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NIGHT OF THE HOWLING
Summary: Adam, Hoss, and Joe fall prey to unnatural circumstances while on an overnight trip away from the Ponderosa. Unexpected danger ignites a host of painful memories for all three brothers when they are forced into a fight for survival with only each other to rely on.
*Adult language, circumstances, and some graphic violence.*
Characters: Adam , Hoss, Little Joe
Night of the Howling
Joe was pouring a cup of coffee when they heard it - that mournful, solitary sound out of nowhere so distinct and clear that all three men stopped what they were doing just to listen. Adam and Hoss locked eyes across the campfire as the eerie howling pierced the pre-dawn darkness. They listened together as it grew and built upon itself with a wild and steady intensity before tapering away to leave a cold and uncommon silence in its place.
The sound of Joe's metal coffee cup striking the rocks around the campfire was the next thing they heard. Adam was first to react by hurrying to his brother's side and squatting down next to him. Joe's hand had gone to his gun instinctively. It remained there now as he waited, his fingers coiled and tense around the handle, his worried eyes brushing the outskirts of camp for any sign of associated danger.
Adam said nothing more immediately, but he glanced at Joe's face before joining him in his scrutiny of their surroundings. One quick look had told him all he needed to know anyway - the unexpected sound of a wild wolf's howl had hit a nerve. There was no need to ask why.
Hoss had moved as well now, lowering himself next to Joe on his opposite side. Together they presented a solid flank against any real or presumed danger.
"That was a long way off, Joe," Hoss said eventually, trying to help. "Besides, don't you worry none. There ain't nothin' out there me an' Adam would let get to you anyway."
Adam smiled inwardly as he listened to Hoss; the man had a way of cutting straight through the middle of things to get to the heart of any matter. He was always grateful for Hoss' simple and level-headed thinking - possibly also for his sizeable presence against any potential threat. As if on cue, Adam and Hoss both looked at Joe which enabled the younger man to relax his shoulders, let go of his gun, and close his eyes briefly before facing either of them again. Joe regained his composure while trying to shake off the bout of nerves resurrected by the sound of a wolf's cry.
It had been almost one year ago to the day since Adam and Joe's ill-fated wolf hunting trip to Montpelier Gorge. Joe had recovered well after a few weeks of care from Doc Martin and his own family though he did have some left over residual effects from the wound. His shoulder could still become sore and inflamed if he overused it, but he had learned how to pace himself. The doctor had assured him it would continue to heal and improve over time. The doc had been right thus far. Joe knew he had been lucky to avoid a worse outcome.
Still - the emotional wounds ran deep. The doctor had cautioned him it was part of the normal healing process although Joe found the invisible wounds more difficult to manage personally. The mental anguish he suffered during the wolf attack had hurt him severely perhaps in part because he was shot only moments before the attack occurred. His conscious brain had trouble accepting the first incident before the second trauma was upon him. The two separate crises occuring back to back had been a heavy blow to his psyche. Joe'd had no time to deal with one crisis before the second set of problems bowled him over. He found himself not only seriously wounded, but flat on the ground, partially helpless, and fighting for his life with a full-grown wolf.
Although the injuries to Joe had been serious the impact on Adam had been similarly crushing at times. He shouldered a heavy guilt within himself for accidentally shooting anyone let alone someone he loved. Adam knew Joe bore no personal grudge against his brother for what had happened. Adam had long since assigned himself a burden worse than any Joe could have given him.
The men lingered together by the fire for several more minutes, guns handy, and kept themselves alert despite hearing no further howling from anywhere around them. Joe relaxed visibly. Scoffing mostly at himself, he reached for the dropped cup to pour himself a second cup of coffee.
"Sorry," Joe offered simply. "That was bound to happen sometime. I just didn't know when."
"No need to apologize, little brother," Hoss answered. "I don't like them dadburned wolves either, and I ain't never had your 'n Adam's experience."
Joe looked next at Adam who he found watching him intently. Joe understood why the entire situation was difficult for his brother as well, but the look of deep concern etched on Adam's face clutched at Joe's chest anyway.
"Ah, don't look so worried, Adam," Joe said, attempting to shrug things off. "I'm alright - just startled me is all."
"I know that, Joe," Adam replied, letting go of a sigh. "I know," he added, patting his arm before standing.
Adam kicked at the rocks ringing the campfire as he wandered by. Despite his best efforts to keep the fear away from all of them, especially Joe, it had become clear over the last few months that it wasn't actually possible to erase the painful memories they all still carried from that fateful incident at Montpelier Gorge. He'd held stubbornly to the hope it would all somehow dissipate in due time. Adam was discouraged because he could not see any relief he considered real or acceptable. Joe was obviously still on edge - greatly affected by what had happened. All Adam could do was watch and try to help him as things unfolded. Not having better control over any potentially threatening situation frustrated him greatly, especially if his family was at risk. The situation left him wanting to tear something apart with his bare hands yet there was nothing to grab ahold of. Resting both hands on his hips, his jaw tightly clenched, Adam squared off with the darkness by openly daring it to try anything else.
The horses nickered one at a time where they stood tethered nearby as though signaling they knew the sun would be up soon and they should get underway. Several nights on the trail had not been as snug as their usual arrangements. They all seemed to know a warm and comfortable barn awaited them back home on the Ponderosa.
Adam also worried their mounts were nervous about things they could sense but their riders could not. If that was the case there was little he could do about it. They could remain vigilant, but it would take all three of them to support a reasonable and effective guard against the unknown.
"It'll be alright, Adam," Hoss said, appearing beside him. "I know you're frettin' about that critter out there, but he's outnumbered. It's different this time."
