A Better Man? (Diana)

Summary:  Adam goes undercover to help capture a group of rustlers.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  25,800


 

“Get in there, Cartwright!” the marshal ordered sternly. He held a gun in one hand and placed the other firmly in the centre of Adam’s back, giving a shove to encourage him to enter the jail cell that stood open, waiting for him.

As he stumbled across the threshold Adam turned, his brown eyes seeming black as anger filled them. “Don’t touch me!” he growled.

Marshal Andrews grinned. “Well, that’s going to be difficult, unless you don’t want me to untie you.”

Adam glared at him, but then stood with his back to the marshal so that his captor could release the rope that bound his hands. Andrews gave a final, meaningful push in Adam’s back that sent him staggering against the far wall, and then he locked the door and turned away.

Adam crossed the cell in two strides and gripped the bars, his knuckles whitening with fury. “I’m not going back there to hang!” he shouted.

Andrews turned back and leered at his newest prisoner. “That’s up to the jury, of course. But I know local justice; you’d better start saying your prayers.”

Adam shook the bars and swore silently at the retreating back of the marshal, then turned to glare at the other occupant of the large cell, the only one in the dingy jailhouse. “What are you looking at?” he said threateningly to the man sat on one of the cots, which stood two either side of the room.

The man shifted his eyes away, not attempting to answer. Adam took a step towards him, and Albie Cronin felt as though a cloud had covered the sun; the black hair and clothing emphasizing the intense dark stare from his new cellmate.

Adam studied Cronin for a minute. He wore a brown shirt and grey pants that were crumpled, but seemed clean enough. He was as tall as Adam and, like him, powerfully built with broad shoulders. The strong face under the brown hair was weathered from years spent wandering the country, making it look older than his forty years, but his wide-set eyes were alert and watchful, and right now they were watching Adam as he threw his hat onto the cot and sat down muttering to himself. As he lay back, Adam moved his head to look through the bars of his temporary home and he could see Andrews sitting, bent over the papers that were scattered across the heavy wooden desk. Adam’s eyes wandered to the board behind the marshal’s head, where he spotted a poster in the middle of several others, and saw it bore a likeness of himself. Above the picture were the words, ‘Wanted: for Murder’, and below, ‘Adam Cartwright. $2,000 reward: Dead or Alive’. Adam looked back at his fellow prisoner and saw that he too had spied the poster. They exchanged glances, and nods, then Adam closed his eyes and his mind traveled back to the conversation which had brought him to this dismal place.

*****

Ben Cartwright answered the knock on the door and found Sheriff Roy Coffee standing before him. “Come in, Roy,” he invited, standing aside to allow the sheriff to enter. “What brings you out here?”

Roy sounded uncomfortable as he answered. “Is Adam here?”

Ben was puzzled at the tone, but replied instantly. “Yes, he’s upstairs. Do you want to talk to him?”

“I want to speak to both of you.” Roy perched on the edge of the settee in front of the fireplace, while Ben went to get Adam, who was in his room. A minute later they both appeared.

“Hi, Roy,” said Adam, descending the stairs behind his father, “Pa says you want to talk to me.”

Roy stood and looked at both men. They could tell, by the nervous fingering of his hat, that the sheriff had something difficult to say. Ben offered him a drink to help him relax, and then he and Adam sat, while they waited for Roy to speak.

The sheriff paced up and down behind the settee. “I got a message today from an old friend of mine who’s the marshal in Lake View. He’s got a prisoner locked up in Alturas, some fifty miles south, who’s giving him a bit of a problem.”

Ben and Adam exchanged glances. They knew of Lake View, but neither of them had ever heard of Alturas. They looked back at Roy as he came to sit beside Adam, on the settee.

“It seems that the ranchers round there have been losing quite a few cattle lately, and this man, Albie Cronin, is involved in it. Andrews knows that he could try and convict Cronin, but that won’t stop the rustling. He wrote to me for help; he wants the whole gang.” He paused again, seeming reluctant to continue.

From the sheriff’s tone, Adam was beginning to get an idea of what was coming, and decided to come to the aid of his friend. “Roy, do you need our help in some way? You know you only have to ask.”

Roy cleared his throat. “Yes, I do. Andrews has a suggestion for getting all of them. He’s tried to find their hide-out, but it’s somewhere in a tangle of canyons and they’ve always lost the trail, whenever they have been able to follow them. He wants someone to infiltrate the gang and let him know where they plan to strike. He can be waiting for them and grab the lot.”

Ben looked from Roy to Adam and back again. “Go on,” he said softly. He too, was beginning to see where this was leading.

“Andrews asked me if I knew anyone who could do the job. It has to be someone he can trust, someone who knows cattle, and who would be able to take care of himself if there was trouble.” Roy looked at both men, wondering if he had the right to ask for this kind of help from his friends. He took a deep breath. “I thought of Adam.”

There was silence, and the only sound that could be heard was the ticking of the long-case clock by the front door, as all three men considered the implications of those words.

It was Adam who spoke first. “When do you want me?”

Roy relaxed slightly; he could tell by that simple question that Adam had agreed to take on the job.

Ben reacted instantly. “Now, just hold on a minute.” He turned to the sheriff. “Roy, you come here and ask Adam to help you, knowing that there might be trouble. I won’t let him purposely put himself at risk.” Ben shied away from the thought of his irreplaceable eldest son getting hurt, perhaps killed.

“Hang on a minute Pa.” Adam held up a placating hand as he sat forward and addressed Roy. “These rustlers are obviously a big problem. How many cattle have they taken?”

“Andrews says several hundred head so far. They started small, just taking a few here and there, but recently they’ve got more confident and it’s becoming a real threat. There are small ranchers in the area who are in danger of going under because of the losses.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Ben, “but we have our own problems here. I don’t know that I can spare Adam just now.” He was trying to find any reason to keep his son out of this plainly dangerous plan.

“Pa, you know as well as I how these things can spread. They may be hitting ranches a long way from here now, but it might not be long before they hit us. If they’ve taken that many cattle they’re going to have to move on soon. This may be the best chance to stop them, and those ranchers need our help.”

“That’s what Andrews thought too,” Roy said, nodding. “This could be the only time for such a plan to work.”

“What’s he got in mind?” Adam avoided looking at Ben, aware of his father’s unhappy expression.

“He thought that you could go up there, get yourself arrested, and break out of jail with this Cronin. Hopefully you could attach yourself to the gang, gain their confidence and get the information that Andrews needs.”

Ben interrupted. “Just how is he going to get himself arrested? It has to be for something more than brawling in the saloon.”

“I’ll send Andrews some posters saying that Adam is wanted down here for murder. That should convince Cronin that Adam would be desperate enough to want to break jail, and not be too worried about a little rustling.”

Adam nodded. “Sounds as though it might work.”

“Adam…”

“Pa, I appreciate that you’re worried, but I think it’s up to me to decide whether I do it or not. And remember, if they come this way we stand to lose more than most.” Ben looked as though he was going to argue, but Adam turned to Roy. “When?”

“Right away. I’ll get Nate at the newspaper office to print the posters, we can trust him not to say anything, and I’ll send them to Andrews. You follow in a couple of days. I’ll tell him to keep an eye out for you, so you can meet to finalize the plan, and make any arrangements you need to get the information to him. Then he can arrest you before anyone else gets the same idea.”

“Right. I’ll leave day after tomorrow.”

Roy stood and held out his hand to Adam, who also got to his feet.

“Thanks Adam. Take care of yourself.” Roy looked across at Ben who was glaring at him, and he knew that it would be a long time before his old friend forgave him for getting Adam involved.

*****

Adam was lying on his cot in the first light of day thinking that he would have been more comfortable sleeping on the ground. The mattress was lumpy and smelt of its former occupants. He swung his feet onto the floor as he sat up, and found his cellmate studying him.

Cronin smiled. “Murder, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Adam ruefully, “you?”

“They think they got me for rustling, but they’ll have a hard time proving it. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Really?” Adam let a note of disbelief into his voice.

“OK, so I may have helped myself to the odd steer,” Cronin smiled. “Well, maybe more than one or two.” He paused. “Who’d you kill?”

“Some drunk from the saloon.” Cronin looked questioningly at Adam, so he continued. “He accused me of taking his girl. Wouldn’t let it rest and when I went outside he jumped me. I didn’t mean to kill him, but he didn’t leave me much choice.”

“Don’t make it murder, if he jumped you and you had to kill him.”

“It wouldn’t, if I hadn’t threatened to do just that when we were arguing in the saloon, guess I was mite drunk too. And there was a witness who said that I attacked the man. Might have got away with it but for him, I didn’t know that he was a friend of the drunk and had followed him. ”

“Careless,” observed Cronin.

Adam shrugged. “So I took off, but it seems the posters got here before me.”

“Where’d it happen?”

“Virginia City.”

Albie raised his eyebrows in surprise; Virginia City was a good way south. “How long you been on the run?”

“Three weeks.” Adam had, in fact, taken only a few days to reach Alturas but wanted Cronin to think that he had simply wandered into the town by accident. Adam decided that he had given Cronin enough information for the moment and he stood and approached the bars then turned. “You should know that I don’t plan to stay here and let them send me back.”

“What you got in mind?”

“Just follow my lead and we’ll be out of here.”

Cronin nodded his acknowledgement, and the next thing he knew Adam grabbed hold of the front of his shirt, pulled him to his feet and landed a blow on his chin. Cronin retaliated with a fist in Adam’s stomach and then they were on the floor struggling with each other. The sheriff came to his feet as he heard the noise of a fight and approached the cell. He turned back to the desk and picked up the keys, then, unlocking the door, he went in and tried to separate the two men, who seemed intent on tearing each other apart. He was taken by surprise as both men turned on him, and he was forced to the ground. Adam hit him square on the chin and the sheriff ceased to be concerned about his prisoners.

Adam and Cronin looked at each other and smiled; then Adam lifted the sheriff onto one of the cots, picked up his hat and made his way out of the cell and into the office with Cronin following. He searched through the drawers of the desk until he found both their gun belts, complete with weapons.

“That was the easy part, now we have to get out of town,” said Adam. “My horse is in the livery, how about yours?”

“Not sure, probably.”

“OK, let’s go.”

The two men walked out unobserved, and casually made their way across the deserted early morning street towards the livery stable. They quickly found Adam’s dark bay horse, and next to him was Cronin’s buckskin, well fed and watered. Adam had not brought his own horse, Sport, who had been his companion for ten years; he realized that, subconsciously, he was protecting the animal should anything go wrong and he wasn’t able to return home. They soon had the horses ready to go and rode slowly south out of town, attracting no attention from the few citizens who were about at that early hour. Adam was relieved when he saw the way Cronin headed. Andrews suspected that the rustler’s hideout lay in that direction, and it seemed as though he had guessed correctly. Once clear of the town they kicked their mounts into a gallop and were miles away when the sheriff came round and ran for the marshal.

As soon as they felt that they had put enough distance between the town and themselves to feel safe from pursuit, they pulled the horses into a walk and rode easily, side by side. As they passed the opening to a canyon Cronin halted and turned to Adam.

“What you goin’ to do now?” he asked.

“Don’t rightly know.” Adam shook his head as he thought. “It’s not easy for an outlaw to make an honest living.”

“I could help you, if you’re not too fussy about the ‘honest’ bit.”

“Oh?” Adam held his breath; the whole plan depended on Cronin inviting him to join the rustlers.

“Yeah. That little bit of rustling?” Cronin saw Adam nod. “Well, it’s more than a little, we got quite a business going here and the law ain’t been able to touch us. I figure that I owe you for getting me out of jail, so how would you like a share in it?”

Adam looked round at the thickly wooded slopes and rocky outcrops that surrounded them, as though trying to decide what to do. He turned back to Cronin, who was waiting expectantly. Adam shrugged. “Well, I must admit that kind of work wasn’t what I had in mind, but I do need some money and fast, so OK, thanks.”

Cronin smiled. “The camp’s not far from here; it’s over some pretty rough country, but that’s what’s stopped the law finding us. Come on.”

Cronin turned his horse and started into the canyon. He was right, the ground was strewn with rocks and the almost invisible trail made its way through narrow passages between the towering cliffs. They traveled slowly and stopped to share some coffee that remained in Adam’s saddle bags from his journey north. He also had a small coffee pot and one metal cup, and they sat drinking, sharing the cup.

Cronin was still curious about his new companion; he was obviously a man who could take care of himself and use his head, but he didn’t seem the type to have got mixed up in murder; his speech and the quality of his gun belt, weapon and the equipment for his horse told Cronin that he was no trail bum.

“What were you doin’ in Virginia City, you come from round there?” Cronin passed the cup to Adam who delayed answering while he drank.

This was the moment that Adam had dreaded. He was going to have to tell Cronin something about himself and had decided to stick as close as he could to the truth; it was always possible that he might come across someone who knew him. Many of the extra hands they hired for the roundups were just passing through, and would move on after the job was finished, scattering around the country. That was one reason why he had used his own name, it would be less suspicious than an alias, and anyone who knew the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights might accept that Adam had run rather than stand trial. He could explain that he didn’t want his family’s name dragged through court, didn’t want his father to see him hang.

Adam nodded. “My family owns a ranch there. We raise cattle and have a good timber business, as well as some mining.”

“Big place then.” He accepted the cup back from Adam. “How many head you got?”

Adam smiled, waiting for Cronin’s reaction. “About ten thousand at the last count.”

“Ten…” there was a distinct pause, “…thousand!”

“Give or take.”

“And you left all that!” Cronin shook his head in wonder. “Why?” He refilled the cup and handed it to Adam.

“Why?” Adam repeated, and Cronin nodded. “Guess after what happened I didn’t have much choice. I could have stayed, could have relied on the reputation I have,” Adam paused, “had, for being honest and law abiding, but you don’t build the kind of place we have and not make enemies. There are people in town who would willingly have seen me hang, and a few of them on a jury…” Adam shrugged. “Everyone in the saloon heard me threaten the man, and with the witness…well, I didn’t stand a chance. Pa always brought us up to respect the law, and it would have just about broken his heart to know a son of his had been hanged.”

Cronin took back the cup. “But he must be a rich man, he could have bought you outta that kind of trouble, you know, paid off the sheriff, and that witness you say saw you.”

Adam shook his head. “He wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t expect him to; he respects the law.”

“Must be tough, having a Pa who wouldn’t help his own son out of a noose.”

Adam refused another drink. “Yeah, must be.”

