For the Love of Family (by Visage)

Synopsis:  An escaped prisoner causes trouble on the Ponderosa.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  21,955


 

A special ‘thank you’ to JC for her Beta reading help with this. I appreciate it!

 

September 1841

A bright golden haze shimmered on the horizon overlooking the meadow as the sun peeked up from behind the mountains. Caroline Foreman sat on her porch, churning butter and quietly humming a song stuck in her head. She watched her youngest out of the corner of her eye playing in the yard with the dog while her oldest tended to the animals in the barn.

One of the remaining hands, Ray Pollard, approached the house tipping his hat. “Good mornin’, Ma’am,” he drawled.

Something in the man’s manner sent a chill up her spine. The mockery in his voice, the sneer behind the polite exterior. He knew her husband was out on the range repairing the fence line with the rest of the hands. Caroline eyed him warily. “Hello, Ray. Do you need something?”

He smiled, a contrast to his dark and menacing eyes. “Well, I came up to see if’n you needed any help, Mrs. Foreman.”

She swallowed, trying to quell the storm of fear rising inside of her. “I’m just fine here, Ray. Thank you anyway. Did you finish with the horse stalls?” She could hear the panic in her own voice.

“‘Bout half an hour ago, Ma’am.” Ray stepped slightly toward her.

Caroline rose from her chair. “I think you could find something else to do, don’t you?” She backed towards the front door. Her only thought was of escape.

Pollard grinned, his yellowing teeth showing like a Cheshire cat. “I could think of a few things, Ma’am.” He started up the porch steps, his eyes darkening with each fall of his foot. The scar over his eye seemed to laugh at his frightened prey.

“You stay away from me, you…” Caroline began quietly. Gradually her voice gained volume. “You hear me? Stay away!” Her back met the porch door. She tried to bolt, but Pollard grabbed both of her arms and held her tight. She could feel his hot breath on her neck as he leaned into her, his wicked intentions evident.

“Now how can I find somethin’ ta do if’n you won’t let me near you.” He swung open the screen door and shoved Caroline through the house to the bedroom.

*****

April, 1842

The dull thud of hammers against rock resonated throughout the camp. Ray Pollard paused for a moment after a stroke, flexing his sore back muscles. He raised his arms above his head, feeling his shoulder joints pop slightly.

Someone yelled. “Get back to work!” Pollard resumed his position and picked up another rock, placing it in the path of his hammer. With a single stroke, he obliterated it into dust.

Lift, stroke. Lift, stroke. It had become a rhythm to the prisoner. Each swing of his hammer fueled the fire that had been festering inside of his heart for the past eight months. All he could see in his mind was the face of Dave Foreman and the pain and humiliation that he caused.

Another guard yelled. Lift, stroke. Lift, stroke. All the while, in his mind he plotted. He had to get out.

Then he it came to him. He thought of the perfect opportunity, how he could leave this foul place and get revenge against his enemy. He knew the perfect way to escape and make good his threats. Dave Foreman would regret the day he ever crossed Ray Pollard.

He swung his hammer down again, splitting the metal head.

*****

Adam Cartwright leaned the pitchfork up against the wall in its usual place. Giving each of the horses one last pat, he headed out of the barn, latching the door behind him.

The sun was barely up in the sky and the twelve year old had already finished his barn chores. “That should show Pa,” Adam thought proudly, walking back to the house.

His Pa was going into town with his stepmother Marie and Little Joe, leaving the eldest Cartwright brother to watch over Hoss and tend to some of the chores at home. Adam knew they were counting on him.

He walked in the house quietly, knowing Hoss and the baby would still be sleeping. ‘Marie too,’ he thought. ‘But not Pa.’ Ben Cartwright would be sitting at the table with a cup of coffee, just as he did every morning.

“Morning, son,” Ben said, setting his cup on the table. “You’re up early.”

“Morning, Pa.” Adam reached up and hung his hat on the peg behind the door. He smiled, thinking that that he no longer needed to stand on his toes.

Walking over, he took his seat at the table. “I thought it’d be best to get the barn chores done early. That way Hoss and I can go fishing or something and not worry about the animals until this afternoon.”

Ben smiled. “Good thinking, Adam. Marie and I will be leaving soon after breakfast. Just remember to stay close to the house, alright?”

“Yes sir, Pa,” Adam answered. His thoughts drifted to the fishing hole, only a short ride from the house.

“Adam, are you alright?” Ben frowned, reaching out a hand to Adam’s forehead.

“Pa, I’m fine!” Adam protested, ducking his father’s worried hand.

Ben sighed, resting his hand on the stoic boy’s knee instead. “Alright. Just remember to keep an eye on your brother. It shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Don’t worry, Pa. I know what I’m doing.”

“Mmm,” Ben replied with a slight chuckle. Sometimes Adam reminded him so much of his mother, Elizabeth. “I know, son.” Ben took a sip of his coffee. “You can’t blame me for worrying.”

Father and son looked up at the sound of foot steps descending the stairs.

“I’ll be back in a minute, Pa. I just have to bring in some wood for breakfast and I’ll be done ’til this afternoon.” Adam hurried out the door, with Ben’s eyes nostalgically following him all the way.

*****

His head felt like lead, heavier than his tired and aching feet. He brushed a stray hair out of his eyes and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve. After a few more faulting steps, he let slumped to the ground under a patch of shade.

He rested his head back against the trunk of the sweeping pine. He closed his eyes and listened to the quiet around him, momentarily letting his aching heart disappear.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose, wishing release from the torment that had become his life. He looked up at the trees surrounding him, marveling at their grand stature. ‘A fall from one of those is almost guaranteed to break something,’ he thought. He shook his head with a sigh. ‘With my luck, I’d survive a cripple.’ He could never forgive himself if he became a worthless person in society, and he felt his son wouldn’t either. Not after what he had been through.

He closed his eyes, his thoughts turning back to a happier time. Blanketed by the warmth of a spring day, his body and mind relaxed, drifting toward slumber and a temporary freedom from pain.

A rumble in the distance woke him. He rose quickly and peered at a cloud of dust. A roan horse emerged, with a chestnut colored horse following close on its heels.

The first rider half stood in the saddle, constantly looking between the road in front of him and the rider behind him. He yelled commands to the horse, urging him faster. The chestnut rider lowered himself in the saddle, determination evident in his entire stance.

Then the first rider moved. He quickly turned the horse to the right, dodging in between the thick tree trunks. The second rider jerked hard on his reins to follow the awkward turn.

He didn’t know what possessed him to do it, or even how he moved from his position by the trees. Suddenly, he found himself blocking the trail of the second rider.

“What do you think you’re doin’? Move out of the way,” The man growled, aiming his pistol at his human barricade.

“Tell me why you’re after this man and I’ll think about it,” he replied. He kept his eyes directly looking into the rider’s.

The man laughed to himself. His horse began to prance and his tugged back on the reins. “He’s none of your business. All you need to know is that he’s wanted and I’m gonna get ‘im.”

“Oh no, bounty hunter.” The other man who was being chased appeared from nowhere, a gun in his hand. He began to fire in what seemed like random directions.

The man dove to the ground, covering his head with his arms, wishing to rid the sounds of the gun and the frightened horse from his mind. Peeking out from under his elbow, he saw that within the first few shots, the bounty hunter had fallen from his horse, his chest red with blood.

“Not today,” the man said. He blew the smoke from the end of his gun barrel and placed it back in the holster on his side. “I thank you, mister. What’s yer name?”

The man hesitated before he grabbed the hand that the shooter was holding out to lift him to his feet. Upright once again, he dusted his ratty clothes off with his hands, buying himself time to think.

“Deckland,” he said, finally. “Jake Deckland. What about you? And why did you have a bounty hunter after you?”

“The name’s Ray Pollard. That man’s been chasin’ me for a while. Don’t exactly know why.” His slight smile and tone was that of a fibber. “But I don’t have to worry about him now, do I?”

Jake looked at the motionless form of the bounty hunter. “No I suppose not.” He agreed vaguely.

“That was a stupid thing ya did for me.” He said as he stepped towards Jake. “Why would ya want to do a thing like that?”

“Because I don’t like to see anything being chased or hurt unlawfully, that’s why. He didn’t look like a sheriff to me, and thus not very legal. I wanted to see for myself.”

“Seems reasonable.” Pollard nodded. “You know. I like ya. Seem like a good enough feller. This is gonna to sound sudden, but do ya wanna help me? Maybe two people are better than one with somethin’ like this.”

Jake looked at his new acquaintance quizzically. “What type of‘somethin’”?”

“I want ta go pay a visit to an old boss of mine. Thought maybe ya’d like to come along and be a … witness. Would ya?”

Jake thought for a moment. Could he trust someone he met not even five minutes before, especially all the evidence pointed to him being in trouble with the law? Then again, he had no one else. He looked up at Pollard from under his eye brows.

“C’mon. Whaddya say?”

Deckland let out a heavy sigh before reaching out his hand. “What’s first on the agenda, partner?”

*****

“And Charlie and Todd’ll be around if you need anything.”

“Yes, Pa,” Adam chorused. He discreetly scuffed the toe of his boot on the floor. He wished Pa would hurry and leave. At this rate, the fish were likely to be gone before they got there!

“And the Foremans aren’t to far away if you can’t find them.”

“Yes, Pa.”

“Ben, come along. The boys will be fine,” Marie said, taking his arm. She smiled in Adam’s direction, which he returned.

‘She’s not that bad,’ Adam thought. He had gradually been getting used to Marie since their rocky start just over two years before. He had come to especially like the times when she took his side against his Pa.

Ben pursed his lips. “Alright, we have to get going. We’ll be back by tonight, boys.”

“Bye Mama! Bye Pa! Bye Little Joe!” Hoss immediately supplied with a wave. He was looking forward to spending the day with his beloved older brother.

“Goodbye, boys. Keep an eye out, Adam,” Ben added one last time as he walked out the door.

Marie shifted Little Joe, only about a month short of his first birthday, in her arms. The baby seemed to sense he was about to leave his older brothers and waved with his already dirty hand. His eyes began to tear slightly and his bottom lip trembled. With a hug and a few soft murmurs from his mother, his tears were soon forgotten.

With her own free hand, Marie patted Hoss on the cheek lightly. “See you tonight, boys.” Giving each one a quick kiss, she followed her husband out side.

As they started off in the buggy towards town, Marie couldn’t let go of the strange feeling at the pit of her stomach. Had Hoss felt warm? She dismissed her thinking to motherly attention. She still couldn’t help but hope and pray that everything would be alright. She tried to quiet the itching thoughts of worry at the back of her mind. ‘Perhaps we should have just brought the boys with us,’

“Ben?” she asked cautiously, settling Joe in her lap. “The boys seemed fine, yes?”

“Marie, they’ll be fine. We’ll only be gone until suppertime.”

Marie sighed. “I know. I just do not want to admit it. I have grown so used to the boys needing help and supervision. I think Adam is starting to resent all the attention.”

Ben gave a laugh. “I believe so, too. He’s starting to grow up. But you don’t have to worry about him.” He reached down and tickled Joe’s chin playfully. “I think that this one right here’ll give us enough trouble for the three of them!”

Little Joe gurgled happily in reply.

*****

“Adam!” Hoss called as he ran into the kitchen. “Come on, Adam! The fishes ain’t gonna wait! We gotta hurry!”

Adam grinned at his younger brother. He picked up the last of the food Hop Sing had set out on the table for their day out and stuffed it into his sack. “Patience, Hoss. You don’t want to have to fish on an empty stomach now, do you? Your rumblin’ alone would scare ’em away!”

Hoss considered the possibility with a serious look on his face. “Gee, Adam, I wouldn’t want that none.” He gave his head a thoughtful scratch. “But I gots the poles all together. Alls we need to do is go!”

Adam couldn’t hold back his laughter. “Alright, brother, let me get Strawberry saddled up and we’ll head out.” He slung the sack of food over his shoulder and started out the door.

“Uh… Adam?” Hoss stopped his brother with a tug on his sleeve. “Since you don’t want us to go hungry ‘afore we go fishin’… Could I have a biscuit now?”

“We’ve just finished breakfast, Hoss! How could you possibly be hungry?” Adam watched the blue eyes shift to the ground to hide. Blonde hair that was the pure resemblance of his mother flopped over his forehead. Adam tried to suppress the smile that was creeping on his face.

“Well, Adam, I figured it’s gonna keep my tummy from growling… That way we don’t have to worry about scarin’ the fishes.”

Adam couldn’t keep his face straight. He tousled his brother’s hair before reaching in the sack for a biscuit. “Normally, someone would say ‘don’t spoil your appetite,’ but don’t think that’ll ever happen!” With a laugh, he slung his arm around Hoss’s shoulders and together they walked out to the barn.

*****

The sun was nearly to its halfway mark in the sky by the time the Cartwright wagon pulled into Marceville. Granted, the town was a bit farther from Eagle Station or Mormon Station, but it had greater reliability when it came to supplies.

With a gentle tug on the reins, Ben halted the horses just outside the mercantile shop. Jumping down, he immediately held his hand out for his wife. Joe took in all the sights around him, mostly keeping his eyes on the animals going by. He reached out his hand and gave their horses a pat on the neck.

“You are going to be a regular cowboy, Oui, Mon Petite Chou?” Marie tweaked her son’s nose. Joe mumbled a bit of baby talk protest as his mother walked away from the horses and up into the store where Ben had already disappeared into.

