Our Mother's Keeper
RATING: PG-13 for violence, bloodshed and mild profanity
SUMMARY: Hoss and Adam are attacked and robbed on the way home from a trip. Adam is injured and it’s up to Hoss to save his brother’s life and get him safely home to the Ponderosa. During the journey, Hoss reflects on an important bond he shares with his older brother.
DISCLAIMER: These characters are not my creation, and I intend no disrespect to their creators. I have submitted this story, which is my creation, for the enjoyment of “Bonanza” fans here but please do not redistribute it.
“Our Mother’s Keeper”
By Jeanie C.
Adam Cartwright didn’t feel the knife’s blade go in: He watched it slide in almost as if it were happening to someone else.
Later he would think how slowly it all seemed to come about though, in fact, it was over in seconds. He saw the flash of the flat of the blade and, before he had time to react defensively, that blade slid easily right through his black shirt and into his belly.
He watched the blade disappear into his belly, and felt, not pain really, but more a kind of sad disappointment: He knew their pleasant ride home had just taken a dicey turn. The blade wasn’t long by hunting knife standards – only about four inches – but Adam guessed it would do what the bastard intended, sure enough.
Adam looked down to see his attacker’s fist still holding the knife’s handle, the hilt pushing in on his shirt hard enough to make an indentation. Already Adam could see his black shirt darkening with his blood; he noted the stain forming a teardrop shape as it traveled down toward his belt. He reached down a hand and closed his fingers over the drifter’s wrist.
Adam looked up then into the filthy, bearded face of the drifter. The drifter looked back at Adam, his eyes wide, perhaps not believing he’d done what he’d done.
It seemed like they stood there for some time, faces close in their violent intimacy, but Adam, in going over it again later with the sheriff and for the trial, figured it couldn’t have been more than five or 10 seconds. At any rate, the drifter finally came back to himself and pulled his hand away, bringing the knife – and Adam’s hand – with it.
And that, Adam felt. It was like the blade was carrying his insides along with it as it slid back out the way it had gone in. He let out a low grunt of pain, and it turned into a cough, which hurt like hell.
The drifter roughly jerked his hand free of Adam’s weakening grip and took two steps back, fascinated at the sight of the wound he’d caused. Adam’s hand remained aloft after being torn from its grip on the other man’s wrist and it hung there between them. “Whuh?” The sound from Adam’s mouth – not a real word at all – seemed to shake his attacker free of his shock and he turned and ran.
Adam looked down at his belly again and the deep sadness at what he saw almost overwhelmed him. The dark stain was getting bigger – alarmingly so – and his thoughts went immediately to his father. If only he were here now …
Adam instinctively pressed his right hand over the wound and then watched the blood, bright red now, leak out from between his fingers. Maybe it was better when all he could see was that dark spot spreading on his shirt and down below his belt. It was starting to make him feel a little funny, watching the blood trickle along his knuckles, down to his fingertips, form drops of scarlet brilliance and fall one after the other onto his denim-covered thigh.
Adam dropped to his knees then. He vaguely noted a stab of pain in his left knee – “Must be on a rock or something” is what he thought – but mostly he was just caught off guard when his legs wouldn’t support him anymore. He couldn’t see Hoss anywhere but he knew he couldn’t be far. He called to his brother, not with a shout, but barely a whisper: “Hoss.”
Hoss Cartwright had been fighting a battle of his own but was lucky that none of his three opponents had pulled out a knife. He was keeping busy with one man on his back, his arms wrapped around Hoss’ thick neck. Another had hold of Hoss’ right bicep while the third was jabbing punches at his chin, dodging wild swings from Hoss’ left fist.
Then from over to their left and behind them came the fourth drifter’s low call: “C’mon – let’s get outta here.”
The three who were tussling with Hoss looked over. “What you done there, Micah?” one asked.
“I stuck him,” Micah hissed. “Now let’s git.”
The other three didn’t wait for more explanation. They released their various holds on Hoss and ran for their horses. Hoss put his hands on his knees and bent over at the waist, breathing noisily, while Micah stooped to pick up the fat wallet that had dropped to the ground and stuffed it into his shirt.
He glanced back once at Adam, who still was on his knees and preoccupied with the blood oozing through his fingers. Then Micah grabbed the reins from the hands of one of his already-mounted companions and, after mounting up, wheeled around and led the way back from where they’d come.
Hoss heard, rather than saw, them leave. As the hoof beats grew fainter, he blew out a great huff of relief and still leaning over at the waist, tried to catch his breath.
“Dang it, Adam,” he said, still panting heavily between words. “Pa ain’t gonna be happy we lost that money. Reckon we should get after ’em right away?”
Hoss took one more big breath and felt like his heart finally was slowing down in his chest. “Not exactly even odds at three to one, brother. How’d you get so lucky to only draw one a’ those drifters?”
When still there was no answering retort from Adam, Hoss straightened up and turned to look behind him. Adam was kneeling on the ground looking right back at him. That was strange.
“Adam, whatchya doin’? Sayin’ a …” Hoss stopped speaking and the big grin, which he had just noticed was making his split bottom lip pull painfully, disappeared. He’d been about to ask Adam if he was saying a prayer those drifters’ horses all threw a shoe.
But Hoss saw something about his brother’s posture did not look right; he had his right hand pressed to his belly. Adam kept his eyes fixed on Hoss and finally said his brother’s name aloud. That’s when Hoss knew for sure things weren’t as they should be. Adam looked shadowy, kneeling there, and kind of afraid. But it was his voice that told Hoss for sure something wasn’t right.
“Hoss … I’m in trouble.” Just those four words – spoken not in Adam’s usual strong baritone, but in a weaker, higher-pitched voice that didn’t belong to his brother – set Hoss’ heart pounding once more.
Adam looked down again at the bright blood making red tracks across the back of his hand and that’s when Hoss finally followed his brother’s gaze.
“Lordy, Adam! What’s happened to ya?” Hoss was at his brother’s side in about 8 long strides.
“I’m in trouble, Hoss,” Adam repeated in that same strange voice. He looked down at his belly yet again as Hoss got down on one knee by his side. He reached out and put one arm around Adam’s shoulders and another under his left forearm. Adam still gripped his belly with his right hand. “He had a knife. I’m bleedin’ … pretty bad, I think.” Adam’s voice had a tone of despair.
“Adam – now listen to me,” Hoss said loudly and urgently. “I want you to come over by our bedrolls and set down.”
Adam thought there was no chance he was going to be able to rise from his knees, much less walk the 10 yards or so over to his bedroll. He gave Hoss a look of exhaustion and pain and fear.
“I don’t know. I feel … strange – I’m not sure I can make it.” He paused and took a couple of shallow breaths, keeping his eyes locked on Hoss’.
“Just try to stand up. I’ll help ya – now c’mon.” Hoss put both his arms under Adam’s arms and lifted. Adam let out another grunt of pain as he got to his feet once more.
“Ah god, Hoss, it hurts,” Adam said with a moan, his jaw clenched tightly against the intense pain in his gut. He finally released his hold on the wound in his belly and, turning into Hoss, grabbed at his brother’s white shirt with his bloody hand. He stood, his legs trembling, his hand gripping a fistful of Hoss’ shirt front and pulling two buttons off in the process.
“I’m in trouble,” Adam said a third time, wearily resting his forehead against his brother’s shoulder, and Hoss knew that was true for both of them.
“I’m gonna help ya – we’ll be just fine,” Hoss said and absolutely meant it. Hoss saw their situation as serious: They were out on the trail, one of them wounded and bleeding, miles from home or help. But he was good at putting first things first and not getting too far ahead of himself, so he put those worries out of his mind just for now.
Hoss tilted his head down toward his brother’s, which still rested on his shoulder, and said, “Hold onto me now and I’ll get ya over to your bedroll.” Adam obediently tightened his already-firm grip on the shirt at Hoss’ chest as Hoss reached down behind his brother’s knees and swung him up into his arms.
Again Adam let out an involuntary gasp which he cut off by clenching his teeth with jaws already taut in pain.
“Sorry Adam.” Hoss looked down at his brother’s belly – the dark stain on his shirt looked huge now – and walked the dozen or so paces to where their bedrolls and saddles were laid out a couple of feet from each other. He slowly crouched with his burden, put one knee down and, leaning forward, placed his brother carefully onto the blanket. Adam still had a tight hold on Hoss’ shirt and Hoss reached up to gently pry his fingers apart. He held Adam’s shoulders off the ground and placed his hand down by his side. He looked first at that huge, soaking dark stain on his brother’s shirt, and then at his own shirt front, hanging loosely and open at his chest now, and stained with his brother’s blood. His brother’s blood! So much of it, standing out shockingly against his own white shirt.
He looked into Adam’s pale face. His brow was furrowed and his mouth drawn down as he fought against the intense burning in his gut. His eyes were shut tightly but popped open immediately when Hoss softly spoke his name.
“I’m gonna get your extra shirt to make a bandage, OK?” Adam nodded and his eyes slid shut again. “You gonna be OK for a minute?” Hoss asked. Adam nodded again, without opening his eyes. His breath came quickly and shallowly and seemed to stop just short of a whimper.
Hoss lay Adam gently back so his shoulders were resting on his saddle and reached over to Adam’s saddlebags. Rummaging through first one and then the other, he finally pulled out a cream-colored shirt and turned back toward Adam. His face still was drawn as he fought the pain.
“Sorry ’bout makin’ a mess of your bags over there, Adam,” Hoss said apologetically as he reached into his pants pocket and found his pocketknife. He opened the blade and cut a slit at the tail of the shirt, then began to tear a three-inch strip off the bottom.
“And sorry about having to tear your shirt,” Hoss added.
At that, Adam let out a short laugh that ended with a groan. “We got ourselves bigger things to worry about than my shirt,” Adam said, pausing to catch his breath and to concentrate. Even so, a smile briefly replaced the drawn look of pain on Adam’s face.
“I know we do … but I still hated to do it.” Hoss pursed his lips as he folded the strip over and over to make a thick bandage. “OK Adam, you ready?”
Without opening his eyes to look at Hoss, Adam nodded, his saddle rocking slightly with the movement.
Hoss reached down and began unbuttoning Adam’s shirt, wincing a little and drawing in a quick, hissing breath when he reached the fourth button where the material was saturated with his brother’s blood.
“How bad is it?” Adam asked without opening his eyes. He knew it had to be pretty bad, just judging from the way he felt generally and the sharp pain in his gut that surged with each shallow breath he took. But still he hoped, irrationally he knew, to hear Hoss say, “It don’t look so bad.”
“Just a minute … I’m havin’ trouble with this last button.” Hoss’ large fingers were now slippery with his brother’s blood and trying to slide the small button through a buttonhole when the cloth was so sodden was a real chore. He briefly considered just ripping it but was afraid being too rough might cause his brother even more pain.
