Too Stubborn (by LizK)

Summary:  Adam’s stubbornness gets him into trouble . . . again.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  6475


 

My pa would tell you I’m a stubborn man and well, I guess he should know. Being on the stubborn side himself, he can recognize the trait pretty well. I know he thought I was being foolhardy to take this trip and no doubt considered my insistence on doing it in spite of his objections just another example of my hardheadedness. But what else could I do when I got the letter from Dan? Pa should know I couldn’t turn down a request of help from a friend.

I know we had things to do at the ranch. When don’t we? But my brothers are more than able to take care of things without my help and I certainly don’t shirk my share of the workload when I am around. Frankly, I think it’s good for them to have me gone once in awhile – it makes them take on a little more of the responsibility that they would normally leave to me.

So I had no compunction about going on that account. As for the Culver gang – well, if we let every wild rumor or panicked hearsay keep us from doing what needed to be done, we’d never get anything done and that was all there was to it.

Not that I hadn’t believed the stories that the Culver gang was in the area and raiding in the mountains. Actually, that’s what made me even more determined to go to Dan’s. If the Culvers were close by, Dan might need my help all the more. It’s just him and Carol, and an extra gun could make all the difference if the Culvers decided they liked the looks of Dan’s place.

Of course, Pa had a hard time seeing that. All he saw was his eldest son headed into a potentially dangerous situation and he was having none of it. He used every argument he could think of and then invented a few more. But well, when I’ve made up my mind about something – something I know I just have to do – the arguments and sense of not doing it doesn’t carry a lot of water with me. I just know I’d never live with myself if I didn’t follow through with what I know I have to do.

Besides, the chances were more than likely that I’d go help Dan move his cattle into their summer pasture, enjoy some of Carol’s good cooking, have a nice visit with them and come home a week or so later with pleasant memories and feeling more able to handle the million and one things that had built up for me while I was gone. That is what should have happened. The fact that it didn’t and that Pa had been right, well, I’m not sure that, even if I had known, it would have changed my mind any.

I never got a chance to see Dan or Carol. Not alive anyway. I heard the shooting from some way back and came running, but I was too late. By the time I got there, the Culver gang had the house and barns on fire and Dan and Carol lay dead in the front yard. Only I wasn’t late enough either, because the Culver gang was still there, still close enough for me to get a good long look at them and for them to spot me.

Which is how I ended up here, nestled high up in the natural rock fortress we call Turkey Point, with my only escape route cut off by a bunch of outlaws. I’ve seen them – I know how many there are, I can identify them, I remember each and every face clearly – especially the man who stood over the bodies of Dan and Carol with his pistol still smoking. They know I know too, and that’s why they’re out there waiting for me.

My position isn’t so bad; there’s water in a pool nearby, a bit of grass around it for Sport – not enough for very long but he won’t starve. I have a bit of food in my saddlebags and I have plenty of ammunition. Still, it’s one man against twelve and the odds aren’t good, especially since nobody knows I’m here and they won’t be worrying about me for a while.

So, Pa, I guess you were right; my stubbornness got me into trouble again – worse trouble than I’ve been in for a very long time. I know it’ll be small consolation for you if I can’t get out of this somehow. But don’t worry. They may outnumber me, but I have the best position. I’m too stubborn to give up quite yet.

*****

My first-born son can be the most stubborn, pig-headed man this side of the territory. Once he has his mind made up about something, he’s like the Rock of Gibraltar – there isn’t any moving him. He, of course, will tell you that he comes by it honestly, meaning he gets it from me. But he easily out-stubborns me and unfortunately he knows it. Because when Adam gets that certain look on his face, I know it’s pointless to reason with him any longer. All I can do at that point is give in as graciously as possible and pray to God he doesn’t get himself in over his head once again.

This trip to Dan and Carol’s is a case in point. It is just like my son to drop everything and rush off to help a friend, regardless of the fact we are in the middle of roundup ourselves and every man jack of us is needed here on the Ponderosa, or that we have a major lumber contract under negotiation with another rushing towards a deadline that we’ll be lucky to meet. It was useless to point any of those things out to him; he merely shrugged and pointed out in return that, with Hoss and Joe and the hands, I have plenty of help and Dan needs him more than I do.

