Word Count: 8000
The distant howling of a wolf and the sound of something hitting a solid piece of wood jerked Adam Cartwright into a vertical position, nearly unseating him from the green leather chair behind his father’s desk. Blinking, it took him a moment to focus on the quiet room before him. Why is the fire so low? Where is everyone?
Blinking again and rubbing his face, he winced as his fingers trailed across a sore spot on his forehead. The sound of banging wood came back to him and the dots connected. His chuckles turned into a yawn and a stretch.
“I wonder what time…” Clang – clang – clang – clang! The echo of the grandfather clock filled the room and it took a moment to register. Then he rolled his eyes. “Four o’clock! I’ve done it again.” Three nights in a row, up until all hours working on these damn contracts… Glaring at the paperwork and grinding his teeth, he closed his eyes and sighed as he rubbed his eyes. “I know I promised to get these done, Pa, but it you don’t get home soon, I might just decide the trees can remain standing.” Sighing again. he began gathering up the paperwork strewn about the desk and thought back on these last two interesting weeks.
It all began peacefully enough when he and his brothers waved goodbye to both Hop Sing and their father as their stages disappeared out of town; each of the boys had great plans to break horses, mend fences and paint the barn on the horizon.
The barn they’d managed in two days (mostly due to Hoss’ persistence); Joe himself had broken a passel of horses, and Adam labored over broken fences. That was the first week. Piece of cake. They should’ve worried.
As the second week dawned, events began piling on top of one another like heaps of steaming manure. The first day of that glorious second week Joe tripped over one of Hop Sing’s chickens, fell into the wood pile and sliced his arm enough to get twenty stitches and spraining his wrist along with it. On the third day, Hoss broke his leg when he and Chubb took a tumble into a rushing river, stopping almost a mile downstream. And on the fourth day of this extra long week, Adam nearly poked his eye out when he fell asleep on this very desk, landing face first on a newly sharpened pencil which produced a nice long lead burn stretching from under his right eye and down across his cheek. (No blood was spilled but Joe did remark how pirate-like it made Adam look.)
Yes, that had been the week from hell with Paul Martin making a daily trip (or so it seemed) to the house, prompting Adam to offer him room and board for free, which was politely declined. Adam so didn’t look forward to the third week of peril that obviously awaited them.
A heavy sigh escaped. Bemoaning the current situation wasn’t getting him any closer to his bed, so he doused the lamplight and yawned his way to the front door to make sure it was locked, then quickly checked the kitchen door. After banking the fire next, he moved upstairs, hoping to get at least a few hours sleep before the new day and a new disaster began. There was nothing worse than Adam Cartwright on ten minutes sleep or so his brother’s kept saying (except for maybe Hoss on a diet.)
After a quick glance back toward the great room, he lowered the hall lamp and headed to his room, opening the door onto a wondrously inviting sight – his bed. Easing himself down into its blissful softness, he smiled, reaching to tug off a boot, a yawn attacking and almost cracking his jaw as this week’s problems began to seep away, replaced with happy thoughts of riding Sport through a meadow, feeling the wind in his face, wondering when he’d find time to finish those contracts…
“Stop,” he admonished himself. Too soon would the sun be up; too soon would this night pass without a wink of sleep for said worry. Too soon… Why am I staring at the ceiling? Looking about, he found himself stretched out on the bed, fully clothed – one boot on and one boot off. He’d fallen asleep in mid-thought.
“Boy, I am tired.”
Sitting up, he pulled off his other boot, tossing it to the floor with its partner. Cracking his neck as he began unbuttoning his shirt, his fingers lost their way when his attention moved to the niggling feeling running along his scalp. Something was off.
It just so happened that he’d been up at this very same hour three nights in a row, but this night . . . day just seemed different. It was a might early for morning birds, so that wasn’t it; no creaking of the house waking up as dawn approached filled the hall; Hoss wasn’t snoring . . . He paused.
“Hoss isn’t snoring.”
Ever since childhood, Hoss snored. Traveling together in a wagon for many years, you either got used to it or never slept. He reminded himself there’d been many times Hoss hadn’t snored, many times — too many to count — and he was too tired to count. I’m not counting.
Shrugging the thought away and reaching again for his buttons, he stopped again as a new thought raised its thorny head: Hoss never snored when he was sick.
Glancing toward the door, memories of chasing after his brother as he was swept downstream and then standing in the cold water attempting to get Hoss on his feet after his fall, fell into place along with a small voice calling to them from shore.
“Do you need help, mister?” floated over the water, drawing Hoss’ attention first, then Adam’s, to a little blond girl standing on dry land.
“Yes, please!” Adam shouted, managing to finally get Hoss up, arm slung about his shoulders.
“Let me help,” came another voice and a large man appeared from out of nowhere, grabbing Hoss and lifting him bodily to shore all by himself. Handshakes all around found their saviors to be the Olsen family on their way to Oregon and the little blond was Abigail Olsen, all of six. An offer to use their wagon to cart Hoss home and an overnight stay found the Olsen’s waving goodbye to Adam and Joe the next morning with a promise for the Cartwright’s to visit if they were ever in Oregon. That seemed so long ago. Sometimes three days can seem like an eternity.
