Word Count: 9400
Ben Cartwright leaned heavily against the cold surface of the mine wall holding desperately onto something precious – his oldest son.
Adam was a heavy weight on the arm that wrapped under his head and across his chest, the hand splayed there to feel the beat of his heart against his palm. Ben closed his eyes and moved closer still, hoping his mere presence would help his boy live until they were found.
Life was hard out here in the wilderness, this untamed land that gave great promise and took more than a life’s blood to harness. It was filled with risk and treachery and unruly men who didn’t care what became of themselves or others, men with guns and ideas of taking what wasn’t theirs in lieu of earning it themselves.
It was some of those men both he and Adam happened onto that foggy afternoon just a day before. It was those men who shot his son from the saddle before a word was spoken. It was those men who’d taken their horses, provisions, and what little money they had and left them to rot in this mine chained to an overturned ore cart – no reason given. With all his might, Ben tried to break loose yanking on the chain that bound his ankle, Adam urging him on until his voice collapsed and his strength fled. And now Ben sat holding his son on the cold floor of an abandoned mine in hopes that someone would come.
For himself, it didn’t matter. His life had been long. But for his son . . . his life was just beginning. Small comfort was gained in the knowledge that he was here with Adam, holding him, talking to him of times spent together on the wagon train west, of their life in this wilderness they called home. Small comfort indeed.
Sighing, Ben closed burning eyes on tears that fell unchecked on the one lying so still in his arms. How could they have struggled through so much for so long to have it all end here in the darkness of an old, played-out mine without so much as a last glimpse of the rising sun or the twinkling of a thousand points of light as daylight sailed to the other side of the world.
God help us!
Letting go of such heavy thoughts wasn’t easy but he had to try. He’d not give up until Adam breathed his last, whether it was here beside him or somewhere else. He would be there for him until the end, whenever that moment came, and hold him as the angels spirited him away.
“I’m here, son,” Ben whispered, a lonely sound echoing back to his ears alone, running a hand through Adam’s dark hair. “I’ll always be here.”
“There’s somethin’ wrong,” Hoss Cartwright muttered as he tried once again to tighten the girth strap on Chubb’s saddle.
“What’re you mumblin’ about?” his brother Joe asked as he dropped the fender of his own saddle and checked Cochise’s bridle.
“I said there’s somethin’ wrong,” Hoss repeated with a measure of heat to the words lost on his little brother.
“My saddle!” Hoss angrily snapped drawing a raised brow from Joe.
“Okay, okay. You don’t havta get all uppity. Geez, it’s like talkin’ to Adam before his morning coffee.”
“I just feel . . . uneasy is all,” Hoss said with a shrug not looking at Joe.
“Uneasy about what? It’s Saturday; the dance is tonight. Adam’s gonna miss a good time if he doesn’t get his butt back here by nightfall,” Joe cheerfully said patting his horse on the neck.
“I ain’t goin’,” Hoss declared.
“I just don’t wanna.”
“You’re no fun,” Joe declared. “Ever since Pa and Adam’ve been gone, you’ve been like a big ol’ bear.”
Hoss looked up then, his scowl deepening as he glared at his brother. “Well, I’m sorry if’n I don’t take kindly ta doin’ yer chores as well as Adam’s and mine!”
“Hey, I’ve been pullin’ my weight,” Joe responded with a hurt look.
“Oh, ya mean like when you was sparkin’ Miss Emily Parker in town while I had ta load the wagon all by myself?”
“Well, that was just. . .”
“And then just accidentally dropped yer post holer on my foot when Miss Anita Bollard came ridin’ by,” Hoss interrupted not giving Joe a chance to say anything.
“That was just five minutes and. . .”
“Oh, and let’s not forget the unfortunate Lindy Mueller that had ta have help fixin’ her wheel. If’n I remember right, I fixed her wheel while you kept her busy lookin’ at the lake!” Hoss finished, skewering Joe with the daggers that flashed from his eyes.
“I was being neighborly,” Joe explained heatedly.
“Well, next time,” Hoss demanded, “be neighborly on yer own dang time! Dadgumit!” he shouted jerking the saddle from Chubb’s back and tossing it to the ground, soon to huff out of the barn, leaving a confused horse and mystified brother behind.
“Hmm, what do ya think of that, Chubb?” Joe asked the big Morgan as he rubbed his ears, easing him back into his stall and placing Hoss’ saddle in its proper place. Running a hand down the girth strap, he noticed the frayed edge plain as day. Hoss should’ve seen this right off. Joe rubbed his neck, shrugged, then got to work.
Thirty minutes later, he peeked through the kitchen door to see Hop Sing moving silently about his domain putting together the afternoon meal.
“He upstairs in Mister Adam’s room,” he explained without even turning around.
“Adam’s room?” Joe asked grabbing a cookie from the stove.
“He worried. He only go there when worried. Leave cookies alone,” Hop Sing ordered slapping at Joe’s hand. “They for Church picnic tomorrow. Eat then.”
Joe smiled at the little man and headed out to the great room and up the stairs, stopping outside his elder brother’s room. Quietly knocking, he pushed open the door to see Hoss sitting in the rocker by Adam’s desk, chin on hand, looking out the window.
“I, ah, fixed your girth strap. It was beginning to tear,” Joe offered bending over to look into his brother’s eyes. “You do know this is Adam’s room right?”
“Yeah,” Hoss answered with a sigh, his voice barely above a whisper. Joe looked around, the sight bringing back pleasant memories.
“I always remember this as a safe room,” Joe confessed, “coming in here when I was little after those nightmares started when Mama . . . well, after she died. Adam always let me sleep with him and held me close.” His brother didn’t respond and Joe knelt next to him, genuine worry filling him. “You okay, Hoss?”
“I don’t know,” he answered not taking his eyes from the window. “There’s somethin’ wrong. I just feel it.”
