A story in five voices
By The Tahoe Ladies

I don't ever remember my father raising his voice in anger until I was a young teen-ager. Oh, Pa would shout out instructions across the backs of our cattle herd, or upslope from the timber camp or from the top rail of the corral as I busted a bronc. He had a way of talking to you, soft and low that you just had to pay attention to naturally. Pa was such a mild-mannered man that most of the time he didn't need to shout to get his message across. At least not to me and my younger brother Hoss. You see it was only with the coming of our youngest brother, Joe, that Pa found himself shouting. Joe probably wasn't even a day old before we all heard that first window-pane-rattling "Joseph!" The kid was just in trouble from the get-go. And was all his life.

It wasn't that he was a bad kid. He just was always finding a way to get into trouble. Or trouble was always finding him. Whichever way you want to look at it, Joe was perpetually in hot water. And as he grew into adulthood, the water would just get hotter. Now Hoss and I would do what we could to keep him on the straight and narrow but after a while, all our tending to our little errant brother was just smoke in the wind to him. I never met a more headstrong individual in all my born days. No, let's call it what it actually was: stubbornness. Pure cock-eyed mule stubbornness. I learned all the signs early on: the feet planted firmly shoulder-width apart, the back ramrod straight, hands either planted on his hips or arms across his chest, jaw jutting out defiantly and green eyes a-blazing. Even as a grown man, he still had to look up to meet me eye-to-eye. And he would’ve had to stand on a tall stump to meet Hoss the same way. But did his lack of height and slender stature ever stop him? Not to my knowledge.

But let me set the record straight right here and now. I have never known a person, man or woman, braver than my little brother Joe. And the loyalty he displayed wasn't only for the family but for his friends as well. There were times when I thought that his bravery and loyalty would be the end of him for sure since he had the scarey habit of putting himself in harm's way to save someone else. But there again, he would display that cursed stubbornness and survive what many would not have. And I would see my father, no longer shouting Joe's name, but whispering it softly as he tended to his little boy's battered body.

Now, I would give all I own to hear my father say Joe's name again, be it shouted or whispered. For my brother is gone and my father sits in silence each day, wanting his return. I do too.

It had started out like a lot of the other of Joe's hair-brained schemes. And just like all those other times, Hoss was beguiled into it and I tagged along, telling myself that someone in the family would have to make sure the story was told straight. Perhaps I should be honest and say that sometimes the kid just was fun to be with when he got cranked up on an idea? Or that watching him put the moves on his unsuspecting target was educational? It doesn't matter. I became a willing participant, right along side Hoss and right behind Joe.

We had just finished a successful cattle drive down the mountains to the brokers in Sacramento…..


"Mmmm. Just look at it, Adam! Can't you hear it? I swear it's calling to us!" Joe turned from the hotel window he had been leaning out of, enjoying the view out over the city skyline.

"All I hear is your yammering and Hoss' snoring. How late were you two out last night?" I flicked the page of the newspaper to make it stand up, not even looking at Joe.

"Uhhh, well, let's just say we made an early night of it tonight?"

I recognized the dance around a straight answer. "That late? Joseph, you see more sunrises from the wrong end of the day than any two people I know."

"Whatever," Joe sighed, giving in much too easily I thought.

I had just a glimpse of a tan finger hooked over the edge of my paper before the paper was scrunched downward into my lap. I had an excellent view of the greenest eyes in all of Nevada, topping an impish grin.

"What?" I asked, knowing the answer anyway.

"Let's do it." The white even teeth flashed and the beguiling smile reached out and snagged at me.

"No." I did what I could to make my determination plain.

"Why not?" he asked, his head cocking to one side.

"Because I said 'no'. What part of 'no' don't you understand?" I tried to reclaim my paper without luck.

"The 'o' part? Aw, come on Adam. It'll be fun and even you need some of that occasionally," he reasoned.

"What makes you think that I need any more fun than watching you weaseling around Pa?" and I got my paper back when he let it go finally. I know he rolled his eyes. "Besides Pa will be here inside of a couple of days. Try your luck with him. That should entertain me for quite a while!"

"Adam, in that couple of days, we can get to San Francisco, have ourselves a high old time and be back here, waiting for Pa so we can all go home like good little boys."

The concept of my brother being a "good little boy" struck me as ludicrous. "And Pa would be none the wiser, right?" I couldn't tell him that I’d had the same thought, except in my version, I was the only Cartwright going to San Francisco.

"Right!" he crowed. "Besides, doesn't the idea of the race down river interest you?"
"You mean the one between the Delta Star and the Delta Queen? No, it doesn't Joe. It strikes me as highly dangerous. Those paddlewheelers-" and I reiterated a report of a recent explosion onboard one on the Mississippi River that had killed all aboard. The boiler overheated, the newspaper article had said. The resulting explosion and fire had been seen for miles along the riverbank but no one had been able to help the stricken vessel.

I put my paper down and studied my brother's back from across the room. Once again he was at the window, looking out, now towards the river. I knew he wasn't listening to what I said. He finally straightened up and ran his hand through his hair then turned and looked back at me. Joe shrugged his shoulders just once. Standing before me was not the man in his early twenties but the child of seven who had needed other children to play with and had none. The child who thought I had deserted him to go away to college. I nearly gave in.

"No," I said again.

"Think of all those places in 'Frisco you'd like to go to, Adam."

"The opera." He took a step towards where I still sat.


"All them artsy places." Another step.

"Museums." I corrected him.

"Yeah, them too." I could tell the correction had done like a lot of other educational things in my brother's life- shot right passed him without pausing.

"No" I said again. By this time he was almost on top of me.

"Plays," he whispered, "Fine dining. Wines beyond your wildest imagination."

"Sounds more like what Hoss would enjoy," I countered and put my hand on Joe's chest to stop him from coming closer.

"And that library!" Joe continued softly. "Think of it Adam! All those lovely books. Yours for the day." And he plopped himself into my lap, his arm draped across my shoulders and his butt firmly trapping my newspaper. You could have read those books, or the newspaper, by the gleam in his eye or his dazzling smile.

"And you would be availing yourself of all these cultural wonders if we went to San Francisco?" I asked.

Fast as a scalded cat, Joe was out of my lap and back onto his own two feet, panic in his eye. "Uh, no, I had other places in mind for myself, you see."

"Like the Barbary Coast?" I stood up, laying my paper aside.

"Uh," Joe looked to the floor.

"Like that little place I drug you out of last time we were there. What was it? Oh yes, now I remember. The Winsome Lady." And I took a few well-placed steps towards him.

"Uh, huh?"

"Or maybe you have that particular theater-" I started but the look on his face almost made me laugh out loud it was so pitiful. He let go a tiny little "eek".

"I am not sure which bar will let you back in, Joseph. Last I heard there were a few left, but not many, who didn't know the name Joe Cartwright and have it blackballed."

Joe moaned softly but I heard it any way since I was just about standing on his bare toes.

"So that would leave only my places of interest left, now wouldn't it?" A little salt in his wounds wasn't going to hurt me any.

"Well, there are a few places left, Adam. You just have to know where to look for 'em." The weasel was back.

"No!" I said for the umpteenth time and loud enough that I know half of Sacramento heard it. The door to the other bedroom opened behind us.

"Say, Joe? What did you do with them tickets for the boat you won off that fella last night?" Hoss asked as he stumbled out, yawning prodigiously.

So in the end it was to keep an eye out for my brothers that I conceded. Like I’d said: some one would have to be able to give a decent accounting of our time to Pa when he showed up. I never dreamed it would be an accounting of my own failure.

The afternoon sun was dipping towards the far horizon when we made our way to the docks. One behind the other the Delta Star, with her brilliant blue star on the bow echoed on the smokestack, was docked in front of the Delta Queen. The Queen, the older of the two stern paddle wheelers by only a few months, belonged to a rival shipping company. They both boasted staterooms, and a dining room said to rival any to be found on dry ground, but the Delta Queen held the record for the fastest time from Sacramento to San Francisco. And the Delta Star wanted it.

All day as we had walked the streets of Sacramento, we had heard snatches of conversation concerning the upcoming race between the two boats. As much as I fought it, I was beginning to be caught up in the excitement too. Forget about Joe and Hoss. They were beside themselves. Seems that by our brother winning those tickets in an especially good hand of poker, he had a very coveted possession. I even tried to talk him into selling them to someone else but the fever was too strong to fight in the pair of them so I relented. The tickets were for passage on the Queen but not a stateroom. Deck only. So we would have to pass the night in amongst the bales of hides and barrels of freight but that didn't do the least bit of damage to Joe and Hoss' enthusiasm. If nothing else, they seemed to think it would be a prime location for watching the race.

The gangplank from the dock to the Queen swayed as Hoss went up it and I swear the boat dropped a bit to one side as he stepped on board. I was surprised at his obvious enthusiasm for the whole journey. You see, my big overgrown lovable brother didn't like the water. When we had taken these trips down the Sacramento River by boat before, Hoss had always stayed in his cabin, never venturing out onto the deck while the boat was moving. But there he was that day, acting like it was the most normal thing in the world for him to do. I wondered if he had gotten over his dislike of the water but then decided against pointing out to him just where he was going to be spending the evening.

I followed Hoss up the gangplank and towards the bow of the boat. The boat would carry more than its share of passengers that evening from the looks of the people filing on board. It would also carry a large quantity of freight down to the port of San Francisco. As Hoss moved among the parcels and barrels I saw apples and fruits of every description, nuts from almonds to walnuts. There were bales of what I first took to be hides then realized it was wool fleece. Looking at the Delta Star, I saw she carried dressed lumber along her sides. But above all else, both boats carried people. And lots of them. The breeze coming from down river sent a shiver up my spine. Call it whatever you like, but I felt nervous about this whole escapade and said so to Joe.

"Adam, now why is it you are having these second thoughts? You need to think about this rationally. How many times have these two boats gone down this same river? Lots of times! Why should this trip be any different?" Joe questioned and I had no answers, only a feeling and I said so. He scoffed, saying, "Hey, you are always telling me to go with what my head says to do, not my heart! Follow your own advice. Besides, they just pulled up the gangplank. Only way for you to chicken out now is to get wet."

Smoothly the two boats eased out into the main stream of the wide river. Side by side, you could see that both boats were nearly identical. They were the same length and both were stern-wheelers, their massive paddlewheels at the rear of the boat, slowly rotating now. Then with the blast of her horn, the Delta Star seemed to leap forward, daring the Queen to follow if she could. The river seemed to roil and bubble under the blades, sending a spray back into our faces as we stood close to the bow of the Queen. It reminded me so much of an upstart youngster thumbing his nose at his elders as he skipped away. The Queen seemed to shudder then I felt her begin to move, a little jerky at first, then, quickly she fell into the wake of the Star, pressing.

We hadn't gone more than a mile when the Sacramento River widened. The Queen deftly swung to the port side of the Star and began to gain on her. Up ahead, all we could see was the wide expanse of rolling brown water. Beside the river, on low levees stood short trees and wiry grass. That is when there were the levees. Most of them were so poorly constructed that once past the spring runoff season, they had simply melted away back into the river. That made the channel look far wider than it actually was since a heavy rain could easily flood the adjoining acres. I had heard that sometimes the smaller boats would try to cut across these low-lying areas in an effort to shave time from their runs downstream. They called it wheat field navigating since that is what they ran through most of the time doing so. But the bigger boats like the Star and the Queen would not risk such.

There was a good deal of betting going on and I caught sight of my littlest brother taking a twenty dollar gold piece off a man with a smile on his face. I had almost decided to take him aside and have a long heart-to-heart talk with him when I saw something far more interesting to do. She was a lovely little blonde lady with a frilly blue bonnet. A quick glance showed me that for once, Joe's attention was not on the ladies. I strolled over to her as she leaned on the railing.

For a while we made small talk. Her name was Ariel and she was going to San Francisco with her aunt. They had a week planned of shopping and taking in the sights of the cosmopolitan city. I was delighted when she expressed a desire to attend the theater one evening and I determined right then that I would escort her. She smiled so demurely, little dimples appearing as she did so, her eyes becoming wide pools of blue.

"Would you like to accompany me to the dining room for some supper? You and your aunt, of course," I offered, not really wanting the aunt anywhere near. But manners are manners.

"Why certainly, Mr. Cartwright. But what about your brothers? Are they joining us as well?" she asked so innocently.

"They are big enough that I can trust them to find their own meals now days."
We were just finishing up our first course when the shout went up. At first, we paid it no attention. All during the afternoon, the two boats had jockeyed back and forth. Sometimes the Queen would lead. Other times the Star would clamber ahead, slicing across the bow of the Queen for position. But as the afternoon and the race had worn on, the river had narrowed until now there was barely room for one of the big steam belching monsters to run the center channel. Each time the lead had changed there would be either a cheer or a moan, depending on the betting of the last moments. But this time, as we finished our soup, it was neither. It was more like a scream of panic.

I instructed Ariel and her aunt to stay put and I ducked outside. I grabbed the first man I could as he ran by.

"What is it? What's going on?"

"It looks like the Star hit a snag or something. She's dead in the water, nose down from the looks of it. Iffen I was you, mister, I'd get to the back of the boat, 'cause we gonna hit her for sure." And with that, he pulled from my grasp and was gone.

I didn't think about the lovely young lady I had been flirting with, or her aunt. My concern was for my two brothers. When I had left them, they had been near the railing on the bow. I took a step up onto the side railing for a better view of the crowd, hoping to see Hoss. I didn't. With the crush of people headed towards me, I knew I couldn't make it forward to look for them. And by that time, the screams and panicked cries were so loud it nearly hid the sound of the Queen's horn blaring once, twice and then a third time. When I stepped down off the railing, I was swept away with the tide of people.

I didn't see what happened. I heard about it and read several accounts in the papers. The man I had grabbed was right. The Delta Queen didn't have room or time to stop and hit the Star. By the time of the impact, the Star had slewed around almost broadside so the Queen rammed it hard, nearly breaking it in half. The boiler on the Star exploded, sending scalding water everywhere. It was said that if you were on the Delta Star and survived, you did so with burn scars somewhere on your body. The force of the impact jarred loose the firebox on the Queen and that was where the fire started: down below on the elegant Queen. At first the crew fought it but with the boat settling in the water bow first, the deck began to dip precariously and rather than lose their own lives, the crew abandoned their fight.

During the next few hours, I couldn't tell you just how I managed to live. I just did. In the chaos that followed, I found Hoss. I had just pulled a young pregnant woman to the shore when I saw him sitting there, his head bowed down, blood rushing from a jagged cut over his left eye.

"Are you all right?" I shouted and he nodded. I could see he was in shock, his round face white with fear. "Where is Joe?"

"Dunno. He helped me get to shore then he went back." Hoss gestured with a bloody rag towards where the two boats sat, locked together in flames of agony.

I looked quickly around. There were scores of people there on the low bank. Their faces, some of them, were blackened by smoke. Other faces were like Hoss', white with shock and fear. The crying and wailing rose like a demented demon's cry over the scene. But nowhere on the shore did I see Joe. I had no choice. I had to return to the Queen to find him.

The Delta Queen was rolling to her side in her death throes when I finally found Joe.  I almost fell onto him as he stood on the deck, helping that same young woman I'd had dinner with, Ariel. He was helping her get down into the small rowboat that had appeared from somewhere. She was scared even though the surface of the water was just a mere two foot away. The boat groaned and lost more ground before he got her into the rowboat and pushed it off as he hung onto the railing.

"JOE!" I shouted, glad to have found him. "Are you all right?"

I will always remember what he looked like right then. His face, so young looking, smeared with black soot. His shirt was torn at one shoulder. His jacket was gone along with his gun. I saw that he was barefoot as was I. His hair was wet and shaggy, and he smeared more soot onto his forehead when he forearmed his hair from his face. By the dancing flames, I saw him smile.

"What was that you said about these things bein' dangerous?" he shouted back, remembering the words I had said earlier in the day. "Guess you were right!"

"Now you admit it!"

The deck shifted beneath our feet. In Joe's eyes, I saw no panic. No fear, even.

"Think you can get to shore on your own, old man?" he teased.

"Just as soon-" and I never got to finish my statement as he had shoved me into the water.

The next moment is etched into my memory with heart breaking clarity. Something on board exploded right behind Joe and for that single moment, I saw him, turned in profile to me, his arms raised to protect his head, as the horrific orange-lighted force reached him and flung him like a rag doll into the darkening night. I was so stunned by the vision that I never saw what it was that hit me hard enough to knock me unconscious. All I knew was that my brother needed me and I wanted to get to him but couldn't.

When I awoke, it was to thin gray daylight. I was cold. My head hurt so badly I was nauseous. Every time I took a breath, a shaft of pain lanced down my right side. There was a continual ringing in my ears. I lay as still as I could, trying to assess my surroundings. I looked out over the water then wished I hadn't.

The water looked like glass, it was so still, the early morning sun just beginning to give it color and substance. The two mighty paddle wheelers from the day before were now twisted hulks rising like the skeleton of some long dead monster from the river, all blackened, a wisp of smoke rising from them. The debris floating on the water raised bile in my throat for some of it had been human the day before. There was a small rowboat being handled by two men out amongst it. Every few minutes they would pause, and using a long pole, bring a corpse to the side of the boat then row for shore to deposit it in the growing piles. I watched, too horrified to look away.

