Summary: So what did happen to Will and Laura and Peggy after the wedding day? Did they ride happily off into the sunset and disappear like many other Cartwright neighbors and friends? If they did it was only after this particular adventure …
Word Count: 32,150
A landscape painting of the perfect winter scene. Looking down upon the Ponderosa ranch with the snow so white and crisp all around it no one could have described it in any other way. Thick snow blanketed the roof top and spirals of smoke drifted straight up into the blue sky from the chimneys. A pale winter sun caused the snow to glitter as though thousands upon thousands of diamonds had fallen to the earth and now lay spangled upon the ranch house roof. It looked idyllic.
In the main room with the big fire blazing in the hearth and the pot-bellied stove in the study area practically pulsating from the heat, Ben Cartwright strode up and down. Any peace from without ended once across the threshold for his strong deep voice was ringing round the rafters and making Hoss wince.
“- and do you know, do you have any idea, when they will be back? Did they tell you where they were going and why? Did they? Oh no, they just go blundering off with not so much as a by your leave …”
“Pa -” Hoss attempted to interject an explanation and even stood up to make sure his irate parent could see him.
“Why do I bother?” Ben flung his arms in the air in exasperation, “I warned Adam days ago that there was a storm on the way. You’d think he’d have more sense. Little Joe I can understand going out just to tempt fate, that would be typical, but Adam! Hoss, I sometimes wonder why I bother!”
Hoss nodded and sighed. He had sunk down back into the chair and stared blankly out of the window. It sure looked pretty out there, he mused, with the snow on the mountains and the sky so blue. For a moment he forgot that his father was ranting on, the deep voice became a mere background to his own thoughts which ranged far and wide into the woodland.
“HOSS! Are you listening to me, boy?”
“Er – um – sure, Pa, sure I’m listening to ya.” Hoss forced a smile and opened his eyes wide to indicate how sincere his attention was, but Ben merely scowled and shook his head,
“Well, as we’re stuck here for the duration we had best get some paper work done.”
“But I thought you wanted me to check out on some timber, Pa.”
“Timber? In this weather? Are you mad, boy? Get that idea right out of your head this instant. There is no possible way that you would be able to go and check out timber in weather like this. It’s blowing a force 8 out there just now, and from the look of it I wouldn’t be surprised if it changed to a force 10 by nightfall.”
“It’s only morning now, Pa, and the sky looks as clear as a bell out there.”
Ben inhaled a deep breath down into the cavern of his chest and gave every impression of a boiler about to burst, Hoss stood up, again, and gave a weak placatory smile,
“Sure, Pa, we’ll do some paperwork if that’s what you want.”
“It’s not what I want, Hoss, it’s what I am forced to have to do seeing as your brothers have decided to wander off without informing anyone where they were going. This ranch can’t run on its own. How many times have I had to tell you boys that?”
Hoss nodded from habit. He ambled over to the study area and pulled out a chair. Ben joined him, the scowl on his face deepening as he pulled sheaves of paper from the drawer and threw them upon the desk.
“We gotta do all this, Pa?” Hoss gulped, his blue eyes widening in appeal.
“It has to be done, no point in putting it off any longer.” Ben snapped and picked up the first sheet of paper which he read through, and then slapped back down again, “Humph, this should have been dealt with days ago.”
Hoss nodded, picked it up and looked through it. With a sigh he looked at his father,
“They’ll be alright, Pa. No doubt they’re on their way home right now.”
“From wherever it is they went,” Ben growled, lowering his head with a deepening scowl and picking up his pen. He paused then and shook his head, the steam having been released by the tirade at Hoss, and anxiety replacing the anger, “I’m just concerned, Hoss. I don’t like it when the weather changes like this so unexpectedly. It can catch the most wary traveller out.” he bit his bottom lip, “I just hope they have the sense to get to some cover before the gales get any stronger.”
Hop Sing breathed a sigh of relief when he finally pulled the wagon to a halt in the yard. The suddenness of the snow storm had caught him when he was just half way home and he had gabbled a string of invectives at the top of his voice in the purest Cantonese. It did not change the weather but it certainly did him a power of good as the horses, as surprised as him, struggled against the force of the wind and the biting cold of the snow.
He had been grateful indeed when several of the cow hands, also on the way back to the Ponderosa, had caught up with him and ridden alongside the wagon. It had meant that every time the wheels had got locked in snow they had hauled it free and Hop Sing had not even once needed to clamber from his seat to deal with the matter.
Heads down and huddled low they had forged determinedly onwards until at last the ranch house had appeared before them, the snow had stopped falling and the wind had slightly abated. The cow hands waved and disappeared to the bunk house where they would be greeted by a warm dry place to thaw out, hot coffee and some flap jacks provided by the cowhands who had had the sense to stay put rather than take the journey into town that morning.
He clambered down from the wagon seat and began to haul sacks from the wagon which needed to be taken into the house via the kitchen entrance. It took him a little time, and he called some of the sacks rather unsavoury words, but all in all he succeeded in getting the goods from the wagon to the kitchen without slipping over in the mud he was creating with his too-ing and fro-ing. He closed the door with a nod of satisfaction and rubbed his hands together.
Having checked on the stove and thrown in some more fuel, he made his way into the big room and looked around him.
The fire was burning well, someone had recently placed more logs on it to keep it going. He could hear a murmur of voices. With a nod that set his pig tail bobbing against his back he hurried over to the study area and was greeted by father and son, both of whom had visible expressions of relief on their faces. Both saw in the arrival of Hop Sing some respite from the mound of paper work that was threatening to engulf them,
“Ah, Hop Sing. Back already then?” Ben said a little over loudly.
“Yes, back now. Ride from town very slippy. Here is mail for you.” he pulled a wad of letters from the inner pocket of his jacket and handed it to Ben with a smile and a nod.
“You didn’t happen to see Adam and Joe in town, did you, Hop Sing?” Hoss asked, although he was looking at the mail carefully in the hope that the latest Sears catalogue would be there.
“No, but I see someone who see them.” Hop Sing smiled again, and his sloe black eyes almost disappeared in the folds of his cheeks.
“You did? Did that someone happen to mention where they were going by any chance?” Ben asked, tossing the catalogue over to Hoss who pounced on it like a cat lands on a mouse, that is, with more eagerness than grace.
“They go to see Mr Melford. He selling off livestock, Mr Adam say he want to go see if old hay burner for sale.”
“Why on earth would they do that? They know my views on keeping horses on the ranch that don’t earn their keep. That Kentucky race horse will eat more food in a week than a decent animal would eat in a month.” Ben sighed, exasperated at his son’s stubbornness.
“Any chance of some coffee, Hop Sing?” Hoss asked in the moment’s peace that had fallen upon the room, “All this book work has plumb wore me out.”
Hop Sing’s black eyes twinkled in understanding, he bobbed his head in agreement and quickly returned to the kitchen. It was not long before pleasant smells were slowly released to permeate the other room and make Hoss’ mouth water in anticipation.
A thud against the side of the building and the sound that resembled a thousand pellets striking against glass announced the arrival of a fresh blizzard. Ben looked up from the letter in his hand and shook his head, darted a black look at Hoss, as though the storm were all his fault, and resumed reading.
Hoss paused in his perusal of the catalogue, as though the sound of the wind beating ten bells out of the walls of the house had at last penetrated his hearing. After a brief moment of deep thinking he looked over at Ben,
“Hey, Pa, I bet’cha anything you like that they’ll be going to visit Will and Laura while they’re on the way to the Melfords. Adam was saying the other day how he hadn’t seen Peggy in nearly six months.”
Ben frowned, then looked back down at his paperwork although he did grace the suggestion with a thoughtful nod of the head,
“They probably got caught in the storm even before they reached Will’s place.” Hoss sighed and leaned back in the chair which creaked slightly, “Last time I saw Will was nigh on eight weeks back, when we were getting things arranged for the horses to be sent back to Yuma. Remember he came on over here to talk business with you.”
“Uh-huh,” Ben nodded and after a quick check of the figures he had been totalling looked up at his son, “So? Whether they’re at the Melfords or at Wills makes no difference really, Hoss. They were expected back here this evening. I needed Adam’s figures for the new contract he got fixed up for us with Jed Livingston.”
“Yeah, sure, I know that, Pa.” Hoss replied patiently, “Perhaps he got to hear something he felt needed looking into with Will and Laura.”
“Wal, I dunno exactly, but I’m jest supposing.” Hoss frowned, “Adam sure was fond of little Peggy.”
“We all were,” Ben said, tapping the ledger with the nib of his pen, “But they’ve been married now for nearly a year and seem to have settled happily into married life.”
“Yeah, I know, but it don’t stop a man from wondering how things are going with ‘em, does it?”
“Somehow I almost prefer the thought of them going to the Melfords to check on that hay burner.” Ben replied with a scowl, and resumed his work on the ledger.
“Hey, Hop Sing,” Hoss turned his attention to their cook as Hop Sing bustled in with coffee for them both and a plate of cookies from which Hoss immediately took the top two. “You hear anything in town about how Will and Laura are getting along? Any problems at all they might be having?”
“Hoss!” Ben looked up at his son with his dark eyes growing darker, “Are you assuming that Hop Sing goes around town picking up useless bits of gossip just for your amusement?”
“No, Pa,” Hoss replied, spraying crumbs liberally over the desk which Ben brushed away with an irritated sigh, “It ain’t for amusement.”
“No,” Hop Sing shook his head, “No amusement in talk. Velly serious business. Mr Will and Missy Laura they go soon. They go to far away place back East. Mr Will say his place go up for sale.”
“Is that right?” Hoss breathed, “When did this all happen?”
“Mr Will talk with banker, Mr Weems. He wants quick sale. He talk to Mr Weems yest’day.”
Ben put the pen down and looked thoughtfully at his cook, and then at Hoss, he nodded slowly,
“You may be right, Hoss. I should think that is just the kind of talk in town that would send Adam riding over to see Will and Laura. Well, let’s just hope he doesn’t forget to be tactful and discreet.”
“Why, Pa? If’n he doesn’t want them to sell up how’s he gonna let ‘em know by being tactful and discreet?”
“Because he should remember that Will and Laura are a married couple now, and when they decided, together, to do something, he has no right to interfere. Now, get on with that coffee and then do something useful.”
Hoss nodded, looked doubtfully over the paperwork on the desk and sighed heavily.
“Seems to me this here storm ain’t gonna blow itself out anytime soon. I’d best go check on things outside.”
Ben nodded, seemingly uninterested in what Hoss was about to go and check upon. It was only when the blast of cold air and swirls of snow drifted into the room from the opening of the door that he paused, raised his head and realised Hoss had gone. With a sigh he placed his elbows on the desk and turned the pen over and over between his fingers as he gazed out into the open spaces of the big room, a slight frown furrowed his brow. After some seconds had passed by he resumed his writing. The sound of his pen scratching across the paper was deadened by the wailing wind that hurled itself around the house.
Joseph Cartwright pulled his hat lower to shield his eyes from the cold blast of wind that forced him to bring his horse closer to Adam and to shout out the suggestion that perhaps they should head for home.
“We’d be better off just carrying on,” Adam shouted back, buttoning his coat up to his throat and pulling his hat down, “Will’s place is not so far now.”
“Yeah, but -,” Joe paused and sighed. Adam had that look of fierce determination on him that indicated that nothing was going to stop him from going where he wanted to go. “It’s cold enough for snow, Adam.”
“Look, Joe, if you want to go home, then go back. If you want to carry on to the Melfords, then do so. But stop moaning on about the weather, will you?”
Joe sighed. Cochise did a quick side step to avoid being jostled by Sport as Adam urged his horse into a faster gallop. For a fraction of a second Joe actually contemplated turning his horse round and heading for home, but the thought crossed his mind that Adam was right. The Melfords or the Cartwrights places were closer than the Ponderosa, and either one of them would provide warm shelter, a friendly welcome and a hot supper.
He thought back to earlier in the day when they had first heard about the Melfords sale of stock. Tom Priest had stopped them in the Telegraph Depot. Adam had just put the cable from a contact regarding the timber deal with Jed Livingston into his pocket when Tom had asked them if they knew anything about the sale.
“Is the Kentucky pure bred we sold them in the sale?” Adam asked with quickening interest, while at the same time ignoring the way his brother’s eyes had opened at the mention of the beast. He would set the record straight later, he mused, after all Tom Priest would undoubtedly remember just how Joe had become the owner of the Kentucky.
“I dunno about that, Innes is sure proud of that beast. A regular hay burner if ever I saw one. Mrs M ain’t too pleased about it, but Innes loves it too much for her to complain over loudly about it.”
“Sure would be good to see it again,” Adam mused, his eyes lighting up with the speculative fire of a regular horse expert.
“Yeah, but Pa’s expecting us back this evening, Adam. We’ve been gone from home several days now remember?”
“Hey, Joe, and since when have you minded so much about playing truant?” Adam laughed like an errant school boy delighted at the thought of some mischief, and Joe found the mood infectious as he contemplated an evening in the comfort of the Melfords ramshackle home.
“Well, I’m not saying that I would mind so much,” he chuckled, “Just that Pa did say there would be snow and I sure don’t want to get caught out in a blizzard.”
“A blizzard?” Tom Priest laughed out loud and some other people in the Depot turned their heads to survey the Cartwrights with some wry amusement at the thought, “It’s too early for snow let alone a blizzard. There’s some bad weather on the way, mind. My corns been playing me up something rotten, but apart from some rain I can’t imagine why your Pa should think we’d get snow.”
“There’s some cold winds blowing in,” Jethro Higgins chanced to mention, much to the Cartwright boys amusement.
“Oh, I doubt if that will dampen our spirits any, huh, Joe?” and Adam gave his little brother a playful tap on the chest.
“If it snows, Mr Higgins, I’ll buy you a beer at the saloon.” Joe volunteered with a wide grin.
There was a ripple of comradely laughter as they departed from the Depot and made their way to their horses. As they passed the Bank Mr Weems collided into them, apologised profusely and then upon realising he had bumped into the Cartwrights his eyes widened and his face split into a big grin,
“Just the men I wanted to see,” he cried enthusiastically.
“Really?” Adam raised his chin and eyed the bank manager suspiciously. His suspicions about bank managers were never positive, and he could see Mr Weems was about to inform him that the bank rate of interest on savings had fallen heavily.
“We’re on our way to the Melfords, Mr Weems. Seems that they’re selling off some stock.” Joe grinned, as excited about this venture as he would have been when a little boy being promised a day off school.
“Oh, I see,” Weems frowned now, and looked at them both, “I thought – mmm – well, no harm in mentioning it to you both as you’re family.”
“I beg your pardon?” Adam said politely, being caught rather flat footed at this comment. He could never recall Ben mentioning a Weems in the family.
“I mean, you and Will Cartwright. I know how close you all are as family.”
“Oh sure,” Joe shrugged and laughed a little. A cold wind drifted down the collar of his jacket and forced him to pull it up higher around his ears.
“I understand he discussed things with your father a while back.”
“Yes, I recall he did come to talk some business over with Pa,” Adam said thoughtfully. “Is that what this is all about then, Mr Weems?”
“But of course,” Weems replied, “I’d not have mentioned it otherwise. I was expecting Ben to come in today and put in an offer.”
“An offer?” Adam and Joe said in unison, their eyes widening.
Weems now looked embarrassed, and bit his bottom lip,
“Oh dear, I’m beginning to think you don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
“Well, talk a bit more and perhaps it’ll become clearer,” Adam smiled his most patient smile.
“It’s – well – client confidentiality.” Weems dithered.
“Mr Weems,” Adam looked at the bank manager gently, and placed a hand on his elbow, drawing him back into the confines of the building, “As you said earlier, we are family. What concerns Will … and Laura of course … concerns us.”
“That’s right, Mr Weems.” Joe nodded, intrigued by the mystery Weems had created by his blundering.
“Your cousin came in yesterday and asked me to put the ranch up for a quick sale. He …”
“Selling the ranch?” Adam’s voice echoed his feelings, he was obviously stunned by the news, he glanced at Joe, “Did Pa mention anything about this to you?”
“No, nothing.” Joe shook his head, and looked at Weems, “How quick a sale did he want?”
“I don’t know if I should say any more,” Weems protested, but Adam shook his head slowly, and raised his eyebrows to which Weems sighed “Very well, I just thought … well … he said that he and his family were moving out at the end of the month. He wants to take them back East, so that Peggy can get a proper education.”
“The property belonged to Laura and her husband; surely she doesn’t want to sell?” Adam responded speculatively.
“Well, she was going to sell it once before, if you remember rightly, Adam?” Mr Weems replied primly, as though this pin prick of a reminder would redeem his self respect after having disclosed one of his clients dealings.
“Of course, I remember.”
“And a woman’s property reverts to her husband upon her marriage.” Mr Weems thrust his advantage and saw the colour mantle the younger man’s cheeks, “But she is in total agreement with her husband. They have written out a document to that effect.”
“And what has our Pa to do with all this?” Joe asked.
“Will Cartwright discussed the future of the ranch with Ben, who suggested that he tried the best he could for a certain length of time and if it didn’t work out, then to go in for a quick sale.”
Adam sighed and looked at Joe. The excitement of playing truant had now ebbed away, to be replaced by his determination to ‘sort out’ this Cartwright muddle. Joe could see it in his brother’s eyes as clearly as though it were stamped in printers ink on his forehead.
“Well, thank you, Mr Weems. That information was – er – most informative,” Adam said, and gave the bank manager a firm shake of the hand before turning away and continuing on towards his horse.
Joe took no time at all in catching up with his brother and matching stride for stride down the sidewalk to where Cochise and Sport were hitched. He looked at his brother’s face and sighed,
“So I suppose this puts the Melfords visit on hold, huh?”
Adam cast a quick glance at him and nodded, pulled his coat closer around him, and untied the reins of his horse from the hitching rail. Within minutes they were galloping side by side down the main street of Virginia City.
