Summary: For a brief moment in time, Amy’s death brought Little Joe and Luther Bishop together. But when the moment ended and Luther realized he had nothing left to lose, burying the hatchet with Ben Cartwright took on a new level of meaning.
A What Happened Next Story for The Truckee Strip.
Rating: K+ (6,855 words)
Six Feet Deep
Consciousness came slowly. The first thing Joe noticed was the pain in his head, coming as constant, sharp stabs that were focused on his temple, or … no … behind his left ear. He tried to draw in enough fresh air to help ease the throbbing, but the heavy scent of dirt, damp and moldy, threatened to gag him. Where was he? Why was he lying on the floor? There was wood beneath him, a surface so firm and stiff it pressed into his shoulder blades, his spine and the back of his skull with the unforgiving rigidity of granite.
His skull…. Joe raised his hand to probe the soreness. More wood stopped him, as his knuckles rapped against a suspiciously low ceiling. Disoriented, he blinked until he could keep his eyes open long enough to explore his surroundings, only to find he couldn’t explore anything. He saw nothing but a black void. When blinking again and again failed to produce even a sliver of light, he couldn’t help but imagine he’d gone blind.
Panic came with short, quick gasps of mildew. “Pa!” he shouted; but the word sounded odd, as though it had been trapped between the wood above him and the wood beneath … as though nothing hollow lie beyond that wood … as though….
A nightmare…. This had to be a nightmare, because if it wasn’t….
No, he thought, it can’t be. Please, don’t let it be true!
Praying he was wrong, Joe tested the space around him. Roughhewn wooden boards prevented him from reaching either outward or upward. He could barely raise his knees, and his hands all too quickly hit against walls on either side.
He was cocooned in a box cut from Ponderosa pine timber … a pine box … a coffin.
…A coffin that was nestled six feet deep where Luther Bishop had set it to show Joe what it would be like for Amy. Joe had been foolish enough to peer down into that hole, leaving Bishop to stand behind him.
“No!” he shouted as panic became hysteria. “Help!” He started kicking and punching at the wood above him. “Get me out of here!” His efforts brought a shower of dirt down on top of him. The soft, moist granules slipping through the poorly fit boards above forced him to close his eyes and mouth and turn his head away, pressing his cheek against the coarse wood until he could breathe again.
“No,” he whimpered then, keenly aware that no amount of shouting was going to release him from this hell. There was no denying the truth. Little Joe Cartwright had been buried alive.
Puzzled, Ben Cartwright kept his eyes locked on the fresh mound of earth as he nudged his horse closer. He’d been so sure they would have found Little Joe at the small creek along the Truckee strip where young Amy Bishop had stolen the boy’s heart. Luther Bishop might have been there, too, if Amy’s father had been willing to consider Joe’s request. Instead, Ben and his two oldest sons saw only a freshly dug grave.
“Looks like Mr. Bishop went ahead with it,” Hoss said, reining in on Ben’s left.
“Why?” Adam asked at Ben’s right. “It seems to me he would have wanted his daughter buried beside his wife.”
“Yeah,” Hoss agreed. “But if that gal loved this spot as much as Joe said….”
“I suppose.” Adam didn’t sound convinced.
“What bothers me,” Hoss went on, “is why Joe ain’t still here. Maybe he’s helpin’ to arrange the marker?”
“What bothers me…,” Adam added. “What was Mr. Bishop’s hurry? Amy’s funeral was set for tomorrow.”
“Maybe he just said that to keep us away?” Hoss suggested.
“Maybe.” Ben said the word more to acknowledge that he’d heard his son than to agree with the possibility. Something was very odd about that fresh, quiet and completely unmarked grave. “Where are the flowers?” he asked absently as he dismounted. “Joe would have left flowers. So would Luther. Why didn’t they?” Kneeling down, he ran his hand along the soft dirt.
“What are you thinking?” Adam asked.
“I don’t know.” He let a handful of dirt fall through his fingers. “But something isn’t right, here.” Standing abruptly, Ben wiped the dirt from his hand and remounted. “Come on. Let’s go find your brother.”
Just before he urged his horse into a trot, he thought he heard his young son calling out to him as though from a great distance. He stopped and turned, staring deep into the trees beyond. But he saw no sign of either Little Joe or the boy’s black and white pony. “Old fool,” he muttered under his breath. Then he kicked his horse’s flanks, inexplicably feeling a great need to hurry.
