The Fire (by frasrgrl)

Summary:  There’s a fire in Virginia City, but is that all there is to it?  This story started off as just a little tidbit that I did for July’s Chaps and Spurs challenge. Now there is a mega challenge. It’s to see if you can keep a story going each month using the Chaps and Spur challenge words. Here’s my attempt at that.

Word Count: 13,300   Rated: T

 

                                                                      The Fire

 

Author’s Chapter Notes:

July 2011 Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Muster
  • Pump
  • Extinguish
  • Ignite
  • Bucket

August 2011 Chap and Spurs words were:

  • August
  • Majestic
  • Noble
  • Dignified
  • Imposing

September 2011 Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Anniversary
  • Celebration
  • Passing
  • Memorial
  • Round Up

October 2011 Chap and Spurs words and explanations were:

  • Graveled = Perplexed
  • Cavil = Nitpick, quibble
  • Palaver = Useless talking
  • Shy = Wary
  • Obloquy = False accusation, malicious gossip

November 2011 Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Meteor
  • Constellation
  • Leo
  • Superlative
  • Radiant

December 2011 Chaps and Spurs challenge was to use 10 words from a list that was comprised of the words that had been used during the year. I picked the following words:

  • Betray
  • Brothers
  • Conflict
  • Dream
  • Entrance
  • Ignite
  • Imposing
  • Noise
  • Passing
  • Patience
  • Possibilities
  • Promise

January 2012  Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Wolf
  • Oak
  • Ice
  • Doorway
  • Stove

February 2012  Chap and Spurs words were::

  • Lunatic
  • Interval
  • Pining
  • Moonshine
  • Secondary

March 2012  Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Guard
  • Forward
  • Basket
  • Hare
  • Frenzy

April 2012  Chap and Spurs words were cowboy terms:

  • Barkin’ at a knot – doing something useless; wasting your time trying something impossible
  • Hair in the butter – a delicate situation
  • Hobble your lip – Shut up
  • Nailed to the counter – Proven a lie
  • Pulling a kite – Making a face
  • Scarce as hen’s teeth – extremely rare or hard to find
  • Velvet couch – Cowboy’s bedroll

May 2012  Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Simon
  •  Blind
  •  Butter
  •  Leap
  •  Cradle

June 2012 (Gold badge month!)  Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Giant
  • Lumberjack
  • Babe
  • Logging
  • Legend

This is being posted as is without the chance of a beta read, and will be corrected later since I’m slipping in under the wire.

July 2012  Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Track
  • Field
  • Summer
  • Agony
  • Victory

August 2012  Chap and Spurs words were:

I know this part is a bit “cheesy” but it’s not my fault.

  • Asiago
  • Stilton
  • Munster
  • Beaufort
  • Buffalo

September 2012  Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Camel
  • Freight
  • Spit
  • Race
  • Salt

October 2012  Chap and Spurs words were:

  • Treacherous (Benediction)
  • Zig-Zag
  • Toothsome
  • Dissipated
  • Impaled

According to dictionary.com there are a couple different meanings to toothsome. The one I used here is:

Attractive; Alluring

I also decided to use one word from my coupon that was rewarded to those who used all of the cowboy phrases in their story. I’m replacing benediction with treacherous.

 

End Notes:

Many, many thanks to Cheaux for being my beta and putting up with me and my last minute emails. I don’t know what I would do without her.

Also a big, huge thank you to everyone who has followed this story and have supported me in doing it.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Joe was the first to see and smell the acrid smoke from the little shop on C Street. He spurred Cochise on towards the store, and threw himself from the back of the horse before it ever stopped.

“FIRE!” Joe yelled as he pulled his jacket off and immersed it in the horse trough outside the store. “FIRE!” he yelled one last time before running into the burning building.

Hearing the call of alarm, a nearby shop owner ran to the bell that was mounted outside his store for such emergencies. As he rang the bell he repeated Joe’s words, “Fire! Fire!”  The alarm was picked up by shop owners up and down C Street until the Virginia City Muster heard it and answered the call. Every available person converged at the pump outside the store.

Inside, Joe was using his wet jacket to try and extinguish the flames, but the harder he tried the more flames that would ignite around him.

“Here, Joe.” Someone shoved a bucket of water into his hands. Discarding his jacket, Joe took the bucket and threw the water on the wall of flames in front of him. He passed the bucket back before accepting a new one. The men of Virginia City worked in tandem trying to beat back the red devil that was licking at their feet.

The room was filling with thick, black smoke and breathing was becoming nearly impossible. What wasn’t shrouded by smoke was bright red and orange. The flames were eating their way up the walls, devouring everything in their path. Soon the building began to creak and groan as the fire began to take its toll.

“Everyone out!  It’s going to go!” someone shouted.

The fight was a lost cause, there was no way to win against this fire. The effort was too little, too late. The town now had to go on damage control; they needed to prevent the fire from spreading throughout the town. If that happened everything would be lost.

Throwing his last bucket of water on the fire, Joe turned to run from the building. He paused and looked back when he heard a mournful groaning and a loud crack. His eyes widened in fear as he watched the wall and its support beams start to collapse. Realizing the danger he was in, Joe finally reacted, but it was too late. He had turned to run when his foot caught on a discarded bucket causing him to fall back, landing hard on his back, knocking the wind out of him. As he tried to catch his breathe, Joe could only watch in horror as the wall descended towards him. He threw up his arms to protect himself and twisted to the side, causing the worst of the blazing wall to miss him, but he was still trapped under the beams.

“HELP!” he tried to scream, but the only thing that came out of his raw throat was a choked whisper that ended in a wracking cough which was cut short when Joe’s world suddenly turned gray and faded away.

 

Chapter 2

“Dadburnit, Adam, it sure is hot,” moaned Hoss. He pulled Chubb to a stop and mopped at his sweating forehead with his handkerchief.

“I have to agree with you there, Brother.” Adam had pulled Sport to a standstill and was also trying to wipe the sweat away. Taking a swig from his canteen, he handed it to Hoss, who gladly accepted it.

Taking a long deep swallow, Hoss wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Hot! The water’s hot, the air’s hot, the ground’s hot, every dadburn thing is HOT!”

Adam rolled his eyes at his brother’s theatrics. Hoss was starting to sound more and more like Joe. “Well, what do you expect? It’s the middle of August, after all.”

“That may be, but it don’t need to be so dad-blamed hot! The wind is so hot that I’m surprised I haven’t burst into flames just from it blowin’ on me.”

“If you would quit your complaining and act a bit more dignified, we could get to town and meet up with Joe and those cold beers he promised us since he had to impose on our good graces this morning,” Adam grumbled.

“Oh yeah, them beers. That boy better have them ready or I’ll be imposin’ a serious poundin’ on him.” Hoss plopped his hat back on his head and looked at Adam. “You know what actually sounds better than that cold beer, Brother?”

“No, what?”

“A dip in the lake. Just imagine all that cool water, Adam, and dunkin’ yourself in it.”

Adam stared off in the direction that the majestic Lake Tahoe lay and all the delights it promised and sighed. He let himself see the picture Hoss was drawing. He could actually feel the cold water of the lake slushing over his body… Adam had to give himself a mental shake to bring his mind back to the business at hand. “It’s a right noble idea, Hoss, and if it weren’t for the promise we made to Pa, to get everything done in town today, then I would be in that water before you could say ‘Hop Sing’s fried chicken.’”

Hoss sighed with regret. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. We did promised Pa and Joe’ll be waitin’ for us.” Hoss gave Chubb a soft kick. “Let’s get a move on or them beers will be hot too.”

 

Chapter 3

“I can’t believe another year has gone by,” Ben laminated as he sat in front of Roy Coffee’s desk and studied the checker board.

“I know what you mean. It seems like we just had the annual Virginia City Anniversary Celebration last week.” Roy watched in dismay as Ben jumped three of his checkers. “We must be gettin’ old.”

“And you must have been around Adam lately. Anniversary Celebration.” Ben started laughing. “You mean Founder’s Day. And watch who you’re calling old!”

“Adam was just in here the other day and we got to talkin’ about Founder’s Day.” Roy groaned as he surveyed the board trying to find a move where he wouldn’t lose anymore checkers. “He suggested havin’ a memorial for them miners that died in the Yellow Jacket cave-in last year.”

