Word Count: 6800
The old cabin was quiet now. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air, acrid and stinging, but the smoke from the firing of three rifles had cleared as had the dust kicked up by the riders outside. Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe Cartwright slowly broke from their positions at the windows.
Little Joe, at ten years old having just experienced his first fight with Indians, peered out through the broken glass once more. “Yep, looks like they’re finally gone, Pa.”
Ben took the few steps needed to completely cross to his son’s side and looked out the window as well. He searched the ground carefully, knowing from long experience how good Indians were at hiding among trees and ditches. Hoss squinted as he stood behind his little brother and looked out to the far distance.
“There,” he said, pointing to the far mountains. “That’s them, ridin’ back to wherever they come from.”
Ben looked where his son indicated and saw the dust of the retreating band of Indians. He blew out a sigh of relief. “We were mighty lucky, boys; mighty lucky.” He turned to smile at his three sons, only to discover one of them was missing from his side.
It wasn’t as if there was anywhere to hide in the small one-room shack, yet Adam had found the darkest corner and was seated on the floor, back pressed hard against the wall, his silver-gray hat tilted over his face and almost obscuring the hand that covered his eyes. His right arm hung limply from his side, gun held loosely in motionless fingers.
Ben was at his side in one long stride and knelt beside him. “Adam,” he said, fear turning his stomach to acid. “Are you hurt, boy?”
There was no answer, just quick, short breaths.
Ben’s fear escalated. “Adam!” he repeated, gripping his shoulder. “Look at me, son!”
The other two boys crowded behind their father, sixteen-year-old Hoss with concern, Joe with outright fear.
“Pa?” Joe asked, his voice quavering. Just a few minutes ago he’d been excited and happy, thrilled to have participated in the battle, even if he’d mostly just reloaded his family’s guns. All of a sudden, the very real possibility that his oldest brother had been hurt brought violently home the danger they’d been in. He started to shake. “What’s wrong with Adam, Pa?”
“Go get a canteen, Hoss,” Ben ordered. “Joe, keep watch out the window, just in case.”
The boys ran to do his bidding, and Ben’s attention returned to his eldest. He ran his eyes quickly over his son’s body, looking for injuries, but didn’t find anything obvious. “Adam,” he called again and took his son’s hat off, then he grasped his arm, trying to pull his hand away from his face. Adam mindlessly resisted, but Ben finally got it down far enough to be able to see into his eyes. They were wide and dark with almost inexpressible pain.
Hands on either side of the young man’s face, Ben forced his son to look at him.
Slowly, recognition came back to his dark eyes. “Pa?” he asked, voice strained.
Hoss ran back into the room, unstopped the canteen and gave it to his father. Ben moved one hand to the back of Adam’s neck and held the water to his lips with the other. “Drink it, boy,” he said.
Adam obeyed, swallowing once, twice, then waved it away. “I’m all right,” he said, pulling himself back together with difficulty.
“Are you hurt?” Ben asked.
“No,” he whispered and took a deep, shaking breath. He rubbed at his face and then looked up, seeing the concern and fear on the faces of his family. He pushed himself up, bracing himself against the wall, and said again, more strongly, “I’m fine.” He staggered briefly and Ben reached out a hand to steady him, but Adam turned from it. “We’d better get out of here,” was all he said.
Ben handed the canteen back to Hoss, knowing his eldest well enough to realize there was more going on than he’d said, but also knowing his son wouldn’t talk here and now. And Adam was right. They needed to get as far away as possible in case the Indians changed their minds.
They camped that night a hard thirty-mile ride from the cabin, on the other side of three ridges and a wide, deep river. They and their horses had all drunk their fill after crossing where the water was shallowest; then they’d topped off their canteens and had continued to ride until it was almost too dark to see. They ate a quick, cold meal of jerky and water, lighting no fires, then climbed into their bedrolls, Hoss and Joe falling asleep immediately. Adam had insisted on taking the first watch, and after a brief scrutinizing look, Ben had agreed.