Neither Ben nor his two sons noticed the pinto that sprinted from those very trees to trail after them.
“What would Adam do?” Joe whispered the question to himself, hoping thoughts of his brother might help calm him.
If anyone could figure a way out of this mess, it would be Joe’s oldest brother. There had to be a trick with angles or something. Maybe he could break off a piece of board and use it to push at or shift the soil. It was loose enough. Graves didn’t get hard-packed right away. That took time.
“No. Don’t think like that.” Maybe Mr. Bishop hadn’t even filled this grave completely. There might only be a few inches of soil overhead.
…Or there might be six feet worth. Joe had to figure the worst. And if he had six feet worth of soil on top of him, he had to figure a way to get through it. But first he had to figure his way out of the box. No matter how much he beat at, pulled at and scratched at the boards overhead, all he managed to accomplish was to tear up his fingers and hands and bring more dirt down on top of him.
Soon he grew as terrified of being crushed by dirt rushing in as he was of suffocating six feet underground.
“Hoss?” Joe whispered next, missing his big brother’s bear-like protection. Hoss could probably barrel his way out.
But Joe didn’t have anywhere near Adam’s ability to figure things or Hoss’s strength. Did he have any hope at all of digging his way out without suffocating?
There’s always room for hope, son. That’s what Pa would say.
Maybe Adam was being silent in Joe’s head and Hoss wasn’t there to hold up the world for him; but Pa’s words rang like a clarion inside him. He had to try. He had to do something. Feeling for the boards above him again, he noticed they were buckling inward. That was the weakest point. Maybe there…. Maybe if he focused his pounding and pulling at that point, maybe….
Another shower of dirt left him coughing. After it settled, he couldn’t stop himself from shouting out uselessly once more, “Pa!”
“What do you want?” Luther Bishop’s greeting was curt, his words clipped.
Ben tensed as an all-too-familiar sense of anger welled up within him, despite the sympathies he felt for his old rival’s tragic loss. “I thought my son might still be here.”
“You thought wrong.”
Inhaling enough strength to keep his anger at bay, Ben tried again. “Could you tell me how long ago he left?”
“No?” Ben repeated, surprised and confused by the short answer.
“He came. He left. I wasn’t looking at any clock.”
“Come now, Bishop, I’m only asking because—”
“That’s all you Cartwrights’ do, ain’t it? Ask for things that aren’t and never should be yours! And then you take ‘em no matter the answer!”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re—”
“You took my land! Then that boy of yours took my daughter! And when that wasn’t enough, he thought he could get away with telling me where to bury her! Where to bury her! That boy doesn’t have a decent bone in his body! Just like his pa, I reckon. The apple surely does not fall far from the tree! Now you just turn those horses of yours around and get off the Concho before I—”
Ben went cold inside. For a moment he was numb; he lost sense of what Luther Bishop was saying. Then he cut off the man’s tirade with a question that had suddenly gained a world of importance. “Are you telling me you didn’t already bury Amy out by the creek?”
Bishop raised his shotgun and cocked back the hammer. “You get off my land.” He kept his voice low, sounding fully in control and deadly as could be. “And don’t you or any of your kin ever come back here.”
“Where’s my boy?” Ben shouted back.
“Pa.” Adam took hold of his arm. “Let’s go.”
Ben ignored him. “Where is Joseph?”
“We need to go, Pa,” Hoss said next. “Come on. Let’s do as he says.”
Turning his anger on his sons, Ben shook off Adam’s hand and swiveled toward Hoss. “I will not be—” Then his eyes landed on a horse his middle son was tending: Little Joe’s pinto.
“Looks like he followed us, Pa.”
“Might be from all the way back to the creek,” Hoss answered. “Forelegs and muzzle are still wet.”
“The creek? Then Joe….”
Adam’s hand returned, this time clutching Ben’s shoulder. “We need to get back there, Pa.”
Ben returned his attention to Luther Bishop. “You didn’t…. You couldn’t….” That’s when he saw something else. There was a wagon pulling up to the barn, a wagon driven by Tom Woods, Virginia City’s undertaker. Atop it was a fresh coffin. “Who did you bury by the creek?” Ben asked through the knot of terror forming in his throat.
