Journey Home

By: Michelle Denson

"What do you think Adam, should we wait another day or head on out?" asked Joe.

It had been raining nonstop for the week when the two brothers started this trip to pick up a few new horses. They had already delayed the trip home because of the storms. The trip home would now take about four days, slower than the trip to the small town.

Adam sighed as he looked out the hotel window. "I think we should go ahead and leave today." The three day long journey to the town was not bad. Adam and Joe hadn't gotten into a single argument. The trail itself was long and lonely, no towns between the one they were in now and home. Adam figured if it was not for the storms they would be home already. Travel was dangerous with the new horses and the storms raging on; the bitter cold was not going to be much more pleasant either. He was proud of his brother this week. He was finally taking things a bit more seriously. Granted he recently turned eighteen he was still a kid in his brother's book. Adam figured it would not be long before he started getting restless and started showing some of his more immature and hotheaded personality. For now though he was proving to be a good horseman. He helped spot out some nice horses to build up the Ponderosa herd. Between the two of them they managed to buy six fine horses. There were five very fine mares, although one Adam had reservations about but his brother insisted she was a nice horse, but the pride was the stallion that they had purchased. They spent a bit more than they first figured but the stallion was worth what they paid and then some. He was a fairly young horse at six years and standing close to sixteen and a half hands tall. He was gentle with a high spirited air about him. He was a beautiful dark bay with his mane and tail to accent his beauty in dark contrasting black. Adam brought himself out of his thoughts and looked over to Joe. "We might as well start packing up. It'll take us about four days to get home and we'll have to take it slower than we'd like but with all this rain I'd hate to injure any of these horses."

Joe smiled at his brother "Yeah, especially that nice stallion. Sure will be good to get back home. Nothing to do in this town, sure wish it would stop raining. You think there's any chance of that?"

"Well the rain has slowed some, perhaps when we start down the trail it will ease up some more. Let's get a move on, I'd like to get some breakfast and be on the trail by mid-morning."

An hour later the boys were just finishing getting all the horses ready for the trip. "Well Joe lets head out. The rain seems to have slowed some but the cold weather doesn't help much." Adam gathered the lead that tied three of the mares together and mounted up on Sport. "Well Cooch looks like we're gonna be a bit wet again." Joe gave his beloved pinto a loving pat, gathered the lead to the two remaining mares and the big stallion, than swung into saddle. "Alright Adam let's go home!"

By the afternoon the rain seemed to quite down, but a few hours later the storms picked up again. The slickers provided little protection in the heavy rain, but it did help to keep them a little bit dry. The path was swallowed in water. Most of the normal hard packed ground was now slippery mud. The horses were moving at a slow pace, picking their way carefully through the mud. Many times the horses would slip or stumble from the bad footing. It was a tiring ride for both horses and the two young men. Sport was quite calm and serious riding through the woods, not like his usually spirited self. The mares Adam was leading seemed to have the same determination. Even Cochise was taking travel easy not once making notion for her rider to let her run. The horses Joe led had the same subdued behavior. It made an almost depressing scene in the pouring rain and dark clouded sky. Little Joe looked back behind him and around the sides, letting his eyes finally find their way skyward. Night would be coming soon and by the looks of the clouds even more rain.

"Hey Adam" yelled Joe over the loud rain. Dang, guess he didn't hear me thought Joe. He nudged Cooch a little faster to catch up beside his brother. "Adam, I think we need to find some shelter for the night."

"There's a cave a few miles ahead. If we pick up the pace a bit we can make it before nightfall. How are you horses doing?" asked Adam as he glanced back to his own.

"They're a bit tired, but haven't had any get ornery or nothing."

"These here about the same, cold and wet like us." said Adam as he stretched his lower back. He re-set his hat and added, "Well let's get moving before this rain picks up anymore." With that Adam kicked Sport into a faster gait.

"Well Cooch let's get going." Joe added as his mount picked up her speed.

