Waterlogged (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,347


 

“Joe, get out of here, you fool!” Adam cried over the noise of the water, fear roughening his voice. “Get out!”

“No,” Joe panted, shaking his wet hair out of his eyes. “We’re going to get you out of here, Adam. Hoss has gone for help.” He choked as a splash of water hit him in the face.

“There isn’t time!” Adam protested. “Joe, I’ll be dead before Hoss can get help! Save yourself!”

“Shut up!” Joe screamed. He was submerged for a moment by another wave, but came up seconds later, gasping for breath. “You’re not going to die, Adam! I’m not going to let you!”

Adam felt despair flood through him. He was trapped, the water was rising rapidly, and if Joe didn’t get out now, he was going to die, too! “Joe, don’t do this,” he begged over the cacophony. He swallowed some water and coughed violently. Joe ignored him, pushing and shoving against the tree trunk that held Adam captive in the water.

“I’m not leaving you!” Joe told his oldest brother. He strained his muscles to their limit and felt the tree begin to move. At that moment, there was a huge rush of sound as more water gushed into the small gulley where the Cartwright boys were. Adam lost sight of Joe as the water surged over his head.

*****

“What are you doing here?” Adam asked, forebodingly, as Joe rode into sight. He pushed back his hat to wipe sweat from his brow.

Dismounting lightly from his horse, Joe smiled. “Big brother, you are so suspicious! As it happens, I’ve come to take over the branding for a while to allow you to have a break.”

Dropping the branding iron into the fire to re-heat, Adam gave Joe another black look. “And who is going to look for strays if you’re here and I’m ‘resting’?” he enquired. “We need to get this branding finished, Joe, and we don’t have time for resting. Now get back to your job and let me do mine.” He looked away, ready to call for the next calf, but Joe had other ideas.

“Adam, you need a break,” Joe told him. “This is back-breaking work, and you’ve been sick. Will you just do as you’re told for once and have a break? The world won’t come to an end if you do.”

“I’m fine!” Adam snapped, although, if the truth were told, he was exhausted. A bout of food poisoning after a meal with friends had left Adam thin and weak, but the oldest Cartwright son hated to admit to any weakness and had been working at his usual speed all day.

By now, Joe’s limited supply of patience had run out. “Look, Adam, anyone with eyes can see you’re tired! Now sit down and have a rest before I make you do it!”

Although Joe was the Cartwright with the notorious temper, Adam had his fair share, too, although he generally could hold on to it better than Joe. Now, hearing a threat that he had often made to Joe was enough to push his temper over the edge and he whirled on Joe, glaring darkly. “You really think you can make me sit down?” he demanded, incredulously, and Joe, goaded, gave him a hard push. Caught off guard, Adam sat down heavily on his rump.

For a long moment, their gazes locked, brown with green, then a smile twitched the corner of Joe’s mouth. “Well, you did ask,” he pointed out, trying to contain his glee. It wasn’t often he managed to catch Adam unawares. There was no response. Adam just kept glaring at Joe, who was beginning to feel very uncomfortable under that stare. “Oh, come on, Adam, you’ve gotta admit it was funny,” he pleaded.

Looking round, Adam saw that everyone in the immediate vicinity was sniggering quietly. They hastily averted their gazes when they saw Adam look at them, but the sight of so much mirth, and his own sense of the ridiculous, soon had a smile tugging at his lips, too. “Help me up, you brat!” he chided, putting out his hand.

Warily, Joe did as he was asked, but he found the tightened muscles were wasted, as Adam didn’t try to immediately toss him on the ground as punishment. That alone told Joe how tired Adam actually was. It was almost unheard of for the older Cartwright to let the youngest Cartwright off with a trick like that.

“Please, Adam?” Joe pleaded, softly. “Have a rest for a few minutes?”

“All right, all right!” Adam grumbled. “I’ll rest for five minutes, but no longer.” He walked slowly over to a large tree that shaded the nearby landscape and lay down beneath it. It felt good to rest his weary muscles. Adam was disgusted with the weakness that he’d been left with after his illness. Branding was a bad time for any of them to get sick.

Closing his eyes, Adam thought back to that fateful meal in town. His friends were newly married and this was his first invitation to dinner in their new home. Jane was cooking her first meal for a guest and she had bought some beef from a woman she knew in town. Unfortunately, the beef was going off, and Jane was too inexperienced to know and hadn’t cooked it for long enough, either. Within a few short hours, Jane, Adam and Roger had been struck down by food poisoning.

They had been lucky, for they had a comparatively mild dose. But for several days, Adam had been too sick to care if he lived or died, and his family had been beside themselves with worry. Jane and Roger had been nursed by their families, and Jane was still recuperating at her mother’s home. Roger was back at his job in the bank, but only working three days a week, Adam had heard. He hadn’t yet managed to get to town to see them.

In no time at all, Adam had fallen asleep under the tree. Joe, from his position by the branding fire, saw and smiled. He beckoned to the men to bring on the next calf. Plunging the iron back into the fire, he waited till it glowed red-hot before applying it to the animal’s hip. The smell of burning flesh was one that hung in everyone’s nostrils for days after branding was complete.

Some time later, hearing hooves, Joe glanced around and saw Hoss, the middle brother riding up. He wiped away sweat and found a smile for his beloved big brother. “Hi, brother,” he called, cheerfully. “Come to help me?”

Dismounting Hoss shook his head. “Naw,” he denied. “I got enough ta do without helpin’ you.” He looked round. “Where’s Adam? He’s all right, ain’t he? He ain’t turned sick agin?”

“He’s asleep over there,” Joe replied, pointing. “He was wearing himself to a shadow, so I suggested that he take a short rest and he promptly went to sleep. Just what he was needing, if you ask me.”

“How’d you manage to make him rest?” Hoss enquired, curiously.

“I pushed him over,” Joe responded, casually. He kept his face straight as Hoss looked at him, wide eyed.

“Sure ‘nough?” he queried. When Joe nodded and smiled, Hoss added, “How come you’s still alive?”

Rolling his eyes, Joe said, “Big brother, you ought to have more faith in me. I‘ve always said I could take Adam, and I proved it. Too bad you weren’t around to see.”

“Adam ain’t hisself,” Hoss pointed out, and Joe winced.

“What are you doing here anyway?” Joe asked, changing the subject. “I thought you were collecting strays. Are they all in?”

