Fire in the Sky




Jenny Guttridge



Hoss Cartwright pulled his powerful, black Morgan horse to a halt at the top of the rise and sat for a while to let the animal blow. Hoss hadn’t been pushing him hard, but the huge horse was shaking and sweating; his hide was wet and white patches of whipped-up foam lay on his neck where the straps of his harness rubbed. It was a very hot day, just like yesterday and the day before that. The sun blazed down with remorseless fury out of a brazen sky, and the land sweltered under its glare. Hoss was aware of the pitiless blast-furnace heat that scorched his back even through the stoutly woven cloth of his shirt.


The last three summers had been exceptionally hot, long and dry, and this was the hottest and driest of all. No rain had fallen in western Nevada in more than three months. The land was parched and barren; fertile soil had turned into dust. Even the swift-flowing streams that watered the Ponderosa had become shallow and slow. It was the animals that suffered the most: the wildlife and the cattle. For the third year in a row the grazing in the high, dry pastures was poor, and the beeves, which should now have been fattening, were bony and thin. Their mournful bellows carries clearly on the afternoon air. 


Hoss mopped his neck with a big blue bandanna and took a measured sip of water from his canteen. He had been in the saddle since daybreak, and he was as hot and as tired as his horse. Everyday followed the same, remorseless pattern – out of bed as the first light of the morning tinted the skyline with silver and a snatched bite of breakfast to keep body and soul together, then on to a horse in a vain attempt to get some useful work done before the cruel sun climbed into the sky and the temperature started to soar. Most of the range-work consisted of shifting thirsty, obstinate cattle from one patch of parched, withered grazing and driving them on to the next. This particular bunch of a hundred or more brown and white steers had taken all morning and a great big chunk of the afternoon to gather and drift down to a lower range where the grass was a little less desiccated and a small amount of water still ran in the bed of a stream. Hoss felt small satisfaction. Tomorrow he would have to start all over again, searching the hills and the hanging valleys for strays. It had to be done; left to their own devices, the cattle would soon start to die.


But for today, as every day, he had done what he could. It was time to turn the horse’s head towards home and his own thoughts in the direction of a well-deserved supper. Hoss was a big man, tall and broad and built like the side of a mountain; he enjoyed eating, and he needed his food. The bread and cold pie that he’d had for his lunch had barely filled up a corner. With luck, he thought, Hop Sing, the cook, would have food on the table by the time he got home: beefsteak, perhaps, with greens and potatoes followed by pancakes with sweet, golden honey and copious amounts of coffee to wash it all down. With that thought in mind and a grin on his homely, broad-featured face he gathered his reins and clucked with his tongue to the horse.


They had travelled barely a mile, following a dry and stony path into a country that should have been lusher and greener but was, instead, much the same, sere brown as the drought afflicted upper pastures when the black horse shied. The animal threw up his head and refused to go forward. Hoss, an expert horseman who know the beast well, sat tight in the saddle and calmed him with a firm hand on the bridle and a comforting word; “Easy now, boy. What is it, eh?”


The horse snorted and rolled a white-rimmed eye. He danced a little jig in the dirt, finicky and precious. His prancing hooves stirred up the dust. Hoss turned his head slowly and looked all around him, suspicious and alert. He trusted the horse’s keener senses far more than his own. The landscape around him was still and quiet in the afternoon heat. It was no longer bright as the sun settled westwards but dull and sullen under the deepening bronze of the sky.


Hoss rode the horse forward with hands and heels, his eyes and ears straining in every direction. The prickling of the skin on his back had a more sinister cause than the running of sweat beneath his shirt. He screwed up his face and sniffed. Did he smell smoke? Just the faintest whiff on the thin, dry air that at these high altitudes made a man’s lungs ache? He wasn’t sure but it was, sure as heck, something that he had to investigate. Fire was the ultimate terror. One stray spark on these tinder-dry ranges would erupt into a flood of flame: a conflagration that would consume the grasslands and the forests alike, leave nothing alive behind it and not stop, in this arid season, until it ran out of fuel at the edge of the desert. Once it had passed there would be little left of the beautiful and productive Ponderosa ranch but char and soot and drifting smoke. It was a disaster that Hoss Cartwright simply couldn’t allow.


Hoss rode down to the river, following his instinct and the familiar roll of the land. His nose led him right down to the water’s edge. Way out in the middle of the channel the current ran swift and deep, drained from the still-melting snows high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Closer to the bank, the land shelved, the water was slow, stained and sluggish. The exposed, fine-grained muds had set rock-hard and cracked into six-sided slabs. The ashes of a small fire – doubtless the source of the smoke that Hoss smelled – smouldered on the bank.


Hoss stepped down from the saddle and, holding his horse on a long, loose rein, hunkered down by the blackened patch and put out a hand. Dirt had been kicked over the cinders, but carelessly, and not nearly enough of it to put the fire properly out; they still held a trace of heat when Hoss touched them. His face creased into a scowl. Normally an easy-going and mild mannered man this blatant negligence and disregard for life and the landscape made him mad.


He kicked the embers around and mixed them so thoroughly with the dirt that they were all but indistinguishable and no longer a threat. Hoss thought there had been three or four men at the fireside. The tracks were confused and several hours old already. He was nonetheless minded to go after them if only to give vent to his feelings. Then his stomach rumbled angrily to remind him that the hour grew late and that he was still many miles from the rambling, split-pine ranch house that was the core and the heart of the ranch. He stroked the horse on the slightly domed front of his face. “I know, fella. You’re hungry too.”


