The Days Between (by Calim11)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,300


Adam Cartwright stood quietly looking out the window as the sun set on another day. The wisps of clouds that blew through the day still lingered, catching the fading rays like a giant pussywillow whipped across the sky.

Rubbing red-rimmed eyes, he sighed. Tomorrow was coming, sooner now rather than later, and he dreaded it. Mrs. Hastings had pressed his good suit and it hung waiting for him on the wardrobe, taunting him, watching him, making him feel worse than he already did. Turning from the window, he eyed it. Over his lifetime, he’d had to wear one like it often, so often in fact that he hated the look of it, hated the feel of it, because it only represented one thing to him, one lasting thing that no one could flee from on this earth – it meant death.

Dropping his head into a trembling hand, he wondered why someone else he knew and loved had died. Yes, he understood that all things ended and that it happened to everyone, but he was just so tired of it all. Sometimes he even considered that these things happened because they knew him – his mothers, friends, relatives. But that wasn’t logical and today his mind needed logic to sort out all the feelings that were colliding with each other in his head and heart. Life was finite, and friends and family were just around for a short time, plain and simple.

“Too short,” he muttered, running a hand through mussed hair and raising a glance to the view outside, remembering a time long ago when he thought life was back on track, when things didn’t seem so dark and his heart beat lightly for the first time that he could remember.

She’d had golden hair and eyes so blue they rivaled the sky and her smile filled him with happiness. He was so very glad his father married Inger and she’d joined them on their trek west. Smiling for no reason and not minding chopping wood had become an everyday occurrence for him and it had all been because of her. He finally had a mother, someone he didn’t know he’d been missing until she came into their lives and loved him like he was her own. And he’d returned it, never thinking he could love someone as much as his father. Then she’d given him a brother. Well that was just the best thing in the world. He had a real family for the first time and he was truly happy.

The smile that played across his lips faded as his wandering gaze settled on the swaying flags affixed to the dozen or so masts of the ships at harbor, and visions of a way station came suddenly to mind, arrows thudding against wood and loud explosions from rifles returning fire threatening to deafen him. Stepping back, he sat down heavily on the bed and grabbed the bedpost as the feel of baby Hoss in his lap came back to him and he could see his newfound mother studying him with such love just before she picked up a rifle. Pride washed through him at that moment, pride that this woman was willing to defend him, a boy not of her flesh, and his love grew.

The whistle of an arrow1 sailing through an open window made him cringe. He heard the thud as it made contact followed by her sharp intake of breath. Inger never saw him looking at her as she fell, his eyes locked on the ever widening blotch of red on her back as he called for his father. Ben turned and panic consumed him as he lifted her off the floor and into his arms. Adam heard her last words for them, saw the tears on his father’s face and knew what was coming, and all he could do was hold Hoss tighter, who blissfully slept ignorant of the sudden loss of his mother.

Something wet hit Adam’s hand and he glanced down as more tears fell, finding it odd that after all these years the loss of Inger still made him cry.

Standing and wiping his face, he began to pace, knowing he’d never be able to stop the memories now that he’d opened that particular box, not this day anyway, for this day led to the next when he would find himself standing once again by an open grave hearing words spoken that couldn’t possibly represent the person that had been.

Taking a calming breath, he ran a hand across his chest then sat down at the desk to stare blankly at the empty sheet of paper before him, feeling the need to write something down because he knew his mind would be too stuffed with emotion and memory to say much of anything that made sense. And he had to make sense tomorrow; he had to say the words that would express his love. Tomorrow he had to give a eulogy.

Eulogy — such an odd word, meant to give praise to one who had passed on. He’d given far too many in his life, far too many words spoken that would capture the heart and soul of the person in the space of a few moments. It all seemed so trivial, those words, because that would be all that was left of a great man’s life.

Rubbing his face again, he stared back out the window, noticing the sun had completely disappeared and the last fading orange streaks had turned pink . . . and even now those were fading from sight. Soon it would be dark and the hours would fly until morning rose bright and loud overhead. How he dreaded that moment when he couldn’t push it aside, couldn’t mis-remember what that day would bring, for it would be a greater sorrow than these last weeks had been.

The sounds of a collision brought his attention to the street below, eyes raking the cobblestones to find two carriages with their wheels locked and one of the horses down. He should go down there . . . should help . . . but the sight led him back to the devastation that befell his family that late afternoon long before when a horse stumbled and took from them their ordered life as Marie2 lay dying in the Nevada dirt. Another wife, another mother gone, leaving them to face the world without that special smile that graced their days for so short a time. Leaning back, he closed burning eyes, trying to forget the lonely days that followed, the distance their father put between them, then his disappearance, leaving him and his brothers alone and wondering what would become of them.

He shook himself and the scene below came back to a horse being righted and those carriage wheels unlocked and all seemed well as the participants parted, leaving him with no other excuse to put off what he was supposed to do.

“Tilting at windmills,” he sighed, smoothing out the blank page before him.

Rubbing his temples, he remembered another time when windmills took him to a woman3 he’d wanted for his wife and woke up to find her missing. Until the day he’d left, he’d ridden those rocky crags, just in case she’d returned and was waiting for him. Everyone told him she was gone, taken by the fever she’d tried to cure, but he could feel her there, could feel her presence as he sat by the river, her memory always bringing such loss over what could’ve been, what should’ve been.

Another heartbreak. Another life lesson he could’ve done without.

Pushing her face away, he lit the small lamp on the desk then just stared at it. What did he need a lamp for anyway? No words came to him; no meaningful turn of phrase registered. Nothing was there except what a waste and he was pretty damn sure no one wanted to hear that.

“Get on with it!” he ordered himself, slapping hands on the desk wanting so to dismiss all this gloom, all these memories when a broken voice came to him whispering his name and asking why.

His eyes searched the deepening shadows for the voice, trying to stave off the blackness that rose so swiftly with this particular memory. The winsome Delphinehad looked to him for guidance and he’d failed, failed to protect her, to make her safe. Trapping eyes behind hard hands, he winced at the echoing gunshots that marked the end of a certain time for him as he’d hunted down her killer, his best friend, her husband. Even after all these years, his shoulder ached, still reminding him of all he’d lost in that one afternoon.

“Just someone else gone,” he muttered trying to quell such morose thoughts that danced about his active mind.

If only he could shut them out, control them like he controlled everything else. Nothing he ever did completely rid him of these thoughts and feelings and it plagued him through all the days of his life. And now it had happened again. Another life lost; another family member gone and he was all alone to deal with it, all the way across this great land, far from home.

A streetlamp was lit and a flash across the room caught Adam’s attention, touching his lips with a faint smile as a photograph came into view. A bit of humor found him as he remembered the difficult task of maintaining the stillness necessary for a clear print as the bawdy joke that created those smiles was fresh in their minds. As soon as the photographer gave the all clear, their laughter boomed throughout the room. His vision blurred as he desperately tried to recall the joke that had so tickled them both and came up with nothing but a vast wall of sorrow that kept everything out, including the words he needed to say tomorrow.

“Damnit,” he cursed, rubbing his forehead and glaring at the empty page before him. How did one put to paper all that he was, all that he’d been without missing that one all-important thing that captured his life? How could the history of one’s existence ever be re-told in a just a few short statements?

He looked back toward the photograph. “Help me, Grandfather,” he whispered, dropping the quill and moving arms protectively across his chest.

Abel Stoddard, proud Captain of the sea, had asked him to deliver his eulogy, asked him to impart to the gathered what a tough old cuss he was, and he’d accepted with honor, for no other reason than he’d loved him. And now he was gone, this last tie to his mother, and he felt lost.

