Summary: A lot happens off the beaten path.
Word Count: 6651
When he opened his eyes, all he could see was the ominous circling of flying scavengers above. It made him dizzy. They were silhouetted against the brilliant sun of morning. The birds screeched impatiently as if they were tired of waiting for their pray to die.
At first, he only felt numbness, but then it started again. The pain that pushed him beyond consciousness and into a well of darkness had returned with a vengeance. It was almost too much to bear. He clenched his jaw and closed his eyes tightly to try and overcome it but it was no use. He was trapped… literally.
He took several short breaths through his gritted teeth in order to work up enough guts to sit up. He had to. If he didn’t he may as well perish and let the animals have their due. With all his will and remaining strength, he threw his arms forward only managing to prop himself on his elbows. His sudden thrust sent sparks of fire up his leg and he let out a primal growl. It was loud enough to disturb the vultures but not enough to scare them off.
When the stars that danced in front of his fluttering eyes subsided, Adam could see it. It was true. At first he thought it maybe a cruel nightmare, but no… his ankle was, in fact, clamped by the jaws of a bear trap. Its sharp teeth had punctured the leather of his boot and were embedded in his flesh. He was certain his shinbone was broken in two. The slightest movement caused blinding agony. The sight of the gory mess almost made Adam ill. But, he had to somehow release his foot or he would indeed die.
The previous day, Adam rode off the trail on his way home from Carson City. He often sought alternative routes while traveling, preferring a change of scenery to a timely return home. It was a habit his father tried to dissuade him from. But, independent Adam would scoff Ben’s warnings with a dismissive “Oh Pa. Stop being such a mother hen. You worry too much.”
So, while off the beaten path and without anyone knowing his whereabouts, he dismounted Sport to check for a stone in his hoof and he stepped right into the steel snare. The sudden snap made his knees buckle and he was thrown off balance and tumbling into a deep gully. Now, he lay with his head steeply below his feet. He barely had enough strength left to breathe let alone pull himself up the hill to reach his injured ankle.
When it happened he struggled to turn himself around but the trap was chained to a tree. He only added to the pressure by trying to change his position and actually made his predicament worse. So, upside down he remained – snagged by his right foot.
His horse stood loyally by. Not twenty feet away. Sport grazed lazily as if his partner had dismounted to mend a fence or fill a canteen with water. Water. The precious stuff was out of reach, hanging off his saddle in its container – so close, yet so far away. Adam tried to moisten his cracked lips, but his mouth was drier than desert sand. And, his throat felt as if it was coated with gravel from hours of calling for help. He feared he would simply dehydrate before he bled to death. That might be more merciful.
Adam fell back again in frustration and fatigue – his entire body racked with pain. He swore to himself, if he ever got out of this he would hunt down who ever placed the deadly thing there in the first place. Beneath his suffering, he seethed with anger. At the same time, Adam could feel his cognizant thought quickly evaporating. He was aware of becoming weaker and weaker and drifting into a world of madness. His heart accelerated with dread.
With one last effort to save himself, Adam reached for rocks to throw at Sport. If he could spook his horse, he’d head for home and his family would come looking for him. But, the stones were not enough to move the gelding. Finally, Adam reached for his gun. He pulled it out of its holster and pointed it toward the birds above. He emptied the magazine, one after the other in a rapid, noisy mass of gunfire. That did it. Sport, turn-tailed and galloped off toward home.
“Good boy,” was all Adam had the strength to utter. Again he gazed up at his tormentors. Despite the spray of bullets, they hovered still in the bluest sky Adam had ever seen.
“You know Joe…” Hoss grumbled, “Just once I’d like you to pull the winch. I’m gitting real tired of doing all the work around here.”
“Next time Hoss. Next time,” Little Joe patronized.
The men were loading hay into the loft of the barn. The job was a frequent chore. If there was one-thing horses were good at, it was eating…a lot. But, they deserved every morsel. Without Buck, Chubby, Sport and Cochise, among others, the ranch would simply fall apart. The Cartwright’s knew that healthy, strong horses were the key to a successful cattle business. And, that meant hauling hay every few weeks.
