Shield (by Lisa M.)

Summary:  Little Joe is lured into a trap.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9462


 

Make yourself necessary to someone.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Sometimes it seems like my little brother’s hands are always bunched up into fists. Sure, they ain’t like that when he eats or when he….well, you know….but most other times it sure seems that way. It’s like Joe’s on some sorta personal crusade to get into a set number of fights each month. I’ll have to ask him sometime what that number is so I can start planning around it. Sometime when I’m out of range of his left hook, that is. Don’t think he’d much appreciate a question like that.

Mind you, he’s only eighteen. Pa reminds me and Adam about that fact a lot. Pa says Joe’ll grow out of it, and maybe he will, I don’t know. What I do know is that it seems that I’m always hauling that boy out of trouble–so often that sometimes I think I oughta get paid for it. Don’t think Pa’ll go for that idea, though.

Yesterday, though…something happened that’s never happened before.

It’s like some kind of unrelenting torture, this sound in my head. I can still hear Joe hollering for me, yelling for help, the sound of it as terrifying and as real as if he were standing right next to me.

“Hoss!” 

That was it. Just Hoss. It was all I heard, but I recognized the high-pitched, panicked tone of his voice; I’d heard it so many times in my life, I can’t even count that high. And as always, the sound of it filled my chest with that same cold dread.

“Keep an eye on your little brother, Hoss.”

It was the last thing Pa said to me as we were leaving. Pa always says that automatically; usually attaches it to the end of “See ya later,” or “Don’t spend too much time in town,” or “You two be careful.”

But this time around, I knew it had been more than an idle request. Pa had been under a lot of pressure lately to sell more lumber to the mining companies, but he kept refusing, making a few of them mine owners madder n’ hornets. The silver kings had their greedy eyes on the one of the thickest stretches of pines on the ranch, all in the hills surrounding Buckhorn meadow. But their request came a little too late. Pa already had a signed contract in hand to sell the lumber to Pacific Railroad. Even when the mining companies offered to pay twice as much for the lumber, I knew Pa would still refuse ’em. He’s just that way, you know. Plus, Pa’s awful careful about picking out which trees to harvest, and which to keep, so as to encourage new growth and preserve the watershed. Course, none of this has set well with mine owners who are rich enough to buy whatever they want, and ain’t particularly used to being refused anything

Pa’s refusal to sell had production in the mines slowing down to a trickle, and a lot of the out-of-work miners had been spoiling for fights all over town. Joe had already happily obliged a few of them – especially the hotheads in the saloon who were saying things about Pa – but I almost always managed to get in there and yank the fool kid out by the collar before he got himself hurt. Luckily, I seem to be around most of the time when Joe gets himself into these scraps. I mean, I don’t like hearing Pa badmouthed any better’n Joe does, but at least I got the sense to ignore a bunch of liquored-up yahoos itching for a brawl. Joe, though, has the tendency to fling sense out the window whenever he works himself up to a good mad. The only reason Joe hadn’t been banned from town altogether was because Pa didn’t want any of us going anywhere alone, leastways until things cooled down with the miners.

Of course, no one thought it would come to this.

It had all happened faster than I would have thought possible. One minute Joe was right next to me, helping me load up the buckboard outside the feed store, and the next minute he was gone, just gone. How he ended up in that back alley, I had no idea. Still have no idea. Maybe someone had lured him back there, called out to him. Maybe he’d been forced back there.

But when I heard my little brother yell out my name, I knew he was in trouble, bad trouble. I drew my gun quick and ran to the alley as fast as I could and saw him being dragged away by four men with bandanas stretched across their faces, one of ’em with his hand clamped over Joe’s mouth so he couldn’t yell out anymore. I met my brother’s gaze in that instant, and could see how angry and afraid he was. When he saw that I was there, though, he almost went limp in relief, and the anger and fear in those eyes dissolved into trust.

My hesitation cost me, though, and before I could do anything, something hard slammed into the back of my head. A gun butt, maybe. I wasn’t out that long — a few minutes or so — but by then it was too late for Joe. He was already gone, taken. All that was left of my little brother was his crushed hat, and the awful echo of a cry for help that hasn’t left my head since.

I couldn’t save him; I couldn’t stop it. I tried, tried as hard as I could, but it’s been hours, and Joe is still missing and no one knows where he is. The why of it…well, we’re pretty sure it’s some of them mine owners that are responsible, or maybe even some of the miners themselves. Maybe they’ve decided to hold Joe hostage and are just holding out for some ransom money. That’s what we hope it is, anyway.

But Pa’s afraid they’re planning on hurting him. I’m afraid of that, too.

As anyone would expect, Pa’s almost beside himself with worry — Adam, too — yet they both say they don’t blame me for what happened, even though it was my job to watch out for him. It’s always been my job.

Chubb snorts in irritation at my roughness, and the sound jerks me back to the matter at hand. It’s still an hour or more ’til sunup, so I’m saddling my horse by lamplight. Pa had said it would be foolish to try and track the kidnappers until daybreak, but I can no longer sit and do nothing. Every moment, every second of this useless, wide-awake waiting adds to this god-awful feeling of helplessness. I lead my horse from the barn, and as I spare a final glance at the darkened house, I feel a twinge of remorse at what I’m doing.

“Keep an eye on your little brother, Hoss.” 

“I’m sorry, Pa,” I whisper as I quietly mount my horse and head out into the night to find my brother.

