Winter (by Krystyna)

Summary:  A story of the events leading up to Adam’s illness that led Ben to reflect on his first wife in Elizabeth, My Love.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8100


Acknowledgment:  With grateful thanks to Anthony Lawrence, the author of the episode Elizabeth, my love.

*****

Nothing was worse than winter upon its first arrival. Somehow this particular winter was worse than usual as it had leap-frogged autumn and jumped straight into a bitterly cold season of relentless northerly winds and torrential rain.

Grey skies like lead. Rain that teemed down like bullets. Wind that lashed the rain horizontally and drove the breath out of one’s lungs. The earth turned to treacle as the rain churned it into thick mud and the horses’ feet made a further morass of the ground as they walked upon it. No wonder the riders were wading through wet cloying mud that sucked at their boots and made going everywhere twice as difficult as normal.

Everyone was in a bad humor. Hop Sing was near dancing with anger every time the door opened and closed and another Cartwright entered the house with half the yard on his boots to be deposited upon the floor.

Hoss complained that, being the biggest, he became the wettest because more rain fell upon him that anyone else. Joe groaned that being the smallest, he was most likely to be blown away by the wind. Adam said that with Joe being the smallest and nearest to the ground, he was also in the most danger of being drowned. Ben just complained – of his aching bones, the rain that poured down his neck and trickled down his back and seemed to end in puddles in his boots, of cold bedrooms and draughty floorboards, at food being cold by the time it reached the table, and at Hop Sing for being unreasonable when he complained to him about the cold food.

“Dangblast it, Pa, this here egg is colder now than when it went into the pan,” Hoss groaned as he lifted the offending congealed object onto the tines o f his fork for all to see.

“Hasn’t stopped you from eating them before,” Joe observed as he stabbed at a piece of ham, “When will it ever stop raining?” he asked no one in particular as he stared out of the window at an obscured view due to the rain that lashed at the windows.

“Just hurry up and eat; we’ve work to do,” Ben growled as he hastily swallowed down his breakfast and washed it down with coffee, “Where’s Adam?”

“You mean you’ve only just noticed he isn’t here?” Joe chortled, “We’ve been sitting at the table for half an hour and you’ve only just noticed he isn’t here, waxing lyrical about the season and adding his complaints to ours?”

“That’s enough,” Ben scowled at his youngest and then glanced again at the empty chair.

“He left early. I heard him pass my door about 4 o’clock this morning.” Hoss yawned, “Pa, how about we take the day off? We could treat ourselves to a holiday, huh?” He looked hopefully at his father with his blue eyes wide and – he thought – appealing. (Well, it always worked with Joe.)

“Don’t be so ridiculous,” Ben snapped and rose to his feet away from the table upon which he cast down his napkin. The whole idea of taking the day off was – oh, so tempting – but there was work to be done and if he expected the hands to get on with it, then he and the boys should be there setting an example.

The thought of going out in the rain didn’t propel them from their seats with the same alacrity as their father, but eventually Hoss and Joe managed it. The putting on of gun belts, hats, jackets took twice as long as usual and were accompanied by sighs and groan and mumble under the breath. Ben cast thoughtful glances in the direction of his desk and tried to recall whether or not there was some urgent book work that needed some attention.

As Ben reached out to take the latch on the door, it was pushed open and Hank stepped inside. He coughed and stood for a moment in silence as rain water tipped from his hat brim onto the floor as though from a gully. It streamed from his tarpaulin slicker and puddled the floor. He looked, with red rimmed eyes, at Ben. “Bad news,” he mumbled.

“Shucks.” Hoss frowned; no way was he going to be able to coax his family into staying home now.

“Just knew there had to be…” Joe sighed, looking at his brother’s face with resignation.

“What is it?” Ben prompted as Hank didn’t seem in too much of a hurry to divulge the information.

“The bridge is down on the Mill Road. It’s flooded over and broken up. We…”

“We?” Ben frowned, mentally anticipating the reply.

“Adam and me…-”

“Adam was with you?”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright. I was up early and so rode along with him. He said how he wanted to check on the state of the river as it was so high yesterday. Anyhows, the bridge there was all shattered up so we rode on along some to where the river widens out for that bridge crossing onto the road to town. Adam reckons on it just about holding but not for much longer if this weather carries on. He was mighty concerned about the folk at the Box G. Wondered if’n we oughta go along and check on ‘em.”

Joe looked at his father’s face and then at Hoss’. If the bridge went there, they would be cut off from any help if there was any severe flooding onto their land. Ben caught his son’s glance and nodded,

“Best if Joe and Hoss go along and check them out. Where’s Adam now?”

