A Debt of Honour (by Questfan)

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Summary:  My entry for BoNaNo 2017. A trip back from Sacramento takes a deadly turn and Joe is separated from his brothers. Believing he caused their deaths and left traumatised, Joe is picked up by a father and daughter who are heading for California.

Rating: T  Word Count: 23,769

A Debt of Honour

He knew it would be almost another two hours until the dawn as Ben slowly made his way down into the empty room. He felt the deep chill in the air and knew that the morning would be arriving far sooner than he was ready for. The fire had been carefully banked the night before and he pulled a couple of logs from the woodbox and pushed them into the coals. It didn’t take long for the dried wood to catch and soon flames began to illuminate the darkened room.

Ben pulled his robe around his chest again and slid into his favourite chair, all the while staring into the fire as he tried desperately to calm his thoughts. It was the dawn of a day he had been quietly dreading for weeks. Deep in his secret thoughts, he had prayed for a miracle for this day. After all, it was supposed to be the day for miracles. If any day could be deemed that then surely Christmas Day could. It was supposed to be a day of festivity and celebration, but he didn’t think he could muster the energy to care, let alone celebrate anything.

In spite of himself, Ben barely managed to look up towards the ponderosa pine that graced the room and he swallowed a silent sob as he looked at the decorations adorning it. If it weren’t for Hoss, the tree would not have even been cut down. None of them had any kind of festive spirit and he had balked at the idea of trying to pretend they did. But somehow, Hoss had convinced them otherwise and he and his older brother had trudged out into the frigid morning a few days earlier and made their selection before dragging the tree home again. Each one of them had made a concerted effort to try, more for each other than for themselves, but they had all known they could not sustain it.

Christmas had always been Little Joe’s favourite day of the year, even ahead of his own birthday. The angel that topped the tree had been his mother’s and he had often remarked how it made her feel just a little closer when he looked at it. Ben felt the warmth of tears trail down his cheeks as he stared at the porcelain angel. His son was now with his mother and had no need of the delicate angel to feel close to her. As much as he had tried to deny it, Ben finally knew he had succumbed to the truth. Not that he was ready to admit that to his other two sons yet, but he knew his youngest son would never grow beyond his seventeenth year. His eighteenth birthday had passed quietly as the broken family tried to keep up hope. But that hope was done. Instead, his son would remain forever caught in that moment between child and man, beyond the reaches of time and age. The cheeky grin and wild laugh would only live on in their collective memories.

The broken-hearted father felt himself beginning to tremble as he recalled the last words he had spoken to his son. It had been a jest about behaving himself as he waved off the stage that carried all three of his sons to Sacramento. Why couldn’t he have said something else? Something that told his boy how much he loved him. Or how proud he was of the man he was becoming. Instead he had chastised him in front of his older brothers. It was meant to be loving, but in the cold pre-dawn darkness, he saw it for what it really was. It was that constant reminder that his son was not yet seen as grown up or responsible. It was the family attitude that had pushed his son to assert himself and insist he be allowed to go to Sacramento too. It was Joe’s reminder that he had successfully delivered on his word and broken a string of horses for their latest army contract that had forced the issue and Ben recalled as his son had argued passionately that he could help with both the timber and army negotiations. In the end, he had relented and agreed that at the least, Joe could learn a lot from the experience. How he wished he had not given in to Joe’s arguments. Even if it meant his son stayed angry at him, it would be better than having lost his boy altogether.

Ben looked up and glanced across at his desk. An image of his feistiest son arose in his memory. Joe had stood across from that same desk, hands on his hips and his chin jutted out as he argued his case. Once again, Ben dropped his head into his hands as he remembered Joe’s plea to be treated as a man. If only he had stood his ground. If he had not agreed, then his son would be safely asleep upstairs with his brothers. He would soon be bounding down those stairs, eager to see what Hop Sing had made for their festive breakfast and joking with Hoss and Adam about what they had stashed under the tree for him. Instead, his son’s body lay somewhere unknown. He shook his head as once again ugly images filled his thoughts of wild animals and decaying corpses. At first, he had tried to take some comfort from knowing his son would be with his mother, but there was no comfort for the grieving father as yet another bleak dawn arrived unwanted.

Hop Sing silently made his way across the room and placed a tray with coffee and a cup onto the table. Ben glanced up and he saw his faithful friend’s face. The man who had helped raise his son was as broken as he was. He barely managed a thank you before turning back towards the fire. There were still no answers there about how he was supposed to face the coming day.

Or the next.

Or any of the days after.

 

Chapter Two

Six months earlier …

Adam leaned back into the leather seat and watched from under the brim of his hat as Hoss picked his way through the remains in the basket of food on the seat. He finally pulled out a couple of chicken legs and stuck one between his teeth as he wrestled with the basket clasp one-handed. He grinned at Joe as he held one of them out towards his brother.

“Want one, Joe? Ya didn’t have no breakfast this mornin’ and ya missed lunch and I just know ya must be hungry by now.”

Adam barely concealed a smirk as Joe’s face turned green and he shook his head before turning towards the window and pulling his hat down over his face.

“Suit yaself.” Hoss began to chomp into one of the legs as he watched his little brother’s reaction. Joe pulled his arms around himself and closed his eyes as he tried to fight the nausea. “These are mighty good. Course they ain’t a patch on Hop Sing’s fried chicken, but then I guess beggars cain’t be choosers, now can they, Joe?”

A muffled grunt was the only response he got and Hoss grinned at his older brother as Adam slowly shook his head. Joe sure had tied one on the night before as he reckoned they needed to celebrate the good results of their contract negotiations. Both Adam and Hoss had tried to remind him that they were due to leave on the early morning stage and maybe he needed to ease off a little. They had tried to rein in his intake, but a seemingly benevolent card player had been only too happy to ply their unsuspecting little brother with drinks when they weren’t looking. It had helped him quickly recoup the money he had already lost as well as empty Joe’s wallet of what he had left.

As they had virtually carried their inebriated little brother to their hotel room, Joe had finally loosened up enough to make comment on what was really behind his need to celebrate. He said it was the first time his father had trusted him enough to travel to Sacramento for these particular negotiations. In his mind, it signalled the possibility of his father really treating him as a man, instead of a wet-behind-the-ears kid who needed his brothers to look out for him. Both of them had grinned over his head at the irony in that statement as they laid him out to sleep it off.

Adam observed his youngest brother as he leaned against the window. His brother’s drunken confessions the night before had surprised him. For all Joe’s outward cockiness, there was a deep vein of self-doubt underneath it all. Adam thought he had grown out of that, but apparently not. The need to prove himself was still there and it niggled at Adam as they made their way home. He had felt no such need in his life, partly because he couldn’t remember a time when his father didn’t rely on him in some way. He felt confident in his father’s trust in his abilities. He looked across at Hoss who was still chewing away on a fifth, or maybe a sixth chicken leg. Hoss had been full-grown since he was three! Adam smothered a smile as he recalled his chubby little brother who was constantly mistaken for a child twice his age. No, Hoss had never had to prove much of anything to anyone either. Unless someone had made the mistake of underestimating him, in which case, they eventually regretted it in some way.

As the stage made its way up the first leg of the pass, it swayed and shimmied against the rough terrain. Joe pushed away from the window and removed his hat to run a hand through his hair. His face showed his agony as he tried to hold himself together. Hoss had put away the food basket and reached out a hand to rub at his brother’s shoulder. The fact that Joe didn’t shrug it off or make any kind of comment just proved he was in a world of hurt.

Adam’s lip twitched as he thought about explaining this little detail of the trip to Pa. It wasn’t like Joe wasn’t old enough for a drink or two, but he knew their father’s adage on staying in control of oneself. Joe’s exuberant celebration the night before had seemed like nothing more than a young buck enjoying himself. As Adam mulled it over in the cold light of day, it took on another deeper side. Joe was still proving himself. Once again, his youngest brother felt the need to prove himself against the two of them. It was something that Adam had laughed at over the years and been annoyed by at times. More than once, Joe had caused chaos or nearly brought about a disaster as he strived to push himself to measure up to some standard that only Joe knew about. As Adam watched his brother’s pasty face against the solid, dark seat of the stagecoach, he felt something shifting inside him. Joe wasn’t really a kid anymore, but somehow he’d failed to notice.

Hoss felt Joe’s body stiffen against his hand and he knew what was coming. The stagecoach cabin was stuffy enough without that adding to things. He reached a hand outside the window and slapped on the side of the roof. It took a moment for the driver to respond, but he shouted something back that Hoss couldn’t make out. It didn’t matter that they were in a vulnerable position, half way up the pass and hemmed in on one side by steep rock faces. Joe needed to get out before, well, before it was too late!

He reached towards the window and pushed his head outside. “Yo, Mack! We gotta stop again. Now!”

Joe barely turned his head to watch his older brother, but he felt the stage slowing to a halt beneath him. He twisted a hand around the closest canteen and grabbed hold of the door handle in anticipation of his escape. The stage hadn’t stopped altogether before he flung open his door and stumbled out into a cloud of dust. He’d worked too hard to gain his brothers’ respect over the last week and danged if he was going to lose his stomach in front of them again. He heard Hoss call his name as he clambered down the rocky slope to find a spot that was out of sight, but he ignored it. There was no time to waste replying.

Adam had climbed down out of the coach to stand beside Hoss as the two of them watched Joe scramble for privacy. A small grin on Hoss’ face was enough to draw a smirk from Adam.

‘Them young’uns don’t never learn!”

Adam looked up to see Mack laughing down at them as he slowly shook his head.

“At least he made it outside. Last time was a little too close for comfort.”

Adam laughed as Hoss scrunched up his nose at the earlier close call. Joe had barely got the door of the stage open and made it just two steps away before his stomach betrayed him.

“Sure am glad o’ that one. Don’t fancy another two hours locked in there with Little Joe stinkin’ the place up!”

“Absolutely!”

It was a quiet fifteen minutes or so as both brothers took the chance to stretch cramped legs while trying to remind Mack that a few more minutes wasn’t going to make much difference to the schedule as they were due to stop overnight at the small waystation anyway.

“Reckon we should go check on our little brother?”

Adam bit back a comment about how soft Hoss always was on Joe when he messed up and was about to say something else instead when he heard movement in the rocks above them. The horses began to nicker and both brothers instinctively reached for their guns. There were apparently other horses nearby and they were exposed and vulnerable.

Joe had stumbled down the incline a short way before his stomach finally gave out on him once more. It was a small miracle he had made it that far. His night’s entertainment wasn’t nearly so entertaining anymore as he grasped hold of the rocks and tried to stay upright.

“Some man you turned out to be! Can’t even hold your liquor!” The sour taste of bile filled his mouth as he scrubbed a hand across his face. The canteen water was cool as he dribbled it into his mouth and quickly spat it back out again. Joe dropped his hat onto the nearest rock before he poured another handful of water out and used it to wipe his sweaty face. The coolness did little to relieve the thrumming of his headache and he squinted into the late afternoon sun. It had been a long day!

Joe allowed himself a moment to sit down and steady himself, waiting to see if anything further would come up. For a few moments, all he could hear was the soft rattle of the horses’ tack as they waited to get moving again and a murmur of voices. He knew they were laughing at him. Yessir, it had been a very long day indeed. And it wasn’t over yet. Joe steeled himself against the thought of at least two more hours inside the stage accompanied by his brothers’ mocking comments and bemused looks.

Before he could push himself upright again, a shout rang out over the top of the rocks followed by two sharp shots in quick succession. He heard a man’s strangled groan of pain followed by a dull thud and all thoughts of headaches and hangovers were driven away in an instant. Joe sprang to his feet and scrambled up the rocky slope in time to hear a third and fourth shot. What he saw next was the stuff of nightmares. Three men stood silhouetted against the sun that was slowly dropping down over the rocks overhanging the pass. Mack was lying on the ground on the near side of the stagecoach, having clearly been shot from his driver’s seat. The horses pranced nervously, but the brake seemed to be holding and Joe looked around frantically for his brothers. He couldn’t see past the stage, but he could just make out somebody’s legs lying on the ground behind it. He edged around the rocky outcrop while trying to see where the shooters were. His breath caught in his throat as he saw Hoss lying in a crumpled heap on the ground with Adam flung sideways over the top of him. Neither of his brothers was moving and a surge of rage welled up within him.

Joe reacted without thinking and he shouted as he pulled himself fully upright. Too late, he stopped to think about the fact it was now at least three against one. He had his gun in his hand and was firing at the nearest figure, but his first two shots went wild.

Raucous laughter carried across from the rocks. “There’s two of you damned Cartwrights down already!”

Another voice chimed in from across the other side of the pass. “Thanks for making it so easy for us, boy!”

Joe inched around the rock and fired again. It brought a small measure of satisfaction as he watched one of the men topple forwards, but instantly bullets began to ping off the rocks by his face. Joe tumbled backwards and landed hard on his back as another bullet whistled past his ear.

More shots echoed around the rocks he huddled up against and Joe found himself panicking. He had quickly used up every bullet he had and his extras were sitting safely inside the stagecoach.

The first voice called out again, taunting him with its confidence and arrogance.

“Ain’t no never mind to us, is it, Son? One less to share the bounty with!” Another round of laughter carried across the rocky area and Joe was hard-pressed to work out exactly where it was coming from.

“Mason always was a little slow on the trigger.”

Joe felt his blood pounding in his ears as he tried to figure who Mason was. He didn’t know anybody called Mason. He rubbed a hand across his eyes and tried to swallow down the fear that threatened to choke him.