He sat for a moment with thoughts of his family going through his head, until Cronin announced, “Time to go.”

After an hour, Cronin held up his hand and stopped. They had passed through a narrow passage, at the end of which was a broad expanse of wood and grassland that fell away to a river flowing slowly by a sheer cliff, which led off to an equally narrow exit at the far end of the canyon, a mile away. Beside the river grazed a herd of cattle that Adam reckoned numbered nearly a hundred head.

“Give me your gun,” Cronin ordered. Adam raised his eyebrows and Cronin explained. “If they see you riding in here armed, they’re likely to shoot first and ask questions later. We don’t take to strangers.”

Adam handed over his weapon and followed Cronin through the woods, where the broad-leaved trees shaded the ground, keeping the undergrowth to a minimum and making the going easy. After about half-a-mile they came upon a clearing, where two men were sitting round a large fire. They looked up as they heard riders, and stood when they saw who approached. Adam estimated that the taller, mousy-haired man was near his own thirty-one years, the other was a little younger, with a mop of curly red hair. They waited as Adam and Cronin dismounted and walked towards them. Adam hung back, not sure of his welcome and wanting to give Albie the chance to greet his cronies.

The tall man had a broad grin on his aquiline face. “Hey, Albie,” he called, “so you finally decided to come back, eh?”

Cronin went to the man and slapped him happily on the back of the brown vest that he wore over his pale grey shirt. “Lou! It’s good to see you.” He turned to the younger man who was also smiling broadly. “Well, Red, I see that you’re still here.”

Red shook Albie’s hand, his pale eyes lighting with pleasure to have back the man he regarded as their leader. “Where else would I be? We were worried, thought you were a gonner for sure. What happened?”

“The marshal caught me selling those cows. Had me in jail in Alturas.”

“How’d you get away?” Lou wanted to know.

Cronin turned to Adam and motioned him to come over. “The marshal had us both locked up, but my friend here got us out.” He looked back at his fellow rustlers. “I’d like you to meet Adam Cartwright. Adam meet Lou,” he said indicating the taller man, “and Leon, known to all as Red.”

Adam shook hands with the men, who looked at him warily. Adam’s black clothing and steadfast gaze gave them an impression of restrained strength in this man, and a hint of danger.

“Don’t worry, he’s OK,” said Cronin handing back the gun to Adam who slipped it easily into its holster.

“So you got Albie outta jail? How’d you do that?” Lou asked, curiosity tingeing his distrust.

“I hit him.” Adam smiled at their reaction.

Cronin felt his jaw and grimaced. “Yeah, and I owe you one for that,” he laughed. “How about something to eat?”

Red set about providing coffee and beans for the newcomers while they questioned Adam about his being in jail and where he had come from. Adam was glad that, apart from the murder, everything he had told Cronin was the truth and they couldn’t catch him out with their questions, which were fired at him in quick succession. After a few minutes Cronin stopped them.

“That’s enough, like I said, he’s OK, and he knows cows, he’ll be a real asset.” Cronin looked round realizing that someone was missing. “Where’s Lucky?”

Lou answered him. “He went south ten days ago, to scout out the prospects there. He should be back anytime.”

“What about the beef in the valley? You’ve gathered quite a herd since I left; have you found somewhere to sell them?”

“Yeah,” answered Red excitedly. “We got a buyer waiting, but we need to start moving them tomorrow. Sure am glad you’re back to help us.”

Albie put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Well friend, tomorrow you’ll earn your first cut.”

Adam saw Red and Lou look at him, and their eyes narrowed as they heard Albie’s statement.

“Well, that doesn’t seem altogether right,” Adam said, “you took the risks to get the cows, I don’t expect to get a cut of that. Just pay me for driving them to wherever it is we’re taking them.” Adam sensed the two men relax and saw Red smile. “But I expect to take my share of the next deal.” Red and Albie laughed, but Lou’s expression didn’t change. They sat together, chatting and drinking coffee until Adam asked, “Have you any plans for the next raid?”

They stopped talking and looked at him. Lou put down his cup and eyed him suspiciously. “Why d’you want to know?”

“Just curious.” Adam realized that he had made a mistake, Lou was not the trusting kind and any hint that all was not as it seemed would alert him. Adam shrugged carelessly. “Don’t tell me, if you’d rather not.” He took a sip of his drink. “I know you’ve got no reason to trust me, I don’t blame you, but Albie knows that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being here.”

“That’s as may be,” said Lou, “but we don’t know you. I’d rather we kept that to ourselves for now. You just come along with us and we’ll see what happens after that.”

Adam swore silently to himself. It looked as though he might actually have to steal some cattle before they would trust him with the information that he needed. “Fair enough. Mind if I take a look at the cattle down by the river?” He got to his feet.

“Why d’you want to do that?” Red asked suspiciously, also standing.

“Because I know cows.” Adam looked at the men, who were watching him curiously. “I can give you a good idea of what they’re worth. Make sure that you get a fair price.”

“We know what they’re worth,” Red insisted.

Adam stood closer to the young man, piercing him with his gaze. “When was the last time you sold a cow honestly?”

Seeing the look, Red was suddenly sorry that he had questioned Adam’s move. “What difference does that make?” he asked, but more quietly.

“Because, if you’re only selling stolen beef, you’ll have no idea of their true value.” Adam’s tone carried infinite patience. “The market price changes all the time, and right now it’s high. Even your cattle will be worth more than they were two months ago, if they’re in good condition.” Adam paused, but no one seemed inclined to stop him, so he turned and started to walk down through the trees, towards the grazing herd. As he stood looking at the cows he heard footsteps and Albie came to stand beside him.

“Don’t mind them,” Albie said, also watching the cattle, “it’ll take a while before they’ll trust you. Just keep your nose clean and they’ll soon get used to you.”

“I’m not worried about them, they can accept me or not as they like. I’ve got nothing to lose either way.”

Albie put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and turned him until they were facing each other. “Oh yes you have, my friend. If they think they can’t trust you, you won’t leave here alive.”

*****

Early the following day they roused the herd and started to drive them out through the narrow exit to the canyon. Adam had volunteered to ride drag, the least favorite spot on a drive, and his offer had been happily accepted. Bringing up the rear, behind the cattle, meant a day swallowing clouds of dust, but on this occasion it also allowed Adam to observe the other men, and it quickly became apparent that they had learned their driving skill ‘on the hoof’.

Adam was thinking that he would speak to Albie during the midday break, when movement among the small herd caught his eye. His instincts immediately took over; many were the times those same instincts had saved him and his men. He kicked his horse into a gallop and headed towards Red, down the right side of the heaving mass of golden hides, shouting at him to get out of the way. Red was startled, he had been dreaming, not really paying attention, just urging the cows to move on. Adam grabbed the reins of Red’s horse and dragged it to one side as the herd started running and thundered past. Adam took off after them and, urging his horse dangerously close to the long, pointed horns, started to turn the herd. Lou and Albie were caught unawares, as Red had been, but soon realized what was happening and began to help stop the stampede.

As quickly as it started, it was over. One moment the air was filled with dust and the thunder of hooves, but now, as the dust was carried away by the breeze, the comparative silence was deafening.

Red had ridden up to where Albie and Lou were sitting on their horses, looking in amazement at the cattle quietly milling about, when Adam came back to join them. “Albie, I need to talk to you,” he announced, and turned his horse away without waiting to see if Albie would follow.

Albie came up alongside him and looked down. “You’re bleeding.”

 

“What?” Adam glanced down at his left leg and noticed that his pants were torn just below the knee, and a trickle of blood was making its way down his calf and into his boot. “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”

“Let me look,” Albie ordered and they both dismounted. Adam sat on the ground while Albie got his canteen and a kerchief, and after pushing the bottom of Adam’s trouser leg up to his knee, bathed the wound from one of the sharp horns.

“Lou and Red aren’t drovers by training, are they?” Adam ventured as he leaned back on his hands and watched Albie work.

Albie smiled ruefully. “No, nor am I. We got into it kinda by accident. We used to rob the odd stage and then tried a couple of banks, but it seemed safer to be herding steers than getting shot at by bank guards.” Albie paused in his ministrations and looked up at Adam. “Why do you ask?”

“I’ve been watching them, they push the cows when they don’t need it, and the way they ride too close to the animals, it’s making them skittish. You can’t rush cows; they have two speeds, walking…and stampeding.”

“We’ve never moved this many cattle at one time before,” Albie explained. “So, you wanna tell them?” Albie jerked his head towards Red and Lou.

“No, I think they’d take it better from you.”

“OK, but I’ll tell them they’re your instructions. Let them see that you’re only wanting to help.” Albie tied the kerchief tightly and slapped Adam on the shoulder. “I think that’ll fix it.” He held out his hand. “Thanks, Adam, for stopping them.”

Adam pulled himself up by the offered hand, nodded and remounted, then they rode back to join Red and Lou, who had started a fire and were making coffee. Albie spoke to them while Adam sat off to one side, letting them talk about his suggestions in private, knowing that Lou, at least, would not take kindly to being told what to do.

Lou threw away the remains of his coffee and came over to Adam. “Albie tells us you say we been doing it wrong.” He stood in front of Adam, looking down his beak of a nose.

Adam looked steadily back at him. “No, I suggested that you could do it better.”

“And you’d know would you?”

Adam decided it was time for him to let Lou know that he could not be intimidated. He rose and, casually leaning on one hip, crossed his arms over his chest. “When was the last time you drove a thousand cows two hundred miles?”

“What?”

“I do it all the time, and I can’t afford to lose any of them.” Adam’s eyes clouded for a second as he looked into the distance and remembered his home. “Or I used to.” He looked back at Lou and said firmly, “You’re pushing them too hard, driving them as you are, that’s what started the stampede. You carry on like that and you’re going to lose some. How much is that worth to you? How much are you willing to throw away because you don’t want me telling you how to do the job properly?”

Lou became defensive. “We might lose some, just one of those things.”

Adam shook his head. “Do it my way and we won’t lose any. If we do, you can take their price out of what you’ll pay me.”

Lou thought about it, looking at Adam with a grudging respect for the man who was willing to put a price on his expertise. “You got a deal. I suppose you’ll want one of us to ride drag?”

“No, I can keep an eye on you from behind. But if I tell you to do something I expect you to do it without arguing. I won’t have time to explain.”

Albie and Red wandered over and Lou turned to them. “Cartwright says that if we do it his way, he’ll pay for any we lose.” The three men exchanged glances and nodded their agreement.

Red approached Adam and held out his hand. “Thanks for getting me outta there.” He pointed at Adam’s leg. “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry, it happens.” Adam dismissed the injury, he’d had far worse as the result of a stampede, and slyly thought that it wouldn’t do any harm for them to see that he was willing to risk getting hurt to protect the stolen cattle. He saw Lou looking at him and returned the gaze steadily. He knew that the tall man would take more convincing.

They mounted, roused the herd and moved out slowly. Occasionally Adam would leave his position to issue instructions, but then would return to the back of the herd. When they stopped for the night, Adam told them that they would have to take turns keeping watch over the cattle.

“Why? We never bothered before,” asked Red. He was a man who liked his sleep, and being up in the middle of the night didn’t appeal to him.

“Albie tells me that you’ve never moved this many cows before. They’ll wander, looking for grazing, and we’ll have to round them up again in the morning, if we can find them all.” Adam glanced at the three men, sensing tension in two of them, and tried to lighten their mood. He smiled. “And you wouldn’t want anyone stealing them, now would you?”

“He’s got a point there.” Albie laughed, and Adam looked at the men round him, knowing they were beginning to see that agreement would save them time and money.

“OK. But Cartwright don’t stand watch,” said Lou, still distrustful of the newcomer.

Albie raised his eyebrows. “Why?”

“Because I want him where we can keep an eye on him, that’s why.”

Adam was sorry that he wouldn’t get a chance to demonstrate that they had no reason not to trust him, but he could see Lou’s point. “Suits me. I’ll make breakfast instead, how’s that?”

Red was delighted; it was usually his job, which he disliked as it meant being up before everyone else. They sorted out the various watches and settled down for the night. Adam slept fitfully, and was up before daylight in order to have the food ready as promised.

They set off again, and, following Adam’s instructions, the herd moved easily and quietly. That night, when they stopped, Lou again insisted that Adam stay in camp, though he said it with less animosity. By the middle of the following morning, they were moving slowly along a deep grassy valley, approaching a small group of men who appeared to be waiting for them. Albie called a halt, rode over to them, and the men followed him back to the herd.

Adam turned his head away as he realized that the leader of the group was Frank Warner, a man that he had had dealings with in the past.

Warner was looking at Adam curiously and rode over to him. “Ain’t you Adam Cartwright?”

Adam realized that it would do no good to pretend that he didn’t know Warner, so he faced him and nodded.

“What’re you doin’ here?”

“Bringing you stolen cattle, apparently.” Adam recalled his dislike of the man, who was always out to make a quick buck, and had tried in the past to get the better of Adam, by fair means or foul, in the deals they had done.

Warner turned to Albie. “D’you know who you got here?”

“Yes, we know.”

Lou watched the exchange with interest and eased his horse closer, if this man knew something about Cartwright Lou wanted to hear it.

Warner frowned; why was the respected son of one of the richest ranchers in the west riding with rustlers? He was worried that something was very far wrong and motioned to Albie that he wanted to talk to him. They rode a little way off and Warner voiced his concern. “Why’s he here? He’s got no need to be rustling cattle. He’s got enough of his own; he don’t have to steal them. Albie, I don’t like it.”

“Don’t worry, he’s OK. He’s on the run from the sheriff in Virginia City.”

“What! The Adam Cartwright I know would never break the law.” Warner remembered his dealings with Cartwright, who was never open to inducements or shady deals. He glanced back to where Adam was sitting quietly on his horse apparently unconcerned, but whose heart was beating faster as he wondered what was being said.

Albie came to Adam’s defense. “He killed someone and had to take off; there was a witness that said it was murder. I was in jail in Alturas when the marshal brought him in and was ready to send him back, but we broke out together and he’s been with us for a few days.”

“Well, if you’re satisfied…” Warner said uncertainly. “But I suggest that you keep an eye on him.”

“Don’t worry, we will, at least until we’re more sure of him. But he’s been a big help in getting these cattle to you, done you a favor.”

Warner was still not convinced. “OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He reached into his saddle bags and passed a package to Albie. “We’ll take them from here.” He looked again at Adam. “Just be careful Albie, that’s all I’ll say.”

