The Contract (by Gwynne)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,700


 

Adam peered through a screen of brush. His hand dropped instinctively to his Colt then fell away. They were out of range, and his rifle was on his saddle at the bottom of the hill. He was helpless to interfere.

The ranch house was humble but solid. Made of unpeeled, split logs and roofed with hand cut shakes, it was low and brown and blended into the surrounding hills. It was little different from the barn and corrals that huddled nearby. On a sunny day you would have noticed the bright yellow print of the calico curtains in the oiled-paper windows and seen chickens pecking among the peas and turnips in the garden. Today, flames had broken through the roof, and the owner lay face down and bloody on the narrow porch.

The grounds teemed with men, mostly unwashed men of indeterminate origins with shady pasts and sullied souls. One rushed from the burning house, his arms loaded with sacks of food and a rabbit fur blanket. He paused to swoop up the shotgun that had fallen from the limp hand of the man on the porch. He moved away without a second glance. Others rounded up the stock of saddle and draft horses from the corral. One bunched the milk goats and drove them away ahead of him. Still another grabbed the frantic chickens, wrung their necks and stuffed them into a sack. In the distance, a small herd of cattle was being moved rapidly toward the mountains.

A man of a different cut watched all this activity. Seated on a fine, dark horse with elaborate silver-mounted equipment, he was tall with olive skin and ebony hair. His clothes were well-cut and costly. A silver braided sombrero shaded eyes as cold as a mountain tarn, and a hint of depravity twisted his mouth. An exceptionally heavy riding crop dangled from one wrist.

A stocky, brown man in serape and gaucho pants rode up beside him. He carried a burning torch in his free hand. An order was quickly given.

“Luis, fire the other buildings and collect the men. This smoke may draw the cavalry.”

“Si, Delgatto, as you say.” The burly man cantered away toward the barn.

*****

Adam Cartwright was a long ride from home near the southeastern edge of the Ponderosa when he spotted the smoke. In no great hurry, he had eased along on a late spring check of boundary markers, stock condition, available water and graze. A young deer, neatly dressed out, was tied across his pack horse’s rump. There would be more than beans and bacon for supper tonight.

A shadowy twist of greasy smoke from beyond the next ridge had caught his eye and beset his nostrils. What was that family’s name he thought? Highback? No, Hornbeck, Hornbeck, that was it. He had nooned there once or twice and had been pleasantly received. It looked like there might be trouble.

Too long in the West to rush into any situation without pausing to evaluate it, Adam had dismounted and crept up to the top of the ridge. He looked down upon the Hornbeck homestead from behind a line of brush. His stomach clenched and a chill ran down his spine. Damn! Another savage raid and he was essentially unarmed! He counted eight men still at the ranch and several more specks disappearing into the distance. He was too late to do any good, and he’d be a fool to kick a hornet’s nest if he didn’t have to. Better for the moment to watch and learn all that he could about the looters.

The billowing dust of the retreating raiders was fading as Adam rode into the ranch yard. He stepped down and moved quickly to the porch. A swift pull turned over the dead man lying there, and he recognized Hornbeck. He had been shot three times in the chest.

Adam moved toward the house doorway with some notion of trying to save anything he could. Flaming rafters crashed down to fill the air with fire and ash. He backed away and pulled Hornbeck’s body with him to ease him down on a grassy patch near the well.

He looked up at the sound of hoof beats to find a twenty-man cavalry detachment trotting into the yard. The standard bearer carried the red and white guidon of M Company of the Eighth Cavalry out of Fort Churchill on a nine foot lance. They were led by a captain of middle years and staunch military bearing. The man drew his sidearm and leveled it at Adam.

“Stand away from that man and don’t make a wrong move.” His eyes were piercing and his voice hard.

Adam stepped back smoothly with his arms held well clear of his revolver.

“Identify yourself,” the captain snapped.

Adam glanced at the hefty Field First Sergeant on the captain’s right. His rusty red hair, weathered skin and sparkling blue eyes identified him as the Irishman he clearly was. Then he smiled and said, “Adam Cartwright of the Ponderosa Ranch. I was out checking on graze and doing some hunting when I saw the smoke. Rode over just in time to see the last of the raiders pulling out. They rode off to the northeast.”

“Can you prove all that?”

“If necessary. But, Sergeant Donovan, there, should be able to vouch for me. Still riding that overgrown buffalo, I see.” He nodded at the tall, rawboned and amazingly stout chestnut mount the sergeant straddled.

“That right, Sergeant? You know this man?” The captain looked at his second in command.

“Aye, indeed, sir. He’s Ben Cartwright’s oldest, no doubt. There’s many a good remount he’s sold the cavalry, and always at a fair price.” He gave Adam a mock glare. “And, I’ll thank you not to speak unkindly of old Ulysses here.” He gave his gawky horse a gentle slap on the neck. “He’ll keep going when the rest of ‘um give up and founder.”

Donovan got a warm grin and a wink from Adam.

The captain holstered his Colt and dismounted. He marched up to Adam with back erect and shoulders square. Thick hair grizzled with gray peeped from under the edge of his cap.

“Captain McElroy, Troop M, Eighth Cavalry,” he introduced himself. “Your pardon, Mr. Cartwright, but there’s been too much of this to take chances.”

“Don’t blame you a bit. I assume this is some more of Delgatto’s work; it’s the first I’ve seen with my own eyes – and I’d like to see him hang for it!” Adam’s anger rang in his voice. “The Hornbecks were decent people.”

“You knew these people?”

“Herman Hornbeck brought his family out here right after the war and bought this section of land from my father. He worked hard, but sure didn’t have much money. What did Delgatto want from him anyway?”

“Supplies, I’d say – fresh beef, grain, horses. Looks like he stripped the place before he burned it. You mentioned a family?”

Adam closed his eyes for a moment. Bitterness and pain darkened his features. “A wife and two little girls. They were inside; I saw the bodies just as the roof collapsed. I think … pray they were already dead. No time to get them out. Expect we’ll find the bones.”

“That filthy swine! We’ve got to stop him!”

“Why don’t you?” Adam asked mildly.

“Perhaps you’d like to explain just how?” The scathing sarcasm in McElroy’s tone was meant to cut. “I’ve got 68 men, and we’ve all been in this area less than thirty days. Sergeant Donovan’s the only one familiar with the territory, and he’s only on loan to me from Colonel Devin’s staff. Besides, Delgatto’s impossible to track. He knows every trick in the book and a few unwritten ones! If he weren’t a fox, they’d have taken him down on the border instead of driving him up into these endless mountains to prey on settlers and miners.”

“You could hire some local men as scouts.”

“Could I now? We’re chronically short of funds, and the best I can offer is an Indian Scout contract – sixteen dollars a month and forty cents a day found for your mount. The mines pay a lot better? Do you want to volunteer?”

“I might.” Adam’s answer was flat and dry.

“Are you serious? You realize that it’s dangerous? If you ever fell into Delgatto’s hands there’d be small chance of getting out alive. It’s a grueling job with no time off until we’ve finished. Why should you risk it?”

With no intention of trying to explain himself to this stiff and formal officer, Adam simply replied, “Let’s just say I object to the way Delgatto works. Don’t you care for my help? I know the area quite well.”

McElroy jumped at the offer. “I won’t give you two chances to back out. Ride to Fort Churchill with us and sign your contract. Do you have any military experience?”

“Some.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“Not particularly. I’d just as soon forget it.”

“I can use you more effectively if I know.”

Adam knew this was true, but memories of his role in the recent war were painful and still fresh. To trot them all out in front of strangers was impossible. He gave the shortest answer he could. “Subaltern in Kilpatrick’s Cavalry ’64 through ’65.” *

Captain McElroy’s face brightened. “Excellent! Invaluable experience.

“That’s one way to look at it.”

Anxious to get started before Adam regretted his decision, McElroy pressed. “Can you come back with us now? We need to get on Delgatto’s track as soon as possible.”

“I’ll have to let my family know where I am.”

“We can wire Virginia City from the Fort. Get your horse. That venison would make a fine supper for us and the men, if you’re willing?”

On the Ponderosa food was always shared with anyone who hungered. Adam nodded his agreement and handed the lead rope of his packhorse to a nearby trooper. He checked Sport’s girth and swung easily into the saddle.

Captain McElroy mounted and turned to Sergeant Donovan, “Leave a burial detail here, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir.” He beckoned several men to ride forward and explained what was needed.

Adam pulled his mount in beside McElroy.

“You ready?” the Captain asked.

“Anytime you say.”

McElroy raised his arm and signaled. “Troop. Forward!”

They turned and rode away. Dust spurted up behind them. The destroyed homestead was left to the attention of the burial squad and the eternal forces of nature.

The sun had dropped behind the still snow-capped Sierra Nevada. A nighttime chill crept into the air along with the scent of roasting venison in the troop area as Adam stepped into Capt McElroy’s office. The man sat rigidly behind a desk filled with neatly piled papers.

“Horses stabled to your satisfaction, Mr. Cartwright?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you. Well housed and fed.”

“I have your contract right here.” McElroy pointed to a long form, front and centered on his desk. “I’ve made it for three months. If you’ll just sign it, we can get right to work.” He held out a freshly sharpened quill and gestured to the ink well.

Adam exhaled softly. He was willing to help, but did it have to be so formal? “Can’t we dispense with the contract? I offered to help if I can, but I don’t like the idea of being tied up for that long. I’ve other responsibilities. We’ll have to locate Delgatto in the next few weeks, or there won’t be much left of this country to protect.”

“I am afraid I’ll have to insist on the agreement. The Army wants first call on your services, and, small as the pay is, we don’t ask a man to risk his life for nothing.”

Their eyes met and held for a long moment, but Adam finally nodded his agreement. He slowly took up the pen, dipped it in the ink and signed. After a brief hesitation he pushed the contract back to the Captain. McElroy pointed to a chair opposite his desk, and Adam sat down.

“What have you done so far to stop these raids?” he asked.

“You’ve seen it.” McElroy shook his head. “The column I led today at Hornbeck’s ranch is it. We can’t locate Delgatto’s hideout, so I’ve been trying to keep him off balance by turning up with a small force at first one place and then another. But, he seems to know where I’m going to be almost before I do.”

