Pride and Promises (by Barbara)

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Summary: With an increase the boys’ workload; will it be smooth sailing or will this be the straw to break the camel’s back?

Rating:  K+ (6,800 words)

 

Pride and Promises

They’d taken their usual places at the breakfast table – Ben at its head with his eldest son Adam opposite him. Little Joe sat on Ben’s left and Hoss on his right. They exchanged “good mornings” as they limped down the stairs into the living room. But they were more like grunts then greetings. The salutations were anything but genuine.

The four men sat seemingly occupied by the plate of bacon and eggs Hop Sing had served them. The only sound was the rhythmic beat of chewing temporarily interrupted by the gulping of coffee and the grinding of forks against the china.

Ben stared crossly at his food. Physically he was there but his mind was elsewhere. Little Joe yawned and picked at his eggs. They were too runny. He hated runny eggs. He did not complain though, afraid to break the silence that was so loud it made his ears ring.

Hoss shoveled his breakfast into his mouth like he always had. Fatigued or not, there wasn’t much that could stunt his ravenous appetite. He glanced up from under his brow periodically to see if it was safe. It wasn’t.

Adam leaned his right elbow on the table encircling his plate with his forearm. It was like he was protecting his food from predators. There was no reason to – there was always plenty to eat.

The three boys had been walking on eggshells for weeks. Their father had taken on a terrific workload and had nothing on his mind but business. Adam warned that he had bitten off more then he could chew but Ben dismissed his son’s advice. That was rare as Ben often sot Adam’s opinion on everything from town disputes to managing the Ponderosa. Yes, Adam was his son but Ben considered him a peer and respected his sensibility and intellect. Lately that didn’t seem to matter.

The Cartwright’s had received several orders of timber. They’d bid on three jobs and been awarded all of them – something they did not expect. One order would have been sufficient. The foursome along with their crew had been working fourteen-hour days for over a month. Tired was too tame a word to describe their exhaustion.

Thankfully, most of the lumber had been cut and delivered but it had delayed their yearly cattle drive. It was quickly closing in on autumn and it would be a race to get the herd round up and driven from the high country before the snow flew. If it did they would be out of luck. There would be no beef to sell. The stock had been promised and Ben intended to deliver come hell or high water. A promise to Ben Cartwright might as well have been carved in stone.

So, there was no rest for the weary. Adam, Hoss and Little Joe wanted at least a few days off but were afraid to ask. Their Pa’s frame of mind prevented that. This morning the trip would begin and Ben wasted no time downing his breakfast. He sopped up his last morsel of egg yoke with his toast and wiped his mouth with his napkin.

“Well boys,” he barked tossing the cloth over his cleaned plate. “You ready?”

“Huh Pa?” Adam interrupted nervously. If anyone could ask a favor or their father it was Adam. “Hoss and Joe and I were talking and we were hoping we could… I don’t know… maybe take today off – at least one day to recuperate. We could start back to work bright and early tomorrow. Looks like rain anyway. I sure would like to finish that book I started last spring.”

“You would, would you?” Ben frowned.

“Yes I would. Let’s face it Pa, you’ve been pushing pretty hard lately?”

“Oh I’ve pushed you too hard have I?”

“Well, we got all the orders in on time. We’re… a little tired,” Adam chuckled forcedly.

“TIRED!” Ben shouted. “Now listen here.” He placed his elbow on the table and pointed his finger at each of his sons. “When you boys were too young to help around here, who do you think cut the timber and drove the cattle and mended fences?”

“You did, Pa,” Adam sighed impatiently.

“THAT’S RIGHT. I did!”

“Well, aren’t you tired, Pa?” Little Joe piped up with a plastered grin. He regretted it when his father glared ominously at him. Joe steered his eyes back to the puddle of ocher that lay cold on his plate and drew lines through it with his fork.

“Come on, Pa. One day isn’t going to make a difference now. Not one day,” Adam’s voice was getting stronger.

“Don’t you ‘come on’ me, young man. Those cattle are sold and need to be delivered and that’s exactly what we are going to do… understood!”

“Yes sir,” Adam resigned.

“Our reputation is at stake here. Can’t you see that?”

