Summary: Moments is my new series of stories taking a look at situations that affected the Cartwrights deeply and personally. In this one, we see how something learned in the midst of a decision Adam had to make when he and Hoss were younger, sheds light on a a question posed in a canon episode. Part 1 is a prequel called October Snow, describing the events as youngsters. Part 2 is entitle Hard Decisions and has Hoss recalling that memory to help his father and brother understand Adam’s decision in a “what happens during” scene from a familiar episode. Each of the Moments stories are separate with no need to read others in the same series to understand.
Rating: K/G Word Count: 9759
Moments: A Brother’s Decision
Part -1: October Snow
Ben stood with his hands on his hips, gazing at the eastern horizon before turning to look west. A shiver rippled downward from his neck when his movement allowed a chilly breeze to snake into the collar of his coat. His deep sigh released a cloud of steam into the frigid morning air, and he rubbed his cold hands together to create some heat and ease the stiffness in his fingers, before searching his jacket pockets to find the knitted gloves tucked deep inside.
Another easterly look confirmed the lack of any actual sunrise, even though it was dawn. Lingering darkness covered his shoulders like a moth-eaten blanket, causing another shiver…and the realization that he needed to get a fire going. He was grateful to see a few remaining red embers among the ashes, and the addition of the pine cones and small branches he gathered from beyond the circle where everyone was bedded down, soon produced sizzling, followed by flames popping from the sap-covered tinder. Within minutes he was able to add large pieces of wood to get a good blaze going.
Time passed as he warmed his hands, and darkness lost its hold as the earth inched forward, giving way to a gray morning sky. Ben remained by the fire while considering the decision he had to make. The muted daylight offered no clarity, so he would have to rely on his experience and gut feelings.
The sky above him roiled with dark, heavy clouds swirling upwards before diving forward like waves. A strong northwest wind tagging along with daylight, was driving the seething “ocean” above him along at breakneck speed. His hope that this fast-moving system was towing fairer skies in its wake, was dashed with another look west. If anything, the approaching weather looked even more ominous.
It’s too early for snow, he thought. But his certainty about that was tempered by the fact that his family’s tenure in this territory hadn’t been established long enough to say that for sure. October’s blue skies and moderate temperatures had made it one of the most pleasant months in the years since they’d staked their claim and began working this land. This had been a major factor in the “special plans” he’d made for the final roundup of the season. Now the drastic change in atmospheric conditions was making him jumpy and undecided.
At age 15, Adam had been coming on these local drives for a few years already. His focus and innate ability to ride and catch on to the rhythm of the work, made him a definite asset to the crew. But about a year ago, Hoss had started asking to come along too. The reason Ben couldn’t allow this was that even though his middle son was big and strong for his age, he was still a nine-year-old who was amazed by the world around him. This tendency to embrace and explore everything, often took the child away from what he was doing with little concern for completing what he’d started or for where he was headed. Ben’s pat answer so far, whenever Hoss began his crusade for inclusion, was a teasing, yet truthful statement that they’d spend as much time rounding him up, as they would the cattle.
But as the fall roundup had approached, Hoss had asked again. To his credit, this time the youngster had made a good case for his increasing maturity by working ahead on his lessons with Marie; doing all his chores thoroughly before being told, and complying with everything his parents told him to do. When Adam had advocated for his younger brother, promising to keep Hoss at his side during the drive so he wouldn’t be in the way or go astray, Ben had considered it more seriously. His full agreement had come when Marie had also encouraged it; requesting a few days sans men, except for three-year-old, Little Joe, to allow her to accomplish the fall cleaning she found impossible with too many male Cartwrights underfoot.
Hoss had done well. He’d stuck close to his brother and showed his eagerness to help and learn. What impressed Ben most, was his middle boy’s gift for understanding the stock. He’d felt great pride while listening to the good questions Hoss had asked the cowhands about everything from the habits of steers, to the illnesses they might experience and how to treat them. The hands had been impressed as well, and while they hadn’t been happy about having the youngster along at first, they’d been good to him, even watching their language. Yesterday they’d begun a little greenhorn hazing, adjusting their shenanigans for Hoss’ age. The boy had accepted it easily; his tendency to be good-natured about such things serving him well.
Ben had truly enjoyed having Hoss along, and he was encouraged that his middle son would be able to step in as an addition to the crew by the time Adam went away for school. The thought of his eldest leaving and being so far away caused moments of terror, yet he admired that Adam had such certainty about what he wanted. He’d realized some time ago that Adam was just as focused and determined as he’d been at a similar age when he’d left home for the sea.
None of this mattered now as he prayed for guidance on what he should do in face of what he suspected was coming. The weather up until this morning had been sunny and comfortable, with no hint that it wouldn’t continue. He drew a sharp breath through his teeth, expressing his frustration at this unexpected change when they were so close to being done. Most annoying was that they would have finished by tomorrow except for a setback yesterday. A rogue wind—that Ben now viewed as an omen—had frightened the herd at sundown, sending steers running in every direction.
The hands had returned those they could spot in the waning light, but Ben had decided to wait for morning to gather the rest and then head south to the grass that would fatten them up for the winter. He hadn’t felt concerned about anything when they’d come into camp for supper, but an odd niggling had begun as they’d sat around the fire before turning in. The trail cook had rubbed his knees, complaining about his “rheumatism” acting up; a prophesy he’d claimed indicated an imminent change in the weather. Ben remembered looking upwards after settling into his bedroll, and issuing a relieved prayer of thanks that a sea of stars twinkled in the night sky, and a nearly full moon was casting silver shadows around the campsite.
