Spirits of the Dead
For the third time in something less than an hour, Adam Cartwright climbed down from his horse to study the marks in the ground. For many, the shallow scrapes and faint indentations would simply have led to confusion; the tracks of cattle and horses went in all different directions. To a man of Adam’s skill and experience they were an open book: as easy to read as a nursery school primer. It didn’t take long to discover what he needed to know.
A powerfully built, broad shouldered man in sweat-stiffened, dusty black clothes and a two-day growth of dark beard, he had a handsome, finely chiselled profile under the grime and a pair of tawny-gold eyes. He straightened up from his crouch and looked directly at his two brothers.
“They’re still headed much in the same direction: north and west.”
If Adam was tall, well built and perfectly proportioned, Hoss Cartwright was constructed on a larger scale entirely. He was taller, wider and further around the middle. He still sat in the saddle of his black, Morgan horse, leaning forward on his saddle horn to take, for a moment at least, some of the weight off the bones of his butt. His ice-blue eyes narrowed with speculation as he gazed up at the mountains, still many miles away but towering over them none the less. “Them fellas must know we’re hot on their tails, Adam. Why ain’t they tryin’ ta cover up their tracks?”
Adam turned his head and looked in the same direction. His very white, slightly uneven teeth showed briefly against his sun-darkened skin as he screwed his face into a squint. “Who knows how a man like Darrel Jessop thinks? Besides, it’s kind o’ hard to cover up the tracks of fifty, sixty head of beef.”
Hoss’s expression remained perplexed. “What for would Jessop want ta drive that bunch o’ critters up into these hills? There ain’t no folks up here ta speak of – just a few half breed families scratching a livin' up in the woods, an’ some prospectors still hangin’ about the old mine workin’s. I don’t see no point in it.”
“I don’t see it myself,” Adam confessed. “But that’s the way he going.”
“What are we doing
chasin’ after Jessop’s bunch anyway, Adam?” Joe, man-sized but smaller and
slighter than either of his brothers, was the youngest of the Cartwright clan,
the most impatient and the most impetuous, “All they stole from us was a bunch
o’ steers an’ old barren cows. Pa was aimin’ ta give them away anyhow, as
eatin’ beef to the poor folks o’
Adam turned his amber eyes on his brother and his face became bleak. “The thing is that Jessop stole those cattle – whether he stole them from us or from someone else doesn’t matter. If he gets away with it, he’ll do it again, and other men will be more than prepared to follow his example. He has to go back and stand trial for what he’s done.”
Hoss harrumphed, sounding much like his father, and carefully lowered his backside into his saddle, wincing at the fresh onslaught of pain. “I shore see what you’re sayin’, Adam, but we chased Jessop clean across three counties an’ up inta these hills. We’ve put a scare inta him that he ain’t gonna fergit in a hurry. He ain’t ever likely ta come back ta the Ponderosa ag’in.”
It was on the tip of Adam’s tongue to retort that if it wasn’t their stock that was rustled it was bound to be someone else’s, when Joe piped up eagerly. The youngest Cartwright had sensed an ally. “If we turn back now an’ ride real hard, we c’n still be home by the end o’ the week.”
Adam’s gaze switched from one brother’s face to the other. There was Joe with his dusty-brown curls – overlong, as usual – poking out from under his flat-brimmed hat and his green-flecked, hazel eyes shining with eagerness out of his still-youthful face. It was the most enthusiasm he had seen from Joe since the outset of this expedition. Then there was Hoss, solid and reliable. The big man’s bluff, rounded features still wore a puzzled expression. While sometimes considered a little slow, Hoss was by no mean’s stupid; Adam knew that he sometimes took a while to think things through. He was also often influenced by Joe. Quicker and lighter on his mental feet, Adam figured he knew what conclusion the big man would reach. He was about to find himself in a minority of one.
He wasn’t about to hold a vote on the matter. He was the eldest, and he was the one in charge. He picked up the trailing reins of his white-faced sorrel gelding and lifted himself back into the saddle. He lowered himself with care – Hoss wasn’t the only one who suffered. “I know you two want to be back in time for the dance on Saturday night,” he said patiently. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to make it, and I’m sorry about that, but we have to get our business with Jessop finished first or we’re going to find ourselves the target of every cattle thief this side of the Rocky Mountains.” He kept his eyes fixed on the distant mountains, well aware of the long and meaningful looks that his brothers exchanged behind his back.
He heard Hoss heave a mighty sigh. “Okay, Adam, you lead the way.” The reluctance was plain in his bigger, younger brother’s voice, and he knew that the pair of them were not very far from open rebellion. If they didn’t catch up with Jessop and his boys and that bunch of stolen steers within the next twenty-four hours, this eldest Cartwright son was as likely as not to find himself with a sibling mutiny on his hands.
And now there was another problem coming to plague him. The clouds of a late spring storm were boiling up on the sides of the mountains. Adam couldn’t be sure, but they looked as if they were coming in his direction. Heavy rain or a snowstorm would slow him down, soak him, his brothers and their horses right through to the skin and wash out all signs of the men and the cattle they were following. If that happened, he might as well let his brothers have their way, give up and go home.
Hoss had also seen the gathering storm clouds, and he knew the implications just as well as Adam. “You know these hills a whole lot better ‘n I do; reckon you better start thinkin’ o’ somewhere ta run for cover afore that soaker hits us.”
Adam thought about it. For sure, things were turning against him. He reined his horse around, reluctantly turning away from Jessop’s trail. “I know a place where we can hole up until the storm blows over, but it’ll be almost dark before we get there.”
“An’ then what are we going to do? With the trail all washed out, we’ll never find Jessop in these hills.” Joe, with his usual mental dexterity and his occasional lack of tact, had put his finger right on the point of the problem.
All of a sudden, Adam felt very tired. “I know that Joe. I don’t see any help for it. If we can’t pick up the trail in the morning, then we’ll have to decide what to do.” Without waiting for the almost inevitable argument, he kicked his horse into as fast a pace as the land would safely allow and headed for the higher ground. Hoss knew his big brother’s mood and followed behind without any further dissension. The big man respected his elder brother and trusted his judgement. Joe trailed at the back. Adam knew that his youngest brother had his heart still set on the Saturday dance – the first shindig of the season – and was calculating how hard he could push his pinto pony to get him home in time.
