Summary: While trying to foil a land grab scheme, Joe is wounded. Despite her own injuries, can his younger sister, Sierra, get him to a doctor in time? A sister fic, with a plot based loosely around the episodes of Land Grab and My Brothers Keeper.
Word count: 13,354 words Rating: T
A Journey Against Time
Sierra Marie Cartwright’s small frame panted heavily, as she concentrated on dragging the hastily made travois behind her. Her weak leg made climbing difficult and she was grateful for the added support of the tree branch crutch. Even though her thin cotton shirt hid the marks, the burning sensation on her right shoulder and under her left arm told her that the thick gnarly rope, fastened to the travois, had and still was rubbing her skin raw. But the pain from the rope and the ache in her leg were nothing compared to the fire she felt in the lower part of her left side. The shooting pains and the warm sticky wetness there reminded her that she couldn’t keep going for much longer.
Glancing up at the burning sun, she decided to stop and rest for a minute. She dropped the rope on the ground and leaned against one of the rock walls that surrounded her, before sliding down to sit. More than anything, she wanted to lie down and sleep, to succumb to the pain threatening to take over her body. Sleep would feel so good just now, she thought longingly and felt her eyelids begin fall. Maybe she could… just for a few seconds…
“No!” she reminded herself, giving her head a vigorous shake; after which she wished she hadn’t. She couldn’t afford to sleep now. She had to keep going. Her dust covered hands moved up hold her head as she desperately willed the sudden headache to go away. Using her bandanna, she wiped the sweat from her brow and push her damp brown locks out of her eyes before reaching for the canteen that she had stowed on the travois beside her brother’s unconscious figure. It was only half full, she noted, so she drank sparingly. The water was warm and metallic tasting, but it was wet and that was enough to clear away the dryness that clogged her throat.
Screwing the cap back on the canteen and using the crutch for support, Sierra stood shakily to her feet and slowly made her way over to the travois where Joe lay. She dropped to the ground beside him and studied his face, hoping for any sign of improvement from the last time she had checked. He was pale, but the cloth covering the gash on his forehead showed no sign of fresh blood. The left side of his jaw was swollen from the punch he had taken there. She pushed back the side of his open shirt to check the cloth that she had previously pressed against the wound in his shoulder.
‘At least he’s not bleeding again,’ Sierra thought. Carefully, she propped him up just enough so that she could check the bullet’s exit wound just below his shoulder blade. It too showed no sign of bleeding. Earlier, she hadn’t thought she would ever get either of those wounds to stop bleeding. She glanced down at his right leg to make sure that the splint she put on it was still doing its job.
Gently, she pressed her shaking fingers to her brother’s wrist and felt his pulse. ‘Weak, but at least it’s still there,’she told herself with a sigh of relief. Despite the sweltering heat, she noticed him shivering. A quick touch to his forehead told her he had a fever.
Sierra didn’t know for sure how long he could hold out, but she knew the urgency of the situation. Her brother had lost a lot of blood and though she had been able to clean the wounds and quell the bleeding for a while, she was no doctor. That was what he needed. A doctor. And he needed one soon. The nearest doctor was in Virginia City. She didn’t know exactly how far away that was from where they were at, but she knew that it was several miles to the Ponderosa ranch house and Virginia City was past that.
Despite the bleakness of the situation, Sierra was unable to resist chuckling. “Looks like we did it again, Joe,” she said as she looked down at him. How many times over the years had one of Joe’s half-baked schemes landed the two of them in trouble? Too many to keep track of. ‘Partners in crime’- that’s what friends often called them. From the time Sierra had begun crawling, she had insisted on following in Joe’s footsteps and as they grew, so did the bond between them. No one would have guessed three years separated them, in fact, despite their height difference, at first glance strangers often assumed they were twins.
“Wonder what Pa’s gonna say this time,” Sierra thought. Many times she had heard their father swear they were the cause of his gray hair and even Adam and Hoss claimed that they would cause them to ‘get old before their time.’
Thinking of her family made her wish they were there. She’d be able to get Joe to the doctor much quicker with their help. Oh, why had she gone too far into the woods earlier? Why hadn’t she just crouched at the edge and waited?
“Because Adam had told me to run and take Joe with me,” she said out loud, not sure whether she regretted it or resented it, knowing only that now, she was worried.
As far back as she could remember, Adam’s word had always carried as much weight as Pa’s. When he said do something, she usually did it. He was almost like a second father to her, probably because of the fifteen year difference between them. True, there were times that she stopped to question or argue with him, but in the end, he usually won.
Adam was a worrier, Sierra knew. There was always something worrying him. ‘Perhaps it came with being the oldest,’ she wondered. He worried about the price of cattle or whether his measurements for the mine supports had been right. He worried about Pa working too hard. He even worried about Hoss; but Joe and Sierra were who he worried about the most. He worried that someday Joe would break his neck from riding too fast or that Sierra would over do and re-injure her leg.
Her leg- ever since her accident two years ago when the tree had fallen pinning her underneath, Sierra knew that had been a worry on everyone’s mind. Though both of her legs had been badly broken, the left one had eventually healed allowing her to regain full use of it. The right leg wasn’t as lucky. Despite the doctors’ pessimism, after several surgeries as well as a lot of determination and hard work on her part, Sierra was finally able to take her first shuffled steps a year later. The leg was still weak, however, and probably always would be according to the doctors, which forced her to wear a metal brace for support and occasionally crutches were needed as well. Her speed and movement were greatly hampered and many of the seemingly simple ranch tasks she had done before, now took her twice as long to complete and often resulted in painful, sleepless nights.
That thought as well as the fiery pains that radiated from her wound reminded Sierra that she needed to tend to herself also. She didn’t have to remove the torn piece of cloth to know that she was bleeding again, as evident from the warm, sticky wetness soaking through her makeshift bandage. With shaky fingers, she tore another strip from one of her already torn sleeves. She removed the blood-soaked cloth and gently placed the new one in its place, applying firm pressure on the wound. But, the blood flow refused to be stopped that easily. Instead, it soaked through the fresh cloth within a matter of seconds. More and more strips were torn from her sleeves and applied to her wound.
Finally the bleeding did stop and Sierra breathed a shaky breath of relief. Tearing another strip from her sleeve, she re-bandaged the wound. She didn’t know how long it would be before it started bleeding again, but she hoped it wouldn’t be for awhile. The loss of blood was making her dizzy and sick to her stomach as it zapped all of her strength and energy that she desperately needed. Her leg was aching too from over exertion. Maybe they could just wait here for Adam and Hoss? It shouldn’t be too long before they caught up to them, should it? Pondering these thoughts, her eyes fell on Joe’s pale face. That was all it took and her mind was made up.
‘No,’ she told herself forcefully. Joe needed a doctor and he needed him fast. He was in worse shape than she was, and it was up to her to save them. There was no time to waste sitting around waiting for help.
Satisfied that the bandage was secure, she raised her head to contemplate the rocky hillside in front of her. Sure, it wasn’t going to be an easy climb. Aside from her leg, her wound was slowing her down drastically, draining her of every last ounce of strength. Why had she chosen to go this way? Why hadn’t she taken the trail to the road? It was much easier than trying to drag the travois up the rough slope.
“Because this way was shorter,” she reminded herself with conviction and determination. At first it had seemed like a good idea, of course that was partly because they had been riding a horse. Sometime during the climb, the horse had slipped on some loose rock, resulting in the three of them tumbling down the steep slope. Unfortunately, the horse had not survived the fall. Aside from being knocked unconscious for a few minutes as well as a few minor scrapes and bruises, Sierra had been unhurt. Joe, however, had suffered a broken leg. A moan from Joe brought Sierra back to the present. Sucking in a deep breath, an action that she regretted with a grimace, she looked down at him.”Hang on, Joe, just hang on,” she whispered softly. “I’ll get you to a doctor. Then everything’ll be all right.”
