A Flame Diminished (by Calim11)

Summary: This story takes place between the end of Season 13 and the beginning of Season 14. Please forgive any errors in how the great room is set up. I’m not a fan of the episodes after Adam left so I haven’t seen them in years.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,500


 

The night was dark, tossing the cliff high above the distant water into deep shadow. He spied a figure hanging there, one hand wrapped tightly about a branch, feet dangling over a dark infinity below. He ran towards the figure, making a desperate leap with his arm reaching out to barely touch the hand clutching the branch. It disappeared from his grasping fingers and the figure fell silently toward the water and disappeared from sight . . .

“Joe!” Adam Cartwright cried out, his head snapping back as his hand gripped the window of the stage in an iron grip. The young lady riding next to him started at his shout, prompting a quick apology and a small tired smile. She smiled back and closed her eyes. Rubbing his bearded face, Adam looked out into the night as it sped past.

Nightmares. Nightmares made you sweat and turn gray before your time. And, for him, they came often of late, crowding his evenings. They consisted of Indian attacks, stampedes and wide open spaces with no end, each one leaving him frightened and nervous, affecting his work, his appetite and his life. The latest, while on the surface appearing calm, was a doozy.

For two straight weeks, he’d watched Joe tumble to his death because he couldn’t reach him in time, and each night became more urgent than the last. Sleep, restive sleep, became impossible until he’d finally collapsed from exhaustion. His business partner, Aaron Butler, had even gone so far as to take away his office keys insisting he stay home and rest. Rest was the last thing he wanted to do. With rest came the closing of eyes and the return of that damn dream. So he’d packed some things and bought a ticket home. He had to see Joe. He had to see his brother standing upright and breathing.

He jumped slightly as someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Ya steppin’ out, son, or goin’ on with me?” asked the stage driver.

“What?”

“We’re here,” he patiently explained. “Virginia City.”

Adam looked out the stage window. Sheepishly, he turned back toward the driver. “Sorry.”

“No worries,” the driver answered with a smile backing out of the coach, followed closely by Adam. “It’s late. Don’t look the same in the dark.”

“Better to see,” Adam muttered, the driver tossing down his satchel.

Looking about the town he’d grown up in, a yearning filled him. That surprised him. He’d been gone for seven years but it suddenly felt like only yesterday when Hoss waved goodbye from this very spot, Ben hugged him and Joe . . . Joe turned from him. He liked to think it was to hide his emotions but was never really sure. Now he hoped he could ask him. I’ve no time to think. I’ve got to get home.

“Excuse me,” Adam called, seeing someone closing the livery next door. Hurrying over, he smiled at the young man who gave him a shocked look. “I didn’t mean to startle you and I know it’s late, but I need to rent a horse. I’ll be glad to pay extra?”

 Holding Adam’s gaze a bit longer than necessary, the young man motioned him inside. “Come on in.”

“I’m sorry for the hour,” Adam began following him inside, “but the stage just came in.”

“No bother, Mr. Cartwright,” was the answer. Adam looked at the man, not recognizing him, and watched as he tossed a saddle on one of the horses and pulled the cinch tight. Noticing the effort of the man to keep from looking at him made Adam uneasy.

 The dark circles under his eyes showed more than his recent sleeping problems. It highlighted his growing fear that something was wrong and this encounter hadn’t set his mind at ease. The young man gathered up the reins and Adam reached into his pocket.

“Not necessary, Mr. Cartwright,” the stable man said with a shake of his head. “Just bring him back when ya can.” He handed him the reins. “Have a good evening,” he said, giving him a sad smile.

Frowning, Adam nodded his thanks, hooked his satchel over the pommel, and then mounted.

The young man watched him leave. “God speed,” he muttered as he locked the livery door knowing what news awaited the eldest Cartwright at home and headed down the street.

Thinking on the odd encounter, Adam made his way quickly through the night, testing his memory and moving off the road to follow a little known route to the house. He hadn’t recognized the young man but the young man had obviously recognized him and the sadness radiating from him scared Adam even further.

The trees sped past and the sparkle off the lake lit up the night but it all went by unnoticed as Adam pushed his mount on faster. Am I too late?

An hour later, he spied the barn through the trees and the house just beyond – the house with his father and brothers – and he was struck with hesitation. If nothing was wrong, would they be glad to see him or would they turn him away at the door? Would they question why he cared now, instead of seven years ago? He would have to deal with whatever he would face.

The trees parted and the barn passed and Adam found himself in the yard. Reining in his horse, he sat for a spell taking it all in. Everything was in its place, up to and including the leaky water pump and trough. He was here. He was home and it felt as if he’d never left.

Gingerly dismounting and tying the reins to the hitching post nearest the stoop, he stopped and ran his hand down the post’s wooden length and recalled the day his father hammered in the last nail. Hoss had been the first to tie up his horse at their new home. It was the last piece of work completed before all the tools were put away and all the plans stored. The smell of wildflowers drifting on the breeze that day filled him and he closed his eyes at the memory. Taking in a deep breath of the cool November night air, he coughed and held onto the post. Nevada air was just too pure for him anymore.

“I’ll see to you in a minute,” he said to his horse, patting the animal’s sweaty neck, and turned toward the closed front door. Someone should have come out already after his run into the yard. Odd.

Stepping onto the stoop, he glanced to the side seeing Marie’s rose bush still blooming after all these years. He’d asked Hop Sing many times how it kept going even in off-season and all he’d ever received was a raised brow and a wink followed by some Cantonese homily.

The familiar furniture on the porch reminded him of a story or two, each bullet hole and scar in the timber a piece of history, Cartwright history of how they’d lived. Being suddenly nostalgic surprised him. All these years away had never turned his thoughts to such things. Obviously, his dream had done more to him than just make him lose sleep.

His hand stopped just short of the doorknob. This isn’t my home anymore. I can’t just walk in. Taking a breath, he raised his hand to knock when something else catching his eye. A long piece of black crepe hung across the top of the doorframe fluttering in the night breeze. Black crepe? His heart skipped a beat. He flung open the door and rushed inside.

“Pa!” he yelled, peering into the darkness that met his eyes. All the lamps were out and the fireplace was dark. “Joe! Hoss!” Their names echoed about the big room. “Hop Sing!” Nothing met his ears but the echo of his own voice.

Tossing his hat on the sideboard, he hurried up the stairs, finding every room empty and cold, devoid of any leftover life force that always existed in a well-loved house. It unnerved him and slowly he returned downstairs, noticing his hat was the only thing on the sideboard. No guns, no hats, no life.

The room began to tilt and he barely made it to Ben’s large desk as dizziness swept through him. Fighting the rising bile in his throat, he carefully maneuvered himself around into the leather chair that had always been there. Shutting his eyes, sweat ran down his neck to dampen his collar making him shiver. The silence enveloped him. Nothing from the house, nothing from the barn. It was as if time had stopped and left him behind.

Slowly recovering, he dared to open his eyes, running a trembling hand over his face. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe everyone is just out. Maybe they are in town. Maybe I should stop talking to myself and light the damn lamp.

