Lost and Found (by EPM)

Summary:   I’d like to thank Becky S who has kindly volunteered to read my work. These characters are not my creation. I just borrowed them for a little while.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8400


 

 

In the quiet of the forest, the big cat relaxed and licked her front paws. The smell and the taste of the last animal she had brought down still lingered. It had been a bloody battle and she had been surprised at the strength displayed by the hapless creature as it fought for its life. She hadn’t expected it and when another one appeared, she bolted into a nearby thicket of trees and brambles. She had lost prey before but as she continued to clean herself, the cat knew she would remember the scent. She wouldn’t lose again.

*****

A single lamp burned in an upstairs window of the ranch house. Ben Cartwright finally had time to catch his breath and reflect upon what had happened. As he thought about it, terror tried once more to grab at his heart. Thank God Hoss had been close or the results could have been very different. He reached forward to sooth his restless son. The thin white bandages became spotted as blood seeped from the wounds beneath. Slowly, Ben’s first born reached for his father’s hand. This had been Adam’s only purposeful movement since Hoss brought him home. Ben entwined his fingers with his sons. Taking a deep breath, his thoughts returned to late morning.

*****

“Where is that boy when I need him?” Ben huffed, as he sat looking at the maps and papers that covered his desk. The lumber contract that he and Adam had been working on was complicated and he had more questions regarding Adam’s calculations. He knew that his two oldest were up in the area to be cut and wouldn’t be back until supper. He looked at the grandfather clock that hadn’t been moved since it arrived with Marie. He’d had her such a short time. Such a short time for all three of them, he thought. Ben let out a sigh and tried once more to make sense out his son’s numbers. It was 11:30.

The sound of the heavy front door hitting against the credenza brought Ben Cartwright to his feet. “What in the name of—,” he said as he rose from behind his desk and strode into the great room.  The sight that greeted him brought him to a standstill. Hoss stood framed in the wide front doorway. His face was pale and drawn. The front of his tan shirt was torn and bore random splotches of dried blood. Cradled in his arms was the limp body of his older brother. Adam’s head had fallen back and his long arms were outstretched, leaving Ben a clear view of the gray shirt that was shredded into long thin tatters. Blood, old and new, adorned the openings. “Let me help you get him upstairs,” Ben whispered.

“I got him; just open his door for me.” Hoss’ voice shook but he was steady as he carried his brother across the room and up the stairs.

Hop Sing had witnessed the same scene as Ben. He hid his fears for the oldest son behind a flurry of bandages and medicine and orders for a rider to go for the doctor. Before he could be asked, he appeared with everything that was needed. He entered Adam’s room to see father and son carefully removing the remnants of clothing. Hoss sat down heavily in the rocker by the window and watched as his father and Hop Sing bathed the dirt from the wide stripes made by the cat’s claws. He told his father everything he knew about the attack. They had risen just before dawn and eaten an unhurried breakfast. Deciding the job would go faster if they split up; Adam had headed for a thick stand of trees that bordered on some rocky terrain to the north. It must have been about twenty minutes later when Hoss heard Sport’s scream of fear followed by Adam’s. He spared his father any further description of what he saw when he found Adam or their ride home. It was burned into his memory but his father needn’t suffer the same nightmare.

Doctor Martin had come and gone, explaining to Ben that although his son would be in pain and surely develop a fever, he didn’t see any long lasting consequences. The cracked ribs would heal and, given time, he would replace his own blood loss. Ben had given the doctor a skeptical look but Paul reassured him that Adam was a resilient young man and unless something untoward happened, he would make a full recovery. Ben had had many dealings with Paul over the years and he trusted the man’s opinion and judgment. It was just that he needed to hear his son’s voice. And so he sat by the light of the single lamp and waited.

*****

Ben came back to the present when he felt a slight pressure surrounding his fingers. “Adam—son, you’ll be alright. Don’t try to talk; just sleep.” A soft answering squeeze reassured him that Adam had heard.

Ben settled back and closed his eyes—just for a moment. His next conscious thought was wondering why Hoss was calling to him.

“Pa, Pa—I need ya to help me.” Hoss’ face reflected his concern as he leaned over his brother’s bed.

“Hoss, what—,” he started to say only to be interrupted by a drawn out groan from the now-awake Adam. Ben jumped to his feet.

“I came in to see how he was doin’ and he was thrashin’ around.” He put his hand on Adam’s forehead. “He’s so hot.”

“Paul told me to expect a fever,” Ben said, his voice taunt. “Please go get some cold water. We’ll try to cool him down.”

Before he could leave, Hoss heard the frightened, pain-filled voice of his older brother. “Hoss, help me.” Adam’s frantic voice filled the room.

Hoss turned around and knelt at the bedside. “Just hold on, big brother. We’re gonna help ya. I know yer hurtin’ but Doc Martin left some medicine. You just calm yerself now and drink some fer me.” Ben handed Hoss the glass.