‘Everything’ll be all right. Everything’ll be all right.’ Sierra repeated that phrase over and over again in her mind as she lifted the rope up and once more began the slow, painful trek up the slope.
Gunshots echoed through the run-down shack; the sound of angry voices mixed with Sierra’s screams of terror and his brothers’ firm demanding voices.
“Joe, Joe, can you hear me?”
Someone was calling his name, but who? It sounded like his sister, but the thick haze in his brain made him unsure. The other sounds had stopped and he wondered if they were really real or if he had just dreamed them. He wouldn’t be surprised if it had been a dream; after all, he had always been the one plagued by nightmares.
“Joe, can you hear me?”
The voice again. This time he was sure it belonged to Sierra. Something was wrong, though. Her voice sounded shaky and weak, as if she was trying to keep fear out of her voice, but failing miserably.
What could be wrong? And why was she trying to wake him up? Oh, he felt so sleepy. What time was it anyway? Was the sun even up yet? Joe tried to open his eyes to see, but they felt so heavy. He must’ve really worn himself out fixing fences the day before in order for him to be this exhausted. Trying again with a little more force, he was able to open his eyes just a crack, enough to see it was still dark.
“Joe, please wake up,” his sister’s voice begged him.
It’s still night, go back to bed, is what he wanted to tell her, but for some reason his muscles refused to obey. She’ll go away in a little bit, he told himself, as he started to succumb to the force called sleep that was pulling him under.
“Please, Joe, I need you to wake up.”
Oh, why wouldn’t she just leave him alone? Didn’t she know how tired he was? He was going to have to tell her if he expected to get anymore sleep that night.
Slowly Joe forced his heavy eyelids open. Through the blur, he could make out the form of his sister’s face as she hovered over him, anxiously waiting for him to wake up, and saw a small shaky smile appear on her face. His eyes blinked several times as he tried to clear his vision. Once he did, he realised that he wasn’t in his room at all. Through the darkness, he made out the form of a rock ceiling. Where were they?
Joe started to raise up off of the pine covered travois but was stopped by a sharp, suffocating pain in his shoulder.
“Easy, Joe, just lie still,” came Sierra’s voice, as he felt her slip her arm behind his back and gently lower him back down.
Once Joe had caught his breath, he let out several coughs, finding his throat was dry. Apparently his sister realised it too because she raised the canteen to his dry lips.
“Where- where are we?” Joe asked once he had drunk his fill.
“In a cave on the hillside above the shack where you found those men,” Sierra informed him. Joe looked at her puzzled.
“What men?” he asked.
Sierra studied him carefully for a moment before answering.”You don’t remember?”
Joe shook his head.
“Those men that were behind the land scheme?”
Images flashed as it all came back to Joe.
For weeks, people had been showing up in Virginia City claiming that they had bought portions of land which turned out to be part of the Ponderosa. It had been a well planned scheme; each person who had bought the land described the seller differently. It turned out that the sellers had been a band of men who drastically changed their appearances each time in the hopes of no one recognising them. While out checking fences, Joe and Sierra had stumbled upon their hiding place, an old line shack on the Ponderosa. Listening to the men inside talking, it didn’t take long to figure out their involvement in the scheme.
“Sis, ride back and get Adam and Hoss,” Joe whispered to Sierra while they sat watching the shack from behind the low brush.
“And what’re you gonna do?” Sierra asked quietly.
“I’m gonna keep an eye on them,” Joe replied, a little curious as to what his sister thought he was going to do.
“You’re gonna stay right here and not do anything?” Sierra’s tone of voice telling Joe she did not believe him.
“I won’t do anything that I don’t have to do!” Joe answered, in a voice just above a whisper. “Now go!”
Though not completely satisfied with his answer, Sierra knew that once he got it into his head to do something, no amount of persuasion on her part would stop him. Hurrying back through the woods as quietly as possible, she made her way to where they had left the horses.
Once Sierra had gone, Joe heaved a sigh of relief as he again focused on the shack. Seeing no one outside, Joe carefully crept towards the shack, stopping just underneath the small window next to the door and listened to the conversation inside.
“If it weren’t for old man Cartwright and those boys of his, we wouldn’t have to hide out here in the middle of nowhere,” Joe heard someone say in a voice that sounded more like a whine. “Look at us, living in this old shack. A good sneeze would bring the whole place down around our ears.”
“Aw, it may not look like much, but this shack’s pretty sturdy,” another man assured him just as the wind picked up outside, causing the shack to creak and groan as its walls shifted slightly against the wind.
“Dadburnit!” a gruff voice exclaimed as he slammed something- Joe thought it sounded like his hat- down hard on a wooden surface. “I’d like to get my hands on them Cartwrights just once! Just once- that’s all it would take to make Ben and those high and mighty boys of his regret that they ever messed with Ol’ Tate here!”
“Don’t forget that girl neither,” another man’s voice added. “This is just as much her fault as it is them boys’.”
A wicked laugh was heard followed by Tate’s gruff voice. “Oh, don’t you worry, I won’t forget that purty little gal,” he assured the others. “I’ve got something special planned for her.” Tate’s wicked laughter howled and the others joined in.
Joe felt his blood begin to boil. Common sense had told him to back away from the shack quietly and return later with help. But, it was a well-known fact that Joseph Cartwright rarely listened to common sense. Drawing his pistol from his gun belt, he burst into the shack, not stopping to consider the consequences. He managed to wound one of the men in the arm, but it was not enough to stop him. The other men quickly overpowered Joe and before he knew what happened, he found himself captured; his hands and feet securely tied in order to ensure that he wouldn’t be leaving.
Joe wasn’t exactly sure how much time had passed before he heard the faint sound of a bird whistle. To anyone not familiar with birds, the whistle could easily have been mistaken as an actual bird’s call. But, to Joe, Adam’s familiar signal was a sound that sent a shiver of excitement through his body. He caught himself just before his head jerked up to stare out the window. An action like that would surely alert his captors to his sibling’s presence.
The door was thrown open with an echoing bang, revealing Adam in the doorway, his pistol raised, ready to fire at the first sign of threat. Behind him Joe could make out the larger form of his brother Hoss, who too had his gun in hand.
The arrival of his brothers caught Joe’s captors off guard. It took them a moment to realise what had happened before they scrambled to draw their guns. A shot rang out, freezing the men in their tracks.
“Don’t try it, gentlemen,” Adam warned, the gun in his hand smoking. Satisfied that his order was being obeyed, Adam glanced over at his youngest brother.
“You all right, Joe?” he asked, smirking at Joe’s predicament.
Joe nodded, shooting his brothers a relieved grin. “Fine as frog hair.”
Adam turned to someone still hidden from view just outside the door. Though Joe couldn’t see the person, the look on his oldest brother’s face told him that Adam wasn’t pleased with them.
“Go cut him loose.” He held out his pocketknife and stepped farther into the shack, leaving the doorway open. Joe didn’t know why he was surprised to see his sister enter the room and make her way towards him.
Now he knew why Adam was upset. Joe knew that as soon as Adam had mapped out a plan, he had most likely told Sierra to stay in the safety of the surrounding forest. Joe stifled a chuckle as he imagined the stubborn, angry look that the girl must’ve given their oldest brother in reply. Adam wouldn’t have argued, but then Sierra wouldn’t have obeyed anyway.
Sierra flashed him a smile, as she flipped open the knife and began sawing through the thick ropes. Watching Adam slip his knife back into his pocket made Joe realize that she had snubbed their older brother and pulled her own knife out of the pocket of her split-skirt.
A loud crash sounded from behind Sierra, causing Joe to scramble to his feet the moment his limbs were free. It only took him a second to figure out what happened. Adam and Hoss were dazedly picking themselves up off the floor that was now littered with scraps of wood. Joe felt his temper heat up inside of him and he launched himself at the man nearest him. His older brothers soon regained their senses and they too joined in the fight.
