Summary: Caught between ‘a rock and a hard place’, Adam is forced to help rustle a Ponderosa herd.
Word Count: 16,885
Adam Cartwright’s characteristic black clothing could be seen to be covered in a distinct coating of fine, grey dust as he sat on his tall sorrel horse, Sport, looking out over the gold and white hides of the herd that he and his youngest brother Joe had been busy assembling in the north pasture. The two hundred head were prime breeding stock which would fetch a good price from the buyer in Merced. Adam wasn’t looking forward to the three weeks or so that it would take to get them there, but he knew the money they made would help towards the new sawmill he wanted to build. His father, Ben, had told him that since the money was going towards Adam’s project, it was only right that he take them for sale.
Joe rode towards him and pulled up at his side. The two brothers were not at all alike in appearance. Adam was over six feet tall, dark, and sombre by nature, whereas Joe was shorter, brown haired, and his face shone with an ill concealed humour. They were, however, both handsome and muscular, and shared their father’s credo of justice and toleration towards all men.
“Next week we’ll have this bunch on the trail, brother,” said Joe smiling, his eyes alight at the prospect.
“Yeah, three weeks of dust and beans, I can’t wait,” observed Adam ironically as he brushed at his black shirt, raising small clouds of dust to emphasise the point. He always faced this particular job with less enthusiasm than Joe, who was eager to be out of doors and on the move, once they got him out of bed!
“You know you love it, or you wouldn’t have volunteered,” Joe reminded him.
“Like I had a choice. Pa blackmailed me into it.”
Joe hadn’t heard about this and was intrigued. “How’d he do that then?”
“Never mind, he just did.” Adam wasn’t happy at the memory, knowing that he should have said he would go anyway, without his father’s prompting. If he hadn’t, then Ben would probably have gone himself. Ben’s middle son, Hoss, was laid up with a busted ankle, and there was no one else that he would trust with such prime stock.
“Don’t know why he wouldn’t let me take them,” said Joe miserably.
“Joe, I know how you like to feel grown up, but you’re only nineteen. You can’t legally sign the papers for the sale.”
Adam wanted Joe to see that their father couldn’t let Joe head the drive, especially when Adam was available. Adam sighed; it seemed that he was always ‘available’.
“No, I know that, but Charlie could sign them.” Charlie was their senior drive hand.
“Then Charlie would want to be in charge,” explained Adam.
Joe was twelve years younger than his eldest brother and six years younger than Hoss. While he did as much work around the ranch as his brothers, so the age gap was often forgotten, there were still things he could not do.
Adam reached out, putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Be patient, Joe, it’ll come.”
“You were in charge of a drive when you were younger than me,” Joe complained.
“That was different, Pa didn’t have a choice then,” said Adam a little sadly. Joe looked at him, wondering why it made him sad to think of those times.
“Well it doesn’t make it any easier,” he muttered.
“I know little brother, I know. Now how about helping me check that they’re not going to wander off? You go round the meadow that way,” said Adam, pointing to his right. “I’ll go this way and I’ll meet you on the other side.”
Joe nodded and rode off. Adam watched him go, remembering what he would have given, when he was young, not to be in charge of a drive, being responsible for the safe delivery of the cattle and the men. All his life his father had trusted him with responsibilities, first while they were travelling west, then for his brothers and the ranch. Adam wished sometimes that he could just forget those duties, to go about his life as carefree as Joe seemed to be. The responsibilities weighed heavy on his shoulders, making him feel old beyond his years.
He sighed, turned Sport’s head east and rode off slowly, unaware that he was being observed. Two men sat on their horses in the dark of the forest, above the pasture. They had watched the brothers talking.
“Good, one of them’s coming this way,” said Slim.
“Yeah, don’t matter which one, though I would have preferred it to be the youngster,” said Hank.
“No, too unreliable, likely to go off half cocked. I asked around in town.” Slim saw Hank’s worried glance. “Don’t fret none, I made out I was looking for work and wanted to know a bit about the place, only natural. No, the young ‘un has a short fuse; the older one is more rational. He’ll understand what we want, though we’d best be careful, folks got a lot of respect for him; reckon he runs this place with his old man. He’s no fool, gotta make this watertight.”
“Don’t worry, it is,” said Hank. Then, “Get ready, here he comes.”
Slim and Hank hid themselves in the deep shadows among the trees, as Adam approached. Because he was looking at the herd not into the depths of the forest, he didn’t notice as the men rode up quietly behind him.
“OK Cartwright, hold it right there.”
Adam heard the sound of two revolvers being cocked behind him, and dismissed any idea of trying to get away. He sat up straighter as he thought of two guns aimed at his back, and pulled Sport to a stop.
“Don’t turn round, just drop the gun.”
Adam eased his weapon out of its holster, then dropped it on the ground.
“Now get down,” ordered Hank.
Adam dismounted slowly, and saw the two men. Both dark, about six feet tall, unkempt and dirty. The only difference between them was that one was slim and wiry, the other heavy set. Both held guns pointed unwaveringly at him.
“What do you want?” asked Adam, though he suspected he knew. He had about twenty dollars on him; he hoped they would be satisfied with that.
But Slim’s next words had him worried. “Well now, that’s for us to know and for you to find out,” he said smiling. He was enjoying himself a bit too much for Adam’s comfort.
“Over there,” ordered Hank, gesturing Adam towards the trees with his gun.
Adam raised one eyebrow, but dropped Sport’s reins and walked in front of the two men to the side of the trail, feeling an annoying itch between his shoulder blades. Were they going to shoot him for twenty dollars?
“Sit down there.” Slim indicated a sturdy pine tree, and Adam sat down at the base of it. “Hank, get the rope.” The bigger man took a short length of rope from his saddlebags, and went round the back of the tree, while Slim kept Adam covered with his gun.
“Put your hands back.”
Adam again did as he was told; he had decided not to antagonize them. If they had wanted to shoot him, they would not be going through this performance. No, there was more to this than simple robbery, thought Adam, and he would find out soon enough what it was.
Adam felt his hands being tied behind the tree and he winced silently, as the rope was pulled tight. Hank came back to stand behind Slim, who put his gun away.
“What’s this all about, what do you want?” asked Adam, looking up at them.
The two men sat on the ground in front of him. These two were the oddest bushwhackers, Adam thought, it seemed like they just wanted to talk. Well that was all right by him.
“Well now, Cartwright, we seen that fine herd of cows you got there, and we figure to help ourselves to them.”
Rustlers, Adam thought.
“Then why don’t you take them, what do you want with me?” He really was curious, forgetting for the moment the predicament he was in.
“Well, it’s like this. When me and Hank were down in Tucson, we heard about the rich pickings up here. But we don’t know this country, so we’re going to need some help finding the trail. We figure you’re just the man to show us, and then you can help us sell them.”
“Why should I help you to steal my own cattle?” Adam knew that they couldn’t force him to help them, but his heart leapt into his throat when he heard their next words, and he realised how wrong he was.
“Because if you don’t, we’ll kill your old man,” Slim stated, watching Adam for his reaction. He saw Adam’s eyes narrow, heard the sharp intake of breath, and was satisfied that the threat was sufficient to guarantee cooperation.
Adam stared at them, he knew they’d found his weakness. He sat silently, waiting for them to continue.
“We got a man working on your ranch, and if you don’t help us, he’ll get your Pa. The same will happen if you tell anyone about us, anyone at all. When we leave with the cows he’ll follow us, then if we get stopped he’ll turn right round and go for your Pa. So you see you don’t have much of a choice. We’re goin’ to take them day after tomorrow; we got some arrangements to make in the meantime. So you come back here then, early, and make sure you don’t say nothin’ to nobody.”
Adam was angry at his helplessness, and frightened for his father. He struggled to keep his voice level as he asked, “How do I know you’re telling me the truth?”
“You don’t, but are you willing to take that risk?” asked Slim, knowing the answer he would get.
Adam was thinking desperately, trying to find a flaw in their plan, but he couldn’t, it was so simple. If he tried to stop them, his father would die. No, he had to go along with them, anything else was too risky, and his father’s life was worth more than a few cows.
“All right, I’ll do it,” said Adam through clenched teeth. “But believe me, I’ll come after you; you won’t be able to hide. You’ll think you’re safe, then one day you’ll find me there, and I’ll make you regret that you ever threatened my family,” Adam promised, the anger he felt overriding his natural caution.
“Oh yeah? I don’t think so, because if you come after us you’ll still risk getting your father killed, and I’ll teach you to threaten us,” said Hank, as he rose to his knees and hit Adam hard on the side of the jaw. Adam’s head snapped back, hitting the tree behind him, then dropping onto his chest as he lost consciousness.
After loosening the ropes so that Adam would eventually be able to free himself, Slim and Hank rode off, leaving Adam alone in the peace of the forest.
“Well, Cooch, where do you think he’s got to?” Joe asked his horse, leaning forward to pat the black and white hide of the pinto. “You reckon the long day got too much for older brother? Well we’d better keep going till we meet him.” Joe rode on, keeping his eyes on the herd, making sure they were grazing peacefully. He worked his way round the meadow until he was almost back where he had started. He was beginning to get mad, Adam had said that he would meet him halfway round, but there was still no sign of him. Then Joe pulled up sharply as he saw Sport grazing up ahead, the horse wasn’t tethered, just moving lazily along the trail, pulling at clumps of grass.
Joe dismounted and approached Sport slowly, not wanting to spook him. The horse raised his head eyeing the man warily, but stood while Joe reached out to take hold of the reins. He searched the horse for any sign of what had happened to Adam, but everything seemed normal. Joe remounted Cochise, still holding Sport’s reins, and rode along the trail searching for his brother.