The green-glassed lamp on the desk flamed to life bathing the room in a soft glow, showing Adam that everything remained as he remembered it. Surrounding his father’s desk, the bookshelves still stood filled with books next to the old wood stove. And, on the wall, the map. How proud Adam had been when Ben hung that map. It was out of date – the property lines changing with the purchase of new land and the excising of old – but there it was still. A pang of longing filled him for what he’d missed these last seven years and a great sadness moved over him bringing tears to his eyes.

“Ah, Lord,” he mumbled holding his head in his hands. Thoughts of the time and effort it took to clear the land, to build the house, to carve out a piece of wilderness to call their own crowded together in his head. They’d put in many days and years of hard work full of pain, heartache and eventually, success, and he’d run away from it all. Run away. The stalwart Adam Cartwright ran away from his home and his family for what? To start a new life? To carve out his own future on his own terms? But am I satisfied?

“Too much thinking,” he muttered aloud. Always thinking. ‘You’ll think your brain right out of your head,’ Joe had once told him. “Joe, where are you?” The Grandfather clock by the front door began chiming, drawing his attention.

One, two, three – and he glanced up the stairs – four, five, six – and remembered when they’d chosen their rooms – seven, eight – Hoss the farthest away because even as a young boy he snored – nine, ten – and it hadn’t been far enough – eleven, twelve and the sound of the front door opening turned his head.

Wiping his eyes, he stood and stepped slowly away from the desk and into the room, hoping whoever was here would ease his mind. What he saw nearly stopped his heart – Joseph Francis Cartwright, living and breathing, standing silently by the sideboard fingering the strange hat that lay there.

“Joe!” Adam cried, startling the young man who whirled around, hand to his gun. The fear that had so unsettled him quieted at the sight of his younger brother as he hurried over, quickly embracing him. “You’re alive! Thank God, you’re alive! I thought something had happened to you,” he whispered into Joe’s ear, relief moving through him.

Stunned, Joe stood there for a moment. My God, it’s Adam! Recovering quickly, he wrapped his arms about his older brother, holding on as tight as he could in case he was dreaming.

“I wish it had been me,” Joe whispered back in a voice cracking with emotion, the comment falling on deaf ears so intent was Adam on who he held in his arms.

The dream was wrong! The dream that had dragged him all this way was wrong and he could finally stop worrying himself to death.

“Where is everyone?” Adam asked still holding him tightly. “Where are Pa and Hoss?” Joe stiffened and pulled back, forcing his brother to release him. Adam’s look of joy faded.

“I don’t think that’s particularly funny,” Joe answered, searching his brother’s face for the reason behind that particular question. Joe’s cold voice confused Adam as he watched anger cascade across the familiar face before turning from him.

“It wasn’t meant as a joke,” Adam stated, staring at Joe’s back. “Where are they? San Francisco? Sacramento? Has Hop Sing got everyone on a spice hunt again?” He grinned remembering the last time the three of them had experienced that little job. Joe spun, intense anger running through him. How could his brother be so flip? Why did he come home?

Opening his mouth to tell him to leave and never come back, he caught a look of confusion in those dark eyes. Joe sucked in a breath, anger fading as realization hit. He didn’t know. My God, Adam didn’t know.

“Where are they, Joe?” Adam asked, his heart beginning to pound at the look on his brother’s face.

“We need to sit,” was all Joe said, pulling on Adam’s arm, trying to move him to the settee, but his brother had become an immoveable object who fixed Joe with a steely glare.

“Out with it, Joe.” Adam’s voice took on that ominous tone that he knew meant business.

“Adam, I . . .” Joe began then stopped, dropping his hands from his brother’s arm, trying to keep the quiver from his voice. There was no easy way to say what . . . to tell him . . .  Joe lowered his head to avoid the dark piercing eyes skewering him with their intensity.

“Is it Pa?” Adam watched Joe take a breath as if something had struck his heart. Adam stood a bit straighter as if that would brace him against what was coming. Always he’d thought the dream was about Joe but maybe, maybe it was someone else. “What’s happened to Pa, Joe?” he asked again, clinching his jaw against his emotions. I won’t breakdown. Not yet.

“It’s not . . .” Joe began, tears falling. “It’s not Pa, Adam,” he finished, his voice betraying him, turning his head away.

Irritated, Adam grabbed Joe’s arms and forced him to look into his eyes. Joe was making less sense than usual. “Then who . . .”

“I thought . . . I thought you knew.”

Adam’s brow furrowed. It’s not Pa. “I thought you knew.” It’s not Pa. Suddenly, a familiar gap-toothed face sprang to life before his eyes with a smile as warm as the sun, and he blinked. “Not Pa . . .” he whispered as he stepped back, hands dropping from Joe’s arms. This can’t be right.

“Adam . . .” Joe began reaching for his brother.

“Not Pa,” Adam repeated, forcing himself to look at Joe, to see that this was some horrible joke. What he beheld was pure devastation and he knew it was true. Legs turned to jelly and he dropped heavily to the floor, Joe following him down, clutching his arms. “No, no . . .” were the only words Adam uttered as he stared at the floor. This had to be a mistake. It must have been someone else. His brother was too young, too full of life. It couldn’t be him. He was the life of the Ponderosa, of this family!

“Adam,” Joe tried again, his soft voice drawing him back to the present. He blinked again as tears tumbled down his face.

“Joe . . . Oh God, Joe . . .”   A wrenching sob overtook Adam and Joe grabbed him in an urgent embrace, the great room echoing with the agonizing sounds of two hearts breaking. Nothing would ever be the same again.

 *****

 Hoss scampered over the log toward his big brother, a smile playing across his face. It never ceased to amaze Adam how much Hoss got from a beautiful sunrise or a pond full of frogs or just eating breakfast. He often wished he could be more like his little brother but he had responsibilities, Hoss being one of them.

 “Come on, Adam. Let’s go fishin’.” Hoss’ smiles were contagious and Adam fought hard not to give in.

 “We’ve got work to do, little brother,” he reminded him, handing Hoss a bucket.  “Ol’ Bessie can’t milk herself and you know how Pa gets if he doesn’t have his cream.”

 “I know, but jest this once?”

 Adam shook his head once then sighed.  Hoss knew that was always a good sign. “Tell you what.  You milk ol’ Bessie and I’ll shoe Donder for you and then we’ll go fishing.”

 “Really?”

 “Really.” 

 “Hot diggity!” Hoss yelled skipping into the barn. Adam heard Bessie’s welcome and Hoss’ answer and laughed to himself. That boy could get along with anyone and anything. 

 He’d never been that carefree as a boy, never given the chance. There hadn’t been time being on a wagon train for most of his early life, but he wasn’t complaining. They’d finally settled down, built a modest house and had a start of a good-sized herd. Things were looking up for the Cartwright family. Roots were being set. They’d finally found a home.

