Summary: Adam receives some news from Roy Coffee that turns his world upside down.
Word Count: 8338
With haying finally complete, Adam Cartwright was looking forward to a well-deserved break and eagerly anticipating a few long, cool beers in the Silver Dollar Saloon. His back ached slightly from all the bending and lifting, but he was sure that after a few hands of poker, accompanied by one or two light refreshments, he would be feeling a whole lot better.
The saloon doors swung open and Susie peeped out, rustling her short skirts beguilingly and flashing a shapely ankle in a blatant invitation. “Hi there cowboy!” she cooed. “We’ve missed you lately.”
Allowing his dimples to show, Adam beamed back happily at the saloon girl. Good old Susie! This evening was definitely looking up. The spring returned to his step as he bounded up onto the sidewalk and was just about to enter the saloon, when a firm hand clamped down on his shoulder.
“Evenin’ Adam.” Sheriff Roy Coffee looked distressed, Adam realized. The older man shifted uneasily from foot to foot and chewed nervously at his moustache.
“Hi, Roy. Fancy joining me for a drink?”
Roy attempted a half-smile, not entirely successfully. “Actually, son, I was wantin’ a word with you. In my office, where it’s private.”
Flinging a regretful smile at Susie and mouthing ‘Wait for me!’ Adam followed the sheriff along the street.
“Wonder what fool business Joe’s got into now,” he grouched under his breath. His younger brother had a penchant for trouble, attracting it as readily and seemingly unwittingly as he drew admiring glances from the young ladies of Virginia City. It seemed impossible for more than a week to go by without Joe either falling in love or landing in some scrape. Sometimes, considerable ingenuity, Joe was able to combine the two activities.
Roy sat down and motioned for Adam to do the same. “This ain’t easy for me,” he began, with a grave look on his face, and Adam began to get seriously worried. What on earth had Joe done now? Was the boy all right? He leant forward and regarded Roy steadily.
“Just tell me Roy,” he said firmly.
“I got a letter from the prison governor over at the State Penitentiary. Seems one of their prisoners made a confession to the priest, just before he was hanged.”
“And exactly how does that concern me?” Adam asked, wondering what all this had to do with him. Roy moved uncomfortably in his chair.
“It’s about Luther Evans. You ‘member him, don’t you?”
Adam felt the hard rails of the chair back digging into his spine, anchoring him to reality, to this hot, dry and dusty office where the dust motes circled in giddy circles and the air was seemed to be in short supply.
“I remember Luther Evans,” Adam said shortly, rubbing suddenly clammy hands on his jeans. Yes, of course he did. After all, it was his testimony that had helped to convict Luther and had led directly to his death on the gallows.
Luther Evans was about the same age as Joe, but there the resemblance ended. A pale, studious boy, Luther was educated at home by his father and never socialized with other children. Adam first met the child at an Independence Day picnic and bonfire held by on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
“Keep an eye on your brother for a moment,” Ben pleaded, anxious to spend a little time with his friends. It was all too rare a treat these days. While he loved his sons dearly, sometimes he missed adult company. Ben choked back a smile as Adam took hold of Joe’s collar and pulled his brother none too gently to his side.
“Aw Adam!” Joe whined, kicking ineffectually at the sandy soil. “I wanna go see the bonfire!”
“You’ll stay right here beside me, so I can make sure you don’t get into trouble,” Adam said steadily, yet in tones that brooked no argument. Why did Joe always have to make things so difficult?
“That kid’s allowed to play by the bonfire – don’t see why I can’t too!” Joe pouted.
Looking across, Adam saw a child standing far too close to the fire and staring at the flames, as if he was mesmerized by them. A resin-filled branch gave a large pop and then a tongue of fire flared out, missing the boy by inches.
“Look after Joe!” he told Hoss, thrusting the boy into the waiting arms and then racing over to the bonfire.
Luther jumped when Adam pulled him to safety and then looked up at the tall youth with uncomprehending eyes. Seeing his obvious bemusement, Adam tempered his tones.
“It’s dangerous to stand so close to the fire,” he chided gently. “You could get hurt.”
The boy returned his gaze with a steady regard that was rather unnerving in a six-year-old. “I like fire,” he announced firmly and then walked off to join the crowd, gathered around the picnic tables. Adam sighed: he would never understand children in a million years!
It was harvest time before Adam saw Luther again. The hay had been cut and then stacked into ricks to dry before being stored for winter and Adam had finally given in to Joe’s pleas to be allowed to ride out with his brother to inspect the fields.
“Look! That’s Luther!” Joe cried, standing up in his stirrups and pointing to where a figure crouched beside a hayrick. Something struck Adam as wrong – very wrong.
“Stay right here and don’t dare move!” he instructed Joe, ignoring the inevitable mumbling protests and raced his horse forward. As he approached, Adam saw with horror that Luther was engrossed in striking two flints off one another.
“What do you think you are doing?” he demanded, vaulting down to the ground. “Don’t you know that could start a fire?”
