Summary: WHN – The Crucible
Rating: T (22, 225 words)
Sequel to “What the Vultures Will Bring”. The first story should be read prior to this one. What was lost was found but will Adam ever truly come home?
Author’s Note: I want to thank all of you who clamored for a sequel. It did my heart good! Here it is. I hope it holds up. Enjoy!
What the Vultures Will Bring Series:
The Light Home
THURSDAY – PRESENT DAY
Ben Cartwright rubbed his eyes and stretched feeling each and every muscle and tendon as they came awake to an aching reality. Flinching at the cramp in his calf, he hastily grabbed it, rubbing it away with both hands as he mumbled to himself that growing older was for the birds.
For just a moment, as his body rebelled, he forgot his troubles. That one blissful moment when everything just centered on his aches and pains was pure joy as the memories of these past weeks threatened to overtake him again. No, he would relish this diversion if only for the time it lasted.
It had been a long two days since that fateful night when he’d found himself flat on the floor with his eldest boy’s hands wrapped about his neck, screaming at the phantom that invaded his dreams. If it hadn’t been for Hoss, Ben wasn’t sure he would be here now. True, Adam wasn’t in the best of shape but that nightmare had given him a fighting strength, a strength that fled as soon as he awoke, the realization of what he’d done sending him deeper into the darkness that surrounded him. When he’d awakened the next morning, he couldn’t even bring himself to look Ben straight in the eye, not able to get past the red that marked his neck. It broke a father’s heart to see tears gather in those long lashes before he turned away to stare out the window, silent and withdrawn.
“Damn, Kane,” Ben muttered, his blissful moment gone. Tossing aside the blanket, he sat up finding he’d gone to bed in his clothes . . . again. “Lord, when will this all end?”
Running hands through mussed hair, he stripped and gave himself a quick bird bath, then pulled clean clothes from the closet. A quick brushing of the teeth followed by a cursory glance then dismissal of his whiskered chin, he moved out of his room to check on Adam when raised voices downstairs stopped him mid-stride. Both angry at the clamor but curious just the same, he headed toward the voices, his calf giving him a twinge or two as he followed the noise into the kitchen.
“Keep it down,” Ben called from the entry, his deep tone silencing the three men where they stood. “Your brother needs quiet.” He looked at each of them wondering why Hoss and Joe were dressed in gun belts and hats so early in the morning, his gaze flicking toward Hop Sing who avoided the look altogether. Sudden chills swept through him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, all his anger gone as worry took its place.
“Pa . . .,” Hoss quietly began.
“It’s Adam, Pa,” Joe interjected before Hoss could finish. “He’s not here.”
Ben knew it was early but he needed something a bit clearer than that. “What do you mean he’s not here?” he asked.
“He no in house,” Hop Sing added pulling Ben’s attention.
“He ain’t in the barn neither,” Hoss noted.
“Sport’s here, Pa, so he can’t be far,” Joe added as Ben looked at each in turn.
“Well . . . go find him!” Ben ordered. “He shouldn’t be out on his own.” He watched Joe rush out the side door while Hop Sing scuttled into the great room.
“I check house again,” the cook called over his shoulder as Ben nodded, stepping aside for Hoss who moved silently past, catching his attention only moments later when a startled gasp drifted in from the other room. Following the sound, he stepped into the dining room and around the corner to see his middle son standing in front of the open front door, his hand resting on something on the sideboard. “Hoss?”
The big man swallowed and didn’t turn not wanting to tell his father what he’d found, show him what he held. Ben sidled up to him. “Hoss, what is it?”
“I didn’t see this before,” Hoss whispered, lowering his head and sighing, misery falling from him. How can I tell him?
“What is it, boy?”
Ben shuddered at the look Hoss gave him; it was the look he showed the world when his heart was breaking and it made his own heart slow damn near to a stop. It was then Ben saw what Hoss held and he sucked in a breath – Adam’s empty holster.
“He took his new gun, Pa.” Those words came out slowly and quietly and filled the room with their meaning.
Ben’s heart sank into his stomach as he stared at the holster, remembering the moment they’d found it in the desert tossed aside like it was nothing of importance; the only thing he could claim as his son’s; the only thing he could bring home. Gently, he lifted it from Hoss’ hands. “My God,” he mumbled.
He’d seen this coming and done nothing. It’d been growing since the night Adam wrapped his hands about his neck but Ben had shrugged it off. This was Adam, always in control, always taking one step at a time, never one to rush headlong into things.
That was the past.
The Adam they now claimed as theirs was anything but what he’d been. The Adam they now beheld had lost his way. He pulled the gunbelt closer.
“He’s not out back!” came Joe’s voice from the front of the house. “I can’t even find any tracks.”
“He no in house,” Hop Sing added upon returning to the great room. “I look everywhere three times. Where he go?” Ben looked at his friend and gave a small shrug of defeat. This empty gunbelt held tightly in his hands told the story of where his oldest boy had gone.
“What’s all this, Charlie?” came Joe’s voice as each moved out the front door to see their foreman, Charlie Porter, leading five horses into the yard.
“Found ‘em down by the north pasture,” he began maneuvering the horses around Chubb and Cochise hitched nearby. “They was grazin’ right as ya please like they was always there. Pete’s got the rest. Ain’t these from that group you was singlin’ out fer breedin’?” he asked, Joe taking a hasty look.
“Yeah, these are the ones. How’d they get down there?”
“Well, looks like someone left the corral gate open ‘cause they didn’t break out on their own. Junebug’s the only one we couldn’t find. Looked all over, too.”
“I wonder where she’s . . .” Joe’s voice gave out when a new thought filled him and he turned fearful eyes toward his father, seeing him clutch Adam’s empty holster to his chest. His heart thumped loudly and his gaze shifted to Hoss, dread dropping on him like a stone.
“He didn’t take Sport,” Hoss said into the silence, the implication behind those words forcing both boys to race to their horses and gallop out of the yard without a backward look.
Unable to move or breathe, Ben stood still, his mind attempting to wrap itself around thoughts of death and a single gunshot that would resonate throughout the rest of his life.
“Mister Adam take Junebug?” Hop Sing said to no one in particular. “Why he take Junebug?”
So no one would find him!
“Mr. Cartwright?” Charlie began feeling as if he’d ridden right into the middle of a story. “Is everything all right?”
Emotion clogged Ben’s brain, his heart, his throat as he turned slowly back toward the house, clasping the gunbelt to his chest. Nothing was real anymore. Not since Kane.
“Mr. Cartwright?” Charlie called stopping Ben in mid-step.
“No, Charlie,” he finally uttered barely managing to keep it together, the foreman’s words finally catching up to him. “Nothing’s been right for some time.”
TUESDAY – 2 DAYS BEFORE
“Paul,” Ben said in a scratchy voice, avoiding the good doctor’s searching eyes as he invited him in then turned sullenly away to sit heavily in the red leather chair by the hearth.
“Ben,” was all Paul Martin said, a world of questions behind the look he gave his friend as he set his bag down on the sideboard. Worry reared its ugly head. Worry. The letters of that particular word should’ve been etched on his forehead since he knew he already had permanent wrinkles affixed there. In fact all doctors who gave a damn shared that same affliction.
Now being worried for his patients was one thing, but being worried for a friend was always worse and sometimes his powers of medicine weren’t enough leaving him with nothing to offer but platitudes and fancy words that meant nothing. Those were the worst times. Those were the times he feared most, times like these.
“I was checking on Abby Markham’s boy,” the doctor began, “when I thought I’d stop by and see how things are going here.”
Ben gave a half-smile, then looked away, unconsciously running a hand over his neck. “We’re fine.”
“Adam tried to strangle him, Paul,” Joe announced as he came down the stairs ignoring the furious glare Ben flashed him.
“What?” Paul urgently asked as more worry piled up.
“He was having a nightmare,” Ben explained. “Things . . . got out of hand.”
“Adam had him on the floor, Paul,” Joe continued. “Hoss had to pry his hands from around Pa’s neck.”
“I was trying to wake him. He thought I was Kane.”
“When did this happen?” Paul asked of anyone.
“Last night,” Joe answered, looking over to Ben. “He’s getting worse, Pa.”
“He was having a nightmare,” Ben responded leaning forward as exasperation filled him. “It wasn’t Adam.”
“He tried to kill you!”
“Keep voice down!” came Hop Sing’s harsh whisper from the stairs, Hoss glaring over his shoulder at the lot of them. “All this yelling wake Mister Adam. He need sleep.”
The two descended the stairs, Hop Sing eyeing Ben until he turned again to the fireplace while Joe cast his eyes downward to stare at his boots.
“This ain’t the time for yellin’,” Hoss said placing a large hand on his brother’s shoulder to press him onto the settee.
“Sorry,” Joe whispered, embarrassed at his own outburst but still perturbed at his father.
Paul sighed and moved toward Ben, pushing up his chin to check his neck. “Just bruises,” he proclaimed.
“I told you I was fine,” Ben answered pushing away his hand, not watching as the good doctor stepped back and eyed the lot of them.
“I’ve known all of you for many years,” Paul began, sinking hands into his front pockets. “I’ve mended broken bones and bullet holes in each of you and I cherish our friendship, but now one of you has been injured, an injury that can’t be fixed with traditional medicine . . . and I apologize for that.”
“Paul . . .” Hoss began stopping as the doctor raised a hand.
“This is the time you must all pull together and not let the strain of what’s happening tear you apart. Your son, your brother, is lost – a shadow of his former self – and it’s rattled you and him.” None responded as he sat down on the settee. “Obviously there’s been no improvement.”
“No. He’s getting worse,” Joe stated not waiting for anyone else to speak.
“Is he getting worse in that he’s still not sleeping or are his nightmares becoming more violent?” Paul asked.
“Both,” Hoss answered.
“Hoss . . .” Ben began.
“It’s true, Pa,” Hoss said looking straight at his father. “And you know it.”
“Has this happened before?”
“No,” Ben hastily added. “Just this once.”
“But it could happen again,” Joe added.
“I’ll be more careful,” Ben stated, glaring at his youngest.
“Adam’s trying not to sleep, Paul,” Joe continued, ignoring his father. “When he sleeps, Kane comes and torments him. He can’t keep this up. It’s killing him.”
“Joe, we just need to be . . .” Ben began.
“What, Pa? Need to be what? He’s not getting better. He won’t even look you in the eye.”
“He ain’t eatin’ much that’s for sure,” Hoss added as Ben rubbed his face, hating to listen to this even though he knew it was the truth.
“Neither are any of you, by the looks of it,” Paul said with a grim look.
“It’s difficult to eat when one of your own is slowly dying in front of you,” Ben whispered, quickly pulling hands from his face, afraid he’d spoken aloud. The looks on their faces proved him correct.
Numerous times he’d said this to himself but to hear his own voice speak those words, well they took on a different more frightening meaning. Adam was dying from the inside – slowly but surely – and there was nothing any of them could do but watch. None of them, including Paul, had the knowledge to deal with a broken mind except to lock him away in a dark room and dismiss his very existence. That he would never do!
Adam’s not crazy!
“Then we’ll have to stop that now,” Paul stated.
“How?” Joe asked.
“He can’t remember everything that happened to him and what he does remember is jumbled and out of context which leads to created memories that aren’t necessarily valid,” Paul began. “From what you’ve told me he doesn’t remember what happened after Kane’s ultimatum and you telling him isn’t going to help. He won’t retain it because he can’t put an actual memory to it.”
“And I don’t understand that, Paul,” Ben said. “We wouldn’t lie to him just to make him feel better.”
“Of course you would,” he answered shocking them all.
“We wouldn’t,” Joe stated.
“Everyone would, Joe, and he knows it. I’m sure he’s thinking that he must’ve done something horrible since all of you are lying to him.”
“How can ya say that, Paul?” Hoss asked sadness on his face.
“I’m not saying you are it’s just that his perception has changed. He has to remember on his own. Once he does, the true healing can begin.”
“And how is he supposed to do that?” Joe asked.
“I’ve seen you with him, all of you. You baby him. You’re afraid to bring anything up because it’s too painful for you and that’s understandable,” he hastily added. “But he’s never going to walk out that door until he can stand on his own two legs.”
“I can’t just let him wake up screaming alone,” Ben said aghast at the thought. “How can I ignore that?”
“I’m not asking that you ignore what’s going on, just stop treating him like he’s going to break.”
“But, Paul,” Hoss began, “he’s already broke.”
“I know,” the doctor said with a nod. “And we need to put the pieces back together even if he won’t let us. He’s scared and so are all of you. He’s afraid of what he might’ve done and he’s trapped himself out on that desert. He has to kill Kane, exorcise him from his mind . . . and I’ve no idea how do that,” he added knowing that that would be the next question. “The only thing I can suggest is to be honest with him. Tell him that you were going to leave him, admit your own limitations. You have to keep him moving forward until he can’t help but remember.”
“That’ll work?” Hoss asked.
Paul shrugged. “I’ve heard of some cases where it’s been useful but you have to know that it may hurt you as much as him. Don’t let your guilt mar what you’re trying to do.” Paul sighed, wanting so to be able to help this family, his friends. “Adam met and passed his limits out there just as the three of you did and it rocked him. He’s adrift with nothing to hang onto and you can’t expect to recover quickly from that. On top of that, he’s still recovering physically from his ordeal.
