Summary: Saturday night, Adam and Hoss got stranded in an abandoned cabin, and what Adam wants most is a bath. And hadn’t Hoss just reckoned that? But there’s more at stake than just washing off road dust.
Word count: 6223
To Clear the Dust
It was so much like him that it was downright laughable. But, yeah, the bathtub turned out to be the most incentive for Adam to get back on his feet as soon as possible, to not just give up and be done with the pain, the fatigue, and the misery. To immerse himself in hot water, to clean off grime and dust and blood from his battered body seemed almost more important than getting home to Pa and Joe.
Well, not just almost. If Adam was completely honest with himself, and he usually was, then to get into that tub and scrub himself clean and rosy was, at this very moment, his most important goal. And yes, it was also laughable, at least in his brother Hoss’s opinion. A fact that said brother made quite clear by laughing his head off. Extensively. And repeatedly. And then, being Hoss, he turned it into a challenge.
“Tell you what, Adam,” he said. “I’m gonna fetch water with this here puny little bucket from that crummy well outside, running there and back ‘bout a million times, just fer you. I’m gonna heat gallons of it so you ain’t gonna freeze your scrawny tail off, and gonna make you the best darn bath you had in a long, long time. But you gotta get into that fine ole tub there all by yourself. So you better don’t die on me.”
“I do not plan on dying on you,” Adam replied, not without indignation.
“Well, up to now you did a good job of making me think you did.” Hoss pointed to the canteen lying on the chair next to the cot Adam had fallen onto the moment they’d made it into the cabin. “Prove me wrong and drink some.”
The very thought of drinking… “I’m not really thirsty.”
“You need to drink if you don’t want to die. You ain’t so thick you wouldn’t know that, right?”
“Hoss, I can’t. I’m not feeling up to…”
Hoss just pointed at the canteen, his silence more eloquent than any word he could have uttered. His eyes, too, spoke a very clear message as they wandered from the canteen to the tub and then back to the canteen. He nodded then for good measure and pointed some more.
Adam closed his eyes, briefly, and had it not seemed too much of an effort, he’d have pinched the bridge of his nose. As it was, he restricted himself to reaching for the canteen.
“Just a sip,” Hoss said the moment Adam’s fingers touched the flask. “You don’t want to make yourself sick.”
Adam would have rolled his eyes, but he instinctively knew that it’d only make his headache worse. So he just took a tiny sip of the stale water, waited for a spell, then took another, waited, sipped, waited, sipped until he felt that any more would only make everything come up again.
Hoss seemed satisfied with his brother’s accomplishment. “Good boy,” he said. “Now you rest, and I gonna read to you for a bit.”
Adam had no idea where Hoss had found a book in this abandoned dwelling, but then again its former residents had left a bed and some other pieces of furniture, a couple of pots and pans, at least one bucket, and not to forget a bathtub. So perhaps it wasn’t so unlikely they’d left a book, too. There was no way Hoss had had it on himself. Not on a Saturday night when he was on his way to…where? Adam had yet to ask Hoss that. The coincidence of the two of them meeting under these particular circumstances…
But before Adam could compose a question about that, Hoss produced a book from somewhere, opened it and started to read, and it oddly made sense to Adam that the book turned out to be a bible.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” Hoss read, and Adam was lured into sleep even before he heard the next verse.
He woke up what could have been an hour later, or a minute or a day, or a year, as Adam had lost every sense of time. Nothing indicated he’d not closed his eyes only for the shortest moment, nothing told him that even a second had passed. There was no change in his surroundings; nothing looked different, the cabin still bore the same air of abandonment, of an almost hasty departure. As if its former occupants had just snatched up their most vital belongings before they retreated and left behind everything they’d deemed superfluous or unfit for their new dwellings—like battered furniture, moldy curtains, mothy bedcovers, chipped kitchenware, a cumbersome bathtub, and, most probably by accident, a Holy Bible.
The light might have dimmed a little, though. Or it could just as well be that his eyesight was fading. Adam was no stranger to having a concussion and to its effects on him. And even though the last had been a long time ago, he knew how to read the symptoms: this definitely was one and a big fat one to boot. His flagging eyesight was just another clue.
He was also no stranger to a dislocated shoulder, and the excruciating pain that rendered his right side almost immobile combined with the numbness of his right hand told him unmistakably that he’d somehow managed to get himself one of those, too.
