Word Count: 12,199
The late afternoon sun had just began to dip behind the tall, snow capped mountains as Little Joe Cartwright guided his sure-footed pinto deeply into the forest. The woods were dark and dreary looking, with the setting sun and thin layer of fog that had developed, the trees and bushes, vines and such as, cast long, almost grotesque shadows along the trail where Joe pulled his mount to a stop. He cocked his head to one side, listening; it was so quiet, almost too quiet as he urged his horse forward and continued on his way. Deeper into the forest Joe rode, watchful, ever watchful. The large tracks he had been following lured him like a duck to open water and his blood seemed to surge through his veins and deep within his chest, his heart hammered, beating rapidly in anticipation of what was to come. His left hand gripped tightly to his Winchester, as he guided Cochise with his right hand and used his knees to make his signals.
Moss covered trees lay crumbled about, some laying on the ground, others locked and entwined with one another. Strong wind storms and heavy snows had toppled the trees over the course of time. Pouring rainstorms had weakened the soil where tall Ponderosa pines and aged old oak and hickory, maple, beech and sweet gum trees had for centuries sank their deep roots into the rich, dark earth but had now fallen away with the erosion that had held their roots. Rhododendrons and mountain laurels were thick, May apples were just pushing up from the earth, bright green forest ferns added to the multiple hues of greens and yellows, reds and oranges. The forest was a mystical place, luring, exciting and frightening at times, but Joe loved the sweet smells of pine, mixed with the musty scent of the woods. It was, to the boy’s senses, like icing on one of Hop Sing’s home baked cakes that the youngest Cartwright son loved so well, and Joe inhaled deeply, filling his lungs to capacity.
Yards ahead, a newly fallen pine lay entrapped among two more, older pines. Its branches broken and jagged resembled the sharp forks of the hay rake stored in the Cartwright barn. It’s spikes sharpened as if honed to perfection, were lethal weapons, to anyone or anything that might happen to carelessly scrape by. The bark had been stripped from the pointed spear shaped branches, making them smooth and slick and giving one the idea that they had been purposely shaped into the harpoons they resembled. Dangers of enormous proportions waited for the unsuspecting, but seventeen year old Joseph had grown up with these dangers. He had roamed over every inch of the land where he had been born. He knew every rock and tree and had learned at an early age, taught well by his father and two older brothers, how to hunt and survive in the wilderness and how to live in harmony with God’s creatures that made up his world. Thus he pushed ahead; unaware that soon, his destiny would take him totally in opposite directions from everything he had been taught and thought he had learned so well. Death stalked him; much like Joseph stalked the trophy buck he had been tracking for the last several hours.
“I’ll be gone most of the week,” Ben stated, turning toward his three sons who waited as he mounted his buckskin stallion. “I expect things to carry on as usual…or maybe I should rephrase that…carry on as normally as possible.”
Ben gave a light laugh, casting his eyes at his youngest son. “Joseph, please, try to stay out of trouble this time, will ya?” smiled Ben. “There’s plenty of work to be done, you shouldn’t have time on your hands for anything else. I expect those strays rounded up and that fence over in the south pasture repaired by the time I get back. Oh, and don’t forget, I want you to take inventory of line shacks one, two and three, make sure everything is counted, repaired and then restocked, we’ll be needing them before much longer.” Ben flashed a smile at his youngest. “I know you’ll do a good job, son,” he added as a show of his faith in his son’s ability.
“Don’t worry Pa, I’ll do my best,” Joe returned the smile, though the thoughts of his father being gone for a whole week disturbed him. He had been having nightmares, waking almost nightly for over a week, and he had wanted to speak to his father about them, but it seemed that Ben had been so busy with so many different things, that the time had never been right. Now it was too late, Ben was leaving again, just three days after returning from Genoa, his father was having to go to Sacramentoon mining business.
“I know you will, son,” nodded Ben as he turned to his older sons. “Adam, Hoss, you both know what you are to do, right?”
“Yessir, Pa,” smiled Hoss.
“Don’t worry Pa, I’ll try to have those books straightened out by the time you get home.” Adam’s lip curled into a fine line and he couldn’t help but add to his statement. “I still say if you had let me do them in the first place, I wouldn’t have to be spending hours, possibly days, working on them now, while you’re gone. I could be doing something constructive, like watching out for this little bear cub of yours.” Adam gently jabbed his thumb into his kid brother’s shoulder and waited for his father’s response, his dark eyes dancing mischievously.
“Hey,” squealed Joe.
Ben’s dark eyes darted from Adam’s face to the innocent face of his youngest offspring, and Ben smiled. The boy was the joy of his heart, and everyone knew it, even the boy.
“You’ll be watching out for him regardless as to whether or not those books get corrected.” Ben’s smile turned to Adam, his oldest, and his partner in everything that he had ever undertaken since Adam’s birth. “He’s your responsibility for the next few days, I hold you liable. Have a good week, boys, be safe,” Ben called out, as Joe’s high-pitched giggles sounded in his ears. Ben shook his head, those boys of mine, he thought with pride.
Adam glanced at his brother and sighed deeply. “Get going Joe, might as well not waste time standing there daydreaming.”
“Sure thing older brother,” Joe called teasingly.
Joe gave one swift glance at his father’s retreating back as Ben’s horse moved over the rise. His smile disappeared from his face and unseen by his brothers, was replaced with a frown; he had certainly needed to speak with his father about his sudden unease, for he had felt a sure cloud of doom wash over him and linger now for several days.
“I’ll be in the house, working on the books if either of you need anything,” called Adam heading in to begin the dubious task his father had set before him.
Hoss tightened the cinch on his saddle and mounted up, he had work to do down at the corrals. Some mustangs needed his attention and he had promised his father that he would get right to it and thus the middle son’s day was set.
Joe entered the barn feeling a mite gloomy. He hated that it was his time to muck out the stalls, he hated shoveling all the manure and then carrying it all the way out to the manure pile behind the barn to dump. He grumbled under his breath that his father should hire a man just to tend to the barn, but knew that would never happen, Ben expected each of his sons to take their turn doing the dirty work, as Joe fondly referred to the mucking. He finished sooner than he had expected. Hoss had mucked last and Joe found a bit of comfort in the fact that Hoss always did a better job than he or Adam; and so when Joe could manage, he tried to be next in line, behind Hoss, because it made his own job somewhat easier. Once the barn chores were finished, Joe loaded what fencing he needed onto the back of the wagon, hitched up the team and headed for the south pasture. Glancing at the sky, he figured that if he were lucky, he could complete the assigned task well before dinnertime, and still make it home in plenty of time to perhaps convince his older brother to allow him to do a little fishing.
Tomorrow, he would round up those strays that had knocked down the fence and head them back where they belonged. That should take most of the day, muttered Joe to himself, not relishing a long hard day in the saddle chasing obnoxious bovine that had neither brain nor brawn to think for themselves.
The line shacks would have to wait until the end of the week. In fact, reasoned Joe, it might take him three days to inventory, repair and restock the cabins, as his father had desired. Joe couldn’t help the tiny smile that creased his face; some time away from his older brothers was just what he had been hoping for. With his father away, Joe hoped to squeeze in a little hunting along with his fishing. Once up at the shacks, he was basically free to do as he wished, once the inventory was taken and a list of needed supplies was made, Joe thought that he might find that free time his father and brother had tried so hard to fill for him.