The horse snuffled noisy agreement. Hoss took another long look in the direction the tracks led away. There was really no point in following them. With a sigh and a grim expression he climbed onto the horse’s broad back and turned his head towards home.


The sky had turned to a deep, bruised glow by the time Hoss rode into the yard in the front of the house. Even with the sun safely hidden away behind the peaks of the mountains the day was still roasting hot. Hoss put up his horse in the airless, hay scented barn. He brushed the sweat and the dirt from the ebony hide, made a straw bed and served out a generous measure of corn. He yawned and stretched and windmilled his arms as he made his way to the house. He was sweaty and tired himself and stiff from the long day’s work in the saddle. It would be good to get supper inside him and then to take a long and leisurely bath before bed.


“Evenin’, Hoss.” The voice belonged to old Charlie. Charlie was totally toothless now, and so thin on top that the mottled skin of his scalp shone through the last iron-grey strands of his hair. He was still the best cattleman on the western side of the Rocky Mountain divide. He had worked for the Cartwrights for longer than any one of them cared to recall and called them all by their given names as a matter of course.


Hoss turned to greet him with a lop-sided grin; “Howdy, Charlie. How’s it goin’?”


Charlie was burned nut-brown by a lifetime spent in the sun, wizened by un-reckoned years of exposure to the scorching winds that blew in from the desert and the icy blizzards that blasted down off the mountains whenever the winters turned cold. Not a tall man to begin with, he was bent and broken by the hard life of a cowhand, bow-legged and half lame. The top of his head came just to Hoss’s shoulder. Nevertheless, the old man’s wits were keen, and his eyes were sharp and alert. He turned his head to the side and spat out a steam of dark-brown tobacco juice. He delivered his standard, laconic response; “It’s goin’. We shifted the young stock onto fresh grazin’ this mornin’, just like you said. There should be enough grass there to hold ‘em fer a week or more. Then I guess we’ll have ta think o’ somethin’ else.”


Hoss was sorry he’d asked. Every week that passed without rain made it harder to find pasture for the cattle to eat. He pushed his tall hat to the back of his head and planted both fists firmly on the points of his hips. He took a slow look around him. The angular house and the barns were stark in the deepening twilight. The dust that had been raised by the heat gave off a glow. He sniffed at the air. It was warm and smelled peppery. It might have made a lesser man sneeze. “I don’t like it, Charlie. I’ve never known it be so hot for so long.”


“It’ sure is hotter ‘n hell.” Charlie nodded agreement. “I don’t like it neither. One thing’s fer sure, there’s gonna be one heck of a storm when it ends.”


Gloomily, Hoss conceded the point. When it came to calling the shots on the weather, Charlie was rarely wrong. “The critters sure are sufferin’,” he said.


Charlie sucked at his gums and pulled at a tattered earlobe. “I gotta tell ya, Hoss, the men ain’t happy neither.”


It was the tone of his voice as much as what he said that made Hoss prick up his ears. “You got trouble with the hands?” He eyes the older man narrowly. “What’s their beef?”


“I guess it ain’t nothin’ in per-ticular, but you know how it is when it’s hot an’ bothersome. Some o’ the younger hands ‘re rubbin’ each other raw.”


Hoss knew. His pale eyes narrowed. He’d known Charlie for most of his life – long enough to know that the old top-hand was not going to come running with tales of minor bunkhouse squabbles. He had something more to say and something else on his mind. “What you tryin’ ta tell me, Charlie?”


Charlie shifted his wad of tobacco; his faded gaze fixed somewhere off in the distance. “Seems like some o’ the men rode inta town last night. I know they shouldn’t, it bein’ mid-week an’ all. I figured it wouldn’t hurt none fer them ta let off some steam. They got their-selves inta a fight in the saloon – with some o’ that Nathan Kincaid’s men.”


“Kincaid’s men?” Hoss thought hard. Kincaid was a recent arrival in Virginia City and a man of increasing power and influence. He’d bought his way into most of the local businesses and went out of his way to cause difficulties for the Cartwrights at every turn of the trail. Charlie was right; there probably was more to this trouble in town than a simple saloon brawl. “What do you think’s at the back of it?”


“Danged if I know.” Charlie tugged at the ragged ear again. It was an old injury that bothered him. “Some o’ the hands said as Kincaid’s men were tauntin’ ‘em, like they wanted ta start a fight. I got a gut feeling there’s mischief afoot.”


Hoss had much the same sensation crawling around in the pit of his belly. “Some damn fools were settin’ a fire today, down by the river where it crosses the east forty. Could have bin drifters just passin’ through an’ stopped ta brew up some coffee.” Even as he said it he didn’t believe it.


Charlie chewed harder with iron-hard gums. “Just plain devilment, I call it.” He knew, as Hoss did, that a fire, once started, would be impossible to stop. “Anyway, thanks to last night’s fracas we got five good men sittin’ in Roy Coffee’s jail, and each man-jack of ‘em’s got a five dollar fine sittin’ on his head.”


Hoss heaved a sigh. “I don’t suppose any one o’ them has two cents ta rub together.”


“That’s about the length of it – an’ if we get trouble – from Kincaid or any place else – we’re gonna need every hand we got.”


