The Best Laid Scheme? (by Diana)

Summary:  Adam decides that it is time for him to leave the Ponderosa, but things don’t work out quite the way he plans.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  46,590

Extract from: To a Mouse – Robert Burns, 1759-1796


 

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

*

Standard English translation:

But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

*

Matthew Stoddard was a small man, sandy-haired and not unattractive, if one could ignore the dominating sneer that his face adopted when his mind was elsewhere, and on this particular morning, as he stood unmoving, staring out of the large window of his first floor office on Long Wharf, he was probably at his least appealing. The view of the ships in Boston harbor, and the distant Massachusetts hills beyond, went unnoticed by his cold, grey, unfocused eyes as he remembered back over the years, to the last time he had seen his cousin, Adam Cartwright. Little had he realized then that the man he had met briefly, and ignored as an uncivilized westerner of no importance, would become the one person who could rob him of what he considered to be his rightful inheritance.

Eventually Stoddard turned away from the window, his face reflecting both concern and the beginnings of an idea as he sat at the large, mahogany desk from where he ran the shipping company which had been founded by his great uncle, Abel. He paused as he allowed the idea to solidify in his mind, then he picked up and read again the letter that had come so unexpectedly, but with such perfect timing that for a moment he almost believed that the hand of his Maker had been at work.

Dear Cousin.’ The words sent a shiver of resentment through him, but he read on,
I have recently decided that it is time for me to leave the confines of Nevada and see something of the world. Events here have made me look at my life, and I realize that if I am going to fulfill my ambition to travel I cannot delay any longer, as I feel the moment has come when I am free of my obligation to my family.

To this end, I would like to offer my services to you, and the Company, in any capacity that you see fit, as long as it takes me overseas. Apart from leading an active life and being able to tackle all the work around the ranch, I have experience in most aspects of running a business, from accounting and book keeping, to negotiating contracts and dealing with buyers, and feel confident that I could successfully fulfill any assignment that you might offer me.

I know that we have met but once, when I was studying in Boston, and that we do not know each other, but I assure you that I am considered to be honest and straightforward in my dealings. If you would like references to that effect please let me know, and they will be supplied.

I hope that you may find a place for me, where I can be of service to you.

Yours sincerely,

Adam Cartwright

 

Putting one elbow on the arm of his captain’s chair, Stoddard rested his chin on his fingers, nodding silently as his mind wandered down the various roads that the letter opened up to him. After tentatively starting down one path after another, he allowed himself to be drawn to one in particular that he felt offered the simplest solution to the problem that was his cousin. The well paid informant in the office of his great uncle’s attorney had told him that the old man had recently changed his will, leaving the prosperous Stoddard Shipping Company jointly to his grandson, Cartwright, and his great nephew. Matthew had thought that after all his efforts to run the company, and with Abel Stoddard’s only child long dead, he alone would inherit the business. He had intended to ensure that his great uncle would not be long in this world, until the content of the new will had been made known to him; now there was one other obstacle to his fortune that would have to be dealt with first.

A smile crept over Stoddard’s face. It seemed that his cousin would deliver himself voluntarily to an untimely fate, if an interesting position could be suggested that would tempt him out of the wilderness he had been buried in. He considered that Adam would be easy prey, since he had abandoned Boston and civilization and returned to the backwoods, geographically, socially and, more importantly, intellectually.

That evening, as he walked towards home, Stoddard took a familiar detour. The streets of Boston were noisy with carriages and wagons, but he was oblivious to the bustle around him, his mind totally occupied with his immediate problem. He waited impatiently as a small column of blue clad infantry marched past on their way to the bloody battlefields that marked the progress of the civil war between the ideals of the North and South. Stoddard shook his head wondering at their foolishness; there was nothing in his life for which he would consider making such a sacrifice.

He crossed over and went into a large, red brick building two blocks from the harbor and home to the Gentlemen Merchants Club. Inside, he wandered apparently aimlessly through the quiet rooms where soft golden light was thrown by chandeliers hanging from ceilings, and lamps around the walls, and threaded his way past the leather armchairs gathered in small groups round low tables, a few occupied by men of business who were engrossed in their daily papers or talking over the day’s happenings. Stoddard stopped occasionally to speak to someone who caught his eye, until he spied his quarry, who had selected a table in a secluded corner of one oak paneled room where any conversation would not be overheard.

“Hi boss, what did you want to see me about?” asked Flynn. He was a man of medium height, with dull brown hair topping an unremarkable face. His appearance was his living; he could come and go as he pleased without anyone noticing him. He could ask people questions, and if they tried to describe him afterwards, they were unable to recall any detail that would distinguish him.

“I’ve got a job for you.”

“Oh?”

“I will want you to go to San Francisco soon, to deal with a little problem I expect to have there.” Stoddard smiled, Flynn should have no trouble taking care of his country cousin, he thought.

“How do you want it dealt with? Just frightened, or…” Flynn left the sentence hanging in the air as a waiter unbidden placed Stoddard’s habitual whiskey on the table.

Matthew took an appreciative sip before he spoke. “Permanently.”

Flynn took the implication in his stride; it would not be the first time that he had disposed of Stoddard’s rivals, or anyone else who got in his way. “My usual fee?”

“Of course, and a bonus.” Stoddard smiled to himself and said quietly, “It’ll be worth every penny.”

*****

After saying fond goodbyes to Virginia City’s sheriff and doctor, Adam Cartwright mounted the steps of the Overland stage and settled himself into a corner seat. There were no other passengers, and he placed his hat on the seat beside him as he stretched out his legs. He thought to himself that it was appropriate he should leave in solitude as it was to be the life that he had chosen; alone, away from his home and family.

He glanced out of the window, taking a last look at the place he had called home for most of his thirty-four years. When he had arrived there as a boy, with his father and young brother, the area was sparsely populated, the canvas tents of gold prospectors scattered about on the side of Sun Mountain giving no hint of the explosion that was to come with the discovery that the blue dirt in the tailings from the digging was actually silver, and outweighed the value of the gold by many millions of dollars. As he and his family had built the Ponderosa into one of the biggest spreads in the west, so the town had also grown, and now he was leaving a thriving community, and with some well-deserved pride he knew that the Cartwrights had contributed to the peaceful settlement of the area.

But now he was on his way to San Francisco to start a new life as an agent for his grandfather’s shipping company, run for the past six years by his cousin, Matthew. Adam had asked his family not to come to see him off, but had said his farewells at home; it was difficult enough to be leaving them, but he did not want to do it with the rest of the town watching. He closed his eyes as he recalled those parting moments, fixing them in his memory.

They had stood awkwardly in the yard in front of the house, trying to be cheerful. Adam hugged his brothers; Hoss, six years his junior, was a giant of a man and as strong as a bear, but whose touch could be as gentle as a feather; and his youngest brother Joe, another six years removed, whose sparkling countenance was dimmed at the prospect of losing his brother. Finally, the effort to control themselves had been too much for his emotional brothers, and they broke down and cried. They knew they were saying goodbye to someone who had been not only a brother to them, but also a father figure in so many ways; someone they looked up to and admired, and who had helped to guide them throughout their lives. Now he was going away, and no one knew when, or if, he would return.

Ben Cartwright had known much sorrow in his life, losing three wives who were mother to his sons, but he had never experienced a loss such as this, deepened as it was by knowing that Adam blamed him for driving him away. He would have given anything he had at that moment to hear Adam say that he had changed his mind, but Ben knew that was not going to happen. Once his determined son made a decision, it would take more than his father’s pleading to make him go back on it. Adam was holding Sport’s reins preparing to mount, when Ben went to him and embraced him. He hugged his son close and for once Adam reciprocated, enfolding his father in his strong arms. They stood for a minute, neither one moving, until Adam released his grip and wordlessly turned, mounted Sport, and rode out of their lives.

As the stage pulled out, Adam smiled fondly at the memory of that rare embrace shared with his father and the love contained in it, but he did not regret the decision he had made. He had found that his relationship with his father had become strained since the time, a few months earlier, when he had been charged with robbing a stage and murdering the guard and, due to the circumstances and with some damning and apparently irrefutable evidence against him, his father had doubted his innocence.

Knowing that Ben thought him capable of such barbarity had reawakened fears and imaginings in Adam that he had kept hidden deep inside, for he knew his father was right. Two years before, in a dusty little cow town to the north, he had bragged to his brother that no man could drive him to murder, but when he had been rescued from certain death in the desert by a prospector named Peter Kane*, he had been proved terrifyingly wrong. That fateful meeting had changed Adam’s perception of who he was; from a man who was in control of himself and his life, to someone who could be pushed over the edge of reason – to murder. He had not actually fallen, but he had looked into the abyss and seen a side of himself which no self-respecting, moral man should ever see, if he wants to remain sane. He had never been able to confide to his father all the events of those terrible days, during which Kane had tortured him and tormented him into wanting to kill, but when Ben had believed he could be guilty of the charges against him it was as though he knew exactly what had happened, and was admitting that his son was capable of killing for his own ends.

When he had told Ben of his decision to leave, Adam had managed to avoid telling him the whole truth behind it, by blaming his father’s doubts. During heated discussions, Ben had protested that Adam was wrong, that he had always believed in his eldest son, but Adam knew the truth, he had seen it in his father’s eyes.

The yearning to travel was strong inside Adam, but he had always found a logical reason for putting it off. Now he had to prove to himself that his father was wrong, and to do that he would go out into the world and test himself against all he would find there. If, somewhere, he could find the proof he needed, then he would return.

He had stopped often on the way into town to take a last look at places that meant so much to him. Adam did not know how long it would be before he could return, but knew it would be years rather than months, and now the time had come to leave, he was finding it difficult to part with this country where he had grown up. It held so many memories, of good times and bad, both equally important to him. In the years that he had lived on the Ponderosa, he had come to know all that the country could throw at you, drought, storms, snow, and some of the most perfect days that God ever gave to man. All had been his, but now he was leaving, going away to face new challenges.

*****

The dusty, bustling streets of San Francisco were just as Adam had seen them on his many previous visits; filled with people from different places and backgrounds. Some of them lived in the increasingly cosmopolitan city, but many more were passing through as he was. He had always looked at the ships in the harbor and dreamed about going on one to foreign lands, now that dream was becoming a reality for him. San Francisco had always been the end of his journey, now it was to be the beginning.

Adam had exchanged his usual black jeans and shirt for more formal wear; still he favored black for his short frock coat, trousers, waistcoat and string tie, but his shirt was white. The only items remaining from his former attire were his black hat, its band studded with silver from the Ponderosa’s mine, and his low-heeled boots; comfortable mementoes from which he would not be parted. He walked out of his hotel and headed towards the offices of the Stoddard Shipping Company to introduce himself to the manager, Jack Palmerton. He took a route that would lead him down to the harbor, which resounded with noise; the shouts of stevedores in a dozen different languages, the thuds of crates and barrels landing on the ground or a deck, the rattle of chains and harness as horses gave their strength to the loading and unloading, and a myriad other sounds.

He stopped and let the scene sink into his consciousness, watching the mass of drays and wagons coming and going, and miners and merchants mingling with the sailors on the dockside as they availed themselves of the goods on offer in the stores, shops and storeships that lined the waterfront. He became aware of the cry of sea birds as they wheeled overhead, waiting for any scraps that the cooks threw from their galleys, before diving downwards, barely touching the water as they collected a treasure and then alighted on a spar, ferociously fending off competitors as they ate.

As he stood, taking in the atmosphere of the docks, he felt himself jostled by passers-by going busily about their business and too pre-occupied to bother with a sightseer. Adam continually stepped back out of their way until he felt something soft yet resisting behind him. He turned and looked down into the upturned face of a buxom woman, who smiled up at him, her thickly painted lips drawn back to reveal that one of her stained front teeth was missing.

“Hello, handsome, wanna buy me a drink?” she said huskily, her question hinting at something more than simple refreshment.

Adam held up both hands. “No, thank you,” he smiled, politely refusing her offer as he moved away. The woman merely shrugged, instantly forgetting about him as she searched for a more willing customer.

Adam walked slowly on, careful to avoid the piles of ropes, nets and sundry equipment lying on the ground to trip the unwary. He looked at the long lines of ships moored to the quayside, and as he saw row upon row and rank upon rank of masts his heart lurched; he thought that the pines of the Ponderosa would look just so, if you took away their needles. He took a deep breath, inhaling the salt air and the sharp, sweet smell of spices from the dockside which combined with the pungent aroma of tobacco and alcohol from the many bars that offered the workers respite from their labors, and his blood sang in his ears, knowing that this was to become his life.

Eventually he tore himself away, turned from the harbor and started up one of the steep, wide streets that held the offices of several different shipping lines. He stopped outside one, which announced proudly over the door that it was the western headquarters of the Stoddard Shipping Company. The building was of wood, with two stories, and dominated its smaller neighbors, reflecting the important position the company held within the world of shipping. There were windows on both sides of the door, and through them Adam could see the counter that stood between the public and the office behind.

“Good morning, can I help you?” Adam was greeted with a smile as he entered.

“My name is Adam Cartwright. I’m here to see Mr. Palmerton.”

“One moment please.” The clerk looked Adam up and down, then nodding, turned from the counter and disappeared into a wood and glass walled office at the back of the low room, in which Adam saw that there were several tall desks, each one occupied by a man on a high stool, bent over his work. For a moment he remembered the world he had left behind, with its wide open spaces and the smell of the pine forest heavy in the air, and thought that there was no way he could spend his life working as they were.

The smiling clerk returned, followed by another man, tall and gaunt, his head bald except for a ring of graying hair stretching from ear to ear and ending in mutton-chop whiskers, whom Adam judged him to be in his mid-fifties. He came up to the counter, lifted a flap at one end of it and, walking through the gap he had made, he held out his hand.

“Mr. Cartwright. Mr. Matthew told me to expect you.” Palmerton’s face was somber and his tone was not welcoming. His employer had insisted that this was the man who was going to solve their problems, but as Palmerton took in the neat clothes, clean hands and freshly shaved, darkly handsome face, he thought that this was not someone who would be comfortable in the rough conditions he would have to face in the future. And why was he suddenly taking to the sea at his age? Palmerton knew little of Adam’s background except his relationship to Abel Stoddard, and wondered if he was the black sheep of his family, irresponsible and finally thrown out to make his own way in the world, and handed to him to make something of.

Adam shook hands with the man, a momentary frown creasing his forehead at the unexpectedly frosty welcome. “Good day, Mr. Palmerton. I’m pleased to meet you.”

The neatly trimmed black hair that was revealed when Adam removed his hat did nothing to allay Palmerton’s suspicions about the newcomer’s abilities. Mr. Matthew had informed him of the difficult task he had set his cousin, and Palmerton had not expected a man who looked as though he would be more at home in the salons of the rich than in the rugged surroundings of the ports of the world.

“Please, follow me.” Palmerton led Adam to the manager’s office, which was bright with daylight coming through the window behind a small desk covered with neat piles of paper. As he closed the door, Palmerton indicated that Adam should sit down in the chair in front of the desk, then he went to a side table where he poured them both a cup of coffee while surreptiously observing the man whom his employer had entrusted with such a responsible commission.

The word that sprang to Palmerton’s mind as he looked at Adam was ‘dandy’, but he tried to put aside his prejudice, hoping that he had not been mistaken when he had seen an intelligence and lack of self-centeredness in the brown eyes; but what could the man possibly know of business and shipping? He shook his head, he would do his best to prepare him for the task ahead, but was convinced that once Cartwright was let loose on the world he would not be very much use to them. He handed one cup of coffee to Adam, and then took his own and sat down.

Palmerton was pressed for time; there were ships in harbor that needed his attention and he sat impatiently, searching through one of the piles on the desktop until he found the letter he was looking for, and gazed at it as he leaned back in his chair and spoke. “Mr. Matthew is very pleased that you will be working with us.” His emphasis on the name of his employer plainly told Adam that Palmerton did not share that pleasure. “I understand that it has long been a wish of your grandfather’s that you would one day join the Company.”

“Do you know my grandfather?” Adam asked, curious.

“No. I gather that you have led a very different life from his seafaring one?”

Adam smiled to himself. Despite the manager’s obvious animosity towards him, and the fact that he seemed not to be giving him his complete attention, it appeared that Palmerton was willing to let him explain his presence. “Yes, ranching in Nevada. But I have always wanted to travel. My responsibilities to my family prevented that until recently, but now I am free to do so.”

Taken aback to hear the word ‘responsibilities’ from the man sat opposite him, Palmerton set aside the paper in his hand and leaned forward, putting his elbows on his desk as a spark of curiosity was lit by the remark and he decided that perhaps it was worth taking the time to talk to Mr. Matthew’s protégée. “Well, we certainly need someone to do the job you have undertaken. Wherever we trade in the world there are always problems, and the Company needs to have someone to sort them out.”

“That’s what Matthew told me,” said Adam, nodding. “I hope we can discuss some of those problems before I leave, to give me a better understanding of what I’m facing.”

There was a distinct pause as Palmerton tried to adjust his thinking away from his first impressions of his visitor. “Well, one of our biggest difficulties at the moment is simply that we have very little control over what happens to our ships, cargoes and crews in some ports. We rely on our captains to do that job for us. We need to set up offices in our main ports of call, for instance in Shanghai, Sydney, Bombay or Liverpool. We have people who work for us in all these places, but they sometimes work for our competitors as well. Under Mr. Matthew’s guidance, this company has grown, and it’s time we had our own offices and staff to oversee the business and help to keep vessels moving. A ship stuck in port is a ship that is not earning its keep.” He was watching Cartwright for his reaction, and was surprised to see the dark eyes wide with excitement. “It will not be easy; this can be a cut-throat business – in some cases, literally.”

Hearing the names of far away places sent a shiver of anticipation running down Adam’s spine, knowing that in the months and years ahead he would become familiar with those cities, their people and culture, but he made himself concentrate on the present. “Well, I do have some experience of the organization involved in running a business; I helped my father to establish our ranch. It took brains to get the best from the contracts, and muscle to do the work, not to mention the mixture of the two that was needed to deal with those who would try to take the ranch from us.”

Palmerton raised his eyebrows, and Adam saw the reaction and smiled. “Some of the contract negotiations were done against men who were less than business-like and thought they could force us into an agreement, but they could usually be made to see the error of their ways. Don’t worry; I’m used to the rough and tumble of the commercial world, as well as the paperwork.” Adam took a thoughtful sip of his coffee. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to set up the offices, the difficulty will come when I leave each place, finding the right staff to carry on alone and unsupervised. That could take a while.”

“You’re right, of course,” Palmerton nodded in agreement, pleased by what he was hearing. “We would like it done quickly, but it is more important that the organization works smoothly, so for us there is no time limit.”

“Nor for me. I made it clear to Matthew, when I agreed to take on the job, that I am prepared for the fact that I might be away for an extended period.”

“That may be just as well.” Palmerton paused, then told Adam of his plans. “Since we want all the offices to operate to the same system, as far as local conditions will allow, I thought that you should spend some time here with us, getting to know the way we do things.”

Adam stood and turned, raising his cup to his lips as he looked through the glass that formed the top half of the wall separating the manager’s office from the workers outside, and his heart sank; to spend any time at all in a place like that was not what he had in mind. But Palmerton was right, he needed to know the workings of the company, and the shipping world in general, and he was a quick learner; it should not take him long to get to grips with the work, and then he could be gone.

“Very well,” he said decisively, turning back to face Palmerton. “I’ll start first thing in the morning.”

Palmerton’s eyes rested lightly on Adam, and he relaxed; Cartwright had not prevaricated, but had made the suggestion himself that he should start speedily on the task ahead. Despite his earlier misgivings, he realized that this was obviously a man used to making decisions and Palmerton was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, he would be an asset to the firm.

For the first time since meeting Adam, he allowed himself to smile. “Will you join me for lunch? Then I will take you to see some of the ships that are in harbor at the moment. We have two vessels here, The Pacific Queen, recently arrived from Australia, and The Adventurer, she’s been docked for two weeks and sails tomorrow for New York, and sometime today or tomorrow I am expecting the Elizabeth Jane.” Adam looked up sharply at the mention of the last ship and Palmerton nodded. “Yes, I believe she was named after Mr. Stoddard’s daughter, your mother. She’s a fine ship and has made many trips for us, usually across the Pacific to China by way of Hawaii. My plan is for you to join her when she leaves for Shanghai.” Adam’s eyes lit as he realized that very soon he would be away and taking up his new life.

The two men finished their coffee, and then went out of the office, walking up the hill and past more offices, ship’s chandlers and the occasional saloon that lined the dirt roadway. Finally, they turned into a street of private houses, where Palmerton stopped in front of one that was three stories high and covered in white clapboard. At the top of the stone steps leading to the front door, Adam turned and looked at the view of the harbor.

The ships that were moored there dotted the water, in some places close together with masts and rigging seeming to be intertwined between one vessel and the next. Adam’s heart sang as he thought that soon to take its place among them would be the ship that would carry him away from his native land. From his Boston birthplace he had crossed a continent to get here, and now he was going to cross the world.

*****

Ethne Palmerton was the opposite of her father in every observable way. She was fair haired, with a round, unlovely face that had beauty in its honesty, cornflower-blue eyes, and short stature, and with a pang of memory, Adam realized that she reminded him of his brothers. Apart from her height, she was built on the same scale as Hoss, with the laughter in her eyes of Joe.

Since her mother’s death from typhoid three years before, Ethne had become her father’s hostess, and so, when Palmerton had explained Adam’s presence, she welcomed him and they walked together along the black and white tiled hallway into the dining room, where lunch was already waiting on a long refectory table laid with a white damask cloth, silver cutlery and crystal candle holders. Ethne invited Adam to sit down, while she called to the maidservant to lay another place, then returned and took her seat opposite him, next to her father at the head of the table, and while they ate, Ethne questioned Adam about his home and family. As he talked, Adam realized that it would be some time before he could speak of them without a tightness in his throat.

When Ethne saw the reaction that her questions had prompted, she deftly moved on to easier subjects. “You must let me show you something of San Francisco. I imagine it is a great change from the surroundings you are used to in Nevada. A large city can be quite intimidating.”

“Thank you for the offer, but I have been here many times, mostly on business, and as far as cities are concerned, I find myself quite at home; I spent some time at college in Boston.” Adam smiled inwardly; city folk always assumed that those from the wilder reaches of the country were the oft described ‘backwoodsmen’ of legend and dime novels.

“Oh, I see,” said Ethne, lowering her eyes down to her plate, embarrassed at having implied that he would feel out of place.

Adam saw her look and took pity on her. “But I’m sure that you could show me things a visitor might miss.”

Ethne immediately brightened. “Oh, in that case perhaps on Saturday afternoon, when you finish work, we might take a tour of the city?”

“I would like that, thank you.” He smiled, glad that he had been able to make up for his thoughtless remark.

Palmerton listened silently to the conversation, chiding himself for the prejudice of his initial feelings towards Adam, which had proved to be so wrong. When Adam mentioned the hotel where he was staying, Ethne suggested that he should come and stay with them while he was in San Francisco, and her father agreed readily.

After lunch, the two men went to the harbor, where they wandered along the quayside, looking at the ships and discussing the problems that Adam might encounter in other ports. When they saw one of the new steamships that were beginning to become a common sight, Adam stopped.

“Has Stoddard and Company got any steamships?” he asked.

“No, not yet. We have thought about purchasing one, to make the run to Valparaiso, but the specialized crews needed are commanding a high premium. We’d rather wait until men are more readily available.”

Adam nodded, it made sense, but he would dearly like to have had the opportunity to get a closer look at one, the engineer in him anxious to see the mechanics of this new transport.

They wandered further and Palmerton explained about the mooring fees in the harbor; small ships costing a hundred dollars a day and larger ones as much as two hundred. Adam calculated the cost of keeping a ship there for any length of time, and quickly realized the importance of getting a vessel turned round as fast as possible. Palmerton told him that they were in the habit of using Cunningham’s Wharf which, while it was one of the more expensive, offered deep mooring that enabled the ships to be unloaded in half the time compared to those out in the stream. It also provided spacious storage, and the wharfage cost included transporting the goods landed there to Sacramento and the mining districts. As Palmerton talked, it confirmed to Adam that he had a lot to learn, and the time he was going to spend in the office would prove to be valuable in the future.

Turning away from the docks, they made their way to Adam’s hotel, where he collected his bags and paid his bill, then returned to Palmerton’s house. Ethne dismissed the maid and led their visitor up the stairs to the guest room, where she stood aside so that he could enter. Adam looked appreciatively at the brown mahogany furniture and the green plush wallpaper, all brightened by the late afternoon sunlight streaming through large, lace curtained windows. He deposited his bags on the floor, and leaned against the decorative ironwork of the bed frame.

“This is very pleasant, so much nicer than my hotel room,” he said with a smile that dimpled his cheeks.

Ethne was standing nervously in the doorway, neither in nor out of the room, the skirts of her red cotton day dress swaying as she shifted nervously from one foot to the other, knowing that social custom dictated she should not be there at all. But a guest was rare enough and she found this one interesting, and so refreshingly different from her father’s usual, dull, stuffy business acquaintances.

“I trust that you will enjoy your stay with us, Mr. Cartwright,” she said, “short though it may be.”

“Please, call me Adam,” he insisted.

“Ethne.” She inclined her head to indicate that she did not mind if he called her by her given name.

“I’m sure I will, Ethne.”

*****

The next day Adam started work in the offices of the Stoddard Shipping Company. Palmerton introduced him to the head clerk, Jonas Winterton, who promised that he would show him everything there was to know about getting a ship to sea. True to his word, Winterton started Adam straight away on learning how to calculate the cost of transporting freight: the manpower needed, the size of the loads that different ships could carry, and the time it should take a vessel to get to its destination. Adam found it all very like running the Ponderosa; working out how much they would charge for timber or cattle, based on the cost of production.