“What? With me or Hop Sing? The house? What?”
“That’s just it,” Hoss admitted finally turning toward Joe. “I cain’t figure it. It’s somethin’, though; been with me since yesterday.”
“Maybe we should stay. . .”
“You remember when Trudy Basker said she had ta go home that day at the lake ‘cause there was somethin’ wrong with her sister?” Hoss interrupted. Joe desperately tried to remember, drawing an impatient glare from his brother when he shrugged no. “Her sister, Martha, had taken sick and they didn’t think she’d make it through the day and she’d been callin’ for Trudy. It was true, Joe. She hadbeen callin’ for Trudy. She told me later it was like her bones was pullin’ her somewhere, callin’ her home and she couldn’t do nothin’ but follow.”
“And you’re feeling the same thing now?” Joe asked as Hoss slowly nodded.
“There’s somethin’ wrong, Joe, and I gotta go look,” he said. His decision made he moved abruptly to his feet knocking Joe to the floor.
“Where? Where ya gonna look?” he argued looking up at his brother.
“I don’t know. I’ll start out and see what happens.” Moving swiftly past his brother, he left Joe scrambling to follow.
“I’ll go with you.”
“Well, come on then.” Hastily moving down the stairs and grabbing his hat and gunbelt from the sideboard, Hoss hurried out the door; Joe stopped in the kitchen to let Hop Sing know where they were going, even though he had no idea himself.
“Good luck,” the cook called from the doorway as the two rushed into the barn. Worry had befallen the little man as well and, like Hoss, couldn’t place it either. He shook his head and returned to the kitchen.
Adam was muttering again and Ben listened intently but the words were slurred and barely audible and no amount of concentration could decipher what he was saying. No matter. It gave him hope – he was still alive.
Ben had lost track of time, not knowing if this was the second or third day of their incarceration. The lengthening shadows cast a deeper darkness to the world around them and the heat of this day was lost to the chill of cooling rock to make him shiver. He knew that whatever reserve he held within was being leeched from his very bones and could only guess what it was doing to Adam who quivered in his arms.
Please hurry or I’ll lose him!
That thought thundered through him and he shook his head to still it. Holding Adam closer, Ben wrapped his other arm snuggly about him hoping it would give him the needed strength to endure. Closing his eyes, events surfaced of the moment when everything turned sour.
They’d ridden up to Beacon Hollow, just the two of them, to see that bit of land Hoss was interested in purchasing for a reserve. Adam thought it a worthy cause but Ben scoffed. ‘Land should be used by cattle and horses, not ignored and left for the local wildlife’, he’d said. But Adam prevailed by informing their father that it would provide a suitable shortcut to the next county when they moved their cattle to market, cutting off two to three days trail time, possibly more. Ben began to nod then smile and Adam finished off the conversation with a wink and a sly smile for Hoss alone.
Having spent the day roaming about the area and that night under the stars, they’d packed up their camp the next morning and started for home, moving through the thick fog that had descended during the night. It was that thick fog that hid a hell that was about to break loose.
They’d heard nothing, seen nothing as the sun desperately tried to break through, and all Ben remembered was the sound of a gunshot and the resulting flash, then Adam jerking in the saddle and falling to lie twisting on the ground as Ben leaped from the saddle.
“Stop right there, mister!” came to him from out of the fog before he could take one step, seeing three horses appear and three guns leveled at him. “Drop yer gun.”
Doing as he was told, Ben watched a short, dark haired excuse for a man move toward Adam, giving him a swift kick to force him back to the ground as he struggled to reach for his gun. He flinched when Adam cried out and fell back; the man relieved him of his weapon.
“Take whatever you want and leave us alone!” Ben demanded through clenched teeth, turning a heated glare toward the other two men.
“Oh, we intend too,” said the tall one.
Ben stood silently as they approached and tore Buck’s reins from his hand then worked through his pockets, his gaze shifting back to the dark haired man as he rummaged through Adam’s pockets then kicked him once more just because. Ben’s hands turned into fists.
“Go git ‘im,” the tall one ordered as he stepped back, using his gun as a pointer. Ben wasted no time and rushed to his son’s side, grimacing at the blossoming bloodstain decorating his tan shirt.
“Pa. . .” came the strangled voice as Ben felt along Adam’s back finding no exit wound.
“Ssh, son,” Ben said trying to pull open Adam’s shirt to see the extent of the damage, his fingers sliding over the bloodied buttons.
“Git ‘im up,” came the next order.
“My son needs a doctor,” Ben flatly stated, giving up on the buttons when the cold barrel of a gun touched his cheek.
“Git ‘im up,” the tall one repeated in an uncompromising tone anger filling Ben once again.
“If I move him he’s going to. . .”
“I said git ‘im up!”
Adam pulled on his father’s arm to draw his attention from the men and stared into his eyes. “Help me up, Pa,” he managed, teeth gritting against the waves of agony that blew through him.
Their eyes locked and Ben nodded, slowly easing him to a sitting position and trying to ignore the sharp cry that followed. Grabbing his belt and pulling his good arm over his shoulder, Ben brought Adam to his feet, his hate for these men growing with each pain filled gasp that escaped his boy.
“Over here,” the tall man ordered. Ben squinted in the direction pointed and vaguely saw a rock wall and a dark opening through the fog.
“Move it!” yelled the dark-haired man, pushing Ben from behind when he faltered. Stumbling, he somehow managed to keep Adam on his feet and, within a few shambling steps, made it to the opening. “Inside.”
Fright filled Ben. He’d no doubt that these men were going to kill them, leave them inside this mine never to be found. His thoughts shifted to Hoss and Joe and their unending search for them, and he cursed the fog and how helpless he felt. A light bloomed from behind and he was shoved again, this time using the rock wall to keep them upright.
“Sit here,” came the order. Ben carefully eased Adam down, dropping to the ground next to him as his own leg was jerked out from under him and a heavy piece of iron attached to his ankle. His fear doubled.