“Naw,” Hoss replied. “The tally’s still short about 50 head. But we done covered the area we was doin’ today, an’ it’s almost suppertime. Pa says to finish for tonight, an’ we’ll get out fresh come mornin’.”

“Sounds good to me,” Joe replied, throwing down the branding iron. “That’s it for tonight, boys!” he called.

All around, the hands began making preparations for the night. Some were staying to keep watch over the herd; some were going back to the bunkhouse, others were heading into town. The general hubbub roused Adam, and he was rubbing his eyes as Joe and Hoss went over to waken him.

“You shouldn’t have let me sleep,” he complained. “There’s work to be done1”

“It’ll keep till tomorrow,” Joe told him. “You needed the rest. Come on, its almost supper time. Let’s go home.”

Allowing Hoss to pull Adam to his feet, Joe went over to tighten the cinches on his and Adam’s saddles. He led Sport over and handed Adam the rein before swinging lightly into his saddle. Adam did look a little better; Joe noticed and smiled to himself.

*****

Supper was eaten in virtual silence that evening. They were all tired, for branding was a tedious, time consuming chore that involved everyone. Joe could remember the first time he’d been allowed to join in the branding. His job had been to keep the fire hot and he’d found the relentless puffing on the bellows, along with the smell, quite hard going. Over the years, as he’d grown, Joe had moved on to other jobs. Now, he usually spent his time hunting down the strays that seemed to know when branding time had arrived, and pushing them over to join their fellows, whereas Adam and Hoss generally tended to the actual branding.

“How’re you feeling, Adam?” Ben asked, as they savored Hop Sing’s peach pie. “You’re not working too hard, are you?”

Shooting a glare at Joe, who looked wide-eyed and innocent, Adam shook his head. “No, sir,” he replied. “Joe came and made sure I had a rest this afternoon.”

“That was very thoughtful of you, son,” Ben responded, glancing at Joe, who smiled sweetly.

Watching this by-play, Adam was struck with a sudden suspicion. Had Joe come to make him rest from the goodness of his heart, or had Pa sent him? He opened his mouth to ask the question when Ben forestalled him and spoke again.

“I think tomorrow all three of you had better go out looking for these strays. I’m concerned that there are so many missing. And with the looks of the weather, I don’t want any of them in those gullies. This is the season for flash floods. You boys be careful while you’re up there, too. I don’t want anything happening to you, either.”

“We’ll be careful, Pa,” Joe assured him, cheerfully.

Spooning the last of his pie into his mouth, Adam was suddenly sure his family were colluding together to make sure he rested enough. He supposed he was flattered by their concern, but he just wanted to forget about his illness and get back to normal. He vowed he’d show them he was all right the very next day.

*****

It was cold and drizzly the next morning, and Adam shivered involuntarily as he went outside. He pulled the collar of his warm, custard-colored coat around him and hunted in the pockets for his gloves. Beside him, Joe was, typically, wearing only his little green jacket.

“Won’t you be cold, Joe?” he asked, regretting it the moment the words were out of his mouth.

Turning, Joe grinned at Adam. He knew that Adam was feeling the cold more than usual because he had lost weight, but he was also aware of how touchy his oldest brother was on the subject. So instead of words of concern, Joe opted for cheek, instead. “Young bones don’t feel the cold,” he replied. “It’s just you old folks.” He danced sideways out of reach of the cuff Adam sent in his direction. Still grinning, he went on, “No, it’s not quite cold enough for the big jacket yet. Give it another couple of weeks.”

“Don’t blame me if you catch a cold, then,” Adam told him, knowing the chances of this were so remote as to be almost non-existent. Joe never seemed to catch colds, and it was enough to make a saint swear, when he was healthy and everyone else sniffing. There again, Adam thought, Joe was otherwise so accident prone, perhaps this was nature’s way of making it up to him.

“Oh, I won’t,” Joe assured him airily, striding out towards the barn and taking in deep breaths of the cool, fresh air. Adam shook his head. He felt better already.

*****

As the day went on, the weather closed in. The rain wasn’t very heavy, but it was relentless. A thin, soaking rain that soon had everyone and everything miserable. The rain dripped off the boys’ hats down their collars, despite their best efforts. Their pants legs were soon soaked from the foliage as they pushed their way into sheltered glades and clearings.

It was slow going. By noon, they had found less than half the missing cows, and were beginning to wonder about rustlers. There had been no immediate evidence of that, but with the rain falling the way it was, any tracks would soon be obliterated.

The noon meal consisted of a cold bite, with water to wash it down. They stood together under the dubious shelter of the largest tree in the area and shivered as the cold wind hit them. “Do you wish you’d put on your big coat now?” Adam asked Joe.

“No,” Joe replied, truthfully. He met Adam’s surprised gaze. “I wish I’d put on my rain slicker!”

They all laughed, Hoss the most, because he’d had the forethought to bring his rain slicker. He was comparatively dry. “Young’un, one day you’ll learn sense,” he told Joe, giving his younger brother a squeeze.

“But only if you don’t smother me first!” Joe protested, jokingly, as he extracted himself from Hoss’ vice-like grip. “You don’t know your own strength!”

“Its jist that you’re puny,” Hoss told him, complacently. If there was one thing in the world Hoss was aware off, it was his own strength. He’d learned at an early age that he was stronger than most people, and he was exceptionally careful not to hurt anyone if he could avoid it.

“Well, let’s get back to it,” Adam suggested. The cold meal had done little to make him feel warmer and he shivered slightly as the keen edge of the wind hit him.

“Why don’t you go home?” Joe suggested, having seen Adam shiver. “This isn’t the kind of weather to prove yourself in, Adam. Besides, when it’s as wet as this, you know Pa won’t be doing any branding.”

Smiling, for Joe was only showing his concern, Adam shook his head. “I’m all right, Joe,” he assured his younger brother.

“No you ain’t,” Hoss interjected. “Adam, you ain’t right in yourself yet. You don’ have to prove yerself ta us! We’s yore brothers. We ain’t needin’ ta be impressed.”

“You two are worse than Pa!” Adam exclaimed, exasperated. “I’m fine, I tell you! Now, let’s get moving!” To forestall any further discussion, he mounted Sport and turned expectantly.

Looking at Hoss, Joe shrugged. “Well, we tried,” he capitulated and together, he and Hoss mounted and they set off into the rain once more.

