Summary: Adam faces a long road home after suffering PTSD when a miner tortured him in the desert. He is afraid he killed Kane, because he cannot remember those last moments, until Joe supplies a ‘trigger.’
Rating: G 8,780 words
Author’s Note: First published as “The Devil’s Bargain” (on another site). The story has been given a new title and received a 2020 edit with new material, answering the question why did Adam decide to go fishing at Pyramid Lake without a pole?
THE ROUTE HOME
“What do you suppose happened to him, Pa?” Hoss asked at breakfast on the third morning after they brought Adam home, during which time he’d had only brief lucid moments and meager nourishment. “Who was that man?”
“Adam will tell us when he can. Whatever happened, I don’t suppose there’s anything we can do about it.”
Joe stood, fighting the guilt that wanted to consume him. guilt he knew better than to bear but was there all the same. “I’ll go saddle the horses.”
“Joseph, you haven’t eaten.”
But Joe was out the door.
Adam at first didn’t know where he was. His eyes opened to total darkness and shut quickly again. Had he died? Being alive would shock him. He could feel movement. He was lying, as though in a bed, on the ground, in a grave, but the ground was moving, or he was …
Kane! Kane was dragging him! He couldn’t feel his arms, so Kane must have killed him and now was dragging him … somewhere. He jerked his arms. The ground still moved beneath him. Where was he? Adam could have sworn they stayed together, looking for gold, surviving, surviving. “KANE?!”
Instantly the ground stopped moving. The sky, still clear blue, didn’t hold still. He could see the blue waving in ripples.
Adam looked around but couldn’t see anything familiar. Kane won, after all, Kane was alive and Adam had died. But did that make Kane a better man?
Somehow he lost track of the game. As his eyes closed again, he felt his mind drifting away — it was all over. They were dead. Someone was dead. Was it him? Kane? Both of them. Did either of them deserve to live out there?
No! His family was looking for him! He was too far away. They’d never find him. He had no way of letting them know in this rocky country, no trail for them to follow. No, he couldn’t call out because Kane would do this to them, too. That’s why he was a better man but he didn’t expect Kane to understand that. He tried to open his eyes, he wanted all this to be a bad dream, and when he woke up….
“Adam, you awake?” The voice was soft and gentle, reassuring.
“You’re home, son, it’s over.”
“Home?” But had he won? “Kane?”
“He’s dead, son.”
“Don’t talk now. Rest. Just rest and build up your strength. You’re safe now.”
“I can remember being dragged through a desert. Dying of thirst.”
“That’s how we brought you home, son.” Ben sat next to him and rubbed his shoulder. “We buried Kane first.”
Home? But did he deserve to be alive? He thought hard but couldn’t remember what happened after he learned there was food and water, enough for one of them to get out alive. If he had killed Kane, then Kane had won, proving him no better than an animal.
Ben watched his son drift away again. Was he ever going to get him back? He walked back down the stairs with the food he hoped his son was ready to eat. He’d had so little food since he left East Gate nearly a month ago.
Joe and Hoss were waiting. “No change?”
Ben handed Hoss the plate of food. “Not yet. He’ll get there, Hoss. Don’t worry. His mind is strong. Always has been.”
“Every man has a cracking point, Pa.” Joe stared up the stairs. “We never know what that is. Not for any man. Adam told me that himself, once.”
Sunlight hit his eyelids and Adam winced.
The ground wasn’t moving anymore and his throat was parched. He remembered the walk through the desert after his horse was taken from him. He had mourned the loss of his mount more than the danger, pushed aside the thought of what could happen if he didn’t find a way out, hoping his horse would get free and come find him.
No, it was only a horse. If it got loose, it would find its way home but not in time for them to find him.
Five days, a week, before he died of thirst? Three days, he remembered three days passing. He had chewed on stones, cactus leaves, dug in the ground for muddy soil, all before he found … salvation … in the form of…
By that time, his eyes had been nearly burned into his skull and the miner’s camp looked seemed like a mirage. The miner who saved his life, and then …
He felt something cold and wet laid over his face and his whole body shook, startled. He reached up to take it off, but a firm strong hand grabbed his arm.
“Easy, son.” Ben sat next to him, next to the son who looked seriously out of place in his own room. Dr. Martin had just left. Adam hadn’t even noticed his presence, although he had been conscious the whole time.
The doctor prescribed bed rest and time. He had nothing else to offer.
“Where’s Kane?” Adam tried to sit up and throw off his covers. “I have to talk to him.”
Ben pushed him back down easily because Adam was still weak. “I’m sorry, son. He’s dead. We buried him before we brought you home.”
“Dead?” Adam stared at the ceiling, trying to remove himself physically back through time, back to when Kane was still alive. “He can’t be dead. How did he die?”
Ben frowned, trying but unable to hide his dismay. “I don’t know, son. I was hoping you’d tell me. When you’re ready.”
“I have to know how he died, Pa. I can’t remember.”
“Do you want to remember? When it might be better not to.”
“I have to. It’s important because … he wanted me to kill him. He begged me to. But I couldn’t have. The person I think I am … was … couldn’t have.”
Ben closed the curtains to shut off the outside world. He thought the sun must be keeping Adam from fully opening his eyes. He looked back at his son in the darkened room and frowned. Adam’s eyes were still only slits in a haggard, drawn face.
