Autumn Storm (by Linda B)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  24,700


As usual, he was dressed completely in black – hat and boots, to shirt and pants in between. Even his leather gun-belt and holster were a shiny black, although these were covered in a light film of dust at the moment.

This morning he wore a thick tan coat, button up to his neck. The collar was turned up high against his neck to ward off the cool wind, which whipped maliciously around his ears. His black hair curled slightly around the edges of the hat while his dark brown eyes missed nothing of his surroundings. The jaw was strong and there was a
subtle hint of fine lines near the corners of his eyes. These had formed from years of squinting in the harsh sunlight. When he smiled, which wasn’t often enough for his family, his whole face showed the humor he was capable of.

A tough, hard life as a boy had molded him into a man who rarely showed his sensitive side. He had been hurt too many times, physically and spiritually, and because of this allowed very little of his true self to be seen. To those who didn’t know him he was cold, even aloof and the most serious of the Cartwright sons. Deadly with a
rifle and lightening fast on the draw with a pistol, few dared challenge him. Those who did quickly learnt the hard way not to mess with Adam Cartwright. To his brothers, who knew the man behind the facade, this was their reliable and stoic big brother Adam. To his father Ben, he was his right hand man and adored eldest son.

Ben Cartwright had been a sailor, but with the death of his young wife Elizabeth soon after the birth of their only child, he had taken the infant boy and departed Boston. With dreams of a new home for himself and his son, he set off for California. On the long arduous journey, the father and his boy suffered times of scarce shelter and
even scarcer food. Even so, the infant grew quickly in these harsh times and when he could walk, was matching his father’s stride on the dusty, and often muddy roads westward.

The young Adam grew increasingly withdrawn and serious and it took the love of a fair-haired woman named Inger to provide him with the warmth only a mother could give a child. In his seventh year she also gave him a brother called Hoss to share in that love. Then once again he lost his mother, the only one he’d known. Inger died
in front of Adam, as she fought beside her husband to protect their two sons in an Indian attack. As her life ebbed out onto the sod floor, and his eyes ran blind with tears, Adam promised to protect his little brother for her.

Months later in the north of Nevada, Ben discovered the land he sort for himself and young boys. Towering ponderosa pines and rugged mountains loomed above the valleys. The meadows suitable for grazing stock were covered in thick lush grasses, which waved in the breezes. Sparkling fresh spring-fed streams provided ample
water to nourish both animal and vegetation. Their first winter on the land they now called home was harsh and only the generosity of neighbors saw them survive. On the first day of the spring thaw, Ben vowed never to put his family though this trial again.

Adam was twelve when Marie, his third mother, entered his life. She was a vivacious blonde New Orleans woman his father adored and who bore him another son. Joseph never knew the difficult times his older brother Adam had experienced and grew up happy and cheerful in the love given by all his family. Adam’s intense
commitment and love for his brothers surprised Ben, but Marie understood – as only mothers could. She saw a rich intelligence in her eldest son that needed nurturing, along with the emotions that he kept hidden away.

Adam was beginning to surface his feelings, when Marie was killed in a horse riding accident. Although he wasn’t at fault in anyway, Adam blamed himself for her death. In his young mind, his love for her had killed her. Just as Inger had died because he dared to love her, so had Marie. From that day on he never again gave his love
openly, nor let his emotions rise to the surface – not even to his brothers and father. He rarely smiled, he rarely laughed and he rarely displayed his anger. Only by the way he held his body and through his movements could those close to him know what he was feeling. Nothing betrayed him – even his voice was controlled, as were all
his actions.

Soon after Marie’s death Ben sent Adam to college in Boston, as he had promised his young wife and son. Barely out of his teens, and still suffering Marie’s loss, Adam quickly became hardened to a life without the comforting love of a family. Upon graduation as an architect, and with a sure head for business, he returned home to the Ponderosa.

Now at 29, Adam Cartwright was more than his father’s right hand man – he was a partner in the ranch. With his father’s minimal assistance, he controlled the majority of the new businesses he introduced to the ranch. Aside from the cattle and horses they had started with, the Cartwrights now had substantial holdings in mining, lumber,
grain milling as well as the share market. As their interests grew and diversified, Ben and Adam began to draw Hoss and Joe into the decision making. Although neither Hoss nor Joe understood much of the financial decisions, they each brought their own expertise to the running of the Ponderosa. This in turn allowed Ben and Adam more time to handle the all-important tasks of negotiating contracts and reams of paperwork. Adam and Ben enjoyed their discussions about new ideas put forward by Adam. Occasionally they were heated, but they also never forgot how the Ponderosa was started. No matter how busy they were with contacts and finer details, they each contributed their share to the general running of the ranch.

This day was no different for Adam as he searched the surrounding countryside for wayward stock. He’d finished tallying the lumber books the previous night and was now on his way back home after reassuring himself that the mill was locked securely against the oncoming winter elements.

At first glance he would pass for an outlaw in his dark clothing, but his lithe body shifted effortlessly with the refined movements of his cutting horse. No outlaw rode the way Adam did.

With barely a noticeable touch of his knee, Adam maneuvered his mount closer to a wayward cow and herded her back to the others he had found an hour earlier. His experience with rounding up cattle had begun as soon as Ben purchased a few head of steers that first spring. At the tender age of eight, Adam was spending long days
in the saddle and in conditions so rough, even a man triple his age would have found them difficult. The boy never complained.

“Here we go again with that damn lobo steer Sport.” Cursed Adam, aloud to his horse. “Third time it’s made off again instead of staying with the others.”

Out of the corner of his eye he had managed to see it strike off at an angle and head towards a thicket of briar. He glanced quickly at the other eight steers and saw that they had stopped moving and were in a bunch, grazing on the thinning grass. If they weren’t taken to the lower pastures for the winter, their chances of survival were minimal. Although they would lose a few head over the coming season, no Cartwright would allow the preventable death of stock. Life was too precious for them and that also included their animals.

“Right, let’s get after him. Always has to be one, just like Little Joe.” Adam chuckled to himself at his comparison between animal and brother. “Can’t be one of the herd, gotta do something different. But then again, that’s what little brothers are for – never a dull moment with him hey fella?” He grinned at the thought of what Joe would be saying now if he’d heard the comments.

Sport shifted into an easy gallop, his ears pricked forward and eyes set on the quarry they were seeking. Adam enjoyed riding this horse when rounding up cattle. Trained by himself from a colt, Adam knew he could always rely on him and trust the animal’s instincts. Although hard work, it was never a chore as both man and beast became one. Few words were spoken as Adam used gentle touches to guide him, which only another expert rider would notice.

The other Cartwright men respected his horsemanship. Whether cutting cattle or breaking horses, Adam was undoubtedly the best on the Ponderosa. This fact was another point of amusement between Adam and his youngest brother Joe, who was quickly catching up to his brother in the bronco riding. They were already on
equal terms in judging horseflesh and in another year Joe would be as good a breaker as Adam was. Of course, Adam kept this opinion between himself and his father only. It wouldn’t be right for Joe to know he was getting the better of his older, more experienced brother. Adam also didn’t mind sharing the horse-breaking chore one bit and openly encouraged, coerced and cajoled his younger brother into attempting to outride him. He knew Joe couldn’t resist a challenge, especially when it involved horses. This friendly rivalry had already proven to Ben that Joe could be trusted with the task of providing mounts on time to meet contract deadlines. The last three contacts for saddle stock, which happened to be for the army, had been completely Joe’s responsibility, although Adam had kept a close watch on the daily progress. The army representative left the Ponderosa with excellent
horseflesh and Ben pleased and satisfied with the results as well.

Adam spotted the steer and saw that it was warily watching them. Suddenly it threw its head and bolted.

“Yee haa.” Yelled Adam, as Sport surged forward, right onto the steer’s tail. Sport’s mane flicked into Adam’s face as they gathered speed. Adam guided him to the left of the steer as he prepared to turn him around. Angry or frightened or both, Adam couldn’t tell, the steer swung its head at the horse and to Adam’s alarm, managed to catch a horn in the stirrup. The flanks of the two animals collided together and Adam heard leather ripping, just as a shaft of pain ran up his leg.

“Ahhh.” He cried. The force of the beasts colliding together nearly threw him out of the saddle and it was only his horsemanship that saved him from falling. He looked down between the bodies at his foot. The boot was torn and blood was splashing onto both animals. Before Adam could shake free his boot, the berserk steer lunged forward.

The movement forced the horn further into the stirrup and hard against the foot once more before it continued forward, slashing Sport’s belly.

The horse screamed and shied away violently from the source of its terror. They tore apart, but only because the steer veered to the right at the same time and broke the stirrup strap. Fortunately for Adam his boot slipped out because of all the blood, otherwise he would have been wrenched from his horse still trapped to the steer. As it was the lack of feeling in his right foot and the bucking of his horse, caused Adam to lose his tenuous balance and he was thrown high into the air.

He landed heavily on his left shoulder and felt something give as the force of the impact with the ground knocked the air out of his lungs in a whoosh. The uncontrollable momentum kept him rolling for a few more yards until he hit up hard against a sapling. He struck it with the lower part of his right leg and instantly lapsed into unconsciousness as the agony of breaking bone engulfed his brain in a blinding red light.

With his flanks heaving from the exertion, Sport slowly sidled up to his crumpled rider. He reached forward tentatively to sniff him and snorted at the smell of fresh blood. Uneasily he moved in closer and snuffled the black hair. A gust of wind ruffled the hair. He snorted again and spun off, his fear of blood overcoming the trust in his master.

**********

Adam slowly blinked away the dense fog from his head. Dark clouds and small patches of blue sky in his vision told him he was on the ground. He tried to push himself upright with his hands. There was no movement in his left arm. He tried again, this time attempting to use his shoulders. A sharp pain lanced across his brain from the left side and a cold sweat broke out across his body. Using only his right arm, he carefully pushed himself into a sitting position and looked at his shoulder. The movements made him light-headed and he waited until the feeling
passed. As gently as he could, he slipped his fingers under the coat and felt around the shoulder. From what he could tell it felt as though his shoulder had dislocated. Just touching the area made him suck in his breath and stiffen up. Anxiously, he withdrew his hand and looked at it uneasily.

“At least that’s not bleeding.” Adam thought, as he let himself relax slightly. “Time to check what else is wrong Adam Cartwright.” He took a deep breath then let his eyesight drop down to his right leg and then onto the foot. Tentatively, he tried to move the injured leg. He stiffened again and closed his eyes.

“Oh damn it, I’m in big trouble. How the hell am I gonna get out of this mess and back home with a broken leg and dislocated shoulder?” Adam rarely swore. Ben did not tolerate the use of profanities of any sort by his sons. At one time or another, all the boys had had their mouths washed out with soap for using them when within
hearing distance of their father. Adam was fully aware of the predicament he was in and the word seemed very appropriate.

He could see broken bone poking out through the fabric of his jeans. A little blood was oozing over the cloth as well. Down further at his boot, he could see it was torn from heel to toe and he could see some of his sock and toes. More blood was coming from there and dripping slowly into a dark puddle on the ground.

Adam rubbed his gritty eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Eventually he lifted his head and looked around for his horse. With his injuries as bad as they were, he had very little chance of getting home without Sport. Only it was nowhere to be seen. At least he knew he wasn’t killed, or he’d be lying nearby. He took a small comfort in knowing that the horse was alive. Adam shook his head and pursed his lips. He couldn’t afford to dwell anymore on the missing animal and pushed the thoughts of how he was going to get home away. That would have to wait for a while.

“Bandages…I need some bandages…gotta stop the bleeding.” Thought Adam as he ran his hand down his damp face. “My shirt… it’ll do.” Said Adam out loud as his eyesight focused on the shirt. Luckily he’d decided to put the coat on at the last minute, otherwise he could have been injured further. Thanks to it, he wasn’t cut from the fall because the coat had taken most of the damage as he discovered small rips in the cloth. He could feel some bruises on his back and ribs as he moved, but nothing apparently serious. He struggled out of his coat, trying not to move too fast and jar his shoulder, but as he pulled the sleeve down his left arm, a groan escaped his tense lips. Even the slightest movement was excruciating.

Once the coat was off he unbutton the shirt and removed that as well. He shivered as a gust of cold wind hit his body. Now an undershirt would have been ideal to help him keep warm, but he hated wearing them. He constantly felt the fabric prickle him and give him a feeling of tightness around his chest. Only when it snowed did
he bother to put one on, unlike Hoss who wore them constantly.

With his right hand, Adam reached into his coat pockets to see whether his jackknife had stayed. His searching fingers found only a scrap of paper and the tin box in which he kept his matches. He tucked them back safely, deep into the pocket. If he had to make a fire, he’d certainly need them. In another pocket a pair of black leather gloves. He stuffed them back where he found them. Maybe he’d need them later, then maybe not.

“Damn it to hell.” Swore Adam again. He looked around where he had fallen. There was a glint a few feet away. Shielding his eyes as best as he could, Adam saw his knife. One of the first lessons in survival that his father taught him, and also his brothers, was always carry a knife and matches. Adam had chosen a jackknife rather than a fixed blade. At the time he thought the fixed blade too clumsy and bulky when out riding, but right now he would have given away his favorite rifle to have reached down to his boot and drawn out a sweet bladed knife to cut his shirt with.

“How am I gonna get that?” Groaned Adam in frustration. “Crawl you idiot, crawl.” He replied sarcastically to himself as he pulled the coat back on and buttoned it up. With only one good hand, Adam knew he wouldn’t be able to rip the shirt. He needed his knife but to get it, he had to crawl or drag himself over to it. “Where’s a brother when you need one?” He muttered. “One would sure be handy right now.”

 

*****

 

“Ahhaaa choo…Ahhaaa choo…Ahhaaa choo” Sniffed Joe, as he wiped his running nose and sneezed a fourth time.

“I knew you should have stayed home Joseph. Hop Sing was right when he said you looked as though you were coming down with a cold.” Ben eyed his youngest son sternly.

“Aw Pa. You know Adam insisted on me being with you on this trip. I agreed to come along, but only because it was the only way to get him off my back. I didn’t know I was going to be getting a cold from dear brother Hoss is all. Just wait until I see him. I’ll give him a piece of my mind for him being so generous and sharing.”