The landscape, up here in the hills, was wild and very beautiful. There were high alpine meadows already fresh with spring grass, dotted with dark clumps of live oak and single sentinel trees and cut through by with tumbling cascades of water and swift-flowing, crystal clear streams. The meadows were interspersed with dense, hushed woodlands of sycamore and larch, beech, maple and lime with black-leafed holly, fir and pine in the higher reaches and willow and poplar at the water’s edge. Blue-green forests carpeted the foothills, made hazy by distance. Rank on rank, each hill was higher and further away, greyer and more indistinct as the mist and the storm clouds gathered. The harsh, rocky peaks were still covered with the winter’s snowfall; feathery plumes flew from the crests. Shining bright in the afternoon sunshine, the mountains stood, unapproachable and proud, against the hazy blue backdrop of the sky. It was easy to see why the most ancient Indian tribes considered the distant high places the abode of their gods.
It was rough country for men on horseback: a vast, trackless land. What trails they discovered were no more than vagrant deer paths, alarmingly steep and meandering back and forth with no clear sense of direction. The horses had to pick their way over broken and stony ground. Although it was years since he had ridden these hills – on a hunting trip with his father – Adam had a good idea of where he was going and set a fast pace. His brothers strung out behind him.
The elder Cartwright son kept one anxious eye on the approaching storm front, working out times and distances inside his head as he rode. As the afternoon progressed into evening and the sky turned to tarnished gold, he watched as each range of hills was absorbed and swallowed, in turn, by the lowering cloud base. They were in a race against time. They needed to reach the place of shelter that he had in mind before the storm broke over them.
For an endless hour, the world held its breath. Adam drove the horses as fast as he dared. In the last, fading light of the afternoon, he discovered the path he remembered at the place where it mounted the shoulder of a rounded hill and plunged down the other side. As he pulled up his horse for a well-earned blow and to wait for his brothers to come alongside, the first of the storm hit him full in the face. Despite the sunshine, it had grown colder. Now, a chill wind blew down from the flanks of the mountains carrying with it a mixture of rain and soft, half-melted snow.
Hoss pulled the black Morgan to a heaving standstill beside him. The massive horse was sweating in spite of the bitter rain. Adam gestured to the narrow, rocky pathway; “This is where we have to go careful,” he shouted above the rising moan of the wind. “This trail’s steep and loose underfoot.”
Hoss leaned out of the saddle and peered into the gathering gloom. He wasn’t certain that he liked what he saw. “Hey, Adam, are you sure that this is a real’ good idea?”
Adam gave him a baleful stare; “Unless you’ve got a better one.”
Hoss took a long look around at the open hillside, now half obscured by the driving, sleety rain. There wasn’t so much as a rock to give a man shelter. Adam didn’t wait for his brother’s reply. He touched his spurred heels lightly to the reluctant, red gelding’s flanks and started him down the pathway.
The trail angled sharply downwards into a hidden, hanging valley. It was a sheltered spot all right, secret, isolated and long forgotten, half choked with timber and brush at this upper end. As the horsemen dropped over the edge, one by one, the wind became hushed, although the icy rain continued to fall on their backs. It trickled down their collars in spite of their hats, got inside their coats to soak through their shirts and drenched the legs of their pants.
As Adam had warned, the trail became treacherous. It was narrow, just wide enough for one horse to pass at a time, and it clung to the valley’s steep side; it was littered with loose soil and stones and now it was slick with slippery mud. It would be all too easy for the sorrel to lose his footing and fall. Adam sat lightly and very still, leaning way back in the saddle as he tried to balance the horse.
Joe and Hoss were holding a conversation, shouting back and forth to make themselves heard above the wind. Riding in front, Adam only caught snatches of their talk; they appeared to be discussing food and planning the banquet they would have when they got back to the house. Adam felt a sharp jab of irritation. The younger men had butterfly minds, unable to settle for long on any one topic, always flitting away to something else. Their lack of concentration was a failing he had noticed before. Usually he viewed it with equanimity and some wry amusement; today, it was getting under his skin.
He let the horse pick its own way to the bottom, slithering the last few slippery feet. His brothers were some way behind him, and he sat and waited for them to catch up.
The younger Cartwrights had reached the dessert stage of their planning by the time they arrived at the bottom of the hill and were arguing cheerfully back and forth the relative merits of thick cut, dried apple slices deep fried in batter and dredged with powered sugar, and deep pan cherry pie with a thick, crunchy crust. Adam stifled a sigh of exasperation; there were times when he despaired of these two ever growing up.
Their chatter came to a halt as they came up alongside him and took their first good look around at the valley floor. By now, the light was fading fast, and the rain made the looking difficult, but still there were things to be seen. The land had been much modified by the hand of man. At some point in the past the earth had been excavated and thrown up into uneven mounds, now much slumped back into the landscape and overgrown with bushes and grass. Even in the midst of the storm they maintained a brooding air of timelessness. The trunks and branches of the trees, still leafless, were twisted and dark; they glistened wetly, and the wind had fallen away to a whisper.
Joe’s head turned in a full circle on the stalk of his neck. His eyes came to settle on Adam. “What is this place, big brother?” From the look on his face, Adam had the feeling that he’d already half guessed the answer.
Adam shifted himself in the saddle. He avoided looking Joe straight in the eye. His face was very wet from the rain, and his expression somewhat uneasy. “I guess you could call it a cemetery, Joe: a place where people buried their dead a long time ago.” Some said it was an ancient Indian race who had raised these ancient mounds and dug the pits underneath them; some said they were something stranger. For the sake of his brother’s peace of mind, Adam decided not to elaborate.
Hoss screwed up his face in concern. “You mean there’s dead folks all around here?”
Adam gritted his teeth. “I suppose you could look at it that way, but this place hasn’t been used in more than a hundred years. They’re all rotted away” If he had designed that statement to make his brother’s feel any easier, he failed miserably
The blood had drained out of Joe Cartwright’s face. “I ain’t spendin’ the night with a whole lot of dead men!”
Now Adam did sigh, deep and hard. He was getting very tired of sitting there in the rain. “You’ve seen dead men before, Joe: lots of them. They’re not going to do you any harm.”
“That isn’t the point!” Joe’s voice had risen half an octave. “You should have told us where you were bringing us – given us a choice!” Joe would rather have spent the night out in the open in the wind and the rain than in a gloomy, half forgotten burial ground. He looked to Hoss for support and found that, this time, he was all on his own.
Hoss was wet, cold and bedraggled, and after all that talk about food, his belly was starting to rumble. It was a long time since lunch, and that had been a hard-tack biscuit and a strip of dried beef, eaten while still in the saddle. His face was set in a scowl. “I ain’t gonna sit here an’ listen ta you two argue it back an’ forth. I’m gonna find me somewhere ta git out o’ this all-fired wet!” He nudged the Morgan hard in the ribs and rode on up the valley, finding his way in the almost-dark. Adam fell in behind him willingly enough, and Joe, reluctantly, brought up the rear.