“It takes time and all of you must help. Make him look at you when you speak to him even if you have to pull his chin toward you. Bring him back into this world. Don’t let Kane take over every aspect of him.”
“What if he . . .” Ben began in a quiet voice drawing everyone’s attention as he stared into the fireplace. “What if he doesn’t come back? What happens then?”
Paul fidgeted with his jacket sleeve. “You know the answer to that, Ben.”
Joe looked from one to the other. “What does he mean, Pa?”
“Joe . . .”
“An asylum? Is that what you’re saying, Pa?” Joe asked, alarm permeating the words.
“Joe, please . . .”
“You’re not sending him away!”
“Pa, ya cain’t do that,” Hoss added, looking from Paul to Ben. “Ya cain’t just ship him off like he’s nothin’.”
“Adam’s not Ross Marquette2!” Joe blurted as Ben closed his eyes. “He’s not!” Jumping to his feet, he didn’t know where to go, suddenly livid with his father for even thinking of sending Adam away.
“Joe, sit,” Paul ordered fixing him with a hard gaze until the boy did as he was told and slumped back down on the settee. Paul’s face softened and he placed a comforting hand on the young man’s shoulder. “No one is suggesting that Adam will end up the same way as Ross. He has something important – he has more love in this house than most people do in their lifetime and sometimes that’s more important than anything else.”
Joe felt his anger dissipate turning instead into mind numbing sadness. “But will it be enough?” he asked.
“It has to be, Joe,” Ben whispered. “It just has to be.”
“Adam,” Ben called quietly as he knocked on the door knowing full well he wouldn’t get an answer. Easing it open, the glow from the bedside lamp showed him a sleeping son, his chest rising and falling with the rhythm of his breath. Every second his heart beat, every time he moved or moaned in his sleep, Ben thanked God for this bit of life he’d been entrusted with, this young man who meant everything to him.
He’d made himself scarce this day, letting Joe, Hoss and Hop Sing look after Adam, remembering the look of guilt that filled his boy’s eyes when he’d awakened that morning to see the red marks on his neck. He couldn’t stand to see the agony his presence caused.
It had been just over a day since Ben had felt his son’s hands and, yes, he’d counted every second. Such panic radiated from him, panic and terror toward a demon that still spoke to him in dreams. And that fateful night as he held his desperate son he’d promised something – promised that he’d make Kane go away . . . and he didn’t have anymore of a clue on how do to that than Paul did.
Careful so as not to disturb him, he sat on the side of Adam’s bed and reached over to turn off the lamp . . . then paused. The last time he’d attempted this was the last time Adam had spoken directly to him, asking him in a tight voice to leave it on since the dark ran over him like a train. He remembered the tone, felt the anxiety. Ben sat back and, instead, looked more closely at his oldest son.
The dark circles under the eyes, the thinness of the cheeks, the beard he’d not wanted shaved all brought back the desperate times they’d faced these last three weeks after finding him on the desert. Their efforts to bring him home changed all of them, making them question their faith and their ability to see an end to this trauma, to see him through. Adam’s flashing smile suddenly popped into his head and echoes of his beautiful deep voice rising in song followed and it made Ben’s heart shrink further. Would they ever have those things again or would this room become his life? Would his world be nothing but the hue and cry of Kane attacking him until he decided to end it all?
Forcing such gloomy thoughts away, Ben lovingly touched Adam’s face noting he seemed a bit warm. The sunstroke and dehydration caused his temperature to rise and fall in an hour, dizzy spells and nausea alternating with chills and sweats and a vagueness that made Ben uncomfortable. He was used to his son taking charge, able to control all situations without a second thought, but his confession just a day ago of not being the same man was brought home when his hands wrapped about Ben’s neck.
A chill ran up his spine and he shrugged it off.
I can’t dwell on that. It wasn’t him.
Standing, he leaned over and kissed Adam on the forehead then moved to the door, slipping out and leaving the door ajar in case he was needed. He didn’t see nor feel the dark eyes that followed him as he left.
I can’t look you in the eye. Not after what I did.
Right here, in this room, he’d tried to strangle his own father. It didn’t matter he was having a nightmare and couldn’t break free; it didn’t matter that he was killing Kane and not Ben. It only mattered that his hands were wrapped about his father’s neck squeezing the life from him. If Hoss hadn’t been there, hadn’t stopped him . . . Shutting out the thought, he turned to face the window.
Am I like Ross?
Yes, he’d heard the conversation downstairs, despite Hop Sing’s best efforts to quiet everyone, and it hit home. Ross Marquette had changed from a childhood friend into a murdering beast who’d killed his own wife. And yet, in the end, the Ross of old had reappeared to be sent off to the great beyond as himself and not the imposter who’d resided there. Was that how it would be for him?
Is that what I am?
Forcing such thoughts away, he looked out the open window to a storm filled sky, wishing so for it to just let loose and wash away the dust and grime that still clung to him, that invaded his very being, to make everything clean again . . . to make him clean again. The heat of the desert had pulled all the moisture from his body, even making his bones ache as if they would break if he bore so much as a thought upon them. He used to like the desert – its starkness, its beauty – now it only served to remind him he’d nearly shot Hoss . . .
A lancing pain shot through him and he gasped at its suddenness, hands shooting to his head. Then, just as quickly, it was gone, leaving him with a clear vision of raising a rifle and pulling the trigger with his brother as the target. The room spun as he bolted upright nearly flinging himself from the bed, grabbing at the bed clothes to ride the wave of dizziness that descended.
Did I try to shoot Hoss?
Grasping for the stray thought only made it disappear that much quicker and he cursed his faulty memory. Swinging legs over the side, he hung his head and rubbed his forehead trying to conjure it back.
Did I try to shoot Hoss?
Stiffening, the color ran from his face at the sound of that terrifying, unmistakable voice, making his belly twist into a knot. It was the voice of nightmares, both waking and sleeping; the voice that pecked at him and pushed him until he’d seen no other way out than to silence it for good; the voice of a demon with blue eyes – Peter Kane.
“Nice to see you again, Cartwright.”
Cold sweat popped out on Adam’s forehead and rolled down his face as his heart pounded frantically. It can’t be! He’s dead! They keep telling me he’s dead!
Like a caged animal, his eyes flew to the window. Two steps and escape would be his and he could flee from his enemy.
You won’t make it off the roof without breaking something!
Desperation filled him. There was nowhere to go, just like before, and his fingers knotted deeper into the bedcovers. Don’t look. If you don’t look, he’ll go away.
“Afraid to look aren’t you?” he prodded.
“You . . . you’re not . . . here,” Adam said with as much conviction as he could muster. It wasn’t much.
“Oh, but I am,” Kane countered, Adam hearing the smile in that voice, seeing it in his mind’s eye. “And getting rid of me will be harder than you think. I’m still the better man, Cartwright, because you did what you said you couldn’t – you killed me with your bare hands.”
“No,” Adam whispered, flinching as lightening suddenly brightened the room. Thunder’s coming. Count . . . count and he’ll go away.
“No? I’ve got the bruises to prove it.”
Adam closed his eyes, seeing his hands crushing Kane’s windpipe . . . squeezing his father’s neck. Count, damn you! Count!
“Want to see them?”
“I didn’t . . . kill you.” Adam finally spoke, giving up on the thunder when it failed to sound.
“Is that what they’re telling you?” came with a laugh. “Is it?” When no answer sprang from him, Adam opened his eyes. “And you believe them?”
Do I? They’d given him the answer, fed it to him over and over, tried to pound it into his head . . . and still he wasn’t sure it was the truth. He just couldn’t remember. They wouldn’t lie . . . would they? “I didn’t think so.” He could hear movement, hear boots hitting the floor.
How can he be here?
“Cartwright, they’ll tell you whatever they want you to believe so they don’t have to deal with the shame. That’s right shame. It doesn’t fit into their scheme of things to have a son who’s a murderer. Wouldn’t look right.”
A murderer? I didn’t kill him. They told me.
“I’m . . . not.”
“Don’t sound so certain.”
Adam’s brow furrowed watching the curtains billow out from the open window. I didn’t kill . . . What if Kane is telling the truth?
“Is that . . . is that what I am?” Adam asked, doubt rushing in to feed the fear in his belly.
“What was that, big brother?” Hoss asked moving hastily across the room to shut the window against the incoming storm, redirecting the curtains to their proper place.
“Is that what I am?” Adam repeated as Hoss turned to see a brother white as a sheet, sweat dampening his nightshirt. He knelt quickly in front of him.
“I’m sorry, brother, but yer gonna havta be a bit more specific.”
Adam looked down to Hoss then, seeing a beloved brother who would tell him the truth.
Hoss saw a scared little boy and reached out to grab his hands. “Yer shakin’ like a leaf. Get under them covers.”
“Is that what I am?” Adam asked again, more urgently than before, drilling Hoss with a look, making him shiver at its intensity. “Am I . . . am I a murderer?”
Stunned, Hoss sat back on his heels, looking up at his desperate brother. Adam’s eyes had always been expressive, the windows to his soul as Ben put it, and now they begged for answers. “No, Adam, yer not,” he answered plainly.
“But I . . . I killed Kane.”
“No ya didn’t.”
“But he said . . .”
“Don’t ya go listenin’ ta him now. He ain’t tellin’ ya the truth.” Inside Hoss shuddered. Kane was talking to his brother, telling him lies, and Adam wasn’t strong enough to shut it out. “Ya stopped yerself, Adam. Ya didn’t finish the job.”
I didn’t finish . . . Why can’t I remember that? “How do you know?”
Such a plaintive cry from this strong man. Hoss swallowed. Kane was winning. He couldn’t allow that. “Ya told us, that’s how.”
“Yessir. Kane spoke just afore ya dragged him outta the desert. Ya gotta believe me when I say it, Adam. I ain’t never lied ta ya and I ain’t startin’ now.” He watched his brother, watched him struggle with this same knowledge as he’d done so many times before. But this time despair filled the void rather than relief. “What is it, Adam? What’s the matter?” Hoss watched him shake his head and look away. “Adam?”
“Did I . . .”
He stopped and Hoss moved next to him on the bed. “Go on.”
Gathering up a breath Adam shut his eyes against what was coming. “Did I try to . . . to shoot you?” came the question in a quiet voice. Those words made Hoss pause knowing this was an ugly memory rearing its head and he’d debated with himself on what he would do if it ever came up. He’d never mentioned this to Joe or Paul and neither had Ben. It didn’t need to be addressed, at least not until Adam needed it. And now was the time.
“Yessir, ya did.”
Cringing at the admission, he appreciated Hoss’ candor even though it split him in two as the pain returned, seeing Hoss drop to the ground as the bullet . . . his bullet sailed over his head and into the rocks beyond. Someone jumped him and kept him from firing again, kept him from killing his brother.
“Ya had yer reasons,” Hoss informed him feeling Adam begin to quiver.
“No reason . . .” The words stopped and his vision blurred.
“Adam . . .”
“There could be no reason,” he continued through clenched teeth battling for control, “no reason in this world for me to . . .” His voice faded again unable to finish.
“Adam, ya thought I was Kane,” Hoss answered, wrapping an arm about him. “From what we know that’s reason enough ta shoot at me.”
“How could . . .”
“You was far gone and didn’t know who we was. You was still trapped with him.”
“That’s no excuse,” Adam angrily said, leaning away from his beloved brother. “I could’ve . . .” A sob broke loose and he covered his face with both hands while Hoss pulled him back.
“That’s in the past, Adam. Ya didn’t hurt me. You could never hurt me,” Hoss finished not knowing what else to say, surprised when Adam buried his face in his shirt and grabbed on.
Hoss figured this was what Ben felt like when he held one of them – a protective shield to keep away the dangers that lurked in the shadows; to try and keep away all things that could hurt them. He was honored by the trust his brother showed him.
Staring out the window, he ran a hand slowly up and down Adam’s arm, watching the trees bend under the power of the wind and wondered why they couldn’t have been there before Adam had been hurt, why they had to pick up the pieces now when there was so little left. What God would let that happen?
He sighed. No blame could be fitted to others, except those in this house. Paul was right. They needed to admit they’d almost left him behind; get everything out in the open. That might be the only thing that would let him heal, let them all heal. Listening to his brother weep for a past deed, he knew now was not the time. Confession would have to wait a little longer.
WEDNESDAY – 1 DAY BEFORE
“He out back,” Hop Sing informed Joe with a tired smile as he wiped flour on his apron.
“Should he be alone?” Joe asked, sneaking a look out the door toward his brother sitting silently on the long wooden bench at the end of the back porch.
“He not alone. I keep eye on him.” Joe smiled at that, knowing it was true. Hop Sing had always been there for them and they’d be lost without him. “You go, be with him, for you both.”
“For us both,” Joe sighed, smiling back at Hop Sing as he slipped out the door, running a hand along the bench Adam and Hoss built when Joe was but an infant. Marie wanted a place out of the house to sit and watch the sunset and the stars and to hear the rain fall long into the night while she read to her boys, telling them stories of New Orleans. Now his brother occupied that same spot, looking out over the same landscape. Joe was doubtful he was remembering those nights with Marie.
How can I force this memory on him? How can I not?
Making up his mind, Joe sauntered forward taking in the sight of his brother hunkered down in his yellow coat, arms crossed against the wind that breezed along the porch. The gray clouds building around them matched the color of his skin and he could just make out dark hair curling over his collar, his thin bearded face giving the impression of a starving man, a lost man unable to find his way home. He stopped a few paces from him, unnerved by how still he sat, how far away he seemed and how he hadn’t noticed him standing there.
