More than Money (by Diana)

Summary:    Adam is determined to protect the payroll, but loses something more precious.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  33,500


 

“So, little brother’s courting, huh?” Adam said, glancing up from his breakfast, his intense brown eyes looking at eighteen-year-old Joe, whose cheeks were reddening at his eldest brother’s mocking tone.

“No,” retorted Joe, “I’m going calling on Victoria Maclaren. That doesn’t mean I’m courting her.” Joe’s hazel eyes sparkled with emerald green tints, as they always did when he was riled.

“Well that sounds like courtin’ to me,” Ben Cartwright’s middle son, Hoss, opined grinning.

“Maybe our baby brother doesn’t quite understand what courting a girl involves,” Adam spoke with all the authority of his thirty years, and then he leaned his elbows on the table as he looked at Hoss and winked. He turned to his father, who sat opposite him across the expanse of red and white chequered cloth, at the head of the table. “Pa, I think that you may have left a rather large gap in your youngest son’s social education.”

Ben looked round the table at his boys; three sons given to him as a precious legacy from three, very different, wives. Joe’s good looks reflected the fact that laughter lay hidden just below the surface, and girls loved him on sight. Adam was darkly handsome with a quiet demeanor that women found fascinating. Hoss, while not as obviously attractive as his brothers, had charmed his fair share of women, who were beguiled by his gentle, caring nature and honest, simple love. Ben smiled; he was used to the teasing that they would hand out to each other any time one of them showed interest in a girl, and knew it was good hearted. “Oh, I think Joseph knows what he’s doing.”

Adam shook his raven-haired head. “I don’t think so. I heard him in the kitchen, asking Hop Sing to prepare a hamper,” Adam explained. “Now, I’ve never heard him ask for a hamper just to go and mend fences. Of course, I could be wrong,” Adam’s tone said that he knew he wasn’t, “but I think he’s planning a picnic, and that’s no fun unless you’re with someone.” He raised his eyebrows as he glanced at Joe. “So I assume he’s going with Victoria; and he wants us to believe that he’s not courting her?”

“That right, Joe? You plannin’ a picnic?” asked Hoss, “That’s a mighty serious thing to be doin’ with a gal you got no interest in. The two of you, alone in the forest, who knows what might happen?” Hoss spoke dramatically. “S’pose a bear attacks you?” Hoss was, by a few inches and many muscular pounds, the biggest of the brothers and as strong as a bear himself. So when his voice went up several octaves and he clasped his hands in front of his chest, taking on the role of the threatened girl, Ben had to hide his broad grin behind his napkin. “Oh, Joe, help me, help me, the bear’s gonna get me,” Hoss pleaded, his blue eyes opening wide in mock horror.

Adam joined in, moving to stand protectively beside Hoss and putting a hand on his brother’s strong shoulder as he took Joe’s part in the drama, his voice taking on heroic overtones. “That’s all right, Ma’am, Joe Cartwright’s here to save ya.”

Hoss responded, “But Joe, it’s so big!”

“Yes, Ma’am. But no bear’s gonna get ya while I’m with ya. Just stand behind me and you’ll be safe.” Adam was laughing as he resumed his seat. “She will be safe with you, won’t she?” Adam raised a finger, and an eyebrow, “Ah yes, of course she will, you’re not courting her, are you?”

Joe’s face was smiling, but his tone said he was less than pleased. “OK, maybe I am sparkin’ her.” He appealed to his father. “But I just want to do it without any help from these two.” He jerked his thumb roughly in the direction of his brothers.

Adam held up his hands in surrender. “Heaven forbid that we should help you. But just remember what you said, when her father comes after you with a shotgun.”

“Yeah,” said Hoss, finishing a mouthful of pancake and nodding in agreement, “we’ll keep right outta your way and let him blow your head clean off.”

Adam trained his coffee and wiped his mouth on his napkin before putting the cloth beside his plate. “Well, while you’re off enjoying yourself, I have to go into Virginia City.”

Ben became serious as he thought of Adam’s errand in town. “You’re taking someone with you?”

“Yeah Pa, don’t worry. I’ll be riding in with Chet.”

“Good. That’s a lot of money you’ll be carrying.” He looked hard at his eldest son. “But remember, it’s only money, don’t take any chances.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.” Adam rose, going to the sideboard by the front door to pick up his gun belt and hat. He took a step back towards the dining area. “Oh, and Joe, watch out for the bears.” He ducked out the door as Joe balled up his napkin and threw it after him.

*****

Sheriff Coffee was hurrying along the sidewalk in pursuit of his quarry, who was approaching the door of the First Bank of Virginia City. As he neared, Roy Coffee stopped, took a breath, and called out.

“Adam! Hey Adam, wait up.”

Adam paused with his hand on the door handle of the Bank, then turned and waited. Roy took in the customary head to foot black clothing and the dark, somber gaze of Ben Cartwright’s eldest son, and wondered what would be his reaction to the bad news he was about to hear.

Adam held out his hand to the elderly sheriff. “Morning, Roy. What can I do for you?”

“More what I can do for you.” Roy took Adam’s hand and looked at him from under bushy eyebrows. “That right, you come into town with Chet Mason?”

Wondering what interest the sheriff could have in Chet, Adam frowned, but he nodded. “Yeah. We’re picking up the payroll this morning.” He gestured over his shoulder. “I was just going to meet him in the Bank.” When they arrived in town, Adam had spoken to the teller to give him time to get the money ready, and he and Chet had each gone on separate errands in the meantime.

“Well, I think you’d better come over to Doc Martin’s. Chet’s there.”

“Why, what happened?” Adam asked, falling in beside Roy as he turned and headed back up the street, towards the doctor’s house at the end of town.

“Chet’s been beaten pretty bad. Two fellas found him behind the saloon.”

“Did he say who did it?”

“He ain’t said much of anything yet.”

“That bad, hn?” Adam’s footsteps quickened as he thought of the hand, who was also his friend, falling foul of thugs.

Roy’s normal splay-footed amble turned into something closer to a run as he tried to keep up with the rancher’s longer stride. “Could be. He’s got a broken arm and is cut up pretty bad, but Doc says he’s worried about a head wound that looks serious.”

They reached the doctor’s house, where Adam didn’t knock, instead opening the door and hurrying inside, calling for his friend and physician, Paul Martin. The doctor came out of a side room, putting on his jacket and nodding a welcome as he saw his callers.

“Good morning Adam, sorry to have to get you here like this.”

“How is he?” asked Adam, peering over the shoulder of the short, stocky doctor, trying to see into the small room.

“He’s woken up, but is still groggy.” Paul turned to address the sheriff. “He can’t remember a thing about the attack, he doesn’t know how many there were, and can’t tell us a reason for it.” Paul beckoned to Roy and Adam, indicating to them that they should be quiet. They followed the doctor into the dimly lit room, where the windows had been covered to exclude the bright, morning sunlight.

When he saw the damage done to Chet, Adam’s face set hard and his eyes narrowed in anger. The burly forty-year-old was bruised about the face, a bandage swathed his head and his right arm was encased in a heavy plaster cast. Adam put a hand on Chet’s uninjured arm and called his name quietly. One eyelid fluttered open, the other being too bruised and swollen to move, then closed again.

“Hi, Ad’m,” Chet mumbled, “sorry ‘bout this.”

Adam spoke quietly. “Don’t worry, just let the Doc take care of you, and as soon as he says it’s OK, I’ll send someone with the buckboard to bring you back to the ranch.” Adam looked at Paul and raised an enquiring eyebrow.

The doctor scratched his chin in thought before he answered. “Good idea. That head wound isn’t as serious as I thought. The fact that he’s come round so quickly is a good sign, but I don’t think he’s going to want to ride anywhere for a while. I’d still like to keep an eye on him for twenty-four hours, so tomorrow should be fine.”

Nodding in understanding, Adam turned again to Chet. “Do as you’re told and you’ll soon be back to normal.” Adam smiled. “Though I’m not sure that’s anything to look forward to.” Chet opened his eye once more and gave a weak grin. Adam patted his shoulder, “I’ll see you soon; don’t worry about a thing.”

Roy and Adam left the room when Paul indicated that he thought his patient should rest.

“Roy,” said Adam, trying to contain his anger, “have you any idea who did this?”

The sheriff shook his head. “Nope. But I sure ain’t happy to have them in my town, I’ll tell you that. Mason’s no weakling, but he looks like he got mown down by a herd of cows. Must’ve taken several of ‘em to do that to him. Maybe someone saw something, I’ll ask around, see what I can turn up.” The look on Roy’s face said that he did not expect to have much luck, but he was not a man to give up easily. He waved over his shoulder as he made his way back to his office.

Adam walked away from the doctor’s house thinking about Chet. As far as he knew, the man had no enemies who would go to such extremes, and he had no money on him to steal. Perhaps that was the answer; angered by finding no cash, the thugs had taken it out of Chet’s hide. He was still pondering on the problem as he entered the Bank to be greeted by Billy Freeman, the young cashier, who looked up from counting out several piles of small bills.

“Hi, Mr. Cartwright, I’ll be ready for you in just a minute. I’m almost finished.”

The rustle of bills and the chink of coins brought Adam’s attention to the desk and he frowned; could the payroll money have anything to do with the attack on Chet? Usually the hands were paid in Ponderosa scrip; as good as money in Virginia City, and preventing the need for large sums of cash to be held at the ranch. But at this time of year many of the men would be leaving, no longer needed, and they wanted cash to take with them, their bonuses swelling the amount to be paid out. Was it possible that someone knew when it was due to be collected?

Adam made a characteristically swift decision. “I won’t be taking the money today, Billy. Could you hold it for me until tomorrow?”

“Why sure, if that’s what you want, but I thought…”

“Yeah, so did I,” Adam mused quietly.

Hearing the brief conversation, Ernest Brewster rose from his desk. “Is there a problem, Adam? Because if so, I’m sure that we can sort it out for you.” The Cartwrights were the Bank’s best customers and the manager wanted to forestall any trouble with them.

Adam shook the well manicured hand that was held out to him. “No, there’s no problem, but I think it would be better if I come back tomorrow.” Adam saw Brewster’s raised eyebrows, so he explained. “Chet Mason came into town with me this morning. You know how my father likes two of us to collect such large sums?” Brewster nodded and Adam continued. “Somebody jumped him and he’s over at the Doc’s right now, with a broken arm and a busted head. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that this happened just when he was supposed to help me take the payroll back to the ranch.”

“Well,” said Brewster, frowning as he stuck a finger in his vest pocket and fiddled with the gold fob on the end of his watch chain, “it’s no secret that you’re letting the hands go. But do you really think that anyone would go to so much trouble?”

Adam nodded. “They might, if they thought it was worth it. They see me and Chet in town, going into the bank, and they add two and two and come up with five thousand dollars. Then they decide to lessen the odds a little.”

“I think you’ve being over cautious, Adam. Your father needs that money…”

“Yes, but not today. And I’m sure that he would rather delay for a day, than lose it all. So if you would just let me have…” Adam paused as he thought of a reasonable amount, “…three hundred to take with me now, I’ll call tomorrow for the rest.”

Taking some bills from one of the piles, Billy handed them to Adam, who pushed them into his wallet and left the Bank, collecting his horse, Sport, from the hitching rail outside. He made his way over to Roy Coffee’s office, to tell him of his suspicions, and then, after another visit to the doctor’s house to check on Chet, he was ready to leave.

He stopped for a moment, observing the ebb and flow of the morning traffic in the busy street and watching the people, wondering if any of those casual passers-by had been responsible for the vicious attack on Chet.

As he stood, he was absently rubbing Sport’s soft, silky nose. He looked into the trusting golden eyes of the horse that had been a present from his father, on his graduation from college, and his constant partner ever since. Adam had gentled and trained the tall sorrel himself and was proud of the fact that, although he had been broken to the saddle, the horse’s spirit had never been conquered and he held his head high, as though he knew his place as the mount of the eldest son of the owner of the biggest spread in the territory. Sport was reluctant to allow any other on his back, the only exception being Joe, a natural horseman, who had the same understanding for the high spirited creature as his older brother.

“Well, boy, guess we’re gonna have to come back tomorrow.” No one had ever heard Adam call his horse by name, and some wondered if the outwardly unsentimental rancher had bothered to give him one, but Adam used ‘boy’ to indicate a deeper feeling than a given name could, as one might use a nick-name for a friend. He mounted and rode off down the street, tipping his hat to Brewster, who was standing in the doorway of the Bank, a frown on his face as he watched Adam leave.

What had started as a fine, crisp, fall morning was turning into a warm, dry day as Adam rode back across the Ponderosa. He was keeping an eye out for trouble; if the attack on Chet was a means to get hold of the payroll, then those responsible would be waiting for the opportunity to complete their plan, and Adam had purposely armed himself with a few hundred dollars, hoping they would be satisfied with that. He remembered the damage they had done to Chet, and he thought that he could well suffer the same fate if he had nothing to give them.

As he traveled further towards his home with no sign of attack, Adam began to doubt his conviction about the threat to the payroll. He realized that he had been tensely waiting for something to happen only when his shoulders started to relax, and he could allow his mind to take in the surrounding pine forest without suspicion. The thickly growing trees that covered a large part of the ranch, and after which it had been named, reminded him that Joe was taking Victoria on a picnic, and would probably also be escorting her to the party to be held the following Saturday on the Ponderosa, to mark the end of the round-up and as a farewell to those who were leaving.

Adam thought of the young lady he was planning to have on his arm at that party, the beautiful, dark haired Melissa. He had called on her one afternoon, and taken tea with her and her mother, a widow who was confined to a wheelchair as the result of an accident five years before. Despite seeming a little apprehensive herself, no doubt because of her mother’s presence, Melissa had done her best to ensure that Adam felt at ease, and she had jumped to her feet at the first sign that he needed anything; a cup of tea, or more cake. The attention had quite the opposite effect however, and had begun to make Adam edgy. For some reason, Melissa was trying just a bit too hard and he became wary of her. But he had decided to invite the young lady to the party, thinking that taking her away from her mother would show him the real woman behind the nervous façade. He smiled to himself; if his brothers knew of his interest in the daughter of their new neighbor, he would have had to endure the kind of ribbing that he and Hoss had given Joe that morning. He sighed, they would know soon enough.

The next thing Adam knew, he was lying on the ground looking up at the sky through the branches of a ponderosa pine. His mind went blank for a moment, but before he had time to make sense of what he was seeing, a figure appeared above him, a gun in his hand and a sneer on his face. As Adam tried to focus on the man, he realized that his eyes weren’t working properly; no one had three eyes, or two noses for that matter. He shut his eyes and shook his head, which was a mistake; a stabbing pain shot through his skull causing him to breathe in sharply. Adam slowly opened his eyes again, blinked several times, and was pleased when the face resolved itself into something more normal; one nose, two eyes. Then he registered the curly dark hair beneath a black hat, the slit of an unsmiling mouth in the narrow head, but looming larger than anything, the gun that was aimed at him.

Adam sat up slowly, remembering the weight that had fallen on his shoulders and had sent him crashing to the ground. The man standing in front of him took a step back, allowing Adam to see two other men. One, younger and fair-haired, was sitting on his horse and holding Sport’s reins, while the third, Mexican judging by his jet black hair, swarthy complexion, and drooping moustache, was going through the saddle bags on Sport’s back.

After searching both sides, the Mexican looked up and shook his head. “Nada.”

“OK, where is it?” The question was directed at Adam by the man standing in front of him.

Adam pushed himself to his feet. “Where’s what?” he asked innocently, leaning over to brush dust from the knees of his trousers.

“Don’t play games with me, mister.”

Adam straightened and paused for a moment. He squinted against the glare of the midday sun that shone in his eyes, and he realized that his hat was lying at the side of the trail. He made to pick it up, but stopped when he heard the sound of the gun’s hammer being cocked.

The man was getting impatient. “We want your money, so just hand it over, now!” Looking into the man’s dark eyes, Adam shrugged, and moved his hand to reach into his back pocket. “Hold it right there.” Adam stopped moving. “Give me your gun, with your left hand.”

Adam handed over his revolver, then continued to reach for his wallet, and held it out. The man took it and looked inside, then his malevolent eyes narrowed. “Where’s the rest of it?”

A wry grin caught at the corners of Adam’s mouth and he nodded to himself; he had been right. “That’s all there is. If you’re after the payroll, then I’m afraid you wasted your time attacking Chet. You see, I’m the suspicious kind, and it was just too much of a coincidence that he happened to get beaten up on the very day we were collecting that much cash.” Adam pointed at his wallet. “So, you can either take what’s there, or go without.”

The Mexican stepped forwards. “We no go without; Brewster promised, it would be today.”

The man holding the gun whirled angrily. “Shut up, Javier.” He turned back to Adam, who kept his face expressionless, as though he had not heard the damning words.

“Hey, Glasby,” said the man who was mounted, “let’s take the horse. Gotta be worth something.”

Adam took a step forward. “Don’t…” He stopped, knowing that if they thought he wanted Sport, it would only make them more determined to deprive him of his horse. No, he had to find an argument they would understand. “If they catch you, what’ll you get for stealing three hundred dollars? A year, maybe two. You take the horse, and you’ll hang.”

“But then they gotta catch us; and this horse wouldn’t be the first.” The young man’s high pitched laughter rang through the forest.

“Kenny needs a new mount,” observed Glasby. “His has had it, might as well help ourselves to this one.”

Adam looked at Kenny’s horse, an appaloosa, whose head was down and whose eyes were dull, and then he saw something that made him determined that these men would not have Sport; Kenny was wearing California spurs. While they were worn by many on the other side of the Sierras, Adam considered them brutal, with their characteristic large, spiked rowel that could tear into a horse’s flanks and bring grudging obedience. Adam could see that the side of Kenny’s horse was marked where he had used the spurs’ persuasion freely, and he was determined that that would not happen to his faithful companion.

Something in Adam’s gaze alerted Glasby. “This horse special?” he asked curiously.

Adam forced his shoulders to relax. “No, just don’t want to lose good stock.”

Glasby shook his head slowly. “I think there’s more to it than that. You got lots of horses on that ranch of yours, but you don’t want to part with this one.” Adam remained silent, afraid that if he said any more they would guess how important Sport was to him. “He ain’t a ranch horse, he’s yours. That’s it ain’t it?” Glasby said with certainty. “OK Kenny, take him.”

Kenny dismounted, stood beside Sport, and then he put his foot in the stirrup and pulled himself up into the saddle. Kenny was a little less than six feet tall, and carried spare flesh that made him ungainly and awkward in his movements. In no way did he resemble a natural horseman, and as soon as Sport felt the unfamiliar touch, he reared. Kenny kicked into the horse’s flanks with his spurs, but Sport was unused to the touch of sharp metal in his sides, and he bucked and twisted, trying to rid himself of his tormentor.

