Summary: What Happened Next for “The Crucible”
Word Count: 10,100
On a Trail Drive
Something…there was something about this drive….
Adam poured himself a last cup of coffee and returned to his log by the fire. What was it, he wondered? He had bossed trail drives before, more than he could count, in fact, and he knew that it didn’t pay to be too casual about them. He was always meticulous in his preparation, always knew the territory, where the best watering holes were, how far to travel each day, how much to push the cattle and the men.
But this time it was different. The whole area had been suffering a debilitating drought and his father was anxious to decrease the herd before the lack of sufficient pasture did it for them. He had negotiated the terms with the buyers while Adam dealt with other commitments. Consequently, he hadn’t had the opportunity to scout the area ahead of time. Maybe that’s what was causing his unease.
In addition, the mines were booming and there weren’t many experienced men willing to forgo miner’s wages. Several of the drovers they had managed to hire were untried and word got around fast on a ranch; the eldest Cartwright boy went to one of those “fancy” schools back east. There were always one or two trouble makers and this bunch was no different. He knew he would have to prove himself, would have to work longer hours, know everyone’s job and be able to do it better than they could… but he’d done it before.
Truth be told, this was the part of the job on which Adam thrived; organization, taking charge, leading…he was born to it. Yes, he realized that sometimes it made him seem a little arrogant and overbearing, “too big for his britches” he’d actually heard an old-timer say once. His brothers often teased him about it and tried various schemes to “take him down a peg,” but Adam knew that men needed to see confidence in their leader or they wouldn’t follow him, and it wasn’t long before even the new hands seemed willing to accept his authority.
What was it then? Why this apprehension? He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Things always happened on a drive. Some you could predict; cattle would be lost or drown in river crossings, men would get hurt, there was the occasional stampede. But not this drive. Things had gone smoothly, without a hitch…perhaps too smoothly. Maybe that’s what had him on-edge…maybe he was waiting for the next shoe to drop.
He took another sip from his coffee as he watched his younger brother playing poker with some of the hands. He was very proud of Joe. He had shown a growing maturity lately. He had carried his weight and more on this drive, took on more responsibility. It made Adam’s job easier and he was grateful for the support. He reminded himself to give Joe a little extra spending money when they reached town.
When they reached town…he was sure looking forward to that. A hot bath and a cold beer, maybe several cold beers. The hands were already talking about what they would do when they got there. Some would find ways to spend their hard-earned cash. Others, no doubt, would find ways to lose it. After a few days most of the men would go their own way; some back to the ranch, others to find new work. Either way, Adam’s responsibilities would be reduced to himself and his younger brother. Finally he could relax.
But still there was something…something that made the back of his neck itch, that made him keep looking over his shoulder…
Adam got up and tossed the last dregs of his coffee into the fire.
Let it go, he thought. Only two more days…two more days and we’ll be in Eastgate.
In the Tub
He leaned back in the tub, closed his eyes and let the steaming water envelope him. It had been two weeks since he had returned from his ordeal in the desert. Two weeks since Kane had tried to rob him of his dignity, his sanity, and finally, his life.
He was finding that anything and everything seemed to carry him back there. He couldn’t escape it. At night, his dreams were haunted. During the day the smallest thing could trigger it. At seeing the blue checkered tablecloth that Hop Sing used on the dinner table he was overcome with dizziness and nausea. Overhearing a conversation about a mine made his chest tighten until he couldn’t breathe. The noisy pounding of the stamp mills in Virginia City created a similar pounding in his head and ringing in his ears. It followed him wherever he went.
“A little better…a little better every day” he had overheard his father say when Dr. Martin inquired about him.
Yes, as each day passed, he was getting better…better at the masquerade. Better at letting his family see exactly what he wanted them to see…what he believed they wanted to see. He was painfully aware that if his family believed his act, it was only because they were desperate to do so.
His behavior was becoming more erratic, more careless…in small ways that only someone who knew him well would notice. Riding his horse a little too fast, standing slightly too close to the edge of the hayloft. Two days ago he had picked a fight with a drunk in the saloon that could have had disastrous consequences if Hoss hadn’t been there to sweet talk the drunk and placate him with the promise of another beer.
His family marked it up to preoccupation, but he knew it was more than that. Something was making him act recklessly, as if daring the gods to finish what they had started in the desert. Finish it so that he wouldn’t give in to the temptation to do so himself. Even now, he was shocked at how strong the urge was to submerge himself, to let the water wash over him and end this torment…
What was it that Kane had taken that he felt he could never get back? He had been fruitlessly asking himself this question for days. Was it his feeling of security, of superiority? His confidence? What had changed? It was as if Kane had soiled his spirit and put a stain on his soul that no amount of scrubbing could erase.
A gentle knock on the door interrupted his thoughts.
“Yeah, Pa. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
A long pause…Adam could sense his father still standing there, waiting, worry etched on his face. “Son, are you all right?”
“Yeah, Pa, I’m fine.” And he would be, he told himself, if only to ease the pain he heard in the voice on the other side of the door. He would be “fine”…someday.
Ben’s brow furrowed with worry as he asked himself the same question for perhaps the one hundredth time. How could a simple cattle drive, something they’d done dozens of times before, turn all of their lives upside down? Adam had left the Ponderosa smiling, confident, and eager to start the drive and had returned weeks later a virtual stranger.
Doc Martin had told them not to pressure Adam into telling them what he had endured in the desert, that he needed to come to terms with whatever it was himself first. It seemed, however, the more space they gave him, the more distant and preoccupied he became.
Adam had always seemed to move with grace and confidence. Lately, however, he had become what Ben could only describe as “accident-prone.” They began as small incidents that never put anyone else in danger, only Adam himself. He slipped with a knife while cutting leather for a harness strap which required several stitches. A couple of days later he got a nasty burn on his arm when he stumbled while carrying a branding iron.