Raising his shotgun skyward, Bishop pulled the trigger. “The next one’s in your chest if you don’t ride out now!”
“You do that, mister,” Hoss said, his voice sounding more dangerous than Bishop’s, “you’ll be dead before your next breath.”
Aware that both of his sons had their guns drawn and cocked, Ben kept his eyes forward. His own hands were fisting the reins.
“So what?” Bishop answered, unflinching. “My life ended when my Amy died.”
“What did you do?” Ben demanded to know.
Luther Bishop held his gaze. A moment later, he bobbed his head once, in a small nod of resignation. “I knew what he was gonna ask for,” he offered then, his tone as calm as it would had he been talking about the weather. “Knew it yesterday. Hell, I knew it the night my Amy died. That night, after you all rode back to that fine Ponderosa of yours, it all came to me so clear. Clear as day. You won. After all these years, you won. I lost.”
“There was no victory that night,” Ben said. “Not for anyone.”
“Sure there was. I lost everything that night. If I lost, that means you won. But that didn’t mean you shouldn’t lose something, too. So I took care of it. I dug a grave right where your boy would want it. When he came by today, I went out there with him to show him.”
Ben’s eyes slipped away from Bishop’s as he felt the world tilt beneath him. “Dear Lord, no,” he said softly.
“Mister….” Hoss sounded even deadlier than before. “If you killed my little brother, I swear I’ll—”
“Kill him?” Bishop said without concern. “No. I didn’t kill him. All I did was bury him.”
“Why you, miserable…!”
A single gunshot was quickly followed by two more, jolting Ben back to awareness. Then he saw Luther Bishop lying dead in a growing pool of blood. Where Bishop’s bullet had landed, Ben didn’t know; nor did he care, once he realized both of his sons were unharmed.
“There’s a shovel over by the barn,” Hoss said. “I’ll fetch it.” He kicked his horse forward without waiting for a response.
“We’ll meet you there,” Adam said, then. “Come on, Pa.” He took hold of Ben’s reins to rouse the older man.
An instant later, Ben Cartwright was kicking his horse’s flanks and praying for nothing less than a miracle.
Joe realized he still had his gun.
With hands shaking as much from fear as from pain, he slipped the gun free of its holster and opened the chamber. Bullets spilled with a muffled clatter onto the dirt strewn boards beneath him. Once the chamber was empty, Joe clicked it back into place, and then wrapped swollen, bloodied fingers around the barrel. It felt unbalanced in his grip; a hammer would work much better. But this would have to do. Gasping in another short breath of moldering air, Joe set to work again, this time hammering the barrel of his gun against the boards above him to spare his hands from further abuse.
A cascade of dirt came down around him like a waterfall. Before long, the coffin was half full with it, Joe’s nostrils were half clogged with it, and his throat was half choked with it.
He needed a better plan. A faster plan.
Maybe he could use the bullets after all. He could shoot off a section of board that was small enough to wield, yet big enough to use for digging. But danged if that didn’t mean he would have to find the spilled bullets first … bullets that were now buried under all that fresh dirt he’d let seep in.
He wanted to crumble. He wanted to curl up into a ball and cry like an infant until his father’s strong hands could reach down and pull him free. But curling up wasn’t an option in that tight space. And his father would never even know to look for him underground. And crumbling wasn’t going to happen until he was down there long enough to rot.
And Little Joe Cartwright was a long way from being ready to rot six feet under.
So he dug into all that dirt surrounding him. He would have let out a whoop and a holler when his fingers finally latched onto the third of three bullets—if he’d had enough strength and air. But the air was getting thinner with each breath. His thoughts were getting thinner, too. He was feeling lightheaded and sluggish.
Three bullets would have to be enough.
Fumbling in the dark, he slipped the bullets, one by one, into the chamber. He aimed upward at a slight angle away from his face. His finger was already easing back against the trigger when he started to wonder what he could do to avoid breathing in the avalanche of dirt that was sure to follow.
His shirt…. He could use his shirt. Gently setting the gun beside him, he tore his shirt open, and then used his teeth to rip off the sleeves; it wasn’t worth the struggle to try to slip his arms free. Finally, he pulled the cloth out from under him and wrapped it around his nose and mouth. With stiff and aching fingers, he tied it off as well as he could at the base of his skull–just below the blood-crusted knot where Luther Bishop’s shovel had struck him.