*****

Letting out a piercing whistle, Joe waved at his two brothers, who hastened back up the slope towards Joe. “I found ‘em,” he called as they came within earshot. “Look!” He pointed with his right hand and Adam and Hoss eased their mounts closer to Cochise to see. There, in the gully were the missing animals.

“Well, at least they haven’t been rustled,” Adam commented as they dismounted. They tethered their horses beneath the meager shelter of some nearby trees and made their way on foot into the gully. “I suppose that’s something.” Adam’s back was aching relentlessly and he could hardly wait to get home. The enticing prospect of a warm bath followed by a hot meal danced in front of his eyes.

They had climbed about half way into the gully when they spotted the reason the cattle weren’t leaving. A tree had come down across the mouth and was effectively acting as a gate. “At least they’ve had water and some grazing,” Joe said, as they continued their scramble down the steep sides. There was a stream running through the gully.

“I don’t think it’ll be that hard to move,” Adam told Hoss and Joe after they had all examined the tree closely. “It’s not that big. The three of us should be able to get it out without too much problem.”

Hoss and Joe exchanged glances. “All right,” Joe replied, squaring his shoulders. “I’m the smallest, so I’ll slide underneath and go round the other side.”

“No,” Adam contradicted. “I’ll slide underneath and go to the other side. You stay here in case we need you to go up for ropes.” He saw the mutinous set to Joe’s mouth and exerted his big brotherly authority some more. “It’ll save time in the long run, Joe. Come on, I’d like to get this lot back to the herd and go home, wouldn’t you?”

“I guess,” Joe replied, grudgingly.

Working together and under Adam’s instructions, they soon had the tree moving. Finally, Hoss had it wedged further up the gully sides and they could start moving the cattle out of their temporary home.

The rain was now coming down in sheets. “Let’s hurry it up!” Adam shouted, as they chivvied the cattle out of the gully. As perverse as always, the beasts were reluctant to go anywhere.

“I got an uneasy feelin’ about this, Joe,” Hoss confided as he applied his beefy shoulder to a beefy backside.

“You and me both,” Joe agreed, looking anxiously up at the mountains behind them. Or rather, at where the mountains should be, for the clouds were so low and thick that the mountains were totally obscured. He leant his strength and the cow began to move.

Disaster, when it struck, caught them all by surprise. The last of the cattle were out of the gully, and the boys were following when there was a sudden screeching noise. Joe and Hoss paused, looking round. Adam, a step or two in front, glanced up in time to see the wedged tree sliding towards him. It crashed down the rock face, trapping Adam under its top most branches and once more blocking the gully.

“Adam!” Both Joe and Hoss leapt forward. Hoss received a nasty crack across the cheek by one branch, which left a scratch behind. It narrowly missed his eye. Ignoring this, Hoss tried to rip the tree off Adam, but it was stuck tight.

“Get the ropes,” Joe cried. “Hurry, Hoss!” He glanced back over his shoulder at Hoss, who hesitated. “Look, if there is a flood, I’ll be quicker at climbing the walls than you, so get the rope, all right?”

“Right,” Hoss agreed, and made his way up the side of the gully. Joe scrambled round till he could see Adam’s face.

The older man was conscious. “Are you all right?” Joe asked, leaning over to try and shelter Adam from the rain slightly.

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted, sounding surprised. He tried to pull himself free, but he failed.

“Let me help,” Joe told him, and as agile as a monkey, scrambled over the tree, put his hands beneath Adam’s shoulders and pulled. For an agonizing moment, nothing happened, then Adam’s body moved suddenly and Joe stumbled back, sitting down hard against the rock wall at his back.

Catching his breath, Joe bent down for another try. “Don’t,” Adam warned him. “My leg’s trapped under the tree.”

Panting, Joe crouched down and tried to peer through the foliage. He could just see Adam’s leg beneath the trunk. “Is it broken?” he wanted to know.

Shaking his head, Adam, replied, “I can’t tell; it’s completely numb.”

Unable to just sit there and wait for Hoss, Joe climbed back over the tree once more and Adam saw him disappear from sight as he lay down and squirmed under the branches. Moments later, he felt Joe’s hands on his leg as his younger brother moved stones and debris from under his brother’s leg, in the hope of freeing it.

But there wasn’t enough lose stuff there to allow Joe to free Adam that way. He slithered out again and regarded his brother thoughtfully. “We’ll get you out, Adam,” he assured his brother, although he hadn’t a clue how they were going to do it.

Adam didn’t have a chance to say anything. There was a sudden roar and water began to gush into the gully.

Flash flood!

*****

“Joe, get out of here, you fool!” Adam cried over the noise of the water, fear roughening his voice. “Get out!”

“No,” Joe panted, shaking his wet hair out of his eyes. “We’re going to get you out of here, Adam. Hoss has gone for help.” He choked as a splash of water hit him in the face.

“There isn’t time!” Adam protested. “Joe, I’ll be dead before Hoss can get help! Save yourself!”

“Shut up!” Joe screamed. He was submerged for a moment by another wave, but came up seconds later, gasping for breath. “You’re not going to die, Adam! I’m not going to let you!”

Adam felt despair flood through him. He was trapped, the water was rising rapidly, and if Joe didn’t get out now, he was going to die, too! “Joe, don’t do this,” he begged over the cacophony. He swallowed some water and coughed violently. Joe ignored him, pushing and shoving against the tree trunk that held Adam captive in the water.

“I’m not leaving you!” Joe told his oldest brother. He strained his muscles to their limit and felt the tree begin to move. At that moment, there was a huge rush of sound as more water gushed into the small gulley where the Cartwright boys were. Adam lost sight of Joe as the water surged over his head.

*****

Frantically trying not to breathe, Adam knew that he was going to die. He hadn’t had the chance to snatch a big breath, and his lungs were screaming for air. Water bubbled and rushed around his head and he knew that at any moment, he would have to breathe; have to drag in water. His head was spinning and the blood was rushing noisily through his ears.

Then, suddenly, his leg sprang free and he shot to the surface like a cork from a bottle. Adam gasped in some air before going under again for a moment. The second time he popped to the surface, he was prepared and he fought to stay afloat.

Glancing around, Adam saw that he was alone. Steadying himself as best he could, he shouted, “Joe!”

There was no answer. Adam fought the current and made his way over to the side of the river. He was long out of the gully, he had noticed. The force of the water had swept him a long way downstream in those few seconds he was underwater after his leg had come free.