A few days later, he was brought back from the lumber camp in the back of a wagon, his leg and thigh badly cut and bruised. Jim, the foreman, praised Adam’s courage and selflessness for jumping in the way of a loose log as it careened down the slope. Although he had undoubtedly save the lives of two loggers, Ben inwardly suspected that Adam’s motivation had been something less altruistic, something darker.
Ben was afraid that this carelessness about his own personal safety would make Adam a danger to himself and possibly to those around him. He took the chance of enlisting Hoss and Joe to keep a constant eye on him; to never leave him alone. Ordinarily, this type of “mollycoddling” would infuriate his first-born. This time, however, Adam didn’t even seem to notice his brother’s presence. Or, if he did, he uncharacteristically didn’t say a word, causing Ben to worry even more.
Days went by and the erratic behavior continued. Joe reported that Adam seemed distracted as they loaded hay in the loft and almost fell, just catching himself on the pulley rope at the last minute. One afternoon, Ben was surprised to see Hoss and Adam coming into the yard, riding double while leading a limping Sport. Without a word of greeting, Adam angrily dismounted and led his horse to the barn.
Hoss grimly told his father about the incident in the saloon, how Adam had provoked a drunk and tried to call him out. Luckily the man was too drunk to follow through and Hoss was able to distract him with the promise of another beer. Adam, however, had not appreciated the interference. On the way home, he had pushed his horse on terrain that was far too rough for the speed that he was going, causing Sport to wrench his leg. Ben was shocked that Adam would actually go so far as to put his horse at risk.
But today was the last straw. When he recalled what had happened in town, he felt a shiver go down his spine and a tear threaten to fall. The day had started out pleasantly enough. All four of them had gone to Virginia City together to run errands, Ben privately hoping that a change of scenery would do Adam good. When they got there, they went their separate ways with plans to meet later at the International House for lunch.
Running slightly behind schedule, Ben was coming out of the bank as he saw Adam crossing the wide street. Hoss and Joe were waiting for them outside of the hotel laughing and carrying on. Suddenly, from around the corner, a large wagon with a four horse team came barreling down the street on a collision course with his son. Ben, Hoss and Joe saw it at the same time, all three yelling his name simultaneously. There was no possible way that Adam couldn’t have heard their warning, yet he gave no indication that he did.
Realizing that the driver couldn’t stop the team in time and that his brother wasn’t going to move, Joe sprinted into the street and tackled Adam to the ground, narrowly being missed by the wheels and hooves. As they both picked themselves off the ground and dusted off their clothes, Joe was baffled by the look he got from his brother. Instead of gratitude for risking his life, Adam shot him a look of…annoyance? Anger? Ben and Hoss joined Joe in the street, watching as Adam turned his back on them, went to his horse, and rode back in the direction of the ranch without a word.
Shocked, Ben finally realized that Adam was not going to “get better” by himself. What had he been waiting for? He, of all people, should have known that Adam would never openly ask for help; that he would be too proud to admit that he couldn’t deal with whatever this was by himself. But weren’t these acts of carelessness, of recklessness, themselves a plea for help? Ben was thoroughly disgusted with himself. He felt that he had failed his son; that in giving him his “space,” he had left him to flounder all alone.
Now, as he stood outside the door, waiting for Adam to finish his bath, he wondered what, if anything, he could do to help his son.
A deep sigh coming from the other side of the door interrupted his thoughts. Ben summoned up his courage and gently knocked. “Adam?”
“Yeah, Pa. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“Son…are you all right?”
Ben fully expected to hear the same answer he got every time he asked the question, so he wasn’t surprised when it came.
“Yeah, Pa, I’m fine.”
Ben sagged against the door as, for the first time in weeks, he heard the tone of his son’s voice as it really was, not as he had desperately wanted it to be. The despair and utter sadness he heard spoke volumes.
“Yes, son,” Ben vowed to himself as a tear slipped slowly down his cheek, “You will be fine, whatever it takes. With God as my witness, you WILL be fine…someday.”
Why Did I Say That?
Adam stood still at the top of the stairs. He hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, but his ears had instinctively picked out his name among the whispered voices below. It was nothing new. It seemed that every conversation in hushed tones or behind closed doors these days was about him. Most conversations simply stopped when he entered the room.
“Hoss, we’ve let this go on too long…I’ve let this go on too long. It’s like I don’t know him anymore.”
It pained Hoss to see the anguish in his father’s eyes; the guilt that he was taking on his shoulders. He knew his father was not to blame, none of them were. The only blame to be cast was lying under a pile of rocks in the desert and his name was Peter Kane.
“Aw, Pa…it’s like Joe said; Adam’s been through some kind of hell and it’s gonna just take some time before he can get past it, is all.”
“No, son, it’s more than that. Today when that wagon almost hit him…did you see his eyes, Hoss? He looked disappointed, angry almost that Joe knocked him out of the way.”
He pondered on what his father had said. Hoss prided himself on knowing his brothers even better than he knew himself. However, the face he saw across the dinner table every night was not the face of the brother he knew, and the eyes were the eyes of a stranger.
“I think we need to talk to Paul about this.” Ben looked up at Hoss and said quietly, “I can’t help thinking about Ross Marquette…”
Shocked, Hoss exclaimed more loudly than he intended, ”Pa, you can’t mean that…”
“Hoss…I’m afraid that Adam may get to a point where we can’t bring him back. I’m afraid of what he might do.” Ben took a breath and reluctantly continued. “I’m afraid, son, that he’s losing his mind.”
Suddenly, both Ben and Hoss felt the pair of steely eyes boring down on them from the top of the stairs. They turned to look just as Adam turned on his heels and went into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
Ben was grief stricken. “Why did I say that, Hoss?” But he knew why he said it. He knew that inside he was truly afraid that it was the truth.