“He mentioned it to me the other day in passing. I have to say I agree with him. That was one of the worse tragedies we’ve had.” Ben smiled as he watched Roy move a checker, even though he lost one of his own.

“You’ll have to bring it up to the committee. Think they’ll go for it?”

Ben moved his checker and ended up on the other side of the board. “King me.”

“Dadburnit, Ben! You sure you ain’t cheatin’ like Little Joe does?”

Ben laughed at Roy’s grumbling. “As to the committee, I’ll make sure they go for it, one way or another.”

Roy moved one of his checkers then watched as Ben cleared the board. “Well, I’ll be,” he said as he shook his head. “How ‘bout a rematch?”

“Sorry, Roy, as much as I’d like to, I have to meet the boys at the Silver Dollar. Little Joe’s buying, and I can’t pass that up.”

“He’s buyin’? What’s got into him?”

“You got me, but he sure was in a good mood this morning.”

Nodding his head, Roy started putting the checker set away. “How ‘bout next week?” Roy asked.

“I’d love to but we have round up starting.” Ben stood and picked up his hat. “I’ll see you later, Roy.”

Just as Ben was headed for the door they heard the warning bells and shouting out on the street.

“What in tarnation?” Roy hurried to the door and out onto the porch. He could see the plume of smoke rising in the air and the pungent smell of smoke reached his nose. “Fire!”

Ben was right on his heels as the two men took off running down the street.

 

Chapter 4

Ben was right on Roy’s heels as they raced up the street. He skidded to a stop, graveled when he saw Cochise standing in the middle of the street prancing around shyly. Grabbing the horse’s reins, Ben quickly secured him to a nearby hitching rail. If Cochise was there, then Ben knew beyond a doubt that Joe would be in the middle of the action.

Little did he suspect how true his thoughts were.

Rounding the corner, Ben saw that the shop by an alley was on fire, and was being engulfed in flames. He could hear the timbers groan and knew they were ready to give at any moment. Turning away from the burning building, he heard the sound of hooves pounding down the street. Their horses had barely stopped when Adam and Hoss were out of the saddle running toward their father.

“Pa, what happened?” Hoss called out as he neared Ben.

“I don’t know; I just got here myself. Roy and I saw the smoke from his office and. . .” Just then a group of men came running out of the building and seconds later the roar from the inside of building crashing down filled the air. Ben scanned the area looking for a flash of a blue jacket, or a glimpse of familiar curls. He turned in every direction, but couldn’t find his youngest son. All he saw were the men on bucket detail and others across the street, engaged—no doubt—in obloquy about the origins of the fireBen shook his head in disgust and shouted, “You men! Stop that palaver and grab a bucket!”

Adam seized his father’s arm forcing him to turn, “Pa, I don’t want to cavil, but where is Joe?”

“Joe? Can either one of you see him?” Ben asked as icy fingers of fear made their way up his spine and dread settled in his stomach. He couldn’t see his son anywhere.

“I can’t see him, Pa,” Adam reported, still scanning the crowd.

“He’s nowhere to be found,” Hoss added.

“Burt, have you seen Joe?” Ben asked as one of the men passing buckets.

“He should be around here somewhere. He was in there before the alarm was given,” Burt answered as he passed buckets along the line. “I’m sure he was right behind me when I told everyone to get out.”

Ben turned and scanned the crowd, his heart slamming harder and harder in his chest as each second passed and there wasn’t any sign of his youngest son.

 

Chapter 5

A streaking light flashed across the heavens as two brothers lay on their backs in an open field watching the black, velvety night sky, which was radiant with sparkling diamonds. “What’s that, Adam?” asked six-year-old Joe.

“That, Little Joe, was a meteor.”

“A eater? Sounds like Hoss.”

Laughing, Adam turned to look at his brother, who lay with his hands cradling his head while he gazed at the night sky. He could see the look of awe shining as bright as the stars in his brother’s eyes. This was something that only the  two of them shared and he would miss their star gazing when he went back east to college. “Not an eater, a meteor. . .  A, um, shooting star.”

“Oh, well why didn’t ya say so in the first place.”

Adam turned back to stare at the sky. “I’m sorry, Little Joe; I should have so in the first place.”

“Gosh, Adam, ain’t it beautiful?” Joe’s voice was soft and filled with wonder.

“Yes, it’s superlative.”

“Huh?”

“It’s the best, it’s beautiful.”

“Geesh, Adam, ya ain’t even gone off to school yet and ya’s usin’ them big words,” complained Joe.

“Sorry, buddy, I’ll try and do better.”

Joe raised his hand and with his finger traced a group of stars. “Ain’t that the lion?”

“Is. . .” Adam stopped himself from correcting Joe’s grammar. They had so few days left; he didn’t want to ruin them with an argument about how his little brother said things. “You’re right; it’s the constellation of Leo, the lion.”

“I’m gonna miss this when ya’s gone,Adam,” Joe said sadly with a slight catch in his voice.

“So am I, Little Joe. So am I.”

 Joe could feel the heat as another beam crashed down around him. In his mind he could still see the white fiery tail of the meteor as it streaked by, then the glittering diamonds; he could hear the lion roaring. “It’s Leo, Adam,” Joe whispered, but there was no one to hear him.

 

Chapter 6

The men of Virginia City abandoned the shop where the fire had originally ignited and moved to the buildings on each side of it in hope of containing the inferno. Adam stared at the structure as if in a dream.  He kept waiting to see a young man with twinkling green eyes rushing from the building and laughing when he saw his brothers standing there.

“Whatcha  standing there for? Come on, I promised you two a beer.”

Adam shook himself out of his trance. Joe was in that building and he had to get to him—he had to get him out.

~~~~

The noise of the fire was deafening to Hoss. His heart and mind were in conflict; common sense told him no one, not even Little Joe, could still be alive in that inferno, but his heart told him he had to get in there to save his brother, his best friend. He ran all the possibilities through his head trying to come up with a solution, one where he felt he wouldn’t betray his brother.

Hoss glanced over at Adam and could see that his older brother was facing the same battle . . . The conflict between heart and mind.

Hoss knew Adam, unlike Joe, was a man of patience—of logic—he would think through what needed to be done and then, only then, would he act on it. That’s why Adam’s next move just about knocked Hoss off his feet. For some unexplainable reason, Adam dropped his gunbelt to the ground and ran into the shop.

~~~~

“Joe! Joe!” Adam yelled over the roar of the fire. “Joe, where are you?” Adam knew every passing second was precious but picked his way carefully through the falling debris keeping an eye on the spreading fire.

Suddenly, a large imposing hand grasped his shoulder and pulled him back towards the entrance. “Come on, Adam, we gotta get outta here!

Adam fought against the hold Hoss had on him. “Let me go! I have to find him . . . I have to save him!”

Hoss had to use everything thing he had to restrain Adam.  “Stop it, Adam! Joe’s . . . ” Hoss stopped, unable to get the words past the lump that had formed in his throat. Hoss swallowed hard and made himself face the truth. “He’s gone, Adam. Little Joe’s gone.”

Adam stopped struggling as the reality of Hoss’ words hit him, and he allowed his brother to pull him out of the building, away from the fire, and away from Joe.

 

Chapter 7

Gray was creeping into the periphery of Joe’s vision little by little. He heard rather than saw another oak beam crashing to the floor near him, and felt the bite of the multitude of fireflies as the sparks hit his face. Breathing was close to impossible; with each gasp the gray drew in closer and darkened.

“Joe! Joe!” From what seemed like an endless tunnel, he could hear a distant cry of what he thought was his name. He tried to respond, but nothing would come out.