He never knew how long it took him to drag himself onto the bank. His leg, initially numb, was soon a burning misery. As he clawed his way up the bank, spewing up water he’d swallowed, the water bumped his legs off the side, and Adam bit back a cry of pain. He was exhausted, shivering and not sure that any moment, another big wave would not come and sweep him from his precarious perch. But finally, he was far enough from the water that he felt safe to rest and take stock of his situation.

He was wet through, and his hat had long been swept away. His gun had fallen from his holster, too, so there was no way for him to signal for help. Looking dispassionately at his leg, Adam decided that it probably wasn’t broken, but it was so sore that the thought of walking on it made him feel sick.

“But I’ve got to walk on it,” Adam said aloud. His voice was hoarse from the water he’d swallowed and sounded thin, even to his own ears. “Because if I don’t, I’ll die from exposure.”

Even with this reasoning, Adam lay on the cold wet ground in the pouring rain for almost an hour before he climbed laboriously to his feet and took his first, hopping step towards home.

*****

As the roar of the water filled the gully, Hoss whirled around. He could only watch as the swirling mass submerged everything in sight. Racing to the gully’s edge, Hoss could have stepped into the water, so deep was it at that point. “Adam, Joe!” he cried, knowing that there was no way either brother could hear him.

The water began to subside and Hoss mounted Chub and led Sport and Cochise downstream, hoping against hope that he would find some sign to tell him that his brothers had survived. But although the water had settled back to a raging torrent by the time Hoss reached the bottom of the gully, there was no sign of either Adam or Joe.

Knowing that there was nothing more he could do there, Hoss headed off towards home, to alert the hands that a search party was needed, and to tell his father that two of his three sons had been swept away. Tears streaked his face as he rode, but Hoss was oblivious of them. He couldn’t believe that his brothers were gone, and just like that, with no warning.

Clattering into the yard, Hoss saw the house door open as he dismounted and a great dread rose in his heart.  How could he give his father more grief? How could he find the words to tell him what had happened? But seeing Ben’s questioning look, Hoss found the words coming of their own volition.

“There was a flash flood, Pa,” he stammered. “Adam was trapped under a tree. Joe was tryin’ to free him. He’d sent me for ropes, and there were a noise and then they was gone.”

“Where?” Ben breathed, his face ashen. He listened to Hoss’ description, then shouted for the men, ordering wagons and horses and search parties. “You go into the house, son,” he said gently to Hoss. “You’re soaked and exhausted.”

“I cain’t, Pa,” Hoss protested. “I gotta come with you!”

Eyeing Hoss with concern, Ben nodded. “All right,” he allowed. “But go and put on some dry clothes at least. We won’t leave without you, I promise,” he added, as he saw Hoss hesitate.

Alone for the moment, Ben briefly allowed himself to think about his sons’ predicament, and he sent he up prayer for their survival. Although he knew that both sons knew what to do, should they find themselves in this position, he knew that there was a good chance that they were both dead. Grief filled his heart, and he forced back tears. Crying wouldn’t help him find his missing sons, he told himself sternly.

Half an hour later, he, Hoss and the men rode out to begin the search for Joe and Adam.

*****

Pulped. That was how he felt; pulped. Moving was beyond him, although the water still lapped and eddied around his body. Joe didn’t know how long he’d lain there, coughing out mouthfuls of brackish, dirty water, but it felt like forever.

Slowly, Joe recovered from his nightmarish experience. After a time, he lifted his head cautiously and saw that the water where he lay was tinged faintly with pink. Joe eyed it with a distinct lack of curiosity. He felt completely detached from his surroundings and it didn’t surprise him that the water was pink. Why not? It was brown and dirty, too, so why not pink? It didn’t occur to him that he was bleeding from many scrapes and gashes.

Regaining his feet at last, Joe staggered away from the water and collapsed at the base of a tree. He leaned against its comforting bulk for another indeterminate amount of time before finally recognizing his surroundings and pin-pointing his location.

When the water had hit, Joe had been sucked under and his head had smashed off the submerged tree trunk. He’d been knocked cold, but his limpness had worked in his favor, as he hadn’t become entangled in the tree as the water washed him away. He had been driven through the branches and out into the open water, where he had bobbed to the surface at once. The force with which he had been propelled through the branches had caused the cuts on his face, back, arms and legs. Joe’s clothes were in tatters, although he wasn’t aware of it. He also had a nasty gash across his forehead, which bled persistently.

By the time Joe had regained consciousness, he had traveled more than three miles down river and he’d been unable to fight the current to reach the bank, as Adam had done. However, now that he was awake and aware, he knew he had to head for home.

It was as he rose to his feet that Joe discovered that he had injured his right arm somehow. He wasn’t completely sure if it was broken, sprained, or dislocated, but it was causing him pain, now that his brain was functioning again. Walking was going to be painful, too, he realized. His boots were soaking, and as he began to walk, water squished unpleasantly between his toes. Within minutes, blisters were rising on his feet.

But the discomfort was the least of Joe’s concerns. He was heading for home, but his sole intention was to find Adam. Joe’s thinking was fuzzy, due to his head injury, but he knew there was a chance that Adam had survived, since he had, and he was determined to find his brother and help him get home.

“Hold on, Adam,” Joe muttered. “I’m coming.”

*****

Pulling his coat closer to his neck, Adam shivered violently. He’d barely covered any ground since hauling himself out of the river. Walking on his sore leg was a trial that he found hard to endure. The only comfort he could take from it was that his leg wasn’t broken. But a few steps, then a long rest was about his limit, and he could see the afternoon light waning. Although the spring days were warm, the nights could still be cold, and with the rain looking set to remain, he knew the temperature would fall.

“Hoss will be coming,” Adam comforted himself. It helped to speak out loud, he found. He wasn’t sure why, but it did. “He’ll come soon.”

There was a fair chance that Hoss would find him before dark, Adam thought. But what of Joe? He’d resolutely not allowed himself to think of Joe – too much. He couldn’t bear the thought of his youngest brother being alone – or even dead. For Adam couldn’t see how Joe would have survived the onslaught of the water. A picture of Joe’s broken body, caught up in the branches of the tree, had been haunting him all afternoon. He bit his lip and for a moment, tears stood in his eyes, but the habits of a lifetime prevailed and, even alone, he couldn’t let the tears fall. He shivered once more and closed his eyes to rest for just a moment, and promptly fell fast asleep.