Adam acknowledged Hoss by merely nodding. There was no sense trying to pretend Hoss wasn't reading him accurately. Both he and Joe knew that he was, and the situation was making all of them edgy. The sooner they broke camp and moved on the sooner they could be somewhere else and thinking about other things.
"Alright," Adam said, tossing another look at Joe. "Let's get out of here then."
The sun was approaching a midway point in the sky when the Cartwright men next paused to rest themselves and their horses. It was too late in October to remain warm for long during daylight hours, yet the sun felt good and welcome at their backs as they traveled. It gave them a brief chance to escape the evening chill which would surely return after the sun went down. The first frost of deep autumn had not yet shown itself though it was generally expected to arrive at any time.
Adam and Hoss had decided during a conversation the previous week that the two of them would undertake the seasonal chore of checking and closing the line shacks for the winter. As there were only four of the shacks left, they thought it would be a quick and easy matter of locking things up and stowing away supplies and equipment until the same process could be reversed in the spring. A meager amount of rations would be left on hand at any of the locations. The focus of the trip would be to secure windows and doors designed to keep out pests over the next five or six months while possibly shoring up a roof or two as needed.
The two of them almost got away with it until Joe overheard them discussing their plans the night before they planned to leave. Adam and Hoss thought if they left Joe with Pa he could go with him to Carson City to attend the Cattlemen's Association meeting, spend a night or two there as needed, and return home when business concluded. It was not what Joe wanted to do. He wouldn't hear of being left behind while his brothers did all the heavy work without him. When push came to shove, even Ben had to admit he could manage the meeting by himself as he had already done so on many previous occasions. Adam and Hoss had to tell Joe what they were planning and face the fact their original idea wasn't going to work this year.
"Hey, Adam?" Joe asked, riding up alongside him. "I thought you said one of the shacks was going to need some repairs. I haven't seen any yet. They've all actually been in good shape."
"Mostly, but it's the shack we're going to next that I was concerned about," Adam answered. "I saved it for last on purpose as it's likely to take the most time. I noticed a couple of problems when I was there a few months ago. We'll see," he added, giving his brother a quick smile.
Joe nodded, digesting the information, but privately wondering how bad the place could really be. Nothing much happened out here any more. He also knew he hadn't actually seen it in two or three years. Other chores had kept him closer to the house in recent months. The hired hands typically dealt with the line shacks more than anyone else. An early end of season cattle drive had also given them an earlier payday this year. The usual crew had permission to go ahead and enjoy their hard-earned wages in town. Adam and Hoss had been more than happy to take care of the necessary chores so all the men could go. They had also hoped to leave Joe out of most of the line shack work for his own good this year.
"Well, I'll be glad when we get there," Hoss chimed in, catching up with them. "I'm plum tired of this saddle for one day. Almost anything else will look better to me."
"Hang on, brother," Joe teased. "We'll be having beans and bacon before too much longer. You'll feel like your old self in no time."
They all chuckled together at the collective image of Hoss after a good meal. Joe had just nudged Cochise out in front to start moving them along a little faster when he heard something that caused him to draw the pinto to a hault.
The sound of howling in the distance was unmistakable. Joe froze where he sat in the saddle and listened, captivated, and unable to move. Adam's eyes were on Joe's back as the sound of one wolf joined another, doubling the intensity washing over them, and echoing across the canyon walls before bouncing off the other side.
Adam looked at Hoss, exchanging a sense of frustration and a bit of disbelief as each of them assessed what they heard.
"That's about half as far away as it was this mornin'," Hoss said, unable to repress a frown.
Joe turned Cochise around slowly, his eyes wide, and filled with uncertainty. He looked from Adam to Hoss and back again, waiting for either of them to react.
They all knew wolves lived out here. They were also especially likely to be hungry this time of year. Wolves were not typically interested in crossing paths with humans. They remained a distinct and respectful source of danger nonetheless as last year had so aptly demonstrated. People and wolves could get in each other's way when least expected such as in early spring during calving season. The crafty predators were always looking for easy prey. They could run into one another accidentally just occupying the same patch of land. Wolves didn't care about deeds or fences. They crisscrossed the lands they had always inhabited as needed in their ongoing search for survival. Their patterns and habits were primal and instinctive, and largely unaffected by homesteading and other types of permanent settlements. Although wolves had commonly learned to associate men with guns and danger they were not always as respectful of those things as folks preferred. Despite all other influences, wolves were considered dangerous predators, plain and simple, and people had to treat them as such.
The howling chorus started all over again as the three men sat on their horses and listened. Even Adam jumped as the sound of a third, and then a fourth participant joined in.
"It's a pack," Joe said quietly, his eyes moving between his brothers and the surrounding hills as the realization began to set in. "It's not just one or even two - it's a full pack."
The brothers sat sat together on their horses where they had gathered in a small circle - all of them powerless to do anything other than listen to the uncomfortable sound of several wolves in a howling exchange somewhere in the distance. Cochise fussed and tossed his head around nervously while Joe patted his neck in an attempt to soothe the spirited pinto.
"He probably hasn't forgotten either," Joe said, breaking the silence.
"Yeah, and I think he's right bein' touchy about it," Hoss added. "I also think the best thing for us to do is get to that shack as quick as possible, get things secured, and be ready for 'em if they show up."
"Do you think they're actually tracking us, Hoss?" Joe asked, saying the unthinkable out loud.
"I think it's possible, yeah," Hoss admitted. "I don't know why they would be, but there's no reason to trail us if they didn't have catchin' us in mind. We'd best get down the road and into a better place before they find us out here in the open."
Adam and Hoss exchanged looks, each wrestling with their own thoughts, but neither saying more. Joe cast one last glance toward the foothills before they all turned their horses simultaneously toward the line shack. Each man gave his horse a little kick, urging them into a faster pace.
