Summary: Adam and Hoss are lost and must make their own way home on different paths.
Rated: T (13,885 words)
© June 2005 – Updated: May 2007
Feedback is appreciated
The One Somewhere in the Night
Hoss Cartwright squinted into the sun that shone down upon him. He was laying flat on his back at the bottom of a ravine. Unsure how he’d gotten there, he lay still, collecting his straying thoughts, thinking it might be wise to at least sit up. Little did he know what a chore that would be.
Starting with a slight roll to the right he came to an abrupt stop as the sun whizzed about his head, the thudding of his heart pounding in his ears as his blood rushed through his body as if on some important mission. He shut his eyes.
My, this might take an hour or two.
After a few moments he tried again only to be sidelined this time by the bones in his left arm grinding together to pull a cry from him. Dropping his head to the ground he wondered how many more stars could dance before his eyes before everything went dark, and sighed. Choosing to stay in this position lest another heavenly body cascade towards him, he tried glancing about without moving hoping that might provide him with some information. His sight fell on Chubb.
Standing silently next to his master, head hung down, Chubb looked just plain miserable. The saddle hung unnaturally from his back and he was covered in dust and dirt, cuts and lacerations could be seen oozing blood down his hind legs. Funny markings in the dirt behind him drew Hoss’s attention, taking in the evidence of the long slide they’d both taken down the side of the ravine and a thought occurred.
Wasn’t there someone with me or was I alone?
Pondering on the matter just made his head hurt more so he decided to do the next best thing.
“Is anyone here?!” he shouted, the words rumbling about him. Chubb’s head came up at his master’s voice and he turned, ears forward, and stepped toward him with a welcoming nicker. No other answer met his call. “Well, at least yer here boy.” Tentatively reaching up a trembling hand, he rubbed Chubb’s head. Now he might not know where he was or why they’d taken a plunge into a ravine, but he did know one thing – he’d better get up for both their sakes. The air was getting colder by the minute.
Surmising the distance from where he lay to the nearest rock to be a quick scramble, Hoss pushed himself slowly to his knees and crawled towards the slope in one swift movement, daring the heaven’s to descend upon him again. Grabbing hold of the rock, nausea worked its way up his throat.
Now is not the time to lose my lunch.
Swallowing repeatedly and running a hand through his hair to distract himself, he found a large lump at the back of his head, fingers trailing through the blood that collected there and trickled down his neck. Neckerchief in hand, he carefully dabbed at the wound, the effort making him suck in a breath followed by a random thought of where his hat might be. Surprised at himself, he chuckled and returned thoughts to something a bit more important – standing up.
“Stand still fer a minute, Chubb, ‘til I can git my bearin’s,” he stated grabbing onto the trailing reins and slowly inching to his feet using the rocks to balance himself.
The ground wiggled this way and that in an obvious attempt to knock him flat but he was bound and determined not to give in. Gritting his teeth, he held on until the wavering stopped then smiled. Two great feats accomplished in the space of thirty minutes – he’d gotten his feet under him and he hadn’t thrown up! That was enough to make anyone happy.
“Ok, boy,” he began, holding tightly to the reins. “Let’s see if’n both of us can walk.”
Finding his own legs shaky but working, he peered back at his horse as they moved making sure his legs were working despite his obvious injuries. He smiled again.
“Well, lookee there ol’ Chubb. You and me could go square dancin’ we’re so light on our feet.” Chubb shook his head and Hoss clapped him on the neck, a cloud of dust rising from his coat to make him cough. He needed to do something for his friend.
Spying snow within scooping distance, Hoss applied it to Chubb’s injuries who skittered away from the touch until Hoss’s calm whispering settled him, his ministrations leaving bloody water to drip through his fingers. Satisfied that was all he could do at present, Hoss moved onto himself.
Leaning back against the saddle and easing out of his jacket, he dropped it to the ground. Pulling his belt off next, he made a sling and slipped his injured left arm through it. A cursory glance at the rest of him didn’t produce any worry so he turned an eye to Chubb, adjusting the blanket and saddle then the cinch, tossing the reins back over his neck to complete the package. Awkwardly mounting, he sat for a spell, making sure he was going to stay put, then craned back his head one last time to view the top of the ravine. He was sure he’d lost something besides his hat but he just couldn’t remember what. He shrugged.
“It’ll come ta me. Let’s go home, Chubb.” He let the animal go at his own pace and the two slowly disappeared out of the ravine.
* * * * *
Floating over a field of white, the sound of a flock of birds singing their hearts out in the nearby trees came to him and he wondered what that was licking his forehead. Adam Cartwright slowly opened his eyes to a soft muzzle and a long tongue on his face. He smiled.
“I see you, Sport,” came his whisper as he raised a hand to comfort the animal only to gasp at the sharp pain that that simple movement caused. It was then he noticed the pounding in his head that was increasing with each passing second and he could feel something dripping off his ear. Wishing for a brief moment to be floating once again over that beautiful white field without a care in the world, he closed his eyes.
Just for a moment.
His hopes of a peaceful slumber were crushed when Sport butted him on the shoulder and his eyes shot open. Snorting in his face to show visible breath to his master, Sport butted him again.
“Getting cold, I see,” Adam commented realizing that the ground beneath him was numbing his back and legs and the breeze above him was becoming quite icy. Wasn’t exactly a good idea to just lie here and freeze to death. His tombstone rose before his eyes – ‘Adam Cartwright – Froze to death being a dumbass’.
Chuckling, he raised his arm again, slowly this time, with the intent of finding out what was dripping off his ear. Finding a deep slice on his forehead, he drew back bloody fingers. The blood was already coagulating in the cold air so at least he wouldn’t bleed to death before he froze to death – a point in his favor. Looking up, he discovered the sun hanging a bit lower in the sky then spied big fat clouds gathering to the north. Snow was coming.
“Well, old man,” he said to Sport. “I believe we’d better make haste if we’re to beat the weather. Let’s see if I can get up.”
Attempting to roll over was pointless since the ground seemed to move with him as he tried. Disconcerting as it was, he knew he couldn’t let a little thing like gravity stop him from his goal and tried again, this time with a little help from Sport bouncing his muzzle off his shoulder then butting up against his back.
Resting on his left side with eyes tightly shut, his breath came in quick gasps and groans as his head planted itself firmly upon the earth. He was sure his brain would explode any time now from the pounding hammers on display at this very moment. Taking a second to gather what little thoughts remained in his head, he opened his eyes then quickly shut them at the sight they beheld.
“Oh, shit,” he cursed, that word summing up his present situation very well thank you. The object of his curse had made his stomach flip-flop so much he thought it might bounce right out of his mouth.
Maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw. Open your eyes!
Obeying himself, open they popped and he cringed. He hadn’t been mistaken.
“Oh, shit,” he repeated.
What had so flustered him wasn’t the fact that his right pant leg was bloody and ripped to the knee or that his shin was bent at an awkward angle. What got him was the ragged bone poking out of his skin over the boot. His racing heart made his headache worse and threatened the lunch he’d had not too long ago so it took a moment to realize that despite this injury nothing else hurt but his head. Odd.
“It must be the cold,” he mumbled knowing that if he didn’t work fast he really could bleed to death. Taking long deep breaths of the chilly air, his foggy mind began to clear. “Calm yourself and think.” Ah, two very important things to do in a crisis. Taking another moment he decided it was time to put his addled brain to work.
The first and only thought that arrived was something he would normally dismiss outright but seeing as he had no other choice it seemed to be the only way around his current situation and the thought made him queasy: setting his own leg. For that he would need a brace for his foot, a cabinet full of whiskey and whole lot of willpower. Being that he was lying on the cold hard ground over a day’s ride from home without a bottle of booze in sight, all he had to work with was willpower. It would have to do. Direction decided he slowly righted himself to rest on his elbows, scanning the area for something to anchor his leg. A rock pile a few feet away gave him an idea.
Grimacing at the effort it took to roll onto his knees, still feeling uneasy that nothing else hurt, he crawled toward the rocks finding exactly what he needed within minutes of searching – two rocks worn through by years of weather creating an almost perfect “V”. Easing his injured leg between them he sat his other foot on the rock to the left. One good push and they could get a move on. He was ready.