Hoss nodded bleakly. “I’ll ride inta town in the morning an’ talk ta Roy. I’ll bring the boys home with me.”


Charlie straightened up from his slouch – an indication that he had said about everything that he had to say. “Thought you should know,” he said and started away. Then he turned back; “Reckon that brindle-backed mare yore Pa’s so sold on is gonna drop her young-un tonight. Think you ought ta take a look at her.”


“I’ll be sure an’ do that.” Hoss watched the old cowhand saunter away with his lame-footed, lop-sided gait, headed for the cookhouse and supper. One thing was sure, Charlie was worried, and that meant that there was something to worry about. Hoss was still frowning when he went into the house.


Within, the familiar, well-ordered room was dim with the onset of evening but not one whit cooler. The heat had seeped in to every last corner and hid there, waiting to pounce. It was quiet. Only the slow tick of the clock and the distant rattle of pans in the kitchen broke the blanketing silence. Hoss shed his hat and his gunbelt close by the door.


The single place set at the table reminded him again that he was the only member of the family at home. His father, away on a stock-buying trip, had prolonged his absence to visit a very sick friend while Joe, the youngest member of the clan, was practising his brokering skills in far San Francisco. No doubt he was courting the ladies and cooling his heels in the ocean, Hoss thought with a smile. As for big-brother Adam, the good Lord alone knew where he was right now. The last of his sporadic letters had come from some place called Egypt. Pa had showed him where it was on the map, but Hoss didn’t really understand where it was or why any man should want to go to a place that was all desert and rocks. They had desert and rocks right here in Nevada.


Hoss felt very alone. Big as he was – and Hoss was a very big man – the responsibilities of running the ranch on his own rested heavily on his shoulders. He let out a yell, a loud halloo, and Hop Sing came scurrying out of the kitchen.


Hop Sing, cook, housekeeper and general factotum was an old family retainer in the truest sense of the word. He had worked for the Cartwrights almost as long as Charlie. His face was red with the heat from the stove and split by a beaming grin. “I glad you not late. You come home late, all supper ruined.” Of all the Cartwrights, Hoss was the one who could most be relied upon to turn up in time for a meal, and to do that meal justice.


Hoss grinned right back at him. At the thought of the food, the weight of his duty lifted. “I sure wouldn’t want ta ruin none o’ your cookin’, Hop Sing.” The smile on Hop Sing’s face became even wider.


Hoss settled into his father’s place at the head of the table with his back to the unshuttered window, its vista of forest clad hillsides, the passive, reflective surface of a the small, local lake and the distant mountain peaks slowly fading away into the darkness of night. Above the table, the suspended brass lantern was already lit and cast a golden glow onto the cloth. Hop Sing bustled happily back and forth between table and kitchen with warm plates and dishes. Hoss found himself presented, not with the beefsteak he had expected, but with slices of succulent pork cooked to perfection in just the way that he liked it: done all the way through but still soft and running with juices, fried corn fritters and heaps of soft mashed potatoes. The whole piled-up plateful was drenched with a rich brown gravy and it smelled absolutely divine. Hoss picked up his knife and fork and set to with a will.


While Hoss ate and satisfied the inner man, Hop Sing padded about on soft-slippered feet and plied him with bread and butter and cups of coffee and chattered cheerfully. The conversation – partly in his native Chinese dialect and partly in the broken English that he’d only learned as an adult – was almost entirely one-sided. Hoss contributed grunts and mumbles through mouthfuls of food. It was true that he listened with only half of an ear. His thoughts were on the still-thirsty cattle, the abandoned, poorly extinguished fire and the errand that he had to run in the morning to pay off the fines and rescue the errant cowhands from Roy Coffee’s jailhouse before they melted away.


Something Hop Sing had said two or three sentences back belatedly captured his attention. He swallowed the last of his second helping of pork. “Hop Sing, what d’you just say?”


Hop Sing blinked at him, his mind backtracking rapidly. “Hop Sing say vegetables in garden all dried up; need rain real bad.”


“No. Afore that. You said somethin’ about a storm comin’.”


“Storm come soon: two day, three day. Maybe tomorrow. Big storm. Hop Sing see. Much crashing, much flashing. Fire light up all sky.”


Hoss gazed at him thoughtfully, fork poised in the air. “Ol’ Charlie said much the same sort o’ thing not a half hour ago. Charlie reckoned it was gonna rain some.”


“It rain.” Hop Sing nodded agreement as he gathered up dishes. “It rain later, after crashing and banging and fire in the sky.” Nodding to himself in agreement and clutching the crockery close to his breast he headed back to his private domain.


It was a whole hour later when Hoss emerged from the house. He stood in the pale light of the lamp that hung in the porch and looked out at the newly dark night while he allowed his supper to settle. He had been right about the pancakes. Hop Sing had made a whole stack of them: thin and crispy pan-fried circles of batter still warm from the oven and running with sticky sweetness. Hoss had eaten rather more than he ought, and the belt that held up his pants was uncomfortably tight ‘round his belly. He was no longer hungry but his bath and his bed would have to wait for a while. His day was no yet over; he still has a housecall to make.


