Weren’t quite so constant when I first come out here, but there was work for the likes of me all the same. That was a long time ago. ’d come from the east along the California Trail intending to make for Sacramento, but once I hit the Sierras, I kinda lost interest in moving on. Them trails were a hard life, and plenty that took ‘em at the start never did see the other end of ‘em for one reason or another. Lots of those folks died or went back where they comed from.
Cattle ranching was just coming on in the west back then. The mines were coming into their own too, but working in a hole never was anything I could want, even with all that money to be had. I started here as a cowboy and I been the same with one outfit or another all the 40 years since, and I still work along, though I’m not quite so spry any more.
When I first come out here, I worked a place called “Ponderosa” in the Carson Valley. It was a big spread and they hired on cowhands the likes of me and treated us all fair and square, so long as you did your job. Them that owned that place was the Cartwrights. The old man came out west quite some years before me, and before just about everyone else too. Mr. Ben Cartwright and his two little ‘uns be the only ones in that wilderness for a long time. That was when Nevada weren’t a state and was still part of New Mexico. Those were changeable times with all that squabbling and manoeuvring politicians like to do. You didn’t have to take a step before you’d find yourself standing first in New Mexico, then Utah Territory and then Nevada. Anyhow, Ben Cartwright brought his sons with him, bought up his place, and built up one of the richest spreads on some of the best land in the territory.
I never did set eyes on the sons until they were grown men or close to it, but I remember them well enough. There was three of ‘em when it was all said and done. The oldest son and the old man were hand-in glove on running things, you might say. I was closest in age to the youngest, but I am reminded of that middle boy the best because he was a real hand with animals, and I stuck to him thinking he could learn me the most. He could be cowboy one minute, farrier the next, and doctoring whatever critters come along, whether they were ranch-bred or wild; he could track man or beast through any kind of land. Some people is just like that and can do anything they set their minds to. After a while, I found out I was pretty much just an ordinary cowboy, but I stayed close to that middle son all the same ‘cause of the three, he had the easiest way about him.
I told you what a concern cattle was for folks here. It was a real source of wealth for folks like the Cartwrights, just like gold and silver were for other folks. Where there is a source of wealth, you can pretty much guarantee there’ll be someone around who’s just greedy and low enough to try and steal it rather than earn their own way. One of the things you learn the quickest out here is that there’s a code in the west concerning horses and cattle, and it don’t always have a lot to do with courts and judges and lawyering and the like. You can sum it up real quick and simple too: you don’t take what ain’t yours and if you do take what ain’t yours you risk being caught and discovering the terrible consequences. There was very little regard for rustlers, and they pretty much got strung up where they was caught. That was a lot less courtesy than what was given to more respectable criminals, such as your murderers and your regular bank-robbing type of thieves. But even in these kinds of matters, things don’t always work out in just the way you think they’re goin’ to. I mind this story, when I worked out Ponderosa way…”
“Pa, as far as we can tell, we’ve lost about 50 from the north herd all told,” the son reported. “Garrod Lindsay and Thomas McCleary rode out from their places to meet me; they’ve lost a lot too. I tell ya, Pa, when these boys are caught, there’s gonna be trouble. Garrod was shaking he was so angry.”
“Rustling happens all the time. It’s a part of ranching that’s never going to go away. Between one thing and another, we’ve had cattle go off in bigger numbers than we’ve lost this time around. But it’s the smaller ranchers, like Garrod Lindsay, that are going to suffer through this and I can’t blame them for being angry. Those thieves have been taking a little bit from all directions over a period of time, probably thinking they’ll be inconspicuous. Problem for the thieves is that when you’re stealing slow and steady like that, you gotta have some place to put them ‘til you’ve got enough and you’re ready to move out. They’ve got too many now to hide ‘em for any great length of time. They’ll have to drive ‘em out soon.” Ben removed his watch from his vest pocket and glanced down at it. “Did you see Hoss on the way in?”
Adam smiled, “Yup, and he had his shadow with him.”
Ben laughed and looked out across the landscape again. “That boy has found his mentor in Hoss. Although I’m not entirely sure that Hoss appreciates tripping over the lad the way he’s had to! Let’s go.” Both men turned their horses and rode toward the house.
People are often over-quick to judge another person by what is on the outside. Hoss Cartwright’s sheer size won him some friends and gained him some enemies. Fair-weather friends admired his physical strength and occasionally used it to their own advantages. It was not uncommon for Hoss to find himself helping with heavy loads or bailing these friends out in their petty squabbles. His position as a Cartwright fuelled their affections, for who would not want the friendship of a man whose protection was easily tapped through his good nature, and who had the additional quality of family wealth and position? The gaze of his enemies, on the other hand, was tinted green; they saw the same things in this man that the friends saw, and hated him for having them.
Hoss’s closest friends and his family recognised that there was a bigness to him that went beyond his physical size. He was as capable and had all the same capacities as his brothers and his father, and this placed them in accord with one another, but it was their separate emphasis on one thing over another that made each a little bit different from the others. His approach to life was much more intuitive than his father’s or his oldest brother’s, but more sedate and reflective than his younger brother’s. Like all of the Cartwrights, he had a deep sense of right and wrong, and strong faith. He was compassionate, loving and gentle, but in all truth, he also enjoyed a good fistfight or wrestling match. Hoss took pleasure in the company of other people, but was less disturbed, confounded and perplexed by the natural world. He would often read the headlines of the Territorial Enterprise in astonishment that men and women could treat each other so badly, but then he would turn his mind over to what mattered to him the most: the land and his family.