“Why are you doing this?” Ben asked, his voice shaking. “You have everything. Why not let us go?”
“Cain’t have ya gittin’ the Sheriff.”
“Then why don’t you kill us outright?”
“Wouldn’t be right,” answered the third man, a pock-marked sallow-skinned fellow.
Surprise raised Ben’s brows. “So instead you’ll leave us chained up? My boy’s hurt. He’s going to die without help.”
“I don’t believe in killin’ a man outright, mister,” the tall man spoke, dropping a second cuff next to Adam and turning away. “He ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“But my son needs a doctor,” Ben proclaimed helplessly watching as they began to file out. “He needs help!”
“So he does. Good luck with that,” came the answer as the three men disappeared taking the light with them.
“You can’t just leave us here!” Ben yelled, his booming voice echoing about them. “COME BACK HERE, YOU BASTARDS!”
“Pa,” came out of the dark as Ben wrestled his anger under control and pulled his attention from the disappearing men back to his boy.
“Right here, son,” he said gently laying a hand against his cheek.
“Are. . .they. . .gone?” Adam asked, his words jerky between short breaths.
“Yes, son, they’re gone,” Ben answered worry pushing itself back to the forefront.
“. . . coming . . . back?”
“No,” came Ben’s plain answer.
Adam heard the disgust in his father’s voice and knew they were in trouble. “You hurt?” he asked, feeling Ben pull back his jacket, the effort making him wince.
“No, but you are,” Ben gave him, yanking open Adam’s shirt, buttons bouncing against the walls.
“No . . . kidding,” Adam answered, sucking in a breath as Ben’s probing fingers found the neat little hole in his chest. “Bad, huh?” he asked. The silence that followed his question answered it for him and he swallowed away the bile that crept into his throat.
“Can’t see it,” Ben said, withdrawing blood-soaked fingers. “I’m sure it feels worse than it is.”
“That should be. . . pretty bad then,” Adam quipped, not able to stifle the whimper that escaped him.
“It’ll be all right, son,” Ben said as much for himself as Adam and quickly pulled off his own jacket, yanking at his sleeves until the stitching gave way and tied them together. Next he pulled the bandana from around his neck and wadded it up. “I have to stop the bleeding. This is going to hurt.”
“Do what you . . . have to,” came Adam’s answer feeling himself tense as he waited for the onslaught he knew was coming.
When it came, Adam let out a loud bellow and tried to move away from it but the excruciating pain hit him from all sides. He pleaded with whoever would listen to let him pass out but, apparently, no one was listening because he stayed awake through it all, a roar filling his ears to blot out everything but the rapid beating of his heart. He blindly reached out and, finding something soft, grabbed at it, using the contact to anchor him.
“. . . relax . . ,” edged through the barbed wire that clung to him and wormed its way slowly past the roar in his ears, effectively spreading through him like a balm. “It’ll pass, son,” came next, the loving tone easing his fast breaths as the pain lessened to a dull throbbing that matched the pounding in his head. He could feel his father moving his jacket back into place and buttoning it closed, feel his arms enfold him in an embrace. “Adam?”
“. . . still . . . here,” he gave him as he pressed his head to Ben’s shoulder, relaxing against him.
Ben clenched his jaw at the weak voice, thinking he might not hear it again for some time. Already he could feel blood seeping through the makeshift bandage and knew he had to get Adam out of there. But how? Straining to keep the gathered tears from falling, he swallowed his distress all the while silently cursing those men who’d left them like this.
“Did it. . . did it go through?” Adam asked feeling sweat break out all over his body.
“No,” Ben answered.
“You have to. . . have to go for help,” Adam said.
Ben swallowed. “I can’t.”
Adam was sure he’d heard wrong, but then the ringing in his ears was making it hard to concentrate. “What?”
“They chained me,” Ben said clenching his jaw and shaking his leg. The clang echoed about them.
It took Adam a moment to comprehend the sound then he felt his stomach drop at the meaning. “What. . . what are we. . . gonna do?” he asked, trying to ignore a new round of pain beginning to build.
“I don’t know,” Ben truthfully answered, kicking out his leg again. “But let me start with this.”
Releasing Adam and carefully propping him against the wall, Ben went to work, pulling so hard on the chain he could feel muscles cramp in his arms and back as Adam urged him on. After ten minutes of trying, with his grunts and curses filling the cave, he felt a hand on his boot.
“No use, Pa,” came Adam’s soft voice, the darkness dragging on him like a lead weight.
“Dadblasted iron!” Ben angrily yelled tossing the offending item to the ground.
As Adam’s hand slid from the boot, the echoing sounds of the chain moved farther away from him with each passing second and he felt himself falling, unable to stop himself. “You . . . tried . . .”
Ben looked up at the halting words, hearing something scraping against rock. Urgently reaching out, he grabbed hold of Adam’s jacket just as his son began to slide sideways. “Adam!” he shouted, managing to slow his son’s descent just before his head hit the ground. “Adam? Adam, talk to me?”
Getting no response, he groped for a pulse, finding it slow but steady, and closed relieved eyes. Enfolding his boy back into his arms, Ben laid his head atop Adam’s and settled back against the wall, the same thoughts traipsing through his mind over and over again. What could he have done differently to avoid what came to be? What could he have said that would’ve turned the tide?
Ben hated that word for it spoke of failure, a term not normally mentioned in connection with the name Cartwright. Nothing meant no choices, no power over what would come or what would be or how it would end. Nothing was an end to all that came before. But those men had given them no option, their guns speaking before they did, catching them both off guard.
It was the fog.
