The Buck (by Sandy W)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,800


Every year since the boys were old enough to go hunting with him, Ben had taken a few days to make a hunting trip with just one of them, trading off year by year. They often all went together, but somehow Ben felt that getting off with just himself and one of his boys together on a short hunting trip gave them a chance to get to know each other a little better, maybe talk about some things there was never time for at home with all the work to be done.

This year Ben was determined to take Adam with him. He was worried about Adam. It was only three months since Adam’s good friends Ross and Delphine Marquett had died. It would have been one thing if they had died in some unfortunate accident or the fever, or something else of the kind, but that wasn’t the case. Adam and Ross had been best friends for 15 years, since their young teenage years. In some ways Ross had almost been like another son to Ben, and Ross’ parents felt the same about Adam. No one could ever have foreseen what would come to pass 15 years later.

How could it have happened and just what did happen, Ben thought to himself. How could someone like Ross, who had been raised by wonderful parents and seemed just like any of his own boys, have turned into the monster he had become only a few months before his death. It was like he had turned into another person, and apparently in the few moments before his death – at Adam’s hands – he turned back into the man they once knew, not even remembering the previous ten months when he had stolen 500 head of cattle from the Ponderosa herd, had beaten his wife repeatedly, finally beating her to death. Then he tried to shoot down Adam when Adam came after him.

Delphine had died in Adam’s arms. That alone had caused Adam to feel deep grief and an agony of guilt for not being there to save her from Ross. Ben knew his son and knew what he was feeling over that. But even worse was that Adam was the first to track down Ross. Ross fired on him several times with his rifle, hitting Adam in the arm with one of the bullets, before Adam finally had to pull his own pistol and shoot back. Ross lived for a few more minutes, seeming to be back to his old self again, then also dying as Adam held his hand.

Ben knew the whole thing was eating at Adam and had been for these three long months. He knew Adam was feeling guilty over the whole situation. Whenever Ben tried to talk with him about it, he would brush it off. Ben thought maybe the hunting trip would let Adam relax a little, maybe they could talk it out some. Ben didn’t hold out a whole lot of hope on that, though, as Adam was always so self-contained, so apt to keep these kinds of feelings to himself, to work them out on his own. Ben figured eventually, with time, Adam would let go of it, but it was just one more tragedy in Adam’s young life that he had had to deal with.

Ben had dealt with many tragedies in his own life, but he had his sons to raise and that had helped probably more than they would ever know. Of course, Adam had his fathers and his brothers, but Ben knew it just wasn’t the same.

*****

Ben was mulling these things over in his mind one evening as he sat in his chair smoking his pipe and occasionally stealing glances at his oldest son, who was sitting by the fireplace curled up with another book as usual. Ben saw that Adam, instead of reading, was many times just staring into the fire, something his father had often caught him doing during these three months.

Joe and Hoss had already gone up to bed, as they had had a long day out on the range, finally getting the herd settled in the winter pastures. Adam had worked with his father on the books most of the day.

“Say, son, ” Ben softly called over to Adam, “I’m planning on going up to the high country on Thursday and doing a little hunting before the really bad weather sets in. I know it’s a little late for this year, but I’d really appreciate it if you would come with me. Joe and Hoss are going to be doing the tally on the herd. Otherwise, things are pretty well battened down for the winter, and I’d sure like to have your company on this little trip.”

Adam started slightly when his father first spoke, but responded, “Oh, Pa, I guess so. Some venison might taste nice rather than beef for a change, or maybe a little elk.” He really wasn’t in the mood for it, but he knew his father wanted him to go and he didn’t have the heart to turn him down.

Ben smiled encouragingly, “Great, son, I’m looking forward to it. We’ll pack up some supplies Wednesday and get an early start Thursday, probably be back early part of next week.”

“All right, Pa. Sounds fine to me. I think I’ll go on up now. Goodnight, Pa.”

“Goodnight, son. Thanks for coming with me.”

Adam arose from the blue chair, stretching as he did so, then climbed up the stairs to go to his room. Ben sat for a while longer, staring into the fire himself, wondering if there was anything he could say or do to ease things for Adam, but knowing in his heart it was probably something that was just going to take some time.

It was a little late in the year to be heading for the high country to hunt, but there just had been no time before and the snow had been holding off, so Ben figured a few more days probably wouldn’t make any difference. Usually, the snow started pretty slow anyway, so even if it started, they would have time to get back before there was any trouble with it.

*****

So Ben and Adam started off on their trip about 4:30 a.m. on Thursday morning. They had said their good-byes to Hoss and Joe the evening before, knowing that neither of them would be wanting to get up that early if it wasn’t necessary. Hoss had told them to keep careful watch on the weather and turn on back if it started to go sour on them. They both promised they would.

They reached Green Meadows, one of their favorite hunting places , well before nightfall and set up camp. They shared the duties of finding wood for fire and getting their supper cooked. After supper, they both sat against a downed log and drank a second cup of coffee.

They discussed a bit what their hunting strategy would be the following day, then both sat staring into the campfire.

“Son, Ben started, “I know that you’ve been troubled ever since Ross and Delphine died, and I want you to know if there is anything I can do for you, or if you need to talk, I’m here.”

Adam hesitated for a long while, then softly said, “I know that Pa. I’ve always known that. I don’t really know what it is myself. I guess I just feel guilty about everything and I can’t seem to shake it. I don’t understand why I didn’t see what was happening with Ross long before it came to a head like that, and I can’t help but think I should have done more to protect Delphine once I found out what Ross was doing to her.”

“But, son, you took her away from there to our house the first you knew he was beating her. What more could you have done?” Ben asked quietly.

“Oh, I don’t know, Pa, seems like there should have been something. I can’t get their faces out of my head as they were both dying in my arms. I have nightmares about them, can’t seem to shake it all off.”