Finally Hoss pushed the button through the hole and began pulling Adam’s shirt away from the wound. He had to tug a little where the knife’s blade had driven some of the cloth into the wound. When Adam winced and gave a shudder, Hoss was quick to glance up at his face and say, “Sorry.” He tugged the sodden shirt tail out of Adam’s pants and dropped the whole left side of the shirt onto the bedroll.
Now he could see the hole in his brother’s belly and his first thought was, “That doesn’t look like much.” It was a narrow slit and only about two inches long. But Hoss knew the wound had to be much deeper than it was wide. It wasn’t pumping blood like Hoss had seen the day Charlie Tanner had split his leg open with an ax. But the blood was oozing steadily out of the wound, matting the dark, curling hair that covered Adam’s belly, and Hoss knew he had to stop it somehow.
“Adam, I’m gonna hafta press down hard with this bandage, all right?” Hoss hoped his brother was ready. He almost wished Adam would lose consciousness, to spare them both the pain of what he was about to do, but then realized he’d really be all alone in this. Though he knew it was up to him if his brother’s life was to be saved, he knew he’d feel much more alone if he didn’t have Adam to talk to through it all.
“Yeah … go ahead,” Adam said, his words punctuated by the short breaths he was taking to lessen the pain.
Hoss picked up the thick pad of cloth he’d made and pressed it down firmly over the wound. Adam immediately let out another grunt of pain that turned into a long, low moan. It ended with him nearly crying his brother’s name in a low growl, hissing out the final S in his name.
“Sorry Adam … sorry,” Hoss said anxiously, sounding in nearly as much pain as his brother. Though he knew he was doing what had to be done, it was hard to be the one inflicting this hurt on his brother. He kept pressing firmly as Adam settled back into short breaths alternating with quiet moans as he blew the breaths out.
Hoss was worried: He had only one more idea to try if this pressure didn’t stop the bleeding. It wasn’t something he relished having to do but he knew Adam couldn’t stand to lose too much more blood and he’d have to decide quickly if this didn’t work.
His wrist was starting to ache. He looked at Adam, who kept his eyes tightly closed as if to shut out the pain.
“Ya doin’ OK, brother?” Hoss asked, unable to keep the worry from coming out in his words.
“I’m OK. It just hurts a bit … I’ll be fine. Can we get outta here?” Adam finally opened his eyes and found his brother’s face close to his own as Hoss leaned over him, one hand still applying pressure to Adam’s belly. Hoss was staring back at him, his forehead furrowed with concern. Both were consumed with the fix they were in.
“Just a bit? Sounds to me like it hurts more than a ‘bit’.” Hoss shook his head at Adam’s stoicism. “It’s OK to tell me the truth.”
“If I was to tell you, I might believe it myself,” Adam said with a faint grin.
“Well, if I can get this bleedin’ stopped, I think there’s a good chance we can leave.” He nodded in the direction of the picket line where their two horses still were tied. “Those varmints didn’t take our horses so we’re in luck there.”
“That’s good.” Adam paused and then almost whispered, “Has it stopped yet?” His weak voice made Hoss look quickly back to his brother’s face.
“I dunno … I’ll check.” Hoss carefully lifted his hand holding the bandage away from the wound. He knew without looking the bleeding hadn’t stopped; he had felt it soak through onto his hand. His certainty was confirmed by the huge blossom of red on the bandage when he moved his hand and the continued seepage of blood from Adam’s wound. Hoss held the bloodied bandage up for Adam to see.
Adam’s disappointment was evident and another emotion now edged onto his face: fear. If the bleeding didn’t stop, he knew he was a dead man.
“Adam, now don’t you worry. I got me another trick up my sleeve.” Hoss put the bandage back over the wound and picked up his brother’s hand. He gave it a quick squeeze – both of their hands bloody – and placed it palm down over the wound.
“Now just hold that tight and wait for me.” Hoss turned to leave his brother’s side.
“Hoss! Whattya mean? What other trick? Where are you goin’?” Adam’s voice was frantic as he weakly grabbed at his brother’s sleeve and one thought repeatedly ran through his head: Don’t leave me!
Hoss turned back and saw the look of panic on Adam’s face and felt his hand clutching at his arm. He grabbed and held Adam’s hand as he sought to comfort him but also tried to remain completely honest with his brother about what was to come.
“Do ya remember what Pa did two springs ago when that roan got a deep cut on her chest after runnin’ into that broken fence rail? How did he fix it and stop the bleedin’?”
Adam blinked once, then twice, as he tried to focus on what Hoss was saying and recall the incident. A roan two years ago? Why Pa had heated an iron in the fire and …
“Oh Hoss … ” Adam looked up at his brother then with a variety of emotions quickly taking turns in his wide eyes: first realization, then fear and finally resignation.
Hoss watched it happen and saw Adam knew what was in store for him then. “I know, Adam, and I’m sorry. If there was another way, you know I’d try it first. I jus’ can’t wait no longer.” Hoss thought he might dread what he had to do more than his brother. For a wound that large, the heat would have to be applied for a long time.
Bigger than either his older or his younger brothers, Hoss had often served as their protector. Though the three Cartwright boys occasionally scrapped among themselves, sometimes seriously, when someone from outside the family threatened one of them, the other two were right there to back him up. And as often as not, Hoss was called upon to take on the largest – or if the odds were not even, the most – of their attackers. How many times had Adam been getting the worst of things during a tussle and waved his younger but larger brother into the fray because he knew Hoss could get the job done where he couldn’t?
But it had never been true that Hoss would set out to deliberately seriously hurt one of them. Certainly it had happened once or twice that he HAD hurt one of them, but it had never started out being his intention. Even Joe, who delighted, it seemed, in teasing and tormenting his older brother, never came in for the abuse that Hoss could have inflicted if he’d been a revenge-minded man.
So faced now with the prospect of surely causing his brother agonizing pain, Hoss thought he’d rather inflict it upon himself if only that would help the situation. The last thing he wanted to do now was cause Adam more pain than he already was in and that thought made Hoss feel sick. The only thing that frightened him more, in fact, was the thought of his brother bleeding to death while he watched.
“I know, Hoss,” Adam said after having let the reality of their only option penetrate his foggy mind. “It’s the only thing you CAN do. You have to … ” His voice trailed off a little. “I sure wish you didn’t, though,” he said wistfully.
“I don’t want to neither. But it’s gotta be done and the sooner the better.” Hoss looked over to where their morning fire still burned and noted the hot, glowing coals at its center. “Now you just keep your hand there …” Hoss paused and placed his hand over his brother’s on the knife wound. “And I’ll be back in just a little while.”
Adam looked into his brother’s eyes and nodded. Hoss saw the fear but also saw trust in Adam’s eyes and that trust gave him confidence in his decision.
Releasing his hand from Adam’s with one final pat, Hoss pushed himself up from his kneeling position and went over to inspect the fire more closely and think his plan through a little. They didn’t have an iron with them this trip, so he’d have to make do with the best substitute he could find. He turned and started walking.
Hoss thrust the thick, peeled stick of hardwood he’d cut not far from their camp into the coals and then took it out. Though he felt some urgency at what he had to do, he also wanted to make sure he prepared his tools – and his patient – correctly. He continued putting the stick into the coals and pulling it out after a few minutes, trying to get the right balance of heat and hardness without burning away his stick.
When Hoss thought it was nearly ready, heated blazing hot, he placed it carefully on the hot rocks of their fire ring. He stood and walked the five paces over to where his brother lay on his back, shirt opened wide, his hand still clutching the saturated bandage. Adam’s pants also were dark with his blood now, the stain reaching about two inches below his belt and then falling back around his left side toward the ground. Hoss noted Adam’s whole right hip looked soaked, but that couldn’t be, could it? How could he lose that much blood and still be conscious?
Hoss got down on one knee at his brother’s side and again put his right hand over Adam’s. Adam’s eyes opened quickly as he started and then groaned.
“Didn’t mean to startle ya,” Hoss said.
“It’s OK. I was just thinkin’ and didn’t hear you coming,” Adam said, his breathing sounding easier now.
“Does it still hurt as much?” Hoss asked, looking doubtfully at all the blood once more, and Adam replied, “Doesn’t seem to. Maybe I’m just getting used to it.”
Hoss chuckled a little at that and held up the canteen he carried. “You’ll be needin’ something to drink, Adam.” He uncorked it and handed it to his brother. Adam tipped the canteen to his lips and drank, some of the water running out the sides of his mouth and trickling down his chin to join the sweat pooling at the base of his neck. He handed the canteen back to Hoss and wiped at his lips with the back of his hand.
“That hurt like hell but it tasted so good.”
Hoss chuckled again and said, “I wanna clean things up a little for ya. Give me your hand?”
“My hand?” Adam held his right hand up in front of his face to inspect it and seemed surprised at all the dried blood he saw there. “Is that all mine?”
“It sure is. I had a good amount of it on me too, but I already washed up. I aim to do the same for you.” Hoss held up another portion torn from Adam’s shirt and soaked with water. Adam held his hand out to his brother, who gently scrubbed the dried blood off, turning the cream color of the cloth a dirty pink.
“There … that looks a little better,” Hoss said, satisfied with his work. Then he asked, “What were ya thinkin’ about when I came back?”
“Huh?” Adam squinted, trying to remember. “Oh … just how careless I was to let them get the drop on us,” he said regretfully.
“Aw Adam, that weren’t your fault OR mine,” Hoss said, shaking his head. “They’d likely been following us since San Francisco. They knew you was carrying all the money from the sale so they’d probably seen us at the stockyards.”
Now it was Adam’s turn to shake his head. “I still should have been more alert on the trail.”
“What’s done is done,” Hoss said firmly. “Right now we have to think about getting you home.” He ducked his head for a minute and then looked back at his brother. “There’s only one way we can do that, ya know.”
“I know, Hoss. I know.” Adam looked resigned to the pain that was to come.
“OK, I’ll make it quick.” Hoss sought to reassure his brother but he also wanted to tell him exactly what he was planning. “I’m gonna lay the whole length along the cut, OK? I wanna make sure I cover the whole thing,” Hoss told him.
“I’m as ready as I can be.” Adam looked up at his brother. “Steady hand, OK?” He reached out with his now-clean right hand and grabbed onto Hoss’ thick forearm. “Steady?” His eyes were asking for reassurance; Hoss hoped he could give him what he needed.
“I’ll be careful. I promise.” Hoss placed his hand over his brother’s which still held tight to his arm.
“I know you will.” Adam released his hold on Hoss’ arm. He trusted his younger brother with his life. “I think it’s worse when you know it’s coming.” He closed his eyes again.
