Summary: Two brothers battle to keep each other alive.
Rated: K Word Count: 17550
The Power of Blood
God, how I hate cows, especially these cows. Got no character, all the same color, Can’t find ‘em at night they’re so black. Guess that would work out if you were trying to find them in a blizzard but who in their right mind would be out looking for cows in a blizzard?…oopps, done that a time or two. God, how I hate these cows. And Pa thinks he’s gonna improve the herd with them. Ha! Would have improved the herd for them to stay down in Monterrey ‘stead of running them up here.. Oh no you don’t you stupid four-legged dinner, get back there with the rest of them. I don’t want to spend half an hour chasing you back through the brush. So just stay up there with the rest of them, Ah, damn you, I told you…Damn! And with that final curse, Joe Cartwright pulled his pinto around to chase the Black Angus calf that had not wanted to stay with the rest of the herd.
After three weeks on the trail up from Monterrey with the small herd of 50 Black Angus cattle, he really wasn’t in the mood for dealing with them any more. They had proven more than once that they were a determined breed of bovine, always turning to go back home. They just couldn’t get it into their heads that home was no longer where they thought it was.
Compounded to that cussed determination was the fact that Joe Cartwright hated riding drag on the small herd. Fact was he hated riding drag on any size herd. It was dusty and hot sweaty work. And he eaten his fair share of dust that afternoon for certain. But the end of the trail was at hand. The scenery was already beginning to look familiar to him. He figured another three or four days and he could give these cows over to his father. Now if he could just survive another swallow of dust.
He let Cochise play tag with the little calf who was as determined as his elders to return the way they had come. The calf would bolt to the right and Cochise would counter his move, blocking his path. He tried then to the left and found the little pinto there as well.
Give up, stupid. You ain’t going that way so just turn around and head the other way with the rest of your kinfolk and as if the calf could hear his thoughts, the calf turned and ran back to the rest of the herd. Joe nudged Cochise back up to the rear of the herd, pushing them towards the mountains. And home.
When they made camp that night, Joe Cartwright was one relieved cowboy. He felt the trail grit everywhere, from his hair to his boots. Before he could even think about eating, he knew he had to do something about it. He snagged a clean pair of pants and a shirt from his saddlebags and headed down to the river they had camped beside. While the rest of the crew was busy with their evening chores, he striped off his dust-clogged clothes and dived in, thanking the maker of water heartily.
It felt good to swim in the cool water, letting it run down over his shoulders and chest. Dusk was coming on fast when he finally climbed out and quickly dressed, shaking his head to start his hair drying. ‘Damn, meant to get a haircut while I was in Monterrey. Meant to get one before I left home too. Well, I still have the hair so I guess when I get back to Virginia City I’ll have to take care of it. Pa is always having a fit about it being so long. Gives the girls just that much more to run their fingers through. Why can’t Pa just let it be?’ he thought, combing out the tangles with his fingers and pushing it from his forehead. He liked his hair longer than current fashion dictated and by now it was actually long enough to lay on his shoulders when wet. ‘Pa would have a fit if he saw it now. Ah hell, gives him something to gripe at me about. Like he needs to find a reason.’
Now in his early twenties, Joseph Cartwright was a good looking young man and he knew it. Others may have seen it as conceit; he just saw it as honesty. He had developed his “lady killer “skills along the way and was known to flirt shamelessly, letting his green eyes dance and bright smile flash and to entice the ladies. Because of the manual work he did on the family ranch, there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him anywhere. Nothing but lean hard muscle. But right then and there every one of those muscles was tired.
Like his youngest brother, Adam Cartwright was all lean muscle that was tired as well. He had convinced his father that the addition of these cattle were important to the improvement of the bloodline. Only when he himself had volunteered to go to Monterrey to purchase them and return them to the Ponderosa did his father relent. It wasn’t as if he needed his father’s permission, just acceptance of the idea. Once Adam had returned from college long ago, he and his father had made many joint decisions about how the ranch should be run and this was just one of those decisions. However, he hadn’t planned on doing the trail drive himself. That job he would gratefully left to Hoss and Joe but that wasn’t to be. Oh no, his father had countered. If Adam believed so much in the project, he needed to see it through completely. So he here he was, seeing the project through. He had wanted Hoss along rather than Joe but their father had been insistent upon that as well. Hoss stayed at home and Adam took his youngest brother, against his better judgment.
This is one of those situations I would really rather not be in right now Adam found himself thinking. But I had to let those two men go. They knew better than to bring a bottle on this drive. And to catch them drunk at that… Well, now we’re really short handed. Thank God we only have four more days at the outside. The very first thing I’m going to do when I get home is get myself a bath. A good hot bath and just soak in it. I am so tired of dirt… okay, here he comes. Just walk up to him and tell him matter of factly and hope like hell he doesn’t explode all over the place.
Adam took a deep breath before walking over to Joe who was shaking his head like a dog He had obviously been down to the river and gotten wet. The older man felt a twinge of jealousy over the fact that his brother was clean and he wasn’t.
“Hey, Joe, listen since we had to let two of the hands go, you’re going to have to ride drag again tomorrow. You and Cochise are the most experienced…..” by then he had expected the explosion and fight but Joe hadn’t said or done anything, just stood there looking at him. When his brother hadn’t said or done anything, Adam looked closely and asked, ”Are you feeling okay?”
Joe just shrugged his shoulders, buttoning his clean shirt. “Yeah sure, so you want to me ride drag again tomorrow?”
Still non-plussed, all Adam could say was “Uh, yeah. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I said I was. What, want me take the middle watch too?” Joe asked carefully, not really wanting to get up in the middle of the night to watch black cows do nothing. After all, he thought that watching their rear ends during daylight was bad enough.
Adam was wondering just how far he could push his luck with his brother. The dozen years between them sometimes seemed like a gulf, the width of the Ponderosa sometimes. Other times it was only an arm’s length way. How wide that gulf was right then, Adam wasn’t sure.
Joe ran his hand back through his hair once more, slicking a little more water from it before putting his hat back on. Hands on his hips, he waited for his brother to say something.
Well let’s see how my luck is today, Adam thought, “If you don’t mind, it would be a good idea for you to take the middle watch.” He watched his brother’s face for any expression what so ever and when none came, almost heaved a sigh of relief. But Joe would have caught that.
“Okay, fine, I’ll do the middle watch and ride drag again tomorrow. Anything else?” and there Adam heard the almost imperceptible challenge. If he hadn’t known Joe so well, he would have missed it entirely.
“Well there is…” and the green eyes looking at Adam Cartwright went hard as emeralds in a flash. Adam, in pausing, could see the jawline clenching and the shoulders pulling just a hair tighter. ‘There he is, my angry little brother. Wondered where he had gotten off to.’ Adam nearly chuckled to himself. “ Just wanted to tell you thanks for not arguing with me about it.”
“Just don’t push your luck any more, Big Brother.” And Joe walked towards where the chuck wagon was set up, leaving his brother behind.
Adam wondered to himself just what was going on. He had just given his volatile youngest brother the worst two jobs while out on the trail and gotten only a flicker of heat out of him. Granted, he didn’t want to start a fight. He really didn’t. But what was the problem? Scratching his head, he wondered what it was. Down deep he thought he knew the real problem was that neither of them would admit to how much they admired the other. Joe had secretly been jealous that Adam had seen more of the world than he had. He wished too that he could control his temper the way Adam did and think things through before acting. And Adam, on the other hand had always wished for the ease that his brother lived his life, envying him in silence for his way with people in general, not just the ladies. Not that Adam was a slouch in that department, oh no, he was just not quite the flirt his brother was. Joe was just so damn easy going where Adam tended to be more reserved and cautious.
The middle watch, during the darkest part of the night was a tough one for the youngest of the three Cartwright brothers. His father had once made the comment that when Joe stopped moving forward, he fell asleep, only to be hard to start moving again in the morning. So the middle watch meant he basically either had to stay up very late and not go to sleep before his watch time or get up twice. Neither was a pleasant concept to him.
And he was trying to figure out as he rode around the herd that night why he hadn’t put up a fight with Adam.
The big strawberry roan he was riding on was one that he really didn’t like all that much. For one thing, although the horse had good conformation, it had no spirit. If a horse could be said to slouch when it walked, this one did. The big roan just didn’t feel right to him but it was the last mount in the remuda. Joe would have rather been on his pinto but the horse had done its job that day and would need to rest if Joe were going to ride Cochise the next day. This was just one more irritation.
Over at the far side of the herd. Joe could hear Steve Simmons singing softly to the cattle, keeping them calm. It was almost like a lullaby in the night as it came lilting over the night breezes. Joe felt as though he could almost smell the pine in the air even though they were at least a day away from the high country where they grew so prevalent. And Joe longed for those pines. Oh how he longed for them.
As he hunched a little more into his jacket to avoid the night chill, Joe recognized a figure coming towards him, the horse slowly walking around the edge of the herd. He waited to speak until his brother was right up next to him.
“Come to see if I was doing what you told me to?” Joe asked Adam but there was no heat to the words. And that once again put Adam off. If Joe would just blow up at him…
“Naw, I couldn’t sleep so I thought I would join you out here.”
Joe noticed that Adam didn’t offer to take his place. “Let’s move back from the herd a bit then, so we can talk some.” He suggested and turned the head of the big roan back towards a slight rise about a hundred yards away from them. When they got back away from the herd, they could look out over the small valley and see the silver of the river running through it in what little moonlight there was. The clouds that had plagued them the whole day were building heavily now and the moon was having a hard time being seen, darting in and out.
