Summary: Hoss finds an old abandoned well on the Ponderosa … the hard way.
Word count: 8,648
The impact rattled his teeth and rolled his ankle and knocked the wind right out of him. It was a long minute before he could breathe again, and even longer before he managed to figure out just what had happened.
“Well, I’ll be.”
Hoss Cartwright eyed the dirt shaft, squinting against the weak sunlight that lanced through what was left of rotted boards overhead, and tried to remember if he’d known there was a covered-over well on the old homestead.
“Nope,” he finally decided, scrubbing mud and rock shards from his palms. “Don’t think so.”
In fact, he was fairly certain none of them knew. There had been a tumbledown house here—more a shed, really—before Ben Cartwright had owned the land, abandoned even when his pa arrived. Pa had shored it up years ago, and they used it when caught out in a storm or when the evening grew too late to make the trip back to the house or bunk. The shack had been surrounded by a few swaying fence posts, which still stood, and what might have been a hitching rail, which had been replaced. For all the times they’d passed through or stayed the night, though, none of them had ever noted an old well.
Part of a well. Didn’t look like it’d ever been finished.
Hoss glared at the crumbling walls around him. Didn’t really matter whether it was finished or not. It had done the trick, all right.
Dad blame it, he was really startin’ to hate wells. And there was no sweet old Mrs. Lynch to pull him out this time. The big man sighed and moved to get his legs beneath him. From the loose, muddy look of his surroundings, it could take him a while to climb his way back out. No use puttin’ it off.
Half an hour later he was beginning to get worried. The earth kept crumbling beneath him, sending him in a jumble of arms and legs back to the bottom. An hour more, and he admitted reluctant defeat—at least for the time being. His hands and face were caked with mud. His ankle, which had been only mildly injured in the fall, was beginning to send up a real protest. His mouth was parched, his stomach growled, and his breaths were coming it great heaves. It was time for a break. Time to think of some other way out—though he wasn’t sure what that might be. He wondered whether ol’ Chubby was still around, or if the riderless horse had set off for the comforts of barn and trough. A couple of shouts brought no response from the animal, and Hoss wasn’t sure whether it was a good thing or not that his horse had (hopefully, probably) started for home. Even if (when) he managed to get himself out of this well, he was stuck here now without a horse.
Well, his pa and brothers would come looking for him eventually. Although … Hoss groaned a little, remembering Ben’s enthusiasm and total focus on his guests over the past days. Maybe not his pa, then. But Adam … He stopped again, wrinkling his nose at the memory of that infatuated grin the man had worn since the moment Miss Amelia Sander—the eldest daughter of Ben’s guests—had walked through the door. Older brother couldn’t see past those cornflower eyes these days. Joe, though … No. That wasn’t even worth hoping for. Hoss sagged back against the mud and rock, aiming a frustrated groan at the uncaring sky.
“Dadgummit. I’m gonna die down here, ain’t I?”
A few large, fat drops of rain splashed against his upturned face was the sky’s only response.
Seven hours earlier
“And I didn’t even do nothin’, Adam!” Hoss threw up his hands and plopped ungracefully onto his brother’s bed. The sturdy frame shuddered, but held—as always. “She was all hunkered down lookin’ at Lilibeth and her kittens, and I asked if she wanted ta pet one, and she just started cryin’ and run off!” The big man sighed, shaking his head. “I wasn’t even that close ta her—from the barn door to the wood pile, at least.”
“Hmm.” Adam squinted into the mirror, carefully combing a black wave into place. “Um-hmm.”
Hoss scowled at his brother’s back, wondering if Adam was actually listening or if the vague noise was just acknowledgement that Hoss had been talking and now he was not. He had seen his big brother distracted over girls before, but this was just getting ridiculous.
It wasn’t the only thing ridiculous around the Ponderosa right now, though, that was sure—and if things went to plan, they had about a month more of it before everything was said and done.
He wasn’t sure he could take it. Maybe he’d move to town for the duration.
“It’s gonna be one heck of a long month if she does that every time I in walk into a room.”
“Yep.” Adam stepped back, inspecting his reflection in the glass. “Guess she’s got you figured, brother.” A frown darkened his features and he leaned in again, adjusting an invisible flaw in his perfectly groomed—ridiculously over-groomed—hair.
“Well, I wish she’d stop it! She loves them animals, and we got little ‘uns runnin’ around all over the place right now. I was just wantin’ ta show her, let her pet a few of the kittens and kids.” Hoss blew out a sigh. Adam slapped on a liberal dose from his cologne bottle. “I tell ya, Adam, it don’t make a body feel too good about hisself when a little mite like that cries just from lookin’ at him.”
“Hoss.” His brother crossed to the bed and placed a hand on his shoulder. A grin quirked the corners of his mouth. “She’s small. You’re not.” A tug and a gentle shove, and Hoss found himself stumbling into the hallway. Well, wasn’t that just fine … “Give her time, she’ll come around.” The grin widened, and Adam ducked back into the room. “I’ve gotta finish here. Let Amelia know I’ll be down soon.” The heavy door swung closed, and Hoss found himself nose to nose with … well, not Adam.
Yep. This was just fine.