Hoss didn’t have any words of comfort to offer; what Adam said was true. He stood again and went back to the fire. He picked up the stick and thrust it once more into the coals until the embers on it began to glow orange. Then he pulled it out and returned to Adam.
“Want somethin’ to bite on?” Hoss asked.
Adam shook his head, apprehension showing plainly on his face now.
“OK, here we go. Take my hand.” Hoss reached down with his left hand to grab Adam’s left hand. He held it firmly, not in a normal handshake, but in an arm-wrestling grip.
Hoss carefully but quickly placed the red-hot stick lengthwise along the wound in Adam’s belly and the agony began for both of them.
Hoss would never forget the smell of burning flesh and hair or Adam’s hoarse cries of shock and pain as the fire worked its magic in cauterizing the wound.
Adam knew nothing for several minutes but overwhelming pain: It didn’t come in waves, but one steady blast searing into the flesh on his belly, making the pain of his stab wound seem no worse than a sliver.
Hoss had been prepared for Adam instinctively to move away from the source of the pain but while seemingly every muscle in his body went rigid when the burning stick touched him, Adam forced himself to stay put and let the fire do its work.
Neither would ever forget how tightly Adam’s hand clamped down on his brother’s hand or how firm and strong Hoss’ grip was in return. The brothers’ bond was forged through an Indian’s arrow, years spent growing up together in wagons on the trail and the building of their ranch. This would only serve to make that bond even stronger.
And when he took the stick away from the wound and Adam was left sweating and gasping for breath, Hoss could see that his idea had worked. The blistered and red flesh was seared closed around the cut and it was bleeding no more.
“It worked, Adam! The bleedin’ stopped.” Hoss was relieved until he looked from his brother’s belly to his face and saw Adam’s pale skin, his profuse sweating and the grimace that seemed like it might become permanent on his face. His eyes were shut tightly and his breaths were again quick and shallow. The paleness of Adam’s skin beneath his day’s growth of beard looked bad enough but the skin on his forehead looked almost waxy and was covered in droplets of sweat.
“Adam!” Hoss said, a little louder now. “Didja hear me?”
“Huh?” Adam spoke dully and didn’t open his eyes – Hoss thought maybe he was concentrating on beating back the pain.
“It worked … we can get going home now,” Hoss said, thinking ahead to how he might get Adam on his horse.
“Mm-hmm,” came the mumbled reply.
“Lordy Adam, I’m sorry,” Hoss said, instantly chagrined at being happy at his success while his brother was left fighting waves of agony.
There was no answer to this and as Hoss watched, Adam moved his right hand to again try to cover his wound, perhaps to try to relieve his pain? “No, don’t touch it. Leave it be … we don’t want to break it open again.” He took the wrist he’d grabbed and placed it at Adam’s side. “Didya hear me?” he said.
Satisfied with the nod he got in reply, Hoss said, “OK … I’ll get us packed.”
“Adam!” Hoss punctuated his call with a little shake of his brother’s arm not more than 10 minutes later and was relieved when Adam opened his eyes and really seemed to see him. Seemed like all he’d done so far today was call his brother’s name. “Yeah?” Adam replied weakly.
“We’re all packed up and ready to go. How do you feel about getting on a horse?” Hoss asked.
Adam knew he had no real choice but he would much rather lie right here and wait for Hoss to go for help. The thought of moving, much less getting up on a horse, made him feel sick when what he most wanted to do was sleep. But he’d been doing some figuring and he thought they were at least one more day from the Ponderosa and much further away from help if they were to turn back. He knew without asking, Hoss would refuse to leave him here alone for two days, so he’d have to climb up onto that damn horse.
“If that’s what I gotta do, let’s get to it,” Adam said gamely, trying to take a deep breath without prompting that tearing sensation in his belly. “Any ideas on how I’m gonna get on said horse?”
“Yeah, I done thought about that and I got just the thing if we can get you over to that fallen tree yonder,” Hoss said pointing. “See how tall that butt-end is? Stand on that and I think we can manage.”
Adam looked from the tree Hoss pointed out, back to his brother and said, “Hoss, I’m impressed with your resourcefulness.”
“My what?” Hoss asked and Adam quickly said, “That’s a great idea.” Hoss’ face went from screwed up in confusion to wearing an easy grin, marred by the split lip and massive bruising around one eye. Adam noticed this bruising for the first time. He must have looked into Hoss’ face a dozen times in the last two hours – how could he not have taken note of such damage?
“What happened to you?” Adam asked, concern in his weak voice.
“To me? Where?” Hoss replied, puzzled.
“Ohhhhh … ” Hoss reached up a hand, touched his eye and winced, pulling his hand away. “I reckon those other fellas don’t look so good neither, but it WAS three on one, remember.”
Adam smiled and asked, “Does it hurt much?”
“Only when I touch it, so I’m not gonna do THAT no more. Now let’s see about gettin’ you ready. I’m gonna need that saddle and your bedroll now.” Hoss squatted down by his brother’s side again. “If you can stand, I’ll get you ready to go in a few minutes.”
“I’m ready.” Adam felt about as far from ready as he ever had, but the longer he lay here, the less he’d feel like moving. And he knew they had to get going. He held out a hand to his brother who grabbed it and also put an arm around Adam’s back and lifted.
Adam came to his feet with a guttural moan and stood swaying slightly and gripping Hoss’s arm tightly. The world felt strange and looked stranger: tilted and kind of fuzzy. Adam closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping his balance. If the buzzing in his head would just quiet down a little, he was sure he could think of what he was supposed to do next.
“You OK?” To Adam’s ears, Hoss’ voice sounded distant. Adam said, “Yeah, but I can’t stand here long. I’m gonna have to sit down.”
“Let’s get you over to that tree, then.” With Hoss supporting a heavily dependent and groggy Adam, the two slowly shuffled over to the log. Hoss sat him down near the small end of the log, then returned to saddle Adam’s horse and pack up the final bits of their camp, before helping Adam mount up.
Several hours into their ride, Hoss looked back at his brother for what was probably the 20th time since they’d had to slow to a walk. He was growing increasingly concerned about Adam’s ability to sit a horse. The blood loss appeared to be taking its toll on his brother as he swayed and nodded in the saddle, often unable to hold his head up. It was a good thing his horse followed Hoss obediently because Adam wasn’t doing anything more with the reins than hold them loosely in the same hand that also gripped the saddle horn. The other hand, his right, wrapped around his side, with his arm tucked into his belly. His shirt still hung open, stiff with dried blood.
Everything about his posture shouted pain and exhaustion and Hoss knew that, while Adam would not say anything about wanting to stop, he had to if he didn’t want to kill his brother. He pulled his horse up and dismounted. Adam’s horse stopped when Hoss did and stood quietly.
“Adam, c’mon … let’s get you down offa there,” Hoss called up to his brother. He got no response. Adam just sat slumped in the same position, his hat hiding his downcast face. Hoss gently shook his brother’s thigh.
“Hmmm?” Adam sounded groggy; Hoss couldn’t see if his eyes were open but he was relieved to get some response. “Let’s get down and take a break.”
“Gotta keep goin’, Hoss,” Adam said, quietly but fairly distinctly. “Shouldn’t waste time.”
“I think your ridin’ time is over. I can’t have you fallin’ off your horse and bustin’ open that cut or your head.”
“I can ride,” Adam protested weakly. “We gotta keep goin’.”
“Adam, you CAN’T ride. You can barely sit. Stop arguin’ and put your arm over my shoulders.” Hoss spoke sternly, hoping Adam would just do as he asked. Adam sighed and leaned down to let Hoss pull him off the saddle.
“That’s it … I’m gonna fix you up a nice place to set a spell.”
When Hoss had settled Adam once more onto his bedroll under a massive pine, he checked the stab wound again. The cut edges were still fused shut so there was no bleeding but the burns had begun to look nasty. The whole left side of Adam’s belly was angry red with big blisters all along where the hot stick had been placed. The very inside edges were puckered and black. Hoss curled his lips back from his teeth in distaste and gave a sharp intake of air. Was the cure worse than the problem?
No, he decided. The burning had been necessary to stop the bleeding and now Hoss had to get Adam home so a doc could look at his burns. But he felt pretty certain he had to get Adam home quickly, by tonight. He needed lots of water, good food and a way to keep the wound clean, away from the dust of the trail.
He looked down at his brother again. While Hoss watched, Adam turned onto his right side, facing Hoss, and drew his knees up toward his belly. He wrapped both arms tightly around himself and moaned quietly with each short breath he let out. Hoss put out his hand and rubbed Adam’s nearest shoulder gently.
“Sorry Hoss … guess you’re right … I’m about done,” Adam said between breaths. It sounded to Hoss like he was talking through a clenched jaw and Hoss continued to rub his shoulder in hopes of helping him relax a little.
“Don’t worry ’bout a thing. ’Ol Hoss is gonna take care a’ things, big brother.” He noted a trace of a smile curving Adam’s lips.
“Thanks ‘big’ brother,” Adam said. He unwrapped one of his arms to put a hand atop the one Hoss had on his shoulder. “What’s your plan?”
“We’re about an hour’s ride from the Marcus place. I’ll ride there and get Foster to loan us a wagon to get you back to the Ponderosa in fine style. We should be there before midnight, if all goes well.”
The faint smile returned once more to Adam’s face. “Well, considering how well this day’s gone so far, I hope we’re in for some better luck.” He was silent for a few seconds, then he asked, “I don’t suppose I can talk you into just ridin’ for home and bringing Pa back, can I?”
“For home?” Hoss looked horrified at the thought. “Adam … that’s hours away. I can’t leave you alone that long. It don’t make no sense.”
But it made perfect sense to Adam by this point. The constant pain that gnawed in his belly brought his focus very narrow: All his thoughts were on home and his father. Home was his safe haven and his father was the beacon that drew him there. If he couldn’t get home, why not have his father come to him? For now, plainly put, he wanted his pa.
“I’m a real mess, huh?” Adam tried to make light of what he’d suggested, now that he realized by Hoss’ reaction that apparently it was absurd. “I’ll be fine here waiting for you to get back from the Marcus place.”
“Are you sure? You gonna be OK here by yourself for a few hours?” Moments ago, Hoss had been sure he’d struck on the perfect plan to get his brother safely back to the Ponderosa, since having to abort his first plan of the two of them making it on horseback. But now … what if Adam forgot he was supposed to wait for him and tried to get back on his horse to ride for home?
“I’ll be fine.” Adam dropped his hand off Hoss’ to grab a handful of the blanket he lay on. He twisted it in his fist: Concentrating on that rather than the pain in his belly helped a little. “Just ride fast, OK?”
“Are you sure? You’ll stay put?” Hoss still wasn’t convinced.