Still Hoss wasn’t snoring.
Resisting the urge to lay back, he punched the bed. “Check it out or you’ll never get to sleep.”
Rising and heading out the door, he headed down the hall to peek inside Hoss’ room to view him as he’d been left hours before: flat on his back, broken leg propped up on pillows, eyes closed. Hoss seemed comfortable; he could see him breathing from the door. He seems fine. Go in and see!
That little voice pushed him forward to tiptoe in fully intending on feeling Hoss’ forehead, just like Ben always did, just as a snore wafted up, catching him in mid-stride. Brows raised, he waited until another one struck the air then backed out of the room as silently as he’d entered to stand in the hall perplexed. If it isn’t Hoss…
Cracking open Joe’s door next, he spied his younger brother curled into a ball, covers on the floor. Wondering why that boy didn’t wake from the cold, Adam eased himself inside and retrieved the wayward covers, returning them to their proper place. A sudden thought of Joe not eating much dinner barged in on him but he shrugged it off. He was no Hop Sing.
Satisfied that that niggling feeling may just have been lead poisoning from his close encounter with a pencil, Adam headed back out into the hall hoping for the now one hour of precious sleep he might get if he hurried his pace along. But as his hand touched the door, fleeting thoughts of burying himself in his blankets and pillow fled when he heard his name being called. It was a soft call, not at all like his middle brother’s voice.
Rushing back into his brother’s room, the scene was no longer placid but one of urgency as Hoss hung over the side of the bed vomiting all over the floor. Jumping onto the bed and grabbing his brother’s shoulders, Adam tried to keep him steady lest his heaving efforts fling him to the floor, knowing he’d never be able to get him back to bed.
As he hung on, this situation reminded Adam of all the times he’d been in this very same position with one brother or another throughout their lives together (he’d even managed a time or two with Ben.) They never could seem to get to the washbasin in time and, thankfully, his stomach had finally gotten used to the clean up. He leaned in close when he realized Hoss had stopped redecorating the room.
Getting a slight nod, Adam immediately slapped his hand over his big brother’s forehead, bringing with it a Pa comparison for Hoss and slight smile. “You’re burning up,” Adam announced as he eased Hoss back into his pillows then slid off the bed, walking about the large spot on the floor. Grabbing a washbasin, pitcher and cloth from the side table, he turned back to his brother as he turned up the lantern. “When did this come on?”
“I’m guessin’ right now,” Hoss answered as Adam grinned and dunked the cloth in the pitcher before cleaning his brother’s sweaty and pale face. “I feel awful.”
“You look awful, too,” Adam quipped. “You’re kinda green,” he added handing over the washbasin to him. Hoss halfheartedly grinned as he took it and leaned back his head as Adam began working on the floor.
“I ain’t felt this bad since Miss Molly’s spiced apple cobbler last Christmas.”
“You mean the one where you ate both of them then had dinner?”
“Foolish I know but it was worth it, at least, at the . . .”
Adam looked up at the unfinished sentence just in time to see Hoss bend his head into the basin for another go ‘round. Dropping limply back onto his pillows, a nice cool cloth materialized out of nowhere to cool his face then drape itself across his forehead.
“This is probably my cooking,” Adam admitted returning to work on the floor.
“Naw, ya ain’t that bad. It must be somethin’ else.”
“You were in that river for a bit before I could get you out. Maybe you picked up a chill.”
“Or, if’n I remember right, that little Abigail Olsen was snifflin’. Maybe she sneezed on me or somethin’.”
“I’m real sorry, Adam,” Hoss said, watching his brother finish with the floor out of the corner of his eye. .
“For what?” Adam asked, tossing the cloth onto the pitcher and wiping his wet hands on his pants before taking a seat on the bed.
“I ain’t been much help ta ya since Pa left for Denver.”
“You practically painted the barn by yourself so stop apologizing.”
“I jest feel so dumb. Chubb and I’ve taken worse tumbles. Why all a sudden do I break a leg?”
“Ours is not to reason why . . .” Adam’s voice trailed off when he caught the look on his brother’s face and quickly set him upright for the coming onslaught. But there was nothing left in his stomach.
“Yuck,” Hoss grimaced, sticking out his tongue as Adam removed the full basin, sat behind him and then leaned his brother against him.
“I want you to think of a warm spring day by the lake,” Adam began, falling back on an old ploy. “The sun is out; you’ve got a fishing line already in the water and a nice long nap ahead of you. A breeze carries the scent of pine and fresh grass and you can’t help but close your eyes and sleep the day away.”
“Have I caught any fish?”
Adam grinned. They hadn’t played this game in a long time. “Five fat trout, and Big Eddie’s just waiting out there for you.”
“I’ll git that boy one day,” Hoss said with a sigh. “Hey, Adam, did Hop Sing fix lunch?”
“You up to it?”