A sickness had pervaded Abel’s house and Adam felt it still within himself. It was a form of influenza, Doctor Padric Herriman claimed, bad enough to knock Adam off his feet for a week but deadly to Abel who’d already been suffering from a heart ailment. So when Padric called upon him to sit by Abel’s side, to share his last hours with his grandfather, he’s dragged himself from his sick bed to keep him company. It was a duty he wouldn’t shirk, no matter that he wasn’t eating or sleeping much himself, just so he could be there for him one last time.

For hours they spoke of his mother and times past and how much Abel enjoyed his grandson’s time there and hoped he wouldn’t miss him too much when he was gone. ‘Your eyes,’ Abel said in those last moments. ‘Your eyes so like your mother’s. They tell me everything that’s in your soul. Go home, dear Adam. Go home to your Ponderosa and smile at each morning dawn, for that day will be the best day of your life.’ Abel then closed those eyes as Adam felt his hand grow lax in his grip. He’d cried then as he hadn’t done in years, feeling a hand on his back and for one brief instant hoped it was his father but knew it couldn’t be.

When would he be given a respite from this torment? How could God be so unforgiving to plague him with constant death of those he loved? Growling as he wiped at his eyes, Adam forced back all the memories and picked up the quill, letting it hover over the page. For a man who knew so many words, none were forthcoming, so he turned his gaze once again out the window and onto the night catching the wayward tail of a shooting star as it streaked across the heavens. A vision came of the first one he’d seen from the back of a wagon as he lay nestled in his father’s arms. ‘Make a wish, son’, came his father’s deep voice and he’d wished for a moment of joy and happiness to replace the sadness that radiated out from them both. It was a child’s wish, a wish that came true but never lasted.

Perhaps it was asking too much; perhaps each person only had a quota of happiness throughout their life and nothing more. Perhaps it just was what it was and no matter how you worried it, would always be the same.

“Just do it!”

Getting angry with himself usually worked and he dipped the quill and began to write whatever came to him, whatever flowed from the ink. It wouldn’t do to read it now but let it finish on its own as if someone else was writing because he couldn’t face it this night, couldn’t face the words that appeared. Tomorrow would be hard enough.

*****

Ben Cartwright hesitated before the door. This was the house where he and Elizabeth had lived for so short a time; lived and loved and he never thought he would be standing here again. It all looked the same – the weathered brick, the white trim, the ship’s bell mounted on the awning. It all looked the same . . . even the black mourning wreath affixed to the door.

“I’m too late,” he mumbled, remembering a similar wreath from long ago.

Nothing much entered Ben’s thoughts those first minutes after Elizabeth died, those first hours that stretched into interminable days of grief, except the black wreath hanging from this door, its satin ribbons fluttering in the winds from the sea as if waving goodbye to his dreams, to his love, to his life. Now, many years later, the feelings returned full force at the very sight of this evidence that death once again marched on this house. He hung his head in sadness over the loss of such a great man and a great friend to his son. Saying a quick prayer, Ben quietly knocked, receiving no reply.

This was the second time this evening he’d stood on a porch and received no reply – the first had been Adam’s own house just down the street. It should have come as no surprise that those doors remained shut since the windows were dark and a pile of newspapers spilled across the stoop. Gathering up his things, Ben walked to the familiar porch of Captain Abel Stoddard. And from where he stood now, he glanced at the windows draped with black bunting and swore he saw a slight flicker against the glass. Trying the door, he found, much to his surprise, it open before him.

Quietly stepping inside, Ben scanned the familiar surroundings and was hit with an onslaught of memory that made him step back as if physically pushed. Her laugh, her smile, those eyes . . . those eyes Adam inherited that spoke volumes, though not a word needed to be said. Sweet Elizabeth . . . how he missed her still even after all these years.

Dropping the bags, Ben hastily closed the door against the evening chill and undid his muffler, hanging it and his coat on the standing rack. The sound of a clock striking midnight startled him. He’d no idea what time it was, intent only on getting here to be with his son.

It had been a crisp fall day when Roy Coffee brought Adam’s telegram to the house with whispered words of condolences. Frightened for his son’s health, he’d ripped it open, his open distress changing to one of great sadness. ‘GRANDFATHER SUFFERED HEART ATTACK. STOP. WON’T SEE WINTER. STOP. WILL SEND LETTER. STOP. ADAM. STOP.’ The message was clear and short but Ben knew his son, knew he’d never ask him to come, never tell him he was needed. He left that very day, bothering only to send a comforting telegram in return. He wouldn’t let his boy face this alone. So much had been lost in his young life and it was his duty as a father to make sure offered support was available as Adam had supported him so many times in the past. Too many times.

But he was too late; the Captain had moved on and Adam had been left alone. But now he was here and would offer whatever he could.

So late the hour, he dare not call out, so crept up the stairs treading lightly as he peeked into each room finding them all empty until only two remained. Skirting Abel’s, he stood silently in front of Elizabeth’s, the room they’d shared as newlyweds; the room their lives began in; the room she died in and Adam was born.

Seeing that it was ajar, he eased it open, his vision beholding a beautiful woman sitting on the bed smiling at him as the morning sun blazed through the window. He blinked and she was gone replaced with a dark room holding a single light that flickered near the window. As his eyes adjusted, Ben made out a shadowed figure draped over a desk and silently approached, recognizing the familiar features lit by the dancing flame and wondered why his boy wasn’t in bed.

Peering over his shoulder, Ben could see words written beneath Adam’s hand and leaned forward resting a hand on his son’s broad back without thinking. Brought instantly awake, Adam practically fell from the chair, Ben barely catching him as he tipped to the side.

“I’ve gotcha,” said Ben as he hung on, hearing his son trying to catch a startled breath.

Gripping the desk, Adam worked to get unsteady feet beneath him then looked up into a face he hadn’t seen in six years, unsure if what he was seeing was true or just some haunting dream.

“Pa?”

“I came as soon as I could. I’m sorry I’m late,” came Ben’s answer.

In the darkened room, Ben smiled at his boy and then found long arms wrapped about him hanging on for dear life. Automatically clutching his boy to him, Ben’s heart broke as Adam’s sorrow-filled cries filled the room.

“It’s all right, son. You’re not alone. I’m here. I’m here.”

*****

The morning light shifted through the familiar room and arced across the bed from the slit in the drawn curtains, falling across Adam’s face. Ben looked down upon him, better able to see him now in the light of day, noting his beard did nothing to hide his haggard appearance.

Six years. My, that was a long time no matter how you looked at it, and it had been just last month, all those years before Adam left for Boston. Oh, numerous letters marked their time apart but neither had had time to travel to the other. Now the Captain was gone, the reason for Adam returning to Boston.

Would he come home now?

Would he dare ask the question?

Lost in thought as he stood there gazing at his son, Ben missed the first knock behind him but was startled from his musings when the second knock was followed by a creaking of the door as it slowly opened. He spun, hand automatically reaching for the gun that wasn’t there, as a kindly face peered around the door.

“Oh!” came to him as Ben’s eyes settled on an older gentleman with tousled gray hair, spectacles and a generous mustache that draped over his mouth. Grasping the door, Ben moved out into the hall and eased it shut behind him.

“May I help you?” he asked of the man who now smiled up at him.

“I’m Padric Herriman,” he gave Ben holding out his hand. “I’m . . . I was Captain Stoddard’s physician,” he explained.

“Oh,” Ben hastily said gently taking the man’s offered hand afraid he might crush it in his grip. “I’m Ben Cartwright.”

