Heroes Often Do
Aw Stink, Nevada is a better name, I'd say.
I came to this ugly, brown, dust covered hole at the end of the world to get rich. There is no other earthly reason why anyone would come here. Even that new doctor has to have a reason he's choosing to keep to himself. No one is so righteous that he would willingly drag his pregnant wife to the pits of Hell simply because he heard Mr. Buell had need of a doctor in his miserable excuse for a town.
Yes, I came here to get rich by digging silver. Only a desperate man—or a foolish one—would want to dig anything out of rock so hard it can give you blisters just thinking about it. And, dang-blast-it, yes, I am that desperate. I have tried my hand at more jobs than I can count. I guess my biggest problem is I just don't like to work. Maybe I am somewhat foolish, too, because I had no idea digging for silver was going to be such wretchedly, back-breakingly miserable work.
These wretched, back-bent, miserable miners I have to work alongside are even worse than the town. When I'm not working, I get plowed into by drunks at every corner.
"Shorry, 'bout that!" A short, almost toothless old-timer with several days' worth of stubble on his face breathes noxious fumes directly into my nose as he pats my arm.
I pat him right back…maybe a touch harder than I should. At least he manages to keep his feet enough to stagger into yet another tented saloon.
"Hey, Codger! Look fellas! It's Codger!" Apparently, my toothless attacker has a friend or two in this dust-bucket of a town—which is more than I can say for myself. I'm not lonely, exactly; but it'd be nice to have someone to talk to now and then.
"What'cha got to tell us, Codger?"
I slip in behind him, unnoticed, as a crowd of his filthy cohorts gathers around the old man. "Oh, I got lots to tell ya', I do!"
"Well, spit it out, ya' old coot!"
"Talkin's thirsty bidness. Give me a drink, and I'll tell ya'!"
As Mister Codger downs a shot of whiskey and then another, I slip into a chair in the back to watch and listen to his story, quickly discovering it to be as absurd as any story can be…a story of cowboy heroes and rampaging Indians, of arrow wounds and desperate acts of courage, and then, finally, of a miraculous rescue by a cavalry outfit that has apparently managed to be in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.
I laugh in amusement, even while I puzzle on the old man's words in amazement. There is some truth to it all. There must be. I, too, saw those cavalry troops ride into town and deliver two wounded men up to the Buell house. Something happened out in that desert. I can even believe Indians were involved. But this? This wild tale? It's outrageous. Preposterous. It simply cannot have happened as these men are saying.
Everyone, it seems, has heard pieces of the story; and the more these drunken miners talk, adding to Codger's recent discoveries—gleaned from eaves dropping, I imagine—the more outlandish the story grows.
"I heard the little one threw the bigger'un right over his shoulder and climbed one handed all the way on up the face of a cliff!"
"Like a billy goat's what I heard."
"Shot up half that tribe what come after 'em! Didn't need the cavalry, no how!"
"Aw, yer pullin' my leg! 'Course they needed the cavalry! Was the cavalry that saved their hides!"
"'Nope. That little'uns like a one-man army!"
"Or a one-armed billy goat!"
"Ain't no man can be an army by hisself!"
"'Course he can, if he's positioned right. He got the bead on them Paiutes and started knockin' 'em down one right after the other!"
"Weren't just Paiutes! Was Shoshones and Bannocks, too."
"Three tribes? Naw. Yer gettin' thick if ya think I'll believe two cowpokes won out against three tribes of Indians!"
"Two? What happened to the one-man army?"
"The other was hurt but he was shootin' alright once the billy goat got him up top of them rocks."
"What about them three tribes?
"Aw, quit that, would ya'? Weren't three tribes! Was renegades. A herd of 'em. Might've been Apaches in there, too!"
"Ain't no Apaches out this way!"
"It's renegades! Renegades don't much care about territory!"
"Apaches ridin' with Shoshones?"
"And Bannocks and Paiutes! All of 'em ridin' together!"
"Two men can't go up aginst all'a that and come out alive!"
"You go right on over to Mr. Bull's and see fer yerself! They is too alive! Both of 'em!"
"It's Buell's, ya' mule brain!"
"He ain't no bull, not no more!"
"Aw, hell! He owns this town! 'Course he's the bull!"