As her husband stood at the counter placing his order, Marie walked around looking at the displays of trinkets. “Oh, Little Joe.” She addressed the boy to keep from talking to herself. “Remind me to ask your father for some sweets. Your older brothers might like a treat after supper tonight, no?”

Joe gave a giggle, reaching towards a nearby display. Marie grabbed his hand with a laugh. “Oh no, little one. Your father would not approve of you playing with cards!”

“Will that be all, Ben?” the shopkeeper, Richard Austen asked, scribbling the last of the order down.

“I believe so, Rich. When will it be ready?”

“Oh, not too long. Why don’t you go have a drink or something while you wait?”

“Not a bad idea. I think I’ll take Marie and Little Joe out for dinner.” Ben folded the slip of paper in his hand and tucked it inside his pocket. “Any idea how long this weather is supposed to hold up? It’s been nice for the past few days.”

“Looks like it’ll be good for another week or so at the least, I’d say,” Rich answered. “Have something in mind?”

“I might go up and take a hunting trip up north for a day or two. Maybe bring Adam along. The boys have been cooped up all winter. A bit a fresh air’ll do him good.”

Rich raised an eyebrow. “You aren’t thinkin’ of huntin’ with that convict loose, are you?” His voice wavered slightly, keeping his dark eyes on Ben’s.

“Convict?” Ben questioned. He leaned over the counter, his dark eyes narrowing slightly. His voice lowered slightly in volume. “What are you talking about?”

Rich’s eyes grew wide. He pushed his graying hair nervously off his forehead. “You haven’t heard? There’s a convict done escaped from a work detail, ’bout a three days ride to the north of here.”

Ben let his eyes wander, staring at nothing in particular as he thought. “Three days?” he muttered to himself. He focused his gaze back on Rich’s face. “That’s quite a bit of distance from here. I’m sure he’s not even thinking of coming this way.”

Rich shook his head. “I still would be careful, Ben. You never know what goes on in those people’s minds. Crazy, they are. Plumb crazy!”

“Who?”

Ben turned to find Marie at his elbow. She shifted the squirming Joe in her arms again.

Ben’s arm instinctively wrapped around his wife’s shoulders. “Oh, nothing for you to be worried about, my love.” He smiled broadly and a quickly kissed her on the forehead. Ben turned back to the shopkeeper. “We’ll be back within the hour. Thanks, Rich.”

“No problem, Ben,” Rich called to his back as the Cartwrights were walking out of the store.

Ben took a lung full of air in as he stood on the steps outside the Mercantile. “Well, it’s about dinner time. I don’t know about you, but I’m starved! How about we go for something to eat while we wait for the supplies?”

Marie let her eyes narrow a bit. “Ben, what were you and Rich talking about?”

“Hmm?” Ben turned, raising his eyebrows. Inwardly, he groaned. He knew that she was already worried about the boys. The news of an escaped prisoner wouldn’t ease her mind at all. “Here, let me take Joseph.” Ben gave a smile and stretched out his arms.

Marie’s scowl deepened, her green eyes burning with anger. “Benjamin,” she warned, drawing his name out like a disobedient child.

Ben settled Little Joe in his own arms, sharing a quick look with his son. “Better come out with it, Pa,” Joe seemed to warn.

“It’s nothing to worry about, Marie.” He put his free arm around her shoulder again and began to lead her towards the hotel. “Rich said there was a prisoner loose, a few days ride from here. He’s probably headed towards California, or even north to Canada. There’s no reason for him to come this way.”

Marie felt herself lean closer into Ben. “Are you sure?” she asked, not really looking towards him. “What if he has come this way? The boys are all alone!”

“The boys will be fine, Marie. Charlie and Todd are around, and Adam can take care of Hoss and himself. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Marie looked up into Ben’s eyes. “Alright,” she said with a small sigh. “I trust you.”

Ben smiled back reassuringly. “Don’t worry. We’ll be home by supper and you can see for yourself. Nothing will go wrong.”

*****

Jake Deckland narrowed his eyes across the horizon. The sun was about a quarter of the way to the top. “Practically noon for a rancher,” he thought with a scowl. He stretched out his legs, trying to work the kinks out of his sore muscles. He hated sleeping outside on the cold ground.

He stood, raising his arms above his head. He rubbed his face over his scratchy cheeks, still trying to wake up. He hand fell to the familiar holster at his side. “It fits perfectly,” he mused with a chuckle. “Lucky me to find this feller being chased.”

Jake walked around the small campsite, wishing for just a sip of coffee. ‘But a fire makes smoke, and who knows who’s out there,’ he reminded himself. He ran his hands through his chestnut hair, dirty and badly in need of a cut. He resisted the urge to wake his new associate, who was still softly snoring curled up in his bedroll. ‘But a few minutes alone by the stream might be nice,’ he thought.

He wandered through the field, the grass coming up just past his ankles. The sun cast his shadow in front of him, giving Jake a companion to walk with. At the bank of the stream, he sat on his haunches, scooping up the clear water and dousing his face. The cold numbed his cheeks. He brought up another scoop and took a long drink. He had almost forgotten what fresh stream water tasted like.

Suddenly, he raised his head. He narrowed his eyebrows in thought and turned his ears to towards their camp. Off in the distance, Jake heard the pounding of hooves. He turned slightly, his eyes scanning the horizon over his shoulder. The horse was still a little ways off. Perhaps it was someone looking for Pollard’s friends. ‘Or worse,’ he thought. ‘Pollard himself.’ He had to warn Ray. They would be ready for them.

*****

After a detour to the pasture to tell Charlie and Todd where they were headed and two more biscuits for Hoss, the Cartwright brothers trotted up to the fishing hole. Adam guided Strawberry close to a tree and jumped down, tying the reins to a low branch. He walked back to his brother and held out his arms to help the boy down.

As he unsaddled his horse and gave her a good petting on her soft nose, Adam watched Hoss race to the bank. In moments his boots were abandoned as he waded into the slow running water. He splashed the water around, scooping up handfuls and watching it pour from his fingers. The older Cartwright brother laughed at his brother’s play before turning and setting the supplies from Strawberry’s back on the ground.

“Hoss, if you go swimming now, the fish’ll swim away!” Adam called, walking over with the fishing poles in hand.

Hoss looked up, an apologetic look on his face. “Can we go swimmin’ then?” His eyes held a hopeful gleam.

“How about if we catch ourselves supper first. Adam sat on the edge of the bank. He settled the poles in his lap and took a biscuit out of the sack.

“Okay, Adam,” Hoss agreed. He gave a grin as he walked over and sat next to his brother, intently watching the bits of biscuits Adam broke off and tied on the string.

‘Here, Hoss.” He handed his brother the baited pole, then fixed the other for himself. “Now let’s catch us some fish.” Two lines flew into the water, just waiting for someone to steal the tasty treats attached.

*****

Jake would have given his soul just to stand for a moment. His knees were aching, feet numb. He wished those darn kids would move on. Beside him, he saw Pollard fidget. Jake put a hand on Pollard’s knee and slowly raised his gun. If they moved they might be spotted. He didn’t want to risk that when they were so close to their target.

Pollard scowled, the scar over his right eye darkened in color. He muttered something under his breath before turning his attention back to the visitors at the stream.

Jake sighed. Pollard was a bit to trigger happy for his tastes. They wouldn’t get anywhere if they shot the kids. He studied the boys, trying to decide if they would be any risk to their plans. The boy with the dark hair seemed to be older, or at least smarter. ‘Perhaps both,’ he thought with an internal laugh at his own joke. The boy was thoughtful about every action, always looking before he or the other boy leaped. He seemed to be the one in charge. He watched as the boy pushed his dark hat farther back on his head, keeping an eye on the fair haired younger one.

The other boy was different all together. His hat and boots had been abandoned as soon as they arrived. After as much patience as he could stand, and enough fish had been caught, he ran into the water. He looked about eight or nine, maybe even a bit big for his age in both height and weight. ‘That one has some good fights ahead of him at that size!’ Jake thought. ‘Though he sure doesn’t act his age.’ Jake thought the boy had more of the mentality of a six year old the way he was playing in the stream, splashing everything in sight. Thoughts of pity invaded Jake’s mind.

Jake glanced over at the older boy, watching him strip his boots and shirt and roll up the legs of his jeans. He laughed inwardly, noticing the Stetson hat remained in place. The boy sat at the edge of the bank, letting his feet dangle in the water. Even from the distance, he saw the smile on the older one’s face. The content.

After a moment, a crafty gleam appeared in his eyes. The boy watched his playmate turn his back, distracted by something in the water. The boy slipped quietly in the water, so only his eyes and hat were visible. He raised his arms in the air, just about level with the other boy’s shoulders. With a yelp that suspiciously sounded like a “Yee-Haw”, the boy jumped up, grabbing the younger one and shoving his playmate under the water.

The older boy ran out of the stream, collapsing in a fit of laughter on the bank, his hat finally falling on the ground next to him, almost as if it was amused by the prank as well.

The chubbier boy came to the surface with a confused look on his face. He let his mouth fall into a dopey grin, seeing the older boy on the bank. He ran up out of the water as well, wrapping his arms around his attacker. The older boy, now recovering from his laughter enveloped the boy in a hug of his own, giving him a slight squeeze.

Through it all, Jake couldn’t keep his eyes off the older boy. His dark hair, his mannerism, all seemed so familiar. So like his own boy. Jake let the smile he had fade. A dull ache set itself in Jake’s chest, reminding him of the reason he had come this way. He needed to escape. He fought back the burning in his eyes. Real men didn’t cry.

For the second time that day, Jake heard the sound of horse hooves. He ducked down a little lower, motioning for Ray to do the same. He hoped whoever was coming now was going to fetch the boys and go home.

*****

Adam chuckled, brushing his dark hair out of his eyes. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I shouldn’t have done that, but it was too good of an opportunity.” He unwrapped himself from his little brother’s bear hug.

Hoss grinned. “That was fun, Adam! You haven’t played like that with me in forever!” The boy plopped down on the ground, snuggling up next to his brother. The overgrown six-year-old was still fond of physical affection.

Adam rolled his eyes. “Now I don’t think it’s been quite that long!”

In the background of Hoss’s giggle, the sounds of hoof beats approached. “Maybe Pa’s home early, huh Adam?”

Adam’s eyebrows raised in question. He replaced his boots and shirt, leaving his hat on the ground. He stood and placed a hand on Hoss’s shoulder. “Now stay here ’til I see what’s going on, okay?”

For a fraction of a second, it looked like Hoss wanted to protest. Instead he nodded, pulling on his own boots. Adam gave the boy a thankful grin. “I promise I’ll be back. Just stay here for a little bit.”

Adam walked out to meet the rider, wondering why anyone would be coming this way. His thoughts immediately shifted to his Pa and Marie. He hoped they were alright. As the chestnut horse came closer, Adam recognized it as the mount of their neighbor, Dave Foreman. Adam stood, waiting for the horse to meet him.

Mr. Foreman pulled on the reins of his horse and stopped right in front of the Cartwright boy. “Adam, I’m glad I found you. Charlie said you two would be here. Where’s your brother?” Dave dismounted the horse and stood to its side.

Adam gave his neighbor a quizzical look. “Over by the river.” He jerked his thumb towards the direction he had come from. “What’s the matter, Mr. Foreman?”

Dave licked his lips nervously, his gray eyes darting over the skyline as if searching for something. “You two shouldn’t be out here alone. Haven’t you heard about that convict loose?” His eyes narrowed and his voice lowered as he growled out the word.

Adam gave a skeptical look. “A convict? You can’t be serious.”

“Boy, I know what I’m talking about. Those kind of men are dangerous. Come on home with me and your Pa can come fetch you. I don’t want you boys out here alone.”

Adam felt his stomach jump. Something was going on that the normally kind Farmer wasn’t telling him. He swallowed hard, thinking of the best course of action. “Just let me go get Hoss,” Adam choked out. Mr. Foreman’s manner was scaring him.

Adam was about to turn when he heard the click of a gun hammer being cocked. “I don’t reckon that’s right smart, boy.” A voice growled, sending shivers up his spine. He paused in his movements, beginning to raise his hands in surrender, like the hero did in those western dime novels that Hoss liked to hear.

“Pollard,” Dave hissed from clenched teeth, his eyebrows knitting together in anger. “I knew you’d be around this way.”

Adam turned slowly, finding himself backing up into Dave. The man who stood before him would have created shivers in the bravest of souls. He was tall and broad, His features dark, including his hair, eyes, and the scowl that seemed permanently etched on his face. A thin scar was visible over his right eye. Adam swallowed hard, suppressing the urge to run.

“Why are you back here? Haven’t you caused enough trouble?”

“Now now, friend.” A new voice came from the right side, a bit smoother than Pollard, as if he was used to being a negotiator.

“Who are you? You can’t be any good if you’re with the likes of Pollard here.”

The voice materialized into a person, just as dirty as Pollard, but slimmer, even borderline gangly.

“They’re looking for you. You know they are. Why are you here?” Dave tightened his grip on Adam’s shoulders. The boy bit his lip to hold back a yelp at the offending fingers.

“Oh, come now!” Pollard rolled his eyes in mock anger. “I get out and the first thing I think of is to pay a visit to you and your… pretty little wife…” He emphasized his last phrase. Adam felt Dave tense even more. “And this is the thanks I get?”

“You filthy rat,” Dave hissed. “Get out of here before I kill you myself.”

