Summary: Gravely hurt and completely helpless, Adam finds himself at the mercy of a person from his past who seeks nothing but revenge. And for once, there’s no chance he’ll talk his way out of it. In the end it might come down to who’s more determined; and Adam surely won’t give up. No, he won’t, will he?
Word Count: 7500
I. Ignorance is the parent of fear.
“Call me Isaac.”
Muted sounds, blurred vision, stale taste in his mouth, as yet undefinable smell—all his senses are dulled as he slowly emerges from the deep waters of unconsciousness. He is emerging, isn’t he? He’s awake, not sleeping anymore. Someone has just spoken to him—right?
And then the sense of feeling sets in full force: pain, stabbing, piercing, relentless. Centering on the left side, low beneath his rib cage, it seems to spread from there all over his body, into his arms and legs, into his hands and feet, into his fingers and toes. It pulses into his head, where it throbs and drums in a merciless rhythm that robs him of the ability to think clearly, and makes him forget the desire to know, to understand.
A face swims into his view, blurred yet certainly unfamiliar features. Must be the man who’d spoken to him a moment ago. Waiting for a response, most probably. How utterly impolite of you, Adam. He would have snorted or lifted an eyebrow and smirked, but without explaining why that would be utterly impolite, too. Perhaps he’d better speak.
“Who…?” he tries. “Ishack?” His tongue hurts, too. It’s thick and heavy. Woolly, somehow.
“Close enough.” The man grins. That at least is unmistakable. That, and the fact that there isn’t any humor in it.
He squints his eyes. Looking hurts, too, almost as bad as talking. Or thinking. But he needs to…to…
“Isaac.” Mocking, almost malicious.
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Suddenly the face is so close to his that he feels spit spraying down on him. “You don’t want to know,” says the face, and splits into a cruel grin. “Might’ve been better you didn’t wake up at all.”
He wants to wipe the spit from his skin, wants to strike at the face, wants to shake the man and demand answers—but to his horror he finds he cannot lift his arms. He struggles, tries to move his arms, legs, anything. He can’t. Can’t move, can’t…breath anymore, can’t think through the rising fog, can’t…can’t…
Can’t hear anything but a whirr, a sizzling buzzing that grows louder and louder and drowns out everything: sounds, sights, thoughts—even though that doesn’t make any sense at all, but he’s gone far beyond sense already. His skin is prickling, he’s hot and cold at the same time, and tired and panicking; and he hurts, hurts so much, and he’s falling, falling back, down, falling, falling…
II. Everything is done with pain.
For some reason he can’t break through to the surface again. Trapped in an undefined meaninglessness of dulled sensations and befuddled sanity, dimly aware of physical discomfort and fatigue, and unable to open his eyes, to utter a word or even a moan, he’s restricted to listening to what little noise makes it through the thick fog.
Faint rustling, raised voices.
“…just let me kill him and be done with it.” The man. Isaac, wasn’t it?
Then a woman. “No, no, we can’t have that.” The voice is faintly familiar. He can’t quite place it, but he knows he’s heard it before.
“He’s almost dead anyhow. Why don’t you just—”
“No, my good man, no. That would be far too easy.”
There’s more rustling, like that of a skirt. It’s coming closer, and then there’s a hand on his brow, cool and comforting. He tries and fails to open his eyes. He’s sure he would recognize the woman if he saw her. But those darn eyes don’t obey his mind’s command. He’s weak, weaker than he can remember having ever been, so weak that he relishes the comfort of the cold hand on his face and is disappointed when the hand is gone all too soon, taking with it the small relief.
“He’s hot.” It comes sharply; nearly a rebuke. “Rouse him.”
“He needs water or else he dies.”
“He’s gonna die anyway, ain’t he?”
“But not now. Not before he has heard me.” The hand is back, blessedly cold and almost affectionate. And the voice is soft and tender, and very close to his ear now. “No, we won’t let you go without knowing why, will we?”
The gentle hand disappears in a rustle of skirts and makes room for a different presence at his side. A smack across his face makes him gasp and brings him closer to above, makes him more aware of the outside of his confinement.
“Wake up, Cartwright. The lady wants to talk.”
Another smack, then water. A drizzle of water on his face; he opens his mouth, greedily, lets the water trickle through his cracked lips, over his parched tongue, chokes as the rivulet collects in a small pool just above his throat. He can’t seem to be able to let it go the right way, and panic sets in—again—as he feels that instead of satisfying his thirst the water is going to drown him.