“Adam’s father,” Padric said as if he’d known him his entire life. “How very nice ta meet ya, Mr. Cartwright. Yer boy’s been a Godsend for the Captain these last years and especially these last weeks when he took ill. I’m so sorry ta have ta meet ya under these circumstances.”

“The Captain was a good man.”

“Aye, he was,” Padric said with a nod.

“I was hoping to get here before he left us,” Ben explained. “When did he pass?”

“Early Monday mornin’,” Padric informed him.

“Monday? But that was just . . .” His voice trailed off as Padric nodded again.

“Adam was here along with meself and Mrs. Hastings,” Padric continued. “It was a sad day for us all.”

“I thought I had more time,” he tried to explain. “Adam said he’d had a heart attack.”

“Oh, aye, he did. But it ‘twas the illness that hastened ‘is departure from this good earth.”

“Illness?”

“Aye. ‘Twas goin’ around and came inta this house. Adam was quite ill ‘imself for a time but came ta the Captain once he was called,” Padric explained, noticing worry lines increase on Ben’s face. “Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Cartwright. Young Adam is a strong lad. He’ll be fit afore long.”

“Well, I’m sorry I didn’t make it in time to say goodbye. The Captain meant more than you know to me and my son.”

“We all knew how proud he was of young Adam, how he’d taken over the business and made it better than afore. Spoke often of ‘im and you, Mr. Cartwright, and his darlin’ Elizabeth. He was right proud of all ya’d achieved out west.”

Ben raised a brow, having always wondered about that. “His lovely daughter gave me a good son. I’m so very glad they could spend the Captain’s last days in each other’s company to ease his passing.”

“And it did. The Captain was very pleased ta have part of ‘is Elizabeth next ta ‘im as he said goodbye. But dear Adam ran ‘imself inta the ground these last weeks. I tried ta git ‘im ta rest but he’d hear none of it. A stubborn boy ya have there, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Don’t I know it,” Ben answered with a knowing nod.

“Aye. It took both meself and Mrs. Hasting ta manhandle ‘im inta bed.”

Chuckling, Ben remembered more than once that particular chore. “It’s never easy with him but he means well.”

“Oh, aye, and delivers he does. Yes, he does.” Padric nodded then looked back up to Ben. “Well, I just came by ta tell Adam the service’ll be at 1:00 pm at the Wayfarer’s Chapel. He was expected ta give the eulogy but if he’s not up ta snuff, I can always step in or Reverend Allison can as well. He just needs ta let us know.”

“I’ll make sure he knows.”

Padric smiled and once again stuck out his hand, Ben grasping it. “Twas a fine pleasure meetin’ ya, Mr. Cartwright, even though this is a sad occasion. We’ll be waitin’ at 1:00pm. I’ll see meself out.”

“We’ll be there,” Ben answered, watching the man make his way down the hall and down the stairs, hearing the door shut. Perhaps he should lock that door.

Moving back into the room, he was pleased that Adam still slept, his sudden worry about his health lessened by the report of the doctor. Now that he knew, he could see the telltale signs of sickness – a light sheen of sweat on his face, the gray color to the skin and would no doubt see those beautiful eyes lacking their usual shine.

Settling the blanket closer to Adam’s chin, Ben moved toward the window and peeked through the curtain, looking out at the familiar landscape, remembering he and Elizabeth’s long walks on the wharf, guessing the port of call each ship had made as it docked in the harbor then questioning the sailors as they disembarked. She was right eighty percent of the time and he marveled at how her eyes shone with delight at each new story the men told, each new picture they painted of distant lands. How delighted she’d been to discover Ben’s dream of moving west, trying his hand at taming an untouched land with her by his side. The thought sent shivers through him as they’d sat night after night downstairs or in this room planning their journey, a journey that she would not complete.

He glanced over his shoulder as Adam moved, snuggling down further into his pillow, holding the blanket close, and tried to fight off the memory of that dreadful day when a new life was awakened just as his old one disappeared right before his eyes. Distraught, Ben failed to notice the gift God had given him even as he’d taken away his reason for living, and drifted in mourning until the Captain set him straight. ‘He’s her son. Never forget that. Never forget that she still lives on in him and you’ve no right to throw that away, no matter how you feel. Pick yourself up, Cartwright, and take the responsibility for what she left you or I’ll do it for you!’ Harsh words to a splintered soul but greatly needed and later, much appreciated.

“Captain, please tell our Elizabeth hello for me and remind her how much I love her. I’m sure she knows but it’s nice to hear once in awhile.”

Ben smiled then and turned toward the desk, his gaze falling once again upon the page he’d not been able to see last night. Hot tears pricked at his eyes over the poem written, feeling Adam’s love for his grandfather in their meaning and wishing he could keep further loss from his life. But he could no more do that than keep the moon from rising each night.

Replacing the page, he sighed, sighed for all the times he’d stood in the same place his son would stand this afternoon and didn’t envy him that position. It was never easy to move through life and have to leave people behind, and it shouldn’t be easy, but he knew Adam had built a wall to protect himself from these events, learned to control his emotions to keep him safe. But today he was tired and ill and a little bit off course and doubted he would be so controlled.

“You’re really here,” came from behind and Ben turned to find those eyes, Elizabeth’s eyes, looking right at him, noticing they weredark and dull, their normal spark hidden.

“I’m really here,” Ben answered with a gentle smile as he sat on the side of the bed running a hand down his boy’s arm. “I’m sorry I’m late.” He watched Adam close those eyes again then reach for him. He grasped the searching hand tightly.

“You couldn’t know,” Adam answered, wiping at his eyes with the heel of his hand.

“So tell me,” Ben began with a slight smirk, “how long have you had a beard?”

Adam sniffled and forced a grin onto his face. “Almost since the time I arrived. I’d gotten tired of shaving twice a day. Besides, it keeps me warm in the winter.” His eyes opened then and the grin swelled into a frail smile then a full blown one that touched Ben’s heart, a slight flicker returning to those eyes. “I’m so glad you’re here, Pa. I didn’t think . . .  I wasn’t sure I could get through this one by myself.”

“You’re never by yourself, son. I’m always with you, wherever you go and so is your mother.”

“It’s not the same,” he admitted, his smile leaving, Ben watching emotion play across his face. “I needed . . .  It’s just nice to have you near. I’ve missed you. I’ve . . . I’ve missed . . . everything,” came the broken voice as he tried to stop the tears and failed miserably. “Oh, Pa, why’d he have to die?”

Ben quickly pulled Adam into an embrace holding him tightly. “I don’t know, son. I just don’t know.”

He just held on, listening to his boy’s heartache as he rocked him, remembering that question being asked many times before and never having an answer. It was all so easy when Adam was young and Ben heard his first words, watched him take his first steps then listened as he read to him from his primer for the first time – all simple things in the life of a child but monumental to a parent.

But then harsh realities slipped in and all the losses his son had faced throughout his early life raised their ugly heads. The loss of his own mother and Hoss’ and Joe’s; young friends killed on the wagon train as they made their journey west; running onto the remains of pioneers who didn’t make it across the desert and victims of hostile Indians. They’d gone hungry, been cold, and fallen ill without benefit of a doctor, all because Ben ripped them away from civilization to follow a dream, a dream that almost killed them, a dream that had taken Adam from his childhood.

Now, Abel was gone, the last remaining link to Elizabeth, the man who’d helped shape his life as a young man then offered him more as an adult. As far as Ben knew, Adam had been happy and successful, and for that he was glad, for there was nothing he wanted more for his sons than their happiness and he’d do anything he could to make it so.