Now, Mr. Foreman,” Deckland spoke. “You wouldn’t do that to a former employee, now would ya?”

Adam felt a hand push him out of the way. He landed hard a few feet away on his hip. The action in front of him seemed to play out in slow motion.

Dave had reached into his holster while he was still getting the boy out of the way. He cocked his gun and pulled the trigger in one motion, but his shot went wild. Pollard only aimed and fired the bullet landing in Dave’s chest. Adam turned his head, shutting his eyes tight against the sight.

“Don’t you touch, Caroline,” Dave warned through clenched teeth. He clutched at the wound for a fraction of a moment before slumping foreword and landing on the ground with a dull thud.

Jake closed his eyes. The blood was too fresh, too real. He didn’t want to remember. In the back of his mind, he heard the sound of horses, the thundering of hooves, and the cries of a down man. A quiet murmur tugged him back to his bloody reality.

“Y- You… Killed him.”

Jake gave a startled look at the boy. He had forgotten about him. He shot a look at his partner, wondering what to do. They hadn’t planned on any witnesses.

“Well, I-. It wasn’t really murder,” Jake answered, thinking things out. “It was more self-defense.”

Adam looked up, horror evident in his expression. His hazel eyes darted around for a moment before he scrambled to his feet, trying to escape. He had to get to Hoss. Suddenly, within a few feet, he felt a sharp pain at the base of his skull. The lights exploded before his eyes. He fell to his knees, then pitched foreword onto his stomach. He tried to yell for his brother, yet no sound escaped. “Pa,” he muttered. He had let him down. His vision swam as the darkness began to overcome him. His last thought brought a shiver to his body. ‘I let Pa down.’

*****

Pollard had thought a bit quicker than the boy, bringing the butt of his gun down on his head with a sickening crack. He cocked the firearm once more and aimed at the boy’s temple.

“No!” Jake raised his hand and shoved the gun away. “No, not now. You can’t kill him yet.”

“Why not?” Pollard scowled. “We finish him off now, and we run.”

“Because,” Deckland said. “This was self defense,” he said, pointing at Dave Foreman’s body. “Or at least we could argue that if we got caught. But a boy? Even you wouldn’t believe that someone that young was attacking us. It would mean a rope around our necks for sure.” Jake paced the ground for a moment, his head bent deep in thought. After a long moment, he turned to Pollard. “What if we bring him with us?”

Pollard’s eyes darkened. “Are you loco? What would we want him fer?”

Giving a glance at the boy, Deckland lowered himself to sit on his heels next to him. He reached out and placed a hand on his head, smoothing the dark curls. “We could always use a kid. He could do things for us. We could teach him things.”

Pollard shot his partner a skeptical look. “I don’t like it.”

Deckland sneered at the other man. “You don’t have to like it; I’m the one who decides what we do.” He turned back the boy, his face softening. “And I decide we keep him.”

Releasing the hammer on his gun, Pollard shoved it back in its holster. “He’s your responsibility.” He turned and stalked off towards the horses.

Deckland gently scooped the boy up in his arms. “Don’t worry, buddy. You’re safe now.” He walked off, following Pollard.

*****

Hoss watched helpless as Adam was lifted and carried away by the smaller of the two men. He tried to yell for his brother, but his voice caught in his throat, the fear choking him. He wasn’t sure what to do. Adam would know. He always knew.

Confused, alone and frightened, Hoss sat with his back against the tree that he had took cover behind, bringing his knees close to his chest. Tears began to stream down his cheeks.

Off to this side, he saw his brother’s black hat lying on the ground, still waiting for its owner to claim it. With a cautious hand, Hoss grabbed the hat and held it close to his chest.

He needed to get back home. He needed to tell Pa or Mama or somebody. He looked around, completely disoriented. He had no idea which way to go. He swallowed, the tears coming harder now. What had Adam and Pa said about being lost? The best thing to do was to say put. That was it. Stay put.

“Oh, Adam! You promised you’d come back!” Hoss mumbled under his breath before he let out a fresh sob of tears.

*****

Charlie looked up, squinting his eyes in the distance. “Hey Todd, did you hear something?”

The other ranch hand looked up, his eyes focused in the same direction. “Kinda sounded like a gun shot.”

Charlie dropped the shovel he had been working with and vaulted into the saddle of his nearby horse. “Sounded like it came from the fishing hole, too.” He kicked his heels, bringing the horse to a full gallop and took off.

He spurred his horse to move faster. Charlie barely noticed the trees that flew past his vision, his mind solely worried about the safety of the Cartwright boys.

Quicker than normal, Charlie came up on the small stream. Adam’s horse was still tethered to the same tree that it had been for hours. He dismounted and began running the distance to the bank. In his determination, he nearly tripped over a pile of rocks on the ground. With a second glance, his stomach jumped.

It was a man.

Bending down he rolled the body on his back. “Oh, Dave,” he muttered, putting a finger to his neck, more out of hope and habit than necessity. He bowed his head for a moment, vowing to return in a moment. “Adam! Hoss!” Charlie yelled, silently praying for the two to appear. From behind him came the sound of a horse riding up. Without looking back, he knew it was Todd.

“Where are they?” the other hand asked, pulling on the reins. He didn’t bother to dismount.

“I don’t know,” Charlie answered, his eyes searching for two familiar faces. “Hoss! Adam! Where are you?”

Charlie noticed a face peaking out from behind the horse tethered tree. He dropped his own reins and sprinted the distance.

“Hoss!” Charlie dropped to his knees in front of the boy. He put his arms on his shoulders, trying to calm the hiccupping sobs. “Hoss, what happened?”

The boy snuffed his nose, wiping it on his sleeve. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Th- They took Adam….” Hoss said quietly between sobs.

Charlie narrowed his eyes. “They? Who, Hoss? Who took him?”

“I- I don’t know!” Hoss stuttered. With a fresh sob of tears, Hoss threw his arms around Charlie’s neck.

“Oh, Hoss.” Charlie absentmindedly stroked the back of his head. “It’s okay, calm down. Can you tell me which way they went?”

Hoss lifted his head for a moment, looking around. He thought he knew. He had watched them leave. Was it back the way he and his brother had come earlier? Or was it through that clump of trees to the left? He thought back, only seeing Adam in the saddle of the strange horse as they rode off. He shook his head, giving another cry into Charlie’s shirt.

“Hush boy. It’s all right.” Charlie continued to stroke the boy’s hair. The other ranch hand walked up then, catching enough of Hoss’s story to realize what had happened. “Todd. Will you go look around as see what you can find? I’ll take Hoss home.” Charlie looked in the direction of Dave Foreman’s body.

“I’ll get him back to his ranch once I take a look.” Todd nodded before walking away in search.

Charlie gathered Hoss in his arms and carried him towards his horse. “C’mon now, Hoss. Everything’ll be fine. Why don’t we get on home, hmm?”

“B-But… What about Adam?” The boy’s cries had fallen back to silent tears.

“Don’t worry, Hoss,” he said with a soft tone. He put Hoss up on his horse and slipped into the saddle behind him. He held his arms tight around the boy’s middle to keep his still. “Todd’s the best tracker I know. He’ll find Adam.”

“We gotta find ‘im. We just gotta!” Hoss tried to pull away from Charlie’s grasp.

“We’ll find him, Hoss.” The hand pulled the boy closer to his chest. “We’ll find him.”

Hoss sat still for a moment before turning in the saddle to look Charlie in the eye. “Promise?”

“Promise.” Charlie nudged the horse into a cantor and rode back to the ranch house.

*****

Ben Cartwright paced the length of the cabin, worry foremost in his mind. The few tracks that were left by the kidnappers they found had disappeared. He brought his hand up and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He could feel his head throbbing. The pain had started right behind his eyes almost the same instant that one of the neighbors had rode into Marceville at Charlie’s request. Ben had immediately rented a horse from the livery Stable and rode the animal home as fast as it would move.

Neighbors had come out, all fanning in different directions. At first, Todd had been tracking a pair of horses going towards the north. After only a few miles, the tracks crossed a stream and disappeared. For the last few precious hours of daylight the men searched, finding nothing. Only after forceful pleading on behalf of Sheriff Williams did Ben finally give into the coming nightfall and returned to the Ranch House.

Ben’s mind raced with questions. ‘Why hadn’t they heard anything about the convicts before?’ ‘Who was the other man Hoss talked about with the convict?’ ‘What did they want with his son?’ ‘How did Dave Foreman get involved?’ There was something suspicious about his death to Ben Cartwright.

His thoughts kept returning to a few months before, to the hired hand that had caused a ruckus on the Foreman property. The whole affair had been kept quiet; Ben himself only knew it involved Mrs. Foreman and a morning alone with the hands. He had a feeling in the pit of his stomach that said that the two incidents were related.

Ben sunk into the chair by the fireplace, his mind racing with ideas on where to search next for his son. He rubbed his eyes, feeling weary, yet knowing that not rest but nightmares would come in his sleep.

The sound of bare feet padding down the stairs was lost to Ben, too deep in his thoughts. But a tug on his sleeve brought him back to reality. He jumped slightly, not expecting his son to be awake.

“Pa?” Hoss asked softly, a slight quiver of tears evident in his voice.

“Son,” Ben answered, stretching his arms in invitation. The young boy, clad in his green striped nightshirt eagerly climbed up onto his father’s lap. Hoss immediately flung his arms around Ben’s neck, burying his head in the cloth of his tan vest. Ben felt the boy’s body heave with sobs. Ben wrapped his own arms around his son, gently smoothing the blonde hair with his palm. “Hoss, what’s wrong, son?”

Hoss sniffled, his sobs quieting for the moment. He wiped his nose on his sleeve before resuming his death grip on Ben. “I- I’m sorry, Pa.” Hoss dropped his head heavily into the crook of Ben’s neck.

“Sorry?” Ben questioned quietly. He let his cheek rest on his boy’s head. “Sorry for what?”

“It’s a-all my fault, Pa. M-My fault that Adam’s gone.” He stuttered through his flowing tears.

“Oh no… No, son. Don’t you ever think that! Never!” Ben moved Hoss’s head so their eyes met. “You had nothing to do with this.” He hugged his boy closer, wondering how the idea had been planted in his head.

“B-But, Pa,” Hoss sobbed, his hands forming fists as he clutched onto Ben’s shirt. “A-Adam was in charge, wasn’t he? He was supposta look after me, a-an’ I’m supposta do the same thin’ ’cause I’m his brother only I can’t tell him what to do like he does ta me on accounta he’s older a-an’… An’ I let him go out ta see those people all by hisself. I-didn’t watch out for him.”

Ben felt his heart wrench tightly in his chest. His poor child! Under any other circumstance, he would have been proud to hear his son’s words. But just the fact that Hoss felt he had disappointed him brought tears to Ben’s eyes.

“Oh, my dear Hoss.” Ben stroked the boy’s hair, bringing his boy into a tighter embrace. “It’s true; I want you and your brothers to look out for each other. And you did just by doing what Adam told you. You said he told you to stay put, right?”

Hoss nodded, moving his head away from Ben’s neck to look into his eyes again.

“He left you there so that you could get back home to tell us what happened in case something went wrong. See? You were looking out for him, just not how you thought you were.”

Hoss thought for a moment, wiping his nose on his sleeve again. “I guess so, Pa. But I still feel bad. I shoulda went out with him.”

Ben let his body rock slightly in the chair to soothe his Hoss. “Hush now, sweetheart. You were right to listen to Adam.”

Father and son sat quietly for a few moments, the crackling fire hindering Hoss’s attempt to stay awake.

“Pa?” He asked softly, now settled comfortably against his father’s broad chest. His fists still clutched Ben’s vest. “Adam’ll be okay, won’t he?”

Ben rested his cheek against his son’s forehead. He continued his rocking motion, holding onto his son with the same amount of determination. He breathed in deep, carefully choosing his words. “Don’t worry, Hoss. We’ll find Adam. I promise.”

*****

Adam heard the soft mumbling of voices drift over him, bringing him back to consciousness. His head throbbed with a sharp ache, pounding harder with each slow beat of his heart. Opening his eyes, he tried to register his dusty surroundings. The cool surface he was laying on sent a shiver through his body, jarring his already agonizing headache. His vision turned black with nauseousness, his stomach threatening to loose the breakfast he had eaten hours before. In his mind, he called out for his Pa, the words only forming only a soft moan in his throat. He curled up tighter on his side, trying to banish the sickening feeling.

*****

“He’s no good ta us, why don’t we just finish ‘im off now?” Pollard growled, poking the meager campfire with more force than was necessary. Sparks flew up, glowing for a brief moment before the red orange burn out, unlike Pollard’s tempter. The man’s anger had been roaring like an open flame since they had found Dave Foreman and the boy that morning.

Jake moved closer to the fire, rubbing his arms to keep away the chill. Night had fallen faster than he had expected, making Jake thankful they had set camp up early in the small cave. “Because I say so, Pollard.” Jake kept his tone even. He knew what he was doing. He sneaked a narrow glare at Pollard. ‘He wouldn’t understand,’ Jake had decided. He would let the man know only what was necessary.

Hearing a soft cry from the back of the cave, Jake turned toward it. He grabbed a canteen laying a few feet from his feet hurried to the boy.

Kneeling down, a smile appeared on his face as he stroked the dark hair. Gently, he brushed a stray curl off his forehead. The boy moaned, barely more than a whisper.

