Word Count: 8700
The only light in the room came from the dwindling fire and the oil lamp on the table next to his chair. The flicker of the flaming wick cast ever-changing shadows on the wall. Adam Cartwright closed his book and looked into the dying fire. It had been a long day for all the Cartwright men. His father and two brothers had decided to make it an early night and retired soon after dinner.
Lord, dinner—what a disaster! With Hop Sing off visiting relatives for two weeks, they had been left to their own devices, such as they were. None of them had ever developed an aptitude for cooking other then when they were on the trail. And only then because it was a necessity. A meal at the International House was sounding better and better all the time.
Adam arched his back and stretched out the work-worn muscles that had bunched into tight knots. Morning would come earlier then he wanted. The end of the story would just have to wait. He rose and built up the fire for the night. It was early spring and the nights were still chilly. He returned to the table next to his chair, picked up the lamp and started for the stairs. He stopped as his foot hit the first step, thinking he heard a sound that didn’t belong to the night. It seemed to be coming from the kitchen. He turned and walked to the sideboard where his gun hung with the rest of his family’s. He slipped the Colt from its holster. Carefully, he put the lamp down on the credenza and, after flattening himself against the wall, moved quietly toward the kitchen. If there is someone in the house, he thought, at least I’ll have the advantage of surprise.
Just as he entered the kitchen, the clouds that covered the moon parted, if only for a few seconds. The light coming through the window was enough for him to see an intruder next to the cook stove. Adam cocked the hammer of the Colt and said, “Hold it right there. Don’t even breath.” He took a match from his pocket and lit the lamp on the table. The soft light shown on a dirty, ragged youth who seemed to be seventeen at the most. He held an old weapon in his hand. “Put it on the table, boy, slowly and carefully.”
The intruder did as he was told and slid the gun across the table. Adam turned up the lamp and lowered his gun. He walked around the table toward the boy, his back to the outside door.
“Want to tell me what this is all about?” Adam kept his voice calm, hoping not to appear too threatening. The boy looked scared and was visibly shaking. Just as the young man started to respond, Adam saw his eyes glance toward the kitchen door. In one movement, Adam turned and raised his gun but before he could fire, the stock of a rifle hit him in the side, driving him to his knees. His gun bounced twice on the wide floorboards before coming to rest.
Trying to breathe through the pain, the only thing he saw was a pair of dirty, worn boots on the floor in front of him. Someone grabbed his hair and pulled his head up. An all too familiar face came into focus. “Hassett,” Adam pushed the name out. “What do you want?”
“I want money, Cartwright. What else is there?” the intruder responded.
Adam shook his head free. “Using boys as accomplices now?” he asked. The comment earned him a backhand that snapped his head to the side.
“Never mind that, smart mouth. Just get up and walk to the yer old man’s safe.” Adam stared at Jeremiah Hassett. “Yeah I remember just where it is. And I remember him payin` me off after he fired me for no reason.”
“My father fired you because you were drunk on the job and almost burned down a barn full of animals,” Adam shot back. “You only have yourself to blame.”
“Shut up and start walking.” Hassett picked up the lamp and motioned for Adam to move out of the kitchen. “You kid, stay behind me.”
The trio walked slowly to Ben’s office. Hassett put the light on top of the safe. “Now open it.” Adam’s captors disappeared into the shadows as they backed up against the wall. He knelt down swallowing a groan of pain from his damaged side. In the dim light, he started to dial in the combination.
The boy was frightened and kept shifting his weight from foot to foot. He wished desperately that he hadn’t come with his uncle tonight but his fear of the man overrode any common sense. This time when he moved, he hit Marie’s clock and the old grandfather responded by chiming out of rhythm and time.
Adam turned toward the sound but suddenly felt Hassett’s gun against is temple. “Just get back to what you was doin’, Cartwright,” he growled. “And you boy, you do that again and I’ll use you for wolf bait.”
Ben roused from the light sleep that had just overtaken him. He knew he’d heard a sound that didn’t belong but it took him some time before his foggy mind let him recognize it. It was the clock—Marie’s clock. How had that happened? A sudden icy fear gripped him and he felt the tingle of sweat forming on his face and hands. Slowly, Ben got up and reached for the gun he kept in the top drawer of his dresser. He had no trouble finding his way to the top of the stairs.
Ben’s eyes focused on the dim light that sat on the top of the safe. A dark clad figure knelt hunched in front of it. He raised his gun and called out. “You there, stand up and turn around.” He started down the stairs. The intruders still hid in the shadows.
