Death Walked This Way Today
A 2004 Bonanza Tale
Tahoe Lady Irish
He let the car door close with a solid thump. In the still mountain air it would be heard clearly in the rustic cabin before him. Just to be on the safe side, Adam Cartwright coughed loudly then paused, listening. There was no answering sound, no hello shouted to him. He rolled his shoulders once then walked slowly across the driveway, passed Joe's Jeep then took the stairs down to the deck. He saw him then, stretched out in the hammock with a beer bottle balanced upright on his stomach. Adam grimaced for on the deck just below his brother were other bottles, obviously empty, resting on their sides.
"Heard what happened," he started, hoping to get a reaction from Joe but he only tipped his bottle up and drank, his eyes pinned to something across the treetops. "You okay?" Adam asked, his voice soft, sincere, weighted with concern.
That did get a reaction from Joe. He snorted once, deprecatingly, then again lifted his beer, finishing it this time. The whole of him spoke with a silent sneer.
Adam took the redwood rocker and slid into it and looked across the valley in the same direction that his brother was studying. Now in late summer, the main color coming to the eye was a dusty brown-gray. The tall ponderosa pines, with their sprays of green needles showed the results of another dry season, coloring them that dull dusky color. Dropping down from their dizzying height, small patches of open ground showed a brighter green where there were humans, the clear results of irrigation.
In the silence, an errant breeze rattled the pines and the quaking aspens answered with their own distinctive music. Sighing deeply, Adam caught the long remembered scent of warm pine pitch and dust. Overlapping that, though, was the strong scent of beer and from the looks of it, had for quite some time there on the deck of the Cartwright brothers' hideout.
"You want to tell me about it?" he asked, still cautious. While on most of the occasions when his baby brother got rip-snorting drunk he was even more amiable than normal; there were other circumstances not so pleasant to recall. Those were the ones Adam recollected now.
"No," was Joe's sole comment as he dropped the empty bottle to join its compatriots.
"You drunk all of them this afternoon?" Adam counted four. He didn't have to do any great mathematical calculations to know that Joe was well on the way to being drunk. From the temper he had so far displayed, Adam feared that the last thing his brother was going to be was jovial and good-natured.
Joe rolled the hammock slightly to one side and glared with one eye at the discards. Then he let his scowl rise to his brother's noncommittal expression. "You gonna make something of it? Unless you missed something, I might have good reason!"
Slowly, Adam stood up and made his way into the cabin. Pulling his tie loose, he checked the refrigerator. Yes, there were the other two beers from the six pack Joe had bought on his way to the Hideout. He picked them both up by their necks and went back to the deck. With a quick twist, he uncapped one and handed it to Joe then did the same for himself.
"Pretty scary, huh?" He tipped the bottle up and let the cold brew wash down his throat.
"You have no clue," Joe hissed then took a long second swallow.
"From what I heard -" Adam began only to have his words overlapped by Joe's suddenly maniacal, deriding laugh.
"You heard!" the young man shouted. "Not ten minutes away! You in your damn fancy office, that close. I know Jenny called you from the site within minutes of it happening and you were too busy to be pulled away! Jesus Christ, Adam! What is it? I can work for you but that's as far as it goes? Don't let something as minor as someone trying to kill your own brother be more important than your damn business!"
"Ease off," Adam said softly but with a touch of steel to it. He had to think that part of what Joe was saying was the alcohol. Yet the quality and quantity of the resentment were hard to put off. "You're drunk."
"You're damn right about that!" Joe ripped back and smoothly turned in the hammock and put his feet over the side and sat up. Still cradling the bottle of beer, he leaned onto the arm of the rocker. "I am drunk. Way I look at it, I've every right to be drunk because I'm still alive! Don't give me your sanctimonious, holier-than-thou speech about drinking. I ain't gonna listen to it." Using the chair arm to brace himself, Joe stood, swaying slightly.
Adam stayed where he sat, watching his brother's back heave as he struggled with emotion while leaning on the railing. He wondered if silence was the way to handle him but then decided against it. As Adam stood, he too leaned on the redwood crosspiece, his bottle dangling in his hands as his shoulders hunched forward.
"No," he soothed, "no lectures except that I am not going to let you drive home like this."