Hoss found a spot in a stand of dogwoods so dense and tangled inside that it was almost dry. Adam gathered up an armful of kindling and some larger sticks of wood and struck a fire with a dry match out of his pack. The timber hissed and fizzled a bit, but eventually he got a good blaze going. While Joe and Hoss tended to the horses, he prepared supper.
A natural ability and years of practice had turned him into a creditable trail cook, but there is only so much a man can do with bacon and beans. Along with his brother’s enthusiasm and Adam’s own temper, their supplies were running low. It was one more reason to think about turning back.
Joe unsaddled the pinto and rubbed his wet hide with handfuls of dry, crumbling leaves, wiping off the residue with a scrap of old cloth from his saddlebag. Joe was very much out of sorts. His mood, not good at the start of the day, had taken a turn for the worse. He didn’t want to be in this godforsaken place, and he was mad at Adam for bringing him! He hated this dark, gloomy valley. The silent mounds and the skeletal trees bothered his soul in a fundamental way that he couldn’t explain. The age of the place lay like a weight on his back. The gusts of fine rain that drifted in through the trees were the breaths of dead men, cold on his neck. He hadn’t wanted to come of this trip in the first place. His father, preaching responsibility, had insisted. Joe was angry at being shanghaied by his brother, sulky and, if he could be forced to admit it, distinctly uncomfortable. He kept looking over his shoulder.
Hoss observed him with an air of puzzled amusement. In the end, he couldn’t resist a remark; “What’s eatin’ at you, Joe?”
Joe cast a quick glance in Adam’s direction. ‘Big brother’ was well out of earshot, engrossed in tending his fire and his cookery. Joe leaned over the bow of the pinto’s back. “What for did Adam want to bring us to a place like this – with dead men all around?”
“Heck, Joe,” Hoss chuckled, “We told you, there ain’t no dead men here no more: just a few old moulderin’ bones.”
Joe’s face showed only too clearly what he thought about that. Hoss was prepared to poke a little fun at his brother. “Joe, you ain’t afraid o’ no spooks, are you?”
“Heck no!” Joe scoffed at once at the very idea. Then he sobered abruptly. Once he had heard ghostly music and thought he had seen… But that had only been a bump on the head. “Not much, anyway.”
Hoss hooted and slapped him hard on the shoulder. “There ain’t nothin’ ta be afraid of, little brother. Spooks ain’t never hurt anyone. No one that’s come back ta tell about it, anyhow.”
Joe staggered beneath the friendly force of the blow. Hoss turned back to tending his big Morgan horse. Joe finished with the pinto. He muttered sulkily, just loud enough for his brother to hear, “Adam done it on purpose. If we’d headed the other way, we would have been on out way home by now. He just done this out o’ spite so that I can’t go to that dance in town.” Joe paused and thought for a moment about what he’d be missing: the music and laughter, the girls in their pretty bright dresses, a stolen kiss or two. With luck, there’d be three or four lovely ladies to choose from. He heaved a sigh.
Hoss cocked an eyebrow in his direction. “I know fer a fact that ain’t so.”
“How can you know?” Joe remained churlish and sullen.
Hoss moved closer to start working on Adam’s horse. He lowered his voice; “Well, if you listen here, Joe, I’ll tell you a secret.”
Joe pulled a wry face. “What secret?”
Now it was Hoss’s turn to look guiltily in Adam’s direction. “I know that Adam wanted ta go ta that shindig in town just as much as you do.”
Joe thought about it a while. Adam sure liked to squire the ladies – to the theatre, a concert or a sedate summer picnic. He was quite a man about town. When it came to parties, he tended to spend much of his time at the punch bowl. Joe’s curiosity got the better of him. “How’d you figure that out?”
Hoss looked almighty pleased with himself. “Well, I’ll tell you.” He dropped his voice still more so that it was no more than a whisper muffled by the horse’s flank. “You know that li’l Millie Fisher what’s new in town?”
“Sure, I seen her.” Joe’s face lit up at the thought. He’d tipped his hat to Millie Fisher once of twice, and she’d smiled back. She was small with reddish hair and green eyes in a pretty face with a scatter of pale freckles spread over her nose. “Her Pa just bought out old Abe Water’s general store.”
“That’s the gal.” Hoss nodded sagely. “Well, that Millie Fisher’s bin twinklin’ her eyes at our brother Adam. I reckon he thought his luck might be in.” He favoured Joe with a hearty wink.
“Adam an’ Millie Fisher?” Joe’s voice rose to a squeak.
“Hush up!” Hoss sneaked another peek ‘round the sorrel’s muscular rump. “He told me so his own self. Asked me ta cover for him at breakfast iffen he wasn’t back by mornin’”
Joe forgot his resentment and did his best to stifle a giggle. The thought of Adam and Millie Fisher was – well – absurd! She was bright and lively and full of fun. She was young! While Adam could turn a pretty step on the dance floor and sing a pleasant song, he was so much older and positively bookish. No wonder he’d seemed kind of smug the last time they’d been in town.
Adam called them to supper. “Now you hush up, Joe,” Hoss hissed. “Don’t let on that I told ya. No one’s supposed ta know.”
Joe could imagine why. He had been known to tease his brother unmercifully on previous occasions when he was courting a girl, and sometimes vice-versa. Joe did his best to wipe the grin off his face.
The bacon was crisply fried and full of salty flavour. The beans – well, there’s not a whole lot you can do with beans except burn them, and Adam had been careful not to do that. The three Cartwright men, still damp in their clothes, sat close to the fire to eat, steaming gently. Their faces glowed in the firelight. They were all hungry, and, for a while, they ate in silence.
Beyond their small enclave of relative calm, the wind groaned and sighed in the trees. The clouds scudded by at a high rate of speed. Now and again a heavier burst of raindrops rattled against twisted, bare-barked branches. A little of it found its way to the ground underneath as a fine, cold spray: just enough wet to make the three men uncomfortable. Adam fed more sticks to the fire and watched the sparks catch. It wasn’t only the theft of the cattle that made him so angry; it was the thought of a man like Jessop getting the better of him. Adam didn’t like to think ill of any man, but there was no way that he and his brothers could catch up with their stolen cows now, and it looked like the foul-breathed, wall-eyed old buzzard was going to get away with it. It was enough to make a man spit!
Despite his perchant for music and books, Adam was a hard and practical man. The elements had conspired against him, and he knew when he was beaten. What he was least looking forward to was going home and confessing to his father that he had failed. He heaved a great sigh and looked from one brother’s face to the other. “Jessop must be twenty miles ahead of us by now. With their tracks washed out by this storm, we’ll never pick up their trail. We might as well head for home in the morning.”
Joe’s face split into a grin for the first time that day, and even Hoss cracked a smile. “Now you’re talkin’, big brother!” In his mind, the big man could see his imagined meal turning into delicious reality. It made the last of the cooling beans taste a whole lot better.
