Word Count: 12,800
Hoss Cartwright opened his eyes squinting as the sun shone down upon him. He was laying flat on his back at the bottom of a ravine. Unsure how he’d gotten there, he lay still, collecting his straying thoughts, thinking it might be wise to at least sit up. Little did he know what a chore that would be.
Starting with a slight roll to his right he immediately stopped waiting for the sun to stay in the sky and stop whizzing about his head. The thudding of his heart pounded in his ears and he squeezed his eyes shut. My, this might take an hour or two.
After a few moments, he tried again only to be sidelined this time by the bones in his left arm grinding together pulling a cry from him. Dropping his head to the ground he wondered how many stars could dance before his eyes before he just gave up.
Deciding to stay in this position lest another heavenly body cascade toward him, he glanced about without moving his head or body, his eyes taking in Chubb. Standing silently next to Hoss, head hung down, he looked miserable. His saddle was askew and cuts and lacerations oozed blood down his hind legs. Behind him was evidence of the long slide they’d both taken down the side of the ravine. Then a thought occurred. Hadn’t someone been with him? Hoss pondered. Wasn’t he alone? If so why was his head shouting at him to call out? Maybe he should just calm that inner voice.
“Is anyone here?” Hoss yelled, his words echoing around him. Chubb’s head came up at his master’s voice and he stepped towards him with a welcoming nicker. No other answer met his call. “Well, at least you’re here boy.” Rubbing his horse’s head, Hoss decided he’d better get up for both their sakes. The air was getting colder.
Holding his breath, he pushed himself off the ground and moved to his knees, crawling towards the slope in one swift movement, daring the heaven’s to descend upon him again.
Leaning there, nausea worked its way up his throat. Swallowing repeatedly, he closed his eyes and forced the idea of throwing up out of his mind. To distract himself, he ran a hand through his hair, finding a large lump at the back of his head, his fingers trailing through the blood that trickled down his neck. Neckerchief in hand he dabbed at the wound wondering for a moment where his hat was, the thought quickly replaced with something next on his list – standing up.
Grabbing Chubb’s reins, Hoss pulled himself up to balance against the rocks, the ground wiggling this way and that under his feet in an obvious attempt to knock him flat. Gritting his teeth, he stood still until the wavering stopped making him smile. Two great feats accomplished in the space of thirty minutes – he’d gotten to his feet and he hadn’t thrown up. That’s enough to make anyone happy.
“Ok, boy,” he began, holding tightly to the reins. “Let’s see if both of us can walk.” Finding his own legs shaky but working, he peered at his horse as they moved to make sure his legs were working despite his injuries. He smiled again. “Well, lookee there, ol’ Chubb. You and me could go square dancin’ we’re so light on our feet.” Chubb shook his head and Hoss clapped him on the neck, rubbing some of the dust off his coat, deciding he needed to do something for his friend.
Spying snow within reaching distance, Hoss scooped some up and applied it to Chubb’s injuries, who skittered away from the touch. Hoss whispered to him, calming him as best he could, running the snow along Chubb’s legs, and leaving bloody water behind to drip through his fingers. Satisfied that that was all he could do at present, he moved onto himself.
Leaning back against the slope, Hoss carefully removed his jacket and dropped it to the ground. Next he pulled off his belt and made a sling, slipping his injured arm through it. Turning to Chubb, he adjusted the cinch and tossed the reins back over his neck, awkwardly mounting and sitting for a spell to make sure he stayed put. One last time he craned his head back to view the top of the ravine; sure he’d lost something besides his hat. He shrugged.
“It’ll come to me. Let’s go home, Chubb.” He let the animal go at his own pace and the two disappeared out of the ravine.
Floating over a field of white, he heard a flock of birds singing their hearts out in the nearby trees and wondered what that was that was licking his forehead. Adam Cartwright opened his eyes to a soft muzzle and a long tongue on his face. He smiled.
“I see you, Sport,” he whispered raising his hand to comfort the animal only to gasp at a sharp pain that that simple movement caused. The pounding in his head was increasing with each passing second and he could feel something dripping off his ear.
Wishing for a brief moment to be floating once again over that beautiful field without a care in the world, he closed his eyes. His hopes were shattered when Sport butted him on the shoulder, forcing him to reopen his eyes. Snorting in his face to show his breath to his master, Sport butted him again.
“Getting cold, I see,” Adam commented realizing that the ground beneath him was numbing his back and legs and the breeze above him was becoming quite icy. Wasn’t exactly a good idea to just lie here and freeze to death. His tombstone rose before his eyes – Adam Cartwright: Froze to Death. What a dumbass.
Chuckling to himself, he raised his arm again, slowly this time, with the intent of finding out what was dripping off his ear. Finding a deep slice on his forehead, he drew back bloody fingers. The blood was already coagulating in the cold air. At least he wouldn’t bleed to death before he froze to death. Looking up, he noticed the sun seemed to be hanging a bit lower then he remembered and big fat clouds were gathering to the north. Snow was coming.
“Well, boy, I believe we’d better make haste if we’re to beat the weather. Let’s see if I can get up.”
Attempting to roll over was pointless since the ground seemed to move with him as he tried. Disconcerting as it was, Adam knew he couldn’t let a little thing like gravity stop him from his goal and tried again, this time with a little help from Sport bouncing his muzzle off his shoulder then butting up against his back.
Resting on his left side, head firmly planted on the ground, eyes shut, sure that his brain would explode at any moment from the pounding hammers he was sure resided there, he took a second to gather what little thoughts remained in his head and opened his eyes. He quickly shut them again at the sight they beheld.
“Oh, damn,” he cursed, his stomach flip-flopping so much he thought it might bounce right out of his mouth. Maybe he’d been mistaken. That wasn’t what he thought it was. He forced his eyes open and cringed. He wasn’t mistaken.
His right pant leg was ripped to the knee and his shin was bent at an awkward angle, the bone poking out of the skin over his boot. Adam’s racing heart made his headache worse and threatened the lunch he’d had not too long ago and it took him a moment to realize that despite his injury nothing hurt but his head. Odd. It must be the cold. He did know he had to work fast or he really would bleed to death.
“Damn!” he repeated feeling that that word summed up his present situation. Taking long deep breaths, the chill in the air clearing up his foggy mind for future use, he chose this time to speak openly with himself. “Calm yourself and think.”
Ah, two very important things to do in a crisis. He closed his eyes and took a moment, then put his brain to work.
The first thing that popped into his mind was something he would normally dismiss outright but seeing as he had no other choice it seemed the only way around his current situation – setting his own leg. For that he would need something to brace his foot, a cabinet full of whiskey and whole lot of willpower. Being that he was lying on the cold hard ground over a day’s ride from home without a bottle of booze in sight, all he had to work with was willpower. It would have to do. Direction decided, Adam carefully pushed himself upright and looked about for something to pop his leg back into place. A rock pile a few feet away gave him an idea.
Rolling onto his knees, he crawled toward the rocks finding exactly what he needed within minutes – two rocks worn through by years of weather created an almost perfect “v”. Easing his injured leg between them he sat his other foot on the rock to the left. One good push and they could get a move on. He was ready.
“Ok, let’s do this,” Adam said more to himself than to Sport who watched with great interest. “One, two, three,” he finished, never moving a muscle. “Coward,” he grumbled toward his leg. Sport nickered and Adam scowled. “I’d like to see you try this.” Sport nickered again, flinging his head up and down, and Adam was sure he was enjoying himself. An eagle call drew his attention away for a moment. It’s northward flight partially obscured by incoming clouds made him turn back to his leg, determination on his face. “Ok, get a move on, Adam.” Just push! One, two, th . . .”
