First Snow (by Jane)

 

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,200


 

Snow. Bitter, cold, icy snow. The frozen crystals covered him, muffling the world around him. He could feel the sharp edges biting into his cheeks, the tiny shards that lined his mouth. Frozen water, melted by the heat of his skin, refrozen like a thin mask . . . Joe Cartwright knew with the ingrained knowledge of a boy raised in the mountains that he was in trouble.

For a moment, he tried to raise himself, struggled to look through the frozen onslaught in an attempt to see where he was. But the effort was too much. Something settled over him. Heavy, like the large woven blanket that hung over the railing at home, but more like . . . like a mantle that held him place. Something flickered in his memory, way back, hard to grab hold of. Pain. There was pain. But where? What was hurting?

Cold. Too cold to distinguish this from that. Too cold to wonder where his pa and brothers were, and why they hadn’t come for him. And where was he, anyway?

Pa would have his hide, lying here in the cold, wet snow. Maybe he should try again. Get up on all fours then look for Cochise. His horse must be close by.

One push, one tiny attempt was all he could manage. Cold pulled, the mantle pushed, pain flared. Without a sound, Joe melded back into the deepening snow.

*****

Hoss watched his father pace from one window to the other, attention focused intently on the wall of white outside the house. His pa had already been out in the yard several times, starting toward the barn then turning back. If the temperature wasn’t so bitter, Hoss was sure Ben would be standing in the open doorway now, waiting impatiently for what wasn’t there. Instead, wearing his winter coat while gloves, hat and woolen scarf lay waiting on the credenza, Ben Cartwright studied the weather from the windows, waging an internal battle that could have no winner.

Hoss fought his own inner battle. He’d always prided himself on being in-tune with nature, reading the signs and being prepared. But this storm had snuck in on him, or maybe he’d just been too busy to notice what nature had placed before him. It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially when the lives of both his brothers hung in the balance.

“They would’ve waited.” Hoss finally managed.

“It came up too fast. They might’ve been as far as the east slope before they saw it.”

Hoss knew his father was right. This was a winter snowstorm in late November. No one would’ve expected a storm screaming out of the northwest so early in the season, especially one of this strength. If they had, Adam and Joe would never have ridden into Virginia City early this morning. And he wouldn’t be standing here now, waiting with his father, worrying about his two brothers and wondering if they’d make it home.

He didn’t want to be standing here anymore than his father did. Each harbored the secret desire to be out in the storm, searching. But out loud, they’d strongly insisted to the other that there was no point in charging out into the storm in a futile search. Adam and Joe would push for home, or maybe find one of the line shacks to hold up in. Either way, looking for them now would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. It ran against the grain, in both men. Though there had been a minor confrontation at one point, with Hoss halfway out the door before Ben could stop him, in the end they’d silently agreed that they should wait it out. For Hoss, the waiting was like torture. He could only imagine what it felt like to his pa.

Ben took another turn around the room, stopping to stare out each window as if he kept watch long enough, the storm might abate. He startled a bit when Hop Sing came out to quietly set the table for dinner — later than usual, as if he too had been waiting. The Chinaman seemed to sense the men’s mood, or more accurately, shared in it. For once, he didn’t berate his employer for stomping around the room in wet boots, but merely laid out the last napkin then returned to his kitchen.

Continuing to watch his father trapped in a world of worry, Hoss finally uttered the first thing, inane though it was, that came to mind. “Waddaya wanna bet those two are sittin’ down to a coupla beers at the Bucket of Blood about now?”

Ben turned to stare at his middle son, dark eyes filled with surprise. Yet as he stood there, mouth-hanging open as if he didn’t know how to respond, Hoss saw a change come over his father. A willingness to play the game.

“Your little brother better not be dealing himself into one of those poker games.” Ben finally muttered.

“If he does, he’ll have me to answer to. Fool kid still owes me twenty dollars from his last set-to.”

The two men grinned weakly at each other. It was a feeble attempt at mutual encouragement, but there was little else left to them, other than worry. The storm was growing in intensity, the wind swirling the early snow into a deadly tempest. If Adam and Joe had started out from Virginia City, they would be in the middle of it now.

*****

Adam Cartwright was a patient man, prone to deep thought and careful consideration. A problem was one to be weighed carefully, then acted upon. Yet, there were times when his worry or temper could get the better of him and the reaction was instantaneous. This was one of those times. “Joe! Joe, where are you?”

His words were torn from his lips, taken on the wind and lost in the storm.

“Damn it, Joe . . . Joe!”

The result wasn’t worth the effort. Joe could be standing right next to him, but he wouldn’t hear Adam’s shout. You can’t fight a storm. Live through it. That was a man’s only hope. Adam’s hope was that they’d both live through it. He and his brother.

“Joe!”

The storm had overtaken them on the east slope, too far from Virginia City to turn back, and not close enough to the Ponderosa. They’d stopped there on the road, debating their decision as the clouds swirled toward them. In the end, it had taken only a few words to reach an agreement; they’d push for home. With Joe beside him, their horses mere inches from touching, the brothers had ridden steadily into the wind. Somewhere along the way, Adam had lost track of time, yet they’d made good progress. By the time the icy rain had turned to stinging hail then snow, they were only a few miles from the house.

At first the snow was a mere nuisance — cold and bright but nothing to impede their progress. That rapidly changed as the wind picked up. This storm was unusual, even for the Sierras. Much too early in the season, as intense as any mid-west blizzard, the swirling snow and biting wind soon had the men hunkered over in their saddles. Neither of them had dressed properly for this kind of storm. It was only the cooler fall temperature that morning that urged them into warm coats instead of their normal jackets. Adam had been glad for that, even as he shivered. He’d wondered how Joe was holding up, but there was no way they could carry on a conversation. Each gust of wind seemed stronger than the last, turning the falling snow into a cloud of white. The large pines they rode through were reduced to a grayish blur in the background, the road altogether lost. Instinct was all that kept the horses moving in the right direction. Instinct and their riders’ desire to reach home.

But now Joe was gone. In one brief instant, his kid brother had disappeared. Ahead or behind, off to the side, or down over the edge of the bank, Adam had no clue. Joe had vanished in the white of the storm, leaving no trace.

Had he been a more demonstrative man, Adam would’ve felt hot tears of frustration, but he was stoic. Cold, his brother might call him. He wasn’t. Not really. Adam cared just as much as the next man; he’d just schooled himself not to show it. Occasionally the truth would out, but only under duress. Like now. But Adam couldn’t or wouldn’t indulge himself in those emotions, not at the moment. Not when Joe had gone missing in the worst snowstorm they’d seen in years. Not when they were still a number of miles from hearth and home. Not when he, and he alone, was possibly the only thing standing between Joe and eternity. No, now was not the time to indulge in a show of emotions. At least, not those kind of emotions. Not when good old, western-style action would suffice.

“Joe! Damn it, boy, where are you?”

Wheeling Sport around, Adam did his best to peer through the white wall, pulling his hat low to afford better protection for his wind-ravaged eyes. There was nothing to see. Nothing but snow and ice pushed by a savage wind.