Minutes later Adam came down the stairs. As he expected, his father and Hoss were waiting for him.
Ben eyed the saddlebags hanging over his son’s shoulder, the bedroll under his arm. “Adam, what is this? Where are you going?”
Adam had intended to avoid a confrontation, but his emotions were so close to the surface that he couldn’t help but lash out. “So you think I’m losing my mind, Pa? Ever stop to think that it’s living here, having you and my brothers constantly watching me, whispering behind my back, that’s driving me crazy?”
He stormed out the door. Pausing on the porch, he berated himself. “Why did I say that?” He knew he had hurt his father’s feelings. He hadn’t intended to but it seemed that he wasn’t in control of his emotions, his actions or even his thoughts lately. Grimly, he continued on to the barn. Maybe his father was right…maybe he WAS going crazy.
Adam tried to steady his breathing as he saddled his horse. He wasn’t actually angry with his Pa or brothers. If he was honest with himself, what he was feeling was fear, pure raw fear. He had never felt so out of control.
He really didn’t want to leave. Although he chafed under the protective watch of his family, he knew that it was only their vigilance that had kept him from seriously injuring himself, or worse. Until lately he wouldn’t have believed it possible for him to behave this way.
Truth be told, he was just as afraid to stay as he was to leave. If what his father suspected was true, just leaving the ranch wouldn’t be good enough. If he were capable of doing harm to himself, how much longer until he was capable of inflicting it on others? The image of Delphine Marquette lying on the floor, her neck bruised with the imprint of her own husband’s hands, dying in his arms….he tried to shake it from his mind. If Ross, his best friend, could be reduced to murdering his wife, then why not him? How was he any different?
As he rode off into the night, his first instinct was to head to the grave on the hill overlooking the lake. He had always found his answers there. No…that would be the first place his family would look for him. He couldn’t add to his father’s pain by finding him there.
Finally, he rode until he was too exhausted to go on. He stopped his horse and stumbled several yards into the woods. His mind seemed to be spinning in ever-tightening circles. Wracked with indecision, he could see no other way out. He was terrified that he would lose control and it was that fear that gave him the impetus to do what he felt had to be done. But would his family ever be able to understand that he was doing this for their sakes?
Looking up at the stars through a gap in the towering pines, tears of anger, frustration and fear running down his face, he cried out, knowing no one could hear, “I’m so sorry, Pa! I’m sorry that I’m not the son you thought I was. I’m sorry that I can’t think of any other way. Oh, God! I’m sorry……”
Hands shaking, Adam pulled the gun out of his holster. Slowly…very slowly he pulled back the hammer. Once more, he made his anguished plea…”Pa, please forgive me!”
As he quickly saddled his horse, Ben berated himself. “Adam, son, I’m so sorry. How could I have been so careless?” That’s all Adam needed, to hear that his father had doubts about his sanity! Well, he wasn’t just going to let Adam ride off into the night by himself, not in his state of mind.
He set off after his son. Not wanting to set off Adam’s anger again, Ben stayed at what he thought was a discreet distance. Adam, however, was apparently so lost in his own thoughts that Ben could have been riding along side and he didn’t think his son would even notice.
In the quiet of the moonlight, Ben found himself wondering when this nightmare was ever going to end. It was as if his son had never really come home…that he was still in that desert, wandering lost and alone. Desperately, he did what it seemed he had been doing constantly for the past month…he prayed for guidance.
Hours went by. Finally, Ben slowed as, up ahead, Adam stopped and dismounted. As Adam disappeared into the woods, Ben pulled up next to his horse. He would give him a few minutes to himself, but that was it. He had made a decision and, by God, here is where it would end. His son was going to listen to him whether he wanted to or not. He knew it was going to take every ounce of love and understanding that he had in him, but he was determined that they were going to hash this thing out until a conclusion was reached. Adam WAS going to return to the ranch. They were going to be a family again. Ben stubbornly refused to consider any other possible outcome.
Following the path his son had taken, Ben froze as he heard Adam’s voice. He tried to still his breathing and beating heart so could hear what was being said. Suddenly, his heart leaped to his throat as an anguished cry pierced the night… “Pa, please forgive me!”
Terrified that he would be too late, Ben propelled himself through the underbrush and broke through the cover of trees just as he heard the distinctive, sickening click of a hammer being drawn back.
Ben froze as he reached the edge of the clearing, his eyes quickly taking in the scene. With tunnel vision, he saw the glimmer of the moonlight reflecting off the barrel of the pistol as it slowly followed its path toward his son’s temple, the hammer cocked, the index finger shaking as it hovered near the trigger. Knowing that there was no time to wait, no time for logical discourse or impassioned pleas, Ben leapt out of the underbrush and tackled Adam to the forest floor, and before he could think he found himself in a life and death struggle…with his own son.
With a deep, resigned sigh, Adam’s eyes focused on the weapon in his hand. He felt the grooved texture of the hammer under his thumb, the familiar weight of it in his hand, the distinctive click as the hammer was pulled back. With a sense of “no turning back,” he slowly raised the gun toward his head.
Suddenly, from out of the forest, he was hit with express speed by a force that knocked the breath from his lungs. As his body made contact with the ground, the deafening, sickening sound of a gun firing at close range filled the air. There was a brief, stunned pause, and the struggle resumed as each man attempted to gain the upper hand. After a few, frantic moments, Adam found himself atop his assailant, his fingers wrapped tightly around his throat.
The man was attempting to speak, his lips forming words that Adam’s mind refused to acknowledge as he slowly began to squeeze the very life’s breath from him. It was not his father he saw before him, the man who raised and molded him, comforted him and challenged him. No…the face Adam stared down into was another silver-haired figure, a madman that challenged him in a different way; challenged his morals, his core beliefs, his confidence in himself, and his very sanity.
