Word Count: 10,125
He felt the tiny beads of moisture popping out on his brow and as they rolled one by one down his forehead and into his eyes, he was forced to squint his eyelids shut to still the burning caused by the salty droplets. The man turned his head as far to his right as he dared and tried to brush his brow against the shoulder of his shirt to dry away the accumulation of sweat. His dark head he leaned back, pointing his chin upward; he felt the perspiration run down his neck and soak into the front of his shirt that was already saturated from the body moisture beneath the black garment.
For several long moments the injured man lay motionless. The sweltering sun beat down upon the handsome, yet dirtied and bruised face, cooking the flesh until it had already begun to turn a bright shade of red. Multitudes of microscopic blisters had formed and promised soon to swell to bursting, guarantying the man of more suffering yet to come. In a last ditch effort to call for help, the man commanded himself to take a deep breath and forced from the back of his throat the solitary word he wanted to say.
His lower chin fell slack, his mouth opened as he sucked in the hot air to fill his straining lungs. The air was so stale that his mouth had become desiccated and he longed for a cool drink from his canteen. But the water receptacle laid just outside of his reach, tempting and teasing him, giving him cause to curse softly. He stretched outward, toward the canteen, straining his body as his fingertips dug into the arid dirt, grasping at the sparsely scattered and withered grasses in a last ditch attempt to reach the water. The battered man, with his broken arm and his legs entrapped beneath a large boulder, pinched his lips tightly, but as the pain that consumed his broken body washed over him; his attempt to withhold his cry of agony slipped past his parched and cracked lips and echoed from the canyon walls.
“AAGGHH…GOD PLEASE!” he screamed just before giving in to the swirling darkness that sought to claim him.
“AAGGHH…GOD PLEASE…AAGGHH…GOD PLEASE!…AAGGHH…GOD PLEASE!”
Far below along the edge of the tender green plains, just before the rocks of the steep cliffs began their spiral staircase to the top of the ravine, a lone rider yanked back on his mount’s reins and commanded his big horse to stop.
He listened in silence to the mysterious whisperings carried on the breeze as the wind gently flowed through the gorge. His head tilted, his senses alert to the peculiar sounds, least the wind repeat itself. The big man felt his body tremble; the fine hairs at the back of his neck rose slightly, even his horse raised his massive head and snorted into the air. His mind was racing to stamp a name on the strange reverberations, for he could have sworn that a man’s voice had just cried out to his God from the high rocks above his head.
Hoss Cartwright pushed back his ten-gallon hat from his brow and faced into the blazing sun. His large beefy hands shielded his eyes from the bright rays as he searched the canyons walls for any signs of life beyond the desert existence that normally lived among the immense rock formations.
How long he remained, he could only suppose. When a lone eagle flew over his head, shrieking out at him, Hoss turned his attention away from the canyon and its mystifying muttering, and smiled, enjoying the beauty of nature. The bird was magnificent as it glided across the blue sky and then suddenly, flapping its wings, sailed off, winging its way higher and higher until it was lost amid the rays of glowing sunshine.
“Come on Chubb, let’s get home,” Hoss said, his previous interest forgotten as he nudged his mount into a gentle trot. “This place gives me the creeps.”
Hoss shuddered and glanced once more upward in a final survey of the rocks that formed the canyon walls. Seeing nothing, and hearing nothing as well, satisfied him that his mind and the esoteric canyon murmurings had only been his over zealous imagination hard at work.
The sun had settled behind the far distant mountains and the first twinkling stars had just shown themselves. Soon the moon would cast its glow, forming shadows and strange silhouettes amidst the stones that had become as a tomb, shrouding the man in loneliness and leaving him quivering in fear for his life. Adam Cartwright struggled to keep his senses about him, fought against the flood of emotion that threatened to overtake his usual calm demure and level-headedness.
Far from the out-lying region beyond his domain, a lone coyote howled for its mate. The sound was haunting and depressing and seemed to be reminiscent of his present station in life. Adam moved slightly, groaned and then shut his eyes to the excruciating pain that shot through his lower back and down his legs. His right shoulder rested atop a sharp rock, and that rock had felt as pointed and as finely honed as any knife that might have been used to spear his body. The broken arm extended from the same shoulder and it was Adam’s guess that the arm, bent and broken, may very well have been used earlier that day, for the last time. All feeling, all sensations had vanished from the limb, now coated in dried blood and caked with dirt from his fall down the side of the canyon.
Adam gritted his teeth, as he recalled the foolish mistake that might well result in claiming his life. For he felt his life’s blood ebbing slowly away, drawing him nearer and nearer to the door of the grim reaper and further and further from the door of his home.
His father’s face flashed before his eyes, and it was as if Adam could hear the deep voice calling out his name. The silence of the canyon, the stillness within its walls, only prompted the voice to greater loftiness. Adam tossed his head from side to side…no! It was not his father’s voice that screamed out…but his own, calling…begging…pleading for his father.
“PA! PA! PA! PA! PA!” The echoes of the canyon, mocked the young man.
Adam listened as the word bounced to and fro along jagged configurations and then suddenly fell silent. The silence was deafening to the man, nearly driving his senses into the extreme.
“What do ya mean, he ain’t home?” stammered Hoss as he pulled his chair out and sat down at his accustomed place at the table.
Joe, whose mouth was full, giggled. “He ain’t got back yet,” he said while chewing.
“Joseph!” snapped Ben, “must you talk with your mouth full?”
Joe made a face as he swallowed what remained in his mouth and muttered an apology.
“Wonder what’s keepin’ ‘em?” Hoss stated as he piled his plate full.
Joe watched as his middle brother served himself and then glanced at his father to check Ben’s reaction to the healthy portions that Hoss piled onto his plate.
“Who’s to say, son? I told him that, once his business was finished, to take his time coming home. He deserves a couple days to do whatever he likes,” Ben said, sipping his coffee.