Ben sat next to him again. “If you can talk about it, I’m here to listen. Don’t worry, you’re safe now. The memories can only help you heal.”
“Could I have some … some water?” With a sudden cry of pain he threw his arms up around his head, the memory of past agony forcing him into spasms that Ben didn’t want to believe were a part of him now.
Ben pressed down on Adam’s shoulders, hoping to calm him. “You’re safe now, Adam. Trust me, son. Whatever he did to you, it’s over now.
Ben waited until he calmed again, and then helped him drink. He heard Hoss and Joe in the doorway behind them. “Go see if Hop Sing has anything Adam can eat.”
Hoss left but Joe remained.
Ben turned back to Adam. “You need to eat, Adam. You can’t survive this way.” Adam’s eyes were closed but his mouth tight, face pressed into a grimace. “Where are you now, son?”
“I was bringing money home. Joe and me. I should have given him the money. Instead I was foolish. Decide to go fishing. Joe … wouldn’t come. We split up.” He started to laugh. “I was carrying money but we split up! Foolish, stupid …” He turned away from Ben. “I’m tired. Please go.”
Ben patted Adam’s leg and stood. He walked out of the room but Joe was reluctant to follow, so Ben grabbed his arm and pulled him out.
“Pa, that doesn’t look like Adam in there. What happened to him?”
“He wants to know who killed Kane.”
“He doesn’t think he did it? Maybe there was someone else out there, someone we didn’t see.”
“Or he did kill Kane, and he’s afraid to face it.”
“Well, if he did, it’s because the man deserved it. We know that.”
Ben sighed, staring at the still figure in bed through the partially opened door. “This is more than a simple case of self-defense, Joe. Adam will have to come to terms with it in his own way. Somehow.”
Ben always felt his sons were strong enough to face anything. But Adam’s own belief in himself was in danger now. Who might he be when this was over?
“Pa, mebbe we oughta get Preacher Hartkins to come out and talk to Adam.” Hoss had just come inside from chores because the banging from upstairs seemed to shake the entire house. Ben stood on the bottom of the stairs, looking up, uncertain what to do, and he stopped Hoss from running up there as well.
“I don’t think a preacher can talk to him if we can’t.”
Hoss knew well what the last couple of days had been like for his pa. Adam rejected every conversation attempt, preferring instead whatever noise was going on inside his head. But at least he was eating again.
Then he stopped talking to himself and started making physical noises, not letting anyone into his room. They had taken to putting his food outside his door, often enough taking the tray back without the food only half eaten. How Adam kept up the energy to make all that noise none of them could figure.
Ben tried to reassure everyone that Adam’s appetite would need to come back slowly. It had only been five days since they brought him home, but he had locked himself up for the last two and the smell was getting bad up there. Ben didn’t know, when they finally got that door open, if he could stand to see what his son had become.
Ben climbed a step but stopped as another sudden loud bang shook the rafters.
“Pa, let me come up with you.”
“No. You go join Joe out on the logging contract. Tell him … tell him I expect him to come home with you tonight.”
Hoss watched Ben climb slowly but his thoughts drifted to his younger brother, who had fled the house after the first loud bang from upstairs and hadn’t been back since. Hoss wished Pa luck with Adam and went out to see if he’d have better luck with Joe.
What was on Joe’s mind since they brought Adam home, he wasn’t letting any of them know.
Ben climbed the stairs. Each time felt like another mountain to climb. He stood outside Adam’s door, getting more concerned over the lack of sound than by the banging. He rapped on the door softly. “Adam?”
When Adam didn’t answer, Ben steeled himself, grabbed the doorknob and turned it. The door wouldn’t open. “Adam!” Not a sound. “Son, you have to let me help. You have to talk about this. Please, Adam. Don’t stay in the desert. Come home.”
He heard a noise, a sound, but he wasn’t sure what — a soft sobbing, or sighing or scrapping of wood, ever so slight. But then Ben found he could open the door and eased himself into room.
Adam sat on the edge of the bed, unshaven, dressed in the clothes they thought they’d discarded, ripped and soiled. Except for a broken chair and a pile of bedclothes in one corner, the room seemed pretty intact. What had been making all those different sounds?
Ben walked to the window and opened it to air out the room. Adam just stared down at his hands.
Ben sat next to him and put a slightly shaking hand on his shoulder. “I’m going to town this afternoon and I’d like to bring Preacher Hartkins—.”
“But Adam, you—.”
“I killed him, Pa. I did it.”
“I’m sorry for the noise, the mess.”
Ben never thought he’d ever see one of his sons so lifeless, so devoid of any emotion whatever.
“I thought if I could recreate what happened, feel it physically, I could remember. And I did. Most of it.”
“Tell me about it, son.”
Adam told his pa everything he could remember, up to the rifle being put between them and Kane starting to count, at the moment when Adam said he felt like something inside him “twisted.”
He talked slowly, and at times the words had to be pulled out of him like a worm from a mud hole. Ben, fighting tears as he listened, at times found the words he thought Adam needed, and at other times it seemed that hours went by in the silence when both were too horrified to speak.