The opponents grabbed whatever they could to fight with. Chairs and tables were broken over backs, while fists were flung at faces and guns knocked out of hands. At one time, Hoss charged the melee, taking one of the men outside.
While her brothers were busy fighting, Tate approached the corner where Sierra was standing.
“Hey, sweetheart, why don’t you be a good girl and come with Ol’ Tate here?” he said quietly, a wicked grin spread across his face.
Sierra shivered; she could only imagine what he had in mind and she had no desire to oblige him. She backed away and found that he did not stop. She continued to back up until she felt the hard roughness of the wood on her back. Terror filled her mind; He’s still coming!
Why hadn’t she thought before? This was exactly what he wanted to do; get her backed into a corner where she couldn’t escape. He had almost reached her. His grin broadened; he enjoyed seeing the fright in her eyes.
“Well now, honey, let’s not have any struggle, seeing as there’s no where’s for ya to go,” Tate reached a filthy, calloused hand out to brush her cheek.
Anger mixed with panic flashed through her and before she knew it, she impulsively slapped his hand away. Immediately, Sierra regretted her action. Tate’s expression turned bright red in anger.
“You’re gonna regret that, girlie,” he threatened as he squeezed her forearm roughly.
‘Don’t let him see you’re afraid.’ she silently coached herself. How many times had her brothers told that during her self-protection lessons? Until that moment, Sierra hadn’t realised how hard that was. She wasn’t merely afraid; she was terrified. Never in all of her fifteen years could she recall being so frightened, though that was probably because her father and her older brothers had always protected her.. But her father wasn’t there and her brothers had their hands full with their own battles. She was going to have to face this one by herself.
‘Oh, why didn’t I listen to Adam and stay with the horses?’ Sierra thought to herself, though she already knew the answer. She had her Cartwright stubbornness to thank for that.
Another rough squeeze on her forearm had brought Sierra back to the man who stood in front of her.
“You know something, you’re kinda purty for a cowgirl,” Tate told her. “Especially seeing you’re with scoundrels as ugly as those.” He gestured over his shoulder toward where Adam and Joe were still engaged in fight, but his eyes never left Sierra. She cringed as he touched her face. “Right purty indeed.”
Sierra knew she had to get away from him. Frantically scanning her surroundings, she kneed the man in the groin as hard as she could. Tate howled in pain, dropping his hold on her. Sierra wasted no time. Immediately she rushed for the door of the shack.
But she was not quick enough. Tate caught her braid as she fled, causing Sierra to let out a cry of pain and she felt tears come to her eyes as she was roughly jerked back. With one hand, Tate held her arms painfully behind her back while pulling out his pistol and firing out the window.
The blast caught the attention of the Cartwright boys and the other three men who were fighting. From outside, Hoss watched as two men shoved Adam and Joe out of the shack and onto the dusty ground just before Tate appeared in the doorway, dragging Sierra with him.
“Let her go!” Joe jumped up from where he had landed in the dirt, his anger boiling at the sight of seeing his sister man-handled. Adam and Hoss felt their tempers rising, but they were trying their best to control them. They hoped that their youngest brother wouldn’t do anything drastic.
“I really don’t think you’re in any position to tell me what to do,” Tate waved his pistol in the air. “Get their gun’s, Zeb, and put them inside.”
Adam scowled at the man now picking up the guns that been lost during their scuffle. He turned back to the man who held his sister. “All right, what do you want?”
“You’re very perceptive,” Tate replied. “What I want is for us to be able to get out of here without any more trouble.” He paused a moment before continuing. “And I think that’s what your little sister here’s gonna help us do.”
“What are you getting at?” Hoss asked, not sure as to exactly why the man wanted Sierra. Tate chuckled softly.
“I’m gonna take your sister here along with us to ensure that nobody follows us,” he informed them. “And if any of you try to follow us, well, let’s just say this purty little thing won’t be so purty anymore.” He studied each of the Cartwrights in turn. “So do we have a deal?”
The Cartwrights stayed silent for a moment, Adam using his peripheral vision to scan the area.
“I’ll take that as a deal,” chuckled the leader of the gang. “Zeb, Clem, Jake; get the horses ready. ”
“Jake’s gotta couple a broken ribs, boss,” the man called Clem said, as he stood from where Jake lay on the ground.
“Fine, set him up in the corner there, he can still point a gun at these three while you go get the horses. Now move!”
Joe couldn’t suppress his anger any longer. “You’re not taking my sister anywhere,” his voice low and dangerous. Adam and Hoss remained silent, but Sierra knew that their minds were working to come up with a plan. From the tone of Joe’s voice, though, it sounded like he wasn’t going to wait much longer. Either that or he had a plan of his own.
“I’m sorry, young man, but I’m afraid that I didn’t hear you. What did you say?” Tate’s tone dared Joe to repeat his words.
Joe took a step forward and repeated his statement. Instead of threatening Joe like Sierra was afraid he would, the man started to laugh. A quick glance at Joe told her that the man’s laughter was antagonising Joe’s dangerously hot temper as much as an insult would have. Joe was literally seething. Sierra shot a terrified glance at Adam and Hoss who were standing a few feet away. She hoped they would be able to keep Joe from doing something foolish.
As if reading her thoughts, the two oldest Cartwrights wanted to reach for their youngest brother, but Jake’s rifle was too close for comfort. Adam also couldn’t be sure that the other two wouldn’t re-appear. All they could do was pray that Joe, for once, would be sensible.
Sierra turned her eyes back to Joe as Tate continued to laugh. She could see the fury in her brother’s eyes as he battled to control his anger. His fists were clenching and unclenching at his sides as he stood in battle-ready position.
‘Please, Joe, don’t do anything rash,’ Sierra’s eyes pleaded with her brother’s as their eyes met. For a moment, Sierra thought he was going to listen. Then the laughter stopped and Tate spoke again.
“If you think you can stop me from taking your sister with us, I’d like to see you try, you little runt-nosed pipsqueak.”
Jake, sitting on the edge of the porch, chuckled along with his boss, then stopped and groaned in pain. “Don’t make me laugh, Boss, it hurts. The pipsqueak sure is a hot head though, ain’t he?”
Sierra watched as Joe’s self-control snapped, giving free reign for his anger to take over. Everything happened in slow motion as Joe launched himself at Tate. As he sailed towards them, she knew that Joe was on target. ‘He forgot Tate’s got a gun!’ she realized with alarm.
She tried to warn Joe; to shout for him look out. But her voice wouldn’t obey. The gun went off a split second before Joe collided with Tate, knocking the three of them to the floor.
Jake was distracted enough for Adam to reach down, pick up a stone and hurl it at the man just before he jumped to disarm him. Hoss ran the other way and was about to join Joe, when shots were fired from the bushes. He zigged then zagged and dove behind a tree as bullets ricocheted.
Adam disarmed Jake and headed in Hoss’ direction, covering his trail with return fire. “Hoss, I’ll hold them off and keep them out of the shack. Can you get back to the horses get another rifle?”
“Sure, but Joe and Sierra?” Hoss huffed in exertion.
Neither brother could see what was happening; they could hear the struggle, but they knew better than to make a run for it while they were under fire from the two on the other side of the clearing. “Either way, we’ll need another gun, Hoss.”
Hoss nodded and took off toward the incline behind them.
Hitting the floor caused Tate to lose his hold on Sierra, who quickly scrambled for the gun in his hand. As they wrestled, gunfire was heard from outside.
“Let go or I’ll kill you!” Tate yelled. Sierra didn’t respond; it took everything she had just to keep the gun pointed away from her. She knew she couldn’t let go.