"Good! 'Cause I don't wanna go home!' Joe spat the words, heat and venom giving them a painful sting.
"Anything I can say to make it better?"
Adam felt more than saw the green eyes beside him blaze their way over him, searing him. He sought for a way through the heat they left him burning with. There wasn't a way. They stood there, shoulder to shoulder, looking out over the valley as the sun dipped behind the western mountains, painting the sky a vibrant - and violent - crimson.
"Grissom told his secretary that we didn't want any distractions. Guess she took it to heart. Can't blame her since I turned my cell phone off too. In his office. . . well, I didn't hear anything but him making excuses. No sirens, nothing. It wasn't until I got back to our offices that I heard anything about it. All I can say is that I'm sorry it happened, Joe."
"Did you even go to the site? Did you see-" the crushing heat came again to Joe's words but he wasn't able to keep it and he bent his head to his crossed arms.
Setting aside his beer, Adam rested an arm across Joe's shoulders before he spoke again. "I went by. I saw the truck. And if you want to know the truth, I couldn't stay there. All I could think about was how close I came to losing my brother. I figured that you would come here. Why not home? I don't know, but I guessed right. Now, one more time, you all right?"
Joe took a breath that even Adam could hear was shaky then he nodded.
"Jenny gave me the official story. You want to tell me what happened?" He thought again of the old woman, secretary to so many of the Cartwright and Sons Construction projects that she was a virtual walking history of the company. Jenny was the one he had called once Rosalie, his own assistant, had told him. He'd expected her calm, solid presence to give him the bare facts but she hadn't. Her voice had shaken badly and more than once, he had caught the sound of her strangling a sob. That had affected him as nothing else ever had in his life. But that had been small change to what he felt when he had pulled into the parking area and seen the pick-up truck.
Joe began to speak, his voice barely above a whisper now. "I'd told Hayes I wanted that piece of junk off the site a hundred times. He'd haul it off but then bring it back, saying he'd fixed it. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt but finally, I guess I'd had enough."
Adam nodded but remained silent. Ed Hayes was a local boy who had tried his best to rise above an alcoholic family and an education ended when he'd turned sixteen. The lanky man had worked hard for several years, saving his money and eventually purchasing a used backhoe. He'd gone into business for himself, always on the verge of losing his shirt but at the same time, always pulling himself out of the hole at the last minute. He had placed a bid with Cartwright and Sons Construction for every job in the last four years. Finally, he had won a contract: the excavation and materials handling for the new multi-million dollar hotel they were building for Grissom and Associates at the north end of Lake Tahoe.
That had been the precursor of the continuing headache Joe'd had over the man and his equipment. Many a time, he would tell the man to fix his equipment and get it up to standards or get it off the site. Joe had made his position clearly and abundantly to Adam as well: Hayes' machine was a danger. Adam recalled one email he'd shot to him right after a field encounter with the man. He'd listed the things wrong with the backhoe. The brakes were bad, the pedals worn to thin wedges. The engine idled at an extremely high speed so that when it was placed into gear, it would lurch instead of glide. The forklift front was too heavy for the old machine, making it sit light on the rear wheels. On and on, the list had gone and Adam had no option but to notify Hayes that his contract was suspended.
"Go on," the older brother urged softly.
"I told him that I'd haul it to the junkyard tomorrow morning if it was still there. I was tired of having to clean up after it. The damn thing was always dripping oil. The other day one of his hoses broke. Sprayed hydraulic fluid over one of the plate glass windows. That was fun trying to clean up, let me tell you! He told me that you'd sent him a letter. Said something about not getting paid and said it wasn't right. I didn't care about that. I just wanted him off the site before he did something that couldn't be fixed or cleaned up."
"You lose your temper? You know what I mean. Sometimes you aren't the most diplomatic on a job."
The expression Joe gave his brother was a half-grimace. "I did my best to hold my temper. I didn't yell any more than he did. Fact is, I went to leave before I would lose my cool. How's that for diplomacy?"
Both barked short laughs but remained as they stood; Adam's arm casually thrown across his brother's lean form as they studied the growing darkness in the valley at their feet.