For now, he simply slid in beside Adam and rested his chin against the dark hair enjoying the closeness, having missed their after-dinner talks and discussions of politics and the latest contracts and what they should do about Joe. He’d simply missed him. Having spent his first five years as just the two of them, they were closer than most brothers and could read each other without saying a word, a closeness born of necessity on a bouncing seat of a wagon crossing this great country.

“I love you, son, and everything is going to be all right,” he whispered kissing Adam’s head, feeling a hand grasp his shirt.

He smiled then as thoughts of those cold nights they’d bundled up together for warmth in the middle of nowhere came back to him. It seemed he always had to disentangle that small hand from his shirt as if Adam was afraid he’d disappear like so many before him.

“You keep holding on, Adam,” he whispered as he brushed his boy’s hair off his forehead, realizing he was drifting back to sleep in the comfort of his father’s arms. “I don’t ever want you to let go.”

He kissed him again and looked toward the window hoping the Captain had found Elizabeth and they were both smiling down upon them.

*****

“Do you have your papers?” Ben asked, watching Adam fiddle with his string tie.

“In my pocket,” he answered then frustrated pulled at the offending item about his neck, feeling Ben’s hands still his own and take up the effort to get it just right.

“Are you ready?” Ben asked.

“No,” came the honest answer as he rolled his shoulders to sit his jacket just right as his father finished with his tie. “You’d think after all the practice I’ve had doing these things, I’d be more at ease.”

Ben heard the sadness behind those words and laid a hand on Adam’s back. “It’ll soon be over and then we can get you back home and into bed.”

Adam glanced over. “Home here or home home?”

Ben held his gaze, so wanting to say home to the Ponderosa but refrained. “Where you are is home, son,” he answered, helping Adam ease into his coat, handing him his hat and gloves. “Ready?” he asked again.

Adam just sighed and nodded, settling his hat and tightening his muffler as he stepped out the door. Pulling up the collar of his coat, he glanced toward the Wayfarer’s Chapel not three blocks away and the steady stream of people headed in that direction. Swallowing the sudden lump in his throat, he started out with Ben following closely behind.

Staring straight ahead, he felt every bit of the cold breeze that bounced against him off the waters to his right; gulls called from above and flags whipped in time with the shifting winds and he swore he heard his grandfather’s voice calling from the docks. Steps faltering, he so wanted to turn and investigate but then huddled further down into his coat and continued on, all the while feeling his father’s comforting hand on his back then his arm as they soon found themselves standing in front of the open chapel doors.

Gazing upward at the steeple and the large bell that resided there, Adam remembered being amazed that he could still hear its toll far out in the bay and beyond when he and Abel sailed up the coast on one of his old mate’s ships when he’d been in college. ‘The sea gets in your veins, laddie,’ he’d told him, ‘and you’re never rid of it’.

“Never rid of it,” Adam echoed as he glanced out at the bay, the sharp breeze filled with the smells of the sea wafting about them.

“You don’t have to do this you know,” Ben informed him as he caught his son’s eye, seeing sadness tempered with determination cross his face.

“Yes I do, Pa,” came the answer as he took a deep breath then moved up the steps to duck inside, doffing his hat and gloves, immediately faced with Reverend Gregory Allison, who placed a conciliatory hand on his shoulder and a whispered word in his ear. Ben stood quietly, noticing the familiarity between the two and wondered what he’d missed these last years, knowing it could probably fill up over a dozen volumes.

Their talking done, Adam moved away, Ben following to the front pew, noting the vast amount of people that crowded the small chapel and smiled inwardly. The majority of them were old salts that had traveled the world either with the Captain or because of him and came home to tell the tale. He could include himself in that group and did so with pride.

“Pa,” he heard, bringing his attention back to a man standing next to Adam. “Pa, this is Gerald Cripton. He’s a partner in grandfather’s business.”

Ben held out his hand. “Very nice to meet you, Mr. Cripton. Adam’s written of you often. I’m just sorry we had to meet on such a sad occasion.”

“The pleasure is mine, Mr. Cartwright,” Gerald answered, taking the outstretched hand. “May I please introduce my wife, Nora, and our daughter, Willa.”

“Pleased to meet you,” came Ben’s gracious reply as he grinned at little Willa who’d buried her face in her mother’s skirt.

“Now that you’re here, Mr. Cartwright,” Gerald began, “perhaps you can talk your stubborn son into taking a rest. What with his and the Captain’s illness, I’m afraid he’s about to keel over.”

“I’m fine,” came from Adam as he shrugged out of his coat and took a seat next to Nora.

“That’s what he always says,” Ben whispered as Gerald gave him a knowing nod.

“I’ve heard it before as well.”

They both nodded sagely and sat, a quiet falling about the room as Reverend Allison closed the doors then stepped up to the pulpit, laying out his Bible, his gaze taking in Adam before beginning to roam the assembled.

“It’s so very nice to see all of you here as we bid farewell to one of our own – Captain Abel Stoddard. It is a testament to what he meant to us all that so many of you chose to pay your last respects on this day.

“He was a tough man, a man who brooked no excuses if there was something else that could be done. He brought strength and hope to those who thought they were lost, and love and loyalty to those who dared to get to know him.

“Many of you sailed with the Captain and knew he expected his orders to be followed to the letter but would offer a hand, if needed, to get you through. Yes, he was a hard man but he had a heart larger than this room. And that we will miss, for there are few today who can command both a ship and our hearts with one smile, with one look.

“Today is a sad day, a day that will be remembered in this town as the day a candle flickered no more. But those left behind, those who basked in that candlelight became better because of it.” His gaze swung toward Adam whose eyes were closed, seeing Ben’s comforting hand resting on his leg. The Reverend took a breath, knowing how difficult this was for Adam, seeing the strain of the Captain’s passing clearly evident upon his pale face. No matter. Man did what he had to when called upon.

“The Captain had one final request. He wanted his grandson to deliver his eulogy and he’s graciously accepted. Adam?”

Looking up at the sound of his name, Adam climbed slowly to his feet and mounted the steps toward the Reverend, who once again placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll be glad to continue if you’d rather not,” he whispered to him.

Adam shook his head. “This was his last wish and I’ll see it through.”

Ben watched the exchange and worried for his son, having felt him shiver from the cold, exhaustion written plainly in his every move but knew nothing would keep him from doing this one last thing for his grandfather. So he settled in, ready to help if necessary, studying his boy’s sluggish movements as he reached into his jacket to pull out two folded pieces of paper, making a great effort to smooth out the wrinkles as he laid them on the pulpit. He heard him clear his throat then watched him move dark eyes toward the assembled then settle on him. Ben gave him a smile, hoping his mere presence would encourage him somehow.

Locking onto those warm brown eyes, reading their message of undying love, Adam found some inner strength he’d long thought fled and grabbed at it. God may have taken his grandfather but He’d given him his father in his time of need and he would be forever thankful for that. Giving out a lopsided grin, Adam ran a hand along the papers again and took a breath.

“My . . .” His voice caught — he hoped the ache that pounded through his heart would simmer down until he could get through this — and cleared his throat again. “My first impression of my grandfather was as a stern taskmaster who was dressing down a Captain of the sailing vessel, BRACKEN, in full view of God and everyone. I was shocked, to say the least, that this retired man of the sea was standing toe-to-toe with a full blown officer and repeatedly poking him in the chest with a very sturdy finger. The look on the officer’s face was odd, for no trace of animosity existed. All I saw was fear.” A small chuckle rose from the assembled. “I was scared too at the tone and volume that echoed about the wharf and wondered what I’d gotten myself into by accepting his kind invitation to stay with him as I went to school here in Boston.”

He grinned then at the memory, noticing an older gentleman squirming in his seat near the back, a few men poking him in the arm.