 *****

Joe stood by the horses – Sport (who’d nearly had a fit seeing his master after all this time) and Cochise, both pushing twenty – watching his brother raise a hand to touch the gravestone standing watch over Hoss, then pull it away. Turning toward the lake, Adam didn’t see the moon play its rays across the surface of the lake, didn’t see anything but Hoss’ face in the waters of Lake Somerset.

Hoss had called it that after a book title he’d seen on Adam’s shelf when he was only eight. It was his favorite spot on the Ponderosa and he could be found here many a time. ‘If Adam has a place ta think, then so do I’ echoed for both brothers in their thoughts. The late fall flowers were all around and the sway of the tall grasses sent up a whispering that filled the air about them.

This was where Joe spent most of his time, having already been there this very day, and every day before that, and every day to come. This time was for Adam. Joe would wait and watch, feeling the raw emotion from his brother that he still couldn’t completely control himself, and be there for him in case he was needed.

Watching in silence as Adam continued to stare out at the lake, Joe thought his brother didn’t look well. The beard hides some, but the eyes . . .  There’s something else there, something old and buried . . .  Ah, yes, guilt. Something they both shared. For Adam, it was a promise unfulfilled – he hadn’t been there for Hoss as he’d promised Inger. For Joe – he hadn’t been quick enough.

The lake should have brought Adam peace but all it gave him was an aching sadness. Refusing to look at the gravestone made him feel safe because if he looked, this horrible nightmare would be true and he wouldn’t be able to pass it off as another of Joe and Hoss’ practical jokes. If he looked, any remaining hopes, no matter how farfetched, would be dashed. But he knew he’d have to face it eventually. He’d have to walk past the stone and read the inscription and then he would know, know this was real and not part of that damn dream, torturing him even now when he was awake. I can’t do it now.

He raised a hand again and this time laid it gently upon the stone – the coldness of the granite seeping into his fingers sending shockwaves of despair through his already devastated heart. All thoughts of jokes and dreams quickly fled and he bowed his head feeling weak and sick, nausea from the tumult of emotions moving through him like a train making his knees buckle. Holding onto the stone, he slid to the ground, and leaned against it, unable to fathom the idea that he would never again see that big galoot come riding up on Chubb and holler out ‘dadburnit, Adam, whatcha sittin’ there for?’ Didn’t want to believe that he’d never hear that big hearty laugh, laughing with him or about him, ever again. Why? Why didn’t you take me?

Misery took him and he buried his face in his hands. Joe was suddenly there, wrapping a consoling arm about his brother’s shaking shoulders, having already gone through this torment for two weeks. He had to be strong for Adam. My, how times had changed.

They sat like that for who knows how long, Joe silent, Adam slowly regaining control, knowing in an instant it would leave him again. Finally raising his head from his hands and wiping tears from his face, he looked away from Joe and back towards the lake.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, Joe straining to hear.

“For what?” Joe asked.

“I can’t seem to . . .”  Adam’s eyes filled again and he drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms about them and taking in a shuddering breath. “I can’t seem to stop.” A rare admission from his strong brother making Joe hold him tighter.

“I didn’t know I had so much water in me,” Joe confessed. “Haven’t stopped since it happened and don’t think I can either. Although, I’m working on a record about now. I’ve been dry eyed for about an hour.”

A small smile tugged at Adam’s mouth as he rested his chin on his knees. “How did it happen?” he managed, needing to know at least that much.

Joe looked off into the trees. “He was helping some folks having trouble crossing a river,” he began pulling at some non-existent thread on his pants. “He fell in, hit his head. I . . . I couldn’t get to him fast enough.”

Adam closed his eyes at the words. Joe was with him, all alone. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

The pain in those few words made Joe flinch then shake his head. “Wouldn’t have mattered,” he answered. “The river was high and running fast. I couldn’t reach him. No one could. He brushed past me and, for a moment, I felt his hand on mine and then he was gone.”

Adam raised his head. Reaching and almost touching, feeling the person’s hand and then nothing. Was it Hoss in my dream? “I thought I was going to lose Pa, too,” Joe added. “He went crazy with grief, Adam. I’d never seen him like that before and it scared me. I sent you a telegram hoping you’d come home.”

“I never got a telegram,” Adam said in a soft voice as Joe looked at him.

“Then how did . . .  What made you . . .”

“I had a dream,” he admitted, glancing at his younger brother, waiting for the jokes, but only a serious face met his.

“About Hoss?”

“I thought it was about you.”

“Me?” Adam nodded.

“I didn’t see your face but somehow it was you. You were hanging from a cliff and, try as I might, I couldn’t reach you, couldn’t help. You were always just out of my grasp, our hands barely touching as I lost you over the side.”

“But that’s almost like . . .”  Joe stopped himself seeing the similarities as Adam nodded.

“I had that particular dream about two weeks ago and each night after that, each time more urgent than the last.”

“Two weeks?” Joe repeated softly.

“I had to see with my own eyes if you were all right. I couldn’t wait for a telegram, couldn’t sit there thousands of miles from home, imagining what’d happened. It pulled at me, Joe, like nothing ever has. I never thought . . .”  His voice caught in his throat and trailed off and he rubbed his eyes, pushing his head back against the stone, anger replacing sorrow. “Why him? He was such a good man. Better than any of us. Why was he so desperately needed elsewhere?”

“You sound like Pa.”

Adam closed his eyes and sniffled. God, he was tired and all he really wanted was things the way they were. “Where is he, Joe?” he quietly asked. “Where’s Pa?”

“I don’t know,” he answered. “He left ten days ago and I’ve no idea where he is. I’ve looked high and low, asked anyone with an ear. Nothing. It’s as if he’s vanished.”

 Adam sighed and looked into the night sky. “He disappeared on us before, when your mama died. Do you remember?” Joe shook his head. That whole time was still a fuzzy blur to him. “He was gone for three weeks and I was left with a confused 12-year-old and an upset 6-year-old. I wasn’t in much better shape myself.”

“He did it when you left, too.”

Surprised, Adam ran a hand over his face, feeling guilty all over again as Joe looked at him. “

When mama died I believed you when you told me everything would be all right, and, in time, it was.” Joe paused for a moment. “Will we ever be all right, Adam?” he asked, his chin beginning to quiver.

“I don’t know,” was his only answer. “I just don’t know.” The two brothers fell silent gazing out over the lake unaware of two sad eyes watching them from above.

Ben Cartwright turned away, unable to watch his sons in their grief. Adam was home and that should have sent him scurrying down the hill to envelop both his boys in his arms, to commiserate with them on their tremendous loss. But he had more riding to do on his walkabout. More riding and more crying and it all had to be done alone. Home was not his home right now.

 *****

 Their hands barely touched, a fleeting hint of warm skin on his own, until there was nothing there but the cold night air, and the sound of falling, falling into the darkness below …

 Adam’s eyes popped open, his harsh breathing echoing about the room.

“Damnit!” Why am I still dreaming?!   It was Hoss. Why torment me still when there was nothing I could to?

