Summary: What Happened Next – The Crucible. Author’s Note: This has always been one of my favorite episodes with such potential for a follow-up. Numerous fans/writers have done so with remarkable results. I’m just adding my two cents here. Enjoy!
Word Count: 10,000
“Son,” came a voice from behind him, stilling his hand on Sport’s neck. Dread filled him making him tense every muscle in his body until they hurt. What followed was panic rising in him, a familiar feeling of late, and he had to forcibly clamp down on the urge to run screaming into the night. This was his father, his savior, the man who’d found him and brought him out of the desert; the man who’d brought him home.
What’s the matter with me?
Ever since Adam Cartwright had opened semi-coherent eyes a few days before to find himself not in the desert but in his own room, he’d been afraid of every sound and every sight, all leading him to dark thoughts and foggy memories. Distant glimpses of what he’d had to do tugged at him, making him withdraw into his own world worried that this fear building inside might lead to eating a bullet just to give him some peace. No, he couldn’t do that to his family.
But what can I do for myself?
Letting loose a heavy sigh, he looked over Sport’s back into the depths of the barn and remained silent.
“I thought I’d find you out here,” Ben Cartwright continued with a forced smile, wondering how Adam could have made it this far from his bed.
It was Hop Sing who’d noticed first, drawing their attention to the disheveled form descending the stairs, taking each step as if the effort would topple him over. Adam hadn’t ventured two feet from his room since they’d been home, let alone a trip downstairs – not having enough stamina or desire to do so.
But there he was, passing all four of them, looking neither right nor left, not hearing any of them call his name as he moved out into the night. Each made a step to follow but Ben stopped them with a look before heading out the door.
Everything is different about him.
Unable to erase that anguished cry of recognition before Adam had fallen into his arms delirious and exhausted, Ben embraced the memory as he trudged across the yard towards the barn. With it came the four day stay in Salt Flats, trying to keep him hydrated and fed, and the three brutal nights on the trail home, cringing as nightmares claimed him, claimed them all. It had been a long haul so far and it wasn’t over yet.
He even stands differently.
“We missed you in the house,” Ben said as he leaned against Sport’s stall, clasping his hands together, waiting for a typical Adam reply. Instead, silence filled the barn, Sport brushing his head against his master’s arm to be rewarded with a shaky hand down his muzzle. “Adam?” Turning, he narrowed his eyes. He’s still here. Ben gave him a reassuring smile. “I said we missed you in the house.”
Adam heard the words and connected them slowly as if through a dense fog. “I needed to be here,” was all he said in a voice low and gravely. Ben watched as he thought over each word, his hand straying to absently scratch Sport between the ears.
“Joe’s been taking good care of him since he found him with that blacksmith,” Ben continued with a half smile, gesturing toward the black and white pinto two stalls over. “Lucky Cochise split a hoof or we might never have found him.”
“I thought I’d . . . lost him,” he answered, emotion filling his voice. “They took him and left me . . .” The pain of memory was evident and he hastened to turn his attention to a small tangle in Sport’s mane. “I needed to be here.”
“It’s good to have him home . . . to have the both of you home.” Ben’s voice was tinged with a false happiness that Adam should’ve seen through and didn’t.
That one word, filled with longing, slapped at Ben. Adam was home but he didn’t seem to know it. The strong confidence that shaped his eldest when he was a child and made him who he was as an adult was gone, leaving behind this lost little boy and Ben cursed the man who’d driven him to this.
Now is not the time.
Calming himself, he watched Adam finish with the tangle then proceed to straighten each hair in Sport’s mane as if it was the most important thing in the world.
He’s like a shadow.
“I heard you,” came a whisper.
“Heard me?” Ben questioned, not wanting to push.
“Out there . . . you called. I heard you, heard the shots, but I couldn’t get to you. I tried but he . . . he wouldn’t let me.”
Adam heard us; he knew we were out there and we gave up.
“At least . . . I think it was you.”
My God, he heard us. “Yes, that was us,” Ben admitted his heart pounding in his chest.
“I . . . I didn’t hear you again.”
He heard us.
Ben stared at the barn roof, trying to slow his heartbeat, aching with guilt. He heard us and we gave up. He so wanted to rewind time and save his son from that man, that trial in the desert that had so disrupted their lives.
Why, God . . . why?
Looking back, he watched the painstaking effort it took for Adam to pull each strand of hair straight, wondering what was going on in his head, wondering what was keeping him on his feet after all he’d been through. The darkness that surrounded him was palpable and he was determined to end it.
“You should come back inside,” came Ben’s uneven voice. “This is the first time you’ve been up since we’ve been home and we don’t want to . . .”
“It’s too . . . close inside,” he answered.
“Adam . . .”
“The walls, Pa. . . they close in around me . . . make me feel like I’m back in that mine.” All I have to do is take one step out of the barn and I’ll be right back in his grip! “It’s worse at night.” Tears threatened and he fought them with everything he had, determined to hold on. Grinding his teeth, he focused once again on Sport’s mane. “I just have to be here.”
Ben understood that Adam was barely hanging onto any semblance of normality by hanging onto Sport – something taken from him that was now returned – and he prayed for guidance. His son was still in the desert; still dragging that man; still trapped in that mine. It was time to come home. “Rest is the best medicine, son. You know that,” he tried as Adam sighed.
“I can’t sleep,” came the answer.
“You mean you won’t sleep.”
“He comes in my sleep, Pa,” Adam explained closing his eyes in frustration, “and I can’t get away until I . . . until I kill him. I can’t see that anymore.”
“You didn’t kill him, Adam. The desert killed him.”
They keep telling me that.
“How do you know for certain?”
“You told us,” Ben calmly explained, wondering when this particular memory would straighten itself out and take hold. To Adam, the words were like an echo, leaving a partial imprint before disappearing. Ben watched him, his reaction always the same – disbelief followed by a haunted, fearful look. “Talk to us, son.”
“I’m . . . mixed up. Don’t know what’s real anymore.”
“I know. Let us help you sort things out, fill in some of the blanks.”
Adam looked at Ben, that panicky feeling surfacing, and shook his head.
“Son . . .”
“Pa, please . . .”
“Adam, how do you expect to heal unless you talk about it?”
“Because I might not like what I find,” he said, heat tingeing those words, Ben beginning to understand what the problem might be.
“Whatever happened wasn’t you, son,” Ben claimed. “It was what he’d driven you too.”