The further down the trail they moved the worse the ground became. The horses slipped in the slippery mud time and time again, but never faltered. The rain continued to pick up its intensity and soon the low grumble of thunder could be heard and a few of the new horses began to get fidgety. One of the horses Adam was leading started to pull on the lead and bumping into the other two horses at her side. Adam slowed Sport and it seemed to settle her down. Joe caught up to his brother and smiled. Adam couldn't help but smirk as he offered, "Tomorrow Joe, you get this group and then we'll see who is smiling." Joe broke out into a laugh and added his own little retort. "Sure thing older brother, guess it's time you admitted I am better at handling horses." He took a more serious tone and added, "How much further before we reach that cave?"

"It's just over the next ridge. We should be there before the storm gets …" Adam's last words were drowned out by the loud crash of thunder.

The boys nudged their tired horses on. A short while later they crested the ridge, and could just make out an entrance to the cave below. Joe turned to his brother and gave a quick smile before kicking Cochise into a faster gait. Adam gave a half smile and urged Sport a bit faster to catch up to his brother. Soon they reached the cave and began to get settled in for the night.

"Hey Adam, why don't you get the fire started. Some nice hot coffee sure would be good about now."

"Are you sure you wouldn't prefer some warm milk little brother?" smirked Adam.

Each went their way to getting settled in for the night. Joe led Cochise and the three horses he led for the day to the safety of the shelter. He took a few minutes getting them settled in before he went back to retrieve the remaining horses. Meanwhile Adam had the fire going and hot coffee brewing. He pulled some food from the saddlebags and left it to cook on the fire. He walked out to give Joe a hand with the remaining horses, leading Sport and another mare into the dry cave.

Joe looked at the two remaining mares and shook his head. "Figures that he would leave you with me. Well better give me no trouble or you'll be sleeping outside." He said to the mare that had caused his brother grief earlier in the day. He started to lead them towards the cave behind his brother when a crash of thunder was heard. The flighty mare came to an abrupt halt causing Joe to slip into the soft mud, thoroughly soaking him from head to foot in wet sticky mud. Joe could hear the roaring laughter coming from inside the cave and without looking up could easily envision his brother rolling on the ground holding his sides. Now not only was Joe wet and dirty, he was embarrassed that his older brother witnessed his own falter. Adam quickly brought himself under control and made his way back out to his brother to insure he was okay and not injured. Joe smiled up from the mud puddle he was still sitting in. Adam couldn't help but to laugh again from the very black face and bright white teeth. Joe tried to get up but the mud was very slippery and he managed to fall backwards onto his rear, resulting in a louder torrent of laughing from his older brother. To make it worse the creature responsible decided to add her two cents worth and whinnied loudly at him. "Okay, okay, very funny now give me a hand." Adam really couldn't help himself and began to clap loudly while cheering loudly "Bravo Joseph, Bravo!" Adam watched his brother struggle for a short time before he reached down and helped him onto his feet. "Come on little brother you best get out of those clothes and dried up before you get sick." With a broad smile and a laugh he led to two mares into the cave and waved his hand in the air while he called out to his brother, "The better horseman will take care of these two."

It was a good thing the last occupants of the cave had left a pile of wood there. Joe figured his older brother was the most likely candidate. While his brother settled in the last two mares he began to strip himself from the cold wet clothing. Thankfully he had a change of clothes that were dry, but his jacket was not only soaked through but quite muddy too. The two boys soon settled down to eat their dinner of warm beans and hot coffee.

"Hey Adam, you think the rain will ease up tomorrow?"

"No I'm afraid we're in for even more harsh weather. Storm seems to have gotten worse since we left town. I'm not sure where we will be camping tomorrow night. There isn't much for shelter in our next stretch of land. If we can push the horses a bit harder tomorrow we can get closer to home and some better areas for holding up for the night."

Joe gave his brother a worried look while he talked, but when Adam looked his direction he quickly changed his expression to a smile. He didn't fool his older brother though; Adam could easily tell his brother was scarred and worried. Little Joe's eyes were like a portal to his inner thoughts.

"Don't worry Joe, maybe the storm will be over by the time we make camp. I'd still say we're another three days from home at this rate. Better get some sleep, tomorrow is going to be a long day."

"A long, wet, muddy day" mumbled Joe.