Adam opened his eyes and quickly searched the room. Not seeing the cat, not feeling the weight pressing on his chest, he began to relax. Focusing first on his father’s face than on his brother’s, Adam took the medicine. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, trying to reassure himself that he was home and safe. But the irrational fear of the cat being close kept threatening to break through.

Ben felt the burning skin as he touched his son’s face. Dark eyes opened and stared into his own. “I didn’t hear it coming. I didn’t see anything until it was too late.” For the first time, Adam looked down at the thin white strips that covered his body from hips to shoulders and both forearms. He watched, feeling almost detached as the patches of blood enlarged.

“It happens, Adam. You know it does. Cats can spring from anywhere,” Ben said.

Hoss came back with towels and water, followed by Hop Sing. Ben sat close to his son and held his hands while the other two men tried to wash away the heat of Adam’s fever. The medicine pulled the injured man toward sleep and he let himself go.

*****

Adam awoke to see both his father and brother across the room, speaking in soft whispers. At first they were just fuzzy shapes but in a moment his vision cleared. Still hot, Adam kicked off the blankets that had been piled over him.

Startled by the movement, Ben walked to the chair beside the bed and sat down. “I know you’re hot, son, but you could catch a chill if you aren’t covered.” His father’s voice held a note of pleading so when Hoss retrieved one of the discarded blankets, Adam didn’t protest when it was put back into place.

Adam searched the room once more. “Where’s Joe?” he asked.

“He’s still in Carson City. Should be back by tomorrow,” Hoss answered.

Adam began to squirm involuntarily as the pain returned. The claw marks on his chest burned. Nerve endings were laid bare and the slightest movement served to antagonize them. His fever started to soar once more. “Pa, —listen to me. I know this contract is important but don’t let Hoss and Joe go back up there.” Adam struggled to rise. “Make them wait until I can go with them.” Adam reached out and held tightly to his father’s arm. “Promise me, Pa; don’t let them go without me.”

Ben tried to placate his agitated son. “Alright, Adam. No one will go. I promise.” He ran the dampened cloth over Adam’s face. “I want you to rest now.” Looking at Hoss, he said. “Please get more medicine for your brother.”

*****

Adam’s fever finally broke and his wounds began to close, but by now Ben was more worried about his son’s wounded mind than his wounded body. His eldest had always shielded his thoughts but since the attack, he had become even more guarded. Ben tried to gently question his son about the incident. He hoped that talking about what had happened would help but Adam’s answer was always the same; he didn’t remember. Ben watched his son struggle to pretend that all was well but when he was alone, Ben knew Adam retreated to a place in his mind that held only himself and the cat.

*****

Ready to take his meals with his family once more, Adam walked carefully down the stairs. His shirt was buttoned high despite the heat, hiding the bandages underneath. Ben watched his son slide into his accustomed place at the table and wince as he sat down. He dreaded bringing up the lumber contract but he knew it had to be done and he had to be the one to do it.

“Boys, we need to finish marking the trees for that timber contract.” He watched his oldest for any reaction. There was none. “Hoss, Joe—I’d like you boys to go up there and stay until the job is finished.”

Hoss broke the awkward silence. “Sure, we’ll get our gear together right after breakfast.” He glanced at his older brother.

“Yeah, it shouldn’t take us anymore then three or four days,” Joe said.

Adam placed his napkin on the table and in a quiet voice said, “No, not without me.”

“Now Adam, be reasonable. You’re not ready for that kind of a trip either physically or…” Ben stopped abruptly.

“Or what Pa—mentally?” Adam’s voice remained calm.

“You know what I mean,” Ben said. “Your body has taken a pounding and you can’t deny you’re still thinking about that animal.” Ben had a hard time containing his frustration.

“I don’t deny anything.” Adam stopped for a moment. “Hoss, Joe—would you please saddle Sport for me? I’ll be ready to go when you are.” Both of the younger Cartwright brothers excused themselves and left the table. They knew the ensuing discussion was best left between the two eldest Cartwrights.

Ben and Adam heard the front door close. “Before you say anything, let me try to explain. There are two reasons why I need to go.” Ben started to interrupt but Adam held up a hand. “That contract means a lot to the ranch and we both know Hoss and Joe haven’t taken on a project of this size before. This is an ideal opportunity for me to teach both of them.”

“Maybe you’re right Adam but it doesn’t have to be you—I can teach them just like I taught you,” Ben answered.

Adam stood up and walked to the cold hearth. He couldn’t keep a small groan from escaping as he moved. He placed one hand against the massive chimney and leaned into it. Without turning around, he said, “Pa, I need to go. If I don’t, that cat will forever stand between me and this ranch.” He turned around and saw that his father had followed him into the living room.  “I know that sounds crazy but I’ll never feel comfortable again until I go back there and face the fear that’s been tearing at me.” He sat down heavily on the stone hearth and dropped his head. With a hollow laugh he said, “I guess that cat tore apart more than just a little hide.”

Ben’s heart ached when he saw the lost look in his son’s eyes. “I think I understand Adam but I don’t know if you’re ready for a trip like that — sleeping on the hard ground, trail food. And what if it rains?” Ben said.