Pushing back damp hair from his warm forehead, he gathered his breath and tried to quiet the frantic beating of his heart. The crackling of logs in the fireplace made him turn, his eyes catching sight of the items on the wall highlighted by the flames. One brought a smile to his face. A carving Hoss had given him of the house and tall Ponderosa pines towering over it had been a going away gift before he’d left for college. Hoss made it to remind him of what was waiting back home. As if he needed reminding.

That day was still so real of how he’d very nearly turned back at the first way station, wondering what the hell he was doing leaving his family to go to school. But as he stood that night watching the sun dip below the mountains, he remembered Hoss telling him that if he didn’t go it would always pick at him and make him wonder if he should have taken the chance. Hoss bet him that he’d be running the school before the year was out, then laid his head back and laughed.

That laugh filled Adam’s room as a distant echo, washing over him with a blinding force as he thought once more of how he’d never hear that sound again. And never was such a very long time.

Turning from the carving, Adam rested against the headboard, his eyes falling on other objects in his room, all filled with sweet memories of his brother making him smile and cry at the same time:  the rocker which led to long nights sitting by the fire, reading Hoss bedtime stories or calming his nerves during a storm; a scar in the floorboards put there the first time Hoss found his spurs and dragged them across the floor in an attempt to toss them out the window with an exclamation of ‘no one should use them things on an animal’.

Joe told him, as they’d sat on the bluff, that with the absence of their father, he’d had to do something to ease his pain so he’d visited Hoss’ room every night, sometimes falling asleep on the large bed, bringing him closer to his dear departed friend. And then each morning came as the one before, the sun rising to showcase a beautiful new day and all thoughts moved to a day without Hoss and the sorrow began again.

Joe spoke so eloquently about their brother that it’d moved Adam to tears time and again. Those two had a special bond, different than the one he’d shared with Hoss and yet each brother felt the loss significantly. Each lost the better part of themselves that would never be reborn. Could they carry on in spite of their loss? Did they even want to try? He buried his face in his pillow and cried.

It wasn’t fair. A kind and gentle soul taken for what? To bring me home? Something more subtle would have worked! Or would it? In the greater scheme of things, was Hoss’ sacrifice all because I should be home? You’re thinking again! Never a good thing so early in the morning.

He sighed. His head hurt and his eyes burned and he wanted his father, childish as it sounded. The strong man who’d held him as a boy, who’d spoken to him of cool summer nights and snow-capped mountains and who’d written so lovingly of the times he’d missed at home. He wanted to be that boy again, because that would mean Hoss would be there too, willing to follow along with Joe’s farfetched schemes or eating mounds of Hop Sing’s food.

Cursing as he tossed back the covers, Adam swung his legs over the side. Goosebumps immediately rose and, for a moment, the thought of disappearing beneath the warmth of those covers tugged at him. Hoss wouldn’t want you to lounge in guilt for the rest of your days! Get up! Get dressed! Eat something! He stuck his tongue out – his stomach rebelling at the mere thought of food. Sighing again, he reached for his pants.

Dressing took longer than usual that morning. They’d sat for a good long time by Hoss’ side and a chill had worked its way into his bones. That on top of almost zero sleep and the dizzy spells that came more often made it impossible to finish a day on his feet. Maybe he’d just ride into town today and see Paul Martin. Maybe he could remedy whatever had him in its grip with western medicine since the eastern way had given him nothing but shrugs and tonics.

Boots in hand, Adam opened his door to the silence of the great house and pondered going to Hoss’ room. No, that was Joe’s haven and he didn’t have the right to intrude. Not anymore.

Running his hand down the staircase rail, he stopped on the landing, fingering the Indian blanket that had been in various positions on the stair since they’d built the house. A gift from Chief Winnemucca1  it stayed displayed for all to see, showing the Cartwright’s friendship with the Paiutes. It’d caused a stir when they’d first placed it there and the story had been told to the gathered, Virginia City’s elite. A few left in disgust never to return, but the blanket remained.

The house was so quiet, the fireplace still dark. Joe, who usually filled the room with laughter and movement, was nowhere to be seen. Hearing the clock strike 3:00 am, he understood the quiet. Any sane person was in bed.

Slumping into the blue velvet chair by the hearth, Adam rubbed his temples hoping the dark would still his raging memories. It didn’t work and he sat back, eyes closed. I wonder where Hop Sing is? Perhaps he’d repaired to San Francisco to be with his relatives during this time but Adam doubted it. The man loved this family like his own and they returned that emotion. I wonder where everyone else is? I’ll ask Joe later.

Deciding a cup of coffee might settle him, he stood. It was then a sound came to him, a soft sound as if someone was singing. Straining to hear, he headed toward the front door. Perhaps it was Ben come home at last. The yard was empty. Where was it coming from? Shutting the door, he headed for the kitchen, eventually finding himself outside Hop Sing’s door. He was here. He hadn’t left. Wearily, Adam leaned his head against the wood and knocked softly. The sound abruptly stopped.

“Hop Sing,” he called gently, laying his hand upon the door. “It’s Adam.” A sharp intake of breath met his ears and then the door sprang open and he stood face-to-face with a man he’d known forever, a man who knew him better than anyone else.

“Mr. Adam home,” Hop Sing whispered, tears rolling down his face.

“Mr. Adam home,” he answered, the little man flinging himself into Adam’s arms. They clung to each other. Only despair filled them now and neither knew how long it would take up residence. They didn’t care. At that moment each had the other. Now all they needed was Ben.

*****

 “Hoss, stop pulling on that calf’s tail,” Adam admonished his younger brother. “Would you like it if you had a tail?” 

 Hoss began turning around and feeling his backside, a puzzled look on his face.

“I ain’t got a tail,” he seriously answered. 

 Stifling a laugh, Adam tried to keep his face stern. “I haven’t got a tail,” he corrected.

 “Me neither.” 

 Laughing out loud, Adam turned away. Hoss loved it when his brother laughed, for there was far too little of it.

 “You’re too much, little brother,” Adam finally said. He ruffled Hoss’ hair and pushed him towards the barn. “We’ve got chores.” Hoss giggled as he raced ahead of his big brother.

Adam’s head jerked up at the startled shout coming from the door and the next thing he knew someone encircled him with their arms and pulled him to his feet.

“Adam Cartwright, as I live and breathe!”

“Easy, Paul, I might break,” he quipped, patting the good doctor on the back.

Paul Martin slowly let him go, then straightened out Adam’s jacket, his smile stretching ear-to-ear, continuing to touch him to make sure his old friend was really standing before him

“I like the beard,” Paul finally said. “It makes you look . . . distinguished.”

Adam smirked. “You mean old?”

“I mean distinguished, like you’re a man of the world.”

Adam gave him a look. “I get grayer each year.”

Paul ran a hand through his own gray hair. “No kidding,” he answered with a slight laugh, his joy over seeing his old friend tempered by the sight of dark circles under his eyes and a pale complexion.

Adam flinched under the scrutinizing gaze and turned his attention to the waiting room. “So, you finally married that gal?” he began. “I can tell by the homey touches.”

“Like those, do you?” Paul commented, watching Adam avoid his gaze as he moved about the room.

