First Dance (by EPM)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,000


Stopping on the rim of the hill, the three men sat motionless in their saddles. They looked down over the grassy, shallow basin, wide-eyed at the horrific scene below them. The only sound that could be heard was the wind shaking the new leaves on the hardwoods. Above, carrion birds floated on silent wings.

Ben Cartwright’s eyes registered the carnage below than his mind realized the consequences. “Please, please,” he prayed, as he searched for the familiar figure among the scattered bodies of the dead and dying.

*****

“Because I asked your brother Adam, that’s why.” Ben’s voice rose another notch as he stared at his youngest child. “You already have plenty to do and I suggest that you get at it.”

Reluctantly, Joe said, “yes sir” and walked through the barn doors. He gave Adam a sour look as he passed by.

“Now what’s that all about?” Adam asked as he walked toward his father, leading Sport as he came.

“Oh, your younger brother seems to think it should be him going instead of you, that’s all.” Ben’s voice had returned to its normal volume and he smiled as he spoke.

“It’s ok with me if Joe goes instead of me. I really don’t care one way or the other.” Ben knew that Adam really didn’t care if he went or not but he did.

“No son, I want you to go. Do you have everything?” asked Ben.

*****

While riding out to survey some grasslands on the northern part of the ranch, Ben had found a group of ten so wagons camped on Ponderosa land. His first instinct was to send them packing by the shortest route possible but after speaking with some of the travelers, he realized they had no intention of encroaching on his property and were indeed, just trying to find the shortest route to California. Ben decided that what was best for both the travelers and himself was to have someone lead them off the ranch and send them on their way. All his boys had been working hard and would gladly have volunteered for the job. Joe would see it as an adventure and a chance to escape the sometimes mundane life of a rancher. Hoss would see it as a chance to help people and to travel through some of the high country that he loved so much. And Adam—his serious, no nonsense eldest, what would he think? Ben shook his head and sighed. He’d take it on as a responsibility, to his father and to the ranch. Not that Ben could ever fault his son’s work ethic, but he often wished that Adam would sometimes see things through Hoss’ and Joe’s eyes. It might take some of the stiffness out of his spine and allow him to enjoy his life a little more.

*****

“Ah Pa, you with me? I said I’m ready.” Adam cocked his head to the side and gave his father a questioning look. “You were a million miles away.”

Adam’s voice broke through Ben’s musing. “Was I—well, no matter. Shouldn’t take you more than a week or so to get them well on their way and come home. You be careful now.” Suddenly, Ben took hold of Adam’s shoulders and pulled him into an embrace. He held him for a moment and said, “have a good time son.” Then let him go.

Adam was surprised and puzzled by his father’s seemingly odd show of affection. He backed away, only stopping after bumping into Sport. “I’ll be home as soon as I can Pa.” He looked over at Hoss and Joe who both were openly smiling at their older brother’s discomfort. “You two try to stay out of trouble,” he said as he mounted. He tightened his legs and Sport responded.

*****

Adam rode off toward the wagon train’s encampment. Now what was that all about, he asked himself? I swear, just when I think I have Pa all figured out, he does something I don’t expect. And what did he mean–have a good time? I didn’t know I was doing this to “have a good time.” I’m going to see that these people get off our land and are safely on the trail to California. His dark brows wrinkled and tried to meet in the middle of his forehead. Maybe when I’m a father…

He reached the camp well before noon. It was a beautiful spring day, not too hot but warm enough to promise that summer wasn’t far behind. As he approached, he saw a pair of green eyes framed by dark brown hair, peering at him from the opening in the back of the last wagon. “Good morning Miss. Can you tell me where Mr. Randsom might be?” Adam asked, a warm smile lighting his handsome face.

Without revealing anymore of herself, she answered in a quiet, shy voice: “You’ll find him in the lead wagon.” Before he could say thank you, she disappeared deeper within the darkness of the wagon. He smiled to himself and rode on ahead.

Adam noticed that the train was made up of outfits that were in good repair, pulled by animals that were obviously well cared for. It was rare to see the combination, especially this far into the journey. A sudden vision of his own days as part of several wagon trains intruded on his thoughts. Most of the trains he and his father had been a part of were not always so lucky. But the reason was the same; a new land, a new start. A chance to build a dream.

Amid the bustle of activity, Adam arrived at the first wagon. A man, not much younger than his father, stood urging the people to break camp and get ready to move. “Mr.Randsom?” he inquired.

“Yes, you must be one of Ben Cartwright’s sons.” The man stopped and held his hand out toward Adam. “Your father told us he would be sending one of you as a guide. Welcome.”

“Thank you, sir. Please call me Adam.” He shook the leader’s hand.

“Are your people ready?” Adam asked, anxious to be on the trail. The trip across the Ponderosa was fairly easy. What the train would face after that would be harder on man and beast.

“Yes Adam, we’re ready and very glad to have you as a guide. You should know, however, we do have a scout already. But your father felt very strongly that one of you should lead us across your land,” Mr. Randsom said.

“Yes, well my father has strong ideas about a lot of things,” Adam replied, holding on to a laugh. We haven’t had the best of luck with people who say they are just passing through. They seem to think the Ponderosa would make good homestead land.”

“Well, you can’t blame them for thinking that, young man. It certainly is beautiful country.” The leader of the train smiled back and looked at the distant hills.

“Yes sir, it is. And every inch has been hard won with a lot of sacrifice on the part of my family.” Adam’s tone had turned serious. “We try to accommodate travelers who want to cross our land but we won’t tolerate those who abuse our hospitality.”

“Sounds like a threat to me.” The voice and the message made Adam turn in his saddle. The figure of the man who had spoken was tall and broad shouldered with dark hair, like his own. But there the likeness ended. He was older than Adam by about ten years with eyes an errie light gray in color.

“Not a threat, just a statement of fact—ahh, Mr…?” Adam’s gaze did not move from the stranger’s face.

“Cooper, John Cooper and I’m the scout for this train.” His tone held an edge of antagonism. “I told Mr. Randsom we don’t need any help but it seems your father thinks otherwise.”

“Yes, he does and since it’s our land, what my father thinks is all that’s important.” Adam’s tone mimicked the scouts.

Adam turned away from Cooper and addressed the wagon train’s leader. “Shall we be on our way?”

“Yes, yes of course. Mr. Cooper, would you please pass the word that we’re ready to move?” Adam watched the interchange between the wagon master and the scout. Something wasn’t right but Adam had no way of knowing what. Randsom seemed nervous and Cooper had an air of arrogance about him. Well, as long as it doesn’t interfere with these wagons getting off the Ponderosa, it’s none of my business he thought.

*****

The small train started to move forward. Adam had forgotten how slowly the wagons moved. He could only liken their pace to a lumbering herd of cattle pushed along at round up. Well, at least the wagons didn’t kick up as much dust as cattle and they didn’t smell as bad either. They stopped about mid afternoon to rest the horses and allow a light meal for the passengers. Adam spied a small grove of hardwoods and headed for their shade. He dismounted and loosened Sport’s cinch and removed his bridle. The big chestnut grazed contently while his master ate the lunch Hop Sing had packed for him. After finishing his sandwich, Adam leaned his back against the trunk of the tree that sheltered him and pulled his hat down over his eyes.

Half-dozing in the afternoon warmth, Adam suddenly heard a rustling noise behind him. With practiced ease, his right hand went to his gun as he turned toward the sound. The sight that greeted him let tense muscles relax and he smiled up at his visitor. “Well, hello green eyes,” he said.

Before him stood the young girl who had earlier directed him to the Randsom wagon. Tall and skinny with long coltish legs that didn’t seem to fit just yet, she must be all of twelve or thirteen he thought. Pieces of dark chestnut hair fell out of her long braids. “Hello yourself,” she said. “You joinin’ the train?” She drew lines in the dust with her bare toes as she spoke to him.

“No, I’m just here to make sure you folks get safely across our land and on the right trail to California. Then I’ll be going home.” He stood up and reached for Sport’s bridle.

“Then you must be the owner.” She cocked her head to the side and looked up at him with questioning eyes. “Kinda young for that, aren’t ya?”

He gave a soft laugh and responded, “The land belongs to my family.” We have a ranch called the Ponderosa and this is part of it.” He walked to Sport and started to tack up. “You know, I usually like to know the names of the young ladies I meet. Care to enlighten me?”

“Elizabeth, but everybody calls me Lizzie; they think it fits.” She dropped her eyes and looked away from him. “Guess they’re right,” she sighed.

“Well, Miss Elizabeth, it’s time this train started to move again. Where’s your wagon?”

“Oh, not far” She started to ran back to the encampment when she suddenly stopped and turned back. “Hey, I like to know the names of the men I talk to. What’s yours? He heard her giggle.

“My name’s Adam Cartwright and I’d be pleased if you’d call me Adam.” A bright smile played across his face.

Her giggle became a laugh as she disappeared behind the wagons.

Adam mounted and rode to the head of the train. Now that little thing will grow up to be a handful for some lucky man he mused, the smile still played across his handsome face.

The rest of the day and into the early evening was spent moving along the edge of rolling meadows, criss-crossed by shallow swift running streams. Wild flowers bloomed everywhere adding to the beauty of the land. No wonder people wanted to stay Adam thought. Even though still a young child, he had felt something take hold of his heart when he and his father first saw it. That sense of wonder and respect only deepened as he and his family buried their roots into the Nevada soil.

Adam’s thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the Randsom party’s scout. “Well Cartwright, you in such a hurry to get rid of us that yer gonna run this train all night?” He spat the words out as a challenge.

Adam looked at him for a moment, raised an eyebrow then turned and rode toward the wagon master, leaving Cooper staring after him. He refused to speak to this man unless it became necessary for the safety of the passengers. Adam had taken an instant dislike to him but more importantly, his instincts told him not to trust the man.

“Ready to settle in for the night, Mr. Randsom?” Adam walked Sport along side the wagon master’s rig as he spoke to him.

“Yes Adam, I think everyone has had a full day. The Mrs. and I would be pleased if you’d share meals with us while you’re here. Since your family has been nice enough to let us pass through your land, we feel that’s the least we can do.” Randsom introduced Adam to his wife, a short, stout woman near her husband’s age with sparkling blue eyes and a ready smile.

“You’re more than welcome, young man. We’d be glad for the company,” said Mrs. Randsom. “It’ll be nice to cook for a youngblood again.” Her laugh was hardy and genuine and Adam couldn’t help but smile.

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll look forward to it.” Adam’s attention went back to Mr. Randsom. “I’ll ride back and tell folks to circle up for the night.”