“You won’t go blaming either of your brothers now you hear? If you’d had the sense to wear your shirt the other day when you were out chopping wood, instead of leaving it on the woodpile, you wouldn’t have got a chill. That’s why you’re ill, not because of Hoss.” Admonished Ben as he defended his two older sons. “And as for the reason Adam insisted on you accompanying me to Carson City, well that was to get you used to seeing how we negotiate contacts. I agree with your brother in that it’s time you became interested in this side of the business. What with the extra ventures we’re expanding into, Adam and I won’t always be able to look after the contracts. You and Hoss will have to do some of them. ”

“More work for us, thanks to big brother.” Protested Joe, as he blew into his handkerchief. “And it was Hoss’ turn to chop the wood.”

“Hoss has been sick in bed with his cold for over a week. You and Adam heard Doctor Martin when he said if Hoss went outdoors his condition could deteriorate, maybe even develop into pneumonia. Thanks to your other big brother, you don’t seem to be complaining about the extra men we were able to hire this summer because of the additional income he’s made for all of us have you? So I don’t want to hear another word about who was the blame and I’m sick of hearing you dispute every one of Adam’s decisions. That’s for me to do if I choose to, not you. Do you understand me Joseph? I’m sure you argue with him, just to annoy him.” Glared Ben. Joe did look unwell. His eyes were irritated and his nose swollen and red.

“Yes Pa.” Grizzled Joe, as he huddled into his coat for more warmth and stuffed his hands into the pockets. But his father was right in that he did ague with Adam for the fun of it.

“We’re not far from Virginia City now.” Stated Ben, as he glanced out the stagecoach window. He recognized the various landmarks as they flashed by. “We’ll get our horses and in another hour we’ll be home – that’s if the weather doesn’t get any worse. You can go to bed and I’ll make sure Hop Sing brings you some hot soup to help warm you up, but only after you’ve apologized to Adam.” Ben smiled, knowing that his youngest son would enjoy the attention and the chance to stay in bed. Joe wouldn’t enjoy apologizing to his brother, but one day he might finally get it into his head that what Adam did would benefit all of them. “With the way the clouds are building up, it looks like an early autumn storm is on its way. I don’t want us to be caught in that and by the looks of it I’d say we could be in for some snow. ”

“Thanks Pa, I’d like that.” Joe pulled his coat closer and closed his eyes. He felt miserable. After spending the previous afternoon listening to Pa and the other men discussing boring contract details, there was a long delay in the stagecoach leaving this morning. That was bad enough, but then the coach was bumping all over the place on the rough road, and making him extremely uncomfortable. His head and nose were aching and felt like he wanted to cut them off. To finish the day off as soon as they arrived home, he was going to have to apologize to Adam for arguing and not listening to him. Could the day possibly get any worse? He didn’t think so.

 

*****

 

At the Ponderosa ranch, Hoss was staring out the front door. He grimaced and shivered as a cold gust of wind blew a flurry of brown leaves across the porch and between his feet. Reluctantly, he shut the door slowly.

“You ready to eat Mr Hoss? You see Mr Adam?”

Hop Sing was setting out the table in readiness for the midday meal. There were two places on the table.

“Dadnapit.” Cursed Hoss. “Adam said he’d be back by now and he ain’t. I don’t like it. He ain’t never late for lunch, especially when he said he’d be home in time.” Hoss paced in front of the fireplace. The heat of the fire, even though it was banked, warmed the whole room. “And it looks like a storm’s abrewing up in the mountains.
I’d say we’re in fer some bad weather either today or tonight.”

Hop Sing looked thoughtfully at Hoss, before wagging a finger at him.

“You sit down and eat Mr Hoss. You no go looking for Mr Adam. Doctor say you no go outside or you be velly sick. Mr Ben velly angry with Hop Sing if you go outside. Hop Sing no want that. ”

“Haw, Haw, Haw.” Laughed Hoss heartily. He slapped the nervous cook on the shoulder. As if Hop Sing was afraid of his Pa, that was a joke. It was more like the other way round when he became angry and started jabbering away at them in Chinese.

“Well we don’t want Pa mad at you now do we Hop Sing? Hold off for another hour with the food. If he ain’t come home by then, I’ll eat without him. I don’t think I could wait any longer than that because my stomach’s rumbling already.” Hoss rubbed his empty stomach.

To while away the time, Hoss picked up the book Adam had left lying on the blue chair he always sat in, his favorite. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens the cover read.

“Funny name.” Mused Hoss, as he began to flip through the pages. “Wonder who he is?”

 

*****

 

Adam gazed absently at the sun, as it attempted to shine though the small gaps in the thick cloud cover. It was nearly noon, he judged by the angle of the tiny rays, but as he looked behind him, his face froze. Billowing dark clouds were sweeping down the mountains. A storm was stirring and not that far away either he judged. He turned his attention back to his knife.

Using his uninjured limbs, he slid himself around until his back was towards the knife. Every movement of his dragging right leg on the ground caused the mind numbing pain to increase, even though he thought that should have been impossible.

He began to drag himself along the hard ground, until he felt the touch of the cold metal under his hand. Adam picked up the knife and opened up the blade to start cutting, when to his dismay, he realized he didn’t have his shirt. Somehow it had fallen off his lap as he moved. Then he realized he had been too concerned about putting his coat back on and reaching the knife that he’d left if by the tree. He’d have to crawl back over the same long stretch of ground to get to it.

“You certainly aren’t thinking clearly are you? You could have saved yourself an extra trip if only you’d kept the shirt on you fool.” Adam snorted with disgust at his own stupidity.

Again he turned himself around, but first he closed the jackknife and put it between his teeth. Carefully he held it there until he reached the shirt. The journey back took longer as the throbbing of his leg became harder to
manage. He could have put the knife in his coat pocket but he didn’t want to chance losing it again. One more effort like that to pull himself along the ground would finish him. He was exhausted.

At the tree he gratefully lent back against the trunk and closed his eyes. His head was spinning and he felt nauseous. It took a few minutes of deep breathing before he could open his eyes and pick up the shirt. Holding the cloth in his teeth, he managed to cut jagged strips off for bandages.

When he’d completed the cutting, he studied his injuries. He wasn’t going to be able to set his leg without help, of which he had none, and nor would he be able to get the boot off. He stretched out and awkwardly wrapped a bandage as tightly as he could around the boot. It didn’t look good at all. He could see dirt and pieces of debris stuck to the dried blood. He had no choice but to bandage it the way it was because there was no water to clean it with.

Once he’d finished doing that he unbuckled his belt and fashioned a sling. He was about to slip it on, when he saw the tree base. There was a fork about a foot from the bottom. He swallowed hard and pinched the bridge of his nose.

‘If I could put my arm in there, I might be able to pop it back in place.’ Thought Adam. ‘I’m going to need both arms to get out of here. It’s going to hurt, boy will it hurt, but there’s nothing else I can do.’

“I have to try.”

Adam shuffled around and maneuvered his arm into the fork, before letting the wrist slide down as tightly as he could get it between the branches. Next he used a bandage to tie it in place. Adam took a moment to wipe the sweat from his eyes with the cuff of his coat. Finally he was ready, if that was at all possible. He locked his jaw, closed his eyes and jerked his torso back. White-hot pain exploded in his shoulder, so intense that he immediately passed out.

When he came to, the sensation in his shoulder had eased considerably. He gave himself a wry smile and untied the bandage. Tentatively, Adam moved the shoulder and found that it was still aching, but nowhere near what it had been. It worked, and at the first go too. He hadn’t been looking forward to another attempt at re-setting it.

‘One problem fixed, but still more to go.’ he thought.

Adam picked up his knife and bandages and stuffed them deep into a pocket. In the other pocket he checked to make sure the matches were still safe, as well as the piece of paper.

“Well I can make a fire when I need one.” Grinned Adam happily. Just then a strong gust of wind whipped around him and he shivered. He looked up and his grin quickly faded. Heavy storm clouds were straight above him and blotted out all sign of the sun. He must have been unconscious longer than what he thought.

Anxiously, Adam searched the area for his horse and whistled. He licked his dry lips and whistled again, as loud as he could, but there was no response. Not until now did Adam realize how much he was been relying on finding Sport. Here he was injured, without a horse, without shelter and foul weather fast approaching.

‘This is getting better by the minute. What else can possibly happen?’ He thought as he wearily ran his hands through his hair and stared at the clouds. “My gun!”

He reached down and found his gun had remained holstered. His thumb and index finger touched the thin leather thong, which looped around the hammer. He wasn’t sure why that fact gave him a small sense of comfort. It wasn’t as though it would keep him warm and dry when the storm struck.

Suddenly, Adam heard a noise behind him and awkwardly twisted around, drawing his gun at the same time. He laughed and holstered his Colt 45. Sport had heard his whistle and come to him.

“I sure am glad to see you fella. Come here boy.” Called Adam, grinning broadly as he beckoned with his hand. As he appraised the horse to see what damage the steer had done to him he frowned. The horse’s gait wasn’t normal. As Sport came closer, Adam could see by the blood on him – he had been hurt too. Of course it could have been his own blood from the injured foot, but he didn’t think they were going to be that lucky. The horse stopped in front of him and stiffly Adam stretched out and picked up the dragging reins. He guided the horse around and took a closer look at the off side of his mount. The steer’s horn had gored a deep slash along the belly. From where he was sitting, Adam could see the wounded flesh, but couldn’t make out the injury’s depth. Fortunately the bleeding had stopped, but it was obviously causing a lot of discomfort and needed some urgent
attention, just like him.

He gave the horse a rub on the muzzle as it lowered its head and snorted a welcome at him.

“Same to you boy.” Said Adam as he ran his hands down the animal’s legs. “I’m sorry I can’t help you. I can’t even help myself properly, but lets see if we can get home before this storm arrives.”

Satisfied that his horse’s injuries were limited to the belly, Adam rolled over onto his hands and knees and winced at the pressure on his sore shoulder. He shifted his left foot onto the ground, and using the horse’s leg for support, pulled himself upright. Dizziness buffeted him and he clung desperately to the saddle, letting his
sweating forehead slump against the cold leather.

“Must be loss of blood or maybe even shock, whatever it is I’ve got to fight it …gotta get a move on, or I’m dead.”

It was the first time Adam mentioned that word to himself. He didn’t want to dwell on what might happen if they couldn’t get to the ranch before the storm overtook them. Death was something faced nearly every day, in one form or another, and he was determined to die the way he wanted, not by freezing to death.

Adam gritted his teeth. He had enough stamina left for only one attempt at what he was about to do. Standing as he was, with the majority of his weight supported by one leg, he felt weak and ready to collapse. The horse shifted with the added weight.

“Whoa boy…steady…” Sport’s ears flicked at the comforting voice.

Adam grasped the saddle horn with both hands and pulled himself off the ground. The muscles in his upper torso shook under the strain of his full weight and he felt his left hand slipping. The toe of his boot found the stirrup and he gratefully hooked the rest of his boot into it. Then a trembling leg pushed him the rest of the way up and across the saddle on his stomach.

Still holding tightly onto the saddle horn as hard as he could, Adam shifted his body around until he could swing his right leg over and push himself upright. He had no control over the numb leg and it swung down, striking hard against Sport’s side. The intense agony sent his head swimming between stars and darkness as he clung to the horse and fought the murkiness that threatened to engulf him and win. Tenaciously, he hung on and clicked Sport forward with a flick of the reins.

“Come on Sport, get us home.”

The horse broke into a trot as it keenly picked up the pace in the direction he sensed was the way home. A warm barn with a fresh bucket of oats to eat beckoned him. Although he was as keen as his horse, each jarring of hoofs sent spears shooting through Adam’s body and he was forced to slow them down or lose
consciousness.

“Whoa boy, I’m not going to be able to stand this for very long and we’re not even into a gallop.” Adam declared and reached for the spare bandages in his pocket. With the help of the saddlebag thongs, he tied both of his legs to the saddle. He unbuckled his belt, which he’d been using as a sling for his injured shoulder, poked it through his gun-belt and secured it around the saddlehorn. Only then did he feel slightly comfortable with the knowledge that if he did lose consciousness, he wouldn’t fall out of the saddle. He hoped that the cloth was strong enough to
hold him, otherwise it would only be the belt holding him in place.

“All right fella, lets give it another go.”

 

*****

 

The furious wind howled around them in icy cold squalls. It forced its way through the rents in his torn coat and stung him. The smell of impending snow hung thick in the air. Hugging the coat around him as best as he could, Adam was acutely aware that the storm wasn’t far away. He had no choice but to keep to their current pace. To gallop the horse now would be stupid because they were both cold and tired and stiff from their injuries. Any further jarring could cause their wounds to bleed again and they needed all the spare stamina they had.

After taking a good look at the landmarks around them, Adam knew that they were still a long ride from the ranch. He had to find some closer shelter and as soon as possible. He had to think, but where? ‘And it couldn’t be too far from the trail he was taking, just in case someone came out to look for him’. He laughed cynically at
himself. ‘Who would be out looking for him in this weather? Better still why? They had nothing to tell them anything was wrong other than a storm had come early and he’d have enough sense to find somewhere to hole up until it blew over. Storms had happened before and he’d survived them before. Only this time no one knew he was hurt and needed help. ‘

Even if he became concerned about his brother’s late return, Hoss couldn’t look for him because of his illness and Pa and Little Joe weren’t expected back until the next day or evening. The contract they were discussing could take a day or two to finalize, depending on how determined each party was to get the best deal.

“Ryan’s Cabin…that’s closer Sport and we should be able to make it. I can start a fire and get warm,” said Adam through his chattering teeth.

He knew there wasn’t much in the cabin by way of food and there was a good chance his injuries or loss of blood would kill him, but at least the cold wouldn’t get him if he had a fire going. Usually they left the cabin stocked with a few blankets, in the event of someone needing them as he would. Also behind the wooden walls, he could make a better attempt at cleaning himself up. It would be a difficult night without food or water, but he was happy knowing he would be out of the full force of the weather, which was bearing relentlessly down on his back.