“And then … the next thing I knew, I saw your face … and just for an instant, I thought I had died, or was dying, and seeing you again wasn’t real, because so little had been real, starting with the shooting of the mule.” Adam stood and just as suddenly sat again. “I can’t seem to shake this feeling of unreality, of still being trapped, wondering how it will all end.”
Ben stood, unsure of his own composure. “You’ve just relived a very tragic experience, Adam. I think if you come downstairs, eat a little something, you’ll start to realize it’s all behind you now. You survived.”
“How can I ever feel safe again if I don’t trust myself anymore?”
“I’ll bring some food up here, then.” He grabbed the bucket and stumbled from the room, hoping Adam didn’t notice his distress.
Just outside Adam’s door Ben fell to his knees as wrenching but quiet sobs shook his body.
It seemed like just another day, like any day before the fateful cattle drive that nearly ended Adam’s life. Hop Sing rattled breakfast pans, Hoss’s snoring was disturbed by Joe’s loud rapping to wake him up, and Ben yelled at them both to light their lanterns and get ready for early dawn chores.
This morning, as every morning, Ben hesitated outside Adam’s room. Adam’s lantern was already lit, but Ben knew that didn’t mean he was awake. He slept a lot ever since getting home and with the lantern lit, like developing a habit he just couldn’t break, in a fear of darkness he couldn’t name because one single memory was still lost there.
He had confessed to Ben, how many nights ago now, when he hoped talking would help him remember how he killed Kane, that he felt like an empty corpse without a soul. He couldn’t remember Kane taking that last breath.
I don’t trust myself anymore.
Ben knew that this feeling was reflected in the emptiness he could see in his son’s eyes. They all tried to reassure him that this Kane must have deserved it somehow, but Adam grew angry, nearly violent, so finally Hoss and Joe took to being busy on the ranch. The chores were waiting for him, they reminded Adam. He would find himself out there again if he would just throw himself into his work again.
Adam told them in one vulnerable moment that he was afraid that he would make the wrong move while working and find himself lost “out there.” Instead, he promised he would keep himself busy in the house while they were out, as his appetite returned in the days that followed.
Hop Sing confirmed that he sat at the desk to do the books, but Ben found only broken pencils and smudges where figures should be.
Adam said he read but there were no books alongside the chairs. The layer of ash on his guitar was a little thicker every day. Ben feared he did little more than wander from one room to another, as listless during the day as he appeared at night when he ate a meager meal with them without saying a word or even looking up.
“Adam, I’ve been thinking about your windmill idea. What about you and me taking that overdue trip to Sacramento and check out some plans. We could even take in an opera or two.”
“I’m not a child, Pa. You don’t need to patronize me.”
“I didn’t think that’s what I was doing.”
“I’m perfectly fine taking care of things right here.”
“You’ll always be needed wherever you need to be.” Ben headed out the door with a single look back to see Adam staring at his hands before closing the door. “Hoss, Joe!” They were saddling their horses for the day’s chores.
“Joe, stay here with Adam. Hoss, you and me are going to find a couple men to do the herd check today and head for Virginia City.”
“This reminds you of Marquette, don’t it, Pa,” Hoss said as he waited for Ben to saddle up.
“Something can snap in the mind of any man, and we still don’t know the whole story. Adam feels he killed him but doesn’t remember how. I fear what could happen to him when he does remember. We have to find someone Adam can talk to. Someone who can reassure him somehow, whatever happened.”
Hoss nodded at the house. “Joe, too. He feels poorly about all this. Maybe the two of them can talk it out.”
“That’s why I told him to stay. Hoping he and Adam can talk it out together. Together they can see that everything happens for a reason.”
Hoss got into the saddle. “Yup. Sometimes that’s all a man needs to be reminded of.”
“Paul, he just sits there! He can’t read, he can’t write, he doesn’t seem to concentrate, he can barely eat. How long can he live like this?” Ben and Hoss had been made to wait nearly an hour in the doctor’s office for Paul to return from a call, and Ben nearly burst with his frustration.
“I’m afraid I just don’t know, Ben. The trauma to his mind is such an uncertain thing.”
“He thinks he killed that man, but exactly how he just can’t recall,” Hoss said. “We think talking to someone who’s not one of us could help. Help him remember. He’s afraid to, maybe.”
“Mental therapy.” Paul nodded. “Someone he knows and trusts.”
“It’s killing him, Paul, the idea that he killed the man who saved his life. But he had good reason!” Ben stood and paced. “The things that man did. If he were here right now he’d be dead three times over.”
“Four,” Hoss said.
Paul cleared his throat and stood, facing his library before turning back. “Right now Adam doesn’t trust himself. He doesn’t trust either his mental or his physical capability. He needs to remember everything, and he needs to forgive himself. To understand that the heat, and the lack of food and water, can do terrible things to a man.”
“What if what he remembers is more painful than he could even imagine?” Ben and Hoss exchanged glances after Ben said this. They all agreed that what Kane had done to Adam justified whatever savagery Adam may have resorted to. But Adam wouldn’t see it that way. He told them if he had been the person he once thought he was, he never would have crossed a moral line, no matter how temporarily insane Kane had driven him.
Paul nodded. “Not knowing is usually worse. But not always.”
