Summary: Tragedy spreads like wildfire.
Word Count: 9030
Adam cantered his sorrel gelding across the northern Nevada desert. Sport’s gait wasn’t exactly lazy, but rather businesslike – purposeful. The object was to get as many miles behind them as possible. Their goal was simple – home. They had yet to hit the lushness of the foothills of the Sierras. It wasn’t far off. Adam longed to see the green of pine trees and grasslands instead of sun-scorched rock and dusty sand. He hoped to reach Walker Lake just south east of Carson City by nightfall. At least, that was his aim.
It had been a long trip. Adam had had several stops to make in Arizona and up through the Nevada Territory on a cattle-selling mission. The market was good and the Ponderosa had yielded a massive and hearty herd. All three sons set out in three different directions to sell as many head as possible. Hoss went southwest, to Placerville and then San Francisco. Little Joe was sent down to Stockton and San Jose. Adam wanted to be appointed the California destinations, but was given the difficult trek to Tonopah and all the way down to Yuma instead. He’d been gone for over six weeks.
His brother’s had already returned to the Ponderosa, Adam reckoned. They had the easier journeys. But, alas, it was Adam’s turn to take the treacherous run. After all, Little Joe had taken it not three months ago to peddle timber. Hoss was in Arizona this time last year for a horse-trading tour. So, much to his chagrin, Adam was assigned the long haul.
It had been a profitable circuit even though it was tough going. Adam was quite satisfied with his dealings, selling almost 1500 head to be delivered over the next three months. There would be a lot of hiring to do when he got back. The work never ended. He hoped his father would permit a short vacation before the cattle drives began. Somehow, Adam doubted his father’s generosity. It was not the season for fun. It seemed only the winter months accommodated any form of rest and relaxation. Unfortunately the cold, snowy weather was not ideal for pleasurable pursuits.
Adam and Sport ambled across the barren landscape paying little attention to their surroundings. By this time, it all looked the same. Their minds were set only on moving forward one painstaking stride at a time. After several hours of travel, they came upon a small water hole in the shade of a lone Joshua tree. An oasis like this was never passed up. They were few and far between. Adam pulled gently on the reins to bring his horse to a much-appreciated stop.
“Thirsty, boy?” He said as he dismounted. “Let’s take a rest. Would you like that?”
Adam patted Sport’s neck with affectionate gratitude. They’d been together a long time, chalking up hundreds of miles over nine years. It was a respectful partnership that Adam never took for granted. Sport was simply one of the most important things in his life. He loved the animal and was always cognizant of his well being. He never jeopardized Sport’s health and was well aware that out here his horse was his lifeline.
Adam dropped the reins and allowed Sport to saunter to the edge of the water and drink freely. But, to Adam’s surprise Sport wasn’t interested. Adam shrugged at his horse as he took off his boots, socks and hat and waded in. He stretched up as far as his frame would allow and then spread his arms out and fell backwards into the coolness. The splash spooked his horse only slightly. Sport’s trust in Adam was deeply engrained.
Pulling himself out of the tiny pool was difficult. It felt so good. But, Adam needed to get a move on if he wanted to beat the darkness. Out here, night fell over the land as quickly as a cannonball off a chair. As he walked onto dry land, he shook his entire body vigorously like a wet dog, letting out a revitalized growl. He showered Sport with the spray but the horse didn’t seem to mind. Adam approached Sport and rooted around his saddlebags for a piece of beef jerky. When he successfully found some he took it to a nearby rock and took a seat. He stared at the humble morsel and sneered.
“When we get home,” he announced to his equine friend, “I’m going to get Hop Sing to make me a roast chicken and one of his famous blueberry pies. And, I’m not sharing it with Hoss or Little Joe either. It’s all mine, I tell you… miiiiiiiine.” Adam seemed to lose his mind momentarily but regained it quickly and remarked. “I’ve eaten enough dried meat to do me for quite some time.”
He then struggled to tear off a bite with gritted teeth.
“And, I’ll make you a bran mash. No need to thank me,” Adam smirked as his horse stared at him blankly. He held up his hand as if Sport would protest. “No, no… you deserve it.”
Adam continued to chew as he perused the horizon. He took in a deep breath and released a lengthy sigh through his nose. By, the time he’d finished his meager meal, he’d be dry enough to get on to Walker Lake – about three hours he figured. But, at the moment, it was just nice to rest.
The desert was quite beautiful at this time of day. It was mid afternoon and the shadows were beginning to grow. The land was painted with hues of burnt orange and rich mauve. Some of the boulders that had been there since the beginning of time, reflected dirty tones of robin’s egg blue and jade. All was quiet and still. Not a single hawk soared across the cloudless, cyan sky.
But all was not as serene as Adam had first thought. There was movement in the distance. He assumed it was a coyote or prairie dog, but when Adam squinted to bring whatever it was into focus, he realized it was not animal at all but to his amazement, human. It made his heart miss a beat. His attention was instant. What was someone doing out here alone? There was no sign of a horse or mull. That, he surmised, was suicide. He scrambled to pull on his socks and boots and quickly mounted Sport. Within moments, he was galloping towards the mark.
As he got closer the figure became clear. It was an Indian boy – Paiute. And, even though Adam approached him rapidly, the young man didn’t seem phased. He simply stood there as Adam rode toward him. He made no effort to flee. When Adam finally reached the boy, he calmly dismounted and gingerly walked up to him.
“Are… are you alright?” Adam asked somewhat out of breath. His voice floated through the arid air like cream over warm bread pudding. He crouched down to make eye contact.