He’s right, of course; we will get along all right. Not as well as if he was here, perhaps, but well enough. My eldest son has a head for business and a knack for organizing that can get things done in a fraction of the time it takes the rest of us, but we’ll manage.

I knew the real reason I didn’t want him to go wouldn’t carry any more weight with him either. The rumors were the Culver gang was in the area and a more ruthless, savage group of men was rarely seen. All the more worrying because so little was known about them. They seemed to come and go without warning, leaving death and total destruction in their wake. They were especially notorious for leaving no witnesses, so much of what was known about them was only rumor and speculation. My son was headed right to where they were said to be and I had a very bad feeling about that. But Adam has never been impressed by feelings. He’s cautious enough – a man has to be living where we do – but he rarely lets worry or fear dictate his course of action, so I should have known it wouldn’t change his mind now.

And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m proud of my son – of the man he’s become and the integrity and loyalty that guides his decisions. Still, it’d be nice if it didn’t so often lead him into trouble. Because I just can’t shake the feeling that this time will be no different.

*****

Two days and they’re still out there. I’m lucky there’s only one way up this cliff and that I can hold them off. Occasionally, I send a bullet down their way just to let them know I’m still awake and they reply with a bullet of their own so that I know they’re still there. It does little good. They can’t reach me and I can’t reach them. It’s a pretty equal stand-off except they can leave to get more supplies and I can’t. I have water and plenty of it but the food supply is getting low already, even as spare as I’m being with it.

Sport worries me more, though. He’s already eaten most of the grass around the pool and the few sparse clumps scattered around. I may have to let him go in the hopes he can get past the men down there. In fact, it may be my only hope. Sport would head home and his appearance would alert the others that I’m in some kind of trouble.

I shift position and glance over to where Sport is dozing. He’s a good horse and I’d hate for that gang to get their hands on him, but I may not have any other choice but to risk it. I can’t hold out here indefinitely without food and it’ll be a week or more before Pa starts to worry enough to come looking for me. But if Sport showed up in the front yard, they’d know something was up. I’ll send him out after dark when the men down there are asleep, then wait and pray that he’s able to slip past them.

*****

Rumors, they’re just rumors but they’ve got the entire country stirred up. Virginia City is in an uproar over them and Roy has his hands full trying to keep people calm. Unfortunately, every day brings word of more atrocities committed by the Culver gang and feelings are running high. Roy’s sent to the Territorial Office for help and he and a posse have gone out almost daily but there’s no sign of the gang themselves only signs of where they’ve been.

I haven’t heard from Adam, not in and of itself worrying – no doubt he and Dan are as busy as we are on the Ponderosa – but I can’t help thinking as I take the mail from Miss Juniper that, considering the situation, it’d be nice if he would at least drop a line letting us know he’s all right.

“Hey, Ben!” I hear Roy shout as I step out into the sunlight and pause to look over the letters in my hand. He comes toward me with a worried smile on his face. He seems to have aged in the last few days.

“Roy.” I reply and smile.

We don’t have time for more as a wagon comes racing down the street with Jess Parker in the seat. He pulls up in front of Roy and me. There are two canvas covered bodies in the back. I look at Roy and his face is grim.

“Who is it, Jess?” He asks.

“Dan and Carol Owen. Jest came from their place – burnt to the ground and all the stock gone.”

I feel as if I’ve been shot in the gut and my only thought is for my son. “Adam.” I can barely get the words out. “Jess, was Adam there?”

Roy looks at me puzzled but I can only wait, scarcely breathing, for Jess’s reply. “No, Mr. Cartwright, didn’t see no sign of Adam. Dan and Carol was laying in front of the house, both head shot. Looked like they’d been there awhile. Several days I’d say. I’da jest buried ’em but I figured you might need some evidence, Sheriff.”

Several days? Could it have happened before Adam got there? But if so, where was he? Why hadn’t he brought Carol and Dan in himself or buried them?