“Yeah, ole Adam sure ‘nough’s been pushin’ himself lately, what with the cattle drive comin’ and all.” Hoss glanced up at Joe and winked before turning his attention to his father.
“He might have stopped over at the Stover place, seen that purty little blue-eyed gal I see’d him walkin’ in the moonlight with last week,” snickered Hoss.
Joe stopped his chewing long enough to giggle. “Now that’s possible…from what I saw of that gal, I wouldn’t mind a stroll in the moonlight with her myself,” he chirped.
“Alright you two…I doubt that Adam’s enjoying the moonlight about now. My guess is the firelight…he mentioned he might stop off at Red Rock Canyon to hunt that puma that’s been getting our cattle,” Ben advised his sons.
“Red Rock Canyon, ya say?” Hoss said, forgetting the fork that lingered between his plate and his mouth.
Ben looked up. “That’s right, why?”
The fork eventually found its way to his mouth. He shook his head, but his eyes held a strange expression as his mind recalled the eerie feeling he’d had earlier in the day, when he had stopped to listen to the muttering of the wind. He had been at Red Rock Canyon then. Could the unidentifiable sounds have actually been a cry for help, or had his imagination played tricks with his mind?
“Hoss…I asked if you were alright,” Joe said, his voice growing louder to attracted the attention of the man sitting across from him.
Joe glanced at his father with a worried look on his young face. “What’s wrong with him?” he asked.
Hoss seemed to snap to attention. “Nothin’…there’s nothin’ wrong with me, Short Shanks, I was just thinkin’ about somethin’, that’s all,” he said as he returned to his eating.
The moon had finally risen and the shadows and the silhouettes danced before the pain filled eyes. Adam coughed; his chest seemed heavier than the ancient rock that held his lower body pinned to the earth. He shivered, for the night air had grown cool and with the fever that had sprung forth, he felt cold and longed for his warm bedroll that had been tied to the back of his saddle and the bottle of whiskey hidden in his saddlebags. His stomach growled, reminding him that it had been hours since his last meal and from the predicament he was in, he knew he faced many more hours of starvation and pain unless God sent him help soon. Adam wondered if help would arrive in time, his hours were numbered, that much he was certain of.
In the distance, the puma he’d been hunting before his unfortunate tumble down the side of the canyon wall, cried out, causing Adam to shiver again, this time in fear. He was easy game, should the puma pick up the scent of his blood and come looking for a quick meal. Adam’s only hope was that the wind would blow in the opposite direction and save him from a death so horrific that his body quivered, just thinking of an encounter with the wild cat.
The night seemed to last for eternity. The trillions of stars above and the moon were all there was to keep the dying man company. Adam fought to keep his eyes opened, afraid to let himself sleep for fear of never waking up. His thoughts were ever present on the puma that roamed the rocks above him and his strong sense of survival warned him to be prepared, least the big mountain cat attacked.
Just before dawn, when he could no longer keep his eyes opened, and with the pain gnawing away at his insides, Adam slipped into the darkened world of oblivion, no longer caring what happened to him. Peace, blissful peace; that was what his wounded, feverish body begged for. Free of the pain and the knowledge that imminent death loomed just within an arm’s reach away.
Miles from where Ben’s oldest son lay waiting for death to claim his ravaged soul, another man — a tender-hearted, gentle man — stood staring from his bedroom window into the darkness outside. He’d been unable to sleep and had spent the major part of the night lost in a haunting dream that had continued to wake him time and time again.
His brother’s voice called out to him from the darkened realm of his night visions. A visualization of the handsome face, riddled with pain and fear beseeched of him to come to him. Finally, unable to put the nightmarish image from his mind, Hoss had kicked back the covers and crawled from his warm, comfortable bed. As he stood in the window, a haunting recollection of the eerie echo from the canyon tugged at his wits, luring him to return to the very spot where he had faltered the afternoon before.
Hoss turned from the window, pulling his long nightshirt over his head and quickly slipping on his trousers and his shirt. In the dark, he fumbled around until he located his boots. Carrying them in his hands, he tiptoed from his room and down the wooden staircase, across the room. At the door, he paused, setting his boots down softly and retracing his footsteps to the gun cabinet where he pulled a rifle from the case and a box of shells from the drawer.
Once he had gathered his hat and gun belt, he picked up his boots and carefully slipped from the house, being careful not to let the door slam as he stepped into the lingering darkness.
Hoss took just a quick moment to push his feet into his boots and then gathering up his equipment, raced silently across the expanse of the front yard and into the barn. It took him only minutes to saddle his horse and be on his way.
Adam moaned as he tossed his head from side to side, trying to determine what sound had awaked him from the land of obscurity. From the far resources of his mind he heard the blood-curdling cry of the cat. His eyes, dry and swollen by the baking sun from the day before, popped open, and Adam forced himself to raise his pounding head and look about. His vision was blurred, as if a thin layer of fog had settled across the hazel hue of his eyes, blinding him to his surroundings. With his one free hand, he rubbed at his eyes, straining to see from hence the spine-chilling scream came.
Adam felt the hairs on his arm rise and his body begin to tremble. The second cry of the puma was closer, sending spasms of fear racing through the man’s veins. He glanced around where he lay, vainly searching for something to protect himself with, should the worst of worse happen.
He let out a long sigh; hours ago he had given himself up for dead. He had even prayed that his pain and suffering would soon end, but here he was now, faced with an ominous foe and ready to do battle just to save the last lingering hours of his life. Adam shut his eyes to the rising the sun; the early morning rays were brilliant and promised another sweltering day of heat, for already tiny beads of moisture dotted his sun-baked brow.
“If I must die, alone, without the comfort of my family to sustain me, then I shall die fighting,” swore Adam to the unseen danger that the cat imposed upon his wilting soul.