The boy did not answer. His haunting gaze penetrated through Adam and beyond. His absent presence made Adam’s hair stand on end. It was ghostly.
“Don’t be afraid, boy. I won’t hurt you.” He said. “You shouldn’t be out here all by yourself. Where are your parents? Where’s your horse?”
Still the boy, who couldn’t be more than nine or ten, ignored Adam’s quarries. He gave no acknowledgement at all. Was he blind or deaf or both? Adam reached out and gently placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Hey? Can you hear me?”
But, the boy seemed to buckle under the weight of Adam’s tenderly placed hand and collapsed. Adam cradled him in the crook of his arm. The child seemed to weigh nothing. The boy was obviously very sick. His breathing was shallow and he perspired profusely. There were no signs of wounds or injury of any kind. Adam assumed he was suffering from dehydration – that he’d been separated from his family somehow and gotten lost. He looked around to see if he could see where the boy had come from or if his village was anywhere in sight. But, all he could see was miles and miles of rugged terrain.
“Where’s your family? Where’s your tribe?” Adam asked softly.
Again, the boy made no reply. He then took one last guttural gasp of breath and released it slowly. The child then unceremoniously died. His eyes, still open, stared into nothingness. Adam tried to revive him, but it was no use – the child was gone. He lay limp across Adam’s bended knee – his head only upright with the aid of Adam’s hand. He placed his fingers over the boy’s eyes and somberly closed them.
“Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Adam prayed. “I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
At least he didn’t die out here alone, Adam pondered. At least there was some comfort for this boy’s last few moments on this earth. That alone was Adam’s only solace. After pausing to collect himself, Adam laid out the boy and prepared to dig his grave.
“Pass me another one of them pork chops wouldja, Joe?”
“You’ve already had six.”
“Well, this’ll make seven then, won’t it.” Hoss said defensively. “I don’t want to insult Hop Sing now do I? He’d be down right upset if that platter weren’t empty when he came to git it. Now pass me another pork chop.”
Little Joe submitted and stabbed a piece of meat with his fork and tossed it across the table where it landed on his brother’s plate with a bounce.
“Joseph.” Ben tsked. “Please don’t throw food. Where are your manners? I know I taught them to you. So, I’d appreciate you using them once in a while if it’s not too much trouble.”
The three men continued with their meal in silence. Hoss wolfed down the last remaining morsels of the dinner including the rest of the peas and mashed potatoes. He patiently awaited dessert. Hop Sing entered the dinning room with a blueberry pie and placed it squarely in front of Ben to serve.
“Too bad Adam isn’t home yet.” Ben stated as he cut into the crust. “Blueberry pie is his favorite.”
“You’re darned right it is.” Adam interrupted as he entered the dining room unexpectedly.
“Adam!” Ben welcomed. He stood to embrace his boy. “I didn’t hear come in. So glad to see you, son. We’ve missed you. We’ve missed you.” He patted him on the back affectionately.
“Seven weeks away from home is a little bit long for me too, Pa.” Adam admitted with a beamer of a smile.
“You look thin. Sit down and eat.”
“Yeah, Adam!” Joe said brightly. “Have a seat and have some pie.”
“Don’t mind if I do, younger brother,” Adam replied as he tossed his hat onto the sideboard.
“How you been?” Hoss asked as he took a plate from his father. It held an extra wide slice.
“Oh, fine,” Adam replied wearily.
“We got your wire,” Ben said. “Fifteen hundred head. Well done, Adam. Well done.”
“Well, thank you. It wasn’t easy. But, I’m happy with the results of my endeavors. And, how did you two do?”
“I sold almost eight hundred, Adam,” Joe boasted as he chopped the pointy end off his slice of pie with his fork.
“Not bad. Not bad.”
“I sold almost a thousand,” Hoss announced with business in his tone. “We got a load of drives to organize.”
“You’ve got that right.” Adam agreed with a wink.
“Well, we can think about that tomorrow,” Ben announced. “Let’s just enjoy the evening, shall we?”
The four men ate their pie and told stories of their ventures. They were glad they were together again. Ben was especially happy to see his family reunited. He always worried about them when they were away. He couldn’t help it. He knew they were grown men and could take care of themselves but they were still his children no matter what their ages.
Joe told everyone about a poker game he had in San Jose. Apparently he was down $500, but managed to come out $200 ahead in the end. That little tale drew a scowl from Ben who disapproved of gambling. Especially by Joe who seemed to lack common sense when it came to money.
Hoss said he’d met up with a drifter and rode with him for a while. He found the man very funny and learned a lot from him. He planned to stay in touch with the man named Robert but that was improbable. Robert had traveled the world and had never really had a permanent address.
Adam sat and listened to his brother’s antidotes but never divulged his encounter with the Indian boy. The child’s death, two days earlier, still upset him. Adam put on a brave face but Ben could tell something was up. He was in tune with all of his sons, but had a special bond with Adam. He and his eldest had endured so much together; the loss of all three of Ben’s wives; the raising of Hoss and Little Joe and a treacherous journey across America when Adam was just a small boy. There wasn’t much Adam could hide from his father.
After supper the Cartwright’s assembled in the living room for liqueurs to celebrate the successful sales trips and their safe return. Hoss and Joe were boisterous – bantering back and forth playfully. They had always been close. Adam watched their comical exchanges with great amusement but did not partake in the fun. He simply sipped his coffee and allowed his siblings to entertain him. Ben noticed Adam’s distance.