Unable to stand by while the man treated his horse in such a way, Adam waited until Kenny’s efforts to control the furious animal brought him near, and then, ignoring the threat from the weapon that was pointed at him, Adam leaped at the struggling rider, grabbing hold of him and dragging him from the saddle. Kenny fell to the ground, but Adam did not release his grip as he pinned the younger man beneath him and hit him square on the chin. Kenny went limp and Adam stood, pushing aside Javier, who was fighting to keep hold of Sport. But before he could catch the reins he felt his arms pinned to his sides, and he looked down to see that he was restrained by a lasso. He raised his hands to lift the loop over his shoulders, ready to confront the other men, but a sharp pull on the rope made him overbalance backwards. Adam got shakily to his knees, his head swimming from hitting the ground, but another pull on the rope had him flat on his back again. He gritted his teeth in anger while he struggled to rise, but Kenny, who had regained his senses but lost his temper, came to stand over him, breathing heavily.

“You attached to that horse?” Kenny sneered. “OK, if attached is what you feel, that’s what you’ll get.” He gestured to Glasby, “Hold him,” he instructed, and Glasby pulled on the rope every time Adam tried to rise, tightening the lasso, and ensuring that he could not escape. Kenny cut a short length off the rope that hung from his saddle, and then he and Glasby pinned their victim to the ground. Adam struggled against them, but soon his hands were tied and Kenny was removing the restraining rope from around Adam’s shoulders. Pushing the lasso between his captive’s bound wrists, Kenny passed the loose end through the loop and pulled it tight, effectively attaching Adam to the longer rope. Realizing what was going to happen when the men released him, Adam did not try to get to his feet; he knew he would not be on them for long.

The Mexican had managed to get a tight hold on Sport’s reins, and Kenny went over to the horse and tied the end of the rope to the sorrel’s saddle. He looked round at Glasby, who nodded in agreement.

“You should’a let us have the money,” Kenny said, standing over Adam, “but you thought you’d be smart.” Kenny shook his head, smiling. “Too bad.” He hit Sport’s rump and shouted at him. The horse, already unsettled by the treatment he had received, took off into the forest at a gallop, dragging Adam behind him.

Adam’s first thought was that his arms would be pulled from their sockets as the rope tightened, but then he concentrated on staying on his stomach, his head up, peering through eyelids that were almost shut in an attempt to protect his eyes from the dust and dirt that was being thrown up by the hooves of the speeding sorrel. He was not concerned so much with the stones and tree roots that littered the path and buffeted his chest and stomach, as he was with watching the very solid countryside that was rushing past him in the form of trees and rocks.

As Sport turned to avoid a large boulder, Adam was sent spinning sideways out of control, and he groaned as he crashed into the sturdy trunk of a mature pine; his back taking the full impact of the blow. The pain clouded his mind for a second, but Sport was still running, and Adam quickly forced himself over onto his stomach; he had to keep watching or next time it could be to his head that hit something, and that might prove fatal. Adam was relieved when he saw that the trees were thinning, as the horse headed towards an open meadow covered with lush grass. But then his heart sank as he recognized the area; he knew that at the far side of the meadow was a branch of the Franktown River, shallow, wide, and rock strewn.

Glasby, Kenny and Javier had mounted and were following close behind, shouting and encouraging Sport to run, but they saw him slow as he approached the river. Adam also felt the change in pace and, although breathless from the constant battering of the ground against his ribs, he called to Sport to stop. The sorrel flicked his ears back at the familiar voice and would have halted, but Kenny was close behind, and as he heard Adam call out he pulled his gun and fired a single shot into the air. Sport took off again, into the water. He didn’t run straight across because Glasby on one side, and Kenny on the other, herded him along the river.

As the bow wave caused by his body threatened to drown him, Adam tried to raise himself up, but the rocks hammered at his chest and eventually he had to turn onto his back to allow himself to breathe. The men following behind, urging Sport on and laughing, watched Adam fighting for air in the water as he was dragged along behind the horse, unable to avoid the stunning blows to his head and body from rocks just below the surface. When they finally realized that the pummeling had rendered Adam unconscious and oblivious to what was happening, they allowed Sport to leave the river, but the rope caught around a bush, and the horse found it impossible to drag the dead weight behind him up the long, steep bank. He stopped, his head jerking nervously up and down, his flanks heaving.

Kenny approached slowly; he didn’t want to spook the horse. He reached out, took hold of the reins, and tied them to his saddle. Then he released the rope from Sport and freed it from between Adam’s hands. He coiled it up and attached it to his saddle, then went back to where Adam lay on his back, his eyes closed and his breathing uneven. Kenny’s mean smile did not light his eyes as he saw the front of the once neat black shirt ripped and showing where the rough ground had torn at its wearer. He turned away, and the three men rode off, taking Sport with them.

*****

Joe and Victoria had finished their lunch and were sitting close together on a bluff, looking out over the forest as it stretched away into the distance. Victoria was dressed in a short, grey riding skirt and pale red silk shirt that brought out the warm brown hues in her eyes. Joe thought how beautiful she looked and tentatively put his arm round the girl’s shoulder. She did not remove it, but leaned against him and sighed as she gazed at the view, blued by the haze of the sun, where nothing could be seen to move and only the occasional birdsong disturbed the silence.

“Oh, Joe, it’s so beautiful here, so peaceful. It’s as though we are alone in the world.” Victoria’s surprisingly deep voice sent a shiver through Joe, who turned his attention away from the far off grandeur to concentrate on the beauty beside him. Slowly, Joe moved his hands to cup her face, and then lowered his head and kissed her gently. She responded, and for a moment they were lost in each other, the forest forgotten; in that instant nothing else existed for them, and they were, indeed, alone.

Suddenly they broke away, as the sound of a shot echoed through the silence. Joe got quickly to his feet, staring again at the forest as though the trees would part and allow him to see what had caused someone to fire. Victoria stood beside him, a hand on his arm.

“Joe, do you think that means trouble?”

Joe frowned as his eyes continued to search the view. The shot sounded close by, but it was impossible to tell exactly where it had come from. “Dunno,” he said, “but that wasn’t someone out hunting.” He had recognized the unmistakable report of a revolver, and no one used a hand gun to go after game.

“Do you think you should go and look?”

“Well…”

“Let’s go.” Victoria did not hesitate, but headed to her horse expecting Joe to follow.

Joe smiled as he hurriedly stuffed the remains of the picnic into the hamper and fixed it to his saddle. He mounted Cochise and kicked the horse into a gallop in Victoria’s wake, thinking that he had found a woman who would head towards trouble, rather than run away from it. He recalled the conversation he had had with Adam and Hoss at breakfast; Victoria would probably have rescued him from the bear!

One of the things that attracted Joe to Victoria was her love of horses and riding, and now he was grateful that she had refused the offer of a buggy for their outing. They rode through the forest as fast as they could, but were hampered by the thickly growing trees. It was nearly twenty minutes later that they emerged into an open meadow, where Joe stopped and Victoria halted beside him. Joe was looking at the grass and his eyes narrowed.

“What is it, what can you see?” Victoria asked.

Joe indicated the ground in front of them and drew an invisible line in the air, until he was pointing ahead at the trees marking the far side of the meadow. Victoria followed with her eyes, seeing the narrow path where the long grass had been flattened.

“What would have done that?”

“Well, it wasn’t a wagon,” Joe observed as he thought, and he didn’t much like what he was thinking.

They went slowly in single file, Victoria behind, as they followed the trail across the meadow, until they came to the river. Joe could see marks in the mud where something had been dragged into the water, and also the hoof prints of several horses, which told him they had entered the water, but there were no marks on the opposite bank. Joe looked left and right, wondering which way he should turn. He mentally tossed a coin and turned to his right, upstream, looking for any indication of where the riders had left the water. Joe was beginning to think that he must have turned the wrong way; he had gone over half a mile with no signs. Suddenly he urged Cochise to cross the river and then he kicked the horse into a gallop along the bank. Victoria followed, and saw Joe throw himself down beside the dark shape of a man lying on the ground. She rode up beside him and dismounted, drawing in a worried breath as Joe glanced up and she could see tears shining in his eyes.

“Joe? Who is it?” she asked softly as she knelt beside him.

Joe looked down again at the pale face and blood streaked body. “It’s my brother, Adam,” he said quietly.

Her hand at her throat, Victoria asked her next question carefully. “Is he…alive?”

Joe didn’t answer straight away. Adam’s bound hands were stretched over his head and, without moving them, Joe reached out to untie them, loosening the rope, which was blood-stained where it had cut into his brother’s wrists. Joe threw it away angrily and then he carefully felt his way down Adam’s arms and across his shoulders. After he had searched the rest of his brother’s body, he sat back on his heels and breathed a deep sigh of relief. He had found cuts and bruises, but, as far as he could tell, no broken bones, and no bullet wound. Joe looked up, smiling in relief. “Yeah, he’s just out cold.”

Victoria went to her horse, got the canteen that was hanging from her saddle and, from the hamper on Joe’s saddle, the cloth they had used for their picnic. She held out the green and white chequered material, and when Joe nodded she tore a strip off it and started to bathe Adam’s face. Joe ripped off another strip, and after unbuttoning the torn black shirt, started to clean the cuts and scrapes, which were oozing blood.

Roused by the touch of the cold water, Adam stirred, moaning as he tried to move.

“Just lie still, big brother,” Joe instructed, and Adam willingly lay unmoving as the world intruded painfully into his consciousness.

Eventually he opened his eyes. “Joe…?”

“Yeah, it’s me. What happened? Who did this?”

“Got dragged…three men.” After taking several deep breaths, he continued. “Wanted the payroll. They attacked Chet in town…so I left the money.” Adam was trying to gather enough strength to rise. “They jumped me on the way home. When they found I didn’t have the payroll…they took Sport.”

Joe was pleased to see some color return to his brother’s face as he talked. “OK, don’t you move,” Joe told him. “I’m going to get a buckboard to take you back home.” He turned to Victoria. “Will you stay with him, until I get back?” Joe looked round; it was over half an hour since they had heard the shot, and they had seen no one, so it was probably safe for him to leave.

“No!” It was Adam who spoke. “I’m going after them.” He tried to rise, but Joe put a hand on his chest and pushed him back.

“You’re not goin’ anywhere, not like that.” Joe’s was the voice of reason, but Adam didn’t want to hear it. He pushed the hindering hand aside and groaned as he sat up.

“I have to get Sport back.” Adam sat and cradled his bruised ribs, but as he leaned over he could feel the pain in his back where he had struck the tree, and which had not been helped by being pulled over the rocks in the river bed. He sat up straight, pressing a hand into the small of his back and gritting his teeth, then he rolled onto his knees and started to push himself upright.

Joe knew that he couldn’t stop his determined brother moving. “Come on, I’ll help you,” he said, as he put his hand under Adam’s arm to support him, but once on his feet Adam eased away from the assistance.

“I’m fine, just bruised, nothing broken,” Adam insisted, buttoning what remained of his still damp shirt as he registered Victoria’s presence. He gave a small smile, as he looked from Joe to Victoria. “I hope I didn’t spoil your picnic.”

“Oh no,” she assured him, “we were just…” Victoria stopped, embarrassed. “Then we heard a shot.”

Joe looked proudly at the girl. “Victoria insisted we find out what it was about.”

“Well, thank you for that. But I think Joe had better take you home.” Adam turned to his brother, “I’ll be fine, if I could borrow a horse.” He took a step away, sucking in a breath at the pain that shot down his right leg.

“D’ya think you can ride?” Joe was relieved to see Adam standing unaided, though obviously with some difficulty. When Adam nodded, Joe continued. “Then you ride Victoria’s horse, she can double with me and we’ll all go back to the house.”

Adam wanted to go after the men straight away, but he needed a change of clothes and a new mount, so he agreed reluctantly.

Joe thought they should go slowly, but his brother rode ahead, forcing Joe to keep up with him. Despite the pain in his back, Adam made himself sit up straight in the saddle; he didn’t want Joe seeing the difficulty he was having. Adam knew that he would have a struggle with his father when he heard what had happened, and if Joe told Pa he was hurt it would only give him more ammunition in the coming argument. He would be more concerned about his son’s condition than the loss of the money and would try to stop him from going after the men. Adam was quietly assessing his injuries, and knew that there was no lasting damage and any pain he had would pass, but could he convince his father of that in time to catch up with Glasby and his men? He had to get Sport away from them before they harmed him.

*****

“Adam, be reasonable,” Ben begged his eldest son. “You’re in no state to go after them.” One look at Adam told Ben that he was trying to hide his discomfort; the skin around his eyes was drawn tight, and he was standing slightly skewed. “I’ve sent Chris into town to tell Roy, and you should let him handle it. That’s his job, not yours.”

In the hour since he and Joe had returned home, Adam had taken a few hurried minutes to explain to Ben what had happened, first to Chet in town and then to himself on the way home, and of Brewster’s involvement. Then he cleaned himself up, changed into fresh clothes, picked up his black, Sunday best hat, with its black band and silver studs identical to the one he had lost, and allowed Hop Sing to clean and bandage his wrists. Now he stood in front of his father, hands pressing down firmly on his hips, his back straight. He wasn’t trying to be defiant, it was the only way he could stand and not give away the fact that he had a constant nagging pain across his back and down his right leg from his butt to his knee. That, and the headache he had, would slow him down, but he couldn’t wait for it to improve.

“I admit there’s bits of me that hurt, but nothing serious,” Adam insisted. “And while I’m standing here arguing with you, those thieves are getting further away.”

“But it was only three hundred dollars.”

Adam smiled gently. “Pa, I remember the days when that sort of money was more than we ever expected to see.”

Ben nodded. “I remember them too, and I thank God that those days are behind us. But even then your life was worth more than any amount of money, and that hasn’t changed.”

Joe was sitting on the sofa with Victoria, watching and waiting patiently for the outcome of the discussion. It was never easy to tell which way an argument like this one would go; it usually ended suddenly, when either his father or brother would unexpectedly give way. But it looked as though that moment was still some way off.

Adam was becoming impatient, time was wasting and he wanted to be gone. “It’s not the money I’m going after. They took Sport, and if what I saw of the state of their horses is any clue, I’d rather have shot him there and then than have Kenny ride him.” Adam took a deep breath; he didn’t like pressuring his father, but Ben was giving him no choice. “Pa, I’m your son, and I live in your house, and if you forbid me to go, I’ll abide by that.” Adam paused meaningfully. “But I’ll never forgive you.”

Ben looked hard at his son; he didn’t like being manipulated. His anger rose at Adam’s words, but he could see the determination in the dark eyes, which overrode the discomfort that Adam was trying unsuccessfully to hide. When Ben spoke it was kindly, only concerned for the safety of his child. “Why don’t you wait for Hoss to get home, you know he’s the best tracker in the family…”

But Adam didn’t want kindness, he wanted action. “I can’t wait that long, it could be hours before he gets back, by which time they’ll be long gone.”

Ben stared at the floor and breathed a long sigh while he made his decision. Having independent, strong willed offspring was rewarding for a parent, but it did not always make for an easy life. He looked up. “Very well, go. But will you do one thing for me?”

Adam tried to relax his shoulders, but it just made his back hurt and he stood tensely. “What?”

“Take Joe with you.”

Adam glanced across the room at his youngest brother, who was sitting on the sofa with the girl he wasn’t courting. Adam knew that while Sport was uppermost in his mind, his young brother had different priorities. “I don’t know how long this’ll take.”

“Well brother, the sooner we go the sooner we’ll be back.” Joe got to his feet, smiling to encourage Adam to agree.

“All right then.” Adam turned to the door. “Let’s go,” he said over his shoulder, trying not to limp as he made his escape from Ben’s piercing scrutiny of his condition.

Joe asked his father to make arrangements for Victoria to get home safely and, after making a detour into the kitchen to collect supplies, he joined Adam in the barn, where his brother was attempting to lift a saddle on to Bella, a big bay mare with an even temperament and steady gait; the sort of ride Adam needed at that moment. Joe gently, but firmly, took the saddle from Adam’s hands and completed the task in one swift movement.

Joe fastened the cinch under the belly of the mare and, as he straightened, he looked with concern at his brother. “You sure you should be doing this?”

“Don’t you start,” Adam said crossly. “I only agreed to you coming to please Pa, but if you’re going to spend all your time telling me I should be at home tucked up in bed, I might change my mind.”

“Oh yeah? Well don’t worry. If you want to go and kill yourself I won’t stop you. But just remember that it’s me who’s gonna have to tell Pa.”

Adam hung his head, sorry that he had sounded off at Joe, who was only showing a brotherly concern. He looked up and spoke quietly. “Joe, how would you feel if someone stole Cochise? Not just the fact of losing him, but knowing that the person who took him was going to mistreat him?”

Joe studied his adored pinto. He finished tacking him up and led him out of his stall before he replied. “I do understand,” he assured his brother.

Adam nodded. “Then let’s go.”

As he settled into the saddle, Adam’s tense face reflected the pain from his back and leg, but he gritted his teeth and led the way out of the yard. Joe frowned as he watched, then he followed, shaking his head at his elder brother’s stubbornness.

*****

When they reached the spot near the river where Joe had found Adam, they stopped. Joe dismounted and Adam leaned on the pommel of his saddle, trying to ease the nagging pain low down in his back, while he watched his brother scouting around on the slope of the bank.

“That way,” said Joe, coming back to stand beside Adam and pointing north.

“You sure? We haven’t got time to go the wrong way.”

Joe caught Cochise’s reins and sighed, then smiled to himself; he had an idea that he would be doing a lot of sighing before their hunt was finished.

“Yes, brother, I’m sure. ‘Course you could get down off that horse and go see for yourself.”

Not relishing the thought of trying to get back on the tall bay, Adam declined the invitation. He held up a pacifying hand. “No, I believe you.”

As Joe sprung lightly onto Cochise, he turned to his brother, who was straightening up slowly, the fingers of his right hand digging deep into the back of his thigh as he tried unsuccessfully to find a spot that would ease the pain. “Let’s get one thing straight. You’re gonna have to trust me, unless you wanna do this by yourself, and by the look of you, that ain’t an option.”

A smile caught at the edges of Adam’s mouth. He had spent years teaching Joe how to track, and it looked as though the effort was about to pay off. Until he stopped hurting, he knew Joe was going to have to take the lead in the hunt for the men, and Adam was prepared to let him, as long as they caught up with them. “Of course I trust you, we’ll track them down together,” Adam assured him. “Lay on, Macduff, and cursed be him that first cries ‘Hold, enough’*”

Joe frowned. “Huh?”

“Don’t worry about it.” Adam became serious. “North you said?”

They rode off, Joe leading the way through the forest as he followed the clear trail left by the men. Occasionally he would dismount and crouch down, looking at the ground, better to see the signs that would tell him which way to go, and he realized that, for some of the way, the men had followed the same path that he and Victoria had taken to find his brother, but in the opposite direction. Joe thought that they could not have missed them by more than a few minutes, but that had allowed them to escape unnoticed.

From the boundary of the Ponderosa, the trail continued north and west. Adam rode along behind Joe, silently following where his brother led. The pain in his lower back was slowly spreading down into his foot and upwards into his shoulders where it met his headache, and that, combined with the bruising to his ribs and stomach that restricted his breathing, meant that it was taking all his strength just to stay in the saddle.