“Adam?” Joe finally called, the sound of his voice producing a startling effect – each muscle in his brother’s body instantly constricted and Joe watched him grab at the bench, his breath quickening as if he was being chased, eyes tightly shut. Quickly, he knelt in front of him. “Adam, it’s me, it’s Joe. It’s Joe.”
The familiar voice reverberated in Adam’s ears and he forced open anxious eyes to see his younger brother kneeling before him, strong hands holding him steady, and the tension ran from him like water.
“Joe,” came his relieved voice. “Joe.” Releasing his grip on the bench, Adam sat back, leaning against Joe as he perched next to him, relishing the even presence his brother provided.
Taken aback, Joe wrapped an arm about his brother’s shoulders, wondering at this new turn of events. As long as Joe could remember, Adam had been there to offer guidance and help even when they argued being that he was the eldest. But now the roles were reversed and he hoped he could fill those shoes because his brother deserved it, deserved it more than he ever had.
“Are you warm enough?” Joe asked, seeing Adam nod and continue to look at whatever held his attention. “Maybe it’ll rain soon. I think those clouds should either piss or get off the pot.”
Adam snickered and Joe smiled, hoping soon they’d hear more of that. “It can’t come soon enough,” was all he gave him suddenly growing warm. Sitting upright, he pulled open his coat and wiped sweat from his upper lip. “Not soon enough.”
Joe watched him, knowing his temperature fluctuated, knowing in a matter of moments he might be shivering.
“Adam, I have to . . .” Joe began, stopping when he saw his brother press a hand against his temple, sucking in a painful breath as he leaned forward. Joe gripped his shoulders to keep him on the bench. “Adam?”
“You . . .” Adam began, tight muscles bunching under Joe’s grip. “There was a . . . a room . . .,” he announced trying to take hold of the scene running through his head before it fled. “You were . . . holding . . .” He stopped as the memory and pain faded leaving him irritated. “Damnit!” he cursed running a hand over his sweaty face.
Joe watched him try to compose himself, failing miserably, soon to lay dark pleading eyes upon him. “It was Salt Flats,” Joe answered as Adam narrowed his eyes. “We were there for four days.”
“I didn’t . . . I didn’t hurt you did I like I . . . like I hurt Pa?” Adam asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.
“No, no. You were out of it, too far out of it to barely open your eyes.”
Adam let out a thankful breath. “Why were we there?” he asked looking back out to the woods, unable to place the name.
Joe tried to put those days behind him, forced himself to think only of the present, but each time Adam called out from his dreams those feelings of helplessness and fear returned. But now his brother was asking and his comfort was not important.
“It was the closest town to where we found you,” Joe answered. “We were all exhausted and the wagon I’d found barely got us back to town. There was no way we could get you home without one.”
Adam watched his brother’s face, seeing the pain he was dredging up. It wasn’t fair of him to ask. “You don’t have . . .”
“I want to tell you,” Joe jumped in. “You should be told everything.” He looked back out into the woods seeing the main street of that dry and dusty town, hoping they’d been in time. “We stayed at the Coleridge House, which had seen better days, and put you to bed. The doc finally showed up and tended to you but there was little he could do. It seems modern medicine doesn’t have a magic potion to cure sunstroke and dehydration. It was up to us to get food and water into you and, mind you brother, that wasn’t an easy task.”
“Stubborn,” Adam admitted none of this sounding familiar.
Joe smiled. “We were waiting for Hop Sing to arrive with a wagon before we could get you home, so we settled in, taking shifts to look after you. You couldn’t keep much down and you kept calling out Kane’s name, seeing him in us each time you opened your eyes.” Joe looked down then and fiddled with his pant leg. “It was . . . difficult.”
“Sorry,” Adam quietly said.
“No, no, Adam, don’t be. Everything was difficult. We’d been looking for you for almost two weeks and now that we had you, well, it wasn’t much better. There wasn’t much left of you and Pa was so worried that we hadn’t been in time, but I took great pleasure in the fact that, at least, you weren’t alone anymore. We were there to look after you.
“I think it was the second night. Pa was asleep in the other room, been there since morning, and Hoss was out getting you some new clothes, and I was alone with you. . ”
The room was hot and no matter what they did it just seemed to get hotter. Of course, it was almost 100 degrees outside so what did they expect. This was the desert after all. Joe closed the moth bitten curtains and moved back toward the rumpled bed holding his ailing brother, small moans coming from him now and then as he relived whatever had happened to him.
After all the grime and dirt had been cleaned off, they’d found bruises, deep and purple, covering his body along with scrapes and lacerations; cracked blisters filled his hands and both wrists were embedded with sand and dirt and rope burns sure to leave scarring. Sweat covered his sunburned face and chest dampening the sheets beneath as he shifted from shivering to burning heat in the space of an hour. All was evidence of his trial in the desert.
Joe looked down on his injured brother, guilt rushing through him. “I should’ve been with you,” he whispered, dropping down into the straight backed chair beside the bed, his hand falling on the newspaper he’d found in the dresser. A small whimper met his ears and he touched his brother’s hand. “Ssh. It’s all right.” He settled a bit and Joe sat back, his hand touching the newspaper once again. Maybe he’d like to hear about the goings on in Salt Flats; maybe the droning of his voice would make him know he wasn’t alone. There was nothing else he could think to do.
He picked up the paper. “Let’s see what’s happening in this here town. Ah, here we go. ‘Mrs. Ida Fay Werner, wife of Reverend Hiram Werner, presented a captivating social for the town on Wednesday’. That was Wednesday last month, brother,” he said looking over at Adam who weakly pushed at the sheet around him. “’With the arrival of the new school teacher, this social proved to be a welcoming party as well’. Bet she’s pretty. ‘Mr. Robert J. McCready came to us all the way from San Francisco with books in hand’. Oh. ‘He arrived with his wife, Mrs. Celia McCready, on his arm and her bright yellow dress and bonnet and charming demeanor set everyone to smiling’. I bet she’s a looker. Why I think . . .”
“. . . rocks . . . just rocks . . .” came Adam’s thin voice barely above a whisper interrupting Joe.
“. . . no gold . . .”
Joe dropped the paper and grabbed Adam’s hand, holding it tightly between his own. “It’s Joe, Adam. I’ve got you.”
“There’s no . . . no gold . . . just . . . rocks!”
“Adam, quiet now, quiet. No one can get you here. I’ll protect you. You’re safe, you’re safe here.”
“. . . safe . . .” came after a moment.
“That’s right,” Joe nodded, running a hand down his brother’s face to sooth him, feeling heat rise from him even though he was shivering. Reaching for the discarded blanket at the foot of the bed, he spread it over Adam even as he fought to remove it.
“Pa . . . I’m here! Pa!”
“We’ll be home in a few days, Adam,” Joe said desperate to keep him calm. He looked behind him toward the door where their father slept but his brother needed him now and all he could give was himself. Quickly sliding under the blankets, he pulled a jittery Adam against him, wrapping him in his arms. “Hop Sing’ll be here soon and he’ll make you his teas and soon we’ll be out of this god awful heat and back into the mountains where it’s cool and clear and the lake just sparkles. You love the lake. We’re almost home, Adam. Ssh, ssh. It’ll be all right.” Tears pricked at Joe’s eyes but he kept talking, kept trying to break through his brother’s fevered dreams when a weak voice startled him.
“Joe . . ?” His breath caught in his throat.
“Yeah, it’s me, Adam. It’s Joe.” Joe could feel his brother’s tight posture begin to relax and lean into his grasp. He’d never been so happy to hear his name before.
“Did I . . . did I make it . . . to . . . Signal Rock?” came the unexpected question.
Joe buried his head in Adam’s neck trying to calm himself enough to answer. “Yeah, you made it. You finally made it.”
“. . . sorry . . . late . . .” came the low response, Joe waiting for more when he noticed Adam’s trembling ease then stop altogether, his relaxed breathing informing him he’d fallen back to sleep. It was then Joe let the tears fall, making sure the blanket covered both their shoulders as he held on tight.
“I woke up a few hours later to find both Hoss and Pa keeping watch over both of us.” A resonance of his brother’s loving words filled Adam’s head and he winced as the pain returned.
“Your voice . . . it sounded of home,” Adam whispered, turning to see tears running down Joe’s face as a stiff breeze wafted along the porch. “Joe?”
“I’m sorry,” Joe muttered. “I’m sorry for so many things.”
“But you saved me from . . .”
“I’m sorry I didn’t go with you,” Joe interrupted. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you. I’m sorry you had to go through that hell alone.”
“Joe . . .”
“And I’m sorry we almost left you behind!” Joe finished rapidly tossing a shocked look toward his brother. That wasn’t how he’d pictured the news to fall.
Leave me behind?
“They wanted to tell you but I didn’t,” Joe confessed, words tumbling over each other as they fell from his mouth. “I didn’t think you needed to know. It wouldn’t make any difference now ‘cause you’re home and safe.” Confusion took control of Adam’s face and Joe cursed himself for bringing it up. I never should’ve said anything!
All sorts of images tossed about Adam’s head – vague remembrances of voices in the dark, guilty voices. They left me behind?
“You gave up,” Adam mumbled trying to wrap his wayward mind about those words, unexpected anger coming upon him like a rising flame at the confession. His jaw clenched and Joe grabbed his arm.
“Adam, we were at the end of our rope. We’d been searching for so long with no sign. Pa was exhausted. We knew he’d keep looking until he was dead and we’d already lost you. We couldn’t lose Pa too so we talked him into . . . into giving up and going home.” Joe looked out into the approaching night seeing lightening fill the sky a mile or two away. “It was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, Adam, you have to believe that. We never set out to do that, to give up. We just couldn’t go any further.”
They gave up on me. They abandoned me, left me to die in the desert, left me to him! I hadn’t given up, why did they?
“I guess . . . I guess I did need to tell you. I needed to tell you what we became.” Joe ran a hand through his hair and bent his head. “It wasn’t a proud moment.”
What they became? What about me?! What about me?!
Adam looked away from his brother, looked away before he saw the anger; before he said something he’d regret. How could they just leave me?! How could they abandon me?!
And then he saw his own hands wrap about Kane’s neck, felt the anger that fueled what little strength he’d had left, and then winced at the jagged pain running across his forehead, dropping his head into his hands. He’d fallen from his ideals and become something else. He’d done something he never thought he could do.
What right have I to judge them?
“’Judge not‘,3” Adam whispered, pulling hands from his face, looking into the darkening sky, hearing the wind pour through the trees as his anger quickly faded.
“It’s okay, Joe,” Adam finally said hearing thunder rumble close by.
“How can it be okay?” Joe asked, shocked at his brother. “We were going to leave you out there. We’d given up.”
“I don’t blame . . .”
“You didn’t give up. You fought your way home. You’d never have stopped.”
“Joe . . .”
“It’s true, Adam, and we all know it.”
“But you don’t know, Joe!” Adam said in a harsh tone immediately regretting it, rubbing his forehead. “I became . . . something else, too, something I . . . I didn’t expect. I became an animal. I never thought . . .” He stopped and sighed, trying to gather his thoughts. “I told you I couldn’t be forced to kill, that I was . . . stronger than that. Well, my strength failed me.”
“You had reason.”
Adam dipped is head. “At the time . . .”
“He tried to kill you, Adam.”
“But I’m supposed to be better; more . . . civilized. I am a Cartwright after all.”
Joe would’ve grinned at the hint of sarcasm there but he grabbed Adam’s shoulder instead. “You are better, Adam. I know this because of what you’re going through. If you didn’t care you’d be able to sleep at night, be able to accept what happened and move on. But you can’t because you’re grappling with what you believe and what you were forced to do to survive.”
“It shouldn’t matter.”
“Everyone has a breaking point, Adam. We found that out and I’m not proud of it but we have to live with it. And whatever you had to do to get out of that desert and back home to us then so be it. I won’t think any less of you because of it and neither wills Pa or Hoss. We’re here, Adam, and we’re not leaving this time.”
Adam wanted to share everything with them; he needed their help to keep him from falling into the abyss, but he’d tried to kill their father and Kane was visiting him when he was awake. How could they possibly help with that?
“I can’t find . . .,” Adam began. “I can’t get him out of my head . . . his voice, his face. He just keeps coming back. I fear I’ll never be rid of him.”
“You once told me that the only thing that would keep you from fighting back was if you were dead. Well, fight him, Adam; push back until you can’t push anymore. I believe in you. Believe in yourself again.”
Adam turned to Joe seeing the serious look upon his youthful face and his heart overflowed with love for this green eyed little brother who’d surprised him more than once in their lives together. He wanted so to tell him how much his belief meant to him, how much he needed to hear those words. But it seemed those words might be too late since his belief in himself was all but gone. It was a slow collapse, like a leaking trough, and it would soon run dry. Kane had him in his clutches and his mind couldn’t fend him off much longer. “It’s not easy.”
“Just promise me you’ll try. I don’t want to lose you again.”
Adam held his brother’s worried gaze feeling his love engulf him and gave him what he wanted most – he nodded. Joe smiled then and patted Adam’s leg, looking back out onto the windswept trees as he wiped his eyes, concern allayed for the moment.
