Word Count: 3150
Ben Cartwright walked softly up the stairs, a cup of coffee in each hand. It was a cold winter morning, and in spite of the fire now blazing merrily in the downstairs fireplace, visible steam rose from the surface of both cups. He reached the upstairs landing and shifted the right-hand cup to his left, balancing them easily as he tapped softly on the first door on the left.
He didn’t hear any response, but chose to enter anyway. His eyes adjusted to the darkened room, and he discovered why the man in the bed hadn’t heard him: uncharacteristically, he was sleeping on his stomach, his black hair almost completely covered by the comforter. The bedclothes were in a disarray more typical of his youngest, and one night-shirted arm was draped over the side of the bed, the long fingers nearly touching the floor.
Ben set the cups on the nightstand, careful not to knock them against the music box and framed picture that had occupied that space for the last twenty years, minus the time his eldest had spent in Boston at school. With the hard-won wisdom of later years, he was glad he’d lost the fight to keep Adam on the ranch — he knew now that if he hadn’t let his son go back then, Adam would simply have left later and quite possibly never returned. Four years’ absence had been hard to endure, but it was better than losing him completely.
As he almost had yesterday.
With small, gentle tugs, Ben pulled at the comforter to bring it down to his son’s shoulders, needing to reassure himself that Adam was, basically, all right. He’d be hurting today, sore and bruised and stiff, but bruises healed and the painful, stiff muscles would loosen with rest and moderate use.
Adam’s face came into view, a map of all he’d endured yesterday.
The long, dark lashes rested on wind-chapped skin, and fatigue still gave his eyes a bruised look. The gash on his right cheek was a long, swollen weal, and fresh blood crusted the corner of his mouth where he’d apparently broken open his damaged lip again in the night. The red and purple scrape on his forehead was angry-looking, but close inspection didn’t reveal any sign of infection. It would soon turn a glorious rainbow of colors, though.
Ben hadn’t found any broken ribs or seen any indication of internal damage when examining his son after he’d collapsed on entering the house last night, but he was still glad to note that Adam’s breathing this morning was regular and deep.
What a nightmare.
What was supposed to have been one of the most joyous evenings of the year had been fraught with tension and outright fear when a winter storm had blown in unexpectedly before his sons returned from their last-minute Christmas errands in town. Hoss and Joe had staggered in not long before dusk, propping each other up across the yard from the barn and through the door. Ben had ushered them to sit on the hearth near the fire while Hop Sing sped to the kitchen and back for warm bowls of stew and hot coffee.
Hoss had practically inhaled his meal, but Joe couldn’t manage the spoon until he’d held the warm mug in his hands for several minutes. Ben helped them out of their jackets and simply tossed the garments on the floor, a breach of house rules that brought a spark of humor to Joe’s eyes. He was too cold to say anything coherent, but Ben knew he’d hear about it later. He rubbed their backs, assuring himself that they were warming up, and that they’d be all right.
Then he’d asked the question. Two words that brought the room to devastating silence. “Where’s Adam?”
Hoss dropped his spoon into his bowl with a clatter. “He’s not here? His horse is still in the barn…”
Ben sank into the red chair. “He took the gray. Sport picked up a stone and he wanted to give him a rest. He said he wanted to treat you both to lunch at the International House — a sort of an early Christmas present.”
Joe’s eyes widened with bewilderment and fear. “We didn’t see him, Pa. Not at all.” He traded a look with Hoss. “If he’s out in that storm…”
Hoss rubbed at his face in grief-stricken defeat and finished what his brother couldn’t say. “Ain’t no way we’re gonna find him,” he whispered.
Joe wrapped his arms around his stomach as if it hurt, and when he looked up at his father, a solitary tear slid down his cheek.
Ben stared at them in shock. It was Christmas Eve – he couldn’t lose his son on Christmas Eve…
Ben rose suddenly and strode to the table by the front door, grabbed a muffler and wound it around his neck, then slid into his coat.
“Pa!” Hoss lumbered to his side, still stiff from the cold. “You cain’t go out there, Pa; you’ll freeze to death!”
“I’m warmer and likely better fed than your brother,” Ben retorted. “You two stay here.”
Joe crossed to his side in a few swift steps. He grabbed at his father’s arm and began, “You can’t go out there alone…”
Ben jerked his arm away. “Neither one of you is going anywhere. You’re half-frozen as it is, and you wouldn’t last another ten minutes in this weather.”
“You won’t neither,” Hoss said. “It’s one of the worst storms we’ve had. You go out there, and we’re gonna be huntin’ more than a brother tomorrow.”
Ben scowled in fury. “So you’re telling me to forget Adam? To let him die out there in the snow so I can stay here warm and comfortable? I can’t believe I’m hearing this.” He pulled his gloves on with fierce tugs.
“It ain’t like that at all,” Hoss said, his voice gravelly with pain. “Don’t ’cha see, Pa? You know if there was any chance of findin’ him, I’d be first on the trail. But you ain’t been out there. You cain’t see more’n a few feet in front of you, and that wind’ll blow you right off o’ your horse.”
