Summary: The Cartwrights must turn to each other after being caught in a disastrous avalanche.
Rated: K+ (4,815 words)
The Last Time I was Dying
The first time I was dying, it was spring, and the flowers had just started blooming.
It was April. I was all of seventeen years old and so full of myself that the hot blood running out of my shoulder was more itchy than frightening, and I wondered that a bullet wound hurt less than a broken toe. I’d been shot the night before and left to die by a bunch of stage bandits who never bothered to tell me their names. It was my first trip to San Francisco without my family, and I’d had a fine time of it. I was on my way back home, when the stage was robbed. I was the only passenger. The driver was already dead and was lying beside me. We’d been dragged off the side of the road, and I was resting on a rocky bed of wildflowers that smelled so sweet they made me ache inside. But they couldn’t make up for the fact that I was alone on a spring day, dying when the rest of the world had just started blooming.
Of course, I didn’t die that day. I was rescued before my blood ran out, and a pretty farm girl with red curls nursed me back to health, and my family came to get me just as soon as they got the news. I acted like it didn’t matter – almost dying, that is – but truth be told, it came on me as something of a shock… the idea that I could die all alone.
I’d never been alone my whole life – at least, not for long – so the idea of it was just about the hardest thing I could have imagined. I’ve lived a lot more life since then – almost three years past that spring. The way I’ve been living those years, some folks would say I’m just about due for another run-in with dying.
It’s winter now – my twentieth try at this season. There are no flowers underneath me, just cold snow. But I’m not alone this time, and that makes up for a lot, even if I don’t get to see the wildflowers bloom next spring. But I’m not alone. My family is here with me. We’re together. None of us are dying alone….
“Joseph… you need…to wake up, son.”
I hear Pa, so I open my eyes and look over at him. His eyes would warm me all over if they could. He wants so badly for me to say something to him, so I reach my hand out to him. It’s a pretty pathetic show of strength – plumb worthless if you ask me, but it makes him smile anyways. Pa’s awfully easy to please.
He’s been trying so hard to keep us all awake and talking. I want to answer him, I really do, but my throat is seized up with how cold it is. I touch his hand only for a second. I can hardly feel him through our gloves, but it’s enough, and he closes his eyes. Pa’s exhausted himself again, but before you know it, he’ll come around and be starting over with one of my brothers. He’s been keeping it up for hours, watching over us in the only way he can. Even when he’s got a short rope, Pa throws a wide loop. It wears me out just watching. But then again, everything is wearing on me. My time used to feel bottomless, but I can see an end to it now. Not a pretty red-haired farm girl in sight.
Pa’s wedged between Hoss and me and at an angle from Adam. He doesn’t want to be far away from any of us, and I feel his hand running over my shoulder, my face, from time to time. It’s comforting, knowing he’s right there. We’re all together, in this slow, cold dying.
Funny how I don’t feel all that cold, even though snow’s been blowing over us all day. It blows across my face and in my eyes. If I don’t blink it away, my eyelids might freeze shut, but I ain’t planning to die like that. Never was one for traveling blind. I like to see where I’m heading.
Adam hasn’t been awake for a long time. Last night, he was quoting from Milton and needling me because I couldn’t pelt him with a decent snowball to shut him up. Ain’t fair – boring a fellow when he can’t do nothing about it. I’d listen now, even if he wanted to quote Shakespeare at me all day. Hoss is the closest to Adam so he keeps telling us how he’s doing. Says Adam’s holding his own, but I can tell by the look on Hoss’s face, he’s not really telling it straight. Right now, he’s having some dream. I wonder what Adam dreams about. From the expression on his face, it might be a good one. I don’t think he’s feeling the cold anymore, and I’m awfully glad for it.
I’d do anything to get over there and check on my brother myself, so I try to get up again. I do what I can, but my body’s about given up. I’d be worried I was paralyzed or something really bad like that, except that I was able to move my legs last night. It’s just been too much time, lying on the snow. I can feel it all the way through every layer I put on yesterday, through my winter coat. I can feel the cold in my bones. In the last couple hours, I’ve started to get numb, which could be a good thing, all things considered. But that numbness is creeping over my toes and up my hands. I know that’s how it is when you’re freezing to death. First you’re cold and shivering. Then you’re numb with fire pricks of heat branding you from the inside. Then, you get kind of comfortable. And after that, I’m not sure what happens. Haven’t made it that far. Guess you just go to sleep…
“Got…to… can’t give up.”