“Well, son, nobody expects you to just forget it, but you had no fault in this. There’s no reason for you to feel guilty. You did everything any friend could have done and more. “

“Adam, you’ve always taken everything to heart so seriously, ever since you were a little boy. Sometimes you take more on yourself than you really need to. I know you’ve seen a lot of tragedies, more than most men twice your age, but you did the very best you could for both Ross and Delphine. I know it hurts to see your friends die like that, but there comes a time to let it go, son. That’s something I have had to learn the hard way, by experience.”

“I know you have, Pa, but there wasn’t anything you could have done about my mother or Ingrid or Marie.”

“Wasn’t there, son?” Do you think I haven’t spent some long nights wondering if Ingrid might not have lived if I hadn’t insisted on coming West, or that Marie might not have been killed by that horse if I had really put my foot down about her riding habits. Sure I have, but with time, I realized that these things just happen. It doesn’t do yourself or anybody else any good to dwell on them or let guilt tear you apart.”

“I know that, Pa, I really do and I’m trying my best to look at it that way. It’s getting better, Pa, really it is. I don’t have the dreams so much. I try to keep busy – that helps and, uh … Pa, it’s helped to just talk it out with you tonight. I always know that helps, but sometimes it’s just hard to get started. Thanks, Pa.”

“Well, son, that’s my job, you know. You boys are everything to me. Some people think the success in my life is measured by the size of the Ponderosa, or the size of my bank account, but that’s not the way I feel. You three boys are my success and I’m proud of each of you. Someday, Adam, when you have your own children, you’ll realize how it is. When your children hurt, you hurt; that’s just how it is. I’ve known you were hurting, but I just didn’t know how to help you. I’ve wanted us to have this talk, but I didn’t know quite how to get it started either.”

“Pa, I’m glad you decided on this trip. I think it’s just what I needed right now.”

“I’m glad, too, Adam.”

*****

The next morning, they awoke to a small sifting of snow, which surprised them both.

“Adam,” Ben said, “maybe we should call this off. We don’t want to be stranded up here in the snow.”

“Well, Pa, it’s only a few flakes. I doubt it’s going to turn into much. We can at least give it a try for today. Can’t be much to come at least for a few days. If it’s still coming by tonight, we can head back in the morning, whaddya say.”

Ben thought for a moment and then decided Adam was probably right.

“Okay, son, we’ll give it at least today, but if it still looks like it’s going to continue, we’ll head back home in the morning. Let’s fix some breakfast and head out.”

They proceeded to follow along an animal trail they found that had a few deer droppings here and there, and were hoping to sight something pretty soon.

Adam was walking just ahead of his father when he stopped quickly, “Pa,” he whispered “look over there, ” pointing off in the distance to a large 5-point buck which was standing, ears alert, turning it’s head back and forth.

“I see him, son,” Ben whispered back. Just at the moment the buck must have picked up their scent because it took off running through the trees and out of their sight.

“Pa, why don’t I head up the hill and see if I can head him off that way while you go round the bottom of the hill. Maybe we can come at him from both sides and get him.”

“All right, Adam, meet up with you later. I’ll make a little noise going this way and maybe scare him up towards you, okay.”

“Okay, Pa,” and they separated, each going off on their own.

After Ben had walked along for a while, going well beyond where the deer had started to veer off up the hill, he started letting his footfalls make some noise, reaching out and making some noise with the underbrush with his hand. Pretty soon, all of a sudden, there it was standing up the hill under a tree. Because of the thick trees and even thicker surrounding underbrush, he was pretty hard to see, but Ben could make him out. He had a clear shot and raised his rifle up to his shoulder, cocking it as quietly as possible.

What he didn’t realize was that Adam was standing some 50 yards behind the buck, deep in the brush. He had also spotted the deer, but father and son were unaware of each other due to the thickness of the underbrush.

The snow had started earlier to fall more heavily. Ben knew they would have to head back in the morning and figured this would probably be the only chance they would have to get their deer. He had hunted with his sons all of his life and had taught them to always be careful of their fellow hunters, but he saw nothing of Adam and knew that going up the hill and back around that surely that Adam had not had time to come this far. He took careful aim and squeezed off the shot, but something had startled the buck and it swerved off just at the moment Ben pulled the trigger.

Almost instantly, Ben’s blood ran cold and his stomach jumped up into his heart. Just after the shot rang out, he heard the sound of a man crying out in pain.

“Oh dear God in Heaven, what have I done?” Ben cried out to himself, taking off at a dead run in the direction of his shot. He couldn’t see anything, but he knew he had heard someone cry out, and the only someone he knew of in the area was his son. He reached the tree where the buck had been standing and looked off through the underbrush behind it, which would have been in the line of fire. Still he could see and hear nothing. He started to trudge into the brush itself, using his rifle to beat down some of the worst of it, absolutely heartsick and scared to death of what he might find.

“Adam, Adam, son, can you hear me? Where are you?” he yelled as loud as he could, his voice shaking, though. No answer.

“Adam, Adam, answer me, please, son.” Still nothing. “Dear God, Adam are you there, please answer me.”

He had made some headway through the brush. His heart was racing a million beats a minute, he felt. The last time he felt this kind of terror was when Marie had ridden so fast into the yard of the Ponderosa, with her horse stumbling and falling on her.

“Oh, please God, not again and not at my own hands.” He was sick with fear, sicker than he had ever felt.

‘Ooooh”

Ben stopped short. He heard it and he recognized the timber of his oldest son’s voice. He thought he was going to throw up, but he held it back.

“Adam, son, where are you? “I’m coming, I’ll find you, son.”

He pushed on through some more of the underbrush and came out into a small clearing. There was a light, but thorough, covering of snow on the ground now, and there lying on that white blanket of snow was his beloved eldest son, lying in a pool of red, a pool of his own blood, the redness of the blood against the pure white snow making Ben almost lose his battle with the nausea.