They rode back to the waiting men. “All right,” Albie held up the small package, “let’s go.”

As the men took their places round the herd and started to drive them on, the rustlers turned in the opposite direction and headed home. Lou pulled up next to Albie. “What’d he say?”

“That we aught to keep an eye on Adam.”

Lou looked ahead to where Adam rode close behind Red. “I intend to do just that.”

Albie shrugged, if Adam was not what he claimed to be he was outnumbered three to one, and providing he was never out of sight, there was nothing he could do. But Albie trusted him; Adam had already proved his worth in getting the cattle here safely, and he’d had no call to do that if he was working against them.

Albie rode up to Adam who looked enquiringly at him. “Frank warned me to keep an eye on you,” Albie said smiling.

“Did he?” Adam smiled in return, and then he looked serious. “I’ve sold cattle to him in the past, so he only knows me as I used to be.” Albie saw sadness in his friend’s eyes.

Albie put his hand on Adam’s arm to stop him, letting Lou overtake them. “Adam, I know this is hard for you, but you can’t go home. There’s nothing there for you except a hangman’s rope.”

“I know. Let’s get back.”

They caught up with Lou and Red and returned the way they had come. Adam was making a mental note to tell Andrews what he had seen, and as he thought of the marshal he began to wonder when he would be able to get him the information he wanted. They had arranged that Andrews would be waiting every evening at a spot a few miles from Alturas, and a deputy marshal would camp further south. They hoped that one of them would be near enough to the rustler’s camp for Adam to contact them, but it looked like they would have a long wait.

The gang made good time on their return journey, but it was after nightfall when they reached their encampment, and Red set about lighting a fire and putting water on to heat, then he made a quick meal and they all sat round the fire eating and talking. Albie picked up the parcel lying at his feet and started to count out three piles of money. Adam estimated that there was about $700; split three ways that was a good return for the work they had done in acquiring the cattle. Albie took some bills from each pile and handed them to Adam, who put the small bundle in his pocket.

Albie watched the move, curiously. “Don’t you want to count it?”

Adam smiled. “Why? Would you give me any more if I said it wasn’t enough? And would you expect me to say it was too much?”

Albie laughed, admiring the logic. “No.” He finished his meal and stood, indicating to Lou that he should join him. They walked a little way into the forest together, until Albie stopped and sat on a fallen tree trunk, his face illuminated only by the flames from the distant fire.

“Have you made any plans for the next raid?” he asked.

Lou nodded. “Yeah, there’s a ranch about fifteen miles east of here, in the foothills of the Warner Mountains. They let the cattle roam free in the hills and they don’t have too many hands to look after them. Should be easy pickings.”

“How many do you figure we’ll get?”

“Depends on how scattered they are, but about fifty head, if we’re lucky.”

“Sounds good, we’ll start out tomorrow,” Albie decided.

Lou walked a step or two away, then turned. “You taking Cartwright?” He couldn’t get out of his head the coincidence of Albie and Adam being in the jail of the small town at the same time. It was a place that usually only housed the overnight drunks from the saloon, yet suddenly it held a rustler and a murderer.

“Yeah, why not?”

Lou looked uncertainly at Albie; he had always trusted the man, and his judgment. They had made a sizeable amount of money since they had joined together, but he thought that Albie had been blinded to the risk Cartwright represented, because he had helped him to get out of jail. “I don’t trust him.” Albie raised his eyebrows in question and Lou continued. “Why would a man like that be hitching up with us?”

“He explained about that, the murder and having to leave.” Albie put his hand on Lou’s shoulder to reassure him. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on him, and if he steps out of line I’ll take care of him.”

Lou was unconvinced. “You’re sure you’ll be able to?”

Albie pondered the question. “What do you mean?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.

“I mean, I ain’t never seen you so taken with someone quite so quick. Are you sure that, if the time comes, you won’t turn soft?”

“Trust me. If he turns against us, I’ll be the first one to want him dead.” Albie didn’t take to people easily, he had a naturally mistrusting nature, but Adam had struck some chord deep in him, which Albie couldn’t explain. He had never met anyone quite like the outlawed rancher, a decent man forced into a life of crime, but who still looked life in the face with a quiet strength that Albie admired. He thought that if Cartwright turned out to be anything other than what he claimed, Albie would not only want to kill him for turning against the gang, but also for making a fool of him and his feelings.

Lou nodded as he saw the purposeful look in Albie’s eyes. He had spoken of his fears and was satisfied that Albie was still the man he knew, that he had not been blinded by the favor Cartwright had done him. “OK. We go tomorrow.”

They walked back to the camp, where Red was listening wide-eyed to the stories Adam was relating to him about drives that he had led. Albie cleared his throat to get their attention. “Tomorrow we’re going after more cattle.”

Red looked excited. “So soon?”

Adam immediately asked, “Where?”

Lou looked at him narrowly. “Why d’you want to know? You just gotta follow us; we know where we’re going.”

Adam held up his hands. “Sorry, just naturally curious. Like you say, I’ll just go where you go.”

Lou continued to study Adam closely. There was something about this man that didn’t sit right, and to Lou it was like an itch he couldn’t scratch.

Red was only interested in their next expedition. “How many, Albie?”

“Lou reckons fifty.”

Red rubbed his hands together as he estimated how much money he would get. “Great.”

Adam knew that he had to play his part to the full. “How much is my cut?” Again he saw Lou looking at him. “I’m not here for the fun of it, just for the money, same as you.”

Albie turned to Adam to explain. “Anyone who takes part in the raid gets an equal cut. Four of us, your cut’s a quarter of the take once they’re sold.”

“How do you find a buyer?” Adam wondered.

Lou answered him. “We find them, that’s all you need to know.”

Adam got slowly to his feet. “I’m going to turn in.” He made his way to his bedroll and lay down, turning away from the three men who were still sitting by the fire. As he lay there he thought about the gang; he knew that Albie trusted him and Red seemed to take his lead from Albie. Lou was a different matter; Adam realized that he would have to be careful round him, not give him any reason for suspicion or he would wake up with a bullet in his back. His thoughts went to the many times that he and his family had battled rustlers, and what it meant to lose cattle to them. He felt sorry for the ranch they were about to raid, and the part he would play, but knew that he would have to go through with it. He told himself that the ranch would be raided whether he was there or not, and his only comfort was the thought that, in the end, it might lead to stopping the activities of the gang.

*****

They sat on their horses looking down on the pale brown cattle scattered over the grassy hillside. Lou was right, there were about fifty beasts grazing peacefully.

“They’re scattered all over,” observed Red miserably.

“Yeah, well, let’s go get ‘em.” Lou started off quickly, but Adam rode after him and, grabbing the reins of his horse, stopped him. Lou pulled his gun and pointed it at Adam. “What d’you think you’re doing?”

Adam released the reins and sat, wrists crossed, leaning on the pommel of his saddle apparently unconcerned by the weapon that was aimed unwaveringly at his chest. “You go racing down there and you’ll scatter them even further. If we go down quiet and slow they won’t move and we can round them up easily.”

By this time Albie and Red had joined them. “Do as he says,” Albie instructed. Lou looked murderous and turned his horse towards the herd, but he rode slowly and the others followed.

They worked their way round the cattle, who raised their heads curiously but started to walk quietly away as the men urged them towards the slope, until they had the cows assembled, and had just started to drive them over the brow of the hill when a figure appeared a little way off.

“Hey!” the man shouted, “what’s goin’ on?!”

All four looked round, but it was Lou that spoke. “Kill him, Cartwright,” he ordered, “we don’t need no witnesses.”

Adam looked round at Albie, hoping that he would contradict Lou, but Albie nodded reluctantly, “Kill him.”

Adam drew his rifle from its scabbard and aimed at the man, who had realized his mistake in drawing their attention to him and had turned, preparing to make a swift exit to safety. Adam sent a silent message, apologizing for what he was about to do, and fired. The man threw up his arms and toppled from his horse, lying still on the ground.

Lou was about to go and see if the man was dead when Adam stopped him. “Don’t worry, he’s dead.”

Lou looked round, and was going to go and check on the man anyway, when Adam spoke again. “Pick a target.” Adam had the butt of the rifle resting lightly on his thigh, and his eyes challenged Lou.

“What?” Lou frowned.

“Pick a target, anywhere,” Adam repeated.

Lou searched round, then pointed. “OK, see that oak?” Adam nodded; the tree was about seventy yards away, the same distance that the rider had been. “The sapling beside it,” Lou suggested.

Adam raised his rifle, settled it into his shoulder, took careful aim and fired. The sapling quivered and the top five feet separated from the thin trunk and fell to the ground.

“Wheweee!” exclaimed Red.

Adam replaced his weapon and turned his horse away, heading back to the herd. Lou stared after him.

“Satisfied?” asked Albie.

“No,” Lou replied, but followed Adam, who was starting to move the cattle.

Adam appeared to be occupied by the movement of the cows, but he was thinking about the cowhand. It made him feel sick to his stomach that he had shot the man, who would have a painful shoulder for a while, but the alternative was the shallow grave Adam would have found himself in for eternity.

Lou’s attitude to Adam eased slightly, even to the extent of taking his place at the rear of the small herd as they drove them back towards their hiding place, but he still watched him warily.

They did not make it back before nightfall and stopped on the trail. Albie suggested to Lou that Adam be allowed to take a turn guarding the herd. He felt that Adam had earned the right to be trusted, and it would relieve Red of the duty, allowing him to resume his role as cook. Lou reluctantly agreed, knowing that he could not explain to Albie his unease. Adam took the watch from midnight to three o’clock, and was glad of the time alone, it let him relax, knowing that he was free from the scrutiny of the rest of the gang. In the darkness, lit only by the myriad stars overhead, he could allow his mind to wander. He thought of his home and family. He knew how worried his father was, and wished there was someway to get a message to him, but it was impossible. He reviewed what had happened so far; he had, he believed, gained the confidence of the other men, though at the cost of shooting the cowhand, but he was no nearer to finding out the information the marshal wanted; Andrews would have to settle for raiding the secluded hide-out. Getting any information to him was going to be difficult; how was he going to explain wanting to leave for a few hours? The only time he would be able to get away was while he was on watch, and would then have to leave a note for Andrews to find when he went there the following evening. Adam reckoned that, if he hurried, he could make it there and back without his absence being noticed, provided that no one came looking for him while he was gone. As a plan it would have to do, unless something else presented itself.

When Lou came to relieve him the moon had risen and cast a cold light over the sleepy herd. They exchanged few words, and Adam went back to his bedroll to grab a couple of hours sleep. They completed their journey the following day, arriving back by late afternoon. Red settled to making an early supper and they sat round talking desultorily.

As Albie moved to sit beside him, Adam indicated the cattle. “When are we selling this lot?”

“Not yet. Got a buyer, but he wants more than we got here. When Lucky gets back I hope he will have found other places to raid. The pickings round here are getting thin, this was the last of any number. We’ll have to move on soon.”

Adam tried not to show his concern. He had used his position as the acknowledged expert to suggest that they should keep a watch on the cows for the first night in the canyon, while they got used to their new surroundings, hoping it would give him an opportunity to get a message to Andrews. Now he knew that it might be his only chance, before the gang left. “Where will you go?” he asked.

“That depends on Lucky and what he finds. Do you care where we go? You’ll have to come with us, you know, or Lou will want to know why.”

Adam shrugged. “Didn’t know that you’d want me. I know Lou doesn’t trust me, and that might cause trouble for you.”

“Don’t worry, he’ll come round. He was impressed with what you did to that hand yesterday, even though he wouldn’t say so. I think that convinced him you’re OK.”

Adam quietly breathed a sigh of relief, but felt desperately guilty that the hand had paid the price for his safety. “Well, I’ll tell you, I hoped it would. That’s the first time I’ve actually shot a man in cold blood.” Adam rested his elbows on his knees and looked down at his hands, thinking about what they had done, then he looked again at Albie and gave him a thin smile. “But then they can only hang you once.”

“Do you regret what you did? I mean murdering the drunk.”

Adam took a breath; how would he have felt if it had really happened? “I regret letting my temper get the better of me, but more than that I regret what it led to. Leaving my family, and the hurt it caused my father.” He said the last with feeling, regretting the look he saw in Ben’s eyes when he had agreed to help Roy and Andrews.

”Well, if you stay with us, you can make enough money to let you start again somewhere. Maybe your family would help, you told me how close you are to them.”

Adam shook his head. “This is my problem; I have to deal with it alone.”

“Do they know where you are?”

“No, I’ll let them know, when the time is right.” Adam became aware that he was having a strange parallel conversation. The answers that he was giving Albie would be the same if the man was questioning him about Andrews and his plan. Adam decided to bring it to an end, just in case he gave away too much. “I’m going to have some more coffee, then turn in. These night watches play havoc with your sleep.” He stood and hesitated for a moment, wondering how Albie would react to what he was going to say. “Albie, will you promise me something?”

Albie stood beside his friend and frowned. “What is it?”

“If we go south, will you promise me that you won’t take any of Pa’s cattle?” It was Albie’s turn to hesitate, so Adam continued. “My family will defend that herd with their lives.”

“I see,” Albie pursed his lips and nodded. “In that case, tempting as it may be to find so many cattle in one place, I think I can make the others agree that they’d be better off leaving them alone.” He put his hand on Adam’s arm. “Don’t worry, I can persuade them.”

“Thanks, ‘night Albie.” Adam was relieved, if he failed to contact Andrews, at least he knew that his Pa and brothers would be safe from facing the gang, himself among them, and he would not be put in the position of facing the guns of his family. He knew it was selfish, to send the rustlers after the cattle of others while protecting his family, but felt it was a small enough return to ask when balanced against the risk he was taking.

Adam slept for a few hours then lay awake waiting for the moment when he could relieve Albie, who was guarding the herd. He pulled his watch from his pocket and turned towards the fire. It told him it was approaching eleven o’clock and he rose and saddled his horse, then rode quietly down towards the river. The extra time should be just enough for him to get to the meeting place and back again. He greeted Albie and told him that he could go back to camp.

“Is it twelve already?” Albie was surprised.

“No, but I couldn’t sleep. Might as well take over now.”

