Out of Mind (by Diana)

Summary: When Adam is found with a bullet in his back, Roy’s explanation is unbelievable.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  20,720


Chapter One

Adam Cartwright was sitting beside his campfire in the forest high above the north pastures, looking west into the setting sun.  The sky was red and purple and blue, the magenta clouds outlined with the brightest gold, all reflected in the snow remaining on the tops of the mountains.  He thought to himself that he had seldom seen a more perfect sight, and he relaxed his powerful, slim, black clad body against the tree behind him as he let out a long sigh.  His mind went back to the conversation that he had had with his father that morning, which had sent him up here.

“Well someone’s got to go and hunt for that mountain lion, and I have elected you,” said Ben Cartwright with finality, hands on hips, facing his son.

“But I don’t want to go,” said Adam heatedly, also with his hands on his hips, in unconscious imitation of his father.  “You still need me here.  I don’t care how fit you say you are, you have been very ill, and I think it’s too soon for you to take on the ranch again without me here to help you.”  Adam was concerned for his father, who had been ill for several weeks and was only just recovering.  His normally robust father was looking decidedly frail, his face had only a little more colour than his grey hair, and there were dark circles beneath his ebony eyes.

When Ben was ill, or away, it was Adam who would take on the responsibilities of the ranch in his father’s place.  He was Ben’s eldest son, and at thirty four he was more experienced at running the ranch than his two younger brothers, Hoss and Joe, respectively six and twelve years his junior.  But Ben’s illness had struck at a particularly bad time, coming as it did just before the start of round up, and when they were short handed on the ranch as the result of rumours about another big silver strike on the Comstock lode, which had taken many of the men in search of their fortunes, including their foreman.

And then to make matters worse, Hoss broke his leg.  Joe did his best to help, but Adam had to send him to San Francisco to deal with some timber buyers.  Though this would be the first time that Joe had dealt with negotiating contracts on his own, Adam had no choice but to let him go.  Joe had done well, and had returned with a good deal that would make a handsome profit for the family.  Adam was proud of his young brother, and for once had told him so.  Joe had been gone for nearly three weeks and had only just returned.  Adam was working outdoors all the hours of daylight and at night he would do the books and work on new contracts.

Ben could tell that Adam was exhausted, to the extent that his father was becoming concerned that he might start to make some rash decisions.  Ben saw the hunt for the mountain lion as a chance for Adam to get away and rest, while still feeling that he was doing something useful.  Adam would feel guilty if he just stopped work for a while, so Ben was going to send him away for a few days.  Adam loved the mountains with their towering tops and beautiful wooded valleys, they were quiet, undemanding, and expected nothing of you except that you treat them with respect.

“I’m perfectly capable of managing.  The round up is finished and we do not start the logging for another week yet.  Joe can help me if I need it, and Hoss is on the mend.  So you go and find that mountain lion and don’t come back until you do,” Ben said forcefully.

Adam knew perfectly well what his father was up to, and he appreciated the thought behind it, but he was still worried that his father might not be able to manage.

“Pa, do I…?”

“Adam, if you don’t go soon you will get me so upset that I will make myself ill again.  Is that what you want?” said Ben.  He had made his decision and was not prepared to back down, Adam needed to get away from the responsibilities of the ranch, and Ben was going to make certain that he did.

“All right, all right,” Adam said raising his hands in surrender, he had decided that he might as well give in.  “I’ll go, but only as long as you promise me that you will take it easy.  Let Joe run around for you, the exercise will do him good.”

Adam stirred from his remembering and sat up to put another log on the fire.  His father had been right, of course, he was mentally and physically completely drained, and each day that passed he had found it increasingly difficult to make even simple decisions.  It seemed weeks since he had had a good night’s sleep.  He would go to bed exhausted and wake after being asleep for only a short time, thinking about the day just gone, planning for the day to come, and all the time he was desperately worried about his father, who would normally have shaken off quickly any illness.  But Adam supposed it was a sign of advancing years that this time it had taken Ben so long to recover.  Now he was forgetting all that, putting it behind him.

The nights in the mountains could be cold, and he moved closer to the fire for warmth.  He was reaching out for his coat when he thought he heard a movement behind him, and being aware of the reason he was in the mountains, reached past his coat for his gun, which he had put to one side.  He stood up slowly, and cautiously went to the edge of his campsite but saw nothing.  As he turned to go back to the fire, he caught sight of a movement out of the corner of his eye.  Before he could be sure that he had seen anything, he felt a crushing blow on the back of his head, and lost consciousness before he hit the ground.

*****

Chapter Two

Adam came round slowly.  His eyelids felt heavy and he did not bother to try to open them, but explored his body with his mind.  He was aware of an all-encompassing pain, which settled down to a throbbing in his head and an excruciating pain in his back.  He tried to collect his thoughts, but nothing made sense.  The last thing he remembered was sitting by his campfire in the mountains, now it seemed that he was lying on a bed.  The memory of the campfire was expanded and he remembered it was evening and he was settling down for the night, now he could see brightness through his eyelids, it must be daylight.  What had happened in between?

Adam tried to move to ease the pain in his back but that just made it worse and a groan escaped his lips.  He felt a touch on his arm.

“Easy, son, you’re safe,” said a voice, which Adam instantly recognised as his father’s.

Adam forced his eyes open until he was looking through his lashes, and tried to turn his head to look at Ben, but a wave of nausea overtook him.  He closed his eyes again and tried desperately to control it.  He really did not want to be sick at that moment, it simply involved too much movement, but the feeling was too strong and he turned and leant over the side of the bed and vomited.  The movement caused a searing pain to shoot through him, starting in his head, meeting the agony in his back, and continuing to his feet.  He screamed and retched in turn.  His father held him, trying to comfort him, but the torture continued until Adam, in his suffering, wished he were dead.  Finally, he lapsed into unconsciousness, and Ben eased him back onto the bed, trying to make him comfortable.

Ben sat with Adam for several hours, occasionally wiping away the sheen of sweat that formed on his son’s forehead.  He remembered the previous afternoon when he had heard Adam ride into the yard.  He waited for him to come into the house, but when Adam had not appeared after a few minutes, Ben went outside to see why.  As he opened the door, he saw Adam lying motionless on the ground beside Sport, his horse.  He called desperately to Hoss and Joe who came at a run and helped get Adam into the house.  As they lifted Adam from the ground, Ben stared at the bloodstained dirt where his son had been lying, and a cold hand of fear gripped his heart.  From then on life had seemed like a nightmare become reality.  Finding Adam like that, with a bullet in his back and blood streaming from a cut on the back of his head where he had hit the ground, and not knowing how he had got hurt, and not knowing how to help his eldest son.

Eventually Adam moaned softly, the pain hitting him as he awoke.  Again the nausea came, but the memory of what had happened the last time he was conscious made him determined that he did not want to go through it again, and he fought to control the feeling.  Slowly the sickness passed and he opened his eyes cautiously.  He found it difficult to focus on anything, so he stared at the wall opposite until his eyes obeyed his brain and he could make out details, which told him he was lying in his own bed at home!  He turned his head and screwed his eyes up with the pain that shot through his skull, the sickness threatening to return.  He opened his eyes just enough to be able to see the face of his father, who was sitting on a chair at the side of the bed.

“Pa, how did I get here?  What happened?” he asked slowly, his voice not above a whisper.  His head hurt so much that he was afraid to speak too loudly in case it exploded.  He put his left hand to his forehead and pressed his temples between fingers and thumb.  It didn’t help, so he lowered his hand to cover his eyes.

“We were hoping that you might be able to tell us that,” said Ben keeping his voice low in deference to the headache that he suspected his son was suffering.

“I…I don’t remember.”  Adam let his hand drop onto his chest and looked at his father.  There was concern written in every line of that strong face.

“It’s all right, son.  Rest now, we’ll talk later.”

Adam closed his eyes again and the pain took him into blessed darkness.

Ben looked to the other side of the bed where Doctor Paul Martin was standing.  He raised his eyebrows in question.

“I don’t know, Ben.  The bullet in his back is very close to his spine.  I don’t want to try to remove it until he is stronger and made up some of the blood loss, perhaps tomorrow.  In the meantime he must not move it will only make things worse if he does.  But one thing you must be aware of, the operation to remove the bullet may leave him without the use of his legs.”

Ben stood, stunned.  His own legs felt weak, he had believed that once the bullet was out Adam would be able to get well again, now the doctor was telling him that Adam might be crippled.  He staggered from the room.

Ben went downstairs to the large living room, where Hoss and Joe were waiting for news.

“Well, how is he?” asked Joe, his eyes full of concern beneath his mop of curly hair.

“Is he gonna be OK?” enquired Hoss anxiously.

Ben held up his hands defending himself from his son’s questions.  “It’s too soon to tell.”  Ben stopped speaking, not sure whether to tell them the rest of what the doctor had said, then decided that they deserved the truth.

“Paul says that he will take the bullet out tomorrow.”  Joe and Hoss looked at each other and smiled thinly, but something in Ben’s attitude brought their attention back to him.

“There’s more, isn’t there?” asked Joe, fearful of what their father was going to add.

“Yes.”  Ben hesitated, not wanting to repeat what Paul had said to him, as though not saying it would stop it happening.  “Paul also said that the operation to remove the bullet may leave Adam crippled.”  Ben turned away, tears starting in his eyes as he said the word.  He turned back as he felt a touch on his arm.  Hoss was standing close to him, Joe at his shoulder.

“Don’t fret yourself Pa.  The first thing is to get Adam well again, and then we’ll deal with whatever lies ahead together.  If Adam cain’t walk then we’ll have to help him get over that and face the future.  You know how strong he is inside.  I think that you’ll find he’ll be able to cope,” said Hoss.  Ben’s middle son was a big, powerful man, but his size hid a soft heart and it pained him to see his father so upset.

“Yes Pa, whatever happens we’ll be there for him,” said Joe taking Ben’s arm and leading him to his chair beside the fireplace.  He went to a small table and poured his father a glass of brandy, which Ben took from him and drank without noticing.

Joe turned to Hoss.  “If I find who did this to Adam I’m goin’ to kill him,” stated Joe quietly, but with a chilling certainty.

“Now Joe settle down.  The sheriff knows about the shooting and will be looking for the varmint that did it.  You know that if you try to go after ‘em Pa’ll be upset, and I think he’s got about as much on his plate as he can handle right now.”  Hoss knew his younger brother was fiercely protective of his family and felt any injury to one of them as though it had been done to him.  His mercurial temper would send him seeking revenge, and sometimes it was only the wise council of his brothers that would stop him.

“All right,” Joe said taking a deep breath to calm himself.  “But Roy had better come up with something soon”

Doc Martin, coming down the stairs, saw the three of them sitting in silence and knew that Ben had told Hoss and Joe the news.

“Boys, I need you to be with Adam when he wakes up again.  He must not move until I get the bullet out, and it may take two of you to keep him quiet.  I don’t want to have to sedate him because he may have a skull fracture.”

Hoss and Joe looked up at the doctor and nodded.  Joe walked past his father and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, then went up the stairs with Hoss following slowly behind him, a limp the visible reminder of his still healing leg.

The doctor poured another drink for Ben and one for himself, and they sat in silence, each with their own thoughts.  While Ben was concerned for Adam, Paul was thinking about the operation he would have to perform the following day, and the repercussions of failure.  He was also worried about Ben.  He was still recovering from his recent illness and this shock could set him back.  They had been sitting there silently for some time when there was a knock at the door.  Neither of them moved and the knock came again.  Paul rose and answered it, to find Sheriff Roy Coffee standing there.