*****

The early morning sun is still no more than a pink sliver above the horizon as I arrive in Virginia City and guide my horse along its deserted streets. I head straight to the alley behind the mercantile, where it all began, to search again for anything that I might have missed yesterday that would give me a clue to where Joe has been taken. It’s been a hard, slow journey, and I’m wondering again about the wisdom of my late night decision. Maybe I should have waited. Pa says that a bad situation sometimes seems better in the light of day. That sure ain’t working for this bad situation, though.

I hadn’t had the opportunity to go chasing after the kidnappers yesterday afternoon; couldn’t even if I wanted to. It was all I could do to drag myself down to the sheriff’s office to get help. Roy’s first plan of action, though, was to shove me down to Doc Martin’s surgery to get the gash on my head taken care of, complaining he didn’t want me bleeding all over his floor. I guess I was too dazed and dizzy to protest or else I would have probably taken off on my own to find Joe. We looked around some later and found a few tracks heading out toward the rock country west of town, but by then it was starting to get dark. And I still had to head back to the house to tell Pa.

I’ve never had to do that before–never had to be the bearer of such bad news to Pa. I’ve never had tell him that his youngest son was missing, gone, and that it was all my fault.

I never want to see that look in his eyes again.

There was nothing anyone could do that night; guess we had all kinda hoped that there’d be a ransom note or something tossed into the yard, or better yet, maybe by some unlikely miracle Joe would escape his captors and come stumbling back home, alive and well. But none of that happened. None of us ate. The sight of Joe’s empty chair at the table was enough to kill what little appetite any of us had left–even mine.

Pa’s pretty upset by what happened, just like I knew he’d be. He was so worked up about it last night that he paced back and forth in front of the fireplace for hours. I thought for sure he was going to wear a groove in the floor. He ordered me an’ Adam up to bed after a while, just like he used to do when we were kids, and we didn’t have the heart to protest.

But sleep was a long time in coming; in fact, it didn’t come at all for me. Each time I closed my eyes, all I could see was Joe, reaching for me, calling out for help. And condemning me when I wasn’t there to give it.

*****

“Hossy?”

It’s Joe’s voice in my head, eager and childlike, and I remember the game we used to play when he was little.

“You see ’em? You see the tracks? Tell me the story, Hossy.”

We’d find some tracks, and then I would spin a convoluted yarn about who made them and where they were going. Course, Joe was always gullible enough to fall for it. I’d tell him what kinda hat the rider was wearing and what he’d had for breakfast that morning and the color of his horse. Joe’d be just amazed that I could tell all this from a mess of hoofprints.

“You see the tracks, Hoss?” he asks again.

“I see ’em, Joe,” I say aloud. “They’re right over here.”

“Tell me the story, Hoss.”

“There were five horses, Joe,” I reply. “Six riders. One of ’em was riding double with you.”

“How do you know that?”

“Prints are deeper on this one set of tracks….here…” I kick Chubb ahead several yards. “And over here.”

“How do you know it ain’t just some big, fat guy like you?”

“‘Cause the tracks are uneven. This horse wasn’t used to the extra weight.” I peer closer at a few of the tracks. “There’s more, though.”

“More what?”

“No, I mean, it’s not just the extra weight. This horse was agitated, nervous. He was off his stride, side-stepping a bit. Why is that?”

“How should I know? You’re the tracker.”

I find myself grinning widely as the realization hits me. “You were fighting them, Joe. You were struggling, moving around, and it was throwing the horse off.”

“Why are you so happy about that?”

“Cause it means that you’re still alive, Joe. Or you were when you were riding alongside this ravine anyway.”

I follow the ravine for a few miles more to its end and see where the kidnappers have crossed the creek. I suck in my breath as I glance down at the mud along the bank…

“What the…?”

“What?” Joe demands urgently. “What is it, Hossy? What do you see?” His voice is high-pitched and anxious.

“They stopped here, Joe. Stopped real sudden-like, too. Couple of ’em went too far and had to double back.”

“Why?”

I shake my head and dismount to search around and concentrate on the prints drying in the mud alongside the creek. Boot prints. Joe’s prints and several others, spaced far apart. Running. He had been running. I follow the prints for several feet as they continue through knee-high grass butting up against the bank.

“You tried to escape ’em here, Joe. Musta waited till they slowed down to cross the creek and you jumped right off the horse and took off.”

“Did I get away?”

I crouch to closely examine a portion of uneven ground where the grass lay flat, where someone must have tripped or fallen. There was blood and mud and a short length of rope, freshly cut on one edge.

“Hoss? Did I?”

I pluck up the rope and roll it around in my fingers, studying it.

“Hoss?”

I fling the rope aside and close my eyes. “No.”

*****

The early morning sun has chased away the predawn chill, and I draw a tiny bit of comfort from the fact. Joe didn’t have his jacket yesterday.

The trail has become curiously easier to follow now, as if Joe’s captors stopped trying to conceal their tracks at some point. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad sign, but I’m grateful that my search has picked up speed, knowing that with each step of my horse, I’m getting closer to my little brother.

Since the signs of Joe’s attempted escape near the creek bed, it’s become apparent that the horse he was riding on was less bothered after that, indicating that Joe was no longer moving or fighting his captors, and I try hard not to think about what that means.

“Hossy?”

“Hoss?”

His voice is back, sounding worried now. I try to ignore it, but it is as stubborn and persistent as my brother himself.

“Hoss, do you…do you think I’m okay?”

I don’t reply, can’t reply, and the small boy vanishes back into a deep part of my mind.

