Unseen Link (by EPM)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7900


“Did you say something, Adam?” Ben Cartwright looked at his eldest son as they rode along a ridge overlooking the vast expanse of blue water. It was a brilliantly clear late summer’s day and father and son were enjoying a leisurely pace toward home.

“I did but you were somewhere else,” Adam replied. “Want to tell me?” Both men pulled up.

A wide smile covered Ben’s face. “Oh, I was just thinking of a time not so long ago when you and I sat right about here, staring off into the distance and questioning whether or not I’d ever make it to heaven.” As if mimicking that time, Ben’s eyes were pulled to the beauty of the lake before him.

“Seems to me the question had more to do with comparing the Ponderosa with heaven than whether or not you’d be admitted.” Adam’s smile was as warm and wide as his father’s.

“Yes, I guess you’re right son.” Ben was silent for a moment than continued. “I still say heaven will have to go some to beat this.”

“Well I have a feeling, Pa, that should you make it to heaven, you’re gonna be too busy saying hello to three wives to worry about the scenery.” Adam couldn’t hide the mischief in his eyes or the slight smile that kept sneaking onto his face.

“That’s enough out of you, boy,” Ben said in mock anger as he reached over and placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “I suppose we’d better keep going. I have no doubt that Hoss and Joe did fine in our absence but I’m always relieved when I ride into the yard and see the house still standing.” They both laughed.

Ben Cartwright had enjoyed this trip with his oldest son. Sometime during the year, he tried to find individual time with each of his boys. These trips let them get away from the demanding routine of their daily lives and allowed time to explore new ideas and discuss any problems. Ben never knew what would grow out of these conversations but the twists and turns only brought father and sons closer together. This son, he had to admit, was easy to talk with and their conversations took on topics far and wide but he gracefully sidestepped anything that came too close to his heart. Ben knew Adam needed control and exposing any feelings he kept hidden would shake that control. He had learned long ago to gave this son time and space and maybe, just maybe, he’d allow that control to slip, just a little.

The Cartwright men had won an exceptionally successful timber bid and the contractor’s sizable down payment was tucked safely in Ben’s saddlebags. Both men were happy with the results and knew the positive impact it would have on the ranch. Ben was feeling content with the life he and his sons were carving out of the Nevada wilderness.

His reverie was shattered by the sound of horses being ridden hard. Both turned to see a group of five or six riders coming toward them. Before they could react, a bullet hit the ground between them. “Head for those rocks, son,” Ben yelled.

Both horses leapt forward toward the natural barrier of granite that loomed not far away. The steady gunfire kept up. Adam bent low over his saddle, hoping to make himself a smaller target. They were only a short distance from the shelter of the rocks when he heard his father gasp with pain. Out ahead, Adam twisted in his saddle to see him. Ben was leaning on Buck’s neck and Adam knew he had been hit.

Adam pulled Sport up short and jumped from his back. He ran to Buck’s side. “Pa— Pa, let me help you down.”

Ben raised his head. Pain creased his brow and tightened the muscles around his mouth. He started to dismount but his legs gave way. He fell into his son’s waiting arms. Adam was able to half carry, half drag his father to safety. The gunfire had ceased for the moment, long enough for Adam to see blood welling from the hole in his father’s thigh. He quickly untied his neckerchief and retied it around Ben’s leg. “You hit anywhere else?” he asked.

“No–nowhere else, son,” Ben answered between gritted teeth.  He put a hand over the wound as if he were trying to hide it. “Did you recognize any of them?”

Adam had moved to the edge of their hiding place. “No. I have no idea who they are but I know they’re still out there.” Carefully, he inched his way further toward the clearing. A shot rang out and he jumped back.

Ben gave his son a worried look but Adam gave him a quick smile and nodded. “I’m ok, Pa, but I was right. Whoever they are, they aren’t going away.”

Ben closed his eyes against his pain…a gesture not lost on his son. Adam crawled to his father’s side once more. He saw the blood begin to seep through the flimsy dressing. “Hang on, Pa; I’ll get you home, one way or another,” he promised.

Ben opened his eyes and smiled at Adam’s words.

“I’ve never doubted you, son, and I’m not about to start now,” Ben answered.

“Cartwright—Ben Cartwright! We know you’re in there.” The disembodied voice came from the clearing. “Throw out the money and you and your kid can go.” Silence followed.  “We can wait you out, Cartwright. The money worth dying for?”

“Adam, maybe we should just give it to them. I won’t see you hurt for the sake of a few dollars.” Unconsciously, Ben rocked his body back and forth, trying to ease the pain.