“Ok, let’s do this,” Adam said more to himself than to Sport who watched with great interest. “One . . . two . . . three.” Nary a muscle moved. “Coward,” he grumbled as Sport nickered, making him scowl. “I’d like to see you try this,” he retorted as Sport nickered again flinging his head up and down. Adam just knew he was enjoying himself. “Ha, ha, ha.” An eagle call pulled his attention to watch its northward flight partially obscured by those incoming clouds. Determination on his face, he turned back to his leg. “Ok, get a move on, Cartwright. Just push! One . . . two . . . th . . .”
As ‘three’ barely became a formed word, his left foot pushed, his right leg caught as expected and the bone disappeared back through the skin as if it’d never been displaced. Oh, his lofty idea of the cold numbing his pain quickly flew out the window as a wall of fire descended and a hearty scream rose disturbing the birds from their perches. Their angry cries followed him as he lost a quick battle to stay conscious and fell back to the cold hard ground to drift back over that field of white.
* * * * *
Ben Cartwright’s head snapped up from the contract he’d been studying and shivered. An overwhelming urge to go to the front door propelled him out of his chair and, in four big steps, he found himself looking out into the yard.
“What the matter?” Hop Sing asked peeking his head around the corner.
“I don’t know,” Ben said with a shrug. “I just got a . . . shiver. Thought I heard something.”
Ben shook his head. “Sounded like someone shouting.”
“Who?” Ben just shrugged.
“Boys be home soon,” Hop Sing encouraged then shook his head. “Worry too much.” He headed back to his kitchen as Ben grinned, then returned his gaze out the front door. Something or someone had called . . . he was sure of it. Shaking his head, he closed the door and moved back to the chair and the contract.
The feeling of something cold and wet on his face made his brow furrow. When it continued he decided he should open his eyes and see what it was – it was snowing.
Sport whickered as he approached, Adam making sure the tumble he’d taken hadn’t injured his legs . . . He started.
“The tumble?” Glancing around it suddenly came rushing back.
There’d been four men who’d fallen on them just as a snow squall struck when they’d been returning home from a two day venture to the line shacks, and gunplay ensued. They’d run, Hoss taking down two men, Adam another, until surefooted Sport tripped and fell, rolling over him before he could get clear of the saddle. Lying stunned he’d heard more shots then Chubb’s scream of fright, lifting his head in time to see both he and Hoss disappear over the very rock pile in which he now lay.
Eyes wide, he frantically hunted for any evidence of his brother’s whereabouts. There was nothing, not even a trail . . . except for . . . His breath caught at the sight of a very familiar hat lying before him.
“Oh, God,” was heard as he realized the possible implications. “Hoss! Hoss!” Struggling to remove his leg from the rocks, he crawled toward his brother’s hat grasping it tightly, knowing he’d have to climb to the top of the pile to see for himself what lay at the bottom.
As quickly as he was able, he worked his way up the rocks, grunting and panting until he thought he’d pass out, finally cresting the pile to peer into the 15’ drop. Staring into the lengthening shadows that inundated the area produced nothing but strained eyes and more headache. Cupping hands over his mouth, he shouted his brother’s name over and over until the pounding in his head forced him to stop. He had to get down there. He had to find his brother!
Desperate for some way down, his searching eyes landed on a break in the rocks. Knowing nothing would keep him from finding his brother, he turned to find Sport watching him from a distance. Preparing to call him over, a trail of blood leading up to his position on the rocks brought his attention back to his wound. Hoss could wait a few more minutes. It wouldn’t do to collapse before he could even get to him.
Pulling off his arm out of his jacket, he yanked at his shirt sleeve until the stitching gave way. A blast of cold air crept through him and he quickly donned his jacket, stretching the sleeve about his shin as tightly as he could bear, then tugged a bandana from his pocket and wrapped that about the sleeve. As he tightened his makeshift bandage, the world became a kaleidoscope of color and raw pain attacked him turning his knuckles white as he clasped onto the rocks. He willed himself to stay conscious.
Can’t pass out now! Have to find Hoss!
As his breathing regulated, he managed to call Sport to him and grabbed a stirrup, hauling himself onto his good leg. Not giving in to the dizziness that filled him, he leaned against the saddle and grabbed the pommel, pulling himself up until he could catch the left stirrup then drag his injured leg over the side. Clipping the saddlebag made him gasp and grab Sport’s mane in hopes of not tumbling back to the ground as his world spun. It worked and, moments later, he managed to gather the reins and right himself, urging Sport through the break and onto the dodgy trail beyond. The waning light made the going difficult but Sport picked his way carefully along the dim trail as snow continued to fall, Hoss’s hat forgotten behind them.
I’ll buy him a new hat.
Craning his neck as they descended, his eyes missed nothing, cursing his luck at the deep shadows that filled the ravine. If he’d only awoken an hour earlier this would’ve been much easier.
If wishes were horses . . .
Shrugging off the thought he let Sport maneuver them around the large rocks that populated the area soon to arrive at the spot where Adam had seen slide marks. He suddenly looked away. Now that he was here what if he found Hoss? What then?
Deal with it then!
Steeling himself, he turned back and was surprised to find . . . nothing. No man, no horse, no nothing. This didn’t make sense. Thirty minutes later, he’d searched every bit of the ravine and still there was nothing except . . . there was something near the first place he’d stopped.
Using his rifle, Adam leaned over and picked up what looked like a jacket . . . Hoss’s jacket. Relief washed through him. He’d been here. Hoss had been here but where was he now and why hadn’t he come looking for him?
“Hoss!” he yelled. “Where are you?!” No comforting answer meet his ears just an echo of his own voice pounding at his head. He shivered. The temperature was dropping again. Sliding on his brother’s jacket the added warmth spread across his bruised chest and arms reminding him that Hoss didn’t have this small luxury. Slipping the rifle back into its scabbard, he patted Sport’s neck.
“Maybe he headed home to get help.” Sport snuffled and flung his head up. “Like we should be, I know,” he answered with a half smile. “Well, if we hurry we might catch him on the road. Come on.”
The two headed out, the same nagging thought interrupting his relief – why hadn’t Hoss come looking for him? They’d both been attacked, both went down and yet he was the only one left behind. Had Hoss been knocked senseless and didn’t know where he was or who he was? The failing light made it impossible to see any tracks along the trail. Maybe Hoss had ridden off in another direction?
“Stop,” he chastised, Sport’s ears flicking back. It didn’t do to make stuff up just to fill in the blanks and besides it was making his headache worse. He rubbed his forehead, careful of the gash, and scrunched down further into Hoss’s coat. Even if his brother had a concussion and wasn’t thinking straight he surely would’ve headed home. Wherever else would he go? Chubb would see him through; get him where he should be.
Tears filled his eyes. What if he couldn’t find him? What if he’d lost him to the snow and the night? How would he tell his father and brother that he, the oldest, the one responsible, had lost his brother? He shook his head. Doubt was a horrible thing. It gave nothing but torment and let in thoughts that were normally held at bay by his analytical mind. He decided that his thinking process was not only slowed by the cold but by a 2-ton horse rolling over him. The faster they moved along this trail the sooner he’d find his wayward brother and the sooner they’d get home.
He grinned then satisfied that, this time at least, he’d outsmarted his brain and talked himself into believing what could be the only outcome. That wouldn’t last long.
* * * * *
A wolf picked her way through the tall trees, her white coat blending nicely with the surrounding snow and her breath leaving a frosty trail in the air as she moved. Smells of blood and death were everywhere and she thought there might be an easy dinner for her kits as four dark shapes strewn about the snow came into sight.
Licking her lips and starting forward, a sound made her duck behind a tree, her vigilant eyes noting someone leaping from an approaching horse near one of the shapes then moving onto the next, then the next until finally coming to a halt as the fourth shape loomed. A wail began startling the wolf back undercover.
“Jimmy!” came the cry as the man dropped to his knees, hands gently turning the shape onto its back and hoping against hope it was still alive. The sight of a red muffler struck against the man’s eyes and he gasped.
“My Lord, Jimmy, what’ll I tell Ma?” Blood streaked the white face from the bullet hole in his forehead while dead eyes gazed upward. “What’ll I tell Ma?” he repeated pulling Jimmy into an embrace, burying his face against his neck. So much time together, so many days spent fishing and hunting, all gone in an afternoon. He looked up, seeing what his brother saw with the last of his sight thinking it was a barren rock filled dirt hole that didn’t deserve to be his brother’s last resting place.