Adam knew he couldn’t go on. Not towards home, and not back where they’d come. To choose either direction could be choosing wrong. So he did the only other thing he could. Something his father had taught him never to do in a situation like this. He dismounted. In the middle of a raging snowstorm, he got off his only chance for survival. Reins in hand, Adam slowly walked in a circle, feeling with his booted foot what he couldn’t see with the naked eye. Hoping, praying, that he might nudge the source of his fear.

‘Joe. Please, Joe, be here. Don’t do this to me…to Pa.’

In an ever-increasing circle, Adam explored the trail as best he could. He knew it was only a matter of minutes before he’d have to choose directions. It was already getting difficult to discern which way was which. But forward or back, he’d have to look somewhere besides this narrow eight feet of roadway.

It was the dark splotch of color on Cochise that finally caught his eye. No more than a flicker of change, Adam was instantly sure of what he’d found. Fingers numb with cold, his face already half-frozen, he edged closer, barely able to grasp the dangling reins before Cochise moved away.

“Easy, boy. What happened? Where’s Joe?”

Senseless words. A waste of good breath, but Adam murmured them nonetheless. He had to do something to keep his mind from reeling out of control. The cold was making him sluggish, his judgment suddenly questionable. He knew he had to keep looking for Joe, yet he had the strong urge to ride for home and help.

One hand on the saddle, Adam suddenly realized that it was twisted to the side. Joe was a good rider, so something must’ve happened to unseat him. Horse and rider must’ve fallen. That it could happen right next to him, without him knowing . . .

It was hard to do in the blinding storm, but Adam checked the horse for injuries. And found one. Probably minor in most cases, but possibly fatal in this storm; the paint was favoring his left foreleg.

‘Joe. Gotta find you, boy.’

With one more pat to his brother’s horse, Adam stepped away, still trailing Sport’s reins behind him. He didn’t dare let go of that lifeline. No matter what he found, his horse was the only sure way that any of them could escape this predicament.

He’d taken no more than a step or two before both feet slipped out beneath him. Landing hard, it took a moment before Adam realized that he wasn’t on solid ground, but the edge of the road. Even without being able to see, he knew that the bank sloped down at least twenty feet to a small stream below. If Joe had fallen down there . . .

“Joe! Damn it, Joe, where are you?”

There was no answer. No sight or sound, other than the keening of the wind.

One step, two. Adam moved slowly, using his foot to feel for anything unusual — like a body. That thought alone made him even more cautious. When he finally did make contact, the something was small and light, and once pushed by his boot, it skittered away in the wind. Joe’s hat.

“Joe! Come on, kid, answer me!”

Not waiting for the answer he requested, Adam scrunched down, tugging his hat low over his eyes like a windbreak. Even at this level, there was nothing to see but swirling white snow, the large pines a mere blur in the background.

Adam wasn’t much of a praying man, though his beliefs were firm. Yet sometimes there just wasn’t anything else to do. Now was one of those times. Silently murmuring his fervent appeal, he was stunned at what seemed like an instantaneous response. A lull in the wind, no more than a second, but enough to make out a dark shape to his left. Adam’s heart lurched within his chest, his hands clenched tighter around the leather they held. He peered at the shape, praying that he wasn’t wrong.

One step, then two was all he needed. It was Joe. He’d found the kid. As he moved towards his brother, Adam knew he’d be attending more than one Sunday service in thanksgiving.

*****

The cold was still there, a distant sensation, but still there. The world around him seemed to have slowed down, the falling snow like a hazy film before his eyes, Joe felt warm and comfortable. Some part of his brain registered the fact that he should get up; another part convinced him that it wasn’t worth the effort. Instead, Joe blinked lazily at the new dark shape approaching him. It moved slowly closer, yet did not seem threatening. It also didn’t seem important, not when there were other things to think about. What were they again?

The shadowy figure grew larger. Still Joe paid little attention. He was sure there was something there, something he should recognize, but all he could manage was a passing thought as he relaxed back into the comforting warmth of the blanket beneath him. But it wasn’t really a blanket. Joe’s mind did a languid search for understanding. Why did he feel so warm when he was clearly lying on the snow covered ground? Once again Joe decided that it wasn’t important to find out, relaxing instead into the unexplainable warmth.

Suddenly the blurry form was there, pushing at him, pulling at his arm. Sounds came to him then, a man’s voice. Curiosity was usually Joe’s greatest trial — that and his temper — and it was strange that neither seemed to be evident now. Didn’t even seem to matter who this dark blur might be. Or, what he might want. All Joe wanted was to rest, but as he laid his head back, the voice raised in intensity until he couldn’t deny the recognition. Adam. The blur was Adam, and as usual, he would not be ignored.

“Joe! Come on, Joe, you gotta help me!”

Demanding would be a trivial way of depicting Adam’s behavior. His attitude would better be described as downright infuriating. Why couldn’t older brother just leave him alone? It was comfortable and warm here. And he was tired. . .so tired. But his brother was insistent, Adam’s voice growing in strength as he bent closer. Then Joe felt something touch his cheek, something cold, something . . .

Opening his eyes wide for the first time, Joe felt every muscle tighten even as the pain flared. It wasn’t Adam. It wasn’t his big brother insisting that he get up and moving. This form bending over him, stiff and dark against a stark white background . . . this was something sinister. Evil. It had come for him, pulling and tugging, trying hard to take him away. Joe didn’t have the time or energy to think. He simply reacted the only way he knew how.

It was strange that he’d throw the first punch with his right hand, but maybe the first was all that was needed. The form fell back, a howl accompanying the landing. Joe sent up his own yell, a combination of fear, anger and pain, as he followed the form backwards. He couldn’t get to his feet; nothing seemed to be working, including his left arm, so it was his right that came up for a second blow. As he dove forward, aiming for the shadowy figure, Joe was unaware that his effort was all bluster but little show. Still, he fought like a madman, throwing himself against the foe, fighting for all he was worth. He had to . . . had to get away. Get the thing down then get away. Get home. Pa would help him. Pa would know what was wrong, why everything felt strange . . . fuzzy . . . off the mark. Pa. He had to get to Pa.

One more swing, that’s all he’d need. With a primeval yell that rivaled any Indian war whoop, Joe drove his fist toward his opponent. The scream that accompanied his attack echoed then blew away with the cry of the wind, but Joe didn’t hear a thing. He was once more enveloped in that warm cocoon of comforting white snow that slowly melted into darkness.

*****

Chest heaving, head reeling, Adam knelt in the snow, his arms clasped around the unconscious form of his brother. He’d been lucky enough to find Joe, only to have the kid attack him. Weak as they were, it hadn’t been easy to deflect the blows; the coppery taste in his mouth was testament to that. What could’ve caused Joe to fight him like a madman, at least for a second or two, before collapsing into his arms? There must be something very wrong, something serious enough to cause Joe to attack him for no reason. Out here in the middle of a snowstorm, caught in a life and death struggle to get safely home, there was simply no justifiable reason for Joe to assault him. At least nothing that didn’t point to a serious injury. Adam struggled to make sense of the situation, but instinctively knew there was no time to think the thing through. He had to get Joe back to the ranch.

