Word Count: 2750
The wind whistled mournfully around the rocks until gradually it soared to a searing whistle and a cruel whine. The man pressed himself further into the craggy scree and with hands that were growing numb by the minute, struggled to hold his muffler more securely around his face and mouth.
It had been foolish to have followed the tracks into the box canyon. He was alone and no one knew he had been heading this way. He struggled even now to recall exactly what had been said earlier that morning as he had taken a rifle from the rack.
“What do you intend to be doin’ with that pea shooter?” Hoss had mumbled as he had edged pass him.
“Huntin’” he had replied abruptly.
“On your own?” Ben had asked from the table, peering above the edge of a letter he had been reading, “Do you think that’s wise? There’s a storm brewing for a start?”
“I know all about that,” he had snapped out the reply, tersely. He had spoken as he had felt, taut and tense.
“Then don’t be too long,” Ben had added cautiously, but he glanced anxiously over at Hoss.
Adam noticed the look that had passed between his father and brother, and it riled him more than ever. Since Will had taken Laura and Peggy away, it seemed that his family had been treating him with kid gloves. He understood their anxiety for his health, for it had not been that long since he had been confined to that wheel chair, but time had passed now, and he needed to convince them that he could handle things on his own now. He was sick of being wet-nursed like an invalid. He was not an invalid, so why did they insist on treating him like one?
He had to convince them, and now, huddled amongst the rocks, he asked himself ‘Convince them of what?’
He mocked himself as he inched his body closer into the rocks and made some attempt to protect himself from the cruel blasts of wind that howled down around him. Convince them that he was some stupid hard-headed idiot who needed his brains tested? There – his pride had overcome his common sense again. Ben would shout and storm and be self-righteous, Joe would roll his eyes and mutter and mumble, while Hoss would sigh and shake his head and throw out some one-liner that would be supposed to knock some sense into him.
That is, if he survived. Stuck in this box canyon with a storm screaming at him, he could not guarantee that he would survive an hour, let alone the rest of the night on his own. He tried to straighten his leg but the pain prevented him. For an instant of time, he wondered about the horse and where it could have gone.
The horse … he sighed again and closed his eyes as though the memory of that fateful ride had to be replayed in his memory to make sense of the present moment. He remembered going into the stable, buttoning his jacket as he did so, and thinking that from the way the temperature had plummeted his Pa could well be right about an impending storm. He had been about to saddle Sport when he realized the animal had been in his stall for some days due to an inflamed foreleg, which, upon feeling, it was still warm.
Looking back at that moment now, Adam realized he had missed the opportunity of returning to the warmth of his home; instead, his stubborn pride caused him to look about him for another mount. The result had been an uncomfortable ride on a horse that had become more nervous as the journey continued. Once the storm had broken, the creature had reared up and bolted, taking its rider into this natural cul-de-sac and casting him out of the saddle as though he had been a mere novice rider.
Adam bit his lip ruefully. The way that horse had taken off had been unexpected and unnerving. As skilled as he was as a rider, there had been no chance of his remaining in the saddle when it had chosen to buck him off. He had been tossed up, over and down in less time that it took to blink, and upon falling, had experienced the agony of pain from a broken limb. It had happened that swiftly.
He needed to light a fire. He needed warmth. He fumbled to get matches from his pocket but gave up because his hands were too cold and numb. He leaned his head back against the rock and closed his eyes in resignation. It was impossible to light a match for a fire in this wind; the idea was laughable.
Above the howl of the wind came the mournful wail of a wolf. Close by came the cries of others. Adam bit his lip again and realized that he was losing the feeling in them as well. He wondered if he had bitten hard enough to draw blood as he had felt nothing. So – wind and wolves? What else could go wrong?
The fact was, of course, that it should never have happened. He had lost his temper – again. In all honesty, he had not lost his temper with his family, but with himself. Now here he was, in a box canyon and lost.
“Serves me right,” he groaned, “Serves me right for being so pig-headed. I should have turned back as soon as I realized how close the storm was and how far from the Ponderosa I’d gone.”