Through gritted teeth Adam spat out, “I…AM…NOT…AN…ANIMAL!” as he squeezed tighter and tighter.
Ben’s efforts became more and more weak as he struggled beneath his son. He could see no recognition in Adam’s eyes, no indication that his son was aware of his own actions. With a sense of profound sadness tears welled up in Ben’s eyes and spilled to the forest floor.
Adam froze. Seeing tears where moments before he had only seen a mocking face twisted in maniacal laughter, something within him suddenly clicked into place.
His hands released their hold as if they had been touching fire. Adam’s eyes were wide with horror and confusion. Realizing what he had almost done, he cried out, “Oh, Pa….” and collapsed unconscious into his father’s waiting arms.
Then, as he did weeks ago on the hot desert floor, Ben, his own heart racing, gently rocked back and forth, holding his unconscious son tightly to his chest.
Several minutes went by as Ben waited for the beating of his heart to slow. He savored the feeling of his son in his arms, thanking God that disaster had been averted once more. When he thought of what Adam must have endured to have contemplated ending his own life it made his soul ache. It was no wonder that he would collapse, his body and mind finally giving in to the strain of the last several weeks.
Slowly, Ben lowered Adam to the ground and lovingly brushed a lock of hair from his forehead. The moon, almost straight overhead, was shining through the opening in the trees, illuminating the clearing with a shimmering light and creating dancing shadows across Adam’s face. Frowning, he paused and peered more closely at where his hand had touched his son’s head.
Holding up his hands in the moonlight, he could see that they were indeed covered in blood, his son’s blood. His heart in his throat once more, Ben quickly ran his hands over Adam’s body, examining him by touch, freezing when he encountered a wet area near his son’s upper chest. Ben tore off Adam’s shirt to reveal an ugly bullet wound. The blood seeping down his side appeared black in the eerie light cast by the moon. With trembling hands, he pulled out his handkerchief to try to stem the flow.
Looking up to the stars, Ben pleaded, “Oh, God! Please make this nightmare end!”
A Moment of Quiet Reflection
Ben was unaware of the passage of time as he fought to quell his son’s bleeding. The bullet had struck at close range and was still embedded below the collarbone. He couldn’t move Adam in this condition; he would be dead before they reached the ranch.
“Pa,” Adam’s hand reached blindly for his father, “Pa?” Pain and confusion filled his eyes.
Ben gripped his son’s hand tightly, “I’m here, I’ve got you, boy.”
“Pa…what happened?” Adam’s breath was coming fast and shallow. ”Kane… was here?…How?…I…“
“Adam, don’t talk now…I’m going to get you home.” Ben struggled to keep him still as he applied more pressure to the wound. Adam gasped sharply and Ben felt as if a knife had pierced his own heart. The knowledge that his efforts, although necessary to save his son’s life, were causing him even more suffering was almost more than he could bear.
“Pa, how did you…?” Adam’s eyes searched the forest in a rising panic. “Where…where’s…aahh!” His back arched and his hand gripped his father’s like a lifeline as he was forced to ride the wave of pain.
Adam was obviously confused. What did he think he had seen…or who? Ben could only pray that Adam would never remember the struggle that caused the gun to go off, never remember what he had almost done. He could still feel his son’s hands around his throat, squeezing, tightening, but he felt no anger, no blame…only sorrow.
Finally the pain was too great and Adam lost consciousness. Ben used the opportunity to retrieve the canteen from his saddle. After irrigating the wound he once again pressed firmly with the handkerchief until the blood slowed. Tearing Adam’s bloody shirt into strips, he tightly bound the handkerchief in place. After wiping the sweat from his son’s face with the cool water from the canteen, Ben sat back on his heels and caught his breath. It would have to do.
Adam stirred as his father began to lift him from the forest floor and struggled to find his feet. Slipping his arm tightly around his son’s waist, together they stumbled the few yards through the underbrush back to where the horses waited and, with a great deal of effort, managed to get Adam onto Sport’s saddle. Once there, Ben climbed up behind him, pulled him safely into his chest, and, as Adam once again slipped into unconsciousness, began the journey home.
At an excruciatingly slow pace Sport picked his way along the trail with Buck following behind. The need for haste, to get Adam home, to send for the doctor, was warring with his fear that moving any quicker would start the bleeding again. So, mile after agonizing mile, they traveled on through the forest.
Ben had never felt his son’s pain so acutely as he did this night. He turned the facts over and over in his mind, trying to make sense out of the horrible sequence of events that had led them to this place. He was realistic enough to know that that Adam’s respite from memory would be brief. When the shock and pain wore off he would remember…and he would feel guilt. Ben shuddered to think of how Adam might react to that guilt…trying to kill himself, trying to kill his own father. Ben knew that, in his state of mind, Adam hadn’t realized who he was strangling, wasn’t responsible, but he also knew that Adam wouldn’t allow himself to see the difference, wouldn’t forgive himself easily. One more morsel of agony to heap upon his already suffering son.
As they reached the crest of the hill suddenly the trees cleared and the full glory of the lake was laid before them. He paused for a moment, drinking in the night air. The moon, casting shimmering reflections on the water, was like a soothing balm and in the stillness of the water he seemed to find a stillness in his soul. The need for haste was still there, but this was also a need. If he were going to cope with what was to come and help his son he would need to find strength…inner strength. Looking up to the mountains, feeling small but not alone, Ben whispered a prayer.
From the surface of the lake came the plaintive, mournful call of a loon. The haunting wail pierced his soul and somehow offered him a measure of solace. He felt his son’s breath against his neck. In a strange way, Ben felt that he was being given another chance. His son’s heart beat against his chest; he was alive, still alive…
And where there was life, there was hope.
