Summary: Joe feels responsible for the death of a new ranch hand
Rated: T (13,725 words)
Eyes of the Soul
‘Joe you get down here now or I’m gonna pound ya fer sure!’ Hoss Cartwright brushed off yet another handful of hay from his shoulders and looked up into the loft of the barn with frustration. As he waited he heard the unmistakable sound of his younger brother’s high-pitched giggle and the scuffle of his boots on the floor above. ‘Joe I’m warnin ya! Do that agin and you’re dead meat!’ He turned to lift the bale of hay again, but was stopped once more by another shower of hay from above. With a great flourish he dropped the bale and strode towards the ladder that led up to the loft. ‘That’s it ya pest! Git down here now or I’m comin’ up there after ya! I mean it Joe!’
A curly head appeared over the edge of the trap door and his brother’s grinning face mocked him from above. ‘You talkin to me Hoss?’
‘Am I talkin to you? Why you little ….’ Hoss put his foot on the first rung of the ladder, and the curly head disappeared again. As Hoss reached the fourth step the ladder was suddenly pushed from above, and he fell heavily with a curse. ‘You’ve asked fer it now Joe! You ain’t gonna live to see the day out!’ He charged at the ladder and put it back in place, but at the moment his foot lifted onto the first rung his father’s booming voice behind him stopped him in mid step.
‘What the blue blazes is going on here? Hoss, what’s the meaning of all this ruckus?’ Ben Cartwright stood with his hands on his hips and glared at his middle son. ‘Have you got nothing better to do than fool around?’
Hoss swung towards him and answered indignantly. ‘Me foolin around? What about that youngest son of yours? Blame him!’ He pointed upwards and glared in the direction of the loft. ‘If that young fool would leave me alone for once, then I’d have all of this work finished by now!’
Ben strode over to the ladder and placed his hand on the rung. ‘Joseph, get down here now!’ The curly head appeared again and Little Joe looked apprehensively this time through the trap door.
‘Hi Pa.’ He smiled tentatively at his father.
‘Don’t you hi Pa me! Get down here immediately and explain yourself young man.’ Ben shook his head. ‘Might have known he’d be behind this,’ he muttered to himself as the curly head disappeared and two feet dangled over the edge and onto the ladder.
Ben waited until his youngest son reached ground level, then took a step towards him. ‘Well? What were you up to and why are you annoying your brother?’
Little Joe opened his eyes widely and looked at his father with his head on one side. ‘Me Pa? I ain’t doin nothing.’
‘Why you little….’ Hoss made a grab for his younger brother, and Little Joe nimbly stepped behind his father. ‘Let me at him Pa, I’ll murder him!’
Ben put a restraining hand on Hoss’ arm. ‘Hoss leave it to me. Why don’t you go and get started on that fence for now?’ Hoss hesitated. ‘Go on son, I’ll take care of your brother.’
‘Make sure you do then! If he comes near me again, I’m gonna pound him!’ He strode out of the barn.
Ben reached behind him and pulled his youngest son around by the arm until he was standing in front of him. ‘Well?’ he demanded. ‘What do you have to say for yourself?’
Little Joe shuffled his feet and looked at the floor of the barn. ‘Aw Pa, I was only havin a little bit of fun. You know Hoss, he’ll get over it.’
‘I know you and the problems you can cause, that’s for sure.’ Ben wagged his finger at his son. ‘If I were you I’d stay away from Hoss at the moment or he’ll likely carry out that threat of his.’ Little Joe bit his lip as he looked at his father with wide eyes and tried to look as innocent as possible under the circumstances. ‘And another thing young man, aren’t you supposed to be hitching the buckboard for Adam?’
‘All done,’ Little Joe replied. ‘I’m just hangin around waiting for that oldest brother of mine to let me know he’s ready is all.’
‘If you bothered to check outside, then you’d know I’ve been ready and waiting for you for nigh on ten minutes.’ Adam’s voice cut across them both as he stood leaning on the doorframe with arms folded.
Little Joe walked past his father towards the door of the barn. ‘Well what am I supposed to be, a mind reader?’ he muttered as he left the barn.
Adam looked at Ben and raised his eyebrows. ‘Trouble again?’ he asked with a smirk. ‘Seems like those two can’t tolerate each other at the moment.’ Ben shrugged his shoulders. ‘Mind you,’ Adam continued, ‘I know how Hoss feels. That boy is sure heading for a fall with those pranks of his. Do I really have to take him into town with me Pa? I’d get everything done a lot faster without him hanging around.’
Ben frowned. ‘Yes you do. You can keep him busy with those supplies while you hire a few extra men. You know we’ll need some extra help before the roundup.’
‘All right, but don’t blame me if I end up hitting him before we make it home. He’s asking for trouble lately.’ Adam replied with a grin.
Ben put his arm around his son’s shoulders as they walked outside together. Ben put his head back and sniffed at the breeze that was freshening up around them as he said, ‘Patience is a virtue Adam.’
‘Yeah, well that kid is testing everyone’s patience to the limit lately.’ Adam replied. They neared the buckboard where Little Joe had already seated himself and was holding the reins. ‘Move along,’ ordered his older brother, ‘I’d like to get into town in one piece thanks very much.’ He grabbed the reins as he sat down, oblivious to his brother’s protests.
Ben patted his youngest son on the thigh as Joe slumped down in his seat and pulled his hat over his eyes. ‘Mind your brother in town please Joseph. It would be nice if you could make it home for once without getting into some kind of trouble.’ Little Joe merely grunted at him as the buggy lurched forward, and Ben smiled to himself as he turned to find Hoss to see if he could placate him.
‘I’ll be over at the saloon when you’re finished loading all this. And don’t take too long, it looks like the weather is going to turn ugly before too long.’
‘Why can’t I come over with you now?’ Little Joe jutted his chin out and glared at his brother. ‘How come I get to be the one who has to do all the hard work?’
‘If you think that finding hands is easy, then think again,’ replied Adam. ‘Believe me, you’ve got the best end of the deal.’ He turned on his heel and strode away from his brother feeling his glare boring into his back as he went.
Little Joe sighed and began to load the supplies. He figured that the quicker he got it done, the more chance he would have of getting a drink in the saloon while Adam negotiated for the new hands. He picked up a sack of grain and flung it over his shoulder, and as he did so he heard the startled cry of someone behind him. He turned dropped the sack and turned quickly to see a young man standing rubbing his head.
‘Watch it will you?’ the man glared at him and rubbed harder. ‘You just about took my head off my shoulders with that swing.’
Joe bit his lip and said quickly, ‘I’m sure sorry mister. Didn’t mean for it to connect with your head like that.’ He took a good look at the man beside him. He was probably no more than a couple of years older than Joe himself, with blond hair and very blue eyes. He wore black pants and a dirty red shirt, and his boots had certainly seen better days. He had a lean look about him, but one that Joe instantly took a liking to.
‘Yeah well, be careful next time,’ the stranger said with a grin and turned to step out of Joe’s way. ‘Hey, you wouldn’t know where I could find work by any chance would you?’ he turned again and questioned.
‘Well you could try down the road at the mines office,’ said Joe picking up the sack again. ‘They’re always lookin for help down there.’
‘Um, not my line of work really,’ said the stranger. ‘I don’t really fancy earning a living under all that earth.’
‘Just what exactly is your line of work then?’ asked Joe curiously.
‘Don’t have one that’s suitable for out here, to tell the truth,’ confessed the stranger with another grin. ‘I’ve never been this far west before. Guess bookkeeping doesn’t rate highly enough to get a man a job out here.’
‘Not an awful lot of call for it, no,’ replied Joe returning the grin. ‘Ever done any ranching work?’
‘No not really. I can ride though, and I’m a fast learner. Know of anyone who’s hiring?’
‘Actually, I am,’ replied Joe with a casual air as if he did this sort of thing every day. ‘Interested?’
‘Sure thing,’ replied the stranger and held out his hand. ‘Pete’s the name. Pete Cooper.’
‘Hi Pete, I’m Joe Cartwright.’
‘Of the Ponderosa Cartwrights?’ asked Pete impressed.
‘I’ve heard of your family. Your Pa owns the Ponderosa ranch doesn’t he? Supposed to be the biggest in the Territory.’
