Promises

by Becky Sims
May 2000


Part II

The old man continued to gather his herbs and other plants, planning, the warrior assumed, for the time when they would finally approach and capture the brown-haired white man. He had found a place for them to camp deep in a grove of trees where the smoke from the Shamanís fire would quickly dissipate as he prepared his medicine.

He returned from yet another exploratory foray through this beautiful land, but his mind was not on the magnificent trees or the deep blue sky. He had allowed a Pah-Ute to find him; they had talked and he had learned much, trading the small mule deer he had just killed for information on the four white men who lived in the large house in the meadow.

The Shaman looked up at his approach and gestured him to the fire. They sat next to each otheróone old and one in the prime of his life, one a seer and one a warrior, different in talent and calling yet united by their fervor for justiceóand they began to design their strategy.

~~~~ One ~~~~

Ben Cartwright awoke to the wonderful aroma of hot coffee. He stretched luxuriously in the big four-poster and wondered for a moment at the lightness of spirit he felt. Then he remembered Joeís joyous cry last night, the unbelieving (and in retrospect, comical) stampede for the stairs, and that glorious moment of entering Adamís room to see his oldest sonís intelligent dark eyes twinkling at him from the bed with just a hint of devilish humor as Ben, Hoss and Hop Sing all tried to squeeze through the doorway at the same time.

Ben propped a pillow up against the carved headboard, raised himself up, and reached for the steaming cup someone had just left by his bedóprobably the surprisingly light-footed Hoss, since Hop Sing would consider it an intrusion to enter his bedroom while he was asleep. He sipped the hot liquid carefully.

His sons. They were all back under one roof, and even if bedraggled and sore, they were all safe. They hadnít been able to convince Joe to leave his oldest brother last night, even though Adam had drifted back to sleep within moments of their arrival en masse in his room. Joe had the full measure of Cartwright stubbornnessóHoss mumbled about him having more than his shareóand had flatly refused to move from the rocking chair at Adamís bedside. It was only after heíd fallen asleep himself that Hoss had been able to carry his little brother to bed and finish taking care of his cuts and bruises.

Bemused, Ben had settled into the still-warm seat and considered his middle son. Just because Hoss had been reasonable about resting and eating after his trip didnít mean the big man had come to terms with his oldest brotherís injuries. Hoss had returned to Adamís room after settling Joe and insisted on staying with Adam. Ben had allowed himself to be chivied off to bed as well, understanding that this was Hossís way of reassuring himself. Everyone said Joe was the emotional Cartwright, but Hossís every feeling showed in his face, even if he sometimes had a hard time expressing himself in words.

Ben rose and took the coffee with him over to the large window to gaze peacefully at the forest that covered his land. It was when Adam had been planning this addition to the ranch house that heíd begun to demonstrate the elusiveness which later blossomed into an almost sphinx-like nature. Heíd refused to explain what he was about, merely smiling enigmatically. Heíd said it was a late wedding present for Ben and Marie.

Ben snorted at the memory. Late indeed. It had taken Adam years to come fully to terms with Benís third marriage. But when Ben and Marie had finally stood in the finished room and Adam had almost shyly opened the shutters they were both stunned at the magnitude of his present.

When Ben had received the painted map of the Ponderosa heíd been thrilled and had hung it with pride behind his new desk, but thisó! Larger than the painting, the woodwork of the window framed an exquisite view of the breadth of the Ponderosa. The deep dark pines that he loved surrounded the house, topped by the rugged, snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance. The intense azure sky was darkening toward evening, and just a hint of the same color was repeated downslope, where Ben knew there was a small lake. Off to the east was the beginning of a meadow that grew the sweetest grass in this part of the Nevada territory.

Ben had heard Marieís breath catch. Sheíd walked slowly to the window, soundlessly soaking in the glorious sky, majestic mountains, and tall, stately trees. She turned suddenly, not toward her husband as heíd expected, but to Adam. She linked her arm in his and drew him to the view. Not nearly as tall as her stepson, she placed her arm around his waist and her head on his shoulder, still staring outside. His arm slowly slid around her waist as well, and then that fiercely independent, self-possessed young man rested his head against hers, coal black hair on gold, and a single tear tracked down his cheek.

Ben swallowed hard at the memory. Even at such a young age Adam had an almost instinctive feel for the land and how structures would work best without unduly disrupting nature. Every time he stood at this window now he marveled at the intellect that so seamlessly combined the love of beauty with functionality.

And now it seemed he wouldnít lose his precious child after all. For even though he knew his boys were grown men, his heart would always remember them as forever young.

He set the coffee down, suddenly anxious to get dressed and go see that devilish twinkle again.

~~~~ a j ~~~~

Hop Sing was once again in Adamís room. Heíd taken over for Hoss at dawn, insisting on his turn. While Joe would always be the Cartwright that the Chinese cook felt closest to, he had a special place in his heart for Adam. The oldest son had never scoffed at his familyís traditions, saying once that the Chinese had been civilized a lot longer than the white man, so who was he to say their rituals didnít have scientific basis? All of the Cartwrights loved Hop Sing, but Adam had been the first to accept him as an equal and to value his culture.

Hop Sing rose from the seat and fanned the smoke from the incense toward the sleeping manís face. He knew that Ben and Hoss and Little Joe didnít really believe it would bring their ancestors forth to help Adam stay in this world, but he also knew that Adam wouldnít scoff; might even wonder, and that could only help.

Ben entered the room to the smell of something burning, but knew better than to say anything. Even in his sleep, Adam would know this was Hop Singís way of caring for him, of praying for him.

"How is he this morning?" Ben asked.