The look on Ben’s face caused Adam to break into his first genuine smile since the attack. “Oh Pa, I wish you could see your face.” He leaned forward and splinted his ribs with both hands. “I haven’t seen that look since the time Hoss and Joe and I went on our first hunting trip without you. You were beside yourself with worry.” Adam snorted out a short laugh.

“You just wait, young man, until you have to let your own babies grow up. We’ll see who’s laughing then.” Ben’s tone was indignant but he was so glad to see Adam smiling that he couldn’t maintain it.

“Honest Pa, I’ll be fine. Hoss and Joe will do all the work. I’ll just play teacher.” He rose from the hearth. “Besides those two will treat me with kid gloves and you know it.”

“Alright son, but promise me you’ll come home if you don’t feel well. I’ll have Hop Sing pack some teas and your pain medicine in case you need it.” Ben headed for the kitchen. “And if it rains, there’s a line shack just a couple of miles from that stand of trees.”

Ben disappeared around the corner but Adam could still hear his voice. Smiling, he shook his head and headed for the stairs.

*****

“I got to admit Adam, I thought Pa was gonna hire Doc Martin to come along with us before he let you out of his sight,” Hoss said. All three of the Cartwright men laughed at the memory of their overprotective father hovering about as they packed to go.

The heat of the day was upon them as they made their way into the mountains. Adam kept Sport at a flat-footed walk, trying to ease the ache in his newly mended ribs. The brothers chatted amiably and by midday they had arrived at their destination. Hoss and Joe watched Adam as he dismounted and looked around. They saw the wary expression in his eyes.

“Come on now, Adam, you don’t think we’re gonna do all the work, do ya?” Joe said, throwing a bedroll at his brother. “How about we’ll set up camp if you cook up some lunch?”

His attention diverted, Adam answered, “Will that be beans with your beans?” A small smirk lifted one corner of his mouth.

“Now big brother, you got ta try harder than that. It’s been along time since I ate breakfast and I’m mighty hungry,” Hoss chimed in.

“When are you not hungry?” Joe asked.

“Just never you mind, Short Stuff. You just worry about gettin some more firewood while I take care of the horses.” Hoss started to untack Chubby.

The men continued with their tasks, each knowing exactly what had to be done. Adam spoke up. “I’m going down to the stream to fill the canteens. “Don’t let my beans and bacon burn up.”

The small, rushing stream was far away from anything that could pollute it. Most of the water came from the snowmelt high in the mountains and even in summer, it was still cool. Adam knelt down and filled the three canteens. He reveled for a moment in the beauty of the silence. Only the sound of the water rushing over the rocks and an occasional scolding jay breached the stillness. He started to feel some of the tension leave his body. Standing up, he retrieved the canteens and started back to camp. It was then that he heard the distant roar of a mountain cat.

The canteens clattered noisily to the ground, as Adam’s body went rigid. His racing heart told him to run but his limbs were frozen in place. Sweat soaked through the dressings that covered the still healing wounds. Soon, tiny black dots swam before his eyes and he felt as if his bones had been melted by his fear. The black dots enlarged and finally came together, forming a field of darkness.

*****

Hoss and Joe looked at each other for an instant when they heard the distinctive roar. They dropped what they were doing and sprinted toward the stream. A short distance away, they saw Adam. Kneeling close, Hoss rolled his brother onto his back while Joe opened a canteen. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and soaked it with water. Wiping the pale face, he waited for some kind of response.

Hoss opened his brother’s shirt to see if there was any new damage. He put a hand on the center of his brother’s chest and felt the wringing wet material.

As he came up out of the darkness, Adam could feel the cat weighing him down and he began to fight. The pressure on his chest kept him pinned to the ground no matter how hard he fought. His own shouts deafened him to any other sounds. Gradually, the weight disappeared and when his cries stopped, he heard the familiar sounds of his brothers’ voices. He stopped moving and opened his eyes.

Adam’s voice was hoarse and when he asked what happened, the words were so soft, he could barely hear them. Hoss held him as he sat up and Joe handed him a canteen. After soothing his throat, he tried again. “What happened?”

He watched his younger brothers exchange a glance. After hesitating, Joe spoke up. “We found you on the ground, out cold. Than you started to fight and yell things about…” Joe stopped and looked at Hoss.

“Adam, you was shouting about that cougar. Guess you thought it was here again.” Hoss laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

Adam squeezed his eyes shut. He remembered enjoying the silence of the day and feeling more relaxed than he had in a long time. He opened his eyes. “I remember hearing it but nothing after that.” He took a moment. “Let’s get back to camp.”

The three brothers walked back in silence. They were met by the smell of something burning. Hoss ran to the fire but there was nothing left to salvage. “My lunch!”

Adam looked down at the smoking pan. “Is burned beyond redemption—sorry, brother.”

“There’s some beef jerky in here somewhere,” Joe said, rummaging through the packs.

“Beef jerky!” Hoss whined. “I need more than beef jerky. I might not make it ’til supper.”

