Summary: The sequel to “A Man Alone”
Rated: K WC 10,000
A Man Alone Series:
Inside the Mine
At the sound of his brother’s laughter, Adam Cartwright looked up from his book. His eyes briefly met his father’s, and the two shared a knowing smile. Joe had just beat Hoss at yet another game of checkers, and was laughing heartily at the look of consternation on the big man’s face. It was good to see his brothers having a good time, and as he watched, Adam knew it was good for his own psyche as well.
The laughter died away as Hoss set the board up for another try, while Joe went back to polishing his new rifle. That gun had been polished so many times; Adam couldn’t help but wonder if the kid would wear the wood right off of it. The rifle had been a huge success, but more than the physical present itself, he suspected that the affection it represented from his father was the best part of the gift.
It had been over two months since Pa had returned from his business trip to find that his sons had been trapped inside the mine. Everyone presumed that all the men had died in the cave-in, and Ben had been left alone at the ranch thinking that his sons were dead. The tension and fear during that time was something he had never talked about with his sons. But several conversations with Paul Martin and Roy Coffee, told Adam that those few days had been a dark and mournful time for his father.
And then the boys had come home, battered and hurting, but back with their father. Joe had been the most seriously injured, and the days they spent waiting for him to wake up were indescribable. The worry . . .the fear . . . Adam still wasn’t sure how they found the strength to endure it. Ye, he also recalled with startling clarity, that one moment in front of the house when he’d watched a morning sunrise and had been filled with a feeling of peace. After that, he’d almost come to accept that his little brother would be taken from them. But in the end, Joe had come-to. Though still recuperating in some ways, his kid-brother was more or less back to his normal, aggravating, but amusing self. If only Adam could really feel that he was back to normal.
There were times when Pa looked at him just so, moments when he found Hoss studying him from across the table . . . those were the times when Adam let the self-doubt back in. Had he done everything he could to keep his brothers safe? Wasn’t it really Adam’s fault that they were in that mine in the first place? Shouldn’t he, as the oldest brother, have been more diligent about watching out for his siblings? And then he’d look at Little Joe . . . his kid brother who couldn’t remember anything about the cave-in, or even going down inside that hole, and Adam was convinced that he had let his family down.
Deep in his heart, Adam knew that he had to let go of the self-blame. Knew that it would tear him up if he didn’t. Yet, every time he watched Joe stumble over an ordinary task, or struggle to answer a familiar question, he was filled anew with a sense of regret. Maybe a few more bouts of Joe’s raucous laughter would help wipe the other feelings away.
Adam turned back to his book, eyes once more focusing on the text before him. He soon found, however, that he was no longer seeing printed words on fine paper. Rather it was his own distinctive writing inside his well-used journal.
The warmth of the familiar room faded to the coolness of a rocky cavern filled with rotting timbers . . . . . . . . . . . .
“What are you writing in that little book of yours, Adam?”
“Just adding up how many trees your mine is going to use up.”
“I take it that number is getting larger?”
“Yes, Bill, much larger. How did you let things get this bad?”
There was no answer from the mine owner, though Adam noticed that the man’s head dropped a little in grim acceptance. Looking around the narrow passageway, it was obvious that this situation was more than a little out of hand. Rotting timbers were showing signs of imminent collapse, while piles of debris were scattered throughout the area as settling forced the rock walls to break apart. The further they moved into the depths of the mine, the worse it looked.
Glancing up, Adam could see his brothers talking with one of the mine supervisors, as they moved ahead. He could tell from the looks on their faces that they had the same reaction he did. The owners should’ve shut down operations months ago and made the proper repairs. Continuing still deeper into the mine, Adam studied the weakened timbers, while mentally struggling for the right words to convince Bill that he had to send his crew home, today.
Stopping abruptly, Adam looked up for a moment, listening to the sounds of the mine. He was only half aware that Bill had been talking to him.
“Adam?” Bill Owens was waiting impatiently for an answer to some question.
“I think we should get out of here.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Yes, it’s that bad! Let’s get out of here Bill, and then we can talk.”
Turning abruptly, Adam almost pushed the man ahead of him while calling back to his brothers.
“Hoss. Joe. Let’s get out of here!”
He was relieved to see Joe turn and follow Hoss back towards the group, but Adam kept moving, silently urging the others to hurry. He didn’t want to panic anyone. He just wanted, no needed, to get them out now.
Hoss and Joe were right behind him, and Adam recognized the fear in his youngest brother’s voice as he urged Hoss to go faster. Otherwise, everyone was silent as they hurried towards the main shaft. Barely a hundred feet from where they’d turned back, Adam heard Hoss’s anxious question.
“Adam. Ya hear that?”
He didn’t answer. There was no time. The low rumble gained strength, pushing them all into action. In a frenzy of movement, the men surged forward, but the earth seemed to close in around them. Lunging back towards his brothers, Adam was pummeled with rocks and timbers as the supports gave way, knocking him to the ground.
There were screams of response, but Adam never knew for sure if they came from his brothers, or some of the other poor souls who were being buried alive. He scrambled forward on hands and knees for only a split second before he was struck in the head. Pain so sharp it made his eyes blink with its brilliance; Adam slumped to the ground.
His whispered plea was lost in the pandemonium around him, and then there was nothing.
Low moaning, almost like keening, filled the small space. Adam struggled to make sense of the noise. What could be making such a strange sound? Was it Little Joe, up to one of his many tricks? If so, he was going to straighten that kid out once and for all. Couldn’t a man just have a little peace? He’d like to sleep in just one morning . . . rest a little, maybe get rid of this blinding headache.
“Joe? Joe, knock it off!”
His voice was nowhere near its normal tone. Adam wondered if the sound had even carried out of his own room, let alone down the hall to wherever Joe was hiding. That in itself was enough to force Adam to open his eyes. Where was Pa, anyway? Shouldn’t he be telling the kid to quiet down? But when he finally peeled his eyes open long enough to get a look, Adam found himself bathed in darkness. The air was filled with dust so thick he found that he choked just by breathing.
