Summary: While searching for a missing ranch hand in the snow, Joe and Adam learn what it really means to have a brother to rely on.
Word Count: 8174
Twilight was falling with a purple, frozen hush. The brutal frost had not lifted all day and the temperature was plummeting as darkness softly coated the land. Ice crystals twinkled in the light from the porch and the inhabitants of the house huddled around the blazing fire in the large stone fireplace, grateful that their chores for the day were done and they did not have to stir outside again.
The knock on the door caught them all by surprise, and Joe muttered, “I’m not answering it,” in a mutinous tone. However, when the others all looked at him, Joe heaved a sigh and went over, already anticipating the cold blast of air.
He wasn’t disappointed. The frigid air rushed in, seeping through the thin material of the shirt Joe was wearing and making him shiver in response. “Charlie!” he exclaimed, surprised. “What’s wrong? Come in.”
“Thanks, Joe,” the foreman replied and came into the house. His nose was red from the cold and his blue eyes were bloodshot and worried. “Mr. Cartwright,” Charlie nodded politely. “Adam. Hoss.”
“What’s wrong, Charlie?” Ben Cartwright asked. He rose and went over.
“It’s Matt Clark,” Charlie replied. “He went out to check the herd earlier an’ he ain’t come back.”
“How long has he been gone?” Ben asked. He exchanged a worried glance with Adam, who had come over.
“Since afore noon,” Charlie told him. “I kept thinkin’ he’d appear, then I got caught up with that mare that was threatenin’ to miscarry an’ I never realized he weren’t back. I’m real sorry, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do now,” Ben replied. “It’s dark. We’ll get out looking for Matt first thing in the morning. Charlie, this is not your fault. Matt knows what to do; we’ll probably find him holed up in a line shack somewhere.”
“I hope so, sir,” Charlie sighed. “Good night.” He let himself out, but all the Cartwrights could see that Charlie still thought that he was responsible for Matt being missing.
By first light, the Cartwrights were ready to begin looking for Matt Clark. Matt had worked for the family since the spring and was a good, reliable man. He was young, somewhere between Hoss and Joe in age, and didn’t say much about his background. But he was a good worker and excellent with the livestock and Ben offered him a permanent position at the end of the summer. Matt had accepted with alacrity.
“We’ll go out in pairs,” Ben told the men. “Keep together; we don’t want anyone else going missing.” He began to tell each pair where they would be looking. “Adam, you and Joe go and look over by Willow Crest,” Ben ordered. “Hoss, you’ll come with me.”
“Let’s go,” Joe suggested and Adam nodded. The snow was too deep for the horses, so each man had to use snowshoes. Although they were fun for a short time, walking in snowshoes was a tiring business. Everyone would be exhausted by the end of the day.
With this thought in mind, Adam took the lead, setting a pace that wouldn’t leave them exhausted too soon. Joe began with enthusiasm, but he soon cooled down enough to walk with Adam. Adam was pleased to see Joe in brighter spirits; he had been quite subdued the previous night. Although he and Matt were not especial friends, Joe liked the young cowboy and was worried about him.
“We’d better check out the line shack,” Joe panted, as they stopped to rest as they neared Willow Crest. “Matt might have headed for there.”
“We will,” agreed Adam, who was also feeling winded. “Have you seen any tracks?”
“No,” Joe replied. “Have you?”
“No,” Adam sighed. “And it didn’t snow last night.” The brothers exchanged worried looks. They had built up a lot of body heat while walking, but even for the few moments they had been standing, the cold was creeping into their bodies. If Matt had not made shelter last night, he was already dead. It was a stark thought, and not one either brother was willing to entertain. “Let’s go.” They began walking again.
The track leading up to the line shack was clearly composed of unstable snow. Adam put his hand out to stop Joe. “Let me go first,” he insisted.
“Adam!” Joe protested. “I’m not a little kid any more. I know how to be careful going up a snow slope.”
“I know you do,” Adam agreed. “But humor me, little brother and let me go first.”
Sighing with exasperation, Joe stepped back. “All right,” he capitulated. “Go first. Sheesh! Some people never let you grow up.” But his grumbling wasn’t serious, and Adam knew that.
Smiling, he began to make his way carefully up the slope. Joe waited a moment or two, then followed. He hadn’t taken more than two steps when Adam suddenly let out a cry as the whole slope began to move under his feet. For an instant, they both froze, then events overtook them as the snow collapsed in a mini-avalanche.
“Hard goin’, ain’t it, Pa?” Hoss asked, as they paused to catch their breath.
“Sure is,” Ben agreed. He shaded his eyes and peered into the distance. Nothing moved in the frozen landscape. He glanced at Hoss. “I hope we find him.”
“Me, too,” Hoss nodded. “Poor Matt.” He drew in a deep breath.
“Listen!” Ben exclaimed. From the distance came the sound of something falling. “Avalanche!”
For a breathless moment, they stood huddled together, but the sound stopped and they relaxed. “It ain’t a big one, that’s fer sure,” Hoss commented, relieved. “Jist a little snow slidin’ around. Nothin’ to worry about.”
“Well, let’s hope not,” Ben agreed. “Come on.” They set off once more.