Luther smiled blandly at him. “Of course I do!” he said, in a disconcertingly calm voice. “The action of the flints against one another produces a spark and…”
“… and you could burn this entire field down and then your Pa would have to pay for it!” Adam fumed, grabbing the boy and flinging him up onto his horse. “I’ll bet he tans your backside for this!”
Joe saw the look on his brother’s face and wisely decided to keep quiet on the journey into town. The journey home was equally silent, until they pulled into the yard of the Ponderosa.
“You stay away from that boy, d’you hear?” Adam said.
Joe nodded meekly. There was something strange about Luther, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but it made Joe uneasy. For once he was quite happy to obey his brother.
Adam took the letter from Roy Coffee and began to read its contents with a growing sense of disbelief.
“Another man confessed to that arson attack?” he gasped, looking at Roy in the desperate hope he would say this was all an awful mistake. Roy simply sat there, regarding Adam with sympathy, and not saying a word.
Five years before, Adam had given evidence in the trial of Luther Evans for arson and murder. He was an exemplary witness and his calm, objective testimony had enhanced the prosecution case. Luther Evans, barely turned 18, was hanged.
“This other prisoner,” Adam scanned the letter quickly, “This Simon Burnett – maybe he was lying?”
Roy’s mouth twisted into an approximation of a smile. “He’d nothing to gain from that, Adam. Man was standing right on the scaffold when he confessed. Said he wanted to clear his conscience.” The sheriff sniffed contemptuously. “Bit late for that, if you ask me.”
“Five years too late,” Adam said bitterly. “Five years and a boy’s life.”
Roy leant forward and placed a hand on Adam’s arm. “Two men died in that fire, Adam. It was a miracle it didn’t spread and burn down half of Virginia City. You told the trial what you saw, Adam. You can’t blame yourself for this.”
“Can’t I?” Adam jerked his arm away and stalked out of the office. Roy sighed softly. No sense in following Adam now – he’d better ride out to the Ponderosa and speak to Ben Cartwright. Adam was taking this news badly and he would need the support of his family.
“I can’t believe it!” Ben Cartwright ran his hand through his thick, white hair in a manner startlingly reminiscent of his youngest son, Joe. “After all these years – to confess like that.”
“There’s no doubt?” Hoss asked hopefully.
Roy shook his head. “None at all. The governor investigated the whole affair before he wrote to me. Seems Burnett was in Virginia City that night, with another couple of drifters and he’d been drinking heavily. According to Burnett, they’d snuck into the barn and bedded down for the night. Seems they clear forgot to blow out the lantern and one of them must have kicked it over during the night. Burnett woke coughing from the smoke and flames and ran for his life. He ran out of the barn and he just kept on running.”
“He didn’t even try to help his buddies?” Joe asked incredulously. He shook his head in disbelief. “Nice guy!” he added, with heavy sarcasm.
Hoss paced up and down the room, consternation etched on his face. “I reckon we should go into town and check Adam’s alright,” he said, looking to his father for confirmation.
Ben nodded. “That’s a good idea. You boys go. I’ll wait here, just in case he comes home.” He could not bear to think of Adam arriving to an empty house.
The patrons of the Silver Dollar had taken one look at Adam Cartwright and decided to give him a wide berth. Even Susie kept her distance. There was something in the way the man moved, in his whole attitude that clearly indicated company was not welcome. He gruffly ordered a bottle of whiskey, sat down at a table and began to drink steadily. By the time Joe and Hoss arrived, the bottle was more than half-consumed.
“Hi Adam,” Joe said softly, gently laying a hand on his brother’s shoulder. Adam flinched at the touch.
“Checking up on me?” He glared at Joe, who took an involuntary step backwards.
Hoss sat down and regarded his brother gravely. “Jist wanted to see how you was doing.”
“I’m fine!” Adam retorted sarcastically. “Of course I’m fine! Why on earth wouldn’t I be? I’ve had a perfectly wonderful time haying, and then I learn my testimony sent an innocent kid to his death. And finally, to cap it all, my little brothers ride into town to check up on me, like I’m the proverbial lost lamb. What could possibly be better than that?”
With difficulty, Joe choked down an angry riposte, realizing that Adam was just lashing out blindly, needing to vent his anger and distress in any way he could. Hoss stared hard at Adam, concern evident in every fiber of his being.
“Don’t you think it’s time to come home now? I reckon you’ve had enough of that rotgut whiskey.”
He reached out for the bottle, but Adam swiped it away and cradled it to this chest. “And I reckon I’m old enough to decide that for myself. You want to make me stop drinking?” He reached forward and poked Hoss in the chest. “Reckon you could that, do you?”
With a small sigh, Hoss shot a sideways look at Joe and then swung a fist, hitting Adam on his chin. Joe caught the bottle as his brother slumped forward and watched in admiration as Hoss easily hefted Adam over his shoulder and walked out of the saloon without a backwards glance.
“Good evening!” Joe remarked pleasantly to the startled crowd, tipping his hat in farewell, before making a speedy exit. He could hear the excited conversations already beginning, even as the doors swung shut behind him. This little escapade was liable to be the talk of the town for days to come.