Finally I looked around me. Down the shoreline I could see Hoss. Someone had bandaged his head for him. He was helping some of the people who were lying in the cold grass, touching some, giving some water from a canteen. In my head, I could hear him softly talking to them, telling them that it was going to be okay. That help was coming. Not to lose hope. As I watched him, he got closer to me and I began to hear his words in earnest. And I did take hope in them, that everything was okay and that help was on its way. When I opened my eyes again, it was to find him beside me.

"Now you just lay right still, big brother. Everythin's okay. We got help comin'. I'll see to it that you are on the next wagon out. They got a hospital of sorts set up in the next town that they're takin' hurt folks to and I'll get you there and get you some help," he explained, his voice soft and gentle, just like the hands he touched me with.

"Joe?" I asked, my voice sounding harsh and the breath I needed to speak with brought pain with it.

Hoss shook his head slowly. "I ain't found him yet. There's folks on the other shore movin' 'bout so it could be he's over there. Don't worry none, Adam. He's probably over there chasin' some filly." Hoss' awkward attempt at humor fell flat and he knew it. I could tell by the look in his eyes.

"Need to…wire…Pa. Tell him...what...happened." I wheezed, trying to get as many words out with one breath as I could. The effort exhausted me.

"Don't worry Adam," Hoss repeated, "I'll see to ever'thin'" and then I dropped back into the dark void of unconsciousness.

I could hear the voices long before I opened my eyes. One voice belonged to my father, another to Hoss. The third and fourth voices I didn't know but I took them to be from a doctor and a nurse of some sort by the words they used. I was in bed, warm. I could feel a stiff wrapping of some sort around my chest. And my left arm was heavier than it should have been. I decided the fuzzy feeling I had was more from some medication I had been given than any damage I had done.

"Welcome back," Pa's voice said and I felt his hand rubbing my arm gently.

I forced my eyes open then closed them again as the bright sunlight streaming into the room made my head pound suddenly.

"It's okay, now, son. We've closed the drapes. Come on, open your eyes," Pa encouraged. I did as I was told. Pa sat there on the edge of the bed beside me.

"How long?" I managed to croak out.

Pa took a glass of water from the small table beside the bed and lifting my head some, gave me a sip of water. Even though it was lukewarm, it felt good going down my parched throat.

"Not long," was his evasive answer.

"Joe? They find Joe? He okay?"

I wish now that I had never said those words. Something dark crossed my father's face and refused to leave. I heard him take a shuddering little breath and saw him pull his shoulders back straight. I saw his jaw quiver and his eyes brighten with unshed tears.

"Hoss is looking for him. There were a lot of people hurt and they were taken to a lot of different places up and down the river. So Hoss is having a hard time but he'll find him. I know he will."

If desperate hope had a face that day, it was my father's.

I heard the voices again before I opened my eyes. There was Hoss', full of heartache and sorrow. There was Pa's, full of grief. Hoss had just said something about going out again but checking in at the morgue this time. Pa, his voice cracking, replied that he would go. Hoss should stay there with me.

"But Pa, I seen some of the bodies they pulled from the river that day. I'll go. I can do it."

"I never said that you couldn't, Hoss. I just think this is something I need to do myself. Stay here with Adam, please. I don't want him waking up alone. He seemed very agitated the last time he awoke and with those busted ribs, that isn't good. No, Hoss, you stay here with Adam. I'll go down to where-" and Pa's voice stopped, choked by a hurt sob.

"Pa, please. Let me go with you at least," Hoss pleaded and I could hear the tears in his words.

"No" was all Pa said then a door closed.

For a long time, the only sound in the room came from beside me. Hoss never knew when I opened eyes for he had his head buried in his great burly arms on the side of the bed. His brawny back and shoulders shook as he tried to cry quietly. I reached out with my unfettered hand and laid it on his shoulder, trying to communicate with him through touch.

He tried wiping away the tears but they continued to fall. "Adam," and he struggled to make his face clear.

"I heard, Hoss. Pa said you were looking for him. I heard Pa say where he was going." Even to my ears, my voice was a strained whisper.

"I couldn't find him, Adam. And I looked everywhere. I swear I did."

"I know you did. But Pa was right. This is something he had to do. Maybe not alone, but he had to do it."

For a long time, we both just sat there in the shabby hotel room where I had been taken. And for the first time since I had watched my stepmother being buried, I cried. Even though it hurt me, I couldn't help myself. I longed with all my heart for my father to be there. To hold me. To wipe away my tears. I wanted to feel his loving presence. I wanted to be a small child again. I wanted for any of this to never have happened.


 “Hop Sing! Have you finished putting together that bag?” I shouted down the hallway from my open door. There were times when that little man would drag his feet over the simplest of chores and this was proving to be one of them. All I had asked him to do was to pack up some of the boys’ better clothing. I had decided once I received Adam’s telegram concerning the impending sale of the herd, that I would treat the boys to a well-deserved trip to San Francisco. But they would need better clothing that what they had taken with them on the cattle drive. And I figured one extra bag was not so much for a proud parent to see to. But it seemed that Hop Sing was having a good deal of difficulty accomplishing the task of packing that extra bag.

I shouted his name again and heard more rustling down the hall in Adam’s room. I thought perhaps I should see what was taking him so long. Even though the stage didn’t leave until the next morning, it was my plan to go into Virginia City that night, and get a hotel room. That way I would be well rested for my excursion.

 Finally I decided to have a look to find out what was Hop Sing’s problem. I found him in Adam’s room, carefully folding a white shirt on the bed. There at his feet was a large carpetbag, closed, and obviously full. There beside him on the bed was another smaller bag, open, and he was placing the folded shirt into it.

 “What is taking you so long?” I asked, peering into the open bag. In it, I could see some of Adam’s things as well as what I thought was Hoss’ good jacket.

 “Just about finished. Hop Sing have everything just about ready,” he beamed as he spoke.

 “It takes two bags?” I queried. His pigtail bobbed in time to his nodding.

 “This bag for Mister Adam and Mister Hoss,” he explained, gesturing to the one on the bed he was now closing.

 “Well what’s with this other one? This big one?”

 “That have Lil’ Joe’s in it. And special surprises I send to boys.”

 I gave him my sternest glare, but he didn’t shrink one bit.

 “Hop Sing send Mister Adam his favorite gingerbread.”

 “I am sure that Adam could get gingerbread in Sacramento. True, it may not taste as good as yours but –“

 “And Hop Sing send Mister Hoss sugar cookies.  He no get sugar cookies like Hop Sing’s in Sacramento.”

 I shoved my hands into my pockets, feeling very much like I was losing the battle as well as a war. I had the quick vision of myself hauling a steamer trunk loaded with all my sons’ favorite foods all over California. Hop Sing always thought that his boys were going to starve without him.

 “Well, what in heaven’s name are you sending Joe? From the looks of that bag it must be something fairly large.”
 Hop Sing’s eyes lit up and he smiled like a glorious sunrise. “Hop Sing hope Mister Ben let him send something very special to Lil Joe.” Only Hop Sing still called him that and as Joe would say, "live to repeat it."

 Silence, I thought would be an appropriate reply. Instead of answering my silence with words, he also remained mute.

 “What?” I asked and held my breath for the answer.

 “It right here,” he finally said but didn’t move or gesture towards anything.
 “What is?” I raised my voice.

 The little celestial flinched minutely and I regretted it. He looked quickly to the floor.

 “Hop Sing hope Mister Ben let him go too,” he finally whispered, his gaze still downcast. “Been long time since Hop Sing see family. Hop Sing miss family very much.”

 “You were in San Francisco two months ago!” I thundered. “And you said you were going to see your second cousin twice removed or whatever!”

 His chin came up, defiantly. “Not that family. Hop Sing miss Mister Hoss and Mister Adam and Lil’ Joe, just like you. They gone almost a month now. You talk about going to take boys to San Francisco for holiday. Boys be gone longer then.”

 Taking a deep sigh, I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back against the doorjamb. Hop Sing was right. I had missed my sons and that was probably all the more reason why I had thought about the family holiday in San Francisco. It had just never occurred to me that Hop Sing would miss them as much as I did. But he apparently did.

 “How long will it take you to get your things together?” I relented.

 The sunrise smile returned and he pointed to the bag at his feet. “Hop Sing all ready now.”
 The little man had outfoxed me. Again.

 I was just about to step onto the stage the next morning when the lad from the telegraph office ran over to the depot, shouting my name. He thrust a slim sheet of paper into my hand and stood there panting. Quickly I dug into my pocket and found a nickel for him. He gave me his thanks and disappeared the same way he had appeared.

 Tearing into the white envelope, I expected any thing but what I saw. It was addressed to me from a town by the name of Antioch, which I knew to be just south and west of Sacramento. But that wasn’t what stopped me cold. It was the three words written there: “Help me.” And it was signed simply “Hoss.”

 “You all right, Ben?” Roy Coffee asked. He’d had breakfast with me earlier at the International House and seemed to think that I couldn’t find my way to the stage without his help. I had needed his help but it was with the baggage, not directions. Now, his hand closing over my forearm, jerked me from a rising panic. I thrust the telegraph into his hand.

 “Doesn’t say what happened, Ben. What do you suppose it could mean?”

 “I don’t know. Roy, the stage is leaving and I need to be on it. Even more so now. Would you send Hoss a wire, let him know I am coming as fast as I can?”

 “Course, Ben,” and in a whirl of street dust, the stage pulled out.

 I told Hop Sing what the telegram said and between the two of us we came up with what we thought the answer could be. By the way he had worded it, we took for granted that something had happened to Adam and Joe since Hoss’ pleading said “me” not “us." But there again, it could have also included him as well. We ran it around and around until finally my head was spinning. Considering now that Hop Sing had wanted to come along was a good omen, I decided to see if I could rest. The thoughts now about a holiday in San Francisco had disappeared.

 Our stop in Placerville gave us a more definite idea about what might have happened. It was there that I heard first of the two steamboats having collided on the Sacramento River not far from the little town of Antioch. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why my sons would have been involved since by my calculations, they would have just gotten the herd settled in Sacramento. Whatever the reasoning behind it, a dreaded feeling of fear was settling into my soul that was hard to dismiss. So instead of waiting for the morning train to Sacramento, Hop Sing and I resumed our journey on the night stage, not to Sacramento, but to Stockton. There in the early dawn, we bought passage on a paddle wheeler. Although the boat would ultimately put to port in San Francisco, the ticket agent said they would stop in Antioch.

 “You have kin on the Star or the Queen?” he asked, a toothpick rolling on his lips.

 “ Why? What happened? What does that have to do with Antioch?” I deliberately did not answer his question.

 The little fat man proceeded to tell me of the ill-fated race of the two boats.

 “Many hurt?” I questioned cautiously.

 “Lots of folks hurt, burned mostly. They took all the hurt folks to places in Antioch, Vacaville and Fairfield. There was so many of them, I understand some of ‘em even got sent back upriver to Sacramento.”

 My heart was pounding. “How about casualties?”

 “Well that number keeps inching up. Started out at thirty-nine. I unnerstand that bodies keep rising to the surface where they drowned. That and the hurt folks that don’t make it. Last I heard it was somewhere ‘bout sixty or so. But that may go higher yet ‘cause there was a list of missin’s about a yard long. Some folks has taken out ads in the newspapers, looking for loved ones.”

 I swallowed hard and asked if he had a copy of a newspaper. He handed me one from the day before, crumbled and the ink smeared. But it was readable. So as Hop Sing and I set out on the little side-wheeler Blossom, I read to him about the accident. I couldn’t bring myself to read the ads the ticket agent had mentioned. Nor could I read the long list of the identified dead. I was afraid whose name I would find.

 Not two hours into the trip and we passed the sight of the wreck. The man in Stockton had told it right. Out there on the still and placid water, several men in rowboats were still pulling bodies from the water. The bodies were horribly bloated and a strange fish-belly white. I couldn’t bear to watch yet I did. The wreck itself had other men swarming over it, shouting instructions. It struck me that they were like horrible little bugs, feeding off carrion. Sitting there on the deck in the early morning light, Hop Sing and I passed the rest of our journey in silence. Partly in respect for the scene we had passed and partly for what we both feared awaited us in Antioch.

 We docked in Antioch at mid-morning. The light fog from the Delta made the little town seem to sit in mid-air, up from the river as it was positioned. Hop Sing and I made our way up the gangplank then across the small dock. I noted sadly that on that dock were row upon row of cheap pine coffins. I wondered if one of them held the body of one of my sons. I paused to study them then shook myself and continued on up into the little town, searching for answers.

 I stopped a young lad of about ten and asked for the sheriff’s office. He offered to take me there and carrying our bags, we walked the length of the small town. It didn’t take long.

 “Sheriff Dutton, my name is Ben Cartwright.” I introduced myself to the lean man who sat behind the desk there in the sheriff’s office.

 He shook my hand, his grip solid and firm. “You have kin on one of the steamboats?” he asked, sitting back down.

 “I’m not sure. I received a telegram from one of my sons asking for help and it came from here,” I explained.

 He nodded, his sad brown eyes taking us in as he did so. “Mister, the past few days, they’ve had to bring in help over the telegraph office there’s been so many messages goin’ in and out. But if you can describe who it was that sent you that telegram, I might be able to help you.”

 He recognized Hoss’ description at once and sent Hop Sing and I over to the small hotel there on the main street. Like the rest of the town, the hotel was a sad, shabby affair, but checking with the clerk told me that two men by the name of Cartwright were registered there, same room. “You might say we’ve had a run on places to stay lately, Mister so I can’t rent you a room. That is until one of them folks as was hurt either moves out or dies. You got a problem sleepin’ in a bed where a body died?”

 I simply glared at him. His whole attitude spoke of the love of money not the love of his fellow man and he proved it by continuing, “Five bucks will hold you a spot in line. ‘Course you can’t have the Chinaman in the room. They have to sleep-“

 He never finished his statement. And that was mostly due to the revolver I found in my hand and pointed levelly at his mid-section.

 “What room are they in?” I asked.

 “Seven.” He backed away from the counter, clearly afraid. He would never know it but I was more afraid than he was. Something had come over me. And it wouldn’t let go.

 Bags jostling and shifting, Hop Sing and I made our way to room number seven. As I went to open the door, I drew a deep breath, steeling myself for what I might find and sending a fervent prayer heavenward.

 In the bright gold light of morning as it slanted across the high narrow bed, I saw Adam. One arm was bandaged from his bicep down, covering his fingers and it laid like an inanimate object on the bed beside him. The thin sheet and blanket covering him was pulled only to his waist so I could see the heavy wrapping around his chest. I stepped to the bedside and grimaced when I saw all the tiny cuts and bruises on his face and shoulders. I called his name, gently placing a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t stir.

 A small sound behind made me turn. There was Hoss, his face bruised, his clothes rumpled, a cut over one eye that looked so much like an out of place smile.

 “Pa,” he whispered. I heard within the word a desperate longing of a little boy grown large.

 Leaving Adam’s side I stepped to Hoss quickly, grabbing one of his massive arms. I could feel that he was shaking but whether it was from fear, pain or relief I couldn’t tell. I directed him back to the chair he had apparently just left.

 “What happened, Hoss?” I asked softly, brushing a strand of his thinning hair back from his face, as I knelt before him.

 “It was terrible, Pa. Like out of a nightmare,” and he proceeded to tell me of the race and the collision of the two boats.“Some how or ‘nother, Joe got me to shore but then he went back to help other folks, Pa. Adam helped out too, bringing folks to shore. I stayed and helped where I could but there was just so many hurt. Then the Queen exploded in this big ball of fire. I was really scared then ‘cause I had seen Joe and Adam helpin’ a lady into a little rowboat right along side of it. The fellas in the boat got the lady and Adam to shore but Adam had been knocked out. I stayed with Adam but I kept a watch out for Joe. When the wagons begin comin’ to haul out the hurt, I made sure of where Adam was headed but then I started looking for Joe. Pa, I ain’t found him yet.”

 “Do you think Joe may have been hurt in the blast?” I asked and Hoss nodded.
 “Had to have been since he was on the deck, right ‘bout where I saw the first flash. Pa, I’ve looked ever’ where.” It was of no surprise that my son was crying as he finished his tale.

 I took a deep breath and rocked back on my heels. I patted Hoss’ knee. “We’ll find him,” I said, unsure of just how I would go about it but sure that it could be done. “But right now I need to know about you and Adam. Are you all right?”

 Instinctively, Hoss put his hand to his forehead and said he did have an awful headache. “Adam got the worst of it. The doctor who was here earlier said he had some busted ribs and his arm got burnt some. But worse’n that, he’s got a concussion. A bad one the doc said. Said we got to watch him, try to rouse him but he ain’t yet and that’s been almost forty eight hours ago. But I’ve slept some myself. Not done a very good job of looking out for my brothers, have I, Pa?” He finished with his head hung low.

 “It’s all right, son. I’m here now. Between Hop Sing and I we should be able to give you a hand.”

 “That’s good ‘cause I done spent the last of the money I had on that fool doctor. Man wanted it up front, Pa, or he wouldn’t even look at Adam. There was a woman come by and offered herself as a nurse but when I told her I didn’t have no money, she just disappeared.”

 Again I patted his knee and rose to stand before him. “Son, it’s all right. You get some sleep. Hop Sing and I will tend to things here.”

