Summary: WHN for “The Crucible”. Joe learns that finding Adam in the desert is easier than saving him.
Word Count: 9,030
I probably would have killed him.
His blistered, desert-cooked face still creeps into my thoughts, as we make our way home through the arroyo that snakes down from the foothills. We have covered mile after mile of rocks and sand and the unnatural brightness of the sun, but all I see in front of me is that man’s face. Adam sits beside me on the buckboard. It has been two days since we left Peter Kane behind us, and Adam’s eyes look straight ahead at the canyon, but I know he is still seeing that face. I want to tell him that the man is dead and gone and well on his way to decay. Everything turns to dust in the desert.
Adam had no choice but to keep looking at Kane’s face for the two weeks he was held as a prisoner. I had a choice, and I should have known better, but I looked anyway. I should have concentrated on the task at hand, like Pa and Hoss, as the three of us piled rocks over the man’s dead body. After all, the important thing was to cover up the body and move on. Get Adam out of the sun and cared for, and everything would go back to the way it was before. We’d get on with the story of our lives, like evil had never found its way into it.
Yet, I couldn’t help but take one final look at the man’s dead face, before I covered it with a stone. I knew right away that Adam had been through some kind of hell, and that man was the source of it. Pa always said it’s best to flee from evil before it gets a hold on you. It’s too easy to fall in with the dark things of the world, even if you tell yourself you’re just looking. We’ve all known men who let evil get under their skin and were never the same again. They either went crazy or they turned a little bit mean. Others were worn down in bitterness. Few men looked into the face of it and returned to their lives, unscathed. Pa was one of those rare men, and I admired him for it. He had seen the worst in people and yet was the best man I had ever known. I prayed that my brother took after my father. I prayed he’d be able to look away.
I turned and looked up into my father’s face. It was a welcome contrast to Kane’s, but Pa looked so tired from our weeks of searching for Adam in the desert. When he arrived in Salt Flats after I sent that telegram, I thought to myself that I’d never seen my father look older. I was wrong. As I looked at him again standing over that body, he looked even older than he had that day. How many years would these past weeks take off of his life? I didn’t want to take anything else from my father, but I could feel the worry in his eyes, as he looked down at me. I knew he saw the need for vengeance rising in me, and he didn’t like it one bit. He needn’t have worried. After all, the story was already over. His youngest son couldn’t go running off half-cocked looking for revenge. Not this time. The guilty party was already dead. The desert sun was the end of the line for justice, in this life at least.
We didn’t bother burying the body. The earth was baked to a cracked crust, and we could barely stay upright in the heat. Even as we crouched in the shade of a jagged outcropping of rock, I could feel the ground burning through the soles of my boots. We couldn’t have hacked away at it, even if we had the tools. Besides, I wouldn’t have lifted a finger to put that man to rest, and I said so. Pa scowled at me then, and I didn’t care, but leaving the body exposed to the scavengers seemed to bother Adam.
We kept him away from the body, but every time he’d look over at the remains, Adam would repeat to himself, “There’s no gold… Kane didn’t win…I am not an animal.”
He kept saying it until his voice cracked because he couldn’t keep saying it any longer. It didn’t make sense, and I could tell that bothered all of us. Adam always made sense, as long as I could remember.
We didn’t know what the man did to Adam during those two weeks. What could you do to a man that would cause him to drag a dead body on a travois across miles of desert sand? Adam did not tell us much about the man or what had happened, other than the fact that his name was Peter Kane and that there was no gold. Again and again, he insisted that the man had not won. From the looks of things, I wasn’t so sure Adam had won either.
After Adam managed to take a few sips of water, Pa pulled back to take a good look at him. We could all observe the signs of damage from the sun, the sunken cheeks and eyes, his face, which was hot and blistered but not sweating. Hoss noticed the blood-crusted grooves on Adam’s wrists and gestured for Pa to take notice. Only ropes knotted tight with brutality could cut into a man’s skin like that. The bruising around the ridges told us that Adam must have fought hard to get away. I took in comfort in that and prayed with all my heart that my brother hadn’t given up the fight.
“Did that man do this to you?” Pa asked when it seemed like Adam had enough water. Adam just nodded. And he kept crying.
Adam crying is a sight I’ve only witnessed a couple of times in my life, and if I’m being honest, it’s one that disturbed me as much as the wounds on his wrists. Adam hardly ever cried, not even when he was a boy. Pa always said that Adam was such a calm baby that it unnerved folks to be around him. Pa said it was like he realized he had no business being trapped in a baby’s body and was merely biding his time until he grew up and got himself out of such a ridiculous situation. On the other hand, when I was a baby, Pa said I cried every time my eyes were open. I cried so loud that birds fell out of the trees and the angels in Heaven had to put their hands over their ears in exasperation. At least that’s the way Hoss tells it. I cried until I was old enough to be able to get myself where I wanted to be and to do what I wanted to do.
