Sharon Kay Bottoms



            How could I even think of leaving?  Nothing back East could compare with these majestic, snow-capped mountains that tower above a lake more dazzling than sapphire—a perfect gem, fit for a monarch’s crown.  The vanilla fragrance of pine bark—the scent of home—wafts on the breeze that riffles the reflecting water into gentle waves.  Overhead I hear the fluttering call of a mountain bluebird, more uplifting to my heart than the grandest operatic aria.  The peace and serenity of this place surpasses that which I’ve found anywhere else, and I’ve seen enough of this country to be a fair judge.  Yet only a few days ago I was prepared to toss it all aside.  Oh, I’ve left home before—once for an extended span of years, as well as for briefer journeys, but I always knew I’d come back.  To leave now, for the reason I was contemplating, would have been more permanent—perhaps even eternal.  And yet I almost made that mistake—and not for the first time.

            The day began in such ordinary fashion.  A trip to town for supplies—routine, matter of fact, even boring.  Still, having my brother by my side always made for good companionship, even if the conversation was less than scintillating.  He’s not much for discussing politics or literature, and his idea of art is pretty much limited to the form of a shapely lady, draped in a bit of gauze, that hangs above the bar of the Silver Dollar.  Or a horse running bareback and free across an open meadow.  It doesn’t matter, though; he’s my brother, and it’s good just to be with him.  There is no one in whose company I feel more comfortable and content.

            We conducted our business with dispatch—usually the case when I’m with him—so I suggested we celebrate with an especially fine dinner at the Washoe Club, accompanied by a glass of shimmering ruby Il Vino di Ponderosa from grapes grown by our neighbor, Georgio Rossi, on land that once was our own.  I thought that might be the selling point to tip the balance, but no such luck.  “I’d rather have a cold beer,” my brother said, and I could scarcely deny him when he’d done most of the work of loading the supplies, while I transacted business at the bank.  Now I wish I’d been more insistent on having my own way; then we wouldn’t have been where we were when we were and—mercy, what muddled babbling!  And I said his conversation was less than scintillating?  He’s as profound as a professor, compared to me at times.

            The fare at the Silver Dollar left much to be desired, in my opinion, but at least it came free with the price of the beer.  Of course, we had to have a second one to wash down the intentional saltiness of the food, but neither of us considered that a problem.  The cuisine may not have been what my educated palate would have preferred—all right, it definitely wasn’t—but rarely have I enjoyed a meal more.  He was in fine form that day and kept everyone around in stitches with his recitation of gossip he’d picked up at the mercantile.

            We were still laughing as he backed through the bat wings of the saloon just ahead of me.  His laughter broke off abruptly, as his eyes widened with surprise.  Then they went blank, and my brother sank down to the planked walkway in front of the Silver Dollar.  My gun automatically slid from my holster as I cried out his name—both actions pointless.  Though I hadn’t heard a second shot, the shooter himself lay sprawled in the street, no longer a risk, and my brother had passed into some misty realm beyond reach of my voice.

            I dropped to his side, frantically working to stanch the blood that streamed through my fingers and dripped down through the cracks in the boards to the dirt beneath, all the time screaming his name louder and louder.  Through a fog I saw Sheriff Coffee charging down the street, roughly pulling the man who had shot my brother to his feet.  I spared one glance at him as Roy handcuffed him.  No one I knew, but that wasn’t too surprising.  My brother—both of them, for that matter—knew more people in the territory than I did, for good or ill.  He’s just got a way about him that draws people to him, but which of them would want to hurt him?  It was inconceivable.

            “Adam, Adam, let me have him,” I heard someone say in my ear.  Paul Martin.  He’s here?  Not out delivering a baby somewhere, like last time?  I stared at him in disbelief, although it wasn’t until he spoke again that I realized I was doing it.  “Adam, move your hands, son,” the doctor said softly, but firmly.  I looked down and saw my hands, still pressed against the spurting wound, in the doctor’s way.  I lifted them, bloody palms out and held high, as if I were the culprit the sheriff were taking into custody.  It was a trick of the mind, of course, but that’s how I felt, as if I were the one responsible for my younger brother’s plight.  Call it the curse of the eldest if you will; I always feel responsible where my brothers are concerned.

            Somehow we got him down to the doc’s office and onto his examining table.  Then I was banished to the waiting area and left alone with my thoughts.  Such strange thoughts.  I couldn’t help remembering the last time I’d seen a bullet drop a brother.  Different this time, thank God. Last time—out by Montpelier Gorge—I had only myself to rely on—and only myself to blame.  No guilt this time, except that confounded curse of the eldest, and plenty of hands to help.  A good thing, too, since I don’t think I could have hefted Hoss up the way I did Joe.  Yes, it was a good thing that Joe was the one shot out there and Hoss the one struck down here in town.