“Keeping a check on the bridge. I just come back to grab me some tools…”

Ben nodded. It was bad enough that the bridge at the Mill Road had collapsed, but the bridge that spanned the river close to the Box G was a vital link for the Box G. It served as an alternative route to the town for themselves as well as the homesteaders on the borders of the Ponderosa.

“You two had best go and check on the Chapmans. Make sure they’re quite safe and provided for should there be an emergency. And…” he grabbed at Joe’s arm as the younger man made a hurried move to leave, “don’t take any unnecessary risks.”

“Sure thing, Pa.” Hoss nodded reassuringly, and placed a firm hand upon his brother’s shoulder as though to reinforce their father’s request.

Ben frowned thoughtfully as he thought of all the homesteaders, ranchers and farmers who would be dependent on the Box G Bridge remaining open. It was a curse indeed, this wretched rain, the threat of flood, and the links to town destroyed. He firmed down his hat upon his head and looked at Hank, “Let’s go.”

*****

Adam Cartwright rode his horse slowly along the swollen banks of the river. With his hat lowered to shield his eyes from the worse of the rain, his view of the river was somewhat restricted, but he could see only too well the debris that was hurtling through the engorged frenzied waters. Broken trees that had worked loose from so much rain after weeks of drought were tumbling down river as thought mere straws; clumps of muddied reeds from the river banks had been pulled free to turn over and over in the currents to eventually be deposited elsewhere, at which site they would eventually re-establish roots for re-growth. He watched as several branches snagged together, twirled around and around before breaking free again. He shook his head thoughtfully knowing that this boded no good for the danger of them locking together to form a dam further downstream which would escalate the threat of flood in this particular locality.

He wheeled his horse around and returned slowly towards the bridge. It had always stood firm against any weather in the past, and only that summer Hoss had busied himself by reinforcing any weak spots. Thank goodness for it, Adam mentally noted; it gave some hope that the structure would withstand this storm.

“What the…” The words came from his mouth as an involuntary gasp of amazement as he noticed the wagon that had rolled onto the bridge and was carefully making its way towards his side of the bank.

He raised a hand as though in an attempt to stop the wagon proceeding any further. Surely the man could see that the whole venture was a risk. Surely he could see that he was putting himself and his people in danger as the waters surged muddily and greedily beneath the planks; every so often the structure would resound with the sound of some debris striking against it. Even now a large branch was snagged between the planks and sides, with the current pulling at it one way and the bridge holding it fast at the other.

The horses pulling the wagon were nervous as they felt the planks shaking beneath their hooves. Inch by inch they moved further along, second by second the horses became more and more jittery. The man pushed the reins into the hands of another man and clambered down from the wagon seat to walk to the head of the horses. The wind blew against him and he had to bend double to fight against it, holding onto his hat with one hand as he did so. As he neared the trapped branch, he kicked against it with a strength and violence that succeeded in setting it free to be carried away downstream.

Adam watched the man’s progress with concern while at the same time urging Sport towards the bridge, for he knew only too well that the man would be requiring some help before long. His hand reached out for his lariat, ensuring that it was free and ready for use.

The man reached the horses and grabbed at their harness. At the same time a heavy swell hit against the bridge, which rocked violently upon its footings. The horses reared up their heads, squealed in panic as the boards beneath their feet proved themselves unsteady. The man was pushed against the side of the bridge, but held on grimly, shouting at the animals and pulling at the lead horse’s head in an attempt to make them move onwards.

“Hey, you…” the man yelled over at Adam, who was now much closer to the bridge, “Don’t just sit there, come and give us a hand.”

“Take the wagon back while you can,” Adam shouted back, “The horses want to back up, man; don’t fight them.”

“We need to cross the bridge. Are you going to give us some help or waste your breath shouting orders at me?”

The man was wrestling with the horses now as the bridge continued to shake and tremble. His attempts to move the animals forwards was not giving them the confidence in him, and certainly not compelling them to move on. They backed up against one another, pushing the wagon into the railings that ran along the sides of the bridge.

The man with the reins was leaning into the wagon now and yelling to whoever was inside. It seemed certain that the more panic-stricken the horses became, the more they would push the wagon back, but as it stood now at an angle, it was not going to go onto the bank of the river but rather hard against the bridge rails, with all probability of smashing through them. The outcome would eventually be with the wagon would go over the side and into the river.

Whether the man realized his wagon was in such danger was not obvious, but the older man on the wagon seat seemed aware of it, and was now clambering down. Once on the bridge, he turned and raised his arms as though in supplication to those still within.