Glancing over his shoulder, Adam prayed for yet another miracle, and found his prayers answered immediately. His horse waited there at the edge of the road, head down, but standing still. He was stunned at the strange realization that his prayers were being answered so quickly. Or was it an unusual run of good luck? Joe would probably make some crack about this being a good time to hit the poker table or roulette wheel, but Adam knew better than to tempt fate. He was fully aware that they had a long way to go before either one of them would be safe and sound.

Adam maneuvered Joe into a better position, then carefully got to his feet, pulling his brother’s motionless body up with him. As he held Joe upright, he suddenly realized that something wasn’t right with his brother’s arm. Dangling awkwardly, it was obvious that there was either a broken bone or dislocated shoulder. It was going to be hard to get Joe up in the saddle without causing further injury, yet there was no other choice. It was just another worry he had to push to the back of his mind. The storm wouldn’t allow him the time to check for further injuries or apply rudimentary care. The wind was growing stronger with each moment. So Adam did the best he could to balance Joe’s weight against his own as he carefully climbed the few feet up to where Sport stood waiting.

Never, not in a hundred years, would Adam be able to reward his horse for such faithful service. Of course, the animal had been trained, and well, but to stand patiently in the midst of a snowstorm, that was beyond training. Devotion was the word that came to mind, but that wasn’t something Adam would’ve thought of an animal. Joe would. In fact, he’d probably used that very word about his own mount. Cochise. Where was he? The poor animal was injured and would need special care to make a full recovery. In any other circumstances, that wouldn’t seem like such a daunting task, but today, it seemed beyond the realm of possibility. Adam peered through the blinding storm, but couldn’t’ see his brother’s horse. There was no time to look, and Adam knew he’d be lucky to get Joe home in one piece without worrying about an injured horse. He just hoped that his brother would be able to understand, and forgive. He wouldn’t entertain the thought that Joe might not be there to do either.

Focusing on this was easier than letting his mind dwell on the dead weight in his arms. It was better than letting his mind accept how cold his own fingers had become, as he grasped the icy-stiff cloth of Joe’s jacket. It was ten times better than to imagine the two of them lying stiff and cold in the middle of the road for their father to find once the storm passed.

“Come on, Joe. We can do this.”

One step, then another, Adam half-carried, half-dragged Joe towards safety.

“Whoa, boy.”

It wasn’t heard, his firm command. It was lost in the wind, or maybe caught in his throat, behind frozen lips. Either way, it wasn’t needed. Sport moved towards them, then stood waiting, head down away from the wind. Adam took a second to numbly rub the horse’s neck anyway. It was the least he could do to acknowledge his faithful friend.

More prayers, several oaths, and numerous tries followed as Adam tried to get Joe in the saddle. It was never easy to get an unconscious man up on the back of a tall horse, but when you weren’t in full command of your own hands, it was damn near impossible. But somehow, only God knew how, he managed. Joe was seated, awkwardly at best, but in the saddle. His head lay on Sport’s neck, and from what Adam could see, there was no sign of consciousness. Maybe that was for the best, if there was any chance that he might start swinging again.

It took several tries before Adam could grab hold of the thin leather. His fingers wouldn’t curl; his arms seemed like dead stumps attached to an inflexible body. Time was running out. The fourth attempt proved successful, and Adam pulled the reins up tight. Sheer willpower made his knee bend, his numb foot touched the stirrup. And then, he was in the saddle, or rather perched on the back edge of it. Working hard to get situated, Adam pulled Joe back towards him, encircling his brother with frozen arms. Gentle pressure put Sport in motion, the three of them moving slowly toward home. Adam didn’t have the heart to look behind him, couldn’t bear to see his brother’s horse standing there alone. Losing Cochise was going to break Joe’s heart, but there was nothing to be done about it. Right now Adam had to focus on getting home, or they’d be mourning Joe instead of his horse.

*****

Hoss made his way carefully to the house, his back against the wind. He’d checked the bunkhouse, relieved to find all the hands safe, sound, and comfortably playing a friendly hand of poker. Dan had helped him stretch a rope from the bunkhouse porch over to the corral, and from there they’d followed the fence rail to the corner of the barn. It wasn’t necessary yet, not in the confines of the yard, where the trees rimmed the area, giving them a dark boundary to define the space. Yet later, after sunset, the world would look different. It would be easy to get turned around in the storm, even in this small area, and a man could find himself wandering away from home and hearth. Even though it wasn’t a necessity, a rope line would lend a certain perspective for anyone trudging through the stormy night, and Hoss was glad that Ben had encouraged him to see to it.

Ben hadn’t said more than a handful of words since they’d set down to eat, hours before. That had been a pitiful excuse of a meal. Though Hop Sing had provided them with his usual bountiful fare, neither man had been up to eating, so, after a feeble attempt, they’d walked away from half-filled plates. Hop Sing had only mumbled a short tirade in his native Chinese before falling silent himself. He’d cleared the table quickly, then retreated into the kitchen. As for Hoss and Ben, the rest of the afternoon had been spent with only the howl of the wind or the crackling fire to keep them company.

Now, though Hoss was anxious to get back inside to the warmth of the house, he wasn’t looking forward to the pain he knew he’d see on his father’s face. If only he could go out after his brothers. It was a fool’s thought, and he knew better than to suggest it again. They’d already been through that argument several times, first one then the other being the voice of reason. The last time Hoss had suggested he ride out just a ways, he’d received the kind of glaring ‘no’ that only Ben Cartwright could give. Turning to look back across the empty yard, Hoss wished then prayed that he’d see his brothers ride up. But there was nothing there, nothing but the wind-blown snow decorating the empty space. With a heavy heart, he turned back toward the house.

Hoss fairly flew in through the door, the wind pushing him hard from behind. Slamming the heavy wooden door against the storm, he stomped his feet on the rug, both to clear the last snow from his boots, but also in an attempt to get some feeling back into his toes. Ben looked up from his chair near the fire, his eyes filled with hope, but Hoss shook his head, effectively wiping the anticipation from his father’s face.

Dropping his hat over its peg and tugging off his wet jacket, Hoss kept his eyes focused on his pa. Ben had turned back to stare at the fire, his shoulders slumped forward in the posture of an old and defeated man. Moving stiffly across the room, Hoss put one foot on the rock hearth, stretching his hands out to the warmth of the fire. Ben was muttering quietly, and Hoss had to strain to hear his father’s words.

“ . . just a quick trip into town. Had them leave early, so they’d be home by dinner. Only needed to pick up those contracts, then run a couple errands, shouldn’t have taken more than a few hours. I should’ve gone myself . . .”

Hoss stared hard, his surprise evidently mirrored in his eyes as Ben looked up to meet his gaze. It took a moment for the words to make it past the lump in his throat, but when he did, his father seemed unfazed by his question.

“You don’t mean that, do you, Pa?”

Ben’s expression was impassive, his eyes clear and hard. He didn’t even bother to answer, but let his silence confirm his regrets.

“But Pa, it’d be you out there now, instead of Adam and Joe . . .”

Hoss’ voice trailed off. He couldn’t imagine the tables being turned, the sons waiting and worrying about a father they couldn’t bear to lose. It must be the same overwhelming feeling for his pa. Ben couldn’t bear to lose his sons.

“Yes. The way it should be.”

