Ben Cartwright eased his position on his horse to relieve the backache a long ride always gave him. He was tired, irritable and finding that someone was logging timber off his range was too much for him. He shook his head and pressed fingertips into a spot between his eyes to relieve the pain that kept shooting out with throbbing regularity. He turned to make sure Adam and Hoss were watching as he indicated that they would spread out to find the men who were so industriously trying to remove a large section of forest. Hoss went back down the path to circle around the hill while Adam went to the right through the heavily thicketed area that served as a break between the hill and the small pond that formed at its base. Ben took the more direct route directly up the hill hoping that he’d be the one to come across the trespassers first.
His hope was short-lived as he heard gunfire erupt from his right. His horse half slid down the hillside as he spurred it on to get to where his oldest son was under attack. Cursing himself for not assuming they’d be more than ready for the Cartwright’s arrival, he drove the buckskin horse unmercifully without his usual care for the animal’s needs. Hoss was beating his own horse as he came up the hill to meet him. His round friendly face was filled with worry. Wordlessly, Ben pulled his horse to a stop waiting for Hoss. As soon as he reached him, they were off again. The gunfire was slowing and Ben’s stomach was doing a nasty little dance of anxiety.
He smelled the smoke before he saw it. His horse reared and he had to fight to control it. Hoss dismounted and Ben followed his lead as it became clear the animals would not go towards the fire. The two men ran up the last escarpment with their handguns drawn. A dozen men were hidden among the rocks and trees of the landscape below them while several others were carefully setting a fire between them and a lone figure in black and yellow. Adam was half-reclining against a large rock with his rifle in hand putting it to good use in keeping the men from moving towards him. The fire wasn’t something he could shoot. The flames were licking up and putting a solid wall between him and the trespassers.
As Ben and Hoss watched helplessly the wind picked up and began to throw the sparks down the hill. Within minutes, Adam was cut off from the main hill and isolated in the rock pocket. Ben threw himself forward but found he was held firmly in place by the strong arms of his son. “You can’t help him, Pa. They’ll cut you down before you can get there.”
“I’ve got to get to him.” Ben turned an unbelieving gaze onto his son. “I’ve got to get to Adam.” He couldn’t believe Hoss didn’t understand that. “Adam’s in the fire.”
“Pa,” Hoss was shaking him gently. “There are at least a dozen men or more down there with guns. We can’t get there. Adam wouldn’t expect us to try.”
Ben turned to watch the scene in front of him. He didn’t want to watch, but he couldn’t pull his eyes away. The fire finally cut off the gunfire from the trespassers but Adam was completely surrounded by the flames. He stood up and backed up against the rock behind him leaning his rifle against a boulder. He turned and found a handhold and then a foothold pulling himself up and out of the encroaching fire. A gunshot rang out sending rock flying just inches from his hand. The bits of shard bit into his fingers making him lose his grip, and he slid back down onto the floor of the forest.
Ben lifted his gun and sighted along the barrel at the man who had made the shot. He lowered it again as he realized that the man was well out of range. His eyes sought out the figure of his son as he tried again to climb the rock. This time he got a bit higher before the gunshot rang out and he was forced to release his hold. Laughter erupted from the gunmen and it became Ben’s turn to hold onto Hoss. “There’s too many of them.”
Horrified, the Cartwrights watched as the flames licked at the base of the rock inches from Adam. The wind blew and the yellow jacket began to smoke. Ben screamed in anguish and held tightly to Hoss as the flames grew higher directly in front of Adam. A cheer from the loggers split the unnatural silence that had descended on the scene. Ben saw an arm come out of the flames to reach for the handhold one last time. The jacket was smoking and the hand wasn’t able to hold onto the small ledge. It sank slowly back and was gone.
Hoss stared at the fire. His face was white and his eyes were filled with unspent tears. Ben Cartwright had slipped to the ground uncaring of anything but what he had just witnessed. Hoss picked him up and cradled him in his arms as he walked him back to his horse. The words “My son” were repeated brokenly until they became a prayer.
