Author's note: Hello all! This is my first Bonanza fic; hope you enjoy. A couple of notes about the story: this takes place between the sixth and seventh seasons, when Adam decides to leave for sea. Please excuse my ignorance of events in this timetable; unfortunately, what I know of Bonanza is what I've been able to watch on TV. Usually, whenever TV Land airs Bonanza, they air a certain amount from season six then jump into season seven, so I've never seen the episode where Adam decides to go to sea and leaves (do they even have an episode where this takes place?). So, I thought I would do a character study with Adam's character, and what leads up to his decision to go to sea. There is a lot of mention of God in this story; partly because of the series reliance on scripture, and partly because I've always wondered how Adam would react meeting up with God. With that, please enjoy!
The Still Small Voice
I really don't know where to begin. Usually I do; I understand time and timing very well. It's something you learn about out in the west, where you live and breathe with the steady pulse of the day. Time is slow on the ranch- much slower than my days at college. They flew by all too fast! I think I enjoyed them too much.
Not that I don't enjoy living on the ranch with my family, though. Sometimes, it can be a great, rowdy romp, though I'd never let my family catch on that I was having fun. You see, I'm supposed to be the serious one. Firstborn. Protector and caretaker over the other brothers. The one who always pays attention to the time; when supplies need to be ordered, when calves need to be sorted, when fences need to be mended, when timber needs to be sorted. I'm as steady as a rock, and Pa can always count on me. I'm the one who has got it all together; I'm the one that's always organized and sorted. Which is what makes the story I am about to relate so... remarkable.
I'm writing this story down now, while there's five feet of snow outside and we're all snug and warm and holed up like bears. I want to get it down while it's fresh in my mind... before the spring comes with its thousands of chores. I've spent a lot of time alone, in my room, trying again and again to put what happened to paper. For the most part, my family leaves me alone. Oh, every once in a while Joe pokes his head in and pesters me just for sport, but I don't give in. Not this winter. Not while I have so much to sort out in my head. Pa gives me my space; he's always understood me best. Hoss treats me like a wounded animal. He gives me space as well, but is always offering to be a healing help. I know it hurts their feelings when I shut them out like this, but I want it understood that this time I am not hurt. This time, I don't need to be healed. This time, I just need to... understand.
It all started almost a month ago, with a letter from Widow Hazel. It was late November. It was one of the oddest Novembers in Ponderosa history, as not a flake of snow had fallen. Usually, we got a couple drifts in by Thanksgiving (going on it's second year as a national holiday), but this year Thanksgiving had come and gone with a warm sun and a crisp breeze. Not that my brothers or I were complaining. The extra days had given us time to prepare extremely well for winter. In fact, we probably could survive an entire year indoors with how hard we prepared for it. The last winter had been fairly hard, and we were taking no chances this year. But it seemed as if winter weren't coming. Every morning that last week in November the sky was clear, the sun shone, and the only indication of the change in seasons was in the leafless aspen groves scattered on the mountainsides.
When the letter arrived, Pa and I read that Widow Hazel was finally selling her homestead and was wondering if we'd like to purchase it, seeing as how it bordered Ponderosa lands. The look on Pa's face was priceless, though I'm sure we all looked just as shocked. The Widow Hazel had lived on her homestead before we'd come to settle here. As a boy, I remembered thinking she was ancient. She probably knew Methuselah personally! In fact, I think that was one explanation for our surprise; we hadn't figured that she was still living.
"Her homestead borders Shepherd's Pass," I remarked as Pa concluded the letter. "There's some really good grazing land up there. It would be a decent summer pasture."
Pa grinned at me. "Thinking of your own herd, Adam?"
"They are starting to get in the way; I should have sold some this year to the army like you did."
Pa shrugged. "Well, the price of beef went down a lot this year. Perhaps it's wiser you waited to sell your heads. But I definitely wouldn't mind adding that pasture to our lands, especially if her price is right. I wondered if she was ever going to sell it; she doesn't have any children to pass it on to."
Pa bit his lip in thought, then turned and nodded at me. "I think I'll ride up to Widow Hazel's tomorrow, then. Look around the place."
I frowned. "Pa, it's an entire day's ride out to Widow Hazel's. And we are right at the beginning of blizzard season."
Pa looked outside. "What blizzard? The sun is shining, Hoss is bandaging some poor cow's leg, and Little Joe is probably getting into trouble somewhere. The world is as it should be."
Pa's tone was teasing, but I couldn't help the nagging feeling that the world always looked its best right before a storm. I frowned my disapproval, though I said no more about it. Pa was determined; I'd seen that look on his face before. I could volunteer to go, but Pa would just decline. He and the Widow Hazel were acquaintances, while I barely knew her. Besides, I could tell Pa wanted to get out for a bit. He hadn't been away from the ranch for at least a good month, and I figured Pa must get stir-crazy at times too. I felt Pa's hand come to rest on my shoulder.
"Adam," Pa said gently, "I swear sometimes you can see trouble where no trouble exists. Sure it's a bad time of the year, but presently there is nothing to suggest that the next week will be any different than the week we just had. Sometimes, you've just got to risk things. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
I nodded, and my poker-face slid into view. I was stepping into my role; the role I took on when Pa was gone. I was the firstborn; the caretaker. I was in charge.
Pa left early the next morning, and I wasted no time getting my lazy brothers out of bed and doing chores. I would like to say that we worked to death, but truth be told there wasn't really much else to be done. By noon, every wintering project we had been working on was completed. Of course we could have started on a new project, but I didn't have the heart for it. Something kept nagging at me, like a sign I had missed somewhere. I had furtively watched the sky all morning for signs of change, yet I didn't see anything. The world was at rest. The world was at peace. Calm before the storm.
The rest of the day passed in a pleasant haze. Hoss and Little Joe went out to catch some trout for supper; we were fending for ourselves since Hop Sing was visiting his sister in San Francisco. It seemed like he was always leaving nowadays; being the eldest family member in America, it was important that he always be present for important things, and his sister had just given birth to a baby. None of us grudged him the trip, though we did miss his cooking. I can't cook worth a wooden nickel. We won't let Joe go into the kitchen since he almost set it on fire... for the fifth time. You'd think after the first time we'd have learned. That left Hoss, and though he usually burned everything, at least his cooking was palatable. Besides, fish taste better crispy.