“Ben?” Roy asks. “What’s Adam gotta do with this?”

“He left for the Owen’s several days ago. I haven’t heard from him since. Jess, you’re absolutely sure there was no sign of him?”

“Well, now I didn’t do a lot of looking, Ben. Not with that gang around. Like I said, Dan and Carol was in front of the house or what was left of it. The barns, everything was burnt ta the ground. Saw a few tracks, though, so figured I’d better hightail it ta town and report it.”

“Looks like I need to take a trip up ta Owen’s then.” Roy sighed. “Maybe we can get a clue.”

“I’m coming with you,” I told him.

“Now, Ben…” Roy began, but I gave him a look that let him know I wasn’t going to argue about it. He sighed again and shook his head. “Come on then,” he said wearily.

All right, maybe Adam does come by it honestly.

*****

Day four and I’m out of food. I sent Sport away, but I don’t know if he made it through or not. I know they’ve been setting a watch day and night. I tried to sneak past them last night and the bullet left a crease along my left shoulder. Thankfully, it wasn’t deep. It hurts but otherwise I’m fine. As for Sport, I don’t see him down below and it’s given me hope that he made it through; if not… Well, Pa, I’ll hold out as long as I can and I won’t make it easy for them, just because that’s the way you raised me.

*****

It didn’t take long to round up Hoss and Joe and head towards the Owen place. I know Roy was wishing we’d just left him to do the job himself but there was no way I was going to leave my son up in these mountains somewhere without attempting to find him – bandits or no.

Our first sight of the devastated Owen place sent a shiver down my back. There was nothing left but cold charred wood where once a comfortable house and barn had stood. We’d known Dan for years; he was a hard worker and he’d lavished a lot of love and pride on his place. Now he was dead and all his hard work come to nothing and why? Because a few men had decided that they’d rather take what belonged to someone else than work for it themselves. Standing next to Roy in the rubble of the Owen’s home, I vowed then and there that these men wouldn’t get away with it and my search for Adam took on an added urgency. Find Adam and then take care of the Culver gang.

“Looks like they went off thataway,” Roy said pointing at tracks along the ground and then up onto the ridge behind Dan’s valley. “I’d say about ten or twelve of ’em. And they were in a hurry too.”

I nodded; it was easy enough to read their tracks. They hadn’t made any attempt to hide them. Easy enough to see exactly what had happened to Dan and Carol too.

“Hey, Pa. Come take a look at this!” Hoss shouted at me from the ridge top where he’d been following the tracks.

Roy and I hurried up to him.

“Look there.” Hoss said, pointing down. “Sport. Adam was here. Stopped right here.” He looked down toward the house.

“He could see everything from here.” Joe commented.

“Yep” Hoss agreed. “He could and then he took off.”

I looked back toward the house and then down at the tracks on the ground. The Culver gang had charged up the ridge right for this very spot. Adam had stopped here and then sent Sport back the way he’d come; the tracks of all the horses were deep. They’d been running hard and it was easy enough to see who had been chasing whom. The tracks from the Culver gang’s horses overlapped Sport’s.

“You think he came on ’em while they were busy down there and they spotted him?” Joe’s asked.

“It would seem so.” I tried to keep the worry out of my voice, but one look at Hoss and Joe and I knew they were feeling the same thing I was. “Looks like Adam had a good head start, though.”

“Yeah, well, why we standing here jawing about it?” Hoss turned and headed for his horse. “Let’s go find ’em.”

We followed him down to where our horses waited for us. I turned to Roy.

“I’m comin’, Ben. I ain’t about ta let you boys get in on something over yer head. But three against ten or twelve ain’t very good odds. Why don’t we head back into town and get us a few more men?”

“No, Adam’s been out here long enough. I’m going to find him.” I heard Roy sigh as he turned toward his own horse and I swung up on Buck.

Roy pulled his horse over next to mine. “Well, then, how about I head into town for some help? Just don’t do anything foolish ’til I get back, ya hear?”

“When have I ever done anything foolish, Roy?” I smiled at my old friend. He just grunted and kicked his horse into a lope.