Adam woke Hoss just after midnight for the second watch and, without a word, settled into his bedroll, his blanket wrapped tightly around himself. Hoss spent the hour he’d been allotted puzzling over his brother’s odd behavior, but had reached no conclusions by the time he woke his father for the third and final watch.
Ben came awake immediately and rose, asking quietly, “Anything?”
Hoss shook his head. “Nope, ‘cept Adam ain’t sleepin’ too good.”
Ben tried to make out Adam’s form in the darkness. “What do you mean?”
Hoss shook his head. “He just ain’t restin’. He rolls on his back, shifts a leg, rolls back onto his side – it’s like he’s sleepin’ on a bed of rocks.” He paused. “Pa, what happened this afternoon? I ain’t never seen him freeze up like that before.”
Ben slowly shook his head, a worried frown barely visible in the starlight as he gazed on his eldest. “I don’t know, son. I just don’t know.” He turned back to Hoss. “But you’d better get some rest – we have a long hard ride ahead of us if we want to sleep in our own beds tomorrow night.”
Hoss’ expression immediately lightened. “Yeah, and have one of Hop Sing’s dinners.”
Ben smiled and squeezed his shoulder. “So the sooner you go to sleep—”
“—the sooner I’ll wake up,” Hoss grinned. “G’night, Pa.”
Ben watched as the biggest of his sons crawled under a blanket, checked that the smallest was still soundly asleep, then paused for a moment over his eldest.
He couldn’t believe that four years in the East could have changed his son so much that he would cringe in fear from a fight, but that was just what it looked like. Adam had only been home a few months, but Ben still couldn’t reconcile himself to the thought of his son as a coward. He thought back over the last few days, trying to remember everything that happened that had involved his son.
They’d been riding home from Mono Lake after delivering a small herd of cattle to a ranch that was owned by some old friends from Ben and Adam’s wagon trip west. Ben had had reservations about bringing Joe along, but he’d found he’d needed to have his family together again after Adam’s long absence. The trip out had gone well; they’d had a good time visiting with the Carsons, and they’d headed back to the Ponderosa with enough money stashed in the secret hiding place in Ben’s saddle to see them comfortably through the next winter.
Ben smiled at the memory of their visit. Joe and Hoss had certainly gotten an earful about the wagon train, and he’d caught both of them looking at their oldest brother with a combination of envy and respect. The boys hadn’t believed some of the more mundane details of the trip, yet had hung on every detail of some of the more outrageous stories his friend George had told. He laughed to himself, realizing that he’d one day have to explain to Joe that jackalopes didn’t really exist.
Adam had enjoyed himself, renewing his friendships with the Carson children who were now, he had to admit ruefully, as grown up as his son. Betty Lou had even gotten married and, if not for the child that was obviously on the way, would likely have run off barefoot with Adam and her brother when they decided to head for the swimming hole.
Hoss and Joe had fallen hard for Mrs. Carson, a warm, buxom woman who always had cookies or a cake or pie just coming out of the oven. Adam had greeted her shyly that first day, but when she pulled him into a hug, he went willingly. When he stepped back Ben had been surprised to see a suspicious brightness in his dark eyes.
Adam grew quiet toward the end of the visit, but Ben just put that down to sadness that their stay with his old friends was coming to an end. An elusive thought teased at him now, but he set it aside when he was brought back to the present by a soft moan.
“No,” he heard Adam say.
He moved closer, ready to wake his son if need be, but hoping he would settle into deep sleep.
“Hoss,” Adam murmured. “I’ll take care o’ you, Hoss, don’t you worry.”
Ben pulled his blanket from where he’d been sleeping and tucked it around his son. Adam sighed and seemed to relax.
Ben walked quietly around the small camp, looking out into the darkness. The stars shone brightly, casting little pinpoint shadows everywhere.
So, he thought, whatever it was that was bothering his son, it had at least something to do with Hoss. He couldn’t imagine what it might be; while Joe and even he had had some initial adjustment problems when Adam came home, Hoss had simply picked up with his older brother where they’d left off. He and Adam had settled right back into the same comfortable relationship they’d always had.