“I’m sure.” Adam wished Hoss would just go if he was going. He was feeling stranger by the minute and he felt certain if Hoss knew how bad he was feeling, he wouldn’t leave him at all and then where would they be? “I’ll be right here when you get back. Right here … I promise.” The words were harder to put together now and Adam wasn’t certain they had come out right.
Hoss looked doubtfully at his brother’s closed eyes, his fist clutching a corner of blanket and his curly hair soaked with sweat. But really, what choice was there? “All right Adam, I’m leavin’. I’ll ride fast.” And with one final squeeze of his brother’s shoulder, Hoss stood and headed for his horse. Hoss couldn’t know that final squeeze didn’t even register in Adam’s fevered mind. He was heading off somewhere else for the duration of Hoss’ ride.
Hoss knew where he was going and he didn’t have to think too much about the route, so his thoughts were dominated by worry over his older brother’s welfare. He hated to leave him alone but he knew it was their only option if Adam were to survive.
Hoss also thought he had the better of the deal since he got to be doing something for the next several hours instead of just waiting. Hoss could be a patient man when necessary, like when he was waiting for a bite at one of his favorite trout streams. But when one of his family members was in trouble, Hoss was a man of action. Give him something to do or he’d go crazy. It was good he was making this ride for help; he just wished he hadn’t had to leave Adam alone to do it.
Hoss didn’t do a lot of down-on-his-knees, hands-folded formal praying but he often said them in his thoughts when his father was off on a trip or if Joe was breaking a particularly green horse. Now that Adam was in such trouble, Hoss found himself saying a simple prayer in his head: “Keep him safe.” Soon the phrase got caught up in the rhythm of his horse’s hoof beats and he found it changing to a litany of sorts, running over and over through his mind, in time with his horse’s hooves: “Keep him safe, keep him safe, keep him safe.” He rode like that – those three words repeating in his head – for miles.
Adam clutched to his chest the canteen Hoss had left with him. He still lay on his side, waiting for his brother’s return. It was hard for him to tell how much time had passed since Hoss had left him behind to go for help. He could take out his watch and check the time, but reaching into his pocket was a lot more effort than he felt like mustering.
In fact, Adam was being very careful not to move at all now. The one time he’d pulled the cork from the canteen to take a drink, that little bit of movement had made him so dizzy, it had taken many minutes before he’d felt the earth stop its rapid spinning. So he’d wait for another drink until his brother came back for him, thank you very much.
The thought that Hoss perhaps would not make it back to him did not even enter Adam’s mind.
Hoss rode back into the clearing where he’d left his injured brother nearly three hours before, hoping and praying he’d find Adam as before. Foster Marcus drove his team right behind him. Foster had been more than willing to come along when Hoss asked him for help and together they’d covered the wagon bottom with straw and some extra blankets from the Marcus bunkhouse.
As they drew near enough to make out the still form under the tree, Hoss let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. He had hoped he would return to find things as they had been, but until he actually saw for himself … . Hoss dismounted near where Adam lay and Foster pulled the wagon a few feet from Hoss’ horse and called out, “Let me know what you need me to do, Hoss.”
Hoss waved to him in acknowledgement and went over to check on Adam. The sooner they could get him out of here, the better. He knelt again at Adam’s side, put a hand on his right shoulder and said, “Adam?” He got no response so tried again, this time a little louder and accompanied it with a gentle shake of Adam’s shoulder.
“Mmmmmm ….” was all the reply he got.
“C’mon, Adam … ya gotta wake up for me.” That wasn’t really the truth. Hoss could just as easily pick his brother up again and tote him over to the wagon. But Hoss wanted Adam to wake up and talk to him, to reassure him that he was still with him. This time Hoss was rewarded with two words: “Back already?” Adam’s voice was weaker still and hardly more than a whisper but Hoss was glad to hear it, nonetheless.
“Yep, we’re back and ol’ Foster’s got his wagon all fixed up for ya. What say I help ya get into it?” Hoss grinned down at his brother.
“Sounds fine,” Adam whispered through lips that hardly moved, rolling slowly over onto his back, letting out a guttural groan as he did. Hoss lifted the shirt aside, stiff as an old piece of burlap, and looked at the wound. It didn’t seem too much different from the last time he’d checked it.
Hoss reached out and placed his hand, not on the wound, but on the skin next to it. Adam’s torso jerked as he flinched away from Hoss’ gentle touch, and he sucked in air quickly through his teeth as he turned his face away.
“Easy, Adam,” Hoss said as he put his other hand on his brother’s shoulder. Hoss left a hand on Adam’s belly for a moment: The skin felt hot. Hoss put his hand over on the other side of Adam’s abdomen, and it felt warm as well. He reached up to put a palm over Adam’s forehead and the skin there also felt warm. Seemed like his brother was starting up a fever.
“Doggone, Adam … you ain’t all here with me, are ya?” Hoss left his hand on Adam’s forehead and Adam rolled his head back toward Hoss. His eyes opened but they looked bright and glassy, a change from hours earlier when Hoss had left him to go for help.
“C’mon … take some more water. Where’s your canteen?” Adam looked down at the canteen he still held in his arms and Hoss followed his glance. “Lemme have that and I’ll help … ” Hoss paused as he shook the water container. “Hell, Adam! This thing is just about full. Didn’t you drink none while I was gone?” Hoss looked at his brother, worried.
“I couldn’t … too dizzy,” Adam managed in a weak voice.
With that Hoss turned around and motioned to Foster to come over to them. When he had pulled the wagon over next to them, Hoss said, “Hold those horses steady while I get him into the back, Foster. We need to get going outta here and on to home. We can’t waste any more time here.”
Hoss felt like he could allow himself the luxury of relaxing just a little. Foster said he felt in fine shape to drive on to the Ponderosa. “Just don’t you worry about me, Hoss. You set back there with your brother and make sure he’s OK,” Foster had said to Hoss when they’d started off. And with Adam securely pillowed on the straw and covered with blankets, Hoss took Foster at his word.
After staring for awhile at his and Adam’s horses following along behind the wagon they were tied to, he closed his eyes and began to doze.
Adam knew he was on the move somewhere but strangely, he didn’t care where. He could feel the jostle and jog of the wagon beneath him, which caused his head to roll slightly back and forth, and he was hot, so damn hot. He felt the sweat beading on his face and trickling down his temples, but felt too wretched to reach up and wipe it off. He had suffered high fevers before and vaguely recognized the ache that covered seemingly every inch of his body and the malaise that sapped his energy and made him unable to do anything more than lay there under the moonlit sky.
Adam’s mind began to wander away from this wagon and back to another wagon and another fever. He’d been 5 years old and his Pa and Ma hadn’t been married long when he’d come down with a fever. He had felt miserable and while his Pa had driven their wagon, his Ma had sat in the back with him, bathing his forehead with cool water and singing softly to comfort him. They had stopped just before crossing a creek and Ma had gotten out of the wagon to get some fresh water, assuring her little boy she’d be back soon. And she had been, just as she’d said.
Adam reached out from under the blankets and felt for his mother’s soft hand, but instead found a thick, muscular forearm, covered with coarse hair: his brother, Hoss. He briefly smiled but then felt more muddled than ever: If his mother were here, then Hoss couldn’t be more than an infant; yet here he was, all grown up and next to him in the wagon.
Adam’s forehead wrinkled and he gripped his brother’s arm tightly in his confusion. That steady presence gave Adam something to hold onto; whatever was happening to him and wherever they were going, he wasn’t alone. His brother was with him and would watch out for him. Adam’s forehead smoothed as he drifted away again.
Hoss hadn’t been sleeping for long and his mind started waking up before his body did. There was something wrong, but he couldn’t quite remember what it was. There was something he had to do, someone he had a grave responsibility to but it wasn’t quite with him yet. Then he felt a hand grabbing at his arm. He opened his eyes to the cool blue light of the moon and his brother’s hand clenching the muscle of Hoss’ forearm. He sought Adam’s face to see if there was anything newly wrong with him.
Adam looked to be sleeping but fitfully. He had reached out to clutch at Hoss in a dream, perhaps. “Adam, you’re OK. Adam?” Hoss reached for his canteen again and leaned down to lift Adam’s head slightly so he could have a drink. He didn’t really wake up, but still managed a few swallows and that’s what was most important to Hoss. He gently let his brother’s head back down to rest on the straw and then poured a little of the water onto his fingers and smoothed it over Adam’s hot forehead and temples.
“Hey Foster?” Hoss called up to the wagon seat.
“Yeah … you awake already?” came the reply.
“You sure you can see where we’re goin’ with it gettin’ dark like this?” Hoss yawned immediately after saying this last.
“Why Hoss, it’s a full moon tonight. There ain’t gonna be a problem driving this team with a route this good. Can’t you see the road just ’bout as plain as day?” Foster called back, half turning.
“I guess I can, at that. How much longer, you figure?”
“Prob’ly about four more hours at this rate. The horses are fit and fine and the weather’s good so ... yeah, four more hours. OK?”
“That sounds fine, Foster. I sure ’nuff appreciate all you’re doin’ for us.” Hoss removed his hat and scratched his head before replacing it. He yawned again.
“Don’t give it a thought, ya hear? It’s what friends do.” Foster turned around in the seat to again face fully forward and concentrate on the road ahead.
“Hoss? Ma’s gonna be right back, OK?”
Hoss whipped his head around so fast to look at Adam, the source of the question, that later he’d think he surely must have looked mighty comical. Adam had spoken the words clear as day, but still, Hoss thought he must have heard them wrong. Adam’s eyes were closed and he wasn’t saying anything now.
“Adam? Did you say somethin’?” Hoss peered at his brother. It was harder to see him now in the gathering gloom of evening. “Adam!” Hoss spoke sharply that time, more sharply than he had intended, but the words his brother had spoken had unnerved him.
Adam didn’t speak often of their mother, the one they had shared for too short a time out on the trail West.
Joe’s mother, Marie, had been a good mother to them all, but Hoss and Adam shared a bond over their mother, Inger, that only the two of them could understand. Hoss hungered like a starving man for anything anyone could tell him about his mother. When his Uncle Gunnar had briefly visited the Ponderosa, Hoss had been disappointed that he couldn’t tell his nephew more about her. And then with his death went any chance of a long discussion about Inger.
His pa? Well, Pa could only talk about Hoss’ mother from the viewpoint of a husband. Sure, he could tell Hoss what a wonderful mother Inger had been but she was Ben’s wife, first and foremost, and that’s really how he saw her. As badly as he felt for his boys when she died, at the moment when Inger’s life was steadily draining away, he could think of nothing but his loss. When he realized he held his dead wife in his arms and the tears came as he buried his face in her hair, it was himself and his loss – the loss of his wife – that was at the top of his mind.