“Reputation? Since when has there ever been an issue with our reputation? We’ve always delivered Pa. And we will this time. And, I still don’t think one day of leisure is going to compromise our reputation or our deadline,” Adam spouted boldly.

“I don’t like your tone, boy.”

“Well, I’m sorry if you don’t like my tone. But, I can’t say that I like this obsessive attitude you’ve adopted lately,” Adam hissed. “I thought the Civil War had missed Nevada but it seems slavery is alive and well on the Ponderosa.”

Both Hoss and Little Joe ducked slightly at Adam’s cutting remark. They could almost feel the breeze it produced as it flew across the table. Comments like that often passed their older brother’s lips and they were never well taken. Their faces scrunched as if they’d been pinched. They could feel the heat radiate from Ben’s face. Adam lowered his head and sheepishly picked up his last piece of bacon and popped it in his mouth. He did not make eye contact with his father.

“Just – whom – do you think you are talking to?” Ben retorted with fire in his eyes.

Hoss and Little Joe stayed as still as possible. They didn’t want to get hit by whatever might get thrown next. Their eyes shifted back and forth from Adam to Ben then from Ben to Adam. It was like they were watching a horseshoe match. After several moments of deafening silence Adam stood and rested his clenched fists on the table.

“Quite frankly, Pa, I’m not sure who I’m talking to anymore.”

Adam then walked deliberately toward the front door and grabbed his coat, hat and holster. He left the house slamming the door behind him.

Ben remained seated with his mouth a gap. Hoss and Little Joe looked at their father wondering what his reaction might be to Adam’s dramatic exit. “What are you two looking at?” he barked.

“Nothing, Pa, nothing.”

“Well, finish up your breakfast and let’s get going. Time is money boys whether your brother thinks so or not!”

“Yes sir.”

**********

Adam was saddled and ready and sat atop Sport. Sport was a leggy chestnut quarter horse with four bright white socks. His coat shone like a new penny even though the sun was masked by storm clouds. But, the sky wasn’t the only thing that was stormy. The tension in the air was thicker than molasses in February.

Ben appeared through the front door of the house throwing on his coat like he was wrestling with it. He walked to the barn with mission in his step. His two younger sons followed. Adam did not acknowledge his family but rather curled his collar up to break the wind. He leaned both forearms on the horn of his saddle and looked off into the distance with a scowl.

He’d argued bitterly with his father before, but this time was different. This time Adam was angry at Ben not Ben’s opinion. Their Pa had changed in recent months and the boys were feeling the pain. It would be a long drive. At least six weeks on the trail – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The prospect was daunting and Adam wondered if he could handle it.

He waited patiently for his brothers and father to tack up and join him. Adam would keep his distance for a while – lay low. He was madder than a rabid badger right now and knew he’d have to settle down before he could even look at his Pa. If he didn’t he’d say something else he might regret and that would be it. When he simmered down, maybe by supper, he’d try and talk again. But would Ben listen.

***********

The rain did come. Steady and unrelenting. The weather just added to the Cartwrights’ misery. Ben had taken the lead with Hoss and Little Joe in single file behind him. Adam kept up but just barely. His self-inflicted separation irked Ben and Adam knew it. It didn’t make the trip any easier and Hoss decided to fall back and keep his brother company. He hoped he’d be received. Hoss usually played arbitrator when disagreements came up. He figured Adam was a safer bet then Ben at this point.

“How you holding up?” Hoss asked as he rode closely beside his brother.

“Holding up?”

“Nasty weather ain’t it?”

“Yep.”

“Listen, Adam.” Hoss paused. “We got a long trip ahead of us and it’s gonna be a heck of a lot longer if you and Pa ain’t talkin’.”

Adam gave no comment.

“Look, Adam, Pa’s just tired is all. We’re all of us tired. Why don’t you go on up there and talk to him. I cain’t take this no more.”

“No.”

“No? Well why not, dadburn it?”

“Hoss, Pa has got to realize that we are just as much a part of the Ponderosa as he is. We put just as much blood and sweat into the ranch as he has. And, this ‘all work and no play’ regiment isn’t healthy for anyone.”

“Yeah, but Adam…”

“No buts Hoss. You and me and Little Joe are not a cavalry regiment dictated to by a… well, never mind.”

“By a what, Adam?”

“Never mind I said,” he retorted curtly.