Adam made only minimal protests as they helped onto Sport and began the journey home, riding one on either side of him.
“I sure hated to do that,” Hoss mourned. He couldn’t bear to look at the large bruise that was forming on Adam’s face.
Joe flashed him a brilliant smile. “Rather you than me, brother!”
Any further conversation was brought to an abrupt halt as Adam lurched forward in his saddle with an ominous moan. With twin sighs of weary resignation, Hoss and Joe dismounted and started to help their stricken brother. Joe looked at the bottle of whiskey in his hand with disgust, and then threw it into the bushes. It was a long and rather dreadful ride home.
The next morning, breakfast was a much quieter meal than normal. Everyone concentrated on their plates and conversation was kept to a bare minimum. Eventually, Ben could bear the oppressive silence no longer.
“Roy Coffee came over last night.” He kept his voice as neutral as possible.
The statement hung in the air for half a minute, as Adam bent his head and paid great attention to his bacon and eggs, without actually eating a single bite. “I thought he might. You know about the confession, then?”
“Yes, we know about that. But you mustn’t blame yourself, son. It wasn’t your fault. You told the truth at the trial.”
“Except it wasn’t the truth!” Adam pushed his plate away and stared wildly around. “I saw Luther Evans near the barn and moments later, the doors opened and a man came running out as flames belched out after him. And I assumed that was Luther too. I put two and two together and I was wrong! How can I live with the knowledge that I helped to condemn a man to death? An innocent man!” Adam’s voiced was choked with emotion and he dashed outside, leaving an untouched breakfast and an overturned chair in his wake.
As he grew, Luther Evans remained apart from the other children of Virginia City. Rigorously schooled at home by an ambitious father, by the age of eleven the boy was already fluent in Greek and Latin and remarkably adept in algebra, geometry and trigonometry as well. Unlike his peers, Luther spent little time outdoors, so riding home from school one afternoon, Joe was surprised to see the boy wandering aimlessly along the lake path. For four years Joe had heeded his brother’s warnings and given Luther a wide berth, but now he was feeling rebellious. The Adam who had returned from college a few weeks before was proving to considerably less than indulgent towards his youngest brother. Joe was heartily sick of his brother’s ceaseless admonitions to work hard at school, to do his homework as soon as he got back from school and to stop reading dime novels. Here was a chance to disobey Adam and have some fun into the bargain. It was an irresistible opportunity.
“Hi Luther!” he called cheerily and the boy gave a start, then regarded Joe warily.
“I’m going for a swim – want to join me?” Joe invited, tying his pony’s reins to a bush and pulling off his boots.
Luther shook his head. “I don’t know how to swim,” he confided.
Joe looked astonished. How could you grow up beside a lake and not know how to swim? “I’ll teach you,” he offered, but Luther refused, preferring to sit by the bank and skim stones across the water.
The water was icy cold, but Joe jumped in regardless, and was soon splashing around with considerably more enthusiasm than style, chattering away all the time. Luther began to smile and even ventured a small, timid laugh at one of Joe’s terrible jokes. Then a thunderous voice interrupted the beginnings of their tentative friendship.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing, boy?” Adam stood on the bank, hands on hips, the very personification of righteous indignation. Luther took one look at him and fled, while Joe waded slowly out of the water.
“Well?” Adam demanded.
“I was just swimming,” Joe offered, his voice slightly muffled, due to the fact he was pulling his shirt over his head at the time.
“At this time of year! Don’t you have the sense you were born with? You could freeze to death!”
Joe knew his brother was right and concentrated on pulling his socks onto feet that were blue and numb with cold. There really wasn’t much he could say, he reflected sadly, and inwardly steeled himself for another brotherly lecture.
Adam tried very hard not to smile as he watched Joe struggle with his boots: the boy was determined not to admit defeat and ask for help. Joe seemed to grow more stubborn with each year that passed! Adam missed the little brother who had looked up to him and asked for advice and help, and he was still not entirely comfortable with this self-assured, supremely confident youngster.
As anticipated, Adam began to inform Joe about the foolhardiness of his ways. In loving detail. The boy sat stoically on his pony, listening in silence and only contributing a “yes” or “no” when appropriate pauses seemed to deem it necessary. But when Adam started to tell Joe that Luther was not a suitable companion, he finally exploded.
“Guess I’m old enough to chose my own friends!” he yelled, urging his pony into a gallop that left his brother looking stunned and bemused. Quickly gathering his wits, Adam took off after Joe, who was riding far too fast for safety across the meadow.
High in the clear, cloudless sky a hawk circled lazily around, scanning the ground for prey. The long grasses parted momentarily to show a brief flash of white, then the hawk pulled his wings back, soaring downwards after the rabbit. Descending steep and fast, it swooped past the nose of the galloping pony, which reared up in fright and then gave a series of wild bucks. Taken totally by surprise, Joe flew out of the saddle, disappearing from sight among the meadow grasses.