He inched along the rock beating at the flames and stamping out a place to stand when needed. The pond at the bottom of the hill glowed with the reflected flames like a bowl of molten lava. Judging the distance from the outcropping to the pond, Adam made a desperate choice. He released his gunbelt so it would drop onto the ground behind him. He threw the heavy jacket onto the flames in front of him providing a stepping off point. With nowhere else to go, he pulled his hat down over his face and took a leap from the jacket-covered area directly into the flames.
The heat was intense but he hit the ground rolling. He left himself tumble until he hit the water’s edge. Crawling forward, he rolled in the water before moving deeper into the pond. Each lungful of air burned his chest with acrid smoke. He held his nose and slipped below the surface of the water allowing the relative coolness to remove some of the heat in his cheeks. He had darkness crawling in along the corners of his mind before he forced himself to the surface again. The fire was in full swing eating the beautiful pines that encircled the little pond. He found his hat floating nearby and covered his face using the material as a filter to remove the more biting of the toxins that the fire was putting into the air.
A crashing sound pulled him out to look as a large tree fell across the pond burning and crackling with the pinesap. He moved deeper into the water praying that the next one to fall would fall in another direction. He held his nose and slipped beneath the surface again. The coolness took the heat out of the burns he knew he must have. Life became a matter of one breath at a time. Under the water were the blessed quiet and the cooling touch, but above the water was air. Adam sank below the water level again. Hamlet had it all wrong. “To burn or to drown, that is the question.”
The house was so quiet. He stood up and walked around the room. He wanted this morning back. His father’s rich baritone filling the house, Adam quietly discussing the day’s work with an authoritative air that made up for the lack of volume, Joe trying to get an extra donut or two off the plate, it was life as it should be. This quiet empty tomb of a home wasn’t right. Anger competed with the pain in his chest. He swung around and stared at his father. “Pa, say somethin’. Say anythin’.”
Ben Cartwright moved his lips but no sound came out. The words “my son” formed but never made it to an audible level. A single tear trickled down his weathered cheek and landed unheeded on his shirt.
Hoss sank to the floor pounding it with his large fists until the anger was spent and his hands were bruised. “Pa, say somethin’.”
He sat on the edge of the pond digging under the loam and debris to find some cool mud. He lathered it on his arms and face where the fire had kissed him. Ruefully, he noticed the burns in his shirt and realized how close he had come to becoming a Roman candle. A slight itching sensation informed him that at least a mild burn was on his back. The wounds on his hands were a bit worse off. Small blisters were forming. He wet his hat once again and placed it on his head letting the water drip down his back. He struggled to his feet and began to walk out of the still crackling undergrowth. He carefully chose his footing to avoid potential hot spots that were still smoking. The last thing he needed was to fall onto a still burning patch. He kept his eyes riveted to the ground as one misstep could prove disastrous. A part of his mind kept going to his father and brother and wondering if they’d been caught in the flames as well. No, they hadn’t been there. He’d have remembered. The thought couldn’t seem to stand in one place long enough for him to catch it.
Close to the edge of the burn, he saw a body of a fox burned and lifeless. The death affected him more than it should have. He stood and stared at the little body uncomprehendingly. The corpse moved and he fought the urge to rub his eyes to try and focus. A small nose crept out from below the animal and a lone fox pup struggled from beneath his mother’s dead body to hunker and whimper piteously against her. He bent and picked up the little orphan. Stroking its head, he moved out of the burn into the green grass of a Ponderosa meadow. Carefully, he stopped and placed the little fox on the ground. “There ya go.”
Standing up was difficult but he managed it. He began the walk to the creek in a stupor that comes to men who are beyond exhaustion.