“Are you still trying to get Joe on that winch Hoss?” Ben inquired as he approached his sons, leaving his paper work back in the house for a breath of fresh air.
“Well, it’s about time Joe or Adam took their turn. How come I always got to do the heavy liftin’?” Hoss protested as sweat trickled down his forehead and off the end of his nose. “It just ain’t fair Pa.” He panted.
Ben looked at his boy unsympathetically.
“Well, besides the stock, you’re the strongest thing we got around here Hoss,” Joe mocked, then tittered like a demented squirrel.
“Listen, big shorty.” Hoss pointed. “You’re real lucky you’re up there and I’m down here or I’d show you just how strong I can be.”
“You’d have to catch me first.” Joe challenged with a fiendish grin.
From life long experience, Hoss knew Joe was as slippery as a greased pig and faster than a fox-chased jackrabbit. It was true he was hard to catch. But, at the moment he entertained the thought of climbing the ladder into the loft and boxing his little brother’s ears. But, in the past, Joe would simply slither down the hoist rope and scamper out of sight until Hoss cooled somewhat. Disgruntled, the big man continued pulling – hand over hand.
“Have you seen any sign of Adam?” Ben asked ignoring his sons’ banter. “He said he’d be back from Carson City yesterday.”
“He’ll – probably – show – up – the second – this load – is done.” Hoss puffed.
“Oh? Has he been taking procrastination lessons from Joseph?” Ben jabbed.
“Pa!” Joe objected. “I do not procrastinate… I just like to plan things so I can do the best job possible. Yeah, that’s it.” Joe said as if trying to convince himself of his own theory.
“Sure you do son. Sure you do.” Ben chuckled.
Interrupted by the frantic sound of hooves, the men stopped to see what or who was stampeding toward them. Sport sped into the courtyard coming to an abrupt halt in front of the hay wagon. Both Ben and Hoss approached him cautiously.
“Easy boy. Easy.” Hoss said as he gently took Sport’s reins and patted his neck to calm him.
“What do you suppose happened Pa?” Joe said as he lowered himself down the rope to the ground.
“Well, I don’t know Joe.” Ben answered with concern, looking over the horse for clues.
“He’s been running a while. He’s pretty foamed up.”
“Yes… well, let’s go look for him.” Ben sighed. “Most likely he’s just fallen off.”
“Fallen off? Adam don’t fall off his horse, Pa.” Hoss stated. “As a matter of fact, I caint remember one time he’s come off yet.”
“Well, maybe he’s finally joined the club.” Ben offered dryly.
“What club is that Pa?” Joe inquired.
“The one we all belong to son… the ‘hello ground club’.” He chortled. “These things happen. There’s a first time for everything. He’s probably just up the road walking home.” Ben tried to sound positive. “But, let’s be sure, shall we?”
The threesome entered the barn seemingly upbeat. But, they all knew this was extremely unusual and something was terribly wrong. Adam was an accomplished and careful rider. Hoss was right, Adam had never come off his horse due to lack of equestrian skills.
Even as a boy, Adam never once experienced the rude awakening of falling off his horse. Unlike his younger siblings, Little Joe and Hoss used their mounts more as toys than transportation or as means to accomplish their chores. They would try to outdo each other with tricks and daring leaps and bounds. They once even tried jousting, a pastime their father soon put a stop to.
Adam would have none of the tomfoolery though, honing his skills every chance he got. He’d practice opening and closing gates, roping, cutting and reining. Even now, when Sport inevitably spooked and bolted, Adam stayed aboard reinforcing his notorious stickability. The only member of the clan that came close to Adam’s comfort on horseback was Joe. He preferred the school of hard knocks to gain experience while Adam prided himself on practice and technique.
Hoss removed Adam’s saddle from Sport’s back and placed him in his stall. He took care with Adam’s tack and set it carefully on its stand and covered it with the blanket as Adam always did. Then he threw the gelding a few flakes of hay and a scoop of grain. The threesome then saddled their horses, mounted up and followed Sport’s tracks. Hopefully, they would lead to Adam and solve the mystery of his apparent first fall.