“Joe!” Adam reined his own horse to a standstill and took off on foot, frantically calling his brother’s name as he pushed his way through waist-high foliage. A soft, almost involuntary whimper brought him to an abrupt halt and he saw Joe lying in small, huddled heap on the ground.
Adam fell to his knees and ran gentle hands over his brother’s body. Joe winced in pain and tried to sit up.
“Take it easy, Joe,” Adam advised, trying hard to stop his voice from trembling. “You took quite a fall there.” Predictably, Joe ignored this.
“I’m fine!” he said shakily, his words at total odds with his pale face.
“Sure you are,” Adam soothed. “But I got a real shock. Just humor me and let me check you out, alright?”
Joe nodded, and then wished he hadn’t, as the pounding in his head increased. He steeled himself, but could not restrain another anguished whimper when Adam gently touched his left arm.
“I think it might be broken,” Adam said, taking off his bandana and fashioning a sling, which he tied around Joe’s neck. “How about we get you home?” He knew better than to mention Paul Martin, for Joe’s aversion to the doctor was assuming legendary proportions in the Cartwright household. Meekly agreeing that this would be best, Joe allowed himself to be hoisted onto Adam’s horse and gratefully leant back against his brother as they resumed their journey home.
As Joe lay sleeping off the effects of the ether Paul Martin had administered before setting his arm, Adam related the events of the afternoon to his father. Ben was concerned: Adam and Joe were bucking heads rather too often for comfort. It seemed as if there was no common ground the brothers could agree upon and the 12-year age gap seemed to stretch into infinity as his eldest son strove to establish his place in the hierarchy of the Ponderosa, while his youngest fought to prove he was no longer a child. Thank heavens he had one levelheaded and sensible son, Ben thought, looking fondly at Hoss.
“I understand that you’re wary of the Evans boy, but it has been four years,” he advised. “A lot can change in that time. And it’s always dangerous to interfere in friendships.”
Hoss looked at his father and then at Adam. “Seems to me that Luther could do with a friend. I reckon Little Joe just felt sorry for the boy. He ain’t got no buddies at all and that’s plumb wrong! We all need a friend.”
Adam clapped him warmly on the shoulder. “You’re probably right, brother. I’ll try not to ride Joe too hard, but there’s something about that boy that worries me.”
Three days later, Joe found himself at a loose end. The doctor had advised he should stay off school for at least a week, but a broken arm meant he was effectively barred from riding. His father and brothers were busy bringing the herd down to lower pastures before winter set in and consequently Joe was rather bored with life. Hop Sing soon grew impatient with the child getting underfoot and dispatched him to the lake, with instructions to get some fish for tea.
“Can’t see how I can bring in one of them big perch with one hand!” Joe grumbled, but trotted off contentedly enough. Hop Sing smiled: Joe had never caught anything over two pounds, so he judged the boy was complaining out of sheer habit.
Nearing the lake, Joe saw that Luther was once more skimming stones across the surface. He watched in awe as the flat pebble bounced four times. “You’re really good at that! I can only get it to bounce three times. Well, not even that some days,” Joe said, omitting to add that the days he achieved three skips were few and far between. “You wanna help me fish?”
Luther had never fished before, so Joe happily showed him how to cast the line out onto the lake and then wait patiently until a fish rose to take the bait. As the boys waited, they chatted idly and Joe was astounded to hear that Luther was expected to study from eight in the morning until dinnertime, and then to do homework for another two hours each evening.
“When do you get time to play?” he asked.
“No time for that,” Luther informed him. “There’s so much to do if I want to go to college when I’m 16.”
“Ain’t that a bit young?” Joe asked curiously. Adam was the smartest person he knew and he’d been a whole two years older when he went back to college.
Before Luther could answer, the fishing line drew taut and Joe showed his new friend how to gently bring the fish in.
“We should gut it now, but I’m not allowed a knife yet,” Joe said. He was astounded when Luther produced a stout pocketknife and opened it display an array of blades. Selecting a long narrow blade, Joe placed the fish down on a patch of grass and then gave Luther instructions.
“You did a real good job, there!” Joe looked at the neatly filleted fish and Luther flushed with pride. “You wanna cook it and eat it here?”
Luther thought this was a great idea, never having cooked food outdoors and readily agreed. The two boys collected dried branches and carefully built a small fire, surrounded by flat stones. As the fish was cooking, Joe looked at Luther curiously.
“So how come your Pa ain’t teaching you today?”
“He’s over in Sacramento, doing business,” Luther replied. He’d picked up the knife and was gently toying with it.
“What kind of business?” Joe persisted, not noticing the hesitation in his friend’s voice whenever his father was mentioned.
“Oh banking, meeting with people, buying new school books for me,” Luther said vaguely His entire attention was focused on the knife and he watched in rapt fascination as it cut into the skin on his arm, leaving a thin line of blood welling up in its wake. He repeated the motion again, accompanying the action with an almost inaudible sigh of relief.