Excuses – another word not in his vocabulary. There were always reasons why something did or didn’t happen, whether it was fate or God’s design. Hoss would’ve said things happen for a reason, understood or not; Joe would’ve jumped up and down and railed at the injustice of it all. Ben merely wondered why God would give him a son then take him away by virtue of a fog-shrouded afternoon and the bark of a gun in the hands of an unruly man. Such thoughts filled him as they sat waiting, waiting for who knew how long, captives in a mine without help, without water, and withering hope.
“No,” Ben vehemently said. “I will not lose hope.” Movement under his arms drove his attention downward. “Adam?”
“. . . pa . . .” came clearly to him.
He leaned toward his son’s ear. “I’m here, son,” he reminded him waiting for more.
“. . . fog . . . didn’t see . . .” Each word was frail and vague, leaving him weaker in Ben’s grasp.
“Doesn’t matter. We’ll get through the fog together, you and I, like always. Silence followed and Ben thought Adam had drifted away again.
“. . . cold . . .” came next and Ben’s embrace tightened about his son to fight against the bone-jarring chill that suddenly moved through him.
Ben leaned in close. “Remember when you were a boy and we came through those snow-covered mountains and into the lowlands? Remember when we could finally shed our winter coats and lay in the sun surrounded by all those wildflowers? Do you remember how it felt to have the sun on your face after such a long time? To feel its warmth?”
“. . . heaven . . ,” came Adam’s faint answer as the shivering began to recede.
“. . . mama . . . flowers . . .”
“She kept those flowers pressed in a book to have for all time because you’d given them to her. She loved you, Adam, and would want you to hold on, to pass those flowers onto someone else.”
“. . . tired . . .” came the weak reply.
“I know, son, I know,” Ben answered trying to keep the urgency from his voice as he held on tighter. “But you need to hold on. Your brothers will be here soon and we’ll be able to go home. Just listen to my voice, listen to my words and the memories they bring and let them keep you here with me. Don’t leave me, son.”
“. . . mama’s here . . ,” came softly to Ben, and he squeezed shut his eyes and leaned his face against the back of Adam’s head.
Inger, don’t take him from me!
Quiet descended between them as Ben focused on any sound, waited for any movement, his arm across Adam’s chest to keep tabs on the efforts of his shallow breaths, informing him that he still lived.
Inger, please let me keep him and hurry whoever will come. I beg your help for my sweet boy.
And he began to speak of times gone by in hopes of keeping Adam in the present whether he could hear him or not.
Joe followed his brother up one hill and down another, through stands of trees and around cascades of rocks and he’d not said a word or asked a question. The streams they’d forded and the river they’d skirted were well behind them and the sun had dropped behind the mountains, the moon steadily growing stronger as the stars began to appear. Joe hugged his jacket closer seeing Hoss stop atop a craggy hill and stand in his stirrups.
He’d seen his brother like this before, following some innate trail only he could see and wondered at this gift. So many times he’d found a wayward calf or a hurt animal or a thief hiding in plain sight that so many others missed. Joe marveled at this talent and his brother’s dogged determination and stayed close, his brother’s worry falling on his shoulders as they tracked further from home. It wouldn’t due to whine about their lack of provisions or a change of clothes when his brother was on the scent of . . . something important. His bones weren’t speaking to him but, obviously, Hoss’ were.
Suddenly, he heard a shout and watched as Hoss disappeared from that hill. Urging Cochise onward, he followed after seeing him trailing a buckskin and reaching to gather up the reins of another horse with a white blaze and three white socks picked out by the strident rays of the moon. His heart gave a thump and he hurried to his brother’s side meeting his urgent gaze.
“Your bones were right, Hoss,” Joe gave him as his brother dismounted, giving each horse the once-over then looked out over the hills and trees before them.
“They’re here,” Hoss said his own heart pounding as he rested a hand on Buck’s neck. “I just know it.”
“Where can we look in the dark?” Joe asked not wanting to dim his brother’s elation but give him some perspective. It was then he saw Hoss wrinkle his nose then smell his hand, leaning quickly toward Buck’s neck. A smile soon followed.
“Cain’t ya smell it, Joe?” Hoss asked drawing a quizzical look. “It’s all over ‘im.”
Joe leaned over and sniffed at Buck’s mane, scrunching up his face then returning Hoss’ smile.
“There’s only one place nearby where they’d get this on ‘em,” declared Hoss.
“That little meadow right before Plum Glen,” Joe stated, taking hold of Sport’s reins while Hoss mounted holding onto Buck’s. Not saying another word the two rode on, their pace as quick as the deep shadows of night would allow, an urgency filling their hearts. Time was of the essence. They knew it in their bones.
Ben opened his eyes onto a glorious scene – one of wildflowers from horizon to horizon, blowing in a soft gentle breeze, their faces turned to the sun. He smiled at the sight of a dark-haired boy running towards him, arms outstretched. Scooping him up and spinning him around as giggles embraced the air about them to fill his heart to bursting. He put the boy upon his shoulders, hanging onto his legs as they moved through the flowers toward a waiting wagon near a tall oak tree not thirty paces away and a woman with beautiful blue eyes laughing sweetly at her two men.
Kissing her soundly, Ben eased the boy off his shoulders and wrapped an arm about her trim waist, both gazing out over the fields of wildflowers.
“It is a most beautiful sight, Ben,” she said in her lilting accent, brushing a straying hair from her face.
“It is at that. Maybe we should settle here instead of continuing on, set down roots amid these singing flowers.”
“Oh, no, Ben. Your dream.”
Ben turned to her, his eyes devouring every inch of her face. “My dream is to be wherever you are, wherever Adam is, and if this is where you want to stay, we will. As long as we’re together, that’s wherever home will be.”
She smiled at him and rubbed his cheek then felt something pulling on her skirt.
