The Outlaws (by Krystyna)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,500


“I’m telling you, Ben, for the last time and I ain’t gonna repeat myself agin, not even fer you. Those men are dangerous!”

Ben shook his head and looked at the lawman steadily for a moment or two, before silently picking his hat up from Roy’s desk and turning away from him. “Sheriff, I appreciate what you’re saying, but outlaws or not, I have to go up to Goose Creek. Adam’s there with Hoss and I can’t take the risk of anything happening to them.”

Roy Coffee scowled so fiercely that the lines on his face became more deeply engrained than ever. He was a man approaching 45 years of age, not much older than the man standing before him now. They had known one another a mere six months and had the Cooper boys not broken loose he would have been traveling on to the next settlement along the county line for another six months of law keeping there.

Eagle Station was situated close on the Washoe River. Prospectors had panned for gold there for over a decade or more. The Grosch brothers were a regular sight to the mere bagatelle that made up the rag bag settlement of makeshift cabins and tarpaulin shelters. The jail house was the only building with any solidity to it and that had been only due to Roy’s insistence. Will Cass and his family had a more or less stable building for the store, but it was flimsy enough to be blown over the county line were a gale to blow up.

“Look, Ben, how many more times…” Roy stabbed his finger at the rancher, his eyes blazing with something other than anger, more like concern and frustration at the man’s obstinacy.

“Sheriff,” Ben leaned upon the sheriff’s desk and looked into the older man’s face, “I know what you’re finding hard to say, and I appreciate it. But I can’t leave the boys alone up there. If you had the men to spare I would ask you to lend me some, but you have not. Now, let me be, just get on with what you have to do.”

Once again the broad shouldered rancher turned to leave, and this time the sheriff got to his feet.

“Ben, if’n you ain’t the most exasperatin’ of men. If you could jest wait the one day while me an’ the boys cover the north end of the territory, where the outlaws were last seen, then we can join up with you.”

Ben shook his head. “What point is there in doing that? You need your posse to find the outlaws. They could be nowhere near where my boys are, so it would only be a waste of your time riding along with me. I’m sorry I can’t join you in your search today, but my priorities lie with my boys.”

Roy sighed. He was disappointed that Ben Cartwright would not be part of the posse as the man’s experience, gained from years of traveling through the west, would have been invaluable. Ben had also lived, settled, in these parts for several years now, longer than any man in the posse that Roy had been able to muster up. He placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder and walked with him to the door. Ben was right, as a father his priority was with his sons, especially when there was danger in the area. Roy chewed on his moustache, sucking the taste of the morning coffee as he did so, and he wondered about the dangers that this new territory held out to them all. As Ben walked away to his horse Roy saw the anxiety settle upon the man’s shoulders like a mantle. He shook his head even as he raised a hand in farewell.

Plain foolishness, he thought as he closed the door and returned to the rack of rifles on the far wall of his office. Plain foolishness to let a ten year old boy take a five year old kid out hunting. But then they were not to have known that the Cooper gang had broken out of jail, and were, in Roy’s eyes, jest plain evil.

“Do you reckon the Cartwright boys could be in any danger, Roy?” one of the deputies asked as he breeched the rifle and checked it over.

“I doubt it. Adam Cartwright struck me as a bright kid for his age. The Cooper boys won’t have got as far as the Ponderosa borders yet anyhows.”

“Cartwright should have stayed to help us out then. He’s had a lot of experience over the years with dealing with this terrain. He could have been a real help in tracking them Coopers down,” another of the deputies spoke, his face dark with annoyance for he had been forced to stop his gold panning on account of the outlaws picking on their territory in which to hide out.

“Family comes first,” the first deputy muttered. “You’ll understand that when your times comes to be a father.”

Roy nodded, but he had not been listening to them grumbling amongst themselves. He was thinking of Ben Cartwright and his two boys.

*****

As Ben rode away from the settlement he wondered, not for the first time, what would become of it all. Roy’s arrival six months ago had brought a semblance of order to the small group of inhabitants there but he was due to travel on once the Cooper gang had been rounded up. It was a wild land where some Paiutes still agitated to maintain their boundaries and where prospectors were more often to be found, hopefully panning for their gold and pie in the sky dreams to be fulfilled in the Washoe.

Perhaps it would come to nothing. They would dismantle and trickle away elsewhere like so many other gold towns that proved to be empty of decent ore. Or perhaps it would grow, become more than a settlement, perhaps – even a township.

Ben Cartwright looked over his shoulder back to where he could see the sheriff and the few men who made up his posse. They were spilling out of the sheriff’s office and mounting their horses, preparing to ride out on a manhunt for four brothers who had made a desperate bid for freedom.

It was a miserable huddle of a settlement with its handful of families, its unruly men, all searching for that elusive something. He had found himself liking and respecting Roy Coffee, who had not come to seek anything for himself, but had arrived six months earlier as a representative of the law for that county.

As Ben urged the horse forwards he tried to imagine Eagle Station growing over the years. What kind of town would it become? What would it be called? Would Roy Coffee return, perhaps as a permanent lawman? Ben smiled vaguely and then dismissed the matter from his mind. He had more important matters to dwell upon.

*****

Tom Cooper was an apology of a man. Unreliable, bad tempered, cursed for some reason with an ability to make the most simple task horrendously difficult and totally incapable of accepting advice from any man. When he finally succumbed to lead poisoning due to several bullets in fatal areas of his body, his brothers were enormously relieved and felt no regret whatsoever in depositing his body into the most appropriate place available at the time… namely, the river.

Not one of the three men felt any need for an apology to the dead man as he splashed his way to oblivion. He had been an embarrassment to them from the day he had been born and now, watching his body float and then slowly submerge beneath the water, they gave a collective sigh. Without a second glance, they mounted their horses and rode hurriedly away.

*****

The two boys sat back to back in companionable silence on the flat rock that overhung the water. Both held their fishing rods as steady as possible in the hope that they would go home later that day with an adequate supply of fish for their supper.

The sun was wonderfully warm and the trees seemed to sigh in the breezes that made the day just perfect. Hoss Cartwright wriggled his toes and yawned. His blond curls nodded as his head drooped upon his chest. The vivid blue eyes closed with the same finality as Mr. Cass’ shutters closed over the windows of his store when the day’s trading was completed. Within no time at all, he was snoring.

Adam Cartwright frowned. He could not understand how it was that Hoss could fall asleep so quickly once they had settled down to fishing. He shrugged once or twice, big shrugs in the hope that the movement of his shoulder blades against his brother’s back would stir the younger boy awake. Hoss only snorted once or twice and dropped his fishing rod for good measure.

Adam shook his head and sighed. Sometimes he wished he could leave Hoss at home with Hop Sing. At least then the horse could be urged into a gallop, instead of trotting comfortably along with the two boys on its back. If the horse went into a gallop then he, Adam, would get more fishing done. Adam sighed again, there was another irritant caused as a result of having to bring Hoss along with him. He knew that if there was less time spent messing about playing hide and seek, or paddling, or trying to catch butterflies to please his little brother there would be more time for fishing.

He shook his rod to untangle the string. How come the string got tangled anyway? Could string tangle itself just because he had shrugged his shoulders a little bit? What if the hook had become unattached as well? He pulled it up to find out and discovered that it was much harder to pull up than he had thought. He tugged so hard that Hoss slipped down, landed flat on his back and bumped his head.

“Ouch,” Hoss rubbed his head and blinked in the sun and wondered whether or not it was a good time to bawl. He glanced over at his brother, “I banged ma head,” he exclaimed, allowing a tear to well up in each eye.

“Sorry, Hoss, couldn’t help it. Look what I’ve got? I betcha I’ve got just about the biggest and fattest fish in the whole river.”

Hoss shrieked in glee, the two tears dried up and disappeared. He clapped his hands and watched as Adam yanked and pulled and tugged. The rod, a supple little branch he had cut off a tree only that morning, bent and twisted under the task. The black curls overhung Adam’s brow and got damp from the sweat that began to pop out through his pores.

“You’ll have to give me a hand, Hoss. This is some mighty big ‘un,” Adam cried, flashing his dark eyes over at his brother who had stepped back several paces in anticipation of a shark seeking to devour one or other of them.

“I kin see it, Adam, I kin see it.” Hoss whooped suddenly, jumping up and down and clapping his hands again. Pa had told them about sharks, huge monstrous fishes with a big fin sticking out of the water, but there was no fin here. Just a long black shape that floated up to the surface and then glided along towards them as though propelled without any help from Adam at all.