He wasn’t at home in his bed. And that wasn’t Little Joe making all that noise either. What the . . .
Again, his voice was little more than a whisper. But this time, it was edged with a liberal dose of panic. Pushing himself up, he peered through the dark, searching for any sign of his brothers. The moaning intensified, and Adam pulled himself slowly towards the sound. The blinding flash of pain that answered his efforts forced him back to the ground. Struggling to maintain his tenuous hold on consciousness, Adam managed to take several slow, even breaths. Still, it took more than a few minutes before the spots disappeared from his vision, and the nauseating turn of his surroundings subsided.
“Hoss! Hoss, are you all right? Where’s Joe?”
“I’m . . . I’m okay.”
His voice belied the truth. Hoss was anything but okay. Adam wished for a lamp, a candle, anything to light their surroundings.
“Joe. Where’s Joe?”
“Don’t know . . Adam. Can’t tell . . . “
Hoss’s voice was disjointed, and he slurred his words in a strange way. But he wasn’t the one who was moaning. Adam tried again to move towards it. Was it Joe? Was his little brother making that awful sound . . a sound born of pure agony.
Excruciatingly slow, Adam inched forward. The dust was beginning to settle, but it still hung heavy in the air. Holding back the desire to call for his brother, he merely forced himself to the injured man’s side. Only when he touched the man’s face was he certain.
“It’s not Joe.”
“How . . can ya . . tell?”
“He’s got a beard. It’s Morgan.”
The moaning subsided somewhat, as the injured man felt Adam’s presence.
“It’s all right. We’re right here. Just take it easy.”
Adam’s words were soft but empty. Nonetheless, the man quieted.
He turned on his side as he recognized the voice close by.
“Think I broke my arm . . . my head hurts. But yeah, I’m okay. . . . . what about your brothers?”
Adam was already scooting back across the rock floor towards Hoss. The big man had been unduly quiet since he’d answered just minutes before.
“Any way you can find us some light, Bill?”
“Uhh . . yeah . . I think . . “
Seconds later there was a flash as Bill struck a match. It burned faint for a moment, then grew in brilliance until it was a steady flame. Adam turned towards the light, blinking at the glow it produced.
“How’d you find a candle in this mess?”
“Always keep some in my pocket when I come down here.”
Adam’s answering nod started a new round of pain and nausea, but he ignored it as he finally made his way over to Hoss.
“My God! I thought you said you were okay.”
“Joe? We . . gotta find . . Joe.”
“I know, Hoss. We will, I promise.”
Adam wouldn’t look Hoss in the eye. He didn’t know how he was going to keep that promise. It seemed like tons of rock had landed all around them, leaving the four men in a small cubicle of their own. He couldn’t bear to imagine what had happened to his kid brother. The mere thought was more than his heart could bear. So he focused, instead, on his other brother.
Hoss was favoring his left side, his arm hanging useless. It was the look of sheer pain that alarmed Adam the most. His oversized brother could take a lot. Adam had seen the man take on four men, and never break a sweat, handling blows that would’ve knocked most men to the ground. But now . . .
“Where does it hurt the most?”
“Don’t . . .matter. Gotta . . . find . .Joe.”
Hoss’s voice grew fainter, and Adam realized the big man was losing consciousness.
“Hold on. Hoss, stay with me now!”
He’d only been half sitting, but Hoss slid backwards to the floor, the movement of his large chest the only sign he was still alive. Adam looked him over carefully, checking for broken bones. In the end, it was his brother’s shoulder that seemed to be the problem, but other than binding it, there was nothing he could do. And there wasn’t anything to bind it with, short of someone’s shirt. They’d all need those, to keep warm in this underground cavern. Adam sat back and shook his head in defeat.
He’d been digging forever, it seemed, and still there was nothing but dirt and rocks, piled on top of dirt and rocks. Adam found only a little comfort in the fact that the pile seemed loose. It was the only hope they had that Joe would be alive on the other side, but even that small hope was dwindling as the hours slipped by. Adam knew that Bill had lit his last candle, after that, the men would be left in the dark, making the simplest tasks almost impossible. He stopped for a moment and rested his aching head in his hands. They were bloodstained from his efforts, but he didn’t feel any pain. Only his head hurt, and he couldn’t let that stop him.
The voice startled him, even though his brother repeated the question almost constantly. Adam realized he wasn’t fully aware of what was happening any longer. The lack of oxygen was beginning to affect them all, but with the added work of digging, he was using it up faster than most.
“No.” He finally managed to answer. Adam couldn’t bear to stop, even though he knew that his efforts were probably useless. There was little hope left for these men in their rocky grave.
Then he saw it . . . a tan boot. His heart in his throat, Adam clawed the dirt away until a familiar pant leg was in view. Only then did he manage to find his voice.
“Hoss . . .”
Instantly the big man was beside him. Even one armed, Hoss managed to help, each handful of dirt pushed behind the two frantic brothers.
“Can’t tell . . .”
Bill had moved closer, his candle held up to light the area as much as possible.
“Look, Adam! There’s a beam across him, but it doesn’t look like he’s pinned . . “
The men continued to dig, neither giving voice to their fears, but willing themselves to work harder. Finally they’d cleared enough debris away to be able to get to their brother. Adam carefully wedged himself between Joe and the beam. Only then did he actually touch his brother’s still form.
“Thank God.” Hoss’s voice was filled with relief. “How bad is he?“
“Can’t see much . . . hold the candle closer.”
Grunting with the effort, and fighting back his own pain, Adam managed to squeeze past his little brother and into the opening on the other side. His first view of Joe was one that would stay with him forever. The kid was lying, still as death, in a pool of blood. Adam’s shaking hand reached out to check, again, for his brother’s heartbeat. It was there. Squinting in the dim light, he could make out a deep cut along the side of Joe’s head, along with many smaller cuts and scrapes that had come from the falling rock.