When the sun sank behind the mountains and it became dark on the narrow track, making it difficult to follow the signs, Joe turned to tell Adam that they should stop. Alarmed to find that his brother was nowhere is sight, Joe pushed Cochise into a gallop back the way they had come. As he rounded a bend, he was relieved to see Bella ambling along slowly, but was not so pleased to see that Adam had his eyes shut and winced every time he swayed with the movement of the horse. He was not directing the animal, who was wandering at her own pace.

Pulling up beside his brother, Joe called to him. “Adam.” No reaction. Joe put his hand on Adam’s arm. “Adam!” he said louder.

Adam opened his eyes and he seemed to shake himself. He looked round. “Joe? Why’ve we stopped?”

Joe frowned as he dismounted, went to Bella’s nearside and looked up at his distracted brother. “I think you stopped some time ago.”

“Where are we?”

“Just off the Ponderosa. By the look of things they’re headed towards the mountains west of Virginia City. But it’s too dark to follow them now.”

Adam looked up at the sky. “There’s still a half-hour of daylight, we should go on.”

“Let’s talk about this when you’re on the ground?” Joe suggested, as he took hold of Bella’s bridle and led her and Cochise into the forest, where he could hear the tinkling sound of water. He stopped beside a stream, in a small clearing, and reached up to take hold of Adam’s arm, helping him down. Adam could see the determination in Joe’s face and didn’t resist, but, as his feet touched the ground, he gasped in pain and would have fallen if Joe had not held him.

As his brother gently lowered him to the ground, Adam looked up. “Don’t say it, not a word. I am not going back.” He smiled to reassure Joe. “Besides, a night’s rest will get this better.”

Joe just shook his head at his brother’s stubbornness and after settling the horses, started to make camp, gathering wood and setting a fire before going to their saddle bags and getting food and utensils. Once he had made some coffee, Joe sat down beside Adam, who was lying stretched out on the ground with his knees bent up and one arm under the small of his back.

When Adam saw that his brother was offering him a cup, he rolled onto his side and sat up slowly, pulling in a quick breath as a bolt of pain shot down the back of his leg. “Thanks,” he said, taking the cup and sipping the hot, strong coffee.

Joe reached down at his side, and Adam raised his eyebrows as he saw the bottle that Joe held out to him, unmistakably whiskey.

“Thought this might help, hope Pa won’t mind me borrowing it.” Joe smiled, and when Adam nodded he poured a shot into his coffee.

“Thanks again, you’re a smart boy.” Joe bristled at the term ‘boy’, as he always did, and Adam saw the reaction. “Sorry Joe, I didn’t mean that like it sounded.” He took a pull at his coffee. “It’s good.” He smiled appreciatively.

Joe finished his own drink and went to the fire to prepare supper. Adam eased himself down until he was again stretched out on the soft covering of grass, and watched as Joe filled a pan with beans and chunks of beef, provided by Hop Sing.

When the meal was ready, Joe helped Adam to sit up and placed Bella’s saddle behind his back, trying to make him comfortable. After he had managed to eat a little, more coffee, generously laced with whiskey, was taking Adam’s mind off the pain, and he relaxed into the warmth of the woolen saddle blanket behind him. “How far away d’ya think they are?” he asked.

Joe thought for a moment before answering. He wanted to say that their quarry was too far ahead to catch, but suspected that Adam would just want to go faster, with less rest; or he could try to slow him down by saying that they were close to catching them. Joe decided on the truth.

“They had a good start on us, but the trail’s clear and easy to follow, like they don’t expect anyone to be following.”

Adam nodded thoughtfully. “Good, then there’s a chance.”

“What if…” Joe hesitated to voice his thoughts. “What if Sport’s hurt, like you think he might be?”

“First I’ll see how bad he is.” The look that came over Adam’s face sent a shiver down Joe’s spine as his brother continued quietly, but with chilling certainty. “If I have to shoot him, then they’d better not give me any cause to shoot them as well.”

“Aren’t you the one who always taught me that this sort of thing should be handled by the law? Don’t you think…?”

“No, I don’t.” Adam started to turn to face his brother, who lay on the opposite side of the fire, but he stopped immediately; his back muscles cramping as soon as he moved. He settled slowly back against the comfort of his saddle, trying to relax. “Joe, I won’t harm them, that I promise you. At least not intentionally. I do intend that they should face the law. But I won’t promise to take any of them back alive if they resist.”

Joe studied his brother’s features, and Adam could see the unasked question in his eyes – why?

Adam wasn’t sure that he could, or wanted to, explain. His feelings ran deep and he would have preferred to keep them to himself. But he knew that his brother was entitled to an explanation; he was asking Joe to put his life on the line for his horse, though he would do everything he could to prevent that situation arising.

When Adam spoke he looked into the fire, avoiding the young eyes that were observing him closely. “You know Pa gave Sport to me when I graduated?” He glanced at Joe, who nodded, then he went back to studying the fire. “Well, that meant so much to me. Pa had made a lot of sacrifices to allow me to go to college. He didn’t really have the money to do it; everything was tied up in the ranch. But he worked and scraped to get enough together so that I could go. Then when I came back he gave me the horse, and told me it was a ‘thank you’ for making it all worthwhile. I had had the benefit of his work and his effort, and he was thanking me. You can’t know how that felt.”

“No, I guess not.”

“And today…the thought that those men would take that gift and abuse it…abuse the love with which it was given…well, I can’t just stand by and let that happen.”

“So you wouldn’t go after them for what they did to you, but for what they might do to Sport?” Joe was curious, wondering at the strength of his brother’s dedication to his horse. It gave him an insight into a part of Adam’s character that he knew existed but which seldom showed itself.

“That’s right.” Adam raised his eyes to his brother. “I can understand what they did, and why; I know that men like that exist. I like to think that Sport has only ever known kindness; even when I was breaking him I never harmed him, never pushed him beyond that point where his spirit was broken. Now he’s in their hands, seeing a different side to human nature, and that same spirit will make him fight them every step of the way.” Adam stared into the fire, his thoughts uneasy. “It could be his death warrant.”

Joe watched him for a minute. “Try and get some rest, we’ll leave at first light.”

*****

Bacon was cooking over the fire, wafting its delicious aroma round the camp, when Joe shook Adam awake and offered him a cup of coffee. Adam sat up slowly; a night on the ground had made him stiff, and he could feel every bruise and scrape that getting dragged had inflicted, but he was pleased when he found that he felt only a slight twinge from his back.

Joe held out the whiskey bottle, but Adam shook his head. “It’s OK, don’t need that.”

Joe smiled, relieved, as he passed over a plate. They ate quickly, and as soon as they were finished, Joe packed up the camp, telling Adam to rest as long as he could. Once all was ready, they mounted and Joe picked up the trail, which was still clear and easy to follow.

Mist shrouded the trees, wisps clinging to the upper branches, hiding the sun and adding to the chill of the early morning as they rode. Although feeling better, Adam allowed Joe to lead; the experience would be good for him. Moving along the narrow track, Joe was keeping his eyes pinned to the signs on the ground; deep hoof prints showing three horses bearing riders, and the lighter marks of one unmounted. As the morning wore on, Adam felt the ache in his back return. The constant, nagging pain extended down his leg, but he tried not to let Joe see his discomfort, he wanted his young brother to concentrate on finding the gang. Adam was looking ahead, desperate for a sight of the men they were after. Suddenly he called to Joe.

“Look, there.” He pointed at a spot up ahead, and they slowed as they approached. Beside the trail was the carcass of a horse, a small hole in the side of its head indicating what had killed it. Adam peered down, and knew instantly, from the pale rump and dark forequarters, that it was the horse which Kenny had been riding. His lips thinned and his jaw set; now Kenny would be riding Sport, or attempting to.

Without waiting for Joe’s lead, Adam turned back to the track and kicked Bella into a canter. They hadn’t heard the shot, which meant that the men were still some way ahead of them.

“Hey, Adam, slow down,” called Joe, as he caught up with his brother.

Adam didn’t slacken his pace as he looked round. “No, we’ve gotta catch them before…”

Joe caught at Bella’s bridle and forced her to a walk. The look that Adam gave Joe would have frightened most men, but Joe could see the pain behind the glare and would not allow his brother to intimidate him.

“Adam, be reasonable. How long do you think you can go on at this pace? You want to catch ‘em, I know that, but then what? Your back’s hurtin’, ain’t it?” Adam didn’t acknowledge Joe’s question. “You cripple yourself by riding hard, and whether we find them or not will make no difference. If I have to take them on alone, they may still get away; is that what you want?”

‘Adam, be reasonable’. The words rang in his head; his father had said the same thing to him. Was he being foolish in going after the men, just because of his horse? He had promised himself that he would not put Joe in danger, but that was exactly what he was doing by letting his emotions rule his thinking.

“Sorry, Joe, you’re right.” He pointed ahead. “OK, after you.”

Joe sighed, satisfied that, for the moment, he had managed to control his brother. He smiled to himself; that had to be a first, and probably an equal surprise to both of them.

The trail they were following led them higher into the mountains, along narrow tracks which became increasingly rocky, making it more difficult to follow the signs, until finally they disappeared completely. Joe stopped, peering at the ground, then he looked round at his brother and frowned.

“You OK?” Joe asked.

Adam kept his features under control and nodded. “Keep going,” he ordered.

“The trail’s gone. We’ll have to follow the track and see if we can pick it up again, I don’t think they would have taken to the forest,” Joe said, as he looked at the close growing trees.

They rode for an hour, with no sign of the gang. Joe was beginning to think that the trail had gone cold, and was going to suggest to Adam that they should give up the chase, when he saw a small cabin up ahead.

“Let’s ask there, maybe they’ve seen ‘em, if they came this way,” Joe suggested. Adam just nodded, it was taking all his efforts to overcome the growing agony in his back and leg. He just wanted to find the men, get Sport back, and go home. ‘Surely not too much to ask?’ he wondered, gazing up into the deep blue sky.

They pulled up outside the wooden building, which was no more than a single-room shack. There were pelts and pans hanging on the wall by the door, but the place was clean and in good repair, and appeared to be well kept. Joe glanced round at Adam, then dismounted and went up the two steps that led to the door. He knocked, and was more than startled by the response. The sound of a shot from inside the cabin reverberated around the forest, and a hole appeared in the wood of the door, six inches to the right of where Joe’s head had been before he threw himself down the steps and onto the ground.

“Get away from here, I mean it. I told you, I’ll kill you!” It was a woman’s voice, high pitched and angry.

Joe raised himself up, and there was silence from the shack as he got to his feet to be joined by Adam, who had dismounted, ready to go to his brother’s assistance.

Joe glanced round. “What d’ya reckon?”

“Who knows? But maybe…” Adam stopped, contemplating this turn of events. He suspected that he knew what had happened, and who had caused it. “Try again; let her know who we are, if you can.”

Joe nodded, and keeping to one side of the door, he went up the steps again, and called out. “Ma’am, it’s just me and my brother. We don’t mean you no harm.” Reaching out, he lifted the latch and pushed the door open, peeking round the doorframe when no shot came. He could see little in the darkness within, but heard the sound of a gun’s hammer falling on an empty chamber. He rushed inside before the weapon could be reloaded.

As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, Joe saw the slim figure of a woman sitting on the floor, her fair hair disheveled, her face showing cuts and bruises where she had been struck, and her dress spattered with blood. A rifle was held in shaking hands pointing at the intruder, and as Joe approached the woman shrank back, only stopping when she was pressed tightly against the wall beside the kitchen range. When she saw Adam appear behind Joe, his black hat and dark hair reminded her of one of those who had attacked her, and she cried out, rising from the floor and striking out angrily at the men before her.

It took the strength of both brothers to control the woman’s raving, until she collapsed, unconscious. Joe put his arms under her shoulders and knees and carried her to the bed in one corner of the room. He loosened the buttons at the collar of her simple grey dress and pulled the covers over her.

“Looks like she was attacked,” observed Joe gravely, as they stood looking down at her.

“And I’d bet a silver mine to a short bit** that I know who did it.”

Joe looked up sharply. “You think…?”

“Who else? It’s just too much of a coincidence that their trail came this way.” Adam’s face set hard as he thought of the woman, alone, having to face Glasby and his gang.

The brothers exchanged glances and looked around; it was all too easy to imagine what had happened. The cabin was a mess, with sacks of flour and sugar slit open and scattered on the floor along with the contents of the kitchen cupboards, the few books from a row of shelves tossed aside, and broken ornaments and upturned furniture gave the room an appearance that contrasted strongly to the neatness outside.

Joe could see by Adam’s awkward stance that he was having trouble staying on his feet, and he picked up an overturned bentwood chair and set it beside the bed. Adam didn’t need any encouragement to settle himself on the seat; the struggle with the woman had not helped the pain in his back and leg, which was a constant ache that couldn’t be relieved. It was draining his strength, making it difficult to move one foot in front of the other, and every time he took a step he wanted to scream out against it, to make it stop.

Joe handed him a pan of water and a cloth, and Adam set about cleaning the woman’s face, bathing the cuts and bruises and pressing the cloth against the gashes to stop them bleeding.

He was concentrating on his task when his thoughts were dragged back to the room, as he noticed Joe moving round the cabin, tidying up; picking up the books and replacing them on the shelf, collecting the pieces of china into a pile, refilling the cupboards and righting the chairs and table before finally finding a broom, which he used to sweep the rest of the chaos out of the door. Adam smiled at Joe. Their father would have been proud of his young son, who always had to be nagged to tidy his own room at home, with little success.

As Joe came back from clearing the steps, he turned to Adam. “You keep an eye on her, while I make us some coffee.”

When Joe returned from the horses with the supplies he needed, he handed Adam the whiskey bottle. Adam dropped his hat on the floor, and a silent smile of appreciation crossed his face as he unstoppered the bottle, took a long swig and settled to watching his charge. When he saw the woman’s eyelids flutter, Adam moved closer and put a gentle smile on his face so that she would not be frightened of him.

At the sight of the dark-haired man leaning over her, the woman moved to the far side of the bed, holding her hands up to ward off the expected blows. As her eyes slowly took in the figure in front of her, she realized that she had never seen him before; she was sure that she would have remembered the soft brown eyes and strong features.

Adam spoke quietly. “It’s all right; I won’t hurt you. We’re here to help you.”

Her blue eyes flickered to Joe and then looked back at Adam. “Who…who are you?” she asked, her bruised mouth barely moving and with a quiver in her voice.

“I’m Adam Cartwright,” he gestured towards the kitchen, “and that’s my little brother, Joe. We found you and put you to bed. Can you tell us what happened?”

The woman seemed to hesitate for a long time, and Adam thought that she would not reply. But the name of Cartwright was familiar and she made up her mind that these were not the men who had attacked her. “My name’s Araminta Sinclair. Three men…” she paused, swallowing as she remembered, “three men came, they wanted money but I wouldn’t tell them where we hid it. They wouldn’t go away, even when they’d searched. They said if they couldn’t have money, they’d have… But I fought them and I hurt them, then I got the gun…and they left,” she finished, with a distinct tinge of pride.

“When was this? How long ago?” Adam asked gently. The word that came into his mind as he looked down at Araminta was ‘fragile’; she was small and slight of build, her complexion pale, but she had fought off three men, on her own. Adam shook his head in amazement; it was more than he had done when faced with those same men.

“It was…an hour ago…maybe two.”

Adam touched her arm, trying to reassure her. “Well…you’re safe now.” He looked round the small room. “Does anyone live here with you?”

“My husband.”

“Where is he?”

“He went to trade the pelts. He’s a trapper,” she explained.

“When do you expect him back?” Adam was hoping that her husband would return, and he and Joe could continue with their own hunt.

“Don’t know exactly…soon.” Exhaustion was overtaking Araminta, and suddenly the effort to speak seemed too much.

The drooping of Araminta’s eyelids told Adam that she needed rest. “You try and get some sleep.” He pulled the covers over her again. “We’ll be here to keep an eye on you.”

Araminta looked at the man who called himself Adam and thought that there was something about him that you didn’t argue with. She allowed her eyes to close and drifted off to sleep.

Adam leaned back and tried to relax his muscles, but as soon as he did so the pain in his leg sharpened and he tensed again. It seemed that no matter how he sat it made no difference; the agony went from his back to his toes. He took another pull at the bottle and settled back slowly, waiting each time he moved for the pain to subside, and then leaning back a bit more, until he was able to sit with some measure of comfort.

Meanwhile Joe had lit a fire in the range and put some water on to heat. As soon as the coffee was ready, he poured two cups and went to sit on the side of the bed, handing one to Adam, who quietly told Joe what he had learned. “Her name’s Araminta Sinclair, her husband’s away, don’t know when he’ll be back. If it was Glasby who attacked her, they’re not that far ahead.”

“What are we gonna do?” Joe asked.

That was a question that Adam had been considering. “Well, we can’t leave her here like this. One of us has to stay with her.”

Joe knew there was only one sensible solution. “You stay then. You cain’t go after Glasby and his gang on your own, not with your back like it is; he’d make mincemeat of you.”

Adam gestured with his head towards the bed. “But if I stay here, what help am I gonna be to her? We don’t know how badly hurt she is and she needs someone who can look after her. You’ll have to stay here, ‘til her husband gets back.”

“Adam,” Joe said forcefully, “I won’t let you…”

“Yes, you will.” Adam’s tone matched his brother’s. “I’ve allowed you to lead this hunt so far, but don’t push me. You’re staying here, I’m going after Sport.” Adam knew that he stood little chance of success, but he would not see this woman, or his brother, sacrificed on the altar of his emotions. “If I think there’s no chance, I’ll go for Roy.”

“By which time they’ll be long gone.”

Adam shrugged and Joe saw the effect of impending failure in his brother’s eyes; sadness and defeat. Adam leaned down and picked up his hat from the floor, where he had dropped it. As he straightened, he kept his features under control so that Joe would not see the difficulty he had in moving. He stood and headed for the door as quickly as the pain would allow.

Joe tried again to stop him. “What about some food, you haven’t eaten since breakfast?”

Impatience getting the better of him, Adam snapped, “There’s no time for that.” He nodded towards the bed where Araminta lay. “Take care of her as long as she needs you,” he instructed as went out.

Joe stared after him. “Look out for the bears,” he whispered to the closing door.

*****

Adam reached Bella and held on to the saddle, dropping his head onto the warm leather. He breathed deeply several times, hoping that the agony would die down into a manageable ache. When he decided that he could wait no longer, he mounted slowly and rode back to the path that he and Joe had been following. He urged Bella into a canter, knowing that he was on the right trail and eager to catch the men. The horse had an easy, even gait, but despite this Adam soon had to pull her to a walk; he was in danger of parting company with his mount as his right leg lost the ability to grip the horse’s flanks. The track climbed up higher into the mountains and then suddenly started to descend steeply into a deep valley and Adam looked around hopefully. This was the perfect place for a hideout; the trees grew thickly, hiding a camp from any casual observation. He went on slowly, his eyes glued to the ground so as not to miss any clue. He smiled to himself as he saw tracks, which showed that several horses had come this way.