He went slowly, looking to left and right peering into the forest, not wanting to miss anything that might tell him what had happened. He rounded a corner, and came to a standstill as he saw Adam sitting tied to a tree, slumped forward unconscious, or worse. Joe’s heart beat faster as he pushed Cochise into a gallop, then he leapt from the saddle as he came up to Adam.
“Adam, Adam,” he cried, as he went to his brother. Joe put his hands on Adam’s shoulders, pushing him back against the tree, calling his name. At the sound of Joe’s voice, Adam’s head came up slowly and he opened his eyes, looking blank until his senses returned.
“Joe,” said Adam softly, “would you please stop shouting in my ear.”
Joe hung his head as he sighed in relief at hearing his brother speak. “What happened?” he asked quietly.
Adam just looked at him for a moment, as memory returned. He thought of the two men and their threat, and knew he couldn’t say anything to Joe. “I was jumped,” he said. His head hurt, and he couldn’t think of any other excuse for Joe finding him like this.
“They take your wallet?” asked Joe, untying Adam’s hands. Adam eased his arms round in front of him, grunting as he did so, then rubbed his wrists where the rope had chaffed.
“Well let’s get you home.” Joe reached down to help his brother to his feet.
“Good idea,” said Adam standing. After taking a couple of deep, steadying breaths, he retrieved his hat and gun and mounted Sport.
Joe stopped dead, as he saw the outline of Adam’s wallet in his back pocket. Strange thieves that would take your money and then give you back your wallet, he thought. He was about to say something but Adam was riding off, so Joe held his tongue. If Adam wanted him to believe that was what had happened he must have a good reason. Perhaps he would explain it later.
On the way home, Joe tried to talk to his brother but got only grunts in reply, so he gave up and rode quietly beside him. He could see that Adam was preoccupied, and didn’t try to get anything more from him. They rode into the yard, heading towards the barn to put up the horses for the night.
“So how much did they take?” Joe asked innocently as he put Cochise in his stall.
“Not much,” said Adam.
“You going to tell the sheriff?”
Adam jerked his head up. “No.”
“Why not, seems to me like he aught to know there’s bushwhackers around.” Joe was pushing.
“It was only a few dollars, it’s not important. Let’s forget it.” Adam turned his back on his brother, signalling an end to the conversation. He was desperately trying to think of a way to thwart Slim and Hank’s plan without endangering his father.
“Yeah well, the next person might not be so lucky. I think Roy should know.”
Adam took a deep breath, turning to Joe with his eyes blazing, as he crossed the short distance between them in two strides. He grabbed the front of Joe’s shirt, and pulled him up until he was looking him in the eye.
“I said forget it, you hear me?” He was tight lipped, his voice low and threatening. Joe nodded, taken aback by his brother’s extreme reaction, then Adam let go of his shirt and strode from the barn.
Joe followed slowly. What was it that had got his brother so upset? He obviously wasn’t robbed, so what had happened? Adam wasn’t about to tell him, but perhaps he’d tell Pa. Joe decided that when he could get his father alone, he would tell him about his concern.
When he entered the house, Joe saw Adam already sitting on the sofa in front of the large fireplace in the living room, reaching out to take the offered glass of whiskey from his father. Ben was eyeing the purpling bruise on Adam’s jaw.
“So what happened?” Ben wanted to know.
“I got jumped by a couple of bushwhackers. Stole some money, nothing to get worked up about,” said Adam dismissively.
“You’d better let Roy know they’re about.”
Adam didn’t reply.
“Well,” said Ben, “I’m going into town tomorrow, I’ll tell him.”
Adam looked up. “Pa…” He was about to tell Ben not to do any such thing, but realised that he couldn’t stop him, and his father was too sharp not to realise there was something wrong if he tried. Adam downed the rest of his drink, and said he was going to get ready for supper.
After Adam was safely out of earshot, Joe spoke to his father. “Pa, I’m worried.”
“Oh?” Ben raised his eyebrows in question. Joe started pacing the floor behind the sofa. He didn’t like going behind Adam’s back, but he knew there was something wrong, and he wanted his father to know.
“Adam was jumped all right, but I don’t think they took his money. He’s still got his wallet; I saw it in his pocket.”
“Well, perhaps they gave it back to him,” suggested Ben, not wanting to believe that Adam had lied to him.
“Oh come on, Pa,” said Joe abruptly, wanting Ben to see that there was more to this than Adam was telling them. “Since when did thieves take your wallet, and then calmly hand it back. And why did they then tie him up and knock him out? And if they tied him up first, why did they go to the trouble of putting his wallet back? He was sitting tied to a tree, it would have been near impossible.”
“They did that, huh?” Now Ben was curious, Adam had not gone into detail about the attack which sounded worse than a simple robbery.
“Yes, that’s how I found him. When we got back, he near enough took my head off when I asked him about it.”
Ben considered Joe’s words, and didn’t like what he was hearing. Joe may be young, but he wasn’t stupid, he had seen something wrong, something that didn’t quite match with what his brother had told him, and Ben was inclined to share his young son’s concern.
“Don’t worry about it now, I’ll speak to Adam, perhaps he’ll tell me what really happened.” Ben didn’t hold out much hope of getting Adam to talk, but he also didn’t want Joe confronting him about it. “Go get ready for supper, and tell Hoss to get down here as well,” Ben instructed absently as he thought through what he had heard.
Adam was sitting in his room, cursing himself for his behavior in the barn; he knew that all he had done was to raise Joe’s suspicions about what had happened. But he felt trapped, helpless, and desperately worried. If the threat to his father was indeed real, if there was someone on the ranch who would kill him, then Adam didn’t dare to try and stop Slim and Hank from carrying out their plan. He knew that any number of things might still go wrong, Ben might decide to move the herd early, and then their threat could become a reality. Adam shook his head, he wished that they had taken the herd there and then, at least he would know that his father was safe.
Adam was afraid that at supper there would be more questions for him about the robbery, and he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t relish lying to Ben, but there was no alternative, he didn’t dare tell him the truth. The less people who knew about this the safer it would be. While his father might not intentionally mention it to anyone, it only took a word out of place at the wrong time, and it would be his death warrant. Adam washed, changed, and reluctantly went back downstairs.
As the family took their places at the dining table, Hoss and Joe were enjoying their usual banter.
“So when are you going to get back to work?” Joe asked Hoss.
“The doc said a couple more days, then it’ll take my weight and I can start to do a little.”
“Well if you didn’t eat for a day or two, you wouldn’t have so much weight to put on it.” Joe laughed, Hoss was the biggest of Ben’s sons, outweighing his young brother by a hundred pounds, most of it muscle.
“Yeah, but then I’d be so weak I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” said Hoss helping himself to more potatoes. That stumped Joe for a moment.
“But if you weren’t so heavy, you wouldn’t need so much strength to move,” Joe said triumphantly. “Ain’t that right Adam?” Joe turned to his eldest brother.
“What?” Adam looked up; he hadn’t been paying any attention to the conversation, but had been pushing his food around the plate, his mind elsewhere.
“Say, what happened to you?” Hoss wanted to know. He’d been eyeing the damage to Adam’s face, waiting for the opportunity to ask.
“Nothing,” Adam said shortly.
“Nothin’ huh? So how come you got a bruise the size of Nevada?”
“I said, nothing.” Adam rose abruptly, leaving his supper untouched. “I’m going to check on the horses,” he said, and left. His family stared after him, then Hoss turned to his father.
“Pa?” he said, puzzled.
“It’s all right, Hoss. He’s upset, probably cross about what happened. Don’t worry.” Ben also left the table, to follow Adam out to the barn, leaving Joe to explain to Hoss. Adam wasn’t checking on the horses, he was sitting on a bale of hay, with his elbows on his knees, staring at the wall opposite.
Ben approached him. “Son, what’s wrong?”
Adam was startled; he had thought he was alone.
“Nothing’s wrong.” He stood and turned his back on his father, folding his arms across his chest, unconsciously protecting himself from the questions he knew were coming.
“Adam, don’t treat me like a fool, I can see that you’re upset. Does it have anything to do with what happened today?”
As Adam turned to look at Ben, his mind unbidden conjured up an image of his father lying dead at his feet. Adam knew that if his father died it would be his fault, and the only way to stop it happening was by not saying anything. He had to think of something that would satisfy his father’s curiosity.
“Did they hurt you, is that it?” Ben asked before Adam replied.
“Yeah, I guess they hurt my pride,” said Adam, picking up on an idea that was obviously already in his father’s head. Could he persuade his father that nothing else had occurred? “Falling for a simple trap like that. I should’ve known better.”
“Well I expect your mind was on the cows, you mustn’t blame yourself for that.” Ben knew he wasn’t getting the truth, but it seemed that Adam wasn’t about to tell him any more.
“No, I suppose not. Don’t worry Pa, I’m fine. Go back inside; I’ll join you in a minute.”
Ben went to his son and put a hand on his arm. “You know that if you need to talk about it, I’m ready to listen.”
“Thanks Pa, but I have to work this out for myself.” Adam looked at his father’s face, the dark eyes beneath the silver hair full of concern, and he wished that he could tell him everything. But Adam knew that this was a problem he had to handle alone, as he had done so often in the past. Although on this occasion he desperately wanted to confide in his father, he was afraid that the more people who knew about Slim and Hank’s plan, the greater was the danger. No, if he was the only one who knew, the safer Ben would be.
“Well?” Joe asked, as his father returned.
“Nothing,” said Ben, shaking his head. “He just said that he was upset at falling into the trap.”
“You didn’t believe him, did you?” Joe was not satisfied.
“No. But if Adam wants us to think that, then we’ll take it at face value for the moment. I don’t want you to say anything to him about it, understand?” Ben pointed meaningfully at Joe.