“The theory’s good, but you probably haven’t been able to keep your movements secret. I suppose you had to ask directions around the Post?”

The Captain nodded yes, and Adam continued. “Delgatto undoubtedly has a spy at the Fort – one of your wagoneers or woodcutters probably. Word of your route gets back to him in a hurry. We can use this.”

McElroy’s flashing eyes fastened intently on Adam as he listened with growing interest and respect.

“From now on,” Adam continued, “only you and I will know the column’s next destination. We’ll give them time to feel the pinch. Then I’ll leak a piece of false information and see if I can’t spot Delgatto’s inside man. Maybe he’ll lead me to the camp.”

The Captain’s head bobbed in agreement. “A good plan; it should work. We’ll try it. And Cartwright – one other thing…”

“Yes?”

“I realize you are out of the habit, and between us it makes no difference, but I’d appreciate it, now that you’re under contract to the Army, if you would pay close attention to military courtesy in front of the men. Wait for my orders; reply with ‘Yes, sir’ – that sort of thing. I’m sure you understand the necessity.”

As a former officer, Adam knew this well, and it annoyed him intensely to be given the gratuitous reminder of the correct form. However, he understood the rationale and managed to swallow his displeasure, even if it went down sideways. He arose swiftly, stood very erect and answered stiffly. “Certainly, Captain, I am at your service. If that’s all for tonight …?”

“Yes, of course. The Sergeant will show you to your quarters. Good evening.”

“Good evening, sir.” Adam saluted sharply, turned, marched to the door and let himself out. At the bottom of the steps, he relaxed from his brace, looked out at the lights of the post and muttered to himself in a half-amused tone, “Three months at sixteen dollars a month. Pa’s gonna think I’ve lost my mind.”

*****

Adam knew his father well and accurately predicted his reaction. Joe sat on the hearth, warming his backside against the evening chill, while Hoss relaxed with a small brandy. Ben stood in the middle of the room with an open letter in hand. His voice resounded throughout the house.

“Has Adam taken leave of his wits? First he goes out to check graze and get in some hunting, then we get a wire that he’s at Fort Churchill and not to worry, and now a letter by messenger saying he’s taken a job for three months as an Army Scout and please to send his gear! Three months! And it’s not six weeks till roundup. This has to be a joke. He doesn’t need a job, and certainly not at what they are paying.”

Ben looked sharply at Hoss and Joe for some explanation. Hoss’ brow crumpled into a worried frown, and he slowly shook his head. Joe grinned and lifted his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug.

“Well, any ideas?” Ben demanded. “Did he say anything to either of you?”

“Only thing he said to me when he left was, ‘See you in a couple o’ days,’” Hoss told his father. “Oh, and think he said something about maybe we’d have venison when he got back.” Always willing to give his brother the benefit of the doubt, Hoss added, “Adam’s nigh always got good reason for what he does – even if we can’t see it right off.”

“Did he tell you anything different, Joe?” Ben demanded.

“I was down at the corral when he left, Pa. He just lifted a hand and waved.” Unable to resist a good-natured dig, Joe added, “Heck. Anybody as sensible as that big brother of ours has to crack sooner or later. He probably thinks he’s Kit Carson. Expect it’s harmless.”

Hoss had been thinking along more serious lines. “Pa, do you reckon it might have somethin’ to do with this bunch of robbers and horse thieves that’s been raiding hereabouts? I heard the Army was after them, and you know how Adam feels about that sort of no-goods.”

Ben rubbed the side of his face and spoke in a calmer tone. “You may be right. Although, I never thought Adam would willingly tie up with a military action again after the war.” He paused. “Maybe some of it is beginning to fade for him at last. I hope so.”

Hoss nodded his agreement, but Joe was still in a joking mood. “I think we ought to go after him. He’s probably been drinking some of that tarantula juice they brew up at that so-called canteen out there. It’s guaranteed to drive you loco.”

Both Ben and Hoss shot him discouraging looks, and Joe held up his hands in surrender.

*****

When you got right down to it, Joe wasn’t that far off. Most western Army posts with no town nearby were infested by a dreadful institution vulgarly called a ‘hog ranch’ by the troopers. In this case, it was a rough shack set up just outside the fort’s perimeter. It was operated by a less-than-honest gambler that rumor said had been run out of Dodge. It offered fearful whisky, crooked games and a few aging and degenerate whores.

It was dusk and a number of horses were tied outside the Fort Churchill hog ranch, including Adam’s sorrel. Inside, the bar and tables were crowded with soldiers drinking and playing cards. There was a faro game running, and a dispirited looking soiled dove played the out-of-tune piano while a young corporal tried to lure her away. At one table an impromptu quartet of well-oiled soldiers harmonized:

“Oh, they say some disaster,

Befell the paymaster,

And we’ll never be paid again – again,

We’ll never be paid again!”

In a comparatively quiet corner of the saloon, Adam and Sergeant Donovan shared a table. Adam picked up the bottle of dubious whisky that sat between them and looked at it closely. It bore a crudely handmade label proclaiming it ‘Rare Old Gentleman’s Tipple.’ Adam poured a shot into his glass, lifted it to his nose and sniffed cautiously. He set it back on the table with a look of suppressed horror. “They should call this stuff ‘Old Horse Blanket’.”

Sergeant Donovan grinned. “Sure now, and it’ll put a fine finish on your insides.”

“More likely to destroy them entirely. I don’t see how they keep the stuff corked.”

Donovan laughed and then looked at Adam with warmth in his eyes. “Adam, me boy…?”

“Huh?”

“Would you be after telling an old soldier something, just to put me curiosity bump to rest like?”

“Well now, Clancy, I might. Just what was it you had in mind?”

“How is it that you agreed so easy to take on this scoutin’ job? It certain sure isn’t for the money, at all, or for love of McElroy either – though he be a good officer and fair with the men. The pair of ye were never cut out on the same bias. I know your Da has much need of you at the ranch. Why, for the love of old St. Pat, are you settin’ yourself up in a fair way to be destroyed if Delgatto ever finds you out?”

Adam looked down at his hands on the table for a minute, and then looked up to meet the sergeant’s eyes.

“Clancy, you fought in the war?”

“I did that, and a cruel, bitter thing it was for this grand country.”

Adam nodded. “Well, I fought too, and doing just about what Delgatto’s trying here. Sherman used armed, trained cavalry troops to raid a civilian population. Oh, we had a purpose other than greed and blood lust. We didn’t slaughter women and children, but we left plenty of dead men and burning homes with empty pastures and store houses behind us. Maybe it had to be done. Maybe someday the historians will say that it shortened the war and saved lives, but I saw all I could stand and then some. Now, it’s happening all over again – here on my own home ground, to people I know and care about and with no purpose except the will of a vicious animal. I have to try and stop Delgatto, that is, if I want to go on living with myself.” Adam drew a deep breath and made an effort to lighten his tone. “Will that answer your question, Sarge?”

“Aye. Aye, Adam, that it will. It takes a man to know his own heart and follow it so true.”

Adam bent his head in acknowledgement of the compliment, and after a brief pause, changed the subject.

“Clancy, do you know that man two tables west of us?”

The table was occupied by a small, weedy half-breed who hastily turned his eyes away when he saw Donovan glance at him.

“That’ll be Lagarto – new hand working for the wood contractor.”

“He’s been watching me from around corners for this past week, and once or twice I’ve caught a glimpse of someone tailing me when I left the Fort. I think he may be the man I’m after. Follow my lead.”

Adam gave the whiskey one more suspicious look, tossed it off grimly, then slammed down the glass with a crash. The sound drew Lagarto’s attention back to their table. He leaned in their direction as Adam spoke loudly with a slight slur to his words.

“So I told the Captain he was wrong. No chance of them touching that shipment after it leaves Reno. We can pull the column back there. Right, Donovan?”

The sergeant nodded in agreement. “No use hiring a scout if you don’t mind his advice. Guess you convinced him.” Lagarto listened intently as Donovan played his role well. “Them were the Captain’s orders to the letter. ‘Accompany the silver shipment to Reno,’ he says.”

“Glad to hear it,” Adam told him. “No use pounding our saddles clear across the mountains for nothing, I say. Let’s drink on it.”

Donovan poured, and Adam managed to force down another drink of the swill. Lagarto rose and slipped quietly toward the door.

When he was well out of earshot, Adam spoke in a normal tone. “I think we’ve hooked one. I’m gonna ease out after him. You notify the Captain. If this whiskey doesn’t finish me off, I should be back by this time tomorrow.”

“Right. Have a care for yourself, lad.

Adam winked at Donovan as he stood up, tipped his hat onto his head and stepped away from the table. There was a hint of eagerness in his stride.

Lagarto holed up in the woodcutter’s shack for the night, but rode out early in the false dawn before the fort began to stir. Stiff and chilled from a night of watching, Adam tossed on Sport’s saddle and followed slowly.

They moved away from the fort and toward the Carson River. As the day brightened, Adam fell farther back and took advantage of all the cover the terrain provided. Not rushing but making steady progress, Lagarto rode west along the south bank of the river. It was early afternoon when the little spy reached a small stream emptying into the Carson from the mountains to the south. He turned into it and rode upstream through the shallow water.

The sun caught a broken rock formation running for some distance along the left-hand bank of the creek near its union with the Carson. Mica formations in the fractured rock surface caught the rays of the westering sun and flashed and glittered in a brilliant display. Lagarto rounded a bend in the stream and disappeared from sight.

Within a few minutes, Adam reached the turn off. He dismounted and examined the faint traces of Lagarto’s passage across the stream. He remounted and followed. As he passed the shining rocks they blazed with reflected light. He turned to survey them for a long moment and muttered, “Unusual formation.” He continued slowly up the creek and paused to look carefully before passing the bend.

Adam continued to follow the course of the water. He paused before rounding a sharp outcropping of rock that blocked any view of the other side. Ahead he heard voices. A deep rumble asked in Spanish for a password, and Lagarto mumbled something in return that Adam couldn’t quite catch.