Adam gave a small smile as he watched his brother finish eating. A short time later the two exhausted men were sleeping. Both cold and a bit wet. Throughout the night the storm raged on. The thunder was now laced with occasional lightning and the wind screamed of bitter cold. The fire went out in the early hours, leaving only the burning embers. Adam woke with a chill, he quickly realized the fire had died out and made quick work of building it back up to a warming blaze. He quickly set a pot of coffee to heat and warmed what was left of the beans for breakfast. The fresh and inviting scent of warm coffee woke Joe from his sleep. He still felt tired and chilled to the bone but soon the hot coffee and beans made his insides warm up. After they finished eating they quickly closed up the camp and packed the horses to continue on their long journey home. True to Adam's words the evening before, today Joe was leading the group of mares. Outside the freshly warmed cave the storm continued to pound loose the layers of dirt and rocks. The dark sky made it difficult to recognize day from night. Joe's jacket was still wet from last night's swim in the mud, but it still offered some warmth under his slicker. Again Adam led the way down the trail. The bad vision from dark lighting and heavy rain made their progress slow as Adam had feared the night before. By afternoon the rain eased a bit and they pulled up for a short break. Adam made up some cold beans since no dry wood was available. He ate a good portion but frowned at Joe as he pushed the beans around his plate.

"Are you going to eat those beans or just play with them?"

"Huh, oh sorry Adam, guess I'm not very hungry."

Adam frowned and looked harder at Joe, but he didn't appear to be sick. "Joe, you feeling alright?"

Joe just nodded and set his plate down. He got up and looked around before settling his sight on the horses. "Adam, how far do you figure we are from home?"

"Oh Joe, still pretty far. Well probably another two days, maybe more if this storm doesn't ease up on us." He sighed, then added "you sure you're feeling alright?"

Joe smiled back at his brother, "Just ready to be home already. I'm gonna go check the horses before we head off."

Adam watched as his brother left, he didn't look sick but he just had a feeling he would soon be. He gave another worried expression to his brother's back then set to pack up so they could be on their way. Soon they were back on the trail. Adam would continually look back and check for any sign of sickness. He was relieved time and again as Joe appeared to be fine and would always give a smile to his brother. Adam felt relieved but he still had that nagging feeling that all was not right with his little brother.

"Hey Cooch, don't tell Adam but I think he is showing some emotion." Joe laughed as he gave his loving mount a few pats on the neck. He knew Adam loved him dearly but would often hide his own emotions from the world. "Guess he has cause to worry. I haven't been feeling too good since this morning. Now don't you go telling him nothing, he has enough to deal with without worrying about me being sick." Cochise gave a snort and shook her head as if not agreeing with her master's wishes. Joe laughed at her antics and ended with a small cough. He looked up towards Adam and was relieved that his brother hadn't heard his cough. Guess the loud rain drowned out the sounds he thought.

The remainder of the day continued as it had when they left with the storm growing in intensity with each passing minute. Adam kept searching for some sort of shelter to hold up for the night, but beyond the thick trees there was none to be found. He mused at the rate they were traveling it would be Christmas before they reached home, but that was still weeks away. He pulled Sport up and waited for his brother to catch up. Soon the two brothers were stopped looking at the trail that lay ahead. Adam turned to his brother, "It's going to be dark soon and there is still no shelter around. There's a thick patch of trees up ahead, we'll make camp there." Joe looked to the stand of trees his brother had pointed out returning a grim look. "Guess that means cold beans for dinner." Food was the last thought on Joe's mind and the mere suggestion brought a nauseous feeling to his stomach. Joe however felt he must dispel any thought from his brother that he was not feeling right, otherwise he would know that something was wrong. Adam returned a small smirk to his brother, "Cold beans it is. Let's get settled for the night. Doubt there will be anything to start a fire but we'll take a look anyway. Perhaps we won't have to suffer with cold beans after all." A short time later found Joe and Adam settled into camp. The horses were settled in with everyone calm and relaxed, even the mare that seemed to delight in causing trouble. Adam looked over at the tie line that held the string of horses, "Guess that mare travels better with you. Perhaps you should keep her for the remainder of the trip oh better horseman you!" Adam gave a small chuckle at the look of dread that crossed his brother's face. "Okay how about you take those mares again tomorrow and I'll take them the next day? With any luck we'll be home by then, but unless the weather breaks we're in for another day on the trail." Adam put his focus back to eating; noting the miserable look Joe gave at the last comment. Poor kid, it's been a long trip for him. The weather hasn't been to good either, sure hope he doesn't get sick while we're still on the trail would make for a even rougher trip home. Adam thought to himself as he watched Joe toy with his food, pushing it around the plate to give the appearance he had eaten some of it. Joe would take a small bite every once in awhile, but most of his food was left untouched. He could feel his brother's dark gaze upon him and he struggled to bring the spoon to his mouth. Finally he gave up all pretence and dropped his plate down and stood up. He could feel his stomach already rebutting the meager food which recently arrived there. He excused himself with an excuse of checking the horses as he felt the bile rise to his throat. Adam watched his brother leave with a studying eye, but when he saw Joe checking the horses he turned his attention to finishing his meal and heading for bed. Joe had been waiting for his brother's gaze to shift, he didn't feel he could stop the vomit from its escape any longer and moved off a short distance to relieve the pressure that made its way up his throat. The small amount of contents were quickly removed and left Joe with drive heaves. The slight headache he had been sporting all day was now pounding from the force that wracked his body. There was nothing Joe could do to stop the impending sickness from settling in his system, but he was going to hold off as long as possible so as not to burden his brother with any more worries than they already had.