Hoss set out for the horse barn, walking downhill. To his right, the bunkhouse was all lit up like a beacon with lamplight shining from every window and the wide-open door. Most of the hands were out on the stoop, talking, repairing their gear, cleaning harness or braiding fine leather strips to make new – simply relaxing and taking the air. It was still early; their bunks in the stifling bunkhouse held no allure. They wished him a cordial goodnight as he passed.


The horse barn was the newest structure on the Ponderosa, built to a design that Adam had completed before he went away. Built of sturdy pine boards it stood long and low and wide. It had some fancy sort of roof on it that somehow leaned against itself and took its own weight off the walls. Hoss didn’t pretend to understand how it worked but he had to admit it was a mighty fine building. The doors stood partly open to let in some air.


Hoss struck a match and lit the lantern that hung by the door. The light went before him into the barn. There were a dozen horses housed in spacious stalls on either side of a central walkway, and room for several more. There were ten mares that had been brought in from the pasture, all heavily pregnant and due to drop their foals in the next week or two, and two fillies who had not yet been introduced to the almost pure-bred quarter horse stallion which was Joe Cartwright’s pride and joy. The pale light from the lantern touched briefly on the shifting bulk of the animal’s bodies, gleamed on their well-polished hides and reflected, here and there, from a docile and inquisitive eye.


The brindled mare that Hoss’s father had taken a fancy to and purchased from a passing trader was housed at the back. Hoss lifted the lamp high to get a good look at her and made soft smooching noises with his mouth.


The light shone on densely muscled shoulders and haunches. The mare was a big, handsome animal with a well-shaped head and intelligent eyes. In colour, her coat was a curiously speckled mixture of grey, black and brown, quite pale on the back and the quarters with dark, slash-like markings, becoming darker over the shoulders. The sturdy, strong legs were black.


She knew Hoss well: the smell of him and the sound of his voice. She came and nuzzled him with her velvet-soft nose. “There then, Beth,” Hoss said soothingly, for Bethany was the mare’s given name. “You tell ol’ Hoss all about it, huh?”


The mare snuffled loudly by way of response and then moved away restlessly. Her labour was already well advanced. The speckled hide was sweat-stained and the mare restive. She circled around inside the stall. Her swollen sides heaved and gleamed in the lamplight; the milklines on her belly were already plain to see.


Hoss hung the lantern high on the wall, angling it with care so that the light fell directly into the stall without any danger of the mare knocking into it. He ducked past the barrier, all the time talking in a low, calming voice. His words were senseless and soft but held a whole wealth of meaning; they conveyed his love and respect for all things alive. He ran his huge, gentle hands over the mare’s bulging sides. Long years of experience told him that the birth was about to happen.


The brindled mare wouldn’t lie down. She continued to circle for another half an hour. Then she staggered a little behind, half squatted, and delivered a black, slime covered bundle onto the straw. The foal was cloaked in a bloody caulk. The mare turned at once, knowing her duty, and pushed at it with her nose. With words of praise and affection, Hoss leaned down to help free the foal’s head. He was a game little fellow: a fine, strong colt, very dark in colour like all his sire’s get, with no trace of white in his coat. Within an hour he was up on his long, spindly legs and sucking lustily on the first, rich milk from his dam.


Hoss left them alone to become acquainted. Tired but immensely satisfied, he made his way back up the hill. It was midnight.  The dust haze had cleared, and the black night was scattered with bright, silver stars. Hoss lifted his face to heaven and offered a prayer for the safe delivery of a brand-new life.


The bunkhouse was now all in darkness; the men were asleep in their bunks. But the light on the porch of the big house still burned, and Hop Sing, long gone on soft, silent feet to his bed, had left a lamp lighted in the great room of the house, turned down very low. The night was cooler than the preceding day but by only a little. The house was still airless and hot. Hoss opened his bedroom window in the hope of some breath of air. It was too late, now, for his bath. For once forgoing his nightshirt, he climbed, stark naked, between the sheets.


He awoke with a jolt that lifted him halfway out of his bed. His dream, his first of the night and vivid and clear, fled to the furthest dark recess of his mind in an instant and hid its face from his sight. Hoss was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction, a foul taste in his mouth and a persistent clanging inside his head. He guessed he had slept for the best part of an hour. His eyes were still gritty with the need for slumber, and the sheets were damp with his sweat.


He shook his head in an effort to clear it, blinked his eyes hard and focussed on the pale square of the window. The clanging noise came from outside. Someone was ringing the cookhouse bell – the one that called the men to their meals. It was a general alarm. Hoss leapt for the window. The whole ranch was astir; men emerged bleary eyed from the bunkhouse in various states of undress. Down by the horse barn, a fiery glow lit the sky. Hoss fumbled his way back into his pants and stamped his feet into his boots. He grabbed up his shirt and ran with it clenched in his hand.


The front yard was full of confusion. Half-awake, half-clad men ran and shouted. Everyone headed down to the barn. Predictably, the cry was of “Fire!” For one fleeting moment, Hoss had a doubt: had the lantern been safely extinguished? Had he been careful with the match that he’d struck? He knew that he had.


The barn wasn’t burning – not yet – but the smaller feed store built alongside was well ablaze. The flames reached out hungrily and licked at the walls of the larger structure; it wouldn’t be long before that too, was afire. The doors still stood open, and, inside, the horses shifted uneasily and neighed with alarm at the sharp smell of the smoke.


