The younger of the two men had been openly amazed at the heavily forested wilderness that surrounded them. So different from their home land—even in late summer it was rich in plants, animals and, above all, water. The cascading mountain streams had refreshed them, he had easily found fresh meat every day, and his companion had gathered a wealth of plants he’d known only from old tales.
But it was the high mountain lake that stunned him. He’d never seen so much water in one place before. Truly the Great Spirit had blessed this land, in both its bounties and beauties.
The old one had nodded simple acknowledgement of his wonder. They had been gone long from their desert on this quest, and both missed its subtle colors and contours—beautiful in its harshness; beautiful in its constant testing of their tribe. He knew what the Grandfather was thinking…this land they had come to had much to offer, but to live here would be to grow soft. And that was something no Apache would desire.
~~~~ One ~~~~
Little Joe Cartwright struggled against the ropes around his chest. They held him to a post just inside the home corral, but they were tied too tightly for him to loosen. His head ached from a blow that had come out of nowhere and he was nauseous from being hit in the stomach, but worry overrode the discomfort. A man with curly brown hair like his own dug the barrel end of a gun into his scalp just behind his ear while his tall, black-haired partner settled a loop of rope around Adam, securing his oldest brother’s arms to his sides. They stood in the center of the corral; one of the new horses, a young gelding, kicked up dirt as he trotted restively around them, ears flicking.
Although Adam stood quietly, Joe could see the fire in his dark eyes and knew he was just waiting for his chance.
“Hey, Pete,” called the man next to Joe, who seemed to be the leader. “Wrap it around a few extra times. I got a idea.”
Pete grinned and in a few expert twists Adam was bound as securely as Joe, the tail end of the rope tucked under one of the loops.
“That good enough, Luke?” Pete asked.
Luke lowered his gun at last and nodded. Joe breathed a sigh of relief and saw it reflected in his brother’s expression. This wasn’t over yet, but at least the immediate danger of having his head blown off by a nervous outlaw was past. Now if they could just delay things, Pa and Hoss were overdue from their supply run to Virginia City. At twenty, Joe had considered himself old enough to do the run on his own, but Pa had wanted Hoss to see some cattle at a neighboring ranch so he’d been left behind with his oldest brother to take care of the daily chores.
“You go ahead and relax, boy,” said the man called Luke. “You won’t be so happy later when we give you to the Apaches.”
Joe jerked his head around to stare at him. “Apaches? Here?”
Pete walked over to the horse and started talking to him quietly, leaving Adam standing alone.
“Yup, two of ‘em been followin’ us all the way up from Tucson. This is the end of the line, we’re gonna give ‘em what they want.”
“And what’s that?” Adam asked, his voice deep and calm. He tested his ropes just as Joe had a few minutes ago, with the same result. Not an inch of leeway.
Luke started to laugh. “Well, we had a little fun with a squaw down there, but she didn’t last too good.” He sobered abruptly. “Damn Indians been followin’ us ever since. Figure if we can give ‘em a white man, they’ll leave us alone.”
Adam had been to the desert south, had heard stories about the ruthless Indians who thrived in the stark, dry lands. “They’ll kill him,” he protested, aghast.
“That’s right, Cartwright, they will. Nice an’ slow.” He grabbed a handful of Joe’s hair and smiled. “Maybe they’ll scalp him. Maybe hang him upside down over a fire till his skull explodes from the heat.”
“Why?” whispered Joe. “What’d I ever do to you?”
Luke pulled his hand free, twisting Joe’s neck painfully. “You look a little like me. You’re handy. That’s enough.” He turned to his partner. “Mount up on that horse.”
Joe’s stomach started to feel worse.
Luke sauntered arrogantly over to Adam and pulled the end of the rope free. Adam glared at him, but the man with hair like Joe’s just smiled back. He spoke to his partner, but continued to watch Adam. “You ready, Pete?”
Pete grinned, too. “Any time.”
Adam glanced over at his brother, puzzled, but Joe kept his eye on the tall outlaw as he mounted the gelding. His heart thumped frantically when he finally realized what they intended. “Run, Adam,” he yelled. “Get outta there, now!”
But the warning was too late. Luke hauled on the end of the rope, spinning Adam off balance into the path of the racing black horse. He bounced off the animal’s shoulder and without the use of his hands landed flat on his back on the ground, winded.
Get up, Adam, get up! Joe’s mind screamed.
His brother rolled and got to one knee, but Luke still held the rope and jerked him off his feet, again into the path of the horse. Joe could hear every thud of hoof against flesh, and Adam’s cry of pain as he was kicked in the ribs knifed through Joe.
“Adam!” he shouted. His struggles to free himself only tightened the loops around his wrists, but all his focus was on his brother who was bent in agony in the dirt. Pete ran the black again, and the horse tried to avoid the obstacle on the ground, but his rider jerked him back at the last moment. This time the hooves hit Adam’s left hip and lower leg, and narrowly escaped actually landing on his right thigh.
Adam curled into a ball, gasping, trying to protect his stomach and head. Pete jerked on the reins and the gelding danced, white froth spattering in an arc from the animal’s mouth. Then the outlaw jammed the horse with his spurs and ran at Adam again, and iron shoes connected with a thud against his shoulder and lower back. Joe was hoarse with screaming, the outlaws were laughing, and the thunder of hooves in the corral almost drowned out Adam’s cries of pain. He was no longer trying to rise, to get out of the way, but three more times the horse was spurred over him.
Joe tasted blood in his mouth, unaware he’d bitten through his lip as he watched his brother being kicked to death. No part of Adam’s body was spared—ribs, hips—an especially vicious kick to his midsection left him voiceless and immobile. Each blow of the horse’s hooves rang in Joe’s belly, and the nausea almost overcame him.
The black-haired outlaw pulled up finally and dismounted, leaving the horse winded and blowing against the fence. He walked over to the bloody form lying motionless in the dust and prodded it with his toe. When there was no reaction he used his foot to turn Adam’s limp body face up. He loosened the rope and slid it off over his head, then he and Luke left the corral, laughing.