Stifling a chuckle, Adam looked at his forlorn middle brother. “Well, since I’d hate to explain to Pa how we lost you to starvation on a three day trip, I’ll try to fix lunch again while you two finish setting up camp.”

“Adam, I love ya with all my heart.” Hoss started for the horses.

“Or stomach,” came Adam’s quick reply.

*****

They worked until the sun sat on the mountaintops. Adam was patient and took his time explaining why the selection for cutting was so important to the future of the land. Thinning the forest left room and light for the younger trees to grow straight and tall. By wisely choosing to cut only the maturest specimens, the ground would still be solidly rooted against erosion from the winter snowmelt and spring rains. He taught both his brothers to look at the health of the trees, emphasizing what could happen if disease were to spread into the Ponderosa forests.

By late afternoon, all three Cartwright brothers were hot, dirty and tired. They decided that washing down in the deep pools of the stream would help to take away the day’s discomforts. Hoss and Joe stripped quickly and waded into the refreshing water. Adam took a little longer, carefully unwrapping the bandages from his chest and arms. His usual summer tan had faded from the covered areas. He looked at the almost healed wounds and wondered how long it would take for the marks to disappear or if they ever would. The mat of black hair on his chest would hide most of them. Than he too stripped down and waded into the stream. The pristine water washed away the sweat and dirt from a hard day’s work and cooled the summer’s heat. Adam lay on his back and enjoyed the weightless feeling that floating gave him. He was only slightly aware of his brothers’ laughter as they tried to pull each other under.

“Hey, you gonna float around in there all night?” Hoss and Joe had already gotten out and were dressing. “Time to think about supper and sleepin’. I’m just about done in,” Hoss said.

Floating on the water had afforded Adam a measure of tranquility that he hated to see end. And although he wasn’t particularly interested in eating, he too was beginning to feel weary. “I’m on my way.” He flipped over and with long, powerful strokes, made his way to shore.

*****

 The heat of the day had eased with the sunset and the night became comfortable. Even so, the fire was built to last. It discouraged predators of all sizes, from swarms of mosquitoes to bears or anything else roaming in the night. The Cartwright brothers lay on their bedrolls waiting for sleep. Hoss was the first to fall. His occasional snores and snorts started Joe giggling and although Adam tried his hardest, he couldn’t help but break down and join his youngest brother. Finally able to control themselves, the two brothers became silent again.

“Adam–Adam, you asleep?” Joe propped himself on his side with one hand under his chin.

“Yes, I am and so should you be.” Adam rolled over to face his youngest brother. “What is it?”

“You ok? I mean, after all that’s happened. Are you alright?”

Touched by his brother’s concern, Adam answered, “Yes, I’m fine. Now aren’t you tired?”

Joe wouldn’t be put off. “Would you tell me if you weren’t?”

Adam answered honestly, “I don’t know—maybe.” He let out a sigh. “Look, I don’t have it straight in my own mind yet. It was all so quick. One minute I was looking at trees and the next minute I was fighting for my life.” He sat up and turned away from his brother. “I was scared, Joe, and I still am. I have to face that and get past it or I won’t be any good to anyone including myself.”

Joe was taken aback by Adam’s answer. Only rarely had he heard his brother speak so openly. Adam was always honest and straightforward but he saved his feelings for himself.

“Anybody would be afraid, and Hoss and Pa and I will always need you.” He leaned closer to his brother. “Give it a little time, Adam. The memories will fade.”

Adam reached out and put his hand on Joe’s arm. “Thanks, little brother. Now go to sleep before we wake Hoss up. I’m not ready to fix breakfast yet.”

Both men lay down and Adam soon heard Joe’s soft, even breathing. He looked at the two sleeping forms in the half-shadows of the night. Whatever else fate had thrown at him, Adam was endlessly grateful that he was destined to have these two men as brothers. He closed his eyes and asked for a dreamless sleep.

But it wasn’t to be. As he struggled to bring himself out of the nightmare, he realized that the sounds he was hearing were real. Hoss and Joe were already on their feet with guns drawn. Looking through the fire, they could see the horses moving restlessly from one side of the makeshift corral to the other, each echoing the other’s frightened call.

Joe put more wood on the fire as Hoss took out an already burning branch. He started toward the horses. On the edge of the camp, where the darkness met the light, he saw the reflection of his torch in two glowing, green eyes. He aimed and fired. Joe ran to his side and both men started forward into the night. Unable to find anything, they returned to camp.

“I ain’t rightly sure what it was. I just saw them two shinin’ eyes lookin’ at me and I fired.” The brothers made sure the horses were all right before they returned to their bedrolls.

Adam sat upright, staring into the fire. He didn’t look up when his brothers returned. “It was the cat, wasn’t it?” It was more of a statement than a question.

“I’m not sure what it was Adam,” Hoss answered.

Adam looked up at Hoss but didn’t respond. Turning his back toward the fire, he lay down again. With eyes wide, he stared into the night—watching.