‘Yeah, it’s pretty big,’ said Joe casually again. ‘That’s why we need so many hands. Tell you what, give me a few minutes to finish up here, and I’ll introduce you to my brother over at the saloon before we get out of town. Can you start straight away?’
‘Sure thing. You’re kind of young to be hiring though aren’t you?’ asked Pete.
‘Nah, been doin it for a long time. My Pa trusts me to do things like that all the time,’ Joe replied with a nonchalant wave of his hand.
Let me help you with that,’ Pete replied and bent to pick up another sack.
Ten minutes later both young men entered the saloon, Joe scanning the room quickly for a glimpse of his brother. He spied Adam at a table in the corner talking to a couple of men, and sauntered over to him. As he approached the table he heard his brother say, ‘Fine, then I’ll see you at the ranch tomorrow morning.’
‘Hi Adam,’ Little Joe called. ‘Got another man for us.’
Adam looked up at him puzzled. ‘What do you mean you got another man? Since when do you hire hands?’
Joe frowned at his older brother, and bent close to him. ‘Since I found someone who’d be good to hire,’ he whispered in the hopes that Pete wouldn’t hear. He motioned to Pete who was standing behind him. ‘Name’s Pete Cooper. Pete this is my older brother Adam. He sometimes hires as well.’
Adam studied Joe for a moment, and then glanced towards Pete as he held out his hand. ‘Hi Pete. What kind of experience have you had with ranching?’
‘None to speak of actually. I’m from back east, and just travelling through. Sure could use the money though, and I’m a quick learner.’
‘Sure is,’ interrupted Little Joe with a grin.
Adam stared again at his younger brother and lifted his eyebrow at him. ‘And just how would you know that?’ he asked.
‘He told me so of course,’ Little Joe replied with an impatient shrug of his shoulders.
Adam turned once more to Pete. ‘I’m sorry Mr Cooper, but we really need someone with more experience. The work involves ranching work, and it will be quite …’
‘But I already told him he could have the job!’ interrupted Little Joe again, this time indignantly.
‘Well you shouldn’t have. You’ve got no authority to have done that, and I’m the one who ….’
Pete stepped between the brothers and interrupted them. ‘Seems like there’s nothing for me after all. Thanks anyway.’ He tipped his hat at the two brothers and turned to go.
Little Joe called after him. ‘Pete wait!’ and turned to look at Adam with pleading eyes. ‘He really needs the money Adam, couldn’t we just …. Please?’ He gave him his best pleading look.
Adam sighed. ‘Oh all right. Pete, as long as you’re prepared to learn fast I guess we’ll be able to find something for you.’
Pete held out his hand and shook first Adam and then Little Joe’s hand enthusiastically. ‘Thanks! You won’t regret it. I’ll make sure I earn my pay.’
‘Oh you’ll do that all right!’ said Adam dryly. ‘Joe why don’t you show Pete back to the buckboard and I’ll meet you there?’
‘Thought we’d have a drink first,’ said Joe hopefully.
Adam hesitated. ‘All right, but just one. I’ll be at the bank for a bit, and I’ll meet you back at the buckboard in about fifteen minutes. I want to get home before that storm hits if we can.’ He turned and left the saloon, and Little Joe clapped Pete on the back.
‘Come on Pete, let’s have a cold one then.’
Pete hesitated. ‘Thanks but I’d better wait outside.’
Joe sensed his new friend’s dilemma. ‘I’m buyin of course, in honour of your new job.’
‘Well in that case, thanks!’ replied Pete enthusiastically.
As the two young men sat at the table nursing their beers a moment later, Joe tried to find out a bit more about his new friend. ‘So Pete how come you’re so far from home?’
‘Just thought it was time to experience something a bit different to what I’m used to that’s all. Plus the fact that my parents died recently and I thought it would be a good idea to get away from things for a while, you know?’ he looked at Joe from over the top of his glass, his blue eyes reflecting his sorrow for a moment.
Joe nodded. ‘Yeah, sometimes I wish I could see different things to what’s around here.’
‘Haven’t you ever been back East?’ asked Pete.
‘Nah. Bin to San Francisco though, and one day I’m goin to New Orleans.’ Joe replied.
‘Why New Orleans?’
‘My mother came from there. I’d like to see it sometime.’
‘Haven’t been there myself. I come from Boston.’
‘Yeah?’ Joe sat up in his seat. ‘No kiddin? My brother Adam was born in Boston, and he lived there for a while when he went to college. Bet he’d love to talk about it with you.’
‘Sure is a small world,’ said Pete. ‘Who’d have thought it?’
By the time they sighted the ranch, Little Joe was enthralled by the tales Pete and Adam were exchanging about their memories of Boston. He sighed. ‘Sure wish I’d been to all them exciting places like you both have,’ he said wistfully.
‘Well you had your chance,’ replied Adam. ‘Pa offered to let you go back East to school same as I did.’
‘Yeah right, me at college? I don’t think so!’ They all laughed.
‘School was not exactly Joe’s favourite place to be,’ explained Adam to Pete.
‘No not exactly,’ echoed Little Joe. ‘I can think of better ways to spend my time. No, when I go to visit all them places it won’t be to study, it’ll be to have fun.’
‘Some day little brother, you may discover that the two can actually go hand in hand,’ replied Adam dryly.
Little Joe merely looked at his brother, and then rolled his eyes at Pete. ‘Do you believe that anyone could think that? See what I have to put up with in this family Pete?’
The sky was dark and threatening as the buckboard rolled into the front yard of the ranch, and Ben Cartwright heard the sound of laughter echoing through the air. He smiled to himself. ‘Thank the Lord it sounds like Joseph at least didn’t get into any trouble this time,’ he thought as he turned to see his two sons with a stranger in the buckboard between them.
‘Hi Pa!’ Little Joe shouted as he sprang down, followed by Pete and Adam. ‘This is Pete Cooper, one of our new hands.’
Ben extended his hand. ‘Hello Pete, nice to meet you.’ Pete shook the outstretched hand and smiled at hid new boss. ‘Had much ranching experience?’ asked Ben.
‘No not really, I’m just …’
‘Pete’s from Boston Pa,’ Little Joe interrupted. ‘Ya should have heard him and Adam on the way home. They know all the interesting places from there.’
‘Really?’ asked Ben eyeing the young man off. ‘So what are you doing all the way out here?’
‘Just travelling through, Mr Cartwright,’ replied Pete.
‘And your ranching experience?’ Ben was not to be sidetracked.
‘I’ll show Pete where to put his things,’ Little Joe interrupted again, and pulled Pete towards the bunkhouse. ‘Over here Pete, come on and I’ll show ya around.’ The two young men disappeared.
Ben turned to Adam who had started to unload the supplies. ‘I take it the young man hasn’t any experience at all from the way Joseph was reacting.’
‘No not really,’ Adam replied.
‘Then why did you hire him?’
Well I didn’t have much of a choice really after Little Joe had already promised him a job. Anyway Pa, he really needs the money.’
‘And just how do you know that?’ asked his father.
‘He told Joe,’ said Adam feeling slightly foolish at using his brother’s illogical argument.
‘Really?’ Ben raised an eyebrow at his oldest son. ‘And what particular job would you see someone with no ranching experience doing?’
‘I thought Joe could teach him how to round up some of the strays tomorrow. He said he’s a fast learner.’
‘He’d better be,’ his father replied, and turned towards the house with a half smile on his face. How many times had these boys of his come home with a stray? It seemed that a common trait amongst all the Cartwright men was the ability to smell out someone who was down and out and try to give them a chance in life. Not a bad way to be, Ben acknowledged, but one that usually caused a few moments of trouble along the way. He hoped that this wouldn’t be one of those times.
As the four Cartwrights sat down to supper that evening the storm that had been threatening to break all day finally did so with a huge clap of thunder that made them all jump. Little Joe immediately ran to the window and looked out. ‘Wow! See that? It sure is a humdinger of a storm.’
‘Joseph sit down please, storm or not supper is on the table and waiting,’ his father replied. Joe sat down again as instructed, and helped himself to some potatoes. He glanced across the table at Hoss and caught the look in his brother’s eye which he knew meant that the big man hadn’t forgotten the incident from that morning. He wisely decided to ignore him and keep the attention focussed on other things.
‘So what can Pete do tomorrow Pa?’ he asked with his mouth full.