“Whoever it is, Pa, they aren’t going to let us ride away. We’ll both be dead before they leave.” Adam turned from his father, his thoughts concentrating on how to get them out of there in one piece. He knew his father was losing blood too rapidly for him to take any more time. He had to act now. “Pa, listen to me. If I get you mounted on Buck, do you think you can make it home? The house isn’t too far now.”

Ben lifted his head and looked at Adam. “I can make it but what are you going to do?” Ben knew his son had something planned and his father’s instinct told him he wouldn’t like it.

“I’m going to lead them away and we don’t have time to argue. If you lose any more blood, you’ll never make it home.” Adam sounded exactly like his father would have if their roles had been reversed. “I’ll get you up than I’ll head out toward those low foothills at the back of the ranch. It wouldn’t be hard losing them in the middle of those thick stands of trees and rocks. You ready?”

“No, Adam. Listen to me son. It’s too dangerous.”

Adam helped his father stand and start toward Buck, even as Ben protested.

Ben turned, leaning his back against his horse. He reached out and grasped his son’s shoulders. “Adam, please don’t go. We’ll make a break for the ranch together.” Ben tried to put some steel into his voice but to no avail. His wound and the anxiety he felt for his son were taking their toll.

Adam looked into his father’s eyes and carefully removed Ben’s hands. He quietly said, “You know better, Pa. You’d never make it.”

Ben dropped his head. He knew his son was right.

“Wait some before you start, Pa. They might leave somebody behind.”

Without waiting for an answer, Adam turned his father to face Buck and helped him up. He handed Ben his reins, went to retrieve Sport and mounted. They looked at each other. A current ran between father and son and both took a moment to embrace it.

“Be careful, son. I —” Ben stopped, his voice a choked whisper.

Adam turned his face away, hesitated than turned back. “Yeah, me too, Pa.” A crooked little smile crossed his face. “Keep the home fires burning.” With that, he turned Sport toward the opening and put his horse into a gallop.

Reaching the clearing, Adam pulled Sport to an abrupt halt and looked around. Immediately shots rang out and he shouted for Sport to run. Again, he bent as flat as possible over his mount’s neck. For once, being a man of length and breadth became a disadvantage.

Ben moved Buck to the edge of their hiding place. He watched as Adam deliberately bated their unknown assailants. As five men pursued his son, he felt his heart twist in fear. His eyes widened and he heard himself murmur a strangled cry of “no” as his son’s body bucked than slumped forward. Sport continued to run flat out.

Just than, Ben heard footsteps grinding stones into the dust. He drew his gun and waited. His horse stood perfectly still. He caught a flash of color as a man clad in a red shirt carefully moved forward. Ben tightened his legs and Buck walked into the clearing. “Hold it right there,” he said. His voice and manner were deadly calm. The man’s last mistake was raising his gun to kill Ben Cartwright. One shot pierced the gunman’s chest and he died before he had a chance to be afraid.

Ben looked down at the man and felt no remorse. Raising his head, Ben gazed into the distance where he had last seen his boy. A thick cloud of dust still hung in the air. He was beginning to feel dizzy and he knew the only way to help Adam now was by going home and getting help.

Buck moved off toward the Ponderosa. Ben held tight to the horn of his saddle with his left hand while his right pressed the wound in his leg. He hoped the pressure would slow the bleeding. His mind was filled with thoughts and pictures of his oldest son. Oh Adam, he thought, wasn’t there another way?

The wind started to pick up and leaves were blown so that their backs faced

outward. Gathering clouds dulled the sun that had been so bright just a short time before. In the distance, jagged streaks of light appeared in the sky. Ben kept pulling himself away from his own encroaching darkness. Dizzy and weak from the pain and blood loss, he kept repeating to himself, “need to get home— Adam.”

By the time Buck stopped in front of the barn, the rain had arrived. Ben slipped from his saddle and landed next to his horse. He lay on his back; eyes open, staring into the stormy sky.  The rain mixed with the blood from his wound and formed a crimson path to the ground. He didn’t have the strength to call out or move. Only a softly mumbled chant could be heard, “need to get home—Adam.”

*****

“Joe, did you hear something?” Hoss said as he moved toward the front door. “I swear I heard a horse neighing.”

“I didn’t hear anything. You worried ’cause Pa and Adam aren’t back yet?” Joe asked.

“Yeah, I guess I am a might on edge but I suppose this rain slowed ’em down some.” Hoss turned back toward his brother. “Just can’t seem to settle down.”

This time when Buck called out, both brothers heard. They opened the door and stood on the porch, squinting into the rainy dusk. The dark shadow of a horse stood outside the barn doors with somebody on the ground next to it. They ran into the approaching night, their worst fears coming true.

Hoss took his father into his arms while Joe searched his body for injuries. He recognized Adam’s neckerchief, now soaked with Ben’s blood.

