looking around with wide eyes.

“I’m just making sure that you’re all right,” Paul explained. “Its standard procedure when someone has had a head injury. Can you tell me your name?”

“I am Red Deer and this is the white man’s jail in Virginia City,” the youth answered, with as much dignity as he could muster, which was a lot under the circumstances.

“Just checking,” Paul replied. “How do you feel?”

“Tired,” Red Deer replied, trying to stifle a yawn.

“Then sleep,” Paul advised and watched the dark eyes close slowly. Within minutes, the even breathing told him his patient was sound asleep again.

It was 3 am. Roy was sleeping on a cot in one of the cells. Clem, who had vowed he could stay awake, was slumbering behind the desk. Paul eyed him and decided that he would most likely have a very stiff neck come morning. Ben was outside on the porch, leaning on the hitching rail and looking out to the mountains where his sons most likely were. Not for the first time, Paul sent up a prayer that the boys were all right. If anything happened to them… It didn’t bear thinking about.

*****

Dawn was still some time away when Ben prepared Buck to ride back to the ranch. He was going to prepare a wagon and go looking for his boys. Paul Martin was hitching his buggy. He was going to wait at the Ponderosa for Ben to bring his sons in. With luck, they would be all right, but just in case they weren’t, it was better for Paul to wait at the ranch than in town. It was nearer for a start. A few minutes before they were ready to leave, Paul went back into the jail and gently woke Red Deer.

For an instant the young brave looked confused, then the frown cleared from his brow. Paul smiled at him. “It’s almost dawn, and we’re going back to the Ponderosa. Mr. Cartwright is going to go out looking for his sons.”

“Dawn?” Red Deer glanced at the window where he could see a glimpse of colorless sky. Dawn was getting nearer and the darkness was starting to give way to the coming light.  “Have I been here all night?”

“Yes, all night,” Paul confirmed. “How do you feel?” He could see that the young man’s eyes were brighter and his color was better.

“Stiff,” Red Deer admitted. “But better than I did last night.” He pushed away the blanket that had been covering him and sat up. “Mr. Cartwright will want to go straight to the place where his sons are. I will take him there.”

Excitement flared through Paul’s gut, but he kept his face schooled to neutrality. “Do you know where they are?” he asked, as though the question was of no importance.

“Of course!” Red Deer looked at Paul as though he had grown horns. “That is why I was seeking Mr…” His voice trailed off as he realized that he had indeed got his short-term memory back. His face, which had initially shown his pleasure, grew grave. “We had better hurry,” he announced soberly. “They fell into a hole. The rope broke.”

This was not good news. Paul glanced over at Roy and saw Ben standing just behind him. “Let’s go,” Ben declared.

*****

The time seemed to drag. Ben began to have the disjointed feeling that although he was sitting on a moving horse, the road was rolling underneath him so that he actually made no forward progress at all, for the sun was steadily rising, but he seemed no nearer to reaching home. He had questioned Red Deer closely and was alarmed by what the youth reported to him.

But at last they reached the ranch and Ben set about getting a wagon organized. Straw was laid thickly in the back and blankets and water was added, too. Ben himself took the reins and he followed the young brave, admiring the youth’s upright posture on his pinto pony which reminded Ben so painfully of Joe’s horse, Cochise. Several of the ranch hands rode with them, but as Roy had predicted, Jeff King was nowhere to be found. His gear had gone from the bunkhouse and his horse was not in the corral. Ben was indifferent. Thanks to the man’s carelessness, Joe and Hoss had had to spend the night trapped in a hole somewhere, on a bitterly cold spring night. If King had had a bit of sense, then perhaps the boys could have been rescued the day before. No, Ben wasn’t sorry to see the man go.

Now, it seemed to Ben that time was speeding past, although he didn’t seem to be much closer to finding his sons. The frost was slowly burning off the grass now, but Ben knew how brutally cold it had been the previous night and he was deeply worried.