‘Please close your mouth while you are eating Joseph,’ his father replied. ‘Well, just what would you suggest a man with no ranching experience would be able to do?’
Little Joe concentrated on his plate. ‘He’s a fast learner,’ he mumbled.
‘Is he?’ Ben asked, ‘and just how would you know that?’
Adam interrupted. ‘Joe could you take him out tomorrow and show him the finer art of rounding up strays?’
Little Joe grinned at his brother gratefully. ‘Great idea, Adam. I could teach him that easy.’
‘That’s if this storm breaks up by then,’ ventured Hoss. ‘It sure sounds as if the whole Territory’s about to wash away fer sure.’
The thunder and lightning lasted right throughout the evening, and by the time the Cartwrights were ready for bed the storm was still going strong. They all fell asleep with the sound of heavy rain drumming on the roof above them. When dawn broke, the sight that greeted them was one of a newly washed world. Grey clouds still hung overhead and a light drizzle was still falling, but the air was crisp and clean and the wind had stilled.
As Little Joe trudged across the front yard after breakfast, he moved gingerly while trying to avoid the mud that lay everywhere. As he approached the barn door he peeked around the doorframe before entering. Joe knew that it was inevitable that his brother Hoss would try to pay him back for yesterday, and he wanted to avoid him at any cost. During breakfast he had been the recipient of many dark looks from his older brother, and he knew that the faster he and Pete left this morning the safer he would be.
Pete met him at the barn door as they had arranged. ‘Come on,’ he urged the man, ‘let’s get our horses saddled and out of here quick!’ He dived inside the barn and began to saddle Cochise, after pointing out a horse for Pete. ‘That one OK Pete?’ he asked, and the man nodded and began to follow suit.
Just as they were about to lead their mounts outside, Joe heard a movement behind him and turned to see Hoss grinning widely in his direction. ‘Mornin Pete,’ said Hoss looking directly at his younger brother all the while with a gleam in his eye. ‘Why don’t ya take both the horses outside for my little brother here? He’ll join ya in a moment.’
Little Joe attempted to pass his brother with the other man. ‘Thanks Hoss, but Pete and I need to get moving. We’ve got a lot to do today.’ Hoss held onto his arm none too gently.
‘Now Joseph,’ he said with a gap-toothed smile. ‘Ain’t it just fine that you’re so eager to start work for a change. I’m mighty impressed little brother, that I am.’ He narrowed his eyes and brought his face forward until his nose was nearly touching Little Joe’s. ‘Pity you’re gonna be a bit later gettin started then ya thought.’
Joe bit his lip and squirmed in his brother’s grasp nervously. ‘Aw come on Hoss, you know I was just funning yesterday, don’t ya?’
‘Sure I do little brother, just like I’m gonna have a bit of fun myself this morning.’ He held onto his brother’s other arm and lifted him off the ground as he walked outside with him. Joe managed to give his brother a good kick in the shins, and Hoss turned him upside down under his arm. ‘That’s it Joe, you’re gonna be sorry ya ever messed with me!’ And without more ado he deposited him in the largest mud puddle he could find.
Little Joe sat and listened to the laughter of those around him as he silently cursed his brother. As he stood and reflected on the vast mud stain spreading from the back of his pants he managed a half grin and a mock salute as he turned towards the house walking with as much dignity as he could muster. ‘I’ll be a few minutes yet Pete,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘I think I’ll wear my other pants today instead of these.’ Hoss’ guffaws followed him.
‘Do you and your brothers always carry on like that?’ Pete asked as they rode along easily side by side.
‘Yeah mostly we do, answered Joe. ‘Only it seems like it’s usually two against one. Me bein the one and them bein the two.’
‘Somehow I think you might be the cause of that,’ Pete answered with a grin.
Joe acknowledged his remark with a rueful grin. ‘I can hold my own if that’s what ya mean. Do you have any brothers or sisters Pete?’
‘No, I’ve no family left to speak of now,’ the other man answered. ‘I envy you yours.’
Little Joe thought for a moment. ‘Yeah well they can be kind of a nuisance at times, but I guess they’ll do.’ His words belied the look in his eye. ‘Come on Pete, let’s see just how quick a learner you are!’ The two young men urged their horses forward in a gallop towards the high hills where Adam had instructed Joe to begin the search for the strays.
Later that same day Joe had to admit that Pete had indeed been telling the truth. He did learn mighty fast for someone who had never done this kind of work before. He seemed to pick up on Joe’s thoughts almost and was often in the right place before the words had even been uttered. As late afternoon wore on, they had managed to chase quite a few head down from the hills towards the main herd.
‘Hey Pete, good going!’ yelled Little Joe above the noise of a couple of steers that ran beside them. Let’s make these the last few, then head back home.’
Pete grinned over at him. ‘Suits me fine,’ he said. ‘I think I’ve had enough for one day. Much and all as I …..’ He turned suddenly at the sound of the bellow of a young steer. ‘Looks like we spoke too soon. There’s one more addition we need to make to this little group.’ And without a backwards glance he trotted across the hillside towards the young steer.
Joe stopped and watched him as he tried to turn the steer in his direction. He chuckled. ‘You’ll never get him like that Pete,’ he yelled. ‘Better get the rope around him.’ Pete grinned at him over his shoulder, and dismounted. As he approached the steer on foot the animal suddenly turned and trotted towards the edge of the hillside and Pete followed him. ‘Watch out Pete,’ called Joe, ‘you’d better keep away from that edge with all the mud around.’
At that moment, the ground below Pete’s feet gave way, he began to slide in the mud and in an instant he was lost from view. Joe instantly leapt down from his horse, grabbed a rope and ran to where the young man had last been. As he neared the spot he frowned to see that a considerable chunk of land had given way and left the hillside exposed. What had moments before been an incline was now a steep and jagged edge that lead straight downward. Joe fell to his knees and leant forward to try and see over the edge, but even that small movement caused the ground beneath him to subside even more. He scrambled down onto his stomach and inched his way forward, his rope around his shoulders and neck.
‘Pete!’ he called over the edge, ‘Pete, can you hear me?’
‘Joe!’ came the man’s voice from down below, ‘help me!’
Joe squirmed forward again and tried to see over the edge. ‘Where are you Pete? I can’t see you.’ He threw the end of the rope over the edge to give his friend an idea of his location.
‘Over to your right a bit,’ came the answer from below. ‘Hurry Joe, the ground here isn’t going to hold much longer!’
Joe scrunched over to his right and threw the rope further over the edge. ‘Can you reach it?’ he called.
‘No!’ came the answer, ‘you have to throw it further.’
Joe tried again, but the ground below him was crumbling away with his movements and he backed away a bit. He lifted his head and searched the area. ‘I’m going to try from another angle Pete, hang on!’ he called down. Backing away from the unstable spot he got to his feet and ran to the right until he found an area that had remained sound, and began to search until he found a place that was manageable. Joe had never been fond of heights, but he forced himself to look down and survey the damage.
A whole section of the hill had collapsed and tons of earth had shifted down towards the valley below. He could make out where Pete was clinging to a tree root, and realised that the only way to reach him was to climb down further. Tentatively he put his feet over the edge and began the descent, feeling with his feet rather than seeing in the approaching dusk. Pete watched him silently, still clinging to the root.
Joe reached a small rocky outcrop and tied the rope onto a branch that was sticking out from the side of the hill. ‘I’m gonna throw the rope your way now Pete, grab onto it,’ he instructed. He unravelled the coil and aimed it towards the other man and threw it with all his might. It fell short. Joe hauled it in again and shouted. ‘Hang on Pete, I’ll give it another go.’ Again it fell short.
Joe sighed with frustration. ‘I’m gonna have to come down further,’ he yelled.
‘No!’ yelled Pete. ‘It’s not safe further down!’
‘I have to,’ Joe yelled back. ‘The land around you might slip at any time.’ He inched his way further down the cliff, concentrating on where to place his hands with each movement. The realisation of just how far up he was had suddenly hit him, and he felt his breathing begin to become uneven with fright. Just a glimpse downwards made him feel dizzy and he knew that he could not afford to lose control if he was to be any use to Pete and get the two of them back to the top without any further mishap. He placed his face as close as possible against the earth near his hands and drew a few large and slow breaths. ‘Come on,’ he willed himself, ‘keep going Joe, this is no time to panic about where you are.’ He smelled the fresh earth against his face and drew comfort from the feel of the rock against his hands.
