Summary: Ben reflects on how much life can change within the span of one month, especially when it involves one of his sons.
Word Count – 2922
The Roar of the Lion
Ah, what a beautiful Spring day. The air is fresh and clean, and the light breeze carries the scent of pine and wildflowers. It’s the perfect kind of day for working on the ranch. I’m just taking a short break from getting this corral ready for when my three boys get here. They’ve been up in the high country for the last few days rounding up some mustangs. I can barely make out a dust cloud just west of here so I figure they should be here in a few hours.
It’s funny how folks say that Spring is fickle, and the saying of ‘in like a lion, out like a lamb’ pretty well describes that fickleness, especially after all we went through about a month ago. As I take in the beauty of the hills, and the warmth of the day, any sign of winter is a vague memory now that we’ve reached the end of March. But that doesn’t keep some of those awful memories from sneaking back in and giving me chills once more. March certainly roared in like a fierce lion, and I feared that when it left it would take one of my sons with it.
Hard to believe an entire month has gone by since it all began, and the weather could not have been more opposite than what we’re having right now……
The front door banged against the sideboard as a strong wind knocked it from my grip.
“Hey, Pa, didn’t nobody tell ya not to bang the door when you come in?”
I threw a glare at Hoss as Joe broke out in his high pitched giggle, but my irritation didn’t last long. I had to laugh due to the hundreds of times I’d fussed at my boys for the same reason.
“Sorry boys, that wind got the best of me.”
“Say, where’s Adam?”
I hung up my hat then shrugged off my coat. “Finishing with the horses. I wanted to get the payroll to the safe.
Hoss rose out of the blue chair. “Reckon I best go help him.”
The door swung open again, and I barely dodged being hit by it. “No need, I’m all done. Boy, it’s cold enough out there to freeze a polar bear’s tail off.” Adam blew on his hands after hanging up his hat.
“Son, would you mind closing the door so that wind doesn’t extinguish the fire in the fireplace?”
“Oops, sorry Pa.”
As I took off my gunbelt, Adam strolled over to the fire to warm himself. When I headed to the safe with the saddle bags, he returned to the sideboard to shed his coat and gunbelt. As soon as I closed the safe, Hop Sing announced dinner. I was glad it was venison stew. After the cold ride from town, it was going to take something hot and hardy to warm up these old bones. It seemed my boys agreed as Hoss and Joe enjoyed several servings. Adam on the other hand was still on his first bowl.
“Boys, slow down and leave some extra for Adam and myself.”
“That’s okay Pa. I’m not that hungry.”
With a concerned eye, I watched my eldest rise and move to his favorite chair and pull it closer to the fire. Drawn back to something Hoss asked me, I filed it away for later. It had been a viciously cold ride home that sucked the heat right out of us. I’m sure a hot bath and warm bed would be the cure for both of us.
A few days later, the cold winds had not abated, and working out in them became a challenge to staying warm. Despite being early March, Old Man Winter was determined not to relinquish it’s icy grip on us. Although my sons argued for me to stay home, I rode with them to check the herds and make sure they had plenty of hay. By the time we arrived home each day, we were all half frozen. But it was worth it because it kept up the morale of the men as they joked that we were as cold as they were. I didn’t mind the teasing, since I knew it built loyalty among the hands, and that’s what kept them staying on year after year.
I was becoming frustrated that it was nearly Spring and we should be getting ready for roundup and moving the herds. Instead, we were still experiencing icy winds, blowing snow, and struggling to keep the herds fed. Adam suggested that we schedule the work in shifts with one of us going with a few men. That way everyone else could stay warm and work on the jobs closer to home. I thought that sounded reasonable and told him to set up the schedule. Hoss and Joe took the first shifts, as I wanted to work on several contracts with Adam. As we worked, I noticed he was quieter and slower in his thinking processes.
“Son, we’ve been going at this pretty hard. You look like you could use a break.”
“No, Pa. I’m fine. Let’s keep going. I really want to finish this before dinner.”
“You’re sure there’s nothing bothering you?”
“I said I’m fine.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck for the umpteenth time today. “Sorry Pa. Guess I’m just wondering, like everyone else, if Spring is ever going to arrive.”
I chuckled and reached over to squeeze his arm, and share a smile with him. I knew my eldest never liked our winters for the cold and being cooped up for long periods. I certainly couldn’t disagree about this winter, so I dropped the topic. We finished the contracts that evening after two long days of hammering out the wording on each one. It was a good thing as it was Adam’s turn the next day to check one of the herds.