The Urgency In His Voice Made Him Shiver
The heavy thumping on the door dragged him from sleep. What he wouldn’t give, just once, to turn back over, burrow deeper into the covers and ignore the persistent pounding on the door. What he wouldn’t give to turn the responsibility of the people of this town over to someone else.
“Doc? Doc!” The muffled voice could be heard through the heavy door.
He wiped the sleep from his eyes as he pulled his legs over the side of the bed. There was no mistaking who the late night caller was. He had been able to recognize each of the boy’s voices since they were children and it certainly wasn’t unusual for one of them to be waking him in the middle of the night. It had happened more times than he could count, more times than he cared to remember. However, tonight the urgency in the young man’s voice made him shiver.
Was this the time, he wondered? After all the times he had stitched up cuts, repaired bullet holes, set broken bones, nursed fevers…was this the time that his ministrations wouldn’t be enough? That his knowledge wouldn’t see his patient through? He had always lived in fear of the day when one of these men, whom he counted as his dear friends, would need a level of skill that he just didn’t have. Who was it this time? Was it Adam? Ben?
He knew that a patient’s confidence in their doctor’s ability could make the difference between life and death. All doctors had doubts and fears, he realized; it came with the territory. But lately it seemed that his confidence was like a blanket that was full of holes when he held it up to the light. Would this be the one time that their belief in him would be betrayed?
Picking up his bag and pulling on his coat, Paul let the mask slip into place once more and called, “I’m coming, Hoss.”
The buggy clipped along as quickly as was safe for the late hour. Hoss rode along side, wishing, Paul knew, that they would pick up the pace. Hoss’ face, usually so open, broadcasting every emotion he was feeling at the moment, was now a stone mask, allowing no questions and offering no answers.
A hunting accident. That’s all Hoss had said when he rousted him out of bed in the middle of the night…a hunting accident. It just didn’t seem plausible that Adam would go off to hunt now…not in his current state of mind. Ben had shared with him some of what Adam had been experiencing lately, as well as his own fears about his son. Paul shook his head, it had never been easy to understand the way Adam’s mind worked, but now he was truly concerned for his friend’s eldest son. Maybe being alone in the woods was just what Adam thought he needed to sort through things. After all, who was he to judge the way a man dealt with his fears?
And now, on top of everything else he had been through…a hunting accident! Paul looked skeptically again at Hoss, riding by his side. When he had asked him what he should bring, Hoss replied, ”Just bring everything ya got, Doc. Adam’s in a bad way.” He shook his head…something just didn’t ring true.
Without even a word of welcome, Ben grimly led him up the stairs with Hoss following close behind. Upon entering the room, Paul moved swiftly over to the bed began unwrapping the bandage that Ben had improvised from Adam’s torn shirt. Even in the dim light of the lamp he could see that this wound was grievous. It had stopped bleeding, but the copious amount of blood that had saturated the bandage gave evidence that this was going to be a long night indeed. Adam was still unconscious and from what Paul could see, it was surely for the best. Joe and Hop Sing stood in the corner, both silent and wide eyed.
“When did this happen, Ben?”
Ben was gripping the hand of his son, his eyes never leaving Adam’s face. “Three…maybe four hours ago, Paul.”
Paul filed that little bit of information in his mind. That would mean that Adam would have been hunting in the middle of the night. Another part of an equation that just didn’t add up.
Opening his bag, he brought out his instruments and began probing for the bullet. ”It’s very deep, Ben…this must have been at close range.”
Ben’s eyes met his over his son’s body, his face grim, but made no comment.
Slowly…slowly Paul withdrew the bullet with his forceps. As it cleared Adams upper chest and he held it up to the lantern his suspicions were confirmed. A .44 caliber slug.
Curious but unwilling to divert any more time from his patient, Paul continued his ministrations….
“Well, Paul…” Ben prodded, impatient with the doctor but knowing the work couldn’t be rushed.
Paul stood up straight, stretched his back, and wiped his bloody hands on a cloth. “Ben…we’ve been here before with Adam, with all your boys, in fact. You know as well as I do that blood loss and infection are the real threats here. The bullet was deep and was stopped when it hit his clavicle…that’s his collarbone. Luckily, the bone didn’t shatter. Now we wait…”
Ben nodded his head, still staring at his son’s face, using it as a convenient excuse not to make eye-contact with the doctor.
Paul took a deep breath and ventured, ”Ben, you want to tell me how Adam got shot at close range with a .44 caliber slug?” He paused, but as no answers were forthcoming, continued. “This was no hunting accident, Ben…but you already knew that, didn’t you?”
Ben was in turmoil. He knew he was in desperate need of Paul’s knowledge, his advice, and he knew he could trust his old friend to be discreet, but if word somehow got out…
“Now listen, Ben…if there’s been foul-play here, don’t you think someone should be fetching Roy?” Frustrated, Paul glanced behind him. “Hoss, Joe, Hop Sing…I think I need to speak to Ben alone, please.”
Hoss stepped forward. “No, Sir…if it’s got to do with Adam, it’s got to do with all of us.”
Doc glanced at Joe and saw the same stubborn look in his eyes and sighed. He should have known from the moment he had seen Hoss’ face in the doorway, should have known when Ben refused to release Adam’s hand all through the operation. It was like trying to fight a force of nature when the Cartwrights closed ranks. At the look on Hop Sing’s face he smiled. “You, too? All right, I know when I’m licked. Ben, please tell me what’s going on.”
Finally, Ben looked deep into his friend’s eyes and made a decision.
He watched the tableau beneath him…saw the doctor remove the bullet, stitch and bind the wound, the grim expression on his father’s face, his brothers waiting, white faced in the corner of the room…thought he could hear voices, muffled, difficult to distinguish what was said, but he could sense the worry, the fear. Odd…he felt interested, but detached from what was happening below, as if he were reading it in a book or watching a play. It had nothing to do with him.