Ever so slowly Joe moved downwards, until he was within a few feet of Pete. He glanced across at the man and tried to smile. ‘Hi, fancy meeting you down here,’ he said in a shaky voice.
Pete stared at him, too scared to move. With a huge effort, Joe withdrew one of his hands from its secure hold on the cliff and slowly uncoiled the rope from around his shoulders. His leg muscles tightened as if to compensate for the hand that had given up its hold. ‘I’m gonna pass the end to ya,’ he said to Pete, ‘you grab hold of it while I climb back up aways and tie it to something secure. Then you’ll be able to hoist yourself up.’
Pete nodded. ‘Hurry Joe, this ground doesn’t feel too secure at all.’
Joe threw the end of the rope towards the man, but it missed its mark once again. Cursing softly, he pulled it towards himself when Pete began to yell. ‘Joe! Quick, the land’s giving way! Hurry up.’ Joe tried to grab the end of the rope to try again, but as he was doing so he saw Pete begin to sink downwards. Instinctively, he reached out to grab hold of him, but his reach was too short. As he leant forward, Joe felt himself losing his grip, and dug his fingers of one hand even tighter into the cliff face next to him.
‘Joe! Joe, help!’ Pete called frantically. ‘I’m slipping! Help me!’ Joe tried again to lean out to the man, and looked directly into his blue eyes that pleaded with him to do something. He made a frantic grab for Pete’s hand and clutched hold of his wrist.
‘Hang on Pete,’ he cried, ‘I’ll try to pull us both up.’
Pete felt himself slipping even further and clung to Joe’s arm frantically. His eyes pleaded with Joe to do something, to do anything to save him. As the two young men struggled to regain their balance, the ground beneath Pete subsided even more, and he lost his footing completely. Joe felt the full weight of the other man pull on his arm and felt for a moment that it was going to wrench out of its socket. ‘Joe!’ Pete called again as he felt his grasp on the other man begin to falter.
Joe looked down at him and stared at the panic in his eyes. As they stood for a split second staring at each other it was a look that would be forever imprinted upon his mind. The look of sheer desperation and panic as Pete’s grasp loosened and he fell backwards was one that Joe had never thought could be possible. The blue eyes pierced through his very soul as they fell away from him and the life that was in them was released. Joe followed them downwards with his own eyes and watched them come to rest some yards beneath him. They continued to stare at him, unseeing.
Joe shut his eyes and clung to the cliff in front of him. Below him the body of Pete Cooper lay against a rock, face upwards towards the sky.
Joe never knew how long he clung to the cliff without moving or opening his eyes. All he wanted to do was to shut out the look of his last vision and erase it from his memory. He flattened his face against the earth and dug his fingers into the rocks that felt so rough against his hands, while he concentrated on listening to his breathing. After what seemed like an eternity, he opened his eyes and stared at the brown dirt in front of his face. His mind was a jumble of thoughts but he could not make sense of them. Concentrate Joe, he willed himself, get your head together and think! Come on, do something!
Slowly he moved his head sideways and looked down. There below him Pete’s eyes stared up at him still. He gasped aloud and shut his eyes again, willing them to be gone when next he looked. After a moment he tried again, but there they were still looking at him with an accusing glare. ‘No!’ he shouted aloud to no one in particular, ‘No!’
His fingers scrabbled at the rocks and he shifted his weight slightly. He realised just how tense his body was and how his muscles were beginning to ache. God! Let me hold on as long as I need to! Don’t let me fall like … He looked down again and felt a wave of dizziness wash over him and the cliff face seemed to tilt in front of him. The approaching dusk made it hard to see, and he was grateful that below him the eyes that were boring into his mind and his soul were fading away with the light. Come on Joe, you’ve got to get yourself away from here before it’s too dark to see where you’re going.
He tried to move his hands and clutched at the rocks slightly to his right. His legs fought against him for a moment, but he willed them to move and was amazed when they did at just how shaky they felt. Inch by inch he scuttled along the rock face as far as he could go, and began the awkward and painstaking climb upwards. By the time he had reached the top gasping for lungfuls of air, the stars had come out and night had descended. Joe lay on the grass panting, grateful for the chance to allow his aching muscles to relax. He lay still and drifted off into a light sleep while his body regained its strength.
‘I don’t know why that boy can never be on time!’ Ben thundered. ‘He knows what time supper is, why can’t he for once just make sure that he doesn’t keep us waiting!’
Adam looked up from his book and smirked. ‘He’s probably still teaching Pete the finer points of how to rope a steer.’
‘In the dark? Don’t be stupid!’ Ben paced in front of the fireplace, his worry about his youngest son manifesting itself in anger as he did so.
The sound of a horse entering the yard drew everyone’s attention, and Hoss said. ‘There he is now. I’ll tell Hop Sing to dish up the food.’ He walked quickly to the kitchen with a grin on his face. Hoss never liked to wait on a meal for anyone, and his little brother’s tardiness had annoyed him. ‘The sooner he gits his tail in here the better!’ he thought.
Ben breathed a sigh of relief, and opened the front door. ‘Joseph!’ he called into the darkness outside. ‘Get yourself in here now, young man! Supper is overdue!’ He peered out beyond the porch light and sensed a movement there. ‘Joseph!’ he called again, ‘is that you?’
Out of the darkness he watched his youngest son emerge from the shadows. ‘And it’s about time you arrived. Just where have you been young man, and why are you so late?’
Joe stood and looked at his father silently. All he wanted to do was go to him and feel the warmth and security of his hug, but he didn’t seem to be able to move. He lowered his head and answered quietly. ‘Pete’s dead.’
Ben jerked. ‘What did you say?’
‘Pete’s dead. He fell off a cliff and he’s dead.’
Ben took two steps forward and pulled his son towards him into the light of the porch lamp. Searching his face he noted the hollow, sunken eyes and the hunched shoulders. He drew the boy to him and hugged him against his chest. They stood for a moment in a warm embrace before Ben put his arm around his son’s shoulder and led him into the house.
As they entered the living room Adam looked up and immediately knew something was wrong. He walked straight over to the table and poured a glass of whisky, which he handed to his father. Ben steered Little Joe over to the settee and sat him down. Both men sat on either side of the boy and Ben put the glass to his lips.
‘Drink this son, it’ll make you feel better.’ Little Joe did as he was bid, wincing at the taste as he swallowed a few sips of the liquid. Ben held his arm around the boy’s shoulder tightly.
After a moment Adam said. ‘Can you tell us about it?’
Little Joe jerked as Hoss entered the room in his usual noisy fashion. ‘Well it’s about time! Mebbe a man can get a proper feed now fer a change!’ He closed his mouth as he caught the look his father gave him, and he glanced at his younger brother sitting so silently on the settee with his head down. ‘What?’ he asked, his eyes widening.
Ben stroked Little Joe’s curly hair and said softly, ‘tell us what happened Joe.’
Little Joe swallowed, and stared into the fire in front of him as he spoke quietly. ‘Pete fell over the edge. The land gave way while he was tryin to get a steer and he fell. He’s dead.’
‘You saw it happen?’ Adam asked.
Joe nodded and continued to stare into the fire. ‘I tried to get to him, but I couldn’t. He fell.’
Ben held onto his boy. ‘Joe, are you sure he’s dead?’
Joe nodded silently. ‘After a moment he spoke. ‘I’m sure. His eyes ….. his eyes were open and staring. He was dead.’ He lowered his head into his hands and sobbed.
Ben drew his son’s head onto his chest and they all sat in silence for a few moments until Little Joe had cried himself out. When at last his sobs had subsided, Ben pulled his head up and held his son’s face in his hands as he peered into the tear-filled eyes. ‘Joe, where did it happen? Where were you both when Pete fell?’
Joe stared into his father’s eyes. ‘Up near Bluff Peak on the north side,’ he answered softly.
Ben turned to his two other boys who were sitting quietly listening. ‘Hoss go into town and let Sheriff Coffee know what’s happened. Tell him we’ll bring the body into town in the morning. Adam, tell Hop Sing supper will have to wait until I get Joseph up to bed. Ask him to prepare a tray for your brother.’ Both of them moved to do as they were bid, and Ben stood and raised Joe to his feet. ‘Come on upstairs Joseph. Best place for you is bed right about now.’