The avalanche was a kaleidoscope of spinning sensations for Joe as he was swept down the hill. He coughed and choked as snow went into his mouth and up his nose, but he didn’t lose consciousness until he hit the bottom. Something heavy collided with him, and Joe spun away into darkness. He didn’t know how long he was out, but when he opened his eyes, he was completely buried in snow.
For a terrifying moment, Joe couldn’t remember what to do. But then his mind kicked into gear, and he began to fight his way to what he hoped was the surface, before the snow could set hard round about him. Joe knew only too well that people died in avalanches because they could not dig their way out of the snow.
At last, Joe broke through, and dragged his aching body from the hole. He sprawled on top of the snow and lay there until he had caught his breath. It was only then that he became aware of the pain from various places, but he pushed it aside. Where was Adam?
“Adam?” he called. He looked around frantically. He didn’t know how long it had taken him to dig his way out, or how long he had been unconscious before that. And then a thought occurred to him. What had hit him and knocked him out? Could it have been Adam?
With that thought in mind, Joe began to dig. His snowshoes were long gone, or he might have used them to help, but since they were nowhere to be seen, Joe simply used his hands. His fingers were soon bleeding as his gloves ripped on the stones and other debris he encountered, but he didn’t stop. He simply didn’t notice. All his attention was focused on finding Adam.
Later Joe could not have said how long he dug, but suddenly, he uncovered a boot! For an instant, Joe simply stared at the boot, unable to believe that he had finally found his brother. Then he started digging again with renewed vigor and in a short time, he had uncovered Adam.
The older son was unconscious, but he was alive. Joe blinked back tears of relief, knowing that his task wasn’t over yet. He felt Adam’s limbs carefully and realized that his brother had a broken leg. There was a lump on his head, although the skin wasn’t broken. Joe wasn’t too sure about Adam’s ribs, so he decided to act as though they were hurt, too. It was safer.
Working quickly, afraid that Adam would regain consciousness before he had done it, Joe hauled off Adam’s boot. He didn’t want the leg to swell any further with the boot still on; Adam didn’t want to lose his leg! Nor would he attempt to set the bone; he didn’t know enough about it. Joe stripped off his coat and shirt, slid the coat back on and proceeded to rip his shirt into strips. That done, he found a couple of branches and made a make-shift splint for the leg. Only then did he sit back and take stock of his own predicament.
Joe’s hands were raw, bleeding and cold. His right wrist was swollen and sore and his head throbbed relentlessly. Probing carefully, Joe winced in pain and drew away fingers covered in fresh blood. Both Joe’s legs ached, but he thought that was just from the general battering. His ribs hurt, too. But the most worrying thing for both himself and Adam was that they were soaking wet.
Shivering, Joe knew that if they didn’t get to shelter soon, they would both die from exposure. Their injuries wouldn’t have time to become a problem to them. Struggling to his feet, Joe resolved that he would get Adam to the line shack, come what may.
As he struggled up the banking with his oldest brother slung over his shoulders, Joe wondered how he was going to get help. Normally, he would fire three shots, and whoever was closest would come to help. But with the snow unstable, shooting was out of the question.
It was about then that Adam began to come round, and Joe almost lost his footing as Adam started thrashing about, trying to move away from his uncomfortable position and the pain in his leg. Joe muttered something, but he didn’t have enough breath to walk and talk. “Easy!” he puffed, as Adam made another attempt to get down.
“Joe?” Adam queried, as he began to make sense of his position. “What happened?”
“Ava…lanche,” Joe answered, hoping that Adam would not want to have a conversation right then! He desperately needed to stop and rest, but feared that if he did, he wouldn’t be able to get going again. Every part of his body protested the strain he was putting it under.
“Stop!” Adam insisted, but Joe ignored him. His goal was finally in sight; the line shack lay about half a mile away. Joe gritted his teeth and forced his feet to move.
Snow began to sift downwards so gently that Joe didn’t notice it at first. But then the wind whipped up and Joe got a mouthful of pellet snow. He stumbled and almost fell as the wind buffeted him. Adam cried out in pain, but Joe didn’t have enough breath to talk to him. They were almost at the line shack and it wasn’t a moment too soon from Joe’s perspective.
It was a regular blizzard by the time they reached the shack and Joe fumbled with the handle with his frozen hands. The door yielded and Joe stumbled in, kicking the door shut behind him. He had one goal in mind – the cot. He could barely see for the ice on his eyelashes as he deposited Adam as gently as he could on the cot and dropped, exhausted, to the floor.
It was only as his breathing returned to normal that Joe realized all was not as it should be in the shack. For a start, it was warm. Joe rubbed at his eyes with frozen hands and peered blearily around. He froze in shock as he realized that he and Adam were not alone. Matt was sitting in a rickety chair by the table and across from him sat another man who was pointing his gun at Joe.
“That blizzard sure came outa nowhere,” Hoss panted, as he and Ben made their way back to the ranch. They had waited out the snow in a thicket of trees, hoping that it wasn’t set in for the night. After about half an hour, the snow had eased, then stopped altogether. Relieved, they had headed for home. There was no point in searching any further. They had found no tracks, and after the new snow had fallen, there were no tracks left for them to find.
