Stay out of Trouble
A short ‘Bonanza’ story
As soon as he emerged from the gloom that was rapidly gathering under the last stand of trees, Adam Cartwright pulled his horse to the edge of the trail and waited for his brothers to come alongside. After long days in the saddle, miles of rough terrain put behind them and nights spent on the cold, hard ground they were both, to Adam’s way of thinking, a good deal more sprightly than they had any right to be. As the eldest and, supposedly, the wisest, Adam had already had second thoughts about this particular plan of action, and, now, he was thinking again. “I want to make this quite clear,” he said in a firm voice that not only brooked no disagreement but was also loud enough to reach Little Joe. Joe was sitting his painted pony on the far side of Hoss, and he wasn’t paying attention. “I want you two to stay out of trouble.”
Breaking off his cheerful banter with Joe, Hoss turned towards him with sweet innocence itself shining out of his pale-blue eyes. “Heck, Adam, you know you don’t have ta worry ‘bout us at-all.”
Adam sighed and wondered again what it was that he was about to get into. His mind went back ten years or more to the first time he had ridden this forbidden trail. He had been a very young man, caught out in bad weather just like today, and a very long way from home. A slight smile came to his lips when he thought of the trouble he had gotten into, and the pain and the pleasures he had endured because of it. The lure of the place had drawn him back many times since. This time it was different. This time he was planning on taking his younger brothers in with him, and the good Lord alone knew what his father would say should the old man ever find out.
Spread out in front of them, at the end of the broad, rutted path that served as a highway was a sprawling, tangled complex of barns and corrals and lean-to cabins that stood alone with no visible means of support. There were sway-backed shanties and oilskin covered shelters, sheds, stables and tumble-down outhouses all clustered in loose association with the larger, but equally unprepossessing structure know to all and sundry for a hundred miles around as ‘Mrs. Hennesey’s Trading Post and Whisky Emporium’.
The single storey building huddled close to the ground. It looked more like something organic that had simply grown in that dark, dank place close to the riverbank with the swift stream running close by rather than a thing built by the hand of man. It had been patched and repaired so many times, parts rebuilt and rooms added on upon so many different occasions and by so many different pairs of hands, that it was impossible to tell where the original edifice began or ended, or even what colour it might once have been. In the fading light of the late afternoon it resembled nothing so much as an oversized and malevolent spider crouched in the centre of its tattered feeding web. It was a place whose appearance went all too well with its reputation. A long-time haunt of outlaws and miscreants and misfits from all walks of life, it was a point on the map where just about anything could be bought – or sold – for a price. However, the roof didn’t leak, there were good fires on the many hearths, and the food filled the belly if your palate wasn’t too finicky.
Lamplight already showed at some of the windows: pale, glimmering witch-lights that emphasised the gathering gloom. Smoke rose at an angle from a stone-built chimney, drifting, like a ragged, dirt-stained banner on the damp, evening air. The place hadn’t changed much since the last time Adam had paid a call. Perhaps it was a little shabbier, a little more run down at heel, a little more slumped back into the landscape than before, but essentially, it looked much the same. Right there and then Adam wished he were somewhere else – anywhere else, or, at least, that he was on his own. He shifted himself in the saddle and eased a backside that ached from fourteen long hours on the back of a horse. He looked at the sky. He figured there was just about time to get himself and his brothers out of there before it became too dark to travel the woodlands in safety. He said, “I don’t think this is such a great idea.”
Joe looked across at him, his young face alarmed. “Come on, Adam! You can’t change your mind now. Besides, pretty soon it’s gonna rain. There ain’t no point in campin’ out in the woods an’ getting’ soakin’ wet all over again. We only just got dried out from last night!”
Adam got the passing impression that, perhaps, his youngest brother had been listening after all. He worked his jaw and chewed at his lip, still on the verge of turning back. He would rather have taken his chances in the woods with the wind and the rain than run the gauntlet of all the trouble his brothers could get into and then facing up to their father’s wrath.
Hoss joined in the discussion on Little Joe’s side. “I want ta git me a meal tonight that I didn’t have ta catch it ‘n’ cook it myself, an’ I want ta sleep in a bed.”
Adam gave him a cynical smile. “I’m not so sure about the bed. Last time I was here, beds cost extra, and a man always found he had company. Could be a better idea to sleep on the floor.”
Impatient, Joe tightened his reins and made the pinto gelding dance in the trail. “I don’t know what the heck you’re makin’ all this fuss about. This place can’t be nearly so bad as you say.”
“Joe’s right, Adam,” Hoss decided. “After all, just how much trouble can a man get into?”
Adam gritted his teeth and said, “You don’t know the half of it, little brother.”
“Well. Now that I’m here, I’m goin’ on down there ta take me a closer look.” Hoss’s wide face had taken on a stubborn expression that Adam knew well. The big man’s mind was made up. “How ‘bout you, Little Joe?”
Adam decided that it was best to put a stop to this insurrection before it got properly started. “Not on your own, you don’t.”
Triumphant, Hoss grinned. “Then you’re just gonna have ta come along with us, big brother.”
Once more, Adam squirmed in the leather. He had to
admit his saddle was becoming a damned uncomfortable seat. He thought about the
inevitable tongue-lashing he would be in for if Ben Cartwright ever got wind of
this visit and cringed inwardly. Already, he could hear the words reverberating
inside his head. He reflected that, were he but a few years younger, it
wouldn’t only be his tongue that Ben used as a lash. He looked across at his
brothers and sighed. They were brim-full of excitement and expectation; it was
shining right out of their faces. “All right. But there’s one thing more: you
don’t say a word about this to anyone, and especially, you don’t tell
His brothers agreed in cheerful unison, “Sure thing, Adam!”
