A World Turned Upside Down (by Krystyna)

Summary:  Little Joe Cartwright can’t believe it when Clay Stafford enters his life again …nor can his brothers for very different reasons. Is Clay back for good? Are his motives honest and above board? And who is the man with whom he keeps in contact?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:  55,450


Joseph Cartwright slapped both knees and raised his head and laughed aloud. His infectious chortle rose loud and clear. It was so hilarious that his brothers began to chuckle along with him. After a moment Hoss, rather embarrassed at his brothers hilarity, gave him a nudge.

“Hey, Joe, I don’t think it was that funny!” he exclaimed, his blue eyes widening as he surveyed his younger brother and all signs of humour dissipating from him all the more quickly as Joe continued to chortle .

“Well, Hoss, you know our little brother, he likes to claw every ounce of whatever’s
going for all its worth.” Adam sighed, stood up and stretched..”As for me, I’m going to bed down.”

“Hey,” Joe stopped laughing, although it was with some difficulty and his facial muscles still twitched “Hey, Hoss, that was jest about the best joke going. Where’d you hear it?”

“Adam told it to me.” Hoss said nonchalantly as he knelt in front of the camp fire and began to make it safe for the night.

“And I heard it from Pa.” Adam drawled, casting his hat onto the ground beside his saddle, and carefully preparing his bedding.

“From PA? You gotta be kidding me?” Joe began to chortle again and shaking his head, he stood up and walked to where he had cast down his saddle “Are you sure you got it from Pa?”

“Well, it was from that guy who lives with us and insists we call him Pa.” Adam lay down and pulled a blanket over his long legs.

“Not that guy with the grey hair and brown eyes and boom of a voice?” Hoss chuckled

“The very same.” Adam yawned

“Hey, he told me a joke the other night.” Joe giggled, pulling out his bed roll and fussing about with it to make sure there were no rocks underneath. “Do you want to hear it?”

“NO!” both his brothers exclaimed loudly and Adam picked up his hat and placed it calmly over his face as though to emphasise that was the end of the subject. Hoss pulled off his boots and tossed them to one side.

“Phwor!” Adam exclaimed “What’s that ?” and he sat bolt upright as though he’d been shot.

“What’s what?” Hoss asked innocently as he rubbed his feet and toes and then scratched his head.

“How can you do that?” Joe exclaimed

“Do what?” Hoss mumbled, yawned, and scratched his chest.

“Scratch your head after you’ve jest handled yer feet! No wonder your hairs falling out.”

“Are you saying my feet smell?” Hoss growled, sidling into his bed roll and flapping out his moth eaten old blanket which brought another wail of dismay from his siblings.

“Hoss, how many times have I told you to get that darn thing washed. Or, better still, get a new one.” Joe groaned “Oh, travelling with you and your feet and your blanket. It’s a nightmare.” he settled his head onto his saddle and sighed, folded his hands behind his head and gazed up at the moon “Hey, this joke I was going to tell you, you’ll jest crease up. Pete and Jake were riding through the salt flats…”

“Pete and Jake who?” Hoss asked as he scratched his chest and then stretched again, raising his hands to the sky and yawning loudly.

“You know. Pete and Jake. They ride the stagecoach normally.” Adam muttered, groping for his hat which once found he once again placed over his face.

“What’re they doin’ then riding through the salt flats?” Hoss pulled at his blanket and frowned when he realised how exposed his feet were going to be as a result.

“They decided to hire two horses …alright? Can I get on with it now?” Joe exclaimed, giving his brother a withering look that in the darkness went unobserved by the other man, who was still adjusting his blanket in an attempt to cover himself all over.

“Get on with what?” Hoss mumbled.

“The joke of course!”

“What joke? I thought you were telling us about Pete and Jake?” came the innocent observation “Ouch, dadburned rock. where’d thet come from?”

“When you two are finished. I’d like to get some sleep sometime tonight!” Adam growled.

“These two men ..”

“What two men?” came Hoss’ immediate rejoinder.

“Are you doing this deliberately, Hoss Cartwright?”

“Doing what?”

“You keep interrupting when I’m trying to tell you a joke.”

“A joke? Is that what it’s meant to be?” Hoss laughed out loud and lay down with a sigh, his blanket up to his chin and his hat closely with his boots. He sniffed , and his blue eyes swivelled from left to right “You know, there’s some kind of odd smell around here? Anyone notice?”

“Well, you’re a good six feet and four inches distance from your feet so it can’t be them.” Adam muttered.

“Yeah, but I’m only six inches from ma boots. Shucks, I hope Butlers Creek has a good public baths.”

“Get some new boots as well.” his elder brother advised.

Joe pulled up the blanket to his shoulders and smiled to himself. It had been a gruelling few weeks away from the Ponderosa but well worth it. The cattle had reached a good price. One of the best years trading in beef they had experienced in some years, and now they were homeward bound.

Evenings like this one, the three of them camped around a fire, exchanging jokes and chatting over any old thing that came to mind, created and strengthened bonds of companionship, loyalty, and brotherly love.

Overhead the stars shone so brightly that where the buttes and trees existed they created vast black depths of nothingness in the pattern of celestial lights. The moon drifted lazily along, obscured at times by drifting cloud and then peeking out again, as though enjoying the nightly ritual of hide and seek.

Joe yawned and thought over the day, smiling at times over odd snippets. He yawned again and turned over and looked at the two dark shapes that indicated where his brothers lay.

“Hey, you two, you asleep yet?” he whispered

“Nearly.” Hoss mumbled, and turned over, bringing his blanket over with him so that the whole of his back was exposed to the chill of the night. “Dangblast it!” he muttered.

“This joke, see, these two men were riding their horses over the salt flats with no water to drink and getting thirstier and thirstier.”

“Is this Pete and Jake agin?” Hoss said, struggling to disentangle himself from his blanket.

“Will you two SHUT UP!”

The flames of the fire gave a final flare, before slowly burning through the wood into grey ash which collapsed into the ash through which only intermittent embers still glowed. Joe sighed and turned onto his back and closed his eyes and smiled

“It was a real good joke.” he mumbled amidst a yawn.

“Tell us in the mornin’…” Hoss whispered.

Overhead a star trailed its dying course across the dark night sky and the moon slid behind dense clouds so that all was covered with even greater darkness than before. Joe felt himself drifting into sleep, the vastness all about him having shrunk into the existence of a mere body in a bedroll.

The sounds of the night were overlaid by the sounds of three men asleep. Night creatures slunk pass the small camp and paused to listen, to sniff and smell the intruders, and to slink back from where they had come. Hoss’ snores reverberated above every other sound, buzzing like a saw mill one minute, snortling like a weary mule the next.

A sidewinder sidled its stealthy approach towards them and paused at the massive boots that was the obstacle to its trail. It hissed softly and coiled its way around them and hurriedly exited into the undergrowth. A night jar paused in its flight and continued on. Within hours the dark sky was a mass of colour, as splashes of pinks and oranges and reds burst upon a purple backdrop. The moon hurried to finalise its course as the sun flashed forth once again.

Chapter 2

Adam lathered his face and surveyed it in the mirror, squinting slightly to get it more into focus, then leaning forwards to adjust its position. Carefully he put the blade to his jaw line and slowly scraped along the surface of the skin, removing stubble with the lather and flicking it away, before dipping the blade into the bowl of water he had by his side and going through the same procedure as before….scrape, flick, dip…scrape, flick, dip…

By the fire Joe was scratching his chest and rubbing sleep from his face and yawning. The coffee pot was boiling and the fire was serving its purpose in cooking breakfast, bacon was sizzling. Hoss pulled on his boots and smacked his lips together and rubbed his face to get some life back into it.

“Shucks, I hardly slept a wink last night.” he groaned.

“You could’ve fooled me,” Joe muttered, putting the ham onto the plates and stirring some beans “Is this all we’ve got to eat?” he asked his elder brother who had been up far earlier to see to the food and his ablutions.

“We’ll get some fresh provisions when we get to Butlers Creek, they’ve a good store there.” Adam replied, finalising his shaving at last and drying his face. He ran a hand over his chin and jaw and surveyed the result closely in the mirror.

“Is there anyone – or rather – any she – in particular you hope to be seeing at Butlers Creek today?” Hoss asked his elder brother with a grin “You seem to be prettying yerself up mighty fine.”

“Well, you just never know.” Adam smiled at his reflection and then put his shaving kit aside and made way for Hoss, who immediately removed the mirror to place it slightly higher. “It’s been about six years since Pa and I first rode into Butlers Creek.” He knelt down and stirred the beans “The doctor there saved Pa’s life when some idiot fired off a gun at us. As we were riding close by Pa wanted us to call in and see the man.”

“Why?” Joe poured out coffee and savoured its bitter aroma “It put an extra two days to our return journey.”

“I think Pa felt he hadn’t shown the townsfolk enough gratitude for what they did,” Adam said quietly, taking the mug that Joe handed over to him “You know how Pa feels about things at times.”

“How big is this town, Adam?” Hoss called out from where he was shaving.

“Well, six years ago there were about 180 people there, but it had a lot of promise. Good land for cattle as well as farming, good forestry, plenty of timber, and there was talk of the railway stopping off there. By now it should be quite a busy, thriving town. Joe, check that ham, huh?”

“Oh boy, I can hardly wait to have a good soak in a good hot bath tub.” Hoss sighed, putting razor to chin and scraping carefully at his lathered skin.

Joe and Adam smiled and looked at one another and raised their eye brows. There was no need to say a word but they were wholeheartedly in agreement , Hoss really did need a good soak in a good hot bath tub!

*****

The three men stared down at the town that was spread out before them as clearly as buildings set out in a toy store. Hoss pushed back his hat and wiped his brow and looked at his brothers,

“Certainly seems to be thriving,” he commented.

“Pa thought it would, the Mayor and council of the town certainly seemed ambitious enough.”

“Hope they’ve a good restaurant.” Hoss grinned, his eyes twinkling at the vision of steak and onions, a rich dark sauce and a mountain of potatoes.

“Public baths first, Hoss” Joe reminded him with a wink and grin over at Adam who
nodded and smiled.

“I am hungry.” Hoss protested wrinkling his brow as though to make sure they realised that fact..

“You am smelly,” mimicked Joe and with a laugh he put heels to his horse. It slid and skidded it’s way down from the track above the buttes that led to the road to Butlers Creek.

It was a large town. It had within it all the smells, noises, sights and sounds of a prospering township. Stores were laden with fine goods which were displayed on stalls or behind large windows for all to see. Hurdy gurdy houses whined out their noises. Restaurants eddied forth sweet enticing smells. From saloons came the ruckus of piano playing, shouting, singing and arguing. Children, free from the days schooling, ran down the sidewalks and in and out of the stores – yelling, shouting, bawling, bags and books swinging by their sides.

Older children walked more sedately, beginning to pair off into couples, shyly walking side by side, hoping to touch hands, and daring one another with coy eyes. Women stood outside the stores gossiping and men lounged outside playing chequers, smoking, dozing or reminiscing. It was just another large town.

The Manager of the hotel gave them keys to the rooms which were found to be clean and modestly furnished and boasted bathrooms at the end of each corridor. Within an hour of booking in the three brothers met in the hallways and looked at one another thoughtfully,

“Metamorphosis,” Adam grinned.

“Really? What was he like?” Hoss asked, brushing a speck of dust from his sleeve

“No, you idiot, not met a morphosis, “ Joe exclaimed, raising his eyes to heaven in despair “Meta-morphosis!”

“Yeah, I know. I heard what he said jest as clear as you did!” Hoss frowned and glanced at his reflection in the mirror and grinned at the sight of the three of them “Hey, some change huh?”

“Yeah, some change!” Adam chuckled and led the way out of the hotel.

“Where to now?” Joe glanced left and right and then looked at his brother “Didn’t you
want to go and see your doctor Fleming?”

“He died two years ago.” Adam replied “The hotel receptionist told me when we booked in.”

“Huh, so coming here is just a waste of time then.”

“Well, at least we can enjoy ourselves while we are here.” Adam said quietly, watching a young woman who had just stepped out of the hardware store stroll along the sidewalk opposite them.

“I guess we could at that,” Joe grinned, his eyes following the direction of his brothers but his legs moving faster
.
“I’m going to eat,” Hoss declared “I’m so hungry I could eat Hop Sing if he stood still long enough for me to put him in the oven.”

Adam nodded and smiled as he watched Joe pause mid way across the street and turn back to join them. The pretty young woman had been joined by a hefty young man and the way they interlinked their arms was a clear indication that Joe’s attentions would be highly unwelcome

*****

The saloon was called “New Orleans Belle”, a name that was an immediate draw and enticement to Joe, who insisted that they spent the first hour of the evening there at least.
The smog of countless cigarettes, cheroots and cigars, being puffed by a variety of the towns personnel was the first thing to greet them as they pushed open the door and made their way into the saloon.

A woman wearing scarlet and black and with dyed red hair into which she had struck a scarlet feather eyed the three of them up and down as they made their way to the counter. She was draped rather languidly over a piano listening to the attempts of the pale faced greasy haired youth as he keyed some long forgotten melody from the ancient instrument. She removed the cigarette from her lips and stood upright with some effort, for it was as though the piano itself was her sole means of support. Slowly she made her way over to the three brothers and stood by the side of the tallest, and biggest..

“Staying here long?”

“Nope…three beers, bar tender…thanks…”

“Where you staying?”

“At the hotel over the road. Excuse me, ma’am,” he took his beer and followed his brothers to the table, slopping some over his hand as he sat down.

He glanced nervously over his shoulder and then grimaced at his brothers. Some women gave him the creeps. Joe suppressed a giggle and nudged his brothers foot as the woman once again strolled slowly towards them,

“Hey, Hoss..I reckon she has her eye on you!” he whispered “Whatcha gonna do about it,
huh?”

“Shucks!” Hoss buried his face into his glass and quaffed deeply. The woman, not having a piano nearby, now decided Hoss was the perfect replacement and draped herself over
him.

Adam winced and glanced over at Joe, but Joe was finding it too amusing to think of his brothers feelings. There were times when Joe’s sense of fun over ruled his sense of compassion, and he’d forget how easily embarrassed his older brother could get at times. Hoss glanced warily out of the corner of his eye and swallowed a gulp in his throat

“Huh, miss…I huh I ..”

“I’d love to join you…” she said quietly, sat down on the spare seat and smiled at the three of them. The three of them smiled back and grabbed their glasses instinctively, as though they were the only means to create some form of barrier between her and them

“Make mine a whiskey.,” she called over to the bartender who nonchalantly complied and bore the amber liquid to their table within seconds. “My names Millie Fleming” she glanced over at them “So? You don’t intend to be staying here long then?”

“Nope. Fact is, our stays getting shorter all the time.” Hoss mumbled, looking desperately at Adam. Surely his quick thinking brother could see some way of helping him out of this.

“What are you? Cowpokes? Salesmen?” she screwed up her face as the whiskey trickled down her throat. Joe winced, he found it distasteful to watch women down drinks like some thirst ridden cowboy. He glanced around to see if there was any other means of getting away from her.

“Fleming? Any relation to the doctor who died two years back?” Adam asked quietly.

“My husband.” she shrugged “I know, how the mighty are fallen.” she sighed and glanced down at her tawdry dress “Harold would have a fit if he saw me now, but there was nothing else I could do. Life isn’t always kind, especially when your husbands some kind of saint and dies leaving you without a brass nickel to survive on. Another whiskey.” she called over to the bartender.

The three brothers glanced at one another and along with their irritation with her was now the feeling of sympathy, which was a nuisance as it now made it more difficult to leave the table and go elsewhere.

“Mrs Fleming, don’t you think..”

“Mrs Fleming?” she laughed, chortled, cackled. Her fingers curled around the glass as though her life depended on the next shot of whiskey it contained, she raised it to her lips and then lowered it, untouched, to the table “Mrs Fleming. Oh, I can’t remember the last time anyone around here called me that, and with any respect.”

“Your husband saved our Pa’s life some years ago. I don’t recall ever meeting you though.” Adam frowned “I thought he was a bachelor.”

“He was until he made the mistake of marrying me” she frowned and stared into the glass “Or maybe I made the mistake of marrying him.” she glanced up and smiled at Adam and then at Joe. She lurched forward suddenly, and her long fingers caressed the side of Joe’s face “You’re a pretty looking dude, aintcha? You remind me of someone.” she frowned and then looked at Adam “So Harold saved your Pa’s life. How long ago was that?”

“About six years ago.”

“Six years?” she raised her eyes to his level and stared into the dark face and smiled. “Six years ago I was teaching school. Five years ago I married Harold. Two years ago I was widowed. Last year I started working here. Had to sell everything. Nothing left.” she drank down the whiskey in the same manner as the one previous, and then turned to the bartender and raised the glass. Gently Hoss put a hand on her arm and lowered it .

“Why not jest leave it at thet one, for the time bein’, ma’am” he said very quietly

She had been pretty once. Joe, sitting opposite her and nursing his glass of beer, tried to imagine what she had looked like as a teacher, facing a school room of bright eyed eager children. Her hair was obviously dyed red, and was too harsh for her complexion. Behind the powder and the scarlet slash of a mouth and the bright paint on her eyes, perhaps she was still attractive. He sighed and raised his glass to his lips

“Feeling sorry for me, are you, handsome?” she was looking fixedly at him, her bright hard green eyes bore into his and he felt the colour flushing up under his collar at her scrutiny “P’raps I should have jest introduced meself as Millie. Millie who likes whiskey, Millie who likes more whiskey. Just plain Millie.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but…”

“You know,” she flicked long fingers in his direction and anticipating the touch of them on his skin once again, he flinched back “You DO remind me of someone, but, can’t think who it could be jest awhile,” she frowned and then looked at Hoss and Adam “So you three are brothers, huh?”

“Yes, ma‘am.” Hoss murmured and raised his eyebrows at his brothers and gave a half grin.

“You don’t look alike.”

“Shucks, ma’am, that ain’t our fault” Hoss took a swig from his glass “Anyhows time we were moseying on.”

“Yeah, best to go now,” Joe picked up his hat and stood up “Thanks for the company, Miss Millie.”

Adam stood up and reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an envelope.

“Mrs Fleming, our Pa wanted your husband, Dr. Fleming to have this, as you’re his next of kin, I guess it rightly belongs to you.”

“What is it?” she reached for it suspiciously.

“Well, Doctor Fleming wanted to build a hospital here. Pa always felt that he never thanked him, Doctor Fleming, enough for saving his life and wanted to make a donation.”

“You mean, there’s money in here?” the colour rose to her face, and the brittle eyes filled with tears “Real money?”

“Yes, ma’am, real money.”

“But…” she stared at the envelope without moving, without even being aware that Hoss had stood up and was about to leave the table and that Joe had moved away. She looked up at the man dressed in black and swallowed hard, before handing the envelope back, “Take it back, mister. Thank your Pa for thinking, an’ all the rest of it, but Harold’s dead, and his dream died a long way back. There ain’t no hospital here.”

“You could get one started, a hospice perhaps.”

“A hospice?” she gave a short bark of a laugh and shook her head “ Go outside and look around, young man, this ain’t the kind of town that spends money on things like hospices. Harold’s dream died when the gunslingers moved in, and the card sharks, and the hurdy gurdy houses and everything else. Good men moved out as bad men moved in. People didn’t die of sickness and old age here anymore, they got shot down or stabbed or had strange fatal accidents on dark nights. Harold and I, we spent all we could on trying to keep things going decently, but where did it end up? He’s dead. And I’m here. and I’m too skeered to take that money because, because it would probably kill me before I spent it all.” she looked at him again and smiled sadly, a soft gentle smile that revealed the gentleness still existing behind the façade “Thank your Pa. You can see what kind of person I am now. I dare not even dream of my Harold now, he would not like the kind of person I have become…”

“Then take the money and move out. Move somewhere else.” Joe blurted out.

“You’re an impetuous one,” she chuckled, giving him a flash of her green eyes and she frowned and stood up, a trifle unsteadily “It’s too late for me, dear, too late. Where would I move to anyway?” she shrugged “I can’t move myself from myself, can I?”

“That’s one sad lady.” Hoss said quietly as they watched her make her unsteady way back to the piano.

“Well, at least she was decent about the money” Joe muttered.

Adam merely sighed and put the envelope back into his pocket. Hoss gave his brother a pat on the back,

“I’m going to turn in…” he said quietly.

“I’ll see you later then.”

Adam nodded and walked to the counter and turned to look for Joe “You staying, little brother?”

Joe said nothing. He was standing with his back to Adam, facing the far corner of the room. At the table were five men, one of whom had a young woman draped over him in a possessive attitude. But it was not the girl that Joe was looking at and watching…

“Joe? I said, are you staying?”

Adam turned to look at his brother but Joe was now walking, as though in a dream, towards the far corner of the room, towards the five men and the woman. The woman looked up and smiled, but it was not the woman that Joe was looking at and watching.

Chapter 3

“Joe? Are you alright?” Adams voice floated through the air and hung there an instant of time as he carried on walking towards the table, towards the man with the woman draped over him. But now she was standing up and stepping back, as though the approach of the strangers towards this man during a card game was nothing new to her.
“Aces high. Your deal.”

“Count me out.”

“You dealing?”

“Nope”

“I raise you five hundred?”

“Can’t match it. Count me out.”

“What about you?”

Joe stepped forward and turned. The woman stepped back and away from them and the five men at the table froze. When a man steps up to a gambler with a white face and set mouth, with eyes blazing with emotion or dead with dread, there was every reason to expect trouble. The gambler put his cards down and placed his hands flat on the table. He raised his eyes to meet those of the youth who stood before him and the colour drained from his face.

“Joseph Cartwright?” he murmured, staring at the youth with disbelief.

“Clay Stafford?” Joe murmured, staring at the older man “Clay?”

They held one another in a close embrace as only brothers could and would after time apart. Joe felt the tears prickling his eyelids and fought to prevent any from spilling over. It never did to expose one’s vulnerability to the world of strangers, but he held Clay tightly and whispered, with a croak in his voice “I never thought I would ever see you again”

“Nor I, Joe. I thought you‘d never want to see me again.” Clay stepped back and held his younger brother at arms length and shook his head in disbelief “Is it really you?” and then pulled him close in another hug “How’d you know I was here?”

“We didn’t, we had to come here on an errand for Pa.” Joe took a deep breath and shook his head “Clay. I thought you were dead.”

“Not quite, sometimes nearly, sometimes almost, but never quite.” Clay chuckled and turned as he sensed the other man standing close behind him. He knew there would be no hugs or tears from this man, but the handshake was warm and genuine “Good to see you again, Adam.”

“And to see you.”

Hoss, who had stepped back from leaving, now stepped forward and extended his hand which was shaken with more enthusiasm.

“I reckon Pa will be over the moon when he sees us ride in with you,” Hoss declared.

Clay paused, glanced at each one of the brothers in turn, and then smiled a flashing bright smile, his eyes twinkled,

“I hope so.” Clay laughed, clutching at Joe’s arm “I sure hope so.”

*****

The room where Clay lodged was indicative of a man who was just passing through. They took seats around a table and Clay poured out drinks and then sat down with a smile on his lips and a twinkle in the dark eyes, very similar in shape and colour to those of his younger brother.

“I was going to come back to give you something, Joe” he drawled slowly “Or had you forgotten that I made a promise to you some time back?”

“I hadn’t forgotten” Joe replied and looked at his brother somewhat shyly as Clay placed the framed picture of Marie Cartwright on the table. He picked it up reverentially and swallowed the lump in his throat “Shucks, somehow I guess I never thought to be seeing this again.”

“Takes more than a Mexican revolution to get rid of me, brother,” and he raised his glass and then took a gulp.

“We hadn’t heard for so long, we did wonder that perhaps something had happened to you,” Adam said quietly “You had promised to keep in touch, if I remember rightly?”

“That’s true and I apologise for being so remiss in my letter writing,” Clay smiled, softening the sarcasm in his voice as he did so. He looked fondly at Joseph who was still gazing longingly at the picture of his mother, “Is she still as beautiful as you remember ?” he asked gently.

“Every bit as much,” Joe’s voice wobbled a little and he took a deep breath before he faced Clay and looked at his brother again more closely. Still handsome, still debonair, with the same rebellious mass of hair as himself, with the same shaped eyes and chin. But that was where the resemblance ended for the other man was taller, thicker set, and more rugged in features. His hands were more elegant too, unlike Joe’s. Clay had hands like his mother, with long fingers, good for dealing out cards, he had once boasted. “So? What happened? How long have you been back in here?”

“Well, I guess a lot’s happened over the past few years” Clay said in the tone of voice that Adam recognised as that of a person stalling for time to think out a story, or two.

“Yeah, but you said you’d write.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m hopeless at writing anyway, and a Mexican battlefield was hardly conducive to putting pen to paper at the best of times.” He looked at his brother and shook his head “You look so well, Joe, things have been good for you, huh?”

“I guess so. Even better if you’d been there, Clay.”

Adam and Hoss said nothing but took their glasses and sipped their drinks and glanced at one another. Adam put his glass down and stood up, cleared his throat and smiled in rather a shy manner,

“Look, Hoss and I reckon we’d better leave you to two to talk and get reacquainted. We’ll catch up with you in the morning.”

“Yeah,” Hoss stood up hurriedly, knocking into the table and spilling the glasses over a little, “We’ll see you in the morning, Joe. Clay.”

“Good idea,” Joe bounced up with enthusiasm and shook their hands, “See you both later.”

*****

On the landing the two brothers looked at one another and Hoss sighed “Well, he seemed happy enough to see us go.”

“Yeah, well,” Adam slapped his big brother on the shoulder “It’s his brother.” he smiled, “Let’s go some place and have a drink?”

“Nope, I’d rather just go and bed down.”

“I won’t argue about that,” Adam smiled and together they left the boarding house and walked to their hotel. Two tall men casting long shadows across the main street as the moon beamed benevolently down upon them. Both thinking thoughts along the same lines but hesitating in discussing them with the other.
In the room they had just vacated, Clay nursed his glass and walked over to the couch and slumped down on it, he looked over at Joe and smiled and beckoned to him to join him.

“You know Benito Jaurez became the first indian President of Mexico in’61”

“Yeah, I read about it in the news tabloids.” Joe glanced over at Clay and frowned “I thought you would be coming home then, but when there was no news from you, I…we…feared the worse.”

“Oh, I stayed in Mexico for about six months. The Spanish don’t like to let go of things that easily, you know,” he smiled dryly “Then I travelled back to New Orleans, to see the family there.”

“You did?” Joe frowned, and looked down at his boots. He could remember, with all the tenacity of a besotted youth, the day when Clay had promised to take him back to New Orleans with him. He glanced up and saw from Clay’s face that his brother was recalling that same promise for Clay was biting his bottom lip thoughtfully “And, and how did you get on there? Was everyone alright?”

“Things are different there now. A lot different. I left as soon as I could to get back to Nevada. I thought I’d surprise you but instead -.” he gestured with his right hand, carving an arc in the air to express some emotion at having seen them at the saloon.

“Yeah, I guess that was a surprise, seeing us there.”

“Joe, things aren’t good down south just now. I couldn’t take you down there. And I didn’t want to get involved in things so shot back here as soon as I could.”

“You mean…you’ve been here before?”

“No, I meant, I came back this away, to get back to Nevada.”

Joe nodded and settled back against the couch “Tell me about Mexico? Was there much fighting? What was Juarez like? Did you see him?”

“Of course I saw him.” Clay laughed again and leaned forward “I’ll tell you what happened once…” And Joe leaned back and listened as his brother told him one of his adventures on the battlefield, which wasn’t so much a battlefield as a scrimmage in a small Mexican village but to the ears of the besotted youth it sounded a glorious adventure. As Clays voice rose and fell so Joe could see it all happening before his very eyes, yet, best of all, it was Clay recounting the adventure, it was Clay, sitting there in front of him, alive and coming home.

Chapter 4

Adam glanced up from the plate of ham and eggs and surveyed Joe as his brother walked thoughtfully into the hotel’s dining room. Hoss, a fork of ham mid way to his mouth, paused and looked over at Joe and smiled

“You were late back,” he observed kindly.

“I did say I wouldn’t see you until the morning” Joe replied, pulling out a chair and sitting down at the table.

“Have a pleasant evening?” Adam passed over the plate of ham

“Yeah…”

“Talked over a lot of things, I imagine.”

“Yeah, we did.”

“How many eggs do you want?”

“Oh, just two will do.” Joe frowned and stared at the eggs as though he had never seen one before in his life.

“What’s Clay intending on doing?”

“What do you mean?” Joe glanced up, his eyes narrowed as though unsure as to the true meaning of the question.

“I meant , what is Clay going to do now? Will he be travelling back with us or coming later?”

“He’s got things to finish off here first. Said he’d come later,” Joe surveyed his plate and smiled, for the first time since he had joined them at the table his eyes shone and there was a genuine pleasure in the big grin he gave them “Hey, won’t it be exciting having Clay at home? There’ll be the four of us,” he paused then and sighed “Do you think he’ll stay?”

“Do you?”

Hoss frowned and looked from one to the other. Then he picked up the coffee pot and poured his little brother a cup of the hot bitter brew and smiled,

“Sure was a surprise! Who’d have thought we would have found Clay sitting in that thar saloon.”

“Yeah, when you think of all the other saloons we could have gone into,” Adam drawled while his eyes never left Joe’s face “Are you alright, Joe?”

Such a question , so gently asked from his eldest brother, made Joe blink and he looked at Adam in surprise,

“Yeah, sure I’m alright. I guess I jest can’t believe it, is all.” he grinned “I woke up during the night thinking I had been dreaming. All the times I’ve hoped to see Clay again, and have him at home. My own brother.” he frowned thoughtfully, unaware of the pain that he had just caused his other two brothers who struggled to be generous and imagine for themselves the pleasure of their younger brother. “I hope he settles. Pa will be so pleased to have him back. It’ll no doubt remind him of Ma.” he put down his fork and shook his head “Heck, I feel so tight. So kind of excited I can hardly breathe right. I wish Ma were here to see him home with us.”

Hoss glanced at his plate and frowned. He wondered just how Marie would have felt having a son return to the fold whom she had been denied seeing and about whom so many lies had been spun. It had been a heartbreaking relationship and one that had caused nothing but grief to all concerned, to Clay’s mother, as well as to Clay’s father. He glanced once again over at Adam who was steadily eating through his meal as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

Marie. Hoss pulled over a bread roll and broke it thoughtfully. He remembered when he was small and the first meal he had ever shared with her. He had been that nervous that he had spilled most of it down his lap, and when he had reached out for the bread rolls the whole platter of them had tumbled all over the table and bounced onto the floor and he had leaned over to catch some and toppled off his chair banging his head as a result, She had reached up instinctively and caught him in her arms and held him close and hugged him and told him,

“It’s alright, mon cher, nothing broken. See, Mama will kiss it all better for you,” and she had, and he could remember, even now, the sweet smell of her perfume, and the softness of her body as he snuggled into her. He could remember looking over at his brother and seeing the same shut off look on his face as there was now.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Joe said, nudging him slightly so that the bread roll fell from his fingers and rolled in the direction of their elder brother who caught it deftly and returned it to Hoss with a smile.

“I was jest remembering….”

“Remembering what?”

“Your Ma.”

“Our Ma,” Joe frowned, always uncomfortable when distinctions were made between the mothers. Our Ma, your Ma, his Ma. He smiled at Hoss then, “What about her?”

“Oh, just how sweet she smelled and how soft she felt when she cuddled yah,” Hoss lowered his face so that no one could overhear from the other tables, “She made Pa happy.” and he glanced over at Adam.