Just as he started to give in to the gray that was now turning black, Joe felt the weight that had held him trapped in this hell lighten, and then vanished. Two big, burly hands grabbed him and pulled him from the ground. He felt himself being thrown over a shoulder, “Hoss?” he called out, but without air the words did not move past his lips and echoed only in his mind. The last thing he saw before the black claimed him was a doorway as he was whisked through it.

~~~~

Consciousness gradually pushed the black veil away as Joe finally became aware of the night sounds around him. Somewhere nearby he could hear an owl hooting and in the distance a wolf was calling out to its pack mates.

Joe’s chest felt like a metal band was wrapped around it, refusing to allow his lungs to expand. A violent cough wracked his body as he tried to take a deep breath, causing his hands to grab hold of the blanket covering him as he desperately struggled to breathe.

“Easy there, son,” a deep,  gritty voice soothed, and Joe felt his shoulders being lifted from the bed and something  placed behind him, propping him up to help open his airway. A mug was pressed against his lips, “Drink, it’ll help.”

Joe took a tentative sip and tried to pull away. The voice nearby chuckled at his reaction. “Ain’t the best tastin’ thang, but it’ll help, so drink it down.”

Joe hesitated, but the cup refused to leave his lips, and he finally gave in to the persistent voice. When he finished he was leaned back a bit more to allow his breathing to ease. He grimaced as his back came into contact with whatever was behind him.

“It’ll be a’right, son. Just try to breathe slow and easy like.”

Joe opened his eyes and saw. . . nothing. Panicking, he raised his hand to his face, only to have his wrist grabbed and restrained. “Ya don’t wanna do that. I hadda bandage ya eyes. They was awful bad, I cleaned ‘em out best I could. Theys just need ta rest a bit and should be as good as new. Them sparks also burned ya face a bit but nothin’ bad. I put some ointment on ‘em, shouldn’t be a mark once theys all healed up.” His hand was place next to his side with a gentle pat.

Joe’s heart was hammering away in his chest and his breathing came in fast, shallow gasps until the coughing overtook him once again. The man, who the disembodied voice belonged to, raised him up and began rubbing his back trying to calm and soothe him, allowing his breathing to slow and the attack to die away.

“Shush now, ya’s gonna be jest fine.”

Joe reached out a hand, searching for the man he knew was next to him. He was leaned back before his hand was engulfed in a strong, calloused one.

By the sound of the voice, Joe knew the man was not Hoss, but his hand felt just as big. “Who?” Joe tried to ask, but no sound would come.

The man smiled as he rubbed Joe’s ice cold hands between his. “I’m Maximilian, but most folk jest call me Max. I guess my ma liked them high highfalutin names.”

Joe nodded his head and tried to smile, but it was just a ghost of his normal, dazzling one.

“Ya’s cold young’un, let me put some more wood in that thare stove.” Max pulled the blanket up to Joe’s shoulders. “Ya rest now, ya need ya’s rest iffin’ ya’s gonna get better.”

Joe tried to fight the drowsiness that was engulfing him. He had so many questions that he wanted answers to, but his thoughts were becoming confused and slowly the questions faded away as sleep over took him.

Max smiled as he watched Joe finally surrender to the sedating effects of the tea. “Everythin’s gonna be jest fine.”

 

Chapter 8

It was over—the  fire was out. Ben, Adam, Hoss sifted through the charred wood, looking for their loved one, yet they didn’t have much hope in finding him; at least not alive.

They weren’t the only ones going through the building; Roy Coffee and his deputy Clem Foster were also there. The fire may be out, but there were questions that still needed to be answered. How did the fire begin? The shop had been closed while its owner was away at his son’s wedding. So how could it have started? There wasn’t a lamp left burning, no one smoking . . . They couldn’t even blame it on lightning; it had been a beautiful summer day. A beautiful day turned tragic.

The shop had been destroyed; other businesses had suffered minor damage, thanks to the fire brigade and the people of Virginia City. But that was secondary to the real tragedy that had taken place. Joe Cartwright was dead. The seventeen year old’s life had been snuffed out in a matter of minutes. No one would ever see that devastating smile; or the twinkle in his eyes again.

“Roy,” Clem called and held up an object in his hand.

“What do you have there?” Roy asked taking the broken bottle out of Clem’s hand.

“Smell it.”

Taking a sniff, Roy looked at Clem, his brow wrinkled in confusion. “Moonshine?”

“Yeah, and this was near it.” Clem held up the remains of a black piece of wood with what looked like parts of a neckerchief wrapped around it. “Also, looks like the fire burned the hottest here.”

“It was set on purpose,” Roy muttered.

“What?” Adam yelled. He had overheard the conversation that had been taking place between the two law men. “Are you saying my brother gave his life because some lunatic felt the need to set the town on fire?”

“It sure looks that way, Adam,” Roy said in a voice that was meant to calm Adam, but was having little effect.

“Adam!” Hoss yelled in a voice that was filled with despair.

Turning towards his brother, Adam saw Ben on his knees in the middle of the smoldering, charred timbers. His head was down, his shoulders were shaking and he was clutching something to his chest. Adam closed his eyes in dread, his fists clenched at his sides. He didn’t have to see what his father was holding, for he already knew. It was Joe’s jacket. In the short interval between helping his father and talking to Roy, Ben had found the one thing that would prove beyond a doubt that Joe had been here.

Adam slowly walked over to his father and placed a comforting hand on his shaking shoulders. “Pa . . .”

“He was here, Adam. Little Joe was here . . . And now he’s gone.” Ben shook off Adam’s hand and rose to his feet. Already looking years older than he did just a couple of hours ago when he was playing checkers with Roy; Ben stumbled from the building, Joe’s blue jacket held tightly against his heart.

Ben Cartwright was already pining for his lost son.

 

Chapter 9

“Adam,” Clem called from across the room, his voice filled with regret. When Adam turned Clem cleared his throat before delivering the devastating news. “We, um, we found. . .” Unable to continue the deputy lowered his head and looked away.

“What? You found what?” Adam asked, even though he knew what the answer was going to be, and braced himself for it.

“A body.”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other before crossing the room, heartbreak in each step they took. Looking down they saw a body on the floor that had been burned beyond recognition, from what they could see from the grizzly remains, it appeared to be of the same height and build as Joe, but that was the only thing to go on, that and the fact that Joe was the only one left in the building when it collapsed.

Hoss looked at Adam; his normally sparkling blue eyes were now clouded with unspoken grief. Without a word he took a tentative step away from his brothers. Hoss turned back to Adam and opened his mouth to speak, but no words would come forward.

“I know, Hoss, I know,” whispered Adam. He knew what his brother was feeling without him having to say a single word. He knew all right, because he was feeling the very same thing.

With a nod of his head, Hoss walked out of the building.

Outside the street was a frenzy of activity. People were running from structure to structure, trying to make sure there weren’t any new fires starting. Men were positioned around buildings, keeping guard to make sure that a stray spark wouldn’t ignite the nightmare all over again. Women bustled about with baskets over their arms, offering either food or basic medical attention. Young boys could be seen running up and down the street, like a hare that a fox was in hot pursuit of, delivering messages or taking care of odd jobs that needed to be done. But none of this mattered to Hoss Cartwright. His only concern was to find his father before someone else told him about the gruesome discovery.

At first, Hoss didn’t see Ben anywhere, until a group of people parted revealing the silver-haired man next to a stunning black and white pinto. Just seeing the horse without its rider made Hoss’ heart ache with sorrow. He stood waiting for his younger brother to come running down the street, laughing his fool head off at some prank he’d just pulled. Hoss longed to hear that laugh; a sound that was pure Joe and could make you laugh right along with him no matter what your mood was. But Hoss knew there wouldn’t be anymore pranks, no more mischief caused by a green-eyed imp. He would never be talked into any more hair-brained schemes. The laughter was gone—it  was gone forever.

Suddenly the big man’s legs grew week, no longer wanting to support him. Hoss stumbled into an alley, leaned back against the building and slid down to the ground. Pulling his knees towards his chest and resting his arms over them, he lowered his head and allowed the tears he’d been fighting to flow silently down his face.