The wind had got up in force half way to their destination. Now as they galloped towards what had once been the Dayton ranch Joe felt something wet and cold touch his face. He glanced up and noticed the darkness of the sky. Snowflakes were swirling downwards, a graceful scurry of white.
“It’s snowing,” he yelled.
Adam said nothing. The smoke from the ranch house chimneys could be seen now, and he steered his horse towards it.
The door opened even before they had had time to dismount. Laura Dayton Cartwright had run onto the porch and then paused, her hand to her throat and her eyes wide open in horror. Upon seeing them she put both hands to her face and burst into tears.
Joe cast an anxious look over at Adam to note his brother’s reaction to this emotion, and saw the tension increase along his brother’s jaw line and the eyes narrow as he hastily dismounted, cast the reins over the hitching rail and hurried to Laura’s side. He had cupped a hand over her elbow and turned her into the house even before Joe had dismounted from Cochise. He pulled the reins free from the hitching rail and hurried across the yard to the stable into which the two animals trotted happily enough as the warmth embraced them and the smell of oats and hay tantalised their nostrils.
He pushed open the door and quickly closed it behind him. Adam had cast off his hat and coat, and was biting his bottom lip in order to harness more patience as Laura snivelled into a lace handkerchief. Seeing his brother now standing beside him he repeated the question he had asked immediately upon entering the house,
“What’s wrong, Laura? Look, we can’t help you if you don’t tell us what has happened. Where’s Peggy? Is she alright? Is Will here?”
Laura nodded, Joe sighed and swept off his hat, answers to Adam’s questions would probably take a while. Laura was a one question at a time kind of gal.
A blast of wind cast snow against the window pane and another blast swept the glass clean again. Laura kept her hands over her face and sobbed some more, seeking the comfort of Adam’s shoulder and his arm across hers until she felt more able to control her tears. She gulped and pulled herself away, looked at Adam’s anxious face and then at Joe’s not so anxious features, she dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief and blinked several times rather rapidly before speaking,
“It’s just that – it’s just that -,” she began to sob a little more and Adam placed a steadying hand upon her shoulder.
“It’s alright, Laura, just take your time. Joe, make some coffee would you?”
Coffee? Joe sniffed loudly and looked around the room. A stiff brandy would do her more good he reckoned, but did as he was told and ventured into the kitchen area to rummage around to locate cups and the coffee pot.
“Laura? Has something happened to Will? Where is he? Where’s Peggy?”
The deep kindly voice finally calmed her enough for Laura to blow her nose and dab at her eyes. She looked into Adam’s face and swallowed her tears, “Peggy took her pony out this morning.”
“Yes?” Adam frowned, his mind jumping from one conclusion to another and all of them fearful.
“She went out,” Laura struggled to keep breathing, everything in her chest was tight and getting the words out was hard, “She went out before breakfast. Will went looking for her. I thought it was Will bringing her back home.”
“Was there an argument? Why did she leave so early?”
Laura frowned, a little horseshoe pucker of confusion appeared upon her smooth brow. In the kitchen Joe rolled his eyes heavenwards and shook his head. Would big brother never learn that it was just ONE question at a time when dealing with Laura?
“No, no, there wasn’t an argument.” Laura protested, “Why would you think there was an argument? We never argue.” and her voice ended in a rather high pitched vibrato as tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over once again.
Adam looked up over her head and stared at the wall. It didn’t occur to him that this was something he had often done in the past when he had been calling on Laura. It gave him time to gather his wits, and quell irritation, something that he had not really noticed feeling previously either, but was certainly feeling now.
Joe made a noisy entrance from the kitchen, and pushed a cup of coffee into Laura’s hands. By now her teeth were chattering and when she put the cup to her lips the rim rattled against her teeth. Joe scratched the back of his neck and looked at his brother who raised his eyebrows and shook his head.
“It’s the baby, I suppose.” Laura said suddenly putting the cup down on the table and slopping most of its contents over the pretty lace doily.
“The baby?” Adam repeated softly, looking once again intently into her face. “What baby?”
“Our baby?” Laura sighed.
“Our baby?” Adam rocked back a little on his heels and Joe raised HIS eyebrows.
“Whose baby?” Joe asked, and glanced over at the window where the wind was making a good job of covering every vestige of glass. “I think we need some lamps on around here.” he muttered as the room darkened around them.
“Our baby,” Laura looked at Adam as though he were stupid, “Will’s and mine, of course. I think Peggy couldn‘t understand why we were having a baby now.”
“You’re having a baby?” Adam said with a slight smile.
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” she shook her head slowly from side to side, “Adam, we told Peggy about the baby and I thought she understood. I thought she was happy to know there was going to be a baby brother or sister for her. I thought she’d be so happy.”
‘Here we go,” Joe thought to himself as he turned up a flame in the oil lamp, ‘more tears.’
“Hey, don’t cry now, Laura.” Adam was patience itself, and pushed another handkerchief into her hand, “You think she got jealous and decided to leave home?”
“Yes. She was upset when we told her we were going to sell the ranch and move East. But we thought that we had explained all about that, and how exciting it would be for her to go to a really good school.” she stopped in her narration then and stared hard at the patterns on the carpet as though they held the answer to her problems.
“I see,” Adam sighed and stood up. Laura wept some more into the newly provided handkerchief reducing it to something resembling a dish cloth within minutes.
“Seems to me the green eyed monster paid a visit,” Joe muttered as he turned up the flame in another lamp, “What do you suggest we do?”
Adam shrugged, then shook his head, he walked to the window to view the situation outside and shook his head once more,
“Snow’s worsening out there. Pa was right about the snow.” he pursed his lips and looked at Laura, then he looked at Joe, “Any suggestions?”
“You mean, you want me to tell you what to do?” Joe opened his eyes wide in amazement and then looked at Laura.
“I just said ‘any suggestions,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll follow through on any of them.” Adam retorted tartly and he took a deep breath, “Peggy left here early this morning. Will went not long afterwards. Neither of them has returned and we’ve a blizzard out there. Laura shouldn’t be left alone …” he paused then and licked his lips, he looked at Joe but his brother chose that moment to examine the cuticles of his nails very closely.
“I think we should go and look for them.” Joe suggested.
“In a blizzard?” Adam said slowly and raised his eyebrows, then he nodded, “I think you’re right. Although it may be better to wait for it to calm down a little.”
Adam remained at the window, and after releasing his breath in a long sigh once again stared out to survey the view only there was no view. There was just the whiteness of snow mantling the glass. Every window was the same. The walls of the house rocked as a gust of wind struck it sideways on and smoke billowed out down the chimney into the room.
He opened the door and peered outside. He knew countless stories of people who ventured out into white outs thinking they were heading for the stable or barn that was so familiar to them, and yet they’d missed the building altogether and kept on walking, and walking. Then, totally disoriented they would turn, this way and that, until they would collapse from the cold and exhaustion.
He slammed the door shut. Laura was looking anxiously at him as though in appeal. Joe was standing fiddling with his hat and observing his brother closely, trying to fathom out a solution that would meet with his brother’s approval.
“I can’t see the horses,” Adam muttered, “It’s a total whiteout.”
Joe shrugged and rolled his eyes before setting down his hat,
“I got ‘em into the stable before coming into the house seeing how you were so eager to get indoors.” he mumbled, “Snows building up outside. We’ll probably have to dig our way out.”
He glanced at Laura and sighed, then carefully poured out the scalding hot coffee into their cups. He would have hated to hurt anyone’s feelings but as far as he was concerned, digging himself out of the place was far more preferable than staying inside the house with Laura. Adam also sighed deeply and picked up his cup, before walking slowly back to the window and peering out into the whiteness that resembled an artists’ blank canvas.
The morning air was cold, far colder than Peggy Dayton had expected as she softly closed the door behind her. She paused for barely a moment, not daring to look back in case her resolve to leave were to desert her.
There was a mournfulness to the sound of the breezes drifting around the ranch house, and the cold made her nose tingle as well as her ears. She pulled her coat tighter around her and ran to the stable. The horses all shifted uneasily as she moved quickly down to the stall where she found her pony. Stroking its nose gently she told the fat little creature that it was time to leave,
“I know it’s nice and warm in here, Bugsy, and you’re really nice and comfortable, aren’t you?” she stood on tip toe to get the bridle from the hook and carefully slipped it into the pony’s soft mouth. He chomped on it a little as the cold metal of the bit passed between his teeth, “I can’t stay here any more, Bugsy. Momma’s going to have a new baby and they won’t want me around any more. I don’t want to go to any stupid old school back East just because they’re having a baby. Anyhow, they won’t miss me now.”
The saddle was more cumbersome to handle but she struggled across the aisle back to the stall and after ensuring that the blanket wasn’t crinkled in any way across her pony’s back she slipped the saddle over it. Once the girth strap had been fastened securely she pulled at the reins and led the animal from the stable. The other horses watched her with bemusement as she passed them before resuming their business as soon as the stable door closed silently behind them.
Only once did she allow herself to look up at the windows of the house in which she had been born. She passed the swing that was being tossed back and forth in the cold breeze, and she remembered how she had once spent so much time sitting there counting the seconds away, waiting for her Daddy to come home.
“Mommy told me lies then, Bugsy. She said Daddy would come back but he didn’t, and she knew that, and she didn’t say.” her voice broke a little on a sob for no matter what her father had been to other folk to her he was a loving father and she had adored him.
Once she felt safe from being heard by Will or her mother she mounted the pony, jabbed him gently in the ribs with her heels and set off at a fast canter away from the house. Against her knee a small bag full of food thumped to the movement of the horse. If they wanted her out of their life, so be it, but it would be on her terms.
She rode some distance from the house immersed in thoughts and daydreams. Soon, she knew, Will would realise she was missing and come looking for her. She didn’t want him to because she knew there was every likelihood of his finding her and taking her back home. She wanted to avoid ever seeing her mother’s reproachful eyes looking at her again. She had lived most of her life with Laura’s eyes staring at her in resentful reproach. She turned her horse to the left and headed for the woodland where the pines grew dark and tall. She never would enter here normally but she didn’t want Will to find her. He would not think of coming here, not here.
She could remember telling Will why she would never go into the woods. That was why they always skirted around them when they went to visit the Ponderosa. She shivered now, not with the cold but with fear, because she was entering the place of her greatest nightmares. She remembered now that it had only been when Adam Cartwright had come into their lives as someone important that Laura had allowed herself to show the love she had felt for her daughter. Adam would help her, Peggy reasoned. She would go and find him, plead her case, and wait for him to provide the answer. Thinking along those lines eased her fears. It would take just a little while to ride through the trees to reach the Ponderosa, and then she would find Adam and talk to him, and then she just knew, everything would be just fine.
The little pony stretched his legs as fast and as far as he could but he would falter every so often as though in the hope that his mistress would forget the reason for the journey she was on and allow him to stop. The air was colder now, and the wind was keening mournfully through the trees.
“We’ll stop here, Bugsy.” she looked about her and recognised the place, a good land mark. She dismounted and led the pony along to the stream, “Here you are, you can drink some water here while I have a drink and something to eat. Soon as we get to Adam’s place we’ll get you some oats. You’re a good boy, Bugsy.”
She stroked his nose and kissed his sleek neck. Bugsy nodded his head. After all, she was right, he was a good boy.
“I sure wish it weren’t so cold,” she said suddenly as she munched on an apple. She had eaten a little bit of bread, some cheese, a piece of apple pie which had tasted very pleasant the previous day when Laura had served it hot, but which now tasted like sweet cardboard. She sighed and gave the animal the apple core, “I guess Will shall come looking for us. He won’t think to look here though, will he? Do you think we should go home, Bugsy? No? That’s what I think too.”
She remounted and turned the pony’s head around. Adam Cartwright would know what to do. He wouldn’t let Laura and Will send her off to a school back East just because a stupid little baby was coming along.
The sky was growing darker and she stopped the pony to look up at the scudding clouds. They were gathering together into a united black mass which made the day seem just like early evening. She remembered that she had left behind her little fob watch that Frank had bought her some years ago. It made her realise that she had left behind quite a few of her treasures. She looked about her anxiously for some idea as to how to proceed but then decided to continue onwards, for whatever her fears and worries, Adam would know exactly what to do. Her faith in him was total for he was the one adult who had never let her down, the one person who had shown her the truth and given her the courage to face it.
Bugsy was a wilful little beast. He loved his stall and his companions in the stables. He was usually pampered and indulged by his mistress, and resented having this enormously long journey thrust upon him on a cold and blustery day. It was all very well assuming that because he was just a pony he didn’t feel the cold and discomfort of the bitter wind blowing up his tail and down his neck, but facts were facts. He detested the cold. He shook his head in an attempt to resist Peggy’s hold on the reins.
“It’s alright, Bugsy, we’re nearly there now.”
She looked up as the first snow began to whirl around them. Bugsy rolled his eyes. This was just too much and he shook his head again. The wind howled through the trees which spooked the little horse out of his wits. Bugsy gave a wild toss of the head, succeeded in getting the bit free from its anchorage in his mouth and made a dash for it. Alright, she wanted him to get some speed up, and that was just what she was going to get.
His fat little body surged forwards missing the trunks of trees by inches. Her voice calling his name became ever shriller. His determination to return to his stall became ever more determined. He dashed on, she screamed and hauled on the reins but to no avail. He missed a tree, swerved and collided into the one next to it. It remained unmoveable. Bugsy also became unmoveable for he fell like a log, totally pole axed. Peggy hit the ground hard, rolled some distance from the pony and ended sprawled out in the undergrowth.
The snow was falling heavier now. Deceptively beautiful as it swirled and danced so lightly upon the air. Gradually the dance grew into a frenzy, snow whirled until there was no longer any pattern to it. It streamed one way and was tossed another. But it still fell and the child remained sprawled out, and very alone.
Will Cartwright urged his horse at a faster pace aware now that the sky was beginning to resemble lead and the temperature had dropped seriously quickly. He had found a trail of sorts and was praying that this was the one Peggy would have left behind a few hours earlier. As he rode on his mind was a whirl wind of thoughts as he considered the reasons for her departure.
He recalled the wary expression on the little face as they had called her into the room, asking her to sit down as they had something important to tell her. Her big eyes had looked from one to the other of them and then she had sighed, as though preparing for bad news. Of course, it had all gone awry as soon as Laura had opened her mouth and stammered out the reason they needed to talk to her,
“Peggy, you know we love you, don’t you? Well, you know we love you very, very much. You do know that don’t you?” and then before the child had had a chance to agree or disagree Laura had stood up, paced the floor, clutched her hands together nervously and then approached his side, forming a united front that must have seemed not only formidable to Peggy but defensive as well. Peggy had stiffened and blinked rather rapidly and her breathing had quickened.
Will now groaned at the memory as he wondered what must have been passing through the little girl’s mind. Laura had taken a deep breath and poured out the fact that there was a little brother or sister on the way for Peggy to play with, at which news the child had frowned deeply,
“But I don’t want a brother or a sister.” She had protested shrilly, standing up and glaring at them both with that sullen defiance on her face that Will had come to know so well and dread equally as much.
“It will only be a sweet little baby at first.” Laura smiled falteringly but Peggy had shaken her head, raised her chin and shouted
“I don’t want a baby either. Babies don’t do nothing except cry and cry all day and night. I don’t want a baby here. I just want us, like we are now.” She had then turned to Will and looked appealingly at him, “We’re doing alright here, aren’t we, Uncle Will? You aren’t going to leave us behind, are you?”
“Why no, no, of course not, Peggy. Why ever should you think that?” and he had seen the look of anguish in her eyes as she had turned to look out of the window as though expecting someone to ride into the yard, someone she had loved and who had ridden out of her life two years ago.
He had knelt at her side then and taken hold of her, pulled her into his arms and held her close.
“Peggy, I won’t leave you, not ever.”
“But Daddy said that, he said it over and over, but he did, he went away and never came back.” then she had paused and looked at her mother, a cold appraising look that made Laura go pale, “Daddy died. He can’t never come back home now.”
“But I’m here now to look after you, and mummy, and the new baby when it comes.”
“I don’t want a new baby. I just want us.” she had sniffled and then Laura had grabbed at her arm and swung her around to face her, bringing her own face down to her level
“That’s enough nonsense, Peggy. You won’t have to worry about a crying baby anyway, when we leave here you’ll be going to school, a big fancy school back East so that you get yourself a good education and learn how to act like a lady.”
Will Cartwright shuddered now as he recalled the look that had passed over Peggy’s face at that moment. She had pulled herself free, glared at them both and ran up the stairs to her room. The door had slammed shut.
They should have handled it better. He knew that, he knew it the moment they had asked her to sit down because he had known then that Laura couldn’t handle confrontation of any kind, especially with Peggy. And it had been a confrontation.
Peggy was a sturdy little girl who had lived all her life out of doors enjoying the rough and tumble every child out west took for granted or accepted as a matter of course. She had her chores to do, and her games to play. Her father had wanted a boy, and she had done her best to comply with his wishes.
Now as the snow slowly began to cover her over with its ice cold blanket she stirred, brushed the snow from her face with her mittened hands, and pushed herself into a sitting position.
Her voice echoed eerily through the silent woodland. Snow sifted down from the branch of a tree and settled gently close to her side. She looked down and realised that the snow had now reached the top of her boots. It was important to move and to do so quickly.
“Bugsy? Where are you?”
She began to struggle through the snow, lifting her legs high in order to make each step. The snow was falling fast and she knew that soon she would find it even more difficult to move through it. She had to find her horse.
The saddle showed thinly through a sprinkling of snow. She paused, brushed aside snowflakes that obscured her view and then pushed her way along towards it.
She sunk down upon her knees when she saw the outline of her horse.
One ear and the mound of his round belly protruded through the snow. She had seen death before, having lived on a ranch such sights were unavoidable. The realisation that Bugsy was dead brought a comprehension of her own danger to her for she had heard the stories of those who had ridden carelessly into the snow storms in those parts and were never to be seen again. She shuddered inwardly, knowing that the only protection from the elements was some form of shelter. As she turned from the horse she remembered the food she had taken from home, and turned back to search for the pouch in which she had stowed it away.