“What happened, Jimmy? This was an easy target, easy money. Four again’ two. Better odds than I give ya to live past five what wit’ yer breathin’ an’ all. Ma was right. Ya ain’t cut out fer this line o’ work. Yer still too young. I shoulda sent ya packin’ the minute ya joined me on the road but I liked yer company, I surely did. Ya made me laugh.” He pulled his brother away from him then, returning him gently to the ground smoothing out his jacket and tightening his muffler. He smiled, patting him on the chest.
“Now don’t go frettin’ none ‘cause I’m goin’ after them two. They’ll pay fer what they done. You can bet yer last dollar on that one, Jimmy. Ya’ll see from up there when I take ‘em down.” He crossed his brother’s hands over his chest and closed his dead eyes. “We’ll bury ya right next to Pa, right under the cherry tree. Ya always liked it when the cherry blossoms fell in the yard.” He laughed a bit. “I hated it since I had ta clean it up ‘til ya got old enough for me ta pawn it off on ya.” He wiped tears from his face with his dirty sleeve then stood and looked about the area.
There was no visible evidence of what happened or where the two murderers had gone but his roving eye did catch something out of place by the rock pile. Curious, he scrunched through the snow and picked it up, turning the object in his hand. It was a hat and not just any hat but a white ten-gallon hat. One of the two had worn a hat like that.
His eyes traveled up and down the rock pile looking for anything that might point him in the right direction, finding the break and a barely discernible trail stretching beyond it. Angrily tossing the hat aside, he headed toward his horse, his steps taking him back to his brother where he paused.
“Don’t ya go nowheres, Jimmy. I’ll be back ta take ya home.” Quickly mounting, he eyed his brother one last time and headed toward the trail.
The wolf waited a minute or two then scurried out from behind the tree. Dinner still waited and her kits were still hungry.
Hoss’s stomach grumbled and visions of Hop Sing’s roast beef and those glorious biscuits came to mind. Damn, he could even smell it. ‘First law of survival – food’ his father would say.
“But I ain’t near starvin’.” Chubb’s ears flicked back toward his master’s voice who was startled to hear it himself. Looking about to see if he’d been caught talking to himself, he suddenly remembered he was out in the cold alone, a cold that seeped into every joint, every muscle, even making his eyes hurt.
The concept of time had flown from him. How long since the ravine or even if he was headed in the right direction passed through his head but didn’t perch. Chubb was walking in a specific direction, or so he thought, so why should he even suspect that he wasn’t headed home to a nice warm stall and a full bucket of oats. Oats. Oatmeal. Now that sounded good.
The idea of food was dislodged from his disengaged thoughts as a groan escaped him. Rubbing his forehead and grimacing at the intense pain that had settled in his neck, he tried to squint away the sparkles filling his vision.
What is that anyway?
Blinking didn’t work so he squinted again, straining through the darkness at the lights that bobbled then disappeared then relit themselves.
It’s just the moon.
His addled brain clogged with a large cotton ball was obviously interfering with his common sense. It was snowing and the sky was overcast. There was no moon in sight. But he seemed satisfied and closed his eyes for a short second only to find himself slowly sliding from the saddle as Chubb unexpectedly stumbled. A weak grab for the pommel missed and he landed with a soft thud in the snow, rolling over to catch sight of Chubb continuing on without him. Calling out came to mind but it never made it to his voice which probably couldn’t have gotten past his chattering teeth anyway.
Dadburnit! Joe’s gonna eat everything before I can get home!
Deciding that being left out in the cold, both figuratively and literally, was for the birds, he managed to stand and continued down the road after Chubb’s disappearing form.
Adam’ll keep him from eating everything. Jest keep walkin’.
His feet moved on their own. No instructions were coming at them to keep them moving but somehow, after walking for who knew how long, his foot struck a wall, a wall that turned into a barn . . . his barn as a matter of fact. And, what do you know, but there stood Chubb near the closed barn door waiting to be let in.
“Thanks fer waitin’.”
He probably should take Chubb inside, get his saddle off and clean up his legs, but those lights from the house were terribly inviting.
So it wasn’t the moon.
“See how you like bein’ left out in the cold,” he tossed over his shoulder as he headed for the warmth offered before him. Chubb ignored him and turned back to the barn door. Hearing Buck inside, he fiddled with the latch until it swung open.
Ah, warm at last.
Hoss noticed nothing behind him. All he could think about was getting inside; getting close to that fire he knew burned brightly in the hearth; nearer the kitchen where Hop Sing was sure to have something to eat. But the door kept moving further away. Reaching out in hopes of bringing it closer only tipped him off balance and down he went, falling flat to bang his head on the stoop.
Who put the door here?
Darkness came and he gratefully accepted it.
* * * * *
“Would you look at that,” Joe said to Charlie Porter as the two made their way into the yard. The barn door stood wide open, Chubb standing sullenly inside. “My brother says to me last week how come I haven’t picked up after myself and he doesn’t even put up his own horse.”
Charlie’s smile faded when his eyes moved from Joe to Chubb. Something wasn’t right. Dismounting, he made his way to the animal and ran a hand down one of his hind legs. He pulled away a bloody hand.
“Joe, he’s had a fall,” he announced holding up the evidence. Jumping off Cochise, Joe watched as Charlie ran a hand down Chubb’s other leg. “Both legs right up the back like he slid down something.” They exchanged a look and Joe turned swiftly toward the house, his quick step turning into a run at the sight of a shape in the snow near the front door.
“Hoss!” he yelled kneeling next to his fallen brother as the side door popped opened to reveal both Hop Sing and Ben.
“What big ruckus?” Hop Sing called as Ben pushed past him and hurried toward his fallen son as Joe and Charlie eased him onto his back. “Get into house,” Hop Sing ordered running to open the front door.
Between the three of them, they got the big man to his feet and half-carried, half-dragged him to the guest room off the dining room. Stripping him, they piled blankets and hot bricks over him, Hop Sing brewing tea and handing out washcloths and water basins to clean off the dirt and dried blood.
“Doc Martin,” Hop Sing ordered and Charlie was out the door leaving them to take care of the big man until help arrived.
“Pa . . .” came a whispered voice. Ben leaned in close.
“I’m here, son,” he answered pulling the blanket up closer to Hoss’s chin.
“Did Joe . . . eat all . . . the roast beef?”
“What?” Joe questioned as Ben shushed him.
“Hoss, what happened?” he asked seeing his middle boy struggle to focus on him.
“Adam didn’t . . . didn’t stop him?”
Dadburn that Adam. He knows I like Hop Sing’s roast beef.
“Adam’s not here, Hoss,” Ben answered. “He was with you.” Worry washed over Hoss’s face. He grabbed at Ben’s sleeve and stared up at him.
“I thought . . . I thought he was here . . . thought he was home.” Hoss was confused. He’d been sure Adam was home. He remembered leaving . . . Wait. Wait a minute.
My God! Was that what I forgot at the ravine? Did I leave Adam behind? He could be . . .
“No, son. Adam’s not here. He was with you.”
Oh, Lord. How am I going to tell Pa I left him behind? What kinda brother am I?
“I . . . I lost him,” finally emerged, tears in his eyes, the weight of that statement hitting him in the gut. “I left him behind. Oh, Pa, . . . Pa, I didn’t mean too. I thought . . . thought he was home. I’m awful sorry.”
“It’s all right, Hoss,” Ben said trying to quell the growing fear in his stomach as he rubbed Hoss’s arms. “We’ll find him.”
“Why did I . . . I leave him? He’s . . . probably hurt. I’ve got ta . . .” He thought about getting up, getting Chubb and heading back out but the thought never made it to any other part of his body. He’d left Adam to die up on Henderson’s Ridge. He’d left his own flesh and blood, alone, possibly hurt, and there was nothing he could do. Except . . . “Hen . . .” he began, the word trailing off despite his best efforts to get it off his tongue.
“Hoss?” Ben hadn’t caught the word spoken so softly. He watched him try to speak, desperate to make up for leaving his brother behind but no other sound emerged and his eyes slowly slid shut. “Hoss?” Ben sighed then lowered his head.