While he ran trembling hands over Joe’s arms and legs, Adam looked around the dark void. For the first time, he was able to see what had saved his brother. A large beam lay angled across his legs, its position providing some protection from the rocks and boulders. Near his feet, a mound of dirt had filled the opening between the two open areas, leaving Joe the unfortunate one to be caught in the middle.
“Well?” The voice was filled with impatience.
“Can’t find anything broken. He’s got lots of cuts and bruises, and he’s unconscious.”
The thin light from Bill’s candle grew brighter as the mine owner pushed the burning stick through the opening.
“Here, Adam. You need this worse than we do.”
Grateful for the man’s understanding, Adam reached out and grasped the candle. It was then, as he moved back from the opening that he spotted the other man.
It took only a split-second to move across the small confines, but even in that instant, Adam knew that the foreman was dead. The battered man probably hadn’t suffered. It looked as if he’d been killed almost instantaneously. When Adam looked back at his brother, lying so near, he felt such a surge of relief it was almost overwhelming. This could have been Joe. And then another thought began to form. Had Joe been awake since the cave-in? Had he known that Frank had died? In this small dark area, alone with a dead man, had Joe suffered with the fear of that knowledge. It was something that would make the strongest man shudder, but for his young brother . . it would’ve been unbearable.
“Yeah . . he’s dead Hoss.”
“Joe . . ” There was a catch in the man’s voice.
“No. No! Hoss, I meant that Frank was dead. Joe’s still with us.”
‘For now . . .’ he murmured under his breath.
Adam slid back to Joe’s side and checked his brother’s breathing again. Slow but steady.
“Joe. Little Joe, come on, wake up boy.”
There was no answer, no evidence that Joe had even heard him. Adam frowned, and looked around the narrow space. What should he do now? Move his brother back with the others? Bring the others in here? Would it be upsetting to Joe if he woke up and saw this dead man lying next to him? Was there even a chance that they’d be found? Or were they left to spend their last hours alone in the dark before suffocating in this hole?
“Come on, Adam, let’s get him over here.”
Grateful that the question had been answered for him, Adam jammed the small candle between two rocks. Then carefully, he helped Hoss scoot Joe under the beam and out onto the other side. Even in the dim light, he could read the look of concern on his brother’s face. But once Joe was through and cradled in Hoss’s arms, Adam turned back. With a sad last glance toward Frank, he gathered the few items that might be of use and stuffed them through the narrow opening. Then picking up the candle, Adam crawled back towards his brothers.
He knew he was dozing . . . fading in and out . . . his every breath echoing in his ears. Even the pain in his head seemed to have dulled as they waited. Pulling himself out of the trance-like state, Adam turned glazed eyes towards his brother. Hoss still sat, half reclining against the rock wall, Joe’s head cradled in his lap. The two of them were quiet, Joe never having moved since they found him hours before. Hoss however, was watchful, his eyes roaming the interior of the small room. Though Adam knew that his brother’s breathing was labored, it didn’t seem to be something Hoss was even aware of.
When the big man finally realized he was being watched, he almost grinned at his older brother.
“There, Adam. See . . . right there.” Hoss was pointing at some unseen spot on the opposite wall.
Adam’s first thought was that he was witnessing his brother’s demise. Seconds later, he was actually forcing himself up and across to the other wall.
“Was I right, Adam?”
“Bill. Bill, wake up!”
Adam didn’t bother to answer his brother, but hollered at the mine owner instead. It took several minutes for the man to rouse himself, and by that time, Hoss had laid Joe’s head carefully on the ground and moved next to Adam.
“See . . right there.”
“Yeah, I see it. Bill? What do you think?”
Bill Owens was blinking in the shallow light of the kerosene miners-lamp. It was one of the few things they’d managed to find in the debris, but turned low, its thin flame was little help. Still, it was enough to illuminate a narrow opening near the roof above them.
“I don’t know. Everything’s settling . . . could be soft enough to dig through, if there’s anything left overhead. There’s no way to know how far the collapse went, or what’s left of the tunnel.”
“Yeah, but there’s a chance, ain’t there? Maybe enough to find us some good air at least.”
Hoss’s determination was unmistakable, and though neither Adam nor Bill held out much hope, neither could they bear to disillusion the man.
“Yes, there’s a chance.” Bill finally admitted. “Here, Adam, hoist me up.”
Adam looked at the man for only a minute before carefully shaking his head. Even that slight movement was enough to start the pounding again. But with Bill’s bad arm, Adam was still the most likely candidate to climb up the pile of dirt and rocks.
“No, I’m going up. Just don’t expect it to be fast.”
Hoss managed a slight grin as he lent his good arm to the effort. It was almost as if he could see past the new wall, to their escape on the other side. Adam didn’t know how to respond, so he merely scrambled up the short slope.
What he found at the top wasn’t overly encouraging, yet it was at least a chance. Handful by handful, he carefully dug the smaller rocks away from the hole until he had managed to clear a small opening.
“Got it!” He blurted excitedly.
The two men below were almost stunned at first, their upturned faces wearing looks of shock and disbelief.
“Can you see anything?”
“No.” Adam’s voice dropped as he peered through the new cavity.
Several minutes passed, as he worked around the opening. Finally, with a look of reluctance, he slid down the slope.
“It’s no use. I’ve scraped away the smaller rocks, but couldn’t budge the larger ones.”
Adam slumped to the ground, and leaned his head back against the wall. The pounding in his head was growing, and his vision narrowed. For a while, the darkness in the mine grew until Adam felt like he was floating in a black void. There were voices around him, vague and seemingly far away. When he finally made sense of things again, he realized that he was lying flat on the ground. Bill was watching him closely, but Hoss wasn’t in his line of vision.
“Right here, older brother. How are you feeling?”