Sport pivoted around and Adam guided him from wagon to wagon. Reaching the last, he saw Elizabeth sitting between a man and a woman. “Hello Miss Elizabeth, ready to stop for the night?”

“Sure am, Adam. Didn’t think we were ever gonna have dinner,” the youngster replied.

“Elizabeth Johnson! Where are your manners, calling an adult by his first name.” Mrs. Johnson was shocked and embarrassed by her daughter’s seemingly rude behavior.

“Please mam, it’s my fault. I asked Elizabeth to call me Adam. She didn’t mean any disrespect.” Adam was quick to defend the young girl’s action to her parents. No need for her to get into trouble for something he had done. And besides, he had a feeling that this little girl could find plenty of mischief around any corner; she didn’t need his help.

The man to Lizzie’s left spoke up. “Mr. Cartwright, I’m Cliff Johnson and this is my wife Emily. Lizzie told us she’d already met you.” He smiled at his child than looked back at Adam.

“Yes sir, we did. We met at our last stop. Miss Elizabeth was kind enough to keep me company.” He smiled at the young girl who was now climbing down from the wagon.

“You got a place to eat tonight Adam?” Lizzie asked. Mrs. Johnson just sighed and looked heavenward.

“Yes I do. I’ll be taking my meals with the Randsoms but thanks for thinking about me,” Adam answered.

Emily Johnson spoke before her daughter could reply. “Perhaps you’d do us the honor of eating with us one night, Mr. Cartwright. We’d be glad to have you.”

“Thank you Mrs. Johnson. I’d be happy to.” Adam looked back toward the head of the train. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.” He moved his fingers to the brim of his hat and tipped it slightly before riding away.

Elizabeth looked at the back of their retreating visitor. Something new and unknown stirred within her. Suddenly embarrassed and confused by what she felt, she looked away. Somehow being near Adam Cartwright brought on feelings she had never experienced before. But that’s crazy, she thought to herself. He’s just a dumb old boy and ancient at that!

“Yes Ma, I’m coming.” Elizabeth answered her mother’s call for help with the supper chores. Thoughts of the handsome, dark stranger still danced in her head as she went to help her mother.

*****

Dinner with the Randsoms would have been a pleasant affair had it not been for the presence of John Cooper. The man made Adam think of a sneaky cur: hovering, waiting, ready to snap. Maybe his instincts were wrong this time. Just because he didn’t like the man didn’t mean he was up to something. He turned his attention back to his hosts.

“That was a wonderful meal Mrs. Randsom. Thank you.” Adam stretched his long arms behind him and stood up. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll bed down. Good night.” He smiled and walked toward Sport who was grazing contentedly.

The night was warm and sleeping outside was a pleasure not a heartship. Adam laid in his bedroll and thought back to his father’s last words—“have a good time son.” He was suddenly very relaxed and contented. Yes, that was the word—contented. No decisions to make, no one to worry about— no responsibilities. Well Pa, I don’t know about “a good time” but certainly peaceful. Maybe that’s enough. He turned on his side and brought the blanket up around his shoulders. Sleep soon found him.

Adam didn’t know what it was that roused him but he was suddenly awake. After taking a moment to orient himself, he listened for anything that might seem out of place. The creaking of leather made him look over where the horses were staked out. He squinted into the dark night. Only the palest of moons hovered, casting very little light. He could just make out a single individual, saddling a horse. He decided he would learn more by just being still and watching. Soon, the shadow of a man led a horse to the edge of the camp, mounted and rode away.

Adam waited until horse and rider were well out of sight then got up and went to the picket line. It was Cooper’s horse that was missing. Now that’s interesting, he thought. Why would he sneak out of camp in the middle of the night? No towns near, no settlements. He checked on Sport, more out of habit than necessity and returned to his bedroll. Something was not right but he decided he’d wait for Copper to show his hand.

*****

Adam had spent the rest of the night in restless, fitful naps. He rose early and went to the stream to wash the sleep from his face. He had thought about not shaving until he was ready to return home but decided his heavy beard would only itch, as the days became warmer. Pulling out a piece of Hop Sing’s soap, he lathered his face and neck. He opened his razor and looked down into the water. Staring back at him was Elizabeth’s reflection. Smiling, he turned and said, “Good morning, Miss Elizabeth. What brings you out so early?”

“Oh, just getting some water for my mother,” she said, holding the bucket out in front of her.

“How about you let me do that for you,” Adam said and reached for the bucket. He leaned down, washed the soap from his face than filled the pail.

“You don’t have to do that Adam, ahh Mr. Cartwright. I can carry it,” she said in a suddenly shy voice. She reached a hand toward the water.

“Mr. Cartwright! What happened to Adam?” he asked.

“I don’t want to be rude. My mother says I should only call adults by their last name.” A sadness entered her eyes as she looked up at him.

“I’ll tell you what, Elizabeth. How about when it’s only you and me, you can call me Adam. When there are other people around, you can call me Mr. Cartwright. That way, you won’t get into any trouble.” His warm smile drove the sorrow from her eyes. “It’ll be our secret.”

“Ok Adam.” The gregarious little hoyden he had met yesterday suddenly reappeared. They started walking toward the Johnson’s wagon. “Hey Adam, how come you call me Elizabeth when everybody else calls me Lizzie?”

“Well, I guess it’s because my mother’s name was Elizabeth and I like the sound of it,” he answered.

Elizabeth picked up on the melancholy note in Adam’s voice and said, “You’ve lost her, haven’t you Adam?” The face that looked up at him held an understanding he hadn’t expected from one so young.

“Yes— I never knew her. She died when I was born.” Adam saw the tears well in her eyes. “It was a long time ago Elizabeth,” he said. Trying to reassure her and lighten his own mood, he said, “Ok young lady, we had better get this water to your mother before you get into any more trouble.” He pulled on one of her braids and smiled.

“Good morning Mr. Cartwright. I see Lizzie has you helping with her chores,” Cliff Johnson said as he winked at Adam.

“No, honest, Pa. I said I could carry the bucket myself,” Lizzie answered quickly.

“That’s ok Lizzie. A gentleman always helps a lady when she needs it,” said her father, a smile touching his lips.

“Well, I guess I didn’t really need help.” Lizzie had a questioning look on her face. “Does that still make me a lady?”

“Yes, Miss Elizabeth, your father is right. A gentleman always tries to help a lady.” He put the bucket down next to the morning campfire. “And I’d be pleased if you’d call me Adam,” he said to Cliff Johnson.

“Will you have breakfast with us?” Cliff asked.

“I thank you but I promised the Randsoms I’d be there,” said Adam.

“Oh Adam, don’t leave,” Lizzie said. Her father noted her quick response.

“Now don’t pester Mr. Cartwright, Lizzie. He has things to do besides fetch and carry for you,” her father replied.

Lizzie’s face turned red and she looked down at the ground. Just then, her mother came out of the wagon. “Maybe you’ll have supper with us, Mr.Cartwright?”

“I’d be pleased,” he responded. Adam noticed his young friend’s discomfort. “See you tonight Elizabeth?” he asked.

She looked up at him and smiled. “See you tonight,” she answered.

After Adam had left and her father went to retrieve the team; Lizzie sat with her mother as she prepared their morning meal. Emily Johnson noticed her daughter’s pensive look. “What is it Lizzie; something bothering you?”

“No— no, not really.” She hesitated, thinking hard before she went on. “Mama,” she started, “how do you feel when you really like somebody?”

Emily Johnson had been waiting for this conversation. Part of her wanted to laugh and smile at the question and part of her wanted to cry at the thought of her “baby” being old enough to have those stirrings for a man. “Well, I guess people react differently. When you really like somebody, you want to be with them all of the time and you put their happiness and feelings above your own.” She stirred the pot of hot cereal as it bubbled and boiled over the open fire. She took a deep breath and said, “What makes you ask?”

Embarrassed to reveal anymore of what was bothering her, even to her mother, Lizzie answered with a noncommittal shrug of her shoulders. “Is the cereal ready yet Ma? I’m hungry.”

Emily Johnson smiled and laddled the hot porridge into a bowl. “You eat up now then help your father get things packed.” She knew her daughter would ask more when she was ready.

*****

The day’s trip was uneventful and Adam was surprised at the good time they were making. If this kept up, he’d be home long before he had planned. All day he kept one eye on John Cooper but other than sullen looks, nothing seemed out of place. They made camp by a beautiful, rushing stream and Adam made good use of it. Finding a secluded spot, he shed his dusty clothes and plunged into the cold, clear water. His head broke the surface as he came up and he shook the curly black locks out of his face. Better get my haircut, he thought, before I start looking like Joe. Wouldn’t be good for Pa to start yelling at both of us. The picture in his mind made him smile. He enjoyed the contrast of the warm sunshine on his face and shoulders while the rest of him began to shake with the invading cold of the water.

As the shadows began to lengthen, he reluctantly swam to shore. After changing and shaving once again, he went to the Johnson wagon. He looked forward to chatting with Cliff and Emily and the irresistible Miss Elizabeth. Funny how thoughts of the awkward, young teen made him wonder what it would be like if he ever had a child.

*****

“Hello Adam. Glad you could make it,” Cliff said. Evening was closing in fast and the warmth and light of several campfires made for a comforting sight. Emily joined them and added her welcome.

Adam removed his hat and offered to help. “Thank you Adam but why don’t you just sit down and keep Cliff company while I finish dinner.”

Adam noticed how the light of the fire flattered this already attractive woman. She had a ready smile and a soft, quiet way about her. He wondered if her daughter would grow up to have the same characteristics. His thoughts were interrupted by Elizabeth’s arrival.

The young woman who came from the back of wagon bore little resemblance to the barefooted youngster everybody called Lizzie. She was wearing a crisp green dress covered by a white pinafore. Her dark chestnut hair, no longer in braids, was brushed out and hung softly down her back. It curled loosely about her face. She looked at him shyly and nodded a greeting. He didn’t have to wonder anymore. The girl who stood before him would certainly grow to surpass her mother’s beauty.

“Good evening Miss Elizabeth. May I say how beautiful you look tonight.”

Her face reddened and he couldn’t tell if it was from the heat of the fire or his compliment.

“Thank you Ad—ahh, Mr. Cartwright.” She continued to help her mother with dinner.

“Well Lizzie, you do clean up mighty pretty. You hop’in for an invitation to dance tonight?” her father asked.

Trying to divert her husband from his current course of questioning, Emily said, “Cliff, why don’t you tell Adam about our Saturday night dances.”

