Summary: When an accident leaves Adam suddenly blind, he and his family must come to terms with his drastically altered status. A poker game and a forest fire both have their impact.
Advisory: This story contains one scene that includes explicit sexual activity.
Rating: soft R (26,450 words)
Wall of Darkness
They had argued fiercely, but Adam finally convinced his father of the utility of windmills and lost no time installing several in dry areas of the ranch. They had been pumping water for some three years now and had proved themselves by opening substantial new areas to selective grazing. The darn things did require maintenance however – just another chore in an endless list.
Hoss and Adam were hard at work on the one in Seco Flats. The late spring sun warmed the landscape, and the pasture was ablaze with a profusion of tiny wildflowers: yellow and blue, scarlet, purple and orange. The big cattle tank was half full of water; the windmill squeaked and rattled in the shifting breeze, and a partially demolished haystack – what was left of emergency feed for the few animals who had wintered over in this part of the range – stood just below the tower.
Adam had climbed up to the tiny platform some thirty feet above the ground and was examining the mechanism of the still working mill. Hoss stood below looking up patiently at his big brother; the soft blue eyes that gave the lie to the tough aspect of his massive frame were squinted almost shut against the bright, colorless sunlight. Their horses were tied to the far side of the windmill tower along with a heavily loaded pack mule.
Adam finished his examination and called down. “These gears are about chewed up. See if you can dig out that new set. We’ll have to change ‘em before we move a herd in here.”
“Why is it that whenever we look at one of these blame things they always need a day’s work,” Hoss grumbled.
“Just lucky I guess,” Adam answered. “Come on, I need those parts.” Adam turned back to the machinery and fished in the leather bag beside him for a tool to disengage the mechanism and lock down the mill. A sudden gust of wind whipped down the draw behind them as Adam crouched over the gears. The tail vane snapped around and caught him a heavy blow across the back of his head and shoulders throwing him clear of the platform.
Hoss turned back at the sound to see Adam thud into the haystack and roll like a broken doll limp and motionless to the ground. With surprising agility the big man reached his brother and knelt beside him. “Adam!” he spoke urgently. “Adam, you hear me?” There was no response. Hoss’s big hands were gentle as he checked the unconscious man for broken bones. He found nothing beyond a nasty lump on the back of his head that oozed a sticky skim of blood.
Hoss turned Adam onto his side and rested his upper body against the foot of the haystack. Hastening to the water tank, he soaked his neckerchief and hurried back. He sponged Adam’s face and then placed the cool cloth over the rapidly swelling knot in his brother’s dark hair. Settling Adam against his shoulder, he called him again softly.
“Adam, time to wake up partner.” Hoss had just come back from his second trip to the water tank with a freshly wet cloth. His brother seemed deeply unconscious. “Come on Adam; you’re startin’ to scare me.” Adam grunted and stirred slightly. “That’s right; come on back for ole Hoss.” Very slowly Adam’s hand drifted to the back of his head. His eyes were still closed and he winced with pain as he touched the bump.
“Adam, are you hurt bad?” Hoss inquired anxiously.
Adam made no effort to move as he answered. “My head’s splitting. Give me a minute.”
Hoss continued to support his brother as he scolded, “You wouldn’t ah likely had many more minutes left if you hadn’t lit in that haystack. It’s pure dumb luck you didn’t break your neck.”
Adam opened his eyes and looked for Hoss. There was nothing. Minutes before it had been a sunny spring afternoon now it was a moonless midnight. He closed his eyes, rubbed them, drew a shaky breath and then opened them again straining desperately to see. There was no light, no sun, no stars or moon, only darkness, a solid wall of black – deep, intense and terrifying. Yet he could smell the sun warmed hay, the blooming sage. Holding down panic in an iron grip he turned his head toward the sound of his brother’s voice and opened his eyes wide. “Hoss, look at my eyes. Can you see anything wrong?”
Hoss leaned close and looked into Adam’s deep-set hazel eyes under the thick, dark brows. There was no injury that he could see, but they looked blank, lacking their usual lively intelligence. “They look fine to me Adam. Why?” The lids fell, inky lashes brushing tanned cheek.
“I can’t see, Hoss. I can’t see anything.” Adam’s voice shook. He strained to sit up and Hoss held him.
“Easy big brother. Rest for a minute. It’ll be all right.”
Adam ducked his throbbing head, pressed his hands over his eyes and sat silent for a long minute while his heart raced and the primitive root of his brain screamed. In time he looked up again and opened his eyes. Hoss could feel the intensity of his fear and his desire to see.
“Nothing. There’s no light. Nothing at all. Please, God, don’t let this happen to me!” Adam’s stomach roiled suddenly and he doubled over vomiting lunch, breakfast and what felt like everything back to last Sunday’s chicken dinner. Hoss held him as his insides convulsed. When he was completely empty, dry heaves continued for a good ten minutes. Each spasm set off shattering waves of pain that ricocheted back and forth within his skull. Finally they subsided leaving him exhausted and trembling.
Hoss slipped away and brought a remoistened neckerchief and a canteen so he could wipe his face and rinse his mouth. “Adam, I don’t like this. I think you’ve got a bad concussion. I’ve got to get you home. We’ll send for Doc Martin. He’ll find out what’s wrong. Likely it’s only temporary.”
Adam drew several long, deep breaths. Hoss was right. There was nothing to be gained by giving way to hysterics out here in the back of nowhere. Forcing down his terror, he said steadily, “Yeah, I expect you’re right. It may wear off. Meanwhile, it’s going to be a long ride home. How are we going to manage it? Between the way my head aches and not being able to see, I’m not sure I can ride alone.”
“I’ll unpack the mule and turn him loose here. He’ll be fine. I’ll throw a tarp over the supplies and tuck ‘em up under the windmill. You can get up behind me, and we’ll spell off our horses.” Hoss quickly devised a workable plan. “Do you feel up to getting started?”
“No use putting it off.”
“Okay, you stay put until I turn old muley loose. I’ll be back for you in two shakes.” Hoss moved away to unpack the mule and stow his load. Presently Adam got slowly to his feet, his head swimming, and tried an experimental step sliding one foot forward and then the other. Reaching out for some familiar object to grip he found nothing and was suddenly, completely disoriented. Panic surged up from his gut and he called out, “Hoss, Hoss!”
Hoss arrived at a run and caught Adam by the arms as he pivoted wildly. “I’m here Adam! Thought I told you to stay put.”
“I’m sorry Hoss. Wrong time to suddenly get afraid of the dark, huh?” Adam bit his lower lip hard.
Hoss’s insides twisted at Adam’s attempt to ease the tension. How many black nights, thunderous with storm and lightening, had he and Joe crept into Adam’s room to find comfort and reassurance when they were boys? Suppose his brother were really blind!
“You’re doing fine. Just take a couple of good deep breaths and steady down, then we’ll get started back.” Adam did as his brother suggested and soon felt calmer.
“Thanks, Hoss. I’ve got it now. Let’s head home.” Hoss partially supported and guided Adam to their horses. He placed Adam’s hand on Chubb’s bridle and swung himself into the saddle. Reaching down he caught Adam’s left arm and pulled him up behind him. Adam found a grip on Hoss’s belt and leaned his aching head against his brother’s broad back.
“You ready, Adam?” he asked. Adam mumbled an assent, and Hoss caught up Sport’s reins and nudged Chubb gently forward. “We’ll be home real quick.”
That prediction proved false. Hoss found that the pounding of any gait faster than a leisurely amble soon had Adam gasping through tightly clenched teeth. The jarring to his bruised brain was agony. Evening had faded into night by the time they reached the ranch house. They were riding double on Sport now. They had changed horses halfway home when Chubb began to tire under the weight of the two big men. Adam sat straight with his head held erect as Hoss drew rein at the hitching rack. He was exhausted and the pain of the concussion was unbelievable, but his tough-minded self-control had regained the upper hand during the ride.
“Anything yet?” Hoss asked.
“No. Doesn’t seem like there’s going to be either.”
“I’ll never believe that, Adam!” he protested.
“You may have to.” Adam spoke quietly.
Hoss eased Adam down and then dismounted quickly himself. “I’ll see to the horses later. Let’s get you inside.” Guiding his brother carefully across the yard, Hoss stopped at the porch steps. “Two steps up here.” Adam found the steps and mounted them. Just outside the front door he stopped and held Hoss back.
“Come on, Adam. What is it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to go in. I’m afraid it’s an end, an end and a beginning. This is one beginning I don’t want to make.”
“I don’t think I understand all that, but I know we got to go in and git you some help. Come on now.”
Adam took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Let’s go.”
Hoss opened the door and stepped in ahead of Adam whose hand rested on his brother’s shoulder as a guide. He could see Little Joe sprawled all over a chair tossing an apple from hand to hand. Joe sat up and turned to razz his brothers.
“So my long lost big brothers have finally returned! We’ve been waitin’ supper for more than an hour on you two. I’m about to starve. Where’ve you been?”
Ignoring Joe’s foolishness, Hoss asked bluntly, “Where’s Pa?”
“He’s up in his room.” Hoss moved enough that Joe could see Adam clearly. Taking in his torn shirt and scratched face, Joe was moved to ask, “Good grief, Adam, you look like you tangled with a grizzly. What happened?”
“He tangled with that windmill down at Seco Flats. Will you go git Pa!”
Joe cackled. “You mean ol’ Adam was so dumb he finally let himself get flipped off of one of those little playthings of his. I’d like to have seen that! Guess you sure win the booby prize for today. Here – catch!” Joe tossed the apple to Adam. At the words ‘here catch’ Adam automatically put out his hands. The apple, however, passed right in front of him and hit the floor with a thump.
Hoss waved frantically at Joe, but the younger Cartwright ignored him. “What’s the matter with you, Adam. You blind?”
“Joe, you nitwit!” Hoss shouted. “Will you shut up and git Pa! Adam needs help.”
Joe stared dumbfounded as Adam began to advance slowly into the room stepping with caution. He stumbled directly into the table where they usually placed their weapons and was brought up short with a jar that rocketed fresh starbursts of agony through his brain. Blind, disoriented, overwhelmed by nausea and stunned with pain, Adam surrendered to necessity. “Somebody…please!”
Joe spun and raced for the stairs shouting, “Pa, Pa, come quick!”
Adam’s knees gave up the fight to hold him erect, and Hoss gathered his toppling brother into his arms and followed after Joe.
Despite the late hour, Dr. Martin came at once when the rider from the Ponderosa arrived on his lathered horse. Some time later he completed his examination and turned to repack his medical bag. Adam was seated in the old rocker in his room while Ben paced nervously back and forth, and Hoss and Joe perched on the edge of the bed. There had been time for them to help Adam wash up and change into striped nightshirt and warm robe.
Ben stopped in his process of wearing out the rug and faced the doctor. “Well Paul?” Dr. Martin delayed his answer, continuing to fiddle with his bag.
Adam was understandably edgy and added his insistence. “Come on Doc. Let’s hear it.”
Paul Martin was an old and valued friend of the Cartwrights and he answered with reluctance. “There’s not much to say, Adam. There is no damage to your eyes themselves. You had a head blow and a fall, and now you are blind. It just happens that way sometimes – some nerve path blocked, a slight pressure somewhere… There’s nothing I can do.”
“Is it permanent?”
“It may not be. The condition could clear itself. You might just wake up some morning and be able to see. On the other hand, there may never be any improvement. All you can do it wait and hope. I wish I could offer you more, Adam.” The doctor hesitated and then went on to deal with a condition he could treat. “That’s a nasty bump on your head, and you are going to have a headache for a few days. You should rest and keep a cold pack on it. I know you’re suffering right now, but with a head injury like that I don’t dare give you anything for the pain until we’re sure you’re out of danger.”
Adam found himself exhausted by the events of the day and very near a breaking point. He forced his tongue to respond civilly. “I understand. Thanks Doc, but I’d rather not take anything anyway. It’s not a good time to blunt the senses I have left. I’m sorry you had to come out so late, and I do appreciate it, but I think I’d like to be alone now if everybody doesn’t mind.” His voice cracked, and he dropped his face into his hands.
Ben gestured the others out, and they left quickly. Paul Martin spoke softly to Ben from the doorway. “I’ll leave you something to help him sleep. You may need it.” Ben nodded his thanks and closed the door quietly.
He crossed to Adam’s chair and put a consoling hand on his boy’s shoulder. “They are all gone now, son.”
Adam leaned his throbbing head against the cushioned chair back and rocked slowly to and fro. The curtain of his lids shielded his darkened eyes. “Pa, what am I going to do?” The plea was almost whispered. “ I’m alone, and afraid and lost in the dark.”
Ben pulled up a stool and took Adam’s strong hands into his own. “You’re not alone Adam, not ever. As for the rest, you’re going to have to face it. Your life from now on can only be what you choose to make it. You can let this defeat you – although that would certainly surprise me, or you can fight and keep on fighting to find the way back. It won’t be an easy trail, but you have never lacked courage. Hoss and Joe and I are going to be here to help you in any way we can. Whatever you do, it won’t change the way we feel about you – you know that.”
“Pa, I’m so tired. I can’t think any more tonight. I need to get my head down before it bursts. Please give me a little time alone. I’ll be all right.”
“Are you sure you can manage by yourself? I don’t like to leave you like this.”
“This is my room, remember? I can find the bed. And don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything foolish.”
Ben agreed reluctantly. “If that’s what you want, son. Call me if you need me.” He gave Adam’s shoulder a parting squeeze and slipped out of the door.
When he was sure he was alone, Adam got to his feet swaying with dizziness and groped his way to the side of the bed. There he slipped slowly to his knees and rested his head on the soft quilt. He remained there for some time doing something he rarely did – praying for himself.
Adam floated up into consciousness aware only of the crushing headache that still gripped him and the faint smell of bacon cooking. It made him nauseous. Hesitantly he opened his eyes and there was nothing. Before he could call out or struggle to sit up someone was in the room. The footsteps sounded familiar. “Pa?” he questioned.
Ben was beside him instantly straightening the covers, touching his face to check for fever, bringing a fresh ice pack to press against the painful lump on his skull.
“How are you, son?”
“I still can’t see; my head is splitting, and I ache all over from the fall, otherwise not bad.” Adam wry sense of humor in even the worst circumstances sometimes amazed his father.
“Are you still nauseated?’
“A little, but I’m very thirsty.”
Ben had come prepared for this. He helped Adam to sit up and held a glass of cold, fresh water for him. When it had stayed down for a few minutes, his father offered a small glass of orange juice that Hop Sing squeezed from California oranges sent over the mountains by Adam’s old school friend, Brew Lattimer, who ran La Espada del Norte, a huge land grant rancho near Sacramento.
The doctor’s prescription was for rest, and Ben knew Adam was likely to resist the order. He stirred a portion of the sleeping powder Paul Martin had left into the juice and persuaded Adam to drink it.
He slept for most of the day, but was aware that someone always sat with him. The big, red tomcat that kept the barn mice down settled on his chest about midmorning. His warm weight and steady, rumbling purr were comforting. They woke him frequently to make sure he wasn’t slipping into coma, to refresh the ice pack and to offer water and clear soup. By evening the worst of his headache had subsided; the nausea had gone, and he was hungry.
Ben brought a supper tray and ended by feeding his son to Adam’s acute humiliation. Try as he would he could not successfully manage the tray, find the food and get it to his mouth without making a mess.