Hugging it closely to her chest the child began to walk as quickly as she could through the snow to where there was some chance of shelter. Among the trees there were shrubs and saplings that had grown tightly together, and the snow now weighed upon them like so many secret little hideaways, the kind of dens children loved to claim for their own and jealously guarded during times of play. But this was no game, not now. This was life or death and although so young, she was more than aware of the danger in which she was now placed and the urgency of finding sanctuary.
The perfect place revealed itself to her by accident for she had slid upon the snow and upon falling had reached out for something to give her balance. Her hand had brushed against the snow covering the densely overgrown tunnel that had been formed by years of intertwining twigs and branches. She slid through the narrow entrance which in times past some wild creature had made for itself and snuggled into a corner where the ground was dry and the leaves from the trees gave her some comfort from the hard ground. And now
she waited. She closed her eyes tightly and while she waited she began to count, knowing that when she reached a hundred Adam would come to rescue her.
Will Cartwright looked above him at the leaden sky and felt the cold kiss of snow upon his face. With a sigh he turned his head towards the trail he had noticed earlier. If he was wrong then he knew he had no chance of finding Peggy once the snow began to fall.
Once again he recalled the previous evening. The few moments before everything had gone wrong. Peggy had been ready for bed and had that rosy pink glow sleepy children often possessed when it was time to mount the stairs to the warmth and comfort of blankets and pillows. She had smiled at him, a sleepy heavy eyed smile and he had picked her up and twirled her around and around. Her giggle and protests had made him laugh, a laugh that was cut short when Laura had come into the room.
He had looked over at her and raised his eyebrows, hoping that Laura would hold back from saying anything just then because these moments with his step daughter were precious to him, as well as to her. They were strengthening the new bonds of affection that had grown over the year. The pleasure he would see in Peggy’s eyes as he walked through the door was something new to him, delightful in its innocence and naiveté. He never wanted to lose this special feeling that was growing between them.
Even when Laura had began to speak Peggy had looked up at him, held his hands, smiled, a wavering kind of smile that was true and Will recalled it to mind now and bowed his head at the remembrance of the misery that filled her eyes as Laura continued to speak. Time and again Will had tried to build on the relationship that had been growing between Peggy and Laura during Adam’s courtship and time and again he had seen Laura slowly dismantle it, clumsily, bit by bit, word by word.
What, he asked himself again, was it between them that had caused the fragile bridge to crumple so swiftly. What bitter resentment did Peggy have against her mother, and what was the cause of the ambivalent feelings Laura had towards her daughter? It was a conundrum that Will tossed constantly in his mind and about which he was now in despair.
Now, as he tried to keep the trail in sight, Will wished he had made some effort to calm the child. Had he realised this would have been the result he would certainly have been far more attentive to her needs.
He paused now, reining in his horse and looking around him with mounting anxiety. He was close to the Ponderosa borders and it took no time at all for him to reason out what had been obvious really, in that Peggy would have taken her problems to Adam, as she had done prior to his arriving in their lives. It may have been six months since they had last met together, but Will knew the affection Peggy had formed for Adam. He had been the one to heal the wounds caused by the death of her father. It had been Adam who had carefully nurtured the building of that fragile bridge between her and her mother.
He pulled his hat lower and frowned slightly as he looked down into the valley above the lake. It would be a good thing for them all when they moved back east and Adam Cartwright‘s influence could no longer have such power.
Adam Cartwright turned to his brother and nodded briefly, before stepping forwards to pick up his hat and shrug himself into his coat,
“Time to go, while there’s a break in the snow.” he muttered, he looked up at Laura “You’ll be alright?” it was more a statement than a question, and she drew in her breath before nodding although Joe could see from the rigidity of her body that she was really far from all right.
“We’ll be back as soon as possible,” Adam said, and looked at Joe who nodded agreement as he pulled on his jacket.
“Adam -?” Laura paused, one hand strayed nervously to her throat, her fingers twisted at the cameo brooch she wore at the neckline of her blouse “You will find her, won’t you?”
“Certainly,” he replied with such certainty that Joe almost believed him.
They pulled open the door and stepped out into the biting cold. The wind had lessened now and there was a total stillness all around them. Having closed the door they now strode through the snow to the stables, where Sport and Cochise turned their heads to observe them before snorting discontentedly at the realisation that the warm stalls would soon be history.
“How much chance do you think we have of finding her?” Joe muttered as he pulled Cochise from the stall.
“Well, I was thinking that perhaps Will may have found her by now,” Adam replied, putting his foot into the stirrup and swinging his leg over the saddle, “He’s been gone long enough.”
“Think we’ll meet him on the way back?”
“Possibly. I hope so.” Adam frowned and looked over at Joe, “It would be better if he did find her, don’t you think?”
“Hmm,” Joe nodded at the realisation of what his brother was hinting at; of course it would be better for Laura’s husband to bring home the missing child. It would save any future embarrassment and Laura would think Will the hero which would keep him safely on the pedestal upon which she had placed him over a year earlier.
Saying nothing more the two brothers urged their reluctant horses out into the snow. From the window Laura Dayton Cartwright watched them ride out, two dark silhouettes slowly receding into the brilliant whiteness around them.
Once they were out of sight she sunk down upon a chair by the fire, and began to weep into a very limp and soggy handkerchief. Once more it seemed as though her world had turned upside down and those she loved most of all were the victims of it. She knew she was mostly to blame but lacked the courage to face up to the responsibility of her actions. As always, Laura chose the easy option, and wept.
Peggy felt her eyes growing heavy. She paused in her counting and then realised she had forgotten what number she had actually reached. The fact that Adam had not arrived by the time she had reached 250 did not dismay her for her faith in him was total. But counting made her tired, very tired. Inside her little snug den the air was claustrophobically stale, making her feel even more tired. Her eyes closed and she slipped down into a more comfortable position, hugging the pouch of food into her body and forgetting all about the snow outside, and the fact that there would be those searching for her.
Will Cartwright had turned the horse around and back tracked towards the Dayton ranch. Several times he would pause and cry out her name, and in the deep silence of the day his voice would bounce back and call out again “PEGGY”.
Deep within the darker shadows of the trees alert ears pricked up and sharp eyes narrowed. The air was snuffled eagerly and teeth were bared in anticipation. In silent harmony the wolves banded closer together and then moved stealthily towards their prey.
Will Cartwright sighed and looked up into the skies, not for inspiration, but to check whether or not the threat of more snow had waned. He was to be disappointed as the skies darkened. His horse put its head down and trudged forward, a slow canter, sufficiently slow for Will to look about him but with a little speed to keep the circulation going.
There were six wolves. The leader of the pack was old and tired but unwilling to fall back for the younger more virile males who loped along with him towards where the lone rider made his way through the trees. When Will came into sight of them the leader was already panting heavily and beginning to lose ground. A young wolf with silver tipped paws and black darkening his tan coat streaked ahead of him and gave the first snarl of warning to the human being.
Will turned his head, and looked almost dismissively at the wolves, before the realisation of what their appearance actually meant. He pulled his rifle from its sheath and released the safety lock. Even as the young wolf crouched back, ready to spring, Will had the stock of the rifle at his shoulder and had fired.
The sound of the bullet being fired from the rifle ricocheted eerily in the still air bringing with it the immediate repercussion of sounds from the wolves as they began to snarl and growl, the hair standing like ruffs around their necks and their bodies low as each of them prepared to attack the lone man.
Peggy stirred, opened her eyes sleepily and then closed them again. With a slight sigh she slipped back into a deep sleep.
Joe has lost track of time and was only really aware of the fact that he was very cold and also very hungry. The combination of the two made him feel irritable and he spent as much time darting resentful looks at his brother as he did scanning the ground for clues to Peggy and Will’s journey.
Snow was falling again and in his opinion it was now nigh on impossible to track either of them down. He rode Cochise closer to his brother,
“Adam, this is stupid. I think we should head for home.”
Adam cast a withering look at his brother and his lips narrowed. He shook his head “Joe, you don’t really mean what you’ve just said do you?”
Joe gulped and shrugged, “I can’t see how we’re going to find them in this weather. The snow’s already covered any tracks they may have left here.”
“I know that,” Adam replied tersely, and he gave a slight shake of the head as though in exasperation at his brother’s comment, “but it doesn’t mean we stop looking for them.”
“But they could be anywhere.” Joe sighed, and he cast his eyes around the area in which they were standing, as the snow settled upon them in slow swirls of white.
“Look I know that you’re cold and hungry, as am I. The fact is that Will needs our help in finding Peggy. We just have to think the way Peggy would have done …” he frowned then, and twisted his body in the saddle in order to look about him, “She wanted to avoid Will, isn’t that right?”
“I guess.” Joe admitted slowly.
“Well, that means she would have gone where he would not expect.”
“Meaning what?” Joe shook his head and snow that had gathered in the brim of his hat scattered in a shower of whiteness.
“Meaning that perhaps she would have gone where he would have thought least likely.”
Joe thought about that for a second and then looked at his brother, “Perhaps we should go home and get Hoss. Trying to track anyone in this weather is like trying to find a footprint in water.”
“Think, Joe, where would Peggy go to hide away from Will.”
“Alright, if you insist.” Joe sighed and bit into his bottom lip, his stomach rumbled at that moment and he forced himself to ignore it, “Like you said, she’d go and hide, someplace he would never expect to find her.”
“Over there, perhaps?” Adam indicated the dark woodlands that formed a barrier between the Ponderosa and Dayton’s ranch.
“She’s always been a bit wary of going into the woods. Told me once that she saw some Indians there and never went into them again.” Joe muttered.
“I remember her saying that,” Adam nodded and heaved a sigh, “What do you think then, Joe? Should we give it a try?”
“It’s as good a place as any, I guess,” Joe replied rather hesitantly, and glanced about him again, “Sure wish we had just gone right home from town, Adam. I don’t mean to sound unkind but …” he paused realising from the set expression on his brother’s face that he was venturing into the ‘foot in mouth’ territory; he cleared his throat noisily, “Peggy’s going to be alright. She’s a real tough little kid.”
“I know. But …” Adam paused as they reached the entrance to the trees and he glanced, narrow eyed, into the darkness, “she was upset, and sometimes when children are upset they do uncharacteristic things. You used to do it all the time.” and he turned Sport into a gap between some trees and began to thread his way into the woodland.
They journeyed on and now there was a deathly calm as the storm appeared to ebb away slowly while the trees shielded them from the remains of the wind. The rode slowly, knowing that haste would lessen the thoroughness of their search. Adam scanned the way from the left and Joe maintained his search to the right.
“What’s that?” Joe cried suddenly and pointed a little further beyond them so that they both turned their horses to gain the area to find a soft imprint of a small foot. “Do you think it’s Peggy’s?”
Adam dismounted and looked at it carefully. There was only part of a heel and the edge of a child’s boot that could be seen in the snow. The rest was submerged in the muddy slime that existed around the bole of a tree. He smiled and looked at Joe, nodded, returned to his horse. Joe’s eyesight, he mused, was incredible, for he knew that he would have missed it as the indentation was so slight. He slapped Joe’s knee in a comradely manner as he passed his brother to reach his horse; it was commendation enough and Joe felt that he had redeemed himself in his brother’s eyes now for his apparent lack of consideration for Peggy and Will’s welfare earlier.
“At least we know we’re on the right track,” Joe said quietly.
“Yes, but why had she dismounted?” Adam clamped his mouth tight and frowned as he struggled to think of what the child would have been doing. “And there’s no sign of Will.”
“There’s no sign of a horse anywhere,” Joe replied his eyes searching the ground with a thoroughness that would have brought praise from Hoss had he been there.
“Let’s concentrate on this area then,” Adam replied, “If you ride to the right.”
They parted and slowly rode around the trees and the shrubs, brushing against the snow that would trickle from the slim branches and twigs of the lower saplings and shrubs they encountered. It took little time for Joe to find Bugsy’s body, crumpled beneath the tree.
Just the one cry and his brother turned Sports’ head immediately to make a hurried return to his brother’s side, by which time Joe had dismounted, to stand beside Bugsy.
“Dead?” Adam asked, as he dismounted and walked towards Joe who nodded his head,
“Looks like he broke his neck.”
“This would account for the footprint.” Adam glanced over his shoulder back towards where the only evidence of Peggy’s disappearance had been seen. “Peggy started off walking away from here.” he paused, his eyes searching for some other sign of the girl’s passage through the trees and shrubs.
“We should return there then, I can’t imagine a little girl would get far just walking, especially as there have been several really heavy falls of snow since she left.”
“You could be right,” Adam agreed, and twisting the reins of his horse round and round between his fingers.
It bothered him that they had not yet come across any sign of Will. Unless their cousin had taken a completely different route and avoided the trees, as Peggy may have thought he would do, knowing her dislike of them. He sighed and looked at Joe who was watching him carefully,
“She’ll be alright,” Joe assured him again, “She’s a bright kid.”
“So you keep telling me,” Adam smiled and looked at his brother affectionately, “Alright, Joe, as you’ve only recently left your childhood behind you perhaps you could recall what you might have done in this situation when you were a kid.”
“Well,” Joe leaned heavily on the pommel of his saddle and eased his back. The cold was eating into his bones and he was more uncomfortable than he could rightly put into words. He frowned and thought hard, aware of his brother’s dark gaze upon him. “Well,” he said once more, “I think I would have found a place to hide, to get some shelter.”
“Sounds sensible,” Adam nodded, still twisting the reins round and round his fingers. He thought about little Peggy, and knew that Joe’s suggestion made sense.
“I remember running away from home once,” Joe drawled, lowering his hat slightly so that Adam wouldn’t see the twinkle in his eyes, “it didn’t occur to me that everyone would panic and worry that I was lost because to me, well, I knew where I was, and where I was headed. I wasn’t lost, but didn’t know that no one else would realise that.” and he sighed, recalling to mind the way Ben had held him so close he had almost been suffocated within the confines of his father’s arms.
“You didn’t do it just once though, did you?” Adam chuckled, beginning to walk away from Bugsy, with his eyes scanning the ground over which they were walking. Perhaps, he thought with dread, they had already obscured the vital clues by trampling over them now.
“True enough, but what I’m thinking is that Peggy may be so sure of where she is, where she intends to go, that she doesn’t consider herself lost. She won’t realise we’re looking for her even.”
Adam pursed his lips at that thought, and shook his head slowly in disagreement, even if part of what Joe had said he was quite sure that Peggy would be expecting someone to come looking for her.
Joe opened his mouth to speak when there was the retort of a rifle. Its sound seemed to whistle through the air. They looked at one another, and Adam vaulted back into the saddle, turned Sport’s head to hurry away in the direction of the gun shot. It could have come only from Will’s rifle and could only have meant trouble.
The wolf sprung with a snarl and its fangs opened in anticipation of sinking into flesh of some kind. The bullet creased its skull sending it falling back, whining and yelping, into the snow.
The other five crowded together, slunk around the back of the horse, which caused Will to yank at the reins to wheel the horse about turn so that he could keep the creatures within his vision.
One darted forwards and nipped at the horse’s rear leg, which caused the animal to kick out before rearing upwards to the peril of its rider who was near to being thrown out of the saddle. Another jumped up at the horse’s neck and its strong jaws fastened onto the animals mane while its claws clamped upon the horse’s chest ripping through the flesh as it slowly fell down to the ground. The horse, maddened by the pain, and frightened by the sight, sound and smell of the wolves whinnied aloud, squealed in frenzy as another wolf threw itself at its flank.
Will fired off another shot. It went wide off the mark and sunk into the snow. Another shot and a wolf yipped and danced away, minus one claw and leaving spots of vermilion blood in the snow.
It was hard to keep control of the reins. The horse was getting madder with fear by the minute, plunging down, rearing up, tossing its head too and fro as though as anxious to be rid of it’s rider as it was to get away from the wolves. With a tenacity born from the knowledge that if he let go of the reins he would be thrown to the wolves, Will wound the reins about one fist and clamped his thighs closer against the saddle in order to retain his seat.
He fired off two more shots. The wolf with the headache had slunk away, admitting defeat and prepared to wait for the pack to deliver the goods. The wolf with the injured foot waited, seized its chance and lunged forward with a mighty leap so that his forepaws hit Will full in the chest sending him toppling from the saddle. Due to the way he had held fast to the reins the horse was pulled down with him.
The snow softened the fall but still winded the man. His fingers voluntarily released the reins and the horse rose to its feet and fled. Two wolves made chase after it. But the remaining three closed ranks and snarling, baring their teeth, they advanced onto Will who was now doing his utmost to get away.
He dug his elbows and his feet into the snow, pushed himself along until he could get onto his feet again. He swung the rifle to the left, to the right, aiming it at one and then another of the wolves as they slowly advanced onto him. From the corner of his eye he saw movement and knew that the other two wolves were loping across the snow to join their mates. The horse had shown them a clean pair of heels and was running out of fear, blindly, helplessly, gripped by its instinct to flee. This left the man exposed, vulnerable and powerless. Impotent. The wolves could smell the fear reeking from him, the power from him was gone, he was defenceless and they knew it.
Will edged back, praying all the while that there were no wolves advancing upon his exposed back. He fired another shot, but it missed and the wolves pounced as though each one of them had been waiting for that moment to do so. In a mass they leapt upon him and bore him down to the ground.
He had brought the rifle up across his chest, one hand gripped the barrel and the other the stock. With a frantic effort to harness all the strength he had left to him he heaved the rifle upwards to push the creatures aside while he scrabbled once again to get to his feet. It was a valiant attempt and provided him with vital seconds in which he was able to swing the rifle round and fire directly into the massed bodies. A wolf jerked back as the retort of the rifle trickled away into the distance. It fell heavily but its death meant nothing to the other wolves that howled their vengeance and gathered in more closely around the hapless victim.