“What did he say?” Joe asked tossing another blanket over his brother.
“Hen,” Hop Sing provided.
“Hen?” Joe repeated, tucking in the blanket around his brother.
“Henderson’s Ridge?” Hop Sing suggested.
“That’s one way to come home from the east ridge,” Joe supplied. “That must be where Adam is.” He stood up and headed for the door.
“Joseph, where are you going?” Ben asked never taking his eyes from Hoss’s face as he continued to clean it.
“I’m gonna find Adam,” Joe stated wondering why his father would be asking that question.
“No. You’re staying here and waiting for the Doctor.”
“Pa, he could be hurt, or . . . worse.”
“I know that.”
“Then I should be going.” Pulling his gaze from Hoss, Ben glared at Joe.
“And how are you going to track him in the dark?” He eyed his youngest, his own desire to light out after Adam barely under control. “We don’t even know if that’s what he meant to say. Henderson’s Ridge would be out of their way, take an extra day to get home. He might have meant Hennissey Falls. We have to wait until he wakes again, see if we can get a clearer picture of where they were.”
“And what if that’s too late for Adam, Pa?” It was harsh but he had to say it. Time spent waiting on a cold night like this could spell death for the one somewhere in the night. Ben’s jawed worked as his heart beat faster at the thought of his eldest buried in snow and freezing to death. He fought back the picture in his mind.
“We’ll wait.” Turning back, he continued to wash Hoss’s face, praying that he was making the right decision, hoping his son would find his own way home before time ran out.
Adam’s head fell forward and he jerked awake nearly falling from the saddle. It was completely dark now and he could feel bits of snow hitting his face as the night breeze whipped the flakes about. His back went rigid when it suddenly occurred to him he might have missed Hoss while he was dozing. Should he turn back? He had no idea how much time had passed or how far they’d come.
“Damnit!” he cursed, the force of air used making him sway a bit in the saddle. Grabbing the pommel he was determined not to fall off for there was no guarantee he’d be able to get back on. Hoss’s face popped into his mind with a raised finger pointing at him followed by a shake of the head. ’You left me behind. What’ll Pa say?’ Another notch on his guilt belt, a belt he knew well. He’d vowed to Inger to protect Hoss, forever and always, and now he’d fallen asleep. What a stupid way to fail. What a stupid reason to relate to the father and brother left behind.
He was my responsibility and I decided to take a nap. I’m the oldest. I should be the one that doesn’t return. How could I be the one to survive?
These musings weren’t helping and he forced them aside. He hadn’t missed Hoss along the road. He’d had a large lead on him and was probably sitting in front of a roaring fire enjoying Hop Sing’s roast beef and not leaving any for him. He smiled at that. As long as Hoss was home, with a full belly, happy he’d be.
Rubbing Sport on the neck and thinking they should probably liven up the pace now that he was over his guilt trip, the distinct sound of a bullet whizzing past his ear and ricocheting off a nearby tree solidified the thought. Sport whinnied and fled as another bullet blew by.
Racing off the trail and through the snow, Adam managed to glance back once seeing a lone rider following after them firing another shot. Ducking seemed to make him feel better even though he hadn’t a clue which direction the bullets were flying, and held on for dear life as Sport maneuvered through the dark clearing a fallen log he hadn’t even seen. Down they came on loose gravel beneath the snow, Sport searching for solid ground, sliding about until he found it.
Another shot rang out and Sport faltered, sliding to the bottom of the short incline instantly gathering himself to leap a small stream at its base. Instead, he leaped into it, toppling over as they both landed in the freezing water.
Their pursuer followed the same path but his horse failed to see the log causing both horse and rider to tumble down the length of the incline and slid to a silent rest a few feet in front of them. Adam fumbled for his gun, numb fingers pulling it from the water as soon as he saw the stranger roll onto his knees.
“Hold it right there, mister!” Adam ordered, hoping his chattering teeth hadn’t taken anything from the flinty voice he’d been attempting to use.
“Ya got me,” came the answer as the man sat back on his haunches glaring at this murderer before him. Adam raised his other hand to steady the wobbly gun.
“Why’d you . . . why’d you take a shot at me?”
“My brother’s layin’ dead aways back,” he said tossing a look over his shoulder. “I cain’t help but think yer the one that put ’im there.” Good answer.
“That was self-defense,” Adam countered cocking his weapon as the man pulled something from the ground.
“Don’t matter. He’s still dead and I aim to avenge him.” Right to the point.
“That’s your right,” Adam answered.
“Yes it is.”
The man fired. Adam fired a second later.
* * * * *
“It’s snowing real hard, Pa,” Joe said stating the obvious while watching his father roll up a thick blanket and stuff food into his saddlebags.
“Doc Martin’s here and I’m going to find Adam,” Ben answered.
“Where’re you gonna look? Hoss hasn’t made any sense since we found him.”
“He said Henderson’s Ridge.”
“He said Hen. You said yourself that could be Henderson’s Ridge or Hennesey Falls. Either one will take half the night to get there . . . and it’s snowing real hard, Pa,” he repeated.
“Joseph, I’m going.” The tone. Joe knew that tone well and knew what it meant – no more talking. He couldn’t help himself.
“If it was too dark for me to go looking for him why isn’t it too dark for you?” There, he’d said it. Ben glared him, hating the idea of his youngest throwing his own words back at him. He tightened his muffler and buttoned up his coat.
“You stay here in case Adam comes home. Charlie and some of the men have already started out for Hennessey Falls. I’ll ride to Henderson’s Ridge and work my way back. You take care of your brother and do whatever Paul says.” Joe debated with himself about reiterating his statement then decided against it. ‘Do as I say not as I do’ popped into his head.
“Yes, Pa,” was the only answer he could give. Grabbing the door as Ben tossed it back, he watched his father disappear into the barn. One thing he didn’t like was staying behind when his family was in trouble.
“You come, Little Joe,” Hop Sing called motioning him toward the guest room. “Sit with brother.”
“I’ll be right there,” he answered closing the door and moving to the window behind Ben’s desk to watch his father leave.
Trying to reason with himself over what he was about to attempt, Ben pulled open the barn door and dropped his saddlebags to the floor. He shouldn’t be going out in the dark, in the snow because he was sure to miss something, but he couldn’t just sit at home and wait. He was not the sitting type.
Reaching for Buck’s saddle blanket, his eye caught Chubb standing dejectedly in his stall. Sidling over he spoke softly to him and ran hands up and down his soft muzzle then patted him on the neck.
“Thanks for bringing him home,” he whispered, returning to Buck to stretch the blanket over his back then reached for his saddle, stopping in mid-grab. There was something . . . Buck snorted and so did Cochise moving his attention to them. Both had their ears forward, their heads canted sideways as if listening, listening to something far off. Chubb joined in and all three stared at the open door. Closing his eyes, Ben listened too then jumped a foot when all three horses began neighing . . . loudly! Joe flew into the barn as Buck stomped the ground and Cochise pulled on his lead.
“What is it, Pa?!” he asked, running hands down Cochise’s neck to calm him.
“There’s something . . .” Ben admitted, stepping out into the yard. A stiff breeze whisked through the trees around the house and yet there seemed to be something else on the air. “Listen.”
Both strained to hear whatever was drifting on the wind and catching their horse’s attention. The breeze died and the horse’s quieted.
“There,” Ben said eyes bright with discovery. Something was there, a distant call coming from down the road. “Did you hear that?” Joe didn’t answer but ran back into the barn. Ben followed, the two bridling their mounts and racing out to the one calling out somewhere in the night.
This was it. This was as far as the both of them were going to get this night. Too much had he asked of Sport, the poor animal simply stopping and sinking to the ground. Numb from the cold, it didn’t bother either of them that they were sitting in a snowdrift by the side of the road especially when they could’ve been sitting in the middle of the road. Adam thought about it for about a second then decided he couldn’t move anyway so they’d stay right where they were.