Too depressed to endure either sympathy or encouragement from his family, he pleaded fatigue and persuaded them to leave him alone. Eventually he did sleep again rousing once when Hoss gently renewed the ice pack.
From long habit Adam woke early on the second day since his fall. He could hear the rooster crowing from the hen house and smell the sweet green scent of dew on the grass. There was even the warm spot at the bottom of his bed where the first rays of the sun heated it. His headache was reduced to a very tender spot on the back of his head, but there was no glow of daylight beyond his eyelids. Last night it had been possible to convince himself that one more good night’s sleep would cure all. That deceit was no longer available. He was well and truly blind. What now old horse, he asked himself? Do you stay in bed sniveling until somebody comes to dress and feed you, or do you try what you can do on your own? He’d taken enough teasing over the years for the neat and careful way he organized his clothes and gear. It would come in very handy now. Adam swung his legs out of the bed and sat up.
Below Ben, Hoss and Little Joe sat gloomily around the breakfast table staring at Adam’s vacant place. Even Hoss found little pleasure in his food. Finally he broke out. “Dadburn it Pa, what are we gonna’ do about Adam?”
“Yeah, Pa,” Joe added. “When I think of him up there by himself – blind! I’d go out of my mind. What can we do to help him?”
“Well, that’s going to depend a lot on what Adam wants to do to help himself.”
“What do you mean, Pa?” Hoss asked.
“As much as we all care for Adam, we can’t give him back his sight. He has to learn to live without it, and that means he has to make the effort. Oh, there’s a lot we can do to make it easier for him, but…” Ben broke off at the sound of footsteps on the stairs.
They all turned and saw Adam already half way down. He was fully dressed in his usual black and had managed to comb his hair neatly and shave. He moved steadily down counting under his breath with one hand firmly on the rail and the other held slightly before him. At the last step he stopped and felt ahead to be sure he had not miscounted. With the voices from the dining room silenced, Adam had lost his guide. After waiting a moment he spoke. “Help me out here; somebody say something.”
“We’re here, son. Come join us.” Adam started across the living room. His memory for the layout of the furniture was good and he guided by running his hands along the edges of the pieces along the way. He couldn’t know that a saddle under repair that Hoss had left in the floor blocked his way. Ben spoke quickly as Hoss jumped from his chair. “There’s a saddle on the floor about two steps ahead of you.” Adam felt for the saddle with his foot and maneuvered carefully around it.
He reached the dining room, found his way to his usual place and sat down. He ran his hands lightly over his place setting to locate each item precisely in his mind. “How about something to eat?” he requested politely.
“Ah, I was gonna bring you some breakfast,” Joe managed to stammer. “Should you be up?”
“Why not Joe? I’m not sick; I just can’t see. Besides, there’s too much to do to spend the day moping in bed.”
“To do? Adam, how’d you dress, shave?”
“Well, after all these years, I didn’t really have too much trouble finding my clothes, and it’s not the first time I ever shaved without a mirror.”
Ben broke in as Joe opened his mouth with another question. “I think what we all want to say is that we’re tremendously relieved and very proud to find you taking this so well. What are your plans, and what can we do to help?”
“First I’d like something to eat; unless you intend to starve me of course.” Adam picked up his plate and handed it firmly in Joe’s direction. Joe accepted it blankly.
“Then, over the next few days, I’m going to relearn every inch of this house. Count every step from here to there. Set the location of each item in this magpie’s nest in my mind. Once I do that, it’s new rules, gentlemen. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to move anything without telling me about it! Whenever you use something, it goes back where it belongs as soon as you finish with it, and that means saddles in the floor too! Once I learn to take care of myself on my own here in the house then I’ll start to branch out.” Adam paused and turned his face toward his father. “This is going to be a lot of trouble for all of you for a while, but it’s the only way I know to do it. Is it all right, Pa?”
Ben was jubilant. “It’s more than all right, Adam. It’s a tremendous plan! You just name it, and we’ll do it – won’t we boys?” Ben’s voice carried a threat of dire consequences for anyone who failed to carry through on Adam’s design.
Joe had served Adam’s plate and put it down in front of him as his father finished speaking. “Here’s your breakfast, Adam,” he informed his brother.
“What have I got Joe? Describe it to me in detail please.”
“Steak in the middle – I hope you don’t mind, but I cut it for you, scrambled eggs on the right, biscuits on the left – I buttered them. Coffee on the right where it usually is.”
“That’s good. Thank you, Joe.” Adam located his fork and began very slowly and carefully to eat. After a few bites he turned to Hoss. “What’s the weather like today?”
“Huh? Why it’s okay, Adam.”
“Close your eyes for a minute, Hoss and then give me an answer that means something.”
Surprised, Hoss did as his brother ask. He had a sharply improved understanding when he opened his eyes a few moments later. “Sorry, Adam. The sun’s shining, but it looks like some weather building up back over the mountains. Might have a thunderstorm by late this afternoon. Okay?”
“A whole lot better. Thanks, Hoss. I know this is going to take a great deal of your time and patience. Please bear with me for a while. If it gets too bad, tell me.” Adam returned to his meal, fortunately unaware of the grief and sympathy that filled the faces of his family.
In the days that followed Adam stuck faithfully to his plan. If he raged silently alone at night in the darkness of his room, it was his ordeal and no one else’s.
In ten day’s time Adam had learned the house so well that they no longer felt the need to watch him every minute. He moved easily through the familiar spaces with something of his old panther like grace that always suggested tremendous power tightly controlled. Light touches on the furnishings were all he needed to find his way anywhere in the big house he had designed. Roaming for practice one day when everyone else was out, Adam came to the front door. He placed his hand on the knob and hesitated. With a shrug and a murmured “Why not,” he opened it and stepped outside.
Ben and Hoss came around the corner of the barn just as Adam crossed the threshold, and they stopped in surprise. On the verge of calling to his brother to stop, Hoss found his father’s finger pressed against his lips. Ben shook his head and whispered, “Wait.”
Adam, thinking himself alone, spoke aloud. “Have to try it sooner or later. Six to the steps and then two steps down.” He forced himself to step out rather than inch along, but he had miscalculated. He hit the first step at the end of the fifth stride, and it threw him completely off balance. He fell and ended up sprawled in the dust at the foot of the steps. Hoss started for Adam, but Ben caught his arm, motioned him back and gestured for quiet. “He has to do it on his own, Hoss,” Ben breathed in his second son’s ear. “Don’t shame him.”
Adam pulled himself together and got up brushing dust from the seat of his britches. It wasn’t the first fall he had taken since his blinding, and it was unlikely to be the last. “Five to the steps,” he said emphatically. He headed in the direction of the corral where a horse whickered and the thump of hooves could be heard furnishing him with a guide. Halfway there he stumbled over a limb recently fallen from one of the big pines and went to his hands and knees. He remained there motionless for a long minute, and Ben once again had to hold Hoss back. “Let me go to him, Pa; he’ll get hurt,” the big man mouthed. Ben shook his head no.
Adam got up slowly and threw his head back. His fists were clenched at his sides and his face seemed to demand strength from heaven. Soon they could see the tension ease, and he resumed his trip to the corral moving more cautiously. This time he made it safely, bumping gently into the fence. He hooked his arms over the top rail and leaned there listening to the horses move restlessly.
Ben beckoned to Hoss and they approached making enough noise that Adam could recognize their arrival. “Glad to see you’ve started to branch out, son,” Ben remarked casually. Adam turned to the sound and one eyebrow lifted. “Yeah the sun feels good, but I might want a little help getting back.”
“Anytime you want us we’re here for you, anytime.”
Wise enough to know that isolation and loneliness could erode his will to recover, Ben was careful to spend part of each day with Adam. Usually they sat at the big desk and worked on ranch business. Adam could neither read nor write – a torture for him – but he could still think. The pair reviewed bids they planned to place and considered offers made by other contractors. They discussed what needed to be done on the ranch, who should do it and when. Adam had always been quick with math in his head, and his skill escalated rapidly. Ben only had to name the figures involved and Adam had the answer. He suggested clever, courteous replies to correspondence and chafed to do more. When the time came to draw the next payroll, Adam spoke quietly to Ben.
“Pa, I think you should discontinue depositing my salary. I’m enough trouble to everybody here as it is. You shouldn’t be paying me for a job I can’t do anymore.”
Ben found the simple words heartbreaking. “I’ll do no such thing!” his tone was almost angry. He couldn’t let Adam begin to think of himself as worthless. “It will be a very cold day in hell when you don’t earn your pay around here. How many years did you work every minute you weren’t asleep, at your studies or looking after your brothers for no pay at all?”
“That was different,” Adam said calmly. “We didn’t have any money then.”
“And you think I’ve just written it off and forgotten what you contributed? Even now you may not be out cruising timber or running a round-up crew, but it’s immensely valuable to have you here to advise me. It’s also a comfort to know someone knowledgeable about all our operations is here at the ranch headquarters when I have to be gone. More and more people are turning up on our doorstep. We would have lost a big timber sale if you hadn’t been here when D.B. Wilkins drove out last week.”
Adam grinned at the memory. “It really bothered him doing business with a blind man. He insisted on treating me like his fragile maiden aunt, but in the end, I think he was ashamed to keep trying to drive down my price. We should make a good profit on the deal.”
“More than enough to pay your salary for the next five years. And the men respect you, son. I know they bring you problems and concerns that they hesitate to raise with me. Why, Shorty Dawson asked me yesterday if he could have next Wednesday off as it was his wife’s birthday, and he wanted to do something special for her. When I told him I thought they were still separated, he spoke up proud as punch. ‘No sir,’ he said, ‘Adam talked me into giving it another try, and he had some mighty fine advice on how to treat Nell. Mr. Cartwright, let me tell you we’re happy as newly weds.’”
“Adam Cartwright, Advisor to the Lovelorn. Do you think I should hang out a shingle? Too bad I can’t get it right for myself.”
“You will, son, you will.”
Adam merely nodded and refrained from asking what woman would want the burden of an unseeing husband.
“I nearly fell over when I asked old Lefty how he happened to think of planting pumpkin vines to hold that cut bank behind the number three line shack, and he told me you suggested it.”
Adam laughed aloud. “Brilliant achievement there. You know how I enjoy a good pumpkin pie, and Lefty’s piecrust melts in your mouth. Okay Pop, I’ll keep taking my pay so long as you find me useful.”
Ben heaved a silent sigh of relief.
Adam had spoken very little at breakfast, and Hoss could sense the tension that radiated from him. Before the accident he would have known his brother was brooding over some problem on the ranch, and that they would soon be working without let up to resolve it. Now it was more difficult. Adam had been without sight for almost a month. Hoss still shied away from the awful word ‘blind.’ He had learned to find his way around the house ably. He could dress himself – even comb his hair and shave – even if nicks were a lot more frequent.
He still needed someone to stand by when he bathed. Getting in and out of the high-sided, deeply sloped iron tub was tricky especially if the stone floor was wet. Being clean was important to Adam, and Hoss was glad to help, but he could sense Adam’s embarrassment and resentment of the need. Hoss stayed very quiet through the procedure simply guiding his brother in and out of the tub, adding hot water or providing soap or a towel as needed with no comment. Perhaps that was why Adam most often asked him to help. Joe tended to chatter like a jaybird when he drew bath duty.
Something else must be bothering Adam this morning. Ben too could feel it and probed gently. “Adam, you are very quiet. Is something wrong?”
Adam put down his fork with care. He could feed himself if someone described the location of each item carefully and cut his meat for him. He sometimes needed to touch the food lightly to keep it located in his mind. It was a slow process and clearly difficult for him. Hoss thought he had lost some weight despite Hop Sing’s efforts. The little cook was making more rich cream soups that could be drunk from a mug, and many dishes were now served precut into convenient bite sized bits.
Forcing down the urge to scream that being blind was the problem, Adam sighed softly and answered his father courteously. “It’s nothing, Pa; I just feel…closed in. It takes me so long to do anything right, and progress seems so slow.”
Unseen by Adam, his father frowned in worry, but his voice was warm and soothing. “Have a little patience with yourself, son. You’ve accomplished a great deal already. I understand that there are people who train the blind…”
“NO!” Adam paused to moderate his tone. “No, sir, I appreciate it, but I couldn’t bear having some stranger lead me about all day. I have to do it on my own – with your help of course.” He opened his hands to include the other three at the table. “Is it too hard for you all? Am I asking too much?”
A chorus of no’s was the immediate response. Ben reassured Adam at some length that he would do nothing without his full knowledge and consent, and that they would gladly provide any help he needed.
The sight of Adam’s constantly questing hands and empty eyes was a pain that Ben could scarcely endure. Every time his foot stumbled or he searched vainly for something in plain sight, he longed to hasten to him, steady him, protect him, lead him, and it would be the worst thing he could possibly do.
Adam was his first born – the one with the tough, cool exterior and the smoldering, sensitive soul. He was the most intelligent if the truth were told; the one he had counted on to take over the ranch when he was no longer able to run it. It was destroying him to see Adam virtually housebound, abruptly cut off from all that his life had been, his many skills and talents wasted – deprived even of his life long delight in books.
He was fighting so gallantly, so uncomplainingly to relearn even the simplest things, to regain some measure of independence, but the undisputable fact was that now he would always need help, some one close to guide and shield him from unseen dangers. What must it be like from Adam’s side? Ben knew his son – his determination to do anything he attempted well, his ‘cat who walks alone’ nature. He was always taking on the hard jobs and refusing to ask for help with them. His reduced status must gall him every waking hour like an arrow in the flesh. Where were the flares of anger and resentment that would be only natural? Adam was proceeding in the most ordinary way possible. His temper was even, his sometimes-wicked tongue curbed in courtesy, his demeanor to his brothers exemplary. He even made jokes. Was he keeping it all inside? If so, the explosion when it came was likely to be awesome.
Meanwhile there were changes they could make that would give Adam more freedom. First he would talk to him about remodeling the bathhouse so he could wash on his own. Then they would put in more ramps and railings about the place.
It was soon time to begin the day’s work. Each gave Adam a farewell word and touch and left him lingering over a last cup of coffee as they went out to saddle up.
The horses were fully tacked, and Ben was issuing instructions for the day when Hoss broke a long silence and said suddenly, “I don’t feel right about Adam, Pa. I want to stay here and keep an eye on him for a while. You and Joe go ahead. I’ll catch up with you later.”
Ben looked at his middle son for a long moment. Hoss, gifted with both great strength and a great heart, had always been the easiest of his boys to handle. Kind, generous, readily embarrassed, eager to please he had been little trouble to Ben or to Adam for that matter. His link to his older brother was close and deep. Instead of fighting Adam’s honestly earned tendency to take charge as Joe did, Hoss accepted it and supported Adam’s decisions. This left him well positioned to mildly urge moderation when Adam pushed too hard. Adam respected Hoss’s touch with both animals and people and often listened.
“If you think you should, son, go ahead,” Ben replied. I don’t like leaving him alone so much either, but he keeps shooing us out of the house.”
“Thanks, Pa.” Hoss quickly unsaddled and headed back into the house. There was no sign of Adam in the living room and his place at the table was empty. It was unlike Adam to go back to bed once dressed, and he hadn’t seemed ill.
Hoss made his way into the kitchen to check with Hop Sing. Their faithful and opinionated fifth family member was busy chopping vegetables for what smelled like a wonderful lamb stew. “Where’s Adam, Hop Sing?” The excitable oriental swung around with the huge 10” chopping knife in one fist.