“I wonder how the others got on,” Ben murmured. “I sure hope they found him safe and sound.”
It was really too cold to talk. Ben could feel tiredness creeping up his limbs, making his legs feel leaden. Even through his heavy clothing, he felt cold. So it was with a distinct sense of relief that Ben saw the lights of the house in the distance.
Although he wanted nothing more than to go inside the house, change his clothes and sit down, Ben made himself go to the bunkhouse first. He quickly looked over the assembled men, and saw that Matt was still missing. Unless…
“Is everyone back?” Ben asked.
“Adam an’ Joe ain’t back yet,” Charlie replied. “An’ we ain’t found Matt, either.” The guilt was clear in his voice.
Concern spiked through Ben’s gut, but he schooled his face to neutrality. “Then perhaps they have found Matt,” he suggested. “We’ve done all we can for now. Thanks, everyone.”
“Where d’ya think Adam an’ Joe are?” Hoss asked, as they completed their journey across the yard.
“On their way home, I hope, with Matt,” Ben answered. He glanced up, but the stars were obscured by the clouds drifting by on a strengthening wind.
“Let’s hope so,” Hoss agreed, but the heaviness of his tone told Ben that his son’s concern was as great as his own.
Their concern only grew deeper as the twilight stretched into darkness and the blizzard returned in force. Clearly, something had happened to Adam and Joe, even if it was that they had found Matt injured and had been unwilling to take him out into the falling snow. Ben hoped it was just that, but he couldn’t help but remember hearing the avalanche. Had his sons somehow been caught up in that?
“We ought ta go ta bed,” Hoss suggested, after they had choked down their supper. “Looks like we’ll be out agin tomorra.”
“Yes, it does,” agreed Ben.
“Pa,” Hoss said, insistently, and Ben looked at him. “It ain’t your fault that Joe an’ Adam ain’t come back. I’m sure they’re snug in that there line shack at Willow Crest, with Matt, waitin’ for daylight.”
Ben was touched, for he knew that Hoss’ concern was as deep as his own, yet his middle son was offering him comfort and hope. Rising, Ben went over and put his arm round Hoss’ shoulders. “I’m sure you’re right, son,” he replied. “And thank you for reminding me that there’s always hope.”
“Who are you?” Joe blurted, gazing at the man. Behind him, on the cot, Adam groaned.
Ignoring the question, the man glanced at Matt. “Were you expectin’ them, Matt?” he asked.
“No, honest,” Matt replied, looking scared.
“Matt? What is this?” Joe demanded, suddenly feeling angry. He was soaking wet, hurt and exhausted and suddenly a stranger was holding a gun on him in one of his father’s line shacks. Joe’s grip on his temper was gone.
“Shut up, kid!” the man ordered. He rose to his feet and walked a few steps closer. “You’re the Cartwrights, ain’t ya?” Joe kept his mouth shut, glaring at the man. He smiled. “Don’t matter to me, kid. I know who you are. He’s Adam an’ you’re Joe. I’m Matt’s brother, Saul.”
Shooting a glance at Matt, Joe saw that Saul was telling the truth. “What do you want?” he asked.
“I’m here to see my kid brother,” Saul replied. “What did you think?”
“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “But I didn’t really think it was a family visit, seeing as how you’re holding a gun on Matt’s employers.”
From behind him, Joe heard Adam’s indrawn breath, but he didn’t take his eyes off their captor. Saul laughed. “You have got spunk!” he said, admiringly. “But it won’t do you any good, kid. You’re not going to muck up my plans.” He gestured with his gun. “Get up.”
“I don’t think I can,” Joe replied, truthfully, for his limbs seemed to have gone to sleep. He tried to push himself up, but his right wrist buckled beneath his weight and his legs trembled. Carrying Adam through the snow had exhausted Joe’s strength. He was as weak as a newborn kitten.
“Get him, Matt,” Saul ordered and Matt rose. Joe couldn’t contain a gasp, as Matt’s hands were bound in front of him. He walked slowly over to Joe and pulled the younger man to his feet. Joe had to catch the other’s arm for support as his cold, stiff muscles protested at moving. “Make him sit in the chair,” Saul went on. He watched as Joe limped over.
“Leave him alone,” Adam croaked. He had been watching the scene unfold, hoping against hope that Joe wouldn’t say anything that would get them killed. So far, they had been lucky, but Adam was afraid of what Saul would do to Joe.
“Shut up!” Saul barked. “I don’t have to pull this trigger to kill you both, you know. All I have to do is open that door and throw you out!”
Pulling his arm free from Matt’s supporting grasp, Joe swung round, his aching limbs forgotten at this new threat to his brother. He flashed a quick look at Adam, and saw how pale the older son was. Adam was not fit to be moved at that moment. He needed to be warm and dry and have his broken leg set.
Straightening as best he could, Joe warned, “Leave him alone.”
For a moment, Saul just looked at Joe, then a grin spread over his face. “You don’t even hear yourselves, do you?” he asked. “You just repeated him exactly. Pathetic!”
“I meant what I said,” Joe told him, his tone quiet and even. “I don’t care what you do to me, but leave Adam alone.”
