Those Who Remain (by Calim11)

Summary: This is a companion piece to “Seven Words” but could be read on its own. Author’s Note:  As before, I’m using Paul Martin and Roy Coffee in their usual places. Thanks to all of you who wanted to know Ben’s thoughts. Hope this meets with your approval.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  29,000


 

Grief is the agony of an instant; the indulgence of grief, the blunder of a life.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881)

 

It was cold. He didn’t know if it was the weather or the fact that he was standing in front of his wife’s gravestone festooned with flowers and notes and newly turned earth. Could that be what made him shiver?

Echoing bells filled the thick Boston air and he glanced up, hearing her soft voice tell him of how those sounds gave her such delight, for it meant a new ship was docking and exciting stories of their time away would soon find her. Her eyes would shine, her laugh would fill him and her smile would brighten his every minute. Closing red-rimmed eyes on the vision he laid a hand gently on the stone and trembled.

“Mr. Cartwright, it’s time to go.” The smile disappeared, the laugh faded and his hand grew cold. “We’ll miss the coach if we don’t leave now.”

It was as if his hand was stuck for he was unable to let go and then he heard a gurgle. 

My son.

His hand finally released and he turned . . .

. . . and squinted into the bright sun penetrating the leaves of the large shade tree that sheltered him. A breeze drifted by to ruffle his dark hair and wafted over tears that continued to flow from distant eyes staring at the crude wooden cross beaten into the ground before him.

His heart was broken yet again, the suture lines from his previous loss yanked out to leave that beating organ in a pulpy mess somewhere in his chest. Two women. Two women who’d captured his heart, held it in their hands and brought life to him, now gone, reduced to dust and memory as dirt fell on the blanket wrapped body of his beloved. No proper gravestone would mark this place and the ravages of time would remove it from view and no one would know she existed except him.

A movement caught his eye, a barely perceptible movement and he watched his dark haired boy place a handful of white flowers at the base of that wooden cross then wrestle a blanket wrapped baby into a more comfortable position in his arms as he rubbed at his eyes. 

My sons.

 His eyes moved away from the sight and he turned . . .

. . . his face toward the rain that pelted down upon him willing it to wash him away into a puddle so he wouldn’t have to face the coming days, years without her. But it wasn’t to be and he lowered his head to see the pristine headstone over the newly turned earth that was swiftly becoming mud. At least she had a marker. 

Another woman who’d given him everything, a woman who fought with him and for him, who loved him, who kept him in line with a fierceness born of her breeding. He loved her with all his heart, that broken piece of flesh that was rendered incapable of sustaining another loss as he’d watched his beloved lowered into the earth, giving her back to God to join the two others who looked down upon him.

Damn her for not listening! Damn her for being impetuous! Damn her for riding as if nothing could harm her!

Damn me for not acting quickly enough.

A distant cry came to him, his name attached to those sounds, and he dismissed it as he did the rain soaking him, the trees whipping in time with the winds that lashed about him, the many hands that tried to comfort him. He never heard the deep tones of his oldest telling him they were going home or heard the buggy move off into the storm. He never heard any of it nor wished to hear any of it again.

My wife. 

 An all-encompassing blackness that sucked the marrow from his bones engulfed him, cut him off from those around him, pushed him out the door when he couldn’t take another minute of staring at his bed, their bed, for the warmth of memory was stifling and produced a fury in him that made him rail against his God. He thought he’d managed to put it aside but no longer; no longer could he drift through the days; no longer could he wish things were different; no longer could he look upon the sad faces of his sons and see their mothers’ reflected there. He didn’t even want to pretend and didn’t even try and walked out that door, out of their lives, into a dark world where nothing existed for him, nothing but sorrow and hate and a shriveled up heart that gave him nothing but a breath to exist upon.

He never looked back as he made his way in the dark, never addressed an errant thought of who he was leaving behind because there was nothing for him there, nothing of value. Three times he’d been destroyed; two times he’d recovered. This time . . . this time was the last. How much could a man take? Three wives, three deaths with nothing left of them behind.

His horse flew through the night, taking him further away and he kept on going, going until he had to stop. He was tired and dirty and barely standing and he had to sit down. A hand found his shoulder and he looked into a woman’s face, Marie’s face, and grabbed her and held her close until his shuddering stopped and he heard . . .

. . . Buck whinny long and loud and it dragged Ben Cartwright from his dark depressing dreams, automatically reaching for his rifle and sitting up, blinking away the fuzziness before him.

“What is it, boy?” he gruffly asked as he watched Buck’s ears spring forward, his elegant head and neck straight and steady as he followed something distant.

Grunting as he pushed himself to his feet, Ben squinted trying to see what Buck could see, his eyes finally falling on movement within the trees. A stag . . . it was a stag, a twelve pointer of massive height staring at the both of them. His rifle sighted, Ben fingered the trigger, gently caressing it as he stared at the magnificent animal who never flinched, never moved, standing defiantly against the enemy. And quite suddenly Adam was there, standing before the stag, hands on his hips, a disgusted look on his face, and Ben pulled his aim, concentration broken. Rubbing tired eyes, he looked back only to see the stag calmly meander off into the trees. He’d beaten the odds again to grow another point.

Ben sat down heavily and dropped his head into his hands, letting the rifle fall beside him forgotten.

His sons.

He’d forgotten his sons through his grief, buried them so deep he’d actually forgotten them for a time. Heaving sobs came upon him as he sat in that meadow, Buck nuzzling his hair and standing close as the morning sun carried on into afternoon pulling the October chill from the air. Absently he thought they’d have plenty of snow this year as he wrapped arms about his knees and stared off into the distance, his fire long extinguished, his coffee never made.

“How could I have forgotten?” he said aloud, causing Buck to cant his head sideways and look at his forlorn master lost to himself. “How could I have forgotten my most precious gifts?”

Buck snuffled at Ben and stomped a hoof. Their journey had been long and arduous but then he’d rested in that strange place. And now they were headed home, he could feel it, he could smell it and he was eager to continue.

“Not today, Buck,” Ben announced. “Not today.”

Not today. That had been his mantra for the past three months, three months of sitting in a room and staring out the window, three months of being forced to eat and sleep, three months of not caring whether he lived or died because he had nothing left to lose.

And then the telegram came.

He’d refused to read it, not wanting to be reminded of Nevada and all he’d lost, so he just sat there as the words were read to him, hearing them but not comprehending their meaning as they were expelled into the air. The telegram itself rested on his nightstand for six days before he ventured to pick it up.

‘BEN CARTWRIGHT. STOP. THE BOYS NEED YOU. STOP. COME HOME NOW. STOP. PAUL MARTIN.’

He crushed the telegram in his hand and tossed it across the room. He hadn’t known he had a witness.

“I never thought I’d see the day,” came her voice making him turn.

Mariah Nickols was every bit a match for her husband Ted. She was tall and slightly built with a tongue that could cut you to ribbons in seconds flat only to sooth and comfort moments later. She’d been the one who’d found Ben that day he’d drifted into Denver; she’s the one he’d clung too out on the street and she’d let him, aware of her passing likeness to Marie. Managing to get him home, Ted had taken over and manhandled him to the spare bedroom and that was where he’d been hiding ever since.

“Never thought you’d see what?” Ben abrasively asked, angry that she looked like Marie, angry that she was a woman and angry that Ted had his wife while his was buried beneath the earth.

“Never thought I’d see the great Ben Cartwright forget the pride and joy he felt for his boys just because he was afraid to face life without his wife.”

Ben turned a deadly look toward Mariah. “If you were a man, I’d beat your face in.”

“At least that would get you out of bed,” she responded holding his gaze. He turned away first as she strolled to the window and picked up the crumpled piece of paper reading the words again. “I don’t know who Paul Martin is but it would seem that he cares more for your boys than you do. What a shame. Perhaps he can adopt them; then you really won’t have to worry about anything but yourself.”

She continued to glare at him as she straightened out the telegram and laid it back on the nightstand, meeting his stony gaze with one of her own. She leaned in close. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe something’s happened to your boys? Maybe one of them is hurt or worse? Doesn’t that even raise a note of concern in that tiny little heart of yours?”

He remained silent and looked away as she stood straight, shook her head and started for the door.

“You can’t understand,” came his tortured voice no louder than the whispered breeze moving through the partially opened window. Mariah stopped at the door and turned. She watched his hands ball into fists, watched him clench his teeth. “You can’t know what it’s like to lose a part of you over and over again. And damned if I don’t just keep putting myself through it again, keep taking that step forward only to be knocked back a hundred steps each time.” He closed eyes over tears that plagued his face. “I just can’t do it anymore.”

Mariah moved to sit on the edge of the bed, trying not to notice his gunbelt neatly wrapped at the foot. A shiver ran through her but she brushed it aside. “You’ve made it through before. Why not now?” she asked placing her hand upon his tightly clenched fist. “What’s so different about now?”

Ben shook his head, relaxing his hand to grab hers. “I guess . . . I guess it’s because Marie was with us longer. I got used to having her there, used to her laugh, the smell of her perfume, the softness of her body next to mine. I thought I’d done it this time, beaten the curse and poured myself into her. But then it was ripped away, tossed aside like an old shirt, and I was left alone again.” He stopped for a moment then looked at her. “I shot that horse,” he admitted. “I shot him until all the bullets were gone and it didn’t change a thing. She was still dead and my life was over.”

“But your boys, Ben? They lost a mother.”

lost my wife,” he gave her pointing at his chest, trying to figure out why no one seemed to get that.

“But they lost their mother,” she repeated more forcefully. “They lost the only other constant in their lives besides you and then you just up and left. You left them alone to deal with their grief by themselves, for they grieve just as you.”

“Adam will take care of them,” Ben said with a nod, certain of that statement.

“Adam’s what? Seventeen? Eighteen? He’s lost three mothers; he’s shared in your grief. You shouldn’t have given him that responsibility. It was his mother . . .”

“It was my wife! My reason for living!”

“So your grief is more important than that of your sons?” she asked narrowing her eyes. “Ben, listen to yourself. I’ve never known you to be a selfish man. It is not an admirable trait.”

His eyes flared. “To hell with being admirable! My wife is dead, can’t you understand that? My life is over!” Mariah sat back, then grabbed the holster and held it out to him. “What’s that for?” he angrily asked as she patiently waited.

“You’ve nothing to live for; your life is over, you’ve stated that plainly enough. Then end it.”

“What?”

“End it. Isn’t that why this gun is sitting on your bed? No one will care that you’re dead. Adam, Hoss, Little Joe, Hop Sing, this Paul Martin and any of your other friends obviously won’t care that you’re dead, so take the easy way out and end it.”

Shock at her words permeated him and he slowly shook his head. “I can’t . . .”

“Why not?” she asked. “Pull that trigger and your worries and sorrows will be over and you won’t have to watch your sons’ wonder why you abandoned them then took your life without a second thought to their wellbeing. I’d hate to see how their lives will turn out, especially when they come to split up the family, take your ranch, sell your belongings, your memories leaving them with nothing except a father that couldn’t pull himself out of the pit of despair he’s been wallowing in for far too long. What a memory that’ll be for them as they try to forget, try to carry on, try to remember the good times and the promises of a good life that are gone.” She tossed the gun across Ben’s legs and leaned in close. “So go ahead and pull that trigger. I’ll make sure your tombstone reads that you were once a good father and husband until fate stepped in and you deserted your sons because you became a selfish man.” She stood then and turned toward the door. “And don’t worry about the mess. Someone else will clean it up.”

She slammed the door behind her and leaned heavily against the wall, her whole body shaking. She didn’t even feel Ted’s hands on her or him leading her to their bedroom, sitting beside her as she cried. He couldn’t get a word out of her but let her cling to him as he heard another door open seeing Ben standing wordlessly in the hall. Mariah lifted her head and quickly wiped away her tears standing abruptly and straightening her dress.

“Ben?” Ted said seeing his friend’s eyes never waver from Mariah’s face. “Ben?”

He jerked his attention to Ted and reached out his arm. “Please . . . take care of this for me,” he said handing his friend the holstered gun. “I won’t be needing it until I leave.”

“Sure, Ben,” he answered completely confused. “Have you decided to head home?”

He hesitated a moment. “I’m thinking on it,” was the answer, forcing a half hearted grin onto his tired face. Mariah responded in kind as she brushed a slip of hair behind her ear.

“I, ah, I’ve made a spice cake,” she announced looking directly at Ben, “and I’d appreciate your tasters, gentlemen. Can’t send it to the Fair if it doesn’t taste any good.” She moved out of her room and hesitated in front of Ben, showing him a real smile and patting his arm. He covered her hand. “We’ll take it slow, won’t we?”

Ben nodded. “That’s about my speed for now.” She nodded and moved down the stairs, Ben watching her go. “You are blessed, Ted,” he whispered.

“I know, Ben, and so are you.” He caught his friend’s look.

Yes, he was blessed, blessed with six years of happiness that were now over, and three sons he needed to remember. “Yes . . . yes, I believe I am.”

*****

Ben felt it as soon as he came around the last stand of trees – a numbing dark depression that he’d managed to push aside while making his way home begin to descend again. He pulled Buck to a stop and ran a hand over his grizzled face.

“I can’t let this happen again,” he whispered. “I won’t let this happen again.”

Mariah’s words brought truth to his soul, a truth he didn’t want to see but found he couldn’t ignore any longer. It was like a patch of sunlight had found its way in and once started it couldn’t be stopped.

Finally responding to Paul’s telegram and telling him he was coming home, it surprised him that he never received a reply. Although disheartened, he continued to make plans to head home, hopefully before the first snows flew, and left Denver with heartfelt thanks to the Nickols and all they’d done for him. Not five days out, he found himself stranded by the weather in a small town for six days and nights with a family who’d graciously put him up. Seems they’d lost someone too and instinctively knew what he needed. Their children played on his own memories and brought the love for his boys out from where he’d hidden it all those months ago.

Now he found himself hesitating outside his own front door, waiting in the yard like he was a stranger. As he dismounted, he heard the bunkhouse door open and smiling looked up to see Charlie Porter, coils of rope hanging from his shoulder, a shocked look quickly replaced with an eerie calm as he stopped in his tracks arms across his chest.

“Charlie,” Ben said looking closely at his foreman and seeing a simmering anger beneath the surface.

“Saw a campsite a ways back,” Charlie began, maneuvering a toothpick around his mouth. “Thought we had trespassers. Came home right quick jest ta make sure they wasn’t plannin’ on stealin’ anythin’ else.” His eyes were like steel fixed on Ben as if daring him to say something. “See, there’s been a rash of break-in’s here and about, even tried ta steal some of our horses a-couple o’ times but Adam and me stopped ‘em flat. ‘ Course we got a bit banged up but we’ll live. Takes more than a couple of criminals ta keep us down, seein’ as we jest had each other at the time.”

Ben’s head whirled. Break-in’s? Adam was hurt?

“I’ll see ta yer horse, Mr. Cartwright.” Charlie took the reins from Ben’s lax hand and handed him his saddlebags then looked his boss straight in the eye. “I’d be careful, Mr. Cartwright. Hop Sing ain’t gonna take kindly ta ya jest stoppin’ by fer a visit. If’n ya ain’t fer sure stayin’, I’ll give ya back yer reins.”

An intense irritation surfaced in Ben. How dare his foreman speak to him like that! He didn’t have to explain himself. But before he could tell him so, the past months raised ugly memories and he clamped shut his mouth on the reprimand he’d been ready to spew forth.

“I’m home to stay, Charlie,” came out instead as Ben squared his shoulders. His foreman continued to look at him then gave a slight nod.

“Hope that’s true, Mr. Cartwright, for their sake.”

Tossing his toothpick aside, Charlie clicked to Buck and patted the buckskin on the neck as they sauntered toward the barn, Ben watching him go as his heart began to pound fiercely. That was, no doubt, just a taste of what was to come.

Slowly turning, he wiped suddenly sweaty hands down his pants and headed for the door, faltering just a moment before grabbing the latch then opening the door to step into the great room.

A fire burned in the hearth and, for a moment, he sighed as relief washed over him for every stick of furniture remained where he remembered. That lasted only seconds as he found himself running hands over the back of the settee, Marie’s settee, where they’d snuggled many a night before the fire talking of their future. He noticed his hands balling into fists as he felt himself slipping toward that black morass that still nestled in his chest.

“Not now,” he muttered, forcing the feeling away again, startled at a loud crash from the dining room. Spinning he found Hop Sing staring at him, a tray hanging haphazardly in one hand, broken porcelain scattered at his feet. Ben was genuinely pleased to see his friend and gave him a smile as he stepped forward only to stop short when the shocked look passed replaced with a stiff posture.

“Mista Cartwright,” came from him without emotion, his eyes never wavering from Ben’s.

“Hop Sing, it’s good to see you,” he said getting no response. “Ah, where are the boys?” The constant stare unnerved him, made him feel like he was a child again.

“School,” came the short answer as he kneeled to clean up the mess.

