Summary: Bolstered and strengthened by his father and brothers, Adam comes to grips with his ordeal in the desert, but only after an intense night during which the story is told.
Word Count: 4,740
Adam woke with a start, his chest heaving and his body bathed in sweat. With his senses still in a fog, he confused the frightful images of his mind with reality and anxiously glanced around the room expecting to see the mocking face of his tormentor. Instead, his eyes landed on the familiar furnishings of his room. “A dream,” he whispered in relief, “just a dream.” Sitting up, he leaned against the headboard and kicked at the tangle of bedclothes bunched at his waist. Why? he wondered angrily. Why can’t I just forget? The man’s dead. Dead and buried! Frustrated, he stared into the darkness, refusing to let the tears fall.
In a matter of seconds, he heard his father’s familiar footsteps treading quietly down the hall. Great! I must’ve yelled out. Not wanting to worry him, he took a steadying breath and hurriedly wiped his eyes, getting his emotions under control.
“Adam,” Ben called softly as he came in. “I heard you calling. Are you all right?”
Adam cleared his throat and nodded. “Yeah, Pa. I’m fine. It was just a nightmare.”
Alerted by the quiver in his voice, Ben raised his lamp to cast more light into the room. Adam lowered his head, but not before Ben saw his face. He didn’t want to intrude, but Adam was anything but fine and he had no intention of leaving him alone. He put the lamp on the nightstand and sat next to him on the bed. “Well, now that I’m up, how ‘bout I stay for awhile?”
Adam lifted his head, intending to shrug off his father’s concern, but the warm, gentle eyes that embraced him were his undoing. However childish, he couldn’t deny it; he wanted his father to stay. “Thanks,” he said quietly. “I could use the company.”
Ben gave his leg a pat. “You look beat. Why don’t you lie back down and try to get a little more sleep?”
Adam shook his head. “I won’t be getting anymore sleep tonight, Pa.”
He gave him a sympathetic smile and then got to his feet and pulled a chair over to the bed. Settling in, he studied his son who was sitting with his knees drawn up to his chin and his head down. He was glad Adam accepted his offer without protest, but his need for reassurance worried him all the more. “Would it help to talk?”
Adam looked up, his face troubled. A part of him wanted to blurt out the truth about Kane and the hellish game of survival he’d been forced to play, hoping his father could help him make sense of it all. But another part of him just wanted to bury it and keep it buried…all of it…the indignities…the desperation…the rage. He’d never felt so out of control and he didn’t know if he could get the words out…didn’t know if he wanted to.
Ben didn’t miss the turmoil of emotions crossing his face. Leaning forward, he laid a hand gently on his shoulder. “Something is obviously troubling you, maybe I can help.” He was sure something else had happened in the desert, something beyond the physical hardship of being stranded without food and water, something that had stripped his son of his confidence and self-assurance. He’d never seen Adam so emotionally overwrought as the day they’d found him wandering in the desert. He suspected the dead man had something to do with it, but Adam hadn’t said much, just that his name was Kane and he’d stumbled on his camp. At the time, Ben had made sure he’d gotten a decent burial, but after that, he hadn’t given him a second thought. But now, two weeks later, he wondered if Kane was the one tormenting his son.
Uncomfortable under his father’s scrutiny, Adam shrugged and gave him a self-conscious grin meant to put him off. “Thanks, Pa, but there’s no need to worry. It was just a nightmare.”
Ben raised an eyebrow. He knew that look. It was same one Adam had used all his life when he wanted to avoid the truth. “Just a nightmare?” he asked, questioning him.
Unable to meet his eyes, Adam stared at the lamp light flickering on the wall for a long moment. He couldn’t fool his father and he wouldn’t insult him by keeping up the pretense. He looked him in the eye. “You’re right, it’s more than that,” he confessed, his voice barely above a whisper, “but it’s not something you can help me with. It’s something I need to work out on my own.”