Albie agreed and, as soon as he was out of sight, Adam headed towards the entrance to the canyon and on through the rocky terrain that would lead him to the spot where he would be able to leave a message for Andrews. He had written the note while there was still daylight and had it safely tucked into his pocket. There was barely enough light for him to see the trail, but his mount was sure footed and found his way deftly over the stony ground. Once Adam stopped, unsure of the way, but after he had scouted round he again found the trail and continued. He arrived at the meeting place, a twisted tree growing out of three rocks, and placed the note where Andrews would be sure to see it. He prayed that no one else would find it and take it, but there was nothing he could do about that. He wished that he could return to town with the information, but knew that if he was found to be missing they would get suspicious and move on before the marshal could get to them.

He pulled his watch from his pocket and was worried when he saw that it was nearly one o’clock. He would have to hurry if he was to be back with the herd when Lou came to relieve him. He pushed the horse faster, grateful for the light from the risen moon, but all the time fearful that the animal would stumble and injure itself. When he approached the entrance again he checked the time, it was already three o’clock. He cursed but carried on. As he neared the herd he could see Lou looking for him.

Lou spotted him coming out of the trees, and rode over. “I thought you weren’t here,” he said, with more than a hint of suspicion.

Adam smiled ruefully. “Had to take to the woods for a minute, must be the cold.” Adam pulled his hat lower over his eyes so that the man would not see the sheen of sweat on his forehead that would give the lie to his words.

“Yeah, must be.”

Adam turned his horse towards the camp as he waved goodnight. He settled back under his blanket, his heart beating hard in his chest, but it seemed as though he had got away with his truancy.

Adam was surprised when Red had to wake him for breakfast. He thought that he would not be able to sleep but had apparently done so, and deeply. He stood and stretched to get the kinks out of his back, then helped himself to breakfast. When he had finished eating, he went down to the stream to shave and saw Lou come into camp with two other men, one about fifty and a younger man. Adam looked round at them, catching the eye of the older of the two, and then turned back to the stream thinking that Lucky must have returned, with a friend.

Lou introduced the younger man to Albie and Red. His name was Carl, an old friend and fellow outlaw of Lucky’s; they had run together with a gang in California. Lucky had met him on the trail south and Carl had agreed to join up with him again.

Lucky pointed towards the stream. “Who’s that?”

“Name’s Adam Cartwright,” answered Lou.

Carl turned to Albie, frowning. “From Virginia City?” He saw Albie nod and asked slowly, “What’s he doin’ here?”

“Why? You know him?”

“Of him. Everyone south of here who has anything to do with cattle, knows about Adam Cartwright. Why’s he here?”

Albie explained. “He broke outta jail with me, been riding with us for a few days.”

“He was in jail?!” Carl was incredulous. “Why?”

“He killed someone down in Virginia City, and when he rode into Alturas the marshal arrested him.”

Carl took several paces towards the stream and then turned back. “When was this, the murder?”

Albie shrugged, thinking of the conversation he’d had with Adam in the jail. “Must be a month ago, I guess.”

Carl walked back to them. “I was in Virginia City just three weeks ago and Cartwright hadn’t murdered anyone. It would have been the talk of the town if he had.”

Lou turned sharply towards Adam. “I knew it!” he exclaimed. “I knew there was something I didn’t trust about that man.” He turned back. “Albie, you been had.”

Albie looked towards Adam and nodded slowly, regretfully. “Leave this to me. Just be ready when he comes back.”

They sat round the fire, not speaking, until Adam wandered back unsuspectingly. He dropped his shaving gear on his bedroll and as he did so he became conscious of the silence. He turned to the men gathered round the fire. Something inside him alerted him to danger and he stood still, waiting, as Albie came over to him.

“Adam, I’d like you to meet our latest recruit.” He beckoned Adam, who went slowly behind Albie to stand in front of the two men. Red and Lou got up quietly and stood a little way behind Adam, who was looking at the new arrivals as they rose to meet him. Albie pointed to the older man. “This is Lucky, I told you about him.” Adam nodded a greeting, then turned his eyes to the younger man. Albie continued, “And this is his friend, Carl.” Again Adam nodded. “Carl’s just come up from Virginia City.”

The words went through Adam’s brain like a knife. His body went numb as his mind raced, how was he going to talk himself out of this one?

“Carl says you ain’t murdered no one. Would you care to explain?”

Adam looked at Carl, then back to Albie. “Perhaps he was there before it happened,” he offered.

Albie shook his head then looked over Adam’s shoulder and nodded. Adam knew he was in trouble and turned and charged at Red, hoping to get past the smaller of the two men, but Lou saw the move and intercepted him before Adam could break through what had become a tight circle of enemies. With help from Carl, Lou and Red forced Adam to the ground where they managed to get his arms pinned behind him, then they hauled him to his feet and back to stand in front of Albie. Adam struggled uselessly for a moment against the strength of the two men, then stood upright, and waited.

Albie sounded sad as he said, “Carl was there three weeks ago.” Adam looked up into Albie’s eyes, and knew he was dead. Albie took a step forwards, then drew back his fist and smashed it into Adam’s face. “That’s the one I owe you,” he said, then hit him again. “That one was just for me.”

Adam forced his knees to straighten and spat blood. “Albie…”

Again the fist landed squarely in Adam’s face, and then a blow to his stomach made him double over. Albie grabbed a handful of black hair with his left hand and forced Adam’s head up, then hit him again. Adam’s knees buckled and he was only prevented from falling by Lou and Red holding him up. Albie continued to take out his anger on Adam, hitting him as and where he pleased, until it seemed that he had calmed down. Through the grey mist that was his mind, Adam felt a hand grab his hair, and his head was lifted until he was looking at Albie through half-open, unfocusing eyes.

“If I was a forgiving man I would give you a quick, clean death for getting me out of that jail. It’s just your bad luck that ‘forgiving’ ain’t a word I’m familiar with.” He looked at Red and Lou. “Tie him up, and make sure it’s good and tight.” Anger was still in him, but he would let it go cold before he dealt with Adam again.

They dragged Adam over to the side of the camp and dropped him on the ground in front of a tree, where he lay face down breathing hard, unable to rise, unable to get away. Red got a rope and then he and Lou pulled both of Adam’s arms round one side of the tree and his feet round the other and hog-tied him roughly round the sturdy trunk. They pulled the ropes tight and Adam could feel them bite into his wrists. After they had finished, Lou and Red stood over him and then Lou landed a boot heavily in Adam’s chest. He groaned as he felt the pain of breaking ribs, then he was dimly aware of Red preparing to repeat Lou’s action. With his hands and feet tied round the tree behind him he was unable to defend his body and the kick landed in his stomach. He groaned again and, mercifully, passed out.

Lou and Red stood looking at him for a second, then seeing that he was unconscious, and they wouldn’t get any satisfaction from kicking him again, they went back to join Albie.

The world intruded slowly into Adam’s consciousness, and he heartily wished that it hadn’t. He tried to let himself slip back peacefully into the blackness that took away his pain, but it closed its doors as he reached out for it. When Adam attempted to shift his position, to ease the ache in his shoulders, it felt as though a knife had been driven into his ribs, and he found that he couldn’t move his arms, which were pulled behind him at an unnatural angle. Then he tried to move his legs, but his feet pulled at his wrists and only made the pain worse. He remembered what had happened, and why, and he shivered involuntarily, knowing that whatever he felt now was as nothing compared to what Albie had in store for him.

Adam raised his head slowly and looked round. He saw the men gathered by the fire, talking and drinking coffee, and the normality of the scene bit into him, knowing that they were just waiting for him to awaken so they could continue what Albie had started. He let his head sink gently back, but Lou had seen the movement and nudged Albie, nodding in Adam’s direction. Albie sat still for a minute, then slowly put down his cup and walked over to Adam. He stood, looking down at his prisoner and shook his head sadly; he had thought of this man as his friend but Adam had betrayed his trust, and that Albie couldn’t forgive.

Albie sank down on his haunches and saw the damage he had already done; Adam’s face was bloody, his lip was split, and his breath was shallow and irregular, no doubt as a result of Lou and Red’s parting gifts.

“I suppose that you had some plan cooked up with the marshal?” Albie recalled Adam’s interest in where the next raid would take place. “Were you going to tell him the next ranch we’d hit?”

Adam didn’t answer, but amidst the battle to control the pain in his head and ribs it registered that Albie hadn’t guessed about his trip to leave a message for Andrews; since Adam didn’t know where the next raid would be, Albie must think that he had no message to pass on.

Despite Adam’s silence, Albie could see that he had got it right. “Why?” he asked, but Adam just stared at him. “You ain’t no law man, why did you do it?”

Adam took a short, painful breath, trying to find his voice. “Untie me and I’ll tell you,” he croaked.

Albie thought about it and then went behind the tree and, without loosening the bonds round Adam’s hands or feet, released the rope that held them together. He came back and lifted Adam roughly so that he was sitting with his back against the trunk, and Adam groaned as he moved.

“All right, tell me.”

“Pa’s herd,” Adam said simply, observing Albie curiously, knowing that he was looking at the man who was going to kill him.

“What d’you mean?”

“Can I have a drink?” Adam was having trouble talking, his throat was dry and his head was swimming.

Albie shook his head. “No, you’ll get nothing else from me, so don’t expect it.”

Adam nodded slowly in understanding; this man had given him his trust and would not now give him so much as a sip of water. Albie saw the movement and wondered how Adam could be so accepting of what was happening to him.

“What do you mean?” Albie repeated.

“Ten thousand head. Lot of hard work…” Adam’s words were slurred; his split lip and swollen jaw were making it difficult to talk.

“So you weren’t lying about that.” Adam shook his head carefully, trying not to aggravate the ache that was centered behind his eyes. Albie continued, “But we didn’t take any of your cows. Your place is more ‘n a hundred miles from here.”

“Doesn’t matter. Small ranchers would go under…because you took their cows. If someone had taken our first herd…we wouldn’t have what he have now.” Adam stopped, trying to think, to make the man see what he had done. “I…we worked hard to build that herd. You would destroy that…take other men’s work…their lives.”

“And you were willing to give your life to stop us? Not for yourself, but for men you don’t even know?”

Adam tried to smile, but his mouth wasn’t working properly. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.”

“But you knew the risk you were taking; you must have known that if we found out what you were doing we’d kill you.”

“Yes.”

Albie considered what Adam had said, then a thought struck him. “What about the man you killed? What about his life and work, that didn’t seem to mean much to you.” He thought that he had found a flaw in the other man’s thinking.

“I didn’t kill him.”

“But I saw you, and you told Lou…” Albie couldn’t believe it.

“I shot him in the shoulder. He’ll have a hard time moving it…but he’ll recover.” Adam thought to himself that he hoped he was right in what he said, though he would never know.

“What if Lou had gone over to find out?”

“Then I’d have been dead…sooner.” Adam was beginning to wonder if it wouldn’t have been simpler, quicker, to let Lou kill him then, instead of waiting for Albie to do it now. He dismissed the thought, he had been able to get a message to Andrews and hopefully his death would not go unpunished.

Albie was desperately fighting against the feelings of friendship that he couldn’t ignore. He tried to make his voice harsh and bitter. “I suppose that you think you’re a better man than me,” he sneered, “just because I make a living from stealing, and you’re an honest rancher.”

Adam closed his eyes, then he looked at Albie and drew a short breath, trying to think straight. “No, not better…just different.” Adam smiled crookedly, “Perhaps you would have done…the same…given the same chances.”

Albie shook his head in wonder at what he had heard, then looked hard at Adam, seeing again the man he had trusted and he realized what it was that had drawn him to the dark stranger. There was a quiet strength behind the steady gaze, and a certainty and sureness in himself that challenged the world to beat him if it could. Even hurting as he must be, Adam gave the impression that he wasn’t defeated.

Suddenly Albie rose and walked back to the other men, seated round the fire. Lou looked up and saw him standing, staring into the flames.

“What’s the matter?” Lou asked, rising to stand with him.

“I need to talk to you, come on.” Albie started off into the woods and Lou followed, a frown on his face. When Albie stopped and faced him, Lou could see the sorrow in the man’s eyes.

“What is it, what’s wrong?”

“You were right, I can’t kill him.”

Lou stared in amazement. He had known Albie for four years, and in all that time he had never once backed down from a difficult situation. They had been shot at and hunted and taken risks that lesser men would have shied away from. Now he was admitting to not being able to kill a man who had betrayed him.

“Are you saying that we should let him go!” Lou would have shouted, but kept his voice low. He wasn’t angry, just puzzled.

Albie shook his head. “No, but I can’t do it. It’s up to you, and Red. You’ll have to kill him, if that’s what you want.”

Lou thought about it for a moment. Did he want Cartwright dead? The answer came to him quickly. Yes, without doubt. “All right, but I promise you I’m not going to make it easy for him. When they find his body they’ll know what happens to people who cross us, who try to make fools out of us.”

“That’s up to you, but I want no part of it.” Albie sat on a tree stump and stared out into the valley, trying to come to terms with feelings that he didn’t know he possessed. Friendship and respect and, he had to admit, admiration. Lou would never understand, and he wasn’t going to try to explain it to him.

But Lou understood all too well as he stood looking at his friend, then he turned and walked away. He determined that Cartwright would suffer for what he had done by betraying them, but more than that, for the feelings he had brought out in Albie. Lou wouldn’t have admitted it, but he was jealous, he knew that Albie would never feel that way about him.

When Lou arrived back in camp and saw Adam sitting watching him, he went over and hog-tied him round the tree again. Adam moaned as he was moved, but it just seemed to make Lou more determined to see him suffer, as he pulled the rope shorter, tying Adam’s wrists to his ankles, until Adam felt that his shoulder joints would separate with the pull on his arms.

“Albie says he can’t kill you.” Lou smiled thinly, and as he saw a spark of hope in Adam’s eyes he added maliciously, “but I can, and you’re going to beg me to let you die before I’m finished.”

Lou went over to Adam’s bedroll, bent down, and picked up the rifle. As he straightened Red came up to him.

“What’s going on? Where’s Albie?”

“He’s left it to us to take care of Cartwright,” Lou said harshly.

“OK, but why?” Red was happy to deal with the man who would threaten his easy earnings, but didn’t understand.

“Don’t matter.” Lou stopped and faced the younger man. “But let me tell you something that may save your life one day. Don’t ever get too close to anyone; don’t ever rely on anyone except yourself.” Lou walked off and Red followed, frowning.

They went together to where Adam lay on his right side and, without a word, Lou went to the back of the tree, raised the butt of the rifle and brought it crashing down on Adam’s left arm. The suddenness of the attack caught Adam by surprise and he screamed and threw back his head, as he felt the bones breaking and his shoulder dislocate with the added pressure, then as Red kicked him in the stomach, he automatically tried to curl up to protect himself. The pull on his arms increased and he gritted his teeth against the pain, trying not to give them the satisfaction of seeing what they were doing to him. Gradually the world faded, blackness opened her doors to him, and he entered gratefully.