Unfortunately neither his headache and nausea nor the pain of his shoulder would leave him anytime soon, not without proper medical treatment. Out here, there was little to be done but resting and waiting for help.
Although, the shoulder…
He tried to roll onto his left side, turn around to face Hoss a little more comfortably but abandoned the hare-brained idea at the sudden onslaught of a new level of agony, and instead just moved his eyes to where Hoss sat.
Hoss was still in the same spot with the bible still open in front of him on the table, but instead of reading in it, he chewed on a wooden pick and looked at Adam with concern. That almost ridiculously comforting sight, though, was quickly spoiled by the speaking-to-an-injured-animal tone of Hoss’s voice. “Whoa there, don’t move. Stay put, will ya? You’re just hurtin’ yourself even more.”
This time Adam did roll his eyes—and regretted it instantly. Only after the pain in his head subsided to its normal level of excruciating did he find himself able to retort, “Well, yes, how considerate of you to remind me. I’d almost forgotten. Thank you, Hoss.”
Hoss’s frown made room for a wide grin. “Why, yer welcome,” he said.
Adam almost rolled his eyes again.
“You gotta help me,” he said instead. “Just…push it back in. My arm. You can prop me up here.” He made a vague gesture towards the wall his bed was pushed against.
The grin slipped off Hoss’s face. He stared blankly at Adam, slowly chewing on the stick.
“Leverage,” Adam clarified, wondering that he even had to. “To hold me steady.”
Hoss looked miserable. “Adam, I can’t do that.”
“Why not? You’ve done it before. Might be a couple of years, but this is still the same shoulder. I’m still the same.”
“Well, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on that last. But that ain’t the reason anyway. It’s too late.”
“Look at that shoulder, Adam. It’s swollen like nobody’s business. There’s no way I can set it till the swelling is down.”
Adam actually was fool enough to try and establish the state of his hurt shoulder. By touching it. Of course, it wasn’t worth the pain that inflicted just to ascertain Hoss was right; in particular because Hoss was always right on such matters. He’d have suggested setting the shoulder himself if he’d deemed it doable.
“I’m sorry,” Hoss said. “Not much I can do for you.”
“No reason to be sorry. And you’re doing a lot. Heck, without you, I’d still be lying out there in the dust.”
“Y’know, Adam, I never asked you how come you were lying there in the dust in the first place. Horse threw you? Have you forgot how to sit a horse properly?”
“I wasn’t thrown. I’m not a…not outta practice that much. It’s not as if I’ve been coach riding all the time this past couple of years.”
“Then why’re you in this here predicament now? Without a horse but with the mother of all concussions?”
“The horse lamed. It had a stone in its shoe, or at least that’s what I thought and why I stopped. To check, to remove it and spare the horse the pain. No need to let it suffer, especially if the solution was so easy.”
“And was it a stone in the shoe?”
Adam smiled sheepishly. “I actually don’t know. The moment I tried to lift the beast’s hind leg it spooked. Threw everything everywhere, legs flailing, lotta fuss. One second I was bending down, reaching for the hoof, next I saw black.”
Blinding pain. Some part of him had known he’d been struck by a flailing hoof. Some other part had scolded him for being so careless, in a voice eerily reminiscent of his father. Unfamiliar horse, too close. And his head… “Always be mindful of your head.” Hadn’t Pa hammered that into him? Into all of them?
“Always be mindful of your head, Adam,” Hoss provided on cue. “And always listen to yer Pa.”
Adam raised a hand to his head, fingered at the now clotted blood on the sloppily administered bandage, and flinched. “I might have forgotten that particular lecture.”
“I reckon you did.” Hoss grinned. “Good thing I’ve done found you.”
“Yah, good that you did. You didn’t see the horse, though, did you?”
“Nope, sorry. There was no horse.”
“Might be a good thing, too. If the horse finds his way to the livery stable they’ll know something went wrong.”
Hoss nodded. “Chances are they’re smart enough to send someone to the Ponderosa. Then Pa and Joe will go and look for you. Find you. Bring you home and put you in your soft, clean bed. Get the doctor to look at that Yankee granite head of yours. Make Hop Sing feed you something hearty to put back some meat on that skinny chest.”
