The Ravine (by Krystyna)

Summary: Adam, a widow, and her young son are the sole survivors of a stagecoach crash, but further danger lurks in the ravine.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  38,100


 

The wheels were turning, slowing down gradually. The squeak that indicated a need for greasing, became less frequent, and yet the sound of it penetrated into the subconscious mind and he stirred and sighed.

“Ma, I’ll get that wheel greased fer yer. Pa would tan my hide if he knew I’d not done that wheel yet.”

He saw her turn from the seat and look into the interior of the wagon and smile. Her teeth gleamed white against a sun kissed skin. Nothing could be compared to the beauty of the golden tan on the skin of a blonde Scandanavian, the eyes seemed more blue and the lips more coral. She said nothing though, only smiled, but that was enough and he fell back into the dark depths of unconsciousness. His body was numb but he was warm and comfortable. He did not want to move in case the comfort left him and he would have to feel pain.

“MA … MA …”

He twitched involuntarily as the cry sifted down through the black void and he felt his mind open up. The room was dark, dark. There was no sound except that of a woman singing quietly to herself, she leaned forward and looked down at him and smiled.

“Ma?”

She struck a match and in its flare he could see her black hair, the dark brown of her eyes and the pale face. She leaned forward, put the flame of the match to the wick of the candle and watched it catch flame. Then she turned to him and put out a hand and stroked his face. He could feel the cold dampness of a wet cloth and was surprised, he had not seen that in her hand, only the candle

“Ma?”

“Hush, hush, everyone’s sleeping. Your Pa’s tired now, you don’t want to waken him, do you?”

“No, Ma,” his lips parted into a smile and she touched his brow, the cold touch of the wet cloth slicked over his flesh and made him shiver

“You’ve a fever.”

He frowned, she had spoken and he had heard, but her lips had not moved. She was still sitting there smiling at him, the same smile that had graced the photograph in his room for so long.

“Ma, are you there?”

“I’m here, darling” she leaned forward again and looked deep into his eyes “Just close your eyes and go to sleep. You’ll feel better when you wake up, I promise.”

“Promise you’ll be here? Promise?”

“I’m always here. When you need me. Darling, close your eyes,” and she began to hum a little tune, a lullaby, while she sat by his side in the rocking chair, and sewed little garments.

“Hush, little baby, don’t you cry, mama’s going to sing you a lullaby. Hush, peerie we’an, close your eyes and listen to the lullabies.”

Darkness, darkness It yawned towards him like a vast cavern and sucked him down into its vortex. Now there was only silence, it surrounded him like a black shroud.

*****

“Ma, is he dying?”

“I don’t know, Laurie.” Louisa Ford wiped around the young man’s face and brow again and tried not to look into her sons eyes. She knew that if she looked at the boy she would see his fear, and that would rob her of the courage she needed at that time. She put out a hand “Get me the canteen of water from the stagecoach. Be careful, Laurie.”

The boy left her, scurrying over the rocks as though it were the adventure of a lifetime, and fear was for another time. He stopped at the stagecoach and looked at it thoughtfully. No one would have thought it possible for them to have survived the disaster that had sent this vehicle crashing out of existence.

Everything had gone wrong shortly after mid-day when the road to Placerville was found to be blocked. Pete had sworn and cursed while Zeke had got out to check whether or not they could clear the road between them. Mr Cartwright had got out too but soon returned and taken back his seat with that cool, calm look on his face that made Laurie and his mother feel quite safe. The other passenger, a salesman, had taken out his watch and complained about losing time.

Then Pete had pulled open the door and told them they would be turning around and taking another road to Placerville. It was not often used and a bit bumpy he had said. No one had expected it to be quite as bumpy as it had turned out.

Mr. Cartwright explained that it was due to the lack of rain over the winter, then the spring had been really dry, and the summer too. It caused things to move, subsidence or something to that effect. Mr. Carson, the salesman, was not interested in listening to Mr. Cartwright and had told him to shut up. Mr. Cartwright had just put his hat over his face, folded his arms across his chest and not said another word.

Then the coach started jolting. A little bit at first. Pete had yelled to them not to worry about anything and then, even before he had finished speaking, there had been a tremendous crash. The coach had lurched and then toppled sideways. All of them then became a muddle of arms, legs and pieces of luggage.

Laurie could remember the screams. The horses were screaming as they bucked, reared and kicked to be free of the restrictions of harness and the wooden contraption that was dragging them away from the firmness of the road. Laurie had stuck his head out of the window, seen them and been about to yell something when someone had grabbed at his arm. He was hauled him back into the coach’s interior just as everything became a chaotic upside down tumbled around mess.

His mother had screamed. He recalled the closeness of her face at times as they tumbled down over the rocks and boulders of the ravine. The door swung open and Mr. Carson tumbled out, despite Mr. Cartwright grabbing for him with one hand while he had hold of the leather strap with the other. Mr. Cartwright then reached for the door to slam it shut but before he reached it the door was smashed into splinters. He had immediately braced himself across the opening, making his own body a protective, albeit frail, barrier for them.

The stagecoach had not rolled over and over, and that had been the saving grace of the accident. It seemed to take upon itself a new life, deciding to career down the face of the ravine. It rolled over the boulders and the rocks, in as upright a position as it could with only three wheels. It was not until the downwards course was beginning to flatten out that the vehicle did a complete somersault before reaching its final resting place. In the process of doing so Mr. Cartwright had been flung out, swiftly followed by Laurie and his mother. Having deposited the most precious of its passengers, the rest of the contents swiftly followed suit. Spat out in complete contempt by the yawning mouth that the dark interior of the coach appeared to be to the sensitive
imagination of a young boy.

And here it lay. Laurie surveyed it sombrely. Once again he spun the only wheel still attached to the axle and it creaked round and round, clack-clack squeal squeak…clack clack clack squeal squeak. Luggage was strewn over the rocks. Clothes and personal belongings of the passengers, mail bags, thankfully still intact. It was upside down at a tilt of 45 degrees. It looked as though some playful giant had set it down and brought his fist down upon it . Wood was splintered, jagged and tossed everywhere. The legend “Overland Stage” on its remaining door was scored through with scratches and gouges from its journey over the rocks.

He searched carefully through the area that had been the drivers seat and where he knew the water canteens and food supplies had been carefully stowed away. He kept his eyes down as he knew that were he to raise them, just a little, he would see something, someone, that would probably, undoubtedly, make him feel very sick indeed. His only consolation had been that the horses had not made the descent with them.

“Hurry, Laurie.”

“Coming, Ma.” Laurie paused and glanced up at the sky.

The sun beat down remorselessly and the wheel had stopped turning. Boyishly he gave it another shove with his hand and watched as it began to spin once again…clack clack squeal squeak..squeal squeak clack clack. Now there came another sound, one that drew his eyes towards the sky once again and he stepped back in horrified alar. With a terrified promptitude Laurie turned and ran back to his mother.

“Ma! Ma!” he yelled “Ma!”

Sounds of things too horrible. Shrill caws and squawks. He yelled again,

“Ma!”

“What’s that noise?” someone said inside the mans head.

“Indians. Here they come. Everyone to his position. Don’t waste ammunition.”

Chaos, squawks, other sounds and “Ma” that was shouted louder than the other sounds in that dark smoke ridden room.

He held the baby close in his arms, close and tight because he was frightened, terribly frightened. He could see his father kneeling by the window, his face dark and determined. As savage as any indians as he aimed his rifle and fired off the shot before he handed the weapon to Inger for it to be reloaded while he used the other gun. Time and time again, Inger would glance over at him and smile her tender sweet smile to reassure him, to reassure herself. In his arms the child slept in ignorance of the changes soon to befall them all.

He heard the cries now. They filled his head and no matter how hard he tried he could not stop the noise of running feet, the sounds of shrill war cries, the blast of rifle fire.

A man fell to the floor and he watched the dark pool of blood widen out across the floor. He saw her turn, the pity on her face. He wanted to call out to her, it was alright, it was alright, don’t leave Pa. Stay there, don’t, Ma, don’t leave Pa.

And then in the darkened room as the smoke filtered away he saw her lying in his fathers arms and as his father wept, so had he…oh, so had he…

“Inger, Inger.” he whispered now as the scene grew ever larger in his fever ridden brain.

Chapter 2

Louisa Ford carefully drew the gun from the holster and held it in her hands. She had never held a weapon in her hands before and looked at it thoughtfully

“Are you going to kill ‘em, Ma?” Laurie whispered, hanging onto her arm, and his body shaking with his fear.

“They’re only doing what’s natural to them, Laurie, but if they come too close to us, I’ll shoot them.” Louisa whispered and took his hand and looked now into his face “Laurie, it’s alright, we’ll be alright.”

“I jest don’t like them birds, Ma. I don’t like what they’re a-doin’ to Mr. Carson.”

“Don’t think about it,” she replied and closed her eyes in an attempt to shut out the picture that his words had painted in her mind.

“But, Ma?” he looked at her with anguish in his eyes and glanced fearfully over his shoulder at the sight of the black buzzards and vultures that were now dining a la fresco on Mr. Carson. She wouldn’t see the sight of what was left, but he would, every time he had to go and get something from the stage coach. He retched even now at the thought so that his mother, realising her sons plight, took aim at the feathered mass and fired, fired again, and again.

A firm hand gripped her wrist and she turned, terrified, and then relaxed when she saw the fever bright brown eyes of the injured man looking up into her face.

“What’re you doin’?” he asked, and his voice was slurred, as though he had drunk too much. He must have noticed because he closed his eyes as though to focas his attention on what he was to say “What are you doing with my gun, ma’am?”

“There’s buzzards, and vulture , over there…” she said, pointing with the gun in the direction as she spoke, “I – I don’t want them to – to carry on with what they’re doing –.”

Very gently he took the gun from her hand, checked the bullet chambers, slipped on the safety catch and nodded. Then the pain hit him, it streaked through his head, down his spine and made him groan aloud.

“Is it very bad?” she whispered, placing her hand on his arm. She could feel it tremble beneath the black cloth of his shirt.

“Bad enough.” Adam growled through clenched teeth.

“I thought you were dead.”

“I thought I was too.”

He forced himself to smile at her, and then at the boy, although he had to concentrate to focus his eyes on the child. Everything seemed so blurred and shadowy.

“Laurence, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Sir.” the boy stepped forward quickly. His childish features suddenly aged with the fear he now felt from the reality of their danger. Seeing the vultures had shown him that this particular adventure had its down side.

“Go and get some wood for a fire. We need a fire, a big one.” Adam said, and smiled again. He watched the boy scamper away and leaned back against the boulder and closed his eyes .

“Adam, go and fetch some firewood, we need a good fire tonight” and he had gone, because Pa was always right. Pa was an adult and never afraid. Pa knew that everything would be alright because he was grown up.