Joe should never have let Amy’s father get behind him. He’d thought the man an ally then—surely not a friend, but at least someone who shared in Joe’s grief. He’d thought the anger, the fighting … the feud had come to an end, had died along with Amy.
Pain as fresh as it had been the moment Amy had last closed her eyes filled Joe’s throat with a clump of despair every bit as troublesome as all the dirt he’d swallowed.
Don’t, he warned himself. Don’t think about that now. All that mattered was getting out.
But he was so tired. And he knew he would never reach the surface on his own. His strength was gone. His damaged hands were no longer working properly. And Amy … his sweet Amy with the springtime smile … Amy was dead.
Joe could just lie back and close his eyes. He could let sleep take him and ease him gently into Amy’s waiting arms….
Joe jolted awake. Was that a growl, he’d heard? The rumble of his father’s voice, perhaps, scolding him for something he’d done?
No. The ground itself was rumbling, spilling another flurry of dirt over him. And Joe remembered he had to get out.
His gun…. Yes. He was going to use his gun.
A last-minute thought had him packing down the soil around him, making room for more to fall and giving him more room to maneuver. Then he stuffed bits of cloth into both ears to help muffle what was bound to be a deafening explosion in such a confined space.
He was ready. This was it. He had one chance left to get free. Stealing himself for the probability that he would suffocate before he was even halfway to the surface, Joe aimed his gun by feel alone. He held his breath….
…And pulled the trigger.
As soon as he took his third shot, Joe dropped his gun, heaved the loosened board into the dirt above him, and started shimmying upwards through a sea of loose soil.
“Did you hear that?” Adam asked.
Ben steadied his horse, looking uncertainly at his oldest boy. He could almost believe he’d heard three distant, muffled gunshots.
“He’s still alive!” Adam shouted, jumping to the ground and sprinting to the fresh grave.
Ben was slower but no less eager when he saw that the mound of earth was undulating, rippling like waves in a gentle sea. And … was the mound smaller than before?
In an instant, Ben was at his son’s side, scooping out soil and praying, silently and desperately praying. He reached solid wood and stopped briefly, confused. Had the coffin been buried so shallowly? No. He could feel two edges … three … and those edges told him the piece of wood he’d uncovered was far too small to be a coffin. It was a piece, only, a part broken from a larger board.
The chunk of wood was ripped from his hands by Adam’s frantic efforts. “I’ve got him!” Adam shouted. “Keep digging!”
Ben dug deeper. When his fingers brushed against a hand, his heart nearly stopped. He grasped hold of it and prayed for Joe’s fingers to curl around his own. They didn’t. “Pull, Adam! Pull!”
“We need to clear out more of this dirt!”
Deeper still and he felt a wrist … an elbow…. “Now, Adam! Pull!”
“He won’t budge, Pa! Keep digging!”
A tuft of hair….
Ben and Adam both focused then on clearing dirt from around Joe’s head. “We’re here, Joseph! Come on, son. Don’t give up, now!” His hand shaking, Ben pushed down the cloth Joe had tied around his nose and mouth. “Breathe, boy! Breathe!”
He sensed Adam beside him. Ben’s oldest son was hesitating, silently willing his brother to do as his father said. “Don’t stop, Adam. Keep digging.” He wanted to help, needed to help, but he didn’t dare let go of Joe’s head, knowing the dirt could shift over top of him again far too easily. “Breathe, boy,” he repeated softly. “Please, Dear Lord, please breathe.”
Ben swiped his fingers under Joe’s nose, hoping to clear it of dirt. Was that a response? He thought maybe Joe’s nostrils had flared, but he couldn’t be sure. “Joseph? Son?” The boy’s brow moved; Ben was certain of it. Little Joe was responding. The boy was breathing. He was breathing! “That’s it, son! We’re here! You’re safe!”
“Pa?” Adam asked softly, hopefully.
Ben turned to him and met his anxious gaze with a grateful one of his own. After a terse nod, he said, “He’s still with us.”
As though to provide an answer of his own, Joe started coughing.