And, thought Adam with another huge sigh of resignation, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Before he could change his mind yet again, he lifted his hands and kicked his horse into motion. “Come on then, you two. Let’s get going. Let’s see if we can get a roof over our heads before it rains again.” He was blissfully unaware that, behind his back as he rode away, Hoss and Joe exchanged happy, victorious glances.
The floor of the valley might once have been pretty, with stands of oak and aspen and willow alongside the deep flowing stream. These days it was best left clothed in darkness and unexplored. The trees were gone and the grass was poisoned. The hand of man had despoiled the land and left it barren. The rutted trail that they followed was hock-deep to a big horse in mud and pitted with potholes. All the potholes were filled up with water. It was impossible to hurry. A fall could result in a broken leg for one of the horses or a broken neck for a man. The surfaces of the puddled water shone like pitted, silvered mirrors and reflected the darkening sky.
As they got closer, more details of the settlement became apparent. The very best of the buildings were shabby and run-down hovels; the rest were half collapsed and seemingly deserted, falling back into the earth from which they had been made. Adam noticed that someone had partially patched the holes in the largest barn’s roof. This was a place where horses lived better than men - and their lives were held in higher esteem.
Alongside the road, a huge pile of unidentifiable rubbish smouldered. The stink of it caught in all three men’s throats and made their eyes water. None of them chose to look closely enough to see what burned. The acrid smoke drifted away along the valley, keeping close to the ground.
Adam’s luck continued to run exactly the way he expected. Long before they arrived at the more or less level but extremely muddy expanse that served as a yard, the cloud base had lowered just that little bit further, and it had started to rain. It was a cold, drenching downpour that didn’t last long, but there was nowhere to shelter. Despite their heavy woollen coats all three of them were quickly soaked to the skin.
By then, it was almost dark. Adam fished a dry match out of his pocket and lit the solitary lantern that hung in the barn. They led the horses inside and found some empty stalls down at the farthest end where it was dankest and darkest. The barn smelled of horses and mules and manure, of damp straw and rotting wood and something that had died a while ago and not been removed. Joe and Hoss exchanged looks again as they unsaddled their horses, this time with a somewhat greater degree of concern. Hoss gestured and pulled some expressive faces. Joe returned an elaborate shrug. Adam pretended not to notice. He lifted the saddle from his bay gelding’s back and used a couple of handfuls of straw to wipe some of the mud and water from the animal’s filthy hide.
Somewhat tentatively, sensing his big brother’s mood, Hoss tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, Adam. There ain’t no hay or oats or nothin’ around here no-place. What ‘re we gonna give the horses ta eat?”
Adam gave him a hard, sideways look, a flash of amber-brown eyes. “Feed for horses is scarce and expensive here.” he explained with precise reasonableness. “Tonight, it’s a case of you eat, or the horses eat. You’d better make up your mind which it’s going to be.”
Hoss put a hand to his belly. His stomach was hollow and aching. Much as he loved his horse, he didn’t much relish the thought of going hungry himself. In the meantime, Joe jumped in ahead of him. “What’re you talking about, Adam? We took nigh on ten thousand dollars for the sale of those cattle, you can’t pretend that you’re short of money.”
Adam gave him a stony stare. “Don’t you think I
learned my lesson the last time we sold a bunch of cattle?” His voice held an
edge of concentrated patience. He looked from one brother to the other. It was
quite clear that neither of them understood. Adam experienced a sharp
resurgence of exasperation. Sometimes he wondered if he was the only one in his
family born with any brains at all. “You don’t really think I’m carrying all
that money with me? Even less that I’d bring it here? I wired the money home to
Doubtfully, Joe looked at Hoss. “So how much have you got on you?”
“Three dollars an’ some odd cents, I guess. An’ you?”
“About the same, I reckon. Maybe a little less. Adam…”
“Oh, no!” Adam held up his hands in a defensive posture, smiling and shaking his head. “I you hadn’t spent all your money gamblin’ and chasin’ them high-tailed women…”
“Adam,” Hoss said sternly, “You must have twenty-thirty dollars tucked in the side ‘o your boot.”
Adam glared at him. “And that’s where it’s staying.”
Joe and Hoss traded meaningful looks, and Adam sensed a conspiracy. He found himself backed up against the wall of the stall with nowhere to go but over. On the other side was an especially foul smelling pool of effluent drained from the stalls. He decided on a placatory tone, “Look I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll buy both of you supper.”
Joe and Hoss thought about the offer and nodded. Both of them knew that it was as good as they were going to get.
It was dark outside; night had fallen completely and, mercifully, shrouded the worst of man’s desecration. The crab-like building was all lit up with yellow lamplight showing from most of the windows. The Cartwright brothers picked their way across the mud of the yard, trying, without much success, to avoid the worst of the puddles and, at the same time, to dodge the rain. Adam hesitated one final time with his hand on the latch of the door. He knew that this was the point of no return. He turned and looked at each of his brothers in turn. “Now remember what I told you…”
“We know, Adam.” Hoss said, and Joe joined in the chorus, “Stay out of trouble.”
Adam opened the door and it was as if he had swung wide the portals of hell. The low room was huge and steeped in an orangy glow. Distorted man-shapes moved in the smoky lamplight like the looming shadows of grizzly bears. The noise rolled out in a long, low rumble: fifty voices all raised at once, talking, arguing, grumbling, occasionally breaking out in loud, raucous laughter. And then the smell hit them full in the face – the smell, and the heat generated by a matched pair of pot-bellied stoves, by the open kitchen at the back of the room and by the mass of men’s bodies all crowded together. The stench was an unholy combination of wood-smoke and lamp oil, spent gunpowder, roast meat and stew, rancid bear fat and stale beer, of sweat and blood and urine and the smells of damp leather and musty animal fur. Joe and Hoss each took a step backwards, eyes bulging, and Adam allowed himself a small feeling of satisfaction at their reaction.