“You just saved us the trouble of stoppin’ the stage up the top of the pass. Course, you ain’t gonna have too long to feel bad about that, boy. In a few minutes you’ll be meetin’ your brothers in Hell!”

Joe sucked in a sharp breath and tried to calm his thoughts. He had to survive. He owed that much to Hoss and Adam. He franticly scouted out the immediate area below him and found a small break in the rocks that led to what looked like a usable escape route.

“Where are ya, boy? Hidin’ in the rocks like some scared little rabbit?”

The combined laughter that followed that taunt set his teeth on edge. Joe pushed out from where he was wedged and darted towards the opening in the rocks. It was small enough that it was a tight fit, but he squeezed through anyway. He took no notice of the scrapes across his shoulders as he forced himself through. Someone must have seen him as shots ricocheted off the rocks above his head and splintered rock rained down on him.

When he looked back at it later, Joe had no idea how long he ran or how far he had climbed around the ridge before the shots finally stopped. He just knew he was hopelessly lost in unfamiliar terrain with not even a canteen of water or a bullet to his name and a gut-wrenching grief that nearly stopped him dead in his tracks.

Darkness came early within the thick canopy of the trees as Joe found himself searching for somewhere to hunker down and hide. He hoped he had lost his pursuers, but he had no way to be sure. The men had named them and he knew the attack was not random. Somebody had come hunting for Cartwrights and the total success of the hunt depended on him staying hidden since he had nothing left to defend himself with.

Grief wrapped itself around him like a dark blanket as Joe huddled up against a thick tree base. His brothers were both dead, all because he had decided to drink too much and needed to stop the stagecoach to be sick. The men’s tormenting words floated back over him as he began to shake uncontrollably.

Thanks for making it so easy for us, boy!

For all his demands to be treated as a man, when it counted most, he had behaved liked a spoiled kid. And his brothers had paid dearly for his stupidity.

 

Chapter Three

It was almost nightfall before Adam pulled himself out of the stupor that had settled over him. He was lying face down over something and it took a moment to register that it was Hoss. The sickly smell of blood made him gag before he pushed himself upright and turned back to nudge at his brother. Hoss barely groaned as he kept shaking him and Adam almost wept in relief.

The dull ache in his head made no sense until he realised his own face was coated in thick, congealing blood. He raised a tentative hand towards his hair and flinched as he made contact with the source. A furrow across his skull told him just how close a bullet had come to ending his day completely.

Adam slowly pushed himself up onto his haunches and looked back towards where his brother still lay sprawled in the dirt.

“Hoss. Can you hear me?” Adam slapped at the side of his brother’s face. “Come on … time to wake up. Hoss!” He could hear the fear in his own voice and Adam sucked in a sharp breath and tried again. “Hoss, we’ve gotta find Little Joe.”

Adam smiled at him as his plan worked and his brother’s protective instinct forced his eyes open.

“A’am … where’s Joe?”

Hoss was slurring as he spoke and Adam was already running hands over him trying to find just how seriously his brother was injured. His hand came away covered in sticky blood and he only just contained a groan as he realised the entry wound had no corresponding exit wound.

“Come on, Hoss. You need to sit up so I can get a better look at you.”

“Where’s … little … brother?” Hoss winced with every breath as he tried to help Adam lift him up.

Adam concentrated on getting Hoss upright as he tried not to think too much about the question. From where he was crouched on the ground, Adam had already seen Mack’s lifeless body lying in the dirt and he dreaded getting up and finding a matching body on the far side of the stagecoach. The ambush had happened so fast and he hadn’t had time to shout a warning or do much of anything at all before going down.

“A’am?” Hoss was wobbling against him as Adam tried to lean him up against a wheel of the stage. He looked up to see his brother’s intense gaze and he shook his head.

“I don’t know! Let me get you sorted first and then I’ll go and look.” Adam stood up and yanked the stage door open before Hoss could object. He reached inside to find the basket of food that Hoss had been happily devouring only a short time before. There were a few napkins inside along with a bottle of brandy that Len Miller had given him to pass onto his father as a final goodwill signature on their timber deal. He clambered back out of the stage and quickly set to work on his brother’s wound. Hoss groaned as he poured the brandy out onto him and it ran down his chest and over his stomach, mingling with the blood trail that had gone before it.

“I’m sorry, but that bullet’s still in there.”

“S’okay,” Hoss nodded at him as he clamped his jaw firmly shut.

“I’m sorry,” Adam muttered again as he pushed a couple of the napkins up against the wound before twisting the last one around Hoss’ shoulder to secure the makeshift bandage in place.

“Ain’t your fault,” Hoss whispered as he tried to keep himself upright. “Now … go … find Joe!” He waved a hand vaguely towards the direction where they had last seen their brother and he nodded approvingly as Adam climbed to his feet.

Adam glanced back over his shoulder as Hoss sunk back against the wheel and closed his eyes. “You’d better be here when we get back!”

“Ain’t goin’ nowhere. I’ll keep watch here.”

Adam smiled in spite of himself. “Sure thing.”

As he steeled himself to begin his search, Adam quickly found another body lying face down in the dirt. Using the toe of his boot, he pushed the man over onto his back and nodded with approval, as he knew Joe must have taken one of them down. After all, neither he nor Hoss had managed much of anything as the ambush had come so quickly.

“Good for you, Joe.”

It was small comfort as he quickly scouted the surrounding area. There was no sign of his youngest brother anywhere and he felt a nagging fear chewing at his insides. Hoss was bleeding heavily and he needed that bullet taken out, sooner rather than later. They were still two hours from the waystation at the stage’s usual speed and he knew he had no hope of driving the team at that pace. While he considered it a godsend the horses hadn’t bolted as the shooting began, he knew that teams were picked to handle difficulties and not be skittish or cause trouble for the driver. Mack knew his horseflesh and picked his own team personally. Adam sucked in a sharp breath, as it had been Joe’s insistence that he also knew good horseflesh that had put him on the trip in the first place.

Adam cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted with as much energy as he could muster. “Joe! Where are you?”

The sound echoed around the rocks and he waited silently, praying for an answer.

“Joe!”

For over half an hour, he clambered over the rocks in the general area where he had last seen his brother. He found Joe’s hat sitting atop a rocky outcrop and was dismayed to find his unstoppered water canteen lying in the dirt.

“Joe!”

The silence was deafening as he tried to figure what to do next. The rocks had swallowed up any kind of boot prints and he had no idea where to even look next. As much as he hated to make the decision, in the end, Adam knew it was no longer a choice. It was well past time to get Hoss to whatever help he could find. He reluctantly turned back towards the stage, steeling himself for the inevitable argument that he knew was coming with his middle brother. There was no way Hoss was going to agree to leaving their youngest brother behind, even if it cost him his own life.

Adam stumbled back up the incline and was momentarily overcome by nausea and a wave of dizziness. The ache in his chest was even more compelling as he knew he may well be signing away any chance Little Joe had of being found. It was sheer stubbornness that forced him forward again.

Hoss was still sitting against the wheel and his chin had dropped to his chest. Adam hunkered down in front of him and reached out to pull his face upright.

“Hoss?”

“Hmmm.” Cloudy blue eyes tried to focus on him as Adam tried to pull his brother upright. It was no mean feat getting Hoss to his feet with next to no assistance from his brother. Adam hoisted one arm around his shoulder and he pushed and prodded until he got Hoss sitting on the floor of the stagecoach.

“Where’s Joe?”

Adam ignored the question and focussed on what he knew he needed to do as he climbed in over his brother. Hoss was bleeding again from the stress of moving and Adam pulled him up against the far side of the coach before crouching down to retie the bandage. He didn’t need to check underneath it to know his brother was in trouble. He debated pulling Hoss onto the bench seat, but quickly decided against it as there was nothing to stop his brother rolling right off and landing on the floor. Instead, he made sure he was as secure as possible, propped up against the seat and began to edge out backwards.

“We’re going to the waystation.”

Adam turned to climb out the door as Hoss called out again. “Where’s Li’le Joe?”

“He’s fine.” Adam quickly closed the door and leaned his head against the side of the coach. If Hoss knew the truth, he’d fight him every step of the way. He’d already lost one brother and wasn’t about to make it two. As he climbed up into the driver’s seat and took the reins in his hand, Adam glanced down at Mack’s body lying so still in the dust. He felt another pang of guilt that he couldn’t at least take the man’s body with them or give him a decent burial beside the road. The throbbing in his head reminded him that he simply didn’t have the luxury of doing the decent thing. His brothers needed him to get the team moving and find help before he fell out of the seat and failed them altogether.


The hours melded into each other as Joe concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. He was long past paying any attention to where he was going. Two long nights had passed as he had played the sickening scene over and over as if he could see it right before him and reach out and touch it. It didn’t matter anymore. His brothers were both dead and the world would never look the same again.

Tears had come along with great shuddering shakes and he had finally succumbed to utter exhaustion that first dark night. As the earliest hint of dawn appeared in the sky, he had jolted awake and had a few blissful moments where he had no idea where he was or what had happened. And then it had crashed over him like some great wave rolling into shore and threatening to drown him. He wished that it had.

In the hours since, he had no thought where he was going, nor did he care. The world was blurring into a dull grey as his boots finally slid out from under him. His last thought as he fell into darkness was that nobody would be looking for him and he didn’t want anyone to come anyway. He simply didn’t deserve to be found.

 

 

Chapter Four

Ben forced himself to drink the mug of dark liquid that somebody had told him was coffee. It tasted like mud and he almost made a comment about how Joe’s coffee tasted similar when he suddenly stopped himself. He paused with the mug halfway back to the table and found he couldn’t make himself move.

“Pa. You all right?” Adam’s voice sounded in his ear and Ben startled as he realised he had wandered off again. He placed the mug back on the rough-hewn table and nodded.

“Just thinking.”

It didn’t take a genius to know where his thoughts were and Adam nodded as he slid into the seat across from his father. His face was still too pale against the white bandage that encircled his forehead. Adam pulled a face as he took in a mouthful of his own coffee.

“This tastes worse than Joe’s coffee!” The comment had come out without thinking and he suddenly looked up to see his father’s stricken face. “Pa! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean …”

“It’s all right, Son.” Ben tried to muster a smile. “You’re right. It is worse than Joe’s! I didn’t think that was possible.”

He smiled weakly as silence settled awkwardly between them until Adam looked up again.

“We’ll find him.” Adam stared at his father as he spoke again. “I’ll find him, Pa and I’ll bring him home.”

“Adam, you are in no shape to be out there today. You still need to be resting.”

“But, I …”

“Son, Hoss needs one of us to stay with him and you still need to rest. That head wound is …” Ben shook his head as he considered his son’s face. “The doctor said that you need to be resting still.”

Before Adam could object any further, the door to the small waystation pushed open and both men looked up to see Shorty Hayes stride in. The man topped six feet, seven inches and he had worn the cheeky nickname for so long that most people couldn’t easily recall his actual name.

“We’re ready to ride, Ben.”

Adam tried to reach for his father’s arm as Ben pushed away from the table.

“Pa … I’ll keep an eye on Hoss.”

Ben nodded as he picked up his hat and placed it firmly on his head. “Thank you.”

He knew what it was costing his eldest son to stay behind for the third day running. Somehow he had done the unimaginable and pushed the stagecoach to the waystation before almost falling in a heap at the door. Old Gerry had been alone when the stage arrived hours late and he was about to give Mack an earful about schedules when he realised one of them young Cartwrights was driving the rig. Fortunately the horses knew their way or he doubted the lad would have made it at all given the state he was in.

It had taken them the better part of half an hour to wrestle Hoss off the floor of the stage and into Gerry’s tiny back room. Adam hadn’t dared stop any sooner for fear he’d never be able to climb back up into the seat again and he’d been terrified that Hoss could have bled to death without his knowledge. He knew his brother was made of pretty stern stuff, but even he couldn’t live without enough blood in his veins.

Sometime during the night, the Sacramento-bound stage had pulled in and Gerry had quickly hitched up the other team and despatched them out again immediately to get help. None of the passengers had argued too loudly about the change in schedule and lack of rest time once they knew the urgency. Two of the travellers were from Virginia City and had stayed behind and gone up the pass in the early morning light to look for the missing brother and retrieve the bodies.

Ben strode towards the door and Adam forced himself to his feet. His head ached like a perpetual hangover, but he ignored it as he made his way back to where Hoss was still sleeping.


Soon Zhu had seen more than enough of the rocky terrain to last him a lifetime. If he had not been so focussed on his goal, he would have turned the wagon around days ago and admitted defeat. Beside him, Jia was close to falling asleep and he smiled as his daughter fought valiantly to keep her eyes open. He knew he was pushing the child, just as he was pushing himself, but he had no other choice. The pull of the goldfields was like a magnet and he had set his course months ago.

Zhu glanced down as Jia’s head leaned against his side and he carefully wrapped an arm around her so as not to wake her.

“We will stop soon, Little One,” he whispered over her head in his native tongue. As much as he wished her to learn to speak more words like Americans, his daughter was not accepted at any such school and his own words were limited. It was yet another thing that he knew she would need to overcome in her life in this new land he had brought her to.

The sun was almost gone for the day and he knew he needed to find a safe place to call home for the night before the last of the light was gone. Of course, there was enough moonlight to see by once it arose from its slumber, but for now, he needed to keep an eye out. He had no idea when the rocks would once again give way to a smoother road, but he prayed that it would be soon. They were all tired of it and he wasn’t sure how much more of it their horse could take.

