Worry (by Corinna)

 

Summary:   Joe and Adam are rescued.   Although this is a companion piece to ‘Invincible’, and I would recommend that ‘Invincible’ be read first, it is not absolutely necessary to do so as ‘Worry’ is a story that can stand alone.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word count:  10,341


Author’s note: This is a story I never intended to write. After my story ‘Invincible’ was posted, several readers requested more details regarding the rescue of Joe and Adam. I’ve tried to comply with those requests in this piece, and I hope this story fulfills those readers’ expectations.

 

*****

Hoss Cartwright didn’t believe in worrying about trouble before it came knocking on a man’s door. It had always been his experience that if bad news had a mind to come visit, it would come regardless of how much a man agonized or tried to keep it at bay; to Hoss’ mind, it didn’t do any good to fret over something until he knew for a fact that he’d be faced with it.

It was an attitude he’d inherited from his mother. Adam, himself a worrier, had long ago told him what Inger had always told him about worry.

“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.”

Her fondness for that particular statement was one of Hoss’ favorite things he knew about his mother, and its sentiments made perfect sense to Hoss, even though it had never seemed to help Adam much; Adam had been a worrier for as long as Hoss could remember. Most people outside the family would never guess that, of course, since Adam always looked so calm and cool on the outside. On the inside, though, where only his family could see—and sometimes not even his family was privy to what went on inside his head—he was always fretting about something. In Hoss’ opinion, it was usually something over which none of them had any control, and he wished his oldest brother wouldn’t let things bother him so much. It had to be hard on a man, walking through life always feeling like he was responsible for making sure everything was as it should be.

Hoss had said something to him about it once. Adam had been working himself nigh to the bone digging a new well one hot summer, when the one they had seemed to be quite enough as far as Hoss could tell.

Adam had stopped digging long enough to take a hefty swig from the canteen he had with him, and then he smiled at Hoss before announcing his own viewpoint on worry.

“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark, Hoss.” Then Adam had gone right back to digging.

It had dawned on Hoss then that what others considered worry, Adam considered preparation.

Now, sitting at an unusually quiet dining room table on a cold November evening, Hoss cut another piece of ham from the slab on his plate and chewed, thinking about what Adam had said. He had to admit Adam’s opinion had its merit—but then, Adam’s opinion usually did. Hoss glanced sideways at Pa, who was sitting across the corner of the table from him and spending more time staring at the two empty plates across the table than he was eating.

Pa and Adam were like two peas in a pod when it came to the topic of worry; Pa believed in being prepared just as Adam did. But Pa had his own favorite saying on the issue.

“Worry will keep you up all night, but faith makes a mighty fine pillow.”

Hoss reckoned Pa was probably trying hard to keep those words in mind right now as they waited for Adam and Joe to make it home. The Lord knew Pa had had to lean on that belief plenty of late nights as he waited on Joe to get back from a night on the town. The thought occurred to Hoss that for somebody that moved around as quick as Little Joe did, he sure enough had a habit of keeping people waiting.

A tiny smile twitched at the corners of Hoss’ mouth as he slathered butter on a hefty square of Hop Sing’s cornbread. Joe was inspiration enough for a whole book about nothing but worry. He had caused them all mountains of it practically since the day he was born.

It was ironic, because Joe…Joe was definitely not a worrier.

“If you see ten troubles coming down the road, Hoss,” Joe had said to him more than once, “nine of ‘em will run off into the ditch before you get there.”

While Hoss took certain comfort in the notions on worry held by his mother, Adam, and Pa, Joe’s attitude on it was different; it sometimes made Hoss slightly nervous. And yet he could see the truth in it. Most troubles a man worried about ahead of time never saw the light of day.

Joe’s perspective drove Adam crazy, Hoss knew. Out of all the things Adam filled his time worrying about, Hoss knew Adam worried about Joe most of all.

Hoss spooned up another generous helping of mashed potatoes and thought about Adam and his worrying. Adam’s head was always so full of all sorts of things that Hoss didn’t see how there was even any room left for worry, but somehow Adam had always been able to squeeze some in, even when they were kids.

Don’t hold Little Joe so tight, Hoss. He’s just a baby—you’re squeezing too hard…

Hoss, put the ax down. I’ll do the chopping. Yes, you’re big enough, just not careful enough yet…

Little Joe, how many times do I have to tell you not to walk around the back end of a horse?

Let me do the saddling, Hoss. I don’t want your cinch slipping on you.

Adam’s worrying hadn’t been limited to Hoss and Joe, either.

Pa, you’re working too hard…

Marie, can’t you slow it down some when you’re riding Concho? Yes, you’re an excellent rider, I know that. But he likes to take the bit in his teeth, and if you aren’t able to stop him…

Hoss sighed, the sound loud in the quiet dining room. No, in spite of Adam’s belief in preparation, worrying didn’t necessarily help to prevent bad things from happening. He glanced again to his right, where Pa stared ahead listlessly, doing little more than moving his fork around his plate.

Hoss felt compelled to try to reassure him again. “Pa…they’re just runnin’ a little late, that’s all. Probably spent more time arguin’ over that dang horse than they did unloading the supplies, and ended up leaving the mining camp later than they should’ve.”

Pa grunted a soft, noncommittal agreement, and continued to eat with little enthusiasm. Hoss eyed him covertly even while enjoying the green beans Hop Sing had canned from his summer garden. Nothing like having a little bit of summer’s bounty on a man’s plate while a cold November wind threatened winter outside, he thought. He forked in another mouthful and watched his pa’s heavy brows lower in consternation as the wind rattled against the dining room windows.

Hop Sing bustled through the dining room, pulling the heavy shutters at the windows closed to help ward off the chill. He glanced at the two chairs that still sat empty and shook his head, muttering something in Chinese as he returned to the kitchen.

Ben watched him go, his frown deepening.

“You know, Pa, they could’ve busted a wagon axle or somethin’,” Hoss said helpfully.

Pa looked at him and forced a smiled even though the worry didn’t leave his face. He patted Hoss’ arm before resolutely attending to his meal once more. “I’m sure you’re right, Hoss.”

