Summary: It’s down the rabbit hole for Adam . . .
Word Count: 3820
Adam had never seen rain teem down so hard. He watched the large droplets slash against the window glass from his tiny hotel room in Silver City and sighed with boredom. The stagecoach had been delayed and wouldn’t be able to leave for Virginia City until morning. Tomorrow was Hoss’ birthday, his twenty-fifth, and Adam didn’t want to miss the surprise party his father had planned.
He’d already eaten supper, played a lengthy game of poker at the saloon, gotten and hair cut and a shave. With all means of entertainment offered in Silver City now exhausted, Adam decided to raid the hotel lobby for something to read. He was pleasantly surprised to find a new book he’d heard about – Lewis Carol’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. He returned to his room to lounge on its fairly comfortable bed where he opened the book. The sound of the rain was musical and strangely soothing. He managed several chapters before he was lulled to sleep and drifted into his own slumberous dream world.
The morning brought brilliant sunshine. But, the previous day’s torrent produced mud in the streets so deep it was like walking in quick sand. The stage was ready and waiting for its passengers at the depot as Adam arrived to board. He tossed his valise up to the man who was stowing luggage and packages for delivery.
Adam turned out to be the only passenger so he decided to sit up top with the driver for company. This was something he did quite often. He found the confines of the coach itself claustrophobic. He preferred the wind blowing in his face and the feeling of freedom that being up high gave him. It was a tough way to travel but Adam didn’t seem to mind the bumpy ride.
He made small talk with Sam, a driver he’d ridden with many times before, as they moved slowly out of the town and onto the main road toward home. The horses struggled to tow the coach through the muck and mire but were soon up to speed. A clump of wet dirt hit Sam squarely on the chin and Adam couldn’t help but laugh. But, he was rudely silenced when a similar projectile side swiped his cheek making him look like he was wearing war paint. Now it was Sam’s turn to chuckle.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable down below?” Sam asked after he’d finished whipping his face.
“No. I’m fine.” Adam chortled pleasantly. “Just good clean dirt.”
“Did you wire your Pa to tell him we’d be late?”
“Yeah. Yesterday when I realized you had to stop because of the rain,” Adam replied. “Someone will be waiting to pick me up when we get in tonight. I told him around 5:30. Does that sound about right?”
“I’ll do my best Adam.”
“You always do, Sam. You always do.”
They moved along without incident until they curved around a large boulder. Sam had to pull up the reins abruptly when they realized the road had washed out. It literally disappeared in front of them. Only Sam’s experience and expertise prevented them from being swallowed up by the twenty-foot wide gorge the rain had created.
“Good work, Sam,” Adam complimented after they had safely stopped. He had braced himself for a crash. “What do we do now?”
“Well, I can do one of two things.”
“And that would be?”
“We can turn back or take a detour.”
Adam gritted his teeth and looked over the countryside as if it would make up his mind for him.
“I’d really like to get home tonight. It’s Hoss’ birthday and Pa is having a surprise party for him. Thing is, I’ve got Pa’s gift.”
“Oh yeah. What is it?”
“Pa had a gun made for Hoss with an extra large grip. The smith’s been working on it for months. I sure hate to disappoint them.” Adam continued to scan the land, seemingly determined to take a detour.
“It’s up to you Adam,” Sam said waiting for his passenger’s decision.
“Let’s try and get around.”
“It’ll be a rough trip,” Sam cautioned. “No telling what else is up ahead. Could be risky.”
“I know. But, take it slow and we should be fine.”
“All right. You’re the boss,” Sam said as he pulled back on the reins to back the team up. When he had enough clearance, he steered to the right in search of a safer path. They went several miles and came across an old freight road that seemed to be clear. Sam took a swift left turn and on they plodded.
The ride was jarring and Adam held on to stay seated. It was like breaking a bronc. Both men were jostled from side to side and up and down. Sam concentrated on the horses and the footing that lay ahead of them. Adam too was watchful, keeping alert for any sign of trouble. So far, so good.
The sun that was sparklingly brilliant hours before was now hidden behind black clouds that rolled and churned in the sky like cream floating in coffee. They rumbled with muffled thunder seemingly warning whatever lay below to take cover. Bolts of lightning flashed ominously. A stream of electricity cracked to the earth like a bullwhip, snapping a large branch off a tree as the coach passed. It spooked the horses into a frenzied gallop. And, then down it came again. Buckets of blinding rain.
“WE BETTER STOP!” Adam shouted over the roar of the downpour.