“I think we got somethin’?” came an excited, young voice from the dense forest.
Brother’s Brad and Kurt and their best friend Seth, traipsed between the massive tree trunks to where they had set the trap they’d found in an abandoned hunting shack. The threesome were constant companions as their folks had neighboring farms several miles from the Carson City limits. Brad was the leader at aged twelve. Seth had just turned eleven and young Kurt was ten. They had high hopes of capturing something. An actual bear would be the ultimate prize.
“We did get somethin’!” Seth yelled as he pointed at the circling birds.
The boys began to run toward their prize. But, when they came to the edge of the gully they stopped in their tracks so abruptly they almost fell into the trench themselves. That was when they saw Adam lying unconscious below them. They also saw the blood that still oozed like molasses from his ensnared leg.
“Gosh.” Young Kurt whispered.
The boys stared at their unfortunate prey – their eyes wide and their mouths agape.
“We’re in trouble.” He gasped – his heart beating in his throat. “Let’s get out of here!”
“No wait. We can’t just leave him here.” Seth declared. “We gotta go for help.”
“My Pa’s gonna tan my hide when he finds out about this.” Brad muttered fearfully.
Kurt began to fret and whimper. But, he received no comfort from his comrades. The boys stood frozen, all of them wondering what to do. The vultures continued their impatient squawks. Their calls shattered the speechless silence of the boys. Several moments passed before young Kurt finally piped up.
“What should we do Brad?”
“We’ll have to take care of him.”
“How are we going to do that?” Seth asked skeptically.
“We’ll take him to that line shack where we found the trap and tend to him. His leg can’t be that bad.”
“Can’t be that bad?” Kurt interjected through his tears. “He looks dead!”
That thought had not actually entered any of the boy’s minds as yet. But, it was sure in there now.
“Do you think he’s dead?” Kurt reiterated with a sniff, as he peered down the slope.
“I don’t know.” Brad replied nervously.
“Well…somebody better go check.” Seth demanded.
“You go Brad.”
“It was your idea to set the dang thing in the first place.” Seth affirmed.
“Okay, okay… I’ll go.”
Clutching each other’s clothing for support, Kurt and Seth released Brad to allow him to check on Adam. Gingerly, Brad shimmied into the gully. When he got to Adam, he seemed fearful of touching what might be a corpse.
“Check his pulse.” Seth yelled from above.
Brad tentatively took Adam’s wrist and felt for a beat. At first his heart sank because he couldn’t detect any sign of life. But, he persisted and moved his fingers in several positions until he found what he was looking for.
“HE’S ALIVE!” Brad shouted up to his friends. “Come on down here and help me.”
Seth and Kurt looked at one another for reassurance. Neither gave much confidence. They both sighed and without a word of refusal descended to where Adam lay. It took all of them to pry open the trap and discard it. When they finally did, Adam groaned with discomfort. Too incapacitated to realize what was happening or to put up a fight, his delirious moans were the only protests he could muster.
“How are we going to get him out of here?” Kurt asked looking up the steep hill.
“Me and Seth will take his shoulders and you take his feet.”
“But, his legs are covered in blood.”
“KURT! Just take his feet.” Brad scolded his little brother with exasperation.
Adam may as well have been a downed tree as it took great effort for the boys to drag him up and out of the gully. Out of breath, they finally made it to the top and laid their victim out flat – his body seemingly lifeless. Adam’s face was the color of sun-bleached slate. His skin was wet with perspiration and smeared with grim. His breathing was labored through his dry, parted lips. The boys stood over him staring at their catch helplessly.
“Now what?” Kurt said with a shrug.
“I’m going to get help.” Seth announced boldly despite Brad’s orders to the contrary.
“NO!” Brad insisted. “We can take care of him. He’ll be all right. Look. The bleeding has stopped already. If you tell anyone about this, my Pa will find out and me and Kurt will be done for.”