“Why, Little Joe? Why couldn’t you just ride on by? Why couldn’t you be selfish for once in your life and think of yourself?” He wanted his brother back. To hell with Virginia City! It could burn to the ground, for all he cared, if only he could have Joe back.

“I failed you, boy. I wasn’t there to keep you safe: to pull you out of that mess. I’m suppose to protect you, and I didn’t.”

The big shoulders started to shake as grief overwhelmed him. Silent sobs wracked his body and tears streaked down his soot-covered face. His world, his family, had been torn asunder never to be whole again.

Chapter 10

Adam stood staring at the body on the floor long after Hoss had left the building. He could hear the noise all around him, words, snippets of conversation, but nothing registered in his consciousness.

It was set on purpose. Roy’s words from earlier kept echoing through Adam’s mind.

It was set on purpose. . . It was set on purpose.

Adam wheeled around to where the abstract voices were coming from. Roy and Clem were standing off to the side, deep in conversation. Adam’s eyebrows drew together in irritation. “What are you two doing?” he demanded. “Quit barking at knots and do something!”

Roy stopped in mid-sentence and looked at Adam with narrowed eyes. “Now you hold on just a minute there. Fer your information me an’ Clem are doing somethin’. This here’s hair in the butter, and we need to proceed carefully so as not to mess anythin’ up.”

“And just what are you doing?” Adam barked. “My brother is. . .” Adam stopped and looked away; he just couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that his youngest brother was gone. “dead,” he finished in a choked whisper.

Roy glanced at Clem who turned away, unable to face the other man’s grief. He closed his eyes for a second wishing with everything he had that it wasn’t Little Joe lying there on the floor. But on a day like today wishes were as scarce as hen’s teeth, but oh what he wouldn’t give to see a hen with teeth right now.

“Adam, I think the best thin’ for you to do right now is go find your father. He’s gonna need you more than anythin’ now.”

Clearing his throat, Adam nodded his head. “You’re right, Roy. Please, let me know if you find anything.”

“I will, son.” Roy watched Adam turn and walk stiffly out of the store. “I really hate my job at times,” grumbled Roy.

Clem kicked at a piece of wood and swore. “What I wouldn’t give to find Joe’s death nailed that to the counter. Joe shouldn’t have been in here, Roy.”

“Sheriff! Sheriff!” a boy called from as he came skidding to a stop just inside the doorway.

Turning, Roy and Clem looked at the young boy who was covered with dirt and soot. “What is it, Timmy?”

Another boy came barreling in, barely able to stop before colliding with Timmy. “Hobble your lip, Timmy, ya don’t know nuthin’.”

Yeah, I do, Aaron! I knows more than ya do.”

“Alright boys,” Roy broke in. “Timmy what’s this all about?”

“I seens a man in the alley, Sheriff, an he was acarrin’ somethin’.” Timmy looked around the room and pulled a kite at the pungent smell of smoke, and some other smell he couldn’t place, that hung in the air.

Roy’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “There are lots of people carryin’ things around, Timmy.”

“Yeah, but not a person!”

In astonishment Roy and Clem looked at each other.

“Ya don’t know that!” Aaron yelled.

“Yeah I do! I knows it as well as I knows ya’s standin’ next to me. “

Kneeling down to the boy’s level, Roy took hold of his shoulders to get his undivided attention. “Timmy, do you know who the man was carryin’?”

“I don’t know who the man was, never saw ‘im before, but he was a carryin’ Little Joe.”

“Ya don’t know that! You’s makin’ it up.” Aaron accused, then lowered his voice so only Timmy would hear. “You’s gonna get into trouble.”

“I’m not gonna get in trouble if’n I tell the truth. It was Little Joe, I knows it was!”

Trying to soothe the boy, Roy’s voice became soft and gentle. “Son, it couldn’t have been Little Joe. He was—He was killed in this here fire.”

Timmy shrugged off Roy’s hands. “NO! It was Little Joe, I knows it! Little Joe’s my friend. He always lets me help ‘im take care of Cochise when I’m at the livery an gives me a whole dollar each time. He don’t have to, I’d help ‘im anyhow.”

Roy looked up at Clem, who shrugged his shoulders in answer to the silent question.

“Where did you see this here man?” Roy asked.

Timmy pointed to towards the door in the back of the shop. “Back there, he came out just afore everythin’ collapsed. Never seen ‘im afore, but he had Little Joe swung over his shoulder, an Little Joe weren’t movin’.”

“Was Little Joe wearin’ his jacket?” asked Roy.

“No, Sir, he weren’t.”

“Thank you, Timmy. You go on now.” When Timmy turned to leave, Roy grabbed his arm and turned him back around. “Timmy, you are not to tell anyone what you saw or just told me. You understand?”

“Yes, Sir, I promise,” Timmy swore.

“That goes for you too, Aaron. You tell no one.” Ray glared at both boys, “Iffin I hear that either of you so much as say one little word about this you’ll be spendin’ the night in my jail.”

“No, Sir, I won’t tell no one.” Timmy promised once again with his eyes as wide as saucers.

“Me neither,” Aaron vowed before both boys scampered out of the room.

Getting to his feet, Roy looked over at the body that they had assumed was Little Joe.

“What do you think?”

“I think we need to take a closer look at that thar body.” Striding across the room, Roy knelt down in the ash and charred wood next to what had been presumed to be Joe’s body. Reaching out, Roy rolled the corpse over onto its back. Squinting his eyes as he scrutinized the body Roy shook his head. “I jest don’t know, Clem, but it jest don’t feel right. Somethin’s wrong here.” Roy stood up and looked around the room. “Jest don’t feel right.”

“I agree, Roy, there’s something wrong here, but I just can’t put my finger on it. What do you want to do, Roy? Should we tell the Cartwrights?”

“No, I don’t want to get Ben’s hopes up. It might turn out to be nothin’, and I won’t do that to him.” Roy nodded his head as he made his decision. “I’m goin’ over to the undertakers and send him for this here body. I want you to get the horses ready and some supplies. Then go get Barney to watch the office while we’re gone.

”Where we going, Roy?”

“To find that mystery man and have a right friendly chat with him.”

“I’ll meet you back at the office, Roy.”

Clem had almost made it out the door when Roy called him back. “And Clem, don’t forget to grab them velvet couches, I have a feelin’ were gonna need ‘em.”

Sighing at the prospect of sleeping on the hard ground, Clem nodded his head, “I won’t forget.”

 

Chapter 11

Consciousness slowly returned to Joe. A moan was torn from his throat when he tried to find a more comfortable spot on the bed and sharp waves of pain ripped through his body. Confused and disoriented, Joe struggled to open his eyes; when he finally succeeded he was once again met with a wall of darkness.

“Pa,” Joe croaked, his voice little more than a raw whisper.

“Easy there, son. Jest ya settle down now.” A big pair of hands gently pushed Joe’s shoulders back down as he struggled in a blind panic to sit up, to move away from the pain and darkness. “I bet ya could do with some water.”

Nodding his head Joe was rewarded with a glass of cool water being pressed against his lips. Joe drank his fill before pulling away. “Thanks.”

“How are ya feelin’, boy?” Max asked as he put his hand against Joe’s forehead, checking for a fever, and relieved to find the young man only slightly warm.

“Like I was in a fire,” Joe joked.

Max chuckled, “That ya were. Cain’t figure out why ya was there. Don’t ya have enough sense to get outta a burnin’ building?”

“Guess not. You woulda thought my pa taught me better.” A ghost of Joe’s normal dazzling smile flickered across his face. “Hey, Max—It is Max, right?”

“Shore is.”

“How about taking these bandages off my eyes?”

“Cain’t do that, son. Theys still need to heal.”

Joe turn up the wattage on his smile. With his eyes covered there was no way he could use the most effective weapon in his arsenal. . . his sad puppy dog eyes. The only thing he had left was his charm to try and butter Max up. He normally wasn’t afraid of the dark, but being in unfamiliar surroundings with a stranger, left Joe feeling vulnerable. “Ah, come on Max, I want to see the face of the hero who risked his own like to pull a stranger from a raging inferno.”

“Sweet talk will get ya nowhere, young’un.” The amusement could be heard in Max’s voice as Joe tried once again to cajole him into removing the bandages. “Ya jest rest quiet.”

Joe sank into the mattress and tried to remain silent, but the darkness was suffocating. “Please,” he begged over and over working himself into a frenzy. His breathing became ragged, pushing him into a coughing fit as he gasped for air.

“Easy, son. Shh, ya gotta calm down.” With care he lifted Joe into arms and cradled the young man. Careful of the burns on Joe’s back, Max massaged his neck trying to get Joe to relax. Once his breathing slowed and the coughing subsided, Max reached around Joe with his free hand and propped the pillows against the wall before he gently leaned Joe back against them. Pouring another glass of water Max helped Joe to drink it. “Now ya jest sit here and rest. I’m gonna get ya some broth. Ya need to get something’ into ya iffin’ ya want to get better.”

Joe could hear Max puttering around somewhere close by, then heavy footsteps approached the bed and the chair squeaked as Max sat down.