He coughs violently, and the coughs wake up the dormant pain in his rib cage, setting his whole left side on fire.
Hands under his shoulders—no, no, no, you’re not trying to sit me up, are you? But they are, they raise him, bend his middle—and the pain explodes with new vengeance. He’s going to be sick, he’s going to lose what little water he was able to swallow…and he does, and that brings even more pain: a completely new level of pain, and it pulls him under again, and this time he goes gladly, lets himself slip down to where there’s no pain, no sickness, no voices, no threats, just absolutely nothing.
III. And Heaven have mercy on us all.
It’s an argument to which he wakes up next. He’s learned already that any movement brings unbearable pain, that signaling alertness brings even more pain—and that he can gain knowledge if he feigns unawareness. Not that he feels as if he could do much more than that. He’s still floating just beneath the surface of the outer world, still confined in that muted nowhere of inside.
They must have gotten some fluids into him, for he isn’t as thirsty anymore. He doesn’t know, though, whether to be thankful for that or not. Not feeling thirsty anymore is the only improvement he notices. The all-pervasive fatigue that speaks of a grave illness is still there, and the bone-deep ache, which he knows is only the sleeping brother of piercing, all-consuming agony.
Perhaps, as the ma—Isaac suggested, not waking up again would be the far better choice after all?
He does remember what else Isaac said: He’s gonna die anyway, ain’t he? but at least he wants to know why. And so he listens.
“…don’t see why I should spend more time hanging around here.”
“I paid you nicely for that.”
“No, ma’am, you paid me fer bringing you Cartwright. I brought him to you; end of the deal.”
“Oh, but bringing him here involved looking after him, too. You can’t honestly think a frail woman such as I could handle a grown man, can you, good man?” He doesn’t have to see her to know she must be playing with her hair or fondling her neck.
It doesn’t seem to work on her companion. “He’s half dead and tied up like a bed roll.”
“But I would still feel distinctly safer if you would be so kind as to stay with me.” A pregnant pause, then, “Please.”
He wants desperately to see her. He knows the voice, knows the overdone refined language, the affected diction, has heard it before; he’s absolutely sure about that. If he could just remember where or when.
Perhaps if he tries to open his eyes, tries to move his head, perhaps he can get a glimpse of her.
He seems to have forgotten how to open his eyes or how to move his head. Or maybe the newly rising susurrus in his head distracts him from remembering how to make his muscles work. It grows, the susurrus, into a buzzing noise that fills every fiber of his body.
Abandoning the wish to see, he focuses on listening. There’s information to gather, he needs to pay attention to what’s being said. But all he can hear through the humming are fragments, single words, syllables, sounds. He can’t even make out the different voices anymore.
“More money,” he hears. And, “other ways…needs to know…knife…can’t…few days…daughter…insane…will pay…just kill…if not for him…” A piercing scream, loud enough to penetrate the whooshing in his ears. “It’s all his fault, all his fault!”
And then something slams into his leg: a sharp stabbing agony; and he roars in pain, his whole body jerks, then another stab—and then the world collapses around him, folds into itself, and is no more.
IV. Experience, that’s the best way to learn.
As he comes to again, it’s completely dark around him. He can hear snoring—the man Isaac, most probably. The woman must be somewhere close, too, because he can smell her perfume: a heavy scent, too sweet and too musky.
He still hurts, but his mind is clearer, his brain no longer foggy. He takes a short inventory of his situation: he lies on something hard and lumpy; he can’t hear wind or animals or any other sound of nature, so he has to be inside. In a line shack perhaps, which would also explain the smell of damp straw and moldiness.
He’s constrained, his feet bound together, his arms and hands pinioned to his sides. His left side burns like fire, he must be severely hurt here; his leg throbs—he has been stabbed, hasn’t he? He’s sweaty yet shivering, clearly feverish: the first injury must have happened at least a day or two ago and can’t have been treated well—if at all—or infection wouldn’t have set in so vigorously.
He tries to remember how he first got hurt or what he was doing when it happened, but his memory still is somewhat sluggish and hazy. He seems to recall he was riding—but where to? Virginia City, perhaps? Or…no, it was…was… He knows it’s important to remember where he was heading, for the distance to that place will determine the amount of time his family will need to realize that he’s gone missing.
Lord, to where had he been going? Think, Adam, think. But thinking exhausts him. He must be bad off to let thinking exhaust him, must have lost a lot of blood to be light-headed even while lying down, must have hit his head as he fell from his horse.