Hoss gently wiped the rain form his father’s face as Ben kept repeating the same phrase,” need to get home—Adam.”

“Anything other than his leg, Joe?” Hoss asked.

Joe shook his head. “Not that I can see.”

With that, Hoss lifted his father and, with Joe’s help, they carried him into the house and up the stairs to his room. Joe yelled for Hop Sing’s help on their way through the great room.

While the boys removed Ben’s wet clothes, Hop Sing examined the wound. “Boys send someone for doctor. Bullet still in leg—very deep. Hop Sing get hot water and bandages.” The Cartwright’s housekeeper, cook and friend disappeared down the stairs while Joe went to send one of the hands into town.

Hoss pulled the warm quilt up over his shivering father and sat on the bed next to him. Ben opened his eyes and looked around the room. Frantic to see his oldest son, he started to get up. “Easy, Pa—you been shot. The doctor’s comin’. You got to stay down.”

Ben’s eyes showed confusion and fear. He pushed against Hoss’ grip. His words were mumbled but Hoss could make out most of them. “Adam—don’t leave Adam. Stay here, boy. Stay with me.”

“Adam ain’t here, Pa. Where is he–where did he go?” Hoss knew his father was delirious but he had to ask. He had to ask what happened to his missing brother. Ben looked at him than closed his eyes.

Hop Sing and Joe returned at the same time. The diminutive housekeeper immediately removed the makeshift dressing and started to clean the wound. Ben didn’t move.

“Did he say anything, Hoss?” Joe asked. He had sat on the opposite side of the bed from his brother.

“Not really, Joe. His eyes were open but it was like he wasn’t really here. He kept lookin’ around the room, like he was trying to find something. Then he said, ‘Adam—don’t leave Adam. Stay here with me.’ Or something close to that. It was hard to make out”

“We both know Adam would never leave Pa especially with him hurt. That was his neckerchief around Pa’s leg. So we know they were together.” Joe wiped the sweat from his father’s forehead. “We’ll just have to wait until he can tell us.”

Hop Sing finished cleaning Ben’s wound and wrapped it in a clean bandage. He lifted the leg and put it on a pillow. “Hop Sing go make coffee for boys. You stay here with fatha.” He picked up the basin of red-tinged water and Adam’s neckerchief and left the room.

“Wait, Joe? No, I ain’t about to wait.” Hoss got up and started to pace in front of the window. His words mirrored his frustration and anger. “Adam’s out there somewhere and he may be hurt. I’m going ta find my brother.”

Joe got up and stood in front of Hoss. “Our brother—he’s our brother,” Joe said in exaggerated tones. “And I want to find him too, but just where do you intend to start looking? We have no idea which way they came.” Joe took a deep breath and lowered his voice. It crossed Joe’s mind that it was usually him who reacted with anger, not Hoss. “We’ll find him but we’ve got to wait until Pa can tell us what happened and where to look.” Joe reached out and pulled on his brother’s arm. “Come on—sit with me.” They both sat next to their father’s bedside and waited for Doctor Martin.

*****

Funny, he thought, there really isn’t that much pain. Slumped over the neck of his horse, Adam Cartwright was still riding hard. He knew he had been hit. It felt as if a fist had been driven hard into the right side of his back.  Guiding Sport with his legs and voice, he reached back with his right hand. Splaying the back of his hand across the numbed area, he felt the warmth and wetness that confirmed what he already knew. He was beginning to get tired and he felt himself losing his concentration. Think; think, damn it, he said to himself.  They aren’t far behind. You gonna give up Cartwright or are you going to fight back?

Shaking his head to keep the swirling mist away, Adam looked ahead. There, almost hidden, was a narrow path that led up to a high point surrounded by boulders. Adam knew he’d never be able to make the ride to the ranch but at least this vantage point gave him a chance to defend himself. If he was going down, he was going down hard—and not alone. He urged a quickly tiring horse upward through the ledges of loose shale. “You’ll be able to rest soon, Sport. Just a little more.”

They came to a small clearing and Adam brought his horse to a halt. Looking down, he could see the entrance to the path he had just come through. Coming up on either side would be impossible. The cliffs were straight up and besides he’d be able to see any movement below.  That left the rear. Scattered boulders guarded his back but he had no idea if his craggy fortress was vulnerable from that direction.  What difference does it make, he thought. A half smile crossed his lips. Can’t go any further. Neither can Sport. Pa must have gotten home by now. They’ll be looking for me soon.

Pa—he finally had a moment to think about his father. Please be ok, Pa. I didn’t want to leave you. I didn’t know what else to do. Disturbing images of his father lying on the ground within sight of the house and nobody knowing he was there flashed into his mind. Pain erased the vision.