A whinny suddenly sounded from the trees ahead. Ben’s heart leapt – it had to be either Cochise or Chubb. They must be drawing nearer!

*****

Something drew Hoss out of a restless slumber. The Cartwright boys were still lying huddled together on the floor of the hole. Both of them, despite sharing their body heat, were cold to the point where their shivering was slowly stopping. Hoss was still shivering, but Joe had barely moved for the last while – Hoss had no way to gauge the time – and the older Cartwright was feeling a vague, far-away worry about his younger brother.

Opening his eyes, Hoss was more than relieved to see that it was daylight at last. He and Joe had exhausted themselves talking endlessly through the night as they strove to keep Hoss’ demons at bay. Eventually, Joe had fallen asleep and Hoss was glad, for he knew how badly injured his brother was. Yet, if it hadn’t been for Joe, Hoss wasn’t sure he would have got through the night sane.

Feeling stiff, Hoss reluctantly and carefully slid out from beneath Joe. Joe mumbled and his eyes opened briefly. He looked at Hoss with extreme disinterest before closing his eyes again. It didn’t seem to register with Joe that morning had come. Again, Hoss thought that that ought to worry him, but somehow it didn’t.  Hoss moved a step or two and then sat down again. He wondered vaguely what had wakened him. Not that it mattered. They were stuck in that hole and likely to die in it.

“Hoss! Joe!”

Funny, that sounded like Pa. Hoss yawned and shivered once more. As if Pa would be there. His eyes dipped closed and his chin came to rest upon his chest. Sleep — that was what he needed. Perhaps he would just die in his sleep.

“Hoss!” This time, the voice was accompanied by a touch and Hoss jerked awake and looked into Ben’s face.

“Pa?” Hoss’ voice was low, as though he couldn’t believe his eyes. He blinked hard. “Pa?”

“I’m here, son,” Ben soothed. “Are you all right?” He glanced over his shoulder at Joe.

“I’m okay,” Hoss replied. “But Joe’s hurt bad.”

“Yes, I know,” Ben agreed gravely. “Come on, son, have a drink and then we’ll get you both out of this hole.” Ben handed Hoss the canteen and watched closely as his son drank. He had seen at once that they had no water and he didn’t want Hoss to drink too much too fast and be sick. As it was, Hoss didn’t look good, his face pale and his skin cold to the touch.

When Hoss had had a drink, Ben urged him to his feet and helped him to where the rope dangled from the ground above. “Fred, Dave and the others are waiting for you,” Ben explained. “You don’t have to do anything, just relax.” He looped the rope harness under Hoss’ arms. “Haul away!” he called and Hoss felt a jerk as he was hoisted into the air.

*****

It took a little longer to get Joe out, for they had to be very careful of his injuries. Once he was on the surface, Ben wrapped Joe in blankets and together he and Fred lifted him into the wagon. Hoss was already snuggled into the hay, a blanket round his shoulders, feeling considerably warmer in the sunshine. Joe was carefully placed beside Hoss and Ben turned to Red Deer.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” he began. “Or how to apologize for what my ranch hand did to you.”

“It is not your fault,” Red Deer replied. “Ben Cartwright has helped the Paiutes many times; I was glad to be able to help you. I just wish that I had been able to remember this yesterday.” He hesitated and looked at the wagon. “Will your sons be all right?”

“Thanks to you, I think they will,” Ben replied. He put out his hand and after a long moment, Red Deer copied him and Ben shook the youth’s hand warmly. “Tell Winnemucca that I will send cattle to your camp, as a sign of thanks and apology. A gift that is warmly meant, but does not come close to repaying what you did for myself and my sons.”

“I am sure Winnemucca will understand,” Red Deer replied. He nodded to Ben, then went over to his horse. In one fluid leap – that reminded Ben of Joe – he mounted and rode off.

“Let’s go,” Ben ordered, climbing onto the wagon seat. Fred and the others fell in behind, leading Cochise and Chubb.