 “Pa?” Hoss asked and turned his face up to me, his eyes glistening with tears. “Help me find Joe, okay?”

 I nodded my assent.

 Once we had Hoss bedded down as comfortably as we could get him on the floor, I checked Adam again. I shook his shoulder gently and called his name again. But to no avail.

 “Mister Ben, you go look for Lil Joe. Hop Sing stay here and look after Mister Hoss and Mister Adam.” Hop Sing encouraged and I marveled that the man seemed to have read my mind. I dug into my pocket and gave him all the paper money there and instructed him to arrange for food for himself and the boys when they awoke.

 It was afternoon when I finally left the hotel room. My first destination was back down to the dock where I had seen a posted list. Someone had tried to list where the injured had been taken but it had been marked on and corrected so many times, it was hard to read. Added to that problem was the fact that often times, there was no name attached to the injured so it would read “female, mid to late twenties, brown hair, medium size, sent to Sacramento.” As I scanned the list for “male, late teens to early twenties, brown hair, medium build,” it struck me how many of them there were on the list. And they seemed to have been scattered to the far corners of the earth.

 “Looking for someone in particular?” a portly man at my shoulder asked.

 I glanced at him briefly then continued my reading. “Yes,” I said, “My youngest son. He was on the Queen. You?”

 “I was on the Queen myself. What did your boy look like? I might be able to help ya.”

 Quickly I described Joseph, half way through realizing I was describing his personality and actions more than his physical presence. The man listened solemnly then nodded his head.

 “Your boy wear his gun on the left side?”

 My heart leapt in hope.

 “I saw him on the Queen as it was goin’ down. He’d been helpin’ folks, swimmin’ some to shore, getting’ others to the little rowboats. Him and another fella, a bigger man, dark hair and clothes, they were real heroes out there.  Saw them on the deck just ‘fore it exploded.”

 “That other man was one of my other sons. Tell me, did you see what happened to him? The younger one?”

 Slowly, the man shook his head. “Sorry, mister.  I helped pull the dark haired one to dry ground but I don’t think the other boy made it. Don’t recall seein’ him after that.” He put a hand to my shoulder and patted it gently.

 I simply stood there and let his words echo around in my head. I couldn’t even begin to think that Joseph hadn’t made it out alive. I just couldn’t. He was my son, my youngest, my baby. As I had listened, the man had spoken of him as a hero. I didn’t want a hero. I wanted my son.

“Excuse me,” I called to the man’s departing back, unaware when he had turned to leave. When he turned back to look at me, I said “ Thank you for your information. If you hear of anything or see anything, my name is Ben Cartwright and my other sons and I are over here at the hotel. I would appreciate it if you could get a message to me.”

He nodded then asked “Your boy’s name?”

I had to stop myself for I had almost called my son by his old nickname: Little Joe. But having heard the praise the man given him, I reminded myself that those were not the actions of a boy, but a man. “Joseph, Joseph Cartwright.” I said.

“I’ll look for him, Mr. Cartwright. It’s the least I can do, seein’s how I was one of the ones he pulled to safety.” He tipped his hat and was gone.

Once again I turned back to the list and scanned it. This was of no use, I decided so I turned back to the small town. This time, once I was up on the main street, I looked for a newspaper office. It was at the far end of town, next to the saloon. When I stepped through one of the narrow double doors, the strong smell of ink assailed me. A man, hunched over by age, nearly bald, answered my hail.

“What can I do fer ya?” he asked, squinting at me over the rim of half glasses.

“I’m looking for information concerning the accident,” I explained.

“Iffen it’s kin you’re lookin’ fer, there’s a list down by the dock,” he said and started to return to the back room from which he had come.

“Yes, I am looking for one of my sons, but what I wanted to ask was there any rhyme or reason to where the injured were taken?”

The man harrumphed just once and seemed to think before he spoke. “Nope, not that I can think of, but it did seem that it mattered what shoreline they were on. Iffen your son was on the south shore, most likely he would have stayed there, comin’ here to Antioch. But if he was on the north shore, probably went to Vacaville or Suisun. But if he were hurt real bad, well, some went to Sacramento, others to San Francisco. Sorry I can’t be more helpful, Mister. You want to place an ad fer ‘im? Only cost you two bits.”

Once again, I heard money being bantered about. It had seemed that if you had coin in your pocket, there was someone here who was going to take it from you. All in the name of 'helping'. I shook my head slowly. “No, I don’t think so. At least not right now.” I pushed back from the counter and headed for the door.

“Hey mister!” the little man called out and I paused. “Hope you find your boy okay. The Sheriff is settin’ up a morgue down in the schoolhouse. You might want to check there.”

I shuddered with the thought of finding Joseph there. I walked slowly across the mean little street, now awash in late afternoon sunlight. The town seemed strangely quiet, almost as if it were holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. A scruffy dog lay in the doorway of the saloon and as I stepped to the batwing doors, he simply looked up at me.

A bartender or a saloon girl can have information that no one else does and have it before anyone else. But it must be bought and paid for in advance. This I could understand but not that of the other hands held out that I had experienced.

“Barkeep! Whiskey, please,” I ordered even though a whiskey was the last thing I truly wanted in my hand.

The fat bartender wiped his hands on his once white apron and set me up. When he set the bottle on the bar, I asked him to leave it and laid my last twenty dollar gold piece on the walnut surface. When he reached for it, I clamped my hand over his, gently but firmly.

“If you can give me some information, you can keep the change.” I offered, speaking softly.

“Sure thing, mister. What d’ya want to know?”

“Who owned the Delta Queen? And where can I find them?”

Before the man could answer, a voice from across the room called out, “I represent the Queen, here, sir. Perhaps I can better answer your question than Toby.”

Still not turning loose of the bartender’s hand, I half-turned to the voice. It belonged to a rake thin man dressed in a blue suit and white shirt. He had a thin mustache and goatee that didn’t seem to match the rest of him. Maybe it was because I was predestined to hate him that I instantly didn’t like him. Of that, I am not altogether sure about. But I do know that just to look at him made me want to curl my hand into a fist and smash his smug countenance.

“My name is Ben Cartwright. My three sons were on your vessel when it rammed the Delta Star. I have found my older sons but information concerning my youngest is hard come by. I was in hopes that someone around here could help me out.”

“Well, Mister Cartwright, I am Jonathan Loveridge, part owner of the Queen. First let me tell you how sorry I am about this whole business-“ he started as he stood up, extending his hand to me. I let go of Toby’s hand and it disappeared along with the rest of him and my twenty-dollar piece.

“I don’t care how sorry you are, Mister Loveridge. I need to find my missing son. And promptly. From what I have been told by others who last saw him, he may be grievously injured.” I went on and related to him what Hoss had told me as well as the man on the dock. As I did so, Mr. Loveridge came to stand beside me at the bar railing, leaning on it casually. Again I had to fight the urge to hit the man just on general principle.

Mr. Loveridge pursed his lips and nodded his head slowly when I finished. “You aren’t the first person I’ve heard talk about those two young men. They are heroes, Mister Cartwright, real heroes. It is my understanding that if it hadn’t been for their efforts, lots more folks would have perished that night.”

“Please forgive me. I don’t want praise for what my sons did. I want my sons. I don’t need heroes. I need my sons,” I hissed vehemently.

He pushed back from the bar and looked at his feet a long moment. “You are aware that we have yet to account for twenty-six passengers, aren’t you? Their bodies may be trapped in the wreckage. Maybe floated further downstream than we have searched. But rest assured, sir, we will account for them all.”

“I don’t want an accounting, Mister Loveridge. That means absolutely nothing to me,” and I tried to keep my voice under control but I was losing my patience rapidly. I had reached out and grabbed hold of his arm, gripping it tightly.

He looked down his long thin nose at my hand on his arm, distain dripping from his features. “I will do what I can, sir.” And he wrenched his arm away from me and walked out the door, straightening his jacket as he went.

I was still seething when I noticed that Toby, the bartender, was back. He slid my gold piece across the walnut top towards me.

“Here, mister. I can’t take your money. One of your boys helped my wife and baby girl off the Queen. Drinks are on the house as long as you’re here in town.”

“Your wife-“ I started to ask but Toby slowly shook his head ‘no’.

“My baby girl is okay though, thanks to one of your boys. And if you wait right here, I think I got somethin’ that might belong to him.”

Toby was gone all of three minutes and when he came back into the bar, I saw what he was carrying and my heart nearly broke.

“My wife, just ‘fore she passed over, said that a man took this off and wrapped it around Amanda, that’s my daughter, and used the sleeves like a handle to lower her into the boat. Then he just disappeared. Is it your son’s?” he asked and handed me the green jacket Joseph always wore.

As I held the familiar fabric in my hands, it felt cold to me, devoid of life. I quickly checked the inside pocket. There was still Joe’s wallet there and the locket that had belonged to his mother. Nothing else, for he never carried anything else. In a haze, I thanked Toby and left the saloon, headed back towards the hotel in the dimming light.

While I walked down the narrow wooden walkway, I tried to analyze what I was feeling and doing. Part of me wanted to rush about like a wild man to find Joseph. I was sure that he was somewhere, injured, needing help. But there was that other part of me, trying to be logical and methodical, that told me he would not be found alive. That I needed to go to the morgue and claim his remains. I was torn also between protecting Adam and Hoss, taking care of them, and searching for Joe. I couldn’t do both at the same time. Could I let Hoss handle the entire burden of a fruitless search? No, as close as my two younger sons were, I knew that should Hoss have to find his beloved little brother’s remains, it would crush him. But would it be any different for me? Probably not but I had handled death before. It would be a bitter draught to swallow but I knew I might have to do so.  I could leave Adam to Hoss and Hop Sing’s care, but I felt that if I did I would be deserting Adam. So many times when he was growing up, I had not been there for him when he was ill or hurt. As a result, he would always try to hide the hurt or the illness, if only to keep me going. No, I couldn’t leave my sons when they needed me. And Adam needed me.

I heard a strange voice behind the hotel room door as I stood in the hallway, summoning the courage to enter. Rising above it was Hop Sing’s strident singsong, insistent and angry. Pushing the door open, I saw a man at there at Adam’s bedside, Hop Sing hanging on to his arm for all he was worth.

“What’s going on here?” I demanded and the two combatants turned to me.

“This man, he say he doctor. He want to bleed Mister Adam. Hop Sing say he no do!” The little man turned loose of the other’s arm, coming to stand before me like a feisty bantam rooster. Under lowered brows, I studied the man and Hop Sing.

“My name is Doctor Horace Somers. Am I to gather that you are this young man’s father?” As he spoke, he extended his hand to me, the one not holding a scalpel.

“Yes. My name is Ben Cartwright, Doctor Somers. I would appreciate an explanation of what’s happening here.” I shook the proffered hand but it felt lifeless and cold. Unwillingly, I compared it to the handshake of Paul Martin and found it sorely wanting.

When Hop Sing started to excitedly explain, I placed a hand on his slight shoulder, letting it ask for his silence. He subsided immediately but did not budge from my side. I let my hand remain, holding him down as it were.

“Your servant here seems to think he knows more about medicine than I do, sir, and I would appreciate it if you would remove him while I tend to your son. I was simply going to bleed your son a little. He hasn’t woke up yet from his concussion and it concerns me,” the doctor explained, his gestures sharp, punctuating his statement.

“And you are of the opinion that letting blood would do what? Besides weaken him? Our physician back home in Nevada has never once used this treatment to my knowledge in dealing with a concussion.”

The doctor gave a deprecating snort. “This is not the wilds of Nevada, sir.”

It was now Hop Sing’s turn to hold me down, his little hand gripping my arm with far more strength than I would have ever given him credit for having.

“Granted, this is not the ‘wilds of Nevada’, as you so eloquently phrased it, but even in the wilds of Nevada, we have figured out that blood letting does absolutely no good. If that is the only treatment you can give my son, I suggest that you take your scalpel and leave.”

The look the doctor gave me said it all: he thought I was a complete idiot.

“Very well but when your son takes a turn for the worse, don’t come looking for me. Now if you will excuse me, I have some patients waiting for me who will not argue with my procedures.” He turned back to where his bag was opened on the nightstand and dropped his knife back into it, then snapped it closed. Hop Sing left my side long enough to fetch the dark jacket that had been hung on the back of the chair. He held it like a snake that would have bitten him.

“Should have known when I found a yellow heathen in here tending –“ he began.

“Doctor Somers, once again I ask you to leave. Take your antiquated medical practices and your unfounded prejudices from my presence or so help me God, I will shove your bag and all it contains down your throat. Do I make myself abundantly clear?” By that time I was coming close to losing all restraint and found myself shouting at the man.

His nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed as he shrugged into his jacket. He pulled himself to his fullest height, which let him come to shoulder high to me. “That will be twenty dollars,” he hissed.

I was not about to pay the man but wisely, Hop Sing interceded and reaching into his loose gray trousers, pulled out the wad of money I had left with him earlier. He quickly pealed off several bills and held them out to Somers. It galled the doctor no end, I could tell, to have to take money from someone he deemed to be a “ yellow heathen” and he hesitated. Then, as if to even come close to touching Hop Sing’s hand would infect him with some terrible disease, he snatched the bills away and nearly ran out of the room. Hop Sing, a benevolent smile plastered on his face crossed to the door to close it. Before he did, he leaned out into the hallway and shouted something in his native language.

When the door was closed, I allowed a smile to come to my face and saw its echo on Hop Sing’s. “What did you just say to him?” I asked.

Hop Sing had scurried to Adam’s bedside and was busy righting pillows behind Adam’s dark head. He was pointedly ignoring me.

“Hop Sing, what did you say to him?”

“Mister Hoss go to get dinner for us. He be back right away, he say. You find anything about Lil Joe?”

Trust Hoss to think of feeding us all but I still wanted to know what Hop Sing had called after the doctor. I asked again. “What did you say?”

When Hop Sing looked up from his straightening, an expression crossed his face I had seen hundreds of times. But not on his face. The eyes were wide and innocent looking, the smile barely there and the head, a little inclined.  Now did Joe learn that from Hop Sing or the other way around?  I wondered.

“Hop Sing?” I warned.

His head bobbed just once then his shoulders squared and his jaw firmed. “Hop Sing suggest he ask mother about father.”

Shaking my head and blowing out a sigh of exasperation, I sank into the chair at Adam’s side.

“You find out anything about Lil Joe?” Hop Sing asked again, sitting on the foot of the bed gingerly.

“No, not exactly,” and reluctantly, I handed Hop Sing the jacket I still held. As I watched him, the celestial took it and rubbed at the rough green fabric with one finger. Speaking softly, I told him what Toby the bartender had told me. He nodded a time or two but never looked up to meet my eyes, keeping his to the jacket he lovingly held. For several long moments after I had finished the telling, there was nothing but silence in the room. Then Hop Sing slipped from his perch on the bed and hugging the jacket to him, went to stand at the sole window in the room.

“You think Lil Joe dead?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper, filled with hurt.

“I’m trying not to think it but the more I hear about the accident, about what Adam and Joe were doing following it, about how they were helping others, about the explosion…” and I let my own voice fall away to nothing.

“But Mister Adam live,” he pointed out.

“But Adam was not on the deck when the Queen exploded. He was apparently already in the water. Joe was on the deck and would have either been blown off it and into the water or –“ and again my voice stopped in its own, not wanting to say that he would have been blown apart the same way the boat had been.

“No, Lil Joe still alive,” and with those four words, Hop Sing seemed so sure. I wanted to believe it as well.

Adam awoke briefly the next morning. He asked for his brothers and I gave him the truth: Hoss was out that morning, searching in the towns on the north side of the river. After he had a sip of water, he fell back asleep. I sat there beside him, touching him, trying to smooth the lines from his face. An irrational fear cropped up in me: that I would lose this son to this accident as well. Perhaps if I just stayed there with him, kept him in my grasp, let him feel me close at hand, he would live. I tried to tell myself that it was the lack of proper rest, not eating right and worrying why I started to cry. I dashed a hand across my face, willing the tears to stop but they wouldn’t. Suddenly the load was just too heavy for me to carry any longer.

“Pa?” came Hoss’ gentle, concerned voice at my shoulder. I tried to turn to him but found myself too immersed in grief to even move. Tenderly, he pulled me away from the bed and as I stumbled, he caught me in those great arms of his and held me. I leaned against him and let the fear and pain and worry wash over me, knowing that this son of mine would be there to help me.

His gentle words of love, faith and endurance bolstered my flagging soul. When I finally regained some control, I managed to push away from his massive chest. The look on his face threatened to send me into complete despair. Tears ran down his cheeks unheeded, his blue eyes bright with them. “No, Pa. I still ain’t found him. I come back to tell you that I’m gonna go down to the schoolhouse. See if he’s there.”

“No,” I said, searching for the strength somewhere within myself to go and do the chore myself. “You stay here with Adam for a while.”

"But Pa, I seen some of the bodies they pulled from the river that day. I'll go. I can do it," he protested, his hand out to stop me from leaving.

"I never said that you couldn't Hoss. I just think this is something I need to do myself. Stay here with Adam, please. I don’t want him waking up alone. He seemed very agitated the last time he awoke and with those busted ribs, that isn't good. No, Hoss, you stay here with Adam. I'll go down to where-" and my voice caught in my throat. Could Hoss see through my lie? Adam had not been that upset. But I knew that should Hoss go with me to the morgue, he would forever see his beloved little brother only the way Joe would appear in death, not the vital young man he'd been in life. So I used a lie to anchor Hoss here with Adam.