“Ain’t got nothin’ left ta heave.”
“Ok,” chuckled Adam. “Let’s see. How about a nice roast beef sandwich and sugar cookies fresh from the oven.” He was making himself hungry.
“Hmm . . . sounds nice.”
Yes it does. “Eddie’s just waiting for you to finish lunch then he’ll pay tag with your fishing line until the sun . . .” Adam’s voice trailed off when he realized he’d lost his audience.
Gently easing out from under his big brother, Adam quietly rose and placed the full basin on the table in the hall, returning to his brother’s side and, once again, placing a hand on his forehead.
“You’re really hot, boy.” Worry creased his forehead. He had to get Paul Martin. “Don’t worry about a thing. Ol’ Adam’ll take care of everything.”
Removing himself from the room, he made his way back to Joe’s room, quietly slipping inside to stand arms length from the bed, an outstretched hand on his shoulder carefully rousing his high-strung brother. It wouldn’t do to have a fist to his nether regions.
“Joe? Joe, wake up,” Adam called. He was finally rewarded with a squint, not at all what he expected.
“What’s the matter?” Joe asked in a scratchy voice full of sleep, rolling onto his back.
“Hoss is sick.”
“Sick? His leg?”
Adam shook his head. “He’s been throwing up and he’s got a high fever. I don’t know if it’s from his river bath or something else.”
“I remember that little Abigail was sneezing,” Joe reminded Adam.
“Whatever it was, can you keep an eye on him until I get back?” Adam didn’t wait for an answer but started for the door, reminding himself he had to get an empty basin back into Hoss’ room, just in case.
“Wait!” Joe began swinging his legs over the side. “I’ll go.”
Adam stopped and turned, raising his brows in question. Joe rarely volunteered to leave his warm bed.
“You’ve been up late again. I can tell,” Joe added.
Curiosity got the better of him. “How can you tell?”
Joe just smiled and pointed toward his head. “You’ve got a nice red spot on your forehead to go along with that pirate scar of yours. Had a close encounter with the desk again I see.”
Automatically reaching up, Adam fingered the sore spot and grinned, answer enough for Joe’s giggle to begin.
Leaving his little brother to get dressed, Adam grabbed the full basin from the table as he passed, heading for the stairs and the kitchen. I wonder what time… Clang – clang – clang – clang – clang! Joy! 5:00 am! Not even thirty blessed minutes of sleep. What other joys shall this day bring? His inner monologue came to a screeching halt when he heard a familiar sound behind him and up the stairs. But this time, it was coming from Joe’s room.
Cursing himself for making such a statement (even if it was only in his head), he left the basin on the stairs and raced back up to bolt through the open door in time to see Joe’s head buried in his washbasin, pants hanging loosely about his ankles, puking his guts out.
Well, at least he’d made it to the basin! “Oh, boy,” Adam sighed, grabbing a hold of Joe from behind, careful of his injured arm. “It’s all right, Joe. I’m here,” he whispered in a soothing voice, rubbing his brother’s arms, more worry piling onto his poor sore forehead.
“I’m sorry,” Joe mumbled between gasps interrupting his thoughts.
“It’s probably my cooking,” Adam joked again as he waited for Joe to finish.
“Well, you’re no Hop Sing.”
Adam snorted as his brother began to relax in his grip. “Let’s go,” he said, slowly guiding Joe back to bed, tossing his pants over a chair as he lifted up his legs, covering him.
“Who’s gonna get Paul?” Joe asked curling into his quilt, all color gone from his face. “Nobody else here remember?”
Damn! Adam told himself.
“After the round up . . .”
“I know, I know.” Why do these things always happen when no one’s here?” One hand on his hip, the other rubbing the bridge of his nose, Adam knew there was only one thing to do. “Then I’ll take care of you both myself. I’ve done it before and I can do it again.”
“Don’t worry about a thing,” Adam answered sitting on the bed. “The basin will be on the table if you need it.” Hmm. How fast can I run to the kitchen, empty them and return before they’re needed?
Joe looked so small and pale all wrapped up in that quilt, suddenly reminding Adam of Marie. The memory jolted him, not having thought of her in some time. And along with it came the promise he’d made to both Marie and Inger – take care of the boys. Wringing out a wet cloth, he began to hum as he slowly ran it over his brother’s face.
Joe’s drifting hearing picked up on the tune, tossing various scenes from his childhood of all the times he’d fallen asleep to those very sounds back at him. It always calmed him, always made him sleepy and tonight was no different. Within moments, his eyes grew heavy, slowly closing, his roiling stomach quieting, leaving Adam humming to himself.
Peering over his brother’s shoulder, Adam felt Joe’s forehead and clucked his tongue. Two brothers down for the count and I’m the only one ambulatory. Well, what did I expect? This was a nice beginning of a third week of insanity.
Grabbing Joe’s basin, he hurried for the door and made his way down the hall, making sure both doors were open as he picked up Hoss’ basin. How fast can I run to the kitchen and back up before either of them wakes?