The man rolled her over on her back so that he was on top of her; he held her down by the shoulder with one arm, while his other hand aimed the gun. In just a few seconds it would be in the perfect position for him to kill her. She grasped his wrist, trying to pry the weapon away, then let go when she saw his finger on the trigger; a wicked smile on his face. With new-found strength, Sierra grabbed the barrel with both hands and pushed upwards. It wasn’t enough to dislodge the weapon from his grip; however, it was enough to push it away from her chest and have it pointed under his chin, just as he pulled the trigger. The man’s body stiffened suddenly as the bullet travelled upwards; through his gullet and out of the top of his skull. He went limp and fell to the floor just as Sierra rolled out of the way.
Breathing deeply, Sierra had to look away from Tate’s limp form and the grotesque shape of his head. She suppressed the bile rising in her throat as she thought of how close she had come to being in his place.
A quiet moan nearby drew her attention and she turned to find Joe lying on the floor in the exact position he had landed in when he had knocked Tate to the floor. Quickly, Sierra made her way over to him and found that he was unconscious, a red stain on the back of his shirt. At first this puzzled Sierra, she’ seen him shot from the front, but as she turned him over, she realised the reason for the two wounds. One was the bullet’s exit wound. She tore strips of cloth from her long sleeved shirt and ripped open Joe’s shirt to press them against her brother’s wounds.
“Joe! Sierra!” The distant sound of Adam’s voice calling from outside caught her attention. She pushed herself to her feet and hurried to the window where she could just make out Adam and Hoss busy returning gun fire. Looking around the shack, signs of the earlier struggles were scattered everywhere. “Joe! Sierra, get out of there!”
“Adam, Joe’s hurt!” Sierra shouted, trying to make her voice sound stronger than she was feeling.
“How bad?” she heard Adam call.
“Not bad; it’s his shoulder, I think…”
“Just get both of you out of here! We’ll cover you.” Adam’s voice came again as he returned fire towards the remaining two outlaws near the side of the shack.
Sierra looked down at Joe who was just starting to stir.
“Joe, Joe, I need you to wake up,” she called, sitting down beside him. Slowly, his eyes opened.
“What happened?” Joe asked.
“You were shot,” Sierra replied. For a moment Joe looked puzzled, but the sound of gunshots reminded him of their situation. “Joe, Adam said for us to get out of here. Do you think you can walk?”
“I think so,” he replied, slowly pushing himself to a sitting position.
With Sierra’s help, Joe was soon outside the back door of the shack, stumbling from the loss of blood and rapidly losing more. She knew that she was going to have to get the bleeding stopped and soon. At that moment, she regretted the fact that they had left their horses tied up the trail a ways. There was no way Joe would be able to get past the gun fight going on in front of the shack. He couldn’t walk much farther nor could she carry him; though she was already supporting the majority of his weight. She could feel her leg beginning to cramp from exertion and knew she had to think of something fast.
Relief washed over her as she heard a horse whiny. Turning to the side, Sierra saw a horse standing tied to a tree at the corner of the shack.
“Come on, Joe, just a little bit farther,” Sierra told him as they approached the horse. Joe’s heavy breathing and a soft groan was his only response.
Somehow Sierra managed to get Joe up onto the horse and using the wooden crates stacked nearby, she was able to climb up behind him. As she reached her arms around his body to take the reins, Sierra heard someone run out of the bushes.
“Hey, that’s my horse! You come back here with my horse!” Clem yelled at them as he began running towards them.
Adam fired off a shot at Clem, however, he barely managed to duck just as Zeb fired a shot that came far too close to Adam’s head, grazing it as it whizzed past. Adam fought back his panic before he heard the running hooves. He prayed his brother and sister had found the horse and took cover again close to Hoss.
As soon as Sierra kicked the horse, it took off running, speeding away from the shack as if it sensed their need to get away from there. Gunshots behind them told them that Clem wasn’t going to let them get away that easily.
“He’s shooting at us,” Joe said in a voice that sounded more like a groan.
“I know,” Sierra replied, the worry evident in her voice.
They reached the end of the canyon and the horse rounded the bend so that they were out of sight of the shack and the man. As they turned to go around the corner, Joe felt Sierra jerk behind him and breathe in sharply. The reins went slack and Joe quickly grabbed them.
“Sierra! Are you all right?” Joe asked his sister.
“Yeah,” was Sierra’s response. “I’m fine.”
Something in his sister’s voice told Joe that Sierra wasn’t telling the truth. He knew that he should probably force her to, but was reminded of her stubborn nature when he considered this action. Joe knew he was in no condition to argue with her, so he quickly gave up the idea and instead concentrated on staying on the horse.
Sierra had taken the reins back from him, for which Joe was thankful as the dizzy feeling in his head made it hard for him to see where they were going. His shoulder was throbbing painfully and he had to bite his lip to keep from crying out at the pain every time he moved.
Joe knew from the sticky, wet feeling that his wounds were still bleeding. The cloth that Sierra had pressed up against the wounds had long been soaked through. Joe had torn more pieces of cloth from his own shirt sleeves and pressed them to the wounds, not bothering to remove the soaked cloth strips that his sister had applied.
Once they were sure that they were safely away from the shack, Sierra brought the horse to a halt in the shelter of some trees. Joe heard the sound of rushing water and knew there was creek running somewhere nearby. Careful not to move his shoulder, he allowed Sierra to help him dismount, though he did his best not to lean too heavily on her, his gut telling him, that she too was hurt..
As Sierra gently washed his wounds, Joe studied her movements and tried to figure out where she was hurt. She was favoring her right leg more than usual, but seeing no blood on her skirt, he concluded that she had to be hurt somewhere else. Straining against the affects of the amount of blood loss, he found himself struggling to stay awake. With his good arm, Joe pressed the dry pieces of cloth to the wound in front of his shoulder while Sierra pressed on the one below his shoulder blade.
After using all the cloth from Joe’s sleeves and some from Sierra’s, the bleeding slowed and finally came to a stop. With a sigh of relief, Sierra tied a bandage in place over the wounds. Joe had lost his battle against sleep and was now resting. His face was pale from the loss of blood, but Sierra figured that sleep was the best thing for him at the moment. There was nothing else she could do to help him, but get him to a doctor as quick as possible, without opening the wound.
The sun had gone down while she tended to Joe. Glancing around, Sierra realised that this really wasn’t a good place to stop for the night, though she hadn’t noticed how late it was when she had stopped. A quick glance at Joe told her that this spot would have to make do for tonight. She only hoped that no wild animals would find them.
The whiny of the horse reminded her that she had left his tack on him. Pushing herself to her feet, Sierra carefully made her way over to the gelding, thankful for the light of the full moon. She slipped the bit out his mouth and tied his reins to a sturdy tree where he could reach water and grass. After undoing the cinch, Sierra reached up to lift the heavy saddle from the horse’s back.
Instantly, she dropped her arms to her side with a quiet cry of pain as she was reminded of the wound in her side. With the anxiousness of trying to tend to Joe’s wounds, Sierra had forgotten about herself. Using the light of the moon as a guide, Sierra carefully washed the wound and tore more strips from her sleeves to try and stop the bleeding. She knew that the bullet needed to be removed but she also knew that there was no way that she could do it. And with the condition Joe was in, neither could he. She sucked in another deep breath and bit her lip to keep herself from crying out from the pain, hoping that the bullet had not caused any damage to vital organs.
“Why is it that when I’d forgotten about this wound, it didn’t hurt so much?” Sierra wondered to herself. If it hadn’t been for the excruciating pain, she probably would have laughed.
Though the sun had made the day hot, she knew that the night was going to be cold. In their predicament, she hadn’t taken time to think of grabbing any supplies. Ignoring the throbbing pain in her leg, Sierra slowly scooted over to where Joe was lying and carefully laid down beside him. She knew that she should probably stay awake and keep guard, but drowsiness was rapidly taking over her weak body and, like Joe, she was quickly losing the fight. As she fell asleep, Sierra’s last thought was to hope that Adam and Hoss were all right and that they would find them soon.
