Dearly Beloved (by Krystyna)

Summary: When Adam fails to return after appearing as a witness at a trial in S.F Ben fears the worse. After a frantic search, the anxious father’s concerns appear to be worse than even he imagined.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  23,235


Ben Cartwright snapped shut the lid of the handsome time piece that he had been holding to check the time against the big clock that hung on the wall outside the Overland stage depot. For the seconds it took him to replace in his pocket, he stared long and hard into the distance, as though by an act of his own will he could summon the stage coach to make it’s now overdue appearance. It was already one hour late. He scowled darkly and his black brows beetled across his brow and made his face appear shut off and melancholy. He pushed open the door to the depot office, sending the depot clerk’s heart plummeting to his boots as a result. Tom Harding stood to attention behind his desk. Ben Cartwright in a bad mood on a bad day scared the pants off of him. Ben now nodded over at the clock and Tom nodded.

“I know, I know, Mr. Cartwright, it’s an hour late already.”

Ben did not reply but now glanced at the clock on the office wall and pulled out the watch from his pocket and again compared the times. He sighed and pushed back his hat and scratched his head. The stage was often late. What concerned him more than any thing was the itch at the back of his skull. Not that he could explain that to Tom Harding who was now hopping from one foot to the other in nervous anticipation of a Cartwright temper exploding right in front of him.

The door opened and the bell clanged to announce a new comer to the office, which relieved Tom from any further anxiety about Ben’s temper. Tom Sladen, who had recently started up a haulage company in town, stepped inside and closed the door. Sladen nodded over to the depot clerk and then over at Ben.

“Stage late again?”

“Yes.” Ben took off his hat and wiped his brow. Just could not get rid of that itch.
“Probably a wheel,” he muttered and strolled over to read the list of rules pinned to the wall and yellowing into insignificance.

“Toby’s no doubt mislaid the horses again,” Sladen chuckled, his oily face creased in insincere joviality. His comment was greeted with a mere grunt of acknowledgement and Ben did not turn to pursue the conversation. Sladen frowned. “Read about the trial,” he said by way of getting Ben to talk and the big man nodded and narrowed his eyes “Seems to have gone well,” Sladen continued.

“It did.”

“Adam turned the case. Frobisher’s a good lawyer but it was Adam’s evidence that turned the case for him.”

“Yes, I think so. And yes, Frobisher is a good lawyer.” Ben smiled then. It was like the sun breaking through storm clouds. “Frobisher came to town, years back, a struggling lawyer without nickel to his name.”

“His wife changed all that,” Sladen chuckled, a degree of warmth in his voice which brought a mellowing response from the rancher.

“Frobisher’s wife always said that her husband would amount to something one day and when she said that they had bought a partnership in a big law firm back in ‘Frisco, no one believed them. Their laughs soon turned on them, though, when she proved that she had stashed away more pokes of gold from the gold dust she had panned from dirty laundry water, than some of the miners in town would see in years.” His face creased into a smile at the memory and the dark eyes softened.

“She was a clever woman all right,” Sladen said. “Not that she was the only enterprising laundrywoman to have realized that most miners brought out more gold dust in the seams of their clothes than they did anywhere else.”

“Well, Julian has done well out of it,” Ben said, his voice softening at the thought of his old friend and the hard times they had endured together way before Sladen had ever come to town.

“Certainly seems to have done that. This latest trial will really get him established. But, as I said before, that was mainly thanks to Adams testimony. The newspaper report said that Adam made quite an impression under cross examination.” He pulled out a cigar and bit off the end which he spat into a spittoon place strategically by the door. “You must be proud of him.” He struck a match and began to draw on the cigar heavily.

“Yes, I am.” Ben smiled, a tender, retrospective smile, and nodded. The matter of his son brought back to mind the reason why he was there, and he glanced again at the clock and frowned. “Where’s that stage got to?” he grumbled, shook his head and stomped from the building. The door slammed with a bang that sent the old clock slightly askew as a result.

“What’s rattled him?” Sladen asked Tom. “The stage is always late”

“Didn’t dare ask,” Tom replied, picking up some papers from the desk. “But Adam Cartwright’s due home on that stage and I guess Mr. Cartwright’s impatient to get him back to work”

“Huh.” Sladen blew a cloud of cigar smoke into the office and shrugged. “The man works those boys too hard.”

*****

Zechariah Phillips pulled the horses up sharp. As a result, he enveloped himself, his passengers and the bystanders in a welter of dust and grit. Ben flapped his hat in front of his face and waited for his son to step out of the stage. Little Joe was walking quickly down the sidewalk towards him with a grin on his face. He greeted his father with a merry smile and a whimsical comment that drew only a grunt as a response. Joe lost the grin and turned his attention to the stagecoach. Two passengers stepped down onto the main road, and brushed away grit and dust as they did so. Joe’s grin returned as he thought of what a pleasant journey his brother must have had with such attractive co-passengers to keep him company.

Adams valise was cast unceremoniously at Ben’s feet. Both Cartwrights surveyed it without registering the fact that it was without its owner. Then they looked at one another.

“Are you sure his cable said today?” Joe asked, pushing his hat to the back of his head.

“Are you sure that’s his valise?” Ben snapped back sharply “Hey, Phillips, what’s happened?”

“Whaddya mean?” Phillips spat a stream of tobacco juice at Ben’s feet.

“Where’s my son?”

“Hey, whaddya think I am? Every passenger’s wet nurse?” Phillips spat again and Ben and Joe stepped back just in time to avoid being splattered. “Your son came to the depot and left his luggage. That’s it thar –” he indicated the baggage with a gnarled and dusty hand.

“I can see that,” Ben grumbled

“Then he said that as he had an hour to wait he would take a walk and clear his head.”

“Clear his head?”

“That’s what I said ain’t it?” Phillips frowned “Waited an hour for him to come back. Thought he had changed his mind and hired a hoss instead. Couldn’t wait no longer, had other passengers to see to.”

“He didn’t come back?” Ben glanced at Joe and frowned. “He didn’t get back. “

“That’s what the man said, Pa,” Joe murmured, pushing his hat even further back so that a lock of curling hair fell rebelliously across his brow.

“But, why not?” Ben glanced at Joe and then at Phillips and then at the baggage. “You know, Joe, I’ve had a funny feeling all morning.”

“There’ll be some explanation, Pa.”

“Something’s happened.”

“Nah, he’s okay. Probably decided to hire a horse like Phillips said”

“Adam would have told him if he had changed his plans. He’s too thorough to just change plans mid way without letting anyone know. He didn’t return for his bags either.”

“Well, Pa, if it puts your mind at rest, why not cable Frobisher and find out from him if he knows anything,” Joe said good humouredly. “Next thing you know, you’ll be saying your head itches, like Hoss…” he paused when his father gave him a dark glowering scowl and he gulped. “Well, anyhow, Pa, I’ll just take his baggage to the wagon.”

“YOU just get along and do that small thing,” Ben growled and stalked across the road to the telegraph and cable office.

*****

“What will you do, Pa?”

Hoss watched his father’s face thoughtfully. He scanned the features like a man scans a map to find what direction to take. Hoss was adept now at reading his father’s expressions. The raised eyebrows, the darkening eye, and the furrowed brow were all indicative of anxiety, perplexity and annoyance. Hoss touched his fathers arm now as though to rouse him from some deep reverie. Ben sighed and looked at Joe and then at Hoss and nodded

“I think the best thing for me to do is get to San Francisco as soon as possible.” He looked at their faces and his lips narrowed into a thin line. “Something’s happened to him.”

“You don’t know that, Pa,” Joe said quietly

“I assure you, I DO know it!” Ben shook his head miserably from side to side like some old lion fending off an annoying gnat. “When you have sons of your own one day, you’ll know what I mean.”

The brothers exchanged thoughtful glances to one another and then looked at their father. Ben ignored their looks and only leaned forward, resting his elbows upon his knees and staring into the hearth with his eye fixed and grim. Joe shook his head

“Pa, wouldn’t it be better to wait and see if there’s a cable waiting for us in the morning?”

“You can send a cable.” Ben’s voice growled from the depths of his chest. “Send it to Frobisher and tell him I’ll be arriving there Wednesday morning.”

“Pa?”

“Hoss, don’t try and persuade me to stay.”
“I wasn’t, Pa.” Hoss sat down on the chair opposite his father and looked at the earnest face once again before glancing up at his brother. Joe merely shrugged and shook his head as though he had had enough of the game. “Pa, what makes you so doggone sure that Adams in trouble? You know that he can handle anything that comes his way – oh, ‘cept knights in shining armor, of course.” He chuckled at his reference to Adam’s misadventures on one particular trip but there was no responding chuckle from his father, who only shook his head in exasperation

“I know you both mean well but I know Adam and the way he goes about doing things. And I also know that the man he was testifying against has a family that will stop at nothing to get revenge on him.”

“Well, if you put it that way, I can see your reasons for being anxious,” Hoss muttered, scratching the back of his head “But I thought you said that the law would have arrested them as well, once Henderson had been found guilty.”

“Knowing that pack of animals, they would have scattered and hidden their tracks as soon as they heard the report of the verdict.” Ben got to his feet and rubbed his hands together as though he were cold, despite the room being particularly warm that evening. He glanced over at the clock and frowned more darkly than ever. “I’m going to pack some things so I can get an early start tomorrow. You two had better get to bed; there’s little point in staying up now.”

“Are you sure, Pa?” Joe asked gently, placing a conciliatory hand on his father’s broad shoulder and wishing that in some way he could make the older man feel less anxious.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Well, look, how about we come along too, Pa?” Hoss suggested hopefully. His blue eyes twinkled over at Joe who glanced at Ben as though waiting for acceptance of the suggestion, but Ben merely shook his head

“No, no – thanks anyway for the thought, but there’s too much to be done here. Joe, I want you to make sure that fencing is finished before I get back. Hoss, you’ll be in charge….” His voice trailed off as though some sudden, terrible thought had crossed his mind and taken the words from his mouth. He clamped his lips more tightly together and shook his head as though denying the thoughts and turned quickly towards the stairs and to his room.

Joe pursed his lips much in the manner of his eldest brother and shook his head.

“Pa sure is worried about nothing. I guarantee you, Hoss, that Adam will ride in to-morrow morning full of the joys of spring.”

“Yeah, mebbe.” Hoss frowned, his eyes still fixed upon the staircase as though in his mind’s eye he could still see his father mounting each step at a time, very slowly, like a man with the weight of all the problems of the world upon his shoulders.

*****

“What shall we do, Edith?” Mrs. Emily Abrahams looked at her younger and more active sister with a plaintive whine in her voice. Her eyes dribbled tears at which she dabbed frequently with a little lace-trimmed handkerchief

Edith Stephens tidied a wisp of gray hair behind her left ear and stood up to face her widowed sister with whom she had lived for twelve years, and for whom she had the utmost contempt but tender affection. She now reached out a kindly hand, a hand that once had been very beautiful in its time and was now, laden with its rings, still distinguished.

“My dear, I really think that it is time to call in a doctor.”

“Oh dear, do you really think so?”

“It’s quite obvious,” she replied in a crisp matter of fact voice. “He is clearly very ill and there is nothing more that we can do for him.”

“But I thought it was just a little bump on the head,” Mrs. Abrahams whined. “And what will the doctor say when he knows that we have had a man in the house for several days?”

“Don’t be silly, Emily. Doctors are used to that kind of thing.” She tutted and picked up her skirts and led the way upstairs to the back bedroom.

The room was bright with sunlight and warm from the fire that was burning in the small grate. She approached the bed and surveyed the occupant, then sighed and touched his brow and then the pulse at his throat. “Emily, we must send for the doctor.”

“Oh Edith,” she whimpered and dabbed at her eyes again

“Men are not like stray dogs. You cannot bring them into the house and expect things to sort themselves out that easily. Especially when you are responsible for knocking them down in the first place.”

“Oh Edith!” she protested and stuffed a corner of the handkerchief into her mouth to stop herself from crying louder.

“Well now, you asked for my opinion and I have given it. I have nursed enough people in my time to know that this young man is suffering from something worse than a bump on the head – caused by we know who!”

“Edith, will we have to notify the police?”
“What on earth for?” Edith drew herself erect and looked at her sister in greater contempt than normal and then at the occupant in the bed with total disgust.

“It isn’t my fault though. He was coming out across the road and fell down. I’m sure he was on the ground before the cab hit him.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“He got up again, almost right a way.”

“Almost implies something that is not quite definite, Emily.”

“But he did; he got up and said ‘It’s all right.’ ”

“Nonsense, when clearly it was not all right. We should have left him to walk off while he was still capable of standing on his own two feet.”

“But his head was bleeding, Edith. He looked so pale. A cup of tea was all I intended to give him. It was you who suggested putting him to bed.”

“Emily –“

“But it was.”