Adam turned Sport towards the cabin, hoping they would both last the distance. They had only a mile or two to go he guessed, but with the wind howling around them the ride took longer than Adam anticipated. By the time they arrived, the storm had overtaken them and they were cold and wet. He could barely see a few yards ahead because heavy snow was falling and the wind was swirling it around both man and horse.

Although the cold had reduced the feeling in his leg to a bearable throb, Adam had to fight himself to stay awake.

The horse came to a stop outside the hut and hung its head. Adam fumbled with the knots he’d used to tie himself to the saddle. The same cold, which had worked its magic on his leg, also made his hands and fingers stiff threw the thick gloves. He used his teeth to hold each finger of the glove so that he could slide them off. A few seconds were spent flexing each finger. Despite his attempts to improve the circulation, he was clumsy and dropped both gloves onto the ground. Adam rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes.

“That was clever!”

He searched in his pockets, found the knife and drew it out. His fingers slipped on the wet metal and he grabbed at it quickly. If he dropped it, he’d never get himself loose. He cut himself free and bent over to slide off, but found he couldn’t. He tried again. A tugging at his waist reminded him that he’d also used his belt to secure himself to the saddle. Annoyed at his loss of memory, Adam pushed himself back up and with frozen fingers, worked the buckle of the belt. It didn’t budge.

“Damn it.” He shouted in frustration and renewed his assault on the belt. It came free in a sudden rush and he felt himself overbalance. Not fully aware until now of how weak he was, Adam couldn’t hold himself up and tumbled out of the saddle. The snow cushioned his fall slightly, but when his injured leg struck the ground he could only scream and clutch his thigh. He arched his back as tears rolled down his cheeks and mingled with the snow stuck to his cheeks as wave after wave of agony swept through him. His vision began to turn the snow black and a long narrow tunnel rushed forward.

“NOOOOOO.” Shouted Adam. To lose consciousness now would mean death and he wasn’t ready just yet. Not when he was so close to the cabin and sanctuary from the elements. He lay in the snow breathing deep and fast in an attempt to keep the oxygen in his lungs. The heavy snow kept falling on his face, and the heat from his
body melted it into cold rivers that trickled down his neck and under his coat, chilling him further.

The snow covered his clothes in a deep layer by the time he could roll over and push himself unsteadily to his hands and knees. His head hung down and it was an effort to lift it. In front of him were two steps, which led up to the porch – two enormous, pristine white steps. One hand led the other as he began to shuffle forward. Each movement an effort, each breath rasping in his chest, each touch on his leg pure hell and this he felt was hell except instead of fire it was snow. On the landing he collapsed on his back. The tips of his fingers on his outstretched hand brushed the seasoned wooden door. Above him the handle appeared miles away as he lay looking up at it.

“Move Adam…Move or Die. You can do it son, I know you can.” Adam could imagine hearing his father’s voice talking to him, urging him on. He used the last ounces of strength to reach for the handle and turn it. Weak with relief, he crawled in and slammed the door shut. A spare thought for his horse crossed his mind, but in his
incapacitated state he couldn’t save both of them, maybe not even himself the way he felt. Hopefully Sport would find his way back home. Although the horse was injured, it could survive in the conditions outside, better than he could. The gloves he had dropped were lost in the deepening snow. He was so intent on getting into the cabin that they never entered his mind.

From his position on the floor where he’d fallen, Adam lifted his head and gazed around his temporary home. There wasn’t a lot to see. Under the single window was a small cot with a thin mattress and pillow on it, but no blankets. A narrow shelf was on the next wall, with a few cups and plates, but nothing resembling tins of food. At his feet was a bucket and the next wall to his right had the fireplace. At least there was a good supply of wood stacked nearby and that pleased him but not the absence of blankets. Two chairs and a small table occupied the middle of the room.

In the short time it took him to look at his surroundings, Adam’s teeth were chattering. He looked back to the fireplace.

“Fff…fire…mm…must…gg..get…one…st…started.”

Using both elbows, but relying mainly on the right one, Adam slid across the wooden floor and rested his back against the cold side of the fireplace. All movement was becoming harder and harder. As he sucked in his breath in sort gasps, he reached into his pocket for the paper and matches. His hand drew out the tin box and a soggy mess.

“No.” Adam dropped the paper and let his head fall into his hands, not believing the run of bad luck he was experiencing. Frustrated and angry, which wasn’t normal for him, but understandable given the circumstances, he rubbed his face. “Get a grip on yourself Adam Cartwright. There’s no one here to help you so you’ve got to find
another way to start this fire.” He opened the tin box of matches. They appeared to be dry and would strike – he hoped.

Beside him was the wood stack. He picked a piece from off the top and began pulling off all the small twigs and strips of bark he could find, using the knife to pry larger ones loose when he could. As he sorted through the wood, a pile of kindling began to take shape in the fireplace. When he thought he had enough, Adam drew out a match with a shaking hand. Using the floor as a striking surface, he struck it. For some strange reason he was taken by surprise when the match caught and hastily turned towards the kindling. His hands were shaking so much, that he dropped it. In disbelief, he watched the tiny flame flicker and die on the cold floor.

“Idiot! You damn idiot!” Cursed Adam. He couldn’t believe what he’d done. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it. Why he’d been surprised by the match striking he had no idea. It was dry and did exactly what it was supposed to do. He drew out another match and struck it, this time he was more careful. The kindling took
straight away and once he’d added more pieces to the growing flames, it was crackling away merrily. Pleased with the results, Adam tried to move his body closer to the fire, but found he had nothing left to help himself with. He groaned and slipped sideways onto the floor. The combined after-effects of blood loss and shock, coupled with the cold had finally caught up with him and he felt himself fading into unconsciousness.

“No, can’t pass out now.” His groping fingers inched for the wood but fell short. Adam called out as his body refused to obey his mind. “HOSS…”

 

*****

 

In the warm living room of the Ponderosa ranch a few miles to the south, Hoss lifted his head from the book he was attempting to read. Surprised, he shifted his gaze around, certain he’d heard Adam call his name.

“Adam? Is that you?” He asked hopefully and turned to look at the door. It was shut firmly against the increasing wind and remained shut. There was no tall brother, wearing black to be seen.

Hop Sing shuffled silently, as only he could, into the dining room with his hands clasped firmly around a large bowl of steaming chicken and vegetable soup.

“You see Mr Adam? I get hot food ready for him.” He asked as he searched around the room for the eldest Cartwright son. “I bring more broth for you. More on stove for Mr Adam too.”

“No Hop Sing, it’s not Adam.” Sighed Hoss as he shook his head. “But I coulda swore I heard him call me.” Hoss gave a quick smile to the cook as he took the bowl from him. “Thanks Hop Sing, it smells delicious.” Food always cheered him up and he certainly needing cheering right now.

“Maybe Mr Adam outside. I look – you eat.” Instructed Hop Sing as he headed towards his kitchen for his coat. He was startled and stopped mid-step when behind him the door was flung open and in stumbled two snow-covered shapes, along with a gush of chilly air.

“That storm’s hit pretty darn quick hey Pa? Glad we’re not out there anymore.” Snuffled Joe as he shucked himself out of his coat and hat. He shook them both free of snow and stamped his boots. There had been no chance to clean them off outside.

Hoss grinned as he recognized his younger brother’s voice and pleased that they had made it to the safety of their home.

“Yes Joseph, I’m sure glad we’re home too. Any later and it’d be a different story I think.” The owner of the second voice stripped off his outer clothes and hung them on the wall hook. Hoss’ hat and winter coat were on the hook, but not Adam’s. He glanced behind him. Only one neatly curled gunbelt rested on the table behind him
and a brown one at that.  Ben spun around quickly and struck Hop Sing, who had moved closer to Ben to help him with his coat, with his shoulder. The blow sent the smaller man stumbling backwards, his arms flung out in an attempt to regain his
balance.

“Sorry Hop Sing, didn’t see you.” Apologized Ben as he helped to steady him. Once he was certain Hop Sing was fine he looked comfortably over the man’s shoulders and found Hoss standing behind the sofa with a book in his hands.

“How’s your cold Hoss? You haven’t been out in this weather I hope, not after what Doc Martin told you?” Stated Ben firmly.

“Howdy Pa, Little Joe. Didn’t expect you until tomorrow, considerin’ the weather, but I’m mighty glad you’re home. Cold’s gettin’ better and no I ain’t been outside, but I was goin’ to until Hop Sing volunteered.”

“Why were you intending to go outside in this weather?” Queried Ben, as he made his way to his desk.

“Pa sweet-talked them good and we got the earlier stage back.” Interrupted Joe. “You shoulda seen him. Had them eating out of his hand he did and got the price we wanted too.” He blew his nose hard into his bandana and coughed.

“Where’s Adam? I’d like to go over this contract with him.” Ben lifted the papers from his inside vest and began to spread them out. He smiled fondly at the three lithographs as he shifted them to one side.

Hoss followed his father closely on his heels and waited for him to sit down before answering. He bit his lip and shuffled from one foot to the other while his eyes remained firmly fixed on the floor. Ben studied his giant of a son from under his eyebrows. Hoss only did that when he had something unpleasant to say and knew his father wouldn’t like hearing it. He waited patiently for his son to speak.

It wouldn’t take long – never as long as Adam took. Wondered Ben. And where was Adam? He should have heard their voices and finished doing whatever he was doing and come down stairs. That is unless he was in the barn or the bunkhouse because his coat wasn’t hanging up. Thinking of the barn reminded Ben that Cochise and
Buck needed a rub down after the cold ride. Ben thought further. No, Adam’s horse wasn’t in the barn, so where was he?

He was about to repeat his question when Hoss spoke.

“Adam went to check the mill was locked up tight for the comin’ winter Pa. Then he was goin’ ta look for strays on the way home. He said he’d be back home in time for lunch. Pa…he ain’t here yet and dadburnit, I’m worried sick.”

Ben ran his hand through his gray hair and looked up at Hoss. His cheerfulness about the contract now replaced with concern and written all over his face for both sons to see. He knew Adam could look after himself, but the storm blowing
outside was going to be bad by the looks of what they’d seen so far.

“Pa?”

“Yes Hoss?”

“Did you or Little Joe happen ta call my name when you was outside by any chance?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“I thought someone called my name, just before you came inside. The voice sounded desperate. And Pa, this may sound silly but it sounded like Adam’s.”

Ben, Joe and Hoss looked at each other. All of them knew it wasn’t possible for Hoss to have heard Adam if he’d called out, but maybe…? Ever since Inger’s death, there had been a very close bond between the two older sons. They understood each other perfectly. It was Hoss who stood between Adam and Joe when they were ready to come to blows and it was Hoss who made Adam see that Joe needed to work in his own way and in his own time. And it was Hoss who often calmed Little Joe and showed him that what Adam said made sense. Although Hoss and Joe had made their own unique relationship while Adam had been away in college, nothing could match the connection between Adam and Hoss. If one was in trouble or needed help, the other instinctively knew and responded. This was one of those times Hoss could feel Adam needed help – his help.

“I’ll take a good look around outside.” Said Ben. “You two boys stay inside where it’s warm.”

“No Pa, let me go.” Joe held onto his father’s arm. “I need to, please?”

Ben considered Joe’s request.

“Okay Joseph, get yourself some extra warm clothes on before you go outside. Make certain you check everywhere. Go all around the house and do the same for the barn. He may be back and outside somewhere. Be quick, but thorough and don’t get wet.”

“Yes Pa, and thanks. I’ll go get my other coat, that one I just took off is damp from the ride home.” Joe pointed towards his green jacket on the clothes hook before bounding up the stairs two and even three at a time. He was happy to be doing something to set things right with his older brother.

Ben watched him leave and heard the bedroom door slam against the wall. He smiled. Usually he’d have yelled by now and told Joe to be quiet but it didn’t seem the right thing to do just now. Joe’s enthusiasm was exactly what Ben needed to bolster his own self with. He could hear the wind wailing outside. ‘If Adam was caught in this…’ He let the thought go. No, Adam would have found somewhere safe and warm to ride the storm out.

“Hoss, did Adam take any warm clothes with him? Did he have any food or bedroll for an overnight stay?”

“No Pa, he expected to be back by lunchtime, maybe a bit later if he found some strays, but not much later than that. He had no reason to think he’d been needing them things. The sky was clear as a bell when he left. ”

“Hmmm, where’d he say he was going after he checked the mill?” Ben asked uneasily as he put his arm across Hoss’ broad shoulders. Together they strode over to the dining table and sat down. Ben couldn’t help himself and looked at the empty chair at the end of the table where his eldest son sat for meals. He felt a wave of anxiety crash onto him. ‘No food, no blankets, no proper clothing and out in a storm as well. He’d need shelter. Where would he go? Where?’

“Nowhere Pa, he said comin’ back from the mill was all. He was gonna see it he could find any steers we missed last week when we was movin’ them to the lower pasture.”

Hoss had no sooner finished speaking, when Little Joe came running down the stairs with a bundle of coats in his arms. As his feet touched the center landing, a wave of dizziness overcame him and he stumbled. The falling coats tangled his feet and he fell headfirst down the remaining stairs. There was no time for him to regain his balance or reach for the banister. He landed in a sickening crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs. The coats sprawled under him, but not thick enough to cushion his fall.

“Joe!” Yelled Hoss and Ben together.

Hoss’ chair crashed over as he sprang to his feet. The loud noise echoed in the silent room as Ben stepped over it and rushed to Joe’s side.

They both knelt beside the still form, one large man either side. “He’s breathin’ Pa.” Said Hoss as he felt Joe’s chest rising and falling in shallow breaths. “Guess he’s out cold. He hit real hard.”

“Damn fool.” Cried Ben as his hands ran over the body, feeling for broken bones. “Trust your little brother to do something like this, just when I need him.”

“Aw Pa, you know he didn’t mean ta do it. He was in a hurry as usual.”

Mortified at what he had uttered, Ben glanced at Hoss. “Yes I know Hoss, I didn’t mean to say that. With Joe unconscious for who knows how long and you with your cold, I’ll have to look for Adam by myself. I was counting on Joe coming along too. The two of us would’ve been better to spread out for searching.” Ben shook his head. “I knew I should’ve kept the men on the ranch instead of letting them stay in town this winter. Is Hank in the bunkhouse?”