The tension melted in Adam’s shoulders and the start of a grin eased the stress from the corners of his eyes, even while his little brother’s coughs turned to heaves as the boy began retching out a belly full of black dirt. Then Ben’s oldest boy returned to his efforts, digging deeper and deeper into the loose earth with renewed determination.
Ben barely noticed when Hoss arrived with the shovel. His attention was focused entirely on Joe. A small trickle of blood along the side of Joe’s neck drew Ben’s eye to a piece of cloth plugging his son’s right ear. Plucking it out, he noticed that the ear was bleeding. Curious and concerned, he found a piece of cloth in Joe’s left ear, too, but was relieved to see no blood. “What’s happened to you, boy?” he said quietly.
As the dirt fell away around Joe’s upper body, Ben drew his son closer to him, resting the boy’s left ear—his good ear—against his chest. He could feel as well as hear Joe’s breaths coming faster, and Joe’s grip on his arms tightened. “You’re free, son. You’re safe.”
The softly spoken words did nothing to soothe his son’s fears. Joe started breathing too fast, and the boy’s fierce grip drew a soft snap from the seam of Ben’s left sleeve.
“Shhh.” He gently rubbed Joe’s arm. “It’s all right, son. You’re safe.”
Little Joe craned his neck and opened weary eyes to gaze up at his father. Ben saw fear in those eyes, so much fear he could almost feel himself trembling. Hoping to ease at least some of that fear, he offered up a small smile. “You’ll be free in no time.”
The words did nothing to comfort his son. Joe’s brow knitted and his breaths came quicker and harder.
“Wait, Hoss,” Adam’s voice called out beside them. “His ankle’s caught.”
“Let me try,” Hoss answered. “Hey, you smell that? Gun smoke.”
“Look down there,” Adam said. “Inside the … box.” When Adam hesitated on the word, Ben felt a chill run through him, and was grateful his oldest boy chose not to refer to the pine box as a coffin. “It’s Joe’s gun,” Adam added. “He must’ve fired it.”
“Reckon he was tryin’ to get someone’s attention?”
“Underground?” Adam answered. “Not likely. But he had a piece of board in his hands when we found him. Maybe he shot it loose when he couldn’t break through with his hands.”
Ben looked toward his older boys, sharing glances that made it clear they all knew Adam’s assumption was likely true. Then he returned his attention to the thin bit of blood that had escaped his son’s ear. “Joe? Did you….” Ben waited for Joe to look at him again, but the boy held his eyes tightly closed. “Did you fire your gun while you were still trapped down there?”
Joe’s hand fisted.
“Joseph? Look at me, son.”
Joe started pounding his fist lightly against Ben’s chest, while slowly rolling his head back and forth. “I can’t still be down there,” the boy said in a voice grown rough and raspy. “I can’t.”
“You’re not, son. You’re safe. And before you know it, you’ll be—”
“Got it!” Hoss hollered out none too soon.
With the coffin’s final grip on Little Joe broken, Ben scooped his son out of that devil’s hole. “You’ll be home, son. We’re taking you home.”
Ben Cartwright sat in his chair by the fire, his eyes locked on the flames. Outwardly, he was still. The world around him had gone silent, except for the crackle of burning logs and the ominous ticking of the long clock by the door as a disturbing and seemingly endless night slowly moved toward a new dawn. The quiet, solemn atmosphere lent a stark contrast to what lie behind the man’s troubled gaze. His mind was awhirl with a crossbreed of memories and conjured visions of what his young son had endured.
Ben looked up to see his oldest boy on the stairs. There was no need to answer. “I keep imagining,” he said instead, “what it must’ve been like for him.”
Adam’s chest rose with a deep, weary breath as he crossed the room. “You’re not alone.”
“He used good sense trying to get out.” Ben’s brows lowered as he remembered how Joe had almost saved himself. “Using his gun to break through took guts. If it hadn’t worked, he would have suffocated that much faster. And he knew if it did work, he could end up deaf.”
“Yes,” Adam agreed. “He knew. And he had enough sense to try to plug his ears. It almost worked, too.”
“It did work. Paul is convinced his ear drum will heal.”
“Dr. Martin said it should heal. But even if it doesn’t—”
“Yes. Of course, it will.” Adam looked down as he settled onto the hearth.
Ben was being obstinate; but he couldn’t help it. He didn’t have the strength of will at that moment to rise above his emotions. “I doubt I would have been quite so … rational,” he admitted after a moment.