“Here, let me help,” Ben quickly said moving forward.

“My job!” Hop Sing answered in a clipped and caustic tone, stopping Ben mid-stride, his stomach tightening with each passing second. “You clean self. Stink up house.” Glaring at Ben once more, Hop Sing disappeared into the kitchen mumbling to himself.

Should he follow? Should he explain? Ben waited but Hop Sing didn’t reappear so he turned toward the stairs and as he mounted each step, the weight on his shoulders increased until he felt as if the world rested there. There was so much he had to fix. But could he? You’ve no one to blame but yourself came to him just as he stopped outside Adam’s room. Opening the door, he peered inside.

Neat as always. Ben could feel his son’s presence, smell the soft scent of the leather bound books gathered there; see his guitar resting in its usual place and his desk strewn with drawings. His eye searched for Elizabeth’s music box that Adam always kept on his nightstand and instead found a piece of paper lying against it. Picking it up, he discovered it was a drawing obviously of the ranch house with Adam, Hoss, Joe, Hop Sing and three others in the yard all holding hands. Joe’s childish scrawl reported that this was ‘To Adam on your birthday, From the family’.

His birthday? Damn, I forgot.

Brushing away the mistake, Ben looked more closely at the drawing marveling still at the closeness of his boys despite their age differences and then the smile faded when he realized that none of the others depicted were him. Sitting down heavily on the bed, he couldn’t take his eyes from those figures, his understanding of who they were slowly seeping past his own wishes. What a blow to discover that not only had he forgotten his sons but they’d moved on without him as well and only he was to blame.

“Water getting hot,” Hop Sing announced from the door, turning to leave as Ben looked up.

“I’m not in this picture,” Ben said, sadness permeating every word.

Hop Sing stopped, anger still clinging to him over this sudden appearance of the one who’d abandoned them. But he was their father and his employer and whether Ben cared or not he deserved to know what had happened. “No,” he answered turning around.

“This is Paul and Roy isn’t it?”

“And Charlie,” Hop Sing finished for him with a slight nod.

“Paul and Roy?”

“Boys live mosta time with Docta Paul.”

Ben’s brows furrowed. “Live with him?”

“Mista Adam take once house broken into.”

Ben was confused and shook his head. “They are Adam’s responsibility and they’re safe here. Why would he take them to town?”

“You no listen,” Hop Sing barked catching Ben’s attention. “Break-ins. Criminals. Come to Ponderosa. No one here to protect boys when Mista Adam with cow all day. He think Docta Paul and Sheriff Roy take better care and he right. I can’t watch all time. Got work. Make sure house still here when Mista Adam come home. My job. No one else. Boys come home Friday nights; boys no come back after church Sunday. Mista Adam stay here. Me and Charlie keep watch with him.”

Ben just stared at Hop Sing, the words whirling about his head. Break-ins? Someone tried to steal their horses?

“Beside Mista Adam worry over Mista Tolman,” Hop Sing continued as Ben pulled his attention back to the man.

“Brett Tolman?” Why would Brett Tolman worry Adam? He was a friend, a lawyer with aspirations of going to Washington and nothing more.

“That him,” Hop Sing stated with a nod. “He bad man.”

“Why?”

“He try take boys.”

“What?!” Ben raged shooting to his feet, all thoughts of goodwill toward the man instantly gone.

“That right. No father. No mother. Only brother who not here ‘cause work all time. Someone beside Chinaman need raise boys. Mista Adam to leave when Docta Paul step in. Going to adopt Hoss and Little Joe less Mista Adam get guardianship to keep together.”

“Oh, God,” Ben whispered dropping back onto the bed.

“Mista Adam want keep family together. You lucky he still here. When he go, I go with him. Now, water get hot. Ready five minutes.” He was done and he didn’t care how it sounded. Someone had to speak plain to Ben Cartwright and besides Paul Martin and Roy Coffee, he was the only one that would even consider it. He quickly left mumbling under his breath at the vagaries of life as he headed back to the kitchen.

“Leaving?” Ben said aloud carefully replacing the drawing on Adam’s nightstand. He didn’t try to stop the tears that fell.

*****

“All right, Beauty, we’re almost home,” Adam Cartwright soothingly spoke to his limping mount as he walked beside him caressing his sleek neck. “Soon you’ll be all warm and cozy and I’ll put some hot water and liniment on your leg and you can sleep the day away.” He yawned. Sleep sounded good to him as well.

A month before, he’d collapsed from exhaustion and, despite Paul Martin’s warnings, managed to take on most of the work once he’d regained his feet. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Charlie or Hop Sing – quite the contrary – but he felt it was his responsibility to do certain things. Of course, those certain things nearly always blossomed into something much larger and he’d have to ask for help anyway. Inwardly he smiled. Charlie was a good teacher and a good friend, and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he could trust him.

He sighed. Trust – a word that was bandied about quite frequently and yet could be corrupted by a sudden change of wind, a change that was least expected, and turn your world upside down. He’d decided a month back to be less trusting in the future and, hopefully, it would keep him out of trouble.

The good feeling that had earlier taken root died as his mind shifted to what his regimented days had become – a constant workflow. Of course, one advantage of continually moving was it kept his mind from dwelling on what bothered him most – they’d been deserted, abandoned to fend for themselves, by their father. If he was honest with himself, he did remember a small amount of withdrawal when Hoss’ mother, Inger, died but his father couldn’t run then – he’d had to stay with the wagon train, stay focused or they all could’ve been killed. And now that they were settled with a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, their father had run and far enough away as to not be bothered by little things like three sons and a ranch. Chastising himself for even thinking on the subject with such a beautiful day all around him, he forced himself to run Shakespeare lines and failed miserably. Frustration took him and he let out a yell finding himself being pulled off his feet when Beauty shot straight up into the air.

“Whoa, boy, easy now,” came his soothing voice as soon as he found himself firmly planted on terra firma once again. “I’m sorry, boy. I can’t . . . I won’t let him destroy anything else. I won’t let what happened interfere with anything else. Think I can do it?” Beauty canted his head and snuffled and Adam smiled just as the barn came into view. He glanced up at the sun. He still had at least an hour before he had to go collect the boys being that this was Friday, the day they came home for the weekend.

He had a full Saturday planned, what with fishing and a picnic already set up. He’d made a new rod for Joe and even talked Hop Sing into making an apple pie for Hoss. Of course, it didn’t take much cajoling for Hop Sing was just as happy to have the boys home as he was and cursed the reason why they couldn’t be. If only Roy Coffee could find those robbers. They were becoming more brazen with each heist and soon, he knew, people would get hurt.

Shaking his head to clear those thoughts, Adam rounded the corner and ducked into the barn leading Beauty behind him hearing a familiar whinny. Stopping dead in his tracks, he felt his heart rise into his throat as he turned, cautious eyes taking in the sight of something he’d been wishing for these long months – Buck standing in his own stall. Dropping Beauty’s reins he moved toward the animal to check the brand then looked at the tack nearby. He swallowed hard then froze, the hackles on his neck quickly rising at the next sound.

“Adam.”

An instant of shock rushed through him and he sucked in a breath but didn’t turn. He couldn’t turn. What could he possibly say to this man who’d taken a sledgehammer to their lives? Oh, he’d planned it, reciting the words over and over until he was sick of it and now, when he had the chance, it was as if all the moisture in his body had been sucked dry. He was trembling and knew he had to stop. There was no way he would face this man looking like a scared little boy.

“Adam,” came at him again in that voice he’d dreamt of – that voice that had meant so much to him and filled him with warmth and love until he rode out of the yard and away from them all those months ago. Adam released a breath and pulled himself to his full height then turned straining to keep his face impassive, to keep any sign of the emotional turmoil that raced through him from being visible for he couldn’t give this man an inch.

“Pa,” he finally answered not trusting himself to say anything else.

Ben stepped forward, taking in this boy, this man who looked like he’d grown a good two inches while he’d been away, a little thinner with hair much too long. A hesitant smile curled his lips until he came up next to Adam and caught sight of the resentment in those dark hazel eyes. He knew this would be the hardest one to bear since Adam and he were so alike, and yet he felt it had to be the first since he was the oldest, the one who’d been expected to pick up the pieces.

“It’s good to see you.” Adam remained silent. “Ah, I just got home a couple of hours ago. Ranch looks good. You’ve, ah, done a good job.” Still silence reigned and Ben fumbled for something else to say. “I’m sorry I missed your birthday.”

“You missed a lot of things, Pa,” came the unforgiving answer as Adam stood there, thumbs hooked in his belt loops not willing to give him anything.

Ben heard it, heard the anger and blame, could feel it exuding from his son like a tangible thing and stuffed hands in his pockets. “I hear the boys are staying with Paul.”

Adam nodded. “That’s right. I can’t protect them here by myself.” Ben winced slightly. “Is there anything else? I’ve got to go pick them up for the weekend.”

Ben gave him a hopeful smile. “I’d like to do that if I may? I need to do that.”

Adam drilled him with a look. This would involve trust, trust that his father would actually pick up the boys, trust that he wouldn’t break their hearts all over again.

“Are you staying or are you just stopping by because if it’s the latter . . .”

“No, no,” Ben quickly said. “I’m home. I’ve come home for good.”

Not really believing it, Adam found he had no choice. Ben was still their father and he could do as he pleased with his boys. “All right,” he finally answered pulling his gaze from Ben and picking up an empty bucket, patting Beauty on the rump. The animal walked into his own stall and Adam headed for the barn door, stopping just as he cleared it. Half turning, he looked up into the blue sky. “They thought you stayed away because of them, because they’d done something to drive you away. I told them that you had to get away and still loved them and would be home as soon as the pass cleared.” He turned those angry eyes on him. “I had to tell them something since you gave me nothing.” With that he was gone, stomping across the yard to slip through the kitchen door, slamming it behind him.

Ben grabbed a post and hung on, his whole body trembling with guilt. What he’d put them through, he could see it all in Adam’s eyes; he could see the hurt that resided there and knew a confrontation was coming but how long until it did and how bad was something he couldn’t or wouldn’t fathom.

He jumped at the loud crash coming from the house and the scattered Cantonese mixed with a loud baritone and looked away. He couldn’t make out the words and didn’t really want to know. Taking a deep breath, Ben glanced over toward Buck and knew he couldn’t take his faithful mount out so soon, so he grabbed his tack and headed for the corral. Now he had to face his other sons . . . and Paul Martin. He unlatched the corral gate and stepped inside.

*****

“Why you throw bucket?!” Hop Sing shouted once he’d managed to calm himself enough to speak English, pointing at the offending item that had nearly decapitated him. “What bucket do to you?!”

Adam fumed, hands on his hips, pacing six steps forward whirling about and pacing six steps back, muttering and gesticulating with each step.

“I no talk to hear self. You answer me. Mista Adam? Mista . . .  ADAM STODDARD CARTWRIGHT!” he finally yelled, bringing the angry youth to a dead stop. It was rare but had been known to happen that Hop Sing called him by his full name, and when he did Adam paid attention. “That better. Now, why you throw bucket?”

He stared at Hop Sing then looked away leaning against the sink. “I didn’t hit you, did I?” he finally asked.

“No,” the little cook admitted then smiled. “But if I fatter, bucket have nowhere to go but here,” he said slapping his stomach. He peered around to see a tiny try at a smile on Number One son’s mouth then laid a hand on his shoulder. “You see fatha?” Adam only nodded. Hop Sing sighed. “I know how you feel. I broke fancy tea set.” He patted Adam then and picked up the bucket. “Why you need bucket?”

“Beauty hurt his leg,” Adam explained turning to face his friend. “I was going to get some hot water and . . .” His voice trailed off and he crossed arms over his chest. “What am I gonna do, Hop Sing? I can’t just act like nothing’s happened. I don’t . . . I just don’t trust him anymore. God, what an awful thing to say about your father.”

“It not awful. Don’t beat self; not your fault he run off. You only one here; you take care of things. He need to earn trust again.”

“But how could I ever let him in, knowing he might disappear again if something happens, leave me . . . leave us alone again. I was feeling reasonably lighthearted today and then he was there and I was instantly angry and guilty at the same time and I hated him for making me feel that way.” Adam’s eyes burned and Hop Sing understood the passion inside this young man; he’d seen it flare often enough and knew the torment it gave him. Then he looked away. “How can I ever forgive him for making me lie to the boys, making me his accomplice? I can’t act like nothing’s happened, Hop Sing. It’s not in my nature to let things go.”

“I know,” Hop Sing answered with a nod, drawing a quick look.

“So how do I do it without saying things I’ll regret, without causing pain for Hoss and Joe and you? The boys will forgive him anything. I just . . . can’t. This was too big. It tore at me, Hop Sing, broke something and I don’t know if it can be mended. I just . . .  I don’t know what to do.”

Being only eighteen, Adam had had very little time to master the emotions that played across his face, emotions that threatened to overtake him by leading him into a deep depression or catapulting him into a screaming fit all in the space of a few minutes. And this added wrinkle merely pushed him closer to the lip of a chasm spanning a great darkness that he knew, if he were to fall, he might never return. But what was one to do when chaos reigned? Leap in and join the fray or be forever vigilant and stand your ground, always keeping yourself closed off so nothing could touch you or hurt you again?

Nodding to himself, Adam realized that tucking everything away deep down inside was the best medicine for him, would keep him from harm and those around him. The stoic, silent type that didn’t waste energy on screaming and yelling like his little brother may prove workable, especially in this situation. But first he’d have to master his anger toward his father, find a solution he could live with or he’d just have to leave and make his own way. Paul would take care of the boys if his father couldn’t. He wasn’t certain of much but he was certain of that.

*****

“Adam’s late,” Joe Cartwright said to his brother, Hoss, as they sat on a bench outside Paul Martin’s office.

“He ain’t that late,” Hoss answered continuing to whittle a dog from a piece of wood he’d found in the schoolyard that morning.

“He’s never late,” Joe continued, swinging his legs back and forth.

“Shore he is. Ya jest never noticed afore,” Hoss informed his little brother as he blew on the wood showering the air with dust. Joe shrugged and continued to stare down the street.

Ever since their father left, Joe was always afraid something would happen to Adam. He’d fought tooth and nail when his brother told them they were going to be staying with Paul after those men came to the ranch and broke in and tried to take the horses. He wasn’t about to let Adam face them alone and told him so.

It wasn’t until Brett Tolman came to visit, flourishing papers and big words causing Adam to lose his temper and threaten to shoot the man did Joe begin to understand his brother’s worries for their future. Only as Tolman tripped in his haste to get back to his horse and fell in a heap did Joe hear the words that changed his mind as the man scrambled to his feet, mounted and galloped away – ‘you will not be allowed to raise these boys on your own!’ He saw the fear in Adam’s eyes that day and understood. Both Hoss and Joe had been trundled off to Paul’s that very afternoon, with Hop Sing in tow to settle them in.

Brett Tolman became a regular sight, sitting outside his office when they walked to school and then again when they walked home to Paul’s. He’d even ventured into the doctor’s parlor a time or two and was summarily thrown out. If Adam had known about that, Joe was positive he’d of made Tolman afraid of his own shadow. Because of that possibility, Paul informed them that he had everything under control and it wouldn’t help to get his brother so riled up he’d end up in jail. So for once in his short life, Joe kept his mouth shut. No need to put anything else on his brother’s shoulders.

But today was Friday and that meant they’d all be together again for the whole weekend. He couldn’t wait to see Hop Sing and his room and all his things and hear about what went on during the week from Charlie and Adam and just about everything else. He sighed. “You suppose he’s comin’?”

“Yeah, Joe. Adam’s comin’.”

“But he’s late.”

Hoss just shook his head, his own thoughts moving along the same lines as his little brother’s – Adam was late and it wasn’t like him to be late.

Squinting up into the afternoon sun, Hoss centered his attention on the citizens of Virginia City as they moved along the streets, wondering if they had troubles too. Well, most everyone had troubles, he knew that, but theirs ranked right up there.

Their Pa was gone, gone now four months and they’d only heard from him once. It’s not like he thought anything had happened to him; it’s just, well, that they’d been left behind. It turned his stomach some when he thought on it so he tried to ignore it for both his brother’s sake. He knew Adam was rankled most all the time; could see it on his face and in his manner when he thought no one was looking and it made him sad. He didn’t like his brother feeling that way. He was already responsible for them and the ranch and then that Mr. Tolman had come out and threatened to take them away. Hoss thought Adam was going to kill that man and he would’ve helped him pull the trigger. No one was going to break them up, let alone a puny man in an ill-fitting suit. Hoss sighed and re-sheathed his knife then looked down the street. Adam was late. It wasn’t like him to be late.

Paul Martin looked out the window for the tenth time, wondering where Adam was; he was late and that was out of character for the young man, and the boys waiting for him were getting fidgety. Well, Joe was getting fidgety but then that boy had enough energy to run to Carson City and back in a day and be ready for more. He shook his head, a gentle smile on his face.