Wrapping frozen arms about himself to try and stave off his uncontrollable shaking through the only heat source he could find, he leaned against his beloved Sport. His eyes felt scratchy and dry and oh, how he’d yelled at himself for leaving his canteen with his saddle a few million miles back. No matter. Wet clear through he figured the both of them would catch pneumonia and die before morning and that would be it. At least he wouldn’t have to face his father about Hoss, have to say those words that would echo in his ears forever – he’d lost his brother. Small comfort checking out early but he’d take what he could get. It would be a blow to lose two sons but at least Pa would still have Joe.
With nothing better to do than freeze to death, his mind kept going back to the last few hours and was thankful the stranger’s shot had gone wide and his hadn’t. Shaken though his aim was he’d nailed him and watched as the man fell face first into the water taking great pride in the fact that in the dark, nearly frozen, he’d gotten his man. Ego beware?
Oh, why not? I’m going to die so why not appreciate my marksmanship one last time.
The next task proved more disconcerting. Coaxing Sport to his feet took some doing but when he finally stood Adam found the reason for their headlong rush into the stream – he’d taken a bullet to the right flank. Anger flared but quickly dissipated. No use wasting what precious energy he had left on a dead man.
Deciding not to ride Sport home, he’d pulled the saddle from his back and walked on a few paces. The two of them limping along put a smile on Adam’s face. The walking wounded returned from the wars. They must be a sight.
Patting Sport on the neck, he proceeded to pull congealing ice crystals from his mane when, suddenly, he dropped to his knee, a distinct crunching sound filling the night as a few inventive curse words left his mouth.
“Okay,” he managed as he regained a normal breathing pattern and a tight hold on his tongue. “So walking might not be such a good idea.” He would never make it home like this. Managing to regain his footing, he clutched Sport’s mane and patted him on the neck. “Sorry, boy, but I can’t make it without you.”
Eyeing his master, Sport exhaled in his face, the hot breath feeling good for the moment it lasted. Adam smiled and took that as an okay to scramble onto his back, the two stumbling off into the night more or less in the right direction. Of course, Adam didn’t have a clue which way was up but trusted Sport to get them home. Two hours later his mount officially gave up and quietly eased himself to his knees taking Adam right along with him.
Hunkering further down into his coat, Adam shut his eyes. It would be so easy to just give in and let the cold take over; fall back into a long dark sleep until eternity was done with him. But his mind had other ideas. ‘Never give up’ came in the form of his father’s voice echoing about his head and his eyes popped back open. ‘When everything appears hopeless and you’ll probably go to the great beyond before the sun rises, never give up! Fight until there’s nothing left and then fight some more’.
“Never give up,” he mumbled, Sport giving him a snort. He glanced toward his friend and rubbed his back.
Adam had to be there for Sport, had to be there until the end whether it was on this road or back home. They’d been through so much and always came out the other side. And, even though this time seemed to be the one time that it wouldn’t end up in their favor, his presence was all he had to give.
“It’ll be all right, old man,” he said hoping to give him something. “We’ll make it home, don’t you worry.” Sport whickered and gave Adam a look. “I’ve never lied to you. We’ll make it home.” He turned back around and Adam could’ve sworn he saw him roll his eyes. It made him grin that quickly faded as Sport tensed.
A whinny, long and loud, erupted from him and Adam came to his knees, following his gaze into the darkness of the road before them, the swirling snow dancing amongst the trees producing phantom shapes rising out of the frosty air. A stiff wind rustled the leaves so loudly he couldn’t hear anything else and thought Sport had lost his marbles.
“It’s just the wind, old man,” he said, settling back onto the cold ground and leaning his head against Sport’s back. “Just the wind. Let me rest a bit then I’ll go get help.”
A few moments later as his head hit the ground, he shot upright wondering what the hell he was doing sitting in a snowdrift when Sport snorted, once again drawing his attention to something in the night. This time the wind was silent and what he heard made his slow mind fly to the gunman.
Maybe I’m not such a good shot after all.
Frozen fingers protested as he grabbed for his gun, dropping it as it cleared the holster. Scrambling to pick it up, the distinct sounds of horses approaching closed in around him sending him into a panic.
I killed him! Shot him dead in the river. See what boasting does for you! Wait. Wait . . . calm down. Now isn’t the time to think such things. Bravado may yet win the day. Here goes nothing!
“Stop . . . right . . . there!” he shouted hoping his hoarse voice sounded somewhat confident as he finally wrapped dead fingers about the gun and pointed it aimlessly into the night. The sounds kept coming. Apparently not confident enough. “I said . . . STOP RIGHT THERE!” Movement ceased and he could make out . . . two horses snorting in the darkness, their breath visible but not their riders. Two horses?
“Adam?” His wavering aim locked on the voice, finally seeing two figures emerge from the dark. This didn’t make any sense. There’d been only one man after him. One man!
I’m in trouble now!
“Your . . . your brother tried to kill us!” Adam explained. “It was self-defense!” Sport nickered and the strange horses answered and, for an instant, Adam thought he was conspiring with the enemy but, at this point, maybe Sport knew better than he did. Then the men split up. He thought he’d been in trouble before. There was no way he could cut down both men, not now, not after sitting in the cold for Lord knows how long. There was only one choice available to him – pick one and hope the other ran away.
Choosing the closest one, Adam watched the man take cautious steps, hands away from his own weapon no doubt secreted beneath his heavy coat. The other one snuck around behind. He was doomed. He pulled the trigger.
The hollow sound of the hammer falling on an empty chamber filled him with dread. Trying again only produced the same results and he glared at the gun.
Damn! My one chance to go out with some respect and the damn thing won’t work!
Thoughts of tossing the worthless weapon at the man never made it to his fingers so he just stared at the offending item. He must’ve failed to reload at the stream.
“Damn,” he cursed. He’d failed Sport and he’d failed himself and he had no strength left to care. He closed his eyes.
“Adam,” came the voice again, softer, closer. ‘Never give up!’
Ah, shut up, Pa!
“Adam, it’s your Pa,” came the voice again. He blinked. He could’ve sworn that was his father’s voice but that just couldn’t be. It was his mind playing tricks on him, reminding him of home and the warmth of family. What a way to go. “Adam, it’s your Pa,” he repeated. Adam’s brow furrowed and he looked up, squinting into the face peering down at him. “I’ve come to take you home, son.”
Pa? It is him. Well, I’ll be damned. What’s he doing out here? Did I just try to shoot my father?
“Joe and I have been looking for you and Sport,” Ben continued still collecting his breath, his heart beating loudly in his chest. Adam had just tried to shoot him, not once but twice, and Sport sat quietly on the ground. Both were unnatural occurrences. Step lightly. “Hoss is waiting for you at the house.”
He looked again into his father’s concerned face. “Did he eat all . . . the . . . roast beef?” he asked his thin voice barely above a whisper.
“Ah . . . no,” Ben stammered glancing at Joe who shrugged, deciding to play along this time. “He left some for you.”
Now that’s a first.
Adam snorted and a small smirk lit his face then quickly faded. That can’t be right. How could Hoss be home? He hadn’t found him. He shook his head.
“He thought he’d lost you,” Ben continued. Lost. That’s right. Roast beef be hanged! He’d lost Hoss. He’d lost his brother and now he had to tell his father. He was supposed to die before he had to tell his father what he’d done. God how he hated this part.
“He . . . fell,” Adam whispered closing his eyes, reliving the sights and sounds, his father’s words flown from his memory. All he knew was the pounding of his heart through his icy veins and the guilt that raged within him. “I looked . . .” he began, emotion filling his voice, cold tears in his tired eyes. “I looked for him, Pa. I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t find him.” Ben kneeled next to Adam and grabbed onto his shoulders, shaking his head.
“No, son. You didn’t lose him. He’s at the house.”
“I never . . . passed him . . . on the road,” he said as if Ben hadn’t spoken and rubbed his eyes. “I fell asleep. Damnit to hell, I fell asleep!” It was beginning. The cold was settling into the home stretch and shutting everything down including the making sense part of his brain. The look on his father’s face told him that much. He tried again. “I fell asleep and must’ve . . . passed him on the road,” he said finishing the thought, an urgency filling him. “We have to . . . to find him before its too late! He’ll freeze out here!” Making a feeble attempt to rise, he failed, Ben realizing his boy was beyond coherent thought and nothing he said would make it through.
“Don’t worry, son,” Ben began trying to get Adam to focus on him. “We’ll find him. We’ll find Hoss.” He smiled then trying to convince him that all would be well, but Adam knew better. There was nothing left to say that would make a difference but he felt he had to try.
