The sun was already up as Joe Cartwright strolled down the stairs. Tucking in his shirt and brushing the sleep from his eyes, he climbed down toward the main part of the house. Joe knew he was late for breakfast but the extra sleep had seemed more important than breakfast, at least at the time. Now, however, the smell of coffee and bacon made his mouth water. Joe walked a little faster, and slid into his seat at the dining room table.
“Morning,” Joe mumbled at no one in particular as he reached for the coffee pot. However, the other two people sitting at the table acknowledged his greeting in a manner that left Joe in no doubt that they were aware he was late.
“Good morning, Joseph,” said Ben Cartwright in a tone which said it was NOT a good morning.
“Nice of you to join us,” Adam Cartwright added in a wry voice.
“Sorry I’m late,” Joe replied contritely as he sipped his coffee. “I overslept.”
“And could there be a reason why you overslept?” Ben asked, his voice still stern. “Maybe it was because you didn’t get home until after midnight.”
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe repeated, his voice even more contrite. “I just lost track of time last night.” Joe reached for the platter of bacon and eggs on the table. There were only two strips of bacon and a small bit of scrambled eggs left. “I see Hoss has eaten,” Joe commented ironically as he emptied the contests of the platter onto his plate. “Where is he?”
“He’s in the barn getting your horses ready,” Ben answered, his voice still reflecting his unhappiness with his youngest son. “He wanted to get out to the north pasture and get started on fixing that windmill before the day was half gone.”
“Oh, yeah, the windmill,” Joe said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “I forgot.” He started to eat quickly. “I’ll get going as soon as I finish eating.”
“And when you’re finished with that, I want you and Hoss to take another count of the calves out there,” Ben continued in a voice that brooked no argument. “Adam and I are going to finish the branding schedule today.”
“Yes sir,” Joe agreed obediently, as he continued to eat.
“I hope you didn’t lose all your money playing poker last night,” Adam remarked as he sipped his coffee. “It’s two weeks until payday, and I’m not loaning you any money.”
“It wasn’t like that, Adam,” Joe protested. “I ran into Charlie Parker and his brother at the Silver Dollar. Frank was telling us stories about all the things he did at college, and I just lost track of time.”
“Frank Parker’s home?” Ben asked with a frown. “I thought he had a job with a mining company in Denver.”
“He does, Pa,” Joe answered. “He’s just home for a week or so. He doesn’t have to be in Denver until the end of the month, so he thought he’d visit his family before he started his new job.”
“How did he like college?” Adam asked curiously. “I saw some of his letters, and he didn’t say much about how he was getting along with the other students.”
“He had kind of a hard time at first,” Joe replied. “He said the fellows there treated him like some kind of country bumpkin. But after awhile, he started to fit in and he really had a good time.”
Adam nodded. “I remember that. Same thing happened to me. If they find out you are from the West, they think you’re a hayseed. How did he get them to accept him?”
“Well, you know Frank,” Joe said with a grin. “He loves playing jokes on people. He played a couple of jokes on the fellows there, and pretty soon they were laughing at each other, and not him.”
Adam smiled. “I guess that’s one way of handling it,” he agreed.
Joe started to chuckle. “He pulled some really crazy stunts. He even got three of the fellows in the house where he was living to go on a snipe hunt.”
“He didn’t!” Adam exclaimed with a laugh. “I didn’t think anyone fell for that one anymore.”
“A snipe hunt?” Ben asked. “What’s that?”
“It’s an old trick,” Adam explained. “Usually, the older students get the new ones to do it. They tell them that there’s a rare animal called a snipe running around, and a big reward if they catch one. They have to go out hunting for it at night. The new guys spend the night hunting in the woods with a sack and a lantern, usually making some strange sounds that they’ve been told attract the snipes.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a snipe,” Ben said with a frown.
“That’s because there is no such thing,” Joe replied with a laugh. “It’s all a big joke.”
“When the hunters come back in the morning, there’s usually a whole crowd of people waiting for them,” Adam added with a chuckle. “By then, the new fellows have figured out it was a trick. They’re usually pretty sheepish, and the older guys really have a good laugh at their expense.”
“Frank said he heard about it from one of his professors,” Joe said, still grinning. “He thought it was the funniest thing he ever heard. He couldn’t wait to try it. When the three fellows got back in the morning, Frank had the whole house waiting for them. After that, Frank said he was treated as just one of the guys.”
“I can’t believe he actually got three of them to go on a snipe hunt,” Adam observed, shaking his head and smiling.
“Well, you know Frank,” Joe said. “He can be a pretty smooth talker.”
“This is all very educational,” Ben interrupted. “But it’s not getting that windmill fixed.” He looked at Adam. “Or the branding schedule done.”
Hastily, Joe finished the food on his plate and gulped down the last of his coffee. “I’m on my way, Pa,” he said, wiping his face quickly with a napkin. Joe stood and hurried to the front door. He grabbed his hat, jacket and gunbelt from the peg by the door, then rushed out of the house.
After finishing his coffee, Ben also rose from the table. “Well, Adam?” he asked. “Are you ready to start on those schedules?”
Sighing, Adam threw his napkin on the table. “Yeah, I’m ready,” he agreed reluctantly. He watched as Ben walked from the dining room toward his desk in the study. “Maybe we ought to start raising snipe,” Adam muttered to himself.
“Little brother, do you mind if I give you some advice?” Hoss said as he rode with his brother toward the north pasture.
Oh no, Joe thought. When Hoss used that tone of voice, he was going into his “big brother” mode. “Could I stop you?” Joe answered with a sigh.
”Joe, you got to learn to be more responsible,” Hoss continued in a condescending tone. “You have to stop running around at night, and get to work on time.”
“Oh, like you, I suppose,” Joe snorted.
“Well, yes,” Hoss admitted. “Pa knows he can count on me not to do anything foolish. He knows I’m reliable.”
“Oh, and I suppose you’ve never done anything foolish in your life?” Joe said in a skeptical voice.
“Well, maybe when I was just a youngster, I did a few silly things,” Hoss admitted. “But I’ve grown out of that stage. Now Pa knows I’m the steady and level-headed one in the family,” he finished in a superior tone.
“Yeah, right,” Joe replied wryly. “You’re just a rock. We all should look to you as a model of behavior.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Hoss said modestly. “But it wouldn’t hurt you to be more like me.”
As an idea began to form in his head, Joe got a gleam in his eye. “You’re right, Hoss,” Joe agreed, suddenly very conciliatory . “I should try to be more like you.”
“You should,” Hoss acknowledged, nodding his head. “Pa would think a lot better of you if you did. He knows what kind of a son I am.”
“Don’t worry, Hoss,” Joe said, trying hard to keep a grin off his face. “I’m going to make sure Pa knows exactly what kind of a son you are.”
Joe and Hoss finished the repairs on the windmill by noon. Joe had said little as he worked. He was too busy creating a plan in his mind, going over the details and refining them as he schemed.
When the windmill was finally running, Hoss suggested they have something to eat before checking on the calves. Hop Sing had filled a saddle bag with sandwiches and apples, and Hoss was eager to fill his growling stomach. Joe enthusiastically agreed.
The two brothers sat under a shade tree, relaxing as they ate. Hoss had three sandwiches stacked in front of him. “Nice of you to save me something,” grumbled Joe as he looked at the one sandwich in his hand.
“I’m a full-grown man,” Hoss explained. “I need a big meal to keep me going.”
“You’re full grown, all right,” agreed Joe. “We’ve got steers smaller than you!”
Shaking his head in amazement, Joe watched as Hoss quickly down his sandwiches. Joe ate his sandwich almost as rapidly, afraid Hoss would want his lunch also. Both were biting into crisp apples as they lingered in the shade. Joe glanced sideways at Hoss. His face twitched a bit as he decided now was the time to put his plan into action.
“Hey Hoss, know what I heard in town?” Joe said as casually as possible as he bit into his apple. “Frank Parker said he thought he saw some snipe up by Pinetree Canyon the other night?”
“Snipe?” Hoss replied with a frown. “What’s a snipe?”
“You don’t know what a snipe is?” Joe asked in surprise.
“I wouldn’t be asking if I did,” Hoss answered in a reasonable voice.
“They’re a very rare animal,” Joe explained. “Hardly ever seen. Frank was telling us that back East, they’re paying $1,000 to anyone who can catch one.”
“A $1,000 for one animal!” Hoss exclaimed. “Oh, Joe, you’re joshing me.”
“No, I swear it’s true,” Joe told his brother earnestly. “Snipe are so rare that all the menageries are trying to get some so they can show them. Maybe even breed them.”
“Really?” said Hoss with astonishment. He looked at Joe with a puzzled expression. “What do they look like?”
Joe frowned. “Well, I’ve never actually seen one,” he admitted. “But I hear they’re a small, furry animal about so big.” Joe spread his hands about a foot apart. “Kind of a cross between a raccoon and a prairie dog.”
“How come I ain’t never heard of them?” Hoss asked.
“I don’t know,” Joe replied shrugging his shoulders. “Maybe because they haven’t been seen around here before.”
“A $1,000,” Hoss mused. “That’s a lot of money.”
“It sure is,” Joe agreed in a nonchalant voice as he threw his apple core away. “And the man who caught one would probably be famous. Probably get his picture in the paper. Maybe even get invited to meet the president.”
“Meet the president?” Hoss said in surprise.
“Sure,” Joe confirmed. “Everyone would want to meet the man who actually caught a snipe.”
“If it’s such a big deal, how come everyone’s not out looking for them?” Hoss asked.
“I told Frank to keep quiet about it,” Joe replied. “I didn’t want word to get around. Why, there’d be people all over the Ponderosa. It would make the California Gold Rush look like a picnic.”
For a minute, Hoss sat thinking quietly. “Joe,” he asked at last, “how do they go about catching those snipe.”
Joe grinned, then quickly put a serious look on his face. “I don’t know exactly,” Joe answered, scratching his head. “Frank says you can only hunt them at night. You have to attract them by making a calling sound like they make, then quickly scoop them into a sack.”
“A calling noise?” Hoss asked curiously. “What kind of calling noise?”
“Well, I think it sounds something like this,” Joe said. “Cooo-eeee” he added in a high-pitched, trilling voice.
“Cooo-eeee.” Hoss tried to imitate his brother.
“No, a little higher than that,” Joe admonished his brother. “You have to make your voice really shrill.”
“Cooo-eeee.” Hoss tried it again. His voice was shrill.
“That’s it!” Joe said, enthusiastically. He turned his head so Hoss couldn’t see the grin on his face. He couldn’t keep a straight face any longer.
“Cooo-eeee,” Hoss cried again, trying out the snipe call.
“You really got it,” Joe said, turning back to Hoss. His lips twitched as he desperately tried to keep from laughing. “Say, Hoss,” he added. “You’re not thinking about going snipe hunting, are you?”
“Well, I was considering it,” Hoss admitted. “I mean, a thousand dollars is a lot of money. And it would be real important for people to be able to see a snipe.”
“Oh, sure,” Joe agreed in an earnest voice. “You’d be making an important contribution to the world.” Joe rubbed his chin. “Tell you what. Why don’t you go tonight? I’ll help you sneak out of the house, and make sure you have everything you need.”
“Sneak out?” Hoss said in surprise. “Why would I do that? I’ll just tell Pa where I’m going.”
“No, no, you can’t do that,” Joe answered quickly. “You can’t tell Pa or Adam or anyone.”
“Why not?” asked Hoss.
“Because, uh, because you want to surprise everyone, don’t you?” Joe explained, thinking rapidly. “If you tell everyone, they’ll all be out there hunting, too. All those people would scare the snipe away.”
“Yeah, I guess they would,” Hoss admitted. “But I feel funny about not telling Pa.”
“Hoss, think about how proud Pa will be when you bring a snipe home,” said Joe earnestly. “Wouldn’t it be great to surprise him?”
Hoss thought a moment, then smiled. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he agreed. He turned to Joe. “Don’t you want to come with me?”
“Oh, I do,” Joe said. “But I don’t want to steal your thunder.” He put his hand on Hoss’ arm. “This will be your triumph, brother. I want you to be known as the man who went on the snipe hunt in Nevada.”
“Gee, thanks, Joe,” replied Hoss gratefully. “You’re some brother.”
“Oh, Hoss, you just don’t know what kind of brother I am,” Joe said truthfully. He turned his head away, and rolled his eyes to the sky. His body was twitching with concealed laughter. “You just don’t know.”
Joe and Hoss talked about the snipe hunt off and on during the rest of the day as they counted the calves. Joe embellished his story whenever he could, adding new details about how the snipe lived in the thick brush, and how they were attracted to the bright light of a lantern at night. Hoss listened earnestly, and nodded in understanding at each new piece of information. Joe even had Hoss practice his “snipe call” several times. By the end of the day, he could hardly keep from bursting out laughing.
The sun was starting to lower in the sky when Joe and Hoss finally finished the calf count and headed toward home. “Now remember,” Joe reminded his brother. “Don’t tell anyone about going snipe hunting tonight.”
“I won’t,” promised Hoss. “You sure you want to sneak out tonight and help me gather all my gear? It’s going to be pretty late before I start out.”
“Hoss, I wouldn’t miss it,” Joe said solemnly.
“Joe, you’re the best little brother a man ever had,” observed Hoss.
“Aw,” Joe replied modestly. “I’m just trying to be more like you. You know, sensible and down to earth.”
Hoss nodded his understanding. Then he grinned. “I can’t wait to see the look on Pa and Adam’s faces tomorrow at breakfast.”
“I can’t wait either,” said Joe with a grin.
Hoss and Joe said little at dinner that night. Hoss gave the calf count when the pair returned to the house and briefly assured Ben that the windmill was now in working order. Over dinner, he answered his father’s questions about the herd in the north pasture with a distracted air, and several times, he had to ask Ben to repeat a question. Joe ate silently, not trusting himself to join in the conversation without giving something away. He watched his brother carefully, his lips twitching in silent laughter every time he thought of Hoss’ going out hunting later that night.
During the meal, Hoss glanced at Joe from time to time and occasionally gave his little brother a wink and grin. Joe nodded his head in encouragement.
“What’s going on with you two?” Ben finally asked in exasperation.
“What do you mean, Pa?” Joe replied in an innocent voice.
“He means you two are acting even stranger than usual,” remarked Adam as he ate his dinner. “What are you two cooking up?”
“Why, nothing,” said Hoss, his voice as innocent as Joe’s. “What would we be cooking up?”
“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “But whenever you two start acting like this, it usually means trouble.”
“That’s not fair, Adam,” said Joe in a hurt voice.
“It may not be fair, but it’s true,” Adam replied dryly.
“Well, whatever you two are planning, I want you both up on time tomorrow,” ordered Ben sternly. “We’re going to start branding in the morning, and we won’t have time for any foolishness.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” promised Joe. “In fact, I think I’ll probably be up early tomorrow.”
“Yeah, me too,” added Hoss. “In fact, I’ll probably have a surprise at breakfast.”
“Surprise? What surprise?” asked Adam suspiciously.
“Nothing, Adam,” Joe answered quickly. “Hoss just means you’re going to be surprised at how early he is going to be up tomorrow.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” agreed Hoss a bit lamely.
Adam looked back and forth between his two brothers, then he shook his head and sighed. “On second thought, I don’t think I want to know,” he said. “I’m probably better off if I don’t know what you two are planning.”
After quickly wiped his mouth with his napkin, Joe stood. “Pa, I think I’m going to head on up to bed,” he announced. “I want to get plenty of sleep for tomorrow.”
Ben froze, his coffee cup halfway to his mouth. “You’re going to bed early?” he asked in amazement. “Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe assured him. He looked across the table at Hoss. “Don’t you think going to bed early is a good idea, Hoss?” he asked pointedly.
“What? Oh, yeah,” Hoss agreed as he hastily finished eating. He wiped his hands on his napkin, and then stood. “I think I’ll hit the sack, too.”
Both Ben and Adam watched in stunned silence as Joe and Hoss left the table and headed immediately up the stairs to their rooms. “What do you think is going on?” Ben finally asked.
“I don’t know, Pa,” answered Adam. “But whatever it is, I think we’re all going to regret it.”
The clock by the door was striking midnight as Hoss crept silently down the stairs. He was fully dressed and carried an unlit lantern in his hand. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stood for a moment, listening. Satisfied that the house was quiet, Hoss walked slowly across the room to the door. He opened the front door slowly, and winced as the door made a small squeak. Hoss stopped and looked around the room again. Then he quickly slipped out of the house.
