A Hatful of Guilt (by Patina)

Summary:  A What Happened Instead for “No Less A Man”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,300


 

The Virginia City Town Council had come to the Ponderosa to convince Adam Cartwright to help out Roy Coffee in the performance of his duties. Roy was getting old and his reactions weren’t what they should be. Both Ben and Adam were reminded that only a few weeks before, Roy had been shot with his own gun while escorting a recently captured criminal to jail.

With the Wagner Gang preying on nearby communities, everyone knew it was only a matter of time until the gang struck Virginia City. In each bank strike, the gang rode into town, incapacitated the sheriff, entered the bank, and helped themselves to the money. The town council was worried that if Roy couldn’t handle one lone criminal he wouldn’t be able to stop an entire gang.

Adam had reluctantly accepted the council’s decision for him to act as Roy’s deputy until the Wagner Gang had been caught. He was surprised that Pa had sided with the other members of the council on this issue. Adam knew he would rather tell Roy what was going on instead of letting the council handle it. “How am I going to break the news to Roy, Pa? He’ll think people have lost confidence in him.”

“Tell Roy the truth, son. He’d rather get the news from a friend than through gossip.”

“I guess you’re right.” With that, he told his father goodnight and went upstairs to bed.

The next morning, Adam was up and out of the house early. He wanted to talk to Roy before too many people were stirring up rumors. Riding into Virginia City, he tried to imagine the conversation they were going to have. No matter how many scenarios he came up with, each one ended with Roy angry about being betrayed by those he was charged with protecting.

Arriving in town, he noticed that not many people were around. Some people were probably shut in at home, expecting the Wagner Gang to arrive at any moment. He pulled Sport up in front of Roy’s office and steeled his courage. Entering the office, he took off his hat. “Good morning, Roy.”

“Mornin’, Adam. Yer in town awful early. Is there somethin’ I kin do fer ya?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Sure. Is yer family okay?”

“Everyone’s fine. I need to talk to you about the Wagner Gang.”

“I’ve bin keepin’ in touch with other sheriffs about them. Hopefully, that gang’ll be stopped afore they kin reach Virginia City. You be sure to let yer Pa know that his money is safe over at the bank.”

Running his fingers through his hair, Adam said, “I’m not here about Pa’s money.” He approached Roy’s desk and sat down on one corner. “The town council came out to the Ponderosa last night. They’re concerned about you being able to…”

“Ya mean to tell me that they think I cain’t protect this town?”

“They’re concerned about you, Roy. It wasn’t that long ago that you were shot and…”

“So they think I’m gettin’ too old to do my job. I admit I ain’t as young as sheriffs in other towns, but I do a damn good job of protectin’ Virginia City!”

“I know that! Everyone’s just nervous with the Wagner Gang on the loose.”

“How did yer Pa side on this issue, Adam?”

Reluctantly, he answered, “He supported the council.”

After a short pause, Roy asked, “Who does the council have in mind fer sheriff?”

“We want you to continue as sheriff, Roy.”

“Yer not makin’ sense, son. Ya jest said they think I cain’t do my job.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“What is it that yer sayin’ then?”

Adam looked at the floor and took a deep breath. “The council wants me to act as your deputy until the Wagner Gang is caught.”

Roy stood and paced to the other side of the room in aggravation. “Let me get this straight. The council is worried that I’m too old to protect Virginia City. They decided to have you serve as my deputy to help out. Instead of bringin’ in another lawman, the council decided to have one of their own work with me.” Roy found his voice was rising and he couldn’t control it. “I guess this way you can spy on me and tell them I’m too old and feeble to do more than sweep a broom across the floor!”

Adam found himself on the defense. “It’s not that way at all, Roy.”

“What way is it then?!?”

Again, Adam paused for a breath. This was going all wrong. “The council just thinks a little extra help can’t hurt right now.”

Roy was still angry but he realized that Adam probably wasn’t happy either. “I’ll swear ya in but you’d best stay outta my way. Understand?”

Adam was surprised. He quickly said, “I won’t do anything to get in your way.”

Opening the top drawer of his desk, Roy pulled out a deputy badge and said, “I hereby swear you in as an official deputy to uphold the law.” As Adam pinned the badge to his shirt, the sheriff told him, “I’m goin’ to the hotel for breakfast. Yer in charge of the office.”

The new deputy looked around the office, which was a mess. Roy’s desk was stacked high with papers, wanted posters, letters, telegrams, and books. The floor looked as if it hadn’t been swept in years. Old wanted posters for criminals who had long since been hanged were still on the walls. Adam decided that he’d do his new boss a favor and clean up the office.

When Roy returned an hour later, he didn’t recognize the place. Going to the desk, he couldn’t believe the orderly layout. Looking around, he noticed that the walls were no longer papered with wanted posters. There were only five posters on the wall now, one of which was for the Wagner Gang. Finally looking at Adam, Roy said, “I thought I swore you in as a deputy, not a housekeeper.”

“I just wanted to do something helpful for you.”

“It’s not that I ain’t appreciative, but ya jest cain’t come in here and rearrange everythin’. All of those papers on my desk help me do my job.”

“Do you want me to mess things up again?” offered Adam.

“No, son, I know you jest wanted ta help me out.”

Frank Armistead, a member of the town council, entered the sheriff’s office to see if Adam had talked with Roy yet. Seeing Adam with a deputy’s badge, Armistead felt quite proud that he and the other members of the council had convinced Adam that this was the right thing to do. “I see Roy’s already sworn you in. I guess we’ll show that Wagner Gang if they show their faces in Virginia City.”

Roy’s eyes narrowed. Adam knew that Armistead had said the wrong thing. Before he could say anything, the sheriff lost his temper and turned on the younger man. “I was right!! You and the rest of the council think I’m too old to do my job anymore.” Taking off his badge, Roy threw it on his desk and said, “If you think you kin do my job, Cartwright, yer welcome to it!” With that, Roy stormed out of the office.

Adam, sitting at the desk, put his face in his hands. He’d been afraid this might happen. He didn’t want to be sheriff. Roy had been elected by the citizens of Virginia City. Why did the council think they could force him into a lesser role in protecting the town?

“What’s wrong with him?” asked Armistead. “You’d think he’d be happy to have some help.”

Looking up, Adam said, “You just confirmed his worst fear—that he’s no longer able to perform his duties as sheriff.”

“That’s ridiculous! He’s able to act as sheriff as long as the criminals aren’t dangerous. Why he’s…”

Adam interrupted hotly. “You’re saying that it’s okay for him to putter around town and lock up the drunks. When it comes to protecting life and property, you don’t have any confidence in him.”