He did fall from his horse, didn’t he?
He closes his eyes, even though there’s little in the darkness of the hut that could distract him. Still, it’s easier to concentrate that way. And then his memory comes back in reverse order. He feels himself falling down from his horse, hitting the ground hard. He must have banged his head then, for there’s nothing he remembers after the sensation of falling and landing.
He does remember the impact of a bullet, like a blow with a sledge hammer. It slammed him back, made him lose balance, dispatched him from the saddle. He can see himself ride, over rocky ground, craggy boulders obstructing the trail. A deep canyon descends on his right, a steep face goes up on his left. It’s unfamiliar territory, he doesn’t go here very often. But a mountain lion had come down into the valley to prey on cattle. It had killed a few calves already; that was why Adam had volunteered to hunt it down.
He’d kept his eyes on the path, guided his horse carefully through the obstacles. He hadn’t reckoned with someone hiding in the rocks, or he might have seen the reflection of a weapon, might have heard tiny stones roll, might have felt he wasn’t alone. As it was, the shot took him by surprise; and he was felled and knocked out cold before he could even begin to wonder what had happened.
Now he has his wits back, he does wonder. Wonder not what happened, because—hallelujah!—he does remember that now, and what he doesn’t remember he can deduce easily, no, he wonders why it happened.
Apparently the woman—who is she, who?—has hired someone to hunt him down. Not to kill him, that much is clear, at least not to kill him immediately. But what plans does she have while he’s not being killed?
He blinks into the darkness. He’s sure he will recognize the woman as soon as he can see her clearly, and he will see her clearly as soon as the sun’s up again. He suspects he should be wary of the moment when the woman realizes he’s awake and aware, yet he can’t wait for it to happen. If he knows who she is, he will know how to fight her.
And with that comforting thought he allows himself to fall asleep.
V. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.
Waking up from a natural sleep is much more pleasant than coming out of unconsciousness. As is waking up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee instead to that of musty clothes and stale air.
Coffee. For a brief moment he deludes himself with the notion that he’s at home and that Hop Sing has just called to breakfast. But that image is shattered as soon as he hears her speak again, because she does not belong to home. She’s never been there—or has she?
He tries to turn his head again, and this time he manages. He also manages to open his eyes, and finds himself rewarded with a clear vision of a woman in a lavish dress, filling herself a cup from an old, battered coffeepot, that clashes gloriously with her elegant attire and her affected gestures.
“My word,” she says with the air of a duchess, “there is no better way to start a day than with a cup of perfectly brewed coffee, wouldn’t you say so yourself, Mr. Isaac?”
A low grunt is the only answer she gets, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “It is,” she goes on. “It is indeed.”
He doesn’t really need her to turn around and present him her face, for it only confirms what her put-on airs have already told him. How did he not realize it earlier?
“Mrs. Banning,” he spits. Or at least he tries to spit. He’s startled at how weak, how tiny he sounds.
Mrs. Banning saunters across the room. Her sumptuous skirt swings with every stride, she ruffles the fabric with her hands and sways her hips. As she stops at the side of his cot she clasps her hands in front of her chest, cants her head, and gives him too friendly a smile.
“Ah, I see you do remember me, Adam; even after so many years. That is good, very good.”
“Well, you’re not so easy to forget.”
No, it certainly hadn’t been easy to forget her, her and…Melinda. Joe in particular had had a hard time forgetting them. How Pa’s old friend Horace Banning’s wife and daughter Melinda had come to stay at the Ponderosa for a while. How they had let him fall in love with the pretty girl and the fairy tale life Mrs. Banning had invented for her daughter, how they had made him believe he was loved back—and how he had to realize that all of it had only been a lie, a show created to provide Melinda with a rich husband.
No, no one on the Ponderosa has forgotten Mrs. Banning. If nothing else, Joe’s evident misery after the scheme had been laid open and the wedding cancelled, the lingering sadness in his eyes after Melinda and her family had finally left the ranch, the way he’d behaved much more cautiously around girls for a long time after that episode, had reminded them of that fine lady from Baltimore, Mrs. Deborah Banning.
“I’ll take that as a compliment, thank you.” She takes a delicate sip from her chipped cup. “Even though I do remember that you weren’t quite so gallant back then when we first met. Not with me, at least.”