Like his father, Hoss also gazed out across the Ponderosa on this day and quietly considered the circumstances he and his family now found themselves dealing with. A young man, not much more than a boy, was beside him. He was a little younger than Hoss’s brother Joe, and if asked, Hoss would have noted that this boy had the additional quality of being a good deal quieter. “Well, it’s the darndest thing,” Hoss said. “I cain’t make head nor tail of it. I know Pa’s thinking on this. He’s convinced they’re hidin’ out and the Ponderosa being so big and spread out, there’s challenge enough in keepin’ an eye on all its corners, never mind helpin’ to watch out for the sake of our neighbours. I have to get down to stretch.” Hoss dismounted and walked a few steps while he ran his hand along his horse’s flank. He crouched down and sifted sandy soil between his fingers and then stood and looked up into the sun. “Nope,” he said. “I just cain’t figure on how they’ve managed to get clean away. I’ve tracked and I’ve trailed, and everything comes up a dead-ender. But we’ll get ‘em soon enough.”
“You reckon they’re from hereabouts, Mr. Hoss?” asked the young man.
“I reckon that if they are, they’re not going to be from hereabouts for too much longer. If they want to get away, they’re gonna have to move on soon,” said Hoss. He climbed back up onto his horse. “Lets git along then, Jack. We’ve some distance to ride before either of us sees dinner or a warm blanket.”
As they rode back to the ranch house, Hoss thought over the young man’s question. Were they locals, and who would be so desperate that they would steal from their neighbours? It had happened in the past. The west could be a hard place to live, and circumstances could make or break men quickly. As an early arrival to the territory, his father had chosen land wisely and with little competition. The Ponderosa had water and it had graze and forage. Other ranchers were raising cattle on land that was much less ideal, and they struggled. On the other hand, outsiders might be easily tempted. As strangers they could blend into a town the size of Virginia City, and if they were spending their time on the range, then they could hide themselves or lose anyone looking for them with little effort.
Hoss was no farther along to a solution when he reached the house than he was when he and his companion had ridden across the range. He tied his horse up, walked to the door and squeezed the latch open. As he opened the door and stepped into the great room, he could feel the warmth cast from the fireplace and the stove. His hands and his face tingled with the change in temperature. The sight of that fireplace was always one of the most welcoming things on the Ponderosa to Hoss. From the time that he was a little boy, it meant comfort and security. Hoss’s brothers sat one on each side of it. His father stood at the front of the hearth poking at the logs, pushing the embers down and making an open space to feed more wood to the flame.
“You fellers are lookin’ mighty comfortable, like you been settin’ there a spell. Did you git out to do anything today, or am I the only Cartwright earnin’ his keep?” Hoss grinned as he shrugged out of his jacket and hung it and his hat on the pegs by the door.
“Hoss!” laughed Ben, “I was beginning to wonder where you’d got to. What took you so long comin’ back in?” Ben laid the poker in its stand by the hearth. “We were just discussing our disappearing cattle problem. Joseph, get your feet off the table!”
Joe Cartwright quickly touched his feet to the floor. Adam and Hoss could not help but notice the cheeky grin and slight blush on Joe’s face. They had long since become accustomed to the idea that any conversation that included Ben and their younger brother was likely to be peppered with the occasional “Joseph!” followed by whatever reprimand Joe had earned. Even as a young adult, Joe was mischievous and Adam was convinced that his antics were often an intentional attempt to stir things up a bit, rather than accidental misdeeds.
“And are the three of you any closer to a solution than you were when you first cozied up to that fire?” Hoss sat down with his family.
“Well, we didn’t manage to figure anything out,” said Adam, “but we have had some visitors who are just as anxious as we are to clear this little problem up. Some of the other ranchers, including the Lindsays and the McClearys, have had as much of this as they’re willing to take, and they’re planning on organizing a search to track the cattle rustlers down.”
“We have been trying to track ‘em, but anytime we’ve come across a trail that we think ain’t one of ours, we’ve lost the dad burned thing. They only take a few beef at a time, drive ‘em through scrub, double back, sometimes more than once, and then brush parts of their trails. There’s no rhyme or reason to the direction they seem to head off into either, ‘cause its different just ‘bout every time.” Hoss looked around at his father and his brothers. What are these boys figurin’ on doing to catch up with the rustlers?”
“For one thing,” smiled Joe, “they want the best tracker in Nevada to join them!”
“Well, Little Joe, if I run into him I’ll let him know. What else?” Hoss sat down on the settee and stretched out his legs.
“They want a commitment from us for men and horses” Ben said. I’m inclined to give them both, plus the best tracker in Nevada!”
“Pa, gettin’ everyone together for the job may be the best way of goin’ about it, but we’ve got a lot of land to cover and there’s no tellin’ where to start.” Hoss stretched his legs out a little farther towards the fire.