No, it was Adam Hoss most relied on in recent years to keep the memory of their mother alive for him. And that had not come about easily, but only because Hoss had finally grown desperate enough to ask his reticent brother.
Hoss had gone to Adam’s bedroom late one evening about three months after Uncle Gunnar’s death. He had been unable to shake the feeling of despair that he had lost the last person who could talk to him about his mother besides his father. And he had screwed up his courage to bring the subject up with his brother.
Adam was in bed but was awake and reading by the yellow light of an oil lamp. He looked up as he heard a light tap at his door and then watched it open and saw Hoss’ head poking through. “What’s on your mind, Hoss?” Adam was surprised to see his brother up this late: Usually Hoss was in bed and snoring before Adam ever put out his reading lamp. What’s more, once he opened the door all the way and wordlessly entered the room, Adam saw Hoss was still fully dressed, right down to his boots.
“You haven’t even been to bed yet?” Adam asked him, a quizzical look on his face. Hoss shook his head and stood silently at the side of Adam’s bed, looking a little hangdog, with his hands thrust deep into his front pants pockets. “Sit down, why dontcha? You have something on your mind?” Adam knew that was a silly question: Of course he had something on his mind. But he had to go about this the right way or risk making his brother go silent on him.
“Well … I been thinkin’, Adam.” Hoss raked one hand through his mussed brown hair, putting it into even more of a state of disarray. Adam waited patiently. When Hoss wanted to talk, he often took his time going about it. Adam had been holding his place in his book with an index finger, but now reached over to the bedside table for the playing card he was using as a marker and closed the book around that instead. He set it on the table and looked at Hoss again.
“What’s on your mind, Hoss?” Adam gently asked again.
“You knew our ma, Adam … like a son knows a ma, didn’t you?” Hoss now had his thumbs hooked into his pants pockets, trying to look casual, like that sentence hadn’t been difficult for him to say to his brother. But the way Hoss was looking directly into Adam’s eyes told him there was nothing casual about the question.
The question took Adam by surprise. The three half-brothers didn’t speak much to each other about their respective mothers. Their father often talked to them about the three women he had married and buried but his boys didn’t speak at length about their mothers to each other. It was as if they each wanted to save the one thing that was theirs, and only theirs, for themselves.
Joe was still too young to fully realize how Marie had been a mother to Adam and Hoss as well. He thought of Marie as his alone, and that was fine with his brothers. Someday perhaps he’d question them about their memories to add to those he had stored away or that his father had shared with him.
Adam had no one to question about his mother, other than his father. He long ago had exhausted his father’s cache of stories about his mother and Ben could tell Adam no stories about her as his mother, since she had died so soon after giving birth to him. Adam certainly had no personal memories of her, though his father had tried mightily to create some for him when Adam was a child.
As far back as Adam could remember, Ben would put his only son to bed each night and tell him about his mother, Elizabeth, who lived in heaven but who looked down on him and watched over him every day. Ben told Adam how much she had loved him and how happy she’d been to have had a son.
Though Adam felt a great loss at the void his mother’s absence created, for all Ben’s efforts, Elizabeth Cartwright was mainly a picture on his father’s desk and a music box on Adam’s bureau.
Hoss’ question marked the first time he’d come to Adam, alone, to ask him about Inger. And Adam smiled as he remembered the tall, smiling, Swedish beauty who had come into their lives during their trek across the country: These were his real memories, flesh and blood memories, not just stories.
“Yeah, that’s how I knew her, Hoss. She was my ma … the only one I’d had, really.” He looked up with a grin into his brother’s face from where he sat up in his bed. “Would you sit down? If we’re gonna have this talk, I can’t be lookin’ up at you the whole time … I’ll get a pain in my neck!”
Hoss ducked his head in embarrassment and perched on the edge of Adam’s bed. He faced Adam and finally said straight out, “What can you tell me? It ain’t the same hearing it from Pa. He can’t tell me what she was really like as a ma.”
Adam crossed his arms behind his head and leaned back against his headboard. The smile stayed on his face as he allowed his mind to go back to a time when he first felt like he had a real family at last.
For as long as Adam could remember, they had been journeying West, just he and his father. He had always been envious of the families he saw that had both a father AND a mother, who cooked and mended and patched up small hurts, and sometimes included even a younger brother or sister. So when his father had met Inger, Adam had taken to her immediately. If he could have chosen his ma, she’s exactly who he would have picked. And that’s just what he told Hoss.
“Really? You liked her right off, huh?” Hoss couldn’t keep a big grin off his face. How it pleased him to hear such a thing.
“Oh yeah. She was so … so good, Hoss.” Adam got a pensive look on his face as his eyes went from Hoss to his bedroom window. “I didn’t think back on it until I got a lot older, but it’s really something for a man or woman to take on someone else’s child in a ready-made family. But that’s just what our ma did. Thinkin’ about it now, remembering how happy she made me feel …” Adam stopped, still looking out the window. Hoss saw his eyes were a little bright, but said nothing. He quietly waited for Adam to go on.
“She just made me feel like we had a real family for once. A complete family, you know? I’d never had that before. It had just been me and Pa since … well, since forever.” Adam looked at Hoss then, seeking confirmation of his feelings. Surely Hoss had felt the same thing when Marie had come into his life.
“Yeah, I do know. I know just how you felt.” Hoss nodded. And Adam knew that he did.
He continued, “She didn’t have to be that way, though. She probably could have won Pa over and treated me just well enough to get by. But she loved me, Hoss. She did,” Adam said almost defensively. “I could feel it and she told me so. She told me every night before I went to sleep. Every night …” His voice trailed off again, remembering a small boy nestled into his blankets, his mother leaning over him, quietly completing their bedtime ritual.
This is what Hoss had been looking for: his brother’s feelings about their ma, because then those feelings could be HIS feelings. “So then what happened?” he asked.
Adam lost the pensive look he’d worn and grinned at his brother. “You mean, hurry up and get to when you’re born, right?” He laughed out loud at his brother’s transparency.
“Well, sure, Adam. That’s why I come in here.” But Hoss laughed too, his throaty chuckle that sounded like it came straight from his belly.
“One day the wagon got stuck climbing a hill,” Adam continued, “and Pa got out to push at the front wheel. Ma sent me away from the wagon and she was supposed to go too, but she said she wanted to help. Pa told her to get away but she stayed to push anyway because, well … the women had to pitch in just like the men on that trip. They did things women in Boston or Philadelphia would never have dreamed of doing.”
“She got knocked down when the wagon moved suddenly and rolled down the hill a ways. Pa ran over to her and that’s when we found out she was carrying you. She felt bad she hadn’t told Pa yet, but she had wanted to wait and now she was scared she’d lost you in the fall. Pa was worried too, sure enough.”
“They was worried about me, ’fore I was even born?” Hoss marveled at the thought of his pa, who worried enough about his sons as grown men, fretting about his unborn child.
“Well sure. Sometimes a fall can cause real problems for women who are in a family way. And it caused problems on the wagon train because Pa wouldn’t budge and we had a deadline to meet and other folks on the train were put out that we were stayin’ in one place.” Adam paused, remembering the angry exchanges between the men and his father.
“But then it was OK. Ma called out that she was fine and we should be on our way. Pa was so happy when Ma told him she’d felt you movin’.”
“Movin’. I was movin’ around.” Hoss was nearly speechless at this story he’d never heard before this moment.
“So then everything was fine and we got on the trail again and Ma and Pa were so happy, Hoss. They were just so happy and so was I. It was the best time of my life.” Adam smiled, remembering long days helping his father drive their team and nights sleeping snugly tucked into the back of their wagon. Strange how just the addition of Inger, only one person, had made his family seem so much larger.
“So what happened when I was born?” Hoss asked, getting impatient for his physical appearance in this story.
“Well, Pa wasn’t even there when you were born. Did you know that?”
“Sure … Pa’s told me that much. He said he came back to the train, and there I was, bigger ’n’ life.” Hoss grinned at Adam, and waited for the obligatory crack about his size.
“You’re making it way too easy, ‘big’ brother.” Adam grinned back at him. “Anyway, I WAS there, except I had to wait outside the wagon. One of the women, Mrs. Cooper, was in there with Ma and she told me everything was going to be fine and I just had to wait awhile and I could meet my new brother or sister.”
“Which did ya want, Adam?”
“A brother, of course.” Adam grinned bigger. “That’s what Pa wanted, too. So I waited and pretty soon I heard you squawlin’ …” – Hoss leaned forward and jabbed him in the shoulder with his fist – “and Mrs. Cooper stuck her head out of the back of the wagon and said my ma wanted me to come meet my new baby brother.”
“And didja?” Hoss asked.
“Well sure. Ma was sitting up in the back and she looked real tired, and her hair was a little mussed …” Adam leaned back again and closed his eyes, remembering. “She looked so proud and so happy but she didn’t forget about me, just because she had you now. She couldn’t wait to show you off to me.
“She had you all wrapped up in a blanket with just your head poking out. I couldn’t believe how big you were! I’d seen one or two other brand-new babies who’d been born on the trail and they weren’t half your size.” Adam opened his eyes and looked at his brother again. “I thought we were really something, having the biggest baby on the train.”
Hoss’ look turned to one of embarrassment as the color in his face got a little deeper but Adam told him sincerely, “No really … I was proud of that. Still am proud of your size, Hoss. You’ve used it to get me out of a jam more than once.”
“So when did Pa get back?” Hoss asked, wanting to move the conversation back to something that didn’t make him feel so funny inside. His older brother was proud of him?
“He got back later that night. The minute he rode up, he said, the men were telling him Ma’s time had come. The birth of a baby on the train was mighty big news, let me tell ya. He said he climbed into the back of the wagon so fast, he about gave Ma a fit. She didn’t know who was busting in on us. We were in there talking and suddenly there was Pa.”
Adam took a deep breath in and blew it back out in a heavy sigh. His voice took on a dreamy quality: “Hoss, I wish you could have seen the look on his face when he first looked at you. It was really something. I’ve only seen it one other time and that’s when Joe was born.”
Hoss shook his head slightly. “Ya know, Adam, I’ll bet Pa had that look three times.”
“Hmmm? What do you mean?”
“Well, I bet he had that same look when you was born, too.”
“Oh … that’s right.” Adam laughed at how he’d forgotten about his own birth. “Well, that’s something we’ll never know.” Hoss realized Adam was right: There was no one left alive who could describe for him the look on his father’s face the first time he saw his oldest son. Hoss felt sorry for Adam then, that he didn’t have an older brother to share memories of his ma with him, like Adam was sharing with Hoss.
“Anyway, I wanted to name you. I asked Pa if I could but he looked at Ma and asked her, which I guess was only right.” Adam looked a little chagrined at his memory of the boldness of his 6-year-old self.