Finally, he spotted an area that seemed big enough for them to pull into and he gently nudged his daughter awake. Jia rubbed at her face as she looked up at him and he was once again struck by just how much she resembled her mother. Sari had been only a few years older than his daughter when he first saw her and she had stolen his breath even then. She was too young to marry and his family had already chosen another for him who was deemed more suitable, but his heart had rebelled and they had both paid dearly for that rebellion. There were times he had wondered if he had done his love a deep disservice, but then he would look at his daughter and in spite of everything, he knew they had chosen correctly.

“Papa?” Jia was puzzled by his strange expression, but he soon smiled and pointed ahead.

“Your palace awaits, Little One.”

Jia looked around at the rocky fortress and smiled at her father’s usual game.

“Look, Papa! The turrets are made of the finest gold to reflect the emperor’s glory.”

Zhu lifted his daughter out of the wagon and set her on her feet as he bowed deeply.

“And the floors are carved from the finest marble, that only a princess may set foot upon.”

Jia giggled as her father smiled at her.

“I hope the royal servants have prepared a banquet fit for such a guest.”

Jia nodded solemnly as she went about the usual end-of-day tasks. “I can smell the banqueting table from here.”

Zhu quickly had a small fire going before the last of the sun’s rays disappeared and he pointed towards the small black pot that Jia had carried over. The meagre rice and dried fish meal that they would eat every night was leagues from a banqueting table and yet his daughter had inherited her mother’s sunny disposition and optimism.

“Come here, Little One.” He patted at the smooth stone next to where he was crouched, tending their supper. “ It will soon be time to eat.”


The darkness had held onto him for far too long and Adam was growing impatient for his brother to wake up. Hoss was as strong as an ox, but the bullet had almost bled him dry and more than once, Adam had silently berated himself. Firstly for waiting too long before leaving to get Hoss to the waystation and secondly for not stopping to check on him along the way. The fact he had little control over either one was beside the point as far as he was concerned. His father had sent the three of them out under his supervision and protection and he had failed miserably.

“A’am?”

He barely reacted for a moment before jolting upright. Hoss was blinking slowly at the brightness of the late afternoon light as it angled through the bare window. There was no need for niceties such as curtains at a waystation and Adam shifted the chair closer to the bed to block some of the light.

“Hoss. It’s about time you woke up!” The words that came out sounder harsher than he intended and Adam quickly tried to soften them. “I’ve been worried about you.”

“Well … I can’t remember feelin’ quite so … so …” Hoss tried to stifle a yawn by swiping a hand across his face.

“Doc says you’re going to be fine. You just need some more rest and maybe a good feed.”

“Well, now that you mention it, I am feelin’ kinda puny. Got any of them chicken legs left?”

It took a few seconds to register, but Adam shook his head at the memory. “Ahh, I hate to tell you, but that was days ago that you were eating those.”

Hoss frowned at him before winking at his brother. “So, that’s a no then?”

Adam grinned in spite of himself and shook his head again. “Yes, it’s a no. But I’m sure I can find you something to eat if you wait a few minutes.”

“Where’s Joe hidin’? You ain’t got him out choppin’ wood or some other thing have ya?”

“I wish,” Adam muttered as he quickly pushed himself to his feet and turned towards the door. Hoss may have been incapacitated, but he knew that sound in his brother’s voice only too well.

“Adam! Where’s Little Joe?”

When Adam still didn’t answer, Hoss forced himself up onto his elbows.

“Adam! You’re scarin’ me now. You can’t be tellin’ me you left him out there!”

“I didn’t want to, Hoss … but … I don’t know where he is.” Adam slowly turned back to face his accuser and instead found only concern. “I tried to find him! Hoss, God knows … I tried. But you were bleeding really bad and I just …”

Hoss pulled himself into a sitting position as he watched Adam stumble back into the seat and drop his head into his hands. He began to push back the blanket that covered him and was about to swing his legs over the side of the bed when Adam stopped him by grasping at his arm.

“Pa and some others are out looking for him. And Shorty Hayes is tracking for them. You know how good he is, Hoss.”

Hoss stopped and looked at his brother as if really seeing him for the first time. “What happened to your head?”

Adam reached up with tentative fingers and brushed the edge of the bandage, as if he had forgotten it was there.

“The same fools that put a hole in you got me too.”

Hoss sucked in a sharp breath. “That was a little too close, older brother.”

Adam shrugged as he tried to smile. “Can’t keep us down that easy! And hair grows back.”

Neither of them could speak for a few minutes as they both wrestled with the same thoughts. Finally Adam looked up again.

“Joe got one of them.”

It wasn’t enough.

“There was at least three of them!”

Adam pushed away from the bed and made for the door once more. “I told Pa I’d look after you. Gonna get you something to eat.”

Before Hoss could reply, he was out the door.

 

 

Chapter Five

It was well into the morning when Zhu saw it. There were birds circling in the air above and he knew what that meant. Something was dead. He pulled back on the reins and eased the wagon around the bend in the trail. He wasn’t quick enough to shield his daughter from the sight of a dead man lying sprawled across the ground.

Jia grasped at his leg as she caught sight of the man. It wasn’t possible to drive past without running over the man’s feet and he knew he couldn’t just leave him there anyway. Nobody deserved to be left on the side of the road for the wild animals to devour. Zhu tugged on the reins and pulled the wagon to a complete stop.

“Stay here,” he directed his daughter, knowing that she would have no wish to get any closer anyway. He slid down to the ground and slowly headed towards the body. He glanced around nervously, as if a local sheriff would come flying from the rocks and point the finger at him for the man’s death. It wouldn’t be the first time that a Chinese man was falsely accused and he’d seen how well that usually turned out.

As he drew level with the man’s head, he was shocked to see that it wasn’t a man at all, but just a boy. Zhu crouched down in the dirt and gently turned the boy’s head towards him and he was stunned to see the boy’s lips were moving. There was no sound coming out, but he was definitely still alive.

“Jia! Bring me water!”

He didn’t dare let go of the stranger as he waited for his daughter to comply. She edged towards him, still clearly fearful of the situation. She held out a water canteen and he levered off the stopper with one hand while reaching the other one around behind the stranger’s head. Dull, almost lifeless eyes tracked him and the silent lips still moved of their own accord. He dribbled water in between them and waited to see if he swallowed it before trying again.

The boy’s shirt was torn and filthy and he was covered in dark bruises and scrapes. Once again, he edged the water canteen closer and this time the boy seemed to respond quicker as he took another gulp of water. The moment quickly passed though and he sagged back into the dirt before closing his eyes.

“Papa?” Jia’s lower lip trembled as she dropped to her knees beside her father. “Is he dead?”

“No, Little One. But he is very sick.”

Zhu glanced at the boy’s face and looked towards the wagon. He felt torn. If he was found with a white boy in such a state, he could easily be accused of all sorts of things. On the other hand, if he simply got in his wagon and went on his way, what kind of a man did that make him? Certainly not the kind he wanted his daughter to see him as.

“Jia, clear a space in the back of the wagon. Big enough to lay him in.”

His daughter’s eye grew wider as she stared at him, but she hurried to comply with the request. He looked at the boy and decided that he should be able to lift him and carry him the short distance. He didn’t appear to weigh too much.

“Ready, Papa.” Jia stood on the tailgate of the wagon and waited. He knelt down again in the dirt and gently drew the boy towards him. A faint groan was the only response he got as he staggered towards the wagon. It took a few minutes for him to get the boy settled in amongst their few meagre belongings and travel rations. Jia had tucked a rolled blanket underneath his head and Zhu tried once more to offer water. This time, the boy did not stir and the water dribbled down the side of his face.

“Papa?”

Zhu looked up to see his daughter’s fear written across her face.

“It’s all right, Little One. We will take him to the nearest town and leave him with his own people.”

She looked at the stranger in the back as she climbed back into the front seat. She didn’t much like his people and she certainly didn’t trust them.

Zhu flicked the reins and the horse moved on again. He had no idea how close the nearest town was nor if the stranger would even still be alive when they got there. That idea did not bear thinking about and he pushed it aside as he scanned the trail ahead.


Joe found himself slowly coming to, but the world was swaying around him. As he opened his eyes, he quickly closed them again as too-bright sunlight hit his face. He was lying on his back and the sky above him was a clear blue when he finally dared open his eyes again. It soon became apparent that the reason he felt the world moving was because he was in the back of a wagon. It took a few minutes before he felt confident enough to try to sit up and he pushed himself as far as his elbows before he dropped backwards again. Strips of bandaging covered his arms and one was wrapped around his leg. Someone had clearly tended him while he slept and he soon caught the scent of Hop Sing’s salve.

Hop Sing scolded him from the front of the wagon. He didn’t know the words, but he knew the tone of voice. It was the same one he always used when Joe had done something foolish or unexpected and that thing had caught up to him. But why was Hop Sing driving a wagon and why was he laid out in the back?

The wagon pulled to a stop and a hand reached out towards him and brushed the hair from his eyes. A canteen of water appeared and he reached out eagerly towards it. His aim was off and his hand shot past it, but Hop Sing held it steady and allowed him to swallow several deep gulps.

“Thanks! Hop Si …” Joe pulled up short as he stared at the unknown face in front of him. He glanced around nervously before setting eyes on a young Chinese girl. Dark eyes stared at him as he stared right back. She looked to be no more than ten or eleven, but he wasn’t so good at judging the age of Chinese children so wasn’t really sure about that estimate.

“Who are you?” It sounded so rude to his own ears and he tried to think what to say instead.

The man looked at him as if he didn’t understand and for a minute, Joe feared he wouldn’t get an answer. Finally the stranger pointed to himself and said,” I am Soon Zhu.” He pointed to the girl. “This is Soon Jia.”

Joe nodded at the two strangers as he blinked again and tried to clear his head. They waited expectantly and he suddenly realised he hadn’t given them his name.

“Joe. I’m Joe.” For some unknown reason, he felt reluctant to disclose anything further. The Cartwright name had always meant so much to him and yet now it felt like an albatross around his neck. His father had first read him that poem so many years ago and described how superstitious sailors were. He didn’t deserve the name anymore. He’d left his brothers to die on a dusty trail in the middle of nowhere. His father would already know of his unbearable shame by now and he gulped back a sob as he hastily looked away from the father and daughter.

“Joe … you need … water?” Zhu held the water canteen towards him again and he shook his head. He didn’t need water. He didn’t need kindness or sympathy. He didn’t deserve either.

Zhu rocked back on his heels and frowned. He did not understand the boy’s reaction, but figured that he had spent too long out in the sun and needed to rest. He pointed to the blanket and smiled.

“Sleep. We move on.”

Joe stared at the man as he climbed down off the back of the wagon before pulling himself up into the driver’s seat once more. He set the horse moving again and Joe felt himself sag against a bag of something he presumed was rice.

Sleep.

He didn’t think he dared sleep if it would bring the images he was trying so hard to block out. He edged up closer to the rice sack and rolled onto his side before he wrapped his arms around his chest. The trail slowly disappeared behind them as the wagon rattled forward once more. He had no idea where they were headed and he sighed as he realised he didn’t care. He couldn’t go home and there wasn’t anywhere else he wanted to be so it didn’t matter. As he stared at the trail dust rolling out behind them, he began to wonder about just what he would do next. Zhu was clearly heading somewhere specific, so maybe he should just stay in the wagon until they got there. He had enough skills to find a job of some sort. Joe patted at his pocket and slowly drew out his wallet. It didn’t matter much as he knew it was empty anyway. The memory of that stupid poker game slammed into him and he closed his eyes in defeat. If he hadn’t behaved like such a kid that night and been so gullible, he’d never have gotten so drunk and his brothers wouldn’t have been forced to pull the stage over for him. If onlys were a luxury he could not afford. It was much too little and far too late. He glanced down at his empty holster and barely swallowed a sob. He’d tried. God knew he’d tried, but he’d wasted the element of surprise by charging in before stopping to think. Adam would have …

Joe felt the tears burning his skin as he scrubbed angrily at them. Adam would never again have the chance to tell him how to do anything.


Ben leaned his head into the saddle as he tried to swallow down his disappointment. Shorty was one of the best trackers he knew, but the rocky ground just wouldn’t give up its secrets. There were signs in the dirt of the trail, but nothing beyond it. For all intents and purposes, the pass had swallowed up his son and left no sign of him.

The sheriff from Sacramento had arrived earlier in the day, along with a small posse. The Cartwright name was apparently enough to draw a serious response, even from another jurisdiction, but it would not be enough until he found his missing son. The body of one man had already been taken away, but even if Adam hadn’t been able to tell them anything, it was clear that there was more than one attacker. There were too many horse prints for just one rider. They had no way of knowing for sure just how many more had hunted his son, but the odds were not in Joe’s favour.

Ben pulled himself up to his full height and climbed back into the saddle. He had no doubt that somebody had hunted Joe and chased him to who knew where. It was the only explanation that made sense. The only consolation he had was that they had not discovered his son’s body anywhere. He held tightly onto that shred of hope that Joe was still alive. Maybe he’d been caught and taken off somewhere. Maybe there was a ransom demand waiting for him. Maybes were driving him crazy, but until he knew otherwise, he had to hold onto the hope that his son was still alive. To think otherwise was simply unthinkable.

As the sun dropped lower, the group finally turned back towards the waystation in silence. Nobody had anything worth saying and Ben felt the silence like some kind of lead weight slung around his neck. His son needed him and he had failed him. He turned in the saddle and glanced back towards the pass and prayed for tomorrow to be a better day with a better outcome.