“Oh, Pa . . . I’m . . ,” he cried daring to look at the man he’d failed, breaking down completely, all his pretense of hope gone, all the ‘never give up’ mantra leaving him in one fell swoop. “I’m . . . so . . . sorry,” he sobbed thinking that that would be an appropriate epitaph on his tombstone as he fell over, Ben catching his son’s trembling body in his arms.
“Joseph, go get Doc Martin’s buggy. Hurry now!” Ben encircled his son in his arms and held him tight trying to give him some warmth, watching Joe gather up Cochise and sprint out of sight, leaving him to wonder if this was his oldest’s last night on earth. Pulling the gun from Adam’s trembling hand he saw two bullets left in the chamber, ice encrusting the weapon. The chamber hadn’t been empty. “Lord help us.”
* * * * *
“It never rains but it pours,” Doctor Paul Martin quipped upon meeting Ben, Adam and Hop Sing at the door.
“Careful of his leg,” Ben warned as Paul took Hop Sing’s place and the two of them half-carried Adam to his room.
“He’s so cold,” Paul remarked as a blanket heaped Hop Sing hurried in behind them, complete with towels and warm water, rushing to stoke the fire for more heat.
Stoically he watched as Ben and Paul removed both coats from Number One son followed by his ripped shirt to reveal an angry bruise that stretched from his collarbone across his chest and around his ribs making them all wince at the sight. Hop Sing tossed a blanket over Adam as they laid him down, Paul gently placing his injured leg on a towel taking in the bandana and ripped pants.
“Oh, boy,” he mumbled as he began to unwrap the makeshift bandage eliciting a small gasp from his teeth chattering patient. Glancing up, Paul saw Adam’s eyes partially open but unfocused. “Adam? Can you hear me?” Trying to find some recognition in their hazel depths, Paul watched as he furrowed his brow. Was that his brother calling?
“Hoss . . ?” was all he could manage between quick breaths as feeling began to worm its way back into his numb appendages. Ben maneuvered himself under Adam’s head and shoulders cleaning the cut along his brow and pulling the blanket close to his chin.
“He’s here, Adam. You’re both home,” Ben calmly answered.
“Home . . .”
Just close your eyes stupid and it’ll all be over. No more cold. No more doubt. Just a nice long dirt nap.
“These boys have been through the ringer, Ben. What did they get themselves into?” Ben shook his head.
“I can’t get a straight story from Hoss and Adam said something about being attacked.”
“Well, we’ll get down to it eventually.” Paul positioned himself at the foot of the bed and placed a hand on Adam’s leg making him suck in another breath and grab a handful of blanket. “Adam, I’m going to remove your boot.”
“What . . ?” Everything seemed to move in slow motion around him – words were filtered through cotton and movement through mud – and he couldn’t seem to keep up.
Did he say something about my boot?
In one quick motion, Paul pulled off the boot and tossed it to the floor, sending a sudden wave of pain crackling through Adam’s thawing body. Crying out his clenched fists nearly ripped the blanket from the bed, so wanting to curse a blue streak but his tongue didn’t seem to be working. Paul then eased off the shirtsleeve and grimaced at the sight.
“It looks like he’s been walking on it. There appears to be dirt in the wound as well.” He sighed. “This is going to hurt like hell.”
“Can’t you give him anything?” Ben asked holding onto Adam’s struggling form. One thing Ben hated most was seeing his sons in pain. He watched as Paul shook his head.
“He’s got a large lump on the side of the head and bruising along his temple. He no doubt has a concussion. I want him awake as long as possible. Besides, cleaning the wound will do the job quicker,” he acknowledged, rubbing his chin. “The shin bone penetrated the skin and he obviously put it back in. I don’t think I could’ve done that to myself.”
“Will it cause a problem?” Ben asked trying not to look at the grisly injury, feeling Adam ease slightly under his grip, his short breaths lessening as sweat ran down his face.
“It could,” Paul continued. “It means dirt’s been pushed into the wound and if I don’t clean it thoroughly he’ll get a whopping infection. May even lose the leg.” Glancing quickly at Ben, he realized his error. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Hop Sing,” he said looking away from his friend’s worried face, the little man moving quickly to stand next to him. “Take hold of his other leg and keep it steady. Adam,” he tried again seeing him blink a few times at the sound of his voice. “I’m going to have to clean the wound. I won’t lie to you. This is going to hurt plenty. Do you understand?” When he didn’t respond Paul grabbed Adam’s chin and spoke to him again, making sure he had eye contact. “Do you understand?”
If I didn’t know better that was Paul Martin and he’s talking to me. Focus!
A new pain lanced through him making him twitch and squeeze shut his eyes.
“Hurts . . . now,” was all he could get through clenched teeth, tears rolling down his face. This warming up thing was for the birds, his body suddenly bursting back to life with a zeal he didn’t appreciate. Even though he’d dreamed of this moment he so wished he was still an icicle.
“No doubt,” Paul answered, nodding to Hop Sing. Adam glanced up to see his father smiling down at him. Had he made it home?
“It’s almost over, son.” Always reassuring, his father was. Always there for him and Joe and Hoss . . . Hoss!
Wait. Wait, I have to tell Pa . . .
“Wait . . .”
“Okay, Adam, this is going to hurt like the dickens,” was followed by a ripping sound catching in his ears and moving his jumbled thoughts away from his brother.
“What . . ?”
Before he could utter another word or even register what he’d just heard, a fireball barreled its way through his leg straight up through the rest of his body as if he’d been struck by lightening. It ended its rush by exploding like a firecracker in his head pulling an anguished cry from him that echoed about the room as he arched his back and tried to get away from the devastating pain only to be held down until the full hands of darkness encompassed him and he gratefully let go. Here’s where his mind could rest in a painless void without thought of losing his brother or disappointing his father. It was pure bliss.
Collapsing back onto the bed his head lolled to one side, Ben ever grateful he’d lost consciousness, himself barely able to watch Paul dig into the wound hoping to find every ounce of dirt possible. Movement out of the corner of his eye drew his anguished attention to Hop Sing grabbing a lamp off the table to hold over Adam’s leg. Paul smiled his thanks and continued working. Returning his attention to his son’s pale face, a new thought entered Ben’s mind.
“Ah, we’ve one more patient for you, Paul.”
“Oh? Joe didn’t look sick earlier,” he said as he continued to work. “Where is he anyway?” Ben flashed a tired smile.
“He’s sitting with Sport on the trail until he can get him to his feet. Worked on any horses lately?” Paul smiled back.
“All these patients in one night. Maybe I should start charging overtime.” Ben grinned despite himself. This long night would soon turn into a number of long days and nights of that he was sure. Hoss was suffering from hypothermia, a broken arm and a bad concussion but would soon be on his feet. But Adam . . . this boy was much worse and he could only pray that he would live these next few days. Both of his boys may be safe and sound at home, but the suffering was just beginning.
He ran trembling fingers through Adam’s sweat soaked hair and prayed he’d see those beautiful eyes and that bright smile again.
“Send him home, Elizabeth.”
Snowflakes landed on his upturned face making him smile. Happiness and contentment flowed through him, warming every part of him despite the vast snowfield that surrounded him.
A distant sound pulled his attention to the left, then the right, then straight before him. It was his brother’s voice. He was sure of it. Waiting, it came again, calling for him, nudging him forward. Following that first step with another, he found himself suddenly at a tree line that hadn’t been there before.
Maybe I should go back?
The voice came again. It was like a beacon, a light brighter than the whiteness around him, drawing him forward and onto a road that moved into and through the trees. Leaves swirled about his feet as his brother’s voice surrounded him. He recognized the tone. He was in trouble.
“Hoss!” he called. He’d lost him on the road. “I’m coming!” He wouldn’t lose him again. “Hold on!”
Moving swiftly a wind swirled about him, the rustling of leaves practically shouting at him to run, leading him up a long hill as he grasped at the air before him in hopes of grabbing something tangible within. But it dissipated as he crested the hill, eyes catching sight of something else that slowed his steps. It was a tunnel of light with tendrils of yellow gold reaching into the trees, rushing up the hill to bathe him in its warmth. He looked again to see a figure beckoning to him.