“Before you were born, Pa had been telling folks on the train that you were either going to be named after his father or Ma’s father: Joseph or Eric. He even said if you were Eric then his next son would be Joseph. Leave it to Pa to get his way after all, huh?” Hoss snorted laughter at that one and Adam joined him laughing at the joke. Ben Cartwright was well known around the Ponderosa, and even Virginia City, for having things his way, and in this case, their brother Joe was the proof.
“So Ma said she wanted to name you Eric, after her father, and Pa looked like he thought that was a good idea and that was when I made my move.”
“Your move?” Hoss knew they’d decided to call him Hoss because of a suggestion by his Uncle Gunnar but he couldn’t imagine Adam’s part in the whole thing.
“I reminded them about Uncle Gunnar telling us he hoped we’d call you Hoss. I guess they’d both just forgotten and when I reminded them, Ma’s eyes lit up and she looked up at Pa, saying she remembered now. So Pa said we’d use both names and see which one stuck, but I knew which one it was going to be.” Adam smiled in satisfaction and Hoss said, “Looks like someone inherited a little bit of that ‘gettin’ your own way stuff’ from Pa.”
“Well, don’t you think Hoss is a much better fit than Eric?” Adam looked at his brother and Hoss smiled back at him, trying to imagine it. “I just can’t see calling you Eric. I just can’t. I never have, either, not since the day you were born. Pa tried it a few times, but he knew.” Adam grinned smugly.
“He still does try it every now and then,” Hoss said, “mostly when he’s introducing us to folks. What about Ma? Did she ever?”
“Sure, she tried it on you a few times, too. But it just didn’t fit with your nature, Hoss. You were so big and so happy and … ” Adam’s face turned serious all of a sudden. “We were all four happy then. So happy …” His voice trailed off and stopped and Hoss knew the story Adam was remembering now.
Hoss knew the details, but there was no way he could know that story as intimately as Adam did. He knew Indians had attacked them and they had crouched in the corner of a way station while Pa and the other men fired out the windows. And when one of the men had gotten shot, Ma had placed her new son carefully into Adam’s arms and then, taking up the discarded rifle, began shooting out the window with the men. And then an arrow had ended their happiness, too quickly after it had begun.
Adam was remembering as well, in a way that Hoss never could. He saw their ma fall with the arrow in her back and cried out to their pa. He wanted to jump up and run over to her and hug her and beg her to be OK. But he knew he had to keep his baby brother safe in his arms and out of harm’s way. Ma had given him to Adam to protect and that was his job and he couldn’t do anything else. So he kept his arms wrapped around Hoss and watched Pa hold Ma until she breathed her last, watched him cry over her and he looked down at his baby brother, who didn’t know anything about the tragedy that had befallen their little family. As he looked into the chubby face of the brother who already had stolen all their hearts, Adam had thought, “Now we’re alone again.”
And suddenly three seemed many times fewer than four.
“Adam?” Hoss put a hand on his brother’s blanket-covered leg.
“Hmmmm?” Adam said, shaking off his somber thoughts. “Sorry ... just thinkin’ ” He was silent for a few seconds and then looked into his brother’s ice-blue eyes and said earnestly, “She seems more my mother than my real mother does, Hoss, and that feels wrong but it feels right, too. I feel guilty as hell about it, like I’m disloyal to my own mother, but I didn’t know her at all. She’s just a pretty lady in a picture to me.”
He gave a humorless laugh and said, “I used to look in Pa’s shaving mirror and then look at her picture, trying to see if there was some way we looked alike. I never could see it, though. And I don’t remember a thing about her … there’s no way I could, though heaven knows, I tried to imagine I did before Inger came along.” He laughed briefly at his childish folly of making up memories of his mother.
“But I did know your mother and I loved her so much and I know she loved me … loved us.” Adam’s voice broke a little at the end, but his eyes remained dry and locked on his brother’s.
“Our ma, Adam. She was OUR ma,” Hoss gently corrected his brother.
“OK, our ma, then,” Adam took another deep breath and sighed. “Our ma. Sure you don’t mind sharing?”
“Nahhhhh. Seems like she had enough love for both of us.” Now it was Hoss’ turn to look a little dreamy. “Adam? I … I ….” He stopped. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. Adam sat waiting.
“Thank you, brother. I just wanna say thank you. I feel like I know our ma a lot better tonight, is all.” Hoss looked away now toward the window. “Can we talk about her again sometime?”
“Sure Hoss … anytime. Come and ask me anything and I’ll tell you what I can. It was a long time ago, but those memories, the good ones and a few of the bad ones, seem like they’ll never fade.” Adam reached out and clasped the hand that still rested on the blanket covering his leg. “Now maybe we’d better think about gettin’ some sleep. I think Pa has a whole list of chores waiting for us in the morning.”
“That’s the truth, for sure.” Hoss stood and walked to the door and then looked back. “G’nite, Adam.”
“ ’Night, Hoss.”
“Adam!” Hoss repeated sharply once more and that time the word had its intended effect. Adam’s eyes opened and he looked around him, as if wondering where he was. “What’s wrong?” he said, a little fuzzily.
“Oh only about everthin’ but we’re just a few hours from home now, so they’ll be fine soon enough,” Hoss said, trying to sound confident. He put his hand on his brother’s forehead again, and felt the slick sweat come away on his palm. Adam had grown hotter while he slept and the only thing Hoss knew to do was give him water. “C’mon Adam, raise up a little so you can have a drink.”
“I don’t want one.” Adam sounded a little petulant, but didn’t protest when his brother simply scooped his shoulders up and put the canteen to his lips. He took two swallows and then turned his face away, causing the water to spill over his cheek before Hoss had a chance to pull the canteen back. Hoss let Adam lay back on the straw once more, his eyes closed. Hoss could make out his features pretty well now that the moon was high above them and he watched Adam stir restlessly, perhaps trying to find a position on his makeshift bed where he didn’t feel the pain so much. His hand went again and again to his side where his stab wound was covered with his bloodstained shirt and a layer of blankets only to flutter away once more, restlessly moving above his head, to his chin, onto his chest, into his hair.
“Ma, my stomach hurts,” Adam said, sounding exhausted by the relentlessness of the pain. Hoss started again and spoke his brother’s name once more: “Adam?” His eyes obligingly opened, though Hoss wasn’t sure who Adam saw sitting next to him.
“Ma ain’t here, Adam,” Hoss said gently.
“She isn’t?” Adam peered up at his brother and reached out his hand toward him. “Hoss? I thought … I musta been dreamin’, I guess.”
Hoss put his hand out to hold his brother’s still restless hand and said, “Was it a nice dream … the one about Ma?”
“Well … she was here. Don’t remember … ” Adam’s voice trailed off, as if he had simply forgotten to finish the sentence he had started and then closed his eyes once more.
Hoss kept watch over his older brother then, in the back of the wagon, while Foster Marcus drove them on toward home. The horses’ hooves beat a rhythm onto the dirt road that once again reminded Hoss of his prayer: “Keep him safe, keep him safe, keep him safe.”
Hoss thought he had never been so relieved to see his home as he was when Foster drove the wagon around the barn and into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house. He got up on one knee, and looked past Foster’s back to see lamps burning inside as the front door opened and, blessed be, his father coming through it onto the porch.
“Foster?” Ben called to his old friend, as he held a lamp higher, confirming his identification. “What in tarnation are you doing here this time ’a night?” He’d been expecting his sons to arrive home, in fact had been waiting up for them.
“Ben, there’s been trouble,” Foster shouted from the wagon seat, as he reined the team in.
“Trouble?” Ben’s dark eyebrows nearly met in the middle as his friendly smile turned to a scowl. “What kind of trouble?”
Foster set the brake and looped the reins several times around its handle. “Trouble with your boys, Ben.” He hooked a thumb toward the back of the wagon before beginning to climb down.
The moment Foster had spoken the words “trouble” and “boys,” Ben had paid him no more attention and turned toward the back of the wagon. He saw Hoss leaning over something in the straw and then he straightened up and said, “Hey Pa.”
“Hoss! What’s happened to you?” Ben was alarmed at the disheveled state of his middle son, including the cut lip and bruised face, but once his eyes caught sight of Hoss’ shirt, wrinkled, smeared with rust-colored stains and open nearly to the waist, he knew there had been more than trouble out on the trail. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah Pa, I’m fine. It’s …” Hoss began, but Ben would not let him finish.
“Where’s Adam?” The words were no sooner spoken than Ben reached the back of the wagon and saw his oldest son, nestled into the straw and covered in blankets. In the light from his lamp, Ben saw Adam’s dark hair stuck to his head in curly, sweaty clumps. “What happened to you, boy?” he asked in dismay.
“I was gonna tell ya,” Hoss said impatiently and shoved an arm under Adam’s shoulder, another under his knees and hoisted his brother into his arms. Adam’s limbs dangled loosely as Hoss leaned over the end of the wagon with his blanket-wrapped brother and said, “Here, Pa. Can you take ’im?”
“Of course,” Ben said, handing the lantern off to Foster and reaching up as Hoss leaned down to deposit Adam carefully into his father’s arms.
Ben braced himself to accept his son, not a small burden, and, once he was holding him securely, looked down at Adam’s hectic color and face shiny with perspiration and knew, at the least, he was very ill.
As if to confirm Ben’s sense that it was more than just illness, Hoss said, “Pa, he’s been stabbed. It happened early this morning, just after sunrise.” Now that his responsibility for Adam’s life had been passed along to his father, both literally and figuratively, Hoss allowed himself to finally feel his fatigue.
“Thieves … after the money from the cattle sale. Four of ’em came up on us in our camp and one of ’em pulled a knife on Adam. He stabbed ’im right in the belly, I guess, and then they rode off with all our money.” Hoss panted a little after unburdening himself to his father and added, looking worried, “I got the bleedin’ stopped but he’s gotten some worse since this afternoon.”
“We have to get him upstairs,” Ben said, and turned toward the door.
“Pa, maybe we should send Joe for the doc right away.” Hoss said, jumping down from the wagon and taking the lantern from Foster.
“We can’t,” Ben said, stopping. “Joe’s already in Virginia City. He was playing cards and said he’d stay in town tonight. That’s where I left him.”
“I’ll go for the doc,” Foster said, “if you can loan me a horse.”
“Take one from the barn,” Ben directed. “And Foster – find Joe in town, will you? Tell him he has to come home right away. Tell him what happened.”
“I sure will, Ben. Don’t you worry; the doc’ll be back here soon.” Foster strode off toward the closed barn door.
Ben turned back toward the house and carried his son up to his room.
“Hoss, can you help me with him?” Ben held a clean cloth up as he looked around at his middle son. He hated to ask him because he so obviously was worn out, but they had to try to bring Adam’s fever down. That much he knew, even without the doctor’s expertise.