Adam was barely conscious but his face was rigid from the excruciating pain. Joe watched his gaze search the corral until he found his little brother. He seemed to want to ask something.
“Joe,” he saw Adam’s mouth form silently, and then the fire died from his eyes, leaving them blank and staring. Tears blurred Joe’s vision.
“No!” Joe screamed. He struggled again, body not accepting what his mind saw; he cried out his brother’s name over and over, but Adam didn’t move. Finally exhausted, Joe slumped against the post, only the ropes holding him upright. “I’m sorry,” he whispered hoarsely. “Adam, I’m so sorry.”
He remained limp a long time, staring at his brother’s body as silent tears left clean tracks down his dirty face. The last conversation—no, argument—they’d had rang through his mind.
“I got my chores done, so I’m going up to the lake,” he said. “I can’t help it
if you’re slow.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Adam replied testily. “We have to do Hoss’ chores,
too. And besides, remember the Indians we heard about? You shouldn’t be going
off on your own.”
“Hoss should have done his own chores,” he shot back, conveniently ignoring the
very sensible instructions about staying together. “I’m not doing them.”
Adam set the pitchfork aside and settled his hands on his hips, eyes narrowing.
“You’re doing what I say, little brother.”
Joe cringed now as he remembered his response.
Joe remembered his brother’s anger and the sinking feeling in his stomach when he realized Adam had been right. He knew now that if they hadn’t been arguing they might have had a chance against the outlaws. His childish tantrum had kept them from being warned, had lost them their only opportunity to escape. He struggled once again against the ropes, his complete helplessness dragging him to despair.“Make me!” he shouted.
Adam came after him, as he’d known he would. Joe was ready, though he knew
his older brother was perfectly capable of forcing him to stay put. But Adam
slipped just a little on a slick spot on the floor right when Joe threw his punch,
and he landed half over the tool box, the breath knocked out of him.
“Hah!” Joe shouted and turned to run out the door. “See you later, Adam!”
He’d been so busy congratulating himself on his rare victory over his oldest
brother that he didn’t hear any warnings. As he stepped outside he was brought
up cold by the sight of two dusty and mean-looking horsemen who were holding
cocked rifles on him. He slowly raised his hands.
One of them dismounted and walked carefully around him to hold his rifle on Adam,
who was just beginning to climb to his feet. Adam straightened slowly and shot a
look of pure fury at his brother. Neither had a chance to go for their guns.
He was only dimly aware of the sounds from the house as the outlaws looked for a cash box, then moved to the kitchen for food to take with them. A long while later he gradually realized someone was tugging on his ropes. He lifted his head to see Luke untying him. As soon as he felt any slack he yanked away from the outlaw and stumbled to his brother’s side. He put his hand on Adam’s chest trying to feel for a heartbeat, finding nothing, but then Luke grabbed his shirt and dragged him away.
He fought, trying to get back to Adam, but the outlaw clipped him on the jaw with his pistol and by the time Joe had pulled his scattered wits back together he was tied on Cochise and they were leaving the ranchhouse grounds. He had time only for a quick glance back and it left an indelible image in his mind. Nestled snugly in a stand of Ponderosa pines, his beautiful home was surrounded by a neatly kept yard, a good-sized and well-constructed barn, and the home corral. All designed and built by the man now lying dead in the midst of it.
Joe lost himself in misery.
~~~~ Two ~~~~
The afternoon sun had just begun its descent as Ben Cartwright and his big son Hoss finally reached the last leg of the route home. After the delays loading supplies into the buckboard, getting stuck in an enormous rut made worse by the recent rain and a lame horse, Ben was in no mood for conversation. He simply wanted to get home, get cleaned up and have some dinner.
As they drove into the yard he looked around for his other boys to assist with the unloading. Adam’s horse was tied at the rail so he knew his eldest was around somewhere, and since the new gelding was in the corral, saddled and jostling restlessly against the near fence, Ben figured Joe was working with him. His irritation increased when they didn’t come out and help.
Hoss jumped down and hauled two heavy sacks of grain to the lean-to near the kitchen for Hop Sing’s chickens.
“Where are those two?” Ben grumbled, swiping irritably at a lock of silver hair that dared to fall into his eyes.
“Eatin’ maybe?” Hoss suggested wistfully.
“They’d better not be, not without us.” Ben lifted one end of the new hayrake centerpost and slid it out of the bed of the buckboard. Hoss grabbed the other end and they carried it into the barn.
It was as they returned that Hoss caught a glimpse of something in the dirt of the corral beyond the rapidly shifting legs of the horse.
“Pa?” he interrupted Ben’s muttered tirade. He started to walk slowly towards the corral, then broke into a run. “Pa, over here. It’s Adam!” He fumbled with the latch on the gate and when it finally opened Ben shoved past him. He was on his knees next to his eldest before Hoss got the gelding safely out of the way and tied to the rail.
Adam’s light tan shirt was darkened with blood under distinctive curved tears, jeans torn at hip and thigh. His face was marked with grime, and a single gash below his left eye trailed dirty blood down his temple and into his black hair. Eyes closed, his dark lashes brushed pale cheeks.
“He’s been trampled.” Ben tentatively touched him on the chest, the jaw, afraid of what he would find. He shook his head in denial; his gut twisted and a soundless cry escaped from his lips. He took a deep breath to calm himself—letting his fears override his common sense wasn’t helping his son. He slid a couple fingers against Adam’s throat, hoping to feel a pulse but finding nothing. He ignored the rising nausea. His firstborn couldn’t be dead. He just wouldn’t allow it.
“Pa?” Hoss’ raspy voice asked, and Ben glanced up into a face that mirrored his own despair.
He held a hand out to his middle son for quiet then put his ear down to Adam’s chest. He took several deep breaths to steady his own heart, then simply waited. After a lifetime he finally detected a single quiet thump, then another. He looked up at Hoss and smiled in relief. “He’s alive. Let’s get him to the house.”