“Whatever I became must’ve been there already, hidden, controlled.”
“It wasn’t you. Let us help you.” Adam shook his head again and turned away. “You can do anything you set your mind, too.”
“I’m not . . . strong enough, Pa,” he sighed.
“Adam, you’re the strongest man I know,” Ben answered with certainty waiting for his son to agree.
“Not anymore,” came the mumbled reply.
“Adam . . .”
“The desert took everything, Pa. He took everything,” he spat, skewering him with a look. “I’m not the same man anymore.”
“That may be true right now but all you need is time . . .”
“All I need is for none of this to have happened!” came the raised voice. Sport tossed his head and Adam quickly laid a calming hand to his neck while his other hand rubbed his own forehead.
“But it did happen,” Ben continued, “and ignoring it won’t fix it.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Then make me understand.”
“How?” he answered, taking a deep breath and blinking several times as Sport shifted in front of him. “I can’t even remember you finding me.”
“I’m here now . . . your brothers are here,” Ben pleaded grabbing hold of his arm, feeling him shake, understanding the effort it was taking for him to focus on anything. “You didn’t kill him. Stop blaming yourself.”
“You can’t know, Pa,” he answered with a shake of his head, moving away from Ben’s grasp. “I wasn’t strong enough to stop him . . . or myself.” He grabbed Sport – fingers grasping a hunk of mane he’d just straightened, the other quivering as it wiped sweat from his brow.
Taking a moment, Adam finally noticed the tremble that had slowly begun to take hold and chalked it up to being vertical after such a long time. The call of Sport’s continuous neighing this night was the only reason he was standing here in the first place – pulled from his sick bed to be at his friend’s side. It was like a balm being here, feeling his warm breath blow his hair, seeing a coat devoid of the dust and grime from the desert, home in his own stall. If only he could find his way home.
God, I hated that man.
“I hated him,” he finally uttered, the thought barely entering his head before it was out his mouth, dismissing the odd cast the lantern seemed to throw about the barn.
“You had reason,” Ben agreed.
“He saved me, then trapped me and worked me near to death just so . . . just so I’d kill him. My hands were around his throat and I squeezed . . .” He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry as his heart beat faster. “He was . . . The desert, that mine had driven him insane. I couldn’t get away and all I wanted to do was get home. All I wanted was you . . .” He blinked again, his voice trailing off as he staggered a bit, his other hand quickly finding the side of the stall to keep him upright as Ben reached for him again.
I feel like I’ve been….
Lifting a glazed look toward his father, accusation filled his face. “What did you do, Pa?”
“You need to sleep, Adam,” was all Ben said as he moved to stand in front of him, no apologies in his manner, ignoring the angry eyes that followed him.
“How could you . . . force me . . ?” His knees gave way and Ben caught him as he’d done not so long ago.
“It’s for the best, son,” he answered sliding to the ground with this precious burden in his arms.
“. . . damn . . . you . . .” was all Ben heard as his head fell against his shoulder, sleep claiming him at last.
“It’s for the best.”
Holding on tight, tears crept down Ben’s face to drop into Adam’s dark hair and he thought on these last weeks which, following the worst days of his life, had been beyond difficult with fevers and delirium and sickness, and always nightmares. But how could he forget the years that seeped from him as he sat on that hot and dusty hill, his world collapsing as he began to understand he’d never see his eldest again, when an apparition appeared on the desert floor? Hope had filled him and he’d pushed Buck down that narrow path only to find a son caught in a world of desperation and fear from which he hadn’t returned. Would he ever recover what he’d lost? Would Adam Cartwright ever come home?
“Everything all right, Pa?” Joe quietly asked as Hoss knelt next to his father.
“He went down here instead of in the house,” Ben explained.
“We reckoned that’s what happened when ya didn’t come back in,” Hoss answered, rubbing Sport’s head as he bumped his master’s back.
“He’s gonna be mighty mad when he wakes up,” Joe said.
“I know but he has to sleep. I guess I just didn’t measure Paul’s sleeping powder correctly,” Ben disclosed with a shrug. “And he was just beginning to talk.”
“Say anythin’ new?” Hoss asked watching as his father’s chin began to quiver. “Pa?”
Ben debated about telling them. It would only make them feel worse than they already did.
“What did he say, Pa?” Joe asked.
“He, ah . . . he heard us calling for him,” came the answer.
“Oh God,” Joe whispered running a hand over his face.
“He heard us and knew we were out there,” Ben started, remorse filling him. “And we almost turned away. We almost turned away.”
“Why didn’t he call out?” Joe asked.
“He couldn’t. Kane wouldn’t let him,” Ben said with disgust.
“We havta tell him, Pa,” Hoss said looking toward his sleeping brother. “He hasta know what we did.”
“Why?” Joe began angry at the thought. “We didn’t leave. We found him. He’s home now and we love him. That’s all he needs to know.”
“No,” Ben interjected. “He needs the truth.”
“What good will that do?” Joe asked in an irritated voice.
“He can’t remember everything and what he does makes him feel . . . like an animal. We have to make him see how wrong he is, make him believe in himself again.”
“And how will confessing to abandoning him help?” Joe pressed.
Ben paused. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted.
“Maybe,” Hoss began as he met his younger brother’s glare, “maybe it’ll show him that everyone has a limit, Joe. That man, Kane, wanted Adam ta kill him ‘cause he was too scared ta do it hisself, so he pushed until he broke him. I never thought Adam had a limit. He done told ya he couldn’t be pushed to kill and look what happened.” He sighed and rubbed his hands together. “Everyone has a limit, Joe. Adam found his and we found ours.”
“And so we must heal together,” Ben finished for them.
“It’s not that easy, Pa,” Joe added.
“We’ll just havta make it that easy,” Hoss said moving to his feet. “Now let’s get older brother here into the house and up ta bed. He’s spent too much time on the ground already.” Ben released Adam to his brother’s care and watched the three of them cross the yard, Sport nickering after his master.
“He’ll be back,” Ben promised, patting him on the neck. “He’ll be back.”
3 WEEKS BEFORE
“There was no gold.”
“No more . . . no more games, no guns . . .”
“ADAM!” Ben watched his boy stop fidgeting in Hoss’ arms at his curt shout and open his eyes — swollen bloodshot eyes that tried to focus on his face. Ben had used that tone often when they were children and it brought Adam back from wherever he’d been with a piercing suddenness, emotion crashing in on him.
