To the Edge and Back (by Rocker H)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  5500


With a groan, Joe Cartwright turned over.   Heavy, wet snowflakes pelted his bruised face and his eyes opened.  Every muscle screamed as he raised himself to a sitting position.  Once Joe determined there were no broken bones or major injuries, he set his mind to recalling what had happened.  Gazing around, his world began to come into focus, and it terrified him.

He and his brother had been tracking a lobo wolf that had been picking off some of their cattle.  They were riding along the Cold Creek ridge when a tree branch snapped under the weight of the wet snow.  The noise and sudden commotion caused the horses to shy and throw their riders.   Bouncing painfully down the rocky walls of the ravine was the last thing Little Joe remembered. That, and his brother crashing after him.  “Adam!  Adam, where are you?”  The fear and pain that had been welling up inside of him escaped with each frantic cry.  “Adam, answer me!  Are you all right?  Adam!”  There came no reply.

Joe scrambled over the sharp and icy boulders in a desperate search.  “Oh please God, let me find him.  I can’t fail Adam this time,” he prayed.  With an eye towards the darkening sky, Joe feared his torn and wet clothing would be little protection against the cold night, but he knew Adam would stand no chance at all if he could not locate him. “I won’t fail you this time older brother,” Joe vowed as he continued his search.

The snow squall passed, but icy winds continued to scream through the gorge.  Joe was exhausted and shivered uncontrollably.   He begged God once more for help,”Keep me going until I can find him, that’s all I ask.”   Even as Little Joe struggled to keep his balance on the slippery rocks, a sudden gust of arctic wind caused him to misstep. He slipped even farther into the ravine crashing to a halt on a narrow ledge.  Once he could breathe again, Joe looked around.    In the shadows, he glimpsed the motionless form of his brother.   “Adam? Can you hear me?  It’s Joe.  We’re going to be all right now.  We are in this together.”

 Joe was relieved to see that the boulders surrounding Adam had acted as a shield against the brunt of the snow and wind.  The youngest Cartwright watched over his unconscious brother, and did what little he could to comfort him.  With no food, water, or blankets, the best Joe could do was share the warmth of his own body; he had never felt so useless or helpless in his life.   Despite his best efforts to stay awake, Joe’s fatigue and pain overtook him and he fell into a fitful sleep.   And the dream that haunted Joe since childhood came back with a vengeance.

 “Hey Adam, wait for me!  You and Hoss always take off without me.  I want to play on the frozen water with you! I won’t be any trouble.  Hoss is going to be late anyway.  Pa says he has to finish his chores before he can go anywhere.  Come on…wait for me,” whined a dark haired boy of seven, as he trudged through knee-deep snow to catch up with his older brother.

“Aw Joe, go on home.  I’m not going to the pond to play.  Pa wants me to cut some ice.  Just send Hoss along with another sled when he gets finished,” Adam directed.  “Go on, I don’t have time to play little kid games now. Scoot!”

A dejected Little Joe stood watching as his big brother rode away.  “I’m not a baby.  I’ll show Adam I am big enough to help him,” he pouted.  Joe followed Adam down to the frozen pond. He watched from the woods as Adam carefully walked out on the ice. Joe was filled with admiration as Adam skillfully sawed out piece after piece of clear ice.  “Come summer, it sure would taste good in some of Hop Sing’s lemonade,” the younger Cartwright thought wistfully… The sharp crack of breaking ice woke the young Cartwright from his summertime daydream.  Looking back out on the pond, Joe could no longer see his big brother!  “Where’d you go Adam?  You said you didn’t have time for no games.”

Adam sputtered to the surface and grabbed wildly at its icy edges.  “Joe!  Get my rope!   Just like we practiced. Throw the loop towards me and tie the end off on Sport’s saddle horn.  I really need you to do this buddy.  Climb on up in the saddle.  You can do it!  Joe!” Adam managed to get out through chattering teeth.