"Maybe, but that new doc's cowed him some! Moved right into the bull's house, he did!"
The story grows in my head even as it grows from the black-toothed mouths of these men as I absorb all there is to see…the genuine fascination in the men's eyes…the amusement…the entertained and entertaining gleam in each guffaw and gaffe….
A burly bearded man takes up a newspaper from the table before him with one big-handed swipe and rolls it up to pound his companion harmlessly over the head. When it falls to the floor near me, I almost feel included. I can't help but reach down and take it into my own hand. But I've no one to pummel with it, so I unroll it, instead.
It's a two-month old copy of The Territorial from out of Virginia City. My eyes skim over news I have no interest in and land instead on an advertisement. Beadles has released two new dime novels: A detective story about New York City and an Indian tale from when the lands east of the Mississippi were considered a pioneering west.
The ruckus around me quiets down some in my head as, quite suddenly, almost like I've been harmlessly smacked over the head with it by a friendly companion, I realize that I have found gold here amongst all this rock-buried silver. I know exactly what my next job shall be. And it most certainly does not involve my swinging a pick-axe!
A year. I can't believe it's been a year already. Riding through this desert makes me think it was only yesterday or…maybe today, even. Like maybe those renegades are still out there, like they're out there right now watching us, just waiting for us to get close enough, just waiting—
"Joe?" Adam's looking back at me.
I've fallen behind. I didn't even know I was slowing down. And now Pa and Hoss are turning, too. I've fallen behind all of them. Heck, I'm usually the one racing out in front. They all must think—
"Something wrong, Joe?"
'Course not. What could be wrong? Just because last time we rode this way all together like this, you and I ran into a bunch of renegades on the way back…just because you and I both knew we were gonna die out here…just because….
I give Adam a tight smile as I ride up alongside him. I'm sure he sees through it. Doesn't matter. I can pretend he's not noticing. Maybe he's even looking at all those rocks out there, too. "I'm just enjoying the view." My tight smile gets tighter. So does that iron-hard knot in my gut.
Adam's smile is tight, too, but not as tight as mine. There's even something real to it, something that loosens that knot in me the smallest bit. "I hear the view is far better in Austin. There are at least four blonde-haired blue-eyed views to enjoy, as a matter of fact."
Hoss's smile isn't tight at all. "Ya' think Doc Olverson made all that up about his nieces comin' out here to visit?"
"And just why would he do that?" Adam's playing now.
I can't get myself to play along. My fingers tighten so much on the reins I can feel the leather biting into my skin. I want us all to race out of this desert fast as we can, but…last time we did that, Adam got an arrow in his thigh, and the only way I could stop him from getting another was to drag him up into the rocks.
Stupid. I should've grabbed his reins and kept riding. We didn't stand a chance of getting out of there alive. We were gonna die up there together. On account of me making a mistake. On account of me….
Adam's hand covers mine. "You grip those reins any tighter you're going to draw blood." His voice is low enough that I'm sure no one else can hear him.
I don't know why he cares so much about Pa and Hoss hearing him. They're both keeping their distance, pretending just like I'd tried to do a few minutes ago. Pretending….
They're embarrassed. They can all tell I've turned yellow. You can't hide fear. You can try all you want, but you can't hide it.
No. You can't hide fear. But maybe…maybe you can outrun it.
Pushing Adam away, I kick Cochise hard. Just let them Indians come after me. Just…. Me.
Riding hard and fast eases the knot some, enough at least to help me put some sense into my head. There hasn't been a problem with renegades here since that band of 'em attacked Adam and me. Cavalry still patrols through this way, but not as often. And Pa, Hoss…even Adam have made more trips between the Ponderosa and Austin than I can remember, hauling lumber and sometimes supplies, too. They made all those trips and never had any problems. No reason we should now. But I just can't stop myself from thinking we shouldn't be here. We shouldn't ever come back this way again.
Yeah, some sense that is. I'm bein' thick. Stupid.