As three came out his mouth, he pushed, his right leg snagging in the rock as expected and the bone disappearing back through the skin. Oh, his lofty idea of the cold numbing his pain quickly flew away as a hearty scream escaped him, echoing about the area and disturbing the birds from their perches. Their angry cries followed him as he fell back to the cold hard ground.
Ben Cartwright looked up from the book he’d been reading and glanced toward the grandfather clock by the door. It was late and the boys were . . . He’d been thinking late but they weren’t really. But there was something. He stood from his chair and moved toward the window behind his desk.
“What the matter?” Hop Sing asked, peeking his head out from the kitchen.
“I don’t know,” Ben said with a shrug. “I just got a shiver, thought I heard someone calling.
Ben just shrugged.
“Boys’ll be home soon.”
Ben smiled and watched Hop Sing head back to the kitchen. He returned his gaze out the window. Something had called. Someone had called. He shook his head and sat back down picking up his book.
Feeling something cold and wet on his face, Adam’s eyes popped open. It was snowing. “What the hell…?” Sport called to him and walked over, Adam making sure the tumble he’d taken hadn’t injured his legs. He started. The tumble. It all came rushing back to him.
There’d been four men who’d fallen on them just as a snow squall struck when he and Hoss had been returning home from a two-day venture to the line shacks, and gunplay ensued. They’d run, Hoss taking down one man, Adam another, until surefooted Sport tripped and fell, rolling over him before he could get clear of the saddle. Lying stunned, he’d heard Chubb scream and saw both he and Hoss disappear over the very rock pile in which he now lay. Frantically pushing himself up, Adam scanned the area, his eyes stopping on Hoss’s hat a few feet away but not the man himself.
“Oh, God,” he whispered realizing the implications. “Hoss! Hoss!” Struggling to remove his leg from the rocks, he crawled toward his brother’s hat, grasping it tightly, knowing he’d have to climb to the top of the rock pile to see for himself what lay at the bottom.
Working his way slowly up the rocks, grunting and panting until he thought he’d pass out, Adam crested the last to peer over the side to view the 15 foot drop. Staring into the lengthening shadows that inundated the area produced nothing, forcing him to cup his hands over his mouth and shout out his brother’s name over and over until his pounding head forced him to stop. He had to get down there. He had to find his brother.
Scanning the area, he noticed a break in the rocks angling downwards. Deciding nothing would keep him from getting on Sport and going after his brother except maybe that trail of blood he’d left behind him as he’d moved up the rocks, he sat down and pulled off his jacket, yanking at his sleeve until the stitching gave way. Tossing his jacket back on and stretching the sleeve about his shin, winding it as tightly as he could bear, he pulled a bandana from his pocket and wrapped that about the sleeve. The world around him turned a kaleidoscope of color and pain attacked him as he tightened it making him clasp the rocks until his knuckles turned white. He dropped Hoss’s hat and willed himself to stay conscious. Can’t pass out now!
His breathing slowly regulated itself and he called Sport to him, grabbing a stirrup and pulling himself up onto his good leg. Leaning against his mount, he dragged himself across the saddle and pulled his injured leg over the side, gasping as it clipped the saddlebag. He grabbed Sport’s mane to prevent himself from tumbling back to the ground. A moment later, he gathered up the reins and urged Sport forward through the rock break and onto the trail beyond. The going was difficult in the waning light and they had to carefully pick their way along the dim trail as snow continued to fall, Hoss’s hat lying forgotten behind them.
The ravine was darker at the base and Adam cursed his luck. If he’d only awoken an hour earlier this would’ve been easier. If wishes were horses . . . Shrugging off those thoughts, he maneuvered Sport around the large rocks that populated the area, arriving at where he’d spied slide marks down the side. Adam looked away. Now that he was here, what if he found Hoss? What then? Deal with it then!
Steeling himself, he looked back. Nothing. No body of man or horse. This didn’t make sense. Thirty minutes later, he’d searched every bit of the ravine and still there was nothing except . . . there was something near the first place he’d stopped.
Pulling his rifle from its scabbard. he bent over and picked up what looked like a jacket. It was Hoss’. Why hadn’t he seen that before? Relief washed over him. He’d been here. Hoss had been here but where was he now and why hadn’t he come looking for him?
“Hoss! Where are you!” he called. No comforting answer meet his ears just an echo of his own voice pounding in his head. He shivered. The temperature was dropping again. Slipping on his brother’s jacket, he felt the added warmth spread across his bruised chest and arms, reminding him that Hoss didn’t have this small luxury. Slipping the rifle back into its scabbard, he patted Sport’s neck.
“Maybe he headed home,” Adam mused aloud. “To get help.” Sport snuffled and flung his head up. Adam smiled. “Like we should be, I know. Well, if we hurry, we might catch him on the road. Come on.”
Clicking to Sport, the two headed out, with the same nagging thought interrupting his relief – why hadn’t Hoss come looking for him? They’d both been attacked, both went down and yet he was the only one left behind. Had he been knocked senseless and didn’t know where he was or who he was? The failing light made it impossible to see any tracks along the trail. Maybe Hoss had ridden off in another direction?
“Stop,” he called out loud; Sport’s ears flicking back. It didn’t do to make stuff up just to fill in the blanks and besides it was making his headache worse. He rubbed his forehead, careful of the gash, and scrunched down further into Hoss’s coat. Even if his brother had a concussion and wasn’t thinking clearly, he surely would have headed home. Wherever else would he go? Chubb would see him through, get him where he should be.
Tears filled his eyes suddenly and he wiped them away. What if he couldn’t find him? What if he’d lost him to the snow and the night? How would he tell his father and brother that he, the oldest, the one responsible, had lost his brother? He shook his head. Doubt was a horrible thing. It tormented the mind and let in thoughts that normally would be held at bay by his analytical mind. He decided that his thinking process was not only slowed by the cold but by a 2-ton horse rolling over him. The faster they moved along this trail, the sooner he’d find his wayward brother and the sooner they’d get home and to bed.
He grinned then, satisfied that, this time at least, he’d outsmarted his brain and talked himself into believing what could be the only outcome. That wouldn’t last long.
A wolf picked her way through the trees, her white coat blending nicely with the surrounding snow and her breath leaving a frosty trail in the air as she moved. The smells of blood and death were everywhere and she thought there might be an easy dinner for her kits, spying four dark shapes strewn about the snow. Licking her lips, she started forward only to quickly duck behind a tree as someone approached. She noted a horseman leaping from the saddle near one of the shapes then moving onto the next, then the next until finally coming to a halt as the fourth shape loomed. A wail began startling the wolf.
“Jimmy!” the man cried, dropping to his knees, hands gently turning the shape onto its back and hoping against hope that it was still alive. The sight of his brother’s favorite red muffler struck against the man’s eyes and he gasped.
“My Lord, Jimmy, what’ll I tell Ma?” Blood streaked the white face from the bullet hole in his forehead while dead eyes returned his gaze. “What’ll I tell Ma?” he repeated pulling Jimmy into an embrace, burying his face against his neck. So much time together, so many days spent fishing and hunting, all gone in an afternoon. He looked up, seeing what his brother saw with the last of his sight thinking it was a barren rock filled dirt hole that didn’t deserve to be his brother’s last resting place.
“What happened, Jimmy? This was an easy target, easy money. Four again’ two. Better odds than I give ya to live past five, what wit’ yer breathin’ an’ all. Ma was right. Ya ain’t cut out fer this line o’ work. Yer still too young. I shoulda sent ya packin’ the minute ya joined me on the road but I liked yer company, I surely did. Ya made me laugh.” He pulled his brother away from him then, returning him gently to the ground smoothing out his jacket and tightening his muffler. He smiled, patting him on the chest.