“Come in, Roy.  I suppose you have come about Adam?”

“Um…yes.” said Roy with a hesitation that Paul could not understand.  “I’d like a word with Ben.”

He crossed the room to where Ben was sitting.  The elderly sheriff started to speak but quickly realised that he wasn’t being heard, so put a hand on Ben’s shoulder to get his attention.

“Ben…Ben.”  Slowly Ben lifted his head and looked at the sheriff.  He shook himself and stood.

“Roy, what are you doing here?” he asked, getting to his feet, then answered his own question, “Of course, you want to see Adam, about who shot him.”

“Well not exactly.  I do want to see Adam, but I think I know who shot him.”

“You do?  That’s good.  Adam can’t remember anything at the moment.”  Ben thought that at least Roy had brought some better news.

“Well, no, it’s not exactly good.  Ben sit down while I tell you what happened.”  Ben sat and waited

“Yesterday morning the Reno stage was robbed and the guard was killed.  They took seventy thousand dollars, which was being brought to the bank in Virginia City.”  Ben was about to interrupt but Roy held up his hand, he wanted to get this over with.  “Let me finish.  There were five passengers on the stage.  Mr and Mrs Kennedy, you know, from the general store, Mr Bailey the bank manager, Sally Henderson from the Bucket of Blood, and a man called Hunt who is a Wells Fargo investigator.  The Kennedys, Bailey and Sally all identified the man who shot the guard.”

“They all knew him?  Was it someone from round here?” asked Ben interested, forgetting for a moment his worry about Adam.  Then Roy continued, and as he did so, Ben’s world slowly disintegrated.

“Yes, it was.  They said the man made no attempt to hide his identity, no mask or anything.”  Roy walked away and then turned back to his friend.  He hesitated and was unable to look Ben in the eye.

“It was…they said it was Adam.”  Roy paused, the sentence hanging in the air between them.

Ben just stared at him unable to take in what he was hearing.  He stood slowly, then he went over to Roy and grasped his shoulders forcing the sheriff to look at him.

“But that’s ridiculous, there must be some mistake.  Adam was up in the mountains hunting.  He was nowhere near the stage road.”

“Perhaps that was where he was meant to be, but the witnesses are certain it was him.  The Kennedys even recognised Sport,” said Roy, referring to Adam’s horse.  He shook his head sadly, knowing what the news must be doing to his friend.

Ben started to speak again, but then found that there was nothing to say.  He was aware that the Kennedys had known Adam for close on twenty years, and while George Bailey had not known him for more than two years, he was not a man given to flights of fancy.  How well Sally knew him was anybody’s guess!

“After the two men took the strong box they rode off.  As they did so, the driver took a shot at them.  He told me he thought that he had hit one of them.  He said that he shot the taller, dark haired one in the back.  Hunt took off after them on his horse, which he had hitched to the back of the stage, but he couldn’t find any trace of them.  I’ve been out with a posse yesterday afternoon and this morning looking for signs of them.  The tracks lead here, onto the Ponderosa, but we kept losing them, they got over ridden too many times.  I left it till now to come to you, I was trying to make sure one way or the other.”

Roy stopped speaking; there was really nothing else to say at that moment.  He waited for a reaction from Ben but none was forthcoming.  Ben returned to his chair unsteadily, unable to take in all that the sheriff was telling him.  Roy turned to Doc Martin, who went over to Ben and knelt in front of him.

“Ben, Ben listen to me.  You and I, and Roy, we all know that Adam wouldn’t do anything like that.  It can’t be true.”

Ben looked at Paul, “But they have four eye witnesses.  How can you argue against that?  And Adam…Adam’s up there with a bullet in his back.  And he can’t tell us how it happened.”

Ben remembered that when he had suggested that Adam get away one of the reasons for it was that he felt Adam’s judgement was slipping.  Was it possible that he had underestimated the extent of his son’s exhaustion, and the effect it was having on his thinking?

Paul stood and took the sheriff to one side, out of Ben’s hearing.
“I have just told Ben that I will operate on Adam tomorrow to remove the bullet.  I had to tell him that there are no guarantees, that Adam may lose the use of his legs, the bullet is very close to his spine.”

“Oh no!  And then I come in here with this.  You going to operate tomorrow?”  Paul nodded.  “Then I’ll come back day after, Adam’s not going anywhere in the meantime.  I’d better go, look after both them won’t you.”

Paul showed Roy out and went back to Ben; on the way he poured them both another drink.  Paul was worried about the older man.  Ben was still recovering from his own illness, and the shock of Roy’s revelation could put him back in bed.

“Here Ben, I think you could do with this, I know I could.”  Paul sat on the settee near Ben and waited.  After a few minutes Ben lifted his head and looked at his friend, the drink in his hand untouched and forgotten.

“Paul, is it possible…?”  Ben paused, hesitating to share his thoughts.  He was thinking of Adam’s best friend, Ross Marquette, and how he had seemed to go from sanity to madness in such a short space of time, because no one had noticed the symptoms.  A gentle man normally, but his madness had driven him to kill his wife.  He had also tried to kill Adam, who had in the end been forced to shoot his friend, killing him.  It had taken Adam a long time to recover from shooting someone who had meant so much to him.

Ben started again.  “I sent Adam away because I thought that he needed to rest, he was mentally and physically exhausted.  Is it possible that in that state he could see robbing the stage as a viable course of action for some reason?  Surely not.  But then how did he get shot, is it just too much of a coincidence?  Even if I could stretch my imagination far enough to accept that Adam would rob the stage, I can’t by any means think that he would shoot the guard in cold blood, but then there are witnesses.  They can’t all be wrong.”  Ben stopped and shook his head, there were too many questions and no answers.

It was a long time later that Joe appeared at the top of the stairs,  “Pa, Adam’s awake.”  Ben did not react but Paul said that he would be up directly.

*****

Chapter Three

It was dark outside when Adam woke, and the lamps which lit the room gave off a soft light that did not hurt his eyes as the sunlight earlier had.  He looked around and saw both his brothers were in the room.

“Both of you keeping an eye on me?” he asked softly, his strained voice reflecting his pain.

“Hey Joe, he’s woken up at last,” Hoss called to Joe, who was standing, staring out of the window.

“Could you be a little quieter, please?” begged Adam, squeezing his eyes shut.  Every sound seemed to send shafts of pain through his head, and he was barely managing to stay conscious.  Joe left the room to get his father.  Hoss sat on the chair beside the bed.

“How is it?” he asked softly

“I’ve had better days.” said Adam slowly, opening his eyes, and tried to move to ease the pain, without success.

Hoss put his hand on Adam’s shoulder, “The doc said that you mustn’t move at all until he’s taken the bullet out.  That’s why Joe and I are both here to keep an eye on you.  Makes a change for us to be able to tell you what to do.”  Hoss smiled at his brother.

“What bullet?” Adam asked confused, he couldn’t remember getting shot.

“The one in your back, ‘course,” explained Hoss.

Adam thought about this for a minute, trying to remember, but soon gave up.  Concentrating just made his head hurt more.

“Can Paul take it out?” Adam asked despondently.

“He said he would do it tomorrow, when you’re stronger.”

Adam closed his eyes and tried to take a long steadying breath, but the movement only served to increase the pain in his back.  He had thought that all he had to do was lie there and get better, but now it seemed that he was going to have to face an operation first.  Well so be it, he would cope with things as they happened.  At that moment Ben and the doctor appeared.

“Adam,” Paul said, “Can you hear me, do you understand what I am saying?”

“Yes,” said Adam still distracted by the thought of an operation.

“The bullet is still in there.  I can’t remove it until you are stronger, you have lost too much blood, and I think you may have a fractured skull, which is why your head hurts so much.  Tomorrow we’ll see how you are and I’ll take it out as soon as I can.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Good.  I’ll stay here tonight,” Paul looked towards Ben who just nodded his agreement, “So I’ll be here with you if you need me.”

“Thanks,” Adam said on a whisper.  Every word made his head hurt, and was reflected in the pain in his back.

Ben came to stand beside the bed.  He looked down at his son.  He looks so pale and weak, Ben thought.  He found himself trying to imagine Adam beside a stagecoach, shooting the guard and threatening the passengers.  While his instinct rejected the image, his logic saw Adam lying there, with a bullet in his back.  Adam became aware of his father standing there not saying anything.

“Pa…what’s the matter?” he asked softly, getting worried about what Ben was thinking but not saying.

“Nothing son, nothing.  I was just thinking that you look a bit pale, but time will take care of that.  Can you tell me what is the last thing you remember?”

Adam looked at the ceiling, his brow furrowing as he tried to concentrate.  He didn’t really want to talk, but his father was obviously worried.  “I think…I remember leaving here yesterday, going into the mountains…making camp, eating supper…and sitting by the fire.  Then…then I was here.”

“You left here the day before yesterday,” said Ben sadly, “Do you remember yesterday at all?  Perhaps you remember waking up in camp, or setting out after that mountain lion.  Did you go hunting?”  Ben wanted to know.  He desperately wanted Adam to remember what he did yesterday, and hoped to jog his memory with questions.

Adam started to shake his head, but even the thought of movement seemed to increase the pain he was feeling so he just whispered “No.”

Ben was disappointed that Adam could apparently remember nothing between then and now, but he patted his son’s arm comfortingly.  “Don’t worry, it will come back to you.”

The strain of concentrating was obvious in Adam’s eyes.  He seemed to be slipping into unconsciousness again so Ben did not press him, although he desperately wanted to make Adam remember what he had been doing that morning, to prove that he could not have robbed the stage.  Ben knew that he couldn’t say anything about the hold up until after Paul had operated, and Adam was on the mend.  If he had no memory of what he had been doing the previous day, Adam would not be able to help, and at the moment Ben was only concerned that Adam should live, nothing else mattered.

“Just try to get some sleep,” he said, and Adam closed his eyes and returned to the painless peace of oblivion.

As he sat watching his son sleep, Ben had a very different thought.  If Adam died he would be spared the accusations made by the sheriff, and the repercussions, as would they all.  Adam would not have to face a trial, nor the enmity of the town.  His family would not have to watch him hang.  Ben stood and started to pace back and forth, trying to clear such thoughts from his mind, he wanted Adam to live, no matter what he may have done.

The following afternoon Paul decided that Adam was strong enough to withstand an operation.  It was a difficult decision but he did not want to delay any longer.  Leaving the bullet untouched for another day might cause more damage, but he was worried that if Adam was to stay unconscious too long after the operation, he might never wake up again.  Paul decided that he would give Adam the minimum amount of medication to keep him asleep during the operation and try to rouse him as soon as possible afterwards.  Joe volunteered to help him and Paul gratefully accepted.

After more than two hours, Paul came down the stairs, seeing Ben and Hoss waiting silently for him.  He sat on the sofa, facing Ben, and waited until the other man looked up, and Paul knew he had his attention.

“Ben I’ve finished, and Joe is sitting with Adam.”  Ben was about to interrupt but Paul stopped him, knowing what he was going to say.  “It’s too soon to tell anything.  I got the bullet out and he is resting as comfortably as may be expected.  He did stir briefly, so I’m not too worried about his head.  Barring any complications, and it is far too early to rule out something like infection, he will recover from the shooting.  I won’t know any more for a few days, let’s take it slowly.  Bear in mind that even if Adam can’t move his legs at first it could just be a reaction to the operation, and not permanent.  So we will just have to wait and see.  The best you can do now is take care of Adam and help him to recover.  I must go in to town for a few hours, but I will be back as soon as I can.”