The next day my brothers had had it. I really couldn't blame them; usually we were under three feet of snow by now, and no one could really get out or do anything. Therefore, there really wasn't much else to accomplish, and they wanted one more trip to Virginia City before the winter.
"Come on Adam, it'll be fun," Joe grinned as he and Hoss saddled up their horses. "You know, fun. That warm fuzzy feeling you feel inside when you're happy. Usually accompanied by the urge to smile or laugh?"
"Aw, Little Joe lay off," Hoss admonished as he climbed up onto Chubb. "Adam knows what fun is... I reckon. At least, he seems to enjoy book learnin', though you rarely ever see him smile over it."
Joe snorted. "Hoss, since when has book learnin' ever been enjoyable?"
"Oh, I don't know," Hoss fired back with a sly smile. "I'd say it came in handy when he wooed Abigail Jones, and that was pretty enjoyable. Least to us t'was."
Joe started his odd hyena laugh (at least, what I imagine a hyena sounds like) and Hoss began chuckling. I rolled my eyes up to the heavens as if in prayer, then, to prove I could smile, bared my teeth in what I was sure was a fearsome grin. Joe practically jumped onto Cochise in mock fear, and he and Hoss took off down the road, Joe whooping merrily. I sighed and looked around the deserted ranch with relish... finally, I'd have time to myself. I hadn't had time alone for days. And, I had all afternoon to read!
Unfortunately, that was not what happened. For some reason, I could not focus on my books! I did everything I'd usually do for reading; I built up a nice fire, grabbed some jerky from the kitchen, and settled down on the settee before the hearth. At first I thought my problem was with my book (I had ordered a new title, Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. It was recently published this year, in French of course, and though I can read French well I've noticed that there are just some days where you can't get your brain to focus in another language.). I then tried some Thoreau, but couldn't seem to focus on him either. I was frustrated; it's so rare I have an entire afternoon to devote to reading, I didn't want to let it pass by. However, I still had that nagging feeling going on; the feeling that something was going to go very wrong, and though I knew in my head all was well I was still growing restless.
I decided to try and take a walk. I banked the fire, pulled on my tan coat (though it was still warm by November standards, the wind still had a bite), and headed out towards the lake. It was a long walk, and as I walked I tried to pinpoint what exactly I was restless about. Pa would be safe; he'd have reached Widow Hazel's by now, so even if a storm were to come up he would be in shelter. Little Joe was in town (always cause for worry), but Hoss could handle him. Everything was done at the ranch; we were prepared for any eventuality. I really did not see why I should be so on edge. Trying to work off my bad feelings, I picked up the pace, making it a record walk to the lake and back.
I was still feeling restless, though. The immense ranch seemed to sprawl out on every side. The skeleton crew we employed during the winter months were all in town for the weekend, enjoying the extra time with their families. I felt alone, as if I were the last person on earth. Usually, I would revel in it. Now, I felt uneasy, as if a storm had taken up residence inside my gut. Slowly, I walked back inside and went over to my father's desk. The family Bible was in its proper place, in the right hand corner of the desk. In desperation, I stuck my finger down the spine and opened it to where my finger caught the page. I know, this is a foolish way to read the Bible. But books speak to me sometimes; as Hoss would say, they are another world to me. So also did the Bible speak out to me.
I read at where my finger had landed. First Kings, nineteen-eleven.
"And He said, "Go forth, and stand on the mount before the Lord. And, behold, t he Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind, and earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after that a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out, and stood in the entering of the cave. And behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, "What doest thou here, Elijah?"
I sighed and closed the book. "What doest thou here, Adam?" I whispered to myself as I looked out the window at the snow-less mountains and the clear sky above. The thought of fire and earthquakes and torrents only added to my uneasiness.
My brothers were back from town in record time, I thought. I had not been back for long when I heard their horses pound up to the barn. Usually they would have spent the afternoon and evening as well in town; when town is a two-hour trip both ways one does not undertake the trip lightly. I shot a questioning look at the door when my brothers walked in, and the looks on their faces told me plenty.
"What's wrong in town?" I asked.
Joe looked over at Hoss, who was grim-faced and pensive. "They got the fever real bad, Adam," Hoss replied straightforwardly. "Half the town is sick. Joe and I stopped into the bar for a beer, and Sam told us all 'bout it. Fever's broke out there 'bout four days ago, and the Doc's got his hands full."
"Do they need any help?" I asked.
Joe and Hoss swapped looks again, and it irritated me. I knew what they were thinking. Out of all of us here on the Ponderosa, I'm the one most susceptible to high fevers. Usually, I weather any injury well, but fevers take me out for weeks.
"Just a real bad case of the flu, brother, nothin to worry 'bout," Hoss was quick to say. "Sam says it's not ague, the pox, or diphtheria, just the normal winter fever."
"It's probably worse since the cold hasn't been around to kill it off yet," chipped in Joe.
I nodded at both of them; there was really nothing we could do out here anyway. Still, it paid to be prepared...
The next morning, I went about sorting herbs and consulting my medical book. Ever since the time I accidentally shot Joe, I made sure I'd never be wanting for the lack of a doctor. Of course, I'd value a doctor's opinion any day over mine, but I wanted to be prepared so that if I had to step in and be a doctor, I could be. I'd learned to cut out bullets and sew up wounds (mostly from experiences with my brothers), and I knew most of the folk remedies for things. I hoped that knowledge would be enough to prolong life until a doctor could arrive. I can't say what made me prepare for illness; both of my brothers looked fine, but it gave me something to do and took off the edge of the restlessness. No matter what happened, at least I was prepared to deal with it.
The first waves of trouble came the morning after. I was downstairs, having my early morning coffee and was just about to rustle up some flapjacks (about the only thing I could cook) when Joe's panicked yelp of "ADAM!" reached my ears. I sprinted through the main room and took the stairs two at a time. I met Joe on the top; he was still in his bedclothes and was looking disheveled. For a moment, I wondered if he'd had a nightmare and was still trying to wake up, but he grabbed my arm and said "Hoss!"