A whimper made him turn his head to one side. The little fox pup was sitting there staring at him. “You follow me?” His voice was a hoarse croak. “Come here.” He reached out and grabbed the small animal putting it closer to the water. The little tongue lapped at the water greedily.
Adam scratched the top of its head. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not leaving here tonight. It’s a long walk home.”
He looked up at the sky. The sun was sitting on the far hill getting prepared to put on the sunset hues that the Nevada summers were so noted for in the travel guides. A wolf bayed close by and was answered by at least two more. “They’re coming for the dead and dying of that fire.” Adam picked up the pup and set it inside of his hat. “You listen up. You do any kind of bodily function in there and I promise you, you’ll be wolf bait.” He coughed until his chest hurt. “You and I need to climb a tree.”
It was several yards down the riverbank until a tree with large branches was found. The elm stood out against the pines and looked like an old grandfather with its arms opened wide. A climb that would have taken Adam about five minutes a few hours earlier was a half hour in the execution, but finally, the man was seated comfortably on the largest branch with his back supported by the tree trunk. Removing his belt, he strapped his arm against a branch and set the hat firmly in the notch of the tree above him. “Well, its not home but we won’t be wolf bait.”
The pup whimpered in hunger but Adam was already asleep and dreaming.
A comforting hand landed on his shoulder. He turned to look into the gentle eyes of Roy Coffee. “You want me to go in with you, son?” Roy’s eyes were brimming with tears as well. He’d known the Cartwrights a long time and Adam had been a good friend.
“No,” Joe’s voice caught and he swallowed hard. “I’ll tell him we brought him home.”
Roy sighed and patted his back. “First thing in the morning, we go after those thieving lumberjacks.” He held onto Joe’s arm a bit longer than was necessary. “We’ll find ‘em.”
Joe stared at his hands and left the tears come. “Yeah, we will. They’ll pay, Roy, I swear it, they will pay.”
“I’ll put Adam’s horse in the barn.” Roy patted his back again as though not knowing exactly what to do with himself. “It was good we found it. It might have taken until tomorrow to find its way back.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah. Adam’ll be upset if we don’t take care of his horse.” He smiled briefly and then realized he’d talked about his brother in the present tense. His tears fell more rapidly as he yanked the front door open a bit harder than was necessary.
He dropped to his chest in front of the creek and took a long drink of water. Sitting up, he removed his boots and rolled up his pants legs. “Now, I’m going fishing. If you have any objections to my technique, keep them to yourself.” Standing in the stream, he cupped his hands and lowered them until they were totally covered. He stood there immobile until the cold running water had anesthetized his hands and his feet. A fish following the curve of the stream swam unwittingly between his hands where it was scooped up and sent sailing to the bank. Immediately, the fox pup was on it sinking its small teeth into the still moving animal.
“Hey!” Adam waded over the bank and waved the little pup off. “That’s for both of us.” He pulled a knife from the pocket of his vest and began to clean the fish. “You can have the head and the tail. The middle part is mine.” He worked industriously sending the scales flying while the pup looked on. Every now and then the little fox would creep closer trying to get a taste of the catch. “Stop that. You should be happy that I’m willing to share. Here.” Adam flipped him the fish head. “Bon Appetit.”
The pup threw himself onto the offering with a gusto that left Adam a bit envious. He wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic over raw fish for breakfast. Then again, you ate what you had. Making a face, he cut a sliver off the fish and swallowed it without chewing.”
Hoss picked up a biscuit and stared at it. Adam’s love for biscuits was well known and had been a joke around the family table.
Joe came up behind Hoss and stared at the biscuit in his hand as if it had a life of its own. “It’s almost time.”
Hoss nodded. “Is Pa ready?”
Joe stared at his father and then at Hoss. “Beats me. I think we lost more than Adam yesterday.”