Paul stopped speaking, waiting for Ben to react.  “Thank you, Paul.  I know that you have done the best you can and I am grateful, whatever the outcome.  I think I’ll go and sit with him far a while.”

“All right Ben, but don’t look for any reaction from him.  Adam will be unconscious for quite a while, I expect.  But if he shows any sign of stirring, I want you to encourage him wake up.  I would like to see him conscious again, if only for a short time.”

Ben rose and went slowly upstairs, the strain of the last forty-eight hours beginning to show in his weary gait.  Too many thoughts had been going through his mind.  Was Adam crippled?  Did he rob the stage and kill the guard?  Was Adam going insane?  Had he lost forever the son he knew?  If the answer to any of these questions was ‘yes’, Ben knew that the heart would be ripped out of his family.  Yesterday Ben had prayed that Adam would not lose the use of his legs.  Now that prayer seemed irrelevant, Adam had been seen killing a man, and beside that nothing else mattered.

Ben went into Adam’s room and sent Joe downstairs, and then he sat on the chair beside the bed, looking down at his son.

“Are you still the boy I raised, or have you become something altogether different?” he asked the man lying motionless before him.  Ben put his head in his hands and wept, for his son, for his family, and for himself.

After several hours sitting with Adam, the sleeplessness of the previous night began to catch up with Ben.  He felt his head sink onto his chest and his eyes close.  He thought that he would just stay like that for a few minutes, but it was nearly an hour later that he was startled awake by Adam’s voice.  He instantly leant towards his son.

“Pa…could I have…some water?” asked Adam.  He had woken just minutes before to find his father asleep at his side.  Adam didn’t want to wake him, but his mouth was dry and he could not swallow.

“Of course,” said Ben and poured some from the jug on the bedside table.  He lifted Adam’s head gently so he could drink, and then lowered it again onto the pillow.

“How is it, son?

“Pa, I don’t know,” Adam said quietly, and Ben could see from his distracted look that he was mentally exploring his body.  “My head hurts but I can’t feel anything else.  No pain in my back at all.  Did Paul get the bullet out?”

“Yes he did.”  Ben paused not wanting to ask the next question, dreading the answer.  “Can you move your legs?”

A look of deep concentration came over Adam’s face, and after a few seconds he took a deep breath.

“No.”

They looked at each other in silence, both thinking of the consequences of that single word.  Into the silence came Joe and Hoss.

“How is it brother?” asked Joe immediately.  Hoss could sense the tension in the room and did not have to ask what had happened.

Adam looked at his brother, young, fit and…whole, and found that he could not answer.

Chapter Four

The following day Joe was sitting with Adam trying to get him to eat something, when Ben came into the room.

“Adam when you woke up and found me looking at you, you asked if there was something wrong, and I told you there was not, do you remember?”

Adam nodded, wondering what was coming.  The movement did not cause the pain he had felt before.  The doctor had told him there was no fracture to his skull, and his headache was slowly fading.

“Well I was not being exactly honest with you.  Joe, go and get Hoss will you.  I think you had all better hear this.”

Adam was now distinctly worried.  “Pa does it have anything to do with my getting shot?” he ventured.

“Yes,” was all that Ben said.

They waited in silence for Joe and Hoss to come back and then Ben told them what Roy Coffee had said about the stage hold up.  There was not a sound in the room as they digested the story, then Joe and Hoss tried to speak at the same time.

“But Adam wouldn’t…”

“There must be some mistake…”

Adam just lay motionless, too stunned to speak.  He tried desperately to remember what he had been doing since making camp, but there was nothing.  No memory at all between sitting by his fire and waking up in his room.  But he had a nagging thought at the back of his mind that he needed to tell his father something, he had a feeling that what he was trying to remember was important.  Maybe because of the hold up?  But it was no use; whatever he wanted to tell him would have to wait.

He could not believe what his father had said, but was it possible that he had indeed robbed the stage and then just wiped it from his memory?  He had heard of such things happening, the brain rejecting memories that were too painful.  But it just did not feel right.  No, he was sure that he would have remembered, but his father had said that there were witnesses who had seen him do it.  Nothing made sense.

“Pa,” said Adam, and his father and brothers turned to him as he continued slowly, “Pa, I don’t remember what I did, but I’m sure that I would not rob the stage, and absolutely convinced that no matter how skewed my thinking may have been, as you have suggested, through overwork, that I would shoot someone in cold blood.  But if I did do those things… then I deserve to be hanged.”

This last sentence brought protests from his brothers, who had not thought that far ahead, but Adam had.  It was the only outcome possible under the law.

“Son, I don’t want to believe you did it, but we have to be able to prove it.  The sheriff has four eye witnesses and we have to get absolute proof of your innocence, and that’s going to be difficult if you can’t remember what you were doing that morning,” said Ben.

“Then we will just have to get the proof some other way,” stated Joe as though it was going to be easy to find.

“And just how do you suppose we do that?” asked Hoss.

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe, “but if Adam didn’t do it then someone else did.  And someone else shot him,” he stated reasonably.

“Yeah,” said Hoss, “And they are long gone.  While we’ve been waiting for Adam to get stronger they’ve got clean away.”

“Now just a minute.  The sheriff has had a posse out looking for the other man,” Ben told them.

“Well we can’t just sit here and do nothing!” exclaimed Joe pacing up and down the bedroom floor.

Hoss was standing quietly by the bed.  Then he looked eagerly at his father.  “We could go to Adam’s campsite and look round, see if we cain’t find some tracks or somethin’,” he suggested.

“That’s a good idea, you better leave it till the morning though,” said Ben, and Joe and Hoss decided they would to get to bed early that night so they could be gone by day break.

At the door, Joe turned to Adam.  “Don’t worry, big brother, we’ll find something,” he said and was gone before he could hear Adam’s whispered, almost desperate “I hope so, little brother, I hope so.”

That evening Adam had insisted that Ben go to bed, promising he would call if he needed anything.  Adam could see how tired and drawn Ben was becoming; he was worried that his father would become ill again if he did not rest.  Ben went reluctantly, but could see the sense in it.

The house was quiet when Adam woke.  It was still dark outside and he lay deep in thought.  He shifted in the bed; he had lain there so long he was getting stiff.  As he moved, he felt a pain low down in his back.  He stayed motionless for a moment as the implication of that feeling sank in to his brain.  He moved again, and again the pain was there.  Then he was aware that he could feel the bedclothes lying on his legs, something he had not felt since Paul had removed the bullet.  He tried to move the toes on his right foot.  Yes!  There was definite movement, not much but enough to tell him that he could.  Then he tried his left foot and again felt the movement.  He took a deep breath to call out to his father, then changed his mind and let the breath out slowly.  No, he wouldn’t mention it to anyone until he had spoken to the doctor.  It was possible that it might be temporary and he did not want to get anyone’s hopes up, least of all his own.

When Paul Martin appeared, just after breakfast the next morning, Adam asked if he could speak to him alone.  Ben was reluctant, wondering what Adam had to say to the doctor that he did not want his father to hear, but left them alone as he had requested.  During the night and into the daylight Adam found that he had more movement and could now move his legs, though the pain it caused in his back made him cautious about trying it too much.

“Paul, I can move my legs,” he said.

Doc Martin looked down at him and smiled.  “I hoped that the paralysis might be temporary, as a result of the swelling caused by the operation.”

“Then you think it might be a permanent improvement?” asked Adam warily.

“Yes.  Once the movement comes back there is very little chance of a relapse.”

Adam just lay there.  He was never one to show his emotions too openly and felt that if he gave in to the desire to express what he felt at that moment he might not be able to control himself.  What he felt was a mixture of joy, relief and sadness.  Sadness because he thought that he might have regained his mobility only to have his life snatched away from him, if they could not prove that he had not robbed the stage.  But at least he would be able to walk to the gallows.  Strangely, he found some small comfort in that thought.

“Could you get Pa?  I’d like to tell him,” Adam asked the doctor.

Adam told Ben of the improvement.  His father bent over him and, taking the face of his beloved eldest son in both hands, kissed him gently on the forehead.

“I’m so glad for you.  Now all you have to do is get well.”

“Not quite all Pa.  I must try and remember where I was that morning.”  He turned to the doctor, “Paul is there any way you can help me?”

“There is no magic wand I can wave to make you remember.  Your memory may come back by itself, you may see or hear something that will help you to remember, or it may never come back.  We’ll just have to wait and see.”

While Paul was speaking, they heard the hoof beats of many horses in the yard outside.  Ben went to the window to see who it was.

“What the devil…” he said, and left the room quickly.

“Who is it?” asked Adam.

”It looks like Abe Newman and about a dozen others, your Pa’s out there talking to them,” said Paul looking out of the window.  “I wonder what they want.”  As he watched, Abe and one other, Jake Ashley, dismounted and after talking to Ben for a few minutes the three of them came into the house.  Soon they appeared in Adam’s bedroom.

“There you are, I told you Adam was bed-ridden.  Paul will you please tell these… ‘gentlemen’ of Adam’s condition.”

“If you want.”  Paul turned to the two men.  “I have removed a bullet from Adam’s back.  He was paralysed for a short time but has now regained the use of his legs.  In time he should make a full recovery.”

“How much time?” demanded Abe.

“It’s difficult to say.  He should remain lying flat for at least another week, and then gradually start to move about.  He ought to be back on his feet in about three weeks, all being well.”

“Right.  We’ll be back then.  But don’t think we are going to let you get away with this just because you’re a Cartwright,” Abe said, addressing Adam.

“I assume you are talking about the robbery,” said Adam and Abe just nodded.  “Well I would not expect to ‘get away with it’ as you put it, but you should know that I had nothing to do with it.”

“There’s eye witnesses that say different.  And we want to see justice done.  So don’t you think you are above the law.  There’s a hanging due for this and we aim to see someone pay.  We’ll be back.”

“That’s enough.  How dare you come into this house and threaten my son.  I’ll ask you to leave, now,” said Ben.  He could feel the anger rising inside him.  He would dearly like to have struck down these men, but knew that would only cause Adam more trouble.

Abe and Jake left with a backward glance at Adam that told him they would be waiting for him to recover.  Adam knew then that he had already been tried and sentenced by the populace of Virginia City.  He hoped that his brothers could find some clue to what had happened.

*****

Chapter Five

Joe and Hoss had arrived at the site of Adam’s camp.  They found his gun and coat lying where he had left them.  Some animal had raided the supply of food he had brought with him, but otherwise nothing had been disturbed.

While Joe searched the area around the fire and where Adam’s bed had been, Hoss was looking where Sport had been tied.  Suddenly he called out to Joe.

“Hey, come ‘ere.  Look at this.”  Joe went quickly over to his brother.

“What is it?  Have you found something?” he enquired anxiously.

“Yeah, look at this.  You can see where someone stood beside Sport, and by the footprints, it weren’t Adam.  See where the man’s foot turns over to the outside?  Adam don’t walk like that.”

“Then you think that someone else saddled Sport?”

“Looks that way, but why didn’t Adam do it?”

Joe and Hoss stood in silence trying to conjure up a reason for someone else to saddle Sport.  They both came up with that reason at the same time.

“He couldn’t because…” started Joe.

“…someone had shot him,” finished Hoss.

“But if he was shot here then he could not have been shot by the stage driver,” shouted Joe excitedly.  “We better get back and tell Pa and Adam.”

“Wait a minute Joe, hadn’t we better follow these tracks and see where they lead?”

“We know where they go; they go back to the Ponderosa.  Sport brought Adam back home after he was shot.”