I quickly went inside my brother's room. Hoss was laying in bed, calling for Joe and me in sporadic bursts. "I heard him calling," Joe explained as I felt my brother's forehead- he was burning up! "I thought that he was dreaming, so I went over to tell him to hush up and he looked so pale..."
I nodded at Joe's dialogue, only half listening. The fever usually didn't strike this fast; usually there were signs preceding: a headache, upset stomach, sore muscles, etc. I bit my lip in frustration. "Joe, did Hoss mention feeling sick?"
"What, do you think he picked it up from town?" Joe queried back.
That was suspicious. "You didn't answer my question," I replied. "Did Hoss mention he was feeling sick?"
Joe cringed, then pleaded, "Adam, Hoss didn't want to worry you. You've been so edgy since Pa left, we were worried you'd overreact."
I growled. "Overreact! Joe, you might have helped him seal his own death warrant! What was he complaining about?"
"Chills. Soreness... and he threw up twice yesterday."
I took a deep breath so I wouldn't lose my temper; Joe was the only helper I had for miles around. And he certainly looked contrite; he was wringing his hands in guilt.
"He said he had a logical explanation for it all. It was chilly yesterday, and we did ride hard coming back from town, and you have to admit your cooking is really disgusting..."
It always amazed me how my two younger brothers defended each other. One could be standing on a gallows with a rope around his neck ready to hang and the other would be standing in front of them shouting out to the crowd, "Don't hang my brother! He isn't guilty! It wasn't his fault someone put all that bank money within easy reach- t'was too much of a temptation."
Of course my brothers weren't bank robbers, but sometimes I felt they were accomplished criminals just the same. "Joe," I said, snapping into action. "Go get some water from the pump; we've got to cool his fever down." Joe sprang like a hare to go do what I told him, while I began to strip the blankets off my brothers bed.
The linen was still good; I counted the small blessing. I wrapped just a thin sheet around my brother's form and, when Joe was back, packed his body with cool cloths. Joe ducked out to get changed, and when he was back I hurried downstairs to make some pine-needle tea.
While I was downstairs, I checked Hoss's symptoms in my book. Two remedies were suggested: using castor oil to induce vomiting and opening a vein for blood-letting. As for the first, I figured Hoss had thrown up enough. I gave the second option more thought, but finally settled against it. I was uncomfortable opening a vein; what if I couldn't get Hoss to stop bleeding? Better to have too much blood than none at all.
The day went by in a blur. Joe spoon-fed Hoss tea whenever he could. It amazed me that he had the patience for it; usually Joe had so much energy patience was impossible. But he made an excellent nurse, and as we worked to keep Hoss continually covered in cold wet cloths, I made a note in my brain to tell my littlest brother how much I admired him when this was all over.
Towards mid-day, I noticed that the sky began to darken. A cold wind began to beat against the window panes. I slid the window up in Hoss's room; the cold air would only help our situation. We continued to hold vigil for Hoss. It was tough for us both, but poor Little Joe. His emotions were always so close to the surface that he could rarely ever hide what he was feeling. The tears in his eyes said it all as he ordered Hoss to drink more tea.
My face probably looked like stone. I was afraid; I'd never seen a fever take hold like this. Usually, a fever takes a couple of days to get a good grip, then the struggle begins. But this felled my brother, my giant, strong, lovable bear of a brother in one day. And nothing Joe or I did seemed to have the least effect; Hoss was pale as the moon one minute, then flushed with heat and shivering so hard I thought he'd break his teeth the next. I was out of my depth here; I needed some help. Suddenly, the words of the Bible passage I'd read a couple of days ago came into my head. "And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire." I felt Hoss's head again; it sure felt like he was in a fire. "Please, God," I whispered as I changed out another cool cloth. I did not usually pray much (I didn't really do it too well, I thought), but Hoss was scaring me. "Please God, be in this fire. We need your healing touch."
All throughout the day, the temperature outside dropped rapidly. Around late afternoon I had to close Hoss's window, as the cold air had become too much. Dark clouds, heavy with snow, closed in, and I felt in my bones that the winter storm I had been dreading had finally arrived. This was terrible timing; I knew Pa would probably have started on his way back by now, his business being completed. With the storm on the way, Pa ran the chance of being caught in the blizzard. True, we hadn't had a flurry yet, but Widow Hazel's was higher in the mountains; it could be howling up there this very moment.
To make matters worse, my youngest brother was beginning to get fidgety. Little Joe didn't do well with waiting, and as Hoss lay there, lost in the grip of fever, I saw Joe's patience start to unravel. He had taken up pacing back and forth by Hoss's bedside, and no matter how many errands I sent him on, Joe came back in record timing and resumed his pacing. I knew I frustrated him; I was sitting as still as could be in a chair next to Hoss's bed. I'm sure I looked calm and collected. Truth be told, I was terrified. Hoss was in a bad way, Pa might be caught in a bad storm, and Joe and I were all alone without any help for miles around. But I sat still as a statue for Joe's sake. After all, I was firstborn. It was my job to be in control
Towards evening, Joe had had enough waiting. "Adam, I think we should go into town for the doctor."
I frowned. "I doubt he'd leave his patients in town. But I wouldn't mind seeing if he's found someway to ease the fever. How about you ride out tomorrow morning?"
Joe frowned. "Why not tonight? Why not now? I could go this minute; just let me get Cochise saddled up."
I raised an eyebrow. "What? Ride at night? Joe, I know you've done it before, but those clouds outside just came from nowhere. They came in fast, and they look like snow clouds."
"All the more reason for me to go now," Joe pressed. "Look, if we wait for it to snow then we might get trapped up here. Now, I know there is no way I can bring the doctor back with all the fever in town, but I could probably get some medicine and be back here before the first snowflake falls."
I frowned. The clouds had blocked out the moon; it would be black as pitch out there, and if a blizzard started Joe could get lost real fast. Plus the wind was gusting outside something fierce; I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of trees were felled. And a part of me doubted that the doctor would have any more medicine than we had here on the ranch. This would be something Hoss would have to ride out.