“There you are,” he smiled in triumph.
Hurrying toward the figure, his smile slowly faded along with his steps when he realized it wasn’t his brother who waited but someone else, someone he’d never actually met but knew instantly. The figure spoke, the soft voice drifting over him like a blanket as he came to a sudden stop.
“Hello, Adam,” reached his ears and his mouth fell open, his eyes hungrily tracing the face before him, the face he’d looked at thousands of times as it stared out of that silver frame.
Could it really be her?
“They sent me to meet you,” she continued through a smile, her hands reaching out. Regaining some semblance of a brain, he stepped back and she lowered her hands but held his stunned gaze. “Actually, I begged them since I’ve always wanted to meet my own son.”
Then it was true! It was her.
“M . . . Mother?” The word caught in his throat.
“How . . ?” Shaking his head, his logical mind had difficulty processing this new turn of events. “How can you be here?” She smiled.
“Actually, it’s you who are here where I’ve been for many years.” She waited while he worked it out. He narrowed his eyes. If this was truly his mother she’d been dead for thirty years. If he was where she was then that meant . . . His eyes grew large. “You’re between worlds, my son. Hoss is desperately calling for you. Can you hear him still?” Thinking he’d gone completely batty from the cold he thought he might as well play whatever game his brain was dishing out if it meant he could spend some time with his mother real or not.
“He’s . . . fading in and out,” he admitted.
“Then our time grows short and there are so many things I wish to say to you,” she answered. “I’ve watched you all your life from a little boy on a wagon train with my Ben to the vibrant young man you’ve become. I’m so very proud of you. I’ve always wanted you to know that.” He studied her face. It was as if the picture that sat by his bedside had come to life. She was beautiful and young and would always be that way for him. A small smile tugged at his mouth. Maybe he was dead. That meant he would be with her, know her instead of living on his father’s memories of her. Slowly he reached out shaky hands and she grabbed them, holding them tightly in her own. His heart beat faster.
“Mother, I’ve . . .” Words failed him and he pulled her into an embrace, emotion dropping them both to their knees, tears streaming down both their faces.
“Adam, it’s all right,” she said in a soothing tone, rubbing his back as he cried. “Everything will be all right.” Turning her head toward the light she sighed. Hearing this he pulled away and locked eyes with her. She brushed the hair from his forehead and wiped away his tears. “The last time I did this you were smaller than a bread box. Now you’re big and strong and handsome.” The smile slowly left her face. “And now you must go.” Shock registered on his face and she quickly reached up to caress his cheek. “I can’t keep you here when Ben and the boys are calling. I can’t be that selfish no matter how much I want to be.” He couldn’t believe it. After all these years and all the stories he’d finally found his mother and now she’d ripped out his heart.
“But I want to stay,” he declared not even considering what that meant. She shook her head.
“You must return. They need you.” Forcing himself to his feet, he stared down at her, thoughts churning through his head.
They need me. When didn’t they need me?
“I don’t care,” he said turning from her and stepping away.
“Adam . . .”
“I’ve given them my whole life,” he continued anger permeating every word. “I’ve been responsible for them every step of the way. Held their hands, cleaned up after them. Lied, cheated and killed for them. It’s my turn now.”
“Then why are you so worried about Hoss?” she asked. He stiffened. “Why do you dread telling Ben that his middle son is lost?”
How does she know that?
“Because . . . because I promised Inger,” he said in a low voice.
“Is that all?” He refused to answer. “Adam, I know you love them and they you. That’s what a family does.”
“Don’t you think I know that?!” He was yelling at his mother. This is not what he wanted. Closing his eyes, he took a breath. “I want to stay with you.”
“Choosing to stay when it’s not your time is irresponsible. Yes, irresponsible,” was her answer to his withering look. “Ben didn’t raise you to be that way.” He turned away then, different tears burning his eyes. She came up and laid a hand on his arm, softening her voice. “There was a time when I thought that having you here with me would be my greatest joy. But when I’ve seen what your sickness or injury has done to them . . . I couldn’t take you then nor do I want too now. We will have eternity, Adam. Let’s not hurry up to get there.” Reaching for her hand, he pulled it to his chest.
“You don’t understand. I’ve wanted this my whole life – to know you, to talk to you and with you, to share all that I am and to learn all about you. It’s what’s been missing. Now that I have it you want me to leave it behind?” She kissed his hand and looked into his sad eyes.
“What?” Her heart broke at the look of abandonment on his face.
“I love you, Adam, more than you’ll ever know but, for your sake and theirs, you must return.”
“But I want you to know everything I’ve done.” He felt like a little boy again who couldn’t understand the word no.
“I already do. I’m with you every step. I keep you here,” she said, touching her chest, “as I know Ben does.”
“But I’ve no memories of my own, nothing but what Pa’s told me . . . . It isn’t enough.” His voice was soft and plaintive. He knew he was losing this battle.
“But it has to be until you and I can make new ones. We will see each other again, my son, but it will be many years from now.” Tears rolled down his face.
“Please . . .” He was begging to be allowed to die and that floored him. The whole ‘never give up’, ‘fight until the last breath’ left him in a flash when confronted with this particular dream – knowing his mother. He had her in his grasp and didn’t want to let go whatever that meant to his mortal body. She hugged him, an emotional embrace that tortured him with love. Tears touched his shoulder and he buried his face in her hair. There it was again – Hoss’s voice. This time louder and more insistent and right behind him.
“I love you, my son,” she said, her voice becoming faint to his ears. “Always remember that.” He panicked as his hand passed through hers.
“No . . . wait!” he shouted in a frantic voice. “Mother, wait! I want to stay!” Suddenly control over his body wavered. “Mother, please! Please!” Hoss’s voice overtook him, drawing him back up the hill, leaving him with a last look at the woman he’d never known waving goodbye, the golden tendrils of light retracting toward her, shrinking into nothing as he moved back through the trees and back to the snowfield. “I WANT TO STAY . . . I . . . “
“. . . WANT TO STAY!”
Startled, Hoss jumped, letting go of Adam’s shoulder as he shot straight up in bed, his labored breathing faster than normal, tears rolling down his face. Just moments before he’d heard his brother’s last breath leave him – leave the man who’d helped raise him, who’d always been there for him. And now he was staring into his glassy eyes shocked at the sight.
“Adam?” he asked, realizing that even though his brother was looking at him he wasn’t seeing him. Ben brusquely pushed him aside to grab hold of Adam, Hoss having no choice but to move off the bed and stand next to Joe.
“Take a breath, son,” Ben urged watching Adam fight to suck in enough air to stay conscious. “Come on, boy. You can do it.” His lungs felt restricted and closed like he was under water.
It must be all that ice melting in my veins.
“What happened?!” Paul yelled as he raced into the room, his hair sticking out in every direction.
“He stopped breathin’,” Hoss softly answered holding onto the bedpost with his good arm. ‘I . . . I yelled for him and shook him and he came back.”
“Get back to bed, Hoss, before you fall over,” Paul ordered heading toward Adam.
“I cain’t leave him, Doc. Not again.” Paul looked at him then softened, nodding his understanding. He glanced then at Ben who’d pulled Adam’s head to his shoulder and placed his stethoscope on Adam’s back, listening for any improvement.
“I heard someone yell ‘I want to stay’,” Paul absently stated moving the cold disk across his patient’s back. Ben felt Adam’s gripping fingers on his sleeves and, with great effort, watched as he pulled his head up to look him in the eyes.
“ . . . saw . . .” he began surprising Ben with his penetrating stare, Paul watching him.
“Ssh, son. Take it easy.” Shaking his head, he was determined to tell what he’d seen lest he forget.
“I . . . saw . . . I saw her,” he finally managed between gasps. “I spoke . . . with her.” He began to cough, his head falling back onto his father’s shoulder, Ben holding him steady, rubbing his back.
“Who’d he see?” Joe asked, looking at Hoss. Stunned, Ben’s eyes found the picture on the bed stand.
“Elizabeth,” he whispered.
“What?” Joe was confused but kept his mouth shut at Hoss’s insistent look.