“I don’t know.” Seth said unsure.
“It’ll just be a couple of days and he will be as good as new. You’ll see.”
“I guess you’re right.” Seth said still sounding unconvinced.
“Now, let’s build him a stretcher and then we can take him to the shack. It’s not that far.”
By, midday they had pulled Adam to the tiny lodge. They placed him on the dirt floor and covered him with a ragged blanket that had been left behind by an unknown hunter. Brad, Kurt and Seth again stood over Adam wondering what to do next.
“Maybe we should get him some water.” Seth suggested.
“Go get some Kurt.” Brad ordered. “There’s a stream out back.”
Without protest, Kurt scampered out of the shed.
“Should we try and take off his boot?” Seth asked through a wince.
“I guess we should.”
“Here’s my knife.” Seth offered.
“It’s your knife. You cut his boot.” Brad insisted.
All the while, Adam remained oblivious to his surroundings and his rescuers. The loss of blood and his tumble engulfed him in a web of fever and torturous hallucinations. His only sign of consciousness were sporadic jerks and incoherent whimpers.
The boys knelt at Adam’s feet and gingerly pulled up his pant leg. But, the stickiness of dried blood made it difficult. So, they cut the material instead. As they worked, Adam began to protest and he started to growl as if he were a wild animal. It scared them. But, Seth and Brad continued their naive surgery. Finally, they had Adam’s boot exposed. It looked like the leather was the only thing holding his leg together and the boys stared at one another.
“This looks bad, Brad.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“I don’t think I should do anymore. He needs a doctor.”
“How many times do I gotta tell ya? No one can know what we did. We’ll go to jail.”
“No we won’t,” Seth scoffed.
“Will too. Lots of men have gone to the gallows for less than this. Do you want to go to the gallows?”
“Then let’s get his boot off.”
“I… I can’t do it,” Seth sounded like he was going to faint.
“Ah… give me the gall darn thing,” Brad said with disgust.
After a moment to prepare and a deliberate deep breath, Brad took the top of Adam’s boot and held it firmly between his thumb and forefinger. He placed the blade inside the boot and started to saw into the leather. The jostling of his leg was too much for Adam to bear. He roared from the pain and jolted upright sending the boys back onto their rumps. They looked at Adam as if he’d risen from the grave. Kurt stood in the door. He held his hat upside down. It was filled with water but he dropped it when Adam came to life. Kurt screamed with terror.
“It’s okay mister. We’ll take care of you.” Brad tried to console Adam, placing both hands on Adam’s shoulders. “We gotta get your boot off.”
“NO DON’T!” Adam was aware enough to reply. “Don’t.” He cried.
“But, we gotta clean the wound.”
“Joe,” Adam murmured. “Go get Pa.”
“Joe?” Seth asked. “Who’s Joe?”
“Get Pa,” Adam repeated through his haze of misery.
“I can’t, mister.”
“JOE… GO GET PA!” Adam bellowed insistently through gritted teeth.
Adam reached out and grabbed Brad by the front of his shirt. Terror lit the boy’s face and he tried to pull away from Adam’s desperate grasp. But, Adam couldn’t hold on. With a grimace, he struggled to stay conscious but once again relapsed into a deep chasm of darkness. As Adam returned to the void, the boys continued their work.
Sport’s tracks began to fade several hours into the Cartwright’s search for Adam. It became obvious to Ben, Hoss and Little Joe that the horse had run wild for a day or so before he finally found his way back to the Ponderosa. His hoof prints virtually dried up and there was no sign of Adam at all. The threesome stopped to discuss their next move.
“Where should we look now Pa?” Joe asked, as Cochise reared with anticipation.
“Carson City,” he replied sternly, and then sniffed with ire. “Darn fool boy. Stay on the main roads I said. How many times did I tell him to stay on the main roads?”
“Take it easy, Pa. You know Adam. You c’aint tell him nothin’. He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. We’ll find him,” Hoss reasoned as he leaned both hands on the horn of his saddle. “Let’s head on to Carson City and back track from there. Even if we don’t find him on the road, there might be somebody who mighta seen ’em.”