Hoss and Joe stopped close by and looked at me. I nodded up the slope. “Let’s go.”

*****

I got one of them. I guess he thought I was sleeping and I was, but years of vigilance have made me a light sleeper and he was no Indian. In the dark, I hadn’t known how badly he was hit – now in the first light of dawn I do. He’s lying out there not 100 yards away from me, dead. I don’t think they’ll try that again very soon. They could try to rush me, of course, but they know that I’ll get a whole lot of them before they ever get close to me. And why should they? All they have to do is wait. I can’t live forever without food and they know there’s only one way out of here and that’s right past them.

I’ve been a little surprised at their persistence. After all, even though I can identify them, somebody still has to catch them. Some of the men down there have been wondering about that, too. They’ve been arguing about it; their voices carry up here quite clearly. I wonder if they realize that. Some of the men are impatient; they want to rush me and get it over with.

So far, Jim Culver has held them back, but I think even he is losing patience. He never expected me to hold out this long or for it to be so difficult to get up here. He’s lost a man, two more are wounded, and he’s been stuck in one place for five days. He has to know that the longer he stays in one place, the more likely it is that a posse will find them. Still, they’ve managed to last as long as they have because, up until now, they’ve left no witnesses, no proof. Now there’s a witness – one who can identify them and give a posse all they proof necessary if they should happen to be caught. It’s a risk Jim Culver seems unwilling to take.

*****

It hasn’t been hard to follow the trail and it didn’t take long for us to realize where Adam was headed. Turkey Point. A natural fortress if there ever was one. One man could hold off an army there indefinitely. The realization brings a measure of relief; if Adam made it that far, we just may be in time. I refuse to consider anything else and I can tell Hoss and Joe are thinking the same thing as we take a good long look at the trail heading up the mountain and then at each other.

“He’s leadin’ ’em toward Turkey Point,” Hoss points out unnecessarily, but it’s good to hear it confirmed.

“Good water up there; if he made it, he should be all right.” Joe comments.

If he made it. If… Once again, I shove the doubt aside. He made it – he had to have. There just wasn’t any other possibility. He made it and he was no doubt waiting for us too. He’d hold out until we got there.

“He made it all right, Joe.” Hoss’ voice is determined. “And he’s waitin’ fer us.” He turns his horse onto the trail and heads out without another word. That’s my middle son. In his world, there’s no room for doubt or questions. If Adam was headed for Turkey Point, that’s where he was and that’s where he’d be waiting for us.

*****

The sun is going down. I’ve managed to snare a rabbit. He’s just a skinny little thing but at least it will ease the gnawing pain in my stomach I’ve been dealing with since day before yesterday. Some of the men below have been into town for supplies. Or maybe they’ve raided another place. It’s hard to say for sure. All I know is they’ve gotten some beef from somewhere. The smell of it roasting wends its way up to where I’m holed up and starts my mouth to watering. I retaliate by starting a small fire and roasting the rabbit. Not that rabbit comes close to beef but it’s better than nothing.

I’m trying to be patient, letting the rabbit actually cook before I tear into it, when I hear the rattle of a rock. The light is dim and the path up is hidden in shadows. I pick up my rifle and move into position, careful to keep myself out of sight of the path. I hear nothing more, but I’m almost certain somebody is out there. Maybe more than one. From below, I hear laughter and I smile grimly. Do they really think I’m that stupid? What better time to send someone up than when we are both eating. I suppose they thought that hearing them having supper, I’d be off my guard and not suspecting an attack. Well, maybe not such a dumb idea. If it hadn’t been for the rattle it might have worked.

I strain my eyes, watching for any movement. There is none. Then I see him, just to left of the path, hiding behind a rock and I smile again. He’s stuck, only I doubt he knows it. Any movement on his part and he’s mine. I bring the rifle up and train it on the rock.

*****

We hardly need to see the tracks left by Adam and the Culver gang; it’s so plainly obvious where Adam’s leading them, but the fact that they’re all still running is reassuring. Each stride closer to Turkey Point makes it just that much more likely that he made it. Sport’s a fine animal and he could make the distance easily, even at a full gallop. The only thing that could bring either one of them down is a bullet and so far there hasn’t been any sign that that happened.