Joe had dropped his head in his hands, and when he spoke, his voice was muffled. “Hoss is right, Pa. We didn’t see a sign of Adam on the way home. We’ve already lost him. You go out there now, and we’ll lose you, too.”
“You two don’t seem to understand,” Ben said furiously as he jammed his hat on his head. “I can’t not go. I can’t leave Adam out there and not do everything within my power to find him. I couldn’t leave any of you out there.” He twisted the knob on the door and jerked it open. “Even if it kills me.”
And then he’d seen a terrifying, wonderful shape approach the doorway through the storm. Snow-caked and staggering, his eldest fell into his arms.
The gray was dead, ironically saving Adam’s life in the process. They’d fallen into a small, hidden gully not a half-hour out from the house. Adam had been wedged between an overhang and his horse. The overhang protected him from the wind and snow, and the horse’s warm body had kept him from freezing to death as he lay unconscious. He’d woken several hours later, but it was another hour before he could dig his leg free from where it was trapped between the frozen ground and the horse. He climbed out of the gully, staggered to his feet, and headed home through the worsening wind. The storm didn’t really hit, he’d told his father in a brief moment of lucidity, until he was within a mile of the house, but it arrived with such bone-shaking strength that it had taken him long hours to complete what was normally a twenty-minute stroll.
Ben had allowed Hoss and Joe to help their brother upstairs, but after that he chased them from the room, insisting that he only needed Hop Sing. He tried to make it sound like he was concerned for their welfare — that they both needed rest after their own battle with the storm — but the truth was that he was furious with them. How could they abandon their brother? How could they believe he would abandon one of his sons? The questions tormented him all night, alternating with the nightmares. In reality, they’d laid Adam on the settee which Joe had quickly pushed in front of the fire, and it hadn’t taken too long for him to wake, though he’d fallen into exhausted sleep again almost immediately. In Ben’s dreams, though, they hadn’t been able to get the brandy down his throat, his hazel eyes had never opened, and he’d drifted soundlessly from unconsciousness to permanent slumber.
Ben gazed down at the man who slept so peacefully before him. It was Christmas morning, and he wished desperately for some of that peace for himself. He knew he was tired, irritable and probably unfairly critical, but he still wondered if he’d somehow failed to pass on to Hoss and Joe that most important of all lessons, the love of family.
Ben sighed deeply, then was faintly amused to hear the sigh echoed by his son. “Adam?” He waved one of the cups of coffee near his son’s nose.
It twitched, and the black eyebrows drew together in a sleepy frown. “Pa?” came the muffled answer. “S’that coffee?”
Ben set the cup aside for a moment. “Sure is, son. Hop Sing fixed it up just the way you like it.”
A slow smile spread across Adam’s face, and he blinked his eyes open. He looked around, not moving, and raised an eyebrow in question. “Where’d it go?”
“Just set it on the table for a minute while we get you turned around and a bit more organized.”
“Huh?” But then Adam tried to turn over, and his next words were lost in a groan.
Ben helped him ease onto his back and added several pillows to prop him up, then pulled up a nearby chair for himself. “A bit sore this morning?” he asked.
That earned him another raised eyebrow, this one with a slightly more sarcastic tilt. “Yeah, a little. I think I’ll just lie here a while until my arms and legs decide they belong to me.” Adam reached out eagerly for the coffee as soon as Ben brought it into view. He sipped cautiously, but once he determined it wasn’t blisteringly hot, drank deeply. “Ahh,” he sighed. “Thanks. All the way home, I kept thinking about a hot cup of Hop Sing’s coffee, how good it would taste.”
Ben smiled. “Glad I could bring you one, then.”
Adam sipped again. “I wondered if I’d make it, but somehow I just kept putting one foot in front of the other…” He grinned suddenly. “Maybe all that time on the trail. Kinda got to be a habit.”
Ben’s smile abruptly seemed forced. Adam set his cup in his lap and studied his father. With an instinct born of the years of hardship they’d shared, he suddenly knew that something was very wrong. “What is it, Pa?” he asked softly.
His father didn’t answer for long minutes, but he held still and silent, patient in his waiting.
Finally, Ben spoke, his voice harsh and cracked. “I almost lost you.”
There was more, there had to be. Adam raised the coffee for another sip. “Not the first time,” he commented over the rim of his cup, and breathed in the rich aroma with fresh appreciation. His tone was casual, encouraging his father to continue.
“Hoss and Joe,” Ben began, but then stood suddenly and strode to the window to stare out at the snow.
In sudden alarm, Adam set the cup down on the nightstand and raised himself up higher in the bed. “They’re all right? They got home, didn’t they? I saw them riding to the house, called out, but the wind… I slipped, and by the time I got up again, they were gone. Then I thought I remembered them from downstairs…”
“They’re fine,” Ben assured him, then went on sarcastically. “A fine pair, indeed.”
Adam settled back into the pillows a bit. And his father thought he was hard to pry information out of; he’d learned from a master, after all. He had to get to the crux of whatever was tearing his father apart. “What happened?”
Ben shook his head and returned to his chair. “Nothing. Nothing for you to worry about. You just rest up.”