            I pressed the fingers of both hands into my temple, trying to squeeze the lunacy out of my thinking.  It was as if I couldn’t shake the maddening thought that it was inevitable for brothers to get shot.  Why?  The first response that trickled through my addled brain was the one I’d voiced to dear old Sheila Reardon: because out here in the West, it’s a jungle—for animals, savages.  The question isn’t whether a brother will get shot; it’s when and where.

            Just that quickly I was back where I’d been during those dreadful days of fighting for Joe’s life, and I told myself again, as I had then, that once this was all over, I would head East on the first stage—dragging my brothers and Pa with me, if possible—and find a place where we could all live like decent human beings . . . or, at least, just live.

            Roy came in sometime while I was entertaining those tortured thoughts, and I was able, for a few minutes, to displace them with the questions I fired at the lawman.  Who was that man?  What did he have against Hoss?  What could anyone have against Hoss?  Or was he merely a pawn in a plot to hurt some other Cartwright?  Goodness knows, we’ve faced that before!

            The truth, when I finally gave Roy a chance to speak, only emphasized how crazy life really is here in the West.  The shooter wasn’t even aiming at Hoss—or anyone else.  My brother had been back shot by a drunk firing at random to express the exuberance of his high spirits—emphasis on the spirits.  And now my brother lay in that next room, with a wound that could well prove mortal, because some fool didn’t have the sense to know when he’d poured enough rotgut down his miserable throat.  Inside my head the siren call of that stage headed East began to crescendo, and I was determined to answer it.

            Another voice tried to argue against the siren, telling me that there was violence back East, too.  It reminded me of places like the Five Points in New York City, where no man could walk safely after dark.  The siren, however, insisted that a wise man could easily avoid such places, as he can steer clear of the Barbary Coast out here, but Hoss wasn’t shot in some dark alley in a seedy part of town.  He was struck down on Main Street in Virginia City.  And all he did to put himself in danger was finish his lunch a little early—or late; take your pick.  A single moment made the difference, and here in the West peril can strike at any moment, without warning and beyond any wise man’s ability to predict and prevent.

            When the door to the examining room finally opened, I leaped to my feet.  I suppose Paul must have sensed my anxiety, for he hurried to say, “He’ll be all right.  Touch and go for a while there and he lost a lot of blood, but he’s strong.  He’ll make it, Adam.”

            Roy slapped me on the back in congratulations.  “Just knew it.  Ain’t nothin’ as puny as a stray bullet gonna keep that boy down.”

            I nodded perfunctorily, although we all know that even the smallest derringer ball has power enough to slay the biggest of men, if it hits just right.  “Can I see him?” I asked.

            “Soon,” Paul promised.  “Give the chloroform a chance to wear off.”

            “Anything I can do for you, son?” Roy asked as he moved toward the door.

            “Get me a stage schedule,” I muttered and immediately bit my tongue.  Whatever my plans might be, this wasn’t the time or place to announce them.

            Roy and Paul exchanged a worried glance, as if they both thought the stress had knocked out my underpinnings.  Roy spoke softly and slowly, as he might have to a man whose sanity he had reason to question.  “I had in mind something like sending word to your pa, Adam.”

            I pursed my lips, mostly to keep from saying anything else to raise their eyebrows, and nodded.

            “I’ll do it right away,” Roy assured me and left.

            With a comforting pat to my shoulder, Paul went back into the room with Hoss, and I sat down to wait.  The minutes dragged by, but I don’t think too many of them actually passed before the doctor told me I could go in.  Eager as I was to see my brother, I entered cautiously, hesitant to disturb him.  He, on the other hand, grinned broadly, as only he can, and reached toward me.  “Hey, Adam,” he said.

            I felt a smile start to tickle my lips as I heard the same words with which Joe had greeted me when he finally woke from his fever dreams after that ghastly wolf attack.  I took Hoss’s hand, pleased to feel the warmth of his grasp, even if it wasn’t as strong as usual.  At that moment I knew, as I’d known the minute Joe had spoken to me, that I wouldn’t be going anywhere.  I felt a little foolish about my wild swing of mood, more typical of Joe than me, but now that I’ve had a few days to mull things over, I understand something about myself that I didn’t before.

            Twice now I’ve determined to seek refuge back East, and I don’t doubt that should Pa or Hoss or Joe be violently assailed another time I’ll hear that siren call again.   I’ll be tempted to answer it., I’m sure, but I know now that my refuge is not back East.  It’s here—here in the West—and while the songbirds back there may trill a prettier tune, the call of the mountain bluebird will always echo loudest in my ear.


The End

July, 2007