It took another two days for the rocky ground to give way to a smoother trail and Zhu smiled when he saw signs of civilisation in the distance. The boy who sat slumped in the back of his wagon had improved a little once they could get some food into him, but he had barely strung two words together and did not speak unless spoken to first. His eyes hardly left his feet and Zhu knew that look only too well. It was the mark of guilt. It gnawed at him as they travelled along and he tried to put the scant pieces together. The boy wore a holster, but no weapon. He was not injured beyond superficial scrapings and several deep gashes. He had no horse or provisions and yet he was stumbling around in the middle of nowhere.

Jia stole a glance back towards the stranger and tried to swallow down her fear. White men had not generally been kind to her in this strange land and she avoided them at all cost. This one tugged at her somehow as he sat in the wagon and stared at nothing. She did not understand why and that frightened her.

“Leave him be,” Zhu spoke to her in the language she knew best, knowing full well the stranger could not understand her. There were not many who understood the words and it was a nice kind of secret on one hand, but frustrating on the other. Her father had explained that most of the people who lived here spoke their other language and she knew enough of that to make herself understood. She just had trouble with the strange way some words were spoken. When they wrote it down, it was much easier.

Tears pricked at her eyes and she looked down as she suddenly remembered her mother sitting with her and patiently going over and over the brush strokes until she mastered them. Her small fingers had struggled to form the elegant curves and lines with just the right flourish, but the smile on her father’s face when he came in to check was worth the effort.

Jia glanced up to watch her father’s face as they continued on. The colour of his hair was still rich and glossy black, but faint lines had been drawn on his skin. They had first appeared when her mother grew sicker. At first, the doctor had said she would recover. Then her father’s face had grown more serious and one night she had climbed out of bed to get water and discovered her father sitting at the table in tears. He had hastily wiped them away when he saw her and pulled her onto his lap to comfort her. But that memory had embedded itself inside her and it was the first time she knew her father was breakable. That thought alone frightened her, but his fear seeped into her as well and she hated to think on those days.

Zhu wrapped his arm around his daughter’s shoulder and drew her close. He did not need to ask anything as he knew that look on her face only too well. The first time he had seen it was the night the doctor had stolen all hope and his heart had given out on him.

Jia snuggled into his side and closed her eyes. The unique scent of her father was always a comfort, as was the steady beat of his heart against her ear.

Joe watched the silent actions as the girl’s father drew her close and he barely stifled a groan. His own father had done the same thing many times when he was small and the memory threatened to choke him. Never again would those arms embrace him. How could he possibly face the man and explain that he was the cause of his brothers’ deaths?

 

 

Chapter Six

“Hoss, you need to go home.” Ben’s hands were clamped on his hips as he stared down his middle son. “We aren’t giving up, but you need to go home.”

“But, Pa … Joe needs me to …”

“Joe needs to find his brother in one piece when we bring him home.” Ben placed a hand on his son’s broad chest. “Son, you are in no shape to be riding around out there looking for him.”

It had been the better part of a week since he had arrived at the waystation, chased by the fear of what he would find. While he knew his middle son could take a lot more than most men, that bullet had come far too close and he would not risk his recovery so soon. He understood only too well as he had no plans to leave until he had Joe with him.

He would eventually be reminded that sometimes plans are forced to be changed.


“Ya ain’t welcome here, ya stinkin’ yella liar!”

Zhu stood in the doorway of the saloon, watching warily as two men staggered towards him. They were clearly drunk and both were pulling pistols from their holsters as they approached.

“But … I said … need doctor. Sick man.” The words fell on deaf ears as the two drunks moved closer.

“Are ya deaf? Get outta here!”

One of them pointed his pistol towards Zhu and shot off two rounds into the dirt near his feet. Zhu danced backwards and both men laughed hysterically. The gunshots may have drawn a lawman in another town, but the small settlement didn’t have one.

“You’d best just leave.” The small woman who cowered behind a verandah post pointed towards the two men. “There’s more like them around here. Ain’t nobody here gonna help a yella.”

Zhu nodded at her as he carefully stepped backwards away from the two men. He dared not turn his back to them and he slowly edged back until he was across the street. He turned and ran back to where he had parked the wagon. Jia was huddled in the seat, but it was the boy in the back who shocked him.

Joe was crouched against the rice sack with his arms wrapped round his head. His whole body was clearly shaking. Zhu was about to climb into the back of the wagon when he heard another two shots behind him. One of the drunks had followed him and was firing aimlessly towards him. He ignored Joe and climbed into the driver’s seat and flicked the reins to get them moving again. The horse trotted forward and Zhu pushed his daughter down as another shot whistled overhead.

“And stay out!”

The vitriol in the shouted words wasn’t new to him, but Zhu felt the weight of it nonetheless. The young man he had hoped to leave with his own kind was still cowered in the wagon tray behind him. It would be several miles out of the settlement before he felt confident enough to stop and check on him.

Joe felt the wagon pull to a stop and for a moment he was right back in the stagecoach with Hoss teasing him about chicken legs or some such thing. A hand reached out and touched his arm and he flinched back from it.

“Joe?”

Zhu watched as the boy pulled back from him and seemed to shrink back into the rice sack. He slowly tried again, as if approaching a wild animal.

“Joe? You sick?”

Sick? If only that was the case. That he could have dealt with.

He heard the girl comment something to her father and he had no idea of the meaning, but caught the tone in her voice. She was scared.

Zhu replied and once again he caught the tone without the meaning of the words. A father was trying to comfort his child. Joe slowly lifted his head to see the two of them staring at him. His hand still shook and he clamped them against his legs to make them behave.

“I’m sorry.”

Zhu reached forward with a water canteen and Joe took a deep drink. The water did nothing to still his rapidly beating heart, but it felt good going down. He handed it back and nodded at Zhu.

“Thanks.”

“We keep going.” Zhu waved a hand along the trail towards the west. “That way.”

It sounded like a question and Joe wondered if he was asking permission. Suddenly it occurred to him that Zhu was asking if he still wanted to go too. He glanced back towards the settlement and frowned. There was nothing left that way. He turned back towards Zhu and nodded.

“We keep going.”


“Pa, you have to listen to Roy.” Adam stood up against the credenza watching his father buckle on his gun belt. His heart pounded in his chest as he watched his face scrunch in anger. He steeled himself against the words that he knew were coming, knowing that he deserved nothing less.

“Adam … until I see a body.” Ben’s breath hitched as he tried again. “Until I have proof that your brother is … is really dead, than I can’t listen to Roy or anybody else!”

Hoss flinched at the “anybody else” knowing full well who that meant. It had been five weeks. Five long weeks with not so much as a shred of information. It was if the rocks of the mountain pass had swallowed his little brother whole.

“Pa, Adam just meant that …”

“I know what Adam meant.” Ben’s tone softened a little as he looked at both of his remaining sons. It had been far too close a call that he could have lost all three of them and he wasn’t above worrying about that too. He reached a hand out towards his eldest and clapped him on the chest.

“I know what logic says. But I also know what my heart says.”

“Then we’re coming too, Pa.”

“Course we are!” Hoss was beside him in seconds and Ben nodded slowly, seeing the determination on both faces.

“You have ten minutes to pack. That stage won’t wait for us.”

“Already done, Pa. We already figured if you weren’t gonna stay, then neither was we.”

Ben leaned against the credenza as Hoss pulled two travel bags from behind the sofa. His head wanted to object, but he really didn’t want to face another trip to Sacramento alone.


Zhu was awake before the dawn and listened intently to the sound that had awoken him. It wasn’t the first time and he supposed it wouldn’t be the last. The young man he had agreed to take west slept rough most nights. His muttered words and anguished cries came out when he slept and yet he kept his silence when he was awake.

So far, they knew next to nothing of the boy’s life or family or anything else. He still looked like a stunned rabbit at times and Zhu had caught him staring at nothing many times over. He had wondered at first if the boy was a bit slow, but he’d soon realised that was not the case. Instead, something had stolen a part of him and he looked to be searching to find it.

He knew all about that kind of pain. In the three years since he had buried his beautiful Sari, he had known that same kind of emptiness. There were nights he ached to hold her again and even a few times when he thought he had seen her. Of course, those moments quickly evaporated as he opened his eyes with the morning sun.

“Adam! Run!”

The sharp words broke the early morning stillness and Joe sat bolt upright beside the fire. For a moment he appeared disoriented then he suddenly ripped the blanket off his legs and forced himself upright. Zhu was about to speak when he thought better of it. He watched as Joe ran for the tree line and disappeared. The first few times he had done that, Zhu had been worried, but each time he came back. Eventually.

By the time Joe reappeared from the trees, his hair was wet and it was clear he had been to the nearby creek. Zhu had already stoked life into the fire and set a pot of water to boil to make tea. He didn’t comment as Joe came and settled down nearby and he simply went about his tea making.

“Do your people ever drink coffee?”

Zhu smiled at the odd question, for more than one reason. He wasn’t entirely sure who “his” people were anymore.

“No. It not a taste that … my people like.”

“Hop Sing never would drink it neither.”

It was the first personal remark that Joe had made in some time and Zhu gently encouraged more.

“Hop Sing?”

Joe looked up, surprised that he spoken that thought aloud. He sighed as he thought about the man he missed almost as much as his family.

“Yeah. He lived with us. Cooked for us. Took care of us, you know?”

“I know.” Zhu stored that piece of information away. Men who could afford a Chinese cook did not always care well for them.

“He kinda helped raise me after my mama died.”

Zhu noted the affection in the softly spoken words.

“You were young?”

“Not more’n five. She died in an accident.”

Zhu nodded as he poured two cups of tea and handed one to Joe. “Jia lose her mother too. Three years.”

“I’m sorry.”

Zhu sat and stared at the flames for a few moments without speaking. His beloved wife was back with her ancestors where she belonged. Well, he hoped that she was and they had not rejected her after she had dishonoured her family.

It was an added pain that he carried along with losing her. Had her sickness been a punishment for her disobedience? Was he being punished for taking her when he should have listened to his family and walked away? Zhu glanced across to where Jia still lay sleeping and he shook his head. She was not a punishment. She was a gift, just as her mother had been.

“So just where are we heading to anyhow?”

It was the first time that Joe had shown any interest in their destination and Zhu smiled at the young man. Life was slowly returning to those lost eyes.

“To Cala-fornia.”

Joe frowned as he sipped his tea. “Didn’t take you for the prospecting types.”

“Not dig for gold.”

“What then? You got family out there? Friends?”

Zhu shook his head slowly. He had no family and few friends in this new land.

“Miners dig for gold. Need tools. Boots. Mugs.” Zhu raised his enamel mug to echo the point.

“Ahh. You’re gonna run a mercantile.”

Zhu frowned at the unfamiliar word.

“Selling stuff to folks who need it.”

“Yes. A … mer … can … tile.” The word felt strange on his tongue, but Joe nodded at his pronunciation.

“You’re gonna need some money behind you to get that started. Guess you got some Chinese family out there who can help you. Hop Sing has like a thousand cousins and they all help each other out.”

Zhu had no intention of revealing his plans or his finances to get started. Not that he had any concerns about their travelling companion, but he had learned to keep things close to the chest after being burnt before. His father had always admonished him for being too open when it came to business dealings. It had been one of many ways he had disappointed his honourable father.

Instead, he simply nodded and rose to his feet. Jia was stirring and he made his way across to where she lay. He spoke something to her in Chinese and Joe frowned as he listened. It wasn’t the first time he realised that he couldn’t understand any of the words. Over the years, he had picked up enough from Hop Sing to know some basics, but nothing of Zhu’s words made sense to him. He shrugged off the question as being unimportant and poured himself another mug of hot tea.

 

 

Chapter Seven

“I’m worried about him. He’s pushing himself past what his body can handle.”

“We know. But he won’t listen.”

Adam ran a hand across his face as Paul watched his father from a distance. Ben was pacing across the room, clearly getting agitated by whatever Roy was trying to tell him.

“No! I will not stop looking for my son!” Ben stormed across the room and pushed past Adam as he tried to step into his father’s path.

“Pa!”

“This hasta stop, Adam. He’s gonna kill himself with this … this …” Roy raised both hands in frustration. At a loss for the right words, he simply sighed as Adam nodded at him.

“I know, but it’s Little Joe.”

Paul was already on his way to the door and Adam hurried after him.

“We’ll try again. Together.”

Hoss trailed along behind them looking like misery personified. His family was being torn in two and it seemed that there was nothing anybody could do to stop it. Two months with no word and no kind of ransom demand left a stone-cold trail and nothing to go on. That didn’t seem to be registering with their father who seemed determined to move the whole of the Sierra Nevadas if it would find his little brother.


In all the years he’d been a lawman, these were the kind of calls that Roy hated most. No matter that he had given up hope some time back, he knew that Ben hadn’t and he hated being the one to dash that hope once and for all.

“Sherriff Harris wired me again this mornin’ and said he’s confirmed that it wasn’t just a random robbery and those fellas that attacked the stage were lookin’ for you boys.”

Roy held onto the cup of coffee he had yet to start drinking, simply to keep his hands still. Across the table from him, Adam looked fit to be tied and Hoss was leaning against the hearth, looking as if he wanted to put a fist through the stone. Hop Sing hovered in the background with a half-filled coffee pot, as eager for information as the rest of the family.

Beside him, Ben had yet to react to Roy’s words. Finally he looked up and his eyes blazed with anger.