Hoss gently slid his arms under his older brother’s shoulders and knees, lifting the full-grown man easily. Adam’s head rolled against his chest and Hoss spoke quietly, “Don’t you worry ‘bout nothin,’ older brother, we’re gonna take care of you.”
“Take him inside,” Ben ordered. “I’m going to find Joseph and send him for the doctor.”
Hoss passed through the doorway to the house sideways, careful not to bump against the frame. He could hear his father yelling his little brother’s name as he crossed the living room to the stairs. Adam stirred in his arms.
“Take it easy, now, Adam, I gotta get you upstairs.” He started climbing the steps to the second floor.
“Hush.” Hoss doubted his brother even heard him, but he kept talking anyway. “Pa’ll find that rascal and send him off to get the Doc, then you’ll be just fine.”
His face buried in Hoss’ shoulder, Adam continued to moan. “No...Joe...”
Hoss settled him gently onto the bed and started checking him over more thoroughly. He couldn’t figure how Adam came to be in such a fix. His oldest brother was too quick in mind and body to be caught this badly off guard by a horse. By the time he’d finished, Hoss felt sick to his stomach.
When Ben entered the room, he saw that Hoss had opened Adam’s shirt and was trying to clean some of the blood off his chest.
“Looks like he’s got some busted ribs an’ a broken leg, Pa. The Doc’ll have to say if there’s anything wrong inside. He’s got an awful bruise on his stomach.” He dipped his head toward a dark curved mark that stood out starkly against the tanned skin.
“I can’t find Joseph,” Ben fumed. “You’ll have to go for Doc Martin.”
But before Hoss could step from the bed, Adam’s hand shot up and clamped with surprising strength on his arm. “Joe’s gone,” he gasped, opening eyes that were glazed with pain.
Hoss and Ben traded looks and Ben moved to the bed, feeling it give as he sat next to his son. He took the cloth from Hoss and dabbed gently at the gash just under his eye, grateful it hadn’t been a few inches higher. “Adam,” he said gently, “what about Joe?”
Ben was relieved when Adam held his gaze, though the pain and confusion he saw in his dark eyes worried him.
“Gone,” Adam repeated.
“Joe’s already gone for the doctor?” Ben asked with a sigh of relief.
Adam turned his head restlessly on the pillow, his words coming out slurred. “Took him. Luke...Joe.”
Ben looked at Hoss in confusion. Whatever Adam wanted to tell them was important enough for him to fight his pain and exhaustion. A knot of worry tightened in Ben’s gut and he turned back to his eldest. “Adam! Look at me. What happened to Joseph?”
He could see his son was trying to make sense, using energy he didn’t have to spare. “Luke...’Pache...kill Joe.”
The knot turned into a twisting ball of sickness. Not Joseph, too! “But we don’t have Apaches here,” he said. “And who’s Luke?”
Hoss clenched his jaw. “Pa, Adam and me heard a rumor when we was over to Connor’s ranch yesterday. There’s a couple Indians from way down south, been stirring up trouble. They’re headed our way, but no one knows why. So far they haven’t hurt anyone, but from what I hear tell, they can’t be reasoned with, not like the Washoe and Bannocks.”
“But what would Apaches want with Joe?”
“Luke an’ Pete...” Adam whispered, “took Joe. Said...give him to Apaches.” His breath was coming in gasps as he fought to tell his father, to get help for his little brother. “Indians wouldn’t chase them anymore.”
“Adam, calm down,” Ben soothed, worry for his oldest son’s condition battling with his growing fear for his youngest. He slid his arm under Adam’s back and lifted him a little.
“Pa,” Adam cried. “Gotta help Joe. Please...” He started coughing and a trickle of bright red blood ran from the corner of his mouth.
Ben cradled him to his chest while Adam heaved for air. Normally a decisive man, the choice between his sons was impossible. Both needed him. He couldn’t leave Adam; he had to help Joseph. He dabbed at the blood, emotions threatening to rip him apart.
“Pa,” said Hoss, “them Apaches is mean. They get hold of Joe thinkin’ he’s the one they’re chasin’...” He shook his head and stood. “I’ll find a hand to go for the Doc, then pack up an’ head out.”
“Hoss,” Ben started, but Hoss cut him off, his face set, his stance telling Ben as clearly as words that his son’s mind was made up.
“I know you want to go, Pa, but you gotta stay here with Adam. You’re better than me at nursin’ and I’m better than you at trackin’.”
Ben held his gaze, feeling the weight of his oldest son lying heavily against his chest. So often he still saw his sons as youngsters, but there was nothing of the child in Hoss’ face now. A swell of pride rose in his heart as he realized he didn’t have to do everything; he could leave this task in the hands of his second son. Hoss wouldn’t come back without his brother. He nodded, then slowly lowered Adam to the pillows and pulled a comforter over him.
“Joe...” Adam whispered again.
Hoss leaned over the bed, as if memorizing Adam’s face. Ben knew he was thinking his brother might not be alive when he returned. “I’ll find him, Adam. I promise you, I’ll find him and bring him home. You wait for us, you hear me?”
Adam searched his brother’s face, then nodded slightly and allowed his eyes to close.
~~~~ Three ~~~~
Hoss picked up the tracks easily enough in the shadows cast by the late afternoon sun. Just about everyone coming and going to the main house used the east road, yet there was recent sign of several horses traveling through the meadow just south of the house. He stopped only once to check some horse droppings; judging by the dryness, the outlaws had left the ranch midmorning. His stomach twisted at the thought of his older brother lying hurt in the corral for something like six hours while he and his Pa had been having lunch in Virginia City.
And his brother Joe—who knew what those thieves had done to him. Joe and Adam weren’t easy to take so he could only guess they’d been caught by surprise. Well, those men he was tracking had a surprise coming themselves. It took a lot to anger Hoss Cartwright. His size and strength were too great for casual use and he’d always been careful. But this time, if Joe was in anything like the same shape as Adam, all bets would be off.