Cochise stood unmoving as his rider twisted and turned in the saddle, searching for what lay ahead. A fly buzzed around the pinto’s ear, causing the appendage to twitch nervously.
“Easy big fella,” whispered the boy softly, in a muted voice.
Joe’s eyes studied the thick growth around him, searching deeply into the dense new extensions that sprang up from the forest floor. His deep hazel eyes seemed to peer beyond the layers of greenery that tried to bar his search. A movement to his right drew the boy’s attention in that direction. A chipmunk darted across a downed log and scurried to the ground where Joe lost sight of it as he slipped beneath the natural carpet that covered the earth. Above, a black crow called out to his mate and flew onto a branch high in a pine, thick with dark green needles and laden with heavy cones.
Cochise’s shoulder flickered as he pawed the soft earth with his hoof, impatient to be moving on. Joe petted the long silky neck, and with a soft touch of his knees, urged the horse forward. Man and horse had only taken a few steps when Joe suddenly pulled back on the reins, bringing the horse to a dead standstill. Loud thrashing and pounding hooves barreled toward him. Bushes parted, the forest appeared to rip open right in front of Joe as five large white-tailed deer leapt over the fallen trees in their attempt to distance themselves from whatever it was that had startled them. They weren’t the only ones startled. The black and white pinto snorted loudly and then jumped in open-eyed surprise at the unexpected company as he tried to side step the deer in an effort to keep from being run down. In his terror, Cochise startled a covey of quail nesting beneath mountain laurel near the horse’s legs. The birds flew upward, their wings flapping as they raced for safety. Cochise whinnied loudly and stumbled backward, nearly sitting on his haunches. Joe’s arm flung outward, sending his Winchester sailing through the air. In a last ditch effort to keep from falling, Joe grabbed the saddle horn tightly with both hands as he felt Cochise’s body spring upward.
The deer darted past; their large, dark almond shaped eyes wide with fear. The tip of one buck’s antler scraped the horse’s shoulder, slicing through the thick skin. Cochise screamed out in fright and jerked his massive body around, heading, in his confusion, after the small herd of deer.
Joe had no time to collect his thoughts; everything happened so fast. His body shot from the saddle as if it had been catapulted from a cannon, separating him from his horse. His mind clouded momentarily by his dizziness but then cleared sharply, just as he felt the agonizing stab of pain assault his body.
“Well, Little Brother, it’s about time you got back. I was thinking maybe I’d have to come looking for you,” greeted Adam as he stood towering over his younger brother and watched while Joe removed his hat and gunbelt.
Joe cut his eyes upward at Adam’s face, not sure whether his brother meant what he had said or was just teasing him. Adam’s own eyes danced in amusement at the look on the younger boy’s face and his lips twisted into a grin as he rested his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“Don’t look so worried, kid, I was just joshing you,” laughed Adam. “Come on, supper’s ready, you hungry?”
Joe’s face brightened, “starved,” he laughed and followed Adam to the table. Joe pulled out his chair and started to sit down, but stopped at the gruffness of the family servant’s voice.
“Boy wash hands, no eat at Hop Sing’s table with dirt and cow dung under fingernails!” chanted the little oriental.
“Aw…dadburnitall, Hop Sing, can’t ya call it sumthin’ else?” moaned Hoss, his fork nearly to his mouth, which he had scrunched up at the servant’s description of what lay trapped under Little Joe’s fingernails.
“Hop Sing call it what it is…dirt, dung or worm bait…it not comin’ to my table. Scoot…boy go NOW!”
“Okay, okay, Hoppy, I’m going, I’m going,” giggled Little Joe over his shoulder. “Hey Adam, don’t let Hoss eat it all, I dun told ya, I’m starved.”
“Did you get that fence repaired Joe?” Adam asked much later that evening when supper was over and the three brothers sat leisurely around the great room.
Joe looked up from his checker game where he was winning, a satisfied smile on his face. “Sure did, even managed to fix a couple other places that Pa didn’t find earlier. Everything’s ready for those strays, once I get them rounded up tomorrow.”
“Hey, that checker wasn’t there a minute ago!” grumbled Hoss, giving his little brother an evil eye.
“Well, of course it was…ya don’t think I’d cheat, do ya?” smiled Little Joe, bewitchingly.
Hoss studied the young handsome face, trying to determine if he had just been asked one of those questions when it was best not to even bother. “Huh…I dun know…would ya?” he barked sharply, causing Joe to giggle.
“Aw Hoss, what d’ya take me for, a cheat, a liar, a sneak? Come on, now you’ve hurt my feelings,” pouted Joe, lowering his long lashes to add affect to his sorrowful look.
“Dadburnit Joe, I didn’t say that. How’s come ya always manage to turn every word I say around to make it sound like sumthin’ I dun said, but what I ain’t dun said, in the first place?” Hoss stared into the face of his baby brother, seeing the confused look cloud the hazel eyes.
“I’m not sure little brother got you’re meaning, Hoss,” Adam laughed loudly. “In fact, I’m not quite sure what you just said either.” Adam held his hand up to stop any further discussion of the matter. “It’s time we called it a night. We’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I’m beat anyway,” smiled Joe, willing to let Hoss’ remarks go for now.
He wasn’t really mad, nor were his feelings hurt, he just like to make his big brother think they were. Joe liked the attention, and though he would never admit it to either of his brothers, he thrived on it, especially now, with his father absent from home.
“Night Joe,” called Adam.
“Night Adam, night Hoss,” smiled Joe when his middle brother turned his blue eyes up toward him.
“Night, punkin, sleep tight,” Hoss grinned.
Joe woke with a sudden start. His brow was beaded with tiny droplets of perspiration and his skin felt cold and clammy. Large hazel eyes, frightened by the cabalistic shadows and imaginary visions, sought for something familiar as the eyes darted about in the dimly lit room. His breathing was labored as he struggled to regain some measure of control and slowly he crawled from his bed where the linens lay heaped at his feet, and inched his way to the window. Brushing aside the heavy drapes, Joe pushed the window up and allowed the cool night breeze to gently caress his bare skin. He breathed deeply, letting his air out more slowly until his breathing had returned to normal. Joe turned from the opened window and poured himself a glass of water from the bedside table and gulped the entire glass without stopping. Unexpectedly he shivered and looking up at the window hurried across the room and closed it. Joe stood in the middle of the room for several moments, arguing with his inner thoughts about the strange, unexplained dream he had just had. Shaking himself free from his thoughts, Joe returned to his bed and buried himself beneath the thick pile of blankets.
The pointed spear shaped branch dripped with bright red drops of blood. The sticky substance covered the tip, coating its long length until it stopped, just above the flesh, where the skin had been pierced and ripped opened, inches above the knee. A boy moaned, agonizingly painful as the guttural pleas for help slipped past his lips. He tried to move, but his left arm, twisted and bent, was pinned beneath him. He lay face down across the fallen tree, his body lodged tightly between the twisted branches that acted as arms, refusing to renounce their hold on him. Joe tried to move his right arm, but the pain shot through his shoulder until he screamed loudly, shattering the silent repose of the dense forest and relinquishing himself to the eerie murkiness of his subconscious.
“I’ll be back way before dark, Adam,” said Joe, swinging himself up onto his pinto’s back. “I only counted about a dozen or so steers that needed to be put back in the south pasture. Wanna go fishing, later?” Joe smiled, hopefully.