His father’s voice caused Adam to freeze where he was. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hassett turn his gun toward his advancing father. Adam leapt at the older man. The gun discharged harmlessly into the air.
Ben saw the dark figure at the safe lunge and heard the discharge of a revolver. He dove toward the floor and returned fire. A second shot sounded within seconds of the first.
Adam’s back arched as the bullet struck him. His hands slowly slid away from Hassett’s shirt and he slipped to the floor. He watched as the light from the lamp seemed to recede into the distance and it occurred to him that he was suddenly cold. Hadn’t he remembered to build up the fire? The pain intensified and he found it harder to bring in the air that he needed. He began to panic and with as much strength as he could summon, he called out for his father.
Hassett stumbled toward the front door, dragging the boy behind him. All of a sudden the money didn’t seem as important as getting out of there without a bullet finding him. Damn those Cartwrights—spoiling everything. His only satisfaction came as he remembered the look on Adam’s face when the bullet from his old man’s gun found him. It wasn’t as good as the money but it went a long way toward satisfying the debt he felt owed him. Man and boy disappeared into the night.
Hoss heard the last of his own snores as a noise woke his from a deep sleep. He swung up out of bed and fumbled for a match, waiting for his head to clear. Hauling himself up, he was met by his younger brother in the hall. Neither of them said a word as they crept closer to the stairs. In the light from the fireplace, they saw their father moving across the room. “Pa, you alright?” Hoss called. They started down the stairs. Joe spied the open front door from the light of lamp Adam had left on the credenza and he ran towards it.
Ben stopped. “Yes, yes I’m fine. Someone was at the safe—fired at me and I fired back.” A tremor shook his voice.
The two men approached the figure lying on the floor. When the sparse light drew the face of his oldest son out of the darkness, Ben Cartwright gasped and he fell to his knees. Bright spots exploded before his eyes. “My God—Adam.” His hands reached out to his boy.
Hoss’ voice cut through the night. “Joe….Joe, get in here and bring me some towels.” Hoss turned the lamp up as far as it would go. He gently turned Adam on his back, looking for the offending wound as he did. Blood had trailed down from Adam’s left side and formed a thin path across the worn floorboards.
The moon dodged thick clouds that parted for a moment then closed in again. Joe couldn’t see anyone. He heard the panic in Hoss’ voice and he raced to get the towels. Suddenly it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen his oldest brother. Adam was a notoriously light sleeper so it was hard to imagine him sleeping through gunshots and yelling. But Hoss was calling so the fleeting thought escaped him.
“Gimme them towels.” Hoss’ voice was gruff and Joe reacted.
“I got them as quick as I could.” Joe heard the sound of buttons being ripped away from fabric and for the first time, he looked down. It was then that he discovered why he hadn’t seen his oldest brother. Joe’s heart slammed against his ribs. “Adam! But how…” He looked up. “Pa?”
“Never mind that now.” It was Hoss who answered. “Get his legs while I take his shoulders. Pa, you just take the lamp. Joe and I can carry him.” Oldest and youngest did as they were told and the little procession went up the stairs.
Hoss held his brother while Ben and Joe stripped Adam of his clothing and boots. A soft moan escaped from the injured man as they laid him down. He called out, looking for an anchor in the whirlwind of pain and confusion. “Pa…”
“Hold that towel tight while I get some water,” Ben said. His eyes never left his injured son’s face.
“I’ll go, Pa. You stay with Adam,” Joe offered.
“Do as I tell you,” Ben said and he left the room. Their father’s sharp answer took both brothers by surprise.
Hoss pulled the towel away hoping that the bleeding had slowed or stopped but a gush of new blood told him otherwise. He put pressure on the wound once more, bringing a gasp from Adam. “You just hold on now, big brother. Pa’ll be right back.” Eyes that were widened by pain and fear stared back at him.
Ben returned with the promised hot water. He was wearing his coat and gun belt. “Take care of him. I’m going to get the doctor.”
“But Pa….” Joe started to say.
“Don’t argue with me, Joseph. Just take care of your brother.” Ben reached out, his hand not quite touching Adam’s face. In words made harsh by emotions held in check, Ben said, “Hang on, son—just hang on.” And he was gone.
“What’s wrong with him?” Joe asked. “Why would he leave?”
“It don’t make no never mind now,” Hoss said. “Adam can’t hear him no how.” He looked down at his now unconscious brother.