Ben stood abruptly, and Hoss was surprised at the sudden burst of energy as his father brushed past him.

“Pa!”

“I’m not sitting in this house one more minute. I’m going after them.”

Already pulling on his coat and hat, Ben fumbled with the large buttons, his fingers shaking. Hoss knew exactly how his father felt. Hell, he felt the same way. But just like before, one of them had to be the voice of reason. This time it was Hoss’ turn. He hurried to stand beside his pa, big hands shaking with emotion as he kept them clenched at his sides.

“Pa. Stop it now, Pa. You can’t go out there, not like this. That wind is bad, and gettin’ worse. And it’ll be dark soon.”

“Exactly why I need to go now.”

Ben wound a woolen scarf around his neck, tucking the edges inside his heavy coat. With a pair of gloves in hand, he reached for the door. Hoss grabbed the handle first.

“Pa! You might miss ‘em, or even get lost yourself. You know this isn’t right. You told me so yourself. We have to wait. Trust ‘em to manage like you’ve always taught us.”

Silence stretched between them, broken only by the ticking of the old clock and the roar of the wind outside the door. When he spoke, Ben’s voice was soft and Hoss had to lean closer to hear. “And we can pray.”

“Yeah, Pa, we can pray.”

Slowly, Ben unwound the scarf and slipped out of his heavy coat. Hoss hung them beside the door, carefully smoothing the sleeves in an effort to give his father time to compose himself. By the time he turned around, Ben was dropping back into his chair, a hand covering his eyes in a gesture of helpless frustration that made Hoss swallow hard. He’d won this round, but it didn’t feel like a victory. Truth be told, it was all he could do not to race out that door himself.

Instead, turning his back to the fire, Hoss lowered himself to sit on the hearth in front of Ben. Stretching out one large hand to lay on his pa’s knee, Hoss gave him the only relief he could. The consolation that one son was still here to help him.

*****

Adam opened his eyes, fighting against the rhythmic movement of his horse, the familiar cadence that lulled him towards sleep. He knew it wasn’t just the motion. It was also the bitter cold, the slowing of his system that some of the doctors had started calling hypothermia. Adam didn’t know much about it, but he’d seen men die from it. He didn’t want to be one of them. But he knew it was a very real possibility. Already his hands and feet were numb. His face felt raw from the sting of the snow, and his ears throbbed from the sound of the wind. It was enough to make a man want to close his eyes, and escape.

Struggling to straighten himself in the saddle, he pushed his face away from his brother’s back where he’d unintentionally settled. On top of everything else, Adam felt the cruel beat of guilt. It wasn’t fair that Joe was riding in front, bearing the brunt of the biting wind. But there was no other way. Even with his arms wrapped around his little brother, Adam was hard pressed to keep them both upright in the saddle. There was no way he’d be able to keep an unconscious Little Joe seated behind him. So he’d done the best that he could, pushing his own hat tightly onto his brother’s head, then tilting it sharply over his face. He’d talked to him incessantly, about everything and about nothing. In all that time, though, the minutes or hours they’d traveled so far, Joe had only roused a few times, never completely coming to. Adam knew he should be worried, but there were too many other things to worry about first.

Sport was one of them. The horse had done his best, giving his all to carry the two men home. But with each step, the animal showed that he was nearing the end of his endurance. The cold, the wind that snatched their very breath away, the weight of two men, it was too much, even for a horse as strong as Sport. Adam fought back bitter tears of frustration, while on the other side he wanted to laugh at the unusual display of emotion. Joe would be surprised. Or would he? They all knew how special their horses were to them, more than a simple mode of transportation, but something akin to friends. It was just another strange thought to the stoic Adam Cartwright.

He shook himself, mentally struggling to get a grip on his thoughts. It was getting darker now, daylight almost gone. The wind seemed to reach an even higher pitch, a shriek that would rival any woman’s scream of terror. It drove the snow into their faces, like icy shards. Adam knew that if they didn’t get home soon, the darkness would make things even harder. He also knew it was time to get down and walk again. He’d done it once, with little success, but maybe he could try again. It might help to give the animal a little relief. The problem was trying to keep Joe in the saddle while Adam trudged alongside. It was an almost impossible task, but for once, he didn’t have any other options to pursue. It was either get down and walk, doing his best to keep Joe astride, or stay in the saddle and possibly have the horse go down beneath them. It was a hell of a choice.

Adam was still contemplating his decision when Sport stopped suddenly. The horse threw his head up a little, neighing weakly, as if issuing a call. Then, without urging, he started forward again, only this time his steps were quicker, as if he’d been instilled with new energy.

It took several steps before Adam was able to make sense of Sport’s strange behavior. Looking around, he finally realized what he hadn’t noticed before. They were almost home. In fact, they were only a few hundred yards from the out buildings. Just past them was the barn. And home. For the first time since they’d recognized the storm clouds heading for them, Adam dared to believe that they’d make it.

“Joe. Joe, we’re almost home. Pa’s there, Joe. We’re almost home to Pa.”

Adam wasn’t sure his words made it past his lips, and if they did, he knew that his brother couldn’t hear him. Hell, he wasn’t even sure Joe was still alive. Yet he wouldn’t let himself believe otherwise. They’d made it. And Joe had to be all right. He simply had to be. For Pa’s sake.

Sport continued steadily forward until they were close enough for Adam to reach out and actually touch the corner of the barn. At any other time, he would’ve announced their arrival with a shout for help. But although their circumstances had changed, the storm hadn’t. The wind still screeched, blowing the snow first one way and then the other. Any attempt to call for help would be a simple waste of energy. So Adam stayed where he was, quietly perched in the saddle, tightly clasping his brother to him.

Around the barn, into the yard, and then to a stop. Adam had to urge his horse several times before Sport finally made the last few steps to the front porch. Then he stood there, silently, waiting.

Adam called once, twice. Then he tried to dismount. And found he couldn’t.

“Pa! Please, Pa. Help us!”

*****

Hoss stood up, grabbing the poker and stirring the dying fire back to life. As he reached for another piece of wood from the box, he spared a glance towards his father. Ben hadn’t moved. He no longer made his walk around the room, stopping to peer out of each window. It had been hours since he went to the door in a desperate attempt to scan the yard for their arrival. As the sky had darkened with the approaching sunset, he’d settled into his red leather chair, and there he’d stayed. No conversation, no reading, just quiet contemplation of the fire, listening to the howl of the wind, and Hoss suspected, some fervent prayer.

Moving the wood around a little more, Hoss was finally satisfied with the fire, and placed the poker back into place.

“Guess I’ll go out and get some more wood. We’re getting’ a little low.”

Ben didn’t move, and Hoss found that he couldn’t stand the silence. So he pushed. “Pa? Did you hear me? I said…”

“You said we need some more wood. That’s fine, son. You go ahead.”

Hoss shook his head at the monotone reply. His father was acting completely out of character. But then, what was a man’s character supposed to be like when he suspected that two of his sons were lost . . . possibly dead? And how was he supposed to behave when instinct was telling him to go search, but common sense said to stay put? Hoss sighed — whether from worry or despair, he didn’t know. So he did what he’d been doing all day. He tried to ignore his father’s unusual behavior, and pretend that everything was as it should be.