*****

Waking with a start, Joe looked around. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but he was just so tired. Glancing at the sky, Joe saw that the rain was set for the night, and he forced himself to his feet with a groan. His arm throbbed horribly, and Joe was becoming convinced that not only was his shoulder dislocated, as he now knew it was, but that his arm might be broken, too. The pain was sapping his strength, but he was determined to find Adam, and had covered quite a bit of ground before his collapse.

The first few steps were sheer hell. There wasn’t a single spot on Joe’s feet that didn’t hurt. He groaned again, but resolutely limped on. After a time, the pain became constant and he was able to put it to one side as he scanned the surrounding area for signs of his brother.

Joe knew that there was a good chance that Adam had not escaped from under the tree and had drowned. It was a thought that he tried not to dwell on, clinging to hope. But as he tired, and the cold and wet took its toll on his weakened condition, he was unable to control his thoughts. He could not imagine a world without Adam in it, somewhere.

“Adam!” he cried, more to expel the demons from his mind than in the belief that his brother might be able to hear him. “Adam!” Wiping the tears from his face, Joe struggled on. He was reeling as he walked, now. Exhaustion was making its dangerous contribution to exposure.

A short distance away, Adam jerked awake, convinced he’d heard Joe cry out. “Oh, Joe,” he murmured, brokenly. Had he heard his brother’s despairing cry as he was swept away to his death? He pushed himself up from the soaking ground, and a movement in the distance attracted his attention. Peering through the sheets of rain, Adam feared that he had lost his mind, for there was Joe! “Joe!” he shouted, still not believing. “Joe!”

The figure turned and Adam waved, joy surging through his veins and flooding his tired mind. He tried to get to his feet, but his sore leg wouldn’t bear his weight and he slumped back down again.

“Adam?” Joe cried. “Adam! Is that you?” He forced his leaden legs to hurry, the increased pace reawakening the pain in his feet, but Joe didn’t care. Adam was alive!

Falling heavily to his knees beside his brother, Joe just gazed at him for a long moment, before throwing his uninjured arm round his brother’s neck. His tears wet them both. “I thought you were dead!” he sobbed.

“And I thought you were,” Adam told him, stroking his brother’s back gently. He let Joe cling to him for a moment longer before disentangling himself. “Are you all right? That’s quite a gash on your head.”

“I’m all right,” Joe told him, although it was patently obvious that that wasn’t true. “What about you? Your leg?”

“It hurts,” Adam admitted, “but I don’t think it’s broken. I have walked on it some.” He tried for a smile, but it didn’t feel very convincing. “I think we ought to wait here for Hoss and Pa to find us.”

“I don’t agree,” Joe protested. “We don’t know for sure that Hoss got out of the gully before the water hit. I was concentrating on you, and you were concentrating on not letting me help you. Did you see Hoss get out?”

“No,” Adam admitted. “But surely he did. You told me he had gone for help, remember?”

“Yes,” replied Joe. “But I was trying to keep you calm. I think Hoss got free, but I don’t know. And we can’t rely on help from him. We’ve got to try and get out of this ourselves.”

“I can’t walk,” Adam told him. “I’ll just wait here, Joe.”

“You can’t!” Joe protested. “Adam, you could die here! I’ll help you, but you’ve got to try. Adam, please.”

“All right,” Adam capitulated. He was just so tired.

Scrambling to his feet, Joe extended his good arm and braced himself. His head swam dizzily, but he shook it briskly to clear it and gave Adam a passable smile. “Come on, big brother,” he coaxed. Adam took Joe’s hand and got to his feet.

It was difficult to tell which of them was the worst off when they were both standing. “Don’t touch my shoulder,” Joe gritted as Adam made to his swing his arm round his brother’s slim shoulders. “It hurts.” Catching himself in time, Adam looped his arm round Joe’s waist.

“Joe, you can’t do this,” Adam panted, feeling the tremors that ran through Joe’s body.

“Yes I can,” Joe told him. “Just save your breath for walking.” Gritting his teeth once more, Joe tugged on Adam’s waist to tell him to start walking and they headed slowly towards home.

******

The pain came in waves. But every time he thought he couldn’t stand it any longer, the hand on his waist gave another reassuring squeeze and they limped on. Adam wondered where Joe was finding the stamina, for his youngest brother was bearing most of his, Adam’s, weight. Neither of them had enough breath to talk, although Joe was groaning steadily, seemingly unaware of the sounds he was making.

Suddenly, Joe’s legs gave out and they both tumbled to the ground, Adam landing partially on top of Joe, who landed square on his injured arm. He let out a scream of pain, and for a moment, the world went black around him. When he opened his eyes, Adam was leaning over him anxiously. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Joe, you’re burning up,” Adam said, worriedly. It didn’t occur to him that he, too, was running a good-going temperature. “You must rest. We can stay here.”

“No,” Joe replied, stubbornly. “I’m all right, Adam, really. We’ve got to keep moving.” He tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness and nausea forced him flat again. “Just give me a minute,” he slurred.

Hanging his head, Adam wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep. He was desperately concerned about Joe. How could either of them go on? They had nothing left; their bodies had taken too much punishment over the course of the afternoon.

Rolling over, Joe was sick. Adam held his younger brother as he vomited up the last of the water he’d swallowed earlier. That gave Adam something else to worry about, for the water was filthy and he feared that they could both come down with cholera or typhoid fever. His stomach didn’t feel very settled, either, he thought, queasily.

“Let’s go,” Joe proposed, making it as far as his knees. He tried to get his feet under him, but his strength had given out completely and he toppled forward once again. This time, he was able to catch himself. “In a minute,” he added. “I’ll be ready in a minute.”

“Face it, Joe,” Adam whispered. “We can’t go on; we’re too tired.”

Joe’s silence was all the agreement Adam needed.

*****

The water level had dropped dramatically by the time Hoss and Ben arrived at the gully. The previously lush, sheltered area was now awash with mud and debris and Ben knew it would be a long time before nature had repaired it enough to allow other beasts to think of grazing there.

Now that they had arrived at the starting point for their search, the men ranged out, covering as much ground as possible. Ben and Hoss rode the wagon, each scanning the landscape anxiously. It had been hours since the disaster had happened, and the rain had fallen ceaselessly the whole time. The land was waterlogged. Ben hoped the wagon wouldn’t get bogged down.

They drove on, in a mixture of anguish and anticipation. They wanted to find Adam and Joe, but they feared the condition they would find them in. Alive, but gravely injured? Or – their worst nightmare – dead? Neither could speak.