“I have faith in my brother.” Hoss said. “When he remembers, he’ll see he did just the right thing.”
“I think you’re right, Hoss. I suspect Adam will find some lines he just couldn’t cross. But we have to get him there. That might take returning him to the scene.”
“That sounds plum dangerous,” Hoss muttered.
Ben stood. “We better get back, Hoss. I think we were hoping, Paul, that you’d have thought of some miracle cure.”
“I’ll see if I can get the reverend to ride out and talk with him. Give him some gentle memory nudges. We need to get him to remember, playing on the hunch that deep down he did only as he had to and no more. I think that’s the key. And we’ll have to hope we’re right, that there was a line he couldn’t cross.”
“We’ll accept the reverend’s help, if you can guide him on how to talk to Adam.”
Paul brushed at a speck on his coat jacket as he speculated. He walked over to his library and pulled out a book. After flipping through a few pages, he nodded as he read and turned to them. “He needs to have something brought to his senses from those moments that he’s buried. Something he sees, or tastes, or hears can remind him of just one single second that he’s lost. That something we call a ‘trigger.’ Once he remembers just one second of that missing past, the rest should start returning to him – like a bullet from a gun hitting a target. Find out as much as you can about his surroundings at the time, and you should find that trigger. Then when the reverend comes out, he’ll be ready.”
“I wonder if that’s what the noises in his room were all about, Pa.”
“Thanks, Paul.” Ben and Hoss walked out of the office. Neither of them headed for the saloon, breaking a normal habit of washing the trail dust before heading back. Neither of them expressed it, but listening to Paul, they had the sinking feeling what Joe might resort to.
“Pa, do you think maybe Joe got Adam to talk by now?”
“It’s possible, Hoss. But right now we don’t know which way he’ll go when he starts remembering.”
“Joe’s been awful quiet ever since we found Adam. I don’t think I seen him smile once. Pa, Joe reassured us that he doesn’t feel guilty over this, but what if he’s hiding feelings, too? What if Joe tries to talk to him and Adam blames him? What if …” But Hoss couldn’t place the scenario in his mind.
“I thought of that. But having them go at it could be another form of therapy. Adam would never hold Joe accountable.”
Hoss took the reins of his horse. “Yeah. I reckon. What do you suppose this … trigger could be?”
“You know, you might be right. Those noises Adam had been making a week or so ago. He said he’d been trying to recreate what happened. I suspect he was looking for that trigger.”
“Yeah. That might not work then, if Adam’s gone and tried it.” Hoss mounted. “At least he’s still smarter than he thinks. And we still gotta worry about Little Joe, too.”
Ben watched Hoss mount up before following slowly. He felt Joe had matured almost beyond his years, starting when he found Adam’s horse at the way station in the desert and especially after the encounter in Salt Flat, when he bore the heavy belief alone that Adam was dead. The wire he had then sent them was the worst moment in Ben’s life, but he only now started to understand what it must have done to Joe to send it. Ben had been proud of the idea that Joe was too mature to believe that what happened out there was in any way his fault. He certainly couldn’t have foreseen the robbery.
“Come on, Hoss. We better hurry home and prepare for company.”
Ben knew for sure that the visions he’d gotten from Adam of what Kane had done to his son would never fully dissolve from his mind. He only shared parts of the story with Hoss and Joe, sparing them the worst of what Adam had shared. The agony that Adam had endured in that man’s suicidal hands would have been enough to kill even him, except for … what? What had kept his son alive?
Ben needed to know the whole story, too. Not that he didn’t trust his son, but how well do we know our own children? Could he have intentionally killed a man without asking himself if there was another way?
Ben never thought he would believe that sometimes killing was right. Even with the War of the Rebellion raging back east, this was still a hard concept for him to grasp. Sure, they’ve all faced their own mortality a time or two at the barrel of someone’s gun, but they always looked for a way out of killing, wherever possible.
And this Kane madman, well, it would seem he just needed some help, too.
Joe sat at the dining table, finishing his lunch but not tasting it. Adam sat motionless, staring at the fire. He had never doubted any decisions his oldest brother made. It was just that way since he could remember. Adam was always grown up. Why would he have questioned Adam’s desire to take all that money fishing while Joe stayed in East Gate to watch a trial? He had no reason to question his older brother, unless Adam was giving him a hard time about his own decisions.
Now he knew that even Adam could make mistakes. But Joe should have known that all along, and in fact, they argued enough about things. No, Joe never thought Adam was always right. Just that when Adam won arguments he always turned out to be right. In this case, though, Joe never even thought to argue about his decision to take money fishing.
And anyway, he didn’t have any fishing gear on him. So what’s really eating him? Why did he decide to go riding off to Pyramid Lake? None of them ever thought to ask him that. Maybe that’s the problem.
“Hey, Adam?” He waited until Adam looked at him. “Can I ask you a question? It might sound stupid but …”
“Go ahead. I’m used to that.”
Joe gave him a snide chuckle, and Adam returned a slight grin. “How come you said you wanted to go fishing? You didn’t have nothing on you to fish with, did you?”
At first it seemed Adam wouldn’t answer. Instead he rose and stoked the dead fire he’d been staring at. “Is that what I said? I was going fishing? Huh.”
“Why did you want to ride up to that area alone?”