“Shush now, boy. You’ll be just fine.” He gathered the boy in his arms, leaning the smaller frame against his body. “C’mon, boy. Just a bit for me, will ya?” He brought the open canteen to the boy’s lip, letting a few drops trickle down his throat.

The boy coughed, choking slightly on the water. His eyes fluttered open, searching around the room for something. He gave a soft groan of protest. His coughing seemed to jar his pounding head.

“Where am I?” he asked softly, trying to feign a tone of confidence in his voice. “Where’s my brother?”

“Hush now, boy.” Jake gave the boy a smile, settling him back down on the ground. “You’re gonna be fine. Just got a nasty bump on your head is all.” He closed the canteen and held it in his free hand.

The boy’s eyes narrowed. “No doubt you were the one to put it there.” He tried to bring his hand up to rub his temples, the way his Pa always did when he had a headache, hoping it would help. Instead, his hands were stopped short and he found both of his wrists bound together tightly in front of him. He glared at Deckland. “I won’t ask again. Where is my brother?”

Jake scowled back at the boy. “He ain’t here,” he said shortly. “Now you can just sit quiet or I’ll give you a reason to shut up.” He angrily threw down the canteen and stood. Turning on his heels without another look in the boy’s direction, he walked back to the fire to brood.

Adam found himself staring at the dusty floor. His head matched the numb feeling in the pit of his stomach. ‘Oh Hoss, where are you?’ He remembered telling the boy to stay put and naturally he knew Hoss had listened. From experience he knew his younger brother would stay there until he was told otherwise.

Adam closed his eyes, berating himself for the events beyond his control. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he mumbled quietly. “I didn’t mean to let you down.” He closed his eyes tight to keep his tears from falling before he fell into a restless sleep.

*****

Marie lightly pulled on the reins to bring her horse to a slow trot into the Foreman’s yard. Normally, she loved the ride from the Ponderosa to visit a neighbor. Now her thrill was subdued with her mind on her family, both those missing and present.

Her Ben had obviously been distant and distraught from the moment he found out about his son’s disappearance. What had upset Marie was the way he paced the cabin after dark that night. The helpless thoughts she could see racing through his mind. The questions he had asked. The most disturbing fact being the number of times the Foreman name had been brought up the previous night.

The next morning, as soon as light was visible on the horizon, Ben had ridden out with Todd, Charlie, and a few of the neighbors to continue the search. Ben Cartwright was determined not to come back until he had found his son, threatening to seek out whoever was responsible all the way to Hell and back if necessary. The look in his eyes had frightened Marie.

A few hours later, after seeing to the youngest Cartwrights, she left her boys in the care of Hop Sing and rode towards the Foreman Ranch with questions of her own dying to be answered.

Marie pulled on Lady’s reins again, pulling her to a stop. She sighed, adjusting the basket under her arm one last time before dismounting. She patted Lady’s neck and tied the reins to the hitching post. She shut her eyes in silent prayer before settling the basket on her arm and walking towards the farmhouse.

Caroline Foreman walked out the door to stand on the porch. Her youngest son quickly hid behind her skirt, his eyes peaking out curiously.

“Marie,” Caroline called, giving a slight smile. “I haven’t seen you since just after Little Joe was born.”

“Hello, dear,” Marie said, genuine sympathy in her tone. “I am sorry I had to come out under such circumstances. How are you doing?”

Caroline only shrugged her shoulders slightly in reply. As Marie came closer, walking up the steps, she noticed the red tint to her friend’s normally bright green eyes and her protruding belly.

Marie gathered Caroline into a hug. “Is there anything I can do?”

Caroline shook her head, unwinding herself from Marie’s arms. “No. But thank you. I appreciate the thought, but there isn’t anything even I can do. Would you come inside for a cup of coffee though? I could use the company.” She turned to the little boy, still behind her skirt. “Daniel, will you go find your brother and see if he needs any help stacking the firewood?” The five year old nodded before running off behind the house. Caroline turned and walked in the front door with Marie behind her.

“Have a seat.” Caroline motioned towards the kitchen table. Marie sat as Caroline rushed around the kitchen as fast as her condition would allow, gathering cups and setting the coffee to heat. “Have you heard anything about Adam?”

Marie’s eyes shifted to the ground as she shook her head sadly. “Ben is out looking with Todd and Charlie. A few other neighbors are helping as well, but so far nothing.”

Caroline sat in the chair next to Marie and placed her hand on Marie’s. “Don’t worry. Everything will turn out.”

Marie smiled gratefully and squeezed her friend’s hand. “What would I do without you, dear Caroline?”

She gave the closest expression she could that resembled a grin. “Cry perhaps?” Her face settled back into the near blank look, pain returning to her eyes.

“I brought you and the children some cookies and dinner things for the next few nights.” Marie changed the subject. “If I had known there was to be another Foreman, I could have added a blanket or booties for them. I had no idea! When are you due?”

“In only a few weeks. There has been so much going on here between the children, and Ray…” Caroline’s voice trailed off, a coldness finding its way into her eyes.

“Ray?” Marie narrowed her own eyes. “Isn’t he that hand that you and Dave let go a few months ago?”

Caroline nodded, wiping her eye with a slender finger. “Yes, he was. I swore Dave was going to kill him. Luckily he was arrested soon after he left.”

“Mon Dieu!” Marie’s hand rose to cover her mouth, attempting to hide her surprise. “What happened? I had not heard anything except that a few hands had caused trouble over here.”

“I- It’s nothing, Marie,” Caroline quickly supplied. “Ray and Dave had a disagreement is all.”

“Killing seems a little harsh for just a simple disagreement.”

“Oh, Marie,” Caroline laughed, a hint of falseness in it. “You know Dave. He always over-reacted to everything.” She quickly stood, busying herself with the coffee pot. She poured the two cups and replaced the pot slowly before returning to the table. Marie’s curiosity was piqued, but she had the distinct feeling that the subject was closed.

“Have you heard anything about that convict who is loose?” Marie asked her mind racing with questions.

Caroline focused her attention back to Marie. “N-not much, I must admit. But there is a man who’s been around the same areas, Deckland I think his name is. I’ve heard he’s insane.”

“Insane? What happened?”

Caroline seemed grateful for the conversation to steer away from her hired hands. She turned more to face Marie, her hands gripping tightly on her cup. “I’m not exactly sure. All I know is that a few years ago he lost his wife, and recently he just lost his son. Some sort of accident, I think. Nearly killed himself right then. He seemed to blame himself. I heard he went mad after that….”

Marie sat, her stomach churning with fear. The description of Deckland sounded familiar to another widower she knew.

After a few moments, Caroline raised a hand to her head. “Oh, dear. I’m sorry. I’m feeling awfully tired. Please excuse me. I think I’ll lay down a while.”

“I’ll see myself out, Caroline,” Marie rose to her feet. “Thank you for the coffee. If there is anything I can do…?”

“Don’t worry, Marie.” Caroline stood as well. “Concentrate on finding Adam first. I’ll be fine. I have the boys to watch over me. Goodbye, Marie.”

Marie smiled briefly before turning and leaving the kitchen. As she stepped down the porch, she couldn’t help but feel that her visit had only given her more questions than answers.

*****

Adam noticed the pain in his head had lessened as he woke again. His stomach still threatened to show his last meal, but overall he felt better.

He sat up cautiously, propping himself up with the rock wall behind him. The sun streamed in through an opening, making it hard to see his surroundings. He was in a cave; the dirt under his fingers confirmed that. Now the question that plagued his mind was where.

“Better, boy?” A gruff voice called. Adam looked up at the man, only seeing an outline of his body. He nodded slowly.

“Good.” The man gave a low, drawn out laugh. The sound of it made Adam flinch. “Doctorin’ ya up so’s we can kill ya. I like that.”

An alarm went off in Adam’s head. Or was it just his ears ringing? Either way, he could sense something wrong. A shiver ran up his spine with every word.

“Well, boy. Don’t ya worry. I’ll try and make it quick. Painless, I can’t guarantee. But I can assure ya is that it’ll be loads of fun fer me.” A dark smile appeared on his face. “Sleep tight, buddy. It may be the last rest ya get before that final long nap time, if’n I have my way.” He grinned, his face highlighted by the fading sunlight streaming into the mouth of the cave entrance. He gave one last dark chuckle before turning away from his hostage.

Adam felt himself press his body further back into the rock wall of the cave before it registered in his mind. He would do anything to get away from the man and the strange feelings that pervaded around him. He had to get out. He couldn’t take this man or his threats much longer.

*****

Ben glanced up at the sky. The color began to change over to the bright pink and purple of dusk. His head dropped in disappointment, his gaze fixed on the horn of his saddle. Another night of helplessness awaited him.

He looked around at the few men waiting for orders. Ben was leading this group of five men, the others leaving to tend to their own problems.

“We should break for the night, Ben.” Ike Stanford, the Sheriff of Marceville spoke. He trotted his horse alongside Ben’s. His tall frame made quiet movements, his expression filled with concern. He knew Ben Cartwright was making himself sick.

Ben turned his head slightly, his eyes sullen and torn. His words were braver than his face showed. “There’s still a trace of light. I’ve got to look. You guys stay here if you like; I’ve got to keep looking while there’s still a bit of light.”

“Ben!” Sheriff Stanford’s eyes narrowed. He stood from the waist up, trying to gain an edge with size and age against Ben’s faulty reasoning. “Don’t be a fool, son! If you don’t stop, we’re going to wind up looking for you and your boy. You’re going to hurt yourself if you keep this up. That won’t do Adam any good.”

Ben’s shoulders dropped. The Sheriff was right. He took one last glance at the quickly failing light before giving a slow nod. He swung his leg over his horse and touched his feet to the ground. Vaguely, he heard the Sheriff give the order to make camp for the night to his fellow posse members.

Ben quietly walked to where he could be seen by all of the men. Raising his hands, the riders paused in their movements. “I would like to thank you all for riding out here, but I have an announcement. I realize I’m keeping you from your families and your work and I don’t want to cause any trouble. I thank you for staying as long as you did. Anyone who wants to go home can pull out. I won’t think less of anyone who turns back, but I’m going to stay here as long as it takes to find my boy.”

Two of the men nodded. They agreed to head back at first light. They gave Ben their best wishes before turning to tend to their horses.

“Mr. Cartwright?” Todd spoke up. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to stay and keep searching. I just wouldn’t be the same around the ranch without your little bookworm. I’d feel better if I helped you find him.”

“Me too, Boss.” Charlie spoke. “Kinda attached to those young’uns of yours.”

“Me as well, Ben,” Ike said. A small smile appeared on his face. “Someone’s gotta keep an eye on you.”

Ben returned the Sheriff’s smile, more out of politeness than humor. “Thank you. I appreciate it. Tomorrow morning we’ll follow those tracks a bit more. I’m not giving up on Adam yet.”

*****

The sun had begun to set by the time Adam woke again. His head began to feel clearer and the ringing between his ears had ceased. He pushed his arms away from his body and contorted his back to give the muscles a stretch. He had never stayed in the same position for so long. He shifted to lean against the wall and look at his surroundings.

A man walked up, darkened by the fading light. The campfire silhouetted his frame as he stood before Adam.

“Hungry, boy?” It wasn’t the same man as before.

Adam shrugged, trying to hide his fear and unease with a calm facade.

Footsteps brought the man closer. He felt the weight of a plate placed in his lap. “Here, eat this.” The man shifted his feet and sat down directly in front of his prisoner.

Adam shook his head, scrunching his nose in disgust. His stomach began to churn at the thought of the food. The unidentifiable substance didn’t look very appetizing the first time around and he did not look forward to a second viewing.

“Ya gotta eat something, boy. Don’t want ya to get sick on us now, do we?” His tone was soft and caring, as if he was used to reasoning with children. Adam looked down at the plate before him. Carefully, he picked up the fork lying on the plate. He tried a cautious bite before his stomach began to rebel. He set the fork down and pushed the plate away.

“Got a name, boy?” the man asked his face still in the shadows.

Adam said nothing. He looked up at the man from under his eyebrows in his best attempt to look uninterested.

‘I said, ‘Got a name?'” He paused to give Adam time to not answer. “We can just keep calling you ‘boy’ if you prefer, but I think it would be nicer to know who we kidnapped.”

He looked down at the ground, shifting his feet. “Adam Cartwright,” he said softly.

“Well then, Adam Cartwright,” the man replied in a soft tone with a laugh. “You can be cooperative! I’m Jake Deckland. Pleased to meet you.”

“Where’s my brother?” Adam demanded, raising his eyes to meet his captor once again.

Jake rolled his eyes. “Aw, don’t tell me you’re back on that subject again! Was your brother the one who you were playin’ in the water with? Funny, you don’t look a lick like him. Don’t worry; as far as I can tell he was fine. I bet he’s home munchin’ on milk and cookies from your mama, Adam.”

Adam shifted his eyes back to the ground. Jake could almost see the thoughts running through the boy’s head. He let his own eyes fall, knowing how the worry the boy had locked inside felt.

“Don’t worry, boy. He’s fine. Why don’t you come on over to the fire and warm up. You look colder than a hunk of ice!” Adam said nothing as Jake gently grabbed his upper arm and raised him to his feet. He walked the boy closer to the campfire and sat him down on a log.

Jake tried to hand Adam the plate again. The boy shook his head as he swallowed down the nauseous feeling.