“Oh my God, Adam, Adam, what have I done.” Ben raced over to Adam and dropped to his knees. He could see the bullet wound right under Adam’s left collarbone, bleeding heavily. Adam’s rifle was lying a few feet away from him and his black hat was off to the side.

“Son, son, can you hear me, answer me son.” Ben started to open up Adam’s coat to get a better look at the wound, tears starting to roll down his face. He then pulled open Adam’s shirt and saw the damage. His hands were shaking and his voice quavered as he called again to his son, “Adam, can you hear me son?”

Adam’s eyes had been closed, but they fluttered slightly and then opened. “Pa, Pa, ” he said weakly. Ben could hardly hear the words.

“Yes son, it’s Pa, I’m here. I’m so sorry, son, but you’re going to be okay. I’m going to fix you up and you are going to be fine. I just have to take care of this wound.” Ben was trying to convince himself as well as Adam.

“Pa, what happened, I could see the deer and then all of a sudden … I don’t know what happened,” Adam wheezed out the words and then his eyes fluttered closed again.

“It’s my fault, son.” I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there, didn’t think you had time to be there. ” Ben’s voice and his hands could not stop shaking and the tears were coming even faster, but he knew he had to get control of himself if he was going to save his son.

“Son, I’ve got to turn you on your side to see if the bullet went through.” With that, he took hold of Adam’s left arm and pulled him over far enough to see his back. Adam’s eyes opened widely and he cried out in pain, cutting through his father’s heart as deeply as if it had been pierced by a knife. What he saw made him both feel sick and a little better at the same time. The bullet had obviously passed clear through, but the hole in his back was much worse than the one in the front. This is where the blood was really streaming from. He had to do something to stanch the flow.

“Adam, “I’ve got to get your coat off so I can do something to stop the bleeding. I’m sorry that moving you hurts, but I’ve got to do it.”

Adam’s eyes were closed again, and a deep moan was his only answer.

Ben quickly, but carefully pulled Adam’s arm out of the sleeve of his coat. His hands were still shaking, but not as much as before. He was determined that he would do what had to be done. Adam continued to moan with the pain as the sleeve came off. Ben was on his knees with Adam’s body lying partially on its side, leaning against Ben’s legs. Ben reached for his hunting knife in its case on his belt. He cut off the sleeve of Adam’s coat and folded it up into a ball and held it against the wound with as much pressure as he could exert. He knew he had to stop the bleeding as soon as possible, or at least get it to slow down. He also knew he had to somehow get Adam back to their camp, and he had no idea how on earth he was going to do that.

But first things first. The pressure he was applying to the wound seemed to be slowing down the flow of blood. By then, he had the other sleeve of Adam’s coat balled up on top of the front side of the wound and was applying pressure with his knee to that, hoping to stanch the flow from that side as well. Adam continued to moan with the pain and Ben could feel Adam’s body growing colder. He realized that the snow was coming down harder now.

Dear God, what have I gotten us into, he screamed inside his head to himself.

He slowly was able to struggle out of his own coat without easing off too much on the pressure he was exerting on the two holes in his son’s body. He tried as best he could to cover Adam with it, while still applying pressure on the wounds. He decided to take the rest of Adam’s coat and bunch it up behind Adam so that he could ease his body back against it, using that for pressure to try to free up his hands. He needed to cut off the sleeves of his own shirt to use to tie up the makeshift bandage. He had to try to get Adam moved back to their camp. Thank God, at least they weren’t more than a mile from camp.

Ben was determined that no matter what it took, he would get Adam back there where their supplies could make things easier. He could see the bleeding had almost completely let up and he said a quick prayer in thanks for that.

After he got his own shirtsleeves cut off he could see that the bandage against the wound in Adam’s back was soaked clear through with blood. Ben decided then to finish taking off his own shirt and then his heavy cotton winter undershirt. It had gotten very cold, but Ben didn’t even notice his own discomfort. His only thoughts were of how to save his son’s life. He cut out the back of his undershirt, rolled it into a big soft bandage and exchanged it for the coat sleeve. Then he tied together the sleeves of his own shirt and proceeded to use that to wrap around Adam’s body, and tie it together to hold the bandage in place.

Adam groaned in pain at the ministrations of his father, but his eyes didn’t open again and he didn’t attempt to talk.

Ben put what was left of his own shirt back on, then stuffed the rest of the undershirt into the pocket of his coat that was covering Adam.

“Adam, son, I’ve got to get you up and get you back to camp. I know it’s going to be rough. I can’t carry you, but you’ll have to just lean on me and try to help as best you can. We must get you back to camp where we can build a fire and get you warm. Try to help me, son”

Ben pulled Adam around and up to a sitting position as carefully as he could. Adam’s head rolled down with his chin on his chest, softly moaning.

“I’m so sorry, son, but we’ve got to do this. Help me as best you can, please, son.”

Again, a moan was the only answer from Adam. Ben leaned Adam against his left knee and left side of his own body, picked up his own coat that had fallen into Adam’s lap and wrapped it around Adam’s back and shoulders. He was finally able to maneuver Adam’s good arm into the one sleeve; he knew he would not be able to get the other arm into the sleeve. He pulled the coat around Adam’s body and thanked God that he was enough bigger than his son that he could button the coat all the way down even with the one arm not in the sleeve. He reached across and picked up Adam’s hat that by now was covered in what looked to be a couple of inches of snow. It shook Ben again to realize that. He looked up at the sky and what he saw scared him. It looked to him like they were in for a real snow storm. Why hadn’t he seen it coming before? He knew it was unusual for winter to set in this fast, but in the 25 years he had lived in this country, he had seen it occur a few times.

“How could I let this happen?” he remonstrated with himself.

He shook the snow off of Adam’s hat and started to put it on his son’s head, but realized it was wetter and colder than his own, so he exchanged hats and put his own down low on Adam’s head, hoping to try to keep his body temperature from going even lower. He felt so cold to the touch as it was.