There hadn’t been an argument that afternoon, or even any kind of deep discussion between the two that could have triggered Adam’s restless dreams. They’d been laughing with each other as they rode up to the cabin, and when the first war cries had been heard, they’d worked smoothly and easily together. They’d tied their horses firmly to some brush near the side wall of the cabin where there was at least partial protection from Indian arrows. Adam scooped up Joe while Hoss grabbed their rifles and saddlebags with the extra ammunition, and they ran for the door while Ben covered them. The family had worked smoothly and seamlessly together, Adam and Ben firing out the windows while Hoss helped Joe find the boxes of extra ammunition.
Carefully, Ben ran through the fight in his mind. When had Adam left the front window? He frowned in concentration. Joe had fed cartridges into one rifle, handed it to Adam, then started loading a second. Adam had handed the rifle to his father and gone back to Joe, moving him against the wall to keep him out of the way of the arrows and bullets that were occasionally flying through the broken window.
Then there had been a lull in the battle. The Indians had ridden off a little way and circled their ponies while they conferred. Ben had time for only a brief word of praise for his boys before the attack began again.
The Indians were met with a hail of bullets, no matter how they circled. Several fell but were grabbed up by others who rode off a ways, dropped the bodies to the ground, and then returned to the fight.
Joe kept them well supplied with ammunition, but now that Ben thought about it, he realized that Joe had also taken up a rifle and had been shooting as well.
But when and why had Adam crawled into that corner? One minute Ben knew he’d been hearing his son’s rifle firing behind him out the back window, but when it had stopped, he’d merely assumed Adam was out of bullets and had either been about to get more from Joe or had switched to his pistol. But then the Indians had ridden off, and the fight was over as suddenly as it had begun.
A soft scraping sound drew his attention back to the camp. Adam was rolling onto his back, his blankets clutched in his hands in a death grip.
“Pa,” he muttered.
Ben moved to his side. “I’m here, boy,” he said softly, hoping to reassure his son without really wakening him.
“They’re gone, son. Go back to sleep.”
“They’re shooting at us . . . bullets, arrows . . . why won’t they leave us alone?” His question was a plea, begging some great unknown being to leave him in peace. He rolled to his side again, and Ben was appalled to see a tear slide from the corner of his son’s eye into his dark hair.
“Adam, it’s all right,” Ben said softly, one hand rubbing his son’s back as his heart sank. Maybe he didn’t know Adam as well as he thought anymore. Every man had these feelings, he knew, but the test of courage was ignoring them so that you could do what had to be done. Adam was young, yet, and he could understand the torment his son was going through, but what wrenched him to the core was the inescapable fact that his eldest had not been able to overcome those feelings and fight for his family’s lives that afternoon. It made no difference to his love, but he was bitterly disappointed.
Ben roused his sons before dawn, and by the time the first rays of the sun touched them, they were a good ten miles from their night camp. Ben caught his younger boys watching Adam every now and then; Hoss with concern, Joe with confusion. Adam seemed oblivious, but Ben well knew that he was an expert at hiding his feelings.
They were all tired this morning, and Ben worried that they wouldn’t be sharp enough to catch any slight warning the Indians might give if they chose to attack again. He heaved a sigh of relief when he realized that what he’d thought were clouds on the horizon were really the Sierra Nevada mountains closest to home. He studied the land they were riding through more carefully and soon recognized where they were. There was a meadow up ahead at the base of a tall, rocky hill, with trees and a small stream where they could water their horses and let them graze a bit. It would make a good noon rest.
Adam turned in his saddle. “Pa, there should be some good grass—”
“I know just where you mean,” Ben said, pleased that his son remembered.
Hoss rode up alongside and said hopefully, “Does that mean we’re gonna get some lunch soon?”
“Pa,” came a tired, strained voice from behind. “I’m hungry, too, Pa.”
Ben slowed his horse to allow Joe to come up even with him. He patted his youngest on the back gently. “Yes, we’ll stop for lunch. Just another mile or so. Think you can make it?” Joe was strong and resilient, even as young as he was, but this was a strain for all of them.