“No. He went into town this morning to see Miss Abigail.”

“I’ll come Pa.” Decided Hoss, as they carried Joe to the sofa and carefully laid him out. Hoss pushed a soft pillow under his little brother’s curly haired head.

“No!” Replied Ben adamantly. “Son, I know you want to help, but Doctor Martin said no outside for you for a week. You’ll get pneumonia the way that storm’s blowing and I’m certainly not letting you go after your brother in this weather, no matter how much I need you. One son getting over being sick, the other knocked out and
coming down with a cold and the last one who knows where is enough to concern a father. I find myself worrying about all three of my sons, when it should’ve only been you.”

“But…” Hoss protested.

“But nothing.” Ben replied sternly, then added in a softer tone as he patted the strong shoulder. “Hoss, I know you’re worried about Adam and so am I, but I need you to tend to Little Joe. He may be unconscious for hours, or maybe only for a short while, but when he wakes up he’ll want to come out into the bad weather too and I won’t have that. While he was upstairs, I changed my mind and intended to let him go outside the house, but not with me searching for Adam. Now I’m going to take that look around outside. Please do as I say and stay inside out of the weather.”

As he watched his father fastened his coat and pull his hat down over his eyes, Hoss slowly nodded. He knew that Ben was right, but that didn’t make him fell any better. Adam needed him and while they were away Hop Sing could take care of Little Joe. He felt his father’s concern for all of them. Hoss struggled with his feelings towards Joe. He felt guilty for even thinking that Little Joe had deliberately fallen down the stairs. That thought was nearly as silly as thinking Joe had deliberately caught a cold to get out of work. He knew his little brother
better than that. The sound of the door opening broke him out of his thoughts and he looked up.

Ben had the door partly open. Even so the wind swirled into the room, blowing small snowdrifts with it. He glanced quickly at Hoss, gave him a half smile, then hauled the door shut behind him.

 

*****

 

Outside the wind threatened to tear his coat away. Ben pulled it tighter against his body. His other hand was clamped down on his hat to prevent it from being blown off as he ran to the barn. The doors were banging open and shut with the wind and he could hear nervous whinnies coming from inside. As he prepared to close them he noticed only old Betsy and Chubb, Hoss’ horses were in their stalls. Cochise and Buck were together near the side post. Neither had lost the rugs, which had been hastily thrown over their backs. They still had to be unsaddled and put away for the evening. He gave every horse a quick pat as he looked into each stall. Then he
headed back outside and slid the bar down securely on the doors.

Ben circled the house and barn, peering closely under the bushes in case Adam was sheltering under them, unable to make it inside. He trudged around to the front of the house, head bent down against the wind and heard a sound, similar to a horse nicker. He looked sideways to the barn, expecting the doors to have blown
open, but they hadn’t. There came a second nicker, only this time it was in front of him. Squinting hard against the wind, he saw a shadow loom out of the swirling snow. He didn’t like what he saw. It was his son’s horse and to his horror the saddle was empty.

“Sport.” Yelled Ben as he ran towards the hobbling horse. He forced himself to slow his pace, very aware that if he ran to the frightened animal it could bolt. He grabbed the reins of the exhausted horse and pulled it towards the barn. The horse didn’t even shy when Ben, in his haste, accidentally dropped the crossbar and it landed a foot in front of its nose.

Inside the barn, Ben ran his hands over the horse. Its soft skin quivered under Ben’s gentle touch. There was a small amount of blood on the saddle’s left-hand flap but no damage to the horse, but as he walked around to the offside, he found the stirrup missing. Blood was splattered on Sport’s flank and on his belly was a long, deep gash. It hadn’t dried, but then that didn’t mean anything. With fresh snow blowing as hard as it was it may have kept the blood wet or it meant that the blood was fresh, there was no way to tell which was correct. Tied to the saddle itself, he found strips of what was once Adam’s black shirt.

Ben thought he could work out what had happened or at least part of it as he picked up one of the ties and inspected it. The edge was smooth, as though it had been cut. Fear struck Ben a crushing blow deep within his soul and he staggered against the horse.

“ADAM.” He cried in anguish. His son was hurt bad enough that he needed to tie himself to the saddle.

But where was he? He couldn’t have fallen off. The ends of the shirt had been cut clean, not torn so Adam had made a conscious decision to get off the horse, but surely he would have known that his horse would make it home? Unless Adam couldn’t hold on any longer. That means he had to have found shelter but where? He couldn’t think. He wanted to get started after Adam but with heavy snow falling tracking would be virtually impossible.

Ben quickly stripped the tack off the horse, mindful of the belly as he did. In the horse’s stall beside the full water bucket, Ben threw a bucket of oats. Satisfied that the animal was reasonably comfortable, he slammed the barn doors behind him and slipped the crossbar into place. He would tend to the horse properly later on; there wasn’t time now.

Hoss’ head sprung up from where he was tending Little Joe as Ben crashed open the door.

“He’s hurt Hoss. Sport arrived in the yard as I returned to the front of the house. I don’t know how badly but there’s blood all over one side of his horse and the stirrup is missing. I can’t tell if any of the blood belongs to Adam or his horse.” Ben blurted out. “There’s an injury on its belly which looks a lot like a gore and you did say Adam was going to look for strays didn’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “He’s used his shirt to tie himself to the saddle, but the ends have been cut. He wouldn’t have done that without a reason and I think that means he’s hurt in some way. Looks like he’s cut himself off the horse or maybe he couldn’t undo the knots, not sure about that either.”

“Does that mean he’s holed up somewhere out of the storm Pa?” Hoss tore his eyes from his father’s tortured face and settled them back onto Joe. He tucked the edge of Joe’s bandage into the top and smiled as Joe began to stir and moaned lightly.

Ben was thinking hard. ‘So many unanswered questions. Adam had been hurt rounding up cattle. How badly they didn’t know but it was on the way back from the mill. He knew for certain that they’d cleared all the stock from the area surrounding the mill, that meant he was on the way home.’ He walked to the fireplace, which was now roaring, and held out his hands to get some warmth back into them. ‘Just being outside that short of time had chilled him. If he was going after Adam, he’d need thicker clothes than what he had on…so would Adam.’

“He could have doubled back to the mill.” Offered Hoss.

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. Without any blankets he’ll need a fire and I’m sure Adam wouldn’t light one in the mill, no matter how cold he was. It’s too important to him. No, he’d find somewhere else.”

“If not the mill, then where could he be?” Hoss squeezed out a wet cloth and placed it on Joe’s forehead.

“What about Ryan’s cabin?” Muttered Joe weakly, as he heard the tail end of the conversation. He blinked and rubbed his eyes.

Ben hurried to Joe’s side and sat on the edge of the table. Joe attempted to sit up but moaned and lay back, his hands pressed hard against his head.

“Joseph, how are you?” Asked Ben anxiously as he lent forward.

“I’m okay Pa, just a beauty of a headache is all.” Replied Joe, as he tried to push himself up. His face turned a lighter shade and he gulped. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Lie back little brother, you must have a concussion to wanna do that.”

“Yes, I agree Hoss. Stay still son, you’re not going anywhere.” Comforted Ben.

“Hop Sing, get a pan for Joe please, and quickly.” Yelled Hoss.

“But Pa, you and Adam need me…need all of us to find him.”

“Joseph, I know how much you want to help Adam, but you can’t – not in your condition. You could fall off your horse behind me and I’d have you lost in the snow too. No son, stay here with Hoss.”

Hoss placed one large hand on Joe’s shoulder and pinned him gently to the sofa.

“Pa’s right Joe. Neither of us will be of any use to Pa, or Adam. We’ll just slow him down.”

Joe flicked his eyes up to Ben’s face, then dropped them back to focus on his hands.

“Pa, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have run down the stairs so fast.”

“You’re right Joseph.” Ben shook his head. “I’ve told you a thousand times not to do it, but what’s done is done.” He smoothed Joe’s head.

“Ya know maybe Joe’s right,” Hoss said, looking as Ben. “About Ryan’s cabin I mean. It’s sorta on the way back from the mill.”

“I took a look around there a few weeks ago. Plenty of firewood, but not much else.” Added Joe. “I was gonna go back and stock some supplies in case they were needed over the winter. Guess I should’ve done it sooner.”

Ben stared at the floor, his mind churning. The hut was nearly three-quarters of the way between the mill and the ranch. Adam could have made it that far. The longer Ben thought the more he prayed that Adam had indeed reached the cabin because he decided to investigate there first. Ben looked at his two sons. They both desperately wanted to help, but knew he had only a slim chance of finding Adam and staying alive in the storm himself.

“Boys, I’ll head straight for Ryan’s cabin as Joe suggested. If he’s there, and I pray that he is. I’ll need food and blankets for the both of us. Medicines, bandages and warm clothes will be handy as well. He’ll probably need a change of clothing if he’s been caught in the snow.” He held Hoss and Little Joe straight in their eyes. “I doubt we’ll make it back before nightfall. We’ll wait until the storm blows over and then try in the morning if we can. That’s if Adam is there and is capable of riding. If he can’t ride, I’ll come back for a wagon.”

“Pa, I’ll fetch Adam’s clothes and the bandages.”

“Thanks Hoss.” Said Ben as he strode to the sideboard and pulled out a bundle of blankets from the bottom cupboard.

“Hop Sing?”

“Yes Mr Ben?” Answered the cook from his kitchen. He walked out; his hands covered in flour from mixing the contents of a large bowl he held.

“Hop Sing, can you pack some supplies, enough for Adam and me? Better make it enough for a week. I don’t know how long it’ll be before we can get back.”

“Yes Mr Ben.” Hop Sing scurried back into the kitchen, chattering in Chinese to himself.

“Pa, take Cooch. He’s saddled up and all ready to go. He’ll help you bring Adam home safely.”

“Joe…thank you.” Ben raised his eyebrows in surprise. Joe allowed no one to ride Cochise, other than himself. To offer Adam the horse was a heartfelt gesture by him. Ben lent down and hugged Joe. Quietly he whispered. “I’ll find him and bring them both home Joe.”

As his father’s concerned face hovered over him, Joe grinned. “I know you will Pa.”

Ben left the blankets on the back of the sofa while he followed Hoss upstairs to gather his own warm clothes from his bedroom. He paused outside Adam’s room before making for his own. His mind already set into thinking of when he found Adam, not if. He would not let any of his sons down, nor would he let himself dwell on not finding Adam. That thought was too painful to even consider. Once he had doubled his clothes, Ben returned to the living room.

Hoss thumped down the stairs, his arms full of extra clothes for Adam and a large bag of medicinals.

“Adam’s slicker is here and yours too Pa. They’ll help keep the snow off ya and Adam’s gear.”

“Mmmm good idea Hoss, I didn’t think of that.” Thanked Ben and he squeezed Hoss’ shoulder.

Ben collected the precious bundles together and rolled them into Adam’s slicker. He was tying the last knot when Hop Sing came to him with the supplies bag.

“Should keep Mr Adam full and Mr Ben, you too.”

“Thank you Hop Sing and keep a careful watch on these two for me will you? Make sure they eat supper and don’t go outside. You’ll need to see to Sport’s injury and bed him down. Take extra care of him, he deserves it.”

Hop Sing nodded.

“We’ll see that Sport gets plenty of attention Pa.”

“What about supper for you Pa?” Asked Hoss.

“I’m not hungry. When I find Adam I’ll eat something with him.”

“Good luck Pa.”

“Please find him Pa.” Joe said, tears brimming in his eyes.

“I will Joe…Hoss, I will. There’s one important task I need you both to do for me while I’m gone.”

“Yes Pa?” Asked Hoss.

“Pray that your brother’s at the cabin.”

Hoss nodded, then dropped his head to look at Little Joe. His hand reached out for Joe’s arm as he saw a tear roll down Joe’s cheek. Embarrassed, Joe glanced up at Hoss then brushed the back of his hand across his face and turned away.

Ben hugged his two boys, then threw on his slicker over the top of the two warm coats he was all ready wearing. With his hand grasping the door lock he turned and took a long, hard look back at his sons. Then he opened the door and stepped out into the storm.

 

*****

 

‘There wasn’t one part of me that isn’t unbelievably cold.’ Thought Adam as he rolled his head over and looked at the fire. It was out. He had no idea how long he’d been unconscious for, but apparently long enough. Outside he could hear the storm raging around the cabin. Drafts of wind were blowing across him from somewhere and swirling eddies of ash from the fireplace. He knew now why the fire had gone out, but there was no way in his present condition that he could find where the drafts were coming from, let alone stop them. When he had the next one lit all he could do was keep the supply of wood up to the flames and hope it stayed alight.

As he lay on the floor he could feel the coldness seeping further into his body. He felt the coat, it was wet. No wonder he was cold. The snow must have melted while he was unconscious and soaked them. He closed his eyes and threw his arm across his forehead. He had two choices and neither appealed to him in the slightest.
The first one was to stay as he was and let his body freeze. Or he could take his wet pants and coat off, but there was nothing to put on. Either way he was going to be cold, very cold. There was also a very strong possibility he was going to catch a cold or at the worst pneumonia, whichever choice he made.

While he thought of what was going to happen to himself, a small branch of hope crossed his mind. If Sport made it to the safety of the ranch, maybe, just maybe, Hoss found him and worked out that his brother needed help. Adam shook his head as he remembered that Hoss wasn’t allowed outdoors. In fact, he didn’t want Hoss
looking for him, otherwise he’d have a relapse and develop pneumonia and Adam didn’t want that. He had heard the last conversation between the Doctor and his father while they were discussing Hoss’ condition and treatment.

Adam wanted his younger brother to come for him, but knew deep down that if Hoss did, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Hoss died because of him. For the moment, it was one brother or the other to die from the cold.

“I got myself into this mess, I’ll get myself out of it. I’m not going down, without a good fight.” Adam declared aloud, trying to reassure himself. “Lets see if I can get this damn fire going again.”