“Okay, son, we have to get you on your feet now. I know it’s going to be hard, but we can do it. We have to do it son. We have to get you back to camp where I can get you warmed up and take better care of the wound, now come on up.”

Ben carefully got to his own feet, reached down and put his hand under Adam’s right armpit and reached around with the other and carefully took hold of Adam’s bad arm. Adam yelped out in pain and opened his eyes for the first time in a while.

“Pa, I’m sorry, I can’t, I just can’t,” he moaned out.

“Adam it is isn’t a question of can’t, you absolutely must do this,” he ordered, his voice stern. With that, he raised Adam to a standing position and, as gently as he could, he put Adam’s good arm around his own neck and pulled him up close against him so that he was shouldering the greater portion of Adam’s weight.

“Son, I can’t carry you – I’ll drag you if necessary, but please try to help if you can.” He took a couple of steps, realizing how weak his son was, but Adam did almost unconsciously put one foot in front of the other, and they started off back to the camp.

It was the longest walk of Ben’s life. Most of the time, Adam was dead weight in his arms and he did indeed have to drag him, with Adam moaning in pain with each step. Those expressions of pain, cut Ben to the quick, but he was determined to get him to camp, no matter what. Sometimes Adam became conscious enough to try and help; he did his best, considering the condition he was in and Ben knew it.

At long last, they reached their camp. Buck, Sport, and their pack horse were still loosely tied to a line out in the meadow, but the meadow was covered with snow as was the campsite. Ben was getting more and more worried about the weather. He had to get a fire started and get Adam warm, but how on earth was he going to get him home.

He carefully laid Adam down underneath a large pine tree where the ground was still free from snow and quickly gathered up the wood they had collected this morning before leaving and started a fire. He put the coffee pot on to boil some water. He gathered up their blankets to hold in front of the fire and as soon as they were warm he took them over to his son. He used one to pillow his head and then covered him tightly with the others.

Adam was still crying out and moaning with the pain, but his eyes flickered open for a moment and whispered, “Pa, drink…water…please.”

Ben got up and ran for the canteen, lifted Adam’s head slightly and tried to get some of the water into his mouth. Adam was only able to get a small amount of it down. He was so weak, he could hardly swallow.

“Think, Ben, think,” he said to himself. “What am I going to do now?” His only thought before was getting Adam to their camp, but he realized with the snow coming down the way it was that this wasn’t going to be good enough to save his son. He had to find shelter and a better way to keep him warm. Soon he would be wet from the snow. Ben found himself shivering now and he could see that Adam was starting to shiver and tremble from the shock and the cold.

There was no way he could get Adam home in this condition. It was too far.

“I’ve been over this area a hundred times, where is there some shelter, where…,” Ben asked himself. His mind was beginning to numb and he was having trouble thinking straight. Finally, he remembered an old abandoned mine shaft on the other side of Green Meadow. The entrance was still open and he remembered the entryway being rather large. If he could get Adam to that mine, they would be out of the elements and he could build a fire at the entrance. The main thing was to get him out of the weather, but how would he get him there. It was too far to try to walk him there as they had just done to the campsite, and he knew Adam had become too weak for that anyway. He also knew Adam could not ride a horse on his own, and didn’t even know if he could get his son up onto a horse. Finally, he felt the best thing to do was to someway get Adam onto Buck, and either mount up behind him and hold him on that way or walk beside him and try to hold him on. They would lead the pack horse behind, and let Sport go and hope against hope that Sport would head back to the Ponderosa.

He couldn’t think of anything else to do. It was the only chance to save his son that he could think of. Ben grabbed one of the other blankets and wrapped around his shoulders as the cold was starting to get to him, too.

“Oooh, Pa, Pa, what’s wrong, what happened, Pa” Ben rushed to Adam’s side, reached down and stroked his cheek.

“Son, I’m here son. You’re shot, son, but you’re gonna be fine. I’m gonna take you to a place where we’ll be out of the snow, but you’re gonna have to help me again, son. I know it’s gonna be hard, but we’ve gotta get you up on Buck. You won’t have to ride very far, but I know we can do it. He reached down and held Adam’s right hand and squeezed it .

“Son, do you hear what I’m telling you?”

“Pa … don’t know if I can, feel so bad … Pa …. Hurts.”

“I know it does, boy, and I’m so sorry, but we’ve gotta get you in some shelter. This snow is coming down too hard for us to stay here.”

“Pa ….feel sick, so sick….Pa….,” and with that Adam turned his head and started to vomit. Ben immediately tried to raise him up as quick as he could because he knew Adam could choke if he didn’t get him into a better position. Adam moaned with pain while retching. Ben got him raised up enough to lean his head over Ben’s arm and let it come. Adam retched and cried out with the pain, then retched some more. With each movement, the pain seemed to increase until he was writhing, crying out and retching all at the same time. The tears reached Ben’s eyes again and overflowed onto his cheeks.

“It’s okay, boy …. It’s okay. I’m right here. Let me help you son. I’m so sorry, son. Try to relax. It’s gonna be okay.” Ben own stomach was twisting into knots as he watched his son’s agony, and the knowledge that his own carelessness was causing his son’s misery made it all the more difficult to watch. Adam was a grown man, but he was still Ben’s boy and it was tearing him to pieces to watch his son suffer so.

He was worried that all this movement was going to start the bleeding again, but Adam calmed down at his father’s voice and after the retching stopped, Ben checked the wounds and they didn’t appear to have started bleeding again.

“Sorry, Pa…. Sorry, sorry got sick.”

“Son, it’s not your fault, boy. Let’s just lay you back down now and get you covered back up. Don’t you worry about anything. Pa’s gonna take care of you, son. Just relax.” Ben pulled the blanket up and securely tucked it around his boy.

“I’m going to get the horses ready, son. I’ll be right back.”