Adam nodded and continued to eat his breakfast, but his mind wandered a little now. Yes, she had made Pa happy. He recalled the first time she saw the snow on the Ponderosa and how the lake had frozen and how she had insisted they went skating. He remembered how Ben had fallen on the ice. She had skated over to him and pulled at his hands and he had pulled at hers and she had slid down by his side so that the two of them had sat there holding hands and laughing. Then there had been snow ball fight on the way back and the laughter. For a serious little boy like Adam Cartwright it had been the laughter that had captured his heart.

He had gone to bed that night and remembered days of laughter with Inger. How he had loved to wake up each morning to hear her sing and laugh. Then she had died and the laughter had died too, until Marie had come and brought with her that gift. A gift passed on to her son, and he glanced over at Joe and smiled tenderly at him and nodded,

“So what are you intending on doing, Joe?”

“What do you mean, Adam?” Joe replied, rather defensively

“Well, do you ride home with us or stay back here and come with Clay?”

The colour mantled Joe’s face like a girls, and he laughed self consciously

“You mean that? Shucks, I was plucking up the courage to ask ..if you’d mind…”

“Joe, whatever makes you happy” Adam smiled again although he didn‘t risk taking his eyes from his plate in case he chanced to catch those of Hoss.

“Yeah, Joe…whatever makes you happy.” Hoss repeated, but he didn’t smile. Something had touched his heart, and the tenderness there was bruised, just a little.

Chapter 5

“Now, you’re sure you don’t mind?” Joe asked again as his eyes roamed from one face to the other as his mind tried to work out what really lay behind the smiles that seemed to be plastered onto his brothers faces.

“We’ll see you back home, both of you.” Adam smiled at Joe and extended his smile to Clay, who was standing by his brothers side, looking handsome and smart in his dark jacket, white shirt and string tie. He struck out his hand and Clay took it, shook it warmly, “Take care,” he said, but his eyes looked into Clays and Clay nodded, knowing exactly what Adam meant, take care of our brother, and he gripped Adams hand tighter in acknowledgment.

“See you back home.” Hoss gave his little brother a friendly cuff on the shoulder and then shook Clays hand. He turned to Chubb and took his leads and was about to mount into the saddle when there was a soft ‘ahem’ from the livery stable door.

The woman stood there dressed in a travelling suit with a carpet bag at her feet. She wore a small neat bonnet on her head, and although the hair was still too red to be real, it was smartly arranged and framed her face modestly.

“Mrs Fleming?” Adam asked hesitantly.

“Yes,” the woman took a deep breath “Yes, Mrs Fleming.” she stepped forward and extended her gloved hand “I took a good look at myself last night. Not just in the mirror either,” she lowered her eyes and frowned “I thought about what you said, about moving on.”

“Is that what you’re going to do?”

“Yes, even if you don’t let me have the money now. I want to make a new start.” She glanced up “I can still teach. It wasn’t that long ago that I gave it up to marry Harold. So I could get back to it easily enough. But, I needed someone to give me the necessary push. I could never do it here in this town.”

“So, where do you intend to go?”

“There’s a stage leaving for Guthrie this lunch time.” she looked up at him pleadingly and then shrugged, “I know it’s asking a lot but…”

“I understand,” Adam looked at her thoughtfully, and considered the situation for barely a moment, everyone deserves a chance surely? He took the envelope out of his pocket and handed it to her “I hope you get a lot of happiness in your life, ma’am.”

“I really, really promise you. I’ll do all I can to do the best I can. Thank you so much.” and rather shyly she stood on tip toe to kiss him on the cheek before hurriedly picking up her bag and leaving the stables.

“You did the wrong thing there.” Clay said quietly “She’ll go to the first saloon she comes to and drink the lot”

“I hope not.” Adam said as he put his foot into the stirrup and mounted up into the saddle.

“Millie Fleming and whiskey are synonymous.” Clay murmured.

“She seemed a nice lady,” Hoss muttered, pulling Chubb around so that he could mount up.

“You didn’t think so last night.” Clay smiled.

“People can change, given the chance.” Hoss replied and looked hard at Clay who merely smiled and nodded in agreement.

Hoss rode slowly behind his brother out from the stables. People do change and he remembered when Clay had first arrived at the Ponderosa and Ben, urged on by himself and Adam, had a check made on the claimant of kinship. It had revealed a slightly shady past, and a death caused by an accusation of cheating against Clay. He had denied cheating, acknowledged the killing, and they had taken him on trust. He glanced back over his shoulder and felt another pang to the heart as he saw Clay give Little Joe a warm close hug.

You have to trust people he told himself. It had been an adage that he had lived by all his life. He had to trust and always did trust, in fact, his ability to be too trusting had led him into some foolish enterprises in his life. Now he felt ashamed of himself because the one person he should trust now, he just felt like holding back, saying “Hang on there. Summit ain’t right!” when really, he should be welcoming Clay Stafford with open arms.

They passed a stagecoach on the way out of town. A woman with a worn carpet bag was being helped into the coach by the driver, and her smile as they passed was worth every dollar in that envelope. Millicent Fleming settled back against the seat and clasped her hands in her lap and took a deep breath. She had not even opened the envelope. It could have contained just one dollar or a hundred or a thousand. It made no difference now. She had made her decision and when the stagecoach lurched forward she wanted to throw her hat in the air and yell along with the driver. She just could not get out of that town quick enough! Away from the saloons and the whiskey soaked men. Away from the card sharps and the floosies who hung around them. Away from Millie Fleming…

Chapter 6

Ben Cartwright threw open the door as soon as he heard the sound of approaching horses. It had seemed to him a long month without the boys around and although the cable from Adam confirming details of the cattle auction had pleased him, the following wait had seemed never ending.

Hop Sing also ran into the room, looked at Bens face and saw the pleasure on it, and then returned promptly to the kitchen, knowing from long experience, how hungry one particular Cartwright always was as soon as he returned home.

Ben’s smile wavered slightly as he noted the return of not three, but two, of his sons. The smiles on their faces and the pleasure that was obvious to anyone slightly reassured him, but even so he ventured out onto the porch and was soon striding towards the stable where Chubb and Sport were being unsaddled and led into their stalls by their masters.

“Welcome home, boys..” Ben smiled and opened his arms in a gesture of welcome,
“Er…where’s Joseph?”

“He’ll be coming home a bit later, Pa,” Adam pulled away Sports bridle and bit, and hung them on their customary hook, and he glanced warily over at Hoss who was leading Chubb towards a bag of hay, “We – er – met up with someone in Butlers Creek”

“Dr Fleming?”

“No, he’s dead, we met his wife though, gave her the envelope as she was next of kin,” and again Adam glanced warily over at his brother who was now carefully checking over Chubb, and running his large gentle hands down the animals forelegs as though to satisfy himself that his horse was really home safe and sound.

“You’ve not got much to say for yourself, Hoss?” Ben said quietly, having noted the glances Adam had cast his brothers way “Anyone would think you weren’t pleased to come home.”

“I’m sure enough pleased, Pa.” Hoss glanced up and grinned at his father, his blue eyes twinkling “Hop Sing getting dinner ready?”

“He certainly is,” Ben smiled.

“Shucks, I’m so hungry I could eat a mule and its saddle.”

“Well, I’m glad that something hasn’t changed,” Ben muttered as Hoss breezed past his father towards the house, rubbing his hands in anticipatory pleasure.

“We – er-” Adam rubbed the back of his neck and screwed up his eyes thoughtfully as he surveyed the retreating back of his ‘big’ brother “Pa, we met up with Clay”

“Clay? You mean Marie’s boy?” Ben looked at Adam with round eyes, near black eyes that suddenly seemed to darken even more so “Clay Stafford?”

“Yep” Adam shrugged “By the oddest coincidence we walked into the very saloon where he was…”

“Card dealing?”

“Mmmm!” Adam frowned and thought back to the scene of that evening and the way Joe seemed almost hypnotised by the sight of the gambler dealing cards at the far corner table
“Joe recognised him rightaway.”

“And that’s where Joe is now, with Clay?”

“He wanted to come back with Clay,” Adam paused and looked at his fathers face thoughtfully “He was pretty overwhelmed, Pa. It was quite a shock for him, after all, Clay is important to him”

“I know, I know.” Ben reassured his son, and smiled thinly “And was Clay pleased to see him?”

“Yeah, I reckon he was, surprised, but pleased”

“And he was intending to come here anyway, was he?”

“So he said.”

“I see,” Ben frowned and glanced over to the house “And what about Hoss? How does he feel about it?”

“What do you mean, Pa?” Adam pulled down a net of hay for Sport and stroked the animals soft nose affectionately,

“It seems to me that Hoss isn’t quite his usual self.”

“He’s tired, Pa. We did the last three days travel in two, you know.” he joined his father at the stable door and walked alongside him to the house. They walked in unison, their feet rising and falling together, two tall men who, despite the span of years between them, were bound together with an inseparable bond, not only of blood and love, but of purpose and quality.

“Hoss doesn’t mind Clay coming back here?” Ben turned to look into Adams face, the dark penetrating glance from the black eyes that warned Adam now was not the time to prevaricate.

“I don’t know, Pa, I guess we never got round to talking about it,” he glanced down and frowned thoughtfully and then glanced up and smiled “Anyway, let’s wait and see how things go when they come back.”

“So. There is a problem then?”

“I didn’t say there was.”

Ben said nothing to that, but growled deep in his throat and pushed open the door. Behind him Adam was already unbuckling his gun belt, and listening to the sounds of Hop Sings merry chatter as the Cartwrights cook prepared the next meal with the sole ambition of pleasing Hoss.

Adam smiled to himself and hung up his hat and gun belt and strolled into the room. Ben was already at his desk, checking over some figures in the ledger, he glanced up with dark eyes at his eldest son and nodded

“So how is he?”

“Who?” Adam raised his dark eyebrows questioningly.

“Clay, of course!” Ben retorted sharply, perhaps more sharply than he intended for he cast his eyes back down to look at the ledger.

“Oh, I thought,” Adam glanced over his shoulder and then back to his father.

“I’ll talk to Hoss when he eventually emerges from the kitchen.”

“Well, Clay looked well, much the same as ever really.”

“Why’d he leave Mexico?”

“Juarez is President now, and after about 6 more months in the Mexican army I gather Clay decided he was of no more use so decided to return home”

“Here you mean?”
“No, he went back to New Orleans”

“I thought he’d promised Joe that he would come back here.” Ben scowled, chewing the fleshy part of his thumb.

“Well, people promise things and situations change, Pa.”

“Clay is not people, he’s Joe’s own flesh and blood and he should have realised that when you make promises to your kin, you keep them.” Ben’s voice deepened a tone.

“Joe didn’t seem to mind, not as much as you seem to,” Adam replied, and perched himself on the corner of the big desk, and folded his arms across his chest.

“That’s because he’s got caught up emotionally and can’t see the wood for the trees”

“Oh, is that what you call it?”

“What do you mean?

“Well, Clay may have made a promise in good faith at the time, and he may have intended to honour it, in due course. But you seem pretty sore about it yourself?”

“Adam, when a promise is made…”

“I know, Pa. I know,” Adam straightened up and walked stiffly to his chair, rubbing the back of his neck as he did so.

He was tired and ached from the long ride home. They had travelled fast, both of them feeling the desire to get home as soon as they could, neither of them being able to explain exactly why. But it had been hard going, and he longed to soak in a tub and eat a pleasant meal with his family and then sink into his own bed. He smiled at the thought of it, and then sighed, as he reminded himself he was in mid conversation with his father. He sat down and stretched out his long legs and stared into the fire,

“Clay isn’t a Cartwright, Pa.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Just that we can’t expect him to live by Cartwright standards when he isn’t a Cartwright,” Adam replied, his eyes fixed rigidly on the spines of the books that he could see in the bookcase.

“He’s part of this family,” came the instant reply.

Adam sighed and imagined his father clenching his fist as he spoke and he slowly shook his head,

“He’s not a Cartwright,” he repeated.

“If he thinks he’s going to live here -.”

“Pa!” Adam turned to look at his father who was now standing up and staring thoughtfully and with creased brow into space, “Pa, if he chooses to live here as a member of the family, so be it, but it won’t turn him into a Cartwright overnight. Recall when he first arrived here and we had that check run on him? You told us that he had left home when he was a kid of 16 and had been travelling ever since, living by his wits and abilities as a gambler. Considering that kind of history you seemed pretty much impressed by him that time, there was no high expectations from or of him, so why are you being so heavy about it now?”

Ben nodded thoughtfully and sat down in his chair opposite that of his sons, he stroked his chin for a while and stared into the fire and then nodded again

“You’re right, Adam. For a man who had to live by his wits for so long, he had good principles in the main, and I felt he was well intentioned. I guess it’s just seeing Hoss so, well, so distant and quiet. It made me wonder exactly what had happened back there.”

“Nothing happened.”

“Then,” Ben frowned and leaned forward “I know Clay isn’t a Cartwright, but he is Marie’s son.”

“Sure, but he never lived with her and never knew the kind of standards and principles by which she lived, Pa. In fact, from what his grand parents told him, his principles were a darn sight higher than hers.”

“You’re right, again.” Ben replied after a pause that lasted long enough for his son to wonder if he had said a trifle too much. Such comments regarding Marie’s past were often occasions for a Cartwright explosion of verbal rhetoric. But Ben smiled gently and looked at his son fondly “Adam, do you think he’ll settle here alright?”

“I don’t see why not. Given the chance.” Adam replied quietly.

“Well, as he is Marie’s son, “ Ben repeated, “he has every right to that chance, and, by George, he’ll get it.”

The clatter of dishes and cutlery indicated that a meal was about to be served up and Adam quickly made his excuses so that he could clean up before the meal. He ached all over and wished that they had taken the journey a little slower. He could hear Hoss talking in a low voice to his father, and although tempted to return downstairs he made his way to his room to refresh himself. Hoss meanwhile was sitting astride the arm of once of the big chairs and listening to his father whilst his mind was drifting from one thing to another, and they always seemed to drift back to the one subject….Clay Stafford.

“I’m sorry, Pa. What did you say?”

“Do you mean I have to repeat myself a third time?”

“Shucks, I didn’t hear you the first time, Pa.”

“Do you want to go and see Paul tomorrow, Hoss….to make sure you haven’t anything wrong with your ears?”

“There ain’t nuthin’ wrong with muh ears, pa!”

“There’s isn’t? Then tell me, son, what is wrong?”

Hoss’ blue eyes widened and then narrowed, he looked thoughtfully at his father and then at the flames nibbling the logs in the fire, and he sighed and stood up, rubbing his big hands up and down the sides of his legs

“Shucks, pa, I don’t reckon on knowin’ muhself for sure…”

“Then just guess at it…”

“I jest bin feelin’ outa sorts, is all. Guess I need some of Hop Sings food inside of me.”

“Are you sure that is all, Hoss? It isn’t the fact that Clay’s coming here, is it?”

“Clay? Shucks, no, Pa.” He frowned then and did an about turn and sat down opposite his father in the chair Adam had just vacated “Well, mebbe a smidgin’”

“What’s worrying you, Hoss?”

“That’s jest it, Pa, I don’t know.”

“We’ve had others come and stay here, made them feel welcome, haven’t we?”

“Sure thing, and that’s rightly so, Pa, that’s how it should be alright.” Hoss nodded his head, and clasped his hands together, folding them in his lap as he did so.

“And you’ve always been mighty generous in that respect, son.”

“I don’t intend not to be generous even in this respect , Pa.” Hoss replied, looking intently at his father.
“But?” Ben leaned forward, his dark eyes looking fondly into the eyes of his son.

“But, well, Clay ain’t a bird with a broken wing, Pa, nor a hoss with colic nor any sich dumb crittur as needs help, is he?”

“No,” Ben said very quietly, smiling at his son who was desperately struggling to find all the right words.

“And he ain’t a stranger driven in for the sake of danger to his life, or because of loss of home or kin.”

“I guess not,” Ben’s smile wavered.

“The fact is last time he came here we had that search done on him, right?”

“Right?”

“And he didn’t come out of it that well, if’n I recall rightly.”

“He’s had a different life style to you boys, that’s all.” Ben said quietly.

“Sure, I know that,” Hoss bit down on his bottom lip and stared at the logs by the fire.

“So, if you know that, do you understand that?”

“Sure I do.”

Hoss frowned, and looked at his father thoughtfully, he mulled over and over what had been said, sighed and shook his head,

“The fact is, last time he was here, Adam and I were so busy we had no real time to get to know him. All we knew was that so far as Joe was concerned, Clay was the only brother he had that mattered.”

“Ah, I see,” Ben smiled slowly and put out a placating hand to rest gently on his sons arm “Do you really think that Joe will stop caring as much for you if Clay is around?”

“Pa, as soon as Joe saw Clay nuthin’ else and no one else mattered, it was as though the world had ceased to exist and there was jest him and Clay Stafford . He couldn’t git rid of Adam and me quick enough,” he sighed heavily and clasped his hands together, almost it seemed in a gesture of desperate prayer, “Pa, Adam and I, well, we’ve all Joe ever had for years and years. It jest felt that as soon as Clay came on the scene all that was jest rubbed out and didn’t matter no more. It was jest Clay, because Clay’s Marie’s son, like he is.”

“Hoss, the bottom line is just that, Clay IS Marie’s first born and we have to accept that. We have to accept that Clay has as much right to Joe’s time and affections as either you or Adam. Time doesn’t matter in this respect, because all Joe feels just now is the bond of blood. Marie’s…”

“I know. I bin wrasslin’ ‘bout it all the way home. I guess I’m bein’ plumb stupid, and I’m ashamed too. I shouldn’t feel like this, because I’ve no right to judge Clay, which I guess, in a way, I am doin’. I did give myself a good talkin’ too, several times over in fact. Told myself I was jest bein’ plain possessive and jealous, like some stupid kid.” Hoss swallowed the lump in his throat and looked with moist eyes at his father “Pa, I jest don’t want Joe to stop caring about us, about me, because I care about him so much. He’s always bin jest our baby brother and…” he stopped, and heaved a deep sigh.

“And change is always hard, Hoss.” Ben nodded “I understand what you’re saying, but we adapt when we have to.” he smiled and gently squeezed Hoss’ hand “You know, Hoss, when you’re at sea and the winds roaring and the waves are coming up at you in a big swell, and you know your destination isn’t really so far away, do you know what a good sailor has to learn to do?”

“Not be sea sick?” Hoss replied with a slow grin

“No, he has to learn to tack. You see, Hoss, you can’t just go straight from A to B, it isn’t that easy. You go to port a little, and then to starboard, and so on and so on, until you eventually get to harbour.” Ben smiled and stood up as the smells of the food wafted towards them indicating that it was on the table ready to be eaten, he could hear Adams footsteps coming along the landing to the stairs “It’s like relationships, Hoss, sometimes we have to learn to tack a little”

Chapter 7

Joe threw down his hat and looked around the large room. He had seen this room almost every day of his life but this time was different, this time he looked at it through the eyes of his brother, Clay. He smiled and his green hazel eyes twinkled as he turned to take in the proportions of the room, the warmth of the fire blazing in the hearth, the welcoming circle of chairs and the sweet smell of something good cooking that came from the kitchen. Beside him Clay glanced around him and frowned

“Seems no one’s at home” he surmised shrewdly and he was right, for no one was at home.

“They’re busy, but by the smell of that cooking they should be home pretty soon now.”

Joe stretched and flopped comfortably into the big blue chair and wriggled a little until he was quite at ease. “Sit down, Clay, make yourself at home.”

“Well, Joe,” Clay frowned and turned his hat round and round in his hands “Seems to me that …”

“Hey, this is going to be your home now,” Joe took a deep breath as though he had accomplished something wonderful in the past few minutes and he smiled warmly “HOP SING!”

A flurry of movement came from the kitchen area and Hop Sing appeared with a cloth in one hand and a dish in the other, his eyes opened wide in surprise when he saw the two young men in the room

“When you come back, mister Joe?”

“Five minutes ago, didn’t you hear us?”

“Too busy making hot roast pork for family…”

“Well, Hop Sing, you had better add another to the list for now, remember Clay?” he tugged at Clays sleeve and brought him a few steps nearer to the cook “My half brother?”

“I remember. Your father and brothers talk talk all time about him coming, not know when, you naughty boy, you not send time for family to be heah, no one know when you come.”

“Never mind” Clay smiled his warm smile that, like his brothers, could charm the birds from the trees “I’m here now, if that counts for anything.”

“Mebbe so. Now Hop Sing go make more pork, more potato, more bled!” and without another word, in English anyway, Hop Sing turned and made his way back to his kitchen.

“Consider yourself part of the family,” Joe grinned and stood up and headed for the stairs, “Are you coming?”

“What for?”

“So I can show you your room, that’s what for?”

“Shouldn’t we wait for your father first?”

“Look, Adam and Hoss would have told him you were on your way here, they’ve no doubt got a room prepared for you.” Joe shrugged “If they haven’t, then I’ll get you a room.”

Clay glanced around the big empty room and sighed, then slowly followed his eager and younger brother up the stairs. They passed the rooms used by the family, the doors of which were all closed. Joe opened the door to his own room

“In case you forgot, this is my room,” he smiled and Clay had a fleeting vision of a large pleasantly furnished room, before Joe ushered him along the landing and pulled open another door “This will do for you.” he smiled and stepped into the room that had obviously been prepared for a visitor, he walked to the window and looked down at the yard, the curtains drifted slightly from the cool breeze that wafted through the open window and he pulled it further open and looked down “Pa’s on his way. I can hear their horses.” he turned to Clay “You’ll like this room, it gets the sun almost all day”

“I like it fine, Joe…thanks” Clay nodded and dropped the carpet bag and valise by the bed. He sat on the bed and bounced up and down and grinned “Yep, the bed feels mighty comfortable, better than some I’ve been used to sleeping on lately.”

The sounds of the men talking together drifted upwards and filtered their way into the room, and Joe turned and nodded

“Best get downstairs. I want Pa to see you as soon as he walks into the house.”

“Shucks, Joe, he’ll know we’re here, he’ll have seen the horses.”

“I know, but all the same,” he paused and looked at his brother thoughtfully “You ain’t scared of meeting Pa again, are you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then why have you taken root to the floor?”

“I was just thinking, Joe.”

“Then don’t think, Clay. Come on!” and making a grab for his brothers elbow, the younger man hauled him from the bed and together they made their way downstairs.
Ben paused, glanced up and frowned, and then smiled, his dark eyes were warm and welcoming and he put out his hand towards Clay, which was taken and given a warm shake.

“Good to see you again, Clay”

“Thank you, sir. I hope you didn’t mind my taking you up on your invitation all those years back..”

“Not so many years back..”Ben smiled “And I hadn’t forgotten my invitation, although if I had, I’m sure Joseph would never have done.”

Seeing Joseph now Ben smiled and gave the youth a hug, it had been a long month without having the young rascal around the house, and he had missed him. Without Joe’s laughter and gaiety the house had been very quiet.

“Let’s eat” Hoss said, giving Joe and Clay a nod which he obviously deemed sufficient as a welcome “I could smell roast pork miles off, and I sure hope Hop Sings cooked some of that special sauce of his.” Hoss paused, as though realising that his welcome to Clay may well have been deemed not particularly warm “You’ll soon put some meat on your bones, Clay, with Hop Sing cooking fer yer.”

“Not if he’s anything like his brother he won’t,” Ben chuckled “Did Joe show you to your room yet, Clay?”

“He showed me a room, it looked like it had been prepared for a guest.”

“That’s the one…”

Adam hung up his black hat and gun belt and looked thoughtfully at everyone in the room. Hoss had already disappeared into the kitchen, which was his custom, to make sure that Hop Sing had plenty of food and to taste a little of this and a little of that. Joe and Clay. Adam pursed his lips and raised his eye brows just a fraction. Joe looked as merry as a cricket but Clay, no one looking at the man would have said he looked particularly happy, or comfortable even, and Ben, well, he looked like a man desperate to tie all the loose ends together as happily as possible, apart from the fact that five humans were not exactly the same as a parcel or package that could be neatly tidied up.

He walked into the room and smiled at Joe and nodded at Clay

“No trouble on the way here, then?” he asked

“No, none, it was a good trip” Clay extended his hand which Adam took and shook warmly “How’s things here, Adam?”

“Fine, we’ve been checking over the fencing at the south ridge, could do with extra hands tomorrow if you feel up to it.”

“That’ll be fine by me,” Clay smiled “I don’t want to foist myself on you like some unpaid guest”

“You won’t be.” Adam smiled “There’s always more than enough to do around a ranch of this size, as you may well remember.”

Joe glanced at the two men and then over at his father and smiled. The one person he expected to treat Clay with diffidence was Adam, and here he was, treating Clay as he should be treated, as one of the family. Joe’s heart swelled with pleasure and delight and he slapped Clay warmly on the back and with a laugh told Clay not to sound too eager to work, otherwise elder brother would make sure he was up before dawn.

They sat down around the big table and Ben looked at them and smiled. Clay was a good looking man. In some ways he was more like Joseph to look at than either Adam or Hoss. In too many ways he reminded Ben of Marie, although that was more reassuring than alarming, and he thought of his wife and wondered what she would have thought, to have seen both her own sons breaking bread, eating meat, sharing a meal, a home, together.

He glanced around the table, and paused as he saw Adams dark eyes resting on him. He smiled and nodded, and wondered momentarily what it was his son would be thinking at that precise point of time. He looked at Hoss who was pouring out some water into the glasses, and he wondered if Hoss was preparing himself for a lot of ‘tacking’. With a sigh he leaned back in his chair and raised his black eye brows and then he said,

“Perhaps now would be a good time to thank God for the safe return of the rest of our family.”

Joe sent a fleeting smile around the table, there was no doubting that having Clay home had added a new joy to his life. Adam glanced at Hoss who merely nodded in acknowledgement. Together all four bowed their heads and listened to the words Ben addressed to the eternal Father of all.

Chapter 8

Days drifted into weeks. Every day was a busy one and every hour of each day was crammed with chores. After a month Clay found his soft hands callusing and although Hoss had said Hop Sings cooking would put meat on his bones, he found that the hard work wore off the fat. He rode range, helped clean out the water holes, which he detested, checked the fences and repaired them where necessary. He chased mavericks, branded calves and was taught the correct way to chop down trees. At night he could barely sleep for the aches in his bones and the weariness of his whole body, whilst his mind was as alert and sharp as a pin. After a month he found he had developed a ravenous appetite which Hop Sings cooking could barely keep up with, and he also found that when he dealt out cards, in the privacy of his room, he was becoming clumsy.

“I need a break,” he declared one morning a he and Hoss rode towards the nearest line shack to get the tools for more fence repairs

“You’ll get one.” Hoss grinned

“When exactly?”

“When one comes along, this is a busy time of year. Come to think of it, most times of the year are busy.” he looked at Clay and frowned “What kind of break do you mean, anyhows?”

“I mean jest a trip into town on a Saturday night would do me….for now!”

“You could go into town any Saturday night you’d like, no one was stopping you.” Hoss frowned “You reckon we’re being too hard on you, is thet it?”

“No, of course not.”

“You know you ain’t no hired hand, Clay. You’re one of the family that entitles you to time off to go to town just the same as any one of us.”

Clay sighed, he didn’t want to admit to this never tired, never weary giant of a man, that so far every Saturday he had been so exhausted that he had not the strength to mount a horse, let alone ride it all the way into town. It had been a relief and pleasure just to relax and read a book, something that he had found he had in common with Adam, although their reading tastes differed. Some evenings Adam had brought out his guitar and played and sang some melodies that Clay knew and having a good singing voice of his own, and an ability to play the flute quite adeptly, the evenings had become pleasantly entertaining.

“I’m not complaining” he said hastily

“’Course you ain’t,” Hoss smiled in a friendly manner at the other man

“Hoss? Mind if I ask you a question?”

“Fire away,” Hoss felt himself tensing up, wondering what the question would be, and what if he gave the wrong answer and the harmonious equilibrium that everyone strove so hard to keep balanced, was shattered

“D’you mind me being here?”

“Mind you being here? Shucks, why should I mind?” he took a deep breath and shrugged “You keep little brother off’n my back for one thing, and you’re learning how to handle yourself with all the chores, that’s a good thing too”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question” Clay said softly

“You cheat at checkers!”

“I do not!”

“Yep, you do! Jest like Little Joe.” Hoss grinned “He’s bin cheatin’ from the time he first knew what a checker board was all about, I swear he makes up new rules every week.” and before Clay could say another word on the subject he dug his heels into Chubbs flanks and galloped down the slope towards where he could see Ben and Adam already toiling at the fence posts.

“Ah well,” Clay said to himself with a slight frown to his brow “That told me.”

Chapter 9

“What’s on your mind?”

Clay turned and smiled as Adam walked towards him, with a grateful nod he took the cup from the other man “I was just wondering about taking time out from the chores, perhaps Saturday evening? Do I have to ask for time off?” Clay’s lips thinned just slightly “As a member of the family or as a hired hand?”

Adam pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows pensively. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t intending to intrude on your thoughts, but …”

“It doesn’t matter. I can understand how you must be feeling”

“How do you mean, Clay?”

“Well, having an extra member of the family land on you, it’s quite a commitment, isn’t it? Another mouth to feed, less land for you.”

“What do you mean, less land?”

“Oh, your Pa hasn’t said anything to you then?”

“About what?”

“He was talking about my inheritance, as Marie’s son he feels that I have a right to some of the Ponderosa, like Joe, Hoss and yourself.”

“Sounds fair enough to me.” Adam said quietly, although he felt a pang of resentment, not so much at the idea of Clay getting some land, but that Ben had not discussed it with him. In all the years they had lived on the Ponderosa, Ben had never kept anything back from Adam, any major decisions had been discussed with them all, as equal partners, as father and sons. He swallowed hard, and looked at Clay thoughtfully “As Pa’s step-son, you’d obviously be entitled to land of your own.”

“I thought, perhaps, that I’d be living here.” and Clay narrowed his eyes over the rim of the mug, as though to see the reaction such a comment would make on the other man.

“Pa said so, did he?” Adam looked away, emptied his mug by casting the contents onto the ground.

“He did.”

“Well, that’s settled then.” Adam nodded, quelling an upsurge of anger and searching through his brain for the logics of the situation in order to calm down again.

“Odd, isn’t it, me being here, with all of you.” Clay looked at Adam and smiled. Adam had treated him fairly enough, as fairly as any man could treat a stranger who claimed to be a member of the family, or one part of the family “I was thinking last night, I’m the only one here who never knew my mother.”

“I never knew mine either…nor did Hoss.”

“I know that, but you knew mine..”

For a moment there was a silence that was both uncomfortable and embarrassing, then Adam sighed, raised his eyebrows and nodded, “True enough.” Adam looked into his cup, remembered it was empty and put it back down with a sigh “Does that bother you?”

Clay gave a slight smile although his eyes remained wary, he looked for a moment away from the other man before asking, almost shyly, “What was she like?”

“Hasn’t Joe told you?”

“Joe goes into rhapsodies about her. What can a kid of five remember about a woman like Marie? She’s something he remembers like we remember the first woman we ever fell in love with. I wanted to know your opinion of her.”

“That doesn’t necessarily tell you what she was really like.”

“ I know,” Clay frowned “My grandparents painted quite an unpleasant picture of her, and my father abandoned both her and me.”

“He didn’t..”

“How come he was never around then? He went travelling around, came here, died here. I never saw him, never.”

“You left your grandparents home when you were 16, if I recall rightly” Adam narrowed his eyes and stared at the horizon “Why did you do that when they gave you everything you needed, they were wealthy, well established, gave you a good education, money, and such.”

“If you knew them as I did,” Clay’s voice was brittle, cold with resentment and suppressed anger.

