Summary: The Triangle episode has always bothered me. It showed an upbeat Adam who was always chipper and jolly. Yet he’d been seriously injured, and was not having optimal outcomes when it came to walking again. He would certainly have gone through some very dark times while considering his future in a wheel chair. In addition, he had to have felt Laura’s coolness and emotional absence, since she loved Will. This is my personal adaptation of that episode with a little backstory. It is a realistic and gritty look at the likely medical outcomes of the fall; the emotional battles Adam would have faced, and the power of brotherly love.
Word Count: 17425
When Grace Heals a Broken Spirit
One eye opened. The other followed after a bit of tugging on the crustiness gluing his lashes together. His room was lit by the short-wicked glow from a lamp on his desk, and he knew Hoss was nearby, as evidenced by his snore, reminiscent of a two-man saw taking down a hundred-year-old pine.
Panic slipped under his covers as he tried to inhale and his chest refused to expand beyond a certain point. The effort caused pain and the feeling of suffocation. Adding to his panic, human nature made him attempt the action again, with the same results. Stop It! He shouted in his mind. Trying harder won’t change the result. I’ve gotta calm down! His inner command brought some relief as he slowed his breaths, and kept them shallow enough to chase away the darkness forming at the edge of his vision. With some amount of control reestablished, he felt along his chest and found the overlapping edges of a fabric binding beneath his nightshirt. I must have cracked ribs. The unpleasant thought brought a shallow sigh. I hate broken ribs; always feels like a stubborn mule is sitting on you.
He closed his eyes again, and nearly shouted as an unexpected memory of tumbling off the ladder was accompanied by the dizzying sensation of falling. Grabbing the edge of the mattress connected him to something solid until the vertigo subsided. Where’d that come from! The actual fall wasn’t that terrifying.” He snuffed in disgust. How stupid to get distracted while up that high! You’d think I’d learn not to challenge gravity.
Understanding why he wasn’t able to inhale fully allowed him to relax into a shallower pattern of breathing, and his injured body began tugging him back into sleep: the type that allows dreams while not being completely lost in slumber. In this state, he opened his eyes and looked up at a lovely young woman who was speaking soft, reassuring words as he regained consciousness after a fall from a ladder at Abel’s home. “You’re fine, Adam,” she said soothingly while stroking his cheek and pushing his hair back from his forehead. “Your grandfather went for help, and my aunt is helping the housekeeper get your room ready so we can move you once the doctor arrives.”
Melinda. The memory of her, woke him from the light sleep. The dream had been so real that he’d felt her hair brush against his cheek as she’d leaned forward. He’d smelled lavender in that wisp of brown curls, and felt the softness of her hand as she’d rested it against his face. Her touch and soothing voice had removed his fear, and his heart ached now, as he remembered falling in love with Melinda that day.
His body fought again to make him sleep, but memories of that long-ago tumble, contrasted with the recent one, keeping him awake to think things through.
The first plunge had occurred as he’d been pruning back branches that scratched at the second-story windows of his grandfather’s house. Melinda had walked over with her aunt, Abel’s nearest neighbor and friend, and her presence had prompted poor decisions in both men. His choice to get a better look at the beauty below him, and Abel’s decision to let go of the ladder at ground level, had sent the unsecured implement in an arc, depositing him in a nearby tree.* The episode may have been the first occasion to be with Melinda, but the initial friendship had grown as they’d spent weekends together whenever they could visit their respective relatives.
During those visits, he’d developed a deep love for this intelligent, confident woman, leading to his proposal after graduation. Melinda had been on her way to further her education, and he needed to return to his family, but he’d wanted some assurance that they’d remain together in spirit if not geographically. The certainty of several years apart, had prompted her to decline his offer at the time—not from lack of loving him or wanting to marry him—but because she’d not wanted an oral contract enforcing their affection. This gave them freedom to experience life without limits. Her final thought was that this would make for an intense and sweet reunion when their individual obligations were fulfilled, and that she’d propose to him then.
He’d said goodbye to her on warm summer day, without a clue that it was the last time he’d ever hear from her. Not a single correspondence had made its way west, leaving him lost as to what had gone wrong. He’d had to move on, yet over the years, his heart had often whispered that whatever had happened had been out of their control. His thoughts about this were borne out at a chance meeting with Melinda a week back when he’d traveled to Sacramento just prior to his engagement party.
His memories returned to dreams as his body forced him to drift off again, and those days in Sacramento took center stage. He and Melinda had been tense and wary with each other at first, until they’d realized that the promised letters had been sent both east and west; they’d just never made their destinations. Knowing this had unlocked every loving feeling he’d hidden away for twelve years. There’d been no boundaries of propriety crossed. They’d simply walked, talked, reminisced, and then shared a simple kiss goodbye. Yet their eyes had spoken what their words could not.
The small wrapped box holding the wedding ring he’d purchased for Laura, had felt huge and heavy in his pocket all the way to Virginia City, and its weight had increased with every mile closer to home. His joy at seeing Melinda vanished into a vapor that he’d allowed to drift away while he dealt with what awaited him at the Dayton house. The hardest part of letting go, was that he’d felt happy being with Melinda: happier than he’d been in years. He’d even seen a path to a happy future that he’d never felt with Laura.
His head rocked back and forth on the pillow as his dream brought him to the site of the house he’d been building, and he again opened his eyes: this time finding Laura fussing over him after the fall. Instead of hearing her soothing words and reassurances, he felt her wet fingertips dabbing at his face while saying, “they” hadn’t been trying to spy on him.
He managed to scratch his way back to consciousness, and shivered at the comparison of the two women who’d witnessed his flying exhibitions.
Even in this stuporous state, he remembered the stark truth that had withered his soul as he’d said goodbye to Melinda in Sacramento. He neither loved Laura, nor wanted to marry her. He’d been driven into a proposal by a form of desperation for home and family, and to quiet the prodding expectation of others who’d had no right to meddle.
Still, he had proposed, and this had kept him from telling Melinda how he felt. He’d quickly adjusted his next steps, knowing he needed to work things out with Laura. His thoughts stepped back to his reunion with his fiancé the day he’d returned, and being met with her lukewarm enthusiasm. Her reluctance to set a date, and her complaints about their courtship spoke to more than her anger at him for missing their party. She’d looked through him…or at least not at him during her explanation. This had spurred his hope that Laura was experiencing a similar change-of-heart.
He’d been kindly towards her by suggesting it was a case of jitters. With Laura, decisions didn’t come easy, and he knew he had to allow her to reach her own conclusion. She’d come close that day, but as always, real honesty had eluded both of them, and he’d walked away to give her time.
Thinking through the encounter later, he realized that her response had been accompanied by the fluttering and fidgeting behaviors she exhibited when being less than truthful. It was the same behavior she’d shown towards him after he’d fallen.
He was more awake now than asleep as he thought, Laura wasn’t alone. Someone lifted the beam from my chest and said he was going for help. Remembering those initial moments following the fall was coming as hard as breathing. I recognized the voice. Will! It was Will. I could see that it was Laura’s buggy coming towards the house, but she wasn’t driving it, and I twisted around to see who was with her. Why she was out riding with Will when a few hours earlier she was too sick to attend church?
Fully awake again, he decided to put his fruitless pondering aside to assess what other physical damage he’d sustained. His entire back ached, making him attempt to stretch out the tightness. The effort caused another wave of breathless panic as his muscles failed to respond below his waist. Attempts to wiggle his toes failed, as did his tries to bend his knees or raise his hips. His mouth hadn’t felt this dry since entering Kane’s camp after walking miles in the desert heat. Paralyzed. He silently screamed the obscene word again. Paralyzed! I’m paralyzed from the hips down! No wonder I didn’t feel any pain down there.
He focused again to bring his breathing under control. Maybe my legs are just asleep from laying here so long. He tried moving again, expecting the pins-and-needles of a waking limb to ensue. Feeling nothing like that, he concentrated harder on moving any part of his lower body.
The lack of response kicked his engineer’s mind into considering the problem rationally. When connections in the body are working, the idea…or need to move, requires no effort. Thought brings immediate action.
His thoughts were now as parched as his mouth, and the only grace he found, was to assume he’d drifted off, and was dreaming again. The hope was short-lived, as the crescendo of his brother’s choking snore provided the proof that he was awake. He turned his head, and croaked, “Hoss.” His volume couldn’t compete with the human saw, so he did what he could to moisten his lips and tongue, and tried again. “Hoss!”
The giant awoke in fairytale fashion, grunting with the effort required to sit up; rubbing his eyes, and smacking his lips until he was fully conscious. It took a second to remember where he was, but he slipped quickly to his knees at the side of the bed to be at eye level with his brother. “Adam! Am I ever glad to see you!”
Adam’s voice remained raspy, causing Hoss to grab a glass of water from the bedside table as he answered, “It’s after midnight, so it’s Monday now; you fell early yesterday afternoon, if that’s what yer askin’. Here, let me help ya sit up a little and wet your whistle some.”
His thirst outweighed other concerns for the moment, and Adam found that he could actually remain sitting up with Hoss’ boost. The strength he mustered to hold this position ended abruptly after draining most of the glass, and he allowed his brother to ease him back to the pillow. The water restored his ability to speak, even though his delivery was unsteady. “I can’t move my legs, Hoss.” The anguished look he saw on his younger brother’s face brought clarity. “Seems you already know that.”
“Doc Smith suspected it. You were in-and-out of knowing what was goin’ on after fallin’, and when we lifted you into bed, you mumbled somethin’ about not feel nothin’ down there.”
Adam attempted a grin. “I must have been far more out than in, since I don’t remember anything like that.” He tried to draw enough breath to sigh, but was thwarted as before, and fought his fear again before finally growling, “I survived the fall to become an invalid. How’s that for insult to injury.” His thoughts were crashing like waves on a 12-foot sea, bringing back old memories to haunt the current situation. “It’s funny isn’t it?” He said more to himself than his companion.