Adam went to bed that night with figures buzzing in his head. He had been correct when he had looked at the office and thought that there was no way that he could spend his life there, and occasionally, through the long hours, he had found himself day-dreaming of the wide cerulean skies of Nevada, only to have his mind dragged back abruptly by the voice of his tutor, who had scant respect for the fact that his pupil was the grandson of the company’s founder. Winterton discovered that Adam quickly absorbed information, and was driving him to learn as much as he could, knowing that they did not have much time.

Even at dinner the learning had not ceased. Palmerton had taken the opportunity to discourse on the politics and personalities of the shipping world, taking delight in the intelligent responses and questions of the man he acknowledged he had derisively and erroneously labeled ‘dandy’.

The following days were filled in the same way; learning about ship’s lists, crew lists, cargo lists, then insurance schedules, custom regulations, and more and more endless pieces of information. Adam took it all in, until he had had enough of words and numbers, and suggested that he would like to look over one of the ships to see the reality of all that he had learned. Palmerton said that the next day, Friday, he would take him to see the Elizabeth Jane, and Adam went back to the house full of anticipation at the prospect of being nearer his goal of leaving.

As had become her custom, Ethne welcomed him and, when he had washed and changed, she settled him into one of the soft upholstered chairs in the parlor, with a glass of sherry.

“I have been thinking about Saturday, and where I might take you,” Ethne said. “Would you like a drive out to Mission Delores and Seal Rock?”

“That sounds very pleasant,” Adam agreed, not wanting to disappoint her by telling her that he was quite familiar with those places.

“Before you agree, I should perhaps warn you that parts of the journey might not be so pleasant. We have to pass the hog ranches, and the smell can be quite frightful. But it is well worth the inconvenience when you see the Mission, nestled in its valley, surrounded by flower nurseries.” Ethne drew in a deep breath, recalling the sweet smells from her previous visits. “Then a few deep breaths will rid you of the aroma of the hogs.”

“Don’t worry about me, remember that I was brought up on a cattle ranch, and believe me they can be just as bad as hogs, if you get too close.” They both laughed, and then Adam pulled an envelope from his pocket. “I have bought us tickets for Maguire’s Opera House on Saturday night, if you would like to go?”

Ethne clasped her hands in front of herself. “Oh, that would be wonderful! So often I have tried to get father to appreciate the finer things in life, but I am afraid that I am fighting an uphill battle.”

Adam laughed softly, remembering. “I know what you mean; I have had the same struggle with my brothers.” He noticed that she was so pleased she did not even ask who was performing. He could see that she was excited at the prospect of showing off her city, and guessed rightly that she had little opportunity to talk to a man such as himself. He was socially aware enough to know that most men would not bother to get to know the woman behind her plain, homely appearance.

On Friday morning the harbor was shrouded in a mist that chilled the bones, and Palmerton and Adam were well wrapped against the damp air as they made their way to the mooring place of the Elizabeth Jane. Palmerton used the opportunity to continue Adam’s education in matters nautical, telling him that she was a clipper of thirteen hundred tons, one hundred and ninety feet long and only thirty-nine feet wide. Adam stood and admired her trim lines, designed to cut through the waves at speed, and which were emphasized by her laying between two barques whose bulk made them look awkward against her sleek shape. Her hull was painted black, with a broad golden stripe running from stem to stern, where her name was emblazoned proudly in large letters.

Palmerton pointed out her three masts, their tops almost lost in the swirling mist, as he explained that the tallest stood nearly eighty feet from the deck to the top gallant yard, and the three together were designed to take over a hundred acres of canvas to drive the ship fast through the water. Adam imagined her under full sail, perhaps listing slightly with the wind and racing through the waves. So vivid was the image that he could see the creamy bow wave and hear the hiss of the water as the greyhound of the sea raced towards her destination.

The large letters on the stern again drew Adam’s eyes, and he stood staring at them and thinking of the mother who had died on the day that he was born. The ship fitted so perfectly the image he had of her; dark, slender and elegant,

Seeing the look on Adam’s face, Palmerton stopped speaking, then he said simply, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

Adam almost said ‘yes, she was’, but managed to stop himself as he realized that Palmerton was referring to the ship. Instead he said simply, “Magnificent.”

Palmerton smiled, thinking that this man might have come out of the pine forests of land-locked Nevada, but he had a seaman’s soul. “Shall we go aboard?” He was answered with a broad smile and a nod.

Standing on the main deck, his hands clasped behind his back, Captain Prescott watched them mount the gang plank and held out his hand as Palmerton introduced Adam. Prescott’s short, stout figure was emphasized by the midnight blue company uniform he wore, which Adam considered gave him an air of authority that was missing from his flaccid, weak chinned face. His pale eyes, Adam noticed, held a look that said he was used to seeing distant horizons, and had to drag his focus back to the more limited view of his visitors.

Palmerton excused himself, saying that he had business to attend to, but that he would come back to take Adam to lunch, and Prescott led the way to his cabin, which was small but well appointed, the wood everywhere shining darkly in contrast to the gleam of the golden brass fittings. Adam felt his hair brush against the low ceiling and he hunched his shoulders, shrinking by the necessary inch, as Prescott invited him to sit. There was a steward in attendance, who served them coffee while Prescott talked of the storm they had encountered on their way in and how, with skill and daring, he had brought the ship through safely.

“So Mr. Cartwright,” said the captain, after Adam had congratulated him on his seamanship, “I understand that you are to travel with me on the Elizabeth Jane?”

“Yes, and I am particularly pleased to be with you on your ship.”

“Oh, may I ask why? I realize that as one of Stoddard’s senior captains I have a certain reputation, but I would not have thought that it would have traveled to the wilds of Nevada, which I think Palmerton mentioned was your home.”

Adam had taken an immediate dislike to the conceited captain, but he kept that to himself, knowing that he was going to be spending several weeks in the man’s company. He replied pleasantly, but without warmth. “I appreciate your expertise as a mariner, Captain, but that is not the reason. Your ship is named for my mother.”

“I see.” Prescott’s eyes narrowed as he took in this piece of information. “Then that would make you Abel Stoddard’s grandson?”

“Indeed it would,” Adam agreed.

“Then I must take particular care of you,” said Prescott. Adam thought that the man had a wary look, but could think of no reason for it aside from carrying a relative of the line’s founder.

Prescott deftly turned the talk to the beauty and capability of his vessel, and Adam realized that behind the pompous words was a man who loved the sea and was genuinely proud of his ship. As they finished their refreshment, Prescott called the steward to find the First Mate.

“Watkins will conduct you on a tour of the ship. I regret that, with the repairs and the unloading in progress, and reports to be completed for the company, I must deprive myself of that pleasure.” A knock on the door announced the Mate’s arrival and Adam stood as Prescott introduced him. “I will see you before you leave.” He shook Adam’s hand then turned away, and the closing cabin door signaled an end to their meeting.

Inside the cabin, Prescott told the steward to wait, while he hurried to his desk and scribbled a note, which he instructed the man to deliver immediately.

Watkins led Adam through the officer’s quarters, the carpenter’s workshop, the sail maker’s cubby-hole, and the spacious hold which was slowly being emptied of the cargo of tea, all the while keeping up a commentary on what he was showing to their visitor, and Adam could feel a growing excitement. His father, a sailor before he married Abel Stoddard’s daughter, had described to him on many occasions the feel of a deck beneath his feet, and the anticipation of a new voyage; now Adam was putting the flesh and blood on the bones of those stories.

When they climbed up the companion-way, Adam was pleased to get back into the daylight; below decks was cramped and gloomy, with an intangible dampness that was oppressive. Watkins continued the tour, taking Adam into the crew’s quarters, housed in a cabin-like structure on the main deck which also contained the galley. He explained that the more experienced sailors knew to hang their clothes on the few pegs fastened to the wall that the crew’s quarters shared with the galley, where the heat from the cooking fire warmed the wooden partition and provided the only artificial means of drying sodden clothes. This piece of information made Adam smile inwardly; every occupation had secret knowledge which would only come with time and experience.

They finished the tour on the quarter deck, from where they could look along the entire length of the ship. Adam put out his hand and ran it slowly over the smooth, warm brown teak of the wheel, imagining himself steering the ship as it cut through the waves.

“Well, that’s it, Mr. Cartwright. That’s the Elizabeth Jane.”

“She’s an impressive vessel,” Adam said admiringly.

“Aye sir, we think so. If you’ll wait here, I’ll go and tell the Cap’n you’re leaving.” Watkins put a finger to his forehead in casual salute, and Adam watched as he made his way down the short ladder to the deck and disappeared in search of Prescott. He followed slowly, all the time looking about him and thinking of the days and weeks ahead.

The main deck was confusing to the untrained eye, crowded with equipment and festooned with ropes, many coiled and hanging from belaying pins, others leading upwards to mysterious destinations. Adam stood staring up into the rigging where men were working, and he marveled at how they managed to keep their footholds among the thin stays and the huge masts and spars. He looked down and studied the sailors on the deck, carrying out the unloading of cargo under the direction of a young man, whom Adam admired for the way he gave commands with quiet authority. After watching for a few minutes, he again allowed his eyes wander.

He was tracing some of the ropes, trying to work out where they led and what might be their purpose, when he became aware of shouts from above. He glanced up in time to see something falling through the rigging; something large and dark and heavy looking. He reacted instantly, racing across the deck and throwing himself at the young officer, who was engrossed in his work and unaware of the danger. Adam caught him around the shoulders and propelled him sideways, and they fell to the deck together, just as an eighteen-inch long tackle block smashed itself to splintered fragments exactly where the young man had been standing.

Captain Prescott emerged from his cabin in time to see the result of the near disaster, and he walked hurriedly over to where Adam was starting to get to his feet.

“Are you hurt, Mr. Cartwright?” Prescott asked, ignoring the second mate who was struggling to regain the breath that had been knocked out of him by Adam’s life-saving action.

Adam brushed at the knees of his trousers, then straightened. “No, I’m fine.” He leaned down and held out his hand to assist the prostrate sailor. “Are you all right?”

Breathing heavily, the mate got to his feet and adjusted his pea jacket. “Thanks to you, sir, I am uninjured.” His voice was deep, which surprised Adam, coming as it did from a man of slim build.

Prescott clasped his hands behind his back and turned to Watkins, who was standing beside him. “Find out who is responsible for this,” he said sharply. “I’ll have him lashed for his carelessness.”

“Captain,” the second mate said, taking a step forward and speaking quickly, “the men have been working long hours to repair the damage done by the storm on our way in, and to get the ship ready for sea. They’ve had little rest and less sleep. It is not their fault if they get careless.”

Prescott pierced the young man with his eyes. “Are you implying that it is my fault, sir?”

The second mate did not flinch, but said forcefully, “No, Captain. I am saying that it was no one’s fault.”

“Mr. Harper, you will assume your position and leave the care of discipline aboard this ship to me.” Prescott’s tone left no one in any doubt that his was the ultimate authority. There was a tense silence, until finally the second mate turned away without acknowledging the order, to be followed by Prescott’s furious gaze.

“I’m sure it was an accident,” Adam insisted, as he watched the young officer go back to take charge of the unloading.

“Mr. Cartwright, you will find that accidents such as this are something that I will not tolerate on my ship. The man must be made to understand his error.” With a nod of his head he dismissed Watkins, who went to find the culprit, then addressed Adam. “I must congratulate you on your quick thinking.”

“It was fortunate that I happened to be in the right place to see what was about to happen.” Adam caught sight of Palmerton approaching along the quayside, and shook hands with the Captain. “Thank you for your time.”

“I always enjoy talking to those who take an interest in my ship,” Prescott replied, and then he stood watching Adam leave.

As Adam and Palmerton walked away from the Elizabeth Jane, they did not see the man that came to stand beside Prescott. He had arrived in response to the captain’s hurriedly written note and Prescott spoke to him without turning. “Did you know that Cartwright is Abel Stoddard’s grandson? Does that have anything to do with Matthew wanting rid of him?”

Flynn nodded his head. “I suspect that it has everything to do with it. Young Stoddard said something about Cartwright robbing him of his inheritance.”

“He’s staying with Palmerton. Will that make it more difficult for you?”

“No. I’ll do it tonight, and then this little problem will be dealt with, and I can go home,” said Flynn, shivering inside his coat.

Prescott turned to look at him, wondering at the casual attitude of the man. But then he shrugged; everyone had their own talents, and Flynn used his to good effect. Prescott stared up into the rigging. “You were very nearly spared the trouble. Pity.”

Adam walked with Palmerton along the busy wharf, discussing what they saw. He was able to recognize the craft tied up alongside, and could name the various types, among them barque, brigantine, clipper and sloop. Thanks to Jonas Winterton, he knew what they might be carrying, the loads they could haul, the crew they would need and how long it should take them to get to their destinations. All he had learned suddenly came into sharp focus.

The pair had a midday meal in the Young Miners Restaurant on Long Wharf, which was dimly lit and noisy with talk of the sea, and Adam felt himself sinking comfortably into his new life. During the afternoon they wandered along the wharves and Palmerton punctuated their talk with visits to the offices of other shippers, insurers, exporters and importers, where he introduced Adam and let him hear first-hand from them some of the problems he would face, and some suggested solutions.

All the while, Adam was absorbing the sights and sounds that were to become familiar to him, until finally they made their way back slowly to the house and retired to their rooms to prepare for supper. Adam had not brought a dinner suit with him to San Francisco, knowing that he would have little use for such clothes once he sailed, so when he had washed, he changed his shirt and went down to join his host in the parlor.

“Well Adam, what did you think of what you saw today?” asked Palmerton.

Adam chuckled quietly. “I think that I can’t wait to be gone.” He held up his hand as Palmerton was about to speak. “Please Jack, I don’t mean that I haven’t enjoyed your hospitality, but I came here with the intention of going to sea, yet the nearest I have been to that was going aboard the Elizabeth Jane.”

“I know, and I am sorry that you have had to wait, but it is important that you should understand your grandfather’s business.”

“I appreciate that, and I suppose that I had better spend the rest of the time I have here doing more of the same. Jonas seems to be a great asset to you,” said Adam, thinking of the man who had taught him so much.

“Yes, he is. He’s been with us ever since we opened the office here. I hate to admit it, but I think that he is more important to the business than I am.” Palmerton smiled and Adam returned it.

In the background, they heard a knock on the front door, and a minute later the maid appeared and bobbed a curtsey. “’Scuse me, sir, there’s a man at the door wantin’ to speak to Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam raised his eyes at Palmerton; who would be calling to see him? He went out into the hallway, and then returned.

“I have to go out for a while, would you excuse me?” Adam said, a slight frown on his face. The man had told him that if he wanted to find out some interesting information about Prescott, Adam should follow him.

“Of course,” Palmerton agreed. “We’ll wait supper for you.”

“Thank you, I shouldn’t be too long.”

Adam collected his hat from the hall stand, then went to the front door and out into the failing evening light. He followed the small, bearded man who was dressed in a sailor’s jersey and bell-bottomed pants, and was led back to the waterfront, where they walked along the dock for fifty yards before turning off up a narrow side street, then into a dark alley between two wooden buildings. The man stepped aside to allow Adam to pass, telling him that someone was waiting for him. Adam strained his eyes to look into the blackness ahead, but could see no one, and when he turned to speak to his guide, the little man had disappeared.

The hairs on the back of Adam’s neck rose as he sensed danger and he took a step back, preparing to leave the menacing confines of the alley but, before he could escape, an arm snaked round his neck threatening to choke him. As he raised his hands to try to relieve the pressure on his throat, he felt a blow and a deep burning pain in the middle of his back, and then another joined it, lower down. Suddenly it seemed that all the strength had been drained from him; his hands dropped to his sides and his legs would not support him, and it was only the throttling arm that prevented him falling. When his assailant loosened his hold, Adam crumpled to the ground where he lay on his side, his breath coming in short, desperate gasps. He saw the feet and legs of his attacker standing in front of him, then they turned and walked away, and he was alone.

Adam tried to move his head, his arms, his legs…anything. But his body was slowly going numb and his muscles refused to obey his brain. He had no feeling at all, no pain, nothing, and he knew in his heart that the end was near. A vision of his father swam before his eyes, “Good…bye… Pa,” he whispered, as his mind spiraled downwards into a black, bottomless abyss.

*****

There is a saying that warns ‘you should be careful what you wish for – you might get it’, and Ben had cause to remember that in the days that followed. But at that moment he was only concerned with the misbegotten numbers in the bought ledger before him, as they began to swim in front of his eyes. He sat back, sighing with tiredness and wishing for a distraction that would give him an excuse to leave them for a while. He found what he was looking for when his youngest son crashed open the front door and rushed into the house shouting for his father, with Sheriff Roy Coffee following behind more slowly.

Ben rose to reprimand Joe for his noisy entry. “Joseph, you do not enter the house as though it were…” He stopped as he saw the tears that streaked Joe’s face. “What is it, what’s wrong?”

“I…I met Roy…on the way to town…” Joe held out a copy of that day’s Territorial Enterprise, which he was clutching in a shaking hand. Ben took it and his face paled as he found and read a small headline at the top of the front page.

Prominent Nevada Citizen Murdered’, it screamed at him. Then underneath, ‘Adam Cartwright slain’.

Ben staggered backwards, his hand searching for support, and he sat heavily on the table behind the sofa, knocking over the ornaments with a crash that no one heard. He glanced up into Joe’s face in disbelief, then looked at Roy, desperately seeking denial of what he had read.

The sheriff approached and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “I’m real sorry. I only found out when the Enterprise published it, and I was on my way here to tell you when I met Little Joe.”

Nodding silently in understanding, Ben reluctantly returned to the paper to read the detail underneath the stark headline.

‘It is reported from the city of San Francisco that, two nights ago, the body of Adam Cartwright was found in an alley near the waterfront. It appeared that he had been stabbed several times. Robbery was not thought to be the motive as Mr. Cartwright still had his wallet in his possession. Police confirmed that they had no clue to the identity of his assailant, and told our correspondent that the area where the body was found was well known as one of the more lawless parts of the city.

‘Adam Cartwright was the eldest son…’

Ben sat stunned, gazing at the print but unable to see it through the tears that blurred his vision. ‘Was the eldest son…was the eldest son…’ The words ran through his head, burning into his mind, and he screamed a silent denial – not was…is, please God…is. As a sailor himself, he knew of the dangers that Adam would face at sea, but it had not occurred to him that, before he even set sail, his son would meet an untimely end in the streets of the city that he had visited so often in the past.

“What…how?” So many questions came into Ben’s mind that he could not voice any of them, but sat shaking his head in disbelief.

“Ben, I’ve sent a telegraph to the authorities, asking for more details,” Roy said gently.

But Ben wasn’t listening and suddenly he stood. “I’m going to San Francisco; I have to know what happened,” he paused, swallowed hard, and added in a whisper, “and bring him home.” Ben started for the stairs on shaky legs, but was stopped by Joe’s hand on his arm.

“I’m coming with you.”

Ben looked at his youngest son, seeing the same mixture of sorrow, disbelief, and fear of the truth that he knew must be on his own face. He put a hand over Joe’s and spoke gently. “No, you stay here. The round-up has only just started and the men need you and Hoss to be here.” Ben glanced down at the newspaper, now crumpled in his fist. “Sometimes they get it wrong…but if this is true, then all of us going will make no difference,” he said softly. “Find Hoss, tell him.”

Joe and Roy watched as Ben climbed the stairs, his tread weary and his head bent, then Joe went in search of Hoss with a heavy heart, dreading having to tell him the news. Meanwhile Roy followed Ben, to help him if he could, but mostly just to be there for his friend.

*****

Three sleepless days later, Ben stood in Ohio Street looking up at a ramshackle red brick building. He could not feel the wooden sidewalk beneath his feet, or the warm sun on his back; he had gone numb. All through the seemingly endless journey from Virginia City, he had been aching to know what had happened to Adam, but now the moment had come he hesitated to enter the station house of the Third District, where he would find the official who was dealing with the murder of his son. He was stony faced; he had prepared himself to hear the details of Adam’s death, but now he was not certain that he was strong enough to keep his emotions under control.

The top half of the door to the station was of glass, and as Ben watched himself approach his reflection his throat tightened with the tears that he had not allowed to come to him throughout his journey. He saw himself wearing black; not only a color for mourning and of respect for the dead, but a cruel imitation of the clothing that Adam habitually wore. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and pushed open the door. After enquiring at the front desk, Ben was asked to wait and he paced to and fro in the dark vestibule.

A few minutes later a man walked towards him, his hand outstretched. He was dressed in the distinctive grey uniform adopted by the San Francisco police department, and was tall and powerfully built, with neatly trimmed grey hair, which receded at the temples. He also had intelligent brown eyes that were reminiscent of Adam’s dark gaze, and Ben almost cried aloud; everywhere he looked there were reminders of the son he feared he had lost.

“Mr. Cartwright, my name is Wheeler, Captain Wheeler. I am in charge of the investigation into the attack on your son.”

“Captain,” Ben acknowledged apprehensively as he shook the man’s hand, knowing that the policeman could, against all desperate hopes to the contrary, confirm the reports of Adam’s death.

“Now sir, I know you must have a lot of questions,” Wheeler said briskly, “but before I answer any of them I would ask you to follow me, and please don’t ask me for any details until we arrive at our destination, where I will be able to enlighten you as to recent events.”

Ben hesitated, but if a short delay meant that he would get the information he wanted, but dreaded, he would for the moment do as the captain requested; he knew he was willingly putting off facing that moment of truth, and inside he berated himself for his weakness. They left the station and walked for a short distance through the busy streets that were so familiar to Ben from previous visits, but which now seemed so cold as he thought of Adam walking those same thoroughfares. Wheeler stopped outside a white clapboard house overlooking the bay, mounted the steps to the front door, and knocked. Ben followed, frowning, and they waited until a maidservant opened the door and they were invited inside.

“Would you tell Mr. Palmerton that Captain Wheeler is here, with Mr. Ben Cartwright?”

The maid showed them into the parlor, bobbed a curtsey, and went in search of her master.

Ben threw his hat down on a chair and faced Wheeler. “Well?”

“Mr. Cartwright, we will tell you everything you want to know in a moment.”

The level stare from the dark eyes stopped Ben from pressing him further; the man seemed to be in complete control and unconcerned, and Ben had a fleeting moment of hope, which he quickly quashed. He could not allow himself to hope, only to have his son snatched away from him again.

Wheeler sat waiting, watching as Ben prowled the room, restlessly examining pictures on the walls and china in glass fronted walnut cabinets, until Palmerton entered and Wheeler introduced him.

“Now will you tell me what happened?” Ben demanded, barely managing to disguise his dismay at the emotional merry-go-round he was riding.

Palmerton held out his hand. “Mr. Cartwright, it is a pleasure to meet you; would you follow me?”

This was too much for Ben and he stood, hands on hips, unmoving. “I’m not going anywhere until someone tells me what is going on.”

Palmerton and Wheeler exchanged glances. “Very well,” said Wheeler. “Please sit down, Mr. Cartwright.” Ben didn’t move. “Please,” Wheeler repeated.

Believing that compliance would bring forth some information, Ben sat reluctantly, perching on the edge of a chair. “Well?” he asked impatiently.

“Mr., Cartwright,” said Palmerton, “I am happy to be able to tell you that your son is alive. He is in a bedroom upstairs, very weak as a result of the attack, but the doctor…”

The rest of Palmerton’s sentence was lost to Ben as the walls around him seemed to recede and he grasped the arm of the chair as he swayed with relief. Adam – alive! How? Why…? It didn’t matter – he was alive.

Ben jumped to his feet. “I want to see him.”

“Of course. Please, follow me.” Palmerton led them upstairs and passing one door, stopped outside the second and turned to warn Ben and the Captain, “Adam is probably sleeping. He has strength for little else at the moment, and if he is you should not disturb him.”

All Ben could do was nod silently at the request for quiet, not trusting his voice enough to speak.

Inside the darkened room, Ethne sat beside the bed and leaned over to the nightstand, where there was a basin filled with cold water that was laced with lavender. She rinsed out a cloth and, after turning back the bed clothes, she bathed Adam’s face and body, trying to cool his fever. A noise outside the door made her glance up, and when she heard her father’s voice she replaced the covers carefully, then, after dropping the cloth in the basin, she went to the door and eased it open just enough to see who was coming to visit her patient.

In answer to his daughter’s annoyed look, Palmerton whispered, “Adam’s father is here.”

Ethne nodded in understanding, and then, putting a finger to her lips, she opened the door sufficiently to allow the men to enter but not so far as to admit any light that might disturb Adam, then she went out onto the landing, closing the door silently behind herself.

Ben followed Palmerton into the dimly lit bedroom, the curtains drawn across the window allowing only a chink of daylight to enter, and Ben’s eyes took a moment to adjust to the gloom.

“Adam!” Ben tried to move, but his knees had gone weak and he stood immobile, watching as the bedclothes rose and fell, only a slight movement but a definite indication that the occupant of the bed was, indeed, breathing. He had hardly dare believe what he had been told, but seeing that it was true, he moved by sheer force of will to the bedside and sank to his knees. He stared at the familiar features of his eldest son, undeniably alive though he was pale and drawn, and a thin sheen of sweat marked the battle for survival that was raging within his body. Adam’s face showed a stubbly growth of beard over a grey complexion, and his limp black hair clung to his head, but to Ben it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. He took hold of his son’s hand, vaguely registering that it was too warm. “Adam,” he whispered, forgetting the warning not to disturb the sleeping man, “it’s Pa. Please, if you’re awake, look at me. Adam…Adam.”

Adam had opened his eyes only once since regaining consciousness, but then the figures he saw surrounding him were unfamiliar and he had retreated away from them because they made him feel alone and vulnerable. Since then his mind had remained suspended in a state that was neither sleeping nor waking. Sometimes he would see a cold, dark shape approach, knowing that he wanted to get away but he was unable to escape, and as it enveloped him in its icy cloak he would feel again the pain of the knife as it entered his body. At other times he was aware of people around him, but he lacked the motivation to open his eyes and look upon strangers. Now, he gradually became aware that someone had hold of his hand, and he associated the familiar voice speaking his name with home and safety, and knew that it offered him warmth and shelter from the chill ebony phantom of his dreams, if only he could find the strength to open his eyes.