“Yeah, well I still think we should follow them, we might find out who saddled Sport.  If they were the ones who shot Adam then I want to meet them.  If they were helping Adam then I want to thank them.  Though since they didn’t come to the house with him, I think it more likely that they were the ones who shot him.  Yessir, I’d sure like to meet them.”  Hoss had a hard look in his eyes that had Joe worried.

Usually it was Joe who had to be controlled by his brothers in a situation like this.  But it seemed that it might be Hoss who would have to be held back if they came across the people who had attacked Adam, and Joe knew that he did not have the physical strength to restrain his brother, who was six inches taller and 100 pounds heavier than his young brother, all of it muscle.  It was bad enough to have one of his brothers under threat of the gallows, but two would be unbearable.  Joe hoped for Hoss’ sake that they would not find anyone.

They mounted their horses and, with Hoss leading, followed the trail.  There were two other horses beside Sport, and the trail was easy to follow over the dusty track.  Slowly the track wound down the mountain and through the forest until it passed beside a small stream.  At a clearing in the woods near the stream, the horses had halted.  Hoss and Joe also stopped and dismounted, and Hoss hunted round the site with Joe watching.  His brother was an expert tracker and Joe did not want to get in his way, but he was impatient for Hoss’ interpretation of events as revealed in the marks on the ground.

“Well?” asked Joe anxiously.

“Well as far as I can tell the horses stopped here.  But only two men dismounted.”

“What do you mean, did one ride off again?”

“No, all three horses stayed right here.  But there are only two sets of footprints.  Wait a moment,” said Hoss and started to trace where the two men had gone once they left the horses.  Again, Joe waited eagerly for his brother to come up with some answers.

“Joe, I don’t like what I’m seeing.”

“Tell me, let me see if I come to the same conclusion.”

“OK.  Follow me.”  Hoss took Joe through what he thought had happened, showing him the clues as he did so.

“The two men got off their horses and took the third man from his an’ carried him, see how one of ‘em’s walking backward?  Now, since neither of the two footprints matches Adam’s I suppose he was the one they were carrying.  If he’d been shot then he might need carryin’, but then the tracks lead to that tree over there.”  Hoss pointed to a sturdy pine tree and walked over to it and knelt down, with Joe following his every move.

“Now, you can see where someone has been sittin’ in front of this tree.  If it was Adam they was carryin’ from his horse then it was probably Adam who was here.  But there’s no blood on the tree, so had Adam been shot then?  Probably not.”  He held up his hands to stop Joe asking any questions until he had finished, there was more to tell him yet.

“If ya look at the back of the tree, can ya see some marks a few inches off the ground?”  Joe nodded.  “I think that they were made by a rope, as though someone had been tied to this tree.  I think that whoever it was attacked Adam at his campsite, probably knocked him out, put him on his horse an’ brung him here as their prisoner.  What that don’t tell us is who or why, or how Adam got shot.  What d’ya think?”

Joe stood for several seconds and then looked up at his brother.

“What I think is that we had better get home and tell Pa what we’ve found, then tell the sheriff.”

Ben was sitting with Roy Coffee in front of the fireplace, deep in conversation.
“I’ll make sure that either I am here or one of my deputies.  As Adam’s under arrest there should be someone here to watch him anyway.”

“But you have his assurance that he will not try to leave.  He gave you his word,” said Ben, upset that Roy would think he could not trust Adam.

“Ben, if he had given me his word for something last week I would have staked my life on his keeping it.  But now…well would you expect me to trust him?  If he did rob the stage, I mean.  If he did shoot the guard then he is not the man I knew a week ago.  But whatever the rights and wrongs of this I won’t have a lynching on my territory, so someone will be with him all the time.”  Ben was about to reply when the front door opened and his two younger sons rushed in.

“Hey Pa, we found something,” started Hoss but stopped when he saw the sheriff.  He was not sure that he wanted Roy to hear what they had found until they had told their father.  He turned to Joe and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Yeah Pa, we found those stray cattle.  Oh, hi sheriff,” Joe finished lamely.

“Well that’s great.  I’ll talk to you about it later, meantime go and wash up for supper.  You might look in on Adam as well, the sheriff here wants to stay to keep an eye on him.  Frightened that he might run off,” Ben said bitterly.

While he appreciated the sheriff staying to watch out for any trouble the folks in Virginia City might be planning, he resented the implication that Adam could not be trusted.  But as he thought about it reason overtook his thinking, and he recognised that of course Roy was right.  If Adam was indeed guilty of robbery and murder then he was not the man Ben knew as his son, and they had no reason to trust what he had become.

Joe and Hoss were glad that their father had caught on to their subterfuge in not telling the sheriff what they had found, and went upstairs.  They were soon changed and in Adam’s room telling him about their discoveries.

“Wait a moment,” said Adam, “say all that again, but in as much detail as you can, don’t miss out anything.”  His eyes took on a far away look as though he was no longer with them.  He was deep in thought.  Joe let Hoss go over the details once again, only interrupting if he thought that Hoss had missed something.

Suddenly Adam gasped and shivered.  Joe hurried to his brother’s side and held his shoulders tight, green eyes looking deep into brown.

“What is it, what’s the matter?” he enquired anxiously.

“I…I don’t know, just a feeling when you said about being tied to the tree.  I felt…fear, very real and very deep fear.”  Adam looked away from his brothers for a moment, uncomfortable at admitting any feelings of that sort to them.

“Can you tell why?” asked Joe, trying to prompt Adam into remembering.

“No.  It’s just a feeling.  Like when I woke up, I knew that I had to tell Pa something important but didn’t know what.”

Joe looked over at Hoss and raised his eyebrows enquiringly.  But Hoss had no answers either.

“Well, if it’s not too painful for you, just keep going over in your mind what we found, it may come back to you.”

Adam nodded, not sure that he wanted to experience the feeling again, but of course Joe was right.  Was it possible that he could remember what he had been doing?  He had to grasp this slight chance, even if the memory was an unpleasant one for him.

Roy came into the room with Ben, “Adam, because of the visit you had from the good people of Virginia City I am going to have someone here all the time to guard you, either myself or one of my deputies.  I won’t have people taking the law into their own hands.”

“Thanks Roy,” said Adam, truly grateful that the responsibility for his safety would not fall entirely on the shoulders of his family.  He found that he was feeling very vulnerable, lying there not able to move as he was accustomed to.

“He also doesn’t want you making off before he can take you to jail,” said Ben bitterly.

“Now Ben, you know my responsibilities in this, I don’t have a choice.”

“I know, I know but it doesn’t make it any more pleasant.”

“Well you don’t have to worry on that score,” said Adam trying to defuse what was obviously a previous argument between these two old friends, “I am not going anywhere for a bit.”

“I’ll have Hop Sing bring you some supper,” said Ben shortly and left, not looking at the sheriff.

Joe and Hoss followed their father down the stairs and told him of their findings.  Ben was excited.  “So it looks as though Adam was attacked by someone.  Perhaps the same someone who robbed the stage.  Perhaps, somehow, they forced Adam to help them rob the stage.”

“Now Pa,” said Hoss, “you cain’t jump to that sort of conclusion just on what we found.  All it means is that Adam was taken from his camp and kept tied up in the clearing.  And Adam ain’t goin’ to commit murder just because someone told him to.”

“No, I know.  But it does mean that something out of the ordinary happened, and now we must find out what and why.”  Ben started to pace the room.

“You two must go back to that clearing and see if you can find anything else, any clue as to what happened there.  You said that Adam felt fear when you were telling him what you found.  There must be a reason for that and perhaps you can find out what it was.  I’ll tell Roy what you have found so far.”

The next morning, while the sheriff was downstairs eating breakfast, Hoss came into Adam’s room.  “We heard what happened here yesterday.  I think you’d better have this.”  Hoss reached under his shirt and came out with a gun in his hand, which he passed to Adam, who took it cautiously, not sure that things wouldn’t look worse for him if it was found.

“Ya need to be able to protect yourself,” Hoss said reasonably.  “I don’t care what they say you’ve done, I don’t believe it, I still trust ya to have this, and use it wisely if you need to.  You’re my big brother and I have always looked up to you.”   He smiled at the remark since he was a good three inches taller than his older brother.

“Adam, ever since I was old enough to notice you and what you was like, I’ve respected and admired you and tried to live up to the standards you set for both me an’ Joe.  I know how you’ve looked after both of us all through our lives.  I know how Pa relies on you and the responsibilities he puts on you.  He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t trust ya.  I cain’t believe that you’ve changed so much.  Take the gun an’ keep yourself safe, please.”  Hoss stopped.  He was looking down at his boots because he couldn’t look at his brother.  He had never said these things before and he was embarrassed at saying them now, but he felt they needed saying.  It was right that Adam should know how he felt and know that he had support in his family.

“Thank you.”  Those two words expressed everything Adam could say in reply to what Hoss had said and done.

Adam put the gun under his pillow where he could get at it easily should he need to.  Hoss just nodded and left, they were both close to tears.

Hoss and Joe again set out.  This time they went straight to the clearing by the stream.  It had rained hard during the night and the signs they had found earlier were mostly washed away.  They both said a silent prayer that they had been there the day before.  Still they looked around, examining the ground and surrounding trees carefully for any slight sign that might help them.

“Hey, Joe, get over here,” ordered Hoss excitedly, and Joe came to where Hoss was crouched down on the ground off to one side of the clearing examining the grass underneath a log with his fingertips.

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure, see what you think.  See here, this patch of grass seems to be discoloured.  If I use some imagination I might suppose it’s blood.”  He looked at Joe who also bent down to examine the grass.

“Yeah I see what you mean, but the rain has washed most of it away, it’s difficult to tell.”  Joe wanted to be certain before he went to Ben with any new evidence.

“Maybe this is where Adam was shot,” he said distractedly, thinking of Adam’s reaction to their mention of the clearing.  “Let’s go and look some more.  See if there isn’t something else.”

The two brothers spent the rest of the day searching the area but could find no other clues that would help their oldest brother.  Finally, as it was getting dark they gave up and returned to the house to tell their father of their failure.  They mentioned the blood but impressed on him that they were far from certain that that is what it was, and they could find nothing to raise his spirits.

Ben was pacing the floor as he spoke, “We still don’t have any clear evidence that Adam didn’t rob the stage.  Everything you have found only tells us that Adam was probably in that clearing at some time, with some other people.  They might be the ones who robbed the stage, but we can’t prove it wasn’t Adam.”  Ben stopped pacing and stood, feeling helpless.  It was not a feeling he was used to and he was not happy that he was unable to help his son.  A sudden knock on the door was answered by Hoss.  A man Hoss recognised as Frank Tate, one of Roy’s deputies stood there.

“I’ve come to relieve the sheriff,” he said a little awkwardly.  He did not know if he would be welcome under the circumstances but Ben, knowing that whole situation was now out of his control, told him to come in and sent Joe to get the sheriff.

Roy showed the deputy to Adam’s room and returned downstairs.  “Ben, don’t worry, Frank’s a good man.  He will take care of Adam.  I’m going back to town, the posse is ready to go out again.  There were two men who robbed the stage and if we can find the other one then…”  He shrugged and left the sentence unfinished.  They all knew that there was little hope of finding the other man, but if they could then, perhaps, they could get to the bottom of what had happened.

*****

Chapter Six

It was mid morning, eight days after he was shot, that Adam was allowed to venture down into the sitting room for a short time.  Paul Martin had not been too happy about him being on his feet so soon, but Adam had convinced the doctor that it would do him good, and promised that he would go back to bed after a couple of hours.