Walking rapidly, Hoss crossed the yard to the barn. The night seemed unusually quiet. Even the crickets seemed to be asleep. Hoss wondered if Joe had forgotten his promise to help, and was still asleep. He shrugged unconcerned as he opened the barn door. If Joe was still in bed, Hoss would manage on his own.
As soon as he was inside the barn, Hoss lit the lantern. He held it high, trying to brighten the dark structure.
“Hoss?” A voice suddenly came out of the darkness to Hoss’ right. “Where you been?”
Hoss jumped. “Who’s there?” he whispered loudly.
Immediately Joe emerged from the dark shadows of the back of the barn. “It’s just me.”
“Doggone it, Joe,” Hoss complained. “You near scared ten years off me.”
“Sorry,” apologized Joe. “Where have you been?” he asked again. “It’s after midnight.”
“I had to wait until I was sure Pa and Adam were asleep,” Hoss explained.
“Oh,” said Joe, his voice full of disbelief. “I thought that was snoring I heard when I passed your room. I guess it was just some sick animal.”
Hoss glared at his brother. “Joe…” he started.
“I’ve got your horse all saddled,” Joe interrupted quickly. “I see you remembered a lantern.”
“Yep,” said Hoss enthusiastically. “And I’m going to grab one of those grain sacks to take with me.”
“Good, good,” Joe encouraged his brother, his lips starting to twitch again. “Now, you remember the snipe call, don’t you?”
“Sure,” replied Hoss. “Coo…” Joe quickly put his hand over his brother’s mouth.
“Shhhh!” Joe said urgently. “You want to wake everyone up?”
“Sorry,” apologized Hoss as Joe removed his hand. Hoss walked to the stall and led his horse out. He grabbed an empty grain sack from a stack on the top of a barrel, then tucked the sack under the back of his saddle. He hooked the lantern over the horn of his saddle. Joe watched with a smile.
“Joe, I can’t thank you enough for telling me about this,” Hoss said earnestly, putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I’m going to pay you back, I promise.”
“I’m sure you will,” agreed Joe with a grin.
“I tell you what,” Hoss continued. “Once I get that $1,000, I’m going to give you some of it.”
“You don’t have to do that,” replied Joe.
“Yes, I do,” insisted Hoss. “Once I get that money, I’m going to give you $50.”
“$50!” Joe exclaimed. “Why you cheap…” Joe stopped himself quickly. “Gee, thanks, Hoss. That makes me feel even better about what I’m doing.”
“I knew it would,” said Hoss with a superior smile. He mounted his horse. “I’d better get going.”
Giving a quick nod, Joe pushed the barn door open. Hoss gave him a wave, then chucked his horse forward. Joe stood by the door and watched until he was sure Hoss was too far away to hear him. Then Joe started to giggle. His giggle quickly turned into a full laugh. Tears began streaming down his face as he roared with laughter, As Hoss rode off into the darkness, he didn’t see Joe leaning against the barn, weak with laugher.
Hoss spent the rest of the night in Pinetree Canyon. He dismounted and tied his horse to a tree at the entrance of the canyon, then started into the underbrush cautiously. Holding the brightly shining lantern in one hand and the sack in the other, Hoss began to hunt earnestly for snipe. From time to time, he would stop and yell out a shrill “cooeee”, then wait for some response.
As the night wore on, Hoss’ enthusiasm for the hunt began to fade. He was getting tired, and he hadn’t seen anything resembling the animal Joe had described. He had flushed out a fox, and sent some frightened squirrels scurrying into the night. He had even heard an owl respond to his call. But Hoss couldn’t seem to find any trace of the elusive snipe. As he tramped through the underbrush, he could feel the branches scratching at his arms. Bits of dirt and twigs began clinging to his shirt and pants as he crawled deeper into the brush. Hoss gave out a few more snipe calls in an unenthusiastic voice. He wasn’t surprised when all he heard in reply was a few crickets.
As the dawn began to break, an uncomfortable idea began to form in Hoss’ head. He quickly dismissed his suspicion, blaming his lack of success on just bad hunting luck. But as the sky began to lighten, Hoss started to wonder more and more about Joe’s instructions on how to hunt snipe.
Finally, Hoss decided to call off the hunt. The sun was beginning to rise over the horizon, and he knew he needed to get home in time for breakfast. His father had made it very clear at dinner last night that he expected ALL his sons to be on time and ready for work today. Hoss blew out the lantern as he returned to his patiently waiting horse. He stuck the sack under the saddle again, and hooked the unlit lantern over the saddle horn. Then he mounted and headed for home.
Hoss was about halfway to the ranch house when he saw the three riders. He recognized them as Ponderosa hands, and wondered what they were doing riding out so early. He hailed the men, who rode slowly over to Hoss.
“Morning, Hoss,” one of the men said with a sleepy smile.
“Morning, Vince,” answered Hoss. “What are you fellows doing out here so early?”
“Oh, Joe asked us to ride out here before we went over to start on the branding,” explained Sam, another of the hands.
“Joe was up this early?” Hoss said in surprise.
“Well, actually, he came by the bunkhouse last night and asked us,” admitted Vince. “He said some crazy fellow had been spotted up by Pinetree Canyon, and he wanted us to make sure we chased the fellow off.”
“Some crazy fellow?” Hoss replied cautiously.
“Yeah, he’s been running around at night up there,” explained Sam. “Got a lantern and a sack, and making all kind of crazy sounds.”
Hoss shifted uncomfortably on his horse. He quickly reached down to push the sack further under the saddle. “What else did Joe tell you?” he asked.
“Joe said the guy thinks there’s some animal called a snipe out there,” answered Billy, the third rider. Billy laughed. “A snipe. Can you believe that? Whoever heard of a snipe!” The other two hands laughed also, and Hoss nervously joined in with his own laugh. Then, suddenly, Hoss frowned as realization hit him.
“What’s wrong, Hoss?” asked Vince with concern.
“Nothing, Vince,” Hoss answered quickly. “Look, I just got back from Pinetree Canyon and there’s no one there. You fellows can go on and head to the north pasture.”
“Fine with us,” Sam replied, turning his horse. “It’ll save us a long ride.”
“You be sure and tell Joe we came out,” said Billy, as he turned his horse also.
“Don’t worry,” promised Hoss, an angry look on his face. “I’m going to have a real long talk with my little brother.”
Ben was surprised to see Joe already at the breakfast table when he came down the stairs. He was even more surprised to see Hoss’ chair was empty; usually Hoss was the first one down in the morning. Ben looked at Joe and then the empty chair as he approached the table. He turned Adam, who was also sitting at the table and gave his oldest son a questioning look. Adam just shrugged his shoulders.
“Morning, Pa,” Joe said with a smile as Ben slid into his chair.
“Good morning, Joseph,” answered Ben. “It’s nice to see you up early for a change.” He glanced at the empty chair. “Where’s Hoss?”
Joe grinned. “I think he got up early,” he said in a gleeful voice. “I think he had something to do.”
Ben frowned as he poured himself a cup of coffee. “Hoss knows we’re starting the branding today. What could he be doing that is so important?”
Before Joe could answer, the front door opened and Hoss walked in. He removed his hat and gun, and laid them on the table next to the door. Then he walked slowly to the dining room.
Still sipping coffee from his cup, Ben looked at Hoss in surprise. Hoss’ face showed his fatigue. Twigs and small leaves still clung his to clothes. A few light scratches were visible on his forearms.
“Morning, Pa,” said Hoss as he sat down at the table. He turned to Adam. “Good morning, Adam,” he added. Hoss looked at Joe and glared. Then he pointedly ignored his little brother, reaching for the coffee pot. Joe merely grinned at his brother’s snub.
“Hoss, where have you been?” asked Ben.
“Just out,” Hoss answered shortly as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Hoss, why don’t you tell Pa and Adam what you been doing?” suggested Joe with a chuckle. Hoss glared at his brother and ignored him.
“What’s going on?” asked Adam with a frown.
“Big brother has been out hunting,” Joe explained as he continued to chortle.
“Joseph,” warned Hoss.
Joe ignored his brother’s implied threat. “He was out all night,” he continued. “Looking for snipe.” Joe couldn’t hold it in any longer. He burst out into laughter, his shrill twitter filling the room.
“He’s been doing what?” said Ben, his lips beginning to twitch with laughter also.
“Joseph, one more word out of you and I’m going to bash you,” Hoss threatened his brother.
But Joe continued to ignore Hoss. “He went on a snipe hunt,” he said in a voice so weak with laugher that he could hardly talk. Adam and Ben looked at each other. Then both joined Joe in laughter.
“It ain’t funny,” stated Hoss with a frown.
“Oh, yes, it is,” Adam said, as he wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. He took a look at Hoss and started laughing again.
“You should have seen him,” Joe told his father and oldest brother as he continued to laugh. “Riding out in the middle of the night with a lantern and sack.” Ben and Adam started to laugh harder as both started to picture Hoss in their mind.
“Why don’t you show Pa and Adam how you do a snipe call?” suggested Joe as he leaned back in his chair, holding his sides. “How’s it go? Coooeeee!” That started Joe on a whole new round of laughter. Ben and Adam joined in.
“That does it!” announced Hoss in an angry voice. He pushed himself up and stood at the table. “Little brother, I’m going to throw you clear to the barn.”
“Oh, I’m scared,” replied Joe, raising his eyebrows, clearly unafraid.
Ben put his hand on Hoss’ arm. “Hoss, sit down,” he said as he tried unsuccessfully to put on a straight face. “Joe’s just having a little fun.”
“A little fun,” replied Hoss disgustedly as he sat back down. “He had me tramping through the woods all night. I even crawled through a sticker bush looking for those snipe.” Hoss’ statement sent the other three men into new gales of laughter.
“Hop Sing, bring me some breakfast,” Hoss yelled, trying to ignore the hoots of laughter around him.
Quickly, Hop Sing padded in from the kitchen. He was carrying a plate covered with a napkin. He put the plate in front of Hoss, then took a step back. Hoss pulled the napkin off the plate, then stared down in puzzlement.
“Hop Sing, there’s nothing here,” stated Hoss. The plate before him was empty.
“I know,” Hop Sing replied with a grin. “Little Joe tell Hop Sing about Mr. Hoss’ hunt. He tell Hop Sing how you look for pretend animal. So Hop Sing cook pretend animal over pretend fire to make pretend meal.”
Hop Sing’s statement was the last straw for everyone. Joe went into uncontrollable laughter, falling off the chair as he held his sides. Ben and Adam both howled. Hoss frowned angrily at his father and brother, then pushed himself away from the table. He stood and walked angrily out of the room.
“All right, all right, that’s enough,” Ben said as he wiped his eyes. Joe picked himself up off the floor and sat back at the table while Adam continued to chuckle. “We’ve had a good laugh at Hoss’ expense. But we have to get started on that branding.”
“Right, Pa,” agreed Joe with a grin. “Maybe we can let Hoss brand all the snipe.”
“You’d better be careful that he doesn’t brand you!” Adam warned with a grin.
“He’ll get over it,” Joe replied with a shake of his head and a chuckle. “He always does.”
Despite his apparent unconcern, Joe made it a point to stay clear of Hoss all day. The word of Hoss’ snipe hunt spread among the hands, and the men had a good laugh as they discussed it. But no one dared say anything to Hoss. One look at the dark frown on Hoss’ face every time someone started to say something quickly discouraged any kidding.
But Joe wasn’t so easily discouraged. He couldn’t resist riding by his brother a few times as Hoss was branding the calves, and letting out a yell of “cooeee!” He also was quick to ride away as Hoss looked up and brandished the hot iron in his hand menacingly.
By noon, the work of chasing calves and branding them was fully occupying everyone’s attention. It was hot, dusty, and hard work. When Hop Sing arrived with the noon meal in a wagon, everyone was more than ready to take a break.
Hop Sing made sure Hoss had a full plate and extra biscuits to make up for his missing breakfast. Hoss nodded his thanks to the cook then strolled over to a small strand of trees where Ben and Adam were eating. “Where’s Joe?” Hoss asked as he sat wearily on the ground under a tree.
“He thought it might be safer to eat elsewhere,” replied Adam with a grin.
“He probably thought right,” said Hoss frowning.
“Hoss, you’re not really mad at him, are you?” asked Ben with concern. The last thing wanted was his sons fighting among themselves.
Hoss thought a minute, then gave his father a wry grin. “I guess not,” he admitted. “I let myself be talked into that snipe hunt. I should know by now not to listen to that little brother of mine when he starts making big plans.”
“Good,” said Ben, nodding in satisfaction.
“But don’t tell Joe that,” Hoss added. “He deserves to be a little nervous for awhile.”
“He probably deserves a little more than that,” noted Ben. “I think I can come up with a few unpleasant chores for him to do.”
“You don’t have to do that,” replied Hoss. “I’ll think of my own way to get back at him.”
“I don’t want you two going at each other,” Ben cautioned with a frown. “These things have a way of getting out of hand.”
“They won’t, Pa,” Hoss promised. “But, you have to agree, Joe deserves to be taught a lesson.”
“That might not be so easy,” said Adam. “He’s going to be on his guard for a while.”
“I know, Adam,” Hoss agreed with a sigh. “I’ll just have to think of something he don’t expect.”
Ben, Adam and Hoss were already at the dinner table when Joe came downstairs that evening. He had lingered in his room when they had returned home at the end of the day, unwilling to face Hoss’ anger for longer than he had to. He also wondered what Hoss was planning to do to retaliate. Joe was sure Hoss was not going to let his joke go unanswered.
Trying to appear unconcerned Joe walked slowly to the dinner table. He stopped abruptly as he started to sit down on his chair. He gently shook the chair, making sure it was sturdy, then felt the seat for any foreign objects. Satisfied that the chair was not sabotaged, Joe finally sat down.
Cautiously, Joe picked up his glass of water, and smelled the contents, then sipped the water carefully. After placing the glass back on the table, Joe turned his plate over and inspected it. He also shook out his napkin to the side, watching for something that might have been wrapped in it.
Hoss watched Joe’s antics with a smile. He had spent most of the afternoon trying to figure out how to repay his younger brother for sending him on a snipe hunt. So far, he hadn’t come up with any good ideas. Most of the things he thought of were impractical or too complicated. Now as he watched Joe, Hoss thought of the perfect payback. He would do nothing. At least, he would do nothing for awhile, he amended to himself.
“Joseph, are you going to eat or simply play with your place setting?” Ben asked in exasperation as he watched Joe inspecting his knife.
“Sorry, Pa,” said Joe, hastily replacing the knife. He looked directly at Hoss. “I just wanted to be sure no one had left any surprises for me.” Hoss simply smiled back at his brother.
“You know, if you two spent as much time and energy thinking about running this ranch as you do about playing jokes on each other, we’d all be better off,” Ben continued sternly.
“Why, Pa, I ain’t done nothing,” said Hoss in an innocent tone. “I would never do anything to Joe. I wouldn’t harm even one of those hairs on his head that he’s so proud of.”
Joe eyed his brother suspiciously. “Why are you being so forgiving?” he asked with a frown.
“I told you, Joe,” Hoss said reasonably. “I’m the reliable one in this family. I don’t go around playing jokes.”
“Yeah, well, if that’s true, it’s the first I’ve heard of it,” muttered Joe as he reached for a platter of chicken on the table. Joe stabbed a chicken breast with his fork and transferred it to his plate. He put the platter back, and picked up the breast. He hesitated before biting into the meat, turning the chicken over and inspecting in carefully.
“Joseph, eat your dinner!” roared Ben.
“Yes sir,” Joe said and quickly bit into the chicken. He was relieved to find it tasted just as good as it looked.
“I want both of you to listen to me,” ordered Ben. “I’m not about to have the work on his ranch interrupted by your shenanigans. We have branding to finish and strays to round up, and those fences on west range need repair. You two concentrate on your work, you understand. No more tricks.”
“Yes sir,” agreed Hoss. Joe nodded, but as he did, he glanced suspiciously at Hoss.
As he watched and listened, Adam shook his head. “Pa, why couldn’t I have been an only child?” he complained
For the next three days, Hoss did nothing to Joe – and it drove Joe crazy. Every time he started to mount his horse, Joe checked the girth. He cautiously sipped the water out of his canteen. He checked under his saddle regularly, looking for burrs. He even flung the covers off his bed when he went to his room at night.
Hoss watched with glee as Joe nervously checked everything he touched for some sort of sabotage. He laughed to himself as Joe watched his brother suspiciously every time Hoss got near him. Hoss began to find reasons to casually stroll by Joe as Joe was working, causing his younger brother to break out into a sweat. Hoss decided that this was the best revenge he could have devised.