Ben rushed around the campsite, packing up their things. He untied Sport and gave him a huge slap on the rump and sent him down the mountain, hoping he would head back home. Buck was a shorter horse, and Ben felt he could keep Adam on Buck better than on Sport. He tied everything back onto the pack horse and then led both horses back to the campsite. He could hear Adam still moaning with the pain, and it was ripping his stomach to shreds to think that he had done this to his own boy.

There was a downed log near the campsite and he pulled Buck over by it. He figured to try to get Adam up on the log, then hopefully onto the horse.

It took every bit of strength that Ben possessed to get Adam up on that horse and ride the few miles to the mine shaft, but the adrenaline was rushing because of his extreme anguish over Adam’s condition. They finally arrived. Ben climbed off Buck first, trying his best to hold his son on, and then got him off as carefully as he could. Adam was completely dead weight by this time, and Ben had to pick him up in his arms and carry him in through the entrance of the mine shaft. He took him a ways into the room inside the mountain and laid his boy down onto the ground. Adam moaned again, which was the first sound he had made since the trip from the campsite.

Ben brushed the hair back off Adam’s forehead and said, “Hold on, son, I’ll go get our things and try to make you as comfortable as I can. We’re in luck, boy, we made it in out of the snow. We’ll do fine in here, son.” Ben tried to believe what he was saying, but he was worried sick.

He went back out the horses, took Buck’s saddle and blanket off and took them inside. He spread the horse blanket out on the ground, then went back for the packs and to unsaddle the other horse. He then tied them to some brush and hoped they would make out okay grazing off the bushes.

Back inside, he folded up one of the blankets for a pillow and then moved Adam onto the horse blanket. Adam moaned again, but did not awaken. Ben wasn’t sure if he was unconscious or just sleeping. He took two of the blankets and wrapped them around Adam. He rummaged through the pack and found a shirt for himself to put on over what was left of his other one.

He then set out to get some firewood. There was an old broken-down shed out front that would provide plenty of wood for a fire, and he was grateful to God for at least this one break. He took his hatchet and cut up some kindling, then built up a big fire at the front of the shaft. Luckily, there was plenty of room for the fire and to get around it to the outside world.

He took the other two blankets and warmed them by the fire and then exchanged them for the ones already covering Adam. He warmed one of those and put them around his shoulders as he was really starting to feel the cold himself. Even with the warmed blankets, he could see Adam starting to shiver again, so he put the last blanket also over him. Adam was still sleeping and only occasional would he hear another involuntary moan of pain. Every time he heard his son’s pain, it made his stomach do another flip-flop. He was berating himself for everything that had happened. It was all his fault. Everything he had taught his sons about careful hunting had been thrown out the window, and the result was tragedy beyond Ben’s worst imaginings. He was lacerating himself to think that his son was in this condition because of his own carelessness.

Ben filled up the coffee pot and put it by the fire to boil, then took out a cooking pot and started to cook up some broth, hoping that he would be able to get some of it down his son.

While he was waiting, he took the canteen and sat down beside Adam with his back against the mine shaft wall. He pulled the blanket down and tried to see how Adam’s wound was doing. So far, he could see no more bleeding and he was thankful for that.

Adam’s eyes fluttered. “Sick, feel sick…,”and he started retching again. However, this time it was the dry heaves – there was nothing left to come up. Ben held him as best he could to help him get through it. When Adam settled again, he decided to wait a bit before offering him water.

“Pa, Pa…. Where are we, what happened. Back hurts bad….feel sick.”

“I know son. We’re in the Old Gold mine shaft, you remember out beyond Green Meadows. I accidentally shot you when I was trying for that buck, boy. Remember? I didn’t know you were behind him, son. I’m so sorry, but you’re gonna be okay now. We’re in out of the weather and we’ve got a nice warm fire here. “

But I’m cold, Pa, real cold. His teeth where chattering.

Ben got up and poured out a cup of the broth he had cooked, waited a bit for it to cool a little and then went back to his son’s side.

“Adam, can you try to get a little of this warm broth down, son.” It’ll help warm you boy, okay?”

“Pa, don’t’ know if I can. Stomach’s sick, but I’ll try.”

“Good, son … just try a little … here.” Ben managed to get a few spoonfuls of the broth into Adam, and hoped that he would be able to keep it down. He got up, got the other horseblanket and spread it out next to Adam, sat down close to him with his back against the shaft wall, put his head back against the wall and in short order fell asleep himself.

*****

In the meantime, Sport practically galloped all the way back to the ranch. He didn’t like the snow and was hungry. He reached the barn just before dark and ran right into his own stall, searching for his food. Hoss saw him come in and ran from the porch of the house out to the barn. He yelled for Joe, who was inside the house, as he was running.

He reached the barn and took a good look at Sport.

“Whoa, boy, Good boy sport.”

Hoss poured some oats into his bucket so the horse would let him take a look. He had no saddle or anything else on him. What had happened? Had he just gotten loose and come back to the ranch, but he knew his father and Adam were more careful than that. Something was wrong, very wrong.

Joe ran into the barn and took in the sight in front of him.

“Hoss, something’s wrong. Adam wouldn’t let his horse get away like this.”

“I know Joe.” Let’s get the horses ready and get goin’ to look for them. I’ve been watching the sky today and I don’t like the way it’s been looking out towards the high country.” It could be snowing up there. Anyway, somethin’s happened and we need to head after them.”

“Right,” Joe answered, as he was already getting Cochise saddled and ready. Hoss did the same with Chubb. They both went to the house, informed Hop Sing of what was happening and waited for him to get some food ready to go with them.

*****

Ben didn’t sleep for very long. Adam was restless and Ben also wanted to keep the fire going. He felt it was imperative to keep Adam as warm as possible. After tending to it, he sat down again next to his son. He had lit the lantern they had brought along on their trip and he held it over his son to take a better look at him. He pulled the blanket down and there didn’t appear to be any more bleeding, which he was very thankful for. However, though Adam was no longer shivering, he was clearly in much pain. Ben could tell when he had first looked at the wound at the clearing that the bullet had nicked Adam’s collarbone and there was no telling what damaged had been done to the bones in his shoulder blade area where the bullet had exited. He remembered something Doc Martin had once said about bone pain being one of the most severe that anyone could endure. Again, he berated himself for bringing this on his child.