*****

Paul Martin was busy for quite some time after Ben arrived home with Joe and Hoss. Hoss was chilled through, hungry and thirsty and emotionally exhausted. His guilt over the predicament that he and his brother had ended up in was all mixed up with him feeling that he had somehow let both himself and Joe down by admitting to his fear of the dark. Hoss was given something to eat and sent to bed where he sank into a deep sleep at once.

Joe, on the other hand, had to wait rather longer before he had something to eat. Paul had set Joe’s dislocated shoulder, broken humerus, broken ankle, and stitched the deep gash on his leg and once that was done, he and Ben sat down and waited patiently for Joe to come round from the anesthetic.

Sitting by Joe’s bed, Ben drank in the sight of his youngest son. While Paul had been working on Joe, Ben had sat with the sleeping Hoss, his eyes lingering on the big man’s frame, his hand resting on top of one of Hoss’, giving thanks that his sons had been returned to him safely.

Now, Ben was going through the same process with Joe. Bad though his son’s injuries were, Ben knew that things could have been worse – much worse. If Red Deer hadn’t seen Hoss vanishing into that hole, his sons might never have been found. There had been almost no sign of the hole from above. There would only have been the horses, waiting patiently for their riders who might never have returned.

“Joe’s going to be just fine, Ben,” Paul finally said. “His shoulder will take some time to right itself, simply because he’s broken his upper arm, too, but the breaks were nice and clean. I don’t think he’ll suffer any lasting effects.”

“They were both pretty cold,” Ben replied, not quite asking a question.

“Yes, they were,” Paul agreed, steadily. “Joe more so than Hoss, as he has less body fat. But they both warmed up a good bit on the way here and you can feel that Joe is lovely and warm now. I know Hoss was warm when he went to bed – he’d had something hot to eat and hot to drink. That works wonders.”

At that moment, Joe groaned and opened his eyes. He glanced around the room before his gaze came to rest on Ben. “I thought perhaps it was a dream,” he whispered. His mouth was still very dry.

“No dream,” Ben smiled. He offered Joe a few sips of water. “How do you feel, young man?”

“Sore, tired,” Joe offered. He frowned. “Pa, how did you find us?”

“I had some help,” Ben explained and told Joe the story of Red Deer.

“Thank God,” Joe said, simply.

“Yes, indeed,” Ben agreed. They were silent for a few moments, then Paul rose.

“I think I can go home now,” he declared. “Ben, try and get Joe to eat something. A few days in bed and then he can get up for a while each day. But no walking on that ankle, please!”

“Doc, wait,” Joe pleaded. “Is Hoss all right?”

“He’s absolutely fine,” Paul replied. “He’s asleep right now and you can see him later, after you’ve eaten and had a sleep.” He bid Ben goodbye and left.

“Is Hoss all right?” Joe asked, as Ben helped him to eat a little while later.

“You heard what the doctor said, Joe,” Ben replied.

“I don’t mean like that,” Joe answered, not quite sure how to phrase his concern. He didn’t want to embarrass Hoss, but at the same time, he wanted to know that his brother had come out of that dark hole sane. Joe had stayed awake as long as he could during the previous night, but he knew that at some point, he had lost track of what was going on. “I meant…” Joe frowned and looked at Ben. “It was really dark in that hole,” he concluded tentatively.

At once, Ben understood. He had always known that Hoss had been afraid of the dark when he was a child, but he hadn’t realized that Hoss still was afraid. Now, Joe’s simple words told Ben everything and he understood what Joe wanted to know.

“He was shaky, but fine,” Ben replied and smiled. “I bet you were a bit shaky, too.”

“I sure was,” Joe agreed. He yawned, the sudden release of tension making him feel very tired.  Ben tucked Joe in, made sure he was warm enough and sat with him until the young man was sound asleep.

Then, he went through to tend to his other son.