Adam reached in and used another precious match to restart the fire. The flame flickered into life, barely catching onto the kindling. Once they were well alight he let out the breath he was holding. To see the yellow and red flames devouring the wood pleased him. He’d fixed one problem, three more to go. The second was to tend to his foot, the third his leg and the fourth his wet clothes. He wasn’t sure he could manage any one of them, let alone all three.

Using his elbows, Adam lifted himself up and settled his back against the wall beside the fire. He chewed on his lip as he looked down at his leg, then wished he hadn’t looked. The bandage on his foot was filthy and red with blood. Above that he saw more dirt and color around the broken bone of his leg. He tried to move it into a comfortable position, but it was stiff. Whether from the injury or cold he wasn’t sure.

Adam squeezed his eyes shut and rested his head against the wall. The fire was beginning to shed warmth as he thought of how to clean his wounds. He searched around for something to hold water. His eyes came to rest on the bucket beside the door.

“At lot of good that will do you. You don’t have any water and you won’t survive going outside for some snow to melt now will you? And there’s no way you could drag it back inside, even if you did managed to fill it up.”

Adam licked his lips at the thought of water. He was thirsty as well as hungry, but there was nothing he could do about either. He shook his head and reluctantly pulled out the jackknife. Maybe if he cut the dirty bandage and boot away, he would have a better idea of the damage. Painstakingly slowly, he slid his leg up towards his thigh. The jutting ends of the bone grated together and he stopped until his head cleared. The slightest movements were impossible to bare.

When he could touch the boot, Adam opened the blade and slid it down inside the edge. The cutting was difficult and slow. Not because the blade was dull, but because his choice of always requesting the best leather for his boots had come back to haunt him. Finally, after a long struggle, the knife sliced through the last section and he was able to peel it apart. The skin was red and swollen with a long gash from the heel to toe. There was a good chance of some bones also being broken. The bleeding had stopped, which was a blessing of some sorts he felt
and because of all the dirt, he considered it a waste of time to re-bandage the foot. If he left it uncovered he could see what was happening to it in the way of bleeding or infection. Adam was hoping that the swelling was due to bruising, and not infection.

His next chore was to slit his jeans to get a better look of his broken leg. As he inserted the blade into the material his sweating hand slipped. The knife dug in deeper than he wanted and struck bone.

“Aaagh.” Adam cried, as he grimaced in agony and passed out. His head hit the floor with a loud thud, the sickening sound echoed in the small cabin.

 

*****

 

Ben wrapped the woolen scarf up against his chin and pulled his hat down over his eyes as far as possible but still the snow found its way inside his shirt. The storm raged in torrents around him as flying snow threatened to blind him of the trail, but he kept on going. The stakes were too high to turn around and quit.

He’d passed the halfway point to the cabin a long ways back and knew it wasn’t much further. He glanced behind him to make sure the supplies were still securely roped to Cochise. They were.

Nudging Buck on with his heels, Ben could barely find the trail marks leading to the hut. Every now and then he thought he could smell a hint of smoke on the wind. The encouraging scent kept up his hopes that Adam had made it to the cabin and the fire was his. Who else could it be, but Adam? They didn’t have any other men out in
this area, so it could only be Adam.

The ride was being made more difficult by Ben’s thoughts of what if.

‘What if he’s not in the cabin? What if he’s still at the mill? What if he’s lying somewhere in the snow? What if I’ve passed him back on the trail? What if he’s hurt so bad that he needs a Doctor?’

These thoughts kept threading their way into his mind, threatening to engulf him. Only the fact that he knew his eldest son so well, kept him pushing the pace of the horses.

Suddenly, out of the increasing darkness, he saw the outline of the building and a faint flickering amongst the shadows. He’d made it and by the looks of the inside light, so had Adam. As Ben urged the horses on he prayed.

“Please let it be Adam, please God.”

In the lee of the cabin, Ben jumped from his horse and tied both sets of reins tightly to the hitching rail. Then he ran around the side and up the stairs, scattering snow as he slid across the damp wooden planks. He threw the door open.

 

*****

 

Adam was sure he heard the muffled sound of horses. He lifted his head on inch or two, but no further the effort was too much. His entire body was engulfed by bouts of shivers, which he couldn’t stop, even though the fire was well alight. He knew he should pull off his wet clothes and even if he was naked the fire should keep him partly warm, but he had no strength left. The cold and loss of blood was causing him to slip in and out of consciousness. He knew he shouldn’t fall asleep, but the fight was getting harder all the time. His leg and foot were no longer throbbing and in the back of his mind he knew it was a bad sign.

More noise came from outside, but closer. Suddenly loud footsteps pounded on the porch and then the door was flung open. A large snow-covered shape burst into the hut and stopped abruptly. Clods of snow dropped down and splattered across the floor. Adam hoped he was a friend and not a foe, because all he could do was stare. He had no capacity to draw his gun to defend himself.

Ben was stunned. He’d expected Adam to be hurt to some degree, but what he saw lying in front of him was something he wasn’t prepared for. His beloved eldest son was lying on the cold floor, visibly shivering. His dark eyes were staring at him from a horribly drawn white face. Some of the buttons on his dirty ripped coat were undone and Ben saw he was shirtless. One leg was pulled up towards his body and he could see it was covered in dirt and blood. A part of the leg between knee and ankle was at a strange angle. Was it possible he’d broken it?

“Adam!” Called Ben in anguish, as one word voiced everything he felt.

“Pa…that you?” Whispered Adam.

Ben slammed the door shut and rushed to Adam’s side. He dropped to his knees, wrapped his arms around Adam and hugged him tight. Tears of relief slipped down his face and onto Adam’s ruffled black hair. For a moment he was oblivious to Adam’s groans.

“Son, I’m so glad I found you. Your brothers and I were praying that I’d find you here.” A pleased Ben said as he shook his head.

“Pa.” Adam spoke into his father’s strong chest. They held each other affectionately for a few minutes. Each man relieved that they had found each other and enjoying the comfort of the hug, something that they hadn’t done for a long time.

Reluctantly Ben released his son and looked him in the face.

Adam smiled. “Glad to see you Pa. You were the last person I was expecting to be looking for me. Maybe Hoss, but not you.” He frowned. “I thought you’d be at least another day in Carson City.”

“Joe and I finished our business earlier than planned, so we came home. Lucky we did eh?” Ben returned the smile, grateful that he could. He shifted beside Adam. He didn’t quite know where to start. “What happened to you?”

Half-heartedly Adam laughed. “Sort of put my foot in the wrong place you might say.”

Ben returned the smile and nodded his head. At least his son hadn’t lost his dry sense of humor.

“I was turning a steer back to the herd, when he decided he didn’t want to be with them. Gave us both a nudge and somehow got his horn stuck in my stirrup. Sport got frightened, which I don’t blame him for, and threw me. My left shoulder was dislocated, but I seem to have put that back in because it’s not hurting much now. Think I busted the leg when I hit a tree or maybe when I hit the ground, not exactly sure. Things became a bit hazy at that point.” Adam looked guiltily at Ben. “Did Sport make it home? I had no choice but to leave him outside. I couldn’t tie him up out the back away from the wind and snow.”

“Yes he’s safe in the barn back home. Trust you to think of your horse first son. He’s a bit sore and sorry, but I don’t think as much as you. How about we get you into some dry clothes and get this fire going a bit harder? Then we’ll see how much damage you’ve done to yourself.”

Adam ran his fingers through his hair, then down his strained face.

“Pa…it’s broken, clean through. ” His voice very tight. Adam knew the injury was serious, but he didn’t know whether his father was going to be able to do much to help him.

“It’ll be alright son.” Comforted Ben as he stacked more wood on the fire. He was glad that Adam couldn’t see his face as he’d taken a good look at both the leg and foot. ‘Damnation.’ He thought. ‘This is bad.’

By the time he had finished stoking the fire, his expression was back under rigid control.

“There that’s better. Should warm you up in no time. I’ll get the supplies from Cochise and make sure I’ve tied the both him and Buck securely for the night. Can’t have them taking off on us now can we? Once I’ve done that we’ll get you into those warm clothes I mentioned and then work on your leg.”

“Cochise? Joe’s here too Pa? Why is he still outside?” Adam twisted around expectantly towards the door. He could do with a strong dose of his little brother’s fresh face and endless enthusiasm.

“No Adam, Joe’s not here. He gave me Cochise to bring you home.”

“He did? Why didn’t he come with you?” Asked Adam. Ben winced at the disappointment in Adam’s voice.

“Joe had a fall at home.” Ben continued. “He was up in his room getting another coat and in his usual hurry to do everything like a bull at a gate, slipped and decided to finish the steps off headfirst. Knocked himself out cold he did.”

“Is he alright?”

“Hoss and I think maybe a concussion, but nothing broken except his pride. So that’s why it’s just me son.”

“He gave you Cochise for me to ride? In this weather when he didn’t have to?” Wondered Adam, at the unselfish gesture from his little brother. Joe was particular about who rode his horse and that was himself, no one else. As for letting him out in the weather when he didn’t have to… Adam’s eyes glinted in the flickering light as he looked up at his father. “When we get back, remind me to thank him, Pa.” He said gruffly.

“I will Adam. ” Assured Ben as he stood up and headed towards the door. “I won’t be long.”

“Not going anywhere Pa.” Adam shot back dryly. “But I could do with a drink of water.”

 

*****

 

Adam groaned as he rolled onto his left side.

“I’m sorry son, didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Adam gritted his teeth. “Keeping going Pa, just watch that shoulder…its tender.”

“As soon as I’ve slid your slicker under you, I can get these wet things off. That way you’ll have some protection from the cold coming up through the floor while I get you changed.”

“I tried not to cry out Pa, but I couldn’t help it.” Ben patted Adam’s good shoulder. He sounded exactly like a young boy.

“I know, but its okay.”

Ben’s hands touched Adam’s chest and he could feel how cold his son was. The strong body was wracked by spasms caused by his low body temperature. He had to hurry and get him dry and into the set of clothes he had warming on a chair beside the fire.

“There. Now that you’ve got that under you, we can get started. You just lie back and let me take care of you. I know what I’m doing.”

Adam lay on his back as instructed and chuckled, then winced as it turned into a cough. “You should know, you’ve been taking care of me for 29 years and nearly all of that by yourself. ”

“You’d better remember that my boy. You’re not too big that I can’t whup your backside, if I’ve a mind you need it.” Retorted Ben sternly, then winked.

“Sure Pa, as if I need a whupping these days.” Grinned Adam.

“I should give you one for getting yourself caught out unprepared for bad weather at this time of year. Looks to me as though you need some more lessons about leaving home at least with some food in your saddlebags.”

“Uh huh.”

Supporting Adam partly upright with one arm, he unfastened the rest of the coat buttons and shifted it off the broad shoulders. Despite himself, shivers ran up Ben’s spine whenever his hands came into contact with Adam’s cold flesh. The left shoulder sported a vivid purple-black bruise and as the coat fell further down, he could see numerous smaller bruises and some cuts over his son’s back and chest. No doubt these were from where he’d struck the ground after being thrown. While he had Adam sitting up, Ben spread a thick blanket over the slicker. He let Adam’s back recline against him while he helped him first into the warm shirt and then a coat. Once they were buttoned up, he lowered Adam back onto the floor and with a second blanket, covered his upper body. With that done, Ben took a moment to sit back on his heels and stroke his chin. The next part was going to be more difficult. How to get his pants off without hurting Adam any further?

Mistaking his father’s hesitation as embarrassment, Adam began to open his fly himself. With his Ben’s help he tried to push the pants down. The jeans were saturated and clung to Adam’s legs. They wouldn’t move but every time he shifted Adam cried out in distress.

“Stop Pa.” Gasped Adam as he squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. “Can’t do it this way.” Beads of sweat were forming on Adam’s forehead and trickling down his face.

“Cut’em off.”

“Hmmm, I have to agree with you there. I’ll use your knife and have you out of them in no time at all.” Said Ben, indicating the knife Adam had left beside the woodpile.

Adam passed it over and concentrated on forcing his body to relax. Maybe that would help, but he didn’t think so. Nothing had been easy so far, so why should taking his pants off be any easier. He snorted at the humor.

Ben tried to avoid moving Adam’s leg as much as he could, but it was impossible. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Adam biting his lip in vain to prevent himself from making a sound. Adam’s cries struck deep into Ben’s heart, but he didn’t stop until the pants were cut free and replaced with a warm blanket. Adam’s legs were blue with cold. By the time they were finished, both men were left heaving for breath from the ordeal.

Adam eyes were closed and there was no doubt he was getting weaker by the minute. Loss of blood and the severe cold were winning and Ben knew he couldn’t stay conscious for much longer. Ben stood up and stretched his cramped body while on the floor Adam wished he could do the same.

“That was the easy part Pa, and we both know it.” Said Adam opening his dark eyes to meet his father’s. The shivering had changed into a strong twitch and Ben watched Adam’s forehead pucker into a frown and his jaw lock as each motion hit him.

Ben hesitated before replying. “Yes, I know. I’ll fill the bucket with snow and get it melted. I’ll make us some hot coffee and use the remainder on you.” Adam nodded. His eyelids drooped as he started to drift off to sleep. His leg was a relentless ache, but he felt warmer. The heat of the fire and blankets were starting to have an effect.

“Don’t go to sleep on me yet.” Called Ben as he dressed himself and picked up the bucket.

“No Pa.” Yawned Adam as he shook his head in a useless attempt to stay alert.

It took Ben only a few minutes to fill the bucket and return indoors. He stomped his boots and himself free of snow. The snow he’d shaken off earlier had formed small dark puddles, which glinted in the firelight. Once the coffeepot was on to boil and the surplus snow melting in the bucket beside the fire, he reached over and gently shook Adam awake.

“Would you like some hot food before we start son? It won’t take me long to prepare something.” Ben asked, as he peered into the calico bag Hop Sing had given him.

“No, lets get this over and done with.” Adam replied abruptly, not wanting to put the last task off any longer. He was tired and wanted to sleep. “We need to find out how much damage there is and what you can do about fixing it Pa.” Adam  focused on his father’s face as he spoke. Ben knitted his eyebrows and pursed his lips, clearly revealing his concern. Adam knew Ben wasn’t confident in his ability to repair the damage and apprehensive about causing more harm and suffering to his already injured son.

