Summary: Indulged myself with a little “Halloween” fantasy.
Word Count: 3500
The horse he rode was the palest of colors. The animal seemed to almost disappear as it stood on the ridge, blending in against the cloud-covered sky. Large, deep-set black eyes stood out in stark contrast. The rider wore clothes that matched the horse’s eyes. Even the buttons of his shirt and pants were the darkest of ebony. His hat was pulled down over his brow, shadowing most of his face. The only features that could be seen were thin, pallid lips and hollowed out cheeks with prominent bones above the spaces. Neither rider nor animal moved.
The Cartwright brothers were cold, tired and miserable. The rain had been ceaseless for the last three days. It was late October and the cattle needed to be brought closer in toward the ranch or their chances of surviving a Nevada winter were slim. None of the men minded the hard work that went with ranching but these late season rains were bone-chilling and created havoc with the trails. Mud seemed to be everywhere. All three men were streaked with brown patches from head to foot.
“Lordy, a nice hot bath sounds almost better than Hop Sing’s chicken and biscuits. Don’t know when I’ve felt this wet and tired.” Hoss wiped the mud from his hands onto his already dirty pants.
Joe looked at Adam and said, “Do you suppose the rain has made his brain wet?”
Hoss shook his large frame. Water and mud splattered onto his younger brother.
“Not so’s you’d notice, little brother.”
Joe’s temper flared. “Hey, knock it off. Yer shakin’ like a wet dog.”
“You gonna make me?” Hoss took a step toward Joe.
“OK you two, I’m as tired and wet and mean as you but let’s get the job done so we can go home.” Adam stepped between his two brothers.
They both backed off and headed for their horses. Adam took a deep breath and let out a quiet sigh. He looked into the sky, hoping this round of rain would hold off until they got home. It was then he noticed the unmoving rider on the ridge across the pasture from them. The distance was too far for Adam to be able to recognize the man but something told him he’d never seen him before. He kept staring at the figure, waiting for him to move but nothing happened. He pulled his eyes away for a moment and said to his brothers, “You know who that is?”
Hoss and Joe were already mounted. They followed Adam’s line of sight as he looked back at the ridge, but saw nothing. Hoss made a face. “Who you talkin about?”
The figure had disappeared. Joe mumbled to Hoss. “You ain’t the only one with a wet brain. Big brother is seeing people who aren’t there.”
Adam continued to stare at the now empty space. He wondered if Joe was right. No one could have disappeared that quickly. Finally turning around, he said, “Let’s go.”
The men continued to struggle through the thick mud. Bunching the hard-headed beeves was bad enough but pushing them through the sloppy mess was even worse. They split up one last time to see if any more cattle were stuck in the thick brush or hiding in some canyon. A distant rumble of thunder let Adam know his hopes for no more rain would soon be dashed. He let Sport pick his own path up the slippery hillside. He took his eyes off the ground long enough to glance up. The same man and horse stood at the top of the trail.
Adam pulled Sport to an abrupt halt. The thunder came again, only closer this time. “You there,” he yelled. “You’re on private property. What do you want?” He normally won’t have been so unfriendly to a stranger crossing their land but he felt uneasy and his body shook briefly as a chill caught him unaware. Again, horse and rider stood motionless.
Just as Adam was about to urge Sport forward, the big chestnut started a restless jig to the side. His head was up with ears forward and nostrils flared. Adam sat deeper in his seat and closed his legs slightly on the horse’s barrel. He could see that Sport’s eyes were wide with fright. As the animal became more fractious, they started to slide down the hillside.
Adam had all he could do to stay in the saddle. He let Sport have his head, hoping the big animal would regain his footing. It briefly occurred to him what could happen if they both went over. Rocks and mud tumbled before them as they continued their downward slide. The horse struggled to stop himself and after what seemed an eternity to his rider, their descent finally ended.
Adam could feel the exhausted horse tremble beneath him. He dismounted and found that his own legs were weak. Horse and rider stood still until the strength returned to their depleted muscles. He looked up and saw the rider still sitting in the same position. Before he could decide what to do, the stranger reined his horse around and disappeared down the other side of the ridge. As much as he wanted to know who this man was, Adam knew he’d never ask Sport to try that hillside again.