Albie was still sitting, gazing at the quiet view before him, when he heard the scream and knew that Lou was making good on his promise. He stood and walked further away from the camp, trying to escape from what was happening, but he couldn’t escape from his thoughts, and they were uneasy. He had never felt like this before, and while he was unsettled by his feelings, he was also surprised that he could have them. He knew that they were what had been missing from his life, a life spent taking not giving, hurting not helping. He continued walking until he was beside the river, and he sat and watched the slow progress of the water as it ran past the meadow. His mind wandered but always came back to Adam, whose intrusion into his life had made him look at himself. Given the same opportunities could he have been like the man he had called ‘friend’? Would he have had the strength to do what Adam had done, not for himself but for those who were suffering at the hands of him and his gang? Albie shook his head slowly, he would never know, and it was too late for ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’. He had carved out this life for himself and it was too late to change.

*****

For Adam the hours passed slowly, though judging by the progress of the sun across the sky, the day was flying past. The time he spent awake dragged by, every minute seeming an hour long, but when he slipped into unconsciousness no time seemed to pass before he was awake again. One second he could see Red or Lou standing over him, and the next second he saw them there again, never seeming to rest from their assaults. Occasionally Lucky or Carl would come over to Adam and strike out at him, the older man being particularly inventive with his blows, and always Lou was there, watching and smiling.

It was getting dark, and the last traces of the daylight illuminated Adam’s grey, sweating face as he lay on his side, facing the sunset. Lou and Red had taken it in turns to lash out at Adam with feet and fists, sometimes forcing him to stand so they could knock him down again, and every movement that resulted from their aggression sent the pain radiating out into the rest of his being. He could feel an inferno burning its way through his guts from the kicks that Red had administered; the man had little imagination, but heavy boots, and used them to good effect on every part of Adam’s body. At times when he was aware enough to worry about the damage that had been done, he dismissed it; he wasn’t going to live long enough for that to kill him.

Adam existed in a twilight world that had nothing to do with the approaching night. His brain was slowly dividing itself in two, the crescendo of pain in his body was driving it into self-preservation and his sub-conscious mind had taken control, refusing to let his muscles move when even the slightest shifting of his position would enflame every nerve, and it took refuge in stillness. But his conscious mind, if something so fog-bound could be called conscious, told him he needed to move to ease some of the hurt he felt. The conflict started him shaking, sending torrents of agony through him, until he knew that he would only find relief in the appeasing arms of death.

He turned his sluggish thoughts to his family; his father would never forgive him for getting involved, and Ben’s friendship with Roy Coffee might not survive his son’s death. Adam was sorry for that; the two men had known each other for many years and Roy shouldn’t have to bear the blame for asking the family for help. Adam wished that he could talk to his father once more before he died, to tell him all the things that he had kept to himself; the gratitude for Ben’s years of care, the love he had for his lone parent, and for his brothers. He could only pray that, somehow, his Pa knew.

He became aware of someone standing over him, and he almost cried out when he saw that it was Lou, but he gritted his teeth and was silent, waiting. Lou went behind the tree and released Adam’s hands from his feet, and then untied them. Adam tried to fight against him, but it was futile, he lacked the strength he needed and every pain-filled movement threatened to send his mind spinning out of control and ever closer to hopelessness. Lou backhanded him across the face and Adam’s chin sank onto his chest. He felt Lou pull him upright until he was sitting in front of the tree, then his hands were secured at the back of the trunk. Adam tried not to make any sound, but a groan was forced from him and he could only wait for what was to come. Lou crouched down in front of his prisoner, and Adam watched as he slowly drew his gun from its holster and pointed it at him. He closed his eyes, he knew he was going to die and was grateful his suffering was coming to an end, knowing that he couldn’t escape the fate that they had planned for him. He opened his eyes again when he felt the barrel of the gun pressed into the deep crease between brows drawn tight with pain. Adam looked into Lou’s cold eyes; he would watch the man who was going to kill him, watch as he took away his life, to see if there was any remorse, any soul.

“Say goodbye, Cartwright.” Lou smiled as he held the gun to his victim’s head.

As though in slow motion Adam saw Lou pull back the hammer and his finger tighten on the trigger. He saw the hammer move, and fall on the chamber that contained the bullet that would rip through his brain, then he heard the dull click that followed, a noise he should not have been able to register. Bile rose in his throat and he sobbed, once, as his breath caught and he realized that Lou had been playing with him.

“Oh no, not yet,” Lou spoke as though he had done Adam a favor. Anger filled Adam’s mind and he growled in fury, but Lou smiled. “Maybe next time,” he said, making no promises. Then he patted Adam’s bruised and bloody cheek, “Maybe.”

Adam was left alone, shaking with wretchedness and rage in equal measure, until oblivion brought him release.

When Adam woke again he thought it must be late in the night, there was no sound from the men lying close to the warmth of the fire, a warmth he could not feel and the cold sent shivers through him that did nothing to warm him, only aggravating the pains in his arm and shoulder, his ribs and guts; in his entire being. His mind wandered and he pictured his home, and knew he would never see it again. Then the pain in his body forced itself through his thoughts and he tried to escape it, but it was insistent, from his head to his feet he could feel only the agony of the frequent blows that had landed with a force driven by hatred. He knew he was going to die and now it couldn’t come too soon, he felt insanity creeping over him as he lost control of his body, and he prayed to his father’s God for release. He had tried to be a good, caring person throughout his life; didn’t he deserve the pity of the Lord? ‘Please let me die,’ he prayed, ‘don’t let them hurt me any more, let me at least die like a man’. But his prayers went unanswered, he continued to live, continued to feel the agony of his injuries, and he cursed the unfeeling God who would let him suffer.

The silence around him deepened and he changed his prayer, pleading that the next time Lou threatened to shoot him the gun would be loaded. He wanted to die before he broke down and begged Lou to kill him; he didn’t want to give the man the satisfaction of seeing him beaten. Then he slowly realized that all was not as quiet as he had supposed. He heard a rustle of cloth and someone was beside him.

Adam tried to gather his fast diminishing resolve, to prepare himself for more blows, when a voice very close said, “Bite on this, don’t make a sound or we’re both dead.” Adam felt material forced into his mouth and, as he bit down on it, his breath hissed through his teeth, his nose being blocked with blood. The ropes round his wrists and ankles were loosened, but he almost wished they hadn’t been, as the movement sent waves of pain coursing through him. He bit harder into the material as his rescuer pulled him away from the tree; he felt the bones of his arm grate together, and he held his breath against the agony in his chest. As the man started to lift him, the pain in his stomach forced Adam to double over, and he sank back to the ground. He had tried to take his weight on his legs but it felt as though a spear had pierced his right knee.

“Drink this,” the voice said, and Adam felt water in his mouth and swallowed thirstily. “Now, you gotta stand,” the voice admonished him, and Adam fought to get his feet under himself, to get his legs to support him. Gradually his conscious mind took control and he was able to stand shakily, his right arm wrapped round his middle, his breath shallow and irregular, and sweat streaming down a face ashen beneath the bloody cuts and bruises. He looked round to discover who it was that had freed him; he couldn’t see properly through eyes almost swollen shut, but he could make out the unmistakable shape of Albie.

“Why?” Adam whispered.

“Don’t matter. Just go, I can’t do any more for you.” Albie would have pushed him on his way, but knew that Adam would only end up back on the ground. He walked away, leaving Adam staring after him.

Adam turned slowly and the world turned with him, not stopping when he stopped but continuing to revolve around him. He swayed and waited until his head cleared a little, then staggered slowly away from the camp and his tormentors. His whole body hurt; he couldn’t stand straight and his left arm hung uselessly at his side while his right was wrapped tightly round his body, trying to quiet the fire within and he had to force his legs to move. It was too dark among the trees to see clearly, and he stumbled and fell as his foot caught on a protruding root. He clamped his mouth shut to prevent himself from crying out, then he lay on the ground breathing hard, trying to remain conscious. He knew he couldn’t stay there, he had to get up, but the ground was soft and inviting. Slowly he rolled onto his knees, and sucked in his breath as pain shot through his right leg. He forced himself to his feet, his head swimming, and took a careful step. The pain came again but Adam ignored it and staggered onwards. He stopped often to lean against a tree for support, doubled over and breathing rapidly, gathering the strength to continue; his only thought was to keep going, to put as much distance between himself and Lou as he could before daylight.

With the first light of dawn he saw that he had barely made it out of the canyon and he sank onto his left knee, lacking the energy to go further; it had taken him over three hours to cover half a mile. He wanted to get away but his body was shouting at him to stop, to lay down and rest, and he gave in to the temptation. As he lay on the ground he heard a voice and turned his head towards it.

“Come on Adam, you’re the one who’s always telling me to stand on my own two feet,” he heard his youngest brother say. Joe was standing with his hands on his slim hips, looking down sternly. “Now you gotta do just that.”

Joe moved aside and Adam saw the towering bulk of his younger brother, Hoss. “Hey, big brother, what you doin’ there? Won’t get the job done lyin’ down; you gotta get on with what you have to do.”

Hoss stood back, and Adam saw his father looking down at him, and smiling. Adam tried to speak but no words would come. “I know, son, I know.” Ben held out his hand and Adam took it and pulled himself to his feet. When he was upright enough to look round, a tear escaped his eyes as he realized that he was alone. He nearly collapsed with the disappointment of knowing that he had been imagining his family beside him, but then he thought of Albie, and what he had risked to free him, and started to limp slowly away.

Adam was oblivious to everything about him; he was bent over, watching his boots as they moved, urging one foot to step in front of the other, but every footfall sent shafts of pain through him; he didn’t realize that his kneecap had been cracked by one of Red’s carelessly aimed boots, it was just another pain amid the many that assaulted him, but finally it gave way and he fell to the ground and lay looking up at the pale, early morning sky. He imagined himself at home lying in his bed, surrounded by his family, safe in their protective love, then he became aware of his true surroundings and he got mad at himself; why was he lying there when he had so far to go, and it couldn’t be long before they came looking for him. Again he struggled to his feet and forced himself to move. He staggered on, not knowing or caring where he was going, his only thought was to get away as far as possible from the gang, and retribution.

Through the mist that filled his mind he became aware of noises behind him, and swayed as he stopped and turned. He could vaguely make out the shapes of horses coming nearer, but his bruised eyes were not focused and he could see no details of the riders, though he knew they had come from the direction of the encampment; it had to be Lou and the others. He tried to run, but his knee gave way and he sprawled on the ground, crying out against the agony in his body. He rolled onto his back and his heart beat hard in his chest as he saw Lou above him, leaning on the pommel of his saddle, relaxed and smiling.

“You did quite well, considering,” Lou sneered, drawing his gun and aiming it purposefully in Adam’s direction. “Don’t know how you managed to get free,” he said, though he had a very good idea and would confront Albie later. “It’s a pity it was all for nothing.” He dismounted and stood over Adam, who closed his eyes, praying with an intensity born of despair that the gun was loaded; he didn’t have the strength to go on, and desperately didn’t want to go back.

As Lou prepared to fire, a shot rang out and he swayed as he took a step backwards, then looked down at his shirt. A red stain was spreading over the front of the grey material, and he slowly sank to his knees, then fell on his face beside Adam, and lay still. The other riders, Red, Lucky, Carl, and a reluctant Albie a short distance behind, were about to turn and run for cover when they were surrounded by men with guns drawn.

Adam had his eyes closed as he heard the gunshot, and he turned cold inside when he felt no bullet enter his body and he knew that Lou was not yet ready to kill him. He rolled over and started to crawl away; praying that the man would stop him with a well aimed shot.

One rider separated himself from the group covering the rustlers and, throwing himself from his horse, went to kneel beside Adam, who had the fingers of his right hand buried in the dirt as he tried to pull himself over the stony ground, his muscles shaking with the effort. Adam felt hands touch him, and he fought weakly against them as he turned onto his back, moaning as he did so, and looked into eyes that he never thought to see again.

“Joe?” he whispered in disbelief. How could his brother be there? Adam knew then that reality had finally left him as insanity crept closer and his mind again conjured up this vision.

A soft, tear-filled voice answered him. “Yes, it’s me, I’m here.” Joe sat back on his heels, staring in disbelief at his barely recognizable brother. “Dear God, what have they done?!” he whispered.

‘Dear God?’ thought Adam, no! It was an unfeeling, uncaring and vengeful God who would not give him death, but would torment him with this image of his brother by his side.

Adam closed his eyes, then opened them again and the apparition was still there. “Joe,” he said on a sigh, and sank into unconsciousness in his brother’s arms.

*****

Adam awoke to a feeling of warmth and softness, and lay for a minute thinking that he would soon have to get up; he had a lot of work to do today. Then he tried to rise, but the agony that flowed through him made him groan and lay back on the pillows. Every part of him hurt, from his feet to his head was a dull mass of pain. His mind went over what he had been doing the day before; mending fences, and then checking on the men at the logging camp. Had he been in an accident there? His headache centered around a pain between his eyes and suddenly he had a vision of Lou pressing a gun into his forehead. With that thought his memory returned, and he groaned again, a chill filling his body as he thought that his suffering was not yet over.

He felt someone holding his hand but couldn’t open his eyes, afraid of what he might see; Lou or Red waiting for him to awaken so that they could continue to torment him. He became aware that the hand holding his was stroking it gently and someone was speaking in low tones, words of encouragement, not hatred. He cracked his eyes open and then they widened as he saw his brother sitting beside him.

Joe smiled. “Well, it’s about time.”

Adam opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. Joe leaned over and held a glass to Adam’s parched lips, and he swallowed gratefully. Adam tried again to speak, but too many questions were going round in his head and he couldn’t pin one down long enough to ask it.

“It’s all right, I’m here, and Pa’s on his way.” Joe looked round at the elderly doctor who was hovering in the background, a glass of pale brown liquid in his hand. The doctor eased Joe aside and lifted Adam’s head.

“Drink this, it’ll help you sleep.” He tipped the glass so that Adam could drink, then lowered him gently back onto the pillows. Adam sighed and closed his eyes, and they saw his breathing become slow and regular.

Joe turned to the doctor. “How is he?”