Adam and Hoss had camped for the night about half a mile away from where Sierra and Joe were. Aside from some bruises and scrapes, a black eye, and a bullet crease, both of them were for the most part unhurt. Adam was grateful he had taken the time when Sierra had first found them in the north pasture to send the ranch hand to fetch Roy. If it hadn’t been for the arrival of the sheriff and several other men from Virginia City, both boys knew they could have been hurt a lot worse. When Roy had called out, Clem and Zeb quickly surrendered, knowing they were outnumbered.
Roy had offered to send a few men along with the boys as they went after the two youngest Cartwrights, but Adam and Hoss declined knowing the sheriff would need them to get the land schemers into town. They did however give him a message to deliver to their father should he arrive before they returned. Ben was due back from his trip to Sacramento the next day and they knew he would be worried if none of them were there to meet him. Adam hoped they would catch up to Sierra and Joe before nightfall, figuring that they took the shortcut over the hills. Though it was rougher terrain, it also cut ten miles off the trip to the ranch house.
Sierra and Joe’s trail had been easy to follow and the boys had quickly gained on them. But then the sun had set and even with the light of the full moon, there wasn’t enough light to make out the trail and they had soon lost it.
Much to Adam’s frustration, when they had finally stopped to camp for the night, Hoss had insisted on bandaging the wound that had been left on his older brother’s head when the bullet had grazed him. Now they were sitting on either side of the small campfire, drinking coffee. Neither of them were doing much talking as the concern for their younger siblings was forefront in each of their minds. Finally, Hoss broke the silence.
“How’s your head?” he asked. Adam continued to stare intently into the fire and didn’t respond. “Adam?” Adam’s head jerked up as if he had been startled.
“What?” he wondered as he absently took another sip of the now cold coffee. Hoss repeated his question. “Its fine; just a graze,” Adam’s voice almost dared Hoss to contradict him. Other times, Hoss might would have, but that night he didn’t. Instead, he watched as Adam returned to his staring and let the night’s stillness surround them.
After a few minutes, Hoss again decided to break the silence.
“Adam, don’t you think we had better turn in if we’re to be up with the sun?”
Again, Adam didn’t respond; he only continued to stare into the fire.
“Adam?” Hoss tried to get his brother’s attention.
“I’m listening,” Adam’s eyes remained on the flames.
“I said, ‘don’t you think we had better turn in if we’re to be up with the sun?’” Hoss asked him again.
“Yeah,” Adam replied, dropping his head to stare down into his coffee cup.
Hoss studied his older brother carefully. Being the oldest, Adam had always taken on the responsibility of looking out for his younger siblings. As far back as he could remember, Adam had always blamed himself if any of them had gotten hurt when he was around. Most of the time, however, it wasn’t his fault. Now, as Hoss studied his brother, he knew what was going through his mind.
“Adam,” Hoss called his brother’s name. “Adam, none of this is your fault.” Adam looked across at Hoss, the look of sadness still in his eyes.
“Yes, it is,” Adam told Hoss. “I’m the one who sent Sierra out there with Joe. She tried to tell me that he was hurt, but I didn’t listen.”
“Adam, you sent Sierra and Joe out of there because you were trying to protect them,” Hoss reminded him. “Remember how that man was going to try and use Sierra as a getaway hostage? If you hadn’t I‘ve sent them out here, they might’ve tried somethin’ else, somethin’ worse.”
Adam sighed. “Joe’s hurt, Hoss. Sierra’s just a kid.”
“Yeah, she is, but she said it weren’t bad. She knows enough about scrapes and such. She’s the only one that coulda got Joe outta there. Don’t worry so much, I’m sure they’re almost home by now.”
“Yeah, but if I hadn’t let Sierra come with us in the first place, none of this would’ve happened,” Adam replied.
Hoss chuckled. “If I remember right, you didn’t exactly ‘let’ her come us,” he reminded Adam as he remembered the stubborn look on Sierra’s face when she refused to allow them to leave her behind.
“Either you let me come with you, or I’ll follow by myself.” Those had been her exact words. She’d stood facing Adam, feet firmly planted, legs apart, arms crossed, her chin raised so that she could look him in the eye. She was still puffing after riding at full pelt to the north pasture to tell them about Joe’s half-cocked plan. Hoss had to admit that for a skinny fifteen year old girl whose full height was 5’, she’d looked pretty fierce. Adam had stared at her for what seemed like forever.
“You’re not serious,” Adam said raising a warning brow at his little sister.
“Uh, Adam, somethin’ tells me she’s serious,” Hoss told his older brother after studying their sister’s stubborn face.
“I am,” gulped Sierra, trying to stay brave in front of her oldest brother’s warning glare. ‘You ain’t…”
“Haven’t,” corrected Adam.
“Haven’t,” repeated Sierra with a huff, “got time to stand around here correcting me so stop with the eyebrow raising! If you don’t let me come with you, I’ll come anyway; I’ll follow. You can’t leave me here and you haven’t got time to make sure I head home.”
“All right, but you’re going to stay behind us or else I’ll make sure you don’t sit for a week.” Adam had finally given in, knowing full well that his sister not only meant what she had said but that she was also right about time being of the essence. Who knew what mess Joe could have gotten himself into?
Hoss couldn’t hold back his laughter at the memory.
“What’s so funny?” Adam asked, curious as to what Hoss could find to laugh about.
“I was just remembering the look on her face when Sierra demanded that she was coming with us,” Hoss told him, still chuckling. “Boy, she sure looked fierce, didn’t she?”
Despite the situation, Adam felt himself smile as he too remembered.
“Yeah, she sure did,” he agreed. “Reminds me of her mother.”
“You know, you’re right,” Hoss said thoughtfully as he compared his little sister to Marie.
“You know, if we expect to get up at the crack of dawn, we’d better get to sleep,” Adam told Hoss a few minutes later.
Hoss smiled, remembering how he had suggested that earlier. “Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed, standing to his feet and making his way over to his bedroll.
“Hey, Hoss,” Adam called, as his brother climbed under his blanket.
“Yeah?” Hoss replied.
“Thanks,” Adam told him, a grateful smile on his face.
Hoss smiled back. “You bet,” was his reply as he lay down and within minutes, his loud snores filled the night.
As planned, Hoss and Adam were up and back on the trail of their younger siblings at the crack of dawn. By the time they had found the place where Joe and Sierra had camped the night before, both of them were gone. The two older Cartwrights carefully studied the tracks on the ground, reading them as easily as one would read a book.
“What’re you gettin’?” Adam asked Hoss as he surveyed the area.
“Well,” Hoss thought for a moment before continuing. “From the looks of things it looks like they rode the horse up to here.” He pointed at the ground where the tracks seemed to lighten.
“Then they got off and Sierra helped Joe over to here where they took care of his wounds,” Adam said as he followed the footprints on the ground over to where the blood-soaked strips of cloth had been left.
“Yep, then Sierra came back to the horse, probably to take care of ‘im, and-” Hoss stopped as he studied the ground. It was obvious that the horse had moved from the time that they had gotten off to when Sierra had come back, but what was puzzling him was Sierra’s prints. There were prints that distinctly showed her walking up to the horse’s head, then to his side, and then- the prints got confusing. After studying them for a few minutes, Hoss looked up at Adam, worry clearly written on his face.
“Adam, I think Sierra’s hurt too,” Hoss told him.
“What?” Adam asked in disbelief as he knelt beside his younger brother to study the mosaic of markings on the ground. The longer he stared at them, the clearer it became to him. Joe wasn’t the only one that was badly hurt. Sierra was too.
“Come on, we’ve got to get going,” Adam said, standing to his feet and hurrying over to where they had left the horses. Hoss followed him and soon both brothers were following their younger siblings trail up the side of the mountain.