They rode without talking for the greater part of the next five miles, the horses picking their way through rough terrain and around occasional sand pits known to co-exist in this particular part of the territory. Joe was about to ask if they were headed in the right direction when the bare outline of a shingled roof materialized in the distance. Halting Cochise, Joe waited for Adam and Hoss to pull up beside him. Together they stared at the small structure now visible on the horizon.
"Well, there it is," Adam said, a little out of breath.
"Yeah," Hoss agreed, bringing Chubb to a stop next to him. "It doesn't look like much from here, but I'm actually real glad to see it."
Joe squinted his eyes trying to get a better look. For a moment he thought it might be a mirage, but it was out there, and only about a half mile in front of them. He was just about to say something akin to how they should keep riding hard when the sound of howling erupted in the distance behind them yet again.
"Damn!" Adam swore aloud, looking behind him before shoving his hat back on his forehead. "They're closer! Hoss, what in the hell?"
"I don't know," Hoss said, not waiting for him to finish. "I say we get ourselves to that shack just as quick as possible. I think we could be havin' company."
Hoss looked next at Joe who was staring at the hills behind them. He hated to worry him about things they weren't even sure about, but Joe was an adult. Treating him as anything else was also a mistake.
"I still mean it," Hoss said, catching Joe's attention. "We won't let nothin' happen, so don't worry about that, ya hear me? We've just got to get to a better place in case those critters really do come callin', that's all."
"Yeah, but Hoss," Joe said, looking directly at him. "Wolves don't hunt men. You know that."
"Yeah, I know that's not their normal routine, Joe," he replied. "It feels like somethin' 's up that's not normal though. We'd best be ready for it."
The brothers completed the distance to the line shack at a comfortable gallop, the horses seemingly just as eager to cover the distance. Riding to a stop at the hitching post out front, the horses barely came to a standstill before all three men were dismounting. Joe hit the ground running, hopping up on the porch in one leap. He came to a second stop where he stood assessing the shack in front of him for first impressions. The front door didn't look so bad, if only it had been closed. Unfortunately, it was hanging slightly ajar instead. Joe could tell from where he was standing that things were severely disrupted inside.
Hoss caught up with Joe on the porch, grabbing his jacket sleeve to hold him back. He touched one finger to his lips in a signal for silence, urging Joe to move back as he pulled his own gun. Adam stepped in front of both of them at that moment, gun in hand, giving what was left of the door a swift quick. It flew open easily to reveal a small room sparsely furnished with a wood stove in one corner, and a lot of general disarray in between.
One of two chairs lay tipped on its side leaving a few dishes scattered around on the floor. Most of the glass panes were missing from the single window. The bedding on both cots appeared rumpled and half shredded. The thing that drew everyone's immediate attention was the solid stream of daylight penetrating through the roof from directly overhead.
All three men looked up in unison collectively amazed by what they saw. A hole the size of one-quarter of the back roof greeted them in return. It had obviously rained more than once since the roof had been missing. Water stains coated the entire south wall of the small structure. Judging from the slight lean already visible on one wall the whole structure was also quite unstable.
"So is this what you meant by repairs?" Joe asked, holstering his gun.
"Not exactly, Joe," Adam replied, rolling his eyes.
The older man didn't need to actually look at Joe to visualize the smirk on his brother's face.
"Yee doggies," Hoss added, putting his weapon away as well. "What in tarnation happened in here?"
Adam sighed heavily, his eyes still analyzing the mess on the roof. He was already attempting to calculate repair costs and tactics.
"Well, what was once a small hole obviously isn't now," Adam said. "Looks like the plan has changed."
Joe stepped deeper into the center of the room, his eyes noting a few pots and pans scattered about. The remnants of an old oil lamp were visible where it had been knocked over in one corner.
"Kind of looks like something other than the weather happened here, don't you think?" Joe asked.
"Probably been a few rodents in and out for sure," Hoss agreed. "I don't think people have been in here for a spell."
"I swear I was here late in the spring with Hank and a few other hands," Adam began. "It was only a small leak at that time, but we're gonna have to take it all down now - can't keep a damned thing out," he added, turning in a small circle as he eyed the interior corners.
"Well, this ain't no good," Hoss said, the implications of the state of the shack obvious. "I say let's water the horses, then look at the barn. Last I remember it was in good shape. Let's hope it still is."
Together they turned and walked out of the shack to lead the horses across the yard to the water trough. Hoss used the pump handle to add more fresh water from the well. As the tired and thirsty horses were getting their fill Joe removed his hat, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and hung it on his saddle horn to dry before really taking a look at the barn. Unlike the other building, the barn door appeared tightly closed and securely latched.
"That's a good sign," Joe said, striding toward the double doors.
Reaching the latch, Joe tugged the hardware apart. The lock released, and they stepped back, the doors swinging open on creaky hinges to reveal a roomy and dry interior. Joe walked deeper into the barn followed closely by Adam who hurried to catch up with him. He wasn't sure what he expected Joe to find, but after the last set of surprises he preferred Joe not walk in alone.
A small haystack sat dry and available in one corner. Four separate horse stalls were vacant and waiting for visitors along the same wall. Several old blankets hung on top of one set of rails. Joe noticed what he guessed were two barrels of oats sitting alone on one end of the stalls. A small table and four chairs sat tucked away in the corner behind one side of the doors. A few different types of tack and simple tools were hanging on the opposite wall of the barn. All in all, it appeared clean, dry, and quite hospitable in comparison to the abysmal little shack they had just seen across the yard.
"Looks better than some hotels I've been in," Hoss said, smiling as he joined Joe and Adam inside.
"No comment," Adam chided, unable to repress a grin.