They continued eating, trying to stretch the meal out in hopes that Joe and Adam would soon come driving the freight wagon into the yard, but as the evening light faded to darkness it became obvious that the two missing Cartwrights weren’t going to be home in time for supper, and at last Pa and Hoss gave up waiting.

They moved to the great room and Hop Sing began to clear the table. Hoss sighed again as he watched Pa move to stare out of the window behind his desk. Hoss still wasn’t worried; even if his brothers had run into a speck of trouble, they always had the gosh-darnedest way of weaseling back out of it again. Between Adam’s smarts and Little Joe’s luck, they could take most any problem by the horns and end up on top.

No, Hoss wasn’t worried, but his pa was, and that was reason enough for Hoss to walk to the door and reach for his coat and hat. “I’ll go saddle the horses,” he said, and Ben shot him a grateful, somewhat sheepish look.

“Thank you, Hoss. I’m sure I’m overreacting, but…” Ben lifted his shoulders helplessly.

“It’s all right, Pa. We’ll ride out and meet ‘em just to give ‘em some company. I imagine they’ve had just about as much of each other as they can stand by now.” Hoss winked, and grinned as some of the gathering strain eased from his pa’s face.

“I imagine you’re right about that, son. Let’s just hope that the two of them arrive in better humor than they were in when they left.”

“Amen to that,” Hoss agreed, and reached for the door.

“Hoss?”

“Yessir?” Hoss waited with his hand on the doorknob, watching his pa struggle with the indecision of how far to trust his instincts.

Ben hesitated only a moment, and then started pulling blankets out of the credenza. “Round up some of the hands to go along, will you? We may need help if one of them is hurt.”

“Sure thing, Pa.”

Despite Pa’s apprehensiveness, it wasn’t until Hoss opened the door and stepped out into the cold that the first winds of foreboding swept in on him. He pulled up short and stood on the edge of the porch, staring into the darkness and sniffing the breeze, and as was almost always the case, if someone had asked what had caught his attention, he couldn’t have said.

Suddenly uneasy, he moved toward the barn. Once out in the dark yard, he turned to stare in the direction of the mountaintop where the mining camp sat. There was no moon, and what little starlight there was so early in the evening wasn’t enough to illuminate the mountain, but of course he knew the mountain was there anyway—just as surely as he knew, in that instant, that his brothers were in trouble.

No, Hoss wasn’t a worrier. But where Joe had charm and luck, and Adam had brains and a smooth-talking tongue, Hoss had his own talent—an uncanny knack for detecting subtle whispers that came on the wind, for seeing invisible signs that no one else would take note of. Sometimes it helped him predict the coming of rain or snow; sometimes it helped to lead his hands to the exact spot on a horse’s withers that was most sore; sometimes it led him straight to the prints of a deer’s delicate hoof, prints that his brothers and pa had walked past numerous times without seeing. Sometimes, as was now the case, it told him that those he loved needed help.

Hoss wasn’t a worrier, but he had learned to trust his gut when it was trying to tell him something.

He turned back toward the barn, and this time, he ran.

*****

The ride up toward the mining camp was slow. Even with several lanterns, the way was dark and treacherous, especially when the trail moved under heavy timber cover, and they had to give the horses their heads to let them pick their own way along. The temperature dropped steadily, and Hoss turned up the collar on his heavy wool coat, his breath visible on the air within the small area lit by his lantern. As they moved farther and farther up the trail with still no sign of Joe and Adam, Hoss’ anxiety built. It was a cold night to be out, and although Adam had had the sense to take his heavy coat along, Hoss knew Joe had carried only the light jacket he always wore.

When they rounded a curve in the trail, it was instantly apparent that the cold was the least of their worries. The yellow light from the lanterns washed over the abandoned freight wagon; it sat on the trail like a grounded schooner, its traces empty of horses, three arrows buried into its side.

Hoss grabbed the arrow lodged into the back of the wagon seat and yanked it free. “Paiutes,” he said, the revelation surprising him as much as it did the rest of the men. The Paiutes were a fairly peaceable group of Indians these days, downtrodden even. They kept to themselves for the most part, avoiding trouble with whites and other Indians alike.

But there was no mistaking the way the shaft was cut at the end, or the angle at which the feathers were set into it. It was a Paiute arrow, no doubt about it.

“Somethin’ sure got ‘em stirred up,” one of the hands noted, and some of the men began to look nervously over their shoulders into the darkness.

One of the horses nickered softly, and an answering nicker came from out of the shadows. The group stiffened in alarm.

“Get down!” Ben warned. “And douse those lanterns!” He quickly dismounted, and the others followed suit, swiftly extinguishing the lanterns and leaving them all in darkness. A stealthy investigation soon revealed the two missing draft horses grazing in a small clearing, but no Paiutes.

Hoss looked at the lengths of leather binding together the front legs of each horse. “They’ve been hobbled to keep ‘em from running off,” he said. “So if the Indians left the horses here, where do you reckon they went?”

“Something else claimed their attention,” Ben said grimly.

Hoss didn’t have to ask what that something else was. Joe and Adam had left the wagon running for their lives, with a band of Paiutes hard on their heels.

“Well, they must not’ve caught ‘em,” Hoss pointed out. “If they had, it would all be over and the wagon team would be gone by now. Joe and Adam must still be runnin’.”

They had to reach Joe and Adam before the Paiutes did.

Ben’s face drew into a hard frown. He turned to the other men and began barking orders. “Light those lanterns back up and spread out. We’ve got to find their trail.”

Precious time slipped away as eight men shuffled through brush and undergrowth on foot, swinging the lanterns across the ground, the heaviness of the forest growth making it necessary to leave the horses tied at the freight wagon. It wasn’t long before tracks were spotted, lots of them—but they were all moccasin tracks, and they were all going in different directions.

With limited vision, it was like trying to work out a giant puzzle. Hoss’ frustration increased with every passing minute. Close beside him, Ben’s anxiety was palpable. At last the trail seemed to merge into a consistent direction, and it was then that Hoss spotted a set of boot prints.