He had no pain…no fear…soon even the muffled voices faded away and he was in his own silent world. It was a relief, he realized, it would be a relief. Just let it go…let it all fall away. Was there something he should remember, something that had happened? But then it was gone…gone with the fear, the pain, the guilt. Nothing was clear…the edges began to blur…
A Lighter Shade of Pale
Exhausted, Paul closed his eyes as he reclined on the settee, the grit in his eyes and the stale taste in his mouth testimony to the nearly sleepless night. He wrapped his hands around a mug of coffee. Hop Sing had dutifully kept up a steady supply until Doc sent him to bed an hour earlier. Ben, as expected, was keeping his customary vigil over Adam, and Hoss and Joe were forced to turn in just as dawn was beginning to break.
Paul thought back to what Ben had finally, reluctantly, divulged about the events leading up to and including Adam’s injury and couldn’t help but feel some of the responsibility fall on his shoulders. He had been this young man’s physician and a close family friend for years. He should have known better than to take Adam at his word that everything was fine, that he was coping with whatever it was that happened to him in the desert.
There was no denying the seriousness of the situation. The mind could be a very dark place, but he disagreed with Ben’s fears that Adam would meet the same fate as Ross Marquette. Paul had long suspected that Ross had suffered from a physical malady that had caused his irrational behavior. Unfortunately, whether physical or mental, the outcome had been the same and, frustrating as it was, there was nothing Paul could do to help him.
Adam’s troubles, however, could be traced to a single event. Paul truly felt that if Adam could just face it, come to terms, that this intelligent, strong-willed young man could overcome it, get his bearings and his life back on track. From what Ben told him, it wasn’t clear that Adam would have gone through with his intentions; after all, it was the struggle with the gun that ultimately caused it to go off. It was a subtle difference, to be sure, but it may make all the difference in the world to Adam’s emotional recovery.
He could understand the family’s reluctance to let anyone know the truth behind the injury and he would respect it. The last thing that Adam needed was prying eyes and hushed whispers from the people in town. Paul was confident that, physically at least, and barring infection, Adam would recover. He had fought far worse things than a bullet in the shoulder. Paul frowned as he took one last sip of the now lukewarm coffee, checked his pocket watch and proceeded up the stairs to check on his patient one more time before heading back into town.
Ben sat in the rocker beside his son’s bed. Dawn was breaking and the light that was streaming in made the lamp unnecessary. Paul had said that everything looked fine, that Adam should come through his injury with no lasting physical impairments. He hadn’t yet regained consciousness, but that wasn’t too surprising. Adam had been emotionally distraught and physically exhausted for weeks and now his body was demanding rest.
Ben glanced once more at the passage he had been reading in the well-worn book. “Weeping may endure the night, but joy commeth in the morning.” He sighed bitterly; not this morning…not for Adam. His long night wasn’t over, it might never be over. He hoped that God would forgive him his lack of optimism.
Ben got up stiffly from the rocker and leaned over his son. Automatically, he felt Adam’s forehead for fever and was relieved to find it cool to the touch. Looking more closely at Adam’s face, he frowned…something wasn’t right. Adam was understandably pale; he had lost a great deal of blood. Perhaps it was a trick of the changing light in the room, but he appeared paler than just a short time ago, and he was so still, his breathing barely perceptible. With sudden trepidation, Ben felt for a pulse…
Doc Martin, already on his way up the stairs, quickened his pace when he heard Ben’s frantic summons. Immediately he took his place at Adam’s bedside. Reaching for Adam’s wrist with one hand, he gently peeled back his eyelid with the other. Frowning, he felt his forehead….
“I don’t understand this, Ben…I don’t understand it at all. There’s no fever, the wound looks clean with no inflammation, there’s no head injury…he should be regaining consciousness, yet his color is off, his pulse is weakening and his breathing is very shallow….”
Ben sat back heavily in his chair, defeat etched on every line of his face. “We’re losing him, Paul…he’s lost the will to fight.”
Awakened by the commotion, Hoss and Joe rushed into the room. Hoss, seeing the despair on his father’s face, couldn’t control the anger that welled up in him. Grim faced, he approached his brother and took Adam’s hand tightly in his.
Fiercely he said, “No you ain’t, big brother, you hear? You ain’t gonna stop fightin’ ‘til you’re back here with us where you belong.” His voice trembled as he spoke, “Adam…I ain’t never been disappointed in you a day in my life…but I’m tellin’ you now, you do this…you leave us and I ain’t gonna find it in my heart to forgive you.” Tears were streaming freely down Hoss’ face.
Ben stepped forward and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Hoss, maybe you better let Paul…”
Paul stopped him with a look. “Leave him be, Ben. There’s nothing I can do and maybe this is just what Adam needs to hear right now.”
He was alone and adrift. Darkness engulfed him, but strangely enough, the darkness wasn’t sinister or menacing, but soothing…almost comforting.
Warm water surrounded him, buoyed him. In it he found solace and reassurance. He felt light, as if a burden had been lifted and at last he was free to let it go. He felt his troubles wash away as easily as the tide washes footprints from the sand.
It was an utterly quiet place, a haven, but he sensed it was not a place he could stay indefinitely. Off in the distance, he saw a beacon of light penetrating the darkness. It seemed infinitely far away. He felt himself being washed toward it as if on gentle rhythmic waves…it felt right, it felt simple, it felt safe.
Suddenly, a pull on his hand stopped him, anchored him against the tide. Through the tenuous thread he felt a warmth and presence that was achingly familiar, one that he desperately longed for. Distant voices parted the silence, faint, indistinct, but he could sense that they were calling to him, pleading for him to return. He was held in place, the slow moving wave that a moment ago he was gently riding was now pushing against him, buffeting him. The beacon grew further and further away.