“Darned if I know, Joe.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Not precisely, no. I think … I just wanted some alone time. Oh, no because I needed to get away from you, but … we’d had a long hard drive, and I …” He shook his head.
“I know how you get, Adam. It’s okay. I was just thinking, maybe that’s part of what you were feeling bad about, and we should talk about it. I never did apologize for letting you ride off alone with all that money.”
“Huh. Like you could have stopped me.” He sat again and starred at his hands.
“Want to chop some wood with me? Pa left a stack.”
Adam just shook his head. Silence again.
Joe couldn’t think of anything else to keep him from sitting there, looking like he was destroyed inside. No, maybe Adam could make mistakes, but he couldn’t be destroyed. Not Adam.
“Well, then, I better get riding. I’ll tell Hop Sing to get you anything you need. You haven’t finished reading that book there.”
Adam looked up at him with the blank expression that meant he was trying hard not to think, because the only other expression he had was of pain. “The words don’t look right.” Adam got up and poked the cold fire again, like he was looking for something in the ashes.
Joe stood with a grimace. This might take a little doing, but he was going to get Adam back, as only he knew how. “I didn’t get the chance to tell you that Obediah Johnson got off with only five years. He didn’t hang. You were wrong.”
“There’s a lot of that going around, isn’t there.”
“Anyway, I have to go back to East Gate.” He saw Adam stiffen but he didn’t respond. “Turns out there was a third man there involved the robbery. They killed the two who took your horse, but they need me to identify the third.”
Adam reeled around at him in anger. “You can’t do that. You can’t go back there. Not alone.”
“It’s dangerous country. You could get lost.”
“Uh-uh. Anyway, this guy in jail, they might hang him on extenuating circumstances. Just because he was friends of the two guys who heard us talking about the money.”
“They heard us?” Adam nodded. “I knew I recognized them.”
“So I’m the only one who could get him freed, I guess. I can’t let a man hang if he’s innocent.” Joe walked to the door and strapped on his gun belt. “Maybe Hop Sing could pack some food for both of us. If you’re up for a ride. Probably better, this time, if we stick together and watch each other’s backs.”
“Pa has always taught us that we have the right to defend ourselves. Now in the case of Obediah, those two partners were robbing him blind and poisoning him with silver tailings. Because of that, the judge saw fit to let him live and just serve time.”
Adam sat relaxed and easy in the saddle, but his keen eyes took in his surroundings as though expecting trouble. “So even though he could have just turned those two over to the authorities and instead decided to kill them, for vengeance, he wasn’t totally at fault? Does that make sense to you, Joe?”
“Well, in a way it does, yeah.” Joe rode closer to Adam. “Look Adam, you were being tortured, brother.”
Adam turned to Joe, and Joe was dismayed by the lack of emotion in his brother’s eyes. He looked like he just didn’t care about anything anymore. “Joe, I killed the man who saved my life. I remember choking the life out of him. What does that make me, Joe?”
“I don’t think you killed him, Adam.”
“Why? What makes you think you know more than me?”
“Look, you said you can’t remember all of it. You had your hands around his neck, sure, maybe. But all we know is that you pulled a dead man out of the canyon, a man you must have thought was still living. Why would you do that if you were so sure you killed him, huh?”
“Is that why you got me out here? You think you can prove something?”
“I sure do. You set great store by the law. What about pleading yourself innocent until proven guilty?”
Adam pulled his hat down tighter over his eyes. “I wish it was that simple.”
They rode on. Adam knew what Joe was up to, and he understood how bad Joe felt about it. Not that either of them was to blame, not really. Never talk about money in a strange saloon and that was where they both went wrong. Adam thought he’d kept his voice low enough, but maybe not. But his decision to ride off alone. That was something else. And Joe had to go and remind him. He’d forgotten and now had to figure out why he did something so stupid, both at the beginning and at the end of it.
“Adam? Can I ask you something?”
“Hop Sing said you once said you wished you had died instead of your ma. You wouldn’t say nothing like that, would you?” Adam kept staring straight ahead. “I mean, Adam, I know you wish she wouldn’t have died. But Pa says losing you wouldn’t have given him her back. I mean …” He scratched his head. “Shoot, you know what I mean.” He waited but Adam still didn’t respond. “And if that happened, then Hoss wouldn’t have been here, and I wouldn’t have been here. And maybe even the Ponderosa wouldn’t be here.”
Adam gave Joe a half grin. “Sometimes you make a lot of sense.”
“Adam, I know you’re harder on yourself than anyone else ever could be. How about just being nice to yourself this once? Let’s just enjoy the ride and maybe even put an end to that story.”
“Joe, you remember the day when you were six, and Hoss got himself stuck in the mud nearly up to his neck?”
“Oh boy, yeah. That was a sight. And getting him out took a string of three horses.”
“Did you ever hear how he got there in the first place?” Adam didn’t wait for a response. “It was me. I dared him. I left for college shortly after that, and no one ever knew how bad I felt about that.”
“I thought it was an accident.”
“Do you remember when the shed started on fire, and we lost two colts?”
“Was that you?”
“I had a friend named Billy who gave me some smokes so I snuck out there and tried them.”
“Wow, Adam, you did a lot of dumb stuff.”