“Mistah Hoss! Not nice you sca’h po’ Hop Sing.”
“I’m sorry, buddy. I was looking for Adam. Have you seen him?”
“Mistah Adam take bucket; say he fetch watah.”
“Fetch water, from the pump? Has he done that before?”
“No. He say like see he can. Not flah to pump. I let go. Tell him call Hop Sing if he need help.”
Hoss stepped to the back door and looked out. The pump stood staunchly where it always had, but there was no sign of Adam. “He’s not out here, Hop Sing. Did he come back with the water?”
“No, Mistah Hoss. Funny, he go ‘light aftah you eat. We go look!” Hop Sing was becoming worried and excited. Some instinct warned Hoss not to raise a hue and cry for his brother.
“No, Hop Sing. You wait here in case he comes back in or calls. I’ll have a look outside.”
Hoss went down the two steps to the backyard and could see Adam’s footprints in the morning dew that still spangled the grass. They started off for the pump, but with no guide he had pulled to the right and missed his goal. There was a trampled spot where he had circled probably feeling for the pump to no avail. Then his footsteps moved out again in a wavering line for the woods behind the house. Could he have gotten turned around and thought he was heading back toward the kitchen? Why hadn’t he called Hop Sing? Too stubborn, too proud?
Hoss continued to track his brother. He found the bucket dropped beside a tree just inside the woods. When Adam reached the trees he must have known he was headed wrong. Why had he gone on? Hoss followed a wandering track of scuffed pine needles, broken branches and one strip of black cloth apparently torn from his sleeve by a tree snag. Adam had managed to cover an amazing amount of ground.
Hoss was about to start shouting for his brother when he was stopped short by a sound that sent a chill down his spine. It was a low keening of total despair. He had once heard an Indian death chant that carried the same eerie rising and falling note of unquenchable misery. It wasn’t tears or sobs, but a cry from the soul of ultimate loss. Moving very quietly Hoss approached the heart rending sound and peered into a clearing in the pines. Adam pressed his back against the trunk of a great tree, his face turned up to the sky, his throat vibrating with the terrible cry. Oddly Hoss’s first thought was that Adam would ruin his voice – he loved hearing his brother sing in his rich, intimate baritone. He almost rushed forward to beg him to stop before he realized how much Adam would hate anyone knowing he had given this wild tongue to his suffering.
Hoss stood unmoving; barely breathing, as the lonely, haunting lament slowly died away and Adam slumped against the tree. He backed away carefully until he was some distance from the clearing. Then he stomped forward shouting loudly for his missing brother.
Adam’s response of “Here” reached Hoss’s ears as he approached the clearing calling, “Adam! Adam where are you?”
Hoss entered the clearing and stopped a few feet from where the dark clad form rested against the tree. “Doggone it, Adam, what in the world are you doing out here?” he asked. “Hop Sing is worried to death!”
“Running away from home?” Adam offered tentatively.
“Looking to break a leg or worse!” his brother corrected.
After a moment of silence Adam held out both hands in the direction of his brother’s voice. “Touch me, Hoss, please. I need an anchor.” Hoss moved quickly grasping Adam’s elbows firmly in his big hands as Adam’s fingers closed hard about his wrists. He steadied him willing reassurance and support across the bridge of their flesh. “I’m lost,” Adam said with a mirthless laugh. “Lost – a hundred yards from my own back door in a patch of woods I’ve known since I was a kid.”
“You ain’t lost Adam; I’ve gottcha, and you’re a lot more than a hundred yards out. More like a quarter of a mile. I almost didn’t find you. Why partner? What were you trying to prove?”
Adam shook his head slowly. “I honestly don’t know. I got so mad when I couldn’t find the pump… and then when I ran into a tree instead of the side of the house as I expected. It all seemed so hopeless…” Adam’s normally square-set shoulders sagged.
“I’ll run a rope from the back steps to the pump. Next time you can follow it with one hand. Are you ready to go home now?” Adam nodded yes and Hoss placed his brother’s hand firmly on his arm and turned them for home. When Adam stumbled heavily for the second time, Hoss stopped and put a supportive arm around his waist. “You must be plumb tuckered out, Adam.” Hoss knew how draining it was to be lost in unfamiliar country. It had to be a hundred times worse to be blind to all landmarks and hazards or even the earth beneath your feet. “I could carry you,” he said diffidently.
“I have to be one of the luckiest men alive to have a brother like you.” Adam spoke with real sincerity. “Bless you, Hoss, but no. Just slow down a bit and I’ll blunder on beside you.”
When they reached the ranch house, Adam insisted on collecting the bucket and with Hoss’s hand to guide him, pumped the water and carried it back inside to be roundly scolded by Hop Sing.
Adam was so clearly weary that Hoss persuaded him to go upstairs to his room for a short rest. Hoss pulled the good black boots off and spread a light blanket over him. “What will you tell Pa?” Adam asked. It was simply a question, not a request that his brother lie for him.
“Oh, jes’ that you needed to get out of the house, and we went for a long walk. Then you rested for a spell while I read to you. Will that do?”
“Close enough, amigo.” Adam relaxed onto his pillows. His smile was all the reward Hoss needed.
Hoss set the boots carefully where Adam wanted them kept, thoughtfully selected a slim volume of Wordsworth’s poems from the bookshelf and settled in the rocker by the window. When he opened the book and glanced again at the bed, his brother was deeply asleep. Hoss prepared to wait a while. He didn’t want Adam to wake and find himself alone in his darkness. Did he dream of light and seeing Hoss wondered?
“I miss him, Hoss,” Joe said as they labored to cut and stack fence posts from a pile of seasoned timber.
“I do too. Nothing seems the same without him.”
“He’s a demanding, picky perfectionist who can make me furious with one glance, and glory be I miss him!”
“You got to remember, Joe, that he’s worked this place since he was big enough to straddle a horse. He loves the ranch. Even when he went off to school he studied things to help make the place better. He knows how things should be done. It gets under his skin to see sloppy work, or the men lazin’ about when there’s so much needs doing.”
Joe knew that. He knew too that Adam had half-raised him, cared for him, would protect him with his own life. Yet they were so different – almost always grabbing opposite ends of any stick. Nobody could irritate him like his oldest brother, and he often seemed to have the same effect on Adam. All of his resentment, his prickly demands not to be bossed, had melted like hoar frost in the hot sun the night Hoss brought Adam in from that cursed windmill. Joe had felt a pillar of his world crumble when the apple fell between Adam’s reaching hands, when he stumbled groping into the table.
He was at a loss as to what to say to comfort his brother; he knew that he would be inconsolable in the same circumstances. He could scarcely stand to watch him tentatively feel his way into a room he once had dominated by his mere presence. He could feel tears gather behind his eyes as he cut Adam’s food at the table, and his long outgrown fear of the dark had reawakened. He could hardly force himself to turn out his lamp at night. He would lie there shuddering with the horror of never seeing light again. How did Adam endure it? What could he possible do to really help?
“I want him to see again! I want him here with us! I don’t care anymore how hard he rides me. I want him back!”
Hoss paused to squeeze his little brother’s shoulder. “I know, buddy. I feel the same. Maybe someday it will happen. It’s the first thing I ask every night in my prayers.
“For now we got to help him keep his spirits up. He’s tryin’ awful hard to do everything he can on his own. You know Adam don’t give up no matter how tough the goin’ gits, but it wears him out, Joe. You can see that. Give him a hand when he wants it. Tell him what’s happenin’ here, in town, anywhere. Read to him – you can do that a lot betterin’ me. Let him know you care.”
Adam found it difficult to fill his evenings. Once he would have read or played chess or checkers or strummed his guitar; now there was little he could do beyond sit or talk. He was desperately bored one soft evening in early summer when the open windows brought in the scent of the wild roses that climbed over the porch. Ben was at his desk busy answering correspondence, Joe was completely engrossed in a book and Hoss was mending a piece of harness. No one seemed interested in conversation. Too restless to remain seated Adam began to wander the room he now knew like the palm of his hand.
He made one circuit and was beginning another when Joe slid down onto the end of his spine and extended his legs well out into the floor. Adam stumbled over them and swore. Joe caught his arm in time to save him from a fall. “Sorry Adam. I wasn’t thinking – too wrapped up in this book I guess.”
“It’s okay Joe. I don’t know why I’m roaming around anyhow.” Adam’s hands caressed the book with longing. “What are you reading?”
“It’s an old one of yours – don’t know how I missed it before, but is sure is good – Poe’s Tales. I’m in the middle of the ‘Pit and the Pendulum. Pretty darn scary!”
Adam laughed. “I remember.”
“Would you like me to read you some of it?” Joe asked.
“Yeah, we might try that.”
“Shall I start over?”
“No, I know the story. Just pick up where you are.”
“Okay. You ready?”
Adam felt his way into a chair near Joe. “Go ahead.”
Joe read with enthusiasm. “A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart, and for a brief period I once more relapsed into insensibility. Upon recovering, I at once started to my feet, trembling convulsively in every fiber. I thrust my arms wildly above and around me in all directions. I felt nothing; yet dreaded to move a step, lest I should be impeded by the walls of a tomb. Perspiration burst from every pore, and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead. The agony of suspense grew at length intolerable, and I cautiously moved forward, with my arms extended, and my eyes straining from their sockets, in the hope of catching some faint ray of light. I proceeded for many paces; but still all was blackness and vacancy. I breathed more freely. It seemed evident that mine was not, at least…”
Adam interrupted suddenly. “I’m sorry Joe. Thanks anyhow. Guess I’m not in the mood for Poe tonight. You go on with it.” Adam stood up slowly and began to wander about the room again. In time he settled beside Hoss on the sofa where his brother was busily repairing harness. “What are you doing, Hoss?”
“Oh, trying to fix this here piece of harness.” Hoss took Adam’s hand and guided it over the break in the bridle. “The leather fastening the bit wore through. Now I’ve got to shorten and patch both sides. See what I mean?” Hoss spoke without realizing what he had asked and ordinarily Adam would have ignored it, but tonight the wound was very raw.
“No, I can’t see; just feel,” he snapped.
Hoss was shocked and hurt. “Adam, I – I…”
Instantly contrite, Adam tried to make amends. “Forgive me Hoss, I’m sorry. I’m about ready to jump out of my skin.” Rising abruptly Adam paced through the room once more.
Ben looked up from his work and called to his eldest. “Come here a minute, Adam. Sit down with me.” Ben pulled a chair close beside his and guided Adam into it. “What’s bothering you tonight, son?”
Seated at the desk Adam instinctively ran his hands across the shuffled pages of correspondence and touched the pen and inkstand his father had been using. His fist clenched and he seemed about to hammer it into the desk when he forced himself to relax.
“I need something to do, Pa before I go crazy. I used to do all this for you.” He gestured at the papers covering the desk. I could do it if I were crippled, even deaf but not blind. I can’t even write my own name. I used to ride out every day with Hoss and Joe to work the spread. Now I can’t even ride. I used to carry my own weight around here. Now I’m about as useful as a…a fifth wheel. You don’t need me. I’m a hindrance!” It was almost a shout.
Jerked suddenly from the objects of their interest Hoss and Joe looked up concerned.
“Wait a minute, Adam” Ben told him. “Hold on here! You’ve been pushing yourself hard the past few weeks, and you are at a fine edge. You’ve done wonders, but you can’t ask yourself for too much all at once. This takes time. I know how you must feel, but it’s not that way. There’s plenty for you to do; things that are important. Who composed that letter to the Governor last week, and who figured out a way to divert part of Silver Creek so that it would water 200 more head of cattle? Adam, we need you just as much as you need us right now.
“There’s something else too. I hadn’t wanted to get your hopes up before, but it’s possible that you might be able to learn to read again. I saw something in the papers that started me investigating, and I got an answer today. The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind teaches a system developed by a man named Wait; it’s based on an alphabet of raised dots that you read by touch. Not everyone succeeds in learning it, but I think you might. If you’d like to try, I’ll make the arrangements about sending you there.”
Adam had recovered his composure during his father’s speech and answered thoughtfully. “I’d thought of something like that. I knew about the Frenchman, Louis Braille, and his system, and I will want to learn eventually, but not right now. I’d rather stay here until I’m a little surer of myself – even if I am ornery and hard to live with sometimes.”
“I think your trouble is that you’ve been cooped up in this house until you feel like a caged animal, and I’ve got some ideas on what we can do about that too. Tomorrow we’ll get started on ‘em. As for right now – take this.” Ben took Adam’s guitar from its peg and placed it in his hands. “You haven’t played for us since the accident.”
“Pa, I…I don’t think I can.”
“Go on, try. What have you got to lose? Trust you hands, and see if they don’t remember.”
Very tentatively Adam began to chord the instrument. After some experimentation he found he could tune it by ear and by feel. He picked a few notes and then a few more. Hesitantly he moved into the lovely ‘Shenandoah.’ Gradually his playing became surer, and he began to sing softly with the music slowly building in volume until his beautiful baritone filled the room on ‘Away, I’m bound away, across the wide Missouri.’
Enthralled and delighted three heads turned to him; three faces were wreathed in tender smiles. He could feel the music capture them and, one by one, gestured them to join in, weaving their voices around his strong, true lead. The summer night was filled with music, and Adam’s restless spirit knew an hour of peace.
The next day dawned clear and sunny, and the whole family was outside shortly after breakfast. A heavy mat had been spread on the grass behind the house and Hoss and Adam stood toe to toe upon it. Ben stood at the edge of the mat ready with instructions and advice while Little Joe, cross-legged on the lawn, comprised the cheering section.
Both big men were stripped to pants and socks. Their bodies glistened with sweat and their chests heaved. Adam’s eyes were closed and his head was slightly tilted to one side to better hear his brother’s movements.
“All right,” Ben said, “let’s try it again. When I say ‘Ready,’ put your hands on each other’s shoulders. Then at the signal ‘Go’ try for a grip and fall to it. Ready!” Powerful hands gripped wide shoulders, and at the call of ‘Go!’ both tried for a quick grip. Hoss aimed to capture Adam’s head, but he anticipated the move – ducked low, brought his brother to the mat with a powerful leg sweep and dropped at once on top of him. The match was clearly unequal. Hoss had the advantage of both weight and vision, but his fear of hurting Adam held him back. Adam had no such inhibitions. He was quick and tricky. As long as he could maintain contact and orientation, he was hard to subdue.
Eventually Hoss immobilized him, and Adam struck the mat with his open hand in surrender.
Both men were panting heavily as they untangled and Hoss helped a wickedly grinning Adam to his feet. “Dang it Adam,” his brother complained, “wrestlin’ you could get to be riskier than braidin’ a mule’s tail. Did I hurt you?”
“This feels so good, Hoss, I don’t much care if you break me in half.” He turned toward Ben’s position. “How did you know, Pa, how much I needed this?”
“You’ve always worked hard, son. You must use your strength to keep it.” Ben knew that the rough physical contact done regularly would keep Adam’s muscles strong, build confidence in his own ability and burn off excess energy.
Little Joe had his own part to play in Adam’s rehabilitation. Much as he wanted to help his brother he had been reluctant to aid him in rebuild this former skill. He argued with his father that it was more likely to put Adam into danger than to help him. Ben replied that Adam was unlikely to be alone when away from the ranch, and that it would make him feel less dependent. Joe finally agreed.