"Velly good. He wake up, ask again about Little Joe. I say Little Joe fine, but he no listen, just go sleep."

Hop Sing frequently seemed to have only two expressions, happy and furious, but Ben could read the relief the Chinese cook felt. He put his arm around the smaller manís shoulders. "Thank you for staying with him."

"I go make breakfast now. Mista Adam need broth, Little Joe hungry, Mista Hoss very hungry. You stay, Mista Cartlight, I bring food."

Ben let himself be pushed into the rocker and smiled. It seemed part of his role as chief consoler was to allow everyone to tell him what to do. Hop Sing bustled out of the room, his emotions relieving themselves with a spate of incomprehensible Chinese. Ben turned back to the bed to see Adam watching him with an amused expression.

"I donít really want anything, Pa, not even Hop Singís broth." He tried to move a little on the bed and winced, sweat breaking out on his forehead.

"Lie still, son. And donít worry about Hop Sing, Iíll take care of him. As for eating, weíll wait to hear what the doctor says." Ben took a cloth from the sideboard and patted Adamís face dry again.

"Is Joe all right?" Adam asked, as he had every time heíd woken through the long, pain-filled night.

"Heís fine," Ben soothed, hoping this time Adam would register his words. "A little worn out, but in better shape than you are."

Adam closed his eyes and exhaled. "He did what he could, Pa. Donít blame himó"

"I donít blame him, son," Ben interrupted.

"Not his fault . . . ."

"I know. You just rest now."

Adam fell asleep again, just as a soft knock sounded at the door. Joe opened it and quietly entered, one arm held protectively around his still-sore ribs.

"Pa?" His eyes were locked on his brother. "I had my breakfast. You go on down, and Iíll stay with him."

Ben rose and squeezed Joeís shoulder as he passed. "Heíll be all right, Joseph."

Joe nodded blindly. "I sure hope so, Pa."

~~~~ a j ~~~~

Ben was still at the breakfast table when Paul Martin arrived. He rose immediately and drew the doctor over to the stairs, saying with relief as they climbed, "Adam woke up last night."

"Thatís good news," Paul smiled. He paused in the doorway to Adamís room, pleased to see more color in his patientís face. This was the sleeping Adam he knew.

"Hi, Doc," said Joe, rising from his chair.

"Joe," the doctor acknowledged. He eyed him professionally. "Why donít you go get some rest."

Joe shook his head. "Iím staying right here."

Paul smiled ruefully and turned to Ben. "Why did I know heíd say that?" He moved to Adamís side and felt his wrist for a pulse, placed a hand gently on his forehead. He carefully lifted the comforter to uncover the broken leg, bundled it and passed it to Joe, who absentmindedly folded it properly then held it pressed against his stomach.

Paul pushed gently on the skin around the break, looking for swelling, but didnít find any more than he expected. "Good," he muttered. "Heís kept still and not jostled it around, unlike a certain other Cartwright would do." He shot a glance of amusement at Joe and was pleased to see a faint smile. "Itíll heal faster and cleaner this way. Letís turn him on his side, Ben; I need to see how the cuts on his back are doing."

Joe dropped the comforter on the floor and had his hands positioned on Adamís shoulders before Ben could move from the foot of the bed. They waited until Paul had the broken leg stabilized, then gently rolled him over. Adam groaned a little but didnít wake.

Paul gently pushed on the nasty laceration at Adamís waist and laid his hand flat over the bruise, a little concerned at the warmth he felt. Ben almost asked him what was wrong, then looked at Joe and thought better of it.

Paul pulled his bottle of alcohol out of his bag and cleaned the wound again, then placed a fresh thick bandage over it. Heíd tie it in place with the same long bandage around the waist that held the cloth over the surgical incision. He and Joe rolled Adam back flat on the bed, and Paul was pleased to see the incision was only slightly inflamed. He cleaned it as well, this time eliciting a gasp from Adam. He looked up to see fever-bright eyes staring back at him. Joe grabbed the comforter out of his fatherís way and retreated to a corner of the room, once again hugging it to his chest as he watched his brother struggle with the pain.

"How do you feel, Adam?" the doctor asked.

Unlike Joe, who downplayed every injury to the point Paul couldnít get a straight answer from him, he knew Adam would state the bare truth and he did.

"Terrible."

Paul smiled. "Well, thatís to be expected. I imagine you have a pretty nasty headache."

Adamís wince answered that question.

"Any nausea?"

"No," Adam whispered.

Joe turned to look out the window, trying not to think about how weak his brotherís voice was.

"Thatís good," Paul said. He ran his hands over Adamís ribs, watching him closely. Adam had a good poker face when he wanted, but he never hid his reactions from the doctor; he knew how important they could be to a proper diagnosis. So Paul was surprised when Ben accidentally jostled his sonís leg by sitting on the bed, and Adam didnít wince. He stood back for a moment and studied his patient. Now that he thought about it, nothing heíd done to the leg had elicited the smallest response, and it had still been in the same position as yesterday. Even a man as ill as Adam should have shifted around some.

A sinking feeling grew inside, but he pushed it away and reached into his bag again. "Ben, I need a half-glass of water, please."

Ben rose, aware of some change in the way his friend was regarding his son. "Paul?" he asked quietly as he handed over the glass.

Paul glanced from Adam to Joe, who was standing well back from the bed, staring at the floor. He looked at Ben warningly and shook his head once, then poured some liquid from a dark brown bottle into the glass. "Lift him up just a little. Adam, donít try to help, just relax."

Ben tucked an arm under his sonís shoulders and propped his head in the crook of his elbow. Paul held the glass to his lips, letting him drink slowly until it was all gone. Then Ben lowered him carefully to the pillows, his eyelids closed and he was asleep again.

Paul took a deep breath and started putting his equipment away. "Joe," he said quietly, "would you hand me the comforter and then get me a cup of coffee?"

Joe picked up the blanket and helped drape it over his brother. He pulled it over Adamís shoulders and carefully tucked it in. His voice thick, he said, "Iíll be right back."

Ben had raised an eyebrow at the doctor but merely said, "Bring one for me, too, son, if you wouldnít mind."

Joe nodded and closed the door quietly behind him.

"Whatís going on?" Ben asked once he knew Joe was out of earshot.

Paul didnít answer though. Instead he quickly flipped the comforter back, took a solid grip on the skin of Adamís leg and twisted, hard. Ben flinched, but Adam didnít move. Paul did the same to his other leg, but it wasnít until he pinched the skin on his arm that Adam reacted with a moan, though he stayed asleep. Silently, gently, he was smoothing the comforter back over Adamís chest when Joe returned.

He took the cup gratefully, aware of Benís scrutiny from over his own cup. "I gave him a sedative so heíll sleep for a while. Iíll leave more here for youóI donít want him awake for more than a few minutes for the next couple of days. Someone will have to stay with him all the time, ready to give him another dose."

Joe had picked up on the tension in the room as soon as he came in. His father was staring at Adam with an odd, intent look, and the doctor was very busy repacking his bag. "What arenít you telling us?" he asked.

Paul didnít answer directly. "Heís asleep now, so heíll be all right for a bit by himself. Come downstairs with me, I need to talk with all of you. Hop Sing, too."