“A few years ago, I fought Paul about removing my leg after that arrow wound festered. I won … that one … only to have both legs taken from me now. What’s worse is that I’ll still have them, but they’ll be useless and require me to have constant assistance. Kind of makes you wonder if getting my way last time simply deferred paying the price required.”
“Don’t even think them things, Adam. First off, the doc wasn’t even sure you’d wake up again, so I’m gonna be thankful you’re alive. I’ve always been honest with you, Big Brother, so I’m tellin’ ya that whether you walk again is not the biggest problem you got just now. Let’s get you better before you go off thinking the worst.”
The look sent Hoss’ way was tortured. “So, you’re saying that I’m probably gonna die, so I won’t need my legs anyway?”
“Stop putting words in my mouth.” Hoss offered the water again: made his brother finish it, and then spent a good deal of time refilling the empty glass by the desk to keep Adam from seeing his expression. The earlier conversations between the doctor and Pa had concluded exactly what Adam had just surmised, and he knew that if he turned around, Adam would know it too. Walking towards the door, he glanced back to say, “I need to tell Pa you’re awake. I nearly had to toss him over my shoulder and carry him out’a here for a rest. Doc Smith’s sleepin’ downstairs too.”
He wanted to keep walking, but the pain in Adam’s voice made him turn around. “Pa’ll be madder’n a wet hen when he finds out I didn’t come right away.” Hoss knew this was true, yet he returned to his brother’s side.
“I can live with that. What I can’t abide is that he’ll make things sound rosy when they’re not. You won’t do that if I ask you not to, so please…tell me everything you know.”
“I heard it all, but I’m not sure I can tell you right.”
“You’re stalling.” Adam narrowed his eyes and gave Hoss his deadliest stare. “Tell me whatever you heard, and please don’t hold anything back.”
“Accordin’ to Laura…” Hoss paused when he heard Adam’s disapproving cluck. He wasn’t sure what it meant, and he didn’t ask. He needed to get through this quickly so he could get their father. “She said she’d met Will in town, and got to talkin’ about how you was never around. He took her out to where he thought you was so she could talk to you.”
The low, derisive chuckle returned. “I wondered why they were together. Did she mention what she wanted to talk about?”
Hoss shook his head. “Nary a word, but she said you turned when you heard the buggy, and toppled off the ladder, landin’ purdy much flat on yer back. But you was still awake at first. Is that right as you remember it?”
A nod. “I think my feet hit first, but then I fell backwards.”
“That’s what the doc thought too, I mean about jammin’ your legs upwards first. He thinks it’s what saved you from breakin’ yer back straight away, but you surely jarred every bone in yer spine doin’ that.”
“He doesn’t think I broke my back?” Adam asked with undisguised hope.
“He said yer spine looked sound, yet he can’t guarantee that the stuff running inside those bones didn’t sort of…explode.”
“Oh.” The hope was gone; the panic returned.
“That ain’t fer sure. He poked at yer legs with a needle when I told him that you had moved them just a little when we came to get you, and doggone if yer muscles didn’t sort’a jump when that needle went in.”
“Did he say what that meant?”
“Thing might be bruised ‘stead of pulverized. It has ta heal to tell fer sure.”
Adam released the breath he’d been holding and gave thanks for possibilities. But as he allowed hope back in, he felt a new sensation that made him groan miserably. The sheet and nightshirt resting against his upper abdomen began to feel wet and warm. Another groan escaped even as he tried to hold back his reaction.
Hoss was on his feet, bending over his brother. “I gotta get the doc, he said he can give you somethin’ fer pain once yer awake.”
“It’s not pain.” Adam’s cheeks blazed crimson. “I think I’m wetting myself.” He tried his best to grin. “Everything’s getting a little swampy in the places I can feel.”
“You don’t know this, but that’s a very good thing,” Hoss said enthusiastically. “Doc Smith thought you might’a hurt yer kidneys even worse’n yer back. I’ll help get ya sorted out and then wake Pa.” Hoss pealed back the heavy quilt, and jerked back, letting the bedding fall from his hand. “I’m getting the doc, Adam.”
The patient’s heart began pounding double-time, wondering what Hoss had seen to make his complexion turn as white as the sheet and bolt for the doctor. He inched himself onto his elbows enough to view the lower part of his torso. The sheet was not saturated with a golden liquid as he’d assumed it would be. Everything was bright red with blood. Adam ripped the sheet away revealing the same crimson stain on his nightshirt. He was struggling to sit up more when severe pain ripped across his mid-back, causing him to drop to the mattress, gasping for what little breath he could pull in. Hoss’ warning about other problems taking precedence, overwhelmed him as he tried to breathe and find a position to ease the raw pain causing spasms along the length of his back.
Doc Smith was at a trot when he entered the room, dropping his bag on the chair Hoss had vacated before turning to the patient who was now in the throes of a medical crisis.
“I…can’t…breath!” Adam hissed between shallow gulps of air. “Please!…around my…chest…can’t…inhale.”
The doctor grabbed a scissors from his bag, and made a slit in the nightshirt to get at the binding without removing the long, wet garment. He made quick work of cutting away the constricting bandage. The effect was instant, allowing the pale, panicked patient to claim a deep breath.
“Thank you.” As Adam’s breathing became easier, he was able to control the fear that had sent him racing towards a cliff. “What’s happening?” he asked in a manner that left no doubt as to wanting answers.
Before the doctor could answer, Ben and Hoss charged through the door, nearly knocking the other over in their haste. Hoss noted the angry look sent his way by the patient, and returned the stare without flinching. “Pa had to know.”
Ben was able to squeeze between the doctor and the head of the bed and stroked Adam’s hair. “Take it easy, son. We’ll get you cleaned up as soon as we find out what’s happening.”
“I don’t care about the mess. I do need to know if I’m dying, so I can I set a few things in order while there’s time.”
Doc Smith exchanged a furtive glance with Ben before asking him to turn up the lamp, and directing Hoss to bring over the basin and washcloths. “I’m sorry to expose you, Adam,” he said as he pulled the lower part of the wet garment loose and rolled it back. “I’ll be causing some pain for a few minutes while I examine you. But then I’ll give you something for that, and explain everything.”
After doing a number of deep presses across Adam’s pelvic area, he helped Ben remove the gown, and then placed a clean towel over the rest of the dirty linens before continuing the gentle palpations upwards on Adam’s abdomen. He smiled towards his patient. “The good news is that your bladder emptied completely on its own, so I won’t have to use instruments to accomplish that.”
Adam considered this information. “Are you saying the blood isn’t from a hemorrhage?”
“There is plenty of blood, but it’s well-diluted. That’s good news amid the bad since it indicates that your kidneys are working, even though they’re in distress. I’m going to have Hoss roll you onto your side now.” The pressing against Adam’s flanks commenced once he was repositioned, and even gentle pressure induced moans. “Is this painful?” Smith said as he pressed harder.
“I’d think my groaning indicated that.”
“All right, you can ease him onto his back again,” the doctor told Hoss, while ignoring the patient’s remark. The palpations continued along Adam’s ribcage. “How’s that feel?”
“Not good, but nowhere near as bad as my back,” Adam admitted, before asking, “So…the blood. Are my kidneys failing?”
“Let’s get you more comfortable first. I’ll make some notes while your family does that.”
Hop Sing had appeared during the exam, carrying fresh bedding, towels and a pitcher of warm water. He’d heard Hoss come downstairs for the doctor, and instinctively knew there was trouble. The small man elbowed his way past the Cartwrights, telling them, “I get this done lickety split.”
Adam felt better with his personal order restored. He was uneasy, but a great weight had lifted when Dr. Smith allowed the chest binding to stay off after making him promise not to sit up or turn without assistance until his ribs healed.
Adam attempted a grin that looked more like a grimace. “Since you three no longer look like you’re attending a wake, may I presume that I’ve got a chance of recovering?”
“I’m encouraged by the fact that you’re alert and things are working again.” Doc Smith pulled a chair to the bed and sat next to his patient. “I know you and Paul Martin have a close friendship, and you’d probably be more comfortable if he was here. But he’s out of town for a funeral. In his absence, there’s no reason we can’t get on just as well.”
Adam could finally smile. He’d accepted a powder for his pain after being assured the effects would take several minutes to develop. “The reason Paul and I get along is because he’s honest with me. If you’ll agree to that, we will do fine.”
“Let’s get started then.” The doctor had sent Hoss and Ben to the far-side of the room to stop their hovering. “You fell a long distance onto rocky ground. There may have been a bumper of sorts if your feet hit first and your legs absorbed some of the shock, but you still impacted along the length of your back. You’re fully aware of the three things affecting you most: cracked ribs, injured kidneys, and the loss of feeling in your legs.”
“I did notice that.” The medicine was allowing him to feel more like himself, letting his dry sense of humor loose. “Hoss mentioned the paralysis might not be permanent?”
Smith reached into his bag, withdrawing a case containing thick needles. After pulling the covers down to expose Adam’s legs, he said, “Turn away now so you can’t see what I’m doing, and tell me when you feel something.”
After what seemed an interminable wait, Adam turned back. “Are you going to start soon?”
The doctor didn’t try to sugar coat the news. “Your brother mentioned that you could still move your legs a bit when they arrived to help after the fall, but there’s now a total absence of sensation. The good news is that I did notice some muscular response to the probe, so I’d assume the connections are there, but not working correctly. Think of it like a telegraph line that goes down without actually breaking. That wire might still send a weak signal, but it can’t get past the damaged portion until it’s rehung and straightened out. If your spinal cord was injured rather than destroyed, those lines can function again as the swelling goes down and the bruised tissue heals. I’ll have your family care for you in the same way they did that young bronco rider who was tossed onto his tailbone. Much like with him, a lot of your recovery depends on you.”
“What do you mean?” Adam’s voice held a tinge of anger laced with fear.
“You must remain flat in bed for now and rest as much as you can. You also must allow others to help you, so you don’t dislodge a broken rib or cause further injury to your spine and kidneys from twisting and straining. Frequent hot compresses to your back should speed the healing and ease the pain, and finally, your family will help to maintain and retrain the muscles in your legs through exercises.”