I urge my horse up a rising slope and rein in for a moment to wipe the sweat from my forehead. I can see for what seems like miles around from this vantage point, but there’s no other soul in sight, only numerous bluffs and rocky crags in which anyone can hide. I wonder if they know I’m following them? I wonder if they’re watching me even now?

It was stupid; I realize now. Stupid to do this, to set out on my own. A decision as impulsive and foolhardy as one Joe himself would make. I look behind me, wondering how far back Pa and Adam and the posse are. Perhaps I should wait for them.

If it were only two or even three men that I were up against, then maybe I could take them on. But not five. Course, if they’re holding my little brother as a shield, it wouldn’t matter how many of them there were. The thought of such a thing happening nearly stops my heart.

But I’ve come too far now, and I don’t have the time to second-guess myself. Joe needs me. I can feel it with everything inside me.

I don’t know when it all started, really, me feeling this way I do when it comes to my little brother. But then, I guess in some ways I do. I think it was not long after Mama died. Adam had just gone off to college, and Pa was dealing with first losing his wife and then his oldest son, and he didn’t have much time to deal with Little Joe, who was only ’bout five at the time. I guess I was still a little young to do a lot of the ranchin’ stuff – leastways the stuff that Adam used to do – so I guess I just naturally became the one in charge of Joe.

It was me that set that boy up on his first horse; me that taught him how to rope a cow; me that showed him how to shoot a rifle; and all the while I was right there with him to catch him every time he’d even stumble. Not that Pa wasn’t doing as best as he could, even as busy as he was. I guess I starting seeing myself as some sort of shield for my little brother. And the thing is, it got to where I kinda liked it. Being needed, I mean. Back in those days, if Joe ever wanted something or got hurt, I was almost always the one he ran to about it first. Maybe in some ways I took the place of his mama. I don’t know too much about things like that, but I like to think that it helped Joe get over losing her so sudden-like. I think it helped me, anyway.

I’ve often tried to tell myself that the time is long past, to let the boy grow up…I need to cut those apron strings, as they call ’em. Course, it sure would be a lot easier to do if my little brother didn’t wind up in so many blasted situations where he needed help.

“Come on, Chubb,” I mumble to my tired horse as I kick him back into motion. “Gotta find Joe.”

*****

And then, all of a sudden, there he is.

I spot him from a distance away, his dark shirt a sharp contrast against the tawny landscape, and am grateful for whatever made him choose the dark blue over his usual tan. It’s all I can do not to urge my horse to a faster gait, but I’m forced to keep a slower pace on the uneven, rocky terrain, and my hands are shaking in my helpless frustration.

I keep my gaze steady on my brother, thinking he might disappear if I look away for even a moment. He doesn’t seem to be moving, and that terrifies me. It appears that the kidnappers are long gone, and they’ve abandoned Joe, and the thought alarms me even more as I wonder why. Did they change their minds? Or…and I can’t bear to think of it…did they kill him?

After a few hundred yards, I can see him more clearly. His hands are tied in front of him and he’s blindfolded, and he’s still not moving. It’s only when I jump down from my horse and stumble over to him that I notice that he’s trembling violently. His name is torn from my lips on a sob as I drop to my knees beside him.

He jerks away at my touch, shaking his head frantically. “No….no… please…” he objects weakly.

“It’s me, little brother,” I assure him, fumbling with the blindfold with unsteady hands, and slipping it from his face. I place my hands on each side of his face and gently turn his head so he can see me. “It’s Hoss.”

He’s blinking rapidly and I know the sun must be hurting his eyes, so I lean forward a bit to shield him from the light. “Can you see me?”

“Hoss?” His voice is so breathless with relief that it nearly breaks my heart.

“It’s Hoss,” I say again, noting the numerous bruises marking his face. As I pull my knife and cut free the ropes binding his wrists, his torn shirt falls open, and my breath catches in my throat at the sight of numerous angry red lines streaking across the skin of his chest.

Burn marks. My little brother had been tortured.

“Oh, God, Joe….what did they…?” I slide an arm beneath his shoulders and pull him close to me, as gently as I could manage. “God, what did they do to you?”

Joe doesn’t answer; he just presses his face into my chest and grabs a handful of my shirt, fiercely clutching it as if his life is depending on it.

“Hoss,” he whispers. His voice is muffled, but his breath is warm and soft against me, and it fills me with the tiniest amount of hope.

“Come on, little brother,” I say, gathering him up full in my arms and carefully standing. He cries out at the sudden movement, and just as quickly falls silent again; I know he’s unconscious and I’m instantly glad for it. It’s going to be a long, painful ride back.

I somehow manage to lift him onto my horse with more difficulty than I’d like, and it’s only when I swing up behind him that I notice the folded paper peeking from his shirt pocket, and I know immediately that it’s a note from Joe’s kidnappers. I retrieve it carefully, and read the brief message inside meant for my father, and realize that our suspicions have been proven true. I wrap my arm protectively around my brother’s waist and hold him close as I turn Chubb back on the path from which I’d come, hoping to meet up soon with Pa and Adam. I try to ignore it, try not to think about it, but I can’t help but hear over and over in my head the note’s cryptic message.

There are more important things than trees.

*****

He’s asleep finally after a restless night. Sometime in the early morning hours he started running a fever and was thrashing around on the bed so much that it took both me and Pa to settle him down. I hate it when he’s sick like that, probably hate as much as Pa does. Pa’s stronger than me, though…he’ll stay right by Joe’s bedside all night long and hold his hand and sponge his forehead and watch him suffer, and suffer right along with him, but I can’t take it. I’d probably make a lousy pa.