Someone yelled at them out of the hellish inferno to, “Shut that Goddamn door!” His eyes still glinting with amusement, Adam shoved his brothers inside with a hand on their backs and duly obliged.
Although it was hard to tell for certain, the room seemed to run along most of the front of the house. The low ceiling was supported by heavy beams and posts that had once been tree trunks, now stripped of their bark, split and stained by smoke and grease, the rub of men’s clothes and, here and there, by something that might have been blood, and deeply scarred by men’s initials carved into the wood. It was hard to see the room’s furthest extent through the miasma of tobacco smoke and fumes and the crush of big bodies that filled it. There were men standing and drinking, men sitting and drinking and eating and playing cards, men talking and laughing and fondling women. There were men of all types: big men, frontier’s men in buckskin and leather and furs. They were the hunters and trappers and loggers and men who delved in the earth after silver and gold. In amongst them were tough cowboy types: men who lived hard and played hard and some who were down on their luck. And there were men in smart suits that had seen better days, silk shirts and cravats. There was no doubt at all that some of them ran wide of the law.
There were splashes of colour, here and there: red and silver and blue, the short, bright dresses of women plying their age-old profession among the men in the crowd. The dresses revealed bare, creamy shoulders and white-satin bosoms and considerably too much leg. Adam reckoned there must be ten men to every woman and then some left over. It seemed that nothing had changed.
Adam steered his brothers to a relatively secluded table close to a wall. Oblivious to their resentful looks and hostile mutterings, he firmly ousted two drunks from their seats and told Joe and Hoss to sit down. His eyes, dark brown in the smoky-red light, switched from one to the other. “Stay here,” he said with a hiss. “I’ll go rustle us up something to eat.”
Wide eyed and slack jawed, the younger men watched him thread his way, with well practised ease, through the close press of bodies and disappear in the crowd: one big, dark clad man among half a hundred others. Still overawed by the sight and the sounds and the smells, Hoss leaned close to Joe’s ear and whispered beneath the other men’s voices, the chink of thick glassware, a women’s shrill laughter and the flip-flap of cards onto tables, “Hey, Joe, what d’you make o’ this place, huh?”
Joe, as ever, was the more confident one of the two, and his natural cockiness was already coming back to the fore. He looked all around him with alert, bright-eyed interest, twisting this way and that in his chair as he surveyed the motley crowd. “I don’t reckon it’s so bad. Adam’s just got a bee in his bonnet ‘bout what Pa’d say if he ever finds out he brought us here. Pa’ll reckon we should all have slept out in the woods in the rain.”
Hoss huffed and puffed while he thought about that and watched the mainly bearded faces with their watchful, hostile eyes and their discoloured teeth while he made up his mind. “We did kind o’ push Adam inta bringin’ us,” he said uneasily. “I know Pa would want us ta git inta no…” He caught the look in Joe’s eye and fell silent. .
“Heck,” Joe said, “We’ll be gone in the morning. Just how much trouble can a man get into in a night? Especially with our big brother along to play nursemaid.” Joe was already sizing up the prettiest of the women, and she was looking his way. Hoss nudged him hard in the ribs.
“Hey, Joe, you keep your mind off o’ those fillies. You git yourself all tangled up with one o’ them an ol’ Adam ain’t gonna wait ta git you home fer Pa ta give you a dressin’ down. He’s likely ta give you a hidin his-self.”
“Himself,” Joe corrected automatically, still appraising the lady and oozing with boyish charm. The lady was eyeing him back with interest. “Anyhow,” Joe went on with a shrug, “We’re here now. Think what we c’n tell the fellas in town! Not everyone gets ta spend the night at Ma Hennesey’s.”
A ferocious frown creased Hoss’s broad face. “Little Joe, you know what Adam said. We wasn’t ta tell no one we come here! Not even Pa!”
Just for a moment, Joe looked disappointed. Then he brightened again and winked at the girl. “So what’s to tell?”
Someone nudged Joe hard in the back. “Hey, boy, that’s a mighty fine gun you got there. You mind iffen I take a look?”
Joe looked up – and up and up some more. The man standing over him had to be the biggest human being that Joe had ever seen in his life: a veritable giant, all of seven feet tall with a massive chest that balanced on tree-trunk legs. Long, dark-red hair hung in tight, greasy coils around mammoth-sized shoulders, a dark-red beard bristled and dark-red hair sprouted at unlikely angles from between the straining buttons of a dirty brown shirt. Seated, the top of Joe’s head came just to the level of the broad, leather belt that held up the man’s sagging pants.
Joe could smell his animal stench, a long-undiluted blend of sweat, beer and bear-grease. The big man held out his hand, a palm shaped slab of gristle and bone, backed by a mat of red hair, and shoved it under Joe’s nose.
Joe inspected the hand at close quarters: the broad, blunt fingers, the dirt-encrusted calluses, the well-chewed nails. He didn’t much like what he saw. He traced the hairy forearm up with his eyes to where it vanished into the rolled-up sleeve of the shirt, and from there to the broad spread of the shoulders and to the face. The thick, red beard housed two thick, fleshy lips and, above, was a bulberous nose. Piercing dark eyes showing no whites at all glared from beneath heavy brow ridges. Joe swallowed hard. From the looks of the hand and of the man who owned it, it could easily crush the ivory-handled pistol that he was so proud of.