The two boys stood together. Hoss instinctively reached out and grabbed his brother’s hand. They peered down at the black shape now beached onto the grass and sand.

“Thet ain’t no fish,” Hoss declared.

“That’s for sure,” Adam replied and then stepped forward, but Hoss pulled at his hand and tried to stop him. “Leggo, Hoss, he may need help.”

Together they stepped nearer and Adam leaned down, touched the man’s shoulder. Then they both stepped back and looked at one another.

“I wish Pa were here,” Hoss whispered.

“He ain’t gonna do us any harm, Hoss,” Adam said, pointing to the body, “He’s as dead as can be. Looks like he’d been shot before he got into the water.”

They both drew in closer and looked down at the body. Grains of sand beaded the dead face and were caught in the wet straggles of hair. The sun made them shine like crystals so that they sparkled. Hoss shivered and drew closer to his brother; once again he groped for Adam’s hand. “I don’t like it,” he whispered.

*****

Ben urged his horse forward. He wondered about just how worried he should be about the Cooper gang. The boys were safe, of that he was sure. They had lived in the area for several years now, and hardly ever saw a soul. Eagle Station had not even existed when they had first arrived. In fact, he could remember feeling quite angry when other white men had come to intrude upon their Eden.

The ranch house was still in the process of being built. Ben felt the boys were much safer roaming the countryside on old Toby than close to where he and Hop Sing felled the trees and worked on them. The whole area where they worked was dangerous for the boys. Adam had enough sense and could be of use, true enough, but Hoss was a daydreamer and still such a baby.

His heart lurched at the thought of little Hoss. Could it be possible that the boys would be in danger on their own land? What would Hoss do? Adam – would Adam be able to deal with dangerous men as well as a frightened little boy? Tenderhearted Hoss, peace loving and gentle just like his mother.

Ben urged the horse to a faster pace. Fear fluttered within his breast now and panic rose in his throat. What kind of an apology would he ever be able to give to them if anything happened? Whispering a prayer beneath his breath, Ben leaned closer to his horse’s neck in an attempt to will him onwards.

*****

“We should’ve given him a proper burial,” Henry Cooper grumbled as he struck a match and lit his cheroot. He flicked the match into the dust and peered, narrow eyed, through the smoke that drifted from his mouth.

Everything about Henry Cooper was narrow. He was so thin and narrow that he looked cadaverous. He scowled at his two brothers who regarded him with open disdain. Frank and Jarrold Cooper looked at one another and then back again at Henry and shrugged,

“He’s always a nuisance. Why waste more time in burying him?” Jarrold hissed through stumps of teeth. He flicked back his head and raised his chin challengingly, “The river was convenient. No one will ever find him there.”

“Don’t dead bodies rise to the surface once the air gets out of their lungs?” Frank asked anxiously. “I’d hate to think of him jest floatin’ around out thar.”

“You’re like two mules,” Henry said. “Why I ever stuck with you I don’t know. I could have made good on my own back in Texas.”

“Then why don’t ya go back thar?” Jarrold snapped angrily. “You ain’t done nuthin’ ‘cept to complain and grumble all the time you bin with us anyhows.”

“P’raps you’re right, p’raps I should separate from you two idiots.” Henry narrowed his eyes again, looking like some dried up lizard peering for food.

“Yeah, wal, s’long then,” Frank retorted, and turned his horse aside with Jarrold trailing along behind him.

Jarrold just touched the brim of his hat as he passed his eldest brother and fell into line with Frank. Henry’s little gimlet eyes widened in disbelief. He stood in his stirrups and yelled, “Mules, that’s what you two are, mules. See if’n I care…you’ll be hanging from the end of a noose by the end of the week, see if you ain’t !”

His brothers chose to ignore him and rode on. Neither turned their heads to see whether or not he was following. He was the eldest of the four of them, and once again, the only emotion they felt was one of relief. Henry and Tom had both been like mill stones around the necks of the two youngest and now, they hoped, they were free of them at last.

*****

“I don’t like it here no more,” Hoss said, rubbing his nose fiercely in a gesture of misery. “I wanna go home to Pa now.”

“So do I, but we can’t leave him here, can we?”

“Why not?” Hoss’ blue eyes surveyed his brother anxiously. Surely Adam was not going to stay here, not now, not by this horrible dead person who was going more of an odd color by the second.

“Because,” Adam took a deep breath, “because he needs to be buried.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s dead and if’n we don’t bury him then the wolves will come by or that old mother bear, and they’ll eat him.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what the wild animals do to dead bodies.”

Adam clamped his mouth shut in irritation. There was no point in trying to explain to Hoss; explanations just went on and on. There was always the perpetual “Why?” to be answered and sometimes they would find themselves right at the very beginning again. He surveyed his young brother thoughtfully. In his faded pants and plaid shirt, his tousled curly blond hair and big blue eyes, Hoss looked just about the cutest little brother anyone could wish for, but the fact remained that he was only five and, in this situation, neither use nor ornament.

Adam turned to look at the dead body and tried to imagine what Hoss must be thinking at such a sight. Being so little by the time they had arrived at the Ponderosa, which was the name Ben had chosen to call their ranch, Hoss had been spared many of the terrible sights that had been Adam’s lot in life during the many miles he had traveled with Pa. Hoss may have seen dead bodies before now but would have been too young to have understood what they were or why they were dead. Adam, however, had seen enough dead bodies to last him a lifetime. He had seen people killed on wagon trains due to Indian attacks; he had seen men killed in duels in some of the wild settlements he and Pa had traveled through; he had seen men beaten to death and left in gutters to rot, and some women too. He had seen the remains of bodies that had been buried where they had fallen in the desert and where the shallow graves had been uncovered by the agency of wind or animals so that they had been exposed to the mercy of carrion birds.

Sometimes at night these dead would come back to haunt his dreams and he would open his eyes and force himself to recite poetry or tell himself a story just to try and keep the memories at bay. Thankfully Hoss had been spared such horrors. They had found the Ponderosa just in time.

“Adam, I wanna go home,” Hoss wailed again. “I fink that dead man isn’t very nice now and I fink we should go.”

“But we can’t, Hoss; we can’t leave him unburied.”

“Pa kin bury him later,”

Adam frowned; he looked at Hoss and then at the dead body, then he shook his head. “That won’t work, Hoss; Pa won’t be able to get here until tomorrow.”

Two tears welled up in Hoss’ eyes and he looked over at the river, the abandoned fishing rods and the one fish that they had caught. He sighed and rubbed at his face,

“Sometimes, Hoss, we have to do things that we wouldn’t really want to do, even if they aren’t nice.” Adam narrowed his eyes and put his hand on the younger boy’s shoulder, “You’ll have to help me.”

“I don’t wanna,” Hoss whined,

“I can’t bury him on my own.”

Two more tears followed the course of the first and dripped from Hoss’ chin. He blinked to make sure that two more became readily available and then looked plaintively at Adam and shook his head.

*****

Ben Cartwright dismounted with a tense feeling of anger balled in the pit of his stomach. Of all times for his horse to throw a shoe! He squatted down, examined the animal’s hoof and shook his head. Standing up he looked around him. He was nearer to town than to Goose Creek, but it would take him several hours to get to the blacksmith. He bent over and ran his hand over the horse’s legs, each one was good and firm and cool to the touch. He would have to risk it. His sons could be in danger, in which case any injury to the horse would have to be discounted. If the boys were safe, then he would just take the responsibility for any injury and hope for the best.

He swung himself back into the saddle and urged the animal forwards. Goose Creek was still some distance away but he kept hearing, at the back of his mind, Roy Coffee saying what dangerous men the Cooper brothers were and he knew that now, they would also be desperate men.

*****

Jarrold Cooper was as plump and rotund as his brother Henry was thin and cadaverous. His sleek face glistened now in the heat of the sun and he turned his horse in the direction of trees and shade. His brother followed, uncomplainingly, behind him.

Jarrold pulled out a bright polka dot handkerchief and mopped his ruddy cheeks. He frowned over at Frank who appeared to be straggling behind.