He knew the time had come, that his future was his choice. Another tight squeeze on his hand and his decision was made. Resolutely he turned away from the light and the safe harbor it promised and clung more securely to the sustaining presence emanating from the tight hold on his hand.
Immediately, the tide turned and he was pulled away from the light. The current became swifter. Suddenly, it was as if a dark veil had parted and he was pulled through to the other side.
As his eyes slowly opened, his first awareness was his brother’s hand clasped tightly around his own; the hand that held him, sustained him, wouldn’t let him go.
“Pa…Pa…he’s comin’ around!”
Paul was there in an instant, his fingers pressed gently on Adam’s wrist “Adam? That’s it, son….you’re doing fine.”
As Adam’s senses began to return so did his pain. Blood was pounding in his ears and he couldn’t suppress a gasp as his wound made its presence known.
“It’s all right, Ben. His pulse is stronger and his breathing is picking up. Now I can give him something for the pain.”
Hoss started to move away from the bed to give the doctor more room to work when he felt the resistance from his brother. Adam was unwilling to release his hand, clinging to it as if it were a lifeline. Hoss, smiling through his tears, moved close to his side, and, placing his other hand on top of Adam’s, gently squeezed. “I’m here, brother. I ain’t gonna let you go.”
Looking for You
Even as he fell asleep, Adam was unwilling to relinquish his hold on Hoss’ hand and until he did, Hoss refused to leave his side. Finally, an hour later, Adam’s grip relaxed and Hoss carefully disengaged himself from his brother’s tight grasp.
“I’d like for him to sleep for a long while, Ben. I’ll leave some medication. Give him a dose each time he wakes up. We need to give his body time to heal before he has to come to terms with what happened.”
”I’ve failed him, Paul.”
Paul looked down at his patient, now sleeping peacefully. ”I think we all feel that we failed him to some degree, Ben…myself included.” Paul patted his old friend on the shoulder as he turned to leave. This family was going to need all the strength and love they could muster to get through this, but those were two things that the Cartwrights had in abundance.
It was late afternoon before Adam reluctantly woke up. Ben sensed the movement coming from the bed and placed his book on the night stand.
“Adam…how are you feeling?”
Adam’s only reply was to turn his face to the wall, refusing to meet his father’s concerned eyes.
“Are you hungry? Can I get you something?”
When there was no response, Ben walked over to the window and looked out on the parched landscape, thirsty for rain to ease the long summer drought. “It certainly is dry out there, we need some rain soon. That north pasture is….” Disheartened, he let his sentence fall away as his attempt to engage Adam in small talk was met with stony silence.
His son lay quietly, staring intently at his hands. Ben wondered what he was feeling…anger, fear, guilt, regret? It could be any one of those things…or all of them. Ben was resolved to help Adam cope with his feelings, whatever they may be. He walked over and sat at the edge of the bed.
“Adam, please listen to me… I made a mistake before that I refuse to make again. I left you to sort out your problems on your own and it almost cost you your life. I’m not going to make that same mistake twice.” Adam’s only visible reaction was to tighten his grip on the bedcover. “Please, talk to me, Son.”
Ben waited, holding his breath for several moments. When Adam did finally turn to look at him, the anguish in his eyes was excruciating. He spoke so softly that Ben had to strain to hear him, as if admitting it out loud would somehow make it even more real. “Pa… I almost killed you.”
Ben cringed. He had prayed that Adam would have been granted the mercy of forgetting what had happened in the forest that night, but apparently neither of them were going to be afforded that luxury.
“Oh, Adam.” The sorrow Ben felt threatened to overwhelm him, “you didn’t almost kill me.” His eyes searched out Adam’s, demanding that his son look at him. His voice was soft, but the softness didn’t mask the determination behind it. “Adam, listen to me. When I read Joseph’s telegram saying you were missing, that almost killed me. When I searched for you in the desert for days with barely a trace, that almost killed me. When I thought I had to leave you for dead, that almost killed me.” He paused, searching the motionless face for any sign that his words were registering. “What happened in the forest the other night, that wasn’t you….”
Adam shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut as if in pain, unable to accept the forgiveness he heard in his father’s voice.
“No, Adam…that wasn’t you. That was a man who had suffered terribly. A man who was in so much pain that…” Ben’s voice caught in his throat. The image of his son raising a gun to his own head, his finger on the trigger, intruded on his mind. He could still feel Adam’s hands wrapped tightly around his throat, could still see the wild look in his eyes. God, would either of them ever be able to put this behind them?
He struggled to compose himself and started again. “Adam, you’ve always been so responsible, so reliable. Taking everything on your shoulders. But Son, sometimes we have to accept that things are not always under our control.” He hesitated. “And sometimes we aren’t responsible, even for our own actions.”
“Adam, if you give up, if you let what happened to you take over your life, separate you from your family….that will kill me.”
Adam’s eyes slowly turned to meet his father’s, desperately searching for truth there. They sat together for several moments in silence. Finally, Ben patted him on the leg and stood up to leave. “Just think about it, Son.”
After he had gone, Adam lay in the silence of his room, the dim light from the lamp replacing the late afternoon sun, and did as his father had asked him to do. Slowly, gradually, his iron-fisted grip on the bedcover relaxed as he drifted off to sleep.
Joe tiptoed down the hall, mindful of his sleeping family, and quietly opened the door to Adam’s room. As he sat in the chair next to the bed, he watched his brother’s deep, steady breathing.
He couldn’t recall a time when he had been so confused. Of course he was relieved that Adam was going to be recover…Adam was his brother. So why was he so angry at the same time? If he were honest with himself, he knew what he was feeling was shame. He was ashamed of his brother and for that he was ashamed of himself.