Ben paced the floor of Adam’s bedroom. When Hoss had gone to collect some food for the trip he’d found Hop Sing tied up in the shed behind the kitchen. True to form, the little Cantonese cook had let loose with a string of irate Chinese while quickly and efficiently gathering together the medical supplies they kept against the normal emergencies that always arose on a ranch.
Ben lit the lamp at the bedside and the room was thrown into sudden illumination. He hadn’t realized the evening was that far advanced. He looked around, seeing the shelves of books, the guitar propped in the corner, the professionally drawn architectural renderings tacked on the wall. He couldn’t bear the thought that he might never again watch his son turning the pages of one of those books with his black brows drawn together in concentration, might never hear the rich baritone voice accompanied by long flexible fingers on the guitar or see the swift sure strokes of a drafting pencil on paper. His eyes moved of their own will back to the still form on the bed. Adam hadn’t spoken, hadn’t moved since Hoss left.
He dipped a cloth in the washbasin, wrung it out, and dabbed at the sweat on his son’s face. A fever was building and he wondered if he should try to keep it down or let it grow and burn any infection out. He was just beginning to swear at the doctor’s delay when he heard carriage wheels in the front yard.
He met Paul Martin at the foot of the stairs.
“Hank said Adam was trampled by a horse?” he asked.
“Yes. Hurry, he’s up here.”
Ben didn’t have to show the way; Paul Martin had been treating the Cartwrights for various injuries and illnesses for years. As the doctor crossed the threshold into Adam’s room, though, he drew in a quick breath. To someone who’d never met Adam Cartwright before, he simply looked asleep. But Paul had known Adam since he was a boy, and his stillness and pale complexion told him that this was about as bad as it had ever been.
“Help me get him undressed, Ben.”
“I didn’t want to disturb him.” Ben wondered if his son would have rested more easily if he had, but the doctor quickly set his mind at ease.
“You did right, Ben, but we can do it together without hurting him.” He took a pair of scissors from his bag, flipped the comforter off his patient and started cutting the heavy jeans from the heel up the side. He did the same with the shirt, then moved to the other side of the bed and repeated himself. He took the wet cloth from the basin and soaked a few of the bloodstained parts of fabric that wouldn’t let go, pulling gently until they released. He had Ben raise Adam’s shoulders, then his hips, so he could pull the clothes out from under him.
Ben felt a wave of nausea when the damage was fully revealed. There was hardly a place on his son’s body that wasn’t bruised, scraped or cut.
The doctor ran his hands gently but firmly over Adam’s ribs, then pushed lightly on the large purple mark on his stomach. He grunted but didn’t elaborate, then moved down. There was an odd twisting to Adam’s left shin and Paul sighed as he pulled the scissors out again. “Sorry about the boots, Adam,” he said as he sliced down the side of one, then the other.
Ben’s voice caught. “I’ll buy him a new pair.”
Paul looked up at him with a measuring gaze. “Ben, go get Hop Sing, and bring me more water while you’re at it.”
Ben nodded and left, but paused a moment at the top of the stairs, suddenly dizzy. He leaned on the banister and took a few deep breaths, then continued carefully down.
When he returned, the Chinese cook toting a large basin of clean water behind him, Paul straightened and looked Ben in the eye, even though his words were directed to the Oriental at his side. “Hop Sing, I’m going to need a large quantity of boiling hot water, a pile of clean cloths, and enough boards to put up a makeshift table in here. Get some of the hands to put all that together, then I want you to take Mr. Cartwright here and make him sit down and eat something.”
“Wait a minute—” Ben started to protest.
“Hop Sing, you go on.” Hop Sing left the room without a glance at his employer as the doctor continued. “Ben, I’m going to need you in a little while. The best thing you can do to help Adam right now is to take a few minutes to get yourself together. This is going to be a long night, and I don’t want you passing out from hunger and upset.”
“How is he?”
“I’ve known you too long to hold out false hopes. He has a chance, but it’s going to be rough. I’m going to have to operate—there’s something inside bleeding and if it hasn’t stopped by now it won’t without help. But we have to be completely ready before I start. Now go on, and I don’t want to see you back in here for at least a half hour.” His voice softened. “You know I’ll call you if there’s any change.”
Ben nodded, but still stood in the doorway, unable to tear himself from his son. As many times as his boys had gotten sick or injured, he never gotten used to it—never escaped the fear that he would, once again, lose someone vitally important to him, someone he loved desperately.
Paul stepped from the bed and gently turned him back through the door. He knew how hard this was on his friend. “I’ll see you in a half hour,” he said gently. “Go get some dinner.”
Ben dragged himself downstairs. He knew Paul was right, but how he was to eat anything with one son dying, one missing, and the third alone on a dangerous manhunt…
Hoss continued to ride south through the mountains as long as there was any light to see. Joe was on Cochise, which made tracking easy. The Pinto’s hoofprints were intimately familiar to Hoss, and Joe was doing a good job of running him off the hard packed trail onto the rain-softened ground to the side. At first Hoss had worried about the weaving tracks, but his spirits lifted when he realized Joe was doing it on purpose. That meant his little brother was alive, and well enough to make a plan and act on it. He was also doing everything he could to slow the pace—Hoss was making time on them.
It was well after dark when he finally made camp near Spooner Lake, just a little bit east of central Lake Tahoe. He figured the party was headed south to try to locate the Apaches before being spotted themselves. From what he knew about this desert tribe, though, that would be quite a trick. He rolled into his blankets and went to sleep, fully confident he’d catch up with his quarry sometime the next morning.
Tied to a tree, Joe was sleeping as well, but fitfully. Pete had taunted him by offering water then taking it away just as Joe managed to get a tiny sip. When he finally tired of the game he finished by pouring a cupful over Joe’s head. Joe tried to catch some of the stream in his mouth, but hadn’t succeeded well enough to quench his raging thirst. So now he was freezing and hungry, and only his exhaustion allowed him to finally drop off.