“Well, your father only did the same thing, just that he left it longer before he got the courage to go.”

“Leaving a child with his parents, and a wife alone.”

“Clay, your father wasn’t a man like you. In fact, I hazard a guess that had you stayed in New Orleans with your family you would probably have become more like him, but you changed direction, sooner rather than later, as a result you became your own man before they could completely mould you. Jean had to learn to do it when his emotions had been torn to ribbons and his confidence ripped to shreds.” he frowned and wished he could get himself more coffee, he looked at Clay “Odd to think, I knew your father too.”

“Which is another advantage over me.”

“If that’s how you see it,” Adam shrugged.

“Why did he leave me behind?”

“Why should he have taken you with him? “ Adam leaned against the corral fence and looked at the horses as they milled about, then he looked again at the other man “I reckon he was a good enough man. He was kind to Hoss, taught him to fish of all things…He only ever wanted peace, peace of mind, peace to live as he wanted and he loved Marie. He always talked about her as though she were still married to him, which she was of course, despite the lies that he’d been told. He loved her, and he loved you.”

“How do you work that one out?”

“Because he was always talking about you, he’d tell Hoss that he had a little boy just a bit older than him, and he’d tell me about this kid who was just a year or so younger than me. He told Pa that you were being cared for by relatives until he had his own place established. Pa had a lot of respect for him and was thinking of selling him a portion of land, but then he died”

“I never knew.”

“Of course, you wouldn’t have known, it was a long time ago and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Pa felt obliged to go to New Orleans to tell Marie about her husband, had Pa been told the lies about her, and that Jean and she were not – well – what he assumed them to have been, which was a happily married couple, then I guess Pa would have just sent a telegram to Jean’s nearest relatives. Pa thought that Marie loved Jean as much as Jean had loved her,” he allowed his voice to drift away as his mind returned to the time when Ben had left home, alone and returned months later with a new wife.

“Did you resent her?”

“Who? Marie? Yes, at first. Sometimes it takes time to adapt to changes.” Adam sighed and shrugged “Do you want to see where he’s buried?”

“Who?”

“Your father!”

Clays features twisted into a semblance of a grimace and he shook his head and then, as Adam turned to go, he grabbed his arm

“Yes, I’d like that.” he said very softly.

*****

Adam stood, arms crossed, and leaned against one of the trees that graced the small glade in which Clays father was buried. Out of respect for Clays feelings and of the situation as a whole, he felt it better that Jean’s son approached the grave alone, and spent what time he wished in respectful solitude.

He did not have to wait long, for after ten minutes Clay returned and without a word began to untie his horses reins from the shrub and lead her forward to be mounted. Adam took the hint and walked over to Sport and stepped lightly from the stirrup to the saddle. He glanced over at Clays face and wondered what the man was feeling for Clay, unlike his younger brother, was far more adept at hiding his emotions from any onlookers, a skill he had honed to perfection as a professional gambler.

“You didn’t bury him with Marie?”

“Of course not. When he died we had no idea that his wife would become a Cartwright,” and Adam raised a cynical dark eyebrow .

“I understand, of course you couldn’t, but you didn’t bury him with the others. I mean, the other men you have buried on the Ponderosa.”

“Jean wasn’t just an employee, Clay. He was Pa’s friend. Like I told you earlier, your father was a very pleasant man. We buried him there because that was where he would go when he wanted peace and quiet, to read, to play his music, to sketch.”

“And you didn’t think of sending his body back to his relatives in New Orleans?”

Adam sighed heavily “No, we didn’t do that because he hated his life in New Orleans. He loved it here. This was where he wanted to bring his wife and his son…had he lived that long and succeeded in fulfilling his dreams and his hopes. No one wrote and asked for his body anyway.” Adam frowned thoughtfully and glanced back over his shoulder to the copse they were riding away from “I guess, in a manner of speaking, we became the closest to family he had, I think he wanted to prove to Marie that he would be a good husband to her once he had shaken off his families weaknesses. I don’t know, I’m only guessing. A boy of 9 doesn’t have that much discernment really.”

They rode on in silence for some time, each thinking their own thoughts about the man who had fathered Clay, and yet never been known by him. After a while Clay glanced over at Adam, at the resolute face, the broad shoulders, and he sighed,

“Adam, do you believe in fate?”

Adam thought for a fraction of a moment and replied that he did not, “So far as I’m concerned we make our own decisions and have to live with them. If I thought fate were a reality then there would be no purpose in my life anymore, no control. I prefer to have control, rather than be controlled.”

Clay smiled slowly, and raised both eyebrows, which, like Joe’s, were extremely expressive,

“I just thought that it was strange the way my mother and father are both buried on Ponderosa land and now I’m here, it’s like everything going a full circle. As though it were meant to be,” he glanced over at the other man “But I guess you don’t see it that way?”

“No, I don’t.” Adam replied in a taut, rather abrupt, manner.

“Who owns that section of land there,” he paused “where my fathers’ buried?”

“It’s Ponderosa land” came the rather curt reply

“Yeah, I know, but I also know that your Pa …”

“You’d best discuss it with him,” Adam said, abruptly turned Sports head and spurred him on to a gallop.

Chapter 10

“Clay told me that he had mentioned about my thinking he should have some land of his own.” Ben pushed the tobacco into the pipe and struck it between his teeth.

“That’s right” Adam kept his eyes on his book and listened to the strike of the match, heard the flare of the sulphur, his fathers drawing in on the stem of the pipe. Slowly he turned a page. “Does Hoss know?”

“I’ve not mentioned it to him, nor to Joe. I thought it best to wait and see what Clay actually wants to do.”

“I thought he had decided to stay here as part of the family” Adam knew the words were coming out as though through gritted teeth and wished they were not, he stared at the one word in the book until his eyes blurred.

“I just thought, his being Marie’s son, and Jean being buried here that their son should have some land of his own. Jean would have bought some land from us, you know, once he could have afforded it. Clay would have had it as his own inheritance from his father.”

“Well, Pa, it’s up to you and Clay I guess.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Why should I mind?” Adam turned another page and bit the inside of his cheek …’Sure, I mind’ he thought ‘ I mind because we sweated blood for this land. I mind because it was your dream and I had no real home for nigh on 7 years while we travelled in a broken down wagon drawn by a broken down horse from one town to another and from one settlement to another and we had nothing. I mind because I’m being small minded and petty,” he stood up and sighed, “Sure, Pa, whatever you want. You know it’s alright by me”

“I thought you’d agree.” Ben said quietly, and leaned back in his chair and blew out a perfect smoke ring whilst his son mounted the stairs to his room.

Chapter 11

“Where’s Joe?” Adam glanced up and down the main street and finally looked at Hoss who was standing with his arms folded across his chest as he leaned against the post supporting the Virginia City Bank.

“With Clay” came the reply and Hoss yawned “Mighty quiet here in town today.”

“Where’ve they gone?”

“To The Bucket of Blood!”

Adam looked at his brother and shook his head “Do you think that ‘s a good idea?”

“Do you?”

“I don’t know…”

“YOU don’t know, that has to be a first!”

Adam smiled slowly and together they walked down main street, crossing the road at the section that faced the saloon. Adam pushed open a door and the two of them entered the Bucket of Blood and through the murky gloom heard Clays voice

“I raise you five hundred!”

“I meet you and raise you another hundred!”

“What about you?”

“That’s okay by me….”

“Joe?”

“That’s fine by me too….”

Hoss shook his head and frowned, he looked at Adam and walked to the counter and ordered two beers. Adam joined him and together they propped up the bar and drank their beers and watched as the game progressed. It was inevitable that Clay was soon scooping the winnings into his pocket. Joe looked a trifle crestfallen as he saw his hard earned dollars swept in among the rest. Clay grinned and looked over to where Hoss and Adam stood

“Care to be dealt in..?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye

“Nope.” Adam said, putting down his empty glass and picking up his hat, “I’ve things to do, so do you, Hoss.”

“Yep, I got things to do,” Hoss said and he frowned over at Joe “So have you, little Joe.”

“I’ll be along soon,” Joe quipped and brought his chair closer to the table “Deal me a hand, Clay.”

Adam turned as he neared the door and bit his bottom lip. They all gambled, it was part and parcel of life there, but not one of them was reckless with their money. Ben had instilled in them the policy that gambling was a fools game…you win some, lose most. It was the fear that Joe’s admiration of his brother would lead him to more recklessness that usual and from the set look on Hoss’ face it was obvious he was thinking along the same lines,

“Well, I take it all back!” Hoss declared suddenly.

“What in particular?” his brother asked

“That it was mighty quiet hereabouts today….that’s some ruckus going on over at the saloon.”

“Are you surprised?”

“Not really.” Hoss gave a slight shrug of his shoulders.

“Do you think we should go in and help?” Adam raised an eyebrow by way of emphasis to the request which he knew sounded rather half hearted.

“I reckon we should go and see if’n they need any help”

They stepped back in time to avoid a flying chair which was swiftly followed by Jed Mayhews skinny body which staggered through the doors, ricocheted off of Hoss and fell in a heap on the sidewalk. Both men stepped over the hapless being, and peered over the doors, ducking as a table leg flew their way and avoiding getting crushed against the wall when Joe staggered back into the door. Hoss helped him by giving him a shove back into the saloon

“They seem to be managing well enough on their own” he murmured

“Yeah,” Adam drawled “I reckon they’re holding their own pretty well.”

“Guess we might as well head back home for dinner.” Hoss muttered and turned away to return to Chubb.

“Sounds about right to me, Hoss.”

“Adam, Hoss,” A faint wail trailed behind them and the two of them paused in mid step and looked at one another.

“What do you think?” Adam posed the question, pausing in mid-stride.

Hoss scratched the back of his head and glanced back in time to see Mayhews and Joe both tumble out of the saloon and land on top of one another in the street. He shook his head, and once again gave a slight lift to his shoulders.

“Nah!” he replied, “I reckon they’re managing jest fine without any help from us.”

Chapter 12

The ice pack on Joe’s cheek was thawing rapidly and the bruise was swelling with equal swiftness. He groaned and moved the ice pack to another area and glared at his two brothers with all the venom he could muster through his one eye, the other being so swollen and multi coloured that it was merely a slit.

“You could’ve helped us,” he hissed.

“What, and end up looking like you do and with the dance on Saturday?” Adam chortled and picked up a checker.

“You both seemed to be doing jest fine, Little Joe, didn’t seem right to interfere.” Hoss stared at the board and watched carefully as Adam placed down his checker, he smirked and narrowed his eyes and picked up a checker of his own.

“What caused the fight anyway?” Adam asked with his eyes on the board as Hoss hovered with the checker, first it was going to go, but no, it was better to go back to the original idea..Hoss placed his checker and sat back triumphant. Adam picked up a checker and promptly ‘jumped’ three of Hoss’ along the way,

“Oh, just a little disagreement.” Joe muttered.

“About what?” Ben growled and looked at both of them as thunder smouldered in his dark eyes.

“Harry Mayhew accused Clay of cheating,” Joe replied lamely and threw a look over at Clay, half apologetic, and the other half a blatant ‘look what a mess you got me into now’.

“Is that right?” Ben glared at Clay, black eyes bored into the other mans face, black brows beetled across his forehead signalling danger.

“It was a mistake on his part.” Clay said hastily “But he was too hot headed to listen and threw a punch, and then the whole place erupted, seems to me folk around Virginia City must be so bored that any excuse for some fun and they all want to join in, well, almost all,” and he cast a narrow eyed look of defiance at the two brothers calmly playing checkers nearby.

Adam and Hoss glanced at one another. Adam scratched his nose and Hoss rolled his eyes and both reached for a checker,

“It’s your turn,” Adam said quietly.

“Shucks, I thought for sure it was yours.”

“Clay,” Ben stood up and approached the two battered brothers who stared up at him miserably “Last time you were here there was trouble because of your card practises and Joe was hurt then.”

“I know, I recall that but this time was different.” the young man protested, looking earnestly up into the face of his benefactor.

“Sure, Pa, it was different this time.” Joe insisted, half standing in his attempt to mollify his father.

“I wasn’t talking to you, young man” Ben barked, he looked at Clay in a way that would have most men’s toes curling in their boots “I don’t want you to make it a practise of going into town and gambling”

“Why not? It’s been my livelihood for years.” Clay promptly said as though he were blind to the signals the older man was giving that he was about to erupt.

“It doesn’t have to be your livelihood now, Clay. As a member of this family I would prefer it if you did as I asked.”

The two men at the checker board looked at one another, hazel eyes met blue, Hoss raised his eye brows “Note that,” Hoss whispered to Adam “’asked’ not told or ordered.”

“Mmmmmm!” Adam took two more of Hoss’ checkers and smiled “Your move, brother”

*****

“So, what really happened to cause that fight, Joe?”

Joseph Cartwright gave his eldest brother a hasty glance from his one eye and shrugged, then proceeded to get busy with currying Cochise. Adam watched the curry brush sweep across Cochise’s flanks with swift sweeps of the younger mans arm. After some moments of silence, apart from heavy breathing on the part of Joseph Adam strolled further into the interior of the stable and propped himself up against the bars of Cochise’s stall in order to get a better view of his brother.

“I ain’t buying that story of Clay being accused of cheating. Jed and Harry Mayhew are two of the mildest men in town and if they thought they were being cheated on they’d just quit the game and keep their mouths shut.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Joe mumbled and brought the brush down gently along the curve of Cochise’s neck .

“You know I‘ll find out anyway, Joe.”

“Why?” Joe turned to look at his brother, his hands defensively on his hips and his mouth taut with annoyance “Why’d you want to go nosing into something that doesn’t concern you anyhows?”

“Because, Little Joe, anything that happens here, particularly when it concerns you or Hoss, concerns me.”

“And Clay?” Joe spat out the words through thinning lips.

“What about Clay?”

“Doesn’t it concern you when it involves Clay as well?”

“Oh, yes.” Adam drawled out the word, turned and looked at his youngest brother with that annoyingly superior look on his face that always sent Joe’s blood pressure soaring to boiling point, “Particularly when it involves Clay as well”

“And jest what do you mean by that?“ Joe stepped forward aggressively, fists clenching and his nostrils flaring and Adam gave a cool smile and shrugged,

“What I said, anything that happens in this family, Clay is family after all, well, it concerns me. And I want to know.”

Joe narrowed his eye (the other being completely closed now from the swelling from the bruises) and snorted, much like Cochise who gave him a little nudge as though reminding him that there was still the other side to do,

“It wasn’t Clays fault”

“Ah, well, you would say that.”

“What are you getting at now?” Joe lowered his hand with the brush in it, as though tempted for a moment to throw it at his brother’s head.

“Just that that is the way you would see it, that’s all and natural.” Adam smiled coolly and folded his arms across his chest, and leaned against the post of Cochise’s stall “So, go ahead, explain.”

“Jed Mayhew was losing, and heavily, so Clay suggested that he quit the game and Harry said that seemed like a good idea but Jed said no, he wanted to win the pot because he intended to buy that prize bull calf of Mr Hemmings. Clay said if he carried on like he was he’d have no money left to buy himself a coffee bean and Jed said he didn’t have to listen to any darn Johnny Reb tell him what to do.”

“Jed said that? That’s pretty aggressive for Jed. I’ve never known him talk or act in any way except quiet,” Adam frowned “Any reason you can think of to make him talk like that?”

“No,” Joe flushed a little pinker and turned his back on his brother and resumed grooming the horse, “Harry told him to quieten down and Clay said it didn’t matter, but that jest seemed to rile Jed more and he told Clay that he should be back south where he belonged.”

“Is that what caused the fight?”

“Clay said in that case why didn’t Jed get off his backside and go fight for the ‘good cause’ but he said it and laughed and the next thing Jed swung at him.”

“Something must have happened to have triggered Jed off like that,” Adam frowned and watched Joe for a few minutes in silence “Joe, why didn’t you tell Pa this?”

“Clay said not to.” Joe sighed, and gave his brother a sidelong glance that was more than a little sheepish.

“But you told Pa a lie.”

“No, I didn’t.” Joe said hotly “Jed was losing.. it could have happened like we said.”

“But it didn’t, you should have told Pa the truth.”

“Clay said that Pa had told him that there was to be no talk of the war at home “ he glared at Adam hostilely “Probably to spare your feelings.”

“You know that’s not the case, Joe.”

“No, I ain’t sure that’s the case, Pa told Clay what he’s told us, keep talk of the war outside the Ponderosa, no matter how we feel.“

“That policy works if we keep to it, Joe, if we all keep to it.” Adam replied softly, although inside he was fighting to control his words, knowing how easy it would be now to react and set off this volatile youth which would create the very situation that all of them had been struggling for weeks to avoid.

Joe said nothing to that, but gave his brother an exasperated look and walked to the horse’s left, which he now began to groom with slow sweeping movements of the curry comb. Adam stepped forward and put his hand gently on his brothers arm,

“I do understand how you feel, Joe,” he said softly “And you know you can always come and talk to me about anything at all, like before.”

“Before what?“ Joe snapped.

Like you always had,” Adam said quickly, realising he had dropped a gaffe that Joe was not prepared to let pass.

“Before Clay came you mean?” Joe lowered his arm and stared at his brother angrily “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? It’s Clay, isn’t it? Do you think I go running to him with all my problems now, is that what it is?”

“No, but…”

“But what?”

“But whichever way we try to tip toe around the fact that Clay is here, we have to accept that there have been changes to the status quo?“

“What?”Joe almost spat out the word, his eyebrows short up and he narrowed his one good eye so that he could barely see anything at all.

“The way it used to be, has changed, shifted, and I just wanted to let you know that whatever way you feel, I’m still your eldest brother, and I still care just as much about you as ever I did. So if you have any problems I’ll be there for you, that’s all.” he raised his hands as though sueing for peace and smiled, but Joe’s lips thinned and he knew that there was nothing left to be said, that perhaps he had already said too much.

He turned and walked to the door, stroking the soft velvet noses of the horses in the stalls as he passed them and at the doorway he turned and glanced over at his little brother who was pretending to be engrossed in his horse grooming. Adam sighed and without another word walked to the house.

“Everything alright?” Hoss asked as he stepped inside “He’s okay, ain’t he?”

“Sure, he’s fine.”

“What do you think, Adam? About that story they told , about that ruckus in town?”

“What do you think, Hoss? Didn’t you believe them?”

“Nah, Jed and Harry are as mild as can be, I reckon you could rob ‘em blind and they’d jest assume you were doin’ it in their best interests. Beats me why they have to play in the first place they allust lose. ‘Turn the other cheek Mayhews‘, that’s what they’re called in town.”

“I know,” Adam sighed heavily, and glanced at the door as though expecting to see Joe standing there, simmering, knowing that his actions were being discussed by his brothers.

“So, what happened? Did Joe tell you?” Hoss’ blue eyes widened as he waited for Adam to reply.

“You heard what they said happened, Hoss” Adam walked to the high backed chair and sat down, he picked up the book that he had left on the table and began to read. Hoss sighed, and ambled over to the window and stared out into the lengthening shadows as night fall settled over the Ponderosa.

“Things have changed, Adam,” he said softly, sticking his hands in the pockets of his pants.

“They don’t have to, if we work at it together, things can change back again, to how they were before.”

Yeah, ‘if’.” Hoss sighed, as though the likelihood of that happening were very remote.
Chapter 12

Sam took the money and checked it over thoughtfully and then smiled, “Thanks, Adam. There wasn’t as much damage done as has been in the past, you know the Mayhews, ain’t the fighting type, it was the rest of ‘em caused most harm, and Joe and that friend of his’n.”

“You mean Clay Stafford?” Hoss said, leaning on the counter and watching as the saloon staff continued to clear away the debris of the previous days fight.

“Yeah, that’s the one, the gambler. I recall him before, some years ago, caused trouble then if I recall rightly.” he squinted into a glass which he held up for cleaning and then began to polish it vigorously “Rumour has it that he’s some relation of your’n, is that right?”

“Kind of,” Hoss muttered “So what caused this brawl this time? Joe lose too much, huh?”

“No, nuthin’ like that, although he lost enough that’s for sure.” Sam leaned onto the counter conversationally, his elbows planted squarely in its centre, “Jed and Harry were losing, as usual, although they had won some earlier on in the game, but that was before Stafford got involved. Suddenly out of the blue Jed called Stafford a Johnny Reb and the next thing I knows fists are flying every which way,” he shook his head “Folks here keep their politics close to their chest, as you know. That way there ain’t no trouble, even the school teacher don’t do the oath of allegiance no more to spare the consciences of some kids there. You know how it is, Adam? Hoss? Fact is, if’n you try and suppress feelings. they sometimes jest git to pop out under pressure. I guess, Stafford being new in town, things got outa hand.” he shrugged and looked over at the saloon girl who was checking over the piano “Lost four teeth.”

“She did?” Hoss gulped in sympathy, “Was that Joe’s fault too?”

“Shucks no, old Toby landed right on top of her.”

“He did?” Hoss’ eyes widened and he looked at the girl again, a slight little thing, it was a wonder she was still able to walk .

“The piano. He meant the piano.” Adam chuckled and picking up his hat he walked, still chuckling, out of the saloon.

The brothers hadn’t gone far when they heard their names being hailed from the other side of the street, “Hey, Cartwright!”

They turned and watched as Harry Mayhew hurried along the sidewalk towards them, waving a skinny hand to draw their attention. Both brothers paused and waited for the older man to catch up with them, both noted the bruised nose and thicker than usual lip, but refrained from saying anything. Mayhew drew them to one side so that the three of them were standing close up against the wall of the mercantile “You heard about the fight?”

“We sort of saw some of it,” Hoss said quietly, feeling quite relieved as he thought back to the previous day and how he and Adam had actually chosen to walk away from it.

“I’m mighty sorry about it, mighty sorry. It shouldn’t have happened. Jed’s pretty sore about it too, in more ways than one.” he grinned, showing a gap where a tooth had once been not too long ago “He was out of order, Jed, I mean. He shouldn’t have said that about Stafford being a Johnny Reb, even if it is true, after all, he isn’t the only one of them in town.”

“So? What caused it? It’s not like Jed to lose his temper.” Adam said quietly “You know where we hail from, Adam, Hoss. We came to Virginia City to get our fortunes, and not done too badly at that, but also to get out of fighting. We got family, close family, fighting on both sides. Do you know how it feels to see your brother walk outa the door of your home a-knowing that next time may be on a battlefield, him wearing grey? Jed and me, we thought we’d avoid all that kinda thing. Perhaps we’re cowards, perhaps we should have stayed and fought back home, but there’s too many killing their kin. We didn’t want that on our consciences and I don’t care how many say that it’s hardly likely, the question would always be there wouldn’t it? The ‘what if’ chance.”

“Go on, Harry,” Adam shifted his weight and leaned against the wall, and surveyed the mans worried face sympathetically.

“Well, to cut a long story short, we were hoping that if we made enough money we could pay to get our family here as well. Then we got a cable on Monday to say that there’d been a fight right where our family house stood.” Mayhew paused, lowered his head and heaved a deep sigh, as though struggling to keep his emotions on an even keel.

“And?” It was some minutes before Harry was able to continue, he gulped rather a lot and took a deep breath before he said in a thicker deeper voice “Well, our home, our family, ain’t there no more. Casualties of war, that’s what the cable called it. Confederate troops.” he gulped and his Adams apple jerked involuntarily, he bit his bottom lip, “So we decided to put the money to buying Hemmings prize bull calf instead. Stafford was whistling a tune, under his breath, probably not even aware of it, like we do sometimes. Jed just couldn’t take it, he thought Stafford was goading him, kinda, but you could tell he wasn’t doing it a-purpose.” he struck out a hand “No hard feelings, huh, Cartwright?”

Adam nodded and shook the proffered hand, as did Hoss. They stood together for a while as the sun baked down on the sidewalk and watched the older man hurriedly walk away.

“Danged war,” Hoss hissed under his breath. Adam nodded, narrowing his eyes against the glare of the sun which beat down against the whitewashed walls of the mercantile,

“Let’s go home” he said quietly “Somehow the thought of knocking in a few fence posts seems pretty agreeable just now.”

Chapter 13

Ben Cartwright shifted in his chair and surveyed the four younger men thoughtfully. He had spent the afternoon with Clay riding around the area of land that he had felt the young man would have liked to possess. It had good grazing land, the timber grew quite thickly on the hills that ringed it to the south and the views were magnificent as they overlooked Lake Tahoe. Clay had reacted with moderate pleasure, a polite and agreeable companion, nothing more. It had left Ben with a feeling deep in his heart that something was not quite right, and when he overlooked the four of them, the mood certainly seemed to compound his misgivings.

Joe was restless.. He felt as though all his energies were being suppressed and that he needed something, or someone, to release them. He sat down and within minutes needed to stand up and prowl around the room, or stab at the logs. He could not settle in his mind to play checkers with Hoss who sat in his chair looking miserable, passing a fistful of checkers from one hand to the other in that way which meant nothing to him, but which, by the constancy of the action and clinking sounds they made, slowly drove everyone else there to the limit of endurance.

Joe suddenly did a half turn and strode over to Hoss and slapped his hand so that half a dozen checkers flew in the air and landed in several different directions,

“Do you have to do that? You’re just about driving me crazy doing that,” Joe cried, already feeling ashamed of himself at the startled expression that had fallen across his brothers face.

“Shucks, I’m sorry, if it was so annoying you should have said earlier.”

“What’s the point. You would’ve jest kept on doin’ it!”

“No, I wouldn’t, Joe.”

Adam glanced up from his book and frowned over at them,

“Keep the noise down.” he muttered

“And who asked you to poke your nose into it anyways?” Joe snapped

“I only asked you to keep the noise down, although knowing you so well I should have known better than to ask.” Adam snapped back in return.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Take it any way you want .”

“Are you wanting to pick an argument, Adam, is that it?” and Joe clenched his fist and strode over to his brother who calmly closed his book and looked up at Joe and raised his chin as though challenging Joe to strike just there.

“Joseph?” Ben’s voice was like a deep throated growl and Joe hesitated, and lowered his fist and glowered at Adam, and then at Hoss who just shrugged as though used to seeing his brother throw a tantrum.

Adam opened his book and resumed reading, every so often glancing up over the rim to survey the group there. Ben took up his pipe and leaned back in his seat

“What’s going on around here that I’m not being told?” he asked as he calmly poked tobacco into the pipe bowl.

“Nuthin’” Hoss looked at his father with innocent blue eyes and a blank expression on his face.

“Joseph? You seem to be so full of hot air, so why not release some of it right now – calmly.” he frowned darkly at his youngest son, and picked up the matches and glanced over at Clay who was watching the proceedings with interest, with almost amusement touching the corners of his mouth. “Clay? Do you know anything about all this?”

“I’ve been with you all day, sir,” Clay said swiftly, then he glanced over at Adam “Although I did get to hear that someone had been to town checking up on me.”

“What do you mean? Checking up on you? What’s that supposed to mean?” Ben barked, lowering his pipe and glaring over at Adam who put down his book with a sigh and shrugged.

“All I did was go into the Bucket of Blood and pay for the damages, as we usually do,” Adam replied calmly.

“Oh yeah, and while you were there you had to go and poke around about what happened, didn’t you?” Joe hissed, jabbing his index finger in Adams direction

“I was there too.” Hoss muttered.

“Yeah, so you’re jest as bad.” Joe snapped, whirling around at Hoss and darting a black look in his direction.

“I didn’t have to poke around for information, Sam volunteered it, so did Harry Mayhew come to that.” Adam said quietly.

“Yeah? I’m supposed to believe that am I?”

“YOU can believe whatever you like!”

The two brothers stared into each others eyes. Joe’s green hazel eyes were greener than usual with anger and mortification, whilst Adams brown eyes were darker and showed a determination in them not to back down. Usually when Joe saw his brothers eyes growing increasingly dark and stubborn he either wisely backed down or foolishly rushed in where angels would fear to tread. He was about to proceed with the latter when Adam rose up as though prepared to take on his little brother there and then,

“It does seem a shame that you couldn’t take our word for what happened,” Clay drawled “Back home we would take that as an insult! You calling me a liar and such.”

“No one was calling you a liar.” Adam said in a very level, calmly cold voice.

“But it seems to me,” Clay began but Ben’s voice intruded with a demand to be told the facts and for everyone to calm down and be quiet.

“Joseph, sit down and be quiet. Clay, what exactly are you talking about?” he glared over at Adam as though to indicate that he was not going to get off the hook that lightly either.

“That little fight we had at the saloon yesterday, we gave a perfectly good reason why and how it happened. Seems Adam didn’t believe us…” Clay darted a hostile glance in Adams direction and the older man frowned and looked over at his father.

“Seems odd a man should prefer to be thought a cheat rather than tell the truth,” he said quietly.

“I’m neither a cheat nor a liar, Cartwright.”

“Yeah, well, it’s easy to see you and Joe are brothers, you both get too hot under the collar too quickly.”

“Coming from you that’s a compliment.”

“Take it any way you like.”

“That’s enough.” Ben slammed his fist down on the table and both men stopped and turned.

Without even realising it they had stepped closer to one another, squaring up as though about to come to blows. Hoss stood up slowly and took Adams arm, drawing him back towards the chair, while Joe stepped towards Clay, standing so close that their shoulders touched.

Ben swallowed the lump in his throat. Even in this instinctive pairing off, his family had shown the yawning chasm that could so easily lay before them, swallowing up years of peaceful harmony and brotherly comradeship. Four young men stood facing one another, two against two, faces set and eyes brittle and hard. It were as though a line had been drawn along the floor to divide them off as decisively as any battle formation. He stood up and walked between them, taking Adam and Clay by the arm, and drawing them closer in towards him, as though needing desperately to rub out the division between them.

“Let’s talk this over as family should,” he said very gently and smiled at all four of them.

Each one resumed their seat and sat down. Hoss picked up several checker pieces and looked at them forlornly. He loved his brothers passionately. He would die for both of them. Yet today he had sided with one against the other in a way different from previous brotherly squabbles, this one went deeper because, and his blue eyes filled with tears, because his baby brother had stepped to the side of another brother, not Adam, nor himself and it smote at the gentle heart bitterly.

“There’s really no problem here, Pa,” Adam said in his reasonable matter of fact business manner, “Sam and Harry both acknowledged it was not Joe or Clay’s fault. Jed just blew up, that’s all.” his voice faltered.

“Why did Jed just blow up?” Ben asked, as though the possibility of either of the Mayhew brothers to ’blow up’ was as remote as Hoss going on a fast.

“He’s had some bad news about his family and it upset him,” Adam said in such a lame manner that even he was disappointed at himself, he bit his lip and glanced over at Clay used the fight?” Ben asked reasonably.

“Not exactly, well, I suppose it did. He threw the first punch.” Joe declared.

“He had just heard,” Hoss said very quietly “that his family had been killed by Confederate troops in a skirmish on their land back home. He couldn’t , couldn’t, hold back,” Hoss frowned, “It was grief talking, that was all, he meant nuthin’ else by it.”

“I didn’t know that, I’m sorry.” Clay said in a contrite manner.

“No one told us.” Joe murmured.

“He thought you were trying to cause trouble when you started whistling, or humming, some tune.” Hoss continued and Clay and Joe looked at one another without comprehension for a moment or two before Clay nodded,

“I see. It’s an old Creole song, I’ve known it since I was a child. I didn’t intend to sing it as a means of identifying myself with the Confederacy. I wouldn’t be that stupid.”

“What? To identify yourself as a Confederate?” Adam declared sharply.

“No more readily than you would a stubborn bone headed Yankee.” Joe immediately yelled, jumping to his feet in defence of his brother.

“Joe, don’t you push me too far,” Adam growled, his eyes darkening and his lips thinning while a flush of colour mantled his dark skin.