Armistead looked at the floor, his face red with shame. Adam had hit the nail on the head. Looking up, Armistead said, “You’re the only lawman we’ve got now, Adam. You’re going to have to protect us from that Wagner Gang.”

“I’ll do what I can, but I don’t have the experience that Roy does. Hopefully, you and the rest of the council have learned not to meddle in other people’s affairs.”

Wilting under Adam’s glare, Armistead turned and slunk out of the sheriff’s office. He hoped Cartwright could protect Virginia City. Maybe Adam could deputize his brothers so the town would have three lawmen. Maybe he and the other members of the council should approach Ben with the idea.

After Armistead left, Adam sat down in Roy’s chair. How had he let himself get talked into this? He had known what the probable result of the council’s action would be yet he had gone along with it. Now Roy was gone to who knew where, angry at everyone. What if he decided to not return to Virginia City? Adam knew he didn’t want to be a full-time lawman.

Getting up, he decided to visit all of the businesses in town to let their owners know he was now the law in Virginia City. When he told Mose over at the Bucket of Blood, he said beer was on the house. When Adam told Sam over at the Silver Dollar, that bartender said all liquor was free. At the mercantile, Mr. Anderson said a special line of credit would be started for him. Adam found himself becoming annoyed with the courtesies being extended by the merchants.

Going back to the office, he sat down to think for a while. His thoughts were interrupted by Hoss walking in. “Mr. Anderson tole me that yer the law here now. What happened ta Roy?”

“Exactly what I was afraid of. He thought the council was trying to push him aside, so he quit.”

“Quit? Where’d he go?”

“I don’t know. If I did, I’d go after him and persuade him to come back.”

“Mebbe he’ll change his mind in a day or two.”

After a short pause, Hoss said, “Ya want me ta help ya out in any way?”

“Thanks, brother, but I need to figure out what to do first. Would you let Pa know what’s going on? Let him know that I’ll be staying here for the time being.”

“Shore thing, Adam.” Hoss then left to collect the Ponderosa’s supplies at the mercantile.

Going through the telegrams on the desk, Adam tried to predict where the Wagner Gang would strike next. He picked up a pencil and stood to face the territorial map on the wall. He drew a circle around each town that had been hit and wrote the date beside the circle. Finishing, he realized that there was no rhyme or reason to the gang’s attacks. They weren’t traveling in a straight line or going in alphabetical order. No wonder Roy didn’t give the appearance of working hard enough to protect Virginia City—he knew that when the gang arrived, it would be at a completely random time.

That evening, Adam was having supper at the International House. Not surprisingly, his meal was compliments of the hotel. While he was eating, his father entered the dining room and came to his table. Adam dabbed his mouth with his napkin and said, “Hi, Pa.”

“Hoss told me what happened with Roy. I’m really sorry, son. I should have known better than to support the council on this.”

“What’s done is done. I’m not prepared to be this town’s lawman. What am I going to do?”

“We’re here for you, son. If you need us to help in any way, just say so. Don’t let pride stand in your way.”

“I won’t. Thank you for offering to help. Just let me find my bearings.”

Finishing his supper, Adam asked, “Do you want some pie? No doubt it’ll be on the house.”

“No thank you, son. I need to be getting back. Just let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.”

“I will. Good night.”

Ben and Adam left the restaurant together. Adam watched his father mount up and head for home. He wondered where Roy was. As he walked down the sidewalk to the office, he hoped that Roy would change his mind and come back. Virginia City needed him no matter what the other members of the town council thought.

Waking in Roy’s room at the back of the sheriff’s office the next morning, Adam realized that yesterday hadn’t been a dream. Roy was really gone and now he was the law. He lay in the bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering if it was worth the effort to get out of bed. Finally deciding to get up, he thought he should rise before someone came in the office for an update on how he was protecting Virginia City.

After washing his face, he ran his hand over his stubble. Was it worth the bother of shaving? Deciding it wasn’t, he pulled on his boots, put on his gun belt, and headed for breakfast at the International House.

He ate a leisurely breakfast and had several cups of coffee. Sitting at a table near the window, he could keep an eye on what was happening on the street. At least it was early enough in the morning that few people were stirring yet.

Leaving the International House, Adam looked up and down the sidewalk. The bank was opening its doors for business as was the mercantile. People would be coming into town soon to get supplies; he hoped that no one would cause any trouble. Making an arrest was not something he was looking forward to doing.

Going back to the office, he sat down at the desk and went through the telegrams again. There had to be a pattern to the gang’s strikes. Maybe they were choosing towns where the sheriff was inexperienced. If that was the case, then he hoped that word hadn’t gotten out about Roy leaving.

After going through the telegrams without success, he decided to sit out on the porch. He wished he had his guitar since he didn’t do much whittling.

Before he could get too bored, Joe and Hoss came into town. They were riding their horses so they weren’t here for supplies. Pa must have sent them to check on him.

Arriving at the sheriff’s office, Joe looked at the deputy badge on his brother and said, “Pa told me what happened. I’m glad it’s not me.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Adam sarcastically.

“I didn’t mean it like you think,” Joe started to protest.

Before Adam could say something else, Hoss butted in. “How’re ya holdin’ up?”

Adam winced at Hoss’ choice of words. “I mean, are ya doin’ okay?”

“Yeah. So far so good. What are you two doing in town?”

“Pa wants a telegram sent ta Frank Shinn about some cattle,” said Hoss.

“It takes both of you to send a telegram?” Adam asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, no, but Pa thought one of us could go over ta the bank, too. This way we’d kill two birds with one stone.”

“Who’s doing what?”

“Well, I thought Lil Joe here could handle the telegram while I go ta the bank.”

“Hoss, I appreciate that you want to help, but there’s no need for you to stand guard at the bank all day. The Wagner Gang might not ever come here.”

“But Adam…,” started Hoss.

“Joe, why don’t you go send that telegram? Hoss, if it makes you feel better, you can stay here and help me keep an eye on Main Street.”

Hoss was only too happy to sit on the porch with Adam. He wasn’t going to let the Wagner Gang get the drop on his older brother.

About ten minutes later, Adam and Hoss heard a disturbance from the vicinity of the Silver Dollar. Leaving the office, they were surprised to see Joe in a fist fight that had spilled out into the street. Running over, Hoss managed to grab their brother while Adam got hold of Abel Sutton. Once the two were separated, Adam asked how the fight had started.