Adam turned his head carefully as he heard, and felt, a cascade of small rocks nearby. Looking up, he could see Hoss perched on the slope, one arm held close to his side, the other one stretched through the opening Adam had worked on just a short time before.
“Better . . .” Adam mumbled in reply. “What are you doing?”
Hoss grinned in relief.
“You had us worried.”
Turning back to the hole, Hoss continued his work, as if nothing further had been asked of him. But Adam persisted.
“I asked what you’re doing up there.”
“Gettin’ us outta this God-forsaken hole. Check on Joe, will ya?”
Adam wanted to protest his brother’s actions. Clearly, Hoss was in a lot of pain, but the grim look of determination on his brother’s face was obvious. And so, he turned to check on his youngest brother. There was no change.
The eldest Cartwright son watched in silent awe as his brother worked. It almost seemed as if Hoss was willing to move heaven and earth to save them. At the rate he was going, Adam decided that the big man could, and would, do just that.
Perched just above them, Hoss groaned as he physically pushed himself beyond even his own endurance. Though the rocks and boulders were no larger or heavier than what he’d handled before, they were piled and wedged amongst themselves to form the most resistant of barriers. Add to that, the fact that Hoss was in no condition to perform such physical feats . . . it could almost be considered an exercise in futility. However, Adam knew that he wouldn’t be the one to tell his brother that. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ he could almost hear his father repeating. Hoss was trying to find the way. Their way. Joe’s way.
Adam looked down to where his youngest brother was propped up against his leg. The few strips of cloth they’d been able to salvage had been wound around Joe’s head in an effort to staunch the flow of blood. Those strips were now stained a dark reddish-brown as the blood congealed and dried. At least it was no longer bright red. They’d been grateful when the bleeding had finally slowed, then stopped. It was common knowledge that head wounds bled profusely, but Joe had failed to even stir in the hours since they’d found him. The prolonged unconsciousness had both his brothers worried.
Swiping a weary arm across his own brow, Adam stared for a moment at his wet shirtsleeve. The heat was becoming almost unbearable, the air stagnant, and he knew they couldn’t last much longer. That was obvious by the lack of movement from the other two men. Yet Hoss continued to work zealously. For a moment, Adam was tempted to make his brother stop . . . rest and conserve his energy. But why? What would be the point in that? Why not let his brother meet his end in his own way. . .
There was little hope that anyone would be digging down to find them, and relatively no hope that even if Hoss found a way through this one wall that there would be any means of escape from the mine. Still, it was his way, and Adam’s too. He wished that he could pull himself up next to Hoss, and work until the bitter end beside his brother. Only the slightest movement of his head convinced him that wouldn’t happen. Adam would be no help, only a hindrance. He’d be unconscious at the first effort. So he held his kid brother’s head in his lap and closed his eyes, remembering his father, his home, and happier times.
The wick had been turned low to conserve fuel, the lamplight only a shadowy flicker in the dark. Shapes within the tunnel took on strange appearances, until it was hard to discern what was really there. Time ceased to exist as an accurate measurement, and the men inside had lost track of how long they’d been trapped below the earth’s surface.
“Adam. Adam, wake up!”
The voice was weak, but it’s commanding tone was unmistakable. Hoss was calling again.
“Come on, Adam. Ya gotta wake up . . . We’re through!”
The last words finally sunk in, and Adam jolted awake. What was his brother rambling about? Looking around, he squinted in the darkness. Everyone was still in the same position, everyone but Hoss. His larger than life brother was kneeling before him, one hand gently grasping Joe’s arm, the other hanging limply at his side.
“Hoss? What . . . what happened?”
“Didn’t ya hear me, big brother? We’re through. Can’t ya smell it, even? The air’s some better, but we gotta get outta this little cave. Come on, help me. Let’s get Joe home.”
Adam knew the big man was being more than optimistic, but he wasn’t about to dissuade him now. One glance proved what Hoss had been saying. Lord knew how, but this giant of a brother had cleared an opening large enough to carry Joe through and on into the main shaft.
“Hoss. You did it!”
Scrambling to his feet, Adam carefully helped lay Joe down on the ground. Within seconds, the two brothers had rousted the other men, and were working to get Morgan through the opening. He was badly injured, but with help, was able to make it
It didn’t take long to get everyone through. Even moving Joe proved to be fairly simple. That act was not without its consequences, though. Once they’d laid Joe on the floor of the main shaft, Hoss knelt down, his head hanging low. Adam could hear his brother’s deep breathing, and knew that he was fighting to control his pain. Adam, himself, was hard-pressed to deal with his own injury. The strain of lifting Joe up and over the debris had caused his headache to increase seven-fold. No longer a dull ache with occasional shafts of pain, he now found himself fighting to keep from sliding into that dark void; the beckoning darkness that promised relief from the constant pain.
Bowing his head, Adam closed his eyes and tried to will the pain away. For a fleeting moment, he saw his father’s face before him, the familiar smile and nod of encouragement. When he opened his eyes again, Adam saw his brothers there instead. Hoss, with one arm cradled in the other; Joe, still in the exact position they’d placed him in, no sign of life other than the slow rise and fall of his chest. Adam bowed his head once more, and silently pled for help.
The two men had conversed quietly, even going so far as to venture several feet into the dark and empty shaft. When they finally seemed to arrive at a conclusion, it was the smaller man who roused Adam, while the bigger man sank to the floor for a moment’s rest.
“Adam. Adam! Come on now, we need your opinion.”
Forcing himself to sit up, Adam opened his eyes to be greeted with a faint smile from Bill Owens.
“I think we have a plan, Adam.”
Careful not to shake his head, Adam stood up after first checking on Little Joe. Then he turned to the mine owner.
“What are you talking about?”
Owens quickly outlined his theory, and within minutes, Adam had agreed. If Bill was right, and there was an old test-shaft where he said it was, then there really might be a chance. It was a possibility that no one in his right mind would ignore. There was only one part of Bill’s plan that Adam didn’t like, and the man was pushing again for an answer.