“Is that what you are then?” Clay said coolly “A bone headed Yankee?”

“That’s quite enough.” Ben grabbed at Joe and pulled him back to his chair at the same time he gave Adam a warning glance from under his dark eyebrows “I’ve warned you time and again, the war gets left at the Ponderosa boundary line, it doesn’t come into this house, do you hear me?”

“Why not?” Clay immediately asked, his own eyes blazing now.

“Because this is a family, and as a family we work together, and we stay united, irregardless of what’s going on outside. This is one family that is not going to be destroyed by the hatred of civil war, whatever principles you stand by, all well and good, but don’t air them here.”

“I’d have thought the best place to air one’s ‘principles’ as you call them, would be in the bosom of one’s family.” Clay murmured “Now you all seem to think I’m for the Confederacy, don’t you? Is that because I’m New Orleans born? Is it because you assume anyone born in any particular state must be this or that? Is it not possible for a person to be singularly neutral? How about you, Adam? Whatever your principles are, they don’t appear to be ones you hold particularly strong, not strong enough to move yourself out of this comfortable rut of yours. And you, Hoss, what about you? Or are you content enough to stay where you are and not give a thought to the thousands dying in this country of yours? And what about you, Joe?”

Joe gave Clay a puzzled, confused look and then looked at Adam and Hoss, and then at his father. Ben nodded,

“Alright, if that’s what you want, Clay, let me ask you this? Why risk your life to fight in Mexico and yet not commit yourself to the Confederacy, or Union, whichever side you profess to uphold most dearly to your principles?”

“Have you never been to Mexico then? Haven’t you seen the poverty of those people?”

“Poverty doesn’t recognise borders, Clay,” Adam murmured “You don’t need to go far from here to see abject poverty either, the only difference is that the people come here with the hope of finding something better.”

“Hope. That was the key thing, you see.” Clay smiled slowly, his face lost the angry look that had sharpened his features, they softened as he spoke “When Juarez declared against the Spanish regime he gave his people hope for the first time in generations, and hope gave them courage and eventually it gave them victory.”

“For how long?” Adam asked “A generation? A few years? For as long as Juarez can hold the people together.? And do you think Europe will stand by and let him get away with it? I shouldn’t wonder if there isn’t another revolution in a few years, when Spain or France will want to grab Mexico back again.”

“In which case I’ll go back and fight for Jaurez or whoever his successor is.” Clay shrugged as though the problem was not insolvable while he was around to step in and take his place in the rank and file of the Mexican army. “But here, this war,“ he frowned and sat back and looked at Joe, who was watching him expectantly “There’s no glory or glamour in such a war as this, and when it’s over and the victory has been won, it won’t matter who the victor, the loser will be the country. Economically the south will be ruined, maybe the north too, and hatreds will run deeper than rivers of blood. That’s why I wanted to come here and live with hope of a decent future.”

“You’re a Union man then? You declare for the Union?” Joe said in amazement

“No…I declare for neither and yet for both, if that makes any sense at all.” he frowned “I can see good sense in some of the policies of both sides, and I can see the stupidity of some other policies as well. I guess, if there were a third party then I’d declare for that.” he frowned and looked at them all, their earnest faces, their eyes on him, made him feel embarrassed. He stood up and walked over to the fireplace, and he stood for a while staring at the logs in the hearth “I’m not a coward.”

“No one said you were.” Hoss replied quietly

“I never could accept the principle of slavery. A slave is a slave whether the master is good or bad. A slave is a man or woman or child that is nothing more than the belongings of another man, or woman, and who gives anyone that right, to own a human being as though they were nothing more than a package to be disposed of at their owners whim.”

“I agree, I think we all do.” Adam murmured.

“But I am New Orleans born. I have family there and friends, black and white, and I would defend them against anyone, whatever colour their uniform, should I have to do so.”

“We would do the same.” Hoss said, looking down at the checkers in his hand thoughtfully.

“After Mexico I went back to New Orleans, somehow thought to pick up the threads of my life there” Clay leaned forward, his hands clasped between his legs, and his eyes downcast “My father’s brother came to me with the commission of an officer in the Confederacy in his hands. It was, he said, his welcome back to the family gift. He had paid for me to be an officer.” he shook his head and gave an odd tremor of a laugh “I thought he was joking, but he was deadly serious. I have friends in the northern states, people I went to college with, worked along with, people I respect and admire. Some of them were like family to me, more so in some ways.”

“Is that why you left?” Joe asked

“I guess it was. In Mexico I fought for the principle of freedom .” He paused and shook his head “Anyway, that’s enough of me talking, perhaps we should have talked about this before, I shan’t mention it again.” He scratched his head as though trying to gather his scattered wits together again, and he smiled somewhat sheepishly and looked at them, then he extended his hand to Adam “No hard feelings, Adam?”

Adam stood up and smiled, he took the proffered hand and smiled “None at all, Clay” he said in reply.

Chapter 14

Joe sighed and shook his head, and glanced over at his father who was reading a letter of his own at the big desk in the study area of the large room. Hoss was outside, shoeing some of the horses and the sound of the blacksmiths hammer could be heard as a distant clanging, so rhythmic and regular that it sounded like the overloud tick of clock.

“So? You got that section of land you asked Pa about last week?”

Clay nodded his head and looked up at the earnest young face that was looking down at him. The green hazel eyes were large with curiousity, and the handsome good looks of the youth mirrored his own with the generous mouth, parted in what seemed a genuine smile but which Clay, always the sceptic, rather doubted. He nodded and continued to toy with an envelope he held in between his fingers “Yeah, I got it. All signed and sealed.”

“Are you pleased? You don’t look very pleased?” Joe perched himself on the arm of the settee and observed his brother anxiously, “I mean, having your own piece of the Ponderosa, that means for sure you’ll be wanting to settle down, don’t it?”

A flash of panic spread over Clay’s face like a physical pain and he shook his head “Land will always be there, won’t it? Doesn’t need me to stay here and settle on it.”

“How’d you mean, Clay? You’re not thinking of leaving, are you?” Joe’s hazel eyes narrowed, more green flashed and the wide mouth thinned. Clay gave a grimace and shook his head “No, of course not.”

Joe’s brow crinkled into a frown, he glanced over his shoulder to where Ben was still busy with his paperwork, outside could still be heard the rise and fall of the hammer hitting metal on an anvil. “You know you can always count on me, Clay.” he leaned forward, closer to Clay, “If you did want to move on, that is…”

Clay bit his bottom lip, this was too reminiscent of his previous visit and he now darted a look over at Ben before looking at Joe, “No, I wouldn’t expect you to give up your home to come with me, Joe.”

“You’re my brother, Clay. I should be with you when you need me”

“You have brothers here who need you, Joe.”

“No, I don’t think so, anyway, they’ve had me kicking around all my life. Time to share out a little.” he grinned, but his eyes remained sombre as he looked at his brothers set features.

“No, Joe, there’s just too much going on down south right now, and if anything were to happen to you how could I ever face your father again?” he took a deep breath, then his face broke out into smiles like the sun bursting out behind dark clouds on a summers day, “Hey, look, Joe, who said anything about moving on, anyway? Don’t look so glum, it’s Saturday and we have time free’d up to go into town. So, come on, stop moping there.” he stood up and slipped the envelope into his pocket so casually that Joe had no reason to suspect it to contain anything sinister, he smiled and nodded

“Pa, we’re going into town.” he smiled as Ben looked up, distracted, his head full of figures and momentarily unsure of what his son had just said, “Clay and me, we’re heading out to town.”

“Very well, keep clear of trouble this time, boys, if you please.” Ben scowled, gave Clay a particularly hard stare and then bowed his head to continue with his ledger work.

Clay and Joe grinned at one another with hurried out of the house before Ben thought of something they could be doing other than enjoying themselves. They passed Hoss who was sweating over the coals of the fire and hammering a shoe to fit Chubbs back hoof, he wiped sweat from his brow “Where you two off to?”

“Town.” the two young men chorused and grinned at one another as though it had been quite a feat to synchronise their response so well.

“Huh, well, mind ya don’t get into the trouble you did last time.”

“Oh yeah, and we wouldn’t have been in such trouble if’n you’d come along and helped us out.” Joe retorted as he made his way to Cochise’ stall.

Clay nudged him and shook his head, a warning not to start a war of words so soon into the day, Hoss was scowling and glaring at them but they disregarded him and continued to saddle up their horses. “Do you want me to give your love to Betsy Sue?” Joe chuckled as they walked their horses past Hoss minutes later, but Hoss just shook his head “Nope,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders and returned to his work.

******

Time ticked by and the clock chimed the hour several times. Ben shared his lunch time meal with Hoss who then rode out on Chubb to check over the timber, some new saplings they had dug in a few weeks earlier. Ben walked over to the hearth and picked out his pipe, filled the bowl and struck a match… as he drew on the stem of the pipe he thought over the conversation he had engaged in with Adam some days earlier, he hadn’t felt comfortable at the conclusion of it, and he didn’t feel any better now as he tossed it over in his mind.

He lowered himself into his old red leather chair, although of course some would call it burgundy, but he thought of it as red, and puffed on his pipe, narrowed his eyes and stared over at the blue chair where Adam had sat that evening and listened to how his father had signed the document at Hiram Wood’s that gave Clay Stafford legal right and tenure to a parcel of land just south of Millers Creek. He had watched as Adam had sat there, listened with no change of expression on his face, and then nodded when he had concluded. He heard himself saying “Well, haven’t you anything to say, son?”

“No, not really, Pa.” Adam had raised an eyebrow, the eyelids had lowered hooding the dark brown eyes, he had turned his head to look at the fire as though the flames were infinitely more interesting than anything that Ben could have continued to say.

“Well? Don‘t you think it was a good idea? Clay will have an inheritance his mother would have been proud of, and his father too, come to that…” Ben had smiled, a wide smile but anxiety in his eyes. Adam had merely pinched his lips together and then turned his head as though it pained him, in the direction of the Ponderosa map. He hadn‘t spoken, but Ben had felt an uneasy feeling in his stomach and swallowed a gulp, “Something on your mind because if there is, spit it out now.”

“No, nothing. Doesn‘t seem like there is anything to say, Pa.” Adam had replied and stood up, “Well, guess I‘ll get to my bed, I‘ve an early start in the morning.”

“Really? Where?”

“San Francisco. You asked me to broker a deal with Mr Munro ?”

“Oh yes, of course. The paperwork is on the desk, all ready for you.”

Adam had merely nodded, bade him goodnight and mounted the stairs. It had seemed to Ben that each step had weighed heavy, and he had watched the tall young man until he was out of sight. Ben Cartwright shook his head and stared into the fire that was now burning in the hearth, he knew what had been going on in his son’s mind, he had known it as soon as he had started talking about that title deed that Hiram had drawn up that he had just signed.

If Adam hadn’t left the house so early the next day perhaps they could have talked it over, as they would have done before… well, before Clay had come…there, it was said, before Clay had come he would never had thought of doing something so drastic as cutting up the Ponderosa without discussing it with his eldest son. Ben heaved in a deep sigh and shook his head, he wasn’t too proud to admit to himself that he had committed a monumental error, one that had obviously caused Adam some anxiety, some grief.

It was difficult, Ben reasoned to himself, to see why everything had got so difficult recently. Clay was likeable, enough like Joe to be charming and good company. He was Marie’s son, for goodness’ sake, surely that should be enough for his other sons to understand and accept. He drew on his pipe again and sat back into the chair, stared at the ceiling, and told himself that no, it wasn’t enough for Adam or Hoss to accept, and for some reason, he felt that they were right. That thought gave him no consolation at all.

*****

It had been a dangerous gamble. Both men realised that, but neither one of them had baulked at the thought of it. Where the Ponderosa was concerned nothing, or almost nothing, compared to what would happen if it were lost.

Joe felt sick. Even now sitting on the edge of his bed at home when he thought of what he had gone through that evening, bile would surge up and hit the back of his throat and he would retch, as though he would spill out everything his stomach contained there and then. Then he would get the shivers, and the sweats, and bury his face in his hands.

“Are you alright, Joe?” Clay whispered as he pushed open the door and peered inside the room. and quietly closed the door.

“Have you said anything to them?” Joe asked and Clay shook his head, “Clay, when I think of what could have happened. I – I feel sick to the stomach.”

“You look green,” Clay admitted, staring into his brothers face anxiously, “But, look, it’s over now. No one need ever know.”

“What if Pa found out?”

Clay sat down on the edge of the bed, and looked at his brother thoughtfully, “I did what I had to do, Joe. It was a dangerous gamble, but …”

“But it didn’t have to go so far, did it?” Joe bit down on his bottom lip, “If Adam had been there it wouldn’t have happened.”

“How do you know? If Adam had been there I guess he would have done the same thing.” Clay scowled and walked away from his brother, a flash of green in his eyes would have warned Joe that Clay wasn’t in the mood to have brother Adam brought up in conversation.

“Do you think so?” Joe looked into his brothers blue eyes and then shook his head, “I should never have let them goad you into it, you could have lost the Ponderosa at the turn
of a card, Clay. That’s all it needed, wasn’t it? The wrong card … and everything would have been lost.”

Clay said nothing. He knew Joe was right, he knew Joe was right about everything. The two men had set them up right from the beginning. Well, it was obvious now, but it hadn’t been then. Joe had won steadily at first then he had began to lose. Clay had won steadily all through and when Joe had decided to call it quits Clay’s fiery temperment and his stubborn ‘professional pride’ had laughed Joe’s suggestion off.

“These two aren’t a match on me, Joe. I’ll win back all you’ve lost and more besides, they’ll be putty in my hands“

Clay Stafford had made that claim just after mid-day had struck the hour.. When he had gambled and lost his horse, Joe had begged his brother to stop, promising him that he would buy the horse back if he would but no, Clay had insisted on going on. Gambling was his profession, these two men were greenhorns at the job, he’d prove them totally inept, see if he didn’t. Then he had staked his newly acquired share of the Ponderosa on the turn of a card.

The whole saloonful of men had frozen into silence, crowded around the table, held their breath and waited. Even the clock on the wall seemed to stop ticking. Joe had felt sweat prickling his scalp. He had looked into his Clays eyes as his brother had turned the card.

“Clay, I think I’m going to throw up.” he said as he recalled that moment.

“Look, Joe,” Clay put his hands on Joe’s shoulders and gave him a slight shaking, “Look, it was MY land, don‘t you forget that, it was my own land …”

“It was Ponderosa land…” Joe whispered and shook his head, “It was Ponderosa land, Clay, and you put it up as a stake.”

“I didn’t lose it though, did I?” Clay hissed, “I got back my horse, and kept the land, what more do you want?”

“I – I don’t know, but …”

Both men paused, froze on the spot at the sound of footsteps along the landing. “D’you reckon it’s Pa?” Joe whispered.

Clay shook his head and stepped back away from his brother as the door opened, and dark eyes peered at the two brothers, “Are you two alright?” Adam asked.

“Sure, Adam, just fine.” Clay replied and smiled, leaned casually against the wardrobe and raised his eyebrows.

“When – when did you get home, Adam?” Joe asked, hoping that his voice wasn‘t shaking and he sounded relaxed and comfortable, he even managed a smile, blinked his eyes in that innocent look he could achieve as a last resort when trouble loomed..

Adam narrowed his eyes suspiciously, and then closed the door behind him. He leaned against it and folded his arms across his chest. “I just got home, been to San Francisco..”

“Oh ,yeah, yeah, Pa said ..” Joe stammered, licked his lips and looked over at Clay.

“Thought I’d just ride through town on the way home and have a drink before I got here.” Adam’s eyes turned from Clay to Joe, he nodded slowly, “Let me tell you a story I heard this evening. It concerns two brothers, and a card game…”

Chapter 15

Voices drifted up the stairs like whispers and for a moment Joe hesitated as he stood on the landing pulling on his shirt and fumbling with the buttons. For some inexplicable reason his heart was pounding and his mouth had gone dry at the thought of Adam telling their father about the events of the previous evening. As he passed Clay’s door he had an urge to knock and see if his brother were ready to face the family over the breakfast table, to face them together but as he could hear no sound from within he decided to brave it out.

As he forced himself to bounce down the stairs in his usual casual manner Joe looked over to where his father was sitting at the desk, Adam was perched on the corner, his arms folded over his chest as he listened to what Ben said and then ventured to speak. Both men glanced up and over to Joe who hesitated on the half landing, Ben smiled and nodded “Good morning, Joseph, you were home late last night weren’t you?”

The smile was warm and the eyes reflected the smile, Joe gulped and looked at Adam who remained perched on the desk, his arms remained folded but he had his head to one side and was looking at his brother as though the sight of him was amusing him. One eyebrow rose in slight mockery and his lips parted in a very slow smile. Joe turned his eyes back to his father, and gave a wavering grin back to him “Yes, Pa, sorry about that, we didn’t disturb you, did we?”

“No, but don’t make a habit of it, son.”

“No, sir.” Joe’s eyes flicked to Adams face and he quailed slightly under the way Adam raised his chin and then both eyebrows, his way of letting Joe know that he hadn’t forgotten what had happened in town, but at present it was a secret, just between them… and Clay.

Hoss boomed a greeting from the table at which he was already seated, he poured his little brother some coffee and grinned “You look a mite peakkid, little brother, you alright?”

“Yeah, sure I’m alright. Why shouldn’t I be?” Joe responded and glared at the coffee that was swirling about in his cup, “Yeah,” he frowned, “Sorry, Hoss, didn’t mean to snap at you like that.”

“Oh is that what you call it now?” Hoss guffawed, his blue eyes twinkled, “I’d kinda started getting used to it.”

Joe opened his mouth and then closed it. He scowled deeper than ever and swallowed hot coffee as he thought over what Hoss had said and realised that his brother was right, most conversations nowadays hadn’t been conversations, they had just been him snapping out angry responses. He sighed and put his cup down slowly “I’m sorry, Hoss, I hadn’t realised.”

Hoss said nothing, already feeling slightly embarrassed by saying something that had touched on Joe’s sensitive side. He was relieved when Adam came and sat down at the table, flicked out his napkin and began to load up his plate, he gave Adam a nod of the head and picked up the coffee pot, “Hey, Adam, how’d you get on in San Francisco?”

“Just fine, Hoss, just fine.” Adam stared at the ham and eggs and reached for some bread.

“You got the contract with Mr Munro?”

“Yeah, Pa’s reading through it now.” he raised his cup to his mouth and swallowed some of the coffee.

“Is it a good deal?” Hoss asked thinking it was harder to get a response from Adam than it was drilling for gold.

“Good enough.” Adam sighed and put down his cup, he glanced at Hoss’ empty plate “You finished already or havent you got started?”

“Shucks, I finished a while back.” Hoss said and grinned over at Joe who was piling up his place “Glad to see you got your appetite back, shortshanks.”

Joe grinned, it had been some while since he had been called that by his brother, “Guess I’m hungrier than usual, Hoss.”

Ben came to the table and pulled out a chair into which he settled himself, “Well, leave some for me, son.”

Joe flashed his father a grateful smile. Even though he knew that Ben had no idea of what had taken place in the saloon he was more than glad that his father was his usual self that morning, he helped ease the anxiety that niggled constantly at the back of his mind. Hoss helped himself to more bread and another egg, some more ham, which he loaded onto his fork and shoved into his mouth “Jest like old times, ain’t it?”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Hoss.” Ben snapped with a slight shake of his head, “How many more times have you to be told.”

“Sorry, Pa.” Hoss grinned sheepishly and winked over at Joe who was staring at him with big hazel eyes and a tight mouth “Well, what’s up? What’s the matter with you?”

Joe swallowed, he shook his head “Nothing, nothings wrong with me, Hoss.”

Hoss glanced at Adam who had kicked him hard on the ankle, unseen by Joe, before he turned his eyes to his father, paused for a moment as though he had to think of what he was going to say, but before he could speak Ben said “That contract was a good piece of writing, Adam. You did well, son.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

“You got home late last night. I wasn’t expecting you home until today.” Ben cut into his eggs and reached out for some bread.

“I pushed on hard to get back sooner, Pa.” Adam replied and washed down the food he had been eating with coffee. He refilled his cup and glanced over at Joe “I got in not long after Clay and Joe.”

Ben nodded, then looked at Joe then at the stairs “Which reminds me…exactly where is Clay?”

Joe looked over at the stairs and then put down his napkin “I’ll go and get him up, Pa.”

Ben nodded and smiled, and during the time it took Joe to reach the stairs he continued to talk about Munro, the contract and what a good price Adam had negotiated. Joe tapped on Clay’s bedroom door with the sound of Ben’s voice drifting into his ears. The door was opened by a rather dishevelled young man “Is it morning already?” Clay yawned.

For a moment Joe felt an odd emotion, it was one familiar to him with regards to his other brothers, but never before had he felt it with Clay. A hot rush of blood to the head, irritation, annoyance “You’re late. Pa expects us down to breakfast by now. Together.”

Clay yawned again and ruffled his hair, shrugged “Look, Joe, I had a long night, remember? We both had a long night. I’ll be down as soon as possible.”

“Then get a move on, Pa won’t have Hop Sing bothered by you to cook up more food just because you couldn’t get up in time.”

Clay blinked, was this really little brother speaking? He put out an arm and place his hand on Joe’s shoulder “You alright this morning, Joe?”

“Just hurry up.” Joe replied and shook Clays hand away before turning and going back downstairs.

Ben looked up and smiled as he wiped his mouth on the napkin “Is everything alright?”

“Yeah, he’s alright, Pa. Just overslept.” Joe slumped down in his chair and stared at the food congealing in his plate, he picked up his fork and sighed, his appetite lost once again.

“Have a good night then, did you, Joe?” Hoss asked innocently.

Joe felt the heat rising from under his collar he didn’t dare to look at Adam who was drinking another cup of coffee. “Yes, it was alright.”

“I’m glad you didn’t get into any mischief, Joe.” Ben said quietly, “I don’t want you getting into bad habits and trouble.”
“No, sir.” Joe heaved in a deep breath and reached out for the coffeepot, only to have it lifted by Adam who smiled at him and poured the coffee into the cup for him. Their eyes met. Joe thanked him and Adam nodded as he put the coffee pot down.

“What is keeping that brother of yours,” Ben suddenly said as his meal came to an end, “I wanted to give him his instructions for the day, before I leave.”

“Leave?” Joe’s voice squeaked, “Where you leaving to, Pa?”

Ben laughed and shook his head “Only into town, son. I want Hiram to look over this contract and then I can get the work under way. Hoss, you and Clay go to the timber yard, tell Mac I want them to start work as soon as possible on this Munro deal. I’ve written down the figures and amounts needed.”

“Why Clay?” Hoss asked with a puzzled look on his face, “He ain’t never been near a timber yard before now.”

Adam cast a swift look over at Joe prepared for the usual sharp retort which Joe would usually have shot off at the least provacotion when a comment appeared to slight Clay, but Joe said nothing. He just held his cup steady between his fingers and drank the coffee. Ben stood up and pushed himself away from the table “I know, but it might be a good idea if he went with you now and got used to what work there is like, after all, if he’s staying here he needs to know how things function, doesn’t he?” Ben smiled at them all as though his comment was a statement for them all to realise that as far as he was concerned Clay was family and they had to accept it.

Hoss nodded, shrugged and finished his coffee. Ben had just reached the bureau and started to buckle on his gun belt when Clay came down the stairs, looked around the room and bade everyone good morning. The response was cool, but unperturbed he sat down at the table and looked sadly at the remains of the meal “Any coffee left in the pot?”

Hoss lifted it up and poured dark coffee into a cup, which Clay accepted, it was then that Adam stood up and said he had work to do. Joe, in a panic now in case Adam was following after Ben to tell him what had happened in the saloon, stood up also, “Wait, Adam, I’ll come with you.”

Adam’s smile was slow, he nodded “Thought you might.” he said very slowly and with a sigh walked over to claim his hat and gun belt. Ben was just leaving, nodded and smiled, and left the house.

The brothers buckled on their gun belts and slipped on their hats, Clay called over “Where you two going?”

“Work.” Joe said sharply.

Clay turned to Hoss “Where are they going?”

“Reckon on them’s going to check on the new batch of horses. You and me’s going to the timber yard.”

“The .. The timber yard?”

“Yep, Pa thought it would be a good idea if you got more of a feel for the kind of work we do around here.” Hoss replied and tossed down his napkin, “You’d best hurry up, it aint’ a short trip to the timber.”

Clay swallowed and shook his head, he looked at his hands and frowned “What about gloves?”

But the door had closed with a bang, he was alone, his voice drifted into the air and faded away.

Chapter 16

The brothers rode out of the yard at a gentle jog, neither of them spoke to the other although both of them were feeling a sense of ease bringing them back to that comfortable feeling of just being with each other. As the horses made their way to their destination it occurred to Joe that this was the first time in weeks that he had had time alone with his eldest brother and he felt some guilt at the thought. He turned his head to observe Adam and found his brother had done the same, their eyes met and they smiled.

“Feels good to be sharing time like this, Joe.” Adam almost purred as he returned to look ahead to the way they were going.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same.” Joe said with his smile sounding in his words, “I’m sorry, Adam, I got – what I mean is -”

“No need to explain.” Adam replied and turned to look at his brother again, only this time the smile was replaced by a look of anxiety, “What exactly was going on last night, Joe? Is it true that Clay gambled away the Ponderosa?”

Joe blushed right to the roots of his hair and he shook his head, “No, no, it wasn’t like that at all.” he didn’t speak for a while as they walked their horses now, so that they could converse more comfortably. “Clay was up against two professionals, they were really slick, Adam. They cleaned me out and then they won Clay’s horse …” he paused and his brow crinkled into a frown “They were pretty confident now, when I come to think of it, probably thought we were easy pickings. When Clay staked the Ponderosa…I mean .. not the Ponderosa, just the bit he owned.”

Adams lips thinned and for a moment Joe anticipated an eruption of his brothers temper but when nothing was forthcoming he continued with his narrative of what had happened. “Those two guys were sure impressed about that, they were practically crowing, but then they lost out and Clay won back the horse and there was never any real fear of his land being lost. Then he just started to win steadily after that, and came home with the winnings.”

“But he could have lost.”

“Yes, but what I’m telling you is that he didn’t gamble the Ponderosa, it was just the land …” Joe’s voice wavered and he swallowed hard, “it was the land Pa ceded to him the other day.”

“The other day, just a few days ago, and he’s putting it in the pot to gamble away.”

“No, I mean, maybe, but I think – I think it was just a ruse, to lure them in -” Joe stammered, “I mean, professional gamblers have different ways of playing the game to us, I guess.”

“I guess.” Adam drawled in that slow I’m not amused tone of voice that would normally have Joe bristling, but this time he said nothing and for a while longer they rode along in a companionable silence although both were steeped in thought about the events of the preceding night.

“What’s on your mind, Adam?” Joe asked eventually as though he couldn’t handle the silence any longer.

Adam shrugged and shook his head, as though what he thought wouldn’t be to Joe’s liking if he told him. He lowered his hat as though to shield his eyes in case they spoke too much as often they did and he nudged Sport into a faster stride which Joe matched on Cochise.

“Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“I – I didn’t mean to be like I’ve been lately, you do know that, don’t you?”

“Oh, and how have you been, Joe? Just remind me, huh?” Adam kept his eyes ahead, not looking at his brother, and the smile of moments earlier had gone.

“I guess I wasn’t being fair, giving Clay all the attention and sticking with him all the time. It was pretty stupid really, wasn’t it?”

Adam did now cast a casual glance at his brother and a very slight grin touched his lips, he nodded, “Yeah, pretty stupid. You hurt Hoss’ feelings, y’know?”

Joe cringed inside, it was something he didn’t want to be reminded of or think about, not Hoss, he didn’t want to know how he had hurt Hoss. “I never meant to.”

“No, you never do, but the fact is, Joe, that you did. Anyhow, it’s up to you to deal with that yourself, nothing to do with me.”

“No, well, I guess not.” Joe sighed and bowed his head as he wondered why Adam had mentioned it anyway if it had nothing to do with him, then he realised that his brother was looking into Hoss’ interests as usual, nudging him, Joe, into realisation that Hoss would appreciate some kind of apology. “Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you angry about Pa giving that land to Clay?”

Adam’s lips twitched slightly, perhaps he wanted to say ‘Too danged right I am.’ but he refrained, instead he turned his head away from his brother and pointed ahead of him “There they are, Joe. A good twenty head, what do you think of ‘em?”

Joe rose in his stirrups and a faint smile drifted over his face, he nodded “Let’s get going, brother, before they get too comfortable.”

Adam grinned, there was nothing like this to get the adrenalin racing, and mundane thoughts chasing away like mist before sunlight. The ranch hands who had been herding the horses along greeted them with halloo’s and raised hats as they mingled into the dust cloud that the horses had created. Not so far was the temporary holding corral that had been erected and towards this the brothers assisted in leading them. Joe couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day …
Further afield his brother Clay Stafford was cursing the day and the work he had been assigned to do. The journey out was conducted in silence, Hoss didn’t seem inclined to speak and for a while Clay wondered if he had got to hear about the risk he had undertaken at the gambling tables, but a few subtle questions soon settled that matter as Hoss established he hadn’t seen Adam until he had sat down to breakfast that morning.

Hoss knew everything about timber. He pointed out the different variety of pine, told Clay the year they were planted, how many a year were chopped down and Ben’s rule of planting a new one in a felled trees place. By the time they got to the timber camp Clay was yawning from boredom and his backside ached from being in the saddle for so long.

McManus came forward, a big burly man with a hairy chest that sprouted through his shirt in an almost indecent manner. He carried an axe over his shoulder and looked at Clay with narrowed eyes as Hoss introduced him, “What can I do for you, Hoss?”

Clay felt he had been dismissed and it irked him, but he had dismounted now and looked around the camp with some interest. A thin man stepped out of a cabin with Cook House painted on a sign, he saw Hoss and strode over “You’re just in time for dinner, Hoss. You timed it jest right as usual.”

“I always do, Sam.”

The man called Sam laughed and then looked at Clay, “Have I seen you somewhere before?”

“Doubt it,” Clay replied, “I’m Clay Stafford.”

He didn’t extend his hand to be shaken, after all he was related to the boss, he looked at Hoss and waited for him to explain but Hoss obviously didn’t feel it necessary, he just stood there grinning, obviously the thought of food had turned his brain. Clay cleared his throat, “I’m Joe’s brother… half brother that is…”

Sam nodded “Yeah, so’s I heard tell.”

Hoss and McManus were in deep conversation again, striding towards the cook house where other men where heading. Clay realised that his stomach was grumbling and he would be left behind in the rush if he didn’t get a move, so caught up with Hoss and entered the building with him. Hoss rubbed his hands together and grinned “Sam makes the best venison stew this side of Boston. Don’t tell Hop Sing I said that mind…”

“I won’t.” Clay straddled the bench seat and sat down, he looked around at the men who were settling down, talking together, the sound of their voices lifting and falling like the sound of the sea. He sighed and removed his hat, shook his head, this, he decided, was no place for the son of a de Marigney to be living.

Chapter 17

The town was settling into its evening mode – gone were the housewives hurrying into the stores for the shopping and the children from their running through the streets with their shrill cries and laughter. As the night sky darkened so the saloons filled, whiskey bottles emptied and mens shouts and laughter were often times intermingled with the sound of gun shots or shouted oaths and insults. The shrill laughter of saloon girls was woven into the sounds of the men who haunted the saloons, piano music jarred against the sound of singing from a scanty chorus line of women in tawdry dresses.

Roy Coffee cradled his rifle under his arm and made his evening rounds, it was the loneliest hours of the day and he kept his eyes alert for trouble. When he saw Hoss Cartwright riding into town he gave a slight smile and nod, “Good to see you, Hoss.”
“I shouldn’t really be here, Roy. If you see Pa don’t tell him I’m here, will ya?”