“Alright then, I’ll fill the box.”

The only response was silence. Shrugging into his coat, Hoss paused to look back at his father before putting on his hat. It was only a few feet to the woodpile, but he knew enough to go out prepared. Besides, maybe he’d stand on the porch for a bit. Maybe God would hear his prayers better from there. “Be right back, Pa.”

Not waiting for the answer he knew wouldn’t come, Hoss lifted the latch and stepped out on the porch. And froze in mid-step.

“Pa! Pa, hurry!”

He didn’t have to holler again. By the time Hoss reached up to help his brothers, Ben was beside him, reaching for his sons.

Hoss could see that Adam was trying to tell them something, but there was no way to make out what. His brother’s face was stiff, completely white with only a dim line where his dark hair should be. In his arms was Joe, drooped low over Sport’s neck, Adam’s hat pushed firmly on his head.

It was obvious that the men in the saddle wouldn’t be stepping down under their own power, so Ben and Hoss did what they could to help. It finally took one man on each side of the horse, Ben lifting Adam’s foot from the stirrup then pushing his leg up and over until Hoss could pull him down from his side. While Adam was being caught on one side, Joe was sliding deftly into his father’s arms on the other. All the while, the wind howled and the snow drifted around their feet.

“We need some help here, Pa.”

Hoss’ words were torn from his lips, but Ben seemed to understand anyway. He didn’t bat an eye when Hoss pulled his pistol from its holster and fired two shots into the air. Immediately the bunkhouse door flew open and several men spilled out into the storm. Dan was the first to reach them, their foreman instantly recognizing the need. Hands reached to help first Ben, then Hoss, lift their charges and move them toward the open doorway. The last two men took hold of the exhausted horse and led him toward the barn. Without looking, Hoss knew that they’d look after the animal, so when Adam stared up at him with an unspoken plea, Hoss knew just how to answer. “They’ll take good care of him, Adam. Sport’s sure earned some extra special treatment today.”

What he didn’t add was the question that begged to be asked. Where was Cochise, and what happened out there to put the two brothers onto one horse? Hoss knew that the answer wouldn’t be a good one. He also knew that there would be some sad days ahead, when his little brother realized he’d lost a trusted friend.

*****

Where Ben had previously been quiet, even morose, he was now a bundle of nervous energy. Since the time the storm broke, he’d prayed that his sons would make it home safe. Now, here they were. Home. But it didn’t look as if they were safe. Not yet anyway.

“Hop Sing, they’re near frozen. Get my bed turned down, and build up the fire in my room. We’ll put them in there together.”

The Chinaman was halfway up the stairs before Ben finished speaking, which was just as well, since Hoss had already headed toward the steps with Adam supported between his shoulder and Dan’s. They were halfway to the first landing when Hoss turned and simply hefted his older brother up into his arms and carried him the rest of the way. Ben, for his part, had a firm hold around Joe’s chest while Charlie held the boy’s legs. They took the steps slow and steady, though Ben longed to sprint upstairs and deposit his youngest son in the warmth and comfort of his bed. It frightened him to feel the cold emanating from Joe. It wasn’t natural. Ben wouldn’t allow himself to follow that line of thinking any further.

Once inside his room, Ben issued instructions in a staccato that would’ve impressed an Army Captain.

“Hoss, we need to get these wet clothes off them. Hop Sing, let Charlie work on that fire while you get some warm bedclothes and extra blankets. Dan, we’re going to need warm water. And you’ll find some cloths and bandages in the cabinet near the kitchen door.”

The men followed his orders without hesitation, leaving Hoss and Ben alone in the room with Adam and Joe. They worked silently, each removing jackets and boots, helping the other when the need warranted. By the time Hop Sing returned with dry clothing, the patients had been stripped down to their pants. Hoss took the first blanket, draping it across Adam who was already shivering violently. But Ben didn’t take the blanket Hop Sing held out. His gaze seemed to be fixed on Joe, his hands gently running down one arm. Hoss looked up from his ministrations, watching his father closely.

“Pa?”

Ben looked up, eyes meeting eyes, then looked back at Joe.

For the first time since Hoss had hollered for him, Ben found himself speechless. Where moments before he was the consummate leader, now he was simply a father. The sight of his young son, unconscious, injured . . . it was unsettling. Suddenly, Ben couldn’t think of what to do next. He stared at his son, taking in the bruise on one side of Joe’s face, the blue lips, the stillness. Something was very wrong here, and it looked to be something even more serious than the cold he’d endured.

“Pa?”

Hoss was handing him a towel, and Ben took it gratefully. It gave him something tangible to hold onto, something practical to do. Carefully toweling Joe’s arms and chest, Ben watched and waited impatiently for any sign of awareness. There was none.

Working quickly, and with Hop Sing’s assistance, they soon had Adam and Joe clothed in long johns warmed by the fire. Hot irons were placed by their feet, and numerous quilts added to the large bed and its thick down comforter. Ben knew it was an awkward situation, placing two sick men in one bed, but it made the most sense, given the circumstances. The wind, even now, howled down the chimney, threatening the fire roaring in the hearth. Darkness had fallen while they worked over his sons, and someone had pulled the heavy draperies across the window. Lamps burned bright in the room, but even inside the thick log walls, the bitter cold reached its icy fingers. No, as unusual as it might be, this was the best way to keep his boys warm, and tend their injuries at the same time.

The ranch hands had long ago returned to the bunkhouse, or the barn where Ben knew they would be working with Adam’s horse. Dan was the only one who’d stayed in the house, offering his help as needed. He’d brought wood in for the fire, helped Hop Sing tote water and supplies upstairs, and generally been indispensable. But the time Ben appreciated him the most was when the three of them had worked on Joe’s shoulder. They’d taken advantage of the boy’s unconscious state to get his shoulder back in place then wrapped his arm securely against his chest. In all that time, Joe hadn’t made a sound.

Afterwards, Dan had excused himself, promising to check in later. Hoss had followed him out, promising to return with news of Sport. Hop Sing had retreated to his kitchen, mumbling about warming broth and heating blankets. It was a harmless façade, Ben knew, for the little Chinaman was as relieved as the rest of them. The boys had made it home, a little worse for the wear, but safe inside and out of harm’s way. The storm showed no signs of lessening; in fact, it seemed to be gathering in strength and fury. The sounds around the house caused even Ben to shudder.

Straightening a quilt across his sons, Ben paused a moment to rest his hand on Joe’s forehead. Cool to the touch, but not as cold as before. There was still no movement, no stirring, no sense of recognition. The stillness was unnerving to a father used to a son in motion. Without a word, he walked around to the other side of the bed, reaching out to touch Adam’s forehead. The result was much the same, cool but not cold. However, there was movement here. Hastily pulling a chair next to the bed, Ben settled close as he watched his oldest. It was only a matter of minutes before dark eyes peered up at him.

“Pa?”

“Right here, son.”

Ben laid one hand on Adam’s arm, while he tucked the blanket tighter around his son.

“Joe?”

“He’s right next to you.”

Adam’s head turned slightly to the left, his brow furrowed with concern.

“Is he . . . is he all right?”