“Now don’t go frettin’ ‘cause I’m goin’ after them two. They’ll pay fer what they done. Ya can bet yer last dollar on that one, Jimmy. Ya’ll see from up there when I take ‘em down.” He crossed his brother’s hands over his chest and closed his dead eyes. “We’ll bury ya right next to Pa, right under the cherry tree. Ya’ll always liked it when the cherry blossoms fell all in the yard.” He laughed a bit. “I hated it since I had ta clean it up ‘til ya got old enough for me to pawn it off on ya.” He wiped the tears from his face with his dirty sleeve and stood.
Looking back, he couldn’t see any evidence of what happened or where the two murderers had gone but his roving eye did catch something out of place by the rock pile. Curious, he scrunched through the snow and picked it up. It was a hat. And not just any hat but a white ten-gallon hat. One of the two had worn a hat like that.
His eyes traveled up and down the rock pile looking for anything that might point him in the right direction, his sight falling at last on a break in the rocks and the trail that stretched beyond it. Tossing the hat aside, he headed toward his horse, his steps taking him back to his brother.
“Don’t go nowheres now. I’ll be back ta take ya home, Jimmy.” He mounted and headed toward the trail.
The wolf waited a minute or two after he was gone then scurried out from behind the tree. Dinner still waited and her kits were still hungry.
Hoss’s stomach grumbled and visions of Hop Sing’s roast beef and the glorious biscuits he made came to mind. Damn, he could even smell it.
“’First law of survival,’” his father’s voice told him. “’Food.’”
“But I ain’t near starvin’,” he said aloud, making Chubb’s ears flick back toward his master and startling himself out of his thoughts. He looked around to see if anyone was listening, remembering he was out in the cold, a cold that seeped into every joint, every muscle making even his eyes hurt.
No concept of time filled his head. How long since the ravine or even if he was headed in the right direction passed through his head, reasoning that Chubb would not lead them astray thinking of a warm stall and a nice bucket of oats, Hoss let him lead. Oats, oatmeal. Now that sounded good, too. Why does my head feel like a cotton wad?
A light ahead captured his attention forcing him to strain to see what it was through the darkness. It was just the moon, his addled brain informed him forgetting that it was snowing and the sky was overcast. The cotton was getting thicker.
Chubb stumbled and Hoss slid from the saddle with nary a grab for the pommel, to land with a soft thud in the snow. Watching his horse continue on without him brought thoughts of calling out. The voice never made it past his chattering teeth. Dadburnit! Joe’s gonna eat everything before I can get home.
Deciding that he’d not be left out in the cold, figuratively or literally, he managed to get his feet under him and continued down the road after Chubb’s disappearing form. Adam’ll keep him from eating everything.
Sometime later his foot struck a wall, a wall that became a barn, his barn as a matter of fact and there was Chubb standing near the closed door waiting to be let in.
“Thanks for waitin’,” Hoss said, thinking he should take him inside but the lights from the house were terribly inviting. “See how youlike being left out in the cold,” he finished heading toward the door. Chubb ignored him and pushed his head against the barn door. He could hear Buck inside and fiddled with the latch until it swung open. Ah, warm at last.
Hoss didn’t even notice what was going on behind him. All he could think of was that he had to get inside. But the door seemed so far away. Perhaps if he stretched out his hand it would bring it closer. It didn’t work. He just needed to concentrate harder . . .
Tripping, he didn’t even try to catch himself and fell flat banging his head on the stoop. Who put the door here? The cotton completely invaded his head and forced his eyes closed.
“Would you look at that,” Joe said to Charlie Porter as the two made their way into the yard of the house. The barn door stood open, with Chubb standing sullenly inside. “My brother says to me last week how come I haven’t picked up after myself and he doesn’t even put up his own horse.”
Charlie’s smile faded as his eyes moved from Joe to Chubb. Something wasn’t right. Dismounting he made his way to the animal and ran a hand down one of his hind legs. Blood decorated his hand as he pulled it away. “He’s had a fall,” he said as Joe caught sight of his hand. Jumping off Cochise, Joe watched as Charlie ran his hand down Chubb’s other leg. “Both legs, Joe, right up the back like he slid down something.”
They exchanged a look and Joe turned swiftly toward the house, his quick step turning into a run at the sight of a shape in the snow near the front door.
“Hoss!” Joe yelled hurrying toward his brother just as the side door opened to reveal both Hop Sing and Ben.
“What big ruckus?” Hop Sing said as Ben pushed past him and hurried toward Hoss laid out flat in the snow, Joe and Charlie easing him onto his back. “We must get into house,” Hop Sing ordered.
Between the four of them, they managed to get the big man to his feet and half carried, half dragged him to the guest room off the dining room. Stripping him down, they buried him beneath blankets and hot bricks, Hop Sing brewing teas and handing out washcloths and water basins to clean off the dirt and dried blood.
“Doc Martin,” Hop Sing ordered and Charlie was out the door leaving the three to take care of Hoss until help could arrive.
“Pa . . .” came a whispered voice making Ben lean close to his son.
“I’m here, son,” he answered pulling the blanket up closer to his chin.
“Did Joe eat all the roast beef?”
Perplexed, Ben just smiled and shook his head.
“What?” Joe said as Ben shushed him.
“Hoss, what happened?” he asked seeing his middle boy open and close his eyes trying to keep his father’s face in focus.
“Adam didn’t stop him?” Dadburn that Adam. He knows I like Hop Sing’s roast beef.
“Adam’s not here, Hoss. He was with you.” Ben watched as worry washed over his son’s face, the cotton moving aside for a moment.
He grabbed at Ben’s sleeve. “I thought . . . I thought he was here. Thought he was home.” Hoss was confused. He’d been sure Adam was home. He remembered leaving . . . Wait. Wait a minute. My God. Was that what I forgot at the ravine? Did I leave Adam behind? He could be . . .
“No, son. He’s not here. He was with you.”
Oh, Lord. How am I going to tell Pa I left him behind? What kind of a brother am I? “I lost him,” he finally said, tears in his eyes, all the weight of that statement hitting him in the gut. “I left him behind. Oh, Pa . . . Pa, I didn’t mean to. I thought . . . thought he was home. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, Hoss,” Ben said, trying to quell the growing fear in his stomach as he rubbed Hoss’s arms. “We’ll find him.”
“Why did I leave him? He’s . . . he’s probably hurt. I’ve got . . .” He thought about getting up, getting Chubb and heading back out but the thought never made it to any other part of his body. He’d left Adam to die up on Henderson’s Ridge. He’d left his own flesh and blood, alone, possibly hurt, and there was nothing he could do. Except . . . “Hen . . .” he began, the word trailing off despite his best efforts to get it off his tongue.
“Hoss?” Ben hadn’t caught the word spoken so softly. He watched him try to speak, desperate to make up for leaving his brother behind but no sound could be heard and his eyes slowly slid shut. “Hoss?” Ben sighed and lowered his head.
“What did he say?” Joe asked tossing another blanket over his brother.
“Hen,” Hop Sing provided.
“Hen?” Joe repeated, tucking in the blanket under Hoss’s chin.
“Henderson’s Ridge?” Hop Sing suggested.
“That’s one way to come home from the east ridge,” Joe supplied. “That must be where Adam is.” He stood up and headed for the door.
“Joseph, where are you going?” Ben asked never taking his eyes from Hoss’s face as he cleaned it.
“I’m going to find Adam,” Joe stated.