They were outside. Adam was fully dressed and wore his gun belt. His left hand rested lightly on the edge of a small table that served to keep him properly centered. Joe stood off to the side and operated a pulley arrangement that moved a metal ring about three inches in diameter up, down or sideways against a backstop of soft pine. Each time he moved the ring it thumped sharply against the backstop.
“Get ready, Adam.”
“Pull, Joe!” Adam cocked his head slightly as his brother jerked the ring and let it drop. At the sound of the ring striking the target, Adam drew smoothly and fired. He had always been a good shot, both fast and accurate, although he had managed to avoid a reputation as a gunfighter, but this was instinct shooting with a difference. He had only sounds to guide him, but several days of practice were beginning to be rewarded.
“Off about four inches to the right. You’re getting a little wild again. I think maybe we’ve been at this long enough for today.”
“Once more, Joe”
Joe quickly moved the ring again and Adam fired. The bullet struck almost dead center within the metal ring.
“Dead on; that was a good one.” Joe moved quietly behind Adam, drew own gun, pointed it straight up and cocked the hammer. At the slight click Adam whirled on Joe with his gun leveled directly at his belly. Joe threw up his hands in mock surrender.
“Don’t shoot, big brother,” he laughed. “You got the drop on me.”
Adam reached out and slapped Joe on the shoulder. “Wouldn’t have done me much good. Gun’s empty anyway.”
“I’m sure.” Adam released the cylinder and flipped it out shaking the empty cartridge cases onto the table. None retained a load. “I keep a pretty strict count.”
Thumbing cartridges from his belt, Adam’s hands fed them deftly into the cylinder. He dropped the big pistol into its holster and spoke quietly. “You know Joe, I’m sure glad Pa thought of all this. It helps – it helps a lot.”
Little Joe came in a half hour early some days later to find Adam in the kitchen pestering Hop Sing to let him try making coffee. Aware that if the excitable oriental became too upset dinner would be a chancy meal, he immediately offered to take his brother out for a little exercise.
Tucking Adam’s hand into the bend of his left elbow and walking half a step ahead, Joe led him out of the house and toward the corral. Reaching the fence safely they leaned there in companionable silence enjoying the late afternoon warmth. Presently Adam asked, “Is Sport here?” Assured that his mount was indeed in the corral, Adam whistled sharply.
The big chestnut trotted over to his master and nuzzled his face. Adam pulled an apple from his jacket pocket and twisted it in half, offering it on his open palm. Sport lipped it up like a gentleman and stood quietly as Adam stroked his face and fondled his ears murmuring to him softly. In the pasture beyond, Joe’s horse Cochise romped playfully closely followed by a young mare.
Ben came out of the barn and walked over to join them as Joe watched his brother commune with his favorite mount. Hoss rode into the ranch yard some moments later. He was astride a big troublesome bay horse that fought him every inch of the way constantly threatening to buck. Noticing his family at the corral, Hoss forced the contrary animal in their direction.
“Come on Adam; git up behind me on this devil. Maybe the two of us can take some of the starch out of him.” Hoss caught Adam’s arm and swung him on board. Under the double weight the big animal settled, and they cantered away.
Joe turned to his father at once. “Pa, I can’t stand it. He comes out here every chance he gets to see that fool horse of his. He wants to ride with us so bad he can taste it. None of the critters can carry us double for very far, and he just plain refuses to ride a led horse – not that I blame him. It’s no fun. I tried Sport the other night to see if there was anything we could do. That animal was a handful before, but now that he hasn’t been ridden for a while, I’m afraid he would get Adam killed. If we only had some…”
Joe had been watching Cochise and the mare that continued to follow him as he spoke. Suddenly an idea surfaced. “Pa, Little Squaw!” His voice rang with excitement.
“Little Squaw? You mean that crazy filly out there tagging around after Cochise – what about her?”
“That’s just it. She’ll follow Cochise anywhere. I practically have to lock her up to get away from the ranch. Hoss and I could work with her – you know, be sure she was well broke and steady – then Adam could ride with me. I’d be right there if anything happened, and he could get out and away from the house. Maybe he wouldn’t feel quite so trapped.”
Ben looked pleased. “I believe that might work, Joe; it just might. It would certainly be a godsend to Adam if it did.”
Joe’s enthusiasm bubbled out. “Wait till I tell Hoss! Don’t say anything, Pa. We’ll surprise Adam!”
Hoss and Adam rode back soon afterward. The bay horse was considerably subdued, and Hoss was able to let Adam off at the porch. Adam stood listening for a minute as Hoss rode off toward the barn and then turned to find his way into the house.
Some days later Hoss and Joe burst into the living room to find Adam at the table cleaning a rifle he had managed to disassemble by touch.
“Hey Adam, come on out here. We’ve got something for you.” Adam could hear the laughter in his brother’s voice.
“Yeah,” Hoss added. “I think you’re gonna like this.” Hoss took Adam on his arm and marched him quickly out to the hitching rack. Cochise and Little Squaw were tied there fully saddled.
“What’s all this secrecy?” Adam asked. “Where are you taking me?” As they stopped at the hitching rail, Joe handed Little Squaw’s reins to Adam.
“This here’s your new horse. Meet Little Squaw.”
Adam ran his hands over the animal’s neck and shoulders. “Little Squaw? Isn’t that the filly that was so crazy about Cochise?”
“Yes, sir, and she still is,” Hoss replied. “She’ll follow him around like a chick after a hen, and she’s steady as a rock. All you got to do is set on her, and you can go anywhere Joe and Cochise do.”
“You’re sure she’s strong enough to carry me on a long ride?” Adam had no wish to break down a young animal.
Joe was suddenly hesitant. “She’s not Sport, Adam, but she’s strong with a lot of bottom, and you can ride her on your own. That is if …if you want to.”
Deeply touched by his brothers’ gift, Adam sought for words. “Hoss, Joe…I…Well, what are we waiting for; let’s try her out!” Adam groped a minute for the stirrup but couldn’t find it. Exasperated he caught the horn and with a lithe spring threw himself into the saddle. Hoss’s shouted “Yee Haw!” was heartwarming.
Little Joe reined Cochise away from the hitching rail and Little Squaw set off after them with a smooth gait. They circled the yard twice as Adam got the feel of her. Then he deliberately neck reined her away from Cochise. She obeyed readily, but as soon as Adam released the pressure, she swung around and started after Cochise.
“You’re right behind me. Just trust her if you can. This is going to work out fine!”
They rode for about a mile before Adam called to Joe. “Hold up a minute here. I think I’ve got to adjust a stirrup.” They drew rein, and Adam stepped down from the saddle. His foot alit in a cluster of loose pebbles; they rolled under him; his ankle turned and he fell. Little Squaw sidled quickly away unwilling to step on a squishy human. Joe was instantly beside his brother with his hands under his arms straining to lift him.
Adam gently detached Joe’s hands. “Thanks Joe, but let me get up on my own. Nothing hurt but my dignity.” Feeling the ground around him carefully, Adam planted his feet and pushed up catching his balance with a quick step. Joe put a hand on his arm to center him.
“Adam, how do you stand it?” The question rang with Joe’s distress. “How can you just go on falling and getting up and trying again, talkin’ about everyday things, being concerned with our troubles? How can you care about anything except what’s happened to you?”
“What would you have me do Joe – beat my head on the wall and curse the fates, throw myself on the floor and have a tantrum, quit entirely and let you all wait on me like an invalid?”
“No…no, course not. It’s just…I don’t know. I hurt so much for you. I’m so sorry for all the times I was mean and contrary just to rile you…”
Adam chuckled softly. “Come closer, kid, so I can give you a good swat in the rump. This is startin’ to sound like a eulogy. I’m not dead yet. You’ll have plenty more chances to give me a hard time. I’m not going to back out of life just because I can’t see. I’m going to get around without falling. I’m going to learn to read with my hands. I’m going to keep up with what’s going on here on the ranch and have my say about what happens in the future.
“I will not give up! If you want to do something for me, Joe, don’t show me your pity. Dare me, push me, challenge me, help me be strong! I want to be the same burr under your saddle I’ve always been. Okay?”
“I…Adam…I’ll remember – anything, anything.”
Adam opened his arms and Joe stepped into them to be hugged roughly and receive a playful cuff on the head. “Now, have you let those horses wander away, short shanks?” Adam queried. “I don’t intend to walk home.”
Joe quickly gathered their placidly grazing mounts, adjusted Adam’s stirrup and held Little Squaw as he mounted. When his brother was secure in the saddle, Joe quickly swung astride and spun Cochise around. “Come on, Adam, I’ll race you home.” He touched his spurs to the big paint and was rewarded with a solid gallop. Within seconds he heard the sound of hoof beats in hot pursuit. He looked back to see Adam leaning forward in the saddle urging Little Squaw into a run.
She might be a mare unaccountably stuck on Joe’s pinto, but it was a horse he could ride and a gift of immense value. It was wonderful to get away from the house and into the mountains and pastures of his home. He went out with them often though rarely for the whole day. He found the constant strain of trying to picture his surroundings and maintain his orientation tiring, and too much time over rough ground left his head pounding although he rarely mentioned it.
It had been a full day. It began shortly after dawn with a hard fought workout with Hoss. Following breakfast, he went with Joe on a long ride out to check on the Silver Springs herd. Then there was shooting practice and a session on the books with his father. Adam was tired, and his head ached dully.
“See me up, Hoss?” he asked. He didn’t feel like counting steps tonight.
“Sure thing.” Adam seemed less reluctant to ask for occasional help now that he had proved he could do it on his own, and he most often turned to Hoss. Adam trusted his brother’s kind intentions without reserve. Placing Adam’s hand under his arm he headed for the stairway. “Steps,” he said when they arrived at the first one, and they went up smoothly.
Pausing outside Adam’s door Hoss half turned to face him and asked, “Adam?”
“How are you really doing – inside I mean? You don’t say much, and I can only guess how hard all of this must be for you. Dadgumit, if I’d of had any idea I would have dynamited that damned windmill before I let you climb up on it!”
Adam laughed lightly. “I’d have helped you light the fuse.” His expression changed, and he spoke seriously. “At least you’re not afraid to ask me. There are times, Hoss, when I want to give up.” His voice was deep and soft. “Just stick my gun barrel in my mouth and be done with the struggle.”
Hoss grunted as if he had been struck and drew back horrified. “Oh God, Adam! NO!
“Yes, well that’s why I won’t be doing it. I may be a nuisance blundering around the place, but, at least, the family won’t be burdened with a load of pointless guilt.” He drew a deep breath, and Hoss gave the hand that still rested on his guiding arm a consoling pat. “A lot of things are very hard, Hoss. I desperately miss being able to read and write and draw plans. I miss sunrises and sunsets and all the color and beauty of the world around us. Most of all I miss being an active part of everything that goes on here on the Ponderosa. There are times when I think I’ll run mad from sheer boredom.
“But I know that there are no guarantees in life. You take it as it comes and do the best you can with it. Strange as it sounds, I have worked harder since I lost my sight than every before in my life. I think I am finally beginning to find my way through this perpetual night. All the things you and Pa and Little Joe have done for me help tremendously. You can’t know how grateful I am.”
Adam said no more and, judging him to be finished, Hoss pushed open the door of his room into total blackness. “Want me to light your lamp?”
“I’m always glad of your company, Hoss,” his brother told him. “If you’d like to come in and visit for a while, fine; otherwise…” Adam shrugged.
“Aw Adam, I’m sorry…” Hoss began.
“Wait,” Adam broke in swiftly. “Don’t apologize. I shouldn’t have I jumped down your neck the other night about the harness. I’m afraid I was feeling sorry for myself, and that’s not a good idea. You’re not walking on eggs here. Shut up inside this shambling, groping shell is the same old Adam you’ve known all your life. You should be able to speak to me as you always have and not be forced to think twice about every word before it slides off your tongue. Say what you want, Hoss. I understand, believe me.”
It took Hoss a minute to get his next words past the lump in his throat. “I’ll remember, Adam. So to be plain you look a little peaked tonight. I think you need sleep more’n you do conversation. Unless I can help you with something else, I’ll let you get to bed.”
“Thanks, I’ll be fine. See you in the morning.” Adam stepped confidently into the darkness as Hoss closed the door.
Joe came in quietly. It had been a horror of a day and he was weary. As he wrapped his gun belt and placed it on the table, he noticed Adam across the room in his favorite blue velvet covered chair by the fireplace. His hands held some sort of leatherwork.
“Evening, Joe,” his brother said pleasantly as the youngest Cartwright walked over to join him. “Tough day, huh? Cows stuck in that sump out in the Twin Forks pasture again I’ll bet. How many this time?”
“Four of them. How do you do that, Adam?” Joe asked in wonderment.
Adam’s face lighted with a smile. “I ought to keep you guessing, but since I’m warm, dry and well-rested in contrast to some around here, I’ll tell you. “
Joe looked down at his own filthy, wet and smelly condition and grimaced.
“I know your step little brother, and since it’s draggin’ instead of bouncing, it’s a good guess you’re tired, and the smell of that pond scum all over you is unmistakable. Better get washed up and changed before Pa comes down for supper.”
It all sounded so simple when Adam explained it.
Joe saw that Adam was braiding another set of reins. He marveled as he watched Adam’s powerful, long-fingered hands work independent of any visual guidance. He plaited the slim, soft strands of fine-grained leather into an intricate braid that produced a superb set of reins. They were flat, strong, supple, delightful feeling in the hand and practically indestructible. Joe tried it once with his eyes shut and ended with a tangled mess. Adam had always been clever with that sort of thing, but found very little time for it before… Joe’s mind winced away from the memory of that awful first night.
Friends who saw the set of reins that Adam made as a gift for Joe immediately begged to commission something similar for their own use. Adam was reluctant to accept money for the work at first, and made several sets as presents for Hoss, Ben and family friends. As the demand grew, Joe finally convinced him to charge $20.00 a set if only for pocket money although, as Adam remarked, he had little use for it now.
Damn! Joe thought. We’ve got to get him out more. I’m going to take him to town this weekend or die in the attempt. Lost in his thoughts Joe was startled when Adam spoke again.
“Joe. Wash up – supper. I don’t recommend standing there dripping on the rug.”
“Ah, sure Adam. I’m going right now.” Joe started for his room.
Joe talked long and fast, but when Hoss backed him in the argument and Ben offered encouragement they finally convinced Adam to accompany them to town the following Friday.
It was late afternoon when the three Cartwrights rode into Virginia City and up to the Bucket of Blood saloon. They dismounted, and Adam found the hitching rack and tied Little Squaw then ducked under the rail and stood on the other side. Hoss and Joe walked ahead – their minds fixed on cold beer. As their steps resounded on the boardwalk, Adam called after them. “Hey, aren’t you forgetting something?”
Hoss and Joe spun around at once and realized their brother was stranded. They rejoined him and linked arms with Adam in the middle before starting again for the saloon.
“Sorry, Adam,” Hoss said. “You manage so well at home guess we forgot you were on strange ground.”
“Well, I suppose that’s enough of a backhanded compliment that I’ll forgive you this time.”
As they strode along three abreast it was almost impossible to tell that Adam was blind. He always made the effort to keep his head up, to step out boldly and to direct his eyes with his attention. They entered the saloon and took a table. At a signal the bartender brought over three beers.