Adam resisted the urge to put an arm over his chest where his sweat-soaked shirt clung to prominent ribs. It was true, he used to have a stouter build. But a very busy life and the absence of Hop Sing’s cooking had rid him of every surplus ounce of fat. Regardless, at the moment food didn’t seem appealing at all, not even food prepared by Hop Sing. But a bed…clean linen, a soft blanket, a firm but comfortable mattress…those he’d rather get to sooner than later. The doctor wouldn’t be unwelcome, either.
“Why can’t you…I mean, get me up on your horse, let me ride piggyback. Build a travois…knock something together using this cot perhaps…just get me home. Will you?” He sounded ungratefully desperate, he realized.
Hoss suddenly looked uncomfortable. He squirmed on his seat, kneaded his fingers. Then gave Adam a disarming smile. “Happens, I don’t have a horse, either.”
“You lost your horse, too?” It was hard to believe. Hoss never…
“I…yeah. Lost it. T’ran away. Spooked, I reckon.”
“How on earth… Why, Hoss?” He shook his head, a spectacularly stupid decision as that sent spikes of pain to his skull and bouts of nausea to his guts. Black spots appeared at the edge of his vision, his ears started to ring with a buzzing sound. And as the room began to spin the buzzing grew louder and the spots grew more, they mixed and danced through every fiber of his body in synchrony with the ever faster spinning room.
Hoss’s voice barely made it through that chaos. “Sorry, I wasn’t… Adam? Listen, you gotta rest. And I read to you some more, why don’t I?”
Adam found himself unable to answer. The pull of the darkness was too strong and too enticing as it dragged him away from the urge to throw up, from the buzz and from the dance of the black dots. The last thing he was aware of was Hoss’s soft voice reciting, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…” and then he gave in to the void.
The void quickly morphed into a desert, and Adam found himself lying in the thick of it, face down, breathing dust and drinking sand, desperately wishing for someone to come and get him out of here.
Someone. Anyone? Pa. Solid, steadying Pa, who’d been his oak, his rock to lean on for all his life. Or Joe, resourceful and goodhearted, a challenge from the scream that had announced his arrival in Adam’s world to that latest letter he’d sent. Or Hoss.
Yes, let it be Hoss. His confidant, his conscience, his friend, unconditional in his love for him, the only one who’d at last tried to understand all facets of the enigma that was Adam Cartwright. The one who was able to see through him.
But he became aware that no one would come to his rescue, that he’d have to rescue himself. As he’d become accustomed to. He heaved himself on all fours, trying to ignore the way his right arm proved to be useless, trying to breathe through the agony, the vertigo, the disorientation—and eventually he was up, unsteady but up. The first staggering step sent him doubling over, retching the contents of his stomach into the sand. Miraculously he managed to stay upright—if he hadn’t he’d never have gotten up again. But then, just as he’d mustered up the courage for a second approach he heard someone calling him.
And he woke with a start.
“…you even hear what I’m reading to you?”
Hoss’s voice, so soft Adam wondered if his brother had even spoken to him or he’d merely talked to himself.
“B’side still waters,” Adam offered, entirely from memory, hoping that his slurred speech didn’t give it away.
“I don’t think you really did.”
So apparently he’d been seen through again. “Can’t fault me f’trying.” Speaking was an effort. Thinking, too. Everything was foggy, sluggish. There were images of faces, of places, snippets of conversation, of letters, shreds of music, laughter, weeping, all tumbling around like leaves in an autumn storm, nothing staying long enough at one place to catch it. And Adam was much too weary to try and chase after any of them.
“You’ve been conked out forever,” Hoss said, suddenly next to the bed. “Too long for my taste.”
He reached out, touched Adam’s brow so tenderly he didn’t even feel it, then stated, “You’re having a fever.”
There was no arguing here. The way he was sweating and freezing at the same time, the way he was perceiving the world around him and the turmoil in him as if through thick fog, the way he was finding either to be too exhausting to dwell in, it was obvious that he was running a temperature.
“’m just gonna sleep it off,” he slurred, already half asleep, but Hoss was having none of it.
“Can’t let you do that, Adam. You know how it is with a concussion. You gotta stay awake.” He gave Adam another feather light touch, then walked across the room. “Lookee here, Adam. The tub. Remember? You want to be in here, don’t you? Gotta put some effort into it then. Just a little longer.”