“No, of course not,” Roy frowned “You’ve not seen your Pa yet then?”

“Not since early this morning.” Hoss replied and glanced over his shoulder “Is he here?”

“No, he left town a while back.” Roy cleared his throat “Looked like a man who had heard some bad news.”

“He had? Bad news as like what for instance?”

Roy hesitated a moment then shook his head “Best you find out when you get home.”

Hoss growled something beneath his breath and dismounted “Look, Roy, you seen Clay Stafford anywhere in town yet?”

“No. He’s usually in the Sazarac if he’s in town.”

“I already bin there.”

“Didn’t he tell you where he was going?”

“He didn’t even tell me he was going …anywhere… he just up and went. Pa won’t be too happy if he finds out Clay up and ran from work. I tell ya, Roy, that Clay is like an eel, just too slippery for his own good.”

Roy heaved a sigh of sympathy and patted his young friend on the shoulder, “I’m sorry, Hoss, if I see him I’ll let him know you’re looking for him.”

Hoss just shook his head as though not sure whether or not that was a good idea, but he left Roy to saunter on to carry out his official duty of ensuring the towns populace were safe for the night. The sound of smashing glass indicated that somewhere or other they probably were not …

*****

The light tapping on the door of Hotel room 214 indicated that the visitor either hoped the person was unable to hear him or was timid enough to worry about who he would find in the room when he was admitted. Clay turned his hat round and round in his hands and glanced up and down the landing before turning to face the person now smiling indulgently at him.

“Come in.”

Clay nodded and stepped into the hotels best suite of rooms, he glanced around and then looked at the other man “You’re alone?”

“Not entirely.”

Clay followed him into the room and took the seat indicated “I got your letter.”

“I know.” the newcomer smiled, and picked up a bottle of bourbon “Your favourite if I recall rightly.”

Clay nodded and leaned back into the chair and watched as the whiskey was poured into the glass, “What do you want from me?”

“What makes you think I want anything from you, Clay? I came to visit you, that’s all. Came to see how you were getting on with your family this time round, hopefully better than last time.” he raised a glass and nodded, then drank its contents quickly. “I heard tell you had an interesting evening at the gambling tables recently, almost lost a big chunk of the Ponderosa.”

“It wasn’t that big a chunk.” Clay muttered as he stared into the glass and swirled the liquid round and round, he swallowed some, then looked at his inquisitor “Why the interest?”

“Look, let’s stop beating around the bush, shall we? You know how interested I am in the Cartwrights, have been for a while now. The fact that you were gambling with some of their land as a stake indicates to me that either you have possession of some of it, or you have Joseph Cartwright in your pocket.”

“What if I have .. Either way you put it… what’s it to you?”

“It means a lot to me, and to our cause.”

“Your cause you mean.” Clays lips twisted into a thin line of bitterness and he drank down the rest of the whiskey quickly, “I told you already that I don’t want to be involved in what’s going on. I don’t want to be taking sides in a war that’s against my personal principles.”

“Principles” he almost purred the word and then smiled slowly “Clay, you don’t have any principles. I’ve seen you grow up and I know what you’ve done in your life, and it doesn’t seem to be that any principles were involved. None that were in the least bit admirable anyway.”

Clay narrowed his eyes, then shook his head, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I can assure you I do hold some principles highly. Just that they aren’t yours…”

There was silence for a moment then came the sound of more whiskey being poured into a glass, Clay stood up but the other man turned and shook his head “Sit down, Clay, we haven’t finished our conversation yet.”

*****

Adam and Joe returned home aching all over and covered in dust with several bruises in various areas of their bodies, by the time they had seen to their horses and pushed open the door to the main room of the house they were hoping for nothing more than a good meal, then to sink into bed.

Adam tossed his hat onto its accustomed peg and pulled off the black and white bandana from around his neck, he opened his mouth to say ‘Evening, Pa…” but stopped as Ben seemed to rear up from his chair and growled “Where is he?”

Adam looked over his shoulder at where Joe was standing unbuckling his gun belt, “I think he means you, Joe ..” he said with a grin on his lips but a warning look in his eyes.

“You mean me, Pa?” Joe asked innocently.

“No, I do not mean you. I mean that rapscallion of a brother of yours.”

Adam and Joe looked at one another then turned to observe Ben “You mean Hoss?” Joe said doubtfully and with a sinking feeling in his stomach

“You know perfectly well which brother I mean. I mean that ungrateful whelp of a de Marigny, and if I thought for a moment that you had anything to do with it, Joseph, I’ll tan the hide off’n you, and don’t look like that either, you know I mean it.”

“Yes, sir. I know you do, sir.” Joe gulped and tried to sidle behind Adam.

“Pa, why don’t you calm down and tell us what’s going on here?” Adam asked calmly, although he already knew and had half expected some such occurrence to take place after all Ben’s visit in town could well have brought him into contact with certain people who had been at the gambling tables on a certain evening.

“I’ve been waiting all afternoon for you all to come back. I’ve been waiting here for hours…hours let me tell you … which has given me a long long time to think over the matter.”

“What – matter – exactly, Pa.” Joe hic coughed.

“The matter of your brother gambling away the Ponderosa.” Ben thundered and Hop Sing who was bringing in a tray of coffee fixings, immediately did an about turn and went back into the kitchen

“He didn’t gamble away the Ponderosa, Pa.” Joe said quickly in defence of his absent brother, “He only -”

Ben narrowed his eyes “You were there? You were actually there when it happened?”

“Yes, sir. I tried to stop him, really I did, but he had no alternative .. I mean by that .. I mean that he had nothing left to put up as a stake. He’d already lost his horse.”

Ben hang his head down and surveyed the floor, not for any other reason than that for that moment words failed him. Adam tried to do a side step away in the hope of slipping unnoticed into the kitchen but Ben glanced up and caught him with a dark glare of black eyes “And did you know about it?”

Adam shrugged “I only heard a – sort of – vague rumour.”

“And you didn’t think to tell me?” Ben stood taller, swayed like a tree for a moment before he steadied up and folded his arms across his chest.

“It was just a rumour, Pa. I didn’t think it -” Adam paused, and looked at Joe who was staring miserably at him. “Er, what exactly did you hear, Pa.”

“ I was told that Clay Stafford had put the Ponderosa up as a stake and was close to losing it.” Ben growled through gritted teeth “The Ponderosa!!! A stake in a gambling game! Whatever next? What was he thinking?” he glared again at Joe “And you, why didn’t you stop him.”

Joe’s mouth had gone dry, he licked his lips “I tried to stop him, Pa, but … he said he felt lucky”

“How could he have been feeling lucky if he had gambled away everything else he possessed?” Ben howled, his voice making the ornaments on the nearby shelf quiver.

Joe shrugged and looked bleakly at Adam who rose to the occasion by stepping close to Ben and placing a placating hand on his father’s shoulder “Look, Pa, talk it over with Clay and find out from him what happened.”

“I intend to, believe you me, I intend to do just that!”

“Well, why not calm down now and -”

“I am calm.” Ben snarled and strode over to the table “Well, don’t just stand there, sit down and eat something before it gets cold.”

The two men looked at the table, then at one another, Joe cleared his throat “There ain’t nothing on the table, Pa.”
Ben’s eyes looked as though they were about to pop out, his lips curled away from his teeth, he whipped around and was about to yell for Hop Sing when that unfortunate appeared with a forced smile on his face and plates balance precariously in his hands.

*****

Hoss was close to the end of his tether as he approached his horse. He had walked up and down, in and out of various saloons, peeked into several restaurants and still no sign of Clay. He had located the horse though, and now stood opposite the Hotel outside of which the horse was dozing.

The hotels main doors opened and Hoss was immediately alerted to the light that blazed through onto the sidewalk. Two men stood together talking, and Hoss narrowed his eyes all the better to see who exactly was with Clay, shaking his hand … he shook his head in disbelief, it just wasn’t possible, not now, not after all this time… he stepped further back into the shadows and hoped that Clay wouldn’t see or recognise Chubb as he left town.

He followed Clay with his eyes until the other man was out of sight and swallowed up in the darkness. For a while he remained where he was with his heart thumping and his head whirling, he was about to step out of the shadows when he bumped into Roy who yelled “Stop right there, whoever you are and – Hoss Cartwright, you danged young fool,what’re you doing of standing there like that?”

“I – I guess I just seen a ghost, Roy.”

Roy sighed and shook his head “I nearly was one, the fright you jest give me. What do you mean, son?”

“I — I just saw him, the one armed man. You know, Frederick Kyle… I just saw him talking to Clay.”

Chapter 18

The meal was eaten in a sombre atmosphere as each man at the table moved their food around the plate and ate sparingly. Ben was willing himself to calm down now that he had actually vented his anger on Adam and Joe, but he was struggling with the whole situation and hoping against hope that Clay would keep his distance at least until morning.

Joe was thinking along the same lines as his father, in that he was willing Clay to stay away from the Ponderosa for as long as possible, or at least until he had had a chance to speak to him and warn him of Bens probable rage. The more he thought about the whole situation the sicker he felt as he recalled those moments with Clay in the saloon, the deck of cards, the smirking faces and Clay smiling at everyone there as though bestowing upon them a blessing.

Adam looked at his father several times during the course of the meal and wondered why Ben had ceded the land to Clay, and why Clay had been so quick to use it as a stake in that game. What person would throw away such a valuable asset ? How confident could any man be of winning a game of cards unless he knew for sure that there was no possibility of losing which meant … he sighed and pushed away his plate.

Ben glanced from the plate and the uneaten food to his son, was about to admonish him for wasting good food when he realised that he was unable to eat his own. He shook his head “This is a sorry how do you do,” he muttered, “it’s just that the thought of his losing that land – the risk he took – it makes me wonder what other risks he’d likely take in the future.”

Joe bowed his head and stared at his food, then put his fork to one side and sighed “Pa, you make it sound as though you don’t trust Clay anymore.”

Adam raised his dark eyes and looked at his father’s face and wondered if Ben really had ever trusted the man, but then, having given him so much land, he must have done. He left the question unanswered, assuming he had provided himself with it already.

Ben shook his head and scowled “Clay’s a gambler, it’s in his blood. His father was the same. I remember Marie telling me that the whole de Marigney fortune was built on the turn of a card as far back as the 100 years war in Europe.”

“I reckon you took a bit of a gamble yourself, Pa, in giving Clay that land in t he first place.” Adam said quietly and hoped that Joe wouldn’t erupt into one of his hot headed outbursts in defence of the absent brother.

“I felt it was my duty to give him it, Adam.” Ben said as he threw his napkin down beside his plate and left the table. His sons followed his example and together they settled down in front of the fire. Ben reached for his pipe and tobacco pouch while Adam and Joe waited for him to continue speaking, which he did as he rather absent mindedly stuffed the bowl of his pipe with tobacco, “I thought that if Marie had been alive, she would have expected her son to have some part of the Ponderosa.”

Adam said nothing to that, he wondered if Marie actually would have expected her son to be handed so much land for she was a logical woman even though fiery tempered and passionate. But her temperament had meant that she had understood Ben’s dream of creating the Ponderosa, and perhaps, he reasoned, she would have been more pragmatic than her husband and reminded him that her son had not worked to earn what his sons would one day possess as their birth right.

“I guess, seeing as how you gifted the land to him,” Joe said quietly and with no hint of the hot temper that had been so obvious during the past few weeks “he naturally assumed he could do anything he chose with it. It was his right -”

“No, it wasn’t,” Ben retorted immediately, “His land was still Ponderosa land, he had no right to sell it to anyone other than family, and certainly no right to gamble it away.”

Adam shrugged and stood up, “Well, I guess it’s up to you how you deal with it, Pa. As for me, I’m going to my bed, its been a long day.”

“Yeah, me too.” Joe yawned and stretched, “I guess Hoss and Clay are staying up at the camp tonight.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Ben muttered, “There’s a lot to do up there and it would do Clay good to see what it’s like to work hard for what he’s got.”

Joe grinned slightly as he stood up “You saying we didn’t work as hard today, Pa?”

Ben said nothing but actually managed to a gruff laugh as he watched his two sons make their way up the stairs to their rooms. Within minutes two doors had closed, he leaned back in his chair and puffed at his pipe, he closed his eyes and listened to the clatter of plates being removed, glasses chinked and Hop Sing muttered under his breath dire threats to those who had dared to waste his food.

*****

The house was in semi-darkness when Hoss rode into the yard and dismounted in order to lead Chubb to his stall in the stable. He checked over the horses and noted that Clay had not arrived home, the stall where his horse was kept remained empty. Hoss scratched his head and pondered over what had been on his mind all the way home from town, the fact that he had seen Frederick Kyle, the fact that Clay had been with him, the fact that they had appeared on very amicable terms.

He closed the stable door behind him and made his way slowly to the house, paused a moment and then gazed up at the sky which was laden heavy with stars. With a shake of the head he continued on, opened the door and stepped into the house. He could smell the pipe tobacco and glanced immediately at his fathers chair but it was empty. The fire was dying out, ash was sinking in the hearth and embers were slowly fading in colour.

For some reason he felt quite relieved that his father wasn’t sitting there, it meant he did not have to give any explanation as to why he was home so late, or so early depending on what his father had expectations of with regard to time. He slowly unbuckled his gunbelt and laid it down on the bureau alongside those of his brothers.

It was late but he was hungry so he naturally gravitated to the kitchen and looked through various pots, pans and cupboards for something to eat. He was chomping on some meat and potatoes when he heard the sound of footsteps and froze to the spot, only to relax when he saw his brother, Adam, step into view. “You scared me to death.”

Adam raised his head in order to observe his brother from half hooded eyes, he had slept heavy and it had been hard to open his eyes when he had woken up. He closed them several times before he could keep them open enough to actually see Hoss, “Is it time to get up already?”

“You are up.” Hoss observed as he stuffed more pie into his mouth

“So are you.”

“That’s because I ain’t been to bed yet. I jest got home.”

“Oh,” Adam yawned and stumbled sleepily over to the sink where he worked the sluice in order to fill a glass with water. “You’re late.”

“Hey, Adam, has Clay been home yet?”

Adam drank some water and shook his head, he blinked rapidly several times and then drank some more, then turned to observe his brother with some degree of intelligence “Why do you ask?”

“Wal, he was supposed to be with me at the timber camp.” Hoss frowned, “But he sneaked off. I reckon he didn’t like the work.”

“So? Not everyone enjoys working in the timber yard like you do, Hoss.” Adam smiled and leaned against the table,he folded his arms across his chest and observed his brother. “So he sneaked away and you came home, is that it?”

“No, that ain’t it.” Hoss brushed his hands on his shirt to remove the crumbs from his fingers and then filled a glass with water which he drank down quickly, “No, soon as I found out he had gone sneaking off I followed his tracks into town.”

“Oh.” Adam stifled a yawn, “You found him gambling the rest of the Ponderosa away, huh?”

“What?” Hoss looked at his brother in confusion, “Why’d he want to gamble the Ponderosa away?”

“Nothing, don’t worry about it, forget I said it.” Adam replied immediately, “So? Where did you find him?”

“I didn’t, not for a long time, then just as I was thinking of coming home without knowing where’d he gone the doors of the Whitney Hotel opened up and there he was …I could see him plain as day by the light that was shining from inside, but he wasn’t alone.”

Adam narrowed his eyes and shook his head “He wasn’t?”

“Nope, he sure wasn’t.”

“Well, was it anyone we knew? A lady friend?”

“Nope.” Hoss shook his head adamantly and scowled “Weren’t no female.”

“Alright then, are you going to tell me or do we have to stand here all night while I made wild and incorrect guesses?”

“Yeah, well, I betcha you wouldn’t guess who it was in a million years.”

Adam sighed and now shook his head, “Alright, Hoss, you got me beat. Why not come right on out and tell me.”

Hoss straightened his shoulders and stood taller “Frederick Kyle.”

Adam didn’t move, he just stared at Hoss as though his brother wasn’t there, then he repeated the name very quietly and asked Hoss if he were really sure, no possible chance of a mistake, and Hoss shook his head “Ain’t no chance of making a mistake, Adam, it was him plain and simple.”

“Did you let them see you?”

“No. Reckoned it best they didn’t know I see’d ‘em. I did go in and check the register though… he ain’t using his real name… he’s calling himself Henry Kincaid.”

“Is he alone?”

Hoss shook his head “No, he has two other men with him, they wrote their names in the register as well… David Logan and Richard Fawcett.”

Adam closed his eyes for a moment and then when he opened them observed Hoss closely, “Does anyone else know?”

“Only Roy.”

“Well, that’s good, we’ll keep this to ourselves for now, Hoss. Let’s get to bed and sleep on it. I’ll think of something …”

“What about Pa? And Joe? How’d you think Joe will feel about that man being here, and especially being so friendly with Clay?”

Adam pushed himself away from the table and placed a gentle hand on his troubled brothers shoulder “Look, go and get some sleep. Just say nothing, and leave it to me to deal with now.”

Hoss sighed heavily, and turned obediently away from the kitchen. It made him feel better knowing that Adam knew about Kyle and Clay, but it made him feel wretched at having burdened his brother with the problem. He decided to worry about it just a little bit before he went to sleep.

Chapter 19

The lamps in the main room were still glowing when Clay finally arrived back at the ranch. After seeing to his horse he made his way to his room as quietly as possible, tiptoeing past several doors and hopeful that Hoss’ snoring would deaden any sound of his presence. He eased the door of his room open very slowly and entered it with a feeling of relief that his return had gone unnoticed.

The room was in darkness although some light from a full moon shone through a gap in the curtains and after he had flipped his hat onto the bed he began to quickly unbutton his jacket. The rasp of a match sent panic trickling down his spine, he froze, his hand hovered to his gun but stopped when he remembered that whoever was in the room was a member of the family, he swallowed a gulp and turned to face Adam who was calmly lighting a lamp.

“What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you – obviously.” Adam adjusted the flame and then replaced the glass funnel, before he turned to observe Clay. “You’re late.”

“So I’m late?” Clay gave a nervous laugh, shrugged, “So what of it? Is your Pa arranging to have a watch dog on my every move now?”

Adam grimaced “That wasn’t worthy of you, Clay. My Pa doesn’t prevent any of us having and enjoying our own time, so long as we pull our weight with the work here.”

Clay nodded slowly as though he concurred with what Adam had said, he raised a hand and stroked his moustache and then sat on the side of the bed “So what is this then? A display of brotherly affection or concern?”

“Concern would be the best word, you can forget about the brotherly aspect of it though.” Adam responded as he crossed one leg over the other, “You – er – left the lumber camp early, Clay?”

“Are you asking me or telling me? Hoss not happy by my leaving, huh? Reported back to you all, did he?”

“No, he didn’t. He’s not long returned himself, happened that I was the only one he saw.”

Clay frowned and shrugged “Look, I’m tired, can’t this wait until morning?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Then say what you have to say and then -” he indicated the door with a nod of the head, his smile hardened as did his eyes.

“Clay, I don’t like the company you keep, nor does Hoss. He saw you this evening and he saw who you were with …”

“Mr Kincaid happens to be an old friend of my family.” Clay said quickly.

“Mr Kincaid happens to be an old acquaintance of my family,” Adam responded coldly, “Only last time we knew him here he was called Frederick Kyle.”

Clay’s eyes widened momentary, then he looked down at his hands with a frown “You know him?”

“From of old. He came here in an attempt to entice Joe to go along with his own sympathies, and to get silver bullion for the confederacy. He succeeded in some measure, I don’t doubt that some silver is siphoned off from various mines hereabouts to support that cause. But – that’s nothing to do with this matter, is it? Or – is it?”

Clay cleared his throat and rubbed his chin slowly, as though the question begged time for an answer. He looked again at Adam “Kyle’s been a friend of the de Maligney’s for years, ever since I could remember in fact.”

“Go on,” Adam prompted remembering as he spoke the picture that Kyle had of Marie, and how he had told Joe of knowing his mother all that way back in time.

“He was married to my Uncle’s sister in law.”

“Mmm, you know she died hereabouts?”

“No, I – I didn’t know that …” Clay licked his lips, “I met her several times, she was a charming woman.”

“I only ever saw her dead, she didn’t look so good then. You should ask Mr Kyle how she died, and what involvement he had in her death.”

Clay looked again at Adam as though he had never seen him before, then he nervously wiped a hand over his moustache and mouth “I never knew anything about her death. I didn’t -” he paused, “I can’t imagine what you’re saying is true, Adam, he loved that woman. When his boy was killed it broke them both, hit them hard.”

“I thought you’d have been in Mexico at the time?”

“I have friends who keep in touch ..” Clay said quietly “And I went back to New Orleans not so long ago, remember?”

Adam shrugged as though he wasn’t particularly interested “So tell me, why and for what reason has he returned to Virginia City? What’s your involvement with him?”

“I don’t know, he never told me. He just contacted me when he heard I was here, as an old family friend would.”

“Clay, you’re not playing poker just now,” Adam replied quietly, “Stop bluffing, and tell me the truth. Don’t forget, I know Frederick Kyle – and I don’t trust him one inch. That means, that by association, I don’t trust you either.”

Clay’s mouth tightened, his resentment of this older brother of Joe’s grew hotter than ever and he stood up “I don’t have to take this kind of talk from you, Adam. If you weren’t Joe’s brother I’d -”

“You’d what? Challenge me to a duel?” Adam’s voice rose, hardened, and he also stood up, “Well, anytime you choose … let me know.”

Clay caught his breath, he swallowed what he was about to say and then shook his head, he made a sweeping gesture of the hand as though to dismiss what had already been said and began to slowly finish unbuttoning his jacket which he peeled off and cast over the bed “I’ve nothing to hide from you, Adam, nor any of you. I’ve told you the truth, Kyle is an old family friend and when he heard I’d been gambling and using some of the Ponderosa land for a stake he was intrigued. He just wanted to know how much land I had, and if I was willing to sell it to him.”

“And that’s all?” Adam hissed in a voice that meant far more than just the words, his eyes darkened and seemed to glow as the lamplight flickered

“That’s all. I told him it wasn’t for sale. End of story.”

Adam shook his head “No, not with Kyle. It’s no end of story as far as he’s concerned.”
He narrowed his eyes “You were prepared to gamble the land away, but you wouldn’t sell it? Why the difference?”

“Oh I knew I would not lose the land, I had the measure of those men I was dealing with, and besides, I wanted my horse back.”

Adam frowned and shook his head, “But you wouldn’t sell?”

“Condition of the gift was that I only sold it back to the family if I didn’t want it.”
He frowned “Not that I’d sell it back to any of you, it was a gift and I’d return it as such.”

“Kyle won’t let go of you, you know that, don’t you?”

Clay shrugged, “He doesn’t frighten me, Adam. Seems he scares you to death.”

Adam smiled very thinly, “No, Clay, he doesn’t scare me, but what he can do – that worries me some.”

Clay said nothing to that but began to unbutton his shirt, turning his back to Adam who now seemed lost for words, he cast one last look at Clay and quietly left the room.

Outside on the landing Adam paused for a moment, he passed his hand over his face and rubbed his chin, then glanced at his father’s bedroom door. For a moment he hesitated at the thought of disturbing his fathers sleep, his hand on the doorframe, then he turned and made his way to his own room.

*****

The knock on the hotel door was sharp and abrupt, Kyle nodded over to one of the men in the room with him who immediately opened the door and stepped back to admit the man standing on the landing.

Kyle stood up, the napkin he had in his hand he dropped onto the table, “Well, this is a surprise.” he glanced at the food and coffee pot then at his visitor, “Well, come on in, its early. Would you like some coffee, Adam?”

Adam glanced from one man to another and then allowed his eyes to settle on Kyle, he nodded “Yes, thank you.”

Removing his hat he entered the room and walked to the table, where Kyle was pouring coffee into an unused cup, this he handed to Adam with a smile “Am I right in assuming that you were told about my being here by a mutual friend of ours?”

“My brother, Hoss, saw you here. He told me.” Adam replied as he sat down at the table with the cup in his hand. “He did see you with Clay …”

“Ah yes, of course.” Kyle looked over his shoulder and with a jerk of the head indicated that he wished to be alone. The two men promptly left the room although Adam had no doubt that they would be lingering on the landing should Kyle call for them.

“Well, Adam” Frederick Kyle smiled slowly, “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance again.”

To that Adam made no reply, he merely lifted the cup to his lips and drank some of the coffee, his eyes however, never strayed from observing the man sharing the table with him.

Chapter 20

Kyle had aged, he looked haggard and drawn, heavier in build as well. Adam wondered if the man had ever recovered from the emotional impact of losing his wife as he had those few years ago. He recalled that night well, when Kyle had looked down at the shattered remains of his wife and denied knowing her, and yet had clung to her cloak as though it were a lifeline to what was left of what he loved about her. He shook his head,

“It’s been a while.” he said quietly, his words softened by his memories of that night, and Kyle nodded and poured himself some coffee “Has it been worth while, Kyle? This war, all that hatred and all those deaths?”

Kyle put down the cup and looked at Adam as though confused, he shook his head “You talk in quite denunciating tones, Adam, yet what do you know about the cost of this war? You’ve not ventured further than the territorial line into where the battles are raging, you know nothing of what cost this war is bringing to peoples lives?”

Adam sighed “Does one have to be in the thick of a battle to appreciate the enormity of it? Is it essential to see men blown apart to know the futility of it all? No, I have no intention of seeing it for myself, I just listen to those who come to this town and try to escape their memories, their losses.”

“From a safe place, Adam. But then the Ponderosa has always been a haven to you, hasn’t it?”

“Kyle, you nearly tore our family apart when you came last, don’t try doing the same thing this time. It won’t work.”

“No?” Kyle laughed and shook his head “You really are naïve, aren’t you? Your little brother Joseph has another brother to hero worship now, Adam. Do you think anything you say will count when compared to his brother Clay and what he has to tell Joe?”

Adam cleared his throat “What has Clay to do with your plans, Kyle? Did he know you were on your way here?”

“Does it matter if he did or not? He’s got what I wanted him to get, and that’s a slice of the Ponderosa. That will do very nicely for starters.”

Adam frowned, he looked thoughtfully at Kyle and thought back to his conversation with Clay, he shook his head, “I think you’re mistaken, Kyle. Clay has no intention of handing over his portion of the Ponderosa to you.”

“And you believed him?” Kyle laughed again and shook his head “He’s such a great poker player. I just knew he was the perfect person to send back to the Ponderosa. You know, of course, that I’ve been a family friend for years. Almost related to the family …”

“So I understand.” Adam replied slowly, still trying to come to terms with the fact that Clay had possibly lied to him about his involvement with Kyle, and about the land. He licked his lips and then shrugged “So Clay came here with the intention of getting his hands on the Ponderosa, huh? He certainly knew how to win over my Pa, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, you’re all so eager to help out the under-dog, Adam. That’s something I’ve noticed about you and your family. Trusting to a fault.” he frowned “Apart from you… you didn’t trust me from the moment you saw me did you?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“And you don’t trust Clay, do you?”

Adam pursed his lips and then shook his head “No. I wanted to but recent events have proven my initial impressions of him to be more accurate.”

Kyle leaned back in his chair and sighed, he toyed with the cup in his saucer and then looked at Adam thoughtfully “I take it you’re alone?”

“Would I tell you if I wasn’t ?” Adam said slowly and lowered one hand to wards the butt of his gun.

“Don’t do that, Adam. Just put your hands on the table where I can see them… that’s better. I don’t want any gunshots warning that sheriff of yours that something was going on, especially this early in the morning.” Kyle stood up and for the first time Adam could see the snub nose of a derringer in the other mans hand “Just stay still, Adam.”

Adam watched with some curiosity as Kyle walked to the door and opened it, then nodded to the two men waiting there. “Take him away, you know where…. I’ll be in touch with you later about what to do with him.”

“Don’t you want us to kill him, Mr Kyle?”

Frederic Kyle looked at Adam thoughtfully and then shook his head “No, not yet. It would be better to keep him alive for a while.”

Adam’s gun was removed from its holster and he was forced to stand up, he looked at Kyle, smiled slowly, “You don’t want to under estimate us, Kyle. You did that once before, and failed.”

“I didn’t have an ace card then, Adam. But I do now..in fact, I’d go so far as to say I have two aces, one up my sleeve is always very useful.”

He slipped the derringer back into its holster under his jacket and watched as his two men began to lead Adam out of the room. With a gun jammed against his spine and another nudging his ribs Adam had no choice but to allow himself to be forced along by the two men as though there was nothing wrong. Charlie at the desk looked up and saw the three men as they came down the stairs, but as Adam tensed to do something one of the men hissed in his ear “One word and that guys a dead man.”

“Morning, Adam…didn’t know you were in town?”

“Just a quick visit, Charlie.” Adam replied as nonchalantly as he could ,”How’s the wife and children.”

“The wife?” Charlie frowned and watched as the three men left the building, the door to which swung to a shut, “Wife? I aint got no wife or kids!” Charlie muttered and shook his head, glanced upstairs and wondered just exactly what had been going on in Mr Kyle’s room, Adam was obviously not thinking straight for some reason or another.

*****

Perhaps Clay wasn’t surprised at the cool reception he received when he came downstairs to join the family for breakfast. Conversation lulled as soon as he had made an appearance and even Joe avoided his eyes. He was thick skinned enough to ignore it however and sat down, flicked out his napkin and asked where Adam had gone.

“Don’t you know?” Hoss asked with a scowl.

“No, should I?” Clay helped himself to some bacon and eggs, picked up some bread and poured himself some coffee.

Hoss looked at Ben and then at Joe, he frowned again and was about to speak when Joe asked Clay where he’d been the previous day. Clay shrugged “I went into town, to be honest,” and he looked Ben squarely in the eyes, “I didn’t take to the timber yard, and all those men – lumberjacks they call themselves – I’m sorry, sir, but that’s one aspect of work here that I really can’t handle.”

Ben sat back and observed the young man for a while, he looked for some resemblance of Marie in the way he would look at Joe for the same thing, and certainly Clay had that fine nose, and that stubborn chin, the colour of the eyes were so like Joe’s that it pulled at Bens heart to notice it, he shook his head “Clay, I don’t really expect you to be staying here long enough to find any form of work on the Ponderosa to your liking.”

Clays lips twitched slightly, he shrugged “I find that rather a sad indictment, sir.”

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?” Joe muttered as he pushed some food around in his plate, “You never did intend to stay here, did you?”

“So what did you do in town, Clay? Another gambling house, perhaps? How much of the Ponderosa did you gamble away this time?” Ben’s voice was deep, clipped and had an edge to it that Clay had not heard before, he raised his eyebrows and shook his head

“I’m sorry, sir, that incident happened only when I was perfectly confident that I wouldn’t lose any land to those men. I’m a professional, sir, and I know how to play this game, and I seldom lose.”

“You did that night.” Joe reminded him sullenly but Clay only smiled and shrugged,

“I let them win, which is a different thing altogether.” he looked at Ben, “Do you want me to leave now, sir?”

Ben shook his head “No, of course not. I’m just stating the obvious, that’s all. That way none of us will be disappointed when you decide to ride out of here ..again.” and he looked at his youngest son as he spoke as though his words were designed to soften the blow.

For a moment it looked as though Clay were about to speak but remained silent. Joe, his head full of confusion as he tried to make sense of the conversation, said nothing but kept glancing from his father to Clay as though inspiration would strike and he would be able to exclaim ‘Eureka’ as the philosopher from long ago had done. Hoss ate his food slowly and methodically as he tried to work out where Adam had gone and whether or not it would be advisable to mention about seeing Clay with Kyle.