“I think you’ll get your wish,” Joe said wanting so to hold his brother, to give him his strength, but knowing he couldn’t. “The rain’s finally coming.”
“Guess so,” Adam answered sitting back and watching the clouds, pulling closed his jacket against the wind. “Water to wash away so many things.”
“To make things clean again.” Joe watched a small grin turn Adam’s mouth then stood.
“Think I’ll stay a bit longer.”
Joe turned back to the house. “I’ll fetch you for dinner. Don’t want Hop Sing threatening to head for China if you don’t show up again.”
Adam watched his brother leave, emotions overwhelming him as he leaned forward, raising the collar of his coat as a chill claimed him. Trying to shrug it off, feelings of impending doom suddenly surrounded him.
“That kid gave some speech,” came Kane’s voice off to his right making him start. “You believe that stuff?” The passing of a silent moment alone in his own head was all there was. Here came the doom.
“He wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it,” Adam answered in a tight voice keeping his eyes averted as Kane made his way toward him.
“Oh, really. Well, then I suppose that time he cold cocked you with that piece of lumber then threw a couple of choice words at you while you lay on the ground bleeding was meant too.”
“Yes, he meant that, too,” Adam agreed not daring to rub the shoulder that held a permanent bruise.
“Over a girl, wasn’t it?”
“You already know so why . . . why go over it?” Adam said with a heavy sigh, trying to wish him away.
“I just wanted to remind you, Cartwright, that the boy don’t have wings. He just confessed he talked your Pa into leaving you behind along with that other brother of yours. That don’t sound like a loving family to me.”
“Leave them alone.” Come after me, not them!
“Touchy. Well, seeing that you know now they were going to leave you behind, I might be thinking something different about them. My Pa, too. The man that brought you into this world turning his back, giving you to me. Don’t sound like a family I’d want to be a part of.”
“Leave them alone!” Adam yelled whipping up his head to finally face Kane, to face this particular demon. Instead he found Ben standing next to him, brows raised in question.
Quickly looking away, he hastily stood only to have Ben grab his arm as he swayed.
“Are you all right, son?”
No. I’ve got a ghost driving me crazy. “Fine, Pa,” was all he said, still not able to look him in the eye.
Letting go, Ben fully expected him to hightail it to the house but, instead, he stood stock still in front of him.
“Um, we might finally get some rain tonight,” observed Ben.
“Yeah,” Adam answered hearing more thunder off to the right, wanting so to leave but finding his feet stuck firmly to the ground.
“Adam,” Ben started. “It wasn’t your fault, son. You were dreaming.”
“I tried to kill you, Pa,” he answered not turning around.
“No . . .”
“Yes!” he said his voice rising. “My hands . . .”
“Adam, look at me. Look at me,” Ben ordered, his boy slowly turning regretful eyes toward him making his heart ache. “Yes, it was your hands around my neck but it wasn’t me you were attacking. It was Kane. I love you and hold no grudge against you. That should be what you remember. Don’t let him take anymore from you than he already has.”
“Lies, all lies!” came Kane’s voice from behind Ben startling Adam who quickly averted his eyes to focus on his father’s vest.
“It’s hard to . . . to fight,” Adam admitted.
“But you must keep fighting,” Ben said trying to look into his son’s eyes. “The man is dead. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
“That’s what he thinks.”
Adam couldn’t help but see a hand raise, Kane’s hand, behind Ben, pretending to shot him in the back. “Only that will be by your hand, Cartwright, not mine.”
“No . . .”
“He can’t hurt you, Adam,” Ben said, holding firmly to his shoulders. “You won’t let him.”
“I ain’t gonna hurt you, Cartwright. You’re gonna hurt them.”
Look at him! Get it over with!
“Go on, get a good look, Cartwright. I dare you.”
“I . . . can’t.” Adam shivered, feeling himself die inside. Joe’s words disappeared under Kane’s, knowing he didn’t have the willpower to resist and soon his father and brothers would be dead. Ben narrowed his eyes. Adam was giving up and he didn’t know what to do.
Paul wanted them to stop babying him or he’d never be what he was, but this was his son, the boy who’d traveled with him across country, who shared in everything, and all he wanted to do was take him in his arms and hold him against all evils that trespassed upon his soul . . . even if they could not be seen.
“Come on,” Ben finally said, wrapping an arm about him. “You’re cold. Let’s go back inside.” Pulling on Adam’s unresisting arms, they headed toward the house, Kane’s laugh echoing behind them.
“Sleep tight, Cartwright, and dream of your father and brothers. They won’t see the morning.”
Hop Sing was worried about three things: his potatoes mildewing, his family falling apart and Number One son. Of course, the potatoes were far less important than his family and his favorite son more important than that only because the two were tied together. The potatoes kept his mind busy, kept him from dwelling on what may come if they weren’t careful.
Since he’d first laid eyes on Adam as he’d pulled the wagon into Salt Flats, concern overtook him. This was not Number One son. This was a shell of the boy he knew and it wasn’t good. He’d seen the effects of the desert before, seen what the heat could do and those who’d lived were never the same. He couldn’t tell them. Hope was what bolstered this family and he couldn’t tell them that the Adam they knew may never return no matter what they did.
“Must think other things,” the cook mumbled, finishing with the last of the dishes and hanging up his apron. “Must keep hope.”
Moving out of the kitchen, he checked the front door and lowered the lamps on an empty room. These past weeks had exhausted all of them and early nights were a given, especially when Adam had a tendency to wake everyone with his nightmares. Glancing up at Number One son’s door, he shook his head and said a prayer.
Please let what I see not be true.
Making his way back to the kitchen, he doused the lantern and headed for his own room, reaching for the door before he noticed it was partly open. All the Cartwright’s were welcomed in his room but none entered without knocking, something Ben made very clear to the boys when they’d been little and it had stuck. He was a member of the family after all.
Peeking around the side, he saw nothing but dark, swearing he’d lit the lamp earlier. And then he heard it – a shuddering breath – and quickly returned to the kitchen, taking the lantern by the stove and relighting it to stick through the door, showering the room with light. It took but a few moments to reveal the occupant.
“Mister Adam?” he called seeing Number One son squeezed as far into a corner as he could get, arms wrapped tightly about his knees, hiding his face against them. He was breathing heavily and his clinging nightshirt told the story of another nightmare.
Placing the lantern on the side table, Hop Sing knelt in front of him, unsure what to do. If he scared him who knew what would happen; if he just waited he could be sitting here for a long time. He chose to sit and wait in silence, leaning against the wall next to Adam. True he often threatened to return to China if the boys messed with him but he had the patience of a saint. You had to, with the Cartwright’s. His patience was quickly rewarded.
“I’m sorry,” finally came, Hop Sing straining to hear.
“What sorry for?” he asked as Adam barely raised his head, glancing furtively at him then away.
“Oh,” Hop Sing responded with a wry grin. “It okay. You stay as long as you like.”
“That might be forever,” Adam answered with a sigh. “He doesn’t seem . . . doesn’t seem to come here.”
Hop Sing frowned. He? Oh, Kane. He patted Adam on the arm. “You stay then. House get sleep that way.” He thought he saw a smirk but he could’ve been mistaken.
“You came to Salt Flats?” came the question.
Hop Sing nodded. “Took three days. It was long three days I ever have,” he began thinking back on the morning Roy Coffee brought him the telegram from Joe and how both their hearts died that day. “Little Joe not tell much in telegram just bring wagon. I thought to bring Number One son home to be with Missy Marie. He not tell me you alive just hurry. Then I think why tell me hurry if you gone. It was long three days.” He glanced at Adam out of the corner of his eye trying to see if his boy was listening, seeing him rest his chin on his arms.
“When I arrive, Mister Hoss almost break me in two he so happy to see me. After I meet cook I understand.”
Adam half smiled then grimaced, a familiar Cantonese voice raised in frustration outside a dark room, the same dark room he’d revisited with Joe, filling his head. “You were . . . yelling. Something . . . something about salt.”
Hop Sing smiled. “Cook know nothing. Give other cooks bad name. I raid kitchen, make good food for you, food to keep down. You no keep down for long but I keep trying, keep trying until some stay.” He could remember a calming presence urging him to eat and trying to comply, wanting to comply. “You must eat, Mister Adam, I say then and say now. You must eat.”
“I’m not hungry anymore.”
“Must eat. Keep strength for fight.”
“Fight?” Adam looked at his friend then, squinting against the headache that pounded, devoted eyes enveloping him.
“Him. Kane. Can’t fight when have no strength.”
Adam looked away as tears gathered. “He has me already,” he answered rubbing his temples.
“No, Mister Adam,” Hop Sing said, touching his arm. “He never have you. You good man. He bad man. Tell him go.”
“Easier said . . .”
Hop Sing leaned in close and grabbed Adam’s chin, turning his face to him before he could finish the sentence. “I know you since little boy. Always strong, always able to find way even in darkest hour. I never worry for you like Little Joe. You not look for trouble but trouble find you anyway. And trouble still here. But you strong, inside, despite what feel. Besides Mr. Cartwright, you strongest man I know and I have faith you find right path, find peace.”
“The right path?”
“Traveling right path bring you home, Mister Adam. All you must do is find.”
Adam gently pulled Hop Sing’s hand from his chin and held it tightly giving him a weary smile. “You’ve always been here when I’ve . . . I’ve been lost.”
“Part of job. You have harder part,” the cook said, smiling back at him. “You no eat tonight. I get food. You eat some. I no take no for answer.”
Adam smiled at his friend, smiled at the man who’d always showered he and his brothers with love and understanding, and thanked whoever sent him their way those many years before. Rubbing his head, he watch him go just wanting silence, wanting his head to stop hurting and Kane to leave him alone and give him some peace.
He’d had little of it since he’d come inside the house with his father, feeling all their eyes on him as he made his way slowly to his room, hoping against hope that Kane would be silent and it’d worked for a time, time enough to dwell upon Kane’s last comment – ‘they won’t see the morning’.
Tumbling into bed, he’d instantly fallen asleep, his head free of dreams for a time, his body getting the sleep he craved until he’d been rudely awakened by Kane yelling in his ear. Tossing himself from the bed, he pushed himself into a corner holding pillows over his ears until he couldn’t take it anymore and rushed from the room, tumbling down the last flight of stairs to roll into the blue velvet chair he’d once occupied every night with a good book. When no one came to help, he glanced about the room finding it empty, eyes alighting on the front door.
The barn! Get to the barn!
It’s too far!
Kane’s voice came to him from the top of the stairs and he pulled himself shakily to his feet, fear fueling his steps as he raced into the kitchen spying Hop Sing’s knives along the wall. One quick stab to the gut with an up thrust for good measure and it would all be over. He would remove the cause of his family’s death at the source. Grisly thoughts stopped when he heard Kane coming closer and panic ran through him.
Frantically searching for a way out, he headed straight for Hop Sing’s room, plunging inside to immediately blow out the lamp and scramble into a far corner, making himself as small as possible and hiding his head with childish hopes of keeping the monster at bay. And a curious thing happened – silence, both in his head and out. Had he finally outsmarted Kane, beaten him at his own game?
Who cares! He’s not here!
Now, lifting his gaze to survey the room, he wondered what had happened. What was so special about this room that kept Kane out of his head? Was it the peace Hop Sing always brought with him or something else?
I’ll never leave. A silent prison is still a prison.
Hop Sing had spoken of the right path, the path to find peace. “It’s not here,” he whispered aloud.
Hop Sing’s smile faded as he turned from Adam and exited the room. Always his words had given the family hope, always Number One son seemed to take them to heart but now . . . It didn’t matter that he seemed to be listening. Seemed was the word here. The look in his eyes as he’d grabbed his hand was the look of . . . finality.
No matter. Will be fine.
Hearing a noise, he looked out into the great room seeing Hoss closing Ben’s door, standing silently before it.
“He wake?” Hop Sing called, scurrying over to the stairs making Hoss turn.
“No,” Hoss answered moving to the head of the stairs. “Fell asleep in his clothes again.” Running a hand through his thinning hair, he yawned then nodded toward Adam’s room. “He all right? Haven’t heard him tonight.”
“Not there. In my room.”
“He not all right. He lost, Mister Hoss. He very lost.”
“We cain’t give up, Hop Sing, not again. We’ll bring him home. We’ll bring him home.”
THURSDAY – PRESENT DAY
The cloud cover kept the beginnings of the rising sun from shining out across the land, trapping it in shadows and fog as a lone rider stood silently amongst the trees, knowing his current course of action was the right one.
Leaving the house had been easy. What hadn’t been easy was the time he’d wasted standing at the sideboard fretting over his gun. Yes, he was determined to end it all; yes, he was doing this for his family before Kane killed them; and no, he didn’t know if he had the guts to carry it out. Why just days before this very thought had crossed his mind but he’d pushed it aside, not wanting to put his family through the grief of finding his cold dead body somewhere. But now, now he had reason to complete this task – he was a danger to them and he couldn’t allow that.
Junebug stomped the ground and snorted. She’d been easy enough to catch – two lumps of sugar and a rub under the neck and she’d followed him out of the corral. He hadn’t thought to close the gate.
What he had thought of was how Hoss wouldn’t be able to track her like he could Sport, and as if recognizing his master’s thoughts, a loud neigh had erupted from the barn making his smile soon change to a frown. At least Sport would live a good life, for he supposed his father would turn him out to pasture where he could have his way with the fillies until he couldn’t walk. It would be too painful for Ben seeing Sport standing there day after day waiting for a son who wasn’t coming home. Junebug snorted again.