Joe was horrified. “Don’t do that!” he begged. “You’re hurting yourself!” He snatched a handkerchief from his pocket and was about to offer it to Luther, when the elder boy reached forward and pulled a slender branch from the fire. Its tip glowed red and there was a faint hissing noise as he pressed it firmly against the wounds on his arm. Luther repeated the action over and over again and Joe could see the scars of previous wounds.
“It’s getting late! I’ve gotta go!” he stammered. Luther barely paid any attention as Joe scrambled to his feet and ran home as fast as he could.
Adam was surprised to find Joe waiting for him in his room when he got back home that evening. The boy was obviously miserable, with a woebegone expression and slumped shoulders.
“You feeling alright, little buddy?” he asked. Joe just nodded, refusing to meet his brother’s eyes. “Anything I can help you with?” Adam continued, sitting down beside Joe. He was astonished when the boy cuddled in to him and began sobbing.
“Why do people hurt themselves, Adam? Why? It ain’t nice and I don’t see why they do it!”
Not understanding, Adam reassured the child. “Most people are good and don’t hurt anyone. However, sometimes men like Sheriff Coffee need to use their guns to keep everybody safe. But you don’t need to worry, because nothing is going to happen to you. You’ve me and Pa and Hoss all looking out for you and for each other. Do you understand?”
Drying his eyes, Joe snuffled his agreement. He understood perfectly: he understood that Adam didn’t know what his brother was really talking about. For a moment, Joe debated revealing the whole truth about the events by the lake, but he felt sorry for Luther, and if he told Adam, then his new friend would just get into trouble with his father. Joe decided it was best just to leave things as they were. He didn’t like the sound of Mr. Evans and he was sure Luther was frightened of him. And it was probably best to give Luther Evans a wide berth in future.
In fact, it was not until Luther Evans left Virginia City at the age of sixteen that Joe confided in his family about what had really happened, that long-ago day by the lake.
“I always knew that boy was peculiar!” Adam fumed.
“I don’t think the fault was all Luther’s,” Ben said. It made his heart ache to think of the agonies the child must have gone through, if hurting himself became a pleasurable experience. Then again, perhaps this was the only way Luther could exert any control over his regimented life? He looked at three sons: they might have their differences, but they were strong and independent young men. Perhaps Joseph was a little more strong-willed than his father might have wished, but all in all, Ben felt he had done a good job, bringing up his boys to stand on their own two feet and to accept the consequences of their actions.
Adam felt that he was living through a nightmare, one that had shaken the deepest cornerstones of his belief and tumbled them into disarray. He had always prided himself on being a rational and logical man and it was terrifying to think that a personal prejudice might have influenced his testimony. What he had once believed to be facts were merely impressions and false impressions at that. Adam felt a deep sense of responsibility, and could not accept that he had played only one part in the judicial process: other men had given evidence; a jury had found Luther guilty; the judge had passed the death sentence. Adam was haunted by his self-imposed sense of responsibility.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he started to drink a little more each day. It provided a welcome escape from the nagging anxiety that plagued him during each conscious hour.
“You’ve got to do something, Pa!” Joe begged. Once again, he had attempted to talk to his brother, but Adam had shut his bedroom door firmly in Joe’s concerned face.
“I’ve tried son, God knows I’ve tried!” Ben sounded very weary. Adam’s obvious misery was affecting the whole family and his refusal to accept any help or support was incredibly frustrating.
“We can’t just sit here and watch him slowly destroy himself!” Joe insisted.
Hoss regarded him gravely. “Well what do you suggest? Seems to me we’ve tried just about everything.”
Joe thought for a few moments. “How about me and Adam go and round up those strays in the south forty?” he suggested. “It’ll be hard work, so he won’t have too much time to dwell on things. And we’ll be away from familiar surroundings that might remind him of Luther.”
“He’ll be away from that rot-gut whiskey too,” Hoss added. Adam’s drinking was no secret to his family. It was an outward example of his misery and yet another source of distress for his everyone. Sometimes it was as if the Ponderosa was plunged into mourning
“I’ll try anything,” Ben sighed. “It’s a good idea, Joe. Hoss and I will keep things running here. You look after your brother now, you hear?”
“I hear you, Pa,” Joe said. It seemed peculiar to be the responsible son, the one in charge, the one to whom his brother’s life was entrusted. For Joe had no doubt that unless something was done soon, Adam would be lost to them irrevocably. He was deeply aware of the trust his father was placing on him and just hoped he would be able to repay Ben by restoring his eldest son to him whole and healed.
Hoss looked worried, but waited until he and Joe were alone before voicing his fears. “You be careful, Joe. Just remember Adam ain’t himself right now and keep a sharp eye out.”
“I’ll be fine, Hoss. Don’t worry about me – I’m a big boy now!”
Hoss stifled back a snigger. “You ain’t so big little brother – I can still get you right where it counts!” With that, his fingers roved ruthlessly over Joe’s ribs, tickling mercilessly, until Joe collapsed to the floor in giggles. Upstairs, Adam heard the joyful laughter and bent his head in abject misery before pouring himself another large measure of whiskey. It didn’t quite block out reality, but it helped. It helped just enough to let him continue living, even though he was only going through the motions, merely existing rather than actively participating.