Joe was reluctant to hand the gun over. The weapon was new; Joe had saved a long time for it, and Joe was a man to whom saving came hard. And besides, Joe was still kind of bristling at the ‘boy’. He’d just spent a whole lot of time growing out of that particular tag…
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Mister.” To his dismay, his voice sounded squeaky.
A second, vast hand, exactly matching the first, came out of nowhere. It fastened itself with a vice-like grip under Joe’s chin and lifted him into the air. The chair went over backwards, and Joe found himself a great deal closer to the red-bearded face than he would ever have desired. He was almost suspended, standing on tiptoe, trying to take the strain off his neck.
The fleshy lips parted, and Joe was treated to a gust of foul breath. “Now, lookee here, boy, I asked you real’ nicely…”
Joe was starting to cough and to splutter. He flailed with both arms and legs. His face was slowly turning purple. Hoss climbed to his feet, his blue eyes like ice. “Hey, Mister, you put my little brother down, huh?”
Hoss was a big man. Big Red was bigger. It was not often that Hoss Cartwright came up against anyone built on a vaster scale than he was. This was one of those rare occasions. The red-haired titan gazed down at him from on high, “You give me one good reason why I should.”
Joe was choking, and, by now, he was blue. Hoss looked at him with concern. Brute force was obviously out of the question; he decided to try appeasement. “’Cause I asked ya?” he suggested mildly.
Big Red scowled, considering. He continued to hold Joe up off the floor. Joe was making futile, flapping motions with both hands, and his eyes were starting to bulge.
Across the room somebody yelled, and a table went over with a crash of glasses and falling silver. Someone swung a roundhouse punch and several big men piled into the fight. Distracted by more interesting amusements, Big Red dropped Joe back onto the floor and headed in that direction.
Adam discovered that he had been wrong; there had, indeed, been innovations since his last visit. At the back of the room, a long, pine-board counter had been constructed, spanning the entire area. Instead of the free-for-all he had come to expect, he had to stand in line – more or less – and wait his turn to be served. That, he supposed, was progress, but it all took time and increased his anxiety about just what his younger brothers might get up to when he wasn’t there to keep an eye on their antics. He knew them and their exploits too well to trust them for long
Beyond the new, but already battle-scarred shelving was the familiar, devil’s-kitchen that Adam recalled, complete with simmering cauldrons, pots and kettles and a glowing, red-hot oven. The other new addition was ‘Old Nick’ himself: a black-haired Frenchman with only one eye and a wicked knife scar to show how he’d lost the other. He seemed to be in charge of the place. He shouted and swore at the cooks and assistants and treated his customers in much the same, cavalier manner.
Adam purchased three bowls of thick stew, a loaf of coarse bread and three mugs of beer and enlisted the help of a lame-footed boy to carry it back to the table. He was turning away from the counter with both hands full and the boy in tow when the scuffle broke out across the room. With some anxiety, Adam looked in that direction as the Frenchman set off with a determined expression and a great stave of wood, but the disturbance was a long way from where he had left Joe and Hoss. Adam relaxed. This time, at least, his brother’s weren’t in the thick of it.
Balancing the bowls with care and with the lame boy limping behind with the beer, he picked his way back to the table. He was relieved to see that Joe and Hoss were still sitting right where he’d left them – in fact, they looked rather subdued. Adam put the bowls down on the table and paid the boy off with a coin. He shucked out of his still damp coat and draped it across the back of his chair before sitting. He picked up his spoon and then looked up at his brother’s faces. Joe was pale with high points of pink on his cheekbones, and his eyes had a glazed, distant look. Adam wondered if he was quite well. “You okay Joe?”
Joe gulped hard and gave him a twisted, half-sincere grin. “I’m fine, just fine.” His voice sounded high pitched and hoarse.
Adam, already eating, slowed in his chewing and gazed at him curiously. Joe was looking distinctly peaky and a little green around the gills. Adam felt a twinge of concern. He hoped his brother wasn’t about the get sick; he knew for dead certain sure that there wasn’t a proper doctor within two hundred miles of this Godforsaken place.
Hoss was hungry and was already eating with relish, shovelling stew from bowl to mouth with a rhythmical motion of his spoon. It was a fascinating thing to watch. “Little Joe’s okay, Adam,” he said ‘round the food. “He’s just got his-self overtired, is all?” Neither he nor Joe was about to tell Adam that they had already fallen foul of one of the tough hard-heads that Ma Hennesey’s harboured, and a big one at that.
Still studying Joe’s face, Adam spooned up more stew. He knew his brothers well, and he had an itchy feeling that he wasn’t being told the truth – not all of it, anyway. Still, whether Joe was sickening or not, there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about it right there and then. He gave an inward shrug and put meat and potatoes into his mouth and followed it up with a hunk of the bread.
Joe eyed the stew in his bowl dubiously. It had been boiled in the pot for a very long time and had become an amorphous mixture of meat and grease with big chunks of vegetables simmered to softness and all tasting the same no matter what they had started out as. His appetite, so keen when he had come in through the door, had completely faded away, and he felt rather sick. The sight of his brothers tucking in with gusto didn’t make him feel any better. His throat still hurt where Big Red’s hand had squeezed it, and, worse, he was half-afraid that Big Red himself might come back. Reluctantly he tasted a spoonful. The stew was quite good. He ate some more and began to feel a little bit better.