“No. You’re staying here and waiting for the Doctor.”
“Pa, he could be hurt, or worse.”
“I know that.”
“Then I should be going.”
Pulling his gaze from Hoss, he glared at Joe. “And how are you going to track him in the dark?” He eyed his youngest, his own desire to light out after Adam barely under control. “We don’t even know if that’s what he meant to say. Henderson’s Ridge would be out of their way, take an extra day to get home. He might have meant Hennissey Falls. We have to wait until he wakes again, see if we can get a clearer picture of where they were.”
“And what if that’s too late for Adam, Pa?” It was harsh but he had to say it. Time spent waiting on a cold night like this could spell death for the one somewhere in the night.
Ben’s jawed worked his heart beating faster at the thought of his eldest buried in snow and freezing to death. He fought back the picture in his mind. “We’ll wait.” He continued to wash Hoss’s face, praying that he was making the right decision, hoping his son would find his own way home.
Adam’s head fell forward and he jerked awake nearly falling from the saddle. It was completely dark now and he could feel bits of snow hitting his face as the breeze whipped the light flakes about. It suddenly occurred to him he might have missed Hoss while he was dozing. Should he turn back? He had no idea how much time had passed or how far they’d come.
“Damnit!” he cursed, the force of air used making him sway a bit in the saddle. Grabbing the pommel, he was determined not to fall off for there was no guarantee he’d be able to get back on.
Hoss’s face popped into his head with a raised finger pointing at him followed by a shake of the head. “’You left me behind. What’ll Pa say?’”
Another notch on his guilt belt, a belt he knew well. He’d vowed to Inger to protect Hoss, forever and always, and now he’d fallen asleep. What a stupid way to fail. What a stupid reason to relate to the father and brother left behind. He was my responsibility and I decided to take a nap. I am the oldest. I should be the one that doesn’t return. How could I be the one to survive?
He pushed aside his musings. He hadn’t missed Hoss along the road. He’d had a large lead on him and was probably sitting in front of a roaring fire enjoying Hop Sing’s roast beef and not leaving any for him. He smiled at that. As long as Hoss was home, with a full belly, happy he’d be.
Rubbing Sport on the neck and thinking they should probably liven up the pace now that he was over his guilt trip, a sound of a bullet whizzing past his ear and ricocheting off a nearby tree solidified the thought. Sport whinnied and fled as another bullet quickly blew by. Racing off the trail and through the snow, Adam managed to glance back once, seeing a lone rider following after them firing another shot. Ducking seemed to make him feel better, even though he hadn’t a clue which direction the bullets were flying; he held on for dear life as Sport maneuvered through the dark, clearing a fallen log in the process he hadn’t even seen.
Down they came on loose gravel beneath the snow, Sport searching for solid ground, sliding about until he found it. Another shot rang out and Adam felt Sport falter, sliding to the bottom of the short incline and trying to leap a small stream at its base. Instead, he leaped into it, toppling over so they both landed in the freezing water. Their pursuer followed but his horse failed to see the log causing horse and rider to tumble down the length of the incline, sliding to a silent rest a few feet from them. Adam fumbled for his gun, numb fingers pulling it from the water as soon as he saw the stranger roll onto his knees.
“Hold it right there, mister,” Adam ordered, hoping his chattering teeth hadn’t taken anything away from the flinty voice he’d been attempting to use. He couldn’t see the man’s face in the darkness but could see him run a hand through his hair.
“You’ve got me,” he answered, sitting back on his haunches glaring at this murderer before him.
Adam raised his other hand to steady himself. “Why’d you take a shot at me?”
“My brother’s layin’ dead in the snow aways back,” he said tossing a look over his shoulder. “I cain’t help but think yer the one that put’im there.” Good answer.
“That was self-defense,” Adam countered, cocking his weapon as the man pulled something from the ground.
“Don’t matter. He’s still dead and I aim to avenge him.” Right to the point.
“That’s your right,” Adam answered.
“Yes it is.” The man fired. Adam fired a second later.
“It’s snowing real hard, Pa,” Joe said stating the obvious while watching his father roll up a thick blanket and stuff food into his saddlebags.
“Doc Martin is here and I’m going to find Adam,” Ben answered.
“Where’re you gonna look? Hoss hasn’t made any sense since we found him.”
“He said Henderson’s Ridge.”
“He said Hen. You said yourself that could be Henderson’s Ridge or Hennesey Falls. Either one will take half the night to get there and it’s snowing real hard, Pa,” he repeated.
“Joseph, I’m going.”
The tone. Joe knew that tone well and knew what it meant – no more talking. He couldn’t help himself. “If it was too dark for me to go looking for him, why isn’t it too dark for you?” There, he’d said it.
Ben glared him, hating the idea of his youngest throwing his own excuse back at him. He tightened his muffler and buttoned up his coat. “You stay here in case Adam comes home. Charlie and some of the men have already started out for Hennessey Falls. I’ll ride to Henderson’s Ridge and work my way back. You take care of your brother and do whatever Paul says.”
Joe debated with himself about reiterating his statement then decided against it. Do as I say not as I do popped into his head. “Yes, Pa,” was his only answer. He grabbed the door as Ben tossed it back and watched him disappear into the barn. One thing he didn’t like was staying behind when his family was in trouble.
“You come, Little Joe,” Hop Sing called motioning him toward the guest room. “Sit with brother.”
“I’ll be right there,” he answered as he closed the door moving to the window behind Ben’s desk to watch his father leave.
Ben pushed the barn door open and dropped his saddlebags to the floor reaching for Buck’s saddle blanket, eyeing Chubb standing dejectedly in his stall. Speaking softly to him, Ben ran his hands up and down his nose then patted his neck.
“Thanks for bringing him home,” he whispered, turning back to Buck, laying the blanket across his back. Ben felt him stiffen, noticing his ears were forward and his head was canted sideways. He glanced at Chubb who suddenly showed an interest followed by a snort from Cochise. All three stared at the open door as if listening to something. Closing his eyes, Ben listened, too, and then jumped a foot when all three of them began neighing . . . loudly! Joe flew through the barn door, seeing Buck stomp the ground and Cochise pulling on his lead; Ben watching them closely.
“What is it, Pa?” he asked, running his hands down Cochise’s neck to calm him.
“There’s something . . .” Ben admitted, stepping out of the barn to stand in the yard. A stiff breeze blew by rustling the trees around the house and yet there seemed to be something on the air. “Listen.”
Both strained to hear whatever was drifting on the wind and catching their horse’s attention. The breeze died and the horse’s quieted.
“There,” Ben said. Something was there, a distant call coming from down the road. “Did you hear that?” Joe didn’t answer but ran into the barn. Ben followed, the two bridling their mounts and racing out to the one calling out somewhere in the night.
This was it. This was as far as the both of them were going to get this night. Too much had he asked of Sport, the poor animal simply stopping and sinking to the ground. Numb from the cold, it didn’t bother either of them that they were sitting in a snowdrift by the side of the road especially when they could have been sitting in the middle of the road. Adam thought about it for about a second then decided he couldn’t move anyway so he’d stay right where he was.
Wrapping his arms about himself to try and stave off his uncontrollable shivering through the only heat source he could find, he leaned against his beloved Sport. His eyes felt scratchy and dry and oh, how he’d yelled at himself for leaving his canteen with his saddle a few million miles back. No matter. Wet clear through, he figured the both of them would catch pneumonia and die before morning and that would be it. At least he wouldn’t have to face his father about Hoss, have to say those words that would echo in his ears forever – he’d lost his brother. Small comfort checking out early but he’d take what he could get. It would be a blow but at least Pa would still have Joe.