“Pretty place, ain’t it? Not like home but a nice place all the same.” Adam decided to take a neutral approach to discussion. He waited for Joe to say something but when he hadn’t, Adam took a deep breath and plunged right in. “ Okay, little brother, what is up with you? You have been like this for the better part of this whole trip. It makes me, oh, how shall I say it? Uncomfortable when you are behaving yourself. Are you planning something? You are, aren’t you, you little schemer.”
In the thin light, Joe turned and looked over at his brother and smiled but said nothing. Let Adam think what he would, Joe was thinking to himself. He really wasn’t up to any prank or joke. He wasn’t but he knew he would never be able to convince Adam of that. Oh no. So he would just let Adam stew in his own juices as it were. And that in itself would make it all the better. So he just continued to smile at his brother.
“You know, Adam these cows are the worst. They’re so dark that you could stumble over one of them on a dark night. Explain to me again how they are going to improve the home herd.”
“Well just look at the way they carry their weight, Joe. They aren’t as long legged.”
“Never thought being short was a plus, you know.” The shortest of the four Cartwrights said, shoving his hat back a bit on his head. “Except to be the last to be one rained on.” He looked to the sky and frowned. Wish I hadn’t said “rain” ‘cause it surely will now.
The rain actually held off until daylight. But when it came it came in cold torrents. Even through slickers and coats, all of the men were wet, cold and stiff. Where the day before had found them all caked in dust and grit, now they were covered in mud. The cattle, too. By mid afternoon, Adam decided that everyone had had enough and called a halt. They had followed the river for most of the day and now as he looked out over it, couldn’t really tell where the banks were suppose to be, the level had risen so much. He was concerned but not overly. The herd was well back from it and not showing any sign of interest in moving.
From long habit, Adam looked for Joe as he rode back into the miserable camp. Even though he could be the most impossible to deal with, Joe was still his brother and Adam felt an obligation of love to watch out for him. He didn’t see him in the camp and after getting himself a cup of coffee, went in search of him.
He found him down at the remuda, rubbing the front legs if his beloved pinto. A moment’s alarm came to Adam.
“Cochise okay?” he asked, stepping down off his big bay who he cherished just as much as he knew Joe did the pinto. Joe was just a little more open about how he felt.
“Yeah, but when I get a hold of that guy Reese, he ain’t gonna be. Idiot took Cochise this morning and rode him hard. But we got a bigger problem Adam.” Joe straightened and looked at his brother, rain dripping from his hat brim. “It’s those two drovers we picked up in Hollister.”
“You mean Dave and Kurt?” and when Joe just nodded Adam felt a quiver go up his spine. He hadn’t exactly liked the two men to begin with but had put it down to his own paranoia. To know that Joe also thought that perhaps there was a problem made him all the more wary. “What makes you think they’re a problem?” he asked, drawing his dark eyes into a slit as he looked towards where the two mentioned were by the camp tent.
“They just are Adam. I can feel it in my bones. They keep watching us, you and me. Noticed that every time you turn around, there one of them is? I have and it doesn’t set well. Can’t help feeling they are up to something.” Joe voiced his suspicions.
He had noticed the same thing, now that Joe had mentioned it.
“I think you need to find a reason to turn them out, Adam.”
“We can’t, Joe. We only have six of us and I can’t see getting these cows home with any less. Besides, I think that we need to have them where we can watch them too. Keep them in sight if we can.”
“Okay,” Joe sighed and gave Adam one of his most expressive shrugs. He didn’t agree.
The rain continued its relentless downpour well into the evening hours. Everywhere, the ground was saturated and beneath hooves had turned into a quagmire. Horses struggled in making the rounds of the small herd and men cursed the cold and wet. The cattle, wet too, hung their heads, lowing their discontent. Joe once again had the middle watch and was back on the ugly long legged roan and once again saw his brother coming to check on things.
With a quick nod of his head, Adam gestured that they pull off a bit from the herd to talk in private. He stopped at what he considered a safe distance from the river and waited for Joe to pull alongside him. He turned the black he was riding away from the river so he could watch their backs.
“Well?” Joe asked, wondering why his brother wanted to talk to him. He never found out. The bank beneath the black had begun to crumble into the roaring water below and the horse, feeling itself falling tried to right itself but was unable. In a long horrifying moment, Joe watched as the horse and Adam fought unsuccessfully to stay on the bank. The roan, frightened, back away from the unstable ground but Joe saw Adam and the horse hit the swirling water. Instinct took over. Joe dismounted, threw off his slicker, dropped his gun belt and yanked off his boots before diving into the dark roiling water. There was only one thought in his mind: Adam could very well be trapped by the horse and unable to break free enough to swim to safety.
Through the watery roar, Adam tried to kick free of the horse’s bulk and get his bearings but was having trouble doing so. The crash into the water had knocked the air from his lungs and he needed to breathe but couldn’t seem to find which direction was the surface. Added to the fact was that his right leg didn’t want to respond even though he could still feel his foot in the stirrup. He tried again to kick free only to feel a white hot pain go through his leg. Trying to grasp his leg with one hand to free himself, he was unable to swim towards where he thought the surface was. He was beginning to lose consciousness when he sensed hands on him, pulling him.
When Joe had dove into the water after his brother, he knew the possibility of finding him easily in the dark waters was slim but he knew that he had to try. He was surprised to find his hands touching what he knew was his brother so quickly but also knew they still weren’t out of trouble yet. Pulling on the only arm he could find, he headed back for the surface with strong kicks but the current was swirling in chaos around him. As it was, he was running out of air by the time he broke through the surface. Giving another mighty heave he pulled Adam’s inert weight up behind him only to find that they were in the middle of river where the force of the current was the strongest. He wrapped his arm around Adam’s chest and tried to head for shore but couldn’t. Even though he was a strong swimmer, with the extra weight of his unconscious brother and only one arm to pull with, he just couldn’t make any headway. Rather than fight the flow, he decided to just ride it out, keeping their heads above water until help came or the current pushed them closer to shore.
He cast a quick look over his shoulder back towards the camp. There on the bank, holding the reins of roan, Joe could see two men. And they were doing nothing to help. With adrenaline pumping full force now through him, Joe tried again to get to shore. Again, the current pushed hard at him and he was losing the battle. Added to that was the fact that he hadn’t felt Adam move since pulling him to the surface.
Ride the current a little longer, he told himself. Hang onto Adam and ride the current. It has to peter out here soon. Oh God, please, soon.
As if God had heard his plea, Joe felt the current give just a bit and pulling his brother behind him he headed again for the shore. As he neared the bank, he could see that it didn’t rise much above the water level. That was good since he knew he didn’t have the strength to haul his brother up too far from the water. As it was, it took everything in him to pull Adam’s unconscious body close to his chest and drag them both onto the wet ground, his hand digging into the mud for any traction possible. Dragging long deep breaths, Joe rolled from on top of Adam and laid back. He had only managed two or three pulls of air when he felt the ground giving way beneath him. Instinctively, he rolled onto his side, grabbed Adam and with what little strength he had left, hurled his brother’s body, one handed, further up the bank away from the cloying water. It wasn’t far but it was enough for Adam to be out of harm’s way. It wasn’t far enough for Joe and he felt himself pulled back into the swirling water.
Without the added burden of his brother’s body, Joe rode higher and lighter in the water. He fought to keep the bank in sight as he was pulled further down river, knowing that the current could again give him the possibility of getting close enough to get out if he stayed alert. Only problem was that he kept feeling things bumping into him. He was exhausted and the water was cold. His mind kept screaming at his body to get out of the river but his body just couldn’t respond fast enough.
Once again the current pushed him towards the bank and Joe tried to take advantage of it. Using his cold numbed arms, he tried to pull himself towards the land. He never saw the log that slammed into his back and shoulders, throwing him, unconscious now, into a pile of debris just above the waterline like a broken doll.
At first light, the rain had slacked off to a cold drizzle. The four men who remained at the cattle camp were deep into discussion about what to do. They were not Ponderosa hands and as such felt no responsibility for what they had been handed.
Kurt, an ugly rangy man in his late thirties, stepped forward and assumed leadership. “Well, fellas. Seems to me we got us a real dilemma. We got us a herd of cattle but don’t know where they belong, now do we? I tell you, them Cartwrights’ is dead. Saw ‘em go into the water and not come back up. Bodies will probably wash up 50 miles from here if then. So there ain’t no use in huntin’ for ‘em. I say we take the cattle, go back to that little town we went passed a couple of days ago, sell ‘em and take our wages. Go on about our way.”
Steve Simmons, who had hoped of finding a full time job with the Cartwright family, didn’t like the idea and said so. Kurt turned on him, snarling almost in his displeasure.
“You want to look for them, go ahead but you go alone.” And when Simmons turned his back to mount a horse, Kurt put a fatal bullet hole in him. “You, Reese, you want the same thing? Didn’t think so.”
Dave finally spoke up. Like Kurt, he had seen the potential for ready cash and thought the sale of the cattle would provide well for them. But he also knew there was another well spring of money to be made from this. He didn’t doubt that the two brothers were drowned. He and Kurt had stood there on the bank and watched.