Images of his oldest brother flitted through his dreams. Adam was hovering over him, his eyes empty and cold, filled with betrayal. Why? the specter asked. Why didn’t you just do what you were told? If you hadn’t been arguing with me, we’d have known they were there and could have taken them.
Joe moaned in his sleep. He swung at his brother again and Adam went down, slowly landing in the dirt of the corral, dust billowing up around him. Blood flowed from a cut on his cheekbone and soaked through his shirt collar. Joe shook with horror as the dark crimson spread all over Adam’s body, soaking his clothes and puddling around him in the dirt. He stared up at Joe—his eyes accusing, then gradually growing blank.
“No!” shouted Joe, and he woke, shivering and ill. His shoulders cramped painfully and he gritted his teeth, riding it out. He deserved it; he’d as good as killed his brother.
Early morning at the Ponderosa brought exhaustion as well. Adam had survived Doc Martin’s knife and was back in his bed, impossibly even paler. The temporary operating table had been taken down and the blood-soaked boards removed by the hands to the bunkhouse for burning. Doc Martin had packed up his bag and was even now having a quick meal of Hop Sing’s eggs and biscuits before heading back to town. He’d said he would come back later in the day after checking in on a few other patients.
Ben sat in a chair next to Adam’s bed nursing a hot cup of coffee as he watched his son breathe in and out. It was every bit as much the miracle as the day he’d been born. He remembered taking the small bundle from Elizabeth, using a single finger to pull the blankets away from the tiny face. He’d touched the soft cheek, watched the small chest rise and then sink in a huge baby yawn. So delicate, so precious.
These days Adam’s skin was weathered and tan and, unless he’d just shaved, his face was shadowed from his dark beard. Yet how much more dear to Ben’s heart was he now—a man grown, the fulfillment of that long ago promise Ben had glimpsed in the baby’s blue eyes. Those clear, direct eyes had changed quickly to hazel, then darker as he grew through sturdy boyhood to become a tall, strong man, but his son was now every bit as helpless as that long ago child. Ben placed the coffee on the floor and dropped his head into his hands. Once again he’d been reminded how fragile life was, how little it took to crush it out of existence.
Doc Martin had made no promises; Ben had expected none, not after witnessing the surgery. Now they waited.
Hop Sing came to the door. “Mista Cartlight, you go downstairs. I stay with Mista Adam.”
Ben raised his head, realized he’d been hearing voices from the living room. “All right, Hop Sing. Just for a few minutes.”
He was surprised to see Roy Coffee seated at the table with Paul. Extra cups and a coffeepot were evidence of Hop Sing’s hospitality. Roy was just taking a sip when he noticed Ben.
“I came out to check up on Adam and find out what’s goin’ on,” he said.
“Thanks, Roy. I appreciate it.” He rested his hand on his old friend’s shoulder for a moment, then sat heavily in his chair at the head of the table.
“Hank came by last night after notifying the Doc. Said Adam’d been hurt, but that Hoss seemed to think there was more to it.” Roy’s professional as well as personal curiosity was aroused.
“Joseph is missing,” Ben started, “and Hoss is out looking for him.” He leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. “Roy, what do you know about these Apaches that are supposedly headed this way?”
Roy rubbed his hand over his chin. “Well, I know they got as far north as Mud Lake, but no one’s seen hide nor hair of ‘em since. You think they’re mixed up in this somehow?”
“I don’t know. Adam told us just a little yesterday. It wasn’t too clear, but he seemed to think two drifters took Joe off to give him to the Apaches.”
“Now, Ben,” said Paul. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything Adam said yesterday. He was in bad shape and probably delirious.”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t think so, Paul. I’ve seen Adam when he was out of his head from fever, and he was pretty clear on this. Had a hard time getting it out—” He paused for a moment to swallow a sudden lump in his throat.
Roy waited for Ben to regain control, then prompted, “What’d he say?”
Ben tried again. “That two men named Pete and Luke had taken Joe to give him to the Apaches. Apparently the Indians are after them, and they think they can substitute Joe and get away.”
“Pete and Luke, huh. Yeah, I got a wire the other day about a couple o’ fellas that might fit the bill.” He paused thoughtfully and took another sip from his cup. “One of the descriptions coulda fit Joe, for that matter. You say Hoss is out lookin’ for them?”
Ben nodded. “He left just after sending for Paul.”
“Well, he’s a good tracker, and he’ll leave me good sign to follow. I’d appreciate it, Ben, if you’d send Hank on into town and get Clem to put a posse together. I don’t think I’d better take the time to do it myself. If Hop Sing could set me up with a bit of supplies, I’ll head out from here.”
“Roy,” Paul interjected, “I’m headed into town anyway. Why don’t you take Hank with you, and I’ll talk to Clem.”
A rush of gratitude for his good friends welled up in Ben and he rose. “Paul, thank you for all you’ve done. Roy, I appreciate this. I just wish I could go with you.”
“I know, Ben, but you just stay here an’ let me and Hoss take care of it. That middle boy of yours is worth two, maybe three, in a posse.”
Ben walked them to the door. Paul went on out to his buggy after repeating that he’d return later but Roy stayed a moment on the porch. “Ben,” the Sheriff said quietly, knowing what his friend was worrying about, “you know I’ll take good care o’ Hoss.”
Ben’s eyes shone with tears he couldn’t allow to fall. “I know,” he said simply, then went back inside and closed the door carefully. He leaned against it for a moment, gathering his strength, then headed up the stairs.
~~~~ Four ~~~~
Hoss had been on the trail for an hour by the time the sun came fully over the mountains. By then he was pretty sure the outlaws really were headed south. The beauty of the trees and sky didn’t escape him—he was far more in touch with nature than anyone else in his family—but he refused to be distracted this morning. He was only two hours behind the outlaws by now, and even though they were moving, he expected to cut their lead even more. He had the dual advantage of being the follower and knowing the mountains. He might even catch up with them by midday.