Joe stood frozen.  He stared in horror as his brother disappeared again under the water’s surface.

“I…I…I can’t Adam, I need to get Hoss or Pa.  They are bigger, they can help you.  I’ll be right back I promise.”

“Joe!! Don’t leave, I need your help.  Don’t leave me!  JOE!!”  Adam cried in desperation as he sank beneath the pond’s icy surface.

 Waking up in a cold sweat, Joe made a solemn promise to his unconscious brother to get them to safety.

 “This time, older brother, I won’t let you down.”

*****

The sun rose to reveal a clear, blue, Nevada sky.  Adam had survived the night, but he had not regained consciousness.  In the bright sun light, Joe could see the extent of Adam’s injuries.  An ugly lump protruded near Adam’s temple and there was a deep gash just above his left eye.  With a bit of snow, Joe cleaned his brother’s dirty and bruised face.   Casting a concerned look over Adam’s still body, he discovered yet another injury, Adam’s right knee was swollen twice its normal size.

With this discovery, another terror seized Joe.  How could he ever get the two of them out of this gorge?  He knew it would be nearly impossible for him to carry Adam out, but what else could he do.  Lost in thought, he almost missed the low moan as Adam’s eyes fluttered and opened.  “Thank God, you’re back!  I thought we had lost you, older brother. Don’t try to move,” Joe said quietly.  The best response Adam could offer was another moan. The injured man’s eyes swept the ledge in panic.  He tried to sit up, but the pain that wracked his body was too great and he fell back.   Adam was dimly aware of Joe’s voice and tried to focus on it, but too much pain filled his world and the comfortable darkness began to settle back over him.

“No Adam, you can’t go back to sleep! You might never come back.  Fight it!”  Joe choked out. “I need you here with me! I need you to tell me what to do.”   He wanted to shake his brother, anything to keep Adam from lapsing unconscious.  Running from the shelter of the rocks, Joe scooped up another handful of snow.  He rubbed more on Adam’s face and forced some into his mouth.

The melting snow felt good as it trickled down Adam’s parched throat.   “More,” he rasped through dry and cracked lips.  Joe gently held his brother’s head and fed him a few mouthfuls of the only sustenance available.

“Adam, I want you to try to listen to me,” Joe began patiently.  “We are in a mess of trouble.  Do you remember any of what happened?  You banged your head really good bouncing down the ravine, so that killer headache you are enjoying is a probably a concussion. Anybody but a New England granite head would be dead.  You also managed to mess your knee up nicely. Quite frankly older brother, I don’t know how to get us out of this mess.  Any ideas? Joe looked down to find Adam asleep.  “ADAM!  Look at me.  I know you’re hurting, but you have to stay awake.”  Adam’s eyes opened a slit. “Good. Now listen, the way I see it, neither one of us can survive another night down here. I am near froze to the core.  My clothes are soaked and there’s not one spot on me that isn’t bruised, scraped, scratched or bleeding.   We have to get out of here before nightfall.”  Then, doubtfully Joe added.  Do you think you could manage?”

“Yeah, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine after I get something to eat and warm up.  When did the fire go out?”  Adam asked.

“Well, older brother, that’s another problem.  We don’t have any food or means to start a fire.  It’s all with the horses and who knows where they are.  Believe me if we had matches there’d be a huge fire blazing by now!”

“Look in my vest pocket, Joe, there ought to be some in there.  Or did you already look?”

With a sheepish look, Joe reached into the vest pocket and pulled out a small tin of matches. “Oh. Look.  I’ll have that fire glowing in no time older brother.  We’re in great shape now.”

“Never mind, just give me a minute to get up.”  Adam said pushing himself to a sitting position.  His world swam and nausea overtook him.  Joe tenderly laid his brother back down and covered him with his own jacket.  “I guess maybe I hurt more than I wanted to let on,” Adam said quietly.