“I got an idea of how we can take this another step further, Kurt. We don’t need them horses so turn ‘em loose. Keep the kid’s pinto and Adam’s bay. We’re gonna need them for my plan to work. Still got that gunbelt? Good. Keep it tucked away, okay? But first we need to get rid of the cows. Let’s get ‘em moving”.
So no search was ever made by the drovers even though the two brothers, supposedly drowned, were only a few miles away. And in desperate need of help.
Adam came back to consciousness slowly. Laying face down on the wet ground, he made a mental search of his body before even opening his eyes. He knew from just what little movement he had made that his right leg was in bad shape. He was also cold and wet and could feel the water dripping off his jaw. With infinite care, he tried to roll onto his back but his leg’s immobility wouldn’t allow it. He opted instead to rise onto his forearms so he could look around. Just that made his mind spin. The coughing that followed left him weak. He was having a great deal of difficulty just focusing his eyes.
Concentrate on something else. Get your head clear. Don’t panic. Concentrate on something, like that patch of white over there, he told himself, looking down river. Slowly his vision cleared. As it did so, he was unable to control the panic as he realized the white he was seeing was Joe’s shirt and Joe was still wearing it.
It was only about a hundred yards downstream from where he had come to at, but to Adam Cartwright it felt like a hundred miles. Unable to walk on his numb and twisted leg, he crawled, hoarsely screaming his brother’s name.
Somewhere above him, Joe could vaguely hear someone calling his name. As he opened his eyes, reality came crashing in on him. He was laying face up on a log jam just inches from the rushing river. He tried to wipe the rainwater from his face but was rewarded by a searing pain across his back and shoulders that nearly made him pass out again. In a sickening moment, he realized that he had to get to Adam, wherever he was, but every movement he made was threatening to put him out again. He studied the bank and knew he could get there if not for the pain he was feeling, since it was maybe an eight-foot ledge to the top. The only problem other than that was the ten-foot or so of treacherous debris piled up that would have made a mountain goat tremble. He felt the pile shift under him ever so slightly.
Just about then, Adam looked over the edge. He could see that Joe was alive, laying very still and very pale, but alive nonetheless. He could also see that debris pile supporting his brother was beginning to be eaten away by the current and Joe had to get out of there soon. Before he could shout a warning, Joe began to move, slowly and in obvious pain but moving all the same. His heart in his throat, Adam watched his brother trying to stay one step away from the water. As Joe neared the ledge, Adam stuck both arms over the edge, reaching. Just as the river reclaimed the logs and brush, Joe made a desperate lunge for his brother’s out stretched hands. And made contact with his own out stretched right hand, his left having refused to cooperate. Adam swore as the weight of his brother pulled at him. He was unable to gain any traction with his one good leg and felt as though he were going to lose the battle and dump both of them back into the river again. But just then, the toe of his left boot found a root in the soft ground and held him fast as he pulled Joe towards him.
Both panting from the exertion and fear, Adam and Joe laid face down on the bank. Adam could see his brother’s back and wished he couldn’t. His back was laid open in a horrible gash from his left shoulder blade to his right hip. Blood was oozing from it slowly since the edges were swollen together. And Joe’s left arm seemed to be at an odd angle to him.
“We are a sorry sight, Big Brother” Joe sighed. He could see that Adam’s right leg had to be broken but it was hard to tell really since it was swollen so badly. He struggled but was finally able to get to his knees beside his brother. Adam had pushed himself over and was trying to sit up as well. For a long moment, the two brothers simply looked at one another, each relieved the other was alive. With a hand shaking from cold and exhaustion, Joe reached to his brother’s solid shoulders. Reflexively, Adam went to embrace his brother and remembered just in time what he had seen moments before and tried to make the hug an easy one. It didn’t seem to matter.
They took stock of their situation grimly. Adam still had his gunbelt but the revolver was gone and his slicker was ripped to shreds. Joe had nothing but the clothes he wore. They had no way of making a fire to warm themselves and the toll the rain was taking was beginning to show. With his leg in the shape it was, Adam knew he couldn’t walk and with Joe’s back and shoulder the way it was, he couldn’t lean on him for very long to get anywhere.
“I’m gonna walk back along the river to the camp, Adam. It can’t be that far. I’ll get some help and be back as soon as I can for you. Just wait for me okay.” Joe insisted and although Adam didn’t like the thought of his brother being away from him right then, it was the most sensible plan. So after he pulled Adam further from water’s edge and under some sheltering trees, Joe headed back up river.
Watching him walk away, Adam thought about how exhausted Joe looked. With a gut wrenching explosion inside his mind, he realized that his brother hadn’t fallen into the river as he had, but had to have gone in to try and save him. In that revelation, Adam didn’t know whether to kiss his brother or knock him flat for foolhardiness. He would wait awhile before he did either, he guessed.
Joe had walked away from his brother with a heavy heart, determined to show some semblance of strength to his brother. He had seen the two men standing on the bank, not making a move to help them. He doubted if they would help him now either. He had no gun to enforce his demands and a physical confrontation was nigh onto impossible with his shoulder and back the way they were. Joe decided that his only hope rested in Steve and Reese helping him. If nothing else, he would get Cochise and Sport, get back to Adam and they would get to the nearest town. To hell with those damn cows.
He was surprised to find no one when he got to where he knew they had camped the afternoon before. The chuckwagon was still there but there were no cows, no horses, no men. All the food had been taken from wagon as well. He made his decision about what to take quickly: the two blankets there, a small tin of paraffin-covered matches, a small hatchet and a coil of rope. Using the rope he tied it all awkwardly together so he could carry it one handed. As he walked back along the riverbank, he hoped to find his boots, gun and rain slicker. He didn’t. Instead he found where someone had left a trail of blood that ran from the camp to the river. It couldn’t have been that long ago since the rain hadn’t washed it away.
Adam had finally given in and allowed himself to doze off in the early afternoon even though he had wanted to stay alert for Joe’s return. Worry had built in him as the hours stretched by. As he slept, he dreamed a fevered dream. He was standing before the fireplace at home, the fire at his back burning warm and comforting. But he was still cold. His father stood before him, looking older and sadder than he had ever seen him before. And he could hear his father’s voice, filled with pain, saying over and over and over again “Your brother died trying to save your life. You’ve come and told me that my Joseph is gone, dead. And all you can say is you’re sorry?” And to Adam his worst nightmare had come true: he had to tell his father his beloved youngest brother was dead.
With a jolt of pain, Adam awoke to find Joe leaning over him, not dead but very much alive. As the vivid memory of the dream faded quickly, new concern washed over him.
“Did you get….” He started then saw his brother slowly shake his head.
“No, Adam. The herd, the horses, everything, gone. I scrounged what I could from the chuck wagon but they took all the food and guns. Guess we’re on our own.”
“Listen, we got to take care of some things right now, Joe. First off, we’ve got to get a fire going to get warmed up”
“No argument out of me, Big Brother. I’m gonna go back a little further in these woods and see if I can find some deadfall.”
Within an hour, Joe had made good on his word and had a fire going, a small one but a fire all the same. He had helped Adam move closer to it and then insisted that Adam take both blankets. Joe made a small pile of wood close at hand to Adam then told him in no uncertain terms that he was going to go and find them something to eat and when he came back, Adam bettter have kept the fire going. It made Adam chuckle but he knew it was important too and promised to keep the fire going.
It didn’t take long, or so it seemed to Adam, that Joe was back and carrying a rabbit in one hand.
“Fool thing just about ran right into me or I’d never caught it.” Joe joked when in reality he had reached into what he had hoped was a rabbit’s burrow and pulled out dinner. Adam would have never known how close he came to having badger to eat if Joe had been wrong. “Got your knife?”
“I’ll skin him since both my arms work. You sit down and rest a bit, Buddy. I’ll have dinner ready in nothing flat.”
Adam gave up the blankets and Joe wrapped up in them and lay on his side, facing the fire, trying not to fall asleep but he did anyway. Adam took care of the rabbit and soon had it cooking over the small fire as night descended. Through his own throbbing pain, Adam watched his brother restlessly sleeping. He couldn’t lie on his back and his left side hurt terribly. Added to that was the fact that his feet hurt from walking barefoot over the cold wet ground.
When the rabbit was ready to eat, one call was all it took from Adam to wake Joe. They agreed that the rabbit was a little tough but they ate the bones clean anyway, wishing it had been a bigger rabbit.
“What’s your leg look like now?” Joe asked, tossing the last bone into the fire. He could see that some of the swelling was down in his brother’s leg but wanted Adam to tell him.
“Well, I think we need a little doctoring right now.”
“We need?” and Joe lifted an eyebrow. He thought that he could get away with just saying his back ached and his shoulder and arm just hurt. Joe knew his shoulder was dislocated but couldn’t see his back. He thought Adam needed more care for the time being.
“Yes “we”. If we’re going to get through this, Joe, I need you to help me just as bad or worse than you need me to help you. You can walk, I can’t. I can use both arms and you can’t. The sooner one of us gets closer to being whole, the sooner we will both be out of this mess. Agreed?” Joe said nothing, just chewed on his lower lip, looking at the fire. “Let’s start with your shoulder, little brother.”