“Joe!” Adam protested in a breathy whisper, but Joe spared his brother no more than a glance.
“I mean it!” he reiterated. Saul grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant grin. Joe refused to be daunted by it. He raised his chin.
“All right,” Saul agreed, slowly. “We’ll see how much you care, Joe.”
A pang of fear shot through Joe’s gut, but he kept his gaze level and his face impassive. He wondered what he was going to face, but he didn’t regret his words. He would take whatever Saul gave him, as long as it kept Adam safe.
Levering himself onto his elbows, Adam looked in horror at the scene before him. He wasn’t too sure how Joe came to be carrying him through the snow, but he did know that his youngest brother was at the end of his endurance. Joe was soaking, his hair dripping onto the already sodden collar of his coat, for his hat had been lost in the avalanche. There was a gash on Joe’s head, although Adam didn’t realize that it had been caused by a glancing blow from his snowshoes as he was swept past his brother, and Joe’s eyelids were bleeding slightly where the pellet snow had scoured the skin. His fingers were raw, swollen and bloodstained.
And yet here was Joe, standing tall and proud before this stranger who had taken them prisoner. “No, Joe!” he protested. Adam tried to get up, his protective instincts fired, but his broken leg twinged violently and he flopped back down on the cot, fighting to control the pain.
Joe’s eyes flickered towards Adam, and Saul chose that moment to attack. He lunged at Joe and drove the other man to the floor, punching viciously. Joe, caught off guard, fought back as best he could, but his right hand wouldn’t curl into a fist and he was soon taking the worst of it. Exhaustion took its toll and it wasn’t long before Joe was lying, unmoving, on the floor.
Climbing to his feet, panting slightly, Saul glanced at his brother. “Sit down, Matt,” he ordered and Matt did as he was told.
After another look at Joe, Saul crossed over to where Adam lay. “Guess you won’t be going anywhere for a while,” he remarked, gesturing to the splinted leg. “But I’m not taking any chances.” Saul reached under the bed and drew out a battered pair of saddlebags and from one of them withdrew some rope.
Dragging his gaze away from his unconscious brother, Adam glared at Saul. “So what are you doing here?” he asked, hoping that if he somehow kept Saul busy enough, Joe would regain consciousness and might over power Saul.
“I was planning on doing a little business in the surrounding area,” Saul replied. He began to tie Adam’s wrists to the bed frame.
“With that?” Adam asked, sarcastically, nodding towards the gun on Saul’s hip. He wished at once that he hadn’t nodded, as his head began to throb even harder.
“Well, of course with that,” Saul retorted. “What, did you think I was an honest business man?”
“Hardly,” Adam answered. He tried to bite back a wince of pain as Saul tightened the ropes more than necessary, but too many bits of him were sore, and Adam couldn’t hide it. “So why have you tied up Matt if he’s your brother?”
“Oh, Cartwright, you are naive,” Saul muttered. He straightened up and looked satisfied with his work. “Matt’s an honest man,” he explained, with exaggerated patience. “He’d have told someone that I was here.”
“I didn’t know he was coming, Mr. Adam,” Matt interrupted, his voice anxious. “I didn’t, really.”
Turning away, Saul grabbed the unconscious Joe by the coat and dragged him over to the foot of the cot. “Matt’s embarrassed by me, Cartwright,” Saul went on. He began to tie Joe’s hands roughly to the frame of the bed. “I’m a wanted outlaw, you see. So Matt started telling everyone that all his family were dead. Is that the story he gave you?” He glanced at Adam, delighted to see the outrage on his face as Saul continued to tie Joe up.
“I didn’t ask for a story,” Adam replied. “Please, don’t tie Joe like that.” The last words slipped out without him knowing they were coming.
“Why not?” Saul asked. “Don’t you think he’ll be comfortable?” He laughed as he walked away, having tied Joe’s ankles to the back of his thighs. He seated himself in the chair closest to the stove. “I’ll be attending to some business tomorrow if the weather’s good enough. I’m afraid, though, that I won’t be taking you gentlemen along, or setting you free. No, you’ll just have to take your chances with the cold. If that doesn’t kill you, the lack of food and water will.”
Glaring at him, Adam said nothing. But he knew that the next day, Ben and Hoss would come looking for them. Somehow, before then, he had to think of a way to get both himself and Joe out of this mess. At that moment, Joe groaned as consciousness returned, and Adam dragged his eyes away from their captor to concentrate on his brother.
It was impossible to talk with Saul there in the tiny shack with them. Joe began to shiver as the cold seeped into his body through the floor. His legs were cramping fiercely and he hurt all over. Saul had not noticed Joe’s injured hands and wrist, and probably wouldn’t have cared even if he had noticed. The ropes were cruelly tight, biting into the swollen flesh of Joe’s wrist. He clenched his teeth together to stop them chattering.
“Joe?” Adam murmured. Saul looked up from where he was tying his brother to the chair. But when he saw the concern in Adam’s eyes, he just grinned and ignored them. “Joe, are you all right?”
“Yes,” Joe replied, biting the word short so that the tone of his voice didn’t give him away. He swallowed. “How are you? How’s the leg?”