Moving quickly past the settee, his goal of the kitchen in sight, a clang! pulled him to an immediate stop. Aargh! Clenching his teeth, he turned a fiery glare onto that oversized timepiece that sat so proudly by the front door and would’ve raised a fist if he could. He settled for nasty thoughts and angry words. “Once I put these down, I’m going to smash your face with my fist, pull out your clapper and toss it into the forge if I’m reminded again that I haven’t been TO BED AT ALL THIS NIGHT . . . DAY!”
You’ll break your hand. Anger burned in his narrowed eyes at that little voice of reason echoing between his ears, sending him to his second choice for clock damnation – a few choice curse words inspired by thoughts too blue to write down that would’ve sent even a saloon girl into a tizzy. If his hand had been free…
Turning from that bedeviled construct, lest he follow through with his furious thoughts, he came to the conclusion that this was all the time he could spend on delirious thoughts of clock destruction. He had sick brothers to take care of and a ranch to run and . . . well . . . he didn’t have time to sleep anyway! So there!
“Adam? Adam? ADAM!”
Eyes shot open and arms flew out as Adam slid off a bale of hay, landing with a thud on the barn floor, a hand quickly finding his shoulder.
“Steady there, boy,” came Roy Coffee’s familiar voice. “It’s just me.”
Breathing hard, Adam dropped his head into his hands, taking deep breaths to slow his rapidly beating heart, pushing away the unexpected moments of sleep he’d inadvertently managed to catch, then glanced up at his friend with an embarrassed look. “Hi, Roy.”
“Hi, yerself. Missed ya at the town meetin’. Thought I’d better come out ta see if somethin’ was wrong.”
“Was that this week?” Adam asked followed by a yawn, his hands vigorously rubbing his face.
“Today as a matter of fact. You was the featured speaker.”
Closing his eyes, Adam moaned. “Forgot. Sorry, Roy.”
“Come on,” the sheriff said, holding out his hand. Accepting the help, Adam pulled himself up and began dusting stray bits of hay from his pants.
“Now I know somethin’s wrong. Adam Cartwright don’t never forget the town meetin’, especially when talkin’ about the railroad.”
That’s right. He was going to talk about a spur line into . . . wherever. Rubbing his eyes, he didn’t bother stifling another yawn.
Roy raised his brows. Looking at this boy, he realized something was just wrong by the looks of him – messed up hair, stubble, bags under his eyes. Something was going on.
“Adam, I’ve just gotta ask. What’cha doin’ sleepin’ in the barn? Somethin’ wrong with yer own bed?”
Another yawn cascaded into another and Adam scratched his head. “No, Roy, there’s nothing wrong with my bed. In fact, I’d love to see my bed for more than ten minutes, bury my head in my pillow, close my eyes and dream of…” He stopped in mid-sentence when he caught Roy’s concerned look, then yawned again. “Just ignore me. I’m sleep deprived. I’m not even making sense to myself.”
“Well, I was wonderin’. Ya look done in, boy, ya surely do. What’s keepin’ ya from sleepin?”
“Pa’s gone to Denver and Hoss and Joe are sick and I can’t leave them to go for Paul. So, between taking care of livestock, doing the paperwork and nursemaiding, sleep’s become a distant memory.”
“Runnin’ yerself ragged is what yer doin’.”
“Can’t be helped,” Adam answered, rubbing his neck and turning back to the bale of hay to finish what he hadn’t even started.
“Hop Sing ain’t around neither?”
Adam shook his head. “Had to go to San Francisco for . . .” He stopped himself and gave a short laugh. “Well, I knew last week.”
Roy just shook his head. “Adam, ya need ta get some sleep before ya keel over.”
“Can’t,” he answered, clipping the wire holding the bale together and spreading the hay into the empty stalls. “Too many things to do.”
“Tell me what things cain’t wait until ya’ve had a little shut eye?”
Adam grabbed three buckets off the wall and handed one to Roy, heading for the water trough in the yard. “Let’s see. The horses have to eat and their stalls need to be cleaned,” he began, Cochise and Chubb nickering to him as he passed. “I’ve got to finish the lumber contracts before Pa gets home, chickens have to be fed…”
“All things that can wait for an hour or two while ya rest yer head,” Roy reasoned, taking a full bucket Adam handed him.
“Unfortunately, I’m afraid that an hour or two could turn into a day or two. Can’t take the chance.”
Always responsible. Roy shook his head, following him back to the barn. He’d known Adam since he was a boy and always liked him, liked his clear thinking and responsible ways even if it caused him harm. He would’a made a great Sheriff. “Well, I can stay a couple hours and make sure them hours don’t turn into days.”
Adam grinned as he poured water into Sport’s trough, picked up the second bucket and headed toward Chubb’s stall. “I can’t ask you to do that, Roy. You’ve got responsibilities in town that are far more important than babysitting the Cartwrights.”
“Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen in a couple of hours.”