He glanced at his badly broken arm that lay twisted along his side. The arm was swollen, the bone protruding through the skin. Already Adam could see signs of infection around the ripped and torn flesh of his upper arm. He lowered his head; sweat stung his eyes and dripped slowly down the sides of his face. Mental pictures of his family danced before his eyes, reminding him of those he loved and cherished most and causing him to ponder their reactions once they learned of his death.
Adam sighed and brushed his good hand gently across his face. He could feel the blisters caused by the sun, felt the tightness of his flesh, the cracked and dry lips, and the parched tongue as he took a deep breath, stilling the ceaseless murmuring in his heart. It would not be long now, cat or no cat. His only hope was that the puma waited until he was dead before feasting on his body, and that some small remnant of himself would be found to tell the story of his fate to his family and not leave them forever wondering what had become of him. The eyes closed, and for the present, Adam allowed his thoughts to wonder homeward.
Down below, Hoss rode slowly, keeping a watchful eye on the rocks above his head. He guided his steed through the mouth of the canyon, his hand resting on the rifle lying across the saddle in front of him. He too, had heard the cry of the cat, yet his eyes had seen nothing to indicate the puma’s location. Chubb snorted and tossed his head, picking up the scent of danger as he moved slowly into the canyon.
“Easy big boy,” Hoss cooed softly. “I know he’s here…somewhere,” Hoss whispered.
The wind whistled along the rock walls, making ghostlike sounds as it seemingly bounced back and forth. Hoss pulled his mount to a stop and listened. He strained to pick up the unidentifiable sounds whispering on the tail of the wind as it blew over his head.
“HELP…help…help!” the strange vibrations echoed through the canyon.
“ADAM!” Hoss cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. “ADAM! ADAM! Adam!” his echo answered.
“Dadburnit,” Hoss swore lightly as he nudged his mount forward.
The second scream of the cat caused Chubb to spook and as he raised his hooves high into the air, Hoss lost his balance and slid off the backside of his horse. Chubb, free of his rider, turned and galloped out of the canyon and away from the terrifying screams of the puma. Hoss rolled in the dirt, muttering softly to himself as he hauled his large frame from the ground and dusted off his trousers. His hat lay at his feet and when he bent over to retrieve it, he also picked up the rifle that had fallen from his grasp when he had been so suddenly parted with his mount.
For several moments, Hoss stood in one spot, looking in all directions, attempting to make up his mind as to which way he wanted to go. He had no doubt that his horse would not stop until Chubb reached the barn, which would serve to alert his father and little brother of his plight. He wished he had thought to leave a note for his father as to what he had planned to do, but decided that Joe was skilled enough in tracking to be able to backtrack his trail. It was more Adam that he was concerned about right now. Given the two extra days to wile away, he calculated that his older brother should arrive home sometime today, but a deep gnawing fear that he could not shake warned Hoss that something was not as it should be. Adam needed help, needed him and his strength, and the feeling just would not go away.
Taking a deep breath, Hoss headed for the highest point of the canyon wall. From there he’d be able to see everything within the canyon, and with a little luck, might catch a glimpse of his older brother and possibly get a chance at the puma that Adam was said to be hunting.
Hoss paused to wipe the sweat from his brow and glanced up at the sun, noticing its position. Nearly noon, he supposed, wiping his dry mouth along the sleeve of his shirt. He longed for a drink of water, but realized the uselessness of thinking about it, for his canteen with the fresh, cool spring water lay strapped to the saddle horn. Hoss wiped his mouth again and glancing up, caught what he believed to be a movement among the rocks off to his left. He froze, standing as a statue and straining his eyes against the sunrays to assure him self that he was not imagining things.
“Well, I’ll be,” he whispered softly. “There ya are,” Hoss grinned.
He checked his rifle to be sure it was ready to fire, and dampened a finger in his mouth and then stuck it into the wind. The big man’s face broke into a smile. He was down wind of the cat, giving him an advantage as he slowly crept along the rocks, being careful not to slip and fall. Hoss glanced down the side of the canyon wall and gulped, a fall would easily be the end of him, he concluded.
The cat had moved upward and had stopped on a large rock, unaware of the impending danger that stalked him from behind. Hoss watched the puma that seemed to be eyeing something as it lowered its body to the crouching position and eased its long, sleek form along the rim of the boulder.
Hoss tested the wind again, pleased that it served his advantage. Quickly he climbed over several boulders and when he reached a tiny plateau, he ran through the opening and lowered his body behind a massive stone. As he peeked over the top, he saw the puma crawling on its belly to an over hang and peer over the edge. Hoss wondered what the cat was stalking; had he any idea, his heart would have been pounding harder than what it was at this very minute.
Slowly the cautious hunter raised his rifle into position and eyed his target. Taking a deep breath to steady his aim, Hoss’ finger found the trigger and pressed lightly against it.
Adam’s blindness, caused by the swelling, had left him vulnerable and open to attack. He could faintly smell the scent of the cat, and felt its presence. Time was nearing and Adam could do nothing but wait and pray that the attack would be swift and that death when it came would be merciful to him.
Large drops of sweat beaded on his brow, his tongue was thick from many hours of doing without water and the pain he had felt during the course of hours spent pinned beneath the rock, was not to be noticed, for he was beyond feeling.
Adam tried to swallow back a cry that had surfaced but it slipped past his lips just the same. His breathing was labored and he fought against the rising panic of waiting. For wasn’t that what the cat was doing…tormenting him, teasing him, testing him?
Adam’s fingers felt along the ground, groping for something, anything. At last, the long, slender fingers wrapped around a large stone and he clutched it tightly within the palm of his hand. His head moved from side to side, listening for the approach of the cat that would signal the end had arrived. The odor of the cat was stronger, lingering in his nostrils, repulsing his senses.
