Summary: Adam, alone and hurt in the desert, is comforted by a stranger.
Word Count: 1700
The sun overhead tormented him.
It was December 21 for goodness sake. It shouldn’t be this hot. But it was. Adam’s shirt was so stiff with dried sweat that it had rubbed his skin raw under his arms and belt.
He would have taken his shirt off but he had learned his lesson—painfully—the previous day when he had stupidly stripped to the waist to rid himself of the scratchy black cloth and had promptly blistered his back and chest! In fact, there wasn’t a square inch on his torso that didn’t hurt or ooze fluid when touched.
Though the sky was streaked with high clouds, he had fried in the invisible rays of the sun during the day. By night he was shivering, his raw flesh abraded by the gritty sand as soon as he lay down. He should have known better.
He did know better. Hadn’t he taught his brothers how to survive in the desert? Mother of God why had they ever listened to him? Who was he to always be so sure of himself? Here he was alone in Death Valley.
And still so far to where the mountains stood.
Forced to put his horse down after it broke its leg in a freak accident, Adam had trudged on foot for days in sweltering heat. That the heat was unusual for this time of year was of little consolation.
Crossing Death Valley in the winter was eminently doable. Normally a comfortable mid-70s, the weather had turned unseasonably hot and was reaching nearly 100°F with colder-than-normal nights.
It seemed the sun had stood still—not moving—for three days. It took him awhile to realize it was the winter solace . . . no make that solstice. “Ha!“ he laughed out loud. “There is no solace in the solstice!” he joked, but he choked on his laugh when it occurred to him that his brain was as fried as his skin.
It was the last thought he had.
“Easy, easy,” the disembodied voice said. “Not too much, you’ll make yourself sick.”
Adam gagged on the little bit of water that passed his lips and was sorry for it. He leaned back into the embrace of the stranger, too exhausted to be wary. He was at this man’s mercy he knew, but somehow no longer cared. About anything.
“Do I know you?” he croaked when his throat had received enough moisture to function again.
“Unlikely,” came the response.
“California. Death Valley.”
“Oh, a little bit of everywhere. And nowhere.” The stranger grinned and then laughed. It was an easy laugh, one that Adam found familiar.
“You remind me of my kid brother.”
“The world could be coming to an end and he would see nothing but possibilities.”
“An optimist, then.”
“And you’re the pessimist?”
His companion was a man of few words. Not quite solitary, but reticent to share too much of himself. Adam laughed inwardly. Not unlike himself. Oh, he could and would wax poetic on subjects which interested him most—art, music, architecture, engineering, politics—but he was hard pressed sometimes to find someone who shared his interests . . . an intellectual equal with whom he could spar.
Not that his family were dullards, no sir. His father was well read and traveled and had known the most amazing people—people who often visited the Ponderosa on their journeys. It never ceased to amaze him the people his father knew, from circus performers to dukes; from opera singers to bawdy actresses.
His youngest brother was like that. Joe could ride into a new town a stranger and leave with the keys to the city. People gravitated toward him. Not just the women, but the men, too. Of course, some were downright antagonistic—jealous of the kid’s good looks, way with women, luck at cards, or perceived easy life. But with a grin and a wry sense of humor, Joe could usually win them over. Those he couldn’t—well, he might be “little” but he was fast and agile and had a mean left hook. He might take a beating in the process, but there weren’t many fights Joe lost. Just as Hoss could read a trail better than anyone in the territory, Joe could read people. Joe would know what he needed right now.
A soft moan escaped from Adam’s lips as he shifted position. Oh, what he wouldn’t give to hear Joe prattle on about . . . anything . . . anything to distract him from the sting of his raw flesh.
As if reading his mind, his companion launched into a soliloquy on the finer points of campfire cooking. It was mind numbing and just what Adam needed in order to concentrate on something other than his wounds. Eventually, the non-stop chatter soothed him into a deep, if restless, sleep.
The blackness of the desert night seemed to swallow him whole and he woke with a start, instantly sorry he had. Away from the campfire, he shook uncontrollably; too close and he felt his skin would ignite. There didn’t seem to be any relief possible. Then the stranger moved his bedroll between Adam and the fire sheltering him from the intensity of the flames. But still Adam was agitated.