“There’s always something happening, Roy, especially in a couple of hours.” He took the last bucket from Roy and headed for Cochise’s stall. “What you could do for me is get Paul out here to make sure I’m doing everything I can.” Lack of sleep making him a bit slow on the uptake; it took a moment to realize Roy hadn’t answered, and turned to see a downcast look upon his friend’s face. “What?”
“Of all the things ta ask for ya had to ask for that,” the sheriff answered.
“Why? What’s the matter?” he asked, never taking his eyes from Roy’s.
“Well, Doc’s taken sick hisself. Must’a caught whatever Hoss and Joe have. We was wonderin’ how he got sick, but then being Doc, I’m surprised he ain’t always sick.”
Adam just sighed. His last hope vanished.
“Maybe I should send a wire to Ben, bring him home.”
Adam finished pouring the water into Cochise’s trough and actually gave the question great thought. He wanted Ben home more than he could say but he shouldn’t drag him back for this. The Cattleman’s Association annual meeting was something he looked forward to year round. Besides, he’d probably get home just as Paul managed to get out to the house. No, he’d have to take care of this himself.
He shook his head. “He’ll be home soon enough. No need to worry him.”
“Ya sure ya don’t want me ta stay? I don’t mind.”
“Don’t worry, Roy. We’ll be fine.”
Roy watched him replace the buckets on the wall and knew he’d better leave it alone. Once this boy made up his mind… “All right then. I’ll let Doc know and he’ll get here as soon as he can. Take care now, Adam, and try ta get some rest, even if it’s just ten minutes.”
Giving him a tired nod, he followed Roy out of the barn and watched him mount, returning his wave as he disappeared from sight.
For a brief second, Adam’s mouth opened, intent upon calling Roy back, berating himself for tossing aside a chance for some sleep, but he shrugged the thought away. Deliberately walking toward the water trough, he bent over and dunked his head, coming up sputtering a few moments later, hoping this would wash away the cobwebs still looping about his brain. Sport snickered at him.
Eyeing his faithful mount, he splashed water across the horse’s muzzle, producing a whicker and a quick one-two bob of the head. Clang – clang! washed the smile from Adam’s face as he hung his head, watching the water drip on his boots, hands on his hips. Lord, give me strength not to commit clock murder.
Adam sagged against the wall outside Hoss’ room and took a swig of milk from the tray of half-eaten food he held in one hand and rued the day man invented time.
Some days there wasn’t enough of it, with the sun riding the sky for too short a time to get anything of value done, to disappear on the horizon, the day complete. Then there were days when there was too much of it – moments when time stretched onward until you thought you’d just break into little pieces to be swept under the rug and forgotten. This had been not only one of those days but one of those eight days where time weaved itself together, one day to the next, without any breaks in-between until they became indistinguishable from the other.
Of course the fact that he didn’t really seem to have the energy to care anymore made it much easier to ignore the passage of time until he saw himself in a mirror and noticed that he’d apparently stopped shaving some days before. And, it seemed, he hadn’t changed his shirt or socks in who knew how long (both in a sorry state of disrepair). Hmm. Adam Cartwright was well known for being fastidious even under the most trying of circumstances. Tough. Too tired to worry about it now.
Heading for the stair, he held tightly to the tray with one hand and the stair railing with the other, determined that as soon as he made the bottom step he was going to sit his butt down in his favorite chair, put up his dirty feet and get a few winks. It wasn’t so much that he felt he deserved it; it was just that he was having a difficult time avoiding it.
This new desire to rest came upon him once he’d spied the beautiful but haggard face of Paul Martin that very morning standing on their stoop. Help was here! Thank God!
“Well, I’ve never seen a sorrier sight,” Paul stated, looking at the disheveled form before him – pale skin, an unkempt beard and a black eye to go along with the bags under them. Adam looked like hell.
“Have thee looked in a mirror lately, Doctor?” Adam retorted.
Paul nodded. “Unfortunately I have. Come on then. Let’s have a look at you.”
“But the boys . . .”
“They’ve waited this long, they can wait another ten minutes. Now sit!” Paul ordered, pointing toward the settee and skewering him with a look. Adam obediently sat. “That’s better,” the good doctor muttered disappearing into the kitchen to quickly return with a bag of ice. “Okay, I know you haven’t left the ranch, so a barroom brawl is out. What or who smacked you?”
“Joe. Who knew he could punch with his right hand and that; apparently, I don’t have any reflexes left.”
“How many days?” Paul asked pushing the ice bag into Adam’s hand then up to his eye.
“Haven’t you slept?”
“Oh, boy,” Paul sighed, noticing his patient wincing as he moved, favoring his right side. Pulling open his shirt he tsked at the sight.
“Hoss. I always forget now quick he can be,” Adam groaned as Paul poked and prodded his ribs.
“Well, they aren’t broken, just bruised. It’ll be purple for a couple of days then the rainbow of colors will begin. You should’ve given him a wide berth.”
“Well, he did warn me,” Adam admitted as Paul pulled some bandages from his bag.