A yipping coyote had awakened him later, and by then the stars and moon had vanished; the air felt damp, and a decidedly cooler breeze was penetrating the weave of his bedroll. As he’d gone to the chuckwagon to retrieve an extra blanket for himself and his boys, he’d noted foggy patches over low ground confirming the increasing humidity as well as the contrast between air and ground temperatures.
His rest had been fitful after that, and when his internal sense of time told him it was nearly dawn, Ben had opened his eye to see that the rheumatic prediction had borne true. His years of observations at sea; his years on the trail to get here, and now his growing familiarity with this territory, had honed his skill as a weather prophet as well.
As he looked up, noting the steam his breath created and the wind whistling past his ears; he knew that fall had taken cover, and what swirled above him, was a “winter sky.”
It took much thought to come to a decision, but Ben wasted no time once it was made. Adam and Hoss were still sleeping, encased in their blankets from the top of their heads, straight down to their feet. Ben nudged the top of the longer cocoon. “Adam,” he said softly, hoping to speak to his oldest son before waking Hoss. He knew this decision would not be met with the younger boy’s approval, but Adam would understand and comply quickly. His words produced no response so he added a shoulder jostle as he spoke his son’s name again.
This time the blanket drew down enough to expose his son’s dark, sleepy eyes. “Is it time to get up?” he asked in the nasally tone always present in Adam’s morning voice.
Ben tugged the blanket down further and watched those sleepy eyes shoot open as the first cold slap of wind hit the boy’s warm cheeks. He held his finger to his lips to indicate silence, saying softly, “Come with me.”
Adam shivered as he stood, and he gathered his blankets around his shoulders to stay warm as he accompanied his father to the back of the chuck wagon. “What’s wrong, Pa?”
Ben’s brief glance upward prompted his son to do the same. “I’ve been watching this weather for a few hours now, and have some big concerns. You’ve been out with me in rough conditions, but Hoss hasn’t, and I’d like to get him back home…just in case….”
Adam nodded, and then asked, “Are you thinking rain or snow?”
“Rain.” He nodded toward a bucket on the back of the wagon. “There’s no ice in there, so it’s not freezing…yet. I’d like to think that this will blow over as no more than a cloudy, windy day. But even rain, with as cold as it’s getting will be miserable, and could change to sleet or snow tonight. I have worries enough today, and I’ll feel better if Hoss is no longer one of them.”
Adam had been his father’s sidekick since birth and had picked up his father’s no-nonsense approach towards situations needing action. His eyebrows pulled near as he offered a suggestion. “You could send Ollie home with Hoss. His job is to cook, and even though he rides herd when you need a man, I’m a better cowhand than he is. Rain will keep that beef edgy, and you’ll need the best riders with you.”
“That’s a good thought, Son, but if the weather does get bad, the men will need Ollie’s hot meals and coffee, and even the chuckwagon as a shelter.” What Ben didn’t add was that as much as he could use Adam’s help, he wanted both boys safe…and Marie would skin him alive if he sent one back without the other. His beautiful, loving wife, saw all three of their children as her babies, even though Adam was already shaving. And while Adam claimed to not need outward displays of mothering, Marie knew better, and lavished their oldest child with as much praise, attention and worry as their other two.
He pulled from his thoughts, addressing Adam again. “I trust your judgement more than Ollie’s when it comes to your brother. Those two would probably end up off somewhere checking out a rock that Hoss says looks like some ‘critter,’ instead of getting home.” He smiled and rubbed Adam’s back affectionately. “It’s a six-hour ride to the house keeping a steady pace. If you start now, you’ll be there by early afternoon.”
Adam nodded. “If the weather holds, I’ll ride back here tomorrow.”
“If the weather holds, the rest of us will get back quickly, so stay put. Marie will appreciate the extra help.”
The two brothers had gotten a quick start once their father had given Hoss no other option but to mount up and move out. By Adam’s estimation they’d been riding at least three hours. Yet, judging by the landmarks they were passing, they weren’t even close to being halfway home. Hoss had made a fuss over being forced to leave, claiming he was old enough to stay no matter what happened. He’d tied an even bigger grudge on his saddle along with bedroll at being sent off without a hot breakfast. The boy’s grumbling had become so annoying that Adam had finally commanded him to be silent.
He knew he’d made a mistake in doing that. The satisfaction he’d gotten from Hoss’ response was short-lived. When the younger brother’s pace slowed to a crawl as he allowed his unhappiness to fester, Adam thought about increasing his speed so Hoss would have to speed up or think he was being left behind. That idea was banished when Adam recalled a November day with weather much like this, when at age six, he’d been inadvertently left behind by their wagon train.* He’d tried to catch up, walking miles alone while cold and afraid, until his father had become aware of his absence and came back for him. That experience was not one he’d want anyone else to endure, even if that “anyone” was being as irritating as a bur stuck in his older brother’s sock.
Hoss’ dallying was exacerbated by the fact that Ollie had stuffed a towel loaded with left-over biscuits in the boy’s saddlebags, and Adam figured it was his brother’s intent to eat every last one of them. When he wasn’t complaining or acting offended, he was stopped, reaching back to retrieve another one.
Adam slowed until Hoss caught up. “I’m sorry I hollered,” he offered sincerely. “This morning brought some changes you weren’t happy about, and I understand that you’re mad about everything, including being stuck with me when I’m a little grouchy too.”
The comment brought a quick grin to the younger boy’s face. “That purdy well sums it up.”
Using his brother’s lightening mood, he patted the boy’s shoulder. “There’s good news though. If you give that nag of yours a little encouragement, we’ll be home in no time, and Hop Sing will cook us something that tastes better than day-old biscuits.”
“They ain’t that bad,” Hoss replied as he extended the most recent retrieval from the biscuit stash. “You ain’t eaten nothin’ today. Maybe havin’ one’ll make you less grumpy too.”