Adam saw himself as that child now, saw himself scampering around to pick up wood, taking his precious burden to the site of the campfire. Just him and Pa. Then there was Inger, sharing the warmth of the fire that had been the result of his industry. But now he knew that when adults told a child to get enough wood for a big fire, it was because they needed time to think, time to steady up, because deep down they were scared too, but scared, not just for themselves, but for everyone else for whom they were now responsible.

“Do you want some water?” Louisa Ford asked and placed the canteen in his hand.

“No, it’s alright, we need to keep our water supplies for as long as we can.”

“You look so pale. I think you’ve got a fractured skulll.” She leaned forward, “Do you hurt anywhere else.”

“I think I’ve busted some ribs.”

“Let me see,” she leaned towards him and unbuttoned the shirt. “I think you’re right if those bruises are anything to go by.”

“I guess we’re fortunate to be alive,” he replied with his eyes fixed on the stage coach, “How on earth did we manage to come out alive from that?”

He glanced upwards and saw quite clearly from the trail of debris and gouged out tracks exactly where they had made their descent. He shook his head in amazement.

“I’ll get something for your ribs.” She was talking quietly, very firmly and without much expression as she turned away and reached out for a bag that was wedged close to hand. “Laurie found it in the stagecoach boot, medical supplies. I gave you some laudenum a little while ago, but I think it’s effects must have passed off by now.”

Adam raised his eye brows. Well, that would explain all those dreams Nothing like an opium based drug to send a person cruising to the never never land of nostalgia. But it had numbed the pain, which he could feel only too well now. He closed his eyes, the pain in his head was excrutiating, as for his ribs well, he had broken them before so he knew what to expect. The pain also trickled along his legs. It suddenly occurred to him, what if they were both broken?

“How are you, and the boy?” he whispered, forcing himself to keep his mind off the pain.

“My foot hurts. I think I may have broken it. Laurie’s got some bumps and bruises, but has come out of it unscathed, thank goodness.” her voice wobbled and he could hear the faint sound of hysteria creeping in now. She was in control of things until she thought or talked about the boy, and Adams mind trickled back to Inger.

Louisa Ford helped him struggle out of his shirt and then very calmly she began to unwind the bandages around him.
“Pull them tighter,” he said “It’s not very effective if they’re too slack.”

“I’m afraid to hurt you.”

“Don’t worry about that, it hurts anyway. Once you’ve bound them tight they won’t hurt so much, honestly.” and he smiled and looked into her blue eyes and promptly passed out.

She smelt of dust and sweat and that womans smell – indefinable but unmistakeable. She smelt like Inger had on that wagon train, when every night they had made camp and she cooked the evening meal on the camp fire. Then she had taken him on her knee and they had read together, his head on her shoulder, his eyes following her finger as they went from word to word. It was the smell of a woman who had laboured hard during the day, and had no opportunity to wash away the dust and sweat most nights. It was the smell that made him feel safe and secure, because in the evenings he would fall asleep in her arms. Then she would carry him to his cot and tuck him in.

“Good night, little son.,” she would say and kiss him

“Good night, Mama.”

“God bless you, Adam.”

Chapter 3

“Is that enough firewood?”

Adam opened his eyes and glanced over the womans shoulder at the boy, who stood behind them. His arms were full of brushwood and timber from the shattered vehicle. Mrs Ford paused in her task of securing the bandages and glanced over at her son and smiled,

“Oh Laurence, that’s very good, put it down there,” she pointed to where it seemed pratical for a fire to be lit and resumed her task of bandaging the wounded man.

“Do you know how to build up a fire?” Adam asked the boy who nodded and frowned,

“Those birds have come back,” he pointed over to where they scavanged.

Adam frowned and looked in the direction of the pointed finger but could make out nothing very clearly. He could hear the sounds of the birds and looked once more at the boy,

“I’ll deal with that as soon as your Ma has bandaged me up. We can’t waste bullets though.” he frowned “You say it was Mr Carson?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know what happened to Pete and Zeke?”

“No, Sir. I think the horses got away.”

“May be Pete and Zeke did too.” Adam frowned and when she sat back and closed the bag, indicating the job was done, he began to button up his shirt and smiled at her “Thank you, ma’am, that feels good and tight.”

She smiled, a meaningless little smile that showed her fear. Her eyes misted a little as she groped for the boys arm for help in sitting down again. This action immediately reminded Adam that she had mentioned her foot and now he knelt down by her and reached out,

“What are you doing?” she asked immediately.

“You said you had hurt your foot. I need to look at it and make sure just how bad it is,” he replied, looking up at the anxious face.

“It’s alright. I took some laudenum myself earlier, to ease the pain.” she bit her bottom lip and passed her hand over her face “It’s so hot, do you think it’ll get cooller soon?”

“Which foot is it?” Adam persisted, looking intensely at her.

“The left one,” and she inched up her skirt to expose the black button boot and watched as he very gently unfastened the buttons and opened the leather boot to expose the foot. Carefully he inched it away and then stopped and examined her ankle and foot very gently. She watched as his hand gently manipulated and prodded around the injury and when he began to button the boot up she looked at him rather fearfully,

“Is it broken?”

“No, but it is a bad strain. If I took your boot off you’d never get it back on again and we’ve no water to spare to bathe it just now. If we keep your boot on it’ll give your foot some form of support, although it’ll hurt like blazes.”

Laurence Ford looked at the tall man with the black clothes and the low slung gun belt. He stepped forward and with a slight frown tugged at his hand,

“Are you really Hoss Cartwrights brother, his elder brother?”

“Yes, sir…I am.”

“How come he’s so much bigger’n you?”

“I think he ate more greens when he was a kid than I did.”

“Really?”

“Really! Fact is, Hoss ate practically everything more than I did, and still does, but that’s a secret, alright?”

“Alright.” Laurie frowned and thought about it before looking at his mother and smiling, “We met Hoss at the stagecoach station when we were coming here, didn’t we,
Ma?”

“Yes, dear, we did” she took his hand and smiled up at the man who was watching them both thoughtfully “Hoss made a big impression on Laurie, Mr Cartwright.”

Adam nodded and then turned in the direction of the cloud of vultures and buzzards and with a grimace stepped forward to deal with them, then he paused,

“I’ll go and deal with this matter, Laurie, is that alright with you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Take care of your mother and get the site ready for our fire. Make it a good one, it could get cold tonight.”

“I will, Mr Cartwright.” and with a smile the boy scampered off only too happy and willing to do what this tall stranger had told him.

Adam smiled, and remembered how his Pa had always assigned him jobs to do. Get this, build that, do the other. He would do it happily enough because it brought his father pleasure, and also because, without realising it, he was being shielded from thinking of the bigger problems that faced them. That was what his Pa was always doing, giving them small tasks and making them aim for reachable goals so that they were not oppressed by the larger ones that would all too soon loom over them.
He walked over to the remains of the passenger and swallowed hard. He took out his bandana and gently spread it over the remains of the mans face. After taking some personal effects from the mans pockets Adam looked around him for a burial site. He had picked up the spade from the boot of the wrecked stage, but it was obviously not going to be of much use in that particular terrain.

Vultures came and draped themselves on the rocks, their evil beady eyes watching his every move.
It took time to cover the body with the boulders. The effort of lifting and carrying them to build up the cairn took its toll on him. The pain in his head tightened around his brow like a red hot branding iron, sending pain trickling down his neck into the nerves of his spinal vertebrae. More than once he paused in the task to draw in breath, and then rediscover the agony of his broken ribs.

Time ticked by and when he had completed his task and said a few words over the burial mound he turned, glanced up and realised that everything about him was encased in mist. He frowned and put his hand nearer his face, nearer to his eyes. There was no dampness in the air, the sun he could feel hot to his skin, but his hand and fingers were not even clearly defineable at that close a range. He groped behind him and felt a boulder upon which he could lean. He closed his eyes and tried to collect his thoughts.

*****

“Mr Cartwright? I thought -,” her voice quavered and her face, despite the heat, was white around the mouth, “I thought something had happened to you. You were gone so long.”

“I had to bury him under rocks.” Adam replied quietly and turned to look for the boy.

“I made up the fire, when shall we light it?” Laurie asked, lunging forward towards him like some enthusiastic overgrown puppy and Adam smiled, remembering another little boy who would have done exactly the same not so many years ago. He put a gentle hand on the boys shoulder and leaned down to look into the earnest face,

“As soon as dusk falls, when the temperature drops.”

“Not before then?”

“I’ll tell you what you can do for me -,”

“Yessir?”

“Go to the stagecoach and see if there are any more water canteens there. In the drivers seat, you should find some grub stashed away for emergencies.”

“And this is an emergency, right?” the boy grinned, and dashed away to execute his commission.

“How’s your foot?” he asked her as he took a seat on a good sized flat rock.

“It hurts.” She looked up at him and frowned as he held over to her a bright red polka dot handkerchief bulging here and there “What’s that?”

“Mr Carsons personal possessions. If you’d care to put them in the medical bag then we can send them on to his next of kin when we get back to town.”

“Will we get back to town, Mr Cartwright?”

“I don’t see why not,” his dark eyes glanced down at her and he frowned, he could see her so clearly now, and when he looked up he could see for some distance.

He looked over to the stagecoach and saw Laurie peering into the vehicle’s interior. A wave of relief swept over him, and he turned away so as not to reveal the emotion to her, in case she misconstrued the reason for it.

“Mr Cartwright, you have gone very pale….”

“I think I …hurt my ribs rather…lifting the rocks …” he turned back and surveyed her again, and smiled “The thing is,what to do about that foot of yours?”

“No, Mr Cartwright, the thing is, what do we do about getting out of here?”

He looked at her again and noticed the earnestness in the blue eyes, the way the finely arched eyebrows expressed so much emotion as she spoke, the way her lips moved over small white teeth. He raised his own eyebrows and shrugged,

“Let’s deal with first things first. I think our immediate state of health is what comes first. I’ve a cracked head and broken ribs. You have a badly sprained ankle.”

“Mr Cartwright, Mr Cartwright…” the boys voice wafted towards them and they could hear his feet running over the stones and rocks, “I found two canteens of water, and some food.”

“Well done, Joe, I couldn’t have done better if I had gone there myself.” he smiled.

“My names Laurie.” the boy pointed out with a grin.

“Of course it is.” Adam smiled “I mistook you for my younger brother, for a moment, he was like you when he was younger.”

“I heard about him.” Laurie swung the canteens down beside his mother and then put down the package of food staples “Everyone in town -.”

“Laurie,” Mrs Ford interrupted gently “Laurie, that’s enough, dear.”

Adam smiled and glanced up at the boy and winked. Laurie grinned and picked up a canteen of water. He handed it to the man who took a gulp from it before passing it back. It was cool, fresh and the longing to drink more and pour it over his burning skin welled up inside of him.

“Don’t drink too much.” he warned the boy “Just a few sips. How much water is in the other canteen?”

“Not much.” she replied quietly, “We have two full canteens and what amounts to half a canteen full.”