Joe’s injuries had turned out to be a lot worse than I thought when I found him, but that’s probably a good thing. I don’t know how I could have coped tending to him by myself had I known how bad off he really was. The doc thinks the burns came from a branding iron, and they weren’t just limited to Joe’s chest. His arms and back got their fair share, too. He’d also been beat up pretty bad, but most of those injuries would heal just fine. It was all those open blisters that were causing his pain, and some of ’em were on their way to getting infected by the time I found him.

Joe never really came around too much that first day or so, even when we caught up to Pa and Adam and got him home. Maybe Joe somehow sensed that he was finally safe and he could finally rest, trusting that we would take care of him.

I ease myself down on the settee with my coffee. It’s just coffee again this morning, and Hop Sing’s about to pitch a fit cause I ain’t been eating his breakfasts, but I can’t help it. Shoot, I can afford to skip a few meals anyhow. That’s one thing that Joe’s always teasing me about.

It’s been three days now and the sheriff doesn’t really know what happened. The note jammed in Joe’s pocket was the only clue, and we’re all pretty sure that it was someone connected to the mines, but that could be anyone. The sheriff even said it might have even been faked so someone else would get blamed. He’d asked if Joe had been in any fights lately, knowing it was a dumb question. So yeah, it could have been anyone. Joe’s still been too sick to ask about it.

Pa’s sure that some of the mine owners are behind it, even though there ain’t no real proof. Adam told him to let the sheriff handle it, but Pa’s got a stubborn streak as wide as Joe’s, and night before last he rode into Virginia City and stormed right into their Millionaires Club meeting and demanded to know who was responsible. Don’t know what Pa was hoping to accomplish — it’s not like any of them would raise their hand and admit to having Joe kidnapped — but I think he was so angry that he wasn’t really thinking straight. He gets like that when something happens to any of his sons.

Luckily, the sheriff happened by right about that time or I think Pa would have started a fight with the whole pack of ’em. He told me and Adam about what he did yesterday, and I think now he realizes that it was the wrong thing to do. We can only be grateful that he didn’t get himself hurt and find himself laid up right next to Joe.

Anyway, when it comes right down to it, I already know who’s responsible.

“Hoss?” Adam stepped in from the dining room and glanced up the stairs at Joe’s closed door. “Does Pa need someone to ride for the doctor again?”

I glance up at him through gritty eyes. “No. Fever broke ’bout an hour ago. Pa and Hop Sing are up there changing out his bandages.”

He studies me for a long moment, and rubs his chin in that thoughtful way he does. “Then you want to tell me what else is wrong?”

I swear sometimes Adam can see what’s inside my head.

“It’s my fault, Adam,” I admit quietly. “This was all my fault.”

“Hoss, what are you talking about?”

“I was supposed to be watching him, Adam,” I reply. “It was my job. I’m the one who’s supposed to make sure…”

“Hoss…”

“…that nothing happens to him. Pa told me that…”

“Hoss!”

“What?”

“Listen to me,” he says, looking me straight in the eye. “You can’t blame yourself for what happened. There’s nothing you could have done. Nothing anyone could have done.”

“But still…”

“Still what?”

“Adam, it’s my job to look after him.”

Adam sighs heavily at my words. “Hoss, I know how you feel about him. We all do. He’s our brother and it’s natural to want to protect him.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

He sighs again. “There’s nothing wrong with it, Hoss. It’s just…well, have you ever thought that Joe maybe depends on you too much?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t think that Joe even realizes it himself,” Adam explains. “But how many fights do you think Joe gets into when he goes into town with me? Or even Pa?”

“The boy gets into a lot of fights, Adam.”

“Yeah, but it’s mostly when you’re around, Hoss.”

“Me?”

“Joe’s come to rely on you backing him so much that it’s made him a lot bolder than he should be. He knows that you’re there to save him if he gets in over his head.”

“But Adam, if I don’t, he’ll end up getting himself hurt. I have to…”

Adam raises his hand at my protest. “I know, Hoss. I know. No one wants him to get hurt. But…I don’t know….maybe he needs to lose every now and then. Maybe that’s the only way he’ll learn how to be more cautious next time. Maybe he’ll start to think first before he acts.”

“I can’t.”

“Can’t what?”

“I can’t do that, Adam,” I reply, feeling oddly guilty at the admission. “I can’t just stand back and do nothing and let something happen to him. I can’t. He needs me.”

When Adam doesn’t answer, I look up and find him staring at me. His eyebrows are scrunched together in that straight black line he gets when he’s thinking hard on something. My older brother’s different than me in a lot of ways, and probably the most different in the way that he can contemplate a situation, better by stripping away his feelings about it. Smart people are good at that, I suppose. But it’s darned near impossible for me. It’d be like ripping out my heart.

He seems to be carefully considering his words. “Hoss? Maybe….maybe you…” he says, and his voice sounds unusually hesitant. I can already tell I’m not going to like what he has to say.

“What?”

He sighs. “Maybe you need to think about what’s best for Joe, and not you.”

*****

It’s been over three weeks now, and Joe’s well on the mend to everyone’s relief, most especially mine. I know he was real pleased to hear that the burn scars would fade almost completely. It makes me chuckle when I think about how worried he was about that. That boy sure can be vain sometimes.