“Tell Amelia,” he grumbled, turning away. “Sure, I’ll tell Amelia. I’ll tell her that fancy cologne you’re wearin’ smells like you been out makin’ moonshine in the sun, is what I’ll tell her. I ain’t your errand boy, brother …”
He trailed off as he reached the landing, taking stock of the scene below. It had become a real survival technique since the Sanders had arrived, not just the usual habit of looking over the great room before coming down. As usual, his pa and the Sanders—Mr. and Mrs. Sander, that was—sat in the big chairs around the fire, swapping stories of Pa’s and John Sander’s days at sea.
“It had been blowing for three days by that time, and between that and the bad stew, there wasn’t a one of us who wasn’t sicker than a dog …”
Hoss shuddered. Those stories … They’d been okay the first few times, but they all started to sound alike after awhile, and it was hard to laugh at something he might have already heard seven or eight times since breakfast.
“So Johnny decided that he would try for the crow’s nest again …”
A month. Were they really staying for a month? They were nice enough, and Hoss was glad that his pa had a chance to visit with friends he hadn’t seen in thirty years, but Pa hadn’t stopped talkin’ or laughin’ or tellin’ stories since they’d walked in the door. And he wanted his boys there to hear them.
All of them.
Hoss spotted Miss Amelia in the near chair, a rather fixed smile on her face and a parasol clutched in her gloved hands. Waiting for Adam and a buggy ride, no doubt. A flicker of movement caught his eye, and he squinted across the sitting area to find Joe peering cautiously around the kitchen corner. Little brother’s eyes darted furiously, finally settling on Hoss. Joe edged out further and mouthed a long string of words, greatly exaggerated and completely unreadable.
Now, just what was he up to?
“The hail had given that old nest a real battering, though, and …”
Whatever it was, it probably spelled trouble. Hoss grimaced, torn between ignoring his brother and a sad sort of curiosity over what disaster might be next in the making. Truth be told, he had expected Joe to be right in line behind Adam for Miss Amelia’s attention. His little brother had never been one to ignore a purty gal, and she was a right purty little gal—though not his type, not after the shrieks she made that first day when she found that little goat kid nibblin’ on her skirt. Hadn’t even put a hole in it, and you’da thought a cougar was on the attack. His brothers didn’t mind that kinda thing so much, though, and he’d been expectin’ a right good time of it, watchin’ them scrap over her. Mighta’ happened, too, if not for those two boys and that prank with the water trough and the feather pillow that first night. Joe had sworn revenge, and the youngest Cartwright had been skulking around after them Sander boys for the past days, riggin’ traps and jumpin’ out from behind barns and all in all actin’ more like twelve than twenty hisself.
Was probably for the best. Adam woulda wiped the floor with him, in the matter of Miss Amelia. Little brother still depended too much on looks and smooth talkin’, when what the lady really seemed to want to talk about was all them books linin’ older brother’s shelves.
Nope, not his type at all. Give him a girl that wanted walks and wildflowers any day…
“Johnny was hanging on for dear life …”
Joe got overconfident and stepped out too far, forgetting that the sideboard had been shifted to allow for extra room in the dining area. The thump was muffled, but caught Ben’s attention. Their pa held up a hand, looking around. “Joe, is that you?”
Little Joe shook his head frantically, mouthed another desperate, unreadable plea, and made a frantic dive back around the corner.
Hoss sighed and started down the stairs, making enough racket to draw his pa’s attention. That boy was sure gonna owe him.
Hoss heard the faint scuttle of boots across stone flooring, and the click of the outer kitchen door. Ben motioned him down. “Come on down, son. Join us! We were just talking about … you wouldn’t believe some of the storms we managed to live through …”
“Uh, sure Pa.”
Wouldn’t believe. Well, maybe not this time last week. And now he still didn’t believe it, but for a whole different reason. His pa and John Sander were sure enough tellin’ fish stories, whether they meant to or not. Nobody coulda’ lived through some of the stuff he’d heard this week—leastways, not as many times as they claimed. Hoss lumbered reluctantly down the stairs and sank onto the big stone hearth, waving away his pa’s offer of a chair. A chair was too comfortable, too permanent. The hearth was good for a quick getaway, when he made his move.
“What was you, uh …” He almost couldn’t get the words out. “What was you all talkin’ about?”
Ben’s face lit, and Hoss decided that sitting through a repetition—he just knew they’d heard about Johnny and the crow’s nest before—was almost worth it. The look Miss Amelia shot him was darn near cold, but Alice Sander just smiled serenely over her embroidery. She had been making somethin’ with a bunch o’ little ships on it since they’d got here—cushions or some such. Seemed like a lot o’ trouble for cushions that would probably just get dirtied up with mud or … but maybe they didn’t get blood on their cushions in the East. Huh. Hoss ignored Miss Amelia’s frown, listening to his pa with half an ear and puzzling over whether cushions really stayed clean in Boston, where Pa and Adam’s ma and the Sanders were from. Miss Amelia straightened suddenly, her annoyed expression dropping into a bright smile, and he didn’t have to look around to know that Adam had joined them.
“Pa, Mr. and Mrs. Sander.” Adam clasped their pa’s shoulder and nodded politely to the Sanders before turning to Miss Amelia. “Amelia, are you ready?” He offered his arm and pulled out those dimples in that way Adam had—the one that made girls turn red and stammer, and that made Hoss want to smack him upside the head.
No amount of protest was ever gonna convince him that older brother didn’t know exactly what he was doin’ with them things …
“Of course.” Amelia rose, placing one gloved hand on Adam’s arm.