“Oh, Pa . . .” came the anguished cry followed by deep heaving sobs as wobbly knees buckled and he started for the ground, Ben holding on for dear life as Hoss and Joe settled him easily into their father’s grasp.
“He was draggin’ a dead man, Pa,” Hoss reported as Joe pressed sweet water to his brother’s dry and cracked lips.
“He’s been through some kinda hell,” Joe whispered when Ben pulled the canteen toward Adam, helping him to drink, his heart racing with relief. He’d found his beloved son at last.
But you gave up on him.
That small voice festered in his head and, try as he might to brush it away, it kept finding its way back as the face of his eldest – sunburned and blistered, covered in dirt and grime – filled his vision, his wrenching sobs softening into low cries.
What happened? Who is that man? Why did I give up so easily?
“Pa’s here,” Ben whispered enveloping Adam in a tight embrace, rocking him as he would a child.
Those words drifted over Adam and, for a second, he relaxed, then, just as quickly, tensed up again when he realized he was obviously hallucinating. It had happened before these last few days and now . . . well, now wasn’t any different. Yes, he could feel hot breath on his neck; could feel himself being held, but how could it possibly be his father? He was somewhere in the middle of the desert with no one but himself . . . and Kane . . . and that damned interminable sun!
But . . .
A shaky hand pulled itself heavily from the desert floor and reached up, moving until it finally contacted something solid – a leather vest. Son of a . . . This was a real person – a living, breathing person! Kane hadn’t worn a vest . . .
Could it possibly . . . Do I dare believe. . ?
Grabbing on took great effort but, in so doing, some of the fuzziness that penetrated his whole being cleared and he could make out a tender hand moving up and down his back, the touch reminding him of home and family and salvation. This couldn’t be Kane. It was him!
Pa, you found me!
Slowly he let the walls crumble, the walls he’d built to survive, and gave whatever life he had left to this man who would protect him for as long as he took a breath.
Thank God you didn’t give up on me because I very nearly gave up on myself.
“I’m so sorry, son, so sorry,” Ben murmured, tears gathering behind tightly closed eyes hearing Adam’s soft cries begin to quiet, his shaking to ease. “You’re safe now. I’m the light home. Follow me home.”
More comforting words died on his lips and his eyes flew open when he heard Adam’s hand hit the ground then felt his body go lax in his grip.
Please, God, don’t let me find him only to lose him now!
Joe started at Ben’s sudden intake of breath and hastily lifted his brother’s wrist. “It’s okay, Pa,” he said, Ben turning a frantic look toward his youngest. “He’s just asleep.” Asleep? “He’s exhausted. He just passed out.” He’s just asleep.
“Pa, what’re we gonna do?” Hoss asked getting no response. “We gotta get him in the shade and off the ground. It ain’t good fer him to lie out here in the sun. Let’s move him.”
Hoss is speaking to you. Listen!
“Yes, yes . . . we should get home.”
Hoss and Joe traded looks.
“It’s too far, Pa,” Hoss started. “He’ll never sit a saddle.”
“We can’t leave him here, Pa,” Joe said running a hand down Adam’s arm. “We should get a wagon, take him to the nearest town.”
They couldn’t stay and they had no means to leave. His boy was at the end of his rope and Hoss was right – sitting in a saddle for three or four days wouldn’t help. Easing Adam away from him, Ben studied his boys’ sleeping face. “I gave up on you,” he confessed, his voice catching in his throat.
“We all did, Pa,” Joe admitted.
“But I never should’ve done that,” Ben continued appalled at himself.
“It was me that suggested it,” Hoss stated.
“And me, too,” Joe added.
“But I agreed,” Ben answered laying Adam gently on the ground and running a hand over his chest and arms. “I’m his father. I should’ve looked until there was nowhere else to look . . . until I was in a grave myself.”
“Pa, you cain’t take that on yerself.”
He turned an angry look toward Hoss. “I brought him into this world and he’s my responsibility, will always be my responsibility and I turned my back on him. A father shouldn’t give up so easily.” Turning away, he closed his eyes and sucked in an unsteady breath, angry with God for putting his son through hell. “I shouldn’t have given up.”
Silence filled the air between them, none knowing what to say, all feeling guilty over the brother they’d dismissed. Ben ran a hand down Adam’s sleeping face and sighed. “All right . . . we’ll set up camp here until we can get a wagon.”
“Pa . . ,” Joe began as Hoss grabbed his arm, determination on his face.
“Get goin’, Joe, into Salt Flats or Eastgate, whichever’s closer. And see if they’ve gotta Doctor!”
A fleeting question of why him and not Hoss flitted through Joe’s mind but he pushed it aside and ran toward Sport, leaping aboard and galloping off toward the setting sun. Hoss watched him disappear from sight then turned his attention back to his father. He had to do something. “Let me move him into the shade, Pa,” he tried again, watching Ben absently straightened his brother’s tattered shirt. “Pa?”
“The shade, Pa. Let’s get him into the shade.”
Ben pulled his eyes away to see Hoss’ outstretched hands and balked. “No!” came the harsh reply reaching to protect his vulnerable son. No one would take Adam from him again.
“We gotta get him outta the sun, Pa. It ain’t good fer him to lay here like this.”
Ben blinked a few times then looked to his fallen boy, unable to let go. Fool! Let him help!
“He’s safe now,” Hoss explained, slowly slipping an arm under his brother’s shoulder. “He’s got family around him. I’m just gonna take him up to them rocks and into the shade so’s he can rest. You’ll be right behind me.”
A single tear dropped onto Adam’s dirty face as the realization that nothing could hurt his son now that they were there sifted into Ben’s tired mind. Letting go, he watched Hoss pull Adam from the ground and walk slowly away, knowing this was just the beginning. They’d yet to reach the safety of home, let alone a town, and there was still a chance they could lose him. This wasn’t over, it wasn’t even close, but at least they had him.
It was then he saw Adam’s arm fall limply from Hoss’ grasp and sway in time with each step and the sight pulled a cry from him. Covering his mouth to keep the wretched sound to himself, he fought off the urge to collapse into a sobbing wreck and quickly retrieved the canteen from the ground, forcing himself up to head for the horses, taking deep breaths as he moved.
“Not on my watch. I’ll not lose him on my watch.”
