Summary: When Joe is trapped and facing what they believe will mean certain death, Adam’s heroic refusal to let go sets him on a heart-wrenching and soul-searching journey it takes Hoss to sort out. Excerpt: “And if the measure of a man’s worth in this life was in how much he refused to let go, then both Pa and Adam were worth more than Hoss could count”.
Word Count: 11,300
Hold on to me
Hold me close and hold me near
Breathe assurance in my ear
Hold on to me
When you hold me I believe
That maybe love is all I need
*Tyrone Wells, “Hold On”
Water. It was all around him. It was everything. Adam Cartwright’s world had become an endless river, fed by the relentless rain. For a long while — hours? days? — -he had tried to reach outward in his thoughts, silently praying for rescue. In time, he had come to accept the futility of the effort. That was when he’d begun instead to look to dreams of a warm fire and a dry bed. But the dreams were as useless as the prayers. Neither had stopped the rain, and it was too late now to even pretend to have hope.
So this is how it ends, Adam realized. The only question left was whether it would be drowning or the cold that would finally stop his heart.
He wondered for the thousandth time whether his young brother, Little Joe, was still breathing. He could no longer tell. Of course, it really didn’t matter. He was not about to let go. If he pulled away, even for an instant, Joe would slip beneath the water. Adam refused to let that happen. His sole purpose for being there, for enduring the sodden chill that had worked itself right into his bones, had been to keep Joe breathing — at least until his own breathing stopped.
Shivering through another frigid spasm, Adam readjusted his grip on his brother and then closed his eyes, searching one more time for that warm, dry bed. He could almost touch it, could almost smell pine logs burning in the hearth, until the crack of another lightning strike — this one perhaps a mile away — jolted him back. The storm was finally moving into the distance. The rain itself was not. It would stay with them through the night — longer, certainly, than Adam could hope to hold on.
I’m sorry, Joe, he said into the storm of his thoughts.
If Adam had Pa’s good sense, he would have insisted they stay at the logging camp, letting the storm pass rather than trying to outrun it. But clearly he didn’t have Pa’s good sense. Although they’d ridden fast — dangerously fast — the fastest horse alive would never have been able to outrun that storm. They’d been caught in the thick of it. When a bright flash of lightning had struck with a resounding bang! Cochise had stumbled, throwing Joe right into the path of the stricken tree and then pinning his arm to the rocks.
If Adam had Hoss’ strength, he might have been able to move the tree, but he’d quickly learned he didn’t stand a chance. Nor had he been able to gain enough leverage to shift the log the slightest bit; the rain had been too thick and too steady, making the ground slick and his efforts useless, particularly in the absence of the horses, both had disappeared.
While he’d worked, he’d kept a close watch on the water gradually filling the niche created by the tree and the surrounding rocks. A puddle had quickly become a pond. Too quickly.
“Go on, Adam!” Joe had cried out. “Get out of here! You can’t move it yourself! You need help!”
He’d been right, so Adam had stopped his efforts. He’d stopped and watched while Joe tried twisting himself around, struggling to maneuver his other arm into a position that would hold him above the rising flood.
“I’ll never make it back it time,” Adam had shouted back.
“Just…just go, Adam.” Joe hadn’t bothered shouting then — because he’d known Adam was right. There really hadn’t been any hope. None at all. If Adam had gone for help…in that rain…on foot…it would have taken hours. Joe would have been lucky to hold that contorted position for more than ten minutes. The way the water had been rising, he would have drowned before Adam was even halfway home.
“Go on, Adam,” Joe had called out again. “Go!”
Adam had cast a quick look around, one last time, for any sign of the horses. Seeing nothing, he’d wondered if perhaps they might make their own way home, alerting Pa and Hoss that Adam and Joe needed help — although even if they did, their tracks would quickly be washed away with that rain. There would be nothing for Hoss to track.
Adam could still see the way Joe had started sputtering when the water had reached his mouth. The choice had been made for him in that moment. Adam had stepped into the newly formed pond and sat down, working his legs beneath Joe’s good shoulder and positioning his arms beneath Joe’s head.
“I thought I told you to get out of here.” Joe’s voice had barely been audible in the downpour.
“Now you know what it’s like for me every time I tell you to do something.”
Joe had smiled — perhaps the last good thing Adam would ever see. Not long after that, Joe had closed his eyes. Now, Adam sat shivering, wondering whether his brother was still breathing and when his own breathing would stop.
Maybe Hoss and his pa had both lost their own good sense, because good sense would have had them wait until the rain let up; but Hoss’ gut told him they were doing exactly what they needed to do. From the moment Sam Walker had come knocking on their door, Hoss had known there was only one thing he could do, rain be damned. He had to ride out and help his brothers.
“Boys found ’em wanderin’, Mr. Cartwright,” Sam had said. “Both the pinto and the chestnut. But there was no riders.”
“No riders?” Pa’s voice had been thick with the same icy fear that had taken Hoss’ breath. “They didn’t see Adam or Joe?”
“No, sir, Mr. Cartwright. They looked what they could, but seems them horses been wanderin’ a while. I told the boys to stable ’em. Ain’t right for a good horse to be out in this rain.”
“Thank you,” Pa had answered before turning his concerned gaze to Hoss.
As soon as he’d been able to swallow enough air to speak, Hoss had called Sam back. “Could you saddle up our horses?”
“Cain’t ride in this rain!” Sam had argued.
“We got to, and you know it. And saddle up a couple extras while you’re at it.” After all, he’d figured Joe and Adam would need fresh mounts, right?
Now Hoss and his pa were out there in that downpour, following instinct alone because they stood no chance at all of recognizing whatever path those horses had taken home.