“Well, sorry for not having been a perfect gentleman then.” He can’t believe he’s talking about manners right now. He would roll his eyes, but he suspects that that will make the newly awakened throbbing in his head only worse. Instead, he goes straight to the heart of matters—before his body will betray him again, and his light will go out. “Why am I here?”
“Why, you are here because Mr. Isaac was so kind as to bring you into my possession.” She chuckles, takes another sip from her cup, then makes a sweeping gesture with her hand, sending sprays of coffee all over the room. “But that is not the answer to what you wanted to know, is it?” She crouches down, bringing her face too close to his. The smile, he notices, has left her face. “The answer is that you are here because I want to watch you die.”
“I gathered as much,” he grinds out. “Question is, why am I not dead already? Why hasn’t he…” He jerks his head in the vague direction of where he assumes Isaac sits—and regrets it instantly as a wave of nausea washes over him. “…done the job already?”
She flinches back, whether from his bad breath or something he’s said, he doesn’t know. She holds her hand up as if to keep Isaac away, as she says, “Oh no. No, no. We can’t have that. No.” She smiles again, sweetly. “It’s not that I don’t want to see you dead—because I do want to see you dead, I want it very much. But…dead alone is not good enough. You see, I need to gain…satisfaction from this. Satisfaction. I need to see you die. I need to see you suffer. Suffer as much as I—suffer as much as my daughter has suffered.”
“I don’t understand—”
“Don’t you?” The cup clunks on the floor, shards flying everywhere. Mrs. Banning bends her upper body to tower over him. “Oh, don’t you now?” she screeches. “You don’t understand? I have suffered for a lifetime. I have suffered from a good-for-nothing husband, whose failure in everything deprived me of the life I was destined to live, of the life I deserved to live. I have lived in poverty all my life. As has my daughter. Her father deprived her, too, of the life she should have lived.”
She reels back and starts pacing the small room. This time she doesn’t bother with swishing her skirt. “Horace Banning was a failure. He never gained anything, never achieved anything. He never brought anything to a good end. He lost every job he ever had, he botched every deal he ever tried to make. He was a failure, all his life he was a failure. And even in death he was a failure. Dying from his own hand after he had lost yet another appointment, he left me with not a single cent to live on. Even in death he deprived me of what I deserved.”
“I can’t see what this has got to do with—”
He can’t conclude his sentence. Mrs. Banning is back at his side in a split second and grabs him by the shoulder. She shakes him, hard enough to make the pain in his side flare up again.
“This is your fault,” she spits into his face. “This is all your fault. Can’t you see that?”
Her hands leave his shoulders, and he almost sighs in relief but then those hands are on his side, pressing down on his injury. She wants to inflict pain, and—God!—she does inflict pain on him. Agony. White hot agony.
And she doesn’t stop, doesn’t ease the pressure; if anything she increases it, repeating over and over, “Your fault, your fault, your fault!”
It’s a mercy when he eventually passes out.
VI. This might be a little rough on you.
His next foray into awareness is short. His mind is sluggish again—he’d so hoped that he were done with that—the pain in his side intense, much more present than at any of the other times he came to. He feels for the shard of porcelain he’d secured under his thigh after it had landed so conveniently on his hand—it’s still there, he hasn’t been found out.
Despite the dim light there’s a lot of commotion in the cabin: he hears hurried steps, soft clinks and clanks, and Mrs. Banning’s pleading voice. “Don’t, please don’t. Don’t leave.”
Isaac sounds impatient, as if he’s said it a few hundred times already, and quite firm. “No. I’m done. You’re sick, you know that? You’re sick. I don’t want anything to do with you anymore. You sure didn’t pay me enough for that.”
More steps, another “please” from Mrs. Banning, the sound of a door being slammed. After a while a faint sob, then another, and then Adam can’t keep his eyes open or his senses alert any longer, and he drifts back into the quiet safety of sleep.
VII. They think me mad; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!
It seems Mrs. Banning has gotten a grip on herself the next morning. As Adam wakes up, she’s made a pot of coffee already. The smell of the fresh brew wafts through the cabin and tickles at Adam’s nerves. He’s not sure which it arouses more strongly: the nausea or the desire to drink.
Mrs. Banning is indulging herself in her morning cup. She’s talking quietly, though Adam can’t see anyone else in the room.
“No, no, not yet, my dear,” he hears her say. “But it will not be long anymore, I promise you that.”