Joe nodded and his smile showed a bit more life. “I can make it.”
Adam watched his little brother with concern. “I’m going to scout ahead just a bit, Pa, make sure everything’s all right.”
Ben studied him carefully. He seemed the same as always, as if yesterday had never happened. But could he trust Adam not to panic if something went wrong? As soon as he asked the question, the answer seemed obvious. He had to. If his son had had such a change of heart while in the East and was now trying to overcome his fears, he had to give him that chance. There was nothing in his son’s expression, though, to indicate that Adam was fighting any internal battle. Confused but trusting his instincts, he nodded, and Adam took off.
When they rode up to the stream, they found that he’d already built a small fire and was putting on a pot of coffee. Ben looked around, still not comfortable that they’d left the Indians behind, though he wouldn’t have been able to explain the feeling to anyone. He considered telling his son to put the fire out, but at the thought of how good a hot drink would taste he changed his mind. They’d just have to keep an eye out.
Ben felt his decision justified when, after their quick meal of hot beans and hotter coffee, all of them felt better. He could tell from his boys’ quick comments to each other as they packed up their horses that they were happy to be getting back home. Joe and Hoss no longer shot questioning glances at their brother, teasing him instead when he made the unwise comment that he was getting tired of riding.
“I dunno, Joe,” said Hoss, a grin lurking. “Seems to me our older brother got all soft while he was back East.”
“Yeah,” answered Joe, green eyes dancing devilishly. “If he can’t even ride for four days straight, eating jerky and drinking canteen water, he just might not be able to make it out here anymore.”
“I can make it just fine,” Adam retorted, a little stung.
Ben continued to fasten his equipment to his saddle, wondering if he should call a halt to their bickering. It was taking on an edge he wasn’t very happy with, and Joe was an easy target for his oldest brother’s acid tongue.
“Maybe,” prodded Joe, gleeful that he’d actually gotten a reaction out of his brother. “Seems to me you ain’t had to fight for the last four years, you probably forgot how.”
Adam froze, one hand on his saddle horn.
“Joseph!” Ben barked.
“Well, it’s true, Pa,” Joe defended himself. “He stopped shooting yesterday and there were still Indians—”
“Enough, I said!” Ben hissed. “Get your horse ready.”
Finally realizing he’d crossed some unknown line, Joe turned to his other brother, but Hoss watched their father as he crossed to Adam.
Ben called his eldest’s name gently.
Adam hadn’t moved, still faced his horse, but yesterday’s pain was evident in his voice. “Is that what you think, Pa?” he asked hoarsely. “You, too?”
“Son,” he started haltingly, “it’s a hard life out here, and you’ve been safe for the last four years—”
Adam swung around to face his father, pride stiffening his back. “Maybe that’s part of it, Pa. Maybe living in a civilized world has made me realize what’s missing out here.” Then his voice became bitter. “But you were there – how could you forget?”
“Yes, I was there,” Ben said, now completely confused. “I saw what happened to you—”
“Did you, Pa?” Adam asked softly. “Did you really? I never blamed you; you had your own grief, and I couldn’t add to it. Besides, Hoss needed me.”
Realizing they were talking completely at cross-purposes, Ben knew he had to get this straightened out. Before he had a chance to say anything, though, Hoss called out, “Indians, Pa!”
“Take cover!” Ben yelled and grabbed Adam’s arm to drag him to safety.
Adam shook him off long enough to grab his rifle from its scabbard, snatch up his canteen and saddlebags, then he was off like a jackrabbit. Bullets flew, kicking up dust at his heels, and he took a flying leap to land hard on his shoulder behind the rocks where his father had taken cover.
“You all right?” Ben gasped, not taking his eyes from the field in front of him. He snapped off a quick shot and saw an Indian fall.
Adam nodded, painfully rotating his arm. “The boys?”
Ben jerked his head behind them. “Up the hill a bit.”
“How much ammo do they have?”
Ben grimaced. “Not much, from the sound of it.”