It’d been quite an undertaking to get used to these two boys in his house. Hoss, ever helpful, had taken quickly to the transition but Joe . . . he’d had a problem from day one. Always underfoot, asking question after question, crying himself to sleep then waking everyone with his nightmares. Paul had become quite adept at mothering in the middle of the night but then his job as a doctor meant he kept odd hours anyway so it wasn’t much of a stretch. He’d always been fond of the boys and realized what he’d been missing by not having children of his own.

Sighing, he turned from the window then stopped suddenly, eyes growing wide. Flinging the curtains aside, he squinted down the street. “Well, I’ll be,” he muttered hurrying out the front door already seeing Joe running pell-mell down the street, yelling at the top of his lungs. “Hoss?”

“I see ‘im,” Hoss answered as he gazed at the phantom coming toward them, seeing him leap from the saddle and gather Joe in his arms.

Paul turned to the eleven-year-old, seeing the large smile on his face and wondered why he wasn’t doing the same thing as his little brother. “It’s okay, Hoss, if you . . .”

“I know,” Hoss answered. “It’s jest that . . . well Little Joe’s been missin’ ‘im somethin’ awful. Wouldn’t be right ta barge in jest yet.”

Paul nodded, seeing Ben lift Joe into his arms then head their way.

“Look, Hoss! It’s Pa!” Joe shouted as Ben let him down to hurry over to his brother.

“I can see that, Joe,” Hoss laughed, looking up at his father who stopped before him. “I can see that.”

“Hoss.”

The sound of that remembered voice made Hoss shiver and he flung arms about his father’s neck, delighting in the corresponding arms he felt pull him in.

“Pa,” came his muffled reply as tears fell, Ben rubbing hands along the broad back thinking he’d grown like a tree since he’d last seen him. All that he’d missed was more than physical changes and he’d done it to himself.

“My son,” Ben gruffly said, feeling Joe’s smaller arms cover them. “My sons,” he corrected as he pulled back smiling at them both. Looking up then, he spied Paul Martin standing stock still, arms crossed, the exact vision of both Charlie Porter and Adam, and he slowly stood, keeping a hand on the shoulders of his boys. “Paul.”

“Ben.”

“I’m here to take my boys home.”

“Before you do that, I’d like to speak with you . . . alone.”

Ben nodded. “Of course. Wait outside, boys. I won’t be a minute,” he smiled, following after Paul who closed the door behind him then led him from the parlor and little ears. “I just want to thank you for taking the boys in. It’s more than I could’ve . . .”

“How could you, Ben?!” Paul exclaimed, whirling on his old friend, anger changing his warm eyes to solid onyx. “How could you abandon them without a second thought?!” Feeling as if he’d been struck, Ben took a step back. “You’ve no idea what you’ve put them through nor do you seem to care.”

“I care.”

“Oh, really? You couldn’t prove that by me or anyone else,” Paul answered, turning from his friend and gripping the back of a chair. “Did they hear from you aside from that one cryptic letter sent after you’d already been gone for months?”

“I replied to your telegram. Didn’t you tell them?”

“Why would I, Ben? It took you over a week and a half to respond and then you didn’t show up for another month.” Paul turned from him and tried to calm himself. He could already see in his friend’s eyes how guilty he was, remorse hung from every word, and yet he couldn’t seem to help himself. “Have you seen Adam yet?”

“Yes,” came the short answer drawing Paul’s attention.

“And how did that go?”

“As well as could be expected after . . . after what I’ve done,” Ben admitted, lowering his head in shame.

“You need to know what you’ve done, Ben. You need to know what you put those boys through and me and Roy and Hop Sing. Do you know why I sent you that telegram? I was frantically called out to the house because Adam collapsed.”  Ben looked up quickly. “Collapsed because he was only seventeen doing the job of five men including looking after his brothers and forgetting about himself. He was grieving, Ben, just like you, and hadn’t had the time to indulge his emotions because you left him hanging. He had to be father to the boys and keep them on an even keel; he had to keep the ranch running; he had to ward off Brett Tolman by threatening him; and he had to contend with a pack of robbers that struck the Ponderosa twice and the second time both he and Charlie could’ve been killed. That’s what you left him with while you sorted out your feelings miles from home.”

“I didn’t . . . I didn’t know.”

“How could you? You weren’t here.” Paul sighed and closed his eyes.

“I can only thank you . . .”

“I don’t want or need your thanks, Ben,” Paul answered, pushing himself away from the chair and walking toward his friend, his eyes losing their steely glint but far from their usual warm tones. “But know this. I am your friend. Even after all of this, I’m still your friend and I love those boys and don’t want anything to happen to them. But if I believe, for one moment, one moment, that you’re not going to provide them with a steady home life . . .” He paused then, debating with himself about finishing the thought then decided to forge ahead. “If I believe you will not be there for them, I will continue with my plans for adoption and take them from you before I let Brett Tolman or anyone else touch them. Do I make myself clear?”

Ben glared at his friend, his own displeasure flaring instantly at the thought of someone else raising his children. But then he was reminded of where he’d been these last months and the confidences he’d lost along the way.

“Do I make myself clear?” Paul repeated seeing a bit of the old Ben Cartwright return to the stooped figure before him.

“Yes, Paul, you’re meaning is very clear.”

Paul held his gaze for a moment then nodded. “Take your boys home, Ben. You can collect their things later or I can bring them out to the ranch, whichever you choose.”

“I’ll collect them later,” Ben answered as Paul nodded again then held out a hand toward his friend. Ben hesitated, unsure of his standing with this man after the words just spoken, then slowly grabbed it. “Thank you for my sons, Paul.”

“Make it mean something, Ben, now that you’re home. Put as much to right as you can and know that Adam loves you with all his heart. It just may take time for him to find it again.”

Ben nodded then headed out, his hand stopping on the doorknob as he hastily wiped at his eyes then put on his best smile and stepped outside.

“Let’s go home, boys!” Ben said wrapping his arms about Hoss and Joe and stepping off the porch.

*****

“Adam?” came Joe’s voice through his big brother’s door followed by a discreet knock. “Adam, the door’s locked.” Joe heard the distinct click then the door popped open. “Why’d ya lock your door, Adam?” he asked as he stepped inside. “Never seen it locked before.”

“Just needed some privacy,” came his brother’s quiet answer. “What do you need, Buddy?”

Joe stepped inside, seeing his brother retake his seat by the window, a book in hand but he knew he hadn’t been reading. The lantern wasn’t lit and it was too dark to read.

“We was wonderin’ if you’re gonna come down to dinner. Hop Sing’s made pork roast and we know how much you like it.” There was a smile in his voice, that much Adam could tell and he knew why it was there. He was happy for his brother, for both his brothers.

“I’ve had a hard day and I’m not very hungry.”

“But you ain’t probably had nothin’ since breakfast.”

“Haven’t had anything,” Adam corrected with a shake of his head.

“Haven’t had anything since breakfast,” Joe reiterated. “Ain’t ya . . .  Aren’t ya happy Pa’s home, Adam? Now you don’t havta be, you know, resp . . . respon . . .”

“Responsible.”

“Yeah, responsible for everything. Ya can go back to being big brother and Pa can do the rest.”

“Sure thing, until he leaves again,” Adam muttered under his breath.

“What?”

“Sure thing,” Adam repeated trying to put a bit more energy into his words.

“Then what’s wrong?” Joe asked, moving to stand next to his brother. “We’re all together again. Everyone’s happy but you. It ain’t . . . isn’t anything Hoss or I’ve done, is it?”

Adam reached out and lightly grabbed his brother’s arm. “No, of course not and don’t either of you think it is. You’ve been a great joy to me and helped me more than you know.”

“Then what is it?”

Adam tried to smile, wasn’t successful and looked away and out the window at the deepening crimson of the fading sun. “I just have to work some things through and it’s just easier if I do it by myself. Now,” he said turning back to his little brother, “why don’t you go back downstairs and regale Pa with that mystery you’re trying to solve. I’m sure he could help you with it.”

“But you were helping me,” Joe answered, the tone pulling at Adam’s heartstrings.

“I know, Buddy, but maybe Pa’ll have a new perspective, ah . . . see things I didn’t. He’s been around a lot longer than I have.”

“But he hasn’t been here and won’t understand.”

“He will if you explain everything to him, right from the beginning. Remember how he helped when you lost Fuzzy? Hoss and I couldn’t find him but Pa did.”

Joe smiled. “That’s right. He did. Okay, I’ll tell him. He is pretty old.”

Despite himself, Adam chuckled. “Just don’t tell him that and you should be pretty safe.” He tickled his brother then turned him around and patted him on the rump. “Now scoot. I’ll see you after you’re in bed.”

“Okay, Adam.” Swiftly turning back, Joe planted a kiss on Adam’s cheek then scurried from the room, leaving a big brother tenderly touching his face then wiping at his eyes.

“Damnit,” Adam mumbled, tossing the book across the room and laying his head back to glance once more out the window. The red was almost gone and twilight had set in, stars beginning to make their presence known.

What was it that Marie had said . . . something about the twilight puts to rest all the thoughts of the day, the dark holding them in only to let them out as dawn thunders across the sky like the opening of Pandora’s Box to be organized or resolved or pushed aside for something new. The trouble was that this night, this deepening of the purple twilight into a black piece of cloth pierced with stars only ignited more thoughts, more memories of things gone past that fought with his current attempt at becoming an unemotional statue. He wondered how long this penchant for stoicism would stand up under this unrelenting seething fury that captured him each time he saw his father’s face.

Being young, he thought he could do anything, proved it to himself over and over these last months when he’d stood up to Brett Tolman and those robbers; stood up as a man to protect his family. And just because his father was here, he couldn’t just ignore his continuing responsibilities to his brothers and swiftly saddled a horse and followed after him as he headed to Virginia City to pick up the boys, always keeping his distance, always hidden in the trees. It wouldn’t due to lose his vigilance now. Vaguely he felt put out when he saw Joe run into his father’s arms, his temper on the rise again. Quickly, he turned from the sight and headed home.

That temper had turned into a simmering mass by the time Ben rounded into the yard with Hoss and Joe in tow an hour or so later, as if these last months hadn’t happened and it blossomed into a full-blown ferocity, making him want to haul off and strike the great Ben Cartwright with all the power he could muster in one punch.

Fortunately, he’d been busy working the forge, a pile of horseshoes laying about him, most bent at odd angles and completely unusable, something Joe noticed right off. But a look from Hoss silenced him as they dismounted, Adam taking the horses and disappearing into the barn without a word spoken. He’d not even spared a glance for his father who waited a second or two then felt himself being dragged toward the house by his youngest. Hoss lingered a moment and glanced toward the barn, feeling the tension present then turned away and followed those already inside.

And now Adam sat here in the dark, trying desperately to rid himself of these feelings that seemed to overtake him at will and having no luck. He sighed and rubbed at his face. There would be no sleep for him this night.

*****

The sun sparkled through the stained glass window, the pride of Reverend George Terry’s church, as the Sunday morning service wore on. Adam hadn’t really studied it of late, too caught up in the day to day trials that encompassed his every waking moment but found today his eyes couldn’t take leave of it.

It was a cascade of colors molded together by an artist with a fine hand who knew what would work best as the sun shone down to draw interesting silhouettes on the far wall, shifting in depth and tone as the sun moved across the sky. It was mesmerizing, far more than Reverend Terry’s sermon, a sermon of words of those gone long before that simply didn’t speak to him this day. Oh, what he wouldn’t give for those words to help him understand why solace had proven illusive now that his dreams were answered and his father was home.

Focusing racing thoughts and feelings on how the yellow of the glass corresponded brilliantly with the reds and greens diverted his attention from the silver haired man who sat to his left. He’d decided, quite intentionally, to sit as far from him as possible not knowing Hoss was attempting the same thing, neither sparing a look to the man who’d raised them or the little brother who sat so close to their father that he’d almost scooted him off the pew twice.

And there was a part of him that so desperately wanted to just grab onto him and never let go. But the other part, the part Reverend Terry liked to call the ‘dark spirit’ was gnawing at his insides, filling his head with a cruel and snide voice destined to spill out and hurt whomever was nearby. He knew that person would most likely be his father.

Closing tired eyes for a moment, Adam wondered how he was going to get through this transition back to oldest son when he’d had to leap into the fray and take charge. After these long months, he’d found he much preferred to be the hired hand or, at least, not solely in charge, freeing him up to make plans of his own like going away to school . . .  Ah, school. He hadn’t even thought about that so caught up in everything around him. Well, it’d probably been a pipedream anyway. He needed to stay home and look after the boys, especially now that Marie was gone for he couldn’t trust that his father wouldn’t bail if the going got tough. More fuel for his ‘dark spirit’.

“’For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’.” 1

Adam harrumphed and caught a look from Reverend Terry. Covering it up with a small cough, his eyes drifted to his father who gave him a slight scowl. That didn’t help him in the slightest and he returned the look until Ben turned away then returned his gaze to the dancing lights of the glass, impatiently waiting for this day, this weekend to end.

While his son railed over the inequities of life, Ben sat in uncomfortable silence, ignoring the skewering looks and off-hand comments he’d braved while walking into the church. Even his good friend Roy Coffee hadn’t given him the time of day as he nodded to him, Roy’s eyes alighting for just a moment then turning away as he smiled at Mrs. Wincott and her brood of six children. Another nail in his already punctured heart. And it wasn’t as if he didn’t deserve it. He was perfectly aware of what he’d done and was now determined to right as much of the wrong as possible. The problem was he didn’t know if it could be done, if not now, than anytime soon. The frosty disposition of his oldest was enough to make him hide in his room and his middle boy kept giving him odd looks so unlike the happy-go-lucky personality he’d left months ago. But then that was it wasn’t it? He’d left, left behind his sons, his life’s blood, left without a word.

“’Woe is me because of my hurt; my wound is grievous. But I said, truly this is my grief, and I must bear it.2’”

Words . . . just words. But they pointed right at him like the accusing finger of a judge exiling him to the vast reaches of darkness to which he’d already found himself months before and was just now appreciating his awakening. Thank God for Mariah for punishing him more than he was punishing himself and making him see what he’d forsaken.

Unconsciously, he’d wrapped an arm about Joe who snuggled ever closer and wondered at this little boy who’d lost his mother. He seemed bound and determined to forget the previous months and revel in his father’s homecoming. Ah, but if that was all it took for him to feel home, he would’ve yelled a giant thank you to the heavens and dropped to his knees in appreciation. But yesterday alone told him he needed more than the undying love of a six-year-old.

He sighed as he remembered dragging out the picnic basket and suddenly being informed that Adam wasn’t going with them, and while Ben thought his oldest should continue with what he’d been doing with the boys over the many weekends he’d missed, he didn’t feel up to the argument he knew would follow should he suggest such a thing. So he’d let it go, allowing Adam the luxury of space between the two of them, and climbed aboard not noticing the confused looks Hoss kept throwing his way. In fact, Ben hadn’t noticed them at all until much later as they sat at the lake, the new fishing rod in place while Joe lay fast asleep in his lap and Hoss sat forlornly on a rock a few paces away.

“Why don’t you come over here, Hoss,” Ben called hoping to see the wide smile from this child only to be met with a closed off face and narrowed eyes. “What’s the matter, son?”

“Why didn’t ya ask Adam ta come?” came the question.

“He had to take care of his horse.”

“Why didn’t ya ask ‘im, Pa? Ain’t ya glad ta see ‘im?”

The question smacked Ben across the face. “Of course I’m glad to see him. I’m glad to see all of you.”

“Then why didn’t ya ask ‘im?” Hoss looked him straight in the eye and waited while Ben swallowed. “He’da come if’n ya asked ‘im.”

“I wasn’t going to force him, Hoss. If your brother wanted to be here, he’d be here.”

Hoss narrowed his eyes further at Ben’s chosen words. “He always wanted ta be here with us, Pa, and he always found the time, even though he was real busy. I ain’t heard ya say one thing ta ‘im since ya’ve been home. In fact, ya ain’t hardly spoke ta me neither, jest Joe.”

Stunned, Ben’s mouth flopped open then quickly shut. “Hoss, I . . .”

“It don’t matter none.” Hoss simply turned back toward the lake.

Ben’s heart fluttered and the pit of his stomach knotted. Within the span of a moment, or to be more realistic the span of four months, gone were the smiles and open arms of his middle boy who always seemed to take things in stride and because of that was the one always caught in the middle. And he knew saying anything at this point would just sound trite and he might just lose him even further.

Brought back to the present by Joe pressing harder against him, Ben found himself looking at Hoss as he leaned against Adam, who sat lost in the stained glass window. He tried to listen to Reverend Terry’s concluding remarks about forgiveness and understanding but all he could hear were the murmurings of a restless crowd all trying to decide whether they should nod and move on as they made their way out of the church or stop and reacquaint themselves with this wayward father returned from his journey.

Deciding to make up their minds for them, Ben rose at the final ‘amen’ and started toward the exit, keeping his eyes straight ahead. He didn’t even know if Hoss or Adam followed but clung to Joe’s hand, moving on to step out into the sunlight and toward the buggy, lifting Joe into the seat.