Stopping only to water his horse, check the load in his rifle and pistol and wipe them clean from the dust they’d accumulated on the road, by noon he’d managed to cut their lead to an hour. At this point, he began to move much more cautiously. He didn’t want to tip them off, but needed to scout the situation. They would cut east before hitting Monument Peak, and then head down out of the mountains by way of the Daggett watershed. There were a number of natural and comfortable stopping places on this route to Genoa. Hopefully they’d take advantage of one of them.
The road was twisty and Hoss had no doubt Joe would make the trip as difficult as possible on the outlaws. They’d have to keep a close watch on him; with all the switchbacks it would be easy to lose a prisoner. Hoss just had to follow quietly and bide his time.
There was a particularly good spot to take a break where two mountain streams joined together to form the south fork of Daggett Creek. The road, which was more of a path up to that point, unexpectedly widened, and there was a bit of meadow with good grass for the horses. Everyone would be tired of riding at a perpetual downward slant, and he was sure they’d take the chance for a break, not realizing someone was quite so close. He could hide on one of the switchbacks above, behind the thick forests of pine, and figure out what to do next.
Sure enough, when he got down to the road above the creek he saw three horses shifting restlessly at their tie-down about three hundred yards below. One was his brother’s distinctive pinto. A slight man with curly brown hair was walking up from the creek and at first Hoss thought it was Joe. Then he spotted his brother, hands pulled tightly behind his back, apparently tied to a log. He was half lying against it, exhaustion in every line of his body.
Hoss dismounted quietly, moving quickly to Chubb’s muzzle so he wouldn’t call out to his stable mate. Cochise had no such inhibitions though and let out a ringing neigh, followed by a thorough shake. The dark-haired man tensed and looked around, but when one of the other horses answered he relaxed and continued setting up a campfire. But Joe lifted his head slightly and started scanning the forests.
Hoss studied the hillside in front of him. While straight down would certainly be the quickest way to get to his little brother, it was also the noisiest and he’d probably end up landing on his backside right in front of the outlaws. No, he’d have to take the long way down. He dug in his saddlebags for a minute and came out with four handkerchief size pieces of soft leather, which he tied around each of Chubb’s hooves to help deaden the sound. Then he started walking softly down the grade, one hand ready to pinch his horse’s nostrils shut if he seemed ready to call to Cochise.
He made the turn of the first switchback, now heading west, and about halfway down stopped to tie Chubb to a tree out of sight. He took the rifle from its scabbard and continued down the road alone. The next part of the trail was tricky because it actually angled straight down to the camp. If either of the outlaws chose to look up the hill, they had a good chance of seeing him. But the curly-haired one was turned away, and he’d finally spotted the other one washing off in the creek. He moved lightly down the road, noticed only by his brother who then looked in the other direction and nodded twice.
Hoss studied Little Joe’s position and realized he couldn’t get to him without being seen. The log where he was tied wasn’t far from the forest, but there was nothing between that would hide a man of Hoss’ size. That meant he’d better pick them off one at a time. Where the road turned back to the east it almost intersected one of the streams, so he stepped off the hard packed dirt and crossed lightly to the other side of the water.
He moved silently downward through the pine-needle covered ground and after what seemed an eternity he finally came up behind the second outlaw in the water. The other man rose and walked over to Joe, his back now turned to the stream, and Hoss reached up and hauled his victim out of the water, his massive arm around the outlaw’s throat, cutting off any sound. He hurled him around and flattened him with one punch, then dragged him back into the woods. He gagged and tied the man with his own bandana and belt, then started circling around downhill of the camp.
Joe knew his brother Hoss was out there. He hadn’t heard Chubb answer Cochise, but he knew it just the same. He didn’t allow his eyes to flicker to the stream where Pete was soaking leather straps. The outlaws had laughed about tying them around his wrists, his ankles, or even his throat, then watching while the leather slowly shrank as it dried.
He shuddered, drawing Luke’s attention.
“Hey, kid,” the outlaw grinned. “Think you can last ‘til we get you to the ‘Paches?”
Joe saw Hoss moving with amazing stealth up the hillside toward them. “Yeah,” he said, trying to distract the outlaw and give his brother cover. “I’ll make it. I’ll make it better than you will. The word’ll get out that you killed a Cartwright, and there won’t be anyplace you can hide.”
“Killed a Cartwright? You bet I killed a Cartwright. An’ I’m gonna get me another one, too. You all think you’re so high an’ mighty, but you bleed red just like anyone else.” Luke grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him to his feet. Eyes blazing with what could only be madness, he struck Joe full across the face with his fist.
Joe’s head rang and he collapsed onto the ground. He curled into a ball, tensing for the inevitable kick to his aching ribs, but instead the world exploded all around him.
A tremendous roar grew out of Hoss’ chest and he started to run. The outlaw dove for the campfire, trying to reach his rifle, but Hoss was on him and drove him backwards before he could get off a shot. He clubbed at Hoss, striking him on the cheek, but Hoss didn’t even notice, so intent was he on punishing this man who’d hurt both of his brothers. He grabbed the rifle and swung it across a rock, shattering the stock and bending the barrel. Then the outlaw snatched a knife out of his boot and drew circles in front of himself with it, daring Hoss to move in.
Hoss crouched, perfectly balanced on the balls of his feet, arms outstretched to the front. He watched carefully for his chance. The outlaw lunged forward in a quick cut at Hoss’ belly and Hoss leaped back just in time. The curly-haired man laughed and swiped again, but this time Hoss was ready. His hand shot out and grabbed the man’s wrist. He slowly twisted it upward, then over and back, in a position the human arm was never meant to go. A horrible cracking sound was followed by a strangled cry and the outlaw collapsed onto his knees, dropping the knife. Hoss let fly with a low roundhouse to the man’s jaw and he flipped backwards and was still.
Breathing heavily, Hoss grabbed the knife and ran over to Joe, who was painfully levering himself up onto one elbow.