Alice leaned forward. “What are your plans for the day?”
“Adam said he would take me to see the lake,” Amelia chirped, smiling up at the man in question. The Sanders murmured their approval, and her pa’s eyes lit like he wanted to go along—which was surely not what the two o’ them had in mind. Pa frowned.
“Adam, it’s been raining for several days. Are you sure the paths to the lake are dry enough for the buggy?”
“I know it’s been raining, Pa. We’d have been there before now if it wasn’t.” Adam grinned back down at the little blonde on his arm, and Hoss just stopped himself groaning aloud. It was getting downright sickening in here. His brother turned a reassuring smile on Amelia’s parents. “I checked out most of the trail last night after the rain let up. We’ll be fine.”
Pa nodded slowly. “All right then. You’ll be gone the day, I expect—have a good time.” He looked around to his other guests. “If it stays dry, perhaps we’ll head up tomorrow.”
“Very good, Cartwright!” Sander boomed, resettling in his chair. Hoss couldn’t help notice Miss Amelia release a tiny sigh of relief. “I’m anxious to see your land.”
“Well, you will see it.” Ben sank back down as well, waving Adam and Amelia away. “No need to worry about that. I’m terribly proud of the Ponderosa.”
“An’ you should be, Pa,” Hoss added earnestly, drawing nods from the Sanders and the flash of a grin from his father. The door closed behind Adam and the lady, and Ben looked back around.
“Where were we, then?”
Sigh. “Uh … Cap’n Tracey, Pa.”
“Tracey! Ah, yes, good old Tracey.”
Yep. Good ol’ Tracey.
He waited another half hour, until Pa and John Sander were laughin’ so hard they barely knew anyone else was in the room, then slid off of the hearth. “Pa, I gotta go check on Chubby, he … uh, he mighta’ pulled somethin’ yesterday.” Which was true, if only just. He’d suspected it for a bit, but the horse had done well all afternoon and now he doubted that there had ever been anything to the odd gait but rough ground and a bit of high spirits. Still, it never hurt to be careful and he fully intended to check out that leg before riding again.
“Sure, sure, son.” Ben waved a distracted hand, and Hoss knew his escape was good. He ducked through the sitting area and out the other side, pausing in surprise when Alice Sander squeezed his wrist as he passed. He halted, ready to ask if she needed something, but the lady only dropped a wink and a small smile, then bent her head once again over her embroidery. Hoss grinned, ducked his head, and made for the door.
It was good to get outside. The spring rains, for all they were a nuisance, made everything fresh and new. The morning was cool and crisp, the sun had actually made an appearance, and Hoss had always preferred the out-of-doors to anyplace else anyway. The very stillness of the yard should really have made him suspicious, he admitted later—the area around the Cartwright home, the stables and the well and the pens beyond, had become a constant battleground for Joe and the young Sander boys over the past days—but Hoss paid little mind at the time. He was intent on getting to his horse, and the incident-free passage from house to stable further lulled him. He spent some time checking the leg in question, which was sound, and another long while currying the big animal until he shone. Chubb showed his appreciation by leaning more and more of his weight upon Hoss as the grooming progressed, and eventually the big man laughed, shoving the horse away.
“Get up, you lazy ol’ thing. Now, I don’t have anything for you—I left the house in a bit of a hurry—but maybe I can get you somethin’ from Hop Sing later, yeah?” Chubb did not seem entirely pleased with this plan, but let Hoss go with only a single nip on the back of his vest. Hoss chuckled, pushing the horse away, and moved toward the door.
A single despairing cry—“Hoss, no!”—was all the warning he got, and by that point the stable door was too far open for the warning to matter. The water cascaded over him, followed by an open bag of flour, and before he reached the safety of the yard, Hoss was covered to the waist in a white, sticky paste.
“Little Joe!” He roared and flung the stable door wide. “Dadgummit, you leave me outta this thing! I ain’t gonna—” Intent on locating the offender and exacting justice, he failed to notice the small animal in his path, tripped, and sprawled headlong in the dust. He rolled, and then froze as he came face to face with the familiar black and white stripes. No. Please, no…
Who’d dragged a skunk into this?
He did manage to get his eyes closed in time, but it was otherwise—once again—too late. Hoss came to his feet cussing up a storm, but even that was drowned by the howls of young laughter and his little brother’s familiar hyena cackle.
“Hoss …” Joe could barely breathe for laughing. The Sander boys, for all that they usually treated Hoss with a wary respect because of his size, were hardly better. They did, unlike his brother, hide themselves a safe distance away behind a water barrel. “Hoss, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t …” Little Joe dissolved again into helpless giggles. Hoss glowered for a long moment, but his wrath was lost upon his little brother. Finally, he shook his head and stomped away. Fine. This was just fine. He wasn’t gonna be able to eat at the table for days, not like this …
He rounded the side of the stable and plowed directly into their smallest guest.
Alicia Sander was the tiniest little seven-year-old Hoss had ever seen, with the biggest blue eyes. She was fascinated by every animal on the ranch, especially the hoards of young that were all part and parcel of this time of year. She was also terrified of him. The child had hid behind her father upon first sight of the big man, and no amount of coaxing to see baby goats or baby cows or baby cats had convinced her that Hoss was anything less than downright petrifying (Adam had taught him that word one time—somethin’ ta do with turnin’ ta stone, which seemed ta fit right well here because it was about was the little gal did whenever Hoss appeared on the scene).