Darkness surrounded him, pulled at him, kept him from moving. An echoing laugh reached out as he dropped to the ground, hands to his ears, the sound rolling toward him, through him, and he had nowhere to go as Kane approached . . .
“. . . leave me . . . alone . . ,” he mumbled, hands pulling at the covers, a fine sheen of sweat covering his face.
“It’s all right, Adam,” Joe whispered leaning forward in his chair to grasp his brother’s trembling hands.
“. . . go . . . away . . .”
“You’re home. You’re safe,” Joe countered anger rising in him at that man. “He won’t hurt you.”
Safe. How long has it been since I’ve been safe? How long since I’ve been . . .
“ . . . home . . .” came out on a breath stilling his restless motions as the echoing laugh dissipated into the dark recesses of his mind.
Releasing his brother’s hand, Joe sat back and rubbed his eyes. Why did I stay in Eastgate for that stupid trial?
The blisters and sunburn had faded leaving behind a paler version of the normally robust man he’d known all his life. Now he was thin, thinner than when they’d first found him – all his energies going into fighting off the ravages of sunstroke, dehydration and lack of food. But there was something else they couldn’t see – they couldn’t see into his mind to see what brought him to his knees. He’d survived his time in the desert but not intact.
If I’d just gone with you.
A groan drew Joe’s attention back and he watched Adam turn his head, a single tear rolling across his nose.
“Why didn’t I go with you?” Joe asked, trying to stave off his own tears and failing. “Why didn’t I see those men in the saloon? Please, God, tell me why?”
3 WEEKS BEFORE
The main street of Salt Flats streaked past Joe as he flew down the street, coming to a sliding stop at the livery. “Is anyone here?” he called urgently as he ran inside. “Anyone?!”
“Hold yer horses, young fella,” came a voice from the hayloft, Joe catching sight of an older man sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
“I need . . .”
“Just a minute.” Carefully easing himself down the ladder, the man wiped hay from his clothes then turned to Joe with a toothless smile. “Now, how can I help ya?”
“A wagon and two horses. Rent or buy, doesn’t matter.”
The man’s brow flew up his forehead at the request and he eyed this new face up and down. “Don’t have much call in these parts fer a wagon ‘ceptin’ fer the cemetery,” he began heading toward the rear of the livery and missing Joe’s shudder. “But let’s see what’s stashed back here.”
Following closely behind, Joe wanted to urge the man on, wanted to grab his shirt and yell I’ve a brother who might be dying! but kept his mouth shut. It would be a waste of precious energy.
“Well, I got this ol’ thing,” the man finally said pulling a tarp off a rickety wagon, rotted wood making up most of it. Joe checked the bed, wheels and axle, noting it would get Adam out of the desert but not home.
“I’ll take it. What about a pair of horses?”
“Only got one, I’m afraid, and she’s a bit old.”
“Haven’t gotta choice, mister,” Joe answered following the man to the corral and grimacing at the sight. She was old and swaybacked. He checked her legs and patted her on the neck. “I’ll take her. Harness?”
“All ya want,” he answered pointing to a room just behind Joe. Watching him disappear inside, the man wondered what this young fella was so all fired up about and rubbed his chin. “Her name’s Heloise by the way,” he began leading the old horse toward the wagon. “Mind if’n I ask yer hurry?”
“My brother’s been injured,” Joe explained reappearing with two sets of harness, wanting to tell the world of his grief but hurriedly refraining. No one needed to know. “Have you gotta doctor around here?”
“Well, there’s Doc Betts, but he’s a . . .”
“Where would I find him?” Joe asked carefully draping the harness over Heloise’s back, laying the extra set in the wagon.
“It’s dinner time. Ya might try the saloon.”
Joe frowned then began hitching Heloise up to the wagon.
“Ya know, Doc Betts is a . . .”
“How much do I owe you?” Joe interrupted leading Sport toward the wagon and reaching into his pocket.
The man just sighed. “Well, let’s see,” he said, scratching his head. “Wagon, horse, harness . . . $6.00.”
“Here’s $20.00,” Joe said handing the money to the surprised man. “Saloon?”
“Ah, up the street and to the right. The Delta Queen.”
The man looked closely at the $20.00 then watched the young man sprint toward the saloon. He debated calling out to him about Doc Betts then pocketed the money, pulling Sport’s saddle off and tossing it into the wagon.
“Aw, well, he’ll find out soon enough.”
“How’s he doin’?” Hoss asked of Joe as he came slowly down the stairs, not bothering to stifle a yawn.
Joe shook his head and sighed. “Dreaming like always.”
“Well, I ain’t heard no yellin’ and he’s been up there about four hours. Maybe it’s getting better,” Hoss wished sitting in the blue velvet chair by the hearth, Adam’s favorite. “Usually he’s got the whole house up by now.” Joe nodded as he moved past him to sit on the arm of the settee, turning at Hoss’ chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” Joe asked.
“Well, we are all up,” Hoss answered, his smile quickly fading. “We are all up.”
“He said that man’s name again,” Joe said drawing his brother’s attention.
“He was a bad man, Joe.”
“I know. Adam needs to know that, too.”
“He tried to kill him, Joe,” Hoss said with a sigh. “I think he already knows that.”
“And he had reason,” Joe stated as if trying to justify what his brother did, or attempted to do. “He needs to talk about it, needs to remember.”
“And you know Adam. He can out quiet a cougar on the prowl if’n he wants too, then take yer head off just as quick. He’ll ask when he’s ready.”
“But how long, Hoss? How long until he comes home?”
“Don’t rightly know, little brother,” he answered looking down to the floor. “I jest know we’ll be here when he does.”
“If only . . .” Joe let the sentence drop and Hoss looked up.
“If only what?” Hoss asked watching him fiddle with his pant leg and suck in a heavy breath.
“If only I’d gone with him, none of this would’ve happened.”
“Ah, Joe, ya don’t know that. None of us do.”
“But I could’ve helped or maybe the two of us could’ve fought off those two men and he never woulda met Kane.”
“Joe . . .”
“I can’t stand to see him like this!” Joe exclaimed, jumping off the settee and pacing in front of the low table. “This isn’t Adam; he’s still out in the desert with that bastard. Why did I tell Pa to stop looking? Why? So I’d feel better?”
“I pushed harder than you, Joe,” Hoss countered. “Don’t remind me that I gave up, too.”