Adam got up and stood above a map lying on the table in front of the fireplace. “Well there may be some tellin’ where to start.” Hoss leaned forward to see as Adam crouched down and ran his finger along the map line that delineated the Ponderosa’s northern boundary. “Garrod thinks they may very well have come close to running into the rustlers a couple of nights ago,” said Adam. “There’s two small spreads that meet our boundary in the northwest: Garrod’s and Thomas McCleary’s. They started posting night guards on their property lines. We haven’t got much cattle up there now, except for what has spread out and strayed. Once you get off the downside of the rim and start moving northeast, the land gets quite a bit more rugged. There’s no real graze up there, but there’s enough forage to hold them for short periods of time.”
“Then I reckon we can start right about where your finger is, Adam.” Hoss leaned back against the settee for what was to be the last peaceful evening he was to experience for some time to come.
Those first few days didn’t go on too well. That land up where we was is a bit less hospitable than what you get closer to the Tahoe. It was hot and windy. That’s not good for finding and keeping to a set of tracks. The wind fills in the steps and the heat dries out the dung real quick so as you can’t easily guess how long has passed since either was left behind. But as soon as we picked up their trail, we were doggin’ them thieves the whole time, and they soon came to realize that. Pretty soon they wasn’t stealin’ anymore, they was on the run only they were also greedy and didn’t want to give up their herd. Mr. Hoss said that was what made them vulnerable. I weren’t too sure what ‘vulnerable’ meant but it didn’t sound good for the rustlers.
The company we was keepin’ wasn’t real comfortable. Men get real edgy-like when they’re onto their quarry and they can all but taste it. Now that I think on it, those last days didn’t go on too well either.
Hoss dismounted and looked at the ground in front of him. They had spent the first day sorting out which tracks belonged to ranchers and ranch hands, which tracks probably belonged to the rustlers and how long it had been since the tracks had been laid down, and which direction the posse should be heading off in. These were not easy tasks and the weather conditions had not contributed to making it any easier. On the third day, the wind had died and the temperatures were cooler. The tracks were talking to Hoss in ways they hadn’t since this whole thing began. These tracks told Hoss that the men they were chasing weren’t as focused on hiding as they were before. There were no broken spots where the trail had been rubbed out, and no trails leading in circles. “These are running-away tracks,” thought Hoss.
“Well,” said Garrod. “What do you think?” Garrod Lindsay had long since stopped hopping down off his horse every time Hoss did. He had also stopped trying to second-guess Hoss’s interpretation of the trail. He had always heard that this man was better than most at finding and sticking to a set of good tracks, and now he knew it for certain. He waited patiently while Hoss looked around.
“Still the same. Three horses and about five beeves.” said Hoss. “They figure they’ve earned their gold collectin’ and drivin’ them cattle, and they mean to make good on ‘em. The five they have with them now is just a small part of what they’ve managed to get away with so far; they’ve gotta be sittin’ tight in the vicinity. The land is good enough to support the cattle for the time they’re going to be here, but rough enough to hide in. It’s almost like they know the area well enough to have figured on all of that.”
“Well Hoss, I kinda get the feelin’ you think these rustlers are local boys,” said John Patrick. “You’re not gonna suggest that one of our good neighbours is a thief, are you? That’s a strong accusation, Hoss.” Patrick was an acquaintance of Ben Cartwright’s, and Hoss had never spent much time with him outside of Ben’s company. Hoss knew that his father had conducted some business with this man, but there had never been any more than commerce between the Patrick family and the Cartwrights.In keeping with his nature, Hoss put his own indifference to John Patrick down to a lack of common interests, and assumed that this often-sullen rancher was as good and well-meaning as most other folks.
John Patrick had not had much to say on this trip, and the tone of his voice as he spoke now was unpleasant. Hoss looked over at him in surprise. “I ain’t accusin’ anyone of anything, Mr. Patrick, but I ain’t seen or heard of cattle being grazed or driven through here that don’t appear to belong to one outfit or another. All them stolen steer can’t have just disappeared into thin air. These boys we’re chasin’ have got five head with them and they know we’re after them, and they appear to be sure of where they’re heading.” Hoss got back up onto his horse. This wasn’t the first time he had felt uncomfortable with this group of men on this particular trip. What he wanted right now was to think quietly by himself so that he could reflect on everything. “We’re losing the light; we may as well camp back there by that spring where we left Hallelujah and Jack.”
“Them rustlers will get too far ahead of us.” Garrod looked towards the setting sun.
“They’re losing the light too. They ain’t going anywhere in a hurry.” Hoss turned his horse south and rode back, with the rest of the posse following him. John Patrick and Garrod Lindsay lagged slightly behind the others.
“You think he’s right about these rustlers? You think they’re hidin’ out near somewhere, or that maybe it’s someone who knows the land or is getting a little help from local folks,” Garrod looked over at Patrick.
“He’s got that part wrong, I’m sure. Can you honestly tell me that there’s a neighbour of ours you’d care to accuse? We ain’t got time to waste with theories and riding around in circles. We owe it to ourselves to catch up with these thieves and see justice done and end this thing. After two hard winters in a row, there’s plenty of ranchers who are in a tight spot. The Cartwrights can afford to absorb their losses. But how many of us can?”