“Shhh.  Don’t worry about anything.  This time, let me take care of you.  We’re going to be fine, I promise.  Now you just rest and leave everything to me,” Joe declared as he searched for some dry twigs and leaves for the fire.

“I guess this time I’ll have to, little brother.  You know you’ll have to climb out of here and go for help don’t you.   You can’t be feeling too great either, so that’s not going to be easy. Remember to move slowly and watch where you put your feet and….”

“Is this how you relax?”  laughed Joe as he struck a match.

“Umm,” it was Adam’s turn to look sheepish. “Old habits die hard you know.  But you really can’t be feeling all that good.  You look pretty beat up.”

“I’m fine, Adam.  You’re right though.  I am gonna have the devil’s own climb out of here.  Will you be all right while I’m gone? I hate the thought of just leaving you here… I could never forgive myself if something…”

“Joe, now you listen,” each word brought a new wave of pain crashing through Adam’s head. “I know how you feel, but we have no other choice.  Unless Sport or Cochise found the way home, no one will even be missing us for another two days. Even then, we aren’t exactly where we were supposed to be.  Anyway, we can’t just sit down here and wait to be found.  I’ll be fine.  Joe, buddy, you’re it; you have to find help.”  This final plea was too much and Adam once again fell unconscious.

This was all the incentive Joe needed.  After surveying the ravine, he chose his route.  Ironically, the easiest way out was they way he had skidded down the day before.  Slowly and carefully, he began his ascent.  The rock wall shimmered as the sun’s rays bounced off the snow and ice.

Before long, the skin on Joe’s fingers and knees was shredded.  Blood marked each painful handhold, but his promise to Adam would not allow him to slow down or rest.  As he reached the lip of the ravine, his last ounce of strength gave way.  His heart and soul begged him to go on, but his body could not respond.

*****

“Well, what do we have here Jeb?”  Joe was only vaguely aware of the stranger’s smooth, mellow voice. “Jeb, help me get this young fella into the buckboard. I believe he’s done passed out.  I’ll cover him with this tarp, but give me your blanket too; he’s about froze to death.  Be quick about it, hear?”

“There young fella, you just relax and get warm.  My nephew and I will have you fixed up in no time.  It’s a good thing we took this trail on our way back from town.  We don’t usually go this way.”

The bouncing of the buckboard over the rock hard ground finally brought Joe back from his reoccurring nightmare.  His body ached from the cold and bruises, but he sat up and looked around.  “Mister!  How long have I been out?  Where are we?  STOP!”

The driver of the wagon turned calmly to Joe, “Well, young fella… glad to see your back with us and so talkative too!  Wasn’t too sure you’d make it.  You‘ve been mumbling out of your mind for nearly an hour.  Oh well, it doesn’t matter now.  Some warm, dry clothes and food will have you back to rights in no time.”

Joe was frantic. “I’ve been out an hour?  Turn the wagon around!  My brother is back in that ravine and he’s hurt bad, I need your help to get him out!”  His head pounded in echo to the wild thumping of his heart.

“Clam down young un. You’re in no great shape your self.  I don’t want you passin’ out again.”

“Jeb, did you see anybody else by that ravine?  No?  I didn’t either, but maybe I ought to see what this fella is carrying on about.  I’m gonna turn around, but you head back to the cabin and fetch that good long rope that’s hanging in the barn, the block and tackle, and the belly band.  We might could use it as a harness if need be.  Catch up with us as soon as you can.  Better bring some bandages, food and water too.  Never can tell.”   Turning back to his passenger, the driver inquired, “Now, can you tell me who you are?”

Joe sank back in relief as Jeb galloped past on his way to the cabin. ”My name is Joe Cartwright.  I was out hunting with my older brother. Our horses got spooked and threw us both down into that ravine where you found me.  That was late yesterday.  Adam’s head injury kept him out cold until this morning. He also busted up his knee so he couldn’t climb out.”