Hoss found Charlie and grabbed at his arm. For once, the ancient ranch foreman was without his wad of tobacco, and his toothless mouth was shrunken against his gums. In the dancing light of the fire his head took the appearance of a skull, long dead and covered with parchment-like skin. “Charlie, we gotta get them critters out o’ there!”


Charlie paused a half of one second to look at his boss. The fact that Hoss was a Cartwright didn’t matter one jot; he was one more man: a pair of hands to haul water, shift timber, lead animals out of harms way. “We’ll get them out if we can,” Charlie said shortly, then he was gone, shouting orders and directing the firefight.


Hoss chewed on his lip and turned to the barn; his aim was to save some of the mares if he could. Three men were hanging well back, moving away from the others. Hoss shouted angrily, waved his arms and commanded them to return. He couldn’t make out their faces, only their forms silhouetted against the burning wall of the building. One was plainly a big man with broad, squared-off shoulders and a prominent belly. The others were smaller and slighter. Hoss didn’t know them. A frown clouded his face. He looked around for Charlie to ask who they were, but Charlie had moved on. When Hoss turned back, the three men were gone. He didn’t have time to go after them. While Charlie organised men into chains to pass bucket of water and wet down the smoking wood, Hoss grabbed the men that were sent in his direction and led them into the barn.


There was no light inside but neither was it dark. The wall of the barn was on fire, and the flow of the flames seeped in through the timbers. Hoss smelled the burning and felt the heat of the fire. The mares were terrified and justifiably so. The fear of fire is a primordial terror, and they all felt the need to run from the flames.


The hot air was filled with wood-smoke and smuts. It burned the men’s throats and stung their eyes. It was torture to the horse’s sensitive nostrils.


Hoss directed the men, and, one by one, they led the horses to safety. Each was turned over to other willing hands, and the men came back in for another. Hoss fought his way through the smoke filled dark to the stall at the back of the barn. The big brindled mare was twisting and turning. Hoss was afraid that the foal might be trampled under her hooves. He reached for the lead rope that hung on the wall. “Easy, girl. Easy!” He tried to keep his voice low despite the ominous crack and crackle of burning timbers. “Ol’ Hoss is gonna get you out o’ here.”


The mare rolled her eyes and threw up her head as he struggled to get the rope attached the head stall that she already wore. By now he could barely see, and the thick smoke threatened to choke him. He felt it penetrate deep into his chest. The horse threw up her head and retreated further into the stall, confounding his efforts. Hoss swore at her softly under his breath. “Goldarn you, Beth. Why d’you have ta be so darn honery?”


There was a splitting of timbers behind him. Hoss turned around. With a roar, the wall of the barn exploded inwards. Fire leapt across rafters, and straw burst into flame. The abrupt blast of heat hit Hoss full in the face. He threw up his hands in an instinctive gesture and stumbled backwards into the mare.


The next thing that he was aware of was being down on his hands and his knees on the floor of the stall with the mare’s sturdy legs stomping all around him. He knew that he had to get back on his feet before she stove in his head with her hooves. He used the rope that now trailed from the ring beneath the horse’s chin to pull himself up. Now it was dark. The smoke was dense and black, and the fire was a fierce orange glow. Hoss had got turned around and didn’t know which way to go. Coughing and spluttering, he put up his hands to fend off the heat from his face.


“Hoss? Where you at?” The shape of a small, crooked man loomed out of the gloom. Charlie didn’t waste time on admonitions of idle chatter. “You got that horse on a lead?”


Although it pained him, Hoss managed a grin. “Sure have, Charlie.”


Charlie took the lead rope in a brown leather hand. “I’ll take the mare; you bring the young ‘un.”


The brindled mare balked in the face of the flames. Charlie wrapped her head in a length of old sacking. With one hand on her neck and a soothing word in her laid-back ear, he led her out of the burning barn. Hoss picked the colt up in his massive arms and followed after.


Outside in the night, the air was cooler and very much cleaner. Still coughing, Hoss found a place to sit down. The worst of the crisis was over. The pregnant horses, the new mother and foal were all led away to safely. The surrounding buildings had been well damped down and the fire prevented from spreading. The barn, now empty of livestock, was left to burn to the ground.


Hop Sing, who had helped pass the buckets with the rest of the men, now busied himself handing out coffee and providing medical care. Several of the hands had cuts, abrasions and burns from fighting the fire. Flinching, Hoss submitted as the Chinaman smeared butter on both his burned hands and on the long shiny sear on the side of his face.


Hoss described the men he had seen, and old Charlie shook his head. “Sure don’t sound like none o’ ours. You thinkin’ this here fire was set deliberate?”


Hoss gazed at him grimly; “I sure am thinkin’. Just as soon as it’s daylight, I want ta take a real good look at that feed-store.”


“I reckon,” said Charlie, “we was just plain lucky the house didn’t burn.”


In the harsh light of the morning the remains of the feed-store, like those of the barn, were a stark ruin of burned out timbers and ash, still smouldering and glowing here and there red. Charlie had posted men to watch for any stray spark that might re-ignite. Bleak faced, Hoss poked at the mess with a stick. There was a strong smell of coal oil, and he found the stub of a match and a footprint plain in the dust. Despite the pain of his injuries, he was determined to ride into town.   