“Pa, what about the picnic?” Joe asked with a bright smile. Seeing an annoyed look cross his father’s face, Joe sat back. “Ah, we can go home if ya wanna. Whatever ya want, Pa.”

Turning quickly from Joe, Ben managed to maneuver his emotions into a safer place.

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come into town today. Hell, it’d only been two days and not even two full days since he’d been home. Perhaps he should’ve let himself get used to the idea that his standing was a bit tarnished now and it would be something he’d have to polish often in order to get that sheen of respectability back. Ah, to hell with them! He turned back to Joe and gave him a slow smile. “And let all of Hop Sing’s food go to waste? What would he say because I know you’d tell him.”

“Would not,” Joe shot back as Ben pulled him from the buggy and mussed his hair, moving to the back and the large basket residing there. He spied Adam and Hoss speaking with Roy and stopped in mid-step, knowing the conversation included him yet he also knew he wasn’t welcome to enter in.

“Come on, Pa!” came Joe’s voice as he scampered on ahead drawing his father’s attention from them.

Conversation concluded, Adam nodded at Roy and placed a hand on Hoss’ shoulder steering them both toward the picnic area. It was then he heard his name and turned to see Brett Tolman heading toward him.

“Hoss, you go on ahead.”

“But, Adam, that’s Mr. Tolman.”

“I know. Go on before Joe eats all of Hop Sing’s chicken.”

Reluctantly, Hoss stepped away seeing his big brother face the man tossed off the Ponderosa at the end of a gun.

“Adam? Adam?” Tolman called heading toward the young man standing silently before him. “Oh, I think it’s going to be a hot one today,” he said with a smile generating nothing from Adam. “Ah, I heard your father was home. Is he here?”

“I thought I told you to leave us alone, Mr. Tolman,” Adam reminded the man standing ominously still in front of him.

Tolman straightened and found himself still a bit shorter than this eighteen-year-old. Looking quickly and finding no gun belt, he trudged on anyway. “Now that your father is home, I will be dealing directly with him and not some recalcitrant child. Now point me to him?”

Blinding fury is what Adam would call it later. It came from his toes, quite literally, and rushed up his body until it overtook his brain and Tolman found himself slammed against the side of the church, his hat popping off his head and Adam’s arm pressed firmly against his throat leaving him gasping for breath.

“I told you to leave my brothers alone, you parasite.” The words were harsh and spoken through clenched teeth and Tolman couldn’t help but understand their meaning nor miss the dangerous intentions in the young man’s blazing eyes.

“Adam! Adam, let ‘im go!” Hoss yelled as he grabbed at his brother’s arm.

Oblivious to all but Tolman’s face turning a particularly pleasant shade of red, he pressed harder wanting to rid the world of another threat to his family.

“ADAM!” came at him in an all too familiar voice and he stiffened, keeping his eyes locked firmly on Tolman’s as they began to bug out. “ADAM! Release him this instant!” Hands grabbed him and yanked him back and he stumbled at the force used staring into those dark eyes glaring intensely at him. “What the devil do you think you’re doing?!”

Adam tried to steady his heavy breathing, tried to bring his anger under control as he pointed at Tolman. “This so called ‘friend’ of yours is trying to take the boys. I have to stop him.”

“By cutting off his air?!”

“That’s all he understands!” Adam shouted back. “He won’t stop, Pa.”

“That doesn’t give you the right to strangle him.”

“He threatened me last time,” Tolman sputtered as he rubbed his throat. “Pulled a gun and threatened to kill me if I set foot on the Ponderosa again. I don’t take kindly to that, Ben,” he finished as he straightened his jacket, playing to the small audience that gathered. “Tried to strangle me, young Cartwright did. Has anyone seen the Sheriff?”

“I’ll show you the undertaker before I call the Sheriff!” Adam threatened as he started forward only to be stopped short by Ben’s iron hand on his chest.

“You’ll do no such thing,” came the order, aghast that his son would say such a thing.

“Let me go, Pa,” Adam quietly said, his body trembling, hands turning into fists. “Let me go before I do something we’ll both regret.” He looked up at his father then. “And it won’t be to Brett Tolman.”

Stunned, Ben held Adam’s hard gaze then cautiously let him go but remained standing between the two. He watched his boy’s face, watched the hostility drift across those features before he got himself back under control, turned and walked away, Hoss sharing the same look with his father before running after his brother. Swallowing hard, Ben turned back to find Tolman’s hand resting on his arm.

“Oh, thank you, Ben,” Tolman said with a sigh of relief. “That boy of yours needs a good tanning.”

“Get your hand off my arm, Brett,” Ben responded in a menacing tone.

Tolman blanched and quickly pulled back. “Now, Ben, I was just doing my job . . .”

“And what job was that, Brett?” Ben asked standing closer to Tolman. “Trying to take a man’s children from him, a man who’d just lost his wife?”

“But you weren’t there, Ben, and no one seemed to know when you were coming back. We couldn’t let those children be raised by a . . . by a Chinaman. That wouldn’t be right.”

“We? Who is this we?” Tolman blinked then swallowed.

“Oh, well, Mrs. Hallett came to me . . .”

“Bridie Hallett?”

“Yes, that’s the one. She came to me and suggested that I take a look into the fact that those boys were out on the ranch all by themselves. Well, she didn’t think that was proper what with hired hands and a Chinaman the only ones of age to care for them.”

“And so you took it upon yourselves to right the wrong I’d created by leaving?”

“Yes, yes, that’s exactly how we saw it. Can’t forsake my duties to poor abandoned children.”

Ben grabbed Tolman’s jacket and slammed him back against the side of the church, his face inches from his former friend, his voice low and ominous. “Those poor – abandoned – children are my children and now that I’m home I don’t expect anymore visits from you regarding this subject or any other. Please know that if I, that Chinaman or any one of my hired hands sees you on Ponderosa land, you will be shot as a trespasser. Do I make myself clear?” When Tolman said nothing, Ben obliged by edging closer still. “Do I make – myself – clear?” he repeated slowly as Tolman shook his head.

“Yes, yes, of course. Thank you,” was all he could think to say, his fear impeding his breathing.

Ben released him and pushed his way through the gathered spectators. Tolman gathered up his hat, straightened his jacket and beat a hasty retreat.

Moving quickly, Ben searched the area, seeing Joe hurrying toward him. “Go to the buggy, Joe.”

“But we haven’t eaten any of the . . .”

“To the buggy!” Ben ordered. Lip trembling, Joe scurried away and Ben chastised himself for the tone, then turned away. He needed to find one more person before this wretched day could be over.

And there she was sprawled on a brightly colored blanket chatting away with Lizzie Burnham no doubt about how many times Mrs. Landingham washed her linens. She caught sight of him and the thunderous scowl on his face before he was halfway there and immediately looked around for a convenient man to hail. None were present. She opted for the opening salvo. “Well, Ben Cartwright, how nice to see you. I’d heard you were back in town.”

He pulled up in front of her casting a mighty shadow over her as she scrunched down to become one with her blanket. “Bridie Hallett,” he began putting hands on his hips. “I always knew you were the town gossip but I’ve never known you to cause harm with your wisps of rumor and innuendo. Well, this time you’ve gone too far.”

“Now, Ben, I was just thinking about your boys.”

“Were you now?”

“That’s right. They’d been alone for months and without a woman around and only those vulgar hired hands . . .”

“Adam was there to take care of them.”

“But he’s just a boy himself, Ben. You can’t expect him to be able to take care of everything. They needed help and I was willing to provide it.” She smiled then in hopes that it would deflect him from thoughts of violence.

And violence is what was occupying Ben’s thoughts at that very moment; violence along the lines of drowning her in a nearby trough. But deciding he’d rather spend his time at home instead of in jail, his thoughts shifted to the berry pie he knew was in Hop Sing’s basket and dumping it all over her prim and proper white dress. Unfortunately, that was too far away at the moment so he opted for a threat instead.

“You bother my boys again, Bridie Hallett, or you attempt to have Brett Tolman take them away and I won’t be responsible for my actions. I am, after all, a grieving widower who still expects to see his wife greet him at the door when I ride in so don’t push me. Understand?”

She merely shook her head, unable to form words in that mouth that normally never shut.

He gave her one final glare and walked away, scooping up the remains of their picnic and tossing it into the basket, striding purposely toward the buggy, all eyes riveted to his back.

Roy Coffee stood to one side of the large tree in the church yard chewing on a toothpick, having seen both encounters and not moving once from his spot. He watched as Ben clambered into the buggy and headed out, no doubt hoping to find his wayward sons and pick them up along the way. He shook his head and pushed himself away from the tree, tipping his hat to a few women he passed and thought on this morning.

He’d not acted very grown up when Ben entered the church, giving him the old silent treatment. True, he was mad at Ben, madder than he’d ever been but then he recognized the look in his friend’s eye, for he knew he’d carried it as well when his beloved Mary died. And that had only been one wife; Ben had lost three.

Roy shook his head as he walked the street. How could a man live with that? How could he continue? He remembered how he’d climbed into a bottle and nearly lost himself until Ben and Paul dragged him out. Ben’s solution had been to flee from his memories, his life, his boys only to return to them now with great hopes for reconciliation that was bound to take some time.

Well, he might have to speak with Ben the next time he saw him; should clear the air and make him understand what went on when he was gone. He needed to know that Adam could’ve been killed by those robbers and managed to get away on the second attempt with a wrenched arm and a few bruises but it could’ve been much worse. Those robbers were getting bolder with each new job and he wasn’t any closer to finding them. In fact, he was surprised they hadn’t tried the Ponderosa again. Third times the charm or so they say.

Pushing his musings aside, Roy found himself outside Brett Tolman’s office and leaned against the stair knowing he’d have to make this trip sooner or later when Tolman decided to press charges against one or both of the Cartwright’s. Seemed like it would save time if he just waited here. And he didn’t have long to wait as he saw the man himself emerge from the Bucket of Blood and hurry across the street. Roy touched the brim of his hat as he was spotted and waited for the barrage of accusations to begin.

“Sheriff,” Tolman said with a nod practically running up the steps and into his office without another word spoken.

 Roy waited a few moments then stuck hands in his front pockets. “Huh,” he mumbled then chuckled to himself as he sauntered off down the street toward his office, thinking it might not be as hot today as he’d first expected.

*****

Adam wasn’t really sure what time it was. He’d watched the sun drop behind the mountains and welcomed the moon rising steadily into the night sky while he’d walked home, his steps slow and considered, hoping against hope that all would be in bed by the time he opened the front door. But the light shining from his father’s study crushed all ideas of slipping into his room unnoticed.

He sighed and rubbed his face.

The incident in town remained fresh and the hurt look that’d passed across Hoss’ face when he’d ordered him to go along with their father as he’d come up beside them on the road hung with him still. He’d watched them drive off thinking maybe he was not as grown up as he liked to believe, especially when his feet began to blister and the heat of the day began to make him sweat and he wished someone would come along so he could catch a ride.

When none came after another hour, he cut off the road and continued toward a nearby shortcut thinking long and hard about what he’d said or implied to his father, and it struck him that he’d never spoken to him like that before and probably shouldn’t’ve then. But he was still so upset. This statue thing simply wasn’t working.

“Damnit,” he cursed, kicking at a pinecone trying to pry his mind from the spinning top that had suddenly become his life. Perhaps it he looked at it logically, centered in on what was making him so mad . . . like he hadn’t done that already, over and over. All he’d wanted was his father, the one who’d held him as a boy whispering encouragement and keeping him safe from all the darkness around them as they traveled together; to give him hope that all their lives weren’t spiraling away into dust. Oh, Paul and Roy tried to fill the gap, and Hop Sing too, but nothing could take the place of his father.

And that was it. His father hadn’t been there, hadn’t been there to hold and cry on, hadn’t been there to help. He’d just left them and that was what stuck in his craw like nothing else.

Emotions surged and he let the tears fall out here in the middle of nowhere, for none to see but the trees. Oh, how he wished for these terrible months to disappear, for their lives to never have taken this turn, for Marie to once listen to his father and slow down. Briefly he blamed her and her selfishness for coming into their lives, turning it upside down then right side up, then disappearing in a split second of rashness that destroyed everything. ‘Things happen’ he remembered Paul saying; ‘She was needed elsewhere’ Reverend George Terry intoned; ‘I love you’ from Marie that very morning that had been her last.

Adam sat down then in a small meadow not a half mile from the house, his mind conjuring up everything from his first memories on the wagon train, to Inger, to Hoss, to Marie and Joe, to Ben’s leaving without a word, to his own ability to hang in there when he needed too, to his dream of school put aside, to his father’s homecoming and right back where he was now – confused, upset and tired. ‘Things don’t seem so drastic when you’ve got a little sleep under your belt’ flashed through his head and he looked up at the stars just now making themselves known.

Surprised at the sight, he’d wiped his face and moved as fast as his blistered feet would allow to now find himself standing in the yard, boots in hand dreading walking through that door and past that light streaming through the study window. But he couldn’t stay out here all night. He’d be at the receiving end of a prime lecture and he couldn’t deny that it wouldn’t be deserved. He headed for the door.

Carefully fingering the latch, he pushed it open and stepped inside. The room appeared empty. Closing the door behind him, he dropped his hat on the peg and started for the stair, his foot on the first step when he heard someone clear their throat. Swallowing, Adam looked up spying Ben at his desk fiddling with a quill pen.

“Hop Sing has some dinner warming for you,” was all Ben said as he lowered his head and went back to work.

Adam waited for the other shoe to drop but nothing came. “I’m not hungry,” he answered sullenly and started up the stairs stopped a few steps later.

“Fine. Then we need to talk,” Ben said in that specific tone that let anyone around him know there was trouble brewing.

“I’m tired, Pa.”

“Yes, well, you wouldn’t be if you hadn’t’ve been so stubborn and walked home,” Ben answered, slamming shut the ledger he’d been trying to work on, popping out of his chair. “I know you’re angry with me, Adam, and I don’t blame you.” That surprised Adam as he watched his father walk to the hearth, hands stuffed in his pockets. “But there has to be an end point at some time. I know I’ve only been home two days, but I’m home to stay and I want to take back my responsibility for the boys and this ranch and you.”

Adam caught his eye that time wanting to just rush into his father’s arms and cry his heart out for his loss as well as Ben’s but he just couldn’t let himself do it. “They’re my responsibility, Pa. You gave them to me without a second thought, without even asking if I would.”

Ben looked hard at his son. “I didn’t think I’d have to ask.”

“That’s where you were wrong,” Adam answered glaring at Ben. “The boys aren’t something you just toss away and hope someone’s around to catch them. You hurt them deeply and didn’t seem to care.”

“And I hurt you, too, didn’t I?” Ben asked seeing his son turn quickly away. “I’ve always taken you for granted, Adam, and for that I’m deeply sorry. You deserved more.”

“Yes, I did,” he answered heatedly, turning back to Ben. “I deserved the right to grieve just as you; I deserved the right to have you tell me everything was going to be all right.  Marie was my mother, too, and I’ve lost just as much as you have but you never see that. All you see is what you’ve lost.” Adam was warming up now and took a step toward his father.

“It cut me, Pa, cut me when you rode out of here like nothing mattered but you, like we didn’t matter to you. Don’t ask me to just forget that it happened. I’ve just gotten used to the idea that you don’t care.” He paused then and dropped his gaze. “You’ll have to give me time to remember what it was like when you did.”

Fighting to keep himself together, Ben could feel his eyes welling but didn’t dare pull that ploy with this one. “I lost myself for awhile, Adam. Marie was my . . .” He stopped, his voice cracking. “She was my world.”

“Mine, too, Pa,” Adam softly answered then turned and slowly moved up the stairs to disappear down the hall, leaving Ben to plop down into his chair, chin quivering as memories overtook him for awhile.

“When will it stop?” Ben whispered, holding his head in his hands.

Hearing his father’s cries, Adam stopped just out of sight and fought the urge to run back to comfort him. Steeling himself against those heartbreaking sounds, he quietly entered his room and closed the door behind him.

*****

The crack along the wall in his bedroom next to the window stretched from the ceiling to the floor and this was the first time Ben had noticed it. How long had it been there?

No answer came so he turned his attention to the curtains, the curtains Marie made after being here only a month to replace the tattered remnants leftover from the smaller cabin they’d first lived in. They were now six years old and faded from the sun that stretched across them each morning leaving the small flowers in the pattern changing from bright red to a dusty light pink that still held him in its grip each time he looked at them. He should change them but he just couldn’t.

Moving his attention elsewhere, the night hid most of the known items in the room yet he knew them intimately. The vanity held her pearl-handled brush lying as it was left; the clips for her hair he’d bought as a wedding present in New Orleans; the amethyst Hoss had given her when Joe was born. Each item purely represented Marie and his love for her, his love that still existed as fresh and clean as the first time he’d felt it. Experience taught him that that feeling would last for a good long while no matter how hard he tried to bury it and so he revealed in it in the darkness of his room where he could indulge in a flight of fancy that she was alive and just out of sight. Turning into his pillow, he felt her soft breath and gentle touch trace across his skin raising gooseflesh as it moved down his body, her sweet smell touching his senses and reviving memories of long nights that he never wanted to end.