Adam and Hoss were engaged in a complicated discussion concerning the timber yields of high altitude forests and the rate at which the woodlands could be expected to replenish themselves. It was a favourite topic since Hoss had taken over the management of the southernmost stretch of the ranch. As usual, most of what they said went right over Joe’s head. Then, Adam sat back with his slowly warming mug of beer clasped between his hands and his long legs stretched out straight underneath the table in the familiar, comfortable way. He was much more at ease: almost relaxed, now that his forebodings had proved unfounded. He was warm and dry now, and his stomach was full. His brothers were behaving, even if Joe was just a little bit quiet, and he saw no reason why their father should ever find out about this forbidden visit. The ambience of the room, the close, damp heat, the press of bodies and the continual grumble of noise combined with the warm stew in his belly and the mug of strong beer instilled contentment and a sense of security. He sucked the last shreds of meat from between his teeth and half closed his eyes. He hardly noticed when Hoss silently exchanged his empty bowl for Joe’s almost full one and continued to eat. Joe didn’t get the chance to object.
Then Adam spotted someone across the room, and his eyes lit up with a fresh spark of interest. He finished his beer, put his mug down on the table and kicked back his chair. “You boys stay here – I gotta see a man about a horse.” Joe and Hoss watched their brother’s broad back disappear into the crowd.
Never one to be put down for long, Joe looked around with reviving interest. At a table not too far away, his eye was soon captured by a game of poker. Four men were playing for table stakes, and from the way one man’s luck was running, there would soon be a vacant chair. An idea came to Joe’s quick mind, and a smile spread over his face. Surely, even big brother Adam in nursemaid mode couldn’t class a hand or two of poker as ‘trouble’? He gave Hoss a swift kick under the table. “You still got that three dollars?”
“Uh-huh.” Hoss looked dubious but fished in his in his vest pocket and extracted the rumpled bills. “What d’you want it for?” Hoss hadn’t yet seen where Joe was looking.
“Never mind.” Joe tipped him a broad, brotherly wink and picked the money out of his fingers. There was am impish sparkle in his green and gold eyes. Pushing his chair back, he got to his feet and arrived at the poker table at the very same instant that the disgruntled loser threw down his last hand. Joe slipped into the vacated seat and flashed his famous Cartwright smile around at the other players. “You don’t mind if I join you?”
The three faces around the table regarded him with varying degrees of belligerence. The smallest man, sitting directly across the table – he of the small, glossy moustache and the shifting brown eyes – seemed almost amused by Joe’s precipitate and uninvited arrival. The man on Joe’s left, a hulking, bearded brute in smelly brown leather, was rather less entertained, while the fellow to his right, a hunch-shouldered frontiersman with long sandy hair, tightly plaited, and the fringes of his greasy, buckskin shirt finely cut, was almost aggressive in his instant dislike. Joe treated them all with equanimity and the dazzling, white-toothed smile. He put his few dollars down on the table and spread them out to look a lot, then rubbed his hands together in a display of youthful enthusiasm. “Whose deal is it?”
The frontiersman and the man with the moustache traded meaningful looks but seemed disinclined to object. The big man shrugged and started to deal out the cards. With his big hands wedged tightly into his front pants pockets, Hoss wandered over to watch. Bit by bit, his frown became deeper, slowly becoming a scowl. He saw Joe lose one hand, and then another and with them, more than half their pooled dollars, gone on the turn of a card. Then he couldn’t bear to watch any more. Disgruntled and feeling left out of things, he turned away, only to find that all the seats at their old table were taken.
He felt in his pocket. There were only two small coins left. Not even enough to finance another mug of beer. He looked back at his brother. Joe was engrossed, his face a mask of fierce concentration. Joe was never happier than when he was playing cards even when he was losing. Hoss saw him win the next hand: enough dollars in the low stakes game to keep him playing at least for another hour. Hoss was all on his own. The big man huffed a sigh and hitched his gunbelt up ‘round his belly. He turned towards the door. He figured one of them ought to go check on the horses – perhaps they would provide some amicable company, someone to talk to when nobody else would listen.
It wasn’t a man that big brother Adam had wanted to see, and it wasn’t a horse that he wanted to talk about. Claris Mandarra would be an attractive woman in any man’s book. Masses of dark curling hair surrounded her rounded face and tumbled down in untidy ringlets onto her shoulders. Her dark eyes were constantly laughing, and her lips were painted a rose-petal pink. Tonight she was wearing a dark-red, satin dress with ruffles around a low and revealing neckline. The dress disclosed the swell of creamy white bosoms, and if Adam recalled correctly, that soft creamy skin went all the way down.
Smiling, he drew her ‘round a secluded corner, still within the main room but out of the line of sight of most inquisitive eyes. Clary went with him willingly. Reaching up, she wrapped her white arms around his neck and drew his face down to hers. Without a word being spoken between them and with the air of an old acquaintance being renewed, he closed his lips over hers and tasted once more her well remembered sweetness.
Finally, when both had to come up for air, she sighed against him and rested her hands on his chest. Her tiny white fingers slipped under his coat and felt, through the cloth of his shirt, the solid wall of muscle and the steady beat of his heart. “Adam Cartwright,” she breathed his name like a prayer. “It’s been a very long time since you came a-callin’.”
Adam’s mouth smiled against the perfumed softness of her hair, and he moved his hands from her waist to her back in a smooth, sliding motion. His fingers moved lightly over the silky fabric of her dress and the callused edge of his thumb traced the precisely curved shape of the whalebone in her corset underneath. “I don’t get to come this way very often.” It might be an excuse but it was also the truth.
“I thought you’d forgotten me.” Clary’s lips formed a perfect pout, but her dextrous fingers were already unfastening the buttons of his shirt.
Adam tightened his arms around her and drew her in closer. “How could I ever forget you?” His mouth sought hers, and he kissed her again. As her perfume rose into his head, his senses started to reel, and his pulse rate quickened.
The small, white fingers were inside his shirt now, doing interesting things with the hair that curled on his chest. Her touch made him sweat. “Perhaps,” she suggested softly, “you’d like to renew our friendship.”