Joe pointed at Abel and yelled, “He said you ain’t qualified to be a lawman, Adam.”

“Who threw the first punch?”

Sam, the bartender, said, “Little Joe did.”

“I had to, Adam,” insisted Joe. “Abel was bad-mouthing you.”

“You didn’t have to, Joe.” Letting Abel go, Adam said to his brother, “Come with me. You can cool your heels in a cell for a while.”

“You’re lockin’ me up?!?” asked Joe, flabbergasted. “I didn’t start it!!”

“Yes, you did,” replied Adam as he and Hoss escorted the youngest Cartwright to the sheriff’s office. “I’m not qualified to be a lawman, but I’m all Virginia City has right now. The last thing I need is you and Hoss fighting to defend me.”

Reaching the cells, Adam unlocked one, prodded his youngest brother to go in, and then locked the door. “I’m going to have to charge you with disturbing the peace.”

“But I didn’t disturb the peace. Abel started it.”

“Abel was trying to provoke you to see how you’d respond. You just couldn’t walk away, could you?”

Joe’s gaze dropped to the floor as he wilted under Adam’s glare. “Hoss, will you let Pa know so he can come bail me out?” pleaded Joe.

“Sure, Shortshanks.”

Hoss set off for home while Adam went back to the desk. He covered his face with his hands. Didn’t Joe realize that his actions reflected on his older brother?

A few hours later, Ben and Hoss arrived at the office. Going in, they saw Adam looking at the map on the wall. “How much is Joe’s bail?” asked Ben

“He’s going to stay in that cell until morning, Pa. People will talk if I just let him out.”

“You can’t keep him locked up for no reason. He’s your brother!”

“If I let Joe out, people will say that I’m showing favoritism to my family. What kind of confidence will they have in me if they think I’m not applying the law to everyone equally?”

“Would you treat someone else the same as you’re treating Joseph? Are you being harder on him than you would on Abel Sutton?”

“No. There’s not one law for us Cartwrights and another for everyone else.”

“That’s not what I mean, son. What I’m asking is…”

A shout from outside ended the conversation. Milton Kelley from the bank was running towards the office. “Adam!!! Come quick!!! The Wagner Gang is robbing the bank!!!”

Adam shot out of the office and headed down the street. Ben grabbed the cell keys from the desk and went to free Joe. “Help your brother, Hoss!!”

Hoss was heading for the bank and Adam was reaching for the door when a tremendous explosion blew the doors clean off of their hinges. The force of the blast threw Adam backwards about twenty feet; he landed face down on the street with one of the doors partially across him. Members of the gang stepped out of hiding and ran for the bank to get the money from the blasted safe. Hoss opened fire as did Ben and Joe. Three members of the gang were soon dead in the street but the fourth was able to get to his horse and race out of town. Before he left, though, he put a bullet in Adam’s leg.

Ben, Hoss, and Joe ran for Adam once the shoot-out was over. He hadn’t moved since the explosion. Hoss pulled the door away and Ben gently pulled his first born over. There were burns on his hands and face as well as splinters in his face, hands, arms, and chest. Joe noticed the bullet wound in Adam’s calf was pumping blood into the street.

Dr. Martin came rushing towards the men, along with a crowd of onlookers. Quickly assessing the damage, Paul told Ben to put his patient on the door and to transport him over to his surgery. Hoss and Ben gently got Adam loaded onto the door and the crowd parted to let the Cartwrights through. One onlooker asked, “What are we gonna do without a lawman?”

Once inside the surgery and when Adam had been transferred to the examination table, Ben told Hoss, “I want you to find Roy. Do whatever you have to do to bring him back.”

“Where should I look, Pa?”

“Wherever you think he might have gone.”

Dr. Martin busied himself with the leg wound. The bullet had gone clean through, so the doctor cleaned out the entry and exit wounds. Luckily, the bullet had missed the bone and artery, going clean through the muscle. After bandaging the leg, Paul turned his attention to the burns and splinters. He carefully pulled out the splinters, which had miraculously missed Adam’s eyes. Cleaning the burns, Paul applied a salve and then bandaged Adam’s left hand with gauze.

“How is he?” asked Ben with a tremor in his voice.

“The burns are fortunately not as bad as they could be. There will probably be some scarring. Lucky for him, the splinters missed his eyes. The bullet passed through muscle, so he should be able to get around with a crutch for a while. I’m most worried about any head trauma from that explosion. He has a slight concussion, so we’ll have to wait until he wakes up to assess any further damage.”

“Will I be able to take him home soon?”

“Let’s wait until he wakes up,” said Paul, giving Ben’s shoulder a squeeze. “I’m going over to the mercantile. Why don’t you and Joe just sit with him for a while?”

Ben sat down and took hold of his son’s right hand. Joe just looked at Adam miserably. “If I hadn’t been fighting, I could’ve been there to help him.”

“No, Joseph, this isn’t your fault. If I hadn’t supported the other members of the council, Roy would never have left and Adam wouldn’t have had to face the Wagner Gang.”

“Pa, Adam made the decision to help Roy. He thought he was doing the right thing.”

“But the council and I made Roy feel that he couldn’t do his job anymore. Our actions put Adam in this situation.”

“I made him make a hard choice, Pa. He felt he had to put me in jail because I’m his brother.”

“Even if you hadn’t been in jail, we were caught completely unaware by that gang. They must have known Roy wasn’t in town. They must have known Adam was acting as deputy. It’s a good thing all of us were here when they struck the bank. I just hope Hoss can find Roy.”

Joe put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Maybe Hoss and I should have convinced Adam to swear us in.”

“How would that have changed anything?” Ben wished that he hadn’t raised Adam to take responsibility so seriously. His son only accepted the council’s recommendation because he wanted to help and protect Roy. He should never have sided with the council against Roy and put Adam in this situation.

A couple of hours later, Joe was sitting and staring out the window while Ben was still holding Adam’s hand. Paul was checking his patient’s pulse when he moaned and moved his head.

“Adam!” Ben urged, “Look at me, son!”

Adam moved his head from side to side and then opened his eyes. He saw Pa and Joe looking at him with concern and Paul hovering. He saw their mouths moving but couldn’t make out the words. “WHY ARE YOU ALL WHISPERING?”

Ben looked at Paul in confusion and then back at his son. “We aren’t whispering, Adam.”

“WHAT?”

Paul looked at Adam and then shouted, “CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?”

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY NOW? HOW COME YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE TALKING NORMALLY?”