“Then we’ll have to be careful. I’m sorry, it means that we shall have to leave your ankle until we can find water.”

“Is there any near here?”

“I don’t know. To be honest with you, Mrs Ford, I’m not too sure of where we are just now. When Pete left the main road I didn’t notice in which direction he went.” he frowned, “But there’s water not too far, I can guarantee you.”

“Mr Cartwright? Would it be alright for me to have something to eat now?” the boy looked at him beseechingly, “I’m awful hungry.”

“I think that’s an excellent idea. You know, for a little ‘un you’re really mighty smart.”

“Wow! D’you really think so, Mr Cartwright?” the boys face flushed with pleasure and the freckles that peppered across his nose stood out against the young skin. It was not long before he was chomping at some dry crackers with the enthusiasm of a gourmet. “It’ll be dusk soon.” he said spraying crumbs all over his mothers skirt “Can we light the fire ?”

Chapter 4

The boy slept soundly. They could hear his light breathing getting heavier until there were faint snorts and snores coming from the small body, illuminated by the flames of the fire. They had eaten sparingly, and taken a measured ration of water, They now sat, opposite one another, staring into the flames, their thoughts on a myriad different things. After a while she leaned forward and threw on a few more pieces of wood, sending a shower of sparks soaring heavenwards and she smiled,
“I remember the first time I saw you.” she said quietly and glanced over at him to see what reaction the words would create in this attractive young man.

“When was that?” Adam frowned, and after an enquiring look at her, returned his attention to the fire.

“You were in the sheriff’s office when I went in to find out about my husband. I travelled for so long to get here only to find out that he had been shot some weeks earlier,” she bowed her head and a coil of golden hair slipped over her shoulder, casting an eerie shadow over her face upon which the flames of the fire played games, “I thought Luke had an honest to goodness job, then you and Roy Coffee told l me that in fact he was a cheap skate gambler, and dead.” She glanced up at him “I suppose you’ve forgotten? It was some time ago now, of course.”

“No, I remember it now.” He frowned again and nudged some wood into the flames with the toe of his boot.

“I didn’t see you again. It was quite a shock to see you on the stagecoach this morning.”

“I had intended to come and explain more about what had happened the evening your husband was killed. I didn’t feel that I had been very sympathetic about your husband’s death when we were in Roy’s office. You were naturally very distressed.” Adam lowered his voice. It was unlikely that the boy would overhear their conversation but it was better to take no chances.

“It’s alright, I understand more about it now. Everything was such a shock at the time. There was not just his death to deal with, but the deceit.” Louisa bit her bottom lip, “I couldn’t believe it was true for a while, then the debts came rolling in, and the stories, of course.”

She sighed, then smiled suddenly and looked over at him. She liked the way the shadows played over the outline of his face, and she appreciated having this opportunity to talk about Luke, to find out more about the mystery surrounding his time in Virginia City.

“Did you know my husband?”

“Not really. I think I played a game or two of poker with him when I was in town.” Adam replied, looking more attentively at the fire and preparing himself for the questions that were bound to come now. It was a bit like Pandora’s box. The lid had been taken off and who knew what was going to tumble out from it.

It had been a surprise meeting her on the stagecoach en route to Placerville. She had maintained a steely coolness towards him and for a while he had been mystified as to what the reason could have been until he recalled where they had first met.

“Did you like him?” she asked, lowering her head so that the words were muffled.

“I didn’t know him well enough to form an opinion.” Adam closed his eyes, aware of the drumming sound that pulsated through his head, in his ears, into his throat. The prelude to pain, “At face value he was pleasant enough.”

“He was a good man, Mr Cartwright.” She leaned forward, looking into his face earnestly, as though it were important to her for him to know that Luke Ford had been a good man, “He cared for us all, worked hard, built up a fine reputation as an honest man and a hard worker and a regular church goer.”

“Then he left you all,” he murmered softly, stirring the flames with a burning segment of wood that had fallen from the fire.

“He wanted to give us a real future. That’s what he called it anyway. I would have come with him when he left, but my father was ill and we couldn’t afford the journey. He was a good husband and father. Believe me, Mr Cartwright, he really was all of those things. When he left to come to Nevada I never dreamt that he would be anything other than a good honest working man. In his letters to us he was always as I knew him to be and he spoke so highly of yourselves, and others in town. He said he had work on the town’s newspaper. When Mr Coffee told me that he had never worked at anything other than gambliing, I couldn’t believe it. Even when he gave me Luke’s personal possessions it didn’t seem true.” she sighed, and leaned back against the rocks. Her hair had fallen loose over the hours, strands of it fell in coils across her face and over her shoulders. She looked down at the fire and then across at the man “Are you asleep, Mr Cartwright?”

“No, ma’am,” Adam replied, although it had been hard not to have slipped into sleep, despite the tormenting niggles of pain now trickling through his body.

“You don’t mind my talking like this, do you?”

“No, ma’am, not at all….you just go right ahead!”

“It’s just foolish talk really. I guess I need to talk to you, to reassure myself that – well – that it was just like a dream and now it’s all over. Sometimes I thought I’d see Luke walking down the street, but it was always someone else, or I’d hear his voice. Has that ever happened to you, with Inger?”

“Inger?” his voice sharpened and he jerked round to look at her in the shadows “What do you mean?”

“You called out her name several times this afternoon when you were unconscious. I thought she was someone you – may have cared about – once.”

He sat back and frowned slightly, then he pursed his lips and chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment before flicking his eyes back to look at her.

“Inger was my fathers second wife. He married her when I was 5 and she died when I was six. I have fond memories of her.”

“I’m sorry, I thought that perhaps she had been a girl you had loved ..”

“No,” he paused and thought of what she had said and frowned again, the pulsating in his head was getting stronger “Did you love your husband, Mrs Ford?”

“Yes, very much. I loved him more and more every day of my life, and now that he’s dead – he is dead, isn’t he, Mr Cartwright?” her voice softened into not quite a whisper and he had to lean forward to hear her.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Did you see him die?”

“He was playing poker with six other men. I was watching the game with my brother, Hoss. Joe was in the game. Your husband produced a royal flush. Someone said he had cheated and he said he never cheated. Joe said that there had been a mistake and that no one had cheated but the lad who accused your husband stood his ground and insisted that he had done.” He put a hand to his head and closed his eyes, “Anyway, Bill pulled out a gun and your husband said he never carried a gun with him. He stood up but Bill thought he was going to pull a gun on him so he fired two shots. One missed and went through the sleeve of Joe’s jacket but the other got your husband in the chest. He staggered back and reached for the gun in Joe’s holster. Bill fired twice more and both hit your husband, once in the shoulder and the other shot killed him,” he paused and opened his eyes and looked over at her “Bill was 17, and drunk, and had been told to stop the game several times, but he wanted to prove himself a man. He stayed overlong.”

“And what happened to him?”

“He was scared out of his wits and fired at random when he realised that Ford was unarmed and now dead. He yelled that he didn’t want to hang for killing a cheat. One of the bullets caught Hoss in the arm. I pulled my gun and fired…”

“And Billy died?”

“Billy died,” he put his hand to his face “Ma’am, if you don’t mind, is there any of that laudenum left, I think -.”

“There’s some here.” she pulled over the bag and pulled out the small green bottle and uncorked it.

“Shake it up first,” he said quietly “My Pa’s third wife, Marie, was from New Orleans and used to tell us stories of how people were killed because of unshaken bottles of laudenum,” he watched her shake the bottle and then took it from her “told us once of a woman who had two sick children. She gave them laudenum. They died.”

“How could they die? Laudenum, if used right, is merely a mild sedative.”

“The opium settles down on the bottom, it’s poison, it kills.” he forced a smile to his lips “I used to watch how I behaved around her if there was ever laudenum in the house” and he laughed a little, softly, as though at a private joke “How’s your foot?”

“I can’t feel it unless I try to wiggle my toes.”

“So,” he handed over the bottle and looked at her thoughtfully “Why are you going back to Boston or wherever it is you came from?”

“I have to go back. I stayed in Virginia City to earn enough money to pay off Luke’s debts and to pay for the return tickets home. I can’t live in this kind of place. I need to go home, to where I belong. Without Luke there’s no point staying here to make a new start. I lack the confidence, and the courage. I’d live anywhere if he were still alive, but without him I need to go back.” she frowned, a little horse shoe pucker appeared between her eyes and she looked under her lashes over at him. “Mr Cartwright, have you ever been married?”

“No, ma’am, got close to it once, twice maybe.”

“Aren’t you sure?” she smiled and the smile was in her words and she could see his lips move into a semblance of a smile “You aren’t offended at my asking, are you?”

“No, ma’am, not at all. But I guess the fact is that they weren’t the right girls for me, and I wasn’t the right man for them. Perhaps the time wasn’t right either, something like that, anyway.” He sighed and picked up his hat “Now, if you don’t mind. I think we should settle down and sleep some.”

He lay down and stretched out. A long and lean shadow within darkening shadows. The laudenum was taking effect already, diluting away the pain and softening the edges of the panic that comes with it. He closed his eyes and his head began to spin round and round. He reached out a hand as though to clutch at a rock for safety, just in case he spun right off the ground and into the air.

Then, suddenly, he was settling back down again and was safe in the chair at home.

“I just don’t love you enough,” a moon shape hovered towards him and as it drew nearer it took on the shape of a face with large eyes and a small sad drooping mouth.
“Try and understand, Adam,I do care about you, I do care for you, but I don’t love you. I love Will” the eyes were filled with tears and the mouth trembled. That mouth had kissed his, those eyes had promised so much.
“I didn’t want this to happen. I didn’t want to hurt you like this but no one chooses who they fall in love with, Adam.” the large long lashed eyes opened wide, defensive and stubborn, and the trembling mouth became hard and defiant and he knew that he didn’t want to kiss her anymore, nor look into those hard cold eyes .

“Desdemona,” he murmered “Laura.” another shape loomed towards him with dark eyes that twinkled and smiling lips under a thin moustache and the attractive face looked at him and the smile disappeared and the eyes grew wistful

“I love her, Adam, more than you, and I need her.”

“Iago. Othello and Desdemona and and -,” his voice trailed away as the two pale blurred shapes drifted into oblivion and sleep came in their stead and wrapped him close in a warm embrace all of its own.

*****

“Mr Cartwright? Mr Cartwright?”

He opened his eyes and saw the blue eyes and firm little mouth and the blonde hair that had tumbled over her face. He could see the blue sky over her shoulder and feel the sun shining and could hear a boyish whistle,

“Mrs Ford?”

“You were sleeping so soundly I didn’t want to waken you at first. I made some coffee..”

“Coffee? Where’d you find that?”

“In the provisions Laurie brought from the coach, but there’s no milk.” she smiled and looked suddenly younger than at anytime previously, “It looks like it’s going to be a good day.”