Adam reached for the morsel, consuming it in three bites, before rinsing it down with a swig from his canteen. “Ollie isn’t a bad trail cook.” He brushed the crumbs from his chest and his horse’s mane, and then looked over at Hoss. “All right, let’s make some time!”
The brothers covered a good number of miles in the next hour, and the rock formation ahead of them indicated that they were now far closer to home than camp. This should have raised Adam’s spirits, but instead, he was gripping the reins so tightly that his fingers ached. His jaw was clenched just as firmly, but he was trying his best not to let his anxiety spill over to Hoss. The youngster had complained about feeling cold a while ago, and Adam had tied the boy’s blanket around his shoulders to help block the wind.
He hadn’t resorted to that…yet. But he’d raised the collar of his coat, and was slouched as deeply into the garment as he could while keeping it from riding up so high, he’d get chilled from bottom end. He was shivering, and any shift in the saddle exposed his rump to cold leather, making the chills so severe his teeth chattered. He thought back to his early morning conversation with his father. The bucket might have been free of ice then, but Adam was certain that would no longer be the case.
His growing worry came from the fact that as dreary as it had been all morning, it was actually getting darker now. Adam glanced over at his brother, and noted the strained look on the boy’s face.
Hoss met his brother’s look, and spoke in a shaky voice. “It sure looks strange over there.”
Adam took a long look in the direction Hoss was pointing, and saw the phenomenon causing concern. The northwestern sky appeared nearly black, and below the cloud line, hung a solid grayish-white sheet that occluded all visibility beyond it. He swallowed hard as any doubts about what was approaching, ended when the wind picked up suddenly, pelting them with small ice crystals. He heard Hoss squeal his offense at the sharp shards striking his face.
The young boy’s question was issued in an octave rising along with his panic. “What’s happening, Adam?”
His mouth was so dry he couldn’t respond, but he kept his head about him as he rose in his stirrups and took a good look around. He’d been out in this area often enough mending fences and rounding up stray cattle that he knew where he was, and he quickly ticked off his options. “Follow me!” he shouted with such authority that Hoss obeyed without question.
The snow pursued them, arriving within minutes of their decision to run for it—driving large, wet flakes ahead of gale-force winds. Adam chanced a look backwards to make sure Hoss was still on his heels and was aghast to see that the snow was falling so fast, their horses’ footprints were already disappearing behind them. He tipped his hat down to keep the snow out of his eyes as he looked forward again, and saw that the road in front of them was disappearing equally as fast, and the wall of falling flakes ended his visibility a few feet in front of the horse’s nose.
He slowed, motioning for Hoss to come up next to him, and he kept their pace at a walk since he had no idea if they were still on the road. Even in the howling wind, he could hear Hoss sniffling, and despite his fear, he laughed when he saw that his brother was nearly covered in white. “You look like a snowman riding a horse,” he hollered, hoping to convey a bit of lightness to their dire situation.
“You too!” shot back in Hoss’ quaking voice.
“Let’s stop a minute.” Adam grabbed the reins of the other horse and brought both animals to a standstill. “I have to think before we go further.” He closed his eyes and visualized where he wanted to be, and he remembered a stand of trees in the middle of the pastureland. He squinted while examining the what lay ahead. “There!” he shouted, pointing to a darker spot amid the curtain of white. “We need to get there!”
Even the brief stop allowed snow to accumulate and each step forward by their horses created a furrow. Despite his desire to get to that welcoming shadow on the horizon, they kept their horses at a moderate walk to avoid an injury by landing a leg in a hidden hazard. It took time, but not the hours it felt like, to reach their destination. Hoss let out a joyful whoop when he saw what was there.
“Let’s stop by the door and get our stuff inside before we put the horses in the lean-to out back,” Adam directed his brother.
Hoss slipped from his saddle and nearly fell as his boots slid on the slick snow. He disappeared inside the structure and came back out, reporting excitedly, “There’s a good pile of wood in there for a fire! Hand me your stuff and I’ll get it stowed while you start gettin’ the saddles off.”
The brothers were so involved in settling in, they spoke only enough to communicate what they were doing. But with a fire going in the stove and their outer clothing and blankets draped around the small room to dry, Hoss finally sighed and said, “That storm ain’t lettin’ up any time soon, is it, Adam?”
“Hard to say. That mess we got caught in was the storm’s squall line. Those hit hard and fast, but it doesn’t always mean there’s a big storm behind it. In the meantime, we have shelter; we’ll be warm soon enough, and we can stay here until it’s safe to leave.”
“I’m glad we got to this line shack,” Hoss offered, but his gratitude was overcome by a questioning look. “But…”
“Ah, it ain’t important.” Hoss took the oil lamp over to the small cupboard in the corner and reported the contents. “There’s some dried meat, sugar, flour, salt, a jar of dried beans and another one with lard…I think, and a tin that says baking powder. I sure wish we’d gotten home to Hop Sing’s cookin’.”
Adam bit his tongue. He wanted to tell his brother that if he hadn’t dawdled on the way, they might have been close enough to home to make a run when the snow started. But he knew that wouldn’t help their current situation. “That’s good news,” he said instead, pitching his voice into cheerier tone than he felt. “We can cook some of the meat to make a broth for tonight, and soak those beans overnight to cook with meat tomorrow. The flour can be made into biscuits and pancakes.”
“We ain’t gonna need food for tomorrow, Adam!” Hoss said with surety. “We’ll be home then.”