Little Joe allowed himself to be led upstairs without protesting. Every fibre of his body ached with the effort of holding himself together and screamed out for him to just let go. Each step up the stairs was agony to him and he leant heavily on his father as they ascended. He sat quietly as Ben fussed around him in the bedroom, and quietly changed into his nightshirt when told to. By the time Adam appeared with a tray of food he was already in bed with his eyes shut. Ben motioned Adam to put the tray down, and sat by the bed stroking Joe’s hair as the boy lay quiet and still.
‘Joe try and eat something before you sleep,’ he instructed. Joe shook his head and clenched his eyes shut tightly. Ben sighed and rubbed his son’s back as he watched him slowly drift off to sleep.
Joe looked down and saw the blue eyes boring into him with a passion that made him step backwards. ‘You did it!’ Pete shouted at him from below. ‘You did this to me Joe Cartwright! You are going to pay for this!’ He started to climb up the side of the pit, clawing at the earth that fell around him in clumps. Joe stood still not able to move his arms or legs, yet desperately wanting to get away from the crazed man below him. As Pete reached the top of the pit he grabbed one of Joe’s ankles and began to pull him down into the pit with him. Joe kicked out at him trying frantically to free himself, but feeling the inevitable pull that took him further and further into the blackness below him. He watched the blue eyes that emanated such hate towards him, as he was dragged closer and closer down towards them. ‘No!’ he screamed. ‘ No! Let me go!’
He sat up breathing heavily, and felt his father’s hand on the back of his neck rubbing it gently.
‘Joe? Joe it’s alright son, it’s just a nightmare.’ Ben spoke soothingly. ‘Calm down Joe, it’s over now boy.’
Joe clutched at his father and looked around him. The bedclothes were in disarray and he was sweating profusely. He put his head down and placed his hand over his eyes. ‘I’m sorry Pa, I didn’t mean to wake you again.’
‘Was it the same as the last one?’ Ben asked while continuing to rub his son’s neck soothingly.
Joe shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Trouble is I just can’t remember when I wake up. All I know is I get scared and have to get away from something. Guess it’s what happened to Pete that’s doin this to me.’
Ben nodded. He was sure that the boy was right. ‘Joe this is the third night in a row you’ve been like this. I wish you’d take one of the sleeping powders that Paul left for you.’
Joe shook his head. ‘No, I don’t want to.’
‘You need some sleep son.’
Joe looked at his father. How could he tell him that he was afraid to sleep? Afraid of being at the mercy of …. of what exactly? Joe didn’t know, but he did know that to be asleep was to dream, and to dream was not a pleasant experience for him at the moment.
‘I’ll be better after tomorrow Pa. When the funeral’s over it should be better shouldn’t it?’ He looked at his father pleadingly, willing him to agree.
Ben smiled. ‘Of course it will. With each day that passes the pain will ease, but getting the funeral over will be a major step forward.’ He pushed his son back onto the bed and settled the covers around him again. ‘Joe I know this is so hard for you, but you’ve got to try and relax a bit. Tomorrow is going to be hard enough for you without facing the day with no sleep.’
Joe nodded and closed his eyes again. ‘I’ll try Pa,’ he said softly, ‘go back to bed, I’ll be alright.’
Ben looked at the boy and stayed where he was. After a few moments he felt Joe’s hand clutch his tightly and he squeezed it back. Somehow he knew that neither of them was destined to get much sleep that night.
‘Joe Pa says it’s time to go,’ said Adam, entering his younger brother’s room. Joe was standing near the window looking out across the lake that sparkled in the sunshine below them. ‘Joe?’ Adam repeated. ‘Come on buddy we have to get going now.’
Joe continued to stare out of the window. ‘It sure is a beautiful day, ain’t it Adam?’ he asked softly.
‘Mmm sure is,’ his brother agreed, looking at him with a worried expression. He knew his younger brother was hurting, but he didn’t quite know what to say or do to help him.
‘It sure is a shame that Pete can’t see it.’ Joe turned to face his brother. ‘Adam?’
‘I don’t want ta go to the funeral. Do ya think it would matter if I didn’t go?’
Adam walked over to him and put his hands on his brother’s shoulders. ‘Joe I understand that you don’t want to go, but I think it would be better for you in the long run if you did.’
Joe pulled away from him. ‘I just can’t go. I can’t stand the thought of Pete bein buried like that.’ He looked at his older brother with tears in his eyes. ‘You don’t know how hard this is for me.’
‘Yeah Joe, I do,’ Adam replied. ‘I’ve been through this myself you know.’ Joe looked at him puzzled as his brother continued. ‘Joe if anyone knows how hard funerals are, it’s me. I’ve stood next to Pa twice while two women I loved were buried, or have you forgotten that?’ He turned away from his brother. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. You couldn’t possibly be expected to know about those things.’
The two brothers stood for a moment in silence, and then Joe stepped towards his brother and placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. ‘No Adam, I’m the one who’s sorry. I guess I wasn’t thinking about anyone but myself. I can’t imagine how you did that twice, specially bein so young and all at the time.’
Adam smiled at him. ‘Joe all I know is that a funeral is an opportunity for you to have a kind of closure to things that are hurting you. It can be the beginning of a healing process. If you can bring yourself to be there today, then believe me it will help.’
Joe nodded and tried to smile. ‘Alright, I’ll try.’
Adam put his arm around his younger brother’s shoulder as they left the room. ‘Just remember Joe, Pa, Hoss and I will be right there beside you buddy.’
Joe listened to the droning of the Minister’s words and fought back the tears as he looked at the highly polished box before him. His father had made sure that Pete had the best that money could buy, but even that made Joe feel guilty as if money could ease the feelings that he had. As a newcomer to town Pete had not had time to establish any friendships apart from with Joe himself, and so the funeral group consisted of only the four Cartwrights, the minister, the minister’s wife and the gravedigger.
Joe felt his father’s arm around his shoulders as he urged him forward and he walked towards the open hole a few feet away from them. He closed his eyes and smelled the freshly turned earth and it brought back memories of clinging on to the cliff and pressing his face against the earth. Keep going Joe, this is no time to panic about where you are. He drew comfort from the feel of his father’s touch.
A scraping sound caused him to open his eyes again and he looked deep into the hole in front of him. He felt a wave of dizziness and his father’s grip tightened as he felt the boy beside him sway. ‘Joe?’ Ben asked anxiously. ‘Are you all right?’ God! Let me hold on as long as I need to! Don’t let me fall like …
‘Joe son …..’ He opened his eyes again. The ground tilted in front of him and he moved slightly to shift his balance. Come on Joe, you’ve got to get yourself away from here before it’s too late to…
‘Hang on Joe,’ his brother’s voice beside him echoed in his ear as if very far away. He concentrated on the hole in front of him, and looked down into the dark recess. Two blue eyes looked back at him and he stared at them as if mesmerised. They seem to draw him down towards them and he took a step forward without thinking. Adam gripped his other arm and he felt himself held upright on both sides by his brother and his father. As his eyes became unfocused the last thing Joe heard as he lost consciousness was the scraping sound of wood against the earth.
Joe opened his eyes and saw his father’s face peering anxiously down at him. He fluttered his eyelids a couple of time and Ben smiled at him as he brushed back the curls from his forehead. ‘Well it’s about time you came woke up. Welcome back.’
Joe stretched and looked around him as he noted that he was lying on his own bed. He glanced across the room and looked at the curtains fluttering in the breeze and heard the sound of a horse’s whinny from the corral below. He marvelled at how normal the world still appeared in spite of everything that had happened.
‘Hi Pa,’ he said and shut his eyes again as he remembered. ‘Did I faint?’
‘Yes you certainly did,’ his father replied. ‘Do you remember what happened?’
‘Sort of. Did they finish the funeral?’
‘Yes, it’s over now,’ replied his father. ‘The worst is over now son.’
Joe sighed and turned his head to face the wall. He lay still, listening to the silence around him. ‘I’m glad it’s over,’ he said quietly.