“Cartwright eh?  Well you ain’t on Ponderosa land, but you ain’t too far from it neither.  Just settle back under those covers and rest yourself.  Here, have a swig from my canteen.”

 Joe uncorked the canteen, threw down a big swallow, and came up sputtering. “That’s… that’s not water!  You could have warned me,” but the burn in his throat felt wonderful and he helped himself to another drink.  The dark haired young man settled back down and slept.

“Here we are.”   The old man reined his horses to a stop beside the ravine.  Joe, with his blanket pulled tightly around him, climbed out of the wagon and peered over the edge.

“Adam! We’ll have you out in no time older brother.  Just like I promised,” he called.

“You sure he’s down there?” asked the old man.  “Looks mighty empty to me.”

*****

Hoss hung up Chubb’s bridle and closed the barn door.  As he walked towards the house, he was surprised to hear approaching hoof beats.  “Pa, get out here!” he directed.   “Cochise and Sport just come racing in here like their tails was on fire.  Look, they still have all of Little Joe and Adam’s gear tied on.”

The worried look on Hoss’s face found its reflection in Ben’s.  “Any…blood?” Ben winced.  Not waiting for an answer, he examined each animal thoroughly for clues to his sons’ disappearance.  No signs of foul play were evident, but nothing else was either.   “They wouldn’t just leave their horses untied to wander off.  Not with all their gear!  Weren’t they supposed to be checking some of the line shacks for winter supplies?”

“Yes, Pa, but I’m afraid they was more interested in tracking that wolf than riding the line.  They may have gotten side tracked,” Hoss admitted.  He continued to check over the pinto and the bay.  “Take a look.  This stuff ain’t been unpacked since they left here early yesterday.  Adam’s rifle is still here.  Both their canteens are here too.  Pa, we’ve got to go lookin’ for them.  Something’s awful wrong.”

“I don’t even know where to begin! I know where they were supposed to be, but apparently they had other ideas…” Ben began.

“Now Pa,” Hoss cut in, “let’s find them first, get them home, then you can holler at them.  I’ll get our horses saddled.   I think I heard them talkin’ about taking the trail that goes along Cold Creek Ravine.  It’s a place to start anyway.”

Ben concentrated on getting his horse and supplies ready for the search, but Hoss had no trouble reading the worry behind his father’s stern face.  “Pa, I’m sure we’ll find them OK.  Joe is too ornery and Adam is just too… too Adam for them to be in much trouble.  Together they can handle just about anything, provided they don’t kill each other first.   We’ll probably find them all warm and toasty, holed up in a  line shack arguing over some girl.  Don’t you worry none.”

*****

It took nearly two hours for Ben and Hoss to work their way up to the Cold Creek ridge.  Another light dusting of snow covered the riders and any previous tracks.    “Hoss, look, is that a cabin up ahead?  I had heard there were some people up here. “

“Looks like it to me.  I’ll ride ahead and check it out,” Hoss volunteered.  In truth, he was anxious to get away from his father’s foul mood.  The nasty weather and Ben’s concern for Adam and Little Joe had not made for a pleasant ride.  “Dadburnit!” Hoss muttered in frustration.  “If I find those two in this shack all warm and happy they are gonna wish they’d never seen any dadblamed wolf. “

“HELLO THE HOUSE!” Hoss called out.  “Anybody home?”  He looked around for signs of anyone having been there lately.  He tied up Chubb and went up to the door.  “Hello?  Joe, Adam, you in there?”  The sound of an approaching rider caught his attention.

The rider reined his horse to a stop.  “Hey, what bring’s you way up here in this weather? “

“My name is Hoss Cartwright.  My Pa and I are up here looking for my two brothers.  Their horses came in early this morning without them.  You didn’t have any unexpected visitors last night did you?”

“Can’t say; my uncle and I were in town last night.  On our way back we nearly ran over a young man layin by the trail about seven miles back.  He was pretty banged up and near froze to death. My uncle’s back up the trail stayin with him.  Reckon that could be one of the men you’re looking for? “

“You say there was just one fella?”  Hoss asked crestfallen.  “Any idea what he was doing out there?”