“Whatever you say, Pa.” Joe agreed reluctantly.
“And the same goes for you, not a word,” Ben commanded, looking hard at Hoss.
Meanwhile Adam was still in the barn, leaning on one of the stalls, thinking. Slim and Hank had said that there was someone on the ranch who was working with them. If he could find out who that was then, perhaps, he could stop the threat to his father. They had taken on several new hands in the past few weeks; it had to be one of them. He only had the following day to find the man, which didn’t give him much time. Adam felt better for having some plan of action, something that would let him feel he was taking control of the situation. He stood, squared his shoulders and went back to the house.
Three pairs of eyes met him as he came through the door. His family. He looked at them, and again the image of his dead father rose in front of him, making his heart beat wildly, until he was sure that they would hear it. When he saw the stricken look on his son’s face, Ben wanted to go to Adam to say something that would help. But before he could do anything, Adam said he was going to bed, and almost ran up the stairs.
Ben sat in his chair shaking his head.
“Don’t worry Pa, he’ll work it out.” Hoss tried to comfort his father.
Adam didn’t sleep well; his dreams were filled with of images of his father. He saw Ben lying at his feet, dead, himself holding the smoking gun that had ended his father’s life. Adam opened his eyes; he was sweating and breathing heavily, the vision still very much alive in his mind. He tossed and turned, and eventually gave up trying to sleep, not wanting the dreams to return.
Adam got up and dressed, deciding to leave early before the rest of the family was awake. He left a note for his father, then started out towards the north ridge looking for Wes Tyler. He should be camped there with Luke Jackson, where they had been checking the fences for the last two days. Wes, the newest of the hands, had been working on the Ponderosa for only a week, surely the most likely suspect for Slim and Hank’s partner.
Adam should have been marking trees for the new mine contract, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on that, and this was more important. It crossed his mind that he would do it tomorrow, but then his memory jolted him back to reality. No, tomorrow he would change from rancher to rustler, as he stole his father’s cattle! He gritted his teeth in anger at his helplessness, and kicked Sport into a gallop. He rode hard until he calmed down and pulled the horse to a walk, no need to take this out on Sport.
As he crested a rise, he saw Wes and Luke up ahead, just beginning to break camp.
“Hi Boss,” said Luke in casual greeting, as he saw Adam approach.
“Luke.” Adam nodded in acknowledgement. “How’s it going?”
“Fine. We must have checked ten miles of this fence in the last two days. It’s pretty good, just a couple of spots that could do with some work, but not urgently. You got time for some coffee?” Luke offered.
Adam dismounted. “Sounds good.”
Luke told Wes to get some more wood for the dying fire. The young man went in among the trees to find some fuel, and Adam followed him.
“So how do you like it here?” he asked casually.
“It’s good, thank you Mr. Cartwright. I’m grateful to you for giving me the job. I won’t let you down.” Adam had engaged Wes himself, after he had met the young man in Virginia City looking for work. He had said that his parents had died recently, so he was on his own and had to find a job.
“Do you think you’ll want to stay?”
“Oh yes,” said Wes enthusiastically, “if you’ll let me. I know I have a lot to learn, but I’m trying real hard.”
Adam looked at the fresh young face, open in its honesty. Surely, this could not be the man he was looking for. Adam shook his head hopelessly, what was he looking for, a sign that said ‘I’m going to kill your father’? Wes misinterpreted the movement.
“Please Mr. Cartwright, I really am trying. Jake said I was a natural for this kind of work. I just need a bit of time to learn, that’s all. And I really need this job,” he said with a note of desperation. Jake was the Cartwright’s foreman, and a good judge of men.
Adam put his hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“That’s fine, Wes. I’m sure that you’ll learn fast,” Adam reassured him. He turned back to talk to Luke, leaving Wes to find suitable wood for the fire.
“How’s he doing?” asked Adam, nodding towards Wes.
“He’s going to be a good hand. He’s keen, eager to learn, and has a feeling for the stock. Hope he stays a while.” Luke raised his eyes towards Adam, wondering why he was taking such an interest in the new hand.
“That’s good,” Adam said absently. He was already thinking of the next most likely suspect. Bert Russell had wandered into the yard three weeks ago, seeking a job. Ben had employed him, and he had seemed to be an able addition to the workforce. He had given them no reason to suspect that he was other than he seemed, an itinerant cowhand. Again Adam shook his head; he was wasting his time, and he wasn’t going to find out anything this way. He didn’t have time to ride all over the ranch looking for a man who wasn’t going to give himself away.
While Adam had been sitting deep in thought Luke had made the coffee, and handed a cup to him.
“How’s the timber coming?” Luke asked. Adam started guiltily; he knew he should be down on the south section marking trees.
“Nearly finished, in fact I should be there now,” he admitted, rising to his feet. Luke followed Adam to his horse.
“Wes will be all right, just needs a little time, that’s all,” Luke assured him.
“Yes, I know. It’s good to see someone who enjoys his job,” said Adam, giving an absent-minded wave as he left.
“Why do you suppose he came all the way up here?” asked Wes, coming up behind Luke.
“Don’t know, but he sure seemed to have something on his mind. But that’s not for the likes of us to worry about. Come on, back to work.”
Adam rode down to the south section and belatedly began marking the trees. He had a small axe with him to cut a notch in the bark of each tree that he selected as being ready to be felled. With every cut he made his temper flared, as he thought about what was going to happen the following day. Until finally he struck one trunk and embedded the axe so deep he could not remove it, straining his wrist when it did not come out immediately. He cursed as he used his left hand to work it back and forth to get it out. When the axe was free again he threw it on the ground and sat down, head in hands.
Adam had never felt so alone; he had no one to turn to, no one to confide in. Again, the weight of the responsibilities he carried pressed in on him, and he wished that he was able to run away from them, leave them and his fears behind. But he couldn’t; tomorrow he was going to have to help those…men to steal the cattle. Heaven only knew where they wanted to take them, but with Adam along no one was going to query the legitimacy of the sale, and they would walk away with the money.
Adam’s only comforting thought was that his father would not be hurt. In some ways he was surprised that no one had tried something similar before. Adam was concerned that if it got to be common knowledge that the plan worked, then someone else might indeed try to repeat the threat. But what could he do but go along with it? He didn’t know who the other man was, and he was no nearer to finding out.
It was getting late, so he picked up the axe and prepared to leave. As he rode towards home he saw a rider in the distance, and recognised Bert Russell, the hand that his father had engaged. Adam quickened his pace to catch up with him. Bert slowed when he heard Adam approach, enabling him to draw level.
“Howdy Boss,” said Bert. He was an experienced hand who had worked ranches for most of his forty years, or so he had said. Adam had watched him work, and recognised the ease with which he handled the stock. Experienced indeed, but a rustler?
“What are you doing out here?” Adam asked conversationally.
“Just been checking for strays.”
“A few. Left them with the herd in the south pasture.”
They rode silently side by side for a few minutes.
“Where were you before you came here?” Adam tried to be casual with his question, not looking at the other man.
“I worked a few places, you know how it is. The last was the Lazy S, up near Redding.”
Adam had heard of it but did not know the owner or the hands, so could not question Bert on the details. Had Bert chosen to say he came from there because it was a place that was not well known?
“Why’d you leave?”
“I heard you was hiring. Always wanted to work a big spread like this, and everyone knows you and your Pa run a tight operation here, and treat your hands right. Guess I just wanted to see for myself.”
Again, Adam felt he was getting nowhere. Slim and Hank could have persuaded any one of the hands to help them, the lure of easy money might prove more inviting than regular work. It could be anybody.
Adam left Bert, and made his way back to the house in time for supper. His father and brothers were already seated when he arrived.
“Thought you weren’t going to make it,” said Hoss.
“Yeah, Hoss was just about to eat your supper, you’re lucky it’s still there,” observed Joe.
Adam sat down, but he wasn’t hungry. He had a knot in his stomach that was growing tighter with every passing hour.
After a pause, Ben asked him about his day. “Did you get those trees marked?”
“Most of them.” Adam nodded, not looking at his father.
“MOST of them?!” Ben exclaimed. “What have you been doing all day? That should have been finished by now.” Ben did not usually question his eldest son about his work, but the mining business was important to the ranch, and they needed to start cutting if they were going to be able to fulfil the contract.
“Well, I’ll go back and finish it tomorrow,” Adam lied, knowing that he would do no such thing, but it didn’t matter, tomorrow the cattle would be on the move and his father would be safe. At Ben’s next words Adam froze, and the knot inside him tied itself round his heart.
“No, tomorrow I need you to go to Carson City. The cattle buyers from San Francisco are going to be there on their way east. It’ll be a chance to get that contract signed.”
Adam cast an agonised glance at his father.
“I can’t go tomorrow,” said Adam, his throat tightening. His worst nightmare was becoming a reality; his father was unknowingly backing him into a corner.
Adam knew he couldn’t pretend that he was going to meet the buyers, it was simply too important. Not marking a few trees was one thing, they could still start cutting, but if he didn’t get the contracts signed his father would never forgive him, no matter what the reason.
“Why not?” Ben leaned his elbows on the table, looking at Adam expectantly.
“I’ll ask you again, why not?” There was a long, silent pause, during which Adam looked down at his plate and said nothing.
“Well? I’m waiting.” Ben’s temper was rising at the lack of response from his son.