Least this time he couldn’t blame her. Anybody would be startled ta have a huge, pasty white, grumbling, skunk-smellin’ man trip right over her, sending them both sprawling and the chickens darting away in a rush of wings and cackling. Alicia lay still for a moment, staring at him with large, tear-filled eyes, then she shrieked, scrambled to her feet, and darted away toward the house. Hoss sighed, letting his head fall back onto the packed earth. Clucking nervously, the chickens began to circle, drawn by their feed but unwilling to approach the overwhelming odor of skunk musk.
“Hoss?” Joe edged around the stable corner, wearing that cautious expression that made him look about ten years younger. He stared after the disappearing child, then looked back down to his brother—who might have been laid out for a nice nap beside the stable, except for … Well. “You, uh … you all right?” A rustling just out of sight indicated that the Sander boys, too, were viewing their handiwork—though from a safer distance.
“Joe.” Hoss took a long breath, concentrating on keeping his voice calm and even. “Chester told me yesterday that fence along the south road needs ridin’.” He struggled to sit, stretching to be sure nothing had been damaged in the fall. “Don’t expect me ’til I’m back.”
Joe bit his lip. “Ah, Hoss, we didn’t …” He offered a hand, which Hoss ignored, rolling cautiously to his feet and shifting to settle everything back into place. “Hoss, I …” Joe trailed away at the sight of Hoss’s face, and nodded. “Okay.” He hesitated, looked as if he would speak again, then just turned and high-tailed it back into the front yard.
Hoss brushed flour paste flakes from his arms and hair. “Good riddance,” he muttered, and went to find Hop Sing.
The cook was bringing in wood for the stove, but stopped to stare in open disbelief as Hoss approached the back door.
“Hop Sing, I’m—”
“What happen to you?”
Hoss snorted. “Joe an’ his little posse o’—”
“Stop!” Hop Sing threw up a hand. “You no come closer! You stink!”
“Yep,” Hoss ground out. He halted a good distance away, eyeing the cook imploringly. “I’m gonna go ride fence for the day, you got some sandwiches or somethin’ I can—”
“That my new bag of flour?” the cook demanded. Hoss scowled.
Hop Sing spat out a string of words in his own language that Hoss was pretty sure it was just as well he couldn’t understand. “Those boys be the death of me!”
“Of all of us, probably.”
“Little Joe twenty, not two.”
“Well …” Hoss shrugged, starting to feel philosophical about it all again now that he wasn’t face to face with the little miscreant. “At least he’s keepin’ those boys outa’ everybody else’s hair.”
Hop Sing eyed Hoss for a moment, then shook his head and shooed the middle Cartwright away. “You not come in my kitchen. I make sandwiches, call you when ready.”
Hoss grinned his thanks, spirits reviving at the thought of one of Hop Sing’s lunches. “Thanks. I’ll go saddle Chubby and be back.”
“You not come in.”
“Nope, I won’t.”
The yard was still again as Hoss crossed back to the stable. He kept a wary eye out in case Joe or one of the Sander boys came back for more, but they had apparently decided they’d had enough. Either that, or Joe had diverted the boys’ attention. His younger brother had seemed genuinely sorry about the whole mess once Alicia had gotten dragged in. Joe knew how it rubbed Hoss that the little girl was afraid of him. Hoss saddled a protesting Chubb—the big horse probably resented his changed scent as much as he himself did—and led him back out of the stable, wondering just how he was going to get his guns or a change of clothes without alerting his Pa to Joe’s latest antics. That was just a whole mess of trouble he wasn’t willing to stir up.
Hop Sing, though, had him covered. The cook handed him not only a packet of sandwiches, but a pile of extra clothing, his hat, his rifle, and his gun belt. Hoss grinned, relieved.
“Thanks, Hop Sing. This is real great.”
“You no go in house.”
“Nope.” Hoss chuckled. “Nope, you’ve about got everything I need right here.”
Hop Sing plopped a sealed tin on top of Hoss’s armful. “Now have everything.”
Frowning, Hoss juggled his clothes and guns until he was able to grasp the tin and pull it open. It held a thick, gritty white paste. “What’s this?”
“Yeah, but what is it?”
“You scrub! Clothes too.” Hop Sing gestured to Hoss’s skunk-stained apparel. “I not wash until you scrub.”
“Should be Joe doin’ the scrubbin’…” Hoss grumbled, sniffing at the paste. He wrinkled his nose. “But Hop Sing, this stinks!”
“Better than smelling like skunk, yes?”
Well, that was a good point. Hoss shrugged, nodded agreement, and tucked the tin away. “Thanks again, Hop Sing. See you tonight.”
The cook shooed him away, and Hoss ambled across to his waiting horse. His bags packed and rifle snugly secured, he swung onto Chubb and trotted from the yard, feeling better than he had in days. The wind was in his hair (what there was of it) and the sun warmed his shoulders (for now, anyway). He could look forward to a long day of just him and Chubb and few broken-down fence rails. Not a soul anywhere for miles.
Right now, that seemed pretty good. A little peace and quiet was just the thing.
Yep. Just the thing.