The numbness in his back was beginning to recede but pain took its place. Once more Adam reached back, drawing away a scarlet covered hand. He looked over at Sport who stood with his head down and his sides heaving. Making his way to his horse’s side, Adam murmured softly, “I’m sorry, old boy.” He rubbed the lathered shoulder as he carefully reached for his saddlebags and coat. Their weight made him groan and drop the bags to the ground. He leaned his head against the seat of his saddle. Taking deep breaths, he fought to control his pain and fear.

Steadier now, Adam returned to his stone seat over looking the path below. He pulled out an extra shirt, and twisting it into a bandage, he placed it over the ragged hole in his back and tied it in front. An involuntary gasp for breath told him his control over the pain was fleeting. He pulled out his handgun and placed it next to his rifle. All the ammunition he had was there beside his weapons. The sound of riders made him look up. He could only hope they had lost his trail and would circle away from him.

Darkness was falling quickly. Adam’s pursuers began to spread out and search the rocky ground. He slumped down so that only his disheveled black hair and eyes could be seen above the rocks. Rifle in hand, he waited. Finally, the riders seemed to give up for the night and they began to make camp.

Adam dropped his chin onto his chest and closed his eyes. He was so tired. The ache in his back was deep and molten hot. He knew he would never be able to stay alert all night. He pulled on his coat and turned the collar up against the rain.  All he could hope for was that the darkness would hide him from the human predators below. And that his brothers would find him in the morning. “Oh Pa, I hope you made it. I didn’t know what else to do—-,” he whispered to himself and he began to drift off.

“Adam, Adam—-where are you?”

The young boy heard his father calling and answered, “Here, Pa; I’m here.” Adam Cartwright was squatting on the edge of a pond, studying a group of polliwogs. He was surprised and a little frightened when he found himself being lifted off his feet and into his father’s arms. He stared, wide-eyed, into the face of his very angry father.

“Boy, how many times do I have to tell you to stay close to the wagon?” Ben gave his little son a gentle shake to emphasize his words.

“But Pa, I didn’t go very far and I found some baby frogs. Wanna see?” He saw his father’s anger but didn’t recognize his fear.

The innocence of his young son made Ben’s heart melt. “Oh Adam, don’t you know you could be hurt when I’m not there to protect you?” The tears shown in Ben’s eyes and his voice shook with the terror only a parent knows at the thought of losing a child. “I couldn’t bear to lose you, son. Please don’t leave me again.”

Adam reached up to wipe away his father’s tears. “I promise, Papa, I won’t ever leave you again.”

 Adam roused from his light sleep. He felt the tears tracking down his face as he remembered his dream. “Please, Pa,” he said, desperation entering his voice, “please come and get me.” He dropped his head once more.

*****

The rain had ceased just as the sun was trying to punch a hole through the thick gray clouds that lingered. The Cartwright brothers had spent the night taking turns pacing or sleeping in small fitful naps. Ben alternated between unconscious than roused to a state of delirium. His mumbled words were always the same. “Adam, don’t go, Adam. Stay here with me.”

Just than, the door to Ben’s room opened and Doctor Martin made his way into the bedside. “Boys” was his only greeting. Neither of them had heard the doctor arrive. Paul took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves. Hoss and Joe told the physician what little they knew. “He keeps talking about Adam,” Hoss added.

The doctor had been so intent on his patient that he had failed to notice the missing Cartwright son. “They were together?” he asked.

“Seems that way. They was suppose to be coming home from bidding on a timber contract. We expected them both last night,” Hoss continued. “When we found Pa, Adam’s neckerchief was tied around his leg.” Hoss shuddered as he remembered the blood soaked cloth.

“Roy came out with me. Why don’t you two go downstairs and tell him what you know. Hop Sing can help me.” Paul Martin turned his back to them, ending the conversation. Hoss and Joe did as they were asked and went to join Roy in the great room.

Ben opened his eyes and looked from the doctor to Hop Sing. “Paul?”

“Yes Ben, I’m here. We’re going to get you fixed up now. Just rest easy.” Paul Martin retrieved everything he needed from his bag as he spoke to the eldest Cartwright.

“Adam—-did Adam come home?” Ben asked. Ben’s breathing was shallow and his words were forced, but there was no mistaking the apprehension in his voice.

The doctor hesitated. It was Hop Sing who spoke to his employer and friend. “Mista Adam no come home yet. You let Doctor Paul help you and than you tell other sons what happened. They go find oldest boy.”

“I have to go to him.” Ben’s voice rose in panic. “He’s asking me to come and get him.” He was struggling now to get up.

The doctor quickly administered the anesthetic before Ben could protest. An hour later, Paul Martin threw the bloody instruments onto a pan than washed his hands. He looked over at his pale but quietly sleeping patient. The bullet had been deep and it took him some time and manipulation before he located it.