*****

“Adam?” Joe whispered. He tried to turn his head to look at his brother, but the effort was too much for him. “Adam, I can hear hooves.”

Summoning the last reserves of his strength, Adam sat up and peered across the wet land. Adrenalin suddenly charged through his system. “Hey!” he shouted, waving, frantically. “We’re here!” A moment later, the figure on horseback waved back and three shots punctured the air. “Joe!” Adam cried, shaking his brother. “They’ve found us! Joe!”

“Good,” Joe muttered. He made the effort to smile at Adam, but it was clear it was an effort.

*****

“Pa, listen!” Hoss cried.

“I hear!” Ben told him, shaking up the horses and turning in the direction of the shots. His heart rose to his throat and his hands shook.

From all round, the hands were converging. It seemed to Ben that the few minutes it took to reach his sons had lasted an eternity. He jumped down from the wagon, seeing Adam sitting up and grinning weakly at him and Joe lying huddled on the ground.

“Are you all right?” he cried, putting his hand on Adam’s shoulder, and receiving a nod. “Joe?” he asked, and knelt by his son’s side. Joe opened his eyes briefly and the ghost of a smile flitted across his face.

“Joe’s just tired,” Adam explained, his own voice betraying his exhaustion. “He helped me come this far.”

“Just tired?” Ben echoed. “You’re both a lot more than just tired. Adam, tell me; where are you hurt?” He put his hand on his eldest son’s shoulder, his other hand still resting gently on Joe’s left arm.

“My leg,” Adam replied, gesturing with one hand. “It’s not broken, but that’s the leg that was caught under the tree.”

“And Joe?” Ben questioned, seeing that his other son had shut his eyes and was breathing shallowly through his mouth. He looked decidedly green. “I can see the gash on his head…”

“His shoulder and arm,” replied Adam. “And he’s limping.”

“All right,” Ben replied. He glanced at the men. “Fred, you ride for the doctor. Dave, Jeb, help Adam into the wagon, please. Hoss, help me with Joe.”

Carefully, Ben and Hoss lifted Joe between them. Joe cried out once, then went limp. Ben exchanged a concerned glance with his middle son. They eased him into the wagon and Ben climbed in next to his two boys. It was cramped, but at least dry, for they had put the cover over the wagon before leaving home.

“I’ll drive, Pa,” Hoss offered, and climbed onto the seat. He got the team moving at once, while Ben began stripping off Adam’s wet clothes.

“I can manage,” Adam protested, but Ben could see that all his movements were slow and his frozen fingers fumbled with the buttons on his coat.

“Sure you can,” Ben agreed, and continued to help. Within a short time, he had Adam warmly wrapped in blankets. Then he turned his attention to Joe.

The younger boy hadn’t yet regained consciousness and Ben took advantage of this to gently feel Joe’s arm. He diagnosed the dislocated shoulder easily enough, and as he felt further down the arm, he decided that the upper bone was broken. With Adam’s help, he stripped off the left sleeve of Joe’s jacket and then his shirt, but he left the other sleeve alone, for fear of causing Joe more pain. However, he slid off the boy’s soaked boots and socks, then gazed in horror at Joe’s feet.

“How did he walk with his feet like that?” Adam breathed.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied. Joe’s feet were swollen, blistered, dirty and raw. They had been bleeding, mostly around his toes. Dragging his gaze away, he swiftly finished undressing Joe and wrapped him in blankets, too. Then he passed Adam the canteen. “Not too much,” he cautioned his son. “Can you tell me what happened, Adam?”

“Only to me,” he replied, sipping the water. He only took a few mouthfuls before handing the canteen back to Ben. “The water hit, and I lost sight of Joe. I thought I was going to die, Pa. I was under the water, my leg trapped. I don’t know exactly what happened, but the tree must have moved somehow, and I was free. I managed to stay afloat and finally got to the bank and pulled myself up. I tried to walk home, but my leg was too sore. I was asleep when I heard Joe calling to me. He came and helped me, and we covered quite a long way. But then he fell, and I landed on him and he blacked out, Pa. And then, we couldn’t go on.”

Tenderly, Ben tipped Joe’s head and gave him some water. Joe swallowed automatically and his eyes fluttered open. “Pa,” he breathed. “So it wasn’t a dream.” A grimace of pain crossed his face, and Joe shut his eyes again.

“We’ll soon get you home,” Ben soothed, eyeing both sons with worry. He was so grateful to find them alive, but they both needed medical treatment, and soon. They had been wet and cold for too long. Exposure could still claim them both. Hurry, Hoss, he silently urged his son.

*****

By the time they got home, Adam was asleep, but his breathing had become noisier with every mile that passed. Adam had a notoriously weak chest for someone of such robust health and with having been ill such a short time before, he didn’t have the resources to fight off anything new. Joe had drifted in and out of consciousness and was running a temperature, as was Adam.

As the wagon jolted to a stop in the yard, Adam opened his eyes and looked around. The rain still beat down on the canvas top of the wagon, and the familiar sound was comforting, especially as Adam was now completely warm, something he’d thought he’d never be again.

“Let’s get you inside,” Ben told him. “Then we’ll come back for Joe.”

Nodding, Adam slid out of the back of the wagon, where Hoss waited to support him. Adam couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so stiff or sore, and he was grateful for the assistance of his father and brother. Within a few short minutes, he was being tucked up in bed by Hop Sing, who’d had warm water ready to give Adam a wash. The bed was warm, thanks to the pig that had been tucked into it and Adam lay back and luxuriated in being warm and dry. As he drifted off to sleep again, he heard Ben and Hoss carrying Joe into his room across the hall.

“No put wet, dirty jacket into warm, clean bed!” Hop Sing protested, as he drew the covers back for Ben.

“I guess you’re right,” Ben muttered. “Get me the shears, please.” He sat Joe onto the edge of the bed, and Hoss supported him. When Hop Sing brought the scissors, Ben gently cut away the tattered remains of Joe’s jacket and allowed the soiled fabric to fall to the floor. Carefully, he and Hoss eased Joe down into the bed.

“Here water,” Hop Sing stated, thrusting the basin at Ben. “Boy feel better when clean.”

Hiding a smile, Ben did as he was bid and began to wash the blood and dirt off Joe’s face. Hoss went to check on Adam, and returned with Doc Martin in tow.