You might think Adam and I were different that way, but you’d be getting it wrong. We both hated being helpless; we just had different ways of letting it show.
That’s why seeing Adam cry was a blow to my gut that hurt worse than any punch I’d ever taken. Whatever had happened to him, whatever that man did to him, it had to be bad, and I didn’t need Adam telling me the details to know that something mighty evil was at the heart of it.
I looked at that man’s face, until I knew I’d remember it for the rest of my life. Memorized the hard lines and the long forehead, the bitterness that lingered at the corners of his lips. Saw everything I needed to know. Then I placed the final rock over it and left it to the worms. I thought I walked away. If only it were that easy to walk away from the remains of Peter Kane.
After we covered up Kane with the rocks, Adam stopped crying. But he stopped talking as well and drifted in and out of sleep. He seemed comforted somehow by the fact that we had not left the man’s body exposed, like we’d done right by him by attempting to give him a decent burial.
We barely survived the ride back to Salt Flats. With Adam hardly conscious, Pa tried to ride with him on Buck for about half a mile, but it was too much for either of them to manage. Adam couldn’t sit upright on the saddle, and Pa couldn’t hold him steady. They slipped and swayed in the saddle until there was no going any further. Pa shook his head and signaled for Hoss to help him. They helped Adam dismount and led him to the shade of a large boulder.
In soft, tired voices, they decided that we should go back for the travois my brother had constructed to try to save Kane. Pa and Hoss stood talking for a long time, before I actually brought myself to listen. Their conversation eluded me. My brain was so muddled with the sun and lack of sleep I could barely make sense of simple language. I lost track of the most basic sounds. There was a humming in my ears that had started when I placed the last stone on Kane. It seemed to come right from the depths of the desert sand, and it rose louder and louder until it seemed to take over everything. I wanted to close my eyes and just listen to what the desert had to tell me.
It took everything I had in me to listen to human conversation again, but I couldn’t give up just yet. I forced myself to listen, and with a start, I realized that Pa and Hoss were talking about going back. Their voices grew louder in the still air, and although Adam’s eyes were closed, I knew he heard every word they said.
“It will set us back,” Pa said. “But Adam can’t ride any further. We’ll make better progress, if we carry him on the travois he built.”
“Do you think the travois will hold as far as we need to go?” Hoss was asking. “It looked like it took a beating from what I saw of it.”
“One thing I know for certain,” Pa said. “Your brother knows how to build things so they last. If Adam built it, it’ll hold up all right.”
I put my hands over my ears and squeezed my eyes shut tight. I didn’t want to listen any more, but their words were forcing pictures into my head, sights that I didn’t want to see. They say that some men have visions in the desert. That there are hidden truths in the sand that some would call a mystery. Pa would call it superstition, would say that what I saw was a hallucination, a mirage. But when I opened my eyes, I saw the normal colors of the world distort and change, into unexpected light and shapes. The mountains blurred and the outlines of canyons wavered in the sun. The air turned yellow and the sky pink, and as the world began to glow with unnatural color, I saw it clearly. I saw my oldest brother lose his mind. I saw Kane’s face, and I swear I could see his dead face laughing.
It wasn’t a flat out prediction of the future, like the one Hoss and I got once from a visiting fortuneteller in Virginia City. I foretold no names or dates, no specifics of how it would end. But it was a premonition all the same, and all my normal contradictions and denials had been worn away. I was prepared to believe it, and if I believed it, I’d do whatever I needed to change my father’s mind. We could not go back.
I looked down at Adam, propped up in the shade, and to my amazement his eyes were open, and he was looking straight at me. I saw his eyes staring hard into mine, and I knew what he wanted me to do. He just wasn’t ready to say it. There was no way on earth we were heading back into the hell he had come from.
I nodded at Adam and stared at him, waiting. I waited until his eyes closed, before I dismounted. I didn’t know how long it would be until I saw any further understanding in my brother. I’ll never know if it was the desert that gave me my sense of urgency. But everything was exaggerated by our absolute need to get out of that place. Just to survive. There were few distractions. Get water, shelter, and get moving, as quickly as we could. Life didn’t get more basic than that. My emotions rose to the surface, primal and feverish, and I did not try to restrain them.
Like my voice belonged to someone else, I heard myself yelling, “He’s not going back! I won’t let you take him!”
Afterward, I remembered little else of what I said or did, but Hoss claimed I yelled some other things that Pa would have tanned me for had I been ten years younger. Hoss said they thought I’d lost my mind, from the heat and horror of the past couple weeks. Said I raged and swore that my brother would never go back, would never see the damned face of Peter Kane. That my dead body would stand between them, if they tried to take Adam back to civilization the same way he carried Kane.