“And you did it because of me,” came Ben’s strong voice from the dining room, his hand gripping the back of a chair drawing both their attentions, both seeing a pain in their father’s eyes that ran far deeper than their own.
“We did it for all of us, Pa,” Hoss added.
Ben moved slowly toward the hearth, stuffing his hands in his front pockets. He was tired and unsettled and felt as cold and empty as the fireplace before him. Would this feeling ever pass? “And it was my decision to stop.” That admission would always be in the back of his mind and if Adam didn’t come through this, well, he just didn’t know what would happen to any of them.
“How could we do that, Pa?” Joe asked staring at his father’s back, sitting down on the low table. Ben just shrugged.
“Because we jest gave up,” Hoss answered for all of them. “We gave up on the one man who’d go ta the ends of the earth ta find any one of us. We all know it. Ain’t no use thinkin’ otherwise.” None were able to deny his words. He rubbed his face. “I do know one thing fer certain. I ain’t a very good brother.”
“Hoss…” Ben began.
“He’s right,” Joe added, drawing Ben’s attention. “I’m just as responsible.”
“Blaming yourself won’t help your brother.”
“Who better?” Joe answered.
Ben clenched his jaw and glared at the two. “How about those two men that started Adam on this journey?” he began in an angry tone. “Or Kane who kept him captive and drove him into the ground?”
“But don’t ya see, Pa,” Hoss began, “they’re dead – they’ve already been judged. Now it’s our turn.”
Words failed him. There was no one left to blame but the three of them. They would’ve ridden back home, nursing a black hole in their hearts over the loss of a son and brother. Now they just nursed a web of guilt that wrapped itself about them and would never let go until they received Adam’s absolution.
When would that come?
Ben pulled his hands from his pockets and straightened his shoulders. “We’ll face His judgment as we always have – as a family. Adam will be back.”
“He’s in a mighty bad place, Pa,” Joe stated.
“You know your brother,” Ben answered heading toward the stairs. “He never let’s anyone tell him he can’t do something.”
“This ain’t like other times, Pa,” Hoss stated.
“He didn’t even know we were there, Pa,” Joe added. “We all held him, gave him water, carried him home and he didn’t even know we were there.”
“But he does now,” Ben said sternly, grabbing the railing, trying to keep up this false bravado since underneath he was just as scared as his boys. “He heard me and came back.”
“But he didn’t stay,” was all Joe said. “You see it every time you look in his eyes. He’s always back there with Kane.”
“Then we’ll make him stay!” Ben fumed. “If it’s the last thing we do, we’ll make him stay.” Considering their sullen faces, he took a breath and forced an awkward smile onto his own. “Now, why don’t you two go get something to eat?” He waited. Neither moved. “Hop Sing’ll have your hide if you don’t start eating again. He’s claiming all the foods going to waste.”
“I’m not hungry,” Joe said running a hand through his hair.
“Well . . . eat something anyway!” Ben ordered glaring at his youngest. Joe swallowed and stood.
“Yessir,” he answered. “Hoss?”
“I need to sit with Adam fer a spell,” Hoss said, rising to his feet. “I’ll eat later.” Silently moving past his father and up the stairs, Ben watched until he disappeared through Adam’s door. He turned when Joe sighed.
“Will this ever be over, Pa?”
“Yes, son,” Ben answered, heading up the stairs, almost believing it himself. “Yes it will.”
3 WEEKS BEFORE
Hoss patted Chubb on the neck and looked out into the desert, the large moon blanketing the area in light. He’d never much liked the desert – in the day or night – finding it inhospitable and dangerous. And the beauty others saw failed to inspire him with any thoughts other than to get back home quick. And this was the land that almost took his brother, could still take him if they weren’t careful, and he cursed it.
“If’n I never lay eyes on another speck of sand, I’ll be a happy man,” he muttered, pulling off a boot to empty said sand when an odd sound captured his attention and he turned, seeing his older brother lying in a heap at the bottom of their campsite.
Quickly pulling on the boot, Hoss hurried his steps along, watching as Adam righted himself then scurried frantically backwards once sighting the corpse not a foot from him, the moon glinting off the rifle that fell from his hands.
A rifle? Oh, lordy!
They’d settled Adam in a niche of rocks a few feet from the ground, large enough for the three of them. Saddle blankets and bedrolls were put into service as sunshades and a pillow, while Ben parked himself at his side carefully wiping dirt and sweat from his face, wincing at the rope burns and bruises on his wrists and arms, and wondered how any of this could’ve happened. That was a number of hours ago.
Now his brother was armed and on the ground with a wild look in his eyes, and Ben was nowhere in sight. Taking a deep breath, Hoss forced himself to slow down and slapped a smile on his face.
“Hey, what’cha doin’ down here, big brother?”
Adam’s head snapped up and a mad scramble followed for the dropped rifle, aiming it toward the figure in front of him. Hoss’ smile disappeared and he slowly raised his hands. “Hey, Adam, it’s me. It’s Hoss.”
That voice, that voice sounded like him . . . he wanted it to be him . . . but he couldn’t give in!
What if this is a trick?
“Keep away from me!” Adam barked, trembling hands attempting to keep the rifle steady.
Hoss swallowed. “Adam, listen ta my voice,” he tried. “It’s Hoss. The one ya carted clear across country. The one ya taught how to shoot and how to ride. Hoss. We come fer ya, Adam, come ta take ya home. Pa’s here and so’s Joe.”
Hoss . . . his brother – the boy he’d held when Inger was killed; the one who brought home every injured animal he could find including a bear cub; the one who stood between he and Joe in their interminable fights. He looked again. The gap-toothed grin, the virtual size of the man . . . no one could replicate that.
“H . . . Hoss?” he ventured a flicker of recognition lighting his eyes.
“None other,” Hoss answered, forcing a smile to cover the worry that filled him. As he lowered his hands, he noticed Adam didn’t lower the rifle.
“How . . . how can you be here?” asked Adam continuing to stare, wanting to hold onto this picture in front of him if for nothing else but a moments respite from the hell he’d come to know.
“We come lookin’ fer ya. Joe wired us and we came.”
Adam narrowed his eyes, a memory rearing up. “Joe . . . I was supposed to meet . . . Signal Rock?”
“Signal Rock,” he repeated with a slight nod.
“When ya didn’t show he went lookin’ and found Sport. That’s when he knew somethin’ was wrong.”