An hour later, Adam wasn’t so sure that he had made the right decision after all. The shoulder had proven to be more difficult than he imagined and in the end, it had only been the fact that Joe had passed out from the pain and become a complete dead weight that had allowed Adam to do what he had to do. While Joe lay unconscious, Adam had pulled the remnants of his brother’s shirt away and carefully inspected the gash on his back. It was no longer bleeding but was still swollen and ugly looking now that the bruising around it had started showing black and purple. If Adam had had warm water he would have tried cleaning the wound at least but since he had none, simply tried gently brushing away the blood. He stopped when he heard Joe groan gently. Sitting there next to his brother, Adam slowly began to massage Joe’s uninjured shoulder, hoping to calm him and allow him to rest a while longer.
Joe awoke with a start. He could see thin daylight coming over the far eastern horizon and realized he had slept through the night curled next to his brother’s body and covered by the same blankets. He could feel Adam’s arm crossing over his own chest as if trying to protect him and hold him close. It had been many years since the two of them had shared such a closeness. When he had been a very young child, Joe had spent many a night, curled next to his big brother when nightmares had threatened a young boy’s sleep. There he felt protected and had slept in peace. What had happened in the years between then and now, he wondered to himself, feeling his brother’s chest rise and fall behind him. Things had changed between them. No, he thought I’ve changed. Adam is still right there trying to protect me. I just don’t want him to any more…or do I?
When Adam awoke an hour later, Joe was no where to be found. Beside him, the fire was down to low coals and he hastily threw more wood to it, coaxing the flames back to life. He was about to holler for Joe when he saw him down by the river, his hand extended towards that same ugly long legged roan horse he had been riding two nights before. As he watched, Joe carefully sidled up to the horse, letting his voice lull the horse into a sense of security. At first the horse shied from Joe’s touch but didn’t bolt and run. Finally Joe was able to put his arm around the horse’s neck, all the while patting and talking to him before he reached into his belt behind him and brought out the end of the coil of rope to wrap around the horse’s neck. Adam let out a pent up breath that he hadn’t realized he was holding.
Joe led the shambling horse up to where Adam was now sitting, the fire going well.
“Good job, there, Little Brother.” He called and then went into a fit of coughing he couldn’t control. It left him breathless.
“Don’t know what you were worried about. This horse has absolutely no sense of urgency what so ever, Adam. Bet you could light a firecracker off under him and he would just look at you.” And even though Joe was making light banter, his mind and heart were racing a mile a minute. Adam needed help and he needed it now. But where they were the only help was him and he knew that wasn’t enough. He tied the horse to the tree close by and went to his brother.
“Adam, you ain’t gonna talk me out of this so you better just save your breath. Okay? We need to get out of the God forsaken valley and find you a doctor. Before we can do that, I’ve got to splint that leg.”
“Why don’t you just take the horse and ride…” Adam started but Joe cut him short.
“No. Don’t even think for one minute I would leave you here. You wouldn’t leave me and I am not leaving you. I’m gonna go find something to make a splint and when I come back, we’re gonna take care of your leg.” And with that he left, going back into the woods with the hatchet.
When Joe returned with two long poles and two shorter ones, Adam said nothing but thought plenty. When did he get so damn smart all of a sudden? He has the best chance of getting out of this mess in one piece yet he won’t leave me. He could be out and back in one maybe two days. Okay, considering the horse, maybe three. But Joe, you’d be safe and okay. And…, Adam’s thoughts were cut short when Joe just touched his right leg.
As Joe split Adam’s pant leg up the side to reveal the damage, even Adam got a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Just below his knee, you could almost see the bone end coming through the skin and when Joe pressed just above the knee, Adam’s vision swam with pain.
“Looks like two places to me. The thigh doesn’t look like a bad one but this one down here…” and Joe let his voice trail off. He knew what he had to do but doubted both his strength of body and will to be able to do it for his brother. He knew he had to reposition the break below the knee to keep the blood flowing and keep the end of the broken bones from grating together and causing more problems. He had broken his own leg a few years before and knew the kind of pain he had gone through when Doc Martin had set it, even though he had had pain killer before. And Doc had had Hoss to help pull the leg straight and hold it. For Adam, Joe had neither. He looked at Adam, his eyes full of concern, silently asking if he wanted him to continue.
Searching for a bravery he wasn’t sure he had right then, Adam closed his eyes and nodded. He knew the leg was in bad shape and that any sort of movement would probably bring on more pain. If he were lucky he would pass out before it got too bad.
Joe sat back on his heels and looked for a way he could keep Adam still, put tension on the leg and still have his hands free enough to reposition the bone. Then it came to him. He took the saplings he had cut for splints and laid them beside Adam’s leg, making sure they were the right length. The remains of his shirt he tore into strips as long as he could get to tie the splints in place. Finally he took the free end of the rope that was tied to the roan and secured it around Adam’s boot. The roan just stood where he was.
“Joe,” Adam started to protest but stopped short when he saw the glint in his brother’s eyes.
“You will never know how often I have wanted to do this Big Brother”, Joe said then pulled back his right fist and hit Adam’s jaw with a solid thump. Adam went out like a light. For just a moment, Joe rubbed his knuckles. Damn Adam had a hard jaw.
Quickly now he positioned the roan in a straight line down from the injured leg. “God, I hope this works” he prayed and straddling Adam’s body with his own to hold him still, he put all of his weight on the broken bones below the knee and hollered at the roan to move. The horse took one step but it wasn’t enough so he called again. This time the horse didn’t move at all. Joe could feel Adam stirring and knew he was coming around. In desperation, Joe reached over and grabbed a stick of firewood and threw it at the rump of the roan not six foot away. The horse moved one step. Beneath his trembling hands, Joe felt the bone snap back into place with a very sickening crunch. He reached and grabbed the splints positioning them and tying them in place with the strips of shirting. He could feel Adam stirring and hurried.
When Adam came fully to, Joe was sitting beside him, white faced and shaking. Even though Adam’s leg still throbbed it wasn’t as bad as it had been. Putting his hand to his jaw, he rubbed the sore spot, keeping his eye on his brother while he did.
“Was that pay back for the shoulder?” he asked softly, afraid that if he spoke with any force, he would start coughing again.
Joe’s green eyes flashed and he smiled weakly. What he had done shook him. Too many things could have gone wrong, he knew but also that it had been necessary.
“Guess you want some breakfast now, huh?” Joe asked.
“No, what I want is a hot bath and warm bed. Can you manage that?” Joe gave him his best crooked smile that he could muster at the moment.” Didn’t think so. Think you can find another rabbit?”
“Not likely. Listen Adam, I really think we need to be moving out of here. If Dave and Kurt come looking for us, it ain’t gonna be to help us and I would like to put as much distance between us and them as we can manage. Agreed?” What Joe didn’t say was that he was afraid of the coughing fits that Adam had had. He was obviously headed for pneumonia and being out in this lousy weather wasn’t helping. Joe had no idea where he would get help from but prayed it wasn’t far and that he would make the right choices in what direction to go.
“Joe, I don’t think I can set that horse.” Adam hated admitting any weakness but was aware what a fall from the horse could do to the injured leg. He also didn’t think that Joe could have helped him mount the long legged beast with his back in the shape it was.
“Good, ‘cause you ain’t. Help me tie this blanket on these poles for a travois. My hand hurts something fierce. My God but you have got a hard jaw, Adam Cartwright.”
With Adam now on the travois behind the roan and covered with the other blanket, Joe took the remains of the slicker to wear. It offered little protection but it was better than nothing. As he had slipped it on, Joe could feel the slow trickle of blood down his back and as he mounted the big horse, felt the skin break open afresh. He turned the horse’s head towards the mountains, hoping to find help before he got to them.
The three drovers found a ready buyer for their cattle and horses at the first place they stopped that afternoon. The rancher recognized prime beef and riding stock when he saw it and didn’t care if it was stolen even though the three ragged looking men never said they were. He did wonder why the men weren’t selling the big bay and the pinto they said were their trail horses. The rancher knew the animals weren’t trail animals, they were too well cared for. But he said nothing and never looked for a brand, afraid of what he would see.
Late in the afternoon of the second day found Reese, Kurt and Dave at the sprawling Ponderosa Ranch house. They had concocted their story carefully, mixing enough truth with enough lies to make it believable. And they told it with care to the two men in the house. They had been camped beside a little river that had suddenly flooded, washing cattle and horses away to their deaths. They had seen the two brothers struggling in the water, trying to get to the other side of the rampaging river. A search the next morning had turned up only the things they had brought with them, the two horses and the gunbelt belonging to the younger brother. They had searched and searched but found only devastation in the wake of the flood.
Ben Cartwright felt his heart constrict into a hard lump of pain as he listened to the story that the men told. Hoss’ face crumbled as he heard what they said about finding nothing of his brothers. He could feel the pain lancing through his father as well and when Ben started to sag, Hoss was there beside him and eased him into a chair. Ben suddenly looked and felt very old.
With tears streaming down his face, Hoss had paid the men their wages due them as they had respectfully asked and huge bonus as well for returning the two horses. He never heard them leave the house, so deep was he in his own grief. His father still sat in the leather chair by the fire, his face a stunned mask.
Slowly, Ben started to speak, his voice rough with emotion. “They’re both gone, Hoss. I can’t believe it. They can’t be. Not both of them. Not at the same time. Adam…Joe..no..no. They can’t…” and Ben’s vision swam with tears. He remembered the first time he had held his sons as infants. How captivated he had been by Adam’s dark eyes and quiet contemplative ways even as a child. He remembered how fast Adam had grown into an adult, almost before Ben was ready for him to but then Adam had been forced by circumstances to handle responsibility early. And how he had held his youngest son just moments after birth and been just as entranced by the lively little imp. Ben thought of Joe as all fire and bright laughter, a quick hug and out the door and gone. Gone forever now.