"Riding tonight is not a good idea," I answered Joe. "It's dangerous, there being no moon and all. What if your horse gets spooked; what if the blizzard hits, what if..."
"What if, what if?!" Joe interrupted. "There are a hundred what-ifs! All I know is that our brother is dying, and if we don't do something soon it'll be like handing him over to death ourselves!"
I watched my little brother as he eyed me defiantly. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that there would be no way I could make Little Joe stay here. He was a grown man, capable of making his own decisions, though for just a moment, I saw him as my little six-year-old brother, stubbornly refusing to go to bed. But this was more than stubbornness, I chided myself. Joe's stubbornness had grown up with him into full fledged determination, and if anyone could reach Virginia City in such a storm, it would be Little Joe.
"All right, go if you will," I consented. "Joe, just please be careful. It looks awful out there."
Joe sent a wry smile my way, then sprang into action gearing up in his heavy coat and winter boots. "I'll be fast, Adam," he replied. "You won't even know I'm gone."
Now I was alone with Hoss. I set about doing everything I could to make him comfortable for the evening, but after a while I had done all I could do. I didn't have the heart to carry on a one way conversation with him like Joe did (that boy could talk a horse's ear off), but the silence was unbearable. Not that it was drop-dead quiet; the wind howled something awful. I took a deep breath, trying to think of something, anything to say. I ended up singing instead. I have no idea what put Red River Valley in my head, but as I sang the first few lines I began to change the lyrics a little for my brother. It was a sort of plea, I suppose.
From this valley they say you are going,
I shall miss your sweet face and bright smile.
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened my pathway awhile.
I've been thinking a long time my
Of those jokes you never would say,
But the last of my fond hopes have vanished
For they say you are going away.
I have no idea what I was expecting. I suppose I wanted Hoss to sit up right then, and say in his joking voice, "Hey, stop that caterwauling big brother. I aint going nowhere!" But Hoss still lay there, quiet and unmoving, and I felt dread steal into my heart. All the worry I had had the past couple of days, all the premonitions, if you will, were burdening me down. Why hadn't I kept the two of them from going into town? Why hadn't I offered to go in Pa's place out to Widow Hazel's? What if I didn't send Joe for a doctor in time?
I sighed, then looked at my brother's face for a long moment. Hoss never got ill; it was always me that got ill. I suppose this sounds crazy, (it does to me now), but at the moment I was thinking that it should have been me in that bed so sick. I narrowed my eyes. "Hoss," I said quietly, putting as much strength in my voice as I could. "Hoss, you must get better. Do you hear me? You must get better!"
It was then that I heard a weird moan coming from the wind outside; I got up and rushed to the window.
Snow, flurries and flurries of it, came down in a torrent so thick that the wind was making the same sound that a sand dune makes when it all comes sliding down. I'd never seen such a storm! My heart tightened, and in my head ran the Bible lines, "And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind."
"Oh God," I whispered as I watched with wide eyes the world turn white around me, "please be in this wind. Help my brother Joe get home."
I was torn with what to do. Hoss was sick; I knew I couldn't leave him alone. But there was nowhere near enough time for Joe to have even gotten to Virginia City, let alone be able to get back. He was stuck out there somewhere in that blizzard, and it was all my fault.
"I should have gone," I hissed as I set about getting a roaring fire lit in the fireplace and getting the kettle ready. "Should'a, would'a, could'a." Oh, the bitterness of second guessing yourself. I knew in my head that sending Joe was a bad idea, but I let him go anyway!
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," I growled, poking the fire at each word. Then, I looked toward the door. I'd have to go out for my brother. He'd be out there somewhere, and I just knew in my gut that he was in danger. I walked over to the door and pulled on my winter coat. Still though, I hesitated. What about Hoss? What if there was a change in his condition, what if he needed immediate attention? I couldn't cause the death of both my brothers, could I?
Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) I heard a whinny in the front yard just then. I ran out onto the porch and almost ran straight into Cochise. My little brother had almost ridden his horse straight through the door.
"Whoa!" I called out, then stepped around the horse. Joe was hanging onto the saddle, looking frozen and miserable.
"I couldn't get to town in time, Adam," he cried over the howling wind. "I couldn't do it!"
"Don't you worry about it!" I shouted back. "Here, go inside and get warm. Don't stand too near the fire until I can see what damage has been done. I'll get your horse put away."
Joe nodded his understanding, but seemed reluctant to get down. I wondered if he was too stiff and cold to move; prolonged cold can do awful things to your muscles. I didn't waste anymore time trying to figure things out though. Joe needed to get inside immediately, and I needed to put Cooch away before the storm became so bad I wouldn't be able to find the barn. I grabbed a chair on the porch, stood on it, hugged my brother around the waist, and yanked him off his saddle. Then, I carried him inside, wrapped a blanket around him and deposited him on the settee.
"I'll be right back," I promised, then I ran outside and led Cochise into the barn. I practically ripped that poor horse's saddle and tack off; I left it in a heap on the floor. I led Cochise into his stall and threw a blanket over him. After checking the food and water for all the horses (Joe had seen to the chores in between taking care of Hoss this morning), I raced back out of the barn and bolted the door behind me. Though the house was literally only fifty feet away, I could barely see it. I oriented myself at the barn door, facing towards where the front porch of the house should be. I took a deep breath, then raced as fast as I could through the drifts of snow. Though it was only thirty seconds or so before I hit the porch and fell over, it felt like it took hours to cross that distance. Once I stumbled upon the porch, I yanked myself up onto the stair and half crawled, half rolled through the front door.
I bolted the door again, then stood at the entryway and shook the snow off my clothes. Joe was lying on the settee, exactly in the position I'd put him in. "That's bad," I thought darkly, and I raced over to see what I could do. Poor Joe was shivering, which was a great sign, and I smiled in spite of myself. Quickly, I grabbed his hands and began rubbing them, eager to restore circulation. They were not nearly as cold as I expected them to be; the very fact that Joe was still shivering meant that he was a ways yet from hypothermia.
Confused as to why he couldn't get out of the saddle then, I looked at my brother critically. Joe was staring off into the distance, as if he were not really home, and his skin color was very pale. Was he falling ill too?