Will could see the slavering drool that dripped from their jaws, the snouts wrinkled back to expose the fangs, and the eyes that were reddening with the blood lust upon them. He fired once more but a wolf leapt forwards and its teeth clamped tightly upon his wrist. Even through the leather of his gloves and the thick wadding of his winter coat Will felt the pain of those teeth that were like a vice now, and he tried to pull away, to get a release but now another wolf had pounced upon his ankle.
‘This is it,’ the words passed through his mind as he struggled to get free, ‘I’m going to die here. I’m going to die …’
Then there was a sound of gun fire. It came from behind him, from the trees. The pain in his arm and ankle continued to be agonising but he no longer thought of his own death, not now that he knew help was coming.
Hoss Cartwright rubbed his eyes and concentrated. The snow had ceased from falling, the room was warm from the blazing fires, but the paperwork still kept coming. He glanced over at his father who had his head down, his eyes fixed to the paper as his pencil raced down the columns of figures and scribbled down a total at the bottom.
“Six hundred and forty eight.”
“Six hundred and fifty. Humph. Six hundred and fifty.” Ben scribbled the figure down and looked up. “Yes, Hoss?”
“Can’t we take a break now? My eyes are about to drop outa my head.”
Ben sighed heavily, looked at Hoss and then looked at the clock. He leaned back against the chair and put down his pencil,
“It’s been a long day,” he admitted, “Thanks for your help, son.”
“Oh, shucks, Pa, that’s alright, it’s just that I ain’t too good with all this kind of book stuff, you know. Sure hope I ain’t done anything wrong.”
“You’ve done fine, Hoss.” Ben stood up and stretched his back. He rubbed his temple with his right hand while he rubbed his back with the other, and he sighed, “You’ve done well, Hoss, thanks. How about some coffee?”
They walked together to the hearth and settled down before the fire. They’d been sitting at the desk for hours but somehow settling down in front of the fire seemed more relaxing than anything else they could have thought of. Ben stretched out his legs and smiled, “I think you must have been right, Hoss, the boys must have gone on to the Melfords or Wills.”
“Oh, they’ll be just fine, Pa. I don’t s’pose Adam will buy that Kentucky race horse anyway. Innes is too fond of it, and he won’t sell for anything less than what he paid for it, and Adam won‘t pay out that money, especially knowing how you feel about horses that don’t pay their way.”
Ben chuckled, and nodded good humouredly. Hop Sing was bringing in the coffee and set it down on the table, a plate of cookies accompanied the coffee and Hoss gave the cook a beaming smile of thanks as he rubbed the palms of his hands down over his knees,
“Hop Sing, you sure know how to bring a ray of sunshine into a man’s life,” he picked up a cookie, sniffed it and then smiled widely, before dropping it into his mouth, “Mmmm-mmm, delicious.”
“Hop Sing?” Ben’s voice stopped their friend in his tracks and he turned to face the rancher with uplifted eyebrows in anticipation of the man’s question, “Hop Sing, did you hear anything else concerning Will and Laura? Anything that may be of interest at all?”
Hop Sing shrugged, grimaced vaguely and shook his head,
“In’trest to who? Land for sale only, all for sale. You interested?”
“In buying the Dayton place? Not really. I was just wondering why the sudden desire on Will’s part to sell up, I thought from our last conversation about it that he was quite prepared to give it at least another year.”
“May be baby change things. Baby coming often make change in lives of people.” Hop Sing observed shrewdly and he nodded by way of emphasis.
“What baby?” Hoss asked his blue eyes widening and the cookie he held in his hand crumbling into piece onto the floor.
“Missy Laura have baby. May be that make Mr Will change mind.” Hop Sing smiled at them both and left them to mull over that piece of news. He had been wondering how and when to drop it into the conversation all day. He rubbed his hands in glee as he entered the kitchen and recalled to mind the look of amazement on Ben’s face.
“Doggone it, Pa, did you know about that?”
“No, but it makes sense now as to why they want to move East. Yes, it makes perfect sense,” Ben frowned in retrospection as he thought back to Peggy’s arrival some years before, and the way young Laura had suffered during the delivery. No one had expected either of them to survive but they had, thankfully.
“Hey, Pa, that means another Cartwright in the world, huh?” Hoss beamed delightedly, “Fancy that.” he breathed softly, and with a gentle smile on his face Hoss leaned back against his chair and felt warm contentment steal over him like a soft downy blanket.
Ben smiled at his son and he also leaned back in his big old chair, groping for and find his pipe and tobacco he sighed as he began to shred out the tobacco as he recalled, oh it seemed such a long time ago, when a little golden haired boy had looked up with trusting eyes into the face of his step-mother and said exactly the same words “That means another Cartwright, don’t it, Mama?”
A long time ago … Ben sighed and clamped the pipe stem between his teeth, struck a match and drifted away on a stream of memories.
A wolf turned, retreated several paces, and sprung up at the young man on the black and white horse. There was little time for Joe to aim his gun but he fired anyway and the bullet spat into snow. He fired again, the smell of the animal filled his nostrils and once more he squeezed the trigger. Saliva sprayed across his face as the wolf’s teeth snapped an inch from his nose before it fell, without a sound, into the snow.
Adam had ridden Sport straight for the wolves as they had bunched together around their victim. They had scattered and then regrouped, the one picking off Joe as its victim and another snapping at Sport’s feet as though the horse were the cause of its immediate problem and not the rider. Adam fired once, the bullet entered the wolf at the nape of its neck and with a cut off grunt it rolled some distance before becoming just another dark mound silhouetted in the snow.
Will struggled to his feet, fell back a little, and found himself steadied by Adam’s hand which gripped his arm so tightly that it almost made him forget the pain in his wrist and ankle. Two wolves were loping away, casting evil looks back at their enemies before disappearing into the darkness of the trees.
The brothers rode their horses closer together, which gave Adam the opportunity to take a quick and anxious look at his brother in order to ascertain for himself that his brother was safe and well. Joe, busy with wiping his face, did not notice and was spared the slight irritation that at times was caused by this near paternal consideration of his older brothers.
Adam was the first to dismount and hurried through the churned over snow to where his cousin remained on his haunches. The muddied snow was bloodied about them, and he could see that his cousin was visibly shaking, clutching at his rifle as though his life depended upon it.
“Are you alright, Will?” Adam looked at the man’s ashen face, the wide startled eyes and recognised the signs of shock, he looked over at his brother who was dismounting and hurrying over to join them, “Joe, get some water, will you?”
“I’m alright,” Will whispered through white lips, but continued to shake, “I’ve just not experienced that before, came as a shock.”
“I guess it must have done.” Joe grinned, and passed the canteen to his cousin, “Good thing we were nearby.”
“Yes, thanks.” Will swallowed water, then stared at the canteen as though he couldn’t believe his own eyes as he witnessed the way his hands were shaking. “What were you doing hereabouts anyhow?”
“Looking for you, and Peggy.” Adam replied slowly. He glanced about him, surveyed the scene of the fight with a slight scowl to his face, and then looked at his cousin,
“Did you find her?” Will cried, his eyes immediately alert and brighter than they had been before, “Is she safe?”
“She’s in there, somewhere -” Joe pointed to the trees, “Hopefully we’ll find her before the wolves do.” He pulled his hat down a little lower, shielding his eyes a little from the glare of the snow.
Will opened his eyes wide at this remark, and he grabbed at the younger man’s arm to assist him to his feet, while he pushed the canteen into Joe’s hand, “We’ve got to find her.”
“Yes,” Adam nodded, his dark eyes were sombre, “It’s early for the wolves to have come down so close hereabouts, we don’t usually see ‘em for several more months yet. Means they’re hungrier than usual.”
“Towns expanding,” Joe muttered, screwing on the top of the canteen tightly, “More men out hunting for food, more trees being cut down for homes and mine shafts. Guess it has to happen, we’re messing up their natural way of life after all.”
“Look, you’re wasting time talking. Peggy needs our help. I thought … I thought she would never go into those trees, I thought she would head just straight for the Ponderosa.” Will cried aloud, the distress in his voice only too obvious as he made a brave attempt to walk towards the horses.
“Guess she realised you’d think that,” Adam muttered, he looked at Will, and then at Joe, who nodded in understanding and after remounting Cochise rode over to where Will‘s horse was slowly and rather tentatively approaching them.
“How come you knew Peggy had gone?” Will said, his eyes fixed away from his cousin‘s face and checking over the rifle as though it were some thing made of glass that could have shattered in the debacle they had gone through.
“Joe and I were going to -” Adam paused, pursed his lips and raised his eye brows, and reached out to take hold of Sport’s reins, “We were on our way to the Melfords when the snow storm broke. Your place was closer.”
“You saw Laura and she told you what had happened?” Will pulled his hat from the snow and beat it against his thigh, sending snow scattering earthwards.
“She told us about the baby. I suppose congratulations are in order?” Adam smiled at his cousin, but he did not receive a smile in return, only a sigh and a shrug,
“That’s what caused this stupidity on Peggy’s part. She had a tantrum last night, and then when we got up this morning, she had gone. Sometimes -” now he paused, his lips narrowed and his eyes dark, he shook his head again, “Sometimes I just don’t understand what’s going on between those two. I love them both but there are times when I just can’t seem to get them to see sense about anything. You’d think a baby would have made Peggy happy, wouldn’t you?”
Adam sighed and shrugged, and glanced away. He remembered a certain little boy who had thrown a tantrum of his own when told a baby was going to arrive at the Ponderosa some years back. He was about to say something when Joe arrived, with Will’s horse following.
“Best get started,” Joe muttered, pulling his hat lower, “We had better start looking from where we left off, Adam.”
Adam nodded, and without looking at his brother or cousin he mounted into the saddle and headed towards the trees. He allowed himself a slight smile however at the thought that, well, babies do grow up!
Peggy had woken at the sound of the gunfire and had frozen with the usual fear such sounds would naturally bring to a child. As she curled into as small and tight a ball as she could, she stared wide eyed at the narrow almost invisible entrance to her shelter. She remembered now that she was in the dense timberland that she had always previously avoided. As she shivered in fear and tightened her grip on the food pouch she remembered the time she had stumbled upon the Paiute. They had not seen her but she had frozen to the spot and watched as they had taken shots at a deer. They had looked wild and angry, and in her young mind she had feared that had they known she was there, they would have taken shots at her instead.
Her father had laughed at her when she had told him, and then very seriously had told her never to go there again – just in case. She had asked him ‘Just in case of what?’ in a very quiet little voice and he had shaken his head and looked around the room with big eyes as though several Paiute were about to jump out from behind the armchairs that very moment. It had left Peggy with the memory of fear so imprinted on her mind that she had nightmares many nights afterwards. Of course, it had been the cause of yet another argument between her mother and her father.
So now she cringed back, and hugged the small package of food against her chest, and waited. Almost by instinct she began to whisper ‘One. Two. Three. Four…’
Laura Dayton Cartwright paced the floor of her sitting room with her hands clasped tightly, so tightly that the knuckles were white. She had pulled a shawl about her shoulders for despite the fire she was feeling cold. Several times she had mounted the stairs and entered Peggy’s room, knowing that it would be empty, but needing the reassurance that this was Peggy’s room and that Peggy would soon return to it.
She had even picked up the doll that Peggy had hastily left discarded upon the bed, and hugged it to herself while she abandoned herself to floods of tears. There had been just so many years of sadness and misery that had created so much confusion and distrust between them, the mother and the daughter. Now just as everything was going so well, so smoothly, this had to happen. This stupid illogical situation. She shook her head, only it was not stupid or illogical, not really, she told herself. It was the kind of news a mother would want to share with her daughter, the fact that there would soon be a new little life being born to them.
What had gone wrong? Was it the way she had told Peggy? But what other way was there to tell her? If she had waited much longer Peggy would have noticed there was a difference in her physically and then accused them of having kept the news from her deliberately.
Why, oh why, Laura asked herself repeatedly, was everything so difficult when it came to Peggy and her own relationship with the girl? Something as happy as the arrival of a baby into a family should be greeted with excitement and pleasure, not with tantrums and tears. Then to actually run away, to leave home on a day so bleak and cold?
She paused now in her pacing, and stared at the flames in the fire. Her eyes travelled to the clock and her brain told her that it would be time when her man would return for something to eat. Slowly, with great lethargy she made her way to the kitchen and began to pull out the vegetables.
She surveyed them as they were grouped on the kitchen table, potatoes, carrots, onions. There was some meat as well. She picked up a knife and began to peel and slice the potatoes, then the knife slipped and the sharp blade sliced through the skin of her hand. She didn’t feel pain and was surprised to see the beads of blood that seeped from the wound.
‘How did that happen?’ she asked herself and stared at her hand as though it didn’t really belong to her, and the blood swelled up, the beads of ruby coloured moisture spread out, met together and slowly trickled across her palm, to drip slowly onto the table.
‘Blood?’ she told herself, ‘My blood. I don’t understand?’
She stood up as though sleep walking. Slowly, as though every one of her bones had turned to putty and it was an effort to get one foot before the other. She pulled a cloth from a drawer and held it against her hand and then looked at the vegetables, the table, and then the vegetables again.
‘I can’t do this,’ she said softly, ‘I can’t.’ And slowly, very slowly, she turned away from the kitchen, mounted the stairs and went to her bedroom.
She closed the door and looked around the room. There was more snow falling now. Out there in the wilds her daughter was lost and her husband a long man struggling against nature to find her. Laura closed her eyes as though the effort to keep them open was too much. When she opened them again she was already in the bed, snuggled down under the soft blankets. Weariness overwhelmed her and her eyes closed once again.
Who can know the mind of a wolf, it‘s instincts or it‘s feelings? Does a wolf feel or act or think like a man? No human would agree to such a rationale, accepting that it was a blood seeking carnivore capable of loyalty to its pack but as equally destructive. Who could wonder at the instinct of the two surviving animals to turn and run towards the thickly crowded ponderosa pines from which Adam and Joe had emerged.
Streaking through the snow, with the white wet clods splattering up from their paws the two surviving wolves made their way into the undergrowth of the ponderosa. Their tongues lolled from between their fangs and drool slathered and spattered upon the snow as they ran. Their eyes were wild and the smell of the blood and cordite they had just experienced had aroused within them the excitement and thrill of battle. Just like a war horse caught up in war, the chemical reaction charged through their brains and their limbs moved mechanically, while their eyes sought refuge.
In her covert Peggy clutched her pouch of food closer to her, while her ears strained to hear the noises and sounds she expected of stealthy footed Paiute hunters approaching her hiding place and upon finding her? She shivered in fear at the thought.
The three horsemen galloped towards the timberland. Sprawled upon the snow was the evidence of their victory, the bloodied bodies of the timber wolves, the strewn up snow dark with mud and blood, and the hooves of the horses that showed their passage onwards.
“We found a foot print over there -” Joe pointed towards the area and looked over at his cousin who appeared to be having difficulty keeping in the saddle, “Are you alright, Will?”
“Yes,” the reply was terse and the tension in the young man’s face belied the word. His eyes bulged and the skin around the sockets appeared tight and lined with stress.
He had to breathe shallowly for the impact of the wolf when it had jumped and sent him off the horse had been equal to any punch his cousin Hoss could have thrown him. His ankle pained him so much that he feared it was broken and his foot felt slippery within the boot although he could feel nothing, it was quite numb. His arm ached where the teeth of a wolf had locked around the limb, and he wondered if it also were broken. He constantly moved his fingers to make sure that he still could do so, but it was painful and he knew without a doubt that he would not be able to hold a rifle again for some time.
He wanted to say that he was going to be a handicap on this journey, but pride prevented him from doing so. He was a Cartwright after all, but a Cartwright well aware of the fact that he didn’t measure up to the status of his cousins. He didn’t want to ride home without Peggy. He knew he had to find her and be the one to hand her over to Laura. He glanced at Adam who riding ahead of him seemed unaware of his cousin’s antipathy at that moment in time.
Will narrowed his eyes and focussed on the other man who, with his black hat, yellow coat and straight back had once been his rival in love. He remembered how at one stage it had seemed he would lose Laura as soon as he had found her, but the Cartwright in the yellow coat had paid the price of pride and lost the girl. Thinking about it now Will could still see that lone figure stretching out for the joist, stretching and falling.
“Over there.” Joe muttered and steered Cochise towards the footprint barely visible now for the heat of the ground was melting the edges.
“Her horse was killed,” Adam was saying, his eyes moving restlessly around him, “She started walking.”
“Towards the Ponderosa.” Will said in a manner of voice that indicated nothing good, but the two other men did not seem to notice, or, if they did, they ignored it. “Seems she was running away, to you, Adam.”
“Well,” Adam shrugged and narrowed his eyes as he looked up into the sky, “That’s possible. I promised to be there for her if she needed to talk at any time.”
“Yes, but -”
“She obviously felt the need to talk.” his cousin interrupted curtly, and turned his horse’s head to slowly walk through the snow laden undergrowth.
The wolves both stopped simultaneously. They circled round and round a few times with their muzzles in the air, snuffing at the very faint aroma of food. They did not need to look at one another to know that they both wanted to eat, they both wanted the food, they both knew exactly where the smell came from and consequently they both lunged forwards and loped unerringly towards the source of the smell.
The man’s voice caused Peggy to stiffen, to relax with relief and to uncurl from the cramped area into which she had hidden herself.
“ADAM. I’m here, I’m here.” she cried and began to thrash her way out of the entangled snow laden shrubs.
“Over there …” Joe yelled and urged Cochise forward so that the loyal black and white horse leapt ahead of his companions.
The two wolves stopped in their tracks and hankered low upon their haunches, the fur around and hackles stood on end and the growl was low in their throats as, with fangs bared, they confronted the girl just as she had gained her feet and stood upright a mere few feet from them.
The two pairs of narrowed eyes stared at the pouch of food, greasy now from its contents, and then shifted to stare at her. The growls rumbled as they stepped forward a pace and Peggy froze rigidly to the spot clutching the pouch in the same way she would have clutched her doll had it been there, merely for the comfort and reassurance of its presence than for any other reason.