“Pa…so long Hoss…Little Joe,” his mind cried in agony.
Hoss raised slightly from his hiding place just as the big cat sprang into the air. Quickly and accurately, the giant of a man took aim, his finger pressed against the trigger and the mystical silence of the canyon was shattered by the shot that rang out and echoed off the walls and bounced back to him.
The puma seemed to freeze in mid-air and then the graceful and powerful animal plummeted to its death on the rocks below.
“Yahoo!” shouted Hoss as he hurried across the rocks to the edge where the cat had posed and stalked its prey.
Hoss knelt down on his hands and knees and peered over the edge of the rim, scanning the boulders below for the cat. His eyes located the animal lying motionless, but he could see nothing of what the big cat might have had in its sights.
Curious as to what the animal had been after, Hoss carefully made his way down and around the rocks to reach the dead cat. When he bent over the puma, Hoss turned the animal over, seeing that his bullet had pierced the animal in the heart.
A soft, muted moan startled the unsuspecting man and Hoss twirled around, rifle drawn and ready to fire. He stopped suddenly, not sure if what he was seeing was for real. Slowly, he lowered his rifle and then once his brain registered the picture before him, Hoss laid aside his weapon and rushed to the side of the whimpering man.
Adam heard the cat creep slowly to the rim over his head and knew that he was about to draw his last breath. He gulped, filling his lungs to capacity. A swishing sound alerted him to the fact that the cat had pounced. Adam clutched the rock in his hand and waited, but the cat never attacked. The silence was suddenly shattered by what Adam deemed a shot. He heard the big cat hit the rocks near by and he twisted his head in that direction, and strained to open his eyes. Only a sliver of light could he see and nothing moved that he could tell, and then he heard the sounds. It appeared that someone was climbing down the rocks, drawing near to the cat. Adam raised his head and opened his mouth to call out, but nothing more than a soft moan could he force from the back of his throat. His head fell back against the rock that served as his cushion as he heard himself whimper in distress.
“Oh Lordy…Adam…Adam, is it you?” the voice cried.
And then tender hands, as gentle as any that had ever touched his flesh, touched him now. Adam felt his body quiver from the caring touch of the kind hands and he longed to call out, to speak, and to let the person know that he was still alive, that suddenly his soul wanted to soar, as the eagle had winged its way across the expanse of the blue sky.
Adam felt the tears roll from his unseeing eyes and drip down the sides of his battered and burnt face. His hand reached out to clutch the one whom now held his head so lovingly in their embrace.
Hoss grasp the fraying hand within his own. Tears filled his huge blue eyes as he stared down into the face of his brother.
“Adam…rest easy boy; ole Hoss is gonna get ya outta here,” Hoss promised. He reached for the canteen that had lain just outside of his brother’s reach and pulled the cork from the opening. Being careful not to spill and waste the precious liquid, he tipped the rim to his brother’s lips.
Adam tried to grab the canteen, but Hoss pulled it away. “No…Adam…ya gotta drink it slow like, or ya’ll be sick.”
Again the canteen was pressed against the chapped lips and this time, Hoss’ warning reached Adam’s mind and the wounded man drank slowly.
Hoss wet his neckerchief with the water and washed what dirt and grime he could from his brother’s face. He scrunched up his own face, seeing the intense damage done by the sun and wind to his brother’s flesh. Some of the blisters had bubbled up and had broken, leaving the skin underneath, dried and cracked and very painful looking. Hoss dapped gently at Adam’s eyes, and then left the cool cloth covering them, giving a small amount of comfort to the other man.
It took some time to move the rock from his brother’s legs. He gasped when he saw the broken bones in each and knew that it would be weeks and weeks before his brother would be able to set his feet on the ground. Hoss glanced at Adam and wondered how the man had managed to stay alive. He was bound to be dying of hunger and thirst and as soon as he made Adam as comfortable as possible, Hoss set off to find some game to cook that his brother might be able to eat.
Hoss returned a short time later with a fat rabbit and once he had a small fire burning, he skinned the hare and set it to roasting over the blaze. Hoss continued to allow his brother small sips of the water, taking only enough for himself to wet his lips and mouth and leaving the nearly full canteen for Adam’s needs.
“Hoss…Hoss…” whimpered Adam as he groped the air for the hand that had so lovingly administered the care.
“I’m here, Adam…I’m here,” Hoss reassured his brother, allowing Adam to grasp his hand and hold it.
Hoss felt the swelling of emotion as he gazed into the face that was barely recognizable as his brother. He could only imagine the horror that Adam had suffered, alone, blinded, wounded and frightened. When Adam slept at last, Hoss moved to the rim of the rock and scanned the horizon for signs that his father and Little Joe might be searching for him, for he was sure that Chubb had enough time to reach home by now and set his family to worrying.
The day was growing short and Hoss hunted the rocks for small pieces of wood to keep a fire going and to keep Adam warm. He had nothing to keep his brother from getting cold; his bedroll had ridden home with his horse and left him with no cover for the chilly night that he faced.
With the fire burning as brightly as he could get it, Hoss carefully moved Adam closer and then sat down, drawing the battered body into his arms. He held his brother close, trying to add as much warmth from his own body to the shivering body he held within the folds of his arms.
Adam whimpered and tried to open his eyes. “Pa?” he murmured, the word barely more than a whisper.
“He’s acomin’ Adam…he’s acomin’, I just know he is,” Hoss whispered back. “Might be mornin’, but he’ll be here, if’n I know Pa and Little Joe,” he said, silently praying that he spoke the truth. “Ya just lie still and rest, ya hear?”
The hours of the night dragged slowly and painfully by. Adam cried out; Hoss remained by his brother’s side, leaving it only long enough to add more wood and brush to the dying embers.