“Mr Cartwright,” the boy ran across the rocks towards him, his auburn hair streaming away behind him and his shirt tails flying “Mr Cartwright, I done tidied away everything and put it all in the stage coach so that when they find us they can collect everything up.” he beamed up at the man, delighted at his own initiative and awaiting the due commendation.

“That was good thinking, Little Joe.”

“Laurie, sir, I’m Laurie.”

Adam frowned, and looked at the boy again. Of course,it was Laurence Ford. He shook his head and raised his eye brows and then narrowed his eyes to look at what the boy had done and smiled again.

“You did well, Laurie,” he said and put a gentle hand on the boys shoulder “Well done.”

“Do you think we should stay here?” Laurie asked, watching as the man drank his coffee and yet kept staring out over the rocks.

“Do you?”

“Yep, they’ll be looking for the stagecoach and when they find it, they’ll find us. We ‘ve got lots of wood and stuff to burn here too.” .

The woman looked over at him and frowned, wondering why his face looked so grave as his eyes scanned across the rocks . He turned and looked around at the towering cliffs on the other side,

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” she asked, trying to see the things that he could see and formulate some opinion, some decision.

“I’ve just realised something,” he said quietly, squatting onto his haunches and coming down to her level, and the boy drew closer and sat on a rock beside his mother “I didn’t realise yesterday, perhaps it was the shock and I was disoriented, but I know where we are now.”

“Oh but that’s good, isn’t it?” she smiled, and her eyes widened with hopeful anticipation.

“See those shrubs and small tree, they’re growing in clumps?”

“Yes, but there’s not many of them,” she observed, shielding her eyes from the sun.

“Because it’s too rocky for them to grow,but they’re water loving plants,and they’re all growing at the same levels. Look, you could practically draw a straight line from one clump of trees and shrubbery to the next, ” he pointed to one clump and trailed his finger in a straight line to the next clump, and then the next and so on “What does that tell you?”

“That there’s water there?” she looked at him, water meant she could wash properly, and bathe her injured foot at last.

“It means that they’re growing at what is the normal water line for here. Mrs Ford, we’re actually camped in a river bed.”

“But how can we be? It’s so dry here.”

“We had a dry spring and now we’re close to drought conditions. The river bed dried up.” he looked down at her “We have to leave here as soon as possible. We need to get to the area above that line of trees.”

“But I can’t climb. I can’t even walk.”

“We’ll have to walk along the river bed until we find a place where we can help you reach safety.”

“Safety? But, Mr Cartwright, we’re safe here surely?
There’s no sign of rain, nor water.”

He turned to the boy and looked at him and put a hand on his shoulder, wondering as he did so as to how much the boy had understood of the conversation he had overheard. The boy’s eyes told him that he had understood enough and Adam smiled reassuringly

“I need your help now,Laurie.”

“Yes, sir,” Laurie nodded and mustered up all the courage he felt he would need for the coming enterprise.

“Right, well, this is what we have to do,” and squatting onto his haunches once again he drew the boy down and began to outline his plan.

She listened with some impatience as the man talked, and she watched her sons face as the boy listened and absorbed what he was being told, finally she could hold back no longer

“Mr Cartwright, why do you insist on saying this is dangerous, being here?”

“I told you already, ma’am, this is a river bed. Its source comes from the mountains, deep wells of water inside, lakes almost. They never dry up. Fact is, if they did, we’d all be in mighty big trouble.”

“How does that affect us here?”

“We’ve had an almighty long dry spell, and we’re due some rain soon. I don’t know how soon, could be anytime,could be weeks yet, but when it comes those undermountain streams and lakes will spill over.”

“Mr Cartwright,” she shook her head in exasperation

“Mrs Ford, I’ve seen it happen too often. Rivers dry up and get packed hard down. Rains come and with it, flash floods.”

“Flash floods?” she repeated, a slight frown furrowing her brow.

“Nothing holds up against a flash flood. Sure, it may not happen for weeks, days. Who knows.?” he shrugged “But it will happen, and when it does I don’t think we should be sitting here waiting for any rescue party that may not come anyway.”

“Don’t say that, you’ll frighten Laurie.” she said in a low voice,her fingers pressed against her lips.

“I ain’t frightened, Ma. I reckon Mr Cartwright knows what’s best.” he grinned at the man with the wisdom of Solomon in his young eyes.

She smiled then, looking at her son with pride as she recognised the beginning of the change from boyhood to adolescent, then she turned to look at Adam who was standing with his brow furrowed and his lips pursed in thought.

“What do we do then?” she asked quietly.

Chapter 5

She sat very carefully, balanced as she was on the makeshift travois that had taken Adam and Laurie all morning to manufacture from one of the stagecoachs interior seats (well padded), leather straps and cobbled together sections of wood. She had watched them working together in the way a father and son would work, while she had sat with her parosol shielding her from the sun, and thinking too much about the man as he worked.

She could tell he was a man used to hard labour, and used to working along with children. She liked the look of him, the way he moved and the way he handled the task of making a heap of rubbish into some primitive form of transport. She thought also of her husband who had been slim and boyish, and had, to her knowledge, never lifted anything more arduous than a pack of cards or pen and paper. Luke Ford had loved his chd and her, but Luke Ford was now dead and she still had her son.

Adam had, with Laurie’s help, supported her across the boulders to the seat, and when she had settled onto it quite comfortably, he had passed over the canteens, medical bag, mail bag and provisions. She had opened her mouth to protest about taking so much, but the look on his face made her realise that now was not the time to say anything but a gentle ‘Thank you’.

“Laurie, Mrs Ford, I think we should have our ration of water and something to eat before we set off.”

He leaned against a boulder and wiped his face free from perspiration with the end of his shirt. Laurie, red faced and sweating, glanced at his mother and smiled,

“We did a swell job, didn’t we, Ma?”

“Oh yes, you did, it’s a lovely way to travel.” She smiled up at them, trying to sound light hearted and girlish and coy, as she unscrewed the water canteen to pour out the water. She looked at it longingly, and half closed her eyes as she imagined splashing it over her face and then with a sigh she passed it to Laurie. He looked at it with dismay and then looked at his mother with appeal in his eyes, but not a word of protest on his lips, he drank it slowly. She poured another portion and passed it to Adam, who drank it with equal slowness, savouring every drop as it trickled down his throat. Carefully she poured her own ration, licked her lips and drank it. It just was not enough and she looked up at him with large blue eyes in appeal,

“I reckon Laurie could do with some more, the biscuits are dry enough as it is.” he said very quietly.

“No, it’s alright, really it is. I don’t want special treatment just because I’m a kid.” Laurie frowned, shook his head and took the biscuits. She looked at Adam and noted the smile on his lips, one of pride in the boy, and she felt a warm glow in her heart as she treasured the moment away.

*****

“We’ll walk diagonally, that way it’ll be easier.” he said to his young companion, and Laurie nodded, took his position beside the tall man and gripped the handle of the frame upon which the padded seat was fixed. The jerk as Adam pushed it forward made the boy stumble, it had come unexpectedly and reminded him that all in all his efforts were quite puny in comparison to the man who seemed to be pulling the travois totally under his own power.

“Geewhiz, Mr Cartwright, I wasn’t ready.”

“Be ready now, then, Laurie, and don’t get overtired. As soon as you feel tired, we’ll stop.”

“But Mr Cartwright, just because I’m a kid…”

“I’m not really showing you preferential treatment, boy.”
Adam glanced down at the lad who had narrowed his lips in petulent frustration “It’s just that if you get overtired, you’ll get clumsy and maybe have an accident. You’ll need longer to rest which will waste time. You’ll need more water too, and maybe even become another load on the travois which makes my job more difficult,” he smiled down at him “It wasn’t a criticism, Laurie, you’re doing a good job and you worked hard this morning. I appreciated that.”

“Wow, thank you, Mr Cartwright.”

They pulled, pushed and jockeyed the clumsy vehicle around the rocks and boulders that were strewn everywhere. So gradual was the ascent towards the clumps of trees and shrubs that the steepness of the slopes were of no great difficulty. The main problem was the clumsy contraption that they had to haul behind them, several times it was tilted over and nearly spilled Mrs Ford over onto the rocks, so that time was wasted disentangling it from whatever had prevented it from moving. They trudged on until Laurie was wheezing with heat, exhuastion and the perspiration dripped from them.

“I guess I need to stop now, sir,” he croaked through parched lips

Adam was more than grateful to halt. His ribs hurt terribly now and warned him constantly that he was taking a great risk in what he was doing for a punctured lung was the least thing he could expect . He sipped the proffered water slowly, and wiped the drops of perspiration from his brow.

‘Why go on’ he thought to himself ‘what is the point of all this? We should have stayed where we were. If only I could stop now, just stop.”

He turned to look back to where they had come but everywhere was now blanked off with that mist that preluded the pain that would soon sear through his head and around his eyes. He put his hand to his eyes now and tried to stay as calm as he could.

‘If I stop now it still wouldn’t be far enough if there were a flash flood. For goodness sake, who said there was going to be a flash flood anyway? I can sense it though, like electricty,but, oh, why bother, why keep on hauling this lump of junk over these rocks.” he leaned back, his head slumped forward

“Mr Cartwright, are you alright?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m fine.” he murmered, looking up to the direction from which her voice had come and feeling the grip of panic at his throat when he realised all he could see was the shadowy pink blur of her gown.

“Laurie, take this to Mr Cartwright” she passed the small phial to Laurie who pushed it into Adams hand “I did shake it, Mr Cartwright.” she said very gently as he took the medication from Laurie’s hand and rather doubtfully raised it to his lips.

“Thank you,” he said very quietly and after returning the bottle to Laurie he squinted over to where the shadowy pink blur still sat, “I think we should just stay put a little while.”

“A good idea,” she replied and looked at her son, “Laurie, come and sit down with me.”

“I’d rather go and explore, Ma.”

“Then don’t go too far.”

Adam had his eyes closed but he could sense the vibration of the rocks as the boy jumped and ran and a vague smile graced his lips,oh, to be so young.

Louisa Ford watched him as he slowly slid down to his haunches and squatted there, his face shielded from her view by the black hat. She then turned and watched as her son continued his exploring and then carefully she moved from the travois and tried to walk towards Adam.

Her gasp of pain as the injured foot proved far from improved penetrated his senses and he slowly turned towards her,

“Are you alright, ma’am?”

“My foot, it gave way, it’s alright, I can get back.”

He stepped forward, two steps and then he could feel her hands on his chest. Her face was a blur, two bright blue specks looked up towards him,

“Here, let me help you, Laura,” he said very softly and with a touch as gentle as any lovers could be he led her back to the travois.

“Who’s Laura?” she asked as she sat back down, her face still fixed upon his, while her hands rearranged her skirts.

“Laura?” he frowned and put a hand to his brow, he could feel the pulsation thumping against his fingers, and the pain tightened around his head.