“Good Lord!” Paul exclaimed, leaning over the bed. “What happened to him?”

Quickly, Ben told the story while Paul felt all round Joe’s shoulder and arm. “All right, let’s get this dislocation reduced,” he said. “Ben, you were right not to touch it. When a shoulder’s been out as long as this one has, it’s tricky to set. Can you hold him down? This will hurt.” Paul positioned himself and nodded to Ben, who held Joe to his chest.

The shoulder crunched back into place causing enough pain to rouse Joe and he let out a piercing scream before lapsing back into unconsciousness. “Good enough,” Paul panted. He felt round the restored joint and nodded. “That’s it. Right, I’ll set his arm while he’s still out then you can show me the rest of the damage.” He set to work, quickly and efficiently.

When Joe next roused, he peered round blearily. The first his family knew of his wakefulness was when he said, “I thought you were just a nightmare, Doc,” in a jokey whisper.

“Joseph!” Ben chided, reprovingly, but Paul just laughed.

“I’m afraid not, Joe,” he replied. “But now you’re awake, you can let me peer down your throat. I’ve already looked in your ears and listened to your chest. I don’t need your cooperation for that.” Joe’s lungs were remarkably free of congestion, considering how close he had come to drowning, but Paul knew that he would have to have a close eye kept on him.

“My feet feel funny,” Joe complained in a tired voice. He generally felt dreadful, with a thumping headache and queasy stomach. The only thing he could say in his own favor was that his shoulder was less sore now. Cautiously turning his head, he saw the huge bandage round his shoulder and his arm was in a sling.

“They may well feel funny for quite a while,” Paul replied, soberly. “They are badly infected, Joe. It’ll be some time before you’re walking anywhere again.” He pulled back the covers to display Joe’s bandaged feet.

“I don’t feel too good,” Joe muttered.

“That’s the concussion and the amount of water you swallowed,” Paul told him. “I think you must have tried to drink that whole river, young man.” He didn’t voice his concerns of cholera and typhoid fever. Ben knew the dangers only too well and Joe was too sick to be worried with them.

“How’s Adam?” Joe asked.

“He’ll be all right, I’m sure,” Paul assured him. “I’m just off to see to him now, Joe. You try and get some sleep.”

“I’ll stay with him, Pa,” Hoss offered. He sat down beside Joe’s bed. Ben followed Paul to the door.

“Keep a close eye on them both, Ben,” Paul advised. “With cases of near drowning, there can often be secondary symptoms presented hours later.

“They won’t be alone,” Ben assured him.

“I didn’t think they would be,” Paul joked and they went into Adam’s room.

The sound of Adam’s heavy breathing filled the room and Paul looked concerned. He crossed to Adam’s side and began to listen to his chest. After a few moments, he roused Adam, which was more difficult than it should have been. “Adam, I want you to put this under your tongue,” he told him. “It’s just a thermometer. You seem to be incubating quite a little fever here.”

Sighing, Adam did as he was asked and Ben waited anxiously until Paul took it out and looked at it. “101,” Paul commented. “Not too high as yet, Ben.” He bent over Adam once more, this time examining his leg closely. “No breaks, but you’ve got some of the most spectacular bruising I’ve ever seen,” Paul commented, worried by Adam’s silence. “I want you to stay in bed and take this medicine, all right?”

“Yes,” Adam grunted. He watched from heavy-lidded eyes as Paul bandaged his injured limb to give it support, and took his medicine with no verbal comment, but the face he made said it all. “How’s Joe?”

“Like you, not very well right now,” Paul commented. “But as long as you both do what I say, you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” Adam said, and slid back down the bed and closed his eyes.

*****

Sleep was in short supply for the inhabitants of the Ponderosa over the next few days. Adam, as Paul had gloomily predicted to Ben, had developed pneumonia. He slept sitting up, to help try and relieve his chest, and Ben found himself slapping Adam on the back several times per day to try and loosen the phlegm collecting in his son’s chest. Adam coughed relentlessly and drifted in and out of consciousness. It was a constant fight to keep his oldest son’s temperature under control.

The fight was no less serious on the other side of the hallway. Joe’s feet were badly infected and the poison began to spread up his legs. He was wracked with fever and pain and had to endure painful treatments designed to kill the infection several times each day. Despite Paul’s best efforts, the pain kept Joe awake most of the time and he cried out whenever he was touched. The big fear was that gangrene would set in and Paul would have to amputate his feet.

Such a course was anathema to Ben, who knew that Joe, the wild and free, would never cope with such a disability. Paul didn’t argue, but he secretly feared that if the worst happened, and he did amputate, Joe would not survive the operation. He was already extremely weak, and getting weaker with every passing hour.

“What do you think?” Ben asked, as Paul finished examining Joe’s feet three days later. Hoss was sitting with Adam.

“Do you remember telling me about the time you dunked Joe’s hands in Epsom salts?” Paul asked. Ben nodded, frowning slightly. “Well, that’s just what I’m going to do to his feet. We’ve tried all the lesser remedies and they aren’t working. I’m afraid it’s kill or cure time, Ben.”

“All right,” Ben allowed. He and Paul worked together to make up the solution; a much stronger solution than Ben had ever used before. They placed the basin on the floor, then dragged Joe to a sitting position while Paul took the bandages off his feet.

“Can you hear me, Joe?” Paul asked. He got a short nod. Joe’s eyes were so darkly circled that they looked bruised and he could barely keep them open. Quickly, he told Joe what he was going to do. “Do you understand?” he asked. Again, he got a nod. Glancing at Ben, Paul thought that the father looked as pale as the son. “Let’s do it,” he suggested.

As Ben supported Joe in his arms, Paul plunged Joe’s feet into the solution.

The reaction was immediate and dramatic. Joe’s eyes opened wide and he let out a sustained scream. He fought Ben, trying to take his feet from the basin where Paul was holding them firmly. The bedroom door opened and Hoss catapulted in, thinking that Joe was being murdered or something. He stood there, gaping at them incredulously as Joe’s air finally ran out and he fell silent once more.

Ben was never to know how many minutes Joe’s feet were in that solution, but they left a scar on his soul. Joe’s pain had been only too obvious and he had finally slumped in Ben’s arms, not quite unconscious, but so near to it as it made no difference.