By dinner on the third day, Joe was a nervous wreck. He knew Hoss was planning something; he just couldn’t figure out what. Hoss, for his part, just smiled serenely every time he got near Joe, knowing it was making his younger brother even more nervous.
“Joseph,” Ben said sternly to his youngest son at the table.
“Yeah, Pa?” answered Joe with a distracted air. He was checking the top of the salt shaker before seasoning his food.
“Joseph, will you pay attention to me?” Ben repeated in exasperation.
“Yeah, sure, Pa,” replied Joe, nervously setting the salt on the table. He knocked the shaker over, spilling salt all over the table. As Joe quickly set the shaker upright, Hoss grinned.
“Joseph, you have been walking around here for days like you’re waiting for a stick of dynamite to explode,” said Ben. “Now, this has got to stop. You’re not only driving yourself crazy, you are driving the rest of us crazy.”
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe apologized. He glared at Hoss. “It’s just that some people around here are making me a little edgy.” Once more, Hoss simply smiled at his brother.
“Well, I have had enough of this,” stated Ben. “Tomorrow, I want you to ride up to Needlenose Canyon and check for strays. Bill Fletcher said he saw some of our cattle up that way. You know how narrow that canyon is and how many twists it has. If some of our cattle wandered in there, they might never find their way out.”
“Needlenose Canyon!” Joe exclaimed with dismay. “I’ll have to spend most of the day climbing around those rocks, looking for strays.”
“Yes, you will,” agreed Ben. “Do you have any objections?”
“No, no,” Joe said hastily. “I’ll go right after breakfast.”
“Would you like me to go with you, Joe?” Hoss offered innocently.
Joe frowned. “Why?” he asked.
“No reason,” Hoss replied. “Just thought you’d like the company.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed. “What are you planning?”
“Nothing,” answered Hoss. “Absolutely nothing.”
“Joseph, would you please stop being so suspicious of your brother,” Ben said angrily. “Now I want you to ride to Needlenose Canyon tomorrow and look for those strays.”
“Yes sir,” Joe agreed contritely. He looked again at Hoss and frowned.
Once again, Hoss just smiled.
Adam was in the barn fixing some harness when Hoss walked in the next morning. Hoss looked around, noting the stall where Joe’s pinto usually stood was empty. “Joe gone already?” he asked.
Adam nodded as he continued to work. “Yeah, he left about an hour ago,” he said. He looked up at Hoss. “When are you going to let him off the hook?”
“What do you mean, Adam?” Hoss asked innocently.
“Don’t give me that innocent look,” replied Adam. “You should have seen Joe. He was as edgy as a mouse being stalked by a cat. He checked his horse and his gear twice before he left, and then he lit out of here like he was on fire. How much longer are you going to wait before you get back at him?”
“Fact of the matter is, Adam, I can’t think of something to do to get even,” Hoss admitted. “I’ve been chewing on it for days now, but nothing comes to mind.”
“You mean, Joe thinks you’ve been plotting all this time, and in reality, you can’t think of anything?” said Adam with a laugh.
“Yeah,” Hoss confirmed, chuckling with his brother. “Funny, ain’t it.”
“Poor Joe,” said Adam as he continued to laugh. “He’s never going to get to relax.”
“Well, I’ll think of something soon,” Hoss promised.
“You’d better,” Adam replied. “Otherwise our baby brother is going to have a nervous breakdown!”
Joe rode slowly through the canyon, looking for the strays. It was the first time in three days that he felt relaxed. Hoss was nowhere around, and he knew his horse and gear were all in one piece. For today at least, Joe thought, he didn’t have to worry about Hoss’ revenge.
As he rode, Joe guided his horse carefully. Needlenose Canyon got it’s name because it was so narrow at it’s start that there barely was enough room for a horse to get through. The canyon widened after a few hundred yards, but it was still very narrow. The sides of the gorge were steep and tall, with the lip of the canyon a good six feet over a rider’s head. The ground was dotted with rocks that had slid down its slick side. Joe rode past a few trees which grew intermittently in the canyon, carefully avoiding the small stream which flowed along the edge of the floor of the chasm. The canyon ran straight for awhile, then began to twist and turn as it neared the mountains.
Slowly, Joe rode through the canyon until it began to corkscrew into the mountains. He pulled his horse to a stop as he neared the first turn. Experience had taught him that it would take less time to check the canyon by following the small path that ran along its side on foot than to ride through the twists and turns at the floor of the canyon. He would be able to see into the many draws from the path and wouldn’t have to follow the trail at the bottom all day until he reached the end of the canyon.
Dismounting, Joe tied his horse to a bush, glancing up as he heard the rumble of thunder. The sky above him was darkening, and he could see black clouds ahead up in the mountains. “Looks like we’re going to get a little wet, Chooch,” Joe said to his pinto as he patted the horse on the neck. Joe slipped off his jacket and tucked it under the back of his saddle. The day was hot and muggy, the air thick as a result of the gathering storm. Joe figured he was probably going to get wet as he walked through the canyon. It would be nice to have a dry jacket to put on when he got back to his horse. Joe rubbed his horse affectionately on the nose. “You wait here for me,” he told the pinto. “I’ll be back in an hour or so.” Joe walked around the back of the horse and began climbing the narrow path up the side of the canyon.
It was a half an hour later when Hoss rode into the canyon. He had decided to follow Joe, giving his brother reason to be more nervous than ever when he showed up. He chuckled to himself as he thought of what Joe’s reaction would be when his little brother saw him. Hoss really didn’t have anything specific in mind, but Joe wouldn’t know that.
As he reached the end of the straight trail in the canyon, Hoss saw Joe’s horse tied to the bush. He looked around, but there was no sign of Joe. Hoss sighed. He had timed it wrong. Joe was probably still climbing up the path through the canyon, checking the draws. Riding up to Joe’s horse, Hoss took another look around, but the canyon floor was empty. Suddenly, Hoss had a idea. Reaching down, he quickly untied the rein’s of Joe’s horse from the bush. Chucking softly, he turned his own horse, and began leading Joe’s mount away with him. The pinto, familiar with the smell of the man and horse that were leading him, following placidly.
Hoss began to smile as he rode out of the canyon. Poor Joe, he thought with a grin, he’s going to have to walk home. Hoss figured it would take Joe about three hours to walk back to the house, and he’d be tired and sore when he got there. Serves him right, Hoss said to himself as he thought of the long, tiring night he had spent on his snipe hunt. Hoss heard the rumble of the thunder and looked up at the sky. Joe’s going to be tired, sore AND wet, Hoss thought, correcting himself. That was even better. He laughed as he rode slowly out of the canyon.
Joe followed the path along the side of the canyon, peering into the draws below as he walked. He didn’t see any cattle. In fact, he didn’t see anything. It was as if all the animals which normally dotted the landscape had suddenly disappeared. Joe glanced up at the sky again as he heard another, deeper rumble of thunder. He looked toward the mountains ahead, and frowned. The face of the mountain was clouded by a dark mist, and Joe could tell it was raining hard up ahead. He decided he had better head back. The storm up ahead looked like a bad one, and it was heading his way.
Quickly, Joe turned and started walking back down the narrow path. The path was steep, and he couldn’t move very fast. But he hurried as much as he could, wanting to get started home before the storm got too bad.
When he reached the end of the path, Joe stopped and a stunned looked came over his face. His horse was gone! Joe looked around, trying to see if Cochise had pulled away from the bush and was grazing elsewhere. He thought he had tied the reins tight, but maybe the thunder has startled his horse. Joe walked quickly to the bush where he had tied the reins. He frowned as he inspected the bush. It didn’t look like any branches were broken or pulled out. Joe called out and whistled, hoping to attract his horse. He stood watching and listening for a minute, but there was no response.
Looking up at the darkening sky, Joe tried to decide what to do. He didn’t want to leave his horse wandering in the canyon but he also didn’t want to get caught in the storm. He decided to follow the twisting trail into the canyon a bit, hoping Cochise hadn’t wandered too far.
Walking rapidly down the trail into the canyon, Joe called and whistled. The air around him seemed unusually still. Not even a bird chirped in response. Joe walked until he heard another clap of thunder, and felt a few sprinkles of rain. Then he turned to walk back out of the canyon.
The few sprinkles of rain turned quickly into a downpour, and Joe was soaked by the time he returned back to the mouth of the twisting trail. He again checked the bush where he had left his horse again. Looking down, Joe suddenly spotted a second set of tracks near the shrub. Joe bent and peered at the rapidly disappearing hoofprints. He didn’t need much of a look. He’d recognize the prints of Chub, Hoss’ horse, at a glance.
Joe stood with a wry smile on his face. Hoss finally got his revenge, Joe thought. In a way, he was relieved. He was getting tired of waiting to see what his older brother was going to do to him. Now he knew. He had a long walk home in the pouring rain. Joe shrugged. It could have been worse.
Walking at a rapid pace, Joe started down the narrow trail. The rain was now falling harder than ever, and the ground was turning muddy and wet. Joe couldn’t remember the last time it had rained this hard. He noticed the steam was becoming swollen, and puddles were forming as the rain came down too hard and fast for the ground to absorb. Joe started walking faster. He had a bad feeling about this storm, and didn’t want to be trapped in the canyon.
Joe heard the roar before he saw the water coming out of the canyon. He knew almost at once what caused the noise. The heavy rain had started a flash flood.
Even as he began running, Joe knew there was no way to outrun the rushing torrent behind him. He glanced at the sides of the canyon as he ran, but they were too steep for him to climb. He spotted a tree growing near the side of the canyon. Joe knew it wasn’t much of a chance, but it was the only one he had. He ran toward the tree, and jumped to grab a low hanging branch just the wall of water came roaring out of the canyon.
Laughing to himself, Hoss led Joe’s horse toward the ranch house. He could just picture the look on Joe’s face when he climbed back from the canyon and found his horse gone. He almost wished he had stayed around to watch.
Feeling the splatter of the rain, Hoss looked up at the sky. Away from the canyon, the storm didn’t look too bad. Hoss glanced over his shoulder toward the mountains, then frowned. The clouds near the mountain looked black and angry; the storm was much worse there. Hoss shifted uneasily in his saddle. He wondered how bad the storm really was up near the canyon. Then he shook his head. Joe would be fine, he reassured himself. He’d be tired, and sore and wet when he got home, but he’d be fine.
Hoss rode on, but he was no longer laughing. He had an uneasy feeling about leaving Joe on foot in that canyon, especially during a rain storm. He knew there was no way out of that canyon except through the very narrow entrance. Hoss thought briefly about going back for Joe, then dismissed the idea. The whole point of the joke would be lost if he went back.
“Hey, Hoss!” a voice called, breaking into the big man’s thoughts. Hoss looked up and saw Vince, one of the hands, riding toward him. Hoss pulled his horse to a stop.
“Hoss, have you been up near the mountains?” Vince asked as he rode up.
“I was in Needlenose Canyon,” replied Hoss with a frown. “Why?”
“Sam just came in from the west,” Vince explained. “He said the creek there is over-running its banks. He figures it must be raining real hard up in the mountains. I figured I’d better ride up that way and see how bad it really is.”
Hoss’ frown deepened. “It wasn’t raining when I was up in the canyon,” said Hoss slowly. “But the sky did look pretty bad.”
“If the creek to the west is flooding, it must be coming down real hard up there,” Vince replied. “Might even be some flash floods.” Vince suddenly noticed the pinto. “How come you’re leading Joe’s horse?”
His uneasy feeling growing, Hoss shifted in the saddle again. “It’s a long story,” he said. Hoss thought a minute. He could ride faster if he wasn’t leading another horse. Hoss threw the reins of the pinto at Vince. “Look, you take Joe’s horse back to the barn. I’m going back up to Needlenose and look for him. If you see Adam or Pa, tell them Joe’s up by the canyon and he’s on foot. I’m going to see if I can find him.”
“What’s he doing on foot?” asked Vince, as he wrapped the reins to Joe’s horse around his hand.
“I haven’t got time to explain,” Hoss answered. His feeling of dread was growing. Hoss turned his horse and kicked the animal into a run.
Joe grabbed the limb and pulled himself up into the tree just as the torrent of water roared by. He let out a sigh of relief. That was too close, he thought. He turned to look back toward the mountains, and saw that the water was continuing to flow. Bushes, small tree limbs, and other debris were carried along by the flood. Joe turned back to hug the trunk of the tree. He could feel the tree shuddering as it was buffeted by both the current of the water and the debris.
Clinging to the tree, Joe tried to picture the flood as it continued down the canyon, and he didn’t like the picture that formed in his mind. As the water flowed toward the narrow mouth of the canyon, the water would start backing up. There simply was no place for it to go except through the narrow opening and only a small stream would be able to escape. He glanced up at the sky, and saw the rain was continuing to come down hard. The black clouds hung over the canyon and the mountains like a curtain. The storm showed no sign of letting up.
Joe heard a thud and felt the tree shudder. He looked down and saw the water below him seemed to be getting even deeper. Joe hugged the trunk tighter and prayed that the roots of the tree were deep.
Looking up, Joe saw another branch over his head. It looked thick enough to hold him, and close enough to reach. He decided climbing a bit higher on the tree was probably a good idea. Moving cautiously, he pulled himself up so he was standing on the first limb. He grabbed the branch over his head with one hand, making sure he had a solid grip. Then he moved his other hand to the limb. He grasped the branch tightly, then slowly pulled himself up.
Joe’s muscles stretched as he pulled himself up until the branch met his chest. He threw himself over the branch, then grabbed at the trunk of the tree. The limb wasn’t as thick as the one below, and it bent a bit under Joe’s weight. For a minute, Joe thought it might break, but the branch held. Joe pulled his legs up, and then slid his hands up the trunk. With one more pull, he found himself sitting on the branch.
After hugging the tree tightly for a minute, Joe twisted his body so he could look around. He could see the top of the canyon; his head was only a few feet below it. But the lip was a good ten feet or more from the tree. Joe knew there was no way he could jump from the tree to the top of the canyon. He looked up at the branches above him, and saw they were thinner than the one on which he was perched. He doubted if they would hold his weight. For better or worse, he was stuck on the second branch.
Looking down, Joe could see the water below him was getting deeper. It looked no more than a few feet below the first branch. He looked back into the canyon, and saw a river of water was continuing to cascade down from the mountains. Joe knew he was in trouble. Even if the stormed stopped right then, the water would continue to get deeper. He looked up at the sky. Rain pelted him in the face. The storm showed no sign of letting up.
“Help!” Joe yelled at the top of his lungs. He knew it was probably a futile gesture. There was no one around to hear him. And even if someone was nearby, he doubted if they could hear him over the roar of the water. But Joe figured he didn’t have much else to do. So he hugged the trunk of the tree and yelled.
Hoss’ feeling of dread had grown into a full-panic as he rode closer to the canyon. The closer he got to the canyon, the worse the storm was getting. The ground was soft and soggy, and he passed a stream that had already over-run its banks. He urged his horse on at a faster pace.
As he neared the entrance to Needlenose Canyon, he no longer had to wonder if Joe was in trouble. He knew for sure. The trail to the canyon was now a raging river. The water was flowing out of the canyon with a strong current.
“Joe!” Hoss shouted. He hoped Joe had made it out of the canyon already. “Joe!” he shouted again, then stopped to listen. The only sound was the rushing water. Hoss pulled his gun out of his holster and fired it twice into the air, then listened hard. He heard only the water rushing past him.
Looking around, Hoss thought about what to do. He saw the narrow trail that led up the side of the canyon. It was steep and muddy, but Hoss thought his horse could make it up the trail. The only problem was that the trail was on the other side of what was now a raging river.
Hoss studied the water. The current was swift, and brush and other debris were flowing along with it. But the water wasn’t too deep; Hoss figured it was maybe a few feet at most. He chucked his horse forward. Chub obediently began to walk, but stopped at the edge of the water. The horse wanted no part of the river in front of him. Hoss urged the horse forward. Slowly, almost delicately, Chub put a leg into the water. Hoss kicked his horse again. This time, Chub moved forward, and entered the water.
Digging his heels into his horses side, Hoss urged the animal forward. He knew if Chub stopped, the current might sweep them both away. Hoss’ horse was well trained; it continued across the river and out the other side.
Now out of the flowing water, Hoss didn’t give his horse a chance to stop and rest. With another kick, he urged the animal toward the steep trail. Chub crossed the soggy ground and started up the trail. The horse dug its hooves into the muddy ground and started to climb. It’s front legs slipped on the slick ground. Hoss patted his horse on the neck and urged him on. Chub dug his forelegs into the ground. In this case, the weight of the horse and its rider offered an advantage. Chub’s hooves pressed through the mud into solid ground. The horse was able to steady itself. With a few more slippery steps, Chub climbed the trail.