I kick Cochise hard again and think about my family riding this same road slow as molasses in those heavy loaded wagons. They didn't have to do it, not themselves. Could've sent other men. But…I guess Pa and Hoss like visiting with the Olversons and that baby of theirs, a baby they helped deliver out here in this desert. The Olversons even named that baby for them: Benjamin Eric Olverson. I'm glad something good could happen like that out here. But it doesn't take away the bad. Pa and Hoss helped deliver a baby. And I almost got Adam and me both killed. No. Nothing can make up for that.
Why Adam comes out here is different. He acts like it's just so he can watch over those business dealings with Mr. Buell, but there's more to it, something he keeps to himself. Something that has to do with what happened to us, although I still haven't figured it out.
It's kind'a strange. We seem to talk better now. I reckon that's on account of how we found ourselves saying things we never figured to say out loud, the kind of things you have to say when you know you're not gonna get another chance…the things you say when you know death is coming. Yeah. We talk better now. But not about what happened out here. We just can't seem to talk about that. Not much, anyway. Not enough, I guess.
Adam says I saved his life. Pa and Hoss play along. But…I know different.
Wish I knew what keeps pulling Adam back here. I'd be glad to never see this stretch of desert again. But I finally ran out of excuses. How am I supposed to come up with an excuse about having other work to do when Pa's already made it clear we're letting work go for a few days?
"It's little Benjamin's birthday! We can't let the Olversons down, now, can we?" Pa sure likes saying that baby's name. I reckon he ought to. It's his, after all.
And Doc Olverson…well, I reckon Pa's right about not letting him down. Doc saved more than our hides, didn't he? He also saved that timber deal with Mr. Buell. I guess he got Buell to feel guilty about turning down our bid after keeping us waiting for him to get back to town. If Adam and I hadn't waited for him, we would've left Austin with Pa and Hoss. We never would've run into them Indians at all.
Maybe Buell reconsidered our bid. Doesn't matter to me. I still can't stomach that man. If it hadn't been for him….
Dang. Look at that. I can't help but stare at that town as it comes into view. It looks like a real town now. Yeah. A real town, not a mining camp. The closer I get, I see a whole slew of buildings and not a single tent. They sure have been busy with all that lumber of ours…and all that work Pa, Hoss and Adam have done alongside them.
But not me. Never me.
"Sure is a sight, ain't it, Joe?"
Once again, I've slowed down without even realizing it, not until Hoss is right up next to me.
"Yeah." I try to swallow my guilt. "Sure is."
If he sees any that I haven't managed to swallow, he doesn't show it. He's smiling enough to make it seem we're out on a Sunday picnic. "Wait'll you see the doc's house. Adam sure did a fine job designin' it." There's a proud look in Hoss's eye. I reckon it's as much on account of that baby having "Eric" as a middle name as it is about Adam working on those house plans while he was still stuck at home with a bad leg.
Pa and Hoss got the timber work going. Adam designed the house. And all I was thinking about at the time was how I was gonna manage to eat enough to fill my stomach when I couldn't even sit up properly on account of the pressure it put on that wound in my back.
Ah, hell. I know no one blames me for that. For any of it. No. No one blames me but me.
"I'm proud of you, Joe." I can still hear Adam sayin' that. Heck, they all said it. But I messed up. How could they not see that? I got Adam and me stuck up there in them rocks. I made it so we didn't stand a chance. Well…one chance. Our only hope was some dadblamed dime novel rescue, with the cavalry riding in out of the blue to save the day. I can't count on something like that ever happening again. And I sure shouldn't have counted on it back then. No. I messed up. I acted without thinking, just like I always do. Why can't they see that? Why won't they?
"Joe?" Shoot, now Hoss is looking at me funny.
Guess I wasn't paying attention again. Been that way since we got out here. I sure wish we could go back. None of this bothered me back home. "Well what are we waitin' for?" I grin at him like none of it's bothering me now, and then kick my heels into Cochise.
Maybe I can't outrun shame any more than I could fear. But I can sure try.
I'm glad Austin's a real town now. It doesn't look anything like it did. Doesn't remind me of my last visit. Not so much, anyway. Not like out in the thick of the desert.
I'm thinking better now. No one's looking at me funny anymore, either.
And Doc Olverson's nieces are all pretty little things, just like we thought they'd be. Trouble is, the doc never did say how old they were. Turns out they really are little things. The oldest is only sixteen, and…well, pretty as she is, her only bein' sixteen's got me kind'a jittery.