“What is it, Adam?” she asked glancing down at this precious little boy who looked up at her with those big round eyes full of intelligence. He smiled then and she returned it as he handed her a fistful of flowers. “Oh, Adam,” she said taking the gift, the colors dripping with brilliance and filled with a glorious scent. She smiled again and looked upon this boy, her son. “I’ve never seen such beauty in one place, in one gift. I’ll treasure it always.” She hugged him then and he kissed her on the cheek then ran back into the field of flowers. She turned toward Ben with tears in her eyes,
He smiled at her – such a beautiful woman with a handful of beautiful flowers.
He would remember her always as she stood there that day, that perfect day, entombed in his memory forever.
“Ben, wake up! They’re here!”
“Inger?” he whispered as his eyelids fluttered, a distant sound leaving a resonance about him.
Thinking it was Adam, his eyes shot open quickly, looking to his boy still cradled in his arms, concentrating on his hand placement and feeling the heartbeat beneath it.
“Adam?” Silence met his ears.
If it wasn’t Adam, then who . . .
And then he heard it again.
Shocked, he sat as straight as he could, his head whipping toward the mine entrance. “HOSS!” exploded from him, his voice echoing off the rock walls. “HOSS!”
“There!” Joe called to his brother. “I heard something over there!”
“No, it came from here!” Hoss returned pointing in the opposite direction.
Both were confused. They knew it was their father’s voice, knew it like they knew the inside of their own hats1 but couldn’t place its location.
“Come on, Pa. Sound off again,” Hoss urged.
“HOSS!” came again and Joe pinpointed it this time, for he felt a tugging so great he thought he’d fall from the saddle if he didn’t comply.
“Over here!” Joe yelled toward his brother, pushing Cochise through a small copse of trees to vault from the saddle as the moon shone brightly on an opening in the rock wall before him. Later he would believe it was a sign, an arrow pointing him in the right direction and he followed, pulling a match from his pocket to light the darkness. “Pa!” he called, a sweet sound returning to him from out of the shadows.
Smiling so hard he thought his face would crack, Joe bounded forward with Hoss hot on his heels, both seeing their father’s wild desperate eyes before the light from the match touched his fingers and he tossed it to the ground.
“Pa,” came Hoss’ voice then himself as Joe once again filled the room with light.
“Adam’s hurt bad,” Ben stated grabbing Hoss’ arm. “We’ve got to get him home.” Switching his hold to Joe as he neared, he knocked the newly created light from his hand. “Joseph.”
“Just a minute, Pa,” Joe answered striking another match and holding it away from his father’s grasping hand.
“What happened?” Hoss asked, drawing Ben’s attention.
“Three men waylaid us,” Ben explained, looking from one son to the other as Joe frantically looked for something to use as a torch. “They never gave us a chance. Adam is . . .” His voice broke and he shook his head.
“It’s all right, Pa. We’re here now,” Hoss gave him as he patted his father’s leg and leaned toward Adam just as Joe maneuvered the match toward the wick of an old lantern he’d found along the wall and filled the area with a dim glow.
“I bound him up as best I could but he’s been so quiet . . .”
“He’s breathin’, Pa,” Hoss acknowledged running a hand down his brother’s face. “Ya know Adam – stubborn like a mule.”
“Why’d they shoot him, Pa?” Joe asked, drawing an angry look from his father.
“They shot him for nothing!” Ben spat. “They took the horses, took our money and just left us behind. They wouldn’t even let me get him a doctor.”
“We found the horses,” Joe informed him.
“What?” Ben asked, trying to follow the conversation.
“They was just wanderin’ around,” Hoss explained.
“Why? Why would they take them, take our only means of finding help, and let them go?!”
“Easy, Pa,” Hoss said grabbing his father’s arm to calm him.
“It’s just so unnecessary. Those bastards!” Ben exclaimed, thumping his fist on his leg, Hoss and Joe hearing a distinctive clink.
Reaching over, Joe found the metal about his father’s ankle and followed the chain to the ore cart. “Hoss,” he stated, anger filling him as his brother glanced his way, a scowl working its way onto his face.
“They chained me so we wouldn’t get the Sheriff.”
“It’s okay, Pa,” Hoss said trying once again to calm his distraught father.
“I tried to break free but I wasn’t strong enough.”
Hoss gave him a half grin. “I’ll fix that. Don’t ya worry none. We’ll get you and Adam outta here in a jiffy.”
Ben nodded stiffly, emotions getting the better of him.
“Joe, ya snuggle in-between the cart and Adam, and I’m gonna pop this off right quick.”
Doing as he was told, Joe used the length of his body to shield his brother and father and hoped Hoss could manage what his father couldn’t. He eyed Adam, the light from the lantern casting deep shadows across his face, pulling worry onto his own.
“You hang on, brother, ya hear?” Joe whispered touching Adam’s hair. “Ol’ Hoss’ll have Pa free so fast it’ll make your head spin.” A few grunts followed by a curse or two and the chain broke free, releasing its prisoner to helping hands.
“Come on, Pa,” Joe said grabbing a hold of his arm as Hoss reached for Adam, stopping when Ben didn’t move.
“Let ‘im go, Pa,” Hoss urged. “I’ll take care of ‘im.”
Ben’s body had stiffened, that was true, but his mother bear protectiveness was in full swing and to be parted from this one he’d held and fought for was like losing a part of himself.
“Hoss’ll bring him, Pa,” Joe softly said as Ben shifted his gaze from Adam to Joe to Hoss.
“Be careful,” Ben finally said, removing his arm from about Adam.
“Ya know I will. Now go with Joe.”
Grabbing his father’s arm, Joe coiled the chain about his hand to keep them from tripping and guided Ben out into the night, leaning him against the rocks once outside.
“Is he coming?” came Ben’s hoarse voice.
“He’ll be out in a minute, Pa.” Joe looked closely at his father noting the worry that exploded from him, hearing exhaustion in his voice. He knew his father wouldn’t rest until Adam was back within sight and silently called for Hoss to hurry.
“Hoss?!” Ben yelled as Joe placed a firm hand to his chest to press him back against the rock.