With his attention redirected away from his daughter, Cliff turned back to his guest. “Oh, we started the dances so that folks would have something to look forward to at the end of a long week. Got a few people who play fiddle and guitar and old Mr. Howard calls a pretty fair reel and square.” He looked over at his daughter once again but decided not to tease her anymore. Not only would Lizzie be mad, but he’d find himself without a dance partner tonight, if he didn’t stop.

They asked Adam about his family and how the Ponderosa started. He told them of his days on different wagon trains coming across the country with his father. He informed them briefly about Inger and how she died and later about Marie. The pain of losing the two women had been very real to Adam but they had both left him a gift, his brothers. Both the Johnsons expressed their sympathy for Adam’s family and especially his father. He didn’t dwell on the sad things but rather the relationship built up between the four men.

Lizzie listened quietly to the adult conversation and only spoke when she was asked a question. Her gaze rarely left the face of the handsome man who was now no longer a stranger to them. She laughed when he told stories of his brother’s wild adventures and became very still when he spoke of the dangers that still existed for them as they continued to build an empire out of the wilderness.

And Adam learned more about the people on the train and specifically the Johnson’s. They, like so many others before them asked only for a chance to own a piece of land, work hard and raise a family in peace and harmony. Not so different from his father’s dream. The one he and his brothers were a part of. As he listened to the Johnsons, Adam’s mind strayed. If only he knew what his dream was; what he really wanted. But that wasn’t clear to him yet. So he continued to help his father and brothers, content that someday he’d find the answer.

Soon, people started to gather together and a large fire was built. Laughter combined with the tuning of instruments heralded a night of fun and relaxation. Adam watched as Cliff and Emily joined the first dance. Elizabeth stayed at his side. From reel to square to waltz, partners lost themselves in the music and each other.

Elizabeth had been very quiet and when she finally spoke, Adam was a little startled. With her eyes never leaving the dancers, she asked in a quiet voice “Adam, have you ever loved anybody?” I mean, other than your family.”

The question was asked with sincerity and candor and he responded in a like manner. “Yes Elizabeth, I have,” he said.

“What’s it like—I mean, how does it make you feel and how do you know?” She turned to look at him, her eyes wide with the curiosity of the young.

Adam’s mind struggled with an explanation the young girl would understand. He refused to be condescending but her scant life experience made it difficult to explain.

Adam motioned toward the dancing partners. “I guess falling in love is sort of like a couple’s first dance,” he started to explain. “It’s a little awkward at first but it feels wonderful to be with somebody you really care about. The more you get to know each other, the greater your feelings become and the awkwardness leaves.” He stopped for a moment. “Watch the dancers Elizabeth. See how some are easy in each other’s arms; how they seem to speak to each other with just a look.” She turned away from him and gazed back at the swaying couples. The look of concentration on her face made him smile.

“I think I see what you mean, Adam.” Elizabeth was leaning forward with her elbows resting on her knees and her hands under her chin, still looking at the dancers. “Like my parents, they look happy just to be with each other. I guess that might be love, just wanting to be with each other.”

Her simple explanation grabbed at his heart and his breath caught in his throat. “I think you understand exactly what love is Elizabeth. And I think when it comes to you, the young man will be very fortunate indeed.” She smiled up at him then turned back to the dancers.

Looking up, Adam noticed John Cooper across the fire. He caught Cooper’s eye and stared with an unflinching gaze. Cooper sneered and turned away.

“Something wrong Adam?” Elizabeth said. She had watched as the interchange took place.

“No—no not really,” he said. He had a hard time tearing his eyes away from Cooper’s back.

Elizabeth said,” you don’t like him, do you Adam?”

Adam’s first instinct was to pretend he didn’t know what she was talking about, but he knew better. She’d already guessed the answer.

“No,” he replied honestly. “I’m not sure why. I just don’t trust him.”

“I don’t like him neither but I can’t tell Ma and Pa.” She sighed. “Another one of those ‘being respectful to an adult’ things.

Her sigh and dramatic tone made Adam laugh out loud. When she heard him, Elizabeth started to giggle.

“Must’ve been a funny joke Emily. These two sure look happy enough.” The Johnson’s were walking back to the wagon where Adam and Elizabeth were still trying to control themselves, but without much success. A spontaneous, deep chuckle interspersed with a high-pitched giggle could still be heard.

The rest of the evening passed quickly. Adam said thank you and good night to the Johnson family and walked back to his bedroll with the Randsoms. On the way, he saw the train’s scout head toward the picket line. Trying his best not to arouse any suspicion Adam asked,” How long have you known Mr. Cooper?”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Randsom lost their smiles. “Not very long. We lost our scout to the silver mines when we wintered over in Carson City,” said Mr. Randsom. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no particular reason. Just wondered,” Adam said. He tried to be nonchalant but he knew he wasn’t convincing either of them.

“Something bothering you, Adam?” Mrs. Randsom asked in a concerned tone.

“Well, it’s pretty obvious we didn’t get along from the very start,” Adam said. “I suppose he feels my presence isn’t necessary. Not sure I’d feel much different in his spot.” They had reached the wagon. “I’ll say goodnight now.”

Mrs. Randsom bid him goodnight and disappeared into the back of the wagon. Mr. Randsom turned and asked Adam if he could wait a minute before he left. He gestured for him to follow a little way away from the wagon.

“Adam, I know you’re only here to lead us across your ranch and put us on the trail for California. I’m sure you don’t want to become involved in train business but I’ll tell you I didn’t have much choice when I hired John Cooper. The silver mines are more alluring than taking a train load of greenhorns across Nevada and into California.” He smiled at his own self-description. “I think I understand the uneasy feeling you have when it comes to Mr. Cooper but he hasn’t done anything that would make me mistrust him.” The wagon master stopped and took a deep breath. “We need him.”

“I understand, sir, and you’re right. I’m just here to help you get safely across the Ponderosa than I’ll be on my way,” Adam replied. “Good night, Mr. Randsom.”

Adam made his way to his bedroll and tucked himself in for the night. The sleep that usually came so easily was now elusive. His mind kept going back to his unfounded feelings about John Cooper. He told himself that Randsom was right. The train needed the scout and apparently he hadn’t done anything to earn the wagon master’s mistrust. He turned restlessly to his other side. Closing his eyes, Adam thoughts strayed toward home.

*****

“I done told you, Joe, I don’t know and if you ask me one more time, I’m gonna drop you in that pile of manure over there.” Hoss moved toward his younger brother, both arms held out in front of him.

Joe backed away from the advancing threat. “All right! All right, I just asked,” he said.

“No Joe, you “just asked” for the fiftieth time. And I still don’t know,” Hoss exclaimed.

Ben Cartwright couldn’t help but hear the conversation as he entered the barn. “Problem, boys?” he asked.

Joe spoke up first. “No, no—no problem, Pa.”

“Huh—no problem, my foot.” Hoss’ face was set in hard, stubborn lines.

“Care to enlighten me, son?” Ben asked his agitated middle son.

“If Joe asks me one more time why you had Adam lead that wagon train off our land, I’m gonna throttle him,” Hoss said. “I swear I will, Pa.”

Ben slowly turned toward his youngest son who now wore his best innocent face. “Now Pa,” he said, “you don’t believe that do you?”

“Yes, Little Joe, I do.” Ben’s voice was quiet, hiding the annoyance underneath. “Since when do you question my decisions, young man?”

A look of defiance suddenly entered Joe’s eyes and just as quickly disappeared. He dropped his head and said, “I’m sorry, Pa.”

His manner softening, Ben said to his sons, “Look, you both know that out of the three of you, Adam is the one least likely to go out on a Saturday night or to a church picnic or to take any time off.” Ben stopped, waiting for Hoss and Joe to agree with what he had said. They both nodded, wondering what their father was about to say. “It’s just that he needs to get away as well as the rest of us and sometimes I have to force him, even for a little while. Do you understand?”

“Well, we understand why you did it, Pa; it’s just that we don’t understand why he’s like that,” Hoss said.

Joe eagerly agreed. “Yeah Pa, you heard him. He really didn’t care if I went instead of him.” Hoss threw Joe a warning look.

Ben smiled at Joe. “I’m not sure I know myself boys. Adam’s always been intense and focused, even as a child. I think part of it is just who he is.” The smile left Ben’s face and a melancholy look entered his eyes. “And part of it is what he went through as a child and a young man. It was just too much, too young.”

“But Pa, Adam wouldn’t never blame you or anybody else for what happened while he was grow’in up. He’s got too much sense fer that,” Hoss said.

Ben put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “I know that son but it doesn’t change the facts.”

“Well maybe we can’t change what happened to him then but we can make it better now,” Joe spoke up.

“How we gonna do that Joe?” Hoss frowned at his younger brother.

“We just won’t take no for an answer, about picnics and dances and such. And when we go fishing and hunting, we’ll just expect him to go along all the time, not just some of the time,” Joe replied.

“Yer good about not takin’ no for an answer, that’s fer sure, Little Joe.” Hoss laughed.

“See—I’ll just pester him until he gives up.” Joe’s grin lit up his face.

“Go easy on the pestering son. Your big brother needs his time alone; that’s just him. If you pester him too much, you might find yourself sitting in that manure pile Hoss was talking about,” Ben laughed.

The three men smiled at the thought. “Now the reason I came out here in the first place was to suggest that we go meet your elder brother on his way back and maybe get in a little fishing. Do I hear any objections?” Ben cupped his hand to his ear.

“Not from us Pa. Let’s start pack’in Joe,” Hoss suggested.

*****

As they climbed into the high country, Adam guessed that he would be able to leave the train by around noon the next day. He stopped a moment to savor his surroundings. Each part of the Ponderosa was special for its own reasons but the high country was the most beautiful and peaceful. He was glad his father had insisted on his coming. He had enjoyed meeting this group of people, but in truth, he really knew very little of them and would soon forget names and faces. That is, except for one. A little green-eyed scamp that seemed to have stolen his heart. It would be hard to forget Elizabeth. She was that in-between woman-child. The curiosity and innocence of youth crossed with the inherent wisdom of her gender. He wished he could see her in about ten years. Adam knew he would be impressed by the woman she would become.

They stopped for the night beside a high meadow lake. It occurred to Adam that he had not seen Cooper all day. He knew he would have to speak to the man sooner or later and although he would have preferred later, he decided to get it over with. Approaching the Randsom wagon, Adam heard voices raised in anger. He recognized both Cooper’s and Mr. Randsom’s voices.