The tub. Warm water. Soap. Clean, soft bed, Pa’s hand on his brow, Joe’s arm keeping him propped up as he feeds him cool, fresh water…sunlight flittering through white curtains, birdsong, a horse’s whicker…nothing to worry about, no contracts to be fulfilled within the week, no clients, no noise. Quiet, peace, a place of unprecedented freedom. Home. You’re always welcome here…always…welcome…welcome…
“Doggone, Adam, you gotta open your eyes.”
He startled. The cabin, the tub, Hoss. Not home. No birdsong, no… But Hoss.
“Drink some, will ya? Come on, older brother, you need water if you want to get out of this whole mess. And it’ll keep you occupied, too.”
The canteen was still on the chair at the bedside, the water inside still stale, metallic tasting, yet sufficient in wetting his dry gums.
Hoss opened his mouth, but Adam beat him to it. “Justa sip,” he mimicked the earlier admonition between two takes. “Not makin’ m’self sick.”
Hoss grinned. “Atta boy!”
After the final swallow Adam saluted Hoss with the canteen and put it back. And with that spent what little energy he’d left. His eyes closed on their own volition.
“Darn it, no! Stay with me. Try to, at least for a spell.”
“’m here. ‘wake.”
“Good thing you are. Least you can do is stay awake if I’m stuck here with you. I had other plans for tonight, y’know.”
“Oh, come on, Adam, you ain’t that old! It’s Saturday night, where do you think I was heading when I found you?”
Saturday night. The night they used to spend in Virginia City. Bucket of Blood, Silver Dollar saloon, the theater if there was something on for which he could interest his brothers. Ida Menken…anything with music in it and without Shakespeare on the playbill.
Clearly, Hoss must have been on his way to Virginia City as he’d stumbled upon his injured brother. But where then was… “Joe?”
“At home. Nursing sweetheart troubles. Nothing new under the sun.”
Some things apparently didn’t change. “’pard cannot change spots,” he agreed.
Hoss frowned. “Well, some can. You can. Almost didn’t recognize you out there. Look at that beard of yours. Ainnit hot under it?”
“Doesn’t matter’n London. Not so hot there.”
“Ain’t making you any purtier, too. But I reckon you don’t have to look purty anymore, do you?”
No, he didn’t have to look pretty anymore. Or did he? He’d have to ask—and then bear the teasing he’d get for that. When he got home. Back. Back to…you’re always welcome…here or there? A person can’t be at two places at the same time, but right now that exactly was what he wanted. Two places were calling to him, and he didn’t want to decide for one. Like a child, he wanted everything. But you can’t have everything, can you?
And there was it again, the storm. He was caught inside the maelstrom of images, faces, places, sounds, smells, all dancing around him, seductively, mockingly, nauseatingly. This time around, giving in to the lure of it was even easier. He was so tired, his eyes so weary, his limbs so heavy, and the storm promised everything, and everything promised oblivion, sweet oblivion.
He faintly registered Hoss announcing to resume his reading, then, “He restoreth my soul…,” and he was out again.
This time he knew it was a dream. He was riding a spirited chestnut horse, Pa to his right, Joe and Hoss on the left. They crossed wide meadows, followed cattle trails through craggy rocks, then reached a broad road. He didn’t know where they were coming from, but he knew exactly where they were going to.
When he emerged from the enticing imagery after another indefinite time (and regrettably before they’d reached the ranch house), he was better. Not quite as hot, not quite as weary, his mind not quite as disorganized as before. And after a good swig from the canteen, his tongue didn’t stick to the roof of his mouth anymore, either.
Hoss seemed to immediately pick up on the change in Adam’s condition, and he jumped right back into their aborted conversation. “Wouldn’t have thought you’d forget our nights in the dance halls so easily,” he quipped.
Oh, Lord, how had he not thought of those? He was absolutely certain there wasn’t a single girl in Virginia City that could claim she’d never danced with a Cartwright at any one time.
Back then, it had been such a normal thing to do, an integral part of a young man’s life, and yet, after leaving the Ponderosa, he’d never attended a barn dance or gone to a dance hall. Oh, he’d been to dances in London. But those were different, more formal, not so guileless, more…purposeful. They never were just for the joy of it.
“Tell you what, once I’m back on my feet we’ll do that. Go to a barn dance, just the three of us.”
“Your wife wouldn’t mind that?”
His wife. “Cora doesn’t have to know everything.” He laughed softly. “But she wouldn’t mind anyway. If she were here, she’d probably want to join us. Not miss the spectacle. You’d like her, Hoss.” And Cora would like Hoss. Would love him. She already did, actually, just from what Adam had told her about him.