“Never mind that. What is one to do when a strange man falls down in the middle of ones best parlor? Mother would turn in her grave!”

“But you said you know how to get him better seeing as how you had been a nurse for so long and knew all about nursing. You said no one needed to know and that he would soon be on his feet and out of here.”

“Well, I was wrong,” Edith conceded rather ungraciously. She clasped her hands in her lap and surveyed the sick man on the bed. “Emily, he is very sick.”

“What will the doctor think, Edith?”

“He’ll just think that we are two very silly old women to have taken in a strange man and saddle ourselves with such a problem. Now then, come along. This is not really a problem after all; there is a solution. Therefore, this is just a nuisance.”

Emily Abrahams blew her nose and stood at the foot of the bed. She looked down at the ‘nuisance’ and shook her head. “He looks so ill.”

“He is ill,” her sister replied matter of factly. She scribbled down a note which she sealed and handed to her sister. “I’ve told him that our nephew came for a visit and was taken ill.”

“Oh, but –“

“What else can we do? We have our reputation to think about, sister, and if anyone were to know we had given a complete stranger a bed….” She looked sternly at her sister who quailed visibly before Edith’s vitriolic blue gaze.

*****

Dr. Mathews examined the young man thoughtfully, then put away his instruments and left the patient. He closed the door of the room and returned to the sisters who waited, with beating hearts, for the doctor’s verdict.

“Well now.” He frowned and regarded them both thoughtfully. “What is this young mans name?”

“John,” Emily said, for it had been her husband’s name.

“Cecil,” Edith said for it had been the name of a long ago sweetheart.

“John Cecil,” Emily said primly, shooting a defiant look at her sister who raised her head higher and thinned her lips.

“Very well. You say Mr. Cecil is your nephew whom you have not seen for some time?”

“That’s right,” Edith said. “He came the other day and then fell down in the middle of tea. Everything went everywhere – it was such a mess.”

“I see.” the doctor looked at Edith who sat very still. “Well, you both did very well.
You have no doubt saved his life. As it is, he is very ill and needs great care and attention. More than either of you can provide. I shall have to arrange for him to be taken to the local hospital.” He snapped hit bag shut. “How long has he been here?”

“Three days, isn’t it?” Emily gulped. “Edith? Dear?”

“Two days and a half,” came the snapped off reply

“He wakes up sometimes?”

“Sometimes,” Edith said, “He wakes up and talks a little. He asks for his father. Says there is something he has to do.”

“Yes, well, he’s very feverish. You should have called me here much sooner than this. I shall arrange for an ambulance to be here very shortly. There’s no need to distress your selves over this matter any more. “
They watched him go and then looked at one another. Emily dissolved into tears and Edith merely sat down and picked up her embroidery, stabbing at it with her needle with such ferocity that Emily was driven to silence.

*****

The young man in the bed opened his eyes and looked about him. He frowned in confusion. Surely something strangely miraculous had taken place in his room for he had not seen the sun shine like this nor smelled such sweet smells for some time. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes again as the pain seared across his chest and left him gasping. He raised a hand to his brow, which was hot, and his fingers, cold like ice, sent trickles of cold through his body. He remembered sitting in a coffee house, when the proprietor had told him they were about to close. He had got up and walked outside. He had walked the streets, wandering from one to the other, thinking how steep the hills were in San Francisco when he saw a hansom bearing down upon him. He had side stepped to avoid it but had fallen anyway.

What next? It was all a blur. There had been two old ladies sitting opposite one another and a table laden with fragile tea things and a fire burning in the hearth.

He tried to sit up but the effort was far too much and all he could do was sink into the over warm pillows. He felt the weight of his eyelids closing down and the picture in his mind of teacups and plates and a teapot falling about him drifted into murky nothingness.

*****

When he next woke and forced open his eyes to look about him, it was with a jolt that he saw no dainty dimity curtains, no sunlight, no fire burning in a grate. A cold sterile room with rows upon rows of beds upon which lay the forms of men. A woman in a gray gown and white apron approached his bed. He shrunk back into the hard pillow as he tried desperately to claw back some form of memory, of sanity, to make some sense of what was happening. Her cold hand reached out and took his wrist, it made him shiver. She placed another cold hand upon his brow and looked down at him and smiled. It was a cold, impersonal smile.

“Oh you are awake then? How are you feeling this morning, Mr. Cecil?” She noticed the iris’ in his eyes dilate and then fade into pinpricks. “Are you all right, Mr..Cecil?”

“Where – where am I?”

“At the hospital for vagrants. Dr Mathew brought you in yesterday. You’ve been very ill.”

“I got knocked down by a hansom cab,” he told her. She smiled and nodded and pulled the sheets so tight that he could barely breathe.

“Yes, you had a nasty gash in your head.” She pulled the sheets and tucked them under the mattress, leaving him pinned to the bed much like a butterfly stabbed by a pin to a board.

“My clothes?”

“Your aunt brought them. They’re in the closet, but you can’t leave yet. You have to wait for the doctor to come and examine you.”

He said nothing. It was hard to keep his eyes open again and he was fighting a losing battle in trying to keep memories in order. He could only let go because everything was spinning out of his control.

*****

The hours had ticked by and he lay unmoved. All about him men writhed on beds of fever and pain. Their groans haunted him when he closed his eyes making it impossible for him to call back to mind the things that should have made any sense to him. He could hear the impersonal clacketty clack, of the nurses’ heels as they walked from one bed to another. He lay with clenched teeth in dread of one of them approaching him again.
Darkening shadows finally came. He pushed aside the covers of the bed and slid to the floor. He found the closet and rummaged about for his clothes and boots, and within a few minutes, had struggled to get himself dressed. His head spun in circles and there was a loud buzzing in his ears but he felt such determination to get out of that place that he was soon striding down the hall into the corridor. Large arrows pointed to different corridors and wards, but the best arrow of all was the one marked EXIT.

He slowed a little on the way down the stairs, having to catch his breath every so often. Eventually he saw the doors and through the glass windows, he could see the sky. He pushed the doors open and was soon walking up the hill into the main centre of the town.
The same time he was leaving the hospital, Ben Cartwright was taking a seat in Julian Frobisher’s study.

*****

Julian and Martha Frobisher greeted Ben with all the warmth reserved for old friends. After arranging for Ben’s belongings to be taken to the room recently vacated by his son, Martha disappeared to leave the two men to talk privately. She closed the door very quietly behind her and left to arrange the evening meal. In the study, Julian offered his friend a cigar, which was politely declined, and sat down in his big lather chair by the desk and regarded Ben solemnly.

Ben thought over the day. He had arrived later than intended and had made his way to the lawyer’s office. He had been impressed at the big building and the rather ostentatious office in which his friend conducted his business. He had been further impressed at the sight of the big house, the expensive furniture and the servants. He smiled slowly and raised his dark eyes to meet the kindly ones of his friend

“You’ve done well for yourself, Julian”

“Yes, Martha’s enterprise has paid off pretty well.” Frobisher chuckled, lighting his cigar
and puffing at it appreciatively. “Now then, enough chatter. Down to business.“

“I know you may think I’m being a stupid old man, Julian…” Ben bit his bottom lip and struggled to find the right words that would not make Julian think that his old friend was, indeed, stupid. “Adam did not return as arranged. His luggage did…but he didn’t…” He glanced up at the other man and met cynicism in the gray eyes and he shook his head. “It isn’t like that, Julian. You may well think that I’m fussing over nothing, and that I’m just like an old mother hen clucking over one of my chicks. It isn’t that at all. Adam would not have gone anywhere without contacting me first. Or leaving a message with the driver.” His voice trailed away and he stared at the fire as though the flames would provide some answer more satisfactorily. Then he shook his head. “Adam could go where he likes, of course. He’s a full-grown man. He could have acted on impulse. But it is out of character for him not to have sent word of some kind. If he had not sent his luggage, I would not have been so concerned.”

Frobisher said nothing. He had no son or daughter about which to worry and fret. He
looked at Ben and thought only that his friend was being overly anxious. He drew upon the cigar and surveyed Ben thoughtfully

“Julian, tell me something. Was Adam all right when you saw him last?”

“Yes, he was very well.”

“Was there anything at all strange? Did anything happen during the trial?”

Frobisher smiled slowly and described an arc in the air with the cigar. “Your son – I thought that Whiting would make mince met out of him but he stood his ground. As stubborn as a mule with that touch of mockery about him.” He frowned then and was quiet for a moment or two before looking up to meet Ben’s eyes. “Ben, if Adam had faltered in his testimony during cross-examination, we would have lost that case and two murderers would have been let loose upon society. I can guarantee that the first person they would have had in their sights would have been your son.”

“Is it possible that they could have contacted anyone from outside to – have done something?”

“No. I looked into that possibility as soon as I received your cable.” Frobisher inhaled a deep gulp and then slowly exhaled the smoke in a blue gray plume that wafted across the room. “The first day Adam was cross-examined, it was like steel crossing steel and Whiting was rattled. You could see that as clear as day. He was forced to call for an adjournment and the Judge agreed. Then the next day I thought we had lost the case altogether when Adam was late.”

“Adam would never have been late for such an occasion as that.”
“Well, he was. The judge was going purple I can tell you. Nearly adjourned the case again when Adam arrived. He apologized to the court and the Judge in that way that he has – you know – humble but arrogant – and thankfully the Judge accepted the apology and the case commenced forthwith. I have to admit I was worried. Your boy didn’t look right. I recall that now.“ He paused in mid-sentence, picturing now in his mind the scene of the trial. “He was not dressed tidily and looked disheveled and more like he had just got off the stage than had been staying here with us. Frankly, Ben, he did not smell like a bed of roses either.” He chewed at the butt of his cigar and having mangled it into a soggy mess jabbed it in Ben’s direction. “I could see that Whiting thought he had Adam at a disadvantage. Adam’s whole demeanor was lackluster and sullen, and then, when I thought we had lost for sure, back came the sparkle and the wit. Doubt if we’ll see the like again. He swung the case round and won the hearts of the jury.” He frowned. “When he came back to his seat, he asked for the windows to be opened and complained about feeling hot. He looked rather wild eyed too. “

“You mean, he was ill?”

“I don’t know. It is possible. Martha and I were out that evening and I did not see him until the morning that he left. He seemed quite himself then and left in good spirits.”

“If he was taken ill, where would he have gone? I’ve cabled several of our friends here already but no one has seen him.”

“When I received your cable I put an advertisement in the newspaper journal. That is how things are done here…” Julian frowned. “I’ve received no news yet.”

Ben stood up, approached the fire and stretched out his hands to the warmth of the flames. He felt icy cold with a fear that trickled through his veins and touched his hearts with a terrible apprehension. Sometimes it happened like that, this odd knowing instinctive feeling that something was wrong. It was like some kind of pain that nagged and gnawed at the heart until one was left feeling like a wrung out rag. He turned to Frobisher.

“I have to do something. I’ll take a cab and see if he is in any of the hospitals.”

“Ben, I’ve already arranged for all that.” Julian stood up and walked to his side and placed a hand on the other man’s broad shoulders. “It’s very civilized here, Ben. Not like back in Virginia City. Here – if you lose a cat, a dog – or a son,” he smiled gently, “he’ll be found. Don’t worry.”

“Perhaps, but –“

“No buts.” He raised a hand and smiled again, “Ben, we go back a long way, don’t we? You saved my life once, remember?”

“That was a long time ago, Julian.”

“I know, but lawyers are rather like elephants; they never forget. I’ve done all I can to locate your boy. Now, the hardest part of all is sitting here, and waiting.”

“I can’t just sit here and do nothing, Julian”

“You can pray,” his old friend said very quietly.

*****

It was an uneasy and long night. For hours Ben lay on the bed or paced the floor or stood at the window and gazed over the city wherein somewhere his son slept. But where? The anxiety gnawed at his heart and within his head until sleep finally stole upon him and forced him to retreat for a while from the worries of his son.
They had finished eating their morning breakfast when Martha came and smiled at them both. In her hands she held a notebook that she held out to Ben

“A hansom driver brought this. He saw the advertisement.”

“Is it Adam’s?” Frobisher asked Ben who was examining it with the light of feverish
excitement in his eyes. When Ben nodded, he turned to his wife. “Where is this driver? Is he still here?”

“Just outside.”

“Then bring him in, my dear, bring him in.”

The driver stepped into the big room and glanced uneasily about him and frowned, twisting his hat nervously round and round between his thick fingers.

“I never stole nuthin’ outa the notebook,” he said anxiously. “It was just lying there, on the ground.”