Hoss and Joe were both sitting on the cold hearth of the fireplace when Doctor Martin descended the stairs. They rose in unison. Roy was just coming back from the kitchen with a steaming cup of coffee and walked over to join the threesome.

“The bullet was well in and it took me awhile to find it but it’s out and your father is resting quietly. I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts running a fever. Between the blood loss and probable infection, it seems a good possibility.” Doctor Martin watched as Hoss and Joe exchanged a worried glance. “You should know that before I put your father out for the surgery, he was lucid. He recognized both Hop Sing and me.” The doctor hesitated. “He wanted to know if Adam was home yet. We thought it best that he know the truth.”

Roy spoke up. “Got any idea how long he’ll be out, Doc?”

“I expect him to come around any time. Hop Sing will call us,” the doctor replied.

As if he had heard Paul Martin’s words, Hop Sing appeared at the top of the stairs. “Mista Cartwright waking up now. You come.”

All four men hurried up the stairs. Hoss and Joe sat on opposite sides of their father’s bed. They waited impatiently for him to open his eyes. When he did, he turned his head and looked at one son than the other. “Boys,” he whispered. “Go find him. Go find your brother.” Ben closed his eyes and sighed.

“Where Pa? Tell us where to start,” Hoss urged his father.

Ben fought the pain and the sweet call of oblivion. “Foothills to the south of the house. Not alone—men following him.” He closed his eyes once more.

Hoss and Joe rose from the bed. Each reached out to touch Ben, trying to reassure themselves as well as their father. Paul Martin felt the steady beat of Ben’s heart through his patient’s wrist.

As the brother’s started to leave the room, Ben roused once more. His eyes were bright with a rising fever. “They hurt my boy. For a few dollars, they shot my son.”  He began to toss his head, a soft moan the only indication of his pain. “Adam—Adam—wasn’t there another way?”

Hoss clenched his teeth and closed his massive fists. He was frightened for his older brother and angry at whoever had done this to his family. The worry showed in Joe’s green eyes as he went to Hoss’ side. “Come on. We need to do what Pa asked. Adam’s out there somewhere and he needs us.”

Doctor Martin reached into his bag. “I’m going to give your father something for the pain and I hope it will sedate him for several hours. Go do what you have to. I’ll stay here with him.” Hoss and Joe gave him a grateful smile.

Roy followed the two Cartwright brothers down the stairs. “It’ll take me awhile to put a posse together. We can meet you back here in about two hours.” He went to the sideboard and put on his hat.

“Roy, we thank you for helpin’ but Joe and I are goin’ now—not two hours from now.” Hoss waited for what he knew would be an unhappy response from the Sheriff.

“Hoss, Joe—I can’t stop you from searchin’ for your brother on your own ranch but I can tell you that if you find something, I need to know.” Roy Coffee’s voice was firm.

“You have our promise, Roy, but no matter what or who, Adam comes first,” Hoss said, his voice equally strong.  Roy nodded and left.

“You ready Joe?” Hoss asked.

Joe nodded. “Let’s go”.

*****

Ben opened his eyes; indistinct shadows slowly began to focus. “Paul,” he called.

“Yes Ben, I’m here,” Doctor Martin answered softly. He watched as his friend put the pieces of what had happened to him together.

“I saw him, Paul.” Ben’s eyes were reddened and reflected his fever, but his gaze was steady.

The doctor moved closer, finally sitting on the edge of the bed. “Who Ben? Who did you see?”

“Adam—I saw Adam. He asked me to come and get him.” Ben struggled to rise. “He’s hurt, Paul. I need to go to him.” A restraining hand gently pushed him back down.

“Ben, I’m not going to argue with you. You physically cannot go anywhere. You wouldn’t get to your own front door.” His patient sank back into the pillows. Doctor Martin’s tone softened. “Ben, you have a fever. No telling what kind of dreams fevers bring.”

Ben turned his head toward the window and looked out toward the hills that bordered the southern part of the Ponderosa. “No, Paul. I know—-I know my son is hurt and alone and he needs me.” Ben continued to stare out the window.

*****

The Cartwright brothers wasted no time. They decided to start from the place their father and brother had been ambushed. At least Ben had been able to tell them that much and the direction Adam had headed. They had no trouble locating the men’s hiding place. The gunman that Ben shot lay where he had fallen. Under other circumstances, Hoss and Joe would have either taken the man into town or buried him where he lay. But not today. They refused to spend time on a dead man when a live one needed them. They followed the tracks of several riders, made faint by the rain.