When the hoof prints turned aside into the trees, Adam stopped and dismounted, by kicking his feet from the stirrups and sliding to the ground. He tied Bella’s reins to a low branch so that she could graze, then stood for a moment, stretching his back and grimacing at the sharp pain in his leg. At the back of his mind he was beginning to worry, both about what the pain might mean, and how the reality of it would affect his ability to deal with Glasby and his gang. He had tried to persuade himself that he would be able to handle them, but in his heart he knew that was unlikely.

As he limped slowly downhill through the trees, Adam became aware of voices ahead. He stopped close behind a large pine, and carefully leaned round it, then moved again into its shelter and rested his back against it, letting a long sigh out through pursed lips; he had found what he was looking for. After remaining there for a few minutes, Adam made his way back up the hill. The dull ache that now encircled his waist, made him feel as though he was carrying a belt of lead and a searing pain shot down his leg every time he put weight on it. When he got back to where Bella was grazing peacefully, he lowered himself slowly to the ground, picturing in his mind what he had seen. Glasby, Kenny and Javier were seated outside a small lean-to made of tarpaulin, which would provide just enough shelter in case of rain; more than would be used for an overnight stop, but obviously not meant to be a permanent camp. Off to one side was a rough corral, where Adam had seen Sport and the horses of Glasby and the Mexican, and also a pack mule.

Adam realized that he was in no fit state to take on all three of the men, but decided that he would be satisfied if he could just get Sport back. All he had to do was wait for darkness, and he stretched out on the ground in an attempt to ease the pain, which had taken over his body from his waist to his foot, and slowly it started to work. As night fell he knew he should be moving, but just the thought of getting up filled him with dread at the torment it would bring. He wished that Joe was there to help him, and smiled to himself at the thought. There had been many times when he wished his brother was not with him; that young man could get them both into trouble without any apparent effort. But Adam knew that he was also capable of great bravery and was highly intelligent, though he hid that under a façade of levity that fooled none of his family.

Once it was fully dark, and Adam judged it late enough that the men would have settled for the night, he moved reluctantly, rolling onto his knees and pushing himself upright, sucking in a quick breath as the pain instantly returned.

He started back down the hill, going slowly and resting often, leaning up against a tree until the growing agony in his back and the dragging pain in his leg subsided and he could continue. He was thankful for his habit of always wearing black for his clothes, from his hat to his boots. With his dark, unshaven face completing his appearance, he was virtually invisible in the moonless night.

As he neared the camp, he halted and kept silent for several minutes, waiting for any sound from the sleeping men, but there was nothing, all was quiet. Adam skirted the camp and made his way towards the make-shift corral. It looked as though Kenny did not trust his new mount, for Sport was hobbled by a short rope tied between his front legs. Adam made straight for his horse, and as he approached, he could see that he had been right to be concerned. Kenny must have had a struggle to keep Sport under control and, even in the faint starlight, Adam could see there were marks on the flanks of the animal, testament to Sport’s independent spirit.

Sensing a man approach, Sport raised his head and sniffed the air. Something was familiar about this human, but Sport’s recent memory told him that humans were dangerous, and that thought overrode all others. He tried to move away, but the dark shape neared and bent down, and then Sport felt the rope around his front feet slacken and fall away. As the human straightened and put his hand on the horse’s nose, Sport recognized the familiar gesture and whinnied noisily in greeting.

Adam looked round nervously, and was reaching for Sport’s head collar when he heard shouts from the camp; the men had been roused by the noise and had seen movement among the horses. The cries alarmed Sport, who turned away suddenly. Adam tried to move out of the horse’s way but was hampered by the pain from his back and his slow reacting leg. Sport caught him with a stunning blow and he was knocked off his feet, stifling a moan as he hit the ground hard. He watched with a sinking heart as Sport broke through the flimsy fence and disappeared into the night, followed by the three other animals.

As Adam climbed unsteadily to his feet, Glasby and Javier came up behind him and held his arms before he could draw his gun.

“Well, what have we here?” Kenny’s voice held a spiteful glee as he answered his own question. “The horse lover!” Kenny looked round and saw that the corral was empty. He turned back furiously and, without warning, hit Adam in the gut, then struck him on the side of the head as he doubled over. Adam’s legs gave way and, as his arms were released, he fell to the ground, groaning as he landed on his back. He felt hands lift him and he struggled against them, trying vainly to break free, but he was also fighting against the disabling pain, and was perversely grateful when another blow to his head sent the world spinning away into blackness.

*****

Joe kept watch over Araminta, who occasionally cried out quietly in her sleep. He bathed her face, wiping away the sheen of sweat that told of her struggle to overcome her injuries, and Joe could only hope that she had suffered none other than those he could see. If she had any hurt that needed a doctor he would be of little help, and the nearest medical expertise was many miles away, in Virginia City.

Joe was standing in the open doorway, looking out at the forest and thinking about Adam, when he heard Araminta call to him.

“How…how long?” Her voice held some strength, though reflected the damage to her lips; her words sounding thick and flat.

Joe went to the bedside and sat down. He smiled gently. “Only a couple of hours.”

Araminta glanced round the room. “There was someone else here.”

Joe nodded. “Yes, my brother, Adam.”

“Where is he?” She looked into Joe’s gentle eyes. “I remember…he was kind.”

“He’s gone.”

“Oh?” Araminta could see the shadow that passed over Joe’s face, leaving behind a concerned expression. She rested a hand lightly on his arm. “What is it?”

Joe glanced out of the door, then back to the woman in the bed. “The men who attacked you…we think that they were the same ones we were chasing. He’s gone after them.”

“On his own?” Joe nodded, unable to speak as he thought of his brother, and the danger he was going into. “Well, I’m sure that he’ll be all right, don’t worry.”

Joe sat frowning; worry was too small a word for what he felt. His attention came back to his patient. “How about something to eat?” he asked, but Araminta shook her head. She had a pain in her belly where she had been struck, and it robbed her of her appetite. She told Joe that there was a rabbit in the meat safe and that he should cook it for himself. By the time Joe had prepared and eaten some of it, along with a few carrots and sweet potatoes, and set the rest aside for Araminta when she felt like eating, she was sitting up, one arm thrown across her stomach.

“The cabin…the mess they made…did you…?”

“Yeah.” Joe grinned at her surprise.

“Thank you.” She was truly grateful not to be able to see the evidence of the whirlwind that had invaded her home.

“How about a hot drink?” Joe suggested.

“That would be nice, thank you,” Araminta agreed.

After making more coffee, he sat with Araminta, who accepted a cup from him. The warmth of the drink seemed to calm her insides and she smiled a little lopsidedly.

“I want to thank you, for helping me,” she said between sips.

“You can stop thanking me, it was my pleasure, Ma’am,” Joe said, as he smiled back. He took the empty cup from her. “Now, time you got some more rest.” He pulled the covers over her as she settled down, then he sat in the chair next to the bed. As darkness fell, Joe found his head nodding and he couldn’t prevent himself from slipping into sleep.

*****

George Sinclair rode towards home humming to himself as he went, thinking about his wife, and how fortunate they were to live in such a place. He sniffed the pine scented air, and his eyes took in the dark greenness of the forest surmounted by the clear cerulean sky, so different from their Pennsylvania birthplace, where they had both grown up.

George’s father, after whom he had been named, was a director of H. C. Frick’s Coke Company, which owned and ran a large section of the coal fields around Pittsburgh, and he had expected his son to follow in his footsteps. George had been a sickly child, not expected to survive his first year, but he had grown into a strong healthy man, who stood six feet five and with a muscular frame. The tall, blonde boy had fallen in love with Araminta, the beautiful, diminutive daughter of one of his father’s miners, a widower since Araminta was six months old. When George senior discovered their romance he had forbidden George to see Araminta, considering the liaison to be unsuitable for his son. He threatened to have her father sacked and barred from finding any kind of work in the coal field. For a time they kept their love hidden, afraid for Araminta’s father, but when he was killed in a mine accident they married secretly and ran away; penniless, but together.

They had moved west, finally settling in a corner of Nevada, where George had found he had a talent as a woodsman; tracking and trapping coming as naturally to him as mining had to his father. Araminta had been content to live in the forest, with only the bare essentials of life, while they saved enough money to find somewhere more suitable to raise a family; and it was a move that was becoming more urgent. Before he left, Araminta had told George that she was expecting their first child, an event that they had both longed for, and George wanted his family to grow up nearer town, away from the loneliness of the forest.

It was dark as George neared the shack and he slowed, frowning; he could see, in the starlight, a pinto tethered on a long line and standing quietly, but not a horse that he recognized. He dismounted in the shelter of the trees and approached quietly.

Inside the cabin, Joe was dozing, keeping an ear open and ready to go to Araminta should she need him. But even so he did not hear the stealthy approach of the man who entered. He was rudely awakened when someone grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet, until he was standing on tip-toe. As his eyes came into focus he could see a man towering over him, but, more importantly, a fist coming towards him. Hurriedly, he ducked his head to one side and the fist whistled past harmlessly.

“Wait!” Joe cried, holding up his hands as protection, “It’s not like you think.”

Pale blue eyes looked down at Joe from under long, straw colored hair. “Oh, isn’t it?” growled a voice that held no suggestion of belief.

The noise had roused Araminta. “George!”

Without releasing his hold, George Sinclair looked at his wife. As he saw clearly the damage to her face, he turned back to Joe and the fist was raised again. His gruff voice asked, “Would you care to explain?”

“We found your wife, we didn’t do this! Araminta, Mrs. Sinclair, tell him!” Even though George Sinclair was only one man, Joe knew he was outnumbered. He stood as much chance against the man holding him as he would against his brother Hoss, and that was precisely none.

Araminta pushed herself up on the pillows. “Let him go, now!”

Four years of marriage to Araminta had left its mark, and George instantly released Joe, forgetting about him as he took his wife in his arms and hugged her. Araminta’s slim body was lost in the bear-like embrace of her husband. Joe hurriedly told George that he and Adam had been chasing Glasby and his gang, and their hunt had led them to the cabin. Then Joe gathered his shattered wits and freshened the coffee pot, while George sat down on the bed and listened impatiently and with a growing anger, as Araminta told him of the events that had led to her injuries. Then she explained how Joe and Adam had helped her.

As Joe listened to the couple talking, he began to get an appreciation of just what it was that Glasby and his men had faced when they tried to take on Araminta. Here was a woman who survived in the wilderness, alone when her husband went to his trap lines, and she was more than capable of dealing with anything that came into her life, including George, who was obviously deeply in love with her, judging by the way he fussed over her until she ordered him to sit down and stay sitting!

George turned to Joe. “So, where’s your brother now?” he wanted to know.

“He went after the men, but he shouldn’t have.”

“But you said they stole the money and his horse. Why shouldn’t he want to go after them?”

“Because he was hurt when they jumped him. He could barely stand when he left.” Joe’s tone conveyed his concern. “He should’ve let me go, but he said that he wasn’t fit enough to take care of Mrs. Sinclair.”

“You may call me Araminta, just because George is here you don’t have to be formal.” Araminta tried to smile with her bruised lips, then became serious. “But if he wasn’t fit enough to look after me, he certainly wasn’t fit enough to go after those men.”

“That’s what I told him, but he’s so hard-headed he wouldn’t listen.”

Araminta turned to her husband. “George?”

“Of course.” He picked up straight away what was in his wife’s mind and he turned to Joe. “We’ll go after him. Maybe we can catch up to him before he finds them, or they find him.”

“But what about…”

Araminta shook her head decisively. “I’ll be fine. Now, don’t argue, the sooner you go the better.” She had a growing discomfort in her belly and she wanted George to stay with her, but Joe and his brother had helped her, it was only right that George should help them.

Joe looked through the small window beside the door. ”We’ll have to wait for daylight.”

Picking up and loading the rifle that stood by the range, George shook his head. “No. I know these woods like the back of my hand; I can find the trail in the dark. Besides, it’s a clear night; the stars will give enough light to follow them.”

Joe didn’t argue, and after they had bid farewell to Araminta, both men were on their horses and gone.

*****

As he came back to his senses, Adam could feel the hardness of a tree behind him, and as he tried to move his arms he found that he could not; his hands were tied round the tree. He was sitting on the ground, at one side of the camp, and in the pale dawn light he could see the three men close to the fire, talking. He could also see the damage that Araminta had inflicted, and despite his situation, he smiled; each man bore either bruises or scratches, or both. He could smell the breakfast they were eating, and remembered that he had not eaten since early the day before, but the pain in his back made him nauseous and he looked away.

Kenny looked sideways at their prisoner, then turned back to Glasby. “What are we goin’ to do with him?”

“Right now I’m more concerned with how we’re gonna get outta here, with no horses,” Glasby replied pragmatically. ”It’s time to move on, and we cain’t go without the gear, not in this country.”

“We need pack mule,” Javier observed. “Maybe we steal.”

“And just where do you think we’re gonna get one? These woods ain’t exactly teeming with opportunities.” Glasby looked at him questioningly. The Mexican shrugged.

Kenny’s face lit up. “I think I know. Get everything packed.” Glasby hesitated, then nodded in understanding.

The three men started to break camp, using the tarpaulin to hold the essential cooking equipment and bedrolls. Adam watched miserably, knowing what Kenny had in mind.

Eventually, Kenny came over to Adam and, after releasing the rope that held him, ordered him to his feet. Adam used the tree behind him to help him stand, walking his hands up the trunk as he rose.

“Over there,” Kenny ordered, pointing towards the centre of the campsite. Adam didn’t move so Kenny grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the tree, which caused Adam to overbalance, and he fell to his knees as pain drove across his back and down his leg. Kenny pulled out his gun and pressed it into Adam’s temple. “Either you get up or I kill you right here,” he stated.

For a fleeting second Adam considered letting Kenny carry out his threat, the effort of moving seemed too much, but reason took over and he fought his way back to his feet. He found it impossible to put his right heel to the ground but, by walking on his toes and keeping his knee bent, he managed to limp slowly towards the other men.

Glasby dropped the weighty tarpaulin in front of him. “Pick it up.”

Adam didn’t move.

Glasby picked up the large, neatly bound parcel and thrust it into Adam’s arms. “You lost the horses and now you’re gonna carry it.”

Adam let the tarpaulin fall to the ground. “No,” he said, looking round at the men, knowing that in refusing he was probably asking for a bullet, but in truth he couldn’t carry himself, let alone any extra weight.

“You got one more chance, pick it up.” When Adam didn’t move, Glasby’s face reddened in fury. “You’re gonna regret this,” he promised, and Adam’s only warning of the fist that was aimed at him from behind was the shifting of Glasby’s eyes. Adam turned and caught Kenny with a blow to the head that sent the man reeling. Desperation urging him to ignore the agony in his back, Adam stood, ready to take on Glasby and Javier, but knowing that any fight would be short. The two advanced on him, separating and approaching from opposite sides. Adam stepped back, but his leg chose that moment to collapse from under him and he fell sideways. They rushed towards him, and Adam’s last conscious thought was that at least Sport was safe. It was enough.

*****

When Glasby saw that Adam’s eyes were open, he came to kneel beside him where he lay on his side, and spoke kindly. “Now, I ain’t never killed no one who didn’t force me into it. You don’t wanna force me, do you? All we want is that you help us carry a few things. After all, it was you who drove off the horses.” When Adam didn’t move, Glasby stood and poked him with his foot, all pretence at kindness gone. “Get up!”

Adam slowly rolled onto his back. When he tried to move his legs he stopped immediately, as the muscles in his back cramped, and he squeezed his eyes shut, holding his breath against the pain from his right leg. He waited until the spasm passed then looked at Glasby. “Can’t.”

“Oh, I think with a little effort you might make it.”

“No.” Adam was light-headed and wishing that unconsciousness would take him away from the all encompassing pain, but he remained stubbornly aware.

Kenny and Javier came up beside Adam and, taking his arms, lifted him to his feet. As they released him, it felt as though a white hot branding iron had been driven into his back and he fell to the ground.

Kenny looked puzzled. “What’s wrong with him?”

His face screwed up against the pain, Adam answered. “You crippled your pack horse. Should’na dragged me.”

Glasby’s eyes narrowed, and Kenny and Javier tried again to make Adam stand, with the same result.

“Leave him,” Glasby ordered.

“But…” Kenny objected.

“He’s no use to us like this. Leave him. If he really cain’t walk, then he’ll die here. Not our problem.”

Kenny felt rage burn inside him and he kicked Adam. “Get up!” he shouted.

“Do that again and you’re dead,” a quiet voice said behind him. Kenny turned slowly and his mouth dropped open as he saw two men advance towards him. One, small, brown-haired and slim, was followed by a fair-haired giant.

It was at that moment that Kenny made the biggest, and last, mistake of his life – he went for his gun.

Joe didn’t hesitate, he drew and fired in the same instant and Kenny lay, gazing sightlessly up into the morning sky. Glasby and Javier reacted, and amid a flurry of gunfire they lost the battle for their freedom, and their lives.

Adam lay blinking in wonder, trying to make his sluggish brain take in the events around him. First Joe had appeared from nowhere, to be followed by a man built on the same scale as Hoss. As the shots sounded, they had both thrown themselves to the ground, returning fire with deadly accuracy. Now they stood, each holding a smoking gun as they surveyed the scene.

Joe ran to where Adam was lying on his back and knelt down beside him. “You OK?” he asked, as he saw blood on Adam’s face from a cut eyebrow, and bruising on his jaw.

Adam made no attempt to move, he just shook his head. “No.” Then he looked round at the bodies lying nearby, and smiled thinly at his brother. “I thought you wanted to take them in to the sheriff.”

Joe shrugged. “They didn’t seem to want to go.” As George came to stand beside him, Joe made the introductions. “Araminta’s husband,” he explained.

Adam reached up and shook hands with the big man. “How’s your wife? You shouldn’t have left her.”

“Oh, Minty’s fine, and she insisted we come. Seems you made a big impression on her.” George laughed, a deep growl that started in his chest and worked its way into his eyes. He turned to Joe. “You’d better get your brother out of here and back to the cabin. I’ll take care of them.” He pointed to the dead men.

Joe nodded and held Adam’s arm, preparing to lift him to his feet, but his brother stopped him. “I don’t think I can ride, can’t even stand right now.”

“We’ll make a travois,” said George when he heard Adam’s statement, and in no time he had fashioned a litter, from the fallen poles of the corral fence and the tarpaulin, and had covered it in soft pine branches. Meanwhile Joe went back into the forest and brought their horses, including Bella, to the camp.

After they had fixed the travois to Bella’s saddle, George bent down and lifted Adam as though he was no more that thistle down and laid him on the soft covering, then tied a rope across his chest to stop him slipping.

Joe looked round the camp site, realizing what was missing. He asked quietly, “Where’s Sport?”

“Gone,” Adam answered bitterly from where he was lying. Joe was about to say how sorry he was when Adam shook his head. “No, I didn’t shoot him. He ran off when I freed him, along with the others. We can’t find him now; there’s too many tracks to follow, no way of telling which are his. And now that he’s loose, he can travel faster than we can follow.”

“I’m sorry, after all this.”