Virginia City sweltered under a burnished brown sky. A foetid miasma – the combined stenches of men, horses and cattle mixed with the smoke of the fires that burned day and night to power the stamping mills that crushed the ore and the massive Carlisle pumps that kept the water out of the mines – lay low over the town. A boomtown built on the back of the silver lode it was a city that never slept. The saloons were always open, the stores always busy, the streets filled with horses, wagons and mules. Hoss rode along ‘C’ street to the sheriff’s office on the high side of town.


Roy Coffee had been the local representative of law and order since Virginia City had been no more than a twinkle in a prospector’s eye. A big man, tall and broad with a stoop to his shoulders and a casual walk that deceived many a wrongdoer’s eye, he had thinning grey hair and a face made of well-weathered leather. Hoss found him installed, reluctantly, behind the huge, battered desk that graced the front room of the jailhouse. His spectacles were perched on the end of his nose, and he was half concealed by a small mountain of paperwork. A friend of the Cartwrights for a very long time, he welcomed Hoss with a cheery word and the offer of a cup of coffee.


“Don’t mind if I do,” Hoss responded. “You look kinda busy.”


“Ha! Danged form fillin’!” Roy was already up on his feet and pouring, his pencil and spectacles discarded among the litter on the desk. As always, the pot-bellied stove was belching out heat and keeping the coffeepot boiling. Hoss took off his hat. He was already sweating, but Roy didn’t notice the heat. “Iffen I don’t get up outa that chair from time ta time, I’m liable ta become a permanent fixture. I s’pose you’ve come ta bail out them cowhands o’ yours.”


“I come ta get ‘em, Roy.” Hoss said heavily.


“Well, that’ll be five dollars a head fer the fine an’ twenty five dollars ta pay fer the damages ta the saloon.”


“Twenty five dollars?” Hoss was both surprised and cross. “What they do? Break every goldarned chair in the place?”


Roy chuckled; “Very near, I reckon. That’s just a half of it. I sent Nathan Kincaid the rest o’ the bill, seein’ as his men were fightin’ as well.” Roy turned with the coffee and held out a cup. “Say, what you do ta your face?”


Hoss told him in a few short sentences about the fire at the ranch, including his suspicions about how it got started. He couldn’t keep the anger out of his voice. Roy heard him out without interruption, sitting with one hip hitched up on the edge of the desk. Then he looked him over with a shrewd and appraising eye. “You sure you know what you’re sayin’ there, Hoss? It’s awful hot an’ dry out there. One stray spark can set off a fire. We’ve had several right here in town. Sure is a good thing there ain’t no wind or we o’ lost the whole kit an’ caboodle.”


“I know what I smelled an’ I know what I saw,” Hoss said sourly. “You reckon I don’t know the stink o’ kerosene when I smell it? ‘Sides, I found this bit of a match.” He produced the offending fragment from his vest pocket and waved it under Roy’s nose. “An’ I found a boot print that weren’t never made by no cowboy. Looked more like one o’ them iron soled minin’ boots.”


Roy puffed out his cheeks. “That ain’t a whole lot ta go on. I reckon you’re jumpin’ ta conclusions.”


“Nathan Kincaid employs a whole lot o’ miners.” Hoss pressed his point belligerently.


“That’s as may be, an’ I’ll bear in mind what you said. But I can’t arrest every man wearin’ minin’ boots. I’ll keep my ear ta the ground an’ find out what’s bein’ said. Men who’ve pulled off that kind o’ stunt ain’t gonna keep it ta themselves for too long – not when they’ve had a few beers.”


Hoss flushed and grunted reluctant agreement. He figured Roy was right, but he didn’t have to be happy about it.


“In the meantime,” Roy said, “I reckon you should go across the street an’ let Doc Martin put somethin’ on them burns other than Hop Sing’s best butter. I’ll walk along with you.” He drained his cup and set it down on a stack of the unfinished paperwork. Roy hated the clerical side of his business and any excuse to escape from the pencil-pushing was quite good enough. “There is a little matter of fifty dollars iffen you want those men o’ yours out o’ the hoosegow.” Hoss sighed and reached for his wallet.


It was almost as hot outside in the street as it was in Roy’s office. The sunlight was not of the bright, pleasant kind that cast inky shadows beneath pretty sunbonnets and glanced off the rippling water of the fishing hole. It was dull and sullen, and it dragged the sweat right out of the skin.


Dodging the relentless and potentially deadly flow of the traffic, they crossed over ‘C’ street together and encountered Paul Martin as he was unlocking his door. Doc Martin was a small, dapper man who always wore a neat, dark-grey suit and a perpetually worried frown. He had tired grey eyes that had seen every aspect of birth and death and every malady that could come to man in between. He looked with a professional interest at the rags that adorned Hoss’s hands and at the scorch on his cheek and temple. Always well mannered, he nodded a cordial greeting.


“Good morning, Roy, Hoss. Nasty burn you’ve got there. Think I should look at it?”


“Roy reckons you ought ta,” Hoss said reluctantly with a sidelong glance at the sheriff. If the truth were known, he’d rather leave it alone.


“I reckon Roy’s right.” Paul opened the door and went in. The doctor’s office – as neat as a pin – was at least cool. The windows were shaded, and a breath of air drifted in from somewhere unseen. “Make yourselves comfortable, gents,” Paul invited. He shed his coat and his hat and poured water from a pitcher to rinse off his hands. Hoss took a chair, and Roy installed himself on the edge of a table.