When Hoss and Joe finally ran out of stories and stopped laughing long enough to collect themselves they both said their good nights and rambled up to bed. They continued to exchange pokes all the way up the steps and down the upper hall. It was only when their bedroom doors closed did peace fall over the homestead. Ben finished his aperitif and glanced across the room at Adam. He had placed his half full glass on the coffee table in front of him. He’d only taken a few sips, but couldn’t manage the rest.
“You didn’t finish your liqueur, Adam.”
“No. You can have it.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Ben smirked as he reached across to take it and then sat back down. He took a sip. “You look pale, son. Do you feel alright?”
“Yes. I’m fine. I’m just a little tired. I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed,” Adam admitted with a chuckle. “When did those two get back?”
“Oh. I guess Joe got back a few days ago. Hoss was back early last week. But, you know him. He likes to be home. Joe would stay away as long as possible.”
“I suppose,” Adam murmured vacantly.
“Is ah… is anything the matter son? You’ve been awfully quiet.”
“I had something happen on the trail a couple days ago that kind of has me reeling a bit.”
“Oh? Care to talk about it?”
Adam looked into the fireplace. His complexion was etched with sadness. It was obvious he was distracted. Ben could see him struggle to decide whether or not to confide in him.
“I had a young Indian boy die in my arms,” Adam said with barely a hint of emotion. His steady gaze stayed affixed on the flames. He clenched his jaw making his cheeks pulse.
“Oh dear,” Ben replied with sincere concern. “I’m sorry to hear that, Adam. What happened?”
“I’m not sure. I found him wandering alone in the desert about three hours south east of Walker Lake. I guess he just got lost. By the time I got to him, he was pretty much dead already. There was nothing I could do, Pa.”
“I’m sure if you could have saved him, you would have.”
“He only looked about nine or ten,” Adam said despondently. “He reminded me of Joe when he was just a little tyke, you know.”
“What a shame.” Ben shook his head slowly and stared into his now empty glass.
“It was strange.” Adam continued. “He was so small. He had no horse. Why would he be out there all alone? It just doesn’t make sense, Pa.”
“Well, I know it’s a terrible thing – the death of a child. But, there’s nothing you can do about it, Adam.”
“I know. I think that’s what’s bothering me.”
“You’ll feel better once you’ve had a good night’s rest.”
“I doubt it.”
Ben rose from his chair and placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder as he passed. “Go to bed, Adam. You look unwell. Don’t let the death of that boy haunt you. He’s in God’s hands now.”
“I think I’ll stay up a bit longer, Pa.”
“As you wish,” Ben resigned. “Turn down the lamps when you go to bed.”
“I’m glad you’re home safe and sound.”
Adam was glad to be alone with his thoughts. But, something else gnawed at him. It was true. He had lost weight and he did feel poorly. His temperature had risen during the evening. Adam’s head felt like it might explode. At first he tried to shrug it off as a mild flu or just plain fatigue. But, there was no denying it now as his condition worsened with every tick of the clock. The Indian boy had not died of dehydration at all. The boy had died of a deadly disease. And Adam suddenly realized that he had just poisoned his own family – with what he could not be certain. What he did know for sure was that he might not survive it. He scolded himself for being so careless. In one short evening, he may be responsible for wiping out the Cartwrights forever.
Ben awoke early the next morning. The sun had yet to rise. His thirst was overwhelming. His throat felt as if it were coated with barbed wire. His head thumped with a dull, relentless ache. When he stood, dizziness engulfed him. Ben struggled to put on his robe and then walked carefully out of his bedroom, down the upper hall to the top of the stairs. Below him Adam still sat. Ben slowly descended the steps, gingerly approaching his sleeping son.
But, it took him only seconds to realize that Adam was not asleep at all but rather unconscious. Adam’s face was ashen. His breathing labored. Sweat poured off of him – his clothes soaked to his skin.
“HOSS! JOE!” Ben shouted out. The volume of his own powerful voice sent waves of pain ricocheting through his skull.
His sudden alarm woke his two younger sons from a sound sleep. They sprung from their beds and raced downstairs.
“What is it, Pa? What’s the matter?” asked Joe.
“Adam is sick. Very sick.” Ben stated with urgency. “Hoss, carry him up to bed.”
“I’ll go get the doctor,” Joe announced as he headed back up the staircase to dress.
“NO!” Ben ordered.
“No? What do you mean no, Pa?”
“We’re… we’re all infected now.”
“Infected? What are you talking about?”
“Adam told me last night.”
“Told you what? What’s going on, Pa?”
“The Indian boy,” Ben tried to explain despite his own escalating fever.
“Pa. You ain’t making no sense,” Hoss said with puzzlement as he bent over Adam to pick him up. “What Indian boy?”
“A few days ago…” Ben continued, “Adam tried to help an Indian boy. The boy died. Don’t you see? He thought he died of exposure but it’s obvious now that he died of something else.”
“What did he die of then, Pa?” Joe probed anxiously.
“I’m not sure. But, whatever it is, it’s contagious and deadly. We can’t risk spreading it. We all have to stay here. We can have no contact with anyone. Now get Adam up stairs,” Ben ordered as faintness began to take over. He lost his balance and reached out for something to break his fall. Joe caught him.
“Pa? Are you alright?” Joe asked with concern.
“I’m … I’m afraid not,” he gasped.
“What’s the matter?”
“Whatever is ailing Adam has gotten me too. Go check on Hop Sing. Make sure he’s alright.”
“I will as soon as I get you to bed too.”