Hoss sat on the edge of the coffee table, close and facing his father. But his heart was in another time when he and Joe had sat right there, playing checkers, Adam sitting in the blue chair reading one of his fancy books. In his hearts eye, he saw the times when they had worked side by side mending fencing, herding cattle, cutting firewood, doing chores. Somewhere in the past he could even hear them fighting with each other, bickering and squabbling over nothing. He could see Joe’s green eyes and devilish grin as he tried to talk him into some hair-brained scheme. Hoss almost thought he could hear Adam’s voice singing from somewhere far away a song of lost love. Yes, lost love all right, the big man thought but not that of a man and woman. The love he had lost was that of his two best friends, his brothers.
“Pa?” Hoss finally caught his father’s attention when he reached out and took his father’s hand. “Pa, I have to go there. I have to find them and bring them home one last time. But I have to know that you will be all right here, Pa”.
“No” was Ben’s response. “No. We will both go and bring them home, Hoss. First light tomorrow morning.” But I will never be all right again. I have lost two of my children. But Ben couldn’t voice that to Hoss, his only child now.
The second day and night of their ordeal had been rough for the two brothers. Adam had slipped into a fever that had continued to creep ever upward until he was delirious by the evening. In his rantings and ravings he had fought Joe as though he were an enemy, not his brother. Joe had tried to give him water using the small tin the matches had been in but had only managed to get a little in him. Finally Adam had exhausted himself and as night closed in on them, Joe started a fire to try and keep them warm. He had been unable to find anything for them to eat having stopped when they passed the camp and although the rain had stopped, it was turning colder. After undoing the stiff ropes that held the travois to the roan, he tried to make Adam as comfortable as possible then turned his attention to the horse. If anything the horse looked more dejected than before as Joe used a length of the slicker to hobble the horse.
Now he was exhausted and without another thought, gathered a little more wood close to the fire and laid down beside his brother’s long body, intending to stay awake long enough to keep the fire going.
The moon was coming out as Adam roused. A wave of coughing hit him hard and he lay back, his chest hurting with every breath he took. He felt rather than saw his brother next to him and put out a hand to touch him, more for his own reassurance than anything else.
He could feel the heat radiating from him and became alarmed. Slowly Adam sat up, trying not to make any move that would either awaken his brother or his coughing.
By the glow of the fire’s dim light, Adam could see that Joe was laying face down, head cradled on his arm, breathing ragged breaths. He carefully moved aside the slicker from his brother’s back and wished he hadn’t. If anything, the gash was more horrifying now, swollen and ragged. It was no longer bleeding and even as his hand hovered over it, Adam could feel the heat from it and knew it had to be infected.
“Joe, Joe wake up.” Adam shook his brother, his voice hoarse. The effort left him coughing again and he had had to put his head down onto his brother’s damaged shoulder.
When Joe had heard his brother calling him he had tried to sit up but the weight on his bad shoulder wouldn’t allow him. Finally he was able to push Adam back enough to half rise from where he had lain. He knew his back hurt badly but was more concerned about Adam, afraid the fever was spiking again. He couldn’t fight him, not again. And just the motion had sent white-hot bolts of pain down his back and into his legs as he tried to get up.
“No, Joe don’t…” but Adam went into another spasm of coughing.
Finally, Joe pushed up and past Adam. He went down to the river’s edge and soaked the last small piece of torn shirt into the cold water and took it back and laid it on Adam’s forehead. Adam’s color was high, his eyes bright with fever and he was shivering. Joe took the sad remains of the slicker and laid it across his brother, hoping it would be enough but knowing differently. He saw the places where blood had soaked through the dense fabric and although he knew it was his own blood, felt vaguely detached from it all. Exhaustion claimed him easily and he slept on the cold wet ground.
The morning of their third day was no better than the night before. Joe put the makeshift harness and travois on the roan and mounted the animal, his back screaming in pain. He leaned forward and clung to the horse’s mane, fighting to stay conscious a while longer. He nudged the roan’s flanks and headed the slow beast towards the mountains. Today, he told himself, today he would find help because he wasn’t sure if he had the strength for another day. And he knew Adam didn’t.
If Joe had been more aware of his surroundings, he would have felt a greater sense of urgency. For the pines that he so loved were becoming more and more prevalent in the landscape and the horse was doing more uphill now, the water beside them rushing a little faster and clearer. Instead, he simply clung to the horse and prayed for help to find them before death could.
That same grim daylight found Ben and Hoss headed out. Neither man had slept at all the night before so by dawn they were well on their way. Ben was struggling to keep from losing his total sense of balance and place. He dared not tell Hoss but in the long night as he had tried to sleep, he kept hearing Adam’s voice calling to him, pleading with him to hurry. And when the dawn had finely come, the voice had stopped.
Each man rode with his own thoughts. Hoss feared more for his father right then than for his own self and feelings. He had wanted to do this on his own, knowing what a body of a drowned man looked like and not wishing for his father to have that last vision of his oldest and youngest sons. Hoss wasn’t sure that he had wanted that sight either but thought perhaps he could have handled it better. Just looking across at his father now, it seemed that he had aged twenty years overnight. He longer rode straight in the saddle but slumped slightly forward as if beaten by unknown fists, his face a gray mask of pain.
At noon, they stopped to make coffee and eat something. Ben ate automatically, not really tasting it. They needed to rest the horses before they continued and Hoss insisted that Ben sit down beneath one of the huge Ponderosa pines and rest as well, giving his father another cup of coffee. As he sat there, Ben drifted off into an uneasy slumber and dreamed that Joseph was there with him. Ben put out his hand and pulled his youngest son into his embrace but Joe was cold and shivering violently. Ben could feel Joe’s silky hair against his cheek as in the dream he held him close and tried to tell him that everything would be all right. When Ben slowly opened his eyes to reality it was as though Joe had melted away from him but Ben could still feel Joseph soft curls on his cheek. The sensation brought fresh tears to his eyes.
Mounting back up, Ben and Hoss pushed on. They knew the trail that Adam had planned to use and had intended to drop down onto the main road to cut time and miles from the trip then join up with the trail further down. It would cut hours off the sad trip. But when it came time to leave the trail for the main road, Ben found that he couldn’t do it. He also couldn’t explain to himself why he couldn’t do it. There had been something so real about each of the strange encounters that he had found himself searching his soul for a spark of hope that his sons still lived. He had believed the three men yesterday but now he wasn’t so sure. The same sense that he had always chided himself about concerning his sons’ safety was now kicking into high gear.
“Hoss,” Ben called and pulled Buck and his packhorse up. Hoss in turn halted and looked to his father, his face a question mark. “Hoss, I don’t know why but I think we should stay on the trail they would have taken. I just have..well, call it a feeling that they aren’t dead. But that they need us and need us bad, Son. I can’t explain it.”
“Okay, trail it is then, Pa.” Hoss wasn’t sure about it all but if it would make his father feel better, Hoss would have ridden through the fires of Hell.
Adam shifted uneasily on the travois. All sorts of images and colors surrounded him, some real, some not. He could feel the steady tug tug tug of the travois over the rocky ground and could hear the swirling river close by along with the steady thuds of the roan’s hooves. Those things he knew were real and gave him peace. But then would come the sounds and sensations he knew were not real, conjured up by fever and exhaustion and hunger. He could feel the river washing over him again, trapping and suffocating him. He could hear his brother’s ragged breathing beside him, hear his name being called as if from a long distance. But worst of all, he could see the sunset. The last rays of the sun made demons of the clouds, all blood red and horrifying. He tried to fight them but couldn’t move his arms. Panic set in and as he tried harder to fight, he found he couldn’t breath without coughing and would lose what consciousness he did have.
It was early evening of the third day. Throughout the day, Joe had laid across the shoulders of the roan and let it amble along the river, unable to think or act clearly. What made the ugly horse stop was a mystery to him but as he slid to the ground his legs wouldn’t hold him upright. As he sat in a crumbled heap beside the horse, his head swam. Joe tried taking a deep breath to clear the fog away but it only resulted in searing pain from his back and shoulders.
“Get a drink of water, see if that helps” he spoke out loud to no one. Hanging onto the roan’s leg, he tried to pull himself up but his body seemed to have other ideas and would not respond. Just then he heard Adam begin coughing again and just the sound of it wrenched at Joe’s soul.
All my life Adam has protected me, watched over me whether I wanted him to or not. He was always the one I wanted to keep the demons away. Why have we been fighting these past few years? Because I thought I could take care of myself? Hum, look how you’ve taken care of yourself, Joseph Francis Cartwright. Can’t even get five foot to get a drink of water. Can’t even begin to give Adam the same help he would be giving you, you fool. And he’s gonna die because of it…
Joe finally just laid forward in the wet grass and gave way to the black welling up before him. It was easy, oh so easy to just give up.
The light was nearly gone and Hoss was pressing his father to stop for the night. They had made good time but the trail was getting hard to see in the gathering gloom. There were clouds gathering, threatening to rain again. The two packhorses they trailed were tired and beginning to balk.
“Pa,” and Hoss leaned over to grab his father’s arm.” We got to stop, Pa. Iffen it gets any darker, we could ride right by them and never see ‘em”
For all of their lives, Ben had tried to counsel caution to his sons. Now he was being given that same counsel and realized with a start that he didn’t want it any more than they may have wanted it either.