I don’t remember saying any of those things, and I certainly don’t remember drawing my gun on Pa and Hoss. But Hoss said I did it. So I have no doubt that it happened just like he said. Hoss has never lied to me.
Hoss said I stood there under the desert sun, shaking from head to toe, with my gun pointed at the two of them. Said I kept repeating again and again, “Nobody’s taking my brother back into that hell. I won’t let you do it.”
Hoss said that Pa was terrified that he had lost two sons, and he approached me slowly, deliberately, the way one would come upon a wounded animal. Hoss said Pa took one step at a time, until he was alongside me, and even then his movements were cautious and gentle. Until he was able to touch me and place his hand over my own that was still holding the gun. He took the gun from me and handed it to Hoss.
When my father touched me, the world seemed shift back to what it had always been, and the vision seemed as unreal as a shadow from a passing cloud. I gazed up into Pa’s face. His features were haloed in the midday sun, but I could see the unrealized grief of the past weeks on his face. I became aware that I was crouching in the shade of my tired horse, Pa kneeling beside me, and he was reaching for me gently. Until he put his arm around my shoulders, I had not realized that I was crying.
“Joseph. Little Joe, look at me,” he said. “You’re not thinking clearly. You’re exhausted. We all are. That’s why you’re acting this way. Hoss and I are just trying to figure out the quickest and safest way to get Adam home. We don’t want to hurt him. I want you to see that.”
Pa spoke to me slowly, the way one would explain matters to a confused child, but I could hear the panic threading through his voice. He pushed the hair off my forehead and let his hand rest there against my skin, for a long moment. I knew he was checking for more than fever. He didn’t want to lose two sons to the desert.
“We can’t go back,” I cried, not bothering to hide anything anymore. “Adam can’t go back like that. He can’t see Kane again. He can’t lie down on that thing. Don’t you see, Pa? He’d never get over it. Don’t ask me why Pa, it’s something I just know.”
Pa kept his hand on my face and turned back to Hoss.
He ordered, “Hoss, give Adam a little more water, and then bring the canteen over here. Joe needs to drink too.”
Even in my daze, I understood the reason for my father’s concern. I couldn’t stop crying, but no tears ran down my face. Everything was drying up in that desert.
I sobbed, “It would kill Adam to go back like that. I know it.”
“He’s barely awake son,” Pa explained, still stroking the fringes of my hair. He held the canteen to my lips, as if I were a child. “He needs to sleep. To rest. He won’t remember how he got back to town.”
“He’ll remember. Please Pa,” I said, the reality of it hitting me hard inside. I drank deeply from the canteen, as though I could ever get enough, and pulled myself away. We needed to save the rest for Adam. He needed it more than I did.
For once, I knew what my brother would have wanted and was determined that my will would win out this time. Adam used to complain that I always got my way with Pa, like a coddled child. This time, I knew he’d approve of me doing whatever it took to win my point. I could see the determination drain from my father’s face. I was beginning to change his mind. Pa sighed and looked back at Hoss who nodded grimly. He’d do what I asked, if only to pacify me and get us all out of the sun.
As it turned out, we managed to get Adam to Salt Flats without going back for the travois. He rode in front of Hoss for the entire ride, half awake, and I imagine it was an ordeal for both of them. But there was no way I would let them drag Adam home across the desert. Not unless they planned on dragging me, as well.
It was the dead of the night before we made it into town, the moon a perfect circle tossing shadows across the desert. Under its light, we could see miles of shrub and cactus and the mountains glowed white in the distance, as if they were covered with snow. The sight might have been beautiful, but none of us had an eye for beauty any more. In the thin air of the desert, the coldness was especially sharp and it bit through what was left of our clothing. I could see Adam shivering, even under the comfort of Hoss’ jacket. The night air seemed to goad us for all the times we cursed the scorching heat of the day. First we were so hot our blood seemed to boil under our skin. An hour later, we were so cold our eyes ached when we blinked, and it seemed like we’d never be warm again. It was hard to believe we’d ever be comfortable again.
The night we spent in town is a blur in my mind, and now I can remember only a few details of it. We tried to get some sleep, the four of us packed in the one small room the town had to offer. Pa had a tub brought into the room, and we took turns with it. It hurt deep in my chest to remember the last time I took a bath on the day Adam left Eastgate, which seemed a lifetime ago. To Pa’s dismay, my oldest brother didn’t sleep at all. He sat in a chair by the window, staring out at the moon, his hand pressed against the glass as if he could draw heat from it. He hardly even looked at us, and he never spoke.