“I literally turned tail and began to sneak away when that commanding voice stopped me flat. ‘ Mister’, he called, ‘and yes, I mean you, turn around and face me!’ What could I do? That voice reminded me of my father, so I whipped around like a good soldier. There’s no defying that voice . . . either of them.” He threw a small lopsided grin at Ben, who traded looks with Gerald and merely shrugged trying to ignore the mirth coming from the assembled. “But as I got to know my grandfather, I realized those rough edges were more for appearance sake than actual day-to-day reality; his being gruff was how he told you he loved you . . . and he loved me as I loved him – warts and all.

“Over the years, he taught me many things. He listened to a young man’s dreams and desires and helped me over some rough patches. And when it came time to leave, to go home to my father and brothers, he walked me to the train station, tall and proud, showing off his grandson to all those who passed. This strong, sometimes belligerent man hugged me tightly and didn’t bother to wipe away his own tears but very gently took mine and said to me, ‘go home, laddie. Go home and make your life your own, for you’ve earned it. Prove to me that you’re as strong and stalwart as I am and a little pigheaded as well’.” A number of quiet laughs rose from the gathered at that. He glanced once again at Ben and saw glistening eyes rise to meet his own.

“And so home I came to help my father and brothers until one day, several years later, I received a letter. My grandfather asked me to come help him with his business. It seemed like a great adventure and now that my brothers were grown and the ranch was doing well, I came and it was as if I’d never left. He still called me laddie and he still praised me to his friends and his business associates and I still felt the need to make him proud, even though I was a man heading toward forty.

“Now six years have come and gone, and once in awhile, I would still catch him berating some poor officer on the wharf. And each time I watched that officer take whatever he dished out because they understood that this man wanted them to live; live to head to sea once more and prove their mettle against Poseidon himself, if necessary. It was who he was.

“But in the end, this giant among men followed the same path we all shall walk and he did it as we all hope to – with dignity and grace. As I sat with him on that last day, he turned to me and said, ‘go home, laddie, go home to your family and smile at each morning dawn for that day will be the best day of your life’.” Adam paused a moment; Ben watching him clutch the sides of the pulpit. “And while I can’t see that now, I know I shall when I ride over the crest of that last hill and see my home and my family spread out before me, waiting for my return as the sea waits for those who’ve left her behind.”

Ben heard the words and dared to hope. Could it be true that his son was finally coming home?

“I, ah, wrote something last night and hope that you’ll indulge me just for a moment longer. It seems to encompass my grandfather in just a few short words.

It wasn’t the beginning of his life

nor was it the end.

It was all the days between.

Those wretched dismal days

of heartache and sorrow

and untold drama unforeseen.

Those happy brilliant days

of excitement and joy

and happiness yet to be seen.

Those calm carefree days

of contemplation and reflection

and images of what has been.

It wasn’t the beginning of his life

nor was it the end.

It was all the days between.”

Adam hung his head for a moment then looked up. “Captain Abel Stoddard, my grandfather, was a man larger than life and he will be greatly missed by those he barely touched and those he held tightly to him.” He then focused on the casket to his left. “I wish you well, Grandfather, in this next phase of your life. And, please, make sure you remember to say hello to Elizabeth for both my father and myself. May peace be with you always.” Gathering up the papers, he made his way slowly back to Ben’s side and settled in next to him.

Ben took that moment to drape his arm about Adam’s shoulder, noticing the shivers had worsened and wondered if his boy would make it to the end of the service, let alone across the cemetery. But past experience taught him the lengths his son could push himself if he thought it was worthwhile and just held on tighter.

Adam, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so sure, knowing his surface strength was failing. A weakness was working its way through him and that was always a signal he was about to drop. Those thoughts were pulled away as Gerald patted his arm and Ben stood, handing Adam his coat and muffler as the pallbearers lined up on either side of the casket. They carefully guided the Captain toward the door and out into a gray world beyond, a stiff breeze blowing men’s coats and swirling ladies’ dresses. Ben felt Adam begin to lean on him as they followed and he held tightly to his arm as they crossed the cemetery, finally stopping near a large tree.

All stood silently as the Reverend commended the Captain’s body to the ground next to his beloved daughter, and a bell began to ring as the mourners bowed their heads. Adam moved out of his father’s grasp and knelt next to the opening to gather up damp earth into a trembling hand.

“Until we meet again, Grandfather,” he whispered, letting the dirt fall through his fingers to land with a loud clump on top of the casket.

Rising slowly, he could feel what little strength he’d found earlier disappear just as a blast of wind sideswiped him and he staggered, feeling strong hands grab him as he began to sag, not having to wonder whose hands those were. He relaxed into their grip, so thankful there was someone else to take over for awhile until he could get back on his feet, both literally and figuratively. Vaguely he heard Gerald’s voice shouting orders which brought a touch of mirth to him. His friend may be young but he’d learned a few things from the Captain as well.

“Rest easy, Adam,” came Padric’s voice and he even thought he heard Mrs. Hastings say something about hot bricks. But then another voice appeared, a gentle voice that washed over him like the evening tide and he opened foggy eyes to see gray skies and his father’s pleasant face bending over him.

“Everything will be all right, son.”

And he knew it would be because his father said so and let himself go.

*****

 The sea rolled and the ship pitched and his hammock swayed dangerously from side to side. Creaks and moans from tormented wood filled the room and a distant voice calling for him to wake and man his station prompted him to open his eyes.

Falling from the hammock as gracefully as possible, Ben donned his hat and yanked on his jacket and stumbled toward the ladder that led to the main deck, instantly soaked by a wayward wave as he clung to the railing.

“Hang on, boys!” was heard over the winds as Ben crawled up the ladder to the helm to take his station at the wheel. “There ya are, my boy! Steer us inta the wind and be quick about it!”

“Aye, sir!” Ben yelled over the wind, watching the masts play out and back as the ship finally found its course moving safely into calmer waters to let her exhausted crew gather their wits.

“That’s a good lad,” the Captain said, laying a strong hand on Ben’s shoulder and following it with a smile. “She’s a good ship, strong and brave, just like the men who sail her. Always treat her with respect and she’ll bring ya home every time.”

“Aye, sir,” Ben responded with his own smile as the sun began to peek through the rain laden clouds. “’A good ship, a sound sea is all I’ll ever want or be . . .’”

The Captain glanced towards him. “’For round the Horn and back again on a dark forbidding sea . . .’”

Ben smiled. “’Is how my life shall end or begin on that which we call She.’”

“Ah, ya’ve got poetry in yer soul, laddie,” the Captain gave him. “Always a good thing for a sailor to have. It’ll get ya through the worst of it and the best of it, too.”

“I’ll remember that, Captain.”

“Good for you!” he answered, slapping Ben on the back then moving away to yell out orders to the other men as the shoreline crept slowly towards them. Elizabeth waited there, waited for him, and Ben knew this time he would stay with her forever.

He loved the sea but he had a dream, a dream to go west and she was willing to follow. His smile grew wider at the thought of her and he began to sing, the tune taken up by those around him until the entire ship worked with voices raised as they sailed toward Boston harbor and his future . . .

Ben awoke to find himself muttering, and when he listened closely, could hear the words to that song. It made him grin and he turned over but after a few minutes found sleep had deserted him. Running a hand down a scraggly face, he tossed back the covers and stood, thinking a brandy or glass of warm milk might ease him back to sleep. Grabbing his robe and stepping into slippers, he headed for the stairs.