It’s Hoss ordering himself around again, and I turn to him. My big brother’s face is red and snow-burned, but he’s not looking at me. He’s working at sitting up again, his face scrunched, going at it like I’ve never seen him work at anything else. Hoss is the strongest man I’ve ever known, and it’s not just because he’s my brother. He doesn’t ever give up. I can’t stop watching him. He’s finally sitting and holds it steady. Right away, he reaches over to feel Adam’s forehead, before he falls back again. He’s going to take this like it’s a weakness, but he’ll always be strong, no matter what happens. I’ll never see him any different. I guess I’m smiling at him, even though my smile feels like a crack in a frozen pond. Hoss sees it and returns the favor. He ruffles my hair, and snow falls into my eyes.
“Ain’t got much longer to wait, Short Shanks,” he says. “Help’s a’comin’.”
“Adam?” Pa tries calling him again. He’s tallying, still keeping track of the three of us. He’s got one son unaccounted for, even though we’re lying right next to each other. I wish I could tell him what I know. We’re all still here, together. Even from here, I can see Adam breathing. I’d know it if he’d gone on ahead of us. Pa wants us to all stay together. I’m trying to stay awake for his sake. So, I stare into the blue sky until it hurts. The world is bright and beautiful and an unholy shade of white. I have to close my eyes. It’s dazzling…
I was first to hear it. The first rumble sounded a lot like the last log before it crumbles into ashes. Adam came to a stop beside me. Hoss and Pa weren’t far behind. We’d come to the place where the road runs along a cliff stretching up, a hundred feet high. Sweet Lord, I’d seen that sight all my life, but it was a glory, with the sun glinting on the boulders sticking out from that white snow. It was like the whole world had frozen into diamonds. Then, I heard that rumble again. Wasn’t much. It was peculiar, not worrying, but then a dusting of snow came tumbling down. Pa and Hoss rode up, and we all looked up to the top of that cliff. We knew right away what was happening, but by then, it really was too late.
“Ride!” Pa hollered at us, and we all kicked our heels, and I’ll tell you, we tried to ride out of there. We really tried. But that beautiful wall of snow was falling all around us.
I could feel my pinto under me. I leaned over her neck and hung on, spurring her to go faster. Go girl, ride fast! I didn’t say it out loud, but she knew what I needed her to do for me. She was fast, but that avalanche was cold, and it was angry. There’s no other way to describe it. Pa always said that nature and people are in a battle with each other, and let me tell you what happened next – nature won.
That wall of snow knocked me out of my saddle. I was tumbling down and under it, and as I was going down, I saw Hoss fall and then Adam beside him. Pa was the last to go down. Then everything went white. I was buried, but not completely. I could still kick in the open air, but my arms were pinned fast at my side. The shock of it made me gasp a mouthful of ice. My legs were no longer warmed from my horse, but instead I was swimming in snow. I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. I wondered if I was broken inside. I was dying alone.
Then the world broke through to me, and I wheezed in air like a drowning man. Hoss had a hold of my legs and was hauling me out like he was some kind of a grave robber. I was the last one out. Pa and Adam were lying on either side of me next to heaps of churned up snow. Hoss had saved all of us. I wondered who had saved him, but I didn’t have enough sense to ask him.
Hoss dragged each of us away from the mountain in case it chose to give way again. Finally, he collapsed right beside us. We lay there for the longest time, and everything was quiet, except for the sound of my family breathing. Adam sounded funny, like there was water in his lungs, but I couldn’t have gotten up for anything. Hoss was the only one moving, and he’d check on us for a minute or two, before falling back down again. Pa was unconscious for the longest. The three of us kept calling for him, trying to wake him up, but it was a scary time before he answered us.
“I’m all right, boys,” Pa said, when he woke up. “Stop worrying over me.”
“We know you are, Pa,” Hoss said, like nothing was all that wrong. “But you can’t blame us for a little worryin’.”
“We’re not going to find Hop Sing,” I whispered. My head pounded behind my eyes, but I couldn’t stand the idea of Hop Sing still out alone by himself.