“I’ll admit, I’ve been strugglin’. The bank pretty near owns me as it is and if I lose too much more of my herd to these thieves, I’ll be completely done. I’ve got a family to worry about.” The look of concern was etched into Garrod Lindsay’s weathered face like engraved lines on gold jewellery. There was a similar look on John Patrick’s face too, and his concerns were no less weighty than the ones that were driving Garrod Lindsay, but John Patrick’s worries were of a different kind. The focus of both men, however, was survival.
Ben Cartwright had provided the services of one of the finest trail cooks in Nevada. Hallelujah could cook up a storm just about anywhere he found himself with even the most meagre of supply caches. That evening, the members of the posse enjoyed their dinner and the hospitality of the Cartwrights, and then settled in for the evening. Warbags and bedrolls were carried over to the campfire as each man found a spot to bed down for the night.
There is as much comfort in a campfire for cowboys as there is in the hearth of a house for most other people. The campfire is a place to gather at the end of the day, to eat the evening meal and share each other’s company. It is a place to discuss the day’s events, to play music and sing, and for yarning. Occasionally a man who knew his letters would read aloud by whatever light there was, but many of the stories came from the memories and the imaginations of the tellers. Some of the stories were true stories of the town, the trail and the range passed from one neighbour to the next. Some were designed as jokes, and some were meant to send chills down the spines of the listeners, and some were just plain gossip.
On this particular evening, as a whiskey jug made its way around the campfire and each man splashed a dram or so into his tin cup, the conversation drifted from topic to topic. Initially talk was focused on the economics of cattle ranching, the bad winters, water supplies, the damage inflicted on the land by the mines and the other challenges that ranchers in Nevada were facing. Soon, as part of the natural flow of conversation, the topic became their current problem and the reason this posse was riding together in the first place. The subject of the rustlers opened a floodgate of wrath that surprised Hoss with its vengeful nature. It was clear to Hoss that there was more than the thieving motivating these men to seek out those who had stolen from them. It was also clear that the original accusation of “cattle thieves” was being expanded such that every setback these ranchers had experienced over the last 24 months was directly attributable to the cattle thieves. It made Hoss extremely uncomfortable, and he and Hallelujah exchanged a quick glance of concern.
“Hey Garrod,” said Hallelujah, changing the subject, “I heard Jim Delaney died.”
“Drowned!How’d he manage to do that? There ain’t moren’ a thimble full of water up to his place.” John Patrick called across the fire.
“That’s how I heard it, and that’s all I know,” Garrod said as he unrolled his blankets.
“I heard of a feller who nearly drowned in these parts,” said Hallelujah. “It was Donald Bradley over Carson City way. He had just brung his cattle in and had the horses up to the troughs for a drink. He took one step back without havin’ a look behind him and his foot landed on the pointed end of a spade. Well the handle flipped up and smacked him in the back of the head. Knocked him out cold and he fell face down into the trough.”
“What saved him?” asked Jack.
“Oh well, them horses was real dry after being out on the range all day and they drank enough water quick-like out of the trough to save Donny from gettin’ his lungs full.” Hallelujah plopped down by the fire and began to pick his teeth with a splinter of wood.
“Is that a true story, Hallelujah?” Jack looked at the old man incredulously.
“It’s as true a story as many you’ll hear around a campfire, boy,” laughed Hoss. At that, the rest of the men smiled or chuckled softly. “Anyway,” Hoss continued, “Jim Delaney weren’t home when he drowned. He was fishing up to Lake Tahoe,” said Hoss as he too settled by the fire.
“I heard ol’ Jim was burried with a pick and a shovel in his casket.” Thomas McCleary took a sip from his cup and leaned back on his elbows.
“Was he a miner?” asked Jack.
“Oh no, boy!” laughed Carl Andrews. “A few years back Jim read a bunch of strange accounts in one of them eastern newspapers of folks who were thought dead but weren’t really, and then they got buried alive — Jim had a right unnatural fear of ending up the same way ever since. He had it put down on paper by a real lawyer that when he died they should put a pick and shovel in with him, just in case he weren’t as dead as everyone figured on and he needed to get out of his grave. I’m surprised his widow agreed to do it for him, even if it was his last request. Seems kind of blasphemous and she’s a good God-fearin’ woman.”
“I don’t think there’s any blaspheme in it, Carl, just foolishness. But then, Jim always was a might scatter-brained,” said McCleary.
“Jim was one of the early settlers out here, like we was, Hoss.” Garrod Lindsay stood up as he was speaking. He paced around the outside of the circle of men gathered around the campfire. “But I reckon you don’t remember too much of those days. When we got out here, your Pa was as poor as the rest of us. All he had was the wagon he was drivin’ and you two young ‘uns.”
“I remember some of the early years, sir, but I was just a little shaver when Pa and Adam and me got to the Ponderosa.”