Adam had dressed in his usual black shirt and pants to make himself feel as though he was getting back to normal, but putting on his boots had proved too much of a challenge, and he went barefoot.  He walked gingerly down the stairs, leaning heavily on his father on one side, and the sheriff on the other.  He was still uncertain that his legs would support him, and by the time his father settled him on the sofa in front of the fire he could feel himself shaking from the effort.  Ben hovered round Adam, tucking a blanket round his knees and making sure that he had everything he wanted close to hand, never letting Adam reach for anything, but leaping to his feet at the first sign of need.

“For heaven’s sake Pa, stop fussing, I’m fine.  It feels good to be on my feet again, but you’re making me feel more like an invalid every minute.”

”I’m sorry son, I just don’t want you straining yourself.  It is good to see you up and about again.  I just don’t want you doing too much, too soon and making yourself ill again.”

“Ok, I promise I won’t overdo it.  If you want to do something, pass me a book, and get me a cup of coffee, then sit down yourself.  I’ve seen how you’ve worn yourself out these past days, and I think you could do with a rest as well.  I expect Roy could do with a cup while you’re making it.”

Adam looked towards Roy Coffee who had settled himself in the chair to the left of the fireplace.  Adam had got used to having a ‘watchdog’ with him all the time, he did not like it but understood the reason for it.  There had been a number of different deputies assigned to the task, but as the search for the other man who had held up the stage lost it’s urgency, the men who had been deputised for the duration went back to their normal occupations.  There was only so much time that they could spend in what had become a fruitless search.

“Yes, a coffee would be good, thanks Ben.”

They sat in silence for ten minutes.  Adam had a book open on his lap but he wasn’t paying much attention to it.  His thoughts kept returning to what was going to happen when he was well enough to travel, and Roy would take him to jail in Virginia City.  His brothers had not found any more clues that would point towards his innocence, or guilt, and Adam was continually dogged by the thought that he was going to be convicted of the murder of the stage guard, and the inevitable sentence that would follow.  Adam could not talk to his father about it; he hoped that seeing him getting better would make Ben forget, for the moment, the very short future in prospect for his son.

Ben was quiet for much the same reason, and he found it difficult to talk about it to Adam.  He hoped that by not mentioning it Adam would be able to put it at the back of his mind, and concentrate on getting better.  Ben was also finding it difficult to talk to his old friend Roy Coffee; he still resented the continual presence of a guard for Adam.

Roy was quiet because he could not find it in himself to make casual conversation with Adam, knowing what was facing him, and he knew that Ben was offended by his presence there.

Eventually Ben could stand it no longer and rose saying that he had to go out to check on the men who had started work at the logging camp.  Adam knew that this was merely an excuse to get away from an awkward situation.  The men did not need checking on at that moment and Joe had said that he would look in on them later in the day.  Ben went out saying that he would return in time for lunch, leaving Roy and Adam to their silence.

“Your father still doesn’t like me being here, does he?” said Roy, as he came back from the kitchen with another cup of coffee for them both.  He handed one to Adam and sat down again.

“Thanks,” said Adam, taking the cup from Roy.  “He just can’t get over the fact that you don’t trust me.  Though I get the feeling that he isn’t entirely convinced of my innocence either,” Adam said a little sadly, hoping it was not true.  He sipped his coffee thoughtfully

“Adam, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but I would be failing in my duty if I didn’t have someone here to keep an eye on you.  Would you expect me to let anyone else who was charged with murder go around unsupervised?”

“No, of course not, but he thinks, as I do, that you should be out there trying to find who was responsible.  He thinks you’re taking the easy way out by assuming it was me.”

A knock came on the front door and Roy put his cup down on the table and rose to answer it, finding Frank Tate standing there.  “Hi, Frank, come in.  What are you doing here?” asked Roy.  Tate glanced over at Adam and looked uneasy.

“Er, can I have a word with you outside.”

Adam listened with interest to this short exchange, wondering if Frank’s reluctance to speak in front of him meant that he had some news about the hold up.  Roy followed the deputy outside.  There he saw Jacob Hunt, the Wells Fargo man, sitting on his horse, waiting.

“What is it, Frank?”

“Well, Sheriff, it seems that we may have got a lead on the second man involved in the hold up.  I had a couple of men in the office today from the Circle J.  They said that they had just come back from Placerville, and there they heard about a man who had suddenly come into a lot of money.  You know, spending more than he should have.  Playing poker and drinking, and treating the saloon gals.  They had a fella point the man out to them, and then came back here to tell you.  They say they are willing to go back to Placerville to bring him back, if you go with them.  Knowing that you wanted a guard on young Cartwright, I tried to find someone to come here but couldn’t, then Mr Hunt offered.  I don’t know if I did the right thing…”  Tate finished uncertainly.

Roy thought for a moment.  He had come to know Hunt because of the robbery, and felt that he could trust the man.  Also, he did not need Hunt to testify at Adam’s trial because of the other eyewitnesses.  He seemed the perfect choice.  He was not at all sure that Adam would see it that way though.

“Mr. Hunt are you willing to look after Adam Cartwright, protect him from anyone who may come here?” queried Roy.  “I understand how you might feel seeing as how he is accused of robbing a stage.”

“Sheriff my only interest is in seeing justice done, no more, no less,” said Hunt reasonably.

“Very well.  But you’d better let me go talk to Adam first.”  Roy went back into the house.  He returned after a few minutes.  “Come in,” he invited, and Hunt dismounted and followed him into the house.

“Adam, this is Jacob Hunt.”

Adam turned to look at the man who had entered.  He was short and stocky, and as Hunt removed his hat Adam could see his thick fair hair, and piercing blue eyes.  A man of intelligence Adam decided.  “I gather you are my new guardian,” said Adam and turned back to his book.

Roy and Hunt looked at each other and Roy shrugged.

“I’ll leave you to it then,” said Roy and turned to go.

“I hope you find him, Roy.  I need his testimony,” said Adam over his shoulder.  The sheriff had explained to him his need to leave.

“We’ll do our best.”

Jacob Hunt sat in the chair recently vacated by the sheriff.  He looked at Adam, considering.  “I gather that you insist that you did not rob the stage.”  Hunt said into the silence.

Adam looked up sharply.  A silent shiver went through him when he heard the man’s voice.  Why?  What was it about this man, who he had only met minutes before, which unsettled him?  Something about his voice, where had he heard it before?  Adam closed his eyes trying to capture an elusive thought.  What was it that he had felt when he heard the voice?  Suddenly Adam knew; it was fear.  The same fear that he had felt when Hoss mentioned the clearing and the tree.

“I don’t insist anything.  I can’t remember where I was that morning, but it just doesn’t feel right.  Anyone in Virginia City will tell you that it is so far out of character for me to have done such a thing, that I cannot imagine myself in that position.”

Adam needed to keep this man talking.  He needed to hear that voice until he could place it.

“But they have eye witnesses, who are certain it was you they saw,” Hunt reminded Adam.

“Yes I know.  That makes it hard to prove my innocence.  I will have to be able to prove that either I was somewhere else, or that someone else did it.  Since I was supposed to be up in the mountains hunting, I would have been alone.  So there would be no one who could say that they were with me at the time.  My only hope is Roy finding the men who did it.  Or the jury taking the word of any character witnesses.  It’s a slim hope, but possible.”  Adam stared into the fire thinking that if the man they had gone to seek in Placerville was indeed one of the robbers, then he might have a chance.

“Can you remember anything at all about that day?” probed Hunt.

“There are flashes but nothing definite.  Hoss and Joe found evidence that I might have been attacked and taken to a clearing at some point, and I have a vague memory of that, but again I can’t prove it.  But we know something strange happened that day.”

Suddenly it all came back.  Like lightning flashing in his brain, Adam remembered what had happened to him, and who had caused it.

*****

Chapter Seven

Adam had come round after the blow to his head, to find that it was nearly dawn.  He was sitting on the ground, his hands tied round the pine tree behind him.  There were two men with him, one stretched out on the ground asleep, the other sitting beside a campfire, poking at it with a stick.  The man became aware of Adam watching him.

“Do you want some coffee?” the man asked and Adam nodded, slowly.  His head hurt where he had been struck.  He felt sick but thought some coffee might help.  The man poured some into a cup, walked over to Adam, and held it so that he could drink.

“Thanks,” said Adam.  The dark, bitter liquid had made him feel a little better.  He looked around the clearing and thought that he recognised the area.  It seemed that he was still on the Ponderosa.

“What am I doing here?  What do you want?” he asked between mouthfuls.

“You’ll find out soon enough.  Meantime I suggest that you just sit quiet,” said the man.  He was a little older than Adam and by the look of his deeply tanned face, used to an outdoor life.  Adam tried to get the man to talk, but he said nothing more, just looked at Adam and then sat opposite him by the fire.

Eventually the sleeping man stirred and rose.  He was younger and shorter than the first man, but with the same tanned face.  These men looked like they may have worked on a ranch, or at least they were used to being out in the open.

“So he’s awake, eh?” the second man said, looking across at Adam.  He poured some coffee and helped himself to some beans that the older man had prepared.  They did not offer any to Adam.

The two men seemed to be waiting for something, as occasionally one of them would pull a watch from his pocket to check the time.

“No sign of them yet,” said the younger of the two.

“It’s too early.  Stage don’t leave ‘till eight,” said the other, and they lapsed into silence.

Adam lost track of time as he sat there.  He remembered that he had been going to put on his coat when he had been attacked and now the chill dawn air was cutting through him, the discomfort adding to the pain in his head.  The combined effects made him sleepy and occasionally he closed his eyes, then jerked his head up painfully as he realised that he had dozed off.  It was some hours later that they heard hoof beats coming towards them.  Two mounted men appeared, one of them supporting the other, who was bent over in the saddle.

Adam sucked in a breath as he saw that the injured man was riding Sport, who pranced nervously at the feeling of the unaccustomed rider.

“What happened?” asked the older man as the newcomer dismounted.  He was carrying a strong box that he dropped on the ground.

The two who had been guarding Adam helped the injured man from the saddle, and laid him on the ground.  When Adam saw the man’s face, he froze.  It was like looking in a mirror, same dark hair and eyes, same high forehead, same curl to his mouth, the dark clothing completing the picture.  Adam could have been looking at himself.

“The driver had a gun hidden under his seat.  He took a shot at us as we rode off.  Got Mike in the back.”

“Now what are we going to do?” the older man asked, looking towards Adam.

“The Boss said that we would have to shoot him.”

“What?  Kill him?” asked the younger man, clearly worried by the prospect.

Adam sat, transfixed by this exchange, realising that he was in mortal danger.  If they decided to shoot him, there was nothing he could do about it.

“No,” replied the man, “just like Mike has been shot, gotta look the same.
They’ve gotta think it was him.  Boss says you mustn’t kill him though.”

”OK, let’s get on with it then,” said the older man, and they all three walked over to Adam.

The older man and the newcomer stood in front of Adam with their guns drawn, while the third went behind the tree and untied the ropes which were restraining him.  Adam brought his arms round in front of him and rubbed at his wrists.  The ropes had not been tight and there was not a mark on him, but his hands felt stiff from lack of movement.

“Get up,” ordered the older man.  Adam reluctantly got to his feet, and leant back against the tree, desperately looking for a means of escape, but there was no way out.  He was outnumbered and unarmed.