Still Adam did not speak. Hoss and Joe exchanged worried glances, it had been years since Adam had openly defied his father, but they could still remember the scene. Adam had been back from college barely six months and had made a deal to buy some new, untried equipment for the sawmill. Ben told him that they did not have the money available for such an extravagance and had refused to pay. Adam told him he was being short sighted and unimaginative. They had stood, toe to toe, glaring at each other, Ben angry and Adam defiant, each silent, not willing to give way, then the explosion from their Pa. The two men had not actually struck each other but in every other way it had been a fight, neither one giving ground until Ben had ordered Adam from the house, telling him not to return until he was capable of obeying his father. Adam had been gone for two days, and had returned to ask his father’s forgiveness, which had been given, quickly and completely.
“Adam, will you please answer me!”
When Adam stole a look at his father, he could see anger in the ebony eyes and knew he had to give him a reason; it was the only way to prevent his father pushing him into saying something that they both might regret.
“Pa, can I speak to you, alone?” Adam said softly, again staring down at his plate, avoiding Ben’s piercing stare.
Ben studied his eldest son, considering his request and then nodded. They went out, leaving Hoss and Joe casting curious glances at each other.
Ben led Adam out to the barn, and once inside turned to him, his hands on his hips, waiting for an explanation.
“All right, what’s this all about? Something’s been bothering you ever since those men jumped you.” Ben just wanted the truth.
“Pa, I have something to do tomorrow, but I can’t tell you what it is, please don’t press me about it.” Adam paced back and forth in front of his father, who stood watching him. Ben was worried that his normally composed, confident son was nervous and uncertain, and seeing this outweighed any worry he might have about his work. When Adam turned towards his father, the look of entreaty in his son’s eyes made Ben’s heart stop for a moment.
“What is it, what’s wrong?” Ben asked softly, encouraging Adam to confide in him.
Adam studied his father, and thought how desperately he wanted to pour out his troubles to him, but the barrier of his fears stood between them, an impenetrable wall of dread. Instead, Adam could only plead for his father’s unquestioning co-operation. “Pa, if you have ever trusted me, I ask you to trust me now. Please don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t, but believe me it is important.”
Ben looked at his son, who was begging for his understanding and he wished that Adam would talk about what was troubling him. But then he remembered all the times when Adam had trusted him to do the right thing without question, now it seemed that this was an occasion when that trust would have to be reciprocated.
“Adam, of course I trust you, but just tell me something. Does this have anything to do with you getting jumped yesterday? Are you in some kind of trouble?”
Adam looked straight into his father’s eyes.
“Yes.” Simple and honest.
“And what you have to do tomorrow will help you to get out of it?”
Ben took hold of Adam’s arms. “Son, if there’s anything…”
“Pa, no one can help. Please believe me.”
“Very well, but remember I’m here if you need me.”
Adam ran his hand over his face and let out a long sigh of relief, as he looked at his father standing before him, alive and well. “You’ve already helped, by understanding and not questioning me. I should warn you that I might be gone for a few days.” He held up his hands, as Ben was about to speak. “It’s all right, there’s no danger, and I will be back.”
Adam hoped he was right, but he knew he would face any peril to keep his father alive, and there was no point in worrying him further.
“Will you be able to tell me about it, when you get back?”
“Yes, by then it’ll all be settled.”
Ben nodded, acknowledging that he would wait. “Let’s go back inside; those brothers of yours probably think that we’re taking each other apart right now.” He smiled, then patted Adam’s arm, seeing the uncertainty in him. “Don’t worry, I won’t say anything to them, this is just between us.”
They went back into the house, and despite enquiring looks from Hoss and Joe, neither man said anything to them. Ben poured them each a drink, then sat down as though nothing had happened. The rest of the evening passed quietly, until Adam rose and said he was going to bed, as he had to be up early.
“Will we see you in the morning?” asked Ben.
“No, I’ll be gone before you need to be up,” said Adam.
“Well then, take care; I’ll see you when you get back.”
Hoss and Joe watched him go, then they both looked at their father for an explanation, but none was forthcoming. Joe said that he was off to bed; he had decided that he might be getting up early as well.
Adam left at daybreak the following morning, and rode towards the north pasture with a heavy heart at the thought of what he was about to do. He had no choice, but that did not make it any easier. He was so absorbed in what lay ahead, that he did not see the shadow that left the house as he rode out of the yard.
Joe saddled Cochise quickly and was soon following his brother. He rode off the trail in case Adam looked back and saw him. Joe followed all the way to the ridge above the north pasture, where he sat on the ground among the trees, looking down on the herd. He watched as Adam met two men who Joe did not recognize, they weren’t from the Ponderosa.
Adam pulled up by the herd when he saw Hank and Slim approach from among the trees.
“Now there’s a good little rancher. Doing just like we said, eh?” Slim sneered; he was going to enjoy having this rich, powerful man doing his bidding.
“I’m here, that’s enough isn’t it?” said Adam sharply, irritated at Slim’s attitude.
“And you didn’t tell anyone?”
“Of course not.” Adam couldn’t look at Slim; he was seething inside, and just wanted to get this over with.
Slim held out his hand. “Give me your gun.”
Adam sighed as he handed it over. Slim removed the bullets and handed it back.
“We don’t want you getting any ideas.” Slim laughed.
Adam ignored him, and turned to Hank. “Where are we going?”
“We got a buyer waiting in Palermo. You know it?” Adam nodded silently. “Then let’s get ‘em moving,” said Hank impatiently, and with Slim on one side of the herd, Adam on the other side and Hank behind, they started moving the cattle. It was hard work with only the three of them, but they managed. In the forest behind them a shadowy figure sat on a dark horse, concealing himself behind the trees, watching as they moved off. The man smiled and followed slowly through the cover of the forest, in the wake of the herd.
Joe stood as he watched from above, seeing Adam start to move the herd that was not supposed to be going anywhere for another three days. He watched them out of sight, then sat down again.
“What do you make of that?” he asked his horse, but if he was expecting a reply, he was disappointed. After a few minutes, he mounted, heading fast towards home. Joe rode into the yard, pulling up sharply when he saw Sheriff Coffee’s horse tied to the hitching rail. He dismounted slowly, wondering what to say to his father, but whatever it was, he was sure that he didn’t want the sheriff to hear. He went into the house, to find the two old friends sitting enjoying a cup of coffee together.
“And just where have you been young man?” Ben asked sternly, turning to face his wayward son.
“I only went for a ride.” Joe was defensive, he knew he should not have followed Adam, and his Pa would be angry that he had.
“Well, next time you might mention it to someone.”
“Sorry Pa, guess I forgot. Could I have a word with you?” Joe jerked his head sideways towards the door.
Ben sighed, he was worried about Adam, and here was another son with things he wished to say to him in private.
“Roy, would you excuse us for a moment?”
“Sure, go ahead,” said the sheriff. Roy Coffee, who had been friends with Ben for many years, was used to the sometimes odd behaviour of his sons. Joe led Ben outside to sit at the table on the veranda.
“Well?” asked Ben, as Joe sat down opposite him.
“Pa, I know I shouldn’t have, but I followed Adam this morning.” Joe quaked at the response he expected from his father, but Ben just raised his eyebrows and said nothing. “Well, I followed him to the north pasture, you know, where we have the herd ready for next week”
Ben nodded. “Yes I know the north pasture, quite well as it happens.”
“Oh yes, of course. Well, I followed Adam, as I said, and he met two men there.”
“Did he?” Ben was patient, waiting for Joe to get to the point.
“Yeah, and then he and these men started to drive the herd away.” Joe stopped; he didn’t know what his father would make of it. Ben didn’t say anything for a minute, he was adding this piece of information to the little that Adam had told him, trying to make some sense out of what was happening, and he didn’t much like the conclusion he was coming to.
“Pa, they’re stealing the herd!” Joe shouted. Surely, his father could see that there was something very wrong going on, that Adam might need their help.
Inside the house, Roy heard Joe’s statement and knew he couldn’t ignore it.
“Would you care to repeat that?” Roy asked, coming out of the house to stand beside Ben, who glanced up at him. “Well, if you wanted to keep it to yourselves you shouldn’t shout like that with the sheriff in the house,” Roy said reasonably.
“Roy, I’m sure that Joe must have got it wrong.” Please God, let him be wrong, thought Ben.
“No I didn’t,” said Joe, affronted that his father didn’t believe him. “They’re taking the cattle that we were going to move in three days time.”
“Who are ‘they’?” Roy asked Joe.
“Adam and two men, I saw them; they weren’t Ponderosa hands, I would have recognized them. Adam rode out there and met them, and then they took the herd.” Joe had to show them that he was telling the truth.
“Ben, did you know that Adam was moving the cattle?” asked Roy, dropping the mantle of friend and assuming his role as sheriff.
Ben’s mind was in the north pasture with his eldest son, and he spoke absently. “No,” By the time he realised what he had said it was too late to take it back, Roy’s suspicions had been raised.
“No, I didn’t know,” Ben repeated sadly. Adam had admitted that he was in trouble and it might be that stealing the herd was his way out of it, but that didn’t make it right, breaking the law was never the right way out of any problem.
Ben was lost in bleak thoughts about his eldest son’s behaviour. Had Adam been attacked because they wanted money, did he owe someone? If he needed money to get himself out of trouble, he knew he had only to ask, and while there might be some searching questions, Adam would know that his father would help him. But to go behind his back was intolerable. Adam was not above the law, and although he might look on the cattle as his own, they were in fact his father’s, and if he was stealing them, then he was taking them from Hoss and Joe as well.
“Ben, what do you want me to do?” asked Roy. Ben looked at him indecisively. Was he going to send the sheriff after his own son? Did he have a choice? Adam had said that there was no danger, so it looked as though he was doing this willingly, having hired a couple of men to help him.