Even Joe felt more amiable towards his brother. He figured, if they rode straight down out of these hills and drove the horses hard, they might just have the time for a bath and a fresh change of clothes and a couple of beers in Virginia City before the dance on Saturday night – they would soon see who the ladies preferred! Then his face fell as he remembered that he still had to spend the night in this valley with its shadows and unquiet spirits.
Adam stretched his arms and his upper body and yawned. It felt so good to get off the horse for a while, and after a long day in the saddle, he was almighty tired. Now he had made the decision that had dogged his steps since morning, he was much more relaxed. He caught Joe’s anxious eye. “What is it, little brother?”
Joe shifted uncomfortably and gritted his teeth. He was more than a little reluctant to admit to what bothered him. He knew that his brothers would laugh at him all over again. “Adam, don’t you reckon one of us should sit watch tonight?”
As expected, Hoss guffawed and Adam smiled, although not unkindly. “What are you expecting, Joe? Someone to tap you on the shoulder?”
Joe shivered at the thought of it. “I just figured…”
“You don’t still believe that talk about ghosts, do you? I thought you’d grown out of all that.”
“Ghosts? Heck, no!” Joe swallowed down his nervousness and plastered a cocky grin to the front of his face. “I just don’t want Jessop an’ his boys ta come sneakin’ up an’ get the drop on us, that’s all.”
Hoss and Adam had spread out their blankets and were preparing to lie down and sleep. “I don’t think you need worry about that,” Adam assured him, easing himself out straight. “Jessop’s a long way from here.”
Still chuckling at Joe’s obvious discomfort, Hoss said, “C’mon Joe. There ain’t no one gonna bother us t’night. Pick out a dry spot an’ settle down fer some shut eye.”
Joe pulled a sour face. “Now you sound just like Pa!”
That made both brothers laugh. They had pulled off their boots and now wrapped themselves in their bedding. Adam tossed and turned for a bit, getting himself settled around the lumps and bumps in the ground, but it wasn’t long before his breathing slowed and steadied and he became still. Hoss started to snore. Still feeling uneasy and just a little resentful at the way his brothers were able to relax, Joe sat on his bedroll and watched while they slept. The night closed in around them.
He listened to the low moan of the wind and gazed at the dripping trees. The unsteady firelight gave them movement and an uncanny appearance of life. He suppressed a shudder. He threw some more wood on the fire to drive back the shadows and drew his long gun closer to hand. He guessed he just had the jitters. One thing was certain, he wasn’t about to let him imagination run away with him and turn him into an utter fool.
He felt so tired. His eyes were full of grit. Perhaps if he laid down for a bit… Just so long as he didn’t go to sleep… The thought of the smile on his big brother’s face made him even more determined.
A whole lot closer than Adam imagined, Darrel Jessop lifted his eyes towards heaven and watched the clouds scudding by. Blue eyes, they were. One was as bright as the sky on a summer’s morning; the other had a milky-white hue. The sleety rain fell in his upturned face. Jessop open his mouth in a smile that revealed the long, green fangs of his teeth, and the rain ran inside.
“Don’t know what you’re
danged well grinnin’ at Jessop.” Huddled in his colourless blanket, Billy ‘Rat
Face’ Bryant sat over a forlornly small fire. “When we stole them cows, you
di’n’t say nothin’ ‘bout us sittin’ half-way up a mountain in the snow an’ the
rain. By now, we should o’ sold off them steers as eatin’ beef ta farmers an’
miners, just like you said. We should be half-way ta
Jessop scowled at him. Billy Bryant was very well named. His face was pale and pointed and very thin, his eyes small and beady; his long black hair was plastered wetly against his cheekbones. “You’ll get your money.” Jessop crouched down and reached for the coffee pot, draining the last of the thick, black brew into a battered tin cup. “How was I ta know ol’ Ben Cartwright would sick them three boys o’ his on us – or that they’d stay glued ta our trail?”
Bryant rolled his black eyes at the nearby fringe of the mounds. “I don’t like it here with all these dead Injuns around.” The cold rain dripped from his long, narrow nose, and he wiped at it with his sleeve.
Laughing harshly, Jessop sneered; “You thinkin’ them Injuns might jist come clawing up out o’ the ground at ya?”
Bryant pouted. “I just don’t like it. An’ then steers don’t like it neither. Jist listen ta them bawlin’.”
Jessop chewed on his lip. His walleye shone in the dark. “I reckon this rain’ll let up in an hour.” The small herd of sixty odd steers was tucked up tight into the mouth of the valley. They were milling about and bawling their fool heads off. They didn’t like the cold rain on their backs. Jessop felt a glow of contentment; from his point of view, the rain was a blessing. The storm had washed away every trace of the cattle’s tracks. He swallowed his coffee. “All we have to do is sit tight and wait until them Cartwright boys git tired o’ chasin’ their tails all over these hills an’ go on home ta their Papa.”
“Don’t like runnin’ foul o’ the Cartwrights,” Bryant muttered darkly. He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “’N I don’t like messin’ wi’ no Injun graves, neither.”
Jessop fixed him with his bright blue eye. “You don’t have ta worry none about the Cartwrights. Reckon they’re a long way from here. Now iffen you ain’t got nothing to do but jaw, why don’t you go help Miller wi’ them steers?”
Sniffing, Billy Bryant climbed into wet leather and rode away towards the herd. Jessop watched him go with a smile on his ugly face. He held out his hands to the small warmth of the fire. Jessop was nothing if not a gambling man, and it seemed, this time, that lady luck was looking in his direction.
A drop of cold water fell into Joe Cartwright’s face. There is nothing better designed by the hand of the Almighty to wake a man up, and it had its intended effect. Joe swam up from the deep-blue depths of his dreams and burst with a splutter onto the surface of awareness. Another fat drop fell from the branch and landed squarely on the top of his head – just to forestall any tendency he might have had to drop back to sleep. Joe sat up with a curse and shook the droplets of wet out of his hair.
Both of his brothers were sleeping. Adam was huddled up in his blanket, his face obscured by its folds; Hoss was flat on his back and snoring loudly. It was the only sound that Joe heard. The storm had moved on, drifting out over the hills towards the eastern desert. The wind had dropped away into silence and rain had stopped entirely; as the night became warmer the valley had filled up with mist.
Joe felt a strong call of nature. Often, when he woke up in the middle of the night, there was an ache low down in his belly, and his bladder demanded attention. He built up the fire, piling dry wood onto the glowing embers, then stomped off into the trees to find an inviting spot. Neither brother stirred in his slumber.