Adam opened his eyes and looked up into his father’s. Even in his dazed and pain-filled stupor, he could make out the tears glistening in Ben’s eyes.

“Pa…what’s wrong? Please don’t.”

Ben rubbed the tears away with his left hand while setting the lantern down on the other side of Adam.

“I’m okay, son, just so sorry about this. I honestly didn’t think you possibly could have already been far enough along to be behind that buck. It’s all my fault. I broke every rule I ever taught you boys about hunting safety.”

“Pa, stop it. Look who’s feeling guilty now. Don’t do this to yourself.” He tried to bring up one of his trademark grins for his father, but it ended up in a grimace of pain.

Ben looked at him. He really wasn’t much paying attention to what Adam was saying, but more to the fact that Adam seemed more alert and aware of what was happening.

He stroked the hair back from Adam’s forehead in both a gesture of love and to see if he felt any fever. So far, he felt a little clammy to the touch, but not hot.

“Don’t worry about me, son. You just try to sleep now and don’t try to talk. You need to conserve your energy.” He pulled the blanket up and gently tucked it around Adam’s neck. Adam closed his eyes and drifted off again.

Ben had told Adam not to worry, but Ben was worried sick. He prayed that Sport had made it back home and that the boys would realize something was wrong. But Ben could not help but to blame himself and the guilt was piling up in his mind. There had been many times over the years of raising his boys that he had given them each tannings, tannings that were richly deserved and it always hurt him to do it, but it was something he felt was necessary as a father. But he had never in his life deliberately or even accidentally hurt one of his children. He also had never lashed out in anger and slapped any of them in the face, as he had seen some other fathers do. That just was not Ben’s way. But for him to have caused this pain and suffering to his own child was almost more than he could bear. And what if Adam didn’t make it? He had picked himself up 3 times and gone on in life, but he always knew that if he lost one of his children, it would be very difficult to do it again. But this – this would be impossible to recover from and he also knew that if Adam died, he would not even care to pick himself up again. Life could not be the same ever again.

Adam’s eyes opened again.

“Pa, could you talk to me, please – about anything, about your sailing days, my mother, please anything. Just need to get my mind focused on something, please.”

“Of course, son,” Ben answered softly. He knew Adam was needing to focus on something other than the pain. Adam was never one for giving into pain and had always in the past gritted his teeth and bore whatever came along, but Ben knew he was having trouble this time. So, for what was left of the night, Ben reminisced as soothingly as he could about anything he could think of from his own childhood, to his sailing days, to Adam’s mother, Adam’s childhood – anything he could think of. He could see that if Adam concentrated on his voice, he seemed to be able to endure the pain better and Ben was grateful for that. He was physically tired himself, but his only thought was of providing any kind of relief he could for his boy.

He pondered in the back of his mind what Adam had said to him about “guilt.” He had counseled Adam about Ross and Delphine and that he had to let the guilt go, but this, this was so different. How could he ever let this go, if Adam weren’t to make it.

*****

At first light, Hoss and Joe set out for Green Meadow along with a pack horse and an another extra horse, deciding to leave Sport in his stall. They set off to Green Meadow where they knew Ben and Adam were headed and made good time as by the time they reached the high country, the snow had slacked off and the sun was actually out.

They found the camp easily, but realized that it had been abandoned, but soon picked up the trail across Green Meadow.

In the meantime, through the day, Ben kept the fire going, got as much water as he could down his son, plus a little bit more of the broth. He was glad to see the snow had let up and was still praying that Sport had reached home.

He examined Adam’s wound that morning and was glad to see that there was no more bleeding at all, but he had developed a slight fever. Ben knew this didn’t necessarily mean the wounds were infected as he was aware this could be a natural reaction of Adam’s body to this kind of assault – at least he prayed there was no infection.

What bothered and tore at Ben the most now was Adam’s obvious pain. He had nothing to give him for it and knew it must be severe for Adam to even let on that he had pain. He could tell Adam was trying to hold back on showing the pain to his father because he knew Ben was feeling guilty.

Adam had tried to explain to his father that at one point he had spotted the buck and had actually found some clear ground to make a run up the hill – that was why he was in the vicinity of the deer much sooner than Ben could have expected him to be. Ben tried to let Adam know that that news made him feel better, but it didn’t really. Ben had shot his own son, had brought him excruciating pain – the fact of the matter was, though Adam seemed to be doing okay, he could still die. Ben felt a crushing guilt along with the worry.

Mmmmm. Owww. Ben was sitting next to Adam again. He saw Adam biting at his lip, trying not to cry out.

“Son, Ben said gently, “don’t hold it back. If you’re hurting, it’s okay to let it out, boy.”

Adam shook his head, “I’m okay, Pa….really I am …..just a little twinge….stop worrying so much.”

Ben sighed. He picked up his neckerchief that he had soaked in cold water and wiped Adam’s hot brow and cheeks and under his chin. He then placed the cloth across his forehead.

“Feels good, Pa…thanks,” then he choked off another moan of pain.

Ben took Adam’s right hand in both of his large hands and squeezed it softly, then stroked the top of it.

“Adam, remember when I used to bring you boys up here to Green Meadows sometimes for picnics. Used to do it when Marie was alive, too. Remember those summers, with the wildflowers just covering the meadow. Marie loved those flowers. She loved to watch you boys playing out there, wrestling with each other, playing games. Remember those times, Adam?”

“Mmmm. I ‘member, Pa. Good times, I remember.”

Ben stared into the distance, his not really focusing on anything. If only he could bring back all those happy times so long ago, before Marie died.