“He yelled something like ‘get away ya dadburned rattlesnake!’ ”
Paul chuckled. “Didn’t take him seriously did you?” Adam just shook his head. “Next time try to stand at the end of their beds until you can get enough sleep to get out of the way.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” he gasped as Paul pulled the bandages tightly about his ribs, pressing him back against the settee as he finished.
“Now, you just sit here while I go check on the boys.”
“I’ll come with…” he began. His attempt to rise stopped by the feel of Paul’s heavy hand on his chest.
“Oh, no. You’re staying right where you are.”
“I don’t need you hovering over me when I examine them, and I’m sure you’ve taken good care of them,” Paul quickly added as Adam opened his mouth to respond. “Now, I’m going to have a look-see then make myself a cup of coffee.”
“I can do that . . .”
“You’ll stay put.”
“But, Paul . . .” Adam shut up when Paul raised a finger and gave him that look.
“For once in your stubborn life, listen to your doctor. You’re out on your feet; any fool can see that, and I’m the only other fool here. So take this time that’s been given you and rest while I work my magic.” Adam opened his mouth again but the finger came up. “I’ve been sick, too, you know. Don’t mess with me when I’m cranky.” Adam nodded and settled back. “That’s better. Now, I won’t let you sleep the day away; just a couple of hours.” Grabbing his bag, the doctor headed for the stairs.
“Don’t mention it. Now, go-to-sleep!”
Yawning, Adam turned onto his side and was out before the yawn ended.
That had been early this morning and the supposed couple of hours turned into a little over forty-five minutes when Paul shook him awake to inform him he’d been called away. They’d both shared pained looks and parted, Adam longingly watching after him as his buggy cleared the yard. Now night had fallen and it was . . . clang – clang – clang – clang – clang – clang – clang – clang! How do I do that?
Sighing, he glanced down at the great room. There sits my beautiful chair, all alone, waiting for me to put it to use. What a sight.
And then there’s Pa’s desk. What a mess!
Scrutinizing the rest of the great room brought into focus scattered books and cups and towels and he knew what the kitchen looked like – it looked like something had exploded in it. Hop Sing may not be due back for another . . . well, whenever but the longer he left it, the worse it would be to clean up.
“Can’t have that,” he muttered, a sneeze creeping up on him making his foot slide off a step jostling the tray enough to spill tea and milk down his chest and across those nice white bandages wrapped about his ribs. Normally that would’ve peeved him enough to change them, but he was beyond that. Caring was something well-rested men had time for and, since he didn’t qualify as a well-rested man, to hell with it.
When asked later about what happened next, his memory was cloudy at best. The slamming open of the front door and its pounding echo against the sideboard encompassed the great room followed closely by Ben Cartwright’s booming voice loosed as if from a giant bellows.
Being that the great room was indeed great, and that Adam was working on practically zero sleep, the sound of the banging door coupled with Ben’s large voice startled him enough to make him lose his balance, stocking feet providing the added thrill of skipping the step they’d just reached.
Stopping himself was out of the question but he gamely tried only to find air within his grasp. Knees plowing into the railing spun him around and down to fall backwards towards the landing and possible salvation, the half-filled tray flying over his head to crash and slide across the main floor.
Disoriented upon reaching the landing, salvation came and went and he continued his bounce down the first flight of stairs to the main floor, rolling into the wall hard enough to rattle the gun rack above. Forward momentum stopped, the room spun and darkness crept up on him just as he spied a box of buckshot teetering from the shelf overhead. Dreading the thought of having to clean up those dastardly little things, he shut his eyes and welcomed the darkness just as the box tilted and fell striking him squarely on the chest, the tinkling sound of buckshot echoing distantly in his ears along with two familiar voices.
“This why no yelling in house!”
I can hear Hop Sing.
“I know, I know.”
That was Pa.
“He have black eye.”
And now a headache. Adam forced the darkness back and groaned, raising a hand to the back of his head. “My head.”
“Take it easy, son,” Ben soothed smiling down at his rumpled boy. “Anything broken?”
Doing a mental check proved untrustworthy at this point so he’d just wing it. “Just my pride . . .” he finally said, leaning on Ben who helped him sit up, hearing buckshot fall from his shirt and run across the floor into the broken teacups, glasses and plates strewn about the room. Oh, boy. I’ve broken Hop Sing’s favorite teapot. A sharp pain lanced through his head making him wince. “What are you two doing here?” he asked continuing to hold his head.
“We live here,” Hop Sing answered thinking there might be something wrong with Number One son.
Sighing, Adam clarified his statement. “I mean, didn’t you two go to separate destinations?”
“Met in town,” Hop Sing answered.
“But you weren’t supposed to be back until . . . until . . .” He frowned at the memory loss then just shrugged.
“And you’re not supposed to be flat out on the floor either,” Ben added to fill in the gap, worry etching his face as he took in the burn along Adam’s cheek.
“Yelling,” Hop Sing reminded Ben, drawing a reluctant nod as he fingered Adam’s head, finding the point of impact.