They rode at a good pace for almost an hour before Hoss finally turned Chubb off the road and picked across a stretch of pastureland to a good-sized watering hole. He stripped his skunk-stained clothes and splashed in, taking a good scoop of Hop Sing’s paste with him. It was gritty, not foamy, and he had to go back to the bank several times for more, working it across his arms and chest, his face, and through his hair. In the end, though, it seemed to work. Mostly. At least, he didn’t stink like skunk no more. Didn’t smell like no bed of roses neither, and he wondered again just what was in the stuff … but it was prob’ly better he didn’t know.
Anyway, most any smell was better than skunk.
He scrubbed his clothes with the rest of the tin, then laid them out on the grass to dry. For a few minutes he just sat, soaking in the silence and the spring sun and watching his shirt flap in the mild breeze, then decided there was no use wastin’ time. Hoss pinned shirt and pants down with a couple of rocks, redressed in his new clothes, and swung back onto Chubb. He’d get on with his ridin’, and just pick these up on his way back through. With any luck, they wouldn’t get trampled by cattle or eaten by elk or dragged off by something lookin’ to make a nest. Probably, no animal would go near them still, anyway—the paste didn’t seem to have worked out as well on fabric. And if they did … well, Hop Sing was already mad. Couldn’t get no worse. Hopefully.
He was wheeling Chubb back toward the fence when he saw the tracks. Hoss pulled the big animal up short and dismounted again, eyeing the large prints. “Well, ain’t that just great?” He poked around at them, then moved along to the next patch of bare earth, catching the corner of another at its edge. Muttering to himself, Hoss stood and squinted along the track line. They was sure enough headed into the Ponderosa, not out. Of course. “Well, dad burn it.” Hoss rubbed at his chin. He could keep on with his ride and report the cougar to his Pa when he got back that evening. Probably Pa would send him and Joe out after it tomorrow. Or, he could follow along now for a ways and see where the tracks led. Could be that the animal would turn and head back out of their range, or that he’d come across some sign of its lair in short order. He glanced back, toward the west. Clouds were buildin’ up again over the lake, and that decided him. Another good rain could wash away a lot of sign, and they couldn’t afford ta have a big cat snackin’ on their herds for any length of time. He remounted, pulled his rifle from its sheath, and checked his ammunition. Just in case.
The tracks did not turn back, and the rest of the afternoon was given over to their pursuit. They wandered, but kept up an overall westward direction which surprised Hoss a little. Usually they’d find cougars in the hillier, wooded areas closer to the borders of the Ponderosa. This one, though, seemed content to wander through the more open pastureland at its heart. Might have figured out that the pickins were easier here than in its own usual habitat, and that made it even more important to track the big cat down. More cattle in them areas, more to lose. And closer to the house too, which was not something they wanted to encourage.
The next round of spring weather rolled in quicker than he’d expected, and nothin’ to sneeze at. Heavy rains, lightning, thunder, and even a spell of small hail all got into the mix before the clouds managed to spend themselves. Didn’t look like this was gonna be the end of things, either.
Just what had made him think this would be a good day to ride fence, anyhow?
His shirt clung to him, his wet pants chafed in impolite places, and water dripped off of his hat down his back. “Guess them other clothes won’t be none too dry when I get back, neither.” Well, didn’t seem to be much he could do about that now. Anyway, there was prob’ly nothing on the Ponderosa that wasn’t a little wet after the past days. Another thought occurred, and Hoss chuckled. “Wonder if Adam and Miss Amelia got caught out? Sure wasn’t what older brother had planned for the day.”
Huddled in the copse where he had taken refuge from the worst of the storm, Hoss again considered his options. It made the most sense to give it up and take off for home—evening was coming on fast, and he was still a good ways out. He was feelin’ stubborn, though, and the idea of givin’ up on the hunt with so much time put in didn’t set well with him. He squinted again along the line of tracks, and remembered the old cabin was off that way. All right, then. He’d keep on, and if he hadn’t come across his quarry by the time he hit the cabin, he’d spend the night there and go on back in the morning. Joe knew he was out, Hop Sing had packed enough food for three lunches—even Hoss-sized, as his family would say—and no one would think anything of him beddin’ down in one of their outbuildings. Might be a nice break from the polite conversation-and-checkers theme of the last few evenings.
Satisfied, Hoss moved out of the trees and set off once more after his prey.
Hoss leaned his back against the muddy shaft, stared up into the darkening sky, and sighed. He’d been down here a couple of hours now, if the overcast wasn’t throwing off his time sense, and it had rained on him again not long after he’d given up his first attempts to free himself. He was already wet, so that didn’t matter much, but the water wasn’t draining too well—the ground had already soaked up about all it could over the past week—and he had a sick feeling he was going to be sitting in a good puddle of water before too much longer.
And he’d thought his pants had chafed before.
He hoped that evening really was setting in, and it wasn’t another rainstorm comin’.
The cougar tracks had led him right to the cabin, actually, and then on past. Hoss was starting to wonder if maybe its lair was actually in the hills around the lake, and it was just headin’ back home after a detour to check out the nearby countryside. The land was already starting to rise—the cabin itself backed against a good sharp hill, overgrown with brush at the bottom and crowned with the ever-present Ponderosa pines. It was a right scenic little spot, actually, and they’d spent a good amount of time picnicking in the area when Marie was still with them. He wasn’t at all surprised when the prints skirted the cleared area at the front and plunged into the brush at the base of the rise. Yep, he’d just bet this big fella was on its way home. He tossed Chubb’s reins toward a nearby bush and pushed into the brush after them.
It was a mistake.