She was not aware of screaming. For her the moment froze into stillness and nothingness. One of the wolves lurched forwards, the other hesitated, just a fraction, and then he also sprung towards her. But amazingly the focus shifted as the latter wolf seized the first by the throat and clamped down its fangs so tightly that it brought them both down into the snow a mere eighteen inches from where Peggy was standing.
Over and over they rolled, their teeth snapping and snarling, finding a hold only to lose it again. There were yelps of pain, snarls of anger and the whole horror of two wild animals interlocked in deadly fight as they rolled too and fro, over and over in the snow.
A rifle shot rippled loudly over the noise of battle, to end with one wolf falling prone and the other still with its teeth fastened to the other’s back. Another shot rang out and brought the creature down with a thud beside its companion.
Now Peggy screamed. She screwed up her eyes and screamed until strong arms swept her up into a tight embrace and she could hear his voice saying over and over, “Peggy, Peggy.”
“That was odd,” Joe observed as he sheathed the rifle and pulled Cochise around, “Can’t work out why that wolf would attack the other one.”
“May be he wanted to make sure he got the food,” Adam replied, and he looked over at Will who was staring down at him, “How’re you feeling, Will? Able to take Peggy home?”
Will nodded and looked at the girl, “Are you alright, Peggy?” he asked her and she nodded slowly, before turning away from Adam and approaching him,
“I don’t want to go to school back East,” she cried.
Will sighed, rubbed his brow with his fingers and pushed back his hat,
“That’s for you and your mother to talk over when we get home. Up you come …” he leaned down and put out his hand, there was blood on the cuff of his jacket and she cringed back,
“There’s blood on you,” she pouted.
“Come on up, Peggy, let’s get home.” Will replied, too tired to argue or to protest.
“The wolves attacked Will earlier, a pack of ‘em,” Adam explained, making an attempt to cast Will as the hero of the adventure, “It’s a wonder he managed to get this far. Now, up you go.” and he lifted her into his arms and into those of his cousin. “We’ll ride along with you, Will, if you don’t mind.”
Will said nothing, beneath his moustache his lips thinned. It didn’t occur to him to look up at the sky and notice it’s darkening, nor to think that they were closer to his ranch than to the Ponderosa. He simmered a while inside not realising that his cousin was not only aware of the oncoming storm but had noticed with some concern the injuries that he had sustained.
They rode in silence and in time Will became comforted a little and his pride slightly mollified by the fact that the child rested her head against his chest and had placed a soft hand upon his own. As the weather closed down around them Peggy drifted into sleep, exhausted by the emotional turmoil that she had wrought upon them all.
“Dangblast it, Pa,” Hoss peered out of the window, an enormous beef sandwich in his hand, “Sure looks like another storm blowing up thar.”
“I expected as much.” Ben joined his son at the window and watched as the sky darkened overhead. He turned to look over his shoulder as Hop Sing came into the room and began to light the lamps. He smiled, it seemed to him that no sooner did he think of doing something in this house than Hop Sing would be right there doing it.
“Don’t reckon on them being home now any time, do ya?” Hoss sighed and stuffed half the sandwich into his mouth while his eyes narrowed to trace the wavering outline of the snow fast approaching them.
“Hopefully they should have the sense to stay put at Will and Laura’s.” Ben frowned and returned to his chair, he drew hard on the stem of his pipe while stuffing more tobacco into the bowl.
Hoss heard the strike of the match but remained where he was standing, his jaws masticating the food slowly while his brow furrowed in thought, “Pa, do you reckon they’ll be alright out thar?”
“As I said – if they stay over at Will’s or Innes’s they should be fine. I doubt if either of them will venture far in this weather, they’ve enough sense to know when to stay some place.” Ben half closed his eyes and puffed heartily at the pipe, sending a cloud of contentment hovering over his head.
“Yeah, but -” Hoss paused, and bit his bottom lip while he cast an anxious look over at his father.
“Sit down and stop fretting,” Ben said, and he smiled at Hoss as the big man ambled over to the blue chair and sat down opposite him, “Look, you finish eating and then we’ll have a game of checkers. Don’t forget, I won the last game.”
“Hey, Pa, you trying to pull a fast one of me, if’n I remembers rightly, it was me that won.”
Ben chuckled and leaned back against the chair. The fire threw out some heat as the flames roared up the chimney, and the light from the lamps cast a mellow glow throughout the room. As the storm arrived the daylight was extinguished as though night had suddenly fallen and there was a thud as the wind once again attempted to vent its fury upon the sturdy building.
Hoss leaned back in the chair and finished eating, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and then considered something he had been told by one of the hands a few days earlier, it was something about wolves and rabies. Now, if he could only recall what was said he could stop worrying so much.
Will would never have been able to tell anyone about the journey home with Peggy in his arms and the pain he was enduring throughout. His Cartwright pride, or stubbornness as his Uncle Ben would have called it, kept him in the saddle with his eyes fixed upon the horizon and when his house loomed upon it he felt his heart lighten with relief. “Nearly home, Peggy.” he whispered softly and her hair moved slightly beneath his lips.
“Home?” she sighed and closed her eyes.
Behind them Joe and Adam rode side by side. They had not spoken nor addressed a word to each other from the time they had found the child, but they were both aware of the others presence, and grateful for it. Now and again they would glance at each from the corner of
their eyes and if they happened to get eye contact at that time, they would smile at one another as brothers do. Joe lowered his hat as the wind blew more coldly once again and the thought of sharing time with Laura in the house that was looming largely before them was not so worrying now as the threat of the storm that was building up around them.
The clouds seemed to be darkening and becoming blacker and blacker as they tumbled one upon another to mass together as one above them. There was a rumble of thunder and Peggy shivered in Wills arms and gripped the lapels of his jacket more tightly within her hands.
Snow began to fall once more and was thrown against them by the cruel buffeting of the wind. By the time they finally reached the stables of the house the building was practically obscured.
“Bugsy’s dead,” Peggy whispered as Will lowered her down onto her feet, and tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Will.”
He said nothing but dismounted, leaned against the saddle a moment, and then turned to look at her. He was surprised at just how much affection he felt for her at that moment, and he smiled, nodded and stroked back some loose hair from her face, “Don’t worry, Freckles, we found you, and that was the important thing.”
“Why did that wolf attack the other one? Do you think he was hungry for my food?”
“Probably.” he reached out for her hand, and felt the reassuring comfort of her fingers curling around his, “Let’s get inside before the storm gets worse.”
He couldn’t hide the limp. His foot was now no longer numb but burning with pain. He wanted to sit and pull off his boot and do something to stop the agony, but the child was walking by his side, holding his hand, needing to get home. He bit down on his lip and forced himself to step out of the stable, grip her hand more tightly, and head down against the driving snow, hurry to the door of the house.
“Do you think he’ll be alright?” Joe asked Adam, as he pulled the saddle from Cochise’s back.
“I don’t know,” Adam replied, “We’ll check him out when we get in. At least he has Peggy with him and she seems happy about that.”
Joe nodded and said nothing more. Together they removed their horses tackle and led them into empty stalls. The wooden planks of the building creaked as the wind hit against them and Joe raised his eyebrows. “Pa won’t be very pleased about us not getting back tonight.”
“No,” Adam frowned as a niggle of guilt wormed in his gut at the thought of his father, “But he’ll be relieved that we stayed over at Wills other than any place else.”
“Huh?” Adam crooked an eyebrow and gave Joe a quick look of appraisal, “What?”
“Do you mind? I mean – about Will and Laura?”
“No.” he shook his head and ran a hand gently down the side of Sport’s neck, “Not at all.”
“You did love her, didn’t you?”
Joe watched his brothers face, the expressions fell across the handsome features like shadows and he wished now that he had not asked so bluntly, not after so long, not now.
“I thought I did at the time,” Adam replied slowly, “but had we married it would have been a mistake on both our parts. I doubt if either of us would have made the other happy.”
Joe nodded. He would take time to ponder over it later. For now it would have to suffice.
The house was cold. The fire glowed with dying embers amid grey ash, and the stove in the kitchen had barely enough fire in it to fuel the new kindling that Joe hastily fed into it. Both Adam and Will had cast a hasty glance at one another, knowing that each was asking themselves the same question.
“I’ll go upstairs,” Will said quietly, setting Peggy down onto a chair, “Laura’s probably there in the bedroom.”
Adam nodded. Upstairs was an area that was off limits to him and he turned to look at Peggy, swept off his hat, and squatted down in front of her, taking hold of her cold hands, “Are you alright, Peggy? Not too cold, are you?”
She looked down at him and smiled slowly, “No, I’m not cold. I knew you’d come for me, Adam. I knew you’d find me.”
“Well, Will came looking for you almost as soon as he realised you were gone, you know. He just didn’t realise that you would go into the timberland.”
“I know,” she said in a quiet voice and she sighed heavily, “I suppose I wanted you to find me so’s you’d take me back to the Ponderosa with you.” her brow crinkled, “I don’t want to go to school back east.”
Joe brushed his hands against the seat of his pants and stood up, the fire in the stove had taken now, flames were beginning to roar up the stove pipe and he looked around for the coffee pot. He smiled at Peggy and gave her a wink, which she responded to with a fine wink of her own.
As he passed the table he saw the clutter on the surface and the bloodied knife. He paused and picked it up, then glanced over at his brother who was helping Peggy with her muffler and coat,
“Adam, do you think Laura’s alright?” he raised his eyebrows and indicated the knife, the blood, and then grimaced as though to imply that to his mind, something was seriously wrong.
Adam said nothing, but his lips thinned and he glanced anxiously ceiling wards, then looked once again at his brother. There were no words spoken between them but both knew what the other was thinking. “Is something wrong with Mummy?” Peggy asked, slipping from the chair upon which Adam had placed her, “Is she hurt?”
“I don’t know, Peggy. Just wait here with Joe while I go and check it out,” Adam replied and he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder as though to hold her back from rushing out of the room.
Will had been grateful to find his wife sleeping in their room, and he sunk wearily into the chair beside the bed, as waves of dizziness and a vague discomfort swept over him. He reached out to take her hand and noticed the makeshift bandage. With a sigh he slumped back against the chair, and closed his eyes. There always seemed to be a drama about something where his wife was concerned and he closed his eyes as though by doing so he could shut out the responsibility that married life had brought upon him.
He hadn’t even realised that he was floating off into sleep, but now struggled to open his eyes to find himself face to face with Laura who was staring at him with her own eyes wide and frightened.
“Will, have you found Peggy? Is she safe? There’s blood on your clothes …” she stammered. She had placed one hand on his shoulder and the other was holding his hand, and rather dumbly he looked down and noticed the blood stains on his jacket cuff. He sighed and then forced a smile, one that he dredged up from some deep reserves,
“Peggy’s fine. She was hiding in the pines up near the Ponderosa borders. Obviously on her way to visit Adam.”
“Is he here?”
“Yes, downstairs with Joe and Peggy. Laura?” he pulled her back towards him as she had turned to make haste downstairs to where she supposed her daughter to be waiting, “What happened to your hand?”
“My hand?” she gazed blankly down at it, then smiled whimsically and shrugged, “I cut it while I was cutting the potatoes. I was so tired, Will, and worried about you and Peggy. I wasn’t concentrating.” a slight furrow of concern creased her smooth brow, “But you haven’t told me about your arm?”
“My arm?” once again he glanced down and surveyed the blood on his clothes, and then he sighed and remembered, “There were some wolves, they attacked me. Must have thought I’d provide them with a good meal.” he smiled wanely, “We fought them off, but not before one of them got a hold on me.”
“Peggy was alright, wasn’t she? She didn’t see any wolves?” the blue eyes widened in alarm and her hand rose nervously to her throat, only to relax again when his smile broadened and he shook his head,
“No, she’s fine, I told you already, she’s fine.” he rose to his feet, stumbled slightly, and reached out for the back of the chair, “You go down, I’ll just check this out.”
“Check what ?”
“Wretched beast … one of them nipped me on the ankle. Feels like it left its tooth in my foot.”
“Oh Will, wait here awhile and I’ll get some hot water and bathe it for you. Thank you, dearest, for going to find Peggy.”
“Oh, it wasn’t -” he paused and looked over her shoulder as a dark form appeared at the doorway, “Adam?”
“Excuse me for intruding,” Adam’s deep voice was subdued as his eyes swept over them both, and he stepped back, “We saw blood in the kitchen and not hearing anything we were concerned. I thought I should come up and check before letting Peggy come up to see Laura.”
“I’m fine, just fine.” Laura assured him briskly, “Just a silly accident because I was so tired and worried about Peggy.” and with a tender smile at her husband she slipped past Adam and was soon making her way down the stairs to the other room.
“Are you alright, Will?” Adam looked at his cousin anxiously.
The man certainly didn’t look alright. His skin was pallid and damp with sweat, and his hair appeared flat against his skull. Will seemed to fall back into the chair and shook his head,
“No. To be honest, I feel pretty ill. Couldn’t pull my boot off, could you, Adam? It feels like its burning.”
Adam bit his bottom lip thoughtfully before stepping towards his cousin and going down on one knee pulled off, very carefully, the torn boot. It was obvious that the wolf’s teeth had gone through the leather, but once the boot was off, the blood stained sock was even greater evidence of the injury. Adam brushed his thumb against his chin as he perused the bruised and broken foot, and then he looked at Will,
“That doesn’t look good, Will.”
“Feels – feels pretty bad I have to admit.” Will groaned, “I don’t think my wrist is as bad. Help me with my jacket, will you?”
Adam did as requested, peeling the coat back and away from the other man, and then pulling back the blood stained shirt sleeve. He sighed and looked at Will, “The skin’s broken, but you’re right, it’s not as bad as the injury to your foot.”
“Laura’s getting some hot water. Once it’s cleaned out we’ll be able to see more clearly what the damage really is,” he sighed, and looked at his cousin with a wry smile, although it didn’t reach his eyes, “Thanks for coming to help me. You and Joe came just at the right time.”
Adam nodded. He knelt once again by the side of the injured man and gently raised the foot in his hand, looking closely at the torn gash in the flesh that ran along the foot from toe to the ankle.
“It’s quite a deep wound, Will. I’m just worried about it festering some. Wolves don’t have the cleanest of teeth after all.”
“I know …” Will agreed, and then he looked up at the window and sighed, “Looks like the storms really arrived now.”
Adam stood up and looked behind him, he nodded as the snow covered the window entirely within seconds.
“I’ll get something to clean this with,” Adam murmured, and looked at Will thoughtfully, “Are you alright?”
“I guess I just feel a bit shaky. Is Laura alright, Adam? Don’t let her come in here and see this, will you? She – she’s a mite squeamish just now.”
Adam merely allowed a ghost of a smile to slip past his lips before turning and leaving the room. He was mid way down the stairs when he met Laura carrying a bowl of hot water, a bottle of iodine and some clean rags. He smiled gently at her and took the items from her
“Laura, take care of Peggy. Get Joe to build up the fire in the living room. It’s going to get colder before long. Go on now.” he spoke to her as he would a child and trustingly she looked into his face, smiled and turned back to where Joe was making Peggy laugh at some little joke of his, but he looked up as Laura entered,
“Adam said to get the fire built up in the living room, Joe. Shall I make some coffee now you have the stove burning up so well?”
Joe nodded and took Peggy by the hand to lead her into the living room, where he allowed her to help him build up the fire in the hearth. Every so often he would pause and turn his head as though attempting to hear some of the conversation that was going on in the room above them.
Will winced as Adam carefully cleaned the wound in his wrist and applied the iodine to it. After this Adam tore a strip of the linen and bound the wound carefully before looking thoughtfully at his cousin,
“So you’re selling up, Will?”
“Yeah,” Will set his teeth and smothered a groan as Adam began to bathe the wound in his foot. “Laura isn’t suited for this life, Adam. I want her and Peggy to get a better kind of life back East.”
“You saw Pa some months ago about it, I understand?” Adam kept his head bowed in order to observe the extent of the wound. It was bleeding quite freely and the water was turning a livid pink now as he soaked the bloodied linen in it, and then attended to the jagged flesh.
“That’s right. I asked him to keep it private. I didn’t think you’d approve.”
Now Adam did look up and observed his cousin keenly before giving his shoulders a slight shrug and returning to his task,
“It’s hardly my business, Will.”
“I just thought if you knew that you would be right on over to talk to Laura, to persuade her to stay.” Will grimaced and bit down on his bottom lip. The iodine was stinging badly as Adam applied it to the wound.
“No, I wouldn’t have done that, Will.” Adam frowned and stood up, the tore more strips of linen and bound up the foot. “You should really get Paul Martin to see to that, as soon as you can.”
“Yeah, yeah, of course.” Will wiped perspiration from his brow and looked at Adam thoughtfully, “You don’t seem to realise that Peggy and Laura are still very fond of you. Look at how Peggy went out this morning to get to talk to you about leaving here? You could have …”
“I could have what?” Adam smiled without mirth and leaned against the bureau, his arms folded across his chest, “Look, Will, you and Laura are married, it’s nothing to do with me what decisions you make.” he paused, remembered how he had reacted to Mr Weems news about Laura and Will and felt the colour rising above his collar, “Apart from a normal neighbourly interest, of course.”
Will gave a short laugh, and shook his head,
“You mean you don’t have feelings for Laura anymore?”
“No,” Adam said coldly, “I don’t.” he inclined his head a little and raised his eyebrows, “When I heard the two of you in the stables that day, I knew I didn’t love her as you did. Will that satisfy you?”
“I guess it’ll have to, won’t it?” Will sighed and half closed his eyes.
Outside the wind tossed a howling blow against the building which shivered against the onslaught. Adam stood up and picked up the bowl, the soiled linen and made his way out of the room. He was almost at the kitchen when Joe joined him.
“How is he?” the youngest Cartwright asked, his eyes flickered from the stained water to the stairs where there came no sound of movement.
“Not feeling exactly on top of the world just now,” Adam replied, he sighed, “Are you alright, Joe? Sorry to have dragged you into all this, we could both have been safe and warm at home by now.”