Adam spoke gently, keenly aware of what his father was thinking. “Pa.” Ben met Adam’s steady gaze. The ever-present torment from the injuries was clouding his son’s usually sparkling eyes. Ben didn’t want to see anymore suffering in them, but knew his wish was impossible. “I need you to do this Pa. You know, as well as I do, what will happen if you don’t. That storm might blow over by morning or we could be here for days. Either way, you have to take care of my leg.”

“I don’t want us to be here for days Adam. ” Stated Ben pensively as he glanced up at the window. The rim of the windowpane was encrusted with snow. “You’re aware that both the cuts are full of dirt?” Adam nodded. “I should be able to set the break, but the chance of infection is very high…” His voice trailed off. “I need to get you to a Doctor as soon as possible.”

Adam placed his hand on his father’s warm arm and squeezed it reassuringly. “I know I need a Doctor, but we don’t have one do we? You’re all I have Pa, and you’ll do whatever is necessary. I believe in you Pa, I always have and I always will.”

“Adam…” Ben hesitated, a loss for words to help his son.

“Do it Pa. I don’t think I can take this for much longer and its getting worse. Maybe once you’d cleaned me up, it won’t be so bad.”

Sweat dripped down Adam’s face and into his hairline. He gave his father another squeeze on the arm and a brief smile, then lay back on the blankets. He fixed his eyes on a mark on the ceiling and clenched his hands into tight fists beside him.

“You’d better take a drink of this then Adam.” Suggested Ben, as he held out a bottle of whiskey that he’d withdrawn from the bundle in front of him. “Hoss thought I should bring it along – just in case you needed it.”

“He’s right…I do.”

“You might want this too.” Said Ben hesitantly as he held out a strip of cloth to Adam.

Adam grimaced, then bit down hard on the wad.

 

*****

 

“There we’re finished.” Spoke Ben out aloud, but Adam wasn’t listening. As Ben was cleaning the grime from his foot, Adam had fortunately passed out. He had managed to drink half the bottle of whiskey while Ben set out what he thought he needed in the way of bandages and medicines. Adam never saw the heartache his father endured as he cleaned and dressed his son’s injuries.

Originally, Ben had started on the foot but when Adam passed out, he switch over to the more serious injury. Both cuts were an angry red and swollen. After checking the water temperature with his fingers to make sure it wouldn’t scald, Ben poured it over both wounds.

Even though he was unconscious, Adam gave a chilling yell and flung his arms about when Ben pulled on the leg to set it. Once Ben was satisfied Adam wouldn’t move again, he amply powdered the cuts with sulfur. Then, with clean bandages and two pieces of branch as splints, bound the leg as firmly as he could.

The foot was easier to attend to and after repeating the procedure it too was neatly bandaged. There appeared to be no broken bones in the foot, only the skin was torn. As far as Ben could tell he felt he’d removed every speck of grime. Possibly the treatment would prevent any infection, but only time would tell. He’d have to keep checking them regularly to see that they didn’t fester.

While Adam remained unconscious, Ben strapped the shoulder and fashioned a sling out of a larger bandage. He slipped the sling over Adam’s head and arranged the arm comfortably across Adam’s chest. Satisfied he could do nothing else for the moment, he gingerly lifted him off the floor and staggered over to the bed. Even though Adam’s body looked lean in his black clothes, he was muscular and heavy. Once Adam was settled on the bed, Ben carefully held his son’s limp head and shifted the pillow beneath it. Satisfied with the arrangement, he gently set Adam’s head down.

Despite Ben’s gentle administrations, Adam groaned as the right leg was stretched out. Ben tucked him in tightly with an extra couple of blankets, and then gathered another one around his own shoulders. With a hot cup of coffee held in both hands, he sat in the chair in front of the fire and rested his elbows on his thighs. Ben stared deep into the fire as he prepared himself for the long night ahead. It had been a difficult chore and he was mentally and physically drained.

“I’ll need to get you home as soon as possible Adam, so Doc Martin can examine you.” Unable to relax, Ben walked silently across the floor to the window and peered outside. Heavy snowflakes swirled around and the wind blew relentlessly, but nowhere near as intensely as it had been when he’d first arrived at the cabin. Ben turned away and returned to Adam’s side. He had no idea of the passage of time as he had gazed at his son’s ghostly face. Adam’s long, delicate black eyelashes spread out on his cheek in the shape of a Spanish maiden’s fan. How many times had he himself woken up to the same lovely image on Elizabeth’s face? Nowhere near as long as it should have been. It was only in these unguarded moments that Ben could reflect on what might have been, had Elizabeth lived. She would have shared his life and watched their son grown into the fine man he was, but time their time together had been so short. Her loss felt the hardest by Adam.

“Too late to start home and too cold for you my son.” Whispered Ben. “May as well get as comfortable as I can. As soon as you wake up, I’ll get some food into you so you can built up your strength.”

Adam appeared to be resting peacefully; his breathing was shallow, but regular. In the flickering firelight his handsome face shone pale and relaxed. A single lock of black hair had managed to escape forward onto Adam’s forehead. Gently, so as not to wake Adam, Ben smoothed it back into place and felt the forehead with the palm of his hand. It was warm and looked flushed. As he gazed down at his son’s face, Ben was acutely aware of how close he’d come to losing him. He might still do that, if the storm didn’t abate or infection set in, but in the meantime he was grateful for the luck in choosing this place first. It could so easily have been the wrong decision.

Joe’s hunch about where Adam would wait out the storm had been correct and it saved Adam’s life. The thought never crossed his mind about how he himself would have weathered the storm if Adam hadn’t been here. He thoughts were only for Adam as he poured himself another cup of coffee and turned the chair so that he faced Adam. He hugged the blanket around him and slumped down. Even though he was close to the fire he felt so cold. The shock of what had happened to his son and of how he’d treated his injuries struck him in the gut with the force of a fist. He lowered his face into his hands. The tears that flowed weren’t for himself, because he would have traveled that same road for any one of his sons if they needed his help, but for all his sons. For Hoss and Joe for not being able to help search for their brother, even when they desperately wanted to. For them also for the unknown they now endured until their father and brother arrived home. For Adam, for what he had suffered since injuring himself and of not knowing whether he would survive or not.

Gradually Ben brought himself under control. The intense love he held for his sons was overwhelming, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve and looked up. Adam was awake, the dark eyes watching him. Ben smiled faintly.

“Don’t see that often do you?” Ben asked. It was disquieting knowing that Adam saw him crying. He wanted to appear as outwardly strong as possible for Adam’s sake.

Adam returned the smile. “Sure has been a long time, but Pa, you always taught us not to hide our feelings from one another in this family. I’m not very good at expressing them as openly as Joe and Hoss, but its good to know you care. I’m sorry you had to find me like this. I don’t like to think of what would have happened if you hadn’t found me.”

“Adam, I’ll never stop caring about you or loving you. You’re my son- my firstborn and you’ll always be that – that can never change. The way I feel also goes for your brothers too.”

It was Adam’s turn to feel uncomfortable. He always encountered the same uneasiness when any genuine sentiment was shown to him. He had experienced little in the past, which he never blamed his father for, and didn’t know how to handle it when it was shown to him as it was now. Fate had taken his three mothers from him and fate had forced his father to shoulder the sole responsibility of keeping his family alive. The same fate had forced their father to hide his feelings deep within him, if only to shield his son from the harsh realities of life. By the time Adam had learnt the difference it was too late, he couldn’t change. Marie had helped Ben to be more expressive but for Adam there had been no one around long enough to give and show him the open display of emotions a young boy needed to see when he was growing up.

“Hey Pa, I’m hungry. What have you got to eat?” Adam asked changing the subject.

Sadly Ben knew exactly what Adam was doing. He’d seen the same thing happen so many times before and always felt that he was to blame for his son’s difficulties in dealing with his emotions or outward display of them. His darling Marie had been making progress in bringing Adam out from behind the strong walls he’d built around himself. Her death had sent Adam spiraling back even further into such dark despair that he rarely, if ever, let himself show any emotion at all. As a child, he’d grown up with a child’s idea that if he loved a person, then they would die. It was logical to that same child’s mind that if he didn’t admit he loved them, then they wouldn’t die.

“Nothing’s ready right now, but it won’t take me long to rustle up something that Hop Sing gave us.” Replied Ben as he tipped out the cold dregs of his own drink and filled it for Adam. “In the meantime drink this coffee, it’s hot and will warm you up.” Said Ben, holding out a cup to Adam.

Adam wasn’t hungry, in fact he was feeling nauseous, but he could see Ben was falling into the same pattern of blaming himself for his son’s difficult childhood. Maybe if they shared a meal together, they’d both feel better. He lifted his head and looked down but couldn’t see anything because the blanket covered his legs. The pain was radiating up the right side of his body and into his head. He tried not to think about it.

“What’s happening outside Pa?” Adam propped himself up on one elbow to hold the cup. He tried to peer over his shoulder at the window, but couldn’t manage it without spilling the hot liquid over himself.

“Looks like it’s easing up a touch, but it’s too dark to really tell now. Must be after midnight I’d say at a guess. Hopefully it’ll be clearer in the morning and if it is, then we head home. Once we’ve eaten, I’ll go take a look at the horses to see how they’re holding up.

“If you’ve anymore of that whiskey left, I’d like some in my coffee.”

“Leg hurting Adam?”

“Some.” Said Adam off-handedly.

His father wasn’t fooled by the reply at all. Ben knew Adam was in a lot of pain and as usual he wouldn’t openly admit to it. Old childhood habits died hard and Adam learnt at a very young age how to hold back the tears and hurt he felt. He and his father had very little to share in the travels west other than themselves and to burden his father with complaints was something Adam tried to avoid from those days on.

“When I come back from the horses and before you go to sleep, I’ll take another look at your leg.” Replied Ben, as he
tipped a generous helping of whiskey into Adam’s cup.

“Okay Pa, whatever you say.”

 

*****

 

Even though sleep didn’t arrive until the early hours of the morning, Ben woke at first light. It was then that he found the storm had eased off considerably. He jumped as Adam moaned and shifted on the bed. Quickly Ben ran to his side. He could see Adam was feverish without even having to touch his forehead. Hesitantly he lifted the blanket off the injured leg and found, as he anticipated, both bandages were bloody. He’d have to change them and clean the wounds before they could leave this morning. Adam wasn’t going to enjoy this experience again and neither was he.

After he’d tended to Adam, Ben prepared a hasty meal. Even the appetizing smell of biscuits and fatback couldn’t tempt Adam’s appetite.

“Adam, you’ve got to eat. You need to keep up your strength.”

“What strength? I don’t have any.” Mumbled Adam, as he lay on the bed with his eyes closed and an arm thrown across his forehead. The smell from the food was making him nauseous, but he wasn’t completely sure it was the food or the way his body felt.

“Son, that’s because you’ve had nothing to eat since yesterday morning. You’ve got to eat something.”

Adam had no appetite, but to appease his father, he attempted to eat a biscuit. As he tried to swallow, he gagged and coughed the biscuit crumbs from his dry mouth.

“I know I should, but I can’t do it Pa. Let me have the whiskey.”

The pain in Adam’s leg was agonizing and he felt uncomfortably hot. His head ached and what appeared to be every part of his body. He ran a hand down his face and looked at it before wiping the sweat on the blanket. Ben was faced with no
choice but to give him the whiskey. It was the only way they would get him to sit his horse for the ride home.

While Adam drank, Ben at quickly. He gathered up their meager possessions and readied the horses for the journey home. A light snow was falling. His boots crunched loudly through the ice-covered snow and his foggy breath floated in the air. Snow, up to his mid-thigh already covered the ground and it was even deeper where drifts had formed. It would slow them down but he couldn’t delay moving Adam any longer.

A lot of effort and agony on Adam’s part was spent before he was eventually mounted on Cochise. Ben used the few remaining strips of Adam’s black shirt to tie him to the saddle and covered him as best as he could with the extra blankets and coats.

“Have you any gloves?”

Adam shook his head and looked down. “I dropped them somewhere around here yesterday when I was using my knife. No chance of finding them now in all this snow.”

“Hmmm. I’ll wrap your hands in some blanket strips or you can keep them in your pockets to prevent frostbite.”

“You take Cochise’s reins and I’ll keep my hands under cover.”

Ben nodded and pulled himself up onto Buck. He tied the provisions bag behind him.

A few minutes into the ride, Ben heard Adam call out to him.

“Pa.”

Ben swung around. Adam was swaying dangerously in the saddle. The blanket that had been wrapped around his shoulders was dragging on the ground, caught only by a corner which Adam was sitting on. Ben threw himself off Buck and caught Adam as he pitched forward.

“Can’t stay on Pa…don’t think I’m gonna make it…can’t stay awake.” Slurred Adam. Even in his intoxicated state, Adam had enough presence to know he wasn’t going to stay conscious for much longer. The loss of blood, no food and the alcohol had doubled their effect on his body.

“Yes you can Adam. I’ll move you onto Buck and then hold you until we get home. Cochise won’t be able to support both of us, otherwise I’d climb up behind you. Is it your leg that’s making you want to pass out? We don’t have any more
whiskey”

“Funny enough, no. I can’t feel a thing from my leg and in fact I can’t feel anything at all. Not cold either. I think…I think I drank too much whiskey, that’s the problem, on an empty stomach.” Adam hiccuped loudly in Ben’s ear.

“More than likely all the blood you’ve lost is the problem, but I should’ve made you go easy on that whiskey. Now I’ll have to make sure you don’t get frostbite on top of everything else that’s happened. That blanket is wet from dragging on the ground. Remind me not to let you go riding off by yourself again.” A faint grin crossed his face.

“Okay.” Slurred Adam. He couldn’t manage a better reply even though he knew his father was joking with him. All he wanted to do was get home, lie down in his own soft warm bed and sleep.

 

*****

 

The three men at the ranch shared an hour’s sleep between them. They were all worried and tired. Each had retired to their room last night, but finding themselves unable to sleep had wandered back downstairs. Little Joe and Hoss passed the night playing checkers and chess while Hop Sing had kept himself busy in between the kitchen and keeping a never-ending supply of coffee and food up to the worried sons.