Time was measured by the ticks and tocks of the old clock. Ben had returned with Doctor Martin and they had disappeared into Adam’s room, relieving Hoss and Joe.
The two brothers sat on the low table in front of the hearth. Breaking the silence, Joe said, “Pa’ll never forgive himself if Adam dies.”
“Don’t say that, Joe. Adam ain’t gonna die. Besides, he’d be the first one to understand what happened—that it weren’t nothin’ more than an accident.” Hoss stood up and walked to the bottom of the stairs, looking up into the empty space.
“Accident or not, Pa’ll never be the same and you know it,” Joe said.
Hoss tried to convince himself that Joe was wrong but he couldn’t. In his heart, he knew his brother was right. If Adam died, they’d be buryin` two instead of one. Ben Cartwright’s spirit would be in that grave right along side of his first born son.
Ben sat across the room in Adam’s old rocker while Dr. Martin worked. He re-lived the moment when the bullet left his gun over and over in his mind. If only he’d waited—just a few moments more. Maybe—-just maybe — his son wouldn’t be lying there, more dead than alive. And he wouldn’t be waiting to find out if he killed his own boy.
Ben’s thoughts were interrupted by the angry voice of the doctor. “Ben…Ben get over here. I’ll never get this bullet out if we can’t keep his still. Hang on to him.” Paul knew there was something very wrong with his old friend but he didn’t have time to find out what. His only thoughts were for the man under his hands.
Ben jumped up and sat at his son’s side. He placed both hands on Adam’s sweat-covered shoulders and pushed downward. He could feel the muscles quiver as the doctor’s probe sank deeper. Though still unconscious, the pain broke through and Adam cried out. Ben felt as if his heart would explode. He couldn’t control the tears that made their way down his face and fell onto Adam’s bare chest. “I know it hurts, boy. Please, son, just try to be still.”
With one final thrust, the doctor’s probe hit the slug that had buried itself deep within the muscled flesh. He opened the jaws of the instrument and twisted it into place. Closing them around his prize, he began a path of retreat. Slowly, he pulled the bullet toward the surface. This final assault had ripped a scream from Adam as his body bucked in self defense. But before the doctor dropped the flattened ball of metal into the waiting pan, Adam no longer knew nor cared what anyone did to him.
Muscles exhausted by tension and strain became fluid as Ben leaned over and rested his forehead on his son’s chest. It took a minute before his breathing slowed and deepened, mimicking Adam’s now steadier respirations.
In a voice gentled by concern and exhaustion, Paul said, “Help me clean him up, Ben.” He brought a basin of warm water to the bedside and handed a dampened cloth to his friend while he proceeded to search his bag for the bandages he needed. With infinite tenderness, Ben guided the cloth across the blood splattered skin. A random memory surfaced as he recalled bathing Adam as an infant. How afraid he had been in the beginning—afraid that somehow he might hurt his cherished child. He felt his chest tighten as the cold spread outward from his heart. He stood up and backed away from the bed, unconsciously trying to rub away the blood on his hands.
Hoss watched his father withdraw more and more into himself. It had been two days since the accident and Ben had rarely left Adam’s room. He just sat near the window, glancing between his unmoving son and the rain that had started falling on the night Adam had been shot. Joe’s words came to mind every time he looked at Ben’s face. “Pa’ll never forgive himself if Adam dies.”
Hoss walked into the room and sat at his brother’s bedside. He reached for the cloth that hung over the side of the white china basin. He dipped it into the cool water than wiped away the beads of sweat that covered Adam’s face and pooled in the hollows of his neck. His hopes for a response were dashed again as the injured man continued to exist within a world that shut out everyone else. Without looking up, Hoss said, “Pa, please try to get some rest. I’ll stay with him.”
Ben didn’t turn away from the window when he spoke. “I need to be here.” His words were flat, devoid of any feeling.
“You gotta stop, Pa. Yer makin’ yerself sick and that ain’t gonna do Adam no good.” Hoss had felt every emotion from fear to anger to frustration over the last 48 hours and now he was just tired. “Adam’s gonna need you to help him when he wakes up.”
Ben’s tone didn’t change. “And you’re sure he will wake up?”
Hoss got up and walked to the window. All the turmoil he felt was about to erupt and Ben was in its path. “Yes, I’m sure and you should be too.”