The next morning, Adam accepted the news with equanimity, but his mind was in turmoil. He could not begin to contemplate going even a day without the whiskey. Never quite drunk, he was never entirely sober either, walking a fine line between both. There was no way he could survive several days without a drink, but equally, there was no way he could carry whiskey in his saddlebags. And then, unbidden, a solution presented itself.
“We’re setting off tomorrow, yes?” Joe nodded, pleased that Adam actually seemed to be taking some interest in things at last. “Then, I think I’ll go into town this morning. I could do with some new socks – nothing worse than having your heels rubbed raw on a long ride!”
It was all too easy to walk into the drug store and purchase a bottle of laudanum. It was small enough to slip into his hip pocket, but Adam knew it would provide several days of sweet respite.
After four days spent riding and rounding up stray steers from dawn to dusk, Adam was surprised to find that the ache in his bones over-rode the pain in his heart, and that spending hours scanning gullies and canyons for stray cattle concentrated his mind wonderfully. During the day he was almost beginning to forget. But at nighttime, there was no escape. That was the worst time, when there was nothing more to do than stare up at the sky and watch as the stars moved along their appointed paths, in a predestined pattern that seemed to mock the disruption in his life.
“The fault is not in the stars, dear Brutus, but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” he quoted softly. Joe sat up and looked interested. It was the first time Adam had started a conversation in days.
“What’s that from?”
“Julius Caesar. Or from a man railing impotently against fate. Which ever you prefer.”
Joe stood up and walked over to his brother. “This self-pity isn’t you, Adam. You of all people must see that you only told the facts and…”
“And nothing! And what are facts anyway? They’re what we believe to be true at the time, that’s all. Not so long ago, men believed the world was flat. I believed I saw Luther Evans running away from a burning barn and I assumed he’d set it on fire. But they were wrong and so was I! Don’t talk to me about facts!”
Slumping back, Adam placed a weary hand over his eyes. Perhaps if he blocked Joe from his sight, his brother would take the hint and leave him in peace.
Joe did not move. There was scorn in his voice as he replied. “I thought you looked at things logically, Adam. So facts change! Sure they do – when we discover something new! Something that forces us to reassess things. You have to learn to accept what happened and then move on. Otherwise, there will be two lives lost here – yours and Luther’s.”
A stony silence greeted his outburst and Joe walked away to the other side of the fire and settled down for the night, wondering if he’d done the right thing. Well, he’d tried everything he could think of and there was a limit to the amount of sympathy and understanding even the most devoted brother could give, especially when you got nothing in return. Joe gave a resigned shrug. He didn’t know if there was anything more he could do or say, and right now he was bone tired and craved sleep.
Adam waited until Joe’s breathing slowed down and became soft and regular. Then he poured out a small measure of water from his canteen and added ten drops of laudanum. That was more than usual, but Joe’s words kept revolving around his mind and there was no other way he would get any sleep tonight.
Just before dawn, a peal of thunder rang out, spooking the herd and setting off a wild stampede. Joe leapt to his feet, grabbed his saddle and ran pell-mell to Cochise as torrents of rain poured down. Adam tried to clear his foggy head and stumbled along in his brother’s wake. His fingers worked slowly and the cinch had never seemed so stiff and resistant. Sport seemed to sense his mood and moved restlessly, making the job twice as difficult.
Swinging into the saddle, Joe called out, raising his voice above the sound of the rain. “I’ll try to head them off before they reach the head of the canyon. You take the right flank and herd them back around here!”
Not waiting for a reply, Joe raced off in pursuit of the herd, galloping up a side gorge that would give a vital few seconds advantage and would hopefully allow him to reach the mouth of the canyon before the steers did.
Sport was thoroughly spooked by the thunderstorm and danced around nervously, making mounting a difficult maneuver. Adam cursed the wasted moments and finally sped off up the now-deserted canyon, racing over ground churned up by a myriad of hooves and was now treacherously slippery. And then, before he could school his mind to work clearly, the herd was running back towards him. Directly towards him.
The laudanum was treacherous stuff, distorting reality, compressing events into a whirling kaleidoscope that had no beginning and no end. Adam felt totally lost and helpless. One steer raced ahead of its fellows and it nearly gored his right leg as it careened past, missing him by scant inches. The imminent danger was suddenly a very real possibility. Unable to school his thoughts and or to act coherently, Adam instinctively reached for his gun and fired three shots into the air, the Cartwright signal for help.
The effect was immediate. The terrified animals wanted only to escape from this new disturbance and tried to turn around. In the narrow gorge, they became hopelessly bemired in the mud, scrambling over one another in their desperation. Joe saw the chaos ahead of him and frantically reined back, feeling Cochise’s hooves scramble desperately in the mud, unable to get any purchase. There was no time to turn the horse around before the first steer sideswiped them, followed by another and then another.
A hundred yards away, Adam watched in abject horror. Suddenly, his brain seemed to be working once more and he kicked Sport forward, moving towards the frightened animals and gently herding them down the canyon, back to safety and away from where his brother lay facedown and unmoving in the churned up mud.