He bit his tongue again so as not to blurt the truth of what they might find come morning. Hoss was not normally a grouchy or petty kid. He pouted when he didn’t get his way, as he had done earlier today, but Adam decided that now, the boy was running on the pure emotion of fear mixed with unhappiness. When he looked up from his thoughts, he saw Hoss staring at him, clearly expecting a confirmation. “I hope you’re right, but we’ll have to see how much snow falls.” He forced a smile. “And make the best of it until then.”
The young boy’s voice took a decided turn towards sullenness again. “There’s just one problem with that. We ain’t got nothin’ to do but stare at the walls…and each other!”
Adam ignored the comment and grabbed the lamp Hoss had returned to the table, heading over to make an inspection of the same cupboard. He withdrew the salted meat and a pot. “All we need is some water and I’ll get this cooking for later. We don’t have an oven, but I’ve seen Ollie use biscuit dough to make dumplings that he cooked in with the meat.”
Hoss snorted. “We only got a canteen, and there ain’t enough water in there to do much of anything.”
“Here,” Adam said with more gentleness than he was feeling, while handing Hoss the pot. “Open the door, fill the pot with snow and we’ll melt it on the stove.” His instructions brought color to the boy’s cheeks, along with a reluctant grin.
“Oh…I forgot about the snow.” The youngster started to laugh, breaking the logjam of anxiety and letting the even-tempered child bubble to the surface. “I guess this ain’t so bad after all.”
Adam had helped restock other line-shacks last spring, so he figured there’d be a few things here that could help occupy their time. He found a deck of cards wedged behind the plates, and a pad of paper and pencils tucked against the side of the cupboard. He held them up when Hoss came back inside. “Look what I found.”
Hoss’ brief exposure to the outside had left him coated with a layer of snow. He shivered and issued a loud, “Brrr,” as he brought the pot to the stove.
After brushing more snow from his brother’s head, Adam nodded at the pot. “You didn’t really have to go outside to get that. You could have just leaned over and scooped it from the doorway.”
The sheepish look on Hoss’ face gave way to a giggle. “I had to pee too, so I figured I might as well take care of that.”
Try as he might to look serious, Adam began giggling too. “I assume you scooped that snow from somewhere other than where you did your business.”
“Heck, I figured that snow would give the soup a little more flavor.”
Both boys began laughing. Adam pushed Hoss’ shoulder and Hoss pushed back as they laughed harder. But the younger one’s laughter came to an abrupt stop. His lower lip began to quiver as his face collapsed into a worried frown.
“I’m scared, Adam. I wanna be home so bad.”
“I know you do, and so do I. But you have to trust that this is best right now.” Adam pulled his brother to him and gave him a hearty hug. “We’ll get home as soon as we can.” A smile replaced the serious set of his face as he felt Hoss’ arms slip around him and tighten into an embrace. Moments like this had occurred frequently when they’d been younger. Adam had comforted Hoss on the trail west, and when they’d first found this land. He’d pulled his brother close at night during storms, and soothed his bruised knees and heart. They’d had the bond of brothers who instinctively knew what the other was thinking. But things had changed when Marie was added to their family. Hoss had loved her from the moment he’d laid eyes on her. His deep need for a mother took him to Marie for comforting after that. Adam understood. He’d kept his distance from Marie at first, but even he’d been won over by her gentleness and genuine concern. He valued her opinions and advice, and he knew she was his ally when it came to supporting dreams that might differ from his father’s for a while.
Feeling Hoss’ arms around him again reminded him of the connection he would always have with this brother, and he decided he didn’t need to analyze it further; he simply enjoyed the moment.
The emotional rush of the day eased once the Cartwright boys finished eating their soup and dumplings. The stove in the shack was small, holding only a few pieces of wood at a time, yet it provided enough heat to warm the entire room. When their eyes began drooping and there were long pauses for yawns between the words in the story Adam was telling, they’d called it a night.
The wind was still howling when Adam awoke later. With no windows in the cabin, the only light came from the glow showing through the grates of the stove. To help gauge the time, he slipped from his blankets and cracked open the door. It was hard to tell whether the crystals in the air were falling as opposed to being blown around, but the temperature had clearly dropped further, and drifts of the icy white flakes were forming against every solid surface they met. Snow had dropped off the door when he’d opened it, and it took a good effort to ease it shut over the deposit. Not wanting to open the door again, he gathered the chilly pile as best he could and dropped it into the wash pan.
The brief look at the dark world outside confirmed the reason he still felt sleepy. He yawned widely, but quietly, as he put another log in the stove, and then slipped back onto his bunk, snugging the blankets up under his chin.
Three (The morning of the fifth day)
The set-jawed stare currently being exchanged between the two cooped-up brothers, had enough flint to start a fire.
There’d been laughter their first morning, when Hoss had opened the door to go relieve himself, and got caught in the forward avalanche of the snow that had built up against the shack during the night. His shocked shout at the snow filling his boots and encasing his legs up to his knees, had awoken Adam, and they’d used plates and a frying pan as shovels to clear the room of the accumulation.
The sun had shown brightly in the frigid air that morning. But the wind remained high, creating drifts too deep for their horses to traverse, and thus putting their departure on hold. Hoss had taken that news well enough, and they’d made some not-too-bad pancakes with sugar sprinkled on them for sweetness, and put a pot of beans and meat on for later. With great effort, they’d forged a path through the drifts to the back of the line shack where the lean-to’s roof sheltered their horses. They’d given their mounts drinking water, and because this part of the building was on the leeward side of the storm, they’d been able to gather some long grass that hadn’t been covered with snow , rather than tapping the bin of hay the hands had left when they’d stocked the shelter.
The weather had warmed slightly the second day, but not enough to compact the deepest drifts. While they waited for better conditions, Adam had kept his increasingly anxious brother busy with endless games of twenty-one and rummy. When interest in that had waned, they’d fashioned checkers by sawing off small pieces of branches and drawing a board on the table with a bit of charred wood from the stove.