Ben’s throat tightened at the question, his own worry choking him as he struggled for the right words to answer with. “He’s alive, son. Thanks to you. What happened out there?”

“Don’t know for sure,” Adam answered weakly, turning back to stare at Ben with half-opened eyes. “One minute he was next to me, the next he was gone. Found him over the edge of the road. He. . .he came at me, tried to hit me, then he was out. Got him up on Sport. Next thing I remember, we were at the porch.”

“He attacked you?”

Adam blinked slowly, then nodded.

“Guess that explains the bruise on your chin.”

The rueful smile was short lived, as Adam seemed to sink lower into the soft mattress. “So cold.”

Ben stood up, retrieving yet another quilt from a stack at the end of the bed. After settling it over his sons, he turned to the fireplace, placing another log on the flames and settling it in place with a poker. “There. That should help a little.”

Adam didn’t answer, just continued to watch from his warm cocoon. His head was turned slightly to the side, keeping Joe in his line of vision as Ben moved about the room.

“How are you feeling? Do you think you could take a little broth? Hop Sing is heating some up in the kitchen, should be up here before long.”

A nod was his only answer, and Ben felt himself drawn back to the bedside. “Are you in any pain?”

Adam’s answer was slow and somewhat slurred, but his meaning was clear. “I’m fine, Pa. Joe. . .is Joe. . .?”

Ben grasped his son’s forearm, hoping his next words would be answer enough. “He hasn’t been awake yet. We’ve taken care of his shoulder, but he has a bad bump on his head. With that and the cold . . . We just have to pray, son. It’s the best thing we can do for him now.”

Although Ben’s voice was filled with optimism, he knew it was a thin veil for the worry he felt. It was obvious that Adam was not fooled either. Ben watched silently as his oldest son’s hand moved slowly under the blankets, stopping only when it rested on the arm of his youngest. Swiping one hand across his eyes, Ben dropped his gaze to the floor and followed his own advice.

*****

Hoss stood quietly next to his older brother’s horse, hands carefully feeling each leg, checking for inflammation or signs of tenderness. He was relieved to find neither.

“Rubbed him down real good, Hoss, then put that blanket on him,” Billy Smith offered. “Put that liniment on his legs like you wanted, and gave him some warm mash before we gave him any hay.”

“Thank ya, Billy. You did everything just right. Adam will rest easier knowing that Sport’s going to be all right.”

Hoss rubbed the horse’s neck while he talked, knowing full well that several sets of eyes were watching his every move. He didn’t turn to face Billy or Dan, or even Will, the oldest wrangler on the place. Hoss couldn’t bear to let them see what was surely written across his face, that there was another animal he was wishing to see standing here. It was a hard thing for any man, to lose a favorite mount, but for Joe to lose Cochise . . . Hoss didn’t want to think about it. He wouldn’t even let his mind go to the other possibility. That they might lose Joe too.

Quickly swiping one hand across his eyes, Hoss patted Sport once more then finally turned to face the hands. “Why don’t you boys turn in? It’s gettin’ colder by the minute, and there’s nothin’ more we can do here tonight. Old Sport will be just fine.”

Nodding heads were his answer as Hoss moved past them toward the barn door. He hadn’t made it more than three or four steps though, when Sport raised his head and whinnied. Chubb then Buck followed suit. Sport tossed his head while Chubb pawed at the ground.

“Easy, fella’s. There’s nothin’ out there’s gonna bother you tonight. It’s just the wind.”

Dan was next to Buck, soothing the irritated buckskin when another gust of wind hit the barn, its furious roar drowning out the men’s voices. When it subsided, Hoss stepped over to his own mount, stroking the gelding’s neck for a moment. “Sounds like it’s gettin’ worse, fellas. I’m goin’ back to the house to see if Pa needs anything. I’ll see ya in the mornin’.

“Night, Hoss.” The others echoed as Dan blew out the lantern.

Flinging open the narrow walk-thru, Hoss was startled at the world of white. If anything, the storm was stronger than before, the wind swirling snow and ice in every direction until even the outline of the house was indiscernible. Several steps from the door, Hoss stopped to shield his eyes, straining to see which way he was going. It was easy to get turned around, and he was glad for the line they’d stretched to the bunkhouse for the hands to follow. Part way down the corral fence, he veered off to the left while the others continued on. From this angle, Hoss knew he’d make it right to the porch. But suddenly the wind took his breath away, his heavy brown coat little protection from the icy finger of the storm.

Three steps, four, maybe five, Hoss bent against the wind. The house wasn’t visible, not even the glow from a lamp Hoss knew was in a window over his father’s desk. Yet he was confident that he was going in the right direction. Still, there was something unsettling, something that didn’t feel right. Stopping for a moment, Hoss listened but could hear nothing over the roar of the wind. Turning back toward the barn, Hoss peered through the storm, braving the biting wind in his face as he tried to figure out what had him spooked. Shaking off the strange feeling, he turned back to this path, took one step and ran smack-dab into a horse.

“Cochise.”

Hoss knew the animal didn’t hear his words. Couldn’t hear them himself. Didn’t need to. Grabbing hold of the bridle with one numb hand, Hoss stood there for a moment, staring at the ghostly apparition. Then Cochise whinnied softly and Hoss swore that he heard an answering call from the direction of the barn.

An unseen smile graced Hoss’ face as he turned to stumble back toward the barn, Cochise trailing along, head down and faltering. The horse looked worse for wear, and Hoss knew the animal would need time to recuperate. Even so, Hoss couldn’t keep his heart from singing with hope, his eyes watering and not all together from the storm. God alone knew how, but Joe’s horse had made it home. Now if He would just throw a little extra help down, Hoss would do his best to make sure Cochise stayed here.

*****

Ben walked slowly from the kitchen, a heavily laden tray clutched tightly between his hands. Now that the boys were warm on the outside, Ben was anxious to warm their insides, so he’d left them long enough to get some broth. Hop Sing was doing his best to keep the fires burning in the kitchen and the great room, along with heating the broth and fixing a late supper for Hoss and Ben.

Downstairs, the wind was only slightly less deafening than in the bedrooms above. Shutters had all been closed tightly and heavy draperies pulled across each window. Only one had been left uncovered. That was one of the small windows directly over Ben’s desk. In that window, a lone lamp glowed, its thin rays barely piercing the darkness outside. Yet it gave Ben the reassurance that someone making their way from the barn might get their bearings from the diminutive light.

Halfway to the stairs, Ben stopped at the sound of the front latch. Watching as the large door swung open, he was propelled into motion again by the sight of his son in the doorway. Depositing the tray of food on the round table, Ben hurried over to Hoss, closing the door behind his son, and quickly helping him shed the brown coat turned white. “Here, son, get over by the fireplace. You need to thaw out a little.”

Ben directed Hoss’ path toward the large fireplace, only to be stopped in mid-step.

“I’m fine, Pa. Let’s go on upstairs. I can get warm up there just as easy, and I want to see how they’re doing.”

The hesitation was brief, before Ben nodded in agreement. “All right. But with one condition. You stop in your room first, get some dry clothes and grab an extra blanket or two.”

“Are they all right?” Hoss asked, as Ben picked up the tray and started for the stairs again.

