Word Count: 3013
“I’m sorry, Hoss,” Joe said softly, his voice slurring around his split lip. “Real sorry. If it weren’t for me, you’da whupped those two.”
I shook my head. “Ain’t yer fault, Joe.” I assured him. “No one knew something like this was gonna happen.”
“Even so, I’m sorry,” he whispered.
That was the last thing he said to me. I guess one of them robbers heard us talking and came over to investigate. Joe tried to kick out at him, but the man easily sidestepped the kid’s efforts.
“Boy but you sure are a feisty little thing, ain’t cha?” the man laughed, reaching down to muss Joe’s hair. Joe responded by spitting in the man’s face, and he earned himself a backhand so hard it slammed his head into the wall. Then the man jerked off Joe’s neck cloth and gagged him with it.
God knows, I woulda jumped up right there and killed that man for that. I tried. God knows, I tried as hard as I could to bust through these dadburned ropes, but they were just too tight. Joe can’t talk to me anymore, but he keeps looking at me, and his eyes got that glassy look they always get when he’s angry. I can’t figure if he’s angry with me or himself or with the whole blasted situation.
I guess maybe he’s angry at me. It was pretty much my fault to begin with.
Pa had gathered us all around just this morning to help look for a couple of outlaws that robbed the bank last Saturday night. Sheriff Coffee and a small posse had been combing the area all around Virginia City and he was now convinced that they must be squirreled away somewhere on the Ponderosa, and that sure is a lot of territory to cover. Joe and I paired up to scout around the South Forty, and, well, the day sure got long, and I sure got hungry. That’s when I talked Joe into heading out toward one of the line shacks. There’d be something there to eat, I was sure, though Joe didn’t seem to think so. But he agreed to it anyway. Joe usually don’t mind doing little things like that.
He was off his horse and only about three steps ahead of me when he opened the door and stepped inside the darkened shack. Then I heard Joe’s gasp of surprise and the sound of a scuffle, and before I even had a chance to figure out what was goin’ on, the two of ‘em were standing there with my little brother in a headlock, and a gun shoved up hard against his temple. Joe never even had a chance to call out.
Any other time, taking care of two rascals like that would be as easy as swiping at a couple gnats. Wouldn’t even matter if they were toting guns. I’da knocked those two stupid heads together before they knew what hit ’em.
But not this time. Not when they were holding a gun to my little brother’s head.
I’ve always been bigger than just about everyone I know. It was hard growing up. Kids sometimes teased me in school, calling me things like grizzly bear and giant, and I guess it used to bother me. I don’t know when things changed. Maybe when I started getting into fights over some of that name-callin’. Didn’t take long for word to get around that Hoss Cartwright could whup just about anyone in the territory. Pretty much everyone knows it by now. I’ve kinda developed a reputation over the years. Not braggin’, mind you. It’s just the way things are. Maybe it’s the one advantage of being so darned big, who knows? I do know that, somewhere down the line, it’s gotten to the point where I don’t even have to do much. Just walk into a room and try an’ look all mean and menacin’, and they’d scatter. I’ve used this skill to my advantage many times. Well, maybe more to my little brother’s advantage. Kid seems to have a talent for getting into fights he ain’t got no business getting into. Now I ain’t sayin’ he’s weak or nothin’, but if the feller Joe’s fightin’ happens to be a lot bigger or has a couple friends join in, Joe often ends up gettin’ the worst of it. Luckily, I’ve been around a lot when that happens – too many times to count, really – and when I haul my knucklehead brother out by his collar, hollerin’ and kickin’, no one dares argue about it. People tend to back off when Hoss Cartwright is around.
That’s why I find myself surprised to be in the situation I’m in now.
My hands are tied behind my back, so tight that my fingers feel kinda puffed-up and tingly when I try to move them. I know that can’t be a good sign, and I pray that help gets here soon so I can get these danged ropes off.
I hear a muffled-sounding sigh beside me, and see that Joe seems to have dropped off to sleep. Don’t know how anyone could sleep with a gag in his mouth or tied up like that, but my little brother seems to have managed. Probably just as well. Less chance for him to annoy our captors and get himself smacked again.
And less chance for me to feel so damned helpless when it happens.
Adam one time called me Joe’s safeguard. That was a few years back when he called me that, when Joe was no more’n ten or so, but he was already getting himself into all sorts of trouble. I remember being embarrassed at the time ’cause I didn’t even know what the word safeguard meant, and when I looked it up in Pa’s dictionary, I remember it said something like fierce protector, and well, it kinda fit. Joe don’t always appreciate it . . .shoot, I don’t think he’s ever appreciated it, especially all those times I yanked him outta them fistfights, but it’s something the kid’s gonna have to live with. I can’t deny who I am or how I feel when it comes to my little brother.