Adam winced. “We like to think we learn from our mistakes. Maybe I’m not who I think.” He kicked his horse hard and rode off at a gallop.
“Hey, Adam, East Gate is that way!”
But Adam didn’t stop. Joe rode hard after him.
Somehow, he didn’t know how, he lost Adam’s trail. Lot of rocky country here, and Adam went a different way that Joe expected. He’d have to double back.
Joe followed the trail to Pyramid Lake, judging that to be the direction Adam was headed. When he reached a section of the path with loose granite soil he pulled up short. There were no fresh horse tracks here. He thought he had been following tracks, wherever tracks could possibly be seen, but now he realized he’d been following more a path of wishful thinking.
That Adam would actually do what Joe expected him to do — now that was wishful thinking. Especially now, since he didn’t know who his brother was anymore.
Because of Hop Sing’s warning, he realized he never should have gone against Pa’s wishes, and now if anything happened… “Adam!? Hey, ADAM!” Feeling like he’d never get his brother back this time.
Joe whirled his horse around and headed back, knowing there were other trails to take along the way, other directions to head, including several that dead-ended. He’d find him — he had to. There was no going back until he did. No giving up, this time.
He heard a horse and rode in that direction. The horse was laid out, struggling to get up, and a man standing over it. That horse wasn’t going to get back up. The girl next to the man fell to her knees weeping. He watched them. They looked hungry, desperate. He wasn’t sure he should get involved, but he knew he couldn’t just leave them there.
After all, Adam nearly lost his life out here, once. He couldn’t let that happen to anyone else.
“Can I help?”
“Do you have a gun? Put it out of its misery? Guess my daughter and I pushed her too hard. But I gotta get my girl to a doctor.”
Joe pulled his gun and stood over the horse. A single gunshot took care of the horse, to be left for the vultures.
Adam heard the gunshot. At first he felt frozen in the saddle. He heard the shot ricochet around the rocks and knew the last echo was the right direction. He pinpointed it and focused on a landmark for the direction. Is that where Joe was? He left Joe behind him. How would he get over in that direction? Adam thought Joe was following him. But he knew this was all basically a circle. A straight line, a triangle, but still a circle.
He knew Joe was just trying to help him and now he could be in trouble. He couldn’t do anything about his state of mind if he couldn’t help Joe when he needs it.
He rode in the direction of the gunshot, but he knew he might not find Joe. Or Joe might not have been the one signaling him at all.
Ben and Hoss rode home silently, quickly, but they barely beat sunset home. Both had been hard in thought about possible triggers to give Adam his trust back in himself, occasionally sharing a thought only to discard it. Neither of them expected what they saw when they rode up to the corral by the house.
“Pa, Adam’s horse is gone. Joe’s too.”
Ben jumped down and ran into the barn. He came back out, scratching his neck. “Hoss, maybe this means…” Ben left his horse untied and ran into the house. “Hop Sing!”
Hoss came in behind him. “You think Joe took him out to where it happened?”
“Lord, I don’t know. Hop Sing!”
“Dadburnit. What has Joe gone and done?”
“Now, let’s not jump to conclusions. There’s probably a logical—.”
“Mr. Cartlight!” Hop Sing ran down the stairs. “Mr. Joe has taken Mr. Adam to East Gate.”
“East Gate!” Ben had to digest everything quickly, worst fears realized. “Tell us what you know, Hop Sing.”
They knew this idea was the last resort, for feelings that were desperate. He’d hoped they weren’t there yet, but for some reason, Joe felt they were.
Adam wasn’t in that same desert terrain yet, still following the Truckee River for fear of thirst, but he remembered the parched feeling clear, the cool mountain breeze for the moment unstirring. A faith in one’s self did not quench thirst. He recognized the heat, the thirst, that even on horseback he felt like he was on foot. As his horse picked its way carefully over rock in the direction of the gunshot landmark, he wondered if he could depend on Joe to help him become whole again, as Joe obviously needs to do. He hasn’t yet tried to convince Joe that none of it was his fault. Was it?
Would he always have to depend on others for help, and would there be a higher price to pay each time? Was it true that our lives only held meaning in relationship to someone else? Or something else?
He couldn’t take the loss of control, when someone else had his future, his very identity, in their hands. And for that reason he continued to punish himself with what could be false memories.
Joe put his hands up. “Sure, I got food. Go ahead, help yourself. Just let me have my horse.”
“Let you have your horse?” The man laughed as he watched the girl digging through the saddlebags. “Now tell me what good your food would do us if we had to keep walking.”
Joe felt for the gun at his side. The man was unarmed. “You just gonna leave me out here? That doesn’t seem very neighborly.”
The girl jumped into the saddle. “Come on, Pa. Maybe we can still make East Gate before night.”
“We’re not going to East Gate. We’re headed north.”
“Now just a minute.” Joe pulled his gun. “You get off that horse.”
“You gonna shoot us? Daddy, is he gonna shoot us?”
“No, because we’re calling his bluff. See, he’s not the type to shoot anyone who can’t shoot back. Are you, mister?” He jumped in the saddle and rode off before Joe could figure out any other way to stop them.
