Summary: Ben witnessed a robbery and murder. Threats to his life have caused him to go into hiding until the trial, but it is Adam who suffers the consequences as accomplices of the accused set out to find Ben’s location by questioning Adam who finds that his mind is his only weapon against their relentless questioning.
Word Count: 4117
“Dadburnit, Joe, something just ain’t right.”
“Listen, Pa sent Adam to ride night herd on the cattle in the southeast pasture cause we been having too many newborn calves eaten by coyotes. It was his turn. We only heard two rifle shots. So that had to be Adam shooting at some coyotes to drive them off. Now we got a Saturday night in town, and I plan to have a very good time. Let’s go.”
“I guess. But I just got this feeling that something ain’t right.”
“Listen, I know Adam tried to lay some guilt on you because he just got home from fixing up that line shack. But he got to sleep in a nice bunk last night while you were sitting in the saddle trying to stay warm. I know because I did it the night before.”
“You sure it’s gonna be all right with Roy ifn you come back to town. He told you to stay away for two weeks after you and that Nate Pinkett got in that fight over the card game. You two busted up that saloon right awful.”
“I know, I know, but I paid the fine and for all the damages. Nate said he was going to lose his job for fighting again so I had to pay for the whole thing.”
“I heard his brother was real sick and he was trying to win some money to take him to San Francisco to see doctors there. I guess he didn’t get to go.”
“I didn’t know that. Jeez, now you made me feel real bad about the whole thing. What’s wrong with his brother?”
“He’s got some tumors. Adam said he heard it’s hopeless, but Nate won’t give up hope. He would do anything for his brother.”
As Hoss and Joe rode into town, they went past the graveyard and saw men digging a new grave. Hoss hailed a man he knew and asked who had died.
“Hoss, I thought you’d already know by now. Dave Pinkett died early this morning. His brother rode out toward your place. Said he had a message to deliver real personal like to Joe. I didn’t know you and them was so close, Joe.”
Hoss had wheeled his horse around and was racing back toward the Ponderosa before the man had finished that sentence. Now he knew what had been bothering him earlier. Those coyotes would not likely have come out while it was still light and with a man riding a circuit around that pasture. So it probably wasn’t Adam then who fired those shots.
In a grove of trees near that pasture, Adam was tied to a tree. Nate sat a few feet away from him talking almost nonstop. “An eye for an eye. That’s what the Bible preaches, don’t it? Well he took my older brother from me so I’m taking his older brother from him. I walked into his room this morning and he was gray. There’s no other way to describe it except that. There was no color left to him. He was gray. His lips were pulled back like he was in pain but his heart wasn’t beating no more. Well that’s how Joe’s gonna find you. You’re gonna be gray with your blood drained out of you. Your heart will have stopped and nothing he does is gonna make any difference at all.”
Was this real or a story he was creating or a dream? Adam couldn’t tell any more. His head dropped down lower as he grew weaker. Some of the words he heard, he incorporated into the stories he made up in his mind to escape his interrogators. He had his eyes closed most of the time, but couldn’t help opening them from time to time to see his blood oozing out of his side and from his leg to soak his clothing and gradually flow down into the dirt under his body. At one point, the blood flow from his side had nearly stopped, but a kick in the side had restarted the flow. He had cried out in pain as he had done when he was dragged to this tree and tied. He had cried out too when that knife had been slowly pushed into him as they asked that same question again and again promising to stop if he would answer. He didn’t and they didn’t. When he screamed like that though, he was hit again. He was thinking he probably would pass out soon and wouldn’t be aware of his last hours on this earth. There would be no more beatings then and no more pain. He was sad that he wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to his father and brothers. There were so many things he had meant to say over the years but never had. He couldn’t seem to recall right then what those things were, but he knew he regretted not saying them whatever they were. He felt strange as if he was already outside of his body. It was a very weird feeling as everything seemed to be like a dream. He heard shouts. He wondered what was happening. Then he felt hands roughly handling him and wanted to tell them to stop but couldn’t make a sound. His mouth was so dry and his throat was raw. He wondered why because he hadn’t been talking but then thought that perhaps those screams he had heard earlier were his. Yes, then he remembered that they were. He closed his eyes to get away from all of it, but someone slapped his face and demanded he wake up. He thought that things just couldn’t get much worse for him. He was in agony and growing weaker by the second, and now it seemed he was going to be slapped and dragged around as well. He closed his eyes again hoping it wouldn’t lead to any more punishment because it was simply too difficult to keep them open. He felt another slap and then felt nothing more. He willed himself to go somewhere else; to a place in his mind where they couldn’t go and the slaps and the knife couldn’t reach him.