“Do you honestly think there’s hope when, as you put it, there’s a total absence of sensation?” Adam’s humor and anger were gone. This question now bore the tone of defeat.
“There won’t be if you approach it with that attitude. You’re a strong man in every way. There are encouraging signs that this will resolve, but only if you stay positive.”
“I’m sorry. It’s hard to see past a long recovery with a lot of fussing from my family. I am not a man who accepts that easily.” He sunk his head deeper into the pillow.
The seriousness of the conversation was broken as Hoss crossed his arms, and said, “Ain’t that the truth!”
Adam was forced to grin at his brother’s statement, but his eyes were getting heavier. He pushed against it to remain alert. “What’s wrong with my kidneys?”
That impact with the ground caused damage. Since they didn’t seem to be working at first, I feared they’d been destroyed.” He took a deep breath. “Think how a ripe tomato might fare if dropped from the second story between two boards.”
Adam grimaced, and a groan from the side of the room indicated his father’s horror at the description.
“Do you think they’re damaged…like a split tomato?”
“Certainly bruised, but since you produced a good amount of urine along with the blood, I believe they’re working. Your family will monitor the situation. If the bleeding stops soon, you’ll be in the clear. I want you to drink water and broth in amounts equal to what you expel to start. Once the blood clears you may consume as much liquid as you like. Wait on other foods until you’re feeling stronger.”
Ben walked to the bedside. “How will we know when that is?”
The doctor laid his hand on the worried man’s arm. “I’ll stop by every day.”
Adam’s body was no longer fighting to stay awake. Now he could feel his brain fighting to sleep, but there was something weighing on his mind. “Pa…Hoss, could you leave the room for a minute.”
Ben’s wary look spoke to his unhappiness with the request, but he and Hoss complied.
The old doctor laid a reassuring hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I’m guessing you want to know about a few other things that aren’t working now?”
A nod “I couldn’t feel that my bladder was full, or that it was emptying. If….” His mouth had returned to arid dryness. “If my legs stay as they are, does that mean I’ll never have control of … any of those functions?”
Smith placed his tools inside his bag before answering. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. I saw you trying to sit up when I came in the room. You have far more control of your lower torso than you realize right now, and that will get better as your ribs heal. If the paralysis remains—and note that I said, if—I believe it would affect only your legs. Your bladder may not have felt full, but it’s working on its own, so I’m predicting control of those functions will return quickly as you rest.” He took a long breath. “However, Mr. Cartwright, your inability to accept and follow the restrictions your doctors prescribe when you’re ill or injured, is well-documented among the medical men in this area. It is vital you do exactly what I’ve prescribed. If you are too stubborn or too unwilling to ask for help…or you refuse to accept your limitations and push too hard, you might ensure a poor outcome. Rest is paramount. Take the powders; sleep, and let your body heal.”
It wasn’t the answers he’d hoped to hear, but he gave Doc Smith credit for laying down the law like Paul would have. He spoke a groggy, “How long?”
“How long what?”
“Before my legs get better.”
“I don’t know, but I’d expect the damage to heal in a week or two, and that should allow your nerves to work again.”
Adam’s, “Thank you,” was little more than a whisper as he allowed himself to follow the doctor’s advice, and drifted off.
The clink of glassware nearby was Adam’s first signal of being awake again. He hadn’t seen Little Joe earlier, and suspected he might be the duty nurse now. Not nursing, he thought as he grimaced. More like babysitting since he’ll be changing my diapers. The full weight of his thought hit like a fist to his aching back, and the pace of his breathing became ragged and uneven. This time there was no resistance from the bandages and he relaxed quickly.
“Are you awake, Adam?”
His heart rate bolted again. That’s not Little Joe. He recognized the voice, and for a moment, he contemplated feigning sleep. He smelled her perfume as she approached the bed, and finally opened his eyes. “Laura.” His voice held no joy in seeing her. “Why are you here?” Her saw her eye widened at his unappreciative greeting, just as they always did when she was feeling offended…but hiding it.
“Why wouldn’t I be here, Adam? I’m your fiancé.” The response was cheerfully forced.
How interesting that she gave that as a reason … not that she loves me or is worried, but that she’s attached to me through a contract of sorts. “You should be home with Peggy. There’s not much you can do for me as I am.” He kept his tone even although he was shouting at her in his mind.
“You’re such a silly man sometimes. Of course, I can help, so I’ve moved in here with Peggy until you’re better.”
She’s using the same sing-song, wheedling voice on me that she uses on Peggy when she wants to get her to cooperate. He meant his groan to be silent, but it slipped out.
“Are you in pain?”
He could tell the question was sincere, yet the accompanying look spoke to her wishing she was anywhere but here. “Listen, Laura. I appreciate the intent, but what’s happening to me is so…” Personal. He’d asked this woman to marry him, but they’d never shared a truly personal moment. They’d argued over everything from telling Peggy about her father to how best to run the ranch. But other than the confession she’d made about her guilt in praying that her former husband would die for humiliating her, there’d never been a time of real honesty in their conversations. There’d been a few deep kisses after dinner when Peggy was asleep, but nothing more physically intimate either.
The truth was that most of their conversations centered around his apologies for offering an opinion or suggestion. He didn’t want it to be that way, but Laura didn’t make decisions unless she was forced. It proved a convenient tactic, because then she had someone else to blame when she didn’t like the path or outcome. How did we get to this point, he chided himself silently. I can’t marry a rag doll that can’t maintain a position because they have no internal strength.
Knowing how Laura dealt with things, he suspected her decision to stay at the house was pushed by something other than her desire to care for her fiancée.
“Finish what you were saying,” she finally told him after he failed to complete his sentence.
“You don’t have to stay. It wasn’t your fault that I fell, so there’s no penance due. My family can manage.”
The singsong voice returned. “You’re being silly again. This is my place now. Your father said that he and your brothers will take care of your private needs, so you needn’t worry about that.” The pitch of her voice rose along with color in her cheeks. “I’ll make sure you’re comfortable; help with your meals … maybe read to you if you’re not sleepy, and keep your spirits high until you’re up and around.”
Should I tell her that her voice sears my eardrums like a hot poker being thrust into them, so I’ll hardly be happy with her chattering at me. Or that I made a huge mistake in proposing, and that she made an even bigger one in accepting. As ugly as this situation is for me, it’s our means of escape. His thoughts didn’t find their way to his lips, but his sarcasm had survived the fall. “Is it more likely that you’re here because the biddies in town would think it ill-mannered for you to be home tending to your chores instead of being my babysitter?”
Laura’s cheeks pinked further as she frowned. “I do care what others think of me, but I care more about you.”
He nodded. “The truth, Laura, is that the top half of my body is working fine. I can feed myself, read by myself, and once I’m given the go-ahead to sit in a chair, I can find other things to do that will pass the time. The further truth is that the rest of me is non-functioning. Life with me would be a continuous series of diaper changes, and I don’t mean for our children, because there won’t be any.”
His anger had hold of his tongue and wasn’t pulling on the reins any time soon. “What’s it been now, a day or two since I fell?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “News of what’s happened has surely reached town, along with the gory details that Adam Cartwright is now an invalid who will spend the rest of his life in a bed or chair. There’ll be great sympathy extended to the young fiancé who will be seen as far too beautiful to go through life with me as I am. No one will blame you for wanting more.” He tried to stop, but all his fears and insecurity needed an outlet. “There will be whispering about how you had to give up a fortune to walk away, but the gossip won’t last … because …” He laughed loudly. “Because most people don’t understand why you accepted my proposal in the first place.”
Adam knew Laura’s look. She was close to exploding, yet he knew she wouldn’t. Is she upset with what I said because it’s rude…or because it’s true? I wish she’d just yell at me; tell me what she’s feeling and talk it out so we could be done with this. He waited for her to respond as her eyes pooled and her bottom lip quivered. C’mon, Laura, neither one of us loves the other.
Without intending to, his mind moved again to another woman who always spoke her mind, and let the air clear. Melinda would let me have it now … with both barrels. But you won’t. You’ll stick it all in your heart and let it fester there until you’re sick with it and praying for my death.
She finally found her voice. “You’re in pain right now, Adam, but that’s no excuse to be cruel. It is apparent that you need more rest, so I’ll come back later. Would you like a drink of water before I leave?”
A long, even sigh deflated him as he pulled the covers up under his chin. “I’m sorry I upset you, but think about what I said. We couldn’t even agree on a date for our wedding. I was putting it off to finish the house, or at least that’s what I thought. But after you were unwilling to move forward the other day, I began to suspect that building a place to live was my way of extending the time before we’d actually have to live there. I can’t explain your unwillingness to go forward, but it was more than me missing a party or falling asleep after a long day. Face it, something in your heart is telling you to stop before we make this worse.”
“This isn’t the time to make big decisions. Let’s tell people we’re putting the wedding on hold until you recover. I’ll be here anyway, so we’ll have time to talk and figure out what to do She busied herself straightening the bedside table, and finished by giving him a peck on the cheek. “Is there anything you’d like before I go?”
“Please ask Pa to come up. I’d like a dose of that medicine.”
Laura closed the door quietly behind her without a look back. “Talk it out? Ha!” Adam mumbled to himself. “I’ve known you long enough to know that you never talk anything out.” He retreated to thoughts instead of speaking further. She’ll keep her feelings festering inside until it comes out in anger and disgust. Adam rolled his head against the pillow as a realization hit. I’m just as much to blame this time. Why didn’t I just end this the other day when her reluctance gave us the chance to walk away! She would have been relieved; I could have been the villain, and it would have been over. He pounded his fists on his lifeless legs. One moment of honesty that day would have prevented this!”
Ben arrived within minutes carrying a water glass containing the dissolved powder. He could see the tormented look on his son’s face as soon as he entered. “I was hoping you’d be feeling better, but it appears you’re in a lot of pain.”