“Pa,” Adam said, a clear warning in his voice.
Ben sighed, not at all sure he was about to do the right thing. As angry as he was, he didn’t want to cause trouble between his boys. He knew his eldest well enough, though, to be sure Adam wouldn’t let go until he knew all the details. “They tried to keep me from going after you.”
“Of course they did.”
Ben’s head jerked up. “I can’t believe I’m hearing that from you of all people, Adam! I raised you boys to care about each other!”
Adam reached out, placed his hand on his father’s knee. “You did, and we do,” he answered. “But we care about you, too, Pa, and I can understand that, believing I had to already be dead, they couldn’t face losing you, too.”
“How could they have known that it was too late? It obviously wasn’t, yet they gave up on you anyway.” Ben rubbed his hands over his face. “I’m not trying to set you against them, son. I’m just deeply disappointed.”
“Don’t be, Pa.” Adam took a deep breath, trying to find the words that would help his father. “You weren’t out there — we were. They knew how bad the storm was. They knew that if I was still alive, I’d likely found some place to hole up until the storm blew itself out. And if I hadn’t, then chasing after me wouldn’t have done any good, and would have gotten you killed as well.”
Ben stared at him, unbelieving. “Are you trying to tell me that you wouldn’t have been the first one out the door to search for one of your brothers?”
Adam laughed, a rich deep chuckle. “Of course I would have. Just because I understand their perspective doesn’t mean I’d do the same thing.” Then the smile faded from his face, and he shook his head. “I’d have been wrong, though, Pa. I was headed for the Ophir Canyon cutoff.”
Ben sat back in his chair. The route to the cutoff was in the opposite direction from the road to town. He never would have found Adam.
“And you would have died, looking.” Adam’s gaze was steady, unyielding.
“I couldn’t have stayed home, son. I just couldn’t have…”
“I know.” A touch of a grin raised the uninjured corner of his mouth and a slight, teasing dimple appeared. “There’s something different in the way you feel about someone you’ve diapered.”
Ben stared at him, then started to laugh. The knot in his gut eased, and he realized his son was right. Hoss and Joe couldn’t understand, wouldn’t understand until they were fathers themselves. God willing, they’d never have to understand that gut-wrenching fear… “Let’s just be grateful you found your way home when you did.”
“Punctuality pays off.” Adam grinned.
They were still smiling when they heard a hesitant knock on the door.
“Come in,” Adam called.
Hoss and Joe sidled through the door, obviously sizing up their father’s mood before speaking. Adam saw a couple of guilty glances his direction, too.
“Uh,” Hoss started, “you feelin’ better today, big brother?”
“A few sore muscles,” Adam reassured them, “but I’ll be all right.”
Joe snuck a look at Ben, and whatever he saw must have eased his mind because he asked, “Well enough to come downstairs?”
Adam traded looks with his father. “What’s downstairs?”
Even Hoss snorted at that. “Christmas, that’s what! Durned if all that cold didn’t freeze your brain. It’s Christmas morning…”
“Nearly afternoon, actually,” Joe interrupted.
“…an’ Hop Sing has dinner almost ready…”
Joe jumped in again, “And we haven’t opened our stockings or any of our presents…”
“That’s enough!” Ben roared. “Your brother was almost killed last night, he can barely move this morning, and all you can think about is your presents?”
Hoss and Joe glanced at each other, then down at the floor.
“It’s not the presents,” Hoss began uncomfortably. He fiddled with the strings on his vest and shot quick glances at his father. “See, we’ve been sittin’ downstairs starin’ at the tree an’ all them boxes and things all morning and thinking…” he glanced at his oldest brother, but couldn’t find the words to explain. He looked at Joe again.
Joe’s eyes glimmered with unshed tears. “We were talkin’ about what it would’ve been like if Adam hadn’t come home. How bad it would be if he died in that storm.”
“We figured we’d never want Christmas again,” Hoss said.
Joe nodded. “But he’s here, and he’s gonna be okay…” He raised questioning eyebrows at Adam.
Voice deep with emotion, Adam reassured them, “I’ll be fine.”
Hoss broke in with a smile that brought sunshine right into the room. “That’s the best present we could get, an’ we want to celebrate.” He looked dubiously at his older brother. “If you’re up to it, that is.”
Adam grinned. “Oh, I’m up for it. I may need a little help getting out of this bed…”
He immediately had two aides at his side. Joe pulled down the covers and got him sitting up. Adam tried to swallow a groan, but Joe knew him well and stayed at his side a moment, hand resting on his shoulder, eyes shadowed with concern. Once he was sure his brother was all right, though, he turned to the dresser to dig out pants and a warm shirt.
Adam reached for Hoss, who took his arm to help him to his feet, steadying him until he caught his balance. He winced at the various aches and pains, but managed a wink over his shoulder at his father along with a single soft word, “Diapers.”
Ben moved out of the way and watched his two younger sons helping — no, coddling — his eldest. He smiled at how Adam, the most independent and self-sufficient of them all, allowed it. Adam — the bridge between them. Part father, part brother, seeing both sides because he’d lived both roles all his life.
The best present… No, he hadn’t failed at all.