The rain was still falling as Hoss urged his horse on until the trail reached the top of the canyon. The ground leveled out as the trail ran parallel to the canyon. Hoss had been too busy urging his horse up to the trail to look into the canyon. Now he rested his horse at the crest and turned toward the canyon. Hoss gasped in horror at the sight.
Needlenose Canyon was filled with water. Hoss could see the water was backing up at the mouth of the canyon as a river of water tried to flow through the narrow opening. The water line was about halfway up the side of the canyon…and rising. The river was full of debris as it swirled in the canyon, pushed by a strong current. Waves crashed violently against the sides and the front of the canyon as the water sought a way out.
Staring at the scene below him, Hoss got a sick feeling in his stomach. Joe was a strong swimmer, but he was no match for the raging torrent in the canyon. If he had been caught in the flood….
Hoss didn’t let himself finish the thought. There were lots of places in the canyon where Joe could have climbed to escape the flood, he told himself. Hoss just needed to find where Joe was. Hoss chucked his horse forward, riding slowly, his eyes glued to the canyon below.
With morbid fascination, Joe watched water rising below him. The water rose quickly, and now covered the branch underneath him. It was only a foot or so from the sole of his hanging foot.
Glancing up at the sky, Joe saw no relief. The rain was continuing to fall, a curtain of water pouring out of the heavens. Joe shuddered. He was cold and wet, soaked to the skin. And the water was continuing to rise.
Joe had yelled himself hoarse and fired his gun until he had only one bullet left. No help had appeared. He hadn’t really thought it would, but he had to try. Now, he thought, he needed to think about what to do when the water reached his branch.
Not that there were many options to choose from, Joe thought. He could climb as far as possible up the tree and hold on. That was about it. His only hope was the water would stop rising before it covered him, and that was a slim hope. Of course, he thought in an almost detached manner, the water could always knock down the tree before then, or rip him away from his precarious perch.
Joe felt the water beginning to lap at the bottom of his boots. Quickly, he pulled his feet up on the branch. He decided that this was as good a time as any to stand on the branch and raise himself higher from the raging flood below. Cautiously, he moved on the branch, hanging on to the trunk of the tree. He was surprised at how stiff and cold his hands felt as he pulled himself up against the trunk. He shivered slightly, only now realizing how cold and wet he really was. His clothes were soaked, clinging to him like a second skin.
As Joe stood on the branch, he felt the tree vibrate. The current of the water and the almost constant battering of the debris was weakening the tree’s hold in the ground. Joe wondered again how long the tree could stand against the raging flood.
Taking a deep breath, Joe decided he would fire his last bullet, then toss his gun and holster into the water below. If he did end up in the water, the weight of the gun and holster would pull him down. Joe laughed grimly. He wondered why he was worried. Heck, the current would probably smash him against the side of the canyon long before he drowned, he thought.
Clinging tightly to the trunk of the tree, Joe pulled his gun from his holster. He fired it into the air, listening the to the echo of the shot. He pulled the trigger again, just in case he had miscounted, but heard only a click. He tried twice more before being convinced the gun was empty. With almost a nonchalant air, he tossed the gun into the water and watched as it quickly sunk. He reached down and unbuckled the holster from around his hips, and threw that into the water also. The holster floated briefly before the current washed it away.
Joe wondered if he should take off his boots. If he did have to try to swim, the boots would fill with water, pulling him down. Joe laughed grimly again, reminding himself that if he ended up in the water below, it wouldn’t make much different if he was wearing boots. He felt the tree shudder once again. Joe grabbed the trunk tightly and waited.
At first, Hoss wasn’t sure that the sound he heard was a gunshot. The noise of the water made it difficult to hear, and his concentration was directed at the canyon below as his eyes searched every possible place where a man could be perched above the water. But the echo of the shot hung in the air for a moment. And Hoss realized his brother was signaling him.
“Joe!” Hoss shouted, as he tried to figure out from which direction the shot had come. He waited a moment but there was no answer. “Joe!” he shouted again. Hoss frowned as he thought about the shot. The sound had a dull echo to it, meaning it hadn’t come from somewhere close. That meant Joe was up ahead of him someplace. Hoss urged his horse forward, his eyes searching the canyon ahead.
Hoss almost didn’t believe it when he saw Joe. The wet bundle of clothes clinging to a tree in the canyon didn’t look like his little brother. In fact, Hoss could barely see him through the rain. But there was no mistaking that mop of dark hair. Even wet and dripping, Joe’s hair stood out in dark contrast against the muddy water and tan branches of the tree.
Peering through the rain, Hoss could see Joe standing on the branch of the tree. The water was swirling around his ankles, and the tree seemed to be swaying in the current. Hoss urged his horse as close to the edge of the canyon as he dared, then leaped from the back of the animal. “Joe!” Hoss shouted. “Hang on!”
“Hoss!” Joe yelled back in a raspy voice. He clung tightly to the tree. “Hurry!”
Turning back to his horse, Hoss quickly untied a thick rope from his saddle. He rushed to the edge of the canyon, trying to gauge how far the tree was from where he was standing. He guessed it was about ten feet. Hoss knew he had enough rope.
“Joe, I’m going to throw you a rope,” Hoss shouted. “When you get it, tie it around you. But don’t go into the water until I tell you.”
Joe nodded his understanding of his brother’s instructions.
After making a lasso at the end of the rope, Hoss swung the rope over his head. When he felt he had enough momentum, Hoss threw the end of the rope toward Joe.
The rope landed in the water, a foot or so from Joe. Joe reached out to try and grab it, but the rope was too far away.
“Hang on, Joe!” Hoss called as he quickly pulled the rope back toward him. “I’m going to try again. Stick your arm out so I have something to aim at.”
Widening the lasso on the rope, Hoss swung it over his head again. He saw Joe stick his arm out and crook it, making a target for Hoss. Hoss had often roped moving cattle and racing horses, so Joe’s arm should have been an easy target. But Hoss had never made a throw that was this important. His arms trembled and his heart was in his throat as he launched the rope across the water.
This time, Hoss’ aim was true. The lasso settled gently over Joe’s arm. Joe quickly pulled his arm back, tightening the rope around it, making sure he didn’t loose it.
“Tie the rope around you!” Hoss shouted.
Pulling the rope toward him, Joe widened the loop. His cold and stiff hand had a difficult time working the rope loose from his arm. He was also trying to widen the rope with one hand. His other arm was wrapped around the tree in a death grip.
Finally, Joe widened the rope enough to slip it over his head and shoulders. He pulled one arm up through the loop. Transferring his grip on the tree to his other arm, he pulled his second arm through the loop. He tightened the rope around his chest, pulling it so tight that he could barely breathe. He check the knot to make sure it was secure. Joe put the heel of one boot against the branch and eased it off. The boot instantly filled with water and disappeared. Joe did the same with his other boot. He also eased off his socks and watched them wash away. Joe made sure his bare feet were set on the branch. Then he waved at Hoss.
“Wait a minute!” Hoss yelled. He held tightly to the end of the rope as he hurried back to his horse. Hoss wrapped the end of the rope around the saddle horn and tied it. “You hold still now, you hear,” Hoss ordered Chub. The horse stared back at him balefully, as if insulted that Hoss would think he would move. Hoss patted the horse affectionately as he dug into a saddle bag draped over the back of the animal and pulled out a pair of gloves. Hoss quickly pulled the gloves over his massive hands. Then he walked back to the edge of the canyon and gripped the rope.
“All right, Joe,” shouted Hoss. “I’m ready. Jump into the water and I’ll pull you over here.”
This was the moment Joe had dreaded. He knew the only way to safety was to enter the swirling water. But the thought of jumping into the water terrified him. He stood for a moment, staring at the fast rushing water below him. He could see the ripple of the current and the debris rushing by. Joe was frozen as he stared at the flood below him.
“Joe! Did you hear me?” Hoss shouted. “I’m ready! Jump!”
Joe looked up at Hoss, his eyes wide with fear.
“Come on, Joe!” yelled Hoss in encouragement. He knew the terror Joe must be feeling. He couldn’t imagine having to fling himself into that river. But he also knew it was the only chance to save his brother’s life. “I’ll pull you over!” Hoss shouted again.
Looking down into the water again, Joe tried to force himself to jump – and failed.
In other circumstances, Joe might have stood on that limb for a long time, trying to gather his courage. But suddenly, he felt the tree vibrate violently, as if the roots were finally beginning to give up their struggle to hold firm to the earth. Feeling the tree lurch abruptly, Joe knew he was going to end up in the water soon – one way or the other. He might was well go in on his own. Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he leaped into the water.
Two things happened almost simultaneously as Joe hit the water. First, he immediately sunk under the surface, the weight of his body and wet clothes dragging him down. Second, the current pulled him rapidly downstream.
Immediately, Joe started to kick his legs and pull on the rope, trying desperately to reach the surface before his lungs ran out of air. He could feel the current pushing against him, making it even hard to reach the surface. Suddenly, the rope went taut. Joe felt as if he were being bent over backwards. The rope around his chest was holding him firm, as the current pushed his head and lower body downstream.
Kicking as hard as he could, Joe pulled on the rope with every ounce of strength he had. Just when he felt his lungs would burst, his head broke the surface. Coughing and gasping for air, Joe pulled even harder on the rope, trying to ease himself upstream against the current. The rope slid through his wet hands, cutting and burning his palms. Joe cried out as he felt the rope burn, but he forced himself to hold tight to lifeline.
As soon as he saw Joe launch himself into the water, Hoss tensed his muscles and gripped the rope tightly. He knew the current would pull Joe downstream initially, and that he would have to pull his brother up against the current. He saw Joe disappear under the water, and silently urged his brother to the surface as he held the rope tight. It seemed like forever before Hoss saw that mop of dark hair break the surface.
Hoss dug his heels into the ground as he and the flood engaged in a tug-of-war, with Joe as the prize. Hoss slowly inched his hands down the rope, pulling Joe toward him with every tug. Hoss felt as if he were pulling against an army of mules. His arms ached and his leg muscles stiffened. But Hoss continued to pull on the rope. Inch by inch, he managed to bring Joe closer.
Continuing to kick, Joe struggle against the current, but he was tiring fast. He fought to keep his head above the water, but the current kept pulling him down. He choked on the water being forced into his mouth and nose. Joe felt the rope digging into him as the water tried to force him downstream. He felt his back arch as the two forces fought over him. His legs twisted violently behind him and Joe felt a wrenching pain in his back.
Hoss pulled and tugged at the rope, refusing to let the water drag Joe away. His arms were burning from constant pulling, and his legs were beginning to tremble from the effort. The rope began to coil at his feet, thought, as Hoss started to win his battle against the flood.
But the water wasn’t ready to give up its prize so easily. Joe was only a few feet from Hoss when the current suddenly swirled. Joe was hurled into the canyon wall as the water pushed him aside. Joe cried out in pain as his back crashed into the rocky surface. He felt the little air left in his lungs being forced out in a violent rush. His body went limp as he gasped for air. A red haze of pain filled his vision. Joe felt the water splash into mouth, and he tried to raise his head out of the water. But every movement seemed to send a wave of pain down his back.
Hoss both felt and saw Joe being yanked aside by the current. He felt the trembling of the rope as Joe hit the canyon wall. He saw Joe’s body go limp. Hoss watched Joe’s head bob as his brother tried to keep his face out of the water. Hoss knew if he didn’t get his little brother out of the water fast, the river would win the battle. Calling on a strength he didn’t know he possessed, Hoss pulled the rope rapidly toward him. He tugged at the rope with every ounce of strength he possessed. Finally, Joe was close enough to reach.
Hoss stamped his foot firmly on the rope to hold it in place, then reached down to grab Joe’s arm. He pulled Joe’s arm toward him, then grasped his brother under the shoulders. With one last might yank, he pulled Joe out of the water.
Dragging Joe a foot or so from the edge of the canyon, Hoss laid his brother on his side. He could hear Joe gasping for air. Hoss pounded Joe violently on the back, and Joe began coughing and spitting up water. Joe’s gasps became even more rapid as his lungs desperately sought more air. Hoss pounded Joe again, and once more, Joe coughed and spit up water. Finally, Joe’s breathing became less desperate, his gasps slowing to deep breaths. Joe was breathing hard and rapid, but he was breathing.
Sitting down next to Joe, Hoss let his body go limp. His arms and legs were trembling with exhaustion. He also felt weak as the fear for his brother started to fade and relief replaced it. He knew the rescue had come close to being a disaster…..too close.
Hoss heard Joe groan as his brother continued to suck in air. He quickly knelt at Joe’s side. “Joe, are you hurt?” he asked with concern.
Too exhausted and breathless to talk, Joe didn’t answer. He shifted slightly on the ground and let out a loud moan.
Hoss ran his hands down Joe’s arms and legs, feeling for broken bones. He was relieved that everything seemed to be intact. He felt Joe’s ribs, and those also seemed to be in one piece. He saw the cuts and rope burns on Joe’s hands. Hoss knew Joe’s hands were probably sore, but not enough to cause him the pain he seemed to be feeling.
Gently, Hoss rubbed Joe on the shoulder. “Joe, can you hear me?” he asked, his voice filled with worry. “Where’s it hurt?” Again, there was no response except Joe’s ragged breathing. Hoss rubbed his brother’s shoulder a bit harder. “Joe, answer me,” Hoss said urgently. “I can’t help you if you don’t.”
Joe tried to answer. His mouth tried to the form the words, but no sound came out. Joe took a few more ragged breaths, and winced in pain. “Back,” he mumbled in a barely audible voice. “Hurt my back.”
Trying to rid himself of a knot of fear, Hoss swallowed hard. He knew how to set a broken leg or patch up some broken ribs. But a broken back….Hoss quickly ran his hand down Joe’s spine. He was relieved to feel nothing that indicated a broken bone. Hoss pulled Joe’s shirt up so he could take a close look. He could see some deep bruises forming on the lower part of Joe’s back. Hoss ran his hand down his brother’s spine again. Again, he couldn’t feel anything that was out of place. Hoss pulled Joe’s shirt down.
“Joe,” Hoss said in a voice which he hoped didn’t betray his concern. “I want you to move your arms for me. Do you hear me? Move your arms.”
For a moment, Joe laid unmoving on the ground. Then slowly he lifted his arms. He raised them only an inch or so, and then let them flop back to the ground.
Hoss nodded. “Good,” he said encouragingly. “That’s good. Now I want you to move to your legs.”
Again, Joe didn’t react right away to Hoss’ request. He was still breathing hard, and he was beginning to shiver.
“Joe, move your legs,” Hoss commanded a bit more forcefully.
Joe moved his legs, but just barely. As he did, he felt a sharp pain in his back and a burning sensation ran down the back of his left leg. Joe groaned.
Unsure about what to do next, Hoss sat back on his heels and thought. He saw Joe move his legs so he knew his brother’s back wasn’t broken. But he also saw the excruciating pain Joe felt when he did move his legs. Hoss knew Joe had injured his back; he just wasn’t sure how bad it was.
Looking around, Hoss tried to decide what to do. The rain had slowed to a mist, but Hoss could see the water in the canyon was still rising. It wouldn’t take long for the flood waters to reach the top of the canyon, and flow over it.
The land around the top of the canyon was fairly barren. Only a few bushes and a couple of scrub trees were in sight. There was nothing Hoss could see that he could use to make a travois.
Once again, Joe groaned, bringing Hoss’ attention back to his brother. He could see Joe was starting to shiver. The air was cooling as the storm moved on. Joe was laying on the muddy ground, exhausted and soaked to the skin. Hoss knew it wouldn’t take much for Joe to catch a chill.
Sitting quietly for a moment, Hoss tried to reason through the situation. He couldn’t leave Joe; the water was still rising, and Joe could easily be caught up in the swirling current again. He didn’t have a blanket or anything warm to wrap around Joe; if he didn’t get his brother warm soon, Joe could easily become chilled and sick. He didn’t have anything to use as a travois, and besides, Hoss wasn’t sure he had the time to make one. The rising water and Joe’s shivering told him he had to get his brother out of here – now.
He hated the thought of it, but Hoss knew there was only one thing he could do. He was going to have to put Joe on his horse and ride with him back to the house. Riding a horse was going to be painful for Joe, and might even damage his back further. But Hoss knew he had no choice.
“A stupid joke,” Hoss muttered to himself. “I had to get even, didn’t I?” Hoss shook his head, feeling disgusted with himself.