“Ain’t hungry yet, eh?” Jake asked, setting the plate on the ground. “I guess that’s okay. You can eat later. Right now, just concentrate on getting warm. Gets a bit chilly out here in the mountains, it does.”

Adam hugged his arms as close to his body as he could with his arms tied and brought his knees up to his chest. He hardly noticed as he began to rock slightly in the same rhythm of the rocking chair Pa always used to calm him when he was upset at home. The familiar motion brought a wave of comfort to the boy.

Jake took a bite out of his own plate. “Bet you wanna know what you’re doin’ here, huh?” He saw Adam look up from under his eyebrows, his interest piqued by the man’s words. “Truth is, I don’t rightly know!” Jake let out a small chuckle to himself. “Just seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Then why’d we keep ‘im?” A voice growled, hidden from across the campfire. A chill ran up Adam’s spine as he recognized the tone of voice. “Why don’t ya let me shoot ‘im now an’ get rid of him?”

“No!” Jake yelled, his eyes growing wide with anger. He took in a deep breath and after a pause, he seemed to calm. “No, just wait a bit. Okay, Pollard?” He spat out his partner’s name. After a moment of silence, he continued. “He’ll be of use. Just you wait an’ see. I’ll prove you wrong.”

Adam kept his mouth shut. The first meeting between himself and the one called Pollard was still fresh in his mind. ‘Besides,’ he thought to himself, ‘Pa would try and learn everything he could before he made a move if he were in my position.’

Jake looked at Adam, thoughtfully chewing on his supper. “Cartwright. That name sounds awfully familiar.” He swallowed before his eyes grew wide in recognition. “I know where I’ve heard that before! Ben Cartwright! He owns that spread near the Foreman place… the ‘Pond of Something,’ right, Pollard?”

Pollard stopped his arm halfway to shoveling food into his mouth. “The Ponderosa, ain’t it? I bet that’s Ol’ Man Cartwright’s whelp right there.”

Jake gave a laugh as he stared at Adam. “So you’re a Cartwright from that Ponderosa.” Jake’s eyes gleamed with a plan. “I’ve heard a lot about your Pa, boy. ‘Not even the ranch comes before my boys!'” Jake laughed at his impression.

Pollard gave a whoop, for once letting his gruff exterior fall. “Yer right, Jake! That boy is gonna come in handy! We can offer ‘im to his Pa for ransom… Then we can kill ‘im!”

Jake’s face fell slightly. That wasn’t what he had in mind at all. Feelings that had not been in his life for years resurfaced themselves. He saw the boy with a slightly different light than he had just a few moments ago.

“No, Pollard. Not that way. We can’t do that. You can’t even think of doing something so evil to a man. Not that.”

“But Jake!” Pollard rose and walked around the fire towards his partner. “Why not? Thinka how much we can get out of this! That Cartwright’ll do anythin’ to get his boy back. Anythin’! We can ask for the entire ranch and probably get it! Think of how profitable that brat could be!”

“Profit!” Jake roared, standing suddenly. Adam jumped at the sound of Jake’s quick coming rage. He tried to slink back into the shadows as far as possible. “Profit!” Jake yelled again. “Is that all you think of when you see this boy? Dollar signs! What about his father? How do you reckon you’d feel if someone took your son?”

Pollard’s joy crashed. “How would I feel?” He stalked over to Adam and roughly grabbed him by the hair, jerking his head back. “I’d be glad someone took the bastard offa my hands.” He threw Adam’s head forward as he released it. He stalked off towards the entrance to the cave. For a moment, he paused and looked over his shoulder. “Maybe it’s time ya saw it that way too, coward.”

Jake let his gaze drift to the glowing fire. After a long pause, he spoke, his voice coming out as a growl with more force than Adam had heard him use. “Better get some sleep, boy. No tellin’ what Pollard’ll do with you in the mornin’.”

Adam swallowed hard, his mind running in a thousand directions. He felt Jake grab his arm again, rougher than the last time. Jake shoved him toward his corner and he fell to the ground. Adam’s eyes followed his captor as he sat back down, his back to the boy.

Adam’s curious mind began running with questions. Mostly, he wondered why the subject of kidnapping fell so sensitively on the man. Or was it something deeper?

He banished the thoughts from his mind. The rift between the partners would be the perfect chance for him to escape. He looked down at his bound wrists in front of him. The bonds were a bit loose. He had tied Hoss tighter during their games of Cowboys and Indians. He felt confident he could loosen the knots enough. The question now would be if he could survive Pollard’s temper until the perfect opportunity arose.

*****

Normally, Marie would have given anything to hear the main room of the Ponderosa in perfect silence. She knew that with three boys, two of which still played in earnest, it was nearly impossible. Yet even with the aid of cookies and milk, both Hoss and Little Joe hadn’t uttered more than two words (or mumbles) a piece.

Marie sighed. Walking around to the doorway of the kitchen and peeking around the frame, she found Hoss curled up in a protective ball in his father’s favorite chair, staring at the fire with a brooding look. Little Joe seemed to sense his brother’s unease and quietly sat at Hoss’s feet, fiddling unhappily with his Noah’s Ark.

Putting a hand to her cheek, she turned back into the kitchen. She felt her green eyes burn with threatening tears. “Oh, Hop Sing!” She wiped at her eyes fiercely. “I do not know what to do! The boys are so lost! It is bad enough Adam is gone, oh how they miss him- But now their father is gone too! It is too much for ones so little!” Marie took a seat at the table, resisting the urge to drop her head helplessly in her hands.

“It alight, Missy Cartlight. No worries. Take breath and calm. That good.” Hop Sing moved around behind Marie’s chair.

“Oh, Hop Sing,” she said again. Her shoulders slumped forward, her entire spirit deflated. “I have to do something…. Cookies cannot work forever. And Ben will not be back until who knows when! Not until he finds Adam alive or…” Her voice choked on the words. She still had the superstitious belief that if she didn’t say it, then it wouldn’t come true. She silently berated herself for even thinking that way. “E-either way,” Marie stuttered, brushing at her eyes. “Either way he will not be home for what could become weeks! Oh, Hop Sing, I am frightened!”

“It be okay, Missy Cartlight.” He put his hand on her now heaving shoulders. Her head finally gave into her tears and fell into her arms. “Don’t worry. Mr. Ben go out. Look for Number One Son, yes? Because both need other. Maybe little boys and missy Cartlight need other just as much? Just to be there? That is reason for family, yes?”

Marie looked up at Hop Sing, his almond eyes motioning towards the main room. She gave a smile. “Hop Sing, what would we do without you?”

Hop Sing’s eyes lowered in mock anger. “Cartlight go hungry! You get out of Hop Sing kitchen!” He paused for a moment, letting his tone soften. “Go to little boys.”

Marie didn’t let the smile fall from her face. “I will give you the kitchen, Hop Sing, do not worry.” She stood and started for the door. Mid-stride she stopped and turned. She picked up a plate of cookies from the table. “Even if they will not work forever!” She gave one last smile before walking into the main room where her two youngest sons were sitting.

In the short time since Marie had last looked in on the two, Hoss had coaxed Little Joe into his lap, holding him in a tight hug. He rocked his body back and forth. Marie wasn’t sure if it was for his younger brother, or for himself.

“Now listen to me, Little Joe…” Hoss said as he fixed his eyes into his brother’s. “Now that Pa’s gone out to look for Older Brother, I’m in charge. That means ya gotta mind what I say, just like we have to for Adam. An…and, you don’t understand, I reckon, but Adam’s been tooken. And…and he might not come back.”

Little Joe’s eyes grew wide. “Addy?” he questioned quietly. His bottom lip began to tremble with the threat of tears.

“Hush, Little Joe! Don’t cry, Punkin.” Hoss rubbed his hand in circles on his brother’s back, just as Adam did for him when he was upset, though it wasn’t as smooth. “If’n he don’t come back, it ain’t ’cause he didn’t want ta. But you just gotta be ready, just in case. But I promise I’ll take good care of ya. You’re what Adam calls a ‘responatillity.’ That means you need my lookin’ after. And I aim to do that. Forever and always, Little Brother. Promise.”

Little Joe smiled, reassured by his brother’s soft words. He nuzzled his face in the crook of his brother’s arm, enjoying the attention.

Marie’s face glowed with pride. Everything would turn out right. She was sure of it. She walked into the room, holding the plate of treats with one hand. “Would you like some cookies, boys?” She set the plate down on the table in front of the chair. Carefully, she picked up Joe and a cookie for him, leaving the rest for Hoss.

The older boy grinned, taking a cookie in each hand. “Thank you, Mama.” He scooted around in the seat, leaving enough room for Marie to sit. Once settled, she hugged both of the boys close to her.

“Do not worry, Mes Petite Chou. Everything will be just fine. You will see.” They sat quietly for a few minutes. Save for the soft sounds of munching, the silence of only a few minutes before lost its oppressive qualities. After a few minutes Marie spoke. “How would you like to hear a story before bed?”

Hoss’s eyes lit up brighter than they had for the cookies. “Oh please, Mama! Would you?” Little Joe looked up at his mother, his eyes sparkling in hope. He had understood from an early age that a ‘story’ was a good thing, unlike ‘bath’ or ‘nap’.

Marie smiled before she began describing a beautiful castle where a Prince waited for a Princess to pass the sensitivity test created by his mother, where the girl must feel a pea under twenty mattresses.

By the time the Princess and Prince lived happily ever, after Little Joe was fast asleep and Hoss’ eyes were closing sleepily. She gently got Hoss to his feet and herded the boy up the stairs with Joe in her arms. She quickly settled her youngest, tucking the blankets around his chin.

She kissed his forehead, brushing the curls off his face.

Next she walked to Hoss’s room, ready to tuck him in as well. She entered the room just as Hoss was climbing up from his knees from his prayers and into bed.

“Goodnight, Hoss.” She bid Hoss goodnight the same way she had to the baby with a kiss on the forehead. “I will see you in the morning. I wish you sweet dreams, my love.”

“Mama….” Hoss said, his face set with his eyebrows narrowed and his nose scrunched up, just as it always did when he had a difficult question to think about. “We’re you tellin’ the truth when you said everything would be alright, or were you just sayin’ that so’s not to scare me an’ Little Joe?”

Marie swallowed, afraid to answer. She didn’t want to insult the growing boy’s adulthood, even if he was only six. “A little bit of both, Hoss.” She sat on the edge of the bed, running her fingers through the boy’s hair. “I know that we may not get exactly what we want, but from the talk you had with Joseph, I know that we will survive together, no matter what.”

Hoss narrowed his eyes, this time in thought. After a moment, he gave a soft smile. “Yeah, Mama. Don’t worry. Everything’ll turn out.”

Marie beamed. “Goodnight, Hoss. Sleep well.” Hoss snuggled under the covers, almost immediately falling asleep.

Marie stood from her seat cautiously, keeping her eyes on the boy for a few moments. With a content sigh she walked out of the room.

*****

He felt the horse more than he saw it as it reared, throwing him off the animal and onto the ground. He landed hard on his back, pain racing up his spine. The figure of someone came up to the storming beast, reaching out to calm him. The horse’s nostrils flared, his eyes dancing wildly with fright. The horse jumped up on his hind legs again. Within seconds, the world came crashing down with the horse’s front hooves.

He woke with a start, sweat soaking his clothes. He sat upright, trying to readjust his bearings. In moments, the past few days came flooding in. The shooting, the kidnapping, everything came back.

He reached up and rubbed his eyes. He sucked in a breath to try to clear his mind. He wasn’t very eager to return to the time of his dream. The day still haunted him. The copper smell of blood in the air, the sound of screams piercing his ears, how he wished to forget it all.

Jake shook the thoughts out of his head. Knowing sleep would never come now, nor wishing it would, he shucked off his blanket and stood. He picked up a few spare pieces of kindling and began to stoke the fire. He lost his train of thought as he found himself staring at the sleeping Cartwright boy. He was curled up with his back against the wall, his hands still bound tightly in front of him. The rhythmic rising and falling of his chest indicated sleep. He saw the boy shiver slightly, not waking.

Jake grabbed his own blanket and laid it over the boy. He knelt down, brushing a stray lock of raven hair out of his eyes. Out of habit, he placed his palm on the boy’s forehead. His stomach flipped slightly with paternal fright as he detected slight warmth. He tucked the blanket a bit tighter around the boy, wishing away any illness that might be present in his body.

Jake heard the boy mutter something as his eyelashes began to flutter. The eyes opened and looked up, eyebrows knitted in confusion.

“I-I’m sorry, Adam. Didn’t mean to wake you.” He dropped his gaze to the ground, avoiding the child’s eyes.

Adam brought his arms closer to his body, rubbing warmth back into his skin as best as he could. ‘S’okay,” he mumbled. He pulled the blanket higher up to his chin, snuggling up for sleep. “What are you doing awake?”

“You… looked kinda cold,” Jake said feebly. He stood from his knees and started back towards his bedroll.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” Adam said. He shifted his position to lie on his side facing Deckland, propping himself up on one elbow. He knew in his mind he was pressing his luck, but he gambled, keeping his voice and gaze even.

“It was nothing, boy. Just couldn’t sleep is all.” Deckland sat facing the fire. He threw a couple sticks in and stirred up the flames.

“Sometimes,” Adam said, “my brother can’t sleep. That’s when we crawl into bed and I read some of my books to him. Hoss doesn’t always understand what I’m reading, but it makes him feel better.”