“How long’s it been?”

“Going on five years now. Didn’t Ben tell you?”

Adam stopped and turned back, giving him a sheepish smile. “Sorry, Paul, I’m sure he did.”

“No matter,” he said waving him off. “I didn’t get up the nerve ‘til about two years after you left.”

“And she stuck around?”

“Seems she loves me.”

Adam smiled. “You are a loveable old coot. She made a fine choice.”

“Well, it was all your doing.”

“A well-placed word here and there,” Adam said with a shrug.

“’Marry her!’ you yelled at me. I, of course, didn’t put much stock into that particular outburst since you’d been shot, had a fever and a concussion at the time.”

Adam chuckled remembering that day like it was yesterday.

 “It wasn’t until you repeated it to me after you recovered that I gave it a thought or two or three. But I asked and she said yes and, after I picked myself up off the floor, she kissed me. End of bachelorhood for me. You should try it sometime,” the doctor said with a wink.

“One of these days.”

“Yeah, I’ve been hearing that for I don’t know how long.”

Adam grinned but Paul noticed the emotion didn’t reach his eyes. He cleared his throat. “Adam, I’m so sorry about Hoss.” The grin slowly faded.

“I’m just sorry I wasn’t here,” Adam answered quietly. “Maybe if I’d been here…” He let the thought trail off and took a deep breath, coughing a bit and looking at Paul. “Have you seen, Pa?”

“He’s still not home?” Adam shook his head. Paul sighed. “The last time I saw him was at the funeral. I had to sedate him. Joe was beside himself and Jaime and Candy were doing their best to keep everything together. The next time I rode out to check on him, he was gone. That has to be more than a week ago. I know Joe’s been searching for him. It’s like he’s disappeared.”

“Disappearing sounds real good to me right now,” Adam admitted with a sigh. “Actually, amnesia might be better. Think you can help me with that?”

Paul looked at his friend, noticing Adam’s attempt at humor was hollow at best. Hoss had been the heart and soul of them and now that was gone. What would they do now?

“Aside from cracking you upside the head, I’ve no other options open to me at the moment.”

“I had to ask,” Adam said as he rubbed his temple.

“Are you all right, Adam?”

“I’m just tired,” he said a bit too quickly, suddenly sitting down on the couch and holding his head.

Paul sat down next to him, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You look like crap, Adam. Anybody told you that lately?”

He turned to Paul with a raised brow. “Is that your professional opinion?”

“I do have the word doctor before my name, so it must be.”

Adam smiled then and rubbed the back of his neck. “Quite a few actually have made that remark.”

“Well, now that you’re back in my town,” Paul began, “I only have one thing to say to you.” Adam pulled up his head and pursed his lips, knowing what was coming. “Want to open up and tell me what’s wrong or shall I pry the information from you with my new torture instruments just arrived from New England?”

“Do I have a choice?” Adam asked.

“None.” A small smile touched his lips.

“Do your worst, Doctor,” was his response, letting Paul help him to his feet.

“Don’t I always?”

*****

 “What ‘cha doin’ up here, Adam?” Hoss asked, peering over the top of the ladder leading to the hayloft, barely able to see his big brother tucked into the farthest corner.

“Nothing,” came the quick answer.

“Oh . . . Ah, well, dinner’s in a few minutes. Hop Sing’s makin’ pot roast.”

“I’ll be in shortly. You go get cleaned up.” 

Hoss nodded and took a step down then came back up. His brother hadn’t moved. “Adam?”

“Yes, Hoss?” he answered quietly.

“Why’d Pa leave?” Hoss asked, swallowing hard. “He ain’t mad at us is he?” 

Adam turned to him then, Hoss seeing tears streaking his face. “No, Hoss, he isn’t mad at us.”

“Then why’d he leave?”

“He’s sad, Hoss.”

“Me, too, but I ain’t leavin’.” 

Adam crawled over toward his younger brother and put his hands over Hoss’. “He can’t stay here right now. Everything reminds him of Mama. The rose bush, the curtains . . .”

“Joe?” 

Adam nodded. “Joe.”

“But Joe needs him. We all need him.”

“He’ll be back. He just needs time.”

I need him,” Hoss answered lowering his head.

 Adam sighed. He needed him, too. “Sometimes people just have to sort things out.”

“But it’ll be dark soon and it’s gettin’ cold.” 

Adam smiled then, a small knowing smile. “Sometimes the dark lets you see things more clearly.”

“Huh?” 

Adam smiled again and let Hoss go. “Do you remember when Chowder died?”

“A course,” Hoss answered sadly. “That was an awful day.”

“And you ran away and Pa and I found you on that bluff overlooking Lake Somerset staring at the stars?” Hoss nodded. “What were you looking for up there, staring at the stars?” 

Hoss thought on it a moment. “It just seemed like the place ta go, ta be alone and think.”

“And did you learn anything?” 

Hoss thought on it. “I learned . . . I learned that life ain’t fair and sittin’ out in the cold don’t change nothin’. The next day came just like the one before and there was nothin’ I could do about it. So’s I might as well just move on.”

“And that’s what Pa’s doing. Looking at the stars, trying to figure it all out.” He patted Hoss’ arm. “He’s not mad at us. He’s mad at fate, at God for taking Mama, and I can’t say that I blame him. He’ll be home when he figures things out.”

“I hope it’s soon. I don’t like him not bein’ here.”

“Me either, buddy. Me either.”

 *****

Adam hummed softly to Chubb as he rubbed him down making his coat shine like no other. Offering him an apple, he grinned upon hearing Sport’s disapproving snort over being ignored.

“I’ve got one for you, too,” he said handing over the item and patting the chestnut on the neck. “You boys have to take care of ol’ Chubb here,” he said, his eyes taking in Cochise as well. “He misses his man.” Me, too.

“What are you doing out here?” came Joe’s voice from the barn door.

“Talking to an old friend.”

“And you used to tease me about that.”  Adam smiled. “No, really, what’re you doing out here? It’s 3:00 in the morning and it feels like it’s gonna snow.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” he admitted.

“That dream again?”

Adam nodded. It should’ve gone away. Joe was safe, Hoss was . . . Hoss was elsewhere and his father had abandoned them. No, that wasn’t right. Ben would come home when he could.

“Did you talk with Doc Martin? He have anything to say?”

“Only that I looked like crap,” he answered, running his hand over Chubb’s muzzle.

“Well, you do,” Joe quipped, rubbing his arms to try and give them a bit of warmth.

“Gee, thanks.”

“I call ‘em as I see ‘em.”

Adam turned then and fixed his brother with a look. “Yeah, you do, don’t you. And you’re usually right.”

Shocked, Joe’s mouth fell open. “Did I just hear you tell me I was right about something?”

Chuckling, Adam patted Chubb on the neck and placed the currycomb back on the wall. “Quite often, even when you were younger.”

“Will wonders never cease.” Adam shook his head and grabbed Sport’s reins, drawing Joe’s attention. “Going somewhere?”