Ben stroked his son’s forehead. ‘Would you like something to eat?’ he asked. Joe shook his head. ‘You have to eat something Joe, you didn’t have any breakfast at all.’ Joe shook his head again. Ben looked at his son for a moment before continuing. ‘Joe I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t your fault. You have to stop feeling like that now.’ Joe lay in silence. ‘You couldn’t do anything to prevent this happening Joe, you know that,’ his father continued. ‘It just wasn’t your fault.’
‘I know.’ No I don’t know!
‘Then stop doing this to yourself. It’s over now Joe.’
‘I know.’ No it’s not over! Don’t you know that? He turned to face the wall and stared at the wall.
‘Here son, I want you to drink this,’ Ben held out a glass to the boy.
‘What is it?’
‘One of the sleeping powders from Doctor Martin.’
‘I don’t want it.’ I can’t go to sleep again and see … what will I see? Joe continued to stare at the wall.
Ben turned the boy’s head and lifted it as he held the glass to his lips. ‘I said to drink it.’ Joe opened his mouth and swallowed obediently, then closed his eyes again. Ben sat for a few minutes watching his son as he drifted off to sleep again.
The blue eyes stared at him as he tried to shield his face from their penetrating gaze. Try as he might, they continued to glare at him accusingly. He took a step backwards and called aloud ‘No! Leave me alone!’ Pete held out a hand to him and stepped forward. ‘Joe help me!’ He cried. ‘Joe!’ Joe held his head in his hands and implored his friend ‘Please leave me alone’! He sank to the ground as Pete advanced upon him. ‘No! Please, No!’
‘No!’ Joe sat up in his bed and put his hand up to shield his eyes against the glare of the lamp in his brother’s hand. He stared into the darkness and tried to slow down his breathing.
Adam sat down on the bed beside him. ‘You OK buddy?’
Joe looked at his older brother silently for a few moments. Adam tried again. “Joe? Are you OK?’
‘Yes.’ No of course I’m not OK! How can I be OK when …
‘Sounds like a nightmare. Do you want to talk about it?’
Joe shook his head. ‘Nothing to talk about. I can’t remember it.’ He lay down in bed again and closed his eyes. As Adam left the room he opened them again and gazed at the ceiling as he lay patiently waiting for the dawn.
‘How many do ya figure on gittin altogether?’ Hoss mumbled with his mouth full.
‘I actually don’t think there are many left,’ his father replied to his middle son with his eyes fixed firmly on his youngest. ‘Shouldn’t take you longer than the morning.’
Hoss nodded. ‘Shouldn’t be too difficult to spot em now. I think they’ve probably strayed down from the peak already.’ He followed his father’s gaze and watched his younger brother push the food around his plate as well. ‘Hey short shanks,’ he said with a grin, ‘ain’t ya gonna eat that?’
Little Joe ignored his brother and continued to stare at his plate.
Ben put his hand on his youngest son’s arm and said, ‘Joe? Your brother asked you a question.’
Little Joe looked up, the dark rings evident around his eyes. ‘What?’
Hoss grinned at him. ‘Ain’t ya gonna eat that? Ya gonna need all your strength today little buddy tryin to keep up with me and them strays, ya know!’
Joe frowned at his brother. ‘Yeah sure! When could you ever outride me? Don’t be stupid!’
Ben frowned as he saw the hurt look in Hoss’ eye. ‘Joseph do not call your brother stupid please!’
‘Why not? He is if he thinks I’m gonna have a problem keepin up with him!’
‘Son I know you’re upset, but that’s no reason to ….’
‘I am not upset!’ Joe yelled at his father and threw his fork down so that it clattered against the plate. ‘Stop telling me how I feel, why don’t you!’
‘Joseph! I will not have you …..’
Joe stood up abruptly and turned from the table.
‘Joseph!’ Ben yelled, ‘Come back here when I am speaking to you!’ But his words fell on deaf ears as Joe slammed the front door on his way out. Ben sighed and put his head in his hands.
‘Don’t pay him no mind Pa,’ ventured Hoss. ‘You know what he gits like. He’s upset, much an all as he won’t let on.’
‘I know he is,’ replied his father. ‘I just don’t know what else to say to him. He agrees with me that it wasn’t his fault, but he won’t really admit it to himself. He needs to get over this, but I don’t know how to help him to.’
‘Guess time will help,’ suggested Hoss. ‘Think I should keep him real busy today, that should help as well. Get his mind off it so to speak, ya think?’
Ben patted his son’s arm and wondered how anyone could ever think that he could be slow. Hoss was one of the most intuitive people that Ben knew, especially when it came to figuring out his younger brother. ‘I think that would help a lot Hoss. Keep an eye out for him today, won’t you son?’
Hoss stood and wiped his mouth on his napkin. ‘Sure thing Pa. Ya know I will.’
Ben smiled at him as he turned and left the room. Yes, one thing he did know for sure was that Hoss would always keep and eye out for his little brother. Since the moment the boy had laid eyes on the squirming tiny infant that night he was born, he had made him his special responsibility to look after. No one or nothing would ever hurt Little Joe while Hoss was around, of that Ben was sure.
‘Over there Joe!’ yelled Hoss.
Joe frowned. ‘Ya don’t have to tell me! I’ve got eyes to see ya know!’ he yelled back and turned his horse to gallop towards the steers in the direction his brother had been pointing.
Hoss frowned as well. It had been like this all morning. Joe had continually snapped at his brother every time Hoss tried to make a suggestion, and it had taken all the big man’s patience to refrain from snapping back at him. He bit back an answer and sat patiently watching as his younger brother skilfully herded the cattle back in his direction.
‘Happy now?’ Little Joe snarled at him as he pulled his horse alongside his brother.
Hoss continued to frown at him. ‘Don’t ya lose ya temper with me, little buddy,’ he said. ‘I ain’t done nuthin to ya!’
Little Joe sighed and hung his head. ‘Sorry Hoss, I didn’t mean to rile ya. It’s just that …. Oh I don’t know. Come on, let’s get these down to the others.’
Hoss put out his hand and placed it on his brother’s arm. ‘Ya wanna talk about it Joe?’ He asked sympathetically.
‘There’s nothing to talk about,’ Joe replied. ‘It’s over and done with alright?’ Yeah right! Over and done with – sure!
‘Yeah cause it is. It’s just that sometimes it helps to talk about it.’
Little Joe shook off his brother’s hand and turned to him with wide eyes. ‘I said it’s over with! Leave me alone, will ya Hoss?’ And with that he turned his horse and rode off down the hill away from his brother and the herd.
Hoss yelled after him, ‘Joe, come back!’ But his brother kept riding away at breakneck speed.
The sun was high in the sky as the rider drew to a halt outside the Silver Dollar Saloon, and Little Joe dismounted and practically ran inside. He hurled himself at the bar and shouted. ‘Hi Sam, give me a whisky will ya?’
Sam the bartender stared at him. ‘Whisky Joe? You sure?’
‘Sure I’m sure! I’ve got the money to pay for it if that’s what’s worrying ya!’ Joe spat back at him. ‘On second thoughts, give me a whole bottle.’ He threw a few dollars down on the counter.
Sam raised his eyebrows, but he did as the young man requested. ‘OK Joe, there you go.’
Little Joe grabbed the bottle and turned towards a table in the corner. As he sat himself down and opened the bottle he looked around him. At this time of the day the only people present apart from Sam himself were two old miners and Sadie the regular daytime saloon girl, none of who paid any attention to him. Joe filled his glass for the first time and sat back in his chair. His mind was a whirl as he thought back on all that had happened during the past few days, and he tried to sort out what his feelings actually were.
Gradually he sensed himself calming down as the whisky took effect, and he began to close his eyes slightly as the silence enveloped him. ‘Just thought it was time to experience something a bit different to what I’m used to that’s all. Plus the fact that my parents died recently and I thought it would be a good idea to get away from things for a while, you know?’ Joe opened his eyes to see Pete’s sorrowful blue eyes staring at him. He leant forward and reached out, but they faded away.
Joe placed his head in his hands for a few moments, and then reached for the half-full glass in front of him. Quickly he put his head back and threw the liquid down his throat then refilled the glass again, his hands shaking as he did so.
Adam sighed as he dismounted and patted his brother’s pinto horse Cochise who was tied to the hitching rail outside the saloon. ‘Much better for me to do this,’ he reasoned to himself. ‘Pa’s mad enough without making a public display of hauling the kid out of here. He’ll be hard enough to contain once I get him home.’ He stood in the doorway of the saloon and looked around for his younger brother, and soon spied him in a corner surrounded by several of the saloon girls.