We’re a quarter mile from Turkey point when Hoss stops and breathes deeply. He smiles in satisfaction.

“Someone’s up there, Pa. I can smell cookin'”

I take a deep breath myself and, sure enough, I can smell it too – wood smoke and beef roasting.

“You’re right, Hoss.”

“And if they’re there, it means…”

“It means your brother’s holding them off,” I say with a smile.

“Then let’s get him outta there.”

“Wait, we need to take this slowly. We don’t know how many of them there are,” I caution.

We head out again, more slowly this time. We’re no longer following the tracks – our noses are leading us just fine. Just out of sight of the narrow valley that leads up to Turkey Point, we stop and leave the horses.

Slowly we creep through the trees and stop on the edge of a clearing. Before us, we can see a campfire and a group of men surrounding it, eating and laughing. They seem to be enjoying themselves and not particularly concerned by anything.

I make a careful search of the area and the trees around. I’m looking for a guard of some kind. And then I turn my eyes up toward the fortress-like rock that is Turkey Point. I can’t see anything up there, no movement – nothing. If Adam is there, he’s well hidden.

“Pa.” Joe hisses quietly through his teeth. I look toward him. “Sport.” The word is terse, short, scared.

I follow his gaze to the horses grazing farther up the valley. Sure enough, Sport stands among them and I feel a cold dread clench my chest. Are we too late? I look into the startled eyes of Hoss and Joe and try to think of something to say. I can’t. I turn back toward the campsite, searching it even more carefully, this time for some sign of my son.

*****

The man behind the rock moves slightly and I gently cock the rifle. Just a few inches more and he’ll give me all the target I need. I hold my breath and wait. There’s sudden movement off to my right and suddenly two more men jump out of the rocks on that side, just as the one to my left barrels out from behind the rock. I fire at him then swing the rifle around and my eyes widen as I realize there’s no longer just the two of them. I fire as quickly as I can cock the rifle and two more men go down. There is an intense burning in my side. I’ve been hit. There isn’t time to see how badly, though, as I continue firing at the men rushing toward me. I wing another man and the attack is broken as they duck under cover once again. There is another moment of intense gunfire and then silence.

I struggle to hold the rifle steady, as weakness begins to engulf me and the pain in my side increases. I take short breaths in the hopes of stalling the pain for a little while. I scan the area carefully. All my attackers are well concealed in the rocks below me. Only then do I look down to see how badly I’m hurt. I gulp and clench my teeth as a wave of dizziness sweeps over me. The wound is bad and bleeding profusely. It was a lucky shot. A ricochet off a boulder, I can tell by the raggedness of the wound. As I stuff a handkerchief into the wound in the hopes of staunching the blood, I realize that time has run out. There’s no way I can hold them off for much longer, not with a wound like that in my side.

Another wave of pain shoots through my body and I struggle to retain consciousness and then wonder why I bother. They have me; there’s little I can do about it. I suppose it’s just because I’m stubborn. I pull myself up against the rock again and send another round of bullets toward where the Culver gang is hiding, just to let them know I’m still alive. It’s a futile gesture and I know it. But I’m stubborn… stubborn… Sorry, Pa… you were right. I tried… too stubborn. Stubborn. The word rings through my head as the world blurs and I feel myself sliding to the ground. The clatter of the rifle against the rock as it falls from my hands comes from far away as I hit the dirt.

*****

The boys and I have pulled back from the ridge to talk over what we’re going to do. Suddenly, from up on the mountain, there’s the bark of rifle fire. We look at each other and then scamper back up to our vantage point overlooking the valley. The campfire is empty. I look toward the mountain and see several men rushing toward Turkey Point. The rifle shots sound again, followed by pistols and I now know where Adam is. I also know he’s in trouble.

I glance at Hoss and Joe and pick up my rifle. “Let’s go.”