“All right, but we stay close to the river side of the trail, out in the open. Agreed?” and of course Hoss would agree.
They went about setting up their camp, stripping the saddles and packs from the horses. As Ben began removing the pack from one of the other horses, the reason why they had brought the extra horses came crashing back into his heart: to bring home the bodies of his sons when they found them. He pressed his forehead into the side of the horse’s neck and began to cry.
Hoss had seen his father sag into the horse and went to him, fearing his father was on the verge of a collapse. Gently, he pulled his father away from the horse and pulled him into his own big embrace, letting his tears flow anew. How long they stood that way, they had no idea. It had seemed that while the sun shone and they kept moving, the dark thoughts of loss were held at bay. With the dark came the unbidden sorrow.
“We need to get a fire going, Hoss. Get something warm in us.” And shakily Ben started to pull himself together again. “I’ll go down to the river and get us some water for coffee.”
As he walked towards the river, Ben Cartwright felt older and older with each and every step. In his mind’s eye that afternoon, he had continued to see his sons as they had been in life, as infants, young boys, as teenagers and then finally as the men they had grown into. He had been intensely proud of each of his sons and secretly relished the differences between them. He was aware that there were never two more different individuals who shared the same last name. But for all their differences, he thought they were more like opposite sides of the same coin. And to have lost that coin, both sides, was a crushing blow. With a heavy sigh, he knelt to fill the canteen with the cold water of the river.
Hoss had set up their camp out in the open as he had promised his father he would. He would rather have been back under the edge of the woods behind them for it looked as though another bout of rain was headed their way. The woods would have given them more protection. But the protection they both needed now was not from the rain, but from sorrow. All that Hoss could do now for his brothers was to help his father. Unlike Ben, Hoss didn’t think they would find them alive, just the bodies to be returned home for a proper burial. All though he normally looked at the up side of things, he just couldn’t convince himself that they had survived what the drovers had told. So with a grim determination, he told himself for his father’s sake, he would act as though he believed they were alive. For his father’s sake.
Hoss could see his father down by the river, getting water and it seemed that it was taking his Pa too long. As he watched, he saw his father sit back on his heels and look to the darkening sky. He figured Pa was praying and would leave him to commune with God a little longer even though Hoss was very concerned with his father’s sanity right then. Maybe prayer was the best thing, Hoss thought as he bent to light the fire.
With a jolt, Hoss heard his father cry out and saw him rise from the river’s edge and head down river, running.
Ben Cartwright would forever swear that it was an answer to his prayers that night. When he had looked back down to earth, he had seen a horse moving towards him, at a shambling gait, with a travois behind him. As he ran towards the long legged beast, his heart was in his throat, afraid of what he would find on the travois.
Up at the camp, Hoss saw the same sight as his father and headed for the horse as well but Ben got there first.
From far, far away, Adam heard his name being spoken, felt familiar hands touching him but he just couldn’t get back to the reality they were in, as hard as he tried. In his fevered state, he could make out some of the words they were saying but could form none of his own. At length, he knew he was being moved, no longer by the travois but by his brother’s strong arms and could see his father’s face above him. He tried to find his own voice but all the effort brought to him was coughing.
“Easy, Son, easy.” Were the only words he heard his father saying over and over. Pa was wiping his face, trying to take away the un-realness from him. Adam fought back the edges of it, trying to understand. Finally, he simply gave up and let it all go, lapsing into unconsciousness again.
When they had found the travois, one look had told both Ben and Hoss that Adam was in very bad shape. As the heavy night was closing in around them, Ben had decided to move the camp up under the trees and set up a lean-to. They had moved Adam in beneath the small shelter and propped him so that he could breathe easier. Ben trickled water from the canteen into him, alarmed by the fever he felt rising from his son. Ben wondered but for a moment if God had given him his son back only to take Adam away as he watched. No, he decided, his God was a loving one. Adam would live but needed help that only a doctor could give and right then, the nearest doctor was a long ride away.
“Hoss, you need to get across the river and into Placerville for a doctor. It can’t be more than ten miles from here.”
Ben watched in surprise as he saw the big man shake his head.
“What I need to do, Pa, is head downriver a little bit. Somebody put Adam on the travois and that somebody had to be Little Joe. He’s out there, Pa and I need to find him first then I’ll go to Placerville. Looking at that horse, I don’t think he can be that far away, Pa, so it won’t take long”
In truth, Hoss was gone less than an hour. He had found Joe right where he had fallen hours before, laying face up on the riverbank. Hoss had been appalled that even by the thin light, Joe looked more dead than alive and for a fleeting moment thought that perhaps he had been right earlier. When he put a huge hand to his brother’s throat, he had felt the faintest pulse, even though he couldn’t see his brother breathing. It wasn’t until he went to wrap Joe in a blanket that he saw the damage to his back. Seeing the horrible gash, now swollen and festering, Hoss gentled his hands on his brother’s cold skin. Joe was still unconscious but Hoss got him up on Chubb and then mounted behind him, holding his brother’s still, cold form back close to his massive chest for warmth.
When Hoss slowly returned to the camp, Ben’s heart leapt in his chest for he recognized what Hoss held. He reached for his youngest as Hoss eased him from the saddle.
Ben was struck full force by how light his son was and how cold. He heard a low moan escape from Joe as he cradled him in his arms and started to carry him towards the campfire.
Joe moaned again when Ben laid him beside the fire.
“Pa,” Hoss was saying, moving to Joe’s side, across from his father. He reached over and pulled his little brother onto his side and as he did so, the blanket cocooning him dropped away and allowed Ben to see the swollen mess that was his youngest son’s back and shoulder.
“Hoss,” Ben started to say, his voice sounding strangled in his throat, but then realized that Hoss was headed back to his horse.
“I’ll be back as fast as I can, Pa” and with that the big man turned from the light of the fire and was gone.
If given the option that night, Ben Cartwright would have given up the Ponderosa for the health of his two sons to be returned. He still believed that God would not have returned them to him just to take them away and through the night, fought against the ravages that tried to take them from him. He gently washed his youngest son’s back and shoulder, wiping away the blood and drainage, then moved him into the small shelter next to Adam. Joe had moaned once or twice during the ordeal but had remained unconscious and for that Ben was most grateful.
The thin drizzly daylight found him sitting between his sons, his arm across Adam’s shoulders where he could support him as he coughed, trying to take on some of the strain himself. Joseph he had pulled to his side, off the damaged shoulder and back, allowing his son’s head to rest on his thigh, his hand often caressing his son’s soft curls. The long night had taken its toll and Ben, despite his resolution not to, fell asleep.
For the first time in what seemed an eternity to Joe, he was warm and dry. Even though his body hurt just about everywhere, he felt he could survive and he struggled to open his eyes. His stirring awaken his father.
“Easy, Joseph. Just lie still Son. You’re okay now. Hoss has gone to get help.” Ben was truly relieved to see that slit of green eye and the smallest of fleeting smiles. It was the faintest imitation of the Joseph he loved and cherished and it lifted Ben’s spirits in a way that nothing else could have, considering the situation.
“Joe?” was the only sound Adam could get out. He felt as though he were drowning again, once again betrayed by his own body, his lungs filling again. At some point in time in the night he had come to the realization that his father truly was there with him. That it wasn’t a figment of his fevered imagination. He had wanted to tell his father what had happened but couldn’t get enough strength to breathe and talk together. What he feared was that he was going to have to face the dream he had had a few days ago in reality: that Joe hadn’t made it after all and he would have to face his father with that awful realization. Then he had heard his father say his brother’s name and when he had opened his eyes, had seen his little brother lying there beside his father. Then he felt his brother’s hand on his arm.
By mid morning, Hoss had returned with the doctor from Placerville and a buckboard. The doctor asked no questions about the odd scenario before him, simply went to work.
The bigger of the two men he tended to was indeed in a bad way and there was nothing he could do for him out there. He needed to be back in the clinic as fast as the buckboard team could make the trip. The man’s lungs were filling with fluid and he was struggling with each breath. Quickly the doctor checked the splinted leg and found it in fairly decent shape. He would have to put it in a cast when they returned but he was more worried about the man’s ability to breath than walk.
The other patient, the smaller man, was in slightly better shape but that wasn’t saying much. His bare feet were bloody and bruised, from what the doctor had no idea. But he was more concerned about the wound on his back. There were small red lines arching out from it, the first signs of blood poisoning. Groping in his bag, the doctor pulled out a scalpel and a bottle of alcohol, never taking his eyes off the young man before him. He poured the alcohol over the scalpel then down the bloody gash. Before his patient could react to the stinging alcohol, the doctor took a quick slice down through wound, opening it in one maneuver. The doctor was thankful that no one but himself could see the gore than ran from the wound. The young man had cried out in agony and arched his back, as though trying to get away, but then lost consciousness. Quickly now, the doctor started giving orders.
“Get this one” and he gestured to the bigger man” into that wagon. Sit him up so he can breathe. Be careful of his leg, though. You,” and he gestured to the older man, “Help me get this one bandaged.”