Adam crawled carefully to his father’s side and fired at an Indian who appeared for a moment from behind a tree. “I don’t understand what they want, why they keep chasing us. That’s an awful long ride just to steal four horses.”
Ben shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense to me, either. But then I never claimed to understand Indians. Sometimes I think they just have a need to chase someone off their land.” He looked back at the rocks that hid his younger sons. He could hear an occasional rifle shot, punctuated by the sound of a pistol, so he knew both boys were still alive. A brief anger rose in him that Joe was shooting a gun against his specific orders, but he grunted a laugh as he realized how ridiculous that was under these circumstances. He heard another pistol shot, saw another Indian go down.
“Was that Joe?” Adam asked. “I didn’t think you were going to let him use a gun for another couple years.
“I wasn’t,” Ben answered. “But obviously he’s figured out a way to get around that . . . and all things considered, it’s just as well.”
Adam’s mouth quirked in a grin. “Somehow I figured he’d find a way.” He grew serious. “But they’re gonna be running out of bullets soon.” He dug through the saddlebag and came up with two boxes of shells. “I have to get these up to them.”
“They’re safer if we stay down here, son, holding the front line.”
“But as soon as the Indians realize they’re helpless, they’ll cut them down. Pa, we need to move up there with them. It’s a better position, anyway.”
Ben glanced over the hillside and realized his son was right. “All right. You go first and I’ll cover you.”
Adam jammed the boxes back into the saddlebags, looped the canteen strap around his neck and under his arm, and grabbed his rifle in his right hand and the saddlebags in his left. “Ready?” he asked.
Ben nodded and began to fire.
It didn’t take the Indians long to start shooting at him, and he dodged and slipped his way up the hill as quickly as he could manage. Heavier fire began to come from his destination as Hoss and Joe realized what he was doing, and he made it to his brothers, winded but unhurt.
Joe’s eyes were round with fear, but he kept his head and chose his shots carefully. Adam quickly slipped the canteen off his shoulders and handed it to him. “Give me your gun,” he ordered, and responding instinctively to the command in his voice, Joe immediately handed it over. The boy took a couple fast gulps of water while Adam quickly and efficiently reloaded his pistol and handed it back to him.
“Hoss, your turn,” Adam said, and Joe began firing again as Hoss took a drink and let Adam reload his rifle. Their morale boosted by the combination of water and their brother’s company, some of the tension left the younger boys’ shoulders and they began to fire more carefully and effectively. Two more Indians went down, but Adam knew their luck wouldn’t hold much longer. They had to get their father up with them, then had to find a way to finish this for good.
“Pa!” he called.
Ben turned briefly and waved, then turned back and fired again.
“Hoss, Joe, we’re all going to have to fire together to protect Pa while he gets up here. Pick your spot – Joe, you take the left; Hoss, you take the center; and I’ll cover the right over Pa’s head.”
They nodded, Joe secretly glad he’d be shooting in the direction opposite of his father. He was proud of how well he’d done, but knew a moment of fear at the thought of trying to aim around his Pa. Adam was the best for that job.
“Ready?” Adam asked, and heard a grunt from Hoss and a hesitant ‘yes’ from Joe. Adam checked his father’s position and saw him crouched, set to take off. “Go!” he yelled and started firing.
Ben began his run, rifle in one hand, pistol in the other, puffs of smoke coming from both barrels as he made his way up the hill. Adam concentrated on the Indians in his sights, but kept an eye on his father. His breath came more quickly as Ben got closer, and prayers were mixed in with his swearing. He was just ready to heave a sigh of relief when he saw his father fall, an arrow in his back.
Overpowering rage brought him to his feet. “No!” he cried out, his deep voice booming across the meadow. A moment of startled peace descended as he raced to his father’s side, then the Indians began firing again and so did Hoss and Joe.
Adam knelt next to his father, his face a scowl of anxiety.
“Go back, boy,” his father gasped. “Keep your brothers safe.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Adam swore and grabbed him around the waist. He lifted him carefully, trying to avoid brushing against the arrow that was embedded in the big muscle just below Ben’s right shoulderblade.