Adam studied his brother’s face and couldn’t help but return the smile. The kid was always telling them how much of a man he was, yet given half a chance, the boy was just that, in his brother’s eyes, a boy. Adam laughed softly and placed his hand on Joe’s knee. “I would think that you would have plenty to do besides fish, if you did everything that Pa instructed for you to do.”
“Aw, come on Adam, what’s it gonna hurt to do a little fishin? Ain’t you tired of staying cooped up in the house, straining your brain over those ole books? Let’s have a little fun, what’d ya say?”
Adam seemed to be pondering his brother’s words. He was tired of staying inside, it was much to nice to be locked away staring at the crudely scribbled numbers and letters his father had managed to enter into the ledgers. Adam met his brother’s steady gaze and smiled.
“We’ll see. I’ll let you know when you get home tonight. Now get going.”
Adam slapped Cochise’s rump and the pinto darted forward. Joe giggled and turned the horse back around to face his brother. “You must be getting old Adam, you’re beginning to sound just like Pa.”
“Oh, get out of here, you little scamp,” shouted Adam, laughing to himself as he headed back to the dreaded ledgers once again.
It took Little Joe much more time than he had thought. The confused steers deemed it their privilege to roam free, to seek greener pastures than what the rancher’s youngest son was forcing upon them. Joe would no sooner get one steer back on the right side of the fence, when two more would make their escape and he’d be forced into repeating his actions, over and over. The midday sun loomed overhead; its bright rays nearly blinding his eyes, as Joe finally herded the last of the steers into the south pasture. He glanced upward, shielding his face from the hot sunbeams and groaned inwardly. It would take him at least two hours to ride back to the ranch. By then it would be time for supper and much, much too late to ride up to the lake and do any fishing. Joe didn’t even try to mask his disappointment, he was alone, and besides, there was no one to pity him but himself.
“Come on Cooch, might as well get home, ain’t no fishing goin’ to happen tonight.” Joe kicked gently at his mount’s side and allowed his weary body to sway in time to his horse’s gentle movements. Had anyone been watching, one would think that the horse and his rider were one.
His vision blurred by pain, Joe moved his head ever so slightly until he could see over his shoulder. His eyes widened in fear at what he saw. Tears filled the deep wells and rolled unceremoniously down his battered face, stinging the scrapes and cuts that had disfigured his face. He groaned and looked away, felt his stomach heave and then spewed the hot bile from his mouth where his stomach had sent it, erupting, and dotting the ground below his head.
Joe took several deep breaths and clinching his teeth tightly; tried to unlock his body from the tangle of branches that hid him with their thick pine needles. It was useless; it was much too painful for the spear shaped branch had harpooned his upper leg, driving the long pointed length completely through his leg, from the front to the back. He couldn’t move his body, his pinned arm was useless, numb to all feeling; his other arm, from what Joe could see, had also been pierced by a much smaller branch. There was no way of moving it, no way to free himself from the agonizing death that beckoned him.
“Pa…” whimpered Joe. Seeing before him, his father’s face, Joe cried out again and then softly closed his eyes.
“Hey Short Shanks,” called Hoss, hurrying from the house to catch up with his little brother. “I’d go with ya, to the line shacks, but I got more work down at the corrals. Them mustangs are getting’ harder and harder for the men to break and Adam says I gotta stay down there and make sure them ole boys does it right. Pa wants them animals ready for the Army by the end of the month.”
“That’s okay Hoss. I can manage. Tell Adam it might be late before I get in, maybe even after dark. I wanna get all three shacks ready if I can so that tomorrow all I have to do is stock them and then, maybe we can go fishin’ at least once before Pa gets home.”
“All right, just do it right, so’s Pa can’t bawl ya out for nuthin. You’re doin’ good job, Joe, he’d be mighty proud of ya,” beamed Hoss, his own pride in his little brother showing in his clear blue eyes.
“Thanks, Hoss, I promised Pa I would do my best, and that’s what I aim to do. With any luck, maybe he’ll give us all a day off…I saw some monster deer tracks at the edge of the woods by the south pasture. Wouldn’t mind checking them out…I’d love to bag a big one and surprise Pa when he got home.”
“Now ya listen Joe, no huntin’ or fishin’ til everythin’s dun. ‘Member what ole Adam said, work first…”
“I know Hoss, I know. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure it’s all finished before I even think about asking Adam to let me go. See ya, I gotta get going before ole stuffy pants finds out I’m still here,” laughed Joe, tipping his hat at his brother.
“Take care punkin,” Hoss called, watching Joe gallop away. “Dadburn fool kid,” muttered Hoss, though his voice held no malice for his kid brother, only affection.
The fog seemed to descend quickly and shroud the dark forest in a fine mist. The soft whimpering sounds were muted, almost inaudible. A hare sat on his haunches, his nose twitching, ears tilted upward, listening, then hopping away to burrow beneath the ground and snuggle with its family. The blood caked body shivered violently as spasms of pain surged throughout the trembling body. Eyelids and lashes laden with the dew of collected tears flickered and opened, making tiny, thin slits from which to view the world around him. Ghostly phantoms and eerie silhouettes danced about in the white fog, boggling the mind of the young boy who clung desperately to life. His lips, parched and dry, struggled to form words, words that sought to beseech God for mercy from his tormented world, from his suffering and pain.
“Papa…please,” his unspoken words cried out in anguish, “help…me.” His wretchedness clothed him like a tight fitting corset. His body ached, his head throbbed, and blood continued to seep from the opened wounds, Joe Cartwright, just six months shy of his eighteenth birthday, lay dying, slowly, painfully and regrettably for those who loved him and had yet to learn of his fate.
“I figured he’d be home before now,” mused Adam, glancing again at the sunset before entering the house and closing the door. “Wonder what’s keeping him?”
“Now Adam, Joe’s just tryin’ to do everythin’ right. He aims on askin’ Pa for a day or two off to do some huntin’ and fishin’ when Pa gets home. Don’t blame him none either, I could use a couple’la free days myself.” Hoss tossed his oversized hat onto the credenza and headed for the kitchen. “Sumthin’ sure ‘nough smells good,” he called over his shoulder.
Adam tossed his own hat down and followed after his brother. “Yeah, and if that little scamp doesn’t get back pretty soon, we’re not holding supper for him tonight. I need food for thought; you’d never believe what a mess Pa made of those books. The whole year’s worth of figures was off because of one little number. Pa should have entered it as a 3 but the ink must have run and it looked like an 8. Took me four days to find that blasted mistake!”
Adam paced back and forth in front of the massive stone fireplace and glanced for the hundredth time at the old grandfather clock and then continued on with his pacing. Hoss peeked over the top of his newspaper, watching his brother, and then turned to check the time for himself. It was late. His stomach had begun to churn, making him slightly nauseous, but he didn’t bring it to his older brother’s attention; it was easy to see that Adam was worried as well, and a little more than angry.
“Where in thunder could that boy be and why is it taking him so long to do one little thing?” stormed Adam suddenly, surprising Hoss with his loud voice that shattered the quiet solitude of the house.
“Aw Adam, simmer down, boy. Joe’ll be along soon…I hope,” muttered Hoss under his breath.
Adam turned dark, angry eyes at his middle brother. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Hoss tossed his newspaper onto the wide table and stood to his feet, shoving his fingertips deeply into his pants pocket. “Nuthin’, nuthin’ a’tall.”
Adam took a deep breath and dropped his head. “I’m sorry Hoss, I don’t mean to take it out on you. But you have no idea how it makes me feel when Pa goes away for days at a time like this and leaves that rascal in my care. The boy is forever getting himself into some kind of trouble and usually ends up with me having to bail his ornery little butt out of it. Then, Pa comes home, and I’m the one in trouble! God…sometimes I wish I’d been a woman!”