Ben Cartwright had stood as though rooted to the ground as he had watched this doctor. He had been appalled when the man had split Joseph’s back open as casually as though opening a sack of flour. He was beginning to wonder whether he had made the right decision in getting this doctor. Maybe they could have gotten the boys to Virginia City after all. Now he was throwing out orders. With a great deal of hesitation, Ben bent to help the doctor, lifting Joe into a sitting position, resting his son’s head on his shoulder. He watched the doctor wrap the white bandage around his son’s back and chest, his eyes smoldering with unspent fury. When the doctor was done, Ben still held his unconscious son.
“If you ever do anything like that again to one of my sons, I will personally see to it that you are never able to practice medicine again. In any state or territory in this country. Do you understand me?” The older man spoke with barely controlled fury.
It was late evening when the buckboard made it’s way into Placerville. Several times during the trip, the doctor had insisted that they stop so he could examine his patients but there was never any improvement. Although he would have preferred that they use the small clinic he knew that it was too small for both patients so he suggested the hotel across from it. There he could tend to both. He was surprised that when they arrived there, the older man insisted that they use the three finest rooms available. The doctor went back to his office across the way to get what he would need and ran into the sheriff.
“Doc, what’s up? Heard tell you were drug out of bed last night by some big fellow and hauled off at gunpoint. Is that true?”
The doctor gave a little laugh as he collected bandages and the like. “The big man and being drug out of bed was right but it wasn’t at gun point wasn’t. Got two fellows over at the hotel right now that needed help bad. Seems it’s a man and his sons, name of Cartwright. From over Virginia City way.”
The sheriff gave a low whistle when he heard the name. “Them Cartwrights are big people, Doc. From what I understand, they are a real close family.”
“Well, that family might very well lose a son or two if you don’t get out of my way and let me get back to them.” The doctor warned and headed back across the street.
For the next two days and nights, the struggle went on to save the life of Adam Cartwright. He was weakened to the point where he could no longer hold his eyes open. Somewhere in the process, they had strapped his chest so tight he felt as though he were being pinned under a great weight. Each breath was an agony. He was vaguely aware of his surroundings but didn’t care. It seemed that every time he roused from a drugged sleep, someone was there, pushing some vile tasting fluid down his throat and the coughing would start over again, leaving him feeling weaker than before. He wanted to shout at them to stop but couldn’t find the strength. Worst of all, he could hear his father telling him that he loved him, stroking his arm, holding his hand, wiping his face with a cool cloth. To Adam, there was a desperation in the voice he had never heard before.
This, Hoss thought not for the first time, this was harder on his father than if they had found his brothers dead. This was dying by degrees. As Hoss tried once again to relieve his father at Adam’s bedside, he took stock of his father’s condition as well as that of his older brother. Ben had not slept more than a few hours in days and had eaten very little. Not that Hoss had had much sleep or eaten well either but Pa was…..Pa. Nothing Hoss knew of could make his father leave one of his sons for any length of time. And Adam was so weak that Hoss wished for a moment he could give some of his mighty strength to him, just to help him breath without struggling. His older brother was nearly sitting upright in the bed, propped by pillows on three sides just to keep him that way. The dark stubble on his face made his cheeks sallow looking.
That second evening found the youngest of the Cartwrights finally getting his feet back under him. Literally. Joe was sitting up in bed, trying to decide how to go about getting a bath when the doctor came in to check on him.
“Well, there young man.” He greeted as he came through the adjoining door. Through the door Joe had seen his father and Hoss’ backs but had not seen Adam. The young man he knew now was Joseph just glared back at him.
“The last time I remember seeing you, you were holding a scalpel.” Joe said evenly, his eyes beginning to blaze with remembered pain.
“Yes, that was me all right.” And he leaned over behind Joe to check the heavy bandages for signs of drainage or blood. He saw none. “ And for that, your father threatened to have me tarred and feathered, figuratively speaking. I’m Doctor William Henson and I probably saved your life by doing that.” And he offered his hand to the young man. Joe just glared at the hand. “And I am also the one who put all those stitches into your back. I won’t take kindly to your pulling them out so you had best stay right where you are. Not that you could walk far on those feet.” Joe winced as one foot came in contact with the floor, trying to push passed the doctor to get out of bed. It was easy for the doctor to push him back.
“Listen, Doctor Henson, I appreciate what you have done, but I need..”
“You need to listen to the doctor, Joseph.” Came his father’s reply as he crossed into the room and went to stand over his youngest son and the doctor who had been seated on the side of the bed. Ben stood there trying to intimidate his son when all he really wanted to do was simply grab him up into his arms.
“Good idea, there Short Shanks” Hoss chimed in, closing the door behind him so Joe couldn’t look in and see Adam.
With the odds now stacked against him, Joe carefully pulled his foot back in. He started to settle back but found it painful.
“I prescribe a good meal for you, followed by a hot soak. I usually advise against getting stitches wet but I think the overall effect will out weigh any possible danger. What do you think, Joseph?”
“He thinks it’s a fine idea, don’t you Son?” and the tone of voice Ben used would brook no argument from anyone.
”And you, Mr. Cartwright, need to rest.” The doctor advised. “ I will stay with Adam so you can get some sleep while these two,” and he gestured at Hoss and Joe “ see about eating.”
“Never had a problem with those sort of orders.” Hoss tried to sound light.
An hour later and Joe was leaning back in the big copper tub full of hot water, letting his battered body soak in the warmth. He had been careful of his back, having felt the stitches pull more than once or twice. He had washed the grit from his hair and now he was just simply trying to soak the chill from his bones. It had taken some strong convincing on his part for Hoss to head down to the general store for a change of clothes for him but he simply wanted to be out of the confines of the room that much faster. He heard the door open behind him and without looking around, asked if Hoss had remembered to find him some boots as well.
“And just why would you be needing a pair of boots, young man?” and Joe winced at the sound of his father’s voice behind him. “You aren’t going any where for quite some time.”
Leaning his head back, Joe gave his father his best smile and said nothing, letting his eyes try and charm him. His father looked very old and very tired to him.
“What happened out there, Joseph?” his father asked quietly, seeing again all the bruises covering his son’s chest and shoulders. Joe just shook his head. He didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to speak about it and as the unbidden memories of the cold of the river and the panic came rushing in on him, Joe shuddered. Immediately, Ben’s hand reached out to reassure his son.
Running his hand through his wet hair, Joe closed his eyes and concentrated on slowing his breathing as he felt his father rubbing his good shoulder. After a moment he had regained control and opened his eyes and gave his father a tight smile.
“Not right now, okay Pa? Please…not right now.” He pleaded and saw that his father was relenting.
“Okay, for now. If you’ll lean forward, I’ll see about washing your back for you. I know it has got to be bothering you.” And Ben felt the tension that had grown in his son’s body slowly releasing beneath his hands. What ever it was that had happened to his sons over the past several days had taken a mighty toll. But not so great a one as if he had lost them both.
Doctor Henson was just coming into the room as Ben was finally getting Joe settled back into bed. The doctor quickly stepped in and looked at his back, checking to be sure that no new infection was flaring up. He went back to his bag and handed Ben a jar of ointment, telling him to rub it into the wound gently then they would bandage it. He was glad to see that the younger man was relaxed and not trying to move around so much. It wouldn’t do to have those stitches pulling open and, God knew he’d put enough of them into the boy! The doctor went back into the other room, leaving father and son alone.
While Ben applied the ointment as gently as possible, Hoss returned, carrying several parcels. Upon seeing his father, Hoss squinched up his face, afraid there was a lecture coming that he truly deserved.
“You were supposed to stay with him, Hoss.”
“And you were suppose to be resting, Pa. How’s Adam doing?”
Ben immediately silenced his son with a warning glance.
“Naw, Joe’s asleep, Pa.”
It was well after midnight as Hoss sat beside Adam’s bed half asleep when he heard Joe softly calling to him from the other room. Glancing once at Adam, he hurried in to Joe, afraid something had happened.
“You okay, little brother?” he asked, surprised to see Joe sitting up and trying to get his legs over the edge of the bed.
“Help me Hoss.” Joe pleaded. “I want to go sit with Adam.”
Seeing the grim look to his brother’s eye, Hoss decided that if he didn’t help him, Joe could very possibly try it on his own and wind up in worse shape.
“Okay, but we do this my way. You ain’t walkin’ no where. And you gonna stay wrapped up and warm where I put you. Deal?”
“Now stay right there till I come back.” And Hoss disappeared back into Adam’s room where Joe could hear him moving something but then he came right back.
“You ready?” and without another word, scooped Joe and the blankets off the bed. Going into the other room, Joe saw Hoss had pulled a rocking chair close to the other side of Adam’s bed and it was there that Hoss deposited him. When he winced at the feeling of the wood back, Hoss went and got pillows from the bed and placed them for padding behind his brother. He then leaned down and picked up both of Joe’s bandaged feet and plopped them onto Adam’s bed with one hand.
“Now then, you happy?” and got one of those dazzling smiles his little brother was known for. “Okay, then, you got to stay put.” And Joe smiled again. “Anything else, Short Shanks?”
“Don’t push it” and Hoss sat in the other chair on the other side of the bed. Sometime later, Hoss fell asleep, thinking that as long as the three of them were together, maybe, just maybe, everything would turn out okay.
Joe had watched Hoss fall asleep. For the first time since seeing his other brother fall into the water, Joe relaxed. He was beginning to drop off as well when he heard Adam stir. With his feet still propped on the bed, he leaned over as close as he could get and touched Adam’s arm.
When Adam finally got his eyes opened, he was gratified to find a pair of dancing green ones looking back at him.