When they’d gotten Adam home four days before, his son had been shaking so badly his teeth practically chattered out of his mouth and Padric promptly stuck him in bed with Mrs. Hastings’ hot bricks and piles of blankets and quilts. He’d not stirred for two full days. ‘Ya keep ‘im in bed, Mr. Cartwright,’ Padric ordered, ‘for about a week and I’ll not hear ‘is cajolin’ ya ta get out from between them covers afore that. Do I have yer word, sir?’ he’d asked of Ben, who quickly complied, not bothering to remind the man how difficult that would be.

After Adam finally woke, Ben managed to confine him for another day, continuously prompting him with food and liquids until he accused his father of forgetting he wasn’t as big as Hoss. And on this day, Ben had to practically tie him down with a promise to take him downstairs tomorrow and maybe he could welcome one of the myriad of visitors who’d come to call himself.

But that was tomorrow and tonight Ben just wanted to get back to sleep, so he padded soundlessly toward the stairs, deciding the brandy decanter that sat near the fireplace was a lot closer than the kitchen. His journey stopped though at the bottom step when he realized the couch was occupied.

“I know,” was all Adam said. He glanced sheepishly up at him as he neared. “I’m supposed to stay in bed.”

“Let’s just hope Padric doesn’t come through that door because it’ll be my tail he swings me from, not yours.”

Adam gave a slight laugh at the vision that created. “I locked the door,” he said conspiratorially. “I think we’re safe.”

“I always knew you were sneaky,” Ben stated as he sat in the chair opposite. “Must’ve gotten that from your mother.” Adam laughed outright at that as Ben grinned. “Couldn’t sleep or just wanted a change of scenery?”

“A little of both,” Adam admitted with a yawn. “Too busy thinking to sleep.”

“Well, Joe always said you’d think your brain right out of your head one day.”

Adam sniggered. “I believe he was right.”

They sat in silence, both staring into the fire as it crackled before them, each lost in their own thoughts, their own memories.

“Grandfather left me the house,” Adam blurted out, “and the business.” He looked over at his father. “I’m now the proud owner of Stoddard Enterprises.”

“Oh?” was all Ben said, not surprised by Abel’s gift. “Do you want them?”

Adam returned his gaze to the fire. “I don’t know,” came his answer after a bit. “It’s just . . .” He stopped himself and leaned his head back against the soft arm of the couch. “It’s just too much.”

“You don’t have to make a decision right now.”

“If not now, when?” he asked glancing Ben’s way.

“Son, don’t rush into this. You have time.”

“But I want . . .”

Ben waited seeing him look away and close his eyes. “What do you want, son?”

The voice that answered was quiet and he had to strain to listen.

“I want to come home.”

Those five simple words prompted Ben to sit straight up, hoping what he’d just heard was what he’d just heard. Did he mean home to the Ponderosa or his own home here? Would that mean that Ben would have all his boys home?

Why doesn’t he say anything?

“Son?” he said, hoping to clear the air but nothing was forthcoming. “Adam?” he asked again, finally hearing deep breaths, realizing his boy had fallen asleep on him. Ben rubbed his chin and turned back to the fire.

He’d always known his boys would go off to find their own lives – marry, have children, and possibly move away – he’d just fretted over when that time would come. Despite the fact that all of his boys hadn’t found love or given him grandchildren, he still had them at home protecting what was theirs – the Ponderosa.

When Adam approached him with Abel’s letter six years before, Ben was crushed, for he knew what his son’s decision would be, having seen the look . . . the look of wanting more than what was right in front of him for many years. Could he stand in the way of his son’s happiness? Isn’t that what he always wanted for them all?

So Ben had raised his head and set his jaw then grasped his boy’s shoulders and gave him his blessing, even though it had all been a lie. If Ben could’ve gotten away with tying Adam up and shoving him in the shed until he’d dismissed this silly notion of running away to Boston and forsaking the family, he would’ve done so in a second. But he knew no matter how long that boy stayed in the shed, he’d still want to go, so dismissed that wild idea. Besides, Adam wasn’t forsaking the family. He was finding his own way. And isn’t that what a son is supposed to do?

Looking toward his sleeping boy, Ben rose and pulled the blanket up then kissed his forehead, his coloring and temperature back to normal.

“The Ponderosa is always your home, son, and we’ll always be there for you.”

Ben turned toward the stairs and headed up, brandy forgotten, back to his warm bed and the dreams that slept there.

*****

A week passed and Adam hadn’t brought up the idea of going home since that night by the fire and Ben hadn’t bothered to remind him of it. He could tell the decision of the house and business were weighing heavily upon his eldest and didn’t feel the need to  pressure him further. So he’d kept quiet, helping Adam go through Abel’s things, selling some and keeping the rest, Ben finding a few trinkets of Elizabeth’s that he’d left behind all those years ago. It had been a trip down memory lane that brought both to tears and laughter along the way. But now that little chore was done and they’d both settled in at Adam’s house just down the street.

Ben enjoyed the little touches of home he found throughout the small house. A photograph of the whole family sat on the desk; one of Sport’s horseshoes was nailed over the front door; Adam’s monogrammed saddlebags rested across the back of a wooden chair; an Indian rug was carefully draped over the banister and a guitar sat against a bookcase that practically duplicated Adam’s collection on the Ponderosa, save for a few extra editions from local authors.

But the best thing Ben could see was what hung over the fireplace – a map of the Ponderosa. Oh, the original was still back home, drawn by Adam himself so many years ago. This one was an updated version that was just the Ponderosa with all the special places notated, like the lake and the meadow where Adam liked to think and the hill that held their beloved Marie. The sawmills were there, along with all the caves and streams and creeks, and in the center sat the ranch house with four very distinct horses standing in the yard.

“When did you make this?” Ben asked as Adam slipped behind his desk to rummage through a drawer.

He glanced up to the map. “Before I left, I took one last walkabout of the ranch so I could emblazon it all in my memory and then worked out the details all the way here. As soon as I settled in with Grandfather, I started working on it. Finished it in about two weeks.” He looked off then. “I was afraid I would forget all the places I loved about home the longer I was away and I didn’t want that to happen.” He looked back to his father until Ben turned to him surprised at the solemn face on his boy.

“I want you to know that my leaving wasn’t so I’d forget everything I’d lost – all the chances at a family I’d missed – although that may have been forefront in my mind at the time,” Adam began. “My leaving was so that I could see if I was missing something else before it was too late, something that I couldn’t see in Nevada. I don’t think Joe ever understood that.”

“He did understand finally but not in the beginning. All he saw was you leaving again and not coming back,” Ben explained.

“I never said I wasn’t coming back.”

“No, but you know how Joe is. You were leaving with an open-ended return date. That was forever to him.”

“What changed his mind?” Adam asked as he sat down at the desk, Ben moving toward the small couch before the fireplace.

“I don’t really know. I think Hoss had a lot to do with it and Hop Sing as well. Somehow they got through to him, made him understand that it was your right to leave, just as it was theirs, if they chose to someday. But just because you left didn’t mean you wouldn’t be coming home when your traveling was done.”

Adam looked down at his desk and fiddled with a stack of papers. “What if . . .” he began, stopped then forged on. “What if my traveling isn’t done? What if from here I’d like to go to Europe or somewhere else? What would he think then?”

Ben eyed his boy, his heart tightening at the thought, then leaned elbows onto knees knowing this question was for more than Joe. “Adam, it doesn’t matter what other people think, including us. If that is what you want to do, then do it. If you want to stay here and run Stoddard Enterprises, do that. If you want to go to Europe, then go. It’s your choice and we will stand by it and offer you a hearty good luck.”

Adam looked up seeing his father casting an easy gaze at him. Nothing about the look made him think that the words just spoken weren’t meant and he relaxed a bit at the knowledge that he was being given an out if necessary.