Adam did take the time to toss his most chastising look toward Hoss.
Joe giggled at the attempted joke - there wasn't time for much more. The sound of a horse's whinny brought all of them running back outside to find three nervous horses beginning to stir and circle the water trough.
"They know somethin' we don't," Hoss said immediately. "They're makin' me uneasy. I say let's get them inside," he ordered, grabbing Chubb's reins and taking one last look around. "Come on!"
Neither Adam or Joe questioned Hoss, nor did they waste any more time leading the horses inside. Once all three of them were safely through the doors, Hoss took a moment to step back outside and scan the horizon for any sign of disturbance. Although he could find nothing obviously wrong, he struggled with an uneasiness that was beginning to build inside of him - as though something he needed to know remained just out of sight.
"See anything?" Adam asked, appearing at his brother's side.
"Nope," Hoss answered, not taking his eyes off the horizon. "Dadburnit, Adam! Somethin's not quite right. I can feel it."
Adam followed Hoss' gaze, crossed his arms, and stood silently next to him scanning their surroundings for several moments. When nothing out-of-place materialized, the two men looked at each other and shrugged.
"I don't doubt you, Hoss," Adam continued. "I just wish we hadn't heard so many wolves so nearby. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
"Me neither," Hoss answered quickly. "If they're hungry that makes them kind of unpredictable, and I don't trust none of 'em to begin with."
Adam glanced over his shoulder to make sure Joe was busy removing Cochise's saddle, and well out of hearing range.
"And I don't want any of the damn things around Joe," Adam said quietly, meeting Hoss' eyes.
"Yeah, me neither," Hoss agreed. "That's one reason we're both here though, ain't it?"
Adam smiled at Hoss and nodded before turning his attention to the inside of the barn.
"How about I help Joe finish settling the horses. Maybe you get the canteens filled and get some extra water inside for the horses? It'll be dark before we know it. I don't think we're safe outside once it is. Joe's already nervous - he's trying to hide it, but he is."
"Yeah, I know he is," Hoss replied, the acknowledgment looming large between them.
"Alright," Adam continued, punching Hoss in the arm. "I say the sooner we get this place bolted down for the night the sooner we'll all feel better."
Hoss had closed and locked the heavy double doors behind him with a sense of great satisfaction. While he was a man unaccustomed to running away from anything, he was likewise not interested in adding to his younger brother's insecurities. Joe had always demonstrated uncommon bravery at almost any age. Hoss knew he'd also experienced numerous ups and downs along the road to recovery over the last year. Joe's body was healing well, but it was his emotional well-being his brothers worried about. The two of them were able to see the more subtle differences in Joe since the accident that were not so visible to others. Consequently, they had formed a joint determination intent on helping Joe heal. Locking the doors was just another step in that process as far as Hoss was concerned. He approved of the heavy blockade it offered against the world - something solid that could be touched and admired for the security it provided.
Once inside the barn the men were able to concentrate on other tasks. After enjoying a quick supper of beans and bacon warmed on the small wood stove near the back wall, they set about exploring the inside of the structure. The stove had not been designed to heat an exterior building in exactly the same way one would expect it to heat the interior of a house. It worked well for cooking purposes when needed, and served to stave off the deepest cold temperatures of winter that could become dangerous even for the stock animals. It was also intended to offer emergency shelter to the hired men caught too far out from the ranch in bad weather as well as any needy travelers passing through the area. While it was true both structures were well within Cartwright boundaries, it was also an extended tradition throughout most of the territory to provide some form of emergency shelter and rations to unlucky travelers. Ben had never forgotten what it was like to need help himself. He always made sure the line shacks were available - stocked with adequate food and shelter for anyone else who also needed help. He might not have envisioned such would be the case for his own sons, but he would certainly have approved of its use.
There was a single window on the west side of the barn. Adam had wandered by it several times as it grew dark just to peer outside. He hadn't seen anything moving anywhere near the barn. The horses remained quiet and calm since they'd all received a good grooming, a generous portion of hay and oats, and a stall full of straw to stand in.
Adam and Joe had located a wooden ladder attached to one side of the loft and scaled it to explore the upper level. A few bales of hay were all that was visible from the ground floor. Once up there they found an extra stack of horse blankets in one corner, and a few other pieces of assorted tack as well. They weren't in need of the tack, but the blankets would come in handy. They set about spreading and arranging them on top of the loosely baled hay. When they finished it looked reasonably inviting. Both men were quite satisfied with what they had accomplished.
Hoss eventually joined them in the loft much to the amusement of his brothers as they watched him try to climb the same ladder. Once successfully to the top, Adam and Joe helped tug him the last few inches to safety, clapping enthusiastically as he arrived in the loft.
Choosing a spot near the corner, Adam sat down and relaxed on the blanket covered hay feeling satisfied with their current arrangements. Although he had been surprised by the condition of the line shack, the old barn had been of better original construction. It was holding up well over the years. Tonight it would provide them with a dry and sturdy place to take refuge. That alone was worth the middle Cartwright son's weight in gold.
Adam glanced to his left where Joe had curled up under a blanket and was soon sleeping. Once settled, fatigue had caught the younger man quickly. Joe had gone to sleep easily tonight, undoubtedly helped along and comforted by the knowledge they were safe inside the barn loft. Adam was resting easier as well although he wasn't ready for sleep just yet. Hoss sat leaning against the wall on the other side of Joe, his hands clasped neatly in his lap as though contemplating the universe. He glanced down at Joe before meeting Adam's gaze, a satisfied smile crossing his face as they acknowledged a shared success. They might have a lot to do tomorrow. At least for tonight they had no immediate worries.