Hoss burst into laughter and tried to imagine his older brother as a woman. “Adam, I’m sorry,” he sputtered, slapping his brother on the shoulder.
“Sure you are, you big lug,” said Adam as a smile crept across his face, relaxing his features. “But I just hate it when Pa goes off and says what he always says to me, ‘You’re in charge while I’m gone son, I hold you liable’. He has no idea what stress that puts me in, especially where Ben Cartwright’s youngest son is concerned!”
The night dragged on for what seemed an eternity to the boy, paralyzed with fear and prisoner of his agony. Hot flashes caused his tortured body to shiver violently. Joe screamed in pain, silent, unvoiced, as his body quivered and jerked, sending arrows of suffering through his legs and arms. His throat, so dry that his sobbing seemed unreal, Joe fought to stay awake. His tormented mind had seen strange and unexplainable images, silhouetted against the white fog, shadowed behind by the blackness of night. Tree sap had dripped onto the boy’s face, burning the abrasions and coating one eye, which now refused to open. Flapping of wings stirred the visions to life, as an owl winged its way to the high pine growing inches from where the wounded boy remained. The wise old bird hooted, startling Joe, filling him with more fear as his mind played cruel and vicious games with his heart and soul.
Hoss and Adam stopped laughing and teasing and listened to the sounds of slow moving hooves that clamored noisily against the hard earth outside their home. The brothers exchanged relieved expressions and stepped as one, toward the thick oak door.
“It’s about time,” muttered Adam softly to Hoss who followed closely on his heels.
“I told ya, the boy would be okay,” Hoss laughed softly, stopping suddenly and bumping into his brother’s back when Adam stopped in his tracks.
“What in the world?” Hoss stammered veering around his brother in order to grab the pinto’s reins that dangled on the ground.
“Easy boy,” Adam soothed the frightened horse.
Quickly, his skilled hands ran over the horse’s flesh, searching for anything that might tell them what had happened to its rider. The long slender fingers touched the deep cut and Cochise shied away, his eyes wide with fear. Hoss held tightly to the reins, steadying the animal with his calm, demure and soft words.
“Hoss, look,” whispered Adam, running his hand gently over the cut. Adam glanced over his shoulder and met his brother’s frightened blue eyes. “Hoss…” Adam was at a loss for words, but the frightened light in his eyes, told Hoss everything he needed to know about how worried his oldest brother was.
“Have one of the hands take Cochise and tend to this, I’ll saddle our horses. It could be that the boy has to walk home.” Adam shrugged his shoulders, “would serve him right for being so late.”
“Aw Adam, ya don’t mean that do ya? What if the kid’s hurt? Don’t forget, Pa said ya was liable for him.” Hoss couldn’t help the tiny smile that crossed his face when Adam turned dark eyes on him.
“No, of course I don’t mean it. Let’s saddle up and go look for him. I don’t relish him staying out all night, especially since we both know he’s on foot.”
The two brothers returned shortly after daybreak, tired, dirty and hungry. They had tried backtracking Cochise, but had lost the trail with the darkening of night. Now they hurried to refresh themselves, eat, grab fresh mounts and head out again.
“I’m worried Adam, I got this terrible ache in my gut that tells me somethin’s wrong, bad wrong,” Hoss said, voicing his fears aloud for the first time. “I’m afraid for him, Adam.”
Adam turned and faced his gentle spirited brother and placed a reassuring hand on the massive shoulder. “I am too, Hoss. I’d hate to think of something bad happening to the boy. I’d sure hate having to face Pa with bad news; it would crush him. We both know how he feels about Joe.”
“Come on, let’s get a move on.”
Adam heard Hoss sniff his nose and watched as the big man swiped away tears that had filled his eyes, trying not to let them slip down his face.
Twilight had just begun to awaken the forest. Tiny creatures now scampered about, searching for morsels to fill their hungry bellies. Two wood mice played a game of hide- and-seek, while a snake slithered along silently, unnoticed by its victims who continued to dash about carelessly. Seconds later, only one tiny mouse remained, staring wildly at the snake that turned and carried away its companion, to enjoy as its breakfast.
The blood had dried and had turned to a dull shade of brown that was common, hours later. Particles of fine pollen coated the clothing that clung damply to the boy’s body. Fragments of dirt had entrapped themselves in the dampness, covering the body in a grayish layer, and blending the comatose body with its surroundings. No sound or movement did the boy make; life was inching toward death. Death waited on the border between the natural and the supernatural, luring, enticing the boy to move nearer with its promise of peace, free from fear and pain, and slowly, ever so slowly, the lifeblood flowed in that direction.
“Hoss, hold up a minute,” ordered Adam, reining his mount to a standstill. “It’s obvious that Joe’s covered all three line shacks. He’s been there, made his repairs, and I’m sure inventoried everything. That means that he must have started home, yet there’s nothing to show us that he has. You don’t think he could have taken the long way home, do you?”
Hoss pushed back his tall hat and brushed his brow with his shirtsleeve. “Could have, but why head back to the south pasture? Would have been much faster for him to go the other way…unless…”
Adam pushed the cork back into his canteen and gave his brother a sharp look. “Unless, what?”
“Well, I ain’t fur sure, ya understand. But the other day, Joe said somethin’ about findin’ some deer tracks, just up a little ways from the south pasture.” Hoss pressed his lips tightly together and stared at Adam.
“The boy mentioned how he’d sure like to take a look at’em. Ya don’t reckon he would have, not without askin’ first, I mean?” Hoss’ blue eyes looked doubtful, as he said the words aloud.
The boy was known for his impetuous nature and nothing that the lad did ever really surprised his family. It shocked them at times, but they managed to survive and carry on, oft as not, bailing the boy out of some unknown danger or trouble.
Adam shook his head and made a face that showed his dismay. “Of course he would have, if Joe thought for one minute that he could get away with something like that, hell yes, he would have tried it. You just wait until I get my hands on his skinny little butt; he won’t sit for a week! Come on, let’s ride.”
Hoss stared in shock at Adam’s back, sighing deeply to himself; he gently nudged his big stallion into step beside his brother’s horse.
It didn’t take the two riders long to work their way around to the south pasture. Adam pulled to a stop and glanced around him and then turned to Hoss. “Any idea where to begin looking?” he asked, his voice thick with a mixture of anger and uncommon fear that had quite suddenly swallowed him up.
“No, guess we could split up though,” Hoss suggested. “I’ll start over here and work south, why don’t you start over there and work your way back toward me?”
“All right, fire off three shots if you find anything. And that little brother of ours, better hope that you find him first, instead of me!” growled Adam, turning and urging his horse onward.
Three shots filled the air and Adam yanked back on his reins. Sport slid to a stop, rearing slightly into the air as his rider turned him in the opposite direction. “Come on buddy, Hoss must have found him.”
“Find something?” Adam yelled even before reaching his brother’s side.
“Just where Joe’s horse entered the woods, here. See?” asked Hoss, dismounting and showing Adam the signs left by their brother’s horse.
Adam glanced up, veering into the dense forest. “Naturally, he couldn’t have made it easier for us; why does he always have to do things the hard way?” grumbled Adam. His words were not as angry sounding as they had been earlier in the day when he had first thought that perhaps his kid brother was goofing off again; but rather were filled with worry that something might have actually happened to the youngest Cartwright.