It was as though Garrod had not even heard Hoss speak. “And just look at your Pa now,” Garrod stooped, picked up the whiskey jug and poured more into his cup. “Powerful man, your Pa is. I reckon he’s one of the most powerful men in the Carson Valley. What’s more, I reckon he’s probably one of the most powerful men in Nevada Territory. And rich too. Powerful and rich.” The men around the fire grew very quiet and all eyes were on Garrod Lindsay. His speech was slightly slurred and the tone of his voice had a bitter edge to it. “You’re an heir to all of that, Hoss. I wish I could say I was leavin’ behind for my sons even a fraction of what you and your family has got.” Garrod looked into his cup, but instead of drinking from it, he poured the liquor onto the ground. “I’m gonna turn in now.” He tossed his cup into a bucket and stumbled slightly as he walked towards his bedroll.
It was still dark when the men of the posse began to rise in the morning. The smell of bacon cooking and coffee brewing was enough to stir most of them, and those who were not so easily disturbed were awakened by their neighbours. Hoss rose as soon as Hallelujah did. As he wound his pocket watch, he considered the conversations he had heard and over-heard during the course of the last few days. Throughout this trip, there had been moments of tension similar to the one the evening before. It was clear to Hoss that he had been singled out as someone who was needed, but not necessarily wanted. He did not understand the root of it all; he did not know that there was a subversive force working its way through the posse, whispering into the ears of each man, planting thoughts of fear, discontent and retribution. He didn’t know that John Patrick had a vested interest in ensuring that this gang of rustlers was either never found, or that it was caught red-handed and its membership shown quick summary justice so that the thieves had as little time as possible to tell their own stories.
The men were mounted and on their way just as soon as the sun began to peak over the horizon. They rode for about half an hour before they picked up the trail again, and about twenty minutes after that, Hoss stopped and checked the trail. They’re back to hidin’ their tracks,” said Hoss. “But they’re not being quite as careful about it. They’re trying to get us to keep headin’ north, but by the looks of things, they’re movin’ northeast up this other trail.”
“You sure about that?” asked John Patrick “It just looks to me like they’re really going north.”
“I’m sure,” said Hoss positively. “I’m sure on the direction, and I’m sure we’re pretty close behind ‘em.That’s why they stopped to clear the trail and tried to redirect us, and that’s why they made such a poor job of it. They wanted to try and throw us off, but they’re nervous and they didn’t get it done right.”
All eyes went to Garrod Lindsay. “Hoss ain’t been wrong yet. I say we take the trail northeast.” There was general agreement among the men. “Suit yourselves,” John Patrick said. Hoss marked the trail for Hallelujah and Jack, and then the posse rode on.
As the morning passed, the excitement among the posse members grew. There was a sense that success was impending, and that sense drove those men to ride hard through a series of relatively low hills and shallow valleys. After two hours, they rode around a bend and found themselves on the height of a slope where they stopped short. Five cows stood grazing on the height. For a moment, the men in the posse sat looking at those cows without speaking or moving. They were surprised into inertia by the very thing they were looking for. Garrod Lindsay was the first to move. He turned his horse’s head so that he could look out over the valley. There they were—three men on horseback—just as Hoss had said there would be. “That’s them,” called Garrod pointing towards the riders in the valley. “We got ‘em now!” Garrod snapped his reins hard and started his horse down the slope.
The rest of the men were immediately behind him, all except Hoss. Hoss hesitated, but just for a moment, and then he prodded Chubb in the sides so that they too could begin their descent towards the valley floor. He had the most horrible stomach clenching feeling. He was part of the chase, and he wanted all of this to end, but he was afraid of what the results would be; afraid because he was more than aware that there was more to all of this than he had certain knowledge of. He desperately wished that he would never have to think on this day again, but in his heart he knew that he would be remembering and re-thinking these events for a long time to come.
As he rode down towards the rest of the posse, Hoss felt like he and Chubb were separate from everything else around them, as though he was watching the whole thing from far away. Hoss could see that the three rustlers were riding hard toward the pass leading out of the valley. He could see the ten other riders of the posse speeding towards the outlaws. By the time Hoss caught up, they were very nearly through the pass and out of the valley. It was no surprise to anyone in the posse that the three men they were chasing split up as soon as they hit flat open ground. “Carl!” shouted Garrod Lindsay, “You take three men and ride down the feller heading west; John you take three more men and go after the one straight ahead. Hoss you and me and my foreman will give chase eastwards. We meet back here.” Lindsay barely finished his sentence and he was off and away with Hoss and the foreman right behind him.
The landscape became quite rugged again. The horseman ahead of them had gained in distance during the time that Garrod Lindsay had issued his directions, but the rustler was at a distinct disadvantage. The members of the posse had been changing their mounts fairly regularly, and in what was little more than a race, horses that hadn’t been ridden for a day were difficult to beat. “He’s headin’ into a box canyon!” shouted Hoss. “He’s as good as caught now.”
As the foreman rode off, Garrod and Hoss began to approach the open pass of the canyon. “You sure it’s a box?” asked Garrod.
“Positive.” said Hoss. “I was up here last spring to help with a map-maker-feller Pa hired out from California to survey in our new lines. I know every dip and every rise on this end of the Ponderosa, just like I know the back of my own hand. There’s a whole mess of them little box canyons along here and he’s in one of ‘em.”
“If he’s armed, he’s likely to pick us off as we try and get in there.”