Even with the sunshine and warmer weather on the third day, drifts near the shack had remained as high as Hoss’ chest. But they’d been able to stay outside longer with the more moderate temperatures, and they’d found further diversion through snowball fights and trudging out to the nearby trees to snare a rabbit for supper.
By the fourth morning, when Adam had advised they wait one more day to give the thawing process a chance to reveal enough of the road so they wouldn’t wander off course, Hoss’ spirits sunk so low, that he blamed his older brother for his captivity, certain that remaining there was Adam’s devious plan to drive him insane.
A brief check this fifth morning provided hope that conditions were good for departure. But Adam’s suggestion that he ride out first to confirm this, had brought on the stare-down occurring now. The older brother looked away first, and absent-mindedly rubbed his left shoulder and arm. Beneath his shirtsleeve were deep blue, circular bruises from yesterday’s snowball fight. Where their initial battles had been fun, and their constant laughter had diminished their ability to throw true, the previous day’s combat had taken a serious turn. Not only had Hoss’ aim gotten more precise with his deteriorating mood, but Adam was pretty sure the projectiles the boy had used contained a core of ice for maximum impact.
Why can’t I just go with ya, and we’ll see how far we get?” Hoss finally demanded. “I don’t think I can stand this place one minute longer.”
“I just want to be sure we can make it. You won’t want to turn back if conditions deteriorate away from the cabin, and then we’ll be arguing again. It’s still a long trip to the house, and if we get stuck or off track, we’ll be in a pickle…a frozen pickle. I get that you’re sick of being here, but I guarantee that this is a palace compared to camping in the open.”
Rather than Adam’s reasoned explanation appeasing Hoss, he slammed his closed fist on the table and renewed his accusatory stare. “There’s somethin’ I been wantin’ to ask since the day the snow hit, Older Brother. Somethin’ that never made sense to me.”
Yeah, what’s that,” returned in a snarl.
“We was between Pa and the house that day.” Hoss stopped a moment to take a deep breath. “So why’d you come this way instead of trying to make it back to Pa or all the way home? You got us stuck out in the middle of nowhere. No one knows we’re here and it seems yer too scared to leave.” The remainder of his breath was shot out in a frustrated sigh. “Everyone talks about how smart you are, Adam. But sometimes I think you ain’t got a lick of sense.”
“Do you really want me to your question?” Adam’s voice held no malice.
“I’m asking if you want to know why I decided as I did, or whether you just need to be mad at me because you’re unhappy. If that’s it, I won’t bother explaining.”
Hoss slouched down in his chair and gave his brother a one-sided smile. “You mean you thought it out real and true?”
A nod. Adam moved from the bed to the other chair at the small table. “I want you to learn from what you’ve been through, so I’m going to be honest, just like you were in asking that question. Can you listen without getting mad?”
“I had every hope of making it all the way to the house that day. And we might have, if you hadn’t poked around at first to let me know how unhappy you were. We were behind where we should have been, and that did impact my decision when the snow hit.”
“So yer sayin’ I’m to blame for bein’ here!” Hoss’ tone was wounded and angry.
Adam reached over and grasped Hoss’ arm. “Neither of us is to blame for the weather, and being behind was as much my fault as yours. I was just as mad about being sent home, and I didn’t push our pace soon enough. I was expecting rain, and I thought we’d be miserable, but still able to get home. Then I saw that line of snow coming at us like a loaded wagon with an out-of-control team, and I had to make a decision. We might have headed back towards Pa, but we’d come too far to outrun that storm. And if you remember; Pa and the hands moved out that day, so they were no longer where we left them.”
“That’s true.” Hoss smacked his lips as he thought. “Couldn’t we have just kept going for home when it started to snow?”
“There was a wall of snow between us and home. You saw how it camouflaged everything when it caught up to us. I couldn’t have seen landmarks along the road in conditions like that, and we’d have been riding blind…with no idea where we were going. We could have gotten so far off the road we wouldn’t have known where we were. By then we’d have been snowed in, and forced to try surviving out in the open with no shelter, no food, and no way to keep warm.”
The boy gulped loudly. “Yer sayin’ we might’a died?”
“Probably. No one at home knew we were coming, and chances are Pa had the same conditions we did, so no one would have come to help until it was too late.” A grin began to turn the right side of Adam’s lips and he had to force himself to keep from chuckling. “Considering the two options, I’ll bet being stuck here with me doesn’t seem so bad anymore.”
“But…” Hoss’ face screwed up as he thought things through. “Didn’t you kind of go off the road anyway? We were just lucky to find this place.”
“Lucky? By turning this direction, we stayed in front of the storm long enough for me to see the stand of trees out there to use as my guide. I knew this shack was over this way, and not too far off the main road. I made the decision to try getting here. It might not have worked either, but I felt it was our only option. You’re going to come to know our ranch as well as Pa and I do—even better, I’d guess, because it’s such a part of you—and then you’ll make decisions based on what know too.” He waited for a response, but received only a stare. “Do you understand the lesson in what I just told you?”
“That I should always know where I’m goin’?”
“That’s part of it. But it’s bigger too. Life is about going from where you are, to where you want to be. When something happens along the journey to prevent the conclusion you want, you consider all the options, not just the ones you wish would happen. Backtracking is only possible if that situation has…not…changed since you left. In this case, you wanted to be home or with Pa, but we couldn’t have made it to either of those places. When that’s the case, you have to move forward another way. Paying attention to everything you experience in life, allows you to come up with alternatives. These detours are never appreciated, but they help you survive while you figure out the next step.”