But there was the other question, the other want he’d been harboring for about a year or so and he stood up then and paced toward the window to look out over the wharf, watching the gulls soar above the newly docked ships, thinking on the smell of the sea that wafted through the air every day and the excitement of traveling abroad whenever the whim caught him.

“What is it, Adam?” Ben finally asked, seeing his boy run a hand through his hair with one hand and plant the other on his hip.

He cast a glance at his father then turned back with a shake of his head.

Ben stood and approached, laying a hand on Adam’s tense shoulder. “Keeping whatever it is inside will only distress you further, son. Let me help if I can. I’ve always been a good listener.”

Adam knew that was true after years of experience. He scratched his hairy chin, ran a hand across the back of his neck and sighed. “I . . .” he began but then stopped moving away from Ben’s hand to stand before the map looking closely at it. He took a breath and turned fixing his father with a determined look. “I want to come home.” There, he’d said it and there was no taking it back.

He watched his father closely, watched for any sign, any flinch or movement that would give away what he was thinking, like he’d been away for far too long to just waltz back home. But all he got was a very large smile that grew wider with each passing second. Relief ran through him at the sight and he chuckled inwardly at himself. It shouldn’t have surprised him. His father had always been supportive of his coming to Boston but it was no secret he always wanted him to come home at some point.

“There are . . . complications,” Adam quickly added, seeing his father open his mouth to respond.

Ben’s brow furrowed at that statement. “What complications?”

“Jamie and Candy for one. Joe for another.”

Ben just looked at him. Those were complications?

“Jamie is my new brother, Pa, a brother I’ve never met. And Candy, well, he seems to have taken my place . . . with Joe, at least.

“Then there’s Joe himself, who was finally rid of his bossy older brother six years ago. According to your letters, he’s grown up a lot, invested himself in the ranch, become your right hand. As much as I want to come home, I don’t want to disrupt that. I don’t want a repeat of when I came home from school. I’m too old for that.” He turned away again and ran a hand over his beard. “Maybe I should just stay here. I have a business, a house, friends. Maybe this is where I should be.”

Ben stepped toward him. “Do you want to come home?” he asked a stern tone filling those words making Adam turn. “Do you?”

He swallowed then nodded. “I have for some time.”

“Then come home,” Ben stated. “Complications be damned.”

Adam gave him a lopsided grin. “Easy for you to say, Pa. You don’t have to deal with Joe.”

Ben grabbed him then and maneuvered him around. “Don’t let past problems keep you from getting what you want. You’ve done that before. Don’t do it now.” He searched his father’s eyes seeing his face soften. “Adam, I won’t deny that I want you home or that I’ve missed you terribly these last years, but so have your brothers, Joe included. Give him a chance to show you how much he’s changed.”

“But what if it doesn’t work?” he asked. “What will I do then?”

Ben hadn’t heard that little boy voice coming from Adam in a long time and squeezed his shoulders. “Son, why don’t you give it a chance before you start worrying about what might happen.” Adam sighed then nodded, giving his father a little smile. “You’ve always been a worrier,” Ben said with a slight laugh. “Even when you were a little boy. Always worried about the hole in your shirt or how a mother deer found her fawn in the tall grass.”

“They were important at the time.”

“Yes, and they always seemed to work themselves out in the end, one way or the other.”

“It’s the other I worry about,” Adam confessed as Ben shook his head and patted his boy’s shoulder then moved back to the couch.

“What about Hoss?”

“What about him?” Adam asked as his father sat.

“Aren’t you worried what he’ll say?” Ben asked as Adam sat down opposite him.

“Never have before.”

“Why?”

Adam shrugged. “Hoss and I know each other so well it’s as if we can hear the other think.” He eyed his father. “Why? Should I be worried?”

“No, no.”

“Hoss is my best friend, Pa, and I’d do anything for him. I do anything for any of you, Jamie included.”

“Well, we’ve enough room in the house to welcome home a wayward son.”

“Ah, I was thinking . . .” Adam began as he shot up and moved back to the desk returning quickly with a rolled up piece of oversized paper. Handing one end to Ben, Adam spread it out and the contents were revealed. “I was thinking of building my own place not too far from the main house. Trying out new strains of cattle, helping you if you needed it. I’d be making my own way and not messing with Joe’s. What do you think?” He waited for the initial reaction, hoping it would be what he expected.

“This is beautiful,” Ben said looking at the fine lines of the log house, more refined and smaller than their own home, but fitting the man who would live there. He turned to Adam, seeing the longing, the need to come home and was never so happy in his life. “I think it’s a grand idea,” he finally answered as Adam returned his smile.

He’d answered correctly; Ben could see it in his son’s expressive eyes, the golden flecks back in place now that he’d caught up on his sleep and gotten over the remnants of the illness and the first stages of mourning for his grandfather.

He was coming home. He was coming home!

“Do you have a timeline?” Ben asked as Adam rolled up the blueprint.

“Well, I’ll have to sell both houses and the business. I don’t know how long that’ll take.”

“No matter, as long as you’re coming home.” Ben kept smiling until Adam chuckled and shook his head. He grabbed his son’s hand as he stood, drawing his gaze. “I’m very proud of you, son. I always have been and I always will.”

Ben watched Adam’s eyes fill. “Thanks, Pa. That means a lot,” he finally said, quickly embracing his father.

Ben returned the hug, already counting the days to when his oldest son would once again set foot on the Ponderosa and his family would be whole again.

*****

Epilogue

Adam sat on his hired horse overlooking the big house, suddenly nervous about continuing down into the yard. He looked behind him a time or two, wondering if he should just head back to town, re-board the train and return to Boston. But then he remembered he didn’t have anything left in Boston. He’d sold his grandfather’s house and business to Gerald Cripton, his own house to the neighbor next door who wanted to expand, and he’d left with a light heart over his decision to come home. Now he wasn’t so sure.

All the little things sprang up to bother him, all the things he’d dismissed over and over only to have them shout out once again. What about Jamie and Candy? What about Joe? Would he fit in anymore after having been away for so long? Would he be content? Shaking his head, he took a deep breath and filled his lungs with the cleansing air of home.

“Just go,” he said aloud. “They can only turn you out.”

Pressing heels to his mount, he started down the slight hill, his mind filling with memories so clear it was as if they were happening now. The time Hoss dunked Joe in the horse trough for playing with his hat; the moment he and Sport came to an understanding at the corral; the second he’d waved goodbye.

Dismounting and dropping the reins over the hitching post, Adam rubbed his horse’s neck then hesitantly stepped toward the front door to finger the latch and then stopped. He hadn’t lived here for six years and it wouldn’t do to have Hop Sing shoot him his first night home. Knocking, he received no reply and threw caution to the wind. Grabbing the latch, he popped open the door and called out as he entered.

“Hello the house!” Only his echoing voice returned to him from the dark room, the slight flickering of the banked fire the only available light.

Closing the door, he moved to the desk, found the matches in the same place, and lit the lamp there exposing the room to more light. A wave of nostalgia washed over him as it came into view. It made him feel safe and settled and he found he didn’t mind.

“Pa? Hop Sing?” he called heading toward the kitchen only to re-emerge a few moments later. “Hoss? Joe?” He waited. “Huh,” he muttered, then shrugged, debating with himself whether he should wait for them here or go up to his room, his old room that his father assured him was exactly the same.

Curiosity getting the better of him, Adam climbed the stairs, running a hand over the Indian blanket as he passed before continuing up, stopping outside his room, his heart beating loudly in his chest.