Moaning softly, Joe began to shiver even more. Hoss knew he couldn’t wait any longer. Bending down over his brother, he said softly, “Joe, we’ve got to get you home, and there’s only one way to do it. I’m going to have to put you on my horse.”
“No!” Joe said, shaking his head. “Leave me here.”
“Joe, I can’t do that,” replied Hoss urgently. “The water’s still rising. And we have to get you dry.”
“No,” Joe muttered softly again. “Too tired.” He winced in pain. “Hurts too bad.”
“Joe, I know it hurts,” said Hoss. “But we have to do this. You have to trust me.”
Slowly opening his eyes, Joe looked up at Hoss. He seem to stare at his brother for a long time. “All right,” Joe agreed. Hoss patted him on the shoulder.
Quickly, Hoss untied the rope from around Joe and gently slid it away from him. He looped it quickly and tied it back on his saddle. Hoss wanted to be sure he had the rope, just in case they needed it again. Then he patted Chub on the neck. “You have to walk real slow and real gentle,” he said to the animal.
Turning back to Joe, Hoss took a deep breath. “Joe,” he said, “I’m going to lift you as easy as I can and put you on my horse. Are you ready?”
With a dazed expression on his face, Joe looked up at his brother and nodded.
Bending down, Hoss slipped his arms under Joe’s legs and shoulders and lifted his brother off the ground.
The muscles in Joe’s back immediately tightened and went into a spasm. Joe screamed in pain and arched his back. Hoss froze as he felt Joe arch in his arms.
“No!” Joe cried as he felt the pain. “Put me down!”
Quickly, Hoss laid his brother on the ground again.
Immediately, Joe began twisting his body, his face contorted with pain. Finally, the muscles in his back loosened, and Joe collapsed to the ground. He laid in the dirt, breathing hard and softly grunting in pain.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Hoss said in a sorrowful voice. “I’ll try to be more careful this time.”
“No!” replied Joe in a desperate voice. “Just let me stay here. Please.”
Glancing back at the canyon, Hoss saw the water was nearing the lip. “Joe, I can’t do that. We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Please,” Joe begged. “Please don’t lift me again.”
Hoss’ face showed the anguish he felt at Joe’s words. “Joe, I’ve got no choice,” he said, trying to explain. “We’ve got to get out of here. We’ve got to get you home.”
Once more, Joe’s face contorted as he was racked with pain from another spasm. He shivered as the cool air blew over his wet skin. All Joe could think of was he wanted some relief from his misery. He didn’t really think about what he was saying. “No!” Joe insisted. “You have to leave me. It’s your fault. Don’t make it worse. Please.”
As if he had been slapped, Hoss recoiled at his brother’s words. He was already blaming himself for what happened, and Joe’s words confirmed to him that he was responsible for his brothers plight. Hoss felt a pain worse than anything Joe was enduring.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” said Hoss in a voice filled with misery. “I’m really sorry. But I can’t leave you here.” Taking a deep breath, Hoss bent and scooped Joe up in his arms.
Once again, Joe screamed in pain as the muscles in his back protested the movement. This time, though, Hoss ignored his brother’s cries and screams. He turned quickly and threw Joe onto the back of his horse.
Joe slumped forward, desperately trying to find some relief from the pain.
Quickly climbing up on the back of the horse, Hoss settled himself behind the saddle. He reached forward and grabbed the reins, putting one massive arm around Joe’s waist, holding his brother tight. Then he gathered the reins in his other hand. He nudged his horse with his heels, pulling the animals head around as he did so. Chub turned away from the canyon and started walking.
Hoss kept the horse moving as slowly as possible. He could feel Joe trembling both from the pain and the cold. Joe continued to ride bent forward, trying to ease his agony.
“We’ll get you home, and you’ll be fine,” Hoss promised his brother as they rode. “I know you’re hurting, Joe, but it’ll be over soon. I promise you.”
Joe’s only response was another grunt of pain.
The ride back to the house seemed endless to Hoss. He took the long way away from the canyon, trying to avoid the steep hill and rough ground. It added more time to the journey, but Hoss knew it was easier on Joe. At least, that’s what he hoped.
For his part, Joe no longer cared. He was in pain, he was cold, and he was wet. He couldn’t remember when he felt this miserable. He heard Hoss’ voice but he was too tired to try to understand the words. All he knew was he had to endure this ride. Periodically, Joe roused himself enough to beg Hoss to let him off the horse. In his misery, Joe didn’t realize the anguish he was causing his brother.
Hoss winced as he listened to Joe’s pleas, but he rode on. He felt how cold and wet his brother’s skin was, and he could feel Joe’s shivers as he firmly held his brother on the horse. He knew getting Joe home right away was the best thing to do, but knowing he was right didn’t make it any easier for Hoss to listen to Joe’s groans and begging.
It took almost two hours but finally Hoss saw the barn in the distance. He was never so happy to see any structure in his life. “Joe, we’re almost home,” said Hoss as he urged his horse on. “Just hang on for a little while longer. We’re almost there.”
Joe didn’t answer. He had finally given in to the pain and exhaustion, and let himself slide into a merciful state of unconsciousness.
Even before he got to the yard in front of the ranch house, Hoss began yelling for help. As he guided his horse toward the front of the house, he saw the door of the log building open.
Ben walked out of the house rapidly, his face showing both confusion and concern. He stopped for a moment when he saw Hoss and Joe coming toward him Joe was riding on the front of his brother’s horse, bent over and limp as a rag doll. His clothes were still wet, and his damp hair was plastered to head. Hoss was holding Joe tightly around the waist, his face a picture of anguish.
As Hoss halted his horse, Ben rushed forward. “What happened?” he cried in alarm. “What’s wrong with Joe?”
“Pa, he got caught in a flash flood in the canyon,” explained Hoss quickly. “He hurt his back. I don’t know how bad.”
A dozen questions flashed through Ben’s mind, but he immediately pushed them aside. He lifted his arms toward Joe. “Hand him down to me,” Ben ordered.
Trying to get a better grip on Joe as he prepared to ease him off the horse, Hoss pulled his brother’s shoulders toward him. The movement immediately sent Joe’s back into another spasm.
As he felt the muscles tighten, Joe screamed in pain. The back of his leg burned once more. He felt as if someone was running a hot poker down his leg.
Horrified, Ben froze as he watched Joe writhe in pain. Then he forced himself to move, to reached up and pulled his son off the horse. He knew that moving slowly would cause Joe more pain than one quick movement. Ben tried to close his ears to his son’s groans as he yanked Joe toward him.
Immediately, Ben laid his son on to the dirt in the yard. Joe relaxed as he felt the hard, flat ground under his back.
Kneeling next to Joe, Ben stroked his son’s head, trying to comfort him. Then, he looked up over his shoulder at Hoss, who was still sitting on his horse. “How long ago was he hurt?” asked Ben anxiously.
“A couple of hours, Pa,” Hoss answered in a voice that reflected his anguish. “I didn’t want to put him on a horse, but I couldn’t figure out any other way to get him home.”
Nodding his understanding, Ben moved his head to looked past Hoss. A couple of the hands had come out of the barn when they hear Hoss’ shout. They stood a few feet away, uncertain about what to do.
“Sam, ride to town and get the doctor!” Ben ordered one of the men. Sam turn and ran into the barn.
Sliding off his horse, Hoss knelt next to Joe. Joe’s eyes were closed. He was breathing hard, and grunting in pain. He was also shivering. “Pa, we’ve got to get him warm,” said Hoss urgently. “He’s been in those wet clothes for a long time.”
“We will,” Ben stated with a nod. “But we’ve got to move him carefully. I don’t want to injure his back any worse.” Hoss winced at the words. He wondered how much damage he had done by putting Joe on his horse.
Once more, Ben turned back to the men standing around. “Vince,” he shouted. “Get that old door out of the back of the barn. We’ll use that to carry Joe into the house.” Vince ran immediately into the barn.
It took only a few minutes for Vince to drag the battered piece of wood from the barn and lay it on the ground next to Joe, although to Hoss it seemed as if it took the man forever. Ben, Hoss and Vince lifted Joe gently from the ground, with Joe groaning in pain at the movement. Quickly, the men settled him on the door. Then the three lifted the wood and carried Joe into the house.
“Hop Sing!” Ben yelled as he pushed the front door open. “Hop Sing, get some hot water! And put some bricks into the oven!” Ben didn’t wait to see if his orders were going to be obeyed. He helped Hoss and Vince maneuver the make-shift stretcher through the living room and toward the stairs.
It took some doing, but the three managed to carry Joe up the stairs on the board and to his room. Ben pushed open the door of the bedroom with his foot. “Let’s keep him on the board,” Ben instructed the others. “Just lay it on the bed.” Vince and Hoss nodded and waited for a moment as Ben quickly pulled the covers off the bed with one hand. Then they laid the door, with Joe still sprawled across it, gently on the bed.
“Vince, go see what’s keeping Hop Sing!” Ben ordered. As Vince left the room, Ben began stripping the wet clothes off his youngest son. “Hoss, what happened?” Ben asked as he worked.
“Pa, there was a flash flood up in Needlenose Canyon,” explained Hoss. “When I found him, Joe was holding on to a tree, and the water was coming up fast. The only was I could get him out of there was to throw him a rope. He got pretty battered and bruised before I could get him out of the water.”
Nodding with understanding, Ben slowly eased the wet shirt off his son, trying to move Joe as little as possible. “Toss me that towel,” said Ben. Hoss went to the wash stand and grabbed the towel hanging over the side. He brought it over to the bed and handed it to his father. Ben immediately began drying Joe’s face and chest. Then he threw the towel over his shoulder and moved to remove Joe’s pants.
“How did he get caught in that flood?” Ben asked as he began drying Joe’s legs.
Hoss hesitated. “It was my fault,” Hoss admitted slowly. “I followed him out there, and took his horse when he wasn’t around.”
“You what!” exclaimed Ben as he looked over his shoulder in astonishment.
“Pa, I didn’t know it was going to rain,” Hoss said quickly. “It was just a joke. You know, payback for that snipe hunt.”
Ben didn’t say anything in response. By now, he had taken Joe’s wet clothes off, and his son was laying naked, shivering on the board. Quickly, Ben pulled the covers up to Joe’s chin. “He’s really got a chill,” Ben murmured in a worried voice. “I hope it’s not too bad.”
“Pa, I didn’t mean anything to happen, honest,” said Hoss, his voice filled with anguish. “It was just a stupid joke.”
Silently, Ben finished tucking the covers around Joe. Then he turned and put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “I know you didn’t, son,” Ben replied gently. “I know you wouldn’t do anything to hurt your brother.” Hoss nodded, but his face was still full of misery.
“You’d better get out of those wet clothes before you catch a chill, too,” Ben added. Hoss hesitated, unwilling to leave Joe. Ben gave him a push on the shoulder. “Go get changed. I’ll call you when the doctor gets here.” Hoss stared at the unmoving figure on the bed for a moment. Then, with a sigh, he turned and left the room.
Hoss stood staring at the fire in the living room, hoping the flames would offer him some comfort. He had rushed to Joe’s room when the doctor arrived. But his worried hovering over Doctor Martin had been such a hindrance that the doctor finally ordered him out of the room. Hoss now waited for the doctor’s verdict, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Hoss knew Joe was sick and hurt, and he knew it was all his fault.
When he heard the front door open, Hoss barely looked around. He saw Adam rushing in. With a shrug, Hoss turned back to stare at the fire.
“Hoss, what’s going on?” Adam asked his brother. “I saw Sam outside, and he said Joe’s been hurt. What happened? How bad is it?”
“The doc’s still with him,” answered Hoss, not bothering to turn to face his brother. “I don’t know how bad it is.”
“What happened?” Adam asked in a persistent voice. “How did Joe get hurt?”
Hoss took a deep breath before answering. “He got caught in a flash flood up in Needlenose Canyon. I pulled him out of the water, but he got pretty battered in the process. His back is hurt. He also got a bad chill.”
“How did he manage to get himself caught in a flood?” Adam asked in a puzzled voice. “I saw his horse in the barn. Why didn’t he just ride out of there? And how did his horse get back? This doesn’t make sense.”
This time, Hoss looked up at the ceiling before answering. “It was all my fault, Adam,” he said in a low voice. “I followed Joe out to the canyon. I thought it would be funny to make him walk home, so I took his horse when he was climbing up the side trail.” Hoss looked at Adam, his face full of misery. “I didn’t know it was going to rain that hard. Honest, Adam, I didn’t. I would have never done it if I thought something like this would happen.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” agreed Adam in a soothing voice. He laid a comforting hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “It was just an accident.”
“No,” Hoss insisted, shaking his head. “It wasn’t no accident. It was a stupid, mean thing to do. I should have never left him out there on foot. I should have known something could have happened.” Hoss turned back to stare into the flames.
Adam stood next to his brother, for once at a loss for words. He wanted to comfort Hoss, but he didn’t know what to say to the big man.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs drew both Adam’s and Hoss’ attention. Doctor Martin climbed down the stairs, his bag in hand, followed closely by Ben.
“He’s not in any danger,” the doctor assured Adam and Hoss when he saw the worried looks on their faces. “But he is a pretty sick boy.”
“How bad is it?” Adam asked.
“He’s got a chill,” answered Doctor Martin. “I’ve given him some medicine to make sure he doesn’t get any worse. He’s exhausted from both the chill and the pain. Right now, he doesn’t have a lot of strength to fight off any infection. He’s also running a fever, but that’s to be expected. He needs to be kept warm, and given plenty of warm liquids. As long as the fever doesn’t go any higher, he should come through this fine.”
“Doc, what about his back?” Hoss asked fearfully.
The doctor glanced at Ben before answering. “He wrenched it pretty bad,” replied Doctor Martin. “And there’s some deep bruising. He’s going to need to be in bed for awhile.”
“But he’ll be all right,” persisted Hoss. “I mean, there’s no permanent damage, right?”
“I don’t think so,” the doctor answered slowly. “But backs are tricky things. Some injuries like this clear up in a short time. Others linger for quite awhile. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
A look of anguish crossed Hoss’ face. He turned away from the men standing in front of him and stared into the fire.
“Is there anything we can do to help Joe?” Adam asked quickly. “I mean, are some exercises or something?”
The doctor nodded. “Yes, there are,” he said. “When he’s a little stronger, I’ll show you what to do. But the best thing for now is bed rest.”
Slowly, Hoss turned back to the doctor. “He was in a lot of pain when I brought him in,” Hoss stated. “I had him sitting on my horse for a couple of hours. Did that make it worse?”
Again, Doctor Martin glanced at Ben again before answering. Ben had told him what happened, and he suspected Hoss was going to ask the question. He just wasn’t sure how to answer it.
“It didn’t help things,” the doctor said carefully. “Riding probably caused some more pressure on those injured muscles and nerves. I’m not surprised he was in a considerable amount of pain.”
Hoss closed his eyes as another look of anguish crossed his face.
Rushing forward, Ben put his hand on Hoss’ arm. “Hoss, you had no choice; you had to bring him in on your horse,” Ben said quickly. “It was the fastest way to get Joe home. If you had waited, he probably would have been sicker than he is now. Getting him home and warm as soon as possible was the best thing you could have done.”
Opening his eyes, Hoss looked at his father. “No. I should have never put him on that horse. He begged me not to do it, but I didn’t listen to him. I should have found some other way to get him home.”
Doctor Martin walked over to Hoss. “Ben’s right,” he advised the man. “You did what you could under the circumstances. It was the devil’s choice, Hoss. If you had waited, he might have become much sicker, maybe gotten pneumonia. Putting him on that horse may have hurt his back, but it save his life.”
“You did the only thing you could,” Adam chimed in. “You don’t have anything to blame yourself for.”
Hoss looked around at the men standing near him. “You don’t understand, do you?” he said with a shake of his head. “It was all my fault…everything. Joe should never have been in that canyon on foot. He wouldn’t have been, if it weren’t for me. If it hadn’t been for me, he would have been out of there before the flood. He would have been safe.”
“Hoss, you didn’t mean it,” stated Ben in a soothing voice. “I’m sure Joe knows that. I’m sure he forgives you for what happened.”
Hoss looked at Ben, his face hard. “How’s Joe going to forgive me?” he asked in a flat voice. “How can he forgive me when I can’t forgive myself.” Hoss pushed past Ben and walked across the room. The other men in the room watched in stunned silence as Hoss walked out of the house.
Night had fallen by the time Hoss returned to the house. He had ridden out to the lake and spent hours sitting in his favorite spot, looking for answers and comfort. But neither came. Images of Joe screaming in pain and begging Hoss to let him off the horse flashed over and over in Hoss’ mind. He wondered how he could face his brother again.