“Sorry, boy. Don’t seem to have a book on me.” Jake gave a small smile, but kept his eyes focused on the flickering campfire.

“Doesn’t have to be a book,” Adam said as he slightly shrugged his shoulders. “Talking works when I’m too tired or it’s too dark to read. I think it’s the time that we spend together that settles him.”

“You really do care ‘bout that brother of yours, don’t you?” Jake asked, finally turning his face towards Adam.

“Yessir.” Adam nodded. “Both of ’em. Hoss could make friends with anyone. ‘Course, Joe — Little Joe we call him — he’s only a baby, and he always seems to get himself into ‘mischief’ as Pa calls it, but he’s still my brother.”

Jake nodded. “Yeah. No matter what you do, they’re your family.”

Adam cocked his head slightly. His inquisitive nature began to think up questions for his captor. He sucked in a deep breath before seeing how much he could get out of his captor. “Do you have a family, Mr. Deckland?”

Jake brought his knees defensively up to his chest and turned his eyes back to the fire. He took his long stick, now blackened with soot and charred wood and poked the logs of the fire. “No. Not anymore.”

“Not anymore?” Adam asked, his voice laced with questions. “You must have at one point then, huh?”

Adam saw the sadness well up in Deckland’s eyes. The man nodded slowly, not taking his eyes from the flickering light of the fire. “Yes. I did once.

“You see, I was married to a wonderful woman. Rebecca was her name. Oh, she was wonderful. With eyes as blue as the summer sky and a loving heart that could even rival the size of your Ponderosa. She was my life from the moment I saw her. We were married and a year later we were blessed with a son. Scott looked so like his mother. Such a good boy.

“We lived in a small town north of New York. It was a quiet life, much like it is here, but not as untamed. That’s what I loved about that spot. The clumps of forests and the clear stream waters. Some of the more refined city people believed our spot of heaven was so far back in the woods that we had to pump in the sunshine, but all of us we all loved it.

“When Scott was about five or so there was an epidemic of cholera in the area. All of our neighbors caught it, as did many of the people in town. Rebecca volunteered to help the doctor tending to patients, and they saved a good many lives. But soon, she caught it herself. She never recovered.”

Adam let his gaze fall. He knew how loss felt, and he almost wished that he wouldn’t have brought it up. He heard Deckland clear his throat and continue with his voice slightly hoarse. “Scott and I… We moved on. I began working as a farm hand at any ranch I could find. It was the only thing I really knew how to do, and I had to get away from the memories that surrounded our little farm. So we packed up and headed west. I went from house to house as a migrant worker. As soon as Scott was old enough, he helped me. Soon, when he was about your age, he began to help as a regular worker like myself. We’d round up, brand, milk, break, you name it.

“Finally, everything was starting to return to normal in our lives. We had regular jobs and I had almost earned enough to buy ourselves a little spread out in Oregon or California. We were at one of the ranches, breaking a few horses. It was the last job of the day. I knew we should have left that horse for the next morning, but she was the last one. We all wanted to move onto the next chore. We set her up in the corral and I got on her back, carefully as not to scare the poor thing. As soon as we set her loose, she began to buck, but I held her back. After a few minutes of wrestling with the reins, I felt her begin to settle. That’s where I made my mistake.

“I let the reins loosen a bit so’s not to hurt her or scare her. The owners wanted a gentle horse to do their bidding, not a cantankerous stubborn mule. But I let loose a little too much. That animal took advantage of the slack in her reins and reared. She raised her front legs in the air and before I realized what had happened, I was on the ground. I saw Scott out of the corner of my eye move toward the horse, and I tried to make him move, to get out of the way. The stubborn fool wouldn’t listen. He was trying to save me. He knew the hooves would get to me before I could stand. Instead, the horse frightened even more from the people running around and raised her front legs again. She trampled my boy to death. There was nothing they could do.”

His voice trailed off, lost to his suppressed memories and unpleasant past experiences. Adam remained silent, letting the story wash over his thoughts. He couldn’t help but feel a surge of pity for his captor and all of his tribulations over the years. He shifted to sit with his back against the wall of the cave. As soon as he rested his back against the rock, he jumped away with a muffled yelp. A protruding rock had dug his way sharply into his back. He narrowed his eyebrows in annoyance at the disturbance for a moment before an idea found its way into his mind.

Letting the rock go to the back of his mind, Adam shifted against the wall as Jake began to speak again.

“It’s been three years since my boy died and the pain still feels as fresh as if my wound hasn’t had time to scab over yet.”

“I know how you feel, Mr. Deckland. My Pa went through the same thing. Well, he lost two wives. And I lost two mothers. But both times my Pa picked himself up and adjusted. It’s lucky for him he did or I wouldn’t have any brother’s at home “munchin’ milk and cookies” like you said.”

“I don’t know, boy. I feel like I’m in a deep pit with no way out, or light to show me the way. I’m lost.”

“You said that things began to return to normal after your wife died, right?” He saw Jake’s nod and continued. “That’s what happened to Pa. After a while, he found his heart had room for more people than my mother and also for Mama Inger. It never heals completely, I know that much, but the hurt becomes tolerable after a while.”

Jake’s eyes returned to the flames. “I just wish I knew a way to make it more tolerable now.”

Adam locked his eyes on Deckland until he looked up. “It took Pa six years to overcome his loss and finally return to normal. Compared to a life of bitterness, that’s not such a long time.”

Both remained silent for a time, thinking about the words said on both parts. Jake was amazed by the wisdom that the boy had. He imagined that boy had been though a lot in his short life and had so much more to endure. But he had the strange feeling that the boy would be able to handle anything God sent his way to test him.

“Six years, you said?” Jake finally spoke. After Adam’s nod, he gave a stifled laugh. “I’m halfway there then. It’s been three. Scott would have been nineteen this year. Thinkin’ of school in California, he was. That was his dream. That’s what his share of the wages was going towards. Did you ever think of going to a University?”

Adam nodded. “I’ve always liked school. Most of what I know I learned from my Pa or from the books we’ve picked up over the years, but I would love to go to an actual college or school someday.”

“Promise me something, boy.” Jake poked a stick in the fire before turning to Adam. “Promise me you’ll do it. Don’t let anything stop you. Get ahead in this world and learn everything you can. Promise me you’ll not only do it for me, but for yourself.”

Adam nodded. “I promise, Mr. Deckland.”

Jake’s eyes smiled with a teasing gleam. “It’s getting late, Adam. Don’t you think you should be asleep by now?”

“Probably,” Adam agreed. He could feel his eyes growing heavy, and no doubt Jake saw fatigue taking over his body.

“Why don’t you lay back?” Deckland suggested. Adam nodded and settled himself on his side once more, snuggling up with the blanket. Deckland covered the boy’s shoulders and rested a hand on his arm for a moment. “Goodnight, Adam.”

“’Night, Mr. Deckland.” he answered through a yawn. His mind had finally ceased asking questions for the night and released his body to sleep.

After a moment kneeling by Adam’s side, Jake sighed. There were too many memories controlling his thoughts. He only wished to forget. He gave the blanket one last tuck around the boy’s shoulders before turning to the fire to wait for a sleep that would never come.

*****

Ben stretched his arms as the early morning sun was rising. The flames from their campfire had gone down in the night, neglected to Ben’s thoughts. He stood and gathered bits of breakfast necessities as the rest of the men in camp began to stir.

Ike walked up, placing a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “How about the four of us splitting up? We’ll cover more ground that way if we travel in pairs. I’ll send Todd and Charlie over towards the Southern Ridge.”

Ben looked up and nodded at Sheriff Stanford, wishing to get on with the search. He felt something in the pit of his stomach that it was to be today or never. He needed to find Adam.

The camp was silent as the men packed up their gear. The few who were heading back left with a wave and a promise to send a message to the Deputy in town and Marie Cartwright on the whereabouts of the posse. After breakfast, the two hands headed off in search of tracks, leaving Ben and Sheriff Stanford.

The horses trotted on for what seemed like hours while their riders searched the ground for any signs. The sun had almost reached the halfway point in the sky and they had only found bits and pieces of horse tracks, nothing concrete.

“Ben?” Stanford asked. He stopped his horse for a moment and waited for Ben to do the same. “Now… Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” He paused for a moment to swallow. “It’s nearly been three days and…”

Ben turned his head abruptly to look Stanford in the eyes. “Don’t even think that. I’m going to find my son.”

“Ben, who knows where those no good kidnappers have gotten by now. Adam might even be dea-”

“Stop!” Ben roared. His brows narrowed and his eyes darkened. A burning flame of fury seethed from his soul and flickered in his stance. His voice lowered to a deadly quiet whisper. “My son is still alive. And I will find him. I’ll find him or I’ll spend the rest of my life hunting down the men who stole him from me.”

Ben quickly jerked on his horse’s reins and set Buck into a run away from the Sheriff and the possible reality that he did not want to face.

Ben rode out of sight distance of the Sheriff before he pulled Buck to a halt. His thoughts turned to his son, mirrored with anger and an unwillingness to believe that too much time had passed. Nothing else mattered to Ben at that moment. He had to find Adam.

After the rage simmered down in his head, Ben looked around to get his bearings. They had traveled a good distance off the Ponderosa by that time. The bushes and trees in the area were spread out far, but still plentiful.

Ben turned his eyes to the ground, searching for any sign of a traveler that had come through. With a desperate sigh, he closed his eyes in a brief moment of prayer, almost as if willing a sign to appear.

After his moment, he opened his eyes. He gazed around the surrounding area, looking for any clue that could lead to his son. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw it.

The branches on the small bush were bent just barely, but still too awkwardly to be natural. Ben lunged off of Buck and knelt down to closely examine the ground. There it was, almost undetectable to even the trained eye. Hoof prints. Ben’s heart leaped into his throat when he saw they matched the prints near the fishing hole.

Ben swallowed hard, disbelief racing through his mind. He gave a look to the Heavens, his eyes glistening with wet tears. “Thank you.”

He stood quickly, gathering Buck’s reins. “Sheriff!” he called. He hurried into his saddle, eager to follow the horse trail. “Sheriff, come quick!”

Within minutes the Ike arrived and Ben pointed out the tracks. Agreeing after a few minutes of discussion, Ben headed off the follow the tracks while the Sheriff doubled back to find the two hands.

*****

Adam woke in the early hours of the next morning with shivers running through his body from the cold. He looked down at the blanket in confusion for a moment before he remembered the conversation with Mr. Deckland the night before. Looking over, Adam saw that Pollard and Deckland were both sleeping with their backs to their prisoner, close to the now dying fire. Adam sat in silence, curled up on his side. He didn’t dare move, afraid to make a sound and accidentally wake Pollard’s wrath.

By mid-morning Pollard began to stir. Adam quickly closed his eyes, feigning sleep. Yet from the sound of his shuffling, Pollard didn’t seem to care about anything. Adam heard him give a loud, yawning stretch before his footsteps began to fade outside the cave.

Adam first peeked with one eye and then the other, making sure the man had indeed left. His mind began to race. This was the chance he had been waiting for.

Adam shifted to face the wall where he had bumped into the pointing out rock the night before. He reached his arms forward, just enough to saw at his ropes. His arms began to ache from the strain within a few minutes, but he kept the motion going. He had to escape. After what seemed like an eternity, especially while keeping and eye out for signs from Pollard or still sleeping Deckland, the ropes gave way with a loud snap.

Adam hugged his wrists to his chest, attempting to dull the sound. He heard Deckland mumble something before shifting slightly and settling back without waking up. Adam stood cautiously, pressing himself against the wall. Holding his breath and crossing his fingers, he walked past Deckland, watching each carefully placed step.

He poked his head out of the mouth of the cave, searching for any sign of Pollard. Right then, he wished he had a gun, or at least a rifle, even if they were a bit too bulky for his liking. He came out the rest of the way, still searching the surrounding area. Pollard was nowhere to be seen.

Adam ran. He took off in the first direction away from the cave, not fully knowing exactly where he was. He thought he would stop when he was fully out of range and then figure out where to head.

Suddenly, he felt an arm wrap around his neck. He jerked to a stop, trying to rid himself of the choking feeling around his throat. His hands automatically reached up, clawing at the offending arm as Adam kicked and squirmed like Little Joe when he threw a tantrum.

“What do ya think yer doin’ out here all alone, boy?” Pollard growled. “Ya know– Ain’t safe for a feller like ya in the wilderness. Someone could get hurt.”

Adam felt the cold metal of Pollard’s gun press into his side. He immediately froze his movements.

“What’s the matter? Ain’t comfortable enough for ya in there, is it?” Pollard let out a drawn laugh as his grip grew tighter. “Don’t worry, boy. I can fix that. Yessir, I can fix that real good.”

Pollard grabbed Adam roughly by his arm and threw him against a wall of rock. The air rushed out of his lungs, leaving Adam gasping for breaths. He sunk to the ground, hugging his knees to his chest.

“Not so smart now, are ya boy?” Pollard set himself in front of Adam, looking down at the boy with hate and annoyance.

Adam tried to move out of Pollard’s way. His head was beginning to swim with that sickening feeling that had become so familiar over the past few days. He crawled forward on his hands, hoping to get away.

An evil gleam worked its way into Pollard’s eye. He stepped closer to the boy, kicking out at him and catching him in the ribs. Adam fell to the ground flat on his stomach. Again, he aimed at the boy’s ribs and caused him to rise off the ground.