“I’m trying, Adam. I’m trying!” Sam yelled as he leaned back in a desperate attempt to stop the stampeding team of horses.
Adam grabbed the reins as well and both men pulled with all their might. But, as the storm accelerated so did the horses. Their mouths were agape fighting the bit. Their eyes were wide with terror. Adam and Sam were so concentrated on slowing the team they neglected to watch the road ahead and did not see the downed tree that lay squarely in their path. The horses clumsily jumped the log crashing the stage into it and catapulting the men into the air as if they were pebbles fired from a slingshot.
The horses continued on, pulling what was left of the shattered coach. Sam landed heavily into tree and slide to the ground with a thud. Water and mud covered him instantly. Adam was tossed head over heels to the opposite side of the narrow road. He smashed into a pile of rocks shoulder first and yelped upon impact. The shear force of his flight bounced him skyward again, and he slammed into the sloppy ground hitting his head against yet another downed tree. He lost consciousness as the storm deluged down on him.
At first, all he could hear was the sound of a single blue jay. Its screech echoed through the air like a rusty saw through wet wood. Then the sharp, lively chirps of smaller birds perched in the damp branches that dangled over him.
Adam lay on his back in a warm bed of mud. He slowly opened his eyes but the brilliant sun that had finally broken through the clouds forced him to shut them quickly. He grimaced and moaned with discomfort. He tried to raise his head but even that slight movement sent a wave of pain through his shoulder that almost made him pass out again. Again he winced and reached over to clasp his right arm.
“Where am I?” He asked himself aloud as he tried to roll over and get up. “What happened?”
Then with a sudden jolt he remembered the storm and the stagecoach run away. He sat up suddenly ignoring the pain his injury inflicted as he moved.
“SAM?” Adam called. “SAM! Are you all right? SAM?”
But, there was no answer. Adam then, with great effort, pushed himself into a standing position. He teetered there momentarily to get his bearings. He scanned the area for Sam. But, his concussion made it hard for him to focus. Everything swayed making him feel seasick.
“SAM?” Adam yelled again – his own voice ricocheted through his head like a stray bullet.
He stumbled forward only a few steps before he fell to his knees. But, he battled his battered body’s uncooperation and struggled to his feet. He shook his head to clear it of fuzz and double vision and only then did he see Sam several yards away. Holding his shoulder firmly, Adam made his way to his friend. He knelt beside him but he knew Sam was dead. He lay face down in a murky puddle. He placed his hand on Sam’s back sorrowfully.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me,” Adam prayed. “I’m sorry, Sam. I’m so sorry.”
He exhaled a breath of despair. He knew he’d been foolish to steer off the main road and he couldn’t help but blame himself for Sam’s death. Deflated and disoriented he sat to try to gain his wits. He’d need them. He was off the beaten path and alone. Night was beginning to fall and Adam would have to find shelter. He looked down the rugged road but saw no sign of tracks. The rain had erased them. He had no idea where the horses ended up. He just hoped they’d found their way back to Virginia City. That, Adam thought, may be his only chance for survival.
He’d felt as though he’d walked for miles but he was lucky to have even traveled one. He judged from the position of Tea Kettle Rock that he was closer to the Ponderosa than to town so he decided to head for home. How hard could it be? It was just over that ridge through the lower meadow and up the hill. Not ten miles from where he stood.
But, Adam’s first hurdle was merely staying cognizant. He knew his head injury could kill him if he lapsed into sleep. His shoulder hurt so badly, it just added to his weariness. He had to find a place to spend the night before he began his long walk home. As darkness settled across the valley like a flood of black treacle, Adam huddled against a large boulder. It would have to do.
He shivered uncontrollable but there was nothing he could do. He had nothing but the shirt on his back. His valise was still on the coach, or what was left of it. His hat that he’d secured on his head firmly as he rode atop the stage was nowhere insight – knocked off in the accident. The only comfort he had was his gun. At least he could defend himself if the coyotes came to call.
Adam was cold, hungry and so tired. He knew he was in trouble and prayed that his father and brothers were already out looking for him. He desperately wanted to sleep. His arm ached with a pulsing fury. His hand and wrist were swollen to twice their size and his shoulder was the color of concord grapes. A bone stuck awkwardly upwards between his collarbones, pushing his skin to the brink. He had to stabilize his arm somehow or he though he might go insane from the agony. He carefully fashioned his belt into a sling and then held his arm tight to his body. He had to take a deep breath after his procedure to lower his heart rate.