Joe watched them ride off, not believing what was happening. It was like Adam all over, only him this time, and maybe he deserved it. Maybe the Lord in the Heavens wanted him to understand what Adam went through. Only then would he be able to bring himself to ask Adam to forgive him.
He looked up at the sun. Nothing to do but try to head home and hopes he meets Adam along the way. At least he wasn’t as far out as Adam was when he got lost. The Truckee River. Find and follow that home. Adam wouldn’t stray far from water. Not this time.
Adam still had his eye on the gunshot landmark but felt he was getting farther and farther from where he’d heard it. Was it Joe? Or someone else? Then he saw the horse carcass. He alighted and pulled his horse forward, but his horse reared back, skittish at the smell of death. “Whoa Boy.” He could tell from a distance it wasn’t Joe’s horse.
He studied the tracks he saw leading from the area. Could be Joe’s horse. There were also footprints walking in the other direction. Which way to go?
Ben and Hoss rode hard to East Gate, taking what they thought was the most likely route Joe and Adam would go.
“At least they’re together, Pa,” Hoss said when they stopped to let the horses rest.
“I know Joe only meant well. But I don’t think either of them were thinking clearly. Who knows what could happen to them out there? If Adam were to meet another stranger …” He shook his head.
“Yeah. It could be the trigger he needs, or he could plum go loco.”
Adam heard the miner coming over the buttes before he saw him. He had his gun out and ready. The old fellow was pulling a mule. Not Joe’s horse but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know where Joe was. He alighted and stood in the miner’s path. “All right, hold it right there.”
“Well, lookey there. Hey, you. Nice to see a face in all this desert. A man gets a mite lonely, you know.”
“Yes, I know. You got water, food? Enough for days, maybe, huh? You headed to East Gate?”
“Who me? Heck no. Headed for Virginia City. Got a brother there. He invited me. Haha, I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty.” He held them up. “Oh, dirtier.”
“Did you see anyone else out here?”
“Who me? No, why? Was I supposed to look for someone?”
“Just answer the question.” Adam lifted the gun into the man’s face. “You better tell me the truth. I don’t play games.”
“Hey, lookie, mister you want to ride with me? I got enough water if we go sparingly on it.” He pushed Adam’s gun aside. “You don’t look like a killer to me. And I’ve seen plenty in my dad. Haha! And I’m still alive. You know why? I’m ornery, is why. So you come along with me, or don’t. I don’t rightly care.”
Adam grabbed his arm and yanked him close. “I’m looking for my brother. I heard a gunshot. What can you tell me about either of them?”
“Either of them? I ain’t seen no one and heard nothing. I think mebbe you’re a might touched by the sun.”
Adam grabbed the man around the neck and threw him to the ground. “I said I’m not playing games. Where’s my brother?”
Without food and water Joe felt it would be a long walk home. He sensed the wind, thinking about whether he was headed to the Truckee after all, or just fooling himself.
Not a sign of anyone. What Adam had gone through he’d only begun to guess at. But now, rubbing at his sweat, he felt he was getting what he deserved. He figured he was on the road home, same as Adam must have figured. He looked around. Where had they found him? He couldn’t be sure anymore, but maybe that’s where Adam is right now, trying to relive what happened to him out here. Well, after all, that’s what Joe figured he wanted to do. He just didn’t figure on this. He figured the gal and her Pa were in Virginia City by now. Someone was sure to recognize his horse.
He needed to head where Adam was once. But that might be like committing suicide the hard way.
“Adam? Hey, Adam!?”
Just a shot in the dark. A shot. He pulled his gun and fired. Maybe he would respond to that.
Adam heard the gunfire again and stepped away from the miner.
“Man, you’re plum loco. I never did nothing to you.” Still on the ground, he rubbed his head as he sat up. “Man, think I hit my head on this rocky ground. Gonna give me a headache, sure enough.” He got to his feet. “You want to try that again, I’m ready for her. You just caught me off guard, that’s all.” He watched as the stranger stood frozen staring off into the desert. “Listen, if you’re gonna try and steal my mule, well, I gotta tell, I’m just gonna have to go crazy on your ornery hide.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I’ll … look.” Adam went to his horse and pulled out his wallet. “For your trouble. Accept my apology.” He handed the man some bills.
“Well lordame, look at that. You’re plum loco but you make it up by being rich, too. I guess that’s all right.”
Adam placed a hand on his shoulder. “You may never know this, but I think you might have saved my life.”
Something about this area looked familiar. Joe didn’t figure this section of the cliff was too high for him to scale. He started to run up but shortly lost his breath, his mouth clamping shut form the dry. He found a couple of small rocks and put them in his mouth to suck on.
The rocks were loose, the brush half dead and breaking under his grip, and before he knew it he was falling backward, slipping, the granite dust filling his eyes and mouth and this was it, he couldn’t hide it anymore. He couldn’t climb up as high as Adam once did. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t save his brother the first time and now he was losing him again.
He crawled off into the smallest bit of shade he could find. He wasn’t going to get out of here. Not alone. He needed family. Adam wouldn’t have made it back either, not dragging a dead man. Not if they hadn’t found him. And him and Hoss, they had been ready to give up. Leave Adam’s body for the vultures. That’s what he deserved now.