Concerned, I put a hand to his head. "Adam, what are you doing?" Joe asked, snapping out of his daze and looking at me in confusion.
"Checking to see if you have a fever," I replied. "You blanked out on me for a minute there."
Joe shook my hand off his head. "Adam, I don't have a fever."
I frowned. Joe didn't feel like he had a fever, but he was still far too pale to be just cold. "Why did you blank out then?" I asked, confused.
It was at this moment that I noticed the tears welling up in my brothers eyes. "It was an accident, I swear it Adam. I didn't mean for this to happen!"
A dark suspicion came over me. I reached out and pulled the blanket back... and my heart just about stopped.
The interior of the blanket was splotched in blood. A pool of blood was staining the settee under Joe's right thigh. "No wonder he looks so pale," I thought as I sprang yet again into action. I attacked his pant leg, pulling the already tattered fabric apart while I asked Joe, "What happened?!"
Joe moaned as I jostled his leg. "Was riding Cochise, when suddenly the wind snapped a big branch free out of a tree right in front of us. Cochise reared up and threw me. I tried to get a grip, but the other branches sprouted to the big branch caught me up in them and I came crashing down onto some really sharp rocks. On the way down, my leg got caught in Cooch's reins, and that horse practically stomped it to ribbons."
I cringed, taking in the injury in all its gory detail as Joe explained the bare bones of the story. His leg was truly mangled; it was twisted and bleeding in several places. I wondered why he was not screaming in pain, but then I remembered he'd lost a lot of blood and it was a miracle that he was even still conscious. I didn't relish what I'd have to do next.
I ran to the kitchen and got some strong whiskey, plus any of the doctoring supplies I might need. "Joe," I commanded when I got back, thrusting the bottle of alcohol at him, "Drink some of this. I'm going to have to set and sew up your leg; it'll be very painful, so you need to have something to take the edge off."
Joe nodded, for once he didn't have words for the situation. While he downed a couple of mouthfuls, I threw my winter coat off then raced upstairs to check on Hoss. His fever still hadn't broken, but he wasn't at a crisis point yet, so I figured I had time to tend to Joe. I ran back down the stairs, pushing down my feelings of anxiety so I could do what needed to be done.
The leg was in bad shape. It looked to be broken in two places, and had three deep cuts lashed from the thigh to the calf. I tried not to let Little Joe see the fear in my eyes; this was a bad break. If I didn't set everything correctly... he might never walk without a limp again. That is, if he lived through all the blood-loss; my brother was as pale as the snow outside now.
"Joe, I need you to relax," I ordered. Joe grimaced and laid down as best as he could on the settee. I took the bottle of whisky out of his hands, grabbed a clean cloth and some of the clean pump water from the kitchen, and began swabbing his leg out.
"GAHHHH!" Joe screamed in pain as cold cloth touched blood, flesh, and bone. A few seconds later, he had gone limp, and I hurried to move fast. First, I sewed up the gashes on his leg to the best of my ability, using kitchen thread (denser than regular thread, yet still thin enough to pull through a needle. Hop Sing always kept some for the sewing up of wounds.). Then, I twisted and pulled Joe's leg until it was in the right position. I braced the leg with two flat boards we kept in the main room for moving heavy things, and I kept them in place by wrapping strips of wet leather around. When the leather dried, Joe's leg would be held in place firmly.
Joe lay there limply the entire time; I was glad when the job was over and I had him settled as comfortably as could be in front of the fire. Still, I was worried about his lack of response to the needle and the bracing, but I figured the cold had at least done some good. It had numbed the skin so Joe didn't feel it as much. Now that Joe was settled, I ran up to make sure Hoss was well.
It would be humorous, my running back and forth like a lunatic, if it weren't so terrifying to see both my brothers in such dire straights. Hoss was still in a high fever, and was moaning and crying out in delirium. His fever was so high that he was soaking his sheets with sweat; I had to change the linen twice during the night. And as for Joe- something was wrong with him. He'd lost too much blood; he was still too pale for my liking, and now and again he'd moan in his sleep (or faint, I couldn't tell which it was now) but wouldn't wake. When I checked him the first time he did this, I tried to wake him, but I couldn't get him to wake.
It was a long night. The longest night of my life. It was even longer than the night we waited for evil men to bring us Little Joe's medicine. Even longer than the night Hoss was injured on the trail ride, and I stayed behind worrying and looking after the herd. You'd think I'd be worried sick, but to tell you the truth, I was so busy keeping my brothers alive that I didn't even have time to think. I only could act. And then came the worst part of the night.
It was about an hour before dawn. Not that there would be much of a dawn with the sky as dark as it was. The house had fallen deadly silent. Little Joe was in a deep sleep by the fire. Hoss was still burning with fever, but he had gone silent. It was as if everything in that huge body of his had liquefied and he'd become hollow. His breathing was rapid and shallow, as if he'd been racing, and his skin was the same color as the bed sheets.
I sat on the landing of the stairs, halfway between my two brothers, and put my head in my hands. I felt like a lifeline between the two of them, a tenuous cord that could snap at any moment. And as I sat there, somewhat stunned, my emotions suddenly rose up in me and I began to bawl. Seriously, I had not cried since I was five! Yet everything came crowding into my head that moment: my brothers were dying, I had failed to protect them, my father was lost out in the storm somewhere, etc. I took a deep breath to quell my sobs, but in my mind, almost like a vision, I saw myself holding the lives of both my brothers in my hands. And that life was slipping through my hands like sand. Almost mockingly, the Bible passage came back to me. "and after the wind, an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake." It certainly felt like an earthquake to me; it was as if my entire life had been picked up and shaken like a pan of gold dust.
"Why are You doing this?!" I called out in anger to God. "What is happening here? Where are you in the storm? Where are you in the earthquake? Where are you in the fire? Can't you see what's happening? Can't you see my brothers are dying? Please, help me!" The moment the words were out of my mouth, I felt a pang of regret... but then I figured that God knows our hearts anyway, so it stands to reason He'd know how I felt. My tears has subsided with my angry outburst, and now I just felt numb.
And that's when it happened.