Any hopes of the storm to die down were drowned out by the heavy blowing wind and the hammering rain. It didn't seem possible that the storm could get any worse, but somehow it did. Only when daybreak arrived did the storm loose some of its intensity. Joe passed on his breakfast and prepared all the horses for the next leg of their journey home. He didn't think it possible to feel any worse then he did the night before when he laid down for the night, but on top of the constant pounding headache and nauseated stomach his chest felt so tight that it took most of his strength just to draw a breathe. He swayed slightly as he felt the dizziness take hold of him and left him feeling light headed and disconnected. It took everything out of him just to put up a front of good feeling for his brother's sake. Just a couple more days if we push it. I can hold out that long, I can rest when we get home.

"Hey Adam the horses are ready" rasped Joe. His brother didn't even hear him. Joe sighed as he knew he wouldn't be able to hide his sickness from his brother much longer. Adam had noted Joe by the readied horses and made his way over to finish packing up. He noted that Joe looked a bit pale and seemed tired looking. Again he though Joe looked as though he was a getting sick. He leaned on Sport's saddle and studied his brother more carefully before he asked, "Joe are you sure you're feeling alright? You look tired and a bit pale." Joe simply nodded, not daring to use the voice he knew would be a dead give away. Adam sighed at his stubborn brother, shaking his head he mounted his horse and took the lead lines of two of the mares and the stallion. "We should make some good time today. The storm seems to be dieing out." Adam smiled at the look of joy that brought his younger brother. Kid's just homesick. Adam turned his horse and headed off down the trail. Joe swayed slightly in the saddle once he mounted, but quickly followed his brother's lead towards home. He slowed Cochise down once he caught up to his brother, but soon he felt the distance between them dragging farther apart. Adam's prediction of the storm dieing out was accurate, by early afternoon the sun was high in the sky drying the water sodden earth. Like most winter storms this one brought even cooler temperatures, and the cool crisp air was refreshing to Adam, but for Joe it seemed to make the tightness in his chest worse. Adam smiled at their good fortune and decided it would be a good time to stop for lunch. He pulled his mount to a stop and turned around in the saddle to talk with Joe but frowned at the distance that seemed to have grown between them during the day. Adam was happy that the trip would only take another day in this good weather; he figured Joe was about drained from this long venture. Soon his brother had made his way beside him.