My sons are right behind me as we hurry along the ridge and then down into the valley, keeping to the rocks at its edge and trying to stay out of sight. There’s another burst of heavy rifle fire and the steady bark of Adam’s carbine is as reassuring as my own heart beat.

We move into a good position below and to the right of the men above us. And then there is silence. We look at one another and I nod Joe toward a pile of rocks a little to the left. The men above us are focused on a point near the opening to Turkey Point. I can hear them talking. I see a man on the ground and another struggling to pull himself toward a pile of rocks. Two more men are easy targets but we hold our fire. There’s more rifle fire from Turkey Point and I can almost hear Hoss’ thoughts as he grins over at me. Adam is sure making a fight of it. Then he jerks his head to where several men are in plain sight, crouching behind the rocks.

I do a quick count. Five that I can see and two of those are wounded. I look over at Joe who holds up three fingers. We’re a little outnumbered, but no worse than we have been before. And we have the advantage of surprise.

Then one of the men from higher up turns around and quickly we hunker down out of sight.

“I think we got him,” he shouts, his voice is triumphant.

“You sure?” A deep gruff voice from off to my right responds. “He ain’t just playing possum, is he?”

“Nah, I saw the rifle drop and heard it clatter right after he sent that last round down. And his hand’s sticking out from behind that rock. It ain’t moved. I think we got him.”

I look at Hoss, his grin is gone and I know he’s thinking the same thing I am and trying hard not to. I can see it in his eyes and the stubborn set of his chin. I understand. I can’t accept that we may be too late after all, either.

“Well, then go on up and see.”

“Wait,” another voice responds. “We’ll rush him together. He might just be playing possum. One at a time, he’ll pick us off. We all go together and he doesn’t stand a chance.”

Hoss’ face hardens and I know by the look on his face that he’s decided the time for waiting is up. I reach out a steadying hand towards him but I’m too late. He stands and I have no choice but to stand with him.

“Hold it right there, an’ put yer hands up!” Hoss shouts, holding the rifle steady at the two men to the right. Joe is off to the left and has the three men on that side covered.

We have the element of surprise. The men have to turn to fire on us, and for a moment, I think they’re going to try it.

But the large man I’ve taken to be their leader drops his shoulders and slowly moves his hands out from his sides as he turns to face us.

His eyes move to our rifles and he chuckles humorlessly. “It would appear you’ve got the drop on us.”

“Tell your men to throw their guns over there.” My worry for Adam makes my voice gruff.

*****

The haze clears slowly and I squeeze my eyes shut, willing it to go completely. I can hear shouting from below and I know they’re going to try another rush. Desperately, I search for my rifle, but I’m having trouble locating it. My arm doesn’t seem to want to work right. I feel a warm trickle of blood down my side and I realize the bandage has absorbed all it can. I feel weak.

And then I hear another shout and I almost can’t believe my ears. It’s Hoss! I’d know that voice anywhere. Carefully, I pull myself up into a sitting position and lean back against the boulder I’ve been using for cover. Cautiously, I peer around the edge. I see Hoss with Pa beside him. Jim Culver stands with his back to me his hands away from his sides.

“Looks like there’s just the three of you,” I hear Culver say. “Your odds aren’t good.”

“Maybe not, but your odds are worse.” Pa’s voice is hard. “Your men might get us. But I’ll get you.”

I smile. In my mind’s eye, I can see Pa’s face as he says that last line. He’d have a small smile and those dark eyes would be nearly black. And it wasn’t just a threat, either; it was a promise.

“Is that so?” Culver responds, the words are sarcastic enough, but I can hear the nervousness in them.

“That’s so.” There is no waver in Pa’s voice. It’s the voice that has stood down more men than I can remember and I chuckle to myself. I doubt Culver will be able to stand up to it either.

Then from the corner of my eye I see movement. It’s the man who came up first, the one whose job it was to hold my attention so the others could get close. He’s moved around to the other side of the rock out of sight of Pa, Hoss and Joe. Slowly, he raises his rifle and my heart stops for a moment as he aims right at Pa.

I hardly have time to think, I draw my pistol and shoot. The man jerks around and I fire again and again. Down below me gunfire has erupted and I search for my rifle. I find it and pull myself up into position. A sudden searing pain shoots through my head and I remember nothing more.