Was it his imagination or were the wolves getting closer? He inched a hand forwards and fumbled for the rifle. It would mean relying on numb hands to hold and fire the thing, then a prayer to keep the bullet on course. What chance would he have if the wolves came in a pack? What chance? Barely any at all.
“You’re an idiot, Adam Cartwright.”
There – he knew it. Hoss had said his one liner. But Adam Cartwright said nothing. He kept his eyes closed. He was too weak and too cold and too tired to do anything else, but … oh, what blessed chance had sent Hoss to that box canyon? Thank God, thank God…
It took a little while for the flames to take hold and begin to give out some heat. During that time Hoss had cleared a space as near to the fire as possible for his brother. He had gently settled him upon a blanket. Now he anxiously fed the flames with as much dry brush as he had managed to find in the natural cavern close to which Adam had fallen.
It was a narrow spacing in the rock. Its discovery had been made some years back when Hoss had himself been involved in a chase scene of his own. Even now, as he rocked on his haunches hoping for the flames to burn more strongly, he recalled how he had chased that bunch of hoodlums into the box canyon.
There had been five of them popping off shots like crazy men. Hoss had ridden out of town with about fifteen other men forming a solid, determined posse. They had chased those men for miles and it was not until Hoss had flung himself behind some rocks as protection against the bullets that were buzzing at him like bees around a honey pot that he realized why there seemed to be so many of the things directed just at him. Looking around him for some back up, he had discovered that, of the fifteen men that had ridden out with him, he was the only man of them stuck in the rocks with the five gunmen raining bullets at him.
“Dangblast it!” Hoss had fumed to himself, “Joe Cartwright, I’ll skin you alive, see if I don’t, and afterwards, see if’n I don’t skin you alive agin!”
A bullet had flattened itself close to his ear. He ducked down, hurriedly ramming bullets into the chambers of his gun.
“Whar in tarnation are they all?” he growled and quickly fired off several shots in the general direction of the assailants.
Several bullets then had whistled and zinged into the rocks behind him and he realized that the other men had circled around him and had him boxed in. How, he had wondered, could a big man like himself disappear from a situation like this one?
It was then that he had seen the slit in the rock. Only yards from him. With a prayer and the hope that somehow he would become invisible for a few minutes, Hoss had slithered and slipped his way across the rocks until he had reached the slit and wriggled himself through. Once past the initial aperture between the rocks, he had discovered a good sized natural cavern behind him.
That was how he had found the place in which they were now hidden. He knew they were safe, hidden from view, because he had spent the best part of several hours hidden there while the men he had been chasing had sought him. He had heard intensified gunfire racketing around the place in the early evening hours and had realized that the posse had finally caught up with them. Later, inching out of the rocks, he had found Roy tying up the last of the men. Joe had been smirking in the saddle with his gun still in his hand, feeling important, and everyone had looked at him as though they had seen a ghost.
“Whar did you sprung from?” Roy had exclaimed.
“Whar did you disappear to?” Hoss had retaliated, casting a look at Joe that could have scorched the hide off a rhinoceros
Hoss felt the heat beginning to warm the air in the cavern. He turned to his brother who was still unconscious upon the blanket. Outside, the wind still whistled across the entrance of their hideout; he could hear it whining and sometimes wailing like a child. Inside the cavern, everything was still, the flames crackled and scorched the wood,
Hoss approached his brother’s side and squatted down beside him. The eyes were still closed and the lips were still. Adam had barely whispered his brother’s name, but it had been enough to bring his brother to his side,
“It’s alright, Adam; you’re alright.”
He stayed there for some minutes without moving, just staring down at the face of the man on the ground. Finally he roused himself to attend to the fire, and fed the flames, carefully now in order not to have their store of kindling burned up too soon. He remembered how Joe had quizzed him about his disappearance but he had quizzed Joe about why they had just left him chasing the five men on his own.
“Hoss, you were gone like a bat out of a hot place,” Joe had laughed. “I sure wish I knew what you had fed Chubb on that morning because for sure there was no stopping you. Roy’s horse threw a shoe so we had to stop…”
“YOU hadda stop!! Joe, if thet ain’t jest about the stupidest thing I ever did hear. Why didn’t you let me know you’d all decided to stop instead of leaving me chasing after them on my own? For Pete’s sake, I could’ve bin killed.”