“Okay. Okay. I was just tryin’ to help is all.”

“Well, you and Little Joe don’t need to worry. This is between me and Pa.”

“Well that’s where you’re wrong, older brother. We do need to worry.”

“Oh. Why’s that?”

“Cause me and Joe’s gotta live with ya. And lately – that ain’t been easy.”

Hoss picked up speed and rejoined Little Joe and Ben. His last words dangled in the air like a swarm of bees and it stung. It made Adam feel like his brother was taking sides. He knew he wasn’t – Hoss just wasn’t that sort of person. But it sure didn’t feel good. Now his self-inflicted exile seemed anything but. All of a sudden he seemed totally alone and he didn’t like it.

After several moments of thought, Adam gave in and he too picked up speed and joined in line. Ben glanced back at him, but they did not lock eyes. It was a minor victory for Hoss though and he and Little Joe exchanged grins.

They would spend the rest of that day just getting to base camp where they would meet up with their trail cook and hired hands – eight in all. With sheets of rain pelting their soured faces the men plodded on.

***********

“Here ya go,” Hoss said as he offered Adam a plate of beans.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Ah, come on Adam. Don’t be so ornery. You gotta eat somethin’.”

“I said I’m not hungry.”

“But you ain’t eaten all day.”

“What are you? My mother,” Adam scoffed. “I don’t want any!”

Hoss seemed hurt when he turned to go back to the fire pit. Adam realized he had no grudge against his brother and was just using him to vent. He stopped him with a friendly tap. “Wait,” he said. “Give me those beans.”

Hoss smiled and turned back to his brother.

Adam had set up his own camp. He wasn’t sulking; it was just more comfortable for now. He thought it would be easier on everyone if he and Ben were apart even if it was just by a few yards. He thought he’d be less angry by now, but he wasn’t.

Adam propped his saddle against a tree and reclined. He’d already pulled out his blanket and had it draped around his shoulders. He clasped a cup of coffee hoping its heat might spread throughout his body. He was soaked to the skin and as tired as a cowboy could get. Hoss slide down the tree trunk scratching his back like a grizzly bear. He held the plate of beans level as he went and sat next to his brother. He passed the beans over. Adam took the plate and stared at it. “Huh,” he sniffed. “I’m almost too tired to chew.”

“Me too. I cain’t remember the last time I was this tuckered.”

“You? You were too tired to eat?”

“Oh no, Adam. You know me better than that. Since when have I ever been too tired to eat?”

“True enough,” Adam chortled seemingly more relaxed just by conversing with his calming brother. “So. Do you think I’m right?”

“Right? Right about what, Adam?”

“About Pa working everyone to the brink.”

“Well, I guess he figures if he can take it so can we.”

“Then you are on his side.”

“Adam. You know I don’t take sides. You’re my brother and he’s my Pa and ain’t nothin’ gonna change that… ever.”

“Hoss,” Adam exhaled, gesturing his fork full of beans like he was toasting a glass of champagne. “You’re a better man than me.”

“Well, I don’t know if that’s true but I do know one thing for sure.”

“Oh. What’s that?”

“I sure am a bigger man than you.”

Hoss’ double-entendre hit Adam over the head like a cattle prod. Hoss was unaware his remark actually had two meanings but Adam sure did. Was he being small about this he pondered? He’d talked the whole thing over with his brothers before breakfast that morning but he seemed to be the only one overly upset. He’d never been afraid of or complained about hard work before. Could it just be his fatigue that was making him such a curmudgeon or was he just being obstinate.

“Listen, Adam. In a few weeks, the work’ll all be done and Pa’ll give us our due. He always does. It’s just this year’s been extra busy is all,” Hoss professed. “You’re just like him. You’re both stubborn as mules in mud. Don’t you know that?”

“I guess I do now.”

“Pa ain’t never gone back on a promise in his whole life and come to think of it older brother… neither have you.”

“Well… When you’re right, you’re right.”

“It’s nice to be right for a change. It’s usually me saying that to you,” Hoss quipped with a smirk. “Now go and apologize so’s we kin all get a good night’s sleep. We sure could use it.”

“I’ll talk to Pa, but I can only say I’m sorry for what I said this morning. I can’t apologize about how he’s been treating us lately. I still think I’m right about that.”