“The pain in my body is …” He had to think about it. His unhappiness at Laura’s presence, had kept him from considering his physical pain. “I’m achy,” he finally added, “I mostly wanted to talk to you.”
“What’s on your mind?” Ben grinned. “You’ve got that granite look in your eyes that accompanies a lot of thought.”
Adam grinned back. “I forget how well you know me.” A sigh. “I want Laura to go home. I’ve already told her to, but she won’t listen to reason.”
“Most men want the woman they love close by when they’re unwell.”
“I’m not unwell, Pa. I’m paralyzed. And honestly, things weren’t going well between us before the fall, and that makes it feel even worse to have her here.”
Ben pulled a chair over. “You missed your engagement party, and were so busy building the house that you and Laura drifted a bit. There’s time now to sort things out and get back on track. She feels strongly that this is where she should be, and I agree. I’ll make sure she does no care that makes you uncomfortable.”
“I’ll be comfortable once she’s gone. I can’t promise to be cheery, and she won’t handle my dark moods well, so I’ll always be apologizing or swallowing my feelings. I’m not sure I can do that right now.”
“Let’s give this a few days, and if you feel the same, I’ll suggest that she needs to provide a more normal life for Peggy while you continue to convalesce.” He smiled gently. “This may seem the least likely time for a romance to blossom again, but you might be surprised.” He didn’t give Adam a chance to respond, as he quickly slipped his arm behind his son’s back to help him sit up. “You have to finish this to get a full dose.”
Adam did as he was told, swallowing the bitter mixture in a few gulps. There was an additional bitter pill to swallow as he realized his father wouldn’t be moved to act on his behalf with the overly perky blonde. But a different type of question moved forward for attention, bringing with it a whole new sense of uneasiness. “Are my kidneys still working, Pa? I don’t recall having anything changed out since earlier.”
Ben folded back the covers. “You can’t sense it being there, but there’s a receptacle in place. It’ll keep you comfortable and help us measure how well your kidneys are working. I’m glad you mentioned it; I should check.”
He could hear the sound of liquid being emptied into the porcelain chamber pot, and his cheeks blazed with the reality of his helplessness. The doctor had confronted his inability to accept medical restrictions without a fight, but it was things like this that had shrunk his soul and created the hardheaded reactions of the past. His curiosity finally won out over his humiliation. “How much blood this time?”
“Hardly any!” Ben breathed in relief. “Are you getting sleepy again?” he asked while pulling up the covers. His answer was a breathy snore.
Four (Some Weeks later)
Adam’s kidneys, ribs and bruises healed without problems, and some functions had returned, as Dr. Smith had predicted. But the weeks of recovery had moved well-past the timeframe suggested with no sign of returning sensations in his legs. Ranch life outside the oldest son’s room had returned to a normal flow, meaning the three fully functioning Cartwrights had also returned to their duties.
Adam was spending his days in a chair either in his room, or downstairs when there was someone to carry him down. The initial response to being up again had brought interest in taking on some new activities to keep his hours occupied. As this happened, Ben had felt more comfortable in increasing his own workload then, and therefore, contact with his eldest had become limited to the hour they spent together during the exercises, and a short visit each morning and evening. Since Adam professed to be “fine” during these conversations, Ben was quick to tell others who inquired after his son that he was doing wonderfully.
He was dead wrong.
The eldest Cartwright son was aware of the pained, fearful, and sometimes, disgusted looks his father tried to hide each day when there was no improvement or resistance developing in the flaccid leg muscles he put through the range of exercises.
Deep in his heart, Adam knew the barely controlled sighs and clenched jaw of his caregivers weren’t meant to be seen by him: weren’t meant to hurt him either. But he saw and heard them all the same. He also heard his feet drag on the floor when he had to be moved any distance, and if it wasn’t for Hoss hoisting and holding him in an upright position, he’d fall like a pile of cooked noodles. Each sigh; each impatient huff as others had to be his legs, revealed their increasing frustration. And what he heard in those reactions, was an unspoken, “Maybe if you’d try a little harder.”
To make up for being unable to give his father any hope where his body was concerned, Adam kept a smile plastered on his face when Ben was around. At first he’d made comments indicating he still expected a full recovery, but as time dragged on, he now professed that he’d make the best use of his life no matter the outcome.
His act helped his family feel more at ease around him, and his bitter, silent mantra became, No one likes helping a sullen patient. At times he even grumbled wryly during their caregiving to seem more like his grumpy self, but he never let them see that his soul was sinking away into a dark pit where hope’s light no longer penetrated.
There was a further weight drawing in on his heart and mind. Laura’s initial promise to “talk things out” with him, was as non-existent as the feeling in his legs. Their relationship was stagnant and futile, yet they had also come to an unspoken agreement that this was to be kept private. When family or visitors were nearby, they prattled on about being in training for their upcoming marriage, and put on a convincing enough performance that everyone beamed over their teasing banter.
The truth no one dared consider, was that Adam Cartwright was playing a role for his audience.
From the outside, Adam was “recovering.” On the inside, his heart and mind were in a constant state of clenching. He’d given up control of his life and emotions to make his care palatable to others. He was tired of the games. He was tired of pretending it didn’t bother him to see his caregivers “try” to mask their disgust at the sights and smells they dealt with because of his dysfunctional body. And increasingly, he was tired of living.
There was only one bright spot to the Daytons being in residence: Peggy. Her visits were a breath of fresh air because she was the only one who didn’t tread softly. She often asked about when he would be back to normal again. He was honest with her about not knowing when … or if, and she was fine with that. They played cutthroat games of checkers and cards, and talked about everything from school to how dogs get fleas. Those infrequent times with Peggy were far more healing than anything the doctor had ordered.
He’d made an honest effort to be useful when he’d finally been allowed to sit up, by asking Little Joe to speak to Elliot Jones, an engineer in town he’d work with in the past. With new buildings going up as the silver industry brought new people and business to Virginia City, Jones had been thankful to send several plans and specs out for Adam to complete. Hoss had built a special table to fit over the chair, allowing for a comfortable work surface, and the calculations had diverted his mind … at first. As the days turned into weeks of this “new normal” without any improvement, those plans he’d worked on, had become a nagging reminder that he would never again be able to go out and measure a plot of ground, or see the rough sites without being carried. He’d sent back the completed work a few days ago without asking for more.
This particular morning was passing slowly as Adam remained in bed. Hop Sing had brought up fresh water so he could wash, and assisted him in getting dressed, but he had to wait for his father or Laura to help with his exercises before being moved to a chair. A glance at the clock reinforced what he was feeling: it was later than usual. He felt like shouting for attention, but he also knew that his care was a burden: something his family had to work into an already full day. When the mornings stretched out like this, he always feared that Laura would finish her tasks before his father finished his, and she’d do the therapy. He groaned inwardly when the door opened and he smelled her perfume enter the room ahead of her.
“I know you’ve been waiting patiently,” she chirped.
The tone of her voice grated against his clenched teeth. Why does she continue to talk to me like I’m a three-year-old? His thoughts weren’t reflected in his actual statement. “I figured you were all busy.”
“Lay flat now, so I can do your stretches.” He did as ordered, and held his breath as she worked his ankle and moved on to his knee. The only way he could get through this, was to talk about other things. “You’ve been here a good while, Laura. I’m afraid I’ve been self-centered and never thought to ask about who’s taking care of your ranch while you’re away?” His question was innocent, so her red-cheeked reaction seemed odd.
“Will rides over each morning to check on the house and that the work is getting done. He says the men are doing well.” She began bending his knee and hip. “In fact, I was late coming up because I was speaking to him before he left.”
He wanted to ask why speaking of Will made her blush, but said, “I’m glad he’s able to help, and that he brings good news.” The conversation brought a thought to mind. “On the day I fell, you said you and Will hadn’t been checking on me, but you didn’t say why you two ended up out there.”
Her voice rose to a new high pitch. “I know I told you I wasn’t feeling well that morning, but the headache passed, and I decided to go to church anyway.”
You’re blinking too much, and won’t look at me, Laura, he thought while observing her facial contortions. But why would you lie about church? He realized she was speaking again, and paid attention.
“I stopped at the Ponderosa, but you were gone and I headed into town, where I happened to see Will. He said he was planning to leave for San Francisco, so I thanked him again for his help while you were away, and after that I, um, mentioned that you’d been so busy lately I’d hardly seen you.” The blush brightened. “And then, um, he said he might know where you were spending your time. We, ah, um, drove there out of curiosity, never expecting that things would end up as they did.”
He pushed himself into a sitting position, to look directly at her. “I need you to be honest, for both our sakes. You came out there to tell me something. Something that couldn’t wait, and now you’re stumbling over the explanation of how you got there, leading me to believe there’s a lot you’re editing as you speak. Further, I have freely admitted that the fall was entirely my fault, yet you’ve stationed yourself in this house, playing the role of loving caregiver. This makes me believe that you do feel responsible: not for the actual fall, but for the reason behind why you out there in the first place. You come into my room, exuding forced cheerfulness to perform your penance while never looking at me.” He took her hand. “It’s time to be honest, Laura. I know you don’t love me.”
She pushed on his shoulders with her free hand. “Lay back down so I can finish. I want to go into town today.” When he complied, she began rotating his other ankle. Her hand slipped as she tried to grasp his calf, and his leg dropped solidly to the bed. As she raised it again, she shot him a hateful look. “Why can’t you help a little, Adam!”
“Help?” He groaned. “If I could help, I’d be up on my feet and out that door.” The groan became a laugh. “You’ve managed to dodge my question. Please, Laura! You’re sick to death of being here, so let’s end this.”
She dropped his leg again, and stepped back, looking stunned.
“It’s all right to Leave, Laura,” he said evenly, as his face softened to a gentle smile. “Take your life back from whatever guilt is making you stay. You’re stronger than when I first got to know you, and you should do whatever you really want in life. You deserve that.”
“You know I can’t leave.” The childlike voice was finally gone, and her look was as sharp as a dagger.