Adam thought about running, but before the thought had time to register, the newcomer put his gun away, and he and the younger man came up beside Adam and took hold of his arms.  He struggled against them, trying to break free, but the third man, who still had his gun drawn, hit Adam in the stomach with his fist.  Adam doubled over trying to drag air into his lungs.  The men turned him around, and forcing him to stand up straight, stretched his arms either side of the tree.

They pulled on his wrists so that Adam was pinned to the tree unable to move, his face rubbing against the rough bark.  Adam heard another horse approach.  He tried to turn to see the new arrival, but the two holding him just pulled harder on his wrists, preventing any movement.

“You sure you want to do this?” asked the older man.  There was silence, but the rider must have given him some indication, because the older man said, “OK, go ahead.”

Adam knew what was about to happen, and in a perverse way was grateful for the support of the men holding him.  His legs had gone weak, and his heart was pounding.  He knew that these men were about to shoot him, and he was terrified.  He had been shot before but not like this, so deliberately, in cold blood.

Adam surmised that they had robbed a stage somewhere, and it looked as though they were making certain that the blame would be laid squarely on him.  His thoughts turned to his family.  These men might not mean to kill him, but when you shoot someone in the back, it wasn’t easy to be sure it would not be fatal.  He might die, and his family would believe that he had robbed the stage!  He desperately did not want that to happen.  He tried and failed to pull his arms back, to get free any way he could, but he could not move, he was helpless and at their mercy.  He heard the shot and felt the bullet at the same moment.  It was just as though someone had hit him low in the back with a fist.  Then the pain came and it left him breathless.

The men holding Adam brought his arms back round the tree and supported him as his legs gave way, pulling his arms over their shoulders.  He tried to lift his head to look at the man who had shot him, but his eyes refused to focus properly.  Adam suddenly found that his head had become too heavy to support, and his chin dropped onto his chest.

“Get him on his horse and take him back.  Leave him near enough to his home that his horse will take him there,” said the man.

The three men dragged Adam over to where Sport was tethered, and between them they managed to get him mounted.  Then they were on their horses beside him, and were all four moving away.

The ride was a blur to Adam.  Somehow, the three men managed to keep him on Sport, and then suddenly he was alone.  He knew that he had to stay in the saddle; if he fell he would never be able to remount, and would probably die where he dropped.  His legs were going numb and he held on desperately to the pommel to keep himself upright.

Adam didn’t know where he was when his horse came to a standstill, but Sport had found his way home and come to a halt in front of the house.  Adam looked sideways and saw the familiar outline of his home.  The relief was so great that tears formed in his eyes.  Adam knew that he could not stay in the saddle any longer, and felt himself slowly slipping sideways.

“Pa…Pa,” he called faintly.  “Help me.  Pa, it wasn’t me…”  And he fell from his horse and hit the ground with a sickening thud.  He thought that he heard his father’s voice, but then the world disappeared.

*****

Chapter Eight

“Are you all right?” Hunt asked concerned.  Suddenly the young man in front of him had gone pale and seemed to be shaking, his eyes wide and staring.

“Yes…yes,” said Adam faintly.  “Could you get me a drink of water from the kitchen, please?”

Hunt rose and went in the direction Adam pointed.  As soon as he was alone Adam got shakily to his feet, and struggled to his father’s desk in the office alcove at the back of the room.  He hastily opened the top drawer of the desk and reached for the gun that was always kept there.  His heart was beating wildly in case it was missing, but his fingers closed over the butt and he drew it out as Hunt returned.

“What are you doing over there, you’re not supposed to be moving about,” said Hunt with a look of concern on his face.  Then he saw the gun in Adam’s hand.  “What do you think you are doing, young man?” he asked in an aggrieved tone, as though addressing a naughty schoolboy.

“I know where I was that morning,” Adam said roughly.  “As soon as I heard your voice it came flooding back.  You shouldn’t have spoken unless you were sure that I couldn’t hear you.  You made a big mistake there.  I know that it was you who organised the hold up, and it was you who shot me.”

“You’ll never be able to prove it, and no one is going to believe you.  I have spent the past week making myself acceptable in Virginia City.  They will never believe that I was involved in any hold up,” Hunt said confidently, but Adam’s next words had him worried.

“No?  Well just remember that I have spent the last twenty five years being accepted in Virginia City so I don’t think that a few days are going to count for much, do you?”  Adam’s voice was shaking with the effort he was making to hold the gun on Hunt.

Adam was leaning on the desk needing the support of the sturdy wooden furniture.  His legs were trembling, and he was not sure that he could stand much longer.  He was breathing heavily as he made his way to the front of the desk and sat on it.  He did not know what he was going to do next.  He had Hunt under his gun but could barely move.  If Hunt wanted to he could run for it, Adam would not be able to stop him.  Perhaps he could wound Hunt and prevent him from leaving.  Ben should be home soon, Adam remembered, if he could just hold on, his father could take over.

While Adam was trying to decide on his next move, Hunt had been easing towards the door preparing to make his escape.

“Don’t move any further.  Just go back and sit down,” ordered Adam.  Hunt stopped, considering.  He knew that if he waited long enough Adam would eventually collapse.

“Sit down or I shoot.  And don’t think that I won’t, just remember what you did to me.”  Hunt realised that Adam was serious.  He shrugged and sat down in the chair he had recently vacated.

“What do we do now?” he wanted to know.

“First you tell me why.  Why did you want to shoot me, and not kill me?  Then you tell me why you let me go.  Why did you stay in Virginia City?  You could have been long gone by now.”  Adam desperately wanted to close his eyes and sleep.  As he blinked he had to force his eyelids apart, and tried to concentrate on aiming the gun, which was becoming too heavy for him to hold.  Hunt knew that he only needed to keep talking for a few more minutes and Adam would collapse.

“Very well.  Whatever I say to you I will deny later.  They know it was you who robbed the stage, and that you might be desperate enough to invent some story to save your hide.”  Hunt paused and sat back in the chair, seemingly relaxed.

“A few weeks ago I travelled through Virginia City on my way to Sacramento.  I saw you in the street and a few discrete questions enabled me to find out who you were.  As soon as I saw you, a plan began forming in my mind.  All my life I have had to struggle against people like you.  The rich, the powerful.  People always looking down at me, keeping me from my true destiny.  People who could not see what I could be, if only they would give me the chance.  This was my opportunity to get back at them, by bringing the name of Cartwright into disrepute.  Having others turn away, whispering when they saw your family.”  Hunt paused.  He was enjoying explaining his plan to this man, seeing the look of horror and disgust, and knowing that he had succeeded.

“You see, I knew a man who looked just like you.  I figured that if I got this man to rob the stage, and he was identified as you, the law would not look too hard for anyone else in connection with the robbery.  I paid the man well, and then I just had to wait for the right moment.  As an employee of a stage line, it was not too hard to find out when a large shipment was being made on any other line.  It was just your misfortune, and my good luck, that the shipment and your being away from your family happened at the same time.  Saved me having to get you away from here.  You would not be able to prove where you were; the fact that you had lost your memory was an unexpected bonus.  I stayed at first just to make sure that it was you they blamed for the hold up.  Then I worked to make sure that it became more important to the people of Virginia City to see you brought to justice than to look for anyone else.  And it worked, the sheriff searched for the other man but I suspect without any great enthusiasm.  Certainly the posse with him were far from enthusiastic about it and gave up quite soon.”

Hunt stopped and was looking at Adam, studying his face.  It was clear that Adam was having trouble keeping the gun pointed at Hunt.  He was sweating and the gun was wavering as his hand shook.  Hunt continued to talk, watching as Adam grew weaker.

“I was quite concerned when your brothers started nosing about, but then even they had to admit there was no evidence to support your innocence.  As you can see from my presence here, I even fooled the sheriff into trusting me.  I was able to keep up with his progress, or lack of it, in looking for the other man.  I think everything will work out fine.  I would like to live round here and I can’t see anything to stop me.  With the money from the hold up I could live very comfortably for the rest of my life.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?  I know what you did,” Adam reminded him.

“Yes you do, but as I said, I will deny that I told you anything.  If your father returns and finds you holding a gun on me, I shall tell him you were trying to escape.  He’ll believe me; I know from Sheriff Coffee that Ben Cartwright is having a hard time believing in your innocence in the face of the evidence against you.  Then when they hang you I will have nothing to worry about.”

His father’s words came back to haunt Adam.  ‘I don’t want to believe you did it.’  Did that mean that Ben thought him guilty?  What Hunt had said about his father not believing in his innocence had shaken him.  Adam had suspected that his father had his doubts, but he had hoped that he was wrong.  Now Hunt had confirmed it.

“Hanging me won’t make you safe.  My brothers will come after you, and no matter where you hide they will find you, and make you pay for what you have done.”

Hunt was uneasy.  Adam’s words had shaken him, would people believe Cartwright?  Maybe he had made a mistake in not killing him straight away.  Perhaps it would be better to get him out of the way permanently, and this was the perfect opportunity.  He could say that he had killed in self-defence.  Hunt started to ease his hand under his coat.  Adam noticed the movement.

“Put your hands back where I can see them,” he ordered but Hunt took no notice.  Suddenly a gun appeared in his hand and he shot at Adam, who seeing the gun, fired at the same time.

Hunt’s bullet took Adam in the right shoulder.  He crashed back across the desk, and then rolled off onto the floor landing heavily on his back.  He groaned as the familiar pain returned, then he welcomed his old friend oblivion, and lay still.  Hunt sat in the chair, but his eyes stared sightlessly in front of him.  The hand holding the gun slowly slipped onto his lap, the lifeless fingers still gripping the butt.  A red stain was spreading over the front of his crisp white shirt.

*****

Chapter Nine

Ben had been to the logging camp and there he had met Hoss and Joe, and they returned home together to have lunch with Adam.  They all felt that they might not have too many opportunities left to enjoy a meal together.  They were about half a mile from the house when they heard gunshots in the distance.  They looked at each other, knowing that they all had the same thoughts.  Had the mob from town come back to wreak their vengeance for the murder of the guard, or was there some darker reason?

Without a word, they spurred their horses towards the house.  They galloped together into the yard and leapt from their horses, running towards the front door.  Ben was the first into the big room and saw a man sitting in the chair by the fire.  He glanced round but saw no one else.  He was about to speak to the visitor when he noticed the gun in his lap.  Then, as he approached, he saw the telltale stain on his shirt.

“What the devil…?” said Ben moving to the man’s side and feeling for a pulse.  He found nothing.  He searched the pockets of the corpse looking for some clue to his identity, and found a wallet that announced the man as ‘Jacob Hunt, Wells Fargo Investigator’.  Ben stood stunned looking at the visiting card he had found.  Wild thoughts went through his head.  Had Adam gone mad?  Had he shot Hunt and made his escape?  Had Roy been right all along?

Hoss had entered behind him and was equally shocked at the sight that greeted them.  He went to stand beside his father, who turned to look at him, his eyes filled with fear.

“Dear God, what’s he done?”  Ben asked, terrified of the answer.

Hoss knew what his father meant.  He felt a tight knot form in his stomach remembering that it was him who had given Adam a gun.  Had he used it to shoot Hunt?  Had his trust in his brother been misplaced?  No, Hoss wouldn’t believe that, there must be some other explanation.

Joe was the last to enter.  He came up behind his father and Hoss, looking down at the man sitting in the chair by the fireplace, and as he approached, he saw the blood.

“What happened?  Did Adam…?” No.  Even as the thought entered his head, he knew he didn’t believe it.  He started pacing back and forth trying to make sense of what he was seeing.  As he turned by the staircase, he looked towards the office alcove.