Damn, he thought: a lookout to protect the camp from anyone who might stumble upon it by accident. He’d have to drop back and swing wide into the forest that bordered the far side of the stream and try to work his way around the man. He was going to lose some time. Adam eased his mount back and to the far bank where he vanished into the tangle of trees and vines that quickly hid him from view.

Half a mile farther up the mountain, past several more bends in the stream and well out of sight of the lookout he had heard, Adam searched both left and right from behind a last pair of tall pines before emerging again from the forest. No one was in sight. He thought for a minute and chose to continue following upstream. A camp as large as Delgatto’s would need a reliable water source.

High above him a man crouched on a rocky outcrop. His serape was dark and smeared with dirt. He blended perfectly into the soil and rough growth on the mountainside behind him. He was invisible to anyone looking up from the creek. He stretched flat, and a brown face with sharp black eyes peered over the rim of the rock. He could see Lagarto well ahead and nearing the camp. Adam, a quarter mile behind, was equally visible to him from his high perch. He watched for a minute, then backed away from the edge and stood. He pulled a brightly polished mirror from his pocket and began to flash a signal to the camp.

Delgatto’s camp was located in a sheltered small valley. The only entrance was a steep trail leading up through a short, narrow canyon cut by runoff water on its way to the stream. The earth there was well marked by the many feet of both horses and men who passed through it daily as they came and went.

The outlaws sheltered in a cluster of rough cabins, tents and lean-tos. However, there were sturdy corrals to hold the horses and rustled cattle. Several cook fires burned, and two or three women tended them. Men lounged in the sun cleaning weapons, playing dice or talking quietly.

Delgatto and his second in command, Luis, emerged from a cabin built larger and stronger than most and stood looking over the camp. Delgatto frowned and slashed his heavy riding crop impatiently against his leg.

“Where is that fool Lagarto? Doesn’t he know he’s to bring word of the column’s movements? Does he think I want to sit in these forsaken mountains forever!”

“Si, si, jefe; he knows,” Luis told him. “I sent a messenger only yesterday. He will have information for us soon. Then, then we can strike – like el tigre! Once we have the silver we can be gone from here, no? Perhaps back to Mexico where the days are warm and the women willing?”

Delgatto looked at him coldly. “Perhaps, but the loot is rich in these mining towns. We…” He stopped short as one of his men ran up, gasping for air.

“Senor, senor, a signal – from the lookout – Lagarto is coming in …”

“Bueno, bueno!” There was pleasure in his leader’s voice.

“But, senor,” the man hurried on, “a gringo follows him!”

“Que?” Delgatto snarled. “That stupid pig; he leads in a stranger? Come, we must make our new friend welcome.” The threat was clear and immediate.

Delgatto greeted his returning spy in the large cabin. Though the most substantial building in the camp, it was dirt-floored, damp and shadowy, furnished only with a rough table and a few stools.

“Welcome, Lagarto, welcome back to our camp. You have been long awaited.” Delgatto’s tone was slick and honeyed.

The little spy bobbed respectfully to his leader. “Gracias, patron.”

“Will you drink?” Delgatto indicated a clay jug and mugs on the table with the tip of his riding crop.

“Si, si. A long, thirsty ride from the Fort.” Lagarto quickly poured himself half a mug of tequila and drained it in one long gulp. “Ah, bueno. That burns away the dust, no?”

“And now, perhaps,” Delgatto asked, “you have news for us?” The leader leaned close; his breath warm against the smaller man’s face.

“Si, at last, patron. Only last night I heard the Sergeant speaking with the new scout.”

“And this new scout – what did he say?”

“That on the day of the bullion shipment the column would guard it only as far as Reno. The Army guard will turn back there. After that we can take it as the mouse takes the cheese.”

“Yes!” Delgatto snarled. “And we would be the rats in the trap! A new scout, eh, lizard, and perhaps he could teach you a few tricks!”

The little man’s mouth fell open, and he stared blankly at his master.

“In here!”

Delgatto’s shout was answered by sounds of struggle outside the blanket-hung doorway. Adam was forced into the room at gunpoint by two of Delgatto’s men, a third followed. His right cheek bore an ugly cut and already darkening bruise, but his eyes burned with temper, and he hadn’t come easily. The guards jerked him to an abrupt halt before Delgatto. The two men’s eyes met and locked. Each read the measure of the other.

Delgatto gestured toward Adam and spoke to Lagarto with deceptive gentleness. “Is this the scout of whom you speak?”

“Madre de Dios! It is him – el Senor Cartwright! How did he come to be here?”

Delgatto allowed his long-held rage to lash out. “Fool! He gave you false information, then followed you here. You know what happens to those who betray us.” He gestured for Adam’s guards to take Lagarto.

“No, patron! No, I beg you. I am always loyal to you! He must track like a wolf; I don’t know…”

“The fool is more to be feared than the traitor.” He jerked his head toward two of the guards. “Outside – finish him!” Indicating Adam, he told the third guard to keep him covered.

The man pulled a large and ornately engraved and inlaid pistol from its holster and pointed it firmly at Adam. Adam gave him a brief look of disdain and shifted his gaze back to Delgatto. Lagarto was dragged struggling and whimpering from the hut.

Delgatto looked long at Adam and perhaps recognized him as an equal. In any case his voice was courteous when he spoke. “Senor Cartwright did he say? An illustrious name in this country, but surely not the Ben Cartwright; possibly a son?”

“Adam Cartwright, Scout, United States Army. And you’ll be Delgatto, leader of this band of cutthroats?”

“Your servant, senor.” He gave a slight bow. “You came to view our humble camp. Por favor, allow me to be your escort.” He indicated the doorway with his crop, and the guard prodded Adam toward it. Adam gave ever appearance of being completely at ease when they stepped out into the sunlight.

A few steps from the command hut, Delgatto paused and spread his arms in a gesture that swept the whole camp spread before them. “Impressive, no? Men, arms, horses, supplies, even that essential of any fighting group – discipline. But, I almost forgot – the prize – captured from an Army supply train in Texas – observe…” He pointed with his crop to the defile that lead into the camp from the stream, and then farther up and to the left. Adam looked where he indicated.

Dread dried his mouth, and his heart thudded. Mounted well above the trail with a sweeping coverage was the latest model Gatling gun. A crate of ammunition stood nearby and the two-man crew looked alert and efficient.

Delgatto’s smile reinforced his chill. “It is always manned. You see, I have complete command of the approaches. No one enters this camp unless I will it.”

Adam turned to face his captor squarely. “Which should about bring us to the point of this little farce? You obviously don’t intend to let me ride out of here with this information tucked in my pocket. Why not just turn that gun on me as I came in and be done with it?”

“Are you so impatient to die? Come, we will talk more on this inside.”

Delgatto led them back to the command hut and held aside the blanket as his guard pushed Adam inside once more. When their eyes had adjusted to the semi-darkness, Delgatto prodded Adam in the shoulder with his crop and spoke again.

“Now, Senor Scout, you have learned what you wanted. Perhaps you will oblige me in return?”

Adam stood silent: waiting, watching.

“The column’s movements?” It was a harsh demand.

“I don’t know them. The Captain keeps his own council.”

“I’m not a fool, Cartwright. Before you came, the Army blundered all over this country. Everyone knew where that column was going and when. They hire a scout and suddenly they begin to appear and disappear like shadows. Not even the soldiers know where they will be next.”

His voice changed from anger to cajolery. “What do you owe the Army? Why leave your padre’s rich lands and ride yourself saddle sore for them? For the money? I think not. For adventure then? Maybe. In any case, I can offer you more of both. I need a good scout who knows this country, who can be depended on. Throw in with me, and you’ll see more gold and higher excitement than you believe possible. Give me the column’s schedule, and we can take the next bullion shipment – over a million and a half dollars – a tenth share is yours.”

Adam eyed him coldly. “And the alternative?”

Delgatto answered with violence. “This!” He lifted his heavy riding crop and slashed the lead-loaded grip against the heavy clay tequila jug on the table beside them. The vessel burst into fragments. Adam managed not to flinch, but his belly tightened.

Delgatto caressed the whip and spoke in a slow, almost dreamy, tone. “Made for me by an old Mexican craftsman – flexible, lead-loaded, capable of subduing the most unruly horse. If you force me to use it, you will suffer much the same fate as the jug… only slowly, ever so slowly. You will talk; never fear, you’ll beg to talk!” His head snapped up, his eyes blazed, “Quickly – the column?”

Adam shook his head slowly and firmly. “No.”

“Why, what can you hope to gain? You must know what’s coming.”

“I don’t believe my reasons would have any meaning to you.”

“Try me.”

He gave the outlaw a long, searching look. It hardly seemed worth the bother to answer, but then he shrugged – why not?’ “When you hold the lives and property of others in your hand, it ceases to be entirely a personal concern.”

“What can you possibly care about them – these others – now? Make no mistake, the forfeit in this game is your life.”

“Summum crede nefas animam praeferre puderi. Et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas,” Adam answered quietly with a favorite quote from Juvenal.

“Ah, Latin, no? Wealth provides so many of the little pleasures of life – including a fine education.”

Adam translated, “Count it the greatest of infamies to prefer life to honor, and to lose, for the sake of living, all that makes life worth having.” It was a flat statement of his belief.

Temper gripped his adversary. “Honor!” He struck Adam a savage blow across the left temple with the butt of his riding crop. Stunned he staggered back against the table.

“We will see how much comfort your honor is to you when your ribs are crushed and each breath is agony!”

He cut Adam hard in the lower left side over the floating ribs. The blow brought the air out of his lungs in a grunt. He bent inward toward the injured side, and as he did so, Delgatto hit him again with the heavy crop handle across his spine and kidneys. The blow straightened Adam, and he jumped at Delgatto in a rage beyond the pain and locked both hands around his tormentor’s throat.

The guard shouted, and in the struggle, the table overturned to send cups crashing to the ground. The noise brought Delgatto’s segundo, Luis, hurrying in from outside. Between them they managed to pry Adam loose from their boss and held him, still struggling and infuriated.

Delgatto straightened and rubbed his bruised throat. He lifted his crop, then paused. “Once more, Cartwright, use your head! Serve me, and you will be well rewarded.”