How different he was from the brother who teased me while I took a bath, who was so sure of the world and his place in it. He’d been absolutely convinced he could never be in Obadiah’s shoes. After all, Adam never lost control of a situation and certainly never lost control of himself. He had no problem letting me know all about that.
Perched the edge of the bed, I watched and waited as Hoss snored, Pa tossed on the bed next to him, and Adam stared out at that moonlit night. I was exhausted, but I didn’t sleep either. I couldn’t risk a nightmare in the confines of that small room. So I thought back to when Adam and I arrived at the town of Eastgate. I remembered sitting in the tub, cheerfully scrubbing off the miles of trail dust, and talking with Adam about the impending trial of Obadiah Johnson. Adam seemed completely uninterested in the prospect of watching a murder trial. After all, he argued, the verdict was all but certain. The man confessed. Case closed. Trial over. If a man was guilty, he’d hang. Right was right and wrong was wrong. It was a matter of simple logic. What could be interesting about that?
“Only one person could drive me to murder,” he told me. When I asked him who that was, he shoved my head under the cooling suds of water and exclaimed, “You!”
Now after more than twenty years of living with older brothers, I admit I should have seen that one coming. I sucked in water through my nose and my mouth and came up sputtering, but Adam’s laugh and dive for cover almost made me laugh too. I just about hit him with the brush I hurled across the room. Thinking back on it, I couldn’t help but wish I’d launched myself out of the tub right then and there and tackled him before he had the chance to get out the door. Wish I got him wet and bothered enough that he’d forget all about heading off on his own out into the desert, alone. Wish I’d done anything to knock him off the path that led him to Peter Kane.
I sighed and looked hard at Adam as he sat by the window. The light from the moon was blue and distorted Adam’s face into shadows. He looked like someone who wasn’t from this world at all, who was just passing through, like he didn’t belong to us any more. I just wanted to hear his voice, to hear him tell me that things would be all right again.
“Adam,” I whispered in the small room, careful not to wake Pa or Hoss. They’d need all the sleep they could get for the long day’s journey that was ahead of us. “Adam, can you hear me? Is there anything I can do? Can I help?”
He didn’t look at me and he sure didn’t answer, but the hand against the window tightened into a fist, and I believed he was thinking it over. After a long moment, he let out the breath he’d been holding since I spoke and leaned his forehead against the grime-caked window. I had broken into his solitude. He stared out onto the waste places of the earth, and I wondered if he would give himself over to it, to the loneliness and desolation that the desert has always offered men who just can’t live with other people anymore.
Neither of us slept that night.
We left town early the next day, as soon as Pa could get a doctor to pronounce Adam fit to travel, in body at least, if not in mind. We didn’t talk much that morning. Adam’s silence was contagious. None of us had the stomach for conversation anymore. We rode out as far out as a couple miles, before turning back to buy a wagon from the livery. It quickly became apparent that Adam didn’t have the strength to sit a horse for the long ride back to the Ponderosa. We considered renting a rig instead, but none of us wanted to return to Salt Flats to bring it back. The town would always bear the memory of our grim reunion, after Pa received my telegram reporting that Adam was probably bushwhacked and lying dead, somewhere in the desert. We would not go back there again. So we paid the livery owner three times what the wagon was worth and got out of that town, like the Devil himself was on our tail. And all things considered, I suppose he was.
We decided to take turns riding with Adam. The splintered wagon seat was lopsided with broken springs, and it made its occupants bounce ridiculously over the rough desert terrain. I was the last to take my turn driving the wagon. I said that I wanted Pa and Hoss to have some relief from their days in the saddle, but there was more to it than that. The truth was that I preferred the company of my horse to being alone with Adam. The look on Adam’s face had been telling me that there were worse things than being alone. The memory of Kane’s face had not surrendered its hold on me, and I knew full well that it still held Adam.
Finally, Pa insisted I take the wagon. We were running low on water. The desert sun was taking its toll, and we needed to drink more than we expected just to keep going. After my breakdown the day before, he was looking for any sign that I might be falling apart again, and I figure he thought it would be less wearing on me to be sitting in the wagon. Before he mounted, Pa stood beside me for a moment, holding the back of his hand against my forehead and trying to gauge whether I was running a fever. Finally, he sighed and turned to Hoss, who waited on his horse. I also looked up at my biggest brother and realized it had been weeks since I’d seen Hoss smile. Although shadowed by his hat, the lines on his face looked permanent, like the sun had etched them. We’d all changed so much in so little time.
“I don’t know,” Pa said to Hoss, as if I wasn’t standing right next to them. “I don’t feel a fever, but it’s hard to tell in this heat. He could be burning up, for all I know. He almost killed himself yesterday from lack of water, and I don’t like the look in his eyes. Something’s not right.”