Adam unwound himself from his fetal position on the ground and tried to stand again, listening to the adrenaline that screamed in his veins. He had to escape. His primal instincts pulsed through his body, begging for him to run.

Pollard watched as Adam scrambled to crawl away. His fist clenched in anger, he dove at Adam, his hands moving to grip tightly around the boy’s throat.

He tried to get out from under the man, his weight to insignificant compared to Pollard’s. The boy still thrashed and kicked his legs, trying to loosen the man’s grip. His companion of darkness closing in on him again.

Before consciousness ceased in the boy, a shot sounded from a few feet away. The hands around his neck loosened. Quickly, Adam moved back, huddling into the rock. He let out a hacking cough, trying to take in the precious air around him.

“Don’t move!” A voice yelled. The click of a gun hammer sounded. “I’m warning you.”

Pollard let a growl escape his throat. He began to move his hand slowly to his gun.

Adam scanned the horizon looking for the shooter. He recognized the voice. He knew those deep tones anywhere. Focusing his attention, he searched in his immediate area. His thoughts screamed for him to escape. Then, off to the side, he saw a good sized boulder within sprinting distance. In his mind, he began to form a plan.

“Let the boy go, right now,” Ben Cartwright warned his voice deadly.

“Mr. Cartwright.” Pollard laughed as he looked for the man he was addressing. “Long time no see.”

“Pollard?” Adam could hear the pause in his father’s voice. “Ray Pollard is that you? I heard rumors, but I didn’t believe it.”

“Good thing ya aren’t a bettin’ men then, ain’t it, Cartwright?” Pollard looked up at the pile of rocks where Ben stood. He had his back to Adam. “I take it you’re here to fetch yer boy. Pity. We were just having some fun.” Pollard moved his hand closer to his gun, ready to draw.

Then, Adam jumped up, ignoring the swimming in his head. With as much force as he could manage, he threw his shoulder into the back of Pollard’s legs, sending him to the ground. The boy dashed off to the boulder, with Pollard sputtering curse words and aiming his gun at Adam.

Ben dove off the rocks on which he was standing on and crashed his own weight into Pollard. The two men fell to the ground. For a few moments they rolled around, aiming fists into each other. Ben unwound himself and stood, picking Pollard up by his clothes. He aimed his fists into his face and sent the kidnapper back down to the ground.

Pollard’s eyes glowed with rage. He kept his gaze focused on Ben, as he threw a handful of dirt in his opponent’s face. Ben raised his arms to protect his eyes, but Pollard threw a punch into Ben’s unprotected stomach. When he tried for another, Ben grabbed Pollard’s fist with one hand and threw a punch of his own with the other. Two more hard punches followed and Pollard fell to the ground.

“What did you want with my boy?” Ben asked, his question coming deep from his throat, practically daring Pollard to do something stupid. He stood over Pollard, his stance demanding answers.

“Me?” Pollard laughed, propping himself up on his knees. “I wanted to kill ‘im. Deckland was the one who wanted to keep ‘im. Don’t see why though. Just a useless scamp.”

Ben narrowed his eyes. “That ‘useless scamp,'” Ben spat, “is my son.” He held his hand, resisting the urge to backhand the man. “Tell me, who’s this Deckland?”

Pollard laughed, giving Ben an unnerving chill through his body. “Maybe you should ask ‘im.” Pollard launched himself at Ben’s legs, pulling him to the ground. They wrestled around again, Pollard throwing quite a number of aimed fists at Ben.

Pollard worked his hands up to Ben’s neck. Ben took the palms of his own hands and pushed on Pollard’s jaw, trying to get away. After agonizing minutes on Ben’s part, he finally pushed Pollard off.

“Hold it!” A voice called from above. Both Pollard and Ben looked up and found Deckland aiming a gun towards them. “Don’t move, Pollard. I’ve had enough! Let him go.”

Pollard just grinned, finding the entire situation amusing. “What are ya going to do, Jake? Kill me?”

Deckland swallowed hard. “If I have to. Now move away.”

Pollard moved his hand closer to his gun holster. “As ya wish, yer Majesty.” Quickly Pollard drew his gun and cocked it. But Deckland was faster and as Pollard was aiming, he pulled the trigger.

After the loud crack from the gun, there was a moment where no one moved or even dared to breathe. Suddenly, Pollard fell to the ground, clutching the wound in his chest. “Yer gonna regret that, Deckland.” Pollard choked out his final words before falling to the ground. Within seconds, he was dead.

Ben stood slowly from his place on the ground where he had taken cover. He glanced over at Pollard’s body, feeling a pang of regret. He looked up at Jake, almost wondering if he were next. Without moving his body, he searched the area to where he had seen Adam run to out of the corner of his eye.

“Go on, Cartwright.” Jake nodded with his head in the direction of Adam’s hiding place. “Your boy’s over there.”

Immediately, Ben focused his attention on Adam and ran to the boulder where he lay. He knelt on the ground, putting his hands on the boy to unconsciously reassure himself that he was really there.

“Hiya, Pa.” Adam gave a small grin. His voice sounded weak and slightly hoarse, even to the relieved father. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Adam, are you alright?” Ben brushed dark bangs off his son’s forehead. His eyes searched over his boy, “Are you hurt?”

Adam moved stiffly, hissing through his teeth. “Bit sore, Pa. But I’m alright. Don’t you remember? Only way to hurt me is to kill me.”

‘He nearly did just that, don’t you remember?’ His father thought bitterly for a moment but the sparkle in Adam’s eyes caused Ben’s concern to melt into a grin. If his son was being wise, there was nothing to worry about. “Do you think you can ride, son?” Adam nodded slightly, eager to return home. Ben gently lifted his oldest boy up, supporting his back and under his knees.

Adam gave into his usual protesting and leaned his head on Ben’s shoulder. He closed his eyes, letting the smell of Pipe smoke, horses, and a bit of Bay Rum fill his nostrils. It was the familiar mix of scents he had come to recognize as safety. He breathed in a lung full of slightly Pa scented air, happy to be leaving everything to someone familiar.

From behind him, Ben heard the sound of approaching horses. The Sheriff had arrived with Todd and Charlie. All three had their guns trained on Jake.

“Alright now,” Sheriff William’s spoke. He steadied his horse, keeping his rifle aimed. “Nice and easy. Come on down here.”

Jake holstered his pistol. The men watched with surprise as the man walked down peacefully.

As Jake reached where the horses stood, the Sheriff dismounted and walked to the man. “I’m placing you under arrest for the kidnapping of Adam Cartwright. You’re going to have to come back to Marceville with me.”

Jake looked down at the ground with a slight nod. The Sheriff grabbed his arm to lead him away, and Jake followed. When they came to where Ben stood with Adam, he stopped.

“That’s one brave little man you’ve got there,” Jake said, his features smiling. “You should be proud of him.”

Adam opened his eyes and gave his former captor a smile in return. “You’re a brave man yourself, Mr. Deckland. I bet your son is proud of you.”

Jake’s eyes teared slightly. He shifted his eyes to the ground, slightly embarrassed before directing his gaze into the Cartwright boy’s. “Thank you, Adam,” he whispered. The Sheriff gave a tug on Jake’s arm and they walked off.

Ben looked down at his son, a question in his eyes. Adam just smiled back. “Tell you later, Pa.”

Turning his attention away and tucking the promise to the back of his mind for later, Ben looked up at the two hands, still mounted on their horses. “Charlie, would you ride in with Sheriff Williams, just in case?”

“Sure, Boss.” He nodded and steered his horse toward the Sheriff, who was now setting Deckland on a mount and gathering his own reins.

“Todd,” Ben continued. “I need you to ride back to town a fetch the Doctor. Tell him to meet us at the house. We should be there by the time he is.

“Oh, Pa!” Adam protested softly. “I’m fine. I don’t need a doctor.”

“Adam, I don’t think you’re in any condition to be protesting medical treatment.” Ben glared at Adam, his tone warning the boy not to push the issue. “Go on, Todd.”

“Yessir, Mr. Cartwright.” Todd guided his horse around and took off towards Marceville at a slightly faster pace then the Sheriff and his party.

Soon, Ben and Adam stood alone in the small clearing. Ben looked down at his son. “Alright, I’m going to set you on your feet so I can set you in the saddle…that is, unless you want to do it yourself being that you’re ‘fine’?”

Adam gave a sheepish grin. “Maybe a boost wouldn’t be a bad idea, huh Pa?”

Ben rolled his eyes slightly. What was it with his sons and doctors? With a laugh to himself, he set the boy on the ground as close to Buck as possible before helping one foot into the stirrup. Carefully, Adam swung his other leg around the horse with Ben supporting him.

After Adam was settled, Ben slipped up behind him. He leaned the boy back slightly against his body to keep him steady. Nudging Buck slightly into a gentle pace, he headed for home going as fast as he dared to keep from hurting Adam further. For a moment, Ben basked in the feelings pervading around him, comforted by the presence of his son.

“So.” Ben broke the silence. “What was that exchange between you and Deckland about?”

“Hmm?” Adam questioned, opening his eyes. “Oh! Earlier Mr. Deckland and I were talking about himself.”

Ben looked down with a quizzical expression. “Talking? It seems strange to chat with your kidnapper, doesn’t it?”

“It’s not like that, Pa.” Adam supplied quickly, noticing the skeptical eyebrow in his father’s voice. He settled himself as comfortably as he could on the horse without jarring his injuries. “We both kinda woke up in the middle of the night. Made us both feel better to talk. You know, like Hoss and I do sometimes.” Adam began to retell his Pa the story that Deckland had just told him

*****

By riding through the night with only a few stops for water and riding breaks, Ben and Adam made it back to the Ponderosa just before night fall the next day. Doctor Tyler’s buggy was already waiting in the yard.

As soon as Ben rode in the yard, the front door burst open. “Adam!” Hoss yelled, running out of the house. “Pa!”

“Hoss! Stop right there!” Marie yelled from inside the house. The eager Hoss gave an apologetic look to his mother before turning back, waiting on his tip-toes at the very edge of the porch.

Ben pulled Buck to a stop before dismounting. As carefully as he could, but not without a yelp from Adam, he helped his son to the ground and lifted him up once again. He hurried the boy into the house and up the stairs to his room. Doctor Tyler followed with Hoss starting at his heels.

“Hoss, why not stay down here with me, no?” Marie gently grabbed the boy’s arm.

Hoss looked back at his Mother, his eyes scrunched up in a confused expression. “Why can’t I go up an’ see Adam, Mama?”

“Because the Doctor needs to make sure he is well first. Then we can go see him, alright?”

Hoss looked down at his booted feet. He nodded without looking up as he walked back down the stairs.

Thinking of a way to distract the distraught boy, Marie grabbed Hoss’s hand and led him to the couch. “Why don’t we read a story? I bet Little Joe would like to hear one, do you?”

Hoss nodded. “I would too! I’ll get him from the kitchen!” The boy hurried off to fetch his younger brother.

Marie gave a grateful sigh. Everything was going to be fine.

*****

Nearly an hour later, Ben and Doctor Tyler descended the steps to where Marie, Hoss and now sleeping Little Joe were waiting. Hoss sprung up from his seat snuggled up against Marie and ran to the bottom to the stairs.

“Pa!” Hoss exclaimed. “How’s Adam?”

Ben chuckled as he walked down the few remaining steps. “What, no ‘Hi, Pa’?” He picked up his middle boy, hugging him tight and giving him a kiss on the forehead.

“Oh, yeah. Hi, Pa!” Hoss said quickly. “How’s Adam?”

Marie walked over to the staircase with Little Joe in her arms. ‘Hello, Mon Amour.” She gave her husband a kiss. “How is Adam? I would like to know also. It cannot be life threatening if you are out here instead of with him.”

Ben gave a grin. “He’s going to be fine with a few days in bed. Aside from some cuts and bruises, the worst of it is a few busted ribs, and a slight concussion. Doctor Tyler gave him some medicine and he’s sleeping it off.”

Marie gasped. “Sacre Bleu! Broken ribs! Oh, la la… that is terrible!”

“Well, it’s not great, I admit. But his ribs’ll heal easier than a broken leg or neck would.” Ben turned to Doctor Tyler. “Thank you again, Doc. I really appreciate you coming out here.”

“No problem, Ben. I didn’t have any plans for tonight anyway,” he said with a wink. “Besides, if it means dinner from Marie and Hop Sing, your boys could do this to me every night.”

Ben skeptically lowered his eyebrows. “Maybe you but I forbid it! I’m tempted to lock them all in their rooms for the rest of their lives as it is.”

Tyler laughed. “Knowing you, you would! Well, I’ll be back in a few days to check on Adam’s bandages. Don’t worry, I’ll see myself out. Goodnight.” He replaced his hat and walked out the door.

Ben turned back to Marie as he set Hoss back down on the floor. “I came down to put Buck away and get myself a cup of coffee.” He started for the door.

“Todd put your horse away already, Ben,” Marie said.

Ben stopped and shrugged. “Then I’ll get my coffee. Or has Todd brought that up for me, too?” Ben laughed as he started for the kitchen.

“No, my darling. You will have to get that yourself.” Marie tried to hide her amusement. She felt her heart soar with her husband’s playfulness. All traces of despair that had plagued him the last time she saw him were gone.

As Ben came out with a mug, Hoss hurried up to him. “Can I see Adam now?”

“He’s sleeping right now, son.” Ben saw the boy’s face fall. Quickly, he thought and added “But if you’re quiet, you can come up and sit with him and me.”