The meal finished in silence. As they rose from the table Clay said quietly “I wouldn’t betray your trust on purpose, Ben, believe me, the gift you gave me means more to me than you’ll ever know.”

Ben paused and looked the young man in the eye, he sighed deeply and nodded although inside himself he was wondering whether or not he could really believe what Clay was saying, “I hope so,” he said in a rather subdued voice before turning to Hoss and Joe, “Better get to work. Joe, go and see how MacIntyre’s getting on with that last order. Hoss, you come with me into town. Clay… you have a choice of coming with me or going with Joe.”

Clay opened his mouth and then closed it, he shrugged “Would you mind, sir, if I remained here.”

Ben’s scowl indicated that he did mind, but he said nothing just nodded and turned on his heel with Hoss close behind, although he hovered, surely now it would be a good idea to mention that he had seen Clay with Kyle, but Clay just gave him a cold glare which made Hoss swallow his words and head in the direction of the door.

Chapter 21

Logan and Fawcett pulled Adam along the side alley that ran past the Whitney hotel, niether man felt comfortable with the fact that Kyle had wanted the man kept alive, for them a dead body was far easier to dispose of, and less likely to fight back when or if a chance came its way. They kept so close to Adam that he had no choice but to go along with them, bide his time and hope for an opportunity to come along to escape. As it was now he accepted the fact that he was their prisoner and decided to learn as much as he could about what was being planned.

The morning sky was colourful, ablaze with the colours of a new dawn and Adam glanced up and thought how the Indians would have hailed it with the exclamation “Yatahay, today is a good day to die.” Logan pushed him forward towards a wagon, he stumbled, but Fawcett grabbed him by his jacket and before he could protest, fight back or take advantage of the situation he felt a blow to the temple, stars more colourful than the sky he had just admired exploded in his head and he fell prone onto the ground.

*****

Hop Sing as curious as he watched from the window as Clay Stafford entered the garden which had been so carefully and lovingly planted by Marie and himself so many years before. Muttering Cantonese curses beneath his breath he saw the young man disappear into the rose bowers and return moments later carefully arranging a nosegay of roses in his hand.

“Huh” Hop sing muttered and shook his head, so, a woman was involved after all. Always a problem, always with women.

It didn’t take Clay Stafford long to reach the grave which was the final resting place for his mother. He remained in the saddle for a while to look upon it and to view the lake beyond, the waters of which were calm and serene. He wondered if she had been put here on just such a day after her death and once again he had a yearning for some knowledge of her. He dismounted and approached the grave with the roses in his hand and then knelt by the gravestone.

“It’s strange, being here you know?” he whispered, “I asked about you and I’m told that you were a passionate woman, fiery as well. They said you liked to sing and to ride, you could use the epee, and that you were a good mother, a loving wife. But that leaves a whole lot of holes for me, it means I don’t know what the sound of your voice was like, if your eyes changed colour when you were angry. I don’t know the touch of your hand or how you would have cared about me.”

He put the roses down and ran his hand along the grass that covered the slight mound. He frowned a little and stood up, hat in his hand, “I’m in a mess just now, mother. I can’t seem to find a way out of it either. I think the best thing would be to ride on out of here and then I think that’s the cowards way out, I need to face up. I know I’m a disappointment to Ben, but he doesn’t understand what it’s like with this war and how it gets into your bones and distorts things so much. And Joe? Well, I guess he’s like me more than I know, he’s stuck not knowing what side he’s on… I mean, not sure if he should be loyal to Adam and Hoss or to me. I don’t want him to be in that position much longer. Sorry, Mother, I guess you’d find me a real disappointment.”

Chapter 22

Mud oozed everywhere as Adam attempted to get to his feet, it was dark and wherever he put his hands or feet he could only feel the wet mud sliding away from him. By groping on hands and knees he finally came to a brick wall and felt his way up until he was standing on his two feet again. Then he had to turn round and lean upon the wall to get his breath back, and reach out on either side of him.

He wiped his hands down his vest only to find that was liberally coated with slime and mud as well, then when he looked up he saw the sky, a smudge of cloud drifting by, just a small area to look at and he realised then that Kyle’s two henchmen had thrown him down a well.

He struggled to remember the direction they had taken from leaving the hotel, what had happened and when but all that he could recall was being dragged along, the pain when he was struck by some heavy object. Tentatively he touched the area that was even now throbbing, but the effort of doing so made him dizzy and he had to slide down onto his haunches, allow his head to sink down upon his chest and remain as still as he could.

*****

Ben and Hoss dismounted outside the Telegraph depot and were in the middle of tethering their horses when Roy’s deputy came striding towards them and gave them his familiar smile “Morning, Ben, Hoss.”

“Everything quiet, Deputy?” Ben asked with that smile he usually afforded the man whom he considered incapable to keeping the law without Roy to oversee him.

“Sure is, Ben. Good thing too seeing how Roy done gone and disappeared on us all.”

“Roy? Disappeared? How do you mean?” Hoss screwed up his face as he imagined Roy walking down the street and suddenly whoomf and a cloud of smoke striking the spot so that nothing remained of their old friend.

“Well, he came in early this morning. That was about the time your Adam was here, no, got that wrong, let me see … more like he came in after Adam Cartwright had been in the office because he found the note that Adam had left him.”

“Adam left a note for Roy?” Ben asked, frowning and more confused than ever.

“Yeah, not a long note, just a few words on it. Anyway, Roy shook his head, cussed a bit like he does, and went out, said he’d be back.”

“Only he ain’t got back, huh?” Hoss wrinkled up his nose in deep thought, and looked at Ben “so if Roy ain’t got back, I reckon that’s how come he’s disappeared.”

Ben nodded and looked anxiously at the deputy “Has my son been into the office since?”

“Nope, I saw him go to the Whitney Hotel though.”

Ben and Hoss exchanged a glance, nodded and then turned away towards the hotel, leaving Dodds alone watching them go and scratching his head. “Why’d you think Adam would go and see Roy, Pa?”

“I don’t know, that’s what I aim to find out.”

“Then, shouldn’t we wait in the sheriff’s office and wait for Roy to come back?”

“Nope, I want to find out why Adam went to the hotel, and early in the morning, and then left Roy a note.”

“Or left Roy a note before he went to the hotel.” Hoss muttered which made Ben pause a moment, look at his son and nod “Yes, son, I reckon that makes more sense.”

Charlie was leaning across the counter talking to one of the staff members when Ben and Hoss walked into the foyer. He stood up immediately and straightened his vest, while the other man hurried away to get on with his own duties. Hoss stepped back to let his father approach Charlie while he himself looked around as though by doing so he would find some evidence of his brother crying out to be found.

“Morning, Mr Cartwright.” Charlie smiled and nodded a welcome, “Morning, Hoss.”

“Charlie, have you seen my boy Adam hereabouts this morning, and Sheriff Coffee?”

Charlie shook his head “Ain’t seen the sheriff, Mr Cartwright, but your Adam was here really early.
“How early?”

“Sun was just coming up.” Charlie leaned conversationally forward with his elbows on the counter “Very odd thing happened…”

“Yes?” Ben snapped while Hoss leaned closer.

“Well, he came downstairs with two other men and asked me how my wife and kids were.. Now, you know, Mr Cartwright, I ain’t got no wife or kids, so I reckoned that was mighty strange of him to ask me that.”

“These two men, who were they?”

“Strangers in town, Mr Cartwright. They’re Mr Kincaid’s friends.” Charlie nodded and glanced up the stairs to make sure that Mr Kincaid’s friends were not lingering close enough to over hear the conversation.

“Who exactly is Mr Kincaid?” Hoss now asked before his father could even get his mouth working.

“A businessman, all the way from Kansas. I tell you something else – you know that young man that claims to be related to your boy, Joe? He’s been here several times to see Mr Kincaid.”

Hoss gulped and went pale, he put his hand on his father’s arm and pulled him from the counter “Pa, I got something to say..shucks, I shoulda told you before but it clean slipped my mind.” he drew in a long deep breath “I – I saw Clay last night here, I saw him talking to Kyle.”

“Kyle?” Ben’s face looked puzzled, his voice confused, he shook his head “Kyle?”

“You know, Pa, you remember, the one armed man that took such an interest in Joe that time and nearly -.”

Ben raised a hand to cut Hoss from saying anything more, he turned to Charlie, “What number is this Mr Kincaid’s room?”

“120, Mr Cartwright, but ain’t no use you going up there now, he’s not there, he went out earlier.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

Charlie shrugged “He ain’t like to tell me, Mr Cartwright. He went with his two friends though.”

Ben and Hoss looked at one another, thanked Charlie and left the hotel, probably faster than they had entered it. Ben grabbed Hoss by the arm “For heavens sake, Hoss, why on earth didn’t you mention about Kyle before.”

“I did. I mean, I told Adam and he said he’d deal with it and so I – I thought he would and kinda …kinda forgot.”

“FORGOT!” Ben thundered so loudly that two people across the street turned to see what was going on. He forced himself to remain calm, the cords of veins standing out on his temples throbbed, he shook his head “Forgot…” he hissed.

“Well, not completely forgot, just kinda tucked it to the back of my mind.” Hoss groaned.

Ben was about to say more when a familiar shape came into sight, an anxious look on his own face but hopeful when he saw Ben and Hoss, “I heard tell you were in town.” Roy said as he drew nearer, “Have you found him yet?”

“Kyle?” Ben asked

“No, Adam?”

Ben and Hoss looked at one another, shook their heads and frowned. Roy sighed, pushed his hat to the back of his head “Dang it, that’s just what I didn’t want to hear … means I done gone lost track of him.”

Chapter 22

Back in his office and pouring out some of the hot coffee into three cups, Roy explained what had happened. “Adam came in early this morning, I knew Kyle was in town because Hoss here told me so -” at which Hoss cringed at the scathing look from his father and the confused one he received from Roy “Adam told me that he’d had a show down with Clay, and had come to confront Kyle who was going under the name of Kincaid. I’d heard about Mr Kincaid, just thought he was a business man passing through and contacting folk he had business with hereabouts. Well, seems like Mr Kyle was more successful than we realised on his last visit, several mining operatives are supplying the confederacy with silver bullion. Kincaid, I mean, Kyle, was making sure that the supply was still coming through and hoping to up the ante!”

“So – what has this to do with Adam?” Ben growled, drinking the coffee far too quickly and scalding his mouth as a result

“Like I said, Ben, he came in and left a note saying he was going to have a showdown with Kyle. Said to -”

“Wait a moment – you didn’t actually see Adam?”
“No, he left a note, but I went right out after he’d been, saw him go into the hotel and kept watch like he told me to.”

Hoss sighed heavily and put down his cup “Then you lost him?”

“That’s right. Miss Gibbs came along and started yakking on some about her boy and how she wished she had a man who would put him in his place. When she left I kept a watch for a while but everything was mighty quiet so I went in to see Charlie and he said Adam had just left with two other men. I high tailed it this way and that away, but couldn’t see ‘em.”

“I think Adam’s in trouble, Roy.” Ben said quietly, “He more or less hinted that to Charlie.”

“Yeah, I know, I got told the same -” Roy frowned, “I came upon some tracks round the back of the hotel, looked like three men, and then two men dragging another man along, there were scuff marks leading to a wagon, but after that there was nothing.”

Hoss straightened up immediately “Jest you show me where them tracks are, Roy. We got to find Adam before Kyle does him any harm.”
………..

Joe liked all aspects of work on the Ponderosa, but working on the timber yards and among the men who spent their lives roughing it out in the woodlands always filled him with admiration for the hardships they endured. McManus came and greeted him with a wave of the hand “Thought I’d be seeing your brother, Hoss, again, and that Clay Stafford.”

Joe sighed as he dismounted, he didn’t like the fact that Mac referred to Clay as ‘that Clay Stafford’ it indicated that the men here didn’t really respect his half brother as much as he’d have liked them to have done, but then realised that his respect was waning as well. “Pa wanted me to check on that contract, Mac.”

“Oh that -” Mac shrugged “It’s coming along fine, fact is, as I was telling Hoss, we’re ahead of schedule.” he chewed on some tobacco and spat out a stream of yellow juice into the ground, “That Clay Stafford – he’s a rum ‘un – stayed less than an hour, had some grub with us and then high tailed it outa here. Said he didn’t like being here, felt kinda claws – to – probe – it.”

Joe frowned and gave Mac a sharp look, he couldn’t imagine anyone feeling claustrophobic here in the big woods but then Clay wasn’t used to towering trees often time stopping the daylight shining through. He nodded “Well, we’re all different, Mac.”

“Yeah, guess I couldn’t stick it in a room full of smoke and such playing cards for a living, which I hear tell, is what Mr Stafford does most of the time.” Mac chewed some more and looked around him at the busy camp, he smiled “This is a good life, Joe.”

“It is, Mac, especially on a day like this.”

Mac nodded and his smile broadened “You coming on in to eat with us?”

“Sure thing, wouldn’t miss out on the stew here for anything.”

*****

Kyle rode well for a man with one arm, he had always been a good horseman and once he had lost his limb he set out to make sure he would be every bit as good as before. The two men who rode with him kept quietly in the back ground, listened to what they were told and did what they were ordered. They were both sworn into the Confederacy and accepted Kyle as their Captain. Niether of them bothered to think about the man they had dumped down an old disused well some miles out of town and when Kyle had asked them if ‘the matter had been dealt with’ they had simply saluted and said ‘Yes, sir.’

Kyle never enquired as to whether or not Adam was still alive, he presumed that he was because he had ordered him not to be killed. His whereabouts were of no interest to him so long as he could be produced, alive when it was necessary. He rode on with a look of concentration on his face as he thought over Adams conversation and the implications it had contained.

He glanced at the sun and then took a look around his surroundings, everything was satisfactory, he was approaching his destination on time and hoped that Clay Stafford would be there on time. He smiled a little at the thought of Clay, which led him to think of Joe Cartwright. If all went well he’d have the two of them riding beside him back to Kansas, sworn into the Confederacy, it had been an achievement to have gained Clay especially after he had refused that commission from his uncle into an elite corps, but then Clay had always been mercurial, took after his mother in that respect. The trick was to know how to play him, and Kyle was sure that the same trick could be ‘played’ on Joe.

*****

Joe left the camp feeling satisfied that he had completed his commission for the day as well as he could have done. He had checked over the figures Mac showed him and been pleased with the results of his survey of the work. The stew had been good and filled his stomach pleasantly, now he was riding back to the Ponderosa and wondering if Clay would still be there. Lowering his hat to shield his eyes Joe pondered on what he was going to say to his brother, Clay. Several ideas floated about in his head, but primarily he wanted Clay to know that he hadn’t been satisfied with his actions recently.

He was wondering how Clay would react to his little brother telling him some home truths when he noticed a rider galloping some distance from him. He had to screw up his eyes to get a proper look at him but smiled when he recognised who it was.. Seemed like Clay had decided to join up with him after all.

Joe breathed in some pure fresh air and relaxed in the saddle. Time for that heart to heart was sooner than he had thought, and he looked up to follow Clays progress towards him. He was rather surprised to notice, therefore, that Clay had deviated from the track that would have brought him towards himself, and was turning towards Horseheads Creek. Bristling slightly with indignation, Joe turned Cochise into the same direction, he was more than annoyed that Clay had changed course in order to avoid him. In never occurred to him that Clay had no idea that his brother was headed his way, his mind was on the meeting he was about to have with Kyle and his companions.

Chapter 23

Water was seeping into the well and for a moment or two Adam wasn’t sure just how fast it was moving. When he realised that it was not fast but it was a steady constant trickle he reached for the wall and inched himself back up onto his feet. Moving slowly round the circumference of the well he kept his eyes towards the sky, hopeful that something would appear that was recognisable and gave him some bearing as to where the well was located.

All it achieved as acute dizziness, his head ached more than ever and he had to squat down upon his haunches in order to keep from falling back into the mire. The surface of the well was rough, parts of it crumbled, and it smelled really bad.

While contemplating what to do next and realising that one of his boots was leaking which for some reason made him feel rather hysterical he heard the sound of voices. Quelling the desire to laugh aloud, while at the same time wondering if he was suffering a concussion and fever, he gave a yell, then a whistle.

The voices were gone, and now he had to contend with a dry throat. Looking from the centre of the pit he looked up once more and saw clouds scudding by, he shook his head, from the way those clouds were moving he could sense rain was on its way.

He was now irritated by the trickle of blood down the side of his face and neck, and pulled out a bandana to fasten around his head in the hope it would staunch the flow enough to eventually stop it altogether. When he looked up again the first drops of rain fell upon his upturned face and with a soft groan he sunk back upon his haunches and buried his face in his hands.

He had to think, try and recall to mind the things that had been said by Kyle, the direction the men had taken him which would lead to – where? What had he written to Roy in that note? Why hadn’t he told Pa, or Hoss instead of just up and haring off to town in order to ‘beard the lion in his den’ on his own?

He paused a moment, of course, there was Roy. He wasn’t the kind of man who would toss a note from Adam Cartwright to one side and get on with his daily rounds, he would act, surely, he would be doing something. Perhaps even now, Adam prayed, Roy would be doing something.

*****

Hoss and Ben looked at the sheriff and raised their eyebrows “Well?”

“No sign of Kyle anywhere, he’s obviously left town.” Roy muttered, as he looked up at the sky and scowled as the first drops of rain began to fall “Just what we don’t need right now.”

“Those tracks I was following were a mangled up mess anyhow,” Hoss grumbled and his face fell into a sombre expression, “I reckon on starting to look around by the hotel agin, d’you reckon there was anyone else hanging around might have seen anything Roy?”

“Only Mrs Gibbs.” Roy said “And she was too busy talking to me about her son to notice anything, although -” he paused and narrowed his eyes “they do say she’s got eyes in the back of her head.”

Ben glowered at the other men in exasperation, shook his head and ground his teeth, “For pete’s sake, Roy… there must have been some other people about town at the time.”

“It wasn’t proper daylight, Ben” Roy said and was about to say more when two children came running towards them followed by a woman, obviously their mother, who looked scared to death.

“Sheriff, sheriff -” the little boy gasped and grabbed hold of Roy by the leg “There’s ghosts …”

“Down by the old livery.” the other boy whimpered, “I heard it plain, so did Billy.”

Roy shook his head and pushed the children back away from him “Now then, now then, I’ve got things to do right now, aint got time to listen to your tales of ghosts.”

“But ghosts ain’t supposed to come out in the day time.” Billy protested his eyes as round as two marbles and his face so pale that the dirt on it seemed to have been plastered on.

“I heard it, sheriff.” Jerry now pleaded “Please, sheriff, you gotta come take a look.”

Roy was always patient with children but the anxiety with Adam missing and the fact that the rain was coming down heavier than ever caused him to be slightly tetchy, he looked at the mother “Mrs Hanratty, would you mind seeing to your boys? I’ve things to do right now and haven’t time to waste on listening to their prattle.”

“But it isn’t prattle,” Mrs Hanratty said with her bonnet all askew and her eyes nearly popping out of her head “We all heard it, my boys and me.”

Ben stepped forward, smiled politely and removed his hat – which he quickly replaced due to the rain – “What exactly did you hear, Mrs Hanratty? And whereabouts?”

“The boys told you, over by the old livery, the one that got burned down last year. There’s an old well there and I remembered that Mrs Lomax always grew some fennel there, which as you know, is very good for colic and other stomach disorders. I just went to see if there was any growing when there came a voice …”

“A voice?” Ben and Hoss echoed, leaning forward and their heads almost touching, “What did it say?”

Billy grabbed Bens jacket sleeve, the rain was plastering his hair over his face and washing off the dirt, “It was horrible.”

Jerry nodded “It said ‘Haallllooooooo.’” he looked at the three men to see if they were convinced, then added “Then there was a whistling sound.”

“A whistling sound?” Ben, Hoss and Roy said altogether before standing up to look at each other and then at the boys, “What kind of whistling?” added Roy.

Mrs Hanratty pushed her hat straight and grabbed at her boys “If’n you don’t believe us, then don’t bother wasting our time asking tom fool questions, Roy Coffee. It was a-hallooing and whistling like all get out. Now come on, boys, let’s get us home before we get soaked through here.”

Ben shivered as much from the cold as from the thoughts that were going through his mind, he looked at Hoss “That old livery stable is at the back of the Whitney hotel.”

“Yeah ..” Hoss nodded, frowned “You don’t believe in ghosts, do you, Pa?”

“Never seen one, and don’t intend to.” Ben snapped and turned upon his heel, closely followed by his son and the sheriff.

*****

Adam was beginning to feel drunk, that same weird head heavy feeling that happens when one has had too much to drink and its hard to keep ones head from wobbling about on ones shoulders. His legs felt weird as well. When he put his hand down to steady himself the water was past his wrist so he inched himself up a little and forced himself to keep upright.

If he opened his eyes the wall opposite seemed to shiver and tremble, if he closed his eyes then he felt as though he were going to fall down. He wondered if he had imagined those voices earlier and wished that his throat wasn;t so dry, he tried to call out ‘hello’ several times but it was a pathetic attempt and just bounced off and around the walls of the well.

He was struggling to keep consciousness, the raindrops were heavy and he was telling himself that was the result of gravity, everything was affected by gravity, Isaac Newton was the one who had apples falling on his head so perhaps he should be grateful all he had were some rain drops. He shook his head and the pain made him groan aloud.

“Psssst. Anyone down there?”

His head lolled on his shoulders as he attempted to look up. He frowned and narrowed his eyes in case he was having an hallucination “Hoss? Is that you?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s me, Adam.” Hoss exclaimed in sheer joy, and turned to his father and Roy “Adam’s down there, he’s alright, Pa.” he leaned over the parapet “Hey, Adam, you alright down there?”

“Not really. Couldn’t oblige by getting me out – like – right now, could you?” Adam replied his voice echo-ing as it funnelled up the body of the well.

Ben leaned over now “You alright, son?”

“Do you have rope at all, Pa? I’d really like to get out.”

Hoss looked at Roy who looked at Ben, “Adam, we’ll be back right away.”

Adam groaned, closed his eyes, and leaned against the wall “Good grief…” he muttered and once again slithered down the wall to squat on his haunches, his arms crossed, his head bowed and the rain pouring down.

Chapter 24

Joe pulled his hat lower as the rain began to fall. He was able to keep his brother in sight by keeping Cochise at a steady loping gait although had he felt the need he would have urged the horse to go faster. The way Clay was riding however was confusing, he looked like a man who was too deep in thought to be aware of his surroundings, to Joe’s way of thinking if a war party of Paiute showed up Clay would not have realised until it would have been too late.

A man gets to read signs like body language, oftentimes out in that wild land it meant saving one’s own hide, perhaps even that of others. Joe felt a niggle of anxiety, and apprehension in the pit of his stomach as he noticed Clay suddenly appear to rouse himself out of his lethargy and turn his horse into a boulder strewn gulch that Joe knew led to a dead end.

Kyle checked his watch and looked over at Logan and Fawcett who were standing in strategic positions behind some rocks in the clearing . The rain was an irritant but one that couldn’t be prevented and Kyle had found himself an area where the overhanging rim rock shielded him from the worst of the weather. He had just slipped his watch back into his vest pocket when Clay Stafford appeared.

Kyle watched as the young man slowed his horse and walked it towards him, he stepped forward enough for Clay to see him more clearly and greeted him with a nod and smile, “You’re very punctual, Clay. I like that -.”

Clay nodded and dismounted, looked around and located the other two men who were lounging against the rocks trying to look as innocent as two men on a Sunday school picnic. “Well, Frederic, I’m here, so what do you want to discuss with me? I can’t be long, I don’t want to arouse suspicion back at the house.”

The one armed man gave a shout of a laugh, one that contained no mirth, he shook his head, “You don’t what? Arouse suspicion? Are you lying to me, Clay?”

“No.” Clay retorted abruptly and then frowned as he recalled Adam’s conversation the previous night and the mans absence at breakfast that morning, he nodded as though realising what Kyle meant “You’ve seen Adam Cartwright?”

“I have, he paid me a visit earlier this morning. He’s always so impatient to get a job done, isn’t he? Sometimes I wish it were he who I could recruit to the Confederacy, his cunning would be a great help to us.”

“Hoss Cartwright saw us together, he told Adam -”

“And no doubt he’ll tell Ben and the whole thing will come out about my return..” Kyle shrugged and grimaced as though to dismiss the whole matter.

Clay stepped closer to Kyle and both moved nearer to the rocks in order to be protected from the rain which was showing some sign of abating at last, “Where is he? Adam? Have you brought him with you?”

“Why should I do that?” Kyle raised his eyebrows, he looked over at Fawcett and Logan, “My men looked after him – don’t worry, he isn’t dead, just somewhere safe for when I need him later.”

Clay shook his head now and bit down on his bottom lip, he passed a nervous hand across his mouth, stroked his thin moustache “What do you aim to do with him, Kyle?”

“Now look, Clay, you’re a gambling man, aren’t you? What would be the point of me telling you what I intend to do with Adam Cartwright? Let me just say he’s my ace up my sleeve…is that sufficient?”

“Not really. I don’t want him harmed, Frederic, I may not be on close terms with him but I do have a lot of respect for the man.”

“Of course you do, as do I.” Frederic replied in a tone that was as silky and persuasive as could be, he reached out and touched Clay by the arm, “However, it means that I’ve had to abort some of my plans for now. Thankfully I’ve been able to confirm with my contacts in town that the silver bullion is still getting through and arrangements are being made to increase the amount each month. I can hold back on my other plan although I am hoping that you can salvage the part involving Joseph Cartwright.”

Clay bowed his head and released his breath “You still hope to enlist Joe to the confederacy?”

“Yes, I do. With him part of our corps we’ll have old man Cartwright eating out of our hands. He dotes on that boy, as you know. But Joe see’s you as his hero, he’ll follow where you lead, Clay. He’ll follow right into his place in the Confederacy. That’s his rightful place, Clay.” again his tone was conciliatory, Clay even nodded in agreement “If his mother were alive – if your mother were still alive then she would be encouraging him to join with you, now, wouldn’t she?”

Clay gave the slightest of shrugs “I don’t know, Frederic, I never knew her.”

Kyle’s lips tightened just slightly, he recovered himself however and gave a gentle smile as though of sympathy and understanding, again his hand rested gently on Clays arm “Well, I knew her, Clay. I knew her as a fine woman, passionate for the causes she believed in and I can assure you she would have been devoted to our cause, no doubt about that, she would have given her all for the Confederacy.”

“Can you be so sure, Frederic?” Clay asked as he looked the man straight in the eye and when the other man nodded and gave a little pressure of reassurance on his arm Clay relaxed “You make me wish I’d known her.”

“Ah, lad, I wish you had, it was a cruel trick that your grandmother played on her and your father, one that I wished had never happened.” he straightened his shoulders now and looked anxiously around him, “Look, we’ve had to leave town thanks to Adam Cartwright, so we need a billet of the remainder of our stay. This land that you have now, does it have any dwellings on it?”

Clay looked surprised, but then he remembered that he was mainly the cause of Kyle and his companions being without a place to stay and felt a twinge of guilt, he once again stroked his moustache and frowned in concentration before nodding “Yes, I remember now, there is cabin on the land, I think they call it a line shack, a place for the men to use when they’re working in that area.”

“Very good, we can use that then?” Kyle said and beckoned over to Logan and Fawcett as he spoke.

It was Fawcett who happened to glance towards the entrance of the clearing “Rider approaching, Captain.”

Clay and Kyle looked at one another, each doubting now the honesty of the other “Do you know who that is?” Kyle hissed.

“No, not at all. Ben and Hoss went to town, and Joe was going to the timber yards, this is miles out of his way.”

“Must be one of Cartrwights men then, unless you’d planned to meet anyone else here, Clay?”

Stafford shook his head “No, not at all.”

Without a word spoken Kyle indicated to the two other men that they hid behind the rocks once again, and then took hold of Clay by the sleeve and drew him closer into the shadows of the boulders. He withdrew his gun and waited for the rider to draw closer to be identified.

Joe drew Cochise to a halt and looked around him, the cliffs rose on either side of him, he looked down on the ground and saw once again where the imprints of several horses hooves had intermingled. He eased his gun in its holster, for some reason his brother was meeting someone here, and had given him no indication as to who that would have been. That niggle in the pit of his stomach increased into an ache as Joe now encouraged the horse to ride on.

*****

The rope dangled close to his hand and Adam reached out to grab hold of it, it was looped for the purpose of going over his head and under his arms so that Hoss could haul him up. He fumbled in grabbing at it, and had to close his eyes and concentrate hard on stopping the dizziness from overwhelming him. He reached out again and struggled to put the rope under his armpits, he looked up and saw three faces peering down at him.

“You ready now, or ain’t’cha?” Hoss bellowed as he fed the rope out a little more, “Jest hurry now ‘cos I’m gitting mighty fed up gitting wet here.”

Roy leaned down “You alright down there, son?”

Adam put a hand to his head where the bandana covered his wound, he was grateful for the rain having washed away some of the blood and mud that had covered him from his fall into the mire. He tried to speak but his mouth didn’t seem to work, he yanked on the rope instead.

The three men hauled the man up as best they could, every so often there would be a snag as though the rope were caught on something, but eventually Adams head came into view and it was obvious from the way it was lolling on his shoulders, and the dead weight they had been pulling up for the past five minutes, that the man was unconscious. Ben grabbed at Adam’s belt while Hoss placed his hands under his brothers arms and together they lifted him over the parapet of the well and onto the ground.

“He needs the doctor.” Roy murmured as he leaned down to observe the young man.

The two Cartwrights said nothing but Hoss carefully lifted his brother in his arms and with a nod of the head to his father turned to carry him to Doc Martins surgery. Ben followed more closely than Hoss’ shadow while his mind rolled around the fact that if anything happened to Adam, that would be yet another score to settle with Frederic Kyle.

Chapter 25

For a moment or two Clay stood beside Kyle and watched as the rider on the black and white horse drew nearer. He noticed Logan and Fawcett taking up position behind some boulders, then looked at Kyle whose eyes were fixed upon the approaching figure. Clay watched as a glimmer of self satisfaction flashed across Frederic Kyles face, a slight smile of the well carved lips before there was his usual cold, blank features.

“Kyle, I just realised something.” Clay said quietly as he turned to look towards the dust cloud heralding Joe’s approach

“What’s that?”

“I just noticed that you don’t want Joe here for the confederacy, it’s all about getting your revenge on Ben Cartwright, isn’t it?”

Kyle frowned and then turned towards Clay, looked him up and down and smiled, then shook his head “Don’t be ridiculous. With Joe in the confederacy, Ben will do anything we ask of him. Why should I antagonise the man by what you call – revenge.”

Clay shook his head slowly “No, I don’t believe you. I think you’ve got me here on a pretext, you wanted me here to get what you want in order to make life as difficult for Ben as possible… and yes, you’ll use Joe, you’ll use anything to get what you want.”

Kyle sighed deeply as though what he was hearing caused him considerable heartache, he looked again at Clay “You’re getting fanciful, Clay.”

“I don’t think so, I’ve played with gamblers who can bluff better than you’re doing now.” Clay muttered and stepped away from Kyle and began to walk towards his horse.

“What are you doing?” Kyle said in the tone of voice that once would have commanded Clay’s respect but instead the young man just kept in walking “Don’t spoil things now, Clay.”

Clay didn’t answer but mounted into the saddle and brought his horse around, he heard Kyle shout his name but sent the horse heading out towards Joe, at the same time yelling to his brother to turn back and ride away as fast as he could.