“On the ground? How? What happened?” Ben demanded

“Well, I was driving this little old lady to her house. There was this gent on the sidewalk. He was the one I thought to be the guy you wrote about in the ad.” He frowned, recollection obviously difficult. “He was walking up the hill. Looked kinda lost if you know my meaning. Sometimes you can tell jest by looking at folk and how they walk whether or not they know where they are, and what they’re doing of. He was kinda aimless. Stopping once in a while. Looking around him. I stopped the cab just as he fell down right in front of it. Of course that made the old lady all of a twitter as you can imagine. She stepped out right away but he got up and said not to worry, he was all right. She thought the cab had knocked him down and gave me a right scolding and insisted that he went into her house and took him in there and then. I was a mite annoyed – ” His voice trailed off and he bit his lip and glanced shiftily around the room.

“I suppose you found the note book a few hours later” Ben said sarcastically

“No, sir, it was there lying in the roadway. I meant to take it in but thought if I did, I would be in trouble again. I can’t afford to lose my license. It was only her word against mine that the cab didn’t knock him down. I intended to send it on to him later.“

“And where did all this happen?” Frobisher had the sense to ask before the driver backed off and made a run for it before Ben accused him of something more serious than knocking down a pedestrian.

*****

Edith and Emily stood in their best parlor and explained very carefully all that had happened the day of the accident. Edith described Adam in such detail that there was no doubting whatsoever that the young man was indeed his eldest son. He listened with dread as she told him that the doctor had agreed he was very ill and had taken him to the local hospital.

“What did he say was wrong with him?” he asked with a huskiness to his voice that indicated only too well the dread he felt.

“Pneumonia – exhaustion – concussion,” Emily said in a very soft voice. “He was very, very unwell,”

Ben bit his lip and looked at the two women who looked back at him with dread in their eyes

“We did all that we could. Dr Matthews said that we had saved his life,” Edith assured him

“No doubt you did,” Ben replied with tears now threatening to rob him of speech altogether.

*****

“I tell you, there was no one admitted here by the name of Adam Cartwright.”

The grim faced Matron of the hospital hugged her pile of laundry to her chest like a shield warding off the evils of a very distressed man who in his angst appeared not to realize just how threatening he could appear to others. Julian Frobisher placed a restraining hand on Bens arm and urged him to calm down. He then turned to the Matron, who was watching them both with suspicion.

“I’m sorry. My friend and I are somewhat anxious about this young mans disappearance. But are you sure?“

“I’ve already said –“

“Yes, yes, I appreciate that but…. “Julian held up a placating hand and smiled pleasantly. “Adam is Mr. Cartwright’s son. We know that he is ill and had been taken to a hospital. This is the hospital and Dr Matthews is the doctor who arranged for him to be brought here. Now if we could see Dr Matthews, perhaps he could tell us where we could find the young man in question.”

“Dr Matthews only brought in one patient yesterday. He was a young man but he was not called Cartwright. It was Cecil, John Cecil.”

Ben scowled darkly and grabbed at Julian’s arm and pulled him aside

“This is no good, Julian; Adam is obviously not here. We’ll have to go and look elsewhere”

“No, wait!” The woman looked at the two men with a kinder and more tolerant look on her face. “Mr. Cecil was tall, dark haired with a faint scar on his upper lip –“

“That’s Adam! That’s my boy!” Ben cried out, stepping forwards so abruptly that the Matron stepped back in fear that he was about to knock her down in his haste to get onto the ward. “Where is he? Which ward is he on?”

“That’s just the point. He discharged himself.”

“Discharged himself?” the two men cried out simultaneously

“Yes. He left her some time during the night. I must say I was really surprised as I would never have thought a man in his condition would have been capable of getting as far as the ward door, but he managed it.”

“You mean, he’s gone?” Ben’s voice trailed away and his eyes went blank. He turned to Frobisher. “We’re back where we started then, Julian.”

“Well, maybe so. The only difference is that we know he is ill and needs help. That makes our search for him more urgent, Ben”

The Matron nodded. “Yes, it is urgent. He needs medical attention immediately.”

They watched as she turned back to the ward and departed through the double doors that swung together, taking her from their sight.

“Where do we start?” Ben asked. “This place is like a warren field to me. Perhaps another hospital?”

“I think it would be better if we returned home. It is just possible, Ben, that we may have some news waiting for us there. At least, we will have familiar surroundings about which to think out some plan of action”

“I don’t understand though, Julian. What could have happened to cause him to be this ill? You said that when you saw him last he was well enough but now, according to this woman, he could be dying!”

Frobisher shook his head. He was a lawyer only, an emotional man perhaps, a medical man, well, no more so than Ben. He took a deep breath and put his hand on his friends arm. “Perhaps we will hear something when we get home. We have advertised; we have friends; someone, some-place, may have heard or seen something.”

Ben slipped his hat back onto his head and turned to leave. He glanced up at the portals of the hospital as he passed through them and shook his head. Useless. Useless. He bemoaned himself again and again. He was impotent, and useless.

*****

Adam sat down slowly at the table in a coffee shop and for a little while just watched people as they went about their daily business. He had allowed his feet to wander along unfamiliar streets whilst his mind had wandered in a fever of jumbled thoughts and anxieties. Pains in his stomach had urged him to seek somewhere to get something to eat and drink whilst his brain rebelled at the very thought of food passing his lips. He had discovered only then that his wallet was missing and, for an instant, had stood in the road with a blank look on his face as he stared helplessly at the buildings all about him and at the people who thronged the streets and even brushed against him.

His legs demanded some respite. His chest was so tight that breathing was a painful experience. He found loose change in his pocket and walked to the nearest place where
he could sit, think, and have something to drink.

It was good to sink down and sit. He asked for water to drink. It was hard to breath and hard to think. Thoughts kept bouncing about in his head and he knew that somehow he had to harness them together and work out what was happening to him. If he had been on the trail somewhere, out on the range, he could have handled things better than being here in this over populated, over busy alien place.

“Are you all right, sir?”

A young woman stood by his table and was looking at him with anxiety in her eyes. She placed the water on the table, but her eyes remained on his face and looked concerned. The thought came to his mind that for her to look at him like that, what must he look like now? He passed a hand over his jaw, and felt the rough coarse stubble of beard. A strong longing for home and familiar things rushed to his heart.

“Are you ill?” she frowned “Would you like to sit somewhere a little more private?” She turned and indicated a table and chair further back in the room, where shadows were dark and a sick man would not put the diners from the enjoyment of their food. He stood up unsteadily, the table scraped against the floor as it moved with him. “Let me help you. Shall I send for a doctor?”

She was strong and for that he was grateful as he leaned against her and allowed her to help him to the other table. She left him there, and called out to someone in the back room. For a few seconds he could hear voices calling too and fro but he had to close his mind to them as the words began to jangle in his brain.

Stronger hands were helping him to his feet and he felt himself being propelled along a corridor that had doors leading off from them. He was gently set down upon a bed, and he was aware of someone lifting his legs up and settling them upon the mattress. It seemed as though suddenly nothing mattered anymore. No, nothing mattered anymore.

*****

“Joe, I bin thinkin’”

Joseph Cartwright stared up into the sky as though scanning the heavens for some revelation that would explain this rare phenomenon. He turned then to Hoss and smiled his beaming smile. “What about?”

“Adam.”

“Well, what were you thinking?”

“Jest thet we shoulda heard from him by now, right?”

“Right.”

“But seein’ as how we ain’t, then Pa could be right and summat must have happened to him.”

“Right.” Joe sighed and pushed his hat to the back of his head and picked up the coffee pot from the hot stones by their camp-fire. He poured out the black bitter liquid and raised the tin cup to his lips. “I was thinking the same thing myself, Hoss. What do you think we should do about it?”

“Well, the fencing’s all done like Pa wanted. I got my chores sorted out too.” Hoss paused and glanced at his brother. “I reckon we should high tail it to ‘Frisco and see what’s going on fer ourselves.”

“I reckon you’re right at that, brother.” Joe grinned and threw the coffee dregs onto the ground. “How about we get home right now and sort ourselves out some things and get ourselves outa here?”

Hoss smiled and nodded. Within minutes they had the campfire damped down and the utensils put away. It was more of a relief to him than anything else that Joe had been so ready to move out with him. The anxiety he had been feeling for his brother had been gnawing at him all day and the frustration of now knowing what was happening was beginning to eat at his patience. He mounted Chubb with such a feeling of relief that even the horse caught his mood and leapt forward with such a lurch that Hoss almost lost his hat.

*****

“Drink this.”

Adam took the glass and felt warm fingers fold around his in order for the glass to be steady enough to reach his lips. The water tasted bitter but he drank some and then rolled back onto his side against the mattress.

“Isn’t there someone I can get in touch with for you? Tell me? I can send my daughter to get them.”

The words seemed to come from a long way off and finally reached him and he stayed there, his eyes closed, wondering who to contact.

“Frobisher. Julian Frobisher.”

“I know him. I’ll tell him to come here for you.”

He heard the door close gently behind the woman and then the whispers. He no longer cared about the whispers. Nor did he care about the faces that drifted through his mind and floated before his closed eyes. He was grateful when darkness swept him into a cocoon of warm forgetfulness and then, nothing.

*****

Martha opened the door to them herself and beamed a warm and welcoming smile. She gestured to them with her hand to come inside and led the way to the study.

“A man came this morning. He’s been waiting for you.” She stood aside and pushed open the study door “Mr. Petersen, my husband and Mr. Cartwright are here now.”

David Petersen stood up and glanced from one to the other of the two men. Being a father himself he could quickly discern which of the two men would be the father of the man about whom he had come to speak. He nodded over to Ben and extended his hand.

“I’m David Petersen. I saw your notice in the paper about Adam Cartwright.”

“You’ve seen him?” Ben asked quickly

“Not for a few days, but I had to come. My wife said I should come straightaway, as soon as we saw it. Your notice in the paper, I mean….” His voice drifted away, and the paper he held rolled in his hand was waved futilely before them

“Sit down, Mr. Petersen; I see Martha has taken care of you. Would you like another drink?” Julian offered

The man blushed slightly. He was a poor man, hard working and sober. It had taken a considerable degree of courage to come to this area of San Francisco and to knock on that very impressive and forbidding door. He now felt over awed at the obvious wealth of the place and the fact that the two men were holding him in such respect. Obviously this Adam Cartwright was of some importance and once again he turned towards the father, Ben.

“Some days ago – ” He paused and cleared his throat. “Well, fact is, I work on the harbor, I’m a wherryman there. My wife and child came to see me that day and while I was talking to Sarah, my boy, Joshua, ran off and fell into the harbor. He was some distance from us and usually is no trouble but this particular day he went off further from us. We didn’t even hear the splash but we did hear his scream as he fell. Thankfully for us there was a young man walking about, just viewing the ships, and he saw Joshua fall and dived in right there and then. Saved our boys life.”

“Adam? Do you mean Adam?” Ben asked hoarsely

“Yes sir. After he came out of the water with Joshua …. “The man faltered again and shook his head. “It was not easy. He had to go down for him several times. My boy was a dead weight and the water was freezing. We managed to get them out and my boss took Mr. Cartwright into his office to dry off and thaw out. Oh, we thanked him, thanked him from the bottom of our hearts as well you can imagine. He said to take our boy home quick as possible and to get him warm. My wife said, ‘What’s your name, sir, so’s we always knows who to thank for saving our boy’ and he said ‘Adam Cartwright, from the Ponderosa.’ So when we saw this notice in the paper we thought we should – I mean – I should come and tell you about what happened.”

“What day was this?” Julian asked

“It was Thursday, sir.”

“That was the day of the trial, Ben, the day he came and looked so disheveled. No wonder considering what he had done!” Julian shook his head “Why on earth did he not mention it?”

“He wouldn’t have thought to mention it,” Ben said quietly. “Oh I knew there was something wrong, I just knew it.” He clenched his fists and pounded one into the other.

“Well, sir, if you don’t mind my mentioning it, but your son is a hero, and a brave man –“

“And he could be dying…. Ben’s voice trailed away as he bowed his head in frustration and grief.

“Sir, we down on the harbor got a gang together. We’re looking for him, sir. Least we could do after what he did for us. If you just tell us where you want us to look, sir, then just say the word.”

“I don’t know where to tell you to look,” Ben growled “This rabbit warren of a place, all those streets and alleys – he could be anywhere.” He put a hand to his brow and shook his head. “Typical, does something harebrained and says nothing; typical!”

Julian Frobisher could say nothing. He had never been a father, and seeing his friend’s anguish now he was glad that he had missed out on the privilege. He put a glass of whiskey near his friend’s reach and sat down on a chair opposite their visitor, trying to efface himself from witnessing his dearest friend’s heart breaking misery. He beckoned to Petersen.

“You know the hospital for vagrants?”

“I do.”

“Start your search in and around that area. He’s a sick man, Mr. Petersen, and will not be able to walk too far…” He put his hand into his jacket pocket and withdrew his wallet and was about to take out some money when Petersen held up a hand and shook his head.
“We’ll find him,” he said gruffly and pausing only to look briefly at Ben, he left the room.