Steps . . . light steps moved down the hall and he dragged himself away from his thoughts to see light under the door, a light that stopped then moved on just as they’d done each morning for a week. It had to be Adam. Once Joe went to sleep, it took a tornado to wake him and Hoss, well, it took more noise than a tiptoed walk to wake him from his snores. No, it had to be Adam getting an early start on the day, starting before Ben got up, starting before they had to face each other.

“Damn,” Ben muttered hauling himself up to lean against the headboard.

What was stopping him from heading downstairs? Nothing, nothing at all and yet here he sat remembering the silence that existed between the two of them as each day progressed becoming deeper as the hours passed and if he wasn’t careful could stretch into a lifetime.

“Too stubborn,” he whispered attaching that label to both himself and his firstborn. “Too stubborn for our own good.”

Perhaps today would be the day he’d break the silence, try to make Adam understand what he was feeling, what he went through those four months, what he’d lost. Maybe then he would understand why he’d had to leave, had to put behind him all that he had here until he could breathe again without wishing for death. Maybe then things could return to normal.

“Maybe then.”

But then thoughts of this week crept in, this week of finding Adam’s note on his desk that Monday of everything that was happening on the ranch and finding fault with none of it; this week when he’d been confronted with a hand preferring to speak with Adam about the new mill or Charlie opting to continue on with renovations to the eastern pasture per Adam’s instructions and not his own. He’d been gone for a long time . . . what did he expect? His son had taken over as he knew he would and he was proud of his accomplishments, proud of the bright, headstrong young boy who became a man while his father was absent . . . had too become a man because he had no other recourse. So what kept them apart?

“Stubborn.” Ah, there it was again. Both unwilling to bend like the tall pines that encircled them and would break one or both in the end.

A noise filtered through his window and he rose, glancing toward the barn, seeing the lantern light pouring out the door.

“I should go down there,” he said aloud. “I should go and thank him for being here, tell him how I feel.” He rubbed cold hands against his legs then turned from the window and sat back on the bed. “Oh, Marie, help me,” he whispered closing his eyes as her voice drifted around him. He didn’t hear the hoofbeats leave the yard as he lay there dreaming of his beloved.

*****

“Why you still here?” Hop Sing asked of Ben as he descended the stairs a few hours later. “Why you not take Little Joe to school?”

Confused, Ben’s brows narrowed. “What?”

“Little Joe. He need go to school. You take. Chop chop or he be late.”

“But Hoss is with him.”

“Hoss go with Mista Adam this morning. They plan all week. You take Little Joe school.” With that, Hop Sing scurried back toward the kitchen as Ben tried to work out what was going on.

“What do you mean Hoss isn’t going to school?!” Ben yelled as Hop Sing stopped and turned back toward his boss. “Who said he could skip school?”

“Mista Adam need help. Short hand. Hoss help. End of story.” Hop Sing turned back toward the kitchen.

“I didn’t say Hoss could skip school!” Ben bellowed as Hop Sing reappeared with a sheet of paper in his hand.

“Mista Adam say skip school. He – need – help,” Hop Sing tried to explain as he handed Ben the paper. “You stop Docta Paul. Get boys’ things. You stop General Store. Hop Sing need. Wagon ready. Go. You be late.”

Ben just stood there. Adam understood how important schooling was . . . how could he just have Hoss skip a day? It wasn’t Adam’s decision how much schooling his middle boy received, it was his, his father. And how many times had this happened while he was away? Well, he’d have words with that boy when he caught up with him. Heading toward the sideboard, he grabbed his hat and slapped it on his head.

“Joseph! We’ll be late for school!” He waited for a response adjusting his gunbelt and tying it down. “Joseph!”

“Comin’, Pa,” Joe called as he ran down the hall and rushed down the stairs, stumbling on the last step.

“Careful now,” Ben said, seeing him pull himself up.

“If Hoss don’t havta go ta school, why do I?” Joe asked sending a pout toward his father.

“Just get in the wagon.”

“But what about my horse?”

“We’re taking the wagon. I’ve got to pick up supplies.”

“But what if school let’s out early? How am I gonna get home?”

“Joseph, get in the wagon!”

Joe jumped and scurried out the door, Ben following after with a heavy sigh. Hefting the boy onto the seat, Ben soon followed and slapped the reins across the horses’ backs. He’d have a talk with Adam; oh, yes, today would be the day they talked.

*****

“What happened?!” Ben yelled when he heard Hoss howl and hurried through the kitchen door to see Hop Sing leaning against his middle boy to keep him in the chair as he grabbed at his leg.

“Hoss-cow have fight,” Hop Sing informed him. “You get supply?”

“Yes,” came Ben’s answer.

“You get boy’s things from Docta Paul?”

“Yes.”

“Sit still!” Hop Sing ordered the struggling Hoss.

“But it hurts.”

“Of course hurt. What you expect? Suck on this. Be quiet.” Hop Sing shoved a peppermint between Hoss’ lips and went back to work gently washing the long gash in the boy’s leg.

Ben knelt next to them. “What happened?” he asked again in a much lower voice as Hoss wiped at his eyes.

“My horse got spooked by one-a them little critters and bucked me off. I landed on a rock. Didn’t break nothin’ but Adam sent me home anyway. As soon as Hop Sing fixes me up, I’m goin’ back.”

“Oh, no you’re not, young man,” Ben answered as Hoss scowled at him.

“But I gotta help Adam.”

“Adam doesn’t need your help,” Ben answered, pushing himself up, not seeing the hurt in Hoss’ eyes.

Hop Sing could feel the boy stiffen and hurriedly tied off the wound and patted his knee. “All done. Now go. Can’t work while sit here.” Hoss shot to his feet, wincing slightly as he headed toward the kitchen door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ben asked.

“I done tol’ ya. I gotta help Adam.”

“Weren’t you listening? You’re staying put.”

“He’s short-handed and needs my help and I intend ta give it.” Hoss grabbed the doorknob and flung open the door.

“Hoss!” Ben yelled chasing after him, catching him by the arm to whip him around. “I’m your father and I’ve just told you that you’re staying here. Don’t make us have to have a necessary talk.”

Normally that would’ve made Hoss gulp and rethink what he’d intended but this time he was just plain mad and looked his father square in the eye.

“Do what ya havta, Pa, but I’m gonna go help Adam ‘cause he’s short handed and ya cain’t ask ‘im ta do everythin’ by hisself. Ya used ta care, Pa, used ta care about all of us. But now I’m guessin’ ya don’t no more, so go ahead and swat me good ‘cause I gotta go.” He held his father’s stare waiting for the hand to fall and was surprised when he was let go. Taking advantage of it, Hoss turned and headed for his horse just as Adam rounded the corner.

“Just where do you think you’re going?” Adam asked of his little brother as he dismounted and knelt next to Hoss, raising his pant leg to take a look at his wound.

“I’m comin’ back out ta help ya,” Hoss insisted.

“That rock cut you pretty deep, Hoss. I think you should stay home and let Hop Sing baby you.”

“But, Adam, ya need help . . .”

“Yes, but I’m not going to be responsible for you losing your leg. Now get back inside. Go on.”

Hoss eyed his brother then dropped his reins and limped away, not looking at his father as he passed. Adam heard the door shut and grinned. That boy was growing like a weed and would be taller than him in a few months.

“Adam.”

“Damn,” Adam muttered at the sound of his father’s voice, hastily sticking his foot in the stirrup in hopes of flying out of the yard, but dismissing the idea as Ben strode around Hoss’ horse. Putting his foot down, he took a deep breath and waited for the coming onslaught.

“I want to speak with you,” Ben said not getting a response from his headstrong son but forging on ahead. “So you’re short-handed.”

“Yes.” Adam debated with leaving it at that but knew he’d just have to stand here longer. “Billy cut his hand pretty deep and Karl was stepped on by his horse.”

“It would’ve been nice if you’d told me.”

“Why?” Adam asked before he could stop himself.

Ben eyed his oldest, seeing the effort he was taking to keep his emotions in check, the dark eyes staring sternly at him and felt his own ire on the rise. “Well, let’s see. How about this is my ranch and I need to know what’s going on at all times. And I’m more than willing to help when I’m needed.”

“I had help,” Adam answered. “Hoss.”

“Whom you took out of school.”

“That’s right,” he answered. “Miss Emigen knew about it.”

“The point is not that the school teacher knew about it. I didn’t know about it and you know how I feel about my boys getting an education and taking him out of school when I could’ve just as easily helped doesn’t sit well with me.” Adam smirked at that. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh, it’s something and I want to know what it is.”

“Oh, no you don’t. I have work to do. Are we done?” Adam asked turning to mount before he had an answer.

“Not by far,” Ben answered grabbing a hold of Adam’s reins.

“Let me go, Pa.”

“Why? So you can hide out from me? So you don’t have to talk to me?”

“What good would it do?” Adam asked bowing his head.

“What does that mean?” Ben glared at his oldest tired of this game they’d been playing since he’d been home, tired of feeling guilty over his leaving. Just tired. He saw Adam clench his jaw before turning to face him.

“I learned a few things while you were gone, Pa,” Adam began trying desperately to keep a civil tongue. “I learned how good it is to have friends who really care and are there when you need them. I learned how faith can shatter into a million pieces when something so astounding happens that it can’t possibly be true then turns out to be so. I learned how much I love my brothers and how much I cherish Hop Sing for his guidance and help.” He stopped for a moment then plowed on. “And I learned how suddenly love can turn to despair then hate, and once it reaches that level it’s awfully hard to change it back.”

Adam refused to shy away at the look on his father’s face. He knew he’d just cut him in two but isn’t that what he’d done to them? Didn’t the great Ben Cartwright sacrifice the love of his family just so he could be alone to think? He should’ve stopped there but found he couldn’t. His tongue was finally loosened. “You want to talk? Fine. You left us, Pa. You abandoned us without a backward glance. You made me lie to the boys to cover up whatever it was you were doing. That’s when the door closed, Pa, right then, when I had to lie for you because you didn’t have the decency to tell us why you left or when you were coming back.”

“I wrote a letter,” Ben said in a harsh whisper as Adam snorted.

“You call seven words a letter. Do you even remember what you wrote? Wait, don’t force yourself. I can repeat it to you word for word because it’s been seared into my brain. ‘Dear Son, I’m in Denver. Your Pa’. That’s it. And the topper – you didn’t even address the envelope. Do you know how much that hurt?” he asked his voice breaking slightly as he looked away. “Do you even care?”

“Of course I care. What kind of a question is that?”

“A perfectly reasonable question, Pa, considering.”

“You have to understand, Adam, I was grieving . . . I still am.”

Adam’s eyes quickly turned back. “And what do you think we were doing? Forget me and Hoss, but what about Joe. Marie was his mother and you walked out on him.” He felt that fire rise in him, felt it rushing through every nerve and he narrowed his eyes. “I had to hold Joe night and day, reminding him of how much you loved him, telling him that you’d be back soon only to have each day turn into weeks then months. And when you finally decided to tell us that you were still alive, you sent that wretched piece of . . . of nothing! You made me a part of your lie and for that. . . !” He forcibly stopped himself and grabbed a hunk of mane as he quickly looked away.

“Say it.”

Adam refused to look back, his heart beating furiously.

 “Say it.”

“I don’t know if I . . . if I can forgive you for that, Pa.”

Ben paled, fearful of what those words could mean for their future. He could only guess by the sound of Adam’s voice what it had cost him.

“I don’t know how to make you understand, Adam, but I couldn’t face this,” Ben said opening arms wide to encompass the house, the barn, his oldest son. “Not then. My wife was dead and everything was gone.”

Adam turned blistering eyes toward Ben. “Not everything, Pa. We were still here,” Adam reminded him. “We loved you with everything we had; we gave you unconditional support; we helped you build your dream and you just tossed us aside like it meant nothing.” He shook his head not caring anymore. “I kept things running as best as I could. I stepped in and became their father and when I couldn’t Paul did it for me and Roy was right there. We had to fend off your friend, Tolman, and I was more than prepared to take them away and the note I would’ve left would’ve been longer than seven words.

“I did your job, Pa, not because I had too or it was expected but because I love my family and I’d never just abandon them because the going got tough. How dare you come back like nothing’s changed, wanting to just step in and resume your place. In case you’ve forgotten, I was going to school this year; now I can’t possibly leave because I can’t take the chance that something else won’t upset you while I’m gone and that’ll leave the boys in the hands of Tolman. But that’s fine with me because my family means more to me than an education you so desperately want Hoss and Joe to have.”

“I would never leave . . .”

“You’ve already proven that you will, Pa, so what does that leave me with? How could I possibly go all the way to Boston now?”

“I forgot about . . .” Ben’s voice trailed off. He’d completely forgotten about Adam heading to school this year, something both he and Marie wanted for him.

“You forgot a lot of things, Pa. You forgot that you weren’t the only one left behind.” Adam said that softly, cursing himself for the tears that fell unable to stop them and turned back to his horse, scrambling into the saddle. “I’ve got work to finish.”

With that he hurried out of the yard, Ben knowing that Adam’s trailing tears were mirrored on his own face as he stood silently staring after him not hearing the door fling open behind him.

“Pa!” Hoss called limping toward his father. “Ain’t ya gonna stop ‘im?” Ben said nothing and continued to stare off into the distance as Hoss dragged on his arm. “Pa, do somethin’!”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Say what’cha always say ta make ‘im do what ya want,” Hoss reasoned.

Ben’s brow furrowed as his eyes finally rested on his boy. “What?”

“Tell ‘im that ya need ‘im. Tell ‘im that ya love ‘im. Tell ‘im that without ‘im, Joe and I would’ve been lost while you gallivanted all over creation. Tell ‘im yer thankful he was here ta take care ‘o us ‘cause you wasn’t. Tell ‘im that ya love ‘im as much as ya love Joe. Is that so hard?!” Hoss finished, tears rushing down his face, staring hard at his father who looked back at him unable to say anything. Hoss ran a hand under his nose and snuffled, sadness overtaking him. “I guess it is hard, ain’t it, Pa? It’s hard ta say them words when ya don’t mean ‘em no more.”

“I love you and your brothers,” Ben finally managed around the lump in his throat.

“Then why cain’t ya tell ‘im? Ya wasn’t here, Pa. Ya didn’t see what Adam went through, what it took outta ‘im. Joe and I held onto ‘im as he cried for you, for Mama and he held onto us for the same thing. And now ya come back like nothin’s different and expect ‘im, expect us ta just fall in line behind ya. Ya cain’t treat ‘im like that, Pa. Ya never did afore. Why now?”

Dazed Ben just looked at his middle boy. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I don’t know how else to say it.”

“Sorry,” Hiss practically spit. “Sorry ya left or sorry ya had ta come back?” With a stifled sob, Hoss walked away from his father and into the house, Ben turning to see him go, wondering how he’d let everything go so wrong.

“Why you no go after?” Hop Sing yelled as he headed towards Ben. “You fatha. Go talk to Hoss.”

“I can’t,” Ben answered.

“Why not?”

“I just can’t.”

Hop Sing simmered, glaring at his employer. “Then you no deserve boys.” That drew a glare from Ben. “That right. I here when you go; I see what happen when you no write then send little letter that hurt so much. You lost and you need find self pretty quick or you lose all family. Missy Marie die; Missy Inger die; Missy Elizabeth die. Done. New life, here, now. Boys your life. Wake up before this life pass you by, before you lose more and never find way home.” Hop Sing stared at him then shook his head and headed after Hoss.

Ben watched him go, watched him walk away as he’d watched Hoss and Adam leave and done nothing. What was the matter with him? He was a strong man, capable of making decisions and following through. He had a ranch to run and boys to raise and yet . . .

He hung his head. All that gumption, as Roy called it, was gone, gone into the ground with Marie. Hop Sing was right about something – he was lost and he didn’t know if he could find his way home. Oh, sure, he’d come onto the land, sat inside the house, tried to fit back in, but was he really home in mind and body?

Shaking his head, he stuffed hands in his pockets and started walking toward the trees, memories surging through him of life in Boston, the wagon train and the love he’d found in New Orleans. He had to get a hold of himself, had to start living again for his boys – everything for his boys.

*****

“Charlie?” Hop Sing said as he met the foreman at the kitchen door.

“Gotta message here for ya, Hop Sing.”  He took the offered piece of paper and just stared at it. “Mr. Cartwright home?”

“He out there,” Hop Sing said absently, closing the door behind Charlie who whisked his hat from his head and ventured out into the great room seeing Ben staring sullenly into the fire.

“Mr. Cartwright?” Charlie said, trying to get his attention. “Mr. Cartwright?” he tried again finally seeing some movement.