“Just give me a minute!” resonated back to them out of the dark as Hoss carefully eased Adam onto his back. “I cain’t rush these things ya know,” he mumbled, hoping his brother would remain unconscious while he moved him. He cursed his luck when he caught Adam looking at him. “Well, lookee here,” he said with a big grin, the lantern light picking up the flecks of gold normally hidden in those eyes he knew so well. “Ya got yerself in trouble again, big brother, and now yer takin’ a nap in a mine. I’d think yer bed would be more comfy.”
“. . . ‘kay, mama,” came the words as he slowly blinked, pulling Hoss’ grin instantly from his face.
Hoss forced it back into place. “Just take it easy now,” he returned. “I’ve gotta move ya so just relax.” Hefting Adam into his arms in one smooth motion, Hoss flinched at the harsh cry that followed then resettled his limp form against him. “I’ve gotcha, big brother. I’ve gotcha.”
Afraid he might knock his brother’s head against the wall if he hurried, Hoss slowly picked his way toward the exit, knowing his father would be chomping at the bit. He emerged a few moments later to find Ben suddenly before him. He looked right past his father.
“We’ll use Sport, Joe,” Hoss ordered before his father could say a word, moving toward the chestnut. “Pa, take Chubb. Joe, you take Buck and get Doc Martin.”
“I’ll take him,” Ben ordered reaching out only to drop his arms as Hoss kept on moving. “Hoss?”
“Yer done in, Pa. I’ll take him,” Hoss informed his father. “We been runnin’ our boys all day and they’re tuckered just like we are. Now get mounted. Joe, get on yer way!”
“I’ll be as quick as I can,” Joe answered, grabbing Buck’s reins and vaulting into the saddle, disappearing into the night before Ben could tell him to be careful.
Pushing away from the rocks, Ben walked stiffly toward Chubb and managed to drag himself aboard, wrapping the chain about his boot as Hoss lifted Adam onto Sport’s saddle and mounted behind him.
“Don’t mind me,” Ben said. “Get Adam home.”
“I cain’t leave ya out here all alone, Pa.”
“Go. I’ll be right behind you.”
Sharing a concerned look, Hoss nodded and pulled his brother toward him in a strong grip.
Ben watched them disappear from sight as he wrapped Cochise’s reins about the pommel and followed after as quickly as he could in the dark. How his mind raced, bringing up those dreadful thoughts he’d been pushing to the side all this time.
Were they too late? Did help not come soon enough?
He shook his head. Dwelling on such thoughts was dangerous. Only one thought was appropriate.
“Wait for me, son,” he said as he urged Chubb on faster. “Please wait for me.”
The night became an interminable waiting game, a game that stretched Ben’s patience to the limit.
Events kept running through his head, over and over – seeing Adam fall from the saddle, feeling his blood on his hands, always wondering if this was the end of things. Will I ever hear my boy’s voice again in this lifetime or will I have to wait until I, too, travel beyond the veil?
Tightening his fists, Ben forced himself to hold his emotions in abeyance, hold them with an even hand and not let them flare uncontrolled in the face of despair. But his will was flagging the longer he had to wait, and tension overlapped anxiety, causing him to drift from one end of the house to the other more than once, Hoss and Joe keeping a constant eye on him as he traveled. They were relieved when he finally gave in, lay his head upon the desk, and fell asleep.
A tug on the arm sometime later brought him instantly awake, bleary eyes searching the room for his sons only to find it empty of everyone save Paul Martin standing next to him. Fatigue hanging from him like a heavy stone, Ben caught the look in his friend’s eyes and they telegraphed more than any words could.
My God! Adam’s dead!
Ben swallowed and came instantly to his feet, swaying slightly at the effort, determined to meet those words standing when spoken. Gathering himself, he held his head high to ask the question.
“Paul, is he . . .” But he couldn’t finish, couldn’t let himself believe that Elizabeth’s child was gone because of those bastards who wanted what they couldn’t have.
Paul reached up to place a firm hand on his friend’s shoulder. God, I hate this!
To save people and allow them to live another day was what kept Paul going. But the downside was this – telling a father, brother, husband, wife that their loved one may not see the morning, that all that had been laid out before them, all that there was to achieve or had been achieved, would be lost as that pale rider galloped into their lives.
“Ben,” the doctor began, wanting so to give him hope, to relay to him that until the last breath was drawn there was always a chance but this time the words seemed empty. He squared his shoulders. “I’ve done all I can, Ben. He’s lost a lot of blood. I don’t know if his body can regenerate it fast enough to keep him going. If I’d gotten to him sooner. . .” His voice trailed off.
Paul never liked saying things like that to those who waited but Ben deserved the truth. He really thought Adam Cartwright wouldn’t see the morning that awaited a few hours from now but he’d been wrong before, especially with this family and their ability to beat the odds. He squeezed Ben’s shoulder.
Ben’s heart plunged to his feet as Paul’s words revolved about his head – ‘if I’d gotten to him sooner’. He hung onto the desk for dear life and closed his eyes reliving the moment those men left them to die in that mine.
“We’ll have to trust he’s on good terms with God this night.”
Good terms . . .
The strength went out of his legs and Ben dropped back into the chair; a brandy was suddenly forced into his hand. Grimacing as the liquid burned its way down his throat, his mind raced.
This can’t be happening!
Adam had always been by his side, always there to lend a helping hand, to raise a broken heart, to give him a smile of encouragement. How could he possibly go on without that?
Anger suddenly consumed him and he tossed the glass across the room, making Paul jump. “Damn, those bastards!” he yelled. “Damn them all to hell!” Willing himself to his feet, he walked stiff-legged toward the stair as grief turned to anger, anger into action.
“Adam will see the morning if it’s the last thing I do!” Ben answered whirling on his friend.
“Willing him to live won’t make it so, Ben, if it’s his time to go,” Paul gave him, taking the glare that was flashed his way.