“You sure got him, Hoss,” he gasped, trying to sit up.
“Hold on there, Joe, let me get them ropes off of you.” He reached back and with a few quick slices Joe was free.
Hoss helped him to his feet, but when he started to sway Hoss sat him down on the log.
“You okay, little brother?” asked Hoss, taking in Joe’s battered face. When he saw Joe wrap his arms around his ribs the anger rose again and he started up to finish off the outlaw.
Joe grabbed onto him and said hastily, “I’m fine, Hoss. Thanks for coming after me.”
Hoss settled back on to the log and took several deep breaths to try to calm himself. “If you say so, but I’d purely love to mash him into wood pulp.”
“Hoss,” Joe started, “Adam…”
Hoss rubbed his little brother’s back and said solemnly, “I know, Joe, we found him.”
“I couldn’t do anything, Hoss, I couldn’t help him. They tied me up and I tried so hard—” Joe stared up at Hoss, and tears started in his eyes. “Adam…” he cried. “Hoss, they killed Adam.”
At that Hoss grabbed Joe’s shoulders. “No, they didn’t, Joe.”
“Hoss, I saw it…Pete rode the new gelding right over him…kicked him and rolled him, and there was blood everywhere—”
Hoss shook him lightly and broke in over his brother’s words. “Joe, listen to me. Adam’s hurt bad, but he was alive when we found him. You hear me, Joe?”
Through great gulps of breath Joe tried to answer, and a glimmer of hope lightened his voice. “He’s alive? He’s gonna be okay?”
Hoss gritted his teeth, wishing he could say something other than the truth. “I dunno about that. Like I said, he was in bad shape. We sent for Doc Martin, but then I came after you, so I don’t know…” he swallowed hard. “I’ll be honest with you; I don’t know if he made it.”
Joe looked impossibly young as he tried to believe, but Hoss could see his terror and doubt in the single tear that tracked down his grimy face.
“Joe, it’ll be okay,” Hoss tried to comfort him, but Joe didn’t hear. He’d just passed out into his brother’s arms.
~~~~ * * * ~~~~
The vision came again. Bloody and accusing, his oldest brother stood above him, asking over and over, Why, Joe? Why didn’t you help me? If only you’d stayed…
He felt hands shaking him and then Hoss’ voice, louder than his dream, “Joe! Dadburnit, Joe, wake up, you’re havin’ a nightmare.”
He opened his eyes, disoriented, to find his brother’s huge bulk blocking out an early morning sun.
“You all right now, little brother?” he asked as he tucked Joe’s blanket around his shoulders.
Joe tried to figure out why they were camped on the Eastern slope, then everything suddenly came back to him. Adam! He tried to rise, saying, “We gotta get home, Hoss.”
Hoss pushed him back down easily. “You stay right there for now, little brother. You’re so plumb wore out you wouldn’t last an hour on the trail.”
“But nothin’.” His gentle arms contrasted with the hard words as he lifted Joe forward and gave him a drink from his canteen. “Just a bit now. You can have more in a minute.”
Joe wanted to gulp the entire canteen dry, but knew Hoss was right. His stomach was doing flips, telling him to take it slow. He was weak, and needed water and food if he wanted to get back to the Ponderosa. He laid back against the saddle Hoss had given him for a pillow and looked around the meadow. For the first time noticed that they were alone.
“What happened to Pete and Luke?” he asked.
“Well, not too long after you took that nosedive, Sheriff Coffee came by with a posse and picked them up. Seems he’d been out to the Ponderosa.” Hoss’ grin was like the sunrise. “As of yesterday morning, Adam was still hangin’ on. Doc Martin had to do some cuttin’ on him, and Roy was real careful about what he said, but considerin’ the shape he was in when we found him, it sounded good.”
Joe’s pleasure at the news turned sour and he turned his head away. “Yeah, the shape I left him in.”
Hoss scowled. “Joe, I don’t wanna hear you talkin’ like that. I know if you coulda done something you woulda.”
Joe couldn’t look at his brother. “When can we leave?” He knew Hoss was worried about him, but was grateful he didn’t try to talk him out of his feelings.
Hoss just stood up and said, “Well, I’m fixin’ some breakfast and while you eat I’ll get the horses ready. Then we’ll see how you do.”
Joe nodded and laid back, closing his eyes. Adam had to be all right. He didn’t think he could live with himself if he wasn’t.
~~~~ Five ~~~~
The living room of the ranch house felt dark and empty. Hoss had been gone two nights, now, and it looked like it might be a third. Ben worried about Joe, wondering if Hoss had found him, if they were all right. He worried about Adam, who was still hanging on, but hadn’t woken, hadn’t moved. He worried about Hoss, too, wanting him home, wanting them all home and safe.
He was dizzy with fatigue and thought he’d sit for just a moment in front of the fire before going upstairs to relieve Hop Sing. He’d sit here…just for a short while…
The sound of horses startled him awake, and he was just dragging himself out of the chair when the front door opened. Hoss came in, his arm around Little Joe’s waist.
Ben quickly crossed to them. “Hoss, you found him. Is he all right?” He pulled his youngest son’s arm over his shoulder, feeling how cold the boy was. Joe looked ready to drop, his eyes half closed, his legs unsteady.
“He’s just tuckered out, I reckon. He had a rough time of it with them outlaws.”
Ben raised an eyebrow but decided to wait for details. “Let’s get him lying down.”
When they reached the couch Ben gently lowered Joe, hoping fatigue was his youngest’s only problem. Joe’s eyes closed all the way as he sank into the comfortable upholstery. Hoss grabbed the blanket that always hung over the banister and tucked it around his little brother, then sat heavily in the wingback chair. He leaned his head back against the fabric and closed his eyes.
Ben knelt next to Joe, stroking his son’s hair forehead and frowning at the cuts and bruises on his face. He dropped his forehead onto Joe’s shoulder and a great shudder passed through him. The wave of relief at having his sons home nearly made him sick. He took a few deep breaths and turned to Hoss. “Are you all right, son?”