“Sure you would have. He is your son.” The half-grin Adam gave his father came without the usual glint in his eye, but Ben appreciated it all the same.
“He’s his own man now, Adam, and you know it.” Easing further back in his chair, Ben struggled to move past the memory of his youngest boy drawing a gun on him, as Joe had done just a few days earlier. Little Joe had held a gun to his father, because his father had lacked the good, rational sense to do what needed to be done: to return the body of an innocent boy directly into the hands of the boy’s father, where he belonged.
“Everything he knows, he learned from you.” At first, Adam’s words initiated nothing more than a grunt from Ben.
There was much that this particular father seemed to have forgotten. “Not everything,” Ben said then. “You’ve taught him quite a bit, yourself.”
“Everything I know, I learned from you.”
“Oh?” Ben pushed his eyebrows upward in a brief attempt at levity. “Then I wasted a lot of money on that college education of yours.”
Adam chuckled softly. “You know perfectly well what I mean.”
“Do I?” Leaning forward, Ben rested his elbows on the armrests of his chair and steepled his fingers together in front of him. “I’m not so sure. Clearly, I let all those years of bitterness toward Luther Bishop cloud my thinking.”
“You had good reason.”
“To what end, Adam? To what end?” His eyes drifted to the top of the stairs.
“You can’t blame yourself.”
“We should have stopped all that fighting years ago.”
“You did,” Adam assured him. “It was Luther who stirred things up again.”
“What happened to him? How could any man end up so filled with hatred as to do something so … so unthinkable? My God, Adam! To willingly, knowingly bury someone alive?”
“He regretted it, you know?”
Taken off guard by the statement, Ben studied his son. “You can’t know that.”
“He came right out and told us what he did. He wanted us to find Joe.”
“No. That’s not regret. True regret would have had him undo what he’d done. He would have rescued Joe without waiting for us!”
Adam shrugged. “Maybe. But … somewhere deep within him, he did regret it. Otherwise, he would never have confessed. And he would never have….” Adam’s eyes took on a look of guilt, as though he’d said more than he should have.
“Would never have what?”
“You’re not going to like what I’ve got to say.”
“Out with it, boy!”
“Luther baited Hoss and I to shoot him. We both saw it. We both knew it. And we both did it, anyway.” Guilt became hope for absolution, as Adam the man became startlingly reminiscent of Adam the boy looking at his father with a regret of his own reflected in his eyes.
“What are you saying?”
The boy disappeared. “That bullet of his would never have struck any of us, not the way Luther was aiming.”
“No!” Ben said gruffly. “I won’t hear it! Listen to yourself! Now it’s you who is looking to take on blame you don’t deserve! Confound it, boy! Sheriff Coffee has witnesses that Luther Bishop fired the first shot! Tom Woods and two of Luther’s ranch hands saw you and your brother shoot him defending me!”
“Pa … I know what the sheriff said. And I know what Hoss and I saw. And I just … I needed for you to know, too.”
Ben drew in a deep breath that did nothing to refresh his spirit. “You did what you had to do, Adam. I won’t see it any other way. And I won’t have you feeling guilty. Thanks to you and Hoss, we got to Little Joe in time. If we’d been even a moment later….” Closing his eyes, Ben wished he could shut out the image of his young son in that grave … the feel of the boy’s hand reaching up through the dirt … the smell of earthen vomit … the rasp of his son’s voice as Joe pleaded to believe he’d truly made it out, that his family had come for him, that it wasn’t a dream … that he was finally free.
Those desperate moments were likely to haunt Ben until it was time for him to rest blissfully unaware in his own grave.
And he wasn’t the only one being haunted. A ghostly howl broke through his musings and drew him to his feet. He climbed the stairs no more than a step behind his younger and more agile oldest son, prepared to remind Little Joe once again that the boy was home and safe.
But it wasn’t Joe who needed him.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Hoss gasped through ragged breaths. “I thought … thought it was me. Thought I’d ….” He gulped down a solid breath of air. “You thought I was dead, and I … couldn’t tell you no different. You put me in a box, and … closed the lid, and….”