Both boys turned toward the door when they heard voices and stomping outside. The door swung open, and there, backlit by sunlight, stood Ben Cartwright.
Their father turned back to shout, “They’re here!” before making the few steps to the table and grabbing his sons up into his chilly embrace.
“How’d you know we were here?” Hoss asked excitedly, as he clung to his father.
“Get your things together while I tell you.” As his boys stuffed their saddlebags and straightened the cabin, Ben explained. “Snow hit us the day you left, but it was just flurries that didn’t even accumulate. Our troubles came from the wind spooking the beef while we tried to move them, so we herded them into a canyon that night, and went the rest of the way the next day. There was no snow further south, and although it was cold, there was still plenty of grazing grass. I had no idea what you two must have ridden into until we headed home. We got to where we were camped when you left for home, and it was there we encountered drifts and blocked roads. Our only option was to hunker down there for the next two days and let nature clear the way.”
Hoss looked from his brother to his father. “That sounds like what we been doin’, but not so nice as we had it.”
Ben looked around the shack and nodded. “You too had it pretty good here. We all crammed into the chuck wagon at night, and sat around a fire all day, trying to stay warm.
“Did you make it home easily once you got started again?” Adam asked.
“We haven’t gotten there yet. We were making slow progress today when we met up with men from the ranch. They had even more snow there, and Marie figured we might need a hand. The men fit a low wagon with runners, and hooked it up to a draft team to come look for us. I admit I was grateful to see them; those runner pads make a solid path through the deeper drifts for the saddle horses to follow. It wasn’t until I mentioned I was glad I’d sent you home before the storm hit that they told us you hadn’t made it back.” Ben’s complexion drained of color and he became silent as he relived that moment. “I assume that storm closed in on you fast?
The boys nodded, and Hoss breathed a shaky, “Real fast, Pa.”
“My prayer was that you’d been close enough to get here. I sent the men who’ve been with me on towards the house with instructions to look for any sign of where you’d gotten off the road. But I had a hunch you were here.” He swallowed hard. “You’ll never know how happy I was to see smoke swirling above the chimney when we got close.”
“I’m pretty happy you saw it too!” Hoss shouted happily. “Let’s go home.”
Ben disappeared outside while the boys donned their coats. When he returned he told them, “You two toss your saddles and yourselves in the wagon so you get home sooner. We’ll bring your horses, but it’ll be slow going since footing is still a little slippery.” He tussled the younger boy’s hair. “Unless,” he said with a wink towards Adam, “Hoss would rather take his time and ride back with us.”
The child’s mouth dropped open. “I can nearly smell Hop Sing’s cookin’ from here, and the sooner I get there, the better!”
Hoss leaned on side of the wagon bed, observing the white landscape around them. “It’s worse than I ever imagined,” he told his brother. “It’s hard to figger how big somethin’ is when you’re holed up in a tiny part of it.”
“That’s a good way of putting it,” Adam replied, nodding. “Even I didn’t think it was this bad. If Pa hadn’t showed up with this skid, we’d have been stuck even longer.”
The two became silent, staring at each other as they had earlier, but with relief, not malice.
“I’m sorry I said them bad things about you, Adam.” Hoss’s soft voice barely carried to his brother’s ears.
The older boy smiled. “You can ask me about anything you don’t understand, Hoss. Next time, don’t wait so long that your frustration starts festering.” He leaned over to give the boy a shove. “The best part is that you listened to my answer. I appreciated that.”
“I won’t never forget what you said, neither. And knowin’ you, them words was a about a lot more than getting’ stuck in the snow.”
Adam nodded. “It’ll make more sense as you get older. For now, just remember what Pa tells us: Cartwrights always find a way and never give up.”
Part -2: Hard Decisions
In the barren hills of the northern Nevada/Utah Territory:
Father and son road side-by-side in silence. They’d already spoken their questions; their fear; their prayerful hope that it was all a mistake, and the quiet between them now indicated their utter confusion over the situation noted in the telegram they’d received. Each man was worn with the pace they’d set, and while the son knew they’d have to rest soon, he also knew it would be nearly impossible to get his father to agree. Only the deepest part of night had stopped them so far, and that mindset was bound to continue until they completed their quest.
“Pa!” Hoss shouted as he squinted into the glare of the late afternoon sun. He pointed towards a towering rock in the distance where he saw a man waving both arms above his head.
Ben stopped Buck, and stared in the direction Hoss was pointing. “I see something…but not clearly. Is there one person up there…or two?” he asked, his voice registering undisguised hope.
Another squint and long stare provided the answer Hoss knew would send his father’s spirits plummeting. He removed his hat, waving it above his head to respond his younger brother atop Signal Rock. “Just one, Pa.”
Little Joe had anticipated the arrival of his father and brother with hope as well as trepidation. He’d expected them today, and had spent the last few hours sitting atop their meeting point watching for rising dust to indicate their approach. There’d been no doubt about it being his family when they finally came into sight; the contrast in the size and shape of both men and horses was evident even at a distance. Having received a response to his signal, he slipped down the side of the massive rock and added a few more branches to the fire.
Joe was certain that the duo hadn’t eaten or slept much since leaving home. While in Salt Flats awaiting a return wire from his father, he’d stocked up on supplies for what was to come, and laid in a few special items to make a decent meal when they arrived. There was a pile of sliced potatoes and bacon grease waiting to fry up in a one pan, and strips of salt pork in another. The coffee was already brewed, but Joe slipped the pot into the side embers of the fire to rewarm, and nestled the other two pans onto the hot coals.