"I had just gotten into the old truck and went to answer my cell phone. I heard him crank the engine but I didn't look his way. Then, all of a sudden, it felt like the truck was going over on its side. I knew something hit it broadside but thought it was someone putting something heavy in the back. I wanted to get out and fuss but that's when..." Joe's words had finally come to a breathy halt and he inhaled deeply ... shakily.
In the gathering darkness, Adam studied his profile. His jaw was clenched, his eyes closed. He wondered how he would have reacted if it had been him, sitting in the truck as it was rammed by the tractor, the forks piercing the truck door there at his elbow.
"My God, Adam. When I looked down and saw that blade of metal across my lap, all I could think was that my legs were gone. I tried pushing it but, of course, I couldn't budge it. Took three men, three strong men, to move it and there it was, laid …slid … right across my thighs. Slammed so hard into the center console, it went out the other side. The other fork went behind the seat but I couldn't see it."
"Probably a good thing you couldn't. Jenny said they tried just backing the tractor up."
"Didn't work. Remember how the thing would lurch around? And of course, Hayes wasn't going to let anyone else drive his machine. Kept screaming it was an accident. That wasn't what the crew said. Said he didn't try to stop, turn the rig, nothing. Just revved it up and slammed into the side of the truck. The engine died on him and he couldn't get it started again or he would have come at me again, I'm sure."
Even as the story was told, Adam could sense the fear being reborn in Joe and he tightened his hold on his shoulders, drawing him closer. There was but a moment's resistance then he felt him sagging. With wordless encouragement, he eased him into the rocking chair behind them then sat on the swaying hammock. Then he begged him to continue but Joe shook his head.
"Joe, do you really think he tried to kill you?"
The younger man merely nodded once then looked into his brother's face. Was the fear still in his own face? Would it ever leave? Could he look into the mirror on some far distant morning and see just himself? Or would he always see the visage of the Grim Reaper over his shoulder, his scythe replaced by the broad four hundred pound prong of the forklift?
"There was about ten- maybe twelve- feet from where we were talking to the truck. Guys on the crew said he didn't try to turn or slam on the brakes. He had to have seen where I went. It was just after noon so there was plenty of light even under the trees where we were.. No, Adam, he was aiming for me."
Even as Adam listened, he closed his eyes and went back to what he thought would be those heart-stopping moments following the piercing of the truck. In his own mind, he heard the roar of a diesel engine close by, the high pitched shriek of metal against metal. He could feel the sudden lateral movement that came with the impact . . . the tiny squares of broken glass hitting him simultaneously.
"It all happened so fast," whispered Joe, his chest tightening with the same fear again. "That blade went across my legs, jammed into the console. I wasn't hurt. I could just get my fingers between it and my thighs but all the same, I was trapped. There was no way I could get out and all I could see beside me was the front of that old machine."
When he stopped, Adam pressed a hand to his own leg, thinking about how slim a thickness that would have been. No, there would not have been room for even his agile sibling to wiggle out.
"They tried first of all pulling it backwards but that didn't work. It pushed the prong down onto me. I could hear the ticking as the hydraulics drifted down and, I swear, I could feel it getting closer and closer to crushing me. Don't look at me like that. You've heard, I'm sure. Started screaming my head off. By then the paramedics were there and one of those fools tried to put an oxygen mask over my face and start an IV so they could get me tranquilized. They weren't fooling me. I could smell the gasoline leaking from the truck. Kept expecting to go up in a ball of flames."
"What did they do? Surely they knew all they had to do was take the prong loose from the tractor."
Joe ripped out a few swear words that Adam was certain he hadn't learned from their father. "The guys on the crew told the paramedics that but it took a while for them to get it through their thick heads. Even then, they tried to do it. Didn't realize how heavy it was and they dropped it. Pinched my outside leg some but by then, I was hauling ass. Took them three hours, Adam. Three hours I sat there. I got out on my own but then, damn it, I just couldn't stand up. Hung on to the side of the truck like my life depended on it."
Adam smiled ruefully into the shadows that now hid them both. One of the old-timers on the crew had told Jenny about that. How Joe had refused all help and finally gotten himself under control and, with his back ramrod straight, walked away. She had told him that but also how Joe had then collapsed into his office chair. She had taken it upon herself to dismiss the crews and the paramedics, leaving her alone with her young boss.