Sierra looked down at Joe’s sleeping form. He had been asleep for awhile now, having woken up just long enough to drink some water. As much as he tried to hide it, she knew he was in pain. What she did not know was that he knew that she was also hurt. Sierra had hid her own pain from her brother as best she could while she was trying to tend him. Only when she was sure he was asleep did she tend to herself.
In her mind, she had convinced herself that her injury was punishment for not listening when Adam had told her to stay behind. It had been her fault that Joe had been hurt. He had been trying to save her when he had been shot; it had been her decision to take the horse up the rough hillside, where the horse had slipped resulting in Joe’s broken leg.
Sierra lifted the corner of her shirt and removed the bandage to check her wound, gasping at what she saw. Where there should be nothing but a small bullet wound, instead the wound was inflamed. Fingers of fiery red streaked from the wound across her pale skin. Any movement at all rewarded her with an excruciating burning pain.
Feeling lightheaded and dizzy, she dropped the bandage and gritted her teeth as she used the makeshift crutch to push herself to her feet, knowing that she was going to be sick. Once she had rid herself of what little contents she’d had in her stomach, Sierra slowly made her way back inside with one hand clutching her side, grateful for the support of the crutch. Without it, she knew it would have been impossible to stay on her feet.
Carefully, she sat down next to where Joe lay, his face pale and dripping with sweat of a fever.
‘There must be an infection,’ Sierra thought to herself. There was nothing she could do for an infection. Even if there was, she doubted that she would’ve been able to do much in her condition.
‘Let’s face it,’ she told herself. ‘My brother’s dying because I didn’t listen to Adam and I can’t even do anything to help him because I had to go and get myself shot too!’ With a loud sob, she buried her face in her hands.
“Shh, don’t cry, sis,” Sierra heard Joe say as he rested his hand on the top of her head. “I ain’t dead yet, jist a little hot is all.”
“But it’s all my fault!” Sierra told him, unable to hold back her tears. Joe’s hand moved to her knee as Sierra raised her head to look at him. “If I had listened to Adam, you wouldn’t’ve gotten hurt.”
“No, it’s not your fault,” Joe tried to tell her firmly. Sierra dropped her eyes from his. “Sierra, look at me.” She did. “Listen to me; it’s not your fault,” he whispered trying to hold on to his consciousness.
“But Joe, I can’t even get you to a doctor,” Sierra reminded him.
“But, look how far you did get,” Joe told her. “You’re hurt.”
“It’s just my leg,” she replied. “But that’s nothing new.”
“No,” Joe argued. “It’s more than your leg. They shot you too.”
“You mean, you knew?” Sierra asked surprised. Joe nodded. “But how? I never told you.”
Joe smiled. “Big brothers know everything,” he said, knowing it would make his sister smile. That was a saying that each of her brothers liked to use whenever they knew something and she didn’t.
Joe was right. A small smile found its way to Sierra’s face and he reached his hand up to wipe away tears.“Now, why don’t you lie down and rest,” Joe suggested to her. “We, both need to rest. Adam and Hoss will catch up to us,” he mumbled, wanting so much to close his eyes.
“That’s it!” Sierra exclaimed with as much energy as she had.
“What?” Joe asked puzzled.
“Adam and Hoss,” Sierra replied. “Don’t you see? If I can’t get you to a doctor, I can at least get Adam and Hoss here.”
“Sis,” Joe shook his head, “you can’t. Your leg…you need to rest,” he reminded her.
“Joe, I’ve got to try,” Sierra told him, pushing the canteen so that it was within his reach. “Don’t worry, Joe, I’ll be alright.”
After giving him a kiss on the cheek, she carefully got to her feet. Immediately, a wave of dizziness hit her and she reached out to steady herself on the rocky cave wall.
“Please, Sis, don’t do this,” Joe begged her, but his voice came out as a whisper. He was unable to move and could only hope that she would listen to him, but knew full well that she wouldn’t. He watched as she slowly limped out of sight, praying that their brothers would find her quickly.
The sun was high in the sky as the two oldest Cartwright boys climbed the rough slope. They had left the horses at the foot, near where they had found the dead body of the horse that Sierra and Joe had been riding.
Wasting no time, they had merely slung their saddlebags over their shoulders before following the obvious trail that Sierra had taken with a travois. Both brothers had been impressed with her thinking and skills after examining the remains of rope, leather and stripped foliage. Using the leather from the reins and most likely the seat of a saddle, the young girl had been able to assemble a strong travois quickly.
Now, as they reached the top of the hill, they surveyed the area for any signs of their siblings, the rocky terrain making their trail more difficult to follow.
“How much farther ahead you think they are?” Hoss asked Adam as they paused to rest a moment.
“They can’t be too far,” Adam replied. “Look, why don’t we split up? We can cover more ground that way.”
“Sounds good to me,” Hoss agreed as they stood to their feet.
Hoss walked through the trees, searching for any clue that might have been left as to his younger siblings’ whereabouts. He crossed a small stream and paused to take a drink of the cool clear water as something caught his eye.
Raising himself up to his full height, he hurried over to the tree. One of the lower branches had been broken in a clumsy way. He studied the distance between it and the ground and concluded that it was right at Sierra’s height.
“Sierra!” Hoss called as he followed the direction that he assumed she had been going when the branch had been broken. “Sierra!” he called again.
When no answer came he continued on, rounding a stand of pine trees and stopped short at what saw. There, lying on the ground in fallen heap, was his little sister.
“Sierra!” he exclaimed in alarm as he hurried forward and knelt by her side, his heart in his throat.
Carefully he checked her pulse. Dangerously weak, but at least it was there. What caught his eye next was the dark red stain that stretched across the side of her thin cotton shirt. Hoss felt tears come to his eyes as he gently smoothed her damp brown hair away from her sweaty face, feeling the feverish heat radiating from her body. Random splotches of blood stained her skin as well as her clothes in various places, but Hoss wasn’t sure whether it was her blood or Joe’s.
“Don’t you worry, Shortcakes, we’re gonna fix you up real good,” Hoss promised as he stood to call for Adam. “Adam! Over here!” he pulled his gun from his holster and fired three times, before dropping back down to his sister’s side.
Running…run…run. Something was chasing her. She had to get away. Frantically she pushed through the low hanging branches and underbrush. She could hear it getting closer, closer, closer, until it was almost on top of her. The sound of its breathing reached her ears, threatening to cause her heart to stop. She was sure she felt its icy cold hand brush against her arm, sending a chill through her small body. She pulled away and ran…kept running…
As she broke through the last stand of trees, she felt her breath catch. Blocking the path in front of her was a rock wall. In panic, she whirled around to discover that she was trapped. The rock walls had her surrounded on three sides as the beast closed in on her from the trees of the opening. Its ragged breathing and the rustling of the branches told her it would only be a matter of seconds before it would reach her.
She shrank against the rock wall in terror as the beast burst through the last of the branches. Pausing only for a moment, it fixed its glowing red eyes on her, baring its teeth as it growled.
Then it charged. She tried to scream as she watched the beast rapidly coming nearer. But no sound came out. Just a few more steps and it would all be over. The beast opened its mouth wide revealing its monstrous sized teeth. She shut her eyes and screamed as she felt its jaws closing around her neck…
“Hold her still, Hoss!”
“I’m trying, Adam!”
Sierra awoke with a scream to the feeling of excruciating pain in her right side. Someone was firmly holding her in place and their grip tightened slightly when she tried to escape whatever was causing the painful burning in her side. Her cheek felt raw from constantly rubbing against the rough surface underneath her.
“Shh, it’s alright, Shortcakes, I’ve got you.”
‘Hoss,’ she knew that voice; there was only one person who called her ‘shortcakes.’ ‘Hoss is here. He’ll make them leave me alone,’ Sierra sighed in relief. But the pain continued. ‘Why isn’t he stopping them?’