The youngest Cartwright hadn’t taken any better care of himself than his father and Hoss had, and the instant aroma wafting up from the pork made his stomach growl. While tending to these domestic tasks, he rehearsed what he’d say to his father. All indications pointed to his older brother being the victim of two ruthless bandits who’d taken everything, and probably made sure there was no witness. On the other hand, he knew Ben Cartwright. The man held an unwavering belief that if there was a way to survive, his sons would do just that until he could find them.
Whatever had happened, Joe knew that his father never left a Cartwright behind, and they’d be clear about the outcome before going home.
Ben and Hoss arrived at Joe’s camp trailing a cloud of dust the same hue as the rest of the colorless landscape. They dismounted after calling a greeting and tied Buck and Chubby next to Sport in the shade of a prickly bush where enough scrub grass was growing to provide a meal.
Hoss removed his hat, and used his arm to wipe the sweat from his cheeks and forehead. A smile enveloped his face despite the circumstances of the meeting. “I don’t know what you got cookin’ over there, Little Brother, but it sure smells good.” He shook Joe’s hand and kept walking towards the fire, bending down to take a deep breath and stir the potatoes.
“I knew you’d be starving.” Joe allowed a small smile to lift his cheeks as well. It vanished when he looked towards his father. “You made good time.”
“It was a blessing that there was good light both nights and we only had to stop until the moon rose enough to see the road.” He laughed mildly as Hoss passed him on the way to grab the trail kit with his plate and silverware, still attached to Chubby’s saddle.
“Everything’s ready, Pa, so we might as well eat,” Joe suggested. “I’ll fill you in while we do that.”
Hoss’s plate was already filled by the time the other two had their utensils, and he’d found a flat rock to use as a chair. His attempts to start eating were thwarted when his father told him to wait until he said grace.
“We have much to be grateful for even as we face much to worry about, and we don’t want to forget one over the other,” Ben told his sons. He pronounced a blessing over their meal, adding a prayer for wisdom and direction, before filling his plate and finding his own rock.
They ate quietly, until Hoss eyed his brother as he added more food to his plate, and nodded towards their father. “If we don’t talk about what happened soon, he’s gonna bust, Joe.”
The young man hung his head and drew a long breath. “I appreciate that you didn’t start questioning me as soon as you got here, Pa. I wanted us all to relax a little before we got into the details. I’m sure this is all whirling in your mind until you feel dizzy—just like it’s doing to me.” He looked up, turning to the west to note the last rays of light casting elongated shadows around them. “We can’t do anymore today, but I’ll tell you what happened and what I’ve done so far, and then we’ll make plans.”
Ben nodded sturdily. “Your telegram said Adam failed to arrive at this meeting point, and your search led you to Salt Flats, following two men you thought were responsible for harming him in some way. But they’d been killed in a shootout, and their deaths ended hope of obtaining further information?”
A nod from Joe confirmed his father’s understanding.
After a deep breath, Ben said, “Why don’t you start at the beginning.”
It didn’t take long for Joe to recount the background leading to the missed meetup, and what he assumed had happened to Adam after he’d ridden out of East Gate.
“Why would those two go after him?” his father asked.
“That puzzled me too, until I saw their bodies in Salt Flats and recognized them from the saloon in East Gate. They must have overheard us talking about selling the herd, and figured Adam had cash.” Joe’s head dropped again. “But money wasn’t enough. They took Sport and everything that was attached to him.”
“Do ya have any clue where they stopped Adam?” Hoss asked, his face contorting as though he was experiencing pain.
“The sheriff in Salt Flats let me look through the things he’d gotten from the room where those two were staying, and take whatever belonged to Adam. His canteen was still full, while the ones belonging to Gan and Preston were nearly empty. Adam’s food was nearly all there too, so I’d guess they stopped him early on, yet far enough along that he couldn’t just walk back, and then they made straight for Salt Flats to put our money to use.”
Ben brows met as he frowned deeply, envisioning what his oldest son had ridden into. “Where did Adam say he was going?”
Joe’s head moved side-to-side. “He mentioned heading into the high-country to hunt, ending up at Pyramid Lake. We agreed to meet here in three days and do a little fishing before going home. I imagine he headed straight into the hills when he left, looking for big cats. But finding the spot where he left the main road is like trying to find one special stone among the millions of others out here. The ground is hard packed or scree, so there aren’t any prints. I already tried following backwards from the blacksmith where I found Sport, but there was nothing helpful.”
The lack of direction from which to launch their search itched at Ben until he started pacing around the fire. He let out an abrupt sigh. “Why couldn’t you two have stayed together.”
The stricken look that flashed across Joe’s face, melted into pure agony as he rose to address his father. His voice was laden with grief, and broke as he said, “Don’t you think I’ve asked myself that same question a thousand times already, Pa! It’s been nearly a week since Adam left East Gate. I haven’t found any evidence of him out here, and even worse, I haven’t found any water either! Not a single dirty puddle between here and where he would have come from! Adam’s probably dead because I thought attending a trial for some stranger was more important than spending time with my own brother.”
The outburst and spilling of Joe’s fears and guilt left him silent and spent. He began to collapse like a tree trunk sawed with an angled cut.** Ben rushed to his side and steadied his son with his firm grip.
“I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t mean that as condemnation; it’s purely frustration. If I’m right, Adam was more interested in finding a spot to read and contemplate without interruption, than wanting to come home with a trophy pelt. He could have stayed put in town as easily as you could have gone with him. But it’s worthless speculation. And there’s the further fact that if those thieves wanted that money, they would have gone after both of you when you headed home. As horrible as this is, at least we have some idea of what happened to Adam.”
Joe’s sigh was ragged, but he stepped back, able to support his own weight again. “You’re probably right about what Adam wanted to do. He had two books in his saddle bags: one in Latin…I think…and the other a collection of Shakespeare plays. I found his journal too, and there was no entry after we separated. That’s another clue pointing to when they attacked him.”