Hoss hid his smile from his older brother. No use adding to Joe’s misery, he told himself. If the boy were doing something that he was not supposed to be doing, Hoss thought that he’d sure hate to be in his kid brother’s place when old stiff neck Adam got his hands on him.
“Let’s take a look,” ordered Adam as he waited for Hoss to mount up. “You lead, just be careful, if he’s hunting, he might mistake one of us for that buck he’s thinking about. I’d hate to end up with a bullet in my gut.”
Hoss snickered and squeezed Chubb’s sides. “Adam, Joe ain’t trigger happy and ya know it.”
“Right now I don’t know anything!” Adam called to Hoss. “Just keep your eyes opened.”
Twigs snapped and popped. Leaves rustled noisily as the sure-footed horses crept along the narrow trail. A squirrel barked angrily at them for disturbing his nap while a second gray squirrel darted into a hole in an old oak tree, an acorn wedged between its teeth.
A skunk scampered across the path; its long black tail cocked and ready to spray, should danger prove unavoidable. Chubb snorted, the skunk’s scent offending his nostrils. Adam laughed and held his nose as the rodent scurried into the thick ground growth.
“Phew,” Hoss snarled, glancing over his shoulder and laughing at the picture his brother made, holding his nose and pursing his lips tightly together.
After clearing the area, Hoss stopped. His keen hearing had picked up on a strange sound. Nothing seemed to be moving, not even the horses; everything was at a stand still.
“You hear that, Adam?”
Adam hesitated, knowing that he could trust his middle brother’s instincts. After several moments, he ventured his horse along side of Hoss’. “I don’t hear anything, just the normal sounds.”
Hoss slipped from his saddle and squatted on the ground. His fingers gently dusted back the newly fallen pine needles, unearthing the ground beneath them. For several long seconds he remained poised, his ears listening again for the undefined sounds he had heard minutes before. The big man stood to his feet and cupped his hands around his mouth.
Adam’s horse jerked back his head, startled by the booming voice. Quickly Adam steadied his mount and dismounted, and moved to stand beside his brother.
“Why don’t you just shoot me instead?” he growled. “Be more merciful than scaring the hell out of me!”
“Be quiet Adam and stop your fussin’. He’s here, and he’s hurt…badly,” he added, cutting his fearful eyes at his brother.
“Come on, go slow,” Hoss cautioned. “JOSEPH? WHERE ARE YA, PUNKIN?”
Hoss suddenly felt a strong grip on his arm and stopped, turning to Adam. “Look,” Adam pointed his finger at something shiny, lying on the ground just ahead of them.
Hoss hurried to retrieve the item that had caught the sun’s rays through the tall pines where the sun struggled to light the dark forest floor. His hands brushed away the leaves and twigs that had fallen overnight and which had practically made the object invisible to the naked eye.
“Oh Lordy, Adam, it’s Little Joe’s rifle.” His head darted in all directions, his eyes searching for some sign of his brother. “JOE!” he bellowed, his heart racing with fear at what he might find.
Adam’s eyes sought the woods around him. Dark with dread and left with a feeling of impending doom, his eyes scanned every inch of a full range of view. “Come on Hoss, move ahead some,” he said, looking at the ground.
“Hold up, look Adam,” Hoss pointed at some broken twigs, fingering them carefully. “Look at these.” Hoss handed Adam one of the twigs; dry, dark blood had coated the tip.
“I don’t like this, Hoss,” muttered Adam, his stomach beginning to churn deep within. He took a deep breath to steady himself. “Hey, what’s that?” Quickly Adam dropped his horse’s reins and moved slightly behind a mountain laurel and stooped to retrieve his treasure.
“Joe’s hat!” Hoss almost screamed. His face turned a pasty white as he took his brother’s hat from Adam’s hand and lovingly caressed the brim.
“I’m scared, Adam,” whispered Hoss, choking back tears that threatened to overflow.
A soft breeze stirred the air, sending a small whirlwind of leaves scooting across the path in front of the brothers. The air lay heavy with the scent of laurel, sweet, almost sickening so in the tight confines of the forest walls. Blue jays and robins fluttered overhead, bickering at each other. The soft hum of bees told of a nearby nest where rich dark honey gathered, just waiting for mama bear to harvest for her young. A fly buzzed Hoss’ head and he swatted at it.
“Dadburn green fly,” he cursed. Suddenly his eyes flashed dark, searching his brother’s face.
“Oh no Adam, not that,” he groaned weakly.
“Take it easy brother, it’s just an old fly,” Adam said with more assurance than what he actually felt.
“But you know what that means….”
“Shut up Hoss!” yelled Adam. Adam instantly regretted his statement and hurried to comfort his brother whose eyes had suddenly pooled with tears.
“I’m sorry Hoss, I didn’t mean to yell at you,” Adam admitted, glancing away to hide his own fear that was written into every crease in his handsome face.
“OH DEAR GOD!” he sputtered, in broken words.
“What?” Hoss nearly screamed and followed Adam into an extremely dense section of growth.
Adam had fallen to his knees, his head bowed lowly and Hoss could hear the sounds of his brother’s weeping. Hoss dropped to his knees as well, his eyes wide with fear as large beads of water dripped down his face. He struggled to pull air into his lungs, his head began to swim and for the first time in his twenty-three years, Hoss thought he might faint.
Adam and Hoss’ heads jerked upward at the near unintelligible sound. Adam quickly placed his hand to his baby brother’s neck, searching frantically for a sign of life. “He’s alive, Hoss…he’s alive,” whispered Adam, turning to face Hoss.
“We have to get him down from here,” Adam added, quickly surveying the damage.
“But how? He looks like someone stuck a fork through his leg,” Hoss said softly, his eyes refusing to look again at how badly his brother was injured. The sight of the spear shaped branch holding his brother’s leg against the rough bark of the tree and the arm as though it had been placed that way on purpose, turned the big man’s stomach.
“That branch is too big to just break off, it’ll kill him sure ‘nough if’n we were to do that,” worried Hoss.
“I know, I know Hoss, give me minute to think,” groaned Adam.
“Get me the blankets, Hoss, he’s freezing,” ordered Adam, his hand resting on his little brother’s back. “Joe…Joe…can you hear me buddy?” cooed Adam when Hoss had gone to get the blankets.
“How in the world did you get yourself into this mess?” Adam’s words were choked, broken as he tried to turn his brother’s face toward him. His large gentle hands moved tenderly over his brother’s fevered flesh, brushing away the soil and fine grains of dirt that had become glued to the battered face.
“Please little buddy, hold on…don’t give up,” stammered Adam, holding the cherubic face in his hands with as much care as if it had been a fine piece of China. Adam leaned down, his lips brushing his brother’s forehead. “Try Joe…try…I know you can do it.”
Adam heard Hoss’ footsteps behind him and quickly wiped the dampness from his face and took a deep breath. “Help me cover him up, be careful not to jar him,” Adam advised in a steady voice that revealed nothing of the inner turmoil that was wreaking havoc with his fears.
Once Adam had Joe wrapped as best he could within the warm folds of the blankets, he placed a hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Listen Hoss, there’s no way we can break that branch free without causing him excruciating pain, you’re going to have to go for help. Bring back the medical supplies and fix the wagon so that we can transport him and bring something to cut this harpoon away with. Send one of the men for Doc Martin and tell him to have the doctor meet us back at the house. Now get going.”