Ben saw Joe looking at him, and knew that he had to show his young son that the law was to be upheld, no matter who was breaking it, or why. If Adam needed to take the cattle for some reason, why couldn’t he tell his father? Perhaps stealing the herd was what Adam had meant when he asked for his father’s trust, but had that trust been misplaced? Because Joe had seen what his brother was doing, and with no excuse for his eldest son’s actions, Ben had no choice.
“Go after them,” Ben said quietly, then stood to face the sheriff. “But I’m sure there is some reasonable explanation for all this.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll give him a chance to explain. I’ll have to go back into town to get some men.”
“No, take some of the hands, it’ll be quicker,” Ben instructed. He hung his head; he was sending his own men after his son. Roy put his hand on Ben’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, I’ll bring him back.”
“I know where they are, I’ll come with you,” said Joe. He wanted to make sure that nothing happened to Adam, he was worried that his brother was in danger.
Roy hesitated, but Ben did not object, so he nodded. He and Joe went to the bunkhouse to gather a posse, with enough men to return the herd as well as apprehend Adam and his friends. As the sheriff explained to the men just who they were going after, the hands looked at Joe. He nodded and they glanced uncertainly at one another, hunting down your boss was a new experience for them, but if Joe was coming as well then it must be right.
They mounted up and rode out, leaving Ben sitting on the veranda, his face drawn and sad. Adam had asked for his trust, and this was how he had repaid it, by breaking the law.
Joe led the posse towards the north pasture, from where they followed the clear trail left by the cattle. It did not take them long to catch up with the slow moving herd, and Roy instructed the men to spread out in the trees on either side of the rustlers, but told them to wait for his signal. As men rode off, Joe stayed beside Roy; he wanted to be able to keep an eye on the proceedings. When Roy thought that they had had time to get the herd surrounded, he came up behind the heavy set man who was riding drag, and told him to drop his gun. When they saw the sheriff appear, the hands advanced on both sides, covering Slim and Adam with their guns.
When Slim saw what was happening, he drew his gun and aimed at Adam. “I told you what would happen to your Pa, Cartwright,” he shouted. “And now I’m gonna get you.”
The men who were bearing down on Slim saw the gun, and fired before he had a chance to shoot. Slim was hit, and his last thought was to extract retribution from the double-crossing Cartwright heir, who had been foolish enough to try to outwit him. He fired but missed, then slid slowly from his horse to lie on the ground.
Deep in the forest above the herd, a shadowy figure turned his mount around and rode softly away.
Adam turned Sport towards Slim, forcing his way through the cows. He dismounted quickly as he pulled up, and knelt down to see if the man was still alive.
“Who is it? Who’s at the ranch?” Adam shouted as he pulled Slim’s shoulders off the ground, shaking him to get an answer. But Slim’s eyes stared sightlessly at the blue sky above.
Charlie was directing some of the hands to turn the herd and return them to the pasture, as Roy and Joe rode up with Hank between them. Adam looked up, saw him, and charged towards the man, pulling him from his horse and knocking him to the ground. Before Roy could stop him, Adam had his knee in the middle of Hank’s chest, and had hold of the front of his shirt.
“Was there anyone at the ranch? Who is it?” Adam shouted, but Hank just smiled quietly back.
“You’re too late Cartwright,” said Hank. Adam’s eyes were blazing and his teeth were clamped together so hard that they hurt. He was about to try to beat the information out of Hank, but Roy motioned to two of the hands, who dismounted and reached down, firmly taking Adam’s arms and pulling him to his feet. They held him to restrain any attempt at escape, while Joe sat looking on, not understanding what his brother had got himself into.
Adam looked up, stunned. “What have you done?” he asked Roy despairingly.
“Now Adam, just come along with us and we can get this sorted out,” said Roy calmly.
“NO!” shouted Adam. The men holding him had relaxed their grip, this was still their boss, who they respected, and they were unsettled at having to restrain him. Adam tore himself free and bolted for his horse. He left them all standing, staring after him, until the sheriff shouted at them to go after him. Roy called to two of the men to take Hank, and Slim’s body, back to Virginia City, while the rest of them followed Adam. They left at a gallop, but Adam had a head start on them and they could not catch him.
Adam rode Sport hard, going faster than was safe. His only thought was that he had to get back to the house to warn his father, wishing all the time that he had told him of the reasons for his actions, so that Ben would be aware of the danger. Adam cursed himself for a fool, knowing that he had been stupid thinking that he could deal with this by himself. He galloped through the trees ignoring the trail, going instead by the shorter route, over rough ground that would bring him to the ranch house more quickly. All the way back, he had in his mind the vision of his father lying dead. He pushed Sport to go faster.
As he rode into the yard he pulled Sport to a halt, then his heart stopped as he saw Wes Tyler standing by the corral aiming his gun at Ben, where he sat on the veranda lost in thought, unmoving and unaware. Wes had ridden quietly into the yard a minute earlier, intent on completing his mission.
“PA!” shouted Adam in warning, as he kicked his horse into action and galloped straight at the young man. Wes looked up to see Adam bearing down on him. He didn’t have time to aim, but turned the gun towards Adam and fired, as Adam leaped from his horse and grappled Wes to the ground, hitting him several times, until Wes didn’t resist any more but just lay still. Adam stood shakily, breathing hard as he stared down at the innocent looking face of the young man who would have killed his father. He saw the blood that he had drawn, and felt no regrets.
Ben rushed towards his son, not understanding what had happened.
Adam looked up and walked unsteadily across the yard to meet his father, his breath coming faster, and his head swimming with the relief of seeing Ben unhurt.
“Pa,” he swayed as he spoke, “He was going to…to…” Adam stopped, and a frown creased his forehead as he looked down at his side, then he collapsed, unconscious, into his father’s arms.
Ben laid him down on the ground, as Roy and the rest of the posse rode into the yard. While Roy instructed some of the men to pick up Wes and take him into town, Joe leaped from his horse and approached his father, where he knelt on the ground beside his prostrate son.
As Ben searched Adam’s body for the cause of his collapse, he felt a patch of wetness on the black shirt, near Adam’s waist. He withdrew his hand, and saw it was red with blood.
“Joe, get the doc, quick,” ordered Ben. Joe needed no second bidding, but was on Cochise and gone before the sheriff reached Ben.
“Ben, what happened?”
“I don’t know. Adam raced into the yard, and the next thing I know he’s got Wes on the ground and was beating the tar out of him. Wes must have shot him, but I don’t know why. Help me get him inside.” Four of the men helped to carry Adam up to his room, where Ben unbuttoned Adam’s shirt to look at the wound. Blood was welling from the hole in Adam’s side and Ben pressed a towel against it while he sent Luke to the kitchen for cloths and water. When he returned Ben set about stopping the bleeding. Roy stood watching his friend’s desperate efforts.
“Well?” Ben put all his questions into that one word. He was too occupied with tending to Adam to ask more.
“We found them. Joe was right, Adam and two men were taking the cattle. We shot one, and one is on his way to jail. We had hold of Adam, but he got away. We followed him back here, and with Joe’s help, we were not too far behind him. Ben, do you know why he attacked young Wes?”
“No.” Ben was too busy to answer any questions. He had cleaned the wound and, with Roy’s help, was wrapping a bandage round Adam’s waist to hold in place the pad that he hoped would stop the bleeding
“Guess we’ll have to wait until he comes round,” said Roy, going to Ben and putting his hand on the shoulder of his friend.
They both sat and waited for the doctor. Roy trying to give Ben some comfort, Ben desperately worried, seeing his son like this.
Doctor Paul Martin drove his buggy into the yard thinking that it was time the Cartwrights had their own personal physician, he was wearing a rut in the road with his visits to the ranch. Joe rode beside him, trying to hurry him along, but it was over two hours since Adam had been shot when they pulled up outside the house. Joe took the doctor’s arm and pulled him inside. Paul could hurry while appearing calm, which was frustrating to Joe, who thought he was not treating the situation with the urgency it deserved.
“Come on, doc, he’s upstairs,” said Joe, running across the room.
“I know very well where Adam’s room is. Now you just wait here and let me do my job.” Paul left Joe behind and went upstairs.
“Ben, what happened?” Paul Martin wanted to know as he entered the room.
“He’s been shot,” Ben said. “We’ve tried to stop the bleeding, but…” Ben’s breath caught in his throat as he looked at the pale, perspiration covered face of his son.
“Right, out both of you.” Paul instructed firmly. The sheriff left, but Ben hung back. “Ben, let me take care of him. Go downstairs; this may take a little time.” Ben walked backwards towards the door, not taking his eyes off Adam.
“Will he…is he going to be all right?”
“I don’t know yet.” Paul had known the family too long not to be honest. Ben left reluctantly, and joined Roy in the living room, where he also saw Joe sitting on the sofa, looking anxiously towards him.
“We’ll have to wait,” Ben said, slumping into the blue armchair beside the fireplace.
Hoss came limping slowly out of the kitchen holding a tray with coffee pot and cups, which he set down on the low table in front of the fireplace. Roy poured coffee for all of them, and they sat looking at each other, deep in their own thoughts.
Finally, the doctor appeared at the top of the stairs and started down slowly, wiping his hands on a towel as he descended. Ben leaped to his feet.
“Well?” he asked.
“Ben, sit down,” ordered Paul, watching as Ben sat down, nervously waiting for the doctor’s verdict.
“I think he’ll be all right, but I can’t be sure for a little while. The bullet took him in the side, it’s mostly muscle damage, there was some internal bleeding, but I’ve stopped that. We’ll have to wait and see; there’s too much that could still go wrong.”
“I’ll go and sit with him until he wakes up,” said Ben.
“That could be some time yet,” Paul warned him.
“I can wait, as long as he does wake,” Ben said, going up the stairs.