I heard a knock on the front door. For a moment, I figured I was crazy. Who on earth would be out in such a storm; no one could be out! I was tired; I'd been up for twenty-four hours now, and I was running on no food. It was nerves.
Then, I heard the knocking again. More insistent this time.
"Pa?" I queried as I ran for the door, thought I knew Pa wouldn't bother to knock. Then, I remembered I'd bolted the door. Quickly, I lifted the bolt of wood and opened the big front door. The word "Pa" was on my lips, but the person who stood before me was not my father.
It was a man dressed in an old worn and patched gray jacket. The poor man actually stumbled into the entryway then, practically pushed in by the wind. For a moment, I fought the battle with the door, but when it was bolted I turned to eye this miracle of a man.
"Do you have a horse?" I asked hurriedly, already reaching for my coat so I could go care for the animal.
"No," the man replied through chattering teeth. "No, ain't got a horse!"
I watched in amazement as the man hobbled over to the fire and stood much too close. How on earth did he get here without a horse? He couldn't have just walked in; there was nothing but Ponderosa land for miles around! Where then did he come from? My initial amazement faded though when I saw how badly he was shivering; it looked like he was encrusted with ice. Seeing as he was half frozen, I hurried to get him a pot of warm tea, not bothering to interrogate him until I'd warmed him up and made sure there was no danger of frostbite. When I'd settled him into a chair with a couple of blankets and some warm tea, I took the time to look closer at him.
He was an average build for a man. Muscular, but not overly so. He looked to be poorer by the state of his clothes; everything he was wearing was either patched or threadbare, but it was also well made, for I examined him for frost burns and found none. His skin was darker, olive and tanned from the sun. His hair was black and wild, sticking out at all angles, and he had a black stubble beard and mustache that only added to his eccentric look. However, it was his eyes that really got me. The man had eyes the likes of which I'd never seen before. Somedays I think they were green (a vibrant green, like the green of new growth), and other days I swear they were the warm brown color of freshly turned earth. Still, no matter what the color was, I tell you that when I made eye contact with that man I saw... life in his eyes. I know this doesn't make any sense (it doesn't to me now and it didn't to me then), but I had the feeling that this man could do anything he put his mind to doing. He had the passion to do anything, the will to do anything, and the authority to do anything he wanted. Yet he was sitting here in my family's big room grinning at me over a cup of warm tea.
"Who are you?" I asked, wondering if I'd finally snapped and was imagining this entire encounter.
"The name's Joshua," the man said amiably. "I want to rightly thank you for helping me in from the storm. I was afraid I'd loose a couple of fingers; that blizzard came up fiercer than a momma bear protecting her cubs."
I nodded, still staring at him somewhat incredulously. "Where did you come from?" I asked, still trying to figure out how he had managed to survive the night outside.
"Came from back east, heading west," he replied calmly. "Gonna head out to the desert after this; it's too cold for me here."
I frowned, as this wasn't the answer I wanted. Joe decided at that moment to groan, however, and in a flash Joshua was standing up and by his side.
"What happened to him?" Joshua queried gently.
"Trampled by a horse, after having a tree falling on him. He's lost a lot of blood."
"Ah," said Joshua, and he threw off his blanket. "Sir... what is your name, anyhow?"
"Adam," I replied.
"Adam," Joshua replied with a bemused smile. "Always did like that name. Anyways, I know you're probably not apt to believe this, but Adam I am a doctor."
I stared. Joshua was right; I didn't believe him. I'd snapped. This was some sort of waking dream, brought on by my exhaustion and stress. There was no way the very person I needed could be here now, in my house, bending over my brother Joe and carefully examining him.
"You did a great job with the bracing," Joshua stated as he turned Joe's leg this way and that. "But the wound is still seeping blood; it needs to be packed first then closed off, because he is bleeding internally in the leg. Get me some clean linen strips and some cotton, if you have any."
I stared at Joshua, wondering for a moment if I should do as he asked or if I was just going crazy and re-opening my brother's leg. As I hesitated, I heard Joe moan again and I saw his eyes flutter open. He looked around dazedly, with a glassy-eyed look that meant he really wasn't taking in anything he saw. Joshua bent down and rested his hand on Joe's head. "We're going to take care of you son," he said gently. "Me and your brother, Adam. You're in good hands."
Joe trained his eyes on Joshua, and some of the glassy stare went away. He made eye contact with him and nodded slightly, then closed his eyes in exhaustion. That was enough of a goad for me; if Joe could see Joshua then he certainly had to be real. I ran like a rabbit into the kitchen, grabbed what the man needed, and ran back.
The next day dawned (if you could call it that; the blizzard continued to block out the most of the light), and Joshua and I fell into a busy rhythm. While he worked on Joe's leg, I had apprised him on Hoss's condition. Joshua was rather adept at working alone, and since Joe put up virtually no struggle, I was free to go back upstairs and tend my other little brother. When Joshua had finished with Joe, I switched places with him and Joshua headed to Hoss's beside. Hoss's fever hadn't subsided, but Joshua had some ideas on how to combat that.
Joshua's old patched coat, I was soon to learn, was actually a medicine bag of sorts. I had never seen so many pockets in one coat! From one of the pockets he drew tincture of Echinacea and began to force it by the spoonful down Hoss's throat. I was amazed at how deft his movements were; he had the strength to hold Hoss's head still and force in what I'm sure tasted disgusting, yet his touch was comforting. Both of my brothers seemed to relax under it, at any rate.
And so the morning continued, back and forth from one brother to the other we rotated. Near noon, Joshua took the packing out of Joe's leg and carefully cleaned out the wound. He'd given Joe an herb that made him sleep, so he wouldn't thrash about while the wound was clotting. Joe's leg was no longer oozing blood like it had been before, and with quick sure stitches Joshua sewed up the wound. For the second time we braced it, retying the leather after carefully re-wetting it. "I'd like to make a plaster for that leg," Joshua grumbled, "but the wound needs to air; that's more important than the bone. If the wound is constantly covered, it has a greater chance of going foul, and if it goes foul it'll need to be lanced and drained."