Ben’s face creased with concern. Ordinarily, he respected Adam’s ability to solve his own problems, but this was different. Adam was different. Something was eating away at him and he feared his reluctance to talk would do more harm than good, so he gently pressed him despite his declaration. “Adam,” he began softly, “when those men left you out in the desert, they turned your life into a living hell, a hell most men wouldn’t have survived, a hell more horrendous than you’ve let on. Am I right?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Adam gave an almost imperceptible nod, confirming Ben’s suspicions. Faced with such directness, he couldn’t deny it; he owed his father that much and more if he could just speak of it. But Kane had brought him to his knees and humbled him in the worst way possible and that wasn’t something he could easily admit to his father. In a strange way it was funny, and if he wasn’t so shaken by the truth, he’d laugh at the irony. He’d been so cock sure that day in Eastgate; so sure he could never be driven to murder, yet Kane had proved him wrong. In the end, he not only wanted to kill him, he wanted to do it with his bare hands, he wanted to choke the life out of him.
Encouraged, Ben continued, hoping to draw him out even more. “Yet, you did survive…you used every ounce of your strength to fight your way out of that desert…you got out alive and you should be proud of that. A lesser man might have—”
“No!” snapped Adam with a disgusted shake of his head. “You have no idea what I had to do to survive and believe me, it’s not anything I’m proud of.” Eyes welling, the image of his own two hands brutally gripping Kane’s neck came to mind and this time he was powerless to stop the tears from falling. He swiped at them angrily.
Moved by his raw emotion, Ben blinked back the wetness in his own eyes. It pained him to see Adam so upset and he moved to his side to soothe and comfort him. “You’re right, I don’t have any idea,” he said softly as he massaged the back of his neck, “but maybe it’s time I did.” For a long time, Ben simply stood there massaging his neck and shoulders while Adam struggled to get his emotions back under control. This was so far removed from his normally strong, self-assured, independent first born son that Ben did something he didn’t ordinarily do—he cursed the dead—the thieving bastards who’d left him to die in the first place.
Closing his eyes, Adam concentrated on his father’s hands in an effort to stop the disturbing images from playing over and over again in his mind. Pa’s hands were strong and reassuring just as they had always been, just as they had been that day in the desert. I’d be a fool to keep shutting him out, he realized. He raised his head. His eyes were still watery and his voice was husky, but he didn’t care. “I’ve kept some things from you because…well because I thought I could put it all behind me…but I haven’t been able to…so you’re right…it’s time you knew the whole truth.”
Ben squeezed his shoulder in encouragement and offered a silent prayer of thanks. Whatever it was, it needed to be told so they could put it to rest.
Dressed in his nightshirt, Joe worriedly paced the length of Hoss’s room while his brother sat on the bed with his arms folded and a frown on his face. Stopping at the door, he looked down the hall for the hundredth time and willed Adam’s door to open. Nothing. With an impatient sigh, he ran a hand through his hair and glanced back at Hoss. “Pa’s been in there a long time. What do you think’s going on?”
Hoss smiled half-heartedly. “Aw Joe, quit worryin’. Pa’s just makin’ sure Adam’s all right.” He said it more to convince himself than Joe. Adam’s blood curdling cry had shaken him to the core.
Joe scowled. “C’mon Hoss,” he replied irritably, “it’s the middle of the night. If he was all right, we’d all be in bed right now.”
Hoss nodded. There was no use pretending. Joe was right. “Yeah, I know,” he said quietly.
Concerned, Joe walked over to the bed and sat down next to Hoss. “So what do you think’s wrong with Adam?”
Hoss shook his head in thought. “Well, I can’t say for certain,” he replied, “maybe he just needs more time. You know a thing like that takes a toll on a man, inside and out.”
“But that’s just it, Hoss. On the outside he’s getting stronger, but on the inside it don’t seem like he’s getting any better at all. I mean, up ‘til now, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen Adam cry as a grown man.”