“They were working for Jamison?”

“’Fraid so. Harris has one of ‘em in custody in Sacramento and he’s been singin’ like a canary tryin’ to get hisself outta trouble.”

“This was all about money! My boys won that contract fair and square, Roy!”

“Now there ain’t no doubt about that, Ben. Seems Jamison wanted his competition gone and then he could re-tender for that contract at a higher rate when you defaulted on it.”

Ben pushed himself up from his chair and paced across to his desk. A sheaf of untended paperwork stared back at him and he felt his rage rising. Before he knew what he was doing, he swept the papers across the desk and onto the floor. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered when the cost was too high. A damnable timber contract was the reason behind it all. Finally he turned back to face his long-time friend who was standing just behind him.

“Joe?” Ben’s voice still held onto hope, no matter how slim the thread. “What did he say about where Joe is?”

Roy felt his gut twist as he knew exactly what was being asked. “There ain’t been no ransom, Ben. Harris doesn’t reckon they’ve got him.”

He’d have given his right arm to have a different answer and for a few minutes, nobody spoke.

“I’m right sorry, Ben. Sure wish this had turned out different.”


Jia spooned another portion of rice and fish into her mouth as she watched Joe discretely. He was staring again, like he did quite often. At those times she knew better than to speak, as he would startle at the sound of her voice. Instead, if she waited patiently enough, he would come back from wherever it was that he went. She didn’t understand many of his words, but she liked the sound of his voice and didn’t like it when he went silent.

“Little One, are you finished yet?’

Jia jumped at the sound of her father’s voice and hurried to spoon more rice into her mouth.

“Almost,” she mumbled around the rice.

Zhu smiled at her as he looked back across at Joe. His eyes looked on something that neither of them could see and he worried that these moments had not gone away as he’d hoped they would.

Instead of making an issue about it, he left Joe to himself and gathered his daughter towards him. “Time for sleep, my princess.”

Jia giggled at her father’s comment as he waved a hand towards the canvas tent.

“The servants have prepared your chambers with the finest silks and embroideries.”

Jia paused for a moment as she remembered her mother trying to teach her the delicate art of embroidery and how tedious it had been. The silk threads were so very beautiful and yet her hands had mostly managed to create a mess of knots instead of the delicate images her mother’s could produce. She sighed as she made her way towards the tent and pushed aside the flap. Two single cots and a small table were the only pieces of furniture inside. It was a long way from the bedchamber of a princess and yet she had no desire to be anywhere else since this was where her father was.

By the time Zhu made his way back to the fire, Joe had made a pot with coffee and he held it out towards him.

Zhu shook his head and pointed to the teapot.

“You reckon you’ll ever get a taste for coffee?”

“No.”

“I s’pose when you’ve done something the same way for long enough it’s real hard to change.”

Zhu nodded at the comment as he settled on the ground and let his tea draw.

“Need plenty coffee beans in mer-can-tile.”

“Yeah, I reckon you will. And coffee pots. And mugs.”

Joe took another sip of his coffee as he looked at the man who had taken him in, no questions asked.

“So, you never did tell me who you’ve got waiting for you to help you get set up.”

“Nobody waiting.”

“Nobody?” Joe frowned at the thought. “But I thought you Chinese had cousins everywhere. Leastways Hop Sing does.”

“Soon Zhu not have any cousins here. No family.”

“Oh.” Suddenly another idea occurred to him and Joe tried again. “You came over first to get things started and then they’re coming?”

“Nobody coming. Not have …. honour. No family.”

Joe felt his stomach fall to his boots as he considered the thought. He had no honour left either.

Something in the young man’s face spoke where his voice could not. Zhu took a deep breath and began to tell the tale he had never told another soul. It was a story that none had needed to know, but something was different this time.

“Dishonour my honourable family by choosing wife.”

Joe’s head shot up at the comment. “What? Jia’s mama?”

Zhu nodded as he collected his thoughts. “Beautiful. Young. Smile like sunshine.”

“You loved her.” It wasn’t a question.

“Much love.” Zhu paused and pulled in a slow breath to calm himself. “My family merchants. Send ships to Dutch East Indies. Take much spice. Sell much silk.”

“And you met your wife there?”

Zhu nodded as he recalled his first glimpse of the trader’s daughter. He had been entranced from the first time he laid eyes on her. He knew she was too young, but he was a patient man and he waited. His mother had tried to find him a match, but he had already lost his heart to a girl from a foreign land. It was to be the beginning of his disgrace and ultimate expulsion from his family.

Joe waited as the man seemed to be lost in his memories.

“Sari. Her name mean princess.”

“What happened to her?”

“Fever. She get sick and no medicine make better. Bring Jia to new place. Start new life.”

Joe swallowed down the hard lump in his throat as he considered the thought. “So you don’t have any family here?”

“No family.”

There was no way to explain that he had no family at all. His father had shunned his new bride and ordered he return her to her people. His mother had cried rivers of tears and begged him to obey. When it became clear that he would not get either of them to budge, he had taken his new wife and struck out on his own. The honourable name of his ancestors had been stained and he had no choice but to turn south. Many of the sailors who had manned his family’s ships were Cantonese and he turned to a sympathetic connection there to start over. But even there, his wife was an outsider and always would be.

America had seemed like the answer to his dreams. An open land where anything was possible with hard word and tenacity. He knew he had both and his princess had agreed to his plan. At the start it had been a good choice. Until his beloved Sari fell sick.

Joe watched as his benefactor slumped into himself and he felt like he was intruding somehow. Two simple words drew them together.

No family.

He no longer had a family either.


Jia smiled as her father sung to her in time with the wagon’s sway. She struggled with the unfamiliar words as she tried to sing along with him. It was a tune that she had heard many of the miners whistle and Joe had tried to teach her the words. The wagon was loaded to the brim with goods that her father would soon sell to the men scattered across the region. In the time since they had arrived, he had quickly built a reputation for bringing the right goods as he had taken careful note of what would be required. Pick handles wore out and boots were a constant need. Water canteens and canvas for shelter sold out almost as fast as he could supply them. It still seemed strange to Jia that the men showed open hostility at times to them because they were different and yet they were willing to buy from her father. It was yet another thing about this land that puzzled her.

Zhu had quickly established himself with a local wholesaler in San Francisco and the cash he paid up front put him in good stead. As much as he had come to trust the young man who had become like a part of his family, he had never revealed the secret compartment in the underside of his wagon where he had squirreled away the cash he knew he would need to start over. He had travelled across the country with meagre supplies and looked like much less of a mark to anybody who bothered to look closely enough. That same compartment was slowly filling with savings that would set him and his daughter up with a new life. His princess had lived for too long on hope and dreams and he longed for the day when he could put a real roof over her head instead of a canvas tent.

It had been a good day and he was exhausted, but pleased with his efforts. As Zhu pulled the wagon in towards the place he had marked as home, he was not surprised to see Joe was not yet there. Since he had no way to stake a claim for himself, the boy had found work with a gang of labourers and the length of his days was dependant on reaching the target set for that day. His shoulders had filled out as he spent each day in the sun, dragging lumber or rocks to build shoring for the mines that seemed to spring up almost overnight. Each night, he slept soundly and the nightmares that had plagued him seemed to have faded away.

The biggest problem that Joe had encountered was the fact that nobody understood why he would choose to live with a Chinese father and daughter. It left him an outsider with his own people and an oddity to be avoided with the Chinese miners who came in droves to pan for gold. For someone who had always made connections easily, it was yet another confirmation that life had changed irrevocably. He no longer had the Cartwright name to rely on and nobody cared one whit about yet another nobody who had come to seek his fortune. The goldfields was a hard place that chewed men up and spat them out as a steady stream came to replace them.

Zhu unhitched the horse and poured out a measure of grain for her as Jia fetched water and poured it into a makeshift trough. He looked up as he heard boots on the gravel, expecting it to be Joe. Instead, an irate-looking miner strode towards him with a pickaxe in his right hand.

“Stinkin’ yella! You owe me my money back!”

Zhu pushed his daughter behind him as he sensed the man’s anger could turn volatile quickly.

“What owe money for?”

“This!” The man thrust the axe towards him and Zhu stepped back. “It done broke!”

The axe had a clear split along the haft and Zhu could see it had been run over as a deep wheel rut showed.

“Maybe you should be more careful with where you drop your gear next time.”

Joe had arrived in time to see what was unfolding and he squared off against the man. The miner had a good forty pounds and half a foot on him, but Joe stared back at him.

“Ain’t none of your business, boy!”

Joe flinched at the word he had chafed against for so long, but he held his ground.

“That yella owes me my money back. He’s just like the rest of them dirty yella cheats!”

“Looks like you ran over that axe. That isn’t Zhu’s fault and he don’t owe you a thing.”

The miner stepped closer and Joe had his hand on his gun without even stopping to think about it.

“Get outta here, mister!”

The man stepped closer and Joe suddenly had his pistol aimed straight at his chest. He prayed the man couldn’t see the shake in his hand as he had never shot anybody in his life.

“You don’t know who you’re messin’ with, boy!” The words were almost spat in his direction and Joe barely held his hand steady as he held his breath. Finally, the miner deflated and threw the axe on the ground before retreating, all the while muttering curses under his breath.

Zhu felt Jia’s hand clenched into the back of his shirt and he slowly turned to gather her towards him. Joe had no idea of the words he spoke, but he heard the comfort in the tone. He slowly holstered his gun and stared at the axe lying on the ground.

“Guess I made myself another friend.” The bitterness in his voice wasn’t lost on Zhu and he reached out to grasp the boy’s arm.

“You have friends. Thankful friends.”

Joe nodded as he headed for the water bucket and slopped a handful of water over his head and scrubbed at his face. In the whole of California, he had just two friends. Maybe in the whole of America, considering word would have reached Virginia City by now of his disgrace. He nodded towards Zhu as he tried to hold himself together.

 

 

Chapter Eight

He had expected trouble to come sooner. The miner was furious about being shown up by a mere boy and Joe knew that he’d be back. For the first few days, he had slept with his gun in his hand and fully anticipated the man to strike during the night. When it finally came, the man’s retaliation came in a totally unexpected way.

As he had done every night since they arrived, Joe slept in the bed of the wagon. His body was pushed to its limit on a daily basis and he fell into an exhausted sleep most nights. He would never be sure if it was the smell or the sound that woke him first. As he bolted upright, the night sky was brilliant with light. It took a moment for him to shake off his sleepiness and scrambled over the edge of the wagon. Flames chewed through the closest tents of Chinatown and shouts began to ring out. He ran for Zhu’s tent and was horrified to find the flap had been tied closed and flames were already devouring the back and bottom edges of the canvas. He could hear Jia screaming inside and he ran back towards the wagon to find anything he could use to cut the heavy fabric. He finally wrapped his fingers around a cooking knife and raced back to hack at the front of the tent.

“Zhu! Jia!” Thick smoke filled the air and the scent of kerosene was everywhere. “Zhu!”

It took far longer than he hoped to slice away enough of the tent flap to allow them to escape, but he reached out as Zhu thrust his daughter towards him and he grasped at her arms and swung her clear of the tent. Jia was screaming something in between hacking coughs.

Behind them, the horse was bucking and rearing against its tether and Zhu raced towards the animal as Joe deposited Jia in the back of the wagon.

“Stay there!” He shouted as he ran back towards the terrified animal. Between the two of them, they managed to get it grounded again and Joe pulled at the halter to drag the horse towards the wagon. The horse danced sideways, intent on bolting and Joe kept up a running stream of words to wrangle it into the harness. Zhu had run back towards the tent, presumably to retrieve something and Joe had no idea when he lost sight of his friend.

Minutes felt like hours as the sound of fear carried in the night air. Joe somehow got the horse hooked into the harness and looked around, fully expecting to see Zhu sitting in his seat, ready to leave. Jia was no longer in the back of the wagon and he muttered a curse as he tied off the reins once again and went looking for them.

“We gotta go!” It wasn’t the time to waste on things inside the tent and Joe was about to shout something when he pulled up short. Jia was crouched in the dirt and as Joe hurried closer, he saw her father sprawled across the ground. Zhu wasn’t moving and Jia was pounding her small fists on his chest in a desperate attempt to wake him.

“Zhu!” Joe dropped down beside her and was shocked to see his friend’s face was covered in blood. He didn’t have time to think about why, but reached out to grasp him under the arms and drag him towards the wagon. Desperation translated into strength and somehow, he hauled Zhu up onto the tail of the wagon and dropped him down between some supplies. Jia had already scrambled up beside him and Joe nodded at her before climbing over into the driver’s seat and releasing the brake. The horse wasted no time in bolting from the fire and he allowed it to pick its own way out of the disaster area. Behind him, the sounds of shouts and screams were fading and he ignored them since there was nothing he could do anyway. The fire would burn its way through the whole of the canvas settlement and water was too scarce to be able to put it out. Joe refused to listen to the voice that told him he was once again running away and focused on getting his friends to safety.

It was at least half an hour before Joe felt safe enough to pull the horse to a stop and check on Zhu. Jia was still huddled up against her father and Zhu had not moved from where Joe had thrown him. He reached out a hand and nudged Jia aside before inspecting Zhu’s face. Dried blood stuck to his hand where it had run down from Zhu’s scalp.

“What happened?”

Jia stared at him with tears in her eyes as she tried to stop herself shaking.

“Man.”

“A man? Somebody hit him?”