“I sure would like to meet her. And your little filly, too. How old is she now? Three?”
“Almost three, yes. She furrows her brow like Pa, can you imagine that? Other than that, she’s just like her mother. Same golden curls and just as beautiful.”
“Girl’s mighty lucky she doesn’t come after her old man on that regard.”
“I’m not old. I’m just—”
“You’re one to talk. There isn’t much growing on your head, either.”
Hoss ran a hand over his sparsely vegetated head and made a face. “S’been a long time since we last seen each other, hasn’t it?”
“Couple of years.”
“Lot of things’ve been happening.”
“Indeed. A lot…” Adam watched little pieces of dust dancing in the sunlight that came in from the window opposite of him. The sun had gone up again, another day had dawned. Sunday. It seemed a long time ago that he’d rented a horse at the livery stable in Virginia City to ride home to the part of his family he hadn’t seen for quite a while. Alone, as Beth seemed too young to be put under the stress of the long travel and Cora hadn’t wanted to leave their daughter for such a long duration.
It seemed a long time, even though little had happened: he’d had an accident, been saved by Hoss, and ever since then been bound to this cot and waited to get better and be strong enough to weather a soak in the tub or to be found and brought home by Pa and Joe—whichever came first.
In comparison, those past few years had been packed with occurrences. He’d left the Ponderosa, eventually moved to England, built up his own architecture business, had married, and become a father, to mention only the pinnacles. And all of that without his Pa and brothers.
“We missed you, y’know,” Hoss’s voice brought him back. “We didn’t know you anymore, and we missed you ‘round here.”
“But we…I send letters. You send letters. We always know about each other’s lives.”
“Ain’t the same, and you know it, Adam. Sometimes…sometimes you gotta be here. Not a letter. You.”
Adam closed his eyes. “I…yes. I accept that.”
“Pa needs you here. Joe needs you here. They wouldn’t admit it, well, Joe wouldn’t admit it, but they do. They need your…well, y’know, your reasoning, I guess.”
“You think so? They seemed to do pretty well without me. What about you, Hoss? Do you miss my reasoning?”
Hoss kneaded his fingers. “Y’see, Adam, you’ve been away for a long time. I stepped in for you being the oldest. Tried to talk sense into Joe. Help Pa out. Gave out lectures, even unwanted ones. Didn’t do too bad, I guess, but I’d rather done it with you at my back, telling me how to be better at it, even if I wasn’t asking fer it.”
Adam was torn between laughing and weeping. He decided for, “I’m sorry. Really, I wish I could have… But I had to leave, couldn’t have stayed much longer. For all its vastness, the Ponderosa…well, the whole territory was suffocating me. I’d have never achieved what I have if I’d stayed. I needed to do it.”
“You don’t have to apologize. I ain’t mad at you. I know you were bent on doing it, I know you weren’t happy here anymore. And look where you are now. Even found a girl brave enough to put up with you.”
“You don’t…feel let down by me?”
“Nah, why would I? I just regret that I never met… That I wasn’t a part of your life anymore. Would have liked to share the good times. And I missed having my older brother around. My counselor. My best friend.”
How Adam wished he could get up and wrap his arms around his brother. But try as he might, he was unable to push himself up. Instead, the struggle jarred his bad arm and woke the roar in his ears. He grunted in annoyance and disgust at his inability to be what his brother needed yet again.
“Don’t you worry none,” Hoss hushed. “It’s alright. No need to make yourself worse again. You just stay put and rest for a spell. Still haven’t read you the rest of the poem.”
Adam wanted to point out that it wasn’t called a poem but thought better of it—unwanted lectures and such—and soon was calmed down by Hoss’s soothing voice and the sacred words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Hoss stopped after the verse. “Better now?” he inquired.
“Much. Thank you.” Adam wondered if Hoss had chosen that particular psalm for a reason. Usually it would be read to a dying man—but he wasn’t dying. His head still hurt, and the curious mixture of numbness and dull pain in his right side told him he’d be incapacitated for quite a while. But he certainly didn’t have one foot in the grave.
Still, the psalm’s words resonated with him. He had walked…not through that valley but on unchartered grounds, and he’d never feared. He’d never been without a rod or staff: the knowledge of a loving family that would always have his back, their unwavering faith in him. And everything they’d taught him. Everything his life on the Ponderosa had taught him.