“I need to remind myself of the beauty of this place and since I can’t sleep . . .”  He let his voice trail off as he checked the cinch, then led Sport out of the barn and hoisted himself slowly into the saddle.

“In case you didn’t notice it’s dark and cold out here.”

Adam took in a breath of the chilled air, covering a small cough. “The better to see things, little brother.” Adam looked down at Joe with sad eyes. “The better to see things.”

He watched as Adam moved out of the yard and disappeared around the barn.

It dawned on Joe that he should probably go after him. Adam hadn’t slept much in the days he’d been home and, obviously, not much before and, as the doctor had so professionally put it, he looked like crap. A chill worked its way through him and he closed the barn doors, hurrying back inside the warm house. Adam needed time alone, and he could still get a few hours of restless sleep before morning came.

*****

“Ya didn’t get very far,” Hoss said from behind Adam. “Yer gonna miss yer stage.” Adam didn’t move and Hoss sat down next to him, both watching the ripples move across the lake from the rocks Adam tossed in.

“Hoss, how come . . .” Adam began, chunking another rock into the lake. “Aren’t you mad at me, too?”

“Mad at ya? What for?” he asked, tossing his own rocks into the water.

“Because I’m leaving.”

“Oh, shoot, why’d I be mad at ya over that?”

“Joe seems to think . . .” Hoss waved his hand to cut him off.

“Don’t go puttin’ anythin’ into what Joe says. Ya know how he is. He wants everythin’ ta stay the same while ya always was lookin’ for somethin’ different.”

Adam glanced at his brother. “Is it wrong to want something different? To see the world?”

“Naw. It makes ya who ya are, big brother.”

“But, Pa . . .”

“Ah, he wants ya ta go and he wants ya ta stay. Poor man’s beside hisself ‘cause he knows it’s what ya want and he don’t want ta stand in yer way.” More rocks rippled the lake.

“And you?”

“Me? Well, a course, I don’t want ya ta leave. Ya’ve been there my whole life, and I cain’t see gettin’ up each mornin’ without seeing that purty face of yours. But I know it’s what ya need and I ain’t gonna stop ya. ‘Sides, who would I write too about Joe?” 

Adam smiled knowing that Hoss would be doing a lot of writing.

“But the most important part is I want ya ta be happy. That’s all I ever want for anybody. And here’s the question ya should ask yerself – is this what ya want?”

“Yes,” Adam answered without hesitation and Hoss nodded.

“Then give it yer all, Adam, like I know ya will, and conquer the world. When yer through, come on home and we’ll be waitin’. A little older and a little bent, but we’ll be here.” Silence dropped around them and more rocks fell.

“Will you make sure Sport gets those special oats he likes?”

“A course.”

“And a good patch of grass to run through to work off his excess energy?”

“I’ll treat him like he’s mine.” 

Adam smiled. “Chubb’ll get jealous.”

“Naw, he’s an easy-goin’ fella like me.” 

Adam nodded and reluctantly rose, dusting off his pants as Hoss stood with him. They both looked out over the sparkling blue water.

“Home is always the place you run from and are glad that it’s there when you decide to run back,” Adam stated.

“That’s true,” Hoss said with a smile putting an arm about Adam’s shoulder. “Just remember that we’re destined ta be together no matter what, whether it’s here or elsewhere, and don’t ya forget it.”

“Family ‘til the end?”

“’Til the end of time, brother. The end of time.”

*****

“The end of time,” Adam mumbled as he placed a rock on top of his brother’s stone, kneeling down and tucking a folded piece of paper at the base under the fresh flowers. He’d put this off long enough. It was time to face up to his fear and let the truth take over.

Closing his eyes, he ran a hand along the inscription touching each letter with the tips of his fingers, feeling the depth of each carving, noting Hoss was much more than this epitaph and he felt sorry for those that would never know that. Forcing himself to stop putting it off, he opened his eyes, urging himself to speak the words aloud.

“’Eric ‘Hoss’ Cartwright, 1836 – 1873, Loving son and brother to Ben, Adam and Joe. Friend to all who passed his way. Godspeed, my gentle boy.’” A sob broke from him and he looked away, moving quickly and unsteadily to his feet to stand with his back to the stone.

His world had tumbled into a chaotic mess and his logical mind had followed, buried somewhere amid mounds of grief and anguish and guilt. He saw no out, no direction and he so wanted to just ride away and never look back.

“Ah, Pa, where are you?” His voice cracked and his hands turned into fists. Taking a deep breath, he turned back toward the stone. He was here to tell Hoss of the world and his journey in it, to share with him all that he’d seen and heard. He was too late to see the joy on his brother’s face but it wasn’t too late to regale him with stories and people and love. He was strong enough to do that.

Adam opened his mouth to begin when something moved in the trees above. Startled, he flung his head up and stepped back, hand falling instinctively to his gun, the world shifted and the ground gave beneath his feet.

Flailing his arms to regain some balance only made it worse and he soon found himself sliding down the bluff into the dark below. Grasping at the dirt, his hand found and wrapped about an old root stopping his momentum with a sudden jolt, his head striking the hard earth. Feet dangling over open space he could hear rocks pinging off the ground below, ending their dashing flight into the cold waters of the lake. Peering down, all he could see was darkness and it suddenly hit him. This was an all too familiar place. He’d been here many times before…every time he closed his eyes.

“It’s me,” he whispered. Not Joe, not Hoss, but me. True to the dream, he felt his fingers slipping and knew no one was there to save him. His life would end here, in the dark, at the foot of his brother’s grave. How fitting. Come home and fall off a cliff. Ah, the luck.

“Are ya gonna grab my hand or not?” came an all too familiar voice from above and his head shot up, his mouth falling open in surprise as his eyes fell on a face he knew he’d only see in memory. “Close yer yap and grab my hand ‘cause it’s a long way down, brother, and the lake is mighty cold this time of year.”

“How can you be here?” Adam asked, stunned into inaction.

“Does it matter?”

Not really.

Deciding he’d obviously fallen to his death and this was some kind of entry exam into heaven, Adam gritted his teeth and put all of his remaining strength into one last grab, flinging his free hand towards this lifeline real or imagined. A warm welcoming grasp met his and he was lifted back to solid ground to lie breathless across his brother’s grave, eyes firmly shut not daring to open them.

“Are ya gonna lie there all night or sit up and talk ta me?” Desperate for this to be real, Adam opened his eyes and stared in wonder at Hoss Cartwright, big as life, leaning against his own gravestone, that big smile just for him. Adam threw himself at his brother, wrapping his arms about him, relishing the feel of him beneath his hands. Sobs tore through him and a soft ‘easy boy, I’m here’ met his ears. Thank you, God, for this chance.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here, Hoss,” Adam said through his tears, still clutching his brother close to him. “I’m so sorry.”

“Weren’t of made no difference.”

“If I’d been there . . .”

“The same thing woulda happened and that ya gotta believe, Adam. I know how ya are – takin’ on guilt when there ain’t no need. Weren’t no one’s fault ‘ceptin’ my own and I’m downright sorry about it, too.”

“But I might’ve . . .”