I’ve been covertly watching the two outlaws as much as I can, trying to figure what they’re up to. Right now they’re hunched over the tiny table, whispering and gesturing, and I’m trying hard to hear what they’re saying. The line shack ain’t all that big. Just that table and a couple chairs and a bunk, really. Joe and I are sitting propped up against the wall, in mostly the same positions they tossed us after tying us. Joe’s leaning heavily against me, but the solid feel of his weight reassures me, as if in some small way I can protect him more just by being so near to him.
The two seem to be ignoring us for now. I think they’ve noticed that the more troublesome of their prisoners is asleep and they can now concentrate on what they’re going to do next.
Joe and I seem to have put a major crimp in their plans. I guess they figured on hanging out here till things blew over and then they’d ride out to wherever yahoos like that go after they’ve robbed a bank. They weren’t too bright about it, though. The line shack they picked as a hideout was sitting smack in the middle of an open meadow, and if any posse ever got wind of the location, they wouldn’t stand a chance of getting away. In any case, they’re smart enough to realize that since we happened upon them, the law can’t be too far behind, and their best bet would be to ride out. But what would happen to me and Joe?
I glance through the grimy window and notice that it’s getting dark. Pa would be missing us soon, I know. We were all supposed to meet up at sunset just outside of Arrowhead Ridge, and Pa knows well enough that if we don’t show up that something’s happened.
My attention is swiftly drawn back to our captors as I realize that they’ve stopped talking. I can tell they’ve come to some sort of decision because one of them is nodding and they’re both staring at us. And something about the way their eyes pass over me and linger on my little brother…
They’re going to take Joe with them.
They don’t say anything, but I’m suddenly absolutely certain of it. What their plans are for me, I ain’t sure. Maybe they’ll just leave me here. Maybe they’ll even kill me.
As if aroused by the crackling tension in the air, I feel Joe stir beside me. I don’t look at him, but I know he’s waking up, because he shifts himself back against the wall, and he is no longer leaning against me, no longer touching me. The realization fills me with an odd sense of despair.
If those two crooks ride outta here with my little brother as their hostage, they’ll be able to keep the posse away long enough to escape free and clear. And once Joe has served his purpose for them, they’ll kill him. I know it.
Over my dead body.
They’re standing now, and staring hard at us. One of them has pulled his gun from his holster and cocks it, as if he’s expecting us to try something.
Joe makes kind of an anxious sound into the gag, clearly nervous that something is about to happen and not sure what it is. His eyes dart anxiously from one man to the other, as if trying to determine which one is more of a threat. I want to reassure him, but I dare not say anything.
As the man with the gun stalks over and reaches down to grab Joe, I make my move. I’m on my feet in a flash, and I ram myself head-first into the man’s belly. As I drive him to the floor with my weight, I vaguely hear the gun go off and there’s a quick, searing pain in my shoulder, but I ignore it in my hot desperation to keep this man away from my brother. He drops the gun and it clatters to the floor out of his reach. Then Joe starts makin’ this sorta high-pitched moaning sound, like he’s tryin’ to tell me something, and from the corner of my eye I see that other feller reachin’ for his own gun. He points it at me, and just as he’s about to shoot, Joe swiftly rises to his knees and slams into him, discharging the bullet into the wall. ‘Course, my little brother ain’t near as big as I am, and that other feller immediately twists around and snatches Joe up and starts pounding the livin’ daylights outta him.
There’s a crash as door bursts open and there’s hollerin’ and yellin’ and more gunfire and the room quickly crowds with more people than it can hold. The smoke clears, and I thank God as I realize the posse has finally caught up to us.
I manage to push myself onto my back, freeing the robber beneath me. I notice that his eyes are closed. Did I kill him? I look closer, and see with satisfaction that the man has apparently fainted. Good. Sure hope he’s sore when he wakes up.
Pa is suddenly on his knees beside me, his rough, familiar hands are yanking my shirt open and pushing it aside. He’s trying to tell me something but I’m having a hard time understanding him. The whole world seems to be going kinda gray and blurry on me and I’m trying to remember…and then my muddled thoughts clear and I remember. I’m shot. That little rascal somehow managed to pull the trigger even as I was smashing him to the floor. He was going to hurt Joe, I remember. Joe.
“Where’s. . .Pa, where’s Joe?” I manage to ask, though the words feel thick in my mouth. “Is he alright?”
“He’s just fine, Hoss,” Pa says. “Adam’s with him.”
Pa is pushing me onto my side to untie my hands. It makes my shoulder hurt like crazy when he does that, but as I feel the quick slack in the ropes and the feeling rushing back into my fingers, I sigh heavily in relief.