“Na, I don’t know anything about him.  Like I said, he was about passed out by the side of the trail.  Couldn’t tell much except that he was in pretty bad shape.  You know though, when he come to, he did say his brother was hurt down in that ravine.   That’s why my uncle sent me back here, for bandages and stuff. I can take you back with me if you’d like and we could sure use an extra hand.”

Hoss was back on Chubb in an instant.  “Here’s my Pa now.  Let’s ride.”

“Any news, son?” asked a bone- tired weary Ben.

“Could be.  This fella’s on his way back to the ravine.  He and his uncle found an injured man.  It has to be Joe or Adam.   He didn’t know the fella’s name, just that the man was wore out and banged up pretty bad.  Even if it’s not Joe or Adam, they could use some help.”

*****

Just how far is your cabin, Mister?  Jeb’s been gone for a mighty long time.  I can’t just sit here, my brother needs me!”   Joe paced the rim of the ravine, the anxiety clearly visible in his green eyes.

“Settle down Joe.  By the way, the name is Dougall, Thorn Dougall.  Anyway, Jeb will be back when he is back.  Frettin’s not gonna help you or your brother.  Give him another holler.  See if he’ll answer you this time.”

Not seeing much sense in this effort, Joe was about to make a sarcastic reply when he thought he heard something.  He strained every muscle and listened again.  From far down in the ravine, a raspy voice was barely audible, “Is anyone up there?”

 Joe breathed a sigh of relief, but before he could get out a reply, Thorn sang out, “Sure is!  We’ll have you out in no time.  Just sit tight and be patient.”

“Friend, in that I have no choice.  What about my brother? Did you find him?  Is Joe all right?”  This brief but exhausting conversation was more than Adam’s pounding head and searing knee could tolerate.  He sank back into his dark oblivion.

“ADAM!  It’s Joe.  Just be patient a little while longer.  I won’t fail you this time.  Adam?  ADAM!!”  Joe’s own head felt ready to explode.  That hated feeling of helplessness had begun to wash over him, and his world began to spin.

“Sit down Joe.  Take some deep breaths.  I can’t help get your brother out if I have to be worryin about you.

Just get back in the wagon and rest.  I’ll let you know the minute I see Jeb coming,” directed Mr. Dougall.  As Joe stumbled back to the wagon he could have sworn he heard Thorn mutter something about Cartwrights and army mules.  Once back in the buckboard, Joe was asleep in a matter of minutes and the dream descended once again. “I…I…I can’t Adam, I need to get Hoss or Pa.  They are bigger.  They can help you.  I’ll be right back I promise.”

“Joe!! Don’t leave, I need your help.  Don’t leave me!  JOE!

*****

Adam slowly regained consciousness and moaned in disgust.  He hated not being in control.  His younger brothers often accused him of wanting to rule the whole civilized world.  Right now he would be happy with just ruling his own head.   The exploding pain in his head would not cease no matter how hard he tried to will it away.  If that wasn’t enough, he could not even stand on his own.    Adam snorted as he remembered the stranger’s admonishment to be patient.   Patience was not something he had in unlimited supply, and his reserve was waning fast. This was not the way things were supposed to be.  What in the world, was he doing in a mess like this?

In an effort to distract himself, Adam tried to recall the events of the past 24 hours.  He remembered riding with Joe as they tracked that misbegotten wolf.  Joe was worried about the weather and wanted to head for the line shack, but he had goaded his little brother in to continuing the hunt.  “We have plenty of time before that storm could hit, it will probably miss us anyway.  Look, these tracks are still fresh.  He couldn’t be too far ahead.  I know we can get him if you don’t quit on me now.  Or can’t you take a little cold weather, little brother?”   Those words came back to haunt him as he fingered Joe’s tattered green corduroy jacket and pulled it more tightly around his broad shoulders.