Adam’s arm had been carefully wrapped inside his shirt and Hoss had formed a sling from the sleeve by turning it inward that aided in holding the broken arm in place. There was nothing that could be done for the broken bones in Adam’s legs other than to set them. Hoss ripped the sleeves from his own shirt and then tore them into strips that he used to bind the sticks about Adam’s legs to form makeshift splints until such time as he could get his brother home.
The fever he fought with cool compresses. The hunger lingered, for Adam’s mouth was in such shape that he could not chew nor swallow any food particles and since Hoss had nothing in which to make a broth of the rabbit he had killed, Adam was forced to feast on the water from the canteen. He looked at the cooked rabbit and then flung it over his shoulder. Though he himself was hungry, he refused to eat in front of his brother, even if Adam could not see.
“Just as soon as I get ya home, big brother, Hop Sing will fix ya some of his famous broth, I promise. Won’t be much of a homecomin’ meal, but it’ll be nourishin’ for ya,” Hoss whispered when Adam cried out that he was hungry.
The dawn was barely breaking through the night sky when Hoss woke with a start. He hadn’t meant too, but he had fallen to sleep lying next to his brother. Quickly he glanced at Adam to assure himself that his brother was still alive and breathing. Hoss hauled his heavy frame up from the ground and went in search of more fuel for the fire. He’d gather the dried grasses as well this time and set the fire to smoking. With any luck, his father and younger brother would see the smoke and come running.
As he worked, Hoss kept a watch on the horizon, wishing desperately that he had some means to transport his brother. Carrying Adam was out of the question. First place, they were too high off the ground and second, there was simply no way that Hoss could carry the wounded man down such an incline without adding to an already broken body. He’d just have to sit tight and wait…and pray, yes, he concluded, he’d pray! And that he did, alone amid the jagged rock creations, Hoss knelt down and looked up to heaven and began praying. When he had finished, Hoss wiped the tears from his eyes and rose to his feet, returning to the fire and his brother.
Hoss was busy tending to Adam’s wounds, resetting the arm more securely inside his shirt when he stopped suddenly and turned his ear to the wind.
“Listen Adam…ya hear that?” smiled Hoss as he stood to his feet.
His name echoed off the canyon walls. Hoss scurried across the rocks to his lookout point and shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare. His eyes roamed the lower floor of the canyon, searching hungrily for the one who called his name. It was several long, agonizing moments before he saw the wagon and the two men. His father sat in the seat, holding the team and he could barely make out Little Joe standing in the wagon, his hands cupped about his mouth.
Hoss grinned and waved his hat in the air.
“UP HERE!” he shouted, continuing to fling his hat back and forth over his head.
“UP HERE…UP HERE…UP HERE…UP HERE!”
Hoss watched as his father stood to his feet, next to Joe in the wagon. Ben held his hand up after several minutes and Hoss saw him clutch his younger brother’s shoulder and point in his direction.
“They seen me, Adam…they seen me!” Hoss called back to Adam.
He waved again, motioning for his father and brother to join him and then Hoss returned to Adam’s side. He squatted down next to him and took Adam’s hand in his, gently caressing the back with his large, beefy fingers.
“Didn’t I tell ya…heh?” Hoss snickered. “Everythin’s gonna be alright now; Pa and Little Joe’s on their way up this here ole rock, and soon’s they get here, we’re gonna take ya home and fix ya up…how’s that?” Hoss said with a catch in his voice. He swallowed hard, forcing his emotion back down.
Adam could barely make a sound, but he squeezed his brother’s hand in an attempt to show Hoss that he understood. Hoss saw his brother relax and knew that now, once his father had reached them, Adam would be alright. Ben Cartwright had a special way about him that assured his sons in times such as this, that all would be well. His very presence commanded it to be so, and neither he, nor Adam or even Little Joe had ever doubted their father when Ben made such a promise to them.
“Hoss…Hoss,” shouted Ben from the other side of the huge boulder.
Hoss hurried to his feet and rounded the boulder, nearly colliding with his father and younger brother.
“Here we are, Pa…” Hoss said in a rush.
“Thank God, you’re alright,” Ben muttered, placing his hands on the broad shoulders and pulling his son to him.
“I’m fine, Pa…but Adam ain’t doin’ so good…”
“ADAM? Adam’s with you?” asked Ben, stunned at the news, for he believed Adam to be elsewhere.
“Pa, come look at this,” muttered Joe, kneeling down, staring in shock at the shape that his oldest brother was in. “What in God’s name happened to him?” he stammered.
Ben fell to his knees as well. He gasped at the blistered and swollen face of his eldest son. Gently he touched the fevered brow and Adam, sensing his father, grabbed his father’s hand and held it tightly in his own.
The whimpering sounds that emitted from deep down in his throat told his father that Adam was crying. The sounds and the sight of this impeccably strong willed man broke his heart. With as much care as possible, Ben raised Adam into a near sitting position and folded his arms about the battered body.
“Pa…Pa…oh…Pa!” sobbed Adam in a tiny, weak voice as he turned his head inward, resting his blistered face against the coarse fabric of Ben’s leather vest.
“Shh…don’t, Adam…don’t. It’s over…whatever you’ve suffered it’s over, son…over. Do you hear me…I promise, everything will be fine as soon as we get you home.”
Ben fought to keep his emotions in tack. It was obvious to each one of them that the true suffering had yet to begin. Adam faced many weeks of recovery, many times he would question himself as if to ask, had it all been worth it, the suffering, the fear…the dread that he might never walk again, or have total use of his right arm? Would he rather have died than to be what he might well become? Ben watched through tear filled eyes as Adam quieted and rested his head against his father’s beating heart.