He gave me instructions on what to do if that should be the case (wounds could flare up for weeks afterwards), then headed up to dose Hoss with more herbal remedies. I was amazed at the store of herbs he had in those pockets of his. It was amazing that the doctor still had a large supply, as most of these were summer herbs and would have been used since summer.
Towards evening, Hoss's fever finally broke, and he settled into a deep sleep. The blizzard outside began to subside, and with both my brothers at last on the mend, I resumed my worrying for my father. I felt awful; I'd been up for two days straight, and my skin felt like it was burning. I knew I wasn't feverish; it was just lack of sleep (I'd felt that way before), but I was still too wound up to let myself relax. At least worrying about my father was a way to expend some of that energy, though it made me heartsick to do it.
I ended up staring out the window. Night had fallen already, and wispy clouds were scudding across a star strewn sky. The moon was out, and though it wasn't full, the light from it made the new fallen snow sparkle like thousands of diamonds. The pine trees cast long, dark shadows over the snow; it was almost unreal how much beauty had been in that deadly storm. Worry for my pa overwhelmed me at that point, and I muttered bitterly to God, "Where is Your still small voice, now that the storm is over?"
"Who you talking to?" Joshua's voice piped up behind me, making me jump.
I scowled, not knowing what to say. I was tired; I knew I should be thanking God for Joshua's arrival, but I was just so worn out that nothing really made sense. "No one," I replied quietly. "I'm just a little tired is all."
Joshua walked up beside me, his easy nature a soothing presence. "'No one' shouldn't be able to speak in a still small voice," he commented dryly. "Come away from the window and tell me about it over supper, Adam."
I blinked and turned around; Joshua had apparently been up to cooking as well. Suddenly, I felt awful. Here the man had given me all the help I needed; probably had been without sleep almost as long as I had, had done a hard days work, and now had made us both dinner. Where had my hospitality got to?
I opened my mouth to apologize, but Joshua just grinned and said, "Come on, let's not let the food get cold."
I sat down at the table. Sometime, in between our running about, Joshua had found the time to make chicken and dumpling stew. It tasted wonderful, and I realized that I'd not eaten anything since... I couldn't remember.
Joshua and I chewed and swallowed for a while, then Joshua asked the question I'd been dreading. "So, who were you talking to?"
I guess I technically didn't have to answer; after all, it was none of his concern! But I couldn't bring myself not to answer; the man had done so much for me and my family. "God," I answered back.
"Got a grievance with him?" Joshua enquired politely.
I glanced up to see if he was funning me, but he just looked interested. "Maybe, but I'll not bore you with the details."
"You won't bore me; why don't you get whatever's bothering you off your chest. I don't judge nobody," he replied.
For a moment I was determined to hold back, but the weight on my heart was too much. I sighed and told my story. I began at the beginning, when Pa had decided to go off to Widow Hazel's, then continued on with the dread I had felt, the Bible passage I had read about Elijah and meeting God, and the despair I felt when both my brothers were dying and there was nothing I could do about it. I continued on more, though. I hadn't meant to, but I left nothing out; for some reason it was as if I knew Joshua wouldn't think any less of me if I told him everything. I went on telling Joshua how I felt with my family; that I was the only one on the ranch (besides Pa) with the rational to tell when things were dangerous or not, and how my brothers always got themselves into such horrible situations with their big hearts and quick tempers. I told him how restless I got, sometimes so much that I would ache for just any place to travel to, to run to, but how I was afraid to leave because without me things might just fall apart. People were always trying to kill us, steal from us, hurt us. It was the west; there were crazy people out here! Then, there were always the people who needed defending; who would help them? So, so, so many grievances!
"So where was God in the storm?!" I concluded angrily. "And what about the next storm? Will He be here then? And what about after that?!" And then I clamped my mouth shut, for I knew it was wrong of me to be angry with God, but I just couldn't help it.
Joshua was quiet for so long I wondered if he was too shocked to say anything. But when he spoke, his voice was calm and steady. "I reckon you have got a grievance at that. But Adam, there are some things to set straight about that passage you were reading. With Elijah, the Lord was not in the storm or the earthquake or the fire. And He wasn't in it because He was afraid of them, no sir! Nor was He not in them because He don't care. He was teaching Elijah something. He was showing Elijah that His character is not to hurt, not to harm. Yes, the Lord allowed the storm to pass by, but He wasn't in the storm because He ain't a God who is out to get you or kill you or make your life miserable. He's the still, small voice, who calls to you after the fire and makes everything right again. Remember too that in that passage He passed by before those things happened, so He knew it was all going on. But Adam, that's life. We go through so many storms, and God is with us the whole time. He saw what was going to happen afore it did and is the still, gentle voice at the end that helps us re-build after the storm. He allows things to happen to us, not because He hates us, but because He wants us to learn and to grow. And if we let Him teach us through the bad times, we learn not to waste our lives away pining and frettin and sighing. No sir, we jest learn how to live. And that's what God wants us to do."
I stared at Joshua for quite a while after his speech, wondering at the man. He sounded like my father. How could he possibly know so much about God? But I could see in his eyes that he had complete faith in what he was saying; Joshua was honest and telling me the world as he knew it. "Where did you come from?" I asked again, puzzled. "How'd you get to know so much? Are you the son of a preacher man or something?"
With that, Joshua smiled and shook his head. "No, not the son of a preacher, jest the son of a carpenter. But one learns a heap in building, then one learns even more in the savin of lives. I 'spect you'll learn some too; maybe you was built to travel the world. Have you ever thought about going to sea? If you like to face storms, you ain't seen nothing yet!"
He laughed as if he was laughing at a joke, and by now I was too worn out to care. Maybe the man was crazy. Maybe I was crazy. But then Joshua took a deep breath and grew serious. He looked me in the eyes and said, "Adam? It ain't your fault your brothers got sick. It ain't your fault your Pa's out somewhere in all that snow. Not to undermine your importance son, but you aren't the cause of all this trouble. You aren't the glue that holds your family together. They'd miss you if you leave, but when trouble comes they'll pull through like they always do. Just like they are doing now."
Joshua pointed to where Joe was lying on the couch, resting easily. "You may feel like your family is alone out here, Adam," Joshua stated gently. "But they're not. God is with your family, Adam. Leave them in the hands of God. Trust God to take care of them. And trust God to take care of yourself. Only then will you be free."