“I think Hop Sing’s more likely to find us.” Adam was barely loud enough to hear, even in the quiet, but he still sounded like himself. I could hear in the guilt in my brother’s voice, clear as day. “Main road would have been safer…”
It had been a heavy snowfall, and the main road to Virginia City was rutted out every few feet, but you couldn’t tell where under all that snow. Hop Sing had insisted on taking the sled to visit a sick cousin in Virginia City. It was a bad idea, and we all said so. But Hop Sing was pretty much a Cartwright, and Lordy, he was stubborn! He was going to Virginia City, no matter how we tried to talk him out of it. Hoss and I even said we’d go to town with him, but he’d have shooed us into the next territory, if we didn’t stop pestering him.
“Two weeks good weather,” Hop Sing had told us. “Cousin dying. You stay here. Do your own work. Stop bothering Hop Sing.”
And that was that, even though Adam did draw out a map for him and insisted on going over it again and again, making sure he took the safest route to town.
I thought Hop Sing was going to cut my brother down after the fifth time Adam had asked if he really knew where he was going. So, finally Adam backed off. “Be careful,” he said.
He was late getting back. One thing about Hop Sing – he always kept his promises. Always, and he was late. We didn’t even talk about the fact that we were going looking for him. We just strapped on our gunbelts and packed our saddlebags and rode out. The weather was beautiful, which of course made it more dangerous, what with all that melting snow. But Hop Sing was one of us. If he was in trouble, we’d be there for him. We wouldn’t have wanted him to be alone…
We never found him, but we made it half way to town before the avalanche almost killed us. We may have been fools for trying.
But like Hoss said as he lay in the cold, cold snow, “At least we can live with ourselves.”
“Even if it ain’t for long,” I retorted, my lungs on fire just from the effort of saying those few words. The air felt thin, like it could shatter like glass.
Pa, Adam, and I were pretty much out. We were a mess. Pa’s leg was definitely broken, and Hoss tried splinting it, as best as he could. Adam had cracked some ribs, and dizziness in his head made him throw up when he moved it. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with me. Pa kept asking, but I couldn’t explain it. Nothing seemed broken, but nothing seemed to be working either. That’s when I knew I could die from this. My body was kind of shutting down. But I didn’t say so.
Hoss could have walked away. He was hurt; his face was turning black and blue, and his hands were scraped bloody and raw, from digging us out of the snow. He’d lost his gloves somewhere. But honest to God, he could have walked away. Saved himself. He’d already saved us. Pa and Adam tried talking him into looking for the horses and going for help, but Hoss wouldn’t hear nothing of it. Said we rode into this together and we were riding out of this together. Said he didn’t dig us out of an avalanche to leave us.
I didn’t say anything one way or another, but I was glad Hoss stayed. I still remembered the loneliness of that April day, three years earlier. I was being selfish, but I was worried that if Hoss left, I’d be the last one to go. I was afraid to watch Pa and Adam die and not know how to find my way after them. And I didn’t want to die alone.
If I’d known how long freezing to death could take, I’d have felt differently. No matter. Hoss was stubborn and wouldn’t change his mind on something like that for anything. He tried to build us a shelter out of all that soft snow, but he really wasn’t much better off than the rest of us. He wouldn’t have gotten far without a horse, anyway. Finally, he just lay down next to us.
I should have appreciated it more, that stretch of good time when we were all awake and still talking. I didn’t know how little was left. It was the longest night I’d ever known, what with Adam quoting from Paradise Lost through half of it. It was the dangest poem, and it gave me the shivers, not like I needed to get any colder than I already was. All about Satan and his fall from paradise. Adam had been re-reading it at home and had a lot to say about it, proud of himself that he had so much of it memorized. I listened until my brain was going numb, as much from the words than the snow.
“Why would God even create Satan when he knew how bad he was going to turn out?” I griped. “Why even put him in Heaven in the first place? It doesn’t make sense, Adam.”
“It’s a poem,” Adam snapped at me, his patience wearing as thin as mine. “Listen to it for the language first, Joe. Then worry about the theology.”
“It’s a mighty long poem,” I grumbled.
“It’s a mighty long night,” Adam shot right back at me. “And we have to stay awake if we’re going to live until morning.”
“Adam’s right,” Pa said, quietly. We’d bundled up as close as we could. Pa’s cheek was next to mine, and it was still warm. We could see the stars in the sky. Looking at that night sky had always been one of my favorite sights. All around us, stars were falling. Pa put his hand over mine and held it. “Joseph, if Adam’s poem irritates you, then that’s probably a good thing. You’ve been falling asleep on and off for the past hour.”
“I’m trying,” I said, and I was, but they were right. I had to stay awake a little longer. We were in this together. I couldn’t go ahead and leave them behind.