Hoss again pleaded to go with me but I couldn’t do that to him. I just couldn’t. I patted his hand and picking up my hat, went to the door.

“Pa, please?” he begged a final time.

I shook my head and said “No,” then walked out into the hallway, the door closing behind me.

The walk down the street towards the makeshift morgue was the longest I believe I had ever taken. With each and every step, the fear and dread became a heavier and heavier burden to carry. By the time I reached the doorway, I was shaking. I paused there, looking into the single large room. It was so incongruous, I thought. There on the walls were bright pictures drawn by the children of the town. The blackboard still held the day’s assignments. The light shone through the open windows and through them I could see the recess yard, a rope swing dangling from a tree. But the desks and chairs were nowhere to be seen. In their place, sawhorses with wood planks held sheet shrouded bodies. And the smell of death permeated the air.

I stood aside as an older woman, crying loudly, was escorted from within by a younger man. Once again I fought for control of my emotions, thinking that I was the only one who could do this.

“Can I help you?” a man in a minister’s garb asked, seeing my hesitancy.

“I’ve come looking for my son,” I explained, not looking at him but at the two rows of shrouds.

“When we could determine the gender, we put the women on the right, men to the left. Those bodies which are too badly burned for easy recognition, we placed at the back.” He explained as he walked with me, his hand under my elbow guiding me to the left. “Tell me about your boy,” he encouraged, “How old was he? Did he have any distinguishing marks on him? What color were his eyes?”

Although I gave him the right answers, another set of replies swirled about my mind as I said them.  How old was he? When? When he was teasing with his brothers? Or when he was working with his horses? How do you judge the age of your child? Distinguishing marks? How about a ready laugh? A quick smile? How he never seemed to just walk somewhere? And his eyes could flash from green to hazel, depending on his mood. And how he would give the girls a saucy wink, even in church when he thought I wasn’t looking.

One after another, the minister raised the sheets covering the faces of nameless men. I would shake my head ‘no’ and we would go to the next. Finally we came to the back of the room and I could not will myself any further. There were the bodies, he had said, that would be difficult to recognize. He allowed me stand there for a long moment before he put his hand to arm.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, peering up into my face.

“No,” I admitted, “I don’t want to but I need to.”

“Perhaps someone else…” and his voice trailed off.

“No. He was my son. It’s my job.” I tugged on my vest and started to the five sheet covered bodies. The first two I stopped the man from raising the coverings. They were simply too tall to have been Joseph. The third one he raised and I could tell by what little hair was left that it had been blonde, not Joseph’s luxuriant chestnut locks. The fourth body I also dismissed but only by looking at the hands. By the time we stepped to the fifth body, my heart was pounding furiously in my chest. The minister held me up with one hand as he pulled the sheet back from a body completely blackened by fire, all distinguishing facial features obliterated. It was arched still in the throes of death. Little by little, the sheet was pulled back and little by little my resolve to continue weakened. I will never in my life forget that horrible sight and the crashing feeling of lost hope until the feet were exposed. There was still one boot on a foot.

I must have cried out for the minister quickly covered the body back up and hurried me out the side door. I couldn’t find my legs to walk any further so I sat on the schoolhouse steps and buried my head in my hands. Over my head, I heard the minister praying for strength and guidance during these difficult days. When he stopped, I raised up.

“Thank you,” I said, and found my heart in my throat again.

“What would you like us to do with your son’s remains? With this heat, I am afraid the bodies won’t hold very much longer before we have to bury them. Perhaps if you can get some ice?” he offered, his solicitousness not falling on deaf ears.

“Thank you,” I repeated, “But that wasn’t my son.”

“But your reaction, sir. Are you sure?”

“I am sure, Reverend. My son had pulled his boots off before going into the river that night. Several people have told me how he helped them get to shore. I taught my son to never, ever, if he could help it, go into the water with his boots on. I am sure he followed my instructions that night.” As I said the words, the relief they had brought me just moments ago was replaced by a bitter sadness.

“I will pray for you and your son then. That you may find him still able to follow your heedings.”

Once again I thanked the preacher and stood up, new resolve to find Joseph flowing through me.

I returned to the hotel room and was relieved to find Adam awake and aware, talking with Hoss. From somewhere, Hop Sing had procured the makings for a simple meal of sandwiches and coffee. I noted that the gingerbread he had made for Adam was on the nightstand and several slices were missing from it. When I stepped into the room, all eyes turned to me.

"No, he wasn't there," I answered the question unspoken by the three.

"What do we do now then, Pa? I done checked all the places on both shores and he ain't at none of 'em." Hoss mumbled around a huge bite of a sandwich.

"That only leaves two other places that they would have taken him to: San Francisco or back to Sacramento. And since we seemed to have alienated the only physician this town has to offer, it might do us well to go ourselves."

"You mean that Doctor Somers?" Hoss queried, his head tilting to one side. I saw Adam also turn a puzzled look in my direction.

Ignoring the question and the chair across the room, I went and sat on the side of the bed at Adam's right. "How are you feeling? Any dizziness? Queasiness?" I reached out to touch him, lost in concern to recall that he was not the son who always longed for that sort of physical connection. It surprised me when he reached out and laid his hand on my leg and his eyes pleaded for something I could only describe as a child-like longing.

"Hoss, how about you and Hop Sing go and see when the next, God help for me for saying it, when the next boat leaves for San Francisco." I suggested and before I knew it, Adam and I were alone in the small shabby room.

"What is it, son?" I asked cautiously and slowly ran my hand up and down his unbandaged arm. "Are you in pain?"

He shook his head and looked away from me. I knew if I waited long enough, Adam might open up and tell me what was bothering him or he may very well stay closed up tight. I couldn't handle the silence and once again I asked him what was bothering him.

"You mean besides the fact that my brother may very well be dead?" Adam snorted derisively, trying to cover his emotions behind a mask of cynicism.

I settled myself a little further onto the bed and allowed my hand to cover his. Still he looked away from me.

"Adam, look at me," I ordered sharply. When he did so I continued but the misery apparent in his dark eyes made me soften my words. "I imagine that right now, you are beating yourself up over this. You feel totally responsible for what happened. Am I right?"

"Pa, if you are going to tell differently-"

"That is exactly what I am telling you! I am sure that when this whole idea came up, you tried to talk him out of it. Probably several times over if I know you and after all these years as your father, I think I know you pretty well. And I know just how persuasive your brother could be when he got caught up in some scheme. I also know that there are sometimes that you just have to let go and allow the chips to fall as they may."

"But Pa, I could have stopped him. I could have put my foot down and made-"

"Made him mad, maybe." I interrupted him. "Adam, you are an engineer. Can you push water up hill? Can you tell the rain to fall up? If you saw a boulder rolling downhill, you wouldn't stand in its path and try to stop it, would you? Dealing with your brother could be just like that. The boy had a mind of his own and sometimes all the logic in the world wouldn't have any effect on him. He just had to experience it for himself."

"But-" Again Adam tried to justify himself, not realizing that he had no need to do so.

And again I stopped him. "There are no 'buts' about it, son. You are trying to take the blame for something that you are blameless for. If anyone needs to be blamed for what caused this, it's me. I couldn't bring myself to ever come down hard enough on the boy to make a long term change in him. Truthfully, I never wanted to. I always wanted that spirit of his to have complete free rein because it made me feel younger. And that is something that I will have to find some way to live with now that he may very well be gone: that if I would have been a better father, he would still be alive."

"Have you come to the conclusion that he is dead?" Adam whispered, his eyes downcast.

I closed my hand over his and took a deep breath. "Not until they show his cold lifeless body will I think of him as dead. But more and more of what I hear and what I know in my heart, makes it hard to not think that way. What do you think? You saw him last. Could he have survived the explosion?"

As I watched, Adam chewed his lower lip in thought, something he hadn't done in ages. "Survive the explosion, yes, possibly. But the force of it probably knocked him unconscious and since he was already standing on the edge of the deck, it most likely knocked him into the water. And an unconscious man in the water doesn't stand much of a chance. If he survived, it was because someone got to him quickly and hauled him to shore."

I couldn't tell Adam but his words, spoken so precisely, tore at my soul. Even though I had thought much along the same lines, to hear them voiced aloud gave more pain than I thought I could bear. It must have showed, for Adam pulled his hand from mine and reached out to touch my face.

"Pa," he said softly, "I'm sorry. No, don't interrupt me. Let me say this. Like you, until I see his body, I am not going to ever think of him as anything but alive and laughing. And I don't think any one of us, me, Hoss or Joe, would have ever said that you were less than the best father a man could have. Just like you said that I am blameless, so are you, Pa. It was an accident. A stupid, horrifying accident that should never have happened. But it did. And the hole it created in our lives right now can only be filled by finding him. One way or another, we need to find him. So if we need to go to San Francisco or Sacramento or China, for that matter, let's go and go now. Use whatever means, whatever resources we have to find him. I may not be much help out pounding on doors, but I'll find a way to look for him."

"Thank you, Adam."

"But there is something I want to do right now," he said and I looked quickly into his dark eyes, wondering what it was he needed or wanted. He swallowed once and continued, his hand falling to my shoulder and staying there." I may be a poor substitute for him but I need something from you that I am sure would have been your first reaction to Joe."

Wordlessly, I gathered my oldest child into my loving embrace and held him there. "You are not a poor substitute. You are my son," I whispered, as stroked his dark hair.


 When Hop Sing and I returned from the docks, I wasn't sure what had happened between Adam and Pa but Pa seemed to have picked up in spirit some. Considerin' how he had been lookin' when he came back from that schoolhouse-morgue, I wasn't so sure but what Pa needed to be in that bed worse than Adam. He had been so worn out and frazzled looking, I could tell he was hangin' on by just a thread. But when we came back with the news of the next boat out, Pa looked a touch better.

"Next boat goes to Sacramento, Pa. We want to go there?" I asked, picking up another slice of gingerbread from the nightstand.

"Way I look at it, it’s a fifty-fifty gamble. From what I've heard, they took injured to both cities. I don't know about you boys, but I feel that time is important right now. What do you say? Adam? Feel up to another boat ride? It would be easier on you than a stage would be."

"If Hoss can help me get dressed and get to the gangplank, I can do it. And quit eating my gingerbread. Hop Sing brought you sugar cookies! You eat 'em up already?" Adam fussed at me. I could see that it hurt him to move a lot, what with his chest bein' stove in and all, but there was no way he was gonna be able to eat all the gingerbread Hop Sing had brought him. And I told him so.

"Going back to Sacramento may be the best thing to do, Pa," Adam said, ignoring me now. "The horses are there and having them at our disposal will make hunting easier. Not only that, the draft for the sale of the herd is still in the safe at the Cattlemen's Hotel."

Pa snorted and took a sip of the coffee Hop Sing and I had gotten earlier from the little café across the street. "Yes," he said, looking more into his cup than at any of us,"It seems wherever I turn, there is someone standing there with his hand out. They call it 'helping' but I think the only helping they are doing is helping themselves."

"Ain't that the truth?!" I agreed. When I had first managed to get Adam here to this ugly dank little room it had only been because I had the money in our pockets to pay for it in advance. That was gone by the time Pa had gotten there. For the first time in my life, I saw the benefits of being a rich man over a poor one. These folks didn't know who I was nor where I was from. They didn't know nuthin' about me but judged me and Adam not by our need but by the color of our money. I thought it was a mighty poor way to deal with folks.

"We'll need to cash that bank draft right away," Pa was saying and it pulled me back into the conversation. "How much was passage going to be?" he asked me.

When I told him, I saw him flinch like I had reached out and pinched him.

"Unfortunately, boys, I think that is more than we have at our disposal right now," and he gestured to Hop Sing who pulled a roll of bank notes from his pocket and gave them to Pa. He quickly counted the money and he was right. We didn't have enough for all of us to go.

"Pa, I'll find someway of getting there on my own. You take Adam and Hop Sing and go tomorrow mornin'" I offered. Even if I had to walk the sixty miles back to Sacramento, I would have done it without complaint.

"No!" and Pa's voice was sharp. It was my turn to flinch. "This family has been apart for too long. We either all go together or we all stay here together."

"But that ain't gonna help Joe, where ever he is," Adam murmured.

I couldn't have agreed more.

Hop Sing glided over to Pa's side and held out something to him. My heart missed a beat or two when I recognized what Hop Sing had given him. It was Joe's wallet. I knew how Pa had gotten Joe's jacket but it had never occurred to me that his wallet would have still been in it.

"Well, it seems for once that all our lessons about saving your money didn't fall on deaf ears. Joe has about forty dollars in here." Pa smiled as he counted the sheaf of bills there. I didn't want to tell Pa that the last time I had seen that wallet and that money it was right after a rather successful hand of poker for my little brother. It could just have easily have been empty if the cards he had been dealt hadn't been a pair of queens. Joe always did have the best of luck with the ladies, except that last one, the Delta Queen.
"What about San Francisco? Maybe we should split up and -" Adam was suggesting but Pa's thundered "no" stopped him cold.

"Didn't you just hear what I said about this family being apart? I swear Adam Cartwright, there are times I would take your stubbornness for your brother's. And I don't mean Hoss! When we get to Sacramento, we'll take a quick look around. I'll put an ad in the newspaper then go on San Francisco. But my first concern once we get to Sacramento is to find a competent doctor to tend to you, Adam. I am not so sure that Doctor Somers was anything but a quack!"

"You never did say what happened with him, Pa," I reminded him then wished I hadn't for it got me a real black look.

"He had some very unkind things to say about Nevada. And his practice seemed a little outdated to me. We dismissed him. Hop Sing paid him off and showed him the door," Pa explained and the glance between Hop Sing and Pa told me that the doctor's leaving hadn't been his idea at all. I wondered whose footprint was on his britches: Pa's boot or Hop Sing's slipper. It was a toss up either way.

"Well, if we're gonna be on that boat back to Sacramento in the morning, we need to get some sleep tonight." I caught Pa's drift right away.

Once the light was out, I could see there was a thin sliver of moon and it shone into the little room. I had stretched out on the floor over by the window so I could look out into the night sky real easy. Off to one side, Hop Sing was curled like a small child on the little rug at the foot of the bed and Pa sat slouched in the chair, his head resting on his fist. Adam seemed to be just as restless as I felt and after a while, we both gave up the pretense of trying to sleep.

"Adam, you awake?" I called out softly.

"Yeah" came his deep baritone, equally as soft.

I glanced over at Pa. I didn't want to wake him so I got up real quiet-like and went to sit on the floor at the side of the bed, leaning against it at the head. Adam rolled to that side and for a while we stayed just like that, quiet and together. Finally I couldn't take it any longer.

"Adam, I miss him somethin' awful," I admitted.

"Me too" he whispered back and I felt his hand drop down and land on my shoulder. "But neither one of us misses him as bad as Pa does."

"Suppose he's still alive?" I asked what had weighed heavily on my heart for the past few days.

"Pa and I talked about that earlier."


I heard Adam take as deep a breath as I thought he could without hurtin' himself a whole lot. When he didn't answer right away, I looked up into his face. Now when Adam is hurtin' either from the inside or from the outside, it's like he pulls a mask down over his face so you can't see what he's feelin'. That's what I expected to see. But the mask wasn't there that night and it was just like his soul was a book laid out in the bright sunlight for all to read. Take ever' painful, hurtin' emotion there is and it was written all over my big brother's face. Then the mask dropped down and Adam was hiding behind it again.

"The odds are kind of long on it, Hoss," he sighed and his hand there on my shoulder began to move in a slow circular motion, just like what I used to see Pa doin' with Joe. It felt comforting, a connection, a bond building as he told me about how he last saw Joe standing on the deck of the boat.

"So you think when he hit the water he weren't conscious?"

"Hoss, let's face some things right now. First of all, Joe wasn't a very big man. The explosion in all likelihood tore him apart. That's why we haven't found anyone who saw him after the explosion. But supposing that he did survive the blast, hitting water with any force is like hitting a brick wall. Water doesn't 'give' and that may have done a whole lot of damage to him. It would have knocked him out at the very least. That is if the force of the explosion didn't. And an unconscious body usually floats face down."

"So what you are sayin' is that if the boat goin' up didn't kill him right off, he drowned?"

"Yes, Hoss. As much as I hate to say it, that's probably what happened. But just for the sake of argument, let's assume that he survived both the explosion and the fall into the water. Let's say somehow he managed to get to shore, either under his own power or with help. Once again, you've found no one who has seen him. But let's get beyond that. A little while ago, I think we all came across a startling revelation: the key to getting through this has been money. What do you think would have happened to me if you hadn't had the money for this room? For the doctor?"

I thought about it for a moment then answered sadly, "No body would have helped us, would they?"

"That's right, big fella. And Joe's wallet was in his jacket pocket, wrapped around a baby girl headed for Antioch. Now I did see him win a double eagle off a guy there on the boat, but I am betting that it just went into his pocket loose. If it didn't fall out somewhere along the way, or somebody steal it off him, just how far would that gold piece get him?"

"Not far the way folks charge 'round here. But Adam, I can't help it. I gotta believe that we're gonna find him. I just gotta!"

The hand on my shoulder stopped. It became a fist that gently pounded on my back.