“You believe in what you can see, Doctor. I believe in what I can feel, what I know, and I know Adam wants to live. And he’s got four people here ready to lift him up and give him our strength. I’ll not lose him because someone wanted something that wasn’t theirs!” He started up the stairs. “He is on good terms with God and so am I. My faith and his will see him through.”
Paul watched him go, watched a father desperate to believe that the morning sun would show him three sons and not two, and felt the power of those spoken words fill him. He’d seen faith succeed before, seen it in this very house, and wouldn’t dismiss it. For tonight, he’d put aside his medical mind and pray that Ben was right.
“Docta Paul want coffee?”
Paul turned to see Hop Sing standing beside him. He’d never heard him approach.
“I pray to my God too. My faith strong. Mister Adam strong. He no leave. Not his time.”
“You really believe that, Hop Sing?”
“Been in this house long time, see many things not possible. Always surprised.”
Paul smiled. Yes, he’d been surprised many times as well.
“Why not. It’s going to be a long night.”
Ben stopped outside Adam’s door, afraid to enter. The gritty resolve he’d displayed downstairs began to fall apart and he leaned against the doorframe, his heart beating so loudly that the sound it made rushing through his ears blotted out everything else.
Can I really fight God for my son? Is that possible?
Adam lingered between life and death because of this wilderness and those unruly men and their fight to have what wasn’t theirs. Ben’s thoughts were suddenly overcome with emotion at the idea of losing someone else, but then his boy’s face forced its way to the forefront with a big smile that dimpled his cheeks and made his eyes dance, and breath slowly returned to Ben.
Gritting his teeth and pushing himself straight, he reached for the door knob. Inside was a world that might become too real in a few hours or a few minutes but that was his job as a father — to fight all those who would come to claim his family. Adam would be here in the morning if it was the last thing he did.
He opened the door.
It took a moment to adjust to the low lantern light; he finally spotted Hoss to one side and Joe the other. Walking past them and acknowledging neither, Ben stared down at his injured boy, his chest wrapped in bright white bandages, noticing the stark contrast to his pale and ghostly color. He looked as if he’d already left them but thick breaths gave Ben pause and hope.
My boy still clings to life as he’s always done, as he always will.
Joe silently moved out of the way as Ben perched on the side of the bed to pick up Adam’s hand, kissing the back of it, eyes lingering to see a twitch or wince or even a grimace of pain just to let him know his boy was still with them. The fever, which had only just blossomed, would rise and here they would sit until it fled and Adam would open those expressive eyes once again and smile their cares away.
“I’m here, son,” he whispered, running a tremulous hand over Adam’s damp face. “I’ll always be here.”
With flowers bunched in hand, Adam ran toward his Mama. Oh, that sounded so good. There stood his Mama with his Pa. She was so pretty and he loved the way she looked at him – like he was her own. It’d bothered him in the beginning, this love he felt; it seemed like a betrayal of his own mother’s memory. But Pa told him she wouldn’t mind. So he had fallen hook, line and sinker for his new Mama with her pretty blue eyes and soft laugh and lilting accent.
“What is it, Adam?” she asked glancing down at him as he smiled broadly up to her, handing over those beautiful flowers. “Oh, Adam,” she said taking the gift, their colors paling next to her beaming smile as she looked at him with those eyes. “I’ve never seen such beauty in one place, in one gift. I’ll treasure it always.” He kissed her on the cheek as she hugged him and happiness overflowed into another big smile. Running off, he felt complete for the first time in his young life. His Pa was happy, he was happy and Inger was happy to be with them.
But their time here was short and soon the wagon train began to move on and he found himself sitting in the back, swaying side to side as the wheels hit ruts and rocks and uneven ground, making its way out of the wildflowers that stretched as far as the eye could see. Adam held on as he peered out, Inger sitting next to him, her hand resting lightly on his back. Together they took in the view of what they were leaving behind.
“It’s so pretty,” he said. “Do you think California will be that pretty?”
“I hope so,” she responded.
“What if it’s not?”
“Then we’ll plant our own flowers and make it so,” she answered with a small laugh. He smiled then and looked toward her, wanting to thank her for coming into their lives, only to find he was alone.
“Here, Adam,” came her voice, pulling his gaze back to the field of flowers. There she stood by the tall oak tree waving as the wagon pulled farther away with each passing second, her form slowly losing cohesion as fog began to descend.
“Pa! Mama’s not in the wagon!”
“It’s all right, Adam,” she called back to him.
“But you can’t leave! We just found you!”
“I’ll always be here. Always.”
“. . . mama . . .”
Ben’s head jerked up at the muffled word and waited to hear more, noting the change of expression on his son’s face, different from the serene calmness that had overtaken him since his fever had broken.
“Adam? Adam, can you hear me?” Ben’s voice was steady despite the turmoil raging through him. He’d made that grand statement to Paul that nothing would take his son from him and, as each hour passed then turned into days, cracks began to appear. Such great words reduced to just sounds made by a desperate man.
“It’s time to wake up, Adam! Open your eyes, my boy!”
Adam’s brow furrowed as her soft voice pulled at him, feeling her hands caress his cheek. But he couldn’t see her through the fog that surrounded her. She was there, just out of reach, just out of sight.
“Wake up for Mama.”
“. . . mama . . . come back . . .”
“Adam, I’m here,” Ben said grasping his boy’s searching hand.
“Ben’s calling. He’s waiting for you.”
“. . . can’t . . . see you.”
“I’m here, Adam. I’ll always be here.”
“I’m right here, son,” Ben said leaning in close.
“Open your eyes.”
And then the fog rose and he saw her smile, saw her waving to him as she stood by that tree, the wildflowers encircling her form. “I’m right here. Open your eyes, my son.”