Knowing he couldn’t stay away forever, Hoss had finally ridden back to the house. When he brought his horse into the barn, he saw Sam and Vince were cleaning the stalls and putting out fresh hay. Sam had asked about Joe. Both men were shocked when Hoss told them curtly -- almost angrily -- to mind their own business. The hands on the ranch were used to a gentle, easy-going Hoss. Sam and Vince had never seen him acting like this.
Hoss walked from the barn to the house like a man facing his own execution. He knew he had to see Joe, to talk with him. He wanted to beg forgiveness from his brother, even though he knew probably wouldn’t get it. He couldn’t forget Joe’s words up in the canyon, when Joe blamed Hoss for what happened. He hated the conversation he was facing with Joe, but he knew he had to have it.
With a grim look on his face, Hoss walked slowly into the house. Adam was sitting at the dinner table, finishing his meal. He rose from the table as soon as he saw Hoss.
“Glad you’re back,” Adam said with relief. “We were getting worried. Want something to eat?”
“I’m not hungry,” replied Hoss with distracted air. He stood in the middle of the room, staring at the top of the stairs.
“You haven’t had anything since breakfast,” countered Adam. He gave Hoss a weak smile. “You must be ready to fall over in a dead faint,” he added, trying to kid his brother with a familiar joke.
“I said I ain’t hungry,” declared Hoss in an angry voice. Adam stiffened in surprise.
Walking past Adam, Hoss headed toward the stairs. He stopped at the foot of the steps, squared his shoulders and slowly climbed to the second floor.
When he got to the door of Joe’s room, Hoss stopped again, hesitant to enter. He looked into the bedroom through the partially opened door.
Not surprisingly, Hoss observed his father was sitting in a chair next to Joe’s bed. He could see the board on which they had carried Joe into the house was under the mattress of Joe’s bed, giving the mattress more support and firmness. Hoss stared at Joe laying on the bed with his eyes closed, covers pulled up to his shoulders. His brother’s head was laying on a very thin pillow, keeping his back as straight as possible, and Joe’s face was flushed with fever.
Sensing someone was standing at the door, Ben turned to look. He gave a small sigh of relief when he saw Hoss staring into the room. He had been worried about Hoss, almost as worried about him as he was about Joe. Adam had wanted to go after his brother when Hoss left the house, but Ben had stopped him. He knew his sons. Hoss needed some time to work things out on his own. But it hadn’t kept Ben from worrying.
“Hoss,” said Ben softly. “I’m glad you’re back, son.”
Nodding curtly, Hoss silently acknowledged his father’s words. “How’s he doing?” he asked, gesturing at the bed with his head.
Ben looked back to Joe. “About the same.”
With grim determination, Hoss took a step into the room. “I’ve got to talk with Joe,” he declared.
“Hoss, he’s in no shape to talk,” replied Ben gently. “The doctor pumped him full of medicine and pain killers. He’s going to be asleep for hours.”
“Then I’ll wait,” Hoss stated. He leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms.
Getting to his feet, Ben walked across the room. “Hoss, he’s not going to be awake for a long time,” he explained. “And even then, he probably won’t make a lot of sense. That medicine is pretty strong. You’d be better to wait awhile .”
“Pa, I have to talk with him,” repeated Hoss doggedly. “It can’t wait. I’ll stay until he wakes up.”
Ben sighed. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “Why don’t you sit with him for awhile.” Ben knew Joe would probably sleep through the night. But if it made Hoss feel better to stay with Joe, he was willing to let him. “I’m going to get some coffee.”
Nodding, Hoss walked purposely toward Joe’s bed and sat down in the chair that Ben had left. Hoss sat stiffly and uncomfortably, as if a condemned man waiting for his judgment. Watching his son, Ben shook his head sadly at the sight. Then he quietly left the room.
Sitting by his brother’s bed, Hoss searched for any sign that Joe was awake. At first, Joe laid unmoving and in a deep sleep. But the fever and the medicine started uneasy dreams in Joe’s mind. He was beginning to picture the flood again, and in his dreams, the pictures were more terrifying than reality.
Murmuring, Joe shifted slightly on the bed as he sought to escape the flood in his dream. Anxiously, Hoss watched and listened. “Joe,” he asked hopefully. “Joe, are you awake?”
Again, Joe murmured, and Hoss, desperate to talk to his brother, took the sound as a sign that Joe was awake.
“Joe, I’ve got to talk with you,” said Hoss in a choking voice. “I’m so sorry about what happened. I never meant for you to get hurt. It was all just a stupid joke.” Hoss waited and watched, looking for some reaction from his brother. When none came, he continued. “I know how much it hurt you when I put you on the horse. I didn’t mean that, either. I just didn’t know what else to do. I know I probably made things worse, but I didn’t mean to. Honest, I didn’t. I’m really sorry, Joe. Can you forgive me?”
In his drugged and fevered sleep, Joe heard the voice but he couldn’t understand the words. The voice seemed to drone on and on. Joe wished it would be quiet. He wanted to sleep, to escape the terrifying dream that kept flashing through his head. The voice was insistent and Joe didn’t want to listen. Finally, the voice stopped. But the images didn’t go away. Joe saw the water coming at him again. Only this time, he couldn’t reach the tree. He was trying to run, but his feet were stuck to the ground.
Sitting forward in the chair, Hoss watched and waited hopefully for some response from Joe. He could see his brother moving uneasily on the bed. “Joe, I am really sorry,” Hoss said again, his voice pleading. “I know it’s asking a lot. But do you think you can forgive me for what I did?”
Once again, Joe heard the insistent voice, and in his dream, he saw the water rushing toward him. It was all too much, too overwhelming. “No!” Joe cried. He lifted his hand, trying in vain to stop the water he saw in his dream. “No,” he repeated in a softer voice, a voice filled with despair.
Hoss recoiled as he heard Joe shout. He saw his brother’s hand move as if to brush him aside. He heard the sadness in Joe’s voice as he said no again.
Crushed, Hoss turned away. He knew Joe would blame him for what happened; he was blaming himself. He had had a faint hope that Joe might forgive him. Now he knew that hope was false. Hoss closed his eyes as he felt the sadness descend on him. His shoulders slumped as he admitted the truth to himself. He had destroyed the most precious thing he owned. He had destroyed his brother’s trust in him.
Getting to his feet, Hoss quickly crossed the room. He stopped at the doorway and looked back at the bed. Joe was lying still again, his dream disappearing as he sunk back into a deep sleep. Hoss pursed his lips, and blinked as he felt the tears in his eyes. Then he walked out of the room.
When Ben returned to Joe’s room, he was surprised to see no one but Joe. He frowned, wondering where Hoss had gone. Hoss had seem so insistent about staying with Joe, about waiting for him to wake. He wondered what had changed Hoss’ mind. Ben quickly crossed the room. He laid his hand on Joe’s forehead, and his frown deepened as he realized his son’s fever was still high. Ben watched his youngest son for a moment. Joe’s breathing seemed deep and regular; he was still asleep.
Ben hesitated, wondering if he should go look for Hoss. The big man seemed so upset and Ben wanted to talk with him. Then Joe shifted slightly on the bed, and let out a small groan as he did. Joe’s intermittent dream of the flood had returned.
Quickly, Ben moved to sit in the chair. He laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder, and stroked it gently as he tried to calm his son. “Shhhh,” Ben said softly. “It’s all right, Joe. Everything is all right. Go to sleep. Shhhh. Go to sleep.”
In his fevered mind, Joe heard a voice again, but it was a different one. He still didn’t understand the words, but this time, he felt comforted by the voice. He slipped back into a dreamless sleep.
Relieved that Joe was once again sleeping, Ben settled back in the chair. He would talk with Hoss later, he decided. Joe needed him more right now. Hoss was upset, but he would get over it, Ben thought. He always did. Once Joe was well, things would be back to normal. Ben relaxed in the chair and smiled briefly. In a few weeks, his two youngest sons would be back to playing tricks on each other. Ben frowned. At least, he hoped they would. He looked around the room again, uneasy about the fact that Hoss had left. He glanced at the bed. “Get well quickly, Joseph,” Ben said softly.
Ben descend the stairs the next morning, tired and hungry. He was surprised to see the table in the dining room was empty. Ben knew Adam was with Joe, but he thought Hoss would be eating breakfast.
As he walked toward the table, Ben frowned. Hoss was really acting strange, he thought. He hadn’t come back to Joe’s room, and usually, when something was wrong with Joe, Hoss hovered like a mother hen. When Adam had come to sit with Joe for awhile, Ben went to Hoss’ room. He had knocked on the door and asked Hoss if he could come in. His son’s response was a gruff, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk.” Ben had thought about forcing the issue, but respected his son enough to listen to his wishes. He had left Hoss’ room and went to his own for a brief nap.
When he woke, Ben had checked on Hoss again, but this time, he heard only a loud snore when he stopped at Hoss’ door. Ben had grinned, knowing that ungodly noise meant Hoss was asleep. Then he had returned to spend the rest of the night with Joe.
But seeing the empty table made Ben uneasy once more. It wasn’t like Hoss to skip a meal. Eating was one of the things Hoss enjoyed most out of life.
“Hop Sing!” Ben called as he neared the table. “Hop Sing, do you have any breakfast for me?”
Wiping his hands on a towel, Hop Sing rushed out of the kitchen,. “How Little Joe?” he asked with concern.
“He’s much better,” Ben assured him. “His fever is down, and he’s resting easy.”
“Oh, that good,” said the Chinese cook with a smile. “I fix him good breakfast.”
“Well, he won’t be awake for awhile,” Ben advised. “And then he’ll probably only be able to handle some broth. Why don’t you fix me that good breakfast instead.”
As Hop Sing nodded, he felt a feeling of relief. If Mr. Cartwright was more concerned about food than Joe, then Joe must really be getting better. “Hop Sing fry some eggs. Make toast. Get breakfast pretty quick,” stated the cook.
“Hop Sing, wait,” called Ben as the cook turned back toward the kitchen. Hop Sing turned again. “Where’s Hoss?” Ben asked. “Did he eat already?”
Immediately, Hop Sing’s face turned sad. “Mr. Hoss up early. No want breakfast. He just drink coffee and leave.”
“Hoss didn’t want breakfast?” Ben said in surprise.
“Mr. Hoss very upset,” answered the cook. “He yell at Hop Sing, tell Hop Sing to leave him alone.”
Ben’s eyebrows rose as his surprise grew. Hoss never yelled at Hop Sing. Hoss liked Hop Sing’s cooking too much to do anything to make the cook mad. “Did Hoss say where he was going?” Ben asked.
“No,” replied Hop Sing. “He just leave house and go to barn. Hop Sing see him ride off.”
A bit frustrated, Ben shook his head. He had really wanted to talk with Hoss. Ben berated himself for not forcing his son to talk with him last night. Now he would have to wait until Hoss decided to come home.
“Hop Sing fix breakfast, start broth,” the cook said, turning back to the kitchen. Ben nodded distractedly, his appetite gone. He knew two of his sons were hurting, but only one’s pain was physical.
It was noon before Ben had a chance to talk to the hands about Hoss. His morning had been taken with caring for Joe. Doctor Martin had arrived shortly after Ben finished his breakfast, and Ben had waited anxiously in Joe’s room while the doctor examined his son. When he was reassured that Joe was improving, Ben let out a sigh of relief.
The doctor’s examination had waken Joe. He was still groggy from the medicine and fever, but he was awake enough to complain about being hungry. Feeding Joe had proved to be a chore. Ben tried to lift Joe’s shoulders from the bed to place a thick pillow under them but that had caused Joe pain. Laying flat was the most comfortable position for Joe, but he couldn’t eat in that position. Finally, Adam managed to stuff enough of the pillows under Joe’s back and shoulders to raise his brother’s head slightly. It was still an uncomfortable position for Joe, but the pain was bearable.
Still acting as nursemaid, Ben spooned the broth into Joe, pleased that his son took all of it. He took advantage of Joe’s conscious state to spoon medicine into him, also. Ben laughed a little when Joe made a face at the medicine. But Ben’s laughter died quickly when he saw Joe wince and grimace with pain. Joe’s back muscles were beginning to tighten again, and his injured back was reacting against even the small time Joe spent sitting up. Ben quickly removed the pillows from under Joe’s back and settled his son as flat as possible on the bed. When Joe continued to grunt in pain, Ben gave Joe a dose from the second bottle the doctor had left. That medicine had eased Joe’s pain but also sent him back to sleep.
For an hour or more, Ben had sat with Joe, making sure his son was as comfortable as possible. He used a wet cloth to cool and clean his son. He helped Hop Sing change the sheets when the cook brought some clean bedding to the room. He shifted the pillow under Joe’s head, easing any possible strain on his son’s back.
Finally, Ben decided Joe was as comfortable as possible. He laid his hand on Joe’s forehead, assuring himself one last time that Joe’s fever was almost gone. What Joe needed most now was rest and quiet. And Ben had another son to worry about.
As he left Joe’s room, Ben tried to figure out where Hoss might have gone. There were numerous places on the Ponderosa that Hoss used as his private retreats when he needed to be alone. Ben decided he would systematically check them all until he found Hoss.
A half a dozen of the ranch hands were riding in for their noon meal when Ben left the house, heading toward the barn. He waited as the men dismounted.
“Have any of you seen Hoss?” asked Ben as the hands as they walked toward him.
Several of the men looked at each other. They seemed uncomfortable about answering. “I saw him this morning up by the lake,” Vince finally volunteered reluctantly.
“Did he say anything?” asked Ben.
Vince shook his head. “I hollered at him, but he just ignored me,” the hand answered. “He just kept riding.”
“What about the rest of you?” demanded Ben. “Anyone else seen Hoss?”
“I saw up about an hour ago,” Sam said. “He was up near Needlenose Canyon.”
“What was he doing up there?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know,” answered Sam. “He seemed to be just sitting there, staring into the canyon. I asked him if he was all right, and he just about bit my head off. Told me to go away and leave him alone.”
Thanking the men with a distracted air, Ben walked slowly toward the barn, then abruptly turned and walked back to the house. He had changed his mind about going after Hoss. He could spend all day trying to find his middle son. Ben decided to wait. He knew Hoss would come home eventually. Maybe by then, Hoss would have worked things out in his own mind. At least, Ben hoped so.
Adam and Ben were sitting at the table, eating dinner when Hoss finally returned to the house. He had spent the day, riding around the ranch, thinking and looking for answers. The only problem was, Hoss wasn’t sure he knew the questions. He only knew that his little brother was hurt, and it was his fault. And he didn’t know what to do to make it up to Joe.
Ben looked up expectantly as Hoss entered the house. “Hoss,” he said in a voice that was much to hearty. “Glad you’re back, son. Come and have something to eat.”
Silently, Hoss threw his hat on the table by the door. He slipped off his gunbelt, and laid it on the table. He walked slowly to the dining room and then stopped and frowned as he saw his father and his brother sitting at the table. “Who’s with Joe?” Hoss demanded in an angry voice. “You didn’t leave him alone, did you?”
“Joe’s sleeping,” Adam answered. “He’s much better. His fever’s gone and there doesn’t seem to be any other effects from…from that dunking he took.”
“What about his back?” asked Hoss hopefully. “How’s that?”
Not sure how to answer Hoss’ question without upsetting the big man, Adam and Ben looked at each other. “He’s still in a lot of pain,” Ben finally admitted. “But Doctor Martin told us to expect that. He said it’s going to take awhile before those muscles and nerves heal.”
Hoss’ shoulders slumped. He nodded sadly.
“Come sit down and eat something,” Ben urged his son. “You must be starved.”
“I ain’t hungry,” said Hoss, but he sat at the table anyway. Ben quickly reached for the empty plate in front of Hoss, and filled it with potatoes and meat from the platters on the table. Hoss watched disinterestedly as Ben put the filled plate in front of him.
“Hoss, you have to stop blaming yourself,” declared Ben as he watched his son. Hoss just shrugged his shoulders. He picked up his fork and poked at the food on his plate. But he didn’t eat.
“I’m sure Joe doesn’t blame you,” added Adam.
Hoss looked up. “How do you know?” he demanded. “Did he tell you that?”
“Well, no,” Adam admitted. “He’s been asleep most of the day. The doctor has him on pain killers until his back feels better. But I’m sure he doesn’t blame you.”
“You don’t know nothing, Adam,” Hoss muttered.
Reaching over, Ben put his hand on Hoss’ arm. “I know you wanted to talk with Joe,” he said. “He’ll probably be awake in a little while. Why don’t you go sit with him.”
“Joe don’t want to see me,” Hoss stated stubbornly.