*****

Adam’s pursuers had broken camp early. He watched from above as they searched for any sign of the Cartwright son. He knew that even if he gave them the money, he wouldn’t last any longer than it would take to raise a gun and fire. No, he had no choice. He would stay hidden as long as possible and fight when he had to. His strength was all but gone but he refused to give in. He smiled and laughed to himself. Ah yes, the legendary Cartwright stubbornness! Thanks Pa.

Adam staggered to where Sport stood. Somehow, during the night, he had been able to take the saddle off his tired mount. He slipped Sport’s bridle off.  Pouring half of his water from the canteen into his hat, Adam offered it to the thirsty horse. In calm, soothing tones he said, “I know it’s not enough, old man, but it’ll have to do for the moment. Hoss and Joe will find us soon.” He was thankful that there seemed to be no permanent damage to his beloved chestnut.

Once more, he returned to his lookout and sat down. The pain in his back caused him to swallow a scream. He lay his cheek against the cool rocks. “Oh God, please come soon.” he whispered his appeal and closed his eyes.

Adam didn’t see the man climbing closer to the path and his hiding place. His eyes were still closed, his breaths coming in a short, uneven pattern. Sport heard the sound of boots scraping on rock and picked up his head. He gave a soft wicker.

Though Adam’s mind was clouded with pain and fatigue, he heard his horse call out. Carefully, he looked over the stone barrier and saw a man approaching from below.  Flattening himself back against the rocks, he waited.

“Johnson—Johnson, get down here,” echoed a harsh, exaggerated whisper. “Someone’s comin’.” With narrowed eyes, the man took one more look up the rocky path than turned and joined the others.

Slowly, carefully, Adam pushed himself into a position where he could see the movement below him. The five men were looking off into the distance at two riders coming in from the north. Just as he looked down on them, they had the advantage of looking down at the approaching horsemen.

Adam rubbed his eyes hard and squinted into the morning light. He watched as the five men pulled their rifles and positioned themselves to attack. No, he screamed inside his head. With a bolt of recognition, he knew it was Hoss and Joe who were riding to their death. Momentarily struggling with what to do, he pulled himself up so that he was standing in the open. He raised his rifle into the air and fired three shots.

The unsuspecting brothers pulled up sharply and dismounted, taking cover behind a rocky outcropping. A hale of gunfire struck the ground and rocks surrounding them. They were trapped. Pinned down by gunmen who had the advantage of position and strength. Hoss felt Joe tense next to him. “Joe, don’t go getting’ any ideas. You try to move out from behind these rocks and you’ll be cut to ribbons.” Hoss held his brother’s arm as he spoke to him.

“Hoss, that had to be Adam. Who else would fire off three shots like that! We’ve got to get to him,” Joe said, angry at being held back.

“Yeah Joe, we do. But we ain’t gonna do Adam no good if we get ourselves killed.” He released Joe’s arm. “Hang on Joe, we’ll get to him.”

Adam fired in rapid succession, bringing down two of the gang. The three remaining men turned and opened fire. That gave Hoss and Joe a chance to reposition themselves and return fire. Before they could destroy what was left of the outlaw band, they watched as their oldest brother tumbled forward over the granite face of the bluff and land among the unforgiving boulders.

*****

Adam——-!” Ben Cartwright struggled up from the darkness as his son’s name was torn from him. Shaking from the cold sweat that covered him, Ben cried out, “oh Adam, forgive me. I couldn’t get to you. I couldn’t bring you home.” He dropped his head into his hands. “Oh God, I wasn’t there to protect my boy.”

*****

Joe stood rooted to the ground in silent disbelief. He had watched his brother fall but somehow it didn’t seem real. He kept staring at the unmoving body, waiting for it to disappear and for this waking nightmare to end.

But Hoss held no such illusions. He ran to Adam and knelt at his side. A deep furrow ran from the top of Adam’s eyebrow to his left ear, releasing a sheet of blood down the side of his face. Hoss gently stroked the liquid away from his brother’s closed eye.

Adam lay face down with the right side of his head resting against the base of a huge boulder. His right shoulder was tucked under his body along with his arm. Hoss put his fingers to Adam’s throat and waited. He was met with a rapid, weak pulse and he silently thanked God that his brother was still alive.

Joe swallowed hard and shook his head. He couldn’t make the vision go away. He slowly walked forward, unaware of the tears that slide down his dusty face. He knelt beside his siblings and asked, “Hoss, is he—?”

“He’s alive, Joe, but we got to get help. Go get a wagon and pray the doc is still there.” Hoss stood up and faced his little brother. “And Joe, you’d better prepare Pa before we bring him home.”

Joe nodded in agreement and ran to his horse. He wheeled and headed for home and help. He asked his horse for everything she had and she responded. Not far from the Ponderosa, he met the posse. He stopped long enough to explain what had happened and told them where they could find the two oldest Cartwright brothers. He continued toward the help he hoped would save his brother’s life.