“Yeah, Pa. I’m fine … really.” He sat on the opposite side of Adam’s bed from his father, and reached for a cloth to dunk into the cold water. He squeezed the excess water out and began to mop the perspiration off Adam’s chest and shoulder. Ben was doing the same to Adam’s face and neck.
For his part, Adam hadn’t had much to say since they brought him upstairs, just a few mumbles and a loud moan when Ben had caught his foot on the door as he carried him through the doorway. Ben had placed him on his bed and Hoss had held Adam in a sitting position, arms draped over Hoss’ shoulder, while his father had finally relieved his son of that blood-stiffened shirt. Ben looked at it in disgust before dropping it to the floor behind him.
As he worked on his brother, Hoss wondered if Adam was going to ask about their ma again and, sure enough, almost the minute Hoss had gotten the thought in his head, Adam piped up, his voice suddenly clear as a bell, if a little bit whiny: “Ma, I’m hot … get these blankets off, can’t ya?” Now it was Ben’s turn to look startled.
“Did he say ‘ma’?” Ben asked Hoss, a surprised look on his face. Hoss nodded but stayed silent and Ben turned back to Adam and said, “Your mother’s not here, son.” Then he looked at Hoss once more.
“Hoss? Would you go downstairs to my desk and get Elizabeth’s picture? Maybe it will comfort Adam a little if he has it here beside his bed when he wakes.” Ben turned back to his task once more; Hoss just bit his lip and remained where he was.
“Well son … what are you waiting for?” Ben looked up at Hoss, surprised that he hadn’t gotten moving.
“Pa? … I don’t …” Hoss paused. This was a hard thing to say because he knew his Pa had loved his first wife intensely. She had been his first love, after all, and bore him his first son. But he knew it had to be said, so he let it out in a rush: “It ain’t Elizabeth he’s talkin’ to. It’s our ma … it’s Inger.”
“Inger?” Ben looked back at Adam, who was saying nothing more, but had gone back to the same restless hand movements as in the wagon. “Inger … my love,” Ben thought and was, as usual, hit with emotions churned up by the mention of the name. But usually he thought of Inger when Hoss was in trouble or hurt. When Adam was in trouble, it was always Elizabeth’s face he conjured up and Elizabeth he talked to during any bedside vigils. Adam was Elizabeth’s son, not Inger’s.
As if to contradict that very thought, Hoss said, “He told me once that his ma – Elizabeth – was just a face in a picture to him. He felt bad thinkin’ it, and … and disloyal, but he said it was the truth. He said my ma – our ma – was the first mother he’d ever known and she was who he thought of as his ma.”
Ben looked at Hoss’s earnest face and knew it must hurt him to be saying this right now. It hurt Ben even more, though. Had he not done a good job keeping Elizabeth’s memory alive for his oldest son? He had tried, but … Adam, without any memories of his own of his mother, must have felt like she was just a ghost. And Inger, with her sunny smile and disposition so like her son’s, had embraced Adam as if he were her own. For that Ben had been so grateful. His young son had been grateful as well, Ben knew; the positive change in Adam when Inger came into their lives had been evident.
“Why didn’t I know that?” Ben asked, looking stricken.
Hoss shook his head at his father. “Aw Pa, Adam didn’t wanna tell ya somethin’ like that. It would only make you … well, make you feel like ya do right now, I guess. And I tol’ ya, Adam felt mighty ’shamed about feelin’ that way anyway. He didn’t feel like it was right that he should love my ma more than his own.” Hoss didn’t add how grateful he was that Adam HAD felt that way because if he hadn’t, Hoss wouldn’t have been able to share those long talks with Adam about their mother. He didn’t need to take things that far with his father right now.
“Ma, please take ’em off me,” Adam begged, as he pushed fruitlessly at the bedclothes, and their attention turned back toward him. “I can’t stand it bein’ so hot.”
“Ma’s not here right now, Adam,” Hoss said soothingly and at that, his brother opened his eyes. “Hoss? Where is she? Hoss?” His color was high now and his eyes, while open, didn’t seem to be able to focus on much of anything.
It hurt him to say it, but Ben asked Hoss once more: “Go downstairs and get your mother’s picture off my desk and bring it up. Maybe that will help him.” And Hoss got up then and started down the stairs. Ben turned back to the bed and said, “Adam?”
Adam turned his head toward the sound of his father’s voice and said, “Pa? I’m glad you’re here, Pa. Hoss said Ma’s not here right now.” Ben swallowed hard at that and said, “No, she’s not, son. Why don’t you close your eyes and get some sleep.” And Adam did.
Hoss stood by his father’s desk, looking at the framed portrait of his mother, Inger. He carried it over to the mirror on the wall and stood looking, first at his face and then at the picture. The sound of hoof beats broke into his thoughts and he went to open the front door. Racing up to the rail was a buggy carrying Dr. Martin and Joe. Joe was driving and the doctor sat next to him, clutching his bag.
“Boy, I’m sure glad to see you fellas, and I know Pa will be too!” Hoss said loudly as he came through the door onto the porch.
“I’m just glad to have made it here in one piece,” the doctor said, having climbed out of the buggy as soon as it had stopped. He glared back at Joe and then walked onto the porch. “Where is he?”
“Up in his room, Doc.” Hoss pointed back through the front door and the doctor went through it. Hoss looked back at Joe as he was tying the horse to the rail. “Why was you drivin’ the doc’s buggy?”
Joe joined Hoss on the porch. “Foster found me before he did the doc, so I went with him and told the doc I could drive here faster, knowin’ the road like I do and it bein’ nighttime and all.” Joe shrugged. “Foster said Adam was hurt bad and I didn’t wanna waste any time getting the doc here. Foster’s bringin’ my horse back.”
He stopped then and looked up at Hoss with a grave expression: “How bad is he, Hoss? I gotta know before I go up there.”
“I don’t know for sure. He was awake and talkin’ most of the day but this evenin’ he took a turn. He’s got a bad fever now and … ” Hoss shrugged; he didn’t know exactly what to say to Joe. He guessed he would just leave things in the doc’s hands now. He’d gotten his brother this far – alive – by his sheer determination that he would not see him die. Now the exhausted man was relieved to turn the responsibility for Adam’s care over to someone else.
Joe stared at him for a moment longer, briefly put a hand on Hoss’ shoulder and then headed for the door. Hoss turned to follow his brother, the framed picture still in his hand.
Ben used one of the damp cloths to wipe the sweat from his own forehead. He hadn’t realized he was perspiring so until Dr. Martin was done cleaning and treating Adam’s stab wound and burns. He been as gentle as possible with the painful procedure, but Adam, in his delirium, had fought him and in the end, it took both Hoss and Ben to hold Adam down while the doctor worked on him.
It had been awful to witness his son struggling to break free from their grasp, shouting and cursing them for what they were doing to him. He was totally out of his head now, which was disconcerting for Ben. It was his eldest – his Adam – who lay there, but he didn’t know his father or his brothers. He only knew someone was causing him great pain and Ben hoped that same strength he had used to fight his “tormenters” could be used by Adam to fight his fever.
Dr. Martin stood at the bedside table repacking his bag, and then placed several packets by the basin. “I’m leaving you some more sedative powders, Ben. He should sleep for awhile yet and I’m hoping the fever will break by dawn.”
The doctor continued, “It’s a miracle, or something like it, that the blade didn’t hit any organs or cause any bleeding inside. Hoss, did Adam ever have any blood in his mouth?”
“Nosir, he didn’t. The only blood was from his belly wound.” Hoss thought that had been plenty, thank you.
“Well, I think our biggest worry right now is the fever, then, and we’ll just have to wait and see on that.”
“Thank you, doctor. I sure appreciate you coming out here in the middle of the night,” Ben said.
“It’s a good thing I did, Ben. It’s safest to get a wound like that looked at as soon as possible.” The doctor turned to Hoss. “I know it looks bad, Hoss, and that wound cleaning wasn’t the nicest thing to watch Adam go through, but I want you to know you saved his life today.”
Hoss slowly shook his head and said, “Aw Doc, I was just takin’ care of my brother.”
The doctor shook his own head and said, “No, if you hadn’t been there and thought quickly enough to cauterize that wound, Adam would have bled to death on the trail, plain and simple.”
Hoss shrugged then. It hadn’t been a conscious decision on his part; there really had been no decision to make. He could not have let Adam die.
Ben clapped a hand to his son’s shoulder. “We’re sure glad he was there, Doc. And sure glad he had the presence of mind to do what he did.” Ben squeezed Hoss’ shoulder and looked into his son’s eyes. “I know that must have been a difficult thing to have to do to your brother, even though you knew it was the only thing that could save his life.”
“It was awful, Pa. Plain awful … but Adam sure was strong,” Hoss said, and then swallowed hard, remembering Adam’s hoarse cries, the powerful grip of his hand, the smells and … He shook his head and added, “It worked and that’s all that matters now.”
“That’s right, Hoss.” Ben nodded. “He’s going to be fine.” Ben was determined to see that it was so.
The doctor had finished packing up his things and grabbed his hat. “Well, gentlemen, I’m going to take my leave. Please, Little Joe … ” He held up his hand, palm out, as the youngest Cartwright stood up from the chair he’d been sitting in by the window. He grinned at the doctor who said, “Really … I can drive my OWN buggy back to town just fine, thank you.”
He walked over to the door and then stopped to look back at the father and sons. He said, shaking his head, “Heaven help anyone who gets in the way of a Cartwright trying to go to the aid of another Cartwright.” With a wry grin, he jammed his hat onto his head and was gone.
“Joseph, I hope I don’t have to send you for the doctor again anytime soon,” Ben said to his youngest with a stern look. “Aw Pa, there was no way I was going to let the doc drive … he’d have had that pony going at a trot the whole way,” Joe said.
“Well, he may have felt that getting here at a little slower pace was better than not getting here at all!” Ben began, his voice rising, and Joe, sensing his father working up to a thundering lecture, quickly pointed over to his sick brother on the bed. “Pa, did Adam say something? I thought I heard him call your name.”
Ben immediately turned back toward the bed and went to sit next to his eldest, his just-begun lecture on his youngest forgotten, just as Joe had hoped. “Boy, you sure know how to make things happen,” Hoss said to Joe, an admiring tone in his voice, and immediately was seized with a tremendous yawn.
“Well, thanks for the compliment, but don’t you think you oughtta get a little rest? Why don’t you go lay down for awhile?” Joe said. “Pa and I can take care of the compresses for his fever. Doc said he’s gonna sleep awhile anyway.”
“I think I might nap a bit, Joe, for sure. But I’m gonna do that right here in this room. I’ll take your chair and you take mine.” And with that, Hoss went over to sit in the chair by the window that Joe had vacated when the doctor left.