Then she laughs, and stands up and saunters through the room again, making her skirt swing with every step she takes. Her shoulders move in accordance with the sway of the skirt. It’s almost like a dance.
To watch it intensifies the nausea.
His mouth is dry, his head swims, his arms and legs feel like lead. He doesn’t know how much longer he will able to hang on, how much longer he will be able to wake up and be coherent. He’s deteriorating, fast. He won’t survive much longer without a drink.
“Water,” he croaks.
To his utmost astonishment the barely audible word makes it through his keeper’s self-absorption. Mrs. Banning stops her hypnotic movement and slowly comes to his bedside.
“Water,” he repeats.
“No,” Mrs. Banning says. She has that false smile on her face again. “You don’t get any water.”
“You gave me some before.”
“Yes, but that was, as you say, before. You were in danger of dying, and I couldn’t have that. I needed you to be lucid long enough to hear me out.” She salutes him with her cup of coffee and takes a sip before she continues. “But that is no longer the case. You are awake now, aren’t you?”
“Please…” He needs to drink, desperately, and he’s not above begging for it.
She shakes her head. “No. There is no need for it. You will listen to me one more time; and then…then you will satisfy my need for reparation. You will suffer, the way Melinda has suffered. You will slowly waste away, just as Melinda did, and I will sit here and watch it.”
“That is…madness. You’re mad.”
“Is it? I don’t think so. To me it seems to be reason. It is reason. It is reality. I know you try to ignore it, Adam, but this is one reality you cannot avoid.”
“What reality? That you are insane? What kind of woman are you, Mrs. Banning? What kind of example are you trying to set your daughter?”
“You think I’m insane? Well, perhaps I am insane—but that would be your fault. As everything is your fault.” Open-mouthed, she clenches her teeth. It gives her a feral look, one that is enhanced as she starts pacing again. Like a caged wildcat. “My daughter,” she speaks into the room, “my beautiful, beautiful daughter. She should have married a wealthy man, should have provided us with what her father wasn’t able to accomplish. She should have married your brother, but no, that couldn’t be, could it? You couldn’t let it happen.”
Of course, she doesn’t listen. She doesn’t care. Captive of her own insanity, she has to rant on, rant at him, at the cabin, at the world, at whoever she thinks can hear her. “Oh, she did marry eventually. Married a man she thought she loved—another poor devil, another good-for-nothing wastrel. It was all she could achieve, with her no-good father being the laughingstock of society. They lived in poverty. That house…”
She whirls around, stretches her arms out in a dramatic gesture. “This shack is a palace in comparison to the hovel she had to call her home.” Her arms fall down, back to her sides. “She said she was happy. She tried to make me think she was happy, but I knew better. I knew better what was good for her, what she needed to be happy. My beautiful Melinda. So beautiful. Oh, she was happy for a short moment, when her baby-girl was born. A beautiful, beautiful little girl.”
She stops her pacing, stops her rant for a few brief moments, then she’s back at Adam’s side. She lets something dangle in front his face. It’s soft pink—a ribbon?
“This,” she says, making the ribbon flutter about one more time before she stores it in a pocket of her skirt, “this is the only thing I have left of Melinda’s daughter. She never even celebrated her first birthday.”
Again, she doesn’t let him speak. “Poverty does that to you. Of course, you don’t know anything about that, you with all your money and your empire on the Ponderosa. How could you know?”
He could tell her he knows something about being poor, but he’s sure she wouldn’t listen any more to that than to anything else he’s tried to say already.
“And then Melinda—” She chokes. “Consumption. Consumption is a malady of the poor, so you won’t know anything about that, either, Adam. But believe me when I tell you it is not a pretty way to die, and that it tears the heart of a mother in two to have to see your child wasting away from it while you cannot do anything against it.”
“She was so beautiful. Made for something special. Not made to….” She looks down on her hands, silent now.
“I’m very sorry for your losses, Mrs. Banning. All that must have been incredibly hard on you. I understand that—”
“You don’t understand. You did not live it. You did not watch it. You stayed at the Ponderosa, with all that wealth and…and…happiness after you had destroyed my daughter’s future. And with that, mine too.”
“I don’t know why you think.… I can’t see how this is my fault.”
“You can’t? Why can’t you see it? If not for you, Melinda would have married your brother Joe. She would be in a happy marriage now, with children and a beautiful house. She would be wealthy and whole.”
“But she didn’t love Joe. She said so herself. She declined the marriage.”