“Well dadburnit, Joe!” Hoss exclaimed, getting his ire up. “You and I both know Adam went through hell out there and you can’t tell me your eyes haven’t welled up a time or two since we been home. I know mine have.”
“I know, I know,” Joe said, accepting the scolding. “But why would sittin’ down at the table set him off?”
“What do you mean?” Hoss asked, scrunching his face in puzzlement.
“Yesterday at breakfast, Adam didn’t get his food right away. He just sat there holding his fork.”
Hoss shrugged. “So? What’s wrong with that?”
“I don’t know,” Joe said uneasily. “It’s just that he was staring at it, real intense like, and then his eyes got all watery.”
Hoss frowned and a worried look passed between them. He’d caught Adam staring off into space a few times too and the fierce look on his brother’s face had unsettled him. “Come on,” he said, standing up, “let’s go see what’s going on.”
Relieved to be doing something, Joe got to his feet and followed his brother purposefully down the hall. When they reached Adam’s door, Hoss raised a hand to knock, but having second thoughts, he stopped and gave Little Joe a hesitant look instead. “Maybe we shouldn’t intrude,” he whispered.
Joe scowled in exasperation and then nodded at the door, indicating he should go ahead and knock. He was tired of worrying and waiting.
Swayed by his insistence, Hoss knocked softly and pushed through the door. He instantly took in the closeness between father and son and wanted to kick himself, but there was no turning back, he and Joe were standing in the middle of the room with their father’s angry glare washing over them. “Uh, is everything all right?” he asked, uneasily.
Ben’s countenance softened. He knew the boys were worried, but their timing couldn’t have been worse and he hoped the intrusion didn’t break Adam’s mood and set him back. “Adam’s fine, boys. We were just talking.”
Both boys glanced at Adam and then at each other; neither was convinced, but it was Little Joe who spoke out, angry at being kept in the dark. “Is that right Adam?” he asked sharply. “Are you really fine?”
“Joseph!” Ben warned.
“Pa! We’re not blind. We can see you’re both upset.” He looked from his father to Adam, beseechingly.
Adam eyed his Pa and brothers and sighed. They were all upset and it was his fault. Or was it Kane’s; he didn’t know anymore.
“Joe, please,” Ben said calmly, “just go to bed.”
“No, Pa,” Adam said with a shake of his head. “It’s no good.”
Ben stood up and laid a protective hand on his shoulder. “What’s no good, son?”
Adam smiled wryly. “Being evasive,” he said, looking first to his father and then to his brothers. “I didn’t tell you the whole truth about Kane and that damnable camp of his, but I can see now I was wrong. I’ve not only been hurting myself, I’ve been hurting all of you.”
Hoss and Joe exchanged a glance. They were really worried now. “Are you sure, Adam?” Hoss asked, feeling guilty about barging in. “We’ll understand if you just wanna talk to Pa.”
“I’m sure,” he said quietly as he glanced from brother to brother, touched by their concern.
Ben smiled sadly. He was pleased the family would face this together, but he didn’t harbor any illusions; it was going to be a difficult night. Shivering, he wrapped his robe tighter. Adam noticed the gesture. The temperature was dropping and in the wee hours of the morning it would only get colder. “Pa, I think we oughta go downstairs, in front of the fire.”
Ben nodded. “I think that’s a good idea.” He had a feeling the story they were about to hear would be chilling enough. As Hoss and Joe headed out, he picked up Adam’s robe and handed it to him.
After donning their robes and slippers, Hoss and Little Joe hurried downstairs to light a fire. Eyeing the wood box, Joe sighed in disgust. It was empty except for some kindling. Hoss chuckled. “Too bad you didn’t fill it this mornin’ like you was supposed to.”
Joe made a face and then trudged out the door while Hoss got the kindling ready. A few minutes later Joe reappeared with an armful of logs. “There, that oughta do it,” he said dropping his load on the hearth.