Paul watched him go, then turned to Roy. “How did Adam get shot?” Paul wanted to know. It didn’t matter to him as a doctor, if you were shot it didn’t make any difference why the bullet hit you, but it mattered to him as a friend.
“Don’t rightly know. By the time I got here it was all over,” said Roy, and as the sheriff explained to the doctor what he was doing there, Paul shook his head in disbelief. He could see that Ben might have other worries, beside Adam’s wound.
“I have to go into town, but I’ll come straight back,” said Paul and left quickly, so that he could return to give help, both as a doctor and a friend.
As darkness fell and they waited for Adam to awaken, Hop Sing served supper. Joe went upstairs to get his father.
“Pa, supper’s ready.”
“I’m not hungry.” Ben looked up at Joe, shaking his head.
“It won’t do Adam any good if you sit here and starve. Come down and eat something,” encouraged Joe.
“I want to be here when he comes round.” Ben sat forward, took Adam’s hand and held it tightly, trying to give him strength.
Joe spoke softly, with sudden understanding of his father’s need. “Pa, I’m sure that whatever it was Adam was doing, it was because he thought it was the right thing to do.”
Ben looked at his youngest son, and considered the belief he had in his eldest brother. “How can it be right to break the law, to steal from your own family? Tell me that.”
Joe shook his head; he had no answers for his father. “I don’t know. Please go and eat, I’ll sit with Adam and call you if he stirs.”
Ben stood, with his head bent and his shoulders sagging as he left the room. He was halfway down the stairs on his way to join Hoss and Roy, when there was a knock on the front door. Paul Martin let himself in without waiting for a reply.
“How is he?” asked the doctor, as he saw Ben coming towards him.
“Still out,” said Ben, and then he gestured towards the dining table. “Do you want some supper?”
“Perhaps later, I’ll go check on Adam first.”
Paul sent Joe downstairs to get something to eat, and then he bent to examine the wound in Adam’s side. As he did so, his patient stirred.
“Pa…Pa.” Adam whispered. He had in his mind the wisps of a dream, in which he saw Wes aiming at his father, and himself standing, unable to move as he watched the bullet leave the gun and travel slowly but inexorably towards Ben, who was sitting on the veranda unaware of the danger. Adam shifted in the bed, his hands gripping the sheets, but he couldn’t make his legs move to save his father. He tried to shout a warning, but it came out as a whisper and Ben didn’t hear him, didn’t move.
“Pa…!” No more than a breath.
“Adam, it’s all right, you’re safe at home.” Paul tried to calm him.
“Pa? Where’s Pa?” Adam’s voice was stronger, and he half opened his eyes, but he was still wrapped in his dreams. He moved his head frantically left and right, desperate to find his father. When he could not see him anywhere, Adam panicked and tried to sit up, moaning as he did so.
Paul pushed him gently back onto the pillows. “Adam you must lie still.”
“Pa, I must…save Pa.” Adam was oblivious to Paul’s presence, and tried again to rise, only stopping when the pain prevented him.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Paul insisted.
“No, Pa needs me. They’re going…to kill him.” He knew he had to move or his father would die.
“No one’s going to kill him. He’s all right, he’s downstairs.”
“But they…stopped us, they’ll kill him, I must…go.” Adam had his hand pressed to his side, struggling against the doctor’s attempts to keep him still. His desperation gave him strength, and he pushed Paul away, sat up, and started to swing his legs over the side of the bed.
“Adam!” Paul shouted at him, coming back to hold Adam’s shoulders as he looked into the unfocused eyes, trying to make him understand, “You’re going to bust that wound wide open if you don’t lie down!”
Adam managed to stand, but then his strength left him, and he crumpled to the floor.
“I have…to save Pa,” he muttered, and lapsed into unconsciousness as Ben came into the room, running.
“What is it, I heard you shouting.” Ben looked at Paul for an explanation, as they lifted Adam back onto the bed.
“He came round. Seemed to think that you were in danger, got up to come and find you.” Paul was removing the bandaging so that he could see if Adam had done more damage.
“Why would he think that?” Ben wondered quietly.
“I don’t know, but it was important to him. He’s opened the wound again, started it bleeding.” Paul looked up at Ben as his hands worked.
Ben stayed with Paul, while he again tended to Adam’s injury. Then he sat at the side of the bed, watching his son’s pale face, and he gently wiped away the fine sheen of sweat that appeared.
“What is it son, what were you doing. I’m in no danger, why would you think that?”
Joe came to relieve his father from his vigil, but Ben could not stay away for long and soon returned, taking his accustomed place at the bedside.
Ben was almost asleep, his head nodding, and he was breathing deeply, when he was startled back to wakefulness as he heard Adam moan.
“It’s all right, I’m here,” said Ben quietly, leaning forward, and putting a hand on his son’s strong forearm. The dark head was turning restlessly back and forth on the pillows. Ben held Adam’s hand and stroked it gently, talking softly as he did so, trying to make him understand that he was not alone, that his father was with him.
“Pa…he’s behind you!” Adam finally managed to call a warning.
“Son, don’t worry, there’s no one else here,” Ben assured him.
“Pa, he’s going to shoot. Gotta…stop him.” Adam moved to sit up but Ben prevented him, holding his shoulders firmly, until Adam opened his eyes and looked at his father. Ben was overjoyed to see recognition in them. Adam didn’t say a word, but reached up and pulled Ben down towards him, holding him against his chest, feeling the reality of seeing his father alive.
“Thank God,” Adam said softly, a tear escaping from the corner of eyes squeezed tight with emotion. Adam let go of Ben, and his arms dropped back onto the covers as he took a deep breath. “Thank God.”
“Adam, can you hear me?” Ben asked, sitting down on the side of the bed.
Adam opened his eyes and looked at his father. “Yes.”
“Can you tell me what happened? Why were you taking the herd?” Ben held his breath, waiting.
“They were going to kill you.” Adam was concentrating on conquering the pain in his side, so he didn’t elaborate.
Ben breathed out, and shook his head hopelessly. Adam was obviously still caught up in whatever vision he had seen while on the verge of consciousness, he thought.
“Why did Roy come after us?” Adam asked softly.
“Roy. Why?” Adam had closed his eyes again, he was tired and just wanted to sleep.
“Joe saw you taking the cattle, and Roy found out. Adam, just what sort of trouble are you in?”
“It’s…finished,” Adam said.
“But what’s finished?” Ben asked, but Adam didn’t reply, he was asleep.
Adam was propped up in bed, leaning back against a pile of pillows, looking across the room at his father, who was standing staring out of the window. It was just past dawn and the rest of the house was quiet. Ben had spent all night at Adam’s bedside, sleeping in the high backed chair, until Adam had finally stirred and woken up. This time he was fully awake, and as they talked Adam eased himself up the bed, grunting at the pain as he did so.
Ben turned round to face him.
“I said, ‘why did you take the cattle’.” Ben repeated the question he had just asked, to which Adam had not replied.
“First, tell me how Roy knew I was stealing them,” Adam demanded, at the same time admitting what he had been doing.
“Joe followed you when you left here, he was worried about you. He saw what you were doing and came back here and told me. Unfortunately Roy was in the house, and he overheard what Joe said,” Ben explained. Adam thought about it for a moment.
“But why did he try to stop us? You could have told him that it was all right for me to move them.”
“How could I explain to Roy what you were doing, when I didn’t know myself? Joe was there and he knew we weren’t planning to move them. Adam, Joe trusts you to do the right thing, but he knew this wasn’t right.”
“I thought that you trusted me,” Adam stated with emphasis, looking directly at his father.
“I did, I do, but when you go and do something like this…” Ben shrugged his shoulders.
“Pa, when we were in the barn and I asked for your trust, you gave it, you didn’t hesitate. But when that trust was tested, it was found wanting. How do you think that makes me feel?” Adam cast his eyes down to watch his fingers plucking at the bed covers. Ben came to sit in the chair at the bedside, keeping silent until his son looked at him.
“Adam, there’s more than one kind of trust. Yes, I said I trusted you, but I trusted you to get out of whatever kind of trouble you were in by behaving honestly, not by breaking the law. I have brought up all of you to respect the law, and Joe trusts me that that is the right thing to do. How could I stand by that if I had let you continue with what you were doing? Joe had to see that the law is to be obeyed, whatever the reason for breaking it, it’s what I have taught you all your lives, and I thought that you, of all people, would respect that.”
“So you’re saying that there is a greater trust than that between two men.”
“In this case, yes. Joe’s whole life might have changed if I hadn’t sent Roy after you. He would have seen that his entire upbringing was a sham, that when it came to our family the law meant nothing. He might have felt that he could do anything he wanted, because I would not expect him to be answerable for his actions.”
Ben lowered his head and shook it slowly. He didn’t know if he could make Adam understand that he had had no choice. He desperately didn’t want to hurt his son, yet he felt that was just what he had done.
“What happened to Wes?” Adam asked.
“Roy’s got him in jail,” Ben said, “partly I suspect as protective custody, in case you decide to go after him again.”
“Jail’s where he belongs,” Adam said forcefully. “Pa, he was going to kill you.”
Ben raised his eyebrows. “Why?” He couldn’t believe it.
“Because Roy stopped us.” As Adam explained Slim and Hank’s plan, Ben’s face paled with shock, then he reached out and took Adam’s hand. Adam let him hold it for a second, and then pulled away. Ben sighed as he sat back in the chair.
“So that’s why you were so upset after they attacked you?” Ben nodded with sudden understanding.
“Yes, I couldn’t see any way out of it, except to do as they said. By sending Roy after me, you could have got us both killed. You should have trusted me to know what I was doing.” Adam looked accusingly at Ben, his eyes registering the hurt his father’s actions had caused him.
“Adam, that’s not fair; remember that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me what was going on. I have tried to explain to you why I acted as I did, I hoped that you understood.”