*****

Martha Frobisher heard the light tapping on the door and was already on her feet when the servant admitted a young girl. Both looked at one another as though they came from different worlds for the gulf between rich and poor could never be more apparent than when a poor person stands in a room over adorned with the showy opulence of wealth.
The girl gulped, and bobbed a curtsey and took a deep breath.

“My grandpa said to tell you that he has a sick man in his house.”

“A sick man?”

“Yes, ma’am, sick he is and said to come to your house and tell you.“ She glanced about the room, self -conscious and awed.

Martha stared at her for a second and then went to the bell rope and pulled for the servant, and then, realizing she would reach her husband sooner if she went for him herself, she hurried out of the room, leaving the girl standing on the thick Abussion rug in the little sitting room she called her own.

*****

Adam could hear tapping. It was not loud. It was irritatingly soft. He imagined himself tapping at a wall. It was dark. He could feel something rough and hard in his hand. It was a cold chisel and he was tapping it against the wall of a mine. A face loomed before him. A face with hard dark demented eyes and he groaned aloud the name he loathed above any others. “Kane!” he cried and the word forced him into consciousness.

He sat up and looked around him. The room was in semi darkness, lit only by a single lamp. Rain, the tapping that he had heard, was pattering against the window. He buried his face in his hands and struggled to breathe, to think. He pulled the covers away and forced his legs to move. Everything was so hard, so difficult. His breathing came as harsh gasps that burned his throat. He had to move his legs and he had to breathe and everything that was usually so natural, was now so immensely difficult.

Outside a clock chimed midnight. He closed a door and stepped out into the street and pulled the collar of his coat close across his chest. Cold rain swept over his face and was a blessed relief from the heat of the bed he had just abandoned.

He forced himself across a deserted roadway and towards where a lamp glowed in the darkness. It gleamed as an orange orb. He stared at it for a second and then turned to look up at the clock face. The hands of the clock ticked away the minutes, the seconds, of his life.

The rain came down faster now. He leaned against a wall for shelter and wondered if he would be able to get his legs to take him across the road to the restaurant and to that bed. He thought about it but even thinking left him exhausted.

“ADAM!”

He jerked into awareness. Blood pumped adrenalin through his body and nerve ends tingled and his heart raced.

He stepped out of the shadows of the wall. He was a dark shadow himself with his coat pulled tight and his collar shielding his face. His trousers were shapeless and clung to his legs from being so wet. His dark hair blew in the breeze. He saw the shape approaching him and recognized the most precious of persons running towards him. Relief made him so weak that his voice completely disappeared.

He could only put out a wet shimmering hand. It gleamed as a white blur against the darkness. It gleamed wet and white from the rain and Ben Cartwright seized hold of it and pulled his son towards him

“Adam, Adam,” he whispered. “My son, my son…come….you’re coming home,” he whispered as he felt the excessive wetness of the clothes seep through his own and he saw a smile flicker across the beloved face. “Adam, thank God,” he whispered as the young man fainted in his arms. As consciousness faded from his mind, Adam Cartwright repeated his father’s words, thank God, because against all the odds, his father had not let him down.

*****

Adam clenched his teeth tight to stop them from chattering in his head. There was so much noise rattling around inside his brain already that anymore would have sent him screaming mad. He wanted to open his eyes but was too weak to-do so. Everything ached, not only ached, but also hurt. Shooting pains stabbed in every joint through his limbs and every breath was an agony of fire burning across his chest. He was burning hot but shivering from cold. He was sweating so much he could feel the perspiration rolling irritatingly all over his body and yet his mouth was dry and his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. He lacked even the strength to beg for water to relieve him from the anguish of thirst that tormented him mentally and physically.

Ben watched his son with eyes red rimmed from lack of sleep and honest tears. No man, he felt, should look upon a beloved child, whether full grown or infant, and watch him suffering. He had watched his sons too often in their lives fighting for life. Now, this time ………he bowed his head into his hands and tried to stop the thoughts that hammered behind his eyes like red -hot branding irons.

The Frobishers had called for their own doctor to provide medical assistance to the young man. He had come, examined him, given him a sedative and said he would return. He had not needed to say any thing; the look on his face had been sufficient.

*****

The door opened and Martha tip toed towards Ben and touched his hand very softly.

“Ben, you have visitors,” she whispered and turned to indicate the two young men who stood in the doorway

The paleness of their faces, the dark shadows under their eyes, and the dryness of their lips indicated with what haste they had ridden to reach their father and their brother at this so terrifying time. Joseph looked at his father and found himself unable to move his legs, not only from weariness on their part, but because of the pang to his heart when he saw his father’s haggard and distressed face.

“Pa, we couldn’t stay home,” he heard himself saying and marveled that he had managed to get the words through his lips without bursting into tears.

Hoss had said nothing but was already standing at his brother’s bedside and holding the trembling hands in his own. He was willing Adam to open his eyes and to look at him and to feel the love that he felt for him. Eventually he turned away, his own eyes full of tears and his throat tight with fear that now surged like a physical blow through his body.

“Pa, you should have sent for us.” He looked at his father and approached him and took his hand in his own. “Pa?”

Ben sighed as though he were himself emerging from a deep sleep. He forced a smile to his lips and nodded. Then he stood up and embraced them tightly. “I wanted to send for you but events seemed to take over.”

“Pa? Is it true? Is Adam dying?”

Ben glanced anguished eyes at Joe, the words hung in the air over their heads like the terrible sword of Damocles. He swallowed hard and shook his head in denial. “No, no, he’s not dying. He’s going to get better.”

Joe turned his head to survey the sick man in the bed and shook his head thoughtfully. It seemed to him that either his father was deluding himself or Adam was already in line for the resurrection. He walked very softly over to the bed and looked down at his brother and knelt down beside him.

“Adam? It’s Joe here. Hoss and I thought you would like some company. We left you the fencing on the north ridge to do when you got home and that black gelding is just panting to have another – to have another –“ He gulped; heck, what did it matter what that black gelding wanted to do. He leaned down and held his brother close. “Adam? Don’t go away …don’t ……do you hear now?”

*****

Doctor Walters came into the room and rubbed cold bony hands together whilst a frown of concentrated mitigation fell over his long and rather laconic features. “Well, it is not good news. But you were not expecting good news, were you?” He glanced at Joe and Hoss as though daring them to utter a word in disagreement. The brothers exchanged a look of helplessness before returning their attention to the doctor. “He has been ill for some time now. You do realize that, don’t you?”

“What do you mean? He was all right at home,” Hoss stuttered, thinking back to the weeks before Adam had left to attend the trial. His brow crinkled as he remembered the workload each day that Adam had undertaken. No sick man would have been capable of doing anything like half of it. Pschew, the man did not know what he was talking about, and Hoss shrugged to indicate his disdain.

“I know what you must be thinking,” the Doctor responded. “To all appearances he was fine. He would be working and doing all the normal things that he had always done. But I would say, at a rough estimate, that he had been ill for some weeks. Perhaps it would have started with a cold, maybe a slight chill, a fever that he shrugged off because being young he thought, like all young men do, that he was invincible. He worked hard and slept well. But in his lungs, things were happening and –“

“He has been grumpier than usual.” Joe interrupted. “And he was always wanting to get an early night.”

“And he missed the spring dance. I thought that odd at the time.” Hoss rubbed his chin with a broad slightly trembling hand.

“Well, whatever!” The doctor dismissed the comments with a shrug. “Knowing he had to testify at this trial probably made him push himself. Then going swimming in the harbor and spending the day in wet clothes. Then getting knocked down by a cab. Heavens, what was the man thinking!”

Ben sighed; he was in no mood to have anyone criticize Adam, even if it was a doctor of Walters’ reputation and astronomical fees. He stood up. “Have you anything else to say?” he asked in a deep gruff voice that barely concealed the edginess behind them.

“Don’t expect too much. Keep him warm and clean and get him to drink as much as you can. I’ve left medication here. “He indicated some bottles on the bureau. “Make sure you give him regular doses. He’ll probably vomit most of it back at first, but I’ll call in again and check on him.”

“Pa, I didn’t realize he was ill. I kept joshing him for being so moody,” Joe whispered as he sank down upon the arm of a solid looking armchair

“”It’s all right, Joe; I didn’t realize he was ill either.”

“Its jest not fair,” Hoss groaned, biting on his bottom lip and searching for more positive things to say.

“Since when has life ever been fair?” Doctor Walters said gently. “At present he is comatose, and he may stay like that for a while. Gradually his fever will increase and he will have to call upon all his reserves to fight to live. He’ll grow delirious. I don’t know what reserves he has left to draw upon now but it is going to be his own will power that will ultimately get him through this ordeal. Try not to say or do anything that may add any anxiety to his current sufferings. He is utterly exhausted. Poor boy,” he murmured under his breath as he picked up his hat and medical bag and prepared to leave.

They watched him go, the door closed gently behind him. Together and alone the three Cartwrights drew closer together; Joseph slipped his hand into that of his fathers whilst Hoss placed a firm hand upon his fathers shoulder, having realized that he had bitten his nails so much that had he chewed any further he would have been guilty of cannibalism.

“I hadn’t realized he was so ill. Had I done so, had I done so –” his voice drifted away. Oh, had he known, things would have been different.

*****

Whispers surrounded him. He tried to open his eyes but could not. He did not know whether he were dreaming or hallucinating. The warmth was suffocating and he struggled to push it away. It seemed as though once too hot, and then, too cold. As he struggled so the whispers continued to buzz about his head.

“Adam?” A hand touched his and the cool fingers that touched his burning skin sent trickles of ice speeding over his flesh so that he shivered. “Drink this.” Someone was lifting his head and something touched his lips. He clenched his teeth and something wet and warm poured over his chin and neck and made him shiver even more. “Try and drink this; you need to drink it to get well.”

“I’m not sick. I’m just tired, just tired,” he whispered

“I know. This will help you sleep”

The voice was warm and familiar. He drank some of the warm liquid and frowned. It was tasteless and he gulped down more of it until he could not breathe and felt that he was drowning. Now he pushed away Ben’s hand. There were so many noises. Whispers. Rain upon the windows. He heard the crackle of flames burning wood and a swoooooosh as ash fell into the grate. If only he could open his eyes. He flung an arm across his face and wiped the perspiration away. He felt as though he were burning. His stomach was in agony and he groaned aloud.

“It’s all right,” a familiar voice said. “It’s all right, son” but he pushed against the sheets as panic rose in his throat and then the blackness came and swallowed him up into its swirling comfort.

Her face was just a face in a photograph. But his father would look at it and say
“Elizabeth” in a voice that cracked with love. So Adam had looked at it and thought
“Mother.”

In his dreams, he would make mother come to him and talk and laugh with him. When Inger came into their lives and showed him how good it was to have a real mother to play with, to talk to, and to share time with, then in his dreams, Mother came to play and talk and shared time with him. He had always felt safe during those times because she was – mother.
Now in these bleak dark hours he dreamt that he was safe with her. He sat by her side and listened to her voice as she told him stories of the sea that her father, his grandfather Stoddard, had once told her. He drifted away and floated somewhere. He was traveling in the sky looking down at the land beneath him. He saw Ben and Joe and Hoss and called out to them. “Pa – Pa – Joe – Hoss.”

Ben leaned forward from the chair by the bed and took hold of the feverish trembling hands and listened as his son called out “Mama”. He felt his own heart tremble and the tears well up in his own eyes as he wiped away the perspiration that dripped from his sons face and gathered in the hollow of his throat. Then Adam would push away the gentle hands and cry out in a voice full of anguish and despair, “No, no, it’s not right, it’s all wrong.” But Ben did not know why his son said that, but could only hold his son’s hands and tell him that he was there and urge him to fight, and fight hard.

*****

“Dr. Walter thinks he’ll reach the crisis point tonight,” Ben said in a low voice to his sons and Frobisher as they sat together at the table after the evening meal.

“Pa, I don’t want him to die,” Joe stared down at his plate and forced his lips to stop trembling. He wanted to be as brave as possible and he looked over at Hoss who was watching his father’s face as though his own heart was breaking.

“Pa, Adam will be all right. He’s come through things like this before, remember?”

“I know.” Ben nodded and stood up. “He keeps talking to his mother.”

“HIS mother?” Hoss frowned

“Elizabeth. He keeps talking to her.”

The night stole upon them, minutes that ticked away with a relentless stealth. They sat in the room and listened as Adam fought his battles in sweat and tears and moans and sobs in that perspiration soaked bed.

How often they would go to the bedside and turn the pillow and change his linen or wipe his face and force some liquid through clenched teeth. How often his hands would push them away whilst he called out for those he loved.

“Mama?” he whispered and opened his eyes and looked into the face of his father.
“Where’s my Pa?” he demanded in a cracked voice and Ben sighed and assured him that he was there. So Adam closed his eyes and shut his mouth and drifted back to fight the final battle.