“Yes, Charlie?” came the tired voice.

“We got all the scheduled work done and Adam sent us all in early so’s we could spend the evenin’ in town, being that it’s Friday and all, lessen a course ya need somethin’ done around here.”

“What? No, no. You deserve some time. Have fun.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. Have a good afternoon.” Charlie waited a moment, watching this man continue to stare into the fire and quietly left the room, nodding to Hop Sing as he slipped through the front door.

“Mista Adam send note,” Hop Sing informed Ben as he slowly approached not knowing if he was heard.

“What does it say?” Ben asked not turning around.

“It say he be away for few day. Don’t let Hoss come after.” Ben tensed and rubbed his forehead. “He love you,” Hop Sing reminded him tucking the note in a pocket.

“I’ve lost that love,” Ben admitted with a sigh.

“Once love there, never lose. Just in different place.”

“He told me that his love had turned to hate over what I’d done. How can that ever be forgotten?”

“No one forget,” Hop Sing said. “Other thing take place of anger once time passes. He no hate you. You see. I go get Little Joe.” Not waiting for an answer, Hop Sing turned away wondering when all of this was going to be over.

Ben remained by the fire, vaguely registering Joe’s name, then lost it to thoughts of that small dark-haired boy so inquisitive, so trusting, so ready to commit to his dream and setting aside his own dreams to make sure the family survived.

“I’m so sorry, Adam.”

*****

 The day grew warmer as the sun moved across the sky shining down on Adam as he leaned against a tall pine, picking grass and throwing rocks while his mind raced. A stiff breeze wafted through the trees and he could see clouds gathering in the north. Rain clouds.

Winter was coming and briefly he wondered if they’d have a ‘heap o’ snow’ as Hoss called it. He smiled slightly then felt it wash away as thoughts of what he’d said to his father wiped it clean. He rubbed his face.

It all kept coming back to threatening his father then telling him he hated him. Did he really? He was angry with him, felt betrayed, but did he really hate him? That was such a strong word, a word filled with enormous weight to destroy everything it touched.

He remembered how it felt to hear his father’s voice in the barn when he’d finally come home, remembered how he just wanted to fall into his arms and be comforted, to have someone tell him everything was going to be all right. And then his pride stepped in and quashed that feeling, stomping it down until all that was left was hostility and resentment which then spread to Hoss.

Adam shook his head. The entire time their father had been gone, he’d done his best to counter any harsh thoughts toward their father from his brothers. He was old enough to shoulder those things himself; they were just children and he couldn’t let them wander into that territory which mucked up everything. But obviously he hadn’t done as good a job as he’d hoped for Hoss had seen through his diversions. No doubt it was the day he’d collapsed and broken down that Hoss began to reason things out. For that he was sorry.

And Joe . . . well, Joe was just glad his father was home and all thoughts of his absence vanished as soon as he’d seen him riding into town. Ah, the joys of youth, where you lived from moment to moment and weren’t burdened by memory. True, he only had a vague recollection of ever feeling that way but it was there nonetheless and he prized the memory.

“What am I gonna do?” he said aloud looking up at the sorrel mare he’d been riding, hoping for some answer. She bobbed her head and waited. “Maybe I should just leave, do to him what he did to me. Leave him in the lurch and ignore my responsibilities.” He leaned forward and wrapped arms about his knees. “Who am I kidding? I can’t just walk away. I’m too responsible,” he said in a sarcastic tone. “And I love my brothers too much to just walk away. Damn.”

He leaned back again and looked up to the clouds moving slowing toward him. Trouble coming came the thought and he threw some more rocks.

*****

Roy Coffee couldn’t believe his eyes and glanced over at the big clock against the wall then back again at what stood, or rather wobbled, before him held up between Ponderosa foreman, Charlie Porter, and hand, Pete Sellers.

“Hi, Roy,” a bleary-eyed Adam said with a sickly smile.

“Adam,” Roy answered looking from Pete to Charlie for some explanation.

“Came into the Bucket of Blood not five minutes ago and ordered a whiskey,” Charlie explained. “Then two more and followed it up with a beer. ‘Course he downed ‘em in about two minutes. Picked ‘im off the floor right after that. Surprised he ain’t puked up his guts by now.”

“Oh, that’s a-comin’,” Roy said.

“Doc wasn’t home,” Charlie continued. “And we didn’t want his Pa seein’ ‘im like this. Not today anyway.”

Roy wanted to know why not today but let it pass. “Bring him inside.” Carefully they half-carried, half-dragged the young man inside and sat him down on one of the cots in a cell. “Thanks, boys, I’ll take it from here.”

“I’ll make sure ta let Mr. Cartwright know where he is.”

“You do that. Tell Ben I’ll send ‘im on home when he can see straight.”

Charlie nodded and headed out as Roy closed the door behind them, running a hand through his thinning hair, then shook his head.

It always surprised him at the turn some folks took when faced with a disaster of some kind. It seemed like their heads up and left and their bodies just traveled onto its own destruction. He shrugged. He wasn’t any kind of doctor to even comprehend what all went on in someone else’s head. He had a hard enough time with his own.

A slightly off-key lyric filtered into the outer room and Roy chuckled as he picked up the coffee pot and two cups and headed back toward the sound seeing a rumpled young man, face pressed against the bars, singing his heart out. He stopped as soon as Roy appeared.

“Howdy, Roy Coffee, Sheriff of Virginia City.” Adam smiled gleefully, spying what he had in his hand. “Roy Coffee with a coffee pot. Suppose they named you after a coffee pot, Roy, or the other way ‘round?”

“Never gave it much thought,” the sheriff answered, handing over a steaming cup to Adam. “Now drink this. It’ll make ya feel better.”

“But I feel fine!” Adam boisterously answered waving about his arm and splashing the hot liquid on his leg. “Well, I did. Ow!”

“Yer okay,” Roy said, using the blanket to wipe off the offending liquid. “Now settle down and drink up.” He eyed Adam who sheepishly sat back and took a large gulp making Roy wince. “I’m guessin’ that don’t feel too good now does it?” All Adam could do was force himself to swallow, feeling the burn all the way down his throat. “Serves ya right. What’re ya doin’ getting’ yerself drunk anyhow? And in the middle of the day.”

“It’s . . .” Adam began then coughed trying to get words around his burned throat. “It’s Friday. Isn’t that what all the hands do on Fridays?”

“Yer no more a hand than I am a preacher.”

Adam waggled a finger in front of Roy. “That’s not true. I’ve heard you preach to your prisoners. Makes me want to walk the straight and narrow, it does.”

“Yer Pa’ll be worried sick. He’s got enough worries as it is.”          Roy realized his error when Adam’s face lost its smile and he stared into his cup.

“What kinda worries does he have?” Adam began. “I took care of everything – the ranch, the boys. He didn’t havta worry about nothin’ except how far to run.” Roy pursed his lips not having to take a giant leap as to why this particular boy had gotten himself drunk. “Why’d he do it, Roy?” came the question as Adam pulled up his legs and wrapped arms about them. “If he was so worried, why’d he leave us?”

“’Cause he was hurtin’,” Roy stated plain and simple.

“We were all hurting, Roy. Especially Joe. He’d lost his Mama. That boy needed Pa more than anything and he just up and left. I can’t figure it and I’m tired of trying.”

Roy ran fingers over his mustache and sighed. Here was a subject he knew a lot about and yet hated to speak on it. But this boy was as close to being a son as he’d ever had and, even though he didn’t agree with Ben’s handling of the situation, he could see clearly the thought processes behind it. He plowed on.

“Ya gotta understand, son,” Roy began, “that when a man loses a part of hisself, he just cain’t figure which way is up. Nothin’ makes sense no more; everythin’ becomes such an effort; little things suddenly blossom ‘til ya figure they’ll blot out the sky and take you right along with it.

“It ain’t purty what happens ta a man when they lose that, Adam, and it’s a hard road ta come back on, ‘cause by the time ya figure how ta breathe again without her, ya’ve pretty much destroyed any relationships ya might’ve had with the people around ya. It’s a sorry state ya find yerself in and it jest makes it all the worse when ya havta go it alone.”

“But he wasn’t alone, Roy. He had the three of us and you and Paul and Hop Sing.”

“That’s true, but at the time, ya don’t see nothin’ but a black void that jest eats ya up and ya feel like there’s nothin’ ya can do. Some men lock themselves away and others run. When my Mary passed, well, it was about the hardest thing I had ta do.”

Adam eyed his longtime friend seeing a sadness cross his face and linger around the eyes. “What was?” he asked as Roy glanced toward him.

“Gettin’ outta bed each mornin’; shovin’ food in my mouth; breathin’ from one minute ta the next.”

Adam shuddered knowing the feeling having experienced it himself just recently but suddenly realized that if Roy had experienced it, then it had to have been a hundred times worse for his father, suffering through it three separate times. He cringed at the thought. “You had to think on everything,” he whispered as Roy shook his head.

“Yep. How ta walk, how ta talk, how ta be civil.” Roy smiled then. “Yer Pa and Doc took the brunt o’ that. I took yer Pa’s head off a few times jest fer lookin’ at me sideways but he kept at it, kept tellin’ me my Mary wouldn’t want me ta be that way, would want me ta live and remember her ‘cause that way she’d live on. I thought he was crazy,” Roy snickered. “Told ‘im so too but he jest kept right on, pullin’ me from the bottle, makin’ me see what I had and, even though it was gone, showed me how ta experience it each time I shut my eyes. It weren’t the same and he knew it but it helped some.”

“So why . . ?” Adam stopped himself thinking he probably already knew the answer.

“Why didn’t he do that for hisself?” Roy asked as Adam nodded. “Ya know better than anyone once yer deep into somethin’, ya cain’t see what everyone else can see, yer too close. And ya ain’t gonna listen ta nobody neither ‘cause ya figure they don’t know how ya feel. Happens ta everyone, son. It happened ta yer, Pa.”

Adam remained quiet, remembering times when he’d failed to tell his family what he was feeling, when he’d shut them out thinking he was the only one who could handle something. Of course he’d never just run away without a word but then he’d never spoken to his father that way either.

“What’cha thinkin’?” Roy asked seeing Adam lower his head.

“I kinda told him I . . . I hated him.”  Adam ran a hand over his eyes, wiping away the sudden tears. “I felt so . . .   I felt as if both my parents died that day and I was left all alone.” He turned glassy eyes to Roy. “She was my mother as well as Hoss and Joe’s. I miss her, too.” He rubbed at his eyes again then just hid his face behind his hand, Roy taking the cup from him before he spilled anymore and held onto his arm, his heart breaking at the quiet sobs coming from this strong young man.

No one ever truly died alone. Oh sure they may be stuck on some mountain and succumb to the environment without another soul in sight, but they never died alone. Anyone who knew them or cared for them died that day as well and would have to learn to continue without them in their lives. Roy sometimes thought that was the hardest job – the ones who remained behind.

He felt Adam tense under his grip. “I’m gonna be sick,” he heard and quickly reached for the bowl under the cot, holding Adam’s shoulders until he was done then easily pushed him flat onto the cot.

“Jest rest up fer a spell,” Roy said pulling a blanket over Adam then rubbed his back to comfort him. “The bowl’ll be right here if’n ya need it.” He got a meager nod and quickly pulled the other bowl from the second cell slipping it into place, then looked back, knowing the heartache the boy felt for his own heart still held the same feelings even after all these years. “It’ll be all right, son,” he whispered as he returned to his desk.

*****

“They look like fans.”

“Ya mean like them Mexican ladies use?”

“I guess.”

“If’n ya don’t know, then what’d’ya say it for?”

“I heard one-a them saloon girls say it once when they passed him on the street.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you have to be so loud?” Adam groaned, putting a hand to his ears, the droning of voices booming in his head.

“He’s awake!”

“Ahhh,” was Adam’s only response to the joyous outburst.

“Now be quiet you two or I’ll turn ya out,” Roy said as he came into the cell holding a glass of water. “Adam, drink this up. It’ll help with that headache. Come on.”

Dutifully, Adam squinted one eye and took the proffered glass, downing it in one gulp. “Yuck,” he remarked sticking out his tongue hearing Joe giggle. It was then he spied his brothers sitting across from him on the other cot pulled up close. “What day is it?”

“It’s still Friday about 5:00pm,” Roy informed him as he started out.

“Is Pa here?” he asked.

“Nope. Just us,” Joe answered with an impish grin. “I ain’t never been in jail before.”

“Haven’t. You haven’t been in jail before,” Adam automatically corrected as he rubbed his temples.

“That neither.”

Adam just sighed and slowly moved upright to lean against the bars keeping his eyes closed against the brightness of the late afternoon sun. “What are you two doing here?” he asked.

“I came with Hoss,” Joe happily answered.

Adam opened his eyes onto his middle brother who looked uncomfortable. “Hoss? Does Pa know you’re here?” His gaze flicked up for an instant than moved away as Adam reached out for him. “Hoss?”

“Ah, I left a note,” Hoss stammered, pulling at the blanket on the cot. “I thought ya was leavin’ and I was . . . I was comin’ with ya,” Hoss honestly answered.

Adam’s brows flew up his forehead. “Why’d you think I was leaving?” he asked, thinking over his last conversation with his father as Hoss’ expression changed.

“I heard Hop Sing tell Pa about yer note, about how ya didn’t want me ta follow. Only thing I could think of was ya was leavin’.” Adam closed is eyes on that. “And I also heard what ya said ta Pa. I heard what he didn’t say ta ya and when I talked ta ‘im, I realized he ain’t Pa no more.”

“Now, Hoss . . .” Adam began but was interrupted.

“He done buried hisself in the ground with Mama, Adam, and ain’t never comin’ home. I cain’t live with that and I ain’t got nowhere else ta go ‘ceptin’ with you.”

“Hoss . . .”

“I don’t like how he treats ya,” Hoss continued, jumping to his feet and glancing at his little brother. “He’s got Joe and that’s all he needs.” Shocked Adam glanced at Joe who gave him a sad look. “Don’t deny it. Ever since Joe come along, he’s a shinin’ light in Pa’s eyes. I never minded afore ‘cause I knew Pa loved me, and Mama, too, and a course I had you. But now Mama’s gone and yer leavin’. What ‘em I gonna do if’n he leaves again?  I cain’t take care ‘o Joe myself. And maybe if’n I leave, he won’t leave Joe behind.”

Adam just stared at Hoss, not having to wonder at how he’d arrived at that last thought. He’d projected it loud and clear in the yard. He held out his hand and motioned Hoss over who immediately obliged and let his brother fold him into his arms. “I’m not going anywhere, Hoss,” he began kissing the top of his head. “And neither are you.”

“But, Adam, Pa ain’t gonna change back ta the way he was. I seen it in his eyes when I begged ‘im ta come get ya. He jest looked scared. I ain’t never seen Pa scared o’ nothin’.”

“He’s scared of moving on alone, Hoss, without Mama.” That was it. Ben was scared of facing a future without Marie. It wasn’t that he didn’t love them. He told him plain – he just couldn’t handle them at the time. “He’s had a lot of heartache in his life and, I guess, something just snapped this time. He’ll get better with time.”

“How can ya say that?” Hoss said, pulling back. “He treats ya like dirt and ya defend ‘im?”

Adam sighed, thinking he’d let his own emotions get the better of him and cringed at the memory of those horrid words now given strength and depth because they’d been spoken aloud.

“Adam?” Hoss questioned trying to get his brother’s attention. Slowly he turned to face him. “Adam, we cain’t go back. Pa and Joe’ll be all right by themselves.”

“No, Hoss, they won’t,” he admitted.

“We won’t,” Joe added.

“But, Adam . . .”

“We’re a family, Hoss, through good times and bad.” Adam pushed back Hoss’ wispy hair. “Just now, well, this is one of the bad times and we’ll have to figure out how to work through it, how to put aside all those feelings and see things as they will be.”

“But he left us, Adam, left us. He ain’t never done that afore. It was like we done somethin’ wrong. I didn’t make Mama’s horse fall and neither did you. Ain’t right ‘im takin’ it out on us.”

“We just reminded him too much of Mama, Joe especially.”

“Then it’s my fault?” Joe softly asked, tears gathering.

Adam immediately reached out for him who took his hand. This was so hard to put aside his own feelings to comfort those around him. But then he remembered Roy’s words and felt ashamed of his own harsh feelings that still lingered. “It’s no one’s fault, Joe,” he said. “Pa just had to get away, find himself again and try to come home to us whole.”

“But he ain’t the same,” Hoss reminded him. “He barely talks ta me and you he jest ignores. Joe seems ta be all he thinks about.”

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” Joe said, his lower lip jutting out.

“It ain’t yer fault, Little Joe. I guess I’m jest jealous. Pa used ta like me now I’m jest nothin’.”

Adam held Hoss tighter hearing him snuffle. So much pain and it all began with Marie’s horse falling, sending an echoing blast through all their lives to disrupt it to the point of collapse. Adam pulled Joe to him as well and the three of them just sat in silence trying to figure out where their lives were going now when Roy cleared his throat and pointed toward Hoss’ leg.