Having unwound Hop Sing’s makeshift dressings, Paul examined Hoss’s hands and took a closer look at his face. “How did you come by scorches like these?”


Once again Hoss told the story of the barn and the fire, and how he’d just had to save the brindle-backed mare and her new born colt, and how Charlie had rescued all three of them.


“Some sort of accident?” Paul suggested.


Hoss all but scoffed. “It weren’t no accident. That fire was set deliberate – an’ I got me a danged good idea who done it, too.” He threw a belligerent look at Roy Coffee, a look that rolled off the tough, leathery hide.


“Now, Hoss,” Roy reproved in a gentle drawl, “You can’t throw accusations around ‘til you got more proof than you got ta back you up.”


“How much more proof do I need?” Hoss grunted gruffly. To his straightforward mind, the case was open and shut.


Paul looked from the one to the other. “Well, however that fire got started, I’d say you were a lucky man to get away with just a little singed hide,” he said in his usual mild manner. Hoss huffed and hawed but forbore to press his point any further. He watched with a dubious expression as Paul removed silver steel instruments from a polished-wood chest and set about breaking the huge blister that adorned the side of his thumb.


Paul leaned well forward and concentrated hard. “I rode out yesterday to check on Jake Bambery’s broken leg,” he mused as he worked. Both Hoss and Roy knew the Bambery farm: it lay out to the east on the lower ground. “His place sure is dry,” Paul went on. “Seemed to me it was apt to take fire any moment.”


Roy nodded sagely, and Hoss had to concede it was true. “That’s what I bin tellin’ him,” Roy said mildly. “He just don’t listen.”


Hoss’s wide jaw took on a stubborn set. He knew what he’d seen, and he knew what he’d smelled, and half the men on the Ponderosa payroll could back him up.


Roy sucked at his wide lower lip. “I reckon it’ll end in an almighty storm afore long.”


“That’s what Charlie an’ Hop Sing bin sayin’.” Hoss winced as Paul dressed his singed fingers with a bright yellow ointment and wound them up in clean bandages, then put a smear of the grease on his face.


“I wouldn’t second-guess Hop Sing or old Charlie when it comes to calling the weather,” Paul said, and to that, there was general agreement.


With Hoss’s treatment complete, Paul gladly accepted the offer of lunch, and Roy decided to join them. The three men ate together in a corner café before going their separate ways. Paul went off to make house calls, and Roy, a toothpick secure in his teeth, returned to the jailhouse to fill in the dreaded, but necessary forms that were needed before he could free Hoss’s men. Hoss headed for the Silver Dollar – his favourite saloon – to take comfort in a long, cooling beer while he waited for the cowhands to join him.


He wasn’t the only one to have that idea. The saloon was filled with thirsty men hell-bent on wetting their whistles. The barroom was loud with their boisterous voices, and it smelled of beer and sweat and the dry, dusty heat that drifted in from the street. Hoss ordered his beer and assumed a comfortable lean against the bar, one foot on the polished brass rail and his hat pushed back on his head.


Conversation and laughter ebbed and flowed all around him, and, gradually, Hoss’s feeling of fullness and satisfaction – engendered by a delicious meal and convivial talk with his friends – faded away. He became aware of pointed remarks, spoken loud and aimed in his direction. Several men at a table behind him found him a lumbering joke. He heard the tone of their voices and a few words deliberately dropped in for his benefit. Hoss sipped his beer and tried to ignore the sensation of eyes burning into his back. It wasn’t easy, and he felt a hot flush creeping up the back of his neck. Whatever the goad, with his hands bandaged up there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about it.


With a lift of his eyebrow and the look in his pale-blue eyes, Hoss summoned back the tall barman; “Max, who are them fellas behind me?”


Max looked past him after the fashion of barmen, without really seeming to look. “Those are Kincaid’s men, Hoss.”


Hoss has expected as much. With his glass in his white-mittened hands, he turned around to take a long and leisurely look for himself. A big man sat at the table with several smaller companions. Hoss knew him at once, not by his name or his face, but he knew the shape and the size of him, the wide, squared off shoulders and the belly that bulged over his belt.


The big man met Hoss’s mild mannered gaze with an amused, dark look of his own. The smile on his loose-lipped mouth widened; “What’s the matter, Cartwright? You got somethin’ on your mind?”


Hoss scowled into his beer, then lifted his eyes to confront the man squarely; “I was just wonderin’ where you got them singed eyebrows.”


The other man’s hand flew up to his face. His brow-ridges were scorched; the hair there was burned to short, blackened bristles. The smile returned swiftly; “You wanna make somethin’ of it?”


Hoss considered one bandaged hand and flexed it, making a fist. He wondered how much it would cost him in pain to beat the other man senseless and whether or not it was worth it. “Maybe I do,” he said thoughtfully.


“An’ I reckon maybe you don’t,” Roy Coffee said from the door.


Everyone’s eyes switched swiftly in his direction. It was Hoss who spoke first. “Roy, I figure this is the fella that burned down our barn.”


“Hoss, I told ya, you can’t go sayin’ things like that these days unless you got rock-solid proof.”


“I reckon I got it. You just gotta look at his face.” Hoss pointed a rag wrapped finger.


Roy walked over and looked. “How’d you burn yourself, Mister?”


The big man’s eyes glittered. “Guess I sat a little close to the cook-fire, sheriff.” His gaze switched to Hoss. “I don’t reckon as he c’n prove otherwise.” One of his companions giggled: a high, nervous sound.