“He’s going to die,” Joe said quietly to Hoss. Hoss nodded and lowered his head and covered his face with his hands in a vain attempt to stop the tears from falling.

Walters came and approached the bed and took a good look at Adam. He touched his brow and felt his pulses and took hold of his wrist and felt the pulse there. The perspiration now spiked Adams hair and lay in a pool in the hollow of his throat. His lips, dry and cracked, moved constantly as he talked and whispered to those he loved and saw only in his mind. His hands fluttered constantly too and fro over the covers. Very slowly and gently Walters placed Adams hand under the sheets and then he shook his head and turned to them.

“This, gentlemen, is the crisis. We can only pray now that he comes through the next few hours safely.”

Joe glanced at his father and pity for him never smote a son’s heart so deeply as it did at that moment. Ben bowed his head as though to surrender to One who had authority over all things whilst his dark eyes filled with tears and spilled over. Hoss, standing nearest to his father, stepped closer and put his hand around his fathers clasped hands

“Pray hard, Hoss,” Ben whispered

“I am, Pa, I am.”

*****

Adam felt as though some strong force were sucking the marrow from his bones. The strength in his body was flowing out as though it were sand pouring from a glass bowl. He could see it trickling out from a central hole and felt no compulsion on his part to stop it. He watched as though standing at a safe distance, fascinated at seeing and watching his life force slowly seep away.

“Look, you’re dying,” a voice said in his head

“Yes, I am,” he replied

“Do you want to die?” He recognized the voice. It was the voice he knew to be Elizabeth’s.

“I want to die. I’m too tired to live anymore.”

“Are you going to give your life away then so easily? Is it not worth even a small fight to keep it?”

“I don’t want to keep it. Mama, I want to go to sleep and when I wake up I want to be with you. Go now. Let me sleep.”

*****

Ben came and leaned over the bed and took hold of Adams hand. He held tightly to the fingers and stilled them for a while. With his free hand he stroked back the black hair and thought

“This is the little boy who would run to me with open arms, who thought I was the beginning and end of his world. Oh God, give him the will to live.”

Dr Walters came, shook his head and felt for Adams pulse.

“I’m sorry, he’s weakening. I can’t understand it. I thought he would fight much harder but he isn’t resisting at all. I don’t think there is much time left.” He looked at them with sad eyes, feeling compassion for them. “If you want to say anything to him, before he goes, say it now. The sense of hearing is the last to go, so he will hear you”

They looked at one another in horror. Hoss walked to the window and leaned his brow against the cool glass and wept. Joseph approached the bed first and touched his brother’s hand.

“Adam. Hey, Adam, it’s me, Joe. Don’t go now. Not now. There’s so much to do, you know.”

Adams eyelids fluttered. He was standing on the cliff and looking out across the sky and there was the hawk. It hovered. Its great talons hung poised and its great golden eyes were fixed on its quarry. It was very large and he was very small. He was on his knees now, and his hair streamed across his face and he wanted to fall. But there was this persistent voice.

“I’m tired, Joe, I’m tired,” he whispered and everyone in the room jolted alert as though a bolt of lightning had suddenly struck them all with electricity.

“I know, Adam. But you must fight; you must fight.”

“No.” He sighed and opened his eyes which flicked from one face to the other, then he closed his eyes again. “I don’t want to fight, Joe.”

“You have to live. What about Pa? Hoss? What about me?”

“No.”

“We need you, Adam. You’re my brother. I love you, Adam”

“I —— leave me in peace ——–I want —–I ——“

“But, Adam, what about us?”

Adam shook his head from side to side. He wanted to get back to the cliff and be able to watch the sand seeping away. But it was not easy now. He could not find the way back. He pulled his hands free from whoever held them and raised them to his brow.

“I can’t get back. Leave me alone. I want to go to sleep. Joe —-listen —“ He paused.

“The hawk,” he muttered and they looked at one another forlornly. A brief instant of sanity was drifting away into more incoherent babbling. “Mother…mother.” he whispered.

He was floating through time and a tall dark haired man was sitting by his bedside looking down at a photograph in a silver frame and he heard a child’s voice. “Who’s that lady?”

“It’s Elizabeth. She was your mama”

“Where is she now?”

“She went to sleep, Adam, a long time ago, when you were very little,”

“Did it make you sad, Pa?”

“Yes, son, it made me very sad.”

“Did you cry, Pa?”

“Oh yes, my son, I cried.”

*****

“I can’t reach the cliff” he murmured suddenly.

“Is it important to reach the cliff, Adam?” Ben asked

“Yes, yes, very important, very important.”

“Why is it important? Can you tell us?”

Adam frowned and tried to remember. There was a voice calling to him. Through all the other noises. he could hear that voice.

“Adam. Adam. You must fight harder. You must fight, son. Come back, son. Come back to us and fight.”

He grew silent. His hands were still now by his side. He had to run. He had that cliff to climb. He knew that once he reached the top of that cliff ….

“Well, he’s fighting now. His pulse rate is stronger and faster,” Walters whispered to
them.

“Talk to him some more, Pa,” Joe whispered.

“Joe?” Adams voice called out. “Joe?”

“Yes, Adam. Yes, it’s me”

“You must not be so impatient, Joe. When I reach the cliff. Got to run, Joe.”

“Adam, what happens when you reach the top of that cliff?”

“Happens? What happens?” Adam frowned and tried to push back the black clouds that
misted over his brain. “Then – when I reach the top – then I fall –“

“Why do you fall? You don’t have to fall, Adam”

“Yes, I must, I must. I’m so tired, Joe”

******

“How is he today?” Hoss asked. “Still nothing?”

“He just lies there. He listens to everything that we say. Watches everything we do. He drinks what is given him. Eats sometimes. Stares out of the window the rest of the time,” Joe replied, without looking up at his brother, but keeping his eyes fixed to the book he was reading.

“His eyes are blank, but you can feel his eyes following you as you go around the room,” Ben said quietly

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Hoss said, feeling now that he should not have asked in the first place.

“He turned his head from the window when I went in this morning. After that, he watched me and seemed to pay attention to everything I said. Then when I went to go, he turned to look back at the window again. I didn’t leave straight away, but stood there and he looked back, to see whether or not I had left the room,” Ben said quietly in a resigned tone of voice that caused his son more anxiety than Joe’s apparent lack of interest.

“Then what did he do?” Hoss felt compelled to ask

“Nothing. He just stared as usual.” Ben sighed and straightened his back. He walked to the window and stared down at the people strolling along the sidewalk, getting on with their lives.

Hoss felt the disappointment and shook his head and flopped down into an armchair.
It had been a strange week. Adam had come through the crisis and rallied. He had grown stronger physically, but something, the essential of being of Adam, just was not there. It puzzled them all, even though Walters said it was just that Adam was still ill, that the illness had so exhausted him that he needed time to recover. But for Joe, impatient and eager, and for Hoss, loving and tender, it was an added ordeal. One that was quite beyond their comprehension.

The air was warm with that lazy promise of a hot summer. Blue skies faintly smudged the white clouds that beckoned each new day and fat buds burst into blossom and flower. Sweet smells eddied from the rich soil. But for Adam Cartwright nothing meant anything to him and everything was merely transient.

In his bed, propped up by pillows, he stared listlessly out of the window. He fixed his eyes on a cloud and watched it drift from his view and then his eyes shifted back to seek out some new something to watch. Sometimes he stared at an object for so long that his eyes throbbed and then he would fall suddenly asleep and jerk awake hours later. Dr. Walters said it was temporary. Everyone in the house hoped that he was right.

He heard them coming up the stairs and frowned slightly. A barely discernible pucker of the lips and crease of the brow which smoothed out as the door opened and they came into the room. He wondered which of them would speak first this time. He did not move to look at them. He knew that they would come and approach him and then they would look at him and speak. He sighed, a barely audible sigh, but they heard and looked at one another meaningfully. It was a new response.

“Adam.” Joe stepped forward and smiled. Adam looked at the clouds and watched as a bird flew into his line of vision. He knew that at one time he could have told Joe the name of that bird and even done a fair imitation of the bird’s natural song. He knew that, but did not think it was worth mentioning, so he kept quiet.

His eyes followed the bird until it was out of sight. Joe glanced over at Hoss and his hazel green eyes filled with tears. He hated all this. Sometimes he felt such anger welling up inside of him that he wanted to get hold of Adam by the nightshirt and shake him until there was some reaction other than that blank look on his face. He had even felt like hitting him once or twice just to see what reaction that would get him.

He glanced over at Ben who was measuring out Adams medication. He saw the dark shadows under his father’s eyes and the concern etched on the once proud face. With a stifled groan, Joe turned and walked out of the room.

Ben glanced at the door as it closed, but said nothing. Adam continued to stare out of the window. He watched the bough of the tree swaying. Then he smiled. Was it something they said? Was it something he had seen? He said nothing. They were left to wonder.
Adam tilted his head and listened to the footsteps leaving the room. He heard them go down the stairs, one at a time. He frowned; that would be Joseph he told himself. Joseph Cartwright, always so impetuous, and impatient. He smiled again, a lopsided smile, and resumed looking out of the window.

*****

Ben paused at the door of the room and thoughtfully viewed his youngest son as Joe stood by the window. It was all too obvious to the father that his son was wrestling with a problem that seemed bigger than anything he could handle by himself. With a sigh he walked into the room, and once Hoss was inside, he gently closed the door.

Joe glanced hastily over his shoulder before turning back to look out of the window. In truth, he saw nothing. He only knew that he had to face his father and brother and the guilt he felt along with the frustration and fear made him feel defensive and angry. He wrung his hands and when Ben put a hand on his shoulder, he shrugged his father away.

“Why did you leave the room?” Ben asked quietly

“I didn’t want to stay there any longer. I needed to get out.”

“YOU needed to get out?”

“That’s what I said.” Joe glanced sideways on to his father and saw the anger beginning to kindle the flame in his father’s eyes. Inwardly he quailed but his own anger was beginning to boil now.

“Don’t you think your brother would like to get out of that room? Get out of this house?” Ben growled, struggling to keep control of his temper, but finding it more difficult to do so when Joe turned aside from him and continued to stare out of the window.

“How would you know what he wants?” Joe snapped with the green in his hazel eyes flashing fire. “Does he tell you? Does he talk?”

“You know he can’t; don’t be so ridiculous,” Ben retorted, drawing himself erect and taking a deep breath to keep calm.

“Exactly! He can’t talk, or he won’t talk. He can’t walk, or he won’t walk!” He flung his arms in the air in exasperation. “How much longer do we wait before we get some reaction from him? You tell me, because for sure I’d like to know.”

“We got some reaction from him today,” Hoss said quietly. “There was movement, and he smiled twice.”

“Good. I’m glad.” Joe shrugged and scowled at them darkly. “So he smiled and he moved? So what? Tomorrow he’ll be just the same as he was last week or the week before that, or perhaps he’ll twitch his big toe and then we can all get excited about that. Perhaps he’ll get up and walk just to make sure we got the message before he shuts down on us again. Well, I’ve had enough, I can’t take anymore, I can’t ….” He took a deep shuddering breath and shook his head. “How much longer, huh? We go up, he stares at us, we stare at him. I don’t — honest to God —— I just —–” The tears that had been welling up now overflowed and with a shuddering gasp of a sob he sunk his head against his father’s chest as Bens arms wrapped around him.

“I know. I understand, Joe,” Ben said very quietly. “I understand.”

“I just can’t bear to see him like that, Pa. And not knowing when – when it’ll be over and if he’ll ever be the Adam we knew before all this happened. Oh Pa, it’s so unfair!”

Ben said nothing but only nodded. He held his youngest close to him and did not notice as Hoss quietly opened the door and left the room.

****

Hoss walked to Adams room and tapped gently on the door. He smiled to himself for he did not really expect Adam to say ‘come in’ or even ‘stay out’, but he knocked anyway. The things Joe had said downstairs were going round and round in his head. His heart felt torn in two because he understood exactly what Joe was feeling. He knew and understood because he was feeling exactly the same way. It was breaking him to pieces to go into that room, hoping that Adam, his Adam, would be there, instead of the shell of the man who sat and stared and said and did nothing.

He opened the door and stepped into the room and pulled up a chair to the bed and surveyed his brother. Adam sat propped up by pillows in the bed but his eyes were closed. To all appearances he was asleep but Hoss knew that was not so. There’s a difference between a man sleeping and a man pretending to sleep. Hoss frowned, and chewed his bottom lip for a moment. Adam opened his eyes and glanced up and met the full force of his brothers blue gaze. He averted his own eyes and looked at the view from the window.

“You know, Adam, you can only see so much out of that window. Here now, I’ll pull back the drapes fer yer, thataways you kin see some more.”