“Hoss,” she whispered as she opened her tired eyes, blinking heavily to clear her vision. Her throat felt dry and she swallowed several times.
Lying on her stomach, Sierra realized she was facing away from her brothers. Turning her head towards them, she saw Hoss leaning over her, his big hands positioned on her shoulders as he intently watched someone at her side, apparently unaware she was awake. A stab of pain shot caused her body to jerk involuntarily.
“Hoss, please! Make it stop!” Sierra pleaded as her brother’s surprised eyes met hers.
“Adam, she’s awake,” Hoss said, glancing down to where Adam knelt as he bent over.
Despite her pain, Sierra felt her eyes open wide in surprise as she heard her oldest brother swear. As far back as she could remember, Sierra had never heard any of her brothers use such strong language. Well, maybe Joe when he was younger, but Pa had quickly put a stop to it. She knew that their father would not be happy if he knew the kind of choice words Adam had just used and the fact that Adam chose to use them now scared her. Something must really be wrong.
“Adam, maybe we should wait,” Hoss suggested to his older brother. Though she couldn’t see Adam, Sierra soon figured out where he was when she felt him shift his weight to sit on top on her legs, in an effort to keep her still.
“Hoss, I can see the bullet. We can’t stop now,” Adam’s voice was stern, but Sierra heard the tremble in it. “That bullet’s been there too long already. If we wait any longer…” he broke off, refusing to say the thought that was in all of their minds. He paused for a second before he spoke again, the slight tremble still present. “There doesn’t seem to be damage to any organs, but I can’t be sure. The bleeding has been bad and this lead bullet has to come out. Now. ”
“Joe?” Sierra croaked out as she remembered her brother’s wounded condition. She thought she saw a smile flicker across Hoss’ face as he answered.
“Little brother’s gonna be just fine,” he assured her. “But right now, it’s you we need to worry about.”
“Sierra, I know this hurts, but I need you to be as still as you can,” Adam leaned over his sister’s side. “I’ve almost got it.”
“Tell you what, put your hands right here,” Hoss said as he gently placed Sierra’s hands on his strong arms. “Now, whenever it hurts real bad, I want you to squeeze as hard as you can. Can you do that?”
“All right, Adam,” Hoss said with a nod; once he had a firm grip on his sister’s shoulders. Sierra’s eyes locked with his, as Adam once again began the process of removing the bullet from her side.
Sierra tried her best to stay still, but the pain was almost unbearable. Hoss’ eyes held hers firmly as he kept her pinned down. Tears clouded her vision and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut. Her fingers dug into the tough skin on her older brother’s arms, but Hoss didn’t mind.
Watching his sister writhe in pain was one of the hardest things Hoss had ever done. He watched as her eyes had latched onto his as if somehow she hoped she could find relief in them. When her eyes had filled with tears and she’d been forced to close them, Hoss felt his own eyes water. He wished that there was some way that he could ease her pain, or better yet take it away from her. But, there was nothing that he could do. So he concentrated on holding her still, while he whispered softly to her. After a few minutes, Hoss felt her go limp under his gentle but firm grip.
“Hoss!” Adam exclaimed, shooting his brother a worried glance as Hoss caught one of her limp hands in his as they slipped from his arms. He held her wrist for a few seconds.
“She’s just passed out,” Hoss told his older brother.
Adam didn’t realise that he’d been holding his breath until he let it out with a loud sigh.
“How much longer?” Hoss asked.
Adam didn’t raise his head as he answered. “Not much. I’ve almost got it,” was his reply. Neither brother spoke a word until Adam broke the silence a few moments later. “Got it,” he said as he triumphantly held up bullet that been the cause of his sister’s pain. Depositing the object on the ground beside him, he set to work at patching Sierra back up.
A few hours later, Hoss and Adam sat next to the small campfire they built in the mouth of the cave. When Sierra had been found, it hadn’t taken them long to retrace her steps back to where she had left Joe. Now as both Joe and Sierra rested on their brothers’ bedrolls inside the cave, having had their injuries tended to, Adam and Hoss allowed themselves to relax slightly. Since neither had been hungry, Hoss had simply made coffee. Normally Adam would have refused the outstretched cup, considering who had made it, but the awful taste of the coffee was the furthest thing from his mind.
If Hoss had looked up at his older brother’s face, he would have seen the tears on Adam’s cheeks. Adam wasn’t one for crying. In fact, Hoss could count on the fingers of one of his hands as to the number of times he had seen his big brother cry.
But, as he sat there remembering the way his sister had writhed in pain, Adam couldn’t stop the tears. Besides Pa, Adam had always been the family’s strength. He had been the one that would comfort his siblings when they had woken from a nightmare, often allowing them to crawl into his own bed. Now, he was the voice reason that they went to whenever they needed help. True, there were times when he couldn’t resist teasing them, but he loved each one of his brothers and his sister and hated the thought of causing them harm. Even when his disagreements with his brothers had turned into fights, he always pulled his punches, hitting only hard enough to get his point across.
Besides Joe, Adam had to admit that Sierra had tried his patience the most. Her headstrong stubborn spirit often hit him in the face. Between her and Joe, there were many times that he wished that he wasn’t the oldest. How many times had he had to bail the two of them out of some foolhardy scheme, usually thought up by Joe, that had gone wrong? Adam shook his head in amusement as he remembered some of their scrapes.
A groan drew his attention back to reality. Setting his coffee cup on the ground in such haste, that he almost knocked it over, Adam stood to his feet and made his way over to where the two youngest Cartwrights were lying. Hoss wasn’t far behind him. Kneeling down between them, he realised the groan had come from Joe. Though he wasn’t fully awake, Adam could tell it wouldn’t be long before he regained consciousness. Gently he put his hand to his youngest brother’s forehead and let out a sigh of relief when he found that his fever had finally broken. Earlier, Hoss had given him some medicine to bring the fever down, but Adam hadn’t been able to shake himself of the worried feeling in his gut.
For years, his siblings had teased Adam about the range of medical supplies that he kept in his saddle bags; bandages and salves, peroxide, and some of Hop Sing’s special herbs, even sewing needles. But none of them could count the number of times that the items in his saddle bags had come in handy while out on the range.
With another groan, Joe’s eyelids opened, revealing his emerald green eyes. A smile appeared on his battered face at the sight of his older brothers.
“Hey,” he croaked out, realising the dryness in his throat. Adam unscrewed the top on the canteen and raised his brother up just enough for him to get a drink.
“How you feeling, Little Joe?” Adam asked once Joe had finished.
“Fine as frog hair,” was Joe’s reply.
Hoss snorted. “If ‘fine’ describes a broken leg and a gunshot wound then remind me never to use that word again,” he told his little brother.
Joe’s tired eyes met his and Hoss saw the twinkle in them. “I’ll remember that, brother,” Joe replied. Then his face grew serious. “How’s Sierra?”
“Shh,” Adam said, pointing behind him to where their sister lay, sleeping peacefully for the first time in two days. “She’s going to be alright.”
Joe’s smile widened as he thought about how brave his little sister had been. “You would’ve been proud of her, Adam,” his pride filling his voice. “No matter how much she was hurting, she was determined to get me to the doctor. Even after the horse slipped, she somehow managed to drag me all the way up here.”
“I am proud… of both of you,” Adam assured him, his mouth widening into a smile of his own. “Now, I think that’s enough talking. You need to rest.”
For a moment, Adam saw the stubbornness that flashed through Joe’s eyes and was afraid his youngest brother was about to protest his need of sleep. But before either could say anything, a huge yawn slipped out.
“I guess I am a little tired,” Joe admitted quietly as he found his eyelids growing heavy with sleep. Gently, Adam pulled the woollen blanket up to his youngest brother’s chin.