“Boss, he don’t even seem to know we’re questioning him. He seems like he knows where he is, but we start questioning him and he seems to go somewhere else. We can kick him, stick him, or pound him, and he don’t even react any more. It really seems like pain don’t matter to him no more. We can’t get no information from him at all. I think he done lost his mind in here.”
“All right, leave him alone with nothing for a while. See how he likes that.”
“You mean to feed him and give him water, dontcha? He could die otherwise.”
“No, no contact at all. No blanket. And no light. Leave him completely alone, cold, thirsty, and hurting.”
“Kane, you’re just like Kane. You’re crazy as a loon, and I’m getting out of here. I’ll send back help.”
“If you leave me here, I’ll die. It’s the same as killing me. You’re a killer. You claim to be so moral and righteous, but when it comes right down to it, you’re a natural born killer. How many men you shot? How many men have you killed? I bet you don’t rightly even have a number. Now your brother Hoss would feel bad about killing somebody, and mope around until he could get right in his soul about it. Your brother Joe can’t stop the tears when he’s forced to kill someone. But you, you just take it in stride like it’s the most natural thing in the world to take a life.”
“If I try to take you with me, we’ll both die out there. At least if I go alone, I have a chance of making it. If I do, I’ll send help. It’s the only chance you have. It’s completely dark now and cool. If I go now, I can make a good start on the walk back before the sun rises. I can’t take any more time to talk with you. I need to conserve my strength, and I need time to get away. No, not get away, get to town, get to the sheriff, get to my family. I need help. I need their help. I’m so thirsty and I hurt so much. Surely they must be looking for me by now. I’ve been gone so long, they have to have missed me by now.”
Miles away, Hoss was trying to follow a faint track. “Dadburnit, Joe. Adam shoulda known better than to try to head straight across this desert. There’s no water out there, but it looks like that’s exactly what he’s done. Now why would he have done something like that? Why?”
“You know Adam as well as I do. He thinks he can do anything. He probably thought the desert couldn’t defeat him. That arrogance is going to get him killed some day.”
“We better get some water before we head out there. It’s gonna be hot and dry every step of the way.”
Was that another dream or story? Adam was finding harder and harder to tell when his imagination let him get away and when it was real. Oh but how he would have liked to get some water too. His mouth was so dry, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. It took some work to separate it when he awoke. His eyes were closed but it wouldn’t matter. If he opened them, it was dark as pitch and he couldn’t see anything anyway. He listened for sounds and heard only occasional tiny sounds. There seemed like there was no other being anywhere in the vicinity. He knew that wasn’t true of course. They were men there, dangerous men who would hurt him again and again. They kicked, cut, burned, and pounded on him many times. No, no, they weren’t here any longer. He was alone. He was all by himself and there was no one to hurt him. There was no one to talk with, no one to feed him or give him water. Oh how he wanted water. He thought he would do anything for water. No, no, that wasn’t right. There were things that he couldn’t do no matter how hard he was pushed. No, he would die first. They could offer water, but he would refuse. He would die if he had to die, if it was the only thing left for him to do.
“Drag him out of there. We’re running out of time. We need to know where his daddy is. The trial starts tomorrow. If old man Cartwright testifies, our people go to prison or the gallows, and our whole operation shuts down.”
Pulling Adam from the dark cave where he had been deposited inside an ore cart, the men recoiled from his smell. They tried to give him water, but he refused it.
“Boss, he won’t drink.”
“Make him. Use a funnel if you have to and ask him about that payroll. He has to be ready to tell us about that.”
“Boss, why are we asking him about the payroll when we really want to know about where his father is hiding out before the trial?”
“It’s simple. He would rather die than tell us where his father is, but if he breaks and tells us about the payroll, then he’ll talk more. Once you get them started talking, they just keep talking. I’ve done this before in the War. It always works once you break them down enough to get them started talking.”
“I don’t know. Seems like he’s gonna die before he tells us anything.”
“Yes, I remember when we were questioning some of those Johnny Rebs. A few would die rather than betray their comrades. He may be one of those. Maybe we ought to try a change in strategy then. Drag him over here and put him on a horse. We’re letting him go.”