“Oh I understand all right,” said Adam bitterly. “I understand that whenever you tell me that I have your trust, there will always be a grain of doubt in my mind. I will always feel that you will wonder if you have done the right thing.” Adam turned his head away from his father; he couldn’t bear to look at the older man. Adam had thought, when he woke and saw his father alive, that it was finished. But now he realised that it was only just beginning, the rustler’s threats were as nothing compared to what was happening between him and his father.
Adam suddenly felt old and tired. Life, he felt, had thrown everything at him and he had fought through it all, the loss of three mothers combined with the early struggle to survive, the loneliness of his college years, the responsibility of helping his father to bring up his brothers, and the charge laid upon him for the ranch that was their home. But all the time he knew that his father was there with him, supporting him. Now that support was gone, and it was the last straw.
Ben’s heart cried as he saw that the light had gone from his son’s eyes, the spark that marked his intelligence and his certainty of his place in the world, was missing.
“Adam, please look at me.” Adam did not turn his head, but gazed steadfastly out of the window.
“Adam?” Again Ben tried, but still got no response. He stood and left the room, shaking his head sadly. Adam turned to look at the closing door, thinking that the relationship that he and his father had built up over the years had just come crashing down around him. The knot that had formed in his stomach had gone, to be replaced by a yawning emptiness. He sank back down the bed, turned his head into the pillows, and wept for the life he had lost.
An hour later Joe came in with Adam’s breakfast tray, and set it on the bed.
“I don’t want it,” Adam said, not looking at him. Joe sat down heavily on the chair.
“Adam, why is Pa upset? He won’t eat his breakfast either. What’s happened?”
“Leave it Joe, it doesn’t concern you.” Adam looked at his brother; he could see the worry in the green eyes.
“It concerns me if you two have had an argument,” Joe insisted.
“We didn’t argue; we just had a slight disagreement.” Adam wished that was all it had been.
“Slight! He’s down stairs looking like the world’s coming to an end.”
“Is he? Well perhaps he’s right.” Adam felt that his world had already ended, the world that he knew, working for a father who respected and trusted him, was gone.
“Please tell me, I want to understand,” Joe pleaded. He was frightened that there was an irreparable rift forming between these two men whom he loved. Adam saw the concern in his young brother’s eyes, and started to ease himself up in the bed. Joe helped, shifting the pillows to support Adam, who lay back breathing heavily at the exertion. Joe sat in shocked silence as Adam told him why he had acted he way he had. He studied his elder brother, realising what he had been through, and what could have been the outcome.
Joe could hear the accusation in Adam’s voice as he spoke. “Why did you tell Pa that I was stealing the herd?”
“I…well I thought…” Joe stopped and cleared his throat as he thought about his answer. “I knew that you hadn’t been robbed when you were attacked.” Adam raised his eyebrows in question. “You still had your wallet; I could see it in your back pocket.”
“Very observant,” Adam said sarcastically.
“Well, if you weren’t robbed there had to be some other explanation. It was obvious you were worried after that, and I thought you might be in trouble. I followed you to make sure you were…well, safe, I suppose. Then I saw you with those men, and you took the cattle. I knew you wouldn’t do something like that out of choice, that something must have made you do it, and I was worried that you might be in danger. I thought that Pa might be able to help. I came back here to tell him, to get him to help you, but Roy found out. Then it was out of my hands.”
Adam was silent for several minutes, considering Joe’s words. It seemed that his brother knew him better than his father did.
“So you trusted me, and just wanted to help?”
“Yes, that’s about the size of it,” Joe nodded. “Why?”
“Because I know now that Pa doesn’t trust me. Without that, I can’t help him run the ranch, I might as well be just another hand,” Adam said sadly.
“How do you know that?” Joe didn’t want to believe it.
“He more or less told me so.”
“More or less?” Joe queried Adam’s statement.
“Oh, he dressed it up in fancy words, but that was what he meant.” Adam closed his eyes, he was tired and hurting, both in his wound and in his heart. Joe helped him to lie back down again, and as Adam seemed to fall asleep Joe went downstairs, he had to talk to his father.
Ben had managed to avoid Hoss and Joe for most of the day, even to the extent of leaving a message to say that he would be late home. He didn’t want to face them, knowing that his relationship with their brother was on a knife-edge, and blaming himself for it. The evening found him down by the corral, where he was drowning in misery, knowing that he had not handled well the conversation he’d had with Adam. He had left his son with the impression that his father didn’t trust him, and Ben knew that he had nearly got them both killed. He realised that Adam had dealt with the situation in his own way, the only way he could. Adam had gone through the torment of knowing his father’s life was threatened, and all Ben had done was to upset his plans, not because he didn’t trust his son, but because there were different, bigger considerations. Somehow, Ben had to show Adam that that trust was still there.
Ben was aware that he could do nothing until Adam was well again, but then he would find some way to make sure that Adam realised how he felt. He walked slowly into the house to find Hoss and Joe seated in the living room, quietly drinking coffee.
Joe glanced across at Hoss, and saw the same look of relief at having their father home.
“You want some, Pa?” Joe asked, indicating the coffee pot on the table.
“Yes, please.” Ben sat down with them, and took the cup that Joe passed to him. He sipped absently at the coffee, still thinking about his talk with Adam. Joe whispered to Hoss that he wanted a quiet word with their father.
“Well I think I’ll go sit with Adam for a while,” said Hoss, stretching and rising to his feet. He limped slowly to the stairs, pulling himself up them with the help of the banister rail.
“Pa?” said Joe softly, trying to get his father’s attention. “Pa,” he repeated, until Ben finally looked round.
“Sorry son, what is it?”
“Pa, what happened, between you and Adam?”
“Nothing, it’s all right.” Ben knew it wasn’t all right, but he didn’t want to discuss it.
“All right!” exclaimed Joe. “If this is what you call all right I’d hate to see it when it’s wrong.”
“We’ll sort it out, don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry, you say, well I am worried. Neither of you look like you won the argument. Adam feels worse about it than you do.”
Ben looked at Joe enquiringly. “How do you know that?”
“Because he told me what happened, but I wanted to hear your side of it.”
“Oh, he told you, did he? Told you that I didn’t trust him, I suppose.”
“He certainly thinks that’s what you meant,” Joe agreed.
“But I do trust him, I always have.” Ben turned round to face Joe; he didn’t want another son to misunderstand. He spread his arms helplessly. “I tried to explain to him that there were other forces at work here, that how you viewed my actions at that moment was important. You had to see that Adam was not above the law, whatever his reasons. If Adam had told me what he planned I could have done things differently, but he didn’t. He said he couldn’t, and I understand that, but he must understand the position he put me in.”
Joe sat watching his father’s face as he spoke, the emotion behind his words etching the lines deeper. It seemed to Joe like a simple misunderstanding.
“Pa, why don’t you speak to him again, before it’s too late?”
“Because he won’t talk to me.” Ben shook his head.
“Do you want me to try? You can’t let it go on; it’ll only get worse if you do. You must do something.”
“It’s all right Joe, I will do something, but I can’t until Adam is better.” Ben paused, considering. “Joe I want you to take the herd to Merced. Charlie will go with you to sign the papers, but you’ll be in charge. Will you do it?”
“If you want me to. But why?” Joe was excited, but also suddenly nervous at being given the task.
“Because Adam can’t, and I want to stay here with him, I don’t want to leave him like this.”
Joe nodded his acceptance. He knew that he aught to have been pleased that his father had asked him, but all he felt was that he was betraying Adam by accepting the task which should have been his. “Will you tell Adam?”
“No, you can do that if you want to. Then you’d better get to bed, you’ll have an early start in the morning. I’ll go and tell Charlie of the new arrangements.” Ben rose and went out to the bunkhouse, while Joe went up to speak to Adam.
Joe knocked on the door of Adam’s room and entered. He saw Hoss sitting in the chair at the side of the bed, so he sat down carefully on the covers.
“Adam, I had a word with Pa.” Adam raised his eyebrows, waiting for Joe to continue. “He feels real bad that you can’t see his point of view.”
“Does he?” Adam wasn’t interested, his father had told him how he felt, and there was no more to be said.
“Yeah, he says he’ll sort it all out when you’re better.”
“Really.” Adam reached out to take the book that Hoss had been reading, and began to read it himself, making it plain that he didn’t want to hear anything else that Joe had to say.
“Adam, I’m taking the herd tomorrow, Pa put me in charge,” Joe said nervously.
Adam looked up into Joe’s sad face; he was obviously uncomfortable with his father’s decision. Adam put his hand on Joe’s arm to reassure his brother that he was not upset; whatever argument Adam had with Ben, there was no need to take their problems out on his brothers. “I’m glad for you Joe. It’ll be good experience for you. I know you’ll do well.”
“I’ll get the best price I can, so you’ll have lots of money to put towards the sawmill.” Joe assured him.
“If Pa’ll let me build it.” Perhaps his father would decide that the new mill was not such a good idea now.
“I’m sure he will, he’s already agreed.”
Adam glanced at Joe. “That was before…” Adam went back to studying the pages of the book.
Joe turned to Hoss. “Well, it’ll mean that you’d better get back to work.”
“Yeah, guess so; cain’t say I’ll be sorry. Had just about enough of sitting round the house,” Hoss said enthusiastically. “S’pose you’ll be the one doing the sitting around, eh?” he said to Adam.
“Not for too long,” Adam said as he held his hand to the bandage round his waist. “This isn’t as bad as it looks. I’ll be up and about before you know it. Pa needs all the hands he can get, what with the drive an’ all.”
Joe’s voice was tinged with anger as he spoke to his stubborn eldest brother. “Adam, don’t talk like that. You know Pa needs you to help in other ways, not just as a hand.”