“Then I guess we better convince him that it would be a better idea just to give hisself up.” Hoss nudged Chubb with his heals and rode to the entrance of the canyon. “You in there!” he shouted. “There ain’t no way you’re gonna get out of this. There’s more men on the way and so you may as well give yourself up peaceable-like.”
Hoss and Garrod listened carefully. Neither of them wanted to even breathe lest they miss something. There was no response to Hoss’s call. All that they could hear was horse’s hooves against the hard ground and the jingling of metal as that lone horseman rode back and forth inside the box. “He ain’t gonna shoot us,” said Hoss. “He’s too busy trying to find his way out.”
Hoss rode between the steep, vertical walls of the pass into the canyon. At the other end of the short, narrow box was a man pacing his horse back and forth, looking for an exit that didn’t exist. Hoss rode quietly toward him with Garrod Lindsay about 20 feet behind. “Steady now. You’re trapped in here and there’s no way out so you might as well settle down.” Hoss spoke as quietly and as gently as he could. The rider wheeled the horse around frantically. Hoss was shocked. This was no man; this was a boy and probably younger than Joe and Jack. He had a wild look in his eyes. His fear was almost tangible. “You hold up now, boy. We need to talk to you.” Hoss’s voice was soft and low. He’d seen plenty of animals with the same look of panic, and he knew how to handle them. “You armed, boy?”
“I ain’t gotta gun!” the boy’s voice quavered and his body was visibly shaking.
Hoss got down off of Chubb. “Well then, you might as well come down off that horse real gentle like. You ain’t goin’ anywhere, and that poor mare is getting tuckered walking back and forth like that. You wouldn’t want her to suffer any, would ya?”
“No.I don’t want her to do that.” The young man paused for a moment, looking as though he might actually fall off of the horse rather than dismount properly. He gingerly leaned left, swung his right leg back over the horse’s body and touched his foot down. For a moment more, he paused with his left foot still in the stirrup, and then both feet were on the ground. The boy held onto the saddle for support and turned his head just enough to look at the two men in front of him.
“What’s your name, and how old are you, boy?” Garrod asked.
“My name is Bo Smith, and I ain’t too sure, but I think I’m 16 or so.”
“Sixteen!” Garrod nearly shouted. Just as he uttered his surprise at the youth of this particular rustler, the rest of the posse rode into the box. “What happened?” shouted Garrod. “You lose them other two?”
“One got clean away, and the other is dead.” John Patrick leaned forward in his saddle. “Now look what we have here. Seems like you managed to catch yourself a no-good cattle thief, Garrod.”
“I ain’t no thief. Them other men come on me a couple weeks back while I was on my way to the Comstock and I was near starvin’. They told me they needed an extra hand to drive cattle, and as I had some experience from afore they said I could be their man. I didn’t know they were drivin’ stolen cows, not until we started getting chased across the countryside. They told me if I tried to ride off they’d kill me before I managed to break the first mile.”
“That’s a likely story,” John Patrick dismounted his own horse. “Why’d ya keep ridin’ when you could see us right behind you if you aren’t as guilty as the others?”
“I was afraid that you would think just as you are. That I was with them in this all the way. But it was just I couldn’t get away. I was afraid.” Bo Smith’s voice had dropped to a near whisper.
“You were afraid.” John Patrick growled the words as looked around at the rest of the posse. He grabbed the boy by the front of the shirt and then shoved hard enough to knock Bo down. Then Patrick walked over to the boy’s horse and pulled down the saddle bags. He turned them both upside down, emptying their contents out onto the ground: a bible, some food, a box of matches, some papers tied together with a string, a small knife, a wooden spoon that the boy had probably carved for himself, a tin plate and a tin cup. Then Patrick grabbed the boy’s warbag and his bedroll.
“Wait a minute, Mr. Patrick. Just hold on there. We haven’t heard everything this boy has to say. Maybe he’s telling the truth.” Hoss had grabbed John Patrick’s left arm gently, but Patrick shook him off and continued to pull Bo Smith’s possessions off of the horse. As he pulled the bedroll down, three heavy objects slid out from the centre of the roll and hit the ground with a clang and a thud.
“You think he’s telling the truth now?” shouted John Patrick as he turned and looked at the rest of the posse. “If he’s innocent, why is carrying a set of running irons hid in a bedroll. He’s a damn cattle thief, that’s why! He’s been stealin’ our property, making beggars of us all while he and his partners live high off our hard work.”
Carl Anderson had picked the boy up and was holding him up by his arm. “I ain’t no thief. I swear I ain’t no thief.” Bo Smith was crying now, the tears smeared with the dirt on his face.
“You ain’t no thief? Well you been keepin’ company with thieves, and you got the equipment of a thief and as far as I can tell you’re a thief.” John Patrick moved to his own horse, grabbed a rope off of the saddle and began to wind the end into the shape of a noose. “This is what rustlers earn when they’re caught, boy.” At the sight of that rope, Bo fell to his knees in spite of Carl Anderson’s support. His hands were clutched together and he shook with his terror and his sobs.
“Now you wait a minute, mister!” Hoss said. “This boy is going back to Virginia City. He’s going back to have a trial with a judge and a jury so that they can hear all the evidence and then he’ll get whatever the court says he gets as a punishment.”