"Me too. Like I told Pa, until I see his lifeless body for myself, the Joe I will picture in my head is the same one who got us into this: the laughing, smiling, finagling green eyed little imp of a brother who can talk his way into and out of nearly anything. And tomorrow afternoon, we're gonna get back to our hotel room in Sacramento to find him waiting for us. Probably wanting to know what took us so long to get back."

The playful bantering tone Adam used made me smile a little.

"Well, iffen he is there, he done missed out on the best gingerbread Hop Sing ever made you."

"I wouldn't know," Adam drawled then chuckled lightly, "I didn't get much more than a bite of it and it's gone now."

For a long while after I knew Adam had dropped off to sleep, I still sat beside the bed thinkin'. The head part of me knew he was telling the truth. The odds of finding Joe alive were real long ones. But I had seen that little cuss play some long odds and come out a winner. He'd played a few long shots and lost too. It didn't seem to make no never mind to him if he won or lost. To Joe, it was the joy of playin' the bet. And it didn't seem to matter if it were cards or dice or horses. Or women. I'd watched out over him for so long, just like Adam had, but I had always kind of let him run with a real easy bit, so to speak. What I was feelin' that night was a sort of sorry for myself. Maybe this was one time when I should have tightened up on the reins and brought the boy's head around. I hadn't done that and all the wishing otherwise wasn't gone change what happened one iota. You couldn't change the past, only the future. And as I looked out at that crescent moon, I let the heart part of me pray for a future with both my brothers in it.

Pa was shakin' my shoulder at first light, tryin' to wake me up. "Hoss, come on, son, wake up. We've got a lot to do before that boat docks."

I scrubbed the last of the sleep from my face and got up off the floor. Adam was still asleep and Hop Sing was no where to be found.

"Hop Sing go to find us some breakfast?" I asked and scratched my head.

Pa chuckled and said he didn't know where Hop Sing had gotten off to but figured he would be back soon.

His words were true. We had just managed to get Adam up and I was helping him into his clothes when Hop Sing come poppin' back into the room, a loaded tray in his hands. It was all he could do to haul it around, it was so heavy.

"How did you manage all this? Wait, don't tell me. The café has your number two cousin in the kitchen," Adam teased as Hop Sing poured him some coffee.

"No. Number Two Cousin in San Francisco. This Number Four. Or maybe Number Five Cousin." For all we knew, Hop Sing could have been either telling us the truth or pulling our leg. For certain though, the breakfast he had fetched for us that morning was a real blessing. Not that I got enough but then Adam and Pa had to eat too and there was only just so much Hop Sing could tote around.

"Hop Sing send message to cousins in San Francisco. Tell them to look for Lil Joe. They get message back to us in Sacramento."

"That was an excellent idea, Hop Sing. Thank you, but how are your cousins going to know if they find Joe? It never dawned on me the other day, reading that posted list, how many times a description is so vague," Pa asked.

"Most cousins know Lil Joe by sight. He go with me lots of times when family come to Virginia City to visit. Family all like Lil Joe, except when he beat them at Mah Jong."

Pa just shook his head. He was just figurin' out what a character his youngest son was?

We managed to get Adam dressed. Thankfully that doctor that Pa and Hop Sing had taken a dislike to hadn't cut his clothes off Adam and with his clothes on, Adam didn't look too bad for the experience. Course then when he started to move I could see just how much pain he was in. I offered to carry him down to the dock but all that got me was a scowl. I told him the real reason was I didn't want to see him mess up his dress boots. That got a really mean scowl outta him.

If I had told Pa just how scared I was of getting onto that boat, I don't think he would have liked it. Seeings how I never liked being on the water in the first place and what with the recent past real fresh in my mind, well, I was kind of shaking by the time we got into the stateroom Pa had got us passage for. Once again, that hand of my big brother reached out to me. I told myself that it was because he needed help but we both knew different. When the boat shoved off from the dock there at Antioch I was reminded of a part from the Good Book about shaking the dust from a bad place from your sandals. Well I didn't have sandals and dust was in short supply but I could look out the little window and watch that place leave without being sorry to go.

I stayed in the room with Adam. We didn't talk much but then he and I never had to fill up the silence between us. It just was good enough for he and I to be together most times. It didn't seem to matter where we were, out on the range, up in the mountain hunting or just there at the house, we just could be together. I got to thinking about all the times Adam and I had been places, just the two of us. One thing struck me as funny and I guess I laughed out loud.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

"Adam, think about the times you been fishin' with me. Anything come to mind?" I asked, still seeing the humor that he didn't. Once he owned up to it, I really had a good laugh. "When we go fishin' you and Joe trade places. You get all fidgety and try to talk them fish out of the water. Joe gets real quiet and serious."

"That's because I have other things that I might want to be doing as well! After all, how many times have the two of you snuck off when there was fence to be mended? Or cows to the rounded up? Or stalls to be cleaned?"

"You know as I recall, ever' time we bring home a string of fish, your plate gets right full of fish too. Why is that?" I teased him.

So on through the morning, we would occasionally joke with one another but mostly we made the trip back up the Sacramento River in silence. I couldn't bring myself to look out the window at the passing countryside. I was afraid if I saw the remains of them two other boats, I'd get real angry and hurt some one. Or worse yet, like I had that afternoon that Pa had gone to morgue alone, start crying and not be able to stop.

By the time we reached the docks in Sacramento, Adam was all done in. It had taken every bit of strength he had that day to make the trip and he was so worn out he didn't even fight when Pa suggested that we get a carriage to take us the few blocks to the Cattlemen's Hotel. It wasn't hard to get one since they were lined up there just waiting for someone to hire them out. And Adam didn't fuss when I just picked him up easy like and carried him off the boat, sitting him in the first carriage I came to. He even leaned real heavy against me as the carriage went the few blocks. We were pulling up to the front door of the Cattlemen's when we heard this lady's voice calling Adam's name.

She was the little lady I had seen on the Delta Queen talking with Adam. I remembered her 'cause she was so little and had a frilly blue bonnet on. And she was a cute thing too with an up turned nose and a sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks.

"Ariel!" Adam greeted her, pulling away from where he had rested against me.

"Oh Adam I am so glad to see you again! I was so afraid you hadn't…" and all at once, she was looking at the ground, embarrassed by her outburst.

"The last I remember seeing you, you were in the rowboat headed for shore. I wasn't sure you had made it to shore either. I didn't see you there. What about your aunt?"
Her eyes were drawn back up and she gave Adam a real shaky smile. " Aunt Lydia didn't make it. But thanks to you and that other man, I'm alive."

Adam got real still. "That other man was my youngest brother. I am afraid that he may not have survived."

"Oh I know, Saint Timmons is such a horrible place. I was appalled that they took my aunt there but by the time I got there, she was beyond caring where she was."

Pa had gotten out of the carriage on the other side and had come around to stand next to the little gal. He stopped dead in his tracks, listening to her intently.

"Why did you say that about Saint Timmons?" he asked. She pulled back from the intensity of his question.

"Excuse me, sir, but-" she stammered, her hand fluttering at her throat, clearly afraid.

"Ariel, please forgive my manners. This is my father, Ben Cartwright," Adam tried to introduce them but Pa was still leaning towards her and he reached out and grabbed her arm to keep her close.

"Why did you mention this Saint Timmons?" he asked again.
"Because the other man who helped me that night, I saw him again at Saint Timmons when I went to claim my aunt's body. He was there," she said, her voice shaking.

"Miss, tell me, was he alive?" Pa asked.

"Yes," and I know that was the sweetest word that little gal ever said.

After we had off loaded Pa's luggage and given it and instructions to the doorman about where to put it, Pa tried to get Adam to go into the hotel and rest but Adam would have none of it. It seemed to me that Pa was destined to lose that battle and I thought too that it was simply delaying us.

"I am not going to stand here in the middle of the street and argue with you, Adam" Pa's finger shook under Adam's nose.

"Good, let's get to this Saint Timmons place. Driver? Do you know where it is?" Adam asked the carriage man.

He turned his jowly face and looked at us with the same sort of look I'd give a horse with a broken leg. "Yeah, I know where it's at."

Pa clambered back into the carriage and ordered the man to take us there. For a couple of seconds I wondered if the man was maybe hard of hearing or somethin' else 'cause he just sat there.

"You sure you want to go there?" he asked, not looking at us.

Pa exploded in anger and told him sharply to get a move on. The driver turned from his high seat and looked back down on us. A wad of tobacco shifted in his cheek and he spat a brown stream into the street.

"Mister, I'll take you there but you may wish I hadn't of when you come out so I ain't gonna stay. So's you understand, I want my money up front."

"Fine," came Pa's booming voice, "Just get us there NOW!"

The man turned around and clucked to his horses and they moved off at a quick trot. The four of us in the carriage just looked at one another, relieved.

"What is this Saint Timmons?" Adam asked the driver.

"They call it a hospital," came his terse reply.

For the first time since this had all started I felt like smiling. "How about that? Joe got himself to a hospital and all this time we been worryin' 'bout him. You were right Adam."

The driver threw a hard look over his shoulder. "I said they call it one. Don't mean it is one. Never heard tell of a soul that went in there that didn't come out worse'n in the long run."

It was like throwin' a pail of water on a match, the joy left us just that fast.

As I watched, Adam leaned as far over as he could and put a hand on Pa's knee. "He's there, Pa, and he's going to be okay. He's had doctors and nurses takin' care of him. Maybe they didn't do as good a job as Paul Martin would have, but Joe's been taken care of," Adam was saying, his voice all soft and strong at the same time. I could see by the look on Pa's face that he wanted to believe just as much as I did.

The whole trip to the hospital took maybe five minutes. What the carriage pulled up before looked more like a warehouse than a hospital. The windows that looked out onto the street had bars across them and there was one door in the center of the building's front. Above that doorway was the painted sign that proclaimed it to be Saint Timmons Hospital. While I helped Adam from the carriage, Pa gave the driver the last of our money.

Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw when we opened that door. There was a large desk to one side and a big burly fella there behind it. Beyond him stretched two double rows of beds in the center and a row against each wall. Rows of folks. Maybe fifteen to twenty in a row. And it seemed like they was all either crying or moaning like hurt animals. I can't even begin to describe what it smelled like, it was so rancid. Then it came to me. It smelled like what it was: pain, agony and death. I suddenly hoped that Ariel had been wrong.

Pa was talkin' to the man at the desk and apparently not getting very far with him. I stood half-holding Adam up. But Hop Sing was moving down the far wall, looking for Joe. A big woman in a gray dress stopped him and said something to him that I couldn't hear. He bobbed his head a time or two, acting real meek and subservient like. She moved on and so did he, in the other direction from her.

"He was brought here from the wreck. Please look again. His name is Joseph Cartwright." Pa was explaining and I could tell his patience was about gone.

"Mister, most of the folks who come here can't tell us their name. He have any papers on him that said who he was?"

"Listen." Adam spoke up and I helped him get a little closer to the desk. He leaned over and planted both knuckled fists on the top of it. "Is there some reason why we can't just look around? You know, hunt for him?"

"Sorry but our patients don't need to be bothered." The man also planted his fists on the desktop and leaned towards Adam. That was when I first noticed that the fella was close to my size but he only had three fingers on his right hand and one of them was cut off at the first joint.

"Looks to me like they need something all right," Adam hissed. He was losing his patience too.

"Please just let us-" Pa started again.

Just about then there was the sound of a scuffle that broke out at the far end of that big open room. I looked up just in time to see Hop Sing go flying through the air and land in a heap on the floor. Where he had just come from I saw two men, one tall and thin, and the other could have been Mister Three Fingers' twin. I turned loose of Adam and headed down that narrow aisle like a mule headed for the barn. I didn't get the chance to help Hop Sing up as he came bounding back to his feet and launched himself at the two men again as they stood over a bed. Hop Sing was tearing into them and shouting Chinese at them when I got to him and pulled him off.

Pa said later that he was afraid of what I would have done right about then. I remember standing there, looking down at the body on the bed when it struck me that it was Joe. He was rolled to his side and I saw bruises all up and down his body. There was a real ugly cut across one shoulder that looked like it was festering pretty bad. At places on him it looked like the sort of wounds a horse would get under the saddle if it were chafing bad. But what hit me the hardest was the fact that my brother had leather cuffs around both wrists and he had been tied to the edge of the bed while rolled to that side. His head was thrown back as far as he could have thrown it and I could see a wad of something had been crammed into his mouth. But he wasn't moving and his eyes were closed.

"Keep a hold on that yeller, will you? Don't like doin' this any way and havin' interference don't help matters," the thin man was saying. As he spoke, I saw that the other man held a handful of cloth and a bottle of alcohol. "This fella can really fight when he wants to, so if I was you folks, I would stand back. This bastard's got an ugly temper to him."

"Leave him be," Pa said in as cold a voice as I had heard. Just behind Pa, I saw Adam pull himself up just as tall and menacing as he was able. Hop Sing was still trying to get away from me but when I let him go, I shoved him behind me.

Now I know I am a big man. Bigger than most. And I have always tried to keep that in mind and not use that fact to intimidate another livin' soul. Right then, though, I thanked God for the size of my body and my fists because I am sure that was what made those two men back away from my brother.

"You heard my pa. Leave my brother alone." They continued to just stand there and look at me. I took the two steps necessary to put myself between them and Joe. They backed away.

"Fine, you deal with him. You clean up after him. You try to get him to eat. I'm sick to death of dealing with him." Finger's twin said and threw the alcohol soaked cloth at my chest. I let it bounce off me and hit the filthy floor.

I kept myself between them and Joe until they were almost to the front. Then I turned back. Pa had gotten the restraints untied and Adam had removed the gag but still Joe hadn't moved or made a sound. I could see Pa was crying as he wiped his hands over Joe's face, calling to him real soft and gentle, begging him to open his eyes.

"Pa, we've got to get him out of here," Adam said and it seemed to pull Pa back.

"Hop Sing, get the cleanest blankets you can find so we can wrap him up. Hoss, get back out to the street and see if you can get us another carriage. Adam, pull these dirty sheets from under him." Pa ordered and we all leapt to do as he directed.

I pushed passed Three Fingers, his twin and cohort, daring them to make one move. There would have been no greater satisfaction for me to plow into all three of them but I had a job to do. They could wait. When I stepped through the door, I was surprised to see the same carriage and driver still sitting there. I stepped up to the nearest horse.

"Find your brother?" the driver asked, another stream of brown arching into the gutter.

"What's it to you? You said you weren't stayin' and my pa paid you. So why are you still here?"

He asked again about finding my brother and when I said that we had and needed a way to get him out of there, the driver just nodded his head. "I'll take you back to the Cattlemen's. No charge."

"Like I said, what's it to you?" I repeated.

"I had me a brother once. He died in the War. Got to thinkin' while I was drivin' you and your pa and brother here what it must have been like for him, layin' in that hospital back east, dyin' and not havin' any loved ones around him. I was real close to my brother, mister. I'd have walked through the fires of Hell to be with him, to help him any way I could. I kinda got the feelin' from listening to you and yours that it was the same for you folks. I was a fool and I'm sorry for it. I'll wait here till you want to go back to your hotel."

I thanked the man, not only for his staying to help us but also for the courage to admit he had been a fool.

When I got back into the hospital, I could see Pa and Adam and Hop Sing just about had Joe ready to go. He had been bundled into a cleaner sheet and blanket but he still didn't seem to be conscious. I moved to his side and bent to pick him up, but Pa reached across him and shook his head. Before I could say a word in protest, Pa picked Joe up as easy as he had when Joe was a little tyke. Even though he may not have been fully conscious, Joe half-curled into Pa, letting his head rest on Pa's shoulder. Pa was having a real hard time keeping his emotions in check as he pulled Joe's body in close to him. We started up the aisle, me helping Adam again as much as he would let me, following Hop Sing and Pa.

At the desk, Three Fingers challenged us. "Where do you think you're going?"

"I am taking my son out of here. Stand aside." Pa's voice was cold and hard again.
Fingers crossed his arms over his chest and spread his feet for a better stance. "Can't let you do that."

Just as quick as a cat, Hop Sing took Pa's pistol out of his holster and dancing to the side of Pa and Joe, held it rock steady, aimed at Fingers. Fingers wisely backed away, his hands raised. I had never known Hop Sing to even touch a gun and always thought he hated the idea of using one on another human being but the determination he showed right then would have fooled any one. Fingers let us pass.

Once I saw that Pa and Hop Sing had Joe clear of the door, I dropped Adam's arm. "'Scuse me, big brother, there is somethin' I just got to do." And before anyone could say a word, I turned and planted a fist into Finger's face. It knocked him sprawling onto the floor. I couldn't let it end there. I leaned down and grabbed a hold of the front of his shirt, pulling him half way back up. Then I slapped his face. Hard. His head jerked with the impact. "That is for my little brother," I said and let him drop back to the floor with a thud before I stepped over his body and once again took to helping Adam out the door.

"You saw it too?" he asked.

" Yep. Clear as day on that boy's face. Left cheek, two and half fingers worth of a bruise."

"I was referring to the ones on his arms. Same print though."

The ride back to the Cattlemen's was as easy as the man could make it. I had held Joe while Pa got into the carriage and had been alarmed by how hot he felt. But Pa had demanded him back once he was on the seat and I couldn't bear to deny my pa that right. He held him close, speaking to him gently all the while. But Joe did not respond.