“Yeah, Pa. I’m kinda tuckered out, too.” Hoss looked like a beaten prizefighter waiting for the last punch that would put him down for good. “Adam?” he asked quietly.
Ben sighed. “We don’t know yet. If he makes it through tonight Doc thinks he has a good chance.” Stiff, he rose carefully from the floor. “Hop Sing left some food and coffee in the kitchen in case you got back. I’ll get you something.”
Hoss shook his head and stood slowly. “Thanks, but I’ll get it, Pa. You stay here with Joe. I’ll bring a cup of coffee out for you.”
“I’d appreciate it, son.” Ben watched this big gentle man, his middle son, as he wove his way through the living room. One way or another, all of the Cartwrights depended on him to keep the family on an even keel. Hoss was wary of his own strength, and cultivated stability and an even temper. Any time he’d had to use his gifts in violence he’d ended up quiet for days after. And what price has Hoss paid for all of this? Ben wondered.
Joe stirred restlessly and shivered. “Pa?” he whispered.
Ben turned back to his youngest. “Right here, Joseph.” He smoothed the blanket over Joe’s chest.
Joe opened his eyes and looked up at his father in fear. “Adam…?”
Ben moved his hand to Joe’s shoulder and squeezed gently.
Joe’s face crumpled in pain. “He’s…dead…isn’t he.”
Ben placed his hand against Joe’s cheek and turned his head so their eyes met. “Joe, look at me.”
Joe tried to pull away, but Ben held him firmly. “Joseph, I won’t lie to you. Now look at me.”
Joe slowly turned back and his anguish burned into Ben’s heart. When he was sure he had his son’s attention he continued. “Adam’s hurt pretty bad, and Doc Martin still doesn’t know if he’ll make it, but right now, tonight, he’s alive.”
Joe tried to sit up, but fell back, grabbing his ribs. “I gotta see him, Pa,” he gasped.
“Joe, you’re in no shape to go anywhere.” The words were strong, but the tone gentle.
“Pa, you don’t understand. I gotta talk to him, before…” he broke off.
Ben wanted to stop him, let him rest, but realized with a pang that Joe might be right. “All right. Slowly, though. You’re not in the best shape either.”
Joe nodded and rolled onto his side, his boots hitting the floor with a thump. Hoss walked into the room with two cups of coffee, which he set down on the coffee table. He sat next to Joe and helped him sit up, then held one of the cups to his brother’s lips. Joe lifted shivering fingers to the warm china and sipped convulsively.
“You be all right now?” asked his brother, taking the cup back.
Joe nodded and held out an arm. Hoss grabbed it and carefully hauled him upright. Once his brother was steady on his feet he passed him over to Ben, who supported him with an arm around his son’s waist. Together they walked up the stairs to Adam’s room, Hoss trailing behind.
Hop Sing was in the rocking chair next to Adam’s bed and his smile blossomed when he saw the youngest Cartwright. “Welcome home, Little Joe. Mista Hoss home, too?” he asked, just as Hoss appeared in the door. He rose from the chair and said, “I go make good food. You stay here with Mista Adam, Little Joe.” The sunshine smile dimmed. “Maybe you wake him up.”
Hoss took a long, lingering look at the figure in the bed and Ben heard him say quietly, “I brung him back, Adam. Just like I promised.” Then he turned and followed Hop Sing from the room.
Joe sank gratefully into the chair Hop Sing had just vacated and stared at Adam. “He looks terrible, Pa,” he said quietly. His oldest brother’s usually dark complexion was sallow, washed out. His dark brows and eyelashes stood out from the pale skin like black slashes on whitewash. But it was his utter immobility that frightened Joe. He could barely see him breathe.
Ben placed his hand gently on Joe’s shoulder. “But he’s made it this far. I think…I believe…”
Joe looked up at his father, wanting to believe as well.
Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder and blinked back his tears. “I’m going down for that cup of coffee, Joe. You’ll stay here with him?”
Joe nodded silently, and Ben left them together, closing the door most of the way behind him. He heard the scrape of the chair on the floor, and Joe’s voice softly asking, “Adam?” He walked slowly down the stairs.
For a long time that was all he knew. Eventually the thought came that there should be a way to get away from the pain, but it was at the center of his being, wrapped intricately through his very essence. To lose the hurt would be to lose himself.
And for a while it was what he wished.
But something held him to this world where his body felt torn apart. There was a sound…irregular…like the wind on the ocean.
He had a memory then, of some place—some time—where the warm, moist trade winds blew, where they ruffled his hair and reminded him of a young child crying. There’d been music. A simple song, a song of longing. And someone telling a story of love, of loss. What were the words? If he could only remember…
But the words were there, were being whispered in his ear.
“You can’t go. Please, you’ve got to hear me.”
The voice stopped, and he heard the soughing wind again.
No, not the wind—crying. Then more words rushed by, the voice thick with tears.
“Adam, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten mad, I shouldn’t have left. If I’d just stayed with you, if we’d stayed together like you said—” the voice stopped.
Joe? the name floated in his mind, rising over the surface of the pain.
He became aware of a warmth on his hand, a convulsive grip that squeezed as the voice continued, “Adam, you have to wake up. Don’t leave us. Don’t leave me before I can tell you…”
Then the warmth left his hand, and a weight buried itself against his side. His brows drew together in concentration as he tried to unravel the threads of reality. He dragged his eyelids open, and gradually a room came into focus—his room. He looked around and his gaze finally rested on the lump pushing into his ribs. It was a curly head of dark hair, mussed into confusion, and he realized it belonged to the voice he’d heard earlier.
Joe, the name came again, and the words, Don’t leave…
He reached his hand toward the soft curls, gently touching them with shaking fingers. His voice was just a whisper, barely audible. “Joe, I won’t go. I promise.”
The curly head came up with a jerk, and a joyous cry rang throughout the house: “ADAM! ”
End, Part 1
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