“We’re running out of time. We’ll go over there to watch the house. We’ll see where they send riders after he gets back. In the shape he’s in, he could be dying. They’ll want to let the old man know. He might even come out of hiding to see his oldest before he dies.”
“That could work, Boss. I’ll take care of it. We’ll probably have to tie him on a horse. I don’t think he can ride.”
“Do whatever you have to do. I don’t care what shape he’s in when he gets back home just so he’s alive. His daddy ain’t coming home to see his dead body. He needs to be alive.”
“Boss, maybe he ain’t so senseless. He’s grinning.”
“Are his eyes open?”
“No. He ain’t saying nothing either.”
“It’s fine. Put him on the horse.”
The drive had been so long, his body ached all over, and his head was pounding. Every step of that horse had sent pains radiating through his body. He had wanted so much to stop and do nothing but they said they were bringing him home. He was sure that was what they said, but then again, he was no longer sure of anything. He wasn’t sure what was real and what was imaginary. He wanted to get to bed and sleep for a week. He wished he had some water, and miraculously water was poured in his mouth. He took it as a sign of divine providence and smiled. Then he wondered if he had dreamed that, but when he tried to move his tongue, it moved. It wasn’t stuck to the top of his mouth so maybe it really was water. He opened his mouth wondering if he could get more and more was offered.
Then he got mad again. Hoss and Joe hadn’t been on this drive. He got a little angry when he thought they had made him do it alone. He had fought off rustlers and outlaws, and now he was headed home. His brothers better not want anything from him because he just wanted to sleep. The drive was over now, and he could sleep. But then they were there, calling his name, and asking him to wake up. Hadn’t they asked enough of him? He had done everything he could. He just needed to sleep. He felt hands probing and pushing.
There was more pain. He thought once he got home, the pain would end, but they were making things worse. Why were they hurting him? Why couldn’t they let him be? Why couldn’t everyone just leave him alone? He kept his eyes tightly closed. He needed to go to sleep for a week. Didn’t they know that? Couldn’t they tell how much he wanted to sleep? They called to him and even yelled at him. He wondered for a minute if they would hurt him too. He was grateful not to be hit again, but they kept at him and at him until he finally was able to grab that sleep and embrace it. Then there was no more pain and no more annoying voices asking him to do things, things he didn’t want to do. He was at rest now. They would have to do without him.
He could hear them talking. They often talked about him without knowing he could hear them.
“Doc, why won’t he wake up? We tried everything we could think of but he won’t wake up.”
“Hoss, he’s in shock and exhausted. I don’t know exactly what was done to him, but I can guess some of it. He’s dehydrated, he was filthy, and he has numerous shallow wounds and cuts. I can’t begin to count the bruises on him because there are new bruises on top of old ones. He’s got abrasions on his wrists to show he was tied up quite a bit. Is he taking water?”
“Yeah, that’s about all we can do. When he stirs a bit, we offer water and he drinks, but he keeps his eyes all scrunched up like the worst thing in the world would be to open them eyes of his.”
“If you ask him a question or call his name, he acts like you’re going to hit him. Hoss kinda yelled at him once to wake up, and he rolled into a ball and rocked like a little kid who’s had a tanning.”
“That would fit with what I think happened. I believe he’s been systematically tortured. How long was he missing?”
“At least three days. He was supposed to be home on Friday. He rode in today tied to his saddle. They musta been trying to get him to tell them where Pa was. Do you think we should tell Pa? I mean, is he in any danger of, well, you know?”
“Not at this point. He’s retreated into his mind. Once he has water and lots of rest, I’ll know better what the prognosis is. Until then, no yelling and no questions. He’s probably been badgered with questions for days now. Offer water when you think he’ll drink. If you can get him to take some broth, that would be even better. Keep it quiet and warm, and let him rest. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
He heard them talking again after Paul left. Hoss and Joe talked about what had happened.
“That musta been it. They must have wanted him to tell em where Pa is. The trial starts tomorrow. They must be getting desperate so why did they send him home? You don’t suppose Adam told ’em where Pa is, do ya?”
“No, you know Adam would die before he would tell anyone that. Hoss, we should alert the hands. There may be trouble here.” Their voices faded but he could still hear them in the quiet house.