Hoss was already carrying Adam up the stairs. He seemed lifeless, strewn across Hoss’ powerful forearms. Ben, on the other hand was still able to stand and Joe guided him up to his room.
After Hoss and Joe made their father and brother as comfortable as possible, they investigated Hop Sing. He seemed fine for now. By the break of dawn, both Ben and Adam seemed to be holding their own. Joe and Hoss regrouped in the living room.
“You feelin’ okay so far, Joe?” Hoss asked his little brother.
“Yeah. I think so.”
“You think so? What do you mean you think so?”
“Well, I can’t tell if I’m sweating from fever or running around taking care of Pa and Adam. How you feelin’?”
“I think I’m okay too.”
“What are we going to do, Hoss? What do you suppose it is?”
“I know danged well what it is.”
“What is it?”
“Typhoid,” Hoss replied bluntly.
“Typhoid? How do you know that?” Joe took a seat. The news was like a punch in the gut.
“I seen it before in the camps. Adam has a rash on his stomach. That’s a tell tale sign of typhoid. It’s like wildfire. Sometimes there just ain’t no stoppin’ it.”
“Typhoid,” Joe said again in disbelief. “Then… they could die?”
“Not if I kin help it,” Hoss avowed. “Now, we need to wash everything Adam and Pa have touched. We need to scrub this house from top to bottom.”
“Well, it’s sorta hard to explain, Joe.”
“Try men” he insisted.
“Well, you get typhoid from bad food or water. Then when a person with typhoid shares things with other people, they can get it to. Pa’s right. We cain’t leave the house. We could spread it if we do. Hop Sing neither.”
“What if we get sick too, Hoss?” Joe looked up at his brother with desperation.
“I don’t know Joe. I just don’t know. But, let’s not think about that. Let’s just get Pa and Adam well again.”
“How do we do that?”
“Keep ’em cool. Fill ’em with as much water as possible and…”
“And what, Hoss?”
A week of constant care brought Ben back to some semblance of health. It was a difficult and painful road, leaving Joe and Hoss exhausted. Though he was on the mend, Ben remained frail. Hoss, Joe and Hop Sing managed to escape the wrath of the devastating infection. But, Adam still remained under its powerful spell. He struggled to breathe and had lost so much weight the chances of his survival became less and less with each passing hour. His face was gaunt and as white as birch bark. His father and brothers feared that there was no hope for him; that he would slip away just as the young Indian boy had. Ben was sure his eldest son would perish. They gathered around him afraid that his time was near. They were certain their vigil would end tragically.
But, to his family’s surprise, Adam rebounded. He was a strong man and possessed a powerful will to live. His constitution was simply second to none. And, being as stubborn as a mule in mud didn’t hurt, either. One morning, almost three weeks after Adam returned home from the desert, his fever finally broke. His eyes that usually shone like polished hazelnuts now appeared the color of wet slate. Ben, Hoss and Joe sat at his bedside as Adam tried to speak.
“What… what is this?” Adam struggled to make himself audible. “A wake?”
His quip made his father and brothers breathe a sigh of relief. Smiles fell over their previously distressed faces. There was no doubt now. They all had beaten it.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” Adam whispered. “I shouldn’t have …”
“It’s okay, son,” Ben encouraged as he wiped the perspiration from Adam’s brow. “Everything is alright. You’re going to be fine now. We’re all going to be fine.”
“Shhh. Don’t try to speak. Go back to sleep, Adam. You still need to rest.”
“The boy,” Adam said.
“Yes. The Indian boy,” Ben replied – his voice dripped off his lips like syrup.
“His family… his tribe.”
“Never mind that now, son. Hop Sing will get you some soup and we’ll see if you can manage it.”
“But… they…” He tried to sit up but couldn’t.
“Adam,” Ben said firmly. “We’ll talk about it when you are well and not before. Now, I want you to take it easy.”
Adam obeyed. He was in no shape to put up a fight. He still felt awful and had a ways to go before he would be fully recovered. But, now that he was lucid, all he could think about was the boy and his tribe. Their village must be devastated – ravaged by this horrible disease. The young boy’s face, with his eerie gaze, drifted through Adam’s fuzzy brain. He vowed to return and find the boy’s family. He had to. The sooner the better.
Ben’s worst fears came to fruition. Even though Adam was able to eat and began to regain his strength, he still seemed down and preoccupied. Ben knew what was on his son’s mind. The death of the Paiute boy seemed to erode away at Adam’s spirit. Ben confronted him; forbidding Adam to leave his sick bed and return to the desert. But, Ben also knew that Adam would do whatever Adam pleased. He’d always been that way. It was his way or no way. There was no tying him down no matter what the situation. Once Adam’s mind was made up, that was it.
When Ben brought breakfast up to Adam on Sunday morning, his bed was empty. Adam was gone. Ben angrily slammed the tray onto the bedside table. The coffee splashed onto Ben’s wrist scalding him. He knew Adam would bolt and he chided himself for not keeping a closer eye on him.
After a few choice words, Ben thundered out of the room and gathered up Hoss and Joe. Within the hour they had mounted their horses and set out after Adam – three hours south east of Walker Lake. It would be a grueling, two-day ride. They had no idea how much head start Adam had. The last time Ben saw him was after he’d checked on him before he went to bed himself. That was around 9:30 the night before. Adam was fast asleep. Or, so Ben thought.
“Darned fool boy!” Ben raged as he rode. Hoss and Joe loped their horses along side him. “I told him. I told him not go back. Didn’t I tell him?”