“I guess Henry will be carrying on to Carson City without us now,” Jarrold took off his hat and wiped his balding head with the handkerchief, “Calling us mules. Who does he think he is? Anyone would think we were stupid,” he kicked aside a war lance that had been struck into the ground right in the middle of the track. Blood tipped feathers swayed in the breeze as the lance tilted and then fell onto the ground. Jarrold’s horse trampled over it and the slender wood snapped beneath its feet.

“I think we should go on with Henry,” Frank said cautiously, looking around him at the shadows and wondering what other shadows could be lurking around, ready to pounce at them, “He’s the only one knows the way to Carson City.”

Jarrold shook his head and slapped on his hat. He found it more than frustrating that he had to be born in a family where the eldest was a domineering sadistic bigot, the youngest a criminally minded idiot, and Frank, the second eldest, a sniveling selfish stupid … he drew in his breath … mule! He grinned to himself, fancy that, he had actually agreed with Henry about something. He gave a shout of laughter, and turned in his saddle to yell his triumph at his brother.

The arrows whistled like the hum of bees towards him. He was oblivious to them as he laughed at his brother. They struck him in the chest, in the leg, and in the back. He swayed like an overweight sack of wheat before toppling face down from the saddle and landing in a heap of heavy dead flesh. The horse reared up and turned, following Frank and the other horse from the trees and the deadly shadows within.

*****

“I’m tired now, Add.”

“I guess you would be, little Missouri mule.”

Hoss pushed himself further into the protective curve of Adam’s body. It was safe here. He was always safe with Adam. Adam had told him that he had been born somewhere in Missouri, and because he was such a strong little boy, Adam called him his Missouri mule. Hoss didn’t mind because Adam always said it with a grin and a twinkle in his eye. He sighed contentedly, and wound the coarse hair of Toby’s mane round and round in his plump fingers. He yawned. “I’m hungry too…”

“Thought p’raps you might be; you worked hard helpin’ me with that dead man.”

“D’you reckon he’s gonna stay there and not git ate up now?”

“Can’t see how even the biggest bear could get at him now, Hoss. Not the way you lugged those big rocks about. I reckon you must be the strongest boy in the whole of the territory.” Adam smiled and ruffled the blond curls of the child that rested upon his shoulder.

It had been hard, those years traveling with Pa and the little baby. Babies were so spontaneous. They cried and yowled when you really needed them to be very quiet, like when traveling through Indian Territory. They tended to wander off. They crawled into places that were difficult to find. Adam frowned at the memories of times when Hoss …well, it would have been far easier not to have had the little fellow around at times. But then, his frown cleared, and he smiled again. At the end of the day when Hoss would reach out and put his arms around their necks, well, what could have been more precious than that? Adam would remember the first steps, the first words. He could remember with great clarity the first time that Hoss demonstrated that he possessed such unusual strength. Ben had said that the baby would be a real asset when they got settled and had to start building their home.

“Do you want to eat now, Hoss? We could build a fire here and cook ourselves the fish that we caught.”

Hoss released his hold on Toby’s mane and slid from the saddle. Adam hobbled the old horse and together they began to build up the fire. Against his chest. Adam could feel the weight of the dead man’s wallet. Pa had always said that whenever they found a dead body, they could check for the personal possessions so that kinfolk could be notified of the death and that there had been a decent burial. Adam just hoped that the dead man’s kin would consider that he had been given a decent burial because it had taken them a long and arduous time covering him with rocks.

“A horse!” Hoss yelled suddenly.

Adam turned and watched as a horse cantered towards them. There was no rider but it was complete with saddle and bridle. He quickly stepped in front of Hoss who had run towards the animal, as though oblivious to the fact that he would have been running right under its flailing feet. Toby snorted and whickered. The other horse turned, circled and stopped.

“Adam.” Hoss glanced at his brother, blue eyes wide as he pointed to the horse’s saddle,

“I see it,” Adam replied quietly. “Go and check on that fish, Hoss. Don’t want it spoiling, do we?”

He walked towards the animal, his hand outstretched, whispering softly to it. No doubt about it, the horse was spooked about something and no prizes at guessing what it was seeing the arrow that was embedded in the leather saddle. He pulled it out, and in doing so noticed the blood that streaked the horse’s side. He touched it with his fingers. Still moist, still fresh.

“Does that mean another dead man?” Hoss’ voice seemed to boom behind him.

“On Paiute land. That’s where he’ll have to stay, Hoss. Pa will find out what’s happened.” Adam stroked the horse’s neck and looked at his brother. “You can ride Toby home by yourself, Hoss, unless you want to ride this fella?”

Hoss shook his head. “Them Pootes won’t come afta us, will they?”

“No, they won’t come after us, Hoss. Nuthin’ to be scared of, I promise.”

*****

Ben looked at the mound of rocks and boulders and frowned. If he didn’t know any better, he would say that this was a rough and ready grave for some poor creature. He pushed back his hat and dismounted. Leading the horse by the rein, he walked slowly round the area, checking the sand and disturbed soil for prints. He was not sure whether he was sad or happy as he ascertained for himself that the prints belonged to his sons. With a hurried, fearful glance at the cairn, Ben remounted his horse and urged it forwards.

*****

Henry Cooper had checked the sun for time, and his stomach now reminded him of his hunger. He dismounted and hobbled his horse. It took no time at all making up a small fire and fanning the little flame into a fine blaze large enough to brew coffee and cook what he could find for food. He stretched himself out, long, lean and mean.

Frank Cooper was hungry. He scanned the horizon for signs of his brother. Ahead of him rose a small column of smoke. He smiled slowly and narrowed his eyes. So far as he was aware, there was only one person who would be lighting a fire just about now. It was time for a family reunion.

*****

Roy Coffee sat patiently in the saddle as old ‘Paiute’* carefully examined the area around which they were waiting. It was obvious that some horsemen had passed this way at some time previous, but ‘Paiute’ was an old experienced scout and would be able to read the signs better than any of them. Some of the men were taking the opportunity to drink some water from their canteens, but Roy just sat ramrod straight and watched the tracker do his work.

“Four men,” ‘Paiute’ said, walking towards his horse, “one of them must be wounded. He fell off his horse here and two of the other men dismounted and helped him back up onto it. One of the critters is going lame. Won’t be long before he ain’t rideable no more. That’ll slow ‘em down some.”

“How long ago was this and where are they headed now?”

“About three, maybe four hours ago. They’re heading towards the river and Goose Creek,” ‘Paiute’ grinned without mirth. “The amount of blood spilled wouldn’t surprise me if’n we find ourselves a grave up along the trail.”

Roy frowned but he kept his own counsel as he turned his horse in the direction of Goose Creek. The report from the Prison Governor had mentioned the fact that one of the escapees may have been wounded. Considering the possibility of the lame horse Roy thought there was now every chance of getting at least three of the four men back under arrest before the day was over. His main concern now was that Ben Cartwright and his two children were safely out of the area of Goose Creek. It would mess things up quite considerably if they were to get in the way of the Cooper boys. If they were to find a grave the last thing he wanted to discover was that Ben was the body within it.

*****

Frank Cooper was the best looking of the four brothers. His handsome, virile and charming personality had been his main asset in his life of crime. He beguiled rich and silly women to part with their money, and, sometimes, their lives. Thankfully for him, these deaths had been so cunningly arranged as accidents that when he was arrested along with his brothers, the murders still remained undisclosed secrets between himself and his victims. He had thus escaped the hangman’s noose and the sadly tragic women had remained unavenged.

Being so handsome and having achieved his crimes with such success had made Frank an extremely vain and selfish young man. His horse had shown signs of lameness hours earlier but he had ignored the animal’s suffering with a callous disregard for its pain. Even when he had had the chance of using Tom’s horse instead, he had retained his own. Selfish to the last he was about to find out that a little time and attention goes a long way.

As he galloped hurriedly towards the spiral of smoke from the camp fire, the horse gave a shrill whinny of protest and pain. It fell heavily sending Frank headlong onto the ground. The man fell heavily, rolled, and cracked his head upon a boulder. The handsome face cracked as the very thin skull connected with the rock. He thrust out a hand as though reaching out for help …

*****

“I’m awful tired,” Hoss yawned, and rubbed his eyes.

“I guess you might be, Hoss.”

Adam looked at his brother and continued to smother the fire. It was dry land, and the risk of a spark setting light to the dry grass and shrubs thereabouts was too great to ignore. He looked over his shoulder at the two horses and then over at Hoss. “You can ride Toby home, if you wanna,” he smiled. “I’ll ride the other horse. That way we’ll get home real early. Hop Sing will likely have a whole batch of doughnuts ready for ya.”