Hoss glanced over Joe’s head at the grandfather clock standing beside the front door. It was about to chime midday.

Hop Sing bustled out of the kitchen. His hands full with 2 platters full of ham, eggs, toast and biscuits.

“You eat breakfast now Mr Hoss?” He asked as he set the biggest platter in front of Hoss’ plate.

“I suppose so.” Said Hoss unwillingly. “We’ve held breakfast back long enough now waitin’ for them. You comin’ Joe?” Asked Hoss as he sat down at the dining table and tucked a napkin into the top of his shirt. He licked his lips
appreciatively and he picked up his fork.

“Yes, give me a minute to take another look outside.”

Ever since dawn then at every slight noise, Joe stormed outside, hoping it was his father and brother. But knowing their father, they knew he’d wait until light before moving out.

‘That’s if he’d found Adam.’ Mused Hoss as he loaded his plate up. His stomach growled loudly in anticipation.

Hoss watched his brother open the door for what seemed the hundredth time. He was as anxious as Joe was and both felt guilty for not going with their father. To sit in the comfort of their warm home and wait while his big brother and father were somewhere in the snowstorm was difficult for him. Illness or not, he should have gone looking for Adam.

“HOSS! Hoss, he’s found Adam. They’re home…they’re home!” Shouted Little Joe as he threw the door open and sprinted outside.

Hoss sprang to his feet and rushed outside, close on Joe’s heels, even though he was a large man. He slid to a halt when he saw them. He hadn’t known what to expect, but Ben was holding Adam in front of him on Buck. Adam jerked his head up at sound of Joe’s voice. He gave his brothers a wide grin, then his head wobbled to one side.

“Hoss.” Yelled Ben. “Get back inside you’ll catch your death with cold, you too Joseph.”

“Aww Pa, let me help you with Adam first. You look as tuckered out as Adam.”

“No. Inside and that goes for both of you. I can manage by myself. I put him up there and I can get him down.” Ben slid off Buck. He quickly reached up to prevent Adam from falling. Adam began to sing loudly. Despite his minimal knowledge of music, Hoss could tell he was off key and slurring the words.

“Early one morning, jush as the shun was rising,

I heard a maiden shinging in the valley….”

“Dadburnit, darn cold.” Mumbled Hoss as he turned around. He raised his eyebrows questioningly at Adam before a final glare from Ben sent him hurrying towards the house. Joe stared at Cochise. Why wasn’t Adam wasn’t on his horse. Then he saw the strips of black tied on the saddle, just like Sport’s saddle had. He opened his mouth to speak to Ben.

“Later Joseph, now get back inside, we won’t be long.”

Adam slumped forward and his head fell down one side of the horse’s neck. Ben maneuvered his shoulders under Adam’s right arm and as gently has he could took Adam’s weight.

“Easy now son. Just lean on me and I’ll do the rest. And you can stop singing now, we’re home.

“Okay Pa.”

Ben smelt the alcohol on Adam’s breath as his son’s head rested limply on his shoulder. He admitted later that he should have let Hoss and Little Joe help fetch Adam inside, but at the time he was more concerned about keeping his two younger sons out of danger then how much they needed to help Adam. It had completely slipped his mind that they too would have spent a long night worrying about Adam and, to a smaller extent, himself. For the moment he was content to mutter under his breath.

“Dang fool sons of mine. One gets himself hurt and nearly frozen and the other two want to join him.”

Dutifully, Hoss and Little Joe waited inside. Ben staggered under the heavy weight towards the door and tried to keep Adam’s foot from dragging on the ground. He looked up and saw them peering out of the half open door. Comically, Little Joe’s head was the lowest, then straight above him was Hoss’ larger head. He couldn’t see anything else of their torso. They held the door open wide as he stepped inside.

“Now you can help me.” Gasped Ben. Little Joe and Hoss rushed forward and lifted an arm of Adam’s around their shoulders. While they held him, Ben took Adam’s outer clothing off. The snow slid from the coat and dropped to the floor in mushy splotches. Absently Ben thought Hop Sing would be mad when he saw the mess they were making. He didn’t think he’d be too concerned.

“Be very careful taking him up to his room, and make sure you watch out for his right leg. It’s broken and his foot is cut too.”

“Sure Pa. Okay Pa.” They chorused.

Ben shook the snow from his hat and coat and hung them up. The roaring fire filled the room with welcome warmth. It felt good to be back home and with all of his family.

“Hop Sing.” Yelled Ben.

“Yes Missa Ben? You find Missa Adam?”

“Yes we certainly did, but he’s hurt. I’ll need some fresh dressings to put on his wounds. Will you get me some clean bandages and hot water and bring them to his room when they’re ready?”

“Yes Sir Miss Cartwright. You and Missa Adam hungry, need hot food?”

“I’ll want something soon, but after I’d tended to Adam. He should eat, but I don’t think he’ll want to for some time after I’ve changed his dressings. Can you see if there’s any laudanum in the medicine chest? He’s going to need it when that whiskey wears off. Oh and send one of the hands in to fetch Doc Martin too. Tell him it’s urgent. Adam’s broken his leg, a compound fracture and a foot that’s been gored. I’m sure there’s going to be some infection in one or maybe both. He’s already running a fever.”

“No one here except Hop Sing, Missa Hoss and Missa Little Joe. Men all in Virginia City I go for doctor after I bring bandages for Missa Adam.”

Hop Sing scurried to his kitchen, muttering in Cantonese. Ben rubbed his tired eyes. He’d completely forgotten about sending all the men into town to stay.

Ben smiled as he heard Adam’s voice raise in song and drift down the stairs towards him. It was that same song he’d been singing all day.

“Early one morning, jush as the shun was rishing….”

“Pa?” Asked Hoss when Ben entered Adam’s room. He and Little Joe were carefully preparing Adam for bed.

“Yes Hoss? Now watch that leg you hear.”

“Adam’s drunk ain’t he?”

“Yes.”

“How come Pa?” Joe chimed in as he slipped Adam’s nightshirt over the bandaged shoulder. He winced at Adam’s
bruised and cut body.

“I ashed him to let me drink the lasht of the whiskey for breakfasht. Can’t feel nothin’.” Replied Adam from the bed. He was blinking owlishly at them and grinning. Joe would have laughed if the situation had been funny.

Hoss and Joe glanced at each other before they bent their heads to the task of removing Adam’s pants.

“I didn’t think to take along anything stronger for pain relief. He had to drink half the bottle last night before I could tend to his leg without him feeling it. Then this morning it was the only way to re-dress the wounds and get him up onto your horse Joseph.”

“But he wasn’t on Cooch when you rode in. Why not?” Joe’s expression was so forlorn that Ben nearly laughed, but just managed to hold back by covering his mouth with his hand. The reason why Adam hadn’t ridden Cochise was very
important to his youngest son, especially since he’d offered the horse so generously for Adam to use.

“Adam was riding Cochise when we set off Joe, but we’d only been traveling for a short distance before he nearly fell off. We used the last of his shirt to tie him on, but he kept on slipping in and out of consciousness. In the end it was safer for him to ride up front of me on Buck, so I could hold him. And it was the only way to keep the blankets wrapped around him too as I didn’t want him to get frostbite.” Ben ruffled Joe’s hair fondly. “I’m sure he’ll want to thank you for letting him ride Cochise when he’s sober, but right now I want to change those dressings and when he arrives, get the Doctor to have a good look at him.”

“Oh…Okay Pa.” Joe appeared happy with Ben’s reasoning.

“Joe. Can you go see what’s delaying Hop Sing? Even though Adam’s drunk, I may need to get either the laudanum, if we have any, or more whiskey into him before I start.

“No more whishkey Pa, I promish not to shay a word.” Adam held a finger to his lips. “Shhhhsssss.” And grinned.

“Early one morning….”

Ben groaned. “Not that song again Adam.”

“Why not Pa? I thought you liked it.”

“I do, or rather I did, but you’ve been singing it for hours.”

Adam frowned for a moment, then smirked at his family.

“Oh don’t you remember shweet Betshy from Pike, who crosshed the big mountains with her lover Ike…”

Hoss raised his voice to be heard over Adam’s loud singing.

“What in tarnation happened to him Pa? You ain’t told us where ya found him neither.” Both he and Joe were gapping at the bandages on Adam’s leg. Patches of bright red blood stained the white cloth.

“Hurry up you two, so I can get that fixed.” Ben slapped Joe’s shoulder hard and startled him.

“You were right Joe. He was at Ryan’s cabin and in a sorry state. Seems one of the steers he found somehow got its horn hooked into the stirrup, as we thought. When he fell off, Adam dislocated his shoulder and broke the leg. The horn tore up his foot badly too, but as near as I can tell, its not broken. Anyway, he managed to put his shoulder back in, then got on Sport. He made it to the cabin, but was cold, wet and exhausted. I found him there, just before the storm really started to blow. I fixed his leg as best I could and did the same this morning before we started back here. Now I want to take a look at them again, partly because of the bleeding, but mainly to see if they’ve become infected. I hope not.”

Hop Sing’s arms were full as he hurried into the room. He sat the bandages on the end of the bed and held the towels and pot of hot water out to Ben.

“Where you need this Missa Cartwright?” He asked Ben the question but was looking directly at Adam.

“Right here please.” Indicated Ben as he slid a chair closer to Adam’s bed. Hop Sing sat the water on the seat and folded the towels over its back. He drew a small brown bottle out of his pocket and held it towards Ben.

“I go for Doctor now and here is medicine you ask for. Hot soup waiting in kitchen when you ready.”

Carefully Ben took the vial. “Thank you Hop Sing.” He put the glass bottle on the side-table, which Adam kept beside his bed.

“All right boys, you can help me with the dressings. Hoss, you take the bandages off and Joe you get the new ones ready. I’ll lay some of these towels under Adam, then flush out the cuts with the hot water.”

Despite the alcohol, Adam cried out and grabbed the blankets under him as soon as Hoss touched his leg. His breath hissed between his clenched teeth and his face twisted in agony. Horrified he’d hurt his older brother, Hoss stepped back from the bed. His large hands were clenched, as Adam’s were only instead of physical pain it was anguish.

“I know how you feel Hoss and it won’t get easier. What we’ve got to do hurts us as much as him, but we’ve got to keep the leg and foot as clean as possible. You know we can’t let the slightest chance of infection start.”

He turned back to Adam and gently lifted his head.

“Adam, take this. It’ll help ease the pain.” Ben offered the laudanum to him.

“Give me plenty Pa, I don’t want to feel nothin’.” Adam voice was thick and his pain filled eyes met Ben’s. Adam conveyed so much trust and hurt in his eyes – they were an open book to his soul. Ben didn’t want to let him down even though he felt his stomach lurch and fought the urge to look away.

Ben let him drink as much as he thought appropriate, then set his head back onto the pillow. Sweat drenched Adam’s face and pillow.

They waited a few minutes for the drug to take effect, and then Ben gently shook Adam.

“Adam…Adam?” He called. There was no answer.

“Okay, you can start again Hoss.”

Hoss sucked on his bottom lip and glanced between father and brother pensively.

Ben nodded and gave him a small smile.

“Go on, none of us can hurt him anymore now.” Ben said softly.

 

*****

 

It was late afternoon when Doctor Martin finally arrived. Ben opened the door and ushered him inside.

“Hello Ben and how’s my patient? I couldn’t get here any earlier, because I was delivering Margie Johnson’s baby. Hop Sing told me Adam’s broken his leg?” Questioned the Doctor as they made their way up the stairs to Adam’s room.

“Hello Paul, glad to see you. Yes, I think you call it a compound fracture and cut his foot up badly too. He also dislocated his shoulder, but managed to put that back in by himself.”

“You Cartwrights never do things to yourselves in halves do you? I know that when you need my services, it must be bad.” A frown crossed Ben’s brow, but what the Doctor said was true.

Ben held the door to Adam’s room open. “It is Paul, it certainly is.” Replied Ben pensively.

Paul took in the room in one swift glance. Hoss was seated on the chair beside Adam. He dipped a cloth into a large bowl of water and tenderly wiped the perspiration from Adam’s face. Joe was leaning against the far wall with his arms crossed in front of him. A book, no doubt one of Adam’s, clasped tightly in his hand. Joe’s knuckles were starkly white against the rich brown leather cover.

After motioning Hoss out of the chair, the Doctor sat down and opened his medical bag.

“You and Little Joe may as well leave. Your father will help me should I need any.”

Hoss and Joe were reluctant to leave and it took a nod from Ben before they left, pulling the door shut behind them.

“When did this happen and how have you been treating him?” Paul asked, as he undid the top buttons of Adam’s nightshirt and placed the stethoscope on his chest. Ben didn’t have to be told that Adam’s shallow breathing and flushed face weren’t good.

Adam’s eyes flickered open at the touch of the cold instrument. He slowly rolled his head towards Paul, blinked twice before closing them again. His father would have the answers to any questions the Doctor had. He was too tired to talk.

“Yesterday morning, on his way back from our mill. He managed to set his shoulder, the left one, after he dislocated it. I’ve put a bandage on it and he rode home with it in a sling. I cleaned the foot with hot water as best I could and then dusted sulfur all over it. The bone in his leg was poking through the skin. I set it and cleaned it as best I could and used the sulfur on that as well.”

“Good so far Ben, what about pain relief?” Asked Paul as he glanced at the laudanum bottle then back as he lifted the blanket off Adam’s legs. “This will hurt Adam, but I’ll be as quick as I possibly can.”

Adam nodded.

“All I had was whiskey but since we’ve been home, I’ve given him the laudanum when he’s needed it, but what we have is nearly gone.”

As Paul untied the bandage on his foot, Adam flinched.

“Let me assess the harm you’ve done to yourself Adam and then I’ll give you something stronger once I’ve completed my examination.” Smiled Paul.

“Thanks Doc, I’d appreciate that.”

“Any broken ribs or internal damage Adam?”

Adam was well aware that by talking to him, the Doctor was trying to keep his attention off what he was doing, but it wasn’t working.