When they had both recovered, Adam led Sport to level ground. He noticed how much calmer the animal became when the horse and rider disappeared. He wanted to know more about the strange pair, but the thunderous sky was now streaked with lightning and the rain had just started to fall again. He mounted and headed to the place he had arranged to meet his brothers. Stopping near the cattle they had already rounded up, he saw that the worsening weather was starting to make them restless. He untied his poncho from beneath his bedroll and pulled it down over his head. He pushed his hat down further on his brow and it occurred to him that he bore some resemblance to the rider he had seen.
Just then Joe came riding in. “Hey brother, I didn’t find one. You have any luck?” Before his brother could answer, Joe noticed that Adam’s usual dark coloring looked washed out. “You alright Adam?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Adam answered quietly. “Why do you ask?”
“You just seem kinda pale is all. You getting sick?” Joe’s brow furrowed and he reined Cochise closer to his brother’s mount.
Adam decided not to relay his near calamitous trip down the hill. “No, I’m fine but you’re gonna get sick if you don’t put your poncho on.”
Joe just smiled and reached for his rain gear. “Yes Pa,” he replied.
Adam raised an eyebrow and was about to say something when Hoss appeared, pushing about six head in front of him. “Don’t you two have anything better to do than sit around and talk in the rain?”
“It’s ok. Papa here just made me put my poncho on.” Joe snickered as Adam’s mouth became a tight line.
Hoss looked at Adam and noticed the wan color too but decided not to say anything until they were alone. He knew his brother hated to be sick and bringing it up now when there was still work to do, wouldn’t do anybody any good. “I can taste those chicken and biscuits. Let’s get these critters home.”
Joe looked at Adam and whispered “I knew the food would win out.” A smile broke the tension in Adam’s face.
With only about a hundred head, driving should have been easy. But between the existing mud and the increasing storm, what should have been easy became much more difficult. Joe kept to the left near the rear while Hoss rode to the right in the middle. Adam stayed toward the front left side to keep them headed in the right direction. It was fairly slow going. The only blessing was that this time of year there were no calves to slow their progress even more. The thunder became louder and the cattle picked up speed on their own. Adam yelled across the herd to Hoss, “If they break, let them go. The footing is too bad to chase them.” Hoss waved to let Adam know he’d heard him.
Adam started to ride back toward Joe when the sky opened up and rain teemed down. Lightening streaked toward the ground and found its mark in a huge old pine that had been standing at the meadow’s edge forever. The tree forked and the pitch exploded. The cattle panicked and turned in the complete opposite direction from where they were headed. Joe was in the direct path of the stampeding herd.
Cochise had reared in terror when the old pine exploded. Joe was barely able to stay aboard. He saw the cattle coming toward him but was powerless to do anything about it. Hoss tried desperately to get through to the other side but the swarm of beeves prevented it. He watched as Adam put Sport into a gallop. Horse and rider were running flat out toward Joe.
Adam could feel Sport slipping as he did what he was asked. The footing was now treacherous but he had to get to Joe before his brother went down under the hooves of a hundred head of cattle. Coming closer to the hapless pair, Adam put out his arm and hooked it around Joe’s chest. Suspended in midair, Joe kept as still as possible. Adam deposited him on a high boulder while still in motion. He looked back to see Joe smiling at him as he asked Sport to slow down. Trying to set his feet in the water-soaked ground was too much. Horse and rider crashed to the ground as the flailing animal rolled over on his rider. The cattle passed without coming near the downed pair.
Joe’s smile faded and he ran to his brother. Hoss was already there speaking soft words to the terrified horse. Sport lay on his right side, his flakes heaving in exhaustion and fear. Adam had been thrown clear and now laid spread eagle in the mud. Afraid the big animal would panic and trample his brother, Hoss approached him slowly. “Easy now old son. Let’s see if you can get up without hurtin Adam no more.”