“Addy?”

“Yeah?”

“Look over there.” The stubby finger pointed and Adam followed the line it was taking and saw a thin column of smoke. “D’you reckon it’s Hop Sing?”

“Could be.” Adam narrowed his eyes and scanned the horizon carefully. “But it might be a good idea just to head for home anyhow.”

Of course, he told himself, it could be Hop Sing. It was not so far away from the house. He chewed his bottom lip and glanced again at Hoss who seemed to have taken root, staring at the smoke dreamily. Adam felt a vague uneasiness stirring at the pit of his belly. Things were odd and not sitting right. Finding the dead man was unpleasant, but not unheard of, not hereabouts. But then there was the horse with the arrow …and there had not been any personal things in the saddle bags to identify its owner. He needed to tell Pa, and see what Pa had to say about it all.

“Addy?”

“Yeah?”

“Look.” Hoss pointed to where a dark shape was slowly approaching them. “Another horse.”

“What? Another horse?”

“It’s lame.”

The horse tossed its head before slowly lowering itself down upon the ground. Its dark eyes looked fixedly at the two boys as though pleading to them for help. From its throat came a deep rattling groan and snortle before it laid itself upon its side.

The two boys ran towards it, and came to its side and knelt down. Hoss put his arms around its neck. Hoss the gentle, tender hearted, who even now felt the misery and pain of the beast so that tears welled up into his eyes and trickled down grubby cheeks. “It’s hurt bad, Adam.”

There was little point in telling his brother what was obvious. The animal’s flanks were heaving, and sweat was beginning to lather along its withers. Adam touched Hoss on the shoulder and nodded. “Look, Hoss, you’d best get back to Toby and check that the fire’s out properly.”

Hoss wiped the tears from his face, smearing streaks across his cheeks. He nodded and walked quickly away, but burst into sobs at the crack of the rifle. He didn’t look back but carried on walking towards Toby, sobbing all the way. Adam stared down at the horse, grateful that the loaded rifle had been in its sheath on the saddle. But it presented another conundrum, and added to his sense of unease and danger.

*****

Ben Cartwright jerked his head up and froze as the sound of the rifle shot rolled over the miles. He waited for, perhaps, two more shots, the plainsmen’s distress signal. There was nothing but silence. He could barely swallow for fear.

*****

Henry Cooper narrowed his mean eyes and paused as he was about to light a cheroot. He listened as the rifle shot drifted away into silence. Perhaps Jarrold or Frank needed help? He waited. He shrugged. If they wanted his help they would have to come to him for it. It was time to break camp.

He drew heavily on the cheroot and frowned as the thought came into his head that the shot could be a signal, perhaps from a posse. He had noticed the thin column of smoke from a camp fire some little distance from his own. Could it be possible that a posse was closer to getting him that he had thought?

*****

“Brothers, did ya say?”

‘Paiute’ brushed dust from the knees of his pants as he got to his feet and walked back to his horse. Roy Coffee nodded and he ran the tip of his tongue over his dry mouth. It didn’t need an expert to tell him what had happened here, the signs were clear to anyone with enough sense in their heads. A body had been dragged along the ground to the river bank and then thrown into the water. The two runnels through the dirt showed where his heels had dragged through the dirt. “Wal, so much for brotherly love. They dragged him along to the river. You can see the furrows in the ground where his heels went along. Ain’t far from Cartwright territory now, just a mile to their borders, and they’re heading for Goose Creek that’s for sure.”

Roy heaved a sigh. Ben Cartwright would not be too pleased to know that, if he had not already found out. He turned his horse without a word.

‘Paiute’ rode up to his side and grinned. “The guy on the lame horse is plumb stupid. He had the chance of switching horses just tharabouts, but chose to stick with the one he had. My guess is we’ll find him walking before too long.”

*****

Ben Cartwright chafed as the minutes ticked by while he stood beside his horse in the cool river water. At the first sign of his horse feeling distressed by its weakening foreleg, Ben had felt his conscience chide him so that, despite the anxiety he felt for his sons, he could no longer ride on, deliberately putting the animal to further pain and risk. He had fretted and fumed inside, as he had ridden into the cold waters and waited a total of ten minutes. Now he leaned down and ran his hands over the animal’s legs and sighed with relief. The heat had gone and for a while longer, the horse would be able to carry him on to his journey home.

*****

Adam gently fed the boy’s foot into the leather strap and then walked around Toby and did the same to Hoss’ left foot. Hoss may have been a bigger boy than the usual five year old, but nevertheless, his legs were still too short to reach the stirrups. He glanced up at his brother. “We’ll ride straight home, Hoss. Hold tight to the reins and …”

“Shucks, Adam, I know how to ride a hoss.”

“Toby’s bigger than your pony, Hoss. He’s wider of girth too. We’ll be going at a fair lick so I don’t want you falling off and getting yourself hurt at all. What would Pa say if I got you home with a black eye or summat?”

Hoss frowned, and shrugged. “I ain’t never fallen off a hoss yet, Addy.”

“I know it. But, I’m telling you for your own good.” Adam walked to the other horse and mounted it with an ease that Hoss envied.

They rode along together for a few minutes in silence. Every so often Hoss glanced over at his brother and felt a niggle of concern at the back of his mind. Adam knew everything about everything. When his black brows beetled together like how they were right now, Hoss knew his brother was thinking hard about some problem or other. Hoss wondered if Adam were concerned about him falling off Toby and getting a black eye. What would Pa do? Maybe he would stop Adam taking Hoss out hunting or riding again. Hoss felt his heart sink. No wonder Adam was worried. “I’ll be awlright, Addy; I won’t get no black eye, I pwomise.”

“Sure, Hoss, I know.”

The answer did not sound very positive. Hoss leaned closer to Toby, and smelt the horse sweat and felt the coarse black hair of the horse’s mane brush against his cheek. He looked over at his brother again and made another attempt. “Is ya skeered about summat, Addy?”

“I ain’t skeered about nuthin’,” came the quick response accompanied by a flash from the dark eyes.

But, Adam thought, I do get scared at times. I’m scared now and I don’t really know why except for the feeling in the back of my mind and the pit of my belly telling me to get home to Pa. Pa will know what to do. Pa will keep us safe. We’re always safe with Pa.

He glanced over at Hoss who was handling Toby pretty well for a five year old. Thankfully Toby was a good old retainer, and knew Hoss well enough to seem to understand that he was expected to treat him carefully. Hoss bounced along with an unusually melancholy droop to his lips.

“It’s alright, Hoss. We’ll be home in less time than it takes for a frog to catch a gnat.”

“Hop Sing will be home,” Hoss said with a brighter note to his voice. “And Pa.”

“And Pa,” Adam echoed, urging the horse on towards home.

*****

Cooper rolled his cheroot and then stuck it between his lips. His eyes looked down at the ranch house and stables below. There was no activity around the ranch house; obviously a project still underway, although the stables were complete. He smiled to himself and struck a match.

It had occurred to him that if there was a posse nearby, they would no doubt have picked up his brothers along the way. They would have had no hesitation in telling the sheriff that their brother was on his way to Carson City. Having had that thought enter his mind, Cooper had turned his horse south. Now he was looking down at the Ponderosa on a hot afternoon with a wilting horse beneath him.

A wagon with two horses hitched to the rail near the water trough caught his eye. Cooper lit the cheroot and casually tossed the match to one side. He dug his heels into the horse’s ribs and sent it down the track towards the trail that led to the house and the yard. There was obviously a woman inside the building. That would mean some good food. Good food and a decent horse. What more could he want?

*****

Children’s feet clattering against the smooth plank flooring of the house brought a smile to Hop Sing’s lips. He turned expectantly at the door, his hands still flour covered, and a sugar dredger in his left hand.

Hoss was the first to appear in the kitchen. Blue eyes widened as always at the sight of the pile of sugar drenched doughnuts on the platter and he raised his head and sniffed with a wide smile on his face. “Apple pie?”

“In oven. Soon be cooked for boy.”

“Hop Sing?” Adam came to a standstill by the table, puffing a little, his face pale beneath the tan and the large eyes almost fever bright. The note of urgency in the boy’s voice brought a slight diminish in the cook’s smile. “Hop Sing? Is Pa home?”