Joe chewed his bottom lip for a moment and watched Adam for a moment before he began to speak again, “Adam, I’ve been thinking.”
“Oh? Surprise me more and tell me what about?” came the reply accompanied with a slightly ironic grin.
“The other day when Hoss and I were in town some of the miners that had come down from the hills were saying that there were wolves loose and hungry ranging pretty well closer to the mines that usual this time of year.”
“Haven’t we already had this discussion?” Adam observed, turning to look at his brother with narrowed eyes, “What’s the point you’re aiming at, Joe?”
“One of the miners shot one of them, he claimed that it had rabies.”
Their eyes met, locked for an instant. Adam lowered his head and pursed his lips, he passed his hand briefly across his mouth and then shook his head, “What are you saying, Joe? Do you think those wolves we came across today are from the same pack?”
“They could be,” Joe replied quietly, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that Laura and Peggy were still out of earshot, “How would we know?”
Both of them looked away from each other, both of them thought of the wolf that had turned upon its companion for no apparent reason, and saw again the frenzied battle between themselves and the wolves. Adam chewed the inside of his cheek for an instant and then nodded,
“Look, Joe, keep Laura and Peggy away from upstairs. I’ll stay with Will.”
“No,” Joe stepped forward and shook his head, “No, you can’t do that, Adam. It’s too risky. What if he’s got it?”
“He may not, Joe. But if he has, then -” he glanced down at his hands, and released his breath slowly, “I’ve been cleaning the wounds out, I could have it too.”
“No, not just by – by doing that? Adam, you can’t have.”
“But I could. He could.” Adam raised his eyes to meet his brothers again, and he shook his head, “Just make us some coffee, something to eat. Keep Laura and Peggy down here. If Will has got it then we shall have to deal with it …” he paused and raised his head, “The storms getting worse than ever. We couldn’t even cross the yard to the barn.”
“We could try.” Joe said quietly.
“No. Perhaps later, when the storm calms down a little.”
“Are you going to tell him?”
“Wouldn’t you want to know, if you were in that position, Joe?”
They lapsed into silence then, neither of them sure as to what to say next. Adam chewed his bottom lip and stared at his brother’s boots, he noticed how muddy they were and wondered if Laura would object to having mud over her carpet. Joe could only stare at the stove and noticed that the flames were burning low, and would need replenishing. He cleared his throat, “I’ll make some coffee.” he said, his throat was suddenly dry and the words came out hoarse and clipped as though he could barely get them through his lips.
“Some water too, cool water,” his brother said bluntly and then quickly left the room.
He paused, briefly, to look into the living room. Laura was seated in her chair, a shawl around her shoulders and looking lovingly at her daughter. Peggy was sitting close to the fire, her legs folded beneath her while in her hands she held her newest doll. She was describing to her mother what had happened to Bugsy. Adam noticed the anxious smile that passed over Laura’s face and then he turned, and quickly made his way upstairs.
“Adam -” Laura’s voice called to him, for the stairs were open to their view as they led off from the living room, and he turned on the half landing and looked down at them, “Is Will alright?”
“He’s resting, Laura. Just stay there a while longer and rest too. Peggy has lots to tell you.” he smiled and looked at Peggy who smiled up at him.
“See you later, Adam” Peggy smiled, her eyes wide with her love for him, and he smiled again at her and nodded before making his way up the stairs to where Will waited.
Will listened to everything that Adam told him and said nothing for some while as he slowly absorbed the fact that had he contacted rabies then life was soon to be over and it would end in a most unpleasant manner. His face drained of colour, his lips went dry and he found that his tongue felt suddenly too big for his mouth. He swallowed hard several times before he managed to take a big enough breath to speak,
“So? What happens?” he asked, looking at the wall ahead of him rather than at the other man who had resumed his stance in leaning, with folded arms, against the bureau.
“How do you mean? You want to know what will happen to you if you have rabies?” Adam raised his eyebrows, his eyes widening, “Have you ever seen anyone with rabies?”
“No.” Will shook his head, “Have you?”
Adam’s face went blank for a moment and then he nodded, pursed his lips and cast his eyes down as though the pattern in the carpet had become of immense importance, “Once when I was a boy.”
“What was it like?” Will cleared his throat, and licked very dry lips.
“Pa and I had not long arrived in a small settlement, only about six cabins, and out buildings. It was just a stop over for us. We were getting some provisions and Pa told me to stretch my legs but not to go far. I was crossing the street when a man suddenly ran out of a building and grabbed me, swung me off my feet and ran into the building Pa had gone into, he was yelling and shouting and then there was a lot of confusion and noise. The door was slammed shut and bolted. Pa asked what was going on. I think I was doing my fair share of bawling as well.” he paused, “The man who had grabbed me just said ‘He’s got loose.’ Then they just went very quiet. Someone grabbed a rifle and walked to the window, smashed out a pane and they stood there, as rigid as statues.”
“What happened next?”
“A man came into view. He was screaming, rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth. He was calling out for help and the man with the rifle shot him.”
“Dead.” Adam repeated the word with an abruptness that sent a shiver down Wills’ spine. “I looked at Pa and wondered why he hadn’t done anything. Someone told Pa that the man had rabies, shooting him had been the best thing for him, it spared him from any worse things happening to him, or his family.”
“So what are you going to do then, Adam? Shoot me?” and Will managed to force a grin to his lip, but it looked more like the grimace of a dead man and Adam turned away and walked to the window against which the snow flung itself with reckless abandon.
“Of course not,” he snapped, “Don’t talk stupidly, Will.”
“Alright then, let’s talk some sense. How long do I have before it takes effect?”
“It could be as little as a few days.” he paused, frowned, “Or weeks, months.”
“Not right away then?” there was some lightness in Will’s voice as though the reprieve of days was some kind of God given gift.
“No. The – the infection takes time to spread through the muscles and travel to the brain.”
“To the brain?” Will echoed wearily, and he closed his eyes, raised a hand to his brow as though struggling to think. “What happens then?”
“Confusion. You could have hallucinations, muscle spasms that will cause abnormal positions of the body, you could have seizures or convulsions. The sight of water and the inability to drink it -” Adam paused, the words freezing on his lips, “ Will, I don’t rightly know enough to tell you, just that when it happens, you’ll know -.”
“Are you sure? Will I be a danger to Laura, to Peggy?”
They were both silent now. Adam remained standing at the window, staring into the swirling mass of white while Will remained in the chair, his head bowed, and perspiration beading his brow.
“What else? You said the man you saw was foaming at the mouth? Does that mean I’ll go mad?”
“For heavens sake, man, you may not even have it. Let’s not think the worse, Will, not yet.”
“Not yet? When do I start then? When the symptoms start? When did you say that would be? Four days time? Six days? Then I go mad and … and hopefully someone will be around to shoot me.”
“No one will shoot you, Will.” Adam replied with each word heavy with foreboding.
“What happens then? I shoot myself perhaps?”
“Will, stop it.” he turned and grabbed his cousin by the arms and stared into the man’s eyes, “Stop it. You’re tormenting yourself unnecessarily.”
“No, Adam, I’m trying to look at the matter realistically. If you didn’t suspect the possibility then why mention it in the first place? See? You can’t answer that one, can you? Well, I appreciate that you did tell me, at least I can do something to keep Laura and Peggy safe.” he covered his mouth with his hand and Adam noticed how the fingers trembled as they were pressed against his lips, “Adam, as soon as the weather improves, you must take them to the Ponderosa. Get them away from here.”
“Joe can do that,” Adam said quietly, “I’ll stay here.”
“No,” Will raised his eyes and looked into Adam’s face, he shook his head, “No, I wouldn’t want you to stay here.”
“Will, if you do have this -” he paused, ran the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip and then clamped his mouth into a firm line until he said quietly, “Look, when the symptoms begin it’s kind of like most fevers, but because of what it is, you’ll start getting some very weird thoughts that will be so real to you that – that you could be a danger to anybody near by. I don’t think it would help if you were to think Laura was anywhere near me. I think it would be better if I stayed right here with you. Then we can face up to whatever happens, together.”
“I don’t rightly understand what you’re meaning, Adam, but if you insist on staying, then I shan’t stop you.” Will shivered, and then buried his face in his hands, “Oh I don’t want to die, not now, not like that – isn’t there anything that can stop it happening?”
“Not if you actually have it, no.” Adam sighed, “I could get Paul Martin to come and see you though.”
There was a sharp knock on the door, which was pushed open even though neither of them had invited Joe into the room. He emerged with coffee pot and mugs which he placed on the bureau. He looked from one to the other, and then gulped back spit
“So? You’ve told him, huh?”
Again neither man spoke, Joe turned to the coffee and poured the black liquid into the mugs, he handed one to each of them and then poured one out for himself,
“I’m sorry, Will.” he muttered, “But it doesn’t mean you’ve got the sickness, does it, Adam?”
“That’s what I’ve been telling him.” Adam replied heavily, looking at Will thoughtfully, “But we thought, Joe, once the weather slackened it might be a good idea if you took Laura and Peggy home. Get someone to ask Paul to get here too.”
“Yeah, sure, I’ll do that,” Joe promised and his young face went rather peaky looking, as though the deed was one that he wished he could avoid performing. “Did you tell him …” he paused at the raised eyebrows and looked at Will, “Oh I see.”
“See what? What else hasn’t he told me?” Will snapped but Adam just nodded curtly to Joe who backed away “Nothing, Will,” the younger man said, “Nothing.”
“How’s Laura? Is Peggy alright?” Will looked up and Joe was stricken by the sadness in the man’s eyes, the bleak look of knowing and being defeated by the knowledge, “Are they alright?”
“Sure, they’re waiting for you to come down. Laura’s going to make us something to eat.”
Will nodded and forced a smile to his ashen lips, never had a man looked so much as though the spirit had been plucked right out of him,
Two days ticked by with a relentlessness that brought its own tensions to the household. At the Ponderosa Ben and Hoss conjectured as to where Adam and Joe could have gone but niether one of them dared to consider anything remotely negative or fearful. They would take turns to walk to the big window and stare out into the storms, form a hypothesis which both of them would then spin out into a reasonable story in which they could believe.
On the morning of the third day the storms had faded at last, and there was a welcoming rise in the temperatures. As Will stood at the door and surveyed the crisply snow laden ground beyond he knew that this was the time for Laura and Peggy to go. He looked at Adam who nodded, “Can – Can I go and say goodbye?“
“Best not,” Adam replied briefly, “Just stay on the landing and talk to them from there.”
Will nodded and walked out to the landing where he called Laura who came to the foot of the stairs, Joe was with her and was ready to prevent her taking the steps up to her husband. Will gave his wife a brief smile, “My dear, I think it would be a good idea if you went for a little trip today. Joe was thinking of taking you and Peggy to the Ponderosa. It would do you both good after being so cooped up here. It’ll give you a chance to talk to Ben about our plans as well.”
“Aren’t you coming as well?” she looked at him, the blue eyes were intense in their gaze upon his face, “Are you still too ill?”
“Yes, that’s right, I just feel too ill to come just now.” Will licked dry lips and glanced over his shoulder into the room where Adam was standing, “Darling, it would be an adventure for you and Peggy to go out in the sledge. Joe’ll wrap you up snug and warm and will drive you out there. You know how much fun there is in a sledge ride?”
“Not without you, my dear. Nothings fun without you.” she rested her head upon the bannister rail, “Please tell me what’s wrong, Will. It seems to me that somethings happened about which I know nothing at all. You and Adam – why won’t you come down these past few days, instead of being cooped up in that room?“ she looked up again into his face, “Joe’s walking on egg shells around me all the time. I’ve seen the look on your face sometimes when you‘ve come to talk to me – like this – you’ve looked, well, you’ve looked like you’d seen a ghost that was still haunting you. Tell me what it is, dear.”
“It’s your imagination, Laura, running away with you again.” he laughed, a brittle nervous laugh that fooled neither himself nor his wife, “Laura, you know I love you, don’t you?”
“Yes, but -” and she placed a step on the bottom stair only to have Joe place a hand on her arm and Will placed a finger to his lips, and shook his head “No buts. I love you more than life itself,” he paused now, the irony of the words struck him a little, “and you should know by now that I would never do anything that wasn’t for our good. You know that, don’t you?”
She nodded, a slight frown puckered her brow and she turned away to look at Joe, before turning back to look at her husband “When do you want us to leave?” her voice was capricious, the voice of a querulous woman seeking some other way of getting to know what was going on in her man’s life that didn’t, it seem, include her.
“About mid-day, when the sun is high.”
The mood had settled, the atmosphere was cool, there was no denying that Will had spoken to Laura and she had not liked what she had heard.
The runners on the sledge were in good condition and it took very little time for Joe to fix them securely and get everything ready for Laura and Peggy’s little adventure. Joe pulled on his gloves and tightened the muffler around his neck, all the time watching the house as though it were going to suddenly sprout wings and fly.
When he saw his brother standing at the front door he approached and stopped a few feet distant from him “Do you think he’s told her what this is all about?” he asked Adam in a rather shaky voice
“I’d doubt it very much. Would you?” Adam narrowed his eyes and sighed heavily as watched Peggy snuggle down beneath the blankets that covered both her and Laura.
“What will you do? I mean, if he has it; will you shoot him?”
“Like a mad dog, do you mean? I can hardly do that, Joe.”
“Folk with rabies go mad, don’t they? What if he attacks you?”
“Then I’ll defend myself.” his brother replied in the tone of voice that Joe understood meant there would be no hesitation on his part to do just that and perhaps, more besides. Adam sighed, “It could be that I go mad first you know…”
“Don’t say so, Adam.” Joe went paler “I’ll get Paul to come out, Adam.”
Adam nodded and again he apologised to his youngest brother for the fact that had it not been for him neither of them would be in this position now, and Joe shrugged,
“If we’d not come here, Will would already be dead.” he reminded Adam with a grimace on the handsome face and his brother nodded, and glanced up at the stairs as movement from there indicated that Will was coming down to wave his farewells.
Peggy nestled down under the thick shawls like a bird in a nest and smiled at them all, she was like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.
“I love you -” Will cried as the sledge heaved itself over the first hurdle of snow and then smoothly glided onwards.
Hands waved like little flags above the blankets and the snow flicked up from under the runners. The two men stood side by side watching the vehicle as it disappeared finally into the whiteness. Will shrugged his hands into his jacket pockets and sighed, then glanced up at Adam,
“What now?” he asked dourly.
“We wait.” came the sober reply.
They returned to the house and closed the door behind them. It was surprising how quiet the house now felt; its very silence crept around them just like cold creeps into the bones of a man. Will hurried to put more logs onto the fire while Adam went to boil water and make some coffee.
They had a snatched meal, neither of them being hungry, which they washed down with multiple cups of coffee. Adam bathed the wounds carefully, inspecting them to see if they showed any sign of infection. Not sure even if he saw any whether it would confirm the approach of rabies.
In the evening Will complained that he felt unwell.
Paul Martin sat for some moments without moving. He had arrived at the old Dayton’s house and now that he was at the door he found himself perplexed as to how to continue. Rabies. The word sent a shiver down his spine. Untreatable. Irreversible. A death sentence on the victim. He shook his head sadly and proceeded to step down from his buggy.
The door opened as he approached and the tall man in black stood waiting for him. He felt like an executioner about to pass the noose about a mans neck.
“How is he?” he took off his hat and glanced nervously at Adam, “What are the symptoms?”
Adam bit down on the things he had intended to say. He had wanted to chide Paul on not coming sooner, not giving them the assurance that what they assumed to be the problem was, in fact, incorrect. He stepped back from the doctor to a distance he felt would be adequate protection for the older man. Paul noticed and nodded, sighed deeply and turned to the stairs as he listened as Adam began to speak
“He’s feverish. Aches all over. He isn’t eating and he feels sick all the time.”
“Is that all?” Paul paused and looked down at Adam who was several stairs below, “How sure are you that it is rabies?”
“I’m not a doctor,” Adam replied icily, “That’s why we’ve been waiting for you to come.”
“I’m sorry,” Paul frowned, “I was delayed by the snow and sickness in town. Joe said that Laura and Peggy were staying at the Ponderosa?” he raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“Yes, that’s right. We thought it wiser in case it turned out that it was rabies. As to how sure we are about it being rabies I can’t say, Doctor, only that Will was bitten by several wolves and we were told the wolves were rabid.”
“I heard the talk. Could be a different pack of wolves, of course.”
“Well, that’s what we hope.” Adam sighed and followed the older man up the stairs and into the room where Will was tossing about in bed.
Paul stood still now and observed the sick man, he sighed and looked thoughtfully at Adam, he didn’t approach the bed but remained at a distance “He’s very agitated.” he murmured, looking at the sick man who was perspiring profusely and yet trembling in every limb.
The bed was disordered as happens when fever takes hold of a person, and the natural threshing about commences. Paul natural instincts were to reach out to the man and check his vital signs, or peer into his eyes, but restraint forced upon him by the fear of contaminating others held him back, he looked at Adam “What are his pupils like?“
“You can see he’s in high fever ..” Adam replied rather more brusquely than was fair, for Paul had to think of other patients other than Will or eventually Adam himself. He peered into Will’s eyes as his cousin groaned and tossed his head back and forth as though in protest at the cool touch of Adams hand upon his flesh.
“Did you cauterise the wounds?” Paul asked quietly opening his medical bag as he spoke.
“No,” Adam frowned, “Should I have done so? I hadn’t thought it was necessary at the time.”
Paul merely shrugged. Some people cauterised such wounds immediately with a red hot iron, but in the long run it made little difference to the outcome of the wounds. The infection once in the bloodstream continues on its destructive course and cauterising the wound often brought about problems of its own, quite apart from causing the patient further agonies.
For a moment he just stood against the wall observing Will while Adam bit his fingernails and rolled his eyes, “Can you unbind the wounds and let me see them?” Paul next asked so Adam once again approached his cousin and began to undo the bandages.
Paul approached to a safe distance and adjusted his spectacles in order to see them, then nodded and signalled that they should be bound with clean bandages which he set down on the bureau for Adam to pick up and use.