Hoss put a finger to his lips. “Not a peep, I promise.” He nodded sincerely.

Ben smiled. “Alright. Let’s go up.” Together, father and son walked up the stairs to Adam’s room.

*****

Adam woke with the feeling of sunlight streaming in on his face. He stretched his arms slightly and opened his eyes. He tried to suck in a deep breath through his nose, but only succeeded in making his chest feel tight and sore. Noticing his father sleeping in the rocking chair by his bed, he smiled. ‘It never fails.’ He thought with a laugh. He furrowed his brow slightly in confusion before he recognized the sleeping figure curled up in his Pa’s lap as Hoss.

Adam noticed slight movement from his little brother as he began to wake. The boy stretched his arms and legs, then rubbed his eyes with his fists and gave a loud yawn.

“Careful, Hoss. You’ll wake the entire territory like that!” Adam kidded softly. He gave Hoss’s wide eyed expression a cheeky grin.

“Adam!” Hoss exclaimed. He practically jumped the short distance from Ben’s lap to Adam’s bed and automatically wound his arms around his brother’s neck. “Adam! You’re awake!”

In answer, Adam squeaked, “Ah! Not so hard! My ribs are still a bit sore, brother.”

“Oops.” Hoss moved away from Adam’s chest but remained perched on the edge of his bed. “Sorry, Adam. I didn’t mean it. Honest!” He crossed his heart with his finger and nodded with his eyes wide and sincere. “Are you okay?”

Adam shrugged but gave a smile. “Eh, been better, brother. But I’m alright. Could you hand me that glass of water on my nightstand?”

Hoss gave a nod and reached for the glass Adam pointed to. In eagerness to help him, he nearly gave his brother a bath with the contents. Quickly, Adam grabbed the glass from his hands before too much damage was done. He took a few long sips. “Thanks.”

“I’m glad you’re home, Adam. Its hard bein’ the Older Brother. I tried to be good to Little Joe like you always was to me.”

“Were.” Adam corrected. “And always will be, don’t you forget.”

Hoss shook his head. “I won’t. I promise. But… Little Joe didn’t seem to take to my bein’ older all that well.”

Adam couldn’t hold his laughter. “Ooo! Don’t make me laugh, Hoss! It hurts too much!” He held his ribs for a moment until his laughing fit subsided before he continued. “I don’t think he’s gonna take to authority all that well.”

Hoss gave a grin. “That’s for sure!” Hoss grew quiet after a moment, his happiness fading into a more serious expression.

“Adam?” Hoss shifted on the bed to be closer to his brother but was careful not to bump his brother’s ribs again. “Know how you just make me promise to not forget that you’re my older brother and all?” He waited for Adam’s nod. “Well… Will you promise me that you won’t forget that me and Little Joe are your little brothers and you’ll always be there when we need you?”

Adam brought Hoss closer to him, carefully wrapping his arm around his shoulders. “I don’t know about always, but how about this. I promise to be there as much as humanly possible for both you and Little Joe for as long as we’re all brothers.”

Hoss gave his older brother a confused look. “But Adam… We’re always gonna be brothers, ain’t we?”

Adam grinned. “Always, Hoss. Always.”

Hoss’s grin returned. “I like that, Adam. I like that a lot.” He paused to think for a moment. Adam could see a cleaver retort forming in his mind by the look in his eye. “Now if only we could make Little Joe promise to mind us!”

Ben tried to hide his smile as he continued to feign sleep. He had been awake to hear most of the boy’s conversation, feeling pride swell in his chest. He must have done something right when he was raising his boys. His eyes still closed, he let himself drift back to sleep.

*****

Two Weeks Later

“Alright, Adam.” Doctor Tyler said. “One more deep breath.” As Adam complied, the doctor felt his chest, making sure none of the boy’s ribs were moving.

Adam looked up, and expectant and hopeful look in his eyes. Doctor Tyler smiled. “Alright. You’re free young man. Everything looks to be healed properly.”

“Thanks, Doc!” Adam jumped from his seat on the edge of his bed and ran out of the door. In seconds, a crash sounded from the hall, followed by a quick “Nothing’s broken!”

“You be careful, young man!” Doctor Tyler called. “I’ll confine you to your bed ’till you’re twenty and less likely to fall down your steps!”

“Sorry!” Footsteps thundered the rest of the way down the stairs, followed by the slamming of the front door.

Ben chuckled. “So much for that. Sometimes I wonder if they’ll ever learn.”

“I don’t know whether to praise you or pity you for having three boys, Ben. Lord knows I wouldn’t be able to handle their antics.”

“That’s why you space them out, Doc,” he said with a facetious grin. “By the time, Adam’s out of that stage, Joe’ll only be starting it.”

“You were always one to think things out.” Doc Tyler laughed as he began to pack his medical bag. “Have you heard anything about Deckland? His charges and such?”

Ben sighed, standing from his chair. “Well, it’s against my better judgment, but Adam convinced me not to press charges. Said he wasn’t the one to hurt him or threaten him.”

“Ah, good boy you got there, Ben. Mighty good.” Doc Tyler walked out of the room and started down the stairs with Ben right after him.

“I wonder what will happen to Deckland now,” Tyler said as he crossed the room. “Is he staying here in the territory?” The doctor removed his hat from the peg behind the door and replaced it on his head.

“I’m not fully positive, to be honest,” Ben answered. “I don’t rightly know what he’s intending on doing for the rest of his life, but for now I know he’s staying out here. I’ve offered him a job on the Ponderosa for the time being until he can get on his feet again. I must admit, he’s doing a good job.”

“Think you’d offer him the job permanently?”

Ben harrumphed as he shifted his feet. “I guess if he needed it and if someone asked me to, I would. But don’t you go giving Adam any ideas!”

“Made it his mission to help the man, did he?” Doctor Tyler chuckled. “Sounds like something Adam would do… Or any Cartwright for that matter.” Tyler gave Ben a significant look as they walked out of the door and onto the porch, the sounds of Adam and Hoss coming from the Barn. “I’m off. Hopefully I’ll not see you or you family for quite some time, Ben.”

“Unless it’s for an invitation to supper, which is your whenever you want it,” Ben said, standing on the steps to bid the Doctor a good day.

Deckland walked up to the porch, carrying an arm load of firewood. “Almost done, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Thank you, Jake.” Ben said as he moved out of his way. “I appreciate your help.” Deckland smiled in reply before walking to the woodbin.

Doctor Tyler stepped down from the porch and walked to his buggy. He stepped in and settled himself comfortably in his seat before turning to his friend. “Thank you, Ben. I’ll have to take you up on your offer of food someday! But for now, tell those boys to keep out of trouble!” He began to snap the reins and drive his pair of horses out of the yard when another horse and passenger rushed up to the hitching post. The rider bolted off the saddle and ran to the porch not pausing long enough to even bother with his reins.

“Mr. Cartwright!” It was Caroline Foreman’s oldest boy, Cody. “Mr. Cartwright!” He stopped abruptly in front of the men on the porch, his green eyes wild with fright.

“Cody, what’s wrong, boy?” Ben grabbed his shoulders.

Cody sucked in a deep breath. “It’s Ma. She’s havin’ her baby.” He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I didn’t know what else to do! It’s just me and Danny back at the house!”

Doctor Tyler stopped his team and stepped down from the buggy. “Looks like you did right; I’m here! Let’s go on out to your place, I’ll follow you in the buggy.” Tyler put a reassuring hand on Cody’s shoulder. He quickly turned to Ben. “Do you think I could borrow Marie for a few hours?”

“I’ll go fetch…” Ben started to turn, but stopped abruptly mid-stride. “Oh, no! She’s out to the Devlin’s with Little Joe!”

“Mr. Cartwright?” Jake spoke from his spot by the wood box. “Could I go? I mean… I helped the doctor with my wife… An’ I could be of some help.”

Ben seemed to be forming a protest in his mind, but the doctor spoke before Ben could. “If you think you can do it, then come on. That baby won’t wait!” Doctor Tyler stepped up into his buggy again, Jake hurrying after him.

“We’re right behind you, Doc.” Ben raced to the barn to saddle his horse and fetch the boys while Cody scrambled quickly back onto his own horse and they all hurried to the Foreman Ranch.

*****

The Foreman’s kitchen was filled with the three Cartwrights and the two Foreman boys. Cody had helped Ben fix some milk and set out food for everyone. No one but Hoss had touched anything but even he had only picked at it. All five sat around the table, the silence deafening their ears.

Occasionally Jake would appear from the bedroom off to the side to gather water or extra cloths, always hurrying back to where the Doctor and Caroline were. Whenever there was movement from the room, Ben would start to stand, only to be dissuaded by a shake of the head from Jake. After what seemed like days on the boys’ part, they heard a noise from the adjacent room.

A cry.

All five stood eyes wide with curiosity. After another tense moment of anticipation, Doc Tyler emerged from the bedroom.

“Well, boys,” he addressed Cody and Daniel. “Your mother is fine as well as your new brother. Why don’t you go say ‘hello’?”

Both brother exchanged looks before hurrying into the other room to see their ma. Ben smiled as he watched them leave, his thoughts turning to his own sons for a moment in time.

“I must say, Ben,” Tyler said. “He’s a fine young’un.”

“How did Deckland hold up?” Ben asked cautiously, seeming almost afraid of the answer.

Tyler took a seat and picked up the nearest glass of milk. “Quite well actually, Ben. He acted like an old pro, knowing exactly what I needed when. I was impressed.

Ben nodded, glad to hear that the hasty decision they made hadn’t been a bad one. “Could I go see them?”

Tyler nodded. “I don’t see why not. But only for a few minutes. You might want to shoo the boys out in a little bit. Caroline needs her rest.”

Ben agreed before looking to his boys. “Do you want to come?”

Adam looked thoughtful for a moment before shaking his head. “Nah, we’d better stay out here. We’ll go in a little bit later.” Ben smiled at both the disappointment on Hoss’s face and the insight Adam gave. It would be wise to let Caroline have some time to gather herself together before too many people saw her.

Leaving the boys in the kitchen with Doctor Tyler, Ben walked across the room to where Cody and Daniel had disappeared to. He opened the door cautiously with a soft knock before swinging it open fully. “Caroline?” he called.

He was greeted by a broad smile on Caroline’s face, still glowing with joy. “Ben! Come in.” She looked down at the bundle in her arms, gently running her finger in the middle of the blankets. On either side of her Cody and Daniel sat, each peeking into the bundle with a grin of pride on their face. Jake stood off to the side, trying to stay out of the way. Ben immediately grabbed his hand and shook it tightly.

“I hear you did a good job, Deckland. Thank you.”

Jake shifted his eyes to the ground. “Like I said, I’ve done it before. It was sorta like riding a horse… You’re a little sore when you start again, but you still remember what to do.”

Ben shifted his attention from Deckland and looked over at the newest Foreman. “Well, isn’t he a handsome fellow.” He placed a hand on Cody’s shoulder. “It seems you’re going to have your hands full keeping the girls away from him in a few years, son.” Tuffs of fair colored hair, the same shade as his mother’s could already be seen on the boys head, but the tiny face structure resembled neither Caroline nor Dave. Suddenly the ruckus that had been caused on the ranch a few months ago began to make sense.

“Have you thought of a name?” Ben quickly changed the subject as much for his own benefit as everyone else’s.

Caroline shook her head. “I thought about David, but I’m not sure.” Obviously the same thoughts had crossed her mind. After a few moments of silence on Caroline’s part, she turned to Jake. “I was told you had a son.”

Jake nodded, stepping closer to the bed. “Yes’m. I did.”

“What did you call him?”

Deckland swallowed hard before answering, his voice catching on the name. “Scott. His name was Scott.”

Caroline smiled. “Scott Foreman. I like it. What do you think, boys?”

Cody looked up from his new brother into Caroline’s eyes. With a grin and a nod, he answered. “I think it’s perfect, Ma.”

Daniel reached over and hugged his mother. “Yeah, Perfect.”

“Then it’s settled,” Caroline said. “Scott David Foreman.” She hugged the bundle tighter to her chest for a moment before continuing. “But there is one last thing I must ask. Jake, would you be willing to stay on and help me for a little while. I’ll pay you, don’t worry about that. But I don’t think that I can handle what I had before by myself. Would you do it?”

Jake looked up from his feet, his eyes wide with shock. “Me? After everything that’s happened?”

“If Adam Cartwright likes you, you have to be good. He doesn’t give his approval or affection easily. If you have it, you earned it. And besides… he gave me a really good recommendation. Please say you’ll stay?”

A moment of debating could be seen warring in Jake’s mind. After a time, he looked into Caroline’s eyes. “What do you want me to do first?”

“Boys, how about if we leave your mother alone for a while to rest,” Ben spoke. He reached for Daniel’s arm and stood him up. “The boys can stay with me tonight, Caroline. And I’ll send Marie here as soon as she returns.”

“Thank you, Ben,” Caroline answered. Each of her older boys gave her a hug and a kiss to their brother. “Be good boys. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Mr. Cartwright, would it be alright for me to stay here until Mrs. Cartwright gets here. I don’t want to leave her alone.”

“I’ll have Marie bring your things when she comes,” Ben answered. “I thank you for all the work you’ve done for me. I know everything will turn out.” He guided Daniel out the door with Cody close behind. With one last look over his shoulder, he followed into the kitchen where his own boys were waiting. He had known it all along.

Everything had turned out just right.

*****End*****

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