“Five minute ago. I hear hoss come in yard. So now in stable with hoss.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing.” Adam gave Hop Sing a brief smile and turned quickly, then paused; he placed his hand gently on Hoss’ chest. “Hoss, you stay put right here, understand?”

“I ain’t goin’ no place,” Hoss said honestly enough, as he took up his favorite position in the kitchen. Elbows on table, chin resting in the chalice of his hands, and his eyes glazed in wonder at the pile of doughnuts on the platter.

“Just stay put, until Pa comes in, that’s all.”

Hoss frowned in irritation. It really exasperated him when Adam came over so bossy and know it all. What was so important for Pa to hear from him anyway? Hoss gave a half turn, as though to follow his brother through to the stable, but the smell of apple pie wafted towards him and changed his mind.

*****

Adam ran towards the stable with an easy going lope. He was long legged, slim and slender, and as dark as an Indian. He did wonder why his Pa had closed the stable door behind him, especially on such a bright sunny day, but did not pay too much attention to the fact. He put his hand against the warm wood of the door and pushed it open.

Bright sunlight shafted into the darkness of the building. It curved an arc, ever increasing, across the hard mud baked floor. Motes of straw dust danced in the sunlight like so many tiny gadflies chasing each others tails. Horses stirred in their stalls, pricked up their ears, snuffled and snorted, then turned their big heads towards him.

“Pa?”

Coming further into the building Adam hurried towards the stall where Ben would have led his horse. The horse in the stall blinked at the boy and continued eating. Nonplussed, Adam came to a halt and stared blankly at the beast. This was not Hansard, his father’s usual mount, but some worn and weary beast still steaming with sweat from a hard ride.

“Pa?”

A hand gripped his shoulder, squeezed tight against the collar bone. He felt the fingers grip hard around the material of his shirt and he was lifted bodily off the ground, his feet dangling inches from the straw strewn floor. He opened his mouth to speak but fingers squeezed against his windpipe. Everything in his world seemed to be upside down as a red mist began to drift over his eyes and all he could think about was the fact that Pa had not been there when he had called.

He was aware of the door closing and he heard the sound of the bar dropping into place. Then he was flung bodily forwards against the wall, flung with such force that his breath was driven from his lungs.

*****

Click.

A trigger pulled back.

Adam opened his eyes and found himself looking up into the thinnest and meanest face he had ever seen. The eyes were close set and slanted, the thin hooked nose was too big for the face, the cheeks were sunken in and the lips were so thin that the mouth looked a mere slit in the flesh that existed on the skull of Henry Cooper.

Adam’s eyes dropped, and he found himself looking down into the barrel of a pistol. He was mesmerized by it as the barrel was held merely a few inches from his face.

“Who are you?” the intruder whispered. Just like his face, the voice was thin, sinister to listen to, as sibilant as a snake.

“Adam – Adam Cartwright,” the boy whispered in return, his dark eyes wide open in horror.

“Who’s in the house?”

Adam felt his heart lurch within his breast. He had a sudden mental picture of Hoss dipping his finger in sugar icing, smiling innocently up at Hop Sing who would be smiling and nodding back in pleasure. He saw Hoss running out into the yard and the door opening and … Adam shook his head to dispel the image.

“Who’s in the house?” the man grabbed the front of his shirt and shook him so that his head thumped against the planks of the stall.

“Hop Sing and my brother.”

“No woman then?”

“No,” Adam swallowed hard, and took a deep breath. “Only our friend Hop Sing and my brother, but he’s only little.”

“Little, huh?” Cooper stared down at the boy. For a full minute, his eyes bored into the child’s face, and he could sense the fear, smell the horror, emanating from the boy. “How old are you?”

“I’m ten years old, sir.”

Whether it was the age or the politeness of the boy that had appealed to Cooper, Adam was not to know, but the fierce tight grip was loosened and he was released. He dropped ignominiously onto the floor where he remained seated, leaning against the wall, his eyes fixed on the man’s face.

Cooper stood up and brushed dust and straw from his pants. He waved the gun at Adam in a signal for him to stand up, which the boy did, very promptly. “Which is the best horse here?”

Adam licked his lips, surprised to feel how dry they were against the moist flesh of his tongue. He blinked and turned and looked at the horses in their stalls. He must have taken too long to think about it for Cooper gave him a shove with the gun that sent him staggering several paces forwards. “Pick out the best horse for us and then saddle it up. Be quick about it, I’ve not got all day.”

“Us?” Adam’s voice quavered.

“You and me,” Cooper snapped the three words in a staccato manner which made them sound like some unholy trinity. “We’ll need some food. Decent food.”

“But – where will I get food from? My Pa will be back any minute.” Adam could feel, could see, his heart beating against the thin material of his shirt; it made him realize that this man was preventing him from thinking. If he didn’t think sensibly, he could make mistakes, and if he made mistakes, perhaps Hoss, Pa and Hop Sing could be hurt. He swallowed and took some deep breaths and walked down the aisle between the stalls, before he stopped “This is Jehu. We called him Jehu because he’s so fast.”

“I don’t want the critter’s history; jest saddle him up fast.” Cooper walked stealthily to the door and leaned against it in a listening mode, his eyes half closed in concentration. “When do you expect your father home?”

“I thought he was already home. Hop Sing said he was home and that’s why I came out here to talk to him.”

Adam lifted up a saddle and struggled with it to the horse. Reluctantly Cooper left the door and joined him, took the saddle and flung it over the horse’s back. He nodded, indicating that Adam was to buckle up the girth strap and see to the rest of the tackle. He then returned to his position by the door. “Make sure that saddle’s on good and proper. If I fall, so will you.”

“But –,” Adam’s nimble fingers hardly faltered as they buckled up the bridle and bit, “But I can’t go with you. Why take me? I’ll get in your way.”

“Look, kid, when you get old enough to play poker, you’ll git to learn that when you have an ace in your hand, you hold onto it – d’you git my drift?”

Adam nodded; he got the drift all right. He led the horse out of its stall. “Jehu may look small, but he’s a real fast runner, and steady.”

“I said before…” Cooper lowered his face down to the level of the boy’s, his hot foul breath wafted like a belch over Adam’s face, making the boy recoil. “I said I didn’t want the history, just a good horse.”

“Addy!”

Man and boy froze. The trigger of the gun was clicked back, the safety catch off. Adam’s eyes widened in horror as the door trembled beneath Hoss’ touch.

“Addy, why’d you got the door latched? Is Pa thar? Pa, is ya thar?”

Hoss stood still. The slice of pie held delicately in both hands mid-way to his mouth. A smear of apple juice streaked his grubby cheeks. He sighed. Reaching out, he touched the wood of the door again, feeling its warmth against his fingers. He pushed it. It was definitely barred from inside.

“Pa? Addy?”

He hated it when Pa and Adam had these private little conversations. It made him feel like a baby. He sniffed, disconsolate. The aroma of the apple pie drifted up his nostrils in his sniff and he licked his lips. If Adam wanted some apple pie, he would have to come and get it for himself.

In the stable, Cooper watched the child as he stood there in the sunlight, holding the apple pie carefully in his hands. Adam, unable to see anything at all, only sensed the stillness. He could barely risk breathing for fear that the gunman would fire at Hoss. “Mister? Please don’t shoot him. It’s Hoss, my brother, he’s only a little boy – honest to goodness, mister.”

The words tumbled out of his mouth, urgent, soft whispers, pleading for mercy in the darkness as Cooper remained with his gun raised in one hand, his eye peering through the knot hole of the door.

“Addy, I got apple pie fer yer. You want it? You come and git it then.” Hoss delivered the ultimatum. Then he turned smartly, and as he made a hurried shuffle back to the house, he began to stuff apple pie into his mouth. He was in heaven … warm sunshine, and apple pie, his brother’s slice, all stuffed in his mouth.

*****

Cooper turned to look at the boy in the stable and slipped back the safety catch on the gun. He noticed how the boy visibly relaxed in relief. The shoulders slackened and the eyes lost their tension. He looked the boy up and down before grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and seat of the pants and hoisting him up into the saddle. Before there could be even a squeak of protest from the child, Cooper had swung himself up behind him and urged the horse forwards, leaned down, slipped back the bar and kicked open the door.

Hoss had entered the house and was licking apple pie from his fingers as man and boy rode at a gallop out of the yard and towards the wild land that stretched out ahead of them.