The sheriff never did turn up who did it, and Joe couldn’t offer much help; his captors had kept him blindfolded most of the time and didn’t say anything to give themselves away. He’d caught himself a glimpse of the man who had lured him into that alley but didn’t recognize him as anyone he’d seen around town before. Maybe a hired gun, Adam had guessed. We’re all pretty sure that they went after Joe specifically because they knew he’d be the easiest Cartwright to lure into a trap, though when Adam announced that particular theory at dinner last night, Joe stormed off in a huff. Sometimes my older brother don’t always think about people’s feelings.

Anyways, Pa is still pretty angry and upset over what happened, probably even more so than Joe. He’s been hovering over my little brother like a mother hen lately, and I know it’s getting on Joe’s nerves, but I can’t blame Pa for feelin’ the way he does. He’s just afraid–we all are–that none of this is over, and whoever hurt Joe may try to go after him again. And maybe next time they might do more than hurt him.

But Pa remains as steadfast and stubborn as ever in his refusal to give in to the mine owners, even more than ever now, and I know that whoever thought it would be a good idea to intimidate Pa into selling lumber by going after one of his sons was dead wrong.

Things seem to have quieted down in town since…well, since it happened. The mine owners sure didn’t let Pa’s outburst at their meeting sway them from continuing to convince Pa to sell to them. Shoot, they’ve even been sending gifts out to the ranch. It’s kinda funny in an odd sort of way. I don’t know why they think a brandy decanter or a box of cigars would be enough to change Pa’s mind when kidnapping his son didn’t seem to do it.

Joe’s been restricted to the ranch for now and he’s been told not to go anywhere by himself and I know he’s going plum crazy because of it. Pa’s explained to Joe that it’s because he’s still healing from his injuries and he needs to be close by in case he ends up sick again. I don’t know why Pa even bothered to give him a reason to begin with. Joe didn’t believe it, and Pa couldn’t even look him in the eye when Joe told him so.

Maybe that’s why Joe’s been in such a bad mood the last couple days.

Leastways, I got him out of the house. The last few days he’s been moping around and snarling and complaining so much that Hop Sing’s been threatening to clock him on the head with a frying pan. I know that riding fence is pretty dull as far as ranch chores go, but it don’t require much thinkin’ either. Easier to talk that way.

Maybe it’s not the right time, knowing how Joe has been having a hard time hanging onto his temper lately, but I can’t stop thinking about the things Adam said to me. I want to know…I need to know…just how right Adam is.

We’ve been riding for almost an hour and Joe hasn’t said much, just an occasional yes or no when I ask him something. He’s either bored silly or he’s got something on his mind. As I’m trying to decide the best way to get him to talk to me, he unexpectedly breaks the silence himself.

“I knew I shouldn’t have gone back there, Hoss,” he says, hanging his head.

“Gone back where?” I ask, wondering what he’s talking about.

He blinks at me. “The alley. I knew I shouldn’t have gone back there,” he says again. “I knew that maybe it was a trick or something.”

“Then why’d you do it?”

His chin jerks up defiantly. “Cause of what that guy said.”

“Which was?”

“It happened when you went into the store to haul out another bag of feed,” he explains. “He ran into me and said something about Pa being a good-for-nuthin’ and that he’s scared to come to town, and then he ran toward the back alley.”

“And you chased him.”

He shrugs impatiently. “I had to, Hoss. What he said…I mean, I thought he was just wantin’ to start a fight or something. I didn’t know that there were more of them. I should have known better, I guess.”

“Tell me something, Joe,” I ask, trying to sound casual. “Would you have known better if it had been Adam with you, and not me?”

He turns his head to look at me strangely. “What do you mean by that?”

I sigh. “Nothing, I guess.”

Joe suddenly circles his pony around in front of me and stops, blocking my path.

I rein in as well and stare at him in surprise. “What?”

He looks angry. “I want to know what you mean by that, Hoss.”

I curse myself for even saying anything in the first place, but Joe doesn’t seem to be in any mood to back down.

“Adam seems to think…now don’t get all bent outta shape, Joe…Adam seems to think that you end up in more fights when I’m around ’cause you know…cause you know that….”

“Cause I know what?” Joe’s jaw is clenched hard and he looks about a second away from exploding. I’m surprised he don’t have steam coming out of his ears.

“Never mind. It’s just…”

“No! I wanna know, Hoss,” Joe insists impatiently. “I wanna know. Adam says I end up in fights ’cause I know what?”

“Cause you know….” I’m finding it hard to get out the words, knowing exactly how Joe’s going to react to them. “Cause you know that I’ll be around to…well…save you.”

“Save me?”

“Now, Joe, it ain’t like…it’s not….he wasn’t saying that…” My words are tripping all over themselves as I try to explain. I sure wish I had kept my big mouth shut.

But it don’t matter anyhow. Joe kicks his pony hard and is off like a shot.

“Joe! Wait! I didn’t mean…” I yell out, but he’s either out of earshot or ignoring me.

“Dadburnit,” I mutter as he becomes a mere blur in the distance.

*****

I guess Joe knew I’d follow him. Oh, not right away, of course. Ain’t but a handful of horses ’round here that can beat Cochise in a dead run, least of all Chubb when he’s hauling my big ol’ carcass around. So I bide my time, since I already have my suspicions where the boy’s gonna end up. He wouldn’t have headed back home, I already know that. Even as fired-up mad as he is, Joe knows that Pa’d probably knock our heads together if he found out that Joe took off by himself and that I’d let him do it.

As I kick my horse toward Virginia City, I try to put together in my head all I have to say to my brother. Some of it comes easy, like I’m sorry, Joe; or I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings like that. But some of it’s harder. Maybe it’s because I don’t really know what I want to say. Maybe I’m just afraid to know if it’s true.