“I hear you,” Adam said rubbing her neck, truly amazed he’d managed to stay on her back at all as they stole out of the yard in the middle of the night. Pulling his yellow coat closer against the early morning dampness that encircled him, he forced himself to sit straighter, pushing aside his weariness in favor of completing what he’d begun. And as difficult as this task was he knew it was the only way he was going to make things right, the only way he could save them.
This’ll soon be over.
Urging Junebug out of the trees toward his destination, he eased her up the slight incline of the daisy covered hill hoping this was the place he might find some of that peace Hop Sing had spoken of, some understanding from the woman who’d helped bring him out of his shell before she died. He’d often regretted that he hadn’t given her much of a chance when she first arrived – time wasted as he’d told his father much later – and tried to make up for during her last years. Her death forced him back inside himself, something he also regretted. Maybe she could offer some insight before the end came.
Easing his leg over Junebug’s back, the ground rushed up to greet him as knees buckled and dizziness dropped on him, arms wrapped tightly about his stomach as it rebelled. This wouldn’t do and he tried to keep what little he’d eaten just hours before where it was, but his system wouldn’t have it and up it came leaving him weaker than before to fall over in a breathless heap, Junebug nuzzling his face.
“I’m fine,” he said finally catching his breath and pushing himself up on wobbly arms to look at who he came to see – Marie Cartwright.
“Rather plain,” entered Kane’s voice from behind prompting Adam to immediately lower his eyes, the sound of scrunching grass filling him as booted feet passed. “Seems like old Cartwright would’ve sprung for something fancier.”
Adam shook his head.
“This is the only mama you boys can see and she’s left out here on this lonely hill, so far from the house. Seems like she’d be closer.”
Adam suddenly seethed inside. “Leave . . . her . . . alone,” came his strained voice.
“You are mixed up, boy,” Kane said watching as Adam breathed heavily. “She’s dead and gone. This is just a slab of granite, soon to cover the heads of your brothers and father.”
“You brought me here, Cartwright. You brought me with you,” he replied moving around the gravestone to kneel in front of him. “These words are coming from you not me. I’m a ghost, a memory, a stray thought in a crazy mind, a mind that can be controlled now that you’ve given up.”
“I haven’t . . . given up.”
“Oh? What do you call this then?” he asked, pushing himself back to his feet to walk around Adam. “Running away from home in the middle of the night; not taking your own horse; stopping here to say your last goodbyes. You don’t fool me, Cartwright. That’s giving up.”
Adam shook. He could see Kane’s boots, saw the grass . . .
How could this not be real?
“I . . . I have to save my family.”
“Not from me,” Kane answered. “From you.”
“From you, Cartwright,” Kane whispered in his ear.
“Get away from me!” he yelled scrambling to his feet only to stumble into Junebug, his eyes involuntarily falling on Kane. His stomach twisted at the sight of those devil blue eyes of hate and that smile filled with white teeth that gleamed even in death.
He is real! He is real!
“There now, Cartwright. Same as you remember? Even the bruises around my neck?” Kane threw in leaning back his head to laugh as Adam sprinted around Junebug and desperately pulled himself aboard, yelling for the animal to flee. Kane’s laugh echoed behind him until only Marie was left to view the empty hill around her.
Ben drew Buck to a sliding stop, glancing over the hill before him. Adam wasn’t here. He was so sure this would be where he’d come to pay his last respects to the woman that represented all his mothers.
Where are you?!
Surveying the land for some direction to follow, his mind drifted to his own inner turmoil. He’d sat in the house, holding that holster, images of Adam’s life revolving about his tired mind until he thought he’d scream. Then Hop Sing touched his shoulder and handed him his hat and coat, exchanging Adam’s empty holster for his full one and pushed him toward the door to see Buck saddled and waiting. Adam was going to kill himself, of that he was sure. He had to stop him.
Looking again at the surrounding landscape, the dark early morning sky revealed nothing – no trail, no tracks, no Adam.
Where are you?! I’m here to help you! But there’s no one that can help you, is there?
Ben had promised . . . he’d made a promise sitting on Adam’s bedroom floor, clutching his broken son to him – ‘Pa’ll make him go away’ – and there was nothing he could do. The battle waged inside Adam’s mind – fighting with himself and the memory of Kane.
Tears crept into Ben’s tired eyes and he shook his head. “Think, damn you, think!” came his husky voice as he wiped at his eyes. “There’s no time for this! No time!”
Adam took another horse knowing Hoss would be able to track Sport. He’d had enough wits about him to do that. Thought was put into it. He thought about what he was doing. Thought . . .
And then it came to him and he admonished himself for not remembering. Quickly turning Buck away from the hill that held his beloved wife, Ben kicked him into a frantic gallop hoping he would be in time.
Let me be with him!
* * * * * * * * * *
If he’d been in better shape, the fall might’ve killed him. But Adam’s constitution at present was nothing short of collapse, so when Junebug took a misstep and, at full gallop, fell to the ground, his weak body bent and bounced like a rag doll over every rock and scrub brush without breaking, rolling to a stop next to a log seat wedged between two rocks. A distressing whinny brought him back to some semblance of coherence, and he opened grit filled eyes, surprised they still opened and wishing they hadn’t.
Junebug called again and, finding a minute reserve of determination, he got his knees under him and crawled toward the downed animal, seeing her struggling a few yards away.
“I’m sorry,” he coughed out, wincing at the new pains that permeated his battered body, vaguely brushing away blood that dripped down his face. “Ssh, ssh,” he tried to comfort looking her over for breaks and finding nothing but an exhausted animal he’d ridden into the ground. Never in his lifetime had he done such a thing. “I’m so sorry, girl,” he whispered in a soothing voice.
“How touching,” Kane’s voice came making him shudder. “You made me kill my mule but I didn’t see any of this for me.”
“You killed Epicene!”
“There you go again, Cartwright, blaming me for what you did.”
“I didn’t kill your damn mule!” He purposely faced him then, again the sight grabbing a hold of him, sucking the air from his lungs.
“Semantics,” Kane responded with a wave of his hand, moving to sit on the log seat and looking about the area. “Isn’t this one of your ‘thinking’ places4? A place you go to get away from everyone to work things out?” When Adam didn’t respond he looked back to him. “Not a place to end it all. Wouldn’t your bloody corpse sort of ruin the beauty of the place?”
“What . . . do you want . . . from me?!” Adam angrily asked through clenched teeth continuing to run his hand down Junebug’s neck.
“What do I want from you? How about my life for starters.”
“I didn’t kill you.”
“So you keep saying.”
“My family wouldn’t lie.”
“Oh, now you believe them? Well, when you find yourself pointing a gun at your father and pulling the trigger, maybe then you’ll believe me.”
“I won’t ever do that.”
“You’ve already done that to your brother.”
“I was shooting at you!”
“But not to kill me right?” Adam remained silent, unable to argue that point. “Your will is gone. Whatever I say you’ll do. There’s nothing left to fight with.”
“I’ve a gun,” Adam said.
“You mean you had a gun,” Kane continued looking toward the ground between his feet. Following his gaze, Adam spied the weapon lying on the ground out of reach and berated himself for his weakness. All he had to do was crawl over, get the gun and finish what he’d started. All he had to do . . . Frozen in place, he just continued to stare at it and raged at the fear that ran through him.
Go get it!
“Only thing left,” Kane continued looking to his right, “is to toss yourself off that cliff. That’s the only way you’ll be rid of me, the only way your family will be safe.”
The only way I’ll be rid of him.
Those words filtered into his numb mind making him look toward the cliff’s edge knowing the distance to the bottom was about sixty feet. He would never survive the fall.
“You haven’t got the guts, Cartwright,” Kane nudged. “Not anymore.”
Adam made himself look at Kane then, attempting to push aside the dread that immobilized him and move into action. Reaching out and grabbing the nearest bush, he slowly rose to his feet, dismissing the flash of pain through his back as he splayed his legs apart to keep his balance, keeping an eye on this new goal. He took a step.
This is the only way.
“Of course it is. You’re crazy,” Kane added, watching his prey falter for a moment to lean against a tall pine only to push on, moving in a weaving line toward his objective.
Loose rocks dribbled over the side to bounce noisily into the darkness below, drawing his attention downward to what was about to become his last resting place. He couldn’t see clear to the bottom, shadows inundating those depths, but he’d ridden that ravine looking for strays often enough to know it was littered with rocks and shrubs and bones of those left behind. Soon it would be he who was left behind.
This is going to hurt.
“Only for a moment,” Kane explained, standing and following after him. “But then you’ll be released and I’ll be gone.”
He’ll be gone and I’ll be free!
The sudden feeling of elation died and Adam frowned. Kane wasn’t making any effort to stop him. In fact, he was pushing him forward. He turned to see Kane settle against a nearby rock, arms crossed.
“If I die, you die.”
“True,” came the answer. “But I know you’re too weak to kill yourself so I’ve no worries.”
Too weak – too weak to think; too weak to breathe; too weak to finish the job.
Not this time.
Looking once more into the depths of the ravine, Adam was determined to finish what he’d started. He would not be the cause of his family’s death. He would not let Kane kill them.
“Adam?” came a new quiet voice behind him, piercing through Kane’s enveloping presence like a knife. He closed his eyes
Not now, Pa.
“Adam, what are you doing?”
“Ah, the great father appears to see his son’s last gasp of life! Tell him, Cartwright,” Kane insisted. “Tell him why before you plunge to your death.”
Ben’s heart thumped loudly in his chest, so loudly he could’ve sworn it was echoing off the surrounding rocks. Now was the moment when he would either talk his boy into his arms or watch him leap to his death and he was petrified. A misplaced word, a sudden grab could be the end of it all.
He’d seen Junebug sitting up but unable to regain her footing and knew they’d taken a fall — dirt smeared across Adam’s jacket and pants were evidence of that, but he seemed to be in one piece, at least, for now. I have to keep trying! “Adam . . .”
“It’s for the best, Pa,” Adam forced out in hopes that Ben would back away and leave him to finish what he’d started, but knowing he wouldn’t. He didn’t understand what was at stake.
Then tell him.
“How can ending your life be for the best?” came the confused question.
Adam paused for a moment. Just tell him. “To save yours.”
There was no indecision, no question in that one word surprising Ben with its clarity. Adam truly believed that he was the dangerous one. It took everything he had to restrain himself from stepping forward and drag him from the edge to drum some sense into him. How could he think that?
“Oh, Adam, you could never hurt us.”
“But I already have, Pa,” he answered.
“You’ve never hurt us in your life. You’ve always taken care of us, taken care of me.”
Adam glanced then at his father, still hearing a slight crack to his voice to remind him of past deeds, Ben now seeing blood trickling down the side of his face.
“How?” Adam asked not understanding how Ben could have forgotten so quickly. “I tried to shoot Hoss, I attacked you . . .”
“That wasn’t you, Adam,” Ben answered.
“Pa, don’t. I do remember that.”
“You’ve been ill. Nothing you’ve done has . . .”
“Making excuses for me doesn’t . . . doesn’t help.”
Ben’s face grew stern. “I’ve never made excuses for you, Adam. I’ve never had too and I never will.”
“He thinks highly of you, Cartwright,” Kane interjected. “Too bad he’ll be dead before he can change his mind.”
“You were dreaming, Adam. What happened that night . . .”
“Was me, Pa. Me killing Kane. You got in the way. I can’t . . . I won’t let that happen again.”
“They’ll be safe if you jump, Cartwright.”
“Don’t let Kane kill you, son. He’s not worth it.”
“He’s begging for his life.”
“He’s in my head, Pa!” Adam struggled trying to ignore Kane’s persistent pestering. “This . . . this is the only way I can make sure he’ll never . . . I’ll never hurt anyone again.”
“There has to be another way,” Ben pleaded. “Don’t waste your life over him.”
“He’s grabbing at straws, Cartwright. Does he want you to live this way? Does he want to send you to an asylum?”
Adam squeezed shut his eyes and raised hands to his ears to block out the voice he knew would continue forever.
Ben took a step to the side, looking behind Adam, flashing the empty space with an angry glare. “He’s here now, isn’t he? Well, don’t listen to him. Listen to me.”
“Just . . . just let me go, Pa.”
Ben was losing and he couldn’t, he wouldn’t let that happen. He’d made a vow that night. He wouldn’t break it. “Since you were a little boy, clinging to Hoss as his mother lay dead on the floor, arrows and bullets falling about you, you’ve never given up and I won’t let you start now.”
“Don’t let him pull that on you, Cartwright. You’re a murderer, a shame to the family. Jump and let them get on with their lives.”
“Stop it!” Adam shouted toward Kane, shifting a heated scowl toward Ben. “Stay away from me, Pa, before I do something I’ll regret.”
“Killing yourself because a maniac tells you too will be something you regret,” Ben retorted. “You of all people should know that.”
“I’m just . . . I’m just done. I can’t fight him any longer.”
Ben cringed at the tone coming from his oldest. It was defeat, something he’d never heard from this boy, the one who’d always been responsible, always strong, never one to falter under adversity . . . until now. He couldn’t let that happen.
“Son, I know you’re tired and I know you think you’ve reached your end, but I also know that you’re a Cartwright with an inner strength most men envy. Even now you’re fighting him or you’d have flung yourself off this cliff already.”