~~~~ a j ~~~~

Ben ushered Paul out to his buggy, and when he came back in the house he could see everyone was still in shock.

"Paralyzed!" whispered Hoss, and dropped his head in his hands. Hop Sing twisted his apron into knots, and Joe sat curled up on the couch, arms around his legs, staring sightlessly into the fireplace.

Hoss continued, "Aní he donít know . . . ."

"Thatís right, and heís not going to know for at least a few days. He needs to build his strength up a bit before taking on this kind of news," Ben said. "Thatís why Paul wants to keep him mostly asleep. And maybe . . . maybe by then it wonít matter."

"You think it might be temporary?" Hoss looked up at the prospect.

Ben ran his fingers through his hair. "I hope so. We just have to wait, and pray."

Joe started shaking his head. "No," he murmured.

"Joseph?" Ben sat next to his youngest, horrified to see tears streaming down his face.

Joe continued to stare into the fire, his words stilted, mechanical. "I can see it, Pa. I can see the gelding kicking him in the back. I know exactly when it happened. I wondered why he didnít get up, why he didnít try to get away." He finally turned to his father, pain ripping him apart. "He couldnít, Pa. Oh, God, I can see the hoof, the right fore, it kicked him square in the spine, I heard it break my brotherís back . . . ." Joe swallowed, looked like he was about to throw up.

Ben tried to draw him into his arms, but with an animal moan Joe broke free and ran outside. It wasnít more than a few moments before they heard the rapid drumming of a horseís hooves racing out of the yard.

Hoss spoke quietly. "Heís blaminí himself. Thinks he coulda prevented all this somehow."

Ben sighed and sank back into the couch. "Perhaps he could have, perhaps not. Adam was there, and doesnít blame him. And itís irrelevant, anyway. The damage is done, and now we have to focus on Adamís recovery."

"Is he gonna get better, Pa?" asked Hoss.

Ben wondered idly why his sons always seemed to think he knew all the answersóthen realized what Hoss was really asking for was reassurance. "I think so, Hoss. Itís still early, a lot could go wrong, but I canít believe heís come this far . . . ."

Hoss came over and laid his big hand on his fatherís shoulder. "Then heíll make it. And it might take a while, but heíll make it back all the way." He squeezed gently. "Iím gonna get a cup of coffee aní go sit with him a bit. Why donít you get some rest, aní you can relieve me in a few hours."

Hoss took Hop Sing under his arm and they walked to the kitchen together, leaving Ben alone in the main room with his thoughts.

~~~~ a j ~~~~

From a small glade of pines that grew not a thousand yards from the heart of the Ponderosa, two pairs of obsidian-hard black eyes watched the young man on the pinto as he raced from the big house.

The old manís seamed face was expressionless, harsh. His long, cloud-gray hair lifted in the slight breeze, but otherwise he was completely motionless.

The big man beside him made a quick, questioning movement with his hands. Horses?

The old man gestured once, sharply. Not yet.

Only by a flicker of an eyelid did the big man respond. He was content to wait. Few beings on this earth possessed more patience than a Chiracahua Apache.

~~~~ Two ~~~~

Joe returned a few hours later, arm cradling his ribs again, eyes still haunted. Just coming out of his bedroom after a long nap, Ben ran into him in the hall outside Adamís room and, after allowing him a quick look at his brother, ushered him to his own room and insisted he take one of the doctorís pain powders and lie down. Joe wanted to stay with Adam, but when Ben told him heíd be needed later and wouldnít be any use if he dozed off when he was supposed to be watching his brother, he finally gave in and was asleep in minutes.

And that was the pattern of their lives for the next several days. They would meet in the hall: one going into Adamís room, one coming out, or at the dining room table, sometimes only able to tell what time it was by the food Hop Sing served.

Joe recovered from his own bruises, but as he physically felt better he began to fidget whenever he wasnít either asleep or sitting with his brother. His nervous pacing nearly drove Ben to distraction one afternoon and finally he told him to go do some chores.