“Yep.” Hoss noticed the rifle lowering ever so slightly. “Cochise hurt hisself and when Joe stopped at a livery, there he was plain as day. Blacksmith said two men sold him outright. Joe followed them men to Salt Flats but they was dead by the time he got there. That’s when we got his telegram saying ya might be . . . well . . . ya might be dead, too. We been lookin’ for almost two weeks and . . .”
“Stop,” came the hissed warning making Hoss’ smile fold, seeing Adam begin to shudder. He couldn’t allow himself to trust anything he heard or saw for the sun, and Kane, had burned out of him the ability to discern between real and imagined.
“You can’t . . ,” Adam began. “You can’t be here.”
“Adam . . .” Hoss said, taking a step toward his confused brother when the rifle lifted back on target.
“Stay away from me!” Adam yelled. “Stay away!” An edge of panic laced his words, the earlier recognition gone. “You can’t be here. I won’t play these games anymore, Kane!”
Hoss stayed still. He’d never seen Adam like this, never felt fear rising from him like he did now. It shocked him. The situation was becoming more dangerous as each moment passed. His hands came back up. “Careful now, Adam. Ya don’t wanna be pointin’ that about.”
“You can’t be . . . you can’t know my brother.”
“I am your brother,” Hoss answered, involuntarily stepping forward.
“Stay back!” His voice cracked and Hoss found himself sweating.
Where is Pa?
“All right, all right. I’ll stay right here. Ain’t comin’ any closer.”
Adam squinted. Everything was coming at him too fast. Was that really his father who’d held him before? Was this his brother before him? Or was it all another game? He shook his head unsure of anything except that Kane was hovering nearby, just out of sight, creeping in the dark to grab him and shove him back into that damned mine!
“How about we sit right down and talk a spell then,” Hoss said lowering his hands as he began to squat thinking that a reasonable request would cut through his brother’s confusion. He watched as a grim set overtook Adam’s features and realized his error.
“I’m done talking.”
Hoss jumped to his feet, the fear that so radiated from his brother now mixed with resolve, and he knew he was in trouble. “Now, Adam,” he began raising his hands again, “I’ll leave ya alone. Ain’t no need to shoot me.” He watched his brother stagger back a step and force a hand over one ear, flinching as if in pain. “Adam . . ?”
“Stay out of my head!” he yelled, hate boiling in him, unable to shut off that wretched voice.
“Adam . . .”
“Stay out of my head!” He pulled his hand back to steady the rifle and glared at Hoss. “I’m done talking, Kane! Done talking! No gold, no games, NO MORE!”
Hoss dropped flat to the ground as the rifle came to life, the bullet sailing over his head to bounce harmlessly about the rocks behind. Looking up at the sound of a scuffle, he saw his father’s arms wrapped tightly about his brother, the two struggling for control.
“LET ME GO!” Adam yelled.
“Son! It’s your Pa!” Ben yelled back as they thrashed about.
Adam fought with everything he had knowing deep down it wasn’t enough, but he kept on until he stumbled and landed hard, his assailant falling on top of him, effectively pinning him to the ground. Still holding the rifle, he yanked it upward and contacted skin hearing a satisfying yelp. The weight rolled off him and he quickly dragged himself forward, desperate to get away.
“Adam!” Hoss yelled, standing on the opposite side of the travois forcing him to look up and aim the rifle; forcing him to see what lay between them. His urgent movements stopped as his eyes devoured the ravaged face of that man.
Dropping the rifle, hands moved rapidly to his face to shut out the sight of those bruises decorating Kane’s neck.
“Is he . . . is he dead?” Adam asked in a tremulous voice as Ben came up behind him to grasp his shoulders, nursing a split lip.
“Yes,” Ben answered, feeling Adam cringe.
“I . . . I killed him.” The statement fell on them like a heavy blanket. Adam balled his hands into fists. “He wanted me to kill him and I did. My God . . . I did.”
“The desert killed him,” Ben added, “not you . . .”
“Those are my handprints on his neck!” he exclaimed pounding a fist to the ground as Ben sucked in a breath. “I wrapped my hands about his neck and I . . . killed him,” he said mimicking what he’d done, “just to be rid of him. He hid the food, the water then used what was left to make me kill him and I did. I . . . my hands,” he said opening his eyes to stare at the offending items, disbelief on his face. “I killed him.”
“Son . . .” Ben began.
“I never thought . . .” Adam began, dropping his head to his arms. “I never knew I could…”
“Adam,” Hoss began, kneeling before him to block the sight of Kane. “Adam, listen to me. If’n he was dead, why was ya draggin’ him out with ya?”
“I thought I was better . . .” he continued, not hearing his brother’s question.
“Adam,” Hoss tried again, louder this time. “If’n ya killed him, why didn’t ya just leave him behind? Think about it.”
“Hoss,” Ben warned but was ignored.
“Come on, boy. Use that brain yer always tellin’ us is worth somethin’. There ain’t no use draggin’ a dead man outta the desert. He musta been alive when ya put him on that travois.” Adam’s heavy breaths tapered off and he slowly raised his head, Hoss seeing a memory in those haunted eyes. “He was alive wasn’t he?”
I did whack the rifle against the rock and broke it in two…
“Why else would ya waste the time…”
I grabbed the food and water and ran…
“to get him help?”
“He spoke to me,” came a small voice, Hoss craning to hear.
“He spoke ta ya? Then he weren’t dead.”
Adam looked at Hoss making him flinch at the naked anguish present there. “I was going to leave him behind,” he admitted.
“That’s it, boy. What else?”
“He . . . he accused me of leaving him just as those men left me,” he continued, his face darkening at the memory, looking away from his brother. “And he was right. I would’ve left him without a second thought.”
“But ya didn’t,” Hoss continued as Adam shook his head.
“I couldn’t win that way,” he slowly answered, the effort of remembering taking its toll.
“What do ya mean win?” Hoss asked.
Adam turned red-rimmed eyes back to his brother. “I had to prove to him I was better; had to prove to Joe…” He paused and shook his head. “Just talk. I’m not any better…”
“No, Adam,” Ben interrupted, “you’re a good man. No one can take that from you no matter what you’ve done.”
“I tried to kill him.” Just saying it made him ill.
“And you tried to save him,” Ben finished for him. “Something stayed your hand. It doesn’t matter what but that you did.”