“Sleep well, little brother,” Hoss whispered softly.
Adam stopped to check on Sierra as Hoss returned to his spot by the fire. Satisfied that both of his younger siblings were getting their much needed rest, Adam joined him, leaning against the rock wall. The intensity of the day’s events as well as the lack of sleep the night before had worn him out and as he glanced over at Hoss, he saw that his younger brother was having trouble keeping his eyes open too.
“Go to sleep, Hoss,” Adam told the half-awake boy. “I’ll take the first watch.”
“Ya sure?” Hoss managed to ask from behind a yawn.
Adam smiled. “Yeah, you get some rest. I’ll wake you in a couple of hours,” he said.
Hoss nodded in agreement as he rose to his feet. “G’night Adam,” he muttered, laying down beside Joe and soon was fast asleep, his snores echoing off the walls of the cave.
“Good night, Hoss,” Adam whispered softly as he lifted the half-filled cup of coffee to his lips and wrinkled his nose at the taste.
Smiling in amusement, he shook his head and settled back into a comfortable position. From the place where he lay, Adam had a good view of the sky. He lay on his back, hands folded behind his head, staring up at the millions of stars that dotted the night sky. For the first time in two days, he realised that the knot of worry that had stubbornly remained in his gut was gone. One bright star seemed to wink at him, causing Adam to smile. Marie’s star, he thought.
“Everything’s all right,” Adam whispered to the star, knowing that it was the truth.
Four weeks later the two youngest Cartwrights were well on their way to being fully recovered. If it were not for Joe’s broken leg, the two restless teenagers would have surely been getting up to new adventures.
As it was, neither Sierra nor Joe even had half a chance at escaping the confines of their recuperation. Hop Sing had appointed himself the task of making sure ‘Lil Joe’ and ‘Missy’ behaved. Once they were free from bed rest, he kept them out of trouble and off their feet by teaching them how to bake cookies and biscuits, as well as doing other simple household chores.
Adam had to laugh watching them being bossed around by the Chinese cook, knowing too well they would rather have been out riding, catching strays, or even mending fences. Anything other than being cooped up inside the house. Schoolwork also took up a lot of their time as Ben refused to allow Sierra to fall behind in her studies and since Joe had already graduated and had nothing better to do, he had been assigned the task of helping her.
Late one night after everyone had retired to their rooms for the night, Adam was lying on his bed intently reading a new book when a sound from Sierra’s room next door caught his attention. ‘What was that?’ he wondered. He listened carefully for a few minutes. ‘There it is again.’
Slowly, Adam closed his book and set it on his bedside table before making his way into the hall and to his sister’s bedroom door. Inside, he could just barely make out the sound. ‘Sounds like crying,’ he thought to himself.
Silently pushing open her door, he spotted Sierra as she lay on her bed, weeping into her pillow. The mournful sound of the fifteen year old girl tore at Adam’s heart in a way that nothing else could. He hated to see her cry. Entering her room, he sat down on the side of her bed and gently rested his hand on her back.
“Hey there, Littl’in, what’s wrong?” Adam asked her softly.
With a start, Sierra’s head jerked up, revealing her red eyes and tear-stained cheeks. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” she apologised, wiping away the moisture from her face with the back of her hand.
Adam shook his head. “I wasn’t asleep,” he told her. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothin’,” Sierra replied, dropping her head and refusing to meet his eyes.
Adam wasn’t convinced. He knew that having been raised by her father and with three older brothers had made her into a tough cowgirl. She didn’t cry without a reason.“Sierra, look at me,” Adam’s voice was gentle, but his tone told Sierra that he meant to be obeyed. Slowly, she raised her head just enough so that her eyes could meet his. “Now, tell me what’s wrong and don’t say ‘nothin’.”
He watched as her eyes began to fill with tears again. “Oh, Adam, it’s all my fault! If I had only listened to you, Joe wouldn’t’ve gotten hurt!” she burst into tears as she dropped her head into her hands.
Adam sighed. ‘I should have seen this coming,’ he told himself. Despite her headstrong nature, Sierra tended to blame herself when things didn’t turn out as expected. ‘Must have picked that up from me.’
Gently, he pulled his sister’s trembling frame into his strong embrace. Sierra wrapped her arms around her brother and buried her face in his chest as the tears continued to flow freely from her eyes. Careful of the tenderness of her side, Adam held her tightly, resting his chin on the top of her head and slowly rubbing her back while waiting for her to finish her cry.
When Sierra’s sobs had dropped to sniffles, Adam knew she was ready to talk.
“First of all, yes, you should’ve listened to me and stayed with the horses or better yet, gone home,” he began as Sierra gently pushed herself away from him, wiping the tears from her eyes. “If you had, you wouldn’t have gotten hurt.”
“I’m sorry, Adam,” Sierra said softly, unable to meet her brother’s stern gaze. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you.”
“Secondly, Joe getting hurt wasn’t your fault,” Adam continued. “To tell you the truth, if it hadn’t been for you, who knows how badly he would’ve been hurt. He was foolish to rush into the shack on his own. Had you not been with him and left to find Hoss and I, anything could have happened before he had been found; that shack would not have been one of our first places to look had he turned up missing.”.
“So you’re not mad at me?” Sierra asked timidly.
A smile played at the corners of his mouth. “No, I’m not mad. Not this time at least,” he smirked, before growing serious again. “Actually, I’m really proud of you.”
Sierra’s head jerked up and she looked at her brother in surprise. “You’re kidding,” she said.
Adam shook his head. “No. Joe told us about how you were determined to get him to a doctor no matter how badly you yourself were hurt,” he said, pride evident in his voice. “It took a lot of courage to do what you did, Littl’in.”
Sierra blushed lightly at her oldest brother’s praise. She longed for the praise and approval of her father and all of her brothers, but for some unknown reason, she had always coveted Adam’s the most. Perhaps it was the fact that he seemed to be the hardest one to please and there was nothing that Sierra looked forward to more than a challenge.
“However, next time I do hope you’ll listen to me and stay out of danger’s way,” Adam sternly told Sierra, though she caught the twinkle in his eyes.
She smiled and nodded. “Don’t worry, Adam, I will.” Her smile widened, causing Adam’s smile to grow too. Though she never meant to break her word, Adam knew that it wouldn’t be long before her stubborn Cartwright spirit would flare up and no matter how hard she tried, she would be unable to control it.
“All right now, how about you try to go to sleep?” he suggested. Sierra lay back down on her mattress as Adam pulled the quilt up to her chin, gently tucking it around her.
“Adam?” Sierra asked.
“Yeah?” he replied.
“Can you stay with me until I fall asleep?”
Adam smiled warmly at her. “Sure,” he told her. “How ‘bout I sing?”
Sierra nodded tiredly. And with that Adam started to sing, his rich baritone voice soft and sweet.
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
And you shiver when the cold wind blows
Tell me why, tell me why,
You went away without even saying good-bye
You cause me the grieve
You cause me the mourn
You left me here to cry
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
And you shiver when the cold wind blows
The wind, in the trees
Of a love I thought was true
You gave me tears
And empty years
For the love I gave to you
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
And you shiver when the cold wind blows
And you shiver when the cold wind blows.
In The Pines
As the last notes of the song died away, Adam looked down at his little sister to find her sleeping soundly. He smiled as he bent to gently kiss her forehead.
“You are one special girl,” he whispered softly, lovingly brushing the loose brown wisps away from his sister’s face. “Good night, Littl’in.”
Author’s note: The song Adam sang is called ‘In The Pines’ and is a traditional American folk song. This is also a song that Pernell Roberts, as Adam Cartwright, sang himself which is why I chose it. It is on YouTube if anyone has not heard it.
Special thanks to Bluewindfarm for helping me give this story the extra boost it needed and credits for the cover picture go to my beta, Gabe.
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