“It’s Joe,” he said. “See that mark toward the toe? He wore a hole in the leather—he’s been meaning to get it repaired for the last two weeks. Keeps complainin’ about the wet gettin’ into his sock.”

A minute later they spotted a second, slightly larger set of prints, and Hoss knew they had Adam. The prints in both sets were dug in deep and spread far apart—his brothers had been running hard.

More importantly, they had both been alive.

Their little search party continued to move forward, squinting in the dim light so as not to lose the trail. The night’s chill deepened; they all shrugged further down into their coats. And then Hoss’ heart sank.

He bent to pick up a broken arrow shaft; even under the weak light of the lantern he could see dark specks marring the jagged end, and he knew it was blood. Pa took the shaft from his hand and stared down at it without saying a word.

Tracks in the dirt always told a story, and Hoss focused on deciphering that story rather than on his father’s stricken expression. A tamped down area showed him where a body had fallen; then scuff marks showed where the person had risen again and continued to run in a haphazard fashion. The larger set of boot prints were beside the more unsteady pair.

“Joe took the arrow,” Hoss said grimly, allowing himself only a quick look at his father’s pained expression before he turned his own face away. They continued to follow the tracks. Another flattened patch of dirt, more traces of struggle—more dark specks on the ground. Adam’s prints had gotten deeper, and Joe’s had become a series of scrapes and drag marks.

Hoss didn’t need to explain the signs to Ben. Anyone could see that Joe had barely been able to stay on his feet; Adam had practically been carrying him along. A few dark splotches were still visible in the dirt, and the grass was crushed as though something had been dragged away.

“I’ve got their guns over here,” one of the hands, Johnny, called softly, and picked them up out of the dirt. Hoss tried to calm the heaving in his belly as Johnny brought the pistols to Ben, relinquishing them gently into his outstretched hands as if they were relics of sons already gone.

Ben’s fingers trembled as he checked the guns’ chambers. “Empty,” he whispered.

As Hoss watched his father’s shaking fingers curve around the walnut handle of Adam’s gun and the ivory one of Joe’s, he found he had no words of comfort to give him. The implications were heartrending; his brothers had used all the ammunition they had. Adam had been struggling to move the two of them along, and the useless guns had become weight they couldn’t afford to carry. Hoss worked to swallow the growing lump in his throat.

It was at that moment that the cold wind carried the faint sound of laughter from across the next rise. The lanterns were quickly snuffed out once more, and they carefully moved up the trail.

“There they are,” Hoss whispered. Several Indians were lined up along the shore of the lake, their silhouettes dark against the silvery shimmer of water. They were shouting and cawing and pointing at two of their braves, and Hoss had to squint hard to see what had them so tickled. The two braves were dancing around, and they had something on their feet…

Hoss’ heart contracted in horror.

Boots. The Paiutes had boots on their feet. Leather boots, familiar boots, boots that should be on Adam and Joe. Boots that should be propped up on the stone hearth at home right now while Adam sipped at brandy and read poetry, boots that should be set deep into the stirrup of Cochise’s saddle while Joe rode hellbent-for-leather after those strays they were supposed to hunt tomorrow.

Boots that would not be in the hands of Paiute warriors now if his brothers still lived.

Through the roar in his ears he barely made out Ben’s whispered, “dear God”, and even as Hoss’ world crashed down around him, he struggled to keep himself together for his father’s sake.

His brothers…gone. The impact of the realization hit him with such force that he was unable to breathe. Yet he found the strength to grasp Pa’s arm and keep him upright as he sagged.

“It can’t be,” Ben whispered, and the last remaining strands holding Hoss’ heart together were severed by the pain in Ben’s face. Hoss felt dampness on his face, and he abruptly realized that it was caused by tears. Beside them stood the six ranch hands — loyal, long-time employees with their own grief showing plainly as they waited in silence to be told what to do.

The hooting of the Indians once again drew Hoss’ attention, and as it did, the rage began to build within his chest. He was moving forward before he was even aware of it, and Pa caught him by the arm.

“Hoss…“

Hoss turned and looked into the agony seared across his pa’s heartbroken face and he felt something he’d never felt before—hatred of other human beings. He hated those Indians dancing along the lakeshore, and he wanted nothing more than to tear each one of them apart with his bare hands. It was a terrible sensation, that hatred; it burned within him like hot acid, eating up his insides until it was all he could listen to.

“Hoss, we’ve got to get your brothers. Their bodies…” Ben’s voice broke.

Their bodies. All they had left of Joe and Adam—if the Indians hadn’t already cut them apart.

Stories abounded about the horrible mutilations many Indians inflicted upon their victims. Hoss knew the stories were true, too; he’d seen what was left after an Indian attack with his own eyes, and he’d awakened in the middle of the night more than once with those visions stuck in his mind.

The thought of his brothers ending up like that was too much to bear. Hoss turned away and staggered into the brush, where he emptied his stomach of its contents.

It was Johnny who put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll have to sneak up on them, Hoss, if we’re going to get any of them without them getting us first,” he said gently, and the truth of his words broke through Hoss’ misery long enough for him to nod. Giving his brothers’ killers the chance to get away was something he could not allow to happen.

He looked at Ben, and he saw that his father’s mind was as much awhirl as his own, full of pain, denial and fury—and a sorrow that Hoss knew would follow them both for the rest of their days. He nodded at Pa, and Pa nodded back. Half the Cartwright family was gone, but the half that was left would carry on as they always had — by doing what had to be done. At this moment, that meant first retrieving the bodies of his brothers and second, punishing their killers. He knew that punishment wouldn’t consist of a white man’s trial; the Paiutes would fight to the death to avoid capture, and right now, that was just fine with Hoss, regardless of how Pa looked down on anyone with “an eye for an eye” attitude.

They crept up to the shore by keeping to the shadows cast by rocks and trees, and soon they were close enough that Hoss knew than any shots fired would not be likely to miss. He hadn’t seen Joe or Adam yet, and he began to fear that the Paiutes had simply dumped them into the lake. Preferable to being laid open by a brave’s knife blade, maybe, and yet the thought of them lying under that cold, dark water brought on a new wave of dizzy nausea.