“I just made it clear that I don’t need or want you here. All I can figure is that you’re staying so the others don’t think less of you.” Adam drew a sharp breath. “Doesn’t it matter what I think? Go! I’ll set the gossips straight, even if I have to take out an ad in the paper.”
Laura stepped further from the bed, placing her hands on her hips. “I may not love you, Adam, but I can tell you this; right now, I hate you!”
He was saying, “Finally, some honesty!” as the door slammed shut behind her.
After the “disagreement,” Laura told Ben that doing Adam’s exercises was too wearing on her shoulders, Hoss became the replacement. The fact that the exercise regime was futile brought no comfort, but Adam found great relief in knowing a major irritant would be missing in such sessions.
Five (A few days later)
Hoss wasn’t gentle as he gave Adam’s joints a solid workout. “You ain’t feelin’ nothin’ yet?” he asked.
“I imagine yer pretty sick of bein’ stuck inside too.”
“I’m thankful that you and Joe can take me downstairs on the days when you’re both here, but you’re right; I miss the fresh air.” He grinned. “I even miss the smell of manure, unless the wind is blowing from the south. Then it comes through the open window”
The middle brother’s blue eyes twinkled. “Then you might be pleased as pie to see what me and Joe done put together.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“It’s a surprise. We’ll show you later.”
The two younger brothers helped Adam downstairs later that morning, and showed him the wheelchair they’d adapted to be used outside. Although acting pleased, Adam’s blood ran cold as he looked at the wooden cell he’d be confined to for his life sentence. Would he sit in that chair, growing angrier and more jaded each day until he became another Tom Edwards: a man so dark and twisted, that no one could stand him.
As much as the chair made his insides turn, he did see the positive aspect of having mobility. As usual, Laura was very encouraging—in front of his family and Dr. Smith—and he played his part as well, continuing the charade that their engagement was simply on hold. They were such fine actors that his family either truly believed it, or pretended to believe it so they wouldn’t have to face any uncomfortable truths.
One recent night when he’d let his thoughts run cold and dark, he’d concluded that his family was probably rooting for the marriage to happen so he’d be Laura’s problem instead of theirs.
His first day outside since the fall should have left him tired enough to fall asleep instantly. But after being placed in bed that night, he imagined how his life would be spent rolling within the confines of areas where his wheels could function. It sent him spiraling towards despair. There was no feeling returning to his legs—not so much as a twinge or a buzz, and without this, he’d never again sit on Sport’s back and ride the wind. Even buggy rides would be difficult, requiring someone to lift him up and down from the rig. Pebbles or soft ground would thwart efforts to get around on his own, and he would never again climb a stairway or walk down the banks of a river to drop a line into the water. Simple things he’d always taken for granted were being stripped from his life, and when he looked towards the future, he saw nothing but darkness.
His family wouldn’t let him voice his fears, to the point where if he’d even mention the thought of never being out on the open range or working cattle, they’d quickly remind him that he was an engineer, and would find satisfying work despite a physical limitation. He’d been careful not to bring things up in front of them as his paralysis lingered, but here, in the dark quiet, he’d mourn his loss of all that he loved. Trips to San Francisco or even just to town for a beer at the Bucket of Blood with his brothers were unreachable. He envisioned the piteous looks he’d receive anytime he might need to go to town. With the multi-leveled boardwalks and rutted streets, a wheelchair would be unusable, so the fine townspeople would avert their eyes as his brothers carried him from place-to-place like a sack of flour.
Thoughts of his uselessness swam in his mind: thick, like a school of minnows occluding his ability to see anything deeper in the water. He was a millstone in a family where everyone was expected to pull their weight. Even today as he’d tried the chair, he’d noted that the ranch hands nearby had either looked away or stared open mouthed at witnessing his future. His aching spirit spoke to him, saying that his family would also need to look away as time went on.
He grit his teeth to stop the anguish forming at the back of his throat, and swallowed his pain as he retreated into himself, trying to cease all thoughts. Sleep finally came from exhaustion, but his dreams were fitful, and actual rest was just beyond his grasp: just as it had been for weeks.
It may have been ten minutes or four hours when he roused again. There was no way to gage time without seeing a clock or hearing the chimes from downstairs. The complete silence in the house indicated it was deep night.
He shook his head as he reached next to the bed to grab the urinal left there for his use during the night. His kidneys had recovered quickly, but Dr. Smith had prescribed that he keep his fluid intake high to keep them flushed. It certainly seemed to keep things in working order, but what went in, had to come out.
The grogginess caused by unrestful sleep remained, making him misjudge the distance to the floor as he set the receptacle back down. It dropped the remaining inches, clanging as it hit the floor, and toppled. He cursed a streak of oaths as he stretched his upper body over the side of the bed to see how bad a mess he’d made. The lamp illuminated the puddle that had found a small channel in the wood flooring and was moving steadily towards the door.
His wash stand was positioned just beyond the bedside table, and he stretched out, trying to retrieve the towel on the drying rack. The daily exercises on his legs weren’t having any effect, but his back and arms had grown stronger in helping to move and support himself. His reach for the towel was still a few inches short, so he quickly pulled his hips to the edge of the mattress, and tried the grab from his new vantage point.
Relief flooded over him as his fingers touched the fabric, but as he extended to cover the last inch, he once again upset the laws of physics governing objects in motion. He’d moved his upper body too far to the side of the mattress to stay put once his center of gravity pulled his upper body over the side of the bed. There was no way to stop the momentum, and he flipped onto the floor with a solid thud: his head wedged between the bed and the night stand, and his legs in a twisted knot.
Hoss’s bedroom was next to Adam’s, so his arrival was expected. What Adam didn’t expect was that the big man entered, saw the situation, and immediately closed the door behind him.
He rushed over, and spoke in a hushed voice. “You all right?”
“I think so.”
After he straightened Adam’s legs, he helped him sit up. “Anything hurtin’ more than normal? I gotta get Pa if there is, but if yer fine, I’ll just get you back to bed.”
“Thanks, Hoss. Did it sound like anyone else woke up?”
“Nope. It’s all quiet. I figgered you’d just dropped something when I heard that clunk, but I also decided to check.”
“I was trying to reach the towel to clean up the mess I made. Hoss … I’m so sorry. I can’t ….” Adam’s voice trailed off. His utter humiliation caused his cheeks to blaze and he struggled to shield his brother from knowing the hopelessness that had severed one more connection to his will to go on.
“I know, Brother. Can’t say what I’d do if this was happenin’ to me. But rest yer mind on knowin’ that I ain’t never gonna mind helpin’ you, so let’s get this done quick and quiet as possible.” His lips pursed as he paused. “You sure you ain’t hurt some? You were twisted around pretty bad.”
Adam shook his head slowly. “My back all right, and I wouldn’t feel anything further down. I didn’t so much fall out of bad as much as do a slow roll, so I doubt there’s any real damage. Do you see anything on my legs that shouldn’t be there?”
Hoss took a long look using the lamp. “Not so’s I can see. Might come later, and you’ll still have to fess up, but I won’t say nothin’ less that happens.”
When the middle brother suggested he go down for warm water to wash up, Adam laughed sourly. “I don’t think anything I need to clean up is gonna object to the temperature of the water.”
The two men planned their best course of action, but just as Hoss was beginning to remove Adam’s nightshirt, the door opened and Laura rushed in. Both brothers stopped moving and watched the young woman’s face.
“I woke up and heard talking in here. What hap…” Her words were cut short as she realized that her bare feet were becoming wet, and her hands flew to her mouth as she stepped aside, silencing her groan.
Adam’s voice was even, but deadly. “Just figure it out, Laura. I fell out of bed trying to clean up the mess I made when I dropped that damnable urinal.”
Laura was mute. Only her wide eyes and open mouth showed her revulsion.
“Look at me, Laura! This is what my life will be like. I’m only half alive. Go get cleaned up, and get back to bed. Pack your things in the morning; take Peggy and go have the life you deserve. Your punishment for whatever crime you think you’ve committed has been commuted to time already served.”
“But Adam,” was all she could muster, while frowning down at her wet feet.
“Get…out…of…here.” He growled. “I know I disgust you.”
“I don’t know why you say such mean things.” She backed towards the door, and said, “I’ll go now, but I’ll pray for you, Adam.”
Adam’s response was a quiet laugh—deep, dry and low. “You gonna pray for me like you did for Frank? Maybe a gracious God will let me die too, so you’ll be free again.”
Hoss heard Laura catch her breath, before slipping out the door. It bothered him to see how upset she was, and he yanked the nightshirt up and off Adam’s head, hard enough to make his head snap.
“I shouldn’t have said that in front of you, Hoss.” He reached up. “Give me a boost to the dry floor, and hand me the basin. I’ll wash up while you clean up.”
“Sorry I nearly took yer ears off,” Hoss said sheepishly.“ He looked around. “I’ll head down and get some rags and a bucket.”
By the time Hoss returned, Adam was already in the black shirt he’d managed to tug from the nearby chair, and had his slacks pulled onto his legs. “Ain’t you goin’ back to bed?” he asked.
“I wasn’t sleeping well, so I’d rather sit up. I’ll read and put my head back if I get drowsy.”
Hoss’ natural strength and height made quick work of transferring Adam from the floor into the chair. He was the family member who usually did this, and the two brothers had worked out the most efficient method. Once his charge was safely deposited in the chair, Hoss finished removing any evidence of the accident. “What’ll you tell Pa about being up and dressed when he comes in later?”
“How about I tell him that you stopped during the night and I asked for the help since I couldn’t sleep.”
“So, we tell the truth, without telling him the whole truth?”
“Sounds about right.”
Hoss puckered his cheeks in thought. “Can I ask somethin’ personal?”
“That thing you said to Laura. Were you sayin’ that she prayed for Frank Dayton to die?”
“Please forget I said anything.”
“Yer sayin’ that’s what she did, without actually sayin’ it.” The puzzled look continued. “Frank treated her bad. Not so’s he harmed her, but everyone knew he was a rake who cheated on her. But you’d never do that to her, so she wouldn’t have no reason to pray against you.”