Then he heard the gunshot. He jumped to his feet and stumbled forward to his hands and knees. “Adam?” He crawled toward the sound. There, the horse. “Adam!” He fell face forward into the dirt again.
Adam helped him to his feet. “Joe, are you all right?”
“Adam, that you?”
Adam brushed Joe off and handed him the canteen. “You’re all right. Here. You recognized this area, huh?”
Joe felt he could never stop drinking but finally Adam grabbed the canteen back. “I thought maybe I did. But I was headed for home. That meant I was going the wrong way.”
“No, not the wrong way. But you don’t realize how far home is from here. Joe, if you’d tried to walk, you wouldn’t have made it. Any more than I would have if I hadn’t stumbled on a miner.”
“Adam, I’m sorry. I got you out here and that was wrong.”
“No, Joe, don’t you see what I’m trying to tell you? I know I didn’t kill Kane. I couldn’t cross that line. He was ready to die. That was the game. But he couldn’t kill himself. He wanted me to do it.”
“That’s why you choked him.”
“Yes. But I stopped myself, Joe.
“Then how did he die?”
“I was going to leave him alone out there, taking his mule. But he told me that made me no better than the men who left me. Joe, he fell. He fell against rocks. That’s what killed him. Not me.”
Joe fell into Adam’s arms, biting back tears. “I’m sorry. Me and Hoss wanted to give up looking for you. But Pa refused. And then … no, he gave up, too. It was just lucky we found you.”
“Well, we learn from our mistakes. We knew to use our guns as signals. Let’s head home. You can tell me what happened to your horse on the way.”
Joe took a breath, and finally nodded.
“Come on, get on my horse. You need to rest a while.”
“Pa, wait.” Hoss pulled his horse up and waited for Ben. “Doc Martin mentioned a trigger. Maybe Joe knew just what Adam needed. Maybe we have to trust him now, Pa. We have to trust them both.”
“What are you suggesting, Hoss, that we just go home and let Adam and Joe come back on their own?”
“Would that be worse than the hell he’s been going through since we brought him home?”
Ben sat back, looking up at the sunset that seemed just a little brighter than usual. “You go on home. Maybe they’re back already. Go on. I’m going to look around awhile yet.”
“No, I reckon I better stay with you.” Hoss looked around. “This area still gives me the jeebies.”
Ben stood again and considered the narrow trail the led up the side of the cliff. At the sound of an eagle cry they looked up into the approaching night. “Wait. Did you hear that?” There was another sound, faint at first. They listened. “Footsteps! Adam!? ADAM!”
They waited, not one of them breathing, all hoping Adam would answer. The footsteps got louder.
“I don’t think it’s Adam, Pa,” Hoss’s voice bit heavily with disappointment.
“It has to be!” Ben ran part way up the hill and came to a stop.
From around the trees came a familiar sight. Adam, with his shoulders straight, had a smile on his face. Joe was on the horse that Adam led toward them.
Before Joe could even alight they were hugging and laughing and acting downright silly.
“Son, you’re all right?” Ben said to Adam as the dust cleared.
“I didn’t kill him, Pa.”
“Ha! We never thought you did, older brother,” Hoss said.
“What’d I tell you, see? What’d I tell you!?” Joe said after alighting and getting his hugs in return.
“You were right, Joe.” Ben said, laughing. “What finally helped you remember, Adam?”
“I had a miner’s neck in my hands. I let him go and that’s when … did you see him? He was headed this way.”
The three exchanged glances. “No, no, we didn’t see anyone, son.”
Adam turned and looked into the setting sun. “That’s strange.”
“Well, I’m sure we just missed him. We only got to this area a few minutes ago ourselves.”
“Say, anyone mind letting Joe ride with them? I’m getting a little tired of walking.”
“You can ride with me, squirt,” said Hoss. “Just don’t make me ornery or I’m liable to tie you behind me like a puny elk.”
“See you at home, boys.” Ben spurred around and rode on ahead.
Adam watched Ben ride off. “I sure do worry him, don’t I.”
“Not any more than the rest of us. Well, Joe, anyhow.” Hoss and Joe squeezed up the path to get alongside their brother. “Sure glad to see you, Adam. He was too. I think he was a mite peckish, and just doggone tired.”
“Hoss, wait.” Adam bit his lip and took a deep breath. “I just want you both to know that I understand why my ma died. So that I could have you two for brothers.”
“Oh-ho,” Joe said with a smirk. “You finally figured that out?”
Adam laughed. “No, I guess I knew it already. Let’s just say I had to re-figure it out.” He looked behind him at the trail that he felt sure was somehow going to disappear again. “You know, I think home is going to look rather good. Let’s go.” He rode on ahead.
“You think he really saw a miner, Hoss?”
“I don’t know, Joe. Mebbe. But mebbe it’s only important that his memory kicked in when he needed it to.”
Adam wondered himself, as he rode him, if that miner existed. But he knew it didn’t matter. What he had needed was to talk it out somewhere out here, reasonably and logically. For now it was enough to understand that through that miner, Kane asked Adam to forgive him.
And he knew something else now, too. One simple fact he had overlooked in Kane’s death. He had overlooked the fact that Kane had wanted to die, while Adam had wanted to live. One of them had nothing left to live for.
So, in meeting, they both got their wish.
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