As they were only staying one night, they hadn’t bothered to dig a latrine. Joe found an inviting tree trunk and did what he had to, taking his time. He didn’t need to keep his mind on what he was doing. Instead, he let his thoughts wander. He planned what he would wear to the annual spring ball and which of the girls he would dance with. Heck, he might even offer his arm to Millie Fisher! He and Adam had a sort of unofficial understanding: they didn’t poach one another’s girl – but Joe didn’t see the harm in offering the lady a choice. A dimple played in his chin and his grin became impish. He could envision the fury on his big brother’s face. Much more comfortable and a good deal more content, Joe buttoned his fly and hitched up the belt of his pants.
The fog had thickened while he’d been engaged. Wraith like, it drifted in among the trees, first obscuring, then revealing trunks and low hanging branches. Joe had lost sight of the campfire. He wasn’t concerned. He had an excellent sense of direction, and he started back the way he had come.
Somehow though, he got turned around. The trees closed in all about him and opened up before; the ground became spongy underfoot. Joe slowed to a stop. He guessed he had missed the path and walked right by the camp in the dark and the fog. He turned to his left and walked some more. The trees became sparser. That wasn’t right. They’d stopped for the night in a dense thicket. Perhaps if he went back the other way. Joe turned around and tried it. He caught a whiff of wood smoke, faint and diffuse. A little more to the right, he decided.
A mound loomed out of the mist. This certainly wasn’t the way he remembered. Joe turned around in a circle. He hauled in a breath. He could guess what his brothers would say when they found out he’d got lost in the in the fog: the torment and the teasing that he’d have to go through. It would take him half of eternity to live the embarrassment down. But there was nothing else for it; he would have to fire a shot to wake them up and let them know he was in some sort of trouble. Before long, one of them would come and get him – laughing, no doubt. The very idea stuck like a bone in his craw.
He reached for his ivory handled pistol, only to find that he had left it behind at the campsite, together with his gunbelt and holster. Now really annoyed with himself, he supposed he’d have to do it the old fashioned way. He cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed as loud as he was able. “Adam! Hoss! Adam!” He turned around and tried it the other way. “Adam! Hoss!” His voice sounded small, and his shout fell flat, swallowed up by the damp, dark air. Joe filled up his lungs and tried again, longer and louder. The effect was much the same. He doubted his voice could be heard as more than a whimper a dozen yards away.
Joe wiped a hand over his mouth and looked in either direction. On one side were the trees, thinly spread and unfamiliar, not the dense woodland that he remembered; on the other side was the mound. He knew he hadn’t come that way. He turned to the trees and took several steps in that direction. Hopefully, he would soon locate the vague path that Hoss had followed and that would lead him back to the fire.
The trees thinned again and Joe found himself confronted by two more mounds, one with its end peeking out from behind the other. They loomed in the mist, dark with menace. Joe started to worry – just a bit. His heart began to beat faster. He stood quite still while the fog swirled about him and tried to think calmly. It was clear that he had come much too far towards the bottom end of the valley, perhaps half a mile. In his mind, he tried to retrace the twists and the turns he had taken. He couldn’t recall them all, but he thought he could figure the general direction that he ought to go in to bring him back to his brothers. It seemed to him that he should be on the higher ground. That way led him right by the mounds. Joe stopped feeling foolish and began to feel scared.
Joe didn’t want to go near the mounds. He didn’t want anything to do with the places where dead people lay even if they had been there a very long time and there probably wasn’t much left of them. He wasn’t exactly afraid of ghosts – after all, as Hoss had said, he’d never heard of one hurting anybody – but he didn’t much want to meet up with one. He wasn’t even certain that he believed they existed, although there had been that matter of the harpsichord that played all by itself and a glimpse of gold in a darkened cellar*. He didn’t want to find out for sure. On the other hand, he didn’t relish the idea of making a detour around the burial site; that would take him a long way out of his way and he didn’t want to become any more lost than he was now. He screwed up his face and sighed. There was no help for it. He set out again, this time – with reluctance – towards the mounds.
The ground was soft and uneven and covered in short, thorny scrub and a wiry selection of grasses, Walking across it in high-heeled riding boots was anything but a pleasure. And it was dark. Joe stumbled often. The mist was cold on his face. He passed by the first mound and approached the second without incident. He started to grow in confidence. Adam was right after all: of course there were no such things as ghosts. At least, not here – not now; how could he ever have thought it! Joe put a cocky grin on his face and put his best foot forward. It wouldn’t be long now before he was back by the fire, wrapped cosily up in his blanket.
Something groaned at him out of the dark. Joe stopped still in mid-stride. The breath froze in his throat and he listened. The silence extended. Joe’s nerves stretched tight. He took a careful step backwards.
The sound came again: a long, low moan, and something large moved in the mist. Joe stepped back again rapidly. His heel turned under him. He tripped over a big lump of earth and fell over backward. He sat down hard on his butt and the ground collapsed under him. The next thing he knew, he was falling.
The ancient tombs had once been much grander affairs, thrown up to honour the dead by a long vanished and forgotten people from a distant and foreign land. Neglect and the passage of time had taken their toll, but the builders had done their work well and, despite their outward appearance, some inner structure remained. Quite by accident Joe had discovered a weak spot. He yelped as the hole opened under him, and he dropped a very long way. He landed flat on his back on a pile of soft earth with all the breath driven out of him.
It was very, very dark, and the silence was that of the grave. It smelled of rich, wet earth and mouldering vegetation. There was no trace of death or decay. Joe sat up and checked himself over. He counted his fingers and toes. Everything worked and nothing was broken. He did feel a bit shaky and strange. Gradually, his eyes adjusted to the lower light level. He gazed about him, and all he could see was the dark. He lifted his head and looked upwards. He had fallen even further than he had thought. The opening he had slipped through was a long way above his head, a faint, pale patch. No light spilled in through the gap. He wondered if even Adam had realised that some of these mounds had spaces inside.
It soon became apparent that no man, either living or dead, was ever meant to climb out.
The harder Joe scrambled towards that opening, the more stones and loose soil fell down on his head. He slipped, and he slithered, and he kept sliding back to where he’d begun. In the end he tried shouting for help. The depths of the earth swallowed up the sound of his voice. He guessed he would just have to sit and wait for his brothers to come and find him and haul him out.
He put out his hands to investigate the space around him. More than a hole, it seemed to be some sort of chamber. Then he put his hand into something slimy and cold. He let out a yell. He didn’t want to know what it was. He didn’t explore any further.