He fought it off even as one of the braves spied them and all hell broke loose.

*****

The shooting was done, the quick efficiency of their shots influenced by the cold anger in their guts. Almost all the braves lay dead on the shore and the few that were left, injured and subdued, had retreated quickly back into the dark pines. In the aftermath of battle, Hoss walked beside the lake, stepping over each dark form and expecting every one to have the face of one of his brothers.

Each body he passed, though, was clad in fringed buckskin. It quickly became apparent that wherever Joe and Adam were, it wasn’t on this cold, wet shore. He found the two braves wearing his brothers’ boots, and he stopped to retrieve them, yanking the boots free and pressing them tightly against his wide chest. Then he came across what looked like a muddy rag lying at the water’s edge; his breathing stopped altogether as he bent to pick up the familiar yellow coat. A few feet away he found the green jacket he was looking for. He held them both along with the boots and staggered back to join Pa at the water’s edge, blinking to clear the tears out of his eyes. He felt numb, and he tried as hard as he could to hold onto that numbness, for he knew what kind of pain would come once it wore off.

Ben was standing absolutely still, staring out onto the water. Hoss didn’t want to look at him, fearful of what he’d see, but he did anyway, and he suddenly realized that his pa was having the same thoughts Hoss had had earlier; he was thinking that his two missing sons were resting at the bottom of that dark lake. Hoss moved up beside him and watched with him as the ranch hands kept a respectful distance. The only sound was the water lapping gently at their feet.

Hoss’ mind veered away from the vision of his brothers lying out there. Instead, he thought about what the coming days would bring. The roundup scheduled for tomorrow would be put off indefinitely; their time for the next several days would be spent dragging the lake. He and Pa would use all their energy trying to keep their grief at bay; they would go through the motions of eating and sleeping and breathing, and when the bodies were found—please, God, let them be found—when the bodies were found, they would force themselves to stand like men at the foot of two freshly dug graves lying alongside Marie’s resting place. They would nod and shake hands and accept condolences from caring friends who could offer nothing that would really help, and then they would go home to a suddenly huge house that creaked with emptiness. Hop Sing would try to bury his own grief by working himself blind; he would stubbornly set the table, day after day, with mountains of deliciously cooked food that neither Hoss nor Ben would be able to eat.

When evening came each night, Pa would sit and stare at the fire and smoke his pipe, and Hoss would sit with him, and they would both pretend they couldn’t see the empty checkerboard resting on the hearth, or the stack of books beside Adam’s favorite chair. They’d stay up late to keep from lying awake in their beds, not heading upstairs until the fire grew cold and black in the grate…

Hoss’ mind stopped. His eye had caught a flicker of movement out on a clump of dark rocks rising from the water some distance from shore, and he stared hard, trying to find it again. It was so dark, though, that he could make nothing out against the rocks. Still, a tentative thought formed in his mind, and a small flutter of hope took root.

“Pa,” he said softly, “that pile of rocks out there…”

Ben followed his gaze and stared, but then shook his head as he realized what Hoss was thinking. “You’re grasping for miracles, son. The lake is so cold this time of year—a man couldn’t survive in it for more than a few minutes.”

“A few minutes is all they would need, Pa.” Excitement took hold of Hoss as his optimism grew. “Maybe that’s why their boots were out here. Maybe the Indians didn’t take them at all. Maybe Joe and Adam left them on purpose. Maybe they took them off so that they could swim…“

“Hoss.” Ben’s voice was as weary as his face. “Joe was injured, and possibly Adam as well—we don’t know how badly. How can you possibly believe that they would survive a swim that distance in water that cold?” His eyes fell on the boots and coats under Hoss’ arm, and his face crumpled. Quickly, he swung his gaze back out toward the lake.

“How can I believe? Because, Pa, Adam would be lookin’ everywhere he could for a way out, even while he fought. If there was any option left, he’d find it,” Hoss said, his voice growing loud and determined. “Because he’d do anything he could to save Joe—and because Joe would never, ever give up. Never.”

“I agree with you, son,” Pa said softly, but his voice was full of sympathy for his middle son and pain for himself. “Joe would never give up—and we know him well enough to be sure that he fought along with Adam right to the death. And that’s what we have to learn to somehow accept…“

Hoss’ head was hanging as he listened to Ben’s refusal to believe that his sons had somehow gained refuge on a cold, tiny, inaccessible piece of land—no, not even land, really, just a pile of rocks that barely reached above the lake’s surface. Ben paused to draw in a shuddering breath—and then a faint sound reached Hoss’ ears. His head jerked up.

“Did you hear that?” he asked, straining to hear it again.

Ben shook his head. “I didn’t hear anything. It’s the wind…“

“No! It’s not the wind. It’s—listen, Pa. Listen real close.”

Ben stared at him, but then he turned back to the lake and listened. They stood arm to arm, their faces pressed into the cold breeze coming off the lake—and then the sound came again. Faint, yet unmistakable—Joe’s name called weakly in Adam’s deep baritone voice.

“Dear God,” Ben breathed, and this time the words were a prayer of awed thanksgiving. He turned to Hoss in wonder, and then looked back at the protruding rocks and cupped his hands to his mouth.

“Adam!” Ben called. “Adam, can you hear me? Son, just hold on. We’re coming for you. Adam?”

If Adam heard, he gave no indication. They heard him call Joe’s name twice more, then nothing.

Hoss’ mind was already galloping ahead like a horse looking for its supper oats. A boat—they were going to need a boat. It was a miracle that Adam had survived one trip through the frigid water; he wouldn’t make another, even if one of them was able to swim out to get him. Hoss was aware that they had precious little time in which to get to his brother. Adam was somewhere out on those rocks, cold and wet, and he couldn’t last much longer. There was no sign that Joe was with him—he certainly wasn’t answering when Adam called—but they couldn’t afford to dwell on that when there was still a chance of saving Adam. If Joe was lost, Hoss knew the grief would eat him alive later—but for now, his oldest brother was depending on him.

“Charlie,” Hoss said, “didn’t you and Tom spend a lot of time fishing up here last spring? Didn’t you keep a little rowboat in a cove somewhere near here?”