“Don’t be. All I wanted was to get him away from them, and I did that.”

Joe nodded, and after a moment, went to tell George that they would meet him at the cabin.

Meanwhile Adam stared up at the surrounding hills. He spoke softly, but with a deep intensity. “Go safely, boy, you’re free. No one can hurt you now.” A tear formed in the corner of his eye, but he brushed it away before Joe could see it.

Taking Bella’s reins in his hand, Joe mounted Cochise and started slowly back through the forest. He tried to find the smoothest path, but the narrow track did not allow him to avoid all the rocks and holes, and Adam gritted his teeth against the bumping movement. Two hours later, George galloped up beside them.

“All taken care of, and I found this.” He held a bundle of notes out towards Adam, who took it silently and tucked it inside his shirt. “Found this too.” He held up a black gun belt, complete with revolver. “Is it yours?” Adam nodded and George hung it on his own saddle as he continued. “I gave ‘em as Christian a burial as I could, even though they didn’t deserve it, said a prayer an’ all. Perhaps God’ll forgive them.” The look in George’s eyes said that it would be a long time before he could forgive them for what they had done to his wife.

Lying on the travois, Adam heard George’s words. He thought that, try as he might, he would never forgive them for taking Sport from him, for taking that token of his father’s love.

*****

When they arrived at the cabin a short time later, all was quiet. George bent down and lifted Adam from the travois in one easy movement. Adam tried not to cry out as he was moved, biting his lip and holding his breath. As George opened the door he nearly dropped Adam when he saw his wife. She was lying in the bed, moaning quietly, her eyes huge in her sweat-stained face.

George carefully lowered Adam until he was sitting against one wall, then he rushed to Araminta’s side. “What is it? What’s wrong?” he whispered, brushing back the stray locks of hair that had fallen across his wife’s face.

“I think…hurt…inside,” she managed to say, her voice faint and shaking.

Coming in behind George, Joe heard what Araminta said. He caught Adam’s eye as his brother jerked his head to indicate that he wanted a quiet word.

Joe crouched down beside him. “What?”

“She looks like she needs a doctor.”

“But the nearest is Doc Martin in Virginia City,” Joe stated.

“I know.” Adam lowered his head as he thought, then looked up. “Get George over here.”

While Joe and George sat on the floor beside him, Adam explained his hurriedly conceived plan. “Joe, you ride into Virginia City and get Doc Martin out to the Ponderosa. George, you put Araminta on the travois. If we go by the most direct route it’s less than half a day to the house, and it’ll be quicker than taking her into town, or waiting for Joe to get back here with the doc.”

“Do you think we should move her?” Joe asked.

Adam looked across the small room towards the bed, where he could see that Araminta was watching them. “I don’t know, but she sure looks like she needs a doctor, and this’ll be the quickest way to get one.”

“What d’you think?” George asked his wife, moving to sit on the bed and holding her hand.

Araminta nodded. “A doctor,” was all she could say.

It was all the confirmation that Adam needed. He turned to his brother. “Get going.”

“But what about you?” Joe asked.

“I’ll ride Bella. She’s a strong horse. She can pull a travois and carry me, at least for the distance we’ve gotta go.”

“I didn’t mean that. You can’t stand, how’re you gonna ride?”

“I’ll manage, now go.”

Joe looked uncertainly at Adam and George, but as his eyes lighted on Araminta, he knew he had no choice. “OK, I’ll see you at home.” He left, and they could hear the pounding sound of hooves as Joe pushed Cochise into a gallop away from the cabin.

“Take your wife outside, then come back and help me,” Adam ordered. George nodded, and after he had covered the travois with as many blankets as he could find to cushion Araminta’s journey, he gathered his wife in his arms.

After several minutes he returned and helped Adam to his feet. Adam leaned against the wall waiting for the pain to subside, then took a tentative step. His right leg buckled and he gasped as he fell against George, who held him until he straightened again.

“Just let me lean on you, ‘til we get outside.”

George pulled Adam’s arm round his shoulders, and virtually carried him to Bella’s side, then helped him into the saddle.

Adam looked down at him. “Let’s go.”

Glancing uncertainly from his wife to Adam and back, George mounted his own horse. “You lead, that way I can keep an eye on both of you.” Adam nodded his acknowledgement and kicked Bella.

As soon as the horse started to move, Adam knew he was going to have a problem staying aboard, but he held on to the pommel of the saddle and gritted his teeth. They had to get Araminta to a doctor, Paul Martin was the only option, and he was going to be at the Ponderosa.

George rode behind, watching Araminta’s face; she was pale and sweating. He looked skywards and prayed that she would be all right. He pleaded with his God to help her, to give her the strength to overcome whatever it was that was wrong, and in his desperation he bargained another life – his – for hers.

*****

George was leading the way, holding Bella’s reins because Adam seemed incapable of guiding the horse and had let her wander from the path before George realized that something was wrong. Many times George had stopped to check on Araminta; giving her drinks of water, wiping her brow and speaking words of encouragement to her, but she seemed to be getting weaker. George explained to Adam that they must hurry and he had simply nodded, knowing that minutes might count if Araminta was to survive.

It was late afternoon when the Ponderosa came into view in the distance. George called out. “Is that your home?”

Adam lifted his head. The journey had been a blur to him and something that he would rather forget. He had guided George, when he asked for directions, but otherwise he had been concentrating solely on getting home in one piece. The agony in his back was accentuated by the after-effects of the blows he had received at the hands of Glasby and his cronies, and now his eyes refused to focus, and nothing around him made any sense; he was fighting to stay conscious against the sharp, searing pain that flowed through him.

Adam peered into the distance and started to take notice, as he realized that he was nearly home. “Yes.”

As they pulled up in the yard, Joe ran out of the house, followed by Ben, Hoss and Sheriff Coffee, but it was Paul Martin who got to the travois first, and one look at the woman lying there was enough to tell him that his services were needed urgently. He directed George and Joe to get her inside and into bed as quickly as possible.

Carefully lifting raminta into his arms, George carried her towards the house. Joe ran ahead, opening the front door, and he could see the desolate expression on George’s face. As he approached the door Joe told him, “Don’t worry, Doc Martin’s a good man, he’ll help her.”

Joe showed the way upstairs to a bedroom, where he hurriedly pulled back the bed covers and George laid Araminta gently between the crisp white sheets and stood silently, until Paul shooed both him and Joe from the room. “I’ll call you if I need you,” Paul assured him.

Meanwhile, outside in the yard, Hoss was trying to get Adam off his horse while Ben watched anxiously. “C’mon Adam, ya gotta get down,” Hoss encouraged him. When he still got no reaction, he looked at Ben and shrugged, then reached up and took his brother’s arm.

Adam didn’t want to move, but inside the house was his bed, and blessed rest. He nodded absently and eased his leg over the saddle. Hoss caught him as his foot hit the ground, supporting him and helping him to free his other foot from the stirrup. But Adam did not release his grip on the pommel, his fingers were numb from holding on so tight and Hoss had to pry them loose.

“Get hm upstairs,” Ben ordered once Adam was standing clear of the horse.

Hoss put a strong arm round Adam’s waist to support him, but the tight grip made Adam suck in a quick breath, and then, as he took a step, he cried out, leaning heavily against the taller figure of his brother.

“I can’t,” Adam moaned.

“Yes, you can,” Hoss insisted and pulled Adam’s arm round his shoulder.

“Wait,” Adam ordered, noticing the concerned look on Ben’s face. He reached inside his shirt and handed the bundle of notes to his father. “I got the money back.” There was no triumph in his voice, for he knew that he had failed in the task that he had set himself.

“Yes, and just look at you. I told you I wasn’t interested in the money, I was more concerned with what else I might lose,” Ben said, not knowing whether to be upset at Adam’s insistence on chasing after the men, or relieved that he and Joe had returned alive.

Adam pushed away from Hoss and faced his father. “What you might lose?” he shouted bitterly. “You lost nothing!”

“That’s right, I didn’t,” Ben said softly. “I’m sorry, son, I know how you must feel.”

Adam stared long and hard at his father, and saw his own sorrow reflected there in memories that they both shared, of lost wives and mothers.

“Yeah, I guess you do at that,” Adam admitted slowly.

“Get inside,” Ben ordered gently. “Bed is where you belong now.”

Adam nodded, but after a few agonizing steps, it became evident that he wouldn’t make it into the house on his own two feet. Ben and Hoss each drew one of his arms over their shoulders and helped Adam to his room.

*****

George Sinclair was sitting on the sofa in front of the imposing stone wall of the fireplace in the living room, cradling a glass of brandy in his huge hands and sipping from it occasionally. Joe had already told Roy his story and now the sheriff was questioning George, but as he talked the big man’s glance repeatedly flickered towards the stairs. He was anxious for the doctor to appear, but he also wished that time would stand still, that the doctor would not come down to tell him that he was going to lose his beloved wife.

When Paul slowly descended the stairs into the living room, George leaped to his feet. “Well?” he whispered.

Paul looked round at Ben, Joe and Roy, then addressed George. “I need to speak to you about Araminta’s condition.”

George understood the look. “I don’t mind if they hear what you have to say. What is it, what’s wrong?”

“Sit down,” Paul ordered, reaching up to place a hand on George’s shoulder. The big man obeyed; his legs had suddenly gone numb at the serious expression on the doctor’s face. Paul sat in front of him, on the coffee table, looking straight into his eyes to reassure him. “Firstly, let me tell you that Araminta will be all right. She has had a hard time, getting beaten like she was. But she’s strong and healthy otherwise.”

George let a small smile escape his concern. “Then what…?” He knew there was more.

“Did you know that your wife was pregnant?”

George nodded slowly. “Yes.”

Before he spoke again, Paul put out a hand to steady the big man. “She…was…pregnant.”

“You mean…”

Paul nodded. “One of the blows she received must have been to her abdomen. I’m sorry. She’s lost the baby.”

“Noooooo!” The brandy glass shattered noisily as it hit the floor. George buried his head in his hands.

“If it helps any, I can tell you that there is no reason why Araminta should not bear you more children. I’m as certain as I can be that there is no lasting damage. She needs rest and good food to build up her strength again, and then…” Paul stopped; he could see that George wasn’t listening to him.

Ben left his seat beside the fireplace and came to sit with George on the sofa. “You can both stay here for as long as it takes. She’ll get all the care she needs, and you need do nothing but be here for her.”

The words flowed past the big man, who sat shaking his head. “I should never have left her. If we hadn’t gone after Adam…” George said bitterly.

“It would have made no difference, the damage was already done,” Paul assured him. “There was nothing that anyone could do to prevent the outcome of that blow.”

George stared at the doctor, trying to see if he was telling the truth, then satisfied by what he saw he asked, “Can I go and see her?”

“Of course, but she’s sleeping right now, try not to disturb her.”

George rose unsteadily and made for the stairs. He stopped on the first step and turned to Roy. “I’m glad we killed them, because if they were still alive…” He did not need to finish the sentence; all the men could see the murderous look in his eyes. George went slowly up the stairs to his wife.

“Well, I must go and see Adam,” said Paul. “Ben, I think I’m going to need some help. Joe, you too.”

Adam was lying on his back under the covers, still fully clothed except for his boots. Hoss had helped him into bed, and as they tried to undress him, Adam had begged them to stop, it was simply too painful and he didn’t care if he never took his clothes off again. He had lain, unmoving, for the past two hours while Doc Martin tended to Araminta, and the pain in his back and leg had finally subsided into a dull, nagging ache.

“Hoss,” Adam’s voice surprised his brother, who was daydreaming.

“Yeah, can I get you something?” Hoss asked, preparing to get up.

“No, thanks. How’s Chet?”

“Doc brought him back with him this afternoon. Right now he’s in the bunk house nursing a headache. But he’ll be fine.”

“That’s good.” After a pause, Adam asked, “Did Roy get Brewster?”

Hoss hesitated. “He wants to talk to you ‘bout that.”

“I expect he does, but what happened?” Adam turned his head to look at his brother, and his eyes narrowed as he realized that Hoss had evaded the question.

Hoss dropped his eyes, knowing that Adam wouldn’t be happy with the result of the Sheriff’s investigations. ”He went over to his house, same night you left, but he’s denied everythin’. And with him bein’ the only one of the gang left, it’s your word against his.”

“And I’ve got no other evidence, except what I heard.” Adam’s lips thinned angrily, and he nodded to himself, knowing that it was not enough to convict the banker.

“That’s about the size of it, but I don’t reckon that folks are goin’ to trust him no more, once the news gets out.”

“Guess I’ll have to be satisfied with that.” As he thought about it, Adam realized that there was no alternative and he was thankful that he had a certain reputation for honesty, which might just be enough to stop Brewster playing the same game on someone else. But it would not give justice to those he may have used it on in the past.

Adam’s thoughts drifted back over the past three days. They had started with him and Hoss joshing Joe about his girl, and had ended in misery. Araminta was hurt, and Adam was sorry about that, but what occupied his mind was a tall sorrel horse that he knew he would never see again, and he also knew that he only had himself to blame. If he had not been so concerned with defeating the thieves’ plan, if he had allowed them to take the payroll, Sport would still be with him. The five thousand dollars was nothing, compared to the value Adam put on the horse and all it meant to him.

Scenes went through Adam’s mind, of him and Sport together; riding the range in all weathers, herding cattle, or roaming through the forest. He found it difficult to picture going into the barn and seeing Sport’s stall empty, and tears pricked in his eyes at the thought, but then a smile twitched at his lips. Sport would be all right; he was free in the mountains somewhere and, thanks to Kenny, knew that not all humans could be trusted.

Footsteps approached the door and Paul entered, followed by Ben. When Joe also appeared, Adam frowned at them. “You all come to doctor me?” he wondered.

Paul looked serious. “I’m going to need their help.”

Distinctly worried by the doctor’s expression, Adam ventured, “I’m not gonna like this, am I?”

“No, I don’t suppose you are,” Paul confirmed, “but I have to check your back, and that means that you’ve got to turn over.”

“Can’t you just leave me as I am, I’m fine like this,” Adam suggested miserably, without any real hope.

“Sorry, no. We’ll be as quick as we can.” Paul saw that Adam’s shirt and trousers were already unbuttoned and guessed the reason. “We’ll get you undressed at the same time; get it all over with at once.” He smiled at his patient but Adam did not react, he was preparing himself for the pain he knew was coming. “Ben take his legs, Joe, his hips, and Hoss, you hold his shoulders.” Once they were all in position, Paul told them to turn Adam over, being careful to keep him as straight as they could. Though they did it with great care, they could see how it hurt Adam to move and Ben was fighting back tears as he watched his son struggling not to let them see how it affected him.

Adam’s shirt was simple to remove, but they finally gave up on trying to take off his trousers. Ben took a knife and slit the seams, pulling the cloth out from beneath Adam, who now lay face down, his hands either side of his head clutching at the pillow, trying to control the re-awakened agony. Paul sent Joe and Hoss from the room, then put a hand on Adam’s back, between his shoulders. “It’s OK; we won’t move you again if you don’t want to. Just try to relax; I need to find out where it hurts.”

Adam groaned. “It hurts everywhere.”

Paul saw the bruising that was spread over Adam’s back and frowned, but he spoke lightly, trying to raise Adam’s spirits. “I think you’ll find it doesn’t, not everywhere.”

“How would you know, it’s not your back,” Adam retorted sharply.

“I know because I’m a doctor,” Paul said with finality. “Now, I want you to tell me when it hurts most.” He started at the top of Adam’s spine, pushing it with his thumbs, and Adam had to admit that there was no real pain.

As Paul pushed on the lower bones, Adam’s head jerked up and he cried, “There!”

Paul nodded knowingly, then asked, “What about your legs?”

Adam’s head was back on the pillows, turned towards Paul, and he could see the concerned expression on the doctor’s face. “The right one, all the way down the back.”

Again Paul nodded. “I was afraid of that.”

“What is it Paul, what’s wrong with me?”

The doctor pulled a chair up beside the top of the bed so that Adam did not have to strain to see him. “When they dragged you, did you hit your back on anything? You’ve got a lot of bruising there, but was there one thing that you remember particularly?”

Adam thought of the crashing blows of the rocks in the river, but he knew what Paul meant. “A tree,” he confirmed.

Ben could contain himself no longer. “Paul, tell us, all of it.” He was staring at the purple and black bruising, more evident now than when Adam had first come home.

The doctor turned to Ben, and saw behind the strong features a parent worried for his child. He knew there was no easy way to lift that worry from the older man’s shoulders. “Adam has obviously damaged his back.” He looked at his patient. “The pain you feel is called sciatica. The sciatic nerve runs through the spine and controls the muscles in your legs. When you hit your back, it damaged either that nerve or the bones around it. It is something that should get better, with complete rest, and I do mean complete.” He glared at Adam to make him understand the seriousness of what he was saying. “That’s why I’m not going to give you anything to ease the pain.” Ben was about to protest, but Paul held up his hand. “No, I mean it, Ben. He has to lie quiet, and while he’s still, Adam will feel little pain. It’s only when he moves that it really hurts.” He looked questioningly at Adam. “That’s right, isn’t it?”

“Yes, otherwise it’s just a dull ache all the time,” Adam admitted.

“So, that pain will remind you to keep still,” Paul smiled, “and the lack of it will tell us when you’re ready to get back on your feet.” He stood, and pulled away all but one of the pillows that Adam was lying on. “You can have one pillow, but no more. I don’t care whether you lie on your stomach or your back, but if you want to turn over you must not do it by yourself, but get Ben and your brothers to help you. Do you understand?”

Adam nodded miserably. “How long?” he asked.

“From what I’ve seen of this sort of injury in the past, I’d say six weeks at least. But really it’s impossible to predict; it depends on just how much damage was done at the time, and how much of the pain you feel is due to your rushing off after those men instead of resting.”

Adam could sense his father’s hand in what Paul was saying, but he let it pass. “So it could be less?”

“It could be,” Paul agreed reluctantly, he didn’t want to get Adam’s hopes up. “But it will be longer if you don’t follow my instructions.”

Ben assured Paul. “He’ll do as he’s told, don’t worry. Is there anything else we can do?”

Slipping his arms into the sleeves of his jacket, Paul nodded. “I’m going to have a word with Hop Sing. I know that a liniment of Barberry Root can sometimes help, massaged into the back, and it certainly can’t do any harm. Even the simple act of the massage can help.” He could see Adam’s downcast expression. “Don’t worry, given time you’ll be almost as good as new.”

Adam picked up on the relevant word. “Almost?”

“Once such damage is done, there is always a weakness there. Any strain can set it off again, even sudden, awkward movements. You’ll soon learn what you can do, and how to prevent it happening. But for now, you’ll just have to be patient.” Leaving Ben bathing the cuts and bruises inflicted by Glasby and his men, Paul bid them farewell, telling Ben to send for him if Adam didn’t improve, but otherwise there was little he could do until Adam was ready to try standing up.

When they were alone, Adam asked his father about Araminta. Ben explained what had happened to the baby she was carrying, but that she would recover from her other injuries. Suddenly Adam felt that his pain was unimportant compared to what the couple had lost.