Adam had now reached the bridge and had dismounted. He had tied one end of his lariat to the pommel of his saddle, while he held the rest in his hand, feeding it out slowly as he ran, with head lowered, along the bridge. He could feel the wooden structure trembling as though it were a living sentient in fear of being destroyed by the greater force that was waged against it.

When he raised his eyes to check on the progress of the wagon, Adam saw a woman, holding the hand of a child, running towards him. They were a mere few feet from him, and within minutes he had them by the hand. He led them across the bridge to stand beneath the shelter of a tree under which his horse was standing. Then he retraced his footsteps and ran towards the wagon.

*****

Sarah Morgan cringed against the sturdy trunk of the tree against which the stranger had positioned her. Her child, Laura, clung to her skirts, her face white with fear and her voice mute with terror. It seemed to Sarah as though, after so many dangers and tribulations, all their efforts were to be dashed – quite literally dashed – to pieces just as they were on the threshold of nearing their goal.

Her lips moved in silent prayer, although her heart was breaking within her breast. She watched with fever-bright eyes as the stranger joined with her husband to fight the horses, to steady them enough to gain the confidence they needed to move forwards and to inch the wagon away from the danger of going over the bridge’s side.

Her hand remained rested upon her daughter’s head and gently she turned the child to face her. She looked down into the trusting but ashen little face, bereft now of freckles and sunny smiles just as the sky was barren of sun and sunlight.

“Don’t be frightened, sweetheart; it’ll be alright,” she consoled, and drew the child closer. “It’ll be alright,” she repeated as though now she needed to console herself.

“Where’s Liam, mummy?”

Sarah now turned stricken eyes back to the wagon and her mouth framed the one word: a name, Liam. The color and strength drained from her body, and without a sound, she slid onto the ground with her child sobbing over her.

The horses were calming slowly. The stranger who had come to them had a deep resonant voice that encouraged them to be still, vastly different from the strident curses and yells from their owner. Behind the wagon, the other man struggled to straighten the vehicle, putting all his weight against the back wheel which had lodged itself against the railings.

At last there was a return of some confidence in the beasts. Perhaps they had sight of the sturdy chestnut horse standing at the far end of the bridge, dutifully awaiting the return of his master. Whatever it was, the two horses seemed to have decided to do their master and the stranger some justice and pulled the wagon forward.

The wagon lurched and rolled. The bridge shuddered as the wheel continued locked in the side railings. Adam hurried around the wagon to where the other man was struggling to free the wheel, and realizing the problem, he put his hands on the spokes and added his strength to that of the other. Together they heaved against the wagon, against the wheel, striving to force it free.

“Daddy …”

The child’s voice was a mere whimper, and Adam glanced up to see a very young face with a quivering bottom lip and large eyes pooling with tears. The other man turned also, looked at the child, and straightened his back,

“It’s alright, son, Daddy’s here. Just be still now like a good boy.”

But the child had no realization of what he should or should not do. He was frightened, he was alone in the wagon, and he needed his father. His arms were reached out and he leaned forward into the man’s arms. It seemed to Adam as though he were transported back in time to when he himself had trusted more in the safety of his father’s arms than in anything or anywhere else. How many times had he turned to the man who had always been there for him, who had, like this man, taken him into the enduring comfort of his arms when fear had so overwhelmed him? No child thought of a father having fear, no child knew nor wanted any other reassurance but that of his father’s presence.

It was at that moment the horses in front pulled together, and the wagon righted itself, steadied, and turned. It was at that moment that man and child were cast over the railings into the surging waters of the river. The brown brackish waters covered their heads immediately. There was no cry, no shrill scream to mark their passing — just a silence and where they had once stood…nothingness.

*****

Adam still had the rope end in his hand. Unconsciously, he had not for a moment loosened his grip upon it and now as he threw himself into the river he wondered if God in His mercy would grant him the strength to use it for the benefit of the three of them.

The strength of the current was fiercely uncompromising. He found himself cast into a maelstrom of eddying currents that pushed him under, hurled him upwards and spun him around. He searched wildly for sight of the man and boy when he was above the surface of the water, and then grappled for his own life when sucked back under once again.

His body was numb within seconds of being in the water. His eyes were near blinded by the volume of force that struck against his face. Yet still he held to the rope in his hand and still he looked for sight of the others who, he felt, had less chance to survive than he, for he knew the man would not release his hold on the child, unless the river snatched the boy away from him.

Now he could see the man’s head bobbing close to him. Now he knew was the time to strike out and fight for their lives against the currents and to pray that strength beyond what was normal would be provided for their safe being.

*****

Ben and Hank dismounted with a haste that almost propelled them both into the river, but gaining their feet they ran to where the taut rope held fast to Sports saddle horn. Ben was about to cast himself into the river but Hank’s hand grabbed at his arm and forced him to exercise some self-control even though they could see that Adam was fighting for his life — but not just his own, for now he had reached the other man.