“Because she thought she was in love with you. Without you around, she would have loved Joe the way she was supposed to.”
“But that’s hardly my fault, is it? I live on the Ponderosa, it’s my home. Of course I was around. And I couldn’t help it if—”
“You could have stopped her. But, no, you encouraged her. Gave her hopes.”
“You did. Oh, yes, you did. You were flattered, weren’t you? Flattered that this beautiful young girl favored you.” She shakes her head. “One word, one plain and definite word could have stopped her, but you loved her attention. Bathed in it. Held her at arms-length, but never properly pushed her away.”
“I never…” Never what? He’d never encouraged her, he’s sure about that. He’d never been particularly friendly to her. He’d been polite, barely. Joe had even accused him of being rude. But had he ever pushed her away?
Mrs. Banning snorts. It’s a humorless, sneering sound. “So, now you’re thinking.” She goes back to where the coffeepot waits for her, sits down on a wooden chair with her back facing him. She turns around only briefly as she says in a completely unconcerned voice, “Yes…think, Adam, think about what you’ve done to my daughter. How you ruined her life. And then rot; first here on that filthy cot, then in hell.”
And he thinks. Thinks, and bends his hand to start and secretly scrape the shard against the rope that binds his arms to his torso.
VIII. You don’t have a patent on hurt.
He spends the rest of the day trying to make no sound, to not give himself away. The shard is sharp but not exactly a knife, so cutting through the rope is a tedious business, and it takes time. But time he has in abundance—as long as he stays awake.
Falling asleep, passing out is his biggest threat right now. He hasn’t eaten anything for several days and had only a few drops of water a long time ago; he’s weak from the loss of blood and from the fever of infection that ravages his body relentlessly. He’s close to the endless abyss of nothingness; he can feel the lure, the temptation to give in and let himself fall and be done with it. Fighting seems hardly worth the effort when the reward for staying alert is only agony and fatigue.
He’s running out of time. If he wants to survive he has to cut those ropes and…well, he will see. Perhaps wait until the madwoman falls asleep and then get up and…and…and just leave. He doesn’t know where he is, or if his horse is here, or any horse, any means of transportation. He doesn’t know if he can stay upright long enough to walk out of the cabin, let alone to get away from here and find help. He doesn’t know if his family is already searching for him, and if he’s at a place that can be found at all. He only knows he has to leave.
No, he can’t fall asleep. Because if he falls asleep one more time, he might not wake up again. He nearly laughs. This is going to be a contest about who falls asleep first.
Steadily, he scrapes at the rope. He can feel the hemp giving way. The rope is tightly stretched, penetrating deep into his flesh, and the fibers literally burst whenever the shard cuts one of them. His hand’s angle is awkward, his wrist is strained and hurting and his fingers are growing numb but he doesn’t care. This is his only chance, he knows that. His dry throat begs him to ask for water, but he ignores that, too. He won’t get water anyway, and he certainly is not going to draw Mrs. Banning’s attention back to him.
Mrs. Banning has resumed her conversation with a person only she can see. Her voice is low, and Adam isn’t overly interested in what she tells the ghosts of her past, but some words make it through to him.
“Please, Melinda,” she says. “I have ordered you not to think. Don’t you know that all I’m doing, I am doing for you?”
Melinda. He remembers the girl, oh yes, he does remember her. She was a beauty, Mrs. Banning is right about that. And he was…flattered, that’s true, as hard as it is to admit. But he wasn’t overly impressed by Melinda, that is also true. She was nice and friendly, yes, and she was very beautiful. But she was also shy and awkward around him, delicate and absolutely not suited for life on a ranch; and somehow he’d felt she wasn’t really honest—a suspicion that turned out to be well-grounded later.
“Wrong? Oh, no! No, of course everything I do is right!” Mrs. Banning’s cry interrupts his train of thoughts. “How could I be anything but right, doing all of this for you?”
He knew something wasn’t right the moment Melinda kissed him. It was another awkward situation between the two of them: he was blacksmithing in the barn and she forced him into yet another conversation about ranch work and how she thought that everything was done with pain. Or had he said that? Yes, he had. He remembers she replied, “You don’t have a patent on hurt,” and how much that annoyed him. Perhaps because she was right, or perhaps because he had deliberately been rude—again.
And then she kissed him. Took him by surprise and kissed him. And he let it happen, for a brief moment too stunned to ward her off—and too…flattered perhaps.