“It’s a start.”

“It could be the start of something else,” Adam warned.

“Like what?”

“Our own little civil war.”

“Oh come on, Adam. That’s not funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny Hoss,” Adam cautioned.

“Well kin ya at least draw a truce or something?”

“I think I can manage a truce. I just hope Pa can.”

“You’ll never know til you try.”

“Hoss, you’re right again.”

**********

Ben sat on a makeshift bench close to the fire. He was the only one left after the crew had devoured dinner. Some of the men had already retired. Little Joe was busy cheating one of the cowhands at checkers while others chatted or treated their horses to carrots and apples.

Adam approached his father pensively. He picked up the coffee pot and refilled his cup and took a seat at the opposite end of the bench. Ben pretended he didn’t notice him, but Adam knew full well that he had.

The rain had finally moved on leaving an indigo sky filled with a mass of stars. Adam gazed up at them, marveling at their shear volume. He sighed deeply, then sucked in as much fresh mountain air as his lungs could hold.

“Sure am glad the rain’s moved on, Adam finally muttered, hoping small talk might break the ice.

Ben grunted if only to let Adam know that he’d been acknowledged.

“Beautiful, isn’t it, Pa?”

Again Ben mumbled incoherently and a large pause filled the cool, brisk air.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Adam blurted. “For what I said I mean. That was a terrible thing to say and I apologize.”

“You surprised me, Adam.”

“Oh. How so?” he questioned tentatively and then sipped his coffee.

“Comparing me to… well, I thought I raised you better than that son.”

“You raised me just fine, Pa,” Adam said. “You raised all of us just fine. What I said really had nothing to do with you. It’s… well, it’s just me, I guess.”

“But don’t you see, it does have to do with me.” Ben put down his cup and turned to face Adam. “Everything you boys say and do has everything to do with me. Why do you think I built the Ponderosa? I didn’t do it for me, Adam; I did it for you boys.”

“Did you, Pa? Did you?”

“Yes!” Ben seemed shocked that Adam would question that.

“You’re a proud man, Pa. And so am I. WE built the Ponderosa. For all of us. That includes you too. YOU built it for YOU just as much as you built for us.”

Ben slumped knowing full well that Adam was right. The ranch was a team effort.

“I know you’ve promised this beef. I know,” Adam continued. “I want to deliver them too. But we don’t have to kill ourselves doing it, do we?”

Ben did not look at Adam but rather stared at his hands – working one against the other. The sound they made was like sandpaper on wood.

“I’m promising you now, Pa. I’m promising you that we will get this cattle to market in Stockton no matter what. And do you know why?”

“No… why?” Ben replied wearily finally looking up and into Adam’s soulful eyes.

“Because I’m a chip off the old block that’s why,” Adam commented allowing a curvy smile to take over his complexion.

His charm was blatant but Ben was still upset by Adam’s insolence that morning. It hurt and Ben was just not ready to forgive.

“Well, I’m going to hit the hay,” Adam said as he smacked his hands against his thighs and pushed himself into a standing position. “Are we alright?”

“Sure we are, son. Sure we are.” But, Ben was not convincing.

“Sleep well then.”

“Goodnight. Oh and Adam…?”

“Yeah Pa.”

“Take the rest of the day off,” Ben smirked wickedly.

“Thanks Pa; I think I’ll do just that.”

**********

As Adam laid his head on his makeshift pillow, knots formed in his stomach. He knew his apology had not been accepted. It wasn’t easy for him – admitting his tongue was sharp and could wound like a snakebite. His father had seen through Adam’s attempt at a truce. Unfortunately it just wasn’t sincere. Ben knew Adam just wanted to make the drive easier. He hadn’t forgiven Adam at all.

Adam had to prove himself now. He’d work harder than his brothers and the hands put together and then Ben would see. He’d work himself to death if he had too. He didn’t realize then how dangerous pride could be. But, he didn’t care. They’d get the cattle to Stockton – every last one of them, and that Adam vowed was a promise.

**********

Adam was awake before dawn. He’d already been in the saddle for an hour by the time the sun peaked over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lake Tahoe glistened in the distance through the majestic pines. His goal – to round up as many strays as he could. His quest to prove himself had begun.