Word of Adam’s injury had filtered through the town as the summer progressed and that knowledge engendered pain and regret in many, young and old. Adam had friends he didn’t even suspect among the citizenry. The barkeep spoke to him now. “Adam, how are you? I’m proud to see you getting out again, and if you need anything just holler. First drink is on the house. Oh, it’s me – Cosmo.”
“I know, Cosmo. I recognize your voice. Thanks for the beer and your good wishes. I’m doing pretty well.”
“Where is everybody?” Joe asked. “Town’s practically deserted.”
“Didn’t you hear? Big weekend doings over at Gold Hill. The town’s throwing an all day barbecue with horse racing, turkey shoots and I don’t know what all. Half of Virginia City’s headed over there – quiet as the grave around here.” The man returned to his station shaking his head over the lost of custom.
Hoss took a long pull at his glass all but draining it in one gulp. “Man! That tastes mighty fine. It’s been a long, dry summer.”
“Yeah, Pa is worried about that stand of timber back over on Thunder Mountain,” Joe said. “One spark and – poof!”
They ordered another round and drank it quietly. Adam listened closely to the limited activity in the saloon.
“You got them papers for the bank, Adam?” Hoss asked. “Reckon we ought to get on over there before they close.”
“Huh? Oh, yes Hoss; got ‘em right here. I didn’t realize it was getting so late.”
A rough-cut older man in the dust and sweat stained clothes of a drover had been watching them from his place at the bar. He stalked over just as they were about to leave for the bank. “You’re the Cartwright boys, ain’t ya?”
Joe chose to answer. “Yeah, do we know you?”
“You pushed a herd of cattle across the river and into Sedalia ahead of me a couple of years back. Broke the market and durn near wiped me out. I’ve been keepin’ my eye open for you ever since.
Adam turned in his chair to face the intruder. “I remember that. You’d been hanging around outside of town for a week grazing over the whole area trying to get another pound on those beeves before you sold them. We had to go on through or let our herd starve behind yours.”
“Yeah, you ought to remember – you were the ring leader.” His tone was harsh and insulting.
“You had your chance and muffed it. What do you plan to do about it now.” Adam’s voice rang with a challenge.
“I might just take it out of your hide.”
Adam surged to his feet, back hard against the table. A fierce rage against his fate had grown in him over the months since his accident. Determined not to unleash it on his family and unwilling to go out and scream the barn down around his ears, he simply endured the relentless pressure. Here at last was a being upon who he could vent it. Not safely to be sure, but he truly didn’t give a damn. He was spoiling for a fight.
“You’re welcome to try.” His brothers had seen that savage snarl contort Adam’s features a few times before in their lives and knew that it meant serious trouble. They stood up and moved closer to Adam.
Cosmo hurried over from the bar and pulled the drover aside. “You don’t know what you’re doing Wagoner. Adam Cartwright is blind. His brothers will kill you if you touch him.”
Wagoner’s answer was loud enough for the whole saloon to hear. “No blind man’s got any business wearing a gun.”
All control burned away; Adam was furious. He dropped into a half crouch and followed Wagoner’s movements by sound. “I may be blind, but I’m not deaf! Go ahead and draw if you feel like it!” His words carried the deadly promise of a rattlesnake’s buzz.
“Adam!” Joe shouted.
“Stay out of this, Joe.”
In spite of his blindness, Adam looked incredibly dangerous – a cougar cornered with teeth bared and fighting spirit unquenched.
Wagoner sensed that he had wandered into a quarrel where no quarter would be given and heard the angry mutters of the others present, who were rising in Adam’s defense. The eyes of a slender, dark-haired saloon girl at the bar were fixed on Adam. They were wide with fear for him.
Wagoner knew when it was time to draw in his horns. “Oh hell, Cartwright, it was all over two years ago. Why fight about it now?”
“That entirely up to you.”
“I don’t want trouble – forget it – I was out of line.” He slowly backed away from Adam and returned to the bar.
As his footsteps retreated, Adam breathed a deep sigh and eased his hand away from his holster. “Keep an eye on him Joe. I don’t want to be shot in the back.” Adam’s hand found his vacant chair, and he sat down.
Hoss and Joe resumed their seats and simply stared at their brother in silence. In their hearts they were proud of him. It was impossible not to admire plain, raw, crazy courage. On the other hand, they weren’t about to show him their true feelings. Hoss drew a deep breath and lit in. “Adam, are you plumb loco? He might have killed you!”
“Well, it’s not worth living if the price is to let every bully boy you meet walk on you.” His voice was still rough with anger. “I had to prove that I’m willing to stand up for myself. You two aren’t always going to be around to fight my battles for me.”
“Yeah,” Hoss conceded. “I see what you mean, Adam, but you shore had me scared.”
“Come on,” Joe insisted. “Let’s get over to the bank and get that business taken care of before our crazy brother picks another fight.” Linking arms once more they left the saloon as they had arrived.
Exiting the bank with their business concluded they paused for a moment. “Well, that’s that,” Joe said. “Do we head for home now?”
“What’s the rush?’ Adam asked. “Pa’s not expecting us back early. Let’s stay and have supper in town and relax for a while. I’ll treat. I’ve got a pocket full of gold pieces from all those braided reins Joe’s been selling.”
“Man, that is fine by me. I shore could eat. All that fancy talk in the bank always makes me hungry.”
Joe cackled. “Hoss, anything makes you hungry, but I’m in no hurry to get back to work. Let’s go eat.”
The three men returned to the Bucket of Blood and secured a table near the kitchen. Soon their waiter was clearing the remains of a hearty meal, and they sat well filled and contented. As usual, Little Joe began to get ideas.
“Ah say, if you fellows are just going to hang around here for a while, I ah – I thought I might slip over to see Linda – only for a few minutes to say hello.”
Adam chuckled softly. “Yeah, we know, Joe. Those ‘hellos’ of yours are almost as long as your ‘goodbyes,’ but you better watch out for her Paw; I hear he’s a pretty fair hand with a shotgun.”
“Why, Adam, you know Linda’s Paw and I are the best of friends, besides, tonight’s his night to play checkers with old Charlie Bass. Once they get started dynamite wouldn’t faze ‘em.”
Adam grinned warmly at Joe and then turned to his middle brother. “What about you Hoss? Haven’t you been sparking that new girl that works at the store?”
“Miss Susan? She’s a real nice little lady, Adam.”
“I’m sure she is. Wouldn’t you like to see her for a while tonight?”
“Course I would, but I can’t leave you here alone.”
“Oh get on with the two of you. I’m not about to run off. I know most of the few people here, and I will be fine for a while. You don’t have to hold my hand.”
“I’m not sure I trust you alone after that fight this afternoon,” Hoss stated.
Adam laughed deep in his throat. “I’ll behave myself – that’s a promise. Take yourselves on; you’re keeping your ladies waiting.’
Joe left with no more than a hasty wave. Hoss lingered. “Adam, are you sure? If you’re tired, I’ll trade horses with Joe and take you on home.” Hoss sensed that the strain of coping with his blindness sometimes drained his brother’s strength to the dregs.
“I’m sure. It’s been quite an invigorating day so far. Just don’t stay too late, huh?”
“I won’t.” Hoss collected his hat and left.
Adam sat peacefully for some time listening to the sounds of the almost empty saloon and nursing an after dinner brandy. He tried again to recall the faces of his family. More and more their features were fading from his mind, as they became a collection of sounds and scents.
His father’s long, firm stride and deep voice coupled to the odor of good pipe tobacco, oiled leather and fine linen defined his mature, confident personality. Hoss’s step was surprisingly light, and the warm musk of the animals he loved almost overlay his personal odor of a happy, milk fed child. Joe’s bouncy gait was impossible to miss as was his higher pitched voice, and the smell of hair pomade and fancy toiletries. He exuded a sort of high-energy heat as well.
Colors too were fading into the general blackness. He could still visualize the vivid reds and yellows, but the muted browns and tans and pastel shades were dissolving into thin shadows. How much more will I lose of the things that I have always valued, he wondered.
As time passed he became restless and tense. He pulled out the new pocket watch his father had given him. The cover hinged open to expose the hands and raised numerals. With a delicate touch, Adam could read the time from the face. A little after nine. He snapped it closed and returned it to his watch pocket. He couldn’t move about the saloon as he did at home and there was little to hold his interest. The small, dark-haired girl who had watched the near fight with such horror approached his table and slipped quietly into the seat beside him. She placed her hands very lightly over his clenched fists.
“You’re Adam Cartwright aren’t you?
Adam was instantly on his guard. “That right. Who are you?”
“My name’s Sherry. I started work here a few weeks ago – came up from Sacramento.
“I’m afraid you’ve picked the wrong customer, my dear,” Adam told her. “I can’t drink with you; alcohol and blindness don’t mix well. I need the senses I have left too badly. Unless of course we both have cold tea,” he added. There was no reek of alcohol on her, and he knew that saloon girls were often served cold tea instead of the whiskey for which their escort was charged. Someone to talk to would be welcome.
“That’s not why I came over. Business is slow tonight, and I’m free to do as I please. I thought you might like to talk awhile. I saw you this afternoon with Wagoner. That was very brave.”
Adam gave a wry snort. “Foolhardy would be more like it. It scares me now when I think about it. You know, I haven’t been…this way very long, and sometimes it seems like I slip a cog somewhere and have to do something – anything to break through this…this wall of darkness.”
“I know. What takes real courage are the other things – to let them leave you alone in a strange place, to make the all day, everyday struggle to find your way in a world that is suddenly only sound and feeling.”
Something about her gentle voice and clean, light scent warmed Adam, and he opened too her as he rarely did. “It’s not so bad now. I’m beginning to get used to it. When it first happened I thought it was the end of everything. I just wanted to go to bed and stay there. I think the hardest thing I ever did was getting up that first morning and dressing and finding my way downstairs. Since then – well, it gets easer as time passes. It even has its compensations. I find that sometimes you can discover the heart of a matter more truly when you’re not aware of its outward aspects.”
Adam realized that he had run on at some length. “You know, Sherry, I can’t even talk to my own family like this, and here I am boring you with it. Why is that?”
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger.”
“No, that’s not quite it. It’s…it’s that my blindness doesn’t seem to bother you. It bothers Pa and my brothers. It bothers them a lot – though they’d choke before they’d admit it. They are constantly afraid of doing or saying something that will hurt me. To you the fact that I can’t see doesn’t appear to make that much difference. Why not?”
“Perhaps it’s because I’ve have more experience than they and can understand a little better. Be patient with them; they’ll learn in time. You see my little brother was blind – from birth. I loved him very much, and he depended on me a great deal. Maybe too much, actually.”
“Where is he now?”
“Gone.” There was a lingering sadness in her voice. “When our parents died, I went to work so that Jeff wouldn’t have to go to an institution. One night a drunken trail hand followed me home. Jeff was foolish enough to try and fight him. He was knocked down – struck his head.” She paused to collect herself. “Perhaps that was why I was so frightened this afternoon when it seemed you were going to fight Wagoner. Although I think now that you would have done much better than poor Jeff.”
“I’ve had a lot of help he didn’t – including my brothers to wrestle with me and to teach me how to shoot at a sound and hit it. Then too I have all the memories from many years of sight. I’m sorry about your brother.”
“It was a long time ago now.”
Conversation seemed unnecessary for a time, and then Adam asked, “Sherry, since you know what it’s like, maybe you wouldn’t mind if I…I looked at you?”
Sherry laughed merrily and caught up Adam’s hands guiding them to her face. “Of course not.’
As Adam ran his fingertips gently over her features, she looked at the man beside her at the table and thought again how handsome he was. He topped her slender height by almost a foot. His shoulders were wide and his chest deep and powerful. The fine shirt of cream linen was opened enough to reveal a swirl of dark chest hair. A slender, supple waist and narrow hips led into long, straight legs accented by the black trousers and boots he wore. A black steer hide vest completed his outfit.
But it was the face that drew her. Black waves framed strong yet sensitive features. His chin was firm, his nose straight and his long teeth gleamed whitely within a full mouth that seemed created for kisses. Deep dimples framed it when he smiled. His eyes under dark and rugged brows were a rich hazel and must have glowed with life before he lost his vision. When he closed them, as he often did, veins painted the lids a faint blue and thick, sooty lashes rested on his glowing, bronze skin. It was a face to rival Michelangelo’s David. She doubted that he was even aware of his intense masculine beauty.
In time he spoke and the deep, rich chocolate of his tones ran chills down her spine. “My hands tell me that you are slender with good bones, almond eyes, a small nose and a high forehead. You hair is very soft and clean. Is it dark?”
“Yes, that’s very good.”
Joe was ensconced in Linda Olsen’s parlor on a hard, horsehair sofa. He had been trying for some time to wheedle a kiss from the stubborn beauty.
“Linda, honey, you’ve got the prettiest hair. It’s so long and blonde – just like silk.” Joe slipped his arm around her and stroked her hair. Linda swung around sharply slapping Joe in the face with her long hair.
“Joseph Cartwright, you stop that right now. I know about your sweet talking ways.”
“Now Linda, you shouldn’t believe what those other girls tell you. They’re downright jealous cause you’re so much prettier than they are.”
Gradually softening Linda leaned toward Joe. “I declare, Little Joe, you just plain know how to melt a girl.”
As Joe leaned closer to claim his kiss the parlor clock struck eleven, and Joe had a sudden vision of Adam sitting alone and completely forsaken at the table in the saloon. It brought him to his feet in shock.
“Adam! Linda, my brother, listen – I’ve got to go! Oh Lord! Goodbye honey; see you later.” Plopping a quick kiss on her forehead, Joe ran from the house and sprinted toward the saloon.
Linda stamped her foot in anger and shouted at his fleeing back, “You’ll never see me again, Joe Cartwright, if I have my choice!”
At about the same time Hoss and Susan were sitting under a tree on a hilltop looking at the stars. “It’s a beautiful night, Hoss, and I’d love to stay on, but I’m afraid it’s getting late, and I have to open the store in the morning.”
A clock somewhere in town struck eleven, and Hoss experienced the same picture of Adam that had overwhelmed Joe. “You’re right Miss Susan. We have to go. It’s Adam; I left him alone hours ago. Come on I’ll see you home.”
“Oh yes, Hoss. I’m so sorry; let’s hurry.” They started off down the hill with Hoss pulling Susan along at a speedy clip.
Ten minutes later Hoss and Little Joe almost collided outside the saloon. They looked at one another in horror and then stepped inside. They saw at once that the table where they left Adam was vacant. Looking frantically around the nearly deserted saloon they saw their brother at a table in the back with the professional gambler who worked the Bucket of Blood.
Adam was quite at his ease. His whole attitude was more relaxed and normal than they had seen him in months. Sherry was curled comfortably on Adam’s lap her head resting on his shoulder. As Hoss and Joe crept nearer they could see there was considerable money on the table – most of it in front of Adam.
His brothers approached the table on tiptoe in time to observe the play of the next hand. The game was five-card draw. The gambler dealt one hand in front of Adam and another for himself. “You ready, Adam?” he asked.
Sherry took a five-dollar bill from the money in front of Adam and placed it in the pot. The dealer matched it. Sherry then took up Adam’s cards and looked at them. Putting her lips to his ear and nipping him very softly on the earlobe she whispered, “Jack of clubs, Jack of diamonds and seven, eight and nine of clubs.”
The gambler, who went by the name of Frank Faro, inched his cards open and read them. There were three fours, an ace of spades and a queen of hearts.