*****

Hoss and Joe followed the tracks to the Old Gold mine and both of them drew relieved breaths when they saw the horses tied to the brush and the big fire burning at the entrance to the mine.

They dismounted and headed toward the entrance, both shouting for their father and brother.

They stepped around the fire and saw Ben and Adam. Adam was lying on the ground covered with blankets sleeping and Ben was sitting next to him asleep, also.

Hoss rushed over and took his father by the shoulder while Joe knelt down on the other side of Adam to check on him.

“Pa, Pa, are you okay?” Hoss asked worriedly.

Ben moved, murmured something and then opened his eyes. “Hoss, Joe, thank God, you found us,” his voice full of relief.

“You okay, Pa?” asked Joe. He could see that Adam was not okay.

Ben moved closer to Adam and said,” I’m fine Joe, but Adam has a bullet wound in his upper chest. The bullet went clear through, but there’s a lot of damage where it came out. Ben was feeling Adam’s head. It was hotter than the last time he checked, but Adam seemed to be sleeping peacefully enough at the moment.

“Bullet wound, Pa? How’d he get shot anyway?”

“I shot him, Hoss, Ben said softly, his voice shaking slightly.”

“You shot him, Pa?” “You all have some kind of accident out hunting, huh?”

“Yes, son, I made a damn fool reckless shot and shot your brother. I didn’t see him, didn’t think he had had enough time to have gotten behind the buck we were tracking.”

Hoss was taken aback, not only by the fact that Ben had made a careless shot, but at the profanity, something his father rarely resorted to. But Hoss could see how upset his Pa was over this.

Joe had felt Adam’s head, too, and spoke up, “He’s got a fever. Hoss, how’re we gonna get him back home?”

Hoss looked down at his big brother, lying there helpless, obviously unable to ride on his own and they hadn’t thought to bring a wagon.

“Well, we could rig up a travois, but it would be rough going for him down the mountain and slow, too. I think the best thing would be to get him up on one of the horses with one of us, probably with you Joe, as you’re the lightest of us.”

“Yes, Joe, I think that’s probably best, too, son, but he’s been in a tremendous amount of pain. It’s going to be a rough ride for him. We may have to trade off between you and me because he doesn’t have the strength to help us keep him on the horse.”

“Pa, listen to me, I know you don’t want to leave him,” Hoss said, “but I think it would be better if you rode on down ahead of us and got one of the hands to ride for the doc. We’re gonna need him to be there as soon as we can. I’m the best one to be lifting Adam on and off the horse and maybe even help keep him up on Joe’s horse, don’t ya think, Pa?”

Ben did indeed not want to leave Adam, but Hoss was right. “All right, son, I’ll stay just long enough to see we’re able to get him on Joe’s horse, then I’ll take off ahead of you, you’re right about that.”

He leaned over and gently squeezed Adam’s right shoulder. “Son, wake up. Your brothers are here. They found us and now we have to get you back home.”

Adam’s eyes fluttered open and then he groaned, “Glad to see you two, finally.” He bit his lip as another wave of pain hit him.

“Well, we’re mighty glad to see you, too, older brother, Joe answered. Now we gotta get you down this mountain. Think you can make it up on Cochise with me if Hoss helps you?”

The thought of moving wasn’t very enticing to Adam, but he knew there was no choice. He looked at Ben and saw the fatigue and worry lines in his father’s face. He was aware of the guilt Ben was feeling and wished there was some way to assuage it for him.

“Okay, Pa, let us do this,” Hoss said, and he and Joe carefully pulled the blankets off of Adam. They saw their father’s coat buttoned around their brother. Hoss gave one of the blanket’s to Ben, saying, “Here, Pa, it’s cold out there. Wrap up in this. We don’t want you getting’ sick, too.”

Ben absently took it from Hoss and wrapped it around his shoulders. Hoss and Joe started to carefully lift Adam up, but they were hurting him, he could tell. “Boys, please be careful. I know you’ve gotta do it, but he’s in a lot of pain, please be as careful as you can.”

“We’ll do our best, Pa,” said Joe.

They did manage to get Adam up on the horse with Joe behind him, but it was a painful task for all concerned. Adam couldn’t keep from crying out, but they had to get it done. Ben’s eyes were full of moisture by the time they were finished, but he mounted Buck and went on ahead of them.

Joe and Hoss made that trip down the mountain and to the Ponderosa. They had to harden their hearts to Adam’s suffering because they knew they had no choice, but it was not an easy thing for either man, especially for Joe, as he could feel the heat emanating from his older brother’s body and could feel his trembling and was aware of his efforts not to express his pain. Finally, Adam slumped forward, his head rolling down onto his chest and was unconscious.

By the time they arrived home, the doctor had been sent for, Adam’s room was ready and Hop Sing was prepared to be of any assistance that he could. All working together they had Adam cleaned up and in his own bed by the time Doc Martin arrived.

*****

It wasn’t an easy recovery for Adam. Dr. Martin pulled him through and did the best he could at repairing his shoulder, but there was damage done that would take a lot of time and exercise if he were to regain full use of his left arm and shoulder again. But Adam was a determined man and he did what was necessary to regain that use.

Ben was thankful to God for his son’s recovery, but he could not shake his guilt over what had happened. He was depressed about it. He felt old, for the first time, in his life. He felt that he never would have made this kind of mistake when he was younger. He watched Adam go through a great deal of pain through his recovery itself and through the process of regaining function of his arm. He would have given everything he owned to have taken that pain upon himself rather than to see his son go through it.

On the other hand, Adam was watching his father, too. He saw his father pull inwards, much as he had done when Marie had died. He tried to make him understand that he didn’t hold anything against him, but couldn’t seem to get through to him.

They both had lost weight through this siege and Hoss and Joe had been worried about the both of them. It was now seven weeks since the accident and Adam was finally really on the mend in every way, but their father seemed to be going downhill. All three of his sons were at a loss as to what to do about it.