Teeth clenched in pain, Adam gave Delgatto the glare of an eagle and slowly, with infinite, deliberate contempt, shook his head. The raider slashed down viciously with the crop.

*****

Adam was unconscious, face down on the dirt floor of the command hut. Luis toed him roughly in the ribs with the sharp point of his snakeskin boot. There was no response from the prone figure.

“Rouse him, Luis,” Delgatto commanded, as he stroked the heavy crop through his hand. It left blood smears.

“I don’t think it will be possible this time, patron,” his segundo answered even as he scooped a dipper full of water from a nearby bucket and dashed it over Adam’s head. The man on the floor didn’t stir.

“Is he faking?”

In response, Luis stooped, drove his hands under Adam at hip and shoulder and, with a heave, turned him over. His face was marred by the black and purple bruise along his left temple and the cut across his right cheekbone was swollen and ugly. A trickle of frothy red blood had run from his mouth. His shirt was torn and stuck to him with partially dried blood. There was no doubt that he was completely unconscious.

“No, patron,” Luis answered. “He is finished. See, already his lungs bleed.” He pointed toward the frothy blood that had bubbled from between Adam’s lips.

“Fool! I would have used him well had he only been reasonable. I need men like this.” Delgatto turned away in irritation.

“We’ll tie him up outside so the men can have their sport with him in the morning.”

The leader of the raiders hesitated. “No, Luis. Leave him here. He’ll die soon enough. Pico can watch.” He indicated one of the guards.

Luis objected. “Los hombres – they will miss their fun with him.”

“Our people have a very old saying, Luis. ‘There are no jokes about courage’. Leave him here.” It was clearly an order and not to be disobeyed. Delgatto frowned down at his victim for a long moment and then swung about on his heel and strode out of the cabin. Luis followed in his wake.

Adam was alone with only the one guard. It was chilly in the hut, and the ground was damp, but when Pico jarred his shoulder with a kick, his head only fell limply to the side and fresh blood oozed from his mouth.

Pico cast a sly glance around and then picked up the fresh bottle of tequila from the table and retired to a stool in the corner with it. He tilted his head back and drank deeply of the fiery liquor. A sigh escaped him, and he lifted the bottle for another sip.

*****

The first, faint, silvery precursors of dawn filtered into the dark of the cabin. They picked out the guard hunched in his corner with a blanket draped around him and the empty tequila jug upended at his feet. His chin drooped onto his chest, and his eyes were closed. Soft snores broke the almost total silence.

Adam’s eyes opened, blinked, closed again briefly and then snapped open. Without moving he looked at everything within his sight. He focused on the sleeping guard and watched him intently for some time. One arm crept across his chest to press tightly against his left side. The other hand began to push against the cold dirt of the floor. By inches he forced himself into a sitting position. The effort brought the need to cough and with it a fresh gush of blood from his lungs. He fought back the sound and wiped a hand across his mouth. For a moment, he looked at the blood on his palm, puzzled, then wiped it away on his pants.

By inches he eased his way to the table and gripping hard to its edge managed to pull himself semi-erect. The pain of his broken ribs and bruised spine made it impossible to do more than hunch against the agony. A slight stirring drew his gaze to Pico, but the guard snorted a snore and fell back into a deep sleep.

Driven by a primal need to survive, to escape, Adam forced himself to the doorway, and bracing against the frame, he pushed aside the blanket and looked outside. The camp was still quiet in the first few minutes after sunrise. It seemed no one felt the need to crawl out of warm blankets into the brisk air of morning. Sport stood still saddled and tied with two or three other mounts at a rack near the cabin. No one had bothered to care for his horse. Shivering, limping and with an arm clamped hard across his chest, Adam made his way toward the horses.

Sport was hungry and very glad to see him. He would have never gotten aboard had the animal not turned willingly into him and stood quietly as he hauled himself up with a grip on the mane.

Sprawled across his horse’s neck, Adam watched as the night crew of the Gatling gun climbed down and went to wake their replacements. As soon as they were out of sight among the tents and huts, he kneed Sport toward the defile leading out of the camp. They disappeared from sight before the first of the raiders emerged to start the morning cook fires.

The sun had moved higher into the sky on what promised to be a warm and bright late spring day. The guard on the high cliff above the stream stretched, pulled a bit of jerky from beneath his serape and began to gnaw on it. The faint sound of a hoof striking a rock drew his attention to the creek bed below him.

The sight of a man in a ragged shirt swaying in the saddle just below him riveted him for a minute, but only for a minute. He threw down his jerky and grabbed his rifle. A snap shot threw up water behind Adam. He roused enough to kick Sport hard and bend low over his neck. The guard continued to pump bullets after the wildly racing pair until they were around a bend and out of range. With a curse, the man threw down his rifle and snatched up the signal mirror to flash the other guard post and the camp with the news of the escape.

Bearded and rumpled from their hasty awakening, Delgatto, Luis and several of his men threw saddles on their mounts and prepared to give pursuit.

Delgatto was in a foul mood. “He’ll try for the fort,” he shouted at Luis. “We must stop him before he reaches there!”

“He’s not fit to ride far,” Luis protested. “Maybe he’ll stop at a miner’s camp or ranch?”

“No, he knows we’ll check them all.”

“His home – this Ponderosa – they may have many men there?”

Delgatto swung into the saddle. “It’s twenty miles away across the mountains. He’d never last to reach it. No, it has to be the fort!” He lashed his horse into a run and headed to the defile. The others followed.

Halfway down the mountain, Sport picked his way cautiously along the almost dry streambed. Adam held desperately to the frayed edges of his consciousness. Injured beyond reason or planning, he longed for the safe haven of home. The Army post never entered his mind, but he knew there was another guard ahead. He lifted his head and looked off to the west; a tug on the reins turned the big horse in that direction. “Home, son,” Adam muttered. “Have to get home.”

Sport scrambled up the bank and disappeared into the forested and ridged land that lay on the direct route to the Ponderosa.

As the sounds of his passage faded, Delgatto and his men rode their sweating horses recklessly down the stream and on past Adam’s turn off point. When they reached the junction of the small stream and the Carson near the ‘shining rocks,’ they drew to a halt. Luis examined the ground carefully.

“He did not ride this way, jefe. We have lost him.”

Another man asked, “What now?”

“We must move the camp,” Luis replied

“No,” their leader said. “So long as he does not reach the soldiers, we will be safe. Post a man to watch and bring word should he make it to the fort.”

Luis pointed to one of the men and jerked his head toward the far side of the river and the distant fort. The man nodded and rode away.

“Myself, I think he is dying,” Delgatto told them, “somewhere back there in the mountains. He will die in the saddle and his horse will roam loose. Send the rest of the men to search.” He pulled his horse around and rode back toward the camp. Luis shrugged and dispersed the searchers into the surrounding forest.

*****

Sport jogged into the Ponderosa ranch yard with his master draped over his neck, hands locked into his mane. The horse was lathered in sweat and dust and nearly spent. He stopped at the hitching rail and whinnied loudly.

Soon the house door opened, and Hoss stepped out with a piece of harness in his hands. He called back over his shoulder, “Oh, talk up your big ideas to somebody else, short shanks. You couldn’t make money fallin’ down a shaft at eight-fifty a foot.”

He turned to look where he was going and halted, stunned by the sight that greeted him. He dropped the harness, called out, “Joe! Joe! Come quick!” and started for Adam at a run.

Just as he reached his brother, Joe burst out of the door. “What, Hoss? What is it?” In an instant, he caught sight of Adam and cleared the porch in one jump. He arrived beside Hoss just as the big man was reaching up to Adam. “Careful, Hoss,” Joe whispered. “He’s hurt; he’s hurt bad.”

Hoss placed one big hand on Adam’s thigh and held out his other arm. His brother opened sunken eyes to look down into concerned blue ones. “Hoss. Be… be easy.” With the words came bubbles of bright blood.

“Oh, dear God,” Joe said; it was a prayer and not a profanity.

Hoss began to loosen Adam’s stiffened hands from their grip on the mane. He spoke gently to his brother – almost as to a child. “Don’t you fret, Adam. Ol’ Hoss ain’t gonna hurt you none. Just turn aloose now.”

Suddenly Adam relaxed and with perfect trust and one last effort, rolled off and into Hoss’ waiting arms. He choked back a cry as his brother’s grip tightened around him.

“Git Pa!” Hoss ordered. “Then find a hand to take care of this horse.”

Joe bolted for the house as Hoss followed more slowly, carrying Adam with great care.

*****

At Fort Churchill, Captain McElroy was less than pleased with Adam’s absence. “Well, where is he?” he demanded of Sergeant Donovan, who stood before his desk at parade rest.

“Sir, it’s sure I am that he’ll be reporting soon as ever he can.”

“He’d better snap to it. Twenty-four hours gone and not a word! Probably drunk somewhere. Shiftless civilians!”

“Aw, no sir, not on your life! Beggin’ the Captain’s pardon, sir, but Adam Cartwright is a likely lad. You can be dependin’ on him.”

“He’s a civilian, and you can depend on them to do just as they please. Gone home for a change of clothes, no doubt. Sergeant, I’ll personally see to it that he completes this scouting mission if it kills him.”

*****

It was night as Hoss and Joe sat cramped on the edge of their seats in the Ponderosa great room. Their eyes went again and again to the stairs. Suddenly a full throated scream from Adam lifted Joe from his chair. He looked wildly at Hoss, who motioned him back down.

They sat again in heavy silence. Hoss turned a small book over and over in his hands. Joe looked upstairs, bit at a fingernail and finally, dropped his head into his hands. The charged air was split by another scream choked off in mid-cry. Joe was on his feet and headed upstairs. Hoss just managed to catch him by the arm and point back to the couch.

“Whoa, Joe. You’d only be in the way up there.”

“If he yells like that one more time, you’ll be pluckin’ me off the rafters. What are they doing to him, anyhow!”

“Tryin’ to get them ribs strapped up, I’d judge. Delgatto sure didn’t miss much. His back…pissin’ blood,” Hoss shook his head. “It’s a plumb miracle he got out of there alive.”

“Well, do they have to keep on hurting him?” Joe demanded.