*****

There is only a moment for the shot from Turkey Point to register and relief to flood through me before we are in the middle of a gun battle. We fling ourselves down behind the rocks and I keep my promise to the big man I had been speaking to. His shot goes wild as my bullet turns him around completely and he falls to the ground.

Suddenly, the man next to him throws his rifle down and stands with his hands high. “Stop! All right, you’ve got us!”

“Tell the rest of the men to drop their weapons, too,” I shout.

“You heard him, boys. Throw ’em out.”

“But Kendall!” A man behind him shouts a protest.

“Just do it, Val. They ain’t got nothin’ on us.”

“What about the guy in the rocks?”

“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about him,” he replies and there’s something in the way he says it that makes me go cold all over. “My last shot took care of that.” He smirks over at me. How he knows I haven’t a clue, but somehow he knows our presence here has more to do with the man in the rocks than capturing the Culver Gang. For a moment, I struggle with the almost unbearable urge to pull the trigger and wipe that smirk off his face.

“Pa.” Hoss’ voice is soft in my ear. “He don’t know any such thing. But the sooner we get these men secured, the sooner we can see how Adam is.”

I take a deep breath and, pushing my anger and fear aside, I nod to Hoss. “Throw your guns down. We’ll take you in. And I promise a fair trial. Only… only you’d better be wrong about my son, because if he’s dead…” I stop and bite off the last of my threat.

It doesn’t take long to round up the men that are left. Only four are unscathed; three are wounded, five are dead. We tie their hands behind them and sit them under a tree nearby. I know Roy will be coming soon and then I can turn them over to him. I leave Joe to guard them, then rush up the hill to join Hoss.

He’s kneeling over his brother, gently patting Adam’s cheek and calling to him. He turns to me with a grim look on his face as I kneel beside him and my eyes follow his to Adam’s side where the blood-soaked handkerchief pressed there doesn’t hide the ugly wound that is still seeping blood. There’s more blood running down the side of his head. Adam hasn’t shaved in days and the blood soaks the heavy growth that has started there. There’s too much blood, I think, and I reach toward his head with a trembling hand.

“That’un’s just a crease, Pa. But Adam was mighty lucky. A half-inch closer an’…” Hoss stops and closes his lips tight, as if unable to say out loud how close his brother came to death. “I ‘specks that’s what that fella was talkin’ about,” he finishes lamely.

I nod, then glance into Adam’s still, white face. He looks awful. I grab my canteen and wet my handkerchief. Carefully, I wipe the blood from the side of his face. I try to ignore the blood matting in his beard. That will have to wait until we’re home.

Hoss tries again to awaken him, without success. From below we hear horses and I don’t need to look to know that Roy and the posse have come. Within minutes Joe is beside me. His fearful eyes turn toward his brother.

“He’s alive, Joe,” I answer the unasked question. “But hurt bad. We’ve got to get him home.” I nod toward Adam’s saddlebags as Hoss and I get ready to lift Adam. Joe, understanding, goes to retrieve them. A fire with a half cooked rabbit on a spit over it still burns not far away and Joe stops to put it out. Hoss and I pick Adam up, and with Joe following, we make our way to where the others are gathered.

Hoss leaves Adam with me and heads toward the others. As I hold my son in my arms and try to staunch the blood as best can, I hear Hoss directing some men back to the Ponderosa for a wagon, but it barely registers. For now, all I can do is sit here in the dim twilight and thank God that, for the moment, my son is alive and pray fervently that he remains so.

*****

I open my eyes to sunlight and shut them again quickly. My head feels as if someone is using a single jack on it. For a moment, I lie with my eyes shut, willing the pounding to go away, and then slowly open them again. I’m in my own room, in my own bed, and as I turn my head slightly, I see Pa’s smiling face leaning over me.

“How do you feel, son?” he asks gently, laying a hand on my shoulder. I give a small smile and then close my eyes.

“Too stubborn to quit,” I murmur before the darkness claims me once again.

***The End***

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