When he woke out of his stupor and disentangled himself from her, it was too late already. Joe had seen them; and Adam was ashamed of himself—and for her.
Mrs. Banning’s voice is thin now, and tired. “Melinda? Darling, I have fought for your happiness, from the day you were born. But I’m getting tired, I really am; I’m awfully tired. There isn’t a great deal of fight left in me. Let me do this one last thing for you.”
There isn’t much fight left in Adam, either, but he’s ready to use what little he still has.
And then the rope finally snaps.
IX. To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.
How he has made it out of the cabin—and without rousing Mrs. Banning from her slumber—he doesn’t know.
He does know that it seemed to take a lifetime for her to fall silent and then begin to breath in a calm and steady rhythm, that he only kept from falling asleep himself because he opened and closed his fist around the porcelain shard time and again, so hard that it cut into his flesh. The sharp pain kept him alert until it was time to get up.
The rest is a blur. Only the memory of intense pain is still vivid, of pain and of trepidation. But despite the trepidation, the pain, and the fatigue, he’s made it. Made it through the cabin and out of it, without making a sound, without rousing the sleeping beast.
Now he stumbles on an uneven, rocky ground, following the trail for lack of alternatives. He can’t be too far from his original way, from where he was taken days ago, for the territory looks faintly familiar—as familiar as a place he originally considered unfamiliar can be.
He must not be thinking clearly. Well, and what’s new about that?
That he’s not far away from his original way is good and bad at the same time. Good because he might be able to find his way back—if he doesn’t collapse dead before that—and because if his family is already searching for him, they will be able to find him. It’s also bad because it means that there’s only one way to go: forward. He can’t leave the path; there’s a steep face going up on his left, and an equally steep hillside falling down at his right. He has to stay on the trail, without a chance to hide. Has to hurry and make it to safety before Mrs. Banning notices his absence.
She might consider herself “frail” but, Lord knows, he’s even frailer right now. If she wakes up too soon, if she follows him, if she catches up with him…he lacks the ability to imagine what’ll happen then, but he’s sure it won’t be…pleasant. He snorts, chuckles at the absurd mildness of the word, even though it hurts his parched throat and his busted ribs.
And then he chokes on his chuckle as he hears from behind, “Oh no, you won’t!”
To his credit, he tries to escape her. It’s ridiculous, but he tries to run. Well, his brain tells his legs to move, but his legs, of course, don’t obey. He doesn’t give up, though. He drags himself on, further and further, until he’s stopped by Mrs. Banning’s spidery fingers on his arm. He’s appalled at how easily she can make him immobile, unable to walk on.
“You will not just go and escape responsibility,” she screeches into his ear. “You will come back and die properly.”
He’s tired. Tired of her and of this, but he doesn’t want to give up. “You’re mad,” he says mildly. “And you’re even madder if you think I’ll go back with you freely.”
She might make me go, flashes through his mind, if she has a gun she can make me go. But she doesn’t seem to have a gun. Perhaps she never had one or she has left it in the cabin—who knows? And who cares?
She tightens the grip on his arm and tries to drag him with her. He’s weak, and she’s healthy—at least bodily—but he’s a tall, powerfully-built man: there’s no way she can move him.
She tries anyway. And he tries to shake her off, like he would shake off a fly.
She fights. They tussle, stumble, nearly fall, almost topple over. The edge of the narrow trail is close, too close for comfort, but Mrs. Banning seems beyond caring.
“You will not escape,” she cries, and wrenches at his arm, grabs at his middle, pulls at his shirt.
He can’t keep his footing, takes a sidestep to regain balance. She follows his movement, leans her full weight on him, and he stumbles backwards, one, two steps. His foot gets caught on something, he almost falls, catches himself at the last moment. But she’s lost her balance, too, and she falls against him, sending him even further backwards, and he can’t stop the momentum.
There’s a tangle of flailing arms, clutching hands, shuffling feet, clinging skirts, ”Let go!” and “You will not get away!” Stumbling, toppling, “Please, let go or we both will fall” and then a moment of silence, of seeming standstill.
Mrs. Banning says very quietly, “Then, by God, we both will fall,” and pushes all her weight against him.
They fall. She clutches at him, as if afraid he’ll escape if she doesn’t make sure he goes down with her. He grabs for a handhold, desperately; there’s not much to latch on to, only some low brush. He manages to get hold of some green, loses the hold as the scrawny branch breaks, is ripped further down by the momentum and by the weight clinging to him. He bangs against the rocks, his hands still groping for a hold—and then they find a root that holds, that can bear his weight and Mrs. Banning’s.