Once started, Joe did not only his and Adamís, but Hossís as well. He started in on the woodbox, filling it to overflowing, then stripped off his shirt and kept on chopping until Hoss came out and quietly took the ax from him. Joeís arms trembled with exhaustion and he dropped limply onto a nearby bench. Sweat streamed down his face, but his eyes were still pools of deep emerald misery.

Hoss threw his brotherís shirt around his shoulders and wordlessly guided him back into the house. Once he got some food into him and had watched him fall asleep on the couch, the big man wandered aimlessly back out into the yard. He looked at the pile of wood Joe had stacked up and his face crinkled up in silent grief for both of his brothers. After a while he swiped at his face with his sleeve, then went over to the pile of logs, picked out an especially large one, and hefted the ax.

Adamís fever continued to rise, spiking on the third day. He moaned and tossed in his deliriumóJoe was sure he was reliving the scene in the corral, over and overóyet, to Joeís distress, the bedding below his waist remained undisturbed.

They fought the fever with cool cloths and Doc Martinís medicine, but in spite of their careful nursing once more they almost lost him. All of them grew hollow eyed, and it wasnít long before the doctor began to worry about the entire family.

Paul was alone in Adamís room, having practically ordered Ben downstairs to eat with his other sons, and was packing up his bag once again when he became aware of silent dark eyes studying him. He laid his palm on his patientís forehead, felt the cool sweat, and smiled in relief. The fever had finally broken. "Adam?" he asked.

Adam blinked, but didnít attempt to talk.

Paul poured a glass of water and lifted him slightly to drink. He took three small sips, then turned away, eyes closing.

"Thatís fine, then. You just rest, and you can have more water in a bit."

Adam nodded slightly, then heaved a large sigh and went back to sleep.

Paul went down the stairs with a light step that brought the attention of the three men at the table to him. "The feverís broken. Itís going to be a long haul, but heís on the mend."

Hoss sat back in his chair with a big grin, Ben raised his eyes to the ceiling with a silent thank you on his lips, and Joe scrubbed at his face. Paul looked them over critically. "Hoss, I want you to stay with Adam for the first four hours tonight. Then you can get your father up, but Ben, only four hours for you, too. Then you get Joe. And Joe?"

Exhausted eyes looked up at him.

"You go to sleep. Now."

"Youíre starting to sound like Pa," Joe said in weak protest.

"Your Pa is going to bed, too. Arenít you, Ben?"

Ben smiled. "Yes, Paul, I think I can rest now."

"Good, because if you both arenít in bed and asleep before I leave Iíll give you something thatíll take care of it for you."

Hoss smiled at his brother. "Go on. You know Iíll wake you up if I need you."

Joe levered himself out of the chair, said a single goodnight to everyone, and walked slowly across the room.

Paul stood at the end of the table and glared at his old friend.

"Iím going, Iím going," Ben laughed. "Iíll just stop in to see Adam and go right on to bed."

"See that itís just a stop. Iím serious, Ben, none of you have been taking care of yourselves and youíre going to need all your strength to help Adam recover. This isnít going to be easy for him."

Ben sobered and clapped his hand on the doctorís shoulder. "I know. But Iím more grateful than I can say for your help, Paul."

Paul nodded and watched Ben follow his youngest up the stairs.

"Why donít you pull up a chair for a minute, Doc?" asked Hoss. "I bet you could use a cup of coffee and maybe a piece of pie while you wait to see if that family of mine really settles down."

Paul seated himself thankfully at the table and Hop Sing brought the dishes in to him. He took a sip of the steaming coffee and a bite of pie, and chewed thoughtfully. "Hoss, donít think I donít know how hard this is on you." He gazed steadily at the big man across from him. "Joe hasnít been eating and he isnít sleeping either. Benís worried sick, and itís all left up to you and Hop Sing to keep things running."

"Aw, shucks, Paul . . . ."

"Donít aw shucks me, young man. Now just make sure you keep on being sensible and donít wear yourself out taking care of everyone. Adamís going to need a lot of help, but Joe is going to need someone to lean on, too. I hope once he gets a chance to really talk with his brother that heíll feel a little better."

"Yeah, every time he goes in to sit with him, Adamís asleep. I donít think theyíve had a minute since it happened to talk about it all."

"And he needs to do that." The doctor rose and took a final sip of coffee. "You get together what you need and come on upstairs. Iím going to check on Ben and Joe, then Iíll go over a few things with you for Adam."

"Yessir, Iíll be right up, soon as I get me another cup of coffee. And maybe Iíll just take a little more pie up there with me, too."