He rode out about midmorning with half a dozen men, to check the herd closest to the house. It was about an hour’s ride and thankfully the snow had stopped and the winds were dying down as well. Before he left, he reminded me they wouldn’t be back until mid-afternoon. I watched as he and the men rounded the barn, then I returned to the warmth of the house. As I closed the door, a shiver hit me that had nothing to do with the temperature outside. Shrugging it off I headed to my desk to catch up on correspondence. After a day full of chores for the boys, and much paperwork for me, Hop Sing alerted us that dinner would be ready in an hour. Leaving my desk and stretching the kinks out of my back, I checked the clock and my watch. It was nearly five o’clock and Adam wasn’t back.
“Hoss, go check the barn and see if your brother or the men have gotten here yet.”
“Sure, Pa. Come on, Joe. You can help me tend the animals while we’re out there.”
Joe rose reluctantly from his warm perch on the hearth and donned his coat, following his brother out to the barn.
To keep myself from pacing, I settled in my chair by the fire and reached for the paper. I barely made it to the second page when I heard thunderous footsteps.
“Pa!!” That was Hoss and he was kicking at the door.
As I flew from my chair pages of the newspaper floated to the floor. I flung the door open and was nearly knocked over by Hoss pushing past me with Adam in his arms.
“Adam? Hoss, what happened?”
“Don’t know Pa.” Hoss made a beeline for the stairs and I ran to keep up with him. “Dan brought him back like this. He was barely sittin’ his horse. I heard ‘em ride in an’ happened to be near Sport just in time ta catch Adam as he slid outta the saddle. Pa, he’s burnin’ up. Dan said they sent someone for the Doc.”
When we reached the bed I joined Hoss in getting Adam out of his clothes and under the covers. It worried me that my son hardly responded to anything we did. He would moan some, then cough, then go quiet. Hop Sing appeared with fresh water and towels, felt Adam’s forehead, then mumbled something about herbs before he disappeared. Hoss and I began to dampen the towels and laid them on Adam’s forehead and over his bare chest, hoping to get the fever down. Each time my hand passed over him I could feel the heat. I never knew anyone could be that hot. Hop Sing eventually returned with some herbal tea which we managed to get into my son, one slow spoonful at a time.
It was well into the evening when the doctor finally arrived and I was dismayed that it wasn’t Paul Martin. As I rushed the doctor upstairs, I overheard part of Carl’s explanation.
“Sorry, it took so long, Hoss. Doc Martin was at one of the mines. A couple of men fell down a shaft. So I rode for Carson City to fetch the doc from there.”
At the top of the stairs I glanced back and saw Hoss compensate Carl for the extra effort. In Adam’s room, Joe and Hop Sing were tending to him and the doctor brusquely asked Joe and me to wait downstairs with Hoss. I started to protest but Joe tugged my arm to get me out the door.
“The sooner the doctor gets started Pa, the sooner we learn what’s wrong with him. Hop Sing will keep an eye on everything.”
I had to admit Joe was right, but I still didn’t like it.
An eternity later, we heard footsteps above, and all three of us shot to the foot of the steps and looked upward.
“Doctor?” He paused at the bottom of the stairs and focused his worried expression on me.
“He’s got a bad fever, it looks like he might be developing pneumonia. Has he had this kind of illness before?”
I nodded but couldn’t get a clear thought out. Hoss stepped in, “Yeah, Doc, a couple of times. Seems any cold he gets goes straight to his chest, but it’s been quite a while since he’s been sick.”
The doctor gave a single nod to Hoss and turned back to me. “It looks like your son may have had this one for a while. He’s a very sick man, Mister Cartwright. I’ve left medicines with your cook, along with instructions.”
I know I went three shades of white as the room began to spin. “Pneumonia, not again. My son, doctor? Is he –”
The doctor studied me for a moment then stepped off the last step to the floor.
“It’s out of my hands. The next few days are going to be rough. I recommend staying close to him.”
And with that pronouncement he made a prompt exit.
I leaned against the railing for a moment to gather my strength, then headed up the stairs as quickly as my legs could manage.
Hoss and Joe followed. “Pa, we’ll watch Adam, you need to get some rest.”
“No!” Turning and seeing my sons’ stricken faces I softened my tone. “Thank you, I know you boys are worried but I’ll stay with him for a while. You both get some rest.”
“Call us if you need anything.”
I nodded and disappeared into Adam’s room. This night was going to be a long one. Hop Sing showed me the medicine, the tea, and fresh towels. Then with one last forlorn look at Adam, he silently bowed and left us alone.