With nothing better to do than shiver to death, his mind kept going back to those last few hours and was thankful the stranger’s shot had gone wide and his hadn’t. Shaken though he was, he’d nailed him and watched him fall face first into the water, taking great pride in the fact that in the dark, nearly frozen, he’d gotten his man. Ego beware. Oh, why not? I’m going to die so why not appreciate my marksmanship one last time.
The next task proved more disconcerting. Coaxing Sport to his feet took some doing but when he finally stood Adam found out the reason for their headlong rush into the stream – he’d taken a bullet to the right flank. Anger flared but quickly dissipated. No use wasting precious energy on a dead man. Deciding to lead Sport home, he pulled the saddle from his back and walked with him a few paces. The two of them limping along put a smile on Adam’s face. The walking wounded returned from the wars. They must be a sight.
He patted Sport on the neck and pulled the ice from his mane when, suddenly, his leg went out from under him and he dropped to his knees. A distinct crunching sound filled his ears and Adam realized that walking might not be such a good idea. He also knew that once he warmed up, if ever, he’d probably be inventing a few new curse words. There was no way he could make it home like this.
“Sorry, boy,” he said, clutching Sport’s mane once he made it back to his feet. “But I can’t make it without you.” Eyeing his master, he exhaled and Adam took that as an okay. Scrambling onto his back, the two stumbled off into the night, more or less in the right direction. Of course, Adam didn’t have a clue which way was up but trusted Sport to get them home. Two hours later his mount had officially given up and quietly eased himself to his knees.
Adam hunkered further down into his coat and shut his eyes. It would be so easy to just give in and let the cold take him. ‘Never give up’ popped into his head forcing his eyes open. Everything appeared hopeless and they probably would go to the great beyond before the sun rose, but he knew he wouldn’t voluntarily give up. He had to be there for Sport until the end whether it was on this road or back home. Any attempt to stand was out of the question so his presence was all he had to give.
“It’ll be all right, boy,” he mumbled, rubbing his back. “We’ll make it home, don’t you worry.” Sport whickered and gave Adam a look. “I’ve never lied to you, boy. We’ll make it home.” He turned back around and Adam thought he saw him roll his eyes. It made him grin.
Suddenly, Sport’s attention was drawn down the road. He whinnied loud and long and Adam peered into the darkness, the swirling snow dancing amongst the trees producing phantom shapes rising out of the frosty air. A stiff wind rustled the leaves so loudly he couldn’t hear anything else.
“It’s just the wind, boy. Just the wind.” He settled back onto the cold ground and leaned his head onto Sport’s back. “Let me rest a bit, then I’ll go get help.”
A few moments later as his head hit the ground, he shot upright, wondering what the hell he was doing sitting in a snow drift, when Sport snorted drawing his attention again to something in the night. This time Adam heard horses approaching and his slow mind flew to the gunman. Maybe I’m not such a good shot after all.
Frozen fingers protested as he grabbed for his gun, dropping it as it cleared his holster. Scrambling to pick it up, the sounds closed in around him making him panic. I killed him! Shot him dead in the river. See what boasting does for you! Now wasn’t the time to think of such things. Bravado may yet win the day. Here goes nothing.
“Stop right there!” he shouted, hoping his hoarse voice sounded somewhat confident as he finally managed to wrap his fingers about his gun and point it aimlessly into the night. The sounds kept coming. Apparently not confident enough. “I said stop right there!” Movement ceased and he could see two horses snorting in the darkness, their breath visible but not their riders. Two horses?
His wavering aim locked on the area the voice came from, two figures emerging out of the dark. I’m in trouble.
“Your brother tried to kill us,” Adam explained. “It was self-defense.” Sport nickered and the strange horses answered and, for an instant, Adam thought he was conspiring with the enemy but, at this point, maybe Sport knew better than he did.
The men split up and Adam had no choice but to pick one of them. He chose the closest, watching as the man took cautious steps towards him, hands away from his own weapon. He saw the other one out of the corner of his eye and knew he was doomed. There was no way, in his current state, he could get them both. Well, he’d go out fighting. He pulled the trigger.
The hollow sound of the hammer falling on an empty chamber filled him with dread. Damn! He tried again, realizing as he glared at the gun, that he’d failed to reload at the stream. Damn! Thoughts of tossing the worthless weapon at the man never made it to his fingers so he just stared at the offending item. He’d failed Sport and he’d failed himself and he had no strength left to care.
“Adam,” came the voice again, softer and closer. The voice played with his mind, reminding him of his father and home and the warmth of family. He pulled his eyes upward and squinted.
“It’s your Pa, Adam. I’ve come to take you home.”
Pa? It is him. I’ll be damned. What’s he doing out here? He dropped his eyes back to his gun as another thought drifted through – did I just try to shoot my father?
“Joe and I have been looking for you and Sport,” Ben continued still collecting his breath, his heart beating loudly in his chest. Adam had just tried to shoot him and Sport sat quietly on the ground. Both were unnatural occurrences. Step lightly. “Hoss is waiting for you at the house.”
Hoss? Adam’s head shot up at his brother’s name, gun forgotten, and he looked again into his father’s concerned face. “Did he eat all the roast beef?” he asked his thin voice barely above a whisper. Where had that come from?
“Ah, . . . no,” Ben began, glancing at Joe who shrugged, deciding to play along this time. “He left some for you.”
Now that’s a first, Adam snorted, bringing a small smile to his face that quickly faded. Wait a minute. That can’t be right. How could Hoss be home? He hadn’t found him.
“He thought he’d lost you.”
Lost. That’s right. Roast beef be hanged! He’d lost Hoss. He’d lost his brother and now he had to tell his father. God, how he hated this part.
“He fell,” Adam whispered closing his eyes, reliving the sights and sounds, his father’s words flown from his memory. All he knew was the pounding of his heart through his icy veins and the guilt that raged within him. “I looked . . .” he began, emotion filling his voice, cold tears in his tired eyes. “I looked for him, Pa. I couldn’t find him.”
Ben kneeled next to Adam and grabbed his shoulders, shaking his head. “No, son. You didn’t lose him. He’s at the house.”
“I never passed him on the road,” he said looking away from Ben as if he hadn’t spoken and rubbed his eyes. “I fell asleep. Damnit to hell! I fell asleep, Pa.” It was beginning. The cold was settling into the home stretch and shutting everything down including the making sense part of his brain. The look on Ben’s face told him that much. He tried again. “I fell asleep and must have passed him on the road,” he said finishing the thought, an urgency filling him. “We have to find him before its too late. He’ll freeze to death out here.” He made a feeble attempt to rise but failed, Ben realizing that his son was beyond coherent thought and nothing he said would make it through.
“Don’t worry, son,” Ben began trying to get Adam to focus on him. “We’ll find him. We’ll find Hoss.” He smiled then trying to convince him that all would be well, but Adam knew better. There was nothing left to say that would make a difference but he felt he had to try.
“Oh, Pa, . . . I’m so sorry,” he said, daring to look at the man he’d failed, breaking down completely, all his pretense of hope gone, all the ‘never give up’ mantra leaving him in one fell swoop. “I’m so sorry,” he sobbed thinking that would be an appropriate epitaph as he fell over, Ben catching his son’s trembling body in his arms.
“Joe, go get Doc Martin’s buggy. Hurry now!” Ben encircled his son in his arms and rubbed his back trying to give him some warmth, watching Joe gather up Cochise and sprint out of sight, leaving him to wonder if this was his eldest’s last night on earth. He pulled the gun from Adam’s shivering hand, seeing two bullets left in the chamber, ice encrusting the weapon. He closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. “Lord help us,” he whispered.