He stopped for a moment. “Pa, I ain’t never seen you like this before. This ain’t the first time Adam’s been hurt. All of us have been in the same place one time or another. You’re actin’ like you’ve already given up on him. Like he’s already dead.” Hoss walked to the doorway and hesitated. He turned back to see his father still staring out into the mists of the endless rain. “He ain’t dead, Pa, and you blamin’ yerself for something that was an accident ain’t gonna help him—or you.” The door had already closed when Ben turned around.
Joe led Cochise into the barn. Man and beast were glad to be out of the ceaseless rain that had chilled them both to the marrow. He took off his hat and swatted it against his leg, sending a spray of water in all directions. He untacked the tired animal and wiped her down. Even at that, Cochise shook from the cold spring downpour. Joe went to a chest that stood in the corner of the barn and opened it. Pulling out a warm blanket, he walked back and placed it over the shivering horse. “There you go, girl—now a little something to drink and some oats and hay and you’re all set.”
“Talking to yerself again, little brother?” Hoss pulled the door shut behind him.
“Nope, talking to my best gal.” Joe’s smile quickly faded. “How’s Adam?”
“The same—he and Pa are both the same.”
A long sigh escaped him as Hoss sat on the feed bin. “I don’t know, Joe—Pa’s so distant. He won’t leave Adam’s room but he won’t go near him either. It’s like he’s afraid to get too close.”
Hoss moved over as Joe sat down next to him. “I think he is afraid. Somehow he’s got it in his head that if he gets too close, he’ll hurt Adam again.”
Joe got up and started to pace. “I don’t know how to get through to him. We’ve tried pleading with him, getting angry, reasoning—- I don’t know what else to do!”
“Ain’t nothing else we can do right now, ‘cept be there for both of `em.” Hoss gave his younger brother a quick smile. “Let’s get you inside before yer down sick too. I don’t suppose you and Roy had any luck?”
“Nahh—the rain washed any tracks away long before we even started looking. And nobody seems to know anything about it. `Fraid Adam’s the only one who can help us now.” Both men walked out into the storm.
Crossing into awareness, the first thing Adam heard was the sound of a rocker; its gentle rhythm the only constant in his otherwise muddled brain. He waited until the grey edges began to dissipate. He knew he was home—home in his own bed. It was then that the pain assailed him and he almost slipped away again but he fought the urge to let himself retreat. The rocking stopped.
Adam opened his eyes. Gradually they began to focus and the image that he saw was his father. Ben’s head was resting against the back of the chair. The lines of tension and worry were still etched on his face. He tired to call out but the sounds were too soft to reach the sleeping man.
Joe took a deep breath before stepping into his brother’s room. He had run out of things to say to his father. There didn’t seem to be any way that he or Hoss could convince Ben that he was blameless, and as Adam continued to show no signs of coming around, the tension among the three men continued to escalate.
Joe saw his sleeping father. He knew that this was the only time Ben could escape the endless guilt that plagued him and letting him sleep was the kindest thing he could do. When he turned around and saw the familiar hazel eyes looking into his own, Joe gasped in surprise and relief. “Adam—Adam, you’re back.” He hurried to his brother’s side and sat down.
In a voice hoarse from disuse, Adam struggled to respond. Joe held his brother’s head while Adam took his first few sips of liquid. This time when he spoke, his words were clearer but clipped short as he tried to breathe through the pain. “Trying to remember—- they wanted money, money from the safe.” He stopped and raised his left hand to splint his side.
“Who, Adam—who was it?” Joe turned his head toward the door as Hoss stepped into the room. “He’s back.”
The lines of worry on Hoss’ face relaxed and he grinned in happiness and relief. He sat on the other side of Adam’s bed. The only thing he could say was “brother” as he reached for Adam’s hand.
“Had a boy with him, just a kid.” Adam tried to curl his long frame around his injured side but the pain stopped his movement. The grey edges were back, making it harder for him to think.
“Who, Adam—what kid?” Hoss asked. He held his brother’s hand tighter.
Adam’s eye caught a movement at he end of the bed. He saw his father standing there, hands griping the blanket rail. “It was Hassett, Jeremiah Hassett.” The grey edges became a mist that started to drift inward, finally coming together. His last conscious thoughts were of his father. “Pa.” The single word floated across the room.
Joe was angry, certainly not a new feeling for this youngest son but the difference was that his anger was directed toward his father. He paced back and forth near the small kitchen table as Ben continued to pile supplies into a sack. “So what now, Pa? You gonna go after Hassett by yourself, not tell the law?”
“I’m going after the man who broke into my house, threatened my family.” Ben continued packing. “You can tell Roy.”