Pa had tried to put some sense to the decision early on. He’d talked about there being no point risking good horses on a slick trail without having any real knowledge where Hoss’ brothers had been waylaid. But there had been no conviction behind the speech. They’d just been words –words Pa must have felt he had some sort of an obligation to say. Truth was, Pa had needed to be out there every bit as much as Hoss.
And they were following a path alright. It just wasn’t a path marked by any sort of visible tracks. Instead, it was marked somehow on their hearts, or in their guts, or maybe both. Hoss knew his pa saw it too — or felt it. The path they followed, they followed together, without need for words or explanations. When they finally came upon Adam and Joe, it was as though they’d been guided there. And they might easily have ridden right on by without taking any notice. Both Adam and Little Joe were just as still and as water-sodden as every tree, rock and bit of scrub brush that surrounded them — as though they were just another part of the rain-soaked woods. But…it was the strangest thing. A crow had started cawing, and wouldn’t stop. Its persistence had pulled Hoss’ gaze, and Pa’s too. They rode together toward the racket, and then, scanning the rocks for the critter, Hoss’ eyes landed on Adam instead.
Hoss’ older brother was sitting still as can be in a puddle of water deep enough to hide every bit of him except his chest and shoulders. As bad as it was to see that, Hoss’ heart skipped a beat or two when he caught a glimpse of someone else, just a face, barely reaching above the water.
The world went silent for a long while as Hoss and his pa both stared, open mouthed and horrified at the sight of his two brothers. The crow slipped away without notice. Even the rain lost its edge, seeming insignificant.
When Pa dismounted, Hoss peeled his fingers from the tight grip he’d given his reins and stepped into the water, ready as he could be but not ready at all to face what he thought he might have to.
They ain’t dead. Hoss repeated the silent plea a dozen times in the quiet chaos of his thoughts. They couldn’t possibly be dead, neither one of them. He just wouldn’t accept it. He wouldn’t accept it at all. With that resolve, he reached for Little Joe as his pa reached for Adam.
“No!” Adam shouted in a voice too rough and full of gravel to be his own.
“Can’t move,” Adam added, weakly. “Hoss!” he shouted then. “The tree!”
Hoss looked to the log beside them; and then, reaching down into the water, he discovered what Adam was all fired up about. Joe was trapped. Adam’s grip was the only thing keeping him above the water.
The log might as well have been a boulder. Or a mountain. It wouldn’t budge. If it wasn’t already heavy enough on its own, the raw wood beneath the bark had been soaking up water, making it heavier still. The fact it was wedged into the rocks didn’t help matters any. It was no wonder Adam couldn’t move it — no wonder at all Hoss’ older brother had felt the only thing he could do was set himself in that water the way he did.
“I just don’t know, Pa.” Hands on his hips, Hoss stared at the position of the log. “If rope’ll hold, we could try the horses. I wish I could be sure they’d get enough footing.”
As it turned out, one horse was able to get enough traction and enough leverage to move the log, at least a small bit. Trouble was, that small bit jerked Joe away from Adam, pulling him beneath the surface.
“Hoss!” Adam cried out. “Pull back!”
“Whoa!” Hoss shouted, urging the horse to back up. And then he watched in horror as Adam struggled to regain his grip on his young brother. He just couldn’t seem to do it.
Holding the horse’s reins to keep it still, Hoss knew he wasn’t doing hardly enough to help out. He also knew he was doing what he must.
“Joe!” Adam cried out weakly, over and over again, until Pa grabbed him, practically throwing him out of the way to take up his oldest son’s position in the water.
In an instant Pa had Joe in his own hands. “Breathe son! Come on! Breathe!”
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Adam sobbed, leaning into the rocks behind him. “I couldn’t … I couldn’t….”
“Adam!” Pa shouted back. “You did all you could. You’ve been in the water too long. Your hands, they must be numb by now.”
“It’s alright, Adam!” Though the words might have been gentle, the tone was not. Hoss knew it wasn’t because Pa was angry. It was more like Pa was scared. He was more scared of losing Little Joe than he was worried about Adam’s frame of mind.
“It’s alright, Adam,” Pa said again, soft enough this time to let Hoss believe Joe really was breathing.
“Pa?” Hoss called out.
“Go ahead,” Pa answered a moment later. “Try again.”
“Angle it a little more to your left. That ought to do it.”
This time Hoss kept his eye more on the log than the horse. When it started to drag Joe under again, Pa moved right along with it, keeping Joe above the water and tugging at his arm until he was finally able to pull it free.
“That’s enough, Hoss!” Pa called out without needing to — Hoss was already saying his silent thanks to Heaven itself.
The ride home was the toughest Hoss had ever experienced. Adam, numb and shivering, could sit a horse but he could not hold the reins. Instead, Hoss took them for him and guided Adam’s horse along with his own. With Joe it was worse. His arm was a mess. When Hoss first saw the angle it had been twisted into, his stomach lurched. He was thankful Joe couldn’t feel it. At least, not yet. Whether due to the cold or the pain — or, more likely, both — Joe wasn’t showing any signs of waking up just yet. They were able to pull his shoulder back into place without having to make Joe suffer much. He moaned a bit here and there, but for the most part he was pretty quiet. Unfortunately, more was wrong with that arm than they could even begin to patch up out there in the rain. So Pa took Joe onto his own mount just as he was, and held to him tight as could be until they finally got him home — all the while leading the fourth, rider-less horse.
It was well past nightfall by the time they made it back. Hoss and his pa both started hollering toward the bunkhouse, calling for the hands before they’d come to a stop. Sam went right away to help Pa with Little Joe. Hoss, figuring he’d be fine on his own with Adam, reached up to help his brother from the saddle. He was relieved to see Adam wasn’t shivering anymore. Then he noticed Adam wasn’t doing much of anything anymore. Seeming half asleep, Adam acted as though he couldn’t quite follow what Hoss was saying.