"Are you sure you don't need to go to the hospital? Just to get checked out?" Adam asked again, seeing Joe's chest rising and falling rapidly.
"Nah. I'm okay. Five beers in two hours and I'm fine. Probably have nightmares about it, but I'm fine. Almost got a whole lot shorter, but I'm fine. Scared the living shit out me, but I'm fine."
Gallows humor, Adam thought. Even as he watched, Joe sank further down in the chair, his body finally reacting to the numbing sensation of the alcohol.
"I suppose somebody called Pa," Adam suggested but knew the truth for he himself had. The first thing Ben Cartwright had said, after finding out that his youngest was all right, was that he was on his way home from San Francisco. Adam had tried to dissuade him but failed. His father had bluntly pointed out that a meeting of the Western States Coalition did not take precedence over his sons. He would be home in four hours.
"Well, don't go home," Adam had conceded.
"I thought you said he wasn't hurt!" The earpiece on his cell phone had rattled with the shout. "What hospital is he at? Carson or Reno?"
"That's not what I meant, Pa. He wasn't hurt but when he pulled out, Jenny said he wasn't headed towards the Ranch so I am betting he went to the Hideout. Knowing Joe, he thinks he wants some time to himself."
There had been a stentorian harrump. Not long ago, Ben Cartwright had let it be known that he knew about his sons' little cabin secreted into the woods behind Squaw Valley. It was where they tried being, as Hoss had phrased it, "normal folks" and away from the possibly prying eye of the press. Being the sons of one of Nevada's leading politicians apparently had a few drawbacks and their answer to them had been the Hideout. Realizing that his sons were trying to be "normal," he had stated firmly that he would not grace the cabin's presence unless invited. Now, it was obvious to Adam that his father was looking for an invitation. Gracefully, he had suggested that if they weren't home when Ben got there, he should come up. The resultant response of "all right" was followed by a half-veiled demand that Adam go and check to make sure his brother was okay. He hadn't dared tell his father that he was halfway there already……….
"I didn't, but maybe Jenny did," Joe allowed. "She said she called you but you didn't answer. She said she spoke to Rosalie and she'd get the message to you. Don't know where you were, brother, but I could have used you this afternoon. Piss poor time to go off gallivanting."
There, Adam heard the recriminations again. Feeling the cool of the evening flee from the heat of his brother's words, he leaned forward. How to explain?
"I was meeting with Grissom. I told you that." He wondered silently why he felt as though he had to defend himself against his own blood. "When I left there, I forgot to turn my phone on. Rosalie met me in the parking lot and told me. You can ask her when you see her next but I left rubber pulling out. By the time I got to the site, everyone but Jenny was gone and she was getting ready to go."
Joe ran his hands roughly through his hair, trying to pull his swaying thoughts back into line, his mind going numb once more from the combined onslaught of memory and fear.
"I know you were scared, Joe. I wish it could have been different but it wasn't. I would have given my right arm to be there, to help you get out of the cab of that truck. Would have probably taken a swing or two at Hayes just for good measure."
Joe snorted, imagining Mister Cool letting the greasy Hayes feast on a roundhouse punch.
"And as much as you would have hated it, I would have held you up when you couldn't stand on your own. Might have insisted that you go to the emergency room, too, since I have a feeling that their medicine won't leave you with a hangover like yours will." To underline the fact, he nudged the empty bottles at their feet.
"You wouldn't have let me buy it in the first place!"
He couldn't help himself; he laughed but then Adam sobered. Coming back to him in a cold rush was what he'd first seen. The tractor had been towed to one side but the old pickup truck they used on jobsites was still sitting where it had all taken place. As he walked towards it, he could see that the only glass left intact was the windshield. The foam the fire department had spread around to suppress the possibility of fire from the ruptured gas tank was fading into a thick shimmer over the dirt. He had stood at the side of the driver's door, looking at the rectangular holes punched in the door and in the bed wall just behind the cab. Only then did he look into it and see the wreckage, the broken seat, the steering wheel gone, leaving only the column. On the passenger's side lay the plans for the project, Joe's small handheld tape recorder that he used for dictating progress reports and his green jacket. Strange, Adam had thought, on one side, utter carnage; on the other, nothing out of the ordinary. Figuring that Joe would need his jacket, Adam had reached in and pulled it, and the tape recorder, out.