He was surprised at how he felt. He’d never been one to hold a grudge but this time was different. Ben was different. It saddened him. He wondered if their relationship could ever be repaired. Yes, they were father and son, but they were men too – men with strong convictions.

Adam had traveled for several miles when he came across a small herd of Ponderosa cattle. He circled around them skillfully and they respected his expertise. He calmly and slowly got them moving back toward base camp. There were about twenty-five head, nothing he couldn’t handle on his own. His father had taught him everything he knew about wrangling. He’d been driving cattle since he was knee high to a grasshopper. It was second nature to him.

Sport was a veteran too. He knew what to do. But, when a coyote sprang out of its den to protect its pups, the horse spooked and the cattle Adam had so carefully round up scattered in every direction. Sport turn tailed and was in a full gallop before Adam knew what had happened. It didn’t take long for him to gain control but just as he did he was knocked out of the saddle by a low hanging branch. He fell hard and was winded. He lay on the ground gasping for breath. Once his lungs filled back up again he took several moments to sit up and assess the situation. The situation was that Sport was nowhere in sight and neither were the cattle.

“Damn,” Adam seethed out loud as he grabbed a fistful of dirt and threw it. “This just isn’t my week.”

He stood unsteadily and brushed the dust off his clothes with his hat and made sure nothing was broken. Nothing was, but he did feel the warm wetness of blood. It trickled down his arm from his left shoulder. It wasn’t anything major – just a scratch. He blotted it with his bandana and set out to find his trusty steed.

By high noon he’d found Sport grazing peacefully under the shade of a tree. Sport didn’t look any worse for wear either. As Adam walked closer to his horse, Sport looked over at him as if to say “Where have you been?”

“Easy boy, Adam said with a cool, smooth voice. “Easy.”

He managed to gather up the reins without incident, mounted up and set out once more to round up the cattle he’d gathered that morning. It took several more hours but he did get them all back as well as several others. By supper he’d have them back at camp. Not a bad days work considering.

As Adam drove the stray herd the final mile, he could smell supper cooking. He was hungry but wasn’t looking forward to another night of being outcast whether it was his idea or not. His stomach grew tighter and tighter as he drew closer and closer to camp.

“Hey Adam!” Little Joe shouted to greet his brother at the temporary corral gate. “Looks like you out did all of us put together. How many?”

“Thirty-two,” Adam smirked, relieved that at least one member of his family was happy to see him.

Little Joe closed the gate after Adam had driven the cows into the pen and then Adam dismounted. Every one of his muscles ached. Every bone seemed to grind and creek. He limped ever so slightly just like every honest cowboy should and passed Sport’s reins off to his little brother.

“How about bedding him down for me?”

“Sure thing. Why don’t you go get some grub? You’re the last one in.”

“Am I, am I?” Adam commented gleefully.

Surely his father couldn’t fault him for this day’s work.

“Thirty-two head huh,” Little Joe gushed, “If that doesn’t get you into Pa’s good books, I don’t know what will.”

“Let’s hope so.”

It was the other side of twilight and getting cold. Adam wore his coat and chaps and pulled off his gloves as he got closer to the center of camp. He walked up to the cook’s wagon wearily. If he had to take one more step to get there he might not have made it.

“What’s in the pot?” Adam asked Troy the cook.

“Chicken stew,” he answered as he threw several ladles of food onto a plate. He handed Adam a cup of coffee as well.

Adam thanked Troy and made his way to the fire to eat and heat up. Hoss and Ben sat there finishing a desert of apple crumble.

“Pa, that new cook Troy is the best.” Hoss complimented. “Don’t tell Hop Sing I said so, though.”

“I won’t, son. Don’t worry, I won’t.”

“Well, look whose back.” Hoss welcomed with a wide smile. “How many’d ya git?”

“Thirty-two,” Adam boasted gently as he took a seat beside his large, younger brother.

“Thirty-two! Did ya hear that Pa?” Hoss said boisterously as he gave Adam a slap on the back that made him wince. “That’s quite a haul for one day.”

Ben grunted not willing to give Adam his due, even though he deserved it.

“Yeah. And they weren’t easy to get either,” Adam added.

“Oh. Whey’s that?”

“Darn horse spooked and ran me into a limb,” Adam explained as he wolfed down the stew pleasurably.