He picked up his pace a bit when he saw he was coming to the road that crossed the Ponderosa. With so many ranches needing access to Virginia City, it was often fairly well traveled. He could sit at the bridge for a bit to rest and hope that someone came along. It would be great to get off his feet. Cowboy boots were designed for riding not walking. “Ya know,” he turned and addressed the little fox. “You’d think Pa and Hoss would have come looking for me by now.”
“I’d appreciate it if you could drop me off at the house.” Adam’s voice sounded a bit strange.
“Most certainly.” Max moved over to make room on the seat of his buggy. “There’s been quite a few people going there today. I thought your father was having a party.”
“A party?” Adam looked about to explode. “I’m walking from one end of the Ponderosa to the other and they’re having a party?” He picked up the fox pup and dumped it unceremoniously onto the floor of the buggy. “You would think someone would have missed me.” He held his forehead for a second as a touch of vertigo hit him.
“Are you all right?” Max took up the reins and flicked them over the back of the horses.
“I’m just hungry.” Adam sounded more disgruntled than hungry but Max wasn’t about to point that out. “I could use a bath.”
Max looked over the muddy and somewhat charred cowboy and agreed wholeheartedly. “I’m sure you can get a bath and some food at the ranch.”
Adam stared at him. “A party?”
Max nodded. “Yes, I saw a number of people heading there and they had food for the get together.”
“Well, I’m all for the food.” Adam’s stomach rumbled loudly. “Sorry.”
“Quite all right.” Max flicked the reins again forcing the horses into a brisk trot. “I’m sure there will be plenty left when I get you there.”
Adam shook his head. “You wait until I get there. I cannot believe that I’m out here, sleeping in trees, eating raw fish and they’re having a party.”
“Sleeping in trees?” Max stared at him for a moment. “My, the ranchers do have the rugged life. I’m quite happy working in the bank.”
“Yeah, well I’d be happy working in the bank too. In fact, I might consider a change in occupation.” Adam dropped his chin onto his hands to stare at the road. “I could get into an occupation where nobody ties to shoot you, burn you, drown you or leave you to walk miles over the countryside while they’re having a party.”
Max pulled into the ranch more than happy to deposit Adam at his home. The mumbling had grown darker as they’d neared the house and he was convinced that the eldest Cartwright son was losing his grip. The entire road up to the house was filled with buggies and horses waiting patiently for their owners but the house was strangely quiet. Max declined Adam’s invitation to join the party and left for his appointment in town as quickly as he could. The rather boisterous nature of any disagreement among the Cartwright boys was almost legendary and he wanted to be as far from the vicinity as possible before the three were reunited.
Adam held the pup securely in his arm and marched into the house under a full head of steam. The place was deserted. The table was weighed down with a variety of food with more appearing on the sideboard and apparently going into the kitchen, but there was not a soul to be found. Adam grabbed a chicken leg and placed it on the floor for the little pup that lost no time in tearing at it. Picking up a plate, he heaped it high with fried chicken, potatoes, and pie and topped it off with as many biscuits as it would hold. Popping another biscuit in his mouth, he made for the stairs. If there was a party going on, there was always a chance the last person hadn’t emptied the bath water yet. It would be cold but he’d be able to get the mud off.
He stopped off at his room just long enough to grab a towel and then began his search for the tub. Finding it in Little Joe’s room, he stripped out of his smoke-filled clothing and sank into the soapy water. Pulling the plate of food within easy reach, he left the water soak off the worst of the smell as he shoved his mouth full. “A party?” He grabbed the bathbrush and lathered it with soap. “A party.” He scrubbed his back gently to avoid the burns that were there and then applied more energy to his blistered feet. His chest got a double soaping as the mud from the creek decided to cling with tenacity to his chest hair. He heard the front door open and close but saw no need to announce his presence. They could wait.
Joe came up to his brother’s elbow. “I can’t get over the size of that coffin. It seemed so small.”
“He was pretty burned up, Joe.” Hoss stared at the floor. “I guess they could put him in a smaller space.” He bent down and picked a chicken bone up off the floor. “Who would leave this on the floor?”