Joe stopped moving and stared at his father. Ben looked up. “You’re going walk away from him, Pa? You of all people, you’re going to walk away when Adam needs you?”
Without a word, Ben picked up the sack and headed for the front door. Joe was right behind him. “Go ahead—leave, but don’t kid yourself that you’re going because Hassett broke into the house. You’re going after him because he made you shoot your own son!”
Joe’s words staggered his father. Ben’s face grew red with anger and for the first time in his life, he raised a hand to strike his youngest boy in anger. Joe stood fast. Slowly Ben lowered his hand. He reached for his coat and gun belt. He hesitated before opening the door. “Take care of him.”
Hoss heard the front door close and walked to the window to look out. Through the fog and mist, he saw his father making his way toward the barn. He had hoped he was wrong, but seeing his father now, he knew that Ben was going after Hassett. There was no use in trying to stop him. Hoss had seen that look before and no amount of talking would change his father’s mind. Funny, he thought, it was the very same look that Adam wore when he had made up his mind about something. He turned around when Joe came in.
“You see him leave?” All the fire had disappeared, leaving Joe feeling drained and defeated.
“Yeah, I saw him and there weren’t nothing you could do to stop him,” Hoss replied.
The sound of their older brother’s voice surprised them both. “Where’d he go?”
Hoss sat at Adam’s side while Joe stood behind him. “Don’t you worry about nothin’ but getting’ better.”
A fine sweat covered Adam’s body and he shook from the chill of it. “Tell me.”
The younger brothers exchanged glances. Joe looked back and said, “He’s gone after Hassett.”
Alarm spread across Adam’s face and he struggled to get up. Strong hands gently pushed him back down and he sank into the soft mattress. “Adam, yer gonna start ta bleedin’ again if you don’t stop movin’ around.”
“Why’d you let him go by himself?” The strength in Adam’s voice had all but disappeared but the intent of his words was clear. “He’s already put a bullet in me. What makes you think he won’t shoot Pa?” Lines cut deep in his face as the pain started to overwhelm him.
Met by an uncomfortable silence, Adam’s feelings of fear began to push his pain into the background. “What is it? What aren’t you telling me?” His muscles tensed and he felt the drops of sweat begin to pool and draw lines across his body. Looking from one to another, he said, “Tell me.”
“What do you remember?” Hoss asked.
Adam’s brows furrowed as he tried to bring back that night. Fleeting glimpses ran through his mind—the kitchen, a boy with Hassett, dialing in the safe combination. He remembered his father’s voice calling out and footsteps on the stairs. The next images were blurred and he shook his head trying to clear away the shadows. “I remember Pa calling out and Hassett turning his gun on him.” The conversation was draining what little strength Adam had and he began to move restlessly about the bed, fighting to stay conscious.
Joe sat at his other side. “Adam, why don’t you just rest now? You’re tiring yourself out.”
Adam looked at Joe but ignored what he said. “I went after Hassett. The gun went off.” His breathing was labored and it was getting harder for him to see the pictures in his mind as they began to fade away. “I pushed his arm up and the gun went off in the air.” He looked from brother to brother. “Then who…?” He pulled the last piece from the tangle of memories. “Pa?”
The rain funneled down off the front Ben’s hat as he urged Buck up the through the small ravine. He’d have to be vigilant. The rain had made the footing treacherous and many a man and horse had drown in a sudden flash flood. As soon as he got to higher ground, he’d camp for the night. It was getting dark and the clouds were too thick to let much light through. Angling up the side of the draw, he finally came to a small stand of pines. The rain had tapered off and he was able to shelter Buck behind the thick branches, letting him rest after a hard day. He built a small fire, just enough to make coffee and leech some of the cold from his bones.
Mesmerized by the flames, Joe’s words came floating back to him— you’re going after him because he made you shoot your own son. Joe was right. ‘I want to see the man writhing in the same pain as my son did. I want him to know he’s going do die. I want….’ Ben shook his head, sickened by his own thoughts. What had he turned into? He had tried so hard to teach his boys that the satisfaction of revenge only lasted a short time but what they did would haunt them for all their days. Now here he was, wanting retribution.
Ben placed another branch on the dwindling fire. And Adam—–how would Adam feel? Oh, he knew his oldest well. Adam would be the one comforting him and telling him that it was an accident and that dwelling on it wouldn’t change what happened. His practical, logical son would encourage his father to put it away and get on with things. But what would he think when he was alone and his side started to ache or he went near the safe? A long sigh escaped as Ben spread his bedroll and finally lay down to sleep. He didn’t know—he just didn’t know.