Looking at Adam, Paul talked in a normal tone of voice. Again, Adam complained of whispering.

“The explosion must have caused some hearing loss, Ben. I don’t know if it’s only temporary. Only time will tell.”

“WHY WON’T ANYONE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON? I’M NOT A CHILD! YOU DON’T HAVE TO WHISPER!”

Raising his voice, Paul said, “YOU’VE GOT SEVERAL BURNS FROM THAT EXPLOSION AS WELL AS A BULLET WOUND TO YOUR LEG. IF YOU’RE NOT RUNNING A FEVER IN THE MORNING, I’LL LET YOU GO HOME. HOW DOES THAT SOUND?”

“SOUNDS GOOD TO ME,” Adam answered with a smile. Looking at Pa and Joe he asked, “WHERE’S HOSS?”

Realizing he’d have to speak loudly, Ben replied, “HE’S GONE TO FIND ROY AND BRING HIM BACK HERE.”

“WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WAGNER GANG?”

“WE MANAGED TO GET THREE OF THEM. THE FOURTH GOT AWAY.”

“DID THEY CLEAN OUT THE BANK?”

“THEY DIDN’T GET ANYTHING, SON.”

“NO THANKS TO ME, I SUPPOSE.”

“THERE’S NO WAY YOU COULD HAVE KNOWN THEY WERE GOINGTO DYNAMITE THE SAFE. WHY DON’T YOU GET SOME REST?”

Paul mixed several drops of laudanum into a glass of water. Bringing it over to the bedside, Adam looked at him and made a face. “THIS WILL HELP YOU REST AND START TO HEAL.”

Deciding to give in, Adam allowed the doctor to pour the concoction down his throat. With a tired look at his father and brother, he fell asleep.

“Is it likely that this hearing loss will be permanent?” asked Ben with fear in his voice. Adam so enjoyed music, but would he continue to play his guitar if he could no longer hear?

“It may last a short time or for several months. We’ll just have to wait to see if the damage is permanent.”

Joe looked out the window. What would become of his oldest brother if he could no longer hear? Would he just busy himself in his books and withdraw from life? He could not imagine never hearing a woman’s laugh, the sound of a horse’s hooves, or the chirping of birds.

Ben was worried now. Adam brooded enough as it was. Would he further withdraw into himself? If the hearing loss was permanent, he wouldn’t be able to negotiate contracts anymore. Nothing would devastate Adam more than to feel like a burden to his family. They’d all have to band together to get him through this. He hoped Hoss found Roy and brought him back soon.

That evening, Hoss appeared at the doctor’s office. “I found Roy, Pa. He was out at Pyramid Lake doin’ some thinkin’ and fishin’. I tole him what happened ta Adam and he felt powerful bad. He’s over at his office right now, puttin’ his badge back on.”

“Good job, son,” praised Ben.

Roy came into the surgery and saw his deputy lying on the table. By the lamplight he took in the condition of Adam’s face and his bandaged leg and hand. “I’m sorry, Ben. I would never have wished this on Adam.”

Ben turned to look at his old friend. “I know, Roy. But I feel partly to blame. If the other members of the council and I had had complete confidence in you, then you would have never had a reason to leave. Please accept my apology?”

“Don’t apologize, Ben. My pride couldn’t accept that mebbe I could use some help every now and then. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to swear in Hoss as deputy.”

Looking at Hoss, Ben raised his eyebrows. Hoss said, “I wanna help Roy, Pa.”

“Okay, Roy.”

“Thanks, Ben. Hoss told me that the last of the gang got away. We’ll do ever’thing we can to track him down.”

“How’s Adam, Pa?” Hoss finally asked.

“Paul says he can come home in the morning if he’s not running a fever.”

“That’s great news,” Hoss said with a big smile. He noticed that neither Pa nor Joe was smiling, though.

“What’s wrong, Pa? Is Adam gonna be okay?”

“He can’t hear,” said Joe bitterly. “Paul doesn’t know yet if it will be permanent or not.”

Both Hoss and Roy were shocked by the news. Roy was already feeling guilty about Adam’s injuries at the hands of the Wagner Gang. He and the council had placed Adam in a difficult position and Roy thought, “I acted like a child throwing a tantrum.” Could Adam ever forgive him for leaving Virginia City at a time when her citizens needed him most?

The night seemed to pass at a snail’s pace. When the first rays of sunlight began to break through the window in the surgery, Joe and Hoss were sound asleep. Ben had stayed up all night looking at his son—his precious gift from Elizabeth. Maybe Adam’s hearing would return in a few days’ time at the longest. He could only hope and pray.

Hoss awoke and stretched. Looking at Pa he said, “Didn’t you get any sleep?”

Ben just shook his head. “How’re we gonna get Adam home, Pa?”

“Why don’t you see about getting a buggy from the livery? I’ll drive him home.”

“Why don’t you let Lil Joe or me drive you home? Ya don’t look fit enough to drive a buggy.”

Ben shot Hoss a glare; perhaps his son was right. He hadn’t slept and didn’t need to further endanger Adam. “All right, Hoss. Joseph can drive us home.”

After Hoss left, Ben looked over at Joe, still asleep on a chair by the window, his head resting against the wall. He looked down at Adam, still sleeping. In sleep, he so resembled his mother.

An hour after sunrise, Paul entered the surgery to check on his patient. Still sleeping, Adam couldn’t protest the placement of the thermometer under his tongue. Ben watched hopefully, knowing his son could come home if he wasn’t running a fever. Pulling out the thermometer, Paul held it up to see how far the mercury had gone. “It’s normal, Ben. You can take him home.”

Ben smiled; his boy was all right. He’d have to wake Joe soon so they could get Adam loaded up. “Any words of caution, Paul?”

“Don’t let him do too much for a few days because of his leg. Make sure he uses the crutch when he walks. You’ll probably want to tap him on the shoulder or arm before you speak to him.”

“We’ll make sure he doesn’t work on the fences or break horses for a while,” said Ben as a joke. Paul recognized that Ben was trying to make light of the situation and smiled. He just hoped that Adam wouldn’t mope around the house feeling useless because he couldn’t hear.

Hoss came back into the surgery to announce that he had a buggy, Buck, Cochise, and Sport waiting outside. “Pa, ya promise me that you’ll let Lil Joe drive home.”

Ben said, “I promise.”

“Good,” Hoss replied. “Ya want anythin’ for breakfast?”

“How about some coffee and biscuits?” suggested Ben.