Adam remembered his responsibilities. He caught her wandering hands and held them in his. “I’d like that very much, but I have my brothers with me. I have to watch out for them.”
The laughing eyes, deep pools of wanton seduction in the smoky light of the lamps, widened with amazement. “Those two you came in with? They looked like big boys to me: all grown up. I’m sure they can look after themselves for a bit.” Her fingers escaped his restraint and slid back to his chest, tracing the line of his ribcage, sliding down to the front of his pants. She breathed softly into his face, and he caught the scent of her: the sweet smell of a woman wanting.
He put his arms around her. Breathing quite hard, he clasped her tight and pressed her back to the wall. Trapped in the heat between their bodies, his manly interest, already awakened, raised its blunt head. Adam shivered with delicious anticipation, and Clary smiled in triumph. “I have a room of my own now,” she murmured into his ear. “We don’t have to share anymore.”
Remembering their previous encounters, Adam thought that was a real good idea. “I’ll bet you’ve got your room done up real’ pretty, Clary. Why don’t you show it to me?”
Clary was a woman always prepared to combine pleasure with business. With a gleam in her eye she took his hand in hers and led him away.
Outside, the rain was still falling, a cold and continuous drizzle that fell straight down from a dark and overcast sky. It stung Hoss’s hot skin in a thousand tiny pinpricks of pain and made his eyes water. After the dank, stuffy stench of the barroom, the fresh air was like a wet slap in the face, but it cleared a man’s head of cobwebs with admirable speed. Hoss shrugged massive shoulders further into his still-damp coat and set his tall hat more firmly onto his head. There was nothing else for it, he figured; he was going to get wet.
The long, low barn was in darkness. Hoss remembered that there wasn’t a light. He shook off the worst of the water like a dog that had taken a bath. While not soaked right through to the skin, he was considerably wetter than he had been before. It would take him a while to steam dry.
There was a bucket, a rake and several damp piles of straw. Hoss, in the dark and on unfamiliar territory, managed to trip over them all. Stumbling and cursing, he made his way to the back of the barn where they had stables their horses. His sturdy brown gelding snuffled at him loudly, lipping his hands and his face as he snuffled for the accustomed treats Hoss carried in his pockets.
“I don’t have nothin’ for you, big fella.” Hoss rubbed the blaze on the horse’s long face. Now he felt guilty all over again. He could have saved the gelding some bread. “Don’t you worry none. In two or three days, we’re gonna be home, an’ I’ll see you get all the oats and sweet hay you c’n eat.”
The gelding nudged him hard with his head as if he understood what was said. Hoss checked on the other horses: Joe’s spotted pony and the leggy chestnut Adam was forking that week. All the animals were fretful and uncomfortable. Hoss didn’t blame them one bit. No doubt they were hungry, cold and damp, and he could appreciate the way that they felt.
Hoss finished his conversation with his horse, concluding with more reassurance and a hearty pat on the neck. He was preparing himself for another dash through the rain when he heard the sound of men’s voices. They were shouting and cheering and urging someone along to greater feats of endeavour. They were somewhere outside the back of the barn and the sounds were muffled by the thick board walls. Hoss couldn’t make out what was going on, but he sure couldn’t help being curious.
He was pleased that the rain had somewhat abated. It had reduced to a fine, drifting haze that hung suspended on the chilly night air. The noise from outside had died down – at least, Hoss couldn’t hear it from where he was but something was happening around behind the horse-shed. He could see the faint glow of lanterns and men were moving about. H made up his mind to find out what was going on.
By the time he got there, the excitement seemed to be over. Men stood around in small groups talking, oblivious to the mud underfoot and the cold wet mist that blew in their faces. Hoss saw money change hands and hostile eyes turned in his direction.
Hoss figured he could take a few hard stares. He tucked his thumbs in his belt and selected the least aggressive looking of those present to be his informant. “Say, old-timer, what’s goin’ on here?”
The old man was short with bandy, bowed legs and a short bristled beard on a face that resembled well-tanned leather. He took a long look around, spat out a stream of dark brown saliva and cocked a bird-bright eye up at Hoss. “Reckon as we’re havin’ us a mud-wrastlin’ contest here, young fella.”
“Is that at fact!” Hoss leaned back on his heels as well as he could in the mud, and his face split into a broad, gap-toothed smile. There was little he liked better that mud wrestling and he often took part himself, going for three quick falls on a Saturday night with the boys from the mines and the lumber camps, and often he took on his brothers, both men at once, just for the hell of it. Most often, Hoss came out the winner. Feeling himself something of a connoisseur, he went to inspect the arena
The mud hole was just down hill from the back of the barn. It was a rich brown, much-churned expanse that glistened wetly. In the uneven light of the lanterns it was a red and gold version of hell. Hoss wrinkled his nose. From the stench that came up out of the pit, at least some of the water drained down from the barn and the brown colour had been imparted by a substantial admixture of horse manure. Men were starting to gather around – it appeared that the next bout was soon to get underway – and Hoss, with men pressing against his back, found himself in the centre of things. He soon realised that this was mud wrestling unlike any he had ever encountered before. Three things rapidly became apparent: these contests were held in earnest, the men fought stark naked and there were no holds barred.
Joe’s eyes flicked around at the other three faces and laid his cards on the table. A pair of kings and a pair of aces were enough to pick up the pot. A big grin split his face as he gathered up the small heap of cash in the middle of the table and pulled it towards him. The three faces glowered. The handsome young man had invited himself into their game and then had the temerity to hit a winning streak and all but clean them out. They didn’t much like it.