“And you’re being paid a goodly sum of money to get us through to Sacramento. We expect nothing less.” Randsom’s words held no fear this time.

“You’ll get your money’s worth Randsom,” Cooper spit back. “I’ll be back in the morning.” He rounded the corner of the wagon and very nearly ran Adam down. “Get outta my way, Cartwright!”

Adam was startled and before he could respond, the scout disappeared from view. “I’m sorry Mr. Randsom. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I was coming to tell Cooper I’d be leaving around noon tomorrow. Thought I’d let him know the best trials we’ve found through the mountains.”

“That’s alright Adam. Mr. Cooper seems to have a mind of his own. I can’t imagine where he’d be going tonight, way out here.” The man shook his head in disgust.

Adam almost said something about the scout disappearing from camp the first night he was with them, but changed his mind. He would be gone tomorrow and these people would be on their way.

“Well, if you’ll excuse me sir, there are some folks I’d like to see before I go.” Adam raised a hand, bidding him goodbye. “I’ll be back in a little while.” He smiled and said, “I promised Mrs. Randsom I’d be back for supper.”

Walking down the short row of wagons, he stopped and chatted with several people. He reached the Johnson wagon last. Elizabeth was transformed once again into the skinny little coltish girl he met when he first arrived. She looked up but there wasn’t any smile for him this time. Adam spent some time talking with the Johnsons about their future plans and he wished them a safe journey. After saying his good-byes, he looked for his young friend but found that she was no longer in camp.

Fires were being lit to prepare the evening meal and ward off the fast approaching dusk. Adam started to walk toward the lake. Somehow he had a feeling that Elizabeth would be there. And she was. Standing on the shore, feet just barely in the water, she stood looking out toward the west. She turned toward him as he approached, gave a weak smile and turned back.

Adam had found a convenient boulder to sit on. “Weren’t you going to give me a chance to say goodbye, Elizabeth?” he asked.

Her answer was simple and straightforward. “No”, she said softly.

“Friends don’t just go off and leave each other. I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed meeting you, even for a short time.” His voice was gentle.

Still looking out across the lake, she said, “That’s the trouble Adam. It’s too short.” Elizabeth turned and looked at him. Even with the falling shadows, he could see the sparkle of tears in her eyes.

Adam took a deep breath, recalling his own times as a child when people seemed to come in and out of his life, no permanence, no relationships—just fleeting memories. He understood what Elizabeth was feeling only too well.

“I’m not saying it isn’t hard, Elizabeth. Nobody wants to say goodbye to someone they like but your life is across those mountains. A real home with your family.” He got up and walked next to her. They both were silent for a moment, taking in the beauty that was all around them. “You won’t forget me and I certainly couldn’t forget you. Memories are warm things, Elizabeth,” he said. “Now, how about letting me walk you home?”

“Ok Adam,” she said and put her small hand in his. He walked her back to the warmth and light of her parent’s wagon.

*****

John Cooper rode hard to reach the hideout of his fellow outlaws. His horse was lathered and blowing by the time he stopped. As the scout walked into a clearing ringed by a thick stand of pines, he heard several rifles being cocked. “What are you so nervous about brother? Afraid of a few greenhorns?” he laughed.

“Could’ve been anyone,” Luke Cooper answered. “You might get your head blown off next time.” He took a drink out of the bottle he held in his hand.

“Yeah, well there ain’t gonna to be a next time cause we’re gonna hit them tomorrow morning,” his brother replied, taking the bottle. He took a long pull and handed it back. “They ain’t nothin but a bunch of sheep. We shouldn’t have any trouble at all.”

“No—well what about that Cartwright fella you was talkin about?” He ain’t gonna just stand still while we ride in and pick them wagons clean.” Luke took another drink while waiting for his brother’s answer.

John Cooper laughed. “He’ll take a bullet, same as anybody else and I want to be the one to do it. That’ll shut that fancy mouth of his.”

“Yeah well, I don’t like takin on the Cartwrights. They wasn’t suppose to be part of this,” Luke said.

“Don’t go gettin scared now little brother. We ain’t gonna leave no witnesses and that includes old man Cartwright’s kid.” Cooper’s laugh was ugly. “We’ll finish the job and head into those mountains. They’ll never find us.”

“We’ll hit ’em first thing. Just after they start movin’. They’ll be all strung out.” The scout again took a pull on the whiskey bottle his brother had provided. He made sure he had the attention of everybody in the camp. “And remember, no witnesses. None!” He looked around. “You ain’t got the stomach for it, ride out now.” John Cooper waited but no one moved.

*****

Another clear Spring morning dawned in the mountain foothills. Adam had awoken early. No one was stirring in camp and he decided to lie quietly and watch the sun rise over the eastern slope of the mountain ridge. Letting his thoughts drift, he wondered what his family was doing. Then his mind began to tick off all things that needed to be done at home: cattle that needed to be moved, a new timber contract that he would deal with when he returned home, fences and horses and——. No, he thought. Not this time. He tried to empty his mind of anything that had to do with work. At least until he got home. The sounds of morning broke into his thoughts.

Reluctantly, Adam set about his morning routine. Collecting what he needed, he moved off toward the lake. Elizabeth had beaten him to it. He watched her for a minute. She sat atop a boulder that lay in the shallow waters of the shore. Her knees were tucked up under her chin and her long golden arms circled her legs. “Good morning, green eyes. You’re up early.”

Not startled, Elizabeth turned as if she knew he was coming. “Hi Adam. It’s so pretty here I thought I’d have another look before we had to move on.” She hesitated for a moment. “Do you think they’ll be anything as pretty as this in California?” she asked.

“I’d have to think about that a minute,” Adam said in a teasing voice. “I’m not sure anything is prettier than a piece of the Ponderosa.” She made a face at him and stuck out her tongue.

“What happened to the young lady I saw at the dance the other night?” I don’t think she’d approve of that behavior.” He smiled and sat down next to her.

“It’s too hard growing up. I mean, sometimes I want to and other times I’d rather be who I am. Does that make any sense?” Those same questioning eyes looked up at him.

“Yup, it does. Not always so easy being grown up.” Adam got up off the rock and put his hands on his hips. “Ok young lady, enough. I want to see that smiling little green-eyed imp I met when I first came.” Suddenly he realized something and said, “That’s it! Joe—you remind me of my youngest brother Joe, all green-eyes, flashing smile and a bit of a temper. Yup, that’s definitely it.”

Elizabeth laughed at him as she climbed down from the rock. “Now how could I remind you of some dumb, old boy? And did you call him an imp?”

“Among other things, yes. And I’m a dumb old boy too, you know.” He tried his best to look stern.

“Ah, huh,” she giggled.

“Come on Miss Elizabeth, your parents will be wondering where you are.” They walked back to the Johnson’s wagon.

“Well Adam, We weren’t sure if we’d see you or not this morning,” Cliff Johnson said. “Should have known Lizzie would find you.”

“More like I found her,” Adam said. “Cliff, I wonder if I could ask you a favor?”

“Sure Adam. What is it?” Cliff asked.

“Like I said last night, I’ll be leaving the train about noon today. I was wondering if Elizabeth could ride with me until than?” Adam waited for Cliff’s reply. Just then, Mrs. Johnson joined them. She saw the look of delight and anticipation on her daughter’s face.

Before her husband could answer, she replied, “If it’s not too much trouble, I’m sure Elizabeth would like that, Adam.” She gave her daughter a warm smile. “Thank you for asking her.”

“Oh Adam, thank you,” the excited young girl said.

“I’ll pick you up after breakfast.” Adam smiled, tipped his hat and walked back to the head of the train.

“Cliff, why don’t you go get me some fresh water and I’ll make up some coffee,” Emily said. After he had gone, Elizabeth helped her mother to prepare breakfast. “Thanks Mama,” she said. A sudden look of shyness crossed her face.

“You and Mr. Cartwright seem to have become friends. He’s a nice young man, Lizzie.” She waited to see if her daughter would say anything more, but the young girl was silent. “Most men his age are married by now and have a youngster or two.”

“You know, mama, I think Mr. Cartwright kinda thinks of me that way. He said I remind him of his kid brother.” Lizzie looked at her mother with a warm smile. “I hope someday he finds what you and Pa have.” Emily reached over and hugged her child.

“I wish that for him too, Elizabeth. He’d be a lucky man.” Wiping the tears away, Emily Johnson went back to fixing their morning meal.

*****

Adam had put Elizabeth up behind him on Sport. The extra burden didn’t seem to make any difference to the big chestnut. She wrapped her arms around Adam’s waist but once she found her balance, Elizabeth discovered she didn’t have to hang on quite so tightly. The two friends chattered and laughed. Adam let Sport have his head and the young girl rejoiced in the

freedom and exhilaration she felt.

They found themselves out of site of the train when Adam brought Sport to a stop. “We better turn around before your parents think I’ve kidnapped you,” Adam said. Gunshots stopped their laughter. Adam pulled Elizabeth from behind him and deposited her behind a tall pine. “Stay here until I come for you!” He leaned forward and Sport jumped into a full gallop.

Stopping on the rim of the hill, Adam saw that the train was being attacked by what appeared to be at least a couple dozen men. The wagons were in disarray and no one seemed to be in charge. Then he saw why. Mr. and Mrs. Randsom sat together on the seat of their wagon, leaning into each other. Both were covered in blood and stared with unseeing eyes as the horses continued to move forward.

Each wagon was being targeted by a few of the marauders. Adam tried to shout above the melee but his words were lost in the sound of gunfire and screaming. He rode through the attackers to the Johnson wagon. Cliff Johnson lay on the ground, blood spilling from his chest, eyes open and staring into the sun. Emily lay over him, a red stain widening across her back. He stopped and sat motionless, his mind trying to take in what was happening. The enormity of it paralyzed him.

A bullet ripped the fabric of Adam’s shirt and creased the skin below as it plowed across his lower ribcage. The pain roused him from his stupor. He quickly looked at the chaos that surrounded him and knew there wasn’t anything he could do except try and save Elizabeth. He bent low over his saddle and headed back in her direction. Riding hard, he looked ahead and saw that the young girl was running to meet him. “No—Elizabeth no, get back,” he shouted. A single gunshot rang out and she crumpled to the ground.

Adam flew from Sport’s back and gathered the child in his arms. Her dark brown hair had fallen out of her braids and covered her young face. He pushed it back and whispered, “No, please. She’s just a little girl.” He shook her but there was no response. Realizing she was gone, he held her to his chest and rocked her gently. Tears blinded him as he sobbed, “Oh, Elizabeth, I’m sorry.”

