Summary: A worried father writes to his wounded son. But will Joe ever get to read the letter?
Word Count: 2957
I’m sure you will wonder why I’m writing this letter. Be assured, I’m wondering at it myself. But having been in this chair by your bed for the better part of four days now, I’ve finally accepted that I need to share the details, and quite frankly, it’s easier to write than to speak these words. Besides, Adam and Hoss are beyond exhausted as they’ve been by your side constantly, the three of us doing our best to keep your fever down. Both your brothers are sleeping now, fulfilling their promise in exchange for my nap earlier this morning. So you see, I have no one to talk to right now, yet the scenes from last Saturday keep rattling around in my mind . . .
“A few errands and couple beers with my friends” was your excuse for a Friday night trip to Virginia City. But by Saturday afternoon, I was getting worried. It’s not that I don’t trust you to find your way home, Joe, but that gelding in the corral was due to be delivered this week, and you promised to have him polished off by Monday morning. Knowing the way you’ve enjoyed working that horse, I figured you’d be on his back most of the day. So I sent Hoss to Virginia City for the mail and strict orders to roust you out of whatever saloon you were in and head for home.
I still don’t know what made me follow Hoss into town. Your brother wasn’t gone for more than twenty minutes when I saddled Buck. Adam was working in the barn, and he must’ve thought I was touched in the head or something, but he joined me just the same. I can’t explain it, son. There was no reason to be so worried, but something told me I needed, no HAD to get to town.
When Adam and I finally pulled up in front of the Bucket of Blood, I thought I had convinced myself that this old-fool should’ve stayed home and minded his own business. But the minute I stepped out of the saddle, Roy Coffee called out to me. Now you know that Roy doesn’t get flustered very easily, but when he finally stopped in front of me, he was almost shouting. He was telling some crazy story about the miners being after a girl and some cowboys getting into a fight. I was trying to slow him down when Adam hollered and grabbed my arm just in time to move me out of the way as a dozen drunken miners ran out of the saloon. Those boys were wasting no time as they headed down the street. Still don’t know where they were headed, I was too busy trying to make sense of Roy’s story. That’s when Hoss showed up, and he was able to add to Roy’s story, but it still didn’t make a whole lot of sense. But suddenly Adam whispered “that fool kid,” practically jumped into his saddle and headed out of town. We all just followed.
You’d have been surprised at your oldest brother. We all know he’s a good rider, but seeing Adam bent low over his horse as they tore out of town, Joe, it just looked like something you’d do. As we galloped out of town after him, Roy’s words kept running through my mind until things started making sense. Well, as much sense as possible. I’ve come to accept that we may never truly know the whole story. Especially if you . . . well.
Anyway, here’s what I know so far. You probably could fill in a lot of details. But that group of miners causing the ruckus these past couple months finally went too far. The leader, big dark haired bruiser name of Walter was pushing his buddies to see who could get the prettiest girl in town to . . . yes, you know what I’m saying here. So with each round of beer, the competition in his group grew louder, and ended up being very crude. Roy told us that the rest of the miners and most of the cowboys in the room were getting pretty hot, and I’m sure that included you, son. He said that Sam kept breaking up smaller fights until things calmed down around closing time. From that point, it’s harder to put the pieces together, since everyone left the saloon. Obviously you didn’t all go home. But something must’ve happened this morning, and when Sam opened up at noon, the same miners were back at it, louder than ever. When the group of rowdies finally got enough liquor in them, the last challenge had to do with Melinda Baker.
There’ve been a number of stories going around, things that Doc Martin and Roy Coffee have come out to tell us since we got you home. Nothing in clear order and most of the real witnesses are no longer with us, but enough to piece together some of the events.
That mob took off in a drunken race to see who could get to Melinda’s house first. Since she lives almost two miles from town that meant some of them had to look for horses to make the trip. And you know that’s a nice way of saying there was some horse stealing going on with some punches thrown and a little added gunfire. As soon as the word spread, some of you young bucks got on your own horses and headed out after them. That’s why Roy was rounding up some help to follow when he saw us ride into town.