“Nah, you’re right. I never shoulda even said that. You’re right about telling the hands too. With all they done to Adam, we could have trouble here before this is all over.”
“There already is trouble here.” Several men with guns drawn walked out of the kitchen. Hoss and Joe were walking down the stairs and had no weapons. “You two could have just sent someone to tell your daddy about your poor brother. But no, you make us do this the hard way. Now where is that father of yours?”
“We’re not telling you anything.”
“Well, now, how about if we go upstairs and put a bullet in the brain of your oldest brother? How would you like that? Of course, he’s lost his mind so you might not miss him all that terribly much. How about if we put a bullet into your younger brother here? We could probably do that about six to ten times before he died if we were careful where we shot him.”
“You hurt him, and I’ll kill ya if it’s the last thing I do.”
“You don’t seem to have a clear picture of what’s happening here. We got guns. You don’t. You have information. We don’t. Now you can live or die. Your choice.”
“We’re never going to tell you where our father is. We’ll die first. You couldn’t make Adam talk, and you won’t get that information from us either.”
“Well, that’s your choice I guess. So where do you want the first bullet to go, little man? You think the foot or the knee? Your choice.”
Those voices were back. Those were the angry voices with the questions, and they were there in the house. He heard his brothers’ voices too. He had to do something before they were hurt like he had been hurt. He remembered the pistol in his desk. He sat on the side of the bed trying to let the dizziness pass. Then he used the bed to steady himself and got to his desk. He felt hot and dry again. He wasn’t sure if he could walk to the stairs, but he had to try. Leaning on the wall, he moved forward one small step at a time as fast as he was able. He wished his bedroom was closer to the stairs. When he got to the top of the stairs, he looked around the corner at the room below and saw three men with guns trained on his brothers. They were threatening to shoot Joe. He had to do something. He took a step forward, grabbed the rail so he wouldn’t fall, and told those men to drop their weapons. All three looked up at him as he raised his pistol to point it at them. He saw three pistols come up to point at him and tried to back away. He fell instead and heard the roar of shots being fired. That was all he heard. He had slipped away again.
“Adam, Adam, son, please wake up. I came home to see you. I had to see you. Now please open your eyes. I need you to wake up.”
Could it be? He heard the words but wondered if he could believe them. Was that his father or was this some kind of trick or another bad dream? There had been so many bad dreams that he couldn’t tell any more what was real and what wasn’t. He was sure he had heard those voices in the house though. He had heard the gunfire. He guessed that his brothers were dead and that he had failed. Could this really be his father wanting him to wake up when he had caused his brothers’ deaths? But he never could deny his father. He had to do what was asked of him. He did feel that warm hand on his shoulder, and it seemed another hand was holding his hand. Was it real? He had to face his fears and find out. He opened his eyes slowly and with great effort. It seemed to take a very long time as he wasn’t sure how to do it at first with his mind so fuzzy about so many things. He was amazed by what he saw and heard.
It was his Pa sitting by his side. Standing at the foot of the bed were Hoss and Joe. They had to be real. They looked and sounded just right. Looking at Hoss, he could only croak out three words. “Aren’t you dead?”
“No, but we coulda been if you hadn’t taken their attention away for just the right amount of time. You scared us some when you fell back when they was shooting. We thought they shot you. Joe ran up those stairs as fast as he could as soon as his man was down and out. He left me to handle the other two all by myself.”
“Well, you seemed to enjoy knocking them around the room. I wasn’t going to interfere with that.”
“Boys, remember what Paul said about keeping it calm around here.” Turning back to Adam, Ben explained what had happened including that he had given the testimony that morning to send three vicious murderers to the gallows. “Adam, you were so brave, so resourceful. You saved us all. Now I need you to save yourself. You need to start eating and drinking. Hop Sing has fixed some delicious soup for us. Will you eat?”
Adam smiled and nodded although he regretted the movement of his head. He had escaped into stories in his mind. Now he didn’t need them any more. The reality of his father’s love as well as his brothers’ was all that he needed. He was home again, in body, and in mind. He grinned showing his dimples and asked if he could please have a brandy with lunch. He did enjoy that shocked look on his father’s face and the grins he saw on his brothers. His father regained his composure rather quickly.
“I’ll let you have a sip of brandy if you eat something when Hop Sing brings your lunch. Then I think it’s about time someone had a shave and a bath.”
“I’d like that, Pa. Thank you.”