“Well?” Adam raised his eyebrows, “What’s on your mind?”
“Adam, I can’t say for sure whether or not he has rabies. At the same time, I can’t raise false hopes. You know there’s no cure at all, don’t you?”
“Just tell me what to do, Paul. Isn’t there anything I can give him to help him now? Something just to make him able to sleep?”
“I can give you something for that, of course. It won’t help him in the later stages of the disease, you realise that, don’t you?”
Adam ran his fingers through his hair, and then rubbed his brow in perplexity. He was about to speak when Will suddenly sat bolt upright and pointed a finger at him
“Where is she? Where’s Laura? You’ve taken her away, haven’t you? I know you’re conspiring against me. You want her for yourself, you want to take her from me, don’t you? I see you whispering there between you, plotting and scheming. Just let me get out of this bed and I’ll hamstring the lot of you.”
His eyes were wide and staring unseeingly at them both, his hand was shaking and with a shiver that shook the bed he fell back upon the mattress, his mouth quivering and words tumbling in an incoherent flow like a torrent.
“Has he been like this before?” Paul asked as he placed some sachets of sleeping powders on the bureau next to the bandages.
“No. He’s been feverish, slightly delirious but not as bad as this.”
Paul shook his head and with a sigh turned to leave the room. He paused at the door “All the signs are not good, Adam. Confusion, aggression, high fever – they’re all the symptoms of rabies.”
“But I’ve seen other people reacting like this with a high fever, Paul. Isn’t it possible that he’s just ill with pneumonia or something like that, something you could treat?”
“And how many people do you know that survive pneumonia, young man?” Paul said in a more defensive manner than usual, “Treat him as you think best, keep the wounds clean as you can while you can, but I warn you, if it is rabies, his behaviour will become increasingly violent.”
“And what?” Paul asked quietly as he reached for his hat which he placed on his head as though in slow motion.
“And what then?”
Paul looked at him steadily and the dark eyes looked equally steadily back at him. He shook his head,
“You must do what you think best.” he replied and walked to the door.
He paused as his hand touched the handle and turned to his young friend, and after a long drawn out sigh he raised a kindly hand as though to place it upon Adam’s arm, then thought better of it “You’ll need to restrain him. Tie him to the bed if possible. Don’t prolong the agony for him.”
He turned and began to descend the stairs with Adam several paces behind him. At the door he turned, Adam halted at the foot of the staircase “Adam? What about you? You realise the risk you‘ve put yourself into don‘t you? That if will has rabies, your close contact with him -”
Adam raised a hand “I know all about that, and don‘t think it‘s something that‘s not on my mind all the time. At the moment though -” he paused and passed his hand slowly over his face, shook his head “Best not to think about it. Thanks for coming.”
“Adam – I’ll ride over again in a few more days.”
The younger man nodded, but he didn’t smile at the other man, just looked at him with deep brown eyes that looked like twin pools of misery.
Clean fresh air with the bite of winter frosts drifted into the over warm house. Paul closed the door firmly behind him and hurried to his buggy.
In the silent room Adam Cartwright turned and faced the stairs. He stared at them for a moment or two, his face sombre and pale, the dark eyes shadowed and weary. In the room overhead he heard the bed creaking and then a thud as Will fell from the bed onto the floor.
Later after he had settled Will back into the bed and rebound his wounds Adam looked down at the powder sachets in his hand. There were not many there, just six.
Hoss and Joe Cartwright trudged through the snow with their horses on leads trailing behind them, along with them were several ranch hands and an old timer from town who knew more about wolves than any man living, so he told them anyway. It had taken a while to get enough men together to brave the weather but Ben Cartwright had promised to pay top dollar to those who would go with his sons.
They reached the area where the battle with the wolves had taken place. In the freezing conditions the bodies had remained reasonably well preserved, some scavengers had been at them, although the frozen skin and flesh had made it a battle in itself for any food to be obtained. The turned the stiff bodies over with their booted feet and the hunter had knelt down and looked them over, then risen up and brushed snow from his pants “They’re young and healthy specimens. I don’t reckon any of them got rabies.”
Hoss and Joe looked at one another as relief trickled through them, Joe cleared his throat “There are some others in the wood.”
“Let’s go check them out then.” the old timer replied and turned to the trees where the snow drifted down as the wind blew upon the laden boughs.
“These wolves actually turned on one another, Hank. They’re the ones I’m mostly worried about.” Joe said quietly.
Hank nodded and followed by the other men they trudged wearily into the darkening woods. There were signs of the wolves although they had been torn into by those hungry enough to make the best of what had been provided them. Hank checked the animals over “Ones an old feller.”
“Is that bad?” Hoss asked and Hank just shrugged and checked the wolves teeth.
Perhaps it was a futile hope, just a straw that could be blown away in the wind, but something, anything, other than sit at home wondering and worrying. The two Cartwrights watched as Hank turned the remains of the animals over with his foot and thought of the two men alone in the house.
“Wal, it ain’t easy to tell,” Hank muttered pulling his muffler closer around him, “They look healthy enough but -”
Joe looked at Hoss and the older man bowed his head and looked at Hank “You sure you can tell, jest by looking at ‘em?”
“Look here, young’un, I know more about wolves than you’ll ever know. I seen rabid wolves plenty times before, but mostly living, and foaming at the mouths at that …” he shook his head “With this cold I’d have figured that any sign like that would have frozen around their fangs, or the other signs but – I can’t rightly swear one way or the other.”
“ALright,” Hoss nodded slowly, “You done your best, Hank.”
Hank nodded and knelt down at the remains of the two wolves, “If you want to put your money on a guess, I’d say these were pretty healthy critters too.”
Laura Dayton Cartwright turned around and looked thoughtfully at the rancher whom she had always considered to be a good friend and neighbour and who was now her Uncle in Law. She smiled wistfully,
“Do you think I should go home now? It’s been several days and Peggy and I must be getting under your feet. I’m sure Will must be wondering where we are.”
“I doubt it,” Ben smiled at her and approached her slowly, he put his arm about her shoulder in a kindly manner, “He knows you’re here, quite safe.”
“How do you mean, Ben? Quite safe? What danger was I in?”
Ben sighed, and realised he had committed a faux pas. He shrugged and looked out at the view ahead of them, preferring to remain silent rather than speak further.
“What actually is going on ? I keep getting the feeling that there’s something going on that I should know about, that you’re keeping from me.”
He didn’t speak for a while, but allowed his hand to drop to his side, before he turned and went back into the body of the room, nearer the fire.
“You’re happy enough here, aren’t you, my dear?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t answer my question, does it?”
He heard her skirts rustling as she moved. As he reached for his pipe and tobacco pouch he could imagine her walking quickly towards the settee, and when he next glanced there she was already taking her seat.
“Tell me, Ben. Please.”
“Very well,” he replied, slowly feeding the bowl of his pipe with the tobacco, “The truth of the matter is that Will’s very unwell. He -” Ben raised a hand to stop the outpouring of words that were about to spill out of her mouth, “he didn’t want you or Peggy to stay in the house in case you caught it. You have to remember, Laura, you have a baby to consider now.”
He spoke very gravely and stared at her so forcibly that Laura shivered “I know he’s very unwell, that’s why Adam wouldn’t let us see him except at a distance. How much worse has he got. Is he dying?”
“I don’t know. Dr Martin has seen him and given him some medication, no doubt.”
She stared at him and shook her head petulantly “Oh, I should go home. I should be with him. A wife should be with her husband, shouldn’t she?”
“Mostly yes, but not in this instance.” he put the pipe down and leaned towards her, he took hold of her hands and looked gently into her face, “Laura, you must trust us. Believe me, we’re doing everything we can to help you all. Normally yes, a wife should be by her husband’s side, but you’re frail, Laura, and we have to abide by your husband’s wishes. He wanted you here. Do you understand?”
The clock ticked more loudly in the room. Ash settled from the fire. She heard the strike of a match as Ben lit his pipe. She knew for a certainty if anything happened to Will then her life would have no meaning, no meaning at all.
When the door opened a gust of freezing cold air blew into the room as the two men entered, Hoss hurriedly slammed the door shut. Ben was on his feet and walking to them, the hope and anxiety on his face clear evidence of the worry he had been going through “Well, what happened?”
“Nothing.” Joe snapped tossing his hat onto the bureau
“Wal,” Hoss frowned and slowly unravelled his scarf “Nothin definite. Hank couldn’t tell for sure one way or the other.”
Ben glanced over his shoulder to where Laura was listening to Peggy reading, “I don’t know how long I can keep from Laura finding out the truth.”
“Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt her to know,” Joe replied pulling off his mittens and then shrugging when Ben glared at him “Well, just a thought.”
Hoss shrugged “No point in saying anything, Pa. We don’t know for sure, do we? No need to scare her worse than she is already… and you gotta think of little Peggy.”
At that point Peggy looked up, saw Hoss and jumped to her feet “Hi, Hoss, come and listen to my reading. Ma says I’m getting better at it all the time.”
Hoss managed a nod and a weak smile then looked at his father and brother, shook his head and walked to where Peggy was patting at the seat next to her own.
For a few moments he just lay very still with his eyes fixed to the ceiling. There were sounds all around him, whispering sounds like words taken from a foreign language and all muddled up so that he had to strain his ears to try and understand them. The laughter came next. He expected the laughter because it haunted the hours he lay awake, or thought he was awake.
Pain trickled through every bone and every sinew. His head felt as thought it were burning and he was thirsty, his throat was burning up. He clawed at it and gasped out words but all he heard was the laughter.
“Who’s there? I hear you, I hear you… laughing… is it me you’re laughing at? “
Now the whispers again and he tried to understand the words while he slowly turned his head towards the chair where he always sat, waiting, that’s what he was doing, waiting.
He licked his lips “Water.” he raised a hand in supplication “Water?”
The chair was empty. The man in black was not there, he wasn’t waiting, he wasn’t listening to the whispers and the laughter. Will tried to sit up “I know you’re there, Adam. I know you’re talking to her, waiting for me to die aren’t you? Well, I’m not going to, I’m not going to die just to suit you.”
The door opened slowly and Adam stepped into the room with a jug of water and a glass. He set them down on the bureau and poured water into the jug, then emptied a sachet of powder into it. After it had dissolved and the water was clear he took it over to the man in the bed who was staring at him from eyes there were sunken in their sockets, “Here, Will, drink this.”
Adam waited, this was always the worse time whenever he held out the water. He could relax if Will took it and drank it, he dreaded the day, the moment, when his cousin would back away, dash his hand aside, howl like a mad man and slaver …. He frowned now as he noticed his own hand trembling, and forced his eyes to look away, so that he stared instead at a picture of Will and Laura on the bedside table.
“You were laughing.” Will gasped as he took the glass and swallowed the water, deep gulps that caused some to spill down his chin, “I heard you.”
“No one was laughing, Will. There isn’t anyone here to laugh with…” Adam took the glass away and set it down by the water jug, he placed both within reach of the sick man while he walked to the window. “It’s snowing again.”
Will’s head lolled on his shoulders, he slumped back against the pillows and his eyes closed. His breathing slowly became regular and even until eventually he fell back into a deep sleep.
For a while Adam remained where he was staring out at the whiteness all around him. The snow fell lightly, not with the relentless force of previous days. As though resolved now he turned around, glanced at his cousin and tidied the bed covers. The small fire in the grate kept the room warm enough to be comfortable and the smell from the bed didn’t indicate a need for urgent attention.
He closed the door and went down the stairs, pulled on his hat and jacket and head bent against the wind made his way to the stables. The cold hit him hard but it was refreshing after the confinement to the house and that bedroom. The snow fell in lazy swirls settling upon his hat and shoulders of his yellow coat and by the time he had the doors of the stable open the cold was just becoming uncomfortable.
The horses turned their heads towards him as though in reproach and the warmth of the building enveloped him welcomingly. It was almost a relief to pick up the pitchfork and set to work … he had at the most two hours before he would need to return to the house and check on his patient.
Another night with the wind roaring like a train engine around the house sending the smoke down the chimney to billow into the room. Ben Cartwright paced the floor and walked to the window, glared out at the darkness before he walked back to the fire.
Joe and Hoss watched him, looked at one another, tried to act as though the game of checkers was really the sole centre of their attention. Ben was about to speak when there came the patter of feet down the stairs and Peggy appeared on the half landing in her nightdress with her doll in her arms “Hoss, Joe, I’m scared. I’m scared.”
Hoss stood up right away “Hey, now, there ain’t nothing to be scared about, honey. Why not git back to your bed and try to git to sleep, then in the morning you’ll be feeling bright as a button.”
“I won’t though, I won’t, Hoss.” she came down the remainder of the stairs ran to the big, her bare feet padding across the floor “Everythings banging on the walls. Someone’s trying to get in.”
“There’s no-one out there trying to get in.” Joe said, “Come here, Peggy, sit here with me and see if the two of us can beat ol’ Hoss ?”
She hugged her doll and looked at Ben, large accusing eyes that were too like Laura’s to be comfortable “You said Will and Adam were alright and would be here soon. But they ain’t, they ain’t .”
“They can’t get here, dear, not in this weather. We can’t get to them either…even though we want to, very much.” Ben replied with a slight break in his voice and then with a sigh, he returned to the window to stare out at the darkness and the snow that was constantly flung at the glass.
Adam pulled the quilt higher and stretched out his legs. The lamp was set low, allowing the minimum of light to glow into the room as Will had complained that the light hurt his eyes. The wind buffeted the house and several pictures bounced against the interior walls that Will had wallpapered recently. Adam moved his mouth and opened his eyes, he was feeling stiff, cold.
He rubbed his face with his hands and looked around him. The bed was empty, the blankets thrown aside and the door was wide open. He was on his feet instantly “Will? Will?”
He could hear his cousin downstairs now, things crashing over and mentally he congratulated himself for not having any lamps alight down there otherwise the risk of fire would have been considerable. “Will?”
The only light came from the glow of the fire in the living room and towards this Will now stumbled. He fell over several times, sending chairs toppling, or sliding across the floor. He turned at the sound of footsteps “Laura? Laura is that you?”
Adam sighed, he was tired, bone weary, and as he came down the stairs with the lamp in his hand he wondered just how much longer all this was going to go on for now. He had several times thought Will had gone through the climax of fever, only for him to relapse the very next day. Then at other times he came through a bout of delirium and was perfectly lucid.
He called to his cousin again, and Will turned “Where’s Laura? Where have you hidden her?”
“She’s with Pa at the Ponderosa.”
“She’s with her mother.” Adam watched as his cousin swayed too and fro before slowly settling into a chair, “She went a few days ago.”
“No, no, she wouldn’t leave me. You’re lying to me, you’re always lying to me…”
“No, I’m not lying to you.” Adam said and he passed one hand over his eyes, his head ached, his bones ached and he began to wonder if this was the onset of the disease or just plain exhaustion.
Will was staring at him, narrowed his eyes “Adam? Is that you?”
“What’re you doing here? You look worn out, cousin. What have you been doing to yourself.”
Adam shrugged “Waiting on you to get back to bed.”
“Right.” Will nodded and bowed his head “I understand.”
But he didn’t move, he couldn’t, within minutes he was sound asleep in the arm chair.
A new day dawned and the snow had stopped. Adam made coffee and ate some dry biscuits. They were low on provisions and the horses needed attention again. He listened for sounds from upstairs and tried to remember what time during the night he had finally managed to get his cousin to bed… he yawned and stretched, and drank more coffee.
Another day lay ahead of him, he wondered what the outcome of it would be this time.
Will opened his eyes to the sound of someone chopping wood. For some moments he remained very still and listened to the thud of the axe and the splintering of wood, a pause, then the thud of the axe again. It was like music, it had a rhythm to it that made him feel safe and secure. Years ago he could remember waking up to just such a sound and to the smell of coffee, he had felt this same feeling of peace. Of course he had been a child then and his father would have been chopping wood for the fire. His eyes fluttered and closed, the room was warm, he felt weak but his bones no longer ached and the pain he had woken to for days now seemed to have faded. He just wanted to sleep to the sound of the rise and fall of the axe.
Adam stacked the logs and then picked up the ones he would need for the fire and stove in the house. Provisions were low but there was no chance of getting anywhere to restock the cupboards. It made him realise that Laura was or had been a rather inefficient housewife. As he shouldered his way into the house he realised that he had learned more about Laura in her absence in the past few days than all the time he had been courting her.
With a wry smile he rebuilt the dying fire in the living room and then went into the kitchen to fuel the stove. He opened the cupboard and thought of Mother Hubbard, frowned and took out what bacon remained. He recalled the chickens had retreated into the barn, and pondered on getting some eggs – he looked out of the window and frowned, in this weather …would hens still lay the eggs? Hoss would insist that they would, but Adam had to remonstrate with himself, this was Hop Sings provence, not his, and he wasn’t sure.
Laura sat down at the table and flicked out her napkin, Peggy was beside her looking anxiously at the food that Hop Sing had placed before her. “Hop Sing, will Uncle Will and Uncle Adam be alright without your cooking for them?”
“I think maybe very alright.” Hop Sing nodded his head and smiled, “Little Missy eat up and grow strong, be able to help later.”
Laura looked up and frowned, “What do you mean, help later? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Joe rubbed his eyes, he was tired and in a bad mood. All this snow had prevented him getting to the Saturday night dance at the Town Hall, he scowled over at Laura “Hop Sing meant nothing by it, Laura, just eat your food and stop gabbing over nothing.”
Laura’s eyes widened “I don’t ‘gab’ thank you very much, Joe Cartwright.”
Peggy frowned “What’s gabbing mean, Joe?”
“It means shooting one’s mouth off when one doesn’t know what one is talking about.” Joe replied quoting from his elder brother who trotted this out more than once and not so very long ago.
“If people would stop treating me like a china doll around here, then perhaps I would know what to talk about because then I would know what was happening.” Laura snapped, and then frowned, “Peggy, if you’ve finished your meal go and tidy your room.”