I already told you how Adam was riding, and with him lying low over Sport’s neck, you know there was no way I could keep up. Hoss was doing better than me, but Adam made it to the Bakers’ Ranch first. I haven’t heard the details from Adam, but Hoss told me later that as he pulled up in the yard, Adam was already firing his gun. He wasn’t the only one, from what Roy Coffee heard; meaning that by the time we rode in the shooting was done. Those ruffians were all dead or dying. All but one. That leader, the one who started the whole ruckus, had you in his hands and I can’t put into words what that did to me when I saw it. But Adam saw it too. Let’s just say he took care of the situation, and leave it at that. It seemed like a split second from the time I dismounted until I was by your side, but Adam was already on the ground and had you in his arms. Couldn’t make out much of what he was saying, but there were a few “kids” in there, and a terse “hang on.” You were a sight, son. I know I started this letter to share some thoughts with you, and maybe get a handle on the story myself, but I can’t write down how bad you looked. How white, how . . . Well, Hoss was keeping an eye on you, but he was also checking over the other boys, wounded and otherwise. It was when he found Melinda that things got even worse. That poor girl. Thank God you boys kept her from the worst of it, but she was in a state, sitting on the ground with her father in her lap. Don’t think I can ever forget that, not as long as I live.
Roy got some of the townsfolk to hitch up a wagon or two, and they started loading up the injured. I don’t know a lot of those details, just glad I didn’t have to be one of the fathers Roy visited that night. Three of them, Joe. Not sure how well you knew Will Simms, Dave Anders and John Tomkins. But they’re three young men who aren’t with us anymore, just because some drunk decided to see how far he could push people. How much he could entice them to do. How evil-
I keep laying this letter down, then picking it back up. You can probably tell from the paper that I even crumpled it up once with the intention of tossing it in the fire. Something brings me back, pushes me to write more. Not sure if it’s for you. Maybe it’s for me. Some high fallutin’ doctor somewhere would probably say it’s cathartic. Probably right, ‘cause it does help to get this out. And it’s sure not a topic any of us want to discuss around the dinner table. Just looking at Adam and Hoss, their expressions when you moan or they examine your wounds. No, it’s probably not right to keep quiet, but it’s not something we’re ready to talk over. At least not yet.
It probably doesn’t seem like it, but this writing keeps getting interrupted. Building up the fire or working to get a little water past your lips. We’re doing everything we can to help you get well. Joe, you seem to be a little cooler this evening, but your fever hasn’t completely passed. Dr. Martin stopped by again and said your wounds are healing, that’s a comfort. But what worries me the most is that you haven’t opened your eyes. I’d like to think I’ve gained a little patience over the years, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’d give anything to see you sit up and demand a steak or something equally ridiculous. But here you are, lying still as . . . well, still in your bed.
HopSing has changed the bedding several times today, but it looks like you could use a new pillow slip. This fever has really gotten the better of you. I’d go downstairs to get one, but I can’t bear to leave you alone like this. Still, your brothers are demanding some time with you again, and although I don’t want to give in, I guess it would be prudent to take a few minutes for some supper and maybe stretch my legs. I could get that fresh bedding while I’m out. But son, I’d rather sit here with you.
I’m back. The bowl of soup I managed tasted good, although most of the time I kept thinking about how you will complain about it while you’re recuperating. Outside the sky is clear and the stars very bright. It’s a beautiful evening, and one that we should be grateful for. That’s not easy right now.
Roy came by while I was eating dinner. He brought the latest news from town. It sounds like Sam Baker is still in pretty bad shape, but Paul says he will live. I’m sure that’s some comfort to Melinda after everything she’s been through. Seeing her father almost killed while trying to protect her would be difficult for any young woman. But since she just lost her mother last winter, it would be especially hard. Roy said that some of the ladies from town have been taking turns staying with her at the ranch and helping out with Sam’s care. Several of the men from town are still in bad shape, including Tom Moss and Jimmy Rines, but the rest of them are back on their feet. Only one of the gang that started all this is still alive. He’s in Roy’s jail, and I expect he’ll be spending some years in Carson Prison. But mostly Roy was giving me details about the funerals being planned. I haven’t spent much time thinking of those boys yet, so I won’t write anything more of that here. I just can’t let my mind go there. Not while you’re still in this bed.