“I can feel it,” Adam admitted. “Joe…” He stopped, not sure how to tell Joe what was worrying him without telling Saul that help would come in the morning. Assuming they survived the night, of course. Not able to see a way, he resorted to asking what had happened. “You carried me here, didn’t you?” he asked, his tone almost accusatory.
“Did you think I would leave you there?” Joe returned. “Did you really think I would leave you there, maybe dying?”
“No, of course not!” Adam denied. “But Joe, how far was it? And you’re hurt. Your hands and your head… Joe, please tell me the truth. Are you really all right?”
Another shiver swept over Joe and he almost bit his tongue trying to stop his teeth chattering again. “There’s nothing that a warm bed and a good night’s sleep won’t cure,” Joe lied. “But never mind me. Adam, can you feel your foot? I had to take your boot off. I hope you haven’t got frostbite.”
Warily, Adam wriggled his toes and almost cried aloud at the pain that shot through his leg. “Yes, I can feel it.” He craned his neck to look at the splint. “What did you use for bandages?”
“My shirt,” Joe answered. He was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to sleep.
“Shut up, you two!” Saul ordered, coming over and giving Joe a kick. “Honestly, you soppy brothers! So concerned about each other. What an act! Well, you can save yourself the bother of doing it for me. I know what brothers are like. Hell, look at me and Matt. He’s afraid of me, you know. You afraid of your big brother, Joe?”
“No, I’m not,” Joe asserted, firmly. He didn’t bother twisting his head around to look at Saul. The effort seemed too much for him.
“Yeah, sure,” Saul scoffed. “I believe you, kid.”
“Why should he be afraid of me?” Adam countered. “He carried me here, after all. Would he have done that if he was afraid of me? I would never have caught up with him, now would I?” He glanced meaningfully down at his leg.
“You lost your chance there, kid,” Saul remarked.
“Why did you bring him here, Matt?” Adam asked, wanting to take the attention away from Joe.
“I didn’t,” Matt mumbled, flushing. “I met Saul on my way back from checking the herd and he brought me here.”
“I’ve been holed up here for about a week,” Saul enlarged. “I knew Matt was in this area somewhere. Imagine my joy when I saw him here.” Sarcasm positively dripped from his tone.
“Why did you want to see him?” Despite himself, Adam was intrigued. “It doesn’t sound as if you’re very fond of him.”
“Oh, I’m not,” Saul admitted blithely. “But he’ll be a handy scapegoat.” He gave Adam a brilliant smile before going back over to feed some wood into the stove.
It was dark outside now, Adam noticed, looking at the window. He shivered. He could hear the snow scouring against the sides of the building. Although the shack was warm compared with outside, it was still cold and coldest of all where Joe and Adam were. Looking at Joe shivering, Adam wondered if either of them would survive the night.
Saul’s snores were completing with the howling of the wind outside. “Joe!” Adam whispered. “Joe, are you asleep?” He craned his neck to see his brother, wincing as a cramp shot through his back. “Joe!”
“What?” Joe replied, on a sigh.
“Can you get free?” Adam had been fighting with his own bonds, but hadn’t been able to loosen them at all.
“No,” Joe answered, dispiritedly. “Can you?” He accidentally bit his tongue as his teeth suddenly chattered. Joe was bitterly cold and his clothes were still damp from the avalanche, as there wasn’t enough heat in the shack to help them dry out, especially lying on the floor.
“No,” sighed Adam. “Joe, listen. Pa and Hoss will come looking for us in the morning. We’ve got to try and make Saul untie you, somehow, so you’re ready to help them.”
Moving slightly so that his aching head was resting on his arm, Joe peered into the darkness, trying to think. He was tired and in pain, and he couldn’t think of a single reason why Saul would agree to untie him. He wondered if they could rely on Matt to help them out. While Saul was awake, Matt had had marginally more freedom than they had. “What do you suggest?” he asked, finally.
“I don’t know,” Adam replied. He couldn’t think of anything except the pain in his leg, which was growing worse. He knew that both he and Joe needed medical attention at once. “Joe, are you all right? What happened to your hands? How did they get like that?”
“I guess it happened while I was digging you out,” Joe finally told him. He couldn’t think of a plausible lie right then.
“I’ve got a lot to thank you for,” Adam responded after a moment. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead. Thank you.”
There was silence. Joe wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what to say. He wanted to sleep, but whenever he closed his eyes, all he could see was the avalanche and Adam lying there. Tears suddenly filled his eyes, and he blinked furiously to clear them away, even though no one could see him in the dark. In the morning, his father and brother would come looking for them and somehow, Joe had to make sure that he was able to stop Saul from hurting them. It was a tall order, and one that Joe wasn’t sure he could fill.
Assuming that Joe was asleep, Adam whispered, “We’ll think of something,” and allowed sleep to claim him, taking his mind off the pain and the cold.
On the floor, Joe lay awake, growing colder and more frightened every minute. He wasn’t worried for himself as much as he feared for his family. When dawn broke, he hadn’t slept a wink.
“You don’t need to come with us,” Ben reiterated as the four men set out that morning.
