Summary: Heading out on a hunting trip that Adam had requested for his birthday, the family runs into a lot more trouble than expected when they find signs of rustlers working on the Ponderosa.
Word Count: 2820
“See that first one in line? That’s the papa bear of this outfit. We need to take him out. In the next two, that one in the barn coat is all rawhide and barbed wire. So he’s your second shot. If you get a third shot before they light outta here, take either of the other two.”
“Dan, what if one of the first two is still alive? Should I shoot ’em again?”
“Nah, Mike, they’ll be no more trouble with a hole in ’em from that rifle of yours. Now they’re close enough. Get started.”
Down below, Ben Cartwright and his three sons were on the trail of rustlers. They had started out in a jovial mood this morning on the hunting trip Adam had requested in lieu of a birthday party this year. Riding into a box canyon expecting to find deer at a watering hole there, they instead found some of their cattle with altered brands. The rustlers had not bothered to hide their tracks so they were riding rapidly in pursuit.
Nervous at tracking with high ridgelines to either side of them, Adam kept looking to the ridges. He saw a muzzle flash and yelled just in time to get his father to turn in the saddle and that saved his life. The bullet meant for his chest hit him in the right arm instead. The impact nearly threw him from his horse, but Adam rode up to steady him even as he urged him to ride for cover. Hoss came up on the other side and grabbed the reins leading Buck with his father to a large rock formation with plenty of room for them and the horses. Adam had pulled his rifle and turned to return fire until a second shot had him hunched over Sport’s neck and riding to join the others. Joe had raced ahead of them, pulled his rifle, and was looking for a target.
Seeing Adam struggling to dismount and hang onto his rifle, Hoss ran over to help him, risking his life to pull his older brother to safety. Once behind the rocks, Adam leaned on a boulder next to Joe, watching for any movement up above. There was nothing more.
“It’s just a crease. You gotta get the bleeding stopped for Pa, though.”
Joe moved to their father’s side. Holding his handkerchief to the exit wound, Joe used just his hand to put pressure on the entrance wound. Adam whistled and Sport walked closer to them.
“There are bandages and laudanum in my saddlebags. I never go on a hunting trip without medical supplies.” Adam’s voice was hoarse and low. Ever since the hunting trip when he had accidentally shot his younger brother, Adam was perhaps over-prepared whenever hunting with his family especially hunting dangerous prey such as rustlers.
Using bandages from Adam’s supply, Hoss put a pressure bandage around his father’s arm, stanching the bleeding effectively. Joe tried to get Ben to take some laudanum but he wouldn’t.
“We may need every gun if they come after us again.”
“Pa, you won’t be able to do much with one arm.”
“Hoss, better to do a little than nothing at all. Now see to your brother.” Ben had noticed how quiet Adam was. No talking and no unnecessary movement were bad signs for his eldest son. He suspected he had suffered more than a ‘crease’ but didn’t want to be fussed over. Hoss walked up to Adam and wanted to see the wound, even though Adam insisted it was just a crease. Finally facing Hoss’ determined stare, Adam unbuttoned his shirt and showed Hoss the wound. There was a deep crease and an entrance wound but little bleeding. There was no exit wound. The bullet or fragment of one was still inside. There was already some dark purple bruising showing on his left side which indicated he was bleeding internally. One look at his eyes, and Hoss knew that he knew. If he didn’t have medical attention soon, he could die.
“Sit down, and lay back. It’s about all we can do for you here now,” Hoss ordered.
“Don’t tell Pa yet. Not until we know it’s safe for someone to ride out. I don’t want anyone else to be put at risk.”
From those words, Hoss knew that Adam expected to die. He was determined to make his older brother wrong on that point. “Adam, I think they’re gone. We ain’t seen no movement up there, and there’s been no more shots. They stopped us, and that’s probably all they wanted to do.”
As Ben sat with a very worried Joe, he could see his older sons whispering. There was only one reason for that as far as he could imagine. Adam was hurt a lot worse than he had said. They wouldn’t whisper about his own wound, so they had to be talking about Adam’s, and that led to a sudden increase in his heart rate, increasing the throbbing in his arm. Joe saw him grimace and was once again going to suggest laudanum, but instead Ben pushed himself up to go to Adam.
Joe tried to keep Ben down. “Pa, Adam will be fine. It’s just a crease. You need to sit down before you fall down.”
Noticing his father’s concern, Hoss told Adam there was no point trying to hide the truth because their father already knew it was bad.