“I’m sorry. George should never have left her. If Joe hadn’t wanted to come after me she might have been all right.”

Ben shook his head, “Paul said it would have made no difference. There’s no need for you to feel badly about that.”

“He could be wrong.”

“Adam, the life inside Araminta was already forfeit, but yours was still there to be saved, and I will always be grateful that she had the courage to send George and Joe after you.”

“Pa, I want to go and see her.” Ben was about to make it very clear that Adam was going nowhere, when his son continued. “I owe her that, please; then I promise I’ll stay here for as long as it takes.”

Ben stood back from the bed. “Certainly you can see her.” Adam’s eyes brightened, he hadn’t expected his father to agree without a fight, then his face fell as Ben said, “If you can get out of that bed on your own, you can go wherever you like.”

“But Pa…”

“No ‘but’s. You heard what Paul said. You’re staying right there.”

Once Ben had left the room, Adam buried his face and pounded his fist into the pillow with frustration at the unfairness of life, and the heartfelt blasphemy he uttered was lost in its downy softness.

*****

George spent the rest of the night sitting with Araminta. She stirred several times, but it was nearly dawn before she was properly awake. She smiled wanly as she saw George beside her.

He leaned closer. “How are you?”

“Fine,” she said softly, the medicine that Paul had administered to help her sleep still affecting her. “There is something I have to tell you.”

George brushed his hand gently over Araminta’s clammy forehead, “Hush now, I know, the doctor told me. Minty, I’m sorry, I should never have left you alone. If I had been there they wouldn’t have hurt you, wouldn’t have destroyed that precious gift you were carrying for me.” George’s voice was brimming with tears as he looked at his wife. “Oh Minty, I’m so sorry.”

Araminta stared at her husband for a second, then held out her arms, imploring him to hold her, to wrap her in his strength. George hugged her close, while she wept into his shoulder and he cried too, as he realized that the life he had bargained away with God had not been his, but that of their unborn child. His mind cried out against the injustice of the world but, as he laid Araminta back on the pillows, he gazed into her bruised but still beautiful face, and he knew that while he might have lost one precious gift, he still had another.

In his room, Adam lay awake staring up at the ceiling, watching a spider weave a home for itself in one dark corner. He was thinking of George and Araminta, and a knot formed in his stomach as he thought of what Araminta had gone through; what Glasby and his men had done to the couple. He was contemplating the enormity of their loss when there was a soft knock on his door.

“Come in,” Adam invited.

George put his head round the door. “You’re awake then?”

“Yeah, can’t sleep.” Adam shifted uncomfortably in the bed. “How’s Araminta?”

“Resting.”

Adam looked at George, who paced to and fro at the foot of the bed, wondering how he could express to the man his regret for how things had turned out. After a long two minutes Adam spoke quietly. “I lost Sport, he ran off with the other horses when I loosed his hobble.” George nodded; he knew what had happened but his mind was on Araminta. “Precious as he was to me, I can get another horse. There will never be one that can replace him, he was a gift from Pa, but there will be others, and I will treasure them for who and what they are.”

George stopped pacing and stared at the dark eyes that were watching him. Then he smiled. “Thanks, Adam, I know what you’re saying and you’re right, God willing there will be other children. But we’d waited so long for this one, and then to lose it like this…well, it takes some getting used to.”

“What will you do now?”

George’s words were hollow as he answered. “I wanted to buy her a house, somewhere nearer town, where we could bring up the child,” his voice broke, “in safety.”

“Pa told me he asked you to stay here until Araminta’s better. That’ll give you time to think about what you want to do.”

George went to the window, watching the sun come up over the forest. A new day was starting, a new day without the gift of a child, an empty day. He turned back to Adam, who was watching him silently. “I wanted a child, but why should I want to bring an innocent into a world where such things can happen?” he said bitterly.

Adam had never had a child, and at that moment he wasn’t sure that he wanted to when he saw how losing one affected this strong man. But then he remembered his father’s delight at the birth of Hoss and later, Joe. “You can’t condemn the whole world for what happened to Araminta. Suppose her father had felt the same as you do now, suppose he had decided never to have children? She would not have been there for you to marry and share your life with.” Adam raised his eyebrows at George. “Think about it.”

George came to the head of the bed and held out his hand to Adam. “Thanks, I will.”

“Try to get some rest,” Adam advised, and George nodded and went back to sit with Araminta.

*****

The next day, Adam lay in bed listening to the preparations for the party; the shifting of furniture and Hop Sing’s increasingly strident invectives to the family to ‘get out of kitchen!’.

Ben came upstairs to check on Adam. “You all right, son, is there anything you need?”

“Just your permission to get up.”

“Adam, I know that you’d rather be downstairs tonight, but use your common sense. You know it wouldn’t do you any good, and it would be irresponsible of me to let you.”

Adam sighed. “You’re right, but you can’t blame me for asking, can you?” Ben tucked the bed covers in round his son, while Adam watched him indulgently and asked, “Is Chet going to make it to the party?”

Ben ran his hand over the soft surface of the blankets, smoothing out the creases. “Yes. Paul says that he’s fine, there’s no lasting damage.”

“Good.” Adam picked up his book, “Well, have a good time without me.”

Once Ben was out of the room, Adam pulled the blankets loose. He smiled, remembering other times, long ago, when his father would tuck him into the security of warm blankets. It seemed that no matter how old his sons were, Ben still insisted on treating them as children when they were sick.

Hoss and Joe came upstairs to change and make themselves presentable, ready to greet their guests. Before going down again, they came to see Adam, who lowered his book and looked them over. “Very smart, the ladies won’t stand a chance,” he laughed.

“Sorry you cain’t be there,” Hoss sympathized.

“Don’t worry about it.” Adam indicated the leather bound volume lying on his chest. “I’ve wanted to start this book ever since it arrived last week, and it looks as though this is my chance.”

Joe looked at the cover and snorted. “I don’t know what you see in books. Isn’t real life exciting enough for you?”

“But they give you an insight into the lives of others. You can read about places and situations that you can’t experience any other way.”

Hoss nodded. “Guess that’s true, but I tell you, I find I get all the experiences I can deal with right here.”

With his eyebrows raised teasingly, Adam asked, “And are you planning on having an experience tonight, perhaps with a certain young lady?”

Hoss colored up and shuffled his feet nervously. “Mebbe,” was all the information he would give. “I’m goin’ to see if Pa needs a hand with the punch.” Hoss beat a hasty retreat before his brothers could question him further.

Joe was about to leave as well, when Adam stopped him. “I haven’t had a chance to say thank you for what you did, Joe. I know that you thought that I was some sort of crazy for going after Glasby, but you stuck at it anyway.”

“Well, what was I supposed to do? You needed someone to look out for you, and besides,” Joe smiled as Adam raised an eyebrow at that statement, “it gave me the chance to show you that Hoss ain’t the only one in this family who can follow a trail.”

Adam held out his hand to his brother. “Whatever the reason, I’m grateful.”

Joe took Adam’s hand and held it. In the face of Adam’s honest gratitude, the emotional young Joe found his eyes filling and he laughed away his reaction. “Now all you gotta do is get better. We need you well again, or do you expect me an’ Hoss to handle all the pretty girls?”

“No, I expect the pretty ones to wait for me, but you can keep them occupied in the meantime, so they won’t get bored.” Adam gently pushed Joe away, “Now get, before all those girls decide that you don’t care and turn round and go home.”

Joe turned as he reached the door. “See you later,” he said, and was gone.

Adam smiled, and went back to his book.

*****

As he heard the sound of a surrey driving into the yard, Joe came out of the house. He had greeted every new arrival to the party, waiting to see the one person who would make his evening a happy one. His face broke into a broad grin as he saw that Mr. Maclaren was driving his family towards the house.

Joe stepped forwards and waved. “Hello, Mr. Maclaren,” he said as the surrey pulled up in front of the house. He held out a hand to help Mrs. Maclaren. “Good evening, Ma’am, glad you could come.”

“It was very good of your father to invite us,” said Esme Maclaren, stepping down from the vehicle and looking up at Joe.

Joe smiled, then turned his attention to Victoria, in the back of the surrey. “Good evening, Victoria.”

She returned his smile. “Good evening, Joe.” Looking round at the Chinese lanterns hung round the yard, Victoria commented, “My, the house looks pretty.”

Joe looked at her, dressed in dark blue velvet with a fetching white lace trim. He leaned closer so that only she should hear him. “Not as beautiful as you.” Victoria punched him on the arm and walked in front of him, following her parents into the house.

Ben greeted them warmly as they entered. The furniture had been cleared from the living room, and already the space was filling with people; ranch hands, friends and neighbors, all celebrating the end of another ranching year.

“Joe, help the Maclarens to a glass of punch,” Ben instructed, and Joe led them to a table laden with a choice of drinks. Victoria and Esme chose punch, but Mr. Maclaren opted for sherry. When the musicians began to play, Joe whisked Esme onto the dance floor until the music stopped and he returned her, breathless, to her husband’s side. His duty done, Joe felt free to dance the rest of the evening with Victoria.

Soon all the guests had arrived and the room was full of music and laughter. Hoss was escorting the engaging Alice Metcalfe, and Joe wondered if there was more than friendship there, as he saw how nervous his brother was, and knew it as a sign that he was serious about the girl. Joe tucked away the thought, ready to bring it out again at the opportune moment; he would be able to do his share of ribbing tomorrow at breakfast.

Joe handed Victoria another glass of punch as she looked round the room and remembered who was missing. “How’s Adam?”

“The Doc won’t let him out of bed. He’s real mad, but Pa’s siding with Paul so he doesn’t stand a chance,” Joe laughed.

“Could we go and see him? He must be feeling very lonely, stuck upstairs all alone on a night like this.”

Joe looked at Victoria, and again had the feeling that she was a special person, concerned for his brother in the midst of a party. “Sure, I know he’d be happy to see you again.”

They made their way upstairs and, after knocking, Joe put his head round the door. “Victoria would like to say ‘hello’. I think she’s feeling sorry for you, big brother.”

“Then don’t just stand there, come in,” Adam invited, putting his book on the nightstand. He winced at the rising pain the movement caused, but when he turned back to face Joe and Victoria it was with a welcoming smile. Joe came into the room, followed by Victoria who had hold of his hand.

“How are you?” Victoria asked.

“Bored, and glad of some company,” Adam declared.

Joe lowered himself gently onto the bed, careful not to move Adam, and Victoria sat on the chair, spreading the material of her dress around her. Adam could see why Joe was attracted to her, her dark eyes sparkled and her face shone with life. It reminded him of Melissa, whom he should have been escorting tonight. He was thinking that it would be some time before he would see her again, when he realized that Victoria had mentioned Melissa’s name.

“I’m sorry,” said Adam, “what did you say?”

“I said; did you know that Marty O’Shea had invited Melissa Gibson to the party? But I must say she’s been quite short with him.”

Joe nodded. “That Melissa sure is a good looker.”

“Oh really,” Victoria gave Joe a hard stare.

“No, not that pretty,” Joe said quickly. He turned to Adam. “I’m surprised that you ain’t been calling on her.”

“Well, you know how it is, I’ve been busy.” Adam thought that if Melissa was going out with Marty, he would not get the chance to find out whether she would relax away from her mother’s company.

Victoria continued with her interrupted story. “Well Adam, she obviously wanted Marty to bring her here in the hope of seeing you. I heard her tell him that if you were really confined to bed, then there was no point in them staying, and she wanted Marty to take her home. Marty said that he would prefer to stay for the dancing, but Melissa insisted.” Victoria laughed, “The last I saw of them, Melissa was telling Marty that she never wanted to see him again.”

“Probably for the best,” Adam commented absently, thinking about Melissa’s reported behavior and adding that to what he already knew of her. Probably best if he kept away from her as well.

Noticing Adam’s off hand remark, Victoria changed the subject. “Joe tells me that your back was injured when those men attacked you, and that you will have to stay here for some time.”

“Yeah, it’s nothing serious, but Paul insists that I lie still. And he’s got Pa acting as watch dog in case I decide to do something stupid, like breathe.” Adam’s tone was light, but Joe could detect resentment that his father felt it necessary to watch over him so closely.

“How long do you think it will be before you can get up?”

“Doc says it’ll be a month at least. Of course, by then I will probably have gone insane from staring at the ceiling, but he won’t relent.” Adam looked at Joe. “If they don’t let me up soon, I’ll be too weak to work, so you and Hoss will have to do all my chores, even when I’m vertical again.”

“Well, I do all the work round here anyway,” Joe laughed.

“Oh yeah? Since when?”

“Since I was so high.” Joe held his hand three feet off the floor. Then he stood and pulled Victoria to her feet. “We’d better be getting back to the party, before brother here decides that I’m still not too big to get a tanning.”

Adam smiled, despite the news that they had brought about Melissa, he felt cheered by their visit. “Just don’t wear yourself out, remember all that work you’ve got to do.”

Joe stopped at the door and looked back. “You want anything?”

“No, just go and enjoy yourself.” Adam heard their footsteps recede down the hallway until they were lost amongst the sounds of the party; music and laughter. From the nightstand, he picked up the book and, holding it above him with both hands so he could read it, continued from where he had left off.

Half-an-hour later, when he realized that he had read the same sentence three times and still not taken in what it said, he let the volume drop onto his chest. The book was ‘Oliver Twist’, a tale by Charles Dickens, which told of the adventures of a young orphan in Victorian England. Adam had read the atmospheric descriptions of the London streets and the poor who inhabited them. It was at that point that his mind started to wander, as he thought of the country outside his own home, so different to the confined, dirty and dangerous conditions described in the book. Visions of the pine forest lead him naturally to think of George and Araminta, who had not joined the party downstairs; despite the woman’s improving condition they had not felt like celebrating. Adam’s thoughts turned to how he might be able to help them and, slowly, an idea formed in his mind.

As the last guest left, Ben climbed the stairs to check on Adam. He found his son staring at the ceiling and had to call his name twice to get his attention.

“You were miles away,” Ben observed as he turned down the top sheet neatly, and tucked the edges of the blankets under the mattress.

“Yeah,” Adam answered, still distracted by his thoughts.

Ben sat carefully on the side of the bed. “Care to tell me about it? Is your back hurting?” Ben was concerned that Adam might be worried by his condition.

Adam looked at his father and smiled to relieve the worry he saw in the ebony eyes. “It’s not too bad. No, I was thinking about George and Araminta. I don’t like the thought of her being out there alone. They want to start a family, and that’s not really the place for a child; out in the wilderness.”

Ben returned Adam’s smile as he thought of a young, dark haired boy who had traveled with his father all the way from Boston to Nevada. “You had your share of wilderness, and it doesn’t seem to have done you any harm,” he said quietly.

“But then we didn’t have much choice, did we?”

There was silence for a minute as the two men remembered shared times on the trail, some good, some bad, some funny, and some tragic; but they had always been together through those times. It was knowing that his father was beside him that had kept Adam going, and for Ben it was the belief that, somewhere, there was a home waiting for him and his growing family that had driven him on.

Eventually Adam spoke. “I may have an alternative for them.” He outlined his plan and received enthusiastic support from his father.

Ben stood and smoothed out the blankets where he had been sitting. “Well, you can ask them about it in the morning, but for now I think you should try to get some sleep.”

“Do you think they will accept?”

“I don’t know. They are both very independent people, but it makes sense. We’ll see.” Ben shook his head as he opened the door and looked back. Adam again had his book in both hands.

*****

The following morning, Hop Sing was giving Adam a massage with the liniment that Paul had recommended. Each of the twice daily treatments had to be done while the family was there to help Adam turn over, and when it was finished, to turn back. So every day before eating breakfast, or supper, his father and brothers would come and get him ready for the little Chinaman’s ministrations, and when they had eaten would see him settled back as comfortably as they could.

Adam found the massage exhausting; any movement caused the pain in his back to return, but he had to admit that, slowly, it seemed to be having an effect.

After breakfast, when the family had left for their daily chores, Hop Sing returned to help Adam wash, shave, and eat his own breakfast. Despite his temporary handicap, Adam insisted on continuing to shave every day; it allowed him to think that soon he would be on his feet and back to normal, that he wasn’t an invalid. He did not have much of an appetite, and when he had eaten all that he could manage, Adam asked Hop Sing to find George.

A few minutes later there was a knock on the bedroom door. When it opened, Adam was surprised to see both George and Araminta enter. The young woman was looking pale and drawn beneath the slowly fading bruises, and had dark circles under her eyes which were red from the bitter tears that would come unbidden, whenever she thought of the child she had lost. George insisted that his wife sit down, while he stood behind her. “You wanted to see me,” George said.

“Yes. Araminta, how are you?”

“I’m well, thank you.” It was a quiet response; in more ways than one, the life seemed to have gone out of the woman.

“George told me about the baby…I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Araminta took a deep breath, forcing down her tears. “There was nothing that you could have done.” She brightened a little. “How are you? I heard about your back; you shouldn’t have gone after those men. But I’m glad you did, otherwise they might have got away.” Her tone hardened as she thought of Glasby and his gang.

“I’ll be fine, with a bit of rest. But that’s not what I want to talk to you two about.” Adam looked at George. “Have you made any decisions yet?”

Araminta looked round at George, then back to Adam. “What do you mean, ‘decisions’?

Adam realized that George had not discussed their options with his wife. “About your future plans,” Adam said, trying to make it sound as though his question had been a casual enquiry.

George glanced with some trepidation at Araminta. All he wanted was to take care of her, and to be able to find somewhere to raise a family in safety. But he had not troubled Minty with his decision; he knew she would resist a move away from the forest. George walked round the bed until he could see Araminta’s face, and her reaction. “I think we should move nearer Virginia City, then I’ll get a job in town. There must be something I can do; I don’t mind what it is.”

“But you hate the town, and we don’t have the money to build a house,” Araminta insisted.

“I’ll find it somewhere. I won’t have our children growing up in the wilderness. I know you love it as I do, but I’m more interested in you being safe, and that means being closer to people.” George went round the bed and knelt down in front of his wife and tried to encourage her to agree. “We don’t have to live right in town, I don’t suppose we could get a house there anyway, but just closer to help.”

Before Araminta could voice her disagreement, Adam cleared his throat to get their attention. “I may have a solution.”

“Oh?” said Araminta.

“Really?” said George.

“Uh huh,” said Adam. George and Araminta exchanged puzzled glances and Adam explained. “A few years ago my father bought some land from Russ Macaulay. He wanted it because it rounded out the northern boundary of the ranch. The piece of land he bought had a house on it, which Pa paid for even though he didn’t have any use for it.” Adam smiled. “I think he expected one of us to be married by now, and living in that house, but we’re all still here. It’s closer to town than your place, and it’s big enough to raise a good size family.”

Adam could see that both George and Araminta had guessed what he was going to suggest, so he simply asked, “How about it?”

Araminta held George’s hand and looked hopefully into his eyes. “Could we? Could we afford it?”

Before George could ask Adam how much they wanted for the house, he told them the rest of what he had in mind. “We don’t want any money for the house. Instead we wondered if you would work for us.” Adam raised questioning eyebrows at George.