He made himself a seat on the pile of loose stones and sat down to wait. He wasn’t in any immediate danger, but it was cold, dark and damp, and he didn’t much like it. His imagination began to run wild. He began to think about all the ghost stories he had heard of a child. Magical, mystical fables his French-born mother had told him of her one-time home in far away New Orleans, creepy bedtime tales of spectres and unquiet spirits he had heard from his brothers, designed to make a boy shiver with delicious fear, the more sinister stories of haunted mines and ghostly wagon trains crossing the prairies, told in saloons at the midnight hour by men who had drunk too much and didn’t dare drink any less. They were the stories to make a man shudder and fear to go out at night. Joe’s skin became clammy, and the little hairs rose on his neck.
It was then that the whispering began: a soft sigh of sound that came from somewhere behind him. Joe gritted his teeth and turned his head slowly as he tried to find the source of the sound. In the faint grey light that filtered down from the opening he could see nothing but vague, amorphous shapes that turned out to be rocks and odd clods of earth on closer examination. The whispering went on; Joe was sure it was people talking, there were times when he could hear individual voices; he could almost make out the words. One thing was for sure they were sounds not created by any earthly throat.
Joe shuddered and started to shake. Something chill and damp touched the side of his face: a dead man’s fingers for sure. Joe jumped around with a startled cry, but there was nobody there. Someone breathed an icy cold breath onto the back of his neck. Joe backed up to the crumbling earthen wall. The mist from the world above slid down through the opening and melted away into the warmer air below ground.
It seemed that he waited for a very long time; at least an hour ticked by into silence. Joe got very cold, and soon he was shivering. The damp soaked in through the seat of his pants, and the chill seeped into his bones. The little hairs stood up on the back of his neck. His legs first stiffened, and then they went numb. He wondered if he’d be able to dance on Saturday night – or, indeed, ever! Vigorously, he rubbed at the ache in his thighs.
As the night wore on, the dark became deeper and the silence, more intense. Joe began to wonder if it would ever come to an end. Would his brothers never wake up and discover that he was missing? Perhaps they had already awakened and searched for him in vain. It wouldn’t be easy to find one man in a hole in the ground in a fog filled valley. Perhaps they would give up in despair and make their way home to their father with a sad tale of their brother’s disappearance and loss. Then fancy turned into nightmare. Would his brothers bother to look for him at all? Was it his fate to die in some other man’s tomb and become a restless spirit haunting this hidden valley forever? He didn’t really believe it, but all of a sudden Joe Cartwright started to feel very sorry for himself.
The sound of a voice calling his name jerked him wide awake. He hadn’t realized he’d dozed. It was a voice he knew well and loved dearly, and it was very close at hand. Joe was very glad to hear it. He cried out as loud as he could, although his voice came out as a squeak. “Hoss! Hoss! I’m here!”
There was a long, pregnant pause while the night held its breath. Joe could imagine the look of bemusement on his brother’s bluff face as he tried to make out how he was calling him from somewhere under his feet. Joe shouted again, panic starting to grow in case the big man didn’t hear him. “Hoss! I’m here! Down in the ground!”
“Joe?” Hoss called back to him uncertainly. “You ‘round here someplace? I c’n hear you but I can’t see where you’re at.”
Joe couldn’t think of anything more welcome than the sound of his brother’s voice. “I’m down here in a hole in the ground!” There was another period of silence that went on for a while. At least the whispering had faded away; Joe was alone with the sound of his breathing and the rapid beat of his heart. Then the pale patch of light was obscured as his brother’s head appeared in the opening.
“What you doin’ down there?”
Joe couldn’t help grinning. You could always trust Hoss to ask a ridiculous question. “I’m pickin’ daisies, what d’you think?”
“Huh?” Hoss answered, predictably.
“I went for a walk in the fog and fell down this hole. Can you get me out of here?”
The head vanished again and he could hear Hoss huffing and puffing and moving about. More stones and earth fell down from the opening. Then, “I reckon I can, but I gotta tread real careful. The footin’ up here ain’t none too good. Iffen I fall down there with you we’ll both have ta wait until Adam comes along an’ hauls us out.”
For one stricken moment, Joe imagined the smirk on his big brothers face. “You be real’ careful up there!”
Hoss lay down on the ground and threaded his arm and his shoulder down through the hole. “Now, you stretch up, little brother, see if you can grab a-hold o’ my hand.”
Joe reached up as far as he could. He could barely touch Hoss’s fingers. “I’m gonna have ta jump for it, Hoss. You ready?”
Hoss hissed down at him, his voice loaded with desperate impatience; “I’m as ready as I’m ever gonna be, Joe. Get on with it, will ya? This ground’s givin’ way an’ I’m getting’ soaked!”
Joe knew just how he felt. “Ready or not!” he shouted, and leapt from a standing start. He grabbed Hoss’s massive forearm with both hands and felt powerful fingers close on his wrist in a bone-breaking grip. Hoss lifted him bodily, legs dangling and kicking, until he could get his arms and his ribcage over the edge of the hole. He would swear that, as he leapt for freedom, a bony hand clutched at his leg. Joe yelped and wrenched himself free, felt something tear and something jerk loose. He wriggled and squirmed until he got his knees on the ground, then crawled away crabwise just as fast as he could. He could hear the soil falling into the hole and didn’t want to go back down there with it.
Hoss had already beaten a hasty retreat, He waited at the foot of the mound so that he stood on safer, firmer ground and watched Joe’s antics with an expression of perplexed amusement. “You sure you’re alright?” he asked with a chuckle.
Joe supposed he must
look a picture. From head to foot he was thickly plastered in rich, brown mud
and a variety of other substances he tried not to identify. His brown curls
were caked in it, and there were small scrapes on his hands and his face that
were just oozing blood. The leg of his pants had been torn. Even without a mirror, he could tell that he
looked anything but the handsome, debonair young man that the attractive young
“Aw, when I left him he was still fast asleep. Di’n’t figure there was no point in wakin’ him up.”
Joe appreciated his brother’s thoughtfulness. He didn’t much relish the prospect of facing Adam’s scorn; his big brother’s tongue was clever and often caustic. Then he looked down at himself and realized that, short of finding a bathhouse and a Chinese laundry, he couldn’t avoid it. Adam couldn’t help but notice the state of his clothes.
With this grim realisation, a sound came at them out of the dark. It was the same deep groaning that had scared Joe before. His eyes became round. Hoss turned his head “Hey, what’s that?”
Joe listened. His breathing quickened in anticipation. The moan came again, a long, low wheeze of complaint. “It – it sounds like a ghost!”
Hoss put his big head on one side. Then he laughed; “That ain’t no ghost, Joe. That ain’t nothin’ but an’ ol’ cow coughin’!”
Both of them watched as, a moment later, a brown and white cow came lumbering out of the fog. She had a wide spread of horns and regarded the men with a deep, liquid eye. A broad smile split Hoss’s face. “See what I tol’ you?” The cow agreed with a long, low bellow.