“Hear ya go.” Placing a mug into Joe’s hands, Max watched as Joe carefully drank the broth.

When he was done, Joe handed the mug back to his benefactor. “Thank you.”

Gently squeezing Joe’s shoulder, the big man smiled and walked away.

Sitting in a world of darkness, Joe’s memories started to leap from one disturbing image to another, each flickering scene more heartbreaking than the one before.

The fear when the wall before him was consumed by the fire raging around him. . . panic when he tried to leave the building and falling, only to become trapped. . . desperation as he struggled to get out from under the beam that held him pinned to the ground. . . and finally the hopelessness and devastation when he gave up and knew he would never see his family. . . never talk to his father again.

At that moment, as he started to drift off into another drug-induced sleep, Joe craved nothing more than to be held in his father’s strong, safe arms.

“Pa.”

A hand caressed his curls as his breathing evened out. “Ya just sleep, Simon.”

 

Chapter 12

The morning after the fire, the three oldest Cartwrights stood in the middle of the street with the rest of the town, looking at the devastation around them.  Three buildings had been completely destroyed and even more were badly damaged.

“So much destruction,” uttered Ben, his mind wandering to the damage that had been done not only to the town, but to his family as well. He had to clear the lump that had formed in his throat before continuing, “So much needless loss. Why?”

A gentle hand came to rest on his shoulder and Ben turned toward the man beside him.  “Ben, I’m so sorry. I just—just don’t know what to say” whispered Paul Martin. He didn’t need to ask his friend how he was doing; he could see that in the dull, grief stricken eyes of his friend.

Nodding his head, Ben acknowledged that he had heard the heartfelt sympathy that Paul offered.

“I just wish there was somethin’ I could be doin’ to help. I feel so. . . so useless standing here and doin’ nothin’,” muttered Hoss.

“Are they going to be able to rebuild, Paul?” Adam asked.

“Some will, others are less fortunate and can’t afford the cost of lumber alone. . .” Paul started to explain.

“Lumber?” Ben interrupted while his gaze wandered around the burnt out area, and a plan started to form. “We have lumber and plenty of it.”

“Still, Ben, the cost. . .”

“No cost,” interjected Ben. “I’m not going to charge one red cent for it.” Tears once again shimmered in his eyes. “Joseph gave his—his life trying to save this town, how could I not help to rebuild it? Adam, Hoss, what do you boys think?”

“I’m all for it, Pa,” Adam agreed.

“Little Joe would want us to do it, so I say we do it,” added Hoss.

“Good.” A glimmer a light flickered in Ben’s eyes now that he had something to do. “Let’s get going, we need to get up to the mill an the logging camp to see what we have so far.”

Ben and his two remaining son turned and walked away from Paul; they had a mission, and by golly they would get it done no matter what it took.

A small smile cross Paul’s face, he knew that this would only delay the grieving process, but maybe, just maybe, with the thought that they were doing something to honor Joe’s memory it would lessen some of the pain, at least for now.

****

Bringing his horse to a stop at the crossroads between the mill and the logging camp, Ben shifted in his saddle to face his sons. “Hoss, I want you to go on up to the camp, Adam and I’ll go over to the mill and see what’s already done. We’ll meet you up there as soon as we can.”

“Right, Pa” Hoss gave Chubb a gentle kick and took the fork heading towards the high country. He raised his hand as he rode away, “See ya later.”

****

The men were just coming down the mountain when Hoss made his way into camp.

“Hoss! What are ye doin’ up here, Lad?”  Seamus called out as he approached Hoss. Seamus, was foreman of the logging crew, and old trusted friend of the Cartwright, was a big, Irishman with fading red hair and a booming voice that could rival Bens.

“Hey, Seamus,” Hoss responded as he shook the foreman’s hand. “We have a new order that needs to be filled and it’s a priority.”

Seamus’ forehead crinkled in confusion. “But what about. . .”

“Everything has to wait.”  Hoss looked down for a brief moment before meeting the Irishman’s eyes again “There’s been a fire in Virginia City, and the folks there need lumber, lots of it, to rebuild.”

“A fire! How in blazes did a fire start?”

“Nobody knows, we jest know that it started in old man Kenford’s shop and burnt it to the ground. From there it spread to other buildings, destroyin’ some and damaging others.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“A few burns and scrapes here and there, and. . .” Hoss had to pause, it was still hard to accept that he would never see his brother again. “and one man was killed.”

Seamus saw the miserable look that crept over his boss’ face, and his heart leapt in his chest, fearing the answer. “Who, Hoss?”

“It were,” he took a deep breath trying to control his raging emotions. Not wanting the older man to see the tears that clouded the normally clear blue eyes, Hoss dropped his head and looked at the dirt under his boots. “Little Joe.”

Seamus stared at Hoss in horror. He had to have heard wrong. Joe was well loved at the logging camp, and he had watched the boy grow through the years. It was always a joy, when he was sent up there to work. Ben had thought of it as a punishment to send him up the mountain, and Joe never said otherwise. He kept up the appearance that it was the worst thing in the world and the men kept his secret, loving the energy and humor that Joe brought with him. The thought that the youngster would never be around again caused him overwhelming sorrow. “No, Hoss, not Little Joe.”

The only thing the Hoss could do was nod his head. He turned away from Seamus, grabbed Chubb’s reins and walked the big horse over to the coral and gave him a good rub down. “I hope someone took care of Cochise, Chubb. Don’t know what that horse is gonna do without Little Joe.” With a gentle slap Hoss sent the horse into the coral.

Seamus knew Hoss needed time to collect himself, and didn’t take offence when Hoss had turned his back on him and walked away.

Once his emotions were under control Hoss turned back to the man and cleared his throat, trying to get rid of the watermelon size lump that had taken up residence. “Pa an’ Adam will be up later. They wanted to check in at the mill first.”

“How ‘bout a cup of coffee and we can see about settin’ up some kind of schedule to get the most out of the men and get this done as soon as we can.”

“Sounds great, Seamus,” Hoss said, the wretchedness that he was feeling came out loud and clear.

“Bluster will have supper ready soon,” Seamus told him, referring to the old grizzly cook who earned his nickname years ago, due to all the hot air that would constantly blow through the camp.

****

An hour later they had a basic schedule for felling and transporting the trees to the mill.

“Looks good to me, when Adam gets here he can go over it and make any changes he wants to make,” Hoss said rising from the chair and stretching his back.

“Let’s go eat, Lad,” the foreman said as he slapped Hoss on the back and walked out of the cabin.

“I seen that someone’s livin’ in that old abandoned shack that’s west of here,” one of the men said as they sat around the fire eating dinner.

Hoss just picked at the food on his plate, his appetite gone and the way he felt he didn’t care if he ever ate again. Now I know how Little Joe feel when he’s upset and don’t wanna eat.

“Not that old lumberjack’s place?”

“Yep, that’s the one.”

“You suppose it’s old Max?”

Hoss looked at the men around him in confusion. “Who‘s Max?”

A few of the men chuckled. “He’s a legend around these parts,” Seamus explained.

“Why ain’t I heard of him?”

“It was a long time ago, Hoss. You were probably about seven or so when he was still worked out here. He was a giant of a man, even bigger than you, Hoss.” Seamus proceeded to tell the story of Max. “He worked for your da back then. He worked harder than most men. Max was a good sort to be around. Some of the stories he told would have us busting a gusset,” Seamus said smiling as he remembered the big man. “He didn’t stay here at the camp, though. Old Max had a wife and a wee babe, who was about one. This was a long time back, Hoss, about sixteen years now.”

“What happened to him?” Hoss asked.

“While he was working one day some renegade Indians killed his wife and son. The man was heartbroken. He lived for his family, they were everything to him. He just couldn’t go on living in that shack; it just brought back nothing but haunting memories. Then one day he told your da he was leavin’ and that’s the last we saw of him.”

“Exceptin’ once in a while someone swears that they’ve seen a big man up in the mountains. There’s so many stories about him. Folks say he could fell a tree with his bare hands,” one of the men added.

“Yeah, and some say he has a grizzly as a pet,” another piped in.

“Sounds like some pretty tall tales to me,” Hoss said before a gentle smile formed on his lips. “Tales worthy of the whoppers Little Joe use to tell.”

The men all laughed as they remembered the times when the boy would come up to the camp with his wild stories.

“He sure had some good ones,” Seamus agreed.

“I wonder if it’s really old Max?” pondered one of the men.

“Say, Seamus, what was his boy’s name?” Hoss asked out of curiosity.