The desk clerk at the Cattlemen's, seeing what was happening, immediately called for help but we didn't need any. From the front door of that fancy hotel clear to the suite of rooms we still had rented, there was someone to open doors, move other folks aside to let us pass. One fellow told Adam and I that they had sent for a doctor and I thanked him mechanically.

Pa finally laid Joe down on the big bed in the main bedroom. Adam kept pushing on until he was ready to collapse so I shoved him gently into the chair there beside the bed. Before we could even think to ask for it, there were two young fellas there, Adam called them bellhops, with pitchers of hot water and towels and wash cloths. One of them carried a tray with a coffee service and cups and saucers on it that he left to one side.

Maybe it was the impact of it finally hitting me. Maybe it was relief that we had found Joe alive. But I would chalk it up more to the condition I saw my brother's body in when we unwrapped him. I began to cry, big fat silent tears. There wasn't nary a square inch on the boy that wasn't covered by a bruise or a sore. He was also filthy, his hair matted and thick with dried sweat. At first I stood back and watched as Pa began to wash his body but his hands were shaking so bad I was afraid Pa would hurt him. I took up one of the soft wash cloths they had brought up and dipping it into the warm water from the basin, moved across the bed from Pa.

"You wash his face, Pa. I'll take care of the rest." I told him. As gentle as I knew how, I ran the warm wet cloth over his body, feeling the rising heat coming from it, seeing the mottling of bruises. When the water in the basin grew dirty, someone, probably Hop Sing, changed it for fresh and clean. "We need to roll him to the side Pa," I said, doing it as I said the words. Again I took up my cleaning, appalled by what I saw. Everyplace his body had made contact with the bed, there was an oozing sore. I tried to be as gentle as possible but I knew they had to be cleaned. That was when Joe made the first sound, a low whimper. Pa dropped his cloth and held Joe's face between his hands, calling his name, begging him to awaken. But Joe's eyes stayed closed. Pa began stroking his face and hair again.

Adam was there beside me, helping me as best he was able with only one hand. As fast as I soiled one cloth, he was handing me another clean warm wet one.
We were about finished when I guess my hand brushed that cut on his shoulder a little harder than it should have. Immediately, Joe screamed out in pain and one hand grabbed for the first thing it could, the front of Pa's shirt. You could see the white showing through on his knuckles, he was holding on so tight, his back arched away from us. Pa, just as easy as could be, pulled Joe to him again and began talking real low to him, letting his hand run through Joe's hair. Finally, Joe's breathing quieted and evened out and Pa let him lay back onto the bed.

"Hoss, pick him easy like. Hop Sing, when he gets him up, pull these dirty blankets away. Adam, I'll hand you the corner of these blankets here. You pull them back so Hoss can lay him right back down and we can get him warmed up." We followed Pa's orders but I really didn't want to turn loose of my little brother.

There was a discreet tapping at the door that Hop Sing answered. The man standing there was a small built fella, kind of like Joe in size. He carried a black bag in one hand.

"The hotel summoned me. I'm Doctor Benjamin March. Is this the patient?" and just as quick as that, the man took over. He ushered Pa and Adam and me out, closing the door behind us and telling us he would call us if he needed us. I felt a little jealous of Hop Sing getting to stay but one look at Adam and Pa changed my mind. They needed help too.
I got one of them bellhop fellas to get us a meal up there. It wasn't much and the gent in the fancy black coat who delivered it apologized, saying they would bring us whatever we would like later on when they had the time. I thanked the man for the thick stew and warm rolls he brought so promptly. I made sure Adam and Pa both got plenty before I tucked into a second helping. The meal did the trick for Adam. I was finishing up when I saw that he was nodding off in his chair.

"Come on, Adam, let's see about getting you some rest," I cajoled him into standing then looping his good arm over my shoulder, had to nearly drag him into the other bedroom. I did the same thing to him that I had seen Pa do a bunch of times with Joe: keep talking to him real easy like so in his half-awake state he would do what you wanted him to do. Once I had the blankets pulled up and his bandaged arm settled on another pillow, I figured he was as good as gone but ol' Adam proved me wrong.

"Hoss, if Joe -"

I told him to hush and go to sleep. "If I need you, I want you good and rested, big brother, so you better get some shut-eye now," I warned him. He took a fairly deep breath and was asleep before it was all blowed out.

Pa was standing there at the doorway when I turned to leave the room.

"Good job there, son," he praised me, one of his hands tapping me on the back as I left the room and he closed the door.

"I just did the same thing you would have done." Pa raised them thick eyebrows at me as though to question what I had said."As much as the two of them would deny it, Adam and Joe are so much alike sometimes it's kind of funny, Pa."

"Whatever you do, Hoss," Pa said, a little smile coming to his tired face, "Don't ever say that in front of them. I have the feeling the beating they would give you would be a real thrashing."

"But it would take both of them to do it!" I smiled too then added, "I'd take that beatin' right now if the two of them were up to it." I felt Pa's hand on my back again.

The doctor was in with Joe for the best part of an hour before he came out, rolling the sleeves of his shirt down.

"I've heard what the little Chinese fellow had to say about this but I am not sure I have all the facts right," the doctor was saying. "I gather that you, sir, are the boy's father? Can we discuss this situation?"

"I'd really like to see my son and talk with him for a few moments, if I may." Pa was already headed for the closed bedroom door.

"Your son is not conscious right now. I was beginning to clean his wounds when he came to and became very agitated. I am sorry, sir, but I was forced to give him a strong sedative."

Pa bristled a bit then just as fast calmed down. "All right, but I still want to see him for a moment."

You could see that the doc was reluctant but I had the feeling Pa wasn't takin' "no" for an answer. The doc must have known it too 'cause he stepped aside and let Pa go into the room.

"Ya got to forgive my pa right now, Doc. This has been real hard on him. Shucks, it's been hard on all of us but Pa 'specially," I tried to explain.

The doctor smiled at me then went over to the sideboard where there was a coffee service. He poured himself a cup of coffee.

"Youngest boy?" he asked with a nod of his head towards the closed door.

"Yeah, and it don't take no genius to tell that he's Pa's favorite."

"Are you a father?" he asked me and when I shook my head no, he went on. "What siblings perceive as favoritism often isn't there in reality. From what Hop Sing, that is his name, isn't it? From what he tells me, this is a very close family. And that you were all afraid that you had lost this brother. Is that correct? What you are seeing right now, your father's reaction, is a knee jerk reaction. Instinctively, your father is reaching out to try and protect the one among you who cannot protect himself. It's natural."

I shook my head and looked at the fancy carpet on the floor. "Doc, you don't understand. My pa don't necessarily have a favorite son. Kind of like what you said: depends on who needs him more at the moment. It don't bother me one whit 'bout that little scamp in there bein' Pa's favorite, sometimes. Bein' Pa's favorite son can be a two edged sword sometimes. I seen Pa make him toe the line enough times. But then again, he's done a dance around Pa's orders enough times too! Course my other brother, he's the real master at dealin' with Pa." I couldn't help but chuckle a bit, thinking how Adam could get what he wanted out of Pa too, when he wanted to. But Adam was always a bit slier about it than Joe.

"Speaking of brothers, there was another man here when I came in. He had a bandage around one arm. Where is he? Do I need to see him as well?"

With a nod of my head towards the other bedroom door, I explained, "That's my oldest brother Adam. And it might be a good idea for you to take a look at that arm. Pa and Hop Sing had a run in with the doctor tending him down in Antioch so I don't think the bandage has been changed."

"Rather strong-minded family," I heard him mutter as he picked up his bag and went in to Adam. I figured to let him deal with Adam on his own. Most of the times, you explain things to Adam real logical and you could get away with just about anything. Most times.

I must have fallen asleep there in the parlor chair, waiting for them all to come back for the next thing I remember hearing was Pa's deep voice saying, "…and I did what I thought was best. Get him out of there. Get him someplace clean, warm and dry and get him adequate medical help."

"You did the right thing Mr. Cartwright. Saint Timmons is a hellhole, to put it politely. For years, the city of Sacramento has been trying to shut it down but the argument they keep coming back with is where are all these people who need help but can't afford it going to go? I have no answer to that. And the city fathers don't either. So Saint Timmons continues. The City coffers are thin enough that they can't give Saint Timmons any funds to help improve the running of the place so the conditions you saw there with your son are all too common. The help they are able to hire for the meager wages they offer isn't the best. In fact, most of the time, the help is a half-step above cruel."

"That is certainly what I saw, Doctor March. And I feel it was totally uncalled for, the way my son was mistreated."

"Mr. Cartwright, don't misunderstand me, please. A while ago when I was treating your son, he came out of a near unconscious state. If it hadn't been for your houseboy, your son could very well have injured me as well as himself with the violence he showed. I can imagine if I were in the shoes of those orderlies at Saint Timmons, I might have been tempted to physically restrain your son as well."

As I watched I saw Pa's head raise up and his eyes take on a look of real cold anger. "That may be, doctor, but you saw the bed sores on that boy! And the bruises! They had beaten him then tied him down and left him, for God knows how long. You didn't see the filth my sons and I washed from his body! It was barbaric!" Unable to sit still any longer, Pa had gotten to his feet and began to pace the room, his hands were fists.

"I am not condoning what they did in the very least. I am just saying that given the resources they had-"

Pa exploded. "What resources did you have that they didn't?"

Doctor March remained calm in the face of that rising storm. "Let's start with a medical degree. With modern drugs to help calm your son. Then we need to add all of this," and his hand swept around the parlor. "What I was met with when I came in told me so much about my patient that those men at Saint Timmons didn't even have the chance to know! I came in and saw three very imposing men like guardians at the gate. And not just physically imposing men either, Mr. Cartwright. Everything about you radiates three things." He held up three fingers." First, a great deal of physical strength, ready to be unleashed should someone threaten you and yours. Second, wealth, Mr. Cartwright and more than enough to see that your wishes are carried out completely. Just look at this room compared to the receiving area there at the front door to Saint Timmons! A man who can afford this sort of luxury would be treated differently anywhere he went. And thirdly, what seems to be a very great part of you: love. A very strong and persistent father's love. When you combine those three items, that's a force no one can stand against."

"But Doc," I started to cut in but the little man held up his hand and asked that he be allowed to continue. I settled back in my chair and saw that Pa's pacing was losing its furiousness.

"When your son was brought to Saint Timmons, did anyone there see those three things? I don't think so. Although I have found out differently, he doesn't appear to have your great physical strength. He's slight, slender even. Puts him at a disadvantage, I imagine in a family of big men. Did your son have a great deal of money on him? If he did, someone else would have taken it from him long before he reached the hospital. And I know from experience that blood and dirt can cover over the best of clothing and make it look like rags just as quickly as poor clothing. And those orderlies, until they saw you today, didn't know he had your love. So you see, Mr. Cartwright, they took one look at him and saw nothing special. Just another poor soul their thin ability was suppose to help. He became just another body they weren't prepared to take care of."

Pa finally had come to a stop over by the fireplace. "Be that as it may, Doctor March, I am still angry at the way I found my son."

"And you have every right to be," the doctor agreed, surprisingly. "But you need to be angry at the right ones. Be angry with the city for not either fully supporting Saint Timmons or closing it down. Be angry with the good citizens of this city that when they are asked to donate to the hospital, refuse to give as much as their breakfast cost them. Be angry with a society that places more emphasis on money than human life."

For a little while, you could hear the clock on the mantel ticking away the minutes, it was that quiet.

"Thank you, Doctor March. I guess I deserved that. But that third thing you mentioned, that father's love, that makes it real hard to look at your child's bruised and abused body and not want to lash out to who you feel is responsible. The city has no single face, and society no one person for me to go to."

The doctor stood from his chair and picked up his bag. "No, it doesn't. But you can sue the owners of Saint Timmons for what has happened."

"Who owns that hellhole?" I asked cautiously.

"The city of Sacramento. Good day, gentlemen. I'll be back at first light to check on my patients. However, I am going to leave instructions downstairs for some broth to be brought up every few hours. Get it into your son anyway you can, Mr. Cartwright. He needs fluids. Badly. If you need me, the hotel maitre' d knows how to get in touch with me. Don't hesitate if you need help."

It was long after he'd left that one of them bellhops come bringing up a tray with that broth stuff the doctor was talking about. I thanked the boy at the door and carried the tray in to the room where Joe was stretched out on the bed. Hop Sing had dropped off to sleep over on the little settee by the fireplace but I guess he must have heard me rattling the spoon 'cause he come up real fast at the sound. Pa was sleeping in the chair by the bed and I didn't have the heart to wake him.

Carefully, Hop Sing and I managed to prop Joe up. It was like he was unconscious but not unconscious, if you know what I mean. I would think he was about to open his eyes but then he wouldn't, just dropping back out. Taking extra precaution to make sure he was swallowing it, Hop Sing and I managed to spoon about a third of the bowl into him before he didn't seem to want any more. We looked at one another and I could see Hop Sing was about to give in under the load he was carrying. He set the bowl aside and used the white napkin from the tray to wipe at the side of Joe's face. While I held Joe up some, Hop Sing pulled the pillows from behind his back and we let him lay back, almost flat. When his back met the mattress, he moaned a little but other than that, there was no sound whatsoever in the room. I gestured for Hop Sing to follow me out into the parlor and he did so.

"You got to get some real rest, Hop Sing," I near about begged. "You give in and I don't know what'll happen."

"You need rest too, Mister Hoss. You go in with Mister Adam. Make sure he okay too then sleep some. When you finish, you let Hop Sing sleep. Okay?"

I couldn't find it in myself to argue with the little man.

When I had stretched out to rest for just a few moments the sky outside had been gold with the setting sun. When I awoke, the sun was coming from the other direction. Apparently I had slept through the night. I checked and found Adam's bed was empty, the covers shoved back but the bedding was still warm so he hadn't been up too long. The pants and shirt that had hung over the end of the bed were gone but his boots were still there so he hadn't gone far either.

As I stepped out into the parlor, I smelled the unmistakable smell of bacon. Found it too along with plenty of eggs and toast and hot coffee. I had just filled a plate when a blood-curdling yell came from the other room. I quickly pulled the door open, angry that someone was obviously hurtin' Joe for him to scream like that.

"Get over here and help us, Hoss," Pa hollered when he saw me just standing there bewildered. The doctor and Pa were trying to clean the places on Joe's back with alcohol. Adam, with one arm still bandaged seemed to be trying to hold Joe down but was losing the battle.

I know it wasn't what Pa wanted me to do but I couldn't bring myself to hold Joe down like they wanted me to. I did what came natural to me. I eased Adam aside and gathered the struggling twisting boy in my arms and held him as gentle as I could. Over and over again I told him, crooning almost you could say, into his ear that I was gonna take care of him. No one was going to hurt him no more. Little by little, he calmed down but I still held him close.

"I meant what I said, Pa. Don't do this to him. Please," I begged.

"Son," Pa urged and put his hand on one of my arms, pulling at it, trying to make me let go. I wouldn't. "We need to clean those raw places on Joe's back. If we don't the infection could very well kill him. Son, please, hold him for us."

"Can't the doc there give him somethin' for the pain?" I asked, not turning loose.
"I already have. Listen to your father, boy, hold him still for us and it will all go much faster. Then your brother can go back to sleep."

"If you gave him somethin' for the pain, how come he's actin' like this?" No one had an answer for me. "This stuff you give him for the pain. How long before it kicks in real good?"

"Maybe another fifteen to twenty minutes," the doctor admitted.

"Good, then all of you leave me an' Joe alone till then. Then and only then will I help you."

"You don't understand. I didn't give him enough to keep him sedated long enough to wait that long and do all of the cleaning that needs doing. I couldn't! It would compromise his breathing if I did."

"Like I said," and I pulled Joe's body a little closer to mine as I sat on the edge of the bed. "Give us that time." Pa later told me that he knew when I used that tone of voice, that a pack of wild dogs couldn't have gotten Joe away from me. They wisely backed off, going into the other room.

Once they were gone and the door was shut, only then did I let Joe lay back on the bed. "Hey you're awake! Well now, Short Shanks, I done got both of us in trouble with Pa," I teased but it fell flat. Although Joe was awake, the look in his eyes was like he was a million miles away. His eyes, usually so bright and full of mischief were dull and listless. He was looking at me and through me at the same time. "Joe?" I called to him, real soft and gentle-like but he didn't respond at all. The only thing I could think of was that he was like some horses when you broke them to ride. All the life and spirit went out of them and what was left was a shell. I sat there beside him, just thinking until his eyes drifted closed and he dropped back asleep. All I could think was that wasn't my little brother lying there.

I did what I told them that I would do. I held Joe, but with the medicine the doctor had given him, it wasn't hard even though Joe woke up during it. Once they were finished, I helped Pa and we got him settled so that he was laying more on his side. But every turn and movement, even though his eyes tracked it, they didn't hold even a spark of interest. Pa saw it to.

"Doctor March," Pa addressed him when we were all gathered in the parlor again. "What has happened to my son? Is it the medication you gave him?"

Adam spoke up and I paid him attention for the first time. His face was just as pale and wane as Joe's was. The only difference was in his eyes. "It's something called shell shock, Pa. I saw it plenty during the war. Right, Dr. March?"

"Pretty much so, I'm afraid. You were in the War?" he asked but all Adam did was just nod his head. He and I had talked some about it when he came back but he never would say a lot about the War, just that it was something he never wanted to experience again. I had just let it stop at that. I had always figured that when he wanted to talk about it, he would.