“Hey, Mike!” Hoss called out toward the group of men who had followed Sam out of the bunkhouse. “Give me a hand, will you?”
Together they pulled Adam from the saddle and half dragged him into the house and right on up the stairs to his bedroom. From there it was mayhem, with Pa yelling downstairs for Hop Sing to heat up some water, Hop Sing yelling back in Chinese, Sam calling out to the boys for someone to fetch Doc Martin, all while Hoss was working with Mike to get Adam into something dry so they could focus on warming him up.
Hoss wasn’t quite sure when everything went still, yet at some point it did. Adam and Joe were both piled high in blankets, and Joe’s arm had been cleaned up as well as they could manage. It was looking mighty raw; Joe must’ve been trying real hard to pull it free, scraping it against the bark of that tree every which way. His jacket probably saved him from ripping some of the skin clean off. On top of that, from the feel of things, there was one sure break and maybe two smaller fractures in Joe’s forearm. The doc would have a lot of work ahead of him by the time he got there.
But for the time being, the house had gone still, giving Hoss and his pa both a chance to get their own selves warm and dry. Now the two of them sat together in the great room downstairs, sipping coffee, each quietly focused on the crackling flames in a freshly stoked fire. When Hoss found himself wondering if this was the calm before a different kind of storm, he let himself at least accept it was a comfort to know everyone was right where they needed to be. He was thankful too that the bunkhouse was fully occupied with good men who were both willing and able to give them the kind of help they’d needed that night. Taking a deep breath, he leaned back in his chair and let his eyelids slip closed.
Adam’s shout pulled Joe back to the surface. He gasped in a lungful of air and then coughed it back out again, throwing his good arm wide to push himself up out of the water. The action freed his trapped arm, awakening it to agonies that had somehow been suppressed by the weight of the tree. He turned, and then began thrashing, trying every position he could to ease the pain. All he managed to do was make it worse still. Black spots and blinding flashes greeted him as he opened his eyes, and stayed with him as he shivered from the cold that had settled deep within him.
“Adam,” Joe whispered. “Help me. Please.”
This time Adam’s voice pulled Joe into a new reality. He could no longer feel Adam’s legs beneath him. Instead, there was a softness he could hardly comprehend. And his breathing…it was no longer wet. The rain was gone, the puddle…gone. He was….
Joe lay still, waiting for the black spots to fade as he tried to relax his breaths. He was home? How?
He began to hear other voices. Pa was shouting Adam’s name. Hoss was, too. And as his own room slowly began to come into view, Joe smiled despite the pain. He was home!
“Adam!” Pa took hold of Adam’s shoulders and pressed him down against the bed. “Adam! It’s alright, son!”
“Joe!” Adam rasped much more softly than he had only moments earlier. “I’ve got to get…. I’ve got to help….”
“Adam!” Hoss shouted as loud as he could. “Joe’s fine. You hear me? He’s just fine!”
Adam started coughing. It was a deep, hacking sound that Hoss didn’t like at all. Hoss watched as Pa shifted his efforts, reaching his arm behind Adam’s back to pull him up rather than pushing him down.
“Easy, son,” Pa comforted. “Easy now.”
Moments later, Adam took a slow, rattle-sounding breath.
“Pa?” He blinked and then lifted his gaze.
“It’s alright, son. You’re home now. You’re both home, you and Joe. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
Adam closed his eyes and took another shaky breath. The creases in his forehead and in the corners of his eyes began to smooth out as he relaxed. All that remained were the lines of salty tears that had streamed down into the collar of his night shirt.
“I thought,” Adam whispered. But before he could finish, the creases returned. “I never thought we’d make it home.”
“Well, you did son. You did make it home.”
“I couldn’t….” Adam shook his head slowly. “I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t….”
Hoss’ belly twisted something awful as he watched new tears spilling from his brother’s eyes. This time they had nothing to do with coughing.
“But you did help him, Adam,” Hoss said. “He would of drowned if you hadn’t done what you did.”
Adam looked toward him. His gaze was about as miserable as Hoss had ever seen. Adam was hurting maybe as bad as Joe would be soon enough. Only Adam’s pain was all way deep on the inside. And just from looking at him, Hoss was beginning to feel some of that same kind of pain right there in his own heart.
“I tried.” Adam shook his head again. “I couldn’t.”
“Of course you could. You did. You saved his life.”
“I couldn’t move it,” Adam added. “I couldn’t…I couldn’t move it.”
“What? That log? No one could’ve moved that, Adam!”
Adam seemed confused. “But you….”
“Me? Nah. I tried, but I couldn’t budge it. If we didn’t have the horses, Joe would still be trapped there.”
Adam closed his eyes and sank back into Pa’s embrace. “The horses. They bolted. Joe…he told me to leave him there.”
The pain in Hoss’ heart grew stronger with those words. Without realizing it, he let his own gaze shift toward Joe’s room, as though he could see right through the walls.
“But I couldn’t.” Adam’s voice grew softer. “I just…couldn’t.”
He was probably asleep before Pa settled him back against the pillows.
“No,” Hoss whispered for no reason other than to hear the sound of his own voice. “I don’t suppose you could at that.” And then he watched as Pa settled himself into the chair beside Adam’s bed. “I’ll go check on Joe,” Hoss offered.
Pa nodded, appreciation evident in his gaze.
Just before Hoss turned to leave, he saw his pa take Adam’s hand in his own. Adam had been ready to die for Joe. Would Hoss have had the courage to do the same?
“But I couldn’t.” Adam had said. “I just … couldn’t.”
No. I don’t suppose I could let go either. At least, I don’t like to think I could.
The muffled voices from down the hall had quieted.
“Adam?” Joe tried to call out, but the effort stirred something in his throat, blocking his voice and causing him to cough long and hard until he could barely breathe. The force of his coughing burned all the way through him, ending in fire in his arm. He couldn’t stop the tears. There was no point to trying.