Ben couldn’t help but give his oldest boy the once over to make sure he was all right. He was still angry with him, but he couldn’t disguise his fatherly concern.

“You all right?” Hoss asked.

“Just banged up my shoulder a little. Nothing to worry about.”

“Let me look at it.”

“I said it’s okay, Hoss.”

Adam went back to Troy for another helping of stew and a refill of coffee. When he returned to the fire pit, Little Joe had joined the rest of his family.

“Adam round up thirty-two head today Pa. Did you hear that? That’s gotta be some kind of record.”

“Yes. I heard.” Ben grumbled seemingly unable to be proud.

Adam just smiled at Joe’s exuberance.

“I didn’t appreciate you leaving this morning without telling us where you were going,” Ben complained.

“Oh… well, Sorry Pa,” Adam said still focused on his food. “I just wanted to get a head start that’s all.”

“It was tough giving out assignments.”

“Sorry.” Adam said curtly.

“From now on, don’t leave this camp without checking with me first,” Ben ordered.

“Without checking with you,” Adam dropped his fork onto the plate. “What do you mean Pa?”

“I mean I can’t be wasting time figuring out what areas have been covered if I don’t know where all my men are at any one time.”

“One of your men?” Adam exclaimed aghast.

“YES! One of my men.”

“Pa. I am NOT one of your men. I’m your son!”

“Then act like my son and do as I ask.”

Adam didn’t know what to say. Even if he did, he’d be afraid of what it might be. He could feel his ears burning with pulsing blood – his anger rose so rapidly it made his eyes water. He placed his half-eaten dinner on the bench and stood. He sighed heavily and escaped the scene before anymore damage could be done.

“Being a little hard on him, ain’t ya Pa?” Hoss said guardedly, after several moments of uneasiness.

“I don’t think so. Is it too much to ask that he tell me where he’s going?”

“I guess not. But thirty-two head? That’s more than all of us brought in today all together.”

“I can’t have my hands operating on their own schedules and with there own agendas.”

“Pa, you know Adam ain’t got no agenda. He’s just doing his job. And a darn good one too, if you ask me,” Hoss proclaimed as he scrapped the remainder of his dessert from the bottom of his dish.

Little Joe sipped his coffee and steered clear of the conversation.

“Hoss, Adam’s got to work within the confines of a plan. It’s better that way… for everyone concerned. It’s just good business.”

“But, Pa, he was just trying to show you that he’s working hard. Can’t you see it’s his way of saying he’s sorry.”

“Maybe so,” Ben grumbled.

“Just take it easy on him. He’s doing his best. All of us are.”

Hoss left the circle and Ben soon retired as well, leaving Joe alone.

**********

Adam dutifully appeared at the briefing the next morning to receive his official assignment. And, he would the next day and the day after that. He went out everyday and consistently brought in more than his share of beef. He made sure his father knew exactly what territory he would cover and for how long. When the others stopped for a break or a mid-day meal, Adam continued to work. He didn’t want to provide his father with any fuel. He would be the perfect son – the best cowboy.

Within several weeks, the entire herd had been gathered and was ready to drive to Stockton. Adam had been early to bed and early to rise. He hadn’t eaten much since his last set-to with his father. His appetite seemed to vanish anyway. Nothing could fill the emptiness he felt.

The Cartwright feud continued but with less intensity. Adam was civil to Ben and Ben was civil right back, but that was as far as either would go. When the drive was complete and they got back home, they’d settle it either way. Adam would evaluate his future then. That was the sensible thing to do and if Adam had one admirable quality it was plain common sense. But, that too seemed to be over ridden by his pride. It was a self-driving force that seemed to blind him.

But the conflict between father and son was not the only thing that festered. Adam’s injured shoulder had gotten worse and was beginning to hinder his performance. But, he wasn’t about to let it stop his incessant workflow. His honor was at stake and he wasn’t about to give in to a little pain.

With Ben at its head, the drive moved on from their base camp high in the foothills onward to Stockton. Eight cowhands, one cook and meal wagon and three Cartwright sons, began to move over four hundred head of cattle. It would be slow going and two long weeks of cold winds, grit and dust. But for Adam, it would become a downward spiral into hell – a gut wrenching challenge just to survive.