Joe glanced at Hoss and tried to smile. He saw the change of emotion that washed over his father when Ben thought no one saw. The youngest Cartwright feared what laid ahead, not for himself, not for his father or Hoss, but for his brother, Adam…the strong one. Joe gulped and turned away, unable to bear the sight of the broken and shattered body, just days ago alive with glowing health and radiant eyes that danced with happiness. It was all gone now, and Joe could not help but wonder, would he ever see his brother in the same light, ever again?
The days that followed were endless, quiet days. Most of the time, Adam slept. When he woke, Hop Sing was always ready with a bowl of steamy broth, which he insisted that Adam eat. Adam was agreeable and would always finish whatever the kind servant would place on his tray. He protested little when the doctor stopped by to check him over and even attempted a smile occasionally, relieving his family of some of the doubts they harbored. When the swelling in his eyes had gone down, he played checkers with Hoss and listened when Joe read to him from his favorite books. Constantly he assured his father that he was fine and that Ben should not worry, yet he refused to talk about his experience in the canyon, which caused Ben more reasons to worry.
Alone, Adam withdrew into himself; he sulked and fought against the memories that haunted his thoughts. At night, he’d shut his eyes and instantly visions of ghostlike figures, and wailing cats would remind him of the fear that had encased his heart and soul, alone in the canyon. Echoes of voices filtered through his head as they had filtered through the canyon. His head pounded with pain, his heart beat rapidly with fear and he hungered for the willpower to pour his heart out to his father. A longing in his heart pined for his father’s arms about him, holding him, making him feel safe again…and loved.
More times than he cared to count, Adam seen the look in his youngest brother’s eyes. The doubt, the uncertainty and knew that whatever Joe thought of him, it was not as it had been before…before the accident that had taken a strong man and made a mouse of him. He lived in fear –fear of falling, fear of the pain that had nearly cost him his life and fear that life as it had once been, would never be again.
He’d often times find himself shivering, though he was never cold. His brow beaded in sweat and on more than just one night, he woke screaming. The heavy casts on his legs hampered his movements; his arm was immobilized and strapped to his chest to prevent more injury. Adam had tried to crawl from the bed, but had only succeeded in falling onto the floor. Pride had kept him from calling out for help and thus he had laid until the following morning when Hoss had entered carrying on a tray his breakfast and found him curled up on the rug, sleeping. Pandemonium had broken out once Hoss had alerted the others to his plight.
Heavy footsteps had resounded on the stairs as Joe and their father had raced to his side and stood in shock at his body lying helplessly in the middle of the floor. His embarrassment had been almost more than he could bear; he’d been unable to help himself, his body had given up trying to contain itself and he was soaked from head to toe. Nothing had been mentioned; Hop Sing had eased himself into the room, offered his help and carried away the soiled clothing. But the feeling had lingered and left him feeling vulnerable and exposed to those around him.
His injuries had begun to heal. The burnt and crackled flesh had peeled away and new, soft flesh had taken its place. His body was mending, according to Paul Martin, and much to the relief of his family. But his soul hungered for a measure of peace, an ounce of something that would start his mind and heart on the same road to recovery. He felt empty and drained of all emotion, of all feeling and felt as if his pride and courage, his very manhood had been stripped from him. He felt defeated and weak, something that he had never experienced before and it scared the one who had always been so strong.
On this night, the dread of what his future might hold for him had been so powerful, the pain so unbearable and his shame so intense, that the well of tears that formed in his eyes were more than what any man could stand. Adam lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling as the tiny beads of moisture rolled gently down the sides of his face. He tried not to cry…it was such an oddity for him; but the tears would not stop their downward flow.
The broken man heard himself gasp and then began to sob. He turned to bury his face amid the soft pillows, to the heart-wrenching sounds, unaware that the door had opened and closed, and that a man, known for his compassion and his great love for his sons, stood at his bed side and wept along with him.
Only when the gentle hands reached for him, turning him over so that all the love he felt for his son shown in his dark eyes, did Adam totally break and fling himself into the loving arms, confessing his burdens to the man who held him as tenderly as if he had been a small boy.
“Pa…oh Pa…” he sobbed. “I was so afraid!” Adam cried. “I knew I was dying…but I didn’t want to…and then the pain was so…unbearable…I just gave up…I lost…faith…” he continued. “Not in God…not in you…but in…myself, as a man…and I wanted to…die.”
Adam continued to cry as Ben rocked to and fro, giving the young man time to unburden himself and face his demons.
“I’m so…ashamed,” whispered Adam. “So ashamed…I’ve never thought of myself…as a…a…coward…but…”
“Shh…enough of that kind of talk; never, never have you been a coward. Adam, listen to me…its natural for a man…any man to fear death…to long for death when he is hurting so intently that the pain is beyond endurance. It’s natural for a man to be afraid…but being afraid does not make you a coward…it…”
“No…you don’t understand…” Adam pulled back, looking his father in the eye. “I…I…held a rock in my hand…and I thought about…using it…to…to…kill myself.”
Adam lowered his head and Ben watched as his son swallowed and tried to continue. He surprised Ben by briefly laughing. “I don’t know that I could have managed; it wasn’t a very big rock,” he said in a whispered voice. His laughter died and he went on. “But I wanted to die…by my hands, or God’s, not by being eaten alive by a stupid puma,” he said with a touch of anger. “It was like…I was a little boy…all over again. I screamed out of you…to help me…and when you weren’t there…I…I panicked.”
Adam’s breathing became more labored and he leaned back his head and opened his mouth, sucking in large mouthfuls of air. Ben held his son’s hand in his, afraid to let go, but not knowing why.
“I…stopped being…a man that night.” Adam swallowed down his pride. “I stopped trying to be…strong. Pa…the mask was nowhere around…and even if it had been…it could not have done me a dime’s worth of good. I felt exposed…vulnerable, and wide-opened for the first time in so many years, that I’d forgotten what it felt like. I saw myself as weak…I saw what a cold…hard man I’d become by shutting out…all the unpleasant things in life. I had forgotten what it was like to…feel…I mean…really feel…here in my heart.”