“How bad is it?” Ben already knew that answer but wanted to hear them say it.
“He’s bleeding inside. He needs a doctor.” Hoss spoke quietly but there was a deep concern in his voice that Ben heard. His face betrayed his feelings more than his voice.
Seventeen-year-old Joe had never seen Hoss so upset, and now their Pa was equally upset. Suddenly it dawned on Joe what they meant. He watched as Hoss lowered Adam to his back on the ground. Adam’s eyes had closed.
“Is he?” Joe whispered his question, afraid of the answer he might hear.
“Not yet, but Pa, he needs a doc real bad. Joe could ride for the doc, and I could ride up to that ridge to gather some snow. If we pack some snow around him and chill him down, it could slow the bleeding and give him more time.”
Each word from Hoss was like a sock in the gut to Ben and to Joe. Ben worried that the bushwhackers were still up on the ridgeline, but Hoss told him the same thing he had said to Adam.
Joe insisted he ought to go. “Pa, I’ll go anyway. I’ll be too far away for a shot before they even know I’m going.”
Despite Joe’s bravado, Ben considered only Hoss’ words. He knew there was still a risk, but it was a small one compared to the risk of losing his oldest son, which was a grave risk. He nodded at Joe, who ran to Cochise, swing mounted, and was gone in seconds, racing to town. Hoss had been holding his rifle ready but there was no response to Joe leaving. Ben and Hoss relaxed a little knowing Joe was safe but then realized that Adam was unconscious, already losing ground with the shock, pain, and blood loss. He wasn’t aware of anything, including that his youngest brother was riding for his only hope: to see a doctor before he bled to death.
Pulling Chubb close, Hoss mounted up and headed out to gather some snow to chill his brother. He rode to the ridgeline where snow could still be seen. He returned as rapidly as he could and packed snow around Adam’s torso, pulling his jacket tight around it to hold it to him. Then he repeated the trip and the action two more times until Ben told him it was enough, for Adam was as chilled as they could safely push it. Adam’s breathing was shallow and his heart beat had slowed but both were still steady. Although Ben fought the urge as much as he could, he succumbed to sleep induced by pain, blood loss, and stress. Hoss watched over them both, listening for the hoped-for sounds of horses riding up. At one point, he thought he heard gunshots but then there was nothing more, so he concluded he must have imagined it.
When help finally arrived, it was with a flurry of activity. Joe rode in first followed by Sheriff Coffee and Doctor Martin, who was gallantly trying not to fall off his mount. Joe and Roy helped the doctor to the ground, and he quickly stumbled to where Adam lay. He used his stethoscope to listen to his chest and his abdomen.
“It’s not in his lung. Lungs are clear. His abdomen sounds normal too. From the bruising I can see on his left side, I think I know where all that bleeding is coming from. He needs surgery now. Bring those bags I packed. All of them except the largest one.”
As the doctor talked, he pushed Adam up a little on his right side, exposing more purple bruising on the left side of his back. Ben and the others were shocked by all the bruising.
“I’m going to need some help with this surgery. Who’s it going to be?”
Wishing his hands weren’t so large, Hoss knew he couldn’t do it, no matter how much he wanted to help, and then he looked at Joe. Ben had the same reaction. Joe was staring at Adam and was also aware that his father and brother expected him to answer. He never had to say anything.
“Joe, I’ll tell you exactly what you have to do. I need an assistant. If you don’t pass out at the sight of blood, you’re qualified to do what I need you to do.”
Urged forward gently by Hoss, Joe stood next to the doctor waiting for instructions.
“I need to open the wound more to get to what I need to repair. I need you to hold the wound open when I’m working so I can see what I’m doing. Can you do that?” As Joe nodded yes, the doctor continued. “Now go wash your hands and forearms as thoroughly as you can. Then come right back here. We have to do this soon.”
The doctor was washing his instruments in a basin as he talked. Then he used a cloth soaked in alcohol to wash Adam around the wound. Next he draped cloths around the area and under Adam’s side. He looked up at Hoss and nodded toward Ben who didn’t need to see what was going to happen next.
As Hoss escorted Ben away, the doc used a scalpel to cut an incision on either end of the wound opening it. He inserted two probes just enough to hold the sides of the wound open. Joe had returned and Dr. Martin directed him to lean over Adam’s right side and hold each probe as indicated. Then he set to work repairing the damage from the bullet fragment which he found almost immediately.