“Take the boy!” The man’s scream was high above the sounds of the river, and the wind blew them into Adam’s hearing.

“Take the rope, man,” Adam replied, “Take the rope. Both of you can be hauled into the bank.”

“No strength left…” the man cried even as he was pulled beneath the water yet still held his child aloft.

“Hold fast, man, hold fast.” Adam yelled, and cast the loop of the rope over the wrist of the hapless fellow.

“No strength. Save yourself. Save my boy!” cried the man as he resurfaced. “Save him”

The current pulled them along. Adam felt the rope tauten even as he went beneath the surface. His hands groped, felt and held fast to the man’s body and together they resurfaced. The rope was still taut and the man’s arm was now victim to another battle as Hank and Ben hauled at it from the bridge. Adam reached up and grabbed at the rope while at the same time his other arm encircled the body of the man.

Using their feet, both men pushed themselves against the strength of the river. Morgan, one arm still enfolded around his child, had now a firm grip upon the rope. Above Morgan’s hand, Adam’s fingers also gripped the rope so that all three were now totally dependent upon the two men hauling the rope in.

Neither of them could see through their eyes, now blinded by the waters rushing against their faces. They pushed with their feet and held tightly to the rope. Morgan clung to his child, and Adam clung to Morgan. It took all of Hank and Ben’s strength to haul them in, aided by Sport who maintained a loyal and steady stance upon the bridge.

It seemed as though their battle through the waters was interminable. On and on it lasted as one moment they were pulled under, only then to be forced up. Never once did Morgan loosen his grip on his child, nor on the rope. It was Adam Cartwright who found himself weakening, unable to maintain his hold on the man, his fingers too numb to continue his grip on the rope.

He didn’t hear his father’s cry, his name being called aloud. He only saw a brief glimpse of the leaden sky, felt the rain splatter against his face and then the strange sickening lurch of his body as the water engulfed him and pulled him down into its murky mud-laden bottom.

He didn’t feel strong arms that gathered him up and brought him to the surface, for he was unknowing of the sight of his two brothers seeing his danger and of Hoss throwing himself into the water. He didn’t hear their voices as they assured him he would be alright — really, he would be alright.

*****

Sarah Morgan drew closer to the fire. Tentatively she held out her hands to the flames and felt their warmth. She had thought she would never feel warm again, nor dry. From somewhere the kind gentleman had found clothes for her, and a dry child’s nightshirt for Laura. Now they sat in the big room with the roaring fire while the Chinese gentleman fussed around making coffee and soup and freshly baked bread.

She shivered now, not from the cold for she was no longer cold, but from guilt. She knew even as she sat there, safe and warm, that, in the room above, the young man who had come to help them was fighting for his life.

She drew the shawl closer around her shoulders and forced a smile on her lips for Laura’s sake as the child sidled up to her mother and crouched beside her. She rested her head upon her mother’s lap and gazed into the flames.

Peter Morgan thanked Hop Sing for the bowl of soup and hugged it to his body. Like his wife, he felt a myriad contrasting emotions as he rejoiced for his own life and that of his son, but knew that another life could well have been the cost of them both. He looked over at Joe, who was talking in a low voice to his brother, the big man who had dived in to save the man they knew to be Adam Cartwright.

Howard Morgan drank his coffee and watched his brother and sister-in-law. It had been a risky venture right from the time they had signed up at St Josephs, Missouri. But there was no help for it; plans had been arranged, negotiated and concluded for them to take over a property which bordered the Ponderosa. As the weather had worsened, they knew without doubt that if they did not make a push for it, they would be trapped in the mountain passes and probably perish. Instead, they had risked everything and almost died anyway. He sighed heavily, and approached the two Cartwright brothers,

“Has someone sent for the doctor? I presume there is a doctor in town, isn’t there?” Howard inquired.

“We can’t get to Virginia City. It’s flooded and the bridge is down,” Hoss replied distractedly. He looked at Howard as though just realizing that the man was there. “Don’t worry, though; one of our men is heading for Carson City and getting the doctor from there.”

“At least it’s stopped raining,” Howard remarked and then wished he hadn’t said something so inane.

But Hoss seemed to understand for he allowed a brief smile to cross his face and he nodded. “Yeah, that’s some relief anyway.”

Howard moved away to sit close to his family. Liam Morgan, aged nearly three, slept soundly. Wrapped in a blanket and cradled in his mother’s arms, he was now oblivious to what had happened. Perhaps in time to come, he would have dreams and nightmares that he would not understand the meaning of, fears of things the origin of which he would not recall. At the present time, though, he slept, having been clothed, fed and cosseted. In his world, he was safe once more.