******

“I ain’t never bin through nuthin’ like that afore, Pa,” Hoss explained. “It weren’t too bad ta begin with, cos it were still light. Oh, bad enough that we didn’ have no water an’ no way ta git out a there an’ Joe were hurt. But we wasn’t too bad off, ya know?” He glanced at his father and Ben nodded. “But then it got dark an’ cold an’ the ground were damp. So I sat against the rock an’ let Joe lean on me. That way, he weren’t so cold. But it got colder an’ colder until the rock were damp, too, an’ we lay down on the ground again. It didn’ seem so bad.” Hoss glanced down. “But I were afraid, Pa. Afraid o’ the dark.” He sounded utterly miserable.

“It’s not a crime, Hoss,” Ben reminded him gently. “Everyone has their irrational fears. Look at Joe and his fear of heights?”

“Adam don’t have no fears,” Hoss muttered resentfully.

“Yes he does,” Ben replied regretfully. “Adam is afraid to love too much in case the person he loves is snatched away from him.” Adam loved his family very deeply, but in a family of touchers, Adam usually kept himself in reserve. Ben suspected that that was why Adam had never really had a successful relationship with a woman – he instinctively expected to be hurt. The worst thing was, he often had been. “Every man has something that he fears.”

“I’m a big strong man, Pa,” Hoss cried, determined not to take absolution too cheaply.

“Are you suggesting that Joe shouldn’t be afraid of heights simply because he is a strong man?” Ben asked.

“No, of course not,” Hoss replied. He was frowning. “That’s different.”

“Why is it different?” Ben enquired.

There was silence. Joe looked from Hoss to Ben and back again. Hoss was still silent. “Didn’t we talk about this last night?” Joe asked.

“Sure did,” Hoss responded gruffly. He scrubbed one large hand over his face and sighed. He looked at Joe. “An’ ya know what? I reckon I ain’t never gonna be quite so afraid o’ the dark now. Like you on Eagle’s Nest, Joe. I survived – nuthin’ happened ta me. There weren’t no shouts in the dark and no arrows singin’ through the air. I survived.” Hoss sounded rightly proud of himself.

But Ben was feeling stunned. He made the right noises, but even though he responded normally to both his boys, he was facing the realization that Hoss’ fears had a tangible background of genuine fear – they weren’t entirely the child’s irrational fear of the dark and some imagined monster.

Although Ben knew that the loss of his mother as a tiny infant had affected Hoss in a myriad of ways, it had never before occurred to Ben that the necessity of keeping watch at night had had any impact at all. He had thought that Hoss was too young to remember those times. Certainly, he never mentioned them at all while growing up. This was something he had not thought of.

“Pa.” The voice was Joe’s and his youngest son was looking slightly worried. Ben blinked and looked around Joe’s bedroom. Hoss was gone. He had not even noticed him leaving. “Hoss has gone to get coffee,” Joe explained. “And you were about to start blaming yourself for Hoss being afraid of the dark, weren’t you?”

Once again, Ben was taken aback. “Have you started mind reading?” he enquired, although he knew that Joe was very intuitive.

“No,” Joe smiled. “But I know you. If something happens to us, you think you ought to have protected us. You can’t all the time, Pa.”

“I didn’t think Hoss would remember those nights,” Ben admitted.

“I don’t think he really knew that the two things were connected until last night,” Joe observed. “And Adam would have seemed to have been the one you would expect to react to those times, I know. But we both know Adam was always capable of rationalizing everything. But Hoss might have been afraid of the dark anyway, Pa,” he reminded Ben. “It’s not your fault, any more than it’s his fault, or mine for not liking heights.”

“No, I suppose its not,” Ben agreed. He sighed. “You’re very wise for one so young,” he teased.

“When you have nothing else to do but sit in darkness and think, all sorts of things go through your mind,” Joe replied. “And I think perhaps Hoss might feel better now, because it’s all out in the open. I know I did.” He was again referring to the Eagle’s Nest incident.

“I hope so,” Ben agreed as Hoss came back in with a tray of coffee.

*****

Hoss never entirely got over his fear of the dark, but as Joe had predicted, he did indeed feel better about it.

***End***

Title from Milton’s Paradise Lost

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