“There ain’t no easy way to do it. Doc Martin’s gotta know what pains him and what don’t. An’ that bleeding from the lungs – Adam’s likely to choke on his own blood if they can’t keep him conscious till it stops. Reckon Doc’ll put him to sleep soon as it’s safe.”

“It better be soon.” Joe hesitated and then went on, “Hoss, we’re not gonna let that butcher get away with this are we? We can’t!”

“Don’t worry, little brother; there’ll be an accounting for every mark on Adam – sure as drought in the desert!”

*****

A steady, dreary, gray rain drenched the Ponderosa. The land might welcome the water, but the monotonous drumming on the roof set the mood as they gathered for breakfast.

Joe gestured toward the window. “That looks about like I feel – completely washed out.”

“You,” Hoss questioned, “how about Pa? I don’t think he’s closed his eyes in the last three days.”

“Oh, I’ve caught a few catnaps,” their father replied. “It’s Doc I’m bothered about. He must be exhausted. Hoss, why don’t you go up and see if you can spell him for a while?”

Hoss was just rising as Doctor Paul Martin walked into the dining room. “No need,” he told them. “Adam is sleeping. I think we can safely leave him alone long enough for a little breakfast.” He took a seat as Hoss filled a plate and passed it to him.

“Doctor, I guess you know how grateful we are …,” Ben began, but he was quickly interrupted.

“If you were about to thank me or something foolish like that, forget it. After all, Ben, I’ve been looking after these hellions of yours for quite a few years. I want to see Adam pull out of this as badly as you do.”

The doctor had just put Little Joe’s fears into so many words.

“Doc! You said he was gonna be all right.”

“No, Joe. You heard what you wanted to hear. I said he had a good chance. The human animal never ceases to amaze me. I can’t give you a single, sound, medical reason why Adam isn’t dead out there somewhere in the mountains – except that he wanted to live.” The doctor shook his head in wonderment. “Don’t ask me how he even got on a horse, much less rode twenty miles, losing blood the whole way. The will to survive is an incalculable force. If he can make it through another few days without any complications, then, in time, he should heal.”

“What do you mean by ‘complications’?” Joe wanted to know.

“With a chest injury as serious as your brothers, the greatest danger is always pneumonia. It’s the killer. On top of his other injuries, he could easily be too weak to fight it and win. About all we can do to prevent it is to keep him warm, quiet and as comfortable as possible. I hope that stubborn Cartwright streak of his keeps on working.”

Joe pushed both hands through his thick mop of hair, and then slammed away from the table to pace across the room. Hoss left his last strip of bacon on his plate and followed him to the front window. Joe stood looking blankly out at the rain. “Joe,” Hoss put a consoling hand on his shoulder. “Come on, simmer down and unkink ‘fore you bust a cinch. Ol’ Adam’s tougher ‘n a she-bear’s hind tit. He’s gonna make it.”

Joe looked at Hoss, worry and tension still plain in his face. Then he relaxed a little, smiled and nodded. They both continued to look out into the unabated rainfall.

A short while later, Ben sat staring into the fire. His thoughts were interrupted by a sharp knock on the door. He opened it to find Sergeant Donovan and an Army captain standing there. Three troopers, draped in slickers and dripping rainwater, sat their horses in the yard. They were accompanied by a wagon and driver.

“Mr. Cartwright?” the captain asked.

“Yes, and you must be Captain McElroy. Come in, and have your men step into the bunkhouse and dry off. It’s miserable weather to be outside.”

“Thank you, I will.” The captain turned back to give the orders to his men. Sergeant Donovan followed Ben into the living room.

“Donovan, good to see you again,” Ben said.

“Aye, and you, sir,” Donovan said as he removed his hat and poncho. “Young Adam, now, how is he?”

“Beaten, tortured. It’s bad, Sergeant.”

The big Irishman scowled. “Bloody devils!”

Joe and Hoss stepped into the room from the kitchen and nodded to Donovan.

Captain McElroy came in and closed the door behind him. He shrugged out of his wraps and followed them to the fireplace. “I received your message, Mr. Cartwright, and I’ve come to pick up my scout.”

“You’ve what?” Ben couldn’t believe his ears.

“We’ve come to get Adam and take him to the dispensary at the Fort. He is the Army’s responsibility, you know.”

Incredulous and angry Ben said, “Surely, you don’t seriously suggest moving him that distance in an open wagon in this downpour. He’s hurt, Captain. He needs medical attention.”

“And he shall have it, rest assured, sir. The Post Surgeon is a very competent man. Now, if you’ll just take me to him…”

“No, absolutely not.”

“Sir, be sensible,” McElroy said quietly. Your son is under contract to the Army.” You could see Ben begin to swell. “I have every legal right to remove him to the post and to have you forcibly restrained, if necessary.”

Joe’s expression of disbelief changed to one of anger; his hand dropped to his weapon.

The captain continued in his cool tone, “He’ll have the best of care, but it is necessary that he be in our hands.”

Hoss’ expressive face crumpled in concern.

“I assure you, Mr. Cartwright, we can protect him, and he has information that we need. I’m sure you see the logic.”

On the verge of explosion, Ben drew a deep breath, then thought better of it and answered with icy control. “Captain McElroy, I am forced to admit that you have both logic and the law on your side …”

“Well, I’m pleased you realize …”

“However,” Ben went right on, “there is just one issue in the argument that you’ve failed to grasp.”

“What’s that?”

“We’re not discussing a problem in military tactics from a West Point text book. The case in point is that of my son, my oldest son, who’s hurt so badly that if you carry out your proposed plan you’ll almost surely kill him! I’ll put it to you as plainly as I know how.” Ben’s voice began to rise. “Logic, law and the whole lot of you be damned; the only way you’ll take Adam out of this house will be over my dead body! He glared defiantly at the captain. Hoss and Joe stood solidly behind him in a clear unity of purpose.

Ben’s shock tactics jolted the spit and polish captain, but the message did get through. After a moment of surprise, his expression softened, and his answer was calm. “My apologies, Mr. Cartwright; you’re perfectly right, of course. I’m afraid I sometimes forget to take the human element into account. It’s a bad fault. Naturally, I don’t want to endanger your son further, but I must have the intelligence he was willing to risk his life to obtain, and I need a scout. Perhaps you can suggest a solution?”

Having been suddenly handed the ball, Ben looked a little nonplused. “Well…”

“Pa,” Hoss broke in. “I know all this country round here good as Adam does, maybe even a little better, an’ Delgatto’s made it a down right personal matter with us now. Why don’t I take Adam’s place and finish out that contract for him?

“That sounds fine.” The Captain smiled at the big man.

Ben, however, was dubious of risking another son. “I don’t know…”

“You know this has to be done, Pa. It ain’t just Adam these buzzards done hurt, but women ‘n kids on little backwoods holdings, an’ old prospectors alone in the hills. Adam knew they had to be stopped. Since he can’t finish the job, I kinda think he’d like us to do it.”

“Hoss and I’ll both go!” Joe said with considerable heat. “All I want is to get a gun sight on ‘em. I’ll give ‘em hell with the hide off!”

“Not this time, Joe,” Ben said.

“Yes, Pa! The two of us can cover twice as much ground.”

“No, Joseph. This business has gotten you tied up in too many knots. The Captain wouldn’t be able to depend on your judgment.”

“Your father’s right, son,” the captain said. “You can’t start out after men like these single-handed. You’d only get yourself killed, and lose them for us.”

Joe gave Ben a look of pleading. “But, Pa. Adam…”

“If you’re so all-fired concerned about Adam, stay home and lend a hand with him. He’s going to need all the care and attention we have to give him for a while.”

Mollified, Joe nodded his agreement and stepped back. “Sure, Pa, sure.”

Pleased, the captain smiled. “Well, I have my substitute scout. Now, if we may see Adam and get his report?”

“I don’ think that will be possible,” Ben said firmly.

“Not possible! But…”

“Ain’t no call to go botherin’ Adam, Captain,” Hoss added. “Shouldn’t take me long to locate them nohow.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that!” the captain snapped. “It took your brother nearly three weeks, and he only managed by spotting one of their spies and tracking him. You can be sure that won’t work twice. He must tell us what he knows, and it has to be now!” He turned to Ben.

“I don’t know; I just don’t know. He’s not conscious, Captain. He was in so much pain. Dr. Martin’s had him under sedation for the last thirty-six hours and plans to continue for another few days. If there were some other way…”

“Believe me, sir, I sympathize with your dilemma, but there isn’t any other way. You must be aware of it, too. Everything we need so desperately to know is locked up in your son’s mind. It would take only a few minutes at most…”

Ben thought it over and finally said, “Yes, yes, and it was important to Adam. He tried so hard to tell me the camp’s location while we were working on him, but… It was so terrible for him just to breathe, let alone speak. Perhaps …”

“Yes?”

“I’m not insensitive to the urgent and critical nature of your mission here, Captain. If Dr. Martin agrees that it can be done at all, we’ll wake Adam and get as much information as he is able to give us.”

“Splendid, sir! That’s all I ask. You won’t regret it.”

“I hope not. I certainly hope not!”

Joe was sitting at Adam’s bedside watching him rouse slowly from his drugged sleep when the door opened and Ben, Hoss and the captain entered, followed by Doc Martin. Several pillows supported Adam in a semi-sitting position to make breathing as easy as possible. His chest was strapped from waist to breastbone, and the marks across his temple and cheek were very dark. Flushed with fever and struggling to breathe, he was restless but not fully awake.

“How is it going, Joe?” Ben asked.

“Comin’ around. He’s spoken to me a couple of times and then dozed off again.”

“That’s to be expected,” the doctor said, “given the extent of his injuries.” He turned to the captain and Hoss. “You understand this has to be brief. He’s going to be in severe pain, and any upset could have serious consequences.”

“We understand that, sir, but he has information that’s vital to the whole territory. He must tell us where to find Delgatto.”

“I’ll be talking to him, Doc, and I shore don’t aim to hurt Adam no more if I kin help it.”

“All right, Hoss, but remember – he’s probably going to be pretty confused and groggy.”