It was the spleen that was leaking so much blood. There was a midsized opening in the spleen. If it had been large, the spleen would have had to be removed. The doctor repaired the damage and watched to see if the bleeding ceased. There was no more blood coming out and he sighed in relief, looked at Joe, and removed the probes gently from his hands and then slid them out of the wound. Joe sat back on his heels to watch the doctor stitch his brother’s wound closed. Then the doctor placed a thick wad of bandage over the wound, and with Joe’s help, wrapped a large bandage around Adam’s body, holding the wad of bandage over the wound securely.
“Adam should not be moved, but he shouldn’t stay out here either. Is there someplace close we could take him where he could be sheltered until he can travel?” The doctor didn’t tell them that Adam was still critical and could die from the blood loss and shock. They probably had surmised that already, so there was no need to pound home the unpleasant truth.
There was a line shack where they had dropped supplies just that morning, intending to use it for a base. Hoss told the doctor it was less than two miles away. Dr. Martin asked for the large bag he had packed and pulled out a canvas cloth for a stretcher. He asked for poles to slip through the loops to make a sturdy stretcher to carry Adam. He told them that they had to carry Adam, as any undue jostling could tear the stitches and cause bleeding, which would kill him.
Hoss and the three men Sheriff Coffee had left carried Adam for nearly an hour before they reached the cabin. The doctor walked at Adam’s side, monitoring his condition as Joe led Buck with his father and the other horses. Once at the cabin, with Adam safely in a cot, the three men left to join Roy’s search for the bushwhackers.
During surgery, Adam had briefly stopped breathing several times. Joe had been too scared to notice but Adam had come as close to dying as a man could and still live. There was no point in telling the family now. Adam’s heart rate and breathing were steady now and hopefully would improve as he warmed up. Doc, Ben, Hoss, and Joe took turns sitting with him through the night. Joe had the last shift and was leaning back in his chair, tilted against the wall, as dawn showed through the window when he suddenly realized there were hazel eyes staring into his own. His “Oh, my God” and his chair slamming back to the floor awakened everyone.
Checking Adam’s vital signs, Doctor Martin smiled. “I think he’s going to be all right.”
Joe hugged Hoss who smiled broadly.
Ben sat on the now vacated chair and held his son’s hand. “You had us scared there for a while. It’s good to have you back, son. Would you like something to drink?”
Unable to speak, Adam slowly blinked his eyes. Hoss asked to have the chair and began spooning broth slowly into his brother’s mouth. Adam wanted to quit after two spoons but Hoss insisted he could do better than that.
When he finished the cup of broth that Hoss had patiently fed to him, Adam closed his eyes and fell into sleep that the doctor assured them was what he needed. Whenever Adam awakened, Hoss or Joe would spoon broth for him. By the end of the second day, with no sign of infection, the doctor was ready to leave. Dr. Martin took the carriage that the hands had delivered and drove back to town. Hoss headed back to the ranch to oversee the work there, leaving Ben and Joe to care for Adam, who was getting stronger. There were supplies of anything they might need, including some books they could read aloud to pass the time. The wagon was there too, waiting until Adam was strong enough to be transported home.
By the end of the week, Hoss returned with the news that the men who had attacked them had been caught. He and Joe carried Adam to the wagon, although Adam had insisted he could walk. Hoss had helped him stand, and when Adam nearly toppled over, reached around to hold him as Joe moved to his other side. Adam smiled at them then, as if to say he had to try but accepted a carry to the wagon. There was bedding in the back to cushion the ride. Ben sat in the back with him, and Joe sat next to Hoss on the seat. They tied the horses to the back. None of them wanted to be apart now that they had almost lost one of them.
Hoss looked back to make sure that Adam was ready to travel. “Well, older brother, you didn’t get your hunting trip and no party either. This is one birthday you’ll want to forget.”
“On the contrary, Hoss, this is the birthday when the best gifts I could get were right there for me. Who could ask for more than the father, brothers, and friends that I have? I am a lucky man. I almost died on my own birthday, but I was brought back to life with the help of my family and friends. I was reborn on my own birthday. Who could forget something like that? ”
“I’ll never forget your birthday either. I think I aged ten years during that surgery,” Joe declared.
All laughed at Joe’s comment. For the rest of the long ride, they laughed and talked and enjoyed being a family, celebrating that Adam would have many more birthdays after the one that had almost been his last.