Paul laughed. "You do that, son."

~~~~ a j ~~~~

Adam woke slowly. His body felt immeasurably heavy, and he hurt in too many places to count. He tried to synchronize his breathing with the throbbing in his ribs in the hopes it would ease the pain. Eventually he became aware that someone was saying his name. He winced.

"Thatís it, Adam, open your eyes," he heard a deep voice saying.

Pa? he whispered on a breath.

He felt a cool damp cloth on his forehead and frowned in concentration. Lifting his eyelids took more effort than he expected, but he was rewarded by the fuzzy sight of his fatherís face. He blinked and tried squinting, but that hurt so he just waited for his vision to clear.

He heard his fatherís voice, soft, soothing. "Youíre going to be just fine now, Adam." He felt an arm lifting him, cradling him as it had when he was a child. His father held a glass to his lips and he drank, relieving a parched dryness he only became aware of in its absence.

"More?" he asked, his voice a faint croak.

"In a minute. Letís see how that settles."

He closed his burning eyes and rested against his fatherís chest. He could hear the familiar heartbeat, strong, unchanging, and had almost gone back to sleep to the steady rhythm when a new voice spoke from a distance.

"Pa?" said Little Joe, hesitantly.

"Come in, Joseph. Adam, your brotherís here."

Adam lifted heavy eyelids to find Joe just a couple feet away. "Hey brother," he whispered. "You look terrible. You all right?"

Joe choked. "Yeah, Adam. Iím fine."

"Good." Satisfied, he let his lids droop again. "Gonna sleep símore, Pa."

"Thatís fine, Adam. Joe will stay here with you."

The thought of his little brother looking out for him was somehow funny, and he drifted off with a small smile on his face.

Joe stood over his brother. "Pa, he was worried about me. The shape heís in, and he was worriedó" He broke off, unable to continue.

Ben rose from the bed and held his youngest by the arms. "Yes, heís asked for you every time heís woken. I think he was afraid theyíd hurt you and we werenít telling him. Heíll rest easy, now that heís seen you." He steered Joe to the chair and pushed him gently down into it. "Joe." He waited for his son to look at him. "If they had killed you, I donít think heíd still be with us."

Joe jerked upright. "But he couldnít haveó"

"Thatís right. And neither could you. Do you understand me?"

Joe turned back to the sleeping man in the bed, lying so still and quiet. "I think so," he said softly. "Yeah, I think I do."

Ben patted him on the shoulder and left his sons together.
 
 

~~~~ Three ~~~~

Adam could never remember much from the next few days. It seemed his existence consisted of terrifying dreams interrupted by agonizing pain and hazy reassurances from his father and brothers as they told him over and over, "Youíre all right, now just drink this and rest." He wanted to tell them that he most definitely wasnít all right, he didnít want to drink what they were giving him, and rest was the last thing he needed since it meant a return of the nightmares, but they just shushed him and he was too tired to fight.

But he finally woke and found his head was clearer and the pain had dulled to something tolerable. He looked around and confirmed that he was, indeed, in his own room. Joe was asleep in the chair by his bed, and Adam was shocked by his appearance. Joeís hair was difficult to tame at best, but now it was a tangled mess. His face was gaunt and pale and there were dark circles under his eyes that told Adam he hadnít been eating or sleeping properly, probably for days.

Adam tried shifting on the bed, but the movement set off a spasm in his back that had him gasping. As the pain receded he realized Joe was beside him, propping him up and holding a glass to his lips. He turned away.

"Címon, Adam." Joeís voice was hoarse, cracked. "Drink this and then rest."

"No," he managed, through teeth gritted against the throbbing in his back.

"Youíve gotta drink it, itíll help." He tried to bring the glass to his mouth.

Adam shook his head. "No more nightmares."

"Nightmares?" Joe asked, his hand arrested.

Adam shuddered. Joe set the glass aside and slid closer to his brother, warming him against his chest.

"Dreams," Adam said roughly. "Voices, something big and black coming down at me, laughter . . . ."

Joe turned away, but not before Adam saw his face twist in a grimace. "Joe?" he asked.

"Iím sorry, Adam. Iím just more sorry than I can say. I shouldíve listened to you; if I just hadnít been so selfish, wanting my own wayó"

Adam stopped him with a hand on his arm. "I donít think it would have helped."

"But you would have had a chance, and now itís too lateó" He stopped and bit his lower lip.

His attention caught, Adam watched his brother intently. "Too late for what?"

Joe laid him back on the pillow and fussed with the blankets, refusing to meet his eyes. "To take back what happened," he finally mumbled. He picked up the glass again.

"I donít believe you," Adam said flatly. "And put that down, Iím not drinking it."

"But the Doc said you have toó"

Adam rose up onto one elbow. "I said Iím notó" he broke off with a groan as he was hit with another series of sharp, stabbing pains in his lower back.

Joe took advantage of his distraction and managed to get about a third of the contents down his throat before Adam batted it away with a shouted "No!" The glass shattered against the far wall, scattering medicine across the room.

"Adam," Joe yelled, desperately trying to get through to his brother. "You have to drink it, itíll helpó"

The cramping in his back was getting worse, but Adam was determined not to go back to that hazy half-world where he had no control over the dreams. "Dammit, Joe, it doesnít helpó"

The door slammed open. "Whatís going on?" Ben thundered.

Both of his sons turned desperate eyes on him, Adamís shadowed by fear and physical pain, Joeís by a frantic wordless plea for help. "He wonít finish the medicine, Pa."

Adam tried to rise, but the spasms were getting even more intense. He cried out and grabbed at the side of the bed, pulling himself to the edge with a strength born of the agony in his back.

"Adam, lie down," Ben implored. "Youíll only hurt yourself."

Joe tried to get out of Benís way, hoping his father would succeed where heíd failed, but they tangled with each other and before either could reach him, Adam overbalanced and fell to the floor, blankets tangled around his legs. He cried out once when he hit, then lay still on his side, ribs on fire.

Ben had nearly knocked Joe down when he lurched forward, trying to catch Adam. He swore when he missed, and landed next to him. He pulled the blankets free.

Adamís legs hit the floor with a dull thud that sent a shock through him but, he realized with horror, no pain, no sensation at all. "Pa?" He searched his fatherís face.

"Joseph, get another glass. Now!" Ben barked.

Adam grabbed his fatherís arm. "Pa, whatís wrong with my legs?"

"Just lie still, Adam," Ben soothed, but his son would have none of it.

"Donít lie to me, Pa," he warned between gasps. "Joe said it was too late. Too late for what?"