Adam and Hoss talked quietly for several more minutes. When it became too dark to see they both began preparing to turn in as well. Each removed their gun belts and placed them within easy reach near the head of their bed rolls. Adam had seen to it they all had a rifle available in the loft.
"Funny we haven't heard any more wolves," Adam commented. "Do you suppose they lost our trail?" he asked.
"Not likely," Hoss answered. "Three horses and three men would leave a trail any half-blind wolf could follow. I don't understand why they were botherin' with us anyway for a while there. It still don't make no sense."
"No, it doesn't," Adam agreed. "It's been awhile since I've heard of any packs around here," he added.
Joe stirred in his sleep at that moment, took a deep breath, and adjusted his position before resettling in the makeshift bed of hay. Adam glanced down at him before saying more. He could tell Joe had not truly awakened.
"I wanted you on that side anyway," Adam said to Hoss. "And me on the other," he finished, carefully placing his gun belt near the top of the hay pile.
Hoss grinned, understanding Adam's point, but acknowledging him without the need for more discussion. They both knew what had been left unsaid. Joe would feel safer whether he admitted it or not if he was situated in the middle between them.
"G'night then, Adam," Hoss said in a low voice, hunkering down in the hay next to Joe.
"Good night," Adam answered, starting to make himself comfortable as well.
Adam stretched out on his back, tucked one arm behind his head, and allowed himself to relax into the hay. It truly was the most comfortable bed he'd had in several nights. It smelled nice, too. It was no wonder Joe had gone to sleep so easily. Hoss was right though - it certainly was better than some hotels they had both slept in. The thought caused him to smirk despite himself all over again.
It was true there remained a few stories he and Hoss hadn't shared with Joe directly. He hoped that particular reference would remain one of them for awhile. Regardless, Adam knew Joe would figure things out eventually, or Hoss would simply tell him. He personally could wait for that revelation. If Joe ever knew about a few of the extra side trips he and Hoss had made together Adam was sure he would insist upon joining them. And although there was technically nothing wrong with that - Joe was fully grown - the thought still made him uncomfortable. He supposed he would have to get over it though. It was inevitable.
Adam glanced at Joe again. It was easy to tell he was still sleeping. Adam considered that to be a good thing as he sometimes needed to confirm for himself that his private thoughts remained private. The kid had an occasional, uncanny ability to almost read his mind. Reassured, Adam turned his attention back to the rafters above them and soon lost himself in an analysis of construction, angles, and geometry. They were subjects he always found fascinating as well as relaxing, but could share with few other people. Only another engineer or similarly like-minded person could appreciate the intracacies. Although he knew his family might disagree with him, Adam actually thought either of his brothers were equally as smart as he was. His mind just worked differently was all. It was Adam's opinion it had little to do with pure intelligence.
Joe rolled to his back at that moment, a soft moan escaping him as he turned over. Adam looked at him casually yet again, but saw nothing he would attribute to anything other than his usual sleeping style. Joe had always seemed to dream a lot as a kid. He often talked in his sleep, or made otherwise small, mostly indecipherable noises. He had been like that since Adam could remember - sort of like Hoss was born knowing how to snore. It was simply 'normal'.
Dismissing concern for Joe at the moment, Adam concentrated on attempting to talk himself into sleeping. He tried sending his mind out in search of his favorite things for distraction, and wound up trying to calculate the amount of lumber needed to rebuild the shack out front instead. He would have to discuss the project with Pa first, but having seen the current damage he didn't think it was reasonable to attempt a total rebuild until spring. There was no sense constructing something hastily that wouldn't be needed or used until the following year.
Adam sighed, wiggled into a new postion, and tried again to coax himself into sleeping although he lay mostly caught up in his personal struggles instead. His unofficial role in his sibling triangle, particularly during their younger years, was to fall asleep after both of his brothers - sometimes long after. Unfortunately, Adam had discovered it was a habit of his own making that had proven difficult to break even this far into adulthood.
Although both of his brothers stopped needing him in a literal way long ago, Adam could never entirely shake the feelings of responsibility he shouldered as the oldest son in the family. If they were all at home - each of them instilled in their own routines - it was different. Out here on the trail, in any unusual situation, or as most recently, in the aftermath of Montpelier Gorge, Adam found it far more difficult to think differently. He was busy weighing the odds of unlearning such behavior to a precise percentage when he accidentally fell asleep himself.
The wild, shrieking howls they all heard next sounded from somewhere just below them. Joe spun to a sitting position from where he had been sleeping. Adam rolled to his knees and grabbed for his gun at the same time, throwing an arm over Joe to still him. Hoss was already on his hands and knees on the other side of Joe, gun in hand.
The round of howling finished as another began from the other side of the barn. The horses in the stalls below screamed back at them, their hooves frantically pounding and pawing at the ground.
"We're surrounded!" Joe whispered, his eyes reflecting his disbelief.
"They're outside!" Hoss exclaimed next, scooting closer. "They're all around us, but they're still outside, so just hold on!"
Joe froze as the howling erupted in another round, the sound placing them directly on the other side of the loft wall. It was as though the entire pack knew exactly where to find them.
Adam clenched his jaw, planted his feet, and shoved himself to a full standing position. In another instant he had whirled and was descending the ladder with a rifle in one hand and his pistol in the other, dropping quickly out of sight.
"Adam!" Joe yelled after him. "Adam wait!" he tried again.
Joe grabbed for his weapons and scrambled to the top of ladder, reaching it seconds later, and following right behind him. Hoss had grappled for Joe's arm as he started moving in a frantic effort to delay him. He had missed.
"Damn it!" Hoss swore openly. "Wait a minute - both of ya!" With no other option left he snatched up his rifle and hurried after his brothers.