“In for a penny; in for a pound,” Adam said under his breath, and considered his options. I should have kept my mouth shut. If I don’t tell Hoss what’s going on now, he’ll keep poking at this until he lets it slip to Pa. He sighed as he came to a decision. “Laura doesn’t love me.”
Hoss’ eyes popped open wide as he sat on the bed to be at eye level. “How long have you known that?”
“I don’t think she ever did. It’s the same for me. We let circumstances and others push us into an engagement that had no foundation. I wanted a family. She wanted … security, but we were never honest in how we felt about marrying each other to achieve those things.”
“I admit I wondered about the two’a you bein’ a good match, but I also didn’t think I had the right to say nothin. It ain’t like I been a big success in the area of romance.” He grinned at Adam. “So why are you too talkin’ like the wedding is still on?”
“Because she refuses to admit we made a mistake. I knew it was over the day I got back from Sacramento. She was distant, and instead of saying what was truly bothering her, she came up with excuses. She came out to tell me something on the day I fell, and I believe it was to say she didn’t want to go through with it. Now she feels too guilty about the accident to walk away.”
“Was that the first you knew you didn’t want to go through with it…I mean when she seemed nervous?”
“Something happened in Sacramento that made me take a long, hard look at what I was planning, and I was finally honest with myself that it was all wrong. I know Laura feels the same way, but she has a hard time saying what’s on her mind. I decided to give her time to figure it out.”
Hoss’ cheek rose. “Would you have gone through with it if she hadn’t seemed unwillin’?”
“No. It would have compounded the mistake.”
“Why don’t you two tell us the truth?”
“I’ve already talked to Pa about this, and he believes that my recovery is based on having something to look forward to—a happy life and family. I’ve been rude, crude and uncivil to Laura, and yet she stays. I don’t know what else to do, so I play along … in front of Pa.”
Hoss nodded but remained silent. He knew his brother had needed to say this out loud. “Yer in a pickle, and there’s no advice I can give that will make this better. But I’ll stick up fer you when you decide to set it straight.”
“You’re like your mother, Hoss. She always just listened, and then let me figure things out on my own.” He blew out a long breath. “I don’t want to hurt Laura or Pa, so there’s only one way out of this.”
The big man nodded. “It’ll get solved once you can walk again. Then she can go without feelin’ bad, and you can get on with whatever you figured out in Sacramento.”
Adam shook his head. “I appreciate that sentiment, but we both know that’s not going to happen. My body is healed as much as it can. I’ve done everything the doctor suggested, and this time there’s no miracle.
“You can’t give up, Adam.”
Adam leaned back in the chair, allowing his mind to slip into the dark shadows that were shrouding him. I already have, raced through his mind even though he said, “I won’t.” He smiled as an idea came to mind. “I might not be tired, but you are. Get back to bed for a while.”
“Need anything else?” Hoss asked after setting the special table in front of his brother and loading it with books and a tablet.
“There is one thing. I’d like to do something with my hands to snap me out of the doldrums. How about you grab the oil and brushes from the gun cabinet, and bring up a couple rifles and my pistol. I’ll clean them now, and if the weather’s good tomorrow, I’ll go outside in your contraption and shoot at cans. I’m curious to know how much my aim has to be adjusted from a sitting position.”
Hoss was bent over, grabbing the wooden box with the gun-cleaning supplies stored in the cabinet under the rifles, when he heard footsteps behind him. He shot upright and turned to find Laura coming towards him from the kitchen. They exchanged an awkward smile.
“Adam wants somethin’ to do instead of readin’.”
She nodded. “A change of pace will be nice. After what happened earlier, I suppose he’s wide awake.”
“That’s what he said.” He reached back down to grab the kit and set it on the bottom step, and returned to choose the rifles most in need of attention.
Laura didn’t move, and finally sighed. “I came down for a glass of water, but I’m glad we can talk a minute.”
Hoss looked back at his early morning companion. “Why’s that?”
“You must have wondered why Adam said that to me about Frank, and I want to explain.”
“You don’t need to explain nothin’ to me, Miss Laura. Adam said he regretted sayin’ it, and I already put it out of my mind.”
“Thank you, Hoss. Still…I want you to know that I was so unhappy being married to Frank, I did things I’m ashamed to admit. I would never have prayed for anything like that if I hadn’t been very unsettled and confused.” The soft line of her smile dissolved into a cold, hard line, while her eyes flashed angrily. “I trusted Adam in telling him that, and it was cruel of him to throw it in my face tonight. I can’t understand why he’d do that.”
Hoss took two steps forward until Laura had to look up at him. “Ma’am, you just asked me to understand why you did somethin’ that seems pretty cruel too. I’d think since you done gone through a time where you was … unsettled and confused … you’d understand how my brother might be going through something even worse than that about now.”
Laura looked away, muttered a hasty, “Goodnight,” and nearly pushed Hoss out of the way to get up the steps.
She waited at her bedroom door until she heard Hoss’ footsteps moving from Adam’s room, before quietly slipping out. She knocked softly, then opened the door wide enough to get inside and shut it quickly behind her.
“I didn’t like the way I acted when I was here before, Adam,” she told the surprised occupant. “And I wanted to apologize,” she continued as she walked towards him.
“There’s no need for apology,” he said sincerely. “It was a shock to see what I’ve become.”
“You shouldn’t say that. You’ll start walking any day now, and things will be normal again.”
He chuckled. “Nothing will ever be … normal … again.”
Her face twisted into a grimace and her tone hardened. “You have to get better.” Laura turned away from him and wiped her eyes. “You just have to …” Her voice trailed off.
His tone was kind. “I’ve told you with all sincerity that it’s fine for you to walk away. What’s happening to me doesn’t have to destroy you too.”
She whipped around to face him again. “It’s not fine. I should never have gone out that day to find you. If I’d just waited until later, none of this would have happened. But the moment we startled you and you fell; I became attached to you forever.”
Adam’s voice bore a similar desperation as hers. “You’re free to choose your own life.”
“Not anymore,” she snapped back. “Don’t you see?” Laura gestured widely with her arms and then folded them around herself. “It’s my fault that you’re like …” She pointed at his legs. “That. No one else will want you this way, so it’s my duty to stay. There’s no way out of this.”
“There is a way out. Turn around and keep walking.”
She was shaking her head as tears rolled down her cheeks. “There’s only one way out of this, Adam. Just … one … way.”
He waited while she dried her tears with her robe, thinking, not to worry, Laura, I’ve already decided on the way out. “You still haven’t told me what you wanted to talk about that day.”
Her eyes fluttered nervously at the question, and she immediately began twirling a strand of hair, moving finally to picking at threads on the sash of her robe, while she formulated her answer. “I wanted to make sure you knew that I was feeling better, and ask if you would come for supper.”
Adam sighed. You’re a horrible liar, Laura. You pick at things and stutter. I’ve come to know your every tell.
“You look exhausted,” he told her. “Go back to bed now and by morning the future may be brighter.” He tried to continue smiling, but a concern came to mind. “At dinner, you said Peggy’s staying in town tonight with a friend?”
A quick nod. “Milly. Her mother says the girls get along so well, she’s offered to let Peggy stay there during the week until school ends for the summer. It is a long ride for her, so I might allow it.” Laura ended her thoughts by moving forward, and leaning down to kiss his cheek. “I am suddenly very sleepy.” She spoke a final, “Goodnight, Adam,” while making a hasty exit.
The sleepiness in his brother’s eyes had been obvious, and it wasn’t long before Adam heard Hoss’ rumbling snore creeping through the thick walls from the bedroom next door. “The bear returns to hibernation,” he said quietly. I wonder how I’ve managed to sleep through that noise all these years, he thought as the rhythmic sawing grew louder.
He’d thanked Hoss for bringing up the supplies and had set the guns aside, but now that he certain he would be undisturbed, he pulled the gun belt to his lap and withdrew his pistol. It felt smooth, cool and comfortable in his hand. He didn’t change firearms often, and had used this one since he’d lost his previous one to the two thieves outside East Gate. Little Joe had recovered most of his stolen possessions after finding the outlaws dead in Salt Flats, but they’d already sold his gun.
He’d never wanted a flashy sidearm, preferring to let the force of his character speak for him. You’ve protected me well, he thought while slipping his hand into position around the handle, and then drew a bead on a knot of wood in the door frame.
Setting the Colt back onto the table, he pulled the notepad closer, and began to write. He’d had his attorney come out recently to make a few addendums to his will, but this was simply a letter of thanks to his family. His writing paused as the irony of his situation came to mind. I’ve been shot with bullets and arrows: serious injuries that brought far more likelihood of death. Yet those wounds healed with only physical scars as reminders. This time, everything on the outside looks fine. But scars have grown inside me that are attaching to my mind and will, making me unable to move anymore. People see my useless legs, but no one can see the true extent of the internal damage to everything I am.
There was a long pause as he reaffirmed his intent, but then he quickly wrote a simple explanation of his decision, along with his regrets over how this would affect his father and brothers. He read what he’d written, and satisfied at its contents, he added his thanks for being part of this family.
It was the Cartwright way to muster on after loss, yet at this moment, he could not see a future where he didn’t end up as a spiteful, useless man, who would take far more than he could ever give back. It was more than he could stand to imagine his family’s current looks of pity, eventually turn to revulsion over what he would become.
Satisfied that they would understand his decisions as their grief waned, he signed his name. The signature was bold and sure, bringing to mind Annie O’Toole’s description of his writing as grand and scrawly. She accused me of thinking I was better than her: a sniverblot. The tables were turned now. Now she’d look away if we meet, and think, Poor Adam.
He needed room to accomplish his final task, so he slid the pad onto his desk, and picked up the pistol again. So how do I do this most efficiently. He considered the principles of movement and angles, and finally stuck the barrel up under his jaw, adjusting the angle for the best penetration. I think that’ll do. His mind suddenly flooded with the image of his father running in after hearing the shot. It brought both anguish and the knowledge that he had to do this right so there’d be no need for a doctor or any chance at living on in limbo.