Ben shot a look of fury at his youngest, but Adam banged a fist on his fatherís leg and tried to push himself upright. "Leave Joe out of it. Tell me!"

Ben tried to hold him still. "Adam, you have to calm down, youíre hurting yourself."

"Donít patronize me," he said, teeth gritted.

Ben stilled, then a wave of pain passed over his face and he relaxed. "All right. But youíll have to finish the medicine first."

"No bargains, Pa, just the truth." His eyes were hard and glinting with determination.

Joe knelt next to them. "No more medicine, Adam. Not that stuff, I promise."

"Joe," Ben warned.

"Pa, itís not good for him, and he needs a clear head right now." He pushed the blankets out of the way. "I think he knows, anyway."

Ben turned slowly back to his oldest and gathered him into his arms. "Son," he said slowly, "when the horse kicked you, one of the places he hit was your spine. Doc Martin doesnít know if itís permanent or not, but . . . ." He swallowed.

Adam searched his fatherís eyes, turned to Joe and saw the same answer.

"The gelding caught you right below the waist," Joe said quietly. "I saw it, heard it." He shook his head and his eyes filled and shimmered as he said it out loud, "Youíre paralyzed."

The room whirled suddenly around Adam and he heard his father faintly saying something about the bed, then he felt himself lifted but it was all unreal. He found Joeís eyes, his only anchor in a spinning world, but the glinting green was haunted with the truth. He turned his head to the wall and let the darkness flow over him.

~~~~ Four ~~~~

It was morning nearly a week later and Ben and Joe were standing at the door putting their coats on against the autumn chill. Hoss was trying to reassure them that he and Adam would be fine alone while they went to Virginia City for the inquest of the two men whoíd attacked Joe and Adam.

"Pa, weíll be safer here against them Indians than you two will be on the trail. Besides, theyíve likely given up by now and gone home. Nobodyís seen hide nor hair of Ďem since them two outlaws was put in jail."

Ben gave his son a hard look. "Just like Cochise gave up following that Captain after heíd come all the way up here from Arizona?"

Hoss shifted uncomfortably but persisted. "You gotta go testify, aní thatís all there is to it," he said. "As long as itís taken the circuit judge to get here, if you donít go them two will get off scott free."

Ben sighed. "I know, I just wish Adam were better."

His oldest had continued to refuse the medicine, but aside of that theyíd had precious little out of him. He lay still and silent in bed all day, awake but just staring at the wall. Heíd eat a bite or two of whatever Hop Sing had slaved over to tempt him, but then would set the spoon or fork aside as if it weighed more than he could lift and would go back to his view of the wall. He visibly lost weight and the dark circles under his eyes deepened, emphasizing his paleness. Doc Martin had simply prescribed rest and time, knowing the blow Adam had sustained. Ben had tried reading to him, and though he was sure Adam heard him he was equally sure Adam didnít care one way or the other if he kept it up or stopped.

They no longer sat with him all the time, and with the resumption of a somewhat normal schedule Joe was finally managing to eat. Hoss was glad to see the gauntness begin to disappear from his younger brotherís face, though the strain still showed in his eyes.

"Itís gonna take time for him to get used to this, Pa," Hoss answered reasonably. "Heís gotta get some food in him, get some good rest, then heíll start to perk up a bit."

"Well, see if you can get him to sleep some today." Ben put his hat on and asked Joe gently, "You ready, son?"

Joe nodded. He dreaded reliving the experience in front of strangers, but the two men had to pay for what theyíd done to his brother. He stiffened with determination. "Letís get it over with."

Hoss patted him on the back. "Attaboy, little brother. Weíll be here waitiní for you when you get back."

Joe swallowed a lump. "Take care of him . . . ."

"I will. You two be careful, just in case them Apaches are still hanginí around." He walked them out to their horses and watched them ride away with relief. Theyíd both feel better for a change of scene.

Hoss took a deep breath, feeling the mountain air rush into his chest, seeming to clear the mustiness of Adamís illness from his lungs. He walked back into the house and was struck by how gloomy and close it felt inside. He left the front door open and cracked a few windows. He couldnít leave things open for long, it was too chilly outside for that, but it sure felt good in the meantime.

He wandered into the kitchen to see if Hop Sing had a pot of coffee on, poured himself a cup and headed upstairs to check on his brother. He knocked once and, not surprised he didnít get an answer, swung the door wide. At the sight that greeted him, though, he dropped the coffee cup on the small table by the door and rushed to Adamís side.

His brother was arched upward, his face twisted in pain and covered with sweat. His hands were clenched on the bedclothes as if his grip was the only thing keeping him sane.

"Adam!" Hoss grabbed his brotherís hand. "Whatís wrong?"

Adam shifted his death grip to Hossís hand and managed a few words. "My backócrampsó"

Hoss turned him on his side and ran his free hand over his brotherís back. Under the sweat-soaked cotton nightshirt Hoss could feel every muscle knotted and hard. He disentangled their hands and shook his out briefly before turning Adam over onto his stomach. He started to stroke his brotherís back slowly and firmly from shoulder to waist, carefully avoiding his broken ribs. "You gotta relax, Adam, youíre just makiní it worse, fightiní it like this. Take a couple deep breaths, thatíll help."

Adam tried and managed one before the spasms hit again. He cried out, every muscle going rigid again as he fought the pain.

"Deep breaths, brother," Hoss encouraged him as he continued to run his hands down the length of the muscles. "Donít fight so hard." He gently kneaded some of the knots and slowly, slowly, after a long time felt them begin to soften. He watched Adamís hands gradually loosen and finally let go of the blankets. When heíd finally relaxed into the bed, Hoss asked softly, "How long has this been goiní on?"

"Every day," came the exhausted, muffled response. "Three, maybe four times a day."

"You shoulda said something." Hoss continued the soothing rub, working on his brotherís neck and shoulders.

"Pa would have poured that medicine down my throat. It gives me nightmares."

Hoss grimaced. "Yeah, I guess he would at that." He was silent for a while, then asked, "Thatís why youíre not sleeping, huh?"

"Canít sleep." Face down on the mattress, eyes closed, he went on, "Canít walk, canít take care of myself, stuck up here in this room for the rest of my life looking forward to those godawful cramps . . . ."

This grim view of his future struck Hoss in the heart and he made a sudden decision. "Nope, thatís not how itís gonna be, Iíll make sure oí that." He rose and started digging through his brotherís dresser. He pulled out a pair of black jeans and a red wool shirt, then found a pair of thick socks. He retrieved Adamís hunting knife from its sheath on the dresser and slit the seam of the left pants leg.

Adam opened his eyes, a spark of curiosity in themóthe first real sign of life Hoss had seen in what seemed like weeks. "What are you doing?"

"Weíre gonna take care of the necessaries, then youíre goiní downstairs."

"But Paó"

"I know he said you were supposed to rest, but seems to me you cainít do that up here, so you may as well come downstairs where thereís things goiní on. Now letís get you ready."