As if sensing the immense darkness of the desert was too overwhelming, the stranger got up, reached into his saddlebag and then—in the sand a few feet from Adam’s face—planted a lit candle.
Adam focused on the tiny flame and the darkness receded. Strange how that one small candle warmed him and stopped the shivering. It calmed the chaos within him and brought solace.
The weather was cooling slightly and during the day Adam rode double with the stranger, sheltered in his arms, and at night the lit candle always burned where he could see it. His sleep became more regular and the dreams were good ones of blue water and snow-capped peaks; of fishing in trout-filled streams with his brothers; and of his father’s velvet voice.
He had left the Ponderosa and kept going—where didn’t matter—anywhere to just start living his own life and not the dreams of another. Hoping to avoid a fractious leave-taking, Adam had just headed south one day never intending to return. Now, thanks to the generosity of a stranger, he had another chance. He would return one last time to the evergreens of Tahoe to tell his father and brothers how much he loved them. He owed them that. He owed himself that.
The room was dark, but the warmth told him it must be day. His hands went immediately to his face and he felt the bandages.
“Easy, fella,” a new voice said. It was older, with a slight accent. Missouri maybe, or Tennessee. “Doc bandaged your eyes to protect them.”
“Am I . . . blind?”
“Naw, just hurtin’ a might. Sun’ll do that to a fella, ‘specially out here.”
“Sir? Where am I?”
“Army Fort at Bitter Springs on the Santa Fe Trail, and you can call me Sarge.”
“How did I get here?”
“Young fella brought you in. Didn’t seem too anxious to be anywhere near soldiers. I figured him to be a deserter—not that I blame him much in this godforsaken place—but the Cap’n, he done talked to him and said he was OK. Musta been in the army at some time though.”
“Knew all the lingo and the drill. Those were proper field dressings he put on you.”
“Would you ask him to come in; I’d like to thank him.”
“Gone. Stayed long enough to see you were in good hands, then high-tailed it outta here. He left somethin’ for ya, though.” A chair scrapped against the plank floor and Adam could hear shuffling. “Odd. It’s just a stub of a candle. Hardly worth keeping if you ask me.”
“May I have it, please,” Adam said as he extended his arm and Sarge dropped the small cylindrical object into his hand. It had been softened by the heat of the day and yielded slightly to pressure. Adam brought it to his face and smelled the beeswax and mesquite. He smiled. Just enough left to light his way.
“Well, Mr. Cartwright, your skin is healing nicely.”
“What about my eyes, Doc?”
“How do they feel?”
“Scratchy, like I’ve got sand in them.”
“Mmm. Well, don’t rub. Cold compresses will help with that. I’ll take the bandages off but you are to stay in a darkened room during the day and only go outside at night until your eyes stop stinging. Then I’ll give you some dark spectacles to wear.”
“When can I travel, Doc?”
“Where are you headed? Not back into the desert I hope?”
“No. North to Nevada.”
“There’s a wagon train leaving in a few days for Los Angeles. I can arrange for you to go with them. I suggest you take the train north to San Francisco. Your eyes are going to be mighty sensitive for some time to come.”
“I’ll do that, Doc. Thank you. There’s some people I’ve got to see.”
As was their habit, over brandy and cigars following Sunday dinner, the Captain and the Doctor rocked on the front porch of Command Headquarters and reviewed the events of the week. In this desolate piece of the Mojave Desert near Death Valley, they had seen more than their share of suffering and broken dreams.
“What was the tally on the wagon train?” asked the Captain.
“From Santa Fe to here? Six dead; one heart attack, a broken back, two heat strokes, appendicitis, and snake bite. Two births. Assorted injuries and two cases of food poisoning.”
“About par then.”
“Yep,” the Doctor replied, taking a sip of brandy. “Cartwright made it though, even with all that money on him. Renews my faith in humanity.”
The Captain blew smoke rings at the stars. “Cartwright was a lucky man all right. His bones would have been picked clean if Canaday hadn’t found him.”