Adam turned his attention back to Joe, unaware that Hoss had yet to move from the spot next to him. “Adam?”
“What is it Hoss?” Adam whispered softly, afraid to look into the blue eyes that he knew were watching him. Adam swallowed hard, recognizing the fear in his own voice but hoping that Hoss had not detected the sound.
“Is he gonna…die?” The last word came out as a sob, bringing Adam’s attention to his brother’s face. Hoss’ grief and despair were etched on his face and reflected back his own expression.
“I don’t know…Hoss…please, time’s awasting, get moving.”
Hoss lumbered to his feet, his hand caressing the dark curls as he rose. “Don’t leave’em Adam. Ya know how he hates to be alone.”
Adam’s eyes misted, he knew, he had always known of his brother’s fears, ever since the boy had been a baby, Adam had known. “I won’t Hoss, I promise. Hoss?”
“Hurry, will you?”
“I will, I promise…I won’t be long. And I’ll make sure Hank sends a wire to Pa in Sacramento, too.”
With that, the big man vanished behind the natural walls of the forest. Adam glanced quickly over his shoulder but could not see his brother. Sounds of Chubb’s heavy hooves pounding the carpet floor, jarred the earth as the huge animal galloped off, maneuvering both horse and rider in and out of the tangles that tried to bar their path. They, Hoss and Chubb, driven by fear and guided by love, let nothing stand in their way, Joe’s life lay in the balance and Hoss’ only aim was to tip the scales in his brother’s favor. Determined that his baby brother would live to hunt another day, Hoss vowed with his life to bring help before it was too late.
It took far more time than what Adam or Hoss both had determined to free Joe from his entrapment. The sharply honed, spear shaped branch, could not be removed from the boy’s leg by his brother’s hands alone. It would take more skilled, finely trained hands to do the removing. Hands such as Doctor Paul Martin’s, whose own nimble fingers could cut away the flesh enough that the rod could be granted freedom and the leg stitched and sewn until it closed the gaping hole on either side of Joe’s thigh. The thinner, less ominous protruding branch that had speared the upper arm, broke away from the trunk of the tree after a minute or two of gentle persuasion on Adam’s part.
Adam kept his eyes trained on his brother’s face as he gently worked the smaller branch free. The limb had actually cracked when the weight of Joe’s body had crashed into it, thus giving Adam the leverage he needed to snap it completely free.
Soft moaning erupted as the shorter, less aggressive lance-like branch snapped. “Easy Little Buddy,” Adam whispered.
Once Joe’s arm was free of the tree trunk, Adam was better able to position his brother in a more comfortable way. Though the arm still carried the extension, Adam could wrap the arm to prevent further loss of blood. Caring not that he had nothing but his shirt, Adam ripped the fine black material and carefully bound his brother’s arm.
“Oh…oh…” The boy’s pain penetrated his unconscious mind and he whimpered again, ever so softly. “Hmm…oh…”
“I’m sorry Joe, I don’t mean to hurt you, pal.”
Adam dampened a strip of cloth and wiped some of the dirt from the soil caked face. He pried away the droplet of sap that covered one eye and cleaned the area until the eyelid was free of the sticky substance. Adam’s hands trembled each time they returned to administer some sort of care for his brother. The wound in Joe’s leg had stopped bleeding, the blood soaked trousers were anchored to his brother’s flesh and carefully, his knife in hand, Adam cut away the sullied material. Adam scrunched up his nose in distaste of the wound site, knowing that many hours of tedious labor would be spent working to remove the spiked branch from Joe’s leg.
Suddenly, Adam wished with all of his heart that his father were here. Joe needed their father’s strength, and his comfort. Just one word from Ben could calm and reassure the boy, and Adam knew that. Looking down into the tormented face Adam felt his vision blurring. Joe was so near death, his skin tone had turned a milky white, his eyes bore black circles about them, breathing was labored and painful and he was so cold to the touch. The coldness scared Adam the most. It was the icy fingers of death coming to claim their victim, tagging the individual for the grim reaper. Adam felt his body shudder, as the thoughts passed through his mind and shook his head to free his thinking.
“Joe,” he whispered, brushing the damp cloth over his brother’s face. “Try to wake up, buddy. Hoss has gone for help, he’ll be back soon and we’ll get you home.”
Joe’s head moved slightly, as if trying to find the familiar voice. “Ad….”
“I’m here Joe, it’s me, Adam.” Adam’s eyes watched every little twitch and movement on Joe’s face, hoping that Joe would open his eyes.
The fingers on Joe’s hand wiggled and Adam was quick to grasp them with his own.
“That’s it Joe, hang on…it won’t be long now.” Adam could feel the slight pressure of Joe’s fingers clinging to his and the tender, needful contact cried out speechlessly to his heart.
Adam was rewarded minutes later as Joe’s eyes began to flutter and then open, though briefly. In the deep hazel depths of his brother’s eyes, Adam looked, drowning in the pain and sorrow he saw behind the emerald coloring that had lost it’s sparkle and shine. Torment and fear were the eyes tint now. Dyed dark and shallow, their hue lost in the sea of emptiness that looked back at him.
Adam felt the wind leave his lungs. His own eyes no longer able to contain his tears, overflowed, allowing his tears to run freely downward until they dropped from his own chin onto the ground.
“Ad…am…” Joe’s voice was strained. It took every ounce of strength he could muster just to speak his brother’s name. He gathered what air he could to fill his lungs and then blinking back tears, spoke again. “Do…n’t cry…” Joe’s eyes closed, blocking from his view, the face of his oldest brother. The air forced his chest upward, expelled, and then ceased to be.
Adam’s eyes opened wide with newfound fear. “JOE!” he screamed frantically. “Don’t you dare die on me!” he wailed through gritted teeth. “BREATHE…JOE! BREATHE…Oh please little buddy…breathe for me! BREATHE!”
“You can’t die, Joe! I won’t permit it! Do you hear me? BREATHE!”
Adam ran his hands over his face and then took Joe’s face between the palms of his hands. “Joseph Francis Cartwright…I’m telling you now, you had better take a breath and do it now…or…I’m telling Pa that you sneaked away. You know what he’ll do to you when he finds out…NOW BREATHE, DAMNIT!”
From the far side of death’s border, the message must have caught up with Joe Cartwright. His body began to spasm and jerk. His chest expanded and when his lips parted slightly, air filled his lungs. Adam swallowed the knot in his throat and caressed his brother’s cold face.
“That’s it buddy, do it again. Breathe Joe…that’s it, again. Good boy, Joe; do one for Pa…that’s it. Now, one for Hoss…” Adam was panting as he recited the procedure over and over until he was sure that Joe would not stop breathing again.
Hoss drove the horses at break-neck speed, something he normally would not have done. But Joe needed him. And Adam, he needed him too. Hank had been sent into town for the doctor and a quickly scribbled message to wire to his father, explaining that Joe had been injured and Ben was needed home as soon as possible. Hop Sing had helped put a mattress into the back of the wagon, tossed in medical supplies and an ax, plus a small hatchet. With dusk quickly approaching, Hoss had remembered to toss in a couple of lanterns and the matches and in record time, was on his way back to his brother’s side.
Hoss found his older brother sitting silently next to Joe. Adam had their youngest brother’s head cradled in his hands, and when Hoss looked into Adam’s face, his heart stopped. Adam’s expression was blank, his cheeks dampened by the obvious tears that had overflowed from his sad, inexpressive eyes. Instantly, Hoss dropped to his knees, his hand trembling as he placed it atop his older brother’s shoulder.