“Pa, look.  Adam…” he was calling as he ran towards the desk, and round it.  Ben and Hoss looked towards him and, without understanding what he was shouting about, followed him.

Joe was standing, staring down at Adam who was lying unconscious on the floor behind the desk, the blood seeping from his shoulder forming a thin film, which gradually advanced towards Joe’s feet across the highly polished floorboards.  Joe glanced up as Ben approached.  He couldn’t tell whether his brother was dead or alive, and suddenly he did not have the courage to find out.  Ben knelt down and held Adam’s wrist looking for a pulse, then he bent to put his ear to Adam’s chest.  Letting out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding, Ben sat back on his heels.

“Thank God, he’s alive.  Joe go for the doctor, quickly.”  Joe left at a dead run not saying a word, wanting to get into town as fast as he could.  He ran into the yard and vaulted onto Cochice’s back, and had the horse into a gallop before his feet were properly in the stirrups.

Meanwhile, inside the house, Ben examined the wound in his son’s shoulder.  Hoss hurried to the kitchen for some cloths, and between them he and Ben tried to stop the bleeding.  Then they gently lifted Adam and took him back up to his room.  Adam showed no reaction to being moved, he was a dead weight in their arms.

It was nearly four hours later that Paul Martin appeared.  It had been four of the worst hours of Ben’s life.  He did not know what had happened and he did not know how to help Adam.  All he could do was to try to stop the bleeding, and pray.  He did both with determination.

“Ben what happened.  I just took a look at Hunt, he’s been shot as well.”

“Paul, I don’t know.  I assume that Adam and Hunt shot each other, but I just don’t know why.”

Paul had moved to the side of the bed and had begun to examine his patient.
“I must get the bullet out, he wasn’t strong before this.  You know I did not really want him to get up, but he persuaded me that it would do him good.”

As the doctor said this Ben suddenly had an unsettling interpretation of events.  Had Adam asked to be allowed downstairs with the idea of making his escape?  Would he have shot Roy if he had been there?

“Ben, you must realise that he is in real danger.  He’s only just starting to recover from the wound in his back.  If I don’t get the bullet out and stop the bleeding, well…”  Ben looked up at him.

“Roy is on his way here,” Paul continued.  “He was going to Placerville, and left Hunt looking after Adam, but he’s coming here first instead.  Why don’t you go down and wait for him?  I can take care of this on my own.”  And with this, Paul ushered him from the room.

Ben went downstairs where he saw Hoss and Joe looking up at him, then his eyes went to the blanket covered form of Hunt, still in the chair.

“Take the body out to the barn, boys.”  Ben couldn’t bear for it to be in the house, with all that it might mean.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Roy?” asked Joe.

“No, I don’t want it here.  Get it out,” said Ben harshly, and Joe and Hoss moved to do their father’s bidding.

When they had finished, they returned to find Ben staring out of the window behind the dining table.  They looked anxiously at each other; they did not know how to help him.  Joe went up behind his father and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Pa, it’s going to be all right you’ll see.  I’m sure Adam wouldn’t have shot Hunt just with the idea of escape.  There has to be some other explanation.”

Hoss came to his father’s side.  “Sure Pa,” he said taking his father’s arm and turning him to face them, “If Adam shot Hunt then there must have been some very good reason.”

“Like there was a good reason for him to rob the stage?”  Ben said sharply.

Ben looked at his sons.  He hoped against hope that they were right.  He put his arms up and embraced both of them.

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right.  It’s just that it’s a bit difficult at the moment to think of a reasonable explanation, but I’m sure there is one.  We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Hoss made some coffee and they were sitting drinking it when they heard a horse outside.  Joe got up and went to open the door.  Roy Coffee finished tying his horse to the hitching rail and approached.

“Hello, Roy, come in,” said Joe and turned back into the house.  The sheriff followed him in and, taking off his hat, approached Ben who was sitting in the chair opposite the one in which Hunt had earlier died.

“Ben, I’m sorry to have to come back here under these circumstances.  I had hoped to be half way to Placerville by now.  We had a lead on the other man in the robbery, but I’ve wired the sheriff there so they ought to be able to handle things.  Now tell me what happened.”

“First tell me what Hunt was doing here,” demanded Ben

“I left him looking after Adam.  As I said I was going to Placerville and Hunt offered his services.  I asked Adam if he objected to Hunt being here, and he said that he didn’t mind.  With the eyewitnesses I have for the robbery I didn’t need him to testify, so I didn’t think it would matter if he spent time with Adam.  Now, tell me what happened.”  Roy sat beside Hoss and Joe, on the end of the sofa.

“I don’t know,” said Ben flatly.

“Come on Ben, I need your help if I am going to get to the bottom of this,” said Roy, exasperated at Ben’s lack of cooperation.

“We weren’t here,” said Joe, “all three of us were coming back from the logging camp when we heard shots which sounded as though they came from this direction.  When we got here Hunt was dead and Adam was lying on the floor unconscious, with a bullet in his shoulder.”

“That’s the way of it, Roy,” added Hoss, “we don’t know no more than that.”

“So Adam and Hunt were alone?  Did you see any sign of anybody having been here?”

“No,” said Ben.  “Although there may have been, we weren’t paying much attention to anything except Adam after we found him.”

Roy was thoughtful for a moment.  “Then I’ll have to wait for Adam to wake up and see what he has to say.”  Roy paused then asked “ Ben can I wait here?”  Roy looked up at Ben unsure of the reply.  He had not been the most popular man at that house recently.

“Of course, Roy.  We just want to find out what happened.  If Adam shot Hunt with the idea of escaping, then we need to know.  It just proves his guilt,” Ben said sorrowfully.

“Dadburn it Pa, all that would prove is that Adam was desperate enough to try anything.  He knew he couldn’t prove that he wasn’t involved and maybe he felt cornered.  Perhaps he didn’t take to the idea of dying for something he didn’t do,” Hoss said angrily.

Ben stared at Hoss, surprised by the vehemence of his statement, then he started pacing the floor, waiting for Paul to finish treating Adam.  It seemed to him that the doctor was taking far too long, perhaps something had gone wrong.  Ben was just about to go upstairs to see what had happened when Paul appeared.

“Ben, I’ve finished.”  Paul came down the stairs as he spoke.  He was looking across at Ben, and could tell how anxious he was.

“How is he?  Did he say anything?” Ben asked, the answer to both questions equally important to him.

“He’s very weak.  I won’t beat around the bush with you Ben, we’ve known each other far too long for me to try to tell you less than the truth.  Adam is a very sick young man.  The bullet hit the top of his shoulder blade, I’ve had to take several pieces of it out of the wound.  You know that he was out of bed this morning against my better judgement, but I felt that a quiet couple of hours sitting down here wouldn’t hurt him.  Now he’s opened up the wound in his back again, and with that and the bullet he took in his shoulder he’s lost a lot of blood, and he’s in shock.  I need someone with him all the time.  You must keep him warm, and try to get as much liquid into him as you can.”

“I’ll go,” said Joe and hurried up the stairs.

“Roy, he hasn’t said anything and is not likely to for some considerable time,” said Paul turning to the Sheriff.

“Then I’ll just have to wait until he does.  Let’s hope he can remember it this time.”

Ben thought that the last remark was hitting below the belt, but he let it pass.  Instead, he sent Hoss into the kitchen to tell Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s cook and housekeeper, that there would be an extra guest for supper.  Hop Sing told Hoss that he would prepare a hot meal, but that he would also be there should they need anything through the night.  The canny Chinaman knew that no one was going to get much sleep that night, including himself.

Through the dark hours Hoss, Joe and Roy had taken their turns at sitting with Adam, watching over him, each one wanting him to awaken and tell them what had happened.  But he had not stirred, and now it was Ben’s turn.  He had been sitting with his motionless son for the past hour, and was getting stiff from the inactivity.  He stretched and yawned, how much longer would it be before Adam woke up?  Ben was desperate for some answers, which only his son could provide.  Answers that he might not want to hear, but there would be no going back once he had them.

Dawn was just breaking as Ben looked out of Adam’s bedroom window.  The pale light falling on his face highlighted the effects of the past days, the lines etched deeper than normal.  He placed his hands on the windowsill and leant his forehead against the cold glass.

“Dear Lord, please let my son be all right.  Please don’t take him from me yet, I’m not ready to lose him.  His brothers need him, I need him.”

“Do you need me Pa?” said a quiet voice.  Ben turned to look at Adam.  He returned to the chair beside the bed, and took Adam’s hand in his.

“Yes, son I do.  I need your strength, and your support.  I need your love and your understanding.  And your brothers need your wisdom and your guidance.”  The two men looked at each other for a long time neither saying anything, each with their own thoughts that they could not share.

Eventually Ben reached out for the tumbler that was sitting on the bedside table.  Paul had said that Adam needed to drink plenty, and Ben was not going to miss this opportunity to get some water into his son.  Adam had closed his eyes, he was so tired he could not even raise his head, and Ben gently put his hand under Adam’s head to help him drink.  Adam groaned as he was moved, his back was aching from his old wound, and sharp pains were shooting through his shoulder.

“Even if I’m a murderer?” Adam said as he sank back on the pillows.

“What do you mean?” asked Ben taken aback by the question.

“Hunt told me that you thought I was guilty.”  Adam opened his eyes and looked straight at his father, he saw the expression that crossed Ben’s face and he knew, with a sick feeling in his heart, that Hunt had been right.  Ben lowered his head and took several deep breaths, working out what to say in reply.  He raised his eyes to meet his son’s

“I can’t deny that I find it difficult, with the evidence to hand, to see how you could not have robbed the stage.  You say you don’t think you did it, and I will try with every fibre of my being to support you, and believe in you.  But my belief does not count for much with the law, we have to find some evidence that will convince a jury.”  Ben paused, he could see that Adam was tiring.

“But you didn’t immediately believe me?”  Adam’s face reflected the difficulty he was having in keeping up this conversation.  But it was important for him to have the answers he was looking for.

Ben hesitated.  He looked at his son knowing he might not survive this latest attack on him, and decided that he deserved the truth, however painful that might be.

“No, I didn’t.  Adam we need to talk about what happened, you and Hunt.  Did you shoot each other or was it someone else?”

“Pa, I have a lot to tell you…but I don’t think I can do it now.”  Adam paused, and took a deep breath, “It’s gonna be all right… I know what happened, I’ve rememb….”  Adam had closed his eyes again, and without realising it, had drifted off to sleep.

“What do you mean ‘it’s going to be all right’?  What have you remembered?”  Ben put his hand on Adam’s uninjured shoulder and shook it gently, but he got no response.  Adam’s sleep was deep and dreamless; it would be many hours before he stirred again.

Ben sat for some time just looking at his first-born child.  So peaceful now, sleep ironing out the lines of his face.  Now Ben had a ray of hope.  Had Adam been trying to tell him that he could prove his innocence?  Ben dared to believe.

*****

Chapter Ten

Roy Coffee was sitting at the dining table watching his old friend pacing the floor.  Ben had not eaten much supper and had got to his feet as soon as Hop Sing had cleared the table.  He had been restless all day, waiting for Adam to awaken and tell him what he meant by his enigmatic remark.

“Ben, for goodness sake sit down.  You’re going to wear yourself out.  Not to mention what you are doing to the rug.”

“Roy, when is he going to wake up?  I can’t bear not knowing what he wants to tell us,” Ben said, perching on the arm of a chair for ten seconds before getting to his feet and resuming his pacing.

“He’ll wake in his own good time.  If you try to rouse him sooner he won’t be able to tell you anything, and Paul will take it out of your hide.”