Although he’d written it out, he went over his apology in his mind a last time. I’m sorry, Pa. I’m a coward, but my mind is screaming at me all the time now. I can’t rest enough to think straight anymore. There’s no more pretending that I’ll ever walk out of this chair. I can’t pretend that my life will be anything but a burden to others. And I can’t continue making others feel comfortable around me while I’m shriveling into a person I hate. Even Hoss told me there’s only one way out. He lifted his eyes heavenward. Please, God, help them understand that I’m too broken inside to go on.
He sighed as he placed the gun. “No more games,” he whispered, and pulled back on the trigger. The hollow click brought a combination of relief and anger. I can’t remember the last time I used this; must have an empty slot. Desiring to finally feel nothing, he squeezed the trigger, and heard the empty click again.
He assumed the gun had been emptied by Hoss before he’d brought it upstairs, yet he pulled the trigger a few more times, until finally returning it to the holster and placing it on the desk. His eyes returned to his upward gaze, and he cried, “Why!” in a soft hiss. “What more do you want from me! You showed me a path to the happiness in Sacramento that’s eluded me the past 12 years. You let me see that I’d been looking for someone I already had, and then pulled it from me, sending me to the circles of hell where I’ll be kept a prisoner in my own body and mind, and everyone I love will come to hate me.”
Tears came as he could find no more words to express his misery. They poured down his cheeks and wet his shirt and hands. Giving in to the release, he put his head down on his arms and wept.
Morning light was brightening his room when he awoke. The emotional exhaustion had given him his first hard, dreamless sleep since he’d stopped taking the medication for pain, and he stretched until a twinge in his shoulder made him stop. That’s what I get for sleeping on a table, he thought wryly. His eyes were drawn towards the desk where the pad with his note still sat where he’d left it, and the pistol was neatly placed above that as it had been when Hoss had dropped it off. In his hazy state, he had a hard time picturing what he’d attempted. The solid sleep had returned a great deal of equilibrium to his thoughts, and he shook his head to wake up more.
As he woke more fully, he realized he was in a great deal of pain. Yet, a quick assessment, made him aware that it was coming from a place where he’d felt nothing for so long.
Pins and needles coursed the length of both legs, feeling like he was being dragged through a field of prickly brush. A sensation of connection to his limbs, unfelt for several weeks, made him try to move his foot. Come on! A toe … anything. It wasn’t much, but his big toes moved upwards. The others remained stationary, but he rejoiced in the ones that did.
The celebration was short lived as the pain worsened. He clamped his jaw and grasped the edge of the table with such force he feared he’d break the wood. When he could breathe without gasping, he attempted to adjust his position in the chair, and to his amazement, his hips moved without being tugged into place by his upper body. Pain didn’t matter now, and he continued to try moving. There wasn’t enough strength to sustain upward motion, but there was definitely feeling and muscles contracting.
His eyes welled as they had hours earlier, but this time with a far different emotion. “Thank you,” he whispered. His mind was so fully overcome with gratitude, he couldn’t find words to express it. Thank you for giving Hoss enough sense to empty my pistol, he added in his thoughts, before slipping the note with the evidence of his early morning despair into the desk, intending to dispose of it later.
He had to tamp his excitement, when as the pain eased, the sensations notched back too. Please don’t let this be a fleeting moment! He cried silently. Please: no games now.
The emotional upheaval left him drained, and he put his head back in the chair, closed his eyes, and calmed himself until he could think logically. Issuing another mental order for his toe to move produced results, and this time he managed to move all ten. Attempts to raise his leg failed, and he managed the fear by assuring himself that it could take some time until his muscles and nerves communicated flawlessly as they were meant to do. The pain settled into a dull ache, and he relished this as a promise.
Amid the joy in the early signs of life in his non-functioning legs, he decided not to divulge any of what he was feeling. I can’t handle watching the expectation of full recovery dissolve into pity again if this don’t mean what I hope it does.
He opened his eyes as he pulled from his thoughts, and was surprised to find Laura standing in front of him with a breakfast tray.
“Were you sleeping?” she asked in her ever-cheery voice.
“Just thinking.” Not willing to give any indication of his pain, he steeled his back and kept his forced smile in place. “Thank you for bringing a tray. You must have suspected I wouldn’t be in the mood for the trip downstairs.”
“I wish I could tell you it was my idea, but Hop Sing said Hoss is sleeping in a bit today, and Joe’s already gone”
“Do I smell French toast?”
A nod. “Hop Sing said it’s just the way you like it, with lots of butter and a sprinkling of sugar.” She set the tray down and removed the cover over the plate with a flourish. “He put a pound of bacon on the plate as well.”
Adam reached for a slice of crisp bacon. “Just the way I like it, but I’ll never eat all that. Maybe the aroma will wake Hoss, and he’ll come over and help finish it so Hop Sing won’t be disappointed.”
Laura grinned. “You want me to carry the plate over, open his door and wave it around a bit so he really gets a whiff?”
They both laughed.
“You seem in a better mood today,” she ventured. Her eyes moved towards her feet. “I said things to you during the night that I’m truly ashamed about. I’m sorry. I don’t know how this will work out, but we have to stop hurting each other.”
“How about we start fresh, and really talk instead of taking jabs. A new day and some fine sunshine can solve a lot of problems.”
She nodded and smiled. “That sounds good.”
Her expression seemed sincere, yet he sensed an uneasy urgency. “How about we put this new detente to a test. You look unsettled, Laura. Please tell me what’s on your mind.”
The breath she took was long and ragged, yet her face betrayed nothing more. “I just found out that Will is planning to leave. He wants to take that job in San Francisco, and since you’re doing better and there’s a few new men to take his place, he feels he can go now.”
“Within a day or two.” She brushed her hair back and sniffed.
“Once Hoss is up, he can get me into the wheelchair and I’ll go find him. He has every right to leave if that’s what he wants, but I owe him my thanks for helping out, and I’d like to hear more about what he’ll be doing.”
Laura began backing away. “You should eat before the food gets cold. I’ll send Hoss in if I see him before you do.”
As predicted, Hoss came into Adam’s room sniffing the air a few minutes later. “You got bacon in here?”
“More than I can eat. Have some.”
Still in his checkered nightshirt, Hoss pulled a chair over and grabbed a thick slice. “Do you wanna get out today and shoot like ya mentioned last night?”
Pink washed over Adam’s cheeks and neck. “The guns never got cleaned. I fell asleep with my face on the table. It was the best sleep I’ve had in some time though.”
Hoss reached for another strip of bacon. “I imagine yer a little stiff too? He saw his brother nod. “I’ll face you away from Pa to get you in the wheelchair, so he don’t see you groanin’. That’s if you think you can manage bein’ in there, ‘stead of stayin’ in the house today.”
“I’d appreciate being outdoors. By the way, Laura just told me that Will is leaving. What do you know about that?”
“Pa mentioned it last night. It’s just as well. He’s done a good job helpin’ out, but lately you could see his heart weren’t in it. He moped around and seemed distracted. I hope he finds what’ll make him happy.”
Seven (The next day)
“I can’t believe I’m helpin’ you up these steps with you on yer own two feet.” Hoss’ smile beamed at the man next to him. “It’s a miracle.”
“I suppose it is,” Adam admitted. “But let’s keep moving. This is taking every ounce of my energy and I’m not about to let you carry me ever again.”
Ben leaned back in his green desk chair, and smiled lovingly while watching his sons inch their way up the stairs together. Hoss’ assessment of Adam moving under his own power, even if still needing a sturdy arm for support, was correct. It was hard to conceive that only hours before, his eldest had been looking towards a life of confinement.
So much had happened since then, it still made his head spin.
He remembered walking out into the yard in the morning to find Adam in his chair, involved in a serious-looking conversation with Laura. After questioning Adam about it, he found out that Laura and Will were in love, and had been throughout his son’s convalescence. They hadn’t the civility to tell him about it, leaving Adam to discover truth by overhearing a conversation between the two lovers. His son had then tried to convince them that he was fine with their relationship, telling each of them that he bore no ill-will in the matter and concluded that it was the best ending, because he’d already decided that he couldn’t marry Laura. He’d made a mistake in proposing and could never love her the way she deserved.
But none of this had resonated with the hard-headed Will, who’d been willing, and eager to ride off, leaving Laura behind to repay the obligation they both felt for Adam’s mishap.
Ben had understood to a degree. His nephew had covered for Adam’s absence so often that he and Laura had developed an attraction. He was certain they were truthful about not carrying on the actual romance behind Adam’s back, but he felt great anger over the fact that Laura had stationed herself as Adam’s caregiver while being in love with his cousin. But he was also angry at himself for not listening when his son had suggested something wasn’t right, and asked for Laura to be sent home.
The most puzzling thing to him, after the truth was exposed, was that Will still tried to take the easy way out by leaving. He thought his nephew had made progress towards accepting responsibility for his actions, but this gave him pause. Those plans had been thwarted because Adam performed a miracle that wouldn’t let his cousin leave without Laura. He rose; wobbled a bit, and then took enough steps to free himself from the repulsive situation.
An even bigger miracle had occurred after the star-crossed lovers had gone off together.
Adam managed to walk all the way into the house before collapsing into a chair, and then told him a story that had astounded him.
Not only was his oldest son fine with “losing” Laura, he was giddy about a happy ending to the fiasco of their engagement: an arrangement that had taxed his soul to the breaking point. He’d then related the story of bumping into a young woman in Sacramento just weeks earlier—a woman he’d once asked to marry him—and how he’d returned home, hoping he’d find a way out of marrying Laura without causing her any harm.
Adam hadn’t disclosed any future plans, preferring to wait until the scope of his recovery was clearer. But Ben had seen the relief in son’s eyes that hadn’t been there at any time during his recuperation. The truth he’d finally understood was that he’d been viewing the happy “sounding” conversations between Adam and Laura, along with his son’s optimistic reports on his health for what they’d been: good theater, to make him feel better.