*****

Ben Cartwright dismounted as soon as he had reached the yard. He stroked the horse’s nose gently and hitched it to the rail. One door was of the stable was swinging to and fro, and he wondered why Adam had not either closed it or had it hooked back.

“Pa?”

Ben turned and the relief at seeing Hoss swept over him so totally that he felt giddy. So, he had been right after all, there had been no need for panic and anxiety. He should have known the boys were perfectly safe. He licked his lips and opened his arms wide and the boy ran full pelt into them, hugging him close.

“I’ve bin waitin’ for you, Pa.”

“Good, I’m sorry to have been so long. Poor Hansard threw a shoe and…” Ben paused at the expression on his son’s face. “He’ll be alright, I nursed him along so his leg won’t be too bad.”

Hoss shook his head, then stared up at his father and then over his father’s shoulder to the stable. “Pa, I thought you was there with Adam and talkin’,” he declared, wiping his hand across his mouth to remove all traces of pastry.

“Talking? About what?”

“I dunno. Mebbe about the horse we found.”

“You found a horse?” Ben’s black eyes darkened, and he put a hand on his son’s brow and casually brushed back a blond curl.

“Two, Pa.”

Ben frowned, shook his head and looked over his shoulder at the horses. He stood up and took hold of one sticky little hand and turned to walk down the aisle. One stall was empty. He stared at it for a moment before looking down at Hoss. “Where’s Jehu?”

“I dunno. We shot a horse ‘cos it had a bad leg. Adam rode the other one home. It’s outside.”

“Outside?”

Hoss nodded and looked up at his father and then out to where the sun was shining down in the yard, he pointed

“Out thar, Pa. Where’s Adam?”

“Isn’t he inside, with you, and Hop Sing?”

“No, Pa. He came out here to talk to you.”

Ben stood very still. The child’s sticky hand dropped from his fingers. As his eyes roved around the stables, up and down, he wondered where Adam would be hiding. Of course, hiding. Adam was mischievous at times. He would think it fun to hide and probably have a book secreted away somewhere. “Adam? Adam? Game’s over. Time for supper.”

Hoss wandered up and down the stables, peeking here and there. He stooped down and picked something from the floor. He had seen them before and once or twice Ben had smoked them. He was rolling it between his fingers when Ben came and took it from him.

It was at that moment that a profound feeling of dread swept over Ben. It was almost nauseous. As he held the butt of the cheroot between his fingers, Ben was suddenly fully aware that his eldest son was in danger. Glancing around the stable, his eyes alighted upon the sight of the stranger’s horse in Hansard’s stall. Now, the feeling knotted into certainty.

*****

The small fire was barely large enough to provide light for the two travelers. As it was it flickered sufficiently to cast shadows upon the forlorn figure of a little boy with his head bowed and his hands clasped between his legs. Every so often he would glance up and look, with a sigh, at the way along which they had ridden.

Adam Cartwright was feeling more frightened and lonely than he had ever done in his life before now. Whenever there had been danger before his father had been there as his shield and buckler. There would have been Hoss as well, and caring for his little brother would have given Adam the added resources to face the situation with more courage than he had at present.

He glanced warily over at Jehu and sighed again. A man who rode a horse so hard as to leave it lathered so, was a man who would show no kindness to a child. There was no way Adam could know whether or not he were trespassing upon the man’s innermost thoughts and feelings by asking questions, or prompting conversation. He had received a hard slap across the head when he had dared to tell the man that the way they were taking was fraught with danger for it was Indian territory, and not Winnemucca’s tribe but Indians prepared to scalp any foolhardy white man who dared to trespass upon their land.

Adam glanced once again at Henry Cooper. The tall thin man was smoking one of his foul cheroots, and staring intently at the fire. The dark eyes glittered, reminding Adam of a snake he had once seen near one of their camp fires some years back and the memory made him think of Pa. Once again he cast his eyes in the direction from which they had come.

“No point in hoping you’ll git any help,” Cooper said suddenly, his voice sounding harsher than ever in the darkness. “I doubt if’n anyone will come this far north jest fer you.”

“My Pa will come,” Adam said quietly. “My Pa always comes when I need him.”

“When you need him?” Cooper’s thin lips became a long slit in his face, a parody of a smile. “Guess you should count yourself fortunate then, if he comes. My folks, they never cared a cuss about us boys.” He picked up a canteen of water and gulped some of the liquid down his throat. Adam looked away; the sight was painful, for he was so thirsty now that his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth.

Pa always said that the best thing to do was pray and then go to sleep. God would hear the prayers, and sleep would pass the time. Then, when he woke up most times the problem would be solved. Adam glanced once more at the way home, and felt the tears prick at his eyelids.

*****

Ben Cartwright looked up at the sky. The moon was hiding behind clouds and the stars seemed to be holding back their light. He sat in the saddle and felt like a defeated man. If the signs he had been able to follow had been accurate, and there had been no reason to suspect that they were not, then his son was not only in danger from one of the Coopers’ but also from wild animals and Indians. It had been apparent, before the night had fallen, that Cooper was heading towards Indian territory. A tribe who would not take kindly to anyone trespassing on their land.

He looked once more to the sky but not this time for light from the moon and stars but to pray to the one who had created such luminaries. He took off his hat and bowed his head and prayed from the heart for one who was too young, too innocent to suffer at the hands of his enemies.

Then, to add to his misery, it began to rain.

*****

Adam had fallen asleep. Curled into a fetal position and close to an overhang of rock. Cooper’s cursing and swearing roused him from sleep. He crawled from his cover and felt the rain upon his face.

“This’ll mean leaving tracks for the whole world to see, “Cooper yelled with many expletives peppering the statement, “Now what do you suggest we do, young un?”

“I don’t know, sir. My Pa…”

“Shut up about your Pa; I’ve had your Pa up to here…” Cooper did a chopping motion to his throat, “and another word about him and I’ll forget that you’re just a kid.”

Adam said nothing to that but watched as Cooper kicked the fire to pieces and left the scattered bits to the rain to snuff out. He strode over to the horse and yanked cruelly at the reins. Jehu backed off with a squeal of terror, unused to such rough treatment.

“Don’t do that,” Adam cried, running towards the man and beast. “Jehu doesn’t like it. You’re hurting him.”

The ground was already turning into a morass of mud, making it slippery underfoot. The horse backed away and Cooper pulled harder. Jehu squealed and Adam grabbed for Cooper’s arm, hoping to force him to slacken his hold on the reins. Cooper drew back his arm and grabbed Adam by the shirt, and then shook him before tossing him aside onto the rocks.

The boy made not a sound, not even a sigh. He crumpled into a heap amongst the boulders. Cooper left the horse and approached, kneeling at the boy’s side. He looked down at the pale face, just discernable in the darkness, and ran a hand over the still features. He felt the warm texture of blood on his fingers and drew back.

For a moment he stood there, looking down at the child, as though waiting for him to regain his senses. Then, remembering something that had struck him as curious, he turned the boy onto his back and felt in his shirt pocket and pulled out a notebook. The wallet had something familiar about it but in the darkness he could not make sense of it, but even so, he slipped it into his own jacket pocket.

Once again he looked down upon the boy. This was, he decided, time to cut his losses. The ace had turned out to be a joker in the pack. Slithering his way towards the horse, he mounted into the saddle and rode away.

*****

Dark shapes floated by and turned faces the hue of clotted cheese towards him. Lean faces with glittering black eyes leered down at him. Images so frightening filled his fever ridden nightmares and he whimpered away the long hours of the rain soaked night.

*****

Ben Cartwright waited patiently for the long night to end. Whenever his mind and heart became too weighed down with anxious thoughts and fears, he thought of other times when he had feared the loss of his sons, but had not suffered that worst of all dreads. He reminded himself of times that had been so terrifying in ordeal that he had never thought to have survived them, but he had. Then he would spend some more moments in contemplative prayer and supplication.

Now the new day dawned bright and warm. He set his horse, a recently purchased beast he had named Buck, to follow the barely discernable track that he had feared lost during the night’s rains.

It seemed like a miracle when he found fresh prints. They were certainly Jehu’s and not more than a few hours old. He turned his horse away from Indian territory, where unbeknown to himself his son had been abandoned, and followed the familiar tracks towards the salt flats.

*****

Adam struggled just slightly as gentle hands lifted him from the ground. He was barely conscious, hardly aware of being moved but just enough so to make a little protest.