“Adam was asleep when I left. Joe still hasn’t come to.”

Hoss turned into his room without another word, while Ben moved on to his room down the hall. Balancing the tray in one hand, he opened the door with the other. The sight of a half-empty bed almost caused him to lose his grip on their dinner.

“I’m right here, Pa.”

“Adam. What are you doing out of bed?”

Ben made his way inside the room, laying down the tray on a small table before hurrying to his son.

“I’m fine, Pa, really. Just cold. Thought if I got a little closer to the fire, I’d feel better.”

Ben laid one hand on Adam’s forehead, the other hand firmly gripping his son’s forearm.

“Besides,” Adam continued, as if Ben wasn’t fussing over him, “it’s easier to see Joe from over here.”

Finally satisfied that his oldest was much improved, Ben retrieved the tray and uncovered one of the bowls.

“Here, try some of this. Hop Sing swears it’ll make anything better.”

Adam grinned at Ben’s weak attempt at humor, but dutifully accepted the bowl and spoon. Then, with feet still extended towards the fire, and a quilt pulled close around his shoulder, he quickly devoured the broth. He was just finishing the last spoonful when the door opened again. A huge grin split Hoss’ face as he realized his older brother was sitting up and eating.

“Adam! Darned if you don’t look a sight better.”

“Feel better, too.”

“Hoss,” Ben interrupted, “why don’t you get Adam’s robe, then he can tell us what happened.”

Without answering, Hoss hurried back into the hallway, returning almost immediately with Adam’s robe hung over one arm, and several wool blankets clutched in the other. “Think the temperature’s still dropping,” he offered in explanation.

While Hoss helped Adam get comfortable, Ben gathered the other bowl, this one only half-full. With several linen napkins tucked under Joe’s chin, and after manipulating his youngest into a reclining position against several large pillows, Ben worked patiently at spooning some of the warm broth past Joe’s silent lips. It wasn’t easy, and there was only faint success, but in time, Ben was encouraged to think that at least some of the warm fluid made it into his boy. Setting the bowl aside, Ben stood over Joe for several minutes, content to simply watch his son.

Hop Sing slipped into the room a few minutes later, his hands full with another tray loaded with stew, biscuits and a pot of coffee. It took only a few minutes to dole out the fare.

“You take some too, Hop Sing,” Ben urged. “Adam’s going to tell us what happened out there. You might as well hear it first hand.”

Quickly filling a bowl, Hop Sing sat down near the door, quietly listening without comment. But Ben was glad he’d made the request when he noticed a look of gratitude cross the cook’s face.

Adam didn’t need to be asked; he simply set his half-empty bowl on the floor and turned in his chair so he could see Joe from where he sat. In his slow but precise way, Adam told of their ride home, the first time they noticed the storm clouds, and the subsequent fight with the weather. When he got to the part where Joe had disappeared, it was Ben who moved out of his chair, going to sit on the edge of the mattress next to his young son. When the story was finished — what little bit Adam could remember of the last few miles anyway — the room was silent save the crackling of the pitch burning hot on the pine log.

“You two were sure lucky,” Hoss finally murmured.

“Amen,” answered Ben.

Adam continued to watch Joe, as if willing his youngest brother to open his eyes and contribute his own heartfelt comments. But Joe remained still.

“You done with food, Hop Sing get things washed and put away. Need to check on fire downstairs.”

Their cook blustered around the room, picking up dirty dishes, stacking items on the tray and generally making his normal fuss. Ben didn’t mind, even appreciated Hop Sing’s effort to make things seem normal. Even with the wind still howling around the eaves, things seemed more ordinary.

As soon as Hop Sing left the room, Hoss pulled himself from the chair and moved toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Ben asked quietly.

Hoss hesitated then looked at his feet, as if trying to decide how to answer.When he looked up, Ben and Adam were both staring at him expectantly. “Cochise came in,” he started. “Dan and a couple of the boys are working on him. I want to get back down there and lend a hand.”

“Cochise? Is he . . . how is he?”

“Not good, Pa. He’s pretty banged up from the fall, and he’s had a hard time out there in the storm, same as Sport. But Cochise was out longer, and with the injury on top of the cold, I don’t . . .”

Hoss’ voice trailed off, the wind’s eerie screams matching his message with the same sense of gloom. “I’ll be back as quick as I can. Just want to see how he’s doing.”

“All right, son.”

“Pa?”

“Yes Hoss.”

“Don’t tell, Joe. Please don’t tell him. I’m just not sure that. . . well, you know what I mean.”

“I understand. No, Hoss, we won’t tell him.”

From his chair near the fire, Adam nodded sadly as Hoss quietly left the room. He remained silent as Ben removed several pillows, settling Joe into a more comfortable position.

Carefully placing another log on the fire, Ben tended the fire while furtively keeping an eye on his oldest. Adam might be doing better physically, but Ben still worried about him, especially if Joe didn’t wake up soon.

*****

Adam stretched his feet out toward the fire, grateful for the warmth along with the comfortable chair. His father had urged him to get back in the bed, but Adam was content to stay where he was. Though he was tired and sore, and his face still burned from the cold and wind, he was otherwise unhurt. And with his usual tendency for thoughtful retrospection, Adam was happy to be sitting up and looking around, staring into the fire if nothing else, and thinking back over all that had happened. His position also afforded a good view of his youngest brother, and that was something he wasn’t ready to give up.

His pa had argued a little, but in the end, Ben was the one who stretched out on the bed, his back leaning against the headboard, one hand resting on Joe’s arm while the other held a book. It had been a long time since a page had been turned, but Adam knew his father wasn’t asleep. Maybe the words within the leather covers weren’t needed after the first few sentences. Just holding the Bible in his hands may have been enough to inspire Ben’s prayers.

Seeing the Bible now, Adam remembered his promise made only hours before. He was willing to pay up. The price was small in comparison to the reward. They were safe and warm, and home. There was only one part of the prayer left unanswered, but Adam was willing to wait for that too.

From across the room, a loud snore erupted, and Adam turned to watch his other brother move restlessly in his sleep. Hoss had been quiet since his last trip in from the barn, barely uttering a word except to inquire about Joe’s progress. For his part, Adam didn’t want to ask about Sport’s condition; he knew that his horse had been exhausted from the long cold ride, especially carrying two riders instead of one. But he was a strong animal, and the fact that Hoss never ventured a comment or report didn’t worry Adam. And he simply couldn’t bear to ask about Cochise. He wasn’t ready to deal with that situation if the news was as bad as he suspected. Regardless, their main concern was Joe, and Hoss was consumed with that as they all were. The horses would be well cared for, and Adam would check on them in the morning. For now, it was a worry he pushed from his mind.

Ben moved slightly, the book tipping from his hand. Adam watched as his father’s chin lowered slowly towards his chest. The man was tired. They all were. But they were together.

Sinking lower into the chair and pulling the heavy quilt up over his shoulders, Adam looked into the golden flames, wondering at the strange feelings the fire invoked, the warmth he knew was there versus the cold he still felt deep within.