I rolled my eyes at Hoss hoping to get a smile, and I pulled myself up onto the buckboard, taking my seat next to Adam. I had submitted to Pa’s worrying because I knew that he couldn’t fuss over the son he was most worried about and that I proved an easy substitute. Adam hadn’t spoken to us at all, since we left Kane’s body behind in the desert. He didn’t even seem to see us anymore. He just stared through us, looking ahead toward visions the rest of us couldn’t see. The doctor in Salt Flats told us there was no telling when he would come back to his right mind, or if he ever would come back at all. He said the mind was a tricky thing and once lost, it might never be found. That was too upsetting for Pa to even think about, so he had been fretting over me instead. I let him do it. I’d always been good at giving my father something to worry about.
“We’ll be fine, Pa,” I said and tipped my hat to him. I forced a smile on my face and reached for the canteen behind the seat. “See, I’m already drinking, and I’ll be sure that Adam drinks enough too. Don’t worry. I can take care of him. I’ll keep him safe. Pa, I promise I will.”
“You see you take of yourself as well, young man,” Pa said sternly, but then he looked kindly at both of us and smiled. I realized that it was the first time I’d seen Pa smile since Adam and I left the Ponderosa. The smile made me realize how parched I was for the smallest sign that things would be all right. This smallest trickle of hope flowed over me, like a spring in the desert.
“Hey Pa,” Hoss said, crinkling his forehead as he squinted past us at the road ahead. “I’m just thinking. Joe and I once passed through a town about ten miles up the canyon, right past those foothills. Can’t remember the name no more, but I’m sure there was a place to stay the night. What do you say that we ride ahead and get things ready? Joe can drive Adam in the wagon and meet us there. Besides, you know we’re running low on water. Let’s face it, Pa. I’m not sure there’s enough left for all of us to make it, if we don’t head back in a hurry. It’s a rough road, but Joe’s a good driver. I reckon he can handle it.”
I smiled at Hoss and his confidence in me, and this time I didn’t have to force the smile. I certainly remembered the last time we stayed in that poor excuse for a town. With too many refills of beers and too many games of poker, we’d left the next morning with pounding heads and empty pockets, but my oh my, we’d had a good time. I wondered if there were good times to be had with either one of my brothers in the days to come.
“You go ahead,” I said, and as if to support me, Adam took a long draw from the canteen. He’d been waiting in the wagon so quietly we were already beginning to forget he was there. “Adam and I’ll be fine. We’ll see you soon.”
“I don’t like it,” Pa said in a tight voice. “But you’re right about the water. All right Hoss. We’ll ride ahead. But we’ll give them our extra canteens.”
They each untied a canteen and secured them to the back of the wagon. Pa nodded and gave Adam and I one lingering, last look before spurring on his horse. They rode away from us then, and I watched their backs for a long time, until their outlines finally faded into the shimmering heat. It was a strange thing about the desert, I thought to myself, as we clattered after them in the wagon. The real and the unreal could become so easily distorted. Adam always said it was false perspective that made everything seem so wildly out of balance. He said it was the mix of light and air, color and shadow in the desert that could confuse the judgment of even the most experienced man.
As I sat there on the buckboard, even making sense of distance became a puzzle to me. My father and brother seemed miles away already and the far away mountains seemed just a stone’s throw from us. I tried to focus my attention on the road ahead but I couldn’t resist another look back. I knew it was just one of the desert’s old tricks, but the place where we left Kane’s body seemed to be getting closer, not further away. It was an illusion. I knew that in my mind, yet all the same, I could swear that Kane was gaining on us.
I shook the reins and urged the horses to move faster. Sweat streamed down my forehead and stung my eyes. Adam was hot too, but he didn’t seem to notice. He certainly didn’t complain about it. When the sweat dripped into his eyes, he didn’t wipe it away. I leaned across the seat and tugged at his hat, tipping it lower over his face to try to give him some protection from the sun.
It was a misery of a ride, this last stretch of desert reaching gradually up toward the foothills. It was also the first time I’d been alone with Adam, since we’d found him dragging Kane. I was used to long stretches of silence when it came to my oldest brother. He often needed time to be alone with his own thoughts. I, on the other hand, usually needed to hear my own thoughts talking. At times, his need for quiet and my need for conversation put us at odds with each other, although I had learned pretty early in life to seek out Hoss or Pa, when I just wanted to talk. However, when a serious decision was at hand, it was Adam that I sought out. I knew I could always count on him to give me his honest opinion, whether I chose to take that opinion or not. On this journey, we were of the same mind, what little of it we had left. Neither of us had much of anything to say that could be said out loud.