They've got a porch swing out front, and, with everyone bein' out back for now, I figured it'd be a good place to go to ease up on some of those jitters. But I sure hadn't figured on Shella following me out here.
Yeah, Shella's not her real name, but it's as close as any of us can come to pronouncing it right. Adam's got closer than any of us. He says it's all about how you position your tongue against the roof of your mouth, but it's an awful lot of trouble trying to concentrate on how to position your tongue just to say someone's name. Makes it hard to remember what it was you were gonna say to her to begin with. And I already have trouble remembering what I want to say to her.
Sure is a pretty little thing.
"Do you like to read, Little Joe?"
"Hmmmm?" She sure talks pretty, too.
"To read? Do you like to read books?"
"Oh. Oh, yeah. Sure, I like to read."
"I learn English reading books."
Sure has a pretty smile. And…and she keeps sliding closer to me on this swing. I try sliding sideways some, but I'm already right at the edge. "Yeah, I…I suppose that'd be a swell way to learn it."
"My far…my fa-der…or, how you say? My pa?" Even the way she crunches her brows down looks pretty.
But her talking about her pa gets me thinking about my pa and…and my pa wouldn't want me to get too close to Doc Olverson's sixteen-year-old niece all alone out here on this porch swing. Maybe I'd better stand up for a while. "Yeah, th..that's how I say it."
She takes a quick glace toward the front door—like she's nervous someone might hear her—before looking up at me. "My pa does not so much like de books I choose to read."
"I show you." She reaches down into a sewing basket sitting right there next to the swing and pulls out a small book with a heavy paper cover…not leather or cloth like I'd expect to see. Then I see the picture on the cover and I realize what she's got.
"A dime novel?" I start giggling. "You like dime novels?"
She's giggling, too, now, and nodding excitedly. "Ya! Dime novels! So much fun to read!"
"But your pa doesn't like the fact that you like 'em?"
"Ny, he does not." Her nose crinkles up real cute when she laughs.
"My pa and my brother Adam think they're a waste of time but—"
"Oh no! No vaste at all! I learn English quickly vit dese! I show you, ya?"
Before I can say anything, she's got the book opened and starts reading.
"Vit Abraham slung over one shoulder, Little Jack smacked de back of his pinto to get bot' animals running ." She giggles and looks at me again. "Reminds me of you and your horse, Little Joe!"
I'm thinking the same thing and it makes me nervous for some reason. "L..lots of folks have horses like mine."
"Ya?" She looks surprised. "I see many horses here, but I don't tink I ever see anoder like dat. I like to see more horses like Co…Cochee…."
"Cochise," I help her with the name and she smiles again. I sure do like that smile. I'm still thinking about that smile when she turns back to the book.
"Vit any luck, de Indians vould continue to follow de horses. Little Jack needed time to find suitable cover. He scrambled up into de rocks, un—unen…cumbered by de larger man's veight. It never occurred to him dat Abraham might already be dead. He knew only dat he must…."
The story is bringing it back…bringing it all back. It's not the same, of course, but it's close. It's so close I can almost feel myself back up in them rocks. I didn't carry Adam up there, but I did support him on account of that arrow in his leg. And he is bigger than me, but it didn't seem like it then…he didn't seem heavy…it wasn't—
"Joe? Little Joe?" She's looking at me funny now, just like my family did out in that desert.
I realize I'm breathing hard. Panting, more like. And I try to stop it, taking a deep breath, but…I can't seem to fill my lungs. Can't seem to answer her, either. All I can manage to do is stumble back into the porch swing.
"You need vater," Shella tells me, jumping to her feet. "My pa looked like dat. Onkel Emil said it was de desert heat. You need vater, ya?"
I nod, grateful to see her disappear through the door. But it's not the desert heat that's bothering me.
My eyes land on her discarded book on the seat beside me and I can't help but pick it up. Renegade Ambush! The Adventures of Little Jack and Abraham. The picture on the cover shows a cowboy in a green jacket riding on his pinto. Beside him is a cowboy dressed all in black and riding a chestnut.
It can't be a coincidence. Can it?
Suddenly I'm standing again. I don't even remember getting up. I start pacing as I page through that book.