“Back off!” Kane yelled at Ben, making Adam jerk at the vehemence there. “Don’t let him keep you from your goal, Cartwright. You have to save them, save him.”
Ben watched Adam raise a fist, saw him fight the urge to strike him then quickly turn away. He looked out into the empty space behind them.
“Stay away from him, you bastard!” Ben yelled out. “He’s mine not yours, so keep away! He’ll always be the better man and not some disturbed soul who needs someone else to kill him!”
“The better man? You?” Kane laughed at Adam sending little tendrils of misery through him. “You’re about to kill yourself. Who’s the better man now?”
“Adam,” Ben said turning back to him, “I’ll always be here for you; all of us are here for you. Never forget that. We’re not giving you up so easily. He can’t hurt you anymore unless you let him.”
“If he’s so concerned about your wellbeing, why not ask him about why he left you behind?”
Ben watched as Adam stiffened, his hand ready to grab.
“Afraid to ask?”
“I know why,” Adam answered his heart beating faster. Do I really?
“You know what your brother told you. But this is your Pa. He left you to me.”
Adam shook his head, determined not to give in. What Joe told him was true. He wouldn’t lie.
“Adam, talk to me,” Ben begged. “Please don’t end your life like this without telling me what you’re feeling. Talk to me.”
Would his father’s story be any different from Joe’s? Would his choice be any less painful?
“You . . .” Adam began, the words he needed to say tumbling over each other in his head. No longer was he sure where he left off and Kane began, but Kane was right about something – he did want to know why Ben left him behind. He needed to know. “You gave up on me,” he finally whispered.
Ben swallowed and didn’t say a word. Adam lifted dark eyes to his, waiting, waiting for the reason, waiting for an answer, an answer Ben didn’t have. He’d left his son to the desert, left him behind, something that still seemed so incredible. It’d cleaved his soul in two when those words left his mouth, when that decision was made and he’d yet to recover and didn’t know if he ever would. But it was a decision that was made and needed to be explained.
“Yes,” Ben eventually answered his voice low and sad, “yes, we gave up on you.”
“Then what Joe said,” Adam started, trying to keep the emotion from his voice, “what he said was true?”
The revelation shocked Ben – Joe, the one who’d not wanted Adam to know had been the one to tell him after all.
“That you looked all you could?”
“And there was nothing to find.”
Ben nodded. “Yes, son. We should’ve told you before but there was never a right time. You’ve been so ill and . . .”
“Why?” That’s all he really wanted to know, the reason suddenly so vital to him before he plunged to his death. “Why did you give up?”
“He won’t tell you, Cartwright, because he’s scared.”
“My father’s not scared of anything,” Adam answered with great certainty never taking his eyes from his father’s face, watching him look away at those words, weakening that certainty.
Kane had infiltrated every part of him and he fought to hold onto all that he knew of his family, of his father who had loved and lost three wives, built the Ponderosa from scratch and raised three boys in the wilderness and he knew, above all else, his father wasn’t a quitter.
But even now, as Ben didn’t answer, his resolve began to waver and he turned his attention back to the ravine.
I know they had reason. I know they tried.
Perhaps he did deserve to die. Perhaps they were ashamed of him. Perhaps he was a murderer.
Is that what I am?
His foot edged closer to the edge.
“We’d been looking for over ten days,” came Ben’s fragile voice, unsure and choked with emotion stopping Adam’s forward motion. He had to make him understand that what he’d been through was as heart wrenching a thing as could befall a father. He had to understand how he tried even though it wasn’t hard enough. He kept his eyes locked on the back of Adam’s head.
“We scoured every inch of that damn desert more than once, starting at Eastgate four times and retracing what we thought were your steps over and over until I thought I’d go mad,” he continued, the pain of the journey lacing his words. “We found your gunbelt on the third outing and I followed footprints that disappeared into the rocks five miles in. I scrambled over every one to see if I could pick up the trail again but there was nothing. I made your brothers do the same until our hands bled. I wouldn’t give up, you see. I couldn’t go home without my boy.”
“But he did, Cartwright,” Kane pushed. “He did.”
“But it’d been so long. No one could survive that many days in the desert without food and water. No one. We hadn’t seen anyone, not even a hint of a camp. There was nothing out there.”
“I was out there,” Adam whispered as Ben shuddered at the words, “with him.”
“You tell him, Cartwright.”
“I tried everything, Adam, all that I’d learned crossing deserts I put into play and there was nothing. We couldn’t find you and no matter how hard we looked or how long I knew, deep down, it wouldn’t be enough. I’d lost my boy and I wouldn’t even have a body to bury next to Marie, and it crushed me. I didn’t want to stop but for all our sanity I knew we had too.
“For their sanity, Cartwright. Their sanity.”
Hold onto what you know!
“There was nothing left to do but go home . . . go home empty handed and desperately wishing otherwise.”
“You tried . . . your hardest,” Adam declared. It wasn’t a question. No answer came making him turn to see the hurt on his father’s face.
“Not hard enough, Cartwright.”
“We’d gone as far as we could go,” Ben finally uttered. “We were beyond our limits, Adam, and we had nothing. We’d lost the last thing we’d held onto for those many days. We’d lost hope.”
“They gave up! Your father and brothers gave up! You never would’ve done that!” Kane shouted.
“We gave up, Adam,” Ben continued echoing Kane’s statement, “plain and simple and I offer no excuses. Oh, I could stand here and tell you that the trail was blocked, that a fire threatened, but it would be a lie. And because of that, of what we did . . . what I did, I’ve no right to the claim of father.” Grief filled him, knowing he was talking Adam right off the cliff, but his son deserved honesty above all else. “You’re mine, of my flesh, and I should’ve gone on until I could go no further . . . and I have to live with that and how a trust has been broken. I don’t ask forgiveness, Adam. I would never ask for that.”
“Ha! He finally admits it,” Kane laughed.
Adam looked back into the dark ravine playing his father’s words over and over in his head. He was confused. Just moments before he’d made up his mind. It would be so easy to just step off, to rid himself of this constant battle for his own sanity, to keep his family safe. But now he wavered.
Joe seemed to think he would’ve gone on until one or all of them were dead; his father stood here blaming himself for saving the family and now, now as recovered memories brought more answers, he wasn’t so sure he wouldn’t have offered his father the same advice, no matter how it destroyed them.
“Cartwright?” came Kane’s questioning voice, his laugh petering out at Adam’s continued silence. “Say something.” He waited stepping toward Adam to stand next to Ben. “They left you to rot in the desert. They don’t care. He’s not asking for forgiveness because he knows you won’t give it.”
Do I need it?
He’d been so sure that what he was doing was the right thing, so sure a step into oblivion instead of back into his father’s arms was what he deserved. But now . . . now as his father stood here pleading with him to let them help, he wasn’t so sure. Did he dare trust himself to take that step? Did he trust that his family wouldn’t suffer more because he didn’t throw himself off a cliff? Did it really matter as long as they were there to help him?
I just want this to be over, one way or another.
Slowly turning to face his father, he could see the fear in his eyes, fear of losing yet another member of the family this time by his own hand. The years of love and honesty they’d shared began to seep back into his being bringing with it a new light, a break in the gloom that filled him. He would have to trust someone sometime. He slowly raised his hand.
“I don’t need to . . . to forgive you, Pa,” Adam said as Ben sucked in a breath daring to believe this might work. “There’s nothing to forgive.”
“What’re you doing?!” Kane shouted, feeling his control beginning to slip as Ben reached out and grabbed Adam’s hand, carefully drawing him away from the edge and into his arms, becoming conscious of the fact that he was holding him upright, and readily lowered him to the ground.
“What’s the matter with you?!” Kane angrily shouted. “They left you to me! To me! I tried to kill you. I put you through hell and this is the thanks I get? You couldn’t kill me then and now you can’t kill yourself. You’re a weakling! I’ll always be here, Cartwright,” he said pointing to his head. “Always.”
Adam remembered it like a bright light cutting through the fog with the first clear thought he’d had in ages as those words bounced about his head – ‘You couldn’t kill me then. You couldn’t kill me then.’ Narrowing newly opened eyes, Adam drew away from Ben to stare straight at Kane.
“Why’re you looking at me like that?” Kane stood back as nervousness set in. “Stop looking at me like that!”
“I . . . I didn’t kill you.”
“What? Of course you did,” Kane said quickly recovering, seeing something in those dark eyes besides the haunted lost look that had resided there for so long. It was a glimmer of rekindled hope. “You’re hearing things. Remember, you’re crazy.”
“I tried . . . . I tried to kill you but you were . . .” His voice trailed off as pain coursed across his temples making him tilt his head. “You were alive when I . . . I tried to leave.”
“Yes, Adam,” Ben interjected.
“You killed me, Cartwright, with your bare hands!”
“Adam, you told us he was alive, that he spoke to you,” Ben broke in. “Do you remember?”
More pain lanced through his head at his father’s words and he broke into a sweat. He’d heard these words before. Why, suddenly, did they seem so clear? Rubbing his temples, he kept his gaze fixed squarely on Kane’s face.
“You accused me of . . . leaving you like they left me.”
“How could I? I was dead!”
“You said . . . you said you won after . . . after I let go,” Adam kept on, his breath quickening as he held his head against the pain, memory flooding him in vivid detail of falling from Kane and breaking the rifle in two.
“I did win, Cartwright. You broke and tried to kill me.”
“Tried!” he yelled back his head shooting up. “I tried to kill you but . . . you . . . you were alive when I put you on that litter.” The pain increased as each detail came to life making him gasp, not seeing his father’s worried look.
“No, Cartwright. I was dead by your hand.”
“YOU WERE ALIVE!” Adam yelled hauling himself to his feet, Ben holding him up. “I pulled you out of the desert.”
“Yes, Adam. That’s how we found you.”
Kane narrowed those devil blue eyes at his victim. “I’m gonna kill you, Cartwright,” he sneered. “I’m gonna do it right now. What you feared would happen will and we’re gonna start now.”
“No!” Adam shouted. “You can’t make me!”
“You tried to kill your father once,” Kane said that evil smile decorating his face again. “Why not try again?”
“No! No! No!”
“Adam!” Ben shouted quickly releasing him and stepping back, eyes wide at the sight before him. “Put down the gun, son.”
Shocked at the words, Adam glanced down and his heart nearly stopped.
How. . ?
“Give me the gun, Adam,” Ben ordered, his tone soft but commanding as if speaking to a child.
“You’ll never know, Cartwright,” Kane said with a smile, feeling his power reasserting itself, seeing Adam give him a fleeting look. “It’ll just happen and I’ll finally win.”
“You . . . you can’t make me . . . kill him!” Adam cried his finger flexing on the trigger as Ben’s hand drew near.
“Watch me, Cartwright. You’re about to shoot your father because a figment of your imagination told you too.” A swift wind suddenly filled the meadow making Adam blink several times as his breath came in short hiccups, the gun shaking in front of him.
“Adam, don’t listen to him,” Ben implored seeing desperation fill his son’s eyes as he looked at him. “Listen to me. To me. You won’t hurt me.” His rapid breathing concerned Ben and he turned to stare at the empty space around them. “Leave him alone, Kane! You’ve no hold over him now! Go back to wherever you came from!”
“I’ve come from you, Cartwright. Tell him that.”
“He’s . . . he’s going to make me . . . kill you, Pa,” Adam admitted, glaring at the gun and grabbing it with both hands to force it away from its intended target. It didn’t move. “I don’t think . . . I can’t stop him.”
Ben’s heart fluttered in his chest, blood running cold at the prospect of his oldest killing him where he stood when Paul’s words suddenly popped into his head – ‘He has to kill Kane, exorcise him from his mind’. Ben lowered his hand and stood ramrod straight. “Then kill him!” he ordered, those words moving Adam’s attention away from the gun and to his father.
“Kill him, Adam. Be done with this forever.”
“But . . . he won’t let . . .”
“You are your own man, Adam,” Ben argued. “No one can tell you what to do. Don’t let him take that from you as well.”
“I . . .” Terror mingled with indecision. He’d just discovered on his own that he hadn’t killed Kane and now his father was telling him to kill Kane. It was too much for his overtaxed system. Pleading eyes connected with Ben’s as his best efforts couldn’t keep his finger from pulling back the trigger. “Make him . . . make him go away, Pa!”
“Go ahead, Cartwright. Commit murder. That’s what you want to do, that’s what you tried to do.”
“Kill him, Adam!” Ben shouted. “Shoot him down and be done with it!”
“Shoot! Shoot!” Kane urged.
Adam felt as if his heart would leap from his chest when an intense crushing sensation filled his head pulling a cry from him, a vision of a litter and a man draped across it flashing before him; he’d grabbed the extra food and water and they’d headed out into the hot sun . . .
. . . the sun, the damned sun never seemed to go away even at night, burning into his waking nightmares as he pounded the sand with each heavy footfall.
If I never see it again, I’ll be a happy man.
Adam smiled at the thought. A world without a sun would be dark indeed, but no darker than the world he currently found himself in – full of sand and heat and tumbleweeds.
The last of the water long gone, his movements continued, one foot in front of the other, and so on and so on, without thought, without direction. That man behind him was the reason he continued, the reason he pushed his besieged body onward. Only the devil himself dragging him into the depths of hell could keep his feet from moving until he dropped to the ground and died. He had to win!