‘Hi Adam,’ Little Joe yelled at him as he walked towards the group. ‘Come to join us for a drink?’
‘No. Come to take you home is all,’ Adam replied, as he reached out and took the glass from his brother’s hand. ‘Excuse us ladies,’ he tipped his hat at the women who smiled and stood up. ‘Time for this young man to be departing your company for a while.’ He took Little Joe by the shoulders and lifted him to a standing position. ‘Come on Joe, time to hit the road now.’
Little Joe swayed slightly on his feet and glared at his brother. ‘What do you mean hit the road? The party’s just getting started, ain’t it ladies?’ He grinned around the room at no one in particular.
‘Come on Joe,’ Adam repeated and began to steer the youngster towards the door. ‘Pa’s mad enough without us being any later.’
‘Pa’s mad? Why’s he …. Why’s ….’ Little Joe stumbled over his feet and Adam steadied him. ‘Why’s he mad Adam? Did you do something?’
‘Not me little buddy, you,’ replied his brother grimly. ‘Do you know what time it is?’
Joe sighed deeply. ‘Time to get over it, Pa said,’ he shouted. ‘It’s def …. definitely time …’ He waved his arm widely, and knocked off the hat of a man near them. ‘Sorry,’ he shouted at him, ‘I’m very …. I’m very sorry.’ He looked at Adam mournfully, ‘Adam I’m real sorry, ya know?’
‘Yeah I know buddy.’ Adam propelled him through the crowd towards the door.
Joe looked back over his shoulder towards the table where he had been sitting moments before. ‘I’m sorry,’ he repeated in a quieter voice. ‘I’m real sorry Pete.’ He stared at the blue eyes as his brother pushed him through the door and out into the street.
Ben glanced at the grandfather clock as it stuck the hour, and listened to the chimes as they echoed throughout the quiet house. ‘Nine o’clock!’ he thundered to himself. ‘Has the boy got no idea at all? Been missing since mid-morning without telling a soul where he took off to, and now ….’ His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of horses in the front yard, and he strode towards the front door and opened it with a bang.
‘Joseph!’ he called as he peered into the darkness. ‘Is that you Joseph?’ Out of the darkness he saw two figures emerge, and sucked in his breath at the sight of his youngest son. Joe was supported by Adam’s arm around him and he was swaying as he lurched forward. His hat was pushed down as far as it could go on his head, and his jacket was crushed. Ben pulled off the boy’s hat and noted the glazed look in his eyes and the pallor of his skin. Ben frowned at Adam. ‘In the saloon?’ he asked.
Adam nodded. ‘For quite some time I’d say by the look of him.’ He eased his brother through the door. ‘I’ll get him up to bed Pa, I don’t think he’s in any state to make sense at the moment.’ Ben nodded to him. It was obvious that the boy was completely done in, and he would achieve nothing by having it out with him now. He watched as his two sons slowly made their way upstairs, Joe leaning heavily on his older brother. ‘God help me,’ he prayed, ‘help me to reach that boy.’
‘Joseph! Did you hear what I said young man?’ Ben thundered at his youngest son who sat upright in his chair at the sound of his voice. ‘Are you listening to me?’
‘Yes Pa,’ he muttered under his breath.
‘Then kindly eat your breakfast and stop fiddling with it.’
Joe picked up his fork and looked at the meal on his plate. He felt his throat constrict at the smell emanating from it, and swallowed as he tried to avoid bringing up the contents of his stomach.
‘I have no sympathy for you,’ Ben continued. ‘I understand how you’re feeling at the moment Joseph, but it is no excuse for your behaviour yesterday. Not only did you leave your brother to finish all the work that I had assigned to both of you, but also you told no one where you were going. And worst of all, I find that you spent the entire day drinking in a saloon until all hours of the night.’
Joe listened to his father’s voice get louder and the sound of it made the thumping in his head unbearable. He put his elbows on the table and began to massage his temples as he attempted to block the sound of it out.
‘Joseph! Take your elbows off the table and sit up straight!’ Ben thundered. ‘There will be no more excuses young man! If I find out that there is a repeat of what happened yesterday, well I ……’ He stopped as Joe stood up. ‘And where do you think you’re going? Sit down until I’ve finished speaking to you!’
Little Joe looked at his father, and bent forward to place his hands on the table before him. ‘Pa I have to go outside. I think I’m gonna be ……’ He leant forward and vomited up all over the table cloth, then sat down again heavily as he surveyed the mess before him.
‘Well there goes breakfast! Thanks a lot little brother!’ Hoss thundered as he stood up wrinkling his nose. ‘I’m outta here!’
Adam and Ben sat and looked at the miserable boy in front of them. After a moment Ben stood and motioned to his oldest son. ‘Come on Adam, we have work to do. Joseph, you have some cleaning up to do here before you join us. And be quick about it please.’
Joe continued to sit with his pounding head in his hands as he listened to his father and brother leave the room. ‘Now you’ve done it,’ a voice opposite him whispered. ‘That really upset them. You’d be better off with me you know. Should have been you anyway. You know it as well as I do.’
Joe looked into the mocking blue eyes that stared into his. ‘No!’ he cried. ‘It should not! Why don’t you just leave me alone?’
‘Leave you alone? Why? You left me alone and look what happened. No Joe, it’s time for you now. You can’t be left alone, you know that.’ Pete’s eyes pierced into him and he tried to look away, but felt himself drawn back to the eyes that stared at him. He shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again the chair opposite him was empty. Sighing heavily, Joe stood up and began to collect the soiled plates in front of him.
Joe sat with his knees drawn up to his chest and listened to the wind in the pines. He shivered slightly as he felt the breeze on his face and pulled his knees in tighter. Below him the mighty Tahoe Lake shimmered in all its glory and reflected the majestic pines that reached all the way down towards its shores. Normally the sight would have made him smile just for the sheer joy of being here, but today he was lost in thought and didn’t even notice.
The sound of a horse behind him made him turn his head to see who it was, and he frowned to see his father dismounting. ‘Great!’ he thought. ‘Now I’ll get another lecture about being away from work again.’ He sat up straighter and prepared himself for the onslaught that he was growing accustomed to. It seemed that every time he and his father spoke lately, they ended up fighting.
Ben sat down beside him and together they sat and looked at the lake in silence for a few moments. Joe was surprised to hear his father say softly. ‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ Joe nodded absently. ‘Your mother loved this view. She and I used to come up here and just sit like this, you know.’
Joe looked at his father. ‘Thought you’d come to get mad at me for takin off from work again,’ he said.
Ben sighed. ‘Would it make any difference Joe? I don’t know how many times we’ve had that conversation in the past few days do you?’ Joe shook his head, and Ben placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘Joe you can’t go on like this son. You have to get on with life and leave this behind you now.’
Joe turned to stare at his father. ‘How Pa? Tell me just how I’m supposed to get on with life?’
Ben looked back at the lake and continued. ‘I don’t know the answer to that Joe. All I know is that it can be done. When a tragedy occurs it’s a terrible thing, and each of us deals with it in our own private way. I know from experience that you just have to look into your soul to find what is important enough to you to keep you going in your life. We all have something Joe, and you just have to find whatever it is that will help you get over this.’
Joe sat silently and thought. ‘What did you find Pa? When our mothers died, I mean. What did you find to keep you going?’
Ben smiled at him and stroked the back of his boy’s neck. ‘I was lucky. I didn’t have to look very far to find something very dear to keep me going Joe. Each of your mothers left me a son, and that’s what kept me going during those terrible times.’
Joe bent his head down on his knees again.
‘Joe, Pete wouldn’t want you to be like this. He’d want you to get over it.’
Joe sat up straight again and looked at his father. Behind Ben, Pete sat smiling at him and beckoning. ‘Come on Joe, tell him. Let him know that I really wouldn’t want that. Let him know how I really feel.’
‘How would you know?’ Joe shouted angrily. ‘You don’t know what he’d want! He doesn’t want me to get over it at all. I should have been the one! I should have been the one that was killed, not him!’