“I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

Ben figured that Hoss would be a while longer than that. He’d probably clean the International House out of bacon and eggs before returning with the coffee and biscuits.

Joe began to stir on his chair by the window. Stretching, he rubbed his eyes and asked, “Morning already?”

“It would appear so,” answered Ben.

Roy came into the surgery with a pot of coffee and two cups. “I thought you could use some coffee, Ben.”

“Thanks, Roy,” said Ben, reaching for a steaming cup.

“How’s he doin’?”

“Paul says he’s all right. We’re going to take him home when he wakes up.”

The aroma of coffee caused Adam’s nose to twitch. He started to come out of his drug-induced sleep. Seeing his son’s eyelids flutter, Ben set down his coffee and leaned towards Adam.

Finally opening his eyes, Adam looked around the room. His eyes focused on Roy. “WHAT MADE YOU COME BACK?”

“Hoss.”

‘HUH?”

“Hoss.”

‘HUH?”

“You have to speak up, Roy,” advised Ben.

“HOSS,” said Roy with a shout.

‘I FIGURED A HORSE BROUGHT YOU BACK, BUT WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO COME BACK?”

Roy looked at Ben in confusion. All he could do was shrug. Joe was trying hard to stifle a laugh.

“YER BROTHER, HOSS.” Roy paused and then added, “I’M AWFUL SORRY, ADAM.”

“NOT YOUR FAULT. I COULDN’T FIGURE OUT WHERE THEY WERE GOING TO STRIKE NEXT.”

“IS THAT WHY THERE ARE CIRCLES ON THE MAP IN MY OFFICE?”

“HOW CAN THE CIRCUS BE AT THE MABIN’S PLACE?”

Roy shouted, “CIRCLES ON THE MAP. YOU DREW THEM?”

“OH, YEAH. I THOUGHT I COULD FIND A PATTERN.”

Hoss had come back and was standing outside of the door listening to this exchange. When Pa had said Adam couldn’t hear, he thought that meant deaf. Adam could hear, which meant there was hope. Coming into the surgery, he held the plate of biscuits before him and said in a booming voice, “I GOT BISCUITS AT THE HOTEL. YA WANT SOME, ADAM?”

“SURE!”

Adam sat up and Hoss placed the plate on his lap. Since he couldn’t spread butter on them with one hand, Joe pulled several apart and buttered them. Joe was surprised to see the gratitude in Adam’s eyes. After fixing several biscuits for his brother, Joe helped himself to a few.

As Adam and Joe happily munched away, Ben and Roy talked about the remaining gang member. “I don’t know which way he went or if he intends to come back. After all, Hoss, Joe, and I can identify him if we see him again.”

“I’ll wire the nearby towns so they know he’s on the loose. I should never have left, Ben.”

“The council and I shouldn’t have interfered.”

“I hate ta break up this guilt-fest,” said Hoss, “but staying around here won’t catch our man. ‘ Sides, Pa, I thought ya wanted ta git Adam home.”

“You’re right, son,” said Ben. Hoss could be very wise at times. Looking at the bed, he saw Joe break apart the last biscuit and offer half to his oldest brother. He was surprised to see Adam take it with a smile for his youngest brother. It wasn’t often that Joe got to feel that Adam needed him.

“ARE YOU ABOUT READY TO GO, SON?” Ben boomed.

“SURE AM.”

“Joe, Hoss hitched up a buggy for us. Will you help me get Adam outside?”

“Let me,” said Hoss. He went over to the bed and picked Adam up.

“PUT ME DOWN! I CAN WALK!” protested Adam.

“NO YOU CAIN’T. YER WEAK AS A KITTEN.”

“AM NOT!!”

“ARE TOO.”

“AM NOT!!!”

“HUSH UP!”

Adam shoved against Hoss’ chest with his good hand. “Set your brother down,” ordered Ben. Doing as he was told, Hoss set his brother on his feet, where he promptly began to fall. Joe rushed to Adam’s side and placed his arm across his shoulders and his hand around his brother’s waist. “C’mon, Hoss, let’s get him outside.”

Ben watched with pride as Hoss and Joe got their brother out to the buggy. “What am I going to do with those boys?” he mused. All Roy could do was look at the floor. He felt responsible for Adam’s injuries. Everything would be better if he’d been killed by that explosion at the bank; at least he would have died doing his job.

“It’s not your fault,” said Ben, placing a hand on Roy’s shoulder. “The important thing is that you’re back.”

“I won’t let anything happen ta Hoss.”

“Just catch that man, Roy,” said Ben as he went outside to his sons.

The buggy ride back to the Ponderosa was a silent one. Ben slept while Joe drove. Adam sat in the back and frowned. He couldn’t hear the creak of the buggy, the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, or the sounds of Nature. What kind of life was he going to have now?

Arriving home, Joe nudged his father awake. “Should we take Adam upstairs?”

“No, I want him in the downstairs bedroom. I won’t have to worry about him negotiating the stairs that way.”

Getting down from the buggy, Joe reached up to help Adam down. Once standing and leaning on the buggy, Joe handed over the crutch. Holding the crutch under his right arm, Adam took a tentative step. His legs were a little weak, but he was able to make it to the door on his own power. That was a plus, he thought. Once inside, he headed for the stairs.

“NO, ADAM,” shouted Ben, “I WANT YOU TO STAY DOWN HERE FOR THE TIME BEING.” Adam looked up the stairs and then over to the guest room. With a sigh, he turned and went where ordered and shut the door.

“I’ll bring some of his things down,” said Joe before bounding up the stairs.

Ben felt despondent. He knew Adam didn’t want to be treated like a child. However, he needed to take Adam’s condition into account. His son could get around with a crutch and being downstairs would be much easier for him.

Joe came downstairs with clothing and Adam’s guitar. Ben asked, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Why not?” asked Joe. He figured that Adam would know what the chords sounded like in his head so he didn’t actually have to hear them. After entering the guest room and setting the clothes in a chair, Joe handed the guitar to his brother. Adam looked at the guitar and then at Joe, who smiled hopefully. After positioning the instrument, Adam strummed a few chords. His face took on a dark look and he tossed the guitar at Joe, who was stunned and felt tears coming to his eyes.

“DON’T CRY, JOE. I’M DOING US ALL A FAVOR BY NOT PLAYING THAT.”

Joe sniffed, turned, and left the room. He passed Hop Sing who was bearing a tray.