Hoss pulled Adam from him and stared into his red-rimmed eyes. “Now listen here, older brother,” he began, giving him a little shake, “I slipped and cracked my head. Coulda happened ta anyone and does happen ta anyone on a regular basis. No one’s ta blame. No one’s at fault. It was just a silly thing that happened. I know Joe’s all tore up about it, too, but weren’t nothin’ he could do neither.”

“How do you know?” Adam asked. “How do you know for sure that with both of us there it might have been different?”

“’Cause I do. And ya just have ta believe me.”

“Hoss . . .”

“Ya believed I’d come save ya in that mine, didn’t ya?2

“Yes, but . . .”

“No buts. Ya believed and I came. Believe me now, Adam, when I say it weren’t of made no difference. It was my time.” He pulled Adam back to him. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. I was sad at first about leavin’ Joe and Chubb and you and Pa. Mostly for Pa, though. I knew he’d take it the hardest but I’ve kept my eye on him.”

“Is he all right?” Adam asked anxious to hear, holding tightly to Hoss’ arm. “Is he coming home?”

“He’ll be along shortly,” Hoss answered with a knowing smile.

“There are so many things I want to say to you. So many thank you’s and apologies  . . .”

“. . . and I know ‘em all, brother,” he interrupted. “Part a bein’ up there means I can listen in. And listenin’ in tells me a lot like ya need ta be home, Adam.”

“What?” he asked, pulling away from Hoss. Does he mean Boston?

“Home here, on the Ponderosa,” he answered for him. “Boston’s fine but yer not happy there.”

How does he know when I’m not even sure?

“Sell the business ta Aaron, sell the house, say goodbye ta all yer lady friends,” he said with a wink, “and come on home. Whether ya know it or not, this is where ya belong.”

Adam looked toward the ground. “It’s been seven years, Hoss. That’s a long time away to just come home.”

“Don’t matter if’n it’d been a hundred years, son. Stop wonderin’ if you’d be welcome. Yer a Cartwright and the Ponderosa is yer home. Ya’ve already seen that yer room’s the same. That should tell ya somethin’.” That had surprised him, what with Jamie being a part of the family now. “Ain’t nothin’ much changed ‘round here,” Hoss continued looking out over the lake. “A few more modern conveniences maybe, but people’s the same, fightin’ fer what ya believe’s the same, living on the land ya helped build the same.” He turned back to his brother. “I can see the yearnin’, Adam. I can see it plain on yer face. Ya don’t hide nothin’ from me. Never could.”

“That’s for sure.”

“Then come home. Be with us as it was meant ta be.”

Adam so wanted to come home, to pick up where he’d left off, to once again be a part of a family. He shook his head. “But you’re gone and Pa . . .”

“This may be where I sleep, Adam, but I’m always here,” Hoss said, tapping his brother on the head.

“It’s not the same,” he admitted. “I won’t have you to save me when I lose my way.”

“There’s always someone who’ll point ya in the right direction, big brother, whether ya want ‘em too or not, and ya know it deep inside. Ya’ve already spent the days ya been here rememberin’ what it was like when we was growin’ up. Home is where ya need ta be, Adam, now more than ever.”

Adam gazed at his brother. He may be more educated than Hoss, know more things about the world, but this man . . . this man was wiser than all of them. He knew people. He may not always understand what they did or why, but invariably he always knew how they were – how they could be in the bigger scheme of things. He was a treasure lost to all now.

“I’m afraid,” he admitted with a slight laugh, staring into those deep blue eyes, wondering for a moment where his ten-gallon hat was. “Imagine that. I ran out of here seven years ago and been too scared to come back. Now, you’re gone and other people have taken my place. Do I really belong anymore? Belong here?”

“Asking that just proves ta me ya already know the answer.”

“But it’s been so long . . .”

“Adam,” Hoss began holding onto his shoulder, “yer my brother and Little Joe’s and we love ya, simple as that. Tryin’ as ya are sometimes, we love ya, and Pa . . . well, Pa just wants his whole family back together. As to Jamie, he’s a fine choice fer a brother. Reminds me of Joe when he was little.”

“Always in trouble?” he asked with a smile.

“That’s what little brothers do. A course with ya being such an old fart now, havin’ a youngin’ about the house may just be too much for ya.” Adam snorted, having wondered the same thing himself, and Hoss smiled. “No more excuses, brother. Yer heart is here whether ya know it or not.”

Adam closed his eyes and sighed wondering if Ben would think the same thing. Would he accept his oldest coming home after a self-imposed absence or turn him away? Hoss wouldn’t be there to smooth out the edges.

God, he was so dreadfully tired and just wanted to sleep one night through without nightmares and worries and guilt. Is that too much to ask? Opening his eyes, he looked again into his brother’s smiling face. “I miss you more than you’ll ever know. I love you, Hoss,” he said with great sincerity.

Hoss’ smile grew wider. “What’s not ta love,” he answered holding out his arms. Adam leaned into his brother’s embrace again and held tightly to his arm. “I’ll always be here, Adam. Just call and I’ll come a runnin’.”

“Brothers ‘til the end?” Adam whispered, feeling himself drifting away in Hoss arms.

Hoss ran his hand up and down Adam’s back. “’Til the end of time, brother. The end of time.”

*****

 A soft rustling of leaves overhead filtered into Adam’s head and he opened his eyes to the first rays of daylight falling over the area and glancing off the lake. He flexed his hand, still feeling fabric beneath his fingers and smiled. Hoss was still here. A cool breeze blew the surrounding grasses, making him shiver, and he turned to look up into his brother’s face. He blinked when he realized it wasn’t Hoss who held him.

The grizzled visage of a man who’d been out and about sat above him, thinner and disheveled but still familiar, with clothes dirty and dusty and a nice beard and mustache to top it off. It gave him a distinguished look, what with his silver hair longer than normal and the stern set to his jaw. He looked like a politician. Adam chuckled at the thought, which turned into an extended cough and he felt the hands encircling him hold on tighter.

“Easy, son. I’ve got you.”

That voice, that deep resonant voice that could both sooth you and curse you in the space of a sentence filled him. How he’d missed it so.

 “I’ve got you.” Holding him there on the ground, Ben had him.

“Where did you . . .” Adam managed between coughs.

“I startled you,” Ben answered, rubbing his hand up and down Adam’s back. “You fell over the side and I pulled you up.”

That’d been Hoss! Rubbing his gritty eyes, Adam could feel for himself how hot he was but he knew he hadn’t been dreaming.

“I knew there was something wrong when you kept calling me . . . Hoss,” Ben said, his voice halting slightly over the name. “I tried to get you up on Sport but that blasted animal just wouldn’t stand still, so I opted for a night out with two of my sons.”

This can’t be right. I had a conversation with my brother, not my father. How could . . .  It was Hoss, for the words spoken were different then how Ben would’ve phrased them. Hoss came when he needed him most, reminding him of where he should be. That he would always believe.