Hoss bristled angrily, feeling his back-hackles rise. Roy stepped between them. “Hoss, I figure it’s time you got yourself outa here iffen you want ta get them men home afore nightfall.” Roy tilted his head towards the door. He wasn’t prepared to brook argument. Hoss hesitated. He had half a mind to stay and make more of the matter. Then he caught Roy’s stern eye. With a final glare at his adversary, he put his glass down on the bar and stamped past them into the street. From behind, as the doors swung shut behind him, he heard the big man’s laughter and Roy’s angry voice.


The sky contained all the colours of an angry, bruised eye: blue, purple and gold as the small group of horsemen rode home to the ranch. Conversation was sparse. Hoss didn’t feel much like talking. Old Charlie’s words kept circling around in his mind. “We was lucky the house didn’t burn.” Hoss was sure that he had the right man in his sights and that Nathan Kincaid was the shadowy figure behind the fire that had cost him the barn and had almost cost him his life. What he couldn’t do was prove it to Roy’s satisfaction.


The five men who rode with him didn’t exchange many words. They were contrite and apologetic for their behaviour and didn’t want to rile their boss any further. Or, perhaps, they were simply glad to be out of the sweltering jail and enjoying the sweet taste of freedom. It was very quiet; the world held its breath. Cloud streamed off the high mountain peaks, but down at ground level there was no wind at all.


Hoss took them all home, then reminded them that their wages would be docked by the amount of the fine and turned them over to Charlie. Far away to the west, thunder began to rumble. With a final long look at the lowering sky, Hoss went wearily into the house.


The storm that had threatened all day broke with a vengeance at about eight o’clock. Thunder rolled in the purple-dark and lightening flashed inside the clouds and made their colours glow from the sky. There as no rain, not then, not to begin with, and the air remained hot and sultry.


At last the pain from the burn on Hoss’s face had lessened enough to allow him to sleep. After his supper, he dozed in the armchair beside the empty fireplace. The thunder, muted by the thick wooden walls, peopled his dreams with the fire-breathing dragons of childhood storybooks.


He awoke with a start some two hours later, cramped and uncomfortable and somewhat cold. It was very dark; the lamps were unlit. The lightening flickered eerily beyond the unshuttered windows and sent silver shadows skittering over the floor. The small hairs prickled on the back of his neck. Something was badly amiss, and Hoss went outside to find out what it was.


The storm was closer; it was passing directly overhead. A wind had arisen. It blew in the tops of the trees, swaying them slightly and sighing like something alive. No breath of air stirred on the ground. The ranch was settling down for the night. The last, sleepy cowhands made their way to the bunkhouse; horses drowsed in the corral. Lightening still danced in the heavens, brightening the sky with cold fire. Hoss was uneasy in his mind. Still disturbed by his dreams and the jolt of his rude awakening, he shoved his hands into his front pants pockets and decided to take a last look around.


Some sixth sense made him turn along the side of the house. Someone was moving there in the shadows. Hoss heard voices that he didn’t know. Figures were bending over a pile of old rags and a small round bottle. He smelled the sharp smell of kerosene. With a yell that turned into a bellow, Hoss leapt forward. Three men scattered like rats where bright light is spilled. They were the three that had been in the saloon: the same three who had been backlit by the burning barn only the night before.


The big man hung back, flicked a match and fire brightened. He half turned and looked over his shoulder. The hungry flames lit the smile on his face. Now Hoss saw him clearly. He had the proof that Roy needed. He could go to the witness stand and cry the man down.


The three men ran for their horses, crossing the open space between the house and the barn. Thunder roared right over their heads, and the lightening flared in the clouds. A finger of divine retribution, sheathed in fire, lanced down from the sky. The big man was struck full in the back. His heavy, iron-shod boots were well connected with the earth. He jerked and leapt into the air, but he never uttered a sound. He threw his arms wide and fell flat on his face on the ground. The other men staggered, stunned by the blast, then ran all the harder. They didn’t look back but jumped on their horses and galloped away.


For the second night running, the cookhouse bell rang out an alarm. Men spilled into the yard. With a wave of the arm, Charlie ordered some of them after the fleeing fire-raisers. Hoss doubted they’d catch them. They were running so hard, the devil himself would be left far behind.


The work they had done was hasty and ill carried out. The fire burned too far from the house, and the wooden wall didn’t catch easily. Hoss pulled off his vest and beat at the flames until the last spark was out.


Charlie brought several men over to help. They stomped on the ashes and wetted the scorched timbers with water. “You all right, Hoss?” Charlie inquired.


Hoss gave his great head a shake, throwing off his feelings of dread and of horror. “I’m just fine, Charlie. Never better.”


They walked to where the dead man lay. His clothes were still smoking, and a stench of charred meat drifted up from the corpse. Charlie pushed at it with the toe of his boot, half rolling it over. “That’s one who won’t start any more fires.”


“I figure you’re right about that.” Hoss gazed grimly into the ravaged countenance. The wide-open eyes stared into the fire-filled sky.


Something cold hit Hoss on the top of the head. He lifted his face. “Reckon we’d better get in out o’ the rain.”


The thunder crashed in noisy agreement. Leaving the body right where it lay, the men headed for shelter as the raindrops started to fall.


Potter’s Bar 2002.