Without another word, they took their usual route to Carson City. They trotted slowly, keeping their eyes peeled and periodically calling Adam’s name. With every moment that passed, Ben became more and more concerned. His gut felt like it was in the grips of a tourniquet and with each step it turned tighter and tighter. By mid afternoon they’d reached the edge of the forest and the trail that joined with the main road to town. At that point, the men split up to cover as much ground as possible.
They could hear each other in the distance, periodically calling Adam’s name. Hoss rode along the top of the gully where Adam met his fate three days ago. But, the evidence of his unfortunate mishap was hidden below. His blood, the trap and his hat all lay waiting to be discovered. But, all the clues were simply invisible to Hoss who rode right on by. There was no sign of Adam’s rescue by the boys either. Savvy Brad, terrified of being caught, had erased their tracks with a leafy branch and they disappeared into the deep forest.
As twilight fell over the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Ben, Hoss and Little Joe joined up at the mouth of the road that led into Carson City. They jogged into town to continue their investigation with foreboding. They knew Adam was to deliver a stallion to Pete Visser and that was the Cartwright’s first stop.
Brad, Seth and Kurt did there very best to help Adam. As a matter of fact, they did an expert job of cleaning the wound and stopping the bleeding. After splinting Adam’s leg, they tightly wrapped it with Seth’s shirt. How he was going to explain to his parents why he had arrived home without his clothes he had yet to figure. They spilled as much water as they could down Adam’s throat, and made him as comfortable as possible before they returned home for supper. They simply had no choice but to leave their patient alone to fend for himself until morning. The boys planned to check on Adam then. If they stayed with him, their fathers would undoubtedly come looking for them and they would find out their terrible secret.
The moonless night was blacker than India ink. It seemed to blanket the tiny shed where Adam lay drowning in tormented nightmares. They sent him into a disturbing world of abstractions. At first he stood on a ledge that stuck out from the side of a steep cliff like a mantle. He could see his father’s hand reaching down to him. His fingers were stretched as far apart as they possibly could. The tension they held looked painful and they shook with frustration and terror.
“TAKE MY HAND SON!” Ben shouted frantically. “YOU CAN DO IT… TAKE MY HAND.”
Adam strained to grab it but his father was simply out of reach. Then, suddenly he lost his footing and fell back. He flailed wilding to regain his balance but couldn’t. But, his terrifying fall miraculously turned pleasant and he felt as if he was floating in mid air. He soared through clouds so gleaming white they hurt his eyes. The land below was emerald green and he could see his brothers watching him – their eyes squinted tightly against the brilliant sunshine. They waved at Adam, as he swooped over them like a hawk. But, the thrilling feeling of flight ended abruptly into a vacuum of nothingness. It seemed to last an eternity. Then Adam transcended his very being and he peered down at his own body, as if he were suspended in the rafters of the shed. From there he watched himself struggle to overcome the very nightmare that held him captive.
An owl screeched – its haunting sound jolted Adam back to reality. He was disoriented and obliviously called out for his father. His body was soaked in sweat, but the midnight air sent a chill down his back and he shivered uncontrollably. Amazingly, the excruciating pain in his lower leg was replaced with a warm soreness – like an old bruise. It calmed him somewhat. But, even though the boys had managed to get Adam to drink, his thirst was overwhelming. He had to somehow find water.
Trying to adjust his eyes to the limited light, Adam sat up. He placed his hands out flat behind him. The room spun like an eddy and he waited patiently for it to stop. He shook his head to try and stabilize. Sparks of light popped in front of his eyes, momentarily blinding him. Several moments passed before Adam leaned over to touch his leg. Only then did he discover the splint and dressing. Its presence was puzzling.
He rolled onto his hip and began the laborious task of getting to his feet. With great effort he was successful. Adam placed all his weight on his left leg and bent the knee of his injured leg fearful of touching his foot to the floor. He knew if he did the agony would start again. He barely had the strength to stand and held onto the wall brace for support.