Joe grabbed the bone and tossed it towards a corner of the room. “Who cares?” He shook his brother’s arm. “I’m telling you that coffin was too small.”
“What are you getting’ at, Joe?” Hoss shook off his hand. “Where ya goin’ with this?”
“I don’t know.” Joe shuffled his feet angrily. “I don’t know.”
“Get yourself put together, Joe.” Hoss felt like shaking him. “I can’t do this alone. Pa isn’t here, Adam isn’t here….”
“Yeah, Adam isn’t here.” Joe’s eyes were bright with anger. “And we’re standing around eating chicken. We should be out getting the bastards…”
“Go upstairs and get yourself put together.” Hoss pushed him towards the staircase. “I have enough on my hands.”
Joe stomped up the stairs feeling the need to vent his anger on an inanimate object. He stepped into his bedroom and stared in amazement. Water was puddled on the floor and a dirty plate was sitting on his dresser filled with chicken bones. “What the….?”
A scream came from the downstairs. Joe forgot about the water and headed for the living room. Another scream followed the last one but from another throat. In minutes, it seemed like every woman in the room had given voice to a shriek that would wake the dead.
Joe flew down the steps and collided with Hoss who was on his way up. “Dadburn it, Joe. You must have left the door open.”
“What door?” Joe gave his brother a disgusted look. “What are you talking about?”
“We’ve got a fox loose in the living room. Molly Riley was eating her lunch and the little thing decided to help itself to some vittles.”
“What?” Joe slipped past his brother to get to the living room. “Where is it?”
hands pointed in the direction of the kitchen where an eruption of Chinese
could be heard. Joe slid around the table and made for the kitchen
as Hoss lifted a now senseless Molly Riley and laid her on the couch.
“You stay right there, ma’am.” He was torn between helping Joe and
taking care of the guests. Turning he looked at his father who was
still staring at the fire. “Pa, I wish you’d snap out of it.”
Ben looked up quizzically at his son. “Don’t run in the house, Hoss.”
Hoss stared at him in annoyance. “Pa, snap out of it.” He stood up and made another grab for the animal as it jumped up onto the prone Molly Riley and used her stomach as a springboard to get over by the door.
Joe made it to the door and opened it up so that the agitated animal could sprint into the frontyard. Slamming the door behind it, he leaned against the wall and gave Hoss a distressed glare.
Mary Riley sat up and looked around her. “What happened?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.”
Every head in the room turned to stare at Adam as he walked down the stairs and leveled a disapproving look at his brothers.
Mary Riley closed her eyes and fell backwards onto the couch in a dead faint.
Joe leaned back and balanced his chair on the back legs. “I told you the coffin was too small.”
Hoss gave him a disgusted look. “Dadburn it, Joe. Like I had nothin’ else to worry about.”
Ben laughed softly. “It’s okay. Everything is okay. We’ll clean up this mess tomorrow. I’m going up to bed.”
Joe dropped the chair onto the floor and stretched. “Sounds good to me, Pa.”
The three made their way up the stairs and into the hallway. Smiling broadly, Ben opened the door to Adam’s room and watched his oldest son sleeping. The fox pup was curled up on the floor with only his eyes visible over the bush of his tail. He stepped into the room and gently pulled the covers up to cover his chest. “Night, Adam.” He gave a concerned look at the bandaged hands and shook his head.
He looked back at his other two sons who were smiling broadly at him. “Good night to all of you. Tomorrow we have some timber thieves to deal with and a tombstone to change. I don’t like the idea of a thief being buried under my son’s name.”
“Yes, sir.” Joe giggled and slipped towards his room.
“Yes, sir.” Hoss grinned and followed suit.
“Yes, sir” Adam’s voice came sleepily from under the covers. “No fish for breakfast.”
stared down at him. “Fish?”
P T Dutcher
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