Hop Sing entered the guest room and approached the Number One Son. Adam looked up and thought the cook was going to try to cheer him up, too. Setting the tray down on the nightstand, Hop Sing touched Adam’s arm and then pointed to Adam’s eyes and then to his own mouth. Doing it again, Adam realized that Hop Sing wanted him to watch his lips move. Speaking slowly, Hop Sing asked, “You want tea?”

“YES,” answered Adam with a shout.

Hop Sing motioned to his ear and then Adam’s mouth and shook his head. He did it again. Putting the motions together, he realized that Hop Sing was indicating that he was shouting. In what he hoped was a normal speaking tone, he answered, “I’d like some tea.” Hop Sing beamed and poured a cup for his Number One Son. Adam smiled, too, realizing that all was not lost.

Hop Sing left the room as Joe left to take care of the horses. He needed to put Buck, Sport, and Cochise in the barn, feed them, and give them a good rub down. Hoss had said to leave the buggy, he’d come for it later.

Ben was sitting in front of the fire drinking a cup of coffee. He was glad that Roy had come back but he couldn’t help but feel resentful for him leaving in the first place. If Roy had stayed, then Adam probably wouldn’t have been injured. On the other hand, Ben wouldn’t want his son to be all right at Roy’s expense. However, the sheriff was paid to protect Virginia City. Ultimately, Adam had been put in that position by him and the other members of the council. He’d make it up to his son in some way or another.

Adam limped out of his room to go get his copy of Robinson Crusoe. He felt as if he was marooned on a desert island right now. Seeing his father sitting in front of the fire, he thought of Hop Sing’s instructions and said, “Hi, Pa.”

Ben leapt up. If Adam was speaking in a normal tone, that meant he could hear again. Excitedly, he asked, “You can hear?”

“What?”

With a look of disappointment, Ben embraced his son in a hug. Puzzled, Adam patted his father’s back. Ben finally pushed back said, “We’ll get through this.”

Not getting what hid father said, Adam just nodded his head and smiled. He didn’t want Pa’s pity or Joe’s either. Going to his book, Adam picked it up and then headed for his room. He’d rather read alone than have to look at the sadness in Pa’s eyes.

When lunch time came around, Hop Sing came to his room and asked him to come to the table; Adam was only too happy to comply. He sat in his usual chair, across from Pa, and picked up the sandwich from his plate. Happily munching away, he didn’t notice that Pa was speaking to him. A motion finally caught his attention.

“I SAID, WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR TODAY?”

“Nothing,” Adam responded.

“DON’T YOU WANT TO GO OVER THE BOOKS?”

“Nope.”

“HOW ABOUT A FEW CONTRACTS?”

“No.”

“WHAT ARE YOU GOINGTO DO?”

“Nothing.”

Frustrated, Ben gave up on conversation. He didn’t like shouting across the table.

Joe came in and plopped himself down in front of his plate, picked up a sandwich, and began eating. Turning to his brother with a mouthful of sandwich, he shouted, “YOU WANNA COME OUT AND HELP ME IN THE BARN?”

“Huh?”

Shoving half-chewed sandwich to one side of his mouth, Joe shouted again, “YOU WANNA HELP IN THE BARN?”

“No, I think I’m going to go out to the barn.”

Joe shot his father a questioning look. Ben just shrugged a shoulder and raised an eyebrow.

Following lunch, Adam went out to the barn to check on Sport. He stroked the horse’s neck and fed him an apple. What he wouldn’t give to saddle his horse and go for a long ride. Sighing, he knew that Pa would have a fit if he left the house, yard, or barn without one of his brothers around for protection.

A tap to his shoulder caused Adam to spin around in fright and swing his fist in an arc. His fist practically whistled over the top of Joe’s head. Both men were ashen when they realized what had happened. Adam leaned against the stall wall, panting in fright. Joe, afraid to touch his brother again, bent over and put his hands on his knees and took deep breaths.

After several minutes, Adam turned around to apologize to Joe. He was surprised to see that his little brother was gone. What must he be thinking at this moment? Sadly, Adam headed back to the house. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Back in town, Roy and Hoss compared the faces on the wanted poster to the dead men of the Wagner Gang. Red Watson was the only one left. Since Roy was going to send some telegrams, he told Hoss to return home to check on Adam and to let his family know they had a name for the final member of the gang.

Arriving home, Hoss tied Chubb to the back of the buggy. He’d return it to the livery when he went back to town. Going in the house, he saw Pa sitting in front of the fire, staring at the flames. Joe was stretched out on the settee.

“What’s goin’ on?” asked Hoss with concern.

“Nothing,” answered Joe in a surly tone.

“How’s Adam?”

“Deaf,” replied Joe.

“How is he, Pa?”

“I don’t know,” Ben answered without looking away from the fire.

“Is he upstairs?”

“No, he’s in the guest room,” Ben said while gesturing with his thumb.

Knocking on the door, Hoss didn’t receive an answer. He realized that Adam probably hadn’t heard. Opening the door, he was surprised to see Adam laying face-down on the bed. Going over to his brother, Hoss said, “ADAM.”

Adam rolled onto his side and his tear-stained face looked at his younger brother.

Kneeling down beside the bed, Hoss looked into Adam’s eyes and asked, “WHAT HAPPENED?”

“I almost clobbered Joe because I didn’t know he was in the barn with me.”

“I’M SHORE LIL JOE FERGIVES YA. WHY DON’TCHA FERGIVE YERSELF?”

“What if it had been Pa?”

Hoss pulled Adam to his chest and could feel his older brother quietly crying. Adam had always been there to protect him; now he was going to have to protect his older brother. After several minutes, Adam pulled away and wiped at his eyes with his hand. “Thanks,” was all he said. Hoss gently squeezed Adam’s shoulder and left the room.

“I’m gonna go back ta town, Pa. Roy wanted ya to know that we know which member of the gang is left. We’re gonna catch him. Don’t worry.” Since neither Ben nor Joe replied, Hoss plucked an apple from the fruit bowl and headed for the door.

Supper was a somber affair. Adam didn’t feel like talking and absorbed himself in his mashed potatoes. He made mountains and a road before piling the potatoes up again. Joe watched this while leaning on his fist. Ben picked at his food, wishing his family would return to normal.

Getting tired of seeing Adam play with his food, Ben ordered, “EAT YOUR SUPPER.”

“I’M NOT A KID!!” was Adam’s angry retort. He shot out of his chair and went to his room.

Hearing the shouting, Hop Sing came out of the kitchen with a tray. He glared at Ben and Joe. Letting himself into Adam’s room, he set the tray down on the nightstand. Number One Son laid face-down on the bed, so Hop Sing went to the foot of the bed where he pushed on the mattress.