Charlie nodded. “Yeah, it’s pulled up in some rushes some three or four miles south of here. At least, it was still there back in July. I ain’t been to check it since.”

Hoss nodded. “Let’s you and I go back and get our horses and see if we can find it, then. Jake, you ride into town and fetch the doc. Hopefully, by the time you get him back to the Ponderosa, we’ll be there, too. Tom, can you and Bill go back and hitch up the team and fetch the wagon and the rest of the horses back here?” Then he looked at Pa, then at Johnny, and hesitated.

Johnny broke in before he could speak. “Don’t you worry none, Hoss. I’ll stay here with your pa while you and Charlie fetch the boat.”

Hoss nodded in gratitude. One look at his father’s face a moment earlier had told him that no amount of force would tear him away from that shore, and Hoss didn’t much like leaving him there alone. He felt better knowing that Johnny’s watchful eye would be on him. Hoss turned to go.

“Hoss…” Ben put an arm on his sleeve, and when Hoss looked questionably at him, he simply shook his head. “Good luck, son.”

Hoss nodded, already knowing all the things his father couldn’t say. “I’ll hurry as quick as I can, Pa. You keep callin’ to Adam. Make sure he knows he ain’t by himself.”

Ben opened his mouth as if to say something, but then simply nodded and clapped Hoss on the shoulder before turning back to stare at the black outline of rocks out on the water.

*****

The ride south along the lake took a lifetime, as far as Hoss was concerned. He and Charlie held the lanterns high, pushing the horses as fast as was possible along the shore and slowing only when mud and dried winter-colored rushes glinted through the darkness as warning of questionable footing. Hoss pushed Chubb faster than he ever would have done normally, leaving Charlie scrambling to catch up. Hoss knew he risked causing his horse to slip, but he couldn’t help it; his stomach was jumping with the need to hurry. He suddenly wondered if this was how Joe felt all the time, always tied in knots with the need to hurry and get to where he was going…

The image of his kid brother made his throat pinch up all tight again. Joe had to be on those rocks with Adam, he just had to. Adam would’ve fought with his last breath to save him, and if Joe had been lost, Hoss was somehow afraid there would be no saving Adam in the end, either.

“Hoss! There it is!” Charlie’s shout pulled Hoss away from his dark thoughts and back into the hurried present, and he followed Charlie’s pointing finger. Peeking out of tall, brown grass, the small rowboat was pulled well up onto the bank and perched beneath a small dogwood tree. The peeling green paint on the boat showed up as gray under the yellow light from their lanterns, and leaves and debris filled the inside, partially hiding the two wooden oars, but it otherwise appeared to be intact.

“Are we going to leave the horses here and row back?” Charlie questioned, and Hoss thought about the miles of shoreline they had just traveled.

“Nope,” he said decisively. “Chubb’s faster than me rowin’ any day, even in the dark.”

“But how—“

“Don’t worry, Charlie, I’ll take care of it. What I need for you to do now is to hightail it back to Pa and let him know I’m comin’.”

“All right, Hoss, whatever you say.” Charlie put a finger to his hat and rode away. Hoss took his rope from the loop on his saddle and dallied one end around the horn. The other end he tied to the boat.

“Get up, Chubb.” The big Morgan obediently bent his neck against the load, and soon had the boat skidding across the mud to the water. Hoss dismounted long enough to shove it completely out into the lake, and then climbed back into the saddle. “All right, boy, let’s go.”

With that, he urged the horse swiftly back in the direction they’d come, trotting through the rush-studded mud while the rowboat cruised along the edge of the lake at the other end of Hoss’ lariat. Hoss listened to the shooshing sounds of the water against the boat’s wooden sides, and he started to pray.

*****

By the time he got back, Pa and the men were all bunched together on the shore, still staring out at the rocks. The freight wagon and the horses waited up on the bank.

Ben looked up as Hoss rode up, and relief mixed with the worry on his face.

“Is he—is he still there? Have you heard him call again?” Hoss asked, and the look on Ben’s face told him the answer.

“We’ve heard nothing for at least half an hour,” Ben admitted. His voice had grown hoarse, and Hoss knew his father had not stopped calling the entire time Hoss had been out looking for the boat.

He had to ask, even as he hurried to unwrap the rope from his saddle. “Joe…?”

Ben shook his head. “No, nothing. We still haven’t been able to determine whether he’s out there with Adam or not.”

Hoss gave a curt nod. They would know soon enough. “The boat won’t hold all of us, Pa. Two men rowing, three passengers. Why don’t you let Charlie and Johnny come with me and you can…”

“No.”

Hoss knew in his heart what very well could be waiting for them on the other shore, and he hoped to spare his father the sight of it. “But, Pa, it’s cold out on that lake…“

“You’re wasting time, Hoss. Let’s go.” Ben’s voice brooked no opposition, and he was already climbing over the bow of the boat, lantern in hand. “Let’s go.”

Hoss sighed and then joined Pa in the boat. He picked up an oar as Charlie jumped in and grabbed the other one. Johnny shoved them away from the bank.

Nobody said a word as they paddled out onto the lake. All eyes were glued onto the rocks ahead as they pulled through the water. They were more than halfway there when they heard a low, rough voice calling out, and Hoss knew it was Adam.

Relief surged through his veins. Adam was still there, still holding on. Hoss squinted into the distance, and was suddenly able to make out a lean form huddled against the shore.

“Pa, there he is.” Hoss took a hand off the oar long enough to point and then he began to pull harder through the water. As they pulled closer they could make out another dark shape—a man lying on the rocks. They could see Adam bending over him, shaking him…and still calling Joe’s name in a voice grown weak and tired.

“He has Joe with him.” Pa whispered what Hoss and Charlie had already determined. None of them spoke about the fact that they had yet to see Joe move.

As they watched helplessly from the boat, Adam suddenly collapsed over his brother’s body, and then he stopped moving as well.

Hoss gritted his teeth and ripped the oar through the water, his biceps bulging with the effort. As the boat drew nearer the rocks, he willed his brothers to lift their heads, to show some sign of life—but there was none.