“Roy wired us about Hoss and Joe and we came home as fast as we could. It just so happens both stages arrived in Virginia City within ten minutes of each other. We met with Paul and he told us what was going on.”
“Then you know the boy’s fevers conveniently broke when Paul was here?” Adam began, seeing Ben nod. “And that he took all the credit?” Again Ben nodded.
“And that you haven’t slept much since this all began.”
“Oh, he added that, did he?”
“And that you look like hell,” Hop Sing finished.
“Pot calling the kettle . . .” Adam began as he moved his legs beneath him, pushing himself up, Ben grabbing him as he doubled over, stocking feet slipping on buckshot.
“You have black eye,” Hop Sing stated as Adam carefully eased himself onto the settee.
“A present from Joe,” he admitted with a groan. “And some bruised ribs from Hoss. I now know what not to get them for Christmas.”
“And that would be?” Ben asked taking a seat on the low table in front of the settee.
“Boxing lessons,” he grunted as Ben chuckled, watching his eldest lay his head back and squeeze his eyes shut as it made contact with the pillow Hop Sing magically placed there.
“Let’s get back to Hoss and Joe hitting you.”
“They were delirious,” Adam began, “and I wasn’t fast enough. Both of them knocked me clean off their beds.”
“You no learn second time?”
Adam opened one eye and glared at Hop Sing. He couldn’t really say anything because he was right. His first encounter should’ve been his last.
“You need sleep and plenty of it. I bring ice pack for head.” Hop Sing hurried toward the kitchen as Ben stood, holding out his hand toward Adam.
“I second that motion. Let’s get you to bed,” declared Ben.
Adam shook his head. “Want to hear about your speech, and I’ve still got to clean the kit . . .” They both cringed when a high-pitched Chinese curse floated through the air. “. . . chen,” he finished shrinking as far into his seat as possible, watching a composed and quiet Hop Sing return, ice pack in hand to slap it none too gently onto his head. Adam dared to look up, seeing a fake smile plastered on Hop Sing’s face. (The steam coming out of his ears was an extra). Ben tried to hide his grin as he watched Adam attempting to compose something that would sound apologetic and, failing so miserably, stopping himself before he even got started.
“No matter, Mr. Adam,” Hop Sing answered, holding up his hands. “Hop Sing clean up mess and get everything back in one piece. Not go back San Francisco for long while. Will need long while to clean up mess!” Hastily shutting his mouth on his rising voice, Hop Sing’s smile returned and Adam knew it’d take a long time before he was forgiven. “I go check on boys, Mr. Cartwright. You take Mr. Adam to bed.” With that, he moved up the stairs, mumbles reaching the ears of the two who cringed with each stomp until he disappeared into Hoss’ room.
“This is going to take some extra special talking on your part, Adam,” Ben stated, patting him on the knee.
“And I’m not up to that just now,” he said through a yawn.
Trying again, Ben rose and stretched out a hand toward Adam, who didn’t move a muscle. Sighing, he slapped his leg and sat back down again. ”You’re not going to move until I tell you about that speech are you?”
Adam just smiled; Ben knew the only reason he wanted to hear about it was he’d helped Ben write it. “Adam, you can barely keep your eyes open…”
“Pa, I’ve been stuck here with two delirious madmen and only my horse to talk too. Just tell me how the speech went.”
He looked exhausted and, if he’d let himself, the moment his head hit a pillow, he’d be out. But if Ben knew nothing else, he knew his son’s determined nature and gave in. “All right,” he said, tossing up his hands. “All right, but just for a few minutes then it’s off to bed. Deal?”
“Well, it was better attended than we thought and my shareholders’ address to the railroad bigwigs went off without a hitch. In fact, they gave me a big hand. Now, whether or not they were listening was another matter . . .” Ben’s voice trailed off as he realized his audience of one had just become none. “Adam?”
Jerking awake, he blinked a few times. “One of the railroad bigwigs had big hands. Go on.”
Ben shook his head at the serious look on Adam’s face and stood for the third time. “All right, young man,” he began in his most fatherly voice, “that’s enough for tonight. To bed with you.”
“But, the speech . . .”
“Will wait until tomorrow.”
“Joe and Hoss . . .”
“Hop Sing and I are here now. Your responsibility to them is over for now. Go to bed before you fall over . . . again.”
Closing his mouth on a ‘but, Pa’, Adam finally acquiesced and accepted Ben’s help to stand, replacing the ice pack on his head as he made his way slowly toward the stair.
Ben watched for a moment then started for the front door – the horses were waiting to be stabled and it wouldn’t do to have them stand out in the cold air all night.
After two steps, Ben stopped, a funny sound making him turn. Adam seemed stalled on the stairs, knuckles white as he gripped the railing, unwilling or unable to continue up, glaring at the clock.
All Adam could see was that irritating clock leaping about the room mocking him. Clang – clang – clang! “. . . damned clock . . .” were the only intelligible words that came out of his mouth and then he found himself staring up at the ceiling . . . again. Hmm. Strong arms encircled him and a hazy face bent over him.