But at long last, Paul was taking Joe’s feet out and rinsing them in clear water and putting on some sort of salve. Joe didn’t move as Paul rebandaged them and finally he was tucked back under the covers. “Joe, I’m going to give you some morphine,” Paul told him. “It’ll help you sleep.” He had been reluctant to give Joe some sooner, because of the concussion he’d suffered. Now, the needle pricking his thigh brought nothing but relief to Joe and he was soon tumbling deep into a drugged sleep.

“Has it worked?” Ben asked.

Before replying, Paul drew both he and Hoss out into the hall. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But I hope so. If it hasn’t, Ben, there’s only one course open to us.”

They looked at one another bleakly. They all knew what it was – amputation.

*****

“What was the screaming about?” Adam asked, as Ben wiped sweat from his forehead. Adam’s fever had broken at last and he was taking his first steps down the road to recovery. “It was Joe, wasn’t it?”

Hesitating, Ben wasn’t sure what to say. However, his hesitation only fuelled Adam’s fears. “Joe’s not…”

“Joe’s asleep,” Ben hurried to reassure him. “But yes, it was him screaming earlier. Paul was giving him a new treatment for his feet and it was very painful for him.”

“Oh,” Adam replied, as he began to drift off. As Ben smoothed the covers over his eldest son, he realized that Adam didn’t know the peril was Joe facing and he was grateful. No need to worry Adam unless the procedure proved necessary.

Leaving his sleeping son, Ben went into the hall and sat down on the nearest chair. He buried his face in his hands, praying once more for Joe’s recovery. It was cruel for anyone to be disabled, but it seemed especially so for Joe, who seldom walked if he could run. After a few minutes, Ben felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up into Hoss’ concerned face.

“Pa, are you all right?” Hoss asked.

“Yes,” Ben replied, wondering how true that statement was. “Are you all right, son? How are you coping? I’m sorry I haven’t had much time to spare for you.”

“I ain’t needin’ yore time the same’s Joe an’ Adam,” Hoss claimed, although Ben knew this wasn’t true. But it was so typical of Hoss to put his brothers’ needs before his own. “I’m all right, Pa.”

“Thank you,” Ben whispered and was horrified to find tears in his eyes. He blinked and looked away. He had promised himself he wouldn’t shed tears until the worst had happened, or the best had happened. And here he was, crying while thanking his son for being himself.

Blinking back a corresponding moisture from his own eyes, Hoss squeezed Ben’s shoulder in silent understanding. Words really weren’t adequate. “Come see Joe,” he whispered, after a time.

Rising, Ben felt a momentary light-headedness; not the first warning he’d had that he was fast approaching his limits of sleeplessness. With a heavy step, he followed his middle son into the youngest son’s bedroom. He could barely bring himself to look at Joe, for his suffering was written so clearly on his face.

But when he did look, Ben was in for a surprise. Joe was sleeping peacefully, mostly thanks to the drugs that Paul had given him. But his skin looked better; his color was improved and the lines of pain were disappearing. Ben looked questioningly at Hoss.

“I’m glad you see it, too, Pa,” Hoss whispered. “I was beginnin’ ta think I were imaginin’ it.” He smiled shakily. “Punkin looks a might better, don’ he?”

“Indeed he does,” Ben agreed. He hurried over to the bedside and put his hand gently on Joe’s head. The sleeping man on the bed turned his face towards his father, nestling into that loving touch. Ben stood like that for a long minute, stroking Joe’s hair over and over again. Joe was significantly cooler. Ben looked at Hoss again and they shared the moment, savoring the knowledge that Joe and Adam were both on the mend at long last. “I think he’ll be all right,” Ben whispered.

“You go get some sleep,” Hoss ordered Ben. “I’ll wake ya if’n he needs ya. Ya need to git some sleep, Pa, or you’ll be sick, too.”

“So do you, son,” Ben replied, but Hoss shook his head.

“I’ve snatched some here an’ there,” he told his father. “You ain’t closed yer eyes once. Now git! Me an’ Hop Sing’ll manage.”

A sudden yawn shook Ben as he finally allowed himself to relax. Smiling, he headed towards the door, glancing back over his shoulder at the young man asleep on the bed. “Thank you, Lord,” he whispered. “Thank you for giving me back my sons.”

*****

For the next several days, both Joe and Adam seemed to sleep the clock round. They weren’t the only ones. Ben and Hoss took it in shifts to sleep, until both felt that they had more or less caught up on the rest they had missed while the boys were so ill. Adam’s cough lingered, but Ben wasn’t as worried about it now. It was only to be expected, and it was far looser and less painful than it had been at the beginning.

Paul’s radical treatment of Joe’s feet had saved his life, of that there was no doubt. While Joe was sleeping, Paul kept him well supplied with painkillers to allow him the rest he’d been unable to find while his feet were so sore. But soon, he was awake for longer and longer periods, and making token protests about getting up.

That suggestion was vetoed at once by Ben. Joe didn’t pursue the matter too vigorously, a sure sign that he knew that walking about was not his wisest course of action. Adam was on his feet first, which didn’t come as a big surprise to anyone, given how badly damaged Joe’s feet had been. Ben contrived to be in Joe’s room when Adam finally shuffled across the hall to see his youngest brother for himself.

“Hi, Adam,” Joe cried cheerfully. “You’re looking good.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Adam responded, sitting down. “I look terrible and don’t think I don’t know it.” He cocked his head and regarded Joe solemnly. “But there again, I think I look better than you do.”

Rolling his eyes, Joe was quick to respond. “Dream on,” he told Adam, kindly. Adam laughed.

“Seriously, Joe, I wanted to thank you,” he said, soberly. “I might have died out there if not for you. I’ll never know how you managed to support me, given the broken arm, dislocated shoulder and your feet.”

Embarrassed, Joe muttered,” I’d never have managed at all if I hadn’t had my feet.”

“Don’t,” Adam protested. “Joe, I’m being serious here. Every step must have been agony, even without supporting my weight.” He put his hand on Joe’s arm and his voice shook slightly. “I couldn’t have managed without you, buddy.”

“That’s what brothers are for,” Joe replied. He sounded teary. “I couldn’t just leave you.” He clasped his hand round Adam’s arm and squeezed. They sat like that in silence for a long time.

Finally, summoning a smile, Adam joked, “I know who I want with me if I ever get waterlogged again.”

“Do me a favor, Adam,” Joe responded, in the same vein. “Next time, take Hoss?”

“Both you boys do me a favor,” Ben interrupted. “Don’t let there be a next time.”

***End***

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