He hunkered down for the night. The blue jays were now gone, replaced by owls and their eerie shrieks. The coyotes too, wailed in the distance. Besides the obvious damage to his body, they were the biggest threat to his life. A pack of coyotes could make short work of a weakened man.
“Amazing Grace… how sweet the sound,” Adam sang quietly in a last stitch effort to stay awake and calm himself, “that saved a wretch like me…I once was lost, but now I’m found… was blind but now I see…”
“Charlie?” Hoss said with irritation, “Where is that gall darned stage?”
“I don’t know, Hoss. It was due in about a half hour ago. Maybe they got caught in the storm,” Charlie answered.
But, before Hoss could comment the team of horses, still pulling the wrecked coach came barreling into town and down the center of the main street. It took several men, including Hoss to get them under control and stopped. The horses were covered in foam and still spooked by the crash. They’d been running for hours.
Hoss, now panicked, first looked inside the coach to see if anyone was in there. When he found it empty he climbed on top and found Adam’s valise. Immediately, he ran to Sheriff Coffee’s office for help. By now, most of the town was abuzz with what might have happened and several men volunteered on the spot to search for Sam and his passengers.
Hoss sent young Billy Harper to the Ponderosa to get Joe and Ben. The party would have to wait. The guests that had gathered in Hoss’ absence were sent home.
At the break of dawn the search party was assembled and ready to ride out. They knew it was no use to track in the dark. Out here, when night fell, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. There was no moon and lanterns only cast light for several feet.
No, they were wise to wait. But, that didn’t make it any less anxious for Ben, Joe and Hoss who were chomping at the bit to find Adam. It was hard not knowing where Adam was or if he’d been hurt or even killed in the crash. Worry etched their faces. Finally, when the sun rose, the Sheriff and twelve others they set out on the road to Silver City.
Adam did sleep. Or did he simply pass out from his trauma. Either way, the familiar sound of the blue jay awoke him. The rest gave him some relief from his injury and he seemed a little more alert then he did the evening before.
He labored to stand and go forward. He concentrated on home and its luxuries. His warm, clean bed; Hop Sign’s roast beef supper and blueberry pie; his horse Sport; his father and brothers. Adam ran off all the things he loved about home in his head to drive himself on. Maybe he could get there by nightfall. He’d set that goal whether it was attainable or not. Getting back to the main road never even occurred to him. His concussion prevented straight thinking. Home… get home was his concentrated goal.
By noon he had to stop his trek. The sun was too intense for him to go any further. The ridge seemed just as far away as it did when he set out that morning. Weakened by lack of food and water and his painful arm, he took refuge under a large oak tree to regain his strength. Again, he lapsed into unconsciousness – his body too worn out to go on. When he came to again, it was dark. “No,” he wailed hopelessly. “Help me… somebody help me.”
The search party reached the crash site by midday. They found Sam’s body. Some of the men stayed to bury him while Ben, Hoss and Little Joe scoured the area to try and track down Adam. They shot off several rounds of gunfire to try and make contact with him, but to no avail.
“PA!” Joe yelled from fifty feet away from the road where Hoss and Ben stood in conference. They ran over to Joe who held Adam’s hat in his hand. Ben took it from his son and slapped it against his thigh with frustration.
“Where could he be?” Ben exclaimed anxiously, as he scanned the horizon.
“Look Pa,” Hoss said as he pointed to coyote tracks around the area.
“No. You don’t think…” Ben replied in horror.
“I don’t know Pa. It’s possible.”
“NO! I won’t accept it. We’d find something, his clothing – his remains …”
“Pa,” Joe interrupted his father’s gruesome thought trying to calm him by placing his hand on his forearm. “He’s been out here for two days Pa. You saw that coach. He… probably didn’t survive the initial crash. We’ll keep looking but…”
“No, Joseph. No buts. Adam is alive. I know it. I won’t stop looking for him until I find him or find proof that he’s dead.”
“Pa,” Hoss tried to console.
“NO!” Ben commanded as he pulled away from Joe’s grasp. “Now let’s mount up and keep looking.”
Ben was already half way to Buck before he finished his order. Hoss and Little Joe just stood and watched him. They glanced at one another skeptically. If Adam wasn’t killed in the accident itself he probably was not left unscathed. It was not uncommon for an injured man in the wilderness to be feasted upon by scavengers of the night. It was a sobering notion, but Hoss and Joe feared that that had been Adam’s fate.