*****

Ben knew the boys were concerned about him, but he couldn’t seem to pull himself together as he had done after Marie died, but that was15 years ago. He was an older man now. He just didn’t have the energy anymore, he felt.

He kept running that moment through his head – the explosive burst of the bullet from his rifle and the almost instantaneous cry of pain from his son, the sickening sight of his son’s blood pooling around him in the snow. He had nightmares almost every night and would wake up in a cold sweat. They were all the same and in every one Adam had succumbed to the wound. They were so real that when he first woke up from them, he thought Adam really had died. It would take him a few moments to realize that his son had not died, that he had indeed recovered and would soon be as good as new. He was always grateful for that moment of realization, but then the old guilt would return to haunt him. He never said a word about those dreams to the boys, but they could see the fatigue in his face each day.

Finally, Adam had watched his father’s descent into deep depression for long enough. He decided one day while Hoss and Joe were out of the house to take the bull by the horns and get it all out into the open with his Pa.

They were both sitting by the fire. Adam was looking over some contracts. His father hadn’t touched the books since their return from the trip and Adam had recently been bringing them up to date, getting their business obligations back into shape. Whenever he had tried to discuss these things with Ben, his father had just shrugged and said, “You take care of it, Adam. Handle it any way you want. Doesn’t matter.”

Adam set the contracts aside, got up from the blue chair and moved over to the table in front of the fire. He sat on the end of it, his knees touching Ben’s. He put one hand onto Ben’s knee and the other over his father’s hand resting on the arm of his leather chair.

“Pa, we need to talk.”

“Hmmm, son?” He looked at Adam more closely. “Are you all right son, your shoulder giving you more trouble or something?”

“Pa, my shoulder is just fine. It’s getting better every day. It’s you I’m worried about. We’re all worried about you, even Hop Sing. You’re not eating right, you’ve lost weight, you hardly talk to us, you don’t seem to hear half of what we say to you, you don’t go into town anymore, don’t even go outside much. This isn’t like you, Pa. Please tell me what’s wrong.”

“Oh, son, there’s nothing wrong. Don’t know what you’re getting at. Just kind of a gloomy winter – that’s all it is.”

“No, Pa, that’s not all it is. If you won’t tell me, then I’ll tell you what it is because I do know what it is. You’re feeling guilty about the accident, aren’t you Pa?”

“Now don’t shake your head at me ’cause I know you are. I’ve known since it happened and we were waiting in that mine shaft. You know it, I know it and Hoss and Joe know it. We just don’t know how to help you get over it.”

“Pa, I’m fine now. It was an accident. It could have happened to any one of us. I don’t blame you in any way, so stop blaming yourself.”

He was lightly squeezing Ben’s hand as he talked, trying to emphasize his words, trying to look into his father’s eyes, but Ben was staring off into the distance. Suddenly, Adam saw tears in the corners his father’s eyes.

“Oh, Pa, please, please don’t feel this way. If it had been the other way around, you wouldn’t have wanted me to feel this way, would you?”

“But, son, it wasn’t the other way around.” His eyes filled with the tears now. “Don’t you see, Adam, I shot you, I shot my own son. How do you think I feel about that?” I was careless. I can’t stop thinking about it. It keeps running through my mind over and over, day and night. What if you weren’t okay now? What if you had died? I’m getting too old Adam. For me to do something like that, I must be. It’s time for you boys to take over things around here anyway.”

Adam was shocked to see his father crying and talking in this fashion. “Pa, Pa, stop it, please. That is not true. You are as good as you ever were. It was an accident, pure and simple. I don’t hold it against you in any way and I want you to stop feeling guilty.”

“Pa, have you forgotten so soon your own advice to me about Ross and Delphine? Were you lying to me about that, Pa? I thought you always told us the truth. You told me to let the guilt I felt go, not to let it tear me apart.”

“Well, Pa, it’s time you were taking your own advice. Nobody, and I mean nobody blames you for this, especially me. You feel bad because you think you hurt me. Well, now you’re hurting me more than that bullet ever could, and you’re hurting Joe and Hoss. It’s killing them to see you like this. This isn’t you, Pa. Please listen to me. If you don’t want to hurt me, then please stop this and start acting yourself again. Let it go, Pa, let it go. Everybody else has and I’ve stopped ripping myself apart about Ross and Delphine. Please don’t start making me feel guilty about you now.”

He had taken Ben’s hand with both of his now, gently stroking the back of it, much in the same way Ben had comforted each of his boys at one time or another. Something in Adam’s voice and in what he said finally got through the wall Ben had put up. The tears subsided and a very faint grin appeared as he watched Adam and listened to his entreaties.

Softly Ben teased, “Adam, I always said you should have been a lawyer or a politician. You’re very persuasive, son. Have I been that bad, kind of feeling sorry for myself, have I?”

Adam breathed out a sigh of relief – this was working – finally. He gave Ben one of his combination grins and winks, then broke out into a big smile. “Only just a little, Pa, only a little.”

Ben put his other hand over Adam’s. “I guess I didn’t realize until now what I was doing, son. Just kind of wrapped up in my own misery, I guess. Just needed my eyes opened a bit, Adam.”

‘Adam, some day when you have children of your own, you’ll understand maybe a little of what I’ve been feeling. To have hurt my own child like that was almost more than I could bear. I’m so grateful that you are all right. You’re right, though, Adam, I was doing the same thing that you were over Ross and Delphine. I just couldn’t shake the guilt feelings.”

“Well, I know the answer is to get myself busy again, get some work done around here that I’ve been neglecting.”

They both stood up together. Ben pulled Adam into an embrace for a moment, then gently held both sides of Adam’s face and looked him in the eye. “Thank you, son, for making me see the light of day again.”

“Now, Adam, what about that political career we were just talking about?” Both men laughed out loud and hugged again.

***The End***

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