Taking a breather to adjust the rope that ranged along his shoulders, he moved his head back and forth to work through the nagging kinks that’d collected there. Squinting up at the dazzlingly clear blue sky, he wondered how many days he’d been out here; how long he’d been trapped with that madman. A soft chuckle gathered in his throat. A madman. If that man was such a madman, why was he wasting precious energy dragging him across the desert?
Because I can’t win that way!
Sobering, he put his back into it and started off again, hoping to make it to the next rock, then the next after that. Nothing big, mind you, like a town just that next rock then maybe that tumbleweed a few feet further on. That wasn’t too much to ask was it?
Scrambled thoughts wound themselves through his head – dust everywhere clogged his nose; chunks of worthless rock falling from his hands; a dead mule, and Kane, tall and thin, chipping away at his resolve like he’d been chipping away at the rocks in that god-awful mine. Then his own hands wrapped themselves about that man’s neck, pulling the life from him as he’d buckled, intent upon killing him. ‘I win’ echoed in his head and he blinked, stopping his forward momentum.
Forget that. I’m walking! I’m taking one step after another! I’m trying to survive!
Smiling, then he began to laugh, not loud and raucous, but quiet as he moved off into the sun, proving to himself that that man hadn’t driven every civilized thought from his head. He’d been dragging him for who knew how long to get help wasn’t he? They were going to make it if it was the last thing he did.
But his steps were getting slower and slower, the litter heavier and heavier and, despite his resolve, he was rapidly running out of whatever stamina he had left. He didn’t know it but his body did and next thing he knew his legs dropped out from under him and he hit the ground hard, dust flying in his face. A giggle moved up his throat as he found his knees and flung out one hand then the other. He had to keep moving. He may have fallen in more ways than one but there was still time to redeem himself.
Too busy trying to get somewhere to hear horses approach, he never felt hands grab and pull him roughly to his feet nor see the three men move about him, and he didn’t dare open his eyes for the sun to burn them away.
“There was no gold,” he began unaware he was speaking aloud in a joyful voice tinged with hysteria, waving his arms about. “No more . . . no more games.”
Vaguely he heard someone calling him as if from a great distance. Adam.
Yes. That’s my name. And someone’s yelling. They sound so serious. Why doesn’t anyone think this is funny?
The curt shout cut through his cascading thoughts like a knife and his eyes immediately opened, drawn to that familiar sound. He had trouble focusing but those eyes burning with compassion and concern slowly brought him around. How he’d longed to see them through the long hours and days of confinement he’d endured; how desperately he’d tried to get to that voice as it echoed throughout the rocks.
And now here stood that man and his focus sharpened, becoming aware of familiar people holding him upright, keeping him from falling into a heap on the ground. Did he dare believe this was real?
The walls were crumbling, all the walls he’d built to keep him sane tumbling down so he could give whatever life he had left to this man before him knowing he would hold and protect him for as long as he took a breath. At that thought his emotions overwhelmed him . . .
“. . . oh, Pa,” Adam whispered, his finger falling from the trigger, the gun dropping to his side as his eyes locked with his father’s.
“Shoot, damnit!” Kane shouted. “Complete what you started, you coward!” Adam just shook his head. “Then I’ll be back. I’ll always be back until you can’t fight me anymore.”
And that Adam believed.
He’d trusted his father to save him; he’d stepped back from the edge, given his life back to him and it was for nothing. His finger began flexing once more on the trigger, a different target in mind. “I won’t let you hurt them,” he whispered all his remaining energy focusing on this one last task.
“You’ll have no choice, Cartwright.”
Do it now or you’ll never have another chance?
Deliberately raising the gun toward his own head and closing his eyes, he silently said goodbye to his family. They would understand once he was gone. But then the gun was pulled from him and he stumbled back, opening shocked eyes onto Ben aiming directly at Kane’s face.
“I won’t let that happen,” came his clear strong voice followed by a loud pop of a bullet leaving a gun barrel.
Kane’s voice was cut off as the bullet slammed into his face, a shocked look filling those devil blue eyes just before he shattered like a pane of glass. For a split second the fragments slowed and began to slink back together, that gleaming smile reforming and those eyes piercing through Adam’s soul making it harder and harder to breathe as that laugh returned. But then another bullet ripped through Kane’s face, this time sending the pieces away from the whole too far to reunite, disappearing into the air around them as if they’d never been.
Dust and leaves filled the void, the wind bouncing off the two standing in its way, as Ben turned toward Adam staring wild eyed into the empty space before them. Then with a suddenness that startled Ben, Adam screamed and grabbed his head trying to stave off the waves of excruciating pain that swept through the opening gates of memory, and he dropped to his knees inundated with images one on top of the other – two men robbing him and leaving him to the desert – collapsing into Kane’s camp – the heat of the mine – tying himself up like an animal – hearing gunshots off in the distance – the reveal of the extra food and water – a loud voice yelling at him to stop before it was too late – the broken rifle – building the litter – realizing he was going to die in the desert – his father’s strong voice – tender words drifting into his ear – Hoss dropping to the ground as his own bullet flew over his head – Hop Sing’s broth – Joe’s tender grasp – Sport’s sweet call – nightmares, dreadful nightmares . . .
“ADAM!” Ben shouted grabbing his boy as he swayed, holding him tightly.
What have I done?!
Lightening filled the meadow and struck a nearby tree as thunder rocked the earth beneath them. Junebug’s frightened whinny disappeared under another roll of thunder as Ben held his struggling son, panic rushing through him.
He can’t take much more! God, please help him!
As Adam’s voice grew hoarse with his continued screaming, Ben’s faith was quickly being replaced with anger – cursing God for abandoning him; cursing him for making someone like Peter Kane and allowing him to live and destroy others; cursing him for putting his boy through this hellish agony.
“I hate you for doing this to him!” Ben yelled into the wind when suddenly Adam stiffened and his eyes rolled up in his head. “Adam!” he called getting no response, fear traipsing through him, turning to horror as his boy fell limply against him moments later, no sign of life left in him. “ADAM!” His heart disintegrated in an instant. “What have I done?!”
The wind swept away those words as lightening came again, thunder crackling as rain, precious rain so long in the coming, began to fall – slow at first then with a pelting fury, soaking them both to the skin. The sound of his weeping followed as he clasped Adam close to his chest, rocking back and forth.
“Don’t leave me, son. Please don’t leave me.”
He didn’t hear the sounds of riders behind him or feel hands clutching him tightly, nor notice the similarities of this scene with one over three weeks before. All he knew was he’d forced his boy over the edge as if he’d flung him off the cliff himself, sending him into the darkness alone.
“I’m the light home, son,” he wept. “Follow me home.”
FOUR DAYS LATER
I opened my eyes to the glories of an angry sky. Such menace came with those dark clouds that spread to the horizon, filled with rain and noise and wind. And lying on my back provided the perfect vantage point to watch them build and billow and threaten.
It was a hand entering my field of vision that drew my sight from the clouds toward the smiling face of my father. Hope cloaked him and I couldn’t help but respond reaching out and taking the proffered hand, an energy passing between us as he pulled me to my feet and out of the depression in which I’d been laying. Pointing behind me, I turned spying a slab of granite buffeted by swirling winds, erasing the name etched there – ADAM CARTWRIGHT.
“You don’t belong here,” he said walking off to draw me after him. “You belong with us.”
But then the wind returned, wrapping about me like a blanket, forcing me to turn back to that lonely piece of granite and the new words now appearing – PETER KANE – TAKEN BY THE DESERT.
A sense of peace came upon me and the clouds suddenly parted trailing after the diminishing winds to leave behind a deep blue sky and a large round sun shining brightly for the world to see. I was home. I could feel it. Finally I’d managed to put the desert behind me; put all that desperation and fear to bed; locked Kane away in a dark corner of my mind never to return. A smile curved my mouth and I looked back toward my father who waited patiently a few steps away, hand extended.
“I’m the light home, son,” he said with a glowing smile. “Follow me . . .”
“. . . home . . .”
“Adam?!” Ben shouted bolting out of his chair to alight on the bed, grasping his son’s motionless hand from where it had rested these last four days.
“Paul!” Hoss yelled into the hall moving to stand at the end of his brother’s bed.
Paul Martin led the way, calmly approaching the other side of the bed to check on his patient as Joe rushed in behind Hop Sing to stand next to Hoss, all seeing Ben carefully caress Adam’s bruised and cut face, muttering calming words as he kissed his hand.
“You’re home, son. You’re safe.”
Adam’s lips parted as if to respond but no sound emerged and Ben held on tighter, the fluttering of lashes long thought closed forever bolstering his flagging faith. “Son, come back to us. Don’t let him take you from us. Don’t let him keep you away.”
“Come on, Adam,” Joe spoke up trying to keep his voice even and failing miserably. “You fight him.”
“Do you hear that, Adam?” Ben said. “Your brother’s talking to you. You know how he hates to be ignored. Come on, boy, open your eyes. See that we’re all here for you. See that we didn’t leave you behind.” Ben ran his free hand through Adam’s damp hair, pouring everything he had into the continuous prayer running through his head, not bothering to stem the flow of tears that streamed down his face.
Adam’s lips parted again. “Pa . . .” came the muffled whisper.
“Here, boy. Pa’s here.”
Those lashes continued to move as he fought to complete his journey to consciousness, and then finally parted, bleary eyes trying to find the face that belonged to that much-loved voice. “Pa,” came out a bit louder this time.
“I’m right here, right here, son,” Ben answered back as he leaned in close.
Blinking several more times, Adam tried focusing on that face, the same face from his dream, the same face of the one who loved him like no other, the one who’d rescued him. He could make out tears on that face, a face that had aged from the last time he’d seen it, and he pulled his hand from his father’s desperate grasp to touch them. “Home,” came out again as Ben pressed that hand to his face. The voice, weak though it was, was heard again and he smiled.
“Ben, let me in there,” Paul ordered as his friend reluctantly sat back still clutching his boy’s hand, afraid to let go. “Adam, it’s Paul. Son, you’ve been unconscious for four days. How are you feeling?”
He squinted up at the sound of the good doctor’s voice. “Hot,” was all he could come up with on such short notice, unaware he’d even spoken aloud. Every thought, every movement was a struggle as if he were trapped in quicksand – slow and unending. His eyes closed at the effort to sort it all out. Paul smiled.
“Well, you’re running a fever. That’s what happens when you sit out in the rain for hours on end.”
“Rain?” he questioned forcing open heavy eyes, trying to see past his father and out the window. “It’s . . . raining?”
“Has been since we brought ya home from the meadow,” Hoss answered seeing Adam’s brow furrow. The meadow. There was something about the meadow.
Ben frowned and traded glances with Paul.
“Give him a minute.”
I rode out to the meadow . . . I was going to . . . and then . . .
“Kane,” he mumbled, confusion on his face, all hearts dropping at the name.
Ben eyed Paul then darted to Hoss and Joe, and finally to Hop Sing. It didn’t work. That man is still with us. He turned back to Adam with a heavy heart. “I’m sorry, son. I thought . . .” Ben’s voice trailed off as Adam’s gaze moved from him, searching the room, finally alighting on Hop Sing who slowly approached.
“Did I . . . knock?” Adam asked of his friend who patted him on the arm.
“You in own room, Mister Adam,” Hop Sing answered with a smile ignoring the puzzled looks around him.
“My . . . room,” he repeated, the ever present pall that had crowded in on him missing as if someone pulled a veil from his eyes. Glancing about he began to see his books, his drawings . . . his mother’s music box.
The ever present gloom that filled him was absent; the only voice in his head was his own; silence, blessed silence, filled the void.
“Adam?” Ben spoke worry in the tone.
“He’s . . . he’s gone,” he whispered looking into Hop Sing’s happy face.
“You find right path,” Hop Sing continued with a nod. “You finally come home.”
Ben watched the two, watched as weeks of uncertainty fled and the palpable fear faded right in front of them to be replaced with the makings of a small grin.
“Hop Sing?” Ben asked caution filling him. Had his anger at the meadow worked? Had he found a way to fulfill his vow? He caught their cook’s nod and felt his own mouth turn up as he heard those two words again.
“He’s gone,” came out on a sigh. Adam wanted to laugh and shout to all who would listen but was too worn-out to keep his eyes from drifting closed around tears of happiness and relief, leaving him still and colorless. Too still.
Ben’s smile abruptly faded. “Adam?” he called as anxiety filled the space when he didn’t respond.
“Pa?” came from Hoss as he pulled Joe close, Hop Sing stepping out of Paul’s way who hurriedly grabbed Adam’s wrist then leaned over to listen intently to his breathing, Ben drilling him with an nervous glare.
“He’s just asleep, Ben,” the doctor reassured him, letting loose the breath he’d been holding.
“Like before?” Joe asked alarm creeping into his tone.
“No. No. This is just good old fashioned sleep. He’s exhausted, Joe. He’s not only been fighting Kane but his own body. Physically we’re not out of the woods yet, but mentally . . .” Paul said, tapping the side of his head and nodding.
“It worked?” Ben asked, daring to hope, kissing Adam’s hand. “What he said, that Kane’s gone . . . Can all of this finally be over?”
“He’s fought his demons, Ben, and for now it seems he’s won.”
“For now?” Ben asked shooting Paul an uneasy look who cursed himself for speaking aloud.