Peggy didn’t particularly want to tidy her room but with a sigh she made her way upstairs. She passed Hoss and forced a smile “Ma’s been gabbing, Hoss.”
“Is that so, peanut. Wal, never mind, we all gab a bit at times.” he ruffled her hair and continued downstairs.
He paused a moment at the sight of Laura and Joe almost nose to nose across the breakfast table, “Er -anything wrong?”
Laura instantly turned towards him her blonde hair in its curls made her look frail and dainty, but the blue of her eyes were like ice “I want to know what’s going on around here.”
“Around here? Nothing much,” Hoss muttered and wondered if it were already too late to go back upstairs.
“I meant – what is happening to Will and Adam? Why aren’t they home yet?”
“Too much snow.” Hoss mumbled and cast a ‘don’t you dare say a word’ look at Joe who was breathing heavily and almost snorting through his nose.
“No, it isn’t that.” Laura put down her napkin and pushed aside her plate, “He was ill, I know that because Adam wouldn’t let him come down to see me and I wasn’t allowed to go and see him, even when we had to leave them behind. I thought that was cruel of Adam, he didn’t let me say goodbye to my husband.” she sniffed and bowed her head, touched the corner of her eyes with the napkin.
Joe rolled his eyes and growled, whereas Hoss began to fill his plate and say “Why don’t you try some of this bacon, Laura, Hop Sing sure knows how to make it crispy, Adam just loves his bacon crisp, you know? Did you know that? Guess perhaps you didn’t get to know that – er – did – does Will like his eggs scrambled like this? You should try some, Laura, come on, you ain’t even tried any of it yet.”
Laura straightened her back “I’m not a child, you know.”
Both Joe and Hoss nodded, Hoss opened his mouth to speak but didn’t know what to say, he looked at Joe who was getting increasingly fidgety. Laura looked at the bacon and frowned “I didn’t know that Adam liked his bacon crispy, Will does as well…” her voice faltered “What is the matter with Will. You might as well tell me otherwise I shall harness the horses and go and find out.”
“Well,” snapped Joe, “Be my guest.”
“What?” Laura’s eyes widened and she shook her head and looked at Hoss, “What do you mean?
“I mean – go ahead and harness the horses and go and find out whether or not Will and Adam are alive and well, or dead from the rabies… you know how contagious it is? That was why Adam wouldn’t let you go upstairs to say a fond farewell to your husband, because -”
“JOSEPH” Ben’s voice thundered across the room, while Laura sat so still that Hoss thought she had frozen with shock, then she let out a squeal
“RABIES!!” she rose to her feet “RABIES??”
Joe rolled his eyes, “Pa, I thought-”
“No, Joseph, you didn’t think. Get out and find some work to do. Laura -” Ben put his arms out and Laura ran into them, sobbing and all the time saying “Rabies…rabies…”
“Er -” Hoss stood up and pushed the chair under the table, “I’ll go and help Joe, Pa.”
He took some bacon from the plate and hurried away,stuffing the food into his mouth as he went. Ben stroked Laura’s back and took her arm to lead her to the chair she favoured “Now, sit down here, Laura. There’s no need to -” he frowned, and shook his head, what was he saying? Of course there was a need to worry, they were all worried sick, out of their minds with worry to be truthful and to tell this woman not to worry was ridiculous. He patted her hands and called out to Hop Sing to bring some tea.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Laura whispered, “I should be there with him, Adam should be here with you.”
“Adam can’t come home until they know for sure, he was the one washed out the wound when they got home, remember?”
“Yes. I remember.”
“Well, it’s possible that he could have it as well…” Ben bit his bottom lip and moved away, stared at the fire and ran his hand behind his head, “It may not be rabies, Laura, that’s why we didn’t mention it to you, because if it isn’t then that would have put you to a lot of worry for nothing.”
“What did Dr Martin say it was?” Laura asked after blowing her nose, “You did say he had been there?”
“Yes, he went there but he didn’t know whether he could confirm it or not. It’s hard to tell in the primary stages.” Ben ran a hand over his mouth, he didn’t want to talk about it, think about it, but it broke his heart to think of his son and nephew alone in that house. He couldn’t bear to let his thoughts go further than that…
Laura bowed her head, wept a little and then with an effort got to her feet, “I’m sorry, Ben, I – I’ll have to go to bed, I feel so ill. The thought of what could happen -” she took his arm and leaned upon it a little, then paused at the foot of the stairs “don’t let Peggy know, will you?” she put a step on the bottom stair and sighed “I should go, he’s my husband, I should go and look after him.”
“You would be putting yourself and your unborn child at risk, my dear, if you were to do that.” Ben said very gently.
She nodded, “Of course – I hadn’t thought of that… I’m so sorry, Ben.”
Adam checked the fires, looked in at Will and noticed that the fever seemed to have abated. There were no fresh powders to put into the drinking water which he placed on the bedside table, but he had found some sleeping pills made out for Laura which he crushed and had slipped into the water. There had been no iodine left either, so he had washed and dressed the wounds with clean salt water, lots of salt, and had rebound the wounds which he had noticed were healing with the presence of pink clean flesh showing through.
Once downstairs he shrugged on his coat and put on his hat, gloves and scarf, picked up his rifle and began to trudge through the snow. Time to go hunting…hopefully he would find some foolish rabbit hopping about, or a bird taking its time to groom its plumage on the bough of some nearby tree.
His footsteps sunk into the deep snow, he looked up at the sky which was azure blue and inwardly he prayed that the rabbit, bird or whatever would come in sight sooner rather than later.
Too many nights worrying about his son and nephew, feeling guilty at abandoning them to their fate, tossing and turning through countless hours of darkness took its toll on Ben. His shortness of temper became so bad that Peggy disappeared to her room as soon as he appeared, and Laura often did the same.
Being confined to the house because of the weather was another problem, but the very nature of the suspected illness was what really ate into Ben’s nervous system. He sat at his desk working on his ledgers, blotting them too much and having to restart them that more than once he had been tempted to throw the lot of them into the fire.
Work was still having to be carried out to the extent possible taking Joe and Hoss as far on the range as they could to check on stock, or take out the feed and make sure water holes were not iced over. More than once they came home tired and dirty, able to report they had managed to journey further to the south boundaries, but less to the north.
Heavy frost came and iced over the snow. When the full moon shone down it looked beautiful but Ben would stand by the window puffing at his pipe and glaring out at the view with smoke wreathing his head so that he looked like some craggy volcano about to explode.
“Pa?” Hoss nudged Ben’s elbow and offered him a glass of whiskey which his father took with a grunt, “Look, Pa, I – er – Joe and me, we done thought that perhaps you should take something for your nerves.” Hoss’ mouth dried up, he gulped “I mean – don’t take this for wrong, Pa – jest that we know you ain’t been sleeping well of nights and we know why, but you can’t help it, you can’t blame yourself for what’s happened and -”
“Thank you, Hoss,” Ben interrupted in the tone of voice that was as icy as the ground beyond the window “I can assure you that I don’t blame myself for what has happened. But I do feel that I should be doing more about it now. All this week waiting, no news, nothing. How’d we know what’s going on in that house? For all we know -”
“Yeah? For all we know what?” Hoss looked at Ben and his blue eyes faltered, he sighed and turned away, “What are we supposed to do, Pa? Paul did what he could and that wasn’t much, he as good as said that he thought Adam was going to hit him. Apart from anything else its hardly possible for him or us to get there anyhow now.”
“I know.” Ben sighed and looked down at the glass in his hand, then gulped down a hearty swig.
“Paul couldn’t get out of town again, not with this frost. Snows coming on agin as well.” Hoss glanced up as white specks hit against the glass. “Dadblamed weather.”
“Paul did say that rabies isn’t common when the weather’s this cold…” Ben muttered, and then gulped down the remainder of the whiskey, but he nursed the empty glass in his hand, “That was one consolation.”
“And didn’t seem like those wolves had rabies, Pa, that’s another good thing, ain’t it?”
Ben heaved another deep sigh “The wolves you found were dead, what about the ones that got away?”
Hoss said nothing to that, of course he had thought about that himself, it was one of the many other things that kept going round and round in his head just as it did with Joe. He looked over to the other side of the room as Joe came downstairs tying the belt of his dressing gown and shivering “You two still awake? I thought I heard talking. It’s cold down here.”
Ben nodded, “Sorry, I forgot to keep the fire built up, put some logs on it now, will you?”
Joe looked at Hoss who raised his eyebrows and shrugged. He walked over to the fire and began to feed it with some kindling to get the dying embers alive, “Pa?”
“I – er – I tried to get to the Dayton ranch today.”
Hoss and Ben looked at one another, their mouths opened and closed “You did what? In this weather?” Ben growled.
“Yeah,” Joe nodded and looked intently at the fire, flames were nibbling hungrily so he fed it with some more before building up the logs, “I just thought I’d try and see how close I could get. I wanted to see if – if they were alright, you know?”
“And what did you find, Joe?” Hoss asked, the warmth of the fire now luring him away from the window and his father.
“Didn’t find nothing,” Joe muttered, “Couldn’t get that close, but there was smoke coming from the chimneys, I could see that much.”
Ben closed his eyes momentarily as he bowed his head, “Well, at least we know they’re alive.”
“One of them is, Pa.” Joe said quietly and put his hands to the flames. “I had to cut back after that, couldn’t get any further the drifts were too deep. Fact is, Pa, there ain’t no way you could get to the ranch even if you did try…and no way Adam could get here either. Not for a while yet.”
Ben shook his head and clamped his pipe back into his mouth. The heat of the whiskey was a comfort in the pit of his stomach, but he felt light headed and wasn’t sure if it was due to the whiskey or too many nights without sleep. After some moments had passed he took his pipe out of his mouth and turned to where Joe was warming his hands, “Thanks, Joseph. That was a good thing to do, I’m grateful, son.”
Joe nodded, looked at Hoss who forced a smile of his own, then he quietly said “He’s my brother, Pa. I needed to know … something.”
Roy Coffee pulled up the collar of his thick winter jacket and made his way over the ice and packed snow to where Paul Martin was standing in his doorway looking up and down the Main Street. The doctor nodded as the sheriff stopped “Any news?”
“About what?” Paul asked, “How many cases of chilblains I got, or influenza or pneumonia?”
“From the Ponderosa?” Roy asked and then shook his head, “Alright, no need to give me that look, Paul, I jest needed to ask jest so’s I know that I did and feel better about having done so.”
“Well, now you know.” Paul said and turned into his surgery, “Coming in for coffee? I can’t see there being any fights this evening.”
“No, you’re probably right.” Roy sighed and stepped into the warm surgery carefully closing the door behind him, “I’m glad you were able to get to the Dayton ranch anyhow, even if you couldn’t do any good there.”
“That’s what young Cartwright thought too, could see it on his face… him standing there looking at him and thinking how I’d wasted my time going there. Fact is,” he poured hot liquid into two cups and passed one over to Roy, “there wasn’t anything that could be done. He’d done well though, cleaned out the wounds himself and was keeping Will Cartwright clean and comfortable. Can’t fault him for that but -” he raised the cup to his mouth and blew over the steaming surface, “if it is rabies, he’s sealed his fate by doing so.”
“I don’t reckon on its being rabies.” Roy said as he perched himself on the corner of the desk, “I was talking to some men earlier and they said they came upon a pack of wolves on the way into town just before the snows came. They agreed that they didn’t look or act in any way rabid.”
“How’d they know?” Paul frowned, “And how did talk about rabies get round town anyhow?”
“People speculate, they talk and assume, then it gets out of control.” Roy sighed, “At least if what those men told me were true, then that’s one less thing to worry about, ain’t it?”
“You mean, that the Cartwright boys wouldn’t be suffering from it themselves, is that what you mean?”
“S’right.” Roy nodded and drank some of the coffee.
Paul shook his head “Makes me feel more useless than ever now. Whatever will that boy be thinking of me when this is all over?”
Roy said nothing, he knew the old proverb that a word at the right time was so good, but he also knew the wisdom of keeping his mouth shut.
Shrouded in darkness the Dayton ranch was warm snug haven from the cold. Adam had built up the fire in the living room and the stove belched out heat, coffee spat globules onto the hot plate and the remains of a rabbit stew was slowly congealing in its pan. It hadn’t been the best stew anyone had ever tasted but Will had wolfed it down as only a starving man could and then afterwards thanked his cousin profusely for having provided it.
Adam poured out another mug of coffee and then removed the coffee pot from the stove. He stretched out the kinks in his back and walked into the living room, sat down and stretched out in the most comfortable chair in front of the fire.
He drank the coffee slowly and stared into the flames as he went through the planned routine for things to do the following day. He knew there was no possibility of getting far even if he fixed up a sled of sorts, but there was a need for more food. He emptied his cup and set it down on the table, and folded his arms behind his head, sighed heavily and allowed his eyes to close.
Upstairs Will slept the sleep of the weak and frail, no longer that of the fevered and delirious. There was no longer any pain, some niggling aches here and there but nothing that could cause concern. He smiled in his sleep and murmured something that seemed to cause him amusement for he laughed quietly as though he were hiding a secret.
Outside the slightest of breezes drifted over the snow. Frost hardened around the buildings making the snow contract into tighter more compacted depths. Inside the warmth of the house sent Adam to sleep, not for the first time during the past days he slept sprawled lengthwise in a chair.
Ben Cartwright dismounted and tethered the reins to the hitching rail. He glanced up at the house, and saw the drawn curtains in the bedroom upstairs. With a sigh he pushed the door open and entered the house,
He heard the sound of footsteps overhead and approached the stairs but before he had placed a foot on the bottom step his son appeared before him, coming down the stairs with a welcome smile on his face
“Hi, Pa. What brings you here?”
“That’s a stupid question isn’t it?“ Ben growled, his black eyes glaring into those of his son, “I stayed away too long as it is” he stepped forward, “HOw are you,boy? Are you alright? Is – is everything alright here?“
Adam stepped forward, smiled with his brown eyes lighting up with delight, he allowed his father to place a hand on his shoulders and give him a warm fatherly shake, the closest Ben came to hugging him “How’s Will?”
Adam raised his eyebrows and observed his father with a cynical smile, half hooded eyes, and a slight shrug of the shoulders,
“Come and see for yourself,” he turned and led the way back to the bedroom and pushed open the door, “Will, you have a visitor.” he announced and stepped back to admit Ben.
Will Cartwright raised a hand in welcome, a smile lit up his thin features, and despite the fact that his hair resembled a floor mop and his moustache rivalled that of Roy Coffee, it was quite obvious to Ben that the man in the bed was on the road to recovery.
“Hi Will, Laura was asking after you,” Ben stammered out, approaching the bed as though still wary of the man in it.
“I should hope so. Is she alright? Is Peggy alright?”
“Sure, they’re both fine. Hop Sing has been cooking cakes and cookies as though there were no tomorrow.” Ben laughed and looked about the room, “Mind you, she’ll throw a fit when she sees the state of this room.”
Laura Dayton Cartwright adjusted her skirts as she sat down on the stagecoach seat. Then she twiddled with the ribbons on her bonnet. By her side the handsome young man secured a blanket around her legs and then leaned forward to kiss her cheek After having attended to his wife he turned to the four men standing near by and shook their hands warmly, a smile on his face that made his eyes sparkle. He paused when he came to stand before the man in black, who looked deeply into his eyes before he smiled.
“Adam,” Will swallowed a lump in his throat, “Adam, I owe you so much. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.” he paused and glanced over his shoulder at Laura “And for my family.”
Adam nodded and took the hand that was extended to him, which he shook warmly and was then was caught by surprise when Will grabbed him around the shoulders to give him an impromptu hug “Thank you so much, cousin.”
Adam nodded again and his smile broadened as the other man stepped away and entered the stagecoach.
Hoss Cartwright lifted Peggy up into his arms and hugged her tightly, so tightly that she squealed, mostly in delight, and wrapped her arms about him equally as tightly.
“We’ll miss having you around, Miss Peggy.” Hoss said, tossing her into the air and making her squeal again.
“I’ll miss you too.” she laughed as he set her back on the ground, “Good bye, Hoss. Good bye, Joe.”
She shook their hands and kissed their cheeks before turning to Adam who picked her up in his arms and hugged her close to him,
“Adam, you sure that the school I’m going to will really be good for me?”
“I’m quite sure,” he affirmed with a wide smile that made his teeth gleam and his eyes twinkle.
“Adam, can I tell you something important?”
“You certainly can, Peggy. What is it?”
“Just that, well, you know that I love you very much, don’t you?”
“I’m honoured, thank you.” he smiled a little wider.
“It’s just that when I come back I don’t think I’ll marry you, after all.”
“Oh, and why not?” he sounded mortally horrified at what she had said, while behind him Joe and Hoss grinned as they listened.
“It’s just that I love Hoss better’n you now. You don’t mind, do you?”
Adam pursed his lips as though the matter needed a lot of thought. Peggy looked over at Hoss who winked at her and gave her a big grin.
“Well, I hope you don’t mind, Adam. Truly I do.”
“As it’s Hoss you’ve chosen, I’ll try to be brave about it, Peggy.”
“I knew you’d understand.” she smiled hugely and wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly.
He placed her in the stagecoach opposite Will and Laura, then he stepped back as Pete came and folded up the steps, closed the door with a slam before resuming his seat on top of the coach. The whip cracked and the horses bent their backs to the task, the coach rocked and moved forwards, rolling amid a cloud of dust and grit down the main street.
Hoss moved in to stand beside his brother, Adam, and together with the assembled group gathered there to bid the family farewell raised a hand to wave his goodbyes.
“You didn’t mind, did you, big brother?” he grinned a wide smile, his blue eyes twinkling.
“Not really,” Adam replied loftily, “You’re much better suited and closer to her age.”
He moved away, quickly, as Joe’s chortle of a laugh trickled above the chatter of the people there as they drifted away to their own homes. Hoss stood awhile to think over what had been said as the cloud of dust slowly sifted back to earth.