“Take it easy, Pa.” Hoss tried to calm his father. “We’ll catch up to ’em. Adam thinks he’s feelin’ fine but once he gets a few hours in the saddle he’ll realize he ain’t well enough to go on.”
“Don’t under estimate your brother, Hoss,” Ben retorted. “When I get my hands on him, he’s going to wish…”
“Hoss is right, Pa.” Joe too, tried to quell his father’s ire. “Adam is in no shape to travel. He’s still too sick.”
“I KNOW! I KNOW!” Ben barked.
Hoss and Joe were startled by their father’s irritated tone. Their short exchange was the last for several hours. The threesome simply concentrated on getting to Adam before he ended it up in worse trouble than he already was.
By the time night fell, Ben was beside himself with worry. There had been no sign of Adam all day. They had just reached the tip of the arid terrain when Hoss insisted they camp for the night. They could risk injuring the horses if they continued. There was no moon and the landscape was shrouded in darkness so black, they could barely see their hands in front of their faces.
Little Joe started a fire and pulled out several cans of beans from his saddlebags. One was for him and his father to share and the other two were for Hoss to eat all by himself. Hop Sing had also supplied a sack of biscuits and a side of bacon. Once supper was heated, Joe prepared a plate for Ben and passed it to him. “Here you go, Pa.” he offered timidly.
Joe was more worried about Ben than Adam. He’d just barely recovered from the fever himself. But, Joe knew his Pa was just as suborn as Adam and could be just as cantankerous.
“Thank you.” Ben replied wearily.
“Don’t worry,” Joe said cheerfully as he slid his back down the trunk of a tree and came to rest beside his father. “Adam will be alright.”
“Sure he will.”
“He’s going back to the source of the typhoid, Joe. This time, it could kill him.”
“It won’t,” Joe sounded positively.
“Oh? What makes you so sure?”
“I just know, Pa.”
“You sure have more faith then I do, son.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. Now, eat your food,” Joe encouraged. “You need you’re strength. You’re in no shape to be out here either, you know.”
“I feel fine,” Ben scoffed.
“Well, maybe so. But, me and Hoss think you should go home and let us find Adam.”
“Oh you do, do you?”
“Yes,” Hoss piped up. ”We do.”
Ben lifted a fork full of beans to his lips, but could not eat them. Even the weight of it was taxing. He was so tired – his adrenaline had now subsided. He exhaled heavily and then placed the untouched tin plate on the rock beside him.
“What’s the matter, Pa? Don’t you like my cooking?” Joe chuckled.
“No. It’s fine, son. Just fine.”
“Well then, eat up.”
Ben mustered an insipid grin at Joe’s doting. But his stomach was filled with knots. He just wasn’t hungry. He battled the lingering effects of the infection.
“I don’t know what gets into that oldest boy of mine,” Ben divulged.
“Ah heck. You know Adam,” Hoss offered as he ate. “Once he gets a cause to fight fur, there ain’t no telling ‘im other wise. You know he’s gonna do right no matter what. He’s always been like that.” Hoss theorized. “Remember that artist Calen up in Sheephead? And that school teacher and Charlie. And, don’t forget them folks from Utah? Adam just cain’t stop himself from helping people. It’s just in his nature.”
“That’s right, Pa,” Joe agreed with a wink. “Thing is, I just don’t know where he gets it from. Do you, Hoss?”
“Nope. Can’t say as I do.” Hoss smiled warmly at his father and then turned his focus back to his skimpy dinner.
“What would I do without you two, eh?” Ben smirked.
“I don’t know, Pa,” Joe chewed. “But, if you never had Adam, Hoss or me, you’d be pretty bored don’t you think?”
“Yes. I suppose I would be,” Ben forced a chortle.
“Don’t worry, Pa,” Joe tried again. “We’ll catch up to Adam tomorrow.”
“I hope so, son. I surely hope so.”
The oasis still sparkled. But, this time Adam approached it with caution. He presumed it was the source of the disease. He’d not allow it to tantalize him this time. He reached for his canteen instead and downed a few swigs. Sport showed no interest in the water hole once again, just as he had several weeks before. Adam should have taken note then. He would pay better attention in the future.
Adam still felt a tinge weak, but was surprised at just how strong he did feel considering he’d been riding hard for two straight days. He scanned the landscape to decide which way to turn. He knew a Paiute settlement was around here somewhere but wasn’t exactly sure of its exact location. He had found the boy to the west and saw no sign of a village there. He’d just come from the north without seeing nary a sole. So he had a choice of east or south.
“What do you think, boy?” Adam asked his steed as he patted his withers gently. “Which way should we try first?”
Sport looked east and let out a juicy snort.
“That way, huh?” Adam responded to his horse’s oblivious direction. “Sounds good to me.”Adam reined Sport to the left and cantered collectively eastward. He hoped something would materialize beyond the distant canyons. He just prayed that he’d find a healthy tribe. But, that he reckoned was improbable.
Just when Adam thought he’d taken the wrong path, he trotted over a ridge and spotted the village below. To Adam’s dismay, there was little movement. Only a few women meandered between a dozen or so lodges. From his vantage point, it appeared that the tribe had been hit by the fever. Adam approached gingerly as he and Sport skillfully descending the rocky hillside and down toward the settlement.
It wasn’t until Adam was actually in the village that the women finally noticed him. When they saw Adam they stopped in their tracks and stared – a mix of both terror and weariness shadowed their faces. He dismounted and walked toward them with his hands open and in front of him. He left Sport behind to graze on a rare patch of foliage.