Ben stared at him, trying to understand the sudden change in his attitude. ‘Son, what are you saying? Of course Pete would never have wanted you to blame yourself, he would …..’
‘Yes he would! He knows it was my fault!’ Joe yelled at his father.
‘Joseph it was not your fault! You could never have prevented what happen to Pete.’
‘Yes I could! You wouldn’t know anyway, cause you weren’t there. He was there and he knows!’ Joe pointed to the spot behind Ben where Pete sat grinning at him.
Ben turned to where his son was pointing, then turned back to face the boy. ‘Joe? What do you mean son? Who was there?’
‘He was,’ yelled Joe still pointing. ‘Pete knows what I’m saying is true, don’t ya Pete?’ He stared at the vacant space behind his father and stood up.
Ben leapt to his feet and grabbed his son by the shoulders. ‘Joe what are you talking about? Pete is gone Joe. There’s no one here but us.’
Joe stared at his father for a moment, then looked back to the figure sitting on the grass next to them. He shook off his father’s hands and took a step back from him as he put his hands in front of his face. ‘No! Don’t you say that! He knows, Pa, he …..’ he turned and fled from his father. Ben stared after his son as he disappeared over the crest of the hill.
‘He’s not in town,’ said Adam as he dismounted from his horse in the front yard of the ranch house. ‘I searched everywhere, and no one’s seen him all day.’
Ben sighed. ‘Hoss hasn’t had any luck either. Maybe I’m worrying too much, but….. if you could have seen the way he was this morning Adam…… I just don’t know.’
‘Pa he’s probably just taken off somewhere to be by himself for a while. You know how he’s been lately, Adam replied.
‘I do know and that’s just what’s got me worried,’ replied his father. ‘Trouble is I don’t know just what to expect from the boy from one moment to the next. If I could only think of ……’ he stopped and clicked his fingers, then moved towards his horse. ‘I think I know where to check.’
‘Where it happened,’ replied Ben as he swung up into the saddle. ‘He might have gone back to Bluff Peak.’
‘I don’t think so Pa. You know how he’s been avoiding going anywhere near that place.’
‘Yes I know, but he may be ready now to face it,’ said his father. ‘It’s worth a try anyway.’
‘Want me to come with you in case?’ Adam asked.
Ben shook his head. ‘No, leave it to me. I’ll handle Joe if he’s up there.’ Adam leaned against the hitching rail and watched as his father turned his horse and rode out of the yard.
‘You know you want to! Come on Joe, it’s easy. I’m down here, why aren’t you?’
Joe sat and looked over the edge of the cliff in front of him. Pete stood at the bottom and reached upwards towards him. ‘Come on Joe! Help me! Please Joe!’
Joe rubbed his hand over his eyes and looked again. Pete was in trouble that was for sure and he had to help him. He put his feet over the edge and began the steep descent downwards, pressing his body as far in towards the rock face as he could. ‘I’m coming Pete!’ he called. ‘Hang on, Pete I’m coming!’ His feet scrambled to find a secure spot and he dug his fingers in further to the rock as he inched his way downwards. His breath came in short bursts and he fought the dizzy feeling that seemed to wash over him. ‘Come on Joe,’ he said out loud. ‘Keep going. This is no time to panic.’
‘Joe!’ called Pete. ‘Hurry! The ground around me is slipping!’
Joe looked down towards his friend and watched him slip further down the cliff. Pete looked up at him with his eyes filled with fright, and reached his hand out towards him. Joe moved again downwards.
“Joseph!’ He looked up to see his father looking at him over the edge of the cliff. ‘Joseph! Come back up here son!’ Ben called down to him.
Joe pressed his face against the rock and smelled the fresh earth that invaded his nostrils. He closed his eyes to fight off another wave of dizziness.
‘Joe! Come back here. Come on up Joe!’ his father called.
‘No Pa,’ he called back up. ‘I have to help Pete.’
‘Joe, Pete isn’t there. There’s no one there son!’ Ben called down to him.
Joe looked down at his friend who was still reaching out towards him. ‘Pete needs me Pa! I have to get to him!’ He continued inching his way down the cliff.
‘I need you up here Joe!’ his father called desperately. ‘Up here Joe, come on back up now!’
Joe shut his eyes again and tried to block out his father’s voice. ‘No!’ he yelled back up to him. ‘Pete needs me! I have to save Pete!’
Ben lowered his legs over the side of the cliff and began the steep descent downwards towards his boy. ‘Lord help me,’ he prayed. ‘Help me get to him!’
Joe heard his father above him and looked up. ‘No!’ he cried. ‘I have to do this myself Pa, I have to save Pete!’ His father came closer to him and he moved away from him further down the rock face. Ben scrambled after him desperately, trying to put less space between them.
Joe was closer to Pete now, and he could see the blue panic stricken eyes staring up at him. He reached towards his friend’s outstretched hand and momentarily lost his balance, regaining it as he gripped desperately onto the rock. Again he leant downwards, nearly touching the outstretched fingers this time. The blue eyes pierced into his soul, begging him to come further down.
‘Joe!’ he heard from above, and looked up to see his father’s face. Ben’s brown eyes pierced into his soul, begging him to come further up.
He looked down at the blue eyes.
He looked up at the brown eyes.
Joe shut his eyes and tried to block out both the voices. Concentrate Joe! He willed himself. Get your head together and think.
He looked down and reached out for the outstretched hand below him, stretching towards it tentatively. Look into your soul Joe. We all have something Joe to help us keep going. Find what it is. He looked up and reached for the outstretched hand above him, stretching towards it tentatively. ‘That’s it son. Come on!’ Ben called to his boy. ‘Just a little further Joe, you can do it!’ Their fingers reached towards each other, and Joe touched solid flesh. He clung to his father’s hand and closed his eyes as a wave of relief washed over him.
Ben pulled on the boy’s hand until he could grasp him firmly by the arm. Joe clung to his father and began to sob, but Ben shook him slightly and said. ‘Joseph! Look at me!’ Joe opened his eyes and looked up into the depths of the brown eyes above him. They were filled with a love that he had seen so many times before. ‘Joe listen to me son. I want you to do as I say. Do you understand me Joe?’ Ben asked. Joe nodded, trying to still his sobs. ‘Step back up here towards me, Joe. Slowly. Put your hands there. That’s right, Joe. Easy, one at a time.’ Ben urged.
Slowly, father and son made their way back up towards the top of the cliff, Ben encouraging his boy every step of the way. When at last they reached the top, they collapsed onto the fresh smelling grass and lay together breathing deeply as they tried to contain their breathing. Ben opened his eyes and looked at his son lying next to him, and sent up a silent prayer of thanks. He reached out and touched Joe on the arm and said, ‘Joe? Joe son, are you alright?’
Joe opened his eyes and searched his father’s face. He drew comfort from the touch and the words, and began to sob. ‘Pa! Pa! I couldn’t save him Pa! He fell!’
Ben reached out and pulled his son towards him. ‘I know Joe, I know.’ He murmured. ‘It wasn’t your fault. Nothing could have saved Pete.’
Joe pulled away from his father’s touch, scrambled towards the edge of the cliff and looked down. There was no one there. Pete had disappeared and all he could see was the emptiness below him. He looked back at his father. ‘He’s gone!’ he said quietly. ‘Where has he gone Pa?’
Ben moved over towards his son. ‘He was never there Joe,’ he said putting his arm around his son’s shoulders. ‘You just thought he was.’
‘But he was so real.’ Joe said. ‘He was there Pa, I saw him.’
‘No Joe you only thought you did.’ Joe looked into his father’s eyes again. ‘Sometimes the mind can play strange tricks on a man Joe. Sometimes we see what we want to see.’
‘He really is gone isn’t he?’ Joe asked his father quietly.
‘Yes Joe he really is.’ Ben replied.
Joe hung his head, the tears falling unchecked. ‘I really wanted him to be alright Pa. I really wanted to save him.’
‘I know you did Joe, but you couldn’t.’ His father replied. ‘No one blames you for that son.’ He hugged him tighter towards him. ‘It’s over now Joe. You need to go on now.’
‘You said to search my soul to find whatever it is that will help me get over this.’ Joe said quietly.
Ben smiled at his boy. ‘Yes that’s right.’
Joe stared up into the depths of the brown eyes that looked back at him with so much love. ‘I think I found it Pa,’ he whispered.