“Adam,” Ben tried again. “Save yourself, son, don’t worry about me. You boys are what’s important—”
“I lost one parent to an arrow,” Adam said between gritted teeth, “I’m not losing another.”
Ben was struck silent by a sudden realization and gave up his protests. He forced his legs to move, to help his son help him up the hill. He fell to his knees behind the rocks, and Joe quickly helped him lie on his side, head pillowed on the saddlebags. Adam took Joe’s position and fired with a steady, steely determination that seemed to finally convince the Indians to leave.
Ben watched his eldest, wondering how he could ever have doubted his courage. Adam’s words replayed over and over in his mind: I lost one parent to an arrow . . . and his son’s behavior began to make sense. Then someone jarred the arrow, pain flashed through him, and he fell into darkness.
It was late the next day, and Ben was settled comfortably in his bed at home. When Doc Martin had pronounced him on the mend, Adam had paled and almost fell into a chair, shaking hand covering his eyes. Paul had prescribed rest for father and son, fully realizing Adam wouldn’t have slept since his father had been injured.
He’d been about to insist when Ben spoke. “Just a minute, Paul. Adam,” he called softly.
Adam took a deep breath and steadied himself. He rose, still a bit wobbly, and approached his father.
Ben patted the bed at his side. “Sit down,” he invited.
Adam complied, but his eyes never left his father’s. “I’m sorry, Pa.”
“For what, son?”
“Joe was right; I froze. I could have cost one of you your lives—” He broke off on a sob of a breath. “Maybe I should go back East, maybe I’m just not cut out for this world any more.”
Ben shook his head and stopped him by placing a hand on his knee. “No, son, it’s not your fault. I’m the one who should be saying I’m sorry.”
Adam’s head came up. “What?”
At that moment, Joe barreled in the door, followed by a contrite Hoss. “Doc, I tried to keep him downstairs like you said—”
“That’s all right, Hoss,” the doctor said with a smile. “I think your father could use a dose of his boys right about now.”
Joe came up right beside the bed and nudged at Adam to get out of the way, but a gentle pressure from his father’s hand on his knee told Adam to stay put. Joe scowled at his brother, but the face he turned on his father was innocent and pleading. “Are you okay, Pa?”
“I’ll be fine,” he assured him. “Just need a bit of rest and I’ll be right as rain.”
Both of the younger boys broke out in relieved grins.
“Boys,” Ben said, the seriousness of his voice grabbing their attention again. “There’s something you need to know, about the fight in the cabin.”
Adam turned his head away from his brothers, not wanting to face them right now. He felt the slight pressure again on his knee.
“Son?” Ben asked, a world of questions in that one word.
Adam looked down at the bedcovers as he thought for a moment, not wanting his weakness exposed to his younger brothers but knowing he owed them an explanation. “You tell them,” he finally said.
“All right, if that’s what you want.”
Adam nodded and rubbed at his forehead.
Paul faded into the background, not wanting to intrude, but needing to keep an eye on his patient. Hoss, seeing that his father wasn’t about to let his little brother usurp Adam’s spot on the bed, dragged an overstuffed armchair as close as he could, climbed in, and pulled Joe next to him.
Ben looked at his sons, his eyes touching each one individually with his love. Then he began to speak.
“Many years ago, a small family traveled west. There was a man and his young child, a boy who looked so like his mother that the man couldn’t get over his sadness at her death. The boy was a good child, rarely causing any trouble or grief, which would have been dangerous on the trail. One day, when the boy was about five years old, he became ill. The father worried because he didn’t have money for food, let alone medicine, but luckily they met a wonderful woman. She helped the small family, and the boy got well, and soon they all came to love each other.”
Ben watched his two youngest who sat quietly, knowing what he was saying was somehow important, but confused as to why.
“The man and the woman were married, and she joined them on their trip west. Soon there was another child, a large, happy baby boy. The man and his first son were happy, too – happier than they’d ever been before. While they’d loved and taken care of each other when there were just the two of them, the boy had a mother for the first time in his life, and he loved her with all of his being, as only a small boy can love his mother.”