“I’m, I’m here to help you,” Adam offered softly. “I won’t hurt you.”
The women remained wary, fighting their urge to run and sound an alarm. The trouble was there was no one well enough to defend their homes.
“Please don’t be afraid. Let me help you. I know you’re people are sick,” Adam said, hoping he would be understood. “It’s the water. You can’t use the water.”
There was no sign of comprehension by the women. They kept their eyes focused on Adam as he approached.
“Do any of you speak English?” Adam pleaded. “Please. Don’t be frightened. I’m here to help you.”
“Help us?” came a low, resonant voice from beyond. It sounded like his father’s.
It took Adam by surprise, making his heart skip. “Yes,” he replied but could not make out exactly where the voice had come from.
“How can you help?” an older man asked as he broke through the flap of a lodge.
“It’s the water. It’s poisoned. You can’t use it,” Adam tried to explain.
“Yes. Don’t use the water. It is making your people sick.”
“But, it is the water we have always drawn from,” the man replied suspiciously.
His face carved by the ravages of time, the wind and the beating sun, now faced Adam squarely. He did not seem frightened at all. Slowly the other women, five in all gathered quietly behind their obvious leader.
“I know,” Adam said. “But, somehow it’s been tainted. I got sick from it too.”
“You? You have suffered this illness? And you stand before me now?”
“Yes. I drank from that waterhole just over the rise. And then…” Adam paused afraid to tell them of his encounter with the young boy.
“Yes… and then…? What has brought you to this place?” The man quarried boldly.
“I, I ah… I came upon a small boy several weeks ago. He was very ill too. I didn’t realize then what was wrong with him. But, when I got home, I also became very ill and then I knew,” Adam described. “The boy. He ah… he died in my arms. I… I buried him.”
“Wacha?” The man said woefully.
“Was that his name? Wacha?”
“He was my grandson.” The man lowered his head and his body sagged.
“I’m so sorry.” Adam bowed – his hat in hand. He paused momentarily. “I can show you his grave.”
“I am in debt to you. I had hoped that he would one day return to us. And, now he will. We will bring him back to our village where he belongs.”
Again, Adam hesitated. He knew the man was terribly upset about the news of his child. But, time was wasting. Every moment counted. He wanted so desperately to prevent any more deaths.
“But, first we have to stop the fever,” Adam said bluntly instantly regaining the attention of the man.
“But, how?” he replied with defeat. “It has taken so many from us.”
“Well. I have a plan. I’m sort of known for my little schemes,” Adam chuckled trying to make his hosts feel at ease.
“Schemes? I know not of these things.”
“It’s a way to bring clean water to your village. It is the only way to make your people well,” Adam described. “But, first we have to sterilize the water you have at hand.”
“I’m sorry,” Adam apologized. “We have to make the water pure. We have to boil it and boil your clothes and your vessels too. Everything must be purified.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know. I know you don’t. But, you must trust me. You must do as I ask and build a large fire and begin.”
“Why? Why should we trust a man who we do not know? Yes, I am grateful that you helped my grandson, but I know nothing of you. It is your people who brought this upon us. We have never suffered as we have since we see the white man. Why should we do as YOU say?”
“I understand you’re fears and you’re distrust. You have every right to be guarded. But, why would I put myself in peril if I wasn’t here to help you? Why would I risk becoming ill again. I know this place holds great danger. Why would I return? I can help you. Let me.”
The native squinted his amber-colored eyes. His crow’s feet deepened as he scanned Adam’s face for insincerity. Seeing only compassion, the man raised his chin and looked down his nose and took a deep breath. His chest was broad and his stature impressive. “What is your name?” he asked skeptically.
“I am Wojeka. And, I welcome you,” the man resigned.
The two men shook hands and Adam was guided through the camp to see the devastation that the infection had had on the tiny Paiute village. Only the five women that Adam had first seen and Wojeka himself were untouched thus far. All the others, thirty-six in all, were near death – women, men, the elders and the children.
“I will go to the nearest town and collect what we need,” Adam said to Wojeka. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Hurry, my friend. I put my faith in you and we are most grateful.”
Adam winked as he mounted Sport and galloped towards Jackson Springs. Adam knew it was the closest town. But, it was still a two-hour ride. With his body still coping with the after-effects of the fever, Adam pushed on. He had no choice.
“Can I help you?” The mercantile clerk asked as Adam stepped through the front door of the tiny store. A pleasant sounding bell chimed. It was early evening and Adam looked like a saddle tramp after his long and steady ride.
“Yes. Ah, I need some supplies,” he finally replied after ambling up to the counter. He scouted the place as he spoke.
“Yes sir. What can I do fir ya?”
“Well, first off, I need a buck board and team of horses.”
“Jeff over at the livery can help you with that, stranger. But, you don’t look like you can afford more that a scrap of beef jerky, if you ask me.”
“Well, nobody’s asking,” Adam scoffed with mild annoyance. He breathed in deeply to collect himself. “Don’t worry. I have plenty of money. Where’s the livery? I didn’t see it when I rode in.”
“That’s cuz it’s out on the other side of town. It ain’t fir.”
“Oh,” Adam replied unenthusiastically. He was tired. His head spun with fogginess. It still ached. His body felt like it had been trampled by a herd of stampeding steers.
“We’re just about to close, mister. So, what kin I do fir ya? And, make it quick. My wife’s got supper a waitin’ fir me, ya know.”
“I need barrels,” Adam said pointedly. He was not thrilled with the clerk’s tone. “Do you have barrels?”
“I got pickle barrels.”