Adam dropped to the ground in a low crouching position, regained his balance, and sprinted to the middle of the barn. Movement to his left through the lone window caught his attention. He turned sharply in that direction just in time to see a shadow disappear beyond the window's edge. Squinting hard at the darkness, Adam moved toward it just as Joe appeared a few feet behind him.
Hearing movement, Adam paused, turning to find Joe standing an arm's length away. He wanted to yell at him to stay back, but there was no time. They locked eyes only moments before he saw Joe's line of vision shift and widen. Adam's attention was yanked back to the window and the sight of something straight from the devil himself.
Adam's jaw dropped. His hands tightened reflexively around both weapons as he found himself staring at the biggest black wolf he had ever seen confronting him through the barn window. Its enormous paws straddled either side of the frame. Large, yellow teeth were nipping and biting at the glass as though trying to force its way through. Adam's mind scrambled to account for or make sense of what he was seeing. This thing, this wolf-of-some-kind, bore an unmistakable essence of pure evil. Adam wondered if the gates of hell had opened and spat the creature out.
Slowly, Adam advanced toward the window, still unable to believe what he was seeing, but equally unable to look away. A chill slithered through him as Joe yelled louder - demanding that he stop.
"Adam, stay back!" Joe yelled, raising his rifle. "Get away from the window!"
Adam and the wolf stared at each other through the flimsy glass, neither willing to give in or back down. The heavy, frothy, and foamy saliva dripped in long, slimy strings, and hung from the creature's jaws as it glared at him through dark and primitive eyes. Its lips were curled and drawn tightly together as it snarled its clear hostility to all intended victims.
"Adam!" Hoss yelled from somewhere behind him. "Adam, back up! We need a clear shot!"
Adam started to step backward just as Joe moved to his left and drew the wolf's attention. The creature refocused on Joe, lunging hard against the glass, and weakening the middle pane. Pushing harder, the enormous wolf worked to finish breaking through. The stress on the window was shooting multiple spiderwebs in all directions as the weathered glass strained to the point of breaking.
Seeing the window was about to implode, Adam shoved his pistol into his belt, rearranged his grip on his rifle, and readied himself to use it. His mind worked furiously as he saw the fragility of the glass between them. He knew shooting directly through the window could be extremely dangerous. It might deflect the bullet in an unintended direction, or the debris could turn itself into shrapnel by traveling backward into them as easily as forward. He was calculating the odds of knocking out the lowest pane and shooting through that when the rest of hell finished breaking loose inside of him.
Watching the wolf focus its attention on Joe further enraged Adam. Yelling his defiance, Adam flipped his rifle in his hands, raised his arms, and charged straight toward the window. The wolf was forced to return its full attention to Adam just as he slammed the butt of the rifle through the glass, flipped the weapon around properly, and fired twice at point-blank range. What was left of the window shattered into multiple blood splattered pieces on the floor. The pitiful animal screamed for the last time as it died, slid away from the window frame, and dropped in a lifeless heap in the dirt outside.
Hoss and Joe were both still shouting as they watched the black wolf die in front of them.
Seeing the creature slide from view, Adam turned to look at his brothers, his face sweaty and bleeding from a small cut just above one eye. The front of his shirt was coated with the dead wolf's blood. His back was to the window. He didn't see the other muddy brown presence lunge into place and scramble for a foothold.
"Adam!" Hoss yelled desperately, just as Joe shouldered his rifle and fired.
Whipping around and running backward as fast as he could, Adam saw the second beast drop and die in front of him. Without a moment's hesitation Joe fired two more rounds into its body causing it to twitch and spasm in a macabre sort of dance. Joe ran to stand next to Adam. It was only then they could see that the second predator had actually made it beyond the frame and partially into the barn when Joe had shot it. It hung garrishly tangled and impaled on the lower shards of glass still rimming the busted out window frame.
Adam and Joe stared at each other in disbelief until Adam reached out, grabbed his brother by the back of the neck, and hugged him close. Neither man could speak. They were still out of breath from too much adrenaline and not enough relief. Joe closed his eyes and leaned into Adam as they stood clinging to each other in silence. It was only then Joe realized Adam was trembling hard, yet his eyes remained focused on the danger in front of them. Risk aside, Adam had been determined his brothers would remain safe tonight. He would die making it so.
As though sharing the same thought, Hoss ran past them to stand at the window, rifle in hand. Ignoring the dead wolf stuck in the window, he stood firmly planted in front of Adam and Joe while peering outside.
"There's more of 'em," Hoss said suddenly, raising his rifle and taking aim.
Hoss fired twice into the surrounding brush, dropping two more wolves in their tracks as they tried to flee.
"I think I saw a couple more slinkin' off through the trees," Hoss said, still scoping the area from side to side.
Adam and Joe stood huddled together behind Hoss as he fired. They both understood there was no use getting in his way in such a small area. There was nothing more either of them could do while Hoss was in the middle of shooting.
Joe startled at the sound of the horses snorting, pawing at the ground, and crashing into the stalls behind them. Cochise was alternately trying to rear in the confined space, stomping his feet hard on the floor at the combined presence of wolves, noise, and repeated gunshots. Knowing Hoss was guarding the window, Joe exchanged a quick look with Adam before giving his attention to the distressed horses. It wouldn't be desirable for any of them to become injured in all the confusion. Joe knew they were fortunate to have the protection of the barn. Without it all three animals would likely be long gone and running for home.
Joe turned and walked toward the horses. Cochise quieted as Joe drew near though he was still tossing his head in indignation while shuffling back and forth in the stall. All three horses were staring at Joe as he approached with bent back ears and flared nostrils. Joe understood the horses already had their fill of the scent of gun powder. He set down his rifle against a railing before moving further into the stall with Cochise.
"Easy, fella," Joe said as he approached him. "You're ok now."