Long lashes fluttered as he strained to comply with her wishes. Light came to him and sounds swirled slowly, coalescing into a distinct pattern, that same pattern he’d heard his entire life which had always been his one constant and brought with it calming peace.
“. . . pa . . .”
Adam’s brow relaxed and he tried to squeeze the hand he thought was holding his, not certain he’d been successful. “Right here, son,” it came again, this time shaken and thick. A hint of a smile turned Adam’s lips as he felt a return pressure on his hand. Indistinct shapes moved before his tired eyes and he squinted at the largest one. “. . . where’s . . . mama?” he mumbled, each word an effort as more detail emerged to take on the familiar shape of his father. Ben would’ve paled at the question except he’d spent these last days hearing Adam call for Inger and even thought, for a brief moment, he’d felt her presence. “She was . . . just . . . here.”
Ben smiled down at him, taking great pleasure in just hearing his voice, frail as it was, once again. “She had to leave, son,” he answered, running a hand over Adam’s face, remembering the intense shuddering that coursed through his body just prior to the fever finally breaking, leaving him weak and barely alive. He’d held him then, just like in the mine and no one could move him.
“Oh,” Adam mumbled in disappointment and then squinted again at his father. “You . . . all . . . right?”
“I’m fine,” Ben answered with a smile so wide it looked like it hurt. “You gave us quite a scare, young man. I thought . . .” His voice petered out then he cleared his throat. “I thought we were going to lose you.”
“Mama told me . . . wake . . . up,” came clearly from his oldest as Ben unconsciously rested a hand on an open book lying on the side table next to Adam’s bed.
“Yes, son,” Ben answered with a nod. “I believe that. She was here for us both.”
“. . . flowers . . .” Adam began, his voice fading as his breath ran out.
Ben looked back toward the book and the dried remnants of that day lying captured in time on the opened pages.
“Wildflowers of every description and color filled every scrap of land from east to west and north to south,” Ben recalled, not hearing Hoss and Joe move quietly into the room behind him, Hop Sing lingering near the door. “I’ve never seen such vivid colors since.”
“. . . beautiful . . ,” was all Adam said, feeling himself getting heavier and fighting to stay awake with thoughts of Inger drifting through his memory.
“You rest now,” Ben said. seeing his struggle.
A quizzical look came to Adam’s face and his eyes came slowly open. “. . . just . . . got here,” he quipped, banishing all despair from Ben’s soul in an instant.
Ben gave him a low chuckle. “So you did.” A genuine smile found itself mixed with tears as they trailed down Ben’s haggard face. He kissed his boy’s hand and clasped his other about it, feeling other comforting hands on his shoulders.
Thank you, Inger.
“I’m always here, Ben.”
His eyes came slowly open at the sound of his name, the sweet lilting accent of his dreams fading into Hoss’ deep tones.
Grinning at his brother, Hoss heartily returned it. “Pa thinks its time ta come in. He can feel a chill comin’.”
Adam gave him a quiet snort. “He could feel a chill coming in the middle of summer when one of us is sick.”
“I done tol’ ‘im that and talked ‘im into lettin’ ya stay out a bit longer. Thought ya might be wantin’ more of that sun on yer pasty face.”
“Thanks,” Adam replied, closing his eyes.
“Don’t mention it. Thought I’d come sit with ya a spell and enjoy the sun, too. Won’t be seein’ much of it in a few months.” Hoss settled into the rocker next to his brother just off the porch, a nice breeze making the leaves sing all about them.
Hoss’ eyes lingered a bit on Adam’s pallid face. They’d been so close this time, so close to losing him. It was a miracle according to Paul Martin, and Hoss just about believed it.
“Mama came to me,” came Adam’s soft words as Hoss’ ears perked up. “She told me to wake up.” Unconsciously, he ran a hand over the book in his lap, drawing his brother’s attention.
“It’s them wildflowers ain’t it? The ones ya gave Mama?”
Adam nodded. “I was back there again,” he admitted, opening sad eyes. “It was a happy time for me, for Pa. I often wonder if we should’ve stayed there.”
“We wouldn’t’ve had Joe.”
“We probably would’ve had a passel of Joe’s,” Adam guessed. “Mama loved children.”
“A passel of Joe’s? Lordy,” Hoss grinned. “We’d all be old afore our time.”
“But we wouldn’t have lost her.” Adam felt tears crowding his eyes.
These thoughts he’d had for many years — this wondering of what might have been. If they’d stayed, they might still have Inger, he might have had a mother, and so would Hoss. He’d been fortunate to know her, at least for a short time, and regretted that his brother never could.
Hoss saw the look, knew what his brother was thinking and rested a hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Tell me about them wildflowers.”
Rubbing his eyes, Adam sniffled and touched the book that held those flowers put there so long ago. “You know that story. I’ve told it to you often enough.”
“I know. I just like when ya tell it.”
Adam glanced at Hoss, seeing Inger in every facet of him, and nodded. “I’ll always remember it as a perfect day,” he began, a faraway look appearing in his eyes. “We’d just come out of the mountains and the tall drifts of snow that seemed to go on forever. I felt like a snowman what with days on end of ice and snow and just knew it would never go away. But Pa kept telling me that one day we’d follow a bend in the trail and it would all be gone.
“About a week later, we found that bend and emerged into a valley filled to overflowing with wildflowers brimming with color and fragrance, the likes I’ve never seen before or since. You weren’t even a gleam yet and I had Mama all to myself . . .”
Ben listened from the kitchen as he hovered near the door, hearing the dulcet tones of his eldest retracing their steps that day bringing with it memories so vivid he felt as if he was back there. Drawing in a deep breath, he walked away. He’d leave his two sons to their memories while he kept his own for himself.
“I’ll always be here, Ben.”
“Thank you, Inger. Thank you for his life.”
1 This line is taken directly from “The Dark Gate” written by Ward Hawkins and spoken by Adam Cartwright to Delphine Marquette.