“It never rains but it pours,” Doctor Paul Martin quipped upon meeting Ben, Adam and Hop Sing at the door.
“Careful of his leg,” Ben warned as Paul took Hop Sing’s place and the two of them half carried him to his room.
“He’s so cold,” Paul remarked as Hop Sing hurried in behind them with blankets, towels and warm water, rushing to stoke the fire for more heat.
Pulling off Adam’s coats and his shirt revealed an angry bruise stretching from his collarbone down across his chest and around his ribs, making Ben wince at the sight. Hop Sing tossed a blanket over Adam as they laid him down and Paul gently placed his injured leg on a towel. Unwrapping the bloody bandana elicited a small gasp from his teeth-chattering patient and, glancing up, Paul saw his eyes partially open but unfocused. “Adam?” he began. “Can you hear me?” Trying to find some recognition in their hazel depths, Paul watched as he furrowed his brow.
Was that his brother calling? “Hoss?” was all he could manage, his breath coming quickly between chattering teeth as feeling began to worm its way back into his numb appendages.
Ben maneuvered himself under Adam’s head and shoulders, cleaning the cut along his brow, pulling the blanket close to his upper body. “He’s here, Adam. You’re both home,” Ben calmly said.
“Home . . .” Just close your eyes stupid and it’ll all be over. No more cold. No more doubt. Just a nice long dirt nap.
“These boys have been through the ringer, Ben. What did they get themselves into?”
Ben shook his head. “I can’t get a straight story from Hoss and Adam said something about being attacked.”
“Well, we’ll get down to it eventually.” Paul positioned himself at the foot of the bed and placed his hand on Adam’s leg making him suck in a breath. “Adam, I’m going to remove your boot.”
“What?” he asked everything moving in slow motion around him.
As carefully as possible, Paul pulled off the boot and tossed it to the floor, sending a sudden wave of pain crackling through Adam’s thawing body.
Crying out, he grabbed at the blanket, so wanting to curse a blue streak but his tongue didn’t seem to be working.
Paul then eased off the shirtsleeve and grimaced at the sight. “It looks like he’s been walking on it. There appears to be dirt in the wound as well.” He sighed. “This is going to hurt like hell.”
“Can’t you give him anything, Paul?” One thing Ben hated most was seeing his sons in pain. He watched Paul shake his head.
“He’s got a large lump on the side of his head and bruising along his temple. He might have a concussion. I want him awake as long as possible. Besides, cleaning this wound will do the trick quicker,” he acknowledged, rubbing his chin. “The shin bone penetrated the skin and he obviously put it back in. That must’ve hurt like hell. I don’t know if I could do that to myself.”
“Will it cause a problem?” Ben asked trying not to look at the grisly injury.
“It could. It means he pushed dirt back into the wound when he readjusted his leg and if I don’t clean it thoroughly he’ll get a whopping infection. May even lose his leg.” He glanced quickly at Ben, realizing his error. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Hop Sing,” he said looking away from Ben’s worried face, the little man moving quickly to stand next to him. “Take hold of his other leg and keep it steady. Adam,” he tried again seeing him blink a few times at the sound of his voice. “I’m going to have to clean the wound. I won’t lie to you. It’s going to hurt plenty. Do you understand?” When he didn’t respond Paul grabbed Adam by the chin and turned his head to face him. “Do you understand?”
If I didn’t know better that was Paul Martin and he’s talking to me. Focus! A new pain lanced through him making him twitch and squeeze his eyes shut.
“Hurts now,” was all he could get through his clenched teeth, tears rolling down the sides of his face. This warming up thing was for the birds, his body suddenly bursting back to life with a zeal he didn’t appreciate. Even though he’d dreamed of this moment he so wished he was still an icicle.
“No doubt,” Paul answered, nodding to Hop Sing.
Adam glanced up to see his father smiling down at him. Had he made it home? “Pa?”
“It’s almost over, son.”
Always reassuring, his father was. Always there for him and Joe and Hoss . . . Hoss. Wait. Wait, I have to tell Pa . . . “Wait . . .”
“Okay, Adam, this is going to hurt like the dickens,” was followed by a ripping sound catching in his ears and moving his jumbled thoughts away from his brother.
Before he could register what he’d just heard, a fireball barreled its way through his leg straight up through the rest of his body as if he’d been struck by lightening. It ended up exploding in his head like a firecracker, pulling an anguished cry from him and sending him gratefully into the full hands of darkness where his mind could rest in a painless void without thought of losing his brother or disappointing his father. It was bliss.
His head lolled to one side; Ben grateful he’d lost consciousness, himself barely able to watch Paul dig into the wound hoping to find every ounce of dirt possible. Movement out of the corner of his eye drew Ben’s attention to Hop Sing grabbing a lantern off the table to hold over Adam’s leg. Paul smiled his thanks and continued working.
A new thought entered Ben’s mind. “We’ve one more patient for you, Paul.”
“Oh? Joe didn’t look sick earlier,” he said. “Where is he anyway?”
Ben gave him a tired smile. “He’s sitting with Sport on the trail until he can get him to his feet. Worked on any horses lately?”
Paul smiled back. “All these patients in one night. Maybe I should start charging overtime.”
Ben grinned, hoping that this night would soon be over. His sons were safe and help was here. Whatever shape they currently found themselves in, at least they were home. He ran his fingers through Adam’s hair and prayed.
Snowflakes landed on his upturned face and he smiled. Happiness and contentment moved through him, warming every part of him despite the vast snowfield that surrounded him.
A distant sound drew his attention to the left, then the right, then straight before him. It was his brother’s voice. He was sure of it. Waiting, it came again, calling for him, pulling him. Taking a step he found himself suddenly at a tree line that hadn’t been there before. Odd. Maybe I should go back? The voice came again.
It was like a beacon, a light brighter than the whiteness around him, drawing him forward and onto a road that moved into and through the trees. Leaves swirled about his feet as the wind picked up surrounding him with his brother’s voice. He recognized the tone. He was in trouble.
“Hoss!” he called. He’d lost him on the road. He wouldn’t lose him again. “Hoss!”
Moving swiftly the wind swirled before him, the rustling of the leaves practically shouting at him. Breaking into a run, his hands grasped at the air before him in hopes of grabbing something tangible within, but it dissipated as he crested the hill, his eyes catching sight of something else, bringing him to a stop. A tunnel of light with tendrils of yellow gold reached into the trees and up the hill bathing him in its light. A figure stood below beckoning to him. “There you are,” he smiled in triumph.
Hurrying down the hill, his happiness began to fade when he realized it wasn’t his brother standing there but someone else, someone he’d never actually met but knew in an instant.
“Hello, Adam,” came her soft voice drifting over him like a blanket. Coming to a stop, his mouth fell open. She smiled at him, her hands reaching out. Regaining some semblance of a brain, he stepped back and she lowered her hands but held his gaze. “They sent me to meet you,” she began. “Actually, I begged them since I’ve always wanted to meet my own son.”
Then it was true. It was her.
“M . . . Mother?” he finally spoke the word catching in his throat.
“How . . ?” Shaking his head, his logical mind had difficulty processing this turn of events. “How can you be here?”
She smiled. Actually, it’s you who are here where I’ve been for many years.” She waited while his mind worked it out.
He narrowed his eyes. If this was truly his mother, she’d been dead for thirty years. If he was where she was then that meant . . . His eyes grew large.
“You’re between worlds at present, my son. Hoss is desperately calling for you. Can you hear him still?”