Joe’s paint pony sticks out like a sore thumb in front of the Silver Dollar, but I suppress the rush of anger I feel at the sight. Joe sure don’t need me scolding him on top of everything else.

There are relatively few customers this early in the day, and I spot him easily at a corner table. I notice he’s got a bottle of whiskey sitting in front of him instead of his customary beer. That can’t be good.

He doesn’t raise his head as I lower myself in the chair opposite him and I wait quietly for a long moment, thinking about what I should say. Wondering if I should wait for him to say something.

“Joe, I didn’t mean to…” I begin, but he quickly shakes his head.

“Don’t, Hoss,” he says. “Don’t.”

He pours himself a full glass of whiskey and tips it back in one swallow, and I stare in surprise. I didn’t even know that he liked whiskey. Guess there’re a lot of things about my little brother that I don’t know.

“Hoss,” he says after a long, tense silence. “Do you remember that day? You know–when it happened?”

“You mean, when you…when you got kidnapped?” I still have a hard time saying it out loud.

He nods. “Some of it I don’t remember too good. But what I remember most is…” He purposely avoids my gaze. “I remember that I was mad at you.”

“Mad at me?”

“When they were…they were holding me down…and they were laughing and that’s when they…God, Hoss, I was so scared.” He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. “It hurt so bad. I was yelling and…and all I could think…all I could think was that you weren’t there to stop it.”

“Joe, I tried…honest, I…”

“I know, Hoss. I know. I saw when you got hit in the alley.”

“I don’t blame you for being angry with me, Joe.”

“I’m not, Hoss.” he insists. “That’s the point. When you said…you know, when you were talking about what Adam thinks about me…” He hangs his head and his voice drops to a whisper. “He’s right, you know. What Adam said. He’s right.”

“Joe, Adam didn’t mean that…”

He continues on as if I haven’t spoken. “I guess it started when I was a little kid, you know? A lot of the guys at school were bigger than me, but boy, they sure were scared of you.” He smiles slightly. “So you know me, Hoss. I started using it to my advantage. If I knew you were around…you know…just in case, well, I guess I just felt braver. Like I could fight just as good as they could.”

His voice sounds bitter as he lifts the bottle to pour himself another glass. “But I wasn’t really brave at all, was I? I was just plain stupid.”

“You were just a kid, Joe,” I assure him. “Sometimes kids can have some dumb ideas.”

“I’m not a kid anymore, Hoss.”

“No, I know you ain’t, Joe.”

“Then I think it’s about time I stopped…acting like one,” he says seriously.

I can’t help but chuckle. “How many times have I heard that before?”

“I…mean it, Hoss,” Joe insists, and I notice his voice beginning to slur. “I can’t…keep doing this. And I can’t keep…I can’t keep putting you through this.”

“Putting me through what?” I ask, reaching for the whiskey bottle and carefully setting it on the floor beneath the table, hoping he wouldn’t notice.

“Through feeling bad, Hoss. I know you….I know you’ve been…blaming yourself for what…for what happened.” He squints at the table, apparently in search of the bottle he somehow misplaced. “It ain’t…it ain’t your fault, Hossy. Not your fault.”

He shakily pulls himself to his feet, and takes a deep breath, as if trying to steady himself. “I think…I need to go home now,” he announces a moment before losing his balance. Luckily, I’m ready for it, and I rush forward to catch him before he hits the floor.

I swing his arm around my neck and half drag, half carry him to the door. “See ya around, Bruno,” I call out as I leave the saloon with my little brother in tow, wondering how in the world I’m going to explain Joe’s condition to Pa.

“Sorry, Hossy,” Joe mumbles as I manage get him up on his horse. “Real…real sorry.”

“Me too, little brother.”

*****

It must be due to some divine grace that Pa had his nose in his ledgers when I helped Joe through the front door and up to his room. It had been an agonizing journey home for my little brother and I couldn’t help but feel bad for him even though he pretty much brought on the misery himself. I have a feeling it will be a long time before the kid has any whiskey again. Pa’s head popped up at Joe’s moaning, but I muttered something about Joe being extra tired and needing a nap, and thankfully Pa was preoccupied enough to accept the explanation.

This morning, Pa said it would be okay if Joe came with me and Adam to round up some strays in the pasture around Millstone Creek so that we can move them out with the rest of the herd next week. So that’s what we’ve been doing all the livelong day. Adam and me have been taking turns keeping Joe in our line of sight and trying not to be obvious about it, but I think Joe’s caught on anyway and he’s in a foul mood because of it. The kid ain’t stupid, after all. He’s been purposely lagging behind or riding increasingly farther distances away, all explaining that he’s just trying to do what Pa told us and look out for strays, and I guess we can’t argue with that.

Nothing’s happened for a few weeks, so maybe we’ve all gotten sloppy and dropped our guard. I don’t know. I mean, I swear Joe was out of sight for no more’n five minutes–I swear it. But even at the best of times, my little brother has the worst of luck.

Joe had rode off somewhere, I think to check the area right around the creek. Then Adam rode up to me and asked where Joe was, and then we got into a disagreement about whose turn it was to keep an eye on him and Adam complained about how hard it is to get any work done if all he’s doing is watching Joe and…well, that’s when we heard the shots.

Our eyes meet for a brief moment and we instantly urge our horses toward the creek. In the next moment, Cochise appears over a rise and tears past us as if the devil himself was giving chase, and we’re alarmed to see that the pony has lost his rider.