"The story of Adam and Little Joe just ain't finished yet." I remember saying that to Adam when we were both up there, both injured…bleeding out. I kept praying for a dime novel rescue. Adam kept saying we needed to pray for…well, for something else, too. He said we should pray for our mothers to come…to…to guide us up to Heaven, I reckon.
And he…he cried. I remember him crying up there.
It's all coming back, every minute of it. And it wasn't a dime novel rescue that got us down out of those rocks. It was the hand of God. That was the only thing that could've saved us, because I trapped us both up there.
Dang. Shella was supposed to just bring water. I guess she brought Adam, too. I close my eyes…try to catch my breath and push these thoughts aside. But when I turn, I see Adam's alone. Good. I'm glad Shella's not with him.
He'd sounded concerned when he said my name, but now he's wearing a half grin. "Shella said she thought you were having de heat stroke, ya?" Adam's grin gets fuller as he crosses his arms in front of him. "I'm guessing that's not quite true."
I give him a quick smile. "No, it's not…not the heat."
"Please tell me it's not the kind of heat Pa's worried about."
My smile widens without my even thinking about it. I know I can't hide how embarrassed those words make me feel. "You can tell Pa not to worry. She's pretty, but that's…that's not what's got to me."
I can see Adam relax. "Good, because—"
"Don't, Adam," I shoot back at him, my smile and my embarrassment gone. This has nothing to do with pretty girls. But I don't have to tell him that. He can see it in my eyes, I reckon.
He nods, waiting for me to explain. But I…can't. I can't seem to find the right words to start. Finally, I hand him the book. It's all bent up now. I guess I had it all bunched up in my fist. I reckon I'll have to buy Shella a new one. I'd rather buy her a different one. Wonder if this town has—
"Where'd you get this?" Adam sounds concerned again, but…a different kind of concerned. A kind that…. that almost makes me feel like we're up in them rocks again.
"Shella." It's all I can tell him.
"James Colt Trent," he says, reading the name on the cover. "The name sound familiar to you?"
"I'd remember a name like that."
He's not looking at me now, though. He's looking inside himself. Thinking. "Probably a pseudonym. Could be just about anyone. Must have been someone who traveled through here and heard all the talk."
"He did more than hear the talk, Adam. He had to have asked questions. He's changed things around. Gave you an arrow in the back and me one in the leg, but…. It's our story. Isn't it?"
He looks me in the eye…opens his mouth to say something…closes it again, then finally nods. "Too close to be coincidence."
"Why, Adam?" I sound…childish. Like a little boy asking the impossible of his older brother. Like the little boy I became up in those rocks, asking my older brother to make the impossible happen, to give me a dime novel rescue when I knew…when we both knew we were going to die.
He can't lie to me now any more than he could back then. He shakes his head, and then…smiles. "It's a good story. You can't argue that. Caused a whole lot of talk around here."
"I'm tired of all that talk, Adam. I just…I just want to forget, to just…."
"Good luck with that." He sighs. "I don't think you'll ever get that luxury. Neither of us will."
"Thanks a lot."
"But it is over, Joe. We survived. We did everything we could possibly do. And when we couldn't do anything else…it didn't matter. We survived."
"I did everything wrong, Adam."
"I got us trapped up there! I should have grabbed your reins and kept riding. We could've outrun them. We could've—"
"No. We couldn't."
"Sure we could! I just—"
"Joe, face it. My only hope was for you to get me up in those rocks. You could have gotten away, but the minute you turned back for me you lost that chance. Not even you, alone, could have outrun them at that point."
"I got us trapped up there, Adam!"
"You saved my life at risk of your own."
"Stop that! I'm sick of hearing that! It's not true!"
"It is true! Why can't you get yourself to see that?"
"Because it's only natural." Pa's voice surprises us both. He's standing in the doorway. I can see he's not alone, but I can't bring myself to look past him. "Joseph, like it or not, what you did out there in that desert took courage."
"Courage?" I chuckle coldly. "I was afraid, Pa. I was…terrified to see that arrow in Adam's leg. I just wanted to hide. I wanted to get us both hidden in those rocks. I wasn't thinking about it as taking cover. I was…I was thinking like a child trying to hide under the bed. I was—"
"You were a man facing his fear and doing what he had to do to save his brother. That, Joseph, is what it means to be courageous."