The woman is covered in blood, as he must be, her body is limp and the grip of her hands on his body slowly comes loose. With his free hand he grabs her arm, holds her, trying to keep her from falling further down.
How long he stays like that he doesn’t know. There isn’t much point to it if he can’t do anything but lie here and cling to a root for dear life, but he does it regardless. Does it until he feels his own grip loosen, his hand slowly begin to slip.
He hears the cry of a buzzard in the distance, and the voice of his father in close proximity. “Adam, hold on, we’re coming,” Pa cries, and Adam finds almost childish delight in the fact that his failing brain provides him with some comforting images before he dies.
He smiles as his hand goes slack, and he could swear there are arms under his shoulders, lifting him up and holding him when he starts to fall. He’d never expected that dying would feel like being scooped up in strong, loving arms. It makes it so easy to finally let go. And he does.
X. Just let’s get back to work.
That he wakes up once again is more than just a mild surprise. It’s actually spectacular. Not just the fact itself—he hasn’t really counted on waking up ever again—but also the soft bed in which he lies is something he thought he’d never have again. So is the warm blanket that covers him and the calm, comforting presence at his side. Pa.
The light is the soft gold of a candle, the smell one of freshly laundered bed clothes and Chinese incense, the sounds that of a gently crackling fire. The hand on his cheek is tender, affectionate, loving, as is the dark, soothing voice of his father.
“Shh, Son. Wake up. You have to drink.”
Drink. Drink. Yes, yes, drink. Water. He wants water. Drink water. Now. Water, much water. Drink. He cracks his eyes open to signal that he’s alert and ready to drink. Drink, drink, drink.
Pa lifts his head, just so, holds a glass against his lips, and he drinks. Drinks. Tiny sips, for some reason he can’t get more into himself than tiny sips, but he’s got time, hasn’t he? Then the glass is gone—no, I’m not through yet—and he tries to follow it with his lips, but his head is lowered again.
“Not too much at once,” Pa says. “There’s enough here, but you have to drink it in small portions. Or else you’ll get sick and lose it all again.”
“Good,” he says, and he means it. It’s good, all is good. It’s good to be at home. It’s good that his head doesn’t hurt anymore, that there isn’t much pain in his body at all anymore. It’s good that he’s with Pa, and not with—
“Mrs. Banning?” He needs to know. He needs to be sure…
Pa sighs. He touches his face again; his hand is so careful, so tender…Adam leans into the touch.
“She’s dead, Adam. She can’t hurt you anymore.”
“Dead.” He lets the word roll over his tongue. He’s surprised he doesn’t feel anything. He isn’t happy, and he doesn’t feel sorry. He doesn’t even feel relieved. Perhaps he’s too exhausted to feel anything.
Except he feels thirsty. “Water?”
He’s allowed to another couple of sips, and those sips exhaust him even more. He closes his eyes as his head falls back on the pillow.
“That’s right, sleep now.” Pa rearranges the blanket, smoothes away wrinkles which Adam is sure are not there, caresses his cheek once again. “We can talk more tomorrow. It’s over, you’re safe.”
Then Pa is gone, and Adam is alone. Only he isn’t alone. Not…not inside. Inside of him, he’s not alone, and it is not over. Inside of him, Mrs. Banning still lives, her voice is still clear and loud, and she still tells him, “It’s all your fault.” Inside of him, there’s still Melinda, her pretty small face, her soft lips, her desperate eyes, and her flattering admiration. And inside of him, there’s still the question of whether he can honestly and with complete conviction deny he ever encouraged Melinda or was, in a very twisted sort of reasoning, partly responsible for her fate, and subsequently for her mother’s madness. A question he will never be able to answer.
Mrs. Banning might be dead, but her legacy will haunt him forever.
He takes a deep breath, as deep as his still-aching ribs allow him, and relishes the pleasant, healing fragrance of the incense.
No, it’s not really over, but he is safe. And that’s enough for now. The rest…he’ll manage. It’ll be a part of him, always; but it won’t break him.
For there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not indefinitely outdone by the madness of men. ~ Hermann Melville, Moby Dick
Author’s Note: The story’s title and the headers of the individual sections are quotes alternately taken from “Moby Dick” and “The Lady from Baltimore.”
With my heartfelt thanks to Sklamb and Joaniepaiute for their beta-reads.