“Doing what? You don’t need a trapper.”

“No, we don’t, but we do need someone who knows the forest and its creatures. We have a couple of herds of deer that roam across the ranch, and we want to encourage them to stay. They keep the undergrowth down, which makes it easier and quicker to cut the trees,” Adam paused and laughed, “and their meat makes a refreshing change from beef. We would also expect you to keep a watch for cougars and stray bears. In exchange you would have a regular income, and the house. In five years, if you work for us for that time, the house would be yours, free and clear, with a parcel of land to go with it.” Adam looked at the couple. “What do you think?”

George and Araminta stared at each other for a full minute, not speaking, but instead communicating their shared thoughts silently. Then they turned as one towards Adam. Araminta nodded and George smiled as he answered. “I think that would be fine. How can we ever thank you?”

Embarrassed at their grateful glances, Adam shifted in the bed, until the pain in his back reminded him to keep still. “You don’t have to.”

Araminta stood, and leaned over the bed. She looked into the dark eyes, and remembered the first time she had seen them. Then it had been Adam leaning over, and she who was in bed, but now, again, he was helping them. She bent down and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

“Thank you.” Her voice held such deep sincerity that Adam had to swallow to prevent tears forming in his eyes. Instead, he smiled.

“Don’t thank me until you’ve seen it. What I didn’t tell you is that the house will need some work before it is habitable. But any lumber you need you can get from the saw mill, and Joe and Hoss have said they will help you. You should be able to move in by the end of the month.”

*****

While the rest of the family were enjoying supper, Hop Sing massaged Adam’s back, gently but firmly working the Barberry Root liniment into the muscles and easing out the tenderness around his spine. Adam had his eyes closed; he found that despite being confined to bed he never got enough sleep. Every time he dozed off he would waken himself when he moved and set off the ache in his back. The regular motions of the Chinaman’s hands were having a soporific effect on Adam and he was almost asleep, when he noticed that the massaging movements had changed. They were lighter, but insistent, feeling out each muscle and bone in his back, soothing away the pain with gentle pressure.

Adam opened his eyes and looked round, over his shoulder. He was surprised to see Hop Sing sitting at one side of the bed, his hands on his knees as he leaned forward, obviously watching closely whoever it was that was doing the massage. Adam strained round a little further and saw Araminta leaning over his back. When she became aware of Adam watching her, she stopped.

“I hope you don’t mind, I didn’t mean to intrude,” she said nervously. “I was showing Hop Sing a better way to do this.”

Adam smiled. “No, I don’t mind. I was just thinking how good it felt.”

Hop Sing let out a snort. “Missy know about backs. Hop Sing know about healing. Together we make Mister Adam better.”

In answer to Adam’s raised eyebrow, Araminta was happy to explain, but first she made him put his head back on the pillow. “I can’t do this if you insist on watching me; you’re tensing your muscles.” Adam settled down, and Araminta continued. “I used to massage my father, when he came home after a day in the mine. He spent all his working life bent double in those confined spaces, and sometimes could hardly walk when he came home. But after a bath and a good rub, he was fine.”

Hop Sing said that he had to go and see to his chores, leaving Araminta to continue. When she had nearly finished, she sat in the chair beside the bed, gently rubbing her hand up and down Adam’s back with soft, soothing movements of her fingers that allowed the muscles to settle after the firmer pressure of the massage.

Adam looked round and found that she was watching him. Their eyes met for an instant – and alarm bells started ringing in Adam’s head.

Araminta withdrew her hands and rested them in her lap. She smiled, and a small laugh sounded in her throat. “I think I had better be getting downstairs.”

Adam smiled as well. “Yes, I think you had.” They exchanged a look of understanding; there was an attraction, one for the other. “Will you come and do that again?” Adam asked.

“I don’t…”

“Next time, bring George with you.”

Araminta nodded, still smiling. “Is it me you don’t trust, or yourself?”

Adam laughed. “Both.”

*****

Three weeks later Paul was standing watching, as Adam hesitantly swung his legs off the bed and set his feet on the floor.

“Just sit there for a minute, don’t rush this. You may feel a bit light headed, that’s to be expected when you’ve been lying down for so long,” Paul warned him.

Adam nodded, then held out his hand to his father. Ben held Adam’s arm and helped him to his feet, ready to take his weight if standing proved to be too difficult. Adam straightened slowly. He waited while a wave of dizziness washed over him, but then it was gone and he stood firmly. He looked at Paul and Ben.

“I’m fine. There’s no pain at all.” Adam tried turning a little, first to one side, then the other. “Good as new,” he announced happily.

“Not quite,” Paul reminded him. “I told you that once such damage is done there is always a risk of it coming back. Don’t be fooled by it not hurting, go carefully and find out what you can and can’t do.” Paul looked at Ben. “Don’t let him rush back to work straight away.” He turned again to Adam, “Your muscles will take time to build themselves up again. If you overdo it now you could end up flat on your back again, and it might be for a lot longer.”

“OK, Paul, don’t worry, I understand.” Adam turned to his father. “I’ll see you downstairs.” Ben realized that Adam wanted some time alone, and he ushered Paul from the room.

With his hand on the door handle, Ben turned back. “Don’t be too long, and if you need help dressing, call me.”

Adam nodded; now he was on his feet again he wouldn’t risk doing any damage to his back. He walked slowly round the room stretching occasionally to test his back, but he felt no discomfort. He silently thanked Araminta for her ministrations. He was certain that she had helped his recovery, and would thank her properly when he was able.

Since that shared moment when she had first tended to him, they had never been alone together, either George or Hop Sing had been with them and Adam was grateful. He could see the love she had for her husband; it shone from her every time she saw him, and Adam felt a twinge of envy. But then he smiled to himself; maybe one day he would find a woman to love him, as Araminta loved George.

As he sat on the bed and eased on his trousers, his thoughts turned to Melissa; not a woman he could love, but one whose apparent attraction to himself might prove useful on this occasion. George and Araminta had moved into their new home and were going to have a house warming party at the end of the week, and Adam decided that, if he was going to attend, he had to have a partner to take with him. His back was not yet ready to go riding out, or calling on a young lady, but remembering Victoria’s words regarding Melissa’s attitude to him being absent from the party, he thought that if she was no longer seeing Marty, there was every chance that she would accept an invitation to go with him. He felt guilty about using the girl in this way, but at that moment, Araminta’s feelings were more important to him.

Once he was dressed, Adam sat at his desk in one corner of the bedroom and wrote to Melissa, inviting her to be his partner. He explained, without going into detail, that he had been unable to call on her recently due to his incapacity, but that if she would agree to accompany him, he would collect her and take her to the party.

Adam sealed the envelope, put it in his pocket, and went down to join his family for dinner. Ben wanted to celebrate Adam’s recovery, and ensured it was a lively affair by opening a bottle of his best burgundy to go with the fine steaks that Hop Sing had prepared. He was happy to see all his sons together again, healthy and happy.

When they had finished their meal, Ben rose from the table and, telling the boys to remain where they were, he went up to his room, returning with a large, rectangular box in his hands, which he placed on the table in front of Adam. “I bought you something I think you might need.”

Puzzled, Adam stood and released the string that was holding the box closed. As he peered inside, he laughed loudly, and looked at his father. Then he reached inside and came out holding a new black hat, with black band and silver studs, identical to those he had lost.

“I noticed that you came back without yours…again,” Ben explained.

Adam placed it on his head, it was a perfect fit. “Thanks, Pa. I will try to take better care of this one.”

“Well you’d better,” said Ben resuming his seat. “Otherwise I think I’m going to open a hatter’s shop, just to keep you supplied.”

Adam picked up his wine glass. “Brothers, a toast. To Pa, not only does he provide a roof over our heads, but hats to cover them as well.” Adam paused and added seriously, “It is all that a son could ask.” He looked uncertainly at his father, who simply smiled back and nodded, recognizing that there was more to the message that Adam wasn’t saying; an apology for the threat he had issued when Ben tried to stop him going after Glasby.

Later that evening, while Ben was sat at his desk working on the tally of the last cut of timber, Adam, Hoss, and Joe sat on the veranda enjoying a lazy glass of brandy before turning in. It was chilly and they all wore coats, but there would not be many more evenings that they could sit there before the winter set in.

Joe was slumped in his seat, with his feet on another chair and his glass resting on his chest, while Hoss sat with his elbows propped on his knees, twirling his glass between his hands thoughtfully. Adam sat with cushions behind him, helping him to sit up straight in the comfortable chair which invited him to slouch into its wooden embrace. He had tried putting his feet up like Joe, but it pulled on his back muscles and he had lowered them to the ground. He still wore his new hat, reluctant to take it off; not simply because of the warmth it provided, but also because of the circumstances that had led to him needing it. He stared at the glass in his hand, thinking that Pa had replaced one gift with another, given with the same love. He was brought out of his thoughts when Joe spoke to him.

“Say, Adam, who’re you taking to the Sinclairs’ party?” Joe sipped on his drink to hide a grin. If Adam was planning to escort a girl he was keeping it a secret, and if he wasn’t, he would be mad at the assumption that he was. Either way, Joe hoped he would get a rise out of his brother.

“Who says I’m taking anyone?” Adam did not shift his eyes from the golden liquid in his glass.

Hoss joined in. “So are ya goin’ on yer own?”

“I didn’t say that,” Adam replied, keeping his tone noncommittal.

Joe pursed his lips, frustrated at the calmness of his eldest brother. “No, you didn’t. You ain’t said nothing.”

“Joe, how many times have I told you that a double negative implies a positive? If I ‘ain’t said nothing’ as you so eloquently put it, then I must have said something, and you would therefore know whether I am planning to take anyone to the party.” Adam’s smug expression infuriated Joe, who knew that yet again he had lost the battle of words with his brother.

Joe drained his glass and got to his feet. “Well, some of us have work to do, and have to get up early.” The frustration he was feeling made the words sound more bitter than he had intended. When Joe saw the downcast expression on Adam’s face, he tried to apologies. “Adam, I’m sorry, I know you can’t do any heavy work right now, I don’t expect you to.”

Adam replied slowly without looking up. “No, I can’t, but…” his voice took on a note of determination, “…soon I’ll be back to normal.” He hoped that was true; he had yet to find out whether there was any lasting damage.

Joe put his hand on his eldest brother’s shoulder. “I know. But don’t rush it on my account.” He sighed dramatically. “I suppose that Hoss and I can cope without you.” He winked at Hoss, “In fact, we seem to be managing very well.” Turning back, he asked, “Remind me again what it was that you did around here.”

Adam smiled, he knew his brother was joking and trying to make up for his careless remark. “Well now, let me see, there was the fencing, and the branding and taking charge of the drives and the logging, and of course in all that spare time I had I would look over the odd contract…shall I go on?”

Joe held up both hands as he retreated towards the front door. “Noooooo, please, I give in.”

When Adam was alone with Hoss, he pulled from his pocket the letter he had written to Melissa and held it in his hands. He looked up. “Would you do something for me?”

Hoss nodded lazily. “Sure.”

“Take this to Melissa Gibson.” Adam held out the letter. “It’s about the Sinclairs’ party.”

Hoss raised his eyebrows as he tried not to choke on the mouthful of brandy he had just taken. “Melissa…? You invitin’ her? D’ya think she’ll come?”

“She might. What neither of you know is that I have been to tea with the beautiful Melissa. But then this happened,” Adam put a hand into the small of his back and stretched gently, “and I haven’t seen her since.” He turned to his brother, and Hoss could see a serious look in his eyes. “I need you to persuade her to come with me.”

Hoss heard the unusual phrasing of Adam’s statement. “What d’ya mean ‘need’?”

“I can’t go to the party alone.” Adam caught Hoss’ curious look and explained. “When Araminta was here, she and I…well, there was an attraction.” He held up a hand before Hoss could speak. “Oh no, she’s too much in love with George, and neither of us was going to do anything about it, but it was there. I need to reassure her that I have no intention of trying to take it any further, and I don’t expect her to either. The best way to do that is to take a girl to the party, and I can’t think of a better way to lay to rest any misgivings that Araminta may have than for her to see me with Melissa.”

Hoss was nodding. “You’re right there, brother. You kept that mighty quiet, about you an’ Melissa.”

Adam drained the last of his brandy and stood as he glanced down at Hoss. “Well, I’m not sure there is any ‘me and Melissa’. But you didn’t think I was going to give baby brother any ammunition to use against me did you? No, he’ll know soon enough, if she’ll agree to come with me, that is.”

Hoss got to his feet and draped an arm over Adam’s shoulders. “Don’t fret none. I’ll use the legendary Hoss Cartwright charm to make sure that you get to go with her.”

Hoss’ arm was still resting supportively on Adam as they made their way through the front door.

*****

Saturday evening found the four Cartwrights ready, willing, and, perhaps with the exception of the eldest son, able to tackle a night out. All wore white dress shirts and black string ties. Ben and Adam had on long, black broadcloth jackets, Adam with black trousers to match while Ben’s were grey and complimented by the addition of a silver silk vest. Joe had chosen his favorite blue suit and Hoss wore his comfortable tan jacket. The big man was nervous enough at the prospect of another date with Alice and he did not want to spend the evening fighting with his clothes, it would take his mind away from the very pleasing prospect of his young lady.

Adam, having earlier broken the news that he was escorting Melissa to the party, announced that he was leaving to collect her. As he reached the door, Joe rushed up behind him, grinning.

“Now brother, remember what the doc said. No strenuous exercise, or sudden movements.”

Adam lifted his new hat from the rack beside the door before he turned and replied with mock patience, “Thank you for your advice, I’ll try to remember.”

“You sure you’re goin’ to be able to manage her?” asked Hoss, coming to stand beside Joe. “From what they say, that Melissa can be a bit of a handful.”

Adam smiled sardonically. “Really? I was hoping for more of an armful.” He opened the door and left before either brother could reply.

Ben was smiling to himself. Joe and Hoss had somehow never learned that Lake Tahoe would run dry before they could get the better of their brother in any verbal exchange.

“Well,” Ben reminded them, “as I understand it, you two are escorting your respective partners and their families to the Sinclairs’, so don’t you think you should be going?”

“Yes…yes, sir,” said Joe hurriedly.

“Sure Pa, see you there,” agreed Hoss.

The Sinclairs’ house was festooned outside with every Chinese lantern that could be found on the Ponderosa, and the light illuminated the front yard brightly.

As Adam drove Melissa towards the house, she exclaimed at the beauty of the sight, removing one of the hands that had been wrapped tightly around Adam’s arm and pointing at the lights. “They’ve taken a lot of trouble, haven’t they?” She turned and lifted her face to Adam, smiling.

He looked down at her; beneath her cloak she was dressed in an evening gown of rich peach taffeta with cream lace edging, which set off her dark hair and eyes to perfection. Adam thought that she looked attractive, but her insistence on holding on to him all the time was beginning to wear at his nerves. It was as though she wanted the world to see that she had staked her claim on him, and he was far from certain that he wanted to be claimed by her, and certainly not at this early stage in whatever relationship might develop.

“Yes, they want everything to be just right. This will be the first time that George and Araminta have met some of their neighbors,” Adam said by way of explanation as he alighted from the buggy. He went round to stand beside Melissa and held out his hand to help her down. She stood uncertainly; she had rather hoped that he would lift her down and that the movement would give her a chance to hold onto his shoulders, perhaps to lean against his muscular body. But his hand stayed held out and she took it resignedly, allowing him to escort her into the house.

Inside, Araminta had done wonders with the decorations. The house was still in need of some work, but she had disguised its shortcomings with lanterns and streamers and, in places where the floor or walls were still in need of some repair, instead of oil lamps for illumination, she had placed candles, and their muted light softened any flaws. The house, though smaller, had a similar design to the Ponderosa ranch house, one large room serving as dining room and parlor. The dining table was pushed against one wall and loaded down with food, provided by Ben as a gift, and prepared by Hop Sing in Araminta’s kitchen. The Chinaman fussed over the presentation, making sure that everything was in place, that there were sufficient plates and cutlery, and as the evening wore on, that no one went hungry.

“Adam, how are you?” Araminta approached, but stood a pace away from him. “It’s good to see you looking so well.”

Adam smiled, thinking how beautiful she looked, in her dark green velvet dress and with her fair hair piled high on her head. “Thank you, I’m fine. How are you?”

“Well, thank you.” Araminta turned as George came to stand beside her. “I was saying how well Adam is looking.” To Adam she sounded nervous, but if George noticed he said nothing, instead welcoming his guests. Adam introduced Melissa, and Araminta seemed to relax.

The room was about half full, with a dozen couples talking and joking or exchanging pleasantries, when Ben arrived, followed by Hoss and Joe with the Metcalfes and Maclarens.

Melissa stuck to Adam’s side, her eyes warning off any female who might think to dance with him. Since that memorable afternoon, when he had taken tea with her and her mother, she had not heard from him. She had hoped that she might see him at the Ponderosa party, but when he did not appear she thought that all her efforts had been for nothing. Then she received his invitation and it had reawakened her plans. She had determined that Adam Cartwright was the man she wanted to marry, not because she loved him, but because his money would enable her to employ a nurse for her mother and free herself from the responsibility of caring for her invalid parent.

The small band took up their instruments, and soon the room was filled with music and laughter. Adam reluctantly agreed to dance, but Melissa was an enthusiastic partner and he found it a strain on his back to keep up with her.

She pulled him away from the dancing, into a corner. “Is your back troubling you?”

“No, it’s not too bad, but I am under strict instructions form Doc Martin not to put any strain on it, and no one who values their life goes against Paul’s instructions.” He saw a look of disbelief on Melissa’s face, and pointed across the room, where Paul Martin was deep in conversation with Ben. “If he found out, he’d have me taking some of the foulest tasting medicine he could find, and he would be able to come up with a perfectly good reason why I should. I’d rather not antagonize him.”

Melissa took his hand, ready to take advantage of the situation. “Then how about some fresh air?”

Adam wasn’t sure that he wanted to go outside with Melissa. As the evening wore on, he had come to realize that he had made a mistake by inviting her to accompany him; she had spent the evening trying to get him alone, and making subtle suggestions of what might happen if they were. Melissa was a beautiful girl, but for Adam beauty wasn’t top of his priorities and he preferred a girl who at least pretended to be hard to get. He tried to divert her. “I’m quite enjoying it here, watching the dancing. Would you like another drink?”

Melissa started fanning herself with her hand. “I feel quite faint; I really do need some fresh air.”

Adam sighed. Without being rude to the girl he couldn’t very well refuse. He led her out of the front door and into the yard, where Melissa seemed to make a miraculous recovery and headed towards the barn. Adam followed her slowly; he couldn’t leave her and return inside, much as he might want to. As her escort, he was responsible for her safety.

When he entered the barn, Melissa was climbing onto a pile of straw bales, which moved precariously.

“Get down from there before you kill yourself,” Adam said angrily.

Melissa looked round and smiled provocatively. “Why don’t you come and get me?”

“No, I’ll just wait down here, until you decide that you’ve had enough of this silly game.”