“Now Cartwright, there’s no need to be sorry. Why you led them right to us.”

He knew the depraved laughter that followed could only be John Coopers.

Adam picked his head up and stared into the errie gray eyes of the man who had planned the attack. Carefully he placed Elizabeth down on the ground and stood to face the man. A scream that rose from somewhere deep within him echoed in the mountains and Adam surged forward. As he drew his gun, he felt a bullet enter his chest and he was thrown backward. His last conscious thought was to turn and cover Elizabeth’s body with his own.

*****

“Those gunshots are pretty far off Pa but there’s too many to be just some hunters,” Hoss said to his father.

Ben Cartwright’s face reflected his fear. “I know son. We’d better see what it is.”

Joe turned to his brother. “Do you think—-?”

Before he could finish, Hoss shook his head and said, “I don’t know Joe. Let’s not buy trouble before it comes.”

The three men rode hard toward the direction of the gunfire. The sounds had ceased long before they headed their horses up the small elevation. What they saw below them as they crested the hill, made them stop.

The younger Cartwright brothers could only stare in open-mouthed horror at the sight before them. They were only roused by the whispered words of their father, “please, please—no.”

The men rode slowly forward, closer to the massacre below. Wagons were spread out with teams still attached, patiently waiting for their next instructions. People and possessions lay scattered. They dismounted and made their way from wagon to wagon. They hoped that the results would be different at each new wagon they approached, but they were always the same. No one had survived.

Ben took a moment to look at his two sons. Both young faces were set in hard lines. He knew they were desperately fighting to keep their emotions from getting in the way. Lessons learned the hard way in a hard country.

Finally, Joe found his voice. “Pa,” he said, “who could have done this—and why?” His voice shook and his green eyes were clouded.

“I just don’t know son,” he answered, his voice a choked whisper. “Adam—where’s Adam?”

“Now hang on Pa,” Hoss said. “We don’t even know if he was still with ’em. This is almost off our property. Maybe he left already. “

“Yes, you’re right son. Maybe he did leave.” Ben wanted to believe what his middle son had said.

Joe moved away from the wagons. He needed to catch his breath and try to control the waves of nausea that threatened him. Looking toward the other side of the hill, he saw a black clad figure lying face down in the grass. He walked slowly toward the unmoving body; his heart telling him it could be anyone but his mind telling him what he already knew. He knelt down and placed a tentative hand on the soft black hair. He couldn’t bring himself to turn Adam over. Couldn’t check to see if there were any signs that would have told him his brother still lived. Afraid of what the answer might be. “Pa, Hoss, over here,” Joe shouted.

Lifting their heads toward the direction of Joe’s shout, Ben and Hoss ran to Adam’s side. It was Hoss who turned his brother over. Stunned by the sight of the young girl, the three men sat back on their heels and looked at each other with silent questions. Knowing the child was dead; Joe picked her up and gently placed her to the side. Ben roused and pulled open the blood-covered shirt. Adam’s chest rose and fell rapidly, dried blood matted in the dark hair. A crimson path slowly seeped from a wound high on the right side of his chest near his shoulder. Another wound had bled badly but the crease had now clotted.

“Joe, get a wagon ready for your brother. Hoss, go get water and my saddlebags,” ordered Ben. Adam was alive! That’s all he could see and for the moment that was enough. He couldn’t help the dead but he’d be damned if he’d give up on his boy. Hoss returned with the supplies along with a bedroll. He washed the wounds carefully, hoping not to start them bleeding again. It would be a long trip to Virginia City.

Joe went to a wagon and cleared a bed for is brother. He couldn’t help but feel he was intruding among the things of the newly dead. But his brother’s life depended on getting him to help so he’d do whatever he had to. When the back was ready, Joe asked the team to move up the hill. Hoss picked his brother up and walked to the back of the wagon. Adam remained silent and unmoving. He handed his brother up to his father and Joe. Carefully placing him on the blanket lined cot; they removed Adam’s boots and covered him with several quilts.

“I’ll get him to Virginia City as quickly as I can. It’s the closest place with a doctor. Tie four horses to the back so I can have a fresh team,” Ben said. “Make sure the water barrels are full.” He saw Joe and Hoss glance at each other. “If you have something to say, than say it,” Ben snapped.

“It’s just that we should be going with you Pa,” Hoss said. “We don’t think you should try to take Adam by yourself.”

“I brought my boy across this country by myself and I can get him to the doctor by myself,” Ben hissed. His fear for Adam’s life boiled over in anger.

He saw the surprise and hurt on both his younger sons’ faces and dropped his head in shame. Taking a deep breath, he said “Oh boys, I’m sorry. Forgive me for being a fool. I know you’re frightened for Adam. But these people deserve a decent burial and we can’t just walk away. Bury them. Free the horses and find me on the trial. We’ll send the law back when we get Adam to town.”

“Ok Pa, if that’s what you think is best,” Hoss answered.

“We’ll catch up as soon as we can,” Joe added. “We can bring Buck with us.”

Ben reached out and put a hand on each son’s shoulder. “Thank you, boys. I know what I’m asking you to do is very difficult but we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves if we just left them where they lay.” Ben climbed onto the seat and held the reins steady. He turned around to see Hoss and Joe speaking words of encouragement and love to their elder brother. He gave them a moment then moved off.

*****

Ben Cartwright moved as quickly as the horses and the terrain would allow. Turning around frequently, he watched as his eldest boy continued to stubbornly cling to life. Finally stopping to rest, he climbed into the back of the wagon. He saw that neither wound was bleeding. There was no hole in Adam’s back so he knew the bullet was still lodged in his son’s chest. He only hoped that it had missed his lung.

Ben dampened a cloth and held it to his son’s face. A small groan escaped Adam’s lips. Ben dampened the cloth again and held it to Adam’s mouth. He saw the dry lips part as if asking for more. He held the canteen close and let a trickle enter. Adam coughed and opened his eyes. “More,” he gasped. His father fed him small sips until Adam was too tired to continue. It appeared as if he was unconscious again. Ben gently lowered Adam’s head to the pillow and sat back. Leaning against the side of the wagon, he closed his eyes for a moment and thought how familiar it all looked.

Adam had been a hardy child who rarely succumbed to childhood illnesses. But those few times brought apprehension and worry to a single father whose life was wrapped around a quiet, dark-haired boy with deep-set eyes and an unending curiosity. That little boy was gone forever but he took solace in the fact that he still had the man by his side.

Ben’s reflections were interrupted by another frail cough followed by a sharp intake of breath. Adam’s eyes were open and he was struggling to get up. “No son, please. I know you’re in pain, but you have to lie still.” He tried to sooth his son’s weak efforts.

“Pa? How’d you get here?” Adam tossed his head, fighting the pain and hoping to clear his mind. “Wagon’s were attacked. It was Cooper—the train’s scout.” He struggled again, trying to control himself. Suddenly, he stopped moving. Ben watched as tears filled his son’s eyes. “Elizabeth,” he said in a voice that sounded desperate. He grabbed his father’s hand. “Oh Pa, she was just a child.” Adam let go of Ben’s hand and looked away. “I’m sorry Elizabeth,” he whispered. Tears fell from under closed lids than disappeared into the pillow.

Ben pulled the quilts back into place, carefully tucking in the edges. He moved to the front and once again started toward Virginia City.

*****

It was a day and a half later when Hoss and Joe finally caught up with their father and brother. Ben’s heart broke as he looked at their faces. Both of his sons were haggard and tired but more than that, they wore the look of men much older than their years. The horror of what they had seen and what they had to do had aged them. He could only hope that time would ease the memories.

Adam roused at less frequent intervals as the journey continued but long enough to take some water. He fought against his coverings as his fever increased. The Cartwright men took turns bathing him in the cold waters they found along the way.

By the time they reached their destination, the rising and falling of Adam’s chest could hardly be distinguished. He lay perfectly still, having stopped struggling against the heat of his fever. The matted black hair created a stark contrast against the colorless skin. Hoss held his brother close as if trying to hide him from the prying eyes of the gathering crowd. He carried him through the door and into Doctor Martin’s office. Ben and Joe walked through the crowd without saying a word and closed the door behind them.

*****

Too exhausted and worried to sleep, they waited. A concerned friend of the Cartwrights had informed the sheriff of their arrival. Roy entered the office, hat in hand. “I understand that Adam’s been hurt,” he said. “Ben, boys—I’m real sorry. You know what I think of Adam.”

“Thank you Roy,” Ben said, gesturing toward the door. “Paul hasn’t come out yet.”

“You probably don’t want to talk right now but if I need to help, then the sooner I know what’s going on, the better.” Roy twisted the brim of his hat as he spoke.

“I can only tell you what little I know.” Ben started telling the sheriff everything he knew, including Adam’s accusation of the wagon train’s scout.

Ben watched as the seasoned lawman blanched at his description of what they had seen.

“Thank you Ben and my prayers are with Adam. We’ll find ’em, boys, I promise.” Roy left to form a posse. He knew the men would have to be prepared to be away for several days.

After the sheriff left, an agitated Ben Cartwright started pacing the floor. Joe and Hoss looked at each other with worried eyes. “I sent him— and I told him to have a good time,” Ben hissed. “I sent my son into that hell.” His words were shot with anger—anger at what happened, anger at himself.

“Now wait a minute Pa, you had no idea what was gonna happen. Neither did Joe or I or, for that matter, neither did Adam. You can’t go blam’in yourself,” Hoss’ voice held a stern edge, something rare for the usually affable man.

The door to the surgery opened and Paul Martin joined them. “Sit down Ben and let me tell you what I know.” The doctor sat down heavily. “I’ve gotten the bullet out of his chest and it did not hit his lung,” the doctor said.

“Oh, thank God,” Ben said, relief evident in his voice.

“But, he is extremely weak from the entire ordeal and the infection and blood loss.” The doctor stopped for a moment and removed his glasses. “Ben, short-term we have to worry about the infection. If we can get him through that than we’ll worry about the other.”

It was Joe who was the quickest. “What other?” he said.

Paul frowned than continued. “There has been a great deal of muscle damage to his right shoulder. I know Adam is right-handed so we will just have to wait and see what kind of functioning he gets back.” The doctor got up and said, “Let’s just worry about now. You can come on in.”

*****

Ben sent his other two sons to the hotel to get something to eat and rest. They were reluctant to leave both their father and brother, but Ben had insisted and not wanting to upset him any further, Hoss and Joe did as they were asked.