She was an old animal with a battle-scarred hide, and she was looking for company. Hoss checked her over, and soon, he came to the brand on her hip. He ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Hey, Joe, you better come look at this.” The brand was ancient but it was still clear. It plainly depicted a stylised pine tree. Hoss’s face screwed into a scowl. “What’s one o’ our cows doing all the way up here in these hills? She must be one o’ that bunch what Jessop stole.”
Joe’s eyes twinkled. “Brother, I reckon the rest o’ them cows – and Jessop – can’t be far away.”
Hoss thought about it. “You could be right. Perhaps we’d better go an’ get Adam.”
“Nah! Old man like him, he needs his beauty sleep if he’s takin’ Millie Fisher ta the dance on Saturday. You an’ me c’n handle this.” Joe’s equilibrium was slowly returning. It occurred to him how impressed with his maturity and his abilities his father would be if he handled this bunch of rustlers all on his own – with just a touch of Hoss’s assistance. In the eye of his mind he could see himself returning home to acclaim and glory. My – he’d be a hero!
Still Hoss hung back.
“Joe, you ain’t wearin’ yore gun, an’ I left mine back in my bedroll. Jessop
an’ his boys ain’t likely ta give up easy, an’ if it comes ta a shootin’ match,
you an’ me are gonna get our fannies singed.”
Taken aback, Joe’s face fell. In his enthusiasm, he had forgotten about his pistol. Hoss continued, “I reckon we gotta go back fer the guns and wake up Adam.”
Joe saw his dreams of instant – if short lived – prestige dissolve into the mists in front of him. Adam was a fair-minded man and gave credit where it was due, but on this particular occasion, Joe wanted all the prestige for himself. It just wasn’t fair! Then another idea occurred and his face brightened. It was a way to salvage something out of despair. “We don’t have to go in shooting. We’re just gonna scout around a bit an’ see if we’ve gotten it right. Then we’ll go back and get the guns.”
“Well, alright.” Hoss wasn’t certain they were doing the right thing, but he was easily swayed by his brother’s beguiling smile. They began to backtrack the cow while, behind them, the mist flowed into the hole and filled up the tomb.
Despite the limp, slouch hat that he wore squarely on the top of his head, the thick fog condensed in Billy Bryant’s long, lank black hair and the resulting cold water ran in a persistent stream down his face. He used the already damp sleeve of his worn woollen coat to absorb the drip from the end of his nose. Billy couldn’t remember the last time he had been as truly uncomfortable as he was now. Not a great horseman, he had ridden further and harder in this past week than ever before in his life. He had sores on his butt and the insides of his thighs were worn raw by the constant contact with saddle leather. His back, shoulders and neck continually ached. He was cold, wet and thoroughly fed up. Beneath the coat, his shirt was clammy where the water had run down under his collar and the legs of his pants were soaked through. Bryant didn’t like being wet. He didn’t like eating badly cooked trail food, and he was tired of sitting astride an ill-tempered, saw-backed horse. Most of all, he had come to resent taking orders from Jessop, and he was sick of the sight and the sound and the smell of cows. He was saying as much to his friend, Johnny Miller.
“The only place I ever want to set eyes on a steer ag’in is settin’ on a plate, cooked medium rare with a side order o’ ‘taters ‘n’ greens.”
Miller, sitting alongside him on an ugly bay horse, grunted in gloomy agreement. Miller was a man totally unlike Bryant in appearance, being big, burly and blond, but they were two men of a kind. They were both more at home in a barroom card game or a whore’s warm bed in a sleazy back street brothel than they were doing a decent days work on the back of a horse.
Bryant grumbled on, “I don’t like comin’ up ag’inst the Cartwrights. They’ve got enough friends in town ta git a man hung.”
Miller regarded him with watery, colourless eyes. “Half this herd wears the Cartwright brand.” Miller wasn’t the cleverest – it had taken a while for him to figure it out.
“That’s what I don’t like about it,” Bryant moaned. “The Cartwright boys ain’t goin’ ta give up easy.”
“Jessop says this rain will have washed out our trail. If we hole up here a day or two, the Cartwrights’ll give up an’ go home.”
“That’s another thing I ain’t keen on.” Bryant shifted uneasily, wincing at the fresh stab of pain. He glared around at the fog-shrouded mounds that surrounded him. “I don’t like hidin’ out in this valley with all these dead Injuns lying around.”
Miller’s eyes widened in horror. “Nobody tol’ me nothin’ ‘bout no dead Injuns!”
Bryant shrugged an expressive shoulder and returned his attention to the restless, uneasy herd. “Don’t reckon these cows like it too much, neither.”
Miller was staring ‘round at the mounds. “You telling me there’s dead folks under the ground?”
“Well, they sure ain’t walking around on top of it,” Bryant said, laughing, then added, cruelly, “You just mind they don’t come clawin’ up out o’ the dirt to git ya!”
Miller was offended. It wasn’t as if he was dense – just sometimes a little slow on the uptake. “I’ll tell you somethin’, Billy, I don’t reckon as I want ta stay around here no more.”
“Aw, settle down, will ya. I feel the same, but Jessop says there ain’t nothin’ ta worry about.” Bryant delivered the second hand assurance without much conviction. He wasn’t too sure he believed it himself. He cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder. “I reckon I’ll ride a circuit around this herd. Don’t want ‘em wanderin’ off.”
“Well, you ain’t gonna leave me here on my own!” Miller kicked the bay in the ribs, and the two men rode off into the fog.
Joe tapped Hoss on the
shoulder, put his finger to his lips for silence, then wiggled it under the big
man'’ nose in an exaggerated, hard to ignore ‘come with me’ gesture. Side by
side, they wriggled back on their bellies until they were safely out of earshot
behind a burial mound. They hunkered down close together. Joe had a grin on his
mud-stained face. “I’d know that fella anywhere. That’s Rat Face Billy Bryant
“An’ that other fella with the yella hair, that’s Sandy Miller,” Hoss chuckled. “He ain’t exactly what a man would call bright.”
Joe grinned again mischievously. “I reckon we c’n chase them two fellas off without even needin’ our guns.”
“An’ how we gonna do that?” Hoss demanded. Joe beckoned him closer and started to whisper into his ear.
Some ten minutes later, Bryant and Miller completed their circle and arrived back where they’d began. The cattle had started to settle, but the men were distinctly uneasy. The mist continued to swirl with a supernatural intensity, and it was more than the damp chill that made them shiver. Miller looked towards the sky. “What time d’you reckon it is, Billy?”
“’Round about three in the mornin’.” Unhappily, Bryant eyed the surrounding mounds.