Ben shifted, catching Adam’s attention, his soft deep voice following. “’A flame diminished carries not the light it once held but only the memory of the golden moments of wonder and the brightness that was made of you. Never will I forget nor put aside the thought of you for in my heart the flame rekindles and the wondrous light grows within to help me find my way.’” Ben’s hand fell to his lap, holding the paper Adam laid by Hoss’ grave, and a tear rolled down his cheek. “As long as we remember him, his light won’t go out,” he softly said. Adam couldn’t say anything, the lump in his throat too large to speak, so he lay quietly in his father’s arms.

“Come home, son,” Ben stated. Startled, Adam slowly pushed himself up. Ben holding him steady, gazing into those dark eyes so filled with guilt and sadness knowing that his own eyes reflected the same. “Come home, Adam. We need you now more than ever. ­I need you.”

His heart soared at the prospect. “Hoss said . . .” Adam quickly stopped himself seeing questions in his father’s eyes.

“So he talks to you does he?” Ben asked without recrimination.

Adam chewed on his lower lip. Should I tell him or keep it to myself?

Then Ben smiled. “He talks to me, too.” Brows rising at the admission, Adam eyed his father and Ben saw the relief there.

“I’ve spoken often with him these last horrible days. We’ve spoken of you and Joe and how this land, this Ponderosa, waits for all of you, all my sons.”

“But there are others now,” Adam began, “others who’ve taken my place. I wouldn’t want to intrude . . .”

“Oh, stop it,” Ben said. “We’re both too tired and heartsick to pull that on each other.” Adam lowered his gaze. “I love you, Adam, and I want you here with us. Boston is too far away and what you have there, you can have here. Virginia City is growing by leaps and bounds and opportunity is here. But, mostly family is here.” He fixed Adam with a steely gaze. “I want you home, Adam. As a father to a son, I want you home.”

Great joy filled him like he hadn’t felt in years. He’d lost a brother but gained a home and could finally start forgiving himself for leaving in the first place.

Sounds of horses riding at a quick gallop interrupted them and visions of black and white came to them through the trees. The troops had arrived.

“I got worried, big brother,” Joe began as he moved towards them, “when you didn’t come home.” His eyes moved from Adam to Ben and he grabbed his father’s outstretched hand, smiling sweetly at him. “It’s good to see you, Pa,” he softly said.

“Joe.”

“Adam Cartwright! What in tarnation are you doing sitting on the cold hard ground this early in the morning?!” Paul Martin yelled from behind Joe as he emerged through the trees. “Are you trying to give me an ulcer?”

“Brought you a visitor,” Joe whispered to Adam. “Careful. He’s mighty cranky this morning.”

“I distinctly remember telling you yesterday to go home and go to bed for at least two weeks and let Hop Sing take care of you before you keel over. This doesn’t look like bed to me.” Hands on his hips, the doctor was the picture of indignation and it struck Ben funny.

Paul gave him a hard look when he heard the soft chuckle. “And what’s so funny, Mr. Cartwright? I seem to recall giving you the same prescription.”

“You’re right, Paul,” Ben began, his laughter bubbling up. “I’m sorry,” was all he could get out as Adam joined in the giggle-fest, soon to be followed by Joe.

Paul, the lone silent figure of sanity looked to the heavens and held up his hands.

This is what you leave me with, Hoss? It isn’t funny.”

“Yes, it is,” floated on the morning breeze, causing the giggles to quiet, Joe shot Ben and Adam a look, each keeping their gaze from the other.

Clearing his throat, Paul continued his tirade, although a bit more subdued. “Ah, well, now I’m going to count to three. If you’re not up on that horse of yours, Adam, I’m going to cold-cock you, strap you to him and take you home myself.”

The sudden lightness of the situation opened a small crack in the despair that had so befallen the family and they all thought, perhaps there was a light at the end of this particular tunnel. Joe helped Adam to his feet, Paul catching him when his first step faltered, immediately slapping a hand over his patient’s forehead and shaking his head with disgust.

“Come on, you mule-headed, foolhardy . . .” Paul’s voice faded out as he led Adam toward Sport, Joe reaching out again for his father’s hand.

Slowing rising to his feet, Ben held onto Hoss’ stone, wiping a stray leaf from the top. “Sleep well, son,” he whispered then turned to watch Adam mount, Paul still shaking a finger at him.

“Is he coming home?” Joe asked watching the two of them.

“Yes,” was all Ben said, Joe noting a smile in his voice?

“Good. I may regret this later but I’ve missed all the teasing and bullying. It’ll be good to hear again.”

“Good things can still come from bad situations,” Ben said watching his eldest ride away with Paul, who still railed at him as the two disappeared through the trees. “Even after all these years I sometimes forget that.”

Joe turned to Ben, hoping he knew the answer to his next question. “You ready to come home, Pa?” Joe asked unsure whether Ben would be able to set foot inside the house again.

Ben wrapped his arm about Joe and smiled. “Way past time.”

The two mounted up, each turning to look at Hoss’ stone one last time . . . for today. The bluff at Lake Somerset would become a meeting place in the years to follow and would always yield answers to the many questions brought there.

*****

EPILOGUE

 

February 1, 1875

 Dear Pa and Joe,

 This’ll be my last letter to you since I’ve finally finished the London job, and sold the house and my holdings to Aaron this week. I’ll be hopping on a train come Friday and in two weeks I’ll be home. Home. What a nice word that is. A place to run from and a place to run too when you need it.

 Hoss was right. I’ve been pining for home for many years and just didn’t have the guts to admit it. It gets in your soul and doesn’t ever really leave no matter how much you want it too. Fortunately, I’m older and wiser and know how to listen to my big brother.

 I was so glad to hear of Joe’s recovery from his ordeal in the desert3. We all know how destructive an experience like that can be.4  The Ponderosa will keep him sane.

 Aaron offered me a job as a consultant and you’ll never guess where – Virginia City. He wants to expand out west and, of course, I accepted.

 Tell Sport to be ready for a walkabout. I plan on spending as much time as I can reacquainting myself with the land and my new family members, and tell Hop Sing I’ve got a crate full of spices for him.

 Please give a big thank you to Hoss for me. Tell him I’ll see him soon and catch him up. Family’s what’s most important until the end of time.

 Love to you both, Hop Sing and Jaime. See you soon!

 Love, Adam

 

***The End***

1I’m guessing it might have been a gift from the Chief  2The Philip Diedeschiemer Story  3The Hunter   4The Crucible

 [Author’s Note:  I’m placing Hoss’ death on or around November 1873. Joe married in 1874 (beginning of Season 14) then lost his wife 7-9 months later. The rest of Season 14 could have passed within 3-6 months. I’m thinking it might have taken Adam about a 12 to 14 months to clear up what was on his desk and come home, especially if he had overseas work since we all know he wouldn’t leave unfinished business for his partner, Aaron Butler, to clean up. So I would place him back at the Ponderosa a month or two after the last episode, The Hunter, which could be December 1874 or early 1875. If I’ve screwed up on the years, please forgive me. Send me any information that may contradict my guesswork and I’ll fix it. Thanks! J

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