Toward morning, Adam regained consciousness. Although fevered and weak, he was aware of his surroundings and grateful for his father’s presence. Ben gave him small sips of water and washed away the sweat that formed across his trembling body.

Adam wanted to cry out from the memories of what he had seen. He wanted to tell his father that he had been powerless to stop the massacre. But most of all, his heart wept for the little girl who would never know her first dance. But no words would come and he slipped back into the welcome oblivion of sleep.

Day turned to night and back to day again. Adam started to be awake more frequently. He was now assailed by the pain in his chest and shoulder. Paul had bandaged the wound tightly and strapped his right arm close to his body.

He forced himself to drink the broth and tea that his father and Paul brought to him. Pleased with Adam’s progress, Ben sent Hoss and Joe back to the Ponderosa to manage things in his absence. He would stay with his son until he could bring him home.

Days passed and the fever began to subside, as did the pain. It changed from a relentless torment to a deep, ever-present ache. Sitting on the side of the bed progressed to standing and than to sitting up in a chair. Adam felt dirty and knew the sour smell he detected was his own. Ben was at the hotel, catching up on some much-needed sleep as Adam sat quietly in a chair by the window. “Well, you’re looking better,” Paul Martin greeted him as he walked through the door. “Anything I can get you,” he asked?

Adam looked up and snorted a weak laugh. “As a matter of fact, how about a nice, hot bath?”

“I don’t see why not!” Paul Martin smiled, knowing he had caught Adam off guard.

Adam cocked his head and answered, “Aren’t you afraid I might drown?”

“Oh, I don’t think so; besides you’ll need help getting in and out of the tub. Your father can help you when he gets back,” Paul said.

Paul watched as Adam made a face and let out a long breath. “What’s wrong? I’m sure this won’t be the first time your father has given you a bath.” Adam looked even more uncomfortable.

A mischievous grin spread across Dr. Martin’s face. “Well, I could get one of the girls from Miss Lil’s, if you’d be more comfortable,” he said.

“Ask for Lizette,” was Adam’s only reply.

Now it was Paul’s turn to be caught off guard. “Ahh, are you serious Adam or is this just another example of your infamous dry wit?” Adam just stared at him with an unchanging expression. “Yes, well those arrangements can be made,” Paul stammered, “but remember, we’re only talking about a bath!”

“No argument from me. Afraid I couldn’t manage much more anyway.” A slow smile spread across Adam’s face.

Paul Martin would remember much later, that this was the only time he had seen Adam Cartwright smile since he had been brought back home.

*****

Home—father and son both held silent thoughts as they drove up to the front of the house. For Ben it was having his family back together under one roof with his oldest in one piece, more or less. A home that he hoped would see them moving forward once more, building and continuing their dream.

But for Adam, it was different. Once he came out of the fever and knew he would survive, his total concentration was on getting well. He had been a model patient. Doing what he was told, when he was told. He exhibited no more than the normal amount of anger and sadness at what had happened. But down deep, in a place not even he knew existed, burned a raw need for vengeance. Revenge for the Randsoms and the Johnsons and all the other people who had their lives snuffed out by greed and inhumanity. And for Elizabeth, who never had a chance to start her dream. His body wasn’t ready yet so he would continue the charade with his family, obedient son and brother.

Ben smiled at his son as he helped him down from the buggy. “It’s good to have you home son,” he said

“It’s good to be home,” Adam replied, mimicking his father’s smile.

*****

Independent now, Adam spent his days working to strengthen his damaged shoulder. When his father told him he was doing too much, he quietly concurred and stopped. He just waited until he was by himself, than started to work on his arm again.

“Thought Pa said to take it easy on your arm,” Hoss said as he entered the barn and saw his brother lifting and releasing a bucket half filled with water.

Startled, Adam almost lost his grip. “You got a reason to be sneaking up on a man?” Quickly trying to disguise his anger, he laughed and said,” Sometimes what Pa doesn’t know…”

“No more Adam,” Hoss said. “I been patient with you since you came home. I’ve watched you pull the wool over Pa’s eyes but I can excuse him because he’s just so grateful that you’re still alive, he can’t see nothing else. And Joe, well Joe has always taken you at face value. I think he’s afraid if he scratches too deep, he may see too much of himself. But I know better and I just been wait’in for you to explode.” He stopped to catch his breath. “Now talk to me, older brother!”

“Really I don’t know—,” Adam started.

“Stop it and tell me before whatever it is eats yer insides up!” Hoss was angry now.

Adam turned away. He put the bucket down and slowly turned back. The man who now faced his younger brother was a completely different person than the one Hoss had just been talking to. The attitude of nonchalance and acquiescence had totally disappeared. His face was set in a hard facade of uncompromising lines. Hoss had seen his older brother pushed to anger before but what he saw now alarmed him. Adam’s eyes weren’t angry, they were empty.

“All right brother,” he said in a cold, quiet voice. “You want to know, than I’ll tell you. If Roy Coffee and the posse do not find those men then I will hunt them down and I will kill them myself.”

Stunned by the quiet vehemence of his brother’s words, Hoss said,” Adam, you don’t mean that. I know you and that ain’t you talk’in.”

“You weren’t there!” Adam shouted. Regaining his icy composure, he continued. “This was a planned attack by a pack of hunting animals. They wanted everybody dead so there would be no witnesses. They murdered men, women and children with their only motive being greed.” Eyes that were empty before now burned bright with hatred.

“We hunt and kill animals that attack our cattle,” Adam went on, “and we feel justified in doing so. They, at least, are hunting for food, for the survival of their species. These vermin hunt for their own avarice. They deserve to die much more than the animals that prey on our herds.” Something in his younger brother’s eyes made him hesitate but only for a moment. “Either the law hunts them down or I will.” Adam turned away from Hoss and started to walk from the barn. His brother’s words stopped him.

“Than you’ll be kill’in yerself Adam because it goes against everything you’ve ever stood for.” There was no pleading in Hoss’ voice.

Adam did not turn around nor did he reply. His body stiffened at Hoss’ words, but after a moment’s hesitation, he continued to walk toward the house.

*****

The huge fireplace that dominated the first floor of the Cartwright ranch house kept the cool evenings of late spring at bay. Hoss poked at the fire while his elder brother sat quietly reading. Heated words floated in from the kitchen on raised voices. Both men did their best to ignore the commotion but when their father entered the room, they stopped what they were doing and looked up. “Where the devil is that boy? If we wait much longer, Hop Sing will throw our dinner to the pigs!” Ben waited for a response from either son. “Well, don’t either one of you know where he is?” His voice rang with frustration.

The front door opened with a rush. “Pa, I just came from town and—-,” Joe started to say but Ben interrupted.

“Joseph, is it too much to ask that all my sons be on time for dinner?” Ben asked. His anger was evident.

“Wait Pa, let me tell you what—,” Joe tried to respond.

Adam rose from his chair and walked toward his father. “Give the kid a chance Pa. At least let him try to explain.” Adam favored Joe with a small smile as he passed and headed to the dining room table. Hoss joined him.

Ben took a deep breath and gave in. “Could we at least hear your news while starting dinner?” Sitting with his other two sons, he said, “Joseph, go wash up please.”

Ben mumbled to himself while Hop Sing placed the food on the table. Hoss busied himself with his napkin while Adam found the need to adjust his right arm in the sling.

Joe came in and sat with his family. “What I was trying to tell you is that Roy and the posse are back.” His news was met with silence. Ben knew it would bring up the whole memory for Adam again, just when he thought his son was doing so well.

“They got ’em, Adam. They got the men who killed those folks. I guess it was some shootout by what they were saying.” Joe’s youthful enthusiasm was evident in his excited voice. “A couple of Roy’s men got shot up some, but nothin’ too bad I guess.” He waited for his brother’s reaction, expecting him to be glad about the news.

Hoss glanced across the table at his older brother. Adam was perfectly still. “Did they get them all?” he finally asked.

“I guess so. Anyway, it’s over now Adam. You can forget about it,” Joe said.

Adam rose from his seat and placed his napkin on the table. “You think so?” he said, just loud enough to be heard and left the table. His family watched as he slowly climbed the stairs, than heard the sound of his bedroom door closing.

Ben let out a deep sigh and sat back. “Did I say something wrong?” Joe asked.

“No son, you didn’t say anything wrong. It’s just that the posse returning has brought it all up again. Adam has handled this so well, I guess I expected he would just take it in stride like he always does.”

Hoss couldn’t hold back any longer. “No Pa, he ain’t. Adam ain’t handled it well at all but you just couldn’t see it.” There was no anger in his voice only regret.

Ben bristled at the comment. He took pride in his relationships with his sons and he knew that if Adam were troubled, he’d have seen it. “What are you talking about, Hoss?”

“I don’t mean no disrespect, Pa. It’s just that you was so darned grateful to have him alive, you couldn’t see how much he’s hurt’in inside, how angry he is. I ain’t blamin’ you, Pa. He kept it hidden real good.” Hoss stopped and looked toward Joe. He couldn’t stand the bewildered look in his father’s eyes. “Nobody’s better than Adam at keeping his feelings secret.”

Joe was shocked by his brother’s words. “Hoss, you gotta be wrong. Adam’s been angry but no more than you’d expect after what he’s been through. After all, he’s our levelheaded brother, remember, the one who thinks things through, the one with all the common sense?” Joe laughed.

“What are you trying to tell us Hoss?” Ben asked, ignoring Joe.

A deep baritone cut into the conversation. “What he’s trying to tell you is that if the posse hasn’t finished the job than I will.” Adam had emerged from his room and was standing at the bottom of the stairs. He was fully dressed with his damaged arm no longer in the sling. The red or gray shirts he had favored while he was healing had been replaced with black. He moved toward the credenza with smooth, confident steps. Gone was the man who just this morning was continuing to recuperate from a gunshot wound that could have taken his life. In his place stood a man whose purpose and intent were clear.

Ben rose and went to confront his son. “I don’t understand Adam. What are you saying? Where do you think you are going?”

Adam pulled his gunbelt from the hook. The weight of it made him wince in pain but he continued to buckle it on and tie it down. He reached for his coat. “Pa did you really think I could just stand by and let this go?” He stopped for a moment. “John Cooper is all that is evil in men. He hunts, he kills, he takes— and he gives no thought to his victims. Those were innocent people with dreams for the future just like the rest of us and he destroyed their dreams, just like he destroyed them.” He put on his coat and reached for his bedroll and rifle. “I’ll go to Roy. If Cooper is dead, I’ll be home. If he isn’t, I’ll be home when he is.” He turned and reached for the door handle.