Guilt blew through him like a shotgun blast as he remembered his promise to Marie.  “Marie, I am so sorry for deliberately putting Joe in danger.  Give him the strength to forgive me,” Adam sighed. The mess they were in was his fault.  Adam reckoned his injuries were the price he had to pay for his stubbornness, but Little Joe had paid a high price too.

*****

Hey Joe, wake up.  Someone’s coming, must be Jeb.  Looks like he brought help too!  Joe! Wake up,” Thorn gently shook Joe in an effort to rouse him from his troubled rest.   Joe was slow to release his hold on the ever-present nightmare.

“Adam!  Adam I’m sorry!” Joe cried in a husky voice.

“Shh,  young fella, it’s going to be fine.  We’ll take care of Adam.  Look, Jeb’s brought some other men with him.”

Joe rubbed his throbbing temples as he willed himself to sit up.  Following Thorn’s gaze to the south, he saw the familiar silhouettes of Ben and Hoss gallop toward him.   He clambered out of the buckboard and tried to intercept the riders, but his aching muscles would not allow for any swift movements.

“Hey Shortshanks, you look awful, but you never looked better to me,” Hoss exclaimed with his customary good nature.

“You look pretty good to me, brother,” Joe answered with a crack in his voice.  “Pa, Adam’s hurt.  I had to leave him down there while I went for help.  I’m sorry,” Joe gave in to his tears as he hugged his father.

Ben clung to his son and tried consoling him, “Joseph, you did what had to be done.  We’ll take over from here.  You need to go back to the wagon and rest.”

Joe just stood there.  It was his responsibility to get Adam out of that ravine and no one else’s. “No. Pa, I can’t do that.  I have to try to get Adam out.  I have to try.”

Ben started to protest, but recognizing the steely look in his youngest son’s face, and thought better of it. “I’ll tie the rope off on the buckboard.  You and Hoss go after your brother. Jeb do you think you could give Hoss a hand on the rope?”

Joe lowered himself carefully over the edge of the ravine.  He was getting to know this rocky wall a little better than he had ever wanted.  The rope burned into his ungloved hands as he inched his way towards the ledge where his oldest brother lay injured.  “Guess who, big brother?” Joe kidded upon seeing Adam alert. “I bet you thought I’d never get back!”

“Oh?  Have you been gone?  Now that you mention it, though, it has been delightfully quiet around here the last several hours,” Adam said with a wink.  “And look, you even brought some friends.”  Adam hoped his joking would put Joe at ease.

Joe looked up to see Hoss and Jeb scrambling down the rope after him.   “I better move; it doesn’t look like Hoss’ brakes are working too well.”

Once on the ledge Hoss yelled up to his father, “Made it!   Joe and Adam are down here joshin me, so they must not be too bad off.  We’ll be up in no time, don’t fret Pa; get that block and tackle ready to go.”  Ben looped the rope around the sturdiest tree he could find and threw the other end down towards his sons.

“Okay, brothers, let’s get you out of here.  Joe, I’m gonna need your help to guide Adam, once we get him strapped to this board.  Jeb and I’ll pull, but you will have to keep the sled moving.  Adam, your job is hold on tight and let us do the work.  Everybody ready?”    Hoss and Jeb climbed back up a ways and grabbed the loose end of the rope.

With a jolt that registered plainly on Adam’s face, the sled began to move.  Joe did his best to guide the makeshift stretcher around the rough spots, but his success was limited.  A fact that was painfully clear to Adam,

“Joe, is this your revenge?  Making sure that I bounce over every tree root and rock.” Adam teased quietly.

“Uh Huh, I reckon one good jolt for every time you tried to boss me around sounds about right.  Let’s see, only about eighteen years worth left to go.”

“You boys are real funny down there, but this hill is as steep as a mule’s face, and we could use more help at your end,” reprimanded Hoss.