Hoss smiled and lit a match. The kindling caught fire immediately and together they sat on the coffee table adding logs and watching the flames leap, blue-edged and hypnotic. “Hey, Hoss?” Joe asked, breaking the spell. “I was thinkin’…maybe we should move this table out of the way…that way we could push the settee and chairs closer to the fire and uh…well, you know…be warmer.”
Hoss glanced at his brother. He looked young and vulnerable. “Yeah Joe,” he said softly. “I know.”
In no time at all, they had the furniture rearranged and were trading a satisfied smile when their Pa and brother came down. “We, uh, thought this would be warmer,” Hoss explained. “I hope ya don’t mind.”
Ben smiled tenderly. He guessed the real reason for moving the furniture had more to do with keeping everyone close than keeping everyone warm. He wasn’t surprised. In times of trouble, his three sons often huddled together, bolstering and strengthening each other. “It’s fine, boys, just fine,” he said.
Adam glanced at his brothers appreciatively and then walked to the settee and sat down. Wanting to be close, but not wanting to hover, Ben settled in his chair while Hoss uncharacteristically edged Joe out of the seat next to Adam. With no other option, Joe sat in the blue chair, slightly miffed at being gently but firmly pushed out of the way by his big brother.
Having been roused from a sound sleep by Mister Adam’s sharp cry, Hop Sing had stayed awake listening for any sign he was needed. When he heard the commotion in the living room, he hurriedly got out of bed and went to the kitchen to heat some water. When it was ready, he steeped a pot of tea and poured four cups, remembering to put extra honey into Mister Hoss’s. “Hot tea,” he announced as he entered the room and served the steaming liquid.
Ben smiled. Hop Sing never failed to look after them. “Thank you, Hop Sing.”
He nodded and moved to make a hasty retreat, but Adam stopped him before he could disappear. “Wait, Hop Sing. Don’t go.” Hop Sing turned and waited expectantly. Adam gave him a warm smile. “I want you to stay, you’re a part of this family too.”
Honored, he gave a little bow and then took a seat at the table, not wanting to breach the family’s inner circle. He had great respect for Mister Adam and hoped tonight would bring him peace.
Adam leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and stared into the flames. Steeling himself, he drew a deep breath and began. He described how he’d been bushwhacked and left to die…his relief at finding Kane’s camp in the middle of nowhere…the terms of their bargain…and his increasing irritation with his constant prodding to work harder. “…but it wasn’t until the third day,” he continued, “that I realized I was dealing with a mad man.”
Hoss and Joe exchanged a startled look, their muscles instinctively tensing as they waited for him to go on. Ben closed his eyes with a sinking feeling. “Oh, Adam…” he sighed quietly.
Adam looked neither right nor left, but kept his eyes fixed firmly on the fire, knowing it was the only way he’d get through it all without breaking down. His fists were clenched and his eyes narrow as he continued. “I knew he was desperate to find that vein, but my three days were up and I’d had enough of him and his gold fever.” He looked at Joe. “By this time, I figured you’d be pretty worried and I wanted to get to Signal Rock. But when I reminded Mr. Kane of our little bargain, he insisted I keep working. When I didn’t, he picked up his gun…and…and shot the mule.” He shook his head, remembering that moment all too clearly.
Joe’s eyes widened with shock. “What?” he mouthed in quiet disbelief as he looked from face to face, unable to fathom it. Hoss met his gaze, just as stunned. Ben gripped the arm of his chair and the blood drained from his face as realization dawned. He understood now…his son…his boy…had been held captive.
Adam squinted into the fire. “From that point on, I became his pack animal.”
Joe shook his head, outraged and confused. “I don’t understand, Adam. Why didn’t you just take your chances and get the hell out of there?”
“Because he was already exhausted,” Ben interjected, “and without food and water he never would’ve made it.”
Adam smiled mirthlessly, reminded of Kane’s words. “Yes, and after all it’s every animal’s first instinct is to survive, isn’t it?”
Hoss put a steadying hand on his brother’s back. He didn’t understand the full significance of his words, but he understood his brother’s pain.