“That’s not true,” Ben countered.
“Yes it is,” insisted Hoss. He dropped the fork he had been playing with, and stood up. “I’m going to my room.” Hoss walked out of the dining room and quickly went up the stairs.
“He’s taking this hard,” Adam commented as he watched his brother disappear at the top of the stairs.
“You know how he feels about Joe,” said Ben. “Joe’s more than his brother; he’s Hoss’ best friend.”
Adam nodded, acknowledging the fact that his two brothers were closer to each other than to him. It was a fact that he had long ago accepted. “We’ve got to get him to talk to Joe.”
“I agree,” Ben replied. “But Joe’s so groggy right now, I don’t think we should push it. Joe’s liable to say something he doesn’t mean, and that will make things worse.”
“I don’t think things can get worse,” said Adam.
Joe improved slowly but steadily over the next two days. He was still in some pain, but the pain was more bearable than before. He took less of the medicine and stayed awake longer. But he still found it uncomfortable to do anything but lay flat on his back. He asked about Hoss several times, wanting to see his brother. Adam and Ben both assured Joe that Hoss was fine, that he was busy with work around the ranch. They told him that Hoss had visited him when Joe was a sleep. Joe found that odd, but didn’t make an issue out of it. He was more concerned with trying to sit up without pain right now.
As Joe’s condition improved, Hoss’ mood seemed to darken. He snapped at everyone, and ate little. The ranch hands began avoiding him. They had looked on Hoss as a gentle giant. But now, Hoss seemed to be an angry bear, and none of the hands wanted to risk what might happen if they crossed him.
Several times, Ben tried to talk with Hoss, to reason with him. He tried to get him to visit Joe. But Ben’s pleadings fell on deaf ears. Hoss was convinced that Joe hated him, and no one could tell him otherwise.
For his part, Hoss spent most of his time alone, riding around the ranch. He was mourning the loss of his brother’s trust and affection. As he rode, Hoss thought back on all the tricks he and Joe had played on each other over the years. At the time, they seemed funny and playful. Now Hoss thought they were just stupid.
A regular visitor to the Ponderosa was Doctor Martin, who showed up every morning. On his fourth visit, he examined Joe’s back carefully. “Those bruises are healing nicely,” he commented as he pulled the covers back over Joe. Doctor Martin was alone with Joe. Adam was taking care of ranch business and Ben had gone to get some hot towels the doctor had suggested for Joe’s back. No one knew where Hoss was.
“Good,” said Joe, his voice sounded cranky. “I’m getting tired of just laying in this bed.”
The doctor smiled. Joe’s complaining meant he was feeling better. “Well, unfortunately, you’re going to have to lie here a while longer,” explained Doctor Martin. “Your back is far from healed.”
With a nod, Joe acknowledged the truth of the doctor’s statement. Even though he was tired of being in bed, he also knew his back hurt every time he moved. “Doc, tell me the truth,” Joe asked in a nervous voice. “Am I ever going to get out of this bed?”
Doctor Martin looked startled by Joe’s question. “Of course you are,” he said. “Why would you think otherwise?”
“Well, it’s been almost a week, and my back is still killing me,” Joe answered. “I just thought…”
“You just thought you would get up and out of bed in no time,” the doctor finished for him.
“Yeah, something like that,” Joe admitted.
“Joe, for one thing, it’s been only four days, not a week, since you were hurt,” Doctor Martin stated. “And you have to give your body time to heal. I know it feels like you’ve been in bed forever, but it’s only been a few days.”
Blowing out a breath of air, Joe nodded. “All right,” he said. “You’re the doctor.”
“I’m glad you’ve finally admitted that,” replied Doctor Martin with a smile. Then his face turned serious. “Joe, I do want to start you on some exercises. I want to keep those muscles in your back loose. I’m going to show your Pa what to do. But I won’t lie to Joe. The exercises are going to be painful. You’re going to think they’re pure torture. But they’re necessary. And if you do them, you’ll be back on your feet in a few weeks. If you don’t do them, you could be in this bed for months.”
Hearing the doctor’s words, Joe swallowed hard. Neither alternative seemed very attractive. “Isn’t there some other way?” he asked.
“No,” stated Doctor Martin firmly. “There’s no short cuts. You either do those exercises and put up with the pain they cause, or you resign yourself to being in bed for quite awhile. It’s up to you.”
For a moment, Joe chewed on his lip uncertainly, then he smiled weakly. “You sure know how to inspire a guy, doc.”
At that moment, Ben walked back into the room, his arms filled with towels. “These are nice and hot,” he said. He stopped as he saw the look on Joe’s face. Ben turned to the doctor. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Doctor Martin assured Ben. “I was just explaining to Joe how you’re going to have to torture him for awhile.”
Ben frowned. “What do you mean?” he demanded.
“Don’t look so fierce, Ben,” Doctor Martin replied with a smile. “I was just making a very bad joke. Let’s get those towels under Joe’s back. Then I’ll show you what I meant.”
Joe sighed with contentment as the warm towels sent heat radiating through his back. “That feels good,” he muttered.
Nodded encouragingly, Doctor Martin smiled at his patient, then turned to Ben. “I’m going to show you some exercises I want you to help Joe do. They’re going to be painful, Ben, but I assure you they are necessary. Joe knows he has to do them.”
With an air of uncertainty, Ben looked at the doctor, and then at Joe. Joe nodded encouragingly.
“All right,” Ben said with a sigh. “Show me what to do.”
Walking slowly into the house, Hoss had decided the time had come to face his little brother. He knew that he had been putting it off long enough. Adam had said Joe was feeling better. Maybe he’s ready to forgive me, Hoss decided.
Crossing the big room, Hoss started toward the stairs, then froze. He heard a loud scream of pain coming from the top of the stairs. Hoss knew Joe was in agony. He didn’t know why, but he suddenly knew he couldn’t face Joe now. Hoss turned on his heels and walked out of the house.
Adam and Ben sat at the table, but neither was eating their noon meal. Both very aware of the empty places at the table. Joe was resting, exhausted by painful exercises the doctor had prescribed. And once again, Hoss had disappeared.
Ben wasn’t sure who was more exhausted by the session, him or Joe. He had wanted to stop at Joe’s first scream of pain, but both Joe and the doctor insisted he continue. Ben reluctantly had continued moving and bending Joe’s legs while the doctor watched. At the end of twenty minutes, Joe was covered with sweat. His jaw was sore from gritting his teeth. After the first scream, Joe had tried hard to endure the pain in silence.
“Are you all right?” Adam asked his father. Ben looked pale and tired.
Looking up, Ben gave his oldest son a shaky smile. “I’ll be all right. At least, those exercises are over, thank God.”
“I thought you said the doctor wanted Joe to do exercises every day,” said Adam with a frown.
“He does,” replied Ben. “He also said that the pain will be less the more Joe does them.” Ben took a deep breath. “I hope he’s right.”
“Pa, we have to do something about Hoss,” declared Adam. “He’s miserable, and he’s making everyone else miserable.”
“What would you suggest I do?” Ben asked in a tired voice. “I’ve talked to him until I’m blue in the face. He just won’t listen.”
“Get him to talk to Joe,” urged Adam. “That’s the only solution. I asked Joe, and I know he doesn’t blame Hoss. But Hoss won’t believe that until he hears it from Joe.”
“How do you suggest I do it?” Ben asked. “He’s a little big to hog-tie and drag up the stairs.”
“I don’t know, Pa,” admitted Adam. “But we’ve got to do something. Both he and Joe are miserable, but Joe’s going to get better. I’m not sure Hoss will.”
“All right,” said Ben with a sigh. “I’ll try to think of something.” He looked at Adam with sorrowful eyes. “I wish we had never heard of a snipe hunt.”
Hoss rode through the narrow opening to Needlenose Canyon. The water had finally disappeared, leaving behind a muddy trail. Hoss guided his horse carefully, trying to keep the animal from slipping. As he rode, Hoss’ eyes searched the canyon.
When Hoss returned home late last night, his father was waiting to talk with him. Hoss didn’t mention the scream of pain he had heard. Ben didn’t know Hoss had heard it.
After trying unsuccessfully to get Hoss to visit Joe, Ben had suggested that Hoss go back to the canyon to look for Joe’s gun. He reminded Hoss how much Joe thought of that pistol. Ben knew the odds were slim that Hoss would find it, but he thought it was worth a chance. If Hoss could find the gun, he would have a reason to see Joe. Hoss reluctantly had agreed to look the next morning.
As he rode through the canyon, Hoss shook his head. He couldn’t believe what the flood had done to it. Mud and debris were spread over the floor of the canyon, and covered the walls as well. Hoss almost turned around and went home. He thought it was fruitless to search for a gun among the muck spread throughout the canyon. But he thought again about his father’s words and how much Joe liked that gun. He couldn’t do much for his brother, but he could find the pistol.
For almost an hour, Hoss searched. At first, he saw nothing, but he made himself ride around the canyon slowly again and again. Finally, he saw something odd sticking out of the mud near the mouth of the canyon, and dismounted to inspect the item. It was one of Joe’s boots. The sole was torn from the bottom of the boot, and what was left was filled with mud. Hoss tossed the boot away.
Mounting his horse again, Hoss decided to make one more circuit of the canyon before he left. The sun was rising in the sky, and the angle of the rays were changing. As Hoss made one last lap around the canyon, he saw something glinting in the mud up ahead. Hoss urged his horse forward. He dismounted as he neared the mound of mud. Something metal was definitely in that pile of muck; Hoss could see the sun glinting off it. He reached down and pushed the mud around with his hand. He felt something solid. Hoss pulled his hand out of the mud, holding his prize. He smiled triumphantly at the pearl-handled pistol in his hand.
Quickly mounted his horse, Hoss turned the animal toward the mouth of the canyon. He couldn’t wait to get home to show the pistol to Joe.
Adam had decided the time had come to talk with Joe. Ben had insisted that they not tell Joe about Hoss; he felt that Joe had enough to handle right now without worrying about his brother. Adam had disagreed, but he gave in to his father’s wishes. Now, he decided that Joe had a right to know what was going on. More importantly, Joe was the only who could help Hoss.
As he climbed the stairs, Adam wondered if he was doing the right thing. Joe was still in a lot of pain, and the exercises were exhausting to him. But Adam thought about Hoss, and he knew something had to be done.
Adam knocked softly on Joe’s open door. “Can I come in?” he asked.
Joe raised his head slightly from the bed. “Sure,” he answered in surprise. He wondered why Adam was being so formal. His brother had been in and out of the room regularly for the last week.
Slowly, Adam walked in and sat down in the chair next to Joe’s bed. “I want to talk with you about Hoss.”
Turning his head, Joe looked at Adam. “Hoss?” he said with a frown. “What’s wrong with Hoss?”
Adam shifted uncomfortably in the chair. He wondered how he was going to explain this to Joe. Suddenly, his idea didn’t seem like such a good one. “Hoss is miserable,” Adam explained. “He thinks you hate him.”
“Hate him?” Joe repeated in surprise. “Why?”
“He blames himself for what happened to you,” said Adam. “More importantly, he thinks you blame him.”
“Why would he think that?” Joe asked. “I haven’t even seen him since he hauled me out of that canyon.”
Once again, Adam shifted uncomfortably. “Well, as near as I can tell, you must have said something in the canyon. And he told us you begged him to get him off his horse when he was bringing you home.”
Ruefully, Joe shook his head. “Adam,” he said. “I don’t remember what I said after Hoss pulled me out of the water. I was so tired and my back hurt so much, I couldn’t think straight. All I know is that I would have drowned in that canyon if Hoss hadn’t been there. I owe him my life.”
“Then tell him that,” urged Adam. “He’s been roaming around the ranch like some kind of wounded bear. He hasn’t eaten enough to keep a bird alive. He growls at the hands, and he won’t talk to Pa.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Joe demanded.
“Well, you were pretty sick, and Pa figured you had enough problems without worrying about Hoss,” replied Adam.
“You should have told me,“ admonished Joe. He started to sit up in bed, then groaned as the pain started shooting up his back.
“Lay still!” Adam ordered as he pushed Joe back down on the bed. “What are you trying to do, kill yourself?”
“I have to see Hoss,” insisted Joe.
“I’ll send him up when he gets back,” Adam promised. “But you have to lay still. You know what the doctor said. Bed rest and exercises for at least another week.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Joe, his voice filled with disgust. He looked up at Adam. “Don’t ever hurt your back,” he advised. “It’s really a pain.”
Adam laughed at Joe’s pun. “You must be feeling better if you’re making bad jokes.”
“Yeah, I am,” Joe said. “I’m also missing the dance tomorrow night. I was hoping to take Sally Williams.”
“It’s going to be awhile before you go dancing,” stated Adam. “Besides, didn’t you know? Sally Williams is engaged. She’s going to marry Clint Jones.”
“No!” exclaimed Joe. He shook his head. “I’m never going to get to dance with Sally now,” he said sadly.
“Well, there’ll be other girls,” Adam consoled his brother.
“I guess,” agreed Joe with a grin. “But who’s going to want a crippled up cowboy like me.”
“Oh, you’ll find someone,” Adam replied, grinning in return. “Maybe some poor girl will take pity on you.”
Hoss had spent a long time cleaning Joe’s gun. He wanted the pistol be as good as new when he gave it to him. It had taken a lot of work. The mud had seeped into almost every part. But Hoss oiled and polished it for hours. He even took it out behind the barn and tested it when he was finished. He was pleased with the result. The gun looked good, and it worked like it had just come out of the shop.
With a light step, Hoss climbed the stairs to Joe’s room, happy that he could finally give something to Joe that would lift his brother’s spirits. Maybe Joe will be so happy to see the gun, he won’t be mad at me, Hoss thought.
As Hoss neared Joe’s room, he heard voices. Hoss slowed, deciding he didn’t want to interrupt if Joe was discussing something important with Adam or Pa. As Hoss neared the room, he recognized Joe’s voice. He stopped to listen.
“No! I’m never going to get to dance with Sally now,” Hoss heard Joe say. He winced at the comment.
“Well, there’ll be other girls,” Adam’s voice replied.
“I guess,” Hoss heard Joe say. “But who’s going to want a crippled up cowboy like me.”
“Oh, you’ll find someone,” came Adam’s reply. “Maybe some poor girl will take pity on you.”
Turning abruptly, Hoss walked away from the room. He couldn’t believe Adam’s insensitive comment to Joe. Hoss had no idea that Joe’s injury was that bad. His father had insisted that Joe was going to be all right. Now Hoss knew they had lied to him. Joe was going to be crippled, and it’s all my fault, Hoss thought. He shook his head. He couldn’t stay at the Ponderosa any longer. He couldn’t spend the rest of his life watching his little brother suffer because of something he did. He couldn’t face seeing the accusation and the hatred he knew he would see in Joe’s eyes.
Hoss walked toward his room. As he passed a small table in the hall, he dropped Joe’s gun on it. Then he walked into his room to start packing.
Adam spent the rest of the afternoon with Joe. He had gone to his room to get the chessboard and walked right by the table. He never noticed the gun sitting on top of it.
It took some doing but Adam managed to set the chessboard on the edge of the bed so Joe could see it. The two brothers spent three hours playing chess, ending up with a win by each and a draw. Adam could see that Joe was getting tired, so he purposely scooped up the pieces at the end of the third game. “Time for you to rest,” he ordered his youngest brother.
Joe nodded, not disagreeing. The truth was he was tired and sore. “Tell Hoss to come up as soon as he gets home,” Joe reminded Adam. “I’ll talk with him.”
“I will,” promised Adam. “But it might be late. He’s been spending all day riding around, and not coming home until after dark.”
“I don’t care,” Joe said, as his eyes began to grow heavy. “You tell that big lug to get up here. Have him wake me up if he has to. I’ll set him straight.”
Adam smiled at Joe’s words. “I will,” he promised again. “Now you get some rest.” Adam walked out of Joe’s room, and walked down the hall to his room to put the chessboard and pieces away. As he headed down the hall to his own room, Adam passed the table again. This time, he noticed the gun.
Stopping quickly, Adam frowned as he picked up the gun from the table. He turned the pistol over, wondering where it came from. It looked like Joe’s gun. Adam turned the butt of the gun toward him and saw Joe’s initials scratched in the bottom. Now Adam was even more puzzled.
With a shrug, Adam put the gun back on the table, and headed toward his room. He decided he would ask his father about the gun at dinner.
Hop Sing set the table only for two. He didn’t bother to put a plate out for Hoss any more. He didn’t even bother to keep food warm in the kitchen. Hoss didn’t seem to care about eating these days. That made Hop Sing sad. He liked it when his cooking was appreciated. And no one appreciated his cooking more than Mr. Hoss.