Aware that someone was in the room, Adam rolled over. Seeing Hop Sing, he relaxed.

Hop Sing approached the head of the bed and then pointed to the tray. He then slowly brought his fingers up to his face. Adam followed the progress of Hop Sing’s hand until he was looking at the cook’s mouth.

“You eat. Get strong.”

“Food won’t make me hear.”

“You not child. Accept fate. Live.” With that, Hop Sing left the room and shut the door behind him.

The next morning, Adam came out of his room and went to the table. Much to Ben’s and Joe’s surprise, Adam piled food onto his plate.

After he finished his breakfast, he announced, “I’m going out to the barn.” He went over to the sideboard, strapped on his gun belt, and put on his hat. Ben and Joe exchanged puzzled looks.

Hop Sing came to the table to take away Adam’s dirty dishes. “What did you tell Adam last night?” asked Ben.

“Tell him accept fate.”

“That’s it?”

“You eat food. Eggs get cold.” With that, Hop Sing went back to the kitchen.

Finishing up, Ben told Joe, “I’m going into town to see if Roy and Hoss have had any luck tracking down that Watson fellow. Keep an eye on Adam.”

Ben went to the barn to saddle Buck. Adam was sitting on a bale of hay, mending a bridle. Saddling his horse, he heard a noise he couldn’t place. Suddenly, he realized that noise was Adam whistling. He smiled to himself, not wanting to let Adam know that his whistling was horribly off-key.

As Ben led Buck out of the barn, Adam looked up. “Where are you going, Pa?”

“TO TOWN TO CHECK ON HOSS. JOE’S IN THE HOUSE.”

“Okay. See you later.” Adam went back to working on the bridle. He started whistling again.

Once in town, Ben went straight to Roy’s office. Roy and Hoss were poring over a map. “Morning,” said Ben.

“Mornin’, Ben” answered Roy. “Hoss found some tracks that might be Watson’s. We’re tryin’ to figure out where he may be headed.”

“I’m worried that he’s gonna try ta kill you or Joe, Pa.”

“Why don’t we worry about finding him, son?”

“We were gonna head out soon, Ben. Do you wanna join us?”

“You bet,” answered Ben.

A half hour later, the three men headed out in search of Red Watson.

Meanwhile, back at the Ponderosa, Adam was finishing up a second bridle. Maybe Hop Sing was right—he’d accepted his fate so everything would work out now. Heading for the house, he saw the front door opening, so Joe was probably going to come out and check on him. Realizing that he’d left his hat in the barn, Adam turned around and headed back for it.

When asked later what made him turn around to the house, Adam would say he didn’t know. When he turned around, the front door was open and Joe was falling backwards into the house in what seemed like slow motion. He was sure he saw red on Joe’s shoulder. Looking off to his left, he saw a man with a smoking gun. This had to be the last member of the gang! Adam quickly drew his gun as Watson realized there was a witness. Adam and Watson shot within seconds of each other. As Adam fell backwards, he got off a second shot. He thought he saw the other man falling, too. Pain enveloped him and he felt that Old Sheba was sitting on his chest. Stars briefly danced before his eyes before the entire world went black.

Ben, Hoss, and Roy had heard a shot and had urged their horses to go faster. Arriving to see two men on the ground, Ben pulled Buck to a sudden stop and stumbled as he dismounted. He ran to his son, who was bleeding from a chest wound. Blood was also on his lips.

Hoss saw that the front door was open and he ran to the house. Joe was beginning to stir. He had been shot in the left shoulder; the bullet looked like it had entered just above the collarbone. Hoss helped his younger brother sit up and he checked Joe’s back for an exit wound. Luckily, the bullet had gone clean through.

Suddenly frightened, Joe asked, “Adam?”

The look on Hoss’ face gave Joe his answer; the younger Cartwright assumed that Adam was dead. He had again failed his oldest brother.

Roy went over to Watson’s body to confirm that it was the man they had been seeking. Watson had two bullet holes in his chest. Again, Roy felt guilt; because of him, Adam might by dead.

Hoss, Joe, and Roy walked over to where Ben was holding Adam. The bullet had gone into the right side of his chest. “I’m goin’ fer the doc,” announced Roy. He may have caused all of this but he wasn’t going to let Adam die.

Gently moving his father away, Hoss picked up his older brother. Ben noticed that Joe had been shot, too, and noticed his son’s tear-stained face.

“I didn’t protect him, Pa,” sobbed out Joe.

Ben put a comforting arm around his youngest’s shoulders. As they both went into the house to wait for Dr. Martin, Hoss was putting Adam in the guest room. Hop Sing was already tending to his Number One Son.

Roy accompanied the doctor out to the Ponderosa. Paul let himself in and called out, “Ben?”

“In here,” was the reply from the guest room.

Paul went in and began checking Adam’s wound. “Everyone out except for Hop Sing.”

An hour later, Paul came out and stretched. “Let me see to your shoulder, Little Joe.”

“Is Adam…?” Ben asked.

“No, Ben, he isn’t. The bullet entered his lung, which is why there was blood on his lips. I got the bullet out and fixed him up. I left a drain in his chest to wick out any fluid so he’ll have less of a chance for infection. I won’t promise that there won’t be any infection. A bit of fever will be normal, but if he develops a high fever, send for me immediately.” Paul finished cleaning up Joe’s shoulder, bandaged the area, and put the arm in a sling.

“Thank you, Paul,” said Ben as his friend went to leave.

“I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Silence fell after the doctor left. Roy finally spoke up. “This is all my fault, Ben. Adam was doin’ my job when he was injured and then Watson came out here to hurt you and yer boys. Mebbe I should just resign.”

Ben felt his anger rising; there had been more than enough guilt. It didn’t change things though. “You’ll not resign, Roy. None of this was your fault. If the council hadn’t meddled, you would never have quit. If we’d let you do your job, you probably would’ve caught the gang before they got near the bank.” Standing, Ben announced, “I’ll be with Adam if anyone needs me.”

Roy stood for a few moments with his hat in his hands. “It ain’t yer fault, Roy,” said Hoss. “That gang has killed all over the Territory. It wouldn’t a mattered if you’d been in town that day or not. Ya cain’t keep beatin’ yerself up over this.”

Without a word, Roy put on his hat and let himself out. Hoss let out a heavy sigh. Joe said, “I was supposed to be looking after Adam. Instead, I left him in the barn all alone.”