Hoss wasn’t kidding when he said the road would be rough. What Hoss called a “road” was nothing but trackless desert, blotched with scrub and cactus, and was nearly impossible to drive a wagon across. Adam winced every time the wagon jerked over a rut, and I had to stop the horses and get out and push several times, when the wagon wheels got stuck in a drift of sand. Adam didn’t seem to hear me when I told him to go lie down in the back of the rig. If he heard me, he certainly didn’t do what I said. But it was obvious enough he was hurting and was already slumping on the seat, and I didn’t know how much more traveling he could take.
That was what I told myself, but the truth be told, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I was tired and hot and scared and even though Adam sat beside me, I couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone in my life. I was uneasy in my mind. The memory of Kane’s face made me want to get away. I longed to leave the desert behind and that desire started to sweep over me, like a blizzard of sand in my face. I wanted to be home at the Ponderosa again and feel the warm mountain air against my skin, to smell the pines riding home on a summer evening, and to sleep in my own bed like I’d never been away. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that we might not be making it home this time.
So, when I made the decision to take the rig through the canyon that ran alongside the main road, I should have known better, but I had my reasons. Adam would have told me I was crazy, none too gently, if he’d been in his right mind himself. I’d traveled through the desert throughout my life and had been taught to exercise caution by my father and my brothers. Of course, I’d heard stories, about the sudden desert storms that could come on so violently, especially during the hottest part of the summer. Pa always said people died when the old stories weren’t taken seriously.
I reined the horses to a stop at the foot of the arroyo and took notice of the smooth floor of it that snaked down from the foothills. There were hundreds of such canyons, crossing like Indian etchings all over the desert. These canyons were a testament to the power of water, to the ability of water to find the path of least resistance. The floods that swept through this part of the desert were fierce and legendary. But I looked off into the distance. Ahead of us, I could see miles of canyons snaking to the mountains, above it all, open sky. Not a cloud in sight.
The floor of the arroyo was worn by the thousands of years of running water flowing over it. Now, it was as dry as bones, flat and polished basalt, seemingly created for a rig like ours to pass through, as prettily as you please. I knew the canyon fairly well. Hoss and I had explored it years ago on a horse-buying trip, and I knew there was a gentle bank, miles ahead, that a wagon could handle to get back to the road. I looked ahead at the rugged terrain we were facing, and it was too great a temptation. Even with the extra canteens, our water supply was running lower than I liked, and there was usually water to be found in the higher elevations of a canyon, where springs and water holes were hidden in the crevices of the rocks.
It was a risk I was taking, there was no doubt about it. I wished I could talk to Adam and hear what he had to say. I turned to my brother and I tried to draw out his opinion.
“Adam,” I said. “We’re heading into a rough section ahead. I was thinking of driving us through the canyon. I think we could make it. It’d be a much smoother ride, and we’d catch up to Pa and Hoss a whole lot quicker. What do you think we should do?”
I held the reins steady, waiting in vain for Adam to answer. The wind blew grit and sand into my eyes, and I could feel the emotions of the past few weeks settle into my bones until they ached. I looked at my brother’s profile and couldn’t explain what it was that I saw. There was no anger, no sadness, and no sorrow. No exasperating sense of humor timed just right to irritate me. It was as if Adam had left the core of himself behind with Kane. The desert had stripped away everything I knew to be true about my brother.
Sitting there, remembering, I suddenly thought of Adam’s best friend Ross and the sickness that took over his soul, a couple years back. The man had changed, seemingly overnight, and become someone that nobody knew anymore. A stranger. It was as if evil had infected him, made him hot and feverish with sin and temptation that he didn’t want to fight. When it was over, the soul sickness had killed his wife and others and finally ended his life. Adam said Ross only came back to himself in the end, when it was already too late.
I wondered if Ross had been exposed to evil and let it get into his soul the way that Kane’s face had tried to creep into mine. Something had happened to my brother. Had Adam fought against that evil only to have it damage him too much to live in the world? I didn’t know the answer to the question, but I thought of Doc Martin and the Reverend back in Virginia City. I wanted to find someone to give me those answers, and I wasn’t about to let us get stuck out here, before I could get back and ask them.
“You’re going to be fine, Adam,” I said, and patted his shoulder. “I promise you, I’m going to get you home, and everything will be just fine.”
I flicked the reins, and we headed down into the arroyo. At once, the ride was smoother, the sand and grit gone, the sun less fierce across our face and our backs. As we rode along, I admired the walls of the canyon. It had a harsh kind of beauty up close. The rocks were a wild mix of colors. Pinks and purples and reds, mixed with white quartz. The water that had formed the canyon had stripped everything else away.
As I drove the wagon across the smooth floor, I became mindful of the clouds that had rolled in so suddenly. One minute the sky was clear and almost yellow from the mesa dust that was constantly kicked up from the wind. The clouds were a relief at first, a break from the sun. But within the hour, the sky was black and ominous, churning with clouds, like it could break apart at any moment. The air almost smelled wet. It smelled a lot like danger.