“Funny,” Hoss said. “When I used to see falling stars, I thought they were angels. Reckon they were little devils all this time?”
“Can’t we talk about something else?” I moaned, and they all laughed. Then I was warm again…
And somehow, we made it through the night, huddled up like that. But we were cold in the morning. All of us. Morning wore on, and the winds picked up, and we were getting colder. Hoss even tried to set off for help then, but he only made it a few feet before falling. He crawled back to us.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I just can’t do it.”
“It’s all right, son.” Pa was getting tired by then, but his voice was still warm. He left his hand on my brother’s shoulder. “You just stay with us.”
But we weren’t staying together. Adam was drifting off, between fits of coughing. His cheeks were pale-white, and Hoss felt him and said he was awfully cold. So Hoss scooted himself closer, trying to keep him warm. Adam tossed and turned for a while, before going suddenly still. I’d been trying to keep myself together until that, but my grit was all but gone. I was sure Adam was dead, and I started crying until Hoss leaned over me and ordered me to stop it.
“You’re gonna worry Pa,” he hissed, so I could hear it. Hoss was right, and I got myself together at that. Louder, he said, “Adam just needs a little shut eye, that’s all.”
But I noticed how gentle Hoss was with our big brother every time he tried to wake him.
And so there we were. The four of us together, out in the cold, lying in drifts of whiteness so perfect, they looked like angel wings. Kept thinking about Hoss and his falling angels. All around us, angels were falling, and I was still thinking we were all going to be together, no matter how this turned out…
“Joseph? Joe? Little Joe?”
I’m trying to stay where it’s warmer, but my pa’s calling for me again. Can’t ignore him. I never was that kind of brave.
“I’m here, Pa,” I say, telling the truth. I am here. I blink my eyes open, and I’m staring at a sky, shades of blue lighter than the lake. Not a cloud in it. The sun is high, the snow melting off the pines. I wake up and remember. We’re dying on a beautiful day. There’s some comfort in that.
“That’s good, son,” Pa says quietly. “You’re doing well. Just a little longer.”
“I will, Pa,” I say, but there’s no conviction in it. Not sure it’s the truth. I can’t hold on much longer.
“All right, then. Help’s on its way.”
That’s when I notice that Adam’s awake. He turns his head and looks over at us. I’m so glad to see him awake like that… relief washes all over me. At Pa’s claim that we’re going to be rescued, Adam rolls his eyes, but he’s almost smiling.
“You always were an optimist,” he says. Adam looks awfully cold. His lips are blue.
“Help’s coming,” Pa insists, but he’s smiling back at my big brother. “We just have to wait for it.” I see the worry edge its way back into his eyes. One son left to check on. “Hoss? Son? Are you doing all right?”
Hoss’s voice is even farther off on the other side of me. But he also knows better than to try and get away from our pa. “It’s hard,” he manages to say. “Cold.”
Even though I should be cold, I’m starting to feel different. Warmer. Maybe, it’s my family’s voices around me. Maybe it’s the sun over my head. Maybe it’s remembering that it hasn’t always been this way. I can remember my life like it’s all still in front of me. I love every season, but spring is my favorite. I remember spring breaking out like wild horses, flowers blooming, how green the pines look when the first snow melts… Remembering our trees, our miles and miles of trees. Stretching up in the mountaintops, as high as the eye can see. Pa loved the pines the most when he came hear from back east. They never give up. They’re constant, Pa says. He knows them all by name. Pa says they’re evergreen…
“Joseph,” Pa says, and I feel him gripping my arm. “Stay with us. Hold on to me, son. Take hold of your brothers.”
I’ve been drifting again, but Pa’s now holding onto my arm tight. It’s almost like he’s angry, but I can’t reckon why. He wants something from me, something that I can’t remember how to give. Even so, his hand anchors me to this world in a way that’s hard to explain. If you don’t know my pa, you probably wouldn’t understand. I’m so tired. Cold again. Just about ready to be done with winter. But I hold onto Pa. I feel all that strength in him, and it warms me. And with everything I’ve got left, I reach for my brother. Hoss has always been the strong one, but he’s getting weaker. He can’t talk much more but he takes my hand and holds it. He’s a lot stronger than I am, but I’m not sure who’s holding on tighter. I turn my head, and don’t stop looking until I see Pa reaching for Adam. Our heads are almost touching in the center, we’re lying almost in a circle. Then Hoss takes hold of Adam’s forearm, and Adam does the same. I can see our breath misting and disappearing in the icy air; we’re still here, and we’re as close as we’re going to be.