Propping himself up with his good arm, Joe desperately tried to find a position that would enable him to breathe freely. The effort turned the fire in his arm molten. Suddenly there were more black spots in his vision than bright flashes.
Just as suddenly there was a presence beside him, holding him, guiding him back to the pillows.
“It’s okay, Joe,” Hoss’ voice soothed. “I got you.”
Joe settled into the softness beneath him, holding to Hoss’ words every bit as hard as he had held to Adam’s strength on the mountain.
“It’s okay, Joe. I got you.”
And he knew it was. It was okay. The pain would pass. The wounds would heal. What mattered was they’d made it home. Despite how hopeless things had seemed, despite how sure he’d been that he’d never wake up again, here he was, in his home, in his bed–because his family had seen to it that he could wake up again.
“Adam?” he asked in a whisper, certain he would have drowned had it not been for his oldest brother — certain also that Adam’s actions could not have been done without a cost to his own wellbeing.
“Adam’s resting,” Hoss said. “He’s gonna be just fine.”
Joe closed his eyes. “He saved my life.”
“Yeah, I…reckon he did.”
There was something in Hoss’ voice that said more than the words. Joe’s eyelids slipped open once more, curious. Hoss was chewing on his lower lip, his brow furrowed by something Joe could only imagine was worry.
“What’s wrong?” Joe asked, concern stealing more of his already ragged breaths.
“What?” Hoss’ brows shot up in surprise as he gave Joe his full attention. “No, Joe. Nothing’s wrong. I just….” He scrunched up his face in that puzzled way of his. “I don’t quite know how to put it.”
“Just say it.” Joe closed his eyes again, focusing on his ongoing struggle to suppress another fit of coughing. He felt Hoss’ hand on his leg.
“No, Joe,” Hoss said. “It can wait. You need to rest up. Doc’ll be here soon.”
As Hoss’ grip started to slip away, Joe dared to call out, “Hoss?”
“It’s best if you don’t try to talk no more, Joe”
“It was you…wasn’t it?”
“What was me?”
“The horse did all the work, Joe.”
“You…saved both our lives.”
“It was luck, Joe. Pure luck. Pa and me, we just had to try to find you. We just did what we had to do.”
“No. Not like Adam. He…did a whole lot more. A whole lot.”
“Like you,” Joe could feel tears forming in his eyes again from the coughs he was fighting so hard to avoid. “Did…what…had to do.”
The coughs erupted then, refusing to be put off any longer. Hoss stuck with him until he was spent, and even held a handkerchief to Joe’s lips so he could spit out some of the troublesome phlegm. When Joe’s brother eased him back against the pillows once, Joe didn’t have the strength to speak, but he was grateful to hear Hoss pulling a chair to his bedside.
“It’s okay, Joe. I got you.”
Hoss didn’t seem to think much of them, but to Joe, those words meant life itself.
Thank you, Joe said inside his own mind as he slipped back into the water, enfolded in Adam’s arms. It’s not cold anymore, Adam. Not cold at all.
Adam’s shout nearly froze Hoss’ blood right there in his veins. His brother was like to have gone clean out of his mind when Pa had tried to pull him out of the water. It was as though Adam had the weight of the whole world on his shoulders, like Atlas himself. If he were to move the tiniest bit, that world would come crashing down.
Instead, the world bobbed out of the water. It was strange, though, because all it looked like was a globe Hoss had seen in San Francisco. It was hard to imagine the whole world being that tiny, but easy to see why Adam would be so worried about it. It looked downright fragile.
When Hoss tried to get a closer look, he kicked a fallen branch and it knocked that globe right back into the ocean.
“Hoss!” Adam cried out. “Pull back!”
How could he? If he’d had a rope, he might try to lasso it. But all he had in his hands were Chubb’s reins. And besides, even if he did have a rope that globe was way too small to catch. And the ocean was way too big. He watched, helpless and horror-stricken as Adam swam out toward the globe, but the globe just kept drifting away. Pretty soon Adam started drifting away, too.
“Thank you,” Joe said. And then he sank into a whole ‘nother ocean.
“Hoss!” Pa’s shout startled him.
What did Pa want him to do? Hoss could swim, but not as fast as Adam.
“Hoss.” Pa’s voice was softer then, and it was followed by a tugging on Hoss’ shoulder. “Wake up, son.”
Hoss opened his eyes as the dream shattered into tiny bits of sand, and then found himself about as far from any ocean as he could be. Instead, he was in Joe’s room, sitting beside Joe’s bed.
“Doc Martin’s here, son. We need to give him some room to work.”
“Sorry, Pa.” Still groggy from the dream, Hoss stumbled out of his chair and pulled it away, belatedly nodding a quiet greeting to the doc.
“Why don’t you go to bed, Hoss,” Pa said then. “It’s almost dawn as it is.”
“If it’s alright with you, I’d just as soon wait to hear what the doc has to say.”
“Son,” Doc Martin replied. “I’ll say the same to you as I already told your pa. Your brothers both need their rest, and it’s up to you to see they get it. But if you don’t get your rest too, you’ll just end up switching places and needing them to take care of you soon as they’re up and about.”
“I got no problem with switching places,” Hoss answered earnestly, “if it gets either one of them back to the way they ought to be that much quicker.”
The doc shook his head. “I suppose I should’ve expected an answer like that from one of your own, Benjamin Cartwright.”
Pa smiled, though it was an awfully tired looking smile. And then both of them, Pa and Hoss, set themselves up to do whatever the doc needed them to do.