How his bones ached. His head and throat were burning. His mouth seemed swollen to such an extent that he could not move his lips. He refrained from doing so and the groans came as though pulled from the depths of his being.

“Poor child,” the woman whispered softly, wringing out a cloth and then gently wiping the bloodied face, “Who could have left him here like this?”

“Who knows,” came the reply and a firm but gentle hand touched her shoulder. “Come, continue your ministrations in the wagon. This is no place to loiter. I feel as though there are eyes everywhere watching our every movement.”

“Then pick him up for me, Andrew, for he is a little too heavy for me.” Andrew Wilder leaned down and picked the boy up. He turned and smiled at his pregnant wife, who followed behind them and stood by his side as he lifted the child into the wagon. Then he turned and helped her up, kissing her cheek as she passed him by.

“Thank God for the rain last night, otherwise we would not have lost our way and found him,” Andrew said quietly. “Let’s hope we have done so in time, for he looks to me in a very bad way.”

Esther Wilder said nothing, but as her husband boarded the wagon she set about getting the boy comfortable upon the blankets that were their bedding. How cold he was, how wet and how bloodied. She felt dismay touch her heart as she wiped the blood from his face and saw the deep gash on his mouth. That, she told herself, would scar should he survive this ordeal. It would be a permanent reminder of whatever terrors he had been submitted to over the past few days.

Andrew was a careful driver and the horses, well fed and compliant, were obedient to the requests of their owner. Driving his wagon at a faster than usual speed, but with his normal diligence, Andrew was soon out of Indian territory and back onto what appeared some form of rough track that led into a more pleasant and greener realm.

Esther sat with her hand holding that of the child’s, and wiping away the perspiration that bedewed his brow. Words were whispered through the swollen painful lips, words she could barely discern.

“Pa,” Adam cried, “Pa, where are you?”

*****

Henry Cooper stopped the horse and turned. He had been aware of someone riding behind him for some time. Now that there were only yards between them it seemed the sensible thing to stop and find out just who this persistent follower could be. He slipped a gun from his holster and held it loose in his hands, close to the pommel, and out of sight of the man now approaching him.

“Who are you?” he asked coldly, narrowing his already narrow eyes and like many a Texan, drawling out the three words as though by doing so he could buy himself precious time.

“I could well ask you the same question,” Ben said with an equal chill in his own words. With a quiver in his heart, he had noticed that the man was alone and of there was no sign of Adam.

“I’m just a traveler, minding my own business.” Cooper drawled, his quick brain and agile wrist veiled by the slowness of speech.

“Then you’re also a lost traveler, and a long ways from Texas. If you are not careful, you will soon be a dead one. You’re heading for the salt flats and unless you have a very ample supply of water, you won’t last the day out there.”

Henry frowned, and glanced over his shoulder. He looked again at Ben with more care, noting that the man’s horse was fresher than his own. He also noticed that Ben had a good rifle on the saddle, a commodity he lacked having stolen horse and saddle but forgetting to collect his rifle at the time.

“Thanks, stranger, I appreciate your help and advice. True enough, I’m a Texan through and through and it seems as though I’m a little off my route here. I guess I had best turn back and head for the nearest town.”

Ben inclined his head in agreement. “It may be a good idea, if you know where the nearest settlement happens to be in these parts.”

Cooper frowned, and bit his bottom lip. “As I said, I’m a Texan and jest passin’ through these parts. Perhaps you could give me some directions?”

Ben drew in a deep breath and looked the man up and down thoughtfully. He could see that Jehu was exhausted and had been ridden too hard. He glanced around the area, just in case Adam was nearby. While he was doing so Cooper reached into his pocket and drew out a match and cheroot which he casually placed between his lips. Ben watched as the match flared. “You had a boy with you?” he said quietly, moving his right hand from the reins to his gun handle.

“I did?” Cooper shrugged, and flicked away the match. “How careless of me. I seem to have lost him.”

“My son.” Ben’s deep voice uttered the two words with a resonance that sent a chill running down Cooper’s back.

“We parted company a while back. He’s back yonder…,” Cooper jerked his head to indicate the direction from which he had ridden, “he told me it was Indian territory.”

“And you left him there – alone?” now Ben’s voice was like a growl, and Cooper shivered.

“I had no choice.”

“There’s always a choice – especially where children are concerned.” Ben’s black eyes hardened, and his lips thinned.

*****

“How is he now?”

Esther looked at her husband and sighed. She shook her head and looked back down upon the boy who seemed to be deeply asleep now. “He’s so exhausted, Andrew. Poor child. He needs a doctor’s attention.”

“Where are we going to find a doctor in this neck of the woods?” Andrew said quietly. “Has he spoken at all?”

“He can barely get the words through his lips. Look how swollen his poor mouth is, Andrew.”

Wilder sighed and glanced about him, then flicked the reins to get the horses to move on. He didn’t even know whereabouts he was now. There was no clear sign of a track. No sign of human habitation or settlement. He glanced over his shoulder at his wife and the boy. Fancy finding a child like this so far in the wilderness.

The sun led them onwards. He followed the golden orb because he could see no other discernable way to go. Pausing only occasionally when he felt the horses need a rest he would go and sit with his wife, and look at the boy. They talked together of the kind of life their own child would have, and whether or not they had made the right decision in moving here at all. If this is what could happen to such a child as this one, then what future was there for their own?

Afternoon came and he drew the wagon to a gentle halt. Beneath them he saw a track at last, worn and weathered. He could see that at the end of the track there was a building. A house with some outbuildings. Human habitation at last.

He urged the horses onwards and with the slightest of jerks the wagon trundled along behind them. A little boy was playing with a hoop in the yard and paused when he saw the wagon approaching him.

Andrew Wilder clambered down and walked towards the boy who observed him with a smile and wide blue eyes. It emboldened Andrew to smile and put out a hand, but the boy stayed where he was, just observing him.

“Is there anyone in the house I could speak to, lad?”

The boy nodded and without a single word ran into the house, his feet clattering against the boards. Andrew smiled and glanced over at his wife. “He’s a shy one,” he said, “Nice place they’ve got here.”

“Do you think they’ll be able to help us?”

“We’ll soon find out.” Andrew replied, helping her down carefully. She placed a hand on the round curve of her stomach and sighed, then smiled at her husband. This was the most precious of burdens, even if cumbersome at present.

They turned as the door opened, then looked at one another rather anxiously. Andrew took off his hat and stepped forwards. “Sir, I wonder if you can help us? We found a boy back yonder,” he jerked his head to indicate the direction, “he’s hurt and although we have done the best we could, we were rather worried about him. Do you know of any doctor in these parts that we can get him to?”

The man leaned forward and looked at the boy in the wagon. Words tumbled out of his mouth, an excited babble, an incoherent stream of Cantonese. With tears in his black almond shaped eyes, Hop Sing leaned into the wagon and very gently, very gently indeed, lifted the little boy into his arms. For some seconds he cradled Adam against his body. He rested his cheek against the black curls, and murmured words of endearment in a language the Wilders had never heard before.

*****

Adam turned into the pillow and drew his legs into his chest. His backbone was as curved as a bow, and his hands were clasped upon the pillow close to his head. Esther brushed back the dark curls and then smiled down at the boy before turning to Hop Sing, who was gazing down at the boy with just as tender an expression on his face.

“Mr. Hop Sing, I think he knows he’s home, don’t you?” she whispered as she drew a blanket gently over the child’s thin shoulders.

Hop Sing nodded and smiled, then stepped back to allow her to rejoin her husband at the door of the room. They both shook his hand in farewell, and then together walked down the stairs to where the other child waited, looking with anxious blue eyes, up at them.

“Your brother’s asleep in bed now, Hoss. Why not go and sit with him? I’m sure he would like your company, even if he is asleep now, he’ll be so pleased to see you when he wakes up.” Esther smiled at him, and Hoss gave them a fleeting grin as he rushed for the stairs.

Very quietly, Hoss tip-toed into the room and walked up to the bedside. His face crumpled a little at the sight of his brother’s swollen, bruised and bloodied features. Without a word he pulled a chair as close to the bed as he could and then clambered upon it. He sat very still, very silent.

The clock on the wall ticked away more noisily than either he or Adam were breathing. Its tick-tock sounded overloud at first and then subsided into a comforting background noise. Hoss’ head began to droop upon his chest. Soon there was the sound of his heavy breathing and little snorting snores to compete with the clock.