“Hello?” he called. “Is… is anyone there?”
Only the owl answered. He then realized he was in some sort of hunter’s cabin. How he got there was a mystery. He could just barely make out the door as a smoky gray rectangle and he hobbled toward it. Adam opened the door and hopped outside – his overpowering thirst forcing him onward. Again, he strained to make out his surroundings. He could hear the trickle of a stream behind him. Using the side of the small building as support, he felt his way down the path to the water. When he reached its edge he gingerly dropped to his knees and leaned forward. He placed his entire head beneath the surface of the water. The gentle current bubbled around his ears. But, Adam’s desperate attempt to revitalize his senses failed.
Cold and still dazed from his trauma, he began to limp up stream. Adam had no idea where he was or which way to go. He inched his way along the bank, periodically stumbling into the water. The auburn light of dawn seeped over the landscape like syrup on pancakes. Adam wondered aimlessly deeper and deeper into the woods – his search for survival his only unwitting goal.
“HE’S GONE!” Seth gasped as he peered through the open cabin door.
Kurt and Brad pushed Seth aside and stepped into the shed. Brad picked up the ragged blanket. “Where do you figure he went?” he asked.
“Look.” Seth pointed. “Footprints. They lead down to the creek.”
The boys scrambled to the water hoping they’d find the man they’d aided the day before. But, there was no sign of Adam anywhere. They followed the stuttered steps he’d left behind but they disappeared into the stream. Adam had simply vanished.
“What do we do now?” Kurt inquired from atop a rock that poked out of the middle of the stream.
“I guess we go home, Brad said.
“Go home? That man was in no shape to be wondering around out here. He could die!”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it if we can’t find him Seth.” Brad shrugged as if he was glad it was no longer his problem.
“We’ve got to look harder.”
“I wanna go home,” Kurt whimpered. “I’m scared.”
“You’re always scared,” Brad chastised.
“Cut it out,” Seth ordered. “We’ve got find that man or we really will be in trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“If he dies, we’re murderers and we really will go to the gallows.”
Brad and Kurt looked terrified. They both stood silently trying to absorb what Seth had just said. A hawk screeched overhead distracting the boys momentarily.
“I’m going into town and tell the sheriff,” Seth announced boldly.
“You can’t stop me this time, Brad. It’s what we should have done yesterday.”
“I said no,” Brad insisted.
But, Seth had already turned toward Carson City and began to jog through the trees fully intending on getting help. Brad ran after him and tackled Seth to the ground. They landed with a thud. The boys began to tousle and fight – Seth desperately trying to escape Brad’s grasp and Brad preventing Seth from going any further. Kurt caught up to them and stood over them. “STOP IT!” he shouted. “STOP IT, BRAD!”
Kurt was small but deceptively strong and he lunged on top of his brother successfully prying him off Seth. Out of breath, the boys got to their feet and stared daggers at one another as they puffed. Kurt continued to hold on to his brother until he was sure he was calm. He then stood between them.
“Seth’s right, Brad. We’ve got to tell somebody. We’ve got to get help.” He implored. “I couldn’t sleep a wink last night and if that man dies because of what we did, I’ll never sleep again. We’ve got to do what’s right no matter what Pa might do.”
Still heaving from their scuffle, the boys continued to leer as they waited for Brad to come to his senses. When he finally did, the three comrades reluctantly ran the several miles to town.
The previous evening Ben, Hoss and Little Joe tracked down Pete Visser. He told them that he and Adam shared dinner three nights ago. They had a pleasant evening and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He told them Adam was in good spirits and intended on riding home the next morning. As a matter of fact, he saw Adam do just that. All Pete could tell them was that Adam rode out of town the same way he came in – right down Main Street toward home. Absolutely nothing seemed amiss.
So, the men could do nothing but wait until morning to pick up their search. But, before they set out, they planned to stop by the sheriff’s office just in case he’d heard of anything strange. The threesome booked two rooms in the local hotel, one for Ben and one for Hoss and Joe to share. All tried to get some sleep. But, that proved to be a tall order, as each one of them churned with worry over the lost Cartwright.