The sun rose on a whole different kind of day. Hoss stood in the doorway long after the doc had ridden away and watched the last gray clouds floating east. If he kept his gaze upward, he could almost believe all that rain had been nothing more than a storm-laden dream. Pretty soon now, Adam would come on down the stairs, ready as ever to start the day. Joe would be along soon enough too, maybe not quite as ready but just as willing. But as soon as Hoss looked down and caught sight of all the mud, puddles, twigs and other storm debris out there in the yard, he found his thoughts moving right back to that gut-wrenching moment when he thought sure Joe was gonna drown out there, trapped as he was by that tree.
“Little Joe will be just fine,” Hop Sing said before Hoss had realized he was beside him. “Like doc say.”
“Yeah,” Hoss answered absently. “Long as that fever don’t get worse, his arm don’t get infected and pneumonia don’t set in.”
Hop Sing nodded. “That why Hop Sing know he be just fine.”
“You know something the rest of us don’t, then.”
Hop Sing’s next words were uttered in Chinese, though he finished by adding, “Hoss come now. Breakfast ready.”
“Yeah,” Hoss said as Hop Sing hurried back toward the kitchen.
“You should listen to Hop Sing,” Pa’s voice called out softly from near the stairs.
“I ain’t much hungry, Pa.”
“Joe will be fine.” Pa said the words with enough confidence Hoss could almost believe it to be true.
“Pa?” Hoss turned toward him. “Have you ever…. Have you ever wondered why something has to happen the way it does?”
“Of course I have, son.” Pa’s gaze seemed to look far beyond the sky as he approached Hoss in the doorway. “Of course,” he repeated. “Everyone does at some time or another.” A moment later he placed a hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “What’s on your mind?”
“It’s the way that tree landed. I mean, to catch Joe’s arm the way it did, and the way it was jammed up against those rocks,” Hoss shook his head. “If you were to lay odds on it all happening just that way, it’d seem darn near impossible. If it had been any different, any different at all, that tree wouldn’t have touched Joe.”
“Or it could have hit him full on. He might have been dead before Adam realized what happened.” Pa’s jaw tensed and his back straightened as he took a deep breath. “It doesn’t do us any good to question why something happens, Hoss. All we can do is question whether we did everything we could have. And I’d say in this situation, we did. We all did.”
“Yeah, but Pa. Don’t it all just seem sort of strange, right up to the horses taking off like they did? You and I both know Cochise and Sport; they ain’t skittish. It’d take an awful lot to spook them both like that. To me, it just seems like everything that could go against Joe and Adam…well, it did. It went against them. There wasn’t a thing Adam could do. Not a thing.”
Pa nodded slowly as his lips curved up into a knowing, sad smile. He squeezed Hoss’ shoulder and then pulled away. “Sometimes things just happen, son. Like how that arrow just happened to find your mother, or how Marie’s horse just happened to stumble the way it did. Some would say it’s God’s will.” Something in Pa’s eyes showed Hoss he was still hurting for those losses, even after all these years.
“But why, Pa?” Hoss asked before he’d given thought to the question. “If God is as merciful as they say, why does He let those kinds of things happen to good people, to people who don’t deserve it at all?”
“It is not for us to question what God does, son, but how we react to the trials we face in this life.”
“Adam sure faced a trial, alright. I can’t imagine what went through his mind while he sat there for all those hours. You saw his eyes, Pa. It was like he was half mad.”
Pa’s gaze grew sadder still. “I know, Hoss.” His words were a whisper. His jaw grew tight again. “Even when he’d lost hope,” Pa said in a stronger tone, “he knew he couldn’t let go — because letting go meant giving up. And he simply refused to give up.”
“Yeah.” Hoss eyed his pa, trying to read deeper into what he saw reflected in Pa’s eyes. “I reckon.” Was that pride Hoss saw mixed in with all that sadness?
Yeah, maybe pride was exactly what it was. And maybe that’s what Hoss was feeling too. He supposed it would take an awful lot of courage or strength of will to do what Adam had done, refusing to give up even when he had to have known about the only thing he could hope for was a miracle. And then a new thought stirred in Hoss’ mind. Maybe that’s just what happened. Maybe it had been a miracle. How else could he explain the way he and his pa had found Adam and Little Joe?
“It is not for us to question what God does, son, but how we react to the trials we face in this life.”
“Yeah, I reckon,” Hoss repeated softly.
“Food get cold!” Hop Sing shouted from the kitchen.
Pa reached for Hoss’ shoulder one more time. “Come on, Hoss. We’d better eat before Hop Sing does something rash.”
And then Pa walked away. Hoss didn’t follow immediately. Instead, he watched his pa moving toward the table, focused determination seeming to guide every step. Focused determination. Just like Adam. That realization led Hoss to consider something else. His pa had known hopelessness before — maybe not quite like what Adam went through yesterday, but Pa had been through times that had to have seemed hopeless. Yet like Adam, Pa had always refused to let go.
Maybe that’s what Hoss was trying to understand. Maybe surviving wasn’t just about staying alive. Maybe it was about holding on not only to what’s important, but to the people who are important in your life. Maybe it was about refusing to let go, because letting go meant giving up — and giving up meant hurting those very same people you found important. If Pa had given up after Marie died, this family wouldn’t even be a family anymore. If Adam had given up after he knew there was nothing he could do but try to keep Joe from drowning, it would have sent ripples of harm across each and every one of them. And if Adam himself had survived after giving up, after letting go — after letting Joe drown — then he’d probably spend the rest of his own life half dead.
But Pa hadn’t given up, and neither had Adam. And if the measure of a man’s worth in this life was in how much he refused to let go, then both Pa and Adam were worth more than Hoss could count.