Jia nodded as the tears fell in earnest. The man who had argued over his broken axe had used another axe to strike at her father while Joe battled with the terrified horse, but she simply didn’t have enough words to explain that.

With no water in the wagon and no way to treat the head wound in the darkness, Joe debated going back. There were Chinese people there who had accepted Zhu even though they had no trust of him, but Joe suddenly realised that they were probably in as much trouble as he was. The tents of Chinatown had been a burning mass. As much as he thought he knew who was behind it, there was no way to know which of the others would help or hurt them further.

Going back was not an option.

“We need water.”

Jia seemed not to hear him and Joe tried again, gently holding a hand up beside her face.

“Water. We need water.” He made a show of pretending to drink from a cup as he spoke.

She stared back at him and he sighed as he climbed back into the driver’s seat and urged the horse on again. It would be many hours before the light of dawn gave him a better view of where he was going and Joe finally spotted a grove of trees that seemed to follow a line. It was a good sign of water and he directed the exhausted horse onwards. By the time he pulled the horse to a stop, Zhu still had not stirred and Jia lay huddled up against his side, having fallen into an exhausted sleep.

Joe climbed down from the wagon and reached for something to hold some water in. He found a metal bowl and a couple of enamel mugs. It wasn’t anywhere near enough, but it would have to do. He tried not to look too closely before hurrying away towards the small creek that lay hidden behind the trees.

He was no doctor, but he’d seen one of their hands, Jake Hamilton, who got kicked in the side of the head while trying to shoe a cantankerous horse. The man had taken two days to die and he’d never once opened his eyes again. Joe slid in beside Jia and eased her away before pulling the bowl of water closer and dipping a cloth into it. He dabbed at the dried blood and winced at the deep ugly bruising underneath it. Jia had both hands wrapped around her father’s hand and she waited impatiently as Joe worked.

As he debated what to do next, Zhu began to slowly stir and his eyes gradually fluttered open. One eye looked darker than the other and Joe chewed on his knuckle as he considered what that meant. Doc Martin had said the reason Jake’s eye looked black was because the pupil had blown because his brain was bleeding and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Zhu’s eye didn’t look as bad as Jake’s, but he had no way to know how bad was too bad.

“Zhu? Can you hear me?”

“Bába!” Jia grasped at her father’s hands again and tried to make him look at her.

“Zhu!”

They were rewarded with a small groan as Zhu tried to focus on the voices. He waved a hand awkwardly towards his daughter’s face and haltingly spoke something in Mandarin. Joe watched as Jia’s face contorted in pain and she burst into tears. Joe felt like he was intruding until Zhu turned his head sideways and tried to focus on him. He was clearly fading and he held Jia’s hand out towards Joe. He reached forward and grasped her fingers in his and gave her a squeeze.

“You … take … my … treasure.” Joe stared at him, not comprehending what was being said. He had no interest in Zhu’s money and he shook his head in denial.

Zhu tried again.

“Jia … treasure.” As understanding dawned, Joe felt Jia’s hand clench against his and he looked up to see tears streaming down her face. Zhu turned to her again and whispered something more before his eyes slid closed one last time. Joe recognised it as the words her father often used for his daughter. Princess Jia. She began to keen in despair and Joe found himself frozen. Just as before, someone had died and he’d been the cause of it and powerless to stop it.

In the days that followed, every time Joe played that moment over in his head, he came to the same conclusion. It had been sheer stupidity on his part to even be in the situation he found himself in. If he’d behaved as his father had asked before leaving Virginia City, he would have been safely home months ago. Once again, he’d behaved recklessly and once again, someone else had paid the price.

It took him the better part of the day to dig a grave and convince Jia that her father needed to be buried. He had no idea about Chinese burial customs and was loathe to just leave the man without any words so he’d stood at the grave and recited the twenty-third psalm. It was the only thing that came to mind and Jia had clung to his side as if she may fall down into the hole and stay there.

By the time he lifted her into the wagon and draped a blanket over her, he was utterly exhausted himself and had no plan of where to go except to put some distance between them and the gravesite that bore his shame and Jia’s grief.


Days turned into weeks as the almost silent duo travelled back along the route they had come only a few months before. It had seemed so promising then and now there was nothing but bleakness ahead of them. Joe had given up trying to think of a plan and was ambling towards nothing. They had fashioned some makeshift water holders and looked for water as a priority each day. There was an odd assortment of things in the wagon that were left from Zhu’s last selling trip. On some days, Joe got lucky with a rabbit or fish from the stream, but neither of them cared much what they ate or if they even ate at all.

In the darkness of each night, Joe would wrap Jia in a blanket and listen to her cry herself to sleep while his own pain chewed him up from the inside out. It was during one such long night that he made his decision. He had no business dragging a Chinese girl all over the countryside, especially when they had so few words in common and used hand gestures more often than not to understand each other. He couldn’t ask any of the local Chinese to take her in since he’d seen that even they were wary of Zhu and his exotic daughter. To his eyes, she was beautiful, but to those who looked at her with judgement, she was a muddied half-breed. Half Chinese and half something they didn’t want to know about. He’d seen enough of how the half-breed Indians were treated to know that would not end well without someone to vouch for her. The only person he knew who could and would do that was Hop Sing.

He ached to see his home one more time and if his father couldn’t bear to look at him, he prayed the man would have enough compassion to hear him out and allow Hop Sing to find Jia a home. After that he really didn’t care. His home was no longer home and there was nothing to look forward to anyway, since every dream he’d ever had involved his family and the Ponderosa. Without that, what was the point?

Joe pulled his collar a little tighter and looked upward into the sky. Winter was on its way and he tried to figure just how far from Carson Pass he was. He knew he’d be pushing it to make the crossing in time, but there was no alternative. He couldn’t hole up and wait for the spring thaw. What little money he had would not last for long and he needed to buy supplies if they were going to make it across the pass.


The days were growing colder and shorter and Joe could see snow on the mountain peaks ahead of them. He glanced over to see Jia was still asleep, leaning up against his side. The blanket was wrapped tightly around her shoulders and her dark hair spilled over the top. She was just a child. He tried to think about what kind of future she faced and what might happen if the Chinese community in Virginia City rejected her. He wondered where he would take her if that plan failed.

“Bába.” Jia started to stir from her sleep and she pulled a hand out from under the blanket to rub at her eyes. When she realised it was not her father, she looked away and tried to hide her tears.

Joe felt her stiffen against him and he stared straight ahead at the horse pulling the wagon. It was not the first time she had awoken and been startled to see him sitting in her father’s place. He knew all too well how that worked. Sleep brought memories of good things and then they were ripped away again. He ached to tell her how he understood, but the words just weren’t there. Instead, he reached a hand towards her face and turned her back to look at him. The unshed tears in his eyes told her all she needed to know and she slowly looped an arm through his and leaned back against him.

Joe pointed to the mountains in the distance. “We need to stop and get supplies before we try that.”

He knew she didn’t understand, but he often spoke to her anyway. The sound of silence was too much to bear and he filled it with whatever came to mind. Jia didn’t seem to mind and she nodded and smiled at times as if she did know what he was talking about.

The small town at the foot of the pass was their last stop and Joe had carefully weighed what he could afford and what he could make do without. He had left Jia in the back of the wagon and wrapped the blanket around her to cover her as best he could. The last thing he wanted was for somebody to question why he was travelling with a Chinese child and make accusations he could not defend.

Inside the small mercantile, he counted out coins and a few notes and sighed at the inadequate pile of supplies. The merchant looked at him with a strange look and finally ventured a question.

“Strange time of year to be heading up the pass, ain’t it?”

Joe nodded as he gathered the bags towards him.

“Yeah, but I don’t have any choice.”

“I’m sure you’re wantin’ to get home for Christmas and all, but it’s awful dangerous up there if a snow storm drops on you.”

“Christmas?” Joe stared at the man in confusion. He had no idea of the date and he hadn’t much cared. Suddenly memories welled up inside him and it was all he could do not to bolt from the store. “What day is it?”

“Ahh, it’s the fourteenth today.”

Joe continued to gather his supplies and nodded at the man behind the counter.

“Thanks. Lost track of the days, you know?”

The man watched as the young man headed toward the door. Judging by his face, he seemed to have lost more than just a few days. He was surprised when the man turned back towards him and pulled another coin from his pocket.

“Give me some of those peppermints too.”

 

Chapter Nine

The first week up the pass had gone by fairly uneventfully. Joe had tried to work out how many days it may take and ration out their supplies with a few days to spare. There wasn’t a lot of game out as the weather had turned, but he kept a close eye out as they travelled and had managed to bag a couple of rabbits along the way. The sacks of rice that Zhu had left from his last day of trade were slowly whittling away and the sack of flour he’d bought at the mercantile was going to have to stretch a long way.

The night before, they had camped under a rock overhang and Joe had watched the early morning sky with alarm. A storm was brewing and he had no wish to get caught in it. He tried to remember the route from the last time he had travelled it and couldn’t be sure how far the waystation was. As eddies of snow whirled around in the air, he made a decision to push on.

The storm arrived sooner than he had anticipated and the horse was struggling to keep going as snow began to fall all around them. Joe was beginning to think he’d made yet another major error when he caught sight of a building in the distance. By the time he pulled the horse to a stop, he’d never been more grateful for anything in his life. Smoke was blowing sideways from the chimney as the wind picked up in intensity. Joe climbed down from the wagon and stumbled around to the other side to help Jia down. She was huddled in a heap under two blankets and he gathered her into his arms and carried her to the verandah.

“Hello! Anybody there?”

He kicked at the door with his boot and was about to call out again when the door swung open. A grizzled old man stood there and looked stunned to see anybody outside.

“Well get on inside here! There’s a storm brewin’, don’t ya know?”

Joe clearly did know, but didn’t have the energy to comment. He carried Jia towards the fire and deposited her against the hearth. She began to stir and he was relieved when she finally opened her eyes.

Joe wasn’t aware as the old man pulled on a coat and hat and headed for the door once more. He was too concerned with making sure Jia was warm and safe.

Gerry hadn’t seen a traveller in weeks and hadn’t expected any either since the last stage had gone through before the pass was closed. The snows came later in Carson’s Pass than on the northern pass, but the stage company always drew a line on the side of caution. Gerry had his last supplies dropped off and had settled in for the winter. The stranger’s horse looked like it had been pushed hard and he eased the wagon into the barn before unhitching the poor animal.

With the ease of experience, he quickly rubbed down the horse and settled it into a stall with a serve of oats and a trough full of water. He turned back and ran an eye over the contents of the wagon. It wasn’t much to look at and he scowled as he saw how little there was in the way of supplies. The dang fool had tried a crossing in the wrong weather and was undersupplied to boot! He muttered something under his breath as he headed back towards the warmth of the cabin.

Joe startled as the door swung open and a gust of frigid air blew in. The man who’d helped them walked through the door before slamming it closed behind him. Jia jumped at the noise and Joe quickly reached to calm her. He watched as the man shed his heavy coat and shuffled away from the fire to make room for him.

“Put up your horse for ya.”

“Thanks.”

Gerry looked down at the duo seated on his floor and he frowned. “You two make a strange pair, now don’t ya?”

Joe smiled at the forthright comment and nodded. “Yeah, I s’pose we do.” He climbed to his feet and stuck out a hand. “I’m Joe. And this is Jia.”

Gerry shook the extended hand. “Gerry.” He looked down at the child still sitting at his feet and smiled an almost toothless grin at her. “Bet you’re hungry, child.”

Jia didn’t answer, but Joe made a gesture of eating from a bowl and she nodded eagerly.

“She one of those dumb ones?”

“No. She just mostly speaks Chinese.”

“Oh.” Gerry headed over to a small potbelly stove and grabbed a cloth to lift at the top of an ancient-looking pot. He pulled out a couple of bowls from under a wooden bench and began to spoon stew into them both. “Here you go. That’ll warm you up.”

Joe smiled as Jia dived into her bowl and began to devour the contents. It reminded him of Hoss and he nearly choked on his mouthful. Pain welled up from inside him and he struggled to breathe for a moment. It had been months and yet moments like this one caught him by surprise. Would it ever stop?

Gerry noted the odd reaction, but kept silent. After all, most fellas opened up when they chose to or kept their secrets to themselves. He didn’t much mind either way.

“So, it’s a bit late in the season to be travellin’ this way.”

It was a statement, but an unspoken question hung in the air.

“Yeah. It wasn’t really planned that way.”

Gerry nodded again and thumbed his hand towards the barn. “You ain’t got much in the way of supplies. How far are you headin’?”

“Virginia City. I’ll resupply there.”

Gerry had been running the waystation for more years than he could count and he’d met all manner of folks in that time. He considered himself a pretty good judge of character and something about this young man bothered him.

“Where to from there?”

“Huh?” Joe looked startled by the question.

“Well, you said you’d resupply there. Must be goin’ past there.”

“Yeah. I dunno yet.”

Gerry picked up a sadness in the comment and he stood up and reached for the coffee pot. Without asking, he poured two mugs and was about to fill a third. Joe stopped him and looked towards Jia.

“She won’t drink coffee. Never could get her pa to drink anything but tea.”

Gerry headed for a small cupboard and pulled open the door. “Might have some tea in here somewhere.” He began to rifle through the contents and finally emerged with a small tin. He waved it triumphantly towards them and smiled.

“Here ya go. Can’t say as it’s fresh, but it ain’t coffee.”

Joe watched as the old man placed a pot of water on the potbelly to boil and he smiled in thanks.

“I’ve still got a bit in the wagon.”