“Can you open?’ he asked.
“We’ll open for five,” Adam said. Sherry put out the money and did the actual play of the hand.
“I’ll see your five and raise you ten”
“Okay, call ten.”
“How many do you want, Adam?”
Adam found Sherry’s ear and whispered, “Slide the Jack of diamonds under the money.” Sherry did as he told her.
“We’re splitting openers; give us one.” Frank put down his hand, picked up the deck and dealt Adam one card.
“Dealer takes one.” Frank put down the deck, took up his hand and discarded the queen of hearts. He then put down his hand again took up the deck and dealt himself one card. It was the ace of diamonds.
Sherry picked up Adam’s card, added it to his hand and whispered, “Ten of clubs.”
“You opened,” Frank stated.
“Yeah, but the price of poker has just gone up. Open for twenty.”
“I’ll see your twenty, and since this is just a friendly game, I’ll raise you fifty. I’ll tell you now, Adam, splittin’ openers you probably went for a flush and made it, but it’s not going to be good enough. Better fold while you can.”
Adam grinned. “Well, Frank, since you’re so kind to us, we’ll just call your fifty and not take any more of your money.”
Frank opened his hand. “Fours full with a pair of aces.” He reached for the pot.
“That’s a real nice hand, and you were right about the flush, but now it’s straight – seven to Jack. Show him, Sherry.” Sherry laid out their hand for Frank to see.
“Damnation, Adam,” Frank grumbled. “I think the little lady hexed those cards. They’ve run your way all night.” He pushed over the pot, and Sherry added it to Adam’s other winnings.
Joe cleared his throat and touched Adam on the shoulder. “Ah…Adam, don’t you think it’s about time we got started home.”
“Yeah, Adam, it’s late,” Hoss added.
“Hi. You boys back already. What time is it?”
“Guess we better call it a night, Frank.” Adam pointed to the money on the table. “Count it for me will you, Joe.”
Adam leaned back in his chair and stretched, one arm holding Sherry close on his lap. She put her hand on the back of his neck and stroked it with her fingertips and then pulled his head down to her mouth. When she finished speaking, he smiled, nodded and squeezed her waist.
Joe was so absorbed in watching this byplay that he could barely count. Hoss elbowed him in the ribs and he finished up. “Seven ninety five, eight hundred, eight hundred and ten dollars!”
“Not a bad nights work,” Adam said lazily. “Split it Joe and give me half.”
Joe divided the money and put half of it in Adam’s outstretched hand. He placed it on the table. “There’s your half, Sherry.”
“I can’t take that. All I did was tell you what cards you had.”
“And all I did was tell you how to play ‘em. Come on, fair is fair. We were partners, remember? Without me you didn’t know how to play, and without you I couldn’t see to play.”
“And between the two of you, you just about cleaned the house.” Frank added.
Adam eased Sherry off his lap and stood up. “Joe, take forty dollars out of that money and give me the rest.” Adam pulled his money pouch from his pocket and handed it to Joe. His brother tucked away all but two twenty dollar gold pieces and handed it back.
Adam moved closer to his brothers and put an arm around each man’s shoulders. “Now, I want you two to use that money to get a good room at the hotel and enjoy a big breakfast tomorrow morning on me. Pick me up here about eight a.m., and we’ll head home before Pa gets too worried.”
Too dumbstruck to speak Hoss and Joe watched as Adam called to Sherry. “Ready, sweetheart?” She had just finished putting her share of the money away in her evening bag.
“Right here, Adam.” When she touched his hand, he slid his arm around her waist and they headed toward the stairs in the back.
“What’s up there?” Hoss whispered.
“Her room,” Frank Faro answered. “The lucky devil! Half the men in town have tried to get up those stairs. He’s the first one to make it, and he can’t even appreciate her.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Joe muttered. “No sir, not at all.”
Sherry’s room smelled clean and freshly aired with just a hint of the subtle perfume she wore. She closed the door, and Adam heard the latch click. She took his hand and placed it on the lock guiding him to release the latch and then closed it again. “In case you want to leave,” she said. “Let me show you around so you will feel comfortable here.” The room was large and well appointed with a small adjoining washroom. She led him slowly around letting him count steps from the bed to the dressing table, big chair and bath. She explained that the window looked out on a street of stores and offices that were rather quiet at night, but that the continuous noise of stamp mills, mine blasting and changing shifts was unavoidable.
“I know,” he said. “There’s no escaping it in town anymore. I remember when there were just a few old prospectors and their donkeys wandering around these hills. It was a lot quieter in those days. Of course, about the only thing the Ponderosa could sell then was stock and supplies to pilgrims headed on to California. We make a lot more money now, but I’m not sure I like it any better.”
“Come and sit down. I’d love to hear about the early days of Virginia City from someone who really knows, but I’d like to make you comfortable first.” She urged him into an upholstered chair covered in what felt like fine velvet. Moving behind him she began to massage his neck and shoulders. “You’re very tense. I’m a good masseuse. If you can bring yourself to trust me, it will be a lot more pleasant for both of us.”
“Sherry, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. I’d like to make sure you understand that.” Adam hadn’t been with a woman since well before his blinding and realized that he was nervous. Would it be the same? Could he please her without the use of his sight?
“I know, Adam. I understood that when I invited you up here. Let’s just take our time and see what happens. We have all night.”
He reached up and caught one of her hands as they worked across his shoulders digging deep to loosen knotted muscle. “Come here,” he said pulling her around the chair. When she stood before him, he put both hands around her waist and lifted her into his lap. Circling her with his right arm, he cupped her face with his left and found her lips with his own.
His first kisses were light, tender touches as he circled her face, the tip of her nose, her cheeks, her eyes, her temples, and her chin. Finally he came again to her mouth. This time there was pressure, heat, and demand. She opened her mouth to him willingly, and they shared a breath. His tongue caressed her lips with a slow, sensual motion until they quivered under his touch. She pressed hard against him and sucked his lower lip between her teeth. She nibbled on it softly for a moment before releasing it. He kissed her hard again and again their lips conjoined, tongues flirting, dueling. The heat between them grew.
When his hand sought her breast and she felt a flush spread over her body she drew back. He stopped at once and sat quite still his head slightly cocked in her direction, a question on his expressive face.
“I did say we have all night. Let me make you comfortable first.”
“It’s been a long time for me, Sherry.”
“I don’t think it will be a problem from what I’ve seen so far.” She touched the faint, straight scar that ran into the left side of his upper lip. “How did you get this?”
He fingered the scar and grinned. “My brother threw a tin miner’s lantern at me. Cut my lip wide open and knocked me silly. Claims he never meant to hit me. Says I dodged the wrong way. It was quite a scene. I was staggering around bleeding like a stuck hog – I was about eighteen. My brother Hoss, he’s the big one you saw downstairs, was trying to catch me and screaming for our father, and Little Joe was curled up crying like his heart would break. Pa finally cornered me and got me calmed down. Doc Martin sewed up the cut. It puffed out like a toad. You should try eating, talking, even cracking a smile with stitches in your lip.” Adam chuckled quietly at the memory.
“I don’t believe I want to try,” Sherry laughed with him. “But who threw the lantern at you and why. It must have been…Hoss?”
“No, no, Hoss and I usually get along; it was Joe. He was just seven if I remember correctly.”
“But, a boy that small? What made him so mad?”
“Joe may not be as big as the rest of us, but when he’s mad he just explodes with temper. He heaved that thing like a discus thrower.”
“But what did you do to him to make him so mad?”
“Exactly what Pa asked me. Why does everybody assume it was my fault?”
“You were almost grown; he was just a little boy.”
“Joe has always wanted exactly what he wants when he wants it. He wanted to ride a horse I was breaking. I told him it was too dangerous and then came into the barn to find him crawling into the saddle. I snatched him off and set him down. He ran a few steps screaming about how mean I was, grabbed the lantern, swung around and threw it with all his might. Knocked himself down. He was just getting up when he saw me tottering toward him with blood spurting. He rolled up in a ball and had a fit of hysterical crying. I don’t think he really meant to hurt me that badly. He’s always claims he didn’t mean to hit me.”
Sherry kissed the scar softly. “Poor baby.”
“Me or Joe?”
“Both of you really. It make as very interesting scar.” She continued kissing along his upper lip.
“When I was in Europe, I passed it off as a dueling scar. Proved very attractive to the ladies over there.”
“Very attractive to this lady over here. Why don’t we get out of these hot clothes, and I’ll explore any other scars you may have.”
“An interesting proposition.”
“Come on.” Sherry took his hand and pulled him toward the bed. “The bed’s just behind you. If you sit down you’ll be on it, but stand for a minute and let me undress you.”
“Seems like that should be the other way around, but…”
“Never mind. You’ll ‘see’ all of me you want in good time.” She reached up and slid the soft tanned vest down from his shoulders. “I’m going to hang your things on a clothes tree by the head of the bed. They will be there when you want them.”
She unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and let her fingers linger on his hands lightly tickling his palms with the tips of her nails. She moved from there to the fastenings of his shirt undoing them slowly one by one to reveal the dark swirls of hair that adorned the magnificent chest. It was broad and deep – heavy with muscle. Enclosed in his arms, cradled against that wall of protection a woman could feel infinitely safe and desired.
She leaned against him resting her head on his chest, and he did as she had hoped: he closed his arms around her and pulled her close. He bent his head and nuzzled into her hair, kissing her face when she turned it up to him. He was so totally male. His intense sexuality blew through her with the force and heat of a desert wind sweeping away all her accustomed defenses. Tearing herself away she loosened his belt and freed the buttons of his trousers. “Sit down now, and let me pull off your boots.”
Feeling behind him, Adam sank onto the bed his breathing a little fast with anticipation. He heard her kneel and felt a tug on his right foot. He lifted it, and she pulled off the boot then repeated with the left. She slid his trousers down and off leaving only the drawers. She ran a hand over them appreciatively. “Oh, silk. How elegant.”
“Cooler in summer, warmer in winter and much less scratchy than wool or even linen.” He had found a tailor in Sacramento who made them up to his measurements – knee length and in lightweight cream silk for summer, full length and in several layers of heavier silk for winter.
Undoing the drawstring she pressed her hands to his sides and slid them down over the narrow hips pausing to caress the tight, hard cheeks of his butt. Pressing them down the pillars of his legs and off she had rendered him completely nude. Knowing he would feel vulnerable, she urged him into the bed and pulled up the sheet. “I’ll join you in just a moment.”
She quickly removed and hung her own gown. He was probably used to undressing the women he made love to himself, but unfastening a long series of hooks and bows would probably be so difficult for him that it would spoil their time together. She slid into bed beside him leaving on only a thin petticoat that he could lift up over her head. “Now, my dear, you may explore to your heart’s content.”
Turning on his side he drew her close and ran a hand quickly down her whole body. “Do we really need this?” He lifted the sheer lawn slip.
“Just as you choose.” She raised her arms and he slid it up and over her head flinging it to one side. His hands possessed her then, following every contour of her body, finding the secret pleasure points, lavishing her with their attention. His hands were big, powerful, ridged with muscle and scared with hard work. In a less than gentle lover they would be frightening. Adam used them as a fine violinist would use his bow to draw out the sweet notes of passion and delight.
They enclosed and warmed her breasts as he showered the tender globes with kisses. His fingertips drew lines of fire across her belly to her groin as he touched and then withdrew from the gateway to her womanhood again and again until she squirmed with impatience. She could feel him hardening and knew he had been long without a woman, but he was patient and inventive, unwilling to use her for his pleasure alone.
She returned his caresses, sliding down to let her breasts enclose his member, swirling her tongue in his belly button, pressing kisses down the thin line of dark hair that ran to his sex. He groaned with pleasure and pulled her up hard against him until they were pressed tightly together from hip to throat. He kissed her then with burning ardor. His deep, sensual heat consumed her in its fire. His hands were on her back tracing the line of her backbone; cupping the round, firm flesh of her bottom; drawing her so tightly against him that she could feel his need swelling against her belly.
She opened her legs and tipped her pelvis against his groin. This beautiful blind man was an ardent and tender lover well learned in the desires and delights of a woman. Total, abandoned surrender to his will was delicious.
Sensing her yielding, he lifted her astride his hips, supporting her upper body as he slid the tip of his manhood just within her gates. He eased her down and drew her breast into his mouth, teased the nipple with his tongue until it was swollen and hard and then sucked strongly. She cried out in her urgency and pressed her body down on his hardened shaft. He was big and filled her to aching, glorious capacity. Her muscles tightened around him and he grunted with surprised delight. Ever so slowly he began to move within her, rocking her gently with his movement.
His clever fingers sought the nub of her pleasure and stroked it in rhythm. Her whole body was consumed with desire; driven to heights completely new to her. She was torn between fainting and screaming with her need to climax. Adam too was beginning to lose control. She enclosed him completely drawing him deep inside her, tormenting him as she squeezed and released with each stroke. It had been too long; sense and reason threw up their hands and abandoned his whole body to sensation. Her waist was slim, her hips sweetly rounded under his hands. Her polished knees gripped his sides and the warm ivory swell of her belly rested against the hard, flat planes of his.
He increased his speed, driving up now relentlessly. She arched her back and cried out in ecstasy as he felt himself burst beyond the barriers of earth and explode in a wild blaze of sensation. She fell then against his chest, and he enfolded her in his arms as they shuddered with trembling aftershocks of delight. When he bent to kiss her face, her eyes were wet with tears.
“Don’t cry sweetheart,” he said softly. “Did I hurt you? I’m sorry.”
“Oh no, Adam. It was wonderful. No one has ever cared enough to make me feel like that before. Would you hold me for a while?”
He slid her down beside him and turned on his side pulling her back against him like stacked spoons. He put his arms around her and cupped her breasts stroking them gently as they regained their breath and balance. Presently they talked. She told him more of her brother and of her life since his death. She had chosen to work as a saloon girl in one of Sacramento’s better establishments when their parents died suddenly and she was left to support her brother.
When he was killed, she felt rootless and in time had drifted closer to the mines and the source of the wealth pouring into both states. She confided that she hoped to save enough money to open a small, but dignified residential hotel and get away from the life of a saloon girl.
He respected her ambition and offered to help her finance the venture when she was ready. He would take a small percentage of her profit until the loan was repaid. Deeply moved by his offer, she asked him to tell her of the Ponderosa and of his life there. Finding it difficult to speak of the changes his blindness had brought, he told her instead of building the ranch and of the fun and fights he had shared with his brothers.
In time they fell silent each deeply aware of the physical presence of the other. His sense of touch and smell and hearing has sharpened until he was acutely aware of her body. He had feared being clumsy, but skill and instinct had combined to instruct his lovemaking. In some strange way it was the most intimate experience he had ever enjoyed. Still he longed to see her response.
Keeping her close against him he kissed the damp nape of her neck, nibbled at her ear lobe, spread his hand across her stomach and circled slowly, firmly moving the organs inside until she writhed against him. He slid over her then, supporting his weight on knees and elbows. She put her arms about her neck and sealed her mouth to his in a long passionate kiss. She wrapped her legs about his waist and circled her hips in a slow, tantalizing motion. When he gasped, she let her head drop back and giggled with delight. He tickled her sides and she dropped away from him. He followed her down trapping her inside the cocoon of his arms and legs. She growled in mock anger and bit along the line of his left shoulder – never hard enough to really hurt.