Ben nodded appreciatively to Hop Sing, who had been the first to reach Hoss and who now stepped quietly away. The pull of Hop Sing’s eyes, moving from Hoss to Adam and into the hallway beyond, made it clear he was equally concerned about the wellbeing of Ben’s sons, all three of them. Then, sitting down on the edge of the bed, Ben wrapped his arm around the son whose needs were strongest at that moment. “It was just a dream.”
“Weren’t like any other dream I ever had.”
“Neither was mine,” Adam admitted from the doorway. Ben noted his reluctance to step all the way inside and the way his eyes kept sliding toward Little Joe’s room. He was standing guard, Ben realized. Knowingly or not, Adam was trying to watch over both of his brothers at that moment and was uncertain about where he was most needed. Just like Hop Sing.
“You had a bad dream?” Hoss asked.
Yes, Adam, too, needed comfort. But, like Ben, Adam would seek that comfort within himself. Closing his arms like a blanket around him, Adam looked toward some invisible specter on the floor. “The worst kind.”
“I called out to you,” Hoss went on when Adam said nothing further. “You and Pa. I shouted and shouted, but you couldn’t hear me.”
Adam sighed. “With me, it was.… At first I thought it was water, and I was drowning.” His brows furrowed. “But it got thicker and tighter around me, until….” Taking a deep breath, Adam glanced to Hoss and Hop Sing before meeting his father’s gaze. “In the end I found myself trying to swim through dirt. I couldn’t shout. I couldn’t breathe. And I couldn’t move a muscle.”
“Like Joe.” Ben’s voice was almost too soft to hear as his thoughts took him back to that horrific grave.
“What are we gonna do?” Hoss asked. “If we’re havin’ dreams like that, imagine what it’s gotta be like for Joe.”
Ben nodded. “Yes. We can’t help but imagine.” Returning his attention to his sons, he drew his back up straight. “And that is precisely why we are having these dreams.”
“You too, Pa?”
“Little Joe lived through a nightmare,” Ben said without answering. “But that is what we all need to remember: he lived through it. He’s still with us. And it will be up to us to help him know that he’s safe and he has nothing left to fear.”
Adam also stood taller then, letting go the blanket of his arms. “Which means we can’t let him know we’re having these dreams.”
“It’s more than that, Adam,” Ben said. “We must find a way to avoid such dreams. It’s doing none of us any good—and it certainly will not help your brother—if we keep trying to put ourselves in Joe’s place, even subconsciously. We couldn’t do it when it counted, and we can’t do it now.”
“Easier said than done.” Adam looked as doubtful as he sounded.
“I know,” Ben answered. “Believe me, I know. But we must try.”
“Well, I ain’t tryin’ any more tonight; I can tell you that.” Freeing himself from the tangle of blankets on his bed, Hoss pushed himself to his feet. “I’ll go put on some coffee.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to,” Adam said. “Hop Sing slipped past me and headed downstairs not two minutes ago. I’d wager a bet he’s putting the pot on the stove as we speak.”
Hoss met his brother’s small smile with an appreciative grin. “How is it he always knows just what we need?”
Joining his sons in the doorway, Ben stepped between them and draped his arms across both of their shoulders. “I think, perhaps, because he needs it, too.”
Joe heard voices. There were no discernable words – or none that mattered, anyway. What did matter was the deep tones and calming cadence. These were the voices of his family – and of one person in particular: his father. Joe was reminded of being a small child nestled up against his father’s chest, lulled to sleep by the muted rumble of his father’s voice intermixed with the soft rhythm of Pa’s heartbeat. But this time the sound was pulling Joe awake.
He didn’t want to come awake. He found comfort in the dream, so unlike the reality he knew surrounded him. Reality was a nightmare of too-close pine walls and the moldy smell of rich earth. In the dream, Joe rested upon a feather mattress with fresh sheets caressing his skin and the welcome aroma of coffee calling him to breakfast.
“Look at that,” Hoss said, the words thick and heavy to Joe’s ears. “Sun’s comin’ up.”
“No,” Joe muttered aloud, and was surprised to find his own voice as muffled as his brother’s.
“Joe?” Adam said then.
“No,” Joe repeated, desperate to keep the dream close. He knew there would be no sun to greet him if he woke, and no brothers beside him.
“Easy, son,” Pa’s voice soothed from afar. “It’s just a bad dream. You’re safe here, boy. You’re safe. Come awake now and see.”