Now there was just that sudden quietness that often happens when an event has arisen that snatches one away from the normality of life. Each and every one of the adults waited for news of the one who had been brought home as though dead and who now fought for his own life as desperately as he had fought for theirs.

The flames of the fire chased themselves up the chimney. Hop Sing bustled about them with an admirable calmness about him, bringing with him a new confidence and hope of a good life ahead in this new world. The child, Liam, lay in his mother’s arms and she, holding him tenderly, sat mutely by the fire, now staring down at the beloved face — no, not staring, more rightly to say, devouring the little face with the sweet pursed lips and the long curled lashes upon porcelain cheeks.

“How is he?”

She looked up and saw Joe’s face. The anxious, strained look in the young man’s face was not, she knew, just for her and Liam. She forced a smile. “He’s much better. He’s a strong little boy.”

“That’s good.” Joe leaned forward and gently held back a fold of the blanket to reveal the child’s face, “There’s more color in his cheeks now, isn’t there?”

She only nodded, but said nothing. She pulled back the blanket, closing it around her infant, as though to trap within its folds every last amount of warmth.

There was the heavy tread of a footstep upon the stairs. The adults looked up in a movement that indicated their concern as the rancher came down the stairs, one by one, each step leaden, as though weighed down by his sorrows. He paused at the bottom step, raised his dark eyes and realized he had guests who had gone through their own sufferings. He straightened his shoulders and forced himself to smile. “The rain has stopped.”

They looked at him as though bewildered. Joe had stood up and stepped forward, a question on his lips, but knew now it was better not to ask, not in front of these strangers. Hoss licked his lips and turned away; his eyes fell upon the coffee pot and he promptly poured out his father some coffee, a normal action upon an abnormal day.

“Here, Pa, guess you could be doing with some of this inside of you.” Hoss passed it into his father’s hands and his eyes looked deeply into his father’s eyes and he knew what he was being told – no change.

Peter Morgan stood up and approached Ben, his hand outstretched. “Thank you again, Mr. Cartwright. I can’t thank you enough for all the help you’ve given to us. Your son…” his eyes flickered nervously to the stairs, “saved our lives. You all did. I’m just so sorry that it has caused you all so much…” He swallowed the word, for he found he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

“Winter’s a dangerous season, Mr. Morgan. Not the time to be venturing out on journeys such as yours,” Ben replied. If there was a hint of remonstrance within his words, he did not mean them, for he was a man himself who had undertaken just such ventures in the past.

“We were delayed in the hills,” Howard Morgan spoke up, a trite defensively, “My wife – she was ill for a while which further delayed us. We would have been here sooner, before winter came. We knew it was a risk but it was important to reach our new home as soon as we could, for we have commitments here.”

Ben nodded in understanding. There was no point in anyone referring to the fact that there was but one woman there present and she was Peter’s wife. Mrs. Howard Morgan had been ill, and her death had no doubt contributed to their delay.

“Howard has a position in Virginia City to take up; he was due to take it up at the end of last month. He – we – didn’t want to risk his losing it after all the difficulties we had endured on this journey,” Peter Morgan made haste to speak up in defense of his brother. Although no accusation had been leveled against him, he felt the need to justify what had already been said.

“Well, I think the best thing would be to take one day at a time,” Ben suggested. He settled down into his big red chair and drank some coffee. Then he glanced up to the ceiling as though his love for his son would enable him to see through the floor boards into the room above where Adam now lay.

The clock ticked away the minutes, seemingly louder than usual as it marched the time away from their lives. The flames seemed to crackle and snap more noisily. The rain had stopped and now a straggling, watery sun sparkled upon the raindrops on the windows.

It was Peter Morgan who broke the silence now. He looked around the room and his eyes met those of his wife. “Mr. Cartwright, we have taken up so much of your time, and…and caused you anxieties enough. I can only thank you on our behalf for everything.” He bit his bottom lip and struggled to find the words, so much so that Sarah, standing up now with the child still in her arms, was the one to now speak.

“While the weather holds fine, we should be getting to where we should be and not filling your house with strangers when you have things to deal with of such a personal and necessary kind,” she said softly. “I thank you with all my heart for what you have done for us today, and when it is possible, we shall come and thank Adam personally for his courage and bravery.” She placed a gentle hand upon that of the rancher, who rose to his feet and with a smile, covered her hand with his own.

“Take care, Mrs. Morgan,” Ben replied. “You know there’s always a welcome here for you at the Ponderosa.”