The sound of a gunshot exploded in Adam’s mind, startling him awake. Hoss sat in a chair next to him, eyes closed, snoring softly. Adam reached for the bandages that wound around his waist. He pressed against his side hoping to lessen the pain as he tried to sit up but he couldn’t hold on to the guttural grunt that escaped when he fell back in failure.
“Here now, you tryin’ to hurt yerself more?” Hoss asked, pulling himself from sleep.
“Need to sit up—help me.” Adam started to struggle again, trying to push away the covers that suddenly felt as if they had been weighted down.
“What’s wrong with you?” Hoss got up to sit at Adam’s side. “Just settle down.
Breathing hard now, Adam tried to convey his urgency. “I need to…”
Hoss’ face twisted in confusion for a moment then changed into a look of understanding. “Oh yeah, ok—now just lay still for one more minute until I get the chamber pot.” Hoss helped his brother sit on the side of the bed and helped him to lie down again afterward. “Let me look at them bandages. Pa’ll have my head if I let….” He stopped abruptly.
“It’s alright,” Adam said, knowing his brother was suddenly uncomfortable. “Let’s not give Pa a reason to be anymore upset than he is already.” He lay still as Hoss examined the unstained cloth.
“Can I get you something fer the pain? The doc left some medicine.” Hoss reached for the small brown bottle on the bedside table.
“Maybe—in a little while.” Adam shifted to make himself more comfortable. “I don’t remember it all. Fill in the spaces for me.”
Hoss felt as if it would be better for Adam and his father if he told his brother the details of that night. He recounted what he knew then said, “Pa thought someone was shooting at him.”
“It’s alright, Hoss. You don’t have to defend him. Anyone of us could have reacted in the same way.” Adam closed his eyes for a moment then said, “I just wish he’d given me the chance to tell him that.”
“Yeah, well, I guess he was feeling so guilty he needed to go after Hassett.”
His pain was gathering again, and as much as he hated the medicine,
Adam doubted he could do without it. “Hoss, the medicine…”
His younger brother poured a few drops into a half-filled glass that sat at Adam’s bedside. “Here now, you take this and let Joe and me take care of things.”
A small smile curled the outer corners of Adam’s mouth. “Never doubted you could.” But the smile quickly disappeared. “I’m more concerned about Pa. Hassett would have no trouble killing him. And I want…I want him to know I don’t blame him.”
“Joe’s gone to tell Roy what’s goin’ on. They’ll find Pa.” Hoss put the glass down and drew the quilt up higher on his brother’s chest.
Adam gave Hoss a brief smile then closed his eyes waiting for the drug to release him from the pain. As he began to feel the medicine wrap itself around him, bathing him in its soft warmth, Adam tried to remember what it was he wanted to say to his father. He caught the thought just before it escaped his wandering mind. Oh yes that’s what it was. It’s alright, Pa. It wasn’t your fault. Come home so I can tell you. Come home…
Hoss watched as Adam drifted off. He stroked the back of Adam’s hand with his own, speaking unheard words to his sleeping brother, “I just hope Pa can forgive himself.”
Joe arrived in Virginia City just as the town began to stir. Now that Adam had been able to tell them that it was Jeremiah Hassett that had broken into the house, he and Hoss felt that Roy Coffee needed to be told. But he was determined to go after his father just as soon as he was finished. How often had he been on the other side of the problem—going off angry, unthinking, with only revenge for a companion. And how many times had his father saved him from an act that could have forever changed his life? He’d do as his father asked; he’d tell Roy. Then he’d try to return the favor.
“So it was Hassett, huh. He always was a no good. You say he had a boy with him?” The old sheriff continued to sip his morning coffee.
“That’s what Adam said.” Joe was anxious to leave. “Now that I’ve told you, I’ll be on my way.”
Roy didn’t get up. “Where you gonna start lookin’?” Again he drank the dark brew.
Joe’s frustration finally won out. “I don’t know —somewhere, anywhere. All I know is that my father is out there looking for Hassett and I don’t know what he’ll do when he finds him.”
Roy stood up and reached into his desk. He pulled out his well-worn gun belt and buckled it into place. “Joe, you ought to have more faith than that in your father. No matter how angry he is, I can’t see him doin’ anything against the law.”
“I’d like to believe that, Roy, but I never thought I’d see him walk away from one of his sons when they needed him either.”