“Well enough, considering, but it will be some time before he can be moved. I think I’ve stopped the bleeding in his stomach but I don’t want him to move until it has had a real chance to start healing. He must rest, and that will help the other injuries as well.” The doctor put his hand on Joe’s arm to reassure him. “But he’s a very lucky man; if you hadn’t found him when you did he’d be dead. Now why don’t you go and get some rest yourself? He won’t wake for several hours after that sleeping draught I gave him.” The doctor was becoming concerned at the pale features of the young man, who had seldom left his brother’s side during the four days since they had brought him in, close to dying from the injuries that had been inflicted on him.

Joe nodded, went to the door and, as he put his hand on the handle, he turned to take a last loving look at his brother. “I’ll be back,” he promised, and went to find his room in the hotel.

Joe walked out into the early afternoon sunshine but its heat did little to warm him, he was tired and worried. He wished his father would get there and take over some of the responsibility for his brother. Joe walked wearily into the hotel and up the stairs to his room, where he sat on the bed that he had paid for, but which had remained unused until now. He pulled off his boots, dropping each one noisily on the floor, and then he lay back, thinking that he would get undressed in a minute, but when he opened his eyes again it was dark and he knew he had been asleep. He rose hastily and after a quick, refreshing wash, he changed his clothes and prepared to return to the doctor’s house. As he left his room he heard a familiar voice coming from the lobby of the hotel and ran down the stairs to be greeted by ebony eyes filled with worry.

“Pa!” Joe shouted, about to throw his arms round his father, but then he saw the haggard features beneath the grey hair, and instead gripped Ben’s shoulders. “Pa, are you all right?”

Ben turned and smiled faintly. “Joe! Yes, I’m fine, just tired.” The two men embraced for a second, and then Ben held Joe and pushed him away gently. “Where’s your brother?”

“Over at the doc’s. I was just on my way there.”

“How is he? Is he…?” Ben couldn’t hide his concern from Joe.

“He’s alive. He woke up this afternoon for the first time, but only for a few minutes. Doc Matthews wants him to sleep as much as possible and is keeping him sedated.”

Ben nodded in nervous understanding. It had been four days since Adam was found, four fear-filled days since Joe had sent the telegraph message calling his father to come. For Ben they had been days of hard riding and constant worry, wondering whether Adam would still be alive when he arrived.

“I want to see him,” said Ben and turned towards the door, but Joe put a hand on his arm to stop him.

“Why don’t you leave your things in your room and wash up first?” Joe smiled kindly. “If Adam sees you looking like that, he’ll know just how bad off he really is.” He could see the terrible toll that the journey had taken, and Joe was now as concerned for his father as he was for Adam. Ben nodded, and they went together up the stairs to the room next to Joe’s and, while his father washed and changed, Joe told him all he could about finding Adam and bringing him back to town. Then they crossed the street to the doctor’s house, and Joe went in without knocking, as had become his habit during the past days.

Doctor Matthews was seated behind his desk and rose as Joe entered with an older man.

“Doc, this is my father, Ben Cartwright.” Joe turned to Ben. “Pa, Doc Matthews has done a real good job of looking after Adam.”

Ben held his hand out to the short, elderly, balding man peering at him over the top of spectacles perched precariously on the end of his nose. “Doctor, I’m very grateful to you.”

Matthews took the offered hand, looking grave as he spoke. “Your son is very fortunate. By rights he should have died long before they got him back here, but with God’s help he stayed alive long enough for me to be able to treat him,” he looked at Joe, “and this young man has not left his side since. If you can get him to rest you would be doing him a service.” The doctor directed his words to Joe as he said, “Why don’t you go and sit with your brother for a minute, I would like to speak to your father.”

Joe hesitated, wondering what the doc might want to say, but then he nodded and entered the room where Adam lay.

Ben turned curious eyes to the doctor. “What is it?” he asked worriedly.

“Sir, I just wanted to say that it is a pleasure to meet the father of these two fine young men. The marshal explained to me what your elder son was doing, why he got hurt, and I have seen that brother of his wear himself to a shadow to stay beside him. He’s talked endlessly to Adam, even though he was unconscious, encouraging him to get well. Occasionally Adam has stirred, though until this afternoon he had not opened his eyes, and I’m certain that Joe’s presence has helped in his survival. You should be proud of both of them.”

Ben remembered how he had resisted, for a whole week, Joe’s suggestion that he should follow his brother, wanting to help him if he could, but more, Ben suspected, because he knew how worried his father was about him. Now he thanked God for Joe’s insistence.

A lump formed in Ben’s throat as he replied simply, “I am.” Then he thought of Hoss, who had offered to stay home so his father could leave, though he had desperately wanted to come to be with his family, to support them. “I have another fine son at home.” He held back tears as he added, “And I’m proud of all of them.”

The doctor studied Ben and watched his reaction to his words. He smiled, “Now, I expect, you would like to see Adam.” The doctor showed Ben into the small room where Joe was again sitting close to his brother’s side. Joe looked up, anxious to know what the doctor had been saying, but Ben stood and glanced from one son to the other. He thought, as he saw them together, that a man would count himself fortunate to have one such offspring, but to have three…he was truly blessed.

Ben neared the bed and looked down. Joe heard the sharp intake of breath as his father saw for the first time the cuts and bruising that even a five-day’s growth of beard could not hide, and the bandages that swathed the parts of Adam’s body that could be seen above the covers. Ben knelt beside the bed and said a silent prayer of thanks to the God that had protected his son and brought him back alive. Then he put out his hand, gently stroking Adam’s hair as he spoke quietly.

“It’s all right, son, Pa’s here, and you’re going to get well. You just have to rest and then we can take you home.” Ben’s heart was breaking, Joe had said little in his wire, only that Adam was badly injured and that he should come quickly. Now, seeing the reality of the cold words on the paper, Ben was shocked. He turned to the doctor. “How bad…?” He swallowed and started again. “How bad are his injuries? What happened?”

“As to what happened, only Adam can tell us that.” Matthews paused, wondering if Adam would want to relive the events that had led him to need the doctor’s services. “I had to operate to stop some internal bleeding, and that is the most serious injury he suffered and still threatens his survival. He also has a broken arm, which I set, and had a dislocated shoulder, which I have corrected. His right knee is damaged and I have immobilized the leg with bandages until the swelling goes down. I am afraid that he will have some trouble walking on it for a few weeks, but it should heal normally. I have also strapped up his broken ribs, and his wrists are heavily bandaged to cover some deep cuts and bruising which I would say were caused by being tied tightly.” The doctor didn’t add that he thought they were also worsened by Adam struggling against his bonds; he could see the hurt in Ben’s eyes deepen as he enumerated the injuries to his son, and he wouldn’t add to it. He had tried to speak without emotion of the treatment he had given, but then his voice gave him away as it filled with anger. “Apart from that he suffered a beating, the likes of which I hope never to see again.”

There was silence in the room as Ben took in the information; a rage was mounting inside him as he looked down at Adam and his eyes traveled over the blanket covered form of his son, following the doctor’s words.

At that moment Adam stirred and opened his eyes slowly. He had woken as Joe came into the room, and had lain, not listening to the distant voices, but remembering. As his thoughts became more coherent he recalled what he had done, and where before he had felt a fire consuming him from the inside, he now felt an icy hand grip his heart. He heard his father speaking, wondering if he was imagining it; then he saw that Ben was beside him and forced himself to face his father.

Ben looked into his son’s eyes and for a moment words would not come, then he said softly, “Hello, son.”

Seeing the love that radiated from his father’s features was too much for Adam and he turned his head away. Ben had to strain to catch his whispered words. “I’m sorry, Pa, I’m so sorry…forgive me.” A tear crept from the corner of Adam’s eye.

Ben stroked the black hair again. “Hush now, of course I forgive you. But you have done nothing that I need to forgive. You only did what you felt you had to do.” Ben thought to himself that while he would forgive his son anything, he would never forgive Roy for getting him involved.

Adam closed his eyes, shutting out his father’s words and trying to fight the pain he felt both in his body and his mind.

Doctor Mathews spoke quietly, “I think that you should both leave him to rest. Let him sleep the night out, and come back in the morning.” He could see the reluctance in two pairs of eyes. “If he wakes again I’m going to give him something that will make him sleep. He must remain still if he’s not to start bleeding inside again. Tomorrow I will let him stay awake for a little longer, but until then he’s not going to know you’re here.”

Ben and Joe could see the sense in what they were being told, but still hesitated, until the doctor went to the door and held it open for them. They both stood and, with backward glances, left.

Joe was the first one to reappear in the morning. He had left his exhausted father sleeping and, not bothering with breakfast, had walked swiftly over to the doctor’s house. He had a need to be with his brother; he felt that if he left Adam alone for too long he might slip away from them.

“How is he?” Joe asked quietly as he entered. The doctor looked as though he hadn’t slept and Joe felt a twinge of guilt for having had the first good night’s sleep since he had arrived in Alturas.

“Awake, but resting. Adam seems able to understand that he mustn’t move. He’s still very weak, but given time…” The doctor stood and came to stand in front of Joe, who saw an unsettling look in the physician’s eyes.

“What is it?” asked Joe, “what’s wrong?”

“Nothing physically, apart from his obvious injuries, but he seems detached, depressed even. It could just be as a result of being hurt, but I think there is more to it.” He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Perhaps you or your father can find out what’s troubling him.”

Joe nodded uncertainly and opened the door to the room where his brother lay with his head turned, staring out of the window. He went round the bed so that Adam wouldn’t have to move to see him.

“Hi, brother, good to see you awake.”

Adam didn’t look at him, didn’t even blink.

“Doc says you’re going to be OK.” Joe tried again to get his brother’s attention and put his hand on Adam’s arm. “Pa’s sleeping right now, but he’ll be back as soon as he’s awake.”

Adam closed his eyes; the last person he wanted to see was his father.

“Adam, what’s wrong. You’re alive and mending, everything’s going to be OK.”

Adam moved his head, and Joe could see the suspicion of a tear in his eyes. “Alive?” he whispered, again staring out of the window. “But I wanted…” He couldn’t say the words.

“What did you want? Adam look at me.” Adam slid his eyes sideways and glanced at Joe, who asked again, “What did you want?”

When Adam spoke it was with such desolation in his voice that Joe recoiled. “Doesn’t matter, He wouldn’t give it to me. He was right and I was wrong.”

“Who was right? Adam, what are you talking about?” Joe asked softly, his young face seeming to age as it reflected the need to help his brother.

Adam tried to turn away, but the pain stopped him moving. “Leave me alone,” he said between clenched teeth and closed his eyes to get away from the expression of love that he saw in Joe’s face. He didn’t deserve that love; he had been willing, no, pleading, to leave this life, to leave those who loved him, and he knew he didn’t deserve his family and the feelings they had for him.

Joe sat and watched as Adam pretended to sleep. He could see by the rough, uneven breaths that he was, in fact, wide awake. “Would you like me to leave so you can really go to sleep?” He smiled gently as Adam opened his eyes, nodded, and then closed them again.

Joe left quietly, and after exchanging a few worried words with the doctor went to find Ben, who was up and dressing when Joe knocked quietly.

“Come in.”

As Joe entered, Ben could tell that something was wrong. “What is it?” he asked crossing the room, his heart beating faster. “Is it Adam?”

“Yes,” Joe said, not thinking of the effect it would have on his father. Ben immediately picked up his hat and was nearly out of the door before Joe stopped him. “Pa, don’t worry, he’s OK.”

Ben turned. “Then what exactly do you mean?”

“He’s all right, but…”

“Joseph!” Ben was becoming exasperated at the lack of information.

“It’s just…I mean he’s…” Joe searched for the words to explain.

Ben dropped his hat on the bed and looked at his youngest son. “Take your time, and tell me what’s wrong.”

“I don’t know, that’s just it. He was awake but…Pa something’s happened to him.” He saw his father staring at him. “I don’t mean his injuries, there’s something else, but he won’t tell me. He said ‘He wouldn’t give it to me’. Then, ‘He was right and I was wrong’. When I asked him what he meant, who he was talking about, he just pretended to go to sleep, wouldn’t talk about it.”

Ben frowned and decided that he had to go and see Adam, find out what this was all about. He again picked up his hat, and Joe followed him out of the room, but before descending the stairs Ben stopped and put a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“No, Joe, I want to talk to Adam, and I think I’d better do it alone. I might be able to get him to tell me.” Joe nodded sadly and watched as his father left hurriedly.

The doctor could tell from Ben’s worried expression that Joe had told him about Adam’s mood.

“It may be simply the result of the sedative I have been giving him,” said Doc Matthews, “but I don’t think so. It seems much deeper than that. I tell you, Mr. Cartwright, I’m concerned. It might just be enough to prevent him recovering. He needs to direct all his efforts towards getting better.”

“Well, I’ll try to get to the bottom of it. But there is something you should know about my son, if he doesn’t want to talk, nothing will make him. He tends to keep thing bottled up inside until he feels he can handle them.”

“That’s all very well, but on this occasion it could kill him.” Matthews saw the fear in Ben’s eyes. “I’m sorry to put it so bluntly, but you have to know the possible consequences.”

Ben nodded, “Yes, of course. Thank you for your honesty.” Ben entered Adam’s room quietly, and saw that his son was awake, but a fine sheen of sweat covered his pale face. He went to the washstand and wetted a cloth, then approached the bed. When Adam caught sight of his father he closed his eyes while Ben wiped his face and returned the cloth to the stand before turning to speak.

“Adam.” There was no response. “Adam, look at me,” Ben ordered, but Adam turned his head away from his father. “Adam I’m not leaving here until you look at me. You can’t ignore me for ever.”

Adam heard the determination in Ben’s voice, and knew his father was just as stubborn as he was; Adam didn’t feel strong enough to resist, so there was only one possible ending to such a stand-off. He opened his eyes and looked at his father. Ben breathed a sigh of relief; he had won the first round.

“Now, tell me what’s wrong.”

Adam’s quiet voice answered him and Ben knew he was far from winning the fight. “You only said I had to look at you. And I don’t need you to look at me.” Adam squeezed his eyes tight shut, then opened them again. “You’ll never want to look at me again.”

Ben was shocked by the words, which he simply didn’t understand. He sat on the edge of the bed and held his son’s cold hand. Adam tried to pull away but lacked the strength to do so when Ben tightened his grip.

“Son, what’s wrong?”

Before Adam had the opportunity to reply, the door opened and Marshal Andrews came into the room. When he saw the two men he sensed that he had intruded, but he had to speak to Adam.