Hoss rose to pour another cup of coffee. “You only got that clue about what happened because Cochise went lame?”
A nod from the youngest. “Kind of providential when you think about it.”
“I wonder why they sold a good horse like Sport over one of theirs?” Hoss pondered aloud. As he looked up and met Joe’s stare, they both smiled. “I’d bet that good ole pony wouldn’t let them sit him, much less ride him.” The big man’s eyes sought out the three animals tied nearby, and gave an approving nod to one in particular. His voice was nearly reverent when he spoke again. “Don’t it make you wonder if animals know so much more than we think they do. Maybe Sport knew he could help if he acted more like a mule than the fine horse he is.”
The Cartwrights searched for signs of Adam during every moment of daylight for the next week. Their spirits were buoyed at one point when they found Adam’s black holster on the ground just outside a narrow pass. There were enough hoof prints in the area to show that two horses had converged with a third in that spot, and that three had left together. There were even a few boot prints showing the way Adam had gone as he’d headed out on foot. But they’d ended within yards as the ground hardened into rock again. Hoss, Joe and their father had ridden an arched pattern in three different directions…hoping to find another sign to indicate where the missing family member had walked or sought shelter from the blazing heat. When each search proved fruitless, Ben had gathered everyone back at the starting point, and they’d tried again. Their voices were raw with yelling Adam’s name; their bodies beyond fatigued from the heat and constant vigilance, and even though Ben continued to believe they’d find the clue they needed, their souls were whispering a truth their minds were loath to accept.
They’d been forced to rest at night for fear of missing an important trace with inadequate light. Such periods had been done in silence, other than to plan for the next day’s search. The only hope keeping them going was that they’d found no body or blood with the holster, making it clear that while the thieves had left Adam to die, they probably hadn’t the guts to kill him outright. The unspoken truth hanging over them like a pall of despair, was clear. The passage of time since Adam’s departure from East Gate, meant that unless he’d found water, he was dead by now. The further truth was that this was a land of predators. Wolves, coyotes, and vultures took advantage of any food source, and if Adam had surrendered to this harsh place, then what they would find of him would not be comforting.
Jerky and sips of water had provided their nourishment since their first and only meal, so their energy was as low as a snake’s belly on the morning marking the second full week of Adam’s absence. Lifting his saddle onto Cochise proved a herculean effort for Joe, and even Hoss seemed shrunken and weak. When Ben finished cinching Buck’s tack, he called his sons over to review the plan of action. The posture among the three gathered there, was much like the common pose used by the oldest son: leaning heavily into themselves. But whereas Adam’s was a natural tendency that made him look at ease, these three were simply too tired to stand erect.
Joe listened quietly until his father finished, and then cleared his throat and straightened his spine. “What I can’t understand, is why Adam moved further into the desert and hills instead of heading back the way he came. I might have found him then when I left East Gate.”
Hoss rolled Joe’s question in his mind, trying to pin down the answer he knew was stowed somewhere in his memory. He breathed deeply and let it out in one long sigh as he raised his head and stood straighter too. “I think I can answer that. Adam told me somethin’ some years back when I asked the same question about his decision to head where we did when we got caught in a freak snowstorm.”
“Go on…” Ben encouraged.
“He said that when somethin’ happens to prevent you getting’ to where you want to end up, you don’t ever go back unless you know things haven’t changed none since ya left. Adam couldn’t be sure you hadn’t changed your mind and left East Gate early, or even that he’d get to a point where you’d ride by. And in seein’ where his holster was, he was a long way off from where you’d a ridden to Signal Rock. Going’ back would’a left him just as lost as he is now. It didn’t make no sense to stay where it happened either. There was nothing there to help him survive, and It took us nearly two weeks to find that place. His only choice was to move on, hopin’ to find water and shelter until he could figure out how to get home.”
“That makes sense,” Joe said sadly. “Wherever he ended up, I’m sure Adam did the best he could, and kept doing his best until…”
The three prodded their horses ahead rather than speaking further, and set along a narrow path through a high, rocky area. It wasn’t long before their progress stalled again, and Hoss saw his father up ahead, nearly clinging to his saddle to stay upright. He removed his hat and ran his shirtsleeve across his forehead. “Pa…you can’t go on, Pa. You can’t do it.”
Ben hung his head further, knowing he was at the end of his energy…and faith.
Little Joe added, “We’re gonna have to face it, Pa. We’re not gonna find Adam.”
“It’s been two weeks since he left East Gate,” Hoss offered, not needing to add the conclusion that while they hadn’t found Adam’s body; they had found their answer.
The unspoken understanding tied Ben’s stomach…and tongue…in knots. “Yeah, I gue…I suppose you’re right. All right, le…lets go on back home.” He turned to the right while adjusting in his saddle, and a movement on the flats below them returned his strength with enough vigor to shout the one word that held his answered prayers and filled his heart with joy and gratitude. “Adam!”
* Adam is inadvertently left behind as their wagon train heads towards its winter grounds in my story, What Goes Around.
** If a slender trunk is cut with a singular, steeply angled cut, the portion above the cut simply slides down while keeping the trunk upright. Such cuts are used in clearing in tight spaces when the tree has nowhere to fall. A skilled woodsman can continue to make similar diagonal cuts in the upper portion until the tree is short enough to remove without damaging the surrounding trees.
Other Stories by this Author
- It’s Only a Year – He Said What? – Lessons in Understanding #1 (by MissJudy)
- It’s Only a Year – The Castor Oil Caper – Lessons in Humility #2 (by MissJudy)
- It’s Only a Year – The Final Trial – A Lesson in Mettle #5 (by MissJudy)