“Joe, that’s just not possible, I told you. Now get out of here you two, I need my sleep.”
“Sleep! That’s all you’ve done for two days. You can’t be tired,” Joe observed.
“Just get going, but turn the lamps down before you go,” Adam ordered. Joe and Hoss did as they were asked, and as Joe left he looked back at his brother lying in bed staring up at the ceiling, obviously not sleepy at all. Joe shook his head, closing the door quietly behind him.
Adam couldn’t wait to get out of the heavy atmosphere in the house. He and his father had exchanged few words during the following days, and any conversations they had shared were strained and short. So, although his side still hurt where the muscle was slowly healing, ten days after he was shot Adam was going back to work.
When Adam came into the house and approached his father at his desk in the office alcove, Ben could detect the indifference that radiated from him.
Adam spoke, looking at a spot on the wall behind Ben’s shoulder. “When Luke and Wes were riding fence they said there were a few places that needed repair, shall I get a couple of men to fix it?”
Ben looked up, startled by the question. “Yes, of course.”
“Very well, then what would you like me to do?”
Ben got to his feet and came round the desk. “Adam, you don’t have to ask me what to do. You know as well as I what needs doing round here.”
“I wouldn’t want to do it without your approval,” said Adam tersely.
“Adam this is ridiculous. Stop behaving like a child.”
Adam turned his back on his father, heading for the door. He put his hand on the latch and spoke without turning.
“You started it; you don’t trust me to make my own decisions, so I have to ask to make sure that I’m doing what you want.”
He walked out of the door, shutting it noisily behind him. Ben stood motionless in the middle of the room staring at the closed door, a solid barrier between him and his son, then went back to his desk and sat down heavily, putting his head in his hands. He had to do something to show Adam that, in fact, nothing had changed.
Hoss arrived back at lunchtime, bringing with him the mail that he had collected in Virginia City. He handed the letters to Ben and they both sat down to their meal. Ben opened the envelopes as he ate, scanning the contents of each, until one caught his attention and he sat back in his chair.
“What is it Pa, bad news?” asked Hoss, seeing his father’s frown.
“No, in fact it might be very good news.” Ben put the paper down and continued eating, though Hoss could tell he was distracted.
“Hoss, after lunch I want you to go and find Adam, send him back here.”
Hoss quickly finished his coffee, then went in search of his brother. An hour later Adam appeared, and stood impassively in front of his father where he sat at his desk.
“You wanted me?” he asked shortly, when Ben didn’t speak.
“Yes, read this,” Ben said, handing Adam the letter.
Adam scanned the contents but couldn’t see that it concerned him. “So?” he said carelessly.
“So I want you to do it.”
“Why me?” Adam’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Because this is the biggest timber contract we have ever been asked to bid for, and I want you to do it.”
Adam thought about refusing.
“Adam, if we get this work it will mean a lot to the ranch, to your family. It will give us financial security for years to come. I need you to do it; you know you can calculate these figures better than anybody.” Ben sat back in his chair and watched, fascinated, as Adam fought an inner battle with himself.
“Pa, I don’t…” Adam wasn’t sure he wanted to take on the job. He had got used to the idea that he would just do the work around the ranch and let his father make the decisions. Now he was being asked to take on the most important contract they had ever had, and he tried to push away the excitement he felt.
“Adam, just do it,” Ben commanded. “And you’re not to do anything else until that is finished, understand?” Ben wanted to make sure that he had no excuse for not doing the job.
“Very well, if you insist.” Adam thought that his father wanted to keep him away from the regular work around the ranch, and saw this contract as a means of doing so, no doubt hoping that his son would come to his senses.
Adam spent the next two weeks pouring over figures and riding round the forest, inspecting the trees, looking for stands which would fulfil the contract. He started doing it without enthusiasm, but he couldn’t hide from the pleasure he got out of it, calculating the figures and deciding where they could fell suitable timber. Without realising it, he was enjoying himself, again shouldering the responsibility of his family’s future. The argument with his father gradually retreated into the back of his mind; he was too occupied with the tender to think of anything else. With only this job to do, he did not have to decide on work needed around the ranch, or be involved with the other hands, so there was no conflict between him and Ben.
When Joe returned from the drive, Charlie told Ben that the boy had handled it well. The men at first had trouble accepting their orders from someone so young, but the charismatic youth had won them over, and they had finished the drive with no trouble. Joe had negotiated a good price for the herd, returning with a tidy sum to put towards Adam’s sawmill. Adam had taken no interest in the outcome of the drive, and Ben didn’t mention the sawmill to him, knowing the reaction he would get.
Adam finished the tender, and asked his father if he wanted to look over the figures, but Ben refused, saying he was sure that Adam had got it right. So Adam went into Virginia City to send it off, returning to spend the rest of the day working round the ranch, asking his father about every task that needed doing, making no decisions without checking first.
Adam lay in bed that night, staring at the ceiling, as he seemed to do so often of late. With the bid sent off and now out of his control, he had the opportunity to think back to the events that had so changed his relationship with his father. As he thought about it, Adam slowly realized that his father was right; he was behaving like a child who was sulking because it couldn’t get its own way. But he couldn’t get out of his mind what his father had done. It still meant that Ben didn’t trust him, but if that was so, why had his father asked him to do the tender?
Suddenly Adam sat up in bed, he knew the answer, and was cross with himself for not seeing it sooner. Adam was someone who considered that he knew himself as well as any man could, and he now admitted that if he had not been wallowing in self-pity and hurt pride, he would have seen it before. He realised that his half-hearted attitude towards his work was a result of two days of constant worry about his father, then after Adam had been so careful, even putting himself at odds with his family, his father had destroyed his plans and nearly got them both killed. For a while, Adam had found the prospect of having no responsibilities enticing to him, and he had used the situation as an excuse to abdicate his responsibilities. But the distraction of the tender had brought back his enthusiasm for his work, and the argument with his father was distant enough to be brought into perspective.
He had thought that Ben had given him the contract to do just to keep him out of the way, to keep him apart from the hands, who were disturbed at his uncharacteristic behaviour. Now he could put a new interpretation on it. His father was trying to show him that he did, indeed, trust him. He trusted him to get this contract, which meant so much to his family. Adam knew had been a fool, he had put his family through weeks of worry because he was too pig headed to see that his father was right all along.
Adam lay back in bed, knowing that he would have to speak to his father, to apologise to him and hope that his father could forgive him. Adam turned over, closed his eyes, and slept peacefully for the first time since Slim and Hank had invaded his life.
The following morning, as Ben came downstairs to breakfast, he saw Joe and Hoss sitting at the table, but Adam was pacing the floor anxiously. As soon as he saw his father, Adam approached him.
“Pa, can I have a word with you?”
Oh no, not again, thought Ben. “In the barn?” he asked.
Much to his father’s surprise, Adam smiled. “Yes.”
Ben led the way out to the barn with Adam following apprehensively behind him. As they entered the building Ben turned to face his eldest son.
“Well?” Ben was uncertain what was coming. Adam stood in front of his father with his hands at his sides, head down, his tense stance reminding Ben of times when, as a child, Adam had come to him to admit some wrongdoing.
Adam raised his head; he felt that his father deserved to have his son look him in the eye while he expressed his remorse. “Pa, I want to apologise for my behaviour. I have not been fair to you, or to Joe and Hoss, and I will go and apologise to them as well. But first, I want to tell you that you were right. You did the only thing you could do when I took the cattle; I can see that now. I didn’t leave you any other choice, because I didn’t trust you enough to tell you what I was going to do, and then blamed you for not trusting me. I was wrong on both counts.”
“Adam, I’m glad you think that way, but why the change of heart?”
“Because I now realize why you wanted me to handle that contract. You could have done it, and you know it. But you wanted to show me that you trusted me enough to let me do it on my own, despite my attitude. Thank you for that, and thank you for putting up with me behaving as I have.”
“Well I must admit it wasn’t easy. But I blamed myself for not being able to make you see reason. So, does this mean I have got my right hand man back?”
“If you’ll have me, yes,” said Adam.
“Have you? I don’t know how I’ve managed without you.”
Ben went to his son and put his arms round his shoulders, hugging him close and Adam responded slowly, treasuring the security of his father’s strong arms. Then Adam pushed away, holding his father at arm’s length, looking straight into his eyes.
“Pa, I want to assure you that I did the best job I could with that tender.”
“I didn’t doubt it for a moment. If we do get it, then we will need that new saw mill of yours.” They both stood, smiling. “Let’s go back inside, I’m starving,” suggested Ben, and they walked together back to the house.
Five weeks after Adam had sent off the tender, they received a reply from the railroad company. Joe brought the letter from Virginia City, and they all sat round looking at it.
“Well are you going to open it?” Ben asked Adam, who was sitting staring nervously at the envelope.
“You do it,” said Adam passing it to his father.
“Oh no, this is your project from start to finish,” said Ben, refusing to take it.
“Well someone open it, before we all go crazy,” said Joe.
Still Adam hesitated.
“Dadburnit, Adam, just do it will ya.” Even the usually placid Hoss was getting impatient.
Adam took another look at the envelope, then tore it open and sat, unmoving, as he read the contents. Three pairs of eyes watched anxiously, until Adam looked up and smiled.
“Pa, not only is this the biggest ranch this side of Texas, it is about to become the richest in the west,” said Adam proudly.
Joe and Hoss cheered, and Ben smiled broadly.
“Well done, son, thank you.” Ben stood and held out his hand.
Adam remembered how he had felt before he made up the bid, and how he felt now. He stood to face his father.
“No, thank you Pa,” he said, and they shook hands, father and son, and partners.