Teasing and taunting, advancing and retreating, they explored each others likes and fantasies moving eventually to a prolonged and stunning climax that left them both limp and exhausted. He drifted off to sleep then and dreamed of a garden bathed in sunlight and color and peopled with slender, dark haired girls in sheer veils.
Adam awoke with a start, his heart racing. The bed was unfamiliar, all the sounds and scents strange. Where was he? Before he could lunge erect a head stirred on his shoulder and a soft hand pressed against his chest. “You are here with me – Sherry. Everything is all right. You have plenty of time before your brothers come for you.” He sank back with a soft sigh as his memories of the night flooded into his consciousness. Sherry had proved to be a pleasing, teasing, light-hearted lover. A trill of laughter seemed to bubble under even the most passionate moments. Adam had found it both arousing and liberating.
“Um, why didn’t I tell them to go on home and leave me here? It was a wonderful evening. Give me a morning kiss, sweetheart?” She slid on top of him and gave him a long, warm kiss that aroused desires for much more. It was fortunate that he had awakened early because they found good use for all the time they could spare.
Later when he had washed and dressed, which he managed with very little help, she buckled on his gun belt and handed him his pocket watch and money pouch. “It’s all there,” she assured him.
“I never doubted it, Sherry. Thank you for everything. This was the best night I have had in a very long time. May I see you again?”
“Can we play poker again? That was fun.”
“We can, but suppose I lose?”
“It doesn’t matter, but I don’t want to lose my job. You might have to drink cold tea with me if the saloon is busy.”
“That can be arranged. Tell Cosmo he can bill it as champagne if he likes.”
“Then come again next Friday if you can. I’ll wait for you. Now I need to catch up on my sleep. You wear a girl out. Can you get downstairs on your own? Did you count coming up?”
“I did; I’ll manage. Lock your door after me.” He gave her one last lingering kiss and with surprising confidence let himself out of the room and moved with care toward the stairs.
Morning found Adam’s well rested and well fed younger brothers hitching their horses and Little Squaw in front of the Bucket of Blood. They entered to find Adam finishing a good breakfast at a table by himself. He was relaxed, confident and in a playful mood – more like the Adam they used to know.
“Morning, Hoss, Joe. Did you sleep well? Enjoy your breakfast? You’ve got the horses?” This brought a mumbled chorus of yeses. They had stayed awake late marveling over the evening’s revelations. How the hell did Adam do it? They could court a woman with gifts and attention and still get nowhere. One look at Adam, and they fell into his arms. Blind or sighted, drunk or sober, loaded or flat broke, it didn’t seem to make the slightest difference to the women – they would take him in any condition.
“Where’s Sherry?” Joe dared to ask.
Adam’s smile lighted the room. “Catching up on her sleep. She has to work tonight. Can I talk one of you into bring me back next Friday?” Joe agreed readily. This was what he had wanted for Adam, wasn’t it?
They linked arms and strode out of the saloon laughing and joking together. Sherry, in treating Adam as a whole man rather than as a cripple, had given him back something he badly needed – pride in his manhood.
Adam awoke into the dry heat of an early fall morning several weeks later with another headache. They had become more frequent lately and more severe. He was reluctant to think too closely about what they might mean. He dressed slowly and made his way downstairs to the breakfast table. The pain dulled his appetite, and he picked at his plate until Hop Sing offered a treat. Hop Sing’s number five San Francisco cousin had obtained fresh pineapples from a ship just in from Barbados, packed them in ice and rushed them to the Ponderosa. The tangy sweetness of the chilled fruit tasted good to Adam, and he ate several slices.
Refreshed he asked Hoss his usual morning question about the weather. “It’s a mighty fine day,” his brother told him. “Clear as glass and the sun so bright it hurts. The aspens are startin’ to turn – all red and golden – sure wish you could see them, Adam.”
“So do I, Hoss, but I remember.” He was grateful that Hoss could speak to him so naturally. “Feels a little dry though.”
“Yeah, we could use some rain before winter sets in, but it doesn’t look too promising unless something blows in from the east. Wind’s coming from that direction.”
“I want to have another look at that timber over on Thunder Mountain today,” Ben said. We need rain up there badly. It’s so dry it would go up like a torch if it ever got started.
“You comin’, Adam?” Hoss inquired.
“Bettah Mistah Adam stay home,” Hop Sing put in. “Head ache bad again.” Adam realized he has asked Hop Sing for ice more than once recently when the pounding in his head had forced him to seek some relief.
“What’s this?” his father snapped. “Aren’t you feeling well, Adam?”
“It’s just an occasional headache, Pa, but I think I’ll beg off riding today and take it easy.”
“Are you sure you’re all right, son? One of us can stay with you.”
“Oh there’s no point in that. I’ll be fine by myself. You go ahead.”
“We’ll be home by noon. If you’re not feeling better then, I’ll send Joe into town for the doctor and let him take a look at you.”
“It’s nothing, Pa. Go on and check that timber and stop worrying about me.”
“All right.” Ben said with some reluctance. “We’ll be back soon.”
When they had gone Hop Sing brought in ice wrapped in a linen towel, a thick down pillow and a pitcher of cold water that Adam often craved and announced he was going fishing so they could have fresh trout for supper.
“You be all ‘light, Mistah Adam?” he asked. “ You need me, I stay house.”
“You go right ahead, Hop Sing. A grilled trout will make a fine supper. I’m just going to stretch out and rest for a while.”
Adam settled the pillow at one end of the couch and lowered his head carefully onto it putting the ice pack across his forehead and eyes. His long body filled the couch. I should pull off my boots, he thought. His father hated footwear on the furniture, but he didn’t feel up to the struggle. He half dozed for some time as the ache gradually eased. Suddenly a lance of pain shot across behind his eyes, and he gasped. Sitting up he rubbed hard at his eyes and then opened them. A flash of brilliance dazzled him, and he shut them quickly. When he opened them again the familiar darkness was still with him. He sat puzzled for a minute then shrugged, groped until he found the ice pack and eased back down.
Ben, Hoss and Little Joe were deep in the stand of mature silver fir trees. The magnificent giants towered ramrod straight for close to two hundred feet – one of the finest trees anywhere in the Sierra Nevada. They were in great demand as telegraph poles and mine bracing. The stand represented thousand of dollars worth of income to the Ponderosa, and they were very dry with needles beginning to brown and droop.
“I don’t like the looks of this,” Ben said. “A stroke of lightning in here is all it would take.” Thunderheads were piling up against the mountains brought in by the east wind.
“About all we can do is hope rain comes with the storm,” Joe added.
“I suppose you’re right son, Ben agreed. Let’s start on home. I’m worried about Adam. Has he said anything to either of you about these headaches?”
“Not me,” Hoss replied, “but sometimes when he comes in from a long ride he’s mighty pale and goes straight to his room. I think maybe we should talk to Hop Sing about what goes on when we’re not there.”
“An excellent idea.”
They were still within the vaulted corridors of the great trees when the sky was ripped open by a streak of lightning followed by a crashing clap of thunder. The horses went wild shying, rearing and attempting to buck or run. Ben and Hoss managed to get their mounts under control, but Joe, who had been riding loose with his thoughts elsewhere, was unseated when Cochise stood straight up and pawed the air. He fell heavily onto rocky ground.
Fighting their mounts into some semblance of control, Ben and Hoss dismounted quickly. Hoss caught up the horses while Ben went to Little Joe. He knelt beside his son and lifted his head and shoulders onto his knee. Joe clutched his right arm with his left hand and held it tight across his chest.
“What is it Joseph? Where are you hurt?” Ben attempted to feel the arm.
Joe grunted in pain. “Ah, careful Pa; that hurts!”
Ben ran his fingers very gently along Joe’s right forearm. It was already swelling halfway between wrist and elbow and he could feel the displaced bone. Fortunately it had not broken through the skin. It was a long ride home and if the sharp ends of the broken bones were allowed to further tear flesh and blood vessels with every movement of the horse it would become a far more serious injury.
“Joe, you are going to have to be very brave for a few minutes. I need to pull the bones into alignment and then splint and strap it so we can get you home. I will hurt fiercely I’m afraid.”
“Go on, Pa,” Joe said from between clenched teeth. “Do it quick.”
“Hoss cut that blanket behind my saddle into strips and find me some straight sticks.”
“Yes sir.” Hoss looped the reins of their horses over a low hanging limb and taking down the blanket quickly cut it into strips with his sheath knife. Handing them to Ben, he searched beneath the trees for improvised splints and soon had everything in readiness.
“Hold his arm above the elbow,” Ben directed. Hoss sat down behind Joe and braced his brother against his chest taking a firm grip on the upper part of his right arm. “Ready, son. Be strong!” Ben took Joe’s wrist and hand in his own hands and applied a steady, straight pull. Against his will a strangled scream escaped Joe’s throat as the bones slipped into position.
“That’s the worst of it,” Ben assured him as he applied the makeshift splints and tied them in place with the blanket strips. Once that was secured he brought the arm tight against Joe’s chest and strapped it firmly in place.
“You should be able to get home now without doing yourself more damage.”
Hoss was rising to help Little Joe to his feet when a second bolt of lightening struck close. The thunder engulfed them, and any semblance of reason was driven from the horses’ minds. Reins snapped as they tore themselves free from the tree limb and, frantic with fear, ran for home. Lightning stroked again and within their sight a huge pine burst into flames.
Adam was seriously worried. He paced the living room, his headache forgotten, as he listened to the growing storm playing in the direction his family had taken. He stumbled over a footstool someone had left out of place as he moved through the room. He kicked it aside and snarled. He was truly alone. Hop Sing was probably holed up someplace to wait out the storm and the men were all distance from the ranch house on a variety of duties. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed two, and Adam opened the front door and stood on the porch straining every sense for some indication of what was happening.
Unseen smoke was darkening the sky above Thunder Mountain and the storm rumbled and growled. As a dozen possibilities raced through Adam’s mind, three horses trotted in and stopped at the hitching rack.
“Pa!” Adam called out. “Hoss, Little Joe?” There was only the snort of a nervous horse. Adam’s hands searched the entryway table until he located his gun belt and strapped it around his waist.
He made his way carefully to the hitching rack and ran his hands over each horse. He quickly found the empty saddles and trailing reins. “You boys broke loose from somewhere,” he told the truant horses as he gathered the reins and tied them off. “That means Pa and my brothers are afoot. Where did you come in from anyway?”
The horses shifted nervously and Chubb whickered as the freshening wind brought a hint of smoke. Adam threw his head up and concentrating all his attention tasted the wind. It was fire! A terrible fear seized his guts and twisted. They were all up there – without horses, without a way to escape! An hour of sight, only one hour – he would give anything the fates demanded for it. The intensity of his desire was almost tangible, but there was only the darkness.
I have to try, Adam thought. I have to! He moved as quickly as he could, but dare not risk a fall or serious blunder. Counting his steps with care he made his way into the barn. He hesitated at Little Squaw’s stall but realized it would be very difficult to force her ahead of Cochise. He called to Sport and the big chestnut blew softly. Adam opened the stall and slid an arm around his horse’s neck. “I need you, son. Can I count on you; will you help me?” Sport nuzzled Adam’s hair. It was all the answer he was likely to get.
He painted the inside of the barn as he remembered it across the blackboard of his blindness with his architect’s precision and managed to find saddle and bridle as well as lead ropes for the other horses. Sport stood quietly to be tacked as Adam fumbled with buckles and fished under him for the cinch. It was as if he sensed the change and was trying to make it right.
Adam led Sport from the barn to the hitching rack and working by touch tied up the reins of Buck, Chubb and Cochise and attached the long lead lines. Everything took so damn long to find and do by feel and memory, yet he dare not rush. Sport stood rock steady as he mounted and looped the leads around the horn.
Adam had been out to the stand of silver firs many times in his life and knew the way well. If he could keep his concentration and not allow himself to get turned around there was a good chance he could make it. Then too he should be able to follow the scent of smoke. He touched his heels to Sport and moved at a steady trot away from the ranch.
On Thunder Mountain the other members of his family were exerting every effort to escape the fire. Ben led the way while Hoss supported Little Joe half carrying him. The fire was some way behind them yet, but was moving through the dry forest with the speed of a freight train and a roar that raised the hairs along the back of the neck.
Hoss called out to his father. “Pa, this fire could crown anytime.”
“I know, Hoss, but there’s no safe place here. Our best chance is to keep ahead of it. How’s Joe doing?”
Hoss shook his head. “Still on his feet, but I don’t know for how long.”
They pushed ahead as rapidly as possible. The sound of a shot penetrated through the trees and fire noise followed by a muffled shout. Joe roused from his half-stupor to pull at Hoss. “That’s…that’s Adam! Shoot, Hoss! Call him.”
“Adam,” his brother scoffed. “You’re out of your head. How would he get here?” Some half-understood conviction that Adam would always be there when he needed him drove Joe’s insistence as another shot sounded. “It’s Adam! Let him know we’re here.”
Ben too had stopped and turned toward the sound of shouts. “Even if it’s not Adam, it is help!” Ben pulled his gun and squeezed off two quick rounds. Both Ben and Hoss called out at the top of their voices.
Horses could be heard crashing through the trees, and Adam’s deep, ringing shout reached them. “Pa! Pa! Where are you?”
More shots and calls brought them quickly together as Adam broke through the smoke and trees leading their three horses. Ben caught Sport’s bridle as he reached them.
“Pa, are you all right? The horses came in. I smelled smoke.”
“I don’t know how you got here, son, but I thank God you did. Cochise threw Joe, and he’s hurt pretty badly. We’ve got to move fast. This fire may crown anytime.”
“Exactly where are we?” Adam asked. “I got a little confused once I got off the trail and started hunting for you.”
“We’re on the northeast slope of the mountain about half way down. That old Indian burial ground is about half a mile to the east.”
“Then we’re downhill from the fire; that gives us a little more time.”
“Unless it hits the tops, because we’re downwind too. With this wind it would go like a train of gunpowder.”
Hoss took the leads from Adam and quickly boosted Joe into his saddle. He managed to straighten and take the reins in his left hand. “Knew it was you,” he told Adam, his speech slurring.
They set off downhill as rapidly as they could make their way between the trees. Ben led with Adam on his left. Joe was positioned behind Adam with Hoss on his right. They soon reached a fiercely burning patch where the fire had jumped ahead spurred by wind-borne cinders. Ben swung to circle it on the right calling out to Adam to follow. The gap between them widened momentarily and a flaming branch dropped between the two pair of horse. Sport spooked sharply left followed by Cochise. Buck and Chubb sprang away to the right and fought their riders.
Adam and Joe were lost from sight in the heavy smoke and fire haze by the time the other pair regained control.
“Circle, Hoss!” Ben shouted. “We’ve got to find them!” He drove spurs into the panicked Buck trying to force him into the blazing undergrowth.
“Pa, we’ll all be killed! Adam will look after Little Joe. Ride clear!”
“Adam? Adam’s blind, Hoss! What can he do in this hell?”
“I don’t know, but I’m bettin’ he’ll manage. He got here with the horses didn’t he? Come on now; we got to run!”
“No, I’m going back!” Ben tried once more to force Buck into the fire, but the terrified animal reared, snatched the bit between his teeth and spinning on his hind feet ran for an opening in the forest. Hoss followed spurring hard.