Joe stopped and watched as Hoss encouraged the frightened animal to his feet. Sport stood solidly on all four legs. His head was down and he continued to breathe hard. Blood ran from various cuts and scraps along his legs and shoulders. Both brothers knelt beside an unmoving Adam. “Oh God Hoss, is he…?” Joe’s voice was thick with emotion.
“Now just hold on, Joe. Let me listen.” Hoss pushed up his brother’s poncho and opened his jacket and shirt. He swallowed hard when he saw where the saddle horn had hit just below Adam’s breastbone. Putting his ear against the cold flesh made him shudder but he was rewarded by a rhythmic heartbeat. “He’s with us. We got to get him out of this rain and home.” Hoss proceeded to check his brother’s arms and legs for any breaks. He let out a breath when he couldn’t find any. “His arms and legs are ok.”
Joe felt a lump forming over the back of Adam’s head. He pulled his hand away and watched as the rain washed it clean of his brother’s blood. “He’s got a good lump on his head.”
Hoss answered. “I don’t like the looks of that bruisin’ on his belly. I’d feel better if we had a wagon but we don’t and I don’t think we ought to wait to get one. Besides, I’m not sure one could get through all this mud.” He took a quick look at Sport than said, “Is Cochise alright?”
Joe ran to check his horse. “Yeah, she’s ok now.”
“Sport doesn’t look like he can take much right now,” Hoss said. “Help me get Adam mounted on your horse than we’ll trade to Chubb when Cochise gets tired.”
They left Adam’s poncho in place even though they knew he was soaked through from the fall. His wet hair curled and was plastered close to his head. They got him mounted and Joe vaulted behind his brother in one graceful movement and then pulled him close to rest against his chest. “Oh Adam,” he whispered, “Why did you do it?”
Joe didn’t know that Hoss had heard him. “Same reason he told you to put on your poncho. He can’t stand the thought of anythin’ happening to you, big thing or little.”
Unseen by the Cartwright brothers, the stranger stood looking down as the trio made their way home. He raised his head as they rode further away. A red glow burned in the sockets of the rider’s eyes. He moved the pale horse down the hillside to follow them.
Adam had cried out only once when they moved him onto Chubb but Hoss’ soothing voice had calmed him. The rain had lightened but thunder still rumbled in the hills. Both younger men were near exhaustion when they rode into the yard.
“Go get Pa and Hop Sing than get some of the men to help move him into the house.” Hoss held his brother close, all the time speaking in gentle reassuring tones.
Ben’s initial shock dissipated as his need to help his son took over. Adam was moved to his bed and a hand was sent to find the doctor. Hoss held his brother while Ben and Joe worked to strip him of his wet, filthy clothes. They laid him down on a blanket covering the bed. Hop Sing wrapped the trembling body with a light covering warmed by the fireplace. Than as he uncovered one small part of Adam’s body at a time, he gently washed away the dried dirt and blood. Soon the injured man had been cleansed and the old blankets removed. Clean, warmed coverings now lay across the no longer shaking body.
Hop Sing left with dirty linens and muddy, cooling water. Hoss and Joe held the door for him than entered Adam’s room. Their father had sent them away to cleanup and change into dry clothes. Ben pulled back the covers to see if the bruise had increased in size. He looked at his sons. Joe looked away but Hoss managed to answer. “Yeah Pa, it’s some bigger now.”
Ben replaced the blanket and took his son’s warm hand in his. “Tell me what happened.”
Hoss knew that Joe would have trouble getting through the story without breaking down so he took it upon himself to relay the details to his father. Ben closed his eyes. The picture of Adam’s horse slipping in the mud and rolling over on him came to Ben’s mind unbidden. He opened his eyes, hoping the image would leave him.
It was then that he felt a slight pressure on his fingers. Adam’s eyes were open. “It was nothing more than a force of nature.” The words came between shallow, rapid breaths. “Nobody’s fault.”
“I know, son. You rest now. Paul will be here soon.” Ben held his son’s hand a little tighter.
A small smile briefly lit his colorless face as Adam said, “Glad you two are alright.”
He suddenly twisted to the side, grabbing at his abdomen. “It hurts a little more than I thought,” he said between grunts of pain. He clenched his teeth and hoped he would pass out but he wasn’t to be that lucky.