How he and his brothers had managed to miss that well, with all the runnin’ and jumpin’ and climbin’ they’d done in this area when they were small, he’d never know. Hoss supposed it could be because he’d been comin’ in from the side this time, following the cougar’s path, and not just plowing straight in like they used to do. It was in kind of an odd place, tucked up so close to the rock face, and he wondered now if it was less a well and more a spot to collect runoff from the hills above. At any rate, it wasn’t finished, whatever it was supposed to be, and it wasn’t up to collectin’ much of anything without a good solid week of rain already in.
He was glad for that, anyway. He didn’t need the water rising any faster than it already was.
And he hoped that cougar didn’t take a mind to come back this way.
The spring night wasn’t cold, but it was still chillier than he might have liked, with his damp clothes and wet feet. Hoss tucked his fingers beneath his arms, stomped his feet—not too hard, though, because the first time he’d done that he’d splashed himself all the way up to his thighs—and tucked his nose down against a wrist. Didn’t help much, but it kept away the worst of the chill.
He hoped it didn’t rain again.
It rained twice before midnight. The first time was another downpour, with an impressive lightning show he might have enjoyed from safe indoors and a quick burst of good-sized hail that cut up his arms a little as he protected his head. The water rose to his shins. The second time was a good steady drizzle, almost warm compared to the nippy air. It didn’t do much to the water level, thankfully, and it didn’t last longer than half an hour, but by then Hoss was just plain tired of being wet.
Didn’t look like that was going to end any time soon.
When it stopped, he almost wished that it hadn’t –the chillier air set him to shivering.
He couldn’t really feel his fingers by the time grey edged the morning sky, and he had long ago given up any attempt to stay on his feet—his knees didn’t seem to want to work like they should. His legs and hips were also numb, which was strange since the water he sat in didn’t really feel all that cold. He hadn’t slept too well, either. Oh, he’d dozed some, but worry over the possibility of that cougar coming back had kept him semi-alert even in sleep.
It was stupid, really. That ol’ cougar was long gone—them tracks had been a couple days old. And anyway, it wasn’t like it was gonna jump down in here with him. Cougars were smarter than him—too smart to get themselves stuck like this.
Didn’t really matter anyway. His rifle hadn’t fallen in with him, and his gun was underwater. Wasn’t going to do him much good wet.
With morning the rain was finally gone, the sun burning away what was left of the cloud cover. Which was good—the Sanders sure hadn’t had much in the way of weather since they’d got here—but left him feeling hot and sticky. Hot, sticky, and shivering. Plumb odd, that.
Hoss wondered if anybody was out looking for him yet. Probably not, not unless ol’ Chubby had made his way home.
Come on, Chubby. Get on home, boy.
He thought about making another try at climbing out, but right now even the idea required too much effort, let alone any actual attempt. Anyway, his legs and knees still felt like jelly, and he didn’t think he’d be able to do much climbing on them anyway. He’d just have to get some more sleep, then see if he felt up to it.
Settling back against the mud shaft, Hoss pulled his hat over his eyes and dozed off again.
Voices drifted over him, loud and close. For a minute he thought he must be still sleepin’—he’d been havin’ a good conversation with that cougar ’bout his pa’s seafaring days, and with John Sander over what kind of price they might get for skunk and flour at the market next year—but then Joe’s sharp laughter rang out. That didn’t fit. Hoss pried his eyes open.
He wasn’t dreamin’ at all. Them voices were real, and they were here.
What was Joe doin’ out this way? Hoss squinted, trying to order his thoughts. Maybe Chubb had gone on home after all. But no. Joe was laughin’, and a missin’ man weren’t no laughing matter. So, if they weren’t looking for him, then … what?
A chorus of younger giggles joined in—sounded like the Sander boys. And was that … was that Miss Amelia? A picnic, then. Oh, joy. A picnic. Of course they would pick the day he was stuck in a well to revive the old picnic spot.
Pick a picnic … Pack a picnic … Hmm …
Were Pa and the Sanders here too? Wasn’t this just going to be embarrassing as all get-out …
Didn’t matter. He wanted out.
“Hey!” His throat was sore, and he couldn’t manage much volume. “Hey!” Pathetic. If they weren’t right on top of him, no one would ever hear. Hoss looked around for something he could throw or bang together, but he didn’t end up needing it because all of a sudden little brother’s head popped right over the edge of the well.
Scared the dickens out of him, even though he’d been hoping for exactly that.
“Hoss?” Joe’s voice cracked on the upswing, like he was fourteen again.
Hoss scowled. “Dadburnit, Little Joe! Give a man some warning next time, would ya?”
“Warning? About what?” Joe eyed both the well and his brother, fighting back laughter. “Hey, what are you doin’ down there, anyway?” The battle lost, his grin flashed. “Finally found some peace and quiet? I knew you weren’t out fixin’ fences.”
Joe. It just had to be Joe. Hoss snorted, rolled his eyes, and tugged his hat back down. On second thought, maybe he’d just stay put.
Too late. Little Joe was already calling behind him, “Hey Adam! Look who’s here!”
Joe and Adam.
Of course Adam. Miss Amelia was here, wasn’t she? Couldn’t have one without the other …
Older brother appeared behind Joe. He stood staring for a long moment, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, head tilted in mild curiosity. “What is it with you and wells, anyway?”