~~~~ a j ~~~~

Thirty minutes later Adam was settled on the couch in front of a blazing fire, facing toward the dining room. He had a comfortable pillow to prop him up against the arm, another pillow supported his broken leg, and the red Indian blanket that always hung on the staircase rail was handy, draped over the back of the couch in case he got cold. "It smells good down here," he said quietly.

Hoss had to wonder at what theyíd unknowingly been doing to him. No wonder he was depressed and wouldnít eat, stuck away in a stuffy room with nothing to think about but what he couldnít do anymore and how much he hurt.

Hoss poked a few more times at the fire. "Iím gonna go get some coffee, then Iíll set up the checkerboard. Be right back."

He was as good as his word, and about halfway through their second game the delicious smell of baking cookies wafted into the room. Hoss raised his head like a hound on the scent and smiled. "You smell that?" he asked.

"Hop Singís sugar cookies?" Adam shifted a little on the couch.

"Maybe I could talk him into bringing a couple in here," said Hoss. He wandered casually into the kitchen and was back in just a few minutes with a loaded plate resting on top of two glasses of milk. "Move that checkerboard over, will you, aní let me set this down."

As soon as the plate was within reach, Adam snagged one of the soft, still-warm cookies. He bit into it carefully then blissfully closed his eyes as he chewed. "He sure hasnít lost his touch."

Hoss smiled as the rest of the cookie slowly disappeared. "Hey, donít forget the milk. Sugar cookies gotta have milk."

Adam smiled, too, remembering afterschool snacks with Hoss and Hop Sing. He drained half the glass without thinking and reached for another cookie. This one was gone in two bites.

Hop Sing appeared with a tray holding two bowls. "Mr. Hoss, Mr. Adam, you try new soup. Tell Hop Sing if good enough for honorable father."

Adam raised an eyebrow at his brother.

"Well, sure," Hoss answered. "Set it down here next to the cookies."

"Donít move that plate too far away, brother," Adam warned.

Hoss laughed and dug into his soup. He was halfway through it before he remembered their cook wanted his opinion. He looked up guiltily.

Adam spoke drily, "I think thatís your answer, Hop Sing."

"And you, Mr. Adam, what you think?" Hop Sing asked, as if his job depended on Adamís approval.

Adam tasted it thoughtfully. "I think heís going to like it just fine." He took another spoonful, then a third.