“Pa?” The question came out faintly, no more than a breath.

“Yes…yes, son, it’s me.” Tears came and Ben ignored them, letting them fall as they would. He knelt there for some minutes drinking in the sight of his son, alive and breathing, though obviously far from well. Finally he wiped his fingers across his eyes and turned to the two men standing silently smiling in the shadows of the room.

“Would somebody please explain?” Ben’s emotions had gone from relief to curiosity, and were now verging on anger.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Wheeler said, his voice little more than a whisper, “if you would just sit down I will tell you what we know, what we think we know, and what we have done about it.”

A chair stood against the wall, and Palmerton drew it up to the side of the bed. Ben sat, still holding tight to Adam’s hand, his anger abating as he stared at his son, relief again filling his soul. His head came up as he heard a knock on the door and an older man entered whom Palmerton introduced to Ben as Doctor Bassett, and then he and Wheeler left, saying that they would see Ben downstairs, where they would continue with their explanation when he was ready.

Adam turned his head and finally managed to force his eyes open just enough to take in the room. They came to rest on his father. “Pa?” he queried again. Then, as though doubting what he was seeing, he closed his eyes and whispered hopelessly, “No…a dream.”

“No, son, I’m here,” said Ben leaning closer. “Feel my hand holding yours. Can you feel it?” Ben squeezed Adam’s hand and felt a slight tightening of his son’s grip in response.

Adam again opened his eyes and muttered a believing, “Pa…Pa…”

Ben could see the pain in the weak brown gaze and his heart ached. He turned worriedly to Bassett. “How is he? Please tell me the truth, will he be alright?”

“It’s really too soon to tell, and I don’t want to give you false hope, but I think he will be,” Bassett said cautiously as he put his bag on the dressing table, then turned back to Ben. “He was stabbed twice, in the back. It was obviously meant to be fatal, but his attacker hadn’t allowed for his tenacity, his determination to hold on to life. I notice that your son has recently healed scars on his back and shoulder, from bullet wounds I would surmise.” Bassett waited for Ben to confirm his observation.

Remembering the events of those terrible days, Ben swallowed hard. It was those bullets that had, ultimately, led to Adam leaving. “Yes. He was shot some months ago, but he had recovered.”

“Let us hope so, for he will need all his strength if he is to overcome his injuries. The blade grazed his liver, and that would have been almost instantly fatal, had it been the smallest portion of an inch higher. As it was we nearly lost him when infection set in. Fortunately, we caught it early, though he is still running a fever, but I am of the opinion that the danger from that is passed. Your son seems to be a very fit and strong young man; no doubt the active life he has led in Nevada helped him to survive.”

Ben smiled down at Adam. “You see, I knew all that hard work would pay off one day.”

“Yeah…lucky…” Adam whispered. He wanted to sleep but he could not let his eyes close for fear that when he opened them again his father would be gone.

“I need to examine him,” the doctor said, “and then we should allow him to rest.”

Adam’s grip tightened on his father’s hand. “Don’t…go,” his voice held a touch of pleading. He was aware that the strangers were caring for him and tending to his needs, but it was his father that he wanted by his side.

“The doctor wants to take a look at you.” Ben patted Adam’s hand reassuringly. “Don’t worry, I won’t be far away and I’ll come back when he’s finished.” He leaned over and gently kissed his son’s damp forehead, then laid Adam’s hand on the bedcovers, and left in search of the answers he had come to find.

When Ben entered the parlor, Palmerton handed him a glass of brandy. “This may be a bit early for strong drink, but I think you could do with it.” Ben smiled in agreement as he took the glass. Palmerton raised his coffee cup in salute. “To your son, and his survival.”

“Amen,” was Ben’s heartfelt reply as he took a seat next to Wheeler. “Now, will you please tell me what happened?”

“We have reason to believe that the attack on your son was part of a plan by his cousin, Matthew Stoddard, to be rid of him,” Wheeler said. “He sent a man named Flynn to kill him, and as you know he very nearly succeeded. Indeed he would have but for Gideon Harper, the second mate from the Elizabeth Jane.”

Ben was anxious to hear the rest of the story, and did not interrupt when he heard the name of the ship, for he was certain he knew its origin.

Wheeler was still speaking. “Harper heard Flynn talking to the Captain of that ship about what he described as Stoddard’s ‘little problem’; it seems that Stoddard was concerned that Adam would rob him of his inheritance. The two men spent the afternoon in the captain’s cabin, but the mate followed Flynn when he left the ship that evening, and saw him stab Adam and leave him in the alley; unfortunately Harper was too far away to prevent it. He knew that Adam was staying with the Palmerstons, and managed to get him back here, where the doctor was called, and the police. We have…”

“But why the report of Adam’s death?” Ben interrupted.

“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Cartwright, but you must understand that, until we had notice of your arrival, we had no idea that the Nevada papers had such a report.” Wheeler paused, and then continued with his narrative. “Because of your son’s relationship to Abel Stoddard, we let it be known in shipping circles that he had been killed; it would have seemed odd if we had not. We were aware that the news would get back to his cousin in Boston, and hoped that that might make him relax sufficiently to give himself away. At this moment, we have no direct proof of young Stoddard’s involvement, but we questioned Captain Prescott, and he was quite eager to tell us everything he knew, when he realized that it could get him out of a charge of being an accomplice. He confirmed that Stoddard was involved, but a half-way decent lawyer could tear his evidence apart; it is only hearsay after all. So we decided to let Flynn think that he had succeeded in his murderous work, and right now one of my best men is following him back to Boston. The police there have been informed, and will follow him in the hope that he contacts Stoddard and they will be able to get the proof we need to convince a jury that Stoddard was involved. They will both be charged with attempted murder.” Wheeler paused; he hoped that for Ben’s sake the charge would not ultimately be a more serious one.

“But I still don’t understand why you didn’t send a message to our sheriff, to tell him what really happened. Surely…”

“I am sorry that we couldn’t let you know what was going on, but we couldn’t trust the telegraph with such a message. Harper is the only person, outside this house, who knows the truth. As far as anyone else is concerned, the servants have been told they should say that Ethne Palmerton is ill with the vapors as a result of Adam’s death, which will explain the doctor’s visits should anyone be watching the house and question them.”

The mention of people outside the house suddenly brought an awful thought to Ben’s mind; he had been so immersed in Adam’s fate that he had temporarily forgotten about Hoss and Joe. Suddenly he stood. “I must let my other sons know…”

Wheeler stepped forward. “Mr. Cartwright, I beg of you not to tell anyone for the moment. Let us get Stoddard first.” He paused. “If we don’t, he may try again.”

Ben considered his options; he could return to the Ponderosa to tell Hoss and Joe, but it would mean leaving Adam, and that was something he would not countenance at that moment, knowing that his eldest son needed him, or he could wait for a few days knowing that Hoss and Joe were sorrowing over the loss of their brother. Either way someone got hurt. Ben looked at Wheeler, saw the anxiety in his eyes, and decided he would wait; good news was worth waiting for.

“Mr. Cartwright,” said Palmerton, “my home is yours. Please stay here with us, so that you can be near your son.”

“Thank you,” Ben said, nodding.

The doctor knocked and entered, saying that he had finished with his patient, and Ben immediately turned to him.

“How is he?”

“Very weak, but there is a slight improvement. He only regained consciousness last night, and still has a long way to go before he is out of danger. But your son is a very lucky man, Mr. Cartwright. Given time, and good fortune, he should recover.”

Ben shook hands with Bassett. “Doctor, I can’t thank you enough,” he said sincerely.

“You must also thank Mr. Palmerton and his daughter; they have taken good care of him.” The doctor took his leave and Palmerton could see that Ben was eager to get back to Adam, so he accompanied him to the bedroom.

The doctor’s examination had started Adam’s back hurting and he was trying to escape the pain in sleep, without success, when he heard the door open. He was lying on his stomach, his head turned towards the door watching as the men entered, and he put out his hand for his father to hold, as Ben again sat beside the bed.

“I thought…you might be…a dream…but you’re here,” Adam said slowly.

“Yes, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Adam’s lips twitched as he tried to smile; despite the hard words that had been said between them before he left, his father had not deserted him, but had come to his bedside. Suddenly his eyes closed and he drifted into a dreamless sleep.

*****

Four days later, Adam was propped up into a half sitting position by means of several pillows behind his back. He had finally persuaded his father that he would feel better if he could get rid of the unaccustomed growth of beard, and Ben was putting the finishing touches to a job he considered well done, as not a drop of blood had been drawn. He used a towel to wipe away the small flecks of soap bubbles that clung to Adam’s sideburns, then stood back to admire his handiwork.

“There, that looks better,” Ben announced.

Adam smiled gratefully as he sighed and let his head relax back against the soft, feathery support. “Feels better as well.” His voice was flat, as though the effort of speaking took too much energy.

“I think you should try to get some rest,” Ben said, setting the basin aside. “Do you want me to help you lie down again?”

“No. This makes a change from staring at the ceiling.” Adam shifted in the bed, and drew in a sharp breath as the wounds in his back protested forcefully against the movement. He looked at his father, and saw the lines of worry that were etched on his face. “Pa, don’t worry about me. It’s Hoss and Joe you should be concerned with.” He paused to get his breath, “They’ll probably have mortgaged the Ponderosa and taken the money and run off to Mexico.”

“Yes, they might just have done that,” Ben said seriously, and stopped folding the towel in his hands as he thought of the two sorrowful young men he had left behind.

Adam was shocked. “Pa! I was joking!”

“Oh, I know, but I wouldn’t blame them if they decided they couldn’t face life at home.” He finished folding the towel and set it aside. “They think you’re dead.”

“What! Why…?” Shock prompted Adam to try to sit up, but the pain in his back gripped him, and he moaned as his father helped him to sink back against the pillows.

Ben looked down, checking that Adam was comfortable and not about to move again. “There was a report in the paper that you’d been murdered. That’s why I came.”

“Oh no! How did that happen?”

No one had wanted to trouble Adam with the circumstances of the attack, but now he had to be told, and Ben related all that Wheeler had said.

Adam was horrified to think of his brothers suffering needlessly. “But why haven’t you told them? You’ve been here long enough…” he said accusingly.

“Wheeler asked me not to send a message, and I agreed,” Ben answered evenly, ignoring the sharpness that Adam managed to inject into his tone. “Of course I want to tell them, but it could put you in danger if Stoddard found out you’re still alive, and I won’t risk losing you, not again.”

“I suppose he’s right.” Adam cast his eyes down, avoiding his father’s gaze. “You haven’t lost me, you know.” Ben was going to speak, but Adam glanced up and raised a hand to stop him. He was trying to find the strength to say what he wanted. “I don’t mean because of this. Before I left home, I said some things that must have hurt you, about you not believing in me. You couldn’t know it, but that hurt me more than anything else you could have done.” Again Adam paused and took a breath. “I guess it was the push I needed to do the traveling I had always set my heart on. I’m sorry.”

Ben sat down on the edge of the bed. “Well, I’m relieved to hear that you don’t think I drove you away. Adam, I’ve always known you would go, ever since you came back from college. All I ask is that you come back again – from wherever your travels take you.”

“I can’t promise that,” Adam said softly, exhausted by the brief speech he had delivered.

“Then how about coming home, just until you’re fit again?”

“I can’t promise that either.”

“Why?”

“I just…can’t.” It would be so easy to say that he would go back, and he hardly felt strong enough to argue with his father. Seeing that Ben was going to try to persuade him, he added, “Please Pa, don’t push me. This isn’t the time to make decisions. I’m tired; I think I’ll sleep now.”

Adam’s eyes were closing but fluttered open as he heard a soft knock on the door. Ben looked round, angry that someone should disturb his son. The first thing that struck him when he opened the door was that the slim, slightly shorter figure before him was dressed in a dark blue pea jacket, and had a blue seaman’s cap tucked under his arm. Then he noticed that the young man had his long corn-colored hair tied with a black ribbon at the nape of his neck, and that the blue eyes were unwavering and confident in his fine featured face.

“May I come in?”

Ben put a finger to his lips to indicate to the newcomer that he should be quiet. His gesture was met with a nod and an outstretched hand.

“My name is Harper, Gideon Harper,” said the sailor, who Ben estimated to be the same age as Hoss.

Hearing the name, which he recognized from Wheeler’s account of the attack on Adam, Ben moved out of the room into the hallway, shutting the door behind himself. “Mr. Harper, I understand that I have you to thank for my son’s life.”

Harper looked embarrassed, and cast his eyes down before looking up into Ben’s grateful gaze. “I think that his strength is responsible for his survival, rather than anything I might have done. Stab wounds like those would have killed a lesser man.”

“Well, I thank you just the same.” Then Ben remembered that Harper had come to visit Adam. “Did you come to see how he is?”

“Yes, and to thank him, if that is possible.”

“To thank him?”

“Yes.” Harper gestured to the closed bedroom door. “Mr. Cartwright saved me from being injured when he was visiting my ship, and I have not had a chance since to thank him properly. If it were not for his quick action, I could very well be dead.”

“I would say that you have repaid any debt you may think you have.” Ben put his hand on the door handle. “You may come in and see him, but please remember that he tires easily.”

Harper made to leave. “Then I won’t bother him.”

“I’m sure that Adam would like to see you,” Ben said encouragingly, as he held the door open for the young officer to precede him into the room. They approached the bed and were greeted with a sleepy gaze from half open eyes.

“Mr. Harper would like to speak to you; do you feel up to it?” Ben asked, giving Adam the opportunity to refuse if he was too tired. He heard Adam’s breath quicken with the effort he was making to remember whether he should know the man beside the bed, and helped him with a brief reminder. “He brought you here, after you were attacked.”

Frowning at his father’s words, Adam struggled to bring his eyes into focus, and, as his vision cleared, he recalled that this was the person he had pushed out of the way of the falling block aboard the Elizabeth Jane. Now he realized that it was apparently the same man who had rescued him. He came fully awake and slowly held out his hand. “I owe you my life.”

Harper took the offered hand and smiled. “No more than I owe mine to you, sir. I just wanted to see that you were recovering, and now I’ll go.”

Adam nodded and said slowly, “I am sorry that I will not be with you when you sail.”

“The Elizabeth Jane has already gone, without either of us. Captain Wheeler has requested that I stay to give evidence against Mr. Flynn.”

“Then perhaps…I will see you again.”

As Adam’s eyes closed, Ben guided Harper from the room. They went down the stairs together, into the parlor, and were greeted by Ethne Palmerton, who offered them coffee from the pot the maid was setting on a side table.

“No, thank you,” said Ben. “I think I’ll go out for some air.” Since finding Adam alive, Ben had rarely left his side. The overwhelming joy he felt at discovering that the report in the paper had been wrong was tempered with the pain of watching his son struggle to overcome his injuries, and he needed to get out of the house to clear the lingering headache behind his eyes.

“And I, too, must leave,” Harper said. “Miss Palmerton, thank you for allowing me to visit.” He hesitated, then added, “Perhaps I could call again?”

Ethne lowered her eyes, feeling herself under scrutiny from his intense gaze. She looked up and smiled. “I would like that.”

Harper liked the look of the young woman, her bright eyes and cheerful countenance were refreshing, and he sensed intelligence behind her demure bearing. “Then we shall meet again.”

Ben and Harper walked together along the street, Ben thinking of how he had felt as he first approached the Palmerton house, and his very different feelings now.

“Do you know the city, Mr. Cartwright?”

The words startled Ben, who had been lost in his thoughts. “What? Oh, yes. When I was a sailor like yourself, I once came to Yerba Buena, as it was then, on a ship to trade pelts, and since I gave up the sea I have visited often, on business.”

“What business are you in?”

“Ranching, in Nevada – cattle and timber, and a little mining.”

“Oh, I see.” Harper was curious, “But your son followed you to sea instead?”

Ben slowed his steps as they talked, and Harper matched his pace. “No, he helped me to build the Ponderosa, and worked it until recently and I’ll miss his assistance.” He saw Harper frown. “Is there something wrong?”

“No, I was just surprised that he chose a seafaring life.”

“You did.”

“I did not choose my career, it was chosen for me,” Harper said bitterly, then swiftly moved the conversation on before Ben could ask him about his statement. “I was born here, and have never been to Nevada. I believe there are forests and lakes there which are quite beautiful.”

“Yes, indeed.” Ben smiled, “You should come and visit us sometime.”

“That would be an imposition, I couldn’t…”

“Of course you could. You say that your ship has sailed, so if you find yourself with time on your hands, it would be a pleasure to have you. Just let us know when you’re coming.”

They reached a street corner, and Harper held out his hand. “I am under instruction to report for work to Mr. Palmerton, in the office. But if he will permit me leave, then perhaps I will. Goodbye, Mr. Cartwright.”

When Ben returned to the house it was lunchtime, and he sat with Adam trying to encourage him to eat, with little success. But a short time after the lunch trays were removed by the maid, Ethne appeared with beef broth in an invalid cup.

“I see that you are still not eating,” she scolded, “so I thought I might be able to tempt you with this.”

She did not hand the cup to Adam, but held it herself, gently encouraging him to take the sustenance it contained, and he sipped the meaty drink from the spout until more than half of it was gone and he turned his head away.

“That’s enough,” he insisted.

Ethne was not impressed. “No, it isn’t, but it will do for now. I expect you to take more at supper.” She scowled, then she saw Adam push out his lower lip and his eyes darken, threatening resistance. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to force feed you. But if you don’t eat you won’t get better, and I have had quite enough of running around after you.” Despite her stern words, she was smiling as she left the room.

“That’s quite a girl,” Ben said.

“Yeah, and it looks like she’s got a temper.”

Ben helped Adam to lie down and then sat reading aloud to his son, who had his eyes shut listening to the comforting voice and recalling times from his childhood travels from Boston to Nevada, when Ben would tuck him into bed in their wagon and read him to sleep. Adam himself had read to his younger brothers on many evenings, choosing a book from among the precious volumes he had acquired. Suddenly his expression changed and he opened his eyes, his face showing his excitement. “I’ve got it!”

“What?” asked Ben, looking up from the pages of the book, startled.

“How to let Hoss and Joe know…I’m all right.” Adam’s breath came quickly as he fought to concentrate. “Have you moved anything in my room?” Ben shook his head. “Then send them a telegram…tell them to go to my book case…second shelf down… look at the first book on the left and,” Adam frowned as he visualized the volumes and counted in his head through the titles, which were shelved alphabetically, “the one third from right.”

“How will that tell them anything?”

Adam explained, and Ben’s face lit with pleasure at the thought that he could relieve the worry of the sons he had left at home. He rose and peered down at Adam, smiling. “I’ll go straight away. Now, it’s time for you to rest.” He could see that the grey pallor which had marked the depth of Adam’s fight against his wounds was fading, but the dark circles that remained under his eyes showed that he had only just started along the road to recovery.

The relief that Adam felt, at being able to tell his brothers that he was alive, had chased away his tiredness and he held out his hand for the book. “I’ve had enough sleep to last me for a while…let me read it for myself.”

Ben handed over the volume reluctantly. “Not for too long,” he admonished, before he left for the telegraph office.

*****

The ranch house was quiet, and the light from the few lamps that were lit threw a subdued glow around the great room, reflecting the feelings of its occupants. The pall of sorrow that had settled over the house with the news of Adam’s death had, if anything, deepened with the lack of news from Ben since his departure for San Francisco, and Hoss and Joe sat silently at the dining table, waiting for Hop Sing, their cook and housekeeper, to serve them an early supper. They didn’t feel like eating, but had finally been worn down by the little Chinaman’s angry outbursts when his food remained untouched, and they had promised to eat a light meal. As Hop Sing laid plates of perfectly cooked fish, boiled potatoes and green beans before them they looked at each other and shrugged; Hop Sing’s idea of a light meal filled their plates.

“You eat, or you ill! All sad enough; not need any more trouble.” Hop Sing stood at the end of the table watching them, until he saw them both pick up their forks and start to eat. He nodded forcefully, then retired to the kitchen, where he had already shed his own tears over the loss of ‘number one son’. But he knew his responsibility was clear; to care for Ben’s remaining offspring. He thought that if they could eat anything of what was put in front of them it would give them the strength to face the future.

Hoss and Joe ate slowly and silently, pushing the food around their plates and only occasionally forcing down a mouthful. There was nothing to say, nothing that they could say to each other that had not already been said, and any words would have brought back the tears that had come often, and were shed unashamedly.

When they heard a horse enter the yard and footsteps approach the front door they both rose from their seats, glad of a distraction, and together went to find out who was visiting. The knock was answered instantly by Hoss opening the door.

“Got a message for ya,” said Jake Turner, holding out the piece of paper he had brought from town. “Telegraph from yer pa.”

Joe took it wordlessly, and Jake simply nodded and turned away, not waiting for the customary coin to be pressed into his hand by way of thanks. He knew of the Cartwright’s loss, and did not want to intrude on their grief.

The two men returned to the table and sat down, pushing aside their plates as they stared at the folded paper in Joe’s hand.

“Ya gonna read it?” asked Hoss.

“Why me?” Joe held it out towards his brother. “You read it.”

Both were afraid of what it might contain, and as long as it remained unread there was always a chance that the report had been wrong, that Adam was still alive somehow. Suddenly Hoss took the paper and unfolded it, rising from his chair and walking round the table towards the fireplace as he read.

“What is it, what does it say?” Joe stood and followed, trying to read over Hoss’ shoulder, but his elder brother stood several inches taller. His patience finally snapped and he snatched the message from Hoss, who was looking puzzled.

Joe read the words, then glanced up. “What does he mean?”

“Dunno, but he says to go to Adam’s room and look at the books. D’ya reckon Pa’s gone…ya know…strange, what with Adam…ya know…if’n he’s…” Hoss couldn’t bring himself to say the word.

“There’s only one way to find out, come on.” Joe started up the stairs with Hoss following close behind.

They went to Adam’s room and stood beside the bookcase.

“Which books are we s’posed to look at?” Hoss asked for a reminder as he peered at the titles.

“Second shelf, first on the left.” At Joe’s prompting, Hoss took the black leather bound volume from its place. “Then the one third from right.” Again Hoss took a book and held them both, one in each hand. “Well, what are they?” Joe’s voice showed his impatience.

“They’re by that Mr. Shakespeare that Adam…” Hoss hesitated over the next word, should it be ‘is’ or ‘was’? For Hoss, the choice was simple. “…is so fond of.” He looked at the one in his left hand. “All’s Well that Ends Well’,” then the one in his right, “and Much Ado About Nothin’.” He looked up, his eyes wide. “D’ya s’pose that means what I think it means?”

Joe’s grin almost split his face in two as he grabbed Hoss’ arms in his hands. “It must, he’s alive!” he shouted, “Adam’s alive!”

Joyous laughter rumbled deep in Hoss’ broad chest, “Yeah, reckon so.” Then he frowned. “But why would Pa send us a message like that? Why not just tell us right out?” He sat on the edge of the bed, which creaked under his weight, and Joe sat down beside him. Hoss sighed loudly, and when Joe looked round at him he could see tears streaming down his face.

Tears started in Joe’s eyes and he said quietly, “Who cares, Adam’s alive.”

“Yeah,” Hoss sniffed, “who cares ‘bout anythin’ else?”

Joe reached out and took hold of one of the pillows from the head of the bed and clutched it in his arms. “I thought it was bad when he left, but this…thinking that he…and now…” He buried his face in the pillow that still, despite clean covers, carried a faint aroma of the bay rum Adam used. It brought back so many memories that Joe started to sob uncontrollably, but with happiness, not the desperate sorrow of the dark days since he had read the report in the newspaper.

Hoss shifted up the bed, reaching out an arm to comfort Joe, and closed his eyes as he said a silent prayer of thanks.

Suddenly Joe leaped to his feet. “I’m going – to San Francisco.”

“No, you ain’t.” Hoss also stood and put a steadying hand on his little brother’s arm. “Firstly we don’t know where Pa is, if’n he’s with Adam, and you wouldn’t expect him to be anywhere else. Second place, he asked us to stay here and look after the ranch and that’s just what we’re gonna do, so Pa can be with Adam and not worry ‘bout nothin’.”

Joe wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. “Guess you’re right.”

“And I reckon we’d better be ready for Pa to come back, and that means having all the chores done, and the work up to date.” Hoss went to the door and waited until Joe joined him. They both turned back and looked around the room that had been their elder brother’s sanctuary.

“I sure do miss him,” Joe said softly.

Hoss draped his arm over Joe’s shoulder. “I know, little brother, me too.”

*****

Ben opened the closet door and took out Adam’s trousers and the new black jacket that had been bought to replace his damaged one. “Are you sure that you feel well enough to be getting up?” he asked as he extracted a white shirt from a drawer.

“Of course I’m sure,” Adam replied with a touch of impatience. “I just want to get out of this room for a while. I promise that if I feel bad I’ll come back to bed.”

Ben held Adam’s arm, as he swung his legs off the bed and then stood shakily for a moment and squared his shoulders. “There,” he smiled victoriously at his father, “now can I get dressed?”

A knock at the door cut off Ben’s reply, and he insisted that Adam should sit down again before he went to answer it. Adam watched as his father held the door ajar, and he heard quiet words exchanged before Ben shut the door and returned to the bedside.

“Captain Wheeler is here, and wants to see you. Palmerton told him that you were getting up and he’s waiting for you downstairs.”

“Right, then I’d better get dressed,” Adam said as he again stood, this time without Ben’s assistance, trying not to show that he still felt a nagging dull ache from his back and that he had to concentrate hard in order to get some uncooperative muscles working properly. But Ben knew his son too well for him to hide anything, and he also knew that Adam wanted to put up an appearance of fitness, which was belied by his movements. Together they got him into his suit, which now hung loosely about his previously well-covered, muscular frame, showing plainly that he had lost weight. Adam stood for a moment in front of the cheval mirror in one corner of the room. He saw in his face the ravages left by the attempt to rob him of his life – dull eyes, and dark shadows that had not been there before – and he stood straighter, trying to dismiss the image.