Thinking he’d gone completely batty from the cold, he thought he might as well play whatever game his brain was dishing out if it meant he could spend some time with his mother real or not. “He’s fading in and out,” he admitted.
“Then our time grows short and there are so many things I wish to say to you,” she answered. “I’ve watched you all your life, Adam, from a little boy on a wagon train with my Ben to the vibrant young man you’ve become. I’m so very proud of you. I’ve always wanted you to know that.”
He studied her face. It was as if the picture of her that sat by his bedside had come to life. She was beautiful and young and would always be that way for him. A small smile tugged at his mouth. Maybe he was dead. That meant he would be with her, know her instead of living on his father’s memories of her. Slowly he reached shaky hands out to her and she grabbed them.
“Mother, I’ve . . .” Words failed him and he pulled her into an embrace, emotion dropping them both to their knees, tears streaming down their faces.
“It’s all right, Adam,” she said in a soothing tone, rubbing his back as he cried. “Everything will be all right.” Turning her head toward the light, she sighed.
Hearing this, he pulled his head from her shoulder and locked eyes with her. She pushed the hair off his forehead and wiped away his tears. “The last time I did this you were smaller than a breadbox. Now you’re big and strong and handsome.” The smile slowly left her face. “And now you must go.” Shock registered on his face and she quickly reached up to caress his cheek. “I can’t keep you here, Adam, when Ben and the boys are calling. I can’t be that selfish, no matter how much I want to be.”
He couldn’t believe it. After all these years and all the stories he’d finally found his mother and now she’d ripped out his heart. “But I want to stay,” he declared not even considering what that meant.
She shook her head. “You must return. They need you.”
Pulling out of her embrace he stood, thoughts churning through his head. They need me. When didn’t they need me? “I don’t care,” he said, turning from her and stepping away.
“Adam . . .”
“I’ve given them my whole life,” he continued, anger permeating every word. “I’ve been responsible for them every step of the way. Held their hands, cleaned up after them. Lied, cheated and killed for them. It’s my turn now.”
“Then why are you so worried about Hoss?” she asked. He stiffened. “Why do you dread telling Ben that his middle son is lost?” How had she known that?
“Because I promised Inger,” he said in a low voice.
“Is that all?” He refused to answer. “Adam, I know you love them and they you. That’s what a family does.”
“Don’t you think I know that?!” He was yelling at his mother. This is not what he wanted. He closed his eyes and took a breath and she stood a bit straighter. “I want to stay with you.”
“Choosing to stay when it’s not your time is irresponsible. Yes, irresponsible,” was her answer to his look. “Ben didn’t raise you to be that way.” He turned away then, different tears burning his eyes. She came up and laid a hand on his arm, softening her voice. “There was a time when I thought that having you here with me would be my greatest joy. But when I’ve seen what your sickness or injury has done to them . . . I couldn’t take you then nor do I want too now. We will have eternity, Adam. Let’s not hurry up to get there.”
Reaching for her hand, he pulled it to his chest. “You don’t understand. I’ve wanted this my whole life – to know you, to talk to you and with you, to share all that I am and to learn all about you. It’s what’s been missing. Now that I have it you want me to leave it behind?”
She kissed his hand and looked into his sad eyes. “Yes.”
Her heart broke at the look of abandonment on his face. “I love you, Adam, more than you’ll ever know but, for your sake and theirs, you must return.”
“But I want you to know everything I’ve done.” He felt like a little boy again who couldn’t understand the word no.
“I already do. I’m with you every step. I keep you here,” she said, touching her chest, “as I know Ben does.”
“But I’ve no memories of my own to keep, nothing but what Pa’s told me. It isn’t enough.” His voice was soft and plaintive. He knew he was losing this battle.
“But it has to be until you and I can make new ones. We will see each other again, my son, but it will be many years from now.”
Tears rolled down his face. “Please . . .” He was begging to be allowed to die and that floored him. The whole ‘never give up’, ‘fight until the last breath’ left him in a flash when confronted with his dream – knowing his mother. He had her in his grasp and didn’t want to let go whatever that meant to his mortal body. She hugged him, an emotional embrace that tortured him with love. Tears touched his shoulder and he buried his face in her hair. There it was again – Hoss’s voice. This time louder and more insistent and right behind him.
“I love you, my son,” she said, her voice becoming faint to his ears. “Always remember that.”
He panicked as his hand passed through hers. “No, wait!” he shouted in a frantic voice. “Mother, wait! I want to stay!” Suddenly control over his body wavered. “Mother, please! Please!” Hoss’s voice overtook him, drawing him back up the hill, leaving him with a last look at the woman he’d never known waving goodbye, the golden tendrils of light retracting toward her, shrinking into nothing as he moved back through the trees and back to the snowfield. “I want to stay . . . I . . . “
“. . . WANT TO STAY!”
Startled, Hoss jumped, letting go of Adam’s shoulder as he shot straight up in bed, breathing heavily, tears rolling down his face. Just moments before he’d heard his brother’s last breath leave him, leave the man who’d helped raise him, who’d always been there for him. And now he was staring into his glassy eyes shocked at the sight.
“Adam?” he asked, realizing that even though his brother was looking at him, he wasn’t seeing him. Ben brusquely pushed Hoss aside, grabbing Adam by the shoulders to hold him upright, Hoss having no choice but to move off the bed and stand next to Joe.
“Take a breath, son,” Ben urged watching Adam fight to suck in enough air to stay conscious. “Come on, boy. You can do it.”
His lungs felt restricted and closed like he was under water. Did I go swimming? It must be all that ice in my veins melting.
“What happened?” Paul yelled as he raced into the room, his hair sticking out in every direction.
“He stopped breathin’,” Hoss softly said, holding onto the bedpost with his good arm. ‘I . . . I yelled for him and shook him and he came back.”
“Get back to bed, Hoss, before you fall over,” Paul ordered heading toward Adam.
“I cain’t leave him, Doc. Not again.”
Paul looked at him then nodded in understanding, glancing at Ben who’d pulled Adam’s head to his shoulder and rubbed his back in a circular motion. He placed his stethoscope on Adam’s back, listening for any improvement.
“I heard someone yell ‘I want to stay’,” Paul stated absently moving the cold disk across his back.
Adam suddenly gripped Ben’s shirt and, with great effort, pulled his head up to look his father in the eyes. “ . . . saw . . .” he began, surprising Ben with his penetrating stare, Paul watching him.
“Shh, son. Take it easy.”
He shook his head determined to get out what he’d seen lest he forget. “I . . . saw . . . I saw her,” he finally got out between gasps. “I spoke . . . with her.” He began to cough, his head falling back onto his father’s shoulder.
“Who’d he see?” Joe asked, looking at Hoss.
Stunned, Ben’s eyes found the picture on the bed stand. “Elizabeth,” he whispered.
“What?” Joe was confused but kept his mouth shut at Hoss’s insistent look hearing Adam’s labored breaths filling the room.
There was so much Adam wanted to say to his father but he felt guilty. Guilty about how selfish he’d been, guilty about what he’d said to her. It was his job to be the responsible one and it was something he did without question because he loved them all. She’d understood even though he hadn’t. A gift of insight into his own psyche through a conversation with his mother. Maybe he’d keep that to himself. The calming touch of his father finally caught up with him and he began to relax, falling asleep in the protective embrace of his father.
“Ben,” Paul said, lightly touching his arm and pulling him from his reverie, pointing toward Adam. Holding his head, Ben carefully eased him back onto the bed, bunching the pillows to prop him up.
“Pa, he couldn’t have seen . . .” Joe began, still confused.