“Ben, we’re dealing with the mind, a desert in and of itself due to the fact that the medical profession doesn’t know much about what goes on in there.” He paused a moment, realizing Ben didn’t really need to know that now and besides, he personally knew how stubborn Adam was and didn’t doubt that he’d completed his journey intact. Grabbing his bag, he placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “You saw his face, that look of pure joy. I’ve no doubt that that particular demon has been exorcised.” Ben relaxed a bit and nodded looking back into Adam’s sleeping face.
“Thanks, Paul,” Hoss said, emotion filling his voice.
“It wasn’t me this time. It was something simple – love and that old Cartwright persistence.” The doctor smiled at all of them, personally relieved that everything seemed to be working out. “I’ll be out tomorrow to check on him. Hop Sing, make sure you get some food and water into him every time he wakes up. And if you think he needs something, wake him up.”
“I do that,” Hop Sing answered through a teary smile.
“And make sure the boys let him sleep,” Paul finished giving a steely look toward the two at the end of the bed who returned weak smiles. “He’s got a lot of it to catch up on. I’ll see myself out.”
Unashamed of the tears marking his face, Ben kissed Adam’s hand once more and ran a hand along his boy’s bearded cheek, brushing that stray lock of hair from its flopping place on his forehead. God had saved him once again and he’d cursed him with all his might.
Forgive me, Lord.
“Adam’s finally free, ain’t he, Pa?” Hoss asked swiping at his own tears as he sat on the bed next to his father not daring to take his eyes from his brother.
“Yes, he’s free,” Ben answered as Joe leaned over and kissed Adam on the forehead.
“Mighty risky there, Shortshanks.”
“It’s worth the risk,” Joe said with a grin, sitting on the opposite side of the bed watching his brother sleep peacefully, his own guilt easing slightly. “It’s worth the risk.”
“I go make food for Number One son,” Hop Sing said, smiling from ear to ear, looking from one to the other. “You all eat now. No more food go to waste.”
Ben laughed. “We’ll all eat now, Hop Sing. Number One son has found his way home.”
Journal entry excerpt: Ben Cartwright
“I have my son back. His time in the desert is finally behind him and us, and now we can move forward with our lives . . . with his life. I so desperately feared that this was the end for him, that I would lose him this time.
“I’d made a vow, a vow that I was finding difficult to uphold, and I’d hoped that my actions at the meadow hadn’t caused him to lose his mind. It was so disheartening to see him laying there, so still, so . . . lifeless for four days. I damned myself and God for not guiding my hand correctly.
“We sat in the rain for I don’t know how long. I didn’t even realize Hoss and Joe were there until they tried to pull Adam from me. They’d heard the shots, thought Adam was dead and I was in no shape to dispute it. I’d caused this; I’d caused my boy to disappear inside himself. But I could do nothing else. I’d gambled with his life. A father shouldn’t do that with his son’s life.
“Somehow we got him home. Paul was waiting for us and declared Adam comatose, for lack of a better word. He was locked inside and there was no way to reach him. I’d pushed him too far and he’d gone over and it was up to him to come back but he simply wasn’t strong enough. I had to understand that he could be lost forever.
“I’m a patient man but the waiting nearly killed me. We sat by his bedside, talked to him, held his hand, urged him back to us and, as each day passed, I was assured that God had abandoned us. I could take small comfort in knowing that Elizabeth waited for him and would welcome him with open arms. It’s just that she couldn’t have him. I wasn’t done with him. I love him with all my being and it would’ve broken me to lose him. To lose any of them would do the same and I don’t favor one over the other but Adam . . . well, we’ve been together longer, just the two of us for those many years that I feel as if we are one. Without him in this world, whether here or elsewhere, it would’ve grown dark indeed.
“But now I don’t have to think on that. He’s come home and is improving each day and soon he’ll be pestering his brothers and helping me run the ranch again. Of all the things there are in the world, all I ask is for my sons to be happy and healthy and whole.
“Again I ask forgiveness, Lord, for doubting you and I thank you. Thank you for sending him home.”
Journal entry excerpt: Paul Martin
“It has come to my attention, and not recently, that we in the medical profession don’t know a damn thing about much. What we do know is impossibly small compared to what we could know. It’s astonishing we make it through the day.
“Take Adam Cartwright for example. A strong, confident man brought to his knees by a maniac in the desert who plagued and tortured him until he broke and there was nothing I could do. Oh, I could fix his ailing body by providing salves and powders for his seen wounds but could do nothing for those unseen and it just aggravates me. I’m a doctor. I’m supposed to heal or at least help and I could do neither. Fortunately for him, he had two things going that saved him – that old Cartwright stubbornness and love, that most magical of things.
“We, in the medical profession, must learn more about the mind instead of dismissing those afflicted as lost causes and locking them away. There must be some way to correct whatever’s gone wrong through words or medicines not yet discovered. I so hope to live to see the day when medicine finds a way to save all those forgotten lives. So much is lost when they are lost along the way.”
Journal entry excerpt: Adam Cartwright
“I’ve experienced many pleasures in my life – the love of a good woman, the power of a well bred cutting horse, building something that works, awaking to each sunrise that follows each night to tell us we’re still alive. But I believe my greatest pleasure was waking up with my family around me and only one voice in my head – my own.
“It was as if I’d been mired in the muck like the calves we pull from the bogs every spring only I had no one to pull me free. My family tried but they couldn’t reach me. I was tucked behind some sort of curtain, too thick to see through, too heavy to part and everything was just . . . gone. The only thing I had was fear – fear of the unknown, fear of finding out what I might have done, fear of what I did do, fear of what I could do.
“I’d resigned myself to not caring if I ever found out, at least, that’s what I told myself but it was driving me crazy and I could see the walls of an asylum heading my way and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It didn’t help that Kane kept at me, kept trying to overtake me and me very nearly . . . no, I did give up for a time. I tried to walk right off a cliff. But then he betrayed himself or, I should say, I knocked some sense into myself.
“When that happened it all came back and I thought it would kill me with its intensity. Pa tells me I was senseless for 4 days – no sound, no movement. Scared the daylights out of him, Hoss and Joe, too. And poor Hop Sing. His incense didn’t work. Joe told me later he was beside himself with worry. His incense always worked before. I apologized profusely once I had my wits about me and expressed my deepest beliefs in him. He hasn’t stopped smiling since. Of course, Pa might say it has more to do with the fact that Number One son is up and around . . . and eating like Hoss.
“My memories have taken their time sorting themselves out and, even after four months, one will pop up to reorganize the timeline in my head. While I still wonder if Kane will ever break out of the prison I’ve trapped him, I have confidence that I’ll recognize the warnings and manage to stop him before he takes hold. At least those are my hopes.
“Well, I’ve completed my first full day of work and I feel like I could sleep for a week! Hoss and Joe made sure I ate lunch and drank plenty of water and even made me sit under a tree as soon as the sun came out while they finished the job of weeding out strays from the neighboring ranches. I hate to say that I fell asleep under that tree, mouth open and everything. I’m sure they’ll make fun of me for the next few days over that. And I didn’t even have enough energy to lift myself from the saddle let alone walk into the house by myself when the day was over. Hoss managed to get me inside acting like there was nothing wrong and plopped me down on the settee where I promptly fell asleep, my second nap for the day. They had to wake me for dinner. And all I did today was watch the herd from Sport’s back. That’s it. How can you get worn out doing that?
“And I’ve no excuses. Without Kane’s constant pestering I’m managing eight or nine hours a night plus two naps during the day. I should be rested by now. Hop Sing tells me that it could take up to a year before I don’t get so wrung out tired like I do now. A year. Normally, I’d be chomping at the bit to get going but I’m just happy to sit by the fire in my favorite chair and read a book, something I thought was lost to me forever.
“You know a funny thing happened this morning while I was waiting for my bothers, watching the beautiful pink sky spread from horizon to horizon as the sun rose. I heard a whinny and I turned to see Junebug standing at the corral rail staring at me. Here was the animal I’d near ridden to death trying to escape my demons and she was actually calling to me. I hesitated. I had no right to touch her, to talk to her, and then she called again, Sport pushing his head up against my arm as if to say ‘go ahead’. I smiled. Joe would have a field day if he knew what I was thinking.
“I walked over and leaned against the rail and she pushed her muzzle into my hand and snuffled. I dug in my pocket for the sugar I always carry for Sport and held it out for her smiling as she chomped down, all of it gone in a minute. Then she pushed against me looking for a scratch. I obliged. After a few moments she backed away then trotted off toward the other fillies in the corral. I’d nearly ridden her into the ground and she’d forgiven me. She’d forgiven me.
“While recuperating, I often thought of the day I’d very nearly killed Junebug and the desperation that filled me as I stood on that cliff, dreaming of blessed relief, and finding out it’s a terrible thing to realize you have limits, that everyone has limits and, if forced, will do anything to survive. It makes life something finite. As a boy I thought nothing could hurt me until we lost Inger and that pain lasted for many years. Then when Marie left us, well, I was hardened, trying to prove to myself that nothing could or would hurt me again. It made me feel invincible. That was proven by my bold statement to Joe that I could never be forced to kill anyone. Well that fell by the wayside when I found myself choking the life out of Peter Kane and appreciated how wrong I’d been most of my life.
“And while this whole ordeal was agonizing for both myself and my family, it made me realize one more thing about myself – I’m nothing without the love of my family. They didn’t give up. Oh, they think they did out on the desert but fate or God played a hand there. I thought I gave up, too, since killing oneself is the biggest give up even if I was doing it to save them. They kept at it until Pa saved me by doing what I couldn’t – killing Kane.
“They mean everything to me, my family, and even though I rail about Joe’s lackadaisical attitude or Hoss’ gullibility, I would gladly sacrifice my life for any of them, Hop Sing included. And it makes me happy to know that I’m not alone in this world and that wherever I go, my family will be with me whether I want them there or not.
“So I thank God everyday for those four people who pulled me out of the abyss and kept me here on Earth. Without them I would be dust, lost to the darkness that claimed me. Obviously I was needed here because, well . . . someone has to keep Joe in line.”
1The Crucible, written by John T. Dugan. The situation and a part of Mr. Dugan’s dialogue are used within this fictional piece.
2Ross Marquette from the episode The Dark Gate
3Luke 6:37 – ‘Judge not and ye shall not be judged’
4The meadow as Adam’s ‘thinking place’ was introduced in my story “Absolution (WHN Death at Dawn)”
Dehydration: Removal of water from a substance; marked by thirst, tachycardia; can be caused by diarrhea, vomiting, fevers, heat-related illnesses.
Heatstroke: Caused by failure of the body’s heat-regulating mechanisms during or after exposure to heat and high relative humidity; may be life threatening. Symptoms consist of high body temperature, usually above 105 deg F, headache, numbness and tingling, confusion which may precede sudden onset of delirium or coma, tachycardia, rapid respiratory rate, increased blood pressure, hot dry skin, weakness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, infection. Treatment consists of lowering the body’s core temperature.
Asylum history: The first known psychiatric hospital, Bethlem Royal Hospital, was founded in London in 1247 and by 1403 began accepting ‘lunatics’. It soon became infamous for its harsh treatment of the insane and, in the 18th century, would allow visitors to pay a penny to observe their patients as a form of ‘freak show’. In 1700 it is recorded that the ‘lunatics were called ‘patients’ for the first time and within 20-years separate wards for the ‘curable’ and ‘incurable’ patients were established. Mental illness was no longer an affliction but a disease, to be diagnosed and potentially cured.
Many state hospitals in the U.S. were built in the 1850’s and 1860’s on the Kirkbride Plan, an architectural style meant to have a curative effect. In 1844, Dorothea Dix testified to the New Jersey legislature that people were being housed in ‘county jails, private homes and the basements of public buildings’. Her efforts lead to the construction of the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum, the first to be built using the Kirkbride Plan, whose plan was meant to have a curative effect.
Between 1845 and 1868 there were 9 ‘asylums’ in the U.S.: New Jersey State Hospital (Trenton), Jacksonville State Hospital (Illinois), State Lunatic Hospital (Taunton, Mass.), Northampton State Lunatic Hospital (Mass.), Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital (Philadelphia), Bryce State Mental Hospital (Tuscaloosa, Alabama – still in use today), Western Pennsylvania Asylum for the Insane (Kilbuck, Penn. – demolished in 2005), West Virginia Hospital for the Insane (Weston, W. Virginia) and Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane (Poughkeepsie, New York). These were all built using the Kirkbride Plan. (Information gathered from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.)
Personal experience: My father experienced the joys of heatstroke twice and it wasn’t pretty. He collapsed, couldn’t keep anything down and hallucinated which is an awful thing to experience. When I spoke to him about his experience he said everything was an effort – to think, to breathe, to move. It was like he was wading through mud. Nothing made much sense and time moved slowly past. And then one day, about 3 months later, it was as if a curtain lifted and everything fell into place. He claims he was never the same but he did retain his sense of humor (much needed at a time like this) and his appetite. That man could down 2 hamburgers, fries and 3 malts in record time and still want more. Fortunately, he recovered but is still affected by the heat, something that will be with him always.
So, the moral is be careful in the heat. Drink plenty of water and always wear a hat or sunshade. Recovery isn’t always storybook.
Other Stories by this Author
- What the Vultures Will Bring (by Calim11)
- A Moment Lost (by Calim11)
- A Moment Later (by Calim11)
- A Moment (by Calim11)
- Seven Words (by Calim11)