Ben held his arm, preparing to help him from the room.

“Please, I can manage.” Adam’s impatience with his father’s fussing made his words harsher than he intended, and he smiled in apology. “Let me try this on my own.”

“If you say so.” Ben took a pace back. “But I’ll be right behind you.”

Adam felt his father hovering near him, and smiled quietly to himself; his lone parent always felt fiercely protective of his children, no matter how old they were. He walked slowly from the room, seeing again the plush, dark wallpaper and the brown and red patterned carpet that ran the length of the landing, which he thought seemed much longer than he remembered. He made his way towards the staircase, but stumbled, and Ben quickly grabbed his arm, held him until he regained his balance, and refused to let go until they had made it to the safety of the ground floor and across the hallway to the parlor door. Adam eased Ben’s hand from his arm and, breathing deeply, opened the door and stepped inside, where Palmerton got to his feet and came towards him, happy to see his guest up and about. Behind him stood Captain Wheeler and, as Adam looked at them, he noticed that the policeman was not smiling.

“It’s good to see you on your feet,” Palmerton said. “But please,” he indicated a stuffed leather armchair, “sit down.”

Adam sat gratefully; the short journey had sapped his fragile strength, and he lowered himself gently into the comfort of the chair, while the other three men took seats around him. Palmerton handed Adam a cup of coffee in silence, his smile having vanished to be replaced by a far more serious expression. “Captain Wheeler has come with some news,” he said, and stood, moving to stare out of the window, wondering how Adam would react to what he was about to hear.

Looking at Palmerton, Adam frowned wondering at his attitude, and then turned to Wheeler, who thus far had said nothing. “Captain?” he prompted.

“I have heard from my colleague who was following Flynn.” Wheeler stared down into his cup, then looked up. “I’m afraid that it is not good news.” This statement was met with a deafening silence.

“What happened?” Adam’s monotone matched his stony expression.

“He lost him. Apparently Flynn got off the stage when it stopped for a change of horses, and when it was ready to set off again, he’d disappeared. The police in Boston are keeping watch on Stoddard, so if Flynn does show up there’s still a chance that they can get the evidence we need.”

Adam sat deep in thought, surprised at the anger that rose in him when it seemed the attack would go unavenged. Seeing his son’s silent response, Ben rose and took Wheeler aside. “What chance is there that Stoddard will find out Adam is alive?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Wheeler shrugged. “But if Flynn suspected that he was being followed, he will think that perhaps it was Adam who told the authorities who attacked him, and therefore he might still be alive. A man like that doesn’t take any chances. What I do know is that Stoddard has contacts here who owe him favors, and any one of them might discover our plan, and use that piece of information to repay him.” Wheeler studied Ben for a second, wondering if he could be persuaded of the wise course to take. “If I were you, I would take your son out of San Francisco as soon as you can. I don’t have enough men to keep watch on the house, and I would be happier if he was somewhere far away from here.”

It sounded so easy, the way Wheeler said it – ‘take your son out of San Francisco’ – but Ben knew it was not that simple. He looked sideways at Adam, then he turned his attention back to the Captain. “I agree, but I don’t know if he will leave. I have tried to persuade him to come back home to convalesce, but he refused.”

Wheeler shrugged. “Well, it’s up to him, of course, but it would be foolish for him to remain here any longer than he has to. I am assuming that it will be some time before he is well enough to ship out, and he will be in danger until he does.”

“I’ll talk to him again, maybe knowing Flynn’s on the loose will change his mind.” Ben’s expression lightened as he added, with a tinge of pride, “My son is, above all, a man of considerable intelligence, and I expect he will see the sense in leaving.”

Wheeler held out his hand to Ben. “Let me know what he decides.”

“Of course.”

The captain made his farewells, and as Ben stood beside Palmerton watching Wheeler leave, he quietly spoke a few words to him. Palmerton nodded and closed the door behind himself, leaving Ben and Adam alone.

Adam watched the exchange with a frown. “What is it, Pa? What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean?” Ben asked, carefully forcing a look of unconcern.

“You and Wheeler, what were you saying to each other? Or did you think I wouldn’t notice you asking Jack to leave?”

Ben smiled thinly. “Should have known you’d catch that.” He took a breath. “Wheeler feels that you would be safer out of the city, in case Stoddard or Flynn come looking for you.”

“He thinks they’ll try again?” Adam asked dubiously, but Ben nodded.

“He is of the opinion that Flynn disappeared because he knew he was being followed, and can work out that that means he might have failed. Why don’t you come home? It will give you time to recover fully and give the authorities a chance to stop Stoddard.” Adam shook his head. “Why? You know it would be the sensible thing to do.”

It was some time before Adam answered, and Ben waited patiently. Adam stared into his cup trying to find the words to explain his reluctance. He looked up. “I’m afraid that if I come back home I might never leave again. Having been through it once, and got this far…”

Ben remembered their sometimes heated discussions of Adam’s decision to leave. “I wouldn’t try to stop you going,” he assured him.

“I know, but I might stop myself.”

Ben desperately wanted to see his precious eldest son safe among familiar surroundings. “Adam, I know it’s selfish of me, but I would like you to come home, just for a while, until you’re stronger. If it makes any difference, I will help you to leave again. Much as I hate to see you go, I won’t stand in your way, nor will your brothers.”

Adam stared out of the window at the white clouds scudding across the sky. Did he dare let himself return? Would he be able to fulfill his dream of roaming the world if ever he let himself sink back into the security of his home? Was it fair on his family to put them through the sorrow of another departure? He looked at Ben, and knew at least some of the answers.

“All right. As soon as the doctor says it’s okay, we’ll go home.”

Words would not come to Ben, but the relief that spread across his face said all that was needed, and Adam knew he had made the right decision – for his father, if not himself.

*****

Less than two weeks later, Ben and Adam alighted from the stage in Virginia City. It had taken several days to balance the doctor’s reluctance to admit that Adam was up to the journey and Wheeler’s eagerness to see him gone. But when Ben had suggested that they could break the trip with a stop-over in Sacramento, it had been agreed that Adam should leave.

Waiting at the depot to welcome them were Hoss and Joe, who were shocked when they saw their brother. He was pale and thin, and his usual upright bearing was missing as he stood on the sidewalk to greet them.

“Hi there, brother,” said Hoss, shaking hands with Adam and smiling broadly. Then he saw how frail Adam looked, and his smile faded. “Good thing the wind ain’t blowing,” he observed.

Adam frowned. “Huh?”

“’Cause if it was it’d blow you over.” He punched his brother’s arm gently. “But a bit of Hop Sing’s cooking’ll have you back to your old self in no time, you’ll see.” He stood aside as Joe approached.

“Thought you said you wouldn’t be back for a while. Now I s’pose you think we’re gonna run around after you, ‘til you’re better?” Joe’s broad grin contrasted with his words. He wanted to hug his brother close, but instead draped an arm lightly over his shoulder.

“It’s good to be back,” Adam’s words were warm, but he was dreading a return to the Ponderosa, with all that it might mean for his future plans.

Ben turned to him. “Would you like me to get you a room at the hotel for the night? Perhaps Paul should take a look at you.”

“No, I’m fine, and I’ve had more than my fill of doctoring,” he insisted firmly. “Let’s go home.”

The knowing look that passed between Joe and Hoss as they both shrugged puzzled Ben for a moment, but he was more concerned with getting Adam home, and he led the way across the street to where their buggy was waiting. Adam got into the seat before his father could help him, and Ben climbed in beside him, leaving Hoss and Joe to unhitch Chubb and Cochise from the back of the vehicle, and follow.

By the time they were entering the front yard, Adam was slumped in his seat. The journey in the stage had left him drained, and he would dearly have like to stay in town to rest, but he did not want to delay the moment when he would see again the home he had forsaken. He knew the feelings it would bring, of wanting to stay and go at the same time, but thought that putting it off was no solution to his dilemma. Better to get it over with. He sat up straighter, but before he could move Hoss was at his side, helping him down from the buggy.

The assistance was not appreciated, and Adam frowned as he gently pushed away his brother’s hand. “I don’t need any help,” he said, tiredness making him irritable and slurring his words, “I’m perfectly all right.”

“Well, if you say so,” Hoss frowned. “But if pale and sweatin’ are what you reckon is all right, then this travelin’ you seem so keen on must have affected your mind.”

Adam’s chagrined smile was all the reply Hoss needed, and when he again took hold of his brother he felt Adam lean against him, grateful for the support. As they entered the house, Adam came to a standstill. Rising from the blue armchair beside the fireplace was Doctor Paul Martin.

Anger darkened Adam’s eyes as he turned to his father. “If you tell me that Paul’s here to see me, I’ll turn right round and leave.”

It was Joe who answered. “No, Hoss and I invited him here for dinner, as a friend.”

Adam’s face said that he was not fooled by the subterfuge. He squared his shoulders, walked across the room and shook hands with the doctor, forcing strength into his steps and his words. “Paul, I trust that these two haven’t got you here under false pretences?”

“No, Joe’s right. A simple dinner invitation to celebrate your return, however briefly.” He glanced at the other men, then back to Adam. “But I am a doctor, and I can’t help but notice how people look, and I have to say that I’ve seen you look better.”

“That’s because I’ve been ill, as you well know.”

The doctor nodded. “I had heard. Will you let me check you over, before I leave?”

“Paul, I’m perfectly…I don’t…” Adam suddenly fell silent and he swayed, closing his eyes as he grasped the back of the armchair. Hoss and Joe were at his side in an instant and, taking a firm hold of his arms, guided him to a seat on the sofa.

The low, heavy wooden table that was set between the sofa and the hearth provided a seat for Paul, as he searched Adam’s pale face with his eyes. “Ben, get him up to bed, then I’ll take a proper look at him.”

Ignoring the weak protests, and with Hoss’ help, Ben pulled Adam to his feet and then gently supported him up the stairs. Five minutes later, he was undressed and settled in his bed, with Ben pulling up the covers.

“They shouldn’t have done it,” said Adam, trying to sound cross, but failing.

“For once, I have to admire their scheming. If you’d come home strong and well, then Paul would just have had dinner…as it is I’m glad he’s here. Your brothers were worried about you, you know, and this was their way of doing something about it.”

“I guess so, and I should thank them for it. But I just don’t want to be prodded and poked any more.” Adam covered his eyes with his forearm. “I just want to feel well again.”

“And you will,” said Paul as he entered. “Ben, I’ll see you downstairs in a few minutes.” Once they were alone, Paul examined Adam, testing his temperature and his racing heart, then his chest and the site of the stab wounds. “Well, you’re back seems okay, but you’re running a fever. No doubt a result of the journey. You should stay in bed for a couple of days, then you can get up, but take things easy.” He lowered his head and looked from under his graying eyebrows at his patient.

Adam smiled inwardly, it was a look with which he was very familiar; the doctor assessing the condition of his charge. “I’ll be all right in the morning; as you say, it was probably the trip here.” His voice was flat and tired.

“Two days,” Paul repeated. “You are not to move for two days.” Adam sighed and was going to protest, but Paul insisted. “I’m not saying that just to be difficult.”

“No, I know,” Adam conceded.

“Doctor Bassett wrote to me, when he knew you were coming home, and told me of your condition.”

“Oh did he indeed!”

“There’s no need to get mad about it, he was concerned at you leaving so soon, but thought that you would be able to cope with the journey, and you have. He told me he was amazed at the progress you had made, but it is less than a month since you were stabbed – and very nearly died.” Paul sat on the side of the bed. “Did he tell you the extent of the damage that was done, how close you came to being killed?”

“He said that there were two wounds, and that the knife had grazed my liver. Then there was the infection, of course.”

“That’s right, and that will all take some time to heal. You will find that you tire very easily for quite a while, and I mean weeks not days. So let that be a sign to you; give in to it – and rest.” Paul stood. “I am going to tell Ben what I have told you, so don’t think you can fool him by pretending that you’re not hurting.”

Adam settled down in the bed, and smiled. “Okay, Paul, I’ll be good. Now you go and get your dinner, you’ve earned it.”

*****

“You’re not moving until tomorrow afternoon,” Ben insisted in response to Adam’s request to get up. “Two days Paul said, and that means forty-eight hours.” He was determined to care for Adam, however much his son might resent it.

“Were you a jailer in a past life?” Adam asked, his lopsided smile dimpling one cheek as he recalled articles he had read about reincarnation.

“Probably. But if you want to get fit enough to travel, you need to do as you’re told.” Ben hesitated then continued, “That is, if you’re still thinking of going.”

“You know I am.”

“I just wondered…”

“None of my reasons for leaving have changed,” Adam insisted.

“But you said that you didn’t really blame me, and I thought that we had put that behind us.”

“We have. But I also told you that your doubt was the push I needed to get away.”

“If you needed a push, are you sure that you really wanted to go?”

“You promised that if I came home, you wouldn’t try to persuade me to stay,” Adam reminded his father.

“I know, but…”

Adam thought that here was only one way to stop Ben from pushing him. “Pa, sit down, I want to talk to you.”

There was a pause while Ben lowered himself into a chair and Adam gathered his thoughts, knowing that he could not tell his father the whole truth behind his leaving. Finally, he drew a breath and spoke quietly.

“When I went away to college, you made a lot of sacrifices to send me there, and I’ve always been grateful. I determined then that I would return home and use that education to repay you. I figured that, by the time I turned thirty, that debt would have been cleared and I would be free to have the life I wanted, seeing the world. But when the time came, I knew it was too soon. I had hoped that I would leave you without the weight of this place on your shoulders, that Joe and Hoss would be able to take some of the load. But it had grown bigger than any of us could have imagined, and I thought that you still needed me. Hoss and Joe were learning, but I felt that Joe, in particular, was not mature enough to take over.”

“Don’t let him hear you say that,” Ben warned.

“Never,” Adam laughed, then became serious again. “But, as the youngest, he had grown up with three of us to care for him, and he needed time to grow into his abilities. Hoss could have helped you, but he was too trusting and I thought that he wouldn’t be able to negotiate with buyers as he should and we’d lose contracts that we should get easily. They have both changed so much these last four years, and I knew the time had come, but was worried that I was wrong, that it was still too soon. I was torn between wanting my freedom, and what I owed to you.”

“You owe me nothing, and you have always been free.” Ben couldn’t believe that his son thought otherwise.

“Have I?” Adam’s tone held a bitterness that made Ben cringe. “Was I free to have a childhood? Who did you rely on to take care of Hoss when he was a baby and you had to work? Was I free when we came here? I worked hard at school, and then, when I came home at the end of the day, I worked hard to help you. And after college, was I free to go out into the world? No, I came back to help you build this place into what it has become.” Suddenly all the pent up resentment that had built up over the years and had gone unrecognized came boiling to the surface as anger. “The Ponderosa has taken my life, and you let it. Then this family took what was left of my freedom. As you have been mother and father to me, so I was father and brother to Hoss and Joe. Do you really think that I have ever been truly free to live the life I want instead of the life this family dictated I should have?”

Ben sat, stunned. Adam was asking questions he couldn’t answer. Was that really how he felt? “I didn’t know…did I…we do that? Why didn’t you tell me?” He stood and went to the window, looking out, not wanting to face the son he felt he had failed.

Seeing his father’s reaction, Adam immediately regretted his outburst. “No, Pa,” he said softly, and Ben looked round. “No you didn’t, because I did it willingly. But now do you see that I wasn’t free, I never have been, until I took the job with Grandfather’s company. Then I could go away and be responsible for no one but myself.”

Turning away from the view of the yard, Ben sat on the window ledge and folded his arms. “Are you sure that it’s what you really want, that you weren’t simply running away from us?”

“Maybe I was, but you know it’s your fault.”

“Mine?” Ben prepared himself for another tirade.

“Yes. All those years wandering across the country, until we settled here, gave me a taste for travel, and the stories you told me of your life as a sailor, gave me a longing to try it for myself.” Adam smiled. “So you’ve only got yourself to blame.”

Ben looked at his son, but found that he could not smile in return. “I do blame myself, and if I could do it over, it would be different.”

“Then I would be different, and I hope that you wouldn’t want that.”

The emotion of the past weeks had left Ben exhausted, and now he was having to face the realization of what he had done to his son. He pushed himself wearily to his feet and stood by the bedside. “No, I wouldn’t have you any other way than you are now. If I could make it up to you somehow… Perhaps if you stayed, things could change.”

“We’ve been through that. I thought that if I told you why I had to go, you’d stop trying to persuade me, I see I was wrong.”

“When you have children, you will feel the same, wanting to keep them close. But I do understand, finally.” He could see that the conversation had tired Adam. “Now you must rest, or you won’t be fit enough to go anywhere.”

As Ben reached the door, Adam stopped him, wanting to make up for the guilt that he had laid at his father’s feet, and he said the words that he always found so hard to share. “Pa, you know that I love you, don’t you?”

“Yes, son, I know.”

The following morning, Adam stood staring out of the window as he dressed slowly. Time in bed had given him back a measure of strength, and it was with pleasure that he was contemplating getting out of the house for a while.

He was watching the activity in the yard, and he smiled as he saw Hoss and Joe directing the men to their jobs for the day. They both now had an air of authority about them that had been missing before he left only a few weeks ago, and he thought how his two brothers had grown into fine men who could take some of the burden from Ben’s shoulders, and he knew that the ranch was in safe hands.

He turned from the window as he heard a knock, and his father entered.

“What are you doing out of bed?” Ben’s angry words were reflected in his concerned expression.

Adam smiled sheepishly. “It’s been nearly two days; I thought that I might get a few hours off for good behavior.”

“All right,” Ben said reluctantly, since Adam was already dressed, “but I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”

“I don’t need…”

“You’re the one who wants to get well enough to leave; I’m just trying to make sure that you are.”

Adam detected a tinge of bitterness in his father’s words, but did not react to it. “Thanks Pa,” he said as he finished rolling up his sleeves so that they were sitting comfortably on his forearms. “Let’s go get breakfast, hn?”

They went together down the stairs and Ben called to Hop Sing to prepare breakfast for Adam. “I’ve had mine, but I’ll sit with you if you like.”

“No, you carry on. I don’t want to get in your way.”

Ben put his hand on Adam’s arm. “You couldn’t be in the way, you know that.”

“I know. I just meant that you must have things to be doing.”

Ben nodded and went to sit at his desk, opening a large, leather bound ledger and resting his chin on his hand as he studied the figures. There was silence in the room, as Ben worked and Adam picked at his food; almost two days of inactivity had robbed him of what little appetite he had. Finally he pushed his plate away and, taking his coffee with him, went to sit in the stuffed leather armchair to one side of the huge stone fireplace that dominated the room. He picked up a book, which was lying on the table, and began to read.

Sensing Adam’s silence, Ben glanced up from his figuring and smiled, congratulating himself on putting the tempting volume where Adam would find it, knowing that once he got his nose stuck in a book he would be unlikely to move for a while, unless something distracted him.

The two men remained at their different occupations for over an hour, until Ben threw down his pen and sighed loudly.

Adam looked up. “Trouble?”

Ben nodded and raised an eyebrow. “Would you…” he said wondering how his request would be met, “…would you take a look at these figures? I can’t get them to balance.” Adam only hesitated for a second, but it was long enough for Ben to notice. “If you’d rather not, I understand.”

Closing the book, Adam got to his feet. “Of course I will.” He walked across the room and came to stand behind Ben, where he could see the columns of numbers that were causing such trouble. “What’s the problem?”

“You see these entries for the feed?” Ben pointed with his pen as he looked round, and Adam nodded. “Well, according to what I have here, it’s costing us far too much; but I know that’s not the case.” He stood to allow Adam to take his place at the desk.

After examining some previous pages of the book and jotting down figures on a spare scrap of paper, Adam looked up. ”Uh huh. You know what you’ve done; you’ve included the cost of the hay we bought from old man Calvert, at the end of the winter, when it looked like we might be short. I arranged to pay him for that at the time, but you’ve allowed for it again here.” He indicated the erroneous entry.

“So that’s it, I’d forgotten. Would you correct it for me, and check the rest?”

“Sure.” Adam dipped the pen nib in the ink well and set about altering the figures. When he had finished, he started to get up, but Ben came over to him and reached into a drawer.

“Would you take a look at this…?” He brought out a lumber contract. “I’ve been having trouble fixing a price with the railroad.”

Adam straightened and walked away from the desk before turning, his eyes dark and unreadable, his hands on his hips. “No.”

“But…”

“Stop it, Pa. I know what you’re doing.” Adam breathed heavily, anger with his father rising in him. “You think that if you can get me interested I’ll forget about going away, and just settle back here as though I’d never left.”

“No,” Ben’s voice was level, with a touch of sorrow, “that’s not it at all. I just needed your help, and thought that you would give it willingly, as you have always done.”

“And I will,” Adam said more softly. Then his tone hardened again. “But don’t get it in to your head that it makes any difference.”

“I’m not going to fight with you. If you don’t want to do it, just say so.” Ben was about to place the papers back in the drawer, when Adam took the contract from him and sat down behind the desk.

“As long as we understand each other,” he said as he started to scan the pages, trying to read but his thoughts were too occupied elsewhere to concentrate. Fighting with his father was the last thing he wanted to do, because he was fighting with himself. He had found that working on the books had brought back all his old feelings of belonging, of being needed. In those books, and the ones before them, was all the history of the Ponderosa, and his life from the time that his father had brought him and Hoss to the place that they would call home. It was pulling at him, telling him that this was where he belonged, not among strangers in a strange, wandering life with no real purpose. He concentrated on the figures, trying to put his nagging doubts to the back of his mind.

That afternoon, while Ben was upstairs, Adam decided to go for a walk; he needed time alone away from his father’s ever-watchful eyes – to think. He wandered down to the corral, where some of the hands were breaking a new batch of horses that Joe had bought at the sales in Sacramento. The animals were the usual collection of stallions and mares, of assorted colors and temperaments, but one in particular caught Adam’s attention; a striking palomino with a golden coat and silver mane. The stallion stood in the middle of the holding pen with his head held high, unmoving among his restless companions. Suddenly he locked eyes with Adam, who felt that the animal was challenging him, daring him to get on its back.

The spell was broken when one of the young hands, Chuck Masters, approached with a rope in his hands, and the palomino shook its head and continuously backed away from him just far enough to be out of reach. Chuck swung the lasso round his head and launched it at the horse, which simply dropped his head and let the rope fall across his neck. After several more equally unsuccessful attempts, Chuck gave up, bewildered; the horse wasn’t running away, but was impossible to catch. He called to the head wrangler, who rode his own horse into the pen, and with an expertise gleaned from years of dealing with recalcitrant horses, lassoed the stallion, who threw his head back and forth in protest as he was led into the corral, saddled, and locked in the chute.

While Adam leaned over the upper rail, watching the struggle between man and horse, Joe wandered over and took up a similar position.

“What d’you think of them?”

Adam turned his head, then looked back. “You did well. There’s some fine horse flesh there.”

There was admiration in Adam’s voice, and Joe smiled in appreciation. “Thank you, brother. Well, I have to get back to work.”

The sturdy chaps that would protect Joe’s legs were firmly fixed in place by the time he climbed over the rails of the corral. He allowed a slight swagger into his step as he pulled on his gloves and made his way to the chute, where the palomino was pawing nervously at the ground. Adam saw the confident stride, and found satisfaction in knowing that he had had a hand in taking Joe’s natural affinity with horses and encouraging him to become an expert horse breaker; someone who could tame the wildness in the animals without breaking their spirit.

Adam held his breath as the gate was flung open; despite acknowledging Joe’s ability, he was always worried when he saw his baby brother fighting with half a ton of angry horse. Less than thirty seconds later Joe was on the ground, sitting on his backside and panting heavily as the dust cloud that the battle had raised settled around him. The horse stood in the middle of the corral, his head held high as though in triumph and again he looked invitingly at Adam.

As Joe got to his feet, Adam ducked through the rails and approached him, holding out his hand. “Give me your gloves,” he commanded.

“You’re not gonna do what I think you’re gonna do, are you?” Joe asked, seeing the determined look on his brother’s face.

Adam looked past Joe, to where the hands were surrounding the stallion. “What if I am? Give me those gloves.”

“No, I won’t.” Joe pulled off the gloves, tucked them securely into his back pocket, and shook his head. “You’re not getting on that horse. What d’you think Pa’ll say if he finds out?”

“Fine, I’ll do without the gloves.”

Adam made to walk past Joe, who grabbed his arms, forcing him to stop. “I won’t let you do it. You’ll have to go through me if you want to get to that animal.” Joe dropped his hands and backed off a pace, his expression saying that he was ready to fight his brother, if he had to.

There was absolute silence as the men around the corral, who only minutes before had been shouting and cheering, waited for the outcome of the struggle between the brothers.

The sudden quiet was not lost on Adam, who became aware that this was not the time or the place to argue with his brother, if Joe was going to maintain his position as their boss. He stared at Joe’s hazel eyes; those eyes, with their attractive glint of green, could be soft and endearing and melt the heart of any woman, but they were now hard and determined, and Adam let his shoulders relax. “Okay Joe.” He smiled, “Since when did you get to be so sensible?”

Joe smiled back. “Since you weren’t here to be sensible for the rest of us.”

“Yeah, right,” Adam said, acknowledging the thought behind the words. He pushed Joe’s shoulder gently. “Go get ‘im, buddy.”

Joe gave a sketchy nod, then turned again towards the chute, and the challenging horse. Adam watched him for a second, then walked out of the corral and towards the barn, deciding that he did not want to stay and watch as the stallion was robbed of his independence.

Inside the barn, Adam picked up a rake and started to clean out the stalls, removing the old straw and replacing it with fresh. The walls of the building were not thick enough to muffle the enthusiastic yells of the hands as one after another they took on the job of breaking the new stock. Adam stopped his work and leaned on the rake, listening as he pictured what was happening. Many times in the past, too many to count, he had done that job, and he felt a longing to be able to be a part of the scene and not merely a bystander, a visitor who would soon be leaving. But Joe was right; it would be foolish – and worse, irresponsible.