*****

It had taken the doctor, Hoss and several of the posse members to carefully lift Adam Cartwright into the wagon than into the house. All the while, he remained a silent, unobserving participant. Joe had stayed at the ranch with his father, carefully trying to explain what happened. Ben’s sad, glazed eyes looked at his youngest and he said, “I knew he was hurt. He asked me to come and get him.” Joe looked back with a question on his lips but decided now was not the time.

Ben had insisted that Joe and Hop Sing help him into Adam’s room. No matter what Joe had told him, nothing could have prepared him for the sight of his grievously injured son. Ben took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. His chair was close enough to the bed that he could touch the long fingers of his son’s left hand. Doctor Martin, Hoss, Joe and Hop Sing worked together to remove Adam’s clothes and carefully turn him face down. Ben alternated between praying and speaking words of encouragement to the still form of his son.

*****

The two younger boys waited in the great room…an all too familiar repeat of the night their father came home. Very little was said as time passed in unhurried measures. The men took periodic naps only to be momentarily interrupted by Hop Sing coming and going for needed supplies. Day dragged into evening and the hush of darkness descended over the ranch.

The sound of footsteps on the porch brought them both to their feet. After lightly knocking, Roy Coffee entered the house. “Hello boys, how’s Adam doin’?” he asked.

“We don’t know anything yet, Roy.” Hoss started to pace by the bottom of the stairs. “I wish somebody’d tell us something—anything.” His voice rose in uncharacteristic hostility. “I ain’t gonna wait much longer.”

Joe was unprepared for his brother’s reaction. It was so rare that Hoss became angry. He thought it best to leave him alone and let him vent all the fury that had built up inside of him. As close as he and Hoss were, he knew the bond between Adam and Hoss was just as strong. Joe turned his attention to Roy. “Did you find out anything about the men who attacked us?” he asked.

“Yeah, Joe I did. They was the Walters’ gang. Seems they must have either heard what your father and Adam were carrying or they was tipped off.” He twisted hat in his hands. “Guess we’ll never know.”

“And I guess it don’t make no difference to Adam,” Hoss responded, his voice raw with emotion. “He won’t be any less hurt.” He started up the stairs. “I’m glad the bastards are dead!” He disappeared into the hallway.

Joe let out a breath. “Roy, it’s been a long day and it’s gonna be a longer night. How about some coffee?”

“Thanks, Joe, but I’d better see to things in town,” Roy said. “Just wanted to let ya know who they was.” He glanced up the stairs. “I sure hope Adam is ok.” He put on his hat and opened the door. “Good night, Joe. Give my best to your father and tell him I’m prayin’ for Adam.”

Joe bid the sheriff goodnight and followed his brother upstairs. He saw Hoss leaning on the wall outside of Adam’s door. His eyes were closed and his head hung down. The anger that was present just a few short minutes ago seemed to have dissipated and in its place stood sorrow and helplessness.

Joe walked to Hoss’ side. He knew no words that would help Hoss or himself at that moment. So he kept a silent vigil next to him.

They were both caught off guard when the door finally opened. A haggard Paul Martin stepped into the hall. “Come on, boys,” he said walking toward the stairs. “I need to sit down.”

The trio walked to the dining table. Joe went into the kitchen and retrieved the coffeepot and cups. “The bullet in Adam’s back must have been close to spent when it hit him. The damage is minimal but because it was so long before he was treated, he lost a great deal of blood.” The doctor sipped his coffee, putting off the rest of what he had to tell the brothers. “It was the fall that caused the greatest harm. His right collarbone and upper arm are broken as well as several ribs on that side. A bullet must have caused that furrow on the left side of his head. It’s not deep but any head injury is tricky.” Paul stopped, using the coffee as an excuse to gather his thoughts. “He has a pronounced swelling at the base of his skull on the right side. I’m sure it was from the impact. I don’t really know how much damage that’s caused. We’ll just have to wait and see.” He stopped speaking and looked at both the Cartwright brothers. “As concerned as I am about Adam, I’m also concerned about your father. He’s not ready to be up but there’s no way he’s going to leave Adam’s side. We have to get him to rest.”

“Doc, what if we put a stuffed chair with an ottoman in there? Pa wouldn’t have to leave Adam but he could still rest. Between Hoss and Hop Sing and I, we could watch both of them.” Joe thought his solution would be easiest on everybody.

“It would probably be the best solution,” the doctor said. He hesitated for a moment, not knowing quite how to put his next thoughts into words. “I don’t know quite what it is but your father is more than just worried about Adam’s health. There’s something else going on but I don’t for the life of me know what it is. And he’s not about to tell me. Maybe he’ll open up to you two.”