We continue down the hill toward the creek, and fear is clogging my throat so tight that it’s hard to breathe. I draw my gun and frantically search for any sign of my little brother. Then I see him; he’s waving at us from behind a short stand of boulders alongside the bank, and I’m almost overcome with relief as we hop from our horses to rush to his side.

“Joe!” I call out urgently. “Are you okay?” It’s only as we seek cover with him behind the rocks that I notice that he’s soaked to the skin and streaked with mud.

“What happened?” Adam asks.

“What do you think happened?” Joe replies irritably, pushing dripping hair from his eyes. “Some fool up there started shooting and Cochise got spooked and he tossed me into the creek.” He yanks his gun from his holster and scowls in disgust at the mud clogging the barrel. “And I just cleaned this yesterday,” he gripes. “I swear I’m gonna kill that horse.”

In spite of the circumstances Adam and I can’t help but snicker.

“We saw Cochise,” I tell him. “Adam ‘n I thought…”

“You saw him? Did you catch him?”

“Heck, no. He’s probably halfway back to the house by now.”

Joe looks annoyed. “Well, why didn’t you go after him? Haven’t you two yahoos noticed? I don’t have a horse now!”

Adam frowns and stares pointedly at him. “Joe, we thought you’d been hurt.”

That shuts him up quick and Joe stares down at his soggy boots. “Oh.”

“Did you see anyone, Joe?” I scan the hills in the distance and the clusters of trees nestled in scattered patches among them. The shots could have come from anywhere.

Joe nods, pointing at one of the hills. “I think I saw something moving up near that stand of firs near the top. Not sure, though. Should we go up there and see?”

“Well, I guess they’ve stopped shooting for now,” Adam observes and he catches my gaze. He’s biting his lip and I know he’s considering all of our options.

Joe’s still anxiously looking back and forth at each of us, nearly quivering in anticipation. “So what are we gonna do, then?” he says eagerly. “Are we going to go after them? You think it’s them?”

“We aren’t going to do anything,” Adam says decisively. “You and I are riding back to the house right now.”

“But Adam…”

Adam ignores him and steps over and quickly mounts his horse. He holds out a hand to help Joe up, but our little brother has dug his heels in.

“But Adam, I want to…”

“Now.”

It’s all Adam says, but in that one word he sounds so much like Pa that Joe seems momentarily stunned. After a long pause, he sighs dramatically and climbs up behind Adam.

“I’ll get him home and then I’ll get the sheriff,” Adam says in a low voice as if Joe can’t hear him. “See what you can find out, Hoss.”

“I will, Adam.”

“Be careful,” he reminds me, and I watch them as they leave. Joe turns his head and glances back at me unhappily as they disappear over the rise and out of my sight.

*****

I’m on their trail in less than an hour and am dismayed when I recognize some of the hoofprints of the kidnappers’ horses.

“You see ’em? You see the tracks, Hossy?”

It’s Joe’s voice, in a high-pitched imitation of Joe the child. I’m startled for a moment until I realize that this voice isn’t drawn from my memories; it’s Joe himself.

“Tell me the story, Hossy.”

“Why are you here, Joe?” I mumble, not even turning to look at him as I kneel to study the tracks on the ground. “You were supposed to go back up to the house with Adam.”

Joe ignores the question. “Remember that game you used to play with me when I was little?”

I smile slightly. “I remember. In fact, I was just thinking of that game not that long ago.”

“It took me years to figure out you were just funnin’ me, you know.”

“You still haven’t answered me, Joe,” I ask again. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanna help,” he says stubbornly, sounding so much like Joe the child that I almost laugh.

“Where’s Adam?”

“He rode into town for the sheriff to tell him what happened.”

“And Pa?”

Joe shrugs. “I guess Pa’s at home.”

“Home? Wait, you didn’t go home?” I straighten and turn to stare at him, and that’s when I notice that he’s still in his soiled clothes. “You wanna fill me in, little brother?”

“Oh, we found Cooch ’bout a half mile from the house. So then Adam said he was going to head out to Virginia City to get the sheriff and he told me to ride home and tell Pa what happened and to stay in the house.”

Sometimes I’m absolutely confounded by some of the stupid things my little brother does. No wonder Pa’s got all that gray hair.

“And Adam trusted you to do that?”

He nods.

“Then Adam’s an idiot.”

Joe hoots with laughter. “I’m gonna tell him you said that.”

“You do that, little brother. You just ride on back home and wait and tell him the second he walks through the door.”

“Hoss,” he says, dismounting his horse and stopping beside me to stare down at the hoofprints. “These tracks here that you’re looking at. Is it…is it them?”

I don’t answer, debating whether or not I should even tell him.

“Hoss?” he asks again, and he’s looking at me with an odd combination of fear and determination.

I realize now that there’s no chance of getting rid of him. “Yeah,” I reply grimly. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure. But only a couple of ’em as far as I can tell.”

“Do you think they’re gone, Hoss?”

Unlikely, I think to myself. But I sure as hell ain’t saying that to Joe.

“Hoss, do you?”

“I can’t say for sure, little brother.” I step away from the tracks and mount my horse and wait for Joe to do the same. “I think they’re heading west toward Buckhorn meadow. We can pick up their trail again once we get past those rocks down there.” I sigh heavily, resigned to having him tag along, knowing that Pa’s going to have a stroke when he finds out. “Just…just stay close and keep out of trouble, will ya?”

He grins widely. “Oh, I will, Hoss. I promise!”