The hazel eyes filled again with tears and when Adam blinked, they rolled freely over the tops of the rims and down the front of his face. “I…I heard voices…many voices,” he said, looking into his father’s eyes. “One distinct voice…it was a woman’s voice,” Adam whispered. “I’d never heard it before, but I knew it was hers…”
“Who’s Adam, who’s voice was it?” Ben asked softly.
Adam blinked and a lone tear eased slowly downward. “My mother’s,” he muttered. “It was soft and…sweet, just as I had always imagined it would be. She told me…she was…” Adam’s voice cracked and he brushed his hand across his eyes. “She said she was proud of me…” His laugh was weak and somewhat sickly. “Can you believe that…my own mother…proud of her…cowardly son…”
“Adam…that’s uncalled for, son. You are not a coward…you are a man of deep feelings, strong emotions…there is not a cowardly bone in your body. Of course your mother is proud of you…I’m proud of you…your brothers…”
“My brothers…” Adam muttered, shaking his head. “Hoss…maybe…he takes everyone at face value. But Joe,” Adam shook his head. “I’ve seen the way that boy’s been watching me…he knows…he can tell…I’m a broken man, Pa…I’m not the same man I was three weeks ago…and Joe knows it.”
“Joe knows nothing of the sorts, Adam. He’s worried about you…that’s all,” Ben said gently. “He wants his brother back…”
“His brother back? Well, the boy is just going to have to face the truth…that man’s gone forever…”
“Joe has to face the truth? What about you, Adam…when are you going to face the truth? When are you going to admit to yourself that you are nothing more than mortal man, capable of all emotions that God created? Capable of feeling pain…and love…and anger…and fear…yes…even fear…when are you going to stop feeling sorry for yourself and admit that you made a mistake that fateful day? Chasing that puma on foot, in his own territory, a land that you were unfamiliar with, was pure foolishness, yet you did what you had always warned your brothers, especially Joseph about not doing, and it almost cost you your life! It put you in a position where you had to stop and take a good, long look at yourself…and suddenly, you didn’t like what you saw anymore, isn’t that right?”
Ben stood from the bed and walked to the window, turning back around. “Say it Adam, ‘I made a mistake and it made me afraid’,” Ben practically shouted. He stood before his son, glaring down at the young man, praying silently that Adam would see that his misery was of his own making and that to be the man he wished to be again, he’d have to face his shortcomings.
Ben saw the lone tear streak down the side of Adam’s face and his expression softened as he returned to the bed and sat down. “Adam, it’s alright, son. You already know it…I can see it in your eyes, hear it in your voice. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, son; every man worth his salts has been afraid of something at some time in his life. Men are born to make mistakes, but we learn from them and we learn not to be afraid, not to fear ourselves, or our vulnerabilities, or our shortcomings, and our incapability’s. It’s human nature…it’s the way God made us.”
Adam slowly raised his head and peered into his father’s eyes. He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. “Tell me something Pa,” he began. “What are you most afraid of?”
Ben seemed to be thinking. It was moments before he smiled and began to explain. “What am I most afraid of,” he repeated Adam’s question. “I’m most afraid…for my sons…what might happen to them…what might hurt them…that I might lose one of them. As a father, I worried daily about you…Hoss and Joe. I know in my heart that I’ve raised each of you the very best I knew how and that as men, I had to release you to live your own lives. But I never stop being a father; deep down I never stop being afraid for you and what life might throw at you.”
“I was afraid…terrified really, when your mother died,” Ben continued. “I lived in fear that I would be unable to care for you all by myself. I lived in fear that I might lose you as well, and then when I met Inger…some of that fear left me, only to return ten fold when she was killed.”
“Adam, I not only had one child to care for and protect, I then had two,” explained Ben.
“Afraid…yes…had I turned coward? No…did I make mistakes? Absolutely…but I learned from them and I corrected them and I kept believing in myself. Even when Marie was snatched so suddenly from us…I knew fear as I’d never known it before. Three sons…three Adam…little boys who depended on me, who needed me…yes… I was afraid. I feared what would happen to all of you, should I be injured and unable to care for you myself, or worse, if I were to die…what would become of my precious life’s blood then? Oh yes, Adam…I was afraid.”
Ben rose to his feet and smiled down at his attentive son. “I made it, Adam…my life’s work is to see that each of you had every opportunity to become the man you are today. Is your mother proud? I should think all three of them are…and myself. I have no regrets in how you turned out…I have no remorse for something I think I might have done differently. I’m satisfied with you…my son…a man…a darn good man.”
“Thank you Pa…” Adam said after several long moments of being unable to speak. His eyes welled with tears, but this time Adam willed them away and smiled. “I made a mistake in judgment…and the result…made me…afraid,” he whispered softly.
Ben returned the smile. “It takes a brave man to admit he’s afraid,” Ben said.
“Yes sir…especially to his father,” Adam said, his tone suddenly lighter as his burden was lifted from his shoulders.
A month later, Adam sat on the wagon seat next to Joe while his younger brother headed the team toward Red Rock Canyon. Joe was silent for most of the way, unable to think of anything to say and feeling somewhat foolish about it.
“What’s wrong with you today, buddy, you’re awfully quiet?” Adam asked.
“Nothing, don’t reckon,” Joe mumbled, reining in the team.
They stopped just inside the mouth of the canyon and Joe quickly glanced around, shrugging his shoulders together. “This place gives me the creeps,” he said after a spell.
“Why?” questioned Adam.
“I don’t know…it just does.”
“I like it here…”
“What?” Joe babbled. “How can you say that…this place was pretty near your final resting place!”
“But it wasn’t Joe,” stated Adam, turning to face his brother. “It’s special…to me leastwise.”