He got up. For a large clumsy-looking man, he walked with the lightness of an angel towards the window and drew back the drapes to one side. The sun flooded into the room and Hoss smiled and turned to his brother. Adam smiled back. With a deep breath and very gently, as though he were approaching the wildest beast the corral had ever housed, Hoss returned to his chair and sat down.

“Now then, it don’t need no genius to figure out that sitting up here in that bed day in and day out must be boring you out of your skull. It would me”

Adams lips twitched. He raised his eyebrows. Hoss nodded.

“I thought so. It would nigh on kill me. I can’t handle being cooped up too long inside anyplace. Nor kin Joe. It tends to send us mad after a while. Joe especially. He always wants to be out in the open, under wide skies, on the range, that kind of thing. But there’s nothing better than to be riding through the Ponderosa on a warm day and find our favorite place. Then we’d strip off and dive into the coolest pool this side of Sacramento.” He took a deep breath. “On a morning like now, when the woods are getting ready for summer. There a special smell out there, you know. It’s something that you can’t capture in a picture nor put to music. It kind of hits you right between the eyes and makes your head spin. You look up into the sky, through the branches of all those trees, and sometimes the sun shines through and dazzles you a bit. It’s kind of —– holy, you know?” He glanced over at Adam who was looking at him intently. “I guess you do know what I mean, having those feelings for the earth that you do. You prob’ly know better than anyone else. “

Adam said nothing but lowered his eyes and surveyed the carpet thoughtfully. Hoss could see the brow crinkling and the well- defined lips slipping into a slow smile. Hoss leaned forward, his hands clasped and hanging loosely between his knees.

“Adam, I’m going to tell you something.” He looked at his brother intently, so intently that Adam was forced to turn and look at him. “I prayed for a miracle last night. Well, I guess I bin praying for a miracle most nights for weeks now.” He shrugged and licked his lips before proceeding on. “I want to tell you about someone who is very special to me. I hope you don’t mind; well, I guess in a way, it’s too bad if you do, because there ain’t much you can do about it. I mean, you can’t exactly get up and walk away, can you?”

He looked Adam straight in the eyes, and saw his own earnest reflection staring back at himself. He blinked and looked at his brother and saw the pale face with a blush of color in the cheeks and a rather aggressive look on the normally blank face. Hoss turned away, his heart in his throat, tears in his eyes and swallowed hard.

“All right now, I’ll tell you about this person. I don’t talk much about him, because most often he’s always there for me. Right there, by my side. The first person I really knew was him. He was always there for me. I would see him first thing when I woke up and last thing when I went to sleep. When I was a baby, he was there to help me to walk and he took my hands and supported me. He helped me up when I fell down. He taught me to climb trees. He showed me how to swim. He showed me how to do mostly everything I know. Heck, we even slept in the same bed when I was a kid. When I opened my eyes, it was his face I saw first thing, and his feet I kicked to get them moving, and his fingers that pinched me to make surer I was awake.

“You know, we had some fun, yes, we had fun. Even when we were skeered, looking back now, it were fun. He was always in scrapes. Then he would run back and clamber in beside me in our bed and say ‘Hoss, I’ve had such fun – you’d never believe –’ ” Hoss cleared his throat and swallowed hard.

On the landing outside, Ben placed his hand on the door and pushed it open, then paused. The morning sun shone warmly through the windows and the leaves of the trees were dappled on the walls with shadows. Hoss looked at Adam who looked back at him and raised one eyebrow in question. Hoss smiled, seemed to him that this little ‘colt’ was about to get himself roped in. He nodded slowly

“Joe missed out, because he never knew this person how I knew him. To me, this person was more than special. If anything happened to this person, if he never came back….” He paused and looked at Adam. “You understand, don’t you? Does it make sense?” Adam looked at him and shivered and nodded. Hoss’ lips trembled and he turned away then. There was nothing more he could say, not unless he burst into tears there and then. The silence settled upon them for some minutes. Then there came the sudden soft pattering of rain upon the window -panes. The sun drifted behind clouds.

On the landing Ben sat down. His head bowed so that his chin rested upon his chest and a hand to his eyes to stop the tears flowing. When Hoss began to speak again, Ben felt that his heart would swell to bursting for it ached so much

“Well, now you know, Adam, I love my brother. I never want him to stop being a part of my life. There’s so much to do, so little time in which to do it all. Adam, promise me, you won’t leave me, will you?”

He stared into the dark eyes and willed for some response. He saw his own reflection mirrored there, and then he saw amber sparks flickering. Then, there was a slow nod of the handsome head. The dark hair curled at the nape of his neck over the collar of his nightshirt. A dark curl drifted onto the high brow.

“Well, then.” Hoss breathed a long drawn out sigh/ “That’s all I wanted to know.” He placed his hands and folded them over his brothers and squeezed the long fingers gently “We should go home, Adam. All of us. We should go back home.”

He nodded as though to himself. Then he got to his feet and turned to the door. Adam listened as the footsteps faded away.

Outside on the landing Hoss pulled the door shut behind him and turned to see his father standing close by. He lowered his head and then raised it and looked at the strong, haggard face of the older man and sighed.

“Pa, we should go home. I don’t think Adam will ever recover if we stay here.”

“I know. Joe feels the same way. We’ll make arrangements to leave tomorrow,” Ben said in that tone of voice that assured Hoss that the deed could be taken for granted as following the word.

*****

In the bedroom Adam continued to stare out of the window although he saw nothing. Hoss’ words rang in his brain and after a moment or two had passed he leaned back against the pillows and closed his eyes. Hot tears struck against his eyelids and slid slowly, hot and angry, from their corners, creeping into his hairline. When had he last cried? He knew that many thought he never cried at all but then they had never been tutored on how to hide tears in the way he had been since a child.

In the darkness of his mind he recalled times when a mere infant held close in his fathers arms, as they lay hidden behind rocks or shrubs and even shadows to escape the enemies that sought to hunt them down. He could feel even now the suffocating clamp of his father’s hand covering his nose and mouth to prevent him from crying out. Inside he was screaming from fear as the stealthy foot steps of the Indian tiptoed pass their hiding place. Time and time again he cried his tears inside him self. When he saw his father cry, he knew he had to be strong for him. When he needed to cry for himself, he felt ashamed at his own weakness. But he did cry.

He remembered crying when Ross Marquette died. They were tears of anger and loss and guilt. It should never have happened, but it did. He had cried from frustration and pain when he had fallen and been injured and knew that Laura had fallen in love with Will. But he never did that crying in public. Just hot angry tears shed in the privacy of his room and then dashed away because it was a weakness to cry over such things.

He raised his arm to shield his face and stop the tears. But still they flowed. He had cried like this when his father had found him dragging the travois with Kane upon it. He had cried out his hate and his anger and his fear. His father and his brothers had been there for him then, just as they were here now. The thought of them recalled back to his mind Hoss’ words and he pressed his fingers against his eyes to stop the tears from flowing.

*****

“Adam?”

Joe leaned over the body sleeping in the bed and touched his brothers’ shoulder gently. Panic touched his throat and heart when there came no response and then he looked at his brother’s face and saw the traces of tears upon the handsome features. The pillow beneath his cheek was damp by long shed tears and Joe’s tender heart smote him bitterly when he noticed this. He shook Adams shoulder once again and called out his name, but apart from a soft sigh escaping from his brother’s lips there was nothing.

For a few moments Joseph Cartwright stood beside the bed and looked down at his brother. He thought of the hours he and his father and brother had spent by that bedside over the past weeks. The hours of pacing up and down and of anguished prayer. He shook his head and with a groan sunk down upon the chair by the side of the bed and stared at the carpet.

“I don’t understand all this, Adam,” he whispered urgently, whilst his hazel green eyes filled with tears. “I don’t understand how we can pray and pray so hard, and for nothing to happen. Why doesn’t God answer our prayers, can you tell me that? We don’t want you to live like this, Adam. We want you to be strong and healthy. To be able to ride along with us, and work with us, like you did before all this happened.” He clasped his hands together tightly, and bit down on the knuckles whilst he tried to find the words to express how he felt “Adam, why didn’t you say you were ill? Paul Martin would have fixed you with some pills or summat. You should have said! We should have noticed,” he groaned again and shook his head.

Another deep sigh came from the direction of the bed and he turned to look at his brother, but Adam had merely turned over and remained in deep sleep. Joseph swallowed a lump in his throat and pulled the covers higher, to shield his brothers shoulders from any draughts. Almost by instinct he reached out and clasped his brothers’ hand in his own and held it tightly.

“I’ve spent hours by this bedside, Adam. I’ve thought and thought over what it will be like if you were to have died. Then you came through against all the odds and – and – well, in all honestly, brother, you ain’t your usual bossy self. I’ve thought about what it will be like if you were to stay like that forever. What do we do, Adam? How do we help you? I don’t know what to do and it kind of scares me.”

“I suppose the reason why it scares me is because you’ve always been the one who tells me what to do. You always take the lead and you always know the answers. I don’t, well, not like you do. It frightens me, the thought that you don’t know even how to walk, or talk and – and it makes me kind of angry too.”

“I feel angry all the time just now. I feel angry with you. I feel angry with God. I wanted you to get well, and to be able to step out of bed and just be you as before. Fact is, you ain’t nothing like you were before all this happened.”

“You’ve always been there for us, Adam. You went away once, and I remember being really angry then too. I wanted you to stay and be my rock, as you always were, and I didn’t know how it would be without you there. And then, when you came back, things were different. You were different. Not like how I remembered you. I was angry with you then, for a while. I forgot that I was only a little kid when you left and memories aren’t always true at that age.”

“Hey – remember that time Pa built the outhouse and plastered the walls? Then he came home that evening and found someone had scratched 1 + 1 = 2 on it. Boy, was he mad! He decided it was you must have done it and you took the whipping without a word. Guess you knew all the time that it was me. I didn’t even know what 1+ 1 = 2 meant, I just copied it out of your books.”

Joe smiled softly to himself and clasped his hands more tightly around his brother’s hand and raised it against his cheek. A tear slid slowly down his face and trickled onto the clasped hands, glistened momentarily before vanishing between their entwined fingers. He lowered his head and stared in silence at the colors of the carpet on the floor.

“You mean so much to me, Adam. I can remember the day mama died, and how you held me in your arms and held me so tight. I fought to get free, but you wouldn’t let me go. When you cried I thought you were angry with me, because I was angry at you for holding me so close. Adam…” His voice cracked into a sob. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that I’m angry with you so much. I’m sorry I make you angry at me so often. Oh God, make him well. Please. Please.”

“Joseph”

He glanced up, and gulped back the sobs as his father stepped into the room. The sadness on his father’s countenance robbed him of any further speech. He could only stand up and walk into his father’s arms and be glad that those strong arms could hold him close. He closed his eyes and thought of what he had just said to Adam. He could remember so clearly the tight embrace of his brother’s arms around him and the fast thudding of his brothers’ heart beat as he fought against those arms and cried out for his dearest mama. He could see the tears falling unchecked down his brother’s cheeks, and the fear that that sight engendered in him made him fight harder to be free. Yet, oh, how comforting it was to have strong arms hold him. How pleasant to feel for an instant, that security, that protection, of someone loving him enough to hold and cherish him.

“I’m so sorry, Pa,” he whispered as tears engulfed him once again.

“There’s nothing for you to be sorry about, Joseph. There’s nothing anyone of us can do to make things any better than they are now.”

He felt his father’s hand caress his head and closed his eyes and hot tears trickled from beneath the long lashes and trembled from his chin. How many times had he enjoyed this physical bond of love? He shivered and drew away.

“It’s alright, Pa, I’m all right. I – I just wanted to be with Adam for a minute, on my own.”

“I understand.” Ben smiled slowly and looked over at the bed. “He looks so young, so vulnerable. It shouldn’t end like this, not like this.”

“Can’t we take him home, Pa? Surely he’ll get well at home?”

“Hoss said the same.” Ben murmured, sitting down on the now vacant chair and taking hold of the limp, near lifeless hand. “Perhaps you’re right. I’ll talk to Dr. Walters when he comes.”

Joe squatted down by his fathers side and placed a hand upon his fathers knee and looked up at the anxious face and the dark shadows of the eyes and forced a trembling smile to his lips/

“It’ll work out, Pa, you’ll see. Once he’s back home, smelling that Ponderosa air, and getting some of Hop Sings food into him. You’ll see, Pa.”

Ben smiled and placed his hand over that of his youngest sons. Then he looked at Adam again and sighed heavily. The man in the bed lay still. The crescent shadows of the long lashes against his cheeks made him appear fragile and frail, so dark they were against the waxen pallor of the skin. Ben nodded

“We’ll take him home,” he said quietly.

******

It was a strangely comforting yet humbling return to Virginia City. As the lumbering vehicle rocked to a standstill at the depot a small crowd of townsfolk began to gather to welcome home the invalid and to give reassuring consolations to the family.