“Simon.”

 

Chapter 13

Joe woke slowly, reluctant to leave behind the peaceful dream of a clear summer day. Where a soft breeze was whispering through the pines bringing with it their intoxicating scent, all the things that reminded him of home.  He was on Cochise and they were racing down the track that would lead them to the green field by the lake where they could run to their hearts content. He knew he’d have hell to pay if Pa saw him riding like this. . . Pa. . . Where’s Pa? Pulling Cochise to a stop, Joe scanned the field for his father.  Pa! Pa, where are you? Joe shouted in his dream. A sharp pain tore at his heart and Joe knew, he knew, it was caused by the agony his father was feeling. But why? What happened?

“PA!” Joe lurched forward on the small bed, panting as he tried to catch his breath. It was so real, the pain he felt, his father’s pain, his pain. Joe sat still trying to slow his breathing so he could concentrate. The dream and the medicated fog lifted from his brain allowing Joe to think clearly and remember where he was and why.

Oh, God. Pa, you must think I’m dead. Why didn’t I think of this before? Why didn’t I think of you before?

“Max?”

Silence was Joe’s only answer.

“Max!”

Still nothing.

Knowing that he was alone, Joe was determined to get the blasted bandages off his eyes. With gauze wrapped hands, Joe reached up, and after a bit of a struggle he was able to pull the bandages off. With that small victory won, Joe now had the chore of trying to open eyes that felt ridden with grit. He had barely cracked them open before he had to snap them shut again. The light seemed blinding after being in a world of darkness for so long.

“Well, what did you expect?” he grumbled.

Shading his eyes, Joe tried to open them again. Blinking a few times, he breathed a sigh of relief when his vision began to clear. Keeping his eyes protected against the light, Joe surveyed his surroundings.

At that moment the door to the cabin opened as Max walked in.

“What are you playing at?” he bellowed causing the younger man to shirk back against the wall, causing him to grimace in pain when his back came into contact with the hard wood behind him.

“Max?”

“I told you not to take them bandages off yer eyes! Cain’t you listen to anythin’, Boy?”

“I’m. . . I’m sorry, Max. But they’re better. I can see just fine other than the brightness, they’re as good as new.” Joe swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the lump of uneasiness that had suddenly formed in his throat.

The big man turned away from Joe and set the bucket of fresh water he had been carrying on the counter.

Tentatively, Joe straightened up, he had something to say and he needed to make the other man understand it. “Max. Max, I have to get home. My pa will be worried sick about me. He might—he might even think I’m dead.”

“You ain’t well enough to go nowhere.”

“But I have to. Pa has to know I’m okay,” Joe pleaded. “I have to go home. My brothers will be worried too.”

“What are you talking about, Boy? This is your home and I’m your pa, Simon.” He took a few menacing steps towards Joe, reaching out to him. “You must be runnin’ a fever.”

“No,” Joe whispered. Panic flowed through his body and he tried to scramble off the bed, only to have his knees buckle causing him to hit his back on the side of the bed as he collapsed to the floor, and screamed in agony as white hot pain seared through his body. As Joe’s world started to spin and go dark again, the last word he uttered was a plea for the one man he needed more than anything.

“Pa.”

Max shook his head while he stood looking down at the boy, before reaching down and lifting him from the floor to lay him back on the bed.

“I sure wish you wouldn’t have done that, I sure do.”

He strode across the room to where a large storage box stood in the corner. After rummaging through it, he found just what he was looking for.

If Joe would have been conscious, he would have been filled with terror when the rattle of chains echoed through the room.

****

“Pa. . .”

Ben jerked around, dropping the ax he was using to the ground in front of him. Scanning the woods around him he tried to pin-point where the call had come from. But other than his harsh breathing, the only other thing he could hear was the other men who were working throughout the woods.

“Joe,” he whispered. “Joseph!” Ben paused, listening for the answering call. “JOSEPH!!”

Hearing the desperate call echoing through the woods, Adam and Hoss looked first at each other, then towards the area they knew their father was working.

“Adam?”

“I heard, Hoss. Come on.”

The brothers rounded the trees and came into the clearing when they had last seen their father.

“Pa, you okay?”

“I’m fine, Hoss. Absolutely fine,” Ben said while he strapped on his gunbelt.

“Where are you going?” Adam asked, unsure of what to make of the change that had come over their father.

Ben looked up at his sons and smiled. “I’m going to find your brother.”

Silence hung in the air; neither Adam or Hoss knew what to say.

“Pa, Joe’s gone,” Adam said softly as he walked over to the older man and placed a loving hand on his shoulder.

Shrugging the hand off, Ben put his hat on before speaking, “He’s not gone. I know it here. . .” he said placing his hand over his heart. “A father knows these things. My boy’s alive and he needs me.” With that said Ben turned on his heels and walked away.

“What do we do, Adam?”

“Go with him. What else can we do?”

 

Chapter 14

Ben, Adam and Hoss rode all day in search of the missing member of their family. The brothers tried to reason with their father, to make him understand that nothing was going to come of this. But each time they tried Ben would give Buck a kick and ride ahead of them and ignore their words.

As much as he hated to say the words and see the devastated look on his father’s face, Adam knew he had no choice, he had to get through to Ben before it was too late.

“Pa.”

Ben didn’t even glance at his oldest son, he kept his eyes straight ahead and kept riding.

With a sigh of frustration, Adam gave Sport a kick and moved ahead of his father. Reaching out, Adam snagged a hold of Buck’s bridle and pulled the horse to a stop.

“Adam! What’s the meaning of this?” Ben thundered.

“Pa, stop and listen to me. I’m sorry, but it has to be said . . .”

“Nothing has to be said. We’ve said enough, now we have to find your brother.”

“PA!” Adam shouted. “Joe’s gone! He’s dead, Pa and no matter how hard you look; you’re not going to find him here. Joe’s . . . body’s in town waiting for us to make the arrangements to take him to Marie.” Adam swallowed hard to remove the lump, but before he could continue Hoss stepped in.

“Pa, you know I want that boy back as much as you do. Dadburnit, I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. But little brother’s gone and no matter how hard we ride or how far we go, we’re not gonna find him. Pa, he wouldn’t want you doing this to yourself. If he could see you now, he’d been eaten up by guilt knowin’ he was the cause of your agony. He’d want you to move on Pa, to be happy again.”

“Happy? How can I ever be happy with him gone forever—No he’s not gone, I know he’s not!”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other, unsure what to say since neither logic nor guilt were working.

“Hey, Pa, whatcha say we camp here for the night and get a fresh start. We’re all worn out, Pa.”

Ben looked at his middle son and could see the exhaustion on his face and when he turned to Adam he saw the same thing. “Okay, we’ll camp here and get an early start in the morning.”  Ben dismounted from Buck and walked the horse to an area where all three horses would be secured for the night.

Silently each took a job and their small camp was quickly organized. In short order coffee was brewing, and Hoss was cleaning the rabbits Adam had snared. Once dinner was finished the three men pulled out their bedrolls and against all odds fell into a deep slumber.

Somewhere in the middle of the night soft groans could be heard coming from Hoss. He thrashed around a bit in his bedroll as a dream over took him.

 

Flames shot high in the air causing Hoss to cover his face while he cautiously moved through the building. He paused and looked around the room in confusion. This wasn’t the shop on C Street. Where was he?

“Hoss . . .”

“Joe! Where are you little brother?” He looked frantically around the room but couldn’t see anything through the dense smoke. He took a cautious step towards where he thought he had heard his brother’s voice. As he walked the smoke started to thin in front of him, as he took step after step. A flash of gray could be seen up ahead.

“JOE!”

“Hoss,.”

The air suddenly became clear and he could see Little Joe in the middle of the floor, but there was a wall of flames licking its way towards his little brother. He had to hurry; he had to save his brother. Once he was close enough to see Joe clearly he sighed in relief. He knew he had to act fast, but for Hoss Cartwright, that wasn’t a problem.

When he was only feet away from his brother something white with a dark, waxy looking substance over it sprouted from the floor and blocked his way. It was almost as high as he was tall. He stepped closer, then he caught a whiff of it. “Cheese!”

“What kind, Hoss?” came a soft, breathy voice from the other side.

Hoss studied the cheese trying to answer his brothers question. “Lordy, I hate cheese,” he grumbled. Taking a sniff and looking at it he took a guess, “I think it’s asiago, Joe”