It’s morning now. Adam and Hoss spelled me during the night, although they’d probably be surprised to know that I didn’t sleep much. I checked in on you several times, but it was from the doorway so they wouldn’t know I was still up and about. Actually, I was probably checking on them as much as you. Neither of them look good, and I’m especially worried about your oldest brother. It seems like Adam thinks he should’ve done something more. But given that he shot the man who . . well, I said I wasn’t going to write about that yet.
But today seems a little brighter, son. Your fever broke this morning so now we’re just anxious for you to wake up. And I promise that when you do, I won’t even complain about you wanting to get out of bed or refusing to follow the doctor’s instructions. Joe, I just want you to know, son, how much I
The letter ended there and Joe blinked, the last half of the blank page staring up at him as if taunting him with his own memories of waking up: the fuzzy look of the room, a vision of his father’s face coming into focus, the pain as it hit him in clear and steady waves.
There were a lot of holes in his memory and Joe still didn’t have a good grasp on all the details. Hoss and Adam had given him a rundown, though he suspected it was a shortened version. And of course he could clearly remember the night leading up to the tragedy. Joe even berated himself numerous times for not heading home when the saloon closed like he planned. But he’d had a notion that he should help keep a lid on things. Tom Moss had been a big help, the two working to talk the others down whenever they started plotting ways to put a stop to the group of blowhards from the mine. The group had gathered at the Rines house all night, swapping stories and remembering tales of the thugs and their past activities. But when the group moved back to the saloon, that’s when things got bad. The miners hadn’t just been swapping stories all night, they’d been drinking and were worse than ever. When they headed off to Melinda’s, Joe knew there was going to be hell to pay. His first thought was to find Sheriff Coffee, but the way the group tore out of the saloon, he didn’t think there was time. Riding up behind the others, he saw that several men were already on the ground and seconds later a bullet took him out of the saddle. After that, everything was a blur.
Several weeks had passed since he’d come to, and as usual Doc Martin had raved about how quick Joe healed. But the doc also warned him that though his physical wounds had healed, the full memory of that day might never come back. In some ways, Joe wasn’t sad that he couldn’t remember everything, but he did feel an aching emptiness when he thought about Will, Dave and John. They weren’t his best friends by any stretch of the imagination, but they sure didn’t deserve to die like they did.
“Joe, what’dya do boy, have a relapse? Are ya coming down here, or do we have to come up and git ya?”
“I’m coming Hoss! Hold onto your britches big brother.”
Joe could hear his brother’s hearty guffaw and the less robust sound of Adam’s accompanying laughter. Adam had been quiet the first week or so, but over the last few days had seemed to relax a little. Joe wasn’t sure if his oldest brother was simply relieved that Joe was up and about now, or maybe time was helping him let go of the memory of that awful day. More than once, Joe had tried to get something out of the stubborn man, anxious to learn more about what happened at the Baker Farm. But after what he’d just read, Joe knew he wouldn’t have the heart to ask any more questions. This was one time he’d have to be content to accept things as they were and let the rest go. And, he mentally added, to just be grateful for the strength and love of his family.
Carefully refolding the letter, Joe slipped it back inside his father’s bible, certain that it was never truly meant for his eyes. In fact, it was surprising that the book was still here in his room. Joe suspected that in the aftermath of his injury and recuperation, Ben had forgotten where he left it or it had simply been overlooked, tucked on the back of his bedside table. But Joe was grateful that the book was still there and had fallen off the small stand. It allowed him the opportunity to read his father’s distraught words and definitely helped fill in a few blanks. It also explained why his father had been so attentive ever since he woke up. Pa must’ve thought he was losing a son.
“Breakfast, Joe! Let’s get going. We have work to do, boy!”
Tucking the book back where it had been, Joe hoped that at some point his father would come looking for it, find the letter where he’d left it, and never suspect that his son had read those anguished words.
Then as he headed out his bedroom door, Joe vowed that he would do his best today to help his family forget the pain of the past few weeks. Just like he didn’t want to think about that day in Virginia City, he sure didn’t want his pa or brothers thinking about the long nights in his room. Too many people had already paid the price for the devilment of some evil men.
Pulling the door closed firmly behind him, Joe hollered out to his family below:
“Coming Pa! Don’t let Hoss or Adam eat all the eggs. I’m hungry!”
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Sarah and Corinna!