“What’cha do ta yerself, Hoss?” Roy asked as he neared.

“Your leg,” Adam said releasing his brothers. “I forgot about that. Let me look.” Adam carefully pulled up Hoss’ pant leg to see the bloody bandages. Tsking, he shook his head. “Roy, have you got anything to clean and wrap this in?”

“Sure do. Jest give me a second.”

“It ain’t nothin’,” Hoss said, his breath hissing through his teeth as Adam pulled off the soiled dressing just as Roy reappeared handing him the necessary items and proceeded to clean out the wound.

“You should get some stitches,” Roy declared.

“Aw, it’s just a scratch.”

Adam smiled.  The way Hoss looked at things, his arm could be hanging from his body by a stretch of skin and he’d put a bandage on it and go back to doing whatever he’d been doing before.

“What’cha smilin’ at?”

“You,” Adam answered.

“What I done ta make ya smile ‘cause I wanna keep doin’ it. I ain’t seen it for awhile.”

Adam looked up at his brother feeling his eyes well and looked away. “You’ve been a rock for me, Hoss,” Adam confessed as he continued ministering to the wound. “Without you and Joe . . . well, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”

“Ah, Adam, yer the strongest man I know,” Hoss answered laying a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“Not as much as you think,” Adam admitted, flicking a look up at his brother then back down. “You know how difficult it’s been. You were there for Joe when I wasn’t and kept me informed of what was going on and I appreciate that more than you can know.” He finished working on Hoss’ leg and sat back, then looked toward both his brothers. “I love you both and not just for your help but for yourselves. You always surprise me and I couldn’t have picked better brothers.”

Hoss blinked furiously trying to keep the tears from falling while Joe failed miserably, Adam wrapping arms about the two. He held them both as they cried, willing himself not too, and wondered how God could grant him these gifts in his arms and take away his father’s happiness with a single misplaced hoof. It wasn’t fair but then life had rarely seen fit to be fair.

*****

 “Adam,” came the muffled voice barely above a whisper right in his ear. “Adam,” it came again and this time he could feel hot breath on his face.

“Yes,” came the answer.

“I wanna go home.”

That opened Adam’s eyes and he looked right at his baby brother inches from his face.

“Now?” he asked barely able to see him in the dark. Joe just nodded and Adam ran a hand down the boy’s arm feeling him tremble. “What’s wrong?”

“I just wanna go home.”

“Can’t wait until morning?” Joe just shook his head. “I thought you were all worked up about leaving home; running off with us.”

“I was but now ya ain’t goin’ and I wanna go home. Please, Adam. Can we go?”

 Rubbing at his face to clear the cobwebs, Adam groaned as he sat up, trying to ignore the pounding in his head. “Serves me right,” he mumbled as he pushed on Hoss’ leg interrupting him in mid-snore. “Get up, Hoss, we’re going home.”

“What fer?” he grumbled.

Adam turned to Joe and gave him a slight smile. “’Cause we should be home sleeping in our own beds instead of Roy’s jail. Get your stuff and let’s go.” Joe beamed at him and Adam headed out to the office, seeing a light under Roy’s door. Quietly knocking produced a ‘come in’ and he opened the door.

“What’s the matter, Adam? Yer lookin’ mighty pasty.  Need some more of that headache medicine?”

Adam smiled at him. “No. Joe wants to go home so we’ll be leaving your humble abode.”

“It’s awful late. Sure ya don’t wanna wait ‘til mornin’?”

Adam shook his head and yawned. “As much as I’d like too, my little brother is just aching to get home. Actually we should all be home.”

Roy smiled and put down his book. “Want me ta go with ya?”

“No, we can make it.”

“Well, take my jacket then. It’s chilly out there and I hear rain’s a-comin’ so jest be careful. Hate ta have yer Pa come a-callin’ in the mornin’ only ta find out ya been grabbed by gypsies.”

“Gypsies?!” Joe practically shrieked. “Adam?”

“There aren’t any gypsies out there, Joe,” Adam hurriedly added, glaring at Roy who chuckled and grabbed Adam’s shoulder as they moved toward the door. “Thanks, Roy.”

“My pleasure. Nice ta have houseguests once in awhile. Now ya be careful, Adam, and if’n ya need ta talk some more, ya know where ta find me.”

“I won’t forget,” Adam said shaking Roy’s outstretched hand. “Come on then,” he said to his brothers, “and be quiet. It’s late.”

“See ya, Roy.”

“Bye, Roy.”

“Boys,” Roy answered, watching the trio make their way to the livery hoping they’d be all right on the road home. He quietly closed the door.

*****

Joe had fallen asleep halfway home and snuggled up against Adam who held on tight. The stars had flown as they made their way; the clouds he’d seen earlier were completing their march across the sky complete with distant lightning flashes and a low rumble floating over the treetops.

“Let’s pick up the pace, Hoss,” Adam called over his shoulder. “Gotta get home before the rain starts.” Not waiting for an answer, he urged his horse into a lope and they soon found themselves in the yard just as the first raindrops began to fall.

“You take Joe,” Adam stated handing off his brother to Hoss, “and I’ll put up the horses.”

Joe never woke through the transition or the bouncing ride on his brother’s shoulder as Hoss limped for the door, leaving Adam to hurry the horses inside the barn. Making a cursory attempt at rubbing them down, he promised better things tomorrow, tossed some oats in their trough, checked their water and doused the lantern light, closing the door firmly behind him. It wouldn’t do to have the wind blow them open during the rainstorm.

Ducking his head against the rain, Adam ran for the front door and let himself in, the darkness of the room surprising him. It must really be late for the fire had burned down to almost nothing. Well, at least he might be able to get a couple of hours sleep before he had to face his father. He’d been acting like a hurt child. Now he had to act like the man he was becoming and hoped his father would accept his apology.

He made his way toward the stairs as the first flash of lightning filled the dark causing something to catch at the corner of his eye and, for a split second, he could’ve sworn Joe was standing against the gun rack with a hand over his mouth. His turn to fully face this vision wasn’t completed as something heavy plowed against the side of his head and the room tilted as he fell sideways to slam bodily into the newel post at the base of the stairs. Arms and legs failing to obey, he couldn’t stop himself falling heavily to the floor nor keep his head from bouncing off the hardwood. Hands were on him in an instant dragging him back to his feet, knees threatening to give way as he was pushed back against the stairs, hit again then twice more across the face with something harder than a fist. He was pretty sure his nose and possibly his cheekbone were broken.

“What’re ya doin’?!” came a harsh whisper somewhere to the right of them, seeping through the ringing in his ears.

“I’m payin’ ‘im back fer shootin’ me last time we was here,” came the answer as he whacked Adam again always keeping a firm hand on his jacket to keep him upright.

“We ain’t got time fer that, Hobbs. Let’s move before that Chinaman wakes up.”

“I hit ‘im good. He ain’t gonna wake up anytime soon. ‘Sides I ain’t done yet.”

Forceful punches one after another to Adam’s gut brought a cry of pain from him as ribs cracked and all went gray. He found himself dropping to his knees then flat on his face when Hobbs let him go, his mind trying to redirect his senses away from the pain and back into getting his arms and legs to move correctly. His awkward movements strayed his hand ominously close to his holster and the gun that still sat there. Hobbs saw the movement and gave a vicious kick to Adam’s stomach before he lifted the gun from its holster, now satisfied this one wouldn’t jump him when his back was turned. He returned to rifle through Ben’s desk while Adam screamed at himself to stay conscious in hopes of finding some way to keep his brothers safe.

“They gotta safe, Gread,” came Hobbs’ whisper to his cohort.

“Ain’t got time ta fiddle with it,” came the answer. “Let’s just get some silverware and take them frames and some o’ them guns and let’s git going. We can pull the horses from the barn when we leave.”

“But there’s gotta be a lot of money in this safe.”

“Well, we’re never gonna know ‘cause we ain’t stayin’. Now let’s move.” Hobbs glared at Gread then his eyes fell on Adam who was trying to push himself up and not succeeding.

“I bet ya know the combination, boy,” Hobbs said moving toward Adam as he shook his head to clear it. Taking that as a no, Hobbs yanked back his head. “Yer the oldest. Been alone here for a long time. Ya gotta know the combination. Now give it ta me.”

“Don’t  . . . don’t know it,” Adam sputtered through puffy and bleeding lips, crying out when Hobbs smashed his head back to the floor.

“Liar!”

“WHAT IN TARNATION IS GOING ON DOWN HERE?!” bellowed Ben from the top of the stairs as he raised the lantern, quickly taking in the scary sight of Joe held tightly by a stranger and Hoss flat on the floor beside the low table. His father’s voice penetrated the haze of pain that surrounded Adam just as Hobbs finally let him go, hearing the cocking of a gun.

“RUN, PA!” Adam yelled just as sounds of a gunshot filled the air. Fear whipped through him and he twisted around just in time to see his father stagger backwards and fall out of sight. “NO!”

From somewhere, strength filled Adam and he struggled toward the stairs, not hearing a squeal of pain to his left or see his little brother being tossed into the red leather chair next to Hoss as the robbers flew from the house. All he saw were his father’s unmoving feet above him and he crawled like the Devil himself was after him up the stairs, reaching him just as Charlie rushed through the front door holding aloft a lantern.

“What’s happened?!”

“The robbers, Charlie!” Joe shouted.

“How many?”

“Three. One was that man who whipped the colt.”

“Branson Gread?” Charlie asked as Joe nodded, remembering how Adam had threatened to take the whip to him before Charlie ran him off. “All right, boys,” he called to the men standing behind him. “You heard him. Search the grounds.” He watched them disperse then turned back to the room. “Anyone hurt?” he asked rushing over to help Hoss sit up, feeling a bump on his head.

“Adam and . . . and Pa,” Joe cried looking toward the stairs afraid to leave the security of the big chair, afraid of what he might see if he moved up the stairs. Hoss wasn’t afraid and hurried up with Charlie closely following.

“Pa?” they heard come from Adam like a piteous cry of a scared animal as they saw his hand pressed against the wound in Ben’s chest. “Pa . . . please . . .” Nothing came back to him; no flicker of an eyelid or a muttered word. Only silence met his pleas, a deafening silence that filled him with dread.

“Adam?” Charlie said seeing fear on the young man’s bloodied face.

“He’s not answering. Charlie, he’s not answering!”

Charlie moved quickly to find a pulse and gave a shout out for Pete. The man poked his head inside. “Go for Doc Martin and hurry!”

“I’m so sorry, Pa,” Adam began. “I never meant . . . You have to hear me, Pa. I don’t hate you. I thought I did but I don’t. Please, Pa, talk to me. Tell me you heard . . . tell me . . .”  He broke down then, tears rushing forth to mingle with the blood on his face and he dropped his head onto his father’s chest not feeling hands on his back or hear his brother’s voice speaking gently in his ear. All he knew was he was too late. How could he ever apologize now? How could he prove to his father he still loved him?

Vaguely he felt himself being pulled away and grasped onto Ben’s shirt only to have his fingers gently pried loose as Hoss’ face came into view “I gotcha, Adam,” Hoss said to his battered brother. “It’s gonna be all right.”

“Tell him, Hoss,” Adam begged. “Tell him I . . . I don’t . . . I don’t hate him.”

“I’ll tell ‘im. I’ll tell ‘im,” Hoss cried adding a few other words, the meaning lost to Adam as he began to float away on the darkness that surrounded him. Hoss saw him reach once more for their father only to have his arm fall against his leg as he became limp in Hoss’ arms and his head fell back. He embraced Adam tighter, rocking him as he cried. “Please don’t take ‘im. Please don’t take im, too.”

*****

It was cold. He pulled his coat tightly about him and stared down at an empty grave. Hoss stood holding a crying Joe and glared at him from the other side of the deep hole. He furrowed his brow not knowing why his son looked at him so until Hoss pointed toward the hole in the ground and eyes automatically followed. All the air disappeared around him; all sound became muted; all time stopped for that empty grave now held his son, those unseeing hazel eyes staring straight into his soul . . .

 “Adam!” Ben shouted, eyes shooting open to glance frantically about the darkened room.

“Easy, now,” came Paul’s voice as he restrained his friend from moving.

Wide-eyed, Ben’s heart raced making his breaths come faster soon to be followed by sharp pains through his head and chest. “Ahhh,” he groaned grimacing as Paul forced him to lie back onto his pillow.

“You’re all right, Ben,” Paul offered him, waiting patiently for his friend to orient himself, checking his bandages, happy that the bleeding had stopped and all his moving hadn’t broken any stitches.

“What happened?” Ben asked after he caught his breath.

“Robbers were in the house and shot you. Basically it’s just a deep furrow along your chest. Must’ve been a ricochet. But you knocked yourself silly when you fell so you might be a bit dizzy for a couple of days.”

“Robbers?”

“The same robbers who’ve been giving Roy fits these last few months. One was killed but the other two are in Roy’s jail. All the stuff they took is back in its rightful place. You’ve been unconscious for a couple of hours. Barring any infection you should be on your feet in a day or two.”

Ben winced as he tried to get comfortable then tensed as a memory flickered through him – Joe being held and Hoss on the floor – and he grabbed at Paul. “The boys,” he croaked. “I thought I heard the boys.”

“They walked right into it, Ben,” Paul explained seeing worry flit across his friend’s face. “Hoss and Joe are fine just a little shaken up.” Ben relaxed and nodded. “Hop Sing has a slight concussion but he’ll be all right as well. But Adam . . .”

“Adam? Adam was in town,” Ben said as Paul shook his head then nodded toward the other side of the bed pulling Ben’s attention to the nearly unrecognizable face of his firstborn.

“My God,” came Ben’s fearful whisper. Reaching out a shaky hand to the dark hair tufting out from the bandage wrapped about his head, tears streaked down Ben’s face at the sight. This wasn’t his son, the handsome youth who thrilled the ladies with those expressive eyes when he’d just been five years old. This couldn’t be him.

“He took a heavy blow to the head and has a severe concussion. And, as you can see, he’s been brutally beaten. They broke his nose and cracked some of his ribs,” Paul explained seeing Ben wince with each injury mentioned. “He doesn’t appear to have any internal injuries but we’ll have to wait and see.”

“Has he been awake?” Ben finally managed pushing back the dizziness that threatened.

Paul shook his head. “Mumbled a bit but hasn’t seen fit to open his eyes. I wouldn’t get too worried yet, Ben. It’s only been a couple of hours.”

“Why was he here?” Ben asked. “Hop Sing said . . .”

“He was bringing the boys home,” Paul informed him seeing his friend close his eyes.

“He can’t die, Paul. I have to tell him I love him.”

“He knows that, Ben.”

He shook his head. “No, not anymore.”

“He has always known that, Ben. You turned your back on them for a time but it will get better.”

“Turned my back on them. Indeed,” Ben started, holding his hand against Adam’s cheek. “I wasn’t thinking of anything but myself – my loss, my grief. Nothing else mattered and to that I’ll always be reminded each time I look at my sons; each time I remember the look on Adam’s face in the barn. I could see it there – the hurt, the anger. I could hear it in his voice even though he tried to hide it and I knew I’d broken something important, something that maybe couldn’t be healed now or ever.”

“Just give it time, Ben,” Paul said as he watched his friend bemoan his own shortcomings. “The old adage of ‘time heals all wounds’ is true. But first we have to get him through this. Just talk to him. Let him know you’re here.” Paul patted Ben’s arm then stiffly rose and stretched. “I finally managed to get Joe out of this room and into his own bed, but Hoss has been waiting to see you. He has a message.”

“A message?”

Paul just smiled and nodded toward the door having seen the boy hovering outside. Motioning toward him, Hoss slowly entered standing at the foot of the bed avoiding his father’s eyes.

“I’ll be downstairs checking on Hop Sing. Call if you need anything.” Paul headed out the door, leaving it ajar.

Clearing his throat, Hoss moved up next to his brother to look down at his damaged face flinching at the sight before taking hold of his hand.

“Son?” Ben began trying to get Hoss to look at him, finally rewarded with those blue eyes and a sad and worried look on his face.

“I gotta message for ya, Pa, from . . . from Adam.”

“Adam?”

Hoss nodded. “He done tol’ me just afore he passed out. I’m guessin’ he didn’t think he’d make it.” Ben shied away from those words, desperately hoping his son was wrong. “He, ah, wanted ya ta know . . .” His voice faltered and he rubbed at his nose as tears moved down his cheeks.

“What did Adam say, Hoss?” Ben asked, his voice breaking, fearful of the words that were coming. Hoss cleared his throat again and looked straight at him.

“He wanted ya ta know that he . . . he doesn’t hate ya, Pa. He doesn’t hate ya and . . . and neither do I.”

Ben closed his eyes and shuddered, emotion welling up in him making him choke on a sob alarming Hoss who rushed to his father’s side.

“Pa?”