“I’m sorry,” Joe said in regret. “I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean—”
Adam raised his hand, gently interrupting his apology. “It’s all right, Joe. But if it means anything to you, I did try to escape.” He haltingly explained how Kane had tricked him…how he’d tied him up at night…how he’d forced him into that sweltering mine hour after hour…how he’d cut his rations…and how he’d stripped him of his dignity. He left nothing out, speaking until his voice cracked with so much emotion, he couldn’t go on. He covered his eyes with a shaky hand and attempted to pull himself together, but one maddening image after another flooded his brain. Suddenly his chest felt tight and it seemed as though he couldn’t breathe. Filled with self-loathing, he got to his feet and furiously threw his cup into the fire, shattering it to pieces.
Ben instantly got to his feet and pulled his son into a fierce embrace. Helpless to stop it, Adam’s emotions bubbled to the surface and he buried his face in his father’s chest. With his own vision blurring, Ben held his son tight.
Stricken, Hoss and Joe looked on, their eyes glistening. At the table, Hop Sing swiped at his eyes as he offered up a prayer for healing. For a long moment nobody moved and only Ben’s soft words of comfort could be heard. When Adam calmed, Ben spoke up. “Maybe you shouldn’t go on…maybe it’s too much.”
Adam gently pulled from his father’s embrace and took a few steps, turning his back on his family. He swiped at his eyes and gathered his thoughts and when he turned around, his jaw was clenched with determination. “I have to go on, Pa. It’s the only way.”
Of course, it was the right thing to do. He’d been trying to get Adam to talk for days, but suddenly faced with his overwhelming anguish, it took all his willpower to fight down the urge to protect his son. “You’re right,” he said, agreeing with a slight nod.
Turning to face Hop Sing, Adam smiled ruefully. “Sorry about the cup, Hop Sing.”
Hop Sing shrugged. “No matter. Cups too small anyway.”
“Boy, that’s for dang sure,” Hoss said with a grin. “I say we smash ‘em all and get ones a full grown man can wrap his hand around.”
Grateful to Hop Sing and Hoss for dispelling the awkwardness, they all exchanged smiles and any embarrassment Adam may have felt, disappeared.
“Adam?” Joe asked, hesitant to break the mood but anxious to get some questions answered, “when we found you, you kept sayin’ there was never any gold.”
With a sigh of disgust, Adam sat back down. “No, there wasn’t any gold. It was just a worthless piece of rock and I found out later Kane knew it the whole time.”
Hoss frowned, shaking his head. “Then why…?”
“Why? Because I made the mistake of telling him I wanted to track down the men who’d bushwhacked me, but didn’t intend to kill them. He, uh, found that remarkable and insisted even the most civilized of men could be driven to murder.”
Hoss and Joe exchanged puzzled glances. “Sorry, Adam, but we’re not followin’ ya.”
“In my arrogance,” he spat out, “I insisted I wasn’t one of those men…that I could never murder another man…and that’s when the games began. He was determined to prove me wrong, no matter what the cost.”
Ben went on point, picking up on the implication of his son’s words.
“I didn’t know it until that last day, though. I guess when we heard you calling, it forced his hand.”
Ben and the boys exchanged surprised glances. “You heard us calling?” Ben asked, remembering how he’d strained to hear something…anything…that would lead him to his son.
Adam nodded. “Yeah,” he said quietly, “but my voice was pretty much gone by then. I climbed up on some rocks hoping you’d see me, but Kane came after me. We struggled…and then when your calls got fainter…I don’t know…I guess I just gave up.”
Ben’s heart lurched. He’d let his son down, just when he’d needed him the most. “Adam, son, I’m sorry. I should’ve known. I never should’ve given up on you.”
Adam studied his father for a moment and then leaned forward and affectionately touched his leg. “Pa, if you’re saying you gave up the search, I understand. I’d been missing for two weeks, you had every reason to think I was dead.”