“What do you think, Adam? Should we take them, or leave them?”
Adam never hesitated. He voted with his brother Hoss. There was no way they could leave their little brother down here with Morgan. Even if they’d come back with help, that help could be too late. No. If they could find a way out, then Joe was getting out with them.
“We’re taking them!”
There was only a slight frown from Bill, yet he nodded in reluctant agreement. His argument had been weak at best. His only thought had been for them to get to the top quicker. But Adam could see that the man was understanding enough to accept that which he could not change.
“All right, then, let’s get moving.”
Hoss leaned over and used his one good arm to lift Joe into a sitting position. Adam stepped to Joe’s other side and helped support his youngest brother. None of their efforts made any change in Joe’s demeanor.
“Here, Hoss, I’ll take his shoulders. Can you manage to get his legs one armed?”
With some grunting and straining, they managed to lift their brother. Then the trio moved slowly forward, following Bill as he helped Morgan, whose injured leg was making it hard for him to walk. It was all Adam could do to keep moving. His head felt like it would explode from the effort. With unerring devotion, he forced his body to keep pace with his larger brother, pushing aside the pain as they struggled to support Joe between them.
The going was slow, the way scattered with debris that had to be moved or crawled over, causing them to stop frequently. It was hard work, a test of fortitude, and for the most part the men were silent. After the first few steps, Adam quit trying to think ahead, but merely focused on following Hoss. He had to keep following his brother. He couldn’t let him down.
Several hours slipped by, and the group had gone no more than a few hundred feet. Covered with sweat and gasping for air, the men sat down to rest.
Adam took a small sip of water, acutely aware of how light the canteen had become. With only two between them, it hadn’t gone far in quenching their thirst, and they were all suffering from lack of water. Leaning back against the rock wall, Adam slowly tried to add up all the misfortunes that had befallen them since the walls had caved in, but the count was too high. If Joe were awake, he’d probably make some crack about being time for Lady Luck to smile on them. Adam would welcome either of those possibilities, but right now, Joe being awake was at the top of his list.
‘Adam. Adam! I’m hurt . . . Help me, Adam. I’m hurt, please help me. . . Adam!’
He came to with a start, gazing up into his brother’s face. But it wasn’t the right brother.
“Adam. Adam! Wake up. We’ve got us some company.”
Suddenly, more fully awake, Adam sat up, staring at Hoss, but looking for Joe.
“Where is he? Is he all right?”
“Whoa there, big brother. Joe’s right here. He’s doin’ about the same.”
Hoss grabbed his bad shoulder as he moved out of Adam’s line of vision.
“What’s wrong, Adam? You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah . . .”
Adam rubbed his forehead, not even hoping that his ministrations would calm the throbbing.
“What were you talking about? Who’s here?”
Pulling his mind from the eerie memory of Joe calling out to him, Adam finally looked about and realized that there were more men in the tunnel.
“What’s happening? Who’s . . .”
“It’s some of the miners that were trapped down here. They’ve been lookin’ fer a way out, too. And there’s more water, Adam. Not much, but enough for a good drink. Here.”
Adam took the canteen from his brother, surprised by how heavy it was. Could it really be that full, or was everything just that much harder to do in his weakened condition? Not bothering to contemplate the implications, Adam merely slid over to his younger brother and lifted Joe’s head. Hoss’s hand on his arm halted his mission.
“Already did that, big brother. Didn’t get much down him, but I think he swallowed a little.”
The two brothers stared at their sibling in the dim light, each thinking along the same lines, neither willing to give voice to their fears. Adam’s hand moved slowly to his kid brother’s face, his large fingers cupped carefully along Joe’s cheek. He held his hand there for several minutes, carefully studying the slack jaw and uncanny stillness of his brother before managing to speak again.
“It’s been too long, Hoss. What’s Pa going to . . . “
His voice broke, but no one noticed. Adam hung his head, and fought back the rising flood of despair. He knew that Hoss was fighting the same feelings when a large hand gently squeezed his shoulder.
“Let’s go, Adam. Let’s get this boy home.”
Calling on reserves that had long ago been used up, Hoss helped Adam slowly to his feet, and they both turned to lift their brother between them. One step, after the other, they followed the group of men slowly making their way through the tunnel.
His head hurt in such a commanding way that Adam was content to let the others make the decisions, while he merely forced himself to follow. A leader most of his life, it went against his grain to trail along, but right now he couldn’t find the strength to care. He knew that Hoss and Bill were looking out for all of them and instinctively he knew that he needed to conserve every bit of his strength just to keep going. At least Hoss had his mental faculties, something Adam found slightly amusing in a twisted kind of way. It occurred to him that it might’ve been better had he ended up with the shoulder injury, and Hoss been bumped on the head. And Joe . . . The humor was gone just as quickly as it had arisen. He had to keep moving.
With no idea of how long or how far they’d traveled, Adam was surprised when the group suddenly ceased to move. The voices around him sounded excited, and Adam forced himself to pay attention.
“What is it, Hoss?”
“Bill found it! We done made it, Adam. It’s the way out, just like Bill said it’d be!”
Looking up, Adam could make out a narrow beam of sunlight, its light filtered and diffused until it seemed like only a faint shadow on the wall. Rather than the elation he’d expected, however, he was filled with a sense of utter defeat. How would they ever get Little Joe through there? It wasn’t just the size of the tunnel, but the angle and grade. It would be a difficult route for a man in the best of shape, but this battered group? One of them unconscious . . . Yet, there was no way that Adam would leave his brother behind.
Hoss was the first one to examine the smaller shaft. Adam was amazed again, at his brother’s indomitable spirit. He simply wasn’t going to admit defeat. That spirit drove Adam to try harder, and he pushed his way over to stand beside the Hoss.
“What do you think?”
“It’s gonna be tough, Adam. Not much room, and a steep climb.”
Hoss hesitated for a moment.