Joe thought back to his conversation with his father just before they brought Adam home. He had said, I knew he was hurt. He asked me to come and get him. Ben had told his sons before they left that he saw Adam shot but what did he mean by he asked me to come and get him?

“Doc, Pa said something strange to me just before you brought Adam home. He said that Adam was asking him to come and get him. I didn’t want to upset him any more than he already was, so I didn’t question him. Is that what you’re talking about?” Joe waited while Doctor Martin took in what he said. Hoss sat silently, trying to understand what Joe was driving at.

“Your father said the same thing to me while you were out looking for Adam but I put it down to the fever,” said the physician. “And I still think that’s what it was: a fevered dream.  But Ben must be feeling guilty because Adam led those men away so he could get home.” He stopped and took a breath. “The mind can twist itself into anything we want. And right now your father is feeling desperately guilty because his son was injured keeping him safe.”

Hoss roused and said quietly, “And a father thinks he should be the one protecting his child, not the other way around.” The two other men nodded.

Rising slowly, the doctor said, “Come on, let’s go back upstairs.”

*****

Ben sat silently at his son’s side. Tears brought on by grief and guilt filled his eyes. He spoke so only the two of them could hear. “Adam, I heard you call out son but I couldn’t get to you. Forgive me.” The tears that had threatened before now slide silently down his checks. “Don’t leave me. You promised you’d never leave me again.” Ben turned away and looked out the window. He was suddenly struck by how very dark it seemed; not a sliver of light lit the night sky.

Adam blinked several times than focused on the side of his father’s face. Surrounded by pain, he longed for the obscurity of sleep, but not before he told his father that he’d be all right.

Ben felt the slight touch of fingers on his sleeve. Incredulous, he turned to hear the hushed whispers coming from his son, “Don’t cry, Pa; you’ll scare the baby frogs.” Eyes that were partially opened closed again and the small smile disappeared.

Hoss, Joe and Dr. Martin entered the room just as Ben held Adam’s uninjured hand to his cheek and said, “No son, I won’t cry anymore.” The three men stared in anticipation. Finally Hoss asked, “Did Adam say something, Pa?”

“Yes Hoss,” Ben laughed. “He told me not to scare the baby frogs.” The brothers looked at each other, hoping the strain hadn’t been too much for their father. Ben looked back and said, “I’ll explain later.”

*****

Ben was sure now that Adam would recover. Exhausted, he let his sons help him back to bed and left Adam in the hands of the doctor and Hop Sing. He slept and ate, interspersed with visits to eldest’s room. The pain medicine kept Adam from experiencing the worst of the suffering his injuries could cause.

Days passed. Ben was finally allowed up as much as he could tolerate. He ate his meals in Adam’s room, encouraging him to take as much nourishment as possible. Before long, Hoss and Joe joined them and they all reveled in the friendly banter that told them their lives would soon be back to normal.

Late summer turned into late fall.  Adam was up and released from the prison of his room. He was determined to have a quiet cup of coffee as he sat on the front porch. Hoss and Joe were just riding out and he raised his good arm in a farewell wave.  He desperately wished he were well enough to join them.

Even though it was early November, the weather was holding for the moment. A light breeze blew, ruffling the ink-black hair that was much longer than usual. Adam savored the sights and sounds and smells that had been kept from him for so long. He had spent the last six weeks letting his bones mend and building his strength back up. During that time, he had successfully put away the violence that had battered his body and his mind. He had chosen to live in a place where bloodshed was a way of life and he was practical enough to know that he couldn’t escape it forever.

Adam heard a noise behind him and looked around. Hop Sing came out carrying a blanket and a tray with milk and fresh cookies. Part of him rebelled against being treated as if he were still helpless but when he looked at their housekeeper and family guardian, he knew he would bury those feelings. This man had done everything he could to help him recuperate from some serious and very painful injuries. Besides, he told himself, I’m not always the nicest patient! The understatement made him smile.

“Mista Adam need blanket if going to stay outside. Also eat cookies and drink milk. Milk betta than coffee for man still getting well.” It came not as a request but as a gentle command. Hop Sing and Ben passed each other in the doorway.

“Have your instructions for the morning, son?” Ben asked in a teasing voice.

“Yes sir, I think I have.” Adam looked out toward the trail Hoss and Joe had taken. Ben could not miss the wistful look in his eyes.

Reaching over, Ben placed a hand on Adam’s knee. “It won’t be long now, son. You’ll be out with them again.”

Adam turned and gave his father a warm smile. “How did you know what I was thinking?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Ben replied. “Some links just seem to go on forever.” Father and son both watched as the morning sun rose higher in the clear Nevada sky, content to be in each other’s company.

***The End***

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