“Everybody thinks he’s a funny man,” Hoss grumbled, rubbing at his scratchy jaw. His head was really startin’ to ache, right behind the eyes—he hadn’t had much to drink since taking up residence down here. Maybe they’d let down a canteen or somethin’, since nobody seemed in an all-fire hurry to pull him back out.
“Well, you’re in another well. Hard not to.”
Yeah, yeah. “Look, can you just get me outa here?” He sounded whiny and hated it, but he was also at the end of his rope. And speakin’ of, he hoped they’d brought one with them. Hoss looked up into his brothers’ grinning faces and sighed. “Please?”
Joe stood, still laughing. “I’ll get a rope.” Oh good. Little brother disappeared, and Adam crouched down beside the well.
“What are you doing down there? I thought Joe said you were riding fence on the south road.”
“Yeah.” Hoss pushed up the brim of his hat so that he could see better, but the sun sent another lance of pain through his head and he pulled it back into place. “Came across some cougar sign, spent the day trackin’ it across the Ponderosa.”
Adam frowned. “You get it?”
“Naw, it came through here and went up.” Hoss threw a sloppy gesture toward the rise behind them. “Didn’t follow.”
That was good. Made it sound like he’d had a choice…
“I see that.”
Joe reappeared. “You sure you’re ready to come up? We can leave if you still—”
“Just shut up and throw me the rope.”
Chuckling, Joe cast down one end. “I don’t know, Adam. We let him out alone for one day, and look what happens.”
Strangely, he couldn’t get his fingers to work. They felt … clumsy and wooden, and he couldn’t seem to hold onto the rope. He tried several times to knot it around himself, but kept losing his grip and dropping it into the muddy water.
“It’s the well, Joe. You know he can’t stay away. Always wants to see what’s at the bottom.”
That water. He’d had to drink some of it overnight, since his canteen was still hangin’ from his saddle somewhere. (Where’d Chubb get off to, anyway? Sure hadn’t gone on home, like Cochise always did when Joe was in trouble. Course, that weren’t poor Chubby’s fault—Cooch had a lot more practice with that kinda thing.) It had been gritty, not surprisingly—tasted of mud and slime and set his stomach to rolling. Hadn’t settled much yet, come to think. He still kind of felt like throwing up.
“What is it about them, you think?”
He wished they’d just shut up about the well.
“Don’t know. Maybe he’ll explain it one day …” Adam tugged at the rope. “You ready?”
Nope. Not at all.
“Can’t get it tied. I’ll just try an’ hold on.”
“How long you been down there, anyway?” Joe hung over the edge, frowning. Made Hoss a little dizzy to look at him, all upside down like that.
“Uh …” He was tired, and tired of talking about it. “Not sure. Was before dark. Before supper.”
Supper. His stomach stirred sluggishly. Hopefully. He sure was hungry …
Above him, the laughter switched off.
“Hoss?” Adam again, his voice sharper now. “You were down there all night?”
“Yeah. Can ya just get me out, please?”
A quick babble of voices, and then a splash startled him awake again.
Awake. Had he fallen asleep?
“Hey there.” Joe crouched beside him, one hand gripping his shoulder. Little brother’s voice was tighter now, focused. “Why don’t I give you a hand?” Joe surveyed the tiny area. “Adam, it’s shin deep standin’ down here, he’s up to his waist.” He stripped his gloves, felt at the skin of Hoss’s neck and cheeks, then added, “Might want to get somebody to start a fire in the cabin.”
Adam’s shadow nodded, then disappeared.
Fire. That sounded real good …
“Boy, you sure picked a night for it, didn’t you?” Joe looped the rope around his chest and under his arms, tying it off with practiced speed.
Made it look easy.
“Seems that way.”
“Let’s get you up, huh?”
With help, Hoss managed to claw his way to his feet and stay there, resting his weight against the crumbling mud. His legs were still none too steady, but things were lookin’ up. So to speak. Adam was back by then, and from the sound of things he’d brought the Sander boys with him. Seemed like Pa wasn’t here, then—small favors, for sure. Right now, he’d take what he could get. Adam spent a few minutes giving instructions, and then almost before he knew what was happening, Hoss was up and over the edge, landing heavily on the blessedly flat, blessedly dry(ish) ground.
He groaned, rolled over, and turned his face into the sun.
Adam shook him, holding out a canteen. “Drink.”
He obliged, and for a minute wasn’t sure it was going to stay down. After a stretch, though, his stomach settled again and his brothers ducked beneath his arms, hauling him to his feet.
“You hurt anywhere?” Adam asked as they hustled him toward the cabin. Hoss shook his head.
“Naw. Turned my ankle is all, but I can’t even feel that no more.”
Older brother sent little brother a grimace. Joe nodded. “I’ll check it out when we get him back down.”
“Still here, boys. Don’t need ta talk about me like I’m not.”
“Despite your best efforts, hmm?” Adam grinned against Hoss’s scowl.
Time to change the subject. “Anybody seen Chubby? I guess he didn’t come home …”
“No, he sure didn’t.” Adam squinted around the clearing. Joe glanced back over Hoss’s shoulder, catching the eyes of his partners in crime.
“Hey boys! Look around, see if you can’t find my brother’s horse!”
The Sander boys scattered, and his brothers hauled him into the cabin. Miss Amelia was inside, tending a small fire in the woodstove (huh—he wouldn’ta thought it, guess he needed ta give her more credit) and heating something in the coffee pot. Already, the dry warmth was enough to make him groan in pure contentment as they settled him down near the stove.