“I know that, Mr. Cartwright,” Charlie replied, “but I sent Matt out to check the herd and I’d like to know he’s all right. ‘Sides, Dave an’ me ain’t got anythin’ else to do today.”
“That’s right,” grunted Dave the assistant foreman.
“We sure appreciate it, boys,” Hoss told them. “I reckon Joe an’ Adam holed up in the Willow Crest line shack with Matt when that snow started.”
“Sounds about right,” agreed Charlie. Ben wondered how often Hoss had posited that theory since they had arrived home the previous afternoon and found Joe and Adam missing. He knew how worried Hoss was.
They set off, carrying food, canteens of water and a couple of blankets. The sky was a beautiful cerulean blue above them and the sun shone brightly, but the temperature was still well below freezing. Ben cast an anxious glance at the mountains, but there were no clouds lingering there that caused him to think that there might be more snow. But he knew how quickly that could all change.
They walked on steadily, none of them talking. After a couple of hours, they were close to the line shack. Ben estimated that it was no more than half a mile away. And it was then that they found traces of the avalanche. Ben’s heart almost stopped as he spotted a snowshoe lying on the snow a little way down the slope.
The scramble down the slope wasn’t as fast as Ben would have liked, but since they didn’t know what they would find at the bottom, they exercised as much care as they could.
“This ain’t fresh,” Hoss reported, heavily. “This was done yesterday.”
“Look!” Ben breathed and pointed to a hole in the snow. He bent forward and hooked his trophy out; it was Joe’s hat. It was battered and dirty, but basically intact.
“Here’s where the other one came down,” Charlie called and Ben headed over to see where debris and snow had obviously been moved by someone digging someone else out.
“Here’s Adam’s boot,” Dave muttered and they all gathered round, looking at it as though the inanimate object could tell them what happened.
“But where are Adam and Joe?” Ben asked, at last. He shivered.
“Well, obviously they ain’t here,” Hoss observed. It didn’t occur to him that he was stating the obvious; he was simply thinking aloud. “An’ the nearest shelter is the line shack.” He glanced around and shortly found Joe’s trail. It vanished into fresh show a little further along, but it was clear enough by then where he had been headed.
“He’s not very steady on his feet, whoever it is,” commented Dave.
“Must be Joe,” Hoss remarked. “Adam’s only got one boot on an’ this fellar is shod on both feet.” He glanced at Ben significantly. “Them tracks is pretty deep. I reckon Joe’s a-carryin’ Adam.”
After a moment of overwhelming relief, Ben felt a renewed pang of anxiety. If Joe was carrying Adam, then his oldest son was too badly hurt to walk. Ben clutched Joe’s hat harder, as if it was a talisman. “Let’s go,” he proposed and picked the pace up a bit.
“You’ve got to untie his legs!” Adam shouted. “Can’t you see he’s in pain?”
“Damn you, shut up, Cartwright!” Saul shouted back, drawing his gun. “I’ll put a bullet in him and that’ll sort his pain!” He pointed the gun at Joe, who lay in a stupor on the floor.
“Saul, no!” Matt cried and lunged at his brother, knocking him back a few steps. “You can’t, Saul! Please! Joe ain’t done anything to you!”
Snarling, Saul shoved Matt to the floor. “I’ll do what I please!” Saul growled, but he holstered his gun. “I thought you said you could take it, Cartwright.”
“Joe hasn’t said he can’t take it,” Adam replied, his heart thudding painfully in his chest. “I’m saying he can’t take any more. Please!”
Throwing his hands in the air, Saul stalked over to the other side of the cabin and warmed his hands at the stove. Matt took the chance to slide across the floor and fumbled with the knots tying Joe’s legs. After a few moments, Saul turned round, saw what his brother was doing, and gave an exasperated sigh. “I really hate you, Matt,” he muttered. “Do you know that?”
“You’ve always made it quite clear,” Matt shot back. Adam looked surprised. He had seen that Matt was scared of Saul and didn’t altogether blame the younger man. “Right from when I was old enough to understand, you made it plain you hated me. That’s why you’ve come back to pin this bank robbery on me, isn’t it?” He sounded bitter, and Adam couldn’t blame him.
“Oh well, you’re not as dim as you look,” Saul remarked. “I do intend to point the sheriff in your direction, Matt. And speaking of bank robbery, I’d better get going.” He watched as his brother continued to try and loosen the ropes on Joe’s legs and finally gave in. “This is why I hate you,” he muttered, slicing through the ropes with a knife. “Because I find myself doing things for you, even when I really don’t want to.”
Unexpectedly, Adam felt a pang of sympathy for Saul. He knew how it felt to find yourself doing or saying things that you didn’t want to because of a younger brother. But there the sympathy faltered. Adam did things for Joe out of love; what motivated Saul? Habit? Expectation? He, Joe and Hoss were brothers; that was all that mattered. It didn’t matter to any of them that they were only half-brothers because they didn’t think of themselves like that. In a way, Inger had been as much Adam’s mother as she had been Hoss’, and Marie had mothered all three boys like they were her own. He didn’t know about Matt and Saul’s home circumstances, but he wondered if Matt’s mother had been Saul’s mother, too, or if the woman had just not been able to see past her new baby. Was jealousy at the root of the problem between Saul and Matt?