Joe’s hazel eyes drew wide in wonder. “Oh…now I know you’ve lost some marbles.”
“No…really Joe…listen…can’t you hear it?” Adam said, turning his ear toward the canyon interior.
Joe looked puzzled as he stood to his feet and looked about, as if to find someone looking back at him. “Hear what?”
“The wind…it talks to you…and the walls, they echo…”
Joe sat back down and picked up the reins. “I’m taking you home; you’ve been in the sun a might too long.”
Adam placed his hand on Joe’s arm, preventing his brother from slapping the reins down across the team’s backsides. “Wait…please Joe,” Adam said in a quiet voice.
“The wind carries the voices of lost souls who have ventured into this canyon and who have died. It warns others to be wary, least they meet the same fate…like I almost did,” Adam explained.
“I heard the echoes of the canyon warn me not to enter, but I didn’t listen…and because I…make a mistake, it almost cost me my life,” Adam continued.
Joe glanced from his brother to the high canyon walls, carved to God’s specifications and listened. The wind made a whistling sound as it blew through the valley below the high cliffs.
Suddenly Joe smiled and turned to his brother. “I think I can hear it, Adam…honest,” he said when his brother looked at him with a doubtful expression.
Adam turned to the boy, watching the expressions on the young face. Instantly he knew that Joe was up to something, that his brother had not taken him seriously.
“’Go home…go home…’ that’s what the wind says,” Joe said in all seriousness.
“Joe,” scolded Adam.
“Well, what does it say then, Mr. Know-it-all!” Joe asked, giggling.
“It says…’life is but a gift, do not waste it with petty matters’, that’s what it really says,” Adam explained.
Joe looked questioningly down at his brother and shook his head. “Petty matters?”
“Sure…you know…senseless things that mean nothing…like the way you and I are always bickering about every little thing and how by the end of the day, we can never remember what the argument was about. Senseless things like…”
Adam paused and looked Joe’s way. He was silent, for Joe had a strange look on his face.
“I’m glad you’re alright,” Joe said in a low voice sitting back down. He lowered his head and then turned it slightly to peer sideways at his brother. “Don’t make fun of me when I tell you this, alright? But I was…scared…afraid for you, I was afraid that you were going to…die…and I’d not have a chance to tell you…how I really feel,” Joe swallowed, raising his head to look into his brother’s eyes.
Adam swallowed the lump that had sprouted in his throat and then placed his free hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I’d never make fun of you, Joe…for that. I know what it’s like…being afraid…I’ve been scared before…just recently.” Adam gazed out at the high canyon walls and then seemed to lose himself in his thoughts.
“This canyon showed me that I am nothing but a mortal man. It gave me cause to see myself as I really was…and I didn’t like what I saw myself becoming…and it scared me. The entire time I was pinned beneath that rock, I thought about how I’d been living my life, the things I’d done and said…even to the ones I care most about. And I was ashamed of myself, Joe.”
Adam turned back to face the boy. “I suppose I must have been somewhat like Jonah, down in the belly of that whale. God had to make me stop and take a really good look at myself. Once I realized what I’d become and knew that I could change, I was released from my accountability…I have no idea how Hoss found me, or why he was there when I needed him the most, other than to say that God guided him to me. I was saved in more ways than one Joe…”
Adam smiled at the boy and pulled Joe’s head over onto his shoulder. “I have so much to be thankful for…and you’re one of those things kid,” he laughed, letting go of Joe. “I have a whole new outlook on life…I cherish it as never before, I cherish those around me more than ever and from now on, I’ll not be afraid to tell them so…”
“I was going to come up here myself and hunt that cat, but you wouldn’t let me…remember?” Joe asked.
“I remember…why?” questioned Adam.
“It could have been me…up here, instead of you…”
Adam shook his head. “No, Joe…this canyon, that cat…the voices…the intense pain…even the fear, they were all meant for me. When that cat lunged at me…even though I couldn’t see it physically, I saw it in my mind’s eye and it was like my life jumping out at me and I saw just how quickly it could end. That day…was mine, Joe; I was destined to be here…and barring all the broken bones, and the suntan I now have…it was worth every moment of my time here.”
“How…I don’t understand…”
“You will Joe…someday when it’s your time to look back on your life and what you’ve done with it, how you’ve lived it. Take it from me, kid…do it right the first time and save yourself a lot of grief,” smiled Adam, gently slapping Joe’s back.
Joe grinned and then looked back at the canyon, all was still; all was silent. The brothers sat for several moments, listening to the wind sing down from the canyon walls, each one lost in their own thoughts. Joe tilted his head upward to view the highest peak in the canyon and suddenly he smiled.
“Lookit Adam, up there!” Joe said, pointing.
“Well I’ll be darn,” muttered Adam.
“I ain’t never seen that before, have you?”
“Can’t say that I have, buddy.”
“Wonder if it’s always been there?”
Adam lowered his head and glazed at Joe. “I would think so, but until the sun hits it just right, you can’t see it.”
“Hmm,” muttered Joe. “Thanks Adam, for bringing me with you today…and Adam…I’m proud…of you…of us…our family…I just wanted you to know that,” Joe smiled shyly.
Adam’s eyes brightened and his face dimpled when he smiled. “Thanks…kid.”
Joe turned the wagon around and headed out of the canyon, back to the road that would lead them home. Adam glanced back at the canyon wall, but the sun had moved and the strange formation of rocks that had so resembled the face of God was no longer visible. Yet Adam knew, deep down in his heart that God had always been there, in the canyon with him during his time of need.
Adam shivered slightly, but not from being cold…and certainly not from fear, but from the belief that he and Joe had, somehow, just been in the presence of a higher, supreme being. His burden of fear was gone, his life was renewed, and all was well with Adam’s soul.
The wind whistled again. The echoes of the canyon bid them farewell, but of the two…only one heard…Adam.