That first full day at home was rough on Joe. Between the pain in his arm and that miserable cough, he could barely get any rest, even with all the medicine the doc left for him. Yet by nightfall, it seemed that Hop Sing’s expectations and Pa’s determination might be more potent than Hoss’ uncertainty. Joe’s coughing spasms began to ease up. And as the days passed, Doc Martin said it was looking more and more like Joe’s fever was nothing more sinister than his body’s way of fighting back against the fall from his horse, the injury to his arm and his extended exposure to the cold water. Hoss was beginning to believe that the pendulum was swinging back, making up for everything going wrong on that mountain by making everything right here at home — everything except Adam’s peace of mind.
It might be that Joe’s rough day was a far cry better than Adam’s rough week. His own cough faded just like Joes, but he couldn’t seem to get any sleep without finding himself back on that mountain and right back in that water waiting for both Joe and himself to die. At least, that’s what Hoss suspected each time Adam started hollering out Joe’s name in his sleep.
Now, as they all gathered there at the dinner table for the first time since the storm, Hoss could see Joe was hurting on the outside, but Adam…he was hurting more on the inside. Adam’s brow had formed a seemingly permanent crease and there was a dark shadow under his eyes.
“That new mare is about to foal,” Pa said. “Hoss has been doing a fine job with her. A fine job.”
Adam poked at his food, not bothering to look up.
“Adam,” Hoss started. “If you’re up to it tomorrow, I could sure use your help with the…”
“Not tomorrow, Hoss,” Adam answered.
“Is there something else you got to do?”
“I said not tomorrow!” Adam threw his fork down and pushed himself to his feet. He was out the front door before anyone could find the right words to call him back.
“I’ll go talk to him,” Hoss offered.
“No, Hoss,” Joe said, his tone somber and his gaze carrying a whole different kind of hurt than Hoss had seen there all week. “I think I need to.”
Joe rose from his seat and moved across the room with a slowness that was in stark contrast with Adam’s haste. When he stopped at the front door, his shoulders rising and falling in an exaggerated motion, it was obvious he was taking deep breaths, clearly needing to prepare himself to face his oldest brother.
Hoss started getting to his own feet, instinctively driven to follow, until Pa held him back.
“Don’t Hoss. Please. It’s time they talked this through on their own.”
Reluctantly, Hoss retook his chair, though his eyes remained on Joe until the door was closed behind him. “I just can’t figure it,” Hoss said then. “It’s like Adam can’t even look at Joe.”
Pa nodded, just once, his own gaze still focused on the door.
“What Adam endured…” Pa started before giving his attention back to Hoss. “An experience like that, it shows a man things about himself, forces him to see things he’d rather never know.”
“But Pa,” Hoss argued. “It can’t have shown Adam anything bad. He saved Joe’s life. And he was prepared to die himself in order to do it. How could he be mad at himself for that?”
Pa shook his head slowly, deliberately. “It might be he has finally come to face that he is, after all, just a man.”
“Yeah, but he ain’t, Pa. He ain’t just a man. If you ask me, he’s a hero.”
Pa smiled that same sad smile he’d worn all week. “I agree. And I have no doubt Joe does as well. But Adam, I think he sees it differently.”
Hoss stared at his pa a long while after that, trying hard as he could to see what Pa saw — until he found himself wondering what sort of experience Pa had faced to show him what he’d rather not have known. Finally Hoss forced his attention back to the food on his plate, deciding that some questions might be better left unasked.
After Joe stepped outside, he followed a shadow into the barn where he found Adam scratching Sport’s muzzle. Joe watched his brother for a moment, not quite sure what to say. Strangely, the moment stretched into something that defied the measurement of time, seeming endless as words continued to evade him. Temporarily defeated, Joe approached Cochise.
Adam’s response was equally silent. He moved across the barn to grab his saddle.
“Going somewhere?” Joe asked without turning.
“That’s usually why someone saddles a horse.”
“Kind of late, isn’t it?”
“We’ve both made later trips into Virginia City.”
“That where you’re headed?”
“Does it matter?”
Joe did turn then, giving Adam his full attention. “I’ll go with you.”
Adam’s response was infuriating. He laughed, though the humor never reached his eyes. “You and I both know you’re not ready to sit a horse yet.”
“Are you?” Joe asked, harsher than he’d intended.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Come on, Adam! You’re not eating. You’re not sleeping. How much more do you think you can take before…” Joe swallowed the rest of his words. He didn’t like the sound of them in his own head. He had no desire to hear them spoken aloud.
How could he respond? So many dark images filled his mind. Before you fall so far we’ll never get you back, Joe said finally in his thoughts. Then he swallowed those words as well. “Before…,” he said instead, “you’re not able to sit a horse.”
“I’d say that’s more my concern than yours.”
“Why shouldn’t I be concerned?” Joe shouted back.
Adam’s shoulders tensed. He stood where he was, letting his head fall back in obvious contempt. Then he swung around to face Little Joe. “I don’t need my baby brother to baby-sit me!”
The words stung. Is that what he thought? Joe wondered. Is that all he thought of Joe? Maybe it makes sense, Joe decided after a moment. After all, he’d needed to be babied out there on that mountain, hadn’t he? “So that’s where it stands,” Joe said aloud, his voice as small as he felt.
“Where what stands?”
“I’m sorry, Adam.”
“Sorry for what?”
“For being selfish out there. For being happy you stayed when I knew you should have gone.”
Adam shook his head, seeming skeptical. “I’d hardly call trying to stay alive being selfish.”
“It wasn’t about staying alive, Adam!” Joe’s voice rose right along with his frustration. “It stopped being about staying alive the minute we both knew you didn’t stand a chance of moving that tree! I knew I was going to die! You knew it, too!”
Adam turned back to Sport. “That’s not true.”
“Of course it’s true! It was just a matter of time! I was going to drown, and having you stay with me like that…all you could do was delay it. You weren’t going to stop it. We both knew that, whether you’ll admit it or not. But having you there…,” Joe stopped to take a breath. When he continued, his voice softened with the memory. “It just made it okay somehow. It wasn’t fair to you. But I was glad you stayed.”