Without notice an ominous crack split the air.   Hoss and Jeb found themselves holding a very short end of rope, as Adam and Little Joe found themselves careening back down the ravine they had nearly escaped.  While everyone watched in silent horror, Joe had the wherewithal to grab Adam’s outstretched hand as he skid past.  The extra drag slowed the men’s descent and allowed Joe to snag a tree stump with his other arm.    Something in his shoulder popped and the pain was blinding, but Joe would not release his hold on Adam.  He closed his eyes and begged for God’s help.

“Joe! Joe ! Thank God for those quick reflexes, you saved both our hides,” but seeing Joe’s face contort in agony, Adam demanded,”Joe, what happened?”

“Nothin”, I’m fine,” Joe said through clenched teeth.  “Hang on Adam; let me pull you over here.  At least we won’t slip any more, “and with his good arm Joe hauled his brother to safety.

Ben witnessed Joe’s actions and cried from the ravine’s edge, “My God! Joe! Adam!  Are you okay?”

Adam tried to clear his head, long enough to get out a response. “Yeah, but I think Joe did something to his shoulder.  Pa, get us out of here,” came Adam’s weary plea.

“Just hang on boys.  Hoss and Jeb just about have things ready to go again.  The calm voice belied the fact that Ben was nearly at his wits end.  The thought of losing any of his boys was worse than confronting his own demise, but to lose all three in one freak accident was devilish torture.  If God willed such a tragedy, he knew he would not have the strength to go on.

Sensing Ben was near his breaking point, Thorn urged him back to the wagon for a swig from his special canteen.  “It’s medicinal, and you look like you could use a wee bit of medicine right about now.  Your boys will be back on solid ground in no time.  My Jeb is strong as an ox, just like your boy.  They’ll get them up this time, you can count on it. “

Ben, like Little Joe, savored the burn as it trickled down his throat.  He was grateful to have Thorn and his canteen around, “Thanks, Thorn.  I guess my concern is more than a little obvious.  Those boys are my life, plain and simple.”

“No need to explain, Ben.  After my wife died, I found myself at loose ends.   When my brother sent Jeb out here last year, it gave me a whole new reason to live.  Jeb sort of gave me roots again.  It’s been good for him too, I think.  We need each other.”

“Yeah, you do understand,” Ben said quietly.  He walked back towards the ravine’s edge just in time to see Hoss and Jeb pull his oldest son to safety.  Adam was black and blue from head to toe, but he was alive.  Ben helped Adam to the buckboard and hugged the dazed young man until he was yelping for air.

“Hey! What about me?” demanded an exhausted and battered Little Joe with that gleam in his eye.  Hoss was at his little brother’s side in a heartbeat.  “Ooh.  Careful there older brother, one of your bear hugs would just about do me in.”   Hoss gently scooped Joe up in his strong arms and deposited him next to Adam in the wagon.

*****

The two weary brothers were bundled up, fed and taken to the Dougall cabin for the night.  After the worst of their injuries were attended to, they found themselves packed off to bed for a well-deserved rest.   Ben and Thorn passed the night reminiscing over times and loves since gone.  Hoss and Jeb formed a fast friendship over endless checker games and stories of their own.

The house had just gone dark when Joe’s dream caught up with him once more.   He tossed and turned replaying the painful scene in his mind.   As the terrifying scene played out, Joe saw the familiar seven-year-old stare in horror as his older brother slipped beneath the ice.  He heard the older boy cry out to his little brother for help.   It was all happening again!  However, this time there was a difference.  This time the little boy climbed with confidence onto the back of his brother’s horse.  With all of his little- boy- might, he threw the rope towards his brother’s outstretched hands.   After securing the rope to the saddle horn, Joe urged the horse forward and pulled the older boy to safety.

Joe woke with a start.  He looked towards Adam lying in the next bed, and let loose a grin rivaled by none.  Joe knew that nightmare would never haunt him again.

***The End***

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