“Adam?” Hoss whispered in a choked voice, laden with fear. He glanced quickly at Joe and then returned tear filled eyes back to Adam’s face.
Adam lifted his head slightly upward to meet Hoss’ eyes. “He stopped breathing, Hoss…I was so scared…but he started up again…thank God. I was so scared.” Adam, his chin quivering, muttered the phrase a second time. “I was so scared…so scared, Hoss.” His voice cracked and the tears spilled again.
Hoss took a deep breath and tightened his fingers on Adam’s shoulders. “I know Adam, I know. Hey, lets get him down from there and take him home.” Hoss paused, watching Adam struggle with his emotions.
Hoss was shaken to the very core of his being. Never, in all of his years, had he seen his oldest brother more unsettled emotionally than what he was at this moment. “Adam, are you all right?”
“Yeah…yeah…I…um…” Adam gulped and glanced at Joe, “he scared the hell out of me, that’s all.”
An hour later, Joe was settled in the wagon next to Adam. Adam had refused to leave his brother’s side. Shaken, he was determined that the boy would not stop breathing a second time.
Adam wrapped the wounded leg and arm as best he could with the supplies that Hoss had brought back with him. The leg, caked in blood and dirt, turned Adam’s stomach, and it was all the oldest Cartwright son could do to keep his belly from reacting to the sight.
Joe moaned and groaned. The ride was long, the way bumpy. The trail, nothing more than a path through the forest, was barely wide enough for the wagon and several times the brothers had to stop and disentangle the wagon wheels from the vines and bushes that reached out to stop them.
“OH!” screamed Joe.
Adam, Joe’s hand held within his own, tried to soothe his brother. “Take it easy, Joe. I know it hurts buddy, but we’re almost home.
Adam swallowed and then parted his lips, allowing himself the opportunity to suck in large gulps of fresh air. “Joe…” he whispered, but then his words became trapped in his throat and came out as a sob. “I’m sorry, buddy.”
Before Hoss had even pulled the team to a halt, Paul Martin and Hop Sing were rushing outside to meet them. Paul immediately jumped into the back of the wagon with Adam. His dark, compassionate eyes met Adam’s, and the family physician was taken back by what he saw, deep beneath the mask that Adam had attempted to put in place.
Paul’s hand grasped Adam’s arm. “Are you all right, son?”
Adam could not find his voice, but nodded his head in response.
“That’s good Adam, I’m going to need you, very shortly. Now, lets take a look at this boy, shall we?”
Paul moved to Joe’s side and carefully removed the blanket. He had been expecting Joe’s injury to be bad, but nothing had prepared him for the sight that met his eyes.
“MY GOD!” Paul turned to glance over his shoulder at Adam. But Adam had refused to meet the physician’s eyes. His own eyes had filled once again with unshed tears and Adam quickly ran his hand across his face to brush them away.
“Hoss!” called Paul, “Help me get him inside. Hop Sing, get the table ready, I have to operate right now.”
Hoss helped Paul to ease his brother carefully out of the wagon and carry him inside, where Hop Sing was already moving everything into place.
Adam lingered behind, his emotions raw. “I have to get control…God…help me, please. Joe needs me…” Moments later, Adam turned and entered the house, just in time to catch the end of the doctor’s statement.
“…the leg has to come off,” Paul whispered quietly.
“NO!” Adam shouted, stomping across the room to his brother’s side. He glanced down into Joe’s face and saw the agony that had forged itself into his brother’s features. He would never allow the doctor to cut off his brother’s leg, not in a thousand years.
Paul turned quickly to face the angered brother, “Adam…”
“NO!” Adam yelled again. “You are not going to amputate his leg, do you understand? You dig that stick out anyway you have too, but understand me, if you make one attempt to do what you’ve just suggested, I’ll kill you with my bare hands!”
“ADAM!” Hoss stood opened mouth, suddenly snapping to life and moving to his brother’s side. “Take it easy, boy. Paul’s just trying to save Joe’s life, that’s all.”
Adam’s dark eyes glared at Hoss. “Then let him save it, but he is not, I repeat, NOT going to cut Joe’s leg off!”
Adam turned away, unable to look at any of them and slowly moved to the fireplace where he picked up the poker and began jabbing furiously at the dying embers.
Hours later, Adam slipped into Joe’s bedroom and pulled the chair close to the bed. Paul was tucking the blankets up around Joe’s neck and turned to glance at his friend’s oldest son. Adam seemed to have aged, he looked weary and worn, defeated by his grief, and Paul’s heart softened, his anger at Adam’s actions and statements dissipated.
“He’s one tough kid, Adam,” Paul whispered as he turned around. He saw Adam pull his gaze away from his brother’s face and look up at him.
“When we were alone, in the woods, he stopped breathing. Did you know that? He just whispered my name and then stopped breathing.”
Paul heard Adam’s voice thicken with emotion and begin to quiver as he continued to speak.
“He died, for just a minute or two, he died.” Adam’s eyes sought the doctor’s. “I’ve never been so scared in my entire life…Joe…my little buddy…died.” Unable to stop his tears, Adam covered his face and wept.
Paul quickly knelt in front of Adam and placed a caring hand on the boy’s knee.
“Adam…it’s okay…I understand, honest I do. But Joe is strong, and he’ll be all right, you have to believe that.”
Adam’s hand moved to brush away the dampness from his face. His eyes locked onto his brother’s face. “You don’t understand. I couldn’t do anything to help him.” Adam turned to Paul, “all of his life, I have been there for him. I’ve watched him grow from the day he was born until now. I’ve taught him how to ride, to hunt, how to shoot and how to think for himself. I’ve hauled his butt out of more trouble than you could ever imagine one boy getting into…but this time…when he needed me the most…I could do nothing but watch him die. I had no control over what happened to him…no, you don’t know how that made me feel!”
Adam rose from his chair and walked to the window. “I love him…I always have, but until that moment…I never knew just how much I really did love him.” Adam turned around; the silent tears coursed their way down his face until Adam moved to wipe them away.
“I’ll stay with him until he wakes up, if that’s all right with you?” Adam whispered softly.
“That will be fine, son. I’ll be downstairs if he should need me. Adam…try to get a little rest,” Paul muttered as he closed the door.
Time ticked slowly by. The big house was quiet and the sound of the chimes on the downstairs clock told of the early hour. Adam opened his eyes, amazed that he had fallen to sleep. Quickly they sought his brother’s face and Adam sighed deeply knowing that Joe was resting peacefully.
Adam studied the finely chiseled features. The boy was handsome, beneath the layer of bruises and scratches that had marked his face. He was young and strong, his whole life lay ahead of him, and Adam knew that Joe faced each new day with high expectations. A smile crossed his face at the thought of Joe’s unquenchable thirst for adventure.
“Well, Little Buddy,” whispered Adam, taking Joe’s hand in his own and gently caressing the top with his thumb. “I hope this keeps you satisfy for a very, very long time, cause you sure are making an old man out of me.” Adam leaned back into the chair and closed his eyes. Minutes later, he dozed off into sleep.
Adam’s head popped up and quickly he moved to the side of the bed. “Joe? It’s okay, buddy, Pa’s on his way.”
Adam brushed the curls from Joe’s forehead. “He’s coming Joe, soon. You just hang on.”
Joe’s eyes closed and minutes later the sound of his steadying breathing told his brother that once again, Joe had given himself over to the powerful medication that Paul had continued to administer.