By the time he had finished cleaning the stalls, had filled the water buckets and swept up the remains of the old straw, he was sweating and exhausted and he sat down on the pile of feed sacks in one corner of the barn, resting his head back against the wall as he closed his eyes, intending to spend a few minutes there to recover before returning to the house. The next thing he knew, he was being shaken gently awake.

“What are you doing in here?” asked Ben, standing over him and looking down with a worried frown creasing his forehead.

“Oh, hi Pa,” Adam said sleepily, trying to gather his wits.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I just thought that the barn could do with a bit of cleaning.” Adam glanced around, thinking that he had not done a bad job.

“A bit of cleaning!” Ben said, exasperated. “Why, when you know you need to rest? What did you think you were doing?”

Adam stood. “Getting a bit of exercise.”

“A bit of…?” Ben cut short his angry retort: it would do no good to get mad. “Well, I think you’ve had quite enough exercise for one day. Come inside.”

Adam preceded his father into the house, where Ben made him sit down.

“Pa, will you stop fussing, I’m fine.”

“I take my eye off you for one minute and this is what you do. I thought you’d have more sense.” Ben harrumphed disgustedly, then sat down on the sofa and picked up his discarded newspaper. Adam watched him and smiled to himself; it seemed that his father would not make the same mistake again.

Lying in bed that night, Adam thought back over the day. If Joe had not stopped him, he would have got on the stallion – but why, when he knew the damage it might do? Was it because he felt the horse had challenged him, or was there some other reason? As he thought about it, Adam kept backing away from admitting the truth – that he wanted to take the stallion’s freedom as the Ponderosa was threatening once again to take his own. Was he admitting unconsciously that he could feel the silken bonds of his family slowly tightening around him?

He turned over and drew the covers up to his shoulders. He attempted to put such thoughts from his mind, concentrating on the future and dreaming of the foreign ports he would see and the new people he would meet, but the magic of the unknown was gone. His thoughts kept coming back to his home and family – this was where he belonged, where he could use his education and intelligence for their benefit, and his own. Finally he gave up trying to sleep and lay on his back staring into the darkness in the corners of the room.

He heard the faint sound of the long case clock in the great room strike five, and it was as though the noise called him from his bed. He rose, dressed, and with his boots in his hand, he crept down the stairs. He sat on the bottom step to pull on his boots, and then went out into the yard, where the first glow of dawn was casting soft shadows, allowing Adam to see his way, and he started towards the corral, stopping only to collect a rope from the barn. The horses were quiet; most were sleeping, one rear leg drawn up with the edge of a hoof resting on the ground, but a pair of golden eyes saw his approach. Adam went through the gate, closing it carefully behind him.

The palomino greeted him with a snicker and a toss of his head, and he watched as Adam enlarged the loop at the end of the rope so that it was hanging from his hand and almost touching the ground. Adam walked slowly towards the stallion, holding out his other hand until he was able to put it on the horse’s silky nose. The palomino bounced its head up and down, but did not back away, and Adam gently raised the noose and placed it over the proud head until it was resting on the stallion’s neck. Twice the horse pulled against the restraint, but something of the man’s intentions must have communicated itself along the taut rope between them, because he stopped resisting and followed placidly as Adam led him out of the corral gate and away from the ranch buildings.

When they reached the darker shadows under the surrounding pines, Adam loosened the rope and lifted it over the proud golden head.

He slapped the horse’s rump gently. “Go on, boy, get outta here. Go find some lady friends.” The horse did not move, so Adam pushed against his shoulder. “Go on. You can be free, even if I can’t.”

With a sound very much like a laugh, the horse took off and was instantly lost among the trees. Adam turned and walked back to the house, shaking his head and wondering at his sentimental act. Would Joe ever forgive him?

*****

Joe ran into the house, shouting angrily, “Someone’s stolen the palomino!”

Ben rose slowly from his place at the head of the dining table. “What? When?”

The knuckles of Joe’s fingers were white with anger as he grasped the back of the chair opposite Hoss, who was finishing his breakfast. “I don’t know; none of the others are missing. I guess it must have been someone who knew a good horse when he saw one,” he said bitterly. After a couple of deep breaths, he turned to Hoss. “C’mon, if we start now we may still catch them. They’ll pay for this.”

“No,” said Ben forcefully, resuming his seat, “we’ll report it to Roy and let him handle it. We can’t go chasing all over the country looking for them, they’re probably miles away by now, if they have any sense.”

“But Pa…” Joe started to protest.

“Joe, you have more important duties here. Let Roy deal with it,” Ben insisted.

All three glanced round as Adam came down the stairs to join them.

“How are you this morning?” asked Ben, the problem of the stolen horse forgotten momentarily as he watched Adam sit down opposite him. He studied his eldest son and smiled, seeing that he looked a little less pale.

“Fine Pa.” Adam helped himself to what remained of the pancakes, eggs and bacon, as though to prove what he was saying.

“Adam,” Joe turned to him, “did you hear anything in the night, anyone moving about in the yard?”

“No, why?” Adam’s heart started to beat just a little faster.

“’Cause someone stole Joe’s pride and joy, that’s why,” Hoss informed him.

“Yeah,” Joe confirmed, his face set in a mask of fury. “They took that palomino I was going to use as breeding stock, to improve the remuda.”

“No one stole him,” Adam said evenly, then took a mouthful of his breakfast.

“No one…?” Joe’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What makes you think that?”

“Because I let him go.” Adam took a pull on his coffee, and over the rim of the cup his eyes traveled round the table, watching for the reaction his words would bring from his family.

“You let him go,” Ben stated, hardly believing what he was hearing. “Why?”

“Because he wanted to be free.”

Joe rounded angrily on his brother, not allowing him to explain further. “What! Just like that? You didn’t think to talk to me first? You gave up any right to do that when you left.” Joe would never admit openly that he resented what he saw as Adam’s desertion of his family, but it was there in his words.

Suddenly losing his appetite, Adam pushed his plate away. “I’m sorry, Joe. You’re right, I should have said something to you first, but it couldn’t wait.”

In the face of the sketchy apology, Joe’s anger abated a little. “Darn right you should. But why did you do it?”

Adam opened his mouth to speak, but found that for once he could not explain his behavior in words. “I had my reasons.” He looked down, studying the coffee in is cup, not able to meet Joe’s eyes, knowing that what he had done had upset him.

Ben had seen his eldest son in all his moods, and knew there was more on his mind than the palomino. He looked at Joe and Hoss. “Well, it’s too late to do anything about it now.” He jerked his head sideways. “Haven’t you both got things to do?”

Gathering Joe as he passed, Hoss headed for the door. “You still gotta passel of broncs to work on; time you got started.”

“But I wanna know…” Joe pulled against Hoss, resisting his efforts to get his younger brother out of the door.

Hoss didn’t wait to hear what Joe wanted to know. He whispered to him, “We’ll find out soon enough. Right now, Pa wants to talk to ‘im.” The door closed quietly behind them, with Joe still insisting that he wanted information.

Ben sat, studying Adam and waiting for him to speak, but was met with silence. So, taking his coffee with him, he headed for the comfort of the armchair, where he picked up the latest edition of the Territorial Enterprise and began to read a report of Roy Coffee’s efforts to track down the perpetrators of the previous week’s stage hold-up.

“Pa?” said Adam, turning and hanging one arm over the back of his chair.

“Yes, son?” Ben looked round.

“Have you ever wanted something so badly that you’d do almost anything to get it, but then found, when you did, that it wasn’t what you wanted after all?” As he spoke, Adam picked up his cup and came to sit on the sofa.

The paper rustled as Ben folded it and then laid it on the table, giving him time to think about his answer. He picked up his coffee cup, then glanced at Adam, wondering where this conversation would lead. “There have been many things I wanted, some I got, and some I didn’t. But I have never regretted either – getting them or not.” He waited, sipping his coffee slowly, knowing that Adam would get to the point in his own time.

“But has there ever been one thing in your life that you wanted,” Adam had been staring at the fire burning in the hearth, now he turned to his father, “but found that you didn’t mind not having it?”

Ben was silent for a minute, then nodded slowly. “I wanted to marry your mother, and I did. I wanted a home for all of us, and I have that, and I wanted a fine family, and I have that as well. I have been truly blessed and can think of nothing else I could want, except to still have your mother with me, but then I wouldn’t have married Inger, or Marie, and they would not have been able to give me Hoss, or Joe. So while I loved Elizabeth and mourn her death deeply, I know that God gave me some wonderful things in her place. So I suppose you might say that, in some ways, I don’t mind not having her. Is that what you mean?”

“I guess so.” Adam nodded thoughtfully, yes, that was it; the want for one thing was outweighed by the love of another.

Silence descended between the two men. Mention of Elizabeth, and her death only hours after Adam’s birth, had taken Ben’s thoughts back over thirty-five years, to those early days in Boston when they planned for a future that fate dictated they were not to have. So much had happened since, but Ben found that, while there was sorrow in his life, there were no regrets.

Quiet words broke the stillness. “I’m not going.”

“What?” Ben’s thoughts were abruptly brought back to the present.

Adam drew a breath, and looked at his father. “I’m not going.”

“You mean…” Ben dared to hope, “you’re not leaving?”

“That’s right.”

“What changed your mind?”

Adam let his eyes wander around the room before returning to meet those of his father. “This place. When I was in San Francisco I knew that the whole world was there for the taking, and all I had to do was reach out for it. But when I woke up in Palmerton’s house after the attack, I realized that you wouldn’t be there – might never be there – and I felt alone, as I have never been before.”

He fell silent as his mind wandered further back, and he recalled struggling through the desert, dragging Kane behind him, not knowing where he was going but only that he had to go on, hoping against reason that somewhere ahead he would find help. When that help came in the shape of his father, it was like a miracle. He cleared his throat to ease the tension that the memory brought with it. “Then I came back here and I knew that this was the world I wanted, it was all here but I was afraid to admit it, afraid to admit that this was all I needed after the opportunities that I have had to make something more of my life. I reached out for the future and found it in the past, in the life I had left behind.”

“Are you sure?” Ben would not allow his relief to surface too quickly, in case Adam regretted his decision. “Are you absolutely sure?”

“Yes.” Adam nodded towards the office alcove. “When I looked through those books, I saw my life laid out in black and white. I told you that I was waiting for the right moment to leave, but I don’t think there would ever have been one, I would have gone on making excuses because what I really wanted was to be here, to help you and Joe and Hoss. I said that I wanted my freedom, but if freedom means not belonging anywhere – then I don’t want it. If you have a family you care for, you can never truly be free.”

“I knew this was where you belonged, but I didn’t know how to make you see that.”

“You didn’t need to make me see it, just being here proved to be enough.” It was enough to make him see that the memory of Kane was not sufficient reason to drive him from his family. That madman had not defeated him in the desert, and Adam would not allow the memory of him to win now.

Ben paused, wondering if Adam would answer the question that was on his mind, and decided to ask it anyway. “Why did you let that horse go?”

Adam looked away, embarrassed at his reasons, but then he thought that his father would understand. “To give him the life that I was turning my back on.” He shrugged. “It was stupid and sentimental, and I know it hurt Joe, and I didn’t mean to do that. But I couldn’t bear to see him deprived of his freedom, as I was about to give up mine. Freedom is for people with no ties, creatures like that horse. What I said the other night, about wanting my freedom…I am free; free to make my own decisions, and that means staying if I want to.”

“I don’t have to tell you how happy I am, but if ever you feel the need to get away, no matter for how long, I want you to tell me. I won’t stop you, and we’ll manage until you come back.”

“Thanks Pa.” Adam laughed; he knew that if he hadn’t, he would have started to cry. “You know, I noticed how Hoss and Joe had taken over in the short time I was away. I’d better get to work soon, or you won’t need me around and might decide to throw me out.”

“Well, you’re not doing anything until you’re fit,” Ben said sternly, then standing he held Adam’s shoulders, raised him to his feet and looked deep into his son’s eyes to let him see the sincerity of his words. “You know there’ll always be a place for you here,” he declared, then turned away and headed up the stairs to his room, where he could shed the tears of relief that he had been resisting.

*****

It was several days later that Hoss returned from town with a wagon load of supplies, and a letter for his father. Ben sat at his desk frowning at the unfamiliar writing on the envelope, then he opened it and smiled at the contents. He rose, calling to Hoss, who was coming out of the kitchen and preparing to go back out to unload the wagon.

“Have you seen Adam? He said he was going for a short ride, but that was,” he glanced at the long-case clock, “more than three hours ago.”

Hoss hesitated. On the road back from town, he had met Adam, and reluctantly promised him that he would not tell their father that he was headed out to the north range to check on the herd. Adam had explained that he did not want Ben to know that he planned a longer ride than he had said, and that he was feeling frustrated with Pa watching over him all the time and not allowing him to help with the work around the ranch.

“I don’t know where he is right this minute,” said Hoss finally, not lying to his father but not quite telling him the whole truth, “but I reckon I can find him, if’n you want me to.”

“No, it’s all right, he should be back soon.” Ben frowned as he realized that Adam had been gone for too long; he had been engrossed in his work and had not noticed the time passing.

“Mebbe I’ll just go see if I can meet him.”

Ben nodded, and Hoss went to the barn, saddled Chubb, and hurried out northwards. Half an hour later, he saw Adam coming towards him, riding slowly.

“Hey Adam,” he called, and Adam raised a heavy hand in acknowledgement. Hoss waited until his brother drew level with him, then turned his horse and rode beside him. “Pa’s lookin’ for you.”

“Oh?” The single word held both a question and the worry that his father had noticed his long absence.

“Yeah. He got a letter, then asked me where you were. Reckon you’d better be gettin’ home quick.” Hoss kicked Chubb into a canter, but slowed as he realized that Adam was not keeping pace with him. “You okay?” he asked, as Adam caught up with him.

Adam put a hand to his back and stretched. “Yeah. But let’s take it slow.”

Hoss frowned, but said nothing. He just rode beside his brother, watching to make sure that he was going to get home in one piece. As they made their way through the silent, sun dappled forest, Adam spoke quietly.

“Would you do something for me?”

“Sure,” Hoss replied without hesitation.

“Would you tell Pa that some of the calves up near the rim look as though they should be brought down to better grazing?”

Hoss was suspicious. “Why don’t you tell ‘im?”

“Because then I’d have to tell him how I know.”

“And he told you not to ride that far, huh?”

“You got it.” Adam cringed inwardly; he was thirty-four years old and yet he was reluctant to face his father’s angry reaction to being misled.

“You know I’ll do anythin’ for you, but not that. I won’t lie to Pa, not for you or anybody. You’re gonna have to tell him yourself.”

“But Hoss…” Adam didn’t finish the sentence because Hoss had kicked Chubb and was riding several paces ahead, no longer listening. They rode back to the house in silence, Hoss hoping that Adam wouldn’t ask him again, and Adam wondering how he was going to tell his father about the calves without getting into too much trouble.

Inside the house, Ben was trying to relax with a glass of sherry before supper, but was concerned at Adam’s long absence. To take his mind away from his worry, he was sitting over a chess board and studying the black and white pieces of the game that he was playing against himself, but he could not concentrate. He was relieved when Hoss and Adam finally appeared, and he nodded towards the decanters, inviting them to join him. Adam helped himself to a drink, but Hoss opted for a cup of coffee which, with a sideways look at his brother, he said he would take to his room.

Adam stood resignedly, knowing that he was being abandoned to face Pa’s wrath alone. “Coward,” he whispered under his breath, as Hoss passed him with a smile and a nod.

“What’s that?” Ben raised his eyebrows in question.

“Nothing, Pa.”

“Well, sit down, you look tired.”

“I’m fine. The fresh air has done me good, so stop worrying.” There was silence for a minute as they both studied the board, then Adam decided to come straight out and face his father. “Pa, I think we should move some of the calves from the north range. The grass is getting thin and they don’t seem to be putting on weight as they should.”

Ben moved a white rook, and then slowly looked up. “And what makes you think that?”

Adam drew a deep breath. “Because I was up there this afternoon, and saw them.”

“Oh you were, were you?”

“Yeah, and just as well as it turns out.” Adam took Ben’s rook with a black knight.

“You promised me that you would just go for a gentle ride.” Ben’s tone made it clear that he did not appreciate being deceived. “I don’t consider a trip to the north pasture to be ‘gentle’.” He moved a bishop to defend his threatened queen.

“Okay, that’s what I said, but supposing I hadn’t gone? When was someone going to check on them, hn?” Adam hoped to deflect the argument with logic.

“That is something I will take up with Charlie when I see him, and find out why he hadn’t assigned someone to keep an eye on them. But it doesn’t change the fact that you broke your word to me.”

“No, I didn’t.” Adam moved a pawn and then stood, walking behind the sofa as though to put its solidity between himself and his father’s anger. “I never said where I was going, and I did ride gently, that’s why it took me so long.”

Ben also stood. “Don’t try to be pedantic with me young man, you know very well that I wouldn’t have let you go, if I’d known your intentions.”

Adam stopped pacing and put his hands on his hips, his vision narrowing with tiredness and anger. “You wouldn’t have let me…! Is that what it comes down to, I have to get your permission before I can ride anywhere? Perhaps coming home was a mistake after all. You don’t seem to have understood anything.” He started to walk past Ben, towards the stairs, but felt his arm held.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean it like that. Sit down, please.” Adam didn’t move. “Please, son. I need to talk to you.” Ben was concerned that his son might be regretting his decision to stay

Looking down at the hand on his arm, Adam was about to refuse, but then he glanced up into his father’s eyes and was surprised to see uncertainty in the dark ebony gaze. His anger abated a little, and with a curt nod, he sat on the sofa, but Ben could tell that he was tense and ready to leave at the slightest provocation.

Eager to get the conversation over with, Adam said tersely, “Well?”

Ben sat down again. “Of course you’re free to go wherever you like, and I won’t stop you. But I do worry about you; you are far from fit still.” Adam was going to protest that statement, but Ben continued. “Look at you; it doesn’t take a doctor to figure out that your gentle ride has left you exhausted. Adam, I’m only thinking of you. When you came home, I remember you saying that you just wanted to be well again; do you honestly think that this is the way to achieve that?”

Adam looked down at his hands resting on his knees, then he sighed and lay back on the sofa, the last trace of his anger vanishing. “No, I guess not. But I feel so useless; I just wanted to be doing something.”

“Then content yourself with the paperwork for now. I agree that you should get out, but don’t overdo it too soon or you’ll be back in bed again. Paul told me that it could take months to properly repair the damage that Flynn did to you. Take it slowly and your strength will come back.”

“Okay, Pa, whatever you say.” Adam wouldn’t admit it, but he was too tired to argue. “Now, about those calves…”

“Don’t worry about them, we’ll bring them down as you suggest. There was something else I wanted to tell you though. I got a letter today, from Gideon Harper.”

“Oh?” Adam sat up straighter on hearing the name of his rescuer.

“Yes. When I talked with him in San Francisco, he told me that he had never been away from the coast so I invited him to the ranch, told him to come anytime he found himself free. The letter was an acceptance of that invitation.”

“That’s great. Does he say when?”

Ben went to the desk and returned, reading the letter. “On the twenty-fifth, that’s Saturday.”

“Then if it’s all right with you,” Adam said with rather more emphasis than was necessary, “I’ll ride in and meet him.”

“Why don’t you let Hoss go, or Joe?”

“Because I think it would be appropriate for me to go, don’t you?” Adam said sharply.

“Then you’d better take the buggy,” Ben’s tone made it more of an order than a suggestion.

Adam took a deep breath, trying to control his irritation at what he saw as his father’s over-protectiveness. “Pa, we can’t go on like this. I agree that I have to be careful, and that you’re just looking out for me, but you have to agree that occasionally I have to push myself that little bit further, otherwise how will I know when I’m fit?”

“Okay, I’ll concede that. But you won’t stop me worrying, and I only suggested the buggy because I thought that perhaps, as a sailor, Gideon might not know how to ride.”

“Oh,” said Adam, realizing that he had misinterpreted his father’s words, and his tone softened. “Guess I didn’t think of that.”

“That’s because you let yourself get too tired,” Ben said with a note of triumph as he reached down and moved the white king. “Checkmate.”

*****

Saturday afternoon found Adam wandering slowly along the sunlit sidewalk in Virginia City. This was his first visit to the town since his return, and he was greeted by friends and acquaintances, who wanted to express their pleasure that the news of his passing had been inaccurate. He chatted to them amiably, but all the time he was making his way towards the Overland stage office. He pulled his watch from his pocket and frowned, the stage was late, and he was debating whether he would have time for another beer in the Silver Dollar, when he heard, coming along the street behind him, the rumble of wheels and the thunder of hooves. He turned and watched the stage approach, then, as it passed, he quickened his pace and started after it.

As he arrived at the depot, the passengers were alighting. An elderly gentleman was helping his equally aged wife down the steps and onto the sidewalk. Adam reached out a hand to steady her and was rewarded with a smile and thanks. Following them was the man he had come to meet.

Gideon Harper had exchanged his sailor’s pea jacket and duck trousers for shirt and jeans, both of which were grey. He stood on the sidewalk and took off the Stetson that had replaced his cap. “Is this suitable attire for visiting a ranch, Mr. Cartwright?” he asked hesitantly. Adam was the grandson of his employer, and Gideon was not quite sure how to behave towards him socially.

Adam laughed and held out his hand in greeting. “Eminently. Welcome to Virginia City, Mr. Harper.”

“Thank you, sir. May I ask if you are recovered from your injuries?”

“I would say yes, but you might get a different answer if you asked my father that question.” Adam smiled at Harper’s uncertain frown. “Don’t worry about it, let’s go.” He reached down to collect the carpet bag that the driver had thrown down, but Harper hurriedly picked it up and then followed Adam to the buggy, which he had left on the shady side of the street to protect the horse from the sun.

“Would you like some refreshment before we go to the ranch?” Adam asked, thinking that Harper might appreciate a rest from traveling.

The sailor turned an excited face towards the rancher. “No, sir. If you don’t mind, could we go straight there?”

The brightness of the sea-blue eyes brought a smile to Adam’s face. He guessed that Harper was in his mid-twenties, but the eagerness he was showing at the prospect of exploring a new land made him seem like a youth. “Very well, climb aboard.” It was already mid-afternoon, so Adam set the horse off at a brisk trot, but the animal could not keep up the pace indefinitely and it would be dark before they reached the house.

For the next hour, conversation between the two men was halting and Adam detected nervousness in his companion. “Is something wrong?” he asked, after a long silence that indicated the other man’s reluctance to speak.

“No, nothing sir,” Harper declared.

“Then can we get one thing straight? You don’t have to call me ‘sir’, my name is Adam.”

“I know.”

“And do you mind if I call you Gideon?”

Harper was taken aback by the question; rich, powerful men did not usually ask one’s permission to use a given name. “No, I don’t mind.”

More minutes passed silently, then Gideon spoke. “Adam,” he paused, hoping that he had not misunderstood the invitation to address Mr. Cartwright so, but the sky did not descend so he continued, “it was very kind of your father to invite me to visit.”

“It’s a pleasure to have you, and we always enjoy showing people the Ponderosa.”

“Your father said you were in the cattle business, but I haven’t seen any cows.”

“The herds are in the pastures, some to the west of here nearer the mountains, but mostly in the Carson Valley at this time of year,” Adam explained, then indicated the pine forest through which they were traveling. “We use these trees for timber which we mill into lumber, a lot of it for the mines around Virginia City.” He pointed to the north. “And over there we have a small silver mine as well.”

Gideon looked at the expanse of country that Adam had indicated and realized the ranch was larger than he had imagined. “And your father runs it all?”

“With help from me and my brothers. But yes, he’s in charge.”

“How many brothers do you have, if you don’t mind me asking?” Still the nervousness showed in Gideon’ polite question.

Adam pulled the horse to a stop and turned to his companion. “No, I don’t mind, and the answer is two.” He studied the young man. “Gideon, you know you are here as our guest, and I am pleased that you came, not just because I owe you my life, but because I hope that we may become friends.”

“I would like that,” Gideon admitted.

“Then would you please relax, you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself.”

“I’m sorry. In that case, may I tell you something?” At Adam’s nod, Gideon continued. “I can’t help remembering that you are the grandson of my employer.”

“Is that it?” Adam was surprised, but it did explain the young man’s attitude towards him. “If I had sailed on the Elizabeth Jane, as had been planned, I would have been just another employee of the Stoddard line, the same as you only with far less experience than you have. And I’ll tell you something; when I was on board the ship I watched you working, and I admired your expertise and the way you handled the men. That kind of ability is far more important that any relationship I may have to Abel Stoddard, which is purely an accident of birth. You seemed so at home on the ship, and that was something that I envied.”

“You did?”

“Yeah.” Adam laughed at Gideon’ surprised expression, and slapped the reins against the rump of the horse, which started off again along the track.

Talk of San Francisco reminded Gideon of a letter he had been entrusted to deliver, and he reached behind the seat, rummaging in his bag and then holding out an envelope. “Captain Wheeler gave it to me when he knew I was coming to visit.”

Adam raised his eyebrows as he took the envelope, and then he tried to pass the reins to Gideon, “Hold these while I open it.”

“What? Me? I don’t know how to drive a buggy.” Gideon made no move to take control.

“Don’t worry, you won’t have to do anything,” Adam smiled. “Just let the horse know that you’re there, and if he gets skittish and decides to take off, pull backwards as hard as you can or we’ll end up in a ditch.”

“Just gotta hold them, right?” Gideon asked doubtfully.

Adam nodded, then once he was satisfied that they were in no imminent danger, he turned his attention to the envelope. When he had read the short note he raised his head and stared into the forest, thinking dark thoughts.

He became conscious that his companion was watching him, and held up the letter. “Did Wheeler tell you what was in this?”

“No, he just asked me to give it to you.”

“It seems that my cousin has disappeared from Boston. Wheeler thinks he may come here trying to find me.” Adam put the letter in his pocket and retrieved the reins. “You might want to reconsider your visit.”

“Why would I do that?” Gideon asked seriously. “I can watch your back.”