Joe grinned and thumped down beside him. His ankle woke up when Joe began pulling at his boots and socks, but it didn’t really feel all that bad. Spending the night in that cold water had prob’ly done helped that situation. Adam stripped his shirt and vest before Hoss could even protest—Miss Amelia was in the room, after all—but practically before he knew what hit him, older brother had him rubbed him down with one of the spare blankets and wrapped in another. Felt good. Hoss let out a long sigh, leaned back against the wall, and turned his face to the heat. Boy, it was sure nice to be outta that hole. He closed his eyes, and was starting to drift a little when a small hand touched his brow. Blinking awake again, Hoss found little Miss Alicia hovering.
Alicia? This was the closest she’d ever gotten to him.
“Well … hey, little gal.”
She nodded, moved from checking his forehead to his cheeks, and then on to a solemn examination of his arms. Her china blue eyes were serious. “Does this hurt?”
For a minute, he wasn’t even sure what she was talkin’ about. Then, he saw a couple of small cuts from where the hail had gotten him the night before. “Oh, those? Naw, they ain’t too bad.”
Alicia, apparently, did not feel the same. She turned to Adam, who was watching with folded arms from a spot against the wall. “Mr. Adam, I think you should wrap these up.”
Older brother bit back a smirk, and responded with an equally solemn, “I think you’re right. I’ll go find something to do just that.” He dropped Miss Amelia a wink, then started for the door.
Those cuts was only little things, hardly even worth noticing. “Aw, Adam, you don’t need to—”
“Mr. Little Joe, how is his ankle?”
Alicia circled around to Hoss’s feet, where Joe did not even bother to hide his amusement as he showed her the slightly bruised, mildly swollen limb. Hoss sent a puzzled glance over the girl’s head to her sister. Miss Amelia was laughing at him.
“You’re injured, Mr. Cartwright. It no longer matters how big you are—the moment it happened, you became nothing but another doll or puppy that needed nursing.” The lady’s delicate lips pressed together, a mixture of affection and amusement coloring her tone. “Alicia is very serious about these things—I think you’ll find you have quite a dedicated caretaker for the next several days.”
Oh. Well … okay.
“Long as she ain’t scared o’ me no more, I guess.”
Miss Amelia smiled again, lifting the coffee pot from the woodstove, and for the first time she didn’t seem like some stuck-up, citified girl. She poured water carefully into a waiting mug. “Alicia, if you’re very careful, you can bring this tea to Mr. Hoss.”
The little girl scurried over, took the tea carefully from her sister, and then inched toward him, holding the mug steady on a bent tin plate. “Hoss is a funny name.”
He just laughed. Wasn’t the first time he’d ever heard that… “Yep. It sure enough is.”
The door banged open, and the two boys—did he even know their names?—tumbled in. “We found your horse!”
Hoss straightened. “He alright? Where was he?”
“Yep! He’s fine—just around the hill, eating a nice patch of grass.”
Of course he was. Just lazin’ about like nothin’ was wrong in the world. Ol’ Chubby was definitely gonna need some lessons from Cooch.
“How’s that feel?” Joe finished and leaned back to survey the wrapped ankle. It was nice and snug—he’d done a good job. Hoss nodded his thanks, and took the tea carefully from Alicia.
“Thank ya much, little lady.” She nodded, watching gravely until he took a drink. It did the trick, all right … slid smoothly down his throat and curled into a warm ball in his belly, and finally he was starting to feel more like a man and less like a drowned rat. “That’s sure good.”
Her face lit up, and for the first time since they’d arrived, little Alicia Sander smiled at him.
He guessed maybe falling down a well had its good points, after all.
“I’ll get you something to eat.” She started to bustle away, then turned suddenly back to pat his arm. “We’re having a picnic.”
“Sounds real tasty.”
“Mr. Hop Sing let me help pack it.”
“That’s right special. He don’t let just anybody in his kitchen.”
She smiled again and hurried off. Joe settled beside him, and Miss Amelia sent the boys back out with Alicia to bring in the food and other supplies. Hoss took another long sip of tea, wiggled his toes in the fire warmth, and sighed.
“Better put that tea down before you go to sleep and spill it on yourself.”
“Leave off, Joe.”
His little brother cackled softly. Miss Amelia made another cup of tea. Adam reentered, settled next to him, and set about solemnly binding his arm. Hoss snorted in his brother’s direction, but made no attempt to stop him. No need ta make trouble with Miss Alicia …
“You’re gonna sleep right through lunch.”
“You know I ain’t gonna do no such thing, Adam. I’m starvin’!”
“You’re always starving, boy.”
The door banged open. Alicia and the boys dragged two packets and three baskets and a couple of jugs into the cabin—enough food to feed a small army. Well, that was Hop Sing for you, and he sure wasn’t gonna complain. The girls set out the food, and his brothers rustled up some more tin mugs for tea and coffee. They sprawled on the floor—even Miss Amelia—and they ate, and laughed, and played charades when the sky clouded up and sent some more rain their way, and some of them (Hoss) napped. The afternoon hours crept by, and Hoss didn’t remember the last time he’d had a better day.
Even with startin’ it stuck in a well.
Peace and quiet was good and all, but sometimes spendin’ the day with family and new friends was just the thing.
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