“Wasn’t fair to me?” Adam shouted back, his attention riveted now to Joe. “What right did I have to something that might be fair to me when you were the one suffering?”
“You were the one suffering, Adam. Not me.”
“Are you out of your mind? Your arm was crushed and you could hardly breathe. How in God’s name could you even for a second consider that I was the one suffering?”
“Because it’s true!”
Adam stared at him for a long moment, and then shook his head in disbelief.
“Having you there…,” Joe went on when Adam said nothing. “It made me feel that everything was alright, even when I knew I was dying. It… gave me comfort, Adam. Because of you, I wasn’t afraid.”
“You weren’t afraid?” Adam laughed again, but it was a cold sound. And then it was interrupted by something Joe thought might be a soft sob. “I guess maybe I was afraid enough for both of us, then. I was terrified, Joe.”
“That’s why I’m sorry. It was selfish of me to think it was okay to put you through that.”
“Knock it off, Joe! You didn’t put me through anything. What was I supposed to do? Leave you out there to die without even trying, without giving you any sort of hope at all?”
“I don’t know, Adam. I really don’t. All I do know is if I had to die, I didn’t want to do it alone.”
Adam shook his head again. “You were ready to die because I was there, and I was ready to die because my being there wasn’t going to do a damned thing to prevent it!”
“But you did, Adam! You did prevent it! You kept me alive long enough for Pa and Hoss to find us!”
“But what if they hadn’t, Joe?”
“But what if they hadn’t?” Adam yelled in a voice loud enough to be heard in the bunkhouse. “It wasn’t enough, Joe! It wasn’t nearly enough!”
“It was everything, Adam!” Joe’s words caught on his own quiet sob.
Adam’s shoulders sagged as he turned to Sport again, dropping his head against the horse’s back.
“It was everything!” Joe repeated. He didn’t know what else to say.
After a moment, Adam walked slowly back across the barn, seeming about as worn as a man could be. He dropped onto a stool, and then looked to Joe, his gaze filled with a deep sadness, and maybe some regret.
“Have you ever held a newborn baby, Joe?” he asked.
Startled, Joe hesitated. “N-no,” he answered after a puzzled moment.
“They’re so tiny, so fragile. You have to be…particularly careful. A newborn can’t even hold its own head up. It can suffocate so easily.”
Joe nodded, unsure how else to respond.
“When you were born,” Adam went on, “before you were even a full day old, your mother asked me to hold you. ‘Just for a minute,’ she said.” Adam smiled. “I’d managed fine enough with Hoss when he was born, but you…. You were so much smaller than he had been. And I was a fair amount bigger by the time you came around. I started to lose my grip, just for a second.”
Adam paused, seeming lost in the memory. “Just for a second,” he repeated softly. “At that moment I realized how much could happen to you if I let go, and I just…I became petrified. I wanted to pass you right back to Marie, but her back was turned. So I just stood absolutely still, staring down at you. I could hardly breathe, I was so scared.” Adam’s smile returned. “When your mother saw what I was doing, she laughed. And when she took you from me she held you like you were still a part of her, like it was the most natural thing in the world. I knew then in her arms, you would always be just fine. But with me….” Adam shook his head, and then closed his eyes.
“Up on that mountain,” Adam continued, “It was like that moment all over again. Only no one was there to take you from me. I was going to drop you. I just knew….” Adam’s voice broke. “I was going to drop you.”
“But you didn’t, Adam!”
Adam shot a glare toward him that was as dark as Joe had ever seen. Darker. “But I did, Joe!” Adam rasped. “I did drop you! When Hoss started to move that tree, I dropped you. And then I couldn’t … I couldn’t pick you back up. If Pa hadn’t been there….” Adam closed his eyes again.
Joe struggled through the images Adam had given him, suddenly desperate to find sufficient words to help his brother see what Joe already knew to be true. “But Pa was there, Adam,” Joe tried as he approached the stool where his brother was sitting. “You held on as long as you had to. No one can hold on forever. I wish I could get it through that thick head of yours. Look, Adam, you may be my older brother, and I’ll admit you’ve done more than your share of taking care of me, but even you can’t do everything. You could no more move that tree than you could have stopped it from falling. But what you did do by staying with me…, Adam, that was more than I could have ever asked of you or ever hoped for. Even if I had died, what you did would have been enough. I owe you more than just my life, Adam. I owe you for the peace of mind you gave me out there. I owe you, and it’s the kind of debt no man can ever repay.”
When Adam looked up at him, his gaze had grown softer. He stared at Joe, seeming to be searching for something Joe could only hope might be evident in his own gaze. After a while, Adam’s searching moved from Joe to the barn.
Joe took several deep breaths. It was time to turn the conversation. “S-still planning to head into town?” he asked softly.
“There’s not much point to it, is there?”
“Not unless you feel particularly lucky at cards.”
Adam raised a corner of his lip in a small smile that was nearly as sardonic as before. “I’m not feeling particularly lucky at anything right now.”
“Well, I am,” Joe said then. “In fact, I’m feeling like I’m about the luckiest person in the world right now.”
Joe reached his good arm out to grasp Adam’s, helping to pull him up from the stool. Though Adam did most of the work, the added pressure worked against Joe’s bad shoulder, reminding him how much healing he had yet to go.
“How’s your arm?”
Joe shrugged and then instantly regretted the action. He closed his eyes to ride out the wave of rekindled pain.
“That’s what I thought,” Adam said. “Still feeling lucky?”
“Well how about we try that luck with a game of chess?”
“Only if you don’t mind losing for a change.”
“Fat chance of that happening!”
As Joe watched his brother put the saddle back where it belonged, he realized he was far too tired to play out a full game of chess. He also realized Adam was probably a whole lot more tired than he was. It was just a matter of who could hold out the longest.