“Mr Cartwright? Adam? Are you in much pain?”

“Mostly my head.” he said quietly “But the laudenum helps. It’ll fade off soon.”

“Do you want some more?”

He dared not shake his head, the motion would have set off fireworks in his brain had he done so. He swallowed and whispered no and then sat down, leaned back against the rocks, and closed his eyes.

‘We should all be dead anyway, what’s a few more hours? If we stayed here it would be alright, someone might come. What point is there in killing myself and them. Might as well give up.’

His thoughts trolled round and round in his head until slowly the medication eased away the pain and the comfort of sleep stole upon him

“Never give up,” Ben smiled down at his son, a child of three years who looked back up at him with trembling lips and tears spiking his long dark lashes, “I know you’re hungry, son. So’m I! But, we’ve come so far, haven’t we? We could give up now, especially now that stupid wheels broken,” he wiped perspiration from his brow with a hand bound with a blood stained makeshift bandage and his generous mouth quivered in a half smile, half grimace “The thing is, Adam, when you feel really beat, really tired and ready to give up,that’s the time you know you’re nearly at the end of the problem. If you give up, you’ll never know how close you came to be to the solution.” he leaned down and picked the boy up and lifted him into the wagon, tilted over now and looking woebegone and battered.

He stroked back the dark hair from the pallid brow “Look, I’ll make a deal with you, you go and snuggle down and sleep, huh? When I get back …”

“Where you gonner go, Pa?”

“Time to hunt for some food, no time like now. A broken wheels the best excuse to give a man time to hunt, now, ain’t I right?”

“I guess so, Pa,” the boy smiled and the freckles on his nose wrinkled up into a golden blob.

“So, go to sleep. Remember, you’re a Cartwright and Cartwrights never give up.” And Ben smiled down at his first born son and gulped back the lump in his throat “Sleep now.” he whispered

“But, Pa,” the sixteen-year-old Adam Cartwright glanced over at his father “You said never to give up, right?”

“Right.” an older Ben strode towards his son, and gently stroked the nose of the lovely chestnut horse that nodded its head towards them over the corral fence.

“I can remember you telling me that years ago, Pa, the day the wagon wheel broke and we hadn’t eaten for what seemed days. I remember it so well because I was so frightened, hungry and I thought you weren’t going to come back but I was too tired to stay awake.”

“And when you did wake up, what had happened?” Ben smiled and his black eyes twinkled.

“You were cooking some food.”

“That’s right.” Ben frowned and looked at Adam seriously, and placed a work worn hand on the boys arm “I never told you what really happened that day, did I?”

“How’d you mean, Pa?”

“Well, after I left you I was in despair and I thought I had reached the end, couldn’t go on. I walked a way thinking of what a hypocrite I was telling you, a mere infant, not to give up when I was thinking of doing just that, Adam. I can’t explain to you what it feels like to be so desperate, to long to die and be free from the worry and the responsibility. I just wanted to take my gun and shoot my brains out. I felt a total and abject failure. No, don’t interrupt, I’ve started telling you this, it’s best to get it finished. I walked some distance into the wood and fell on my knees in prayer, asked God to look after you, to take pity on me. I only had one bullet left in my gun when the next thing I knew this young male stag dropped dead by my side. I got up and looked about me and realised I was no longer alone,an Indian buck stood facing me, a knife in his hand. I thought ‘Well, that’ll save me my last bullet’ but he tossed the knife over and signed to me to skin the animal. Then he came, took out another knife and set to work alongside me, smiling and nodding and, well,I kept thinking that just when I was about to give up, I got a blessing! He shared that stag with me, signed to me that he had seen you, realised we needed help. He shook my hand and parted and I never saw him agin.”

“I remember going to bed really full of food that night and thinking how wonderful you were,” Adam said quietly.

“The next morning I was able to repair the wheel, and we set off again on our journey. I’ll never forget that day as long as I live. I was prepared to give up, to leave you alone. I was taught a valuable lesson, son.” he put his hand to his eyes, shielding them from the sun “Never give up.”

“Never give up.” Adam’s lips framed the words as they whispered into the air.

Louisa Ford leaned forward and frowned,

“What did you say, Mr Cartwright?”

Adam opened his eyes and looked over at her. He could see her clearly again now, and the pain had subsided, and the memory of his fathers face had faded away even though his words still rang in his ears. He picked up his hat and brushed off the dust from his pants,

“Time to move on,” he said very quietly and cupping his hand about his mouth he cried aloud “Laurie! Laurie!”

Chapter 6

“So you reckon Joe is the naughtiest boy that ever attended that school, huh?” he smiled down at the tousle haired boy who was pulling at the handle of the travois with as much vigor as his young body could muster.

“That’s what they reckon on there. Miss Abigail reckons Little Joe Cartwright would be written down in history as notcher oar ius!”

“Notorious.” Adam grinned and pushed forward and then glanced back.

“So was he really? Was he really the naughtiest boy ever?”

“I doubt it,” Adam said, pleased to note that they had gone some way from the mornings camp site. May be another hour and they could well reach the water line, the demarcation line between river and shore where they could rest under the shrubs and trees, few though they were in number.

“I bet you couldn’t think up anyone naughtier.”

“Oh, I reckon I could,” he pursed his lips and frowned thoughtfully and then glanced sideways down at the boy “Have you ever been badly behaved at school?”

“Guess so, well, I’m a boy ain’t I?” the manchild grinned up at Adam, his eyes twinkling “Betcha you were naughtier.”

“Than you or Joe?”

“Than Joe!”

“Ah well, then, you lose your bet. I didn’t get much schooling, not for sometime. My Pa taught me mostly as we travelled, at camp sites and such. I attended school if we stayed anyplace for long and then went to college when I was older.”

“What was the worse thing that Joe ever did?”

“Too numerous to pin point one.”

“Wow!”

Adam smiled and wiped sweat from beading his brow, it dripped down his face into the stubble of his face and neck, his shirt stuck to his body and the bandages that bound his torso were wet and soiled. He swallowed and realised he was very thirsty, and the thought occurred to him that if he were feeling like that, then the boy would also. He took a deep breath, the wisest thing was to take it slowly, keep his mind and body occupied and hope beyond hope that everything would work out for the best, because sometimes when the practical solutions were nil, that was all one had left.

“I’ll tell you about what happened one July 4th fete day, without mentioning any names though.”

“Yeah?” the boys red face looked up and the swollen eyes blinked and Adam felt misery for the child touch his heart. He glanced over his shoulder where the woman lay upon the padded seat, being hauled over the rocks and boulders by the man and the child. He sighed and then remembered what he had said to the boy who was smiling with open love and admiration at this tall, dark man .”About Joe?”

“Have you met my brother Joe?”

“Sometimes,” Laurie grinned, obviously Joe had impressed
him and become a hero of sorts.

“I said no names would be mentioned.” Adam gulped back pain as his ribs sent him a searing reminder that he was giving them too much punishment, and he pressed his elbow down into his side to try and shift the pain away “Ever tried the greasy pig game?”

“Oh sure. I won a china pig once for staying on the greasy pig longer than any one else.” Laurie swallowed “Mr Cartwright, can I ask you something?”

“Fire away, boy!”

“I’m awful thirsty. Will there be some water up by the trees?”

“There could be, Laurie. Do you want to stop for a drink now?” he looked down at the child and felt sympathy touch him, and he stopped walking and pointed to the ground “Sit down while I get you some water and something to eat.”

“Then you’ll tell me about the greasy pig?”

“If you want me to,” Adam smiled as he turned away.
He walked over to the litter and looked down at the woman who was asleep. Very carefully he knelt down and took one of the canteens and poured out a double ration of water into a cup. With great care he screwed back the stopper and then carried the cup to the boy who lay on his back, with one arm flung across his face

“Laurence?”

“Oh thank you, sir.” The boys voice was harsh and he sat up and took the cup with a shaking hand and Adam frowned and sat down on the rock beside him. He put out a hand and restrained the boy from gulping down the water so fast, and then watched him drink down to the last drop “Oh, Mr Cartwright, that sure was good. I thank you so much.”

“That’s alright, son,” Adam smiled and ruffled the boys hair.

“What happened to the greasy pig?”

“Well, it was a day like today, blue skies, hot sun and the greasy pig was probably getting slowly cooked under the layer of grease he was lathered in. It so happened that three little boys, rather bored with the days proceedings, approached the pen just as the owner of the greasy pig was having his grub. One of the boys mentioned what a good joke it would be to throw a firecracker into the pen and see what the pig would do.”

“Pretty stupid thing to do,” Laurie frowned

“They were younger than you, and one little boy in particular was very impressionable. He had been told he was incorrigible and thought, for some perverse reason, that that was a compliment,” Adam smiled down at the boy who still held the cup in his hands.

“Did they throw the firecracker into the pen?”

“Worse, much worse!”

“Wow!” the boys eyes opened wide.

“The boy who had made the suggestion said to the smallest child there “Why not offer him an apple and while he’s eating it, tie the firecracker to its tail, that should get it moving pretty sharpish.””

“I would say it would.” the child grinned, mischief twinkling in his eyes.

“”Why me?” he asked and they told him it was because he was the smallest and the bravest, so thinking himself to be pretty smart, he called the pig over, offered him the apple and tied the firecracker to its tail. One of the other boys lit the fuse.”

“Oh wow..” Laurie frowned and shook his head “Ma would give me a beating for sure.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“What happened next?”

“The firecrackers exploded. It just happened that the gate had opened to admit some child for a ride but the pig saw it as a means of escape and charged for the exit. It knocked the boy over, his mother screamed and the pig squealed and the firecrackers exploded and the sheriff came a-running to see who was causing such a ruckus.”

“Did he shoot the pig?”

“Not a chance, the pig was too fast for all of them. It charged through all the tables set with fruit and all the sort of things they have at fetes. It careered under one table and the table cloth got wound around it somehow so that when it emerged it bore behind it a large white tablecloth that blew in the wind like a ships sail.”

“I’d’ve liked to have seen that,” Laurie said drowsily

“Down into main street the pig ran, trailing behind it the huge white cloth. The banker and his wife were coming along in their buckboard and the horses took fright at the sight of the pig and the sail behind it. They charged out of town, careened into a wagon laden with goods which crashed into a store post and broke a wheel. Behind the pig and the tablecloth there now ran the sheriff, the pigs owner and several of the townsfolk, all yelling and shouting, which made the pig squeal even louder.”

“Gosh, Mr Cartwright, you sure do tell a good story.” Laurie grinned “I sure wish I’d been there to see that.”

“When everything had calmed down they went in search of the boys responsible for the prank and found them, sad to say, laughing heartlessly under one of the tables.”

“Did they get a belting?”

“One of them did.” Adam smiled slowly.

“The smallest and the bravest kid, huh?”

“Yep, he got the thrashing that he deserved alright.”
Adam looked up towards the shrubs and trees and then at the boy “Feel well enough to pull that up a little more?”