Adam pulled back the drapes and watched as the sun topped the mountains. He watched the activities below, knowing that he should be out there with the men, doing his share. He glanced over his shoulder at his brother who had begun to stir and knew that he could not leave the boy’s side. Not yet, not until he was completely certain that Joe would indeed be all right. The boy’s fever had risen all night long. Paul had come and together he and Adam had kept Joe bathed with cool water and just before dawn, had packed his body in ice, in hopes of breaking the fever. It had worked too, Joe had begun to cry out, calling first for their father and then for Adam.
Adam turned from the window and went to Joe’s bedside. His eyes could not free themselves from his brother’s face. The memory of Joe’s expression just before taking his last breath lured Adam to the boy. He was entranced by the image, as if it had been branded before his eyes, and thus encased in his memory for all eternity.
Adam felt the sting of tears to his eyes. He had come so close to loosing his baby brother. It had frightened him more than anything had ever frightened him before. He had been numb with fear; his grief had overwhelmed him, and it seemed to Adam that he had been moving in a hypnotic state, his world unreal, more of an illusion.
Adam sat down and took Joe’s hand into his own two hands. Just to feel the warmth of his brother’s flesh caused a sob to catch in his throat. Hours ago, that same flesh had felt like ice to his touch. Adam’s fear filled him again as he glanced into Joe’s face and began to cry, this time his tears were in gratitude that God had heard his prayers and had given him back his baby brother.
“Joe,” whispered Adam, pressing the warm hand to his lips, “do you have any idea just how much I love you?”
“I think he does, son.”
“Pa!” whispered Adam, looking up to find his father standing behind him. “I didn’t hear you come in,” he said as he started to rise.
“Don’t get up Adam, you’re fine where you are,” smiled Ben. “I just talked to Paul, he’s downstairs, and he said that he thinks Joe will be fine.”
Adam took a deep breath and still clinging to Joe’s hand, faced his father. “It was touch and go there for awhile. He’s still not out of danger, not completely.”
Ben placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder, “I know, but it looks good. How about you, son? Are you going to be all right?”
“What do you mean? I’m fine.”
Ben smiled slightly. “Are you? I mean, Paul and Hoss said you had a pretty hard time out there, just you and Joe.”
Adam swallowed and locked his eyes onto Joe’s face. Ben sensed, more than saw, the tremors that rocked his oldest son’s body and knew that Adam had been tossed a loaded cannon.
“I suppose they told you how scared I was? How I nearly lost it?”
“No, they just said you were with him, when he stopped breathing. Do you want to tell me about it? I’d like to know what happened,” Ben encouraged.
“I found him first. It was a sight that I will never be able to forget; my kid brother speared like he was getting ready to be roasted. His blood everywhere, his body cold…so cold Pa,” Adam paused and looked into his father’s eyes.
Ben saw the inner turmoil that the falling away of the mask revealed to him and he placed his hand on Adam’s knee.
“I got scared, because I knew he was dying and I couldn’t do anything to stop him.” Adam almost laughed softly. “I told him that he couldn’t die, I ordered him not too!”
Adam’s chin began to quiver, Ben remained silent, and allowed his son rid himself of his demons.
“Imagine me, ordering Little Joe not to die. It’s almost funny…no it’s not!” sobbed Adam.
“He was in so much pain…agony…he wanted to die…and I wouldn’t let him…” Adam’s body shook, wracked by his weeping.
“I was so selfish…I didn’t want to loose him and I made him start breathing again, just so that I wouldn’t have to go on without him. I loved him too much to even allow him to be at peace! Oh Pa…Pa…Oh God, forgive me!”
Ben, fighting back his own tears, gathered his weeping son into his arms and drew him close. Adam wept for several minutes, allowing himself the luxury of being held in his father’s arms.
When he at last pulled back, Ben saw for the first time in many, many years, the man who had never gotten a chance to be a little boy, until this minute. Ben smiled and used his thumbs to wipe away the tears.
“I’m glad you didn’t let him die, son. He’s lucky to have a brother who loves him that much.”
“I never knew just how much I did love the boy, until then.”
“I’ve always known, we all have, but you just proved it by making him come back to us. Thank you, son,” whispered Ben.
Ben stood, bringing Adam up with him. “I want you to go to bed. No…don’t say a word,” Ben held up his hand to stop Adam from protesting. “Paul said that Joe would probably sleep for several more hours, I want you to do the same. I promise Adam, if he wakes up and calls for you, I will come and get you.”
Adam nodded his head, “I suppose I could use some sleep. Pa…about the doctor…I suppose he told you what happened?”
“Yes…and I told him that I would have reacted the same way. You were right son, in the decisions that you made. I’m glad I left you in charge, I’m proud of you Adam, very proud of you. Now off to bed.” Ben smiled as Adam glanced down at Joe and then gave his father a smile.
“Good night, Pa.”
“Good night, son.”
When Joe’s eyes flickered opened, the first face he spied was that of his oldest brother’s. He stirred slightly, instantly bringing his father’s face into his line of vision. Ben smiled and placed himself on the edge of the bed, next to his son.
“Well, welcomed back,” Ben beamed, overjoyed that Joe had returned to them for real this time.
“Hi, Pa,” Joe smiled weakly. “What’s with him?” Joe raised his hand slightly and pointed at Adam.
Ben laughed softly, “He won’t budge from that chair. He hasn’t left your side except for short naps and to grab a bite to eat.” Ben pushed back a long dark curl. “Do you have any idea just how lucky you are, to have him,” Ben tossed his thumb in Adam’s direction and continued, “for a brother?”
Joe’s eyes grew wide and then surprised Ben by filling with tears. “Yeah Pa, I know. I can’t remember much of what happened, but I do remember that it was Adam who stayed with me…out there…in the woods. And I remember…” The air expelled from Joe’s lungs and a sob caught in his throat.
“Go on, son.”
“I remember hearing the sound of his weeping. It seemed like it came from far, far away, but I could still hear it.” Joe glanced at his sleeping brother and them back to his father.
“Pa…it was the most wretched sound I have ever heard…it was pitiful. And I tried to move away from it, cause it was ripping my heart in two, but…I heard his voice, ordering me not to go…and I had to come back. I could see him crying…but Pa…he was a little boy, not a grown man…but I knew it was Adam. He was begging me not to go, not to leave him…so I came back.”
Joe turned water filled eyes to look at his father’s face. “For days, I listened to the sound of his weeping and each day I saw him grow older and older, until he was Adam, all grown up again.”
“That whole time that I wanted to die, cause the pain was so bad, I felt more love around me than ever before. I can’t explain it Pa…it was like…I don’t know…I just knew that he loved me and that I couldn’t hurt him again. He’s been hurt so much, I couldn’t add to it…It doesn’t make much sense, does it?”
Ben smiled, “Yes, it makes a lot of sense, Joseph. Your brother loves you, it’s that simple, never doubt it, never.”
“I won’t Pa, ever…I promise,” smiled Joe, watching his big brother sleep. His lips twisted into a smile, his mind had already begun to think of ways to lure Adam into his boyish schemes. Joe giggled.
Adam’s eyes opened, spying his brother’s strange smile. “Don’t you even think about it!” he muttered.
“Think about what?” Joe muttered softly.
“Whatever you’re plotting, I’ll not be a party to it!”
“Aw, Adam, you ain’t no fun…but I love you,” smiled Joe as his laughter illuminated the glow in his emerald eyes.