Adam shivered as once again he felt the icy wind on his face, his numb and painful fingers trying to hold Joe in the saddle. It was too much effort to open his eyes, to try and peer through the blinding curtain of white in his search for home, but when he did manage to hazard a glance, Adam was surprised to see not the blinding storm but the soft glow of firelight reflecting off the wood paneling of his father’s bedroom walls.

Home.

For that brief moment, he’d been lost in fearful memories, but the reality was that he was home, and safe. His gaze rested on Joe, also home but not yet safe. His eyes slid closed as Adam imagined the words he instinctively knew his father had been reading: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want . . .”

*****

Warmth. Comfortable, glowing, warmth. The darkness eased into a soft yellow haze as Joe struggled to open his eyes. Though blurry, his vision was clear enough to determine that he was inside his father’s room, and warm. . .oh so warm. The feeling was enough to make him smile, if it weren’t for the pain that suddenly flared through his head. Piercing, blinding, pain. It left him gasping for air when it finally relinquished its hold. Only then was Joe aware that the pain had spread from his head to his shoulder, both throbbing with the remnants of such brutal intensity.

Once more attempting to open his eyes, this time in a faint attempt to confirm his surroundings, Joe was rewarded with a new feeling. Relief. It overwhelmed him, the feeling of safety and peace. He didn’t know how, but he was home.

The low moan caught his attention, and Joe turned to find its source. Only then, when the pain returned in full force, did he realize the moan was his own. Riding out this new wave of torture, his breathing harsh even to his own ears, Joe was once again relieved at its passing, this time doubly relieved as he recognized the quilt-covered legs of his brother, Adam, gracing the edge of the mattress. The sight of his sleeping brother brought back in vivid detail, their time together on the trail. Most of it was lost in a white haze, but the peril they’d found themselves in, the danger they’d endured was very clear. Joe remembered that part well. What he couldn’t remember was how he ended up here, in Pa’s bed.

Suddenly aware that someone was speaking to him, Joe carefully turned his head, rewarded by the sight of a familiar face. “Pa?”

“Right here, Joe. You’re going to be all right, boy. You’re going to be all right.”

Joe didn’t question his pa, or the emotion caught behind the hesitation in his voice. Didn’t even wonder at his father’s large hand gently squeezing his own. Closing his eyes, Joe relished the feel of the warm hand moving to his forehead, gently checking for fever, then softly stroking his head. The familiar gesture worked its charms, and Joe marveled at the softness of the bed as he relaxed into its warmth and promptly fell asleep.

*****

Epilogue:

The early snowstorm was one for the history books, or at least, that’s how some of the ranch hands talked about it in later years. For the Cartwrights, it was a memory they rarely mentioned. The storm itself had raged on for three days before the sky finally cleared, but the frozen landscape was beautiful for weeks afterwards, the blue sky and dazzling sunlight glinting off the pure white snow. The cold hadn’t let up, but kept things frozen over, the start of a long winter, according to Dan.

Joe’s recovery was slow at first, headaches keeping him bedridden for over a week. When he was finally up to walking again, he had to take it slow due to the bandaged shoulder and Ben’s watchful gaze. Neither relented in their persistence. So Joe stayed down and quiet. It didn’t really matter. There was one loss on that cold November day that ruled his thoughts, a loss he refused to talk about. Not that anyone really pushed him about it. In fact, that was the one part that surprised Joe, given his father’s normal penchant for getting things out in the open.

There had only been one mention of the loss. When Joe had come awake that first morning, he was rewarded by the sight of Hoss dozing in a chair nearby. His one word question “Cochise?” had brought such a sad frown to his brother’s face that Joe couldn’t bear to question further. He’d known, anyway, that his friend was lost. Though their journey to the ranch was made up of a jumble of small memories, Joe did remember that he had shared a saddle with Adam. Sport was the one who’d brought them home safe and sound. Cochise was nowhere in the memory, and Joe instinctively knew why. So he bore his loss in silence. Talking about it was more than he could bear.

Several weeks had passed when Adam and Hoss burst in the door one afternoon, each covered with snow, but laughing merrily. Between the two of them, they jockeyed a beautiful green pine tree into the room, happily bringing Christmas to the house. Ben was ready for them; boxes of ornaments wrapped in filmy cotton lay about the table. Joe was the only one not in the mood for the holiday cheer. Still, he did his best to paste a smile on his face. It was the least he could do for his family.

“Here, Joe. Hang onto this for a minute.” Adam handed Joe a burlap sack while he and Hoss manhandled the tree into position. “There, how’s that look?”

“Looks fine, boys.” Ben’s voice rumbled through the room in warm approval.

Joe merely nodded before gently tossing the burlap back to Adam who spread it under the tree. Moving over to the fireplace, Joe pretended to busy himself with the poker, jabbing first one log then the other. He didn’t notice his brothers casting glances back and forth, or their father’s look of approval. Neither did he notice Hoss leaving the room a few minutes later. Adam kept up a steady stream of conversation with Ben, to Joe’s relief, and he finally set the poker back in place and headed for the settee. Just as he settled against the cushion, there was a knock on the door.

“Joe, can you get that?”

“But Pa . . .”

“We’re kind of busy here, Joe,” Adam quipped from somewhere behind the large tree.

With a little internal moaning of his own, Joe struggled up from his seat. Another knock came before he made it to the door, and Joe bit his lip to keep from hollering his normal “I’m coming” to whoever waited on the other side.

Slowly opening the door against the winter cold, Joe found himself frozen in place, every part of him suddenly numb with shock.

“Got somethin’ here for ya, little brother. Call it an early Christmas present.”

Joe’s eyes were wide, his mouth hung open in surprise, and no words would work their way past the lump in his throat. Pa’s arm across his shoulder was welcome support, along with Adam’s hand resting on his good arm. But it was the amazing grin on Hoss’ face that finally moved Joe forward. That and the sight of a horse standing right on the porch, practically with his nose in the doorway, his beloved Cochise. The paint was covered with a blanket, but it didn’t detract from the brilliant shine of his black and white coat. The horse nickered in welcome, drawing Joe’s hand involuntarily towards the warm nose.

“Cooch. You’re alive. But how?”

Wet eyes turned to each member of his family, begging then demanding answers.

“Why? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“We wanted to, son,” Ben offered. “But Cochise was in pretty bad shape after the fall. By the time he made it home, he was pretty sick, and we weren’t sure if he’d make it. Hoss worked night and day to save your horse, but we wanted to be real sure Cochise was fully recovered before we told you.”

“Just couldn’t imagine you havin’ to lose him a second time, Little Joe,” Hoss mumbled as he stroked the horse’s neck.

Adam cleared his throat, in his own way echoing the emotion of the others. The scene might’ve looked a bit unusual: four grown men standing in an open doorway, frigid temperatures causing them to shiver while they stared at a horse. Not one of them would’ve had it any other way.

The winter storm had left its mark, the snow still heavy on the ground, the bitter cold unrelenting. Yet the elements, even with all that power and fury, couldn’t break the strength of this family’s love and commitment

Rubbing Cochise’s face, peering into the dark eyes of his trusted friend, Joe knew that with or without this gift, he was still the luckiest guy in the world. Turning first to look at Hoss, then Adam and finally Ben, Joe swallowed hard. When he finally spoke, his words were simple but sincere.

“Thank you!”

***End***

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