Ben reached out for his boy and wrapped an arm about him, holding him tightly, Hoss hanging on for dear life. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I’m so sorry,” Ben managed as he tried to get himself under control. “I can never apologize enough.”

“Don’t havta, Pa.”

“Yes I do. To all of you but especially to Adam,” he said pulling back from Hoss and looking toward his oldest. So like Elizabeth – strong and independent, stubborn to the point of distraction and devoted to those he loved. “I can’t lose him, Hoss. I can’t lose any of you.”

“Ya won’t, Pa. Adam’s strong. He’s . . .” More words were cut off by a soft moan coming from the other side of the bed. Attentions swiftly moved to see dark brows furrow.

“Adam?” Ben called leaning in close. “Adam, it’s Pa. I’m here.” Silence followed and Ben prayed for a response, any response.

“I done tol’ ‘im, Adam,” Hoss explained leaning close to his brother’s face. “I delivered yer message. He knows, Adam. Pa knows.”

“That’s right, Adam,” Ben interrupted. “I heard the message, son. I heard the mess . . .”

“. . . don’t . . . die . . .” finally came and Ben shook his head.

“I won’t,” Ben answered in a trembling voice. “I’m here, Adam. Open your eyes and see me.”

Adam’s brows furrowed even more, then pain flitted across his face for an instant. “. . . pa . . . please . . . stay . . .”

Tears flowed freely down Ben’s pale face. “I’m not leaving again, son. I’m staying here. I love you with all my heart, Adam. I love all my boys and I’m not leaving. Stay with me, son. Fight and come back to me.”

“. . . pa . . .”

“I’m here, son.” Ben waited for more watching Adam’s lips move but no sound was heard and he ran a hand carefully down his boy’s bruised face. “You were right, son. I thought my loss was just that – mine alone – and that no one else was involved. For that, I’m truly sorry and I believe that no amount of your forgiveness will ever erase that taint from my soul. It shall be something that will always cloud my memories. Please forgive me, son. Please forgive my trespasses and let me start anew and not just for my sake but yours and Hoss and Joe, for you’ve all suffered at my selfishness. Please, Adam. Stay with me. Please stay with me.”

No amount of urging could bring forth anything else from his boy and he dropped his forehead to the dark hair and wept as Hoss clung to his father.

*****

He threw up the window and shouted, his voice carrying across the yard and after the man on the buckskin that raced out of the barn. He found himself sailing down the stairs and out the front door, calling after the man, pleading with him to stay all the while watching the distance between them increase until only a chasm remained, a dark and foreboding depth that stretched beyond all visible sight. 

He found himself teetering then dropping to his knees as he called to his God to take back the words spoken, to change their meaning so that the man would return and retake his place within their world. But only swirling clouds of gray met his calls followed by icy rain that pelted him with their insistence causing him to look into those depths; causing him to see nothing but the black future before him. He fell forward . . .

Thunder rattled the windows and Adam immediately bolted upright, fearful eyes searching the room, to instantly fall sideways across the bed as piercing white-hot agony shot through his entire body making him cry out. Rushing back to him was Hobbs’ grinning face and rock-solid fists and Joe being held against his will and his father . . . his father falling out of sight.

“I’m sorry!” Adam called, his weak voice breaking as sobs filled him. “I didn’t mean it . . . I don’t hate you,” he cried knowing his father would never hear the truth, making him cry even more. “I don’t hate you.”

And then hands were on him and he was being lifted up and wrapped in a strong embrace, his body quaking as he fought whoever had him.

“It’s all right, son.”

That voice . . . that voice he would hear for all eternity taunting him, reminding him that he’d run out of time to repair the damage he’d caused. “I’m here, son.”

Adam weakly pushed out and shook his head. “No,” he finally said between cries. “Can’t be . . . can’t be.”

“Why? Why can’t I be here?”

Why? Adam cringed and gasped as a new wave of pain burned through him and he buried his face into the warmth that surrounded him, trying to put out of his mind the sight of his father stretched out, blood seeping through his fingers knowing he was too late. He grabbed onto whoever held him, the fight all but gone, feeling arms tighten about him and he cried even more.

“Why, Adam?” came the question again. “Why can’t I be here?”

“. . . dead . . .” came out between breaths.

“I’m not dead, Adam.”

“. . . saw you,” Adam said with a shudder.

“Open your eyes, son. See me here.”

Those words flowed over him, seeped through his cries, through his devastated memories of watching his father die. Did he dare look? Did he dare face what was to be?

“You’ve never backed away from anything, Adam,” came that voice again. “Don’t start now.”

Churning thoughts began to settle allowing him to become aware of a heartbeat beneath his grasping hand, a familiar heartbeat he’d known since childhood. Trying to open his eyes proved difficult but one finally obliged and he spied the Ponderosa brand emblem embroidered on the robe beneath his hand, a robe he’d bought for his father’s last birthday. Carefully, he reached for it, ran fingers over it and his breath caught.

“I’m here, son.”

Adam hoped against hope that this wasn’t a fevered dream for that would be too much for his shattered psyche to take. Forcing himself to look up, he met those dark familiar eyes holding no accusation, no blame. It was him. His father was alive.

“Pa.” His voice cracked, more tears falling as he pulled on that robe. “I didn’t think . . . I thought it was too late.”

“I’m a tough old bird,” Ben quipped. “Takes more than a robber’s bullet to stop me.”

“The things I said . . . I didn’t mean . . . Pa, I don’t hate you . . . I don’t . . .”  Adam stammered to a stop, ashamed at himself for ever thinking that he did as his hammering heart brought on new waves of pain.

“You had every reason to hate me, son. I left you behind, you and your brothers, as if you didn’t matter. I still can’t fathom that I could ever think that; still can’t reconcile myself to the fact that I just rode out of here like you were nothing.”

“But Mama . . . died,” Adam gave him as he fought to stay conscious.

“That’s no reason to abandon my children. My God, Marie would’ve had my scalp if she’d known. Elizabeth and Inger, too,” Ben admitted. “Mariah Nickols tried to tell me but I wouldn’t listen, so wrapped up in my own grief that I couldn’t see anyone else’s. I blamed God, I blamed that horse . . . I even blamed Marie for not heeding my warnings. Then I blamed myself.

“This time my grief stripped me of more than just my wife. It took my reasoning with it as well. I was lost, and still am to a certain degree. It’s difficult to see her things throughout the house, to hear her voice in the darkness of each night and wake to find she’s not there. But I almost threw away what I had left, what each of them left me to share my life and theirs. My sons.

“It was a cowardly thing to run and hide and I ask forgiveness from you, Adam, from you and your brothers. Please let me try to prove to you that I still love you as I always have. Will you let me try?”

The angry headache that permeated Adam’s every thought had obviously fiddled with the words his father had just spoken for why else would he ask for his forgiveness? He’s the one that said those horrid things. It was up to him to ask forgiveness of his father.

Knowing he didn’t have the energy to comprehend fully, Adam merely nodded and felt his father sigh with relief. He sank further into his embrace, his sudden onslaught of strength quickly vanishing as he felt himself being dragged back down toward the shadows that surrounded him. “. . . pa . . . ” he began trying to hold onto his senses for just a moment longer.

“Yes?” came that velvety voice right overhead, growing more distant as each second passed, Ben feeling his boy grow heavier in his grasp, his breathing quick and shallow as he trembled.

“. . . don’t . . . leave . . .” came the request as consciousness fled.

Ben watched him lose the fight brushing away his own tears as he kissed the top of his boy’s head. “I’ll stay, Adam, don’t you worry. I’m here always and ever more.” Holding him for a few moments more, he gently laid him back and spread the blankets back over him. Watching him sleep, Ben ran a hand down his bruised face then slid in next to him to hold him close.

Three days they’d been waiting for a sign that he would wake and three days they’d been disappointed, Adam not making another sound after that first day and he knew Paul was getting worried.

Ben worried as well for he knew he didn’t have the right to ask God for anything not after what he’d done to them. But ask he did . . . begged was more like it for Adam to know that he hadn’t died, and to tell him he was sorry. And his request had been granted – he’d been given the chance, a second chance to make things right and he wouldn’t waste it.

Ben heard voices and glanced toward the door, noticing three pairs of anxious eyes staring at him. “Come in,” he whispered as Hoss and Joe tip-toed into the room sliding carefully onto the bed, Hop Sing following along behind.

“We hear yelling,” Hop Sing whispered, watching Joe snuggle in next to Adam.

“Careful now,” Ben warned his youngest as Hoss sat against the footboard. “He woke up and was . . . confused.”

“I was only outta the room fer a second,” Hoss admitted, not meeting his father’s eyes.

“It’s all right, Hoss,” Ben said patting his boy’s hand.

“Is he gonna be all right?” Joe asked looking closely at Adam’s pale and bruised face.

“He will be,” Ben answered looking back at his battered son and cursing those who’d touched him. “Those men hurt him but he’ll get better.”

“He took real good care o’ us, Pa,” Hoss informed his father.

Ben looked at him remembering the moment Hop Sing had found Hoss’ note telling them that he and Joe were leaving, following after their brother because ‘ya ain’t the same Pa no more’. “He loves you boys just as I do. I guess I haven’t said that enough lately,” he admitted never taking his eyes from Hoss. “I’m sorry, Hoss, if I haven’t been here for you, haven’t seemed to notice you. I can never excuse my treatment of you and your brother since I’ve been home and I won’t even try. Will you let me make it up to you?”

Hoss looked at his father and swallowed hard, the love he had for him moving past hurt feelings that were quickly dissipating.

“Pa,” Hoss stammered. “I’m sorry for what I wrote. It’s jest that ya scared me. I thought Adam was leavin’ and I couldn’t let ‘im go alone.”

“And I couldn’t let Hoss leave without me,” Joe added.

Ben grabbed both their hands. “You were protecting each other. Don’t ever be sorry about that. Not ever.” He smiled then and Hoss managed one as well then he stretched across the foot of the bed, one hand on Adam’s leg as Joe nestled in close to his brother.

“You rest. I keep watch ‘til ready to eat,” Hop Sing announced, sitting down in a chair next to the bed, scratching under the bandage about his head.

Ben smiled. He was so very thankful for so many things and for the first time since Marie left them, his ruptured heart was beating again.

He never wanted to go through that again, never wanted to experience the brutality of emotions that still haunted him and would for a long time to come. He thanked the Lord daily for the blessings of his boys finally remembering that they were what kept him going day after day, night after night and running away just took him from them and gave him nothing in return.

No more running he vowed. Not now. Not ever.

Epilogue – 10 months later

“Maybe I should stay longer, Pa. Wait until next year,” Adam whispered as the two walked ahead of Hoss, Joe and Hop Sing toward the waiting stagecoach.

“We’ve already discussed this.”

“I know but I can wait until next year.”

“And then the year after that and the next after that until you’ll be an old man attending school,” Ben sternly said, then softened the tone with a smile and an arm about his boy’s shoulders. “You’re going now and learn all you can. I expect a top scholar to come home in four years full of himself and brimming with new ideas.” It was an old argument and one that Ben was going to win no matter what.

Adam’s injuries, though severe, healed and he was soon back on his feet helping his father run the ranch and his brothers; the robbers had been sentenced to twenty years hard labor and, tentative at first, Adam and Ben’s relationship began to fall back into place bringing Hoss and Joe right along with it. Hop Sing began smiling again as his meals started disappearing and Charlie settled back into his foreman job with the knowledge that he didn’t need to stick close to the house anymore. Paul filed away his adoption papers and Roy made the time to speak with Adam whenever the young man showed up at his door and Ben as well, each listening to the other as they remembered the good times. The months moved slowly by and the wounds began to heal.

“Pa, what about you and the boys? I should be here to take care of you.”

“Hop Sing can take care of us all,” Ben stated, having all the answers to any possible questions at the ready.

“I just . . .” Adam began then stopped and looked away.

Concern filled Ben’s face. “What is it, son?”

Adam sighed. “Four years is a long time, Pa, when you’re seven and twelve. What if they forget me?”

“They won’t forget you, son,” Ben said with a slight smile. “There’s too much of you at home to forget anytime soon. And besides, you promised to write every week.”

“Only if you’ll promise the same.”

“We will. You will not be forgotten.”

Adam nodded thinking he’d been rather childish but still the thought persisted. He felt his father grab onto his arms and looked up.

“I am very proud of you, Adam. Stay true to yourself. Don’t let those high falutin’ people try and change who you are. You’re a good man, a strong man. You’ve proven that over and over . . . especially recently.” Adam closed his eyes on that. “And I am honored to call you son.”

Adam opened glistening eyes and wrapped arms about his father, squeezing tightly, Ben responding in kind. Both felt tears and let them come as Hoss and Joe pushed their way in, not waiting for Adam to untangle himself. Once he did, he took Hoss on first gathering him into his arms.

“Hoss, you take care of Pa and Joe,” Adam reminded him as he pulled back and nodded toward Joe. “Don’t let this little one talk you into anything involving money or girls.”

“Adam!” Joe said with a roll of his eyes.

“I won’t,” Hoss answered back. “Ya take care ‘cause I don’t want my friend forgettin’ how ta come home. I ain’t learned half the stuff ya know and I aim ta squeeze yer brain once ya come back.”

Adam laughed and held Hoss tightly giving him a quick kiss on the cheek then watched him turn red. “And you,” he said to Joe who leaped into his arms. “You take care of Pa and Hoss and Hop Sing and try not to forget me.”

“How could I forget you, Adam. All the girls is always mooning over ya and that’s all I hear at school.”

Adam kissed Joe soundly on the forehead and let him down, stepping toward Hop Sing and taking him into his arms.  “Watch out for them,” he whispered. “Use Roy or Paul if you need too.”

“I will, Mista Adam,” Hop Sing whispered then pulled away. “You make sure they feed you good. You way too skinny now.”

Adam smiled and stepped back to find Paul and Roy waiting by the stage.

“You be careful now, boy,” Roy said taking Adam’s hand and pumping it furiously. “Don’t let them college boys git the better of ya.”

“I won’t,” Adam answered as Paul grabbed his hand.

“And if you happen to see any interesting medical books, send me a letter and I’ll wire you some money. Always have to keep up my own studies,” Paul said with a smile.

“Sure thing, Paul.”

“Ya comin’, Adam!” called the stagecoach driver. “Time’s a’wastin’!”

“Well, I guess I’ve gotta go,” Adam said turning one last time to his family and friends, hesitantly stepping toward the coach, his mind racing. Did he really want to go? Should he stay here?

“Oh, Adam,” came a sultry voice behind him. Turning, he found himself within the grasp of a tall redhead who’d wrapped herself around him and was kissing him soundly. Joe began to giggle as Hoss tried to hide his little brother’s eyes and everyone else looked at anything else. Finally letting him up for air, she smiled at Adam and started back down the street. “Have fun at school!”

Turning a dazed look back to the gathered, he saw his father running hands over his own mouth then pointing at him. Getting the message, Adam quickly wiped his mouth clean, turned bright red and hopped into the coach. The driver smiled then urged the horses on all waving until the coach moved out of sight.

“Well, if’n I was ta receive a goin’ away like that,” Roy began, “I think I’d go more places, wouldn’t you, Doc?”

“I wouldn’t have to think twice about it,” Paul answered as the two walked away leaving a stunned family on the sidewalk.

“Was that a floozy, Pa?” Joe asked. “How does Adam know a floozy?”

Ben thought he was going to choke as he quickly grabbed his boy’s shoulders and turned him toward the buckboard. “Never you mind, Joseph. Let’s say we get on home. Got lots of chores to do. Come on. Let’s go.”

Ben cringed at the sounds of laughter coming from the Sheriff and Doctor, then relaxed with a sudden smile as he hefted Joe onto the buckboard, Hoss giggling as he clambered into the back. Ben glanced one more time behind him, seeing only the dissipating dust cloud from the stagecoach’s departure and knew it would be a long four years but he liked to think it wouldn’t be as long as those four months when his world was ending. This was a new beginning for him and for them all.

Ben slapped the reins over the horse’s back. “Let’s go to the lake and try to catch some fish for dinner. What do you say, Hop Sing?”

“Maybe we go for swim, too, then hurry home to write letter to Mista Adam about day?”

Ben laughed at the whoops from his two boys and turned a thankful look to his friend who merely nodded. The family was whole again and they believed it would last until the end of time.

***The End***

1 Matthew 6:14:15

2 Jeremiah 10:19

Acknowledgement:  To my grandmother who helped me with “Blue Skies of Montana” when I was in elementary school (got an “A”) and says stuff like ‘Ben wouldn’t say that’ – I thank you. To my father who keeps harping…or should I say haranguing me to write, write, write and offers me little ditties like ‘I think Hoss should run off and join the circus’ – thanks Dad. And, last but not least, to my mother who introduced me to reading and writing in the first place and is the one who catches my grammatical errors. Of course I believe Dad is rubbing off on her when she says ‘you know, Joe should open up a saloon and marry a floozy’ – you’re the best Mom. Hey, I might be able to do something with that!!!!

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