Clang! was the last thing he heard as sleep, precious sleep, claimed him.
The high-pitched giggle that could only be Joe broke through the odd dreams and cascading rows of clocks surrounding him, pulling open his heavy eyelids to take in the scene before him.
“That’s game #32.”
“Yer cheatin’, Joe, I just know it,” Hoss said.
“Prove it,” came the rebuttal.
“Check . . . his . . . sleeves.” A hoarse response from the bed made both Joe and Hoss turn with startled looks toward its occupant.
“Adam!” Joe cried, rising quickly to yell out into the hall. “Pa!”
“Does he . . . have to . . . yell?” Adam whispered cringing at the sound that pierced his skull, trying to focus on Hoss’ face as he leaned toward him.
“Boy, it’s mighty fine to see them eyes of yourn lookin’ like they got some sense,” Hoss began in a soft voice, patting his brother’s leg.
“What are you two . . . doing out of bed?” came the brotherly question, drawing a chuckle from Hoss as Joe returned to sit next to Adam.
“Older brother here wants ta know why we’re outta bed.”
“Lost track of time, hasn’t he?” Joe asked Hoss, drawing a confused look from Adam.
“Ya been lyin’ in this bed fer six days, carryin’ on a one-sided conversation with a clock and some gal named Abby,” explained Hoss.
“Who is this Abby anyway?” Joe began, wringing out a cloth to wipe Adam’s sweaty face. “Abigail Jones?” Both Joe and Hoss smiled that knowing smile that people who think they know the answer always pass between them, while he just couldn’t seem to follow.
“Or maybe that little blond gal, Abby Olsen?” Hoss added looking at Joe.
“That little girl with the wagon?” Joe asked as Hoss nodded.
“She’s mighty powerful, Joe. I think she’s the one that got us all sick, includin’ Paul.”
“That seems so long ago.”
“Not fer me,” Hoss answered, knocking on his cast. “What do ya think, Adam? Adam?”
He heard the words, tried to follow them and just gave up when they jumbled up into a little wad making his head ache.
“Son,” came Ben’s voice from the door, cutting through the mush, and he turned wobbly eyes up to his father’s face.
Ben smiled down, taking up his customary bedside chair, Hop Sing grinning over his shoulder. “Well, you’re looking a might better. Gave us quite a scare falling down the stairs not once but twice.”
“Yep,” Hoss interceded. “Don’t look so green ‘round the gills no more neither.”
“That was a shade of green I’ve never seen before,” Joe admitted while Hoss nodded.
“You was more yella,” Hoss said over his shoulder, catching Joe’s look out of the corner of his eye. “Well, that’s what Adam said ya looked like.”
“Well, he said you looked liked . . .”
“What . . . happened?” Adam asked forcing the question out, not sure he’d understand anything anyone would say anyway.
“Seems ya done run yerself into the ground,” Hoss explained. “What with my fallin’ in the river and gettin’ sick, then Joe pukin’ all over hisself and then that nasty fall down the stairs . . . well, what’dya expect? Ya slept more these last days than all the other days put together.”
“And those were full of yelling and squawking and getting sick,” Joe added. “I don’t know how you ain’t already back to sleep.”
“Aren’t,” Adam corrected, finding himself beginning to float away, caught only by Ben’s dulcet tones and pulled back to the present.
“You got a concussion when you fell down the stairs the first time and aggravated it the second, then proceeded to catch whatever the boys had. Since you were so rundown, it wrecked havoc with your system. Paul said you were hit the worst,” Ben explained.
Adam frowned. “I don’t remember much.”
“I don’t doubt it. We had a time of it, didn’t we boys?”
“Yessir,” they both said as Adam tried to keep the room and everyone in it from weaving about. I wish they’d just sit still.
Focusing on a patch of light streaming into his room, he wondered what time . . . Before the thought cleared take off, the telltaleclang! drifted through his open door bringing a lopsided grin to his face. Joe and Hoss exchanged a questioning look with their father.
“Why he smiling?” Hop Sing had the nerve to ask as Ben shrugged.
An explanation lay on the tip of his tongue but it took too much effort to break it loose and string the words together, and besides, no one would understand the irony. Ranting for days how unfair time was, now it appeared to be on his side as he’d finally achieved what he’d been after: stretched full length in bed and given time to sleep.
Heavy eyelids lost their battle to stay open and slowly closed, the last clang! resonating around his brain, calling up an image of an axe striking the face of that damned clock, one hand wrapped about the clapper, the other a pistol. Tossing the offensive object into the air, all it took was one shot to shatter it into a million pieces and send it cascading back to earth as little bits of useless quiet metal. Man may have invented time but he’d just managed to destroy a little piece of it if only in his mind. Take that, you damned clock!
“And still smiling.”
“Boys, he needs his rest. Leave him be.”
“Why he smiling?”
“I bet it’s that Abby girl again.”
“I know it’s Abigail Jones.”
“Weren’t there an Abby Pierce in Reno that was sweet on him?”
“With the wart on her nose and the long . . .”