Hoss took Joe’s seat beside Adam. Ben and the doctor went to the other side of the bed. Captain McElroy stood close behind Hoss, and Joe leaned in the doorway of the crowded room.

Hoss bent close to his brother. “Adam, Adam, can you hear me?”

Adam opened his eyes and they gradually found focus. “Hoss?’

“How you feelin’? Think you could talk to me for a little while?”

Adam nodded yes, then paused to take stock. “What… what’s wrong with me, Hoss? I hurt … hurt all over … my back…” His sentences were broken into short bits as he stopped to gather the breath to force them out.

Hoss tried to help his brother clear his mind. “Do you remember being taken by Delgatto, being tortured?”

His time sense dulled by drugs, Adam had no idea how long it had been since his escape. “Yeah. But – but I got away, came home – long time ago.”

“Only three days. Doc’s kept you asleep most of that time.”

“Why?”

Hoss did his best to answer gently, but honestly. He knew that Adam dealt best with things when fully informed, but he didn’t want to distress him either. “You’re hurt some inside, Adam. Guess you know you got busted ribs, an’ Doc says your lungs, spine n’ kidneys are all bruised – shaken up, sorta. You just have to be real quiet and rest for a spell ‘till they can heal up.

Adam thought this over for a minute, compared it to his own sensations and accepted it quietly. “I see.”

“Find out where Delgatto is,” Capt McElroy urged.

Hoss nodded and turned back to Adam. “I hate to torment you, but I’m gonna try ‘n find that bunch again for the Captain. Can you tell me where the camp is; how you found ‘em?”

Morphine-clouded and fever touched, Adam failed to understand that what was needed was a full intelligence report on his scouting mission. He tried hard to answer Hoss’ direct questions but was unable to make connections and offer information that wasn’t specifically requested.

“Sure. They’re pretty close in really, but well hidden. You follow the Carson upstream from the Fort a few miles until you …” It was too much at once. He started to cough, and it clamped his chest in a vise of pain. Unable to speak he pressed his left side tightly until it eased a little. The thread of what he had been saying was lost. He passed a hand across his eyes and looked up at Hoss. “What … what was I tryin’ to tell you?”

“About where you found Delgatto. You went up the Carson a ways…?”

“Yeah, yeah. Till you find a stream – the stream by the shining rocks. Follow it southeast up around Rawe Peak…”

“Stream by the shining rocks?” Hoss questioned.

As the narcotics in his system faded, Adam became more restless and distracted by pain and flaring fever. “Yes, and Hoss – listen, Hoss.” Using his arms, Adam forced himself almost erect in his urgency to get through to his brother. Ben reached out to restrain him, and the doctor stood suddenly.

“Easy, son, easy.”

“The lookouts! Two. One – one near start – where you’d expect. Another – high up – see both ways. Signal system – how they caught me. Be – be careful, Hoss.” Adam was panting and began to cough again.

Ben took his son in his arms and forced him back onto the pillows, where he collapsed fighting for each breath.

Dr. Martin spoke up sharply. “I was afraid of this. You’ll have to cut it short.”

“Just one or two more questions.” The captain was pleading. “Please, this is important. Find out their strength?”

Hoss turned again to Adam. The captain rested his hands on the chair back and leaned close.

“Adam, try to tell us. How many of them owlhoots are there?”

Adam’s breathing was steadier and he found an answer. “About – about thirty men, a few women, some hangers on – maybe forty in all. Hoss, I’m so hot… thirsty.”

“You got a little fever. Don’t fret; it’ll pass. Do you want water?”

Adam nodded yes, and Hoss poured a glass from the jug on the table. He lifted Adam enough that he could drink, and he did so eagerly. After a few swallows, Hoss pulled it away. “Go slow, big brother. A little at a time is best.” He eased Adam against the pillows again.

Captain McElroy found it hard to contain his impatience. “See if he knows when their next raid is planned and where they will strike.”

Hoss gave the man a hard look, but asked softly, “Did you find out anything about their plans. Who are they gonna hit next?”

 

“They want silver shipment – by Overland – next week… but ‘fraid – ‘fraid of the column…” He broke off to press both hands to his chest; his head twisted on the pillow. “Won’t strike ‘till – ‘till they can get a new report on the column’s movements”

“That means we’ll have to go in after them. Ask him for a better fix on the camp.”

Hoss was reluctant to comply with the request, and both Ben and Doc Martin looked deeply concerned.

“I don’t like it.”

“Try. Please.”

“Tell me once more, Adam. How do you reach the hideout? There’s a hundred little cricks and washes run into the Carson from them mountains.”

“Follow the water in. You’ll know it by the rocks – the rocks that shine.” Adam’s hands clenched in the covers and twisted. “Hoss, they play rough; watch yourself.” Drained, Adam turned his cheek to the cool linen of the pillow and closed his eyes.

“That’s not good enough,” McElroy complained. “He’s got to give us better directions.”

Hoss lashed out at him in anger. “Ask him yourself then; I’m through! Hasn’t he done enough? You just hired a scout for your blamed $16.00 a month. You didn’t buy his last breath! Don’t worry. I’ll fill that contract for you. I’ll be able to smell them skunks!

Adam roused and looked from Hoss to Ben in confusion. “Pa, the contract. What does he mean? Does Hoss have to go in my place?”

“It’s all right, son. Hoss is doing what he wants to do.”

“Don’t you worry none, Adam; I’ll be fine.”

Exhausted by the interrogation, confused by fever and opiates, torn with pain, Adam turned to Ben. “Pa. Pa, please. So – so tired.”

Ben stroked his son’s bruised face. “I know, son. I know.”

Unwilling to endanger his patient for a moment longer, Dr. Martin spoke decisively. “This has gone entirely too far! Clear the room, Ben. I’m putting Adam back to sleep immediately.” He picked up his bag and prepared a hypodermic syringe.**

Ben stood very erect and looked steadily at Captain McElroy. Hoss too faced the officer grimly. The captain moved toward the door, and both men followed. Joe returned to Adam’s side. The doctor administered a shot of morphine, closed his bag and spoke to Joe. “Stay with him, Little Joe, and don’t let anything else excite him. He must rest.”

“I’ll see to it, sir. You can depend on that!”

When they had all left, Joe leaned over Adam and smoothed the covers. Adam opened his eyes, saw Joe and caught at his arm. Cloudy as his mind was, he knew he had missed something important. “Joe! Something – something Hoss should know. If I could only think …”

“Don’t worry, older brother. Hoss will manage real fine. You go to sleep now. You’ll feel better soon.”

Adam was slipping away; his speech slurred. “Forgotten – should know – Joe…”

“Sleep, Adam. I’ll be right here.”

*****

Another day was beginning at Fort Churchill. The bugler, braced at attention near the flagpole, blew work call. Small groups of soldiers and individuals moved across the parade ground. Some went to offices; others headed toward the stables and corral. A prisoner detail under guard began to clean up the area. Hoss came down the steps from the captain’s office, crossed to the hitching rack, untied Chubb, mounted and rode toward the gate.

Mid-morning found him working his way up the Carson, examining the ground closely for tracks. He rode a short distance up several small feeder streams as he searched for some sign of Adam’s ‘shining rocks.’ By late afternoon, he was thoroughly puzzled. He pulled up in the shade of a tree to rest his mount, pushed back his hat and shook his head. “Rocks that shine? What got into Adam, anyhow? Was he plumb out of his head?” Reluctantly he gave up for the day and turned back toward the post.

That night in the captain’s office, he heard what he had expected.

“Sorry now that you didn’t try for better directions from your brother?”

“No, sir. I’ll find ‘em.”

“But when, that’s the question? Time is running out on us. Delgatto can decide to strike again or move camp on any day. We’ve got to locate him!”

“Adam mentioned Rawe Peak. I’ll start soon as it’s daylight and have a look up that way.”

“Awful lot of rough country up there, but go ahead and try.”

Hoss headed for the door. He had his hand on the knob when the captain called, and he turned back.

“Cartwright.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Watch your step, huh? Scouts are getting mighty hard to come by.”

“Yes, sir, I will.” Hoss gave him a sloppy salute and stepped outside.

Deep in the mountains east of Rawe Peak, Hoss rode along a faint trail. He reached a fork and paused. The left-hand trail led gradually downhill and into heavy woods. The right led up into the mountain, where one of Delgatto’s guards crouched on a pinnacle. As he observed Hoss through his field glasses, he groped for the signal mirror.

Hoss scratched at his head, looked right once more, shrugged and turned into the left-hand path. As he vanished into the woods, the guard put down the signal mirror and breathed a sigh of relief.

Hoss returned to the fort late that evening, and the captain met him halfway across the parade ground. It was almost full dark.

“I’m relieved to see you,” he was told. “I was thinking of organizing a patrol to start a search. Have any trouble?”

“No, sir, nor no luck neither. Had a feelin’ I was close a few times, but you could lose an army up there and not miss ‘em.”

“What now?”

“I ain’t real sure. Lemme sleep on it.”

“Oh, your father sent over a rider from the Ponderosa today with a message for you.”

“Adam, how is he?” Hoss asked anxiously.

“About the same apparently. Said he’s still not too clear in his mind, but he does keep mentioning this stream with the rocks that shine. Does that mean anything at all to you?”

“No, no it don’t, but it must to Adam.” He thought a minute. “That settles it. I’ll try workin’ up the Carson once more. Maybe I just missed it before.”

“I hope you’re right. Get some sleep, and good luck tomorrow.”

“Thanks, I could use some – of both.”

Traveling slowly up the Carson, Hoss came to the stream Adam had followed to the camp. The sky was cloudy and the crystal formation in the rock face did not shine. Unaware that it was the trail he sought, he dismounted and examined the ground closely, as he had at every tributary all morning. He found a rock or two recently turned over. They were damp and the soil-stained side was up. He squinted at the stream as he tried to reach a decision.

He went back to Chubb, retrieved his canteen and walked back to the stream to fill it. Suddenly the sun broke from behind a cloud. The crystal impregnated rocks flashed fire. Hoss looked up full into the face of ‘the rocks that shine.’ Smiling quietly to himself, he capped his canteen and moved back to his horse.