*****

Adam finished his second cup of coffee while Hoss and Joe finished their breakfast. “Ain’t ya hungry this morning, Adam?” Hoss asked.

His brother answered with a faint half-smile. “I’m fine.” Trying to reassure his worried brothers, Adam pulled small pieces from his bread and ate them. “We’ll mark the north section today. We should finish up around noon or so tomorrow and make it home by tomorrow night.”

Adam rose and said,” I’ll get the horses ready; you two finish breakfast.” He threw the last of his coffee into the fire and walked with a decidedly guarded gait toward the corral.

“You see that?” Joe said, motioning toward Adam’s retreating figure.

“Yeah, I noticed when he got up this mornin’. Maybe Pa was right. Sleepin’ on this hard ground ain’t doin’ his ribs no good or them claw marks neither.”

Hoss hesitated for a moment then said, “Come on, Joe. Let’s get this job done and get big brother back home.”

As the three men approached the section to be marked, Adam could feel himself stiffen in the saddle. Small beads of sweat joined together and ran in annoying paths down his back and chest. The salt stung the few still open areas of the claw marks. His sense of unease transferred itself to Sport and the horse responded by sidestepping and trying to break into a trot. He leaned forward and ran his hand down the silken neck, trying to quiet the temperamental animal. “I know, boy,” he whispered. “I’m a little nervous myself, being back here. We’ll be ok.” The chestnut cocked an ear backward, listening to the familiar voice. He began to settle down although Adam could still feel the coiled muscles beneath him.

They pulled up on the rim of a small hill. “Where do we start?” Joe asked.

Adam urged Sport forward. “Right where I stopped.” He headed down the hill and into the forest of mature pines.

Hoss shook his head. “Ya know, he don’t have ta do this.”

“Yeah, he does.” Joe moved Cochise forward, following his brother.

The three men entered the woods together and started marking the trees that were ready to harvest. They split up with Hoss taking the right side and Joe the left. Adam had promised his father that he wouldn’t do any physical work but his brothers had learned quickly and he needed to keep his mind occupied.

Adam took the middle. The woods were thick with old growth trees. Part of him wanted to leave the old giants alone but he knew that the younger trees would have no chance under the dense canopy that loomed above them. So he marked the ones that were destined to become railroad ties or props for mine shafts or part of a home that might last for a hundred years. His mind was on his work as he came into a small clearing. Without warning, the same feeling he had as they approached this section returned. Confused by what was happening, he looked around. His eyes were drawn to the spot where, only a few weeks ago, he had struggled so desperately to live. He began to relive the horror as the pictures in his mind moved slowly forward.

Adam had ridden Sport to the northern section of the timber tract. He took the thicker, harder to mark section for himself and sent his younger brother to the south. Hoss had come along to begin learning the lumber share of their holdings. Ben knew that each of his sons had their own preferences, but he felt they needed at least a working knowledge of all aspects of the Ponderosa’s businesses. As he approached the dense woods, Sport began to toss his head and “dance” to the side. Adam remembered not thinking much of the horse’s behavior.  It wasn’t out of character for him to act up at times.

After tethering the restless animal, Adam walked onto the soft, needle-covered ground. He could barely hear his own footsteps as he went deeper into the shadowed woodland. The light filtering down through the lacy boughs reminded him of the light shining through the stain glass windows of the churches in Boston. He looked up and felt the same sense of peace here.

The silence was pierced by Sport’s scream.  Dropping his ax, Adam turned and started to run toward the terrified animal. He pulled the leather loop from the hammer of his weapon and drew.  He didn’t hear anything more. He only felt a weight hit his chest and he went down. The gun flew out of his hand. He tried to follow its arc with his eyes, but the thick underbrush hid it.

Adam faced the now snarling, snapping creature. The claws of the cat’s forepaws ranked across his shoulders and chest.  Instinctively, he tucked his head to protect his throat and pulled his legs up to keep the cougar’s back claws from disemboweling him. He knew he had screamed when the cat first sent her razor-sharp hooks through the soft tissue. He used his forearms and hands to keep the triangular, yellow teeth away from his neck. Blood flowed freely down both arms. His strength was quickly becoming depleted. The sheer weight of the animal on his chest drove the life-giving breath from his lungs. He knew it wouldn’t be long. His eyes were beginning to flutter shut and the pain receded. Fleeting thoughts of his family ran through his mind and he was sorry for the sorrow this would cause them. Suddenly, his chest heaved as the weight disappeared and air filled his lungs once more.

 The pictures stopped. Adam found himself on his knees with his arms wrapped tightly around his body. Salt tracks trailed from under tightly closed lids.  Slowly, he opened his eyes. It was over. He remembered; he saw it and now it was over. Still unsteady, he got to his feet, leaning heavily against a sturdy trunk for support. He looked up into the light.

*****

Sport stood with his head held high and his ears forward. Fine tremors rippled the surface of his muscles. He gave a soft nicker when Adam appeared. Reaching the uneasy animal, he spoke in soft, soothing tones.