“Hop Sing, have you seen Hoss?” Adam asked as he neared the table.
“No, Mr. Adam,” the cook replied, shaking his head sadly. “Mr. Hoss, he no like Hop Sing’s cooking any more. He no like anything. He very sad about Little Joe.”
“I know,” said Adam. “But I’m hoping we can change that. Joe wants to see Hoss as soon as possible.”
“What’s that?” a voice asked from behind Adam. Adam turned to see Ben standing behind him with a frown. “What did you say about Joe wanting to see Hoss?”
“I told Joe,” Adam said simply.
“I thought we had agreed to wait,” stated Ben, his voice rising in anger.
“No,” Adam said, his voice matching his father. “You decided we should wait. And I decided we shouldn’t.”
“Adam, I know what’s best,” Ben insisted in an angry voice.
“Why? Because you’re older?” Adam answered, his anger growing.
“Yes, because I’m older and wiser,” replied Ben.
“You may be older, but you’re not always wiser,” Adam said.
“I’m wiser because I’m older,” Ben insisted.
“Older doesn’t always mean wiser,” Adam answered.
Ben started to answer then stopped. He stared at Adam for a minute, then burst into laughter. “This is the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever heard,” declared Ben, chuckling.
Grinning at his father, Adam agreed. “You’re right,” he said. “We sound like some kind of comedy team.” Then Adam sobered. “I’m sorry, Pa. I just felt Joe had a right to know. And he does want to talk to Hoss. He said he would set him straight.”
“I suppose you’re right, Adam,” agreed Ben with a sigh. “Lord knows, I haven’t had any luck getting through to Hoss. I can’t even get him to see Joe. I sent him up to the canyon looking for Joe’s gun, hoping that would give him a reason to see Joe. But he hasn’t come back, so he must not have found it.”
“You sent Hoss looking for Joe’s gun?” Adam asked with a frown.
“Yes,” replied Ben. “Why? What’s wrong with that?”
“I just saw Joe’s gun upstairs,” Adam said. “It was on the table in the hall.”
“How did it get there?” Ben asked with a puzzled expression.
“Hoss must have brought it back,” stated Adam. “But he didn’t give it to Joe. I was with Joe all afternoon.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Ben said, frowning. “If he found the gun, why didn’t he give it to Joe? He knows how much Joe prizes that gun. I would have thought he would be happy to give it back to him.”
Adam thought hard, running his conversation with Joe over in his mind. “I don’t know,” he replied slowly. “Maybe…” Adam stopped and shook his head. “No, he couldn’t have believed that,” he said. “That’s too strange, even for Hoss.”
“Believed what?” Ben asked, exasperated. “Adam, what did you say?”
“Well, Joe and I were joking around,” explained Adam. “Joe said something about being crippled.”
“Crippled!” said Ben in a shocked voice. “He doesn’t think he’s going to be crippled, does he?”
“No, no,” Adam reassured his father. “We were just joking. But if Hoss heard us, he might have misunderstood.”
For a moment, Adam and Ben looked at each other. Both seemed to have the same idea. They turned as one and rushed up the stairs to Hoss’ room.
Not bothering to knock, Ben pushed open the door to Hoss’ room, then stopped dead. One of the dresser drawers was half opened. The comb and razor were missing from the washstand next to Hoss’ bed. And most telling of all, the miniature of Hoss’ mother was gone from the wall.
Adam looked over Ben’s shoulder into the room. “He’s gone,” Adam stated unnecessarily. Ben nodded in shocked silence.
“I’ll go after him,” said Adam, turning to leave. “He couldn’t have gone far.”
“I’ll go with you,” Ben offered.
“No, you’d better stay here,” advised Adam. “Someone has to look after Joe. You’ve got to keep him doing those exercises.”
Torn between the concern for both his sons, Ben hesitated. “You’re right,” he agreed reluctantly. “But you find him, Adam. You find him and bring him home.”
“I will,” said Adam. “Even if I have to drag him.”
Hoss rode slowly through the tall pines. He had been gone from home for almost a week, a week spent wandering through the mountains. He had no destination in mind. He just rode.
Normally, riding through the mountains would have lifted Hoss’ spirits. He loved the mountains, with their crisp, clean air and quiet beauty. But this time, the mountains failed to work their magic on him. Hoss was as miserable as a man could get.
Hoss had thought leaving the Ponderosa would make him feel better. He thought he could leave all the pain and the sorrow behind him. But now Hoss knew he hadn’t. He had brought it all with him.
But after a week of riding, Hoss missed his family. With every mile he rode away from the Ponderosa, he seemed to miss them more. Several times he had thought about turning around and heading home. But then the image of Joe’s begging him to get him off the horse would flash through Hoss’ mind. The pain that image caused him with almost physical. Hoss couldn’t face Joe. He just couldn’t.
Slowing his horse near a stream, Hoss decided to make camp. He wasn’t really hungry or tired, but he didn’t have any place to go, and didn’t know what to do if he got there. Making camp gave him something to do.
Hoss was sipping coffee from a battered cup when he heard his horse snicker softly behind him. Hoss looked up to see a rider coming out of the woods.
“Finally!” Adam exclaimed. “Hoss, I’ve been looking for you for a week.”
“Hello, Adam,” replied Hoss quietly. He watched his brother dismount, but made no move to greet him.
With long strides, Adam walked over to the campfire. “Mind if I have some coffee?” he asked.
“Help yourself,” answered Hoss, shrugging. “But I only have one cup.”
Adam squatted next to the fire. “That’s all right,” he said. “Your coffee is terrible anyway.” Adam looked at his brother. “Don’t you think you’re a bit old to be running away from home?” he asked.
Not wanting his older brother to see the misery on his face, Hoss looked away. “Adam, I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t stay knowing Joe was going to be crippled, and it was all my fault.”
“Whatever gave you the idea that Joe was going to be crippled?” asked Adam.
“I heard you two talking,” Hoss explained. “I knew Pa hadn’t told me the truth. I knew Joe was never going to walk again.”
“Hoss, you got it all wrong. Joe’s going to be fine,” stated Adam.
“Don’t lie to me, Adam,” Hoss said, glaring at his brother. “I heard you. I heard Joe call himself a cripple.”
“We were joking!” exclaimed Adam. He rolled his eyes toward the sky. “The jokes in this family are really getting out of hand.” He looked back at Hoss. “Hoss, Joe’s going to be fine. I swear it. He doesn’t blame you for what happened. He told me he owed you his life.”
Stubbornly, Hoss shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”
Exasperated, Adam took a deep breath. “Hoss, I wouldn’t lie to you,” he said. “But if you don’t believe me, come home and see for yourself. Talk to Joe. He’ll tell you.”
“I can’t, Adam,” replied Hoss, his voice full of misery. “I can’t face him.”
For a minute, Adam studied Hoss across the fire. “I would have never taken you for a coward,” he said quietly.
“I ain’t a coward,” Hoss replied angrily.
“Oh yeah?” said Adam. “You’re afraid to face Joe, afraid to admit you might be wrong. You ran away. I don’t know what else to call you.”
“I’m not a coward,” Hoss repeated angrily as he stood and faced his brother.
His face showing no concern, Adam merely looked up at Hoss. “Then prove me wrong. Come home with me.”
Turning away, Hoss studied the stream for awhile. Adam held his breath as he waited for Hoss to decide; he wasn’t sure what he was going to do if Hoss didn’t come on his own.
Finally, Hoss turned back to Adam. “I’ll come home,” he stated. “But just to prove how wrong you are. I’ll show you that Joe hates me. Then I’m going to leave again. And this time, you won’t find me.”
Relieved, Adam let his breath out. He knew Hoss was wrong. But the only one who could convince Hoss was Joe. “Put that fire out,” Adam ordered his brother. “I want to get home.”
It only took two days for Adam and Hoss to reach the Ponderosa. Hoss had ridden a slow, meandering route away from the ranch. The ride home was fast and straight.
As he neared the ranch, Hoss slowed his horse. Adam pulled his horse up also, slowing his pace to match his brother’s. “What’s wrong?” asked Adam. For the past two days, he had been trying to convince Hoss that Joe was fine, that Joe didn’t hate him, and that his homecoming was going to be a happy one. Adam thought he had succeeded. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“What’s wrong?” Adam repeated. “Getting cold feet?”
“No,” Hoss replied, but there was a note of uncertainty in his voice. Then he shook his head. “Well, maybe,” admitted Hoss. He looked at Adam. “Are you sure Joe’s going to be all right?” he asked for the hundredth time.
“Yes, Joe is going to be fine,” Adam answered patiently. “He’s going to be fine, and he doesn’t hate you. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Hoss nodded, but his face showed he was unconvinced. With a sigh, Adam urged his horse forward. Hoss followed him slowly.
The door of the ranch house opened as soon as Adam and Hoss rode into the yard. Adam figured his father must have been waiting and watching for them. Ben ran from the house and into the yard as soon as the pair stopped their horses.
“Hoss!” cried Ben. He rushed forward as his sons dismounted. Ben looked toward Adam, who nodded and grinned, then put his hands on Hoss’ shoulder. “Don’t you ever do something like this again,” Ben said sternly. “I’m too old to have my sons running out on me.”
“Aw, Pa,” replied Hoss as he blushed slightly. He was embarrassed at the emotion his father was showing. “I’m sorry. I was just so worried about Joe, and I guess I wasn’t thinking straight.” He looked into his father’s eyes. “Joe is gong to be all right, isn’t he?” Hoss asked.
“Why don’t you ask me?” a voice said from behind Ben.
A startled expression crossed Hoss’ face as he looked over his father’s shoulder. Joe was standing in the doorway of the house. He had a huge smile on his face.
Joe walked slowly toward his brother. He moved stiffly, and was leaning heavily on a cane. But he was walking.
“Hot diggity!” Hoss shouted when he saw Joe. He rushed past Ben and toward Joe. Hoss threw his arms open, preparing to give his brother a bear hug.
“Hoss, don’t!” Joe cried in alarm.
Immediately, Hoss skidded to a stop and dropped his arms. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he apologized. “I forgot.” Hoss looked into Joe’s eyes. “I’m sorry about everything,” he added. “I never meant for you to get hurt. Honest.”
“You big ox, I know that,” said Joe with a grin. “Actually, I thought it was a pretty good joke, your taking my horse. At least, I did for awhile.”
“Joe, I promise you, I ain’t never going to do anything like that again,” Hoss promised earnestly.
“Don’t say that, Hoss,” advised Joe. “It’s going to be pretty dull around here if you mean it.”
“Hoss is right,” Ben stated, as he walked toward Hoss and Joe. “This whole thing started because you two can’t resist playing tricks on each other. I think it’s time you both stopped.”
“Aw, Pa,” Joe started to say.
“Don’t ‘Aw Pa’ me,” Ben interrupted. “From now on, I want you two to behave yourselves.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” said Hoss. “I swear I ain’t never going to play any more tricks.”
Joe didn’t say anything. He just smiled, a gleam dancing in his eyes.
For the next few weeks, Hoss threw himself into the work around the ranch with renewed fervor. He had apologized to Hop Sing, and to the hands. The ranch hands watched him warily for awhile, but they finally decided the angry bear was gone, and the gentle giant was back. Hop Sing just smiled happily as he watched his meals disappear.
Joe was sitting in the rocker in front of the house as Hoss rode up. His back was improving, but he was still too stiff and sore to ride. He also insisted he was much too sore to do any chores. Ben had doubted that Joe couldn’t at least clean guns or repair tack, but he decided not to make an issue of it. At least, he wasn’t going to make an issue of it for another day or two.
As he watched Hoss halt his horse and dismount, Joe smiled. He was glad Hoss was back to his old self.
“How you feeling, little brother?” Hoss asked as he walked up to the house.
“I’m improving,” Joe answered. “Pa’s going to let me ride in the wagon to Virginia City tomorrow.”
“Hey, that’s great,” enthused Hoss. “That means you’ll get to see the Founders Day horse race. I hear Clint Smith thinks he’ll win this year.”
“Well, he’s only going to win because I’m not riding,” Joe grumbled. Suddenly, Joe’s mouth twitched. “You seen any of the handbills for Founders Day?” Joe asked casually.
“No, I’ve been too busy,” answered Hoss. “Why?”
“Oh, no reason,” said Joe. “I just wondered if you were going to enter the contest.”
“Contest?” Hoss asked. “What contest?”
“They’re giving a prize this year for the fellow who can untangle reins the fastest,” explained Joe.
“Untangles reins?” Hoss said with a puzzled look. “That’s kind of strange, ain’t it?”
“Oh, it’s one of those fun contests,” replied Joe. “You know, like chasing a greased pig.” Joe looked at Hoss with a serious expression. “They’re offering a $50 prize, though.”
“$50 prize!” Hoss said in amazement. “That’s a lot of money.”
“It sure is,” agreed Joe. “I was going to enter. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it, with my bad back and all.”
“That’s too bad,” sympathized Hoss.
“Hey, Hoss,” Joe said suddenly. “Why don’t you enter?”
“Me?” replied Hoss in surprise. “No, I couldn’t do that.”
“Why not?” asked Joe.
“With these big ol’ hands?” Hoss answered, pushing his hands out. “I’d just fumble around.”
“Hmmm,” mused Joe, nodding thoughtfully. “Tell you what. There’s some tangled reins in the tack room. I was going to use them to practice on. Why don’t you try them instead. You could see how long it takes to untangle them, and then decide if you want to enter.”
Immediately, Hoss’ face brightened. “Hey, that’s a good idea, Joe, You don’t mind? I mean, you was going to practice on them.”
“Hoss, you’re my brother,” Joe said earnestly. “I’m happy to let you have them.”
“Gee, thanks, Joe,” replied Hoss gratefully. “I really appreciate it.
“Any time, Hoss,” said Joe with a wave of his hand. “Any time.”
Turning his back to Joe, Hoss walked toward the tack room. Joe waited until his brother was out of sight, then burst into laughter.
Strolling out of the house, Adam looked curiously at Joe, who was still giggling and laughing. “What’s so funny?” asked Adam.
Joe just shook his head and laughed.
A bit baffled by Joe’s behavior, Adam shrugged his shoulders. He nodded toward Hoss’ horse. “Where’s Hoss?” he asked.
Still laughing, Joe looked up at his oldest brother. “He’s in the tack room, working on those tangled reins,” Joe answered with a chuckle.
“I thought Pa told you to do that,” Adam said with a frown.
“Well, Hoss wanted to do it,” Joe replied. “He wanted to practice.”
“Practice?” Adam asked. “What for?”
“For the ‘Untangle the Reins’ contest in Virginia City tomorrow,” answered Joe. He began laughing again.
“For the what?” Adam said with a puzzled expression. Suddenly his face cleared as he understood. “Joe, you’re incorrigible,” Adam commented with a laugh.
“Yeah, I guess I am,” agreed Joe with a giggle. “But you have to admit it’s funny.”
“You’d better not let Pa find out what you did,” Adam advised, grinning. “He still doesn’t think playing tricks on each other is so funny.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell Hoss,” promised Joe. “But not till he’s finished untangling those reins.” He chuckled again.
“You know, one of these times Hoss is just going to haul off and bash you,” Adam warned.
“Maybe,” agreed Joe. “But it’ll be worth it. I’ll die laughing.”
Suddenly, Adam sobered. “That’s not so funny, Joe,” he said. “That’s what almost happened in the canyon.”
Joe grew somber also. “I know, Adam,” he agreed. “But we can’t just sit around here and be polite to each other all the time. For one thing, that’s boring. And we wouldn’t be who we really are.”
Adam thought for a minute, then nodded. “I guess you’re right,” he said with a sigh.
“Sure I’m right,” stated Joe. “Just think how things would be around here if we didn’t laugh with each other. It’s things like that snipe hunt that make life fun.”
“We could use a little less fun sometimes,” Adam remarked sternly.
“No, Adam,” disagreed Joe. “The tricks and jokes, well, they’re just a way of showing how much we care for each other. We wouldn’t bother with them if we didn’t.”
“I hope Hoss knows that,” Adam said wryly.
“He does,” Joe assured him. He pulled himself stiffly out of the chair. “I guess I’ll go help Hoss practice,” he added. Joe giggled again.
As Adam watched Joe walk stiffly across the yard toward the tack room, he thought about what his youngest brother had said. Maybe Joe is right, he admitted. Laughter is important. If you don’t laugh, you don’t really live. You just exist.
With a smile slowly spreading across his face, Adam started walking toward the tack room also. He decided he needed a good laugh.
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