“Adam!” Ben’s voice was deep and steady. “If you hunt him down and kill him, you’ll destroy yourself as well.”

Adam stopped for a moment but didn’t turn around. “Goodbye Pa,” he said.

He walked through the door, leaving it open.

*****

Adam Cartwright was tired when he reached Virginia City. There was no use trying to see Roy tonight. He was sure the old lawman must be exhausted and surely was sleeping by this time. He headed for the hotel.

After checking in and listening politely to the local gossip offered by the desk clerk, Adam excused himself and went to his room. Sleep was elusive and he rose to stand near the open window. Music from the saloons melded and carried into the night while a soft, warm breeze ruffled the lace curtains and blew across his naked flesh. Unconsciously, he rubbed the still healing wound in his right shoulder.

Adam couldn’t help but think about what his father and brother had said to him. Was he destroying himself? Maybe, he thought, but I can’t let it go. I can’t forgive and I can’t forget—. He became restless and agitated and knew there would be no sleep. He just wanted some peace.

He stopped pacing, a small smile curving his lips. Lizette! A man could get lost in the sweet comfort of her body. There was no right and no wrong, no one making judgements. Just a place where he could lose himself and not have to think about anything other than pleasing her and being pleased. He dressed and made his way into the night.

*****

“Don’t you worry, Pa; me and Little Joe’ll find him,” Hoss said as he finished saddling Chubb. The morning had dawned clear and bright. It had been decided at breakfast that Hoss and Joe would go after their brother, hoping to keep him from killing John Cooper or being killed. Hoss knew that Adam might not welcome them but he wouldn’t stop them either.

Already mounted, Hoss leaned over and shook hands with his father. Joe was still on the ground and reached out his hand for the same. But instead of the handshake Joe expected, he found himself being pulled into his father’s embrace. “Take care of yourself, boy.” Ben’s voice held a tremor.

“Come on Joe. Let’s get go’in,” Hoss said as he reined his horse toward the trail to town.

The brother’s were lost in their own thoughts for the first part of the trip. It was Joe who spoke first. “I didn’t see any of this coming Hoss. He was working hard to get his shoulder back into shape. He seemed fine.” Joe shook his head in frustration.

“Joe— Adam’s always been hard to read. I use to think he did it on purpose but I figured out that ain’t true. Somehow, he’s put together that everybody else’s troubles come first. How many times have you and I gone to him with a problem? Hell, even Pa does.”

“Well that’s just stupid Hoss. What makes his problems any less important than anyone else’s? Oh no, Mr. Perfect just bottles everything up until it explodes, like now.” Joe’s anger was increasing as he spoke.

“I think you should say that right to him. Just as soon as ya see him, little brother, and I’ll hold your coat.” Hoss laughed. Joe joined in.

They decided to go to the hotel first. Maybe Adam was still there. When they found out that he hadn’t come down yet, they decided to go see Roy. It was still early and not many people were on the street. Out of the corner of his eye, Hoss saw a familiar figure walking toward them. “Hey Joe, here comes Adam now. What was that you wanted to say to him?” his older brother asked, a grin appearing on his round face.

“Now what are you two doing here so early in the morning?” Adam asked, “as if I didn’t know who sent you.”

“Hey Adam, weren’t you coming from over by Miss Lil’s?” Joe questioned his older brother. Adam ignored him.

“You know Pa wasn’t gonna let you ride out alone. Joe and me volunteered,” Hoss said. He kept his tone even, trying to gauge his brother’s mood this morning.

“If I’d known you were coming to town for recreation last night, I’d have come with you.”Joe’s eyes sparkled with the mischief of his youth. Adam continued to disregard his younger brother.

Adam took a deep breath, than looked at Hoss and smiled. He placed a hand on Hoss’ shoulder and said, “thank you. I’ll be glad for the company.”

Joe was getting upset; he didn’t like being ignored. He took a step closer to Adam and said, “Well, did you?”

Finally, Adam turn to Joe and in an exasperated tone he replied, “Did I what Joe?”

“You know, go to Miss Lil’s?” Joe continued to badger for an answer. Hoss just leaned against a post and shook his head.

“And why is this information important to you?” came the laconic response from the eldest Cartwright son. Adam turned to Hoss and said, “Come on. Let’s go get some coffee, I’m tired this morning.”

The three brothers started to walk toward the café. Joe’s high-pitched giggle cut through the early morning silence. “I’ll bet you are brother,” he said.

Before Adam could respond, Hoss grabbed Joe around the neck with his bulging forearm, bent him forward and rubbed the curly locks on the top of his head with his free hand. “Ya know boy, sometimes I think yer just too dumb to live.” Adam and Hoss both laughed while Joe struggled and shouted something about two against one.

*****

The lines around Roy Coffee’s eyes were drawn deep and he moved stiffly as he sat down. “Good morn’in boys” he said. “Can’t say I’m surprised ta see you, Adam, but I didn’t expect all three of ya.”

“Tell us what happened, Roy.” Adam asked.

The sheriff had been on many posses during his long career. This was one of the bloodiest. Yet given the horrors these men had committed, he had no trouble sleeping. “We tracked them into the mountains. They didn’t even try to hide their trail. I’m sure they figured there were no survivors.” He stopped for a moment and looked at Adam. “I’m sorry, son. This must be hard on you,” he said.

“Go on,” Adam urged in a voice that betrayed nothing.

Roy let out a sigh and continued. “Well, to make a long story short, we surrounded them and they decided to fight it out. They was all killed but one and he’s in a cell right now.”

Without a word, Adam started toward the cells at the back of the office. He needed to know who had survived but more importantly; he needed to know if John Cooper was dead.

“Now wait a minute Adam. I know how you must be feelin’ but he’s still a prisoner in my jail and I’ll tolerate no nonsense.” The aging sheriff had known Adam Cartwright since his youth. He had watched him grow into a man of inner strength and character. But there was something in his eyes now, or maybe something was missing; Roy wasn’t sure. Whatever it was, Roy knew that Adam wanted not justice but revenge and he couldn’t let that happen, to his prisoner or to this young man.

“I just want to know who it is, Roy. I want to know if Cooper is dead,” Adam said, trying to control what he was feeling.

“Adam, the man in there is John Cooper’s brother, Luke. The two of them planned the whole thing. From the time his older brother signed on as scout for that train in Carson City, they knew what they was gonna do. Now this man is gonna stand trail and most likely he’ll be hanged for what he did.” Roy’s voice was strong and steady with a tone saying he would brook no trouble from anyone.

As if strangling on his own words, Adam asked, “And his brother?”

Roy didn’t want to tell Adam that John Cooper had escaped. “We lost him in the fight. But that don’t mean we’ve given up. His name and description will be wired to every lawman within 500 miles by tonight,” Roy said.

Still trying to control his anger, Adam said, “let me see him.”

“You can see him, but from outside the cell. Hand me your gun,” Roy said

“What’s wrong Roy, think I’d hurt him?” Adam took off his sidearm and handed it to Joe.

“No son, I don’t but I’m not changin the rules for anyone.” Roy turned and went through the outer doors with Adam following.

Luke Cooper got up from the cot and walked to the bars. He looked hard at Adam, than lost the sneer that had been on his face. “It can’t be you!” He involuntarily backed up. “I saw my brother put a bullet in you. I saw you fall.”

“Unfortunately for you, I got up,” Adam answered back. “We may not have your brother but we have you and it won’t take a jury long to find you guilty. Not after I tell them what happened.” Adam’s eyes narrowed and his face wore a cruel smile. “I’ve never watched a hanging, Mr. Cooper, but I’ll make an exception for yours.” He paused for a moment. “Too bad you’re taking all the blame. After all, it was your brother who led that train into a trap. You were just stupid enough to go along with it.”

Adam had struck a cord of defiance in the man. “I won’t hang Cartwright. You just wait and see. John won’t let that happen.”

“Don’t be a fool! Your brother left you, didn’t he?” Adam said. His tone mocked the younger Cooper brother. “Do you really think he’s going to ride into town and break you out of jail? Why should he?”

Luke Cooper lunged into the bars, both arms extended. He wanted to get his hands around Adam Cartwright’s throat and make him shut up. Make him stop doubting his brother. “He’ll kill you Cartwright. You’ll see—when John gets here, he’ll kill you!”

“I highly doubt that Mr. Cooper. He already tried and failed.” Adam turned abruptly and left Cooper to rave by himself.

Adam didn’t stop to say anything to his brothers or the sheriff. He needed to be outside in the cool air where he could breathe again. The cold sweat that had broken out chilled him to his bones. He stood around the corner from the office, bent over, hands on his knees, trying to fight the pictures that flooded his mind. A manic laugh rang in his head. He had been able to push away his thoughts and feelings all the time he was recuperating. He was so sure he could control his emotions, examine them, and then put them neatly away. Now he felt as if he was falling apart—and he was frightened.

The sweat began to evaporate and his chest no longer heaved for air. Adam stood up but found himself exhausted and weak. He leaned his back against the side of the building and closed his eyes. Slowly he opened them and found his two brothers standing like silent sentinels guarding him against whatever was hurting him.

“Come on Adam. Let us take you home,” Hoss said. “You haven’t slept and your shoulder still ain’t right.”

“Hoss is right—come home with us,” Joe added. He reached a hand out to his still unsteady brother and Adam took it.

*****

“I think he’ll just sleep for awhile Pa,” Hoss explained. “When Joe and I found him, he was all done in.” The two younger Cartwright brothers had explained what had happened at the jail.

“He had to go!” Ben roared. “He knew his shoulder wasn’t healed and he certainly wasn’t ready to spend a sleepless night in some hotel room in town.” Ben’s didn’t know if he was angrier with his son or the whole situation that was causing Adam such pain. “That boy has the hardest head of any person I’ve ever known!”

Joe refused to meet Hoss’ eyes. He knew they were both thinking the same thing. If Ben Cartwright knew that his injured son had sought comfort for the night in the arms of a lady of the evening, the ensuing thunder might shake the house down. Yup, he thought, some things were just better left unsaid. He turned his back to his father and announced that he was going to the barn, suggesting that Hoss might join him. As they left the house, Hoss looked relieved and mouthed a silent “thank you” to Joe.

Ben spent the rest of the afternoon at his desk, glancing up the stairway every time his eldest entered his thoughts. After several hours, he felt justified in checking on him. He quietly entered Adam’s room and found that he was still sleeping. Ben walked to the side of the bed, reached out a hand and explored for any sign’s of fever.