“Ain’t goin’ out there again today. Not with this storm blowin’ in.”

As if to reinforce the idea, a strong gust of wind rattled the windows and Joe nodded in agreement. He was grateful they weren’t still out there in that.


The storm blew for three days and nights and each time Joe trudged out to the barn to tend the horses, he had to dig a path through the snow. As he stood inside the barn, he began to work backwards through the days, trying to calculate the date. He’d have to check it with Gerry, but he was sure it was Christmas Eve. Memories came unbidden as he recalled hitching a sleigh to the horses and riding through the snow. His mother had wrapped warm blankets around him and more often than not, he had fallen asleep before they reached home. Hoss had always prayed real hard for snow on Christmas and most years he got his wish. There had been the years when Adam was away and Christmas had not felt the same, but Pa had always taken out the letter he received weeks before and read it to them again on Christmas Eve. Somehow it had made the miles between them seem a little less.

Joe forced himself to keep going with his tasks as he tried to keep a lid on his grief. Somewhere back in California, his birthday had come and gone without him even noticing. Christmas was a little harder to avoid and he ached knowing that it would never be a celebration again. He tried not to think what his pa would be doing. Or Hop Sing. He wished he didn’t know the date as it would have been easier just to let the day pass in ignorance.


Gerry watched with interest as Joe prepared a breakfast unlike anything he’d seen before. The rice looked like porridge and he wasn’t too sure what the kid was doing. Jia was giving directions in broken English and gestures and he sat back and watched the two of them. They sure made a strange pair.

“Now, I know it’s not Chinese, but we need some fatback or Gerry’s not gonna be happy.” Joe smiled at Jia as he placed the thick strips in the pan. He knew it wasn’t something she enjoyed, but her eyes had lit up as he tried to make the rice dish she loved so much. It didn’t look quite right, but it was close enough.

Finally the food was ready and they carried it across to the table. Gerry had the coffee pot ready and a small mug of tea was already sitting beside Jia’s plate.

Joe eased in beside Jia and pulled something out of his pocket. He dropped a small paper bag on the table in front of her.

“It’s not much and … and I know you probably don’t even know what Christmas is … but Merry Christmas.”

Jia looked up at him as she reached for the bag. He smiled at her as she held the open bag up to her nose and inhaled the sweet minty scent. It reminded him of Hoss as he would do the same with any bag of sweetening and for a moment he couldn’t breathe.

“You look like Hoss. He loved anything sweet.”

Gerry was half way through pouring a second coffee and his hand froze in the air.

“Hoss?”

Joe glanced across at him and wondered at the strange look. “Just a name my brother went by.”

Gerry almost dropped the coffee pot and barely made it down to the table.

“Your brother?”

“Yeah.” Joe watched as the man’s face turned to what looked like a frown. Jia sensed something was wrong and shuffled a little closer to Joe.

“Your brother is Hoss Cartwright?”

Joe swallowed down a lump in his throat and nodded. “Was. He died.”

“What?” Gerry knew he lived on the mountain and missed some things, but last time he’d seen Hoss he was hale and hearty, if you didn’t count heartbroken.

Joe pushed away from the table and Jia stared in confusion as she had no idea what had just happened.

“Almost seven months ago. We were on our way back from Sacramento. The stage was attacked and both of my brothers were …” Joe’s knees gave out on him as he fell onto the hearth stone. Grief that had been buried welled up to the surface.

Gerry hurried over and crouched down in front of him. His arthritic knees protested the movement, but he ignored them.

“Joe! I knew I recognised you, boy! Joe Cartwright? Your brothers ain’t dead! But they all figured that you were.”

Joe looked up and tried to clear the fog to take in the words he was hearing.

“What?”

“They was both pretty banged up and for a time we wasn’t sure if Hoss was gonna make it, but that brother of yours is strong as an ox. Your pa pulled every favour he could and he had a tracker and men up here lookin’ for you for weeks.”

Joe stared at him in disbelief. “They’re both alive?”

“Yeah, boy! That’s what I’m trying to tell ya!”

“I’ve gotta get home!” Joe pushed to his feet and Gerry grasped him by the shoulders.

“Son, you ain’t goin’ nowhere in that storm! You wanta kill yourself before you even get there?”

“But …” Joe’s breath was coming in ragged gasps as he took in the enormity of the moment. “They’re alive!” He turned back to see Jia staring at him and he swooped in and lifted her into the air. He swung her around and around like some kind of crazy man until she began to laugh at his strange antics.

“We’re going home!”


It was another eight days before the storm had blown itself out and the pass looked safe enough to venture out. Gerry would have preferred they wait longer, but it was clear that Joe was not going to stay put any longer than he was forced to. If he had been travelling alone, Gerry knew he would have left days ago.

“Good luck.” He stuck out his hand towards Joe.

Joe reached for the hand and shook it. “Thank you. For everything.”

“You just get on home to that family of yours. And take care of that little one.”

Joe nodded as he tipped his hat and climbed into the driver’s seat. The horse wasn’t happy about heading out into the snow, but he didn’t much care. Home was waiting and he had two brothers and a father who needed to know he was alive.

The next few days passed in a blur as he pushed the horse along the southern edge of Lake Tahoe. The terrain was becoming familiar again and his heart soared as he knew how close he was to home. Impatience reared up each time they were forced to make camp for the night. The snow was still piled in high drifts and the horse had to work hard to get them through, but eventually he found the road that led the way to the Ponderosa. It felt like years had passed and he looked around at the stately pines that weighed heavy with snow. The smell of the air welcomed him in and Joe found himself whistling as they drew closer.

At last they crested the last rise and the Ponderosa homestead came into view. Joe pulled back on the reins and stopped the horse in the road. Jia grasped at his arm as Joe nudged her.

“There! See that?”

She smiled at the excitement on his face and nodded.

“That’s home!”

For all the times he had galloped up this same stretch of road, Joe suddenly found himself feeling something unfamiliar. He had dreamed of this place so many nights and each dream had turned into a nightmare.

Was he afraid to go home?

To explain himself?

He pushed aside the uncomfortable thoughts and nudged the horse forward again. There were wheel ruts in the snow and it was clear that somebody had travelled the road recently. Finally, Joe turned the wagon into the yard and pulled up alongside the hitching rail. Another horse and buggy were there already and it took a minute for him to realise it belonged to Paul Martin. He pulled up the brake and sat staring at the house as if it would disappear at any moment. The presence of the doctor’s buggy unsettled him. If it were a social call, the horse would have most likely been unhitched and would be in the barn.

Joe felt something settle over him and he tried to ignore it. Seven months was a long time to be presumed dead. He finally forced himself to climb down from the wagon seat and he stepped around to reach for Jia’s hand. She looked uncertain as he swung her down and settled her on the ground, but he smiled encouragingly.

“It’s gonna be okay.”

He wished he were as confident as he sounded. Joe grasped her hand and walked across to the door. He would normally have just pushed it open, but this time was different. He couldn’t just walk in as though he’d just come from a trip to town. He slowly raised a hand and knocked.

Somewhere inside, he heard boots on the wooden floor and guessed there was only one man who made that kind of noise. As Hoss swung the door open, Joe was almost overcome at the sight of his brother. He shifted his hat into his hand and watched as Hoss reacted.

“Joe?” Hoss blinked several times before reaching forward and grasping his shoulders. “Joe!”

Joe would have laughed except that Hoss wrapped his arms around him and hoisted him off his feet. He couldn’t breathe as his brother squeezed the life out of him. By the time he was finally set back on his feet, tears were streaming down both their faces.

Hoss reached out both hands and grasped either side of his face. “Little Joe? It’s really you!”

Behind them, Joe could hear a string of Chinese words and he was about to say something when he heard Adam’s voice from the stairs.

“What’s all the noise? Pa needs his rest!”

Hoss spun back towards Adam and tugged Joe forward. For a moment, Adam stood stock still on the stairs. Suddenly he bounded down them three at a time and ran across the room. Joe was surprised as his usually undemonstrative brother enveloped him in an embrace worthy of Hoss.

He finally released him and allowed Joe to get his breath.

“Joe? My God! Where have you been?”

“We thought that …” Hoss’ voice gave out on him as he stared at his youngest brother.

“I know what you thought. I’m real sorry.” Joe stared at his brothers as each of them tried to take in what was happening. Behind them, Hop Sing was hovering around and finally Joe reached for him and pulled him into an embrace. Hop Sing stiffened against the unfamiliar action, but soon wrapped his arms around his number three son.

Joe stepped back and looked around the great room. His father was nowhere to be seen.

“Is Pa away?”

It seemed the most logical conclusion as his father could not have missed the commotion.

Hoss and Adam looked at each other and Joe quickly picked up the tension between them. Something was very wrong. Finally Adam spoke.

“Pa’s upstairs. He’s sick, Joe.”

Well that explained Doc Martin’s buggy.

“But I think you might just be the best medicine we could ask for!” Hoss’ enthusiastic comment made him wonder just how bad things were. Before he could stop to ask, Joe was heading for the stairs with both brothers on his tail.

He hurried up to his father’s solid door and paused before knocking. It was such an ingrained habit to wait for permission to enter and he was surprised when Hoss pushed the door open instead. It soon became apparent that his father wasn’t going to give him permission any time soon.

Paul was seated beside the bed and he turned to see who it was. He almost fell off the chair when he caught sight of Joe and he rushed to reach the boy.

“Joe? What on Earth?”

“It’s a long story, Doc. I’ll tell you all about it sometime. But … what’s happened to Pa?”

His father was propped up against several pillows and clearly having trouble breathing. The room smelled of pine needles and the pungent odour of one of Hop Sing’s poultices.

Without waiting for an answer, Joe slid down onto the bed and grasped hold of his father’s hand.

“Pa.”

He got no response and he squeezed his father’s hand and tried again. “Pa? Can you hear me?”

Paul placed a hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t know. He hasn’t been very lucid for several days.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Joe never took his eyes off his father’s fevered face.

“He has pneumonia.”

Joe chewed on his bottom lip to stop himself saying anything stupid. Like things about folks dying from pneumonia.

Adam pulled a chair up beside him and Joe felt the calm presence of his eldest brother like some kind of balm.

“He’s been run down. It started with a bad chest cold and got worse.”

It took a while for the thought to register, but suddenly Joe looked up at his brother.

“Run down?”

Adam looked at the floor as he heard the fear in Joe’s voice. Finally he looked up and tried to smile.

“He’s been pushing himself. But like Hoss said, you might just be the best medicine Pa could ask for.”

“Not if he doesn’t know I’m here.”

His father’s words from months ago floated through Adam’s thoughts. “He’ll know, Joe. He’ll know.”

It was a far cry from the homecoming he had anticipated, but Joe nodded in determined agreement. He’d give his last breath to pull his father back.

“You look exhausted, little brother. Let’s get you some food and get you cleaned up.”

Joe looked set to argue, but Paul reached for his arm and pulled him to his feet. “I’ll stay here. You take care of things and come back when you are done.”

Joe found himself being steered out the door with a brother on each side. As much as he wanted to protest and stay put, it felt good.

As he made his way down the stairs, Joe suddenly remembered that he had left Jia all alone. He rushed towards the kitchen and stopped in his tracks as he saw her tucked up on a stool, eating from a plate of cookies. A mug beside her had traces of cocoa and he smiled at her as he gave her a quick hug.

“I see you’ve settled in.”

Jia looked to Hop Sing who said something and she nodded quickly.

“It’s nice to finally have someone who can translate.”

“You sit. Food ready for you soon.” Hop Sing had been preparing a meal that he wasn’t sure would get eaten, but suddenly there was a whole different atmosphere in the house.

“So, who’s this little one?” Hoss nodded towards Jia and smiled at her. She looked up at him shyly until he winked at her and she giggled.

“This … this is my little sister.” Joe’s words were softly spoken and yet the whole room heard him. “Her father gave her to me to take care of.”

For the first time since Zhu’s death, things looked different.

“Her name is Princess Jia.”

“A princess, huh?” Adam leaned against the counter as he watched Joe’s face soften. There was a story there, but it would wait for another time.

“Yeah.”

 

Chapter Ten

Joe rubbed at his shoulders as he tried to push the ache aside. Adam had tried to get him to go to bed, but there was no way he was leaving his father. Not after so long away. After a meal fit for a king and a hot bath, Joe found himself at the mercy of his brothers and a thousand questions. Some of them were easy and some of them he deflected for another day. Adam and Hoss seemed as uneasy with some of his questions and each knew that they were a long way from the full story.

Joe settled in beside his father and once again reached out to take hold of his hand. It felt like all the strength had been drained out of it. His father’s breathing hadn’t improved and he recalled Doctor Martin’s parting words. He was growing weaker and couldn’t sustain this for too much longer.

Joe leaned forward and snagged the cloth out of the bowl beside the bed. He wrung it out and began to wipe his father’s face and neck.

“Pa … I’m so sorry. This is my fault.”

“No, it’s not.”

Adam had walked in without him knowing and he dragged the chair across to sit beside Joe once again.

“You said he was run down. Hoss told me how Pa refused to stop looking for me.”

Adam nodded and tried to decide what to say next. “We thought you were dead, Joe. Hoss and I … we tried to tell Pa to stop. But he just wouldn’t give up on you.”

“I should have come back.”

“Why didn’t you?”

What a question! There were a hundred answers and no answer.

“That day … at the pass.” Joe swallowed down the fear that had choked him that day. It was no longer rational and yet it still rose up and tried to choke him again. His brother was sitting right in front of him and Hoss was bringing in firewood. “They said you were both dead.”