“Well, fellow, reckon ol’ Adam did know what he was sayin’ after all. Think we better take the rest of his advice and watch mighty careful for that lookout.” Hoss mounted and eased his way into the creek.

Sergeant Donovan and Captain McElroy stood at the edge of the parade grounds at mid-morning. The captain’s worry was apparent in his voice. “Still no sign of him, Sergeant?”

“No, Sir, and the watch reports no movement about the post during last night.”

“Sergeant we can’t lose another of that man’s sons.”

“No, sir.” Grim determination rang in his tone.

“Mount a ten-man patrol, your best men. We’ll go and have a look.”

“Yes, sir!” Donovan turned to hurry away.

Just then, Hoss galloped through the gate, pushing his tired horse hard. He spotted the captain, pulled up beside him and slid down. He was jubilant.

“We got ‘em! Found the sidewinders, Captain. Slickest hideout you every saw. Delgatto’s got himself a regular village.”

“You found the camp?”

“Shore did, exactly like Adam kept trying to tell us. You ride up a little crick almost to the camp, and that there stream is lined with rocks what got little bits of crystal all through ‘em. When the sun hits just the right way, they sparkle and shine like a new silver dollar.”

“How far from here to the camp?”

“About twelve miles. It’s down in a narrow valley just inside the timber up on Rawe Peak. Only one way in and there’s plenty of lookouts. Had to wait for dark to slip past ‘em.”

“This is fine.” McElroy was obviously delighted. “Well done, Mr. Cartwright. Come with me, I’ll need a full report. And, Sergeant?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have the entire troop ready to ride by one o’clock with supplies for twenty-four hours and a full issue of ammunition. And, have someone bring Hoss a meal in my office.”

“Aye, sir, and it’ll be coming right along.”

As they started toward the office, McElroy gave Hoss a friendly slap on the back and asked, “Now, what about those sentries?”

“Adam had it right, but I think I got a way all figured out that we can take the first one by surprise going in …”

*****

At about the same time, Ben, Dr. Martin and Little Joe paused outside Adam’s door.

“I haven’t given him anything at all this morning, Ben. He should be back with us before too long.”

“Will he still be in so much pain?”

“No, no, Ben, he shouldn’t be. It’s been almost a week – the worst is over. Oh, he’ll be uncomfortable for a while yet, but his lungs are clear, the internal bleeding seems to have checked, and his fever’s down.”

“If I know Adam,” Joe chimed in, “he’ll want to be out of that bed and after the hombres that did this to him as soon as he figures out he’s still in one piece.”

Dr. Martin’s response was quick. “You’d better not let him try it! He must stay quiet for some time yet, or he’ll start the bleeding again, and his ribs are just beginning to knit. Ah, Ben,” the doctor continued, “you are driving me over to the Widow Barkley’s place aren’t you?”

“Maybe I’d better have Joe do it; I want to be here when Adam wakes up.”

“Oh, nonsense, Ben. You need the fresh air! You’ve been with Adam day and night since he rode in here, and we’ll probably be back before he comes around anyhow. You’ll keep a sharp eye on your brother won’t you, Joe?”

“Sure, Doc. Go on, Pa; it’ll do you good.”

“Well, all right. Besides, maybe I can talk Mrs. Barkley out of some of those fine strawberry preserves of hers. Adam’s very fond of them.”

“Aren’t we all?” Joe added.

The two older men headed downstairs, and Joe entered his brother’s room. He looked down at Adam who slept quietly. His chest was still strapped and the bruises on his face were faintly visible. Joe adjusted the covers, settled into a comfortable chair near the bed and picked up his book.

An hour later little had changed except the feeling in Joe’s belly; a low rumble confirmed his diagnosis of hunger. He looked at the still sleeping figure in the bed, then set his book aside and tiptoed quietly out of the room. He closed the door behind him.

Presently, Adam stirred a little and sighed. His eyelids fluttered but did not open. Beneath the screen of sooty lashes his eyes began to move rapidly. A horrifying scene presented itself. Beyond the last ridge before the defile that leads down into Delgatto’s camp, Hoss and Captain McElroy ride at the head of a column of soldiers. Unseen above them, the two-man gun crew give the Gatling gun a final adjustment and look toward the guard at the high point above the entrance to the defile. He points back over the hill toward the troop and holds up five fingers. The men on the gun nod their readiness and take aim at the trail.

The column halts for a moment before entering into the narrow runoff leading to the camp. Hoss and the captain look left and right, but they cannot see the well camouflaged gun. McElroy signals the men forward, and they pass between the walls of the runoff. When they are well into the defile and nearing the camp, the two men on the gun grin wickedly at each other, take careful aim and open fire.

A thunderous staccato fills the air and the column is raked with deadly gunfire. There is total chaos; men and animal scream and thrash. Hoss is ripped from his rearing mount and thrown to the ground by the deadly blows of assailing bullets.

Adam jerked straight up in bed to gasp, “Hoss!”

He looked around his room in confusion and finally realized it was a dream. Aware now of the ache of broken bones, he groaned and dropped back onto the pillows. Slowly the full significance of the dream reached him, and his face twisted in alarm. He looked about in search of someone – anyone to tell and discovered he was alone. He was painfully aware that Hoss had gone looking for Delgatto without prior knowledge of the machine gun. He had no idea how long ago it had been or where everyone was, but a sense of urgency drove him. He pushed back the covers and slowly eased out of the bed.

In the Ponderosa kitchen, Joe whistled contentedly under his breath as he sliced bread and cut meat to make himself a sandwich or two.

Upstairs Adam had struggled into his pants and leaned against the dresser for support as he worked to get his shirt on over his heavily bandaged chest. The injuries and days spent drugged and in bed had left him weak and clumsy.

Joe munched happily on his two inch thick sandwich and drank a glass of milk.

Adam looked for his gunbelt. He found it hung on a wall peg across the room from where he stood. Each step was an effort as he drove the commands through his bruised spine. Then he had to reach up to lift down the heavy gunbelt. The pull on his chest was almost more than he could stand, but after a couple of tries, he lifted it down and began to buckle it on.

Joe put his plate and glass into the sink and sauntered out of the kitchen. As he passed through the great room, he selected an apple from the bowl and tossed it casually in the air and he went toward the stairs.

Adam located his boots in the corner by the dresser. He bent slowly over to pick them up and was rewarded with a stab of amazing pain in his left side. He grunted sharply and saw the boots start to fade out of focus. With a terrific effort he straightened and hung onto the dresser with his head low and a cold sweat chilling his body.

The door swung open, and Joe froze, riveted in his place. “Adam!” The apple hit the floor, and Joe was beside his brother in three quick strides with an arm around him and a shoulder offering support. Adam let Joe take some of his weight. “Dizzy,” he said.

In his anxiety, Joe spoke sharply. “You crazy fool, what do you think you’re doing? You want to kill yourself!”

He lowered Adam into the closest chair where he fought to steady his breathing. When is seemed he wasn’t really going to faint, Adam lifted his head and said urgently, “Joe, Hoss, he’ll be killed. The gun; I forget the gun. Gotta get to him.” He tried to rise.

Joe restrained him. “The only place you’re going is back to bed. You’re still delirious, Adam.”

“No, Joe. I’m all right. Believe me! Delgatto has a gun – a Gatling gun. It covers the only trail into his camp. They can wipe out the whole column. We’ve got to warn them!”

Joe looked closely at his brother and felt his forehead.

“Joe! In heaven’s name, you’ve got to believe me.”

“I believe you, Adam. I’ll go as soon as I can get you back into bed. Pa and the Doc will be here shortly; you got to promise me you won’t try to move again ‘till they come.”

“You don’t know where the camp is, and the gun’s hidden. I want to go with you.”

“And I want to keep both my brothers alive through this mess. You promise, or nobody goes.” Joe understood the feeling, but knew Adam could never make the ride.

Still light-headed and wheezing, even Adam knew that Joe was right. He closed his eyes for a moment and then nodded yes. “Okay, I promise. I’d only slow you up anyway. Let me tell you exactly how to find the camp, dodge the guards and spot the gun.”

Joe was spurring hard when he left the ranch.

*****

At Fort Churchill, Captain McElroy’s troop had cleared the gate and rode toward the Carson at a trot.

Joe hadn’t reached them by the time Hoss pointed out the shining rocks to the captain as they turned into the creek. The sentry high on the mountainside spotted them as they rounded the bend and wondered why the creek side sentry hadn’t signaled, but he hastily picked up his signal mirror and flashed an urgent message to the gun crew.

Joe spotted the gleam of the crystals and plunged into the small stream. Water splashed from beneath Cochise’s flying hooves. Urging him recklessly on, Joe passed a bound and gagged man beside the water and soon spotted the end of the column. He made his way past the troopers to Hoss and Captain McElroy at their head. The captain threw up his hand and halted the column. Joe spoke quickly and quietly to Hoss.

“Well?” McElroy demanded.

“Little job that got overlooked,” Hoss told him. Just hold everything right here ‘till we get back.” The two Cartwrights rode away into the wooded verge of the stream.

The gun crew waited tensely, eyes fixed on the sentry at the high point. The man there looked puzzled and lifted his shoulders in bewilderment. Joe and Hoss broke from cover on either side of the gun position and, after a short but fierce struggle, overcame the gun crew. They straightened, grinned at each other and solemnly shook hands.

“For Adam,” Joe said.

“For Adam!” Hoss agreed.

The lookout scrambled back from his high point, ran to his horse tethered in the woods, slung himself into the saddle and rode away from the camp and his fellows as fast as he could.

*****

Adam had spent two pain-filled weeks, each slow-counted hour with its full measure of discomfort. Everything was difficult: breathing, sleeping, eating, just existing, and most galling to Adam was his helplessness – his prolonged need for care and assistance in even the smallest matters. He had borne it well and managed to maintain some sense of proportion and humor, but his body had almost drained its reserves to repair and rebuild, and he felt depressed and quite thin around the edges.

His father was aware of this and spent time each day with his son in an effort to buoy up his spirits and smooth out his moods. When he entered, Adam was propped up and resting fairly comfortably on his left side and hip. He had a tendency to keep a hand pressed against his left side which still ached and throbbed. Glad to see company, he put down his book and lifted a hand in greeting.