Miller’s horse coughed, and something answered it from out of the fog. “What in heck’s that?” Milled inquired, alarmed.
Bryant scowled at him; “What’s what?”
As if in response, the sound came again: a short, guttural grunt followed by a long low groan. The noises seemed to surround them. Bryant and Miller traded long, anxious looks.
Hidden in the mist and hunkered down behind the shoulder of a mound, Joe Cartwright suppressed a giggle. This was the best fun he’d had in a while. He moaned and hooted into his cupped hands. The result was most satisfactory; the fog gave the noise a hollow quality, and it echoed off the sides of the bank. At the other end of the mound, Hoss was working as well: groaning and sighing. Joe hoped that he didn’t overdo it.
Bryant was a braver man than he knew. “I’m going ta take me a look.” He gathered his reins and nudged his nervous horse forward.
“Hey, don’t leave me behind!” Miller urged the bay close, crowding the razorback’s tail. Together they rode to the mound.
Happily involved in making ghostly noises, Joe didn’t see them until it was too late to escape. He stood up quickly as they rounded the end of the earthwork. They found themselves confronted by an apparition. It had the shape of a man, all right. Its face was all crusted with fresh mud and dirt and its hair jutted out in all directions. For sure, this was a dead man that had just dug his way back out of the earth. Bryant’s face drained, and Miller let out a yelp.
Behind them, another shape emerged from the fogbank. “Bryant? Miller? Where you at?”
It was enough for the barflies turned cow-thieves - more than enough! This second manifestation even knew their names! They reined their horses around and galloped away in two different direction, scattering cattle before them.
Jessop yelled after them; “Come back here, you two goldarned fools! I told you thars no such thing as spooks! It’s just the Cartwright boys making fun o’ you!” Response came there none. Bryant and Miller wouldn’t stop running until they were in sight of home.
Out in the night somewhere, Hoss was still moaning and groaning. Jessop leaned down from the back of his dun-coloured gelding. He carried a short barrelled shotgun, and, from the look on his face, he was just about ready to use it. “Come out here, Cartwright, an’ show yore-self – or I’m gonna spread yore brother’s brains all over the landscape.”
After a pause that seemed to Joe to go on forever, Hoss emerged from the mist. Jessop covered them both with the shotgun. “You two stand still!”
Darrel Jessop had a dilemma. With Bryant and Miller long gone and still running, his small herd of stolen cattle was now spread all over the valley, and here he was with two rancher’s sons in his gun sights. He couldn’t let them go. He couldn’t shoot them either. A man went to prison for stealing cows; for killing a man you got hung.
A deep, breathy voice groaned in the darkness. Jessop’s mouth tightened. “Is that you other brother foolin’ about?” He had a damned good mind to shoot all of them.
“It sure don’t sound like Adam.” Joe looked stricken.
Hoss spread his hands; “I swear ta you Mister Jessop, last time I saw Adam, he was fast asleep.”
There was another long moan. Jessop turned round, desperately searching the fog for the errant Cartwright. With a nudge at each other, Hoss and Joe took the opportunity to slip away into the mist. Jessop yelled after them and urged his horse forward. “Come back here, you two!”
For a while, the fog swirled in the place where he’d been. Then the lonely brown and white cow wandered out of the mist to reunite with her sisters.
Adam rubbed a hand over sleep hazed eyes. He hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on, but the fog all around him was alive with noises and movement. Something had wakened him up with a jolt, something that felt like an icy cold hand on the cheek. He found both of his brothers were missing and, what concerned him the most, there was no trace of warmth left in their bedrolls. They had been gone for a long time.
Whatever they might be up to, he guessed he had better find them before they got into trouble. He strapped on his gun and set off down the hill, but hadn’t gone far when a man on a horse came at him out of the fog and all but rode him down.
The two men eyed one another. Adam’s face was still draped in sleep but he held his gun steady. “Jessop.” He nodded. They knew one another quite well.
Jessop pointed the shotgun at Adam. “Well, Cartwright, where do we go from here?”
Adam smiled easily. “That isn’t hard. I’m taking you in for stealing those cows. I guess you’ll spend some years in prison.”
Jessop sucked on his teeth. His walleye shone silver in the first shards of the light. “Don’t reckon you are.” It was a stand off. Both guns were levelled at the other man’s chest.
Hoss and Joe stepped out of the mist. They were delighted to see their brother. “Hey, Adam!” Joe shouted. Startled, Jessop’s horse danced. Both guns went off together and both men missed. Adam fell over backwards, and Jessop fought hard to bring his gelding under control. This wasn’t going his way. He wasn’t getting away with the cows and he was reluctance to go to jail. He took advantage of the Cartwright’s confusion to rein the horse ‘round and gallop away.
Hoss lifted Adam up off the ground. “You hurt, big brother?”
“Nah!” Adam was just dirty and mad. He was disgusted at missing his shot, embarrassed at falling down on his butt and angry with his brothers for causing the whole ridiculous situation. He tried in vain to brush off the mud.
Hoss screwed up his face and looked after Jessop. “Adam, you want I should fetch up the horses so we c’n go after him?”
Adam wiped the grime off his Colt.44. “We’d never catch up with him in this fog. Let him go for now.”
Joe’s face broke into a happy smile. “Does that mean we’ll get home in time for the dance on Saturday night?”
“Joe,” Hoss shook his
head sadly. “We got cows an’ steers scattered all up an’ down this valley. It’s
gonna take us a while ta haze ‘em all the way back ta
Adam looked up at the lightening sky. “Then as soon as this fog clears, we’d best get started on rounding them up. That dance is one place I mean to be.”
Hoss slapped Joe on the back, then followed Adam back to the campsite to find out what was left for breakfast.
Joe looked after them. He thought about calling them back and then decided against it. After all, they never took him seriously, and he was sure that they would laugh at him now. He opened his hand and peered at the small golden treasure he held in the palm: the intricately wrought, golden thumb ring he’d found caught in the torn cuff of his pants. He polished the ring thoughtfully on the ruined sleeve of his shirt. It had writing on it – some sort of markings he couldn’t make out. Perhaps, at some point in the future, he’d ask his Pa what they meant. With a smile on his face he slipped the ring into his pants pocket and trudged after Adam and Hoss.
Soon the men had gathered the cattle, and they had all gone away. The secret valley, hidden away so well in the hills, was empty and silent again. Before very long, the last of the mist had melted away, and the sun came out, filling it up with sunlight and shadows. Rabbits emerged from their holes in the ground, and shy mule deer wandered down from the woods to nibble at the sweet spring grasses. The ancient earth mounds steamed gently in the returning warmth, and dead men lay in slumber awaiting the end of time.
* ‘Emiline Hutton’s House’ 2000
Potter’s Bar 2002.