“We’re gonna make it, though. I promised Joe. He’s gonna be at the ranch when Pa gets home from San Francisco. . .”
Adam knew that his face must’ve mirrored his surprise, for Hoss was instantly silent.
“He’s already home, isn’t he?” Hoss finally mumbled.
“I think so. Days are kinda messed up, but I’m pretty sure we’ve been here that long.”
Instead of the quiet contemplation he expected, Hoss surprised Adam with a burst of activity.
“We’d best get goin’ then. Don’t want Pa worryin’ any longer‘n he has to.”
Adam didn’t want to expand on that thought, or suggest to Hoss that Pa might be more than just worried. He might be, probably was . . . thinking the worst . . . that his sons were gone. And that was the thought that forced Adam into action. He couldn’t stand the sudden vision of his pa all alone.
This time, Bill had help getting Morgan to traverse the steep and rocky grade, while the other miners followed close behind them. Hoss and Adam took up the rear, with Joe carefully suspended between them. No longer carrying him, they each had one arm wrapped around him, with Joe’s arms draped around their shoulders. It wasn’t the best method of moving an injured man, but they’d quickly found that there was no other way they’d get him up the narrow shaft.
There was little space to maneuver, and each step in the small, dark tunnel was treacherous. More than once, the men slipped and slid on the rocks. Following close behind the others, the Cartwright brothers were doing their best to get Joe out of the mine without causing him further injury. Half carrying, half dragging him, the two brothers moved carefully. Hoss wouldn’t admit it, but Adam knew he was reaching the breaking point. The pain from his shoulder showed in every line on his face. Not for the first time since this ordeal began, Adam whispered silent words of prayer.
Moving forward. Moving one foot, one knee, or one hand, but always moving forward. Adam couldn’t think beyond the simple task of making that next move. It seemed they’d been walking, and crawling, and climbing forever. And still, there was only a faint slip of light in the distance.
Whether this had been a test hole or an airshaft, Adam no longer cared. Wider at the bottom, they’d managed to keep Joe held between them for a while. Now, with the tunnel narrowing into less than one man’s width, they were forced to push and pull him up the narrow confines of their hoped-for escape route. Adam hoped it wasn’t a fool’s errand. He knew he wouldn’t have the strength to look for another course.
‘Move. Just keep moving.’
Adam looked over his shoulder, anxiously peering through the dark in a vain effort to see Hoss’s face. He was worried about the big man. How much more could he endure?
“I’m still here.”
Hoss replied to his silent question, and Adam turned back to his task. Moving several feet upward, he stopped and turned, reaching back to grasp Joe underneath the arms. Then, carefully, he pulled his little brother up to where he sat. Hoss, in his turn, would move closer, then support Joe’s inert form while Adam moved upwards again. It was a constant rotation, like some well-planned ballet, each of them responsible for their part in the dance. All the while, their kid brother sagged silently between them, like some discarded rag doll.
Refusing to acknowledge the persistent pounding in his head, Adam willed himself to focus on his next move. He had to keep going. For Hoss and Joe. For Pa. . .
The brothers stopped, staring up when they heard the excited shouts.
“We made it, Adam!”
Still unable to make out the source of the calls, Adam returned to his mission, carefully scooting his brother up the next few feet of the tunnel. He wanted to believe the owner’s words, but his mind couldn’t fully grasp the concept. There was no blinding light, no clamor of help. Instead, there remained a narrow rock tunnel, and his brothers waiting for him to move forward.
Hands reaching down for him. Hands pulling him up and over the narrow ledge. Adam fell back onto the hard dirt, and watched in silence as those same hands gently pulled his youngest brother out and laid him nearby. And then they had Hoss. The big man immediately slumped to the ground, where he held his arm close, but grinned widely.
“We made it, big brother. We did it!”
Only then did Adam really accept and believe. They were out. The early morning light was there, the sun making its slow ascent into the heavens, and warming them with its earliest rays. No wonder there had been no blinding light. Still, Adam shaded his eyes as he looked around the group. Even this meager light set his head to pounding.
“We haven’t made it yet, Hoss.” Adam croaked weakly. “We need water, and a way into town.”
“Here, Adam.” Bill stepped up immediately, a canteen in hand. Sonny was up ahead, and he’s already been down by the creek for some fresh water.”
Adam tipped the container back, reveling in the cool, wet water as it slid down his throat.
“Slow, Adam, slow. That’s enough for now.”
Bill took the canteen from his hands and passed it over to Hoss. As soon as he’d taken a drink, they lifted Joe and carefully worked to get some of the liquid into him. There was no reaction to their efforts, and the brothers exchanged yet another worried frown.
“Here, let me tilt his head back a little.”
Holding Joe against his own shoulder, Adam tilted his brother’s head back and gently held Joe’s mouth open. Then Hoss carefully dribbled some of the water across the boy’s lips, while Adam used his other hand to softly caress the boy’s throat. After several attempts, Joe swallowed a little, and Hoss almost shouted with glee. Adam tempered his reaction with a slight frown.
“It was probably just a natural reaction.”
“Yeah, you’re right-”
They were interrupted by a commotion behind them. Bill Owens had been checking each of his men, and was urging them to get up and going. Adam watched as the man quickly organized the group, and before long they were started on their walk to town. It wasn’t far, really. Though they’d come out on the backside of the mine, it was still only about a mile to town. And while several of them were in bad need of a doctor, they managed to get each man up and moving.
“Here, Adam, let me help you.”
He looked up into the face of Sonny McLouglin, the young man alive with a sudden burst of energy. Although he was bloody and bruised, he seemed to be the least injured of the lot, and he quickly offered to help with Joe. Relieved that Hoss wouldn’t be forced to help carry their brother, Adam stood up and accepted his offer. He was also grateful when Hoss didn’t argue with the arrangement, another testament to the man’s condition.
This journey, like the last, was one of little thought and constant movement. A matter of simply putting one foot in front of the other as the small band of survivors made their way towards Virginia City.