"How about we stop and rest, maybe eat some lunch too?" Adam smiled towards his brother. He couldn't help notice the forced smile that Joe had returned. Joe definitely wasn't looking too well, "Joe are you feeling alright? You still look a bit pale and tired." Joe simply smiled and nodded that all was fine. Adam sighed inwardly before he dismounted from his horse. Joe followed his brother's direction but held tight to the saddle horn when dizziness washed over him, threatening to send his body falling to the ground. He felt so tired and used every bit of energy to remain standing on his feet. After a few moments the world slowed its spinning and he ventured a few steps bring his horses behind him to tie by Adam's. Relief washed over him as he lowered his body to the ground by the warm fire his brother had started. He was vaguely aware of the hot cup of coffee his brother shoved in his hand, but the relief a moment ago was minute in comparison to how good that hot coffee tasted. "How about some hot beans for lunch?" Adam grinned at his brother's distasteful look, he was a might bit sick of beans himself and couldn't wait to return home and have some of Hop Sing's good cooking. Joe merely shook his head no and resumed to drain the coffee from his cup. "Alright Joe out with it, what's bother you? You haven't said one word to me all day." Again his brother just shook his head. That brother of his could be about the most stubborn person Adam had ever met, he was just about frustrated enough to throw his hat to the ground and stomp on it but knew that would solve nothing. Joe watched the temper in his brother start to boil, he knew he had to say something to Adam but he feared the response when his brother heard his hoarse voice. It wasn't that he didn't want to talk to Adam, in reality he had lots he wanted to talk about, but it was painful enough just to swallow let alone carry a conversation. "Nothing, I'm fine." Adam looked his brother over much more carefully, pale complexion, tiredness, refusal to talk and when he finally did it sounded more like a sound some dieing creature would make than the voice of his brother. "Mmm hmm, really?" Adam crossed his arms and walked over towering his younger brother. It was an intimidating posture and Joe knew he wasn't hiding his sickness as well as he had planned. "I'm fine." Adam just stared at Joe and lifted an eyebrow at that answer. "Throat's scratchy is all." Adam wasn't convinced that was all and set himself to checking Joe's forehead, but his arm was swiped away in irritation by the younger boy. "I said I was fine." Joe couldn't help himself from lashing out at Adam, he really did feel terrible and the last thing he wanted was to be reminded of it and cause anymore worries than he already had. "I just wanna get home." Joe got up and was glad the world stood still for him this time. He walked off towards the horses without a backward glance at his brother. Adam let out the pent up breath he had been holding and followed his brother's back towards the waiting mounts. His little brother wasn't fooling him, Joe was sick but Adam knew that he had to get him home before he got too bad off. He dumped the remains of the coffee on the fire and collected the remaining gear before following Joe to the horses.

The horses delighted in the cold dry air. The last few days of thick mud and freezing rain had drowned their spirits, but today they felt like running and playing. Sport was back to his high strung and pushy self. At every opportunity he would attempt to break free of his master's control to race off free towards the horizon. He could sense the excitement in the other horses and that combined with the scents of familiar pines was enough to keep Adam's attention glued to the horses he was directing. He would occasionally glance back at his brother making sure he was not going to fast for him and to be sure he didn't get any worse. His brother seemed to be keeping up the pace well enough and Adam allowed Sport to increase his speed a little. He checked back to make sure Joe was still keeping up and was gratified that he seemed to be about the same distance. The faster pace his brother had set sent Joe's head spinning; he couldn't help but pull Cochise back down to a slower speed. He sighed as he watched the distance between himself and Adam grow longer and longer. Reluctantly he picked up the pace again to keep up and was rewarded with a pounding in his head to the rhythm of his horse. The fidgety mare decided that this was the best time to throw a fit. She firmly planted her legs to the ground in an abrupt stop, and then flung her body into the air like a bronco just tasting his first ride. Had she have done this at any other time the results would have been different, but Joe was barely able to pay attention to the mares and found himself pulled right off the saddle. Joe felt the air rush out of him as his body met the solid ground below. He lay stunned on the ground a moment to catch his breath, he couldn't help smile at his faithful mount. She was so well trained, she just stood their ground tied waiting for her master to remount. Slowly he began to rise and winced when he felt a stabbing pain in his side. He felt the cough come on but never expected the pain to bring him to his knees. He kneeled there cradling his side as he waited out the excruciating coughing spell.

Adam had been riding for awhile before he decided to look back on his brother again. Lines of worry covered his face when there was no sign of Joe on the trail behind him. Quickly he led the horses back, dreading that he would find his brother unconscious on the trial.