“Well, that will have to do.”
“How many do you need?”
“How many have you got?”
“Oh, five or six I guess.”
“I’ll take them all.”
“If you say so.” The clerk raised his eyes. “Anything else?”
“Yes, ah… I need something to boil water in. Have you got anything like that?’
“I got pots.”
“Wash tubs, I suppose.”
“Great. I’ll take six of those too.”
“Ain’t got six. Only got four.”
“Okay. Four it is then.”
“What you need this stuff fir, anyhow?”
“I don’t think it’s any of your business,” Adam responded.
“I suppose not. Just curious is all. I ain’t never had such a strange order to fill.”
“Well, if you must know, there’s a Paiute village about twenty miles north of here in a bit of trouble. They need fresh water. They’re, well…. let’s just say they need some help.”
Adam remained vague. The last thing he wanted to do was insight panic. If he’d uttered the word typhoid, it surely might.
“Paiutes! What would you want to help them fir?”
“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I want to help them? Why wouldn’t anyone want to help them if they needed it?”
“Cuz they’s savages, that’s why. I’d sooner help a rabid skunk before I helped them.”
“But, they’re just people like you and me,” Adam said trying to remain calm. He was familiar with bias opinions against the natives. He’d decided a long time ago, not to let it fluster him. There wasn’t much he could do about the ignorance of people accept exercise patience. Usually he’d take the time to educate them, but he simply had none. “Now, how about getting me those barrels and tubs huh?”
“Sorry mister. We’ve been trying for years to rid this area of them Indians. I ain’t doing nothin’ that’ll keep him here.”
“Excuse me?” Adam’s complexion turned from intolerance to rage. He scowled crossly.
“You heard me.”
“What do you mean, WE? Who’s been trying to RID them of this area? This IS their area.”
“No it ain’t. It’s ours. Jason Neally says so. He’s the one you need to talk to.”
“Jason Neally? Who the hell is Jason Neally? And, what makes him so omnipotent?” Adam fought to remain composed.
“Omni… what?” The clerk replied with a puzzled stare.
“Never mind,” Adam hissed. “Who is this Neally fellow?”
“He’s the sheriff of the town. He’s been trying to finish off them Indians now for years.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep. You go talk to him and if he says I can sell you them barrels and tubs, I’ll sell ’em to ya.”
Adam sighed with distain. He gritted his teeth. He leered at the clerk – his hazel eyes glowing with ire. He didn’t have time for this nonsense. People were dying. “And just where can I find this poor excuse for a human being?”
“Now, that ain’t anyway to talk, mister,” the clerk protested. “Mr. Neally is a powerful man in these parts. You should show some respect.”
“He doesn’t deserve any. Now where is he?”
“Well, it’s suppertime. He’s probably over at the saloon.”
“I’ll be back,” Adam promised. “Have my order ready.”
“We’ll see about that, mister. We’ll just see. He don’t take kindly to Indian lovers.”
Adam stormed out of the mercantile and walked across the street and entered the saloon. He took his anger out on the doors as he blasted through them almost sending them off their hinges. They swung back and forth several times before finally settling in their places again.
Once inside, Adam found it mostly empty of patrons. His sudden and rather thunderous entrance drew notice from the barkeep but he did not seem phased by it. He glanced over at Adam and then casually wiped a shot glass.
Across the smoke-filled room was a man sitting at table eating a plate of beef and peas. He was sopping up the gravy with a biscuit and paid no mind to the stranger dressed entirely in black. Three men sat with him. Adam collectively walked over to the table. “You Jason Neally?” he asked.
“I’m Adam Cartwright. I understand you have a nasty hobby.”
“Oh? And what would that be?”
Neally had yet to make eye contact with Adam.
“The extermination of an entire village of Paiutes.”
“You be right there, stranger,” Neally said nonchalantly as he continued to eat. “But, there ain’t nothing nasty about getting rid of a band of savages.”
“You poisoned their water,” Adam accused directly.
“What if I did? They’re just Indians.”
“I was poisoned too. And, I infected my family as well.”
“Ain’t that too bad.”
“Stand up,” Adam advised – his voice shook with fury.
“Stand up? What for?”
“Because when I throw a punch, I like to make it count,” Adam warned.
“Throw a punch?” Neally chuckled. “Sorry, ah… Adam is it? My fighting days are over. You’ll have to take up your differences with my friends here.”
“I had no doubts you’d be spineless,” Adam jeered – his entire being sizzled with rage.
He braced himself as the three bodyguards rose from their chairs and ran at him. They pinned him against the bar. Chairs flew in the air and glasses smashed to the floor. Adam was just no match for them. Two of the thugs held him while the other pummeled him relentlessly. Jason Neally watched as if it was a sporting event. He laughed insidiously. Within moments, Adam crumpled to the ground like a sack of grain. Blood oozed from his mouth and nose. There was a gash above his left eye that had already begun to swell.
“Get rid of him,” Neally ordered as he finally stood, threw his napkin onto the table and walked out of the saloon.
When Adam regained consciousness it was dark. All he knew was that he was no longer in Jackson Springs. He lay face down in coarse sand. Small bits of rock stuck to his bloodied face. Adam winced as he tried to push himself off the desert floor. He managed to sit up but that was as far as he could manage at that moment. His only consolation was the fact that Sport towered over him- seemingly shielding Adam from any more harm.
A full moon blazed over-head, illuminating the desert a smoky gray. Blackened scrub and brush was silhouetted against the starry, cobalt sky.