"Then you know that there is absolutely nothing I can do to help him. We can mend his body but his mind?" The doctor just shook his head sadly. "You might want to make some plans, Mr. Cartwright. If Joseph continues to be combative, you may want to place him in an institution. For his own safety, as well as that of others."

"NO!" I couldn't help it. I shouted my defiance as loud as I could. In my head I kept seeing that place we had taken him from. I saw Fingers and his buddies using my baby brother as some sort of sadistic toy. All this in the blink of an eye. It was irrational, crazy I know, but it gave me an idea.

"Pa, listen to me for just a minute, please. I think I know what to do for Joe but you got to trust me." As I spoke, the plan all fell into place. "I been thinking about what you said, Doc, about when Joe got there to that hospital. How they might have treated him and all. I can see that happenin' and understand their point of view. But I can also understand what happened to Joe. All of a sudden, he's hurt and there ain't one of us around to help him. He doesn't know where he is or even if any of us are alive either. Just like we were afraid of him being dead, Pa." I could see Pa nodding his head in agreement with me so I pushed on, even though I really wasn't sure of the ground I was walking on. "I suspect that Joe tried to leave but for whatever reason, maybe his shoulder, they wouldn't let him. He gets mad and the next thing he knows, he's tied up. And there ain't anybody comin' to help him. Then about the time he is getting towards the end of his rope, we show up and take him away. But what's the first thing we do? We hurt him some more! It ain't no wonder in the world why the boy is laying in there right now, trying to shut out the world. He don't know who to trust anymore!"

"But there is a world of difference between what we were doing and what those orderlies were doing!" Adam tried explaining but I wasn't swallowin' none of it.

"Tell me, Adam. When we have a fine lookin' little calf that we castrate so's he'll be a good meat animal, we do it with the right intentions at heart. But does that little calf know that? No, he don't, even though we can stand there and tell him that it's for his own good. Pain doesn't know what we mean by it. It just is. Joe is just like that little calf right now. He don't seem to understand what is going on around him. But he understands that he is being hurt. Again and again. So you tell me where the difference is, Adam, 'cause I know Joe don't see it any more than I do."

All around me was dead quiet till the Doc spoke up.

"Young man, I can see you have a heart of gold. But all the heart you have won't help that brother of yours if those wounds become any more infected than they are now. Your brother's body already is fighting infection and without this cleaning and a change of dressing done regularly, it is only going to add to it. If you truly love your brother, you have to help us do this. Can you understand that?"

I hung my head. I knew the Doc was right, of course. "I've done enough doctoring of hurt animals in my life to know that much," I said and when I did, it was like a light goin' on suddenly in a dark room. "All my life, you all been teasin' me about bringing home hurt animals to tend to. Ain't that right, Pa?"

"You do seem to have a knack for finding the darndest critters to patch up," Pa allowed, his hand running through his hair, a sure sign he was exasperated.

"Well, right now, there's a little critter in there," and I pointed to the closed door to Joe's room, "that needs my help a whole lot more than any other I ever brought home."

:"Hoss, Joe isn’t some animal to be put in the barn and-" Adam started but I cut him off, sharper than I normally would have but I was still angry.

"You look at his eyes and tell me that, Adam! You seen that same look on horses we broke when the spirit goes out of 'em. Ain't cha? Pa, please, I know how to do this. Let me try?"

Just one look at Pa's face told me that he didn't like what had happened in that room any better than I did. But that same glance told me that he wasn't ready to turn Joe over to me neither. I don't know where the words came from, maybe my heart was doin' the talkin'  'stead of my head but I said 'em anyway. "Pa, he's my brother and it hurts me to see him crying out in pain. It hurts even worse to be asked to hold him while he's hurtin. All my life I done looked out for that young'un, tryin' to protect him from hurtin'. Iffen you'll let me, I know how to help him without hurtin' him anymore."

"How?" The doctored snorted the question.

"What's the first thing a hurt animal does? He tries to find his burrow, or nest, or wherever he feels comfortable. And he goes there and tried to curl up and sleep."

"Are you suggesting that we try to take Joe home in the shape he's in? He wouldn't last a day," Adam nearly shouted at me.

"No I ain't suggestin' that, Adam and you raise your voice to me one more time and I'll forget that you got some busted ribs. I'm trying to help Joe, to bring him back to us. I seen you just tryin to cause him more harm!" I was close to losing my temper. I had thought that Adam would have been on my side and be tryin' to help Joe, not hurt him more.

Pa's voice rang out real clear and stern. "Enough! I don't like having to do this either, Hoss, but it has to be done!"

"I never said it didn't, Pa. I just think there's a better way of doin' it, is all. Let me try it, Pa. Please?"

Nobody said a thing for the longest time. Then that Doctor March spoke up from where he had been sitting over by the fireplace.

"I don't know what you have in mind, young man but if you can, and that is a mighty big 'if', if you can clean those wounds, get some nourishment into him and keep him calm, I'm all for it. Your son is right, Mr. Cartwright. The more we try to 'help', the deeper we will be pushing your youngest into whatever corner of his mind he has gone to. I'll tell you what needs doing, Hoss, and if I see you not doing it, I will have to step back in. Do you understand?"

I near about leapt for joy. Pa quickly caved in when the doc said those things. The one who remained non-committal was Adam. There was something comin' from him that I still don't know how to describe. All I do know is that it made me real nervous then once again that light come on and I had me an idea.

"I'll need your help, Adam."

The first thing we did was darken the room, pulling the drapes closed on the bright daylight outside. I stoked up the fire so it would be real warm. Adam turned out all but one of the lamps and that one he turned down low. Them bellhop fellas had brought up some broth that was getting cool over by the bed so I had Hop Sing set it over by the fire to warm a little. I could see that Joe was sleepin' some so I took a seat over by the fire myself but I could see his face. I told Adam to have a sit-down and wait. He started to say something about waking Joe to give him some of the broth but I gave him a real mean, ugly look and he shut up. Wasn't long before Big Brother was asleep himself, stretched out on Hop Sing's settee. Granted, he couldn't get most of himself on it like Hop Sing could. Hop Sing I pushed out of the room and told him that I would call him if I needed him. I didn't plan on needin' him until after he had slept a while neither.

Weren't long before I realized that there was a pair of green eyes studyin' me. They still weren't showin' a whole lot of life but they were open. Real easy and keeping my movements slow and my voice soft, I edged over to the bed.

"Welcome back, little brother. You been sleepin' real good. That's good. Sleep will help you get better, won't it?" Adam's stirring caught his eye and something about it made Joe wince, afraid-like. "Naw, ol' Adam ain't gonna bother us for a while. He's sleepin' too. But I think you got the better bed. Fits you better than that little couch does him. But I won't let him get your bed. Nope, this one is all yours." By that time I was beside the bed, down on my knees. I knew that with animals that were hurt, you couldn't stand up 'cause something about you towering over them scared them. I hoped that bein' down like that wouldn't scare Joe none. It didn't. He kept his eye on me but he didn't show any fear. I reached out to touch him and he immediately tensed up. Remembering how I had responded to Adam's hand on my shoulder a short while ago, I let my hand make broad, slow circular movements on Joe's arm. He began to relax.

I don't know how long I talked to him like that. Nor do I remember all that I said to him. I do know that it made me feel better, just talkin' to him, real soft and gentle-like and touching him just the same. It must have made him feel better too, 'cause just before he dropped off to sleep again, he put his hand out to touch me. I near about cried when he did that.

When he woke up again, I was still sitting there on the floor beside his bed, just like I had set beside Adam's a few nights ago. I asked him if he wanted something to eat or drink and he didn't say anything at all. His expression never changed and his eyes never moved from my face. Remembering what the doctor had told me about him needing food, I decided that I would simply present it to him and see what Joe's response was. It didn't surprise me that he let me spoon a bit of it into him. Even an animal knows what it needs and the more I looked at the situation, I knew I had to deal with Joe just the way I had said I did: like he was some stray critter that was hurt and needed me. And like a hurt critter, I had to gain his trust first. After he'd had most of the broth, he acted real sleepy again so I set the bowl aside and just started talkin' to him again till he fell asleep.

We kept on like that most of that day: me sitting beside the bed, talking to Joe when he was awake, feeding him some when I brought the bowl in sight and he seemed to want some of it. Adam slept most of that day too. Pa looked in a couple of times and even brought in another bowl of stuff once. I could tell that this was hurtin' Pa, to be away from Joe like this but I had to stand firm. Pa checked on Adam and I watched as he touched Adam in the same little ways that I knew he'd have been touchin' Joe. It was like Pa was tryin' his best to give to one son what he instinctively knew the other one needed. But then again, I thought Adam needed it too.

I woke up with a start, not knowing when I had fallen asleep. What woke me was Adam humming. I couldn't see him on the settee so I had to hunt in the shadows for him. He was sitting beside Joe on the bed, and the song he was humming I think I recognized as one Joe's momma had sung but I wasn't sure.

"He awake?" I whispered.

"Was a little while ago. He got a wild look to his eyes when I 'proached the bed but when I talked to him, he calmed down some. Didn't seem afraid of me when I sat down on the bed. Look," and I did. Joe's face, still with those bruises showing ugly purple against the pale skin, was calm, almost serene looking. I couldn't help but smile and I saw that Adam was smilin' too.

"Hoss, we're going to have to clean those open sore spots on him soon. How we gonna manage that, Doctor Cartwright?" Adam teased me.

"Been thinkin' 'bout that. Doc March said we had to keep 'em clean and dry, right? Didn't say what we had to use, did he?"

"Hoss, if you thought alcohol was painful to him, what do you suppose some of your liniment would be?"

"Ain't gonna use anything but water, Adam. Maybe a little soap, if needs be, but mostly water. And a whole lot of soft talkin'."

"And just what did you have in mind for me to do? You wanted me in here with you for something."

I had to chuckle at Adam. I didn't dare tell him that the reason I wanted him in here with me was real simple. If he had been outside that room, he would have pitchin' a fit to want in and knowing Adam's power of persuasion, he would eventually wear Pa and the Doctor down to the point where they would let him in. That or I would have given in anyway. See, I knew I could control Adam better with him in sight than out of sight. And I somehow knew that if he would sleep some, like he had done already, that he would be better. I was right. His temperament was already improving, seein's how he was back to teasing with me rather than fighting me.

"Well then, Nurse Cartwright," I teased back and let the touch of Pa's authority-sound creep into my tone," Your job is to do just what you been doin'. Ain't there some quote you got about music calmin' the savage beast? You just keep singing to him."

"Hoss," Adam warned, interrupting me. "I don't think you can handle this part of it all by yourself."

Taking a deep sigh to steady my resolve, I said "Yes, I can, Adam. I know I can but you got to do your part too. All of it." When I saw him look up at me with a question on his face, I went on. "You got to let him know you love him. I know that showing feelings ain't you but this time, Adam, you got to do it."

Leaving him alone with Joe, I went to get some warm water and clean cloths. Them little bellhop fellas were right there on the spot, bringing me what I asked for real prompt. 'Course I did have to do a little fast steppin' to get what I needed out of Pa and Hop Sing when they both caught wind of what was gonna happen. They both thought that I would be needin' their help. I finally told them flat out that I had all the help I needed and had to close the door on Hop Sing's nose.

I could see that Joe was awake when I got everything that I needed into the room and everyone that I didn't need out. Adam had continue to sit there beside him, humming real low and I thought that maybe he had a handle on just what would keep Joe calm and steady.

"Wish you had your guitar," I said, dipping the first cloth into the first bowl of warm sudsy water.

"Couldn't play it with my arm the way it is but I wish I could. Just a couple of open chords, you know?" Then we looked across Joe at one another. The first thought that came to mind was that Adam was looking real old and tired. It came to me that this was hurting him maybe more, seeings he wasn't able to help as much. I never doubted that my brothers loved one another but they sometimes had trouble telling one another that, Adam especially. Looking at him right then, you couldn't miss the love written on his face, it was so plain.

"You ready?" I asked and he just nodded.

During the next fifteen minutes or so, I kind of let my heart guide my hands. At first Joe struggled but when I backed off, Adam would let his low singing kind of take over and Joe would calm back down. I kept my touch as gentle as I could and still get the job done but it was hard. I found myself getting madder and madder, just seeing all the bruises and them open bedsores. I knew that maybe some of the bruises were from the accident but it was the ones I could tell were caused by a hand that made me upset the most. Finally I got finished and with Adam's help, we changed the sheets and blankets on the bed. I left Adam giving him a little bit of the broth laced with the painkiller the Doc had given us for him.

Should have known Pa was waitin' for me when I stepped out the door carrying the dirty linens and such. But the doctor was there too. I told the doc what we had done and he nodded approvingly.

"How is his fever?" the doctor asked me and for the first time I got the feeling that Joe was a real person to this man.

"Seems to be down a good bit. He's sleepin' better, too. Quieter, I guess you could say. But he ain't said a word and his eyes still look right through you." I heard Pa behind me take a deep sigh, like he was preparing himself for more bad news.

"Did you do like I said? Give him the medication I left before you cleaned -"

"Nope, Doctor March. That we didn't do. And I used good old soap and water, not that alcohol." When I said that, I felt Pa grab my arm hard. He would have spun someone smaller around but I just stood there like one of our Ponderosa pines.

"You promised you would do what the doctor ordered," he come close to thundering at me but I continued to stand my ground.

"I promised I would tend to his hurts, feed him and keep him calm. Me and Adam have been doin' just that. You don't believe me, go see for yourself."

Of course the two of them just about broke their necks getting into the room. I knew that Joe would be asleep by then so they wouldn't be agitating him any. The first thing the doctor did was pull the sheet up to get a good look at Joe's back and all. Adam and I had propped him on his side once again and had not bandaged anything, letting air get to those places, just covering him with a sheet.

"Looks good, even if I do say so myself. Still some lingering inflammation," and the doctor picked up a wrist to take Joe's pulse.

Pa, on the other hand, was running his hand over Joe's face, smoothing his hair back. "He still hasn't said anything, has he?"
Adam and I both shook our heads sadly. "He may never again, either, Pa. Saw men in the War who did just like this. Pulled inside themselves and had a hard time coming back to reality," Adam said to Pa. I couldn't say that sort of thing to Pa. I knew how bad he wanted Joe back and I couldn't begin to tell him that the Joe we knew and loved might never be with us again. Where Adam got the strength from, I'll never know but then a lot of things about my older brother I never understood.

The doctor and Pa must have been satisfied with what we were doing. For the next few days, they stayed out of our way. They never came into the room without us allowing it and then most times it was because Joe was drugged. Adam and I discussed using less and less of that stuff and more and more Joe began to act like a human again. He still hadn't said anything and his eyes still had no sparkle to them but his body was healing. Even though he preferred the dark, we started letting daylight in and after a while, he didn't shy from it. We managed to get a tub full of hot water up there so he could have a bath. When he first saw the water, I could feel him tensing up real bad and started to help him back away from it but Adam reached out to him, across the tub of water, and smiled a bit. Joe seemed to figure out that it was okay and when I left to get Joe something more than broth to eat I had a gratifying view. It was just like when Joe was a little kid and Adam was helping him get cleaned up. Except then, Joe had been chattering up a storm and Adam had been the silent one.

After a week, Joe was handling having other people in the room with him well enough that we took him out into the parlor. For a bit, he was okay then he began to shiver like he was cold. I knew he was afraid of something but I couldn't put my finger on it until I suggested that he go back into his room. Pa moved forward to help him in a move that was so naturally Pa. Joe closed his eyes real fast and turned his head, pulling away from Pa's grasp. That was when it hit me. Joe was afraid of Pa. The expression on Pa's face was the hardest thing to see. He was almost shaking as he stepped aside. Adam took Joe's arm and led him to the other room.

"Pa, I'm sorry. Joe don't mean to be like that. You know that," I tried explaining to Pa but he was shut up just as tight as Joe was. I decided right then and there that some way or another, I wouldn't let Joe stay inside that shell. I would pull him out the dark hole he had crawled into. I had to give my father back my little brother. For both their sakes. And mine.

"Are you sure of this, Hoss?" Pa was asking me for the hundredth time. He and Adam and Hop Sing were standing there at the stage depot with me. It had taken every bit of persuasion I had to convince Pa that going home was the best idea. Him and Hop Sing  that is. I would have liked to have had Adam with me but the doctor said Adam still shouldn't be setting a horse. I had fought a war of words with them to let me and Joe do what I wanted to do. Namely what I wanted to do was for Joe and I to ride home, real slow-like. I thought that letting Joe get back into doing something as simple as riding that blasted pony of his would bring him a step back. We had gone down the afternoon before to the stables where the horses had been loafing and Cochise had immediately recognized Joe but not the other way around. But give the horse credit for some sense. He put his nose to Joe's shoulder and blew out real gentle, like he was giving Joe a hug. Joe didn't back away from the paint but he didn't act like he remembered him either.

So as I told Pa again that I was sure, the stage rumbled up behind us. We all stood there a little awkward, Joe off to one side, lost in his own world. Normally when we parted like this, there would be back slaps and joshing and even a little teasing. There wasn't none of that this time around. I thought Pa was gonna cry when he hugged Joe and Joe stood there just like the wooden Indian at the mercantile. I know it broke Pa's heart 'cause it did mine. I made sure I gave Pa a real good hug and told him that it was from both of us.