But the whys and the wherefores of the problem would have to take a back seat, for Adam was more concerned about Joe, who was barely conscious, and the thought that Ben and Hoss must be nearing the shack. The morning had slipped away as Saul slept late, then made himself some breakfast and then tormented Matt some more. With every minute that passed, Ben and Hoss were more likely to appear, and there could be trouble.
Again, Adam fought against his bonds. He didn’t feel at all well either; his leg was swelling against the supporting splint and the pain was affecting his thinking. When Saul had turned on Joe, Adam couldn’t bear it any longer and so the shouting had begun. Joe had at least gained some relief for the moment, but he was still tied up and Adam couldn’t break free of his bonds.
“Sit down, Matt,” Saul ordered, his tone suddenly deadly. “I can’t go away and leave you wondering around loose, now can I?”
Matt paled. “Saul, please don’t,” he begged. He backed away, holding his bound hands out in front of him in supplication, Adam thought.
“I said, sit down!” Saul’s voice cracked like a whip and Joe flinched, rousing from the stupor that he had sunk into.
Suddenly, Adam could hear footsteps crunching in the snow outside. He didn’t know if Saul had heard or not, for Matt was stuttering something else that Adam didn’t catch. He raised himself as far as he could and looked at Joe. It was clear that Joe had heard the sounds too. His fevered gaze met Adam’s and a look of determination swept across his battered face. Adam could do nothing to hamper Saul, but Joe could. He rolled onto his back.
Just at that moment, Ben shouted, “Adam! Joe!”
Eyes wide, Saul reached for his gun.
“Pa, be careful!” Adam bellowed, at the same time as Joe kicked frantically at Saul. His legs were cramping horrendously from being tied so tightly all night, but Joe was determined not to let that stop him saving his father.
Caught by surprise, Saul tumbled to the floor, but he kept his grip on his gun and turned round to smash it down on Joe’s head. Seeing the danger his young boss was in, Matt threw himself at Saul and wrestled with him for the gun. It went off and Matt slumped to the floor.
“Matt!” Joe cried in dismay and kicked at Saul again.
The door of the cabin flew open and Ben and Hoss came in with guns drawn. They saw Adam tied to the cot, with Matt slumped on the floor. Joe was on the floor, his hands tied to the leg of the cot, fighting with a stranger. Even as Hoss took aim and ordered, “Hold it!” the gun went off again and Joe slumped down.
There was no time for hesitation. The stranger had just shot his brother and was turning to meet this new threat. Hoss pulled the trigger. The bullet struck the stranger in the chest and he fell back on top of Joe.
“Charlie, quick,” Hoss urged and watched as the foreman took charge of the injured stranger, pulling him roughly off Joe, as Ben knelt beside his youngest son. As soon as Charlie had Saul in charge, Hoss hurried to Adam’s side, seeing that Dave was kneeling by Matt.
“He’ll live,” Charlie reported in disappointed tones.
“So will Matt,” Dave added, his tone relieved. He set about freeing the young cowboy.
“How’re you, Adam?” Hoss asked, as he cut the ropes tying Adam to the bed. “Busted leg, huh?”
“Yeah,” Adam responded in a distracted tone. He pushed himself into a sitting position and looked anxiously at Joe. “How is he, Pa?” he asked.
“I don’t think the wound’s too serious,” Ben answered, “but he’s burning up with fever and his body’s really cold to the touch. We’ve got to get him home.” Sitting back on his heels, Ben looked at Adam’s broken leg. “And you.”
“Pa?” Ben turned at the sound of Joe’s voice and smoothed the curls back off his forehead. Joe’s eyes were open. “Is Adam all right?” he asked.
“He’s fine,” Ben assured him.
“Brothers!” scoffed Saul. “You really make me sick!”
It had taken quite a bit of figuring out to get everyone back to the ranch. It was clear that Adam and Joe couldn’t walk. Matt had a flesh wound to his arm, and insisted that he was okay to walk back. So he, Charlie, Dave and Saul set off for the ranch, leaving Ben and Hoss to care for Joe and Adam until the others could get back with some sort of sledge.
While Adam sipped at some water, Hoss loosened the bindings on the splint. “Ain’t this Joe’s shirt?” he asked, fingering the familiar fabric.
“So he tells me,” Adam replied, ruefully. “I don’t remember that bit.” He looked over at Joe. “Joe carried me here, you know. The snow collapsed underneath me and we were swept down the hill. When I woke up, Joe was carrying me.”
“We saw the place,” Hoss explained. “An’ I brought yer boot. I found it in the snow.”
“When we got here, we found that Saul and Matt were here before us,” Adam explained and told them the story. Ben and Hoss listened in silence. Ben had Joe sitting in the chair beside the stove and he was wrapped in two blankets. Adam had the blanket from the cot, plus the other blanket that Ben had brought with him, originally intended for Matt. When he had finished, Adam drank deeply again and took a tentative bite of the sandwich Hoss offered him. “How’s Joe?” he asked, around a mouthful.