Standing beside him in the stall, Joe rubbed the pinto hard across the chest, patting him vigorously to distract him from his fear. Sport nickered as he watched as though reprimanding Joe of his overall neglect. Smiling, Joe moved to him next, giving Adam's horse an equal rub down. When through with the chestnut, Joe moved to Chubb. The black horse waited patiently to be last. Chubb looked unhappy, although he did not appear as unnerved as either of the other two horses. He flipped his tail in the air as Joe approached, wiggling his nose at the extended hand.
Joe reached for him slowly while the horse nibbled cautiously at his fingers.
"That a way," Joe added. "No, I don't have any grain, but you're a good boy anyway."
Adam joined Hoss at the window in the interim, looking beyond the dead wolves beneath them. When he saw nothing else moving in the darkness it was only then Hoss looked at Adam without distractions. He frowned when he noticed the cut over Adam's eye along with the bloody mess on the front of his shirt. Hoss glanced at the dead wolves outside the window one more time, then turned his attention back to Adam.
"You all right, Adam?" Hoss asked. He reached for Adam's face and tilted his head to examine the cut.
"Yeah, I'm ok," Adam insisted, shaking him off.
"Well, no offense older brother," Hoss continued with quiet concern. "You've looked a hell of a better before. Listen - I think you should get out of that shirt," he instructed next. "And don't touch any of the bloody spots neither as you take it off."
Adam looked quizzically at Hoss, not comprehending his meaning at first. Hoss watched as his brother's understanding grow, then register in his facial expression.
"Yeah," Hoss nodded. "I think them wolves are rabid, Adam. There just ain't no other explanation."
Adam swallowed as he looked at Hoss anew, additional concerns and worries now leaping forth and filling his mind.
"Of course," Adam said softly, glancing once again at the dead animals, then down at himself. "That does make sense."
"On second thought, don't touch anything at all - just let me do it," Hoss instructed firmly. "Joe!" Hoss shouted next. "Come over here!"
Joe came running from the stalls, grabbing for his rifle as he ran by. He hurried back to where Hoss and Adam were both standing, then looked at Hoss expectantly.
"Joe," Hoss began carefully. "Me and Adam have been talkin', and we think those wolves out there are rabid. It explains their crazy behavior."
Hoss could now see that Joe had a substantial amount of blood spray across the front of his clothing as well. Joe knew it was there, but he thought nothing of it while everything else was happening. Only now did Joe take the time to really look down at himself, then back up at Hoss and Adam.
"Help me get Adam out of this shirt and I'll toss it outside," Hoss instructed. "He can't hardly touch it without gettin' more blood on himself. It's dangerous bein' around and handlin' fresh blood like this if you're worried about rabies. You be careful touchin' yours too, Joe - an' keep your hands out of the bloodstains. You both have other clothes you can put on. In fact, get a pair of gloves on first. I'll put mine on, too."
Adam waited patiently near the window as Hoss and Joe went to find their gloves and return. Once they returned and gloved up, the two of them carefully untucked and unbuttoned his shirt as he lifted both arms to help. He shrugged his shoulders free of the dirty shirt, allowing Hoss to catch it with one hand before tossing it out the window.
"Both of you are wearin' bloody pants. Get out of your pants as well."
Adam straightened suddenly and scowled at Hoss before complying. Hoss had actually started to reach for his belt before Adam took a quick, defensive step backward. Adam wanted to argue with his brother, but he knew Hoss was right.
"That's ok," Adam said, holding up both hands while looking Hoss directly in the eye. "I will get them."
Joe grinned at Adam, but watched as Adam kept his eyes on Hoss. Adam laid down his gun, unbuckled his belt, and shucked out of both legs before handing the pants to Hoss. When Hoss seemed satisfied, the two of them turned in unison and looked at Joe.
Joe simply shrugged and repeated the same process. Soon he and Adam were both wearing nothing other than their underdrawers while staring at the weird combination of piled up of dead animals and bloody clothing outside the busted out window.
That accomplished, Hoss waited with Adam as Joe went to find something to use for rags. He decided on one of the thinner blanets and began tearing it into pieces before returning with the rags and a small pan of water. Joe gently cleaned the cut above Adam's right eye and found it was not as deep as initially feared. Hoss finished washing the blood from Adam's face before moving on to his arms, chest, and waist. Once satisfied, he tossed the combination of rags and dirty water outside through the shattered window.
Joe had climbed back up to the loft, returning minutes later fully clothed, and carrying a spare set of clothes for Adam.
"Here you go," he said to Adam, without a trace of teasing.
Joe knew his oldest brother's nerves were frayed. He had no interest in making him worse. While they might not be entirely out of danger, they certainly had the upper hand.
"Take your time," Joe added, handing the fresh clothing to Adam.
The three brothers maintained an uneasy watch from the ground floor of the barn until sunrise without any additional signs of wolves. The horses were much calmer by the time it was fully light, prompting Hoss to push the large doors wide open at full daylight for a better look at the previous night's damage. Hoss had to admit that between the partially collapsed shack, the dead wolf carcasses, and the bloody clothing added to the top of the pile, it did look like something truly unholy and unimaginable had happened here the night before.
"Don't touch them, Adam," Hoss cautioned, seeing Adam lean in for a better look.
"I won't," Adam answered, his brows wrinkling together where he stood over the dead wolves.
"Well, I don't want to see any more wolves for a while," Joe contributed, staying slightly back behind Hoss and Adam.
Adam straightened, stepped away from the carnage, and went to stand beside Joe.
"That's the plan, Joe," Adam said, finding a weak smile. Adam patted Joe on the back before pointing to the wolf he had shot. "And thanks to you, no one will ever have to see that one again. You did what needed to be done, Joe."