Adam slammed the narrow door behind him, and dropped tiredly into the nearest chair. The doctor’s waiting room was filled with several injured men, and numerous anxious relatives, but there was no sign of Hoss. Rubbing his forehead in what seemed to be a constant attempt for relief, Adam glared at the other door, the one between him and the examining room. He knew he had every right to open that door, yet he held back. After several volatile exchanges with Paul Martin, he was in no hurry to embark on another round. He was in no mood, and quite honestly, no shape to argue with the doctor. But he would.
There was no logical explanation for why he felt the way he did. Adam Cartwright wasn’t one who normally disputed a doctor’s recommendations. But ever since Roy Coffee had told him about Pa’s state of mind, Adam had an uncontrollable urge to get his brothers home. Paul didn’t see it quite the same way, and the two had been at logger’s heads almost since the moment the rag-tag band had walked into town.
That must’ve been a sight, he mused, and one Adam would’ve preferred to watch rather than participate in. It took a little while to get things organized, but after people settled down, they managed to get Joe over to the doc’s office. The hours that followed were full of exams, discussions and waiting. And the whole time, Adam just wanted to get home.
His disposition didn’t improve after the hired man sent to bring Ben to town, returned alone. Sam had been unable to give them much information, other than the fact that their pa wasn’t at the ranch. The man didn’t know where Ben had gone off to, he only knew that their little Oriental cook was upset and mumbling in his native tongue. The whole situation was confusing to Adam. Where would his father go, especially at a time when he thought he’d lost his whole family?
Slamming his fist down on the armrest, Adam jumped up just in time to see Paul emerge from the other room, followed closely by Hoss. With one arm now tightly bound to his side, and a little painkiller in his system, Hoss looked somewhat more comfortable. Though he didn’t look much better over all. His shirt was torn and blood stained, his pants ripped and caked with dirt. Exhaustion seemed to visibly weigh his shoulders down, and the toes of his boots almost dragged as he walked. Having seen his own reflection in a store window while walking to the livery stable, Adam knew that he didn’t look much better. They all needed a good bath, and a long rest.
“How is he?”
No one needed to ask who the ‘he’ was that Adam was referring to.
Doc Martin’s answer was terse, his eyes clearly conveying his disapproval. He stood still for several minutes, staring intently at Adam, even while other patients waited expectantly for his care. Finally, the doctor nodded his head in grudging consent.
“I don’t agree with you, Adam. Moving Joe to the ranch could be dangerous. On the other hand, it might not make any difference at this point. He’s already been unconscious far too long. Just make sure you follow my instructions to the letter. I’ll be out to check on him when I can, but as you can see, that might not be for a while. Tonight, at the earliest. I don’t know what your father will have to say about this, but Joe’s in your hands now. Take care of him.”
“I will Doc. You know I will.”
Adam’s answer was soft, but respectful. A far cry from the tone he’d used earlier. Paul understood though, and for the first time since the boys had returned, he clasped the young man’s shoulder.
“Take care of yourself too, son. That concussion of yours is nothing to ignore.”
With a sad smile, Paul turned to his other patients while Adam and Hoss went to get Joe. It took only a few minutes to get him lifted onto a stretcher, and with the help of several men, they carried him out to the wagon.
Jed Wilson, the owner of the livery stable, had been more than generous with the mattresses and blankets he’d arranged in the back. Adam suspected that some of them came from the general store. There were even several pillows towards the front, and from the stitching on the cases, Adam suspected that Mrs. Wilson herself, had placed them there.
With Roy Coffee helping out, it didn’t take long before Joe was settled comfortably in the makeshift bed. Convinced that they’d done everything they could, Hoss climbed in next to him. Leaning back against a bag of seed covered with another blanket, he too, was as comfortable as they could make him for the long ride home. But it wasn’t until Adam sat down in the driver’s seat and reached for the reins, that he realized there was someone else next to him.
“Adam. Glad to see you all in one piece.”
A weak smile was his answer. Adam had been less than confident that he could manage the team all the way home, especially with his scraped and tender hands. Yet he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, admit that to Paul, Roy, Hoss or anyone else. He was still filled with a burning need to get them all home. The presence of a Ponderosa hand was a perfect solution to this particular problem, and he gladly released the lines into Walt’s waiting hands.
“Let’s go home.”
With a chirrup to the horses, they set out slowly towards the Ponderosa. None of them looked back or they would’ve seen a worried Doc Martin watching them from his window.
The ride from Virginia City had never seemed so long to Adam. Walt was taking it easy for the injured, keeping the horses to a slow, steady gait. All Adam wanted to do was whip the team up, and run them all the way home. He gripped the side of the seat instead.
They were only halfway to the ranch when Adam laid a hand on Walt’s forearm.
“Pull ‘em up for a minute.”
“What’s wrong, Adam?” Roy asked, as he pulled his horse to a stop near the wagon.
“Just going to spell Hoss for a while.” Adam replied.
Climbing down from the seat, he walked gingerly around to the back of the wagon, and motioned for Hoss to get out. The larger man shook his head in mute disagreement, but Adam would not be dissuaded.
“Come on, brother, you’re about done in.”
“How can ya tell that? I’m not complainin’.”
“Hoss. Let me take a turn with him.”
Adam’s soft but insistent tone worked, and Hoss slowly crawled out of the wagon. From his stiff and disjointed movements, it was obvious that the ride had been none too easy on him. As soon as Hoss had settled himself on the front seat, Adam climbed into the wagon, resting his back against the same bag of grain that his brother had used only moments before. Leaning over his youngest brother, he carefully noted Joe’s breathing and color, but a small sound from Hoss above him confirmed that there’d been no improvement. Adam hoped that there’d been no harm, either. Settling back against the large sack, he nodded to the driver.
“Take us home, Walt.”