“Oh sure. We’re s’posed to all do your say-so ‘cause you’re a Cartwright. I’ve heard your Pa and your older brother spouting off on what they think is right, and what they think the rest of us should be doin’. ‘Holier than thou’ you Cartwrights are about it too. And all the while you got the sheriff in your back pocket and the judge as a regular guest to dinner.” John Patrick sneered as he looked over at Hoss, and then he returned his attention to the rest of the posse.
“You’re a liar mister, on all but one count. You’re right that my Pa has said this, Adam has said it, and I’m saying it too: What chance have we got for justice and order in this territory if we run around takin’ the law into our own hands? You’re ready to condemn this boy with hardly moren’ a whisper of evidence!” Hoss was now just as angry as John Patrick was uncompromising.
“Listen, the rest of you!” John Patrick turned away from Hoss and was shouting out to the men of the posse. “This thief has taken the food out of the mouths of your own kin. We’re none of us rich like the Cartwrights; they can afford to take a couple of bad years in row. But the rest of us, we’re all just hard working ranchers who can’t make a go of it ‘cause of the likes of him.” Patrick pointed at Bo Smith. “And there are more just like him ridin’ around out there, ready to take what’s yours. Well, we’ll show them all what’ll happen to them if they decide to try and steal away what they don’t rightly own.”
Hoss stared in amazement at the men he once thought he knew. There was no doubting the expressions on most of the faces gathered around Bo Smith. They were angry, and angry enough to act on impulse. They were frustrated and tired, but the source of their discomfiture exceeded this particular hunt for cattle rustlers. Times were hard, and they were afraid of foreclosure and poverty. They were afraid for their wives and for their children and for themselves. They were beginning to lose hope. Who do you rail at when the weather turns bad? Where do you turn when it seems as though your prayers have been unanswered? Who was to blame?
Hoss knew that some of these ranchers were close to the edge of ruin, and he was more than aware that there had been moments during this search when all of that anxiety and fear and hopelessness would rise to the top. Until that instant, Hoss had been unable to ascertain what was triggering those moments. But he was beginning to see that John Patrick may well have been the catalyst, and right then, Patrick was very easily leading them into believing that the answer to at least some of their problems was to hang Bo Smith.
“Alright then, let’s get this over with.” McCreary grabbed the rope from Patrick, walked past Bo Smith without even looking at him and threw the rope over the branch of a cottonwood.
“You wait right there, Mister. This ain’t no lynchin’ party.If you plan on takin’ this boy, you’re gonna have to go through me.” Hoss planted himself squarely in front of Bo. His arms hung loosely at his sides; he was ready to do whatever he felt he had to do.
“Hoss,” said Garrod, “He’s a cattle rustler, and we gotta right to do justice here. He’s guilty and he as much said so himself. There ain’t no good reason to waste everyone’s time and money on a court. You tell me why we shouldn’t do what’s going to get done eventually anyhow.
“He didn’t say anything of the kind; you’re hearin’ what you wanna hear. And what’s more, you don’t know what a judge or jury would have to say about this, cuz they ain’t here! Once a thing like this is done it can’t be undone, and then you have to try and sleep at night. Will you rest well enough tonight, Garrod?” Hoss looked at the older man.
“I’ll rest fine, thank-you very much, for knowing my family is safer and my property secure from the likes of him. ‘Bad enough to steal’ is usually a sign that someone is bad all the way through. God only knows what murdin’ and riotin’ he’s done or will do if he’s let, and I ain’t about to lose any more sleep than I already have over his kind.”
“You ain’t? I’ve known you all my life. You’re a good man, least ways, you’ve always been a good man. I don’t figure that you’re gonna rest as easy as you think you will. Why did you ride all the way out here? Did you come out here to solve a problem, or were you lookin’ for a pound of flesh? Is that pound of flesh gonna be the cure to everything else that’s gone wrong for you? I don’t think so. This boy ain’t responsible for the bad times. He didn’t blow in them cold winters and bring the black-leg onto your cattle, or dry your streams up and starve ‘em to death. What’s more, we gotta think beyond the walls of this canyon on to what’s going to happen the next time and the time after that. What happens when it’s nothin’ moren’ petty squabbles behind accusations and them accusations sit unproved. Are you just gonna lynch whoever you think deserves that kind of justice just on one man’s say-so? What are you gonna do if someone just up and accuses one of your boys, Garrod? You gonna hand him over to Mr. Patrick so that your son gets what Mr. Patrick says he’s earned?” Hoss looked at the circle of men standing around him. “What about the rest of you?”
“I’m with Hoss on this!” Carl Anderson was now crouched and cradling Bo Smith in his arms. “We can’t hang a boy for things that some folks have only thought up in their heads to blame him for. We don’t know for sure that he’s done anything except choose his company poorly and hold the irons for them other men. Since when do we hang a man just for being stupid?” Carl Anderson got up and moved beside Hoss as he spoke.