I pulled the chair close, rested my elbows on the bed and began to pray. After a time, I stopped, gave Adam tea, the medicine, wiped him down with cool water and returned to praying. That was my ritual for most of the night.
During the first hours, Adam was restless, agitated, fighting the beast that held him in its vicious grip. His breathing became ragged and choked, then almost inaudible at times. His skin was almost fiery to the touch so I finally cracked the window to bring in some cool and fresh air. Returning to the bedside, I reached for the Bible on the nightstand, and noticed Elizabeth’s music box.
Memories flooded my weary mind as I wound it up and opened the lid. Closing my eyes while the music played I could almost imagine her standing by the bed. In my thoughts I spoke to her, begging her not to let Adam leave, to allow our son to stay with me a while longer. In my exhausted mind, I felt her gentle touch and heard her soft voice, “He’s not ready yet, Ben. Be patient. Rest. Pray.”
“Elizabeth, don’t leave. Please stay with us.”
I felt a softness beneath my head, reminding me of the time I rested my head against her skirts as we sat under an old elm tree. I relaxed into it and, as I listened to my dear Elizabeth humming the tune from the music box, I drifted off to sleep.
Another two days passed with no change. Paul stopped by, and concurred that we were doing all the right things, and he gently confirmed that it would take time for the fever to break. During those days the boys and Hop Sing took the day shifts leaving the nights for me. They knew better than to argue about that. It was during the blackest of nights that I needed to be beside my son, to let him know I was there. I guess it was from all those times on the trail, to keep my young son from being afraid. This time though perhaps it was to keep me from being afraid, to keep me hoping and praying this illness wouldn’t take him from me.
For a third night I repeated what had become my ritual. Cover him with cool cloths, feed him tea and medicine, and pray. I would also crack the window, knowing how much Adam preferred the cool night air. When I was too exhausted to remain awake I’d take to reading the Bible and praying, while Elizabeth’s music box played in the background. When sleep claimed me at last, she would always appear, humming the tune, and promising it was too soon for Adam to join her. In those dreams I found the peace and faith I needed to keep going.
As dawn’s light edged into the room, serenity flooded over me while I slept. When I became aware of something brushing against my head, Elizabeth disappeared and the music faded. As wakefulness crept in I shivered, realizing how cold I was. I felt a nudge this time and slowly raised my head, grimacing at the stiffness in my neck. Forcing my eyes to focus, I remembered where I was, and reality hit me…Adam! I turned his way and found him staring at me with glassy eyes. As we made contact he managed to lift one corner of his mouth.
“Adam….” I grabbed at his hand and felt a weak squeeze, then he closed his eyes, his chest barely moving. “Adam? Adam! No!”
He struggled to open his eyes again. “Cold.” The word was more like a wheeze, his voice was so weak.
Cold…cold? Coming to my senses, I felt his forehead. It was still warm, and clammy, but not as hot and dry as the fire that had burned in him for days. Cold, oh yes, the window.
Through my fog, I managed to get to the window and shut it and start a small fire in the heater. Then I stumbled back to the bed, realizing the stiffness in my body.
There were those hazel eyes again.
“Sorry son, I left the window open too long. But your fever’s gone. You’re going to be alright.”
There was more of a smile this time, then he tried to speak again. I leaned close to hear him.
Frowning I couldn’t think what he meant, then I noticed the music box resting in the bed covers. Sending a smile upward, I reached for the keepsake, wound it up and set it to playing.
“It kept me company while I sat here each night.”
“Me…too.” My son wheezed and tried to smile once more, then let his eyes fall closed. This time I didn’t panic. I knew my son was just sleeping. Nothing more than just sleeping.
I laid my head back down and closed my eyes. Fingers lightly threaded through my hair as I drifted back to sleep. In my dream, Elizabeth and I were dancing, and Adam was standing off to the side watching, and smiling.
Thundering hooves and my son’s rich voice brought me back to the present. “Hey, Pa. Wait till you see the horses we’ve brought. Hoss and Joe will be here soon. I rode ahead to make sure the corral was ready.”
When I saw Adam’s big grin that pushed out those dimples and reached his tawny eyes, oh so like his mother, my heart filled with joy. Yes, it’s a beautiful day, and I’m going to enjoy sharing it with my sons…all three of my wonderful sons.
WHIB and WHN for Elizabeth, My Love
Other Stories by this Author
- A Splendid Laugh (by AC1830)
- The Mitten Angels (by AC1830)
- The Light Inside (by AC1830)
- Lo, I Am With You (by AC1830)
- The Cartwright Vigil (by AC1830)