“No,” Joe gasped through sharp, panting breaths that filled him with the scents of coffee, leather and bay rum cologne. The bad dream was reality. This … this bed, this moment in the presence of his father and brothers … this dream meant safety. It was worth clinging to. It was worth fighting for.
Fisting the soft sheets in his gloved hands, Joe’s thoughts grew jumbled. He hadn’t been wearing gloves when Luther Bishop had dropped him into the grave, and he wouldn’t be wearing them in bed. Both the dream and what he knew of reality sifted away like dirt through his fingers. And Joe couldn’t stop his eyes from fluttering open to meet those of his father.
“There, now.” Pa smiled. “You see? Just a bad dream.”
Joe’s father was right there in front of him, backlit by the golden hue of a rising sun streaming through the window. But Pa’s voice was dulled, as though by distance. By distance and walls, or … six feet of dirt?
Confused, Joe looked beyond his father to see both of his brothers moving closer. Adam was stepping away from the desk where a steaming cup sat on the blotter, and Hoss from the parlor chair someone must have taken from the guest room down the hall. Both were smiling. And, like their father, both were bathed in glowing light.
It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. It was too perfect … too … impossible.
Closing his eyes again, Joe held them tightly shut as his pa’s hand gripped his shoulder. “Joseph? Can you … hear me, son?”
Hear him? Yes, of course, Joe could hear him. But the sound of the words left Joe feeling as though his ears were clogged with water or … or dirt. They were ringing, too, and his head felt … thick. Thick and heavy, like Hoss’s voice had moments earlier.
“He will, Pa,” Adam said. “Give him time.”
Joe dared another look, this time seeing tension in his father’s jawline and concern in his oldest brother’s eyes. Joe focused on those eyes. “Time for what?” he asked, still disturbed by the faraway timbre of his own voice.
But Adam didn’t appear disturbed or even concerned anymore. Pa’s tension disappeared, too.
“Time to wake up, I reckon.” Hoss’s answer drew Joe’s gaze to the other side of the bed, where he saw his middle brother grinning like Christmas morning.
Joe couldn’t make sense of any of what his family was saying. He couldn’t even make sense of the fact that he was in his own bed. Had it been a dream, as his father had suggested? How could it have been? The back of his head still hurt where Luther Bishop had struck him. And his hands…. He looked to his hands to find his fingers wrapped in bandages. He could also feel the sting of every torn nail and bruised knuckle.
“How?” When Joe’s question did not elicit an answer, he returned his attention to the men surrounding him. Hoss’s grin was gone, Adam’s brows were knitted, and pa’s jaw was as tense as ever; and for a long moment, they were so focused on looking to each other Joe knew not a one of them wanted to tell him – as though telling him would make the worst parts of his bad dream real.
But Joe already knew it had been real. “I couldn’t breathe,” he remembered then. “And my foot was caught.”
Joe’s oldest brother was first to push past the silence. “We got to you just in time,” Adam said.
“Thank God,” Pa added.
They took turns then, speaking in what Joe heard as disjointed sentences and awakening memories that came in dreamlike snippets. Pa had cradled Joe in his arms, as though he were still a child, while his brothers had worked to free his trapped ankle. Joe had nestled against his father’s broad chest, feeling comforted despite the too-fast heartbeat and praying it was truly there for him to hear, that he truly had been freed from the grave in which Amy’s father had entombed him. He could feel himself riding horseback wrapped in his father’s arms, and then stumbling up the stairs, supported by his brothers. These were the pieces of the dream he’d been so afraid to wake from, the dream he now knew had been the reality he’d prayed to find for however long he’d been trapped in that pine box.
Pa had said Joe’d had a bad dream. But none of it had truly been a dream at all. Amy was dead. Her father had buried Joe alive. And even before all of that, Joe had held a gun on his own father. No dream, however bad, could be worse than the reality such horrific truths painted for him. And yet, at that moment, in his room with his father and brothers beside him, Joe knew the nightmare was over. Little Joe was still alive, because his family had come when he’d needed them the most.
When Hop Sing called his family down to breakfast, all three were reluctant to leave him. But Joe was not at all reluctant to drift back to sleep. He had faith that when he awoke again, he would be right there in his bed with his family less than a holler away – the kind of faith that ran far more than six feet deep.