He leaned against the truck, fighting the rush of adrenaline that suddenly had threatened his balance. That close, he panted, an arm's length. He looked at the sagging seat. If it hadn't been compressed like that - my God!- Joe would have lost both legs. As he went to push away from the truck, he inadvertently hit the play button on the little tape recorder. All he could hear before the tape went dead was the sound of the tractor hitting the side of the truck and his brother's voice, swearing a blue streak, then nothing.
Now, as he watched his brother sliding into drunken oblivion, Adam grimaced. When he had the chance, he would erase the tape. The last thing he would want would be for Joe to relive that horror. Who am I kidding? I never want to either.
"Come on." He reached down and grabbed Joe's arm. He pulled him up and steadied him for a moment then shoved him gently towards the open sliding glass door that led to the bedroom. "I think it's time you hit the hay."
Joe muttered something but, to Adam, it made no sense whatsoever. To shut him up, he agreed as he tipped him onto the bed and covered him with the spare quilt.
"Good night, little brother," he whispered, patting the curly head fondly, but Joe never felt it since he began to snore immediately. Adam chortled briefly then returned to the deck. He had a beer to finish and another six pack in the car. It wasn't the best way to get over the fright he'd experienced but it would do for a starter.
Leaning back to study the stars now popping out overhead, he laughed softly again. "Wonder what Pa'll say when he gets here. Or Hoss when he gets back from Reno. Yep, brother, you are missing a real good drunk tonight. I imagine that tomorrow morning I will wish I had too. But," he frowned at the thought of the next day, a work day with demands and phone calls, people in and out of his office, controlled chaos he often referred to it as, questioning the controlled part.
"But what? I got your message. Got Jenny's and Pa's and half of the rest of the world's too. Close call, huh?" Hoss interrupted, silently joining Adam and taking up the vacant hammock. He sat a six pack of beer on the deck and took one himself.
"Yeah, a real close one," Adam explained, then, finishing his beer and starting another, told him what had happened. Hoss had paled a number of times during the telling and Adam wasn't sure it was the cool evening breeze that made them both shiver. By the time he was done, he was beginning to feel the effects of beers he'd had. Just for good measure, he opened another one.
"Well, when I walked up, you had said something about tomorrow. Don't know about you, but I got a feeling that Cartwright and Sons Construction is going to be shy a son tomorrow morning." Hoss mangled another cap and wrapper as he opened his next bottle. He'd watched Adam and knew his brother was putting away the booze too quickly to avoid a hangover in the morning.
"Nope, two, at least." The older brother put his feet up on the top rail and leaned well back. "You wanna join us?" He knew he was to the point where his words were slurring together but for some reason, it didn't bother him.
"Where you headed?"
"Don't know and don't care but I figure we're due some time. How about it? You comin'?"
"Been a long time since we went off together, ain't it?"
"And it almost got to be too long. Come on. We'll take your truck and head out….what's that place called? The Bunny Ranch?"
The night rolled slowly on, the stars bright in the summer sky, the moon half-full. Together Adam and Hoss talked of the past, the present and the future. Behind them, Joe snored on. The peace of the evening had been broken only once. A quick call to the cabin's line informed them that their father was stuck in traffic. Again, Adam had reassured him that Joe was all right. Actually the last thing he wanted was for Ben to show up and find Joe passed out drunk and Adam cruising in the same direction. Only Hoss was managing that evening to stay sober.
is how the summer would be remembered. Not for accident that nearly cost a life
but, for the three brothers at least, how they ran away for a long weekend.
Their father would gently pry but there would be no further explanation
forthcoming. A knowing look across the table from one to the other, a sly smile
or two, a short chuckle, a back patted and then on to their day. Joe was still
not convinced that it had been an accident; nevertheless, no charges were ever
brought against Ed Hayes. He took his machinery and disappeared, never to be
heard from again. Justice, Adam thought one bright morning in June, would catch
up to the man at some point. All Adam could hope for was that then, for those
few minutes, he would know the same fear, crushing, burning, freezing fear. Yes,
that he would know when Death walked by............
Irish Tahoe Lady
May - June
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