“I sure do.” Laurie said and scrambled to his feet, handing over the cup “Thanks for the water, Mr Cartwright, and for the story.”

Louisa was awake when he reached the litter and when he put down the cup she looked at it so longingly that he suggested that she take a drink while they had stopped. He turned aside and went a little distance so as not to hear the tinkling sound of water being poured into a cup, it would have been too tempting, too hard to resist. He looked to the hills and mountains and thought of the water table there, wondered just how high it was, how much rain it would take for it to reach flood point, how long it would take to reach them.

He knew from experience that when there was a flash flood nothing stood a chance that was in its way, and the speed of it was terrifying. He scratched at his arm where the hairs had stood on end as though touched by an electric current and thought to himself that perhaps she had been right, perhaps he was being over dramatic. Yet when he looked over at the mountains and hills, he just felt such an urgent need to be as far from them as possible.

“Mr Cartwright, I presume you’ve had yours?” she said and tried to smile, although her lips were dry and chapped now and her face indicated that she was getting a fever.

“Yes, ma’am.” He flexed his shoulders and walked back past her, up to where Laurie was already getting into position to help in hauling the litter up to the shrubs and trees beyond. “It won’t be much longer now, there’ll be some shade further up.”

“My foot hurts so much.” she said “I must take my boot off.”

“Can you manage on your own?”

“Of course.”

He stood beside the boy and looked down at him and smiled “Are you ready, Laurie?”

“Yes, sir.” The boy bowed his head, prepared himself and began to pull, hoping against hope that what little effort he contributed, was some help and eased the burden for the weary man who toiled by his side.

Chapter 7

Ben Cartwright looked up from his desk as the door opened,

“You two are back early.” he put down the pen and pushed back the chair from the desk “I’ll tell Hop Sing to rustle up some coffee.”

Hoss scratched his head and tossed his hat onto the table and sunk into the big chair like a weary man. He looked at Joe and raised his eyebrows and Joe, picking up an apple from the bowl, lounged in the big blue chair and sighed wearily,

“I thought you two were checking out the water holes down by the mill road.” Ben took his seat and surveyed them both thoughtfully.

“Did that, Pa,” Hoss stretched out his legs and yawned.

“Some of them are dried up already.” Joe muttered, crunching and munching his way thorugh the apple, the juice of which ran down into his fingers “Adam said we would have trouble if this heat stayed much longer and, as usual, he’s right.”

“We checked the other water holes, made sure they were full,reckon we’ll have to move the herd down to the river”

“Well, you can’t do that,” Ben said quietly “I had a report in this morning from Zach, the rivers near dried up.”

Joe stared at his father in disbelief and then looked edgily at his brother,

“That means trouble.”

“Yeah,if we don’t get water soon, that’ll mean really big
trouble.” Hoss said quietly “We could lose quite a sizeable number of animals, not pleasantly either, dying of thirst is about the worse thing can happen to any creature.”

Ben nodded and picked up the coffee pot and poured out the scalding hot liquid into the cups, Joe leaned forward and poured in the milk and ladled in the sugar. For a few moments the three of them sat in contemplative silence .

“We could move them to the west side of creek bottom.” Joe suggested.

“I don’t know, Joe, that piece of land is just full of bad pasture. The grass would give them colic.” Hoss frowned

“We need rain, that’s what we need.” Joe groaned.

“Yeah!” Hoss reached for an apple and shook his head “Adam and his predictions and just where is he when we need him.” he bit into the apple, sweet and full of juice which trickled deliciously down the back of his throat.

“Doing the wise thing and keeping well away from it all.” Joe grinned and picked up the coffee pot “I’m so thirsty I could drink the whole pot dry.”

*****

Adam and Laurie fell in a heap under the first shrub they
reached. The sweat had drenched them, soaked into their clothing and dried out into salt patches that made the clothes stiff and uncomfortable. Laurie slowly unfolded his legs, and cradled his head in his arms. He drew in gulps of hot air, and wished for a cool place to hide away in so that he could have a long cry.

Adam raised his head and slowly sat up and looked about him. He could see that the boy was exhausted and gently stroked his back and leaned forward

“Are you alright, Laurie?”

“I’m fine, sure. I’m fine.” the boy gasped, although he kept his eyes closed tightly shut, and the fingers on his hands involuntarily curled into fists.

“Take a good rest now.” he glanced up above him and felt a touch of despair as he realised that there was still a very long way to go before they would reach the track upon which Pete had so unwisely taken the Overland stage the previous day. When he looked down at the route that they had already taken, however, he felt a tinge of pride in their efforts, they had covered far more of the terrain than he would have thought possible and that brought him some consolation. Then he glanced over to the mountains and surveyed them for a few minutes before pushing his hat back and wiping his brow with the back of his hand.

“Is it alright?” Louisa asked, peering up at him for beneath her parasol “You were taking such a long time looking around. Is it alright?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then we can rest here awhile?”

“For a while, how much water do we still have?”

“Just the one canteen and perhaps a few swallows in the other,we still have some food. Not very appetising though.” she smiled at him.

“How’s your foot?”

“It still hurts, but not so much.” She touched the medical bag, and frowned “I took a little laudenum.”

“Best be careful with that,” he said quietly, and stood up and took some steps down towards her, “Laurie needs water and food, he’s exhausted.”

“Mr Cartwright, I still think we should have stayed right where we were, someone would have come along and found us. There was no need to push yourself and Laurie so hard.”

“I think there was, ma’am.” he smiled with his lips, and took the canteen and shook it, then after a brief nod he walked over to Laurie and touched his shoulder “Here, lad, take this, and there’s food .”

“Thanks, Mr Cartwright,” he took the canteen and drank a few gulps and then passed it back “Thanks, sir.”

“Come and get something to eat.” Adam said quietly and helped the boy to his feet.

Louisa Ford passed out the food and poured water into the mugs. Then she looked at Adam,

“We’ve only half a canteen of water left now.”

“What about the other canteen?” he paused in mid action, the jerky raised mid way to his mouth “You said there was still some water in that.”

“Just very little.” she looked at him and saw the lines of weariness etched onto his face, the days stubble was dark along the jawline and chin, the high cheek bones reddened by the sun, “This is the strangest picnic I’ve ever been on,” she turned aside and looked about her, as the stunted shrubs and trees “I don’t suppose anyone would think of getting round to making a park of all this.”

“It is pretty bleak” Adam admitted “But when the river is flowing and the grass greens up, it can look mighty pretty.”

“Will we stay here now? Until someone comes along to help us?” Laurie asked, chewing the food slowly and hoping that by doing so he could make them last longer.

“No, we need to reach higher ground than this.” Adam replied, not looking at the boy in order to avoid seeing the disappointment that would be in the boy’s eyes.

“What?” Louisa exclaimed, her blue eyes widening in dismay “You mean, we have to go up further? But Laurie’s too tired, and how much longer do you think you could possibly last ?”

Adam said nothing but took another bite of the jerky and narrowed his eyes to scan the horizon. It was a strange thing the way a man could get to read the way things get to be on the land, even the mysteries of the weather. There was not a cloud in the perfectly blue sky, and yet he just knew that there was a storm brewing. Perhaps not right here, not where they were, but yonder in the mountains and the high places. If the rain came down too heavily then the water in those underground lakes would flood over, and that would result in trouble for them if they were still sitting here.

He could not explain it to the woman but when a man lived all his life by his wits, and the wisdom that came from the knowledge of the land he loved, then you got to recognise the signs by instinct, and if you ignored the signs -. He took another bite of the jerky and looked over at the boy who was sipping his water ration slowly, and eating his meal in the way that indicated his weariness and hunger.

Adam liked the lad. He had that spark about him that Little Joe had, still had, and he was a brave child and had taken to his task eager to prove that he was no shirker. He sipped the water and frowned slightly, but Mrs Ford made him feel uncomfortable, pretty though she was, she just put him on edge .

“Laurie?”

“Yes, Mr Cartwright?”

“Do you want to rest awhile now?”

“Would that be alright, sir? I won’t if you don’t want me
to, if you think we should move on.” the boys large red rimmed eyes looked earnestly up at his hero, and Adam smiled and gently brushed the boys hair away from the over flushed face.

“Try and sleep,” he pointed to the shrubs just above them “There’s shade there, make the most of it.”

The boy toiled wearily back up a few paces and settled under the shrubs, staring up at the sky and wondering if there would ever be rain again. He wondered if anyone would actually ever ride along that track and think to look down and see them. He wondered if he would ever get the strength back in his arms and legs to push that wretched seat with his mother perched on it, he fell asleep wondering.

“I was thinking, Mr Cartwright, how strange it is that we’re all here. You, the killer of the man who murdered my husband.”

“He wasn’t a man.” Adam said in the sad, resigned tones of a man weary of the subject “He was a boy who had drunk too much, and got out of his depth.”

“He killed my husband..”

“He could’ve killed Hoss, and some others there, which is why I shot him. But I was over hasty.”

“You got him, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but I didn’t want to.” he looked at her thoughtfully “I didn’t want to kill a boy, not like that,” he frowned “I only wanted to disarm him, but he turned into the bullet. I’d known him since he was nine years old. He had no real malice in him but that night he had too much to drink, and he shot off his mouth too wildly. When he realised he had actually killed a man he got scared.”

“Scared men are the kind that can do most harm.”

“I know,” he sighed and glanced sky wards and frowned. “Took a long time before I could look his folks in the face again.”

“And what about my husband? What about Luke? He was falsely accused by that drunk boy, then shot down in cold blood. I never heard anyone say any nice words about him.”

“He was a stranger to me, Mrs Ford. I’m sorry.” he shrugged and bit his bottom lip as he thought over what she had said and then he stood up, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Mr Cartwright?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that, you did what seemed to be the right thing at the time. So far as I’m concerned, you killed my husbands murderer, and that was justice for Luke, if nothing else.” Her eyes faltered from under his steady gaze, and she looked down, looking up at him through long dark lashes “ And, another thing, thank you for everything you’re doing. I should have thanked you before, but I’m so ignorant of life out here and if I spoke out of turn, please excuse me.”

He merely nodded and then walked up the slope to the cool of the trees and shrubs and sat down. Laurie was so sound asleep that he was snoring, little snorts that reminded Adam of his brother. He sighed again and leaned against the slim trunk of the nearest tree, tilted his hat at an angle and closed his eyes.

The pain in his ribs were like hammer blows being struck up and down each bone. The pain in his skull was slowly gathering momentum, sending out probing streaks of pain through his jawbone and over his temples. He squeezed his eyes tighter and tried to think of things that would blot the pain away. He could feel the irritating trickle of perspiration down his brow, and wiped his face with his sleeve. If he could only sleep deeply enough to blot the pain away.

“Look, Pa, look at Hoss?”