“We nearly were.”

Joe looked up and saw again the pale scar that ran across Adam’s temple. It had been that close.

“I had no bullets left. They said they were going to kill me and I ran. Like a coward.”

Adam reached out a hand and grasped his brother’s forearm. “What honour would there have been to stay and die? You survived.”

Joe shook his head at the memory and tried again. How did he explain the things that had happened in the days after? The black shadow that had stalked him and nearly driven him mad.

Hoss nudged the door open and made his way in with an armload of wood. He dropped it by the fireplace and shoved a couple of pieces into the flames. He’d heard Adam’s question and waited to hear the answer. Assuming Joe was going to answer. When it became clear he wasn’t going to, he settled himself on the window ledge and nodded towards their father.

“Pa’s gonna be right happy that you ran and stayed alive.”

All three of them looked towards the man who was still oblivious to any of them.

“I dreamed about him.”

Adam waited as Joe seemed to shrink in front of him.

“I dreamed he blamed me.”

“Joe, ain’t none of this was your fault. Them men working for Jamison was to blame.” Hoss felt his fists clenching as he recalled the reason behind the attack. Money!

“It was like a bad dream. One I couldn’t wake up from.”

“I know what you mean.” Adam closed his eyes and he thought back on the days following Joe’s disappearance. He’d lost his brother when he’d promised to bring him back safely.

When it became apparent Joe wasn’t going to say anything further, Adam tried a different tack.

“Tell us about your princess.”

Joe looked up to see Adam smiling at him.

“She’s a little beauty.”

“Yeah, she is. Shame her people don’t see that.”

“What? Are they blind?”

Joe laughed at Hoss’ indignant response and nodded. “I guess they are. Seems they don’t like half-breeds any more than anyone else does.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“Her father called her his treasure and gave her to me. Right before he died.”

The pain in Joe’s voice reflected on his face.

“He was a friend?” Adam already thought the answer was obvious, but prodded anyway.

“He saved my life. He could have left me out there to die.” Joe scrubbed a hand across his face as he remembered that day. “I wanted to. I thought I had gotten you both killed.”

Hoss let out another frustrated sigh at his brother’s words.

“If I hadn’t gotten drunk, we never would have stopped there on the pass.”

“Joe, those men were sent out to get us and it would have happened farther up the pass if we hadn’t stopped there. It had nothing to do with you!” Adam could see it was going to take a lot more convincing, but he let it slide. For now.

Ben chose that moment to mutter something and all three huddled closer.

“Pa?” Joe reached for his father’s hand again.

“Jos’ph.”

“Pa! I’m right here, Pa!”

He waited impatiently for his father to open his eyes and was finally rewarded.

“Dreaming?”

“No, Pa. It’s no dream. Little Joe made it home!” Hoss sat down on the far side of the bed and grinned at his father.

Ben’s lips turned into a hint of a smile before his eyes slid closed again.

“Pa!”

“It’s all right, Joe. That’s the best he’s been for days. I told you he’d hear you!” Adam smiled at his youngest brother.


As promised, Paul returned the next day and was relieved to see his patient had woken several times. Each one was short-lived, but it was a turn in the right direction. He wasn’t surprised to find that Joe had not left his father’s room and was sound asleep in a chair beside the bed. He approached as quietly as possible and smiled at the reversal of roles. How many times had Ben sat with his son while he recovered from an illness or an injury?

He reached out a hand and grasped Joe’s shoulder to shake him awake. He was surprised at the muscle beneath his fingers and took another look at the young man before him. A lot had changed.

“Joe?”

Joe startled awake and almost leapt up from the chair. “Doc! He’s all right, isn’t he?”

“Relax, Joe. I just came to check in on him and your pa is on the mend. Thanks to you, I think.”

Joe looked into the man’s eyes and saw he was being serious.

“He needed you back, son.”

Joe turned away as he considered the fact he’d chosen to stay away. How was he ever going to explain that one to his family? If he’d just come home, his pa would never have even been sick.

“Joe? What’s wrong?”

“Doc … I …” Joe seemed to fold right in front of his eyes and Paul grasped at his arms to keep him upright. He eased him back into a chair and took hold of his wrist to check his pulse.

Adam had filled him in on some of the conversation from the night before and he’d assured both brothers that Joe would be just fine, given time. He looked at the young man in front of him.

“Son, I don’t know what’s happened or where you’ve been, but I do know that things are going to be all right. You are home now with your family.”

Joe closed his eyes and tried to hold in a sob. His family. For far too long he’d believed that was a lost dream.

“Joseph.” The soft-spoken word was enough to pull him upright.

“Pa!”

Joe settled on the side of the bed and watched as his father reached for him. This time, the hands stayed entwined in his and he felt a little strength returning. His father was still far too weak and his face still bore the traces of fever, but he was back.

Paul left his bag where it was and slipped out of the room.

Ben lifted a hand and wiped at the trace of tears on his son’s face. “I thought I dreamed you up.”

Joe grinned at him and rubbed at his own face. The words tumbled around in his head and refused to come out.

“I’m sorry, Son.”

“What for?”

“Giving up on you.”

“I almost gave up on myself.”

Joe hung his head as he stared at his own hands. It would have been so easy to give up. That day on the pass. The ugly days that followed. The nightmare days after Zhu lost his fight. The battle to cross the pass for home when common sense said he should have stopped.

Ben reached a hand around behind Joe’s head and drew his son closer.


It had taken another week before Paul would allow Ben out of bed and his frustration had only been tempered by having Joe sit with him and allowing the full story to come out. He was thankful for a man he would never meet and knew he owed the stranger his boy’s life. Taking care of his daughter seemed like the only fitting thing to do and he had spoken several times with Hop Sing about how to do that best. The child spoke Mandarin and only some Cantonese and a little English, but Hop Sing assured him that she would learn with good tutelage. He was ready and willing to pay whoever he needed to for as long as he needed to in order to make that happen.

The first day he was allowed downstairs, he’d been pleased to see the girl had settled in and followed Hop Sing to help with whatever chore he was working on. She chattered happily with him and copied him when he corrected her words.

Joe had described her as exotic and he could only agree. He’d heard of Javanese women from sailors who had sailed to the Dutch East Indies and he saw her mother’s heritage in the girl. Sadly, it would be a curse that would work against her if she was not valued for who she was.

One evening after dinner, Ben asked for all of them to gather in the great room. Hop Sing brought Jia in and settled her on the sofa beside Joe. She looked nervous and she glanced up at Hop Sing for reassurance. He smiled at her and patted her arm before whispering something to her.

“Jia, we hope you’ve enjoyed being here with us.” He waited for Hop Sing to translate and the girl stood and bowed deeply.

“Most … hon-our-able … house.” It was clear she had been practising the words and Ben smiled at her as she sat back down.

“Your father requested that Joe take care of you. I’ve asked Hop Sing to ask in town about a possible family for you to live with.”

Again, Hop Sing translated and Jia’s face fell. He began to speak again and she pulled away from him. Nobody understood the words that tumbled out, but the fear in them was clear.

Suddenly Jia grasped at Hop Sing’s hand and tugged him towards the door. She was pointing outside and he reluctantly followed her. Joe was already on his feet, completely at a loss as to what was wrong. Jia dragged Hop Sing across the yard to the barn and they followed along behind. Adam pulled out a lantern and quickly lit it so they could see what was going on. Joe watched as Jia climbed into the back of the wagon that had been stored there since they had arrived home. She began to tug at a piece of the flooring and he was stunned when she finally pried a piece loose. Underneath was a metal box and she pulled it free. She scrambled down off the wagon and thrust it into Ben’s hands. Tears streamed down her face as she spoke.

“Hop Sing?” Ben looked to his friend to make sense of the situation.

“Honourable father hide money. Not get stolen. Daughter think Mister Ben not happy and want to send her away. Says she pay money for her food and bed. Work hard if allowed to stay.”

Hop Sing looked shaken and he stopped translating and rushed forward to take hold of the girl’s arms. His words were urgent and he shook her arms as if to underscore his point. Finally Jia stopped and stared at Joe. He had no idea what she had been saying, but he hurried over and gathered her into his arms.

“Tell her we aren’t sending her away! Tell her!”

Jia clung to his waist and he felt her tears wetting his shirt.

“Pa, it’s freezing out here and you need to be inside.” Adam was insistent as his father was still recovering and Paul had warned he could still relapse if he wasn’t careful.

Joe pointed towards the house and tugged Jia with him. She refused to let go of him and he wrapped an arm around her shoulder as they all headed back towards the house.

Ben reluctantly settled himself back in his chair and gestured towards the sofa. Joe brought Jia back to where she had been and still had his arm around her. He felt her trembling against him and knew it had nothing to do with the cold. Ben still held the money box in his hands and he put it on the table in front of Jia.

“Tell her, this money is her inheritance. I will not take one penny of it.”

Jia stared at the floor, acutely aware she had made an unforgivable scene.

Hop Sing sat down on the seat Jia had been in and he began to speak in a calming tone.

‘Tell her we are not sending her away. We want her to be happy with a Chinese family. Where she will feel at home and be able to communicate freely.”

Again, Hop Sing spoke, but Jia would not look up from the floor. She had disgraced herself and no amount of money would restore that honour. Her father would be so disappointed.

“Tell her, that we consider her a part of this family and she is welcome here any time.”

As Hop Sing delivered this last comment, she felt the tears pricking at her eyes again.

Joe prodded at her arm and she slowly turned towards him.

“Xiǎo mèimei.” The pronunciation was a little off, but it was clear that Joe had practiced and learned the words for her.

The tears were now trailing down her cheeks again. It was too much to hope for. She wrapped her arms around Joe’s neck as he hugged her back.

“We aren’t getting rid of you! I promise!”

Adam looked at the girl who had stolen his brother’s heart. It wouldn’t be easy for her, but she would always have a family to protect her and back her, in whatever path she chose. He looked again at the money tin on the table. The greed for money had started this whole nightmare. He smiled to himself as he knew that no amount of money could buy what his family had.


Bàba – Papa

Xiǎo mèimei – little sister

 

24 thoughts on “A Debt of Honour (by Questfan)”

  1. I loved this story! The original characters are endearing and won their way into my heart. For those who want a little girl added to the Cartwright family, this is a great way to do it. I’m normally not a fan of that genre, but I think I’d welcome Jia as a fixture on the Ponderosa. That’s got to mean you did a great job of developing her character. 🙂

    1. I never set out to write a little sister story as I generally can’t stand them (with the exception of JC’s amazing saga), but somehow that’s where we ended up. Jia started on the drawing board as a boy, but she was quite insistent that she was a princess! I’m glad you enjoyed this and the OCs as I enjoy creating new people to come alongside our boys.

  2. A wonderful story, thank you. Two tales in one, following Joe and his nightmares, then the rest of the family with theirs! Lovely ending, Joe looking after Jia. Thank you.

  3. Finally found a moment to read your tale! Poor Joe, so sensitive and emotional; so ready to shoulder blame and prone to feel unwanted. The loss of a mother does deep things to the soul. Anyhow, I loved your original characters and am certainly glad Joe found his way back home!

    1. I agree that losing a parent messes with any child and Joe does carry a lot of emotion. I’m glad you liked Jia as she may be back again for some more adventures.

  4. This is a terrific story. So much emotion. Love how you wove history and setting together with the love of the Cartwright family. What an incredible bond they had. Thanks!

  5. A good Joe story but family doesn’t take a back seat either. What a horrific ordeal for all of them to go through and you let us see the pain in each of them. The moment with the brothers in Ben’s room was so special and natural. Loved the JPM too. Zhu and Jia are wonderful OC’s, bringing in the plight of the Chinese at that time. I would love to see Jia get settled, though I’m sure that will be a ‘bumpy’ ride, especially if Joe has any part in it.

    1. Thank you for such a lovely review. I enjoy writing OCs as they give depth to our boys so I’m glad you liked them. I have a few ideas on more of Jia’s story so stay tuned!

  6. Questfan, I think this story is one of your best and would have made a wonderful episode. I love your OCs and agree with Cheaux that you should consider writing more about Jia. Joe makes a great “big” brother. 🙂 Congratulations on finishing BoNaNo, and thanks for another satisfying addition to the library!

    1. Wow! Thank you. I suspect that Joe can come up with another adventure to drag her into. I’m not sure that Hop Sing will still be talking to him afterwards though.

    1. Thank you. Now that Cheaux has got me thinking, that may not be the ending. 🙂 How much more trouble can he drag her into?

  7. I have to admit that I popped your story on my Kindle and read when you first posted, Q. I’d forgotten the January rule, but a JOE story! Woohoo. Don’t see many of those and I read it that day. Good characters. Good Joe. What more can a gal ask for?

    1. So I’m not the only naughty one! I messed that up, but I’m glad you enjoyed the story. The only thing we can ask for is – more Joe! 🙂

  8. Congratulations on finishing your 2017 BoNaNo! I enjoyed your OCs and their back story. Perhaps that are more stories of Joe’s little sister on the horizon?

  9. Best way to start the New Year with a new questfan story! Loved this! Thanks, as always, for writing and sharing your gift.

  10. I like trying out new OCs so I’m glad you liked them both. Joe never makes anything easy! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

  11. Glad to see this! Such a hard story for all, but with a satisfying ending. Loved Jia and her father — you do create some good OCs. ? Glad things (most things, anyway) worked out for the best, as I knew they would …

    Thanks as always for writing!

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