I’m not really sad at this fading, this winter season. I’m not scared. It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost a little exciting – not knowing what’s coming next. I’m not alone, like the last time I was dying. There’s a whole world under all that snow. Don’t know if we’ll see it again. But we know it’s evergreen.
I’ve never been so cold in my life. But my lips are warm, and my whole body is shaking.
And a familiar voice is saying, “Drink it slow. Not so fast. We need you to drink it down before we take you inside. You gotta warm up nice and slow.”
Lord help me, it could be an angel, but it sounds more like Sheriff Coffee. And my lips taste like tea.
I open my eyes quicker than I should and the sun is blinding. I can’t see, and I cry out, but that same voice drawls, “I said take it slow, boy. You always did try to take things too fast. Doc, he’s coming to.”
“Pa?” I find my voice, and I pull away from these hands holding me that aren’t my pa’s. I blink into the sun overhead, trying to make sense of what happened. Scratchy horse blankets are smothering me. I feel like I’m on fire. Bewildered, I stare at the sheriff, at Doctor Martin. Hop Sing is bent over me. But I don’t see my pa. My brothers. Panic grabs hold of me. This is worse than dying. “Where’s my pa? I want my pa. Where’s Hoss and Adam?”
“Easy, boy,” Sheriff Coffee is saying. He’s trying to get his arms under my shoulders, keeping me still, while the doctor presses his hand against my face. “How is he, Doc?”
Doc Martin shakes his head and says, “He’s got a fever. It’s high.”
“I want my pa.” I’m finding strength I didn’t know I had, and I’m pushing them all away from me. Hay is jabbing against the back of my neck. Everything is changing. I’m not in the snow, but lying in a sled, but I don’t know why. I’m alone. I don’t know where my father is. I’m not holding my brother’s hand. I don’t see Adam, can’t hear him breathing any more. I don’t know where they are.
“I need him to hold still,” the doctor’s telling the sheriff. “We’ve got to get him inside right now. That frostbite needs to be bandaged up before -“
I don’t care about any of this. Instead, I holler, “Take me to them! I want my pa and brothers!”
I’m fighting hard now, and they’re trying to hold me down, until Hop Sing orders them, “I talk to Little Joe. Let him go.”
He moves in close. His face is all I can see. But I don’t fight any more. I’d never fight Hop Sing.
I’m crying. There’s no fight left in me.
“Pa?” I plead with my old friend. I know he’ll tell me the truth. “Hoss and Adam?”
I hold my breath, and the world is still and very, very cold. Every second feels like it’s hanging on a lifetime. Now I know it for sure. There are worse things than dying alone…
Then, Hop Sing says, “Inside. Pa and brothers inside.”
Can’t catch my breath. Crying with no tears. Frozen inside. “Are they…?”
Hop Sing takes hold of my face. Makes me look at him. His hands are warm, even against my fever.
He says, “Fine. Cartwright family fine. Hop Sing find you. Bring Sheriff.”
I’m still crying. I guess I can’t help it. The world is confusing and tipped over on its side. But I let them lift me out of the sled. Even with all my shivering, I can remember my family’s hands hanging on to me. I remember what warmth feels like again.
“Look here, Little Joe,” Roy says, while carrying me across the icy walkway. “Your pa ain’t gonna let me hear the end of it if I don’t get you inside. You’re just bout frozen through and you’re still fighting me. If you Cartwrights ain’t the orneriest bunch I ever met…”
I’m not listening to him any more. I’m craning my head, trying to catch a glimpse of them through the open door. If I look hard enough, I can see them. There’s a fire going. They’re inside, waiting for me. Don’t worry, Pa. Hey brothers. I’m on my way.
I look up at Hop Sing beside me. Even though the sheriff is holding me, Hop Sing’s face is closer to mine.
Hop Sing tells me softly, “You were lost. I found you.”
“We weren’t lost,” I tell him, my voice unsteady, but needing him to know it. “We were together.”
He carries me into the doctor’s front room, and Hop Sing follows, shutting the door against the cold.
Other Stories by this Author
- Dying Well (by DBird)
- Before Christmas (by DBird)
- Cold (by DBird)
- A Beautiful Girl (by DBird)
- Sleigh Bells, Rotgut, and Other Miracles (by DBird & PJB)