Ben put his hand over Adam’s and smiled appreciatively. “Thank you for that, Adam, but it’s not easy for a father to fail his son.”
Adam looked down, unable to meet his father’s eyes. “It’s not easy for a son to fail his father, either.”
Ben squeezed his hand. “What is it? What happened?”
Adam lifted his head and settled back in his seat, his eyes once again fixed on the flames. “We’d gone a couple days without food or water…Kane made me think we were out…but he’d hidden just enough for one of us to get out alive. It was the final step in his plan to prove me wrong…to prove I wasn’t better than him or anyone else…that I could be driven to kill.” He glanced at his father uneasily. “He put a loaded rifle between us and on the count of five we were both supposed to go for it, but I didn’t wait,” he admitted softly. “I flew into a rage and went straight for his throat…I would’ve killed him…I wanted to kill him.…”
Ben’s gentle eyes held his son’s troubled ones. “But you didn’t?”
“No,” he replied, looking away, “but believe me, it wasn’t out of any sense of right or wrong. I just couldn’t admit he’d won.”
Ben shook his head with conviction. “Adam, I’m your father. I know you better than anyone else on this earth. You’re a fine, decent, principled young man and I don’t believe for a minute those principles deserted you.”
Adam scowled, impatient with his father’s opinion, however well intentioned. “Pa, don’t you understand? I wanted to kill him. I wanted to choke the life out of him.”
Ben set his mouth in a stern expression, seeing he needed to take a firm line with his hard headed first-born son. “Of course you wanted to, who wouldn’t? But you didn’t go through with it! Don’t you see? That’s what separates you from the likes of Kane.”
Adam looked at his father, unconvinced. “You and I both know, I’ve been forced to kill…to protect our land…to protect the family…and I never took any pleasure in it…but with Kane…it would’ve given me satisfaction…pleasure even…to see him dead.”
“But you denied yourself that satisfaction, didn’t you? You were enraged with your hands around the man’s throat, yet, something inside you made you stop. What was it?” Ben demanded firmly. He had no choice, if Adam didn’t get his head on straight, it would affect him the rest of his life.
Exasperated, Adam got to his feet, intending to ignore the question, but Ben stood up and grabbed him by the arm, barely resisting the urge to give him a good shake. When Adam tried to shrug free, he gripped him even tighter and held fast. Hoss and Joe exchanged a worried glance, but stayed out of it. Adam glared at his father. “What do you want me to do? Deny the truth?”
“No,” Ben snapped, his poker hot eyes burning into Adam’s. “I want you to forget about that insane game and give me a clear answer.”
“Fine!” Adam said, shouting back. “I stopped because I was shocked, disgusted, by what I was about to do!”
“Why?” Ben demanded again, not letting up.
“I already told you,” he bit out, “because I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want him to win.”
“Adam, if Kane had gotten the upper hand, do you think he would’ve stopped short of killing you? Do you think he would’ve pulled you through the desert, if you’d been the one to torture him?”
“Pa, the man was insane!”
“Yes, exactly, he was insane…and for a time you got caught up in it…but I want you to think…really think back to that moment…and tell me why you didn’t go through with it.”
Surprised by his dawning realization, he stared at his father for a long moment. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. “Because I didn’t really want to kill him. I just wanted to get away, wanted to get home.”
Ben’s shoulders sagged in relief and he released his grip, but not before giving Adam’s arm a loving squeeze. Finally. “So you see,” he said smiling tenderly, “you didn’t fail anyone, most of all yourself.”
Feeling as though he could breathe easy for the first time in weeks, Adam rewarded his father with a tired grin while his brothers made their way over, eager to offer their support. “Welcome back, big brother,” Hoss said, his face shining.
Joe flashed a grin and slipped an arm across Adam’s shoulders. “That goes for me too,” he said, his voice brimming with emotion.
Smiling, Hop Sing rose from the table. It was almost dawn and the family would need to eat before they retired for some much needed sleep.