“Go round.”

Hoss turned away and started to the left when this white, moldy, green looking stuff blocked his way. “NOW WHAT?”

Stilton,Hoss, stilton cheese. Hurry Hoss, it’s hot.”

“Stilton, who the heck ever heard of it, let alone eat something that looks like that. Heck, I’d rather eat cow fodder.”

Hoss pushed off to the right this time going around both large pieces of cheese. Before he could this yellow, white stuff towered over him. It was becoming a cheese wall,

“Munster! What’s next, beaufort?”

The words were barely out of his mouth before this huge, round wheel of cheese was before him. It was bigger than any millstone he had ever hauled.

“Now what? How do I get to Joe?” Everywhere he looked there was cheese. 

“Joe, I can’t get to you. Joe, help me, how do I get to you?”

“JOE!!”

Buffalo, remember buffalo.”

“Oh, Lord, not another cheese. Please, not more cheese.” Frustration and panic was taking over. He had to get to Joe. His brother’s time was running out and he knew it.

“What in tarnation am I supposed to do, eat it? I hate cheese, Joe.”

“Buffalo . . . Rock.”

 

“Cheese! Joe! Cheese! Oh, God, JOE!!!” Hoss screamed as he bolted upright off his bedroll.

Ben was the first to Hoss’ side. “Easy, Son. It was just a dream.”

“Why were you yelling about cheese and Joe?” Ever practical, Adam was the one to bring up the obvious.

“My dream, Joe was surround by all this cheese and I couldn’t get to him, and there was a wall of fire behind him.” Hoss put his face in his hands trying to think. His brother’s voice was so clear, so real.

“Buffalo . . . Rock.”

“Buffalo Rock—Buffalo Rock . . .” Suddenly Hoss pushed the blanket off of him and stood to his feet. “Buffalo Rook, Joe’s at Buffalo Rock.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, not you too. Come on, Hoss, it was a dream, well maybe a nightmare with all that cheese, but just the same it was your imagination,” reasoned Adam.

“No, Adam, it was more. I can’t explain it, but it was more. Joe needs help. I think in the morning we should head for Buffalo Rock.”

“Isn’t that where this Max is supposed to live?” Ben asked.

The three men looked at each other and an icy chill ran down their spines.

 

Chapter 15

Joe groaned when he adjusted his position on the bed and his healing flesh stretched across his back. His eyes flew open once he felt something heavy on his ankle and heard the sound of metal against metal.

“What the hell!” Joe exploded as soon as he saw the manacle on his ankle. Any thoughts of discomfort or pain were pushed to the back of his mind.

Following the path of the iron links, Joe saw where the other end was attached to the foot of the bed.

“MAX!”

The cabin remained silent.

“Doggone it, Max, you get in here and let me go!” Joe bellowed.

Still only silence prevailed.

His heart began to race as panic, rage, and desperation assaulted Joe. He realized there was enough slack in the chain to allow him a minimal amount of freedom. Remembering what happened the last time when he had rushed to get out of bed, Joe pushed himself into a sitting position, and against ever natural instinct to flee, he forced himself to take it slow; it wouldn’t help if he passed out again.

While he waited for his equilibrium to return to normal, Joe took in his surrounding for the first time now that he had complete use of his eyes. He was in a large room, a stone fireplace almost engulfed one wall, it was nowhere as spectacular as the one at home but then again he had yet to encounter one that was. Arranged in front of the fireplace was an old overstuffed couch and chair, both seemed to be well worn by a family who would gather there nightly to enjoy each other’s company.  A little closer stood a rocking chair with faded blue cushions that were sprinkle with small pink flowers; something a woman would enjoy sitting in as she spent her evenings sewing, or even rocking a small child. The room as a whole reminded Joe of his family and made the young man more determined to escape. Next to the fireplace was a door that Joe assumed led to a bedroom; he could only assume that the room belonged to Max and his wife, whereas the bed he was chained to was where the mysterious Simon slept. Opposite was the kitchen area, a battered old table stood across from the sink and a little further over stood the stove. Scattered throughout the room where various pictures depicting freight being hauled by different sources, which included the typical freight wagons, stage coaches, pack mules, ships, steamers, trains and even camels. Joe was puzzled by this. Why so many pictures illustrating how cargo was transported around the world. From stories he had heard long ago, he had assumed Max was the old lumberjack whose wife and child were killed years ago. Who was this man and why did he believe Joe was his son?

Across the room from where Joe’s bed sat were a window and door. That was his goal—somehow, some way he was determined to get to that door and out. He had to get home; he had to get to his father.

Once he was on his feet, Joe tested the chain to see just how far he could move. It had just enough length to allow him to make it to the table so he could sit and eat his meals, but he was determined that he would not eat one more meal in the cabin that had now become his prison.

Now that knew his limits, Joe turned back to the bed and grabbed hold of the chain.

“Maybe if I can get the bed moved I can somehow get the chain off it.” With the single-minded stubbornness that he was famous for, Joe braced his feet and started to pull. If he could move it enough to get behind it maybe he could use the wall as leverage and lift the bed enough to pull the chain off it.

“Come on . . .”

He pulled hard, refusing to give up.

“Come on, move!”

All of a sudden he heard a scrapping sound and stumbled back in amazement. The bed had moved, not much, but it did move. That little bit of movement encouraged the young man to try harder. Ignoring the pain and discomfort in his back, he pushed on dead-set on gaining his freedom.

“Damn you, Boy! Do I have to chain you up completely until you learn your lesson?” roared Max from the doorway.

Ignoring him Joe kept pulling at the chain, determined to get out of there and home, his home, the Ponderosa.

Angry at being ignored, Max marched over to the bed intent on pushing it back against the wall, for Joe had been able to move it even more.

“What do you intend on doing, Simon, dragging this here bed out the door?” demanded Max, standing toe to toe with Joe.

Joe looked at the man before him and the legendary Joe Cartwright temper took over. Breathing hard, nostrils flaring, and chin jutted out. All common sense flew out the window, and before he realized what he was doing, Joe spat into Max’s face.

“Go to hell!”

Slowly Max wiped the spit from his face while he glared at the young man before him.

“If it’s the last thing I do, Simon, you will learn to respect me as your father,” he said in a deadly quiet voice just before he back-handed Joe across the face and knocking him to the floor.

Refusing to show any fear, Joe pulled himself off the floor and squared his shoulders.

“My—name is—JOE CARTWRIGHT!” he said as if speaking to a half-wit. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you are NOT my father. I have one father and only one father, and his name is Ben Cartwright!” Joe said in an icy cold voice, then rubbing salt into the wound he continued, “I don’t know what happened to your real son, Simon, but my guess would be that he ran off in order to get away from your sick, depraved mind.”

Before Joe could react, a flying fist propelled him back several feet before he hit the floor unconscious.

 

Chapter 16

The three older Cartwrights pushed their way up the treacherous trail; there were times they had to actually leave the track and zig-zag through the footpaths among the trees in order to get around spots where landslides obliterated the path, but each step of the horses brought them that much closer to their missing loved one.

In the lead, Hoss held up his hand and pulled Chubb to a halt. Shifting in his saddle in order to see his father and brother, he pointed to a rock formation that was ahead of them. A small rounded configuration with a narrow, pointed ridge jutting out from the sides before it dipped down then sloped back up to what appeared to be a hump. From a distance the arrangement could be construed as the shape of a buffalo.

“There it is, Joe hasta be close otherwise he wouldn’t have said it.”

Adam rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it. He couldn’t fight both his father and brother; he just hoped they weren’t hurt too badly when they didn’t find anything.

Now that Buffalo Rock was in sight both Ben and Hoss felt the need to hurry, but they had to consider the safety of their horses, not to mention themselves.

When the cabin was in sight, Hoss stopped and waited for his father and brother to come up alongside him.

“I think we should go on foot from here.

“I agree,” Ben said as he slid from the saddle.

Keeping to the trees, the three men crept closer to the cabin. They could see a horse in a small corral close to the dwelling, which told them there was at least one occupant. They froze in their tracks when a thunderous voice broke the silence of the cabin.