Roy Coffee had not wanted to be part of the crowd. He had felt that it could have been misconstrued as intrusive curiosity and he had told those who had intended to gather just that much. At the same time he had wanted to let Ben and the boys know that he sympathized for their current situation. As he stood at the door of the Sheriff’s Office, he watched the crowd gather and shook his head with a deep sigh.

Ben was too big hearted to have considered any of the crowd to be present for any other reason than to offer their support and encouragement. As he stepped down from the interior of the stage coach, he was surprised by the number of hands that reached out to shake his own, and at the voices that murmured their best wishes and sympathies. He shook their hands and nodded and smiled. He thanked one and all for their presence and their kind thoughts and then turned to assist his son’s descent.

A subdued silence fell upon the crowd as Hoss descended and glanced about them, and then turned to help Adam. A pale face with over large eyes appeared from the gloom of the interior of the vehicle. Very gently he was supported as he stepped down and glanced about him. There was just a confusion of faces, blurred by the brightness of the sun. He involuntarily turned his face away and looked up at Hoss. On his face a mute appeal for help. One that did not go amiss from the crowd who murmured their various sentiments at seeing the Guardian of the Ponderosa laid so low. Hoss helped forge a path through the onlookers to where Hop Sing was waiting for them with the buggy.

“Well, did ye see thet?” Chet O’Donnell muttered. “Never thought I’d live to see the day a Cartwright got hisself in a state like thet. Shot down and laid out in Boot Hill more’n like, but not thet !”

“I’d rather they’d put a bullet through muh brain, than live like thet,” Donegan agreed.

“He was such a strong man, so virile and handsome,” Rosie Hanson whispered to the woman standing by her side.

“He still looks mighty handsome to me,” the other woman murmured, with a slight smile to her lips. “Did you ever see such eyes on a man?”

“Mmmm, makes you want to go right over there and mother him, don’t it?” another sighed.

“It’s not going to be easy for him, that’s for sure!” Mrs. Marriott commented as she bustled away to report all she had seen and heard to the other women in the Temperance Group.

*****

He sat in the big old high backed blue chair and looked about the room. His dark eyes rested on various things about him – the book shelves, the pictures, his father’s desk and the map of The Ponderosa Territory that was on the wall behind the desk. He stared at it for some time and then, as was customary now, he closed his eyes and thought over what he had seen.

It was hard to explain to them how tired he became at having to think everything through all the time. It were as though he had to see things, catalogue them in his mind, run through a whole sequence of memories and thoughts concerning that object, and then set it firmly in place as a definite ‘something’ amidst a chain of so many other things. It wore him down and tired him out.

But it was becoming easier. He reacted more readily to conversation now. He could understand what they were saying, and appreciated the nuances in their voices and could even smile at the jokes, even those aimed at him self. He liked it best when he could sit quietly with his father near by, and listen to the deep gravel voice telling him about the journeys they had shared together when he had been a small boy. He was beginning to picture things in his mind now, to see his father and himself come to life in his brain. At night, he would think about the stories and in his dreams they came to life all over again.
His father would sometimes sit by his side and just smoke his pipe and stare at the ceiling and be thinking and that was a pleasant time for Adam. No talking, no need to think, just to have his brain at peace.

So days slowly limped into weeks and despite Paul Martins constant reassurance that Adam was making progress it seemed hard for the family to believe it as the pale shadow of what once had been continued his solitary existence between real life, sleep and pensive thought.

*****

Hoss Cartwright paused on the steps of the Telegraph Office and pocketed the mail. He glanced up and down the street and watched as an elegantly dressed woman descended from a privately hired buggy at the Hotel Internationale. For some reason that he could not fathom, she held his attention. Was it the way she walked? The way she held her head? He watched her until she disappeared into the shadows of the hotel.

“How’s that big brother of yours, Hoss?” Roy Coffee asked, looking up at the young man with his blue eyes looking concerned and sympathetic.

Hoss nodded and shrugged. “He’s doing right well, Roy, right well.”

“That’s good. Give him my regards.” Roy slapped the young man on the back and walked on. His steps on the wooden boards were sharp and brisk. Hoss glanced back over at him and frowned slightly. Then stepped down into the road and walked to the hotel.

She had just finished signing her name on the register and stepped back from the desk to watch the boy take her luggage up to her room. She glanced casually over at the big man who had entered the foyer and smiled. Hoss noticed that she was very attractive, very elegant, but the smile never reached her eyes. Even as he stood there he felt the cold sweep of her gaze appraising him, sweeping up and over and mentally registering details of interest.

“You’re Hoss Cartwright from the Ponderosa, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He took off his hat and looked at her full in the face with his honest blue eyes somber and serious.

“I heard that your brother, Adam, had been very seriously ill. He is getting better, isn’t he?” She was pulling off her gloves very slowly as she spoke. Hoss noticed that she wore only one adornment on her hand, a simple gold wedding ring. He swallowed and nodded.

“Yes, ma’am, he’s getting stronger every day.”

“Good,” she said quietly and turned to follow the boy and her luggage to her room

“Who shall I say was enquiring, ma’am?” Hoss asked, as she passed him

“You don’t have to say anything, Mr. Cartwright. I was just curious, that was all,” she replied and began to mount the stairs.

Hoss frowned and followed her with his eyes, and when she had reached the landing, he pulled the Register towards him and surveyed the entry. The name meant nothing to him, and he frowned more deeply for he had been sure that the name would have been

familiar. ”Mrs. Rene Manson – Reno.”

“Any problems, Hoss?” the hotel manager paused on his way to the office. “How’s Adam?”

“Doin’ well, thanks, Mr. Brody.”

“That’s good. We miss him. Tell him we miss him” and the manager passed on his way, thoughts of Hoss and the Cartwrights wiped from his memory by the more important details of his day.

*****

It was good to sit in the sun. He picked up a checker piece and moved it across the board. A white piece there and then a black piece over there. He studied the board carefully. In his mind he had played the game over and over. He played the game in the way Hoss would have played it – and won easily. He played the game in the way Joe would have played it – it took longer, but he had won. Now he was playing the game as though he were playing against Ben. Ben was the black piece and had just countered his next move. He had to think hard to get out of it. He wanted to win the game against Ben.

“Hey, whaddya doin’, big brother?” Joe dismounted and pulled off his gloves and slapped them against his thigh to beat out the dust. He took a deep breath. “It’s a good day for sitting out.”

“Yes, a good day,” Adam replied watching as his brother stepped up to the table and observed the checker board. “Pa’s winning,” he said in answer to the unspoken question.

“Again?” Joe chuckled. “You’ll have to improve on your game, Adam. That’s twice in a row. How did I come off this time?”

“You lost,” Adam replied and smiled slowly

Joe nodded. “That figures. Sure you didn’t cheat?”

Adam frowned and thought about that; maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. He just shrugged. Joe sighed and walked back and into the house. Adam continued to ponder over his game of checkers.

“What’s for supper, Hop Sing?” Joe called out, unbuckling his gunbelt and settling it upon the bureau. He yawned; it had been a long day. They missed having Adam there to help and at the thought of his brother, he frowned again. Adam was improving; they could see that now, but it was slow. His responses were that of a child. Just a child with a too solemn outlook on life. Pa said it was better than nothing, better than it had been a few weeks ago. Joe sighed again and called over to Hop Sing that he was going to freshen up.

Outside Adam looked thoughtfully at the checker board and frowned. They did not realize how much time it had taken him to watch them all and to study their way of playing this game. It was important that when he played against Hoss, then he was playing against Hoss. He knew from watching over all these past weeks of evenings that Hoss concentrated very hard on all his moves, but was easily distracted into making wrong assumptions about his opponent’s next move and made clumsy errors. Joe, on the other hand, could be very devious if his opponent was a worthy one, but he tended to falter at the important points of the game. He was over confident when playing against Hoss, and intimidated him and often won. But when he played against his father, his confidence waned and he often lost out as a result.

Adam smiled and picked up another checker. Ben was the hardest to play against because he was the one who had taught Adam to play and so the tactics were very similar. Adam knew that were he to play against Ben he had to employ patience and cunning, because impatience was Ben’s weak point.

He placed his checker on the board and swept his opponents checker away. Then with a sigh he sat back and looked up at the sky and considered what next to do. The weeks were becoming too long and he was getting stronger. He was also becoming bored.

*****

“Hoss.”

Ben’s voice stopped Hoss in his tracks just as he was about to step into the Bucket of Blood saloon. He pushed his hat back from off his brow and watched as his father strode towards him.

“Hoss, did you collect the mail?”

“Sure, Pa.” Hoss touched the inside pocket of his shirt and frowned. “Anything wrong?”

“No, no, just that we have to make a detour before getting home. Old Davy Gittens has broken his leg and wants us to call in on his wife and let her know that he won’t be home until later, maybe not until tomorrow.”

“Shucks, Pa. It’s nearly supper time.” Hoss’ face fell, then his eyes lit up at the memory of Mrs. Gittens home bakes and he grinned. “Say, Pa, I wonder if Mrs. Gittens’ has baked any of them gooseberry pies lately.”

“Now’s the time we’ll find out, Hoss. Now, we’ve time for one beer before we go, all right, son?”

“That’s fine by me, Pa.” Hoss grinned and stepped aside for his father to enter the saloon first. He glanced at the buggy trotting down the main street, and then paused to look at it a second time. Somehow or other that Mrs. Manson gave him the creeps and a shiver trickled down his spine as he watched her urge the horses onwards out of town.

*****

Joe jerked upright. He shook his head and blinked more rapidly than usual. With a slight groan at his own laxity, he got up off the bed and walked hurriedly over to the wash basin and sluiced his face with the cold water. He glanced at the clock on the bedroom wall and noticed that he had been asleep for over an hour. With a yawn and another shake of the head to clear the mugginess in his brain, he fastened the buttons of his shirt and almost ran out of the room. Supper would be cold. Why had not Pa yelled for him before now? Where had Adam got to, and Hoss too, come to that? He paused at the half landing on the stairs and frowned at the sight of the empty room. The table was as it had been when he had first come home over an hour earlier. There was no smell of coffee brewing, no coffee pot set up on the table, nothing at all to show any evidence of the activity of Hop Sing.

Joe grinned and came down the stairs at a slower gait. He finished buttoning his shirt and was about to cross to the kitchen when there was a knock on the door. He paused in mid-stride, wondering why Adam had not made an appearance, and why Hop Sing was not hurrying out to see to the visitor whom he would have noticed from the door of the kitchen. With a disgruntled sigh he walked over and opened the door just as the visitor had raised her hand to knock once again.

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, charm settling like a mantle immediately about him. He smiled his bright dazzling smile. “Do come in –“

“Thank you.” She glanced at him, sweeping her gaze over him from head to toe and then turning to look around the room. “I came to see Mr. Cartwright.”

“You’re fortunate; I’m one of them. Would you like to sit down, Miss –“

“Mrs.,” she replied sharply, pulling off her gloves and taking him up on his suggestion.
She sat down and once again glanced about her. “Mrs. Manson. I came to see your brother, Adam. I assume he is still alive?”

“Sure, ma’am, he’s alive. Didn’t you see him on the way in? He was just outside a moment ago.”

She looked at him. It was a direct and very cold look right in his eyes. He instantly quailed and bit his bottom lip in much the same manner he would have done years before at school, when Miss Jones would nail him with one of her piercing looks.

“I’d heard he was very seriously ill. Talk went around that he was close to dying, but obviously he has survived.”

“Yes, ma’am, he has, thankfully.”

She gave him another of her cold piercing looks and then glanced up stairs.

“Is he up there?” she asked abruptly, sliding her hand into the pocket of her skirt

“I guess so. He has to rest a lot and – and I guess if he was not out side that means he would be – would be upstairs.” Joe gulped.

“Perhaps then, we should go up stairs and find out.” She stood up and smiled at him.
It was such a cold smile, and such cold eyes. Joe felt a shiver judder down his spine and he glanced frantically at the front door and then back at her.

“He doesn’t like being disturbed,” he said quietly. “Anyway, I think perhaps if you have any business with him, you should wait until my father comes back from town.”

“No, I don’t think so. Anyway, your father and that other brother of yours won’t be home for quite some time yet. They’ve been delayed.”

“What do you mean? What’s happened to them?” Joe asked through dry lips

“Nothing. Not yet anyway. Now, then, after you….” She withdrew her hand from her pocket and indicated the stairs again, the blunt nosed muzzle of a pistol pointed directly at his chest and then swung to point to the stairs. “As I said, after you.”

“Listen, lady, I don’t know what this is all about, but if I were you….”

“No, Mr. Cartwright, IF I were YOU, I’d just go up those stairs and see to that brother of yours – now then, as I said earlier, after you!”