Adam struggled to stand. It took him several tries but he finally got to his feet. His breath turned frosty as it hit the humid, frigid air. Once upright, he could scan the terrain to try and figure our exactly where he was. It appeared he was somewhere he’d never been before – east of Jackson Springs. Open desert. Nothing could survive out here except Gila monsters and rattlesnakes. Even they were scarce.
Adam then noticed his holster was gone. He was a sitting duck out here. He mustered as much strength as he could and with great effort, forced his foot into the stirrup of his saddle. He fought to raise himself up and over. With incredible fortitude, he reined Sport west. He’d return to Jackson Springs to get what he wanted and what the Paiutes needed. The only way Neally could stop him, was to kill him. Neally had no notion of Adam’s infamous grit and drive. But, he was about to find out.
“I guess I under estimated you, Cartwright.”
Neally sat behind his desk at the Sheriff’s office, flanked by his three employees. He was surprised to see Adam wearily walk through the door just after noon. Adam’s face was battered and still unattended. His black hat, shirt and pants were now the color of campfire ashes. He was covered in dust and grim. Adam stood unsteadily in front of Neally with unfailing determination. His eye was swollen shut. His nose bruised and red.
“I need a buckboard. A team of horses. Some barrels and some washtubs,” Adam simply stated. “That’s all. Just sell me my supplies and you’ll never see me again.”
“Sorry friend. Can’t help you.”
“Why not?” Adam struggled to stay aware.
“Do I have to explain it to you?” Neally asked with a smirk. He puffed on a very large cigar.“Now, I can see you’re a smart man. Don’t make me do something I’ll regret. Get on you horse and go home.”
“I need a buckboard… a team of horses… some barrels and some washtubs,” Adam repeated impatiently.
“Boy oh boy. He’s sure are a glutton for punishment, ain’t he, boys? Now, I told you to git. So git!”
Adam moved several steps forward. He knew he was incapable of forcing these men to do anything but he found it difficult to quell his temper. Adam fumed through his pain. He battled the urge to strangle Neally. But he grabbed yet again by the three men who’d beaten him the day before. Adam braced himself for another round.
“You touch my boy again, and I’ll cut you down where you stand,” Ben threatened as he, Hoss and Little Joe blasted through the door into the tiny office. All three Cartwright’s had their guns drawn and pointed at the men who had Adam restrained. “Let him go,” Ben demanded.
There were several moments of hesitation before Neally called off his men. They released Adam and he dropped to the floor with a thud. Ben scrambled over to his son as Hoss and Little Joe held the ruffians at bay.
“Adam? Are you alright, son?” Ben said.
“I… I think so, Pa.”
“What happened?” Ben asked now seeing the damage to Adam’s face. It was horrific. “Did these men do this to you?”
“Yes. But, it’s worse than it looks. Help me up, wouldja?”
Ben lifted Adam to his feet and tried to brush him off. He cupped Adam’s jaw in his broad hand to inspect his injuries further. “You need a doctor.”
“No Pa. We have to get water to the Paiute village. I found them. We have to hurry. I don’t need a doctor. They’re dying Pa and the longer we take the more they’ll suffer.”
Again the three men surged toward the Cartwright’s to try and stop them but Hoss stepped forward with his intimidating frame and looked at each of them squarely. His eyes were as blue as a flame at its base. “You lay one more finger on my brother and so help me, I’ll kill ya,” he warned. “Make no mistake. I’ll do it… with pleasure.”
They did as Hoss advised. They knew he was no one to tangle with. Joe and Ben gathered up Adam, and with Hoss watching their backs, the four Cartwright’s made their escape.
It took some persuading, but they managed to buy the supplies they needed and fill the barrels with water from a well from town. They rode to the village arriving three days after Adam had left. Two more children had died.
The four Cartwright’s along with Wojeka and the five women toiled for the next two weeks and managed to save the remaining people of the tribe. When all were strong enough to travel, Ben led his three sons and the Paiutes to a small cache of land on the Ponderosa. They would be safe there. They could live in peace.
Once the Cartwright’s finally returned home, they all keeled over from exhaustion. But it had been a rewarding endeavor, nonetheless. After several days of recovery, they went back to work.
After dinner one evening, Ben caught Adam deep in thought at his favorite spot for reflection – sitting on the coffee table facing the fireplace. The flames rose and fell as Adam played with the logs with a poker.
“What’s on your mind, son?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know, Pa,” Adam sighed. “What makes a man like Jason Neally tick?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly,” Ben replied then lit his pipe.
“How can people be so heartless?”
“Ignorance, son. Ignorance.”
“Will things ever change, do you think?” Adam wondered as he turned to look at his father. The cut above his eye had yet to heal completely.
“Oh. I don’t know.” Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I suppose when mankind realizes that we all breathe same air. We all live off the same earth. The same sun warms our faces. We all share the moon and stars and look to them to dream. We all need to be loved and give love in return.” Ben paused a moment. “People are just afraid of things they are not accustomed to. Prejudice is based on fear and it has a long and painful history.”
“How can we stop it?” Adam asked – his eyes soulful with sincerity.
“I don’t think we can, son.”
“Because we’re human, Adam. You can’t prevent people from being just plain human with all their qualities and faults. We have to take the good with the bad. I’m afraid the world is not yet a perfect place and probably never will be.
“I hope you’re wrong, Pa. It may take a hundred years but it will happen.”
“What’s that, son? What do you suppose will happen in a hundred years?” Ben leaned forward interested to hear his son’s answer.
“Peace on earth, Pa. Surely, there will be peace on earth by then.”
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