“BOYS!” Ben shouted. “Let’s go!”
The brothers jogged to their horses and mounted up to continue what they reckoned was a futile search.
Adam did manage to reach the foothills where he began his arduous ascent up the ridge. When he got to the peak he’d be able to see the ranch house. But, he had a ways to go before that wish was possible. His arm hampered his efforts, but he pressed onward and upward. Sweat dripped off him and he grunted with fatigue as he struggled slowly up the rocky crest.
It took him three grueling hours to get to the plateau and when he did he collapsed – his body unable to hold him up any longer. His frame simply folding underneath him like dried twigs. Out of breath and fighting his pain, he looked over the fields below and saw the Ponderosa ghostlike in the distance. And, just below him a perfectly circular pond that glistened in the afternoon light. It looked unnatural and Adam wondered if he was seeing a mirage. The sight energized him and he rose to his feet and pushed on bravely. Once he quenched his ravenous thirst, he could make it home. He had to.
“Pa we need to get supplies if we’re going to carry on searching for Adam,” Hoss announced. “These horses are done for. The house is just over that ridge. It’ll only take us a couple hours to do that and then we’ll set right back out again.”
Hoss looked across at Joe to get his reaction. He knew his little brother would agree. He also knew his father was drained but was too stubborn to admit it.
“Come on Pa,” Joe encouraged. “Hoss is right. Let’s go home and freshen up. We’re not doing Adam any good if we’re too tired to see straight.”
Ben didn’t speak. He just turned Buck toward home and cantered off. Hoss and Joe followed in silence.
Day four brought more rain. But, Adam found it refreshing. He was within miles of home and was determined to get there. He’d passed the point of no return. He was now numb and running on nothing but shear guts.
When he finally reached the courtyard of the house, he shouted for help.
“PA!” He cried out. “HELLO… HOSS, JOE?”
But, no one answered. He walked through the front door only to find the house empty.
Covered in mud and soaked to the skin he dragged himself up the stairs to his room where he collapsed face first onto his bed. The weight of his body made the mattress bounce several times. But, Adam could feel nothing. His world had faded to black.
“I’ll take care of the horse Pa and saddle up three more,” Hoss offered.
“Hurry, son. There is no time to waste.” Ben said as he rushed into house to gather supplies.
Joe handed the reins to his brother and they locked eyes. They knew it was hopeless. There would be no remains to find. Adam was gone and they just hoped their father could realize and come to terms with it. They would have to erase his denial… somehow. But, there woeful sentiments were interrupted by shouts from their father.
“HOSS! JOE!” Ben roared as he appeared at the front door to alert his sons.
Both boys ran into the house. All they had to do was look at the muddy footprints that trailed across the living room floor and up the stairs. All three men looked at one another optimistically before they rushed to Adam’s room. When they walked through his door they found him in the same position he’d fell into only an hour earlier.
“Adam?” Ben said as he carefully placed his hand on his son’s back. “Help me turn him over Hoss.”
“Watch his arm, Pa. He’s hurt his arm.”
The shifting awoke Adam with a painful jolt and he howled.
“Easy, son. Easy. You’re home now. You’re safe.”
“Pa?” Adam murmured as gazed up in disbelief at his father.
“Yes, son. You’re going to be alright now.”
“The storm spooked the horses,” Adam began to entail. “We were thrown from the stagecoach. Sam was killed.”
“We know. We took care of Sam.”
“I told him to take a detour.”
“It’s all right, Adam. You rest now and we’ll get the doctor.”
“But, it’s my fault, Pa.”
“It’s nobody’s fault, son. It was an accident,” Ben tried to calm his boy. “How did you get here?”
“I had to get home.”
Ben could barely hold back his tears. His own exhaustion only added to his emotion. He hugged Adam gently and started to weep.
“Why are you crying, Pa?”
“I thought you were dead.”
“I thought I was too. But…”
“But I couldn’t miss Hoss’ birthday.”
Adam had just enough strength left to wink before he fell back asleep. His show of wit in such trying circumstances sent waves of relief through Ben, Hoss and Little Joe. They knew he’d be fine now that he was in their care. They made him comfortable and set him on the road to recovery.
Adam never realized what home really meant to him before. It all became as clear as a looking glass now. It was more than just a building made of logs and stone; it was his past and his future. It was his family and the foundation for his very being. He over came terrific obstacles to get there but every step brought him closer and closer to his lifeblood… a wonderland called home – The Ponderosa.