Hoss grabbed a lantern and was out of the boat and scrambling over sharp, jagged rocks almost before the bow scraped against them. He heard Pa and Charlie running and slipping behind him, but his mind was intent on reaching his brothers.

Adam lay where he had fallen across Joe’s legs. Hoss’ heart leapt as he saw that Adam was shivering violently; he was still alive.

“Adam.” Hoss pulled Adam up against him, rolling him onto his back where he could see his face. Dark lashes lay thick upon cheeks devoid of color. “Adam.” Hoss could hear the desperation in his own voice, but Adam didn’t respond.

Pa skidded to a stop next to them and Hoss handed his brother over to him before crawling across the rocks to Joe’s head, the sharp stones cutting through his pants into his knees. Joe lay on his back, his damp shirt clinging to his skin, his left arm thrown high above his head as though he were sleeping.

Only he wasn’t sleeping. He wasn’t shivering; he wasn’t moving at all. At that precise instant, Hoss knew he himself had never felt so cold in his life, and the cold that was inside him was ten times as harsh as what was outside. He grabbed Joe’s wrist, so slender in Hoss’ own beefy palm, and he felt for a pulse.

“Hoss.” Pa’s voice was rough and strained, and Hoss knew what he was asking. Pa had wrapped Adam in his own coat, and he was sitting there holding him against his chest, rocking gently as though Adam were a small child, and he was pleading with Hoss with his eyes to give him the answer he needed.

Hoss pressed against Joe’s wrist harder, but felt nothing. The boy’s hands felt as cold as the rocks on which he lay; in the lantern light his skin had a blue cast.

“Oh, Joe,” Hoss whispered. “Please. Come on.” He leaned over and lay his ear flat against Joe’s chest, listening. Nothing.

“Hoss.”

His father’s plea again. As Hoss again pressed his cheek against his baby brother’s silent heart, he sent a plea of his own heavenward.

Please, God. I can’t do this. Don’t make me give my pa these words.

He shut his eyes because he couldn’t bear the look on Pa’s face, and then—then he heard it.

A heartbeat, so faint and unsteady that he had to listen a moment more to make sure it wasn’t his imagination.

He moved quickly then, ripping his coat from his shoulders, and when he spoke, he made sure his voice didn’t tremble. “He’s still here, Pa.” He wrapped his coat around Joe’s still, cold form and pulled him as close against his chest as he could. He looked at Ben and knew his own expression reflected his father’s as they got ready to fight to keep what they had been given.

*****

The ride across the lake took longer the second time. Adam and Joe lay in the bottom of the boat, and Hoss and Pa rubbed briskly at their icy hands and feet while Charlie rowed. Halfway across, Adam moaned and began to try to sit up.

“Easy, son. Everything’s going to be all right,” Pa assured him, and pushed him back down, but Adam was having none of it. He fought against his father’s touch, throwing his head back and forth.

“Joe,” Adam mumbled. “I can’t reach you. Stop. I can’t—Joe! Come back!” The last words came out on a scream, and Hoss had to press his own arm against Adam’s chest to keep him safely in the bottom of the boat. The rest of the trip was spent in that manner—with Hoss holding Adam down while Ben tried in vain to comfort him, and Joe lying silently without moving. Charlie strained against the oars as hard as he could, giving an occasional worried glance back to his passengers.

The ride back to the Ponderosa seemed a nightmarish blur when Hoss thought about it later. The four of them rode in the back of the freight wagon while one of the hands drove. They rid Joe and Adam of their wet clothing and wrapped them in blankets, Ben still holding his oldest son tight and Hoss pressing his own bulk against Joe.

Violent shaking assaulted Adam’s entire body no matter how many blankets they wrapped around him; a high fever had claimed him, in turns keeping him out of his head and shouting for Joe, and then releasing him into a deep, unnatural sleep.

Joe, in contrast, did nothing. He was so still and silent that both Hoss and Pa gave in to their fears several times and checked to make sure he was still breathing. They talked to both him and Adam incessantly to keep them from sliding out of this world and into the next, but if either of them heard, they gave no sign.

Paul Martin’s buggy was waiting when they finally arrived at the house, and when his patients were carried into the house and he gave a muttered oath at his first sight of them, it didn’t boost Hoss’ confidence any.

Joe’s skin still had a cold blue tinge to it, even in the lit-up interior of the great room, and Hoss stood holding him as Paul jerked the blanket open and pressed his stethoscope against his bare chest.

Another oath. Paul looked up at Hoss, his eyes unreadable. “How long were they out there like this?”

Hoss shook his head. “We’re not sure. Joe’s got an arrow wound in his side, and Adam’s got a bad cut on his left leg. Looks like he had a run-in with a knife.”

Paul grunted and moved the blanket to briefly look at Joe’s wound before wrapping the blanket back around him.

“Doc, he’s going to be okay, isn’t he?”

Paul looked up at Hoss, and the look in his eyes sent a sick feeling into Hoss’ gut. He watched as the doctor turned away without another word and hurried to Adam, who Pa and Charlie had placed on the settee.

Again, Paul moved the blankets aside and listened intently through his stethoscope for long seconds before checking the wound on his thigh. Finally, he sighed and stood up straight.

“Paul?” A world of agony was in Ben’s question.

For a brief instant, Paul stared into Ben’s eyes and then turned away to start rummaging through his bag. “We’ve got a long night ahead of us. Get them both up into bed. Hop Sing, have some of the men carry a tub up and fill it with warm water. We’ll immerse them both, and see if we can get their body temperatures up a bit. Our first priority is to warm them up. If we accomplish that, then we’ll see about their injuries.”

Doc continued to shoot orders as he looked through the medicines he had in his bag, and Hoss led the way up the stairs with Joe in his arms. Behind him, one of the hands helped Pa with Adam.

Doc had been correct about the long night; it was the longest of Hoss’ life.

Adam continued to come in and out of a confused semi-conscious state in which he struggled and fought and screamed for Joe; Hoss stayed at his side much of the time as he was too much for Pa or the doc to handle on their own.