“DAMN IT! I told you I am NOT Simon! My name is JOE CARTWRIGHT, and you are NOT my father and you never will be! BEN CARTWRIGHT is my father! I have two brothers, Adam and Hoss, they’re my family, NOT YOU! Now unchain me or so help me I’ll make life miserable for you, and I can do it too!”

Hoss turned to Ben and Adam, a toothsome smile lighting up his face. “That’s little brother alright.”

“Yes, and it sounds like he’s mad as hell,” added Adam. “Remind me to never ignore your gut feelings ever again.”

“He’s chained.” Ben’s whisper showed the anguish he was feeling regarding his youngest son’s captivity.

The smile instantly vanished from Hoss’ face as black clouds of rage washed over it. “Not for long.”

Surveying the area around the cabin, Adam realized that they had an advantage of surprise.

“Pa, I think if we dissipated we’d have a better chance of not being heard.”

“Dis-a-what?” Hoss asked looking thoroughly confused.

“Scatter.”

“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” Hoss grumbled.

Adam shook his head in defeat before pointing out the direction each should take.

****

“I mean it, Max, you let me go now!”

Shaking his head, Max turned away from the boy standing next to the kitchen table and headed for the door.

Shaking with rage, Joe lost complete control of his temper. Grabbing the coffee cup from the table, he hurled it with deadly accuracy at larger man’s back. When he turned, Max was barely able to block the plate that followed.

“Simon, you’re tryin’ my patience.”

“DAMN IT! I told you I am NOT Simon! My name is JOE CARTWRIGHT, and you are NOT my father and you never will be! BEN CARTWRIGHT is my father! I have two brothers, Adam and Hoss, they’re my family, NOT YOU! Now unchain me or so help me I’ll make life miserable for you, and I can do it too!”

Max went after Joe; even though he was chained, Joe had enough slack to dodge away from the angry mountain man. He was substantially smaller, but he had age and agility on his side. The older man stumbled forward when his punch missed its target.

Joe realized that even though he was at a disadvantage being chained, he also had an advantage because of it.

When Max came after him again, Joe feinted to his left pulling the chain tight and up. Max switched direction, but didn’t realize the trap that was being set as the younger man took a few more steps, essentially circling around behind his attacker. When Max turned, his foot caught on the chain and as he was trying to regain his balance Joe saw his chance and sent a left hook flying into his face, sending Max crashing to the floor. When he fell, the older man tried to catch hold of a wooden chair to stop his decent, but only managed to break it into pieces.

With a roar of rage, Max pulled himself to his feet. Joe tried to side-step the next blow, but it caught him on the cheek and sent him sprawling to the floor. Realizing this was now a matter of life or death, Joe scrambled to his feet, lowering his head, he charged the man in front of him, slamming him in the mid-section.

Max staggered back and fell to the floor just as the door crashed open. He didn’t move a muscle, just laid there staring up at the ceiling while blood pooled around his impaled body.

Bent over with his hands on his knees, Joe didn’t take his eyes off of the older man lying on the floor with part of the broken chair protruding grotesquely from his chest.

“Joseph.”

Pulling his eyes away from the grizzly sight before him, Joe raised his head and looked towards where the voice had come from. A smile lit his face when he realized his family was standing in the doorway.

“’bout . . . time,” he panted before collapsing to his knees.

Feeling his father’s presence next to him Joe turned his head and smiled. “Hi, Pa.”

“Hi, yourself.” Ben said as he slid his arm around the boy’s shoulders and pulled him close; craving the physical contact that told him his youngest son was alive.

Leaning into the warmth of his father’s arms, Joe closed his eyes and reveled in the safety and comfort he felt there.

“Joe . . .” A ghost of a whisper floated through the air causing the young man to raise his head and look towards the man lying on the floor. He pulled away from his father’s embrace and pushed himself to his feet and made his way to the dying man on unsteady legs. When he reached Max’s side his brothers helped him lower himself to the floor.

Max turned his head to look at the youth next to him.

“Joe, I’m s—sorry. The fire, it was to . . . to bring you to me.”

“Why, Max? Why did you do it?”

“Simon . . . I—I tried, just couldn’t face he was gone,” Max paused, fighting off the pain that was consuming his body. “I couldn’t save him or my—my Gladys. I seen you in town, reminded me of my Simon.” The mortally wounded man took a ragged breath before continuing. He knew he didn’t have much time left, but he needed to explain his actions to the young man he had hurt and held captive.

“I had—had it all planned. You comin’ to town—knew you’d help.”

“Who was the man that was found in the fire?” Ben asked.

“Don’t know.” Pain wrenching coughs assaulted the man and blood tricked from the corner of his mouth. “Found him here in the mountains. Wanted you to thi—think Joe dead. He could then . . . be my son.” Max moaned and squeezed his eyes shut as talons of pain clawed at his body. When he opened them again, Joe could see the man’s life rapidly fading away.

“So sorry . . . Joe.” With a final shuddering breath, the old lumberjack left this world.

Joe bowed his head; a myriad of emotions cascaded through his heart. The youngest Cartwright didn’t know what he should be feeling; anger at what this man put him and his family through, pity for what became of him or compassion for the devastation he had suffered. When he felt a strong, loving hand place on his shoulder he looked up at his father with tears shimmering in his confused, green eyes.

“Pa . . .”

By instinct and years of experience raising this son, Ben knew what the boy was feeling. It was there on his face for all the world to see.

“There’s no right or wrong way to feel, Joe. Max wasn’t in his right mind when he set the fire and took you. Grief will do that to some people; it can be so devastating that they can’t face reality, and end up looking for a way not to.”

“But you didn’t, Pa, and you went through so much more pain and grief than he did in your life,” Joe said as he struggled to understand.

“True, but I had something that Max didn’t.”

Ben smiled tenderly and placed a gentle, soothing hand on his son’s cheek.  “I had you and your brothers and I was never alone, I always had someone there that I knew loved me and that I loved in return. Even when I thought—I thought you were lost to me for forever, I had Adam and Hoss to help me through; just as they had me and each other.”

Ben looked at the dead man lying on the floor. “Max didn’t have anyone. He suffered a world of pain and loss, but he didn’t have any support, no one to lean on, to love. He had lost everything. Don’t get me wrong, Son, I don’t condone what he did; there is no excuse for it. I just want you to realize that what you’re feeling right now is completely understandable.”

Ben looked over his shoulder at his two older sons before turning back to Joe. “I want you to remember that you have us to help you through this. We’re here whenever you want to talk or simply need someone to lean on.”

“Any time you need me, Little Brother, I’m always here for you,” confirmed Adam.

“Yeah, Shortshanks, you need me all you gotta do is holler.”

Joe gave his family a watery smile, unable to get any words past the lump that had formed in his throat; but he didn’t need words to convey what he felt, they already knew.

“Now, are you ready to go home?”

Swallowing hard, the young man looked at his family and nodded. “More than ready.”

Ben helped the boy from the floor and over to the cot. He frowned when he heard the chains rattle. “Hoss . . .”

“Right here, Pa.” Hoss handed his father the key he had already dug out of Max’s pocket.

Gratefully, Ben accepted the key and quickly moved the shackle from Joe’s ankle. Before he could even look around the room, Hoss was there again handing him Joe’s clothes and boots.

“Thanks, Son.”

With his hands still wrapped in bandages Joe needed Ben’s help to dress. He stood and his father helped him pull on his pants and button them. Joe blushed, embarrassed that he couldn’t do for himself. “I feel like I’m four-years-old again.”

Chuckling Ben brought Joe’s shirt around his shoulders and gasped at the angry burns he saw there. “Does it hurt much, Joseph?”

“It’s still pretty tender, but nothing like it was.”

“As soon as we get home we’ll have Dr. Martin come out and have a look at you.”

Shaking his head, Joe balked at the idea. “I’m fine, Pa, there’s no need to waste Doc’s time.”

“Trust me, Son, when he hears that you’re alive, there won’t be any keeping him away from you.”

“Give it up, Joe; you know it’s a losing battle.” Adam grinned before he and Hoss started the grim task of removing Max’s body from the cabin.

Earlier Adam had spotted where Max’s wife and son had been buried. After locating a couple shovels in a small shed by the corral; they dug another grave to lay Max to rest with his family.

Before leaving the Cartwrights stood over the grave while Ben said a few words.

“. . . and may the Lord have mercy on your soul. Amen.”

Ben helped Joe onto Max’s horse and without looking back Ben Cartwright led his now fully intact family home.

 

After sixteen months . . . The End!

2 thoughts on “The Fire (by frasrgrl)”

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