"Hoss," Pa started and his voice got real strangled-sounding and whisper thin, "If there is anything you need, just wire ahead and let me know. Be careful, son. This isn't the best time of year for traveling in the mountains."

I pulled my face and stopped Pa's ramblings. "Pa, I'll bring him home. I promise you I will. It may take us a while, but I'll bring him home." Pa patted my belly and climbed on into the waiting stage where Hop Sing was waiting.

How can I write about what passed between Adam and me just before he got on the stage? It ain't fair to him to say that he was cold towards me, 'cause he weren't. By looking at him I could tell he was holding on tight to his emotions. See, Adam knew what I had planned. It was simple. If Joe weren't back to being himself by the time we got to the closest line shack to the house, I was gonna send word that we were gonna keep right on going. Like Adam had said, better to break Pa's heart once than a million times over. And to have Joe lost like that and around him all the time would surely have done that to Pa. I had promised Adam if that was how it was to be, I would write him, not Pa, and keep him appraised of things. Adam had promised to send us money should we need it and to take care of Pa. I felt like Adam was getting the short end of the stick but he had given me a little smile and told me that it seemed to be his job in life. So just before he climbed into the stage, all we could do was give one another a half smile but the hand Adam laid on my arm told me things his voice couldn't.

I stood there, feeling lost myself as the stage pulled away. If there was any way of it happening, I prayed, dear Lord, help me do it, 'cause I knew I couldn't do it myself.

Slowly we rode eastward from Sacramento, headed into the high country. Sport didn't like being used like a packhorse but after the first day, he settled down some. It startled me the second morning out when Joe went and saddled Cochise and Chubb. I had been fixing us breakfast when he rolled out from between the blankets and stretching, had ambled over to see to the animals. I watched him from the corner of my eye as he tended to them, feeding them, brushing them down some then saddling them. All of it he did just like it was the most normal thing in the world even though he didn't make a single sound while doing it. After that, I kept a close eye on my little brother.

I began to notice little subtle changes in him. I doubt that had we been with other folks that I would have noticed them, but since we were alone, I did. I saw him once stop and sniff the air. When I did the same thing, I smelled pine in the air. Another time, when we had stopped to water the horses, I saw him tuck his thumbs into the back of his belt as he waited for Cochise to finish. Just like he always did. And my heart soared when I saw him push all that hair of his out of his face after he had been chopping us some firewood. But then the same door that had opened slammed shut.

We were not two hours from home when I suggested that we stop for the night at the line shack. Of course Joe didn't answer me, just swung down off his horse and began loosening the cinch. This was it, I thought. I had a decision to make right there. All I had to do was turn Sport loose and the big old chestnut would be back down to the house and Adam would know we weren't coming home right then. I let Joe go about tending to the horses while I went into the cabin. I couldn't see him right then without imagining Pa's face when Adam told him.

For Joe, it was just like every other night we had spent together for the past two weeks riding slowly up the trail. I was talking enough for the two of us combined, trying to fill in the silence, I guess. He ate the beans I cooked up and drank the coffee then rolled over into his blankets in the far bunk to sleep.

For me, it was the worst night I think I ever had. I washed up our dishes and banked the fire then went out to the lean-to and the horses. I checked them over real good, stalling for time. Joe had done a real fine job, of course, and they were contented animals, standing there all close together, Sport and Chubb flanking Cochise. I even had to shove Sport away from Cochise to get between them. That surprised me some since Sport is usually a very stand-offish critter, hating anyone and anything but Adam to bother with him. I had a tough time untying the lead rope Sport was tethered to the side of the lean-to with but it wasn't because of the knot. I couldn't see for the tears in my eyes. I backed Sport out of the shed and the long legged son-of-a-gun seemed to know he had a tough job to do. He fought me every step of the way.

"Go on now, boy," I said, pushing at him, "You go on home. Adam's waitin' for you. Go on now, get!" I raised my hat and waved it at him and Sport backed away from me. He turned on them bright white hooves of his and trotted about a dozen feet away then stopped dead still. He turned to look back at me. There was something real sad about how he looked at me but I told him to go. He slung that copper mane around and headed for the treeline.

"Tell 'em we love 'em," I whispered. "And some day, I'll fulfill my promise to Pa. I'll bring him home. Some day."

As I headed back into the cabin, I heard Cochise whinny in the shed. Out in the night, Sport answered him. Somehow or another, I got the feeling they were saying good-bye to one another. I stopped at the doorway and looked out just in time to see the moon rise over the mountains that stood between the house and us.

I whispered my own "good bye."



 The nightmare was back. In it, I was trying to swim to the surface but something was holding me underwater. I could see the bright light above me through the inky black water and it was beckoning me. I tried kicking whatever it was that was holding me but to no avail. The more I twisted and turned, the tighter it seemed to hold me. I couldn't get a breath. I was drowning. Finally, as I felt my lungs collapsing, whatever it was that had been holding me turned loose and I rose to the surface. My first gulp of air tasted heavily of pine smoke. I rolled onto my back and dragged it into my starving lungs anyway. Then, the nightmare reached up and pulled me back down again. And again I was lost in the terror of it…..

Now my family would tell you that I am hard to wake up and I suppose that morning was like any other morning. In truth, I wasn't hard to wake up. Just hard to get started. I did that morning like I did lots of mornings: lay there with my eyes shut and try to get a feel on how the day was gonna go. But some things just weren't adding up. I could feel the coarse wool blanket around me but it was way too cold for an autumn morning. And I could hear Hoss muttering close at hand, but where was Adam? By all rights, he would have been hauling on my ass to get out of my bedroll. And where was the sound of the cattle? Two hundred head of cattle granted ain't a whole lot of cattle but they do make noise. For the life of me I couldn't figure out what had happened that made Adam let me sleep in while he and the rest of the crew took the cattle on to-where? And why was Hoss muttering about eggs? Finally I had to do it. I opened my eyes.

First glance around told me something was wrong. Real wrong. I wasn't rolled up in my bedroll beside a campfire like I should have been. We were in the line shack that overlooked one of the high meadows at the Ponderosa. And it wasn't autumn since there was snow beginning to fall outside the little window over my bed. Hoss was over at the fireplace, his back to me, but obviously trying to make breakfast. I could smell burnt bacon along with pine smoke.

"Dadburn eggs! Haul 'em all the way up here- unbroken even! Crack 'em out of their shells and the durn yellas just fall apart!" Hoss was fussing.

"That's cause you drop them into the skillet. How many times has Hop Sing told you to crack 'em open just above the pan then lay them in real gentle? Otherwise you got scrabbled eggs," I said yawning and stretching.

Hoss whirled around, the skillet falling out of his hands like he was burnt by the eggs, the skillet or the fire. I couldn't tell which. He looked like he had seen a ghost, his mouth half hung open and his eyes round.

"What?" I asked sharply and he didn't answer me. "Why you looking at me like that?" I had decided to try bluffing my way out of whatever the situation was that had us here and not with the herd going to Sacramento.

"YOU!" he shouted and the timbers overhead shook. He took a lunge at me and grabbed me up in a bear hug that near took the breath from me.

"What have I done now?" I protested. Whatever it was it couldn't have been that bad. At least I hoped not.

"Hot diggity, little brother! You're awake!" he said but the way he said made me think that I wasn't suppose to be.

"Okay, so I slept a little late. Why didn't somebody wake me? Thought Adam would be all over me-- Stop looking at me like that! You're giving me the creeps!"

By now, Hoss was jumping up and down, taking me with him, all the time saying what sounded like "I knew it!" and pounding me on the back. After I shouted his name for about the fifth time, he let me go. Oddly enough, he had tears in his eyes.

"What in Hell is wrong with you?" I asked, looking around for my jacket to put on.

"You don't remember?" he inquired, shoving his face forward, towards me.

"Remember what? That we got a herd of cattle to get to the buyer in Sacramento? Yeah, I remember that real well and I imagine that Adam is gonna 'remind' me of it real well too. Where's my coat?"

Hoss handed me my jacket. There was a confused look on his face. That look traded places with mine as he told me what had happened over the past few weeks. As he spoke of the two paddlewheelers' race and collision, it was like he was telling me a made-up story. And I told him so.

"No, it's true, Joe. It happened! And then when we couldn't find you, I thought I was gonna die. And Pa-"

"Pa wasn't with us!" I interrupted but Hoss just kept right on going.

I know he continued to talk, telling me stuff but something grabbed a hold of me and wouldn't let go, just like in the dream, when I put on my jacket. My feet were firmly planted in that line shack, I know they were. But my mind was elsewhere. I saw the face of this beautiful little baby girl, wrapped in my jacket as I lowered her over the side to her mother in a rowboat. There were hot flames behind me but another woman was there beside me. Her dress was burning and I put it out for her. She was screaming and I couldn't get her to calm down. Then Adam was there beside me but before anything else happened, I felt like I was flying. When I landed it was like I had landed in Hell. There were monsters pushing and prodding me, hurting me. I tried to scream but I couldn't. I tried to fight but my arms were useless. I twisted and bucked, fighting with every ounce of strength I had but they were stronger. I felt my clothes ripped away and those monsters kept hurting me. I cried out for Pa to help me but it was Hoss who came to my aid.

When my mind let me come back to the line shack, Hoss was holding me against him, talking real soft to me, telling me it was okay. That he was there. I pushed back away from that big chest of his, surprised to find that I had been crying.

"You all right now?" he whispered to me. I couldn't answer him. I didn't know the answer. I was shaking, I was so scared but I didn't know what I was afraid of. The one thing I did know was that it felt good to have Hoss' strength there to support me. I told him so.

"I always been here for you, Shortshanks, whether you knew it or not."

I could only smile my gratitude. Somehow or another, I knew that was going to be his reply.

"Joe, we got to get a move on," and Hoss told me of what he had done the night before and what it would mean. I was taken aback by what he had done out of love for me. For Hoss to decide to leave the Ponderosa and want to stay with me had to have been a tough decision for him. But then again, I would have done it for him.

"We got to stop Adam from having that conversation with Pa," I warned.

Hoss' one word reply was "Yep!"

I was pushing Cochise hard. The terrain wasn't the best for winter riding but the skiff of snow along the ground didn't hide too many secrets. Didn't seem to matter to Cochise or to Hoss for that matter. Sure didn't bother me either. I knew where we were and making a beeline for the house might have gotten us home in less than two hours. But I wanted to be home before then. I kept thinking what Adam would say to Pa when he found Sport in the yard. How it would hurt Pa. How I had hurt Pa. I couldn't let that happen.

Hoss and I had just crested the rim of the valley and dropped down onto the road about a mile and a half from the house when we saw him. It was Adam and Sport was making a line right for us. We pulled up to let the horses blow and let Adam make his way to us.

"Wondered when you two would be getting back!" he quipped, reining in beside me. Then I guess he saw the smile on my face. He leaned down out of the saddle and liked to pull me out of mine, he was so happy. Had to be the happiest I ever saw Adam Cartwright greet me! I admit that I was happy to see him too.

"You okay?" I asked him. Hoss had told me how banged up Adam had been and I was afraid that riding out there that morning and now the way he was manhandling me was going to hurt him.

Adam smiled and allowed that he would live, although having his brothers back to help with chores was gonna help him a whole lot.

"Did you talk with Pa? Like we said?" and Hoss' voice shook a little.

Shaking his head "no", Adam admitted "I couldn't let you do it, Hoss. I was coming out to find you. To tell you to come on home, that we would face this together. No matter what." Adam's arm had snaked out and once he had Sport turned back towards the house, he laid it across my shoulders. "But I can see that I didn't need to come out in the cold. Are you okay, Little Buddy?"

I could have answered Adam any number of ways but I wanted something else worse than the love I felt leaking out of my staunch oldest brother so I gave him a quick "Sure I am!" What I wanted, and you can call it sentimentality or whatever you want, it won't change it and I will defend it till the day I die, I wanted Pa. All the love of my brothers was great but I wanted to feel my father's arms around me, hugging me. I wanted to hear him saying he loved me. And I wanted to tell him the same thing.

Adam must have known it and with one of those eyebrows cocked towards his hat, he challenged "Last one home is a suck egg mule then!"

My brothers didn't stand a chance in that race.


It had been so hard to leave Little Joe and Hoss in Sacramento. I understood what Hoss was going to do. I had even been eavesdropping on he and Adam as they had made their plans. I prayed to my ancestors that it would not come to that but I stayed silent to Mister Ben. Just before we had gotten on the stage, I had just touched Little Joe's hand and he had moved away from me a little, afraid. It broke my heart and, to hide my sorrow, I had climbed into the stage first.

Once we had returned home, I did what I could to make the house like it once was. But it wasn't to be. While Adam ran things, I could tell there was no heart in what he did. And Mister Ben spent a great deal of time just sitting in his chair, thinking. Some days he would saddle his horse and be gone for a long time. I thought perhaps he had gone to Missy Cartwright's grave but I would not be so intrusive as to ask.

Then that morning, as I puttered in the kitchen, getting together a breakfast that I would have to fight them to get them to eat, I heard a horse in the yard. At first I thought that it was one of the hands come to the house on some errand. I peeked out the window, only to see Adam leading his horse into the barn.

It was like the earth had suddenly stopped. I sat down on my stool there in the kitchen. I wanted to cry. I knew what it meant. I had heard Hoss tell Adam that if Little Joe were no better, he would turn Sport loose close enough to the house to find his way back. Hoss and Little Joe would continue on. Now I had seen the big horse come into the yard and knew my Little Joe was no better. That he and Hoss would just go away. I tried to cry but I couldn't. I had cried so much that my tears were gone now that I needed them the most. Maybe, I thought, that was a good thing. I still had to serve Mister Ben his breakfast and I couldn't let him know what I knew. That was Adam's job.

My heart went out to Adam. He had a most thankless job in front of him. He had struggled under the weight of just this fear since we had left Sacramento. Now he would have to tell his father that it had come to this. What bothered me was that there was going to be no one for Adam to turn to for comfort. He would need someone, even as he tried to stay strong. I laid my breakfast preparations aside and went out to talk to him in the barn.
To my surprise, he was saddling his horse.

"What?" he barked at me, a sure sign to me that he was upset.

"Hop Sing know," was all I said. As I watched him, the shoulders under the heavy coat began to shake and he leaned his head into the side of his horse. I went over and stood close to him.

"I can't let Hoss do this, Hop Sing. I can't. If needs be, I'll take Joe and go away but I can't let Hoss leave the ranch. It means everything to him."

"Why Little Joe need to leave? He can be happy here."

Adam just shook his head and said I didn't understand. But I did understand. I understood that it took all of them to be a family. That one part fitted into the whole and made it run smoothly, like the teeth of a saw. Without one tooth on the blade, it wouldn't work right. But I couldn't explain it to Adam, he was so lost in grief. So for the first time in my life on the Ponderosa, I turned the man in black and tried to take him into my arms. Instead I found myself in his fierce embrace. I let him cry. I would tell no one that the mask had fallen away that morning and I had seen a soul so lost and tormented.

After a while, he managed to finish saddling his horse. I stayed with him.

"Don't say anything to Pa, okay?"

"No. But Mister Adam, what do I tell him when he see you not at breakfast?"

I watched him mull that over, his features now composed and steady.

"Tell him-" he started then stopped. "Tell him, I've gone to send his son home."

"Bring all sons home," I encouraged but he shook his head sadly and pulling his horse into the yard, mounted swiftly and rode away. I went back into the kitchen but my heart rode away on a big horse to a little boy I had known once.

Mister Ben didn't ask where Adam was when he came down to breakfast. I could see that his thoughts once again were elsewhere. I poured his coffee for him and set the server at easy reach. My thoughts were not on what I was doing either, for I sat down in the chair to his right, the one Little Joe usually sat in. Mister Ben just looked at me blankly.

He had forked a mound of eggs into his plate when he spoke one word. "What?" he barked and I felt the anger beneath the sorrow. I turned my eyes down and slipped from the chair, headed back into the kitchen.

I heard it first. A horse at full gallop came into the yard. At first I thought that perhaps Adam had changed his mind but then I knew that he would never ride like that. Adam had always respected his father's wishes and that included coming into the yard at a slower than breakneck pace. Only one son ever dared to do that and that was my Little Joe. I started to look out the window, out of habit. Then I stopped myself. It would not be Little Joe and my heart would know new pain. I turned back to the sink. There were dishes to be washed.

Then the front door banged open and I heard him calling for his father. Little Joe was back. I heard a crash and then nothing. I slipped to the kitchen doorway.

Mister Ben's chair was on its side. There was spilled coffee spreading over the tablecloth. But standing there in the middle of the great room I saw a sight that made my heart leap with joy. For there, father and son stood hugging one another, Mister Ben's silver head bowed next to Little Joe's dark curls. Mister Ben then straightened up and took his son's face in his hands and looked deeply into his eyes.

"It's me Pa, I swear it is," I heard him say and even from where I stood I could see that the green eyes were alive.

"I know, I know." Mister Ben was so happy he was having trouble finding words to show his happiness. I had the words and I said them to myself as I saw Mister Ben kiss Little Joe's forehead.

"You have been gone too long. Welcome home, little one," and happy now, I went into the kitchen. All would be home soon and need to eat. "Yes, welcome home."

The end

Tahoe Ladies
November 2000 to April 2001

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