The small chap with the shifty brown eyes was somewhat less amused than he had been an hour before, while the man in the fragrant brown-leather suit chewed on the end of an unlit cigar and scowled at the cards he’d been dealt as if, by sheer force of will, he might make the points on the paste boards add up to more than they did. On Joe’s other side, the man with the long yellow plaits and the fringed deerskin shirt was all but apoplectic. He was the one Joe was worried about. His face was the purple and blue colour of a thundercloud on a hot summer’s day and his blue eyes bulged. He was grumbling like a terrier somewhere deep down in his throat. There was a hickory-handled pistol tucked into his belt, alongside a broad-bladed knife. Joe didn’t doubt for a moment that he knew how to use both.
Joe hadn’t cheated – he’d just had a rare run of good luck. He had a feeling that no one around here was going to listen to his point of view. He figured he’d outstayed his welcome. He flashed them all his bright, boyish smile. “I’d like to thank you gentlemen for a most enjoyable evening.” He pushed back his chair and scooped his winnings into his hat. He guessed there was about fifty dollars in small bills and loose change. He wasn’t about to linger and count it. He stood up and bobbed his head again. “Real nice to make your acquaintance. Thanks for letting me sit in on the game. Perhaps we should do it again some time.” He backed away from the table. Buckskin-clad-man gathered himself and began to climb out of his seat. His grumble turned into a growl. Joe decided that, upon this occasion, discretion was by far the better part of valour, and it would be no good to anyone if he ended up dead. He beat a hasty retreat.
Joe stuffed his money into various pockets and looked around for Hoss. In a roomful of big men, his big-built brother was nowhere to be seen. Come to think of it, he couldn’t see Adam anywhere either; he was all on his own.
Well, Joe decided, he was a man with a tongue in his head, and he didn’t mind asking. The third or fourth fellow he spoke to condescended to answer. He gazed at Joe with a white walleye. “I saw that fella you’re lookin’ fer a-headin’ on out ta the barn. Reckon he was after takin’ a look at that bare-skin wrastlin’ match they’re holdin’ tonight.”
“A wrastlin’ match? Whoo-ee!” Joe jammed his hat on his head and pursed his lips in a whistle. His irrepressible grin came back onto his face. “That’s somethin’ I gotta see
Tirelessly cheerful, Joe went out to the barn. He was delighted that it had stopped raining. Although there was no sign of the moon, the clouds were broken and blowing by fast. They afforded an occasional glimpse of the sky. It was definitely getting colder; Joe’s breath puffed. It was plain that something was going on out back of the horse barn. Joe’s could see the spill of the lamplight and hear voices raised in excitement as he got closer: the cheers, whistles and catcalls told him a fight was in progress. Joe walked fast, stretching his legs over the smallest puddles and splashing his way through the rest.
Behind the barn, a crowd had collected around the mud pit. A miasmic fog of noise, mist and steam hung over it. All Joe could see was the living wall of men’s backs. Being shorter and slighter and on the whole more lithe, Joe slipped in among them and wormed his way to the front.
Two huge, bare assed men were grappling shin deep in the mud hole. They were completely coated in the slick, brown muck; it made it all but impossible to grip arms, legs or head – their hands kept slipping away. Some of the holds they did get looked painful. The noise from the crowd almost drowned out the grunts and the groans.
Joe looked along the line of spectators and spotted his brother. Hoss was excited; he shouted and yelled with the rest of the men and jumped up and down. Joe’s eyes switched to the two in the mud hole and then back to his oversized brother. Joe remembered all that money stuffed in his pockets and had a brilliant idea! There was no time like the present, he figured, to put the plan into action. He worked his way along the line of spectators to reach Hoss’s side
Hoss was pleased to see him, if slightly bemused. “Hey, Joe I thought you was playin’ cards.”
Joe beckoned him down to his level. “I’ve got a plan to make money.” Hoss leaned down, and Joe whispered loudly into his ear.
Hoss’s expression became increasingly doubtful. “Joe, are you real sure that’s a good idea?”
“Good? It’s brilliant!” Joe was indignant. “Did I ever steer you wrong? You c’n take either one o’ those two easy, an’ by the time they’re finished with each other, they’re gonna be plumb tuckered out.”
Hoss scowled at him. “How come it’s always me..?”
Joe raised both eyebrows in surprise. “You don’t expect me..? Look at the size of them!”
“I’m lookin’.” While Hoss stripped off his clothes, Joe made several substantial bets with the men around him. When he looked at his brother’s powerful body, it seemed almost a shame to be taking their money. Almost…
Down in the mud pit, the grappling match came to an end. The larger man was the victor. He laid his opponent out in the mud. Four other men hauled the loser away. Joe was undismayed; he was confident he was on his way to a fortune.
Bootless, Hoss hopped out of his pants and handed them to Joe along with his gun and his hat. He was still frowning. “Joe, I don’t think…”
“It’s okay!” Joe beamed reassurance. “This is the easiest money we’ve ever made.”
Buff naked, Hoss climbed down into slick, cold, smelly mud. The current king of the mud hole sluiced off his head with a bucket of water. The water ran down his chest to his groin. It revealed a forest of sprouting red hair and features that Joe remembered too well: the bulberous lips and large hooked nose belonged to Big Red. Not daring to watch what happened next, Joe squeezed his eyes shut.
Adam stepped out of Clary’s room and closed the door softly behind him. He had always thought it bad manners to leave with a bang. He carried his hat in his hand and had a very silly, self satisfied smile stuck to the front of his face. He hadn’t spent the evening in quite the way he’d expected, but it had been far more pleasurable than anything else he’s had in mind – and more expensive. Having paid for supper for three and given Clary an extra dollar for services rendered, He had a whole lot less money tucked in his boot than before. He regarded it as money well spent. That Clary sure knew how to how to keep a man entertained, and he’d kind of lost track of the time. Now, he supposed, he better catch up with those two brothers of his before they got into mischief.