**********

“Now THAT, was one long day,” Hoss exhaled as he joined Little Joe and several of the hands.

The men had settled the herd and tended to their horses. All the chores were done for the day and they’d eaten a hearty supper. Troy the cook had outdone himself tonight – roast beef, potatoes, beans and cornbread. Every man was satisfied and happy. Now they were gathered around a card game with Joe smack dap in the middle. There wasn’t much in the way of entertainment on the trail and this was the closest thing to socializing. They had five weeks under their belts with one to go… at least – that was the plan.

Hoss stretched out on his bedroll and was on his third helping of cherry pie when he noticed his older brother coming towards him. He thought Adam was going to join them as well, but he just walked passed. He didn’t even seem to notice that anyone was there.

“Hey! Adam! Why don’t ya come on over and set a while.”

“Huh. No thanks. I’m a… I’m going to bed,” he answered vacantly.

“Adam? You all right?” Hoss asked, sensing strain in his brother’s voice.

But, Adam did not respond. Hoss watched him until he was engulfed by the darkness. He was worried about him. Adam had been distant the last few days. The rift between he and Ben had mellowed somewhat. But, Adam seemed to be in a daze. Hoss decided he’d keep an eye on him for the rest of the trip.

**********

The pressure in Adam’s shoulder was intense. He laid in the fetal position with his hand firmly clutching his left arm at the elbow. He rocked slowly back and forth hoping it might distract him. Infection had invaded his body like a swarm of ants on a carcass.

Adam’s teeth chattered and he lapsed in and out of consciousness. His body quacked, erupting in feverous chills. He was too sick and in too much pain to realize just how much trouble he was really in. He could hear the crew laughing and talking somewhere in the distance but they sounded like they were underwater. It was almost musical. Delirium had taken over every fiber of his being.

“I’m going to check on Adam,” Hoss announced as the circle of friends dispersed for the night.

“Why?” Joe questioned.

“Something ain’t right.”

“Ah, leave him alone.” The younger Cartwright dismissed. “He’s fine.”

Hoss considered Joe’s comment but thought better of it. “Nope. I’m gonna check on him.”

“All right. But watch you don’t get your head bitten off. He and Pa are moodier than mother bears lately.”

Hoss had already started over to where Adam was. As he got closer to him he could hear noises that he didn’t quite recognize. He thought it might be a wounded animal or a bird in distress. It was the sound of helplessness. When Hoss finally reached his brother, Adam was writhing. “Pa?” Adam whimpered. “Pa?”

Hoss knelt beside Adam and placed his hand on his left shoulder and was startled by his yelp of agony.

“Adam, you okay?” Hoss asked with concern. “Adam?”

But, he could not hear him. He’d transfigured to another plane. But, was it heaven or hell?

Hoss gently rolled Adam onto his back and only then could he see how sick his brother was. Sweat covered his ghostly face. His chest rose and fell rapidly, sucking in air like it was priceless.

“PA!” Hoss yelled out. “Pa! It’s Adam!”

Little Joe was the first to respond to Hoss’ alarm. He too knelt to comfort Adam. Ben had been fast asleep but was at his son’s side within moments as well. “What is it Hoss?” he asked.

“Adam’s sick as a dog Pa. Look at him. He’s sweating like a race horse.”

Ben felt his son’s forehead.

“What do you suppose it is?” Little Joe asked.

“Well, I don’t know.”

“Pa?” Adam tried again.

“Easy boy. I’m here,” Ben assured him.

“When I touched his shoulder, he just about jumped out of his skin,” Hoss commented.

“Well, let’s take a look.”

Removing Adam’s coat and shirt caused more discomfort. He conversed incoherently as his family and several other hands tried to diagnose the problem. It didn’t take much to realize that the scratch Adam received several weeks earlier had blossomed into an injury as dangerous as a gunshot wound. His arm right down to the tips of his fingers had swelled. His skin seem stretched to the breaking point.

“I knew I shoulda looked at that when it happened,” Hoss hissed. “What was Adam thinking, Pa? He knows you have to tend to this kinda stuff out here.”

“I know what he was thinking. I know exactly what he was thinking.” Ben said shaking his head. “Damned pride.”

“What are you talking about Pa?”