He introduced himself to Ben then turned to Adam, and Ben saw that the hopeless look in Adam’s eyes lifted slightly.

“Adam, how are you? The doc seems satisfied with your progress, said it was OK to speak to you.” This wasn’t strictly true, since Mathews had tried to stop the marshal from entering, but Andrews wasn’t a man you could stop that easily.

“Marshal,” Adam greeted him quietly, but he sounded distracted. “I’m all right.” Adam tried to shift in the bed to ease the stiffening in his joints, but stopped immediately as pains from various parts of his body screamed at him.

“I wanted to tell you that the circuit judge is going to be here in five days. I really need to talk to you about what happened. We have to get together a case against Cronin and the other three for what they did to you, and we need your testimony against them for the rustling as well.”

Adam nodded; he really didn’t want to think about it. The marshal’s words slowly sank in and Adam thought there was something wrong.

“Three?” he queried.

“Yeah. Red Parfitt, Lucky Cunningham, and Carl Saunders,” the marshal explained.

Adam worked it out, there was someone missing, then his heart sank; Lou had escaped. The one person Adam wanted to face justice had got away. “What about Lou?” he asked dejectedly.

“The other member of the gang?” Andrews asked, and Adam nodded. “He’s dead. Your brother shot him, to stop him from killing you.”

“Joe…shot him?” This time it was Andrews’ turn to nod. The poetic symmetry of the situation overwhelmed Adam; Lou had intended to kill one brother, only to be slain by another. He started laughing quietly, and then found he couldn’t stop, even when his injuries reminded him of their presence. Ben became concerned and called the doctor, who came in and immediately poured some sedative into a glass and made Adam drink it. Slowly the laughter faded as Adam slipped into a light sleep.

“Well,” said Andrews, “I’m glad he can laugh about it.”

The doctor looked at him to see if he was serious. “That wasn’t laughter; that was hysteria. Marshal, I should warn you that Adam may not be in a fit state to testify. I believe that this experience has unbalanced him somewhat.”

Ben shied away from the words, but knew that Matthews was right. There was something very far wrong, and unless they could find out what it was, Adam might never fully recover.

The doctor ushered them both from the room, and Andrews faced Ben as they left the house.

“Mr. Cartwright, I want to thank you for letting your son help us as he did, and I’m sorry it turned out like this.”

Ben bit back the sharp retort he was going to make; he was saving that for Roy Coffee. “It was my son’s decision to help you. I wasn’t happy when the sheriff asked for his help, but Adam wouldn’t listen to me. I was afraid of something like this, and being proved right has no comfort at this moment.”

“Of course, I’m sorry.” Andrews turned away, seeing the sadness in Ben’s eyes and knowing that he had been partly to blame for it. “I’ll come back and talk to him again in a couple of days.”

Ben simply nodded as the marshal walked off down the street, then he went to the hotel. He wanted to see Joe, needing the comfort of having one of his sons close, when the other seemed so distant. He went to Joe’s room and found him lying on his bed, reading.

“Hi, Pa,” Joe rose to greet his father, “how’s Adam?”

Ben didn’t reply, but went instead to look out of the window at the street below; just another small town, like so many others that he had been in. But was this to be the place that he would always remember for taking his son from him? Even if Adam lived, would he ever be the man that had left home less than a month ago? Ben determined that he would make Adam tell him what was wrong. That was the first step to his recovery, then he could be helped.

Ben turned back into the room. “He’s resting; the doc gave him something to make him sleep.”

“I thought that he wasn’t going to give him any more?” Joe was concerned.

“Adam was talking to Andrews when he…well, he needed to sleep.” Ben couldn’t bring himself to describe those moments when Adam had lost control. “Joe, somehow we have to get Adam to tell us what happened.”

Joe thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers and pointed at his father. “I know; if the Doc agrees, why don’t we get him drunk?”

“What?!” Ben was horrified at the thought.

“Not really drunk drunk; just get him to have a shot or two. You know that’s the only time you’ll find Adam opening up, like late in the evening, when you’ve been working hard, and you two sit with a drink and discuss life and…things.” Ben raised his eyebrows as he realized that there had been other ears listening to those mellow moments he had treasured with his eldest son. Joe looked sheepish as he knew he had given himself away. “OK, I’m sorry Pa, but I love to hear the two of you talk, not about the ranch, but other things. You never do it when Hoss and I are about, and you talk about the old days, traveling and such.”

Ben nodded. “It might work, we’ll talk to Matthews, see what he thinks.”

They hurried across to the doctor’s house, but when they went in he told them that Adam was still sleeping. Nevertheless, they asked him for his permission to try their scheme.

“If you think that it will work, I can’t see any harm in it. But no gut-rot whiskey. If you can get it, I would suggest brandy, and the best you can find. Tell Sam, in the saloon, that it’s for me.” The doctor saw Ben nod his agreement. “But keep an eye on him, don’t give him too much, he may forget my instructions. Alcohol has a habit of dulling the senses, which I believe is what you hope will happen, but it may make him impervious to his pain, which is the only thing that is preventing him from moving at the moment.”

“Very well,” said Ben, “we’ll go and find some brandy, and some lunch, then come back.”

They went into the saloon where they found both the items they were seeking, and when they returned Matthews told them that Adam was awake and, with their plan in mind, he had got him sitting up a little so he could drink, but again impressed on them that he shouldn’t be allowed to move. Ben and Joe went in and found Adam with his eyes open, but no more responsive than when Ben had seen him earlier. As Ben looked at his son’s face he remembered the doctor telling him that Adam’s mood could kill him; his eyes were dull and lifeless, and the shadows under them were deeper, if that was possible, as though he wasn’t trying to get well. Suddenly Ben was terrified that he would lose his son, and his determination to help him became like a hard knot in his stomach.

“Hello, son,” Ben said brightly, trying to seem unconcerned, “how are you feeling?”

Adam didn’t answer, he was lost in his thoughts, which told him he was a failure; he didn’t deserve his family, though he wanted them now more than ever. He guiltily remembered that he had wanted to die, to desert his family, and now he aught to want to live, but the knowledge of what he had done was too painful. He would leave it in the hands of God, who had not let him die when he wanted to, so let Him make the decision now.

Joe approached the bed side. “I thought you’d like a drink, brought a bottle.” Joe put down the glasses they had persuaded the barman to lend them, and poured out three measures. He handed one to his father and held one out to Adam. Joe leaned closer so that only Adam should hear him. “Thought it might help,” he cocked his head towards Ben, “you know, when you have to deal with Pa.”

Joe was delighted as his brother looked straight at him, blinked slowly, then nodded and held out his hand for the glass, where he hoped to find forgetfulness. Adam sipped at the brandy and shut his eyes gratefully as he felt the liquor burn its way down his throat. He welcomed the warmth that spread through him; he had felt cold inside since he first woke, and it brought back memories of the forest and the chill he had endured. He was aware that Ben and Joe were talking but he took no interest in their conversation, and they seemed content with his silence.

Adam drained the glass then held it out for more. Joe reached for the bottle and refilled the glass, which Adam held to his chest, nursing it before relishing the warmth once again. He became aware that Ben was addressing him.

“Do you remember?” Ben asked again.

“What?” Adam had to drag his thoughts back from the darkness.

“I asked if you remember when the wheel came off old man Dickson’s wagon, and he was preparing some complicated lifting gear, when Hoss came along and lifted the wagon up all by himself and you put the wheel back on. Thought Dickson was going to have a seizure, he was so surprised. Guess he’d never seen anyone do that before. Remember?”

Adam nodded absently. “Yeah, I remember.”

Joe brought back another memory. “And the time that you had to rescue me from the lake, when the boat that me and Hoss built sank. You were mad, but you showed us how to build a proper boat, and we used to go fishing in it. That was great, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, great.” Adam looked at his brother, glad he hadn’t drowned.

Five words, Ben thought, just five words, but the first that Adam had uttered that hadn’t been filled with despair. It was a beginning.

Adam had drained his glass again and Joe saw his father nod when Adam held it out for a refill.

Adam took a sip then spoke quietly. “I remember…Joe, in the snow.”

Joe looked startled but picked up on Adam’s thoughts. “You always manage to get me with the first snowball. I thought last year I’d fooled you.” Joe turned to Ben, to explain. “I was hiding outside the front door, on the veranda, waiting for Adam to come out, and you know what? He crept up behind me. I’ll never know how he got out of the house; I’d got Hoss to make sure that he came out the front door.”

“I bribed him,” Adam said, his words a little slurred from the brandy, “with Hop Sing’s apple pie.” Then he laughed, a real, genuine laugh of remembered happiness. Then, as thoughts of his home filled his mind, Adam felt tears in his eyes.

Ben went to the side of the bed and put his hand on Adam’s arm and rubbed it gently. This was the moment; he had to get Adam to talk. “It’s all right, son, tell me.” The hand went to Adam’s shoulder and squeezed it in encouragement.

As Adam looked into his father’s eyes he was overwhelmed with the love he saw there, and it broke his fragile control. “I’m sorry Pa,” his throat was tight with unshed tears. “I didn’t mean to, but they would have made me beg, and I wouldn’t do that, not even for you.”

“Tell me. All of it,” Ben whispered, not moving as he willed his son to talk.

Adam felt the strong, reassuring presence of his father, and reached out his hand to Joe who came and held it tightly as he sat down on the covers. With his family near him, Adam let it all pour out.

He spoke softly, brokenly. “They said they’d kill me, but not quickly, and after they’d…they’d…all day…and then Lou had the gun…to my head…that’s when I knew…I wanted to die.” Adam stopped and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to fight against the emotions that were brought back with the memories. “I hurt so bad…I knew I was going to die…I wanted it to be over.” Adam stopped again, and then took a deep breath that shook his body. “I prayed for death…I cursed God when he wouldn’t give it to me.” He shook his head trying to clear the memories from his mind. Joe poured him another drink, but Adam’s hand was shaking so badly that Joe had to take the glass and hold it to his brother’s lips so that he could drink. Adam could keep back the tears no longer as he continued his painful confession, his voice shaking as much as his hand. “I would have left you so easily at that moment. I didn’t think what it would do to you…I was only thinking of myself. But it would have hurt you so badly. Then I woke up…and realized that I was alive…and I knew God was right, but I’d cursed him, I would have given up this life, and you. I would have put you through all that…because…because I didn’t want to hurt any more.” Adam turned his head to look at his father, then looked away, ashamed. “Pa, I’m sorry, how can you ever forgive me?”

Ben put an arm round the shoulder of his troubled son, and with his other hand gently lifted Adam’s chin until their eyes met.

“Son, it doesn’t matter, nothing matters but you being here, alive and getting well.”

Adam swallowed hard, trying to stop his tears. “But how could I have done that? How could I want to die, when I know that you love me? How could I do that to you? How could I be so selfish?”

“You didn’t do it,” Ben assured him. “What those monsters did to you drove you to it. It wasn’t you asking God for death, it was desperation.” Ben paused, seeing Adam lower his eyes and knowing that he wasn’t convinced. “Adam, listen to me.”

Adam looked up and blinked very slowly. Ben could tell that he was, indeed, drunk, and hoped that Adam was capable of taking in what he was going to say. “Nothing in this world could make you want to leave us like that. Nothing normal, but this was not normal, it was something that no one should have to go through. But you did, and you survived, somehow. Adam, seeing you in such distress now hurts me far more than your praying for death. I forgive you, with all my heart. How could I do anything else, when you managed to get away from them despite what they did and the way you were feeling. How you managed to walk as far as you did I will never know, but you gave Andrews the chance to get to you before it was too late, and you have my eternal thanks for doing it. You say that God didn’t answer your prayers, but having you here, alive, means that he answered mine, and who are we to question the choice He made?”

Tears were threatening in Ben’s eyes, and Joe’s, and there was silence for a minute, until Adam said gratefully, “Thank you, Pa.” Then he remembered praying that he could tell his father how much he was loved, and it seemed that God had, indeed, answered that prayer. Adam whispered, “I love you,” and slipped quietly into sleep.

Ben stood staring silently at Adam, then he turned to Joe and saw the tears that stained his face, as Joe saw his, and they stood and embraced, each hoping that Adam’s fears had been laid to rest by his confession, each trying to forget the pain in his words and the terrible picture they painted. Ben also saw his own anger reflected in his youngest son’s face, anger that would have sent them after the men who had done this, had they not been safely locked up in jail. They sat with Adam for hours, but he did not stir and Ben became afraid that they had made a terrible mistake in getting him to talk, that the effort had been too much and he might not waken again.

The doctor came in quietly from time to time, and on each occasion he tried to assure them that Adam was fine, but Joe could see that his father was not convinced. The doctor returned and checked his patient again, then beckoned Ben to the far side of the room, and spoke softly, barely above a whisper.

“Mr. Cartwright, your son is awake.” Ben looked surprised, but did not interrupt. “Did you find out what was wrong?”

“Yes.” The doctor raised his eyebrows in question. “He told me about wanting to die. He felt guilty that he had done so, but I assured him that it was understandable in the circumstances, and I think he believed me.”

Matthews pondered for a minute. “Good. I have to say he looks better. Just give him time now. Don’t force him to open his eyes; he will do so when he is ready.” Matthews glanced over to the bed and put his hand on Ben’s arm and smiled. “Please, try not to worry; I’m certain that the worst in passed.”

Ben thanked the doctor and returned to sit beside the bed, where Adam lay still, his eyes closed.

Adam could hear movement in the room, and thought that Ben and Joe were probably there, but he was going over in his mind the things he remembered being said. That his father did not blame him for what he had done, that he felt only gratitude for having his son back, and Adam tried to make himself believe it. He forced his mind to accept the forgiveness that Ben had shown him, and gradually it began to work. While Adam would always keep his problems bottled up, once they were dealt with he let them go, not dwelling on them when he knew he had found a solution, and he slowly accepted that his father had found that solution for him, in absolution. The weight that had been resting on his soul lifted slowly, and he felt only the love that he received from his family.

Ben held his breath as Adam’s eyes fluttered open, and he looked straight at his father. Their gaze locked and neither spoke, then Ben moved to sit on the side of the bed and reached out for Adam’s hand, stroking it gently, willing his son to talk to him.

“Can I have a drink?” Adam asked slowly, and Joe went uncertainly to the brandy bottle. Adam saw him and groaned, taking his hand from Ben’s and rubbing his forehead. “No, not that, never again.” Joe handed him a glass of water and Adam sipped it slowly. Ben took the glass from him and Adam smiled and spoke slowly, but his tone was light. “What did you think you were doing? Brandy for a man in my condition! Really!”