They took turns moving back and forth between Joe and Adam. During those times when Adam slipped back into a fitful sleep, Hoss would go sit with Joe, who still lay utterly, frightfully still. At one point, Hoss and Ben looked in on him together; Paul came in to check Joe again and then turned to go back to Adam, but Ben grabbed him by the arm.

“I need to know, Paul—my sons.” Ben swallowed hard as if the words were stuck in his throat. “I need to know. How bad…”

Paul took a deep breath, and Hoss stared at him, willing him not to say what he was terrified to hear. “I’ve never lied to you, Ben, and I don’t aim to start now. Your boys are bad off—real bad. A man can only get so cold before everything just…shuts down. Joe is at that point now—hovering just over the brink. Adam’s not too far from it himself, and he’s got a real fight on his hands with that fever, and Joe…” Paul dropped his head. “Well, if Joe makes it to morning, he might have a chance. But I can’t rightly say that I expect that to happen.”

Hoss concentrated on breathing in and out as the doctor’s words threatened to crack his heart in two, and he sat down hard in the rocking chair in Joe’s room before his legs gave out on him. He hardly noticed as Paul rested a hand briefly on Ben’s shoulder before turning and leaving the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Sitting beside Joe’s bed, Ben blinked as though he hadn’t quite heard what the doc had to say. Then he slowly leaned toward the bed, one hand resting on Joe’s head and the other tightly gripping the bed post. He leaned his forehead against the polished wood of the bed post, and he shut his eyes and remained that way, and Hoss knew every terrible word had registered.

Hoss pictured his brothers as they had been when they left the Ponderosa that morning—had it really been less than a day? They had been so angry with each other, had been all week, ever since they had argued about whether or not to buy that stud horse at Hannigan’s place. Disagreements between the two of them were not unusual, were pretty much a way of accepted life, as a matter of fact. Normally, though, an argument between them was explosive and short, like two mules trying to pull a wagon in opposite directions before realizing that their strengths were better spent in tandem with each other.

Not this time, though. The argument over the horse had gone on for days until even Hoss had been ready to thump their heads together over it. Pa had decided to send them alone on the supply run in hopes that they would use the time to finally come to an understanding.

They had climbed aboard that freight wagon this morning, Adam coolly detached and Joe’s usual sunny disposition replaced with a dark glower, both of them hating the job because it involved close proximity to no one but each other for the entire day. Hoss and Pa had watched them ride away, two strong men with big differences and even bigger similarities, similarities that seemed to be invisible only to Joe and Adam.

Hoss knew his brothers, though, and he knew that beneath all their show of locking horns with each other, there lay the kind of deep, unshakeable bonds that were peculiar to brothers. Hoss had no doubt that Pa’s ploy would work, and that his brothers would return that night with everything put to rights between them.

They had returned—but nothing was right. Everything was wrong, and his two strong brothers were now barely clinging to life.

Hoss still didn’t believe in borrowing trouble before it came knocking on a man’s door, but it had come knocking, all right, and it had come with a vengeance. All of Adam’s preparation hadn’t let him know this one was coming, and those ten kinds of trouble Joe talked about? Well, not a one of ‘em had run into the ditch this time. Every last one of ’em had hit Joe and Adam dead-on.

Hoss took a deep breath and gathered his big bulk to rise out of the chair. He went to the washstand and dipped a cloth in the warm water that Hop Sing was constantly keeping replenished. Hoss would wipe Joe down with it as Doc Martin had instructed, and then he would move to Adam’s room to do the same thing. Then, unless Adam started fighting against Doc and Pa again, he would return to Joe’s room to start the process all over again. He would take turns with Pa in lying beside his brothers to provide precious body heat, and he would work as long as it took to bring them back. When he had a spare moment, he would spend it chopping another pile of wood for Hop Sing to heat the water with, and he would be grateful for the physical exertion.

For, on the occasions when Hoss had to accept that worry must be faced, he had his own belief on how to approach it and he turned to that belief now:

A man can’t wring his hands and roll up his sleeves at the same time.

*****

For all that Doc’s prognosis for Joe was so grim, it seemed to be Adam who suffered most. While Joe lay quiet and unnaturally, peculiarly peaceful, Adam was in torment. As night edged into morning, his periods of sleep seemed to come less and less, and his forays into a world none of them could see came more and more. They tried desperately to calm him, but he fought against them and shouted at enemies only he could see, and most of his nightmares seemed to involve Joe. Sick as he was, his confusion and fear made him surprisingly strong, and there were times when it took both Hoss and Pa to hold him still while Doc administered laudanum to bring him blessedly back to sleep again.

When the sun rose on a cold horizon, Joe was still with them, and Hoss took Doc Martin at his word.

“He’s going to make it, Doc.”

Paul drew out his stethoscope and listened, his face intent. “His heartbeat is stronger,” he admitted, “but he’s a long way from being out of the woods, Hoss.”

“He’s going to make it,” Hoss said again, and Paul smiled cautiously.

“He’s fighting, I’ll give him that.” Paul pulled the sheets back to check the arrow wound in Joe’s side. “I don’t know how, but the wound looks pretty good. I’m going to flush it out once more, and then I’ll go ahead and stitch it closed. We’ll have to watch it for infection, but for now that’s all we can do.”

“He’s got some pretty bad cuts on his knees, Doc,” Hoss pointed out.

Paul looked at the abrasions crisscrossing Joe’s knees and frowned. “Odd.”

Hoss felt the cuts on his own knees from crawling across the rocks on the island, similar to Joe’s but not as deep. “Pa and I figure he got ‘em trying to drag Adam out of the water.” Once again he pictured his brothers choking on that cold, dark lake water and he shuddered.

Doc nodded. “I think I’d have to agree with you. The cuts wouldn’t be so deep unless he was weighed down with something. And with the knife wound in Adam’s leg, I find it hard to believe that he made that swim under his own steam.” He pulled the blankets back up and stood. “I’ll clean the cuts and scrapes and they should be fine.” His head jerked up at a dazed shout from Adam, and Ben began calling immediately after. Doc sighed. “Time for more laudanum. I don’t know what this fever has dragged into Adam’s head, Hoss, but it sure as shootin’ doesn’t want to turn him loose.” He looked at Joe once more, and shook his head. “Joe’s not going anywhere. You’d better come help with Adam.”