As the ranch hand flicked the lines and started the team, Roy moved back into place ahead of the wagon. Hoss looked slightly more comfortable on the high seat, his feet arched to take as much of the shock as possible. Only a few minutes in the back convinced Adam that his suspicions had been correct. The uneven jerking and bouncing of the wagon, along with the awkward seating arrangement, must’ve caused Hoss a lot of pain.
Pulling in a deep breath, Adam laid his hand on Joe’s shoulder, and turned to watch the passing landscape. Everything was the same as it had always been. Yet somehow, it all seemed different. He couldn’t help but wonder if things would ever be the same.
Hours passed before the group finally reached the ranch house. HopSing met them in the yard, his face reflecting a mixture of emotions. Though he wore a happy smile, and his voice was filled with relief as he greeted them, there was a sadness about his eyes; a sadness that Adam couldn’t comprehend.
There was a flurry of activity as HopSing directed the few hands on site to move Joe from the large livery wagon, to his room upstairs. After that, he kept up a steady stream of Chinese as he busied himself with settling the youngest Cartwright into bed. Only then was Adam able to corral the small man long enough to get a decent answer about Pa’s whereabouts. HopSing’s look of loss was enough to send chills through a man, especially a man who was anxious to see his father.
“Where is he, HopSing?” Adam almost shouted.
Hoss laid a strong hand of comfort on his brother’s shoulder, but that action didn’t truly reflect his own feelings.
“Don’t know. He left early, maybe last night. Horse gone. Things gone. HopSing not know where he go.”
Hoss and Adam stared at the cook, unable to fathom what he was telling them. How could Pa be gone? But why would HopSing say these things if they weren’t true?
Even with his head pounding, Adam sprang into action, hurrying down the hall and into his father’s room. It only took a quick glance to confirm what HopSing had been telling them. The room was neat and tidy, nothing out of place. But there were things missing. Things that a man would take . . . Adam couldn’t bear to admit that they’d be things he’d take if he were planning to stay away. He turned back to the doorway to face his brother and the others.
“He is gone.”
It was Roy Coffee’s turn to jump into action. Within minutes, he’d rounded up what few hands that were available, and sent riders out to find the others. And then, they started to search.
The clock by the door resolutely ticked off each minute, the hours passing slowly at the Ponderosa. The mood at the ranch house was solemn at best. HopSing worked hard to keep their spirits up, his own heart soaring at the realization that the Cartwright boys were alive. However, the youngest brother lying still and silent in his bed upstairs kept the atmosphere solemn. That, and the fact that one, very important person was still missing.
Hoss and Adam had each spent some time in the large tub, washing away the dirt and grime from their ordeal. But the warm water, soap and clean clothes did little to encourage them.
The last rays of the evening sun had long ago faded away, and Adam found himself wandering around the large room, his hand constantly at his temple. Doc Martin had arrived an hour before, and after several wasted minutes of arguing with the two oldest, had finally moved on to the youngest brother. The frustrated look was not lost on Adam, but he shrugged it off. Hoss reacted much the same, refusing to allow himself to be coaxed into resting. Instead, he’d followed the doctor into Joe’s room and shut the door.
Stopping in front of the large fireplace, Adam stared into the fire, allowing the flickering flames to momentarily mesmerize him. He wasn’t an overly expressive man. In fact, he’d always prided himself on being able to control his emotions. Even as a child, he’d rarely been reduced to tears. But this . . . this was something very different. An ache so deep . . . A longing . . .
Breaking out of his self-induced trance, Adam allowed his gaze to travel around the room. He was willing to admit, if need be, that he needed his father. Not just for Joe’s sake, or even Hoss’s, but for himself. He needed his pa.
Settling slowly on the settee, Adam let his head fall forward as he gently massaged the back of his neck. Roy Coffee’s return left them feeling more discouraged than ever. No one had seen a trace of Ben Cartwright, and though most of the hands were still out searching, Adam had a hunch that they wouldn’t find anything.
Finally leaning back into the cushions, Adam allowed his eyes to close for only a moment. Outwardly he appeared calm, but inside, he felt like screaming.
‘Where are you, Pa?’
“Adam. Adam! Son?”
Adam blinked as he realized that his father had been speaking to him.
“Huh? What was that, Pa? Did you say something?”
“I asked if you were going to stay up reading all night, or get some sleep like your brothers.”
Gazing languidly around the room, Adam realized that Hoss and Joe had already gone upstairs to bed.
“Sorry, Pa, I was . . . I was just thinking.”
“Must’ve been something pretty important.”
“Mmmm.” Adam straightened up in his chair, and closed the book still held loosely in his hands. “Guess I was remembering, really.”
Pa nodded his head, quietly contemplating his oldest son for a long moment.
“Doesn’t hurt to remember, son. Just make sure that it’s not consuming you.” Ben paused, then continued. “You have nothing to blame yourself for, Adam. And everything to be thankful for.”
There was another pause as Adam considered his father’s words. Then slowly, he stood and laid one arm gently across his father’s shoulders.
“You’re right, Pa.”
Adam looked sideways at his father, remembering again the moment that his father had returned to the ranch that night, weeks before. He would never forget the look of shock on his father’s face when Ben realized that his sons were still alive.
Looking away, Adam strove to hold in his own emotions as the memories continued to wash over him. Pa was right, he had to let go of the should be’s and could’ve beens. That was in the past. It had been a difficult journey, but somehow he’d endured. It would be foolish to throw away that victory, in favor of the self-doubt or even pity that he’d been indulging in. No one blamed him. No one doubted his decisions. It had been an accident, pure and simple. He’d done the best that he could. They all had. And now they were safe. Joe was alive and well . . .
One more glance at his father, and Adam felt again that same rush of love and reassurance he’d felt when Pa held him in his arms that night. It was something Adam found hard to express, the love that he felt for this man. But he knew without a doubt, that he was as grateful now as he was then, that his Pa had found his way home.
Adam sighed as he slowly released his father. They turned quietly toward the stairs, but he knew Ben heard his soft echoing affirmation.
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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