Adam glanced sideways and smiled. “Well, I know this country and Matthew would find it very different to the streets of a big city, so I don’t think there’s much danger. But it’s good to know that you’ll be right behind me.” As they rounded the next corner, Adam pointed sideways through the trees. “There’s the house, we’re nearly there.”

As the buggy pulled to a halt in the yard, Ben came out of the house, followed by Hoss and Joe.

Ben held out his hand. “Welcome to the Ponderosa, Mr. Harper.”

“Thank you for inviting me,” Harper said in response to the greeting.

Adam introduced him to Hoss and Joe, who bade him welcome. Gideon looked from Adam to his brothers and wondered at the difference he saw; Joe was smaller than Adam, where Hoss was larger by far than either of them. But in the eyes of all the Cartwrights he had seen a welcome, and he finally relaxed as they led him into the house.

Over supper, Gideon regaled them with stories of his voyages and, as he listened, Adam was again gripped with a desire to see some of the world beyond the shores of his homeland. But then he looked at his family and knew that he had made the right decision.

When Gideon asked if they could take a buggy to the lake, Adam had a better idea. “Why don’t I teach you to ride? It isn’t as difficult as you may think,” he laughed, seeing Gideon’ hesitation.

“I would like that, thank you,” Gideon said, not sure that ‘like’ quite covered his feelings at the thought of being up on the large, four-footed, and probably independently minded, mode of transport.

“Then if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get to bed and we’ll make an early start,” Adam said as he got to his feet, and, after saying goodnight, he climbed wearily up the stairs. A few minutes later Joe and Hoss followed him, saying that they, too, would be out early in the morning.

Once they were alone, Gideon turned to Ben. “How is Adam, really? He said he was all right, but that I might get a different answer from you.”

“He was right; he’s still far from well. He desperately wants to get back to work, but he tires easily. He won’t allow himself to rest as he should. Perhaps you can encourage him take things easy.”

“I doubt that I will be able to have any influence over Adam, Mr. Cartwright, but I will do my best.” Gideon rose. “I think I had better be off to bed as well. Goodnight.”

Ben stood. “Goodnight.”

*****

As Adam passed Joe’s open bedroom door early the following morning, he could see his youngest brother standing in front of his shaving mirror. He was pushing his fingers through the hair at the side of his head until they met at the back, and then holding his brown wavy locks tightly as he turned one way and the other, appraising the effect.

He spotted his eldest brother in the reflection, arms crossed and leaning on the door post. “What d’you think? Would I look good with long hair like Gideon’s?” wondered Joe.

Adam sighed. “I think you’d look like a pirate, but why don’t you ask Pa for his opinion?” The lop-sided smile that crept over Adam’s face said that he knew exactly what their father’s reaction would be.

“Ask Pa? You serious? He’d skin me alive.” Joe released his fingers and shook his head to get his hair back to its normal look.

Nodding knowingly, Adam pushed himself upright. “Then I think you have your answer. Come on, or Hoss’ll eat your breakfast.”

Once the meal was finished, with no mention of hair styles, and Joe and Hoss had left for the day, Adam led Gideon to the barn and into one of the loose boxes.

“Say hello to Josie,” he instructed, and Gideon tentatively put out his hand to stroke the horse’s neck. “She’s a good old girl, and is very patient. She won’t let you come to any harm.” He smiled fondly as he rubbed the bay’s face, between her eyes. “I think she has a mother’s instincts, and looks on anyone on her back as her personal responsibility.”

When Adam had finished saddling Josie, he led her out into the yard and told Gideon that it was time to mount. The horse suddenly seemed impossibly large to the young mariner, but gritting his teeth bravely he did as he was told and was soon sitting stiffly in the saddle. Adam stood over six feet tall, and when Gideon realized that he was looking down at the top of his instructor’s head, he gripped the saddle horn tightly.

Adam noticed the movement. “Don’t worry; just hold on lightly with your legs and you won’t fall off. Not too tight, mind, or Josie will take it as a sign that you want to go faster!”

Gideon shook his head, angry with himself. “It’s ridiculous, I can climb the rigging of a ship, a hundred feet high, but this scares the heck out of me.”

“It’s just because you think Josie will do something unpredictable, but she knows what she’s about, she’s trained many a rider before you.” Adam took hold of the bridle. “Now, relax.” He led the horse around the yard to allow Gideon to get used to the feel of the animal’s gait, and then he let go and instructed Gideon to sit up straight and ‘relax for goodness sake’ while the horse walked quietly in a large circle.

Seeing that Gideon was still rigid in the saddle, Adam sighed patiently, and after a few minutes he stepped forward and stopped the horse.

“Gideon, you have to move with the horse, otherwise you are going to get very tired and Josie is going to get nervous. Think of it as being at sea; when you’re on a ship that’s rolling you go with it, unconsciously keeping your balance. A horse is just the same. Close your eyes and imagine that you’ve got a deck beneath you, not a saddle.”

Less than convinced, Gideon looked uncertain, but he shut his eyes as Adam again led Josie around. This time he moved smoothly with the motion of the horse, and he opened his eyes, a broad grin on his face. “You’re right; it’s just like a ship. Now I understand, let me try it alone.”

Adam stood back and smiled as man and horse slowly became one. An hour later, Gideon was asking if they could go for a ride outside the confines of the front yard.

“No, I think you’ve done enough for your first day.” As Gideon was about to repeat his request, Adam laughed. “Any longer and you wouldn’t be walking straight for a week.” He helped the Ponderosa’s newest horseman from the saddle. “Until you get used to it, riding plays havoc with your butt, not to mention your legs.”

“Yeah, I see what you mean,” said Gideon, rubbing his backside with both hands. “But tomorrow…?”

“Yeah, tomorrow we’ll ride to the lake.”

True to his word, the following day Adam took Gideon to the shores of Lake Tahoe. As they sat side by side on the grassy fringe surrounding a small sandy cove, and looked at the calm blue waters and the mountain topped forest beyond, they talked with subdued voices; normal conversation seemed out of place amongst such serenity.

“D’you know, I’ve seen all of the oceans of this world, but I have never seen water that was so peaceful.” He glanced at Adam, then back to the view. “How could you give up all this for the sea?

Adam was silent for a minute, and then replied. “I haven’t.” Seeing Gideon’s surprise he continued, “I have decided to stay here.”

“Did the attack have anything to do with your decision?”

Adam glanced sideways at the man beside him; there was something in the fine features that he liked, an honesty and strength that was appealing. Adam rose and walked to the water’s edge. Whenever he had tried to get Gideon to talk about his past, he had always been met with an off hand remark and a swift change of subject. He was hiding something, and Adam was curious. He wondered if he confided to Gideon the reason for his decision to stay, whether the younger man would reciprocate with information about himself.

“It had everything to do with it.” He turned to Gideon, who had risen to stand beside him. “When I came round, in Palmerton’s house, I knew then that I missed my family.” He watched Gideon’ reaction, wondering if he would think it strange for a grown man to admit such a thing, but he saw only interest. “I knew that I didn’t belong there, among strangers.”

“So you wanted the love of your family around you.”

Adam nodded, pleased that he did not have to explain his feelings. “That’s right.”

“I can understand that, it is something that I have missed for many years, ever since my father sent me to sea.”

“Why did he do that? Didn’t you go by choice?”

Gideon looked down and studied the sand at his feet, and Adam thought that he would again avoid the subject. Then he looked up, took a deep breath and answered. “No. It’s an old cliché, but it was because of a girl.” He waited for Adam to speak, to make some facetious remark, and was quietly pleased when he did not. “I was seventeen when I fell in love with the daughter of a saloon keeper. My father was a doctor with aspirations to join the elite of San Francisco society, and did not approve of my relationship. When it seemed that we might marry, unknown to me he indentured me to the company. Once the papers were signed, I was committed. I could have run away, taken Sophie with me, but I couldn’t do that.” As he talked, Gideon reached down and picked up a small pebble, which he threw far out into the water, where it landed with a soft ‘plop’.

Adam reached down and picked up another. “Why not?” His pebble followed Gideon’s.

“Because it might have ruined my father, if the company had decided to act on the penalty clauses in the contract. Much as I resented his action, and his interference, I couldn’t do that to him.” Another ‘plop’ marked the meeting of pebble and water. “But I never forgave him, and we have not spoken since, indeed I have not seen him, despite being back in San Francisco many times.”

“What happened to Sophie?” Adam asked quietly.

“She died in a barroom brawl.” Suddenly Gideon sat down and, clutching his knees up to his chest, rested his chin on his arms. Adam continued to toss pebbles into the water, then skimmed one across the surface, watching as it bounced four times before sinking. The noise made Gideon stir, and he watched as Adam sent another on its way.

“How do you do that?”

“What, this?” asked Adam. The next pebble skipped five times.

Gideon stood. “Yes.”

Adam showed him how to wrap his index finger around the stone and send it flying level with the surface of the water, and together they spent a few minutes in cheerful competition, until Adam saw the sun beginning to touch the tops of the mountains to the west.

“Time we were getting back, unless you want to miss supper. Hop Sing doesn’t take kindly to anyone missing a meal he’s prepared.”

As they rode steadily back, Adam had more questions. “So, why are you only a second mate? At your age and with your ability to command, I would have thought that you would be a Master by now.”

“No way,” Gideon declared. “Firstly, I don’t want that sort of responsibility, and secondly…well secondly, I can’t even get a ticket as a first mate.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m known as a trouble maker.”

“You’re what!” Adam could not believe what he was hearing from the polite, quiet man beside him.

“If I see an injustice, I will speak up, and that doesn’t go down too well with Captains, or Mates for that matter.”

Adam recalled Gideon’s heated protest to Prescott on the Elizabeth Jane. “I can see that it wouldn’t. So, are you going back to sea?”

“Yes, when Captain Wheeler no longer needs me to stay in San Francisco.”

Mention of the policeman brought unpleasant memories and Adam became serious. “Is there any news of Flynn?”

“No.” Gideon sighed, “If there is still none when I go back, Mr. Palmerton will insist that I am assigned to another ship.”

“I expect you’re looking forward to that?”

“Not really.” Gideon was conscious of Adam watching him. “I have made more friends in the last six weeks than in the past six years; you and your family, and…well…I’ve been calling on Ethne Palmerton.”

Adam pursed his lips knowingly. “Oh, I see.”

Gideon smiled at the memory of the young lady. “But I will soon be off again. I am hoping that she will understand the times I am away, and will be prepared for a long courtship.”

“A courtship, hn? That sounds like you’re serious about her.”

“Yes, I am.” Suddenly Gideon was not seeing the forest around him, but a pair of laughing blue eyes.

*****

As Adam and Gideon entered the house, Ben was torn between smiling with sympathetic amusement and frowning with concern. Gideon walked as though every muscle from his waist downwards was protesting, and Adam just looked plum tired.

“Sit down, both of you; you look like you could do with a rest.”

Gideon nodded gratefully and lowered himself gently onto the sofa and lay back so he was putting the least amount of pressure on his sore backside, while Adam straightened, ready to resist any attempt to mollycoddle him. But then he saw something deeper than concern in his father’s face, and he frowned as he tried to identify it. He watched as Ben resumed his seat, and dismissed the thought from his mind; it was probably just Pa’s naturally protective nature showing through, he decided, seating himself opposite Ben.

After calling to Hop Sing to bring tea for them all, Ben spoke to Gideon. “Did you enjoy your ride?”

“I think so,” said Gideon, rubbing his back, “but give me a Pacific gale any day in preference to a horse. I guess you get used to it – eventually.”

Laughter and agreement met this statement. “You’ll feel worse in the morning, believe me,” Adam told him. “But the more you do it, the easier it gets.”

Their conversation was halted by the arrival of Hoss and Joe, tired but satisfied with their day’s work. They asked Gideon about his day, and their laughter was kindly as he told them of the after effects the ride.

“You was right about them little critters, brother,” Hoss told Adam as he sat beside Gideon. “They’re doin’ just fine now, fattenin’ up well.”

As Hoss was speaking, Ben rose and went to his desk, where he opened a drawer and retrieved a large envelope.

Meanwhile, Joe sat at the other end of the sofa. “And we’ve finally finished breaking those broncs. There’s a couple there that will make good breeding stock.”

Adam smiled to himself; how quickly they had returned to their old ways of reporting to him events that affected the ranch. “That’s good, Joe, I’m glad you can replace the palomino.”

“Lucky for you I can,” Joe smiled, taking any reprimand from his voice. “Otherwise I might just have made you go and find me another stallion.”

Before Adam could reply, Ben came to stand beside him, and held out the envelope. “This came for you.” There was a strange quietness in his father’s words that made Adam look up at him. “You might want to open it in your room.”

Holding the envelope in his hand, Adam had a strange sense of foreboding and he stood up, frowning as he searched his father’s face for a clue as to the contents. Ben’s eyes told him nothing, but he nodded towards the stairs and Adam took the letter and made his way slowly upstairs. He sat on the edge of his bed and tore open the envelope, extracting several sheets of paper and a smaller envelope addressed to him in his grandfather’s hand.

When he saw that the first letter was from a firm of attorneys in Boston, a cold hand gripped his heart; there was only one reason he could think of for such correspondence, and as he read it his worst fears were confirmed.

 

Dear Mr. Cartwright,

It is with regret that I have to inform you of the death of your grandfather, Abel Stoddard. Mr. Stoddard, as you know, was frail and not in the best of health and I am afraid that when, despite our efforts to keep it from him, he learned of the attempt on your life by your cousin, it affected him deeply. So much so that his nurse confined him to bed, where he died a week later.

Before his death, Mr. Stoddard instructed me that he wished to change his will, a copy of which I enclose. You will see that you are to inherit the bulk of your grandfather’s estate, including sole ownership of the Stoddard Shipping Company. Until I hear from you as to your wishes, I will continue to act for the Stoddard Company’s interests, and trust that I may have as long an association with yourself as I did with your grandfather, who became more of a friend than a client, and I will miss him greatly.

I have written separately to your father, informing him of this sad news and of the bequest left to him by Mr. Stoddard.

I am also enclosing a letter that your grandfather wrote, and which was found at his bedside.

My condolences to you, sir, and to your family.

I remain, your obedient servant,

Martin Turnbull

 

As Adam read, he felt his throat tighten with unshed tears but his overwhelming emotion was anger at the outcome of his cousin’s actions. He went over the letter again more carefully to assure himself that he had taken in the contents correctly, then glanced at the pages of the will.

Finally he opened the letter from his grandfather, and read what he considered were probably the last words that the old man would ever share with him.

 

My dear Adam,

They have finally told me what your cousin tried to do to you, and I can only say how sorry I am. I arranged that you would inherit half of the business because I suspected that Matthew was harming the company somehow, but I could never prove it; it was just a feeling I had that things were not as they should be. I knew that I had not long left of this life, and I hoped that with the authority of ownership, you might be able to control your cousin.

Then I heard from him that you were going to be working for us in San Francisco, and I was delighted, knowing that you would acquire the knowledge that would allow you to be on equal terms with Matthew, who for all his apparent failings, knows the shipping world. But I never envisaged that my wanting to safeguard the company would have such dire consequences.

 

Adam stopped reading as he realized how cunning his cousin had been. It seemed that, somehow, Matthew had prevented Abel from receiving his letters with news of his departure, and by letting it be known that Adam was working in San Francisco, he had created the impression that he could go to Boston at any time. Telling Abel that his grandson was setting off round the world might have prompted the old man to confide his suspicions to Adam, and call on him to go to Boston instead.

He took a deep breath and continued reading.

 

Matthew has disappeared, running from the police I gather, and I have changed my will and made you my sole heir. Despite what the doctors tell me, my days are numbered in tens, not hundreds, and I am leaving the business to you, knowing that it will be in safe hands, and ask only that you will oversee its continuance. I remember those days when you would talk to me of your dreams of traveling to new and wondrous places, and it is my wish that you take the opportunity I am offering you, take the ships that will be yours, and let them open the world to you.

Remember me as your loving grandfather,

Abel

 

When he had finished, Adam’s hands dropped onto his lap and he sat staring at nothing, as he thought of the man he had come to know when he was studying in Boston. They had not seen each other since, though they had exchanged frequent letters, and now Adam felt a part of his life had died with his grandfather. During those years away from his family, Abel Stoddard had become like a father to him; there to listen to his problems, to encourage him and to share long leisurely suppers. In return Adam had given Abel the love of a son.

Supper had been served, and finished, by the time Adam returned downstairs. Gideon had not joined the family at the table, saying that he would eat in his room, as he sensed that something was very far wrong and this was not a time for a stranger to intrude.

Ben had explained the probable contents of the letter to Hoss and Joe, and as Adam rejoined them Ben stood and, approaching Adam, put his hand on his arm. “Are you okay son?”

Adam nodded somberly. Maybe, later, he could spare time for tears, but now he had some decisions to make and his emotions were held on a tight rein. “Yes.” He took a deep breath, “I knew he wasn’t well, but I never expected… I’ll never forgive Matthew; he attacked me but killed Grandfather.” His anger resurfaced and he repeated more strongly, “I will never forgive him.”

“Come and sit down. Do you want something to eat?” Ben had asked Hop Sing to keep Adam’s supper warm and was preparing to go to the kitchen, when Adam stopped him.

“No thanks, I’m not hungry.” Adam sat on the sofa, staring into the fire.

Joe handed him a glass of brandy. “You look like you could do with this.”

“Thanks, but I’m all right.” He forced his anger away as he held the glass and swirled the tawny liquid around the bowl. Hoss and Joe sat down on either side of him as though to protect him from his sorrow. “I gather that Turnbull wrote to you as well,” Adam said to Ben, who nodded. “Did he tell you anything of Grandfather’s will?”

“Not really. He just mentioned that he had left me a small legacy. Why? Did he tell you what was in it?”

Adam nodded. “Yes. He sent me a copy, with his letter. Grandfather left me everything, except some bequests.”

“Well, you are his only close family; his brother died years ago, and he fell out with Matthew’s parents, though unfortunately not with Matthew.”

Mention of his cousin again stirred Adam’s anger and there was silence for a minute while he studied his drink, then he spoke quietly. “He left me everything.

“Everything? You mean all his money and his house in Boston?” asked Joe.

“Yes. But that’s not all.” Adam put the untouched drink on the table, got to his feet, and walked towards the office alcove, then returned and stood with his hands on his hips looking at his father. “He also left me his business.”

“I see,” said Ben quietly.

Adam spread his arms and shrugged. “What am I going to do with a shipping line?” he asked no one in particular, then headed towards the door. “I’m going to get some air.”

Knowing their brother was upset, Hoss and Joe both started after him until Ben stopped them. “Hold on there, boys, he needs time to think.”

Hoss shrugged his massive shoulders. “Guess so.”

“Yes, sir,” said Joe, reluctantly returning to his seat on the sofa.

After ten minutes of silence, Ben picked up a book, trying to find a diversion in its pages, but when an hour had passed and still Adam had not returned, he poured two glasses of brandy and went to the door. Turning to Hoss and Joe, who were playing a game of checkers to pass the time, he told them that he was going to check on their brother. He found Adam sitting on the veranda, staring out into the failing evening light.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

Adam looked up. “No, of course not,” he said, taking the offered glass.

Settling himself in one of the wooden chairs, Ben took a sip of his drink before he spoke. “He was a good man and he loved your mother dearly. I think her death hit him very hard, he was never quite the same after that, you know.”

Adam took a deep breath. “I know. We often talked about her; he told me about her childhood and how he missed her when he was away. I think he almost regretted choosing a life at sea, more away than at home.”

“It’s the sacrifice that seamen make, not having a proper home life, but it makes the time you are at home more intense; you have to fit months of feelings into days.” Ben paused. “So, have you decided what you are going to do…about the company?”

“Maybe.” Adam studied the liquid in the glass that he was twirling in his fingers. “Pa, I have made a decision, but I want you to tell me honestly what you think.”

“All right,” Ben agreed. In the pit of his stomach he knew what was coming, but he would let his son tell him in his own time.

Just as Ben was concerned about what Adam would say, so Adam was worried about how his words would be received. He sat forward and rested his elbows on the table, and tasted the brandy before setting his glass aside. “I know that you and Abel were in partnership, before we left Boston, and that then he ran the chandlery business alone. He built that up and then bought his first ship, then another, until he had a fleet. It reminds me of the way you built this place, starting with nothing and gradually making it grow into what it is now.”

“I suppose it is similar.” Ben sat back and crossed his legs, trying to appear relaxed, but he folded his arms across his chest in an attempt to slow the thudding of his heart.

Adam stood and went to the edge of the veranda, where he turned and leaned back against a post, driving his hands deep into his back pockets. “If, God forbid, anything should happen to you, you know that you have sons to take over, so that what you built will continue.” Ben nodded. “But there’s no one to take over from Grandfather.” He paused, then held out Abel’s letter. “Turnbull sent me this.” He passed the envelope to Ben.

After taking in the contents, written in the familiar spidery writing, Ben folded the paper and placed it back in its envelope before rising to stand beside Adam, looking out across the yard to the blackness of the forest beyond. “So you’re going to Boston.” It was not a question, for there was no doubt in Ben’s mind that that was what Adam intended. He had raised his sons to be responsible, caring adults, and now he was reaping the harvest of that teaching. At that moment he wished that Adam was the kind of man who would think only of himself and what he wanted; that he would sell the company, take the money, and stay home. He glanced sideways and saw the troubled look on his son’s face; a look that said he wanted to stay, but knew that he could not.

Adam could not look at his father; he did not want to see the hurt his choice might bring. “Yes. It’s the last thing that Grandfather asked of me, how can I not go? You have Hoss and Joe, but he had no one to call on but me. He may be dead, but I can’t desert him. Besides that, he knew that Matthew was up to something, and I would very much like to know what it was – apart from trying to kill me.”

Ben handed back the letter. “As soon as you told me that Abel had left you the shipping line, I knew that you couldn’t ignore it, and I also know what it will cost you to leave. You made that quite clear when you came back.”

Finally, Adam turned towards Ben. “But do you understand why I have to go?”

“Yes.” He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “And I expected nothing less from you. Go, with my blessing.”

“Thanks, Pa.” Adam took a deep, relieved breath. “This is one of the most difficult decisions that I have ever had to make, but knowing that you understand makes it easier. You were right, when I went to San Francisco I was running away from something, but now I’m running towards it, not because I want to, but because I have to.”

“There’s only one thing I would ask of you.” At Adam’s raised eyebrows, Ben continued, “Take Joe with you. You’re still not a hundred per cent fit, there’s a civil war raging, and it’s a long journey to Boston.”

There was a pause. “I’ll think about it,” Adam promised.

*****

Early the following morning, Adam looked in on Gideon and was not surprised to be informed by the young man that he had decided not to move for a while. Adam told him that he was going to check on some of the hands who were clearing streams, but that he would be back for lunch. It was a job that he did not really need to do, but he wanted to get away from the house, and his father’s presence. He had an idea forming in his mind, but he did not want to discuss it until he had thought it through in more detail.

He was not entirely surprised when he entered the barn to find Joe inside, preparing Cochise for his day’s work. Before Adam left, his youngest brother had never been keen on getting up in the morning, but since he had been called upon to bear more of the responsibility for the ranch, he had changed dramatically and would often be found before breakfast getting his horse ready for the day ahead so as not to waste any time.

Backing away, Adam started out of the barn, not wanting to get into a conversation with Joe, but there seemed no way to avoid it if he wanted to get away early, so he turned back and after a mumbled ‘good morning’, he went into Sport’s stall.

Joe abandoned his brushing and stood fiddling with the curry comb, feigning casualness. “Pa told me about you going to Boston.”

Adam continued to brush Sport’s russet coat. “Did he?”

“Yeah.” Joe moved to stand on the opposite side of Sport, so that he could see his brother’s face. “He also said that he suggested I go with you.”

“That’s true.”

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Oh, come on Adam, you know what I mean,” Joe said, impatient with his brother’s terse sentences. “Are you going to let me go with you?”

“No.”

“But Pa said…”

“I told him I’d think about it, and I have.” Adam leaned his forearms on Sport’s back, looking over the tall animal at his youngest brother’s eager eyes. “You can’t come.”

“But I ain’t never been to Boston.”

Adam raised his eyebrows at Joe’s grammar, but decided to let it pass. “And you’re not going now.”

“But why? Pa’s right, you shouldn’t go alone, you’re still not fit. Suppose you got ill on the way?”

Joe’s words made Adam realize that his father and brother had been discussing him behind his back, and he frowned in annoyance at their interference and was going to tell Joe to stay out of his affairs. But a moment later he relaxed, admitting to himself that it was simply because they cared, and he spoke calmly. “You can’t come, because if you do, then I can’t go.”

“Huh?”

Putting down his brush, Adam came out of the stall and sat on a small barrel, inviting Joe to join him. Joe upturned a pail, and sat down, his elbows on his knees and his eyes on his brother as he waited for him to speak.

“Joe, when I went away I knew that I was leaving the ranch in safe hands. You and Hoss were here to look after it, and Pa. But if I let you come to Boston, who’s going to do that? It’s not fair to dump that load on Hoss for who knows how many weeks until you get back. I can only go to Boston if you stay here.”

“But Hoss can manage, I know he can.”

“Yes, he can, but is it right to ask him to?”

Joe looked down and shuffled his feet in the straw on the floor. “No, I guess not,” he said reluctantly, then looked up. “But is it right for us to let you go alone?”

“I might just have an idea that’ll take care of that.” Joe was about to ask what it was, but Adam stopped him. “I’ll tell you if it works out, okay?”

“If you say so. But I still think you’re wrong.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time, and maybe you’re right. But let’s wait and see, hn?”

Joe nodded in agreement, but was frowning as Adam’s words percolated through his mind. “You just said if I came with you, it might be weeks before I came back, but you didn’t say anything about you coming home. Are you coming back…or are you gonna stay in Boston?”

The immediate future had occupied Adam’s mind and he had not thought further. He shrugged, “I don’t know, maybe. It depends on how the business goes, who’s there to run it, and whether they need me.”