Out in the yard, a horse and rider stood in the shadows. The stranger raised his head and stared at the upstairs window.
Paul Martin was used to seeing ranching accidents of all types and descriptions but he had to admit his heart lurched when he found out Adam Cartwright had been the latest victim. It was late by the time the ranch hand had found him and later still by the time they were able to navigate their way through the thick mud to the Ponderosa. Lights burned from the downstairs windows and through the upstairs’ window Paul knew to be Adam’s room.
Hop Sing ushered him in with a bow and a salutation, letting the doctor know that he was very glad that he had finally arrived. Paul hurried up the stairs and entered the room without knocking. Joe and Hoss stood up as the doctor entered but Ben stayed where he was. He saw that Adam’s eyes were shut but he gripped his father’s hand and moved restlessly about his bed. The boys quickly filled him in on what had happened. Paul moved to the bed and examined the bruising left by the saddle horn. “Has this increased in size since the accident? He asked.
Again, it was Hoss who answered. “Yes sir, it has.”
“He has a lump on the back of his head too,” Ben added. “But he’s been awake and he made sense when he talked.” The doctor could hear the hope in Ben’s voice.
Paul turned around to address Hop Sing. “Could I have plenty of hot water and towels please? Also, I’ll need some clean bandages.” Hop Sing nodded and left to bring the needed supplies. “Boys, take your father downstairs.”
“Paul, I want to stay. He needs me.” Ben increased his grip on Adam’s hand.
“I’m not going to argue with you. Your son’s bleeding inside and believe me, you don’t want to watch me try and do something about it.” He placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Trust me Ben. Go downstairs.”
Ben stood up but Adam still gripped his hand. The young man swallowed and opened his eyes. His vision was blurred but he could make out his family and the doctor. “It’s ok, Pa — do what Paul says.” He let go of his father’s hand. The crooked half-smile was fleeting. He closed his eyes again and curled his body against the pain.
Paul Martin watched as the three men walked from the room, shoulders slumped in defeat. He sat on the bed next to his patient. He heard Hop Sing enter behind him. “Adam, can you hear me.” Adam opened his eyes again and looked at Paul. He heard him speaking but he seemed so far away and he really couldn’t understand what the doctor was saying. It seemed as if his body felt lighter and the pain had receded. He tried to concentrate on what Paul was saying but the sound seemed further and further away. He looked around his room at all the familiar things and then was caught by something in the window. It was the face of the rider in black, a red glow coming from empty sockets as he stared into Adam’s eyes. The cry of terror could be heard throughout the house.
The rain continued to come down steadily. Doctor Martin had left around mid-morning. He told Ben that the bleeding had stopped and that his son was fighting hard. They waited. Adam was beginning to stir and Ben reached for his hand.
As Adam’s vision cleared, he saw his father’s weary eyes. “I’m ok Pa— just a little tired.” He suddenly remembered the last thing he saw. His eyes darted to the window, fear playing in their depths.
“What is it, son? What’s frightening you?” Ben turned and looked at the window. He saw nothing but the rain that pounded relentlessly against the pane.
Adam looked back at his father. The specter he had seen last night was no longer there. “It’s nothing. Just the medicine.” He closed his eyes and grimaced with the pain. “I think I’ll sleep now.” Almost before his head relaxed on the pillow, Adam drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
Days passed and the rains finally stopped. Little by little, Adam regained some strength. The memory of the stranger clad in black became confused with everything that had happened and it no longer seemed so real to him. Hop Sing had brought him a light breakfast and promised to return with hot water so he could wash. His family had all been in to say good morning and now sat together downstairs, discussing the work that needed to be done that day.
Gently and slowly, Adam pulled back his quilts and swung his long legs over the side of the bed. His head swam but he took deep breaths and was able to ward off the dizziness.
He pushed himself up and waited once more. With careful steps, he walked to his window and looked out at the new day. There, by the barn, stood the pale horse. His rider looked up at Adam and neither man moved. Suddenly, the stranger raised a thin hand in a gesture of goodbye. Horse and rider disappeared into the rising sun.
*Death rode a pale horse and hell rode with him – Revelations