He felt Adam’s muscles tense under his hand, and he stroked his son’s leg gently. Adam stared out the window, knowing what was coming, but sat still and quiet, just as he had all those years ago in that faraway cabin. Doc Martin’s eyes traveled from the youngsters in the chair to their father, and finally to Adam where his gaze settled. Yes, there was more healing here to be done than an arrow wound.
Ben continued. “Their happiness didn’t last, though. Three Indians attacked the small wagon train they traveled with. The wagon train’s guide, a man named Rockwell, wanted to hunt the Indians down and kill them, which the father thought was wrong, so he followed.”
The sky-blue eyes of his middle son were as round as saucers, and the emerald green of the child on his lap were every bit as wide. Even Adam was watching him now. Ben wondered that he’d never told his son this part of the story. Perhaps he had his own ghosts to exorcise. “He followed, and because of him, one Indian lived. Lived to ride back to his tribe and tell them what happened. The wagon train had just made it to a small way station when the Indians attacked. Everyone ran into the small cabin and started to shoot at the Indians. The father made sure his family was safe in a protected corner and went to a window to help.”
Ben halted, throat dry, voice tired, and not sure what to say next. He didn’t know what had happened, had only seen the terrible aftermath. He looked up at his son, this tall young man who’d carried the scars of that day for over fifteen years without a word, until . . .
Joe was still watching with the eagerness of a child who’d had his story interrupted, but Ben saw the dawning knowledge in Hoss’ eyes.
Adam’s voice was hoarse with barely controlled emotion as he picked up the tale. “Mr. Rockwell was hit in the shoulder. Mama saw he couldn’t shoot anymore, so she put Hoss in my lap, trusting me to keep him safe.”
Hoss put his arm around Little Joe, holding him tight in unconscious imitation of his older brother’s actions, years ago. With Adam’s words, Joe finally realized this was more than a story, that he was hearing a part of his family’s history, and he snugged deeper into the chair and his brother’s arms, his eyes growing even wider, with a hint of fear.
Adam held his father’s gaze as he spoke of the moment that had changed his life, and a solitary tear tracked down his cheek. “She took my chin in her hand for just a moment – she had the gentlest hands of anyone I’ve ever known – then she grabbed up a rifle and started to shoot, just like the men. There was so much noise, so much smoke, and then she turned toward us for a moment to reload the rifle, and she fell right in front of me.” His sentences came in short gasps, now, as he forced the words out. “There was an arrow sticking out of her back, and she wasn’t moving. I couldn’t go to her – the Indians were still shooting and I had to keep Hoss safe. I called you, and Mr. Rockwell broke the arrow off and she cried a little because it hurt. You came and you picked her up in your arms and then you both cried because she wanted to be with us when we reached our new home, and she knew she wasn’t going to be there.”
Ben could feel the wetness on his own cheeks, but he choked back his feelings. He had to see this through, regardless of his own pain, for the sake of his precious child. He squeezed Adam’s leg and his son continued.
“I know you didn’t want to go on without her, but she said you had to, for Hoss and for me. For me,” he repeated softly, with wonder. “Even at the end, she thought of us and wanted what was best for us.” His eyes started to cloud with tears. “And then she said it was so cool, that she could see the mountains and the snow, and she asked you to keep her warm—” His voice broke off in a strangled moan.
Ben held out his arms. Adam collapsed into them, and he buried his head against his father’s shoulder and wept as he hadn’t allowed himself to, all those years ago. Ben held him to his chest fiercely, ignoring the pain in his back as he stroked his son’s hair. Hoss and Joe approached the bed, tears streaking their cheeks as well. Hoss stood on one side, his hand resting on Adam’s arm, but Joe went to the other side of the bed and climbed up next to him. He laid his head against his big brother’s back and wrapped his arms around him, squeezing hard.
“I’m sorry, Adam,” Joe whispered. “I’m so sorry . . .”