Ben came over and eased down onto the edge of the bed. “How’s it going, son?”

“Slowly, Pa, very slowly,” Adam said with a wry smile.

“Well, you know Virgil said that, ‘Every misfortune is subdued by patience.’”

“And it has been remarked that, ‘He preacheth patience that never knew pain’.”

It was a game between them that neither took too seriously.

“Knew an old mountain man once who always ‘lowed as how there warn’t nothin’ like a good spell of the miseries to take a feller’s mind offen his troubles.”

Adam gave a snort between disgust and laughter, and then was doubled over by the adverse response of his sore ribs.

Ben continued unrelentingly. “Same old coot made his own brand of tonsil varnish out of fermented parsnips. Swore it would cure anything. Never had the nerve to try it myself, but I once saw a drop of it draw a blood blister on a rawhide boot.”

Adam’s arms were pressed tightly around his chest, and his gasps were half laughter and half pain. “No. Don’t. Stop it, Pa, you’re killing me here.”

Ben paused until Adam could catch his breath, then asked, “How about it, son? Feel up to seeing a visitor for a few minutes?”

“That’ll depend on who it is. If it were that new singer Joe was telling me they’ve hired at the Crittendon House …?”

“Well, you can disabuse your mind of that fancy; it isn’t. And if she’s the young lady I heard Joe and Hoss remarking on, we couldn’t risk running your temperature up like that, anyhow.”

Adam smiled and lifted a shoulder in question. “Who then?”

“Captain McElroy.”

First surprise and then temper surfaced. “McElroy! What does he want? I’m not ready for another scouting mission yet. No. I don’t want to see him!”

“Do you think that’s quite fair? After all, it’s a good ride over here from the fort, and he has been concerned about you.”

Too worn down to be his usual reasonable self, Adam shifted with some effort and snapped, “Concerned! Too bad he didn’t think of it sooner. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be laid up here.”

“Delgatto didn’t have anything to do with it?” Ben asked mildly. “You didn’t volunteer for the mission?”

The point registered. Adam relaxed and smiled, amused at himself. “You’ve got me there, Pa. I asked for it. But even after he saw what happened to me, he let Hoss take the same chance. That was close. I still get the shakes when I think about it. If I hadn’t come to; if Joe hadn’t made it in time… How does a man justify something like that?”

“If you want McElroy’s reasons, why don’t you ask him?” You may not particularly like the man, Adam, but I think he’s entitled to your respect. It’s his breed who are bringing something more than lynch law to the West. The Army’s spread mighty thin out here, and they have a big responsibility: to assist the civilian law enforcement officials, to patrol our borders, to put down outlaw gangs like Delgatto’s and to control the hostile Indians. It amounts to fighting a full-time war every day for little pay and less thanks. The Captain’s got a tough job, but he’s doing it the best way he knows how. It won’t hurt you to hear what he has to say.”

His father was right; Adam knew that. He bent his head in agreement. Then, using his arms he forced himself up off of the pillows and tried to pull more erect. He was caught halfway by the pain in his ribs and broke off to clutch them with his right hand. He was stuck with his weight on his left arm and unable to move in any direction. Ben slipped his arm behind his son and supported him.

“Help me sit up, Pa. I don’t want him to see me like this. I hate being so helpless.”

“It will pass, son; it’ll pass.” Ben helped Adam to turn and fixed the pillows so that he sat up straight with his head unsupported. Adam was panting a little with the effort.

“Better, son?”

“Yeah, thanks, Pa. Send him on in now.”

Ben stepped to the door, opened it and called, “Captain …”

McElroy came down the hall and entered through the door that Ben held open. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Not too long,” Ben cautioned.

The captain nodded, and Ben stepped out and closed the door. The officer hesitated for a moment and then crossed to the bed. “How – how are you feeling?”

“Like I’d been thrown and sat on – by a tall horse. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t stand to attention.” Adam was still feeling a bit prickly.

“Yes. Yes, of course. That’s part of what I came to tell you. You needn’t trouble any more about the contract. We’ll carry you on the sick book as wounded in the line of duty until it expires. From what the doctor tells me, that won’t be too far wrong.”

This was a surprise to Adam; somehow he had expected that he would have to work out the full time of his contract. “Why – ah – thank you, Captain.”

The silence held for a minute as the captain looked for a way to begin. Adam tried to help. “You mentioned there was something else you wanted to tell me?”

“Yes, you and your family are civilians, and I used you all pretty mercilessly – from the time I found you at that burning ranch until we captured Delgatto, even after you were so badly hurt. The only justification I can offer is that I had to have the information you and your brothers obtained. A commander can’t always afford to think of individuals; sometimes he has to think in terms of the risks necessary to complete a mission. However, I don’t like to risk civilians as I did you and Hoss… There just wasn’t any alternative. No one else offered to serve as scout, and it would have taken my green troops months to locate the camp. Who knows what harm Delgatto would have done by then?”

Adam was not unfamiliar with the problems of command. “I volunteered; so did Hoss.”

“Yes, and I want you to know that I consider your conduct during this mission to have been soldierly in every particular.”

“Is there really such a difference between a soldier and a civilian then?”

The captain had a quick answer for this. “A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the society of which he is a member. The civilian does not. The soldier is willing to have his country’s beliefs and ideals proven on his very warm, fragile, living body if necessary. You acted as a soldier in placing the most precious thing you have, your life, between Delgatto and your home, your community. It’s the noblest fate a man can endure.”

Adam was both complimented and impressed. He answered slowly. “You know, Captain, I think probably I owe you an apology. I misjudged you rather cruelly.

McElroy shrugged to indicate that it was of no consequence. “You carried out the mission without regard to your personal feelings; that’s what matters.”

“But, surely any citizen,” Adam said, “even a civilian, has a responsibility to protect his society from the marauders; to uphold the law and assist its officers. A man can’t just take freedom, and life and livelihood from a land and not be willing to yield it back if required of him. Sweet as life is, can we afford to surrender to the forces of fear and violence in order to preserve it?” Adam looked at the captain with a question in his eyes. The officer nodded his head in agreement.

“I may have been wrong about civilians,” he said with a wink. “At least some civilians. Will you shake on that?” The captain extended his hand, and Adam took it. The shook, and then the captain stepped back

.“I’d be proud to have you serve with me again anytime you’re looking for a scouting job.”

“Thanks, but not right away, anyhow,” Adam said with a half-laugh. He was tiring, and his hand drifted unconsciously to his bandaged chest. His head dipped a little toward the pillow. He caught himself and snapped up quickly, but not before the captain saw it.

“I’m tiring you,” he said. “And, I had fair warning not to stay too long. I’ll come again if I may?”

“I’d like that; please do. Maybe we can manage to get along a little better than two bobcats in a sack.”

McElroy grinned. “I think so.” He touched his brow in a quick salute to Adam.

Adam returned the courtesy and the captain left. Adam looked after him for a moment and then let his head sink slowly onto the pillows; one hand pressed tightly against his aching side.

*****

Little Joe was at the rear of the ranch house, chopping wood. A stack of cut and dried timber towered on his right. He drove the ax through a section of log and split off a half that was suitable for the fireplace. He tossed it into the large pile on his left, which he had already accumulated that morning. Hot, sweaty and tired he leaned the ax against the remaining timber and wiped his face on his sleeve. He looked with envy at his brother resting peacefully in the warm sunshine.

Stretched on a blanket covered lounge chair with a couple of pillows for extra comfort, Adam was completely relaxed. There was an open book in his lap, but at the moment, his eyes were closed, and his breathing was slow and steady. He wore pants and a light shirt that was open enough to reveal his chest still bandaged.

Ben stepped out of the kitchen door carrying a water bucket and dipper. He walked to Joe. “Enjoying you?” he asked.

“Oh just dandy. I don’t hardly know of anything more refreshing – ‘cept maybe being burned at the stake.” Joe took a dipper full of water from the bucket and drank it down in long gulps. Then he put a hand in the middle of his back and straightened with a mock groan.

“Little honest work never hurt anyone – least of all you,” his father said. “Wonder if Adam’s thirsty?” They both looked toward the sleeping man.

“There’s nothing like havin’ a license to loaf,” Joe said. “There just has to be a law against anybody lookin’ that comfortable – particularly when I’m working.” Joe scooped up a dipper full of water and held it high. He started to tiptoe toward his brother with the evident intent of pouring it on him. Ben caught his son’s arm and pivoted him around, neatly removing the dipper from his hand.

“Not so fast, young man! You leave your brother alone – and that’s an order. You don’t know how good it looks to me to see him stretched out there – free of pain, eating well, able to be up and around some and with his ribs almost healed. Right now, I don’t much care if he never does another lick of work.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean, Pa. When he rolled out of that saddle into Hoss’ arms with blood bubbling out of his mouth and his chest soundin’ like a sack of broken glass, I thought we’d lost him for sure. Six weeks like he’s just been through are a pretty stiff price to pay for doing what you see to be your duty as a citizen.”

Ben nodded in agreement. “And he’d probably do it all again if he thought it was the only way.”

They stood silent for a few moments before Ben continued, “Speaking of payment, Captain McElroy had Adam’s pay voucher delivered a few minutes ago.” He pulled an envelope from his pocket and held it up.

“How much?”

“Fifty-eight dollars for the three months, and I guess he’ll have to split it with you and Hoss.”

“Man,” Joe figured in his head for a second. “Nineteen dollars and thirty-three cents apiece. We’ll all be rich!”

His loud, infectious laugh woke Adam. He yawned and looked at them with a smile as they walked toward him waving the pay slip.

***The End***

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In working on this story, I obtained transcripts of the actual post records from Fort Churchill for that period. Captain J. N. McElroy was the officer actually in command of troop M of the Eighth Cavalry stationed at Fort Churchill. The action itself is fictitious but not unlike ones undertaken by the U.S. Calvary against Comanchero groups in the Texas-Mexican border area.

*Adam’s Civil War experience refers to my story “When the Time Comes.” It is available on Best of the West .

**The hypodermic syringe was invented in 1853. They came into use during the Civil War, although large and crude compared to those of today.

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