He could feel the quaking under his hands, as he tried to calm the big chestnut. “I know how you feel, fella, but it’s over now. We’ll both be ok.”

Adam kept up the soft mummer until the horse started to relax. He had told his brothers that he’d meet them back at camp for their noon meal. Wanting to be alone for a little while, he mounted and let Sport find his own path.

The sun was high in the sky when Adam made his way back to the campsite. As he came closer, he could see his brother’s horses already staked out. The thought of a meal appealed to him for the first time in a while and he hoped Hoss and Joe had started lunch. He untacked his horse and left him with his stable mates. His approach caused his brothers to turn and reach for their guns only to re-holster them when they saw him. “What’s wrong with you two?” His tone was sharper than he had intended but having two guns pointed at him made Adam more than just a little uncomfortable.

Hoss’ skin was pale beneath his normally robust color. He didn’t answer his brother’s question. The muscles in Joe’s face were knotted around a clenched jaw. He too remained silent.

“Well, what is it?” Adam was becoming inpatient but the anger faded as he watched his two brothers. He recognized the look in their eyes; they were afraid.

The younger Cartwright men looked at each other than stepped apart, letting Adam see beyond them. What he saw sent a chill through him even as the heat of the day was at its height. Their campsite had been destroyed. Foodstuffs lay scattered in haphazard piles. Saddlebags were pulled out. Teeth and claw marks could be seen on the tough leather. What clothes they had brought with them were strewn across the ground, after being shredded and pulled apart.

Adam walked between his brothers. Telltale tracks of a cougar could be seen in the dust. He looked down at the three bedrolls. Joe’s and Hoss’ remained untouched while his lay in tatters. Great rents could be seen in the blankets. He took a deep breath than turned and faced his brothers. “She was here.”

Hoss was the first to respond. “Now Adam, you don’t know it was the same cat. Could’ve been any one of ’em that wander these hills.”

“And this random cat just happened to pick my bedroll? No, Hoss, I don’t think so.” Adam bent down and picked up a piece of his blanket. “Cats remember the scent of their prey and besides, she’s had a taste of human flesh and blood now. You know what that means.”

“Just what does it mean?” Joe asked.

When Adam didn’t answer, Hoss explained to Joe. “It’s no different than if a cougar attacked one of the herds. Once it gets a taste for beef, it’ll want more. And if it’s not destroyed, it’ll go on killin’.”

Joe looked at Adam than at Hoss. “So you’re sayin’ that because the cat attacked a person, now it’s looking for more?” Joe hoped what he was hearing wasn’t true.

This time it was Adam who answered, his voice quiet and low. “Yes Joe, this cat hunts people now.”

*****

Salvaging what they could, coffee and a sparse lunch was made. All three men were subdued. Each thinking about what had happened and what needed to be done. Given the circumstances, Adam felt the decision was his and spoke first. “Hoss, you and Joe head back to the ranch. I’m going to stay up here and go after the cat. I can rescue enough supplies and I’ll use the line shack for a camp.”

“Are you crazy?” Joe exploded. “If what you say is true about them being able to remember a scent, then why would you be the one to hunt it down?”

“It’s because of that; she’ll hang around, looking for me.” Adam’s voice was calm.

Joe was angry now and he let both of his brothers know it. “I don’t get it. Why would you use yourself as bait?”

“Joe, I’m not trying to use myself as bait. I’m just being practical.” Adam took a deep breath. He felt a small shiver run across his body but hoped his brothers hadn’t noticed.  “You know they’re hard to track and harder to kill. I’ll have an advantage that you two wouldn’t.”

“Hoss, will you say something to him! I think our ‘practical’ brother has finally gone over the edge.” Joe got up and started pacing in front of the fire.

“He’s right, Joe,” Hoss answered. “Everything he said makes sense, except for one thing.” Hoss turned from Joe to Adam. “You stayin’ up here by yerself. Now that is crazy!”

“Now look,” Adam started to say, “there aren’t enough supplies…”

Hoss interrupted. “Than we’ll hunt for what we need. Joe can go back to the ranch, tell Pa what’s goin’ on.”

“You’re both nuts! I’m not goin’ anywhere.” Joe stood still with his hands balled into tight fists. “Why should I be the one to go back and tell Pa; just what do you want me to tell him? That his oldest son had decided to play mouse to a cat that’s hunting him and that you,” he gestured toward Hoss, “have decided that it’s just fine?”

Adam laughed and looked at his middle brother. “The kid’s got a point. How would you like to be the one to go back and tell Pa that little tale?” He winced at the thought. Hoss made a face and shook his head.

Adam smiled at his youngest brother. “Ok, we’ll all stay the next couple of days. Pa’ll think it just took us a little longer to get the job done.” He slapped Hoss on the back. “Then we’ll all go home and face the music together.”

“And what if we can’t get it in the next couple of days?” Joe asked.

Adam lost his smile. “Then I’ll be back.”