“Of course not, Joseph,” Ben answered a bit too quickly, moving off the bed to get out of Paul’s way. “It’s the fever talking.” Keeping his face neutral, he avoided their eyes and stuffed his hands in his pockets, watching Paul work on Adam. “You two go back to bed. It’s still my watch.” They both looked at him, keeping their places at the end of the bed. Their brother had just died and miraculously returned to them. They didn’t know if they wanted to leave so soon. “Go on.”
“Are you sure you don’t want us to stay, Pa?” Hoss asked uncertainty in his voice.
Ben turned at the tone seeing the stricken look on his face. It was then he remembered nearly pushing him from the bed and away from the brother he thought he’d lost. It made his heart sick. Somehow he’d saved Adam, brought him back from wherever he’d been and for that he’d been pushed away. He clasped Hoss’s arm and smiled warmly. “You go on,” he said. “You’re still recovering yourself. I’ll call you if I need you.”
“Pa, I . . .”
“It’s all right now, Hoss. What’s lost has been found. Go on.”
He nodded and followed Joe to the door. “Thank you.” Hoss smiled.
“Night, Pa,” they both said, quietly leaving. Ben sighed when the door clicked shut and moved silently to stare out the window. That was Adam who’d spoken to him not the fever, he was sure of it. Could it be true?
“His lungs sound a bit clearer,” Paul began. “He still has a fever but it doesn’t appear to be as high as this morning.” Moving to his leg he pulled back the dressing. “This looks a bit better, too. I believe he’ll keep the leg.”
“I lost him, Paul,” Ben began as Paul carefully maneuvered Adam’s leg back under the quilt, ignoring the good doctor’s update. “He was gone for a moment and all I could do was watch. If Hoss hadn’t grabbed him, called to him . . .” His voice trailed off as he shook his head.
“Sometimes all it takes is a shout or two,” he admitted, pulling the quilt up to Adam’s chin, replacing the cloth on his forehead and turning to his friend, running a hand through his own disheveled hair.
“No divine intervention?” Ben asked, stepping back towards the bed to look upon his sleeping son.
Paul chuckled. “As a doctor I’ve seen many things, divine and otherwise. I don’t question whatever works.” He patted Ben on the arm. “You get some rest. I don’t want to have to take care of another Cartwright. I’ll sit with him awhile.”
Ben shook his head. Paul put up his hands, knowing it was a losing battle. “I’ll be next door if you need me.” Ben nodded and returned his attention to his eldest, looking small and fragile in his bed as Paul quietly closed the door.
Touching Adam’s stubbly cheek, he still felt warm, sweat still stood out on his face. It wasn’t over but he knew the worst was past. He pushed back damp hair from Adam’s forehead and, tiredly, returned to his chair, picking up the book that’d fallen to the floor when he’d heard that last terrible breath that brought his world crashing down around him.
How many nights had he sat by Adam’s bedside throughout his life wondering if he’d ever see the morning? These last six days had taken a toll on all of them. The fevered delirium calling for Hoss, the possibility of his leg being amputated and his breathing becoming more labored and shallow had stolen many years from Ben. His prayers and calls for help to Elizabeth to send their son home nearly defeated him.
Elizabeth. Glancing at the portrait of his first wife smiling out for the world to see, he carefully picked up the frame, outlining her face with his fingers. Adam always kept this by his bed to see her each evening and each morning. His breath caught in his throat, tears beginning to fall as he thought again of the morning that almost never came for his beloved son.
“Thank you, Elizabeth, for sending back our Adam,” he cried, holding the frame close to his chest. Whatever it took to keep his son alive, even believing in ghosts, was good enough for him. “Thank you.”
The weight of the quilt across his shoulders entered his brain first followed by a warm shaft of light trailing across his face. He opened his eyes. The sun shone through a window, his window he noted in his own room. How had that happened?
A familiar sound erupted from his left. Lifting his head as far as he could, the sun reflecting off the frame that surrounded the portrait of his mother caught his attention filling his head with a memory. Had it all been a dream? That beautiful face replete with a dazzling smile just for him . . . had it all been a figment of his fevered imagination? Lingering between life and death he’d finally met his mother who hadn’t pushed him away as he so callously thought but given him a valuable lesson by sending him home to be where he needed to be.
The noise came again and his gaze shifted to something else of great value – his brother Hoss sprawled in a chair, head back, mouth open, snoring loudly. The sight caught him by surprise. Lying back, he stared at the ceiling waiting for the sound to disappear. He’d not found Hoss on the road. How could he be here? Tempting fate, he reached out his arm not daring to look again.
“Hoss,” he called in a scratchy voice barely above a whisper. “Hoss,” he repeated a bit stronger, his searching hand knocking a glass of water from the side table. It splashed across Hoss’s feet and his head jerked up, stopping him in mid-snore.
“Dadburn it,” he mumbled, cringing as the cold water soaked his socks. Leaning over to pick up the glass, he saw a hand reaching out to him. “Adam?” he said, his face lighting up as he grabbed his brother’s searching hand and moved off the chair to sit on the edge of the bed.
Adam pulled Hoss’s hand towards him and smiled. “You’re . . . alive.” He’d never been more relieved to see anyone in his entire life.
“O’ course, big brother,” Hoss smiled back. “I’m too ornery to die. You, too, I reckon,” he continued, “but it was mighty close. We was all worried. ‘Specially Pa. You scared him so. Heck, you scared us all.”
“Sorry,” was all he could say.
Hoss pulled his hand from Adam’s and felt his forehead. It was still a bit warm but some of the color was returning to his face. He picked up the fallen cloth and gently ran it across Adam’s face. “Sport’s on the mend, too. Doc Martin got the bullet out and he’s bedded down real nice waitin’ for ya to get back on your feet.”
Adam started at the comment. “My leg . . .” he began raising his head to see what the doctor had left him.
Hoss easily pushed him back. “Calm down, big brother. It’s still there. Soon you and Sport’ll be ridin’ the range again, raising cane with the rest of us Cartwright boys.”
Adam relaxed back onto his pillow, sleep tugging at him like an anchor. He looked into Hoss’s eyes and grasped his hand again. “I thought I’d lost you. It scared me,” he admitted.
Hoss nodded. “Me, too. When I finally remembered ya was with me, well, I thought I’d missed ya along the way. I didn’t like bringing home news like that.” Hoss put a grin back on his face. “But we found each other and we’re gonna be fine. And, when we’re both fit, hows about you and me goin’ on a fishin’ trip, just the two of us. What do ya say?”
Adam grinned. “I’d like that.”
“Good. Now, you better get back ta sleep afore Joe finds out your awake. He might just put ya to work. What with both of us down he’s gotten a big head since Pa put him in charge.”
Adam gave a small laugh and coughed, the effort dragging on him. Hoss steadied him then pulled the quilt back up under his chin. “Go on now. Close them purty eyes of yours and dream somethin’ nice. You’re still a sick boy and ya need your rest.”
“Yes, Ma,” he said, slowly drifting back to sleep, a grin still on his face. They’d found each other. Everything would be all right.
Hoss sat there awhile watching his brother sleep. The sickness that had clogged his lungs had broken up and the infection in his leg was nearly gone. It would be a few weeks before he’d be back on his feet and a month or more before he’d be back to his old self but Hoss could wait. As long as he had his brother to go fishing with all was well.
Carefully disengaging his hand, he returned to his chair, settling his injured arm across his chest, his eyes falling on Elizabeth’s picture. He didn’t question what Adam had seen and never would. Whatever had brought him back was enough for him.
“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth,” he whispered, laying his head back and closing his eyes, thinking of fish dangling off the line. “We owe you one.”