Melissa turned and sat down, her legs dangling over the edge of the bales, eight feet from the ground. “Adam Cartwright, you may be rich and good-looking, but you’re no fun.”

“I don’t call it fun to go clambering over straw bales in my best suit, and in the middle of a party.”

When she saw that she wasn’t going to be able to manipulate this particular man, Melissa shrugged and began to climb down, but the bales started to shift and she jumped clear of them. Adam reacted instinctively, and caught her in his arms before she hit the ground. They went down together, Melissa on top, as the bales thudded down and rolled around them, miraculously missing them both.

Melissa pushed herself up onto her hands and looked down into Adam’s face, just inches below hers. Without a word she bent her elbows until her lips were on his and kissed him. When he did not respond she drew back, at once ashamed and indignant, and then stood, but Adam did not follow her.

“I’m sorry if I have embarrassed you,” she said angrily, glaring down at him, “I would like you to take me home now.”

Adam lay on the ground surrounded by the fallen bales, his right leg bent and the left one resting on his ankle. As he tried to straighten his leg a pain shot from the back of his hip to his knee and he knew that he had done some damage. He turned his head towards Melissa and a deep frown creased his forehead. “Melissa…I’ve hurt my back, catching you like that. Would you go and find my father for me?”

Seeing the predicament he was in and knowing that he blamed her for it, Melissa defended herself in the only way she knew; she turned on her heels and left. A minute later Adam heard the sound of a buggy leaving the yard and knew he would have to find help for himself. He was gathering the resolve to get to his feet, when Hoss appeared in the barn doorway. He rushed over to Adam and, heaving aside the bales, knelt beside him.

“I just saw Melissa leaving, what happened?”

“Nothing, or nothing that she wanted to happen. She fell off some straw bales,” Adam gave a lop-sided smile, “and I tried to catch her.” He put out his hand. “Help me up.”

Hoss lifted his brother to his feet, and Adam stood for a moment then took a step. He gasped as the familiar pain returned. He wanted to let rip with a flow of profanities, but when he looked up his father was standing in front of him, a worried frown on his face, and Adam just clenched his teeth and remained silent.

Ben came to his side. “Son, what happened?”

“Nothing, don’t worry.” Adam took another step, and Ben could see that his son had not been strictly truthful. Adam saw his father watching him and knew he could not fool the older man. “Can someone take me home?”

“Of course, I’ll drive you. Can you stand all right?” When Adam nodded Ben continued, “Melissa took your buggy, but I’ll find a rig to take you home, stay here.”

Adam turned to his brother, “Hoss would you apologies to George and Araminta for me?”

“’Course, don’t fret, I’ll do it once you’re on your way.”

When Ben returned, Hoss helped him to get Adam into the Maclaren’s surrey. Adam stretched out on the rear seat, bending his knees to accommodate his long legs and draping an arm over his eyes as he fought off the depression of knowing how easily his back could be hurt. He hoped that a night’s rest would see him recovered. Ben tapped the reins on the rumps of the pair of matched greys that were hitched to the vehicle, and Hoss watched them go before he went inside to explain to the Sinclairs.

They had been traveling for half-an-hour in silence, when Adam called to his father. “Pa…”

Ben turned in his seat, concerned. “Yes, son, what is it? Is your back getting worse?”

“No, don’t worry.” Adam laughed softly. “But I’ve just remembered something.”

Ben frowned. “What?”

“Now don’t get mad, but you know that new hat you bought me?” Ben nodded. “I left it at the party.” The sound of their laughter echoed through the dark forest.

*****

Adam was sitting up in bed the following morning, surrounded by pillows to give his back support. He had decided to follow his father’s advice, given more in the form of a command, that he should rest in bed for the day and maybe get up for supper.

He was reading as he waited for Hop Sing to bring him an overdue mid-morning pot of coffee, so when he heard a knock on his door he called out, “I thought you’d forgotten about me!”

“How could I forget about you,” Araminta said mischievously, putting down on the night stand the tray she was carrying.

The bed covers had slipped down below Adam’s waist, exposing the fact that he wore no night-shirt, and he hurriedly pulled them further up the bed, until they were almost concealing the expanse of his broad, hair covered chest.

His action made Araminta laugh quietly, as she poured them both a cup of coffee and handed one to him. “Really, I don’t think that you have to be coy with me. I’m the one who had her hands on your back, remember?”

Adam smiled, and then spoke softly. “Yeah, I remember. How could I forget those gentle hands?”

Araminta sat down and looked at the cup in her hands, avoiding his gaze. “Adam…”

“All I’m saying is that I am grateful,” he assured her. Araminta looked up and they stared at each other for a long while until Adam broke the silence. “I’m sorry that my attendance at your party was curtailed.”

“I was sorry too.” Araminta paused. “Why did you bring Melissa to the party?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Because even someone like me, who doesn’t know you that well, could see that you were uncomfortable with her, that’s why.”

“Was it that obvious? I thought that I was doing a rather good job of hiding it.” Adam laughed.

“Perhaps you wished that you were. So, why did you invite her?”

“Because of you, because of what happened between us.”

“Nothing happened,” Araminta protested, but in her heart she knew that it was only her deep love of George that kept her from wanting Adam.

“And it never will.” Adam smiled softly and took Araminta’s hand. “Not because I wouldn’t like it to happen, but because I can see what George means to you.” He released her hand and took a sip of coffee before continuing. “I thought that if I took a girl to the party it would reassure you that I wasn’t about to try to come between you. I knew that Melissa wanted me to ask her out, so I did.”

“Thank you.” Araminta sighed, but whether with regret or relief Adam could not tell. “Thank you for not following what was in your heart. When that look passed between us, here in your bedroom, I’ll admit that I was afraid. I thought that you might take it as a signal that I was prepared to betray George’s love for another man’s.”

“Araminta, you don’t have to explain.” His brown eyes caught hers for a moment. “I have never seen two people so completely in love. If anyone tried to come between you they would be squashed like a fly between the pages of a book, and I’d rather not be in that position.”

“I somehow don’t think you would squash that easily.” She paused, and then turned the conversation to easier topics. “I brought your hat back. You forgot it last night.”

“Thanks. Pa already suspects that I have a vested interest in Harvey Young’s hat business. If I lost another, he’d be convinced of it.”

Araminta smiled, and then asked, “How is your back? Hoss explained what happened; I trust that you have not done more damage.”

“No, it’s fine. Pa insists that I rest it today, but I’ll be up and about again this evening. It’s just not strong yet, that’ll take time but luckily winter’s coming, and the work around the ranch eases up so it’ll give me time to get back the full strength. Then when the spring comes I’ll be good as new.”

Araminta looked bitter. “Glasby has a lot to answer for.”

Adam put his cup on the night stand and took both of Araminta’s hands in his. “You’re right, and I’m sorry for what they did to you. But if they hadn’t tried to take the payroll I would never have met you and George, and my life would be the poorer for that. So in a strange way, I am grateful to him.”

Araminta brightened at what Adam said. “You’re right, of course. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have our house, nor such good friends.” She pulled her hands away and stood. “Now, do you need a massage to help your back?”

Adam raised his eyebrows, surprised that she had suggested such a thing in light of their conversation. Suddenly Araminta burst out laughing, and Adam happily joined in.

*****

That evening Adam made it downstairs for dinner. A day’s rest had eased the pain in his back, but he took it as a warning that he was not yet fully healed.

He sat down in his usual place, opposite his father, aware of the close scrutiny of his brothers. He ignored them, as he helped himself to potatoes and vegetables to accompany the chicken already on his plate; he knew it could not be long before they gave in to the temptation to mention what had happened at the party. He was not disappointed.

“They do say that you should be careful what you wish for, you might get it,” said Joe into a pause in the conversation. Ben cleared his throat, trying not to laugh, and Hoss looked puzzled. “Adam said he was hoping for an armful of Melissa, and it looks like that’s exactly what he got,” Joe explained, glancing at his eldest brother.

“Sure did,” agreed Hoss turning to Adam. “Didn’t you know better than to try to catch her? Thought you was the one with the brains in this family.”

“It may come as a surprise to you both,” said Adam, looking in turn at Hoss and Joe, “but I had no intention of catching her.”

Joe looked as though enlightenment had dawned. “Ah, so she threw herself at you.”

“Thought you’d be used to that at your age, brother,” said Hoss.

“She did not throw herself at me,” Adam remembered how Melissa had tried to get him alone and he smiled, “at least, not then.”

“So how come you ended up on the ground? Hoss said you told him you tried to catch her, was that just an excuse for…” Joe looked sideways at his father, and seeing the disapproving look didn’t finish the sentence.

“She fell down from the stack of bales and I…well I did catch her, but only to stop her from hurting herself.”

Joe shook his head. “I reckon you knew that you’d soon be fit enough to go back to work and just wanted some more time off. Guess a fella could get used to not being on a horse all day.” As soon as he said the words, Joe realized that he had made a mistake; a shadow crossed Adam’s face and he lowered his eyes. Joe looked at Ben, who shook his head slightly indicating that they should leave Adam alone, that the moment would pass.

Adam looked up. “If you’ll excuse me, Pa, I’d like to get some fresh air.”

Joe was about to speak, but Ben put out a hand to stop him. “Of course, son.”

Adam rose and went quietly out of the door. He wandered slowly across the yard, lost in thoughts of a big sorrel horse. He had buried his sorrow deep inside, knowing that, with time, it would pass. But Joe’s words had brought it to the surface unexpectedly, and he needed time alone to put it back behind the wall he had created. He soon found himself by the corral, where he leaned over the top rail, bending his knees slightly and allowing his arms to take some of his weight, stretching his back and easing the dull ache that was still present. He heard a sound behind him and turned to see his father approach.

“Checking the new stock?” Ben asked, a small smile on his face that made Adam frown.

Until that moment Adam had not been aware of the horses in the corral. The look on his father’s face made him take notice of the animals that were moving lazily around. The evening light was dim and there were enough horses that it was not possible to see them all clearly, but as they moved Adam could see across the enclosure to the horses on the far side. He sucked in his breath and looked round at his father.

“That’s not…” Adam said quietly, knowing it could not be true.

Ben shook his head. “No, it’s not Sport, but have you ever seen a horse that looks so much like him? Joe spotted him in the sales in Sacramento last week and was going to surprise you. He and Hoss paid for him between them.”

“Why didn’t they tell me?”

“Because they knew you’d want to gentle him yourself, and they also knew that if they told you the horse was here, you’d be on his back before you were ready, and they didn’t want to be responsible for you hurting yourself again. He only arrived today, and they were going to take him over to the Metcalfe’s in the morning, and keep him there until you were ready. Seems your brothers can use their heads sometimes.”

Adam turned away. Tears had started in his eyes at the display of affection from his brothers, and he was trying not to let them fall. But when Ben put an arm round him and pulled him into an embrace, Adam couldn’t stop himself; he buried his face in his father’s strong shoulder and, as his emotions overwhelmed him, he let the tears flow freely, at last able to express his sense of loss in the face of the love that was trying to heal his hurt.

He gradually brought himself under control and pushed away from Ben, wiping at his eyes with the back of his hand. Ben put a hand on his shoulder. “Come back inside, you look like you could use a drink.”

Adam leaned again on the rail of the corral. “I’ll be in soon; just want to watch that beauty for a minute.” He pointed at the horse, which was still on the far side of the corral.

“All right, don’t be long.” Ben nodded and returned to the house.

Adam watched the sorrel that was so like Sport. The main difference was that this horse had four white socks, where Sport had only three. Otherwise they were matched for height, and this horse held his head high and proud, reminiscent of the haughty attitude of his lost companion.

Adam stood for a long time watching the animal intently, and was unaware of footsteps behind him. He felt a nudge on his shoulder and spoke without turning. “All right, Pa, I said I’ll come inside in a minute.” He received no reply; instead he felt hot breath on his neck. Frowning, Adam turned and his throat tightened at the sight before him. He swung round to look again at the corral, but the big sorrel was still there. Very, very slowly he turned back, not daring to breathe, afraid that he had conjured up the vision he had seen, but it was still there. His mane bedraggled and his coat dull and in need of a good brush to get rid of the dust, Sport still carried his head high. When Adam reached out slowly and put his hand on the familiar silky nose, Sport put his head down and pushed gently against his master’s chest. Adam rested his cheek on the long head, above the horses’ eyes. His tears had all been spent, thinking of his loss, and now all Adam had left was laughter, and he let it well inside him until it burst forth, only stopping when his ribs started to ache. Sport caught his master’s mood and raised his head, letting out a long whinny of joy.

Ben, who was sitting beside the fireplace reading, heard the noise from outside and frowned. The horses should be quiet and sleepy and he was afraid that one of them might have got loose from the corral, and that Adam would try to catch it. He hurried to the front door and out onto the porch, followed by Hoss and Joe, who were equally concerned and had deserted their game of checkers. The vision that greeted them stopped them in their tracks. Adam was walking towards the barn, followed closely by a tall sorrel horse. Surely, thought Ben, his son had not released the unbroken and untrained stallion from the corral? That would be irresponsible, never a label that could be attached to Adam. Then Ben noticed that there was no head rope on the animal, but he followed Adam as though joined by an invisible thread, never more than a step behind.

As the pair disappeared into the barn, Ben, Hoss, and Joe hurriedly crossed the yard heading for the corral, and, as Adam had done a few minutes earlier, they saw that the new arrival was still there. The three men exchanged puzzled glances; there was only one explanation, but surely, that was impossible.

Ben lowered his head in thought, then looked up. “Let’s all go back into the house.”

“But Pa,” Joe said excitedly, “you saw it, that had to be Sport.”

“Yeah, there cain’t be three horses that look like that,” protested Hoss.

Ben recalled the tears of his reticent son as he let his emotions speak for him. If by some miracle that was Sport, he knew that Adam would want to be alone. “Whether it was or not, I want you to go inside and leave your brother to find out for himself. No doubt he will tell us when he’s ready.” Ben’s steady gaze encouraged his two younger sons to obey him, and they all went into the house, Hoss and Joe casting curious glances over their shoulders.

Adam had led Sport into his stall and started to brush the russet gold coat, talking all the time, his voice soft as he berated the animal for running off.

“What did you think you were doing, hn? Didn’t you know that I’d come to rescue you? I’m sorry that they took you, I didn’t want them to, but I couldn’t stop them. I did try, you know, but they got the better of me, guess I was careless.” Adam found a matted area of coat and worked the knots out slowly. “It wasn’t a bed of roses for me either, the way you ran off. Didn’t you realise it was me you were dragging behind you? No, I guess not. Then you just had to go and find that river…”

Adam walked round to the other side of the horse and continued brushing. “Twice you ran. I was beginning to think that you didn’t like me.” Adam stopped brushing and stood very still, then slowly continued to brush. “But if you hadn’t run, I wouldn’t have been able to help George and Araminta.” He stood in front of the horse, who was now gleaming in the light of the single oil lamp, and looked him in the eye. His gaze was returned steadily. “Well, I guess things usually turn out for the best, hn? Except for the baby, of course, but that wasn’t your fault.”

Adam prepared and hung up a net of hay and filled a pail with water, which he set down in front of Sport. He patted the long neck. “Sleep well, boy.”

Adam backed towards the barn door, still hardly believing that the horse had found his way home after so many weeks, but it was the fact that Sport had given up his freedom that really touched Adam. He had always believed, and hoped, that he had treated his mount with respect, from the moment that he had broken him to the saddle, but to have concrete evidence that the horse thought so too was overwhelming. Adam stopped and retraced his steps, until he was once again standing in Sport’s stall, stroking the silky muzzle.

“Welcome home, boy, welcome home.”

*****

The New Year had brought heavy falls of snow to the Sierras and the Carson valley, blocking the roads and marooning the ranchers and their hands. But then a warm spell had made the trails passable. Joe and Hoss went into Virginia City, but Adam decided to ride over to the Sinclair house.

Since the party, Adam and Araminta had become close friends. Knowing that the attraction they felt was reciprocated, but also knowing that neither one wanted more, had led them into a Platonic relationship, which they both enjoyed. George was happy to have Adam visit, and if he wondered at Araminta’s joy on seeing him, he never let it affect the welcome that he gave to the rancher. He trusted his wife, and as he had come to know Adam better, George knew that he was a man whose moral code would not allow him to make advances to a married woman.

Adam was savoring being out of the house and riding through the forest. He drank in the sight of the winter landscape, the snow softening the harsh outlines of the rough ground. Each tree bore a coat of white on its branches and occasionally a soft ‘plop’ could be heard as melting now fell to the ground. At last, Adam was able to ride with no discomfort; he knew that the quiet winter months were giving him the chance to recover fully, and that, when spring came, he would be able to resume all his duties about the ranch without worrying about his back. He was gradually finding out exactly what he could do, which seemed to be just about anything that he did before.

He was also looking forward to working with his new horse. He had spent the time of his recovery making friends with the animal, which he had named Beauty, in remembrance of his first thought on seeing him. Not perhaps a fitting name for a stallion, but Adam didn’t care since he would seldom use it. But, for him, there was a wealth of meaning behind the name, and that was what mattered.

He pulled into the yard, dismounted and approached the front door. Before he could knock, the door was flung open and Araminta greeted him by throwing her arms round his neck. Adam was caught completely off guard by this unusually open show of affection, and was about to push her away when he saw George standing behind her, a grin on his face that threatened to split it in two.

Araminta released Adam and pulled him into the house by his hand. Adam looked at them both. “What is going on?”

“Oh, Adam, isn’t it wonderful, I’m so excited.”

“Minty, I don’t…” Adam was at a loss.

George enlightened him. “Minty is expecting a baby.”

Adam looked from Araminta to George and back again. He smiled broadly. “That’s wonderful, I’m very happy for you both.” He took George’s hand and shook it warmly. “When?”

“August.” Araminta had hold of George’s hand and squeezed it tightly. “We’re just…just delighted.” She was so delighted she could hardly speak.

Adam looked serious. “George…Minty…if there’s anything that I can do for you…”

“Don’t worry, I’m fine.”

“But later, it might be a good idea for you to come to the Ponderosa. Hop Sing’s there, and when he’s not, there’s always someone about, if anything should happen, if you should need the doctor.” Adam looked at George, trying to make him persuade his wife that it would be for the best, and finally, they both agreed.

After a celebratory cup of tea, Adam was again on Sport and bidding farewell to the Sinclairs. As he rode away he turned, and stopped as he saw George and Araminta, their arms round each other, walking slowly back into the house.

He leaned forward to stroke Sport’s neck. “And they all lived happily ever after,” Adam said, as he glanced up at the clear blue winter sky and smiled. “How about it? Do You think that You could manage that?” He lowered his gaze once more, and as he urged Sport towards home, a soft warm breeze sighed its acquiescence through the forest.

 

***The End***

*William Shakespeare: Macbeth, Act 5

**Dan De Quille in his book ‘The Big Bonanza’ describes the ‘short bit’ as ten cents, as opposed to the ‘long bit’, worth twelve-and-a-half cents. The short bit was the smallest coin in circulation in Virginia City during the time that the Comstock Lode was being exploited.

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