Joe stood and took two paces away before he turned on his brother angrily. “Whether they need you? What about us, doesn’t it matter that we need you?”

“You don’t,” Adam said softly in reply. “You and Hoss are more than capable of helping Pa.”

“But suppose we wanted to go wandering about the country…” Joe threw his arms wide, “…or the world? How come you get to do it, and we cain’t?”

Adam rose and went back to brushing Sport. “Joe, twenty-four hours ago the furthest thing from my mind was leaving here again. But now I don’t have a choice, I have to go.”

The sadness in his brother’s voice made Joe wish that he could call back his angry words. He leaned over the side of Sport’s stall. “It’s all right, I understand, and so will Hoss.”

“I’ll make a deal with you,” Adam said, running the brush over the horse’s rump. “If either of you ever take a fancy to looking at more of the world, I want you to let me know, and I’ll come back…from wherever I am.”

Joe straightened. “Wherever you are? What’s that supposed to mean?”

The brush moved ever more slowly over Sport’s coat until Adam finally stopped altogether, thinking of what he had said. “I’m not sure.”

Joe stood silently, staring at his brother and realizing that they were, after all, going to lose him, not just to Boston but to the world. He stepped forward and threw an arm round Adam’s neck and pulled him close. Then, without a word he hurried from the barn.

Adam timed his return from the range so that he arrived in the house just as lunch was being served. He was glad to see that Gideon had ventured from his bed, because he knew that Ben would not press him for an answer in front of a visitor. When the meal was finished, Adam asked the young man to join him for a stroll down to the corral.

“You seem to be walking okay,” Adam observed as they left the house.

“Yeah, I am, mostly. Your father told me to keep moving, and despite the temptation to lay flat on my face in bed, I did as he suggested. And Hop Sing gave me some liniment that he swore would cure the ache if I rubbed it on my butt.” Gideon smiled, “At least, I think that’s what he meant, there was more gesticulating than words, but it seems to have done the trick.”

“I swear he’s got more remedies hidden in that kitchen than Paul Martin has in his office. I’ve always wondered if he was some kind of doctor back in China, but he’s never told us much about his life before he came to San Francisco.”

They reached the corral, and both men leaned comfortably on the top rail. Gideon watched the horses milling around as he spoke. “Talking of San Francisco, it’ll soon be time I was heading back. Mr. Palmerton will be wanting to assign me to a new ship.”

“I want to talk to you about that.” Adam turned to face his companion. “How would you feel about a trip to Boston?”

Gideon’s head turned sharply. “Boston!”

“Yeah. I have to go there, and Pa is anxious that I don’t go alone.” Adam sighed, “He thinks that I need looking after.”

“Boston,” Gideon said softly, turning back to study the horses. “That’s somewhere I would like to see again.”

“You’ve been there?”

“We docked there once.” He shook his head. “But it’s impossible; I still have a year of my indenture to work.”

“Your father signed a contract with the Company, am I right?” Adam asked.

“Yes. He did at least take that precaution, rather than signing me aboard a ship. It meant that I would be more likely to be made up to Master, but as I explained, that isn’t gonna happen.”

“Then it’s no problem.” Gideon looked round, his eyebrows rising in enquiry as he waited for Adam to continue, and when he did, Gideon saw the sadness in his face. “The letter that my father gave me last night was from an attorney in Boston to tell me that my grandfather had died, and to give me details of his will. He left me the Company, so,” he paused, “now you work for me.”

“I see…sir,” Gideon said slowly.

“Don’t start that again!” Adam smiled fleetingly, then became serious. “So, I could order you to go to Boston.”

“You could.”

“Or I could release you from your contract, and you could go anywhere you want.”

There was silence while Gideon took in the information, then he smiled slowly. “I would like to be free of my commitment; I have known for some time that I don’t want to stay at sea.”

“Then consider it done. From this moment, you are free to have the life you want, in exchange for the life you gave me.”

“What am I going to tell Ethne, if I go to Boston?”

“Tell her the truth; that you have a job to do there, but you’ll be back. If you were joining a ship, you could be away for months. This is no different.”

“Then I’ll write and tell her,” he held his hand out to Adam, “that I’m going east.”

“That’s great.” Adam shook the offered hand. “Now I have something else to ask you. When we get to Boston, I am going to need some help; I know how to run a business, I’ve been helping my father to do that for years, but I don’t know enough about shipping to run a whole company, so I thought…”

Gideon lips thinned and his words held a touch of bitterness. “So you release me, and then you ask me to work for you.”

“Only if you want to, the choice is yours. But I will need an assistant, and one who knows the sea would be a distinct advantage, as would someone I knew I could trust.” Adam smiled. “And if you’re working for me, you’ll get paid.”

Gideon thought about it, watching Adam closely while he considered what it would be like to work for him. “All right, on one condition.”

“Name it.”

“That this arrangement is purely between us, man to man; no contract and I can leave at any time.”

“If that’s how you want it, then I agree. Let’s go tell Pa.”

*****

The journey east from Nevada should have taken a month, but due to delays, it was seven weeks after they started out that Gideon and Adam emerged from the Flitchburg railroad terminus on Boston’s Causeway Street. Gideon had taken his role of Adam’s assistant to include caring for his employer’s health, and had insisted that they break their journey frequently to rest, and, as they traveled further east, the ravages of the war became apparent, both in the decimated countryside, and in the squads of soldiers, sometimes blue clad, sometimes grey, who would stop the train they were traveling in. On more than one occasion it was only a gold coin, which Adam slipped surreptiously into the hand of the officer in charge, that prevented the pair suffering the uncertain fate of some of their fellow travelers, who were hauled off the train when suspected of allegiance to the enemy.

The balmy winds of early September were blowing strongly as the pair were driven away from the station in their hired carriage. Despite Gideon’s suggestion that Adam should go to the house to rest, he insisted that he wanted to go and see Martin Turnbull without delay; there were papers to sign and arrangements to make. He called to the driver to stop and got out of the carriage, instructing Gideon to go on ahead with their baggage, to Abel’s house on Washington Street that would be their home, and told him that they should meet later, at the Stoddard Shipping Company offices on Long Wharf. Gideon drove off, leaving Adam to walk the short distance to the lawyer’s office, allowing him a few minutes alone to remember the last time he had seen the city, and his grandfather, when he had been there as a student.

The graceful buildings had not changed, though some had been added, but the streets were more crowded, and many men wore the dark blue uniform jacket of the Union Army. As he walked, he was accosted by soldiers who had lost limbs, or an eye or hand, and were looking for alms, for any small coin that would ease the sacrifice they had made. Adam’s heart ached for what they had suffered in the name of their country – his country – and soon his pockets were empty and he hurried past the outstretched hands.

When he reached Turnbull’s office in New Sudbury Street his mood had changed, from pleasure to be once again in that city of which he had such fond memories, to despair at the damage the war was doing; no matter who won, there were too many people whose lives had been destroyed forever.

Turnbull proved to be younger than Adam had imagined, not much older than himself, with an intense manner that matched the somber surroundings of his office. He welcomed Adam, and once he had settled him in a comfortable chair with a glass of sherry, and they had exchanged the usual meaningless pleasantries, he produced the papers that needed Adam’s signature.

When their business was completed, Turnbull put the papers aside and reached into his desk drawer and withdrew two envelopes. He looked across at Adam. “Your grandfather left these for you.” Adam held out his hand, preparing to take the letters, but Turnbull did not hand them over. “Mr. Stoddard gave me instructions that you were to be given one of these, when you have made a decision about your future.”

Adam withdrew his hand. “Oh?”

Yes,” Turnbull nodded. “He knew that you had a desire to travel, and if you decide to do so, I will give you this,” he held up one envelope, “otherwise, it will be this one. Perhaps you will let me know of your decision?”

“Of course,” Adam said, intrigued by what his grandfather might have written. Sensing that there was no more to be said, Adam stood. “Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Turnbull. I hope that I may continue to call on your services for the company. I know that my grandfather was more than satisfied with what you did for him.”

Shaking Adam’s offered hand, Turnbull smiled. “Thank you. I always did my best for Abel, and you can count on my continuing to do so for yourself. I have informed the office manager, Murchison, that he should expect you, though in the present difficult times we did not know when you would arrive, of course.”

Adam thanked him and left, turning towards the warehouse district and the waterfront. By the time he arrived at the ubiquitous Long Wharf, he was sweating and tired, and recognized that he should have taken Gideon’s advice and gone to the house to rest first. But there was too much he wanted to do, too much on his mind to allow him any rest just yet. The wharf was reminiscent of those in San Francisco, but with much larger warehouses, many of which had offices above them, and he walked slowly, taking in the sights around him. It was not until he had almost reached the end of the buildings that he saw a door marked with the name of the Stoddard Shipping Company. He took a deep breath, mentally preparing himself for the challenges ahead, then went in and ascended the dark staircase.

At the top of the stairs he pushed open another door and entered a large open office, where sunlight streamed in through the tall windows running along one side wall. The offices were laid out much the same as that over which Jack Palmerton held sway, but with more desks. The scene was one of intense industry, the dozen or so clerks bent over their work writing silently, and by the counter were two men talking avidly with the desk clerk. Adam’s arrival went unnoticed, and he decided that he would not announce his presence but, instead, quietly observe the workings of the business for a while. He glanced sideways and saw Gideon sitting on a bench against one wall, reading a newspaper. The young man was lost in the reports of the war, but he turned as Adam sat beside him.

“Have you seen this?” Gideon asked, pointing to the article on the front page. “Sherman has taken Atlanta. The war can’t last much longer.”

Adam glanced at the paper. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a cornered animal; they fight the hardest. I’m afraid that there may be a long way to go before it’s over.”

Gideon was about to speak when Adam put a hand on his arm and signaled him to be quiet, indicating the increasingly strident voices at the counter. They sat, watching and listening.

“But you promised to pay us when the goods were delivered,” said the smaller of the two men, who were dressed in identical brown city suits and clutching matching bowler hats nervously in their hands.

The clerk was paying scant attention to them, instead occupying himself with making entries in the Day Book. “You will get paid when Mr. Murchison says, and not before.”

“But Mr. Murchison promised that we would be paid on delivery, and that was nearly two months ago.” The second, older, man was almost begging for their money.

At that moment a dark haired, rotund figure emerged from the larger of the two offices at the rear of the room. He was tall and held himself very upright, giving him an imposing presence and, as he approached, he tilted his head back as though to look through the small pince-nez glasses on the end of his snub nose, but watching him, Adam got the impression that all he was doing was looking imperiously at the men asking for payment. “What seems to be the trouble, Barstow?”

The desk clerk took a step back. “Oh, Mr. Murchison, I’m sorry. Really you shouldn’t bother, I can deal with this.”

Murchison leaned chubby hands on the counter and glared down at the two merchants. “What do you want?”

“J…Just what’s owed to us, that’s all, as you promised,” the little man said timidly, taking a step back.

“And you will get it, when I decide the time is right. Now get out of here and don’t bother to come back until I send for you.”

“But Mr. Murchison…”

The manager threw out his arm, pointing towards the door. “If you wish to continue to have our patronage, you will leave…now!”

The two merchants were backing towards the exit, when Adam stood and, placing himself between them and the door, stopped them.

“Just a moment,” he said, “perhaps I can be of some help here.” With a tilt of his head, he indicated that Gideon should follow him, and walked round the men, to the counter. Lifting the flap at one end and walking through the gap, he came to stand in front of Murchison.

“What…get out of here! Who do you think you are?” Murchison was infuriated at Adam’s interference.

“Who am I? Well, I think that will become apparent very shortly.” He turned away from Murchison, towards the merchants who looked at each other, undecided, until Adam beckoned them to approach the counter. “Now, gentlemen, if you would care to explain to me exactly what this is all about, I will do my best to sort it out.”

Murchison had backed away from Adam, sensing a challenge that he did not wish to meet head on. He called quietly for some assistance, and two of the younger clerks came over. Murchison whispered to them to remove the interloper, but before they could take any action, Gideon was at Adam’s back, head down and fists raised.

Meanwhile, the merchants had handed Adam a statement of the account that was owed to them, showing several overdue amounts for supplies of meat and grain, delivered to the wharf as victuals for the crews.

“Why are you not paying these men?” Adam calmly asked Murchison, whose fury had turned him an interesting shade of red and he did not reply. Adam addressed Barstow. “Do you have any cash in the office?” The clerk looked first at Murchison, then at Adam, and nodded. “Then get it – NOW!”

Barstow jumped and reached under the counter, bringing out a large, metal cash box and wordlessly reaching into his pocket for the key. Before he handed it over, he glanced at Murchison, but when he received no guidance from his manager, he placed the key in Adam’s outstretched hand.

Adam opened the box and counted out a small pile of bills, which he handed to the merchants, the taller of whom placed the money in his pocket.

“Shouldn’t you count it?” Adam suggested.

The man was grateful to get hold of any money under the circumstances and did not want to risk upsetting their savior by seeming to mistrust him. “I don’t think…”

Adam shook his head. “You don’t know me from…” he smiled at his own joke, “…well, from Adam, so I think you should check the cash, for both our sakes. Then Barstow will get you to sign a receipt.” Adam approached Murchison, who backed off a step. “Have these men supplied acceptable goods? Are they reliable?”

Murchison merely nodded, he had begun to suspect who this man might be. He knew of the change of ownership, and they had been expecting Abel Stoddard’s heir for several weeks.

Walking back through the counter, Adam shook hands with both of the merchants and escorted them to the door. “I trust that we may continue to do business with you, and I assure you that this unfortunate episode will not be repeated.”

The smaller man found his voice, and his courage. “May I ask who you are, sir?”

Adam looked over at Murchison, and he raised his voice slightly. “My name is Adam Cartwright, and I now own the Stoddard Shipping Company.”

“Oh, oh I see. Well in that case it is a pleasure to meet you.” The men shook hands again.

Adam shut the door behind them and then went to stand in front of Murchison and glared at him. “I want to speak to you,” he pointed to the manager’s office, “in there.” Murchison’s upright bearing slipped just a little as he walked slowly away, and Adam turned to Gideon and indicated the clerks, all of whom were staring, stunned by the events of the past few minutes. “Find out who all these people are, how long they’ve been here, and if they’re willing to stay. Any who don’t want to do a day’s work for a day’s pay can leave now.” He raised his voice so that the clerks should hear him. “I expect honesty and loyalty from anyone who works for me. In return you will get treated well and rewarded for your efforts.”

Gideon nodded and went about his task, starting with Barstow, while Adam went into the office, where Murchison had seated himself behind the desk.

There was a moment’s tense silence as Adam closed the door quietly and the two men glared at each other, neither willing to show weakness by looking away. Adam realized that Murchison should probably be occupying the smaller office next door, but had usurped the larger one. When he spoke, his harsh tone made Murchison wince. “I think you’re sitting at MY desk. Move!”

Unused to being spoken to in such a sharp tone, Murchison jumped to his feet and backed away round one side of the desk as Adam approached round the other, taking the vacated seat. He did not invite Murchison to sit down in either of the other two chairs in the room, but left him standing in front of the desk. Despite his anger at what had happened at the counter, Adam smiled inwardly, remembering times as a youth when he had found himself in just such a position, in front of his father’s desk to face the justice his parent would mete out for some wrong-doing. Adam had learned much from those uncomfortable and rather one-sided conversations, and he put it to good use now. Fixing Murchison with a black look from under stern eyebrows, he paused just long enough to allow the man time to run through many different outcomes to the interview, each worse than the one before.

“What you were intending doing to those men was little short of criminal.” Adam held up his hand as Murchison was about to speak. “I’m not interested in anything you have to say. What I saw out there was enough to convince me that you are not a man I want working for me, in any capacity. You may consider your services dispensed with, as of this moment.”

Murchison was breathing heavily, and his mouth worked as his fury surfaced. “You can’t come in here and throw me out! I have a position, which I was given by a better man than you. Mr. Matthew placed me in charge…”

Adam stood and strode quickly round the desk, coming to a halt in front of Murchison and taking hold of his coat front with both hands. “If I thought that you really meant that,” he said through clenched teeth, “I would break your neck.” He released his grip, and Murchison stepped back, suddenly afraid. “Get out!” Adam commanded as he turned away, wrapping his arms across his chest and trying to control the boiling emotions that mention of Matthew had raised.

“I am owed a week’s wages,” Murchison said tentatively, taking another step towards the door.

“You’ll get nothing,” Adam said without moving. “I don’t imagine that those men were the first ones that you have delayed paying, which will only have harmed the reputation of this company. If you want to sue me for it, then please do so, but I warn you I will counter-sue for damages.”

Murchison hesitated, but it seemed that he had nothing more to say, and he collected his hat from the hat-stand and opened the door. He squared his shoulders so that the clerks should not see him defeated, and left.

When Gideon saw the manager leave, he abandoned his task temporarily and went into the office. Adam was sat in the captain’s chair behind the desk, elbows on the leather covered surface and his forehead resting on his hands.

“Are you all right?” Gideon asked.

“No. I’m exhausted.” Adam raised his head and leaned back in the chair, his eyes closed. “I’m so tired of being tired.”

Gideon looked round and spotted some glasses and two broad-bottomed ship’s decanters on a small table. He removed the stopper of one and sniffed – brandy, and of good quality. He poured a small amount into a glass and put it on the desk in front of Adam, who opened his eyes.

“Drink that,” Gideon ordered, “then I’m taking you back to the house. I’m going to call Mr. Stoddard’s doctor to take a look at you.”

“Oh no you’re not,” Adam protested, “and I have work to do here.”

“You may be my boss, but there is a higher authority involved here, one that I do not care to disobey.” At Adam’s raised eyebrows, Gideon enlightened him. “Your father will have my hide if I don’t keep you well, and I know you wouldn’t want that to happen, so just do as you’re told. Please.”

Over the past weeks, Adam had discovered that Gideon was just as strong willed as himself, and the young man would not give way over matters that concerned his friend’s health.

Adam pushed himself to his feet. “Okay. But first I am going to tell Barstow to replace this furniture. I may have taken Matthew’s place, but I have no intention of sitting at his desk, or in his chair. Then I’ll leave him in charge until the morning. Let’s get out of here.”

When Adam had learned of his inheritance and decided to come to Boston, he had written to Ezekiel, his grandfather’s butler, and asked him to stay, along with the rest of the staff. The old man had replied, agreeing and saying that he would have everything ready for Adam’s arrival. True to his word, the house was fully staffed and prepared for its new occupant, and Ezekiel smiled as he opened the door.

“Mistuh Adam, welcome back,” Ezekiel said, his dark skinned face showing his pleasure and his voice heavy with the accent of the southern states, reflecting his origins.

“It’s good to see you again, Ezekiel, I was pleased to know that you were still here. I just wish we had met again under happier circumstances.”

The smile disappeared. “Yes, suh, so do I. But time passes, and so must man.” Ezekiel shut the door as Adam and Gideon entered.

“Ezekiel,” Gideon said, “would you please contact the doctor who attended Mr. Stoddard.”

“Yes suh. May I ask why yous need him?”

“We don’t,” Adam interrupted before Gideon could speak. “All I need is a good night’s sleep.” Ignoring Gideon’s hard stare, he made his way into the parlor and stood for a moment looking round. The dark blue curtains were drawn across the windows and the lamps on the walls threw a gentle light over the room, which would have been somber but for the bright yellows and blues of the upholstery. ‘Reminds me of days in the Pacific’ Abel had said when Adam first commented on it, ‘the yellow of the sun and the blue of the sea’. Adam remembered many evenings spent in that room and he swallowed against his rising emotions as he again felt the loss of his grandfather, and anger at its cause. He relaxed into the same deep, upholstered armchair that he had habitually occupied in those far off days, looking up as Gideon sat down opposite him, on the other side of the fireplace.

“Adam…”

“No. I meant what I said about the doctor.”

“Don’t worry; when I explained to Ezekiel why you needed the doctor, he said that he has just the thing for you.” In reply to Adam’s silently enquiring eyes, Gideon continued. “I don’t know, but he told me to make sure you were settled comfortably, and to wait.”

Adam simply nodded and closed his eyes, until fifteen minutes later, when Ezekiel entered carrying a tray with coffee pot and cups, and followed by a maid.

“Mistuh Adam, this is ma daughter, Celeste,” Ezekiel said proudly.

Adam rose to greet the young maidsevant. He inclined his head in a small bow. “Celeste, I’m very pleased to meet you.”

The girl smiled brightly. “Thank you, Suh.” She put down the tray she was carrying, on which was a cut glass jug containing a cloudy white liquid, and a tumbler. “My father says to me that you has not been well, so I has made some medicine for you.” She half-filled the glass, and then held it out to Adam with instructions that he should drink it down without pause.

Adam sniffed at the glass suspiciously, but when he saw Celeste smile and nod he did as she said. The liquid had a distinct bitterness that was overlaid by the taste of alcohol, and the combination took Adam’s breath away. “Wow,” he said as he recovered, “what is that?”

“Daddy said that Mistuh Gideon told him you ain’t been well, that you gets tired. So I busied up a tonic that my Mammy used to make for when any of us was sick. It’s got calomba and quinine and brandy,” Celeste grinned knowingly and winked, “and maybe just a little bit o’ magic.”

Ezekiel looked disapprovingly at his daughter, and shooed her from the room. As she was about to shut the door, Adam called after her, “Thank you, Celeste.” She turned and smiled, her perfect teeth shining whitely against the darkness of her skin.

“I’m sorry, Mistuh Adam,” Ezekiel said, “That gal gets altogether too familiar. But she’s right, that’ll have you on your feet in no time.” He turned to Gideon, whom he acknowledged as Adam’s protector. “Three times a day, ‘bout half-an-hour before he eats, that’s what you gotta give. When yous are out, Celeste will give you a bottle.”

“I am quite capable of taking care of myself, I don’t need nurse maids,” Adam protested.

“Don’t you?” Gideon raised a disbelieving eyebrow.

Adam looked from Gideon to Ezekiel and saw the same look on both their faces. He recognized defeat when he saw it, and decided to give in gracefully, by taking a book off the table beside him and studying the pages assiduously.

For the next week, Adam worked steadily trying to make sense of the business he had inherited. He installed Gideon in the smaller office and left him to keep an eye on the staff and the day to day running of the office; deciding who should stay, who should go, and making arrangements to replace them. Gideon and Ezekiel continued to hover over Adam, insisting that he keep regular hours, eat well and rest sufficiently, and Adam had given up resisting. As the days passed, he was grateful that they had taken over so completely the care of his health, as it left him free to concentrate on the bigger problem he thought he had unearthed among the company’s books.

A bright but cold morning found Adam going early to the offices on Long Wharf, and working all through the day, sitting behind the smaller, teak desk that had replaced Matthew’s large mahogany one. He did not notice when the staff left and the office fell silent; he had spent the day looking through old cargo lists, and after many hours of concentrated work he had a suspicion forming in his mind. For all the business they had done, all the cargoes they had moved around the world, the actual profit of the business seemed very small. It was making money, but Adam had the feeling that there should have been more.

Gideon had gone to one of the shipping agents that Stoddards were in the habit of using, where Adam had sent him to collect copies of agreements between the two firms. He came back to the office and found Adam hard at work.

“What are you still doing here?” Gideon put the papers that he had collected into a desk drawer, hoping that Adam would ignore them until the morning.

Adam simply opened the drawer, retrieved the papers and spread the contracts on the desk among the open ledgers he had been studying. “I want to compare what they gave you with those that Matthew kept here.” He reached into another drawer and soon the desk top was littered with sheets of paper.

Gideon sat down on the opposite side of the desk, leaned back comfortably with one leg crossed over the other, and observed Adam silently. Then he cleared his throat. “Do you realize something?”

“Huh?” Adam grunted, not paying attention.

“This time last week you were fast asleep in the armchair at home. Now look at you.”

Adam glanced up. “What?”

“I said that you should be asleep.”

Adam looked from the paper in his right hand to that in his left. “I’m not tired…” Suddenly realizing what he had said, he looked up and repeated slowly, “I’m not tired.”

Gideon smiled broadly. “Guess Celeste’s tonic works”

“I guess so.” Adam returned the smile, then concentrated his attention on the papers. “Look at these.” Gideon rose and went round the desk, and Adam showed him the contract in his right hand. “If you go by the terms in this contract you brought back from the agents, we would have made a gross profit in excess of sixty thousand dollars from this one trip to Liverpool and back. But according to this one,” he indicated the paper in his left hand, “that profit was less than forty thousand.” He put the papers down and settled into the high-back buttoned leather office chair which Barstow had judged a suitable replacement for Matthew’s captain’s chair. “So that’s what he was up to. Abel knew there was something wrong, but he couldn’t prove it.”

“I don’t understand,” Gideon looked back and forth between the two documents, frowning.

“Matthew changed the terms, so it appears that the percentage he had to pay to the agents was a lot higher, reducing the profit. But in reality he was taking the difference for himself, and robbing the company,” his lips thinned, “and Abel.”

“I see. How much do you think he took?”

“I don’t know, without going back over every contract, every transaction since he took over, there’s no way of telling, but I would judge it to be a sizeable amount. According to the balance sheet, this company is only just solvent yet it’s been carrying a lot of profitable cargo and should be in a strong financial position.”

“What are you going to do?”

Adam shrugged hopelessly. “I don’t think there’s anything I can do about the money. Matthew has disappeared so there’s no hope of getting any of it back. However, I do think I could do with some help in making sure that the business recovers.” Adam’s eyes narrowed as he thought. “And I think I know just the person.”

*****

Early November was marked by light snowfalls and high winds, but the adverse weather could not dampen the enthusiasm with which Gideon stood waiting at the railroad station. As the train rumbled to a stop, among clouds of white steam from the brake cylinders and grey smoke from the stack, Gideon watched anxiously for the couple he had come to meet. Suddenly he saw them and was hurrying along the platform.

Jack Palmerton looked up and smiled, pleased to catch sight of the young man that he had come to know, both through his work in the office and his visits to the house. Beside him, Ethne had a broad grin on her face.

Gideon halted in front of Palmerton, removed his hat and held out his hand. “Welcome to Boston, sir.”