The tall dark man turned in his seat and looked in the direction of the boys voice and smiled as Adam looked with excitement etched in every line of his face

“What am I going to see?” Ben said in his softest voice, knowing well enough that his eldest son was striving to achieve something to divert and amuse him.

“Just wait and see, Pa. C’mon, Hoss, c’mon”

Hoss Cartwright looked at his father and grinned a near toothless grin, drooling a little down his chin. His soft baby fine hair curled like a golden frame about his round face, and the blue eyes twinkled,

“C’mon, Hoss, you can do it, you can do it.” and Adam took the baby’s hands and helped raise him to his feet “Off you go now, off you go to Pa.” he looked over at Ben “Call to him, Pa.”

“C’mon on to Pa, Hoss.”

The baby blew a few bubbles and his little face screwed into a ball of concentration. One step…two steps and he wavered a little… he stretched out his hands and looked anxiously up at his elder brother and Ben smiled at the scene. Elder brother was already protector of the younger and he watched as Adam gave his brother a slight push. Another step and another and then with a rush several others until Hoss was in Bens arms.

“Wasn’t that good, Pa. Wasn’t Hoss clever?”

Ben nodded and smiled and ruffled the boys unruly dark curls and held them both close in his arms.

Hoss Cartwright. Adam stirred in his sleep and tried to recapture the scene. It drifted back into his subconscious. A taller, bigger Hoss Cartwright who laughingly wrapped his arms about his brothers waist and held him tightly. too tightly. Adam struggled to get free, it was beginning to hurt, there was pain and a suffocating feeling welling up into his chest.

“Are you alright?”

He opened his eyes and looked up into blue eyes and a pale anxious face, but it was not Hoss. He blinked and looked around him and rubbed his face. Then the pain in his ribs reminded him, not of the past, but of the present. He looked at her and realised that to have reached him she had left the litter,

“You were calling out in your sleep,” she explained “I managed to crawl up here.” she looked over at her sleeping son and smiled. “He’s so tired, I don’t like to waken him.”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“Just over an hour,” she put a hand gently on his chest “Is it your ribs? Do you want me to check those bandages?”

He was about to speak when something bright on the horizon caught his eye and he stared at it for sometime. For a brief second it was there and then it was gone He narrowed his eyes and stared at the mountain tops,

“What is it? What do you see?” she whispered.

“Can’t you see anything? Look towards the mountains.”

“It’s misty.”

“That’s not mist, it’s rain.” he paused and watched as light streaked over the mountain top and he got to his feet quickly, pulling her up by her hand as he did so..”And that’s lightning. We’ve got to move out of here.”

“But you said we were safe if we reached here.” She protested, pushing against him and struggling to prevent him from waking Laurie.

“We were safer, safer than being in the actual river bed but that doesn’t mean we’re safe.”

“I don’t understand,” she cried, “Why can’t we stay here?”

“Because if there is a flash flood, water will come hurtling down from those mountains taking anything and everything and dashing it to pieces. It’ll not flow gently round the curves or bends of the river bed, it’ll just smash into the banks and overflow and pull everything in its way back with it. Flash water moves faster than a running man, than a horse.”

“I think you’re frightening me, Mr Cartwright.” she cried, trying to pull her arm free from his grip for he had grabbed at her wrist in an attempt to stop her from pummelling him “I think you’re just saying those things to frighten me.”

“Why would I want to do that?” he cried, “I’ve no reason to do that.”

“Those mountains are miles from here, they’re days rides away. Look at the sky? There’s not a cloud there ,” her voice was beginning to take on the sharp edge of hysteria now and her eyes were filling with tears.

“Mrs Ford, believe me,I know these mountains. There’s no time for us to argue like this, we need to reach higher ground. When the river comes through here it will push its way through like a steam engine.” he released her wrist and she staggered back, stood upon her injured foot and gave a cry of pain before crumpling onto the ground.
Leaving her there Adam made his way over to the boy, still sleeping under the shrubs and as firmly, as gently, as he could he shook the boy awake.

“Is it time to move on?” the boy yawned and rubbed his eyes.

“I’ll get the litter, you help your mother, Laurie.” he glanced back to the mountains and straightened his back and the boy did likewise “Do you hear anything?”

“Sounds like thunder.” Laurie replied, stepping closer to his side.

“A storm doesn’t make the earth shake though, does it?”

They stood for precious minutes listening to the growling sound of thunder as it roared unceasingly louder, then Adam turned, gave Laurie a push and yelled “RUN!”

The water rolled and bucked and undulated in threateningly black foam streaked torrents. It was like a giant mouth that gaped wide to swallow everything that stood in its way. It recognised no boundaries, no slight curvature but gorged on the land and gulped down rocks, trees, boulders, debris of any sort. It roared like thunder but the thunder never ended, it just grew louder and louder until it screamed into one’s ear drums and stifled any sounds that could be emitted from any human throat. It crashed into ancient vast rocks that toppled into its foaming surface and was swallowed instantly by the torrent.

The spray of water washed over them, drenched them as thoroughly as any rains from heaven could, it made the ground beneath their feet slippery, so that their attempts to flee from the raging torrent caused the earth to churn up into mud. They grasped at anything in their way to help them reach the higher ground. Rocks, mud, the frail limbs of the stunted trees.

Louisa Ford fell upon the earth with a thud, and lay there gasping for air and breath. She kept her eyes closed, too frightened to open them in case she were to see something even worse than the nightmare she had just witnessed.

Laurie lay close to his mother, his arm around her waist and his face close to her shoulder. His chest heaved with the effort he had put into out running the demons that seemed to have been snapping at his heels.

Adam felt the earth rush up to meet him. He could feel it rough against his cheek. Then there was total darkness. No pain, so throbbing aching ribs, no memories to slip into his fever ridden brain, just, gratefully, total darkness.

Chapter 7

A small hand pushed its way into his, and a childs face looked down close to his, but he knew nothing about that, even when the child tried to stifle the sobs, and wipe away the tears that trickled down his cheeks, he knew nothing about it.

“Mr Cartwright…please, Mr Cartwright….please, Adam, don’t die…don’t die…”

The night sky was a purple hue, the sun being too great a rival in its brilliance for the moon to totally eclipse its light. The stars were also in retreat from the opposition of the sun so that the outline of small clouds, only darker shades of purple, could be seen against the backdrop of the sky, despite it being night.
Adam forced open his eyes and took a deep breath. He could feel the touch of a warm, small hand clasping his and surprised, and not a little anxious, he struggled upright to see who exactly was attached to the other end of this little hand. A vague smile passed over his lips when he saw the shape of the boy huddled against him, and the dark head that had been reposing so close to his own. The boy opened heavy, languid eyes and glanced up,

“Are you feeling better now, Adam?” he whispered.

“I think so.” Adam lay back and closed his eyes again and the small body relaxed and the grip on his hand tightened momentarily.

“Adam? You won’t die, will you?”

“I’ll try not to,” came the whispered reply.

“Promise?” Laurie whispered urgently as his eyes faltered and closed once more

“I promise, Joe.” Adam sighed and the boy in his memory stirred and stifled a sob

“Adam? Adam?”

“What is it, Joe?”

“It was all my fault, wasn’t it? If’n I’d done what you told me to, you’d be alright now and we wouldn’t be here all alone.” Joe, small at ten years, shivered and huddled closer to his brother “Adam, will Pa be angry when you tell him?”

“I guess so, but only because he’ll have been so worried about us, about you.”

“I thought I would be alright in the water. I thought
you didn’t mean what you said about the current. I thought currents were what Hop Sing put in the cakes and I didn’t understand, Adam.”

“I should have explained more clearly, it’s alright, Joe.
It’s nothing to worry about.”

“It will be if you die!” the child whispered.

“Then I won’t die.”

“Promise?”

“I promise, cross my heart and spit in the wind and all that kind of thing. I definitely won’t die.” Adam said with great emphasis.

“That means you’re pretty sure?”

“I guess so.”

“Then kin I go to sleep now?”

“Yes, Little Joe, you can go to sleep now.” he stroked the boys hair, just as Ben would have done, just as Ben had done to him for years. “Joe, don’t worry about a thing, it’ll be alright.”

Laurie stirred in his sleep and sighed. Adam lay, drifting back and forth from reality to dream, from memory to nightmare, until morning finally came and triumphant, the sun beamed forth in all her gaudy glory.

*****

Louisa Ford picked up the canteen of water and held it in her hand and weighed it. She picked up the other canteen and shook it and then, in despair, put them down. Her son, stretched and yawned and looked over at her

“Isn’t there any water, Ma?”

“Very little. I don’t know how I managed to think of grabbing hold of them both. One’s nearly empty and one’s almost empty. Take your choice, Laurie.” she smiled at him and as he came and sat down and cuddled into her embrace she stroked back his hair “Laurie, I think Mr Cartwrights really very ill.”

“I know, Ma, but he won’t die.”

“There’s no guarantee on that, son.”

“He promised me, Ma. He promised he wouldn’t die.” his lips quivered and he picked up one of the canteens and looked at his mother and then hurried back to the man lying in a deep sleep and after struggling to take out the stopper he carefully poured the few drops of water over Adams lips. The man stirred, raised his head in the direction of the water and then sunk down again.

Laurie looked at the helpless man and swallowed the lump in his throat and looked over at his mother who was watching them both anxiously. With dismay etched on his face the boy returned to his mothers side, the canteen clasped in his hand.

“He promised, Ma.”

“Even we can’t always keep every promise we make,” she said gently.

“Like Pa didn’t?” he glanced up at her, childs eyes filled with wisdom and she nodded,

“He tried, Laurie, Pa did try.”

Laurie said nothing to that, only looked at the canteen thoughtfully and then at the raging torrent of water that still dashed its frenzied way to its destination.

“Shall I get some water from the river, Ma?”

“No, no.” she shook her head and gripped his arm tightly “No, Laurie, it’s too dangerous.”

“He’d go and get us some water.”

“Yes, but, Laurie, he’s a man.” She glanced over at Adam as she spoke and then at her son and took the canteen from him “Stay here..” she said quietly “I’ll go.”

“But, Ma.”

She pushed him gently to one side and gathering her skirt and holding onto the canteen she inched her way back down to the river bank. The water was brackish from the dry soil it had churned up from the dry bed, and as she leaned forward to dip the canteen into it the water surged up and pulled at it, ripping it away from her hand so that she could only watch it as it was tossed, almost gleefully, by the waves as some kind of trophy born aloft by some rowdy crowd.

She fell back against the river bank and began to cry. Deep heart rending sobs that came from the very depths of her heart and being. She had not wept like this for her husband, not when he had left their marital home nor when she had stood at his graveside. But now, seeing that canteen snatched from her after all her efforts to be helpful, all her grief rushed to the surface and smashed down her barriers and for long minutes she sobbed like an exhausted, frightened child.

*****

Hoss Cartwright pushed back his hat and leaned forward heavily on the pommel of his saddle. Beside him Joe chomped on an apple, one leg crooked over the saddle and lounging forward as he ate, watching as the river tumbled along beneath them.