"No. I'm a coward." My voice is so soft I doubt anyone can hear me. I'm not sure I want anyone to hear me.
"A coward would have kept riding," Adam says. "I wanted you to take that coward's way out, Joe, because I knew it would keep you alive. But…I'm proud that you didn't." He shrugs and then grins again. "And I'm alive because you didn't."
"Face it, little brother," Hoss says, stepping past Pa, "you're more of a real hero than any of them dime novel fellas."
"Even Little Jack," Adam adds.
"Who's Little Jack?"
Adam hands Hoss the crumpled book.
"Well, doggone! Look at that, Pa! It's Adam and Little Joe! Only they've got different names. Hey, Adam? Says here Abraham's Little Jack's 'erstwhile companion.' What's that mean, anyways?"
"It means Joe's the hero of the story."
"The cavalry were the heroes of the real story, Adam, and you know it."
"Come on, Joe! How many times do I have to tell you that only happens in dime novels?"
The rest of the afternoon is spent telling our story to Shella and her family. There's a lot we don't say, a lot I wouldn't want to worry young girls with hearing. But I realize what we do say really does sound like a good story. I imagine telling it someday to Adam's children. And I imagine I might want to make myself sound like the hero then. Or…maybe not. Them bein' his children and all.
But I don't imagine I'll ever feel right about people confusing cowardice for courage. Or that I'll ever like riding through this part of the desert.
"Adam?" It's dusk now and Adam's sitting on that porch swing by himself, reading a clothbound book. I sit down next to him and wait for him to finish his page. Finally, he looks up at me so I can ask my question. "How come it doesn't ever bother you to ride out here?"
"It does bother me, Joe. It bothers me every single time."
"Then why'd you come out here all those times when you didn't have to?"
"I guess I kept hoping that the more times I made the ride, the less…bothersome it would be."
"Is it? Any less bothersome, I mean?"
"A little. But I doubt it will ever be a comfortable ride."
"Well, it is the desert." I grin at him. Tryin' to get more comfortable with the conversation, I reckon.
"You know what I mean."
"Yeah. I do."
We listen to the silence for a while. Then it's Adam who breaks it. "There's something I've never told you about that night, Joe."
I don't say anything. I just look at him and wait for him to finish.
"Do you know what it was that led me to realize neither of us was going to die up there?"
"When you saw Pa?"
He shakes his head. "No. When I heard your mother's voice."
My mother…? I mouth the words, but don't manage to say them out loud. What he's just said isn't possible. He knows that. Maybe even more than I do.
"I heard her, Joe. To this day, I swear I heard her."
"What…what'd she say?"
"I know what it means. But…why?"
"I believe she was telling me Heaven wasn't ready for us yet."
"Y…you know, Adam. That sounds even stranger than…well, than Little Jack and Abraham!"
Adam's looking up at the sky now. I can tell he's searching for words up there, like he does sometimes…like he can find what he wants painted in the clouds. "'Tis strange, but true, for truth is always strange; stranger than fiction. If it could be told, how much would novels gain by the exchange. How differently the world would men behold."
"What's that from?"
"To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. Lord Byron, I think, but…. I can't seem to place it." He looks puzzled. "Now that's what's strange."
"My brother, Adam, spouting poetry and not rememberin' where it's from!"
"Stranger than fiction?"
"Stranger than anything."
"Stranger than my little brother mistaking cowardice for courage?"
"That's not fair."
"Make no mistake, Joe. You are not a coward."
"Then why do I feel like one?"
"Heroes often do."
I still don't know if I'll ever understand any of it. But one thing I do know: Adam wouldn't know what heroes feel like if he weren't one himself. I guess I come from a family full of heroes. And maybe it's okay if I feel a little proud for having the same blood.
1.) The poem Adam quotes is from Lord Byron's "Don Juan."
2.) Shella's name is actually Kjellaug, a name I borrowed from a relative. Over here, on this side of the ocean, we tend to call her "Shella" for the reasons Joe describes.
3.) "Far" in Norwegian does, in fact, mean "father" (just as "mor" means mother).