We were still at least a mile away from where I hoped to exit the canyon. A little too late, I realized I had chosen an unwise course for my brother and I. Shaking my head at my recklessness, I wondered how long I would have stayed alive in this world, without my family to rescue me from my own foolish choices. This time, however, it was not just my own life I had endangered. Adam sat next to me on the buckboard, still staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to any threat of danger. It seemed so unthinkable that after all he’d gone through and survived, he could end up dying from my bad decision.
I urged the horses on faster, but it was too late. Lightning cracked across the ground above, and then the sky exploded. Lightning fell all around, the thunder crashed simultaneously. I looked over at Adam and wanted to shout at him, to shake him, to ask him what to do. But he was gone to this world and all of its problems. This was a disaster of my own making and mine alone to solve. I whipped the reins against the horses’ necks, yelling at them over the pounding thunder. They were frightened and galloped erratically across the floor of the canyon. Our progress was frenetic, at best. Not for the first time, I was unsure if we were going to make it home.
Then it started to rain. A couple hours earlier, the rain would have been a blessing, an answer to prayers I’d whispered in the desert. Now trapped in a canyon, with no clear escape, the rain could most likely kill us. I could see the waves of rain pounding down, heavier in front of us. It meant that more water was on its way, would be flowing down the mountain.
I could barely see Adam through the torrents of rain. Rivulets were flowing off of our hats, down our faces. An ominous flow of water had started pouring down the floor of the canyon. I had no time to think. I had to make my mistake right again. I reined the horses to a stop and grabbed Adam’s arm. I pulled him off of the wagon, almost knocking him off balance.
“Adam, listen to me,” I yelled, and I shook him by his shoulders. His eyes, remote for so long, seemed to focus. For a moment, I could almost pretend that he knew me again.
Summoning every bit of authority I could muster into my younger brother voice, I shouted, “Adam, climb! Start climbing now!”
I pushed him hard toward the wall of the canyon, and to my amazement, he started to climb up a pile of boulders that lined the canyon. I exhaled in absolute relief, even as rain began to fill my boots. There was no way I was going to let my brother die for my foolish decision. I would do anything I could to save him.
Climb, I urged him in my mind. Climb fast. Don’t look back.
I watched and waited until I was satisfied he was out of danger, even though I was losing time. I allowed myself to marvel that even when the mind shut down, the body retained its instinct to live. Adam might be lost to us still, but he was going to survive. I shook myself and told myself to keep moving. I reckoned I was in some kind of shock. It was time to start thinking things through, if I had any hope of staying alive.
I swamped back in swirling water to the wagon and fumbled until I found a knife with the supplies. I turned my attention to the horses and struggled to cut the traces to free them from the wagon. My hands were slick and trembling in the rain, and the knife kept slipping in my fingers. The water was rising fast. It was already above my knees. It was red and thick with sediment, the color and texture of congealed blood, and I could feel the fierceness of the water like it wanted nothing more than to carry me away with it. I’d never felt water moving with such power, and I felt it rising and pulling against my body. It pulled like it wanted to break me apart. I looked up to the rim and could not see Adam any more. That was good. He made it to the top. It meant he was safe. I could have cried, when I realized that was all I really wanted.
With one final jerk of the knife, I managed to cut the traces. I turned to the horses, yelled, “Get” and thumped them hard on their rump. I waved my arms and yelled some more to get them moving, but it really wasn’t necessary. They seemed to know how much trouble we were in, and they were soon running and scrambling up a gradual incline of canyon wall, not too far ahead. Now I needed to save myself as well. The section of rock that Adam had climbed had already crumbled away.
Out of breath, I stopped for a moment, and considered my situation. Water was pounding from everywhere, the sky, down the canyon walls, even seemed to be erupting from the ground. I felt like I was losing all perspective of time. Everything had just changed so dramatically. Hadn’t it been minutes ago when I was sitting in the wagon with Adam, glad to be out of the sun? With a roar, the water seemed to rise all at once. A rock careened into me and ripped my shirt in half. I felt the gash it left and my blood flowing into the water. I almost lost my footing with the pain, and I threw myself onto a pile of fallen boulders, grabbing hold of a rock and holding onto it like it was my life. I could no longer stand on the floor of the canyon. The wagon was breaking apart. Soon it would wash away completely and be swept out with the debris of the desert.
You’ve got to climb, I told myself, get out of the mess you’re in. I tried not to think about the possibility that it might already be too late.
I began to climb. My legs were pushing against the currents of water, and I could feel the power of it. I felt like it could break my bones. My hands grabbed for handhold after handhold, and I could feel the rocks abrading my palms, scraping them bloody and raw. Blood ran into the water from my hands, my chest, my face. As I climbed higher, the water climbed with me. It chased me, pulled me off center, threw off my sense of direction. I could barely tell which way was up any more.