“There y’are, told you there was nothing to be bothered about, ol’ Adam was wrong after all.” Hoss grinned over at Joe who tossed his apple core to the ground and slipped his foot back into the stirrup “Reckon those water holes jest need a good clean up, if you ask me and as you dragged me all this way on a fools errand, I reckon you are the right man ear marked for the job.”

“Hoss Cartwright!” Joe exclaimed, and shook his head “Are you blind?”

“’Cos I ain’t blind. What kind of fool question is that anyhow?”

“Just take another look at that river? Does that look like a peaceful summers day kind of river to you?”

Hoss glanced up at the sky, thankful at seeing some clouds drifting in light puffs here and there. He glanced again at the river and frowned,

“You’re right,Joe. That water looks mighty wild and the colour of it ain’t good.”

“There’s a lot of debris there, last time I saw the river like this was six years ago when there was a flash flood. Pa said that the water must have dried up for weeks without our noticing but when the rains came in the mountains it caused a flash flood. Pa said that it took the bridge which he’d built as a short cut from Mill Road, smashed it to bits and it killed a number of cattle that had been grazing on the river bed. Adam said if the rains hadn’t come when they did there would have been a whole lot more cattle dead.”

“Yeah, I remember that,” Hoss took his hat off and pulled up his canteen and unscrewed it slowly, then he turned his face up to the sun and poured cold fresh water down upon his skin before putting it to his lips and taking a long gulp.

“HOSS!”

“What the…” Hoss jerked in shock, the canteen sending water splashing over his hand and he stared down in the direction of Joe’s pointed finger “It’s a horse.”

“Horses.” Joe said “Harnessed together by the looks of it.”

“Let’s go down there and see what’s been going on. Could be someone got caught in the middle of that flood.”

“If they did, Hoss, I doubt if there’ll be much of them left now.”

They moseyed their horses down the slopes and rode along what was now the bank of the river which foamed and scoured its way onwards, oblivious of the harm it was doing in its reclaimation of its own natural channel.

“Look! Over there!” this time it was Hoss who was pointing to the object in question and together they dismounted and walked hurridly to the debris that was laying half in and half out of the river.

Joe knelt down and very gently turned the body over, and then took a deep breath and looked up at Hoss.

“It’s Zeke.”

“And look at this.” Hoss picked up the shattered remnants of a stagecoach door, only parts of its name remained on it but it was obvously one of the Overland Stages.

“Hoss,” Joe frowned and looked up at his brother “Adam was on the stagecoach, wasn’t he?”

“No telling how long this has been laying around, Joe”

“Zeke hasn’t been in the river that long though, Hoss and he’s always with Pete.”

“I reckon we should ride along the track apace” Hoss muttered “Jest pray that what I’m thinking ain’t what happened.”

Chapter 8

Ben Cartwright raised a hand and the small group of men riding along with him came to a halt. Hop Sing, the lead reins of the wagon in his hand, watched his old friend warily, while Roy Coffee had his eyes darting everywhere. Mr Hogan was sitting on the wagon seat of his old bone shaker, and several other men accompanied them on horseback. It was a strange posse and when Hoss and Joe saw them they drew their horses up in amazement.

“Pa? Roy? What’s going on?” Hoss asked, looking at them and wondering what on earth Hop Sing was doing there with the wagon when everyone knew he should have been at home making sugar do-nuts.

“Pete got into town last night.” Ben said shortly.

Joe and Hoss exchanged looks and swallowed the lumps in their throats, too worried to bring to their lips the thoughts each knew the other was thinking.

“We jest found Zeke’s body,” Hoss finally said “down thar.” and he jabbed at the river with his thumb.

“He said the road had been blocked so he took the side road that ran just above the river but it wasn’t stable enough to take the weight of the coach and the horses, and gave way. It’s possible, if you say you found Zeke, that there were no survivors.” Bens words came out flat, emotionless, cold.

Joe and Hoss looked at one another again. Bens adams apple jerked convulsively,and his dark eyes were that shade of black brown that indicated deep emotion. An emotion that contrasted strangely with the coldness of his words.

The unmentionable could not be mentioned. They all turned their horses to the one direction and began to make their way slowly along the track. Only Mr Hogan stopped, with two other men who had dismounted and were going down the slope to retrieve Zeke’s body.

The tracks of the stagecoach was quite clearly defined in the tracks dry soil, and the small party of men rode along slowly, and when they came to the area when the ground had opened up and spilled the vehicle from the track, they began to scan the enscarpment carefully.

“It’s a long way down.” Joe murmered, leaning upon his pommel and looking down over the sharp drop.

“I’d hate to think of what it was like for them inside the coach.” Hoss said very quietly.

“Do you think it would have just gone straight down or would it have bounced over and over?”

“Shut up, Joe, I don’t want to think about it.”

“There’s some wreckage,” Ben said quietly, “Where the stagecoach must have rolled and broken up but the main body of the vehicle seems to have disappeared.”

“There’s been a flash flood since the accident,” Roy said quietly “Came over the telegraph this morning, everything,everyone could have been swept away in the water, like those horses and Zeke”

“I’m going down.” Joe said, preparing to dismount but Ben took hold of his arm and prevented him from making any such rash move. “Pa, if Adams down there he’s needing help. I can’t stay up here wondering and wasting any more time than has been wasted already.”

“If Adam were alive after the crash, he wouldn’t have stayed here.” Ben said resolutely “He’d have tried to reach higher ground.”

“Then why haven’t we met up with him then?” Hoss asked

“Maybe because he was injured, or the other passengers were hurt and needed help.”

“Aw, let’s quit the jawing and get down to doing something practical.” Joe cried “It’s eating me up just sitting here talking.”

“Calm down, Joseph.” Ben admonished in a gentler voice than normal “Look, this part of the track is a long way up from the river, but it slopes more gently further back. It would be easier for us to get down and search the area, and for them to get up to safety.”

“You mean, back track?” Roy nodded, and raised a hand to signal an about turn.

Hop Sing carefully manouvred the wagon back and forth until he was able to follow them. He was muttering under his breath when he chanced to glance down, mainly because the back wheel of the wagon had slithered dangerously close to the edge and sent a shower of shale and shingle downwards.

“Mr Catlight. Mr Catlight. You come see he-ah what I see.”

“What is it, Hop Sing?” Ben cried, and seeing his cook leaping down from the wagon and preparing to launch himself down the cliff he hastened Buck over to prevent him “Have you gone crazy, man? Do you want to kill yourself? Get back on the wagon.”

“But, Mr Catlight, look!”

Ben followed the direction of Hop Sings trembling finger and was instantly aware of adrenaling pumping through his veins as he dug his heels into Bucks flanks and galloped forward, and then, turning the horse to the left he began to make the descent to where 3 dark shapes could be seen not far from the river’s edge.

*****

“Am I home, pa?”

Ben, in his chair by the bed, immediately leaned forward and took hold of Adams hand and held it tight

“You’re home, son. You’re safe now.” he whispered, his deep voice trembled as he looked down at Adam, his first born son, the only son of Elizabeth.

He bit his bottom lip and fought back the tears the seemed ever close at hand these past few days as Adam had hovered between life and death.

The house had been so quiet. They had tip toed around, taken turns to sit at the bed side, prayed when Paul came because they were so terrified of the news he could bring them. Hop Sing had hovered like a mother bird seeing its nest vandalised and not understanding nor knowing exactly what to do next. He did only what he could which was the best thing possible in keeping them fed and cared for, not that any of them had any appetite .

Now Ben held his sons hand and looked down at the handsome face, the heavy lidded eyes still closed even now, only the well shaped lips moved as the words slipped through his lips.

“Mrs Ford? Laurie?”

“Safe and well.”

“He was a good lad, Pa, like Joe, when he was just a boy.” Adam turned his head and squinted up at his father. it was still too painful to open his eyes fully but he could see the mans dark face,the anxious brown eyes and tender mouth. “Pa, don’t worry. I’m alright.” he whispered and gave the mans hand a gentle squeeze of his fingers.

“Oh, Adam, Adam, when I saw you down there I couldn’t bear to think that you had suffered so much on your own.”

“On my own?” Adam frowned and the dark eyes closed before opening again and a faint smile drifted over his lips “I was never alone, Pa, not for a moment.”

“I meant with out us, your family.” Ben explained kindly.

“You were there, always there.” Adam whispered,his voice growing fainter “You never left me, Pa, not for a moment. ‘Never give in’ that’s what you said, so I didn’t even when I wanted to the most. Joe, Hoss, they were there too.”

“But,Adam,” Ben began to say, but paused as his son smiled up at him,

“I wasn’t alone.” Adam murmered as his eyes closed, “Not ever alone.” Adam’s fingers once again tightened lightly around those of his fathers and his lips parted into a smile, “Thanks, Pa.”

Conclusion:

“Letter for you,” Hoss grinned and passed the envelope over to his brother who after surveying the envelope slipped it into his pocket “Ain’t yer gonner read it?”

“Yes, in time.” Adam replied and winked over at his
father

“Hey, who’s it from? Anyone I know?” Joe chuckled.

“I doubt it.” Hoss replied “It didn’t smell of perfume for a start!”

Adam smiled and left the table. With anxious eyes his father watched as his son walked across the room and left the house, closing the door behind him quietly. There had been such anxious weeks waiting for Adam to regain his strength. Even now he suffered the legacy of the accident, sometimes he had a pronounced limp, and at times had to lean against something to relieve the niggling pain in his back. Sometimes he was too weary to get out to do hard physical work. However, he was making progress and the summer had eased into a pleasant one after the storms had passed. Now they were edging into another winter and the fire was blazing once more in the hearth.

Leaning against the bars of Sports stall, Adam opened the rather grubby envelope and smiled as he read the scrawled contents..

“Dear Adam,

I never had the chance to say good bye. You were still ill and Ma said that we had to leave. I hope you understood. I wanted to write and tell you that we are all well here. My Ma is getting married again to a friend of my Pa. She said Frank is a nice man, but he isn’t brave like you, and I don’t think he’ll ever be able to tell half as good a story as you do.

Adam, I thought you were going to die on that cliff, and it would have been our fault if you had. I knew you would be alright once you had promised, even if it were to Joe and not to me. I wish I had been one of your brothers.
Whenever I have a big worry or problem I shall always think of you and you said ‘never give up’ and you didn’t, so nor will I. I want to be just like you, Adam, when I grow old.

I love you, Adam, I wish you were my Pa,

Laurence C. Ford (aged 12 now)”

He slipped the letter back into the envelope and back into his pocket. Then he turned to Sport and stroked the velvety nose, and through the open door he could see the blue sky being blotted out with heavy grey cloud and he nodded to himself thoughtfully before turning to the horse and saying quietly,

“There’ll be snow tomorrow, Sport.”

***The End***

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