“Joe, if he hadn’t shot Watson that man woulda probably finished ya off. Adam musta heard that shot and come outta the barn to see Watson standin’ there.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said Joe. He then trudged up the stairs to his room. Hoss was left all alone in the big room.

Dr. Martin came out the next morning to check on Adam. He changed the packing for the drain and the bandages. Taking Adam’s temperature, he noted that it was elevated but not too high. Pulling out his stethoscope, he listened to his patient’s chest and gave a satisfied nod. Looking at Ben, Paul said, “He’s going to pull through just fine. Adam is young and strong.”

Ben looked up at Paul and said, “Thank you for saving my son.”

“I’m going to check on Little Joe,” Paul announced, gathering up his medical equipment. Going upstairs, Paul found Joe still in bed. “I need to look at your shoulder, Little Joe.”

Joe sat up and obediently exposed his shoulder for the doctor. Changing the bandaging, Paul declared that the wound looked good. Joe’s reply was a snort.

“What’s wrong, Little Joe?” Paul asked.

“It’s not fair!”

“What isn’t?”

“Everything that’s happened to Adam. He was just doing Roy’s job. Will he ever be his old self again?”

“What do you mean?”

“Adam’s been here for me my whole life. He’s always protected me whether I wanted him to or not. I failed him yesterday, Paul. If I’d been in the barn with him, Adam wouldn’t have been shot and maybe dying.”

“Adam is going to recover, Little Joe. I checked in on him before coming up here. His healing will just take time. There’s no way you can know if things would have turned out differently if you’d been in the barn with him yesterday. You can’t go back and change events. Help your family move forward.” Paul gave Joe’s knee a squeeze and then left the room.

Coming back to the first floor, Paul saw that Hoss was alone. “How are you doing, Hoss?”

“Okay, I guess. I ain’t hurt if that’s what yer askin’.”

“A lot has happened over the past few days. I’m sure there’s been a lot of strain. How are you doing?”

“I feel bad fer Adam and Pa, but I cain’t change anythin’. All I can do is look out fer my family and see that we git through this.”

“You’re doing okay then,” said Paul. Letting himself out, he headed back to Virginia City.

Joe and Hoss spent the day tip-toeing around the house. They peeked in the guest room every so often to see Pa keeping a close watch over Adam. When one of them offered to sit with their brother for a while, Pa shooed them out. He was going to stay with Adam until he woke up.

That evening, Hop Sing brought a pot of coffee into the guest room. He poured a cup and handed it to Ben. “Numbah One Son accept fate. Now you do.”

“What?”

“Mistah Adam accept he no hear. Now he fight to come back. You accept he come back.” Pulling a small incense burner from his pocket, Hop Sing lit it and let the smell waft through the room. “You ask ancestors to guide Mistah Adam back.”

After Hop Sing left the room, Ben silently began a conversation with Elizabeth. “You must be so proud of our son, Liz. He took on a responsibility he didn’t want and tried to do what was right. Did you hear him in the barn yesterday? That whistling was awful, but he was doing it anyway. Our son is fearless, like you. A challenge rises up and he meets it head on. I want him back, Darling; you left too soon.” Tears were in Ben’s eyes. “Your son has been my rock. I’ve leaned on him for so long that I take him for granted sometimes. You’ve got to send him back to me, my love. If I lose him, then I won’t have anything to remember you. When I look at our son, I see your eyes and smile. When I hear him stand up to someone, I hear your convictions. Our Adam is a well-respected man. I hope you’re as proud of him as I am. Please, Liz, guide him back to me.”

By morning, the incense had burned out. Ben had fallen asleep holding tightly to Adam’s hand. Hoss and Joe came downstairs hoping that their brother had made it through the night. Looking into the guest room, they saw Adam’s eyes were still closed and that Pa was sleeping.

Hop Sing came out of the kitchen with toast and coffee. “You be quiet. Fathah sleep.”

Joe and Hoss sat down at the table and each took some toast. Wrinkling up his nose, Hoss asked, “What’s that smell?”

Hop Sing came back in with a bowl of eggs and a plate of bacon. He’d heard Hoss’ question. “Incense bring Mistah Adam’s mother. She keep watch ovah him. He come back soon. You see.” Hoss and Joe just exchanged puzzled looks.

Ben awoke to the smells of breakfast. The cook appeared with a plate containing eggs, bacon, and toast. How Hop Sing knew he was awake was a mystery. “You eat now. Be ready when son wake.” Obeying, Ben ate everything on his plate.

That afternoon found Ben still sitting at his son’s bedside. Hoss and Joe were in the room, too. They had done the barn chores in record time and come back inside. Hop Sing seemed to think that Adam would be awake soon, but so far nothing had happened.

Late in the afternoon, Adam’s eyes opened. He didn’t speak; he just looked from face to face. Assuming that Adam’s hearing hadn’t returned, Ben shouted, “HOW ARE YOU FEELING, SON?”

Adam put a hand to his head and said, “Don’t shout, Pa. It makes my head hurt.”

Joe gasped in shock. Hoss smiled really big. Ben’s eyes teared up. “You can hear me?” Ben asked.

“Of course I can. What happened to that man?”

“You killed him,” said Joe.

“I saw him shoot you, Joe. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. How did you know he was there?”

“I don’t know. I was going back to the barn to get my hat when I felt like I had to turn around.”

“Good thing ya did,” said Hoss.

Hop Sing entered the room with a bowl of broth. He had a very large smile on his face as he handed the bowl to Ben. “He eat all,” was the only instruction the cook had.

Roy arrived at the house that evening. Hop Sing ushered him into the guest room. “Good to see ya, Adam. I’m sorry fer…”

“Don’t apologize, Roy,” said Adam. “The council backed you into a corner. I would’ve left, too, if I’d been in your position.”

Relief filled Roy’s face; Adam could’ve easily blamed him for his injuries. “Anytime ya wanta come and clean my office, feel free to stop in.”

Adam chuckled softly. He knew Roy could let go of his guilt now. Exhausted from being awake for a few hours, Adam fell asleep.

Ben saw the sheriff to the door and thanked him for stopping by. “Adam’s right, Roy. The other members of the council and I backed you into a corner. None of us should have been surprised when you left.”

“If I had ta do it all over again…”

“We’d all do things differently if we could do it over again, Roy. We’ve forgiven you, forgive yourself.” Ben squeezed his friend’s shoulder and Roy sighed in relief. He had been sure the Cartwrights would see him run out of Virginia City. Heading back to town, Roy vowed to never again let down those he protected and served.

***The End***

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