“Thank you, Mr. Harper.”

Gideon turned to Ethne. “You are looking very well, Ethne. It’s so good to see you.” He would have liked to give her a hug, but was conscious of her father’s presence.

“It’s good to see you too, Gideon,” said Ethne, smiling warmly. “I was delighted when Adam wrote and asked father to come and work in Boston. How is he now?”

“Very well. It seems that the Boston air agrees with him, but it is as much due to the daughter of his butler; she gave him a wonderful tonic and his strength came back almost immediately.”

“That’s good news,” Palmerson said, then he called to a porter and arranged for their luggage to be delivered to the house.

Gideon escorted them outside to the carriage that he had hired and in a few minutes they were pulling up in front of the Washington Street house. As they mounted the steps, the front door was opened by Ezekiel, who welcomed the Palmerstons and showed them into the parlor.

“Where is Adam,” Ethne asked.

“Mistuh Adam is at work.”

“That’s all he seems to do nowadays. He’s at the office at all hours.” Gideon indicated that Ethne and her father should be seated and they lowered themselves gratefully onto the settee, glad to settle into the upholstered softness after the hard seats of the train.

“Well,” said Palmerton, “I hope that I may be able to take some of that burden from him.”

“I’m sure you will. He’s been trying to run the business and, at the same time, figure out just how much damage was done by his cousin. He says that until he knows the answer to that, he won’t really know how stable the company is financially.”

“It must have given him a lot of work; it’s just as well that I’m here.”

“Father,” said Ethne sensing that he wanted to get to the office without delay, “why don’t you go and see Adam? I will remain here and see to our luggage, and perhaps you can persuade him to return early. Then this evening we can all enjoy a relaxing dinner together.”

Gideon and Palmerton exchanged glances and nods.

“I think that’s a very good idea,” said Palmerton, and he and Gideon were soon on their way to the dockside.

Gideon poked his head round Adam’s office door. “You busy?”

“Not specially,” said Adam, putting down his pen and looking up. When he saw Palmerton waiting patiently behind Gideon, he smiled and beckoned them both to come in. He stood and, leaning across the desk, held out his hand. “It’s good to see you, Jack. I was very relieved when you agreed to come.”

“I was delighted to be able to accept. I have left Winterton in charge as you suggested, Mr. Cartwright. He is more than capable of taking over from me permanently if you require me to stay here.”

Adam frowned. “You used to call me Adam,” he reminded the older man.

“Yes, sir,” Palmerton said seriously. “But that was when we were both employees of the company. Now I am working for you, and in front of the other staff I will address you formally.” Then he smiled. “But, if you have no objection, it will be my pleasure to address you informally when we are out of the office.”

“Of course, if that’s what you want.” Adam gestured Palmerton to a chair and sat down himself. “How is Ethne?”

“Very well, and looking forward to what Boston has to offer. She so enjoys plays and the opera, I expect we will hardly see her.”

Adam smiled and glanced up at Gideon who was still standing. “Why don’t you go home and help Ethne to settle in?”

“Good idea,” Gideon agreed, and went quickly out of the door in case Adam changed his mind and found him a job to do.

Once they were alone, Adam told Palmerton what he had found out about Matthew’s theft from the Company. Palmerton was shocked; he had believed that Stoddard’s efforts to enlarge the company had more to do with his desire to build an empire than with embezzlement.

“So, where does that leave the future of the business? Is there enough money to keep it going?” Palmerton asked.

“I’ve been right through the books, from the day that Matthew took over until he disappeared. I finally have some idea of the damage he did, and I think that we can trade our way out of this. It might take a couple of years before things are back to where they should be, but with careful management, it can be done.” Adam was studying Palmerton carefully, watching for his reaction.

“Well, I’m sure that you have the ability to get the business back on its feet.”

“Maybe I do, but I’m not the one who’s going to do it, you are.”

“What…?”

Adam nodded. “Yes, if you agree, that is.”

“But why? Why aren’t you…”

“Because I’m not cut out for this kind of life.” Adam declared. “Those few days I spent working with Jonas in San Francisco told me that sitting in an office all day wasn’t what I wanted to do. If you will take on the task of managing the company, I am going to return to the Ponderosa, where I belong. Grandfather left me the responsibility of seeing that the business continued, but he didn’t specify that I had to run it; I think you can do that just as well as I could. All I would ask is that you send me monthly reports, and I will not interfere with your management, unless I feel that things are not progressing as they should.”

“Well, I thank you for the trust you are willing to put in me.” Palmerton fell silent considering what the future held if he stayed in Boston, and Adam sat patiently waiting until the older man had come to a decision.

Finally Palmerton looked up. “Very well, I accept.”

“Good,” Adam nodded. “Now, obviously you will be looking to be paid more to go along with the added responsibility, but I have an offer to make to you.”

Palmerton raised enquiring eyebrows. “Oh?”

“We need to cut down on expenditure as much as possible for the next year, so if you are agreeable, I would like to give you a share in the company, say twenty per cent in lieu of an increase in wages. That way, as the company gets back on its feet and, hopefully, begins to grow again, so will the value of your part of it, and you will be benefiting from your hard work. You can make your home in the house on Washington Street, if you would like to. I will pay the staff, but you will pay the running expenses. How about it?”

For a moment, Palmerton was dumbfounded; he had never imagined owning part of the company to which he had given the past eighteen years of his life. He stood and held out his hand to Adam.

“I agree, and thank you,” Palmerton said, grinning broadly. The ‘dandy’ that he had first met in San Francisco had just given him what he had always dreamed of; a real interest in a business, and in the process had handed him a potential fortune.

“That’s great,” Adam said as he stood, relieved that Palmerton had agreed to his proposals. “Let’s take the rest of the day off and go and tell Gideon and Ethne.”

As they left the office, Adam said that he had an errand to run, but that he would meet Palmerton back at the house. They parted and Adam made his way to Turnbull’s office, where he told the lawyer of his decision to leave.

“I am returning to Nevada and have left Mr. Palmerton in charge here. I know that he will be glad to be able to call on your expertise when he needs to.”

“Of course,” Turnbull agreed, and then handed Adam one of the envelopes that Abel had left for him. “Then I have to give you this.” Turnbull stood. “Please, remain here and read it, if you wish.”

Adam stared at the envelope, then looked up and nodded. “Thank you.”

Turnbull left, and Adam slowly tore open the letter, wondering what it could contain.

So, the decision that you have made with the wisdom of age is not to follow the dreams of your youth. I know that there is no point in my trying to persuade you to change your mind, and I also know that your choice will not have been made lightly. I can only wish that your decision will bring you happiness, not regrets.

I release you from any obligation you may feel you owe me in regard to the Company. Do with it what you will, keep it, sell it, give it away; the choice is yours, to be made without consideration for what I may have wanted. I do not believe that the dead should influence the living.

But remember, keep always in your heart a special place where dreams may go, where they can be reawakened and acted on. Until then, make of your life what you will, with my blessing.

 

It was signed simply, ‘Abel’

Reading the words of the letter, Adam felt relief ease the tension in his shoulders. He had unconsciously felt that he was betraying his grandfather somehow by returning to the ranch and abandoning the shipping line to the care of others. Now, reading what he knew to be his grandfather’s final words to him, he could return to his family with a clear conscience.

Dinner that evening was held in a joyous atmosphere of celebration for the new life that was opening for the Palmerstons, and Adam’s return to his old life, which beckoned him home. It was nearly midnight, when Jack and Ethne had gone to their beds, that Adam and Gideon were talking over a final brandy before retiring.

“So, when are you leaving?” Gideon wondered.

“As soon as I can. I’d like to be home in time for Christmas.”

“Will…” Gideon hesitated, “…will you want me to come with you?”

“Do you want to?” Adam looked down into his glass, but when Gideon didn’t reply he continued. “You don’t have to. I haven’t forgotten the arrangement we made, that you could leave any time you wanted.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to, but…”

“But suddenly Boston seems much more attractive, hn? Wouldn’t have anything to with a certain young lady, would it?”

Gideon’ eyes softened and a gentle smile moved his lips. “Maybe.”

*****

Weak, morning sunshine bathed the streets of Boston as Gideon and Ethne set off to attend the Sunday church service. They left Adam and Palmerton sitting in the small study, discussing plans for bringing the Stoddard Shipping Company out of the mire into which Matthew had driven it. That had been the main topic of conversation between the two men for the past days, and they were getting close to mapping out what they hoped would be the future of the company.

In a pause in their conversation, Palmerton asked, “What do you think of Gideon?”

Adam looked up from the figures they had been studying. “I beg your pardon.”

“Gideon has asked me if he can approach Ethne with an offer of marriage. You’ve been close to him these past months, and I wondered…”

“Don’t. There’s no doubt that Gideon would make Ethne an excellent husband. He’s honest, loyal and hard working, and you only have to look at those two to see that they’re in love.”

“So you think I should give them my blessing?”

Adam smiled and nodded. “Yes, I do.”

It was obvious from Palmerton’s relieved expression that he was happy with Adam’s assessment of Harper’s character. “Ethne will be delighted; she told me that Gideon was going to approach me. Not that I think my agreeing or not would make any difference to her.”

Both men looked up as they heard a knock on the door, which was opened without invitation, and Gideon entered. “What’s so urgent that you have to drag me away from church?” he asked, perching on the arm of a chair.

Adam frowned. “What?”

“You sent for me, said it was urgent.”

“No, I didn’t.” Adam looked at Palmerton, who shook his head, saying that he had sent no such message either.

“Well, someone sent this message.” Gideon held out a piece of paper. “Kid handed it to me on the way to church.” Adam took the paper and read the words, which told Gideon to return to the house as Adam had urgent business to discuss with him.

With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Adam glanced sideways at Palmerton, then tried to keep his voice level as he asked Gideon, “Where’s Ethne?”

“She went on to church, like your message says she should.” Gideon could see the worried frown on Adam’s face, and asked cautiously, “If you didn’t send it, then…”

Adam interrupted him. “Get to the church and find Ethne, then bring her back here, as fast as you can.”

Gideon nodded and disappeared, leaving the two older men deep in thought, neither one wanting to express those thoughts in words. They were startled when Ezekiel knocked and entered holding a silver tray bearing an envelope.

“A young…er, gentleman delivered this a moment ago, Mistuh Adam.” Ezekiel’s face said plainly that he had no high opinion of whoever had been the messenger.

“Did you recognize him?”

“No, Suh. He was quite young, and, if yous pardon my sayin’ so, not the kind of person I would expect to be callin’ at the front door.”

The envelope lay on the tray, grey against the shining surface, and as Adam picked it up his hand trembled faintly with foreboding. Palmerton watched as he extracted the letter and walked toward the window and back as he read its simple, terrifying message. When Adam looked up, Palmerton drew in a sharp breath at his expression of scarcely concealed fury and he snatched the paper from Adam’s hand.

It only took moments for Palmerton to react. “I’m coming with you,” he announced.

“No,” Adam said firmly. “Matthew says that if you want to see Ethne alive again, then I have to go alone. I won’t put her in danger by going against his orders, we don’t know whether he means it or not, but we can’t take that chance.” Adam strode purposefully out into the hallway, collected his hat, and was already out of the door before Palmerton caught up with him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Be careful, Adam.” The two men looked at each other, and to Palmerton’s eyes Adam suddenly seemed a stranger; he had Ethne’s life in his hands, but was he the kind of man who would sacrifice his own life to keep her safe?

“I’ll get her back, whatever it takes,” Adam promised, then turned and hurried away towards the waterfront.

He pushed open the door to the offices slowly, scanning the quiet, empty room, where the only movement was the dust motes swirling in the shafts of pale sunlight coming through the windows. Then he saw Matthew in the larger of the two offices, and as Adam spied his cousin so Stoddard saw him and came to the office door, a revolver held purposefully in his hand.

“Well, good morning cousin,” Stoddard said, as though they were meeting over breakfast. Then he ordered harshly, “Get in here.” He waited while Adam crossed the room, depositing his hat on a desk as he passed, then backed before him into the office, keeping well out of reach.

As Adam went through the door he saw Ethne sitting wide-eyed in the chair behind the desk, her wrists tied to the sturdy wooden arms and a gag in her mouth.

“Are you all right?” he asked, and received a nod by way of reply. He turned to Matthew, breathing deeply and trying to keep his temper under control. “Let the girl go, you don’t need her any more.” He spoke calmly; he had no idea of Stoddard’s state of mind, but knew he had to be careful not to push him over the edge into shooting.

“Oh no, I think I’ll keep her just a little longer. Sit down there and don’t turn round. You try anything and she’s dead.” Stoddard pointed at the chair in front of the desk and waited until Adam was seated. “You know I’m going to kill you, don’t you?” he said evenly, moving to stand behind Adam from where he could watch both of his prisoners. He pushed the gun into the back of Adam’s neck and Adam tensed, knowing that he could do nothing with Ethne in the room. Until he could find a way to get her to safety, he would do everything that Matthew asked, and not make any move against him.

Adam’s mind was working furiously; he needed time, and it seemed that Matthew was not ready to get rid of him too quickly, or he would have been shot when he entered the offices, so all he had to do was keep him talking and wait for him to get careless. “You’ll hang for this you know. Is it really worth it?”

A thin lipped smile was fixed on Stoddard’s face. “Oh yes, it’ll be worth it, to know that you can’t get your hands on my money.” He recognized with twisted pride that at last there was something he was prepared to die for, and that was his thieving cousin’s life. He bent down and hissed in Adam’s ear, “You did nothing to deserve what that old fool left you. I did all the work, I made this company what it is.”

Adam’s voice was hard and accusing. “And then you tried to destroy it, by taking the profit for yourself.”

Suddenly Stoddard raised his gun and struck Adam across the side of the head, sending him crashing off the chair and onto the carpet. Dazed, Adam slowly pushed himself to his feet, and as he came up off the floor he started towards Stoddard. But the blow to his head had slowed his reactions and before he could reach his cousin, Matthew had his gun pointing squarely at Ethne.

“Stop right there!” Matthew commanded, and as Adam saw the target of the weapon, he stopped and stood swaying. Matthew edged sideways and as he came level with Adam he threw a fist into his stomach, and Adam ended up back on the floor, where Stoddard kicked him in the head.

When Adam regained consciousness a few minutes later, he groaned and rolled onto his back as memory came flooding back. He felt above his right ear, where the boot had struck him, and his hand came away bloody, then he turned his head and saw Matthew standing behind Ethne, his hand at her throat and his gun pressed against the side of her head.

“Get up and sit down!” Matthew commanded and Adam rolled onto his knees, took a couple of deep breaths and pushed himself upright. He held onto the edge of the desk until the world stopped spinning and then lowered himself gratefully into the chair, wiping at the trickle of blood that ran down the side of his face. He looked at Ethne and nodded, trying to let her know that she was going to be all right, he would make sure of that, and her eyes looked trustingly back at him.

He turned to Stoddard. “Why…” he took a breath and tried again, “Why are you doing this?”

Stoddard came round the desk to stand in front of Adam, but too far away for him to reach. “You know why. That ungrateful miser gave you MY company.”

“No, I meant…why you?” Adam rubbed at his gut and continued, “Why not Flynn? I thought he did your dirty work for you.”

“That incompetent fool failed to do the only thing I ever asked of him that really mattered – getting rid of you.” As he spoke, Matthew leaned closer to Adam, his pale eyes wide with hatred, spittle on his lips. “I would have killed Abel then, and it would all have been mine, but you didn’t die, and wherever I looked there you were. Well, not any more, it’s time for you to get out of my way and then I’ll take it all.” His finger tightened on the trigger, and Adam knew the time had come to act.

He leaned forward, and using all the strength in his legs he drove his head into Stoddard’s stomach, knocking the wind out of him, and they fell to the floor together, Stoddard on top. Adam grasped Stoddard’s right wrist, preventing him from pointing the weapon at him, but the gunman’s manic strength surprised Adam and he had to use both hands to control him. Meanwhile, Stoddard had grasped a handful of Adam’s black hair and, as he knelt over him, was pounding his head on the floor. Suddenly Adam’s grip relaxed and his arms fell away, lying outstretched at his sides as he became dazed. Stoddard fell sideways away from his cousin, then forced himself to his feet and across the room. It was only a few seconds later that Adam followed, barely able to stand and leaning back against the wall for support.

Stoddard was standing on the opposite side of the desk, his gun trained on Adam’s midriff. “You took something very special from me, so before I kill you, I’m going to take something from you.” In one swift movement, he turned, pointed the gun at Ethne’s heart and without hesitation, pulled the trigger.

For a fraction of a second, Adam was stunned into immobility, then he cried, “Nooooooo!” and threw himself across the desk, heedless of the weapon that was being turned towards him. Stoddard let off another shot, which whistled harmlessly over Adam’s shoulder, shattering a glass pane in the partition wall. He did not have the time to shoot again, instead he sidestepped, but Adam managed to catch him with his outstretched arm. It was not enough to stop the crazed man, who brought the butt of the gun down on Adam’s shoulder, numbing his arm and forcing him to release his hold.

Suddenly free, Stoddard ran for the door and, reaching it, he cocked the gun as he turned, and aimed straight at Adam, who had got to his feet and rounded the desk. Adam stopped abruptly, looking death in the face as Stoddard’s finger tightened on the trigger and the hammer fell – on a dead cartridge. For a moment no one moved, then Stoddard threw the gun across the office and ran out of the door. The weapon missed Adam as he ducked and then started after his cousin, hatred and anger driving him on, intent that Matthew should not escape. He charged Stoddard from behind, throwing his arms round his shoulders and bringing him to the ground. As they landed together, Adam forced his cousin onto his back and pinned him to the floor, his knees either side of Stoddard’s chest, preventing him from using his arms. Suddenly Adam found his hands round the neck of the man who, in his need for revenge, had robbed a young girl of her life.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs and the door crashed open, but Adam was oblivious to everything, except his intent to rid the world of the evil that was his cousin.

“Adam, don’t!” cried Gideon from the doorway, but Adam could not hear him, he could only hear the rushing of the blood in his ears and the rasping sound of Matthew’s struggle to breathe; it was a sound he wanted to silence, and he pressed harder and harder willing strength into his fingers, determined to squeeze the life out of the man who had callously taken the lives of Abel Stoddard and Ethne Palmerton.

Gideon ran round the counter and through the desks. He looked at Adam and could see that his eyes were wide and staring and oblivious to the presence of anyone except the focus of his hatred. Gideon grasped Adam’s shoulders and tried to pull him away, but the grip he had on Stoddard’s throat was too strong. Looking down, Gideon could see that he had to take some drastic action to stop Adam from killing his cousin; he knelt down and hit him, hard and square. Adam took the blow, shaking his head to clear his blurred vision, but he did not release his hold.

Searching desperately for some assistance, Gideon spotted a foot long, round wooden ruler on top of the desk next to him. He grasped the hard implement and struck Adam on the back of the head.

Adam grunted and collapsed on top of Stoddard. Gideon rolled him aside and released his fingers, which were still round his victim’s neck. Stoddard choked once, then again, and Gideon hurriedly looked round for something to tie him up with. He went back to the counter, where he found some string and used several strands of it to effectively immobilize his prisoner, then he knelt beside Adam as he stirred and sat up.

“You shouldn’t have stopped me,” Adam said bitterly.

“Maybe.” Gideon looked round, “Where’s Ethne?” he rose and started towards the office.

“Wait! Gideon, don’t go in there!” Adam struggled to get to his feet, but his strength had deserted him.

Gideon ran to the office door and stopped abruptly, his shoulder crashing into the doorpost, but he was oblivious to everything except the sight of the woman he loved, sitting tied in a chair and slumped over. He approached the desk, calling her name.

“Ethne, Ethne…” He received no response, and slowly he became aware of the dark red stain on the front of her blue dress. He knelt in front of her, lifted her head, and her eyes stared sightlessly at him.

“Ethne, no, no, please God, no,” Gideon whispered, shaking his head slowly in disbelief. He released the ropes that held her, and then he gathered her into his arms and lifted her, taking her place in the chair and laying her on his lap, her head against his shoulder. He stroked her fair hair, and spoke quietly. “It’s all right my darling, I’m here. Nothing’s going to hurt you any more, you’ll see. I’m going to take care of you.” He rested his cheek on her hair and closed his eyes.

Adam had made it to his feet, and stood in the doorway, watching, then he turned away and sank to the floor, leaning back against the wall. He looked across the room to where Stoddard was lying in the small space between the desks and realized what he had so nearly done, what he would have done had it not been for Gideon. He pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his aching head on his arms, and in the silent office all that could be heard was Stoddard’s soft laughter.

*****

Gideon and Palmerton were consoling each other in the parlor, both trying to ease the loss of the other while thinking that never again would they find happiness in the world. But Adam couldn’t face either of them, and he sat alone in the study, the door locked. He had failed them all; Ethne, Jack, and Gideon, by allowing Ethne to die in his place, and failed his father by trying to kill his cousin.

He sat staring at the whiskey decanter in front of him, which he had angrily demanded that Ezekiel bring to him. In it he could find forgetfulness, though he knew he would never find forgiveness. But it beckoned to him; a few hours of peace, where he could forget that he was hurt in body and soul, and forget Ethne’s trusting eyes as she looked to him to be her rescuer. Those blue eyes would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Turning away from the lure of the whiskey, he crossed his arms on the desk and laid his head down, trying to ease the throbbing pain. He felt tears burn in his eyes, and at first he fought against them, not sure whether he was crying for himself or for Ethne. Then he could resist no longer and he wept, heedless of why, only knowing that he needed to shed tears for all that had happened.

Eventually he brought himself under control, and sat back in his chair and stared out of the window at the cloudless winter sky. He recalled the last time he had cried; it had been in a wilderness, and he had collapsed in tears into his father’s arms under just such a clear blue canopy, and it merely confirmed what he was afraid of; that Kane had been right all along when he said that even Adam could be driven to murder. But this time there had been no one urging him on, no days of torment, and Adam knew he was not the man his father, and the world, believed him to be.

He turned towards the desk, reached into a drawer and found writing paper and an envelope. He dipped his pen in the inkwell, and paused; what could he say?

After several abortive attempts, Adam finally finished a letter to his father,

 

Dear Pa,

I have tried to think of a way to let you know what has happened here, and my part in it, without upsetting you, but each time I start to write I know that only the truth will do. Dressing it up and making excuses might be what some parents would want, but I know that you would prefer honesty, and I can only hope that, in time, you can forgive me.

Ethne Palmerton is dead, Matthew killed her. He could so easily have aimed at me, but he turned the gun on her instead, and I could do nothing to prevent it. It was his way of taking revenge on me for what he saw as my theft of his inheritance. Oh, how I wish that Flynn had killed me in San Francisco. Please don’t be upset to read that, it is only the truth; I would have sacrificed my life to keep Ethne safe, for not only has her death robbed Jack of a beautiful daughter, but Gideon of the woman who would have been his wife.

When Matthew fired the fatal shot, I lost my reason and tried to kill him myself, with my bare hands, convinced that what I was doing was right, that a soul so evil should not be allowed any mercy. I would have succeeded, were it not for Gideon’s intervention. I know that you would disapprove of such an act, and I also know you would be shocked that any son of yours could contemplate such brutality. But, you see, you were right when you believed me capable of killing that stage guard, and it was wrong of me to make you feel badly about that. Even then I knew that it was in me to have done so, for Kane nearly suffered the same fate at my hands, a fate that he sought as he set out to drive me to kill him, even as I had my hands at his throat.

It seems that my life is repeating itself, and there is nothing that I can say in my defense, and I will not attempt to do so.

I am not coming home. Knowing that inside me is a man who can do such a thing is shocking enough, and I cannot face you, knowing that I have disappointed you. Instead, I am going to do the job that I set off to San Francisco to do. I am still the owner of the Stoddard Shipping Company, and the same problems are still there and need attention. When I was coming home, I had arranged to leave Jack in charge here and I gave him a portion of the Company. Whether he still wants it I do not know, because we have not spoken about such mundane matters. If he does not, then I will have to find someone else to take over, but that will only delay my departure, not prevent it.

Maybe, in time, I can return, once I can be certain that the demon Kane released is back where it belongs.

I will of course keep in touch as, and when, I can. Please give my love to Hoss and Joe, and tell them I am sorry, that I never intended to desert them in this way.

Pa, I write this in the hope that you can forgive me, as I cannot forgive myself.

Your loving son, always,

Adam

*****

The brigantine ‘Alberta’ sailed out of Boston harbor with her captain, a tall, smiling Italian, expecting to take full advantage of the brisk, January winds to make a fast crossing to the Pool of London. Earlier, he had welcomed his two passengers aboard and made them comfortable below, inviting them to join him in his quarters for dinner. He wondered what sort of person had taken over the company, and he had found a man who was taciturn to the point of silence, and the young man with him, who had been introduced as Mr. Cartwright’s secretary, had not been any more forthcoming. Then his First Mate, a man who only needed to be in port for a few hours to find out all the news, had informed him of events in the Company’s offices.

Captain Alfredo Agrigento watched from his position beside the wheel, as the two men emerged from below and went to stand together by the starboard bulwark, looking back over the harbor.

Adam spoke without turning. “I’m glad that Jack decided to carry on with the business; it will give him a purpose in life, and he sorely needs that right now.” He glanced sideways at his companion, then let his eyes rest on the shore-line. “It’s not too late, you know; you can still change your mind. I can ask the Captain to put you ashore before we round the headland.”

“No,” Gideon said, “there’s nothing there for me now; only memories.”

“They are very precious,” Adam said softly. “I wonder what memories we’ll bring back?”

Tears started in Gideon’ eyes as he replied, “None as beautiful as those we are leaving.”

Adam watched the land slipping past, the land that held all his memories. It also held all the things he wanted, but could not allow himself to claim until he had proved that he deserved them. His family’s trust and love had to be earned, and if that meant going away from them, then that was a price he was willing to pay. He turned and looked east, towards the open sea, and an uncertain future.

***The End***

*See the episode ‘The Crucible’ by John T Dugan

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