“He wouldn’t shut up. He kept after me and wouldn’t let me leave . . . I couldn’t take it anymore and I broke . . . My hands . . .”
“. . . didn’t kill him.”
Adam glanced up at his father. “How . . . how do you know?” came the question in an uncertain voice.
Hoss had rarely, if ever, heard that tone coming from this brother but it reminded Ben of Adam at his youngest trying to figure out how from something bad could come good.
“Because I know you,” Ben reminded him.
Adam held up his hands. “You don’t know what I became. My hands . . .”
“. . . stopped before the deed was done,” Ben answered pushing those blistered hands down.
“Of all the people I know,” Hoss added, “ya could never kill someone that way lessen there was no other choice. And I tell ya this, I’d of finished him off if’n it was me.”
“I wanted too,” he answered, sadness and disgust filling him. “God, I wanted too.”
“Don’t matter now.”
“But I became an . . . animal,” he admitted, shame written on his face.
“Than I am, too, brother,” Hoss answered. “If’n the desert hadn’t done us a favor by killin’ that bastard I’d a done it for ya. It just so happens that ol’ Mother Nature saved us both the trouble.”
Did they really understand? Did he really understand all that had happened?
“You’re safe now, son,” Ben said drawing Adam’s attention back to him, to the face he’d prayed to see all those days, to the voice he’d tried to respond too but had been kept from it.
Ben nodded, smiling down at him. “He can’t hurt you anymore. No one will hurt you anymore not while we’re here.” Those words wrapped around his head and he reached out, feeling his withering control leave him.
“Pa . . . help me,” he cried.
Ben grasped his hand and gathered him into his arms as Adam buried his face in his father’s shirt, seizing whatever he could hold.
If I don’t let go, he’ll save me!
Hoss’ own tears fell at the desperate cries coming from his brother. Adam, the strongest in the family, was collapsing right in front of him and there was nothing he could do but watch. Anger filled him. “Pa, let me take him from that man,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. “He shouldn’t have to look upon that devil ever again.”
Resting his chin on Adam’s head, Ben rocked him, those wrenching sobs continuing to eat at him. His boy was broken and he didn’t know if all the love in the world could put him back together. Casting an angry glance toward the body, he secretly wished he’d been the one who’d delivered the fatal blow. Ben nodded and Hoss reached out only to find Adam’s iron grasp unwilling to let go.
If I let go, he’ll disappear.
“Leave him be then.”
Hoss nodded and stepped back to silently turn from the scene, his gaze falling on Kane. Marshaling his anger, he grabbed the travois and dragged it further into the night, struggling with thoughts of murder. Hopefully an animal would take this bastard, then none of them would have to think on him again. As he moved, a distant sound caught his attention and he strained to hear, the jingle of harness drifting toward him. Dropping Kane unceremoniously to the ground, he hurried toward the sound.
“It’s about time!” Hoss shouted into the night as Joe pulled Heloise and Sport to a stop a few feet from him. “Where ya been?!”
“Salt Flats,” Joe answered jumping to the ground, ignoring Hoss’ tone. “I gotta tarp to make a cover for the wagon. Got some food and blankets and plenty of water.”
“Did ya find a doctor?” Hoss asked.
“Yeah,” he began, spying Adam in his father’s arms, tormented cries coming from him. Joe turned a questioning glance toward Hoss before continuing. “He, ah, he was an animal doctor,” he explained.
“Animal doctor?” Hoss asked.
“Yeah. The real doc was outta town. But he said animals are hardly different then people when it comes to this.”
Glancing again at his big brother, Joe fidgeted with the reins. Normally he was the one demanding comfort and looking for guidance. It was never Adam.
Hoss placed a hand on his shoulder drawing his attention back to him.
“Oh, ah,” Joe continued clearing his throat, “we need to keep him cool and make sure he drinks plenty of water, and keep him outta the sun as much as possible. Doc said he might be delirious and get hot and cold and he could throw up a lot once the water starts getting into his system so we have to be careful how much we give him. He also said he’d sleep plenty.” The words tumbled out as he kept his eyes on Adam. “I vote for staying in Salt Flats for a few days until we know what’s happening with him.”
“We should get him home,” Ben stated as the boys started grabbing items out of the wagon.
Joe turned back. “Pa, I really think we should stay near a town.”
“Joe’s right, Pa,” Hoss added. “Adam shouldn’t havta sleep on the hard ground or in a rickety ol’ wagon. He deserves a bed for a few days at least.”
Ben looked at them both, their love and concern written on their faces. They could all use some time in a bed. He nodded.
“Good,” Joe smiled. “I already wired Hop Sing to bring another wagon ‘cause this one’s about to collapse. I’ll ride out in a couple of days to meet him. This old gal won’t make it home either, Pa.” Patting Heloise on the rump, he continued to pull items from the wagon. “I also wired Paul. He might know something else we can do for Adam. Oh, and I brought a shovel to bury that man.” Joe’s smile slipped from his face as a scowling Hoss wrested the shovel from his hands. “Hey!”
“He’s the one, Joe. He’s the one that done this to Adam.”
“How do you know?”
“Adam told us. that’s how,” Hoss angrily informed him. “That man don’t deserve nothin’ but what the vultures’ll bring,” Hoss spat out tossing the shovel to the ground.
Surprised, Joe glanced at Ben.
“Hoss, we really should take the body into town,” Ben began. “Maybe someone knows him there . . .”
“He ain’t ridin’ with Adam,” Hoss argued.
“Normally I’d agree, but . . .”
“There ain’t no buts about it, Pa. I won’t allow that man near him again.”
Ben saw the indignant look and knew Hoss meant every word.
“Pa, we can’t just leave . . .”
“I won’t have it, Joe,” Hoss said holding his younger brother’s gaze. “I cain’t do nothin’ to change what’s happened but I ain’t gonna make Adam look at him again. That man belongs to whatever takes him this night. Now let’s get ready and get older brother here into a soft bed.”
Without waiting for an answer, Hoss continued empting the wagon, Joe glancing once more at Ben who looked away, continuing to rock his stricken boy.
After thirty minutes, they were ready – Sport and Buck hitched up and Heloise tied to the back, blankets making a soft bed on the hardwood. Getting Adam to let go took some doing but finally Hoss managed, easily lifting his brother into the wagon, pulling a blanket up to his chin to stave off the evening chill when Joe tapped Hoss on the leg and pointed, both watching Ben make his way toward Kane.