A moment later Joe scrambles over and drops down beside me. His hands are still tied, but the gag has come loose and it’s dangling all crooked beneath his chin. His nose is bleeding and one of his eyes is all purple and swoll up. He looks funny like that and I want to tease him about it, but he’s breathing hard and looking. . .well, danged if he don’t look scared. Why is he scared? We’re saved, ain’t we?
“Hoss?” he says, his voice high with anxiety. “Hoss? Pa, is he…is he okay? Hoss? Hoss?”
Joe is looking frantically from me to Pa and back to me again, and getting even more agitated because no one’s answering him. Pa tries to shoo him away, but Joe stubbornly refuses. Adam steps over and crouches down behind him, grumbling his annoyance ’cause Joe won’t hold still long enough to get his hands untied.
“Dadburnit, Shortshanks, will you just settle down?” I snap suddenly, and I’m surprised at how loud my voice is. I guess my family’s surprised too, ‘cause all three of ’em immediately shut up to stare at me, all three with the same stunned expression. This oddly strikes me as funny, and when I start to chuckle, they look relieved.
“Quit yer worryin’, little brother,” I say, more gently this time. “I been shot before. This here ain’t half as bad as it looks. I ain’t gonna be dyin’ on ya.”
Pa’s pressing something soft against my wound – someone’s shirt, maybe – but it don’t hurt as much now, and I’m glad for that. I can feel myself getting tireder, and my vision is going all blurry again, and I think that maybe I’m gonna pass out any minute. My thoughts are starting to jumble around in my head, but I know there’s something more that I want to say, that I need to say . . .
My voice is hardly more than a breath, but my little brother hears me and leans in closer.
“Here, Hoss,” he replied, clutching my hand. “I’m right here.”
“You did me proud, Joe,” I tell him. I’m starting to slip away and I’m struggling to get out the words. “Whupped that robber. . .real good.”
Joe squeezes my hand lightly. “I just figured I need you ’round, is all.”
“Yeah,” I reply. “So’s I can. . . keep saving you.”
He looks at me funny, and is saying something else, but I’m too far gone to hear or understand, and when the blackness starts to close in around me again, I shut my eyes and I let it take me. . .
Three weeks later…
It didn’t take more’n a couple weeks or so to heal up from that pesky shoulder wound, and before long, life settled back into the same routine on the Ponderosa. Today Joe and I are in Virginia City running errands for Pa…well, I’m the one running the errands. Always seems that my little brother starts developing a powerful thirst once we get into town, and he always heads off to the saloon and leaves me to do all the work. I’m gonna have to talk to that boy about that one of these days.
I finish loadin’ up the buckboard, and as I make my way to the saloon to fetch Joe, I can already hear the hoots and hollers from inside that almost always mean a fight’s startin’ up. A cold feelin’ of dread starts churning in my belly, and as I hurry toward the swinging doors, I already know that Joe’s gone and gotten himself into another heap of trouble.
“Lucky? You call that lucky, Cartwright? Well, I call it cheatin!”
I recognize the drunken voice of Bull Robinson, who’s meaner than a snake and outweighs my little brother by about fifty pounds. The realization brings me no comfort. I pause just outside the doors and quickly put on my mean and menacin’ look, and I enter the saloon and I nearly run smack into Joe.
“Come on, Hoss,” Joe says, grabbing my arm and turning me around. “We’re leaving.”
We push through the doors and stop on the street outside, and I stare at him in astonishment.
“Joe, I thought fer sure you were gonna get into a fight with that feller,” I say. “You starting to get smart on me?”
Joe doesn’t say anything, and as I look at him more closely, I’m surprised to see that he looks a little embarrassed.
“I just. . .” he sighs. “I guess I just didn’t want you gettin’ hurt on my account and…”
“Joe, are you talking about this blasted shoulder wound again? I told you it weren’t no more than a scratch…”
“It ain’t that,” he says impatiently. “It’s just. . .well, I guess I should start being more careful, you know? Stop getting into these stupid fights all the time.”
I guess I look like I don’t believe him, because he starts to look mad. Maybe I don’t believe him, not really. I’m not sure that Joe Cartwright can change his nature any more than I can change mine.
But at least it’ll be some other day before I have worry about being his safeguard again.
We’re interrupted by Bull Robinson calling out from inside the saloon. “You come on back sometime, Cartwright! We’ll settle this!”
Joe throws a dark look toward the swinging doors, and I can’t help but chuckle.
Thanks again, Dodo, for your help. Oh, and for reminding me that Joe can’t talk when he’s gagged. I should know that by now. Anyway, you’re a true friend. I appreciate your patience.