At that moment, Paul Martin knocked and entered.  He had been coming and going all day, he wanted to be there when Adam woke.  He knew that all present were anxious that Adam should be able to speak to them, but Paul was going to make sure that he didn’t kill himself in the process.  He helped himself to a cup of coffee and sat down.

“I take it by your pacing that Adam is still unconscious?” Paul asked.

“Yes,” was all Ben said, not breaking step.

“Ben, I know you want him awake, but the longer he sleeps the better.  He’s getting stronger all the time.  When he comes round, he should be able to talk to you.  But don’t rush it, it will happen when Adam’s body decides it can cope, not before.”

“I know, I know but…”

“Pa, he’s awake,” said Joe excitedly, running half way down the stairs, then turning to run back up them, not waiting for any reply.  The three men looked after him, and for a heartbeat did not move, then all three made for the stairs.

Outside Adam’s room Paul stopped and blocked the way.

“Now listen you two.  I’m going in to see how he is.  If I think he’s strong enough to talk then you can come in.  If not, you will wait until I say you can see him.  Do I make myself clear?”  Paul looked at Ben and Roy from under stern eyebrows, and it would have been a brave man who would challenge him at that moment.  He got wordless nods in response.

Now it was Roy’s turn to pace, and he did so outside the door with Ben watching.  They could hear low voices coming from the room, but could not make out any words.  After what seemed like no more than a lifetime, Paul emerged and told them that they could come in.

Joe and Hoss were already in the room.  They had been watching over Adam when he woke and they wanted to be there when he spoke to their father.  So they tried to melt into the background in case Paul decided there were too many people present.  But Paul simply glanced at them, he understood.

“OK, Adam wants to speak to you, but if I think he’s overdoing it I’m going to throw you all out.”  Paul went to stand protectively on the far side of the bed, hovering over his patient like a guardian angel.  But in truth he was worried, he had managed to pull Adam back from the edge twice in recent days, and he wasn’t going to lose him now.

Ben pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat down.  He took Adam’s hand in his and squeezed it gently.  Adam looked at Ben and smiled, he hoped that he was about to make his father very happy and he was going to enjoy every moment.

Adam’s voice was soft when he spoke, and they could all see the effort it was costing him.

“Pa, I have a lot to tell you, please just listen and don’t interrupt.  I want to be able to tell you all of it now.”

Ben nodded his agreement and looked round at Roy, who was standing behind him and also nodded.  “Carry on son, I’m listening.”

Adam told them the story that Hunt had related to him, about finding Adam, plotting the robbery, and laying the blame on him.  About shooting him when his double was shot, and being willing to let Adam hang for the murder of the guard.  Then he told them how Hunt had tried to kill him, when it became clear that Adam might be able to persuade the law that Hunt, and not himself had been the perpetrator of these crimes.  How Adam had shot Hunt in self-defence.

It took Adam nearly an hour to tell his story, he had to stop often for Ben to
give him sips of water, and at one point Doc Martin stopped him and was on the verge of clearing the room, but Adam insisted that he wanted to finish his account of what had happened.  With his story told he was exhausted and closed his eyes, but did not sleep again.  His mind was racing, thinking about Hunt and what he had done, and what might have been the outcome, but for the man’s audacity in coming to the ranch.

Ben still held Adam’s hand in his.  He felt that he had been given his son back, and he wasn’t about to let go of him.  His gaze went to his other sons and they smiled at each other in relief.  At last they could get on with their lives.

“Just a minute.”  It was Roy who broke the spell.  “It’s all very well for Adam to tell us all this, but with Hunt dead you have absolutely no proof.”

“What…?”  Ben was astounded.

Roy spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders, “Ben, he could have made it all up.  He can’t prove any of it.  Now, I reckon he’s telling the truth, but I’m not the one he has to convince.  Think about it.  I have four eyewitnesses who will testify that it was Adam who robbed the stage.  You only have Adam’s word for what Hunt told him, and you expect a jury to believe that when Adam found out it was Hunt who had set it all up, he shot him, the only other person who knew the truth?”

Adam had opened his eyes and was staring astounded at the sheriff; it had not occurred to him that he couldn’t prove what he was saying.  He had not had a lot of time to think about it, but of course Roy was right, it was his word against a dead man, a man he, himself, had shot.

Roy moved closer to the bed and looked down at his prime suspect.

“Adam, I believe what you are telling us but somehow we have to get some evidence.  Now we know what we are dealing with we may be able to come up with something.”

“Roy, I appreciate your position,” Adam said slowly, his voice was fading with his strength.  He had talked too long and was paying the price.  He was going to say more, but Paul interrupted him.

“That’s enough, he needs rest.  Out, all of you.”

Paul turned to Adam, who was trying to object to his father leaving.

“Adam, in the last eight days I have taken two .38s out of you.  You cannot expect to be able to just carry on as normal.  It’s going to take you several more days before you begin to feel anything but exhausted.  So just lie back and rest.”

While Paul was speaking, Roy and Ben had begun following Hoss and Joe out of the room.  Roy stopped so suddenly that Ben ran into the back of him.

“What did you say?” Roy asked, turning back slowly into the room and staring wide eyed at the doctor.

“I said it was going to take Adam several days before he begins to feel better.”

“No, not that, before that.  About the bullets.”

”What?  Oh, you mean the two .38s.  I said I took two .38s out of Adam in the last eight days.  Why?  What’s wrong?”  Paul was puzzled, it all seemed quite straightforward to him.

Roy went to the end of the bed and leant on the footboard.  He looked at Adam and smiled broadly.  Adam was totally confused, he was not thinking too clearly as tiredness overtook him, and he could make no sense of what was going on around him.  He was not alone, everyone else in the room also looked at Roy in complete confusion.

Roy could not hide his excitement as he spoke, “Adam, that’s it.  I know now that you are innocent, and so will the rest of town by the time I get through telling them.  There should never have been any doubt about it.  I just didn’t have all the facts.”

“Roy,” said Ben exasperated, “will you please tell us what you mean.”

“Roy, what do you know now that you didn’t know five minutes ago?” whispered Adam softly.  His strength had deserted him, and if it hadn’t been for Roy’s excitement he would have lapsed into unconsciousness, but he was fighting not to let that happen until he found out what this was all about.

“Paul said ‘two .38s’.  The stage driver had a .45.”  Roy looked round at the men in the room, who were staring, stunned by the simplicity of the statement.  He looked down at Adam.  “Do you understand, there’s no doubt about it?  The driver didn’t shoot you.  It proves that you did not rob the stage.  Hunt used a .38.  It proves that what you say is true.”

Adam lay motionless.  He had gone completely numb.  Was it all over, had that simple fact cleared him of the charges brought against him?  It appeared so.  He searched for his father’s face, and when he found it, they exchanged such a look of relief that it brought tears to both their eyes.  Adam blinked slowly, and then found that he was unable to open his eyes again.  Blackness overtook him and he slipped into a peaceful sleep.

*****

Chapter Eleven

Two days after Paul’s revelation about the bullets, Sam Whittaker, who had a ranch about fifty miles east of the Ponderosa, drove his buckboard into the front yard.  Ben went out to greet him warmly, not having seen him for some months.

“Howdy Sam, what brings you way out here?”  Ben extended his hand and Sam took it.  But the look on his face told Ben that something was very wrong.  “What is it Sam, what’s the matter?”

“Ben I’m sorry to be the one to do this to you, but I have something here you should see.”

Sam went to the back of the buckboard where a tarpaulin covered the load he was carrying.  Sam pulled the edge of the tarpaulin aside, and Ben paled as he saw what it had concealed.  It was Adam, dead!  Ben quickly recovered; Adam was safe in the house tucked up in bed, his wounds healing.

“Sam don’t worry.  That’s not Adam.”

“But…”

“It’s all right.  Come in the house and I’ll tell you all about it.  I’ll get one of the hands to take the body into Virginia City.”

And with that, Ben took Sam in and showed him Adam, alive, and told him what had happened.

At about the same time, the sheriff in Placerville was trying to arrest a man who had been accused of cheating in the Silver Dollar saloon.  The man decided to shoot his way out of it, but hadn’t reckoned on the sheriff getting the better of him.  He was killed, and when the sheriff went to search his room at the hotel, he found four thousand dollars in a bag labelled ‘First Virginia City Bank’.

The sheriff immediately contacted Roy Coffee and informed him of the shooting, also sending a description of the man.  Roy came out to the Ponderosa to see Adam.  He described the man in Placerville, and Adam confirmed that it sounded like the man who had been sitting by the fire guarding him, when he woke up in the clearing.

Nothing was heard of the other men involved in the robbery, or of the rest of the money.  Hunt had been right when he said that getting Adam involved would draw attention away from the rest of the gang.

*****

Chapter Twelve

Adam Cartwright was sitting by his campfire in the forest high above the north pastures, looking west into the setting sun.

It was only four weeks since he had sat in this same spot looking at the sunset, and he was thinking about his life and the way it had changed since then.

He had been cleared of all charges against him, and was at last beginning to feel strong again.  He shifted his position slightly to relieve the aches in his back and shoulder.  The physical wounds were healing, but he still felt tired at the end of the day, and the ride up here had taken more out of him than he cared to admit.  His father had been reluctant to let him go alone into the mountains, but Adam had eventually persuaded him, by allowing that Hoss and Joe could come and ride back with him tomorrow.

The long ride had probably been a mistake.  By the time he arrived, his back was hurting with every step Sport took, and the pain in his shoulder was making it difficult to move his arm.  But Adam ignored it all, he knew he had to get out on his own.  The very thought of being alone up here had filled him with dread, but he knew that if he didn’t do it he might never again be able to roam freely about the ranch.

Now he felt relaxed for the first time in weeks.  His fears had left him, and he felt at peace with himself.  Now he had some decisions to make.

While he was charged with the killing of the stage guard, and was facing the gallows, he had reflected on what he had done with his life, and what he still wanted to do.  He had always wanted to see more of the world, and thought he was going to die with that desire unfulfilled.  Now he had been given his life back he determined that, given the same circumstances, he wanted to face death with no such regrets.

He had stayed with his family because he felt that they needed him, indeed his father had said as much.  But now he knew it was time for him to think about what he wanted.  Hoss and Joe were men now and his father did not need his help with them, and they were both old enough to look after Ben and the ranch without him.

Adam had been deeply hurt by the fact that his father believed him capable of the things he had been charged with, and no matter how logical it had been for Ben to think him guilty, Adam was disappointed that his father had not been more certain of his innocence.  Roy had said that there would have been no doubt of his innocence if they had known about the first bullet.  Adam felt that his father should have known him well enough to know he was innocent without that proof.  But his father had doubted him.  This was what was tipping the balance.  Adam thought that if he went away for a time his relationship with his father might again return to the confidence that they once shared in each other.

Without his father’s knowledge, he had written to his cousin, Matthew Stoddard, who had taken over his grandfather’s shipping business, and offered his services as an agent for the company.  His cousin had written back saying that he needed someone who could travel to foreign ports, sorting out the problems they had, and Adam told him that he would be willing to take on that role.

Now all he had to do was tell his father.  Ben would be upset, but Adam knew that he would not stand in his way, especially if Adam promised him that he would return.

Adam knew he would miss this country, the wide open spaces and the freedom of their land, but there was so much more that he wanted to see and do, and it, and his family, would still be here when he returned.  He settled down for the night knowing in his heart that he was making the right decision.  A new chapter in his life was about to open and he was content.

***The End***

October 2001

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