Ben laid flat on his back in the middle of the bed in the darkened hotel room. He stared out the window. It was illuminated by the beams of a harvest moon and appeared as melted butter. Ben closed his eyes but could not sleep as his eldest son’s face appeared in his head. He could see Adam as a small child, holding baby Hoss. Then he pictured a teenaged Adam teaching toddler Joe how to swim. He was such a mature and helpful boy. But, his pleasant thoughts turned daunting when he saw Adam trapped in a dense forest. The image shook Ben to the core and he popped open his eyes suddenly and he sat up. He leaned over to turn up the lamp. He rose from his bed and spent the rest of the night pacing the floor.
Joe and Hoss too, tossed and turned. Each was tormented by Adam’s mysterious absence. It was three o’clock in the morning and both were still wide-awake.
“I got a bad feelin’ bout this.”
“Yeah, me too,” Joe responded sadly as he flipped onto his side to look at his brother.
“What do you suppose happened to that brother of ours?” Hoss loudly whispered.
“I don’t know. But, I do know one thing though.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“We’ve got to find him… alive…or dead.”
Hoss swallowed hard. He was terrified of the ladder. He knew exactly what Joe was getting at. Hoss knew that their father would not rest until Adam was recovered either way. He just prayed that his brother was all right – that there was a logical explanation for Adam’s disappearance. His faith was strong, but it was difficult to remain hopeful.
At long last the sun finally crept between the buildings of Carson City like water over a dry riverbed. The roosters crowed but the Cartwrights did not need a wake-up call. They dressed and made their way down the stairs into the lobby. They exchanged no words, knowing the task at hand. They exited the hotel just as light spilled over the foothills.
As they stepped outside onto the porch they noticed three boys running passed them headed for the sheriff’s office. There were very few people on the streets as yet and the boy’s frantic rush did not go unnoticed. Ben, Hoss and Joe followed the boys up the street and entered the office just as Seth, Brad and Kurt were about to tell their story. They took a moment to catch their collective breaths. But, the sheriff pushed them aside to service the Cartwrights instead. “Can I help you?” he asked with a friendly tone.
“Well, I certainly hope you can.” Ben replied with a forced smile – his concern difficult to overcome.
“I hope I can too. What’s the trouble?”
Seth interrupted the conversation. “Sheriff Thomas? We got somethin’ we need to tell ya.”
“Mind your manners, boy. I’ll be with you just as soon as I’ve helped these fellas.”
“But, it’s real important,” Seth persisted.
“I said wait a moment,” The sheriff scolded.
“What is it, young feller?” Hoss said. “What’s got you so riled up?”
Hoss had a hunch that the boy had information about Adam. His perceptiveness had always been second to none and both Ben and Joe took note of it. They always paid close attention whenever Hoss’ intuition kicked in. The big man knelt down to meet Seth eye-to-eye and placed his massive hands on the boy’s shoulders. Still out of breath Brad and Kurt stayed quiet and looked on apprehensively.
“It’s okay, boy. Nobody’s gonna be mad at ‘cha. Have you seen a man dressed all in black, with dark hair? Kind of a handsome feller… like me?” Hoss’ gentle smile and light demeanor seemed to calm Seth.
Ben’s heart almost leaped out of his chest and he too knelt in front of Seth. “Where? Where did you see him?” he asked urgently.
“He’s hurt. We…” Seth began to cry.
“You what?” Hoss probed. “Calm down now and tell us what happened.”
Seth bravely collected himself and took a deep breath. “We found an old bear trap in an abandoned hunting shack and we decided to set it. And well, the man got caught in it instead,” Seth whimpered. “We were scared to tell anybody what we’d done so we took him back to the shack and tended to him. His leg was broken and cut real bad. I wanted to go for help, but Brad was afraid his father would find out and then he’d get a whippin’.”
“Is he still there?” Joe asked from the sidelines.
“No. When we went to check on him this morning he was gone.”