“Are you gonna listen them?” Patrick shouted. “You’ve done what we needed you to do, Cartwright, and now you and Anderson are both gonna stay out of this!” John Patrick could see that he had lost control of this group of men, but perhaps not completely. He knew he had to try and sway them back over to his side. He knew that if he didn’t they might eventually find out that the two cattle thieves who had ridden off were hired-men of his. Who knows what they had said in front of Bo Smith. He had to silence the boy, just as he had silenced one of the men who had run from the posse. The other would know where to find him, and then Patrick would settle up with him too, one way or the other. In the meantime, to be on the safe side, he had to get rid of Bo Smith. Unfortunately, Hoss Cartwright was becoming a problem.
“Why are you so dad-burned set on hangin’ someone, Mr. Patrick?” Hoss’s feeling about John Patrick’s responsibility for stirring the other men of the posse up were beginning to ring more and more true for him. “Mr. McCleary,” Hoss turned to the rancher. “One of them rustlers got a way and one is dead. How’d that man die?”
Thomas McCleary looked at the rope hanging down from the cottonwood. “John shot him. He had ridden hard after that man and they both disappeared outta sight for a bit. By the time the rest of us had caught up to them, that rustler was already dead on the ground. John said that the rustler was about to draw on him and woulda killed him if John hadn’t fired first.”
“You check the body, to see about his gun?” Hoss asked. John Patrick’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Hoss.
“No.By the time I got there, John had already picked up that man’s gun and had it in his hand.” Thomas McCleary swallowed hard.
“That’s exactly the way it happened,” said John Patrick. “There ain’t nobody who can say different. If you’re plannin’ on accusin’ me of something, then spit it out. But I’m here to tell you it was a fair draw; that thief is dead and justice is served. Now we’re gonna see to it that his partner meets the same end.” Patrick knew that Hoss was onto him, but he also knew that Hoss was likely unaware of the full truth and couldn’t prove anything at that moment. But John Patrick was anxious to end this and be on his way, and he was arrogant enough to think he could still force the issue. He drew his gun from his holster. “You move outta the way now, Hoss, and let us handle this.”
“Mister, you done made one of the biggest mistakes you’ll ever make. I ain’t movin aside, and I ain’t gonna draw my gun. If you kill me, then you’ll have committed a murder, and these men will have a much better reason for using that noose than the one they got now.” Hoss put his hand on Bo Smith’s head. “Now this boy is comin’ back to Virginia City with me, and he’s gonna have a real trial with a real judge and he’s gonna face whatever consequences the court decides on. If you try to stop me, I reckon there’ll be consequences to those kinds of actions too.”
The only answer Hoss got was the wind swirling around in the box. It rustled the grass and blew dust up into the air. It whistled through crevices. It stirred the manes and tails of the horses and flapped the straps on the rigs. It lifted the brims of hats and the tie ends of bandannas. It blew strands of hair against sweaty foreheads, sweaty cheeks, sweaty necks.
Suddenly, there was a new sound: The sound of horses’ hooves on the hard ground. Hallelujah, followed by Jack, rode cautiously between the walls of the pass and into the box. “What in blazes is goin’ on in here!” he shouted. “Y’all look as desperate as a bullfrog in a drought.” It was enough to break whatever spell the wind had cast on the men in the box. Their eyes, once locked intently on Hoss’s face, were now cast down at the ground. Those eyes looked anywhere but into a face that would shame them.
“We was uh…” Garrod swallowed hard and his voice was weak and uneven in its tone. “We was just gettin’ ready to bring this boy here to the sheriff in Virginia City.” Garrod Lindsay looked over at Hoss and then at John Patrick. McCleary pulled the rope down from the cottonwood branch.
John Patrick walked to his horse and mounted up. He threw Hoss at look that could have burned paper it was so full of fire. “You and I ain’t done.” He said quietly as he rode past Hoss and out of the box.
“Nope,” said Hoss. “I don’t reckon we are.”
Carl Anderson helped Bo Smith stand. “You may not feel it right now, boy, but lady luck is ridin’ on your shirttails, and she appears to be taking her orders from Hoss Cartwright.”
Hoss closed his eyes, bowed his head, and silently thanked God.
Mr. Patrick and his man didn’t come back with us at all, but went their own way. It weren’t the end of him though. He continued to be mixed up in one thing or another for years to come, and he held the grudge he built up in that box not just against Mr. Hoss, but all the Cartwrights. He was a dangerous man and I’d not be the least surprised if he and the Old Nick didn’t converse on a regular basis, if you know what I mean.
First order of business was to turn Bo Smith over to the sheriff in Virginia City. Mr. Hoss, Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Anderson went and done that while the rest of us went back to our places. Mr. Hoss put in a good word for Bo at his trial and I think it was his say-so that got that boy a pretty light sentence. I always did admire Mr. Hoss for what he done for Bo, and I’m pretty sure that kid knew just how close a shave he got that day. I run into him a few times after he done his time and he was a hard worker, quiet and real observant of rules.
After Mr. Hoss got home and reported all the events to his Pa, Mr. Cartwright made sure that them ranchers who were strugglin’ got some assistance. The thing about that man, all the Cartwrights for that matter, is that they could help you out without even you known’ you’d been helped. Sort of gave you a hand and then left you alone so you could keep your pride.
plenty more stories I could tell you about the west and when I was working
on the Ponderosa. After sittin’ around
a few of them campfires I learned to yarn with the best of ‘em.But
that’s enough blathering for now. I’d
rather just set a spell and remember them stories by myself.
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