There was so much Adam wanted to say to his father but he felt guilty. Guilty about how selfish he’d been, guilty about what he’d said to her. It was his job to be the responsible one and it was something he did without question because he loved them all. She’d understood even though he hadn’t. So he’d been given a gift of insight into his own psyche through a conversation with his dead mother. Maybe he’d keep that to himself.
The calming touch on his back finally caught up with him and he began to relax, giving in to sleep that pulled at him as he rested in the protective embrace of his father.
“Ben,” Paul said, lightly touching his friend’s arm and pulling him from his reverie, pointing toward Adam. Holding his son’s head, Ben carefully eased him back onto the bed, bunching the pillows to prop him up.
“Pa, he couldn’t’ve seen . . .” Joe began, still confused.
“Of course not, Joseph,” Ben answered a bit too quickly, moving off the bed to get out of Paul’s way. “It’s the fever talking.” Keeping his face neutral, he avoided their eyes and stuffed hands in his pockets, watching Paul work. “You two go back to bed. It’s still my watch.” They both looked at him, keeping their places at the end of the bed. Their brother had just died and miraculously returned to them. They didn’t know if they wanted to leave so soon. “Go on.”
“Are you sure ya don’t want us ta stay, Pa?” Hoss asked uncertainty in his voice. Ben turned at the tone seeing the stricken look on his face. It was then he remembered nearly pushing him from the bed and away from the brother he thought he’d lost. It made his heart sick. Somehow Hoss had saved Adam, brought him back from wherever he’d been and for that he’d been pushed away. He clasped his boy’s arm and smiled warmly.
“You go on,” he said. “You’re still recovering yourself. I’ll call you if I need you.”
“Pa, I . . .”
“It’s all right now, Hoss. What’s lost has been found. Go on.” He nodded and followed Joe to the door. “Thank you.” Hoss smiled.
“Night, Pa,” they both said, quietly leaving. Ben sighed when the door clicked shut and moved silently to stare out the window. That was Adam who’d spoken to him not the fever, he was sure of it.
Could it be true?
“His lungs sound a bit clearer,” Paul began. “He still has a fever but it doesn’t appear to be as high as this morning.” Moving to his leg he pulled back the dressing. “This looks a bit better, too. I believe he’ll keep the leg.”
“I lost him, Paul,” Ben began as the good doctor carefully maneuvered Adam’s leg back under the quilt. “He was gone for a moment and all I could do was watch. If Hoss hadn’t grabbed him, called to him . . .” His voice trailed off as he shook his head.
“Sometimes all it takes is a shout or two,” Paul admitted, pulling the quilt up to Adam’s chin, replacing the cloth on his forehead and turning to his friend, running a hand through his own disheveled hair.
“No divine intervention?” Ben asked, stepping back towards the bed to look upon his sleeping son. Paul chuckled.
“As a doctor I’ve seen many things, divine and otherwise. I don’t question whatever works.” He patted Ben on the arm. “You get some rest. I don’t want to have to take care of another Cartwright. I’ll sit with him awhile.” Ben shook his head. Paul put up his hands knowing it was a losing battle. “I’ll be next door if you need me.” Ben nodded and returned his attention to his eldest, looking small and fragile as Paul quietly closed the door.
Touching Adam’s stubbly cheek, he was still warm, sweat still stood out on his face. It wasn’t over but he knew the worst was past. He pushed back damp hair from Adam’s forehead and, tiredly, returned to his chair, picking up the book that’d fallen to the floor when he’d heard that last terrible breath that brought his world crashing down around him.
How many nights had he sat by Adam’s bedside throughout his life wondering if he’d ever see the morning? These last four days had taken a toll on all of them. The fevered delirium calling for Hoss and Sport, the possibility of his leg being amputated and his breathing becoming more labored and shallow had stolen many years from Ben. His prayers and calls for help to Elizabeth to send their son home nearly defeated him.
Elizabeth. Glancing at the portrait of his first wife smiling out for the world to see, he carefully picked up the frame, outlining her face with his fingers. Adam always kept this by his bed to see her each evening and each morning. His breath caught and tears began to fall as he thought again of the morning that almost never came for his beloved son.
“Thank you, Elizabeth, for sending back our Adam,” he cried, holding the frame close to his chest. Whatever it took to keep his son alive, even believing in ghosts, was good enough for him. “Thank you.”
The weight of the quilt across his shoulders entered his brain first followed by a warm shaft of light trailing across his face. He slowly opened his eyes. The sun shone through a window, his window he noted in his own room. How had that happened?
A familiar sound erupted from the left. Lifting his head as far as he could, the sun reflected off the frame that surrounded the portrait of his mother filling his head with a memory.
Had it all been a dream? That beautiful face replete with a dazzling smile just for him . . . had it all been a figment of his fevered imagination? Lingering between life and death he’d finally met his mother who hadn’t pushed him away as he so callously thought but given him a valuable lesson by sending him home to be where he needed to be.
The noise came again and his gaze shifted to something else of great value – his brother Hoss sprawled in a chair, head back, mouth open, snoring loudly. The sight caught him by surprise. Lying back, he stared at the ceiling waiting for the sound to disappear. He’d not found Hoss on the road. How could he be here? Tempting fate, he reached out an arm not daring to look again.
“Hoss,” he called in a scratchy voice barely above a whisper. “Hoss,” he repeated a bit stronger, his searching hand knocking a glass of water from the side table. It splashed across his brother’s feet and his head jerked up, stopping him in mid-snore.
“Dadburn it,” he mumbled, cringing as the cold water soaked his socks. Leaning over to pick up the glass he saw a hand reaching out to him. “Adam?” he said as his face lit up, grabbing the searching hand and moving off the chair to sit on the side of the bed. Adam pulled Hoss’s hand towards him and smiled.
“You’re . . . alive.” He’d never been more relieved to see anyone in his entire life.
“O’ course, big brother,” Hoss smiled back. “I’m too ornery ta die. You, too, I reckon,” he continued, “but it was mighty close. We was all worried. ‘Specially Pa. Ya scared him so. Heck, ya scared us all.”
“Sorry,” was all he could say, Hoss pulling his hand from Adam’s and feeling his forehead. It was still a bit warm but some of the color was returning to his face. He picked up the fallen cloth and gently ran it across Adam’s face.
“Sport’s on the mend, too. Doc Martin got the bullet out and he’s bedded down real nice waitin’ fer ya ta get back on yer feet.” Adam started at the comment.
“My . . . leg . . .” he began raising his head to see what the doctor had left him. Hoss easily pushed him back.
“Calm down, big brother. It’s still there. Soon you and Sport’ll be ridin’ the range again raisin’ cane with the rest of us Cartwright boys.” Adam relaxed back onto his pillow, sleep tugging at him like an anchor. He looked into Hoss’s eyes and grasped his hand again.
“I thought I’d . . . lost you. It . . . scared me,” he admitted. Hoss nodded.
“Me, too. When I finally remembered you was with me, well, I thought I’d left ya behind. I didn’t like bringin’ home news like that.” Hoss put a grin back on his face. “But we found each other and we’re gonna be fine. And, when we’re both fit, hows about you and me goin’ on a fishin’ trip, just the two of us. What do ya say?” Adam grinned.
“I’d . . . like . . . that.”
“Good. Now, ya better get back ta sleep afore Joe finds out yer awake. He might just put ya ta work. What with both of us down he’s gotten a big head since Pa put him in charge.” Adam gave a small laugh which turned into a cough, the effort dragging on him. Hoss steadied him then pulled the quilt back up under his chin. “Go on now. Close them purty eyes of yourn and dream somethin’ nice. Yer still a sick boy and ya need yer rest.”
“Yes . . . Ma,” he answered slowly drifting back to sleep, a grin still on his face. They’d found each other. Everything would be all right.
Hoss sat there awhile watching his brother sleep. The sickness that had clogged his lungs had broken up and the infection in his leg was nearly gone. It would be a number of weeks before he’d be back on his feet and a couple of months before he’d be back to his old self but Hoss could wait. As long as he had his brother to go fishing with all was well.
Carefully disengaging his hand, he returned to his chair, settling his injured arm across his chest, eyes falling on Elizabeth’s picture. He didn’t question what Adam had seen and never would. Whatever had brought him back was enough for him.
“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth,” he whispered, laying his head back and closing his eyes, thinking of fish dangling off the line. “We owe you one.”
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
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