Again and again, I repeated to myself, Adam is safe. You saved Adam. It was a litany, useless perhaps, and I didn’t even know if it was true. But it was a story I wanted to tell myself. It might not have a happy ending, but it was a story that made me want to live.
As the flood thundered around me, I felt the desert explode in sound and rain. Strangely, I did not feel afraid. I felt like I had already won. The sky had cracked open, and everything had gone wrong, and yet Adam and I had not stopped fighting. He had chosen to live, and I had lived to see it. Neither of us had given up. Every wrong had not been made right, but evil had not won over us yet.
My hand touched the top of the canyon rim. With amazement, I realized there was a chance I might still live through the day. As my hand trembled and reached for a better grip, I saw him. I saw Adam’s face looking down at me. The whole world had turned into a roar of wind and water, but I could see his lips forming my name. His hand reached down for me, and the relief I felt had nothing to do with being saved. I reached for my brother’s hand and before I could grab it, the world seemed to be crashing down onto me. Sand, branches, rocks, silt, all the debris from the mountains was tumbling down and I had no choice but to go with it. The desert was staking its claim on me.
I felt my hand slip from Adam’s, but I did not feel afraid, even as I fell. It was a joy to live a life that really mattered. The water had saved us, after all. The water washed over my head, a red, salty swirling, and my last thought before closing my eyes was this: My brother would be all right. He had decided to come back to the world.
When the world roared back in, I was aware of its violence. I felt a pounding in my ears and against my back and chest, and I thought it was the water, still trying to have its way with me. But the ground was hard underneath me and did not seem to be moving. I could not remember how to breathe, the rain seemed to have settled in my chest, and I just wanted to return to the comfort of darkness. The pounding continued, however, making me cough and retch. My lungs ached with the effort of breathing air again. I just wanted to go to sleep.
Then I heard it. Softly at first, quiet beneath the thunder and the rain, but then loud and insistent. Someone was calling my name.
It took more than human effort, but by an act of will alone, I forced myself to open my eyes. The world had turned to water, was awash in it, yet I had not been washed away. My body was intact, not in pieces at the bottom of the canyon. I was sitting, held upright by strong, familiar arms. And behind me, Adam was pounding my back with his fists. And he was calling my name.
Again I retched to the side, I could feel my stomach heaving, and I gasped with the pain of it. Red water, blood, and sediment, flowing out, and Adam held me steady until it was out of me. The desert had released its hold on both of us.
I was crying and didn’t realize it. Adam had his arm around me and was whispering, “Steady boy. I’ve got you. You’re going to be all right.”
He didn’t know I wasn’t crying from fear or pain. Adam had come back to save me. He had saved himself as well. I looked at him and saw he was crying too. Adam never cried. But this wasn’t crying like before when we first found him. These tears were absolutely sane, and they ran down his face and mixed with the rain.
As suddenly as the rain began, it ended. Other than the flood below, the only proof we had of it was our battered, bloody bodies, beaten up by the water against the rocks. I figured my arm was broken by the crazy angle of it and the jaw clenching pain it gave me, every time I tried to move it at all. Adam had a wide gash across his cheek and the blood ran down his neck, but he had stopped crying and so had I.
We collapsed onto the sand and let the sun dry out what was left of our clothing. As I lay there breathing hard in pain, in my mind I followed the trajectory of the water. It would flow back towards the desert towards the place we had laid Kane’s body to rest. It would wash away the stones that covered Kane’s body. It would strip away all the rot and the decay and leave nothing behind but smooth, polished bones. They would be scattered upon the sand. The desert would take care of the rest. Kane’s face was gone from the memory of the world, and Adam and I could forget it as well.
We would have to get up soon. The sun would have no sympathy for our injuries. I would have been more concerned over our predicament, but I knew Pa and Hoss would be riding back to look for us. There was no way Pa would trust that we were fine, after that storm.
As we gazed down across the flooded canyon, old words welled up in my mind. The sound of Pa’s voice at the dinner table seeped into my memory and rose over the thunder of the water. I remembered Pa reading the words many times from his old bound Bible, worn from years of constant use.
I said the words out loud, and my voice was surprisingly strong.
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you…”
I paused to catch my breath, and Adam finished it for me. His voice carried clearly over the sound of water.
He said, “… For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust…”
Then we were quiet. And we lay back for a while, weak-limbed and numb, on the edge of the canyon rim, listening to the roar of the water. After a while, we leaned over and dipped our hands in it and washed out our wounds. And the water rushed on, oblivious to our blood and pain, washing all impurities out to the desert. We sat and watched it pass by.