“Take us to where you last saw him,” Ben ordered – his booming voice sending registered fear into the three boys. “It’s alright. Don’t be afraid. Just help us find my son.”
With the sheriff and his deputy in tow, they galloped out of town just as it began to bustle with life. Each Cartwright had one of the boys atop their steeds with Seth at the helm leading the way.
When he opened his eyes, all he could see was the ominous circling of flying scavengers above. It made him dizzy. They were silhouetted against the brilliant sun of morning. The birds screeched impatiently as if they were tired of waiting for their pray to die.
Adam’s head spun with fever and fatigue. At first he thought he may have reached heaven and he prepared to meet his maker. The air was cool and there was the sound of water and a pine scented breeze rustled the leaves of the trees so gently, it was musical. But, when he finally realized he was actually still alive, he found himself lying on his back on the bank of the stream. His injured leg bobbed in the water like a cork fishing float. The frigid mountain fed creek soothed his wound and numbed his broken bone. With his ever-evaporating strength, he dragged himself to a large tree and leaned against it. Adam leered up at the birds whose mocking screeches filled Adam with fury. Then with every fiber of his being he chastised them with a loud, ferocious bellow. “YOU’VE GOT A LONG WAIT YOU CANTANCEROUS BUZZARDS!”
His own voice sent pain ricocheting through his brain but despite his discomfort he had more to say. “I’M NOT DEAD YET! I’M NOT DEAD YET!”
Then came a haunting silence and Adam thought it was the end – that he was about to die. He could here his name being called. It wafted through the trees like campfire smoke. His final memory was the sound of his father’s voice. It got stronger and stronger until finally it seemed to be right over his head. And, just before Adam drifted away he looked up to see his father kneeling over him. “Pa?” was the last thing he said.
“Can we come in?” Seth asked tentatively as he peered through the hotel room door.
“Yes. Come on in, boys,” Ben replied quietly.
The three boys, not unlike Adam, Hoss and Little Joe as youths, slowly walked across the room to where Adam lay. Still weak but on his way to recovery, he lazily turned his head toward them. The fresh cotton sheets crinkled crisply with his movement. They stood sheepishly in a line from the head of the bed to its foot. Ben sat on the other side keeping his son company and periodically reading to him. It helped pass the long days of recuperation.
“Don’t worry boys. I’m not mad at you,” Adam said weakly. “Setting a bear trap wasn’t exactly the smartest thing to do, but it was an accident. And, I’m going to be fine.”
“We’re so sorry, Adam,” The boys mumbled. “We didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“I know. It’s okay. As a matter of fact you boys did a good job on my leg. The doc even said so. You probably saved my life.”
“We… we did?” Kurt replied, finally making eye contact with Adam.
“Yes. That’s what the doc said. Right Pa?”
“That’s right. You boys did a fine job. And, in the end you did the right thing in telling us what happened. Sometimes it’s hard to admit when you’ve made a mistake but it’s always best to be truthful.”
“You’re so right Mr. Cartwright,” Kurt grinned. “We sure have learned our lesson. I slept real good last night knowing Adam was going to be alright.”
“So did I son, so did I,” Ben confessed.
“How did your father’s take the news of your little escapade?” Adam wondered.
“Well, let’s just say there’s a reason why we’re all standing here instead of sitting.” Brad said as he rubbed his backside gently.
“Oh,” Adam responded with a curled grin and raised eyebrows.
“You boys run along now. Let Adam get his rest,” Ben offered.
The three boys turned and quietly left the room.
“Why don’t you go and get some lunch, Pa. I’m feeling pretty tired.”
“Yes. You go to sleep and I’ll bring you some soup.”
“I’d like that.”
Ben too, crossed the room to the door.
“I’ll be taking the main roads from now on.”
“Adam,” Ben replied squarely. “You take whatever road gets you home safely.”
Adam smiled contently and watched his father leave the room and close the door behind him. He closed his eyes, and this time a feeling of peace overwhelmed him. Within moments Adam was sound asleep.