Joe’s head was spinning with questions as he led the way up the stairs. Questions in their turn became concentrated on ways to get the gun from her and reverse their roles from victor to captor. He glanced over his shoulder at her cold, impervious face and realized that her strengths lay in her weaknesses, or rather, in the preconceived weakness of a man’s mind, in assuming that a woman needed to be treated more gently.

He had never struck a woman deliberately to hurt them, to be the better of them. As he took one step at a time as slowly as he could, Joe’s mind was in turmoil as he wrestled over and over with the problem.

“Move along – hurry now.”

He pushed open the door of his brother’s room and stepped inside and with deft cunning she waited out on the landing until he was well inside the room, before she also stepped
cautiously within. They both looked around the room and stared at one another with surprise in their eyes. Of Adam, there was no sign.

*****

The dark almond eyes of the Cartwright’s cook opened but before he could let flow a string of Cantonese curses, he felt a hand upon his mouth and upon looking up, saw Adam place a finger to his lips to urge him to keep silent. Hop Sing swallowed everything he would have liked to have said, and allowed Adam to remove the rope that bound him to the post. Still signalling for silence Adam led the way into the house, via the kitchen.

Both men approached the dining room with caution and listened. They could hear the muted sounds of voices and knew that meant the occupants of the house were upstairs. Adam signed to Hop Sing to follow him back into the kitchen.

“She’s not alone. If I’m right, there could be two men, maybe even three, close by and waiting for her signal to get into the house. I’m going upstairs now, but get things locked up here and arm yourself. Stay out of sight – all right?” Adams dark eyes looked intently at the Chinese who nodded, and then frowned,

“You allight now, Mr. Adam?” he asked, the query in his eyes that of a sincere interest and Adam smiled slowly.

“Getting there, Hop Sing, getting there.” He placed a finger to his lips again and very cautiously left the man to carry out his instructions.

He walked hurriedly and silently to his father’s desk and took the gun that Ben always kept locked in the drawer. He checked to make sure that it was loaded and then looked up at the stairs. Joe was speaking and he could tell from listening to his brother that the younger man was nervous.

It had been a strange awakening. He had been with Sport in the stable when he had heard the buggy driving into the yard. He’d walked out, seen the occupant clamber down and look around her and then he had seen her face.

It had been as though her face was the key that he had needed to unlock everything that was closed off in his brain. Faces and facts, events and mishaps, memories and dreams, all had flashed through his brain in a kaleidoscope of pictures. It had been so blinding, so fast, and in turn, so painful, that he had reeled back into the dark interior of the stables. He had pressed the palms of his hands into his eyes in an effort to halt the never-ending outpouring of information that now flooded into his brain. It had brought him to his knees and if he had not been of such an obstinate and stubborn nature, he would have howled like a dog due to the confusion of emotions that tumbled through his whole being.

Then he had sunk back against the wall of Sport’s stall and closed his eyes and raised his face to the day -light that shone through the open door. He thought about her, what could have brought her here, and why? Eventually, once his heart had stopped beating so fast and the pain in his head had subsided sufficiently, he stumbled to his feet and made his way to the stable door. He saw her enter the house and wondered why she had taken so long to reach the house from the buggy. Or had it been only a few minutes, seconds even, that had passed during his ordeal in the stables.

Knowing it had been somewhat longer, he made his way to the kitchen door and found Hop Sing bound and gagged and unconscious on the floor. Now, knowing that Hop Sing was arming himself in the kitchen, Adam Cartwright made a very slow and silent ascent up the stairs to where the voices continued to be heard.

“Look, lady, I don’t know what you want with my brother, but you’re not exactly going around things in quite the right way here.”

Adam paused at the turning in the stairs as Joe’s voice, slightly higher pitched than usual, reached his ears. He waited for Mrs. Manson to start talking again, and took a step at a time to reach the landing.

“I suppose he never got round to telling you about me, or my brothers, did he?”

“Ma’am, my brothers been too ill to talk about anyone.”

“Yes, but he is still alive. I promised my brother that he could die knowing that Adam Cartwright was going to die along with him. My brother deserved that much at least.”
She raised herself more erect for she was a tall woman, and broad boned.

To Joe’s eyes, she seemed to fill the room, and the gun pointing at him did nothing to quell his anxiety. When he saw a shadow flit past the doorway, he thought he had imagined it until it took more solid form behind the woman. When he realized it was Adam standing there, he did not know whether to cry out a warning or to exclaim aloud in amazement at the sight of him. As it was his face lost its color and Mrs. Manson smiled, taking such a physical sign as a compliment to herself and her powers to terrify the young man into compliance to her will.

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, that’s what the good book says, isn’t it? It also says a life for a life and that’s my right. My brother’s life in exchange for your brother’s life.” She took a deep breath. “If it hadn’t been for your brother, my brother may have got away with his life. Adam Cartwright’s evidence swung the jury – and I told him to his face that I’d hunt him down and kill him if they brought in a guilty verdict.” Her voice wavered and Joe saw the tears mount into her eyes. For a second or two, he thought she was going to put the gun aside but she was made of far sterner material than he had anticipated and brought the gun back towards his heart. “When they said he was guilty and that he would hang, I thought my world had come to an end. Johnny was like my son; I’d raised him since the age of two as though he were my own. He thought of me as his mother. I couldn’t let him go to the gallows without being avenged. If your brother isn’t here within the next five minutes, then I’ll take you instead. “

“There’s no need – I’m here – behind you.” Adams voice was steel and he saw the shudder run down her back, but she remained standing as he had found her with her gun aimed at Joseph. “Put your gun down, Mrs. Manson”

“Just like that? You expect me to put my gun down as though coming here meant nothing at all, do you? You can shoot me here and now, Adam Cartwright, if you are the kind of man to shoot a woman in the back. But I swear I’ll take your brother with me.”

“I don’t take kindly to anyone aiming a gun at my little brother, whether it’s a man or a woman. Just put the gun down as I ask and….”

“No, no. I’ve thought a lot about this over the past weeks. I promised Johnny he would not die without knowing I’d killed you. But just now, I rather think dying would be too easy; after all, in death you would feel nothing. If I were to take your brother here, however, you would know all about suffering. You would know how I’ve suffered these past weeks and how I’ll suffer for the rest of my life.”

Adams dark eyes flicked over to Joe who was watching him impassively. The younger Cartwright was turning over and over in his own head not only how to deal with this situation, but how it was possible for Adam to be standing there as though the past few weeks had never happened. For the first time in so long, his brother was acting, speaking, thinking and reacting as he would have expected his brother to have done. Yet the transformation had happened so suddenly, so uncomprehendingly swiftly, that he found himself wondering just exactly what bearing the transformation would have on the matter of this crazy woman who had decided to wreak havoc upon either one of them, or, perhaps, both.

“All right. Have it your way. Here’s my gun.” Adam put the gun on the floor and pushed it towards her with his foot. “If you wanted to kill anybody – well, here I am.” He stepped closer toward her, his hands lifted slightly away from his body as he came into her full view.

Now she found herself confronted by them both. She also realized that to dispose of both men was going to present rather more of a problem that she had initially thought. If she shot one, the other could overpower her. Her thoughts flitted across her face as transparently as though they were written on her forehead, and Joe and Adam inched closed together. She was about to open her mouth to bark out some command when the clock downstairs struck the hour, and both men rushed at her together. Her finger brought down the trigger and a shot was fired into the ceiling. She wrestled with them both, and succeeded in kicking Joe away with, for him, an unfortunate blow to the groin.

The last strike of the clock and shots were fired from outside and the sound of glass breaking as a result. Adam wrenched the gun from her grasp and tossed it to one side away from her. More shots were fired and he grabbed at her arm and hauled her to her feet and gave her a fierce shake, much as a terrier would shake a rat once such were caught in its grip.

“Now then, Mrs. Manson, why not go and tell your brothers that this party is over – I presume it is your other brothers you brought along with you?”

“You didn’t think they would stay behind, do you?” She pulled herself free from his grasp and rubbed at her arm which pained her as a result. “There’s nothing to be gained by watching your little brother dance at the end of a rope, you know!” Tears, a woman’s most useful weapon, rose to her eyes and she put a hand to her face to stop them falling.
“For all his failings, Johnny was a good boy until he got in with the likes of that woman and her family!”

“That gave him no right to kill her, Mrs. Manson. Now, let’s go downstairs, and perhaps you could stop those brothers of yours causing more damage “

She could see that both men had relaxed their cautionary stance. Both now saw her as a weak and defenceless woman and were no longer on their guard. With a shriek, she threw herself at Joe, who was the nearest to her, and struck him a blow that sent him reeling into his brother who staggered back against the chest of drawers.

The gun, thrown onto the floor and out of her reach, was forgotten. She picked up the water jug from the stand and threw it at them both, to delay their pursuit as she turned and began to run along the landing and towards the stairs. Adam recovered himself first, and scrabbling to his feet, made haste to catch her. He grabbed at her skirts but they slipped from his fingers. They had reached the top of the stairs when he succeeded in taking hold of her arm and swung her towards him, but she brought a hand smartly down and across his face. Still he held onto her, as she struggled to free herself.

Joe was pounding along the landing now towards them. She screamed, panic stricken, angry with her self for failing to uphold her promise, furious with Adam for surviving, and only too well aware that far away her brother had died for the crimes he had committed. She pulled herself free and ran down the stairs and toward the door.

“Get down!” Adam yelled as shots rang out but she continued in her flight, only aware of the fact that Adam and Joe were close behind her.

Hop Sing, with a rifle at his shoulder, was firing through the broken window in the direction of the shots, letting loose with each volley a stream of Cantonese to go along with it. She ran towards the door, paused momentarily and then ran a few more steps. Then she crumpled suddenly into a heap of dark purple skirt upon the floor.

“She’s been hit!” Joe gasped

“Hop Sing, stop shooting. Perhaps they’ll get the message and have the sense to stop firing themselves,” Adam muttered.

“Do you think she’s dead?”

“Do you want to risk finding out?” Adam snapped back

Joe grinned and his hazel eyes twinkled and he placed his arms around his brother and gave him a hug.

“Hey, you grump, you’re really back,” he chuckled

“Yeah.” Adams dark eyes twinkled and he allowed himself a smile as he disentangled his brother’s arms from around his neck. “Yeah, I’m back!”

*****

It had been a long day. Ben Cartwright poured out strong black coffee into his cup and into those of his sons. He glanced at the three of them and smiled. That ‘Yankee Granite Head’ was back. He inhaled a deep breath of satisfaction and relief and picked up a cup and passed it over to his eldest son with a smile.

“So, what happened?” He glanced at Hoss and Joe and then at Adam again. “What caused you to – to recover like this?”

“I don’t know exactly, Pa. Not in medical terms that is.” Adam frowned and took a sip of the dark brew and then looked up at the dark eyes. “It just happened when I saw Mrs. Manson get out of the buggy. I saw her face….” He frowned and thought back to that moment. “I saw her face and then suddenly I was back in that courtroom, and I saw lots of other faces. Then she was there and saying that she was going to kill me if her brother died. Then suddenly my head just seemed to burst….”

“I thought that had happened a long time ago,” Joe quipped

“It’s hard to describe. I don’t understand it myself, only that suddenly everything I had done, seen, remembered, was being pulled out of my head and in a way – being re-invented – oh, it’s difficult to explain except that it hurt a lot.”

“Do you want Paul to come out and have a look at you, son?”

“No, I’d just like to enjoy an evening with you all, like normal”

“Adam, what did that Johnny Henderson do exactly? Why did Mrs. Manson have to come and try to kill you?” Hoss asked, holding the cup delicately between his strong fingers.

“Johnny Henderson was the lowest of the low. He ran a corrupt business along with his brothers – he got in a bit deeper than he intended. The woman he was dealing with did a deal with someone else, and he found out. He killed her and her child and I just happened to be there when it happened. Mrs. Manson was a good God-fearing woman who couldn’t believe that her family could be as evil as they actually were, and she went on a kind of vendetta to equal the score. That was all.” He put down his cup and looked at them with a smile “How about a game of checkers? Anyone?”

Hoss and Joe glanced at one another

“I – er – I’ve got a date tonight, Adam. Perhaps another time,” he muttered hastily

“Yeah, and I gotta git into town.” Hoss frowned and stood up. “I thought I’d go and see that little filly down at The Bucket of Blood I was telling ya about last week.” He frowned “Do you remember me mentioning her to ya, Adam?”

Adam smiled and leaned back in his chair and half closed his dark eyes. He folded his arms across his chest and nodded.

“Sure, Hoss, I remember. I remember a whole lot of things you told me – “

“You do?” Hoss frowned. “Shucks, Adam.”

“And that Joe called me….:

“Heck, Adam, I was….”

Adam sat back and raised a hand and then stood up. He looked from one to the other of them and smiled slowly, a gentle smile, one that they never thought to see again.

***The End***

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