Somehow I have a hard time believing him.

*****

It was a bad, bad idea to bring Joe along, I know that now. My little brother is so good at getting me to do what he wants that I don’t even realize I’m doing it half the time. But this time it’s not some crazy little scheme of his or new practical joke to play on Adam. This time Joe’s put himself right into the line of fire and I’m stupidly letting him do it.

I should have seen it coming. Maybe I wasn’t as alert as I should have been, maybe I wasn’t as attentive. I think my judgment has been clouded by a steadily increasing worry for my little brother’s safety.

The intruders didn’t bother to cover their tracks, and in other circumstances, I’d have been bothered by that. But I guess I got distracted. Joe’s excited chatter and endless string of questions didn’t help much either.

Before I realized it, we had followed the trail straight through Buckhorn Meadow, almost smack down the middle of it. I rein in suddenly, and am struck by how deadly quiet it has become. Even Joe’s stopped talking and now he’s looking startled, wondering why we’ve come to a stop.

I warily turn my gaze upward toward the densely forested hills surrounding us from nearly every side.

Oh, God.

“Joe,” I say quietly, trying as hard as I can to keep my voice steady. “I want you to turn around right now and ride for home as fast as you can.”

“What?” he replies incredulously. “Are you kidding me? Hoss, I don’t want…”

“Damn it, Joe! Do it!”

Joe’s eyes widen at my outburst but before I can say more a flurry of gunfire seems to explode all around us and I fling myself from my horse and seek cover behind a cluster of tall shrubs a few feet away.

“Joe!” I yell out frantically to my brother, who’s looking around in wild confusion as his agitated pony dances about nervously. “Down! Get down!”

Thankfully, he swiftly comes to his senses and he hurls himself to the ground, scooting along on his belly until he’s beside me.

“I guess we found ’em, huh?” he says, panting hard.

“I think it’s what they were counting on, little brother,” I reply grimly. “We’re in a heap of trouble here, little brother. I shoulda known… I’m real sorry I got you into this mess.”

A shadow of a grin crosses his face. “We’re in it together, Hoss.”

Gunfire continues to erupt around us from seemingly multiple directions. From our sheltered position, we can’t get a clear shot of any of ’em but I sure as hell know they’re getting clear shots of us when a bullet pings off the ground beside me. I eye a stand of boulders several yards away and make my move.

“Cover me, Joe!” I holler, not waiting to hear him respond. Maybe I should have. ‘Cause it’s only as I stumble to my feet and start running toward a nearby stand of boulders that I remember Joe’s own mud-clogged weapon.

Just as I let loose with a curse I’m hit high in my right leg and I go down hard.

I think Joe’s yelling out my name, but it’s hard to hear him above the roaring sound in my head and I wonder vaguely if I’m going to pass out. I force myself back to awareness as hard as I can, thinking only of my little brother. Joe. Joe needs me.

And in the next heartbeat, he’s here, throwing his body over mine and murmuring my name over and over even as more gunfire rends the air around us.

I wrap an arm around him in a sort of weak embrace. The agonizing pain in my leg steals my breath, but it is visions of my brother alone that fill my increasingly hazy thoughts; Joe as an infant, Joe as a child, Joe as a man; and I’m suddenly deeply heartsick that I’ve failed him.

“Joe,” I breathe, and in the next moment I feel his body convulse once, twice, as bullets slam into his back. His body falls slack against me, and I watch as his eyes close….

*****

It had been the miners all along, we know now. Well, a few highly disgruntled miners, that is; all five of ’em currently cooling their heels in the Virginia City jail. Pa’s pretty confident that the whole pack’ll soon be on their way to the territorial prison for an extended stay. We all hope so, anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever prayed so hard in my life as I did in those horrifying moments in the tall grass of Buckhorn Meadow. In a burst of strength I didn’t even know I had, I somehow managed to drag myself and my little brother to safety behind some nearby rocks and then I collapsed beneath his weight. I didn’t even notice the fortuitous arrival of Adam and the posse sometime afterward, or even that the gunfire had abruptly ceased.

But I remember clearly the cold devastation I felt when Joe’s still body was gently pulled away from mine.

It’s been more than a week since it happened, and although Joe’s condition had at first seemed dire, for once he was blessed with good luck. I don’t remember much about what the doctor said after I heard him say “He’s going to be fine, Ben,” and I don’t rightly care. All that matters now is that my little brother is getting his second chance.

I’m getting my second chance, too.

He stirs in his sleep, and he makes this funny little whimpery sound like he did when he was a kid, and I can’t help but chuckle. Much as my brother likes to pretend he’s all growed up, I know he’s still got a way to go. Maybe we both do.

Adam told me that I need to start thinking about what’s best for Joe and not for me. Joe’s growing into a man, and just like it is for everyone else, it’s gonna take a heck of a lot of stumbling til he gets it right. And as hard as that is for me, I know now that I’m gonna have to sit back and let it happen. I can’t be his shield forever. Still, I think back to that terrible moment in the meadow when my little brother nearly lost his life to save mine–when he became a sort of shield for me–and I’m content in the knowledge that he’s well on his way.

As I gaze upon his sleeping face, he stirs again and opens his eyes, staring at me quizzically.

“Hoss?” he mumbles sleepily. “Is everything okay?”

I grin at him. “You bet, little brother,” I reply. “Everything’s gonna be just fine.”

***The End***

Thanks, Dodo and Corinna, for your help and suggestions with this story; couldn’t do it without you!

Return to Lisa M.’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.