“Aaaahh.” Adam cried out and half-sat up in bed. He turned away so that he faced the wall. This way his father couldn’t see the tears in his eyes. “No, just my leg. The shoulder isn’t bad.”

“I’ll have to rely on your opinion about internal damage Adam. You’re going to need the morphine so that I can complete my examination. ”

“Are you sure about that Paul? Giving Adam morphine I mean? I’m never one to doubt your opinion usually but he’s already had a mixture of whiskey and laudanum.”

“Ben, a compound fracture is one of the worst fractures you can have. Not only is the bone broken, in this case the fibula or lower leg bone, but because its pierced the skin, that too is traumatized. Adam’s hurting already and I’ve barely started. I’m going to have to use my fingers and instruments to feel along the fracture to confirm that you’ve set the bone properly and that’s really going to hurt him. I’m prepared to rely on his judgement about where else he’s injured and give him relief from the pain. He’s very good at controlling himself, but he must be half out of his mind.”

“I’m not doubting you Paul, but you just said he’s probably ‘half out of his mind’. Can you rely on him to give you a correct diagnosis of himself in this condition?”

“Pa, stop talking about me as though I was a kid.” Muttered Adam. He waited until his father looked him squarely in the face before he continued in a quiet voice. “I’m perfectly coherent and besides I would have told you by now if anywhere else was injured.” Adam turned to Paul and nodded. “Go ahead Paul.”

Ben continued to stare at Adam for a long time before he nodded his agreement.

“Thanks Pa. I know you mean well, but let Paul take over now. You might want to leave now yourself.” Suggested Adam.

“Do you want me to go Adam?”

Before replying, Adam glanced over to Paul who shrugged. “Your decision Adam.”

“Then its yes.”

“If you insist… Paul, call me immediately when you’re done or if you need me.”

“I will Ben, now go and let me take care of your son.”

It was dark when Paul finished the examination. He was rolling the sleeves of his shirt down as he walked down the stairs and towards the three waiting men. They all stood up as he reached them.

“Well?”

“You did excellent work in cleaning Adam’s injuries. It has probably saved his life, as I can’t see any sign of infection. If there was going to be any it would have started by now. Keep up the same treatment and everything should heal nicely. ”

“But why is he feverish Doctor?” Asked Hoss.

“He’s been through a lot Hoss. It’s his body’s way of dealing with what’s happened and to make matters worse I think he’s developing a cold.”

“I wouldn’t doubt that. When I found him he was saturated and freezing cold. His skin was blue and he was shivering uncontrollably. How long will he take to heal? Are you sure about there being no infection?”

“No Ben, I’ll be honest I’m not sure. But providing you keep up that good work infection shouldn’t set in. His leg is going to take four to five months before its as good as new, but his foot, which isn’t broken by the way, will be less. ”

Ben gratefully shook Paul’s hand. “That’s great news. How is he now?”

“Asleep and resting comfortably. I gave him another small shot of morphine and he should sleep for a while longer, possibly until morning unless the pain wakes him up earlier. Plenty of rest and hot, nourishing food is what he needs now. I would suggest that someone stays with him at all times, at least for the next 24 to 48 hours.”

“We can do that Pa, Doctor.” Replied Hoss as he lifted an eyebrow towards Little Joe. Joe quickly agreed.

“Speaking of food, we were just about to sit down for supper, you’re welcome to join us.” Said Ben, indicating the set table. To everyone’s amusement Hoss rushed to his place and sat down.

Paul checked the time on the grandfather clock once he was seated.

“Too late for me to head back to Virginia City, so I’ll take you up on your offer of supper and maybe a bed for the night? At least I won’t have to travel far to examine Adam in the morning.”

“Paul, I’m forgetting my manners. Of course, you’re welcome to stay the night and I’ll put your horse and buggy away once I’ve eaten.”

When they were all seated and the food set before them, Ben bowed his head. Little Joe, Hoss and Paul did the same.

“Lord, we thank you for the bountiful food on our table. We also thank you for taking Adam into your care and looking after him during the storm. We also thank you for giving us another day to be together as a family and we thank you for providing a Doctor for the people of this valley. Amen. ”

 

*****

 

Joe tapped lightly on Adam’s door. When he didn’t hear a response he pushed it open with his spare hand. Balanced in the other was a tray with breakfast for his brother.

“You awake Adam?” He called softly.

“I am now buddy.” Replied Adam as he smiled and tried to sit up. The drugs Paul gave him earlier were starting to wear off and any movement of his leg was hurting again. “Is that food you’ve brought me?”

“Yup, sure is. Hop Sing’s made you your favorite breakfast. Eggs, over easy and crispy bacon and fresh biscuits. Think you can manage all that?”

“You just bring it here and watch me. I’m sure I could out eat Hoss this morning.”

Joe sat the tray on the chair and grasped Adam’s arm to help him into a sitting position. He pushed an extra pillow behind Adam’s back before settling the tray on his lap.

Once Adam was comfortable and eating, Joe sat on the chair to watch him.

As he ate the first bite, Adam could see Joe moving restlessly.

“Out with it Joe.”

“What?”

“If you fidget any more on that chair, you’ll break it and that’s my favorite chair. What is you wanted to ask me?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing doesn’t make you squirm like a worm on a hook Joe.” Grinned Adam.

Joe took a few minutes before he answered. He jumped to his feet and began to pace around the room.

“I’m sorry I argued with you a couple of days ago.”

“What?” This wasn’t the conversation Adam had been expecting. He’d just remembered he’d ridden Cochise part of the way home yesterday and that the horse and his father’s had been out all night in the storm. Joe was upset about the horse he assumed. Had something happened to it?

“The night before Pa and I left for Carson City, I argued with you about why I had to go with him.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, well I apologize for that but now I’m angry with you.” Blurted Joe as he threw himself back into the chair and frowned at Adam.

“Huh?” Adam shook his head in bewilderment. He knew the drugs Paul had given him would addle his brain, but surely not to the extent he couldn’t follow a conversation with his little brother.

“Cochise.”

“Cochise? What about him?”

“You didn’t ride him home.”

“Oh…that.” Adam breathed a sigh of relief.

“Yeah, that!”

“If I can remember correctly, I did ride Cochise didn’t I? So what’s the problem then?”

“You don’t remember which horse you rode?” Retorted Joe.

“Well I think I did. I wasn’t in the best of shape yesterday and the whiskey was helping me forget most things, but not what you did Joe.”

Joe remained silent. He was tapping the floor with the toe of his boot and sat slumped down, his arms folded across his chest.

“I’m sorry I haven’t thanked you for giving him to me to ride home. I tried to ride him but couldn’t stay on. Pa put me on Buck if I recall, because he knew Cochise couldn’t take both of us.”

“Oh.”

“Is he okay?”

“Who?”

“Cochise.”

“He’s fine and so is Sport for that matter.”

“Uh huh. Why did you give me Cochise anyway? Why not one of the spare mounts we have?”

“I…ummm…I wanted to make it up to you.”

“What?” Adam couldn’t follow Joe’s thinking. One moment Joe was sorry for the argument. Then he was angry because he hadn’t ridden him and now Joe was back to feeling guilty. Adam was confused and rubbed his hand across his forehead. He was developing a headache and the food, instead of improving him, was making him feel worse.

“I’m sorry I fell down the stairs. I wanted to help Pa look for you because I was feeling guilty about arguing with you and then when Sport came home without you…” Joe paused. “I went and knocked myself out and couldn’t go with Pa. I felt so helpless that the only thing I could do was save Pa some time by letting him take Cochise for you.”

“Never mind the reason, I appreciate what you did little brother. Thank you for letting me ride him, I know how much he means to you.”

Joe lifted his head and grinned. “You know if Cochise had been hurt, I would have been sorry for giving him to you.”

“Yup, but not as sorry as I would’ve been. How’s your head? Knock any sense into it?”

Asked Adam as he set the knife and fork back onto the plate.

“Fine Adam. Had a headache yesterday but its gone now.”

Hoss, Ben and Paul walked steadily into the room.

Adam turned to his father. “Pa, thank you for coming and finding me. I…I’d just about given up hope when you came in that door like a big snowy bear to the rescue. It took me a few minutes to figure it was you and not Hoss.”

Ben laughed. “That’s what fathers are for, to look after their family when they get into trouble. One day you’ll have your own children and if you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll do exactly the same as I did. But for now Adam, you’re home and no matter what happens to any of you, we’ll always be here for each other, because we are a family.”

“And you’re stuck in that bed until I say you can get out Adam Cartwright.” Stated Paul.

Adam nodded. “Don’t feel much like walking around. Don’t even want to read. Joe, can you take the tray away? I’m not really that hungry after all.”

“How are you feeling Adam?” Asked the Doctor as he checked his patient’s temperature. He noticed that Adam had eaten only a few morsels of the breakfast.

“Tired and a little nauseous to be honest. I think I’ll take a nap.”

“You do that Adam.” Agreed Paul. He ushered the men out of the room and closed the door.

“I’m going to have to do the rounds of my other patients Ben, but keep a close eye on Adam. I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet regarding infections. His color’s not good and his temperature is up. The loss of appetite is a concern too. He should have cleaned up that plate in no time if all was proceeding the way we want it.”

 

EPILOGUE

Later in the week, Ben closed the ledger he had been poring over and stretched his stiff back. No matter how many times he told himself to attend to the bookkeeping daily, somehow he never could. But then again he had a good excuse for not doing them this week.

Tonight had been an effort and he vaguely remembered saying goodnight to Hoss and Joe at sometime during the evening as he added up the same row of figures and ended up with another total.

As he trudged up towards his room, the grandfather clock chimed a loud 1 a.m. behind him. Each night his usual routine was to check on his three sleeping sons and tonight was no different.

Joe’s room was the first he visited and he chuckled silently at the memory of a little curly haired boy of three as it flashed across his mind. Only a pale moonlight glow from the far window lit the room, but it was enough for Ben. He lifted the bedcovers from the floor and spread them back over the sprawled shape on the bed. Joe stirred and pulled the blanket under his chin, grateful for the warmth but not waking.

Ben tiptoed from the room and into Hoss’. As usual his middle son was on his back, snoring loudly. He was tempted to move Hoss onto his side, but decided not to. It was late and he was too tired to be bothered by the noise.

Down the hallway a light glowed from under the closed door to Adam’s room. Ben opened the door and peered in. Adam’s eyes were closed and on his chest lay the inevitable book. A quick anger flared in Ben as he made a mental note to chastise Joe about giving Adam the book instead of reading it to him. Paul’s last words before he departed that evening were for Adam to rest and by rest he meant sleep, not read.

Knowing how lightly Adam slept, and even considering how ill he’d been, Ben stepped softly over to the bed. In the dim light he could see Adam’s face was covered in a sheen of perspiration. With the palm of his hand, he reached out and felt Adam’s forehead. It was still warm, but nowhere near what it had been. The fever had broken that afternoon, much to the Doctor’s and Ben’s relief.

Ben’s hopes that he’d cleaned the injuries sufficiently had been dashed the second day after they arrived home. A raging fever had burned in Adam for five long days, kept barely under control by the constant attention of the physician and Ben. Adam hovered between life and death as they fought to keep his temperature down as it soared twice. There had been a few moments of lucidity when Adam would respond to Ben’s voice and not need any medication. Then delirium would take over and they were forced to keep him sedated to prevent him from thrashing about and re-injuring himself.

Ben spent the majority of his time at Adam’s side. He bathed his feverish body with a cloth dipped in cold water and talked to Adam soothingly when he was delirious and calling out for him. Despite Hoss and Joe’s efforts to calm Adam, only his father’s voice and touch could cut threw his suffering and ease him. Even though he was downstairs attempting to eat and keep up his own strength, Ben would hear Adam’s voice as he called out in his fever. He would cease eating immediately and return to Adam, much to Paul’s concern. Paul was beginning to worry about Ben falling ill when Adam’s fever finally broke.

“Pa?” Said Adam hoarsely.

Ben cursed himself silently. He hadn’t wanted to wake Adam.

“Yes son. I was just making sure you’re okay before going to bed. Anything you need before I go?”

“Could do with a drink of water.” Adam’s voice was weak, more a whisper.

There was a pitcher of water on the bedside table and Ben quickly filled a glass and brought it to him. As he helped Adam sit up to drink, Ben’s heart cringed when Adam groaned. He could see that Adam had no strength to hold the glass, so Ben sat behind him on the bed and cradled Adam’s back against his chest and shoulder. Tenderly he lifted the drink to his son’s dry lips. At first Adam tried to drink quickly, but Ben held the glass at such an angle that he could only sip.

“No need to drink so fast son. Too much and you’ll be sick. Just take it slowly, we can take all night if we have to.”

Because Adam was leaning against him, Ben could feel his every movement. Adam’s fever may have broken, but his body was twitching uncontrollably.

“Are you in pain? Do you need something for it? Paul’s left medications and instructions regarding the morphine for
you.”

“No Pa. The drink’s all I need.” Said Adam, as he closed his eyes and relaxed against his father’s comforting body. In no time he was asleep.

Ben eased himself from behind Adam and laid him down upon the pillows. He waited a few minutes to make sure his son didn’t rouse then moved the book so that it lay on the bed beside him, within easy reach of Adam’s hand. That single lock of hair, which always fell over Adam’s forehead, had dropped down again onto the sweaty brow. Ben was tempted to move it back into place but resisted. Instead he blew out the light and closed the door behind him.

Back in his room, Ben changed into his nightshirt and sat on the edge of the bed. He looked to his side dresser where the three lithographs of his dear wives rested.

He picked up his first wife’s image and ran his fingers lightly around the gilded frame. These were the times he missed his wives. He felt lucky to have been married to them and for the son they bore him. All three had missed out on the joys and sorrows of their growing sons. How each would have been delighted to see what fine men they had grown into but somehow he felt that they knew.

“I nearly lost him this time Elizabeth, My Love. Yet somehow I sensed you were taking care of him until I could be with him and again when the fever rose. Thank you my darling.” He kissed the image and placed her back beside his other two  loves. As he turned out the light, three bright stars twinkled above the silent house.

***The End***

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