“ME! Me and Adam and this silly disagreement. He promised me he’d get this herd to market no matter what. He didn’t want anything to get in his way… don’t you see.”

“But, that’s crazy. He couldn’t help what happened. It was an accident.”

“I’ve been a fool,” Ben hissed.

“You’ve both been fools if you ask me,” Hoss remarked.

“I’ve put the goodwill of my children over the running of this ranch. Get me some more blankets, will you Joe?” Ben asked as he lifted Adam’s head and spilled water into his mouth.

“Sure thing, Pa.”

“Well, what are we going to do?” Hoss queried.

“I’m taking him home.”

“Home? That’s a day away.”

“What choice do we have?”

Hoss thought a moment but he had no other ideas. Joe arrived back at the scene and threw several more blankets over his brother. Adam was on the edge of death – poison surging through his body. His Pa knew it. He knew that Adam’s arm could probably not be spared. But, he would save his life. He wasn’t about to lose a son. That would be inconsolable.

“What have I done?” Ben chided, scolding himself for being so bull headed.

“Come on, Pa. Let’s get Adam to a doctor,” Hoss ordered. “It’s nobody’s fault and even if it was, there’s no time to fret about it.”

Hoss pushed everybody out of the way and squatted beside Adam. He pulled the blankets off him and cupped his right hand under his knees and gingerly placed his left arm under Adam’s torso. He picked up his brother as easily as lifting a bail of hay. Adam’s head rested on Hoss’ shoulder then fell back, too weak to hold it there.

“We’ll have to use the wagon,” Hoss said as he headed towards it.

Troy had already started unloading his kitchen on wheels and prepared a bed inside for Adam to lay on. Time was of the essence now. It had all gone too far.

EPILOGUE

Ben instructed his foreman to continue with the drive. He sent Joe on ahead to Virginia City for Doc Martin. He would be there when Hoss and Ben arrived back at the ranch house with Adam. It would be an excruciating ride over two full days but they finally reached home.

Within a week, the infection was under control but only due to a bedside vigil by all members of the family. Adam needed constant care. Ben especially worked to keep the wound clean and drained and was the main factor in preventing amputation. The doctor too worked incessantly to save Adam’s arm. In the end they were successful but it would be a long time before he’d get full use of it.

Finally, Adam’s fever broke. He was unaware of all the fuss. He was in another world. When he opened his eyes for the first time, he found himself safe in his own room and Ben at his side. He’d fallen asleep and laid his head on his folded arms on the edge of Adam’s bed. The sun was just coming up.

“Pa?” Adam whispered – his throat as dry as gravel.

Ben awoke and raised his head slowly. He looked squarely at his son and smiled gratefully. “You’re all right son,” he said softly.

“I’m sorry, Pa.”

“No Adam. I’m the one who should be apologizing to you. I don’t know what got into me boy. I… I just…”

“I guess we both need to set our priorities straight, huh.”

“Yes, I guess we do.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Adam?”

“Did we get the herd to Stockton?”

“I thought you said we had to prioritize things.”

“It’s still important, isn’t it?”

“Well, your brothers and I brought you home but yes, the beef got delivered.”

“Good,” Adam replied simply.

“You go back to sleep now,” Ben said as he gently patted Adam’s hand. “You’ve had quite a week.”

“Do you forgive me, Pa?”

“Of course I do, son. But, there’s really nothing to forgive. We were both wrong and we were both right. It seems we are too much alike. Too proud to admit we’re wrong and too involved in our promises.”

“A chip off the old block,” Adam murmured.

“More like a chip off the old blockhead,” Ben chuckled.

Adam reached over to touch his arm. He sighed – relieved that it was still there.

“I thought… well, I thought…”

“We saved your arm, son.” Ben assured. “We almost didn’t.”

“How can I thank you?” Adam asked with flooded eyes.

“Thank me… well just promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“We can’t let pride cloud our judgments again… ever. The price is too high.”

“I’ll try not to.”

“And so will I.” Ben pulled the covers up over Adam’s shoulders just like he had when Adam was boy. “Now go to sleep. Rest will make you strong. Then I can put you back to work!”

“Pa!”

“Don’t worry, I’m just pulling you’re leg. I’ve learned my lesson… the hard way.”

“So have I, Pa. So have I.”

*****End*****

 

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