It was late at night, but Ben was still awake. Paul had left a paper of sleeping powder, not for Ben, but for Adam. Hoss had taken charge of his exhausted older brother, managing to get him undressed and into bed. Adam hadn’t had the strength to resist the medicine, and Hoss had reported to his father that he was now sleeping deeply.
Hoss had also tucked his younger brother in and answered his questions as best he could, but there were things he just didn’t know. Finally he’d returned to his father’s room, followed shortly by Little Joe, and they both sat cross-legged on Ben’s bed, waiting for his answers.
The boys were quiet and more restrained than usual, waiting patiently while Ben sorted through his thoughts to find the best way to explain what had happened all those years ago, and what had happened in the cabin just two days ago.
He started by answering Joe’s first question. “As to how we escaped the Indians, Rockwell gave himself to them, to save us. I saw him look at Adam, still hunched in the corner with the baby bundled on his lap, and Adam must have known what he was thinking, because he pulled the blanket back from Hoss’ face so Rockwell could see what he was dying for. And when the Indians finally had what they wanted, they left, and we buried Inger.”
He sighed. “I didn’t realize it until much later, but Adam never cried for his mother, at least not that I ever saw. He took over as much of Hoss’ care as he could, so that I could take care of burying her and get us organized to move on to Fort Laramie. There was so much work to do that I was just grateful for his help.”
“Just like he did when Joe’s mama died,” Hoss said sadly.
Ben nodded in silent agreement.
“But why’d he freeze up back at the cabin?” Joe asked.
Ben studied his youngest. “How close were you to the window, son?”
Joe ducked his head and admitted, “Right next to it.”
“There were arrows on the floor.”
The boy nodded slowly. “One missed me by just a couple inches.”
Ben’s words were measured, careful not to lay any guilt on his sons as he tried to explain. “Adam has been back East for four years, and while he was there, for the first time in his life, he didn’t have to worry every moment about his or his family’s safety.”
That brought the expected round of complaints. “Pa, he don’t have to worry about us—” from Hoss, and Joe’s almost simultaneous, “I’m not a baby to be fussed over—”
Ben raised a hand and they subsided. “Adam will always worry, as do I. It’s my prerogative as a father, and as for Adam, he knows all too well how quickly you can lose someone you love. Seeing the Carsons was wonderful, but I’m sure it brought back memories of our time on the wagon train with your mother, Hoss, and then we were trapped in that cabin, under attack from Indians. If he saw that arrow almost hit Joseph . . . it’s no wonder it affected him.”
The boys sat quietly for a while, then Hoss asked, “Is he gonna be okay?”
Joe’s worried expression told Ben that his youngest shared Hoss’ fears. “Yes, I’m sure he will. He might be a bit embarrassed for a couple of days – you know it’s not like him to share his feelings.”
“’Cept when he’s mad,” Joe said.
The boys shared a glance of such understanding that Ben wanted to laugh. “Yes. Well. The quicker you can treat him just like always, the faster he’ll get back to being himself. Now, we all need to get some sleep, so why don’t you boys take yourselves back to bed.”
They climbed down obediently, but Joe hung back until Hoss was gone, then turned again to his father. “Adam’s really brave, isn’t he, Pa.”
“Your brother has physical courage, that’s true, Joseph. I think you saw that when he helped us all on that hillside. But he has a different kind of courage, too, one that I think you’ll share.”
Joe cocked his head to one side. “What’s that?”
“The courage to face the tough things that happen to us, and then move on. It’s something that was very hard for me to learn, but he knew how to do it, even as a child. I’m sorry he had to learn so young, but it’s made it possible for him to survive out here, and to teach and protect you and Hoss while you grow strong enough to take care of yourselves. Yes, he could go back East and once more learn to forget the fear, but I know he won’t do that. You see, he’d never forgive himself if something happened to one of us and he wasn’t here. So every day he wakes up with the fear that he could lose someone he loves, but every day he sets it aside and goes on with life. And that’s a courage of a different kind. One that is very rare, and very special.”
Joe stood motionless in the doorway for a long moment, then, as he left the room, he said softly, “Just like you, Pa.”