Word Count: 1350
Joe Cartwright lifted his head, realizing he had almost slipped away again into a world where darkness and light, noise and silence were blurred – a world where there was no space and no time.
Although he heard but that one simple word – his name – he knew by the tone that his brother Adam had been calling to him insistently, but only now did the sound infiltrate the depth of Joe’s consciousness.
Recognizing that his brother had roused himself to some level of awareness, Adam spoke again: “Keep your head up.”
Joe managed a fleeting smile, acknowledging his brother’s worried instruction, but their present situation overwhelmed even that meager effort at cheer. The Cartwright brothers were in trouble, and they knew it.
He was so cold he could barely move. Joe reached up, snugging his hat even lower on his head even as he made a valiant attempt to follow his brother’s direction to keep his head up – a reminder Adam had already given several times now. Squinting against the cold wind and the sleet that cut like razors, Joe peered out from under the brim of his hat into the yawning expanse of darkness that stretched before him.
Nothing but snow – in the sky, on the ground, and everywhere in between. White snow, so much snow that it made the whole world dark …
Adam’s horse stumbled as it struggled through the chest-deep drifts. Lacking any guidance from the reins, Cochise had been measuring his pace against Sport’s and also missed a step. The resultant jolt made Joe realize he had already begun fading again, and this scared him; to fall asleep now, in the middle of this blizzard, meant certain death.
There was still enough self-awareness in Joe Cartwright for this concept to spark a flash of anger, and he sat up straighter than he had for miles and nudged Cochise with his heels, just enough to remind the horse he had a rider.
“Where are we?” Joe called. Even with those few words, his voice was slow and slurred; he was so cold he could hardly move his jaws to speak.
Adam looked back at his brother, who was beside and slightly behind him, and Joe saw him shake his head.
“Not sure,” Adam said. “I think … up here …”
Joe ducked his head again. He didn’t know which had faded, Adam’s voice or his hearing, but he knew they were running out of time. If they didn’t find shelter soon…
“Here!” Adam’s voice again. How long had he been shouting? Joe had no idea, but as he lifted his head once again, he could see Adam urging Sport up a slope. Sport’s great flanks heaved as the horse valiantly plowed through the snow, one gasping leap after another. Cochise, behind him, had an easier route through the broken path, but even then, it was all the smaller pinto could do to hurdle the deep drifts.
Adam kicked at Sport, and Joe followed suit with Cochise as the brothers urged the horses forward. Gasping and snorting, their mounts responded courageously, and as Joe lifted his head once more, he saw their salvation materializing before him.
He didn’t wonder why there was a shack in the middle of nowhere; he didn’t wonder how his brother had found it. He knew only that they were saved, that they would live … and that it was not a moment too soon.
The wind had increased in its fury, and Joe could barely catch Adam’s words – “Horses … here” – before the wind snatched them away.
Adam had already slid down from Sport and was dragging, more than leading, the horse into a lean-to that thankfully faced away from the wind. Joe tried but could not move his leg enough to dismount, and so merely laid down against his horse’s neck as Cochise struggled over the final drift and into the shelter.
“Here,” Adam said, and Joe rolled off the saddle and into his brother’s arms. Joe staggered and would have fallen if Adam had not kept a tight hold on him.
“Got it?” Adam asked after a moment, and Joe nodded, having regained sufficient strength and stability to stand.
Some snow had sifted through the cracks in the walls and roof, but in the dim light, Joe could see hay scattered on the floor. It wasn’t much, but it would be enough to take care of the horses for one night, anyway, he thought. His arms ached as he swung them, gathering the hay together and piling it near Sport and Cochise. Adam was loosening the cinches; they would leave the blankets and saddles on to provide whatever warmth they might.
Satisfied that the horses were as protected and provided for as possible, the two brothers shrugged more deeply into their coats and leaned out into the wind to fight their way toward the door of the shack.
There were a few sticks of firewood in a corner, enough to start a blaze. Joe left Adam to tend the fire and went outside, scrambling deep into the underbrush where the wood might not be so wet. He collected an armload of wood, venturing out three times until they had enough to get them through the night. The wood was not completely dry, but even a smoky fire is warm, Joe thought.
Adam was rummaging in the saddlebag he’d brought inside with him. Looking up as Joe brought in the final load of firewood, he managed a tired grin. “How does beans sound?”
“Sounds good,” Joe said, and he meant it. “Do we have any coffee?”
Adam grinned for real this time. “Yep.” He pointed toward the fire; a pot of water was already steaming.
Joe looked around the room. The dilapidated shack was surprisingly warm; he supposed the snow that lay all around and over the small building kept it insulated, now that the fire was burning. There was no furniture, so he crouched down on his haunches next to Adam, and stiffly raised his numb hands toward the fire.
Adam coughed and absently fanned the smoke away from his face. He took two tin cups from his bag, handing one to Joe and setting the other on the floor between them. Using a bandanna to protect his hand, he picked up the coffee pot and poured for them both.
Joe held the cup in his hands, bowing his face into the steam and sighing appreciatively at its warmth.
He took a sip. Hot … wonderful.
Joe spoke; his voice was raspy and he had to clear his throat and try again. “Thanks, Adam.”
“Mm. You’re welcome.”
Joe sipped the coffee again. “I mean, thanks for getting us here. I thought …” He stopped talking and looked at the fire.
Adam smiled. “I thought so too,” he said quietly. “Here, let’s eat and get some sleep. I know where we are now. We should be home tomorrow.”
Joe nodded and took the plate of beans his brother held toward him. They ate in silence, the only sounds their forks scraping the metal plates, the fire crackling in protest on the wet wood, and the howl of the wind against the walls.
Joe threw more wood onto the fire as Adam spread a blanket on the floor near the blaze, leaving the place closest to the fire for his brother as he lay down with a groan. Joe settled next to Adam, pulling his blanket over both of them. The dirt floor was cold and hard, but Joe sighed in satisfaction.
Once again, Joe felt himself drifting away, but now he was safe … now he was warm, the fire in front of him, his brother behind him. But he had to know: “Adam? How did you …?”
His brother’s rich, deep chuckle was the last thing Joe heard before he yielded to sleep’s sweet embrace. “I told you, Joe. Keep your head up.”