“This is silly,” he said trying to get a hold of himself as he reached for the knob and pushed open the door. All worries left him when he found everything in its place as if he’d only been gone for a day.

Tracing fingers over familiar objects, he headed straight for his guitar. Sitting in the chair by the window, he strummed out a tune and grinned remembering the number of times he’d sat by the fire downstairs and entertained himself or his family with the music he loved. His grandfather always liked it when he played the old sea songs, interspersing other pieces to carry them through a long winter’s night. His grin fell at the thought that that was just a memory now.

Shaking off his sudden melancholy, Adam rested the instrument back in its place then scanned the books patiently waiting for his return and pulled down his favorite. He’d never been able to find this one back East and was always going to send for it but never had. And here it was, in his hands at last, as he settled himself on his bed, lighting the lamp on the bedside table, stopping when he found a small envelope leaning against his mother’s music box. Placing the leather-bound book on his lap, he pulled open the note instantly recognizing his father’s hand.

‘Dear Son, I’m returning your mother’s music box to you now that you’re home. I wanted to thank you for leaving it with me while you were gone, for it kept me closer to you in way I can’t quite comprehend and refuse to question. I knew that some day I would be returning it to you and am glad that that someday has finally arrived. Love, Pa.’

Smiling at the gift and the cherished words, Adam lifted the lid to hear the beautiful tune he’d known since childhood. A sort of peace descended over him, peace and contentment that seemed to sooth his soul.

Settling back against the headboard, his thoughts lingered on all the things he’d done and all the stories he could tell his brothers now that he had the time. Yawning, he picked up the book and opened the cover to fall back into words that spoke to him as he waited for someone to come home.

*****

“Well, I don’t know whatcha gonna do there, Joe,” Hoss said as he smiled at his brother riding next to him. “Ain’t likely ol’ Ida Prunnell is gonna let ya off the hook so easy.”

“I’ll get out of it. Don’t you worry, older brother,” Joe stated, stuffing his string tie in a pocket.

“I always worry when it comes ta you and a little gal, especially after she danced yer feet of tonight.”

“Ida ain’t that little, Hoss,” Joe stated with a laugh as Ben rode up next to them.

“Beautiful night don’t you think?” he said with a wide smile drawing one from each of his boys. “It’s going to be mighty peaceful tomorrow what with Hop Sing and Jamie in San Francisco and Candy out with the herd. I think we should sleep in.”

“But what about church?” Joe asked before he could stop himself receiving a glare from Hoss.

“Let’s stay in tomorrow. It won’t hurt us to miss one Sunday.”

Joe and Hoss traded puzzled looks this time then Hoss’ brows raised. “It’s that telegram, Joe,” he said with a nod. “The one from Adam.”

“Oh, that’s why,” Joe said finally catching on. “Wouldn’t want to be in church in case Adam shows up, huh, Pa? Wouldn’t be right the prodigal son returning to an empty house.”

Ben neither denied nor accepted their theory but the smile on his face was a dead giveaway.

“Pa, ya ain’t stopped smilin’ since ya got that telegram. It’s nice ta see,” Hoss said with a grin.

“Yeah, Pa. It makes us think you were missing him or something,” Joe added as Ben laughed pulling at his own string tie, eyeing them both.

“I was, Joe. I didn’t realize how much until I saw him when Abel took ill. I knew he wanted to come home. It just took a bit of time to get him to admit it.”

“I woulda paid money ta see that,” Hoss said with a laugh. “I always loved it when Pa wheedled stuff outta Adam. It was always a sight.”

“Like that time he made him take out Clara Baines’ niece,” Joe offered.

“Or the time he managed ta get him ta whitewash the barn,” Hoss gave him.

“Or the time I . . .”

“It wasn’t me this time, boys,” Ben confessed. “He brought it up and I just went with it.”

“It’ll be nice to see big brother again,” Joe admitted. “I’ve missed him too.”

Hoss’ brows nearly flew off his head. “Well, I’ll be,” he said with a huge grin. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

“What?” Joe asked.

“Never thought I’d see Joe Cartwright admit that he was missin’ his bossy older brother.”

Joe held his gaze for a moment then looked away. “Well, now you have.”

Joe urged Cochise on a bit faster; Hoss and Ben traded looks then followed after, rounding the barn to see Joe standing by an unknown horse tethered to the hitching post. He turned excited eyes toward them as Ben quickly dismounted. No words were necessary as Ben slapped Joe on the arm then hurried into the house.

“Where’s goin’ on?” Hoss asked as he came to stand next to his brother.

This is going on,” Joe answered tapping the distinctive monogram on the saddlebags.

“Well, I’ll be,” Hoss answered in a grin as the two hurried after their father. They could hear Ben calling for their brother and made it through the front door in time to see him scurry up the stairs and disappear from sight. They quickly gave chase.

Coming to a sliding stop outside the open door, Ben held his breath and silently gazed inside, his sight falling upon his beloved son lying on the bed sound asleep, an open book atop his chest. Tip-toeing in, he carefully removed the book then relieved Adam of his boots before draping him with a quilt grabbed from a nearby chair.

“Welcome home, son,” he whispered, leaning over to gently kiss Adam’s forehead. Satisfied he was really there, he bent to blow out the lamp only to be stopped by two words.

“Thanks, Pa.”

Ben straightened, seeing sleep-filled eyes blinking toward him, followed by a slow smile. He smiled back, so very pleased. “Go back to sleep, son. It’s late. We’ll have a proper greeting in the morning.”

Adam nodded then rolled over, snuggling deeper into his pillow as Ben blew out the light and moved toward the door to shoo Hoss and Joe into the hall.

“Is he all right?” they both asked as Ben closed the door.

“He’s fine. He had a long trip, it’s late and I think our hellos can wait until morning.”

“But, Pa, it’s been a long time and . . .” Hoss sputtered to a stop at the look from his father.

“We’ve waited this long, we can wait another few hours. Now go to bed. Go on. He’ll still be here in the morning.” They reluctantly nodded then started as Ben pointed a finger at them. “And let him sleep,” he warned. “Don’t go in there and stare at him. You know that’s no way to wake your brother.”

They both smiled, remembering a time or two they’d been bodily tossed from their big brother’s room for doing just that.

“All right, Pa,” Hoss said. “Well, I’ll see ya in the mornin’.” He smiled at his father. “I’m sure glad Adam’s home, Pa.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Joe added. “I always felt like we were missing something when he was gone. It’s nice to have him home.”

Ben wrapped a hand about Joe’s neck and patted Hoss’ arm. “It’s always nice to have the whole family home. Now, go to bed. It’s late.”

“Yessir.”

“Night, Pa.”

Left alone, Ben turned back toward his eldest’s door and laid a hand on the wood, a happy smile slowly spreading across his face.

“Thank you, Adam,” he whispered. “Thank you for coming home.”

***The End***

  

1  Inger’s death – “A Journey Remembered”

2  Marie’s death – “Marie, My Love”

3  Ruth Halvorson – “The Savage”

4  Delphine Marquette – “The Dark Gate”

 Author’s Note:  Here is a prime example of how a story changes from start to finish. This began with Adam looking out his window on the Ponderosa, contemplating his losses since he had to write a eulogy for someone close to him. After bringing up and tossing out various people, I finally came up with Roy Coffee. Well, that was just too heinous to contemplate so I found myself thinking of Abel Stoddard and Boston and everything changed.

Also, I debated with bringing Adam home after Hoss’ death and Joe’s loss of wife and baby, but that just seemed too depressing so I’ve fiddled with the timeline and brought him home prior to any of those terrible happenings (including the end of the televised series). Please forgive a little creative license for the sake of telling a, hopefully, interesting story.

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