The old sheriff had no answer for that. “Come on, Joe. I just may have an idea where Hassett mighta gone ta ground.”
Ben remembered from Hassett’s time with them that he had a brother up in the hill’s north of Virginia City. Adam had said he had a kid with him. Maybe he had gone to his kin. Ben urged Buck on. He tried to push all the emotions away and concentrate on the man who had turned a quiet Nevada night into a nightmare.
The trail had become steep and covered with loose shale. Buck did his best to stay on the path his rider had chosen but his iron shoes worked against him. Suddenly he lurched forward, going down on his knees.
Ben’s hadn’t been ready. He catapulted over Buck’s head and landed hard on his back. The air rushed from his lungs, leaving him hard pressed to take a breath. When he was finally able to breathe again, his head started to clear. He sat up and looked around, seeing Buck only a few feet away. “Good boy…good Buck.” Soon he was able to stand and walk to his mount. Blood ran from the superficial wounds on the horse’s knees and the soft tissue surrounding the injuries had begun to swell. Ben ran his hands down both legs, all the while speaking in soft, soothing words of comfort. “It’s all right old man. It wasn’t your fault. Banged yourself up pretty good, didn’t you?”
Ben looked around, giving himself a moment to try and decide what to do. Just as he started to turn back toward his injured mount, he noticed the bushes to the right of him moved slightly. Ben pulled his gun.
Astonished, Ben watched as a ragged boy walked from behind the wooded cover, his hands in the air. “Don’t shoot, Mister. I wasn’t doin’ nothin’.”
The horror of shooting Adam burst into his mind. He saw the flash at the end of his gun barrel as the bullet flew toward its mark. He watched as the dark figure twisted in the air and slipped slowly to the floor, the only movement an involuntary trembling from the shock and pain. Pulling himself back to the present, Ben asked, “Who are you, boy, and what are you doing out here?”
“My name’s Jodie Hassett. I was just checkin’ our trap line, is all. Honest Mister.”
“You kin to Jeremiah Hassett?” Ben asked.
“”He’s my Uncle,” the frightened boy answered.
“You can put your hands down.” Ben saw that the boy was trembling. He lowered his gun. “Do you know who I am?”
‘My name is Cartwright—Ben Cartwright—and your uncle tried to rob my house a few nights ago. My son said he had a boy with him. You know anything about that?”
Jodie didn’t know how to answer. He was afraid of the man standing before him but he was more afraid of his uncle. He’d been on the wrong side of a beating more than once. “I…I don’t know nothin’ about that,” he finally answered.
Ben took a step forward, his voice harsh and menacing. “Don’t lie to me, boy. My son wound up with a bullet in him because of your uncle.” He reached out and clamped a hand around the young man’s arm.
Jodie tried to pull away but Ben held fast. “I didn’t want to go that night but my uncle made me. Please, I didn’t know anyone would be hurt.”
Ben’s grip lessened. “Where’s your uncle now?”
“He was stayin’ with me and Ma and Pa but he’s movin’ on soon. I heard him tell my Pa. Said things was too hot around here for him.” Jodie lowered his head. “He said if your boy died, he’d have hell to pay.” He looked up. “Did your boy die, Mister?”
Ben dropped his hand. “No, my son is badly hurt but he’s alive.”
“I’m…I’m glad he ain’t dead.” Jodie hesitated for a moment and then went on. His wide, innocent eyes reminded Ben of his boys when they were younger. “It weren’t your fault you shot yer boy. It was ours. If we hadn’t been there…”
“Where can I find your Uncle?” Ben refused to respond to the young man’s kindness. Raw feelings lurked too close to the surface and Ben feared little was needed to ignite them.
“I’ll take you to our house.” Jodie waited for Ben to gather Buck’s reins and lead the injured horse behind them.
It didn’t take long for the pair to reach the clearing where a ramshackle old cabin stood. “That’s it but I don’t know if my uncle is still there.”
Ben waited and watched the old building. A thin plume of smoke drifted from the chimney into the damp Spring air. As much as he wanted to punish Hassett for what had happened, he didn’t relish the boy or his parents getting caught in the middle.
As if reading Ben’s thoughts, Jodie said, “I can go down and see if he’s still there. I promise I won’t tell him you’re here. Honest!”
“You go ahead, boy, then come back and tell me. And remember, what you and your uncle did was against the law but I’m more interested in making sure he pays for what happened to my son.” Ben waited while Jodie started down the hill.
Suddenly the boy turned back. “You gonna kill him, Mr. Cartwright?” The question held no pleading either for or against but rather curiosity.