It was obvious from Adam’s condition when they found him in the desert that he had been through hell and back. What that hell was no one knew for certain and Adam was as tightlipped as he’d ever been. Doc said that he was suffering from exhaustion, exposure, and lack of food and water, but they all assumed that once he had overcome the physical effects of his ordeal, everything would return to normal.
But everything didn’t return to normal. As the days turned into weeks, Adam became more and more distant. It pained Joe to see the effect it was having on his father, to see the crushing disappointment in his eyes each time Adam rejected him. It almost seemed that Adam had lost all interest in life, that he didn’t care if he lived or died or who he hurt along the way. Joe had even risked his own life pushing Adam out of the way of a wagon in Virginia City, and what thanks did he get?
Then last night, when they were told what happened in the forest, he could see how upset Pa was…Hoss too, but all he felt was anger; anger and shame. Joe was frightened. He felt his family slipping away and, God help him, he blamed his brother for it.
This wasn’t the brother he knew. The brother he knew could handle every situation, always knew what to do. He was the fastest gun, the best rider, the one everybody depended on. The brother he knew would never have done this…would never have taken the coward’s way out. He missed that brother.
He looked down at Adam, still unusually pale from loss of blood. With his features relaxed in sleep, Joe was amazed at how much younger he looked, how much more vulnerable.
Maybe this was his brother. Maybe this was the real Adam. A man who had fears like everybody else. Who, just this once, let those fears get the better of him. Maybe the brother he thought he knew so well never really existed at all. Did Adam only show his family the part of him that they wanted to see? Had he denied himself, sacrificed himself for their sake? What must it be like for him to always have to be the strong one, the responsible one, the one they all leaned on? Maybe he was that way because they wouldn’t let him be anything else.
As he studied his brother’s features in the flickering lamplight, Joe’s anger gradually faded.
“Is that it, Adam?” he asked softly. “Maybe if we didn’t always expect so much from you, expect you to be perfect, maybe you wouldn’t have felt like you let us down.”
Joe took his brother’s hand. “Well, you don’t have to be perfect and you didn’t let us down, Adam. You fought to find your way back to us and we let you down…I let you down, and I intend to make it up to you…somehow. I promise you that.”
Hoss quietly entered the room. “I thought I’d find you here.”
Joe looked up, wiping his eyes with one hand. “I just thought I’d come in and check on him.”
Hoss walk over to bed. “Seems to be resting real quiet now. Why don’t you go on back to bed?”
“You know, Hoss…I was just thinkin’. We came real close to losing him this time…real close.”
Hoss just nodded his head. His little brother was certainly right about that.
“Come on, Joe. Let’s you and me both get some sleep.”
Tears on the Roof
Hoss was sitting in the rocker next to Adam’s bed, head back and eyes closed, when it began. In the late afternoon stillness, gently, like a whisper, the rain came down. The cadence it made was like tears on the roof, cleansing, healing tears.
Yawning, he got up from the chair, stretched, and walked over to the window. Quietly he opened it and drank in the scent of the rain. There was nothing else like it. If someone were to ask him to describe the scent, he would have said it smelled like “life.”
When he looked back to his brother, he saw that Adam’s eyes were open, silently watching him.
“Listen to that rain, Adam. Just when you think that every livin’ thing is gonna wither up and die, when the ground don’t seem like it can take it no more, just in time the rain finally comes.”
He knew his words had registered when Adam’s eyes slowly shifted to the open window.
Hoss turned and gazed at the mountains beyond. “You know, that’s the funny thing about a drought. If a plant don’t have deep enough roots, it just ain’t gonna survive, but if it has deep, healthy roots…well, then the rain’s gonna find it and it’s gonna bring it back to life, just as strong as before. Even stronger maybe, because that plant had to stretch its roots way down deep in the earth, looking for water just to survive.”
He glanced again at his brother. Adam had closed his eyes, but Hoss sensed he wasn’t sleeping.
Adam listened to the soothing, reassuring sound of his brother’s voice, let it wash over him like the rain was washing over the land. Gradually, the tight coils of his mind began to unwind and he felt clear, light…more like himself than he had felt in a long time, and he was finally ready to come to terms with all that had happened.
Kane had despised him because he was a “rich” man. He was right, Adam realized, but he was rich in things that Kane would have never understood. If being rich meant having everything he needed, then Adam had riches in abundance. From his father, he had forgiveness; from his brothers, understanding and acceptance; and from all three…love. What more did a man need to make him rich?
Kane had envied Adam the opportunities he had in life. Opportunities he had felt that he had deserved but had been denied. He would never have understood that it wasn’t the opportunities, but what was done with them that made the difference.
For the first time since his ordeal in the desert, Adam saw his tormentor in a new light. While he may never find it in his heart to forgive the man who held him captive, humiliated and tortured him, he was surprised that the burning hatred that he had harbored for weeks was gradually being replaced by pity.
What Hoss had said was right, Adam thought. Where Kane’s roots were shallow and couldn’t sustain life, Adam’s roots were embedded in the strongest of earth…his family. He was rich because their roots were entwined, supporting and strengthening each other.
His brother, looking out the open window, was still speaking. “And then, afterwards, everythin’s so quiet and still. Nothin’ but the drippin’ from the trees. You can almost hear things begin to grow again.”
Could it possibly be that simple? Just choose to let it go, to put it in the past and begin to grow again? He opened his eyes to find his brother’s gaze on him, the smile on his face encouraging him, supporting him, not expecting or demanding anything of him except that he trust himself again to the love of his family.
And for the first time since he rode out of Eastgate and into hell, Adam met his brother’s smile with one of his own.
Author’s Note: Each chapter of this story was written as an exercise to a specific writing prompt.