Of course, Joe already knew the answer. No one would ever be able to hold out as long as Adam.
Hoss sat on the settee in the great room, both arms draped lazily across the chair’s back. He was gazing into the flames in the fireplace, contemplating his older brother. It concerned him that Adam was still studying the chessboard. After all, Joe had gone up to bed at least a half hour ago.
“Ain’t you got it figured yet, Adam?” he asked finally. From the corner of his eye he could see his pa looking toward him. The sound of Hoss’ voice must have pulled Pa’s attention from the papers on his desk — papers Pa hadn’t managed to give much attention to at all this week.
“Hmm?” Adam barely looked up.
Hoss nodded his chin toward the partially abandoned game board. “I’d almost swear you’re over there trying to figure out how to checkmate yourself.”
The words did what Hoss had hoped they might. Adam finally shifted out of the stiff, contemplative position that had made him start to look like a statue. Sitting back, Adam raised an eyebrow. “Maybe I am.”
“Nah,” Hoss decided. “I don’t think so. If you were gonna do that, you’d of done it already.”
“Maybe I have.”
Hoss considered the possibility for a moment, and then started to wonder if Joe had enabled that particular checkmate when they’d spoken outside. From the moment Adam and Joe had come back into the house together, Adam had seemed different somehow. Lighter.
“I just hope you’re starting to realize you’re not that Atlas feller,” Hoss said.
Now both eyebrows shot up. “Atlas?”
“You know, that feller who had the whole world on his shoulders.”
“I can assure you, Hoss, I have never thought of myself as Atlas.”
“Could have fooled me, the way you been going around here all week. A weight like that would break most men.”
“A weight like that would break any man.”
“Not you. I’d say it’s more like you found out you didn’t have to carry it by yourself all the time.”
“Careful, Hoss. You’re almost starting to sound like a philosopher.”
Pa rose from his desk to join his sons. “I think Hoss would make a fine philosopher,” he said, as he casually walked toward the settee. “And I have to agree with his observation. You have been carrying a heavy weight, Adam.”
Standing beside Hoss, Pa looked to Adam and shook his head. “But you never had to carry it alone.”
“It’s like that passage I’ve heard you read before.” Hoss looked upwards, as though he could find the words written on the ceiling. A moment later, he recited, “No man is an island, entire of itself.”
Adam chuckled. “It’s good to know not all of that book learning went to waste.”
“I’m serious, Adam. The man who wrote that, he had a point. And there was something more to it, about when a piece of land gets washed out to sea, it makes the island smaller. This week, it was like you were getting washed out to sea, and I think it was starting to make us all feel smaller.”
“I can’t imagine how you could ever feel small.”
“Dadburn it, Adam. I told you I’m trying to be serious about this.”
“I’m sorry, Hoss.” Adam nodded. “The passage is from John Donne.”
And then, without stopping to collect his thoughts or even consulting with the ceiling, Adam started to recite that very passage. “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls, it tolls for thee.”
“That’s the one!” Hoss grinned.
“I can’t say I agree with the comparison,” Adam replied. “I could never think of Joe as just ‘any man’, and of course his death would have diminished me. It would have diminished all of us.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what I’m getting at, Adam. What I’m trying to say is you weren’t an island out there. I’m sure you felt like you were all alone, but you weren’t. You were part of something bigger, like we all are. All you had to do was hold on ’til we got there, and that’s exactly what you did.”
“Yes,” Adam said, the word sounding like a hiss. “I held on, right up until I couldn’t any longer.”
“Right up until,” Pa interrupted, “you no longer had to.”
Adam leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, and started staring at his hands. “Did you know Joe was ready to die out there?”
For such short, simple words, they sure packed a wallop. Hoss felt as though Adam had just punched him right in the gut.
Pa must have felt it too. He stiffened. “I have no doubt he knew it was possible.”
Adam met Pa’s gaze then. “No, Pa. I mean he expected to die. And he was ready for it.”
Hoss saw his pa visibly pale at hearing Adam’s words, probably looking a lot like Hoss must himself right about then. Pa seemed a whole lot older at that moment, too. He stumbled toward the chair Joe had occupied less than an hour earlier. When he got there, he grabbed the arm and dropped heavily into the seat.
“He told you this?” Pa must have had a hard time finding his voice, because there wasn’t much for him to use when he asked that question.
Adam nodded. “He said he knew he was going to die, but it was okay.” His own voice breaking, Adam’s next words were hushed. “Because he wasn’t alone.”
Hoss found his eyes moving toward the staircase. He gazed up, trying hard to imagine Joe lying in Adam’s arms, waiting to die. Hopeless could be the only word to describe what it must have been like for stubborn-as-a-mule Little Joe Cartwright to actually think that was okay.
“Because I was there,” Adam went on, his voice catching on every word, “holding him.”
“Now you’d better watch it, Adam,” Hoss added in a somber, soft tone, “or I’m gonna start to think that maybe you really were Atlas out there.”
Adam chuckled through the threatening sobs. “He actually seems to believe I suffered more than he did.” Adam’s chuckle grew into a soft laugh. It wasn’t enough to hold back the tears. Hoss watched him wipe at his eyes with shaking hands.
“I’m inclined to agree with him.” Pa pushed himself out of the chair and rose up as straight and tall as Hoss had ever seen him. He moved behind Adam and cupped his hands around both of Adam’s shoulders, squeezing probably more firmly than he realized; Hoss could see his knuckles going white. “Thank you, son.”
After a round of brandy with his pa and Hoss, Adam took a book from a shelf by his father’s desk and headed up to his room. He read only one page before setting the book on his nightstand and turning down his lamp to settle in for what he believed might actually be a full night’s sleep.
John Donne, Meditation XVII
No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls, it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.