With a sinking, sick feeling, Adam rushed over to Joe. There were hoof-prints all over his back and a large gash on his thigh was bleeding freely.
“That’s a good sign,” Adam told himself. “Dead men don’t bleed.” It was scant comfort, but at least Joe was alive.
Joe stirred slightly and then winced as his battered body protested and pain coursed violently through every fiber and sinew. A gentle hand touched his head and he heard his brother’s voice, although it seemed a very long away.
“Keep still. Don’t try to move,” Adam said and, if things had been different, Joe would have laughed out loud. Moving was the very last thing he felt like doing. He was quite content to lie still and concentrate on trying to control the nausea rising in his throat. Breathing shallowly, he began to isolate the different injuries: thumping pain in his head, a searing agony in his leg and an insistent throbbing running from his shoulders to his hips.
“Don’t do that!” he yelped, as Adam tried to staunch the bleeding coming from his gored thigh. The slightest touch was excruciating agony. Fighting against the pain, Joe struggled violently, pushing his tormentor away.
“Don’t touch my leg!” he pleaded, grabbing onto Adam’s hands, trying to fight the dizziness.
With infinite tenderness, Adam gently pushed Joe back down. “Sorry buddy, but this has to be done.” He pressed down firmly on the wound and Joe gave a strangled gasp and then fell back, limp and unresisting.
“Always have to do things the hard way, don’t you little brother?” Adam thought grimly, as he started to assess Joe’s wounds. By some miracle, the only major damage appeared to be the leg wound, a blow to the head and some broken ribs. But the leg wound was long, ragged and deep and although the bleeding was slightly slower now, it was still not clotting. The only positive thing to be said was that at least the hemorrhage would have washed most of the dirt out of the wound.
At least he had something that would help Joe with the pain, Adam thought, knowing the journey back home would take at least a day. He reached into his hip pocket and then winced as something sharp cut into his finger. Sucking the digit ruefully, Adam realized that his precious bottle of laudanum had been broken at some point during the stampede.
By the time Joe struggled back to consciousness the rain had stopped and the sun was rising. Conscious of the need to get his brother home as soon as possible, Adam waited just long enough for Joe to drink a cup of coffee before helping him into the saddle and then mounting behind him.
“Cooch?” Joe’s voice was faint, but urgent.
“He’s fine. A couple of scratches, but that’s all. You’re the one who came off worst, buddy.” He had tied Cochise’s reins to his saddle horn and the pinto was trotting alongside them, but Joe did not seem to be aware of this.
“Glad Cochise is alright.” Joe forced the words out. He wanted to reassure Adam that he was all right, but he simply didn’t have the strength to say anything else. He remained silent during most of the torturously slow journey, except for those moments when the pain became too much too bear and a choked gasp of agony would force its way out. Adam pushed on relentlessly, keeping an eye on the still-bleeding wound and watching as the bloodstain on the bandana he had strapped around Joe’s leg grew ever larger. He wondered idly how much blood a man had in his body and how much he could afford to loose…
Twice that day, Adam had to bind the wound with fresh dressings and his spare shirt was reduced to a tattered remnant. By mid-afternoon, it was obvious they would not reach the Ponderosa by nightfall and he reluctantly looked around for a spot to set up camp for the evening. Joe was barely conscious and he almost slipped to the ground when Sport came to a gentle halt.
Tending to the ugly wound, Adam noticed it was turning a dark reddish-purple, raised proud against the swollen and bruised flesh that surrounded it. Joe was feverish, with a fierce heat radiating from his body. After tending to his brother, Adam sat back on his heels and surveyed the empty landscape. He had never felt quite so alone in his entire life.
The night’s rest appeared to do Joe some good, as the wound had finally stopped bleeding. But he had an inescapable look of fragility and was still tormented by pain.
“I can’t go on,” Joe said, his voice faint, but determined. Adam started to protest, but Joe interrupted him, his dogged determination reasserting itself, despite his weakness. “I can hardly lift my head off the ground, far less stay on a horse. You go back and bring help.”
“I can’t leave you!” Adam cried wretchedly.
“You have to.” Joe’s fragile store of strength was waning fast and he shut his eyes, not wanting his brother to see the tears that were threatening to spill out. He would not let his brother watch him die. How could Adam ever live his life after that?
Adam knew Joe was right. He had to ride on alone and get help. It was the logical thing to do – he knew that. So why did it feel so wrong?
“I’ll be as quickly as possible, Joe. I’ll be back with help.”
“I know you will.” Joe managed a half-smile, which sat oddly upon his face and was a faint, mocking echo of his normal insouciant grin. He managed to wait until the hoof beats faded into the distance before he would allow the sob escape from his throat.
“He’s a remarkably lucky young man,” Paul Martin observed wryly. The boy was so accident-prone that the doctor used to wonder if he would ever reach his twenty-first birthday. He turned to Ben, who had refused to leave his son’s side since he was brought home, still and unmoving, seemingly more dead than alive.