He was who he was not just because of what he’d accomplished but also because of what had shaped him to be who he’d been before. What he’d achieved, he couldn’t have achieved living on the Ponderosa, but he couldn’t have achieved it either without having lived there.
He laughed softly. Nothing better to bring on an epiphany than a concussion, it seems.
“What’s so funny?”
Ah, yes, he’d almost forgotten Hoss. Not an easy feat.
“I just realized that I’m a little thick. Apparently, I needed some sense knocked into me, and on that account I should be very grateful to the unfaithful rent horse.”
“Can’t say I never had that idea myself, too. And this time it worked?”
“Well, I just thought of…” Pa? The Ponderosa? Four men living in a huge ranch house that still seemed too small for all their…personalities. Four men who at their best together still made a formidable force of nature.
“At times, I miss my old life,” he eventually admitted. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m very content with my life now. My family, my business, London—Hoss, you’d hate it there at first. It’s noisy, crowded, busy, demanding. But it’s also beautiful. The parks, the churches, he streets… I’ve never seen buildings like that before. They’re magnificent. And the zoo—Hoss you gotta come and see it. Take Beth with you, she’ll insist you show her the giraffe, it’s her favorite. She’d spend the whole day watching it with you.”
“I sure would like that.”
“But sometimes, I miss the quiet. The slowness, the simplicity. To live by the rhythm of the seasons, to be able to sometimes take a break from performing. Working more with my body and less with my brain every once in a while.”
“But you always worked with your brain, Adam. And when you left, you said you wanted to do more brain work, and that you’re done with being a rancher.”
“I was wrong.” No, that’s not…that’s not it. He hadn’t been wrong. Not entirely. He wasn’t a rancher. But he was.
Yes, he was a rancher and at the same time he wasn’t, at least not exclusively. He was also an engineer and a businessman. A husband and a father, a son, a brother. He was so many things, and that was the crux of it.
He’d thought he was something different from a rancher when all the time he’d been something different and a rancher.
“You made a good show pretending you’re an architect those past years,” Hoss chimed in. “Coulda fooled me.”
“I fooled myself, that’s what I’ve done. Thought I needed to make it on my own, thought I had to leave one life to make the other possible. I thought they were two completely different lives. Hoss, I thought they were two different men. It never occurred to me they could be mixed. That I could only be either a rancher on the Ponderosa or an architect in London.”
“Honest, I don’t see how you could be both at the same time.”
“But that’s just it. I don’t have to be both at the same time. I can be either of them one after another.”
“Now you’re just makin’ my head spin. You sure that ain’t the concussion speaking?”
“I’m pretty sure I do the speaking part. And the thinking, too, clearer than for some time. This here, Hoss, the Ponderosa, is not just where I come from, not only the past. It’s the present, too. I just have to make it that.”
“Doesn’t make much more sense.”
“It does, oh, it does. The ranch, you, Pa, Joe are part of who I am. My roots. My daughter’s roots. And she deserves to know her roots, just as my father and brothers deserve to know the new branches of our family tree. Not at some time in the unforeseeable future when the business allows it, when Beth is older, when there are no pressing matters to deal with… They deserve it now.”
Hoss’s grin stretched from ear to ear. “Well, yeah, Adam, I couldn’t have said that better myself. Do it! Bring your family home. If not for good then for a while and make it a regular thing. Get your bearing together again, gather strength for that noisy, busy city. Show your little girl a new horizon. Teach her to ride. And let Pa enjoy being a grandpa, and Joe playin’ the uncle. I bet he’s great at that.”
“Don’t tell me you won’t rival Joe for that. One look at Beth’s curls and you’re gone. She’ll have you wrapped around her little finger in no time.”
Chewing on the wooden pick, Hoss pretended mulling it over before he conceded, “That sounds like me fer sure.”
“I expect you spare a little time for your older brother, too, though. I might have some saved unwanted lectures to deliver.” He gave Hoss a raised eyebrow and a half smile, then sobered and added, “I miss you, Hoss. I…you’ll be there for me, too, won’t you?”
“I’ll always be with you, Adam, you know that.”
And with that it was set. So simple. And it had just taken a concussion and a busted shoulder to get there.