Adam sighed and opened his eyes. He looked about him and closed his eyes again. He was home. Pa had brought him home. He knew Pa would come, he just knew it. He could feel something heavy on the bed and reopened his eyes. Curled upon the bed close by his side was his brother, Hoss. Thumb in mouth and eyes tightly shut, Hoss was sound asleep on the bed. Adam felt contentment steal over him. Now he knew everything was going to be alright.

*****

‘Paiute’ sidled up to the group of men, crouching low and looking so suspiciously conspicuous that Roy could barely refrain from laughing out aloud. As it was he composed his features into a semblance of importance and waited for the scout’s report.

“There’s two horses down there that we’ve been tracking that belong to the Cooper brothers. The other horse belonging to the kids…” ‘Paiute’ jerked a begrimed thumb in the direction of the buildings ahead of them, “could be that the Coopers are in the house in which case I don’t reckon much on the chances of anyone coming out of thar alive.”

Roy merely nodded slowly and turned his attention to the house. A slight frown creased his brow as the door opened and a young couple emerged onto the porch. Smiling to someone on the inside of the property the couple walked towards a heavily laden wagon. Gallantly the young man assisted the woman onto the wagon seat before, with a flick of the reins, the horses pulled them away.

“You sure this is the Cartwright’s place?” Roy intoned slowly, watching the wagon thread its way along the track towards the settlement.

“Everyone knows it’s the Cartwright’s place,” ‘Paiute’ retorted angrily, glaring at the Wilders’ retreating wagon as though it had been there deliberately to cause him problems.

“Wal, if the Coopers do happen to be there, how come they let that young couple go so happily on their way?” Roy asked, and without any further interest in the matter he gave his horse a jab in the belly with his heels to move him onwards. He was impressed with the place. There was no doubt about it — whoever was building the house was doing so with a great deal of care and love. This was not going to be any hastily thrown up cabin, but a carefully constructed building, a home, built to last.

Roy dismounted slowly, deep in thought, as his eyes roved around the yard. There was no other place built in the area like this one. Remote and isolated it must have been for months before Eagle Station began to emerge. He pursed his lips and dismounted, looking up at the windows that peered back down at him with something like distaste in his eyes. It took a degree of arrogance and confidence to build a house like this one so far removed from anywhere else. How could Ben Cartwright have known that Eagle Station would grow into a settlement? What if, like so many others of its kind, it just dried up and everyone moved away?

Roy eased the gun from its holster and stepped towards the door. Behind him, his posse were dismounting with varying degrees of confidence. The dread of the Cooper brothers clung to their nerves like the tentacles of an octopus.

There was silence in the house. As he stood inside the large room, Roy glanced about him with a feeling of unease trickling up his spine. So much silence. The lingering smell of food wafted towards him and he raised his head, and recognized the familiar aroma of fried chicken. Roy felt his mouth water instantly and by an effort of will returned his thoughts to the matter on hand.

‘Paiute’ stepped up close behind him and instantly turned his head towards what must have been the kitchen area of the house. His eyes widened momentarily and Roy could see the desire to chew on a fried chicken dinner leap into the man’s eyes. ‘Paiutes Adam’s apple jerked convulsively and his tongue flicked over his thin lips in longing.

Roy turned away from the man, and took several steps further into the room. He recognized the sound of ‘Paiute’ drawing his gun from his holster and sighed inwardly. Had the Coopers’ been here enjoying a fried chicken dinner, then both he and ‘Paiute’ would have been dead on the spot. So much for being prepared for any and every eventuality!

“Anyone here?”

His voice seemed to bark out the words and resonate through the stillness. Roy could imagine the echo trickling back to him.

A door opened and then closed softly. Footsteps padded their way down the stairs and the men looked up to see a child looking down at them with a solemn expression on his face and anxiety in his blue eyes.

“Is your father here?” Roy asked more gently, although the gun remained in his hand.

“No,” Hoss replied with a slight frown appearing between his eyebrows.

“Anybody here?”

“My brother, Adam. But he’s sick in bed. Someone hurt him real bad.” Hoss scowled, and his cheeks reddened, Roy assumed with anger at whoever had been the culprit behind his brother’s injuries.

“What about your Pa? Your Pa is Ben Cartwright, ain’t he?”

Hoss nodded emphatically. Behind him the door opened and closed again, and Hop Sing shuffled his way to the top of the stairs. Roy sighed, frowned, slipped his gun back into its holster. “Ben Cartwright here?”

“No. He come soon.”

“You the only man about the place?” Roy asked, his eyes flicking to and fro as though a Cooper was hidden behind the faded blue chair, or beneath the table.

“Only one till Mr. Cartwright come home.”

“Where is Mr. Cartwright at the moment?”

Hop Sing came quickly down several stairs and paused at the half landing, he glanced up and indicated to Hoss to come to him, and stand by his side. “Mr. Cartwright go to find man who take his son. Son come home, but not Mr. Cartwright.”

In his room Adam heard the voices. He closed his eyes and tried to drift back to sleep but the warmth of his brother’s body was missing from his side, and the words seemed to kindle a fearful dread at the back of his mind that grew, and grew.

With a sigh, Adam rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. He stared at the ceiling and turned the words over and over in his head. So, Pa was not home yet. In that case Pa had not found him and had not brought him home. Perhaps his Pa was dead? Perhaps so, but who then was it who had brought him safely home? Other questions tumbled through his fevered brain…his Pa had not found him. Had his Pa looked for him then? What if he had not? What if Pa had not bothered to look for him!

As he slowly drifted into a disturbed sleep, Adam could hear like distant thunder the sound of the posse riding out of the yard. The sounds mingled with memories and he gave a moan of despair as sleep swept him back to the rain swept terrors of the previous evening.

*****

As Ben looked down upon the ranch house, he felt so many differing emotions stir within his breast that he was momentarily struggling for breath. There below was the culmination of so many years chasing a dream. There was the tangible evidence that he was a man who would uphold his oath, was never afraid of hard work, and was proud enough to build big.

Yet, within a few hours it could have crumbled like a house of cards. The act of one man could have destroyed everything he had struggled to achieve. Just thinking about Henry Cooper brought a tightness to Ben’s finely molded mouth, and a narrowing to his eyes. Had Cooper succeeded and Adam had been killed, then everything would have been worthless.

He glanced back now, and surveyed the body draped over and secured to Jehu’s saddle. The man had been full of boasting and bravado right to the end. But then, when it mattered, he had lost his courage and hesitated too long. His bullet had flown wild, but Ben’s had found its mark.

Then Ben had followed Cooper’s tracks back to the small campsite. He had hoped to find his child, but had found nothing except the ruts of wagon wheels and foot prints. Now, as he recalled those details to mind, he sighed a deep groan from within his innermost being…for his heart had filled with hope and despair had fled at last.

Now he could see how the rain from the previous evening had worked its magic and everything was turning green again. The limp leaves that had seemed to gasp for life from the heat of the previous days, were now restored, and the ground was showing the gift of life again as the aura of green appeared once more upon what had been parched ground.

*****

Hoss was the first to notice the rider entering the yard and with a shrill cry of pleasure he ran through the open doorway with a smile that could only bring the greatest pride and delight in his father’s heart.

Ben dismounted with alacrity and hugged the boy to himself as tightly as he could, burying his face into the golden curls and thanking God that this boy was safe. Then he raised his eyes to look at the house and felt dread touch his heart.

“Adam’s home, Pa!” Hoss cried, pushing his father aside and grabbing at his hand. “He’s home and hurtin’.” The blue eyes wandered to the other horse, the other man draped, dead, over the saddle. He looked at his father, and fell into silence.

*****

So here was the child. Blessed by God and loved by his father, oh, so much. Ben leaned down and touched the dark curls that fell across the pale brow. Such a light touch but enough for the boy to open his eyes and gaze upon the face of the man he loved more than any other in the world.

Ben leaned forwards and scooped the child within his arms and held him close. Gently, gently, softly. Both man and boy sighed together as though one being, their hearts beat in rhythm together, one against the other. His cheek brushed against his son’s.

He lay him down and smiled upon him. There were no words. None were necessary. There were no tears, none would have sufficed. A look, a glance, a touch…both knew the other so well. Both were home. Both were safe. Both were together.

Life was good, at last.

***The End***

*Old ‘Paiute’ appears in the episode The Hanging Posse. He’s a mite younger in this tale!

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