Sarah nodded and turned away, with little Laura behind her still clutching at her mothers’ skirts. The child raised her eyes and looked into Ben’s face; it seemed to her that he looked sad but she couldn’t exactly work out why. Everyone seemed sad. She sighed and allowed herself to be picked up by her Uncle Howard.

Outside, the sun sparkled upon puddles and raindrops, the air was calm, the clouds had folded themselves up like Bedouin tents and stolen away. The Cartwrights stood on the porch and watched as the Morgans clambered back into the wagon, turned it around and rolled itself away.

“An odd start for them…” Ben muttered, as he turned to re-enter the house.

“They’ll survive. We did,” Hoss replied, pushing his hands into the pockets of his pants. He closed the door behind him.

Ben sighed, the heavy weary sigh of a tortured man. He put his arm across Hoss’ shoulders and said softly, “Well, I guess we had to …”

*****

It seemed to Adam Cartwright that everywhere he turned there was water, dark, black water. The coldness of it made him shiver and his teeth chattered. He could feel drops of water trickling down his face, irritatingly slowly. Wave upon wave crashed into him so that his chest tightened as though a band were buckled around him and being pulled tighter and tighter, crushing his ribs and making it impossible to breathe. He knew he had to push the water away in order to reach the surface, and yet no matter how hard, he pushed some force still held him down. There was no doubt about it; he was going to drown.

Hoss looked up over his shoulder and his blue eyes widened in frantic appeal as he continued to hold down the blankets that Adam was continually pushing away. “Shucks, ain’t that doctor ever going to git here?” he hissed through clenched teeth, “If Adam keeps this up, he’ll be too exhausted to fight the fever when it gets worser’n this.”

“Do you think it can get worse?” Joe asked as he wrung out the cloth and carefully wiped around his brothers face and throat.

“I hope not,” Hoss sighed and turned to his father who had just entered the room, “Was that the Doc?”

“No. It was Hank to say that the bridge was secured and the river levels already going down. The Morgans reached their place safely. How is he?” Even as he asked the question, Ben was striding over to his son’s bedside and looked down anxiously at the sick man in the bed.

“What do you think, Pa?” Joe whispered anxiously, “Do you think he’ll be alright?”

Ben could say nothing; he placed his hand upon his son’s arm and just sighed before drew nearer to Adam. From experience, he could tell that his son was in a critical condition; he needed no doctor to tell him, for he knew the signs well enough by now. The pulse beat was too rapid, the breathing too shallow, the lips too dry. He leaned closer towards his son and noticed how the eyelids fluttered – sometimes partly opened to reveal the whites of the eyes – and how the perspiration that spiked the dark hair collected in a pool at his throat, while the dry lips twitched in silent conversation.

“Surely the doc should be here by now?” Joe cried, his voice having the shrill edge to it that came to him when under stress.

“Who knows what the roads are like from Carson City, Joe?” Hoss said soothingly, “Could be that he won’t be able to git here.” He straightened the covers over the sick man once again and then bit his bottom lip as he concentrated on thinking what else he could do to help.

“Pa?”

The sick man’s voice cracked as he spoke, but the eyes opened and rolled to gaze upwards at the dark eyed man leaning over the bed. Immediately Ben took hold of one of Adam’s hands and reassured him that he was there, he’d always be there

“Pa? “

“What is it, son?”

The lips twitched; words were formed in silence and were never uttered before, with a sigh, Adam gave a shudder and closed his eyes.

How strange, Adam thought, that he could be feeling so hot. So hot and no respite from it. The water, once so cold, was now a foaming cauldron of steam and heat in which he writhed in torment. If only someone could add just a few little icebergs that could float towards him and cool him. And the child – wasn’t there a child somewhere?

“The boy…”

Ben glanced up at Joe and Hoss, as the cry rang out as a sound of despair. He waited for Adam to say more, but there was no further sound. It seemed as though Adam were just slipping slowly away.

*****

They had never met the Doctor before – a balding man with a straight back and an intelligent face. He looked reassuringly much like one expected a doctor should look, even one consigned to the dubious responsibilities of caring for the people so far from the sophisticates of the East.

He followed Ben Cartwright up the stairs and passed into the patient’s room without a word, leaving Hoss and Joe to pace the floor in the big room downstairs. He had often heard mention of the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights. He had often wondered what the big ranch house would look like and what he would do were he to be called out to treat any one of them. Well, now here he was and he was discovering that there was not so much different about the Cartwrights and other mortals after all.

The man in the bed lay very still. The darkness of his skin was emphasized by the pristine whiteness of the striped nightshirt he was wearing. He sighed and looked over at the father, Ben Cartwright. “Has he been like this all the time?”