They smiled at each other like two schoolboys who’d come up with the best scheme ever. Words weren’t needed anymore. The old familiar wordless understanding was back, the comfort they took from being in each other’s presence.
Peace filled Adam, boundless tranquility, and he allowed his mind to drift. From far away he heard Hoss reading, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”
He must have nodded off again, because the next thing he became aware of was the booming voice of his father. “Adam! Adam are you—” and then the sound of the door being banged open, “Over there, Pa!” and hurried footsteps.
Pa was peering down on him as he opened his eyes, a sight he’d not seen in years and yet so very familiar and most welcome.
“Adam, what…?” Pa’s voice cracked. “It’s good to see you, Son,” he said then and sank down on the cot.
“He sure looks as if he’d wrangled with a grizzly bear.”
Joe. Older, his hair wilder than ever—apparently Pa had finally given that fight up.
“Welcome to our lovely home from home. Sure took you long enough to find us.” He pursed his lips, raised an eyebrow. It was so easy to fall back into the old bantering.
But Joe looked…put off. “Well, you went missing yesterday morning, Williams from the livery stable came to the ranch in the afternoon to tell us your horse came back alone and lame. Now we’re here, and it’s not even noon. And you weren’t so easy to find. Good thing I remembered this old shack.”
Adam blinked. “I…it feels like days have gone by. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply…”
“It’s alright, Son. Time does funny things to you when you’re sick. The most important thing is that we found you. Now let’s get you out of here and into a proper bed.” Pa lifted himself up from the cot. “Help me get him up, Joe.”
They pulled him into a sitting position, Adam hissed, “Easy with the arm,” it still hurt the living daylight out of him, and when they finally had hauled him into standing, he was panting and drenched in sweat.
“Hoss promised me a bath for when I’m improved. I guess that’ll have to wait for home then.”
Joe, who’d started to open Adam’s shirt to examine his shoulder, frowned. “When did that happen?”
“Yesterday. Today. Ever since we’ve seen the tub. Tell them, Hoss.”
Pa looked startled, then checked Adam’s forehead with the back of his hand. “Hoss isn’t here, Adam.”
“If he was here, you wouldn’t be,” Joe said. Pa had spoken gently, Joe sounded bitter.
“That’s plain wrong. If not for Hoss, I wouldn’t here. He found me after the horse knocked me out and he brought me here. He was here at the table a minute ago—probably gone out to fetch water. Canteen’s almost empty.” He said it, but his words sounded flat to his own ears. Something was not right.
“You’re feverish,” Pa’s voice seemed to come from far away.
Joe jostled his good arm. “Hoss isn’t outside. Listen, Adam, he isn’t here. He hasn’t… You are here because he’s not. You only came home to…” He glanced at Pa, unhappy. “Because he…he’s…”
The agony of it was far greater than that of his marred shoulder or his concussed head. The excruciating realization, the brutal reemergence of his memory, the devastating knowledge that he’d come home to visit Hoss’s grave, to be with Pa and Joe in their shared grief. That his brother was dead. That he’d been alone all the time, and Hoss only a figment of his feverish imagination, that he would never cajole him into drinking water again or promise to prepare a bath or read from a book to him.
He must have dragged himself to the hut—like his dream had shown him—must have instinctively grabbed the canteen that had fallen down when the horse buckled. He must have collapsed onto the bed, and then lost all sense and succumbed to what his damaged head imagined and his heart desired.
And still, he was certain Hoss had saved his life. As so many times before, Hoss had helped him find his path.
“He’s dead,” Adam whispered. “And yet…he was with me, Pa. He was.”
“Dreams and memories, Adam. I’ve told you they are always there when you need them most.” Pa put his arm around Adam’s shoulders and squeezed, careful of the injured arm, just once. “Let’s get you home now, boy.”
He steered him towards the door, but passing the table, Adam stopped their progress.
On the table rested an open book. A bible. A small wooden pick lay on one side, marking the verse that read, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Adam closed his eyes.
“Are you coming?” he heard Joe calling from the door.
He closed the book and, after a short hesitation, slipped it into the pocket of his coat. He smiled. “Yes. Yes, I’m coming.”
Written for the 2020 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. The game was Five Card Draw and the words and/or phrases I was dealt were:
Other Stories by this Author
- The End (by faust)
- Brother (by faust)
- The Art of Serenading (by faust)
- Big Fish (by faust)
- Hope (by faust)