When the branch crashed between them, Sport and Cochise both ran. Frightened they stayed close together. Finally they reached an area momentarily free of fire and slowed, their sides heaving. Adam had let Sport run trusting him to find a way to safety. As they slowed he resumed control and called out to Joe. Cochise sidled up and nosed Adam’s leg. Adam reached across to find Joe slumped in the saddle his head low. His left hand gripped the horn with all his remaining strength. Adam caught up his reins before Cochise could move away.
“Pa! Hoss! Where are you?” Adam shouted.
There was only the sound of approaching fire in answer. Fear was an icy drench as Adam realized they had become separated. He shook Joe hard in an attempt to rouse him. “Joe! Joe, can you hear me? I need your eyes.”
Numbed by pain and shock, Joe could only mumble, “Adam, help me.”
Another blaze of pain crashed through Adam’s head and he ground his fist into his useless eyes. He was rewarded with a flash of glaring, red-infused light and a return of darkness. He shoved it aside as unimportant in their present trouble, and, suffused with anger at his helplessness, threw his head back and scented the wind like a wild animal. He could feel the heat of the fire closing on them before he caught the smell he wanted almost hidden under the reek of smoke.
He turned Sport toward it pulling Cochise and Joe along. He spoke soothingly to the horses letting the familiar warmth of his voice calm them. “Easy, boys, easy. Don’t let the fire spook you. Do you smell them? Those ole mineral springs are our best chance. Hold on. Nice and steady now. Just keep going nice and steady.” Sport picked his way through the smoldering woods to the edge of a deep down slope that led to a sulfurous mud flat with a trickle of water down the center and sharply rising cliffs on the other side.
Sport stopped short at the edge of the down slope and the strong, ugly smell of the sulfur filled Adam’s nostrils. “Are we here, son?” he asked. He could only pray his guess was right. Holding Joe’s reins tightly and giving Sport his head, he squeezed gently with his legs and urged Sport ahead. “Go on, son. Down we go, nice and slow.” Sport obeyed. Crouched almost onto his hindquarters, he half-slid, half-crawled down the steep slope. Cochise followed. Every muscle tensed for a disastrous fall, Adam was startled when Sport gave a last powerful leap and landed on level ground splashing mud up to his knees.
Adam dismounted and felt the ground. It was wet and odorous. Working constantly toward the deeper mud and stronger scent, he found the stream of free water than coursed through the flats. He immediately lifted Joe down and sat him in the mud. His brother moaned softly and Adam patted his head firmly. “Hold on Joe. I think we’re gonna make it.” He tied up the horses’ reins and headed them downstream. With a shout and a hard slap on the rump he sent them to run for safety.
Adam dropped to his knees and began to dig frantically in the soft mud with his hands. Throwing it aside in huge handfuls, he soon scooped out a shallow depression into which water slowly oozed. He pulled Joe to the hole and eased him into it covering him to the neck in the slimy, smelly mud. Adam threw himself down and gagging rolled in the mud plastering it thickly into his hair. He crouched over Joe’s head and shoulders protecting his brother with his own body. Worming as far down into the mud as he could without suffocating Joe he clasped his hands behind his neck and waited.
Ben and Hoss broke out of the trees at the base of the mountain at a dead run. They raced on for some distance before Ben could regain full control of Buck. They brought the lathered and gasping horses to a standstill at last and turned to look back at the fire.
“Lord have mercy,” Hoss panted. “I thought every minute me and Chubb was gonna be rollin’ down that mountain in one big ball!”
Ben thoughts were all for his missing sons. “They’re still in there!” He kicked Buck and headed back toward the fire. Hoss rode into him forcing Buck to turn and grabbed his bridle.
“No, Pa! That fire’s crowned. You’d be killed; burnt alive!”
“I can’t lose them like this! Turn my horse loose.” It was clearly an order, but Hoss refused, shaking his head and pleading, “No, Pa. Just look!” Hoss pointed to a spot well below them where Sport and Cochise trotted out of the trees.
“Their reins are tied up, not trailing. That means Adam let them go on purpose.”
“You can’t be sure. I’ve got to find them!” Ben tried again to break free of Hoss’s grip on Buck’s bridle, but it was unshakable. “Let me go!” he shouted and struck Hoss an openhanded blow across the face.
Hoss was rocked by the sudden attack but hung on to his father’s mount grimly. A huge pine at the forest’s edge exploded with a tremendous blast driving them farther back. Ben looked at the roaring inferno and realized it would be impossible to enter now. He slumped in the saddle and dropped his chin onto his chest. Hoss led them away from the fire to a safer spot.
In time Ben looked up and spoke softly. “I’m sorry, son. Forgive me for striking you. I know you only wanted to protect me.”
“I know, Pa. It will be all right. You’ll see.” Hoss had tremendous faith in Adam’s ability to survive against the odds. He has seen it played out many times. No forest fire was going to take him off after the fight he had put up to conquer his blindness.
There was a last rumble of thunder and the skies opened. The rain poured down in slashing torrents hissing like a den of demented snakes as it hit the fire. Clouds of steam blanketed the area. The two men gathered Sport and Cochise and found what shelter they could. Filthy and chilled to the bone they waited. Neither thought of leaving until the other half of the family could be found.
Wet, smoldering rubble choked the streambed where Sport and Cochise had escaped. It was late afternoon as Ben and Hoss picked their way along it calling hoarsely and leading the two weary mounts in search of their missing riders.
In time the streambed opened onto the mud flats. Hoss shouted at the sight of Joe sitting dazedly in the hole Adam had dug. His arm was still tightly strapped across his chest and he was covered in mud except where the rain had washed it off in streaks. As they raced toward him they realized that Adam was stretched out flat his head resting in Joe’s lap. His black clothes coated in thick mud, he was almost invisible against the ground.
Throwing himself from the saddle, Ben raced to his sons. “Joe. Adam. Thank God you’re still alive!”
Joe looked up at them and wondered if they were figures in a dream. “Pa? Hoss? What happened to you?” He shivered violently.
Adam was unconscious. When Ben touched his face, he rolled his head and made a soft sound of pain. His hands were raw and blistered.
“They’re alive, Hoss, but soaked and shivering. We’ve got to get them home.”
As they made their way carefully back down the draw with their precious burdens, they saw lanterns shining through the scorched woods and heard their names shouted aloud. Hop Sing had gotten home and, finding Adam gone and fresh tracks headed for the timber stand, had alerted the returning ranch hands. Help was here with fresh horses, a wagon piled high with blankets and a hamper full of food and strong brandy.
Lights burned throughout the night at the Ponderosa ranch house. Dr. Paul Martin was roused from a sound sleep by a hand driving a light buggy hitched to the fastest team the Cartwrights owned. As he climbed in the driver heard him mutter something about wishing they would confine their accidents to daylight hours.
Some sense of peace descended on the house as a clear dawn began to brighten the sky to the east. Injuries had been tended, the bathhouse had been busy, and the horses were rubbed down and fed. The ranch hands had been given a hot meal, provided with a stiff drink and sent off to bed. Only a small group remained awake. They were gathered in Joe’s bedroom.
Joe had been bathed and doctored. His arm was splinted from elbow to wrist and supported in a sling. He was in bed, fully conscious and propped up with several pillows. Dr. Martin dabbed some carbolic on a scratch on Joe’s forehead and turned to Ben. “Well, that’s about it, Ben. Think I’ve got everybody patched up.”
“What about Adam?” his father asked.
His hands are torn and burned, but barring an infection, they should heal without any loss of use. I can’t find anything else wrong.”
“Why is he still unconscious?” Ben demanded.
“I don’t know. I can’t believe he rode into a forest fire and found you without the aid of his sight.” Dr. Martin shook his head in disbelief. “It would help if I had some idea of what happened to him. Maybe Little Joe can help us out?”
Ben looked at his youngest. “Feel up to it, son?”
“It’s all pretty hazy, but I’ll tell you the best I can remember,” Joe’s voice was hoarse with smoke. “There was fire all around us, and the horses were running. My arm felt like somebody was ramming a red-hot poker through it. I kept thinking I was gonna pass out; then I guess I did. I seem to remember Adam lifting me down off of Cochise and telling me it would be all right. The next thing I knew I was buried in that hole in the mud where you found me. Adam was across me protecting my head and chest. About that time the fire crowned over us. There was a terrific blast. I don’t know – maybe a gas pocket from the springs or something. Adam was knocked out, and it dazed me. Sometime later it was raining. I managed to sit up – get out of the cold water. Adam never woke up, but he did act like his head hurt him. It seemed like forever before you came for us. I don’t know how Adam found that place or got us down there, but he must have. I sure wasn’t any help.”
“You’re both safe, son. That’s all that matters now.”
“You know, Pa,” Hoss said, “Adam used to hunt up in there a lot, and those ole sulfur springs got quite a stink. Maybe he smelled ‘em and figured out where he was. It was about the only place they’d have had a chance.”
“I’d almost bet you’re right, brother.” Joe broke off to cough.
“Enough for tonight, Joe,” Doc Martin told him firmly. “We’re going to leave you to get some sleep. I want to look in on Adam again.”
Joe was settled comfortable and the lanterns turned down. Paul Martin pulled Ben aside as they slipped out and closed the door. “I want your help with Adam. I’m not leaving here until we can bring him around. I think he hears me when I call him. He’ll stir, but then he slips back. It almost as if he’s resisting waking. It may help if you speak to him.”
Ben, Hoss and the Doctor walked down the corridor to Adam’s room. The mud had been washed away, and he lay quietly in his own bed. His face was peaceful. His bandaged hands rested outside the covers. Ben walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed. He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and shook him gently. “Time to wake up, son. It’s morning. There are chores to do.” Adam half turned under his hand and sighed. Ben stroked his hair for a moment and then shook him again. “Get up, Adam. You can’t sleep now. I need you.” His voice was firm.
His father was calling. Must I get up, Pa? I’m so tired. The dark beckoned – quiet and warm and safe. Let me go.
“Adam!” it was a demand for attention. “Wake up!” He was shaken sharply. “You must wake up. You have work to do before you can sleep!”
Slowly, reluctantly he fought his way up to the surface. Always something that must be done. So hard to go on…seeking, searching, falling, blocked at every turn.
“That’s it, son. I know you hear me. You belong here with us. Please, Adam – wake up!”
Adam opened his eyes into the ache of light and a blurred image of his father. His head was free of the nagging pain that had plagued him. He blinked hard, and more of his room came into a fuzzy focus. His window was a shimmering blaze that made him turn away. A laugh formed deep down and bubbled to the surface. The irony was complete. He couldn’t contain it. He laughed aloud in delighted, accepting, helpless waves.
Ben gently caught his bandaged hands. “It’s all right, Adam. It’s all over. You are home in bed. Joe, Hoss, we’re all here and safe, thanks to you.”
“Oh God! that one might read the book of Fate!” Adam was trying hard to control his laughter and struggled up against the pillows.
Puzzled by Adam’s strange reaction and the Shakespearean quote, Ben leaned in and looked at him closely. Slowly it came to him that Adam was looking directly back at him his eyes focused and lively with humor. “You see me don’t you, son? You can see!”
“Yes, yes I see you! Now, after all this, now I can see!” The laughter escaped again into deep chuckles.
Doc Martin pushed Ben aside and took Adam firmly by the shoulders. “I know this is a shock, but it’s not totally unexpected. Calm yourself, Adam. I need answers to a few questions.”
Adam took a deep breath and nodded yes. “Go ahead, Doc. I’ll try to answer like I had good sense.”
“Is your vision completely clear?”
“No, it’s quite fuzzy and the light hurts, but it seems to be improving as we speak.”
“Did you have any warning sighs – possibly head pains or flashes of light?’
“Yes, I’ve had headaches off and on for some time. They were getting pretty severe. Now my head feels clear, light. In the last few days, I’ve had what must have been moments of sight. I just didn’t realize what was happening. I’d gotten so used to being blind; I never expected to see again.”
“I believe that the pressure that caused your loss of vision must have been clearing naturally. That blast today just hurried it along. I would expect your sight to return to normal over the next few days. You should rest, and be careful of your hands. Keep them clean and dry.”
Paul Martin turned to Ben. “Change his dressings daily; I’ll leave some ointment, and, it may be difficult, but keep him quiet. I’ll be back in a few days to check on them both. Now, if you’ll find somebody to drive me home…” Ben Cartwright escorted his friend downstairs to see him off to make up some much needed sleep.
Hoss was left alone with his brother. He approached quietly and took Ben’s place at the edge of the bed. “Can you really see me, Adam,” he inquired cautiously.
“I can, Hoss; I do. You may not be the prettiest thing in the Territory, but you look very good to me.”
“I shore am glad for you, partner! I don’t know just how to say it, but I ain’t never seen nothing like your courage, Adam. I watched how hard you worked to make your way in a world you couldn’t see, and then to ride blind into a forest fire! How could you find the nerve to do that? I couldn’t. I thought we’d all die there.”
“Hoss, courage is nothing more than knowing what needs to be done, being scared to death to do it and going ahead anyway. You would have done the same. Anybody who’s not afraid in those circumstances is insane.”
Adam looked down for a moment and then reached out to touch his brother’s knee with one bandaged hand. “I leaned on you very heavily through this thing, Hoss. You were my…my beacon in the darkness. I don’t think I would have made it without you. I’m in your debt. Any claim you want to make at any time I’ll honor.”
Hoss blushed furiously. “Shucks, Adam. You don’t owe me nothin’. Like you, I just did the needful thing.”
“I’m grateful, but remember what I said. Someday you may want to call in the account.”
Paul Martin drove out to the Ponderosa three days later to find Adam taking his ease on the veranda. His chair was tipped back; his legs elevated on the low porch railing and his bandaged hands rested quietly on a closed book in his lap. As Paul stepped out of the buggy, he sat up and waved in greeting. “Afternoon, Doc. Come to check up on us?”
“I have indeed. Glad to see you following orders. How is your vision?
“Clear as a bell, thanks. Can’t do much besides loaf until these come off.” He lifted his wrapped hands.
“How are they?”
“Improving I think. The blisters are shrinking, and they don’t hurt as much.”
“I’ll take a look at them after I see Joe.” Dr. Martin stepped onto the porch and leaned against the rail near Adam. “A word with you, Adam; just between us.”
Adam lifted one eyebrow and look at the doctor for some time before replying. “As you will.”
“You helped out quite a bit at the Bronson place in those last few weeks before ‘Bronc’ died didn’t you?”
“They were neighbors. I did what I could.”
“A terrible death. He was kicked in the head, seemed to recover well, and then after a few weeks started to get headaches. They got worse and worse. There was slow bleeding into the brain with constantly increasing pressure and pain. The end came slowly with convulsions, blindness – he died in agony. It destroyed his family.”
“And…” Adam’s tone was cool, distant.
“It occurred to me that when the headaches started you might have thought something similar was happening to you. When you rode into that fire, I wonder if you ever intended to ride out again?”
“No offense, but I find hypothetical questions to be fairly pointless. Whatever you may say, you never really know what you’ll do until the situation arises. Haven’t you found that to be true in your own life?”
“I take your point. I would like you to remember that I am a firm believer in doctor/patient confidentiality should the need ever arise.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
Adam stood up and shouldered the front door open for the doctor. When he had disappeared inside, the oldest Cartwright son stretched lazily, resumed his chair and sat gazing in deep appreciation at the play of sun and shadow across the majestic beauty of mountains and trees that surrounded his home. He had been so close; it was good to be alive.
Adam’s Shakespearean quote is from Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, Scene I.