“No. Only for the past hour.”

The doctor nodded and stepped nearer to the bed. He placed the small trumpet-shaped instrument upon Adam’s chest and listened to the heart beat, then to the lungs. He pursed his lips and sighed. He peered into the man’s eyes and then gently lowered the hooded eyelids. He felt for the pulse at the neck and wrist. The he ran his hands along the body, gently fingering the ribcage, the spine, the base of the skull. He put his hand upon the young man’s brow and stood there for a moment, staring at the far off wall and thinking whatever it is that doctor’s think when everything they did indicates the worse possible news.

Joe and Hoss stood up as though to attention as the doctor, followed by their father, descended the stairs.

“Adam is a very sick boy, Ben. There’s no point in hiding the truth — it’s out of my hands.”

The brothers exchanged looks, gazed anxiously at their father who gave a cry of protest, before asking the doctor exactly what it was he meant.

“He’ll reach the point of crisis tonight. If he passes it, all well and good. If not…” He paused, sighed, “Stay close to him, Ben.” There was a slight shrug of the shoulders as he turned to leave. “I’ll stop by in the morning.”

There was a slight hesitation as the three Cartwrights seemed to need the time to catch their breaths; Ben murmured a thanks to the doctor even as the man closed the door behind him.

“Pa, Hoss and I’ll take turns to sit by him…”

“Yeah, Pa.” Hoss nodded in agreement, although he could barely raise his head to meet his father’s eyes, “Pa, he’s going to pull through this; he’ll be alright, don’t you worry. You go up and get some rest; we don’t want you to be sick too.”

“No.” Ben shook his head, pushed their caring hands away, “No, you boys get some sleep. I’ll sit with him.”

*****

It was a long silent vigil. The man in the bed was so still, so composed and, to all appearances, already dead. Occasionally there would be moments of rapid, shallow breathing, the struggle to force one breath through labored tortured lungs after the other. Sometimes there was soft whispering as though he were talking to some other in the room, some one other than Ben who sat beside the bed.

Ben sat for some while with Elizabeth’s picture in his hand, remembering the time he had married her, the tussle with Captain Stoddard over becoming a shop owner instead of the proud owner of his own ship. Oh, he could hear that strident voice now. “What! Captain Abel Morgan Stoddard a shop assistant!” Ben smiled at the irony that Abel’s middle name had been Morgan, the name of the family that had led them into this crisis today – no, yesterday.

Captain Abel Morgan Stoddard. Oh obstinate, stubborn fellow. Even on the day Adam was born, Stoddard had courted trouble and a fight. Always the same, always.

He picked up the book Elizabeth had loved. ‘Paradise Lost’. He wanted to read it, to drift back to that time when they had shared a picnic in the summer and read poetry together, when they had first realized they were in love. Love, oh sweet tenderness of love – how perfect when young, sweet and chaste. Elizabeth, Elizabeth.

She had made him promise to pursue his dream. “Our dream,” he had said, “our dream.” But how often had that dream turned into a nightmare? Wasn’t this more of the same? He lowered the book and gazed at his son. “He’ll be like you.” she had said, and Ben smiled at the memory of her saying it. “As tall and straight as the trees among which he stands.” He leaned towards the bed and took his son by the hand — a proud tree indeed, and stricken down in its prime, he thought.

Again Ben picked up the book and turned the pages, forced his eyes to dwell upon the words “The world was all before them…”

How quiet the room was, not even the ticking of a clock to relieve the silence. Soundless. In the bed, the young man lay without moving. Up and down went the covers on the bed as they were raised by his shallow breathing.

*****

“When things get really tough,” the old man narrowed his eyes and looked deep into the near black eyes of the younger man sitting opposite him, “yer just gotta keep tight hold of what goals yer got. Keep it right up thar in front of yer, like a beacon shining bright on the horizon of your future.”

Ben remembered the voice, he remembered the time all those years ago when he was pursuing that dream Elizabeth had made him promise to pursue. He recalled the old man sitting by his side in the gutter of that town far away. Adam had been sleeping in his arms and this old down-and-out had sat by his side to offer him more hope and encouragement than any of the other upright citizens in the brand new settlement that was growing all around them.

No doubt about it, he had been tired. Exhausted. The dream he and Elizabeth had conceived together seemed to be fading more and more with every waking hour. Now his child was ill, and he had found the townsfolk of this settlement too busy to pay any heed to their needs. He was just another itinerant passing through …

So there he had been, sitting in the gutter with his child in his arms nestled in the natural cradle of his lap. The old man had come and sat down beside them and asked him where he was headed, and all of Ben’s misery had poured out like a dam bursting. When he had stopped, the old man – his name was Billy – had stayed silent for awhile and asked him once again ‘Where are you headed fer, young un?’