I had nothing more to say to Joshua, except a mumbled thanks for the meal and the advice. I meant to stay up and watch while he got some sleep, but he just hustled me upstairs saying he'd watch over my brothers that night. I wondered if he'd drugged my bowl of soup with some of his sleeping solution; I was so exhausted I barely made it up the stairs and into bed. I was out before my head hit the pillow.
When morning came, I woke up to the sunlight streaming in. My heart felt light; lighter than it had in many years. My worries over my brothers and my Pa seemed to have vanished; I knew my two younger brothers were on the mend, and that eased my troubles a great deal. And as for Pa, why, he wasn't born yesterday. He'd have found himself a shelter or something when the blizzard came in. Somehow, someway he'd have protected himself, even if he had to build a snow cave.
I stretched good and long, then jumped out of bed and hurried over to see my little brother Hoss. He was breathing slow and strong, the natural sleep restoring him almost to where he didn't even look sick. I rubbed his arm and said, "Glad to have you back with us, little brother." Then, I headed downstairs to check on Joe.
Joe was awake, and greeted me with a lopsided grin and a "Good morning!"
"Good morning to you too!" I responded back, glad to be saying it. "How are you feeling?"
"Surprisingly pretty good for a man whose got his leg held together with kitchen thread, wood, and leather. And hey Adam, what do I gotta do to get any food around here, I'm starving!"
I smiled my brightest smile, which probably startled my kid brother, and said, "Joe, that's the best news I've heard this morning. Let me get you something to eat."
As I headed off towards the kitchen, I called back, "Joe, have you seen Joshua this morning?"
Silence. Then, Joe asked, "Who?"
Odd. I turned back into the big room and looked at Joe. "Joshua," I replied. "You know, the man who came in the blizzard and fixed up your leg for you. The doctor?"
Joe bit his lip; he looked confused. "Adam, I don't remember no one. Matter-of-fact, I really don't remember much. Do you mean you didn't fix my leg?"
Now I was getting confused. "But Joe, you saw him," I replied. "When the storm was going on, you opened your eyes and saw Joshua. He told you we were going to take care of you- remember?"
Joe gave me that wide-eyed stare that passed for my brother's look of total confusion. I sighed and shook my head. "Well, you don't remember, I can see that. But you must have seen him sometime this morning; he said he was going to watch over you and Hoss last night."
Joe looked at me as if I were a lunatic or something. "Adam, I've been awake for 'bout an hour," Joe replied. "I ain't seen no one. There's been nobody here Adam; I'd have seen him!"
My confusion was temporarily abated; at that moment, the front door opened. I'd observed in the few seconds it was swinging open that it was not bolted; I figured Joshua had probably gone outside to get firewood or something. So, imagine my surprise when my Pa came thumping through the door.
"PA!" cried Joe, and I echoed the cry. Our father was in the room in a moment, wrapping Joe in a careful bear hug and looking at me with happy eyes. "I'm so glad to be home, so glad to be safe," Pa stated. "I thought I'd never get home; the blizzard caught me halfway into my journey. What happened to you, Joe? And where's Hoss?"
"It's kind of a long story Pa," I replied, relieved that my family was once again together and intact. "Hoss is upstairs; he was sick, but he's going to be fine now. And all thanks to Joshua... Pa, did you see a man outside when you were coming in?"
I had been speaking quickly out of relief, but after my query I looked up at Pa and noticed his face had gone white. "Pa!" I exclaimed. "Sit down; are you alright? What's wrong?"
"What's wrong?" Pa echoed. "Nothing... it's just... what was the name of the man you mentioned?"
I looked at Pa warily before replying, "Joshua."
Pa nodded. "Was he an average built guy, swarthy, with a bristly black beard and hair that stuck out at all angles, wearing a patched coat?"
I blinked. "Well, so then you did see him Pa."
My father nodded. "Yes, I did see the man Joshua. But not in our front yard. Adam, when the blizzard started while I was on my way back home, I searched and searched for shelter of some kind. A cave, rocks, even a copse of close trees would have done. But the blizzard came on too fast; I could barely see where I was going. Buck and I kept on, but I knew we were in danger. Then, we literally ran smack dab into the wall of a small shack. I didn't know we had made it off our lands, but I thanked God for this miracle and dragged Buck inside with me."
My father paused, and I said, "Well, I'm glad you found shelter, but where does Joshua come into all this?"
Pa frowned, as if wondering whether or not to tell me the next part. Finally, he took a deep breath. "Son, I know you well. I know you won't believe this, but when I got inside, I met the man who owned the shack. He was a kind man; he offered me warm food and a bed, plus he bedded down my horse in a stable he built from a cave in the back. This man, who showed me so much hospitality, is none other than the Joshua you describe."
I stood up, stunned. "No, it can't be. Pa, Joshua was here the whole time! He fixed Joe's leg, took care of Hoss, heck he even made sure I was fed! How could he be with you as well; a man can't be in two places at once!"
My father looked at me and said, "Adam, I am of the opinion that Joshua was no ordinary man. In fact, I think being in two places at once was the least of his difficulties."
I closed my mouth and nodded, still stunned. I had nothing else to say on the matter; nothing else really needed to be said.
As I finish writing down this account, I've come to realize something. Well, actually I've come to realize several somethings. The main thing I've realized is that I don't know as much about the world as I thought I knew. Which comes as a comfort, actually, because it makes the next thing I realized sound so much grander. I was made to explore. As a kid, I was always traveling. Never in one place, we wandered about until we found our Ponderosa land. But that old restlessness, that thirst for travel has never left me, and through the words Joshua spoke to me I've come to realize that I can travel with a clear conscience. My family would always want me and have use for me, but perhaps I was meant to do something other than live out my days on a ranch. I could trust God to watch over them, just like Pa would trust God to watch over me. Only then would I be truly free.
I shut my writing book and smiled. I wondered where I could go. The world was huge; I could go anywhere, see anything! "How about the sea?" I thought, Joshua's question ringing through my memory. "I've always loved my Pa's stories about the time he spent at sea..."