“Welcome back there Big Brother. Glad to see I didn’t pull you out of that damn river for nothing.”
“Adam’s fever is down and I do believe his lungs are clearing somewhat but it may be a little too soon to tell.” Doctor Henson announced, opening the adjoining room door the next morning. He had come earlier than usual and found the two other brothers asleep in the bedside chairs. He had awaken Hoss quickly and had him take Joe back into the other room before their father found them disobeying doctor’s orders about Joe getting out of bed. He knew that the three brothers needed one another and thought that perhaps that was the best medicine for each one. And it obviously had worked.
By the end of the week, even Adam was pulling at the bit, wanting to go home. The doctor had pronounced his lungs clear, had put a plaster cast on his leg and said he could go home. The doctor had long since given up on keeping the youngest Cartwright in bed, not realizing that he wasn’t the first doctor to have had that same problem. But the most pronounced change had been in the third patient he had quietly been administering to: Ben Cartwright. The man had worn himself out and Doctor Henson had seen it all too often in his older patients to stand by and let it destroy this one too. From the time when the oldest son started to mend, the Doctor had been quietly slipping a sleeping draft into Ben’s coffee, making sure he slept through the night. And now, ten days after all this had started, the dark circles were gone from under his eyes and he stood erect, looking very much like a Biblical patriarch that Doctor Henson had taken him to be like.
“…and make sure that he rests. I doubt if he will but try. His lungs are still pretty weak and if he caught a cold now…” the doctor was trying his best to get all contingencies covered as far as Adam’s care was concerned before they left town for home. As for dealing with Joseph, well, he thought that he would likely be wasting his breath. And the younger man was healing rapidly, despite his ignoring doctor’s orders. Just yesterday, he had checked and found several more stitches had popped open but the flesh beneath them was still closed and healing.
The journey home would be by buckboard for Adam, his leg in the heavy plaster cast still too much for him to physically deal with. He remembered the impatience Joe had displayed just a little over a year ago when his leg had been so entrapped and felt a touch of remorse for how he had dealt with his brother then. Every bump in the road made the leg ache but he would not voice a single complaint.
They were on their way home.
The weeks of recuperation drug by for the two brothers. Joe was back to work long before Adam was even allowed a full day out of bed. But Ben still kept a close eye on his youngest son. He still had not spoken of what had happened and Ben was reluctant to open the subject with either son but Joe especially. Finally, as he and Adam sat on the front porch going over the ledgers, Ben decided that perhaps Adam could fill in a few blanks left by the drovers.
“There was no flood, Pa.” Adam replied when his father had finished telling him what the drovers had told of a flash flood. “We had let two men go for drinking on the trail and Joe was uneasy about the ones we had left. Said they made him jumpy, or something to that effect. I had noticed too that they kept a real close eye on Joe and I. But flood, no. I had ridden around the herd that night and found Joe. We went next to the river to discuss what we should do about the two, Kurt and Dave. The bank gave way under my horse and the next thing I remember is waking up on the riverbank with a busted leg. As far as I know, the cattle were safe. Joe might know what happened since he went back to the camp the next morning to try and find help.”
“Do you have any idea how Joe…” Ben started to ask then knew the answer before he finished the question. But Adam answered anyway.
“I don’t know for sure but I surmise that my littlest brother dove in after me, Pa. There was no way I could have gotten where I was without help and when I came to and saw him…” but Adam stopped talking, realizing that his father didn’t need the picture he had seen of his brother tossed like a broken doll on the pile of logs and debris just above the water. He made a mental note to give his brother a little extra leeway next time he caught him out of hand again. For what he had done, Adam thought that Joe might deserve a little discretion from him.
That evening when Joe and Hoss returned from fixing fenceline, Ben was waiting. When he heard them ride up, he went out to the barn.
“Hoss, I’ll take care of Chubb. You go on in and help Adam get ready for supper.” Ben insisted.
Joe had a very uneasy feeling about what was headed his direction but he had done nothing he knew of to warrant his father displeasure. For the past few weeks, he had been behaving himself but from the look on his father’s face he knew something was wrong somewhere. He took off his jacket and laid it aside, for the motion of the fabric rubbed at the new scar forming on his back. Staying wisely silent, he unsaddled Cochise and started caring for his horse, hearing his father doing the same for Chubb behind him. Finally finished, he turned towards his father, not knowing what to expect.
Ben stood there, hands on his hips, unsure of how to go about dealing with this son of his. “I had a long talk with Adam this afternoon about what happened.” He started, watching his son closely but Joe simply looked to the ground, so Ben went on. “Seems it didn’t happen the way Hoss and I were told. But there is one thing I want you to clear up for me, Joseph. Adam says the bank gave way under his horse and he fell into the water.”
“That’s right, Pa. His horse went over just about on top of him.”
“And you went in after him, didn’t you?”
Joe said nothing. To him it had been most natural of responses. His brother would have done the same for him, he was sure. Unable to bear the silence any longer, Joe looked up and met his father’s eyes squarely. “What would you have done, Pa?” he challenged.
Ben thought for just a moment then reached out and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “The same thing you did, Son. The same thing you did.”
Hearing the story the drovers told had planted a kernel of an idea in Joseph Cartwright’s brain. He knew that the cattle had been stolen now and it angered him a good bit. As much as he hated them, Adam and his father had had a plan for those blasted black critters. The way he looked at it, those cattle had nearly cost him and his brother their lives but Adam had seemed pretty determined to bring that new blood into their herd. But now, the cattle were long gone, sold off somewhere. All they had for their considerable troubles was a distant memory but it was a memory that kept running around in his head and wouldn’t go away. He knew what he had to do but how to go about it was another matter. Finally, the answer was handed to him by none other than his father that night over supper.
“Joseph, I need you to go to Carson City this week. Normally I would ask Adam to handle these contracts but with his leg still in a cast…”
“Say no more Pa, I’ll handle it. But on one condition: let me do a little hunting on the way back?” and he carefully excluded where he would be hunting and what he would be hunting for.
Hoss, across the table from Joe, spooned a large ladle of potatoes onto his plate, commenting that some venison sure would be good to have.
Ben was reluctant but relented, feeling that Joe was probably in need of a little time off and it seemed that his back had healed well enough. But he still admonished him to be careful.
Joe quickly took care of business in Carson City, signing his name to a contract for timber to be delivered for the building of the new mint to be built there. It would make a handsome profit for the family but he was considering something else making a profit as well. Before night fell that day, he was headed towards Placerville and beyond, seeking a herd of black cattle.
His third day out, he found the herd where Kurt and Dave and Reese had sold them, at the Bar T Ranch. Evan Thomas was courteous man and answered all of his young guest’s questions. He knew of the Ponderosa and the wealth and power of the Cartwrights but knew too that there had been no brand on the cattle he had bought. That fact frustrated Joe no end. The Cartwrights could prove no claim to the cattle.
“I tell you what I will do, young fella, seeings how bent you are on having these cattle. I’ll sell you some of ‘em.”
“Okay, how much a head?” even though it rankled Joe’s sense of justice to pay for what he felt they all ready owned. But Thomas wanted a small fortune for the black beasts and wanted it in cash to boot! That afternoon, they haggled and haggled over the price. Ben and Adam would have been surprised by the finesse that Joe displayed in bargaining but in the end Thomas won out. At least on the whole herd.
Ben and Adam had been hard at the books that morning, trying to figure a way around the damage done by losing the herd of prime breeding stock of cattle. It had been a large investment in energy as well as financial outlay that they knew now would not be paying back. They had discussed even returning to Monterrey in search of another herd but decided that it just wasn’t a good idea at the time. The timber contract for supplying lumber for the new mint in Carson wouldn’t come close to recouping the loss.
“Wonder when he’ll get home?” Adam wondered aloud, not even saying a name. He shifted about in his chair, the cast pulling uncomfortably on his leg.
“In his own good time, I suppose. He needed the time, Adam. Let’s face it, he’s not a little boy any more. He has taken on his fair share of the work around here. Even done your chores since you’ve been laid up. And I for one, have not heard him complain once about it. Have you?”
Adam thought for a long moment about what his father had just said. Yes, Joe was a grown man now, even though he still thought of him as his ‘little brother’. Since the beginning of the cattle drive, Joe had seemed older, more mature and Adam had no way of dealing with this version of his brother. But a part of Adam missed the high spirited brother of days gone by.
Just then, both men heard the bawling of a calf and it sounded right out in the yard! Ben got up to have a look since as far as he knew the nearest herd was a good five miles from the house in the lower pastures. That a calf could have strayed that far…..
What he saw set him to laughing so hard that Adam, getting up on his crutches went to the door behind his father.
Out in the yard was a black calf. A Black Angus calf. And over the sound of the bawling calf, Adam and Ben could hear Joe distinctive laughter.
Adam shook his head at the sight of the forlorn calf and sound of his brother’s laughter “And I worried about him getting grown up.”
Putting his arm around Adam’s shoulders, Ben wiped a tear of laughter from his eye and said, “There is a difference in being grown up and growing up. I don’t believe Joseph will ever ‘grow up’.”
“Lord, I hope not.”
Other Stories by this Author
- Honor Series #10 – Twenty Years Means Nothing to the Pines (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- Kin (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- Lost (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- Honor Series # 3 – The Most Important Job In The World (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- Honor Series # 1 – Changes (by the Tahoe Ladies)