He shook his head slowly, recalling a serious conversation he’d had with Dr. Smith at his last visit. The wise and seasoned physician had warned him that Adam’s demeanor with his family seemed far too jolly for the situation. Smith had supposed that no man could absorb the deteriorating hope that he’d walk again with such good humor. Smith had been adamant about the dire effects on a patient when they realize the damage is permanent, and had told Ben to watch for a period of deepening despair and mourning. In this phase, a patient may become sullen and withdrawn or the opposite, as in what he feared was Adam’s case, hiding their feelings in front of others, and bearing the grief in a deep, dark place that ate away the soul. Ben had disregarded the warnings, choosing to believe his son was above these effects, and was weathering everything just fine.
A quick wipe across his cheeks kept the dewy wetness in his eyes from becoming tears as he remembered Adam’s solemn admission a few hours ago that he had reached a point of total hopelessness. Ben’s began to realize how close he’d probably come to losing his son. The only thing that kept him from sliding into his own despair was that Adam had seemed honest in his assessment that those steps he’d taken earlier had restored his life to wholeness
Hoss plopped down on the edge of the bed after helping his brother to sit. “I’ll leave ya here to change clothes and then I’ll be back to see if ya need anything else before you turn in. Pa said he’ll check later too, but I know he’s workin’ on some financial stuff for the bank tomorrow, so who knows when he’ll be done.”
“Don’t rush. I’ll manage fine.”
The younger man moved to the door, but stopped and turned back. “So, you really just started feeling things in yer legs yesterday morning?”
A nod. “The morning after the tumble.”
“Do you think that fall had anything to do with it? Ya know … like a fall started it, and a fall ended it?”
Adam’s cheek pulled upward in thought. “I hadn’t considered that. I got twisted around pretty good, and did feel a pop in my back when you lifted me off the floor. Maybe that straightened something that was set off plumb by the first fall.” He chuckled. “That was a good thought, Hoss. You should hang up your doctor’s shingle.”
“I’ll keep track of the steers like I been doin’, if ya don’t mind. I was mightily worried about you the other night, but now I’m glad it happened.”
Expecting his family would each check in on him before turning in tonight, Adam slipped into nightshirt for what he hoped was the last time, and piled pillows against his headboard so he could read. His comfort was short-lived, as he realized the book on the nightstand was one he’d already finished. He was contemplating whether to get up to retrieve a new one or simply call it a night, when he heard a soft knock, and saw Hoss’ head appear around the opening door.
“You done just fine, Big Brother.” His face beamed with genuine joy. “Is there anything I can grab for you before I turn in?”
“You’ve arrived at the exact moment to render service,” Adam replied with a teasing formality, while issuing a sweeping gesture towards the nearby furnishings. “I find myself in possession of a book I’ve already completed, and wonder if you might search my desk for one of the new ones Pa brought from town.”
Hoss moved towards the large, angled desk that allowed Adam to spread out engineering schematics; raised the top, and peered inside. “Which book do you want?”
When Hoss remained in the same position, staring into the desk, Adam offered, “The books should be on the far right. I might have covered them up with something, but I know they’re in there.”
The item Hoss withdrew as he turned towards his brother was not a book. It was a notepad, and Adam groaned inwardly, realizing he’d completely forgotten about the letter he’d written two nights earlier.
“Did you mean to kill yerself like this says, Adam?”
“I never meant for anyone to see that.”
Hoss shook his head as he slumped down on the arm of the chair he’d carried upstairs for his brother weeks earlier. “When did you write this?”
He knew Hoss needed the truth, and that he would keep it to himself. “The other night after you had to rescue me from the floor.”
“That’s what made you think about doin’ this: you thought you were a burden to us? I told you from my heart that I’d never think of you like that. Never!”
“I know, Hoss. It was more like a burden in my own mind that had become too heavy to carry. That night everything just crashed over me a drowning wave. I’d outlived the hope of walking, and life seemed like a miserable game of how much I could lose before I finally gave up. I couldn’t play it any longer.”
He pointed to the letter again. “That Kane feller tormented you by playin’ games no one could win. Was that how you felt again?”
“This game was worse because it wasn’t someone else tormenting me, it was a war for control of my own mind and body, and I was losing.”
“We best tear this up before Pa sees it.” His worried look was replaced by a knowing smile. “What matters is that you didn’t go through with yer plan.”
A burgundy stain engulfed Adam’s neck and face. How honest do I need to be, he wondered to himself. The answer was clear. This brother needed to know that he’d prevented it. “I did try,” he said softly, looking up to face his brother directly. “But thanks to you, I couldn’t.”
“How could I have stopped it if I didn’t even know you was thinkin’ about it?”
“You must have suspected. I asked for those guns so I could end things. I actually pulled the trigger on my pistol six times, but you’d thought to remove the bullets. If you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have lived long enough to experience my recovery.” He watched Hoss’ expression, and saw confusion.
Hoss’ jaw dropped open when Adam finished. He looked around the room until he spotted Adam’s black holster holding the Colt. He grabbed it from the top of the desk and sat on the bed with his brother. “There’s somethin’ I gotta check.” He opened the cylinder of the gun, and tipped it backwards. Six bullets dropped into his open hand. “I feel bad as anything for not pickin’ up on what you had in mind, but I was so tired when I went down for this, I didn’t even think about it bein’ loaded.”
Adam moved so he was to sitting next to his brother on the side of the bed. He took the pistol and examined it. “All the chambers were full? I heard the hammer hit. How could it misfire that many times?”
Hoss grinned. “Someone didn’t want you leaving us that night.”
“You think this was a Heavenly intervention? That’s as improbable as a gun misfiring six times!”
“But not impossible.” He wrapped his arm around his brother’s back and gave a hearty squeeze. “You were so wearied that night, I’m bettin’ you fell asleep after you wrote that letter and just dreamt about doing it. Whatever happened, you’re getting’ better, and it is all kind of a miracle.” His arm remained tight around Adam. “It reminds me of the words to a song we sung in church a couple times.”
Adam leaned into the embrace and laughed. “That’s the second miracle today: you remembering the words to a church song.”
“You must remember it too. Somethin’ about plunging into despair.” His sigh was deep. “Gotta admit there’ve been a couple times when I got to feeling so low, it didn’t hardly seem right to go on taking air from this earth to breathe. But the sun always got to shinin’ again.”
The two remained sitting together, both deep in their own thoughts until Adam finally broke in. “How about you toss that letter and a match in the fireplace, and then hand me one of those books before you go to bed.”
He’d managed to turn a few pages of The Mill on the Floss, a novel he’d sent for after reading George Eliot’s, Silas Marner, yet he couldn’t recall anything of what he’d read. His thoughts kept going back to the conversation he’d had with Hoss.
What happened that night, he asked himself repeatedly. Was I protected from making a fatal choice when I couldn’t see beyond that moment, or did I fall asleep and dream it?
It still took great effort to get balanced and moving after standing up from the bed, but he gave thanks for each wobbly step as he made his way to the bookshelves above his desk. The room was dimly lit, but he could read the embossed, gilt titles of the books there, and quickly selected a hymnal he’d brought home from church to practice songs he’d lead at services when the organist was away. Turning to the alphabetical index at the back, he ran his finger along the letters until reaching the P’s. As Hoss had suggested, there was a song called, Plunged in a Gulf of Dark Despair.
Noting the page, he returned to the comfort of his bed, and found the correct hymn. He hummed the melody, and finally sang the first two verses in a volume only he could hear. The words were powerful, and a violent shiver moved from his scalp to his toes, when he truly faced the decision he’d made to end his life, and the second chance he’d been given. The chill was followed by a comforting warmth as he remembered the last two days, and the joy of thanksgiving. He’d had an honest, long-overdue talk with his father that had cleared the air about many things, and he’d told him more about Boston and the relationship with Melinda. He wasn’t at a point where he could make plans, but he had given himself permission to write her about the cancelled wedding plans, and to thank her for her honesty during their time in Sacramento.
He grinned while thinking back to what his father had said about a romance rekindling during the worst of times. Pa was right about that. He might have had the wrong woman in mind, but it still happened.
He laid the hymnal aside as he crawled under the covers, and sunk into the comfortable indentations in his mattress that he hadn’t been able to feel during his paralysis. People don’t understand how frightening things are when nothing feels the same, not even your bed, your favorite chair or your clothes. You live in a constant state of adjustment. It’s no wonder people become despaired. Your body is no longer familiar.
His thoughts turned toward his family, and realized that they’d been going through the same period of nothing feeling familiar. They’d done the best they could, but he hadn’t been able to see it because of his anger and grief.
Adam was reminded of shouting angry and pleading prayers during his recovery, but found himself chagrinned at how few times he bothered to say thank you. He did that now and ended by asking that anything he’d missed mentioning would be accepted as well.
Before placing the hymnal on the nightstand, he paused to read the first two stanzas again, and smiled as he finally lowered the lamp and began drifting off. The lyrics swirled in his mind, as he made the message his own.
Plunged in a gulf of dark despair
A helpless sinner lay.
Without a beaming ray of hope
Or spark of dawning day.
With pitying eyes the Prince of Grace
Beheld my helpless grief:
He saw, and O, amazing love,
He came to my relief.**
* This memory is taken from my own canon of stories in which Adam meets Melinda while in college, falls in love with her, and then loses touch with her through the canon years of Bonanza. He sees her again during the delay that kept him from his engagement party, and is reminded of how romantic love should feel. This drives his decision to get out of his engagement to Laura.
**Plunged in a Gulf of Dark Despair: words by Isaac Watts (1674–1748). Melody by François H. Barthélémon (1741–1808)
Other Stories by this Author
- One Step Closer #3 – Two Hearts Broken (by MissJudy)
- One Step Closer #1 – For Love’s Sake Only (by MissJudy)
- When Lies Wound a Broken Heart (by Missjudy)
- The Sum of All Sadness (by MissJudy)
- Say Something – Lessons of the Heart (by MissJudy)