Mildly uncomfortable at his brother's praise, Joe crossed his arms and shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
"You or Hoss would have done the same thing," Joe answered.
"Yes, hopefully," Adam acknowledged. "But don't ever forget you did at least as much as anyone, Joe. If not for you and your ability with a rifle I sure as hell wouldn't be here - that or I'd be dyin' a slow death from rabies."
Joe's eyes narrowed causing him to frown at the unpleasant image that registered in his mind. Joe looked up to meet Hoss' gaze. His older brother nodded in agreement.
"He's right, Joe," Hoss said.
No one was hungry or wanted breakfast when daylight finally arrived. After a quick cup of hastily made coffee they saddled the horses and prepared to finish a long ride home. Just before departing Adam and Hoss had managed to get a noose around some part of each dead wolf by roping them. They dragged them away from the barn one by one, and from wherever Hoss had dropped the other two. Lastly, they piled all four carcasses together, ropes included. The soiled and bloody clothing was still clinging to the pile of debris. Each man finished by tossing their worn and dirty gloves on top of all of it. A bit of spare lamp oil was dumped on the clothing as a last thought. Everything ignited impressively when Hoss tossed a lit match into the middle.
The three Cartwright brothers sat on their horses watching the flames from a few yards away. The smoke was black and acrid as it rose toward the sky and drifted away. They had planned to watch until it burned most of the refuse away - erasing all traces of clothing. Most of the ropes were already gone. The animal carcasses would continue to smolder for a while, possibly for hours. They weren't planning to stay until the fire had burned itself out. They needed to get home, plan for a return trip of some sort with more help and supplies, and enjoy Hop Sing's good cooking for at least a couple of days. They all knew Pa would want to see what had happened here. It was possible the sheriff would be interested as well. The local doctor tried to keep track of any rabies outbreaks, and if necessary, whatever remained of the wolves would be there for examination when they returned. If no one else wanted a look they would likely just bury what was left.
Hoss in particular seemed deep in thought as he watched the flames do their job. He knew few other maladies could strike as much fear in the hearts of people who regularly dealt with livestock and other animals. Rabies, or hydrophobia as it became known, was an incurable, irreversible disease. Many people had succumbed to its effects after being somehow, often unknowingly infected, by either a wild or a domestic animal.
The disease lived and thrived in the wild. Farmers and ranchers alike always maintained a healthy respect for any signs of the disorder. Animals that appeared rabid were destroyed on sight, their bodies burned or buried. All potentially contaminated personal items were always destroyed along with them. It was the only hope of containing or controlling the spread of the dreaded disease as its exact method of transmission from animal to animal, or animal to person, was poorly understood. It was generally accepted that the key to the disease's spread lay in the infected animal's bite and saliva. Blood and all other body fluids were also considered highly suspicious.
As the last flames began to weaken on the burn pile, Adam circled Sport behind Cochise, pulling up beside Joe.
"Ready?" Adam asked.
"Ready," Joe answered, his eyes lingering on the burning bundle of debris.
Adam sat quietly beside Joe, waiting for him to respond further. For a moment he wasn't sure Joe had truly heard him. He was about to ask again when Joe looked up suddenly as though startled by a new thought. He looked at Adam with calm and steady eyes although Adam recognized the hint of concern that lingered there.
"Adam, are you alright?" Joe asked, noting the fatigue and worry lines in Adam's face.
"Me?" Adam said. "Yeah, I'm ok - just a little worn out I guess. It was kind of rough night, remember?"
Joe smiled in acknowledgment. He was turning Cochise and preparing to leave when the pinto suddenly bolted ahead as though eager to leave this vexatious place behind. Joe squared his shoulders and secured his hat in response, but allowed the horse to have his head. He couldn't blame Cochise for needing to run out some of his jitters after last night's ruckus. It would probably be good for both of them.
"He's alright, Adam," Hoss said, watching him go. "I know we were both mighty worried about him, but that boy's gonna be just fine. Joe didn't hesitate when that wolf was comin' for you - I watched him. He drew a bead on that son-of-a-bitch faster than you or me ever could. The damned thing made him mad, so he shot it twice more just to make sure it wouldn't get back up. That's our little brother, right there."
Hoss winked at Adam, who laughed out loud in the face of such a difficult memory. He could already imagine sharing that story with Pa, but was also overjoyed and relieved to know in his heart that Hoss was right. Joe seemed just fine despite all that had happened. He was back to being Joe as they knew him.
"And by the way - ain't nothin' wrong with you either, older brother," Hoss added. "Your judgement is just as good as it ever was. I saw all of that. I thought for a minute there you were gonna kill that wolf with your bare hands, but you set me straight. There ain't many men who could have pulled that off, Adam."
Looking at Hoss, Adam blushed mildly, but didn't attempt to hide it. He was smart enough to know which things were futile, and insightful enough to know which were worth the effort.
"Thanks, Hoss," he said simply.
"I understand why you did it," Hoss continued, ignoring him and his discomfort. "That thing was goin' for Joe, and you weren't about to let that happen."
A few moments of uncomfortable silence passed as Adam and Hoss each sat with their own thoughts. The alternative picture Hoss had painted with words was uncomfortably vivid, unnerving, and ultimately unacceptable.
"Well," Adam said, pulling himself away from the unpleasant speculations. He looked in the direction Joe had ridden. "We better go find him then before something else goes wrong."
"Yeah, you damn sure got that right," Hoss agreed, looking worried. "Let's go."
Hoss turned Chubb around in a circle to match up with Adam, allowing them to look at each other as though all they could do was hope for the best. After one last glance at the destruction behind them, they turned themselves in the saddle, gave each horse a gentle kick, and headed out together after Joe and the Ponderosa.
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