Adam opened his eyes and a smile slowly slid onto his face. “Wondered how long it would take you to come up,” he said.

“Father’s prerogative,” Ben answered back. He pulled a chair up next to the bed. “You could have hurt yourself.” There was no anger, no recrimination; just concern in Ben’s voice.

“I guess but it doesn’t seem to be very important when you look at the bigger picture, does it?” Adam sounded weary. He put his forearm over his eyes.

“What is it that you want Adam? What do you want to happen?” Ben asked.

“I want the Cooper brothers to pay for what they did to all those people. I want them to die for ending that little girl’s life before it started.” Just like his father’s, his voice held no anger.

“Certainly a jury will find Luke Cooper guilty and he’ll hang for his crimes,” Ben said. “And the law will find John Cooper.”

Adam took his arm away from his eyes and gave his father skeptical look.

“Can you promise me that?” he asked.

“No Adam, I can’t. But I believe it will and you always felt that way too.”

Ben waited for his son to respond.

“It’s different this time Pa!” Adam’s tone mirrored his anguish. “They made me a part of it. I can still see it and hear it and smell the gun smoke and the blood.” Adam’s voice trailed off. He covered his eyes again and a fine tremor shook his body.

Ben’s heart broke. And he cursed the man who condemned his son to live with the horror of his memories. He wanted to hold his boy as he had done when he was little. Instead, he closed his eyes and prayed for God to ease his son’s burden.

*****

Ben knew nothing would change this morning. It had been the same for almost two weeks now. Adam rode to Virginia City every morning to attend the trail of Luke Cooper. Every afternoon, he came home and took up his chores, often working late into the night. He slept little, ate less and became more withdrawn as the days passed.

Hoss, Joe and Ben had been unable to get him to talk much about the trail or anything else for that matter. Even Hop Sing, who often found ways around Adam’s moods, had little success with him. Finally, Ben’s constant worry turned to irritation.

It was long past sunset when Adam returned from one of the timber camps. Ben heard him ride in and went to the barn to meet him. He watched silently for a moment.

Adam untacked his horse and gave him some sweet hay to munch on while he brushed the copper colored hide. He murmured soothing words to his tired mount. Turning to reach for Sport’s grain, he was startled when he saw his father framed in the doorway. “I didn’t hear you come in,” he said.

“Sorry son, I didn’t mean to scare you.” Ben walked to the front of the horse’s stall, reaching out to scratch the long graceful neck. “How old is Sport now?”

“We’ve been together for eight years now,” Adam answered, rubbing Sport’s belly affectionately. “This is the prime of his life.”

“Yours too, son. I hate to see you waste it,” Ben said.

A spark of anger entered Adam’s voice. “Just what does that mean?” he asked.

Ben’s tone matched his son’s. “This whole incident has taken over your life. When does it end—when Cooper hangs, when his brother is caught? Or will it never end?” Ben stopped and tried to steady his voice. “Adam, isn’t your life more important than revenge for something you couldn’t prevent, something you couldn’t stop?” Ben paused. “Is it the little girl? Do you think you somehow owe this to her?”

Ben watched as his son’s face lost the look of anger and defiance. Sorrow and confusion replaced it. “I don’t know, Pa. I didn’t know her very long but she had a spirit, a joy for life.” Ben waited—afraid to interrupt. “He shot her down with no thought other than she could be a witness to what he had done.” Unbidden tears started as Adam emptied himself. “I had her in a safe place but she must have been frightened and she ran to meet me. I didn’t know Cooper was behind me. I watched her fall and when I got to her, it was too late.” He took a shuttering breath and looked at his father with pleading eyes. “Oh Pa, I was too late.”

Ben stepped forward and placed a hand on his son’s trembling shoulder. “Let it go, Adam. You won’t ever forget it but you have to let it go.” They stood that way for a long time.

*****

The four Cartwrights sat at the breakfast table talking about the plans for the day. An unspoken question hung in the air. They were all aware that tomorrow Luke Cooper would be hanged. No one wanted to ask or maybe no one wanted to hear the answer. Adam seemed to be more like his old self in the last few days and everyone wanted it to continue.

Adam saw the quick glances between his brothers and father. He knew what they were thinking and he also knew of their concern for him. He wouldn’t make them wait any longer. Looking over the top of his coffee cup, he said, “the answer to your question is no.”

Joe tried his best innocent look on his big brother but Adam just raised an eyebrow. Joe quickly closed his open mouth. “No, I’m not going to Luke Cooper’s hanging. I don’t need to,” he said.

Ben smiled at him and Adam saw the relief in his father’s eyes. He was glad.

His father had been through enough in his life; he didn’t need to add to those burdens. “I’m going out to the south pasture to check on the herd today, then I’ll join you at the branding pits,” he said.

“Want some company?” Hoss asked, stabbing at the last pancake.

Adam knew the reason behind the offer but declined. “Thanks, but it doesn’t take two for that job and besides, baby brother here might get lonesome without you.” Hoss just laughed while Joe made a face.

*****

Adam felt good. His body had healed and his mind was learning to accept even if he would never understand. Sport moved out quickly than settled into a comfortable, ground-covering canter. Arriving on top of a small knoll, he watched as the herd grazed contently on the plentiful grass. He urged Sport toward the creek that cut through this section of the ranch. The clear water was pushed onward by a swift current.

Adam dismounted and let Sport drop his head to drink his fill. He took off his hat and was about to drop to his knees to quench his own thirst, when he heard the ominous sound of a gun being cocked. He froze in place with his hands close to his sides.

“You die hard, fancy mouth.” The laugh that rang out was the same and Adam’s heart immediately jumped in his chest. He slowly turned around.

John Cooper stood before him with a gun, once again, aimed at his chest.

Recovering himself, Adam said, “Yeah, I told your brother you didn’t do too well the first time.”

The sneer left Cooper’s face and he took a menacing step toward his victim, than stopped. “Well, I won’t have that problem this time Cartwright. See they’re gonna give me Luke for you. They wouldn’t dare try anything with a precious Cartwright life at stake. When I get Luke, they get you. Only they get you back with a little extra piece of lead.” The cruel laugh rang out once again and Adam had no doubt that Cooper would kill him as soon as he had his brother.

“Do you really think they’ll let that piece of human garbage out of jail? The man hangs tomorrow.” Adam’s eyes darken as his pupil’s dilated. He could feel his muscles tense and his heart rate increase. He knew his only chance was to end this now. He had to push Cooper into a mistake. “Actually, I hadn’t planned on attending, but since you’re here, maybe we’ll get two for one.”

“Shut up and get rid of that gun—carefully,” Cooper snapped back.

Adam untied the leather that rode easily around his thigh. He looked at Cooper and gave him a sardonic smile. “Just how does this brilliant plan of yours work or haven’t you thought that far yet?” He finished unbuckling his gunbelt and let it drop.

Cooper was beginning to get rattled under Adam’s continued torment. “Cartwright, I told you to shut up!” He waved his gun in an imaginary line, back and forth across Adam’s body. “Git over there by them trees.” As Adam moved toward the line of willows that grew next to the stream, Cooper picked up the discarded belt and walked to Sport. He yanked the big chestnut’s head up. Adam started to lunge at the man than stopped short when Cooper aimed his gun once again. “Well, well Cartwright. Just can’t stand to see anything hurt— that its fancy mouth?” Cooper raised his gun and pointed it at Sport’s head.

“Don’t do it, Cooper.” Adam’s voice was soft, belying a deadly intent.

Adam saw the madness as it shown out of Cooper’s eyes. “I could put him down with one bullet,” he said. Adam took a step in Cooper’s direction. “You know, just like I did that kid you were trying to save.”

*****

“How we gonna explain this to Pa and Adam?” Hoss asked as he and Joe headed toward the South pasture.

Joe grinned and said, “Oh, it’ll be easy explaining it to Pa. Remember, we talked about not letting Adam go off on his own so much. Especially if we think he’s troubled about something. Sorta be there whether he likes it or not.” Hoss gave his brother a confused expression “Look, we both know Adam is thinking about the hanging tomorrow. We just won’t let him be alone to brood about it. Pa’ll be glad we came out here!”

“That’s fine Joe but just what do you plan on sayin to brother Adam?” Hoss asked. A note of skepticism rang in his voice.

Joe lost his grin. “Well, that may be a little harder” he admitted.

They both pulled up when the first shot rang out.

*****

Adam lunged forward, heedless of Cooper’s gun. Just before the gunman could pull the trigger, Adam pushed the weapon out of the way. The bullet’s path just missed penetrating his skull. The two men wrestled for control, each fueled by his own demons. Two more shots rang out as Hoss and Joe came into the meadow. Riding hard, the two younger Cartwright men watched in terror as their older brother dropped to the ground, next to the body of a man they didn’t know.

Joe was first down and running to Adam’s side. He found his older brother struggling up to get up. Joe put his hand on Adam’s back and said in a voice laced with apprehension,” it’s me—Joe. You alright?” Hoss knelt down by Adam’s other side.

It took a minute before Adam’s mind let him understand what had happened. “Yeah, I’m alright, but he’s not.” He nodded toward Cooper’s body.

“Who is he Adam?” Hoss asked as he turned the body face-up.

“It’s John Cooper,” he replied. With Joe’s help, he was on his feet again. “His plan was to exchange me for his brother. I couldn’t let that happen.”

Adam stared down at the man who had left only death and destruction in his path. The man who could have turned him into a killer if it had not been for the persistent love of his family. In a soft, questioning voice he said, “He looks smaller than I remember.” He shook his head to break the thought. “Let’s go,” he said. “We’re closer to the ranch. We’ll take him there, tell Pa what happened then take him to the sheriff.”

The three men packed the body of John Cooper across his saddle than mounted up. Adam leaned forward and stroked Sport’s neck, murmuring words that only the two of them heard. Joe and Hoss looked at each other, both wondering what prompted the uncharacteristic open display of affection from their brother.

Riding toward home, Adam turned in his saddle and said to Hoss, “by the way, what brought you two out here in the first place? I thought we were meeting at the branding pits.”

Hoss swallowed hard and looked at his older brother. “Oh well, Joe wants to explain that to you Adam.” He quickly looked away.

Sensing something was coming; Adam slowly twisted his body to face his youngest brother. With unblinking eyes, he asked, “you have something you want to say to me, Joseph?”

“Me, Adam? Well not really.” His voice cracked and a high pitched squeak ended his sentence. Adam and Hoss laughed.

Adam urged Sport forward and said, “Come on, boys; let’s go home.”

***The End***

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