*****

They sorted out what could be saved from the ravaged camp and made their way to the line shack. Luckily, it was in good repair and roomy enough for the three of them. Hoss and Joe laid their bedrolls on the floor, giving their older brother the bunk. The mattress was thin but it was softer than the floor and certainly better than the ground he’d been sleeping on. Adam made a half-hearted protest but he was grateful for his brothers’ thoughtfulness.

By the time they had moved in and set-up, it was too late to start tracking the cat. They decided to wait until morning. Instead, the three Cartwright brothers indulged themselves in a couple of hours of fishing.

“Now you boys just stand back and let me show ya how it’s done.” Hoss had stripped off his boots and socks, rolled up his pants and waded out into the stream. “I’ll have dinner quicker then you two can get a line in the water.”

Always ready for a challenge, Joe waded in up stream from his older brother. “We’ll see who can catch more.” Joe threw out his line.

More tired than he wanted to admit, Adam sat on a conveniently downed log. He watched the easy interplay between Hoss and Joe. He loved being a silent audience to his brother’s antics and often wondered what it was about himself that so rarely let him be a part of it. Joe’s face wore a determined look while Hoss kept glancing at him out of the corner of his eye. A big grin covered his face.

“You comin’, Adam?” Hoss called.

“Nah, I think I’ll just bow to better men and let you two show me how it’s done.” Adam sat with his elbows on his knees and his hands hiding the lower half of his face.

“Don’t you worry, big brother. I’ll have more fish than you can eat in just a jiffy.” Hoss looked over at Joe.

Joe started walking downstream. “You couldn’t catch a fish if you were starving to death. Which is most of the time, to hear you tell it.”

“Just stay up there Joe. Yer scarin’ all the fish, troppin’ around like that.” Hoss made a face and looked at Adam. “Told ya he didn’t know what he was doin’.”

“Who doesn’t know what they’re doing, ya big…”

Hoss interrupted him. “Yer beginnin’ to make me mad now, Joe. You’d better stop.” Hoss’ voice began to sound threatening.

Joe came closer. “Yeah, just what are you gonna do about it?” By this time he had dropped his line and stood facing Hoss, hands on hips.

Hoss’ long arm reached out. The tips of his fingers just touched Joe’s chest. With a slight flexing of his arm, he pushed forward. It was just enough for the youngest Cartwright brother to lose his balance.

Joe stood in water just below his knees. He found himself with desperately flapping arms but to no avail. The splash he made when he fell sent any remaining fish swimming to safety.

Adam dropped his head into his hands to cover the grin and soft laughter. He knew his little brother well and waited for Joe to come up fighting.

Hoss stood with his hands balanced on his knees, tears rolling down his face from laughter. He didn’t bother to hide it.

True to Adam’s prediction, Joe bounced up to his feet. He came at Hoss as quickly as the water would allow. “You just wait, ya big ox.”

Before Hoss could steady himself against Joe’s onrush, the youngest Cartwright lowered his head and hit his brother, belt-buckle high. There was enough force to cause Hoss to lose his footing on the slippery stones, but before he did; he grabbed the front of Joe’s shirt. Both men disappeared under the water.

By this time, Adam’s soft chuckle had turned into a hearty laugh. He couldn’t catch his breath and his healing ribs protested, but he wouldn’t have traded the moment for anything. Just as he started toward the water, both heads broke the surface.

The brothers struggled to their feet and started walking toward Adam, holding on to each other for balance. As they neared the shore, Adam held out his hands. For a brief moment, Hoss and Joe looked at one another. As much as they were tempted and at any other time, they wouldn’t have hesitated; they were afraid that pulling their older brother in might cause him further damage.

“Come on, you two. Let’s get you back to the line shack and dried out. I’m afraid its beans and jerky tonight.” Adam was still laughing.

*****

Adam watched the sunrise from the comfort of his bunk, a beautiful, clear summer’s morning. Both Hoss and Joe were still asleep and he wasn’t in any hurry to wake them. The night had held no surprises and he had slept without the intrusion of unwanted dreams. He knew what had to be done but just for a brief period, Adam savored the peace of this, the quietest time of the day.

Finally, the need for a trip outside and an equal yearning for coffee made him throw back the thin blanket that covered him. Swinging his long legs over the edge of the bunk and pulling himself into a sitting position brought an involuntary grunt of pain. Massaging his ribs for a moment, he looked to see if he had disturbed his sleeping brothers. He had not. He slipped into his pants and went out into the brilliant early morning light.

Barefooted and bare-chested, Adam headed for the back of the cabin. He hadn’t bothered to fasten the buttons on his pants but the material rode easily on his hips. After completing what needed to be done, he was ready to address what he wanted—coffee. Turning, he was startled by a sudden movement in a clump of trees that had, just a moment before, been at his back. A tawny-colored shape, moving long and low to the ground shifted into the deeper shadows of the woods. His hand automatically went to his hip. Knowing he hadn’t taken the time to put on his gun, he cursed himself for his stupidity.