“Not so good,” Ben replied, in an undertone. Joe was dozing, but his sleep wasn’t restful. He had turned his nose up at food, although he had drunk eagerly. The bullet wound to Joe’s side had bled persistently, but Ben was most worried about his hands. His fingers were swollen and red, clearly infected. Joe’s clothes were still damp and he had been very cold to the touch, although his temperature was on the climb now. “I hope they send for the doctor,” he added, touching Joe’s head once more to gauge his fever.
It seemed to take forever before the rescue party arrived, but it was only a few hours. More than long enough for Ben. Joe had drifted in and out of consciousness, and Adam had managed to get some more sleep. But at last they were bundled onto sledges and pulled home. It was dark when they arrived and more willing hands helped carry the injured brothers into the house, where Dr Paul Martin had been waiting anxiously for some time.
Deciding which brother needed help the most was hard, but Paul knew that Adam’s leg had been unset for 24 hours and he opted to do that first. Adam succumbed quietly to the ether and Hoss helped the doctor remove Adam’s filthy pants before he held Adam down while the limb was set. Once Paul was satisfied and the leg was put in plaster, Hoss set about cleaning his brother up while Paul went across the hall to see to Joe.
Ben had not been idle while waiting for Paul. He had gently helped Joe out of his clothes and given him a wash. He had been relieved not to find any further injuries, although Joe’s legs were covered with bruises.
“No stitches needed on this flesh wound,” Paul announced, bandaging up Joe’s side. He had given Joe some quinine to reduce his fever and something for the pain and Joe was watching him suspiciously through half-closed eyes. “Nor on your head, Joe.”
“Makes a change,” Joe muttered. Paul laughed while Ben ‘tutted’.
“But your hands are a different matter,” Paul went on, sobering. “I’m going to clean them up, Joe and its going to hurt, despite the morphine. I’m sorry. I’ll be as gentle as I can, but I’ve got to get all the dirt out of them. What on earth did you do to get them in this state?”
“I dug Adam out of the avalanche,” Joe replied. The painkiller had loosened his tongue. “I couldn’t find anything to dig with, so I just used my hands.” His eyes drifted closed for a moment. “Despite what Saul said, Adam’s my brother, it wasn’t an act and I couldn’t leave him there.”
“Of course you couldn’t,” Ben agreed, although he was shaken by the news. He wasn’t quite sure what Joe meant about ‘an act’, but now was not the time to ask. He leant in close as Paul began to clean up Joe’s hands with alcohol. He soothed Joe automatically, but his mind lingered on the fact that Joe had literally dug his brother out of an avalanche with his bare hands.
Joe developed a hacking cough and cold during the night. The quinine soon brought his temperature under control and he swore that he felt a lot better after a good night’s sleep. Knowing Joe’s propensity for lying about his health, Ben took that with a pinch of salt. However, Joe did look more rested, although he still looked like death warmed up.
After a good night’s sleep, Adam was looking better and he was soon up and hopping around on crutches. Roy Coffee, the sheriff, came out from town to tell them that there was a reward being offered for Saul Clark, who was wanted almost all across America. Saul was going to prison for a very long time. Matt was understandably subdued at the news, but he was relieved, too. He had lived in fear of Saul all of his life.
“The only blessing is, our parents aren’t around to be hurt by this,” he told Ben soberly. “They died a few years back. Ma would’ve hated knowing that Saul had turned out bad.” The young cowboy had recovered well from his gunshot injury. “How’s Joe?”
“He’s on the mend at last,” Ben replied.
It was a relief. Joe was complaining furiously because he couldn’t use either of his hands and was finding the loss of his privacy hard to deal with. But the complaining signaled to Ben and the others that Joe was recovering.
“What did you mean about it all being an act?” Ben asked, on Joe’s first afternoon downstairs. At Joe’s puzzled look he explained, “When Paul was examining you, the night you came home, you said something about it all being an act. Something about what Saul had said?”
“Oh, that.” Joe’s frown cleared. “Saul kept insisting that we were just putting on an act about caring for each other. He hates Matt, you know. He told us so.”
“I had the impression that he was very jealous of Matt,” Adam chimed in. “But he couldn’t help doing things for him, although he couldn’t figure out why.”
“I see,” Ben nodded, thoughtfully. “Well, who’s to say why people feel like that? I guess I’m just lucky that I have three sons who know that they are brothers.”
As he spoke, Hoss came into the room, stamping snow off his boots. “I wish my dadblamed brothers didn’t keep gettin’ theirselves in such messes,” he grumbled. “An’ then I wouldn’t be stuck doin’ their chores!”
“Tell you what, Hoss,” Joe piped up, “next time, you get yourself in a mess with Adam, and you can carry him.” He pretended to grimace and clutched at his back. “Adam, have you ever thought of going on a diet? I thought I was carrying Hoss, here!”
“Why you…” Adam snatched up a crutch and aimed it at Joe, but he couldn’t resist the twinkling green eyes sparkling at him. Joe’s eyes had been dulled with fever for too many days, and seeing him on the road to recovery, even if his hands were still bandaged, was a joy for them all.
“Just wait till I’m on my feet again,” he threatened. “Then you’ll learn about brothers, brother!”