Ben could recall it as clearly as though it were yesterday. The old man with the stubble on his face, the blue eyes glazed from too much drink and little else besides. But he had told the old man, told him about their dream. Two men sitting in the gutter with a sleeping child. Busy housewives had hurried past them, scowled at them, tut-tutted at them. Harassed business men and shopkeepers, ranchers and farmers looked over at them and had shaken their heads. No one offered help or counsel. There had been no hand providing food, shelter or hospitality. Only a rheumy-eyed old man who had listened patiently to Ben’s dream.

“Now, son,” Billy had said as he had placed his hand upon Ben’s arm, “hope can be like a lighthouse far out there in the distance. At times, it gits shrouded by fog and mist, and the storms of the sea, and the light gits pretty dim. But if’n you know anything about lighthouses, then yer know that yer have to keep everything inside bright and shining so as to reflect as much light as possible. Then when the mists clear, and the storm bates down some, that thar light grows big and strong agin, and leads yer to a safe haven. Now, ain’t I right?”

“You’re right, old timer; I should know, having been a sailor for some time.”

“Thought as much by the roll of your gait. Don’t let anything rob yer of thet dream of your’n.”

Ben had glanced down at the child asleep in his arms and frowned. He had opened his mouth to speak when Billy once again had stopped him,

“Guess yer ain’t got no funds, huh? The little feller needs some food inside of him, and some medicine too, I should reckon, seein’ how flushed his cheeks are.”

“Yes, but…”

Billy had raised a hand in protest and pulled a small leather pouch from his pocket and placed it firmly in Ben’s hand. When Ben had opened his mouth to protest, Billy raised his hand once again for silence,

“You know what they say — never judge a book by its cover. Yer look at me and think I’m a poor old man, too drunk to rub two dimes together. But the fact is, I struck pay dirt some time back, and can afford to be generous to folk like yerself. I had a dream once, son, but I let it slip through my fingers. Now I got me the money, I ain’t got the health and strength to go with it.” He had smiled then, a furtive secretive little smile and had folded Ben’s fingers over the pouch with a firmness that belied his claim to ill health and made Ben doubt the truth of his story, “Take this, get the boy seen to, and some grub inside of yourselves. Then follow that thar dream of your’n and the little missus. Give that boy a future.”

Ben had mumbled a thank you, stammered a little, for the cold reception of the townsfolk had not prepared him for the generosity of the one who appeared least able to give. When Billy had rounded the corner and disappeared, Ben opened the neck of the pouch and peered inside, and then hurriedly tied it again. Billy had been right. He had been right then, just as he was now. One should never judge a book by its cover.

Ben sighed and picked up Elizabeth’s picture once again. He reached over to the bed and once again placed his hand upon his son’s arm. ‘Give that boy a future’, old Billy had said, and Ben felt the tears knot in his throat. “Is this the only kind of future I’ve given you, son?” he whispered.

Downstairs, the clock chimed but he couldn’t count the hours. Daylight was stealing over the window sill. The man in the bed stirred and opened his eyes. For a moment, he stared up at the ceiling as he struggled to emerge from his dreams into reality. By his bedside, Ben opened his eyes, realized he had drifted into sleep and leaned towards his son.

“Pa?” A whimsical smile played about Adam’s mouth as he looked at his father’s tousled hair and heavy eyes. “Was it a long night?” he asked.

“Not too long.” Ben replied and glanced down at the portrait in his hands. He smiled, “I had company and memories.”

Adam smiled and watched Ben replace the picture. He folded one arm behind his head and stared up at the ceiling, once again a smile played about his mouth,

“I had memories too, kind of mixed up in a dream,” Adam admitted. “I was on a clipper ship on a dark black sea and suddenly the sun came up. Guess it was from all those stories you told me as a boy, huh?” He turned towards his father and smiled.

Ben gave a small sigh and nodded. “Memories and dreams are precious things, Adam. They’re always there when you need them most.”

It seemed to Adam as though his father wished to say more, but before he could do so, the door opened. Hoss and Joe came into the room, rather hesitantly, looking anxiously at their brother and then at their father.

“How is he, Pa?” Joe asked in a hollow sounding voice but was answered when his brother raised a hand in greeting. Now the tension slipped from the brothers’ shoulders, and more eagerly they approached the bed to pause for a moment at the realization of how easily it could have been so different.

Hoss smiled his gentle smile and his eyes filled with that feeling of joyous relief when one realizes danger has at last passed. “Howdy, Adam” he mumbled. “Welcome home.”

***The End***

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