“Well, you weren’t,” Joe said blithely, accompanied by his kid brother’s friendly slap on the back.
Hoss sighed and rubbed his hands. The little cavern had come in useful several times since then. He stocked up on firewood and matches and dry rations. This had been the first time, though, that he could see it as a God-given gift. He bit his bottom lip as he remembered lifting Adam into his arms and hearing his brother whisper “Thank God … thank God.”
Hoss was satisfied now that the fire had caught and would burn without further attention to it from him for some time. He sat, however, staring into the flames for a while longer, watching the shadows as they danced over the walls of the cavern. The wind outside still wailed, as though anguished at being unable to find an entry and snatch back its victim of the storm.
This time the name was uttered with some feeling and the big man turned to look down at the man now struggling into a sitting position.
“Hoss? How did you get here?”
“I followed ya. At a safe distance,” Hoss replied without much preamble. There was little point in wasting time with Adam, in a situation like this; his temper was unlikely to stretch far.
“You followed me?”
“You sure took your time catching up with me.” Adam leaned forward, rubbing his hands and feeling the warmth of the flames trickle through his flesh and blood, “I thought I was going to freeze to death.”
“The wind stopped me in my tracks once or twice; otherwise, I would have been here sooner. Are you alright? Your horse came racing ‘cross my path and nearly collided with us.” He didn’t add that seeing the riderless horse had put the fear of death into him, causing him to push Chubb to go even faster.
“Just cold. My leg…” Adam paused, and lowered his eyes.
“You’re sure as stubborn as a mule at times, Adam. Why didn‘t you turn back when the weather worsened?” Hoss asked, even as he was checking the splint already carefully put in place when he had brought Adam into the cavern earlier.
“I didn’t want to…”
“More fool you then; you could’ve been killed.”
“I know, and you’re right.” Adam sighed.
For a while they were silent as Hoss continued to check the splints and bandages around his brother’s leg. Adam watched, slightly bemused, slightly feverish and more than grateful for his brother’s attentions. He knew he had no need to worry about the outcome of his injuries; Hoss had set more broken limbs on both two legged and four legged creatures than anyone else he knew.
“Hoss, remember that time when we were on the cattle run? You were about 16 at the time. There was a storm and the cattle stampeded but you had only one thought in your head at the time and that was to reach the chuck wagon and make sure it was far enough away from the cattle.”
“Seemed sensible to me,” Hoss replied with a deep guffaw of a laugh, “If’n them cattle had trampled the chuck wagon to bits, then we’d have had no chow for the rest of the trip.”
“Even so, you put yourself in a lot of danger.”
“Yeah, and I recall one mother and her calf wouldn’t let me be. I thought she had a personal grudge agin me the way she came hurtling outta the shrub at me. Nearly got me thrown off’n my horse.”
“But, stubborn as a mule, you just carried on – regardless.” Adam smiled and pushed a burning twig back into the body of the fire.
“Made sense to me at the time,” Hoss replied, and then looked at his brother. “But that was different.”
“If you say so,” Adam replied slowly.
“You don’t have to prove anything to us, you know.”
“I know.” Adam sighed. “I didn’t think I was trying to prove anything to you, Hoss.”
“Then what are you trying to do, apart from gitting yerself killed?”
“I don’t know.” Adam hunched himself over. “Perhaps I was trying to prove something to myself.”
“Oh sure, like you’re a granite-headed mule?”
Adam said nothing to that but allowed a smile to touch his lips. He was warmer now, and tired. Very tired. The pain of the past months no longer seared his heart or troubled his mind. He felt drained now of all emotion and only longed for sleep.
Beyond the cavern, the wind howled. The campfire threw up shadows of the men upon the rock walls about them, one man sitting close to the fire, the other now sleeping upon the blanket. It was calm there, despite the storm wild baying, for it could not reach them now, they were safe, and they were together.