Joe grinned, took Hoss’ place by Adam’s side and reached for the wet cloth in the basin of water. He looked down at Adam’s belly, now covered with the doctor’s fresh white bandage and his young face grew sober. “That was somethin’, huh Pa?”
“Hmmmm? What’s that, Joe?” Ben looked over to his son but kept dabbing the cool cloth on Adam’s face.
“Oh, just when the doc was scrubbing at those burns and … ” Joe gave a little shudder at the memory of Hoss and his father using what seemed like all their strength to hold his oldest brother down on the bed so the doctor could do his work.
“Oh.” Ben doused the cloth in the cool water again and squeezed out the excess. “Well, I know that wasn’t very nice to watch, Joe, but Adam was out of his mind. He isn’t all there right now … It hurt him something fierce, but he likely won’t remember.” Ben paused in his work and looked over at Joe’s somber face. “Besides, what’s that Adam used to say years ago when he’d get tossed off a horse or when you boys would get into a scrap? ‘The only way to hurt me is to kill me.’ Isn’t that what he said?”
“Yeah, that was it.” Joe smiled at some of his memories.
“Well, we’re not going to let it go that far.” Ben smiled back at his son.
Adam slowed turned his head to one side on the pillow and then back again, blew out a chuff of air and raised his hand once more to his head and then down to his bandaged abdomen. Ben reached out and grabbed Adam’s hand away from his wound and held it in his own. “Adam? Can you hear me son?”
“Mmmmm … hurts ….” Adam’s words ended in a breathy groan.
Ben picked up one of the envelopes of sedative powder the doctor had left, tapped the contents into a glass and then poured it half full of water. He said, “Lift him up, will you Joe?” and when Joe had gotten his arms under his brother’s shoulders and raised him slightly, Ben put the glass to Adam’s lips. “C’mon son … drink this down for me.” Adam slowly but steadily drank until the glass was empty and when Joe had settled him back against the pillow, he opened his eyes.
“Yeah Adam, it’s me. Didn’t wanna miss your homecomin’.” Joe smiled down at his brother.
“Hey Joe … ,” Adam said in a tired greeting and then his eyes went back to his father. “Pa? Where’s Ma? Is she back yet?”
Ben grinned a little at his son’s confusion, but he guessed that’s the sort of chaos a fever created in the mind. Ben reached over to the night table to get the photo Hoss had brought upstairs with him. “She’s not, son, but here’s her picture. Would you like to look at it for awhile?” He put the framed photo into the hand he still held in his own and then brought it up in front of Adam’s eyes.
Adam stared at the photo for several seconds and a smile broke onto his wan, sweating face. His eyes closed then and Ben let the hand that held the photo down gently onto Adam’s chest.
Joe had watched all this, wondering just what was going on. The picture his father had given Adam was Hoss’ mother, not Adam’s. He looked up at Ben and said as much.
“I know son, and I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to talk to Adam about it. But this is what Hoss told me.” And Ben told Joe the story of Adam and Hoss’ bond with their mother, Inger.
Dawn’s pale light was coming through Adam’s bedroom window when Hoss was shaken awake by his father. “Son,” Ben said in a low whisper, “I’m going downstairs and get some coffee for us all.”
“OK Pa … ” Hoss rubbed a hand over his face, first up and then back down. “How’s Adam doin’?”
“He’s better. I think his fever is down and he’s sleeping more comfortably.” Ben looked back at the still form on the bed remembering the bone-jarring chills that had wracked Adam’s body between bouts of sweats during the early morning hours of this day. “I’m hoping later he’ll be more himself.”
Hoss stood to take his father’s place at Adam’s side as Ben went downstairs. As Hoss sat, he observed Joe, who had leaned forward in his chair and slept with his head cradled on his arms on the edge of Adam’s bed. Adam’s left arm lay by his side, the back of his hand brushing up against Joe’s curly brown hair. His right hand lay on his chest, still holding Inger’s framed portrait.
“Hoss.” The whisper brought Hoss’ attention to Adam’s face and he quickly put one of his hands on Adam’s forehead. “I feel better.”
“You do feel better … your fever ain’t gone, but it’s sure a lot lower.” Hoss reached down for the portrait and said, “Whatcha got here?” He held it up for Adam to see.
“It’s our mother,” Adam said, a smile transforming his face. “Where’d that come from?”
“I brought it up from downstairs. Pa asked me to … thought you might like to have it last night.” Hoss kept a careful eye on his brother, watching for a reaction and he got it.
“Pa did?” Adam looked first alarmed and then guilty: His secret was out? Surely Pa would have told Hoss to bring him a picture of Adam’s own mother, Elizabeth.
“You was talkin’ to her, Adam, and he told me to go bring you the picture of your mother. I didn’t hafta tell him, but I wanted to. I’m proud you think of my ma as yours. I thought it was about time Pa knew that.” Hoss’ look was one of defiance and his frown line creased the space between his eyebrows.
“So … what did he say?” Adam asked, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.
Hoss replied, “He was surprised, more’n anything. I guess he hadn’t thought about how it might be for you. But he wasn’t mad and he’s the one who told me to go ahead and get the picture of my mother ’stead a yours.”
Adam thought that one over for several seconds. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever bring this topic up with his father and he hoped his father wouldn’t bring it up with him. But he was relieved he no longer carried the burden of keeping his real feelings from him. It wasn’t that he didn’t love and respect his mother – he did. It was just that he didn’t know her.
Now he glanced down at his sleeping youngest brother and back up to his middle brother. “You remember yesterday when I wanted you to ride for Pa and bring him back? That’s just about the last thing I remember ’til right now. You remember?”
“I sure do. You had me plum worried. That was the craziest thing I ever heard you say … up to that point, anyway.” Hoss grinned at Adam. He had a few things to tell him about some of the choice phrases that he had let loose with during his delirium.
But Adam wasn’t in the mood for joking; he had something serious to say and it had to be said between just he and Hoss. He reached out for Hoss’ forearm and, grabbing hold of it tightly, looked straight into his brother’s blue eyes. “I just want you to know, Hoss, it was you I needed all along. You were the one. You ARE the one.”
Hoss covered Adam’s hand with his own and ducked his head, turning it sideways to look back at Adam. He raised an eyebrow, smiled and said, “Gol’ darn, Adam. You’da done the same for me. I don’t even hafta ask if that’s true because I know it is. What’d I say to our ma the next time I see her if I had let ya down?”
Adam relaxed his grip on his brother’s arm and said, “I just needed to tell you … in words. I don’t say it enough.”
“Well, you said it just fine and I heard you.” Hoss set the picture down on the bedside table then reached over for the water pitcher and poured another half glass. “Here now, why don’t you have another drink and get some more rest?” He helped Adam raise up a little and he managed a few swallows.
“Thanks … I guess I am still feelin’ not quite … right.” Adam’s eyes slipped closed and Hoss put his hand back to his brother’s forehead. Still a touch warm but not nearly the blazing heat of those few hours after midnight, so Hoss was hopeful all that was needed to heal Adam now would be a lot of rest and time.
Steps in the hall brought his eyes to the doorway in time to see his father enter carrying a tray laden with a coffee pot and several china cups and saucers. At this, Joe raised his head off his arms and, after raking a hand through his hair and stretching, sniffed the air. “That fresh coffee, Pa? Sure smells good.”
Hoss said, “Pa, Adam woke while you were gone and he IS better. His fever seems a lot lower and I think he’s going to mend. He talked to me and he was makin’ sense so …”
“That’s wonderful,” Ben interrupted as he set the tray down on the bureau. “Such good news for such a beautiful morning!”
Hoss grinned at his father’s noticeable relief and finished his thought. “So I gave him some more water and he dropped back off to sleep.”
Ben smiled back and said, “Come and help yourself, boys.” Both Hoss and Joe got up to pour themselves cups of hot coffee and take them back to their chairs. Ben stood at the end of the bed, sipping from his own cup and looking at the sleeping face of his oldest son.
As he replaced the cup on the saucer, his eye went to Inger’s portrait on Adam’s bedside table. It stood alongside Elizabeth’s music box. He thought, “Liz, Hoss said he didn’t mind sharing his mother and I sure hope you don’t mind sharing your son.”
Looking up at his father, Hoss followed his gaze to the portrait of his mother. He looked back at his father and said, “That’s what we talked about, Pa. Adam knows you know an’ he’s relieved you’re not mad.” Hoss paused here, frowned, and, tucking one hand into his front pants pocket, he looked back at his sleeping brother. “I think it was a real burden for him to keep his true feelings from you all these years.”
Joe followed Hoss’ words intently but didn’t interrupt. Hoss continued in his role of go-between for his father and his brother. “He does love his mother. It’s just that … that our ma is the one he knows best,” Hoss finished, hoping he was saying it right, hoping he could make his father understand.
“I know, son, I know. I’m just so sorry that Elizabeth never got the chance to raise her son.” Ben turned and put his cup back down, then walked over to pick up Adam’s music box. “She would have been a wonderful mother; Adam missed out on so much not having her in his life.”
Ben didn’t open the music box but just held it in his hand and let his mind travel back to a day many years before when he had given it to Liz upon returning from a sea voyage. His whole life had been before him then, his dreams not yet even fully formed in his mind, much less realized. Look at how much he had accomplished and gained between that day and this: His ranch, his fortune … and the three wives who had given him his three wonderful sons. He just hoped he hadn’t let any of them down.
He had always thought of them distinctly as being from their mothers alone, not considering the hand that Inger had had in molding Adam or even what effects Marie had had on Hoss. He had only considered that they had him, their father, in common. It had taken Hoss, his middle son and peacemaker, to make him see there was much more to his oldest son than just the woman who had given birth to him.
“Pa, do ya think my ma and Adam’s ma … well …” Hoss scowled and cut his eyes over to Joe, looking for the first signs of his younger brother’s laughter. But Joe maintained a somber look on his face, realizing that a discussion such as this was no time for jokes.
“What son?” Ben looked curiously at Hoss. “Do ya think they’ve talked to each other … ya know, up in heaven?” Hoss looked at Joe again, but if he had the urge to giggle, Joe was doing a good job at stifling it.
“They have, Hoss …” came Adam’s weak voice from where he lay in bed. “I’m sure of it.” Ben looked over at his oldest. Adam was struggling to keep his eyes open and his face still wore the sheen of perspiration but he looked – and sounded – more alert and himself on this new day. Surely he was on the mend now.
“I’m sure of it too, Hoss,” Ben said. “And I have a feeling Elizabeth is more than grateful to Inger for the way she embraced Adam as her own.” Ben reached down, took Adam’s hand in his own and said, “I know I am.”
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