And so the day went. And the next night, and the day after that. Adam’s knife wound was treated and sutured, then opened and drained and cleaned again, and yet his fever raged on until Paul began to gently hint at concerns over its effect on his mind.

Where they had at first struggled to make him warmer, now they pressed cool cloths to his forehead and neck. He tossed his head back and forth on the pillow, and when he could say anything at all, he talked about Paiutes and arrows and dark water—and in between it all, he was calling for Joe.

The anguish in his voice grew until it was enough to break Hoss’ heart.

“What do you reckon they went through out there, Pa?” Hoss whispered, and Ben shook his head and smoothed his hand through Adam’s dark hair.

“Whatever it was, it still has your brother scared to death. Wherever he is, he thinks he’s there alone.”

They continued to try to soothe Adam, and they kept trying to talk to Joe even though he showed no signs of hearing them—and they kept waiting and hoping and praying. Paul went into town each day to take care of his other patients, but he was back out at the Ponderosa every evening to do what he could.

Toward the end of the third day, Adam was going through a particularly bad episode, and Hoss and Pa were sitting beside him on the bed, holding him still while Paul gave him yet another dose of laudanum. It hadn’t taken effect yet, and as usual he was crying out for Joe.

Hop Sing dashed into the room, his eyes round. “Little Joe try to wake. Come quick!”

Paul muttered a surprised “I’ll be damned.”

Hoss met his father’s wide eyes. “Go, Pa. I’ll help Doc with Adam.”

“Lord have mercy,” Paul muttered as he spooned the medicine down Adam’s throat. “We may save them both yet.”

Hoss smiled even as he strained to hold his brother down. “Oh, they’ll make it, Doc, you just wait and see if they don’t.” His smile faltered as Adam’s shouts turned into screams.

“Adam, don’t fret so. Joe is here. He’s safe in his room, Adam. I promise you, he’s safe,” Hoss crooned, but his words had no effect on Adam. Then new shouts rose, this time from Joe’s room, and Hoss’ head jerked up at the sound.

“Hoss! Come quick!”

This time it was Pa, and Hoss looked up at Paul, who quickly moved to the bed to take his place.

“I’ll manage here, Hoss. You go to your pa.”

Hoss was up and flying down the hall in an instant. He arrived in the doorway to Joe’s room in time to see Joe, wild-eyed and fearful, fighting Pa with everything he had. He was calling back to Adam, his voice rough with disuse. When Pa turned his attention to Hoss for a moment, it was all Joe needed; he pushed past him and hit the floor running.

Only he was too weak to run anywhere, and he crumpled to the floor. Hoss scooped him up and placed him in the bed, and he could tell his kid brother had already used up all the fight he had in him. He was still calling for Adam, but his shouting had turned to whispers, and his fear and frustration was plain to see.

“Adam’s in trouble, Pa,” Joe croaked, and he looked at Pa and then at Hoss as though he couldn’t believe they didn’t know that. Hoss swallowed as his father tried to convince Joe otherwise—and failed. Hoss could see why Joe found it hard to believe. If Hoss had woken up to hear one of his brothers screaming like that, he would do everything in his power to get to them, too.

Even as they watched Joe struggle to hold his eyes open, more cries from Adam and a shout from Doc came echoing down the hallway. Pa gave Hoss orders to stay with Joe.

“I’ll help Paul. And for God’s sake, let’s keep the doors closed until they’re both asleep,” Pa added.

Hoss nodded as Pa left, pulling the door shut behind him. He swallowed past the hard knot in his throat as Joe opened his eyes just long enough to give him a hurt, confused look. Then Joe gave up the struggle and let his eyes fall shut, and one bitter tear traced its way down his cheek. Hoss nudged it away with a gentle knuckle, and then he held Joe’s hand and began to talk in the same manner he reserved for a hurt animal. He talked about everyday things, unimportant things, mostly for the sound of his own voice. And yet he heard the muffled click of Pa shutting Adam’s door, and the sound of Pa’s voice murmuring along with Paul’s, and still—still Adam’s muffled screams kept coming. Hoss raised his own voice as he continued to talk, and still he could hear those screams, and doubling his pain was the fact that he knew his baby brother could hear them, too.

For, though Joe’s eyes remained shut, his body flinched with each and every cry Adam made.

*****

Looking back months, even years later, Hoss would think of those first days after they brought Joe and Adam home as one of the worst times of his life. Usually he chose not to think about it at all; the fear and suffering that had engulfed the house during that time wasn’t the sort of thing a fellow wanted to dwell on. And yet, sometimes the memory of it moved in on him when he wasn’t looking, settling into his gut until he was forced to saddle Chubb and ride out into the open breeze to clean himself out again.

But they had been blessed, just as they had been so many times before. After weeks of slow recuperation, both his brothers had recovered almost completely, although nightmares haunted them for months afterwards. Joe, always prone to bad dreams anyway, seemed to have the hardest time with that aspect of it, but even Hoss had been affected. A few times he had jerked awake in the middle of the night with a plaintive cry sounding in his ears—only to realize that it had come out of his own mouth, and he had shaken his head to clear his mind of the vision of his brothers’ frozen faces at the bottom of a dark, watery grave. He never spoke of it to his family, and as far as he knew, his brothers never realized that the same dreams that tormented their sleep kept him up nights as well. He suffered alone, and as the years went by, the dreams came less and less often until at last they rarely came at all.

In the end, Joe and Adam had come to terms with each other, just as Hoss had known they would. Adam had come around to Joe’s way of thinking about Hannigan’s horse, and Joe ended up being a little more understanding of the kind of worry that so often gripped Adam.

The kind of worry that Hoss himself now found harder to dodge.

He stood beside Adam one sunny afternoon as they watched Joe riding way too fast—again. Adam let out a soft curse, and Hoss threw a comforting arm around his older brother’s shoulder.

“Aw, Adam, don’t fret. It ain’t nothin’ to worry about.”

And Hoss almost—almost—believed it.

***The End***

 

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