Adam walked into the cabin, shutting the door rapidly behind him. He leaned his back against the closed door. He knew he’d been lucky. They had startled each other and the cat had decided to withdraw. She had been ready to pounce on him from behind. He could feel the sharp points of her claws sinking deep into his back and found himself suddenly shivering, even as the summer sun flooded the shack.

Taking a deep breath to settle his racing heart, Adam went about starting breakfast. He didn’t bother trying to be quiet. It was time his brothers were up. He had decided not to tell them about this morning’s incident. Why worry them further? he thought. And, I’d have to tell them I was dumb enough to walk outside without a gun. No, he’d keep this little encounter to himself.

Glad that Joe and Hoss had decided to do a little moonlight fishing last night, Adam browned the fresh trout slowly in the old frying pan. He fried the thinly cut potatoes next to the succulent fish. He watched as both his brothers began to stir. Hoss was barely awake when he said, “Do I smell breakfast?”

A soft snort of laughter came from Joe. “I’m easier—is the coffee ready yet?”

Adam turned away from his brothers and looked down into the frying pan. In a voice that betrayed nothing, he said, “Come on now, you two, get up. I’ve got a feeling that cat is close by.”

*****

They decided to hunt on foot. It was far safer than having a skittish horse beneath you. No matter how well trained, horses followed their herd instinct of flight. And fighting with a mount was the last thing they needed if the cougar came into sight. They weren’t far from where Adam had been attacked the first time, so the three brothers decided to start from there.

Adam had grumbled that it was a waste of time having all three of them hunt together. Hoss had ignored him and Joe had answered by saying, “If you’re gonna make yourself a target, than we need to have your back.” It seemed as if neither brother would give in so Adam resigned himself.

The sun that had been so bright at dawn started to hide behind the large fluffy clouds that had appeared. Hoss found some fresh signs that a cougar had been in the area not long before. The brothers began to move out of the woodlands and into rocker terrain. Large boulders and sandstone cliffs transformed the landscape. A distant roar stopped them. Without saying a word, Adam signaled for Joe to track left and Hoss right. He would go straight on. He found himself walking along the base of a cliff. His attention was on the ground, looking for any signs that would tell him which way the animal was headed.

Watching from above, the cat’s nostrils widened as it pulled the familiar scent out of the air. She looked over the rock face and saw the creature she hunted. Walking forward, her soft pads made no noise on the rock ledge. Her long tail traced a slow arc in the air. Muscles tensed for the leap, she crouched down and waited. Eyes intent on the kill.

Adam went down on one knee to get a better look at the fresh track.  As he started to rise, the sun came out of hiding. A distant shadow loomed over his shoulder and grew larger. Suddenly realizing what it was, he stood up and twisted toward the rock wall. All he could see was the body of the cat hanging in midair. He knew it was too late to bring a gun into firing position. He closed his eyes and waited for the impact. He thought he heard the sound of gunfire than felt the weight of the cat hit his chest. He fell backward and was thankful when his vision started to dim. At least he would be spared the pain and terror of an agonizing death.

*****

“Easy now. Don’t try to move around too much.” Adam recognized the distant voice. It was Hoss. “I think that cat broke them ribs again.”

“What happened?” Adam tried to rise and look around but Hoss pushed him back down. “Where’s Joe—is Joe ok?”

Joe knelt at Adam’s other side. “I’m right here. Now try doing what you’re told for once in your stubborn life.”

Adam gritted his teeth against the burning pain in his chest. Joe reached out and put his hand in brothers, giving him something to squeeze when the pain struck again. “Tell me what happened. All I remember was the cat coming at me.” He hesitated for a moment. “And maybe gunfire.”

The two younger Cartwrights waited, hoping the other would explain. Hoss started. “Well Adam, ya see, we did circle around like you told us. But somehow we both thought that we shouldn’t leave you alone too long. And well…”

 Joe continued. “Yeah Adam and it’s a good thing too, ‘cause when we came around opposite sides of the hill, we saw the cat leap into the air. We both fired almost at once.” Joe stopped for a moment and looked down. “We killed the cougar but we couldn’t stop it from landing on you. We’re sorry you got hurt again.”

Adam closed his eyes for a minute than opened them and smiled. “You two have no reason to be sorry. If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead right now.” He put a hand on each brother’s arm. “Thanks.”

Adam turned his head to the side and looked into the face of the now dead animal. They had done what they had to but part of him was saddened by the creature’s death. It occurred to him how fragile life really was. Alive and vital one minute, all of it ended the next instant. He let out a long sigh that ended in a pain-filled grunt.

Facing his brothers once more, Adam said, “Think you two can get me home?”

“Oh, I think we can manage,” Hoss said. “But while we tote you home, you’d better be thinkin’ about how to tell Pa you broke them ribs again.” Hoss started to go after the horses.

Adam shook his head. “Maybe I should just let Joe explain.” He closed his eyes as if slipping into sleep.

“Me?” How come me?” Joe’s high-pitched voice bounced off the rocks. “Don’t you pass out now. Adam—–!” Joe got up and ran after Hoss.

Eyes still closed, a slow smile spread across Adam’s face.

***The End***

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