Ben’s eyes filled as he heard Adam joking and saw the smile that lit his face. His son had returned

*****

Ben, Adam and Joe were sitting in the Judge’s rooms, facing the imposing, dark-haired, middle aged man behind the dark mahogany desk. Adam’s freshly shaved face was looking pale, the bruising still evident, and Ben watched him anxiously, but his son sat straight in his seat waiting for the Judge’s verdict.

“I’m glad that we could clear this up before tomorrow,” the Judge said, his deep voice resounding round the room. “It will only cloud the issue if it is brought up then.” The trial had been short and swift; the Judge had an immediate grasp of the facts and wasted no time on incidentals. He could see the accused was tiring rapidly. “Mr. Cartwright, are you able to stand while I deliver my verdict?”

Adam nodded and Ben helped him to his feet and supported him. Marshal Andrews sat on the other side, waiting anxiously. What the Judge decided now would affect Adam’s credibility as a witness in the trial of the rustlers.

“Adam Cartwright, you are charged with rustling and attempted murder. By your own admission, you shot Mr. Hansen in cold blood and with no provocation, when you were assisting in the stealing of his cattle.” The Judge indicated the other person in the room, a man in his forties, fair haired and weather-beaten, with his arm in a sling. “Is that correct?”

Adam nodded. “Yes.”

“While it is accepted that you were acting as an agent of Marshal Andrews, it must also be pointed out that you were not a sworn deputy and therefore have no protection under the law for your actions, and I have no choice but to find you guilty and to pass sentence.” Ben felt his son tense as he stood beside him. The Judge looked straight at Adam. “I sentence you to one day’s imprisonment.” Adam leaned heavily against his father, his relief evident. “As the jail at present holds the men against whom you will testify tomorrow, I do not deem it sensible for you to be imprisoned there. You will return to the doctor’s house and remain there until you are called to attend my court tomorrow. After which you will be free to leave. Do you understand the sentence?”

Adam cleared his throat. “Yes, your honor, I do.”

“Very well. Good day to you.” The Judge rose and left the room as Ben helped Adam sink slowly into his chair. Adam put his right elbow on the arm of the chair and rested his head on his hand; his other arm was in a sling to support both his broken limb and his shoulder. He was trying not to pass out with relief that the Judge, who had seemed so stern and unforgiving, had opened his heart and his reason to him, when he became aware that someone was standing in front of him, and he looked up.

Jacob Hansen was staring at Adam, studying him. Adam found it difficult to look at the man he had shot, he had never thought he would see him again after that day, and wondered what he would say.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Hansen’s voice was tinged with the lilt of his Swedish origins, “I have never been shot before, and I must say it was an extremely unpleasant experience.” Adam tried to interrupt him, to apologies, but Hansen held up his hand. “Please, let me finish. The marshal told me why you did it, and I want to thank you. I know now that if you had not done so, not only would I have lost all my cattle, a lifetime’s work, but I would probably be dead.” He held out his hand to Adam who shook it, somewhat stunned. Hansen said his goodbyes to Ben, Joe and the marshal and was gone before Adam had recovered enough to speak.

The marshal put his hand under Adam’s arm. “Come on, I have to take you to the doctor’s.” He smiled as he helped Adam to his feet. “You’re supposed to be my prisoner; for real this time.”

Adam smiled back and they all walked slowly to the doctor’s house. Adam was leaning heavily on the walking stick that Matthews had lent him; every step he took sent a pain through his right leg and when he eventually made it back to the room which was to be his prison for a day, Adam lay down gratefully on the bed. The short trip had been a trial in more ways than one; walking, and then sitting, and standing, had started his stomach aching, and other injuries which he had forgotten about had made their presence felt.

Marshal Andrews sat by the bed as Ben and Joe settled themselves on either side of it.

Ben looked at Adam sternly. “So, my son is a criminal.”

“Pa…!” Adam protested.

Ben laughed. “I’m sure that the family name can stand it, just this once. But try not to make a habit of it.”

Adam turned to the marshal. “Are you ready for tomorrow?”

“I am if you are. Are you going to be all right?”

“Nothing will keep me from that courtroom, don’t worry,” Adam assured him.

“Well, with Judge Vernon in charge, I don’t imagine it will take too long.”

The door opened and Doc Mathews was standing there looking determined. “Right, out, all of you.” The Marshal was about to object but the doctor held up his hand. “If you want him in court tomorrow he must rest. Otherwise I give no guarantees.”

Andrews stood and looked at Adam. “Till tomorrow then.”

Adam asked that his father should stay for a few minutes and the marshal left, with Joe following. When they were alone Adam turned to Ben. “Have you spoken to Roy?”

“No.”

“Pa, it wasn’t his fault, you know that. If you want to be mad at anyone, be mad at me for agreeing to help him.”

“He didn’t have to ask you, he must have known, or at least hoped, that you would agree, even when he knew how dangerous this sort of plan could be.”

Adam could see that his father was still angry as he paced the floor at the foot of the bed. “Sit down, will you; I can’t talk to you if you won’t keep still.”

Ben stood uncertainly for a minute then settled himself on the end of the bed. “OK,” he said, “I’m keeping still.”

“You’re right,” Adam continued, “Roy knew what he was asking, but who else could he approach, if not his friends? Who else could he trust? Not a stranger certainly, perhaps you think that he should have asked someone that he didn’t like, so he wouldn’t be upset if anything happened to them.” Adam raised his eyebrows at his father, knowing the answer.

“No, of course not, but…”

“There’s no ‘but’, Pa. We want to see our part of the world grow into a civilized society, and having the law, and a strong law at that, is one way to make that happen. You brought me and Hoss to the wilds of Nevada when there was very little law, and decided that it was where you wanted to build your life and raise your family. People like Roy Coffee, and Marshal Andrews, have made it a safer place by facing every day the kind of risk I took. If they ask us, just once, to help them, don’t you think they deserve that help? You can’t leave it all to them.”

Ben sat silently, considering his son’s words. “You don’t understand,” he said softly, “you haven’t got children.”

“No, but I have got brothers. Suppose that Albie and his gang had come south and started taking our cattle, and suppose that Joe or Hoss was killed trying to stop them? Would you still think that I shouldn’t have done it?”

“That’s not fair…” Ben protested.

“Isn’t it? What if it was someone else’s child, or husband or father that was killed? Would you have been able to say ‘at least it wasn’t my son’?” Adam stared at Ben, and could see that he was beginning to give in.

Ben still tried to argue his point. “When you have children, you will feel the same, trying to protect them at all costs. I just didn’t want you to get hurt, and seeing you like this…well it shows that I was right.”

“Won’t you allow that I was just protecting Hoss and Joe, and you? Won’t you grant me the same feelings that you say are your reason for being upset at Roy?” Adam smiled at his father, and Ben reluctantly smiled in return.

“I’m not really upset with him, I was mad at you as much as anything. But you’re right, you had no choice, and I’m proud of you for thinking of others, not yourself. But allow me to be a parent with all that means. I will worry about you until the day I die, you will always be my child, and if you do something like this again, then despite your age, I will take you over my knee and give you a tanning that you will remember for the rest of your life.” The two men looked at each other, each considering what it meant to be a parent, and a child. “Now you must do as the doctor says, and rest. You’ve got a hard day tomorrow.”

Ben patted Adam’s arm, then suddenly bent forward, kissed his son’s forehead, and was gone before Adam could react. Adam lay still, stunned by the gesture, not by the love behind it but by the simple demonstration of that love, which he and his father seldom shared openly. He remembered thinking that he hoped his Pa knew how much he was loved, but it seemed as though Ben had a need to let his son know as well.

*****

Adam made his way slowly into the small, dark room that served as a public court in the town of Alturas. It appeared that the whole town wanted to be there for the trial of these notorious rustlers who had preyed on their territory; people were standing along the walls and crowding in the doorway. Adam felt eyes following him as he entered, leaning heavily on the walking stick, his father beside him ready to offer his arm, and with Joe close behind. They sat in seats near the front of the court which were left empty for them, and Joe looked round curiously. He leaned towards Adam.

“Good turn out,” he observed.

“Yeah.” Adam wasn’t interested, he was only thinking of what was going to happen, that he would have to relive those hours of torment in the camp, and what it would do to his father when he heard the details. Adam nudged Ben’s arm to get his attention.

“Will you do something for me?” Adam asked quietly as his father turned towards him.

“Of course, what is it?” Ben was concerned when he noticed the tension in his son’s shoulders and the muscle working in his jaw.

“I want you to take Joe out of here, and stay out yourself, until this is finished.” Adam was staring straight ahead, not wanting to show his father the haunted look he knew would be in his eyes.

“No!” Ben said, shocked.

“Pa, I can’t do this if you’re here.”

“But…”

“Pa, please. Go.” Adam turned to Ben, who could see the pain behind the determination. “Andrews is right, it won’t take long. Go to the hotel and wait for me. Please.”

Ben was going to argue further, but remembered Adam saying that he wouldn’t beg Lou to kill him, and he wouldn’t make his son beg now. He nodded, and taking Joe’s arm pulled him to his feet and guided him from the court.

Once outside, Joe turned to his father angrily. “What was that all about, why aren’t we staying? Adam needs us; you can’t just walk out on him.”

Ben ushered Joe ahead of him towards the hotel, where he entered the restaurant and ordered coffee for them both, then answered the agitated young man facing him. “Adam doesn’t need us there.” Joe tried to protest, so Ben explained. “He doesn’t want me to hear what happened, and he doesn’t want you to know either. He’s only trying to protect us. Don’t you think I want to be with him? But he’s right, he can’t do it with us there, can’t tell the whole story. So we’ll wait here.”

The two men sat silently. Ben believed that the reality of what must have happened couldn’t be any worse than the pictures in his mind, and his jaw set as he thought of the men who had come so close to killing his son, his beloved eldest boy. He looked across the table at his treasured youngest and saw his emotions reflected in the green eyes that faced him. Suddenly Ben was frightened. If those men somehow got off, escaped the justice that was waiting for them, he wasn’t sure that he would be able to stop Joe from going after them and wasn’t certain that he, himself, wouldn’t be right behind him.

The table Ben had chosen in the restaurant gave them a clear view of the street and the courtroom entrance. He watched as Marshal Andrews, the sheriff, and a deputy, escorted the prisoners from the jail, across the dusty street, to the court. He recognized them from Adam’s descriptions. Cronin led the men and Ben studied him closely. Adam had told them that it was Cronin who had helped him to escape and Ben wondered why he had done such a thing. Behind was the shorter figure of Lucky Cunningham, and then two younger men, the red hair of Parfitt, with Saunders bringing up the rear. Ben’s eyes narrowed as he thought of what they had done, and he looked away trying, and failing, to control his feelings.

The girl who looked after the restaurant came over to fill their cups, and Ben asked her to leave the pot. While Andrews had predicted that the trial would not take long, Ben knew that these things never went as quickly as they should, it could be a long time before it was over. His thoughts went to Adam, who should have been resting in bed, but was sitting in the court, going through who knew what, in order to convict the gang.

Joe was restless and paced the floor, occasionally stopping by the window to look out at the silent street.

“How long is this going to take?” Joe asked his father. Ben just shrugged, and Joe continued. “This isn’t right, we should be there.”

“Joe, sit down. You’re not going to make it go any faster by pacing. Adam wanted us to wait here, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Joe sat for a minute, but was soon on his feet again, and Ben watched as he prowled round the room, always returning to the window to watch.

The time dragged past, measured by the slow ticking of the clock over the door. Nearly two hours later both men were seated, with a fresh pot of coffee in front of them. The girl was sat at another table, she wouldn’t have any more customers until the trial was over, and then there would be a rush as everyone came in at once.

Suddenly all three were on their feet, brought upright by the sound of a shot. Ben and Joe were running through the door of the restaurant when the sound of a second shot stopped them for a moment, then they ran faster, across the street, pushing through the mass of people trying to get away from the gunfire in the courtroom. Ben stood in the doorway looking for Adam among the melee inside. As the room cleared he saw the marshal bending over someone, and Ben’s heart stopped as he saw that it was Adam, stretched out face down on the floor, the man Ben had identified as Cronin lying beside him. Off to one side was another prostrate form, which Ben merely glanced at as he knelt at the side of his son.

Joe stood, looking from one fallen man to another, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. His eyes came to rest on his brother and father, and as he felt for the gun belt he had left in his hotel room he cursed, but straightened and glanced watchfully round, ready to protect his family from any threat.

Ben and Andrews gently turned Adam onto his back as Ben felt all over his son’s body but could find no bullet wound; he searched again but found nothing. Ben watched as Adam slowly opened his eyes. “Stay still son, the doctor’s on his way.”

Adam’s face screwed up with pain, but he assured his father breathlessly, “I’m OK Pa…it wasn’t me that got shot.”

Ben looked up into the eyes of the marshal. “What happened?”

Andrews glanced at the motionless figures lying on the courtroom floor. “The judge had just passed sentence, when Parfitt grabbed Adam and hauled him to his feet, hitting him. Adam tried to fight him off, but Parfitt was crazy, screaming that he was going to finish what they had started. Then he grabbed the sheriff’s gun, but Cronin pushed Adam to the floor as Parfitt fired. He took the bullet meant for your son.” Andrews shook his head in disbelief. “I had to kill Parfitt to stop him. Guess he couldn’t face fifteen years in prison.”

Adam had listened to the marshal’s explanation of events of which he had only a dim awareness, then turned his head and saw Albie lying nearby. He rolled over and pulled himself across the short distance between them, until he was beside the man who had saved him.

Albie’s eyes were open but his breath came in short gasps, and a red stain was beginning to seep out from under his body.

“Albie, why?” Adam asked softly.

“I could have…been you,” Albie said haltingly, and coughed painfully. “I had to know…if I could have done…what you did.” He smiled up into Adam’s concerned eyes. “Guess the answer…was ‘yes’.” Albie coughed once more, and then breathed out for the last time.

Adam hung his head, then lay on his back and closed his eyes, fighting the fire that had returned to his stomach. Twice the man had saved his life, this time by giving his own. His mind wandered back to Albie asking him if he thought he was the better man, and for Adam the answer was given. He slipped slowly, inexorably, towards unconsciousness and they lay side by side; rancher and rustler, accused and accuser, saved and savior.

***The End***

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