He didn’t know why he was making this walk, why he felt the need to say anything to this man who’d nearly taken his son from him, but he kept on going, each step infuriating him further until he stood silently over the body barely controlling himself. The muscles in his jaw tensed as he looked down.
“I don’t know who you are nor do I care too. All I care about is my son and what you’ve done to him.” This man had interfered in their lives and he could feel it in his gut that his memory would linger for sometime. A fleeting look about the area fixated him on some loose rocks near his feet – each would make a fine instrument to bash in Kane’s skull.
You’ll scare Hoss and Joe . . . and yourself.
He shrugged the thought away.
“I don’t know your reasons for hurting him nor do I believe I would understand them if you voiced them, but you should consider yourself lucky you’re already dead or I’d kill you myself.”
“Pa,” came Joe’s voice. “Adam’s calling.”
Ben took a step back then stopped for one last glimpse. “May hell be your prison you bastard!” Hurrying to the wagon and climbing in, he grabbed Adam’s searching hand. “Pa’s here, son. You’re safe.”
“Let’s go,” Hoss tossed out. Joe clicked to the horses and slowly the sad group left their makeshift camp behind along with the man responsible. Each knew that what went with them would be hard to get rid of – but they would try until there was nothing left. It was the least, and the most, they could do.
Hop Sing stood open-mouthed in the doorway holding a tray of coffee cups, taking in the alarming scene before him: Ben lay flat on the floor with Adam’s hands wrapped snuggly about his neck.
“GET OUT OF MY HEAD, KANE! STAY OUT!” he screamed in a voice Hop Sing could only equate with an angry, frightened boy. “STAY AWAY!”
The echo of Kane’s name had filled the house each night since they’d brought Adam home and each time they were left with questions as to how long this brother, this son would be able to endure. But this night was different. This night would remain with them much longer.
Recovering quickly, Hop Sing dropped the tray and rushed into the room. “Mister Adam! Let go!” he yelled, attempting to break the grip, only to be roughly pushed aside by Hoss who’d bolted into the room after him, grabbing hold of Adam’s hands as his father’s face turned red.
“Pa!” Joe called sliding in under him when Adam’s fingers suddenly let go and Ben fell back into Joe’s arms gasping for breath.
“Leave me alone, Kane!” Adam yelled as he struggled in Hoss’ grip. “Leave me alone!”
Ben shrugged off Joe’s supportive arms and rushed forward to grab his boy’s face in his hands. “Adam. Adam, it’s your Pa,” came a gravely voice. “Kane is gone. You’re home.”
“No more!” he yelled, finding it hard to catch his breath, as he slammed shut his eyes to block out the sight of Kane leaning over him.
“He’s gone, Adam,” Ben continued trying to break through this terrible nightmare. “Dead and gone. You’re home. You’re safe.”
That voice, that comforting familiar voice seeped into his ears, but he couldn’t give in. Death awaited those who gave in. “Never safe!”
“I wouldn’t lie to you, son. He’s not here. Now open your eyes.”
“Don’t make me,” he groaned, moving his head from side to side. “Not again.”
“Make you what?” Ben pleaded. “Adam!”
“Don’t make me . . . kill you again,” he confessed, anguish filling his voice. Hop Sing blanched and Joe put a hand to his mouth.
“I won’t let that happen,” Ben promised swallowing around the lump in his throat. “I’m here, son. Pa’ll protect you,” he answered, thinking back to earlier that evening when he’d deliberately forced his son to sleep – forced him to face these night terrors alone. “Don’t be afraid. Kane’s gone. Dead and gone.”
A few moments passed then a smile touched Ben’s trembling lips as those hazel eyes slowly crept open, able to focus on his face, clear as a new morning. Adam blinked, once, twice, staring up at his father and Joe behind him, slowly realizing Hoss held his arms in a tight grip on the floor of his own room.
“What . . . what’s going on?” came the confused question as Joe’s cries met his ears and Ben . . . Ben’s neck was all red. A horrible thought came to him and his eyes grew large. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Ben quickly stated, too quickly. “You had a nightmare, that’s all.”
“Your neck . . . Did I . . .”
“It’s okay, Adam,” Ben said trying to reassure him, seeing disgust written on his son’s face as the truth hit him.
“Oh, God,” he moaned closing his eyes again to shut out this new sight before him. He’d done it again only this time he’d attacked his own father.
When would it all end?!
“Adam . . .”
“Make him go away, Pa,” he cried, Hoss easing his grip on his brother’s limp form. “Make him leave me alone.”
“I’ll make him go away,” Ben softly said in a trembling voice, taking Adam from an anguished Hoss and clutching him to his chest, feeling Joe’s desperation at his back and hearing Hop Sing as he wept. God, please help my son! “Pa’ll make him go away.”
3 WEEKS BEFORE
Holding a wet compress to Adam’s forehead, Ben looked out into the night. The desert was so beautiful and deceiving. In the dark the air was cold and could freeze you in a matter of hours. In the light the sun bore down to leech everything of worth from your bones. His boy had toiled under that unforgiving sun for over twelve days and he’d come out broken and nearly dead. He’d never look upon the desert the same.
“Pa,” came his weak voice, bringing Ben’s attention swiftly back to the present.
“I’m here, son,” he answered, leaning over to shower him with a smile, the moon sparkling off Adam’s half closed eyes.
“Are you . . . really?”
Ben’s smile grew as he moved that stubborn lock of hair from its flopping place on his boy’s forehead and thanked God for giving that little pleasure back to him. “Yes, son, I’m here. Your brothers, too.” Adam remained silent for a spell and Ben thought he’d drifted back to sleep but was brought back by a soft reply.
“Don’t . . . let . . . go.”
Ben’s heart wrenched at the anguish behind those words and he wrapped both hands about Adam’s. “Never,” he promised his voice catching as he watched Adam’s eyes slide shut. “I’m the light home, son. Follow me home.”
“. . . home . . .”
Ben sat back then, emotion filling him, his mind traveling back to a time on a wagon train when a five-year-old Adam, raging with fever, thought his mother was near. He’d prayed to Elizabeth then and did so now to see their son through this dark time, to repair what that man had done to him in both body and mind.
No one would have a hold on his son.
Not in life or death.
This he vowed.
*The Crucible, written by John T. Dugan. The situation and a part of Mr. Dugan’s dialogue are used within this fictional piece.