“The leg wound is deep and it took me over an hour to stitch it up, but it should heal without too much trouble. As long as he stays off it for a couple of weeks.”
“He’ll do that alright, iffen I have to sit on him myself!” Hoss solemnly stated, with only the merest hint of a smile playing on his lips.
“He’s got five broken ribs and a lump the size of hen’s egg on the back of his head, but apart from that…” Paul let his sentence tail off. Only Joe Cartwright could be caught in the middle of a stampede and come off so lightly. The boy must have a whole host of guardian angels working overtime on his behalf.
“You did a fine job, tending to that leg wound Adam. If you hadn’t acted so promptly, there was a real danger Joe could have died from blood-loss.”
Adam nodded abstractly, never raising his gaze from the wan, bandaged figure lying almost motionless in the bed. From time to time he caught himself leaning forward, straining to hear if Joe was still breathing.
“Joseph will be alright, Paul, won’t he? I mean, he’s got a bit of a fever and…”
Adam glanced up and caught Hoss’ eye and they exchanged a knowing smile: no matter how old Joe grew, to his father, he was still his little boy and therefore in need of love and protection. They foresaw some relentless coddling in the days ahead.
“He ain’t no different when it’s you and me neither, brother,” Hoss said meaningfully. “Guess we’re all like that. What hurts one of us hurts all of us.”
For all his own gift with words, Adam often envied the way Hoss could express the most complex thoughts with such immediate sensitivity. He nodded, realizing that it was time to move on.
The familiar tones of Ben Cartwright exerting the full force of his personality upon his youngest son could be clearly heard downstairs.
“Looks like Pa could do with a break,” Adam observed dryly and loped upstairs. Just as he thought: Joe was assuring his father that he quite well enough to get up. Not to be outdone, Ben was informing his recalcitrant offspring that he most certainly was not. It was an all too-familiar scene and generally indicated that Joe was well on the road to recovery.
Adam entered the room to find father and son glaring at one another, and tried not to burst out laughing at their resemblance to one another.
“Why don’t I sit with Joe for a bit?” he suggested smoothly. Ben gave him a harried smile and left the room with evident relief.
“You’re obviously feeling better if you’re up to fighting with Pa,” Adam remarked. “You should have learned now that he’s the original immoveable object when it comes to obeying doctor’s orders.” Joe just grunted and continued to look put out.
Sitting down beside the bed, Adam clasped his hands and rested his chin upon them. “I’ve been wanting to have a talk with you – about what happened the other week.”
Joe looked embarrassed. “Yeah, me too,” he agreed. “I never thanked you for looking after me and getting me home. Sorry.”
This was the last thing he would have expected Joe to say and Adam jerked upright. “That’s not what I meant. Not at all. Quite the reverse in fact.” He could feel his face redden. “I’ve apologized to Pa and Hoss for the way I acted and the things I did, but you were the one who suffered the most.”
Joe toyed restlessly with the fringe of his bedspread, unable to look at his brother. “S’alright,” he mumbled, in an embarrassed voice.
“No, it’s not. It’s not all right at all. I acted without thinking and caused that stampede. You could have been killed. I thought that I’d gone through the worst thing on earth, when I found out about Luther, but if you had… if you… ”
“Adam, I’m fine. I’m here right now because you looked after me and brought me home. And if took an accident to bring you back home to all of us, then it was worth it.”
Fumbling in his pocket, Adam pulled out a letter. “I got this from Mrs. Evans. She wrote to tell me that I wasn’t to blame myself. Luther had a long history of hurting himself and as he got older, he made several attempts to take his own life. When he was arrested for arson and murder, he refused to say a single word in his own defense. Not one word. Mrs. Evans believes he welcomed death, as a release from his father’s dominance. And she said she’s happy to think he’s finally at peace.”
Joe looked stunned. “Poor Luther! I knew he was unhappy, but I never thought it was that bad. Still, it was nice of his mother to write. I often thought Luther could have been real nice too, if he’d just had a chance to be normal.”
Adam looked back at the letter. “His mother wrote something else. Remember that afternoon you and Luther spent fishing? He told her that was the one time he felt totally happy, the only time he ever felt like a regular kid. That’s a good memory to have.”
“He must have been very lonely,” Joe said sadly. “All those facts his father stuffed into his head, when what he was needing was love.”
“Love and the freedom to make your own mistakes and learn from them. We can’t ask for more than that, any one of us. Oh, and the support of your family, through good times and bad.”
Ben had been standing at the door listening for a few moments, relieved beyond words to realize that Adam had fought his inner demons and emerged a stronger man. “That’s a good creed to live life by, son. Wise words indeed.”
Adam looked up at the tall, beloved figure of his father and smiled. “Oh, I had a good teacher.”
“The very best,” Joe agreed contentedly. It was comforting to think that some facts were constant and immutable, like the love that bound the Cartwright’s together.
Adam stretched languidly. It had been a long time since his last visit to the Silver Dollar Saloon and he wondered if Susie would be working tonight.