Joe brought Cochise to a halt, the figure of his brother riding towards him, head bent low caught him by surprise. He heard the drift of Clay’s voice coming towards him and pulled Cochise to one side, but when bullets began to be fired from within the gully he turned the horse away and headed towards less open country and to where the boulders were tumbled high upon one another. Behind these he sought shelter, sliding from the saddle and leaving Cochise to run free while he withdrew his pistol and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long before Clay appeared and was sliding, slithering his way to join him, hatless and with blood on the back of his hand where a bullet had grazed him. He nodded and smiled at Joe, “Didn’t expect to see you here, brother.”

Joe frowned suspiciously and shook his head “No, you’re right, I didn’t expect to come across you either. What’s going on, Clay?”

“You mean, Adam really didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what? What exactly is going on here?”

Clay wiped across his face, the rain had stopped but he was surprised to find that he was sweating. He grinned “Shucks, Joe, things got a bit hotter than I thought they would …”

Joe peeked over the boulder and narrowed his eyes in an attempt to see who was still in the hiding, then he looked at Clay “Are you going to tell me or …”

He paused and turned his head as he heard his name being called, a familiar voice but he couldn’t place why, he looked at Clay who shrugged “It’s Kyle, Frederic Kyle.” Clay whispered.

“Kyle?” Joe gulped and looked over the boulder to see three men riding slowly towards them. The man in the centre and slightly in the lead was bareheaded, as though he wanted Joe to recognise him, and realising that Joe had seen him he called again “Joe? Joseph Cartwright?”

Joe ducked back to where Clay was crouched “What’s he doing here, Clay? What has he got to do with you?”
“Joe, I’m sorry.” Clay said quickly as he checked the bullets in his gun, “I lied to you, I’ve been lying to you and your family ever since I got here.” he looked at Joe and then glanced away as though he couldn’t face the confusion on his brothers face “I joined the confederacy, Joe. Kyle’s my commanding officer and he …”

“Joseph? Joseph Cartwright, I need to talk.” Kyle yelled and his voice echo’d slightly as they bounced off the boulders.

Joe stood up, pulled his arm away from Clays grip and stepped out from behind the boulder. With one hand resting on the handle of his gun he walked towards Kyle had stopped his horse and looked up as Kyle dismounted “I didn’t think to see you again, Mr Kyle.”

“I know. I never thought I’d get the chance of meeting up with you again either, but with Clay and our connections the opportunity to do so was too good to miss.” Kyle smiled and turned towards the rocks behind which Clay was hidden “Clay, you might as well come out now, then the three of us can talk.”

Joe kept his eyes on Kyle’s face the way a man keeps watch on a rattler, he heard Clay approaching but didn’t move to look at him. Clay stood just inches from his brother and Kyle smiled and nodded “Well, yes, I can see the resemblance, Marie would have been proud to have had two such handsome young men as her sons.”

“Ma was proud of the sons she had,” Joe said crisply, his eyes now turning to Logan and Fawcett who had their hands close to their guns.

“No doubt she was, Joe.” Kyle frowned, and looked at Clay “Has Clay told you anything about our enterprise?”

“No, I didn’t know anything about your being here or his involvement with you. Why don’t you tell me all about it?”

Kyle nodded “Why not indeed. But not here, it’s hardly conducive to a conversation between gentlemen, is it?”

Joe frowned and shook his head as though he couldn’t believe Kyle’s audacity, “Just say what you want to say, Mr Kyle.”

“Very well, young man. Let me just say that with Clay having joined up, we just thought it would be a really good idea if you came along with us as well. After all, you are a de Maligney and ..”

“No, Mr Kyle, I’m a Cartwright. Ma wasn’t a de Maligney, Clay’s Pa was, Ma wasn’t…”

“My mistake. You’re right, of course.” Kyle shrugged and looked up at the sun which was now scorchingly hot, “Joseph, the Ponderosa isn’t so far off now, is it? Why don’t we continue this conversation there, perhaps your cook, Hop Sing, could rustle up some decent coffee?”

Joe opened his mouth to argue but the movement from Logan and Fawcett, the sight of the guns in their hands, kept him quiet. He looked at Clay who had the grace to look embarrassed before he turned away, “Very well, let’s do that…” he said quietly and turned towards where he had seen Cochise grazing. That’s when everything went black as it seemed the sky had fallen on him.

Chapter 26

Clay Stafford reached out to catch his brother as he fell, cursing Kyle as he did so, to which the one armed man merely shook his head with a slightly scornful smile on his lips “You had better remember, Corporal Stafford, that you take your orders from me.”

“Not any more,” Clay replied “I’m not having any part of your war, Kyle.”

Frederic Kyle leaned towards him with narrowed eyes and his brows lowered, “You don’t want to talk like that, Clay. It’s what we call insubordination. And you know the punishment for that, don’t you?”

“And who’s going to carry that out?” Clay gave a toss of his head and glared at Logan and Fawcett, “These two clowns?”

“Be careful, Corporal. Those two clowns as you call them have already despatched one Cartwright, it won’t be too difficult to see about doing likewise to another.”

“You won’t hurt Joe, it won’t fit in with your plan.” the younger man replied with a slightly nervous laugh, he had a canteen of water in his hands now and poured some carefully over Joe’s face and into his mouth, “C’mon, Joe, wake up.”

“I think we’ll ride out to that cabin you were talking about, Clay. I doubt if anyone will be too pleased to see us at the Ponderosa just now.” Kyle’s narrow eyes flashed with menace as he turned aside from watching the two brothers, one of them tending to the others needs as he struggled to come back to consciousness.

*****

Paul Martin gave a wry smile as he finished examining Adam, he turned around to put his instruments into the old leather medical bag and took a phial of laudanum from it which he handed over to Ben, “Make sure he takes some of this every four hours, shake the bottle well or the opium will settle in the bottom and he might not wake up again.”

Adam pulled a wry face and scratched his chin through stubble “Trying to poison me now, are you, Paul?”

They shared a good natured grin, while Ben stood by the window to read the small writing on the label of the bottle. He looked over at the doctor “Is he going to be alright to ride?”

“Yes, of course I will be,” Adam snapped immediately, “Paul – tell him!”

“No, he should be getting rest, and plenty of it.” Paul replied and snapped the bag shut with a loud click. “Don’t risk it, Adam, I’m advising you as a friend as well as your doctor.”

“There’s a matter that needs to be cleared up, Paul.” Adam sighed and glowered at Paul from under his brows but Roy immediately said “And that’s my business, young man, I’m the one does the clearing up around here.”

Adam shook his head, realised by doing so that everything inside his skull seemed to move and cause intense pain, he coughed to clear his throat and Paul grinned “Hurts, huh? That’s only a small taste of what it’d be like if you go riding about the countryside looking for Kyle Kincaid or whatever he calls himself.”

“I’ll take a dose of that laudanum then …” Adam said and reached out towards Ben for the bottle but Paul shook his head now and with a smile informed Adam that he had already had a dose, and a large one at that which brought a guffaw from Hoss who almost slapped his brother on the back but was forestalled by Paul’s glare.

Adam turned now to Roy who was buckling on his gun belt, “Where do you think he’ll have gone now?”

“Who? Kyle? I don’t know, son, aim to find out with Hoss’ help.” Roy replied and tapped Hoss on the shoulder “C’mon, no slacking now.”

Ben watched them go and then looked at Adam “Well, best get you home. That will be alright, won’t it, Paul.”

“I’d prefer you hire a buggy than for him to ride out.” Paul muttered as he re-arranged some bottles on a shelf with his back to them.

“A buggy? D’you realise how bad the suspension is on those things?” Adam said scornfully and looked around for his hat which he found on the hook by the door, “A saddle is comfortable in comparison.”

Paul glanced over at Ben and rolled his eyes, but Ben just shrugged and with a wry grin followed his son out of the building.

Hoss and Roy were mounted up by the time Ben and Adam were out of the surgery, Hoss grinned “Take care of yourself, Adam, hope you get to feeling really WELL soon.” and with a loud laugh he turned Chubb in the direction out of town behind Roy.

*****

The cabin to which Clay led the small group of horsemen was well concealed among woodland which smelled sweet and fresh after the shower of rain that had fallen earlier. They dismounted, hauled Joe from his saddle and pushed him into line behind his brother who had the door open to the small dwelling.

Kyle looked around him and nodded “This will do, better than some places we’ve had to camp in recently.” he watched as Logan led Joe towards the truckle bed and pushed him down on it, “I’m sorry, Joe. I wish you had given me more time to explain but you’ve always been hot headed and its never easy to be told things you don’t want to hear.”

“Such as?” Joe as he rubbed his wrist from where the ropes had been removed, “Such as my brother being a liar, pretending to be something that he isn’t in order to get what you want from us?”

Clay winced and looked aside out of the window rather than at the younger man, he didn’t deny the accusation but waited for Kyle to speak while Logan and Fawcett got a fire started and set about making coffee.

“Look, Joe,” Kyle pulled up the chair so that he was seated closer to the youth, “These are momentous times we’re living in, events are taking place in our country that will bring new prosperity to the south if we fight for it. It won’t drop into our laps, we have to reach out and make a stand, determine now to establish our rights.”

Joe shook his head “I can read all that jargon for myself, Mr Kyle. In fact I have read it all, and it doesn’t interest me.”

“That’s because you already have so much, Joe.” Clay said sharply, “You and your brothers don’t realise just how much you’ve got compared to others.”

Joe scowled over at Clay and shook his head, “Yes we do, and what we’ve got didn’t fall into our laps either, there’s been blood spilled for what we have, and good men have died to establish the Ponderosa. But what you’re engaged in …”

“… appealed to you at one time,” Kyle said in a silky smooth voice and a subtle smile, “Or have you forgotten?”

Chapter 26

The ride to the cabin had seemed never ending to the brothers both of whom were in turmoil at these most recent events. Granted half of the trip for Joe was blanked out as he was unconscious but once he came round not only was he nursing a head ache but also all the information that had filtered through, the lies and the deceit of his brother seemed to be a constant refrain that went round and round along with the pain.

For Clay the whole thing had descended into chaos, the situation was no longer in his control and his deception had been laid wide open to Joe in a manner that destroyed any chance he had of winning him away from his family. How could he regain that lost hero worship? In what way could he encourage Joe to even consider joining with them now that the whole thing had been stripped bare in the way that it had? Was there any possibility of winning back lost ground?

Clay stood by the window gazing out into the woodland, he could smell the wood burning and coffee brewing, he could hear Kyle’s wheedling voice and Joe’s abrupt short responses. It had all gone wrong, he thought to himself and shook his head. It was like a nightmare, that same feeling when so confident that you had the perfect hand and then when you put it down and was about to grab the ‘pot’, someone put their hand down and it proved how paltry your own had been. He bowed his head and let the talking flow over his head as he realised that the few weeks he had been at the Ponderosa had actually been among the most relaxed and happiest times he had had in a long time.

Kyle tapped Clay on the shoulder “You talk to him, seems I can’t get him to understand a word I said. I thought you said you had him in the palm of your hand?”

“I did, until you interfered.” Clay snapped and then shook his head at the anger that flared up on Kyle’s eyes, he knew from experience it didn’t do to rile his commanding officer. “I’ll see what I can salvage.”

“You just go ahead and do that, and remember whose side you’re on, Clay.”

Stafford nodded and watched as Kyle strode over to sit at the table with Logan and Fawcett. Once he felt they were out of reasonable ear shot he joined Joe by sitting beside him on the bed. Joe inched away from him as though the proximity was too close.

“Well? What do you want? More lies?” Joe snapped.

“No, Joe. I just want you to forgive me. Will you? Please?”

“For what? Nearly losing the land Pa gave you in a card game or for making sure you kept it safe to hand over to Kyle? For the lies you told us about taking no sides and being neutral? For -”

“Joe…”Clay raised a hand to stop the flow of words “Joe, you can’t say anything that I haven’t told myself over and over again. I shouldn’t have lied about how I felt with regard to my allegiances to the Confederacy but at the time it seemed the wiser course to plead neutrality.”

“So you could get what Kyle wanted.” Joe snapped back sullenly

“Because I wanted you to trust me. I wanted you all to trust me and …”

“and then it would be easier to betray us. So, of course, that’s exactly what we did, we trusted you, Clay Stafford. Adam was right about you, he never said a word against you but I knew how he felt and Hoss too, they didn’t trust you.”

Clay hung his head low for a moment or two in order to gather his thoughts. He knew Adam and Hoss had never trusted him, a man can sense that easily enough but he didn’t like being told that fact by Joe. He looked up and found Joe staring at him with his hazel eyes blazing green and the generous mouth tightly clenched over his teeth, “Look, Joe, you may not believe this but that night I was gambling with the land your Pa gave me… I wanted to lose it, I wanted to be rid of it so that Kyle wouldn’t be able to get his hands on it. Believe me, it was the only thing I could think of but …”

Joe stood up and shook his head “Don’t talk about it anymore, Clay, I don’t want to hear any more lies from you.”

“Joe, I’m begging you, please listen… Kyle thought you’d want to join the confederacy, he was convinced that the way you felt about your mother, about New Orleans and even about myself, that you’d be excited to be asked to join up with us. He’s always been a good judge of character, Joe, and from our conversations I got the impression that you were all out for some excitement.”

Joe turned and looked at him thoughtfully “Excitement? Is that what you call it when you see hundreds of men gunned down in those battles of yours?”

“But when I talked to you about Jaurez and the fighting in Mexico ..”

“That was different, it was worlds apart from the war you’re fighting.” Joe released a long sigh that came from the bottom of his lungs, he shook his head and winced as the pain shot across his eyes so that he had to raise a hand to shade them before turning to Kyle “Mr Kyle, I’m sorry, but nothing you say or do will get me to join up with you and leave the Ponderosa. If you don’t mind, I’d like to return home now.”

Frederic Kyle smiled kindly, it softened and warmed his austere features making him appear fatherly and approachable, “But, Joe, you can’t do that, son. We need you here, with us.”

“Too bad, sir, because I don’t want to be here with you all. Look, I’m prepared to keep quiet about your being here if you wish, but -”

Kyle stood up and placed his hand gently on Joe’s shoulder “I’m sorry, Joe, but if you insist on leaving then your brother Adam won’t be alive for much longer.”

“Adam? What’s he got to do with all this?” Joe asked and spun round to face Clay “Do you know about this? Where is he? Where is my brother? What have you done with him?”

“Nothing, Joe, I’ve done nothing to Adam. I’ve not even seen him.” Clay protested, “It was Logan and Fawcett, they were acting under orders and – and they dealt with him.”

Joe recoiled back “Dealt with him?” he stammered “How can you say that about Adam? How could you let those men ‘deal’ with my brother …” he turned slowly to look at Kyle, then at Logan and Fawcett “Where is he?”

Kyle shrugged “To be honest, my dear boy, I don’t know. I don’t think Logan and Fawcett are prepared to tell us either, are you?” and he raised his eyebrows as he faced the other two men.

Logan and Fawcett shrugged, looked at one another and grinned. Logan stood up and put a hand to the handle of his gun “Don’t worry, he was alive when we left him..”

It was Clay who asked the question “Exactly where was that?”

“Someplace in town. Somewhere deep and dark that he won’t be getting out of in a hurry.” Fawcett sniggered.

Kyle nodded and smiled, his fingers gently squeezed Joe’s shoulder “As Clay, who is a gambling man, will tell you, the one thing better than an ace up your sleeve .. Is to have two aces! And the courage to play them…!”

Chapter 28

The knocking on the door echoed the pounding in Adams head, the pain of which, despite the laudanum was still making its presence felt. Just as Adam got to his feet Hop Sing appeared to open the door to Sam Riley who entered the room with a slight frown which contrasted with the grin on his face “Is your Pa home, Adam?”

“No, he’s not, Sam. Anything I can do to help?”

Sam looked anxiously at Adams bandaged head, the darkness around the eyes and unusual pallor “I’m not sure,” he paused “What happened to you?”

“Got knocked on the head and stuffed down a well.”

Sam laughed, not over loudly just enough to let Adam know he had enjoyed the joke, “Good one, Adam, so what really happened.”

Adam sighed and shook his head, carefully, “What brings you here, Sam?”

Riley calmed down and pulled some papers out of his pocket “Mac asked me to bring these along, seems Joe was in too much of a hurry to pick them up when he left us earlier. Actually I thought he’d be here by now.”

“Who? Joe? No, he hasn’t come back yet.” Adam picked up the papers and began to sift through them “Did Mac go through these figures with Joe?”

“Sure he did, but Joe looked a bit distracted, especially after some of the comments he heard around camp about his brother – that’s right, isn’t it? Clay Stafford is his brother?”

Adam glanced up sharply, looked directly at Sam, and then looked down to continue reading the papers “Half brother on his mother’s side.”

“Oh thought so,” Sam nodded “There was some kind of resemblance.”

“Really?” Adam sniffed dismissively and turned a page over.

“Funny thing though, I thought I saw him riding by Horsehead creek.”

“Huh? Who? Riding where?”

“Joe.” Sam scratched his head “Yeah, that’s right, it was him. Recognise that paint horse of his anywhere.”

“Then why ask me if he were home if you knew he was at Horsehead Creek?” Adam grumbled wondering if his head ache was causing him to be more irritable than usual.

“Because I didn’t think anything of it at the time.” Sam replied wondering if the bump on Adams head and the indignity of being stuffed down a well was the cause of him being particularly grumpy.

Adam didn’t reply, he put the papers down and looked at Sam and then at the door, then he thanked the man very politely and made it quite clear that business between them was now over. Sam took his cue and left, feeling more sure than ever that Adam wasn’t happy at what had happened to him, if, of course, it were true.

Once the sound of the horse had faded Adam picked up his hat and began to buckle on his gun belt, he was reaching for his yellow jacket when Hop Sing re-emerged from the kitchen “What you do? Where you go? You stay put or you have Mr Cartwright very angry.”

“Sorry, Hop Sing, I have to go, somethings just come up…” Adam muttered and hurried from the house.

Sport looked as happy to see his master as Hop Sing had been at seeing Adam leave the house, he snorted loudly and did a side step or two before Adam could get the saddle blanket over him. “Look, boy, I’ve enough of a headache as it is, just calm now, there’s a good boy…”

*****

Ben, Roy and Hoss drew up their horses and gathered closer together to talk over their findings, which were, at that point, negligible. The only two things that caused Ben any satisfaction was the thought that Joe was busy in the timber camp and knew nothing about Kyle, and that Adam had been deposited at the house and ordered to stay where he was on pain of death. As Roy mumbled about tracks and getting nowhere fast Ben felt that at least he had two sons about whom he didn’t have to worry.

Hoss dismounted and taking his horse by the rein walked around to try and find some elusive track that would confirm they were on the right path in locating Kyle and his associates. After a while he had to admit failure, he scratched his head and returned to where Ben and Roy were waiting “Not a thing. There’s no sign of any horse being here for some while.”

“Can’t figure out how we lost their tracks then.” Roy muttered as he pushed back his hat, “Best go back to where we last found them.”

“Wait a moment,” Ben said with a slight groan of discomfort, “The evenings drawing in now, I can’t imagine Kyle not wanting his creature comforts and camping out in the wilds somewhere. How about we go back to town and see if he’s booked into the hotel again?”

“No point in doing that,” Roy grumbled “He’d signed out, paid his bill and everything.”

“There’s more than one hotel in town.” Hoss said hopefully.

“I think he’d camp out, he’s not so soft as you’re thinking, Ben. Hoss, let’s get back to where we last saw those tracks before it gets dark.”

“Yes, sir.” Hoss mumbled and darted a mute look of apology over to his father who was regretting having decided to join them and leaving his own home comforts back at the Ponderosa with Adam.

*****

Clay could tell that tension was mounting in the cabin. As the evening light faded so the atmosphere thickened. Joe refused to speak, just sat in the corner of the bed with his arms folded over his chest and a scowl on his face, except when he looked at Clay when the hazel eyes would blaze green. Kyle was seated by the fire calmly reading papers, turning page after page and then starting over again, making little marks here and there with a red pen as though it had great significance. Logan and Fawcett were playing cards together but had declined Clays request to join them.

“How long we got to stay here, Captain?” Logan finally asked, breaking a silence that had stretched a full ten minutes.

“As long as it takes.” Kyle replied without looking up from his papers.

“For what?” Logan pushed for an answer and glanced at Joe and then at Clay.

“For Joe’s co-operation.” Kyle smiled although his eyes remained hard as they sped across the written page.

“You’ll have a long wait then.” Joe growled.

“Which is a shame,” Kyle shrugged and flicked a glance over at the younger man, “The longer you take making up your mind the less chance your brother has in getting out of his current situation alive.”

The coldness of Kyle’s voice caused a shiver to trickle down Joe’s back. “You sure you don’t know where he is?” he asked Clay who was still hovering between the window and the bed, close enough to hear anything Joe said in a lower tone of voice than usual.

“I told you already, Joe. I don’t know. If I did -”

“Yeah, if you did? What then?”

Clay opened his mouth, thought better than to say anything and closed it again. He stared out of the window as though his life depended upon it. Kyle looked up from examining the papers and watched the two brothers with some interest, he smiled slowly and stood up, “Clay, I’ve a suggestion to make.”

“Which is?”

“Ben Cartwright would be expecting you to be at the Ponderosa right now wouldn’t he?”

“I guess. I told him this morning that I’d rather stay home than go anyplace.”

“Well, why not go back there now, see how things stand with them. Offer your help in finding Adam Cartwright. Do all you can to allay any suspicion that they may have about you being involved with us. This could still swing well in our favour if you act your part well enough.”

Joe sat up straight “Oh you aint got no worries about that, my brother can play any part you choose, you just name it and …”

“That’s enough from you,” Kyle said so sharply that Joe was forced to realise that any credit he had in the mans eyes had long gone, “You just keep your mouth quiet or you could end up like your brother. If you don’t aim to play along with us, son, then you aren’t exactly indispensable.”

Logan and Fawcett said nothing but exchanged a look and then watched as Clay picked up his gunbelt and buckled it back on. He looked regretfully at Joe and then, without a word, slipped out of the cabin and into the darkness.

Chapter 29

As Clay slipped his foot into the stirrup to mount his horse his mind played over and over again all that had happened since he had met up with Kyle. He saw in clear flashbacks the way Joe rode in, the conversations between them and Kyle, the ride to the cabin and consequent discussion. He glanced over his shoulder at the small building as he rode away from it and into the woodland, the impression of his young brother crouched in the corner of that bed and the hostility in his eyes the hardest memory for him to accept.

There were various options open to him now, and he listed them as he rode along, Firstly he could hightail it out of there altogether, even perhaps go back to Mexico; that was actually very tempting, free himself of responsibilities and obligations and live his own life. Secondly, he could go to the Ponderosa and tell Ben everything, that would salve his conscience and help Joe. Thirdly – and there always had to be a third option – he could go to the Ponderosa and just pretend he knew nothing about anything.

He jogged along at a steady lope, his head full of ideas that came out of nowhere, after all the options were good but he could find reasons why each and every one would fail. For a start there would always be Kyle, and the man was his Commanding Officer and would have him down as a deserter. Clay knew better than anyone that no one deserted Frederic Kyle without reprisal, no matter how far they try to hide from him.

As for option two, well Ben would know by now that Clay had met up with Kyle in town, and that brought an element of distrust into the equation. As if it were not bad enough having Adam in Kyle’s clutches there was also Joe, and why would Ben believe him now?

If he went to the Ponderosa and just left things, just drifted along and let events carry him with them like so often in his life, bluff it out like a game of poker would be played out?

The night was darkening now but the moon was kind, it was a cloudless sky with enough light for a man to ride without any fear of blundering into any obstacles or needing to stop to camp out. Clay lowered his hat and rode on his way to the Ponderosa, rehearsing in his head the things he would say as he played out different scenario’s that may face him when he got there.
Adam rode at a steady canter, his head was pounding and his back felt as though his spine was jarring into his skull whenever Sport’s hooves hit the ground hard. Joe was missing, Kyle was on the scene that meant Joe was in danger and Clay Stafford, where for heavens sake was Clay Stafford?

There were other things on his mind, things that he’d gone over and over ever since he had been thrown down that well and during the times he was conscious, the worst thing of all was the fact that Kyle had actually wanted Clay to get land, Ponderosa land, but for what reason? And why had Clay gone along with it? Old family friends surely didn’t equal family, even if it were not blood family .. Apart from Joe.

Horsehead Creek was just ahead, the outline was dark upon the night sky that had that strange almost ethereal appearance of not being dark at all. Moonlight highlighted the rock formation and for a moment Adam felt as though he were moving through a dream. He put his hand to his head, stopped the horse and sat there in the saddle for a while as he waited for the strange feeling to pass him by before he could journey onwards.

Hop Sing opened the door at the sound of footsteps on the porch and then stepped back with a wariness that was not lost to Clay as he entered the room. After tossing his hat onto the bureau he looked at the unwelcoming look of the other man and shrugged “Ben home?”

“No, gone out.”

“Anyone home?”

“Me only.”

Again Clay shrugged his shoulders and unbuckled his gun belt, he looked around the big room and frowned, glanced at the clock “They’re late for supper, aren’t they?”

“They go look for someone. Bring Mr Adam home -”

“Adam? Adam back here?”

“Have cracked head, very painful all over. What you know of it?”

The question, coming from Hop Sing, caught Clay by surprise. He shook his head “I didn’t know anything about it.”
“Why you surprise Mr Adam back home?”

“I don’t know, he wasn’t here when I left earlier, was he?” Clay said quickly.

Hop Sing narrowed his almond sloe black eyes and regarded Clay like the worm that Clay was beginning to feel, “Mr Adam – some men throw down well – maybe could be dead.”

“He isn’t, is he?”

“No, Mr Adam go out again.”

“I thought you said he wasn’t well, had a cracked head?”

Hop Sing more or less tossed his nose in the air in contempt “Mr Joe not come back, much worry for Mr Adam.”

“You mean, Adam’s gone out looking for Joe? I thought Joe was at the lumber camp checking with that man, McManus, about some contract or other?”

Hop Sing shrugged “Not good. Leave camp early but not come home.”

Clay watched as the Chinese cook shuffled off back to the kitchen. For a moment he went through what he had been told before striding over to the small cabinet in which Ben kept his drinks. He poured a good measure of good bourbon into a glass and had just swallowed it down when there came the sound of horses.

Ben pushed open the door and wearily put down his hat, behind him came Hoss who removed his hat and wiped his brow on the back of his sleeve. They were about to unbuckle their gunbelts when they saw Clay. They both straightened up to face him, while Clay put down the now empty glass and stepped towards them. Before they could speak he said “Hop Sing tells me that Adam has met with some kind of accident?”

“Accident?” Ben growled, “You might call it an accident, but where Frederic Kyle’s concerned I call it attempted murder.” he glared around the room and then fixed his black eyes upon Clay “Where’ve you been all day?”

“Well, I – er – I took some flowers to my mothers’ grave earlier, then I thought, as I had the day free, that I would ride over and check on the land that you gifted me, sir.”

“That you were so happy to gamble away the other night.” Ben narrowed his eyes and squared his shoulders.

“No, I wasn’t happy about gambling it away, sir, I was pushed into a corner and it was the only asset I had left.”
“The ink was barely dry on the deeds, young man.”

“I didn’t think I’d actually lose it, Ben, I was quite confident that I’d win it back.”

Ben glared at him again before turning to look at Hop Sing who was hovering back and forth in the background “Any supper, Hop Sing?”

“Supper -” Hop Sing shrugged “You no want supper when I tell you bad news.”

Hoss groaned “More bad news, what is it now, Hop Sing? You burned the pork?”

“No, firstly of all, Mr Joe not back from lumber camp and Mr Riley come check up and say he leave early so Mr Adam say not good idea then Mr Adam go from house …”

“What’re you saying, Hop Sing? Adam left here -” Ben exclaimed “He left here, with that cracked head, even after he’d been told to stay right here!!?”

“Mr Joe not come back. Mr Adam think ‘ah’ because he know man with one arm may be cause trouble for Mr Joe.”

Ben and Hoss looked at one another, the realisation and the fear registered on both their faces. “When did he leave here?”

“Two maybe three hour.”

The gun belts were re-buckled on and hats snatched up, as they turned Clay stepped forward “Perhaps I should come along as well, sir.”

Ben ignored him but looked at Hop Sing “Do you have any idea of which direction Adam took.”

“I hear Mr Riley say Horsehead Creek.”

Again the two Cartwrights shared anxious looks and headed for the door. Clay dithered, shook his head, perhaps option one would be a good idea, he thought as he reached for his own gunbelt and followed behind them,.

Chapter 30

The conundrum was not one that Clay wanted to look too deeply into because he knew the answer, but all the same it niggled him constantly as he followed the other two horsemen to Horsehead Creek. ’Why would an injured man ignore his doctors orders and the request of his family to leave his home as night approached to go for a lengthy horse trek?’ His mind grappled with the answer, which was that the man was going out to make sure his brother was safe. His brother … Clay felt his stomach clench whenever he said the words, because it led him to continue with the fact that ’his brother’ was also his Clay Staffords flesh and blood. The youth he had left with Kyle and two men who would think nothing of shooting him down at Kyle’s order.

At times during the ride he lagged back and considered turning off and heading out in a different direction rather than face what he felt was about to confront him. He tried to imagine Ben’s reactions and the consequences of any revelations he had to give him.

The two Cartwrights rode on regardless of Clays’ dithering, almost as though they hadn’t noticed it. There was no conversation, at night when the moon shone so brightly sounds seemed to reverberate in the silence and carry hidden secret meanings. The ride seemed never ending, relentless until Hoss raised a hand and cried “Pa! Over there – it’s Adam.”

Clay’s mouth ran dry as he pulled his horse to a halt and watched the slow progress of the horseman coming towards them. Adam sat low in the saddle, hunched over, the reins loose in his hands, as though he were allowing his horse to take him home while he slept. But he raised his head at the sound of Hoss’ halloo and led Sport towards them.

“Adam Cartwright,” Ben hissed “Didn’t I tell you to stay at home!”

“You did, Pa.” Adam said with a sigh of resignation in his voice, “I was headed back home now anyway.”

“You were, were you?” Ben’s brows beetled across his brow and he looked at his eldest son with more anxiety than anger, then put out a hand to rest upon his son’s arm “Did you find anything?”

Adam licked his lips, and then glanced over at Clay before turning to his father “Yes, I found something.”

There was silence. Perhaps he was giving Clay time to speak for himself, or perhaps he was struggling to find words then he said “Horsehead Creek… found tracks. Three horsemen rode in first, two dismounted and headed for the rocks. Another horseman came and was joined later by another.”

“You’re speaking in riddles, son, speak plain now.”

“Best ask Clay – his horse’s tracks were the fourth mans, and Cochise -” he glanced down to the ground where their horses’ hoof prints were muddled upon the dusty soil, to a man who had learned to read sign as clearly as himself and Hoss it was clear to see and identify each animal there, “Clay? You’d better explain before we start assuming the worst.”

So this was it then, this was the confrontation and the moment Clay Stafford was dreading. He straightened his shoulders and his back and held his chin high “Corporal Clayton Stafford of the First Kansas Company under the command of Captain Frederic Kyle.” he cleared his throat and looked directly at Ben who astonished expression gave him a pang of self doubt and a little guilt, he dipped his head slightly at the vitriol in that gaze “Ben, I was acting under orders -”

“Damn your orders, young man, where’s my son? What’s Kyle done with him?”

Clay paused as though somehow Ben had gone off the rehearsed script and the question had caught him unawares, “Captain Kyle has him in a cabin on my land.”

“On Ponderosa land you mean,” Hoss growled, “You ain’t deserving of no land from us.”

Clay nodded as though he understood what Hoss was saying and the reason why, he again cleared his throat “In other states men are dying by the hundreds for an inch of land, their blood soaks it through for the principles by which they stand…”

“Principles you denied not so long ago.” Adam said quietly, one hand folded over the other as he gripped the pommel of his saddle.