“Go on boy—do as you’re told.” Ben watched as Jodie started down the hill once more.
Something woke Hoss out of an already restless sleep. The first thing that registered was a nagging pain in his lower back. He knew it was from spending countless hours at Adam’s bedside over the last several days. He was having trouble remembering the last time he’d slept an entire night in his own bed. It was then the sound that had awoken him, repeated itself. Adam was calling for their father.
Hoss reached out, hoping his touch would sooth his restive brother but instead, he was startled by the heat that emanated from Adam’s body. His skin was dry and burned with fever. The almost constant muttering continued as Adam twisted and fought the coverings that closed in around him.
As he wiped his brother’s face, Hoss said, “Now look here, you’re suppose ta be getting’ better, not fixin’ to scare me half ta death.” Hoss felt Adam turn his face into the cool cloth. “I know you want Pa. Just hang on—he’ll be home soon.” Hoss wondered if he was lying to his brother and to himself, than decided it didn’t matter.
Ben stared at the house below him. Pictures of Adam came to him unbidden. He shook his head to clear his mind’s eye but the images reminded. What had he done? He’d walked out on his own child— walked away as his boy called to him. His guilt and self-loathing had driven him to hunt down Hassett and leave the injured son he couldn’t face. God, will he ever forgive me?
Ben reached up to swipe at his clouded vision. As he did, he saw Hassett run from the cabin and into the woods behind it. He dropped Buck’s reins and followed. The level ground turned into a steep hill, thick with low bushes and old pines. It was hard for Ben to see the man ahead of him. But he could hear the harsh breathing of someone not used to the strenuous climb.
Suddenly, the land cleared. It leveled out only to drop off into a rock strewn gorge. Ben found himself staring into the barrel of a rifle held by Jeremiah Hassett.
“Stop right there, Cartwright.” A smile born of anger, fear and jealousy twisted his thin lips. “I figured you’d be comin’ after me if yer kid died. Just didn’t figure it would be this soon.” Ben took a step forward and Hassett backed up. “I told you to stay right where you are—I ain’t telling you again.” The smile that had faded was back. “Can’t be he lasted too long, you bein’ here and all. I thought the best way to get back at you, Cartwright, was to take yer money but when you shot your own kid, well, that was even better.”
Ben’s hatred of Hassett and for himself merged into one and he rushed forward. The startled man stepped backward once more. The rain-soaked ground beneath his feet began to give way as his last step brought him too close to the edge of the ravine. His arms pin-wheeled in the air as he tried to regain his footing but it was too late. Ben heard the man’s scream fade in the distance as Hassett plummeted out of sight, then nothing. Ben dropped onto his stomach and crawled forward, being careful not to suffer the same fate. He peered over the rim but couldn’t see the body. He shuffled backward and stood up. Suddenly, the heat of anger faded, leaving him empty and shaking.
“Pa…Pa where are you?”
Ben knew the voice that called out was Joe’s but how could that be? He didn’t respond. “Ben…Ben you up here?” And Roy’s?
Coming out of the thick cover, both men were suddenly before him. Ben wondered if his aging eyes were betraying him. “Joseph?”
Joe’s arm encircled his father’s shoulder. “I’m here, Pa.”
Bed embraced his son. “You were right, Joe. I left because I couldn’t face what I had done to Adam. Everything you said was true.”
“It’s alright, Pa,” Joe said, trying to calm his distraught father. “Let’s just go home.” Joe smiled at his father, “Adam’ll be waiting for you.”
Ben turned to Roy. “How did you know?”
“When Joe came in to tell me who had broken in to your house, I remembered that Hassett had some kin up in these hills. What happened up here, Ben?” Roy asked.
Ben told them everything from his meeting with Jodie to Hassett’s fall. “I can’t see the body.”
“What about the boy? Do you have to take him in?” Ben asked.
“He was part of it Ben,” Roy answered.
“He’s just a boy—a frightened young man who had no choice.” Ben waited.
‘It’s your family and your house Ben. If you don’t wanna press charges…”
“I don’t. We need to tell the family, find the body.” The three men started back down the hill. None of them relished the task of telling them that Jeremiah Hassett was dead. No matter how they felt about the man, they assumed the family held some feelings for their kin. They were wrong.
They had stayed long enough to help recover the body and for Roy to have a conversation with both Jodie Hassett and his parents. The trip home was slow. Buck’s injured front legs couldn’t take the weight of