Hop Sing glanced at Hoss, who lifted a finger to his lips. The conspirators smiled at each other, and the cook returned happily to the kitchen.

~~~~ Five ~~~~

Joe and Ben returned that evening to find a cheerful fire, delicious smells coming from the kitchen and the sight of Hoss asleep in the blue chair by the fire. A plate containing one lone cookie surrounded by crumbs sat on the low table in front of the hearth next to an unfinished game of checkers. As he drew closer Ben discovered his oldest son asleep on the couch, the red blanket from the staircase draped over his long body and tucked neatly around his shoulders.

He lightly touched the back of his hand to Adamís cheek, relieved to find not a trace of fever.

Joe shook Hossís shoulder. "Hoss," he whispered. "Wake up."

Hoss rubbed his eyes and peered up at his little brother. "Oh, hey, Little Joe. Youíre back."

"Yeah, weíre back. Whatís he doing downstairs? Doc said bedrest."

Hoss checked his fatherís mood. Ben was silent, but he could see the same question burning in his eyes. "Let me get him upstairs and Iíll tell you all about it." He rose stiffly and went to Adam, lifted him gently into his arms and headed up the stairs. Adam stirred slightly then settled again, his head resting comfortably against his brotherís broad chest. A few words drifted down behind them, ". . . weíll do this again tomorrow, donít you worry . . . ."

When he came back down he was carrying the red blanket. He stopped on the landing and laid it carefully over the banister, his big hands smoothing the wrinkles as carefully as any lady, then walked heavily down the remaining steps to join Joe and his father by the fire.

"Iím waiting for an explanation," Ben stated. "You know Doc Martin said he was to rest as much as possible."

"Well, thatís just the thing, Pa. He wasnít resting, not up in his room." He paced a few steps and picked up the pillow that had propped up Adamís leg all afternoon. He held it gently in both hands, running his thumbs back and forth across the nubby fabric as he asked, "Tell me, Pa, how do you aní Little Joe feel?"

They looked at each other, surprised. Ben spoke first. "Iím a bit tired. It was a long day."

"Yeah," said Joe, "but once we were finished at the inquest it was good to be in town again."

Ben nodded. "We saw Roy, caught up on some of the newsó" He stopped and glanced at the stairs.

"You got it, Pa." Hossís eyes followed his fatherís. "Heís cooped up in that little room all day every day. Itís stuffy, and it smells like sickness. His back hurts all the time, and sometimes it gets so bad he canít hardly stand it. It ainít no wonder he canít sleep up there, aní when he does he has nightmares."

Ben sank slowly into a chair and Joe dropped onto the couch, rubbing his forehead against a sudden ache. "We didnít know," Joe said.

"None of us did, including me," Hoss said grimly. "Not until this morning when I went upstairs and found him hurtiní so bad he near ripped that bed apart."

"So you brought him downstairs to the couch?" Ben asked, bewildered.

Hoss sat down in front of his father. "Pa, heís been lyiní up there every day waitiní for the pain to set in, wonderiní if this is how itís gonna be for the rest of his life. I brought him down here aní played checkers with him, fed him some of Hop Singís sugar cookies, aní you know what? Purty soon heíd ate a whole bowl of soup and fell asleep. He slept for six hours straight, Pa. Then when he woke up he ate another bowl, a few more cookies, and went back to sleep." Hoss rubbed his hands over his face. "His back only cramped up on him once."

Ben leaned back into his chair and heaved a sigh. He looked at his two sons. "I guess weíd better get Doc Martin out here in the morning and Iíll have a talk with him."

"Pa, I promised him Iíd bring him down again tomorrow."

"If Paul says itís all right."

"Pa," Joe interjected. "You know Hoss is right. Heís never gonna get well if we keep him locked in that room upstairs."

"Heís not locked inó" Ben started heatedly.

"He may as well be," said Joe quietly, eyes steady on his father.

Ben held his gaze, but finally he was the one who looked away. "As long as thereís no fever." He rose and they moved to the dining room where Hop Sing was serving soup. "Two bowls?" Ben asked, sniffing appreciatively.

Hop Sing smiled. "Seven cookie and two glass milk."

Joe grinned. "Sounds like older brother is getting better."

~~~~ a j ~~~~

Ben entered Adamís room the next morning after breakfast. His son was still asleep, so he sat in the chair next to the bed and soon was deep in thought.

He wondered briefly if he should have allowed Joe to be the one to go to town for the doctoróRoy thought the Apaches were still in the areaóbut Ben also knew that his youngest son desperately needed to do something to help his brother. Against his better judgment, heíd finally compromised by sending Hank in with him.

Benís velvet brown eyes fell on his oldest son, whose face was peaceful and pain-free in his sleep. His gaze shifted to the miniature portrait of Adamís mother, Elizabeth, which sat on his sonís dresser.

Elizabeth, Inger, Marie. Three women, all very different; three sons equally different, yet tied inextricably together by bonds of love.

He thought again about what Hoss had said last night. It made sense, and he wondered if they would be helping or hindering Adamís recovery by including him more in the daily life of the ranch. How much could his boy stand, and how soon?

"Morning, Pa."

Ben looked up. "Good morning, son. How are you today?"

"Better." Adam took a careful breath. "Hoss took me downstairs yesterday."

Ben nodded. "I know. We talked about it some last night."

"Actually, I think he had it all plotted out with Hop Sing." He looked around his room. "I donít know, though. Somehow the food tasted better down there."

"I know, son, and Iím sorry."

Adam raised an eyebrow in question and this time it was Ben who looked around.

"Iíve always thought of this room as a safe haven for you. I never guessed it could become a prison."

"No, Paó" Adam reached out a hand.

"Weíll see what Doc Martin has to say," Ben interrupted. "Joe left first thing this morning for town and heíll bring him back as soon as he can." He grasped his sonís hand. "I promise youíll be out of here as much as possible."

Adam closed his eyes, but kept his grip on his father. "Thanks."

~~~~ a j ~~~~

Paul Martin closed his bag with a snap and gestured at Hoss. "Go on, then, get him out of here."

Hoss grinned and Joe happily began rummaging in his brotherís drawers. The doctor gripped Adamís hand briefly and smiled, then left the room to talk with his father. Ben was waiting downstairs at the table, coffeepot and cups ready.

"How is he?"

Paul blew on his coffee. "Youíve got a smart boy in that second son of yours, Ben. He saw what we all missed." He took a sip of the steaming hot drink. "Hop Sing still makes the best coffee," he sighed. "As for Adam, itís a little early yet to be getting him out of bed, but judging by what you said, I think the benefits will far outweigh any problems. Just keep an eye out for that broken leg and for any fever. Otherwise, if heíll sleep during the day down here, and above all, if heíll eat, then itís for the good."

"I tell you, Paul, I was getting worried. He seemed to be fading away right in front of us." Ben looked up and smiled at his three sons as they came down the stairs. Hoss and Joe had formed a chair with their arms and Adam had a death grip around their necks.

"Take it easy, will you?" he was saying. "Move together, or weíre all going to end up in a heap at the bottom of the stairs and I promise you, Iím going to be the one on top."

"Well if Joe would just slow down a littleó"

"If youíd just speed up a littleó"

"How about if I count off?" Adam asked reasonably.

"No!" shouted his brothers at the same time.

Paul rose and clapped Ben on the shoulder. "I think things are going to be just fine here, Ben."

"Thanks, Paul," Ben whispered. "Thanks."
 
 

End, Part 2


 

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