Clay darted a look that indicated the seething dislike he held for the other man, he then returned his eyes to look at Ben “A man has to do a lot of things he’d rather not, during times of war, sir, I hope you will remember that later on.”

“The war doesn’t exist here on the Ponderosa.” Ben intoned gravely.

“It does now, sir.” Clay replied.

“This is wasting time. You can spare the explanations for another time, just lead me to my son.”

Clay said nothing more but simply turned his horse’s head in the direction of the land beyond Horsehead Creek that had only so recently been his own.

*****

Joe had dosed off, the blow to his head had given him a headache of major proportions and sleep had helped to ease it. He had drifted to sleep aware of the three men talking together grouped at the table with papers and maps spread out in front of them. He had intended to spend the time more usefully by trying to find a means of escape but thinking had only induced sleep. Now as he woke up he was aware of the sound of snoring and wondered briefly if it had all been a bad dream and he was camped by a fire with Hoss and Adam en route to Butlers Creek. He could remember that they had been joking as they had settled into their blankets but as he yawned himself awake the sight of the one armed man seated in a chair by the fire brought everything clearly back to his mind.

Frederic Kyle had been watching Joe for some moments as the boy had slept. Logan and Fawcett were both snoring, their heads cradled in their arms on the table, but Kyle had remained awake to watch over Joe and wait for him to open his eyes.

“Did you have a good sleep? Want some coffee?”

Joe shook his head and was pleased to notice that the pain had eased. He watched as Kyle shrugged and picked up the coffee pot to pour the brew into a cup balanced on the arm of the chair. Kyle was smiling as though satisfied with his plans and almost without thinking Joe moved across the bed, kicked against the chair and sent the cup, the scalding liquid and the coffee pot with its steaming contents into the lap of the other man.

While Kyle leapt from his seat with a stream of curses Joe headed for the door, threw it open and began to run. Among the trees the shadows were dark with the promise of shelter and protection and into these he bolted without once looking back to see what was happening in the cabin.

Kyle was purple faced with pain and anger, he grabbed for his gun and headed to the door, behind him Logan and Fawcett stumbled from the table grabbing at their weapons as they headed towards the door. “He’s out there -” Kyle shouted “Get him. Shoot to kill.”

Chapter 31

Joe ran, slithered, fell upon his knees and crawled as fast as he possibly could away from the direction of the cabin. He cursed the fact that the moonlight was so bright and sought out the shadows as best he could while trying to keep his ears open for the sounds of pursuit. His breathing was becoming laboured after a while which indicated a need for rest and shelter so with little hesitation he veered off to the left of the cabin and scuttled beneath some undergrowth that was growing thickly close to a stream.

The earth was dank and damp, the smell was slightly of rotting and decomposing vegetation but he crouched down low and prayed that it would conceal him sufficiently to get back to Cochise.

Footsteps came close by, he heard Logan swearing when he tripped over the root of a tree and fell, the gun in his hand dropped in among the leaves of a shrub that grew close by to where Joe was hidden. Logans hand groped too and fro, almost brushed against Joe’s knee before it grasped hold of the gun again.

“You idiot,” Fawcett hissed, “What if the gun had gone off.”

“Well, it didn’t did it?”

“Where do you think the kid could have gone? On a night like this we should have seen some sign of him somewhere. He couldn’t have just disappeared into thin air.”

“Do you think he couldn’t have rounded back to the cabin? He’d need his horse to get away.”

“Good thinking.”

For a moment the two men seemed to stand around waiting for one or other of them to act on their assumption. Logan has just turned to go back to the cabin when Kyle arrived, breathing heavily and with the sheen of perspiration on his face “Well? Have you found him?”

“No sign of him, Captain.” Logan said.

“There must be, he can’t have disappeared.” Kyle snarled, and drew out his own pistol.

“We were thinking he may have gone back on himself, he’d need his horse.” Fawcett suggested and earned himself a curt nod of approval, a jerk of the head to order him back to find out just how accurate his idea could have been. “Logan, stay by me… we’ll flush him out even if it takes all night.”

“Yes, sir, Captain.” Logan muttered and sighed inwardly.

With all the stealth of a cat Joe crept on all fours keeping himself well covered by the foliage, Fawcett was less than careful, hurrying to get back to the cabin and confident that he would find Joe there, he had his gun loose in his hand and a smirk on his face as he reached the picket line where the horses were hobbled.

Now he lowered himself a little as though he needed to keep concealed from any prying eyes little knowing that behind him another crept along equally as stealthily. Fawcett was a heavily built man, his breathing was that of a man who didn’t keep good health, as he crept along he had to pause every so often to catch his breath. Behind him Joe picked up a rock, stood up and swung his arm. The dull clunk of the stone coming into contact with Fawcett’s skull was followed by the man collapsing onto the ground, narrowly missing a freshly ’dropped’ heap of dung.

Taking the gun from Fawcetts hand the young man hesitated a moment as to what to do next. He could get into the cabin and bar the door, or he could get Cochise and make a dash for the Ponderosa.

The sound of Kyle’s voice approaching decided him, he untethered the horses as he passed them by, swung himself upon Cochise and as he galloped away from the cabin he sent the three remaining horses scattering left and right into the path of the two men who levelled their guns, fired as they fell victim to the fleeing beasts.
Ben stopped Buck instantly upon the sound of the gunfire and then turned baleful eyes upon Clay “If anything has happened to my son, Clay Stafford, I swear to God you won’t live to see this night out.”

Clay’s mouth ran dry, he kept what he hoped was a soldierly stance with his back straight and head held high. Behind him Hoss and Adam urged their horses forward so that Clay had no choice but to be swept up along with them as they made their way into the woodland towards the cabin.

Two horses, riderless, dashed past them with manes streaming and eyes rolling. They continued onwards until they reached the sight where Logan was struggling to get to his feet, clutching at his arm and hugging his ribs. Kyle was full stretch upon the ground, and it was to him that Ben ran as soon as he had dismounted. Seated upon their horses Adam and Clay watched, Hoss had gone to attend to the injured Logan.

Kyle could taste blood in his mouth, it was choking in his throat and he turned his head to spit it out. His useless arm dragged against his side while he struggled to get into a sitting position. He froze to the spot when he saw Ben approaching him, he blinked rapidly and shook his head “You? Here?”

“It should be me saying that, Kyle, you – here – only I’d have to add the question why, although I think I can guess the answer.” Ben growled and knelt beside the man in order to assist him into a sitting position. “Revenge isn’t always so sweet , is it? Where’s my son?”

“Which one?” Kyle sneered.

“Joseph.” Ben hissed between clenched teeth, “What have you done to Joseph?”

For a moment Kyle just stared at him, then he laughed, a dry cackle of a laugh, the sound of a desperate man knowing that he had lost the battle, could even have lost his own life. His heavily lidded eyes began to close “Joseph – you don’t have to worry about him – it’s Adam Cartwright you should be concerned about.” he coughed and blood gurgled in his throat, “What happened to me?”

“Looks like your horse trampled you down, Kyle.” Ben replied and looked up as Hoss drew near pushing the injured Logan ahead of him, “How’s he?”

“Broken ribs and shoulder by the looks of it, Pa.”

Kyle’s breathing was becoming more laboured now, he could see Ben dimly through half closed eyes, a slow smile spread over his face “Funny thing is – all I wanted was Joseph to join our company. Be part of the Confederacy, pledge allegiance to Lee….to the cause… I thought with his brother … a good pair together.” his hand gripped hold of Ben’s sleeve in a sudden convulsive movement “You can’t keep the war away from the Ponderosa forever, Ben Cartwright. Its bigger than you …”

A spasm of pain seized him, his grip became tighter upon Bens sleeve and he gave a groan as blood gushed from his mouth and then his head fell back and his body jerked into the last agonies of death.

Adam removed his hat, as did Clay and Hoss. Ben gently set Kyle down upon the ground and rose to his feet. The enemy was vanquished, but the death of any man was a tragedy. He sighed and then looked at Logan “We’ll get you to a doctor, but first I want to find my son.”

Logan was in too much pain to argue, he was near to passing out with the difficulty of breathing with his broken ribs. From nearby came a groan and Hoss called out that he had found someone else, someone who was going to have quite a headache.

Clay replaced his hat and gripped the reins of his horse, slowly he turned its head and as he dug in his heels for the horse to leap forward so Adam’s hand reached out and snatched the reins from him. “Not planning to go anyplace now, are you, Stafford?”

The horse reared and pranced a little, tossed its head but didn’t unseat his rider nor shake off the grip of the other man upon the reins. Clay regained the reins into his own hands, looked at Adam face, at the dark eyes and set mouth and then shook his head. As he did so his brain was already struggling to find a means to clutch victory from the ashes of defeat.

Chapter 32

Cochise slowed to a walk as Joe headed towards the stables, the animal was as weary as his master and as the doors closed behind them the sun began to rise in the sky tinting the clouds with pink and orange, while promising a day of perfect weather to come.

Joe dismounted with the stiffness of a young man who had undergone a long difficult night, his head ached so much it was now getting hard to keep his eyes open from the pain that seemed to have settled above his brows. Once he had seen to Cochise’s needs he stumbled towards the house and gratefully pushed the door open.

The room was empty but he had expected that after all it was just day break. He paused at the entrance with the door still open and gazed around him with slumped shoulders and a heavy heart. It was when he cast down his hat that he realised that his was the only one there … there was no sign of Hoss’ high stetson, or Adam and Bens hats. His hand hovered as he tried to think of the significance of their absence.

He was finding it hard to think and having finally set his hat down and removed his gunbelt he made his way to the settee and sunk gratefully down upon it. He closed his eyes and wondered if his legs had the strength in them to get him up the stairs.

“You here? Li’le Joe, you here? Where you been all this time?”

Startled from his slowly slipping into sleep Joe sat up and found himself staring at Hop Sing who was looking at him as though his eyes couldn’t believe the sight of the young man home at last. “Hi, Hop Sing…could do with some coffee…lots of sugar…”

“Where Mr Adam? He go look for you?”

Joe stared harder at the other man, he rubbed his head and then his eyes “What did you say, Hop Sing?”

“Mr Adam go look for you… ah, then Mr Cartwright and Mr Hoss they go after Mr Adam” the pleasure, confusion and excitement stiffened in his face for a moment “Oh, also Mr Stafford.”

Joe leaned forward, he rested his elbows on his knees before burying his face in his hands and giving it a rub, as though it would bring life back to weary features and recall to his mind some relevant facts that he had obviously missed. After a moment he looked up and stared at Hop Sing as though he had to really concentrate on him in order to get his facts right.

“Clay was here?”

Hop Sing nodded. “He come, then Mr Cartwright and Hoss come.”

“Did they see Adam?”

“Not then. Mr Adam hurt bad, crack on head, crack on rib, Doctor say to him to stay home, not move.”

“Wait a moment, Hop Sing – Adam’s alright? He came home?”

“Yes, come home with cracked head I already tell you … not good, bad men throw him down well. Sheriff Roy, ,Mr Cartwright and Hoss go look for bad men. Then -” Hop Sing paused and stared at the ceiling for a moment to think over the sequence of events “Then Mr Riley come, say you leave camp too early, leave behind contract. Mr Adam go look for you.”

“Why would he do that? He’d been told to stay home, why’d he think I was in danger?”

“Because of man with one arm.”

“They knew that Kyle was around?” Joe’s eyes flew open in amazement, “How’d they know that? I didn’t know that until … well … much later.”
Hop Sing nodded sympathetically “Much happen, you tired. I make coffee and you have food make you feel better.”

Joe nodded and leaned back against the settee, his head lolled and he closed his eyes, “I’m tired, that’s for sure. Clay came back … can’t quite figure it out …”

Hop Sing looked at the young man anxiously, he nodded to himself and then hurried from the room with a troubled mind over the youths condition. He had known and loved Joe since the lads birth, and was more than aware of the fact that the young man was about to face another trauma in his life.

*****

The horsemen rode towards the Ponderosa in silence. A convoy consisting of a horse bearing a dead body across the saddle, two men suffering various injuries with hands tied securely in front of them and riding ahead of Hoss who had a rifle pointed at their backs. Ben rode alongside his son Adam who every so often reeled in the saddle and looked as though he was about to fall off but succeeded in straightening himself up before he did, and ahead of them, just slightly, rode Clayton Stafford.

Adam thought he would never reach the Ponderosa in one piece that night. The relief at seeing the ranch framed in all the glory of a glorious dawn lifted his heart enough to strengthen his bones. He allowed Sport to take himself into the stable where he dismounted with almost delirious joy in his heart at the sight of Cochise munching hungrily from his hay bag.

It seemed so long ago when they had found Kyle dying, Logan and Fawcett both reeling from their injuries. It was from them that they learned about Joe, of his escape and subsequent flight. Now actually seeing Cochise in his stall confirmed the relief they had felt when they had been told how Joe had effected his escape. He walked quickly to Ben’s side and touched his father’s arm “Joe’s home.”

The two words brought almost delirious joy to the father’s heart. His smile broadened as he looked at Adams grin and dark eyes, then he gave his son a warm grip to the arm before turning and heading to the house. Adam smiled over at Hoss who was encouraging his prisoners from their horses.

Clay didn’t speak, he wanted to tell these men that he was more than glad to know that Joe was home, safe one presumed. He longed to be able to tell his step-brothers that he did care about them, about Ben, about Joe, that they all mattered to him. Instead he sat astride his saddle staring down at them his mind numb and any hope of a future with them crumbling to dust.

Logan and Fawcett were securely tied to a post in the stables and assured by a cheerful Hoss that it wouldn’t be long as once the hands had had their breakfast one of them would be taking both men into town. “You’ll get some medical attention there before they lock you up in the cells.” Hoss had added pleasantly.

Adam looked up at Clay and frowned, then gave a slight nod “You’d best get down from that horse, Clay. This business isn’t finished yet.”

“No, I rather thought it wasn’t.” Clay replied and with a sigh he dismounted, tied the reins of his horse to the worn old hitching post and followed Adam into the house.

The warmth of the greeting between Joe and Ben ended as Clay entered the building, both men turned to look at him as though they couldn’t believe he would have the arrogance to step foot inside the house again. Behind him though came Adam who paused, removed his hat and then gave Joe the benefit of one of his dimpled grins, dark eyes twinkled and he nodded “Glad you’re home safely, shortshanks.”

“And you too, Adam. I heard – I was led to believe that -” Joe stammered but stopped when his brother waved a hand as though it was of no consequence. “I’m sorry.”

Hoss trundled in, cast his hat upon the bureau and then strode over to give his little brother a hug. “Got a friend of yours all tied up in the barn, he’s suffering a headache from the bang on the head you gave him.”

Joe sighed and touched his own head and then looked at Adam with his head swathed in bandages but before he could say anything Hop Sing came in bearing a tray loaded with the coffee exclaiming as he put it down upon the table that morning had come, breakfast would soon be ready.

Chapter 33

No one spoke for a while as the atmosphere slowly froze around them. Joe stood with his head down, brows furrowed and breathing heavily through his nose as though it was the only way he could get air into his lungs. Hoss stood feeling awkward and with blue eyes darting from each of the men sharing the room with him. Adam knew his father well enough to know that he was boiling with such rage that it was hard to contain it but somehow he was managing while he himself, could only look at Joe and feel sorry for his little brother.

Finally Adam cleared his throat “I can’t eat just now. I’m going to bed.” he didn’t look at anyone there now, he just made his way to the stairs, faltered at the bottom step and grabbed the bannister rail for support. Hoss moved immediately “You alright, Adam?”

“Of course I’m alright -” Adam snapped with a brittleness in his voice that announced to all there the very opposite. He drew in his breath and slowly made his way up to his room, they heard his feet dragging along the landing then the snap of his door as it closed.
He sunk down upon the edge of the bed with an overwhelming sense of relief and closed his eyes. By the time he had unbuttoned the top of his shirt he had fallen back upon the pillows as though pole axed.

Joe raised his head and looked directly at Clay, he took one step forward then stopped “You knew they had Adam, you knew he was injured, could have been dying…”

“No, I didn’t, Joe. I didn’t know anything about Adam not until I met up with Kyle today at Horsehead Creek. Believe me I -”

Ben narrowed his black eyes “Believe you?” his voice was low but more like a growl than a voice, “Believe you when you have done nothing but lie and cheat and deceive us every time you opened your mouth?”

“Ben -” Clay paused and ran his hand across his mouth, smoothed down his moustache and shook his head “I was under orders, you have to understand, if it hadn’t been for the fact that -”

“Under orders? Whose orders?” Ben stepped closer, his fingers grabbed at Clays jacket and held it clutched in his fist “Whose orders, Clay? Kyles? That blood sucker who didn’t even have the compassion to weep over his dead wife? Did he ever tell you about her? Did he tell you about the way he arranged for her to be killed and then dismissed her as just a woman he knew?”

Clay shook his head and glanced mutely at them one by one, he then sighed heavily and bowed his head “He told me what happened here, how she’d come to see him and got caught up in an accident.”

Joe stepped forward now, his handsome face twisted with anger “It was no accident, he orchestrated that accident because one of the men he wanted to provide him with silver refused to do so….and so he had him killed. She was an innocent passsenger on the stage.” he glanced away and released a long heart broken sigh “I don’t think I’ll ever forget his face as he looked at her, you would never have thought she had been his wife.”

Ben released Clay now and stepped back “Clay, men have done a lot of evil things over time and excused them all by saying they were obeying orders. You took orders from a man whose only ambition was to embroil us into this war between states. You chose to do so, knowing how much we would trust you, and you manipulated that trust to suit yourself as well as to discharge what you would call your duty.”

Clay raised his chin and his eyebrows as he looked at Joe and then Ben, “I was doing my duty. I was hoping that Joe would come with me and join the Confederacy …”

“And that would have been the perfect lever for Kyle to use whenever he needed more silver for The Cause, wouldn‘t it?” Ben stated while his dark eyes kindled fire and Clay had the grace to look down, unable to withstand the look in Ben’s eyes.

“You can say what you will, Ben, but the fact is that I was doing my duty, I was obeying orders. Don’t you realise how much the Confederacy needs the help of people like yourself? If you could only understand what it’s like for our men, they need that silver, they needs it for arms and horses and …”

“And for the sake of that silver you helped Kyle and almost got two of my sons killed.” Bens voice rose so loud that even Joe blanched and stepped back from the blast. “My sons are more precious to me than the land you took from us, more precious than the silver you’ll find on it, and if they had died, Clay, as a result of your obeying orders I swear it would have been the last thing you would have ever done.”

Joe glanced away, his eyes moist with tears, he felt weak and ill, the anger and hatred he was feeling churned away at his gut as much as his own physical weakness and he lowered himself down carefully upon the arm of the settee “You left me in that cabin with those men. You knew they would kill me, you knew Kyle had no intention of wasting anymore time on trying to get me to join the confederacy. Admit it, Clay, you cared more for your so precious cause than you ever did for me, or for Ma’s memory.”

Clay shook his head and raised his hands in a gesture of futility “You forget, Joe, I don’t have any memory of my mother, I never knew her.”

“But you made good trade on her name, didn’t you?” Joe cried, his voice now shrill and loud, “You certainly knew how to talk about her to me as though – as though she were as precious to you as you knew she was to me.”

Clay said nothing but stared fixedly at the logs burning on the hearth, he longed to be a thousand miles away, anywhere other than there at that moment. “Sometimes it’s necessary to do things that’s against our nature, Joe. You should be grateful to have your memories of her. I haven’t and I suppose you could say that Kyle did use his knowledge of her to his advantage, but truly, whatever he did was for the cause.”

Ben nodded “Yes, he was very good at manipulating people to suit his needs, for the cause. Can’t you see yet what a devious man he really was?”

Clay frowned and shook his head very slightly “I know you’re looking at him with prejudiced eyes, that’s natural after all that has been done, but you don’t realise that there is something far more important going on in other states that you seem to insist on refusing to acknowledge is happening. Men are dying in their thousands, brother against brother, father against sons … when their Captain orders them to charge, or to fire at the enemy, they don’t put down their weapons and say ‘Sorry, sir, my brother may be there’ they just do as they are ordered.”

“Perhaps,” Ben said very quietly as he turned his back on Clay “Perhaps if more men did lower their guns and refuse to fight, this war would come to a quicker end.”

“Then it would be a dishonourable one.” Clay said coldly.

Joe rose to his feet and looked at Clay so intensely that the other man had to lower his eyes, Ben turned to look at him again while Hoss shook his head and stared at the fire.

“You sounded just like him then,” Joe said quietly, “Just like Kyle.” he shook his head and then turned to his father “I’m sorry, Pa, I need to get to my bed. I – I don’t feel so good and – and I don’t want to stay here in the same room as him.”

“Joe -” Clay turned and reached out with a hand to grab at him as he passed but Joe twisted so as to avoid his grasp.

Hoss rubbed the back of his neck and cleared his throat “I guess the men will be up by now, Pa. I’ll go get Hank and some others to take those men to town. I’ll get Dr Martin to come back with them to check Adam and Joe over ….” his voice faded, he glanced at Clay but managed to keep his face totally expressionless as he walked by him and left the house.

Clay now looked at Ben and stepped forward “I am sorry, Ben, sincerely sorry. I’m more than grateful for all the kindnesses you’ve shown me and although you must think I’ve thrown it all back in your face … well, I … I want you to know that I returned that Deed of Gift to Mr Woods with a note asking him to return the land into your name. I’ve no rights to it …”

“No, sir, by heavens, you do not!”

“I guess there’s only one question left to ask you then. What do you want me to do now?”

Ben looked at him for a second with a coldness that Clay had ever seen on that proud face before, he stood his ground however and waited like a soldier on parade awaiting orders. Ben said nothing but walked over to his red leather chair and sat down. He continued to look at Clay all the while as though seriously thinking over what Clay had just said, then he leaned forward and pointed his finger at the young man “Clay, if you were not Marie’s son, and Joe’s brother, I would have you riding into town – by thunder – I would have taken you myself and seen you locked up in a cell for what you have done.”

“I was -”

“I know. You were obeying orders, but as far as we are concerned you are out of uniform, sir, acting as a civilian, and as a result of your duplicity, for there is no other word for it, as a result of your duplicity my sons could have been killed. As it is a man had died, your Captain.”

“That’s no fault of mine and …”

“You allowed Kyle to take my son to that cabin, you made no attempt to help Joe … Kyle’s death was the result of Joe’s actions to escape. Well, that’s by the by now, and done with …but there’s no place for you here, Clayton Stafford. You love this cause so much, then – there’s the door. Go and fight it elsewhere. Leave Joe and the rest of us alone.”

“Ben -”

“MISTER CARTWRIGHT …” Ben thundered “Don’t you ever call me anything but that again.” Ben half rose from his chair, then sunk down again “Just go before I change my mind and get you sent to jail.”

“Can’t I have a private word with Joe?”

“What don’t you understand about the word GO!” Ben growled with his face purpling now and the veins like cords in his neck and temples.

Clay nodded, walked stiffly to the bureau and collected his hat. As he picked it up he could recall to mind other mornings when the four of them would collect them and laugh at the tangle of hands … he nodded again as though that was a memory never to be repeated now.

Hoss stood to one side as Clay walked past him. Neither man spoke to the other, both knew it was better that way. From his bedroom window Joe watched as his brother walked with a straight back and head held high to where his horse awaited him. He swallowed a lump in his throat as Clay mounted into the saddle, turned to look back and up at the window where he was standing and then he was riding out of the yard.

Joe followed him with his eyes until he was out of sight then he sat down on his bed and buried his face in his hands. He had happy memories to treasure of a brother he had loved and perhaps, one day, he would be able to recall them without the bitterness of anger and betrayal. Perhaps one day he would forget how his brother had re-entered his life and turned his world upside down.

Conclusion:

Paul Martin was somewhat surprised to find he had two patients awaiting his attention upon arriving at the Ponderosa. With some grumbling he examined Joe carefully and attended to the deep cut in his scalp a sympathy that didn’t escape Joe’s notice “It’s not too bad, is it, Doc?”

Paul smiled as he replaced his instruments into his bag “No, that cut will heal pretty quickly. Like your brothers you’ve inherited the Cartwrights thick skull.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

Paul raised his eyebrows and looked at the young man thoughtfully before he replied, “Well, I’m more concerned about your lack of appetite and this lethargy you’re exhibiting, Joe. That may take more time to heal that that cut on your head will do.”

“Oh,” Joe sighed and stared down at the floor before giving a slight shrug “I’ll be alright. Once I get back to work -.” he turned as the door opened and Ben strode in, looked at the patient and then at the doctor with that usual quick alert appraisal he could give to sum up a situation. “Doc’s worried about me, says I need to get back to work as soon as possible.”

“I said no such thing.” Paul snapped sharper than the lock on his medical bag “Don’t you go twisting my words, young man.”

Ben frowned and after a moments thoughtful gaze upon his son looked back to Paul “Nothings wrong is there?”

“I was just expressing my concern over his lack of appetite … Hop Sing tells me he hasn’t eaten anything today.”

“Mmm, well, we’ve all got rather jaded appetites just now.” Ben remarked, “Joe most of all, I should imagine.”

“I see,” Paul nodded and picked up his bag “Well, best not to dwell on it, young man. Clay Stafford walked out of here on both legs which is more than some families can say just now about some of their family members. Young Jack Hanratty won’t be coming back home, he got killed in some skirmish with Confederates down in Missouri. His mothers heartbroken as you can imagine…”

“Jack? I – I went to school with him.” Joe stammered.

“Exactly. It makes you think, doesn’t it?” and with a nod of the head Paul picked up his bag and walked to the door “Now, where’s my next patient.”

Ben watched Paul leave the room to attend to Adam and then after closing the door he turned to his son, “Feeling sorry for yourself won’t help, you know, son.”

“I’m not feeling sorry for myself, Pa.” Joe retorted defensively, “I’m just – I’m just not sure how I feel just now.”

Ben nodded and sat down beside his son on the bed, he placed his hand upon Joe’s shoulder and sighed before he began to speak “I said some harsh things to Clay before he left, Joe. Things I felt had to be said.”

“I guess so, Pa. I guess we all said something … except Adam of course.”

“How’d you feel about Clay if Kyle’s plan with regard to Adam had succeeded?”

“Well, Clay didn’t rightly know what was happening to Adam, did he?”

“True enough, but he knew enough to be as they say – legally – complicit.” Ben squeezed gently on Joe’s shoulder and looked into the young mans face anxiously “Clay’s good his good points, as we all, and like us all he has his weaknesses. Unfortunately his weaknesses are easily manipulated by people like Kyle.” he pursed his lips and frowned more deeply, “He’s Marie’s son, and your half brother, but -”

“That’s the point though, isn’t it, Pa? That ‘but’? If he had been here since a kid -”

“If – if – yes, if Marie had known, if she had brought him here, if only … but if only’s don’t work in this situation, Joe, because Clay has had his chance of settling down here and being part of our family. We accepted him with open arms and you, with an open heart, but he rejected it all. We have to face that fact, son. You have to face that as well.”

“If he hadn’t been under orders – I mean – caught up with Kyle -.”

“You’re back to those ‘if’s’ again, son. Look, Clay has chosen what he wants to do just now. He had the chance to save Adam, to save you and in some odd way, even to save Kyle. He lacked the initiative to do so.”

They both stared at the same spot of the floor for some moments before Joe asked his father if he thought Clay would ever come back to which Ben shrugged his broad shoulders “Well, I have to admit I made it pretty clear he didn’t need to feel very welcome if he did, but he has enough sense to know that in the heat of the moment we all say things that can be reversed. Perhaps he will if he doesn’t get his head blown off in some fight or another in that war he’s so involved in.”

Joe nodded, shrugged and gave his father a rather weak smile “I guess it was just the wrong time, wasn’t it, Pa?”

“The wrong time, yes, I guess it was, son.”

*****

The black hat was placed upon the card table with a certain deliberation that forced the man dealing the cards to look up and confront the owner of it. Hazel eyes met the dark brown eyes of the man who was pulling out a chair and sitting down, telling the other men at the table that the game was postponed for the time being. As they departed Clay Stafford gathered up the cards and observed the other man steadily “You alone?”

“I am.”

“There’s quite a bit pot at stake here…”

“Its only a post ponement, Clay. I doubt if I’ll be here long.”

“How’d you find me?”

Adam Cartwright pouted slightly and inclined his head slightly at an angle “You weren’t so hard to find.”

Clay sighed and beckoned over to one of the girls, “Two beers -” he glanced at Adam “Unless you want something stronger.”

“Beers fine.”

The other men had wandered over to the counter, lounged against it and watched the two men warily, anxious that they weren’t going to lose out on the money or their chance to win it back. Their cards remained where they had left them and through the mirror behind the counter they watched as the girl took the beers over to Adam and Clay and placed them on the table.

“How’s Joe?”

Adam picked up his beer and sipped it slowly before replacing the glass on the table, “He’s well, out at Yuma just now with a string of horses for the army.”

“It’s been two years …”

“Uh-huh. And the wars over. How was your war, Clay?”

It was Clay’s turn to pick up a glass and drink from it, he swallowed and stared at the other man with old eyes “It was bloody.”

“Are you still enlisted?”

“Yes. I’m an officer in the army of the United States of America.” Clay replied with some bitterness in his voice, “Ironic, isn’t it? It was all for nothing, nothing ..all those lives, all that hatred… all for nothing.”

“Hmmm,” Adam nodded and sighed “The south are going to take a long time to get over it.”

“I was at Atlanta when she was burning … it made me think of you all here, on the Ponderosa.”

“Oh? Not unkindly I hope…” and Adam gave a twisted cynical smile as he picked up his glass again.

“No, it made me realise what I had thrown away, what I nearly had …and oddly enough it made me think about the Mayhews, you remember them? Joe and I had a fight with them …it made me realise how deep their pain must have been to know that their family had been wiped out just because it stood in the way of the war machines … I often thought of them.”

“They’re still here.” Adam muttered and drained his glass dry.

“Are things – how are things on the Ponderosa?” Clay twisted some coins between his fingers and looked wistfully at Adam, “Everyone well?”

“Yes, everyone’s well. You know you’re welcome to visit anytime while you’re here in town.”

“Really? Last time I saw your Pa he indicated quite the opposite.”

“Oh I’m sure he did. He had reason to do so at the time.” Adam smiled and his eyes twinkled.

“I’m sorry about what happened to you, Adam, had I known you had been treated so bad I’d have looked out for you.”

Their eyes met, Adam lowered his and said nothing, Clay turned his aside knowing he had said too much, an easy enough little lie but all the same, it was a lie and he knew that Adam realised that only too well.

“Joe took a while to get over your leaving, and all that happened, you know?” Adam sighed and reached out for his hat, “He’ll be back by the end of the week.”

“I have to report to my unit tomorrow. We’re en route to Indian Territory. I just wanted to revisit the town and – and just see how things were, you know.”

“Sure. I know.” Adam stood up with a lithe movement and placed his hat upon his head, “Well, should you have time to visit, you know where the Ponderosa is, don’t you?”

“Thanks. I’ll remember that, Adam. Thanks.”

They looked at one another, for a moment they didn’t speak but looked as though taking the measure of the other. Adam put out his hand and Clay accepted it, they shook briefly and then Adam turned and left the building.

As he walked to his horse he wondered if Clay would ride by, even for a few moments before he joined his unit. Somehow, he thought, he didn’t think he would.

As Clay nodded a welcome back to his fellow gamblers and the girl removed the empty glasses he smiled, he knew he wouldn’t have time for that visit. But, at least, he knew that one day, and who knew when the door was open to him once more.

***The End***

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