The big room was quieter than he had expected – in fact half of the tables were empty. More to the point, he couldn’t see either one of his siblings. One thought popped into his mind: where did everybody go? Followed closely by another: where in hell were Hoss and little Joe? Dread dropped like a rock into the pit of his stomach. Where had the pair of them got to and what were they about? Adam backed up to the makeshift bar and spoke to a small, black-haired woman wielding a greasy grey cloth. “Where did everybody go?”
The woman continued to wipe. “You wanta buy a beer, Señor?”
“I’m looking for a young man with curly brown hair and a man in a tall white hat.”
The woman blinked at him owlishly; “You wanta buy a beer?”
Adam sighed and fished in his pocket for a coin: one of a small and dwindling supply. “I’d kinda like to buy a beer.”
The woman fetched a jug and poured out a mug that was half warming beer and half froth. “And now,” Adam said. “about the two fellas I’m looking for.” The woman let loose with a torrent of Spanish that Adam half understood. He managed to pick out several key words that made his heart sink still further: ‘barn’ and ‘mud’ and ‘fight’.
Adam made his way out to the barn. It was easy enough to find where the fighting took place. He pushed his way through to the front of the crowd and grabbed Joe by the scruff of the neck. “What in hell are you up to? Didn’t I tell you to…” He saw Hoss’s tall white hat in his brother’s hand.
Adam caught sight of the two men fighting. Covered in mud, blood and slime, Hoss was unrecognisable to anyone one who didn’t know him very, very well. Adam let go of Joe and stepped to the edge of the pit. His jaw dropped open. No, he wasn’t mistaken. That man out there was his brother and this was one fight he was losing. Adam had to get him out of there before any damage was done. “Hoss!”
Over and above the cheers and the stomp of the crowd, Hoss heard his big brother’s voice, and boy, did Adam sound mad! Hoss turned his head. Big Red came in with a wide-swinging, haymaking forearm punch. The blow lifted Hoss clear of the mud and knocked his flat on his back. The crowd went mad with its cheering and jeering. There was a pained expression on the big Cartwright’s face.
Adam saw Hoss go down. He wasn’t standing for any more of this nonsense. He wasn’t about to try to explain to their father how Hoss got all bloodied up. He rather fancied hanging on to his hide. Adam stepped down into the mud pit to haul his brother out.
Big Red wasn’t about to be swindled out of his victory. He jumped on Adam’s back. Adam went down on his face in the mud. A big grin split Joe’s face. This was better than he had expected. Both Cartwright men managed to get to their feet. Covered from head to toe in stinking brown goo, they closed in on Red, one man on either side. The crowd went wild.
Jeers and catcalls filled their ears. Big Red roared and came in flailing. Adam caught a crack in the face from a swinging elbow and went down as if he were pole axed. Big Red lifted a mud-booted foot to stomp him. Hoss let out a bellow and dived at Big Red. He buried his head in the pit of Big Red’s belly and both men went down in the mud.
The two giants grappled with each other, each trying to get a hold. Big Red found something squashy and roughly spherical. He squeezed hard. Hoss’s eyes bulged, and he let out a squeal. The next thing Big Red was aware of was lying face down in the mud.
Adam was kind of groggy. Gasping, Hoss went to help him up. Two men climbed down into the pit to stop Red from drowning. They hauled him up by the arms. Red roared and lunged at them, and they all went down in the mire.
With Hoss’s help, Adam got his legs under him. Hoss was full of concern. “Adam, ‘re you alright?”
Adam clung to his arm. “I’m not at all sure.” Leaning one on the other, they started out for the edge of the pit. By now, there were a dozen men in that mud hole, all grappling with one another in a glorious free for all. Someone shoved the Cartwright men in the back and sent them sprawling. Joe had collected his winnings when Hoss knocked Big Red down. Now, he decided, it was time to beat a strategic retreat before either of his brothers got their hands on him.
Yelling abuse at the top of his lungs in a language that no one – except, perhaps, Adam – understood, the one-eyed scar-faced Frenchman waded in with his wheel-spoke, hitting out right and left. The third swipe caught Adam Cartwright alongside the head, and for him, someone put out the lights.
Hoss lowered his stirrup leathers back into place and settled his tall white hat more firmly onto his head. Hoss had the advantage of having fought in the mud pit naked; his clothes had been relatively clean when he’d sluiced the mud off his body and climbed back into them. He wasn’t stained with mud, and he didn’t stink of manure – unlike some people he could think of. He was mighty glad he was standing upwind of Adam. He filled up his lungs with clean, rain-washed air and took a last look about him. This wasn’t a road a man was likely to travel too often; he had a feeling it would be a while before he came this way again.
The sky was clear. The rain clouds had mostly drifted away although some still lingered as a dark, brooding backdrop. Ma Hennesey’s, in daylight, had lost its brooding air of menace; now it was just an ill kept, meandering, ramshackle building with smoke rising up from the chimney and a queue of men awaiting their turns in the outhouse ‘round at the back.
The muddy yard was filled with horses. Now that the rain was holding off, a lot of men were saddling up and preparing to be on their way. Many of them were tough looking hombres; men that Adam Cartwright wanted to ride out ahead of him. He’d rather have them out in front where he could see them than skulking around at his back.
Right at that moment, Adam looked like a pretty
desperate character himself. He had an angry purple bruise spread over his
cheekbone, a squinty, half closed eye and a lip that was split and swollen; all
features he would have trouble explaining away to his
Hoss chuckled as he caught the mischievous glint in his brother Joe’s eye. “We know, Adam,” they said in unison. “Stay out of trouble!”
Potter’s Bar 2002.