Word Count: 6900
Dark gray clouds of smoke billowed into the air, splitting the vivid blue of the late spring sky. Adam Cartwright knew instantly it was more then some campfire gone astray. He judged the distance to be about a mile and a half from the top of the ridge where he sat — about the same distance and direction to the Mason homestead. He urged Sport down the hillside. Dirt and rocks tumbled down before them. Adam knew he was riding too fast for the safety of either himself or his horse but the idea of this young family being caught in the midst of an unpredictable blaze overrode his common sense.
As he cleared the tree line, Sport stretched out and his already giant stride lengthened. Adam could see the little house sitting alone in the middle of Pine Meadow. He leaned down further over his mount’s neck. He felt the heat and his lungs began to rebel as he inhaled the noxious air. As he came closer, he saw that the barn was already engulfed in flames and the house was next in line. The trees on three sides of the little farm snapped and crackled as flames danced up their sides. John Mason dropped his water bucket and ran toward the house.
Adam brought Sport to a sliding halt near the front porch. He ran inside and saw John ushering his wife and two young sons toward the door. “Adam,” he cried, a note of relief sounded in his voice at seeing another person. “Help me, Adam! I’ve got to get them out of here.”
Adam picked up the younger of the two boys while John took the other and led his wife onto the porch. “We’re surrounded on three sides but I think we can get to the river from here,” Adam yelled to be heard above the fire’s noisy voice.
“I let the livestock go. The hoses panicked and I couldn’t hold them,” Mason said.
Adam swung the youngster that had been in his arms onto his saddle. Sport’s flanks still heaved from their breakneck ride. He began to dance, tipping the already frightened child to one side. Adam reached up to steady the boy. The horse’s fear of the fire was beginning to override his loyalty to his master. Adam spoke to the animal. “Easy, son. I need you to help me get these people out of here.”
“John, put your older son behind the saddle,” shouted Adam. “I’ll lead Sport while you help Jane.” Adam made sure the boys were holding tight before he asked Sport to walk on.
They moved as quickly as they could through the thick trees. A haze of smoke and ash followed them and breathing became more difficult by the moment. Adam knew that the river wasn’t too far beyond but the speed of the fire was faster than they could travel. He only hoped the wind didn’t pick up. If it did, there would be no chance for any of them.
They came to a halt at the edge of a cliff. Below them ran a deep river that sliced through the pine and hardwood forest that surrounded them. Adam knew that there was no way they could slide down the side of the steep grade. They’d have to jump. “John,” he cried above the roar that was now beginning to encircle them. “I’ll take the boys. You take Jane and jump.” With practiced ease, Adam removed Sport’s bridle and slapped the big chestnut on the rump. With a combination of fear and trust, the animal launched himself over the side and into the swift flowing water below. Adam held his breath until he saw the glistening head break the surface.
Before he could get to the boys, Adam saw that they had run to their mother. Jane’s eyes were wild with terror and she backed away from the edge of the gorge. She held her sons in a gripe that her husband couldn’t break. He shouted at her, trying to be heard above the maelstrom that would was about to overtake them. Adam ran to help. An explosion ripped through the forest and the only thing Adam remembered was the freedom of floating, unhampered by the bonds of gravity.
It was the sound of rain slapping against the leaves that woke him. An occasional crack of thunder only served as a background to the continuous tumult of running water. It was daytime but the light was filtered through a lingering haze of smoke. Somehow, Adam found himself belly down in what appeared to be a ravine. One part at a time, he started to take stock of his body. Separate fingers clawed into the mud, proving they could still function. He set his hands and tried to raise his chest off the ground. The pain in his back caused his arms to fold under him and he came to rest with a cry that splintered the surrounding silence. The light went from sooty gray to black and back again, leaving his stomach roiling. He coughed out thick black fluid that flowed from the side of his mouth. He lay with his cheek against the cool mud, concentrating on each breathe until even that effort became too much. A fleeting thought of his family brought to mind another family and it was then that he remembered. “Oh God,” he whispered.
It had been hours since Jed Collins rode into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house. He had taken his time leading the tall, leggy chestnut that he knew belonged to Adam Cartwright. The animal had injured his right hind leg and was walking on the toe of his hoof when Jed saw him. He had no bridle and his saddle was twisted to one side. Cuts and scrapes marred the shiny coat.
Joe had been in the barn when the horse and rider came into sight, slowly leading Sport. Instantly taking in what this could mean, Joe called for his father and brother.
Now the three men rode into the lengthening shadows of late afternoon. Jed told them where he had found Adam’s injured horse and about the fire that had raged across Pine Meadow, up to Hazen’s Gorge. None of them had been near that section of the ranch today; only Adam had gone up there. The devastation had happened with none of them to witness it. Wisps of smoke still lingered in the air, despite the downpour. Ben refused to think of anything other then finding his son. He comforted himself with the fact that Adam knew the countryside and had handled tough situations before.
The three riders stopped, trying to decide what direction to take. “If Adam was up here and saw the fire, he would have headed for the Mason homestead,” Hoss said.
“I agree with Hoss. Adam would have gone to help them. John has all the good intensions and none of the experience to go with it,” Joe added.
“Let’s go.” Ben put Buck into a canter.
As they approached the little meadow, they saw that much of the land was now flat. Trees, young and old, had been destroyed and smoldering skeletons dotted the landscape. Nothing remained of the Mason home but the stone foundation and its chimney. The men dismounted.
“Pa, why don’t you let Joe and me look around? You stay here and rest a little,” suggested Hoss.
Ben knew what Hoss was trying to save him from and he inwardly smiled at his tender-hearted son. “No boys, I’ll go with you.”
They walked through the ruins. Somehow, pieces of china stood unhurt among the charred belongings. Half-burned books lay beneath blackened timbers. Ben took a deep breath. He thought about how indiscriminate fire was— it never cared who or what or where; it only cared to nourish itself. What Hoss had feared most hadn’t come true. They found no signs of the Masons or Adam.
“Adam would have taken them to the river,” Ben said. “It looks as if the fire swept across the meadow and into the woods leading up to the gorge.” They mounted up and left behind the devastation of a young couple’s dreams.
The trio picked their way carefully into what was left of the woodlands, pushing upward until they came to the edge of the cliff that overlooked the river. Joe and Hoss dismounted hoping they might find some sign of where their brother might have gone. Between the fire and the rain, there wasn’t much left of any trail. They split up and started to look around. Ben stayed mounted and held his son’s horses.
Suddenly, he heard his youngest give a strangled cry. Ben flew from his saddle and ran to Joe’s side. Hoss was right behind him. Joe stood rooted to the ground, his face a deathly pale mask beneath his perpetual tan. His eyes were wide and staring at a tangle of downed trees. Beneath the twisted branches lay the bodies of four people huddled together. The gruesome sight shocked and sickened them. When his wits returned, Ben moved to comfort his son. Joe staggered behind what was left of an old pine and retched until his stomach was emptied.
Hoss remained where he was. He knew his father would take care of Joe. He steeled himself and walked forward. He had to know. As he approached the remains, a prayer crossed his lips. There was no doubt in his mind that this was the Mason family but he saw no sign of his missing brother. He swallowed hard and returned to his father and younger brother.
“You alright, Joe?” Hoss asked. He stepped closer.
“Yeah, I’m ok.” Joe stopped then started again; his voice trembled. “It’s just that it’s—it’s so awful and I’ve never…” He couldn’t continue. Ben reached out and placed a hand on his son’s back.
“Pa, I gotta tell ya, I don’t think none of them folks is Adam. I’m sure that’s John and his family.” Hoss too hesitated. “By their size and all…”
“Ok boys, let’s leave here for now. It’s still daylight.” Ben started toward the horses. “We need to find your brother.” Hoss and Joe exchanged a glance then quickly turned away, not wanting to read what was in the other’s eyes.
As they stood on the edge of the rock face, the sounds of the river filled the air. The three men took a moment to stare into the roaring water, each lost in their own thoughts. Hoss and Ben mounted but Joe waited. He leaned closer to the rim. He thought he had heard the cry of an animal in distress.
“What is it?” Ben asked. Joe held up a hand and listened once more. There it was again, only louder this time.
“Sounds like some kinda critter in pain.” Hoss had heard it too. He dismounted again and looked at the river bank on the opposite side. The shadow from the cliff made it hard to see.
It was Joe that caught the movement. Adam tried once more to heave himself up only to collapse amid a cry of anguish. Each attempt became harder.
“Look—look over there!” Joe pointed to the shadowed figure lying on the opposite bank. “It’s got to be Adam.” He started to take off his jacket and gun.
Hoss grabbed him. “Are you crazy, Joe? You can’t jump in there.” He kept a hold on his brother’s jacket. “You don’t know what’s below that water.”
Ben turned Joe around to face him. “Joseph, mount up and help Hoss and I find a place where we can cross.” Joe pulled away. Ben softened his voice. “We’ll get to him. Come on now, help us.”
Joe mounted and started back the way they had come. It seemed to take forever before they found a place where the horses could cross. Once on the other side, Joe left his father and brother behind. He reached Adam’s side and began talking to him, not really knowing if his brother could hear him or not. Ben and Hoss were soon beside him.
Ben knelt down and stroked his son’s wet hair. “Adam— it’s us. We’ve found you now. You’re safe.” There was no response. “Boys, help me find out where he’s hurt.” They carefully felt along his arms and legs and miraculously felt no breaks. They found no swelling hidden under the thick hair but Adam’s clothes were in tatters and they could see numerous cuts and scrapes. Ben pulled the wet material away from his son’s back and it gave way in his hands, revealing red and purple bruising that spread out the length of his torso. Ben sat back on his heels.
“Know wonder he was screaming,” Hoss said, unconsciously touching his brother’s arm. ‘He don’t seem to be burned from what I can see.”
“Well, we can’t get a wagon across that river and even if we could, it’s gonna be dark soon. How do we get him out of here?” Joe asked.
“We don’t—not tonight,” his father replied.
Hoss headed off Joe’s response. “But Pa, he needs a doctor. We don’t know how bad he’s hurt.”
“You’re right, we don’t. But we might do even more damage trying to get him out of this rough country in the dark.” Ben looked around. “It seems as if it was the river that broke the fire. Hoss, look around for a place to camp. Joe, find some firewood please and take care of the horses.” The discussion was over.
Hoss found the shelter of an old pine grove not too far from the spot where they had crossed. Amazed that the river had kept the fire at bay, he cut boughs to make a soft bed and covered it with a blanket. He was glad it was spring, so keeping warm wasn’t something they’d have to worry about. Joe joined him. He picketed the horses and gave them each a good measure of oats. Hoss spoke up. “I know your mad but save yer energy to help Adam. Pa’s right about trying to get out of here at night.”
“Yeah, well, what if you’re both wrong?” Joe hissed, trying to keep his father from hearing. “What if he’s hurt so bad inside that he won’t last till morning? You saw his back.”
Hoss didn’t answer right away. “You gotta believe, Joe. You got ta believe it ain’t Adam’s time. How else do you explain him being across the river when we found— when we found John and his family on the other side?”
Joe’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t explain anything,” he murmured. “I’m just scared.”
“I know—me too. Come on, we gotta move him and I don’t want Pa to be alone any longer.” Hoss gave his little brother a smile and they walked back to their father and Adam.
Moving Adam hadn’t been as bad as they thought it might be. Other then a low groan when they first picked him up, he offered no other proof that he was aware of what was happening to him. For a little while anyway, Ben was glad that Adam seemed blissfully indifferent to whatever they did. They took him to Hoss’ carefully made bed. Turning Adam onto his back, Ben was able to look for any other injuries. His face was bright red and the dark eyebrows were singed. Other cuts and bruises served as markers of his ordeal.
They had built a small fire to warm their coffee. Each man nibbled at the sandwiches that Hop Sing had insisted they bring. They had settled down to wait out the night, hoping that Adam would wake up. Ben sat close to him. He noticed that Adam’s breathing was irregular and it changed from shallow to labored and back again. Finally, a slight cough turned into a long, barking spasm. Adam tried to raise his head but when he did, the pain in his back denied him. He began to choke. With Hoss’ help, Ben turned the struggling man onto his side. He was able to take in enough air to forcibly cough up the copious liquids that threatened to strangle him. Once again, the blackened fluids escaped from the corner of his mouth. Ben wiped it away. “I’m here, son,” Ben said, hoping to sooth his exhausted child.
In a voice that was hoarse and strained, they heard Adam repeat their names. He looked at them and managed a small smile. Joe raised his brother’s head enough to let him swallow some cool, soothing water. Adam looked at his father then closed his eyes. Two tears tracked down his soot streaked face leaving blackened trails. “The Masons, Pa— they were with me.”
Ben couldn’t find the words to tell his son what they had found. Tears swam in his own eyes as he looked back in silence.
It was enough. “Oh Pa, no…”
The trip home took almost an entire day. They had decided the least likely way to cause Adam any further injury would be to suspend a travois between two horses. The poles were slipped through the stirrups of Chubb in front and Buck behind. Adam had regained consciousness during the night. He took the water offered but said almost nothing. A harsh, congested cough continued to rack his body, shaking his injured back with each paroxysm. They placed him face down with ropes tied over the blankets that covered him.
Hoss and Joe were already mounted when Ben knelt down. He pushed the wavy black hair off his son’s forehead once again and handed him a small piece of rolled cloth. “Here son, use this if the pain gets too bad and tell us if we need to stop.” Adam nodded. He saw the look of anxiety in his father’s eyes and wished he could think of something reassuring to say but nothing would come. His mind seemed empty of all else except for the image of Jane Mason as she clutched her two small boys. The only thing that intruded was the pain.
The rocking motion of the horses would normally have been welcome but now it sent streaks of pain from his neck, down his back and into his legs. Adam’s usual stoic manner crumbled quickly under the torment and he bit down hard on the cloth his father had given him. Ben watched as his son tried not to cry out. He was about to signal Hoss to stop when he saw Adam’s body go limp. The cloth fell onto the travois and he knew his son had passed out.
When they were about halfway home, Ben sent Joe on ahead. He wanted one of the hands to ride for the doctor and have Paul waiting when they returned. They dismounted to rest the horses and themselves. Hoss went to check on his brother. “He passed out some time ago,” Ben said. “The pain was just too much.” Ben rubbed a hand over his face.
“You alright, Pa?” Hoss asked.
“Yes son, I’m fine—just tired.” He looked at Adam. “And worried.”
“I know ya are, Pa, and so am I—-and Joe. But I’ll tell you what I told him; it just ain’t Adam’s time yet. I believe that and you gotta too.”
It had taken a lot for Hoss to say what he did. A warm smile covered Ben’s face as he thought, Joe can make me laugh and Adam keeps me going in the right direction, but neither one of them can comfort me the way this son does. He said a simple thank you. They mounted up and continued toward home.
The sun had gone down and all that was left was the fading light of evening when the exhausted men and horses reached the Ponderosa. Joe had been pacing from the porch to the barn and back again, his body unwilling to relax. Hop Sing and Paul Martin had given up on him long ago. Hoss and Ben dismounted, walking carefully on numbed legs.
Paul was immediately at Adam’s side, helping to untie the restraining ropes. Pulling back the blankets, he stifled a gasp when he saw the condition of the injured man’s back. “Let’s move him to his bed. I want as much help as possible and I want a couple of boards put under his mattress first.” No one questioned Dr. Martin’s requests.
The lamps had been lit for quite some time when Paul came down the stairs to sit with the Cartwright family. “Ben, from what you tell me about where you found Adam and looking at his injuries, my best guess is that he was blown off that cliff by some kind of explosion and into the river. I’d say he landed flat on his back and somehow was washed ashore or managed somehow to get himself out of the water. Any other explanation just isn’t possible.” Hop Sing handed Paul a steaming cup of coffee. The doctor smiled his thank you. “I can’t find any obvious breaks. You can see for yourself that he’s battered and bruised over most of his body. He must have breathed in a great deal of smoke. His lungs are irritated and that’s why he’s coughing up all that dark material. We’ll need to keep an eye on that. My greatest concern is for his back but he’s moving his legs and feet and that’s a very good sign. It’ll take time—a long time.” Paul sipped the dark brew carefully.
“But he’ll be alright—- there won’t be any permanent damage?” Ben asked.
“We’ll know more when he wakes up again and when we can get him to stand.” Paul looked around. “It’s late, and if you don’t mind, I’ll invite myself to stay the rest of the night. That way I’ll be close if he needs me and I can get a little sleep too.”
“Of course, Paul,” Ben said. Before he could ask, Hop Sing left to make sure the upstairs guest room was ready. “I’ll feel much better with you here.”
Joe sat in the rocker across the room from Adam’s bed. He curled his lithe body into a compact ball and laid his head back. He’d volunteered to take the first watch and even his father was too exhausted to argue. He had waited for his brother to wake up but Paul’s medicine allowed Adam to get some much needed rest. So Joe dozed, aware of every sound his brother made.
It was deep into the night when Joe realized that his brother was awake. Adam had woken with a start, his body jerking into awareness. The pain that followed took him by surprise as if he’d forgotten for one brief moment, what had happened. But the pictures in his mind returned and he groaned, not with the pain but with the memory.
Joe jumped from his seat, ignoring the cramps that pulled at his legs. He wet a cloth and wiped the cool water across Adam’s sweaty forehead. His skin was still a rosy red but the color had softened since they had found him. “I know it’s hard for you to drink layin’ belly down like that but doc wants you to get in as much water as you can.”
Adam lifted his head then shut his eyes as the pain lanced through him. Once he had it under control, Joe helped him drink as much as he could take. “Thanks Joe. I’m sorry you had to play watchdog. I’m alright now. Go on to bed.” Adam let his head fall back on the pillow.
“Yeah, well as much as I don’t want to aggravate you, better you than Pa,” Joe responded. “He’d have my head if I left you alone. Besides, he’ll be back in here anytime now. You tired of my company?”
Adam gave a small snort of laughter. “No, never little brother.” He lost his smile and looked at Joe. “Tell me how you found me.”
Joe told him the story from the time that Sport came limping home with old Jed Collins until just before they found the Mason family. Joe paused and looked away. “Don’t you think you should try to sleep now?” he asked.
Adam saw his brother lose his color even in the dim light of the lamps. “It’s ok, Joe; you don’t have to go on.” He reached a hand out into the space between them. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
“It’s not your fault. It was the fire and you were just trying to help them.” Joe took Adam’s hand. “You could have died too.”
As if speaking to himself, Adam said, “But I didn’t and they did. Trying doesn’t seem to have been good enough.” He pulled his hand away. “I think you were right. I’ll try to sleep now.” Before Joe could answer, Adam closed his eyes and turned his face to the wall.
The sun was already up when he awoke again. Adam heard both his father and Dr. Martin speaking to each other in soft tones meant to either keep from disturbing him or to hide something. “Pa?”
Ben walked to his bedside. “Yes, son, Paul and I are here.”
“Adam, your father and I are going to turn you over but let me give you some medicine for the pain first.” The doctor reached for the small brown bottle on the table.
“No,” was his only answer.
“This isn’t going to be pleasant. I want you…” Paul was interrupted by another, more insistent no.
“Adam, please…” Ben started to say.
Adam looked at his father. “Pa, I’d like you to leave please.” There was no heat in his words; only a simple request.
Ben didn’t know how to react. He looked from his son to the doctor.
Paul laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Go ahead Ben. We’ll manage.”
Ben walked from the room and quietly closed the door.
Doctor Martin found nothing that would indicate that Adam wouldn’t make a full recovery, despite the obvious pain. He knew the young man’s mind suffered as much as his body but he felt that too would heal, given time.
The days stretched into weeks, and the pain began to disappear as the swelling and bruising receded. Adam’s activity increased slowly. Now, only those who knew him the best could detect a hint of stiffness in the early mornings or later in the evening, when he was tired.
Ben was grateful for his son’s recovery and thanked his creator daily for sparing him. But Adam himself was quiet and distant. Ben couldn’t remember the last time he had heard his son’s deep, rich laugh and he missed the banter that marked the close relationship among the boys. The Adam they knew wasn’t a part of them anymore and they missed him.
Together and separately, Adam’s brothers had done their best to get him to open up. They knew he felt responsible for the death of the young homesteaders. Nothing they said, nothing their father said made any difference.
Finally, Ben could no longer stand the torment he saw in his son’s eyes and the pain of watching it erupted in frustration. “What is it you’re looking for Adam—redemption?”
“Yes,” Adam shouted back, “redemption, deliverance—something, anything.” His voice faded as he turned away from his father, his body rigid and shaking.
Ben took his son’s arm and turned him around. “But deliverance from what? You didn’t kill those people.”
He watched as his son’s spirit seemed to drift further away. Ben heard a weary voice say, “But they’re still dead aren’t they?”
Ben had no further arguments—no other way to try and convince Adam that he wasn’t responsible for the death of the Mason family. Angry with his own helplessness, Ben spawned an answer he’d come to regret. “Yes, they’re dead and yes, you were there. Do you think of yourself as so God-like that you could have performed some miracle?”
Adam cringed as if he had been slapped. For the first time in his life, he found himself backing away from the man who had always been his mentor and his guide. Without another word, he walked to the credenza and picked up his hat and gun. He opened the door and quietly closed it behind him.
Ben slumped down onto the cold hearthstone. He stared at the closed door. Silently cursing himself and wondering when he’d see his boy again.
Adam came back the next morning. He knew Hoss and Joe would already be out on the range. The less people he had to deal with at this moment, the better. A cold laugh sounded in his head as he said the word coward. He walked through the door and started up the stairs until he heard his father call his name. He paused on the landing then turned to face him.
Ben got up from behind his desk and walked to the bottom of the stairs. “I’m glad you came back, son. I’m sorry for what I said.”
“You don’t need to apologize, Pa. I’m sure this ordeal hasn’t been easy for you.” Shadows surrounded Adam’s eyes and the heavy stubble along with the weight loss, gave him a fragile, haunted look. ‘You’re probably right anyway.”
“Why don’t you get some rest? You look done in.” Ben said. He felt as if he were speaking to a man who might crumble before him if he said the wrong thing.
“No, not right now.” Adam took a deep breathe. “I have some packing to do.”
“Packing—why, where are you going?” Ben felt his heart begin to race.
“Just into the high country for a little while. Hoss and Joe can handle things here.” He saw the concern on his father’s face. “Don’t worry, Pa, I’ll be fine. I’ll use the line shacks along the way.”
Ben wanted to plead — beg if he had to — but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. Adam had thought this through and nothing he could say would make him stay. “Do you know how long you’ll be gone?” A fine tremor shook Ben’s voice.
Adam paused before he responded. “No, no not really.” Seeing his father flinch, he smiled and added, “I’ll be home before the leaves start to fall.” He disappeared up the stairs, leaving his father to watch him go.
The summer had provided a fine balance between rain and sunshine. Meadows were lush and green, sprinkled with wildflowers in a variety of colors. Amazing, Adam thought as he rode toward the foothills, that something as delicate as the flowers not only came back every year but managed to propagate and spread. He smiled. Strength, it would seem, was not always based on size.
Adam was glad that Sport’s injuries were, like his own, painful but nothing fatal. This was the first time they had been out together since they were both brought home. He kept the big chestnut at a flat-footed walk, though, for the first few miles, Sport had fought the bit, tossing his head and trying to side step. Finally, he settled down. Adam leaned over and ran his hand along the shiny neck. “Easy now, old man—we’ll both be tired by tonight.”
They started into the thick pine forests. No more meadows with tall grass waving from a soft, summer breeze. The air was tinged with an arid, acid smell. Sport walked on a dense cover of pine needles as they climbed further into the hills. Adam lost himself in the rocking rhythm of the ride and his thoughts drifted back to the fire. He prided himself on being a rational, logical man. He had mulled the events over and over again but found no alternative to what he had done. Maybe his father was right—maybe he thought of himself as able to unravel any problem, solve any crisis. But not this time—he didn’t have the power to stop what happened this time.
“We been talkin’, Pa, and well, me and Joe want to go after him.” Both brothers stood in front of their father’s desk feeling more like schoolboys than grown men.
“Yeah Pa, it’s been well over a month now and we think that’s more then enough time for him to be alone,” Joe said.
“You two know you might not get a hardy welcome, or perhaps no welcome at all,” Ben cautioned. “Your brother was pretty specific about needing some time to work things out on his own.” Neither son had answered. “I understand. I’ve wanted to do the same thing. I keep wondering how he is. We all know he hasn’t been the same person since the fire.” Ben’s voice trailed off. “I can’t help but worry.”
“More reason for us to go,” Hoss answered. “Joe’s right. He’s been alone long enough.”
Ben smiled at them both and said, “Make sure you pack enough supplies. You may be gone for some time.”
“How far back into these hills did he go? Joe grumbled. “We already stayed at the second line shack.”
“Just be patient, little brother. There ain’t but two more up here and he told Pa he’d be stayin’ in one of them.” Hoss remounted after he tightened his cinch. “We’ll hit the third one late this afternoon, that is if you’re done jawin’ so we can git goin’.” He urged Chubb forward. Hoss heard some mumbling from behind him and decided it was better he couldn’t quite make it out.
“It’s just over that next ridge; I remember when Adam and me came up here huntin’ a couple of years ago,” Hoss said. “Let’s get movin’. I could use some food.”
“Big surprise,” Joe answered back.
When they reached the little cabin, it was obvious that Adam was staying there. Sport was in the corral, dozing with one hind foot cocked off the ground. As soon as he saw his stablemates, he sounded a greeting. “That oughta let him know someone’s here,” Hoss said as he dismounted.
They took a look around but didn’t see Adam anywhere. “He’s bound to come back. Let’s take care of the horses,” Joe answered. They untacked the animals and unloaded the pack horse. Adam had worked to enlarge the corral into a small pasture so all the horses were comfortable. Taking everything inside, Hoss and Joe went about fixing something to eat.
“Wish we had more then the same old beans and bacon.” Hoss was never happy with trail food. “There any of that bread left Hop Sing packed?”
“Nah, you already ate the whole loaf.” Joe looked around the cabin. He spied some braided reins that were half finished and several books lay near the single bed. “Didn’t bring much, did he?”
Just then the door opened. “Well, I didn’t figure on company or I would have brought the checker board.” Adam’s shirtless frame filled the doorway. His black hair hung down the back of his neck in unruly curls and he had not shaved since the day he left the house. The full, dark beard and shaggy hair gave him the look of some hermit gone mad. “Did you two get lost?”
Joe grabbed at his chest. “You could give a man a heart attack comin’ in here like that,” he stammered.
Hoss laughed at Joe. “Yeah, not to mention the way you look. You decide to stop bein’ part of the human race?”
Adam walked in and closed the door behind him. “If I’d only known you were coming—I’d have done nothing differently.” The haughty tone and arched eyebrow that had been missing were back.
“Now don’t go getting’ all head up. We was concerned, is all.” Hoss moved away from the beans.
Joe stood his ground. “We thought you’d been alone long enough.” He waited. Everyone said he was the volatile one, but no one was worse then Adam when he lost his temper.
Adam slowly turned his head and looked at one brother then the other. He fixed them with a cold stare. Neither of the younger men could read his face. “So,” he said to Hoss, “you were concerned about me, and you,” he turned to Joe, “you thought I’d been alone long enough.” They waited for the eruption.
A big, lop-sided grin covered Adam’s face as he said, “And you were both right!” Joe and Hoss blow out the held breathe.
“We were?” Joe said, seemingly confused for a moment. “I mean, yes, we were.”
The smile faded. “I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how much I try to analyze what I did or what I should have done, it won’t change the outcome and there’s nothing I can do about that.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Adam,” Joe chimed in. “You were always one to over-think a problem.” Hoss heard Joe’s pronouncement and shook his head.
“And you, little brother, were always one to never think anything through,” Adam shot back.
The oldest and the youngest stared across the room at each other, trying to decide whether or not to be mad when Hoss spoke up. “You got any food up here?”
Adam and Joe dissolved into laughter. “I just caught a beautiful trout for my supper but it looks like, since I have company, I’ll have to go get a couple more.”
“You just lead the way brother, then stand back. Them fish don’t stand a chance,” Hoss started for the door.
With the horses fed for the night and the Cartwright brothers full of fresh trout, Hoss and Joe started to doze on their bedrolls in front of the low fire.
Adam was reading but his mind wasn’t on the text and he found himself re-reading the same passage over and over. He laid the book on his chest and looked over at his sleeping brothers. How fortunate he was to have them! He got up as quietly as he could and walked out into a starlit night. He sat on a bench he had built since he had arrived and looked into the vastness of the velvet sky. It wasn’t long before he heard the squeak of the door as it opened.
“You keepin’ this beautiful night all to yourself?” Hoss asked.
”Nope, not mine to keep,” Adam replied. He moved over to let his brother sit down.
There was a comfortable silence between the two men until Hoss spoke up. “You mean what you said, about not blaming yerself no more?”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t blaming myself; I just said there was nothing I could do about it. There’s a difference,” Adam replied. His voice was quiet.
“Yup, there is. The problem is you got no trust in anything,” Hoss said.
Adam was about to reply but Hoss went on.
“We don’t know the answer to why the Masons died and you lived but I believe it happened for a reason—something you got ta do or be maybe…” Hoss hesitated, then went on. “Some plan that’s bigger then you but you got to trust that it happened for a purpose.” Hoss stopped and gave his brother a shy smile.
“You’re talking about faith,” Adam answered.
“Yeah, I guess I am. Maybe it’s just easier for me to believe then to think things out like you do.” Hoss shifted on the bench.
“I wish I had your faith or belief or whatever you want to call it,” Adam replied.
“You can, brother; you just gotta let yerself trust that there’s more out there then your logical mind can understand.” Hoss gently slapped Adam’s back.
Adam smiled and said, “I’ll try. I promise I’ll try.”
Hoss yawned. “Let’s get some sleep. It’s a long ride home and I can’t wait to see Pa’s face when he gets a look at you.”
The Cartwright brother’s didn’t hurry home. The early fall weather enticed a man to enjoy all the wonders that nature had to offer and they enjoyed each other’s company. Adam had almost forgotten how much.
They came to the same ridge where Adam had first seen the smoke from the Pine Meadow fire. His brothers sat on either side of him. “Where did you bury them?” he asked, his eyes staring in the same direction as that day.
“We buried ‘em together on the cliff overlookin’ the river,” Hoss said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Adam saw Joe blanch. He reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m going down there. You two go on home. I won’t be long.”
“That’s ok, older brother, we’ll just go along to keep you company.” Hoss’ voice was kind but Adam could tell he wasn’t looking for an argument.
As the horses stepped onto the floor of the ravaged forest, Adam noticed tiny dark green ferns growing up next to the charred and twisted remains of the once towering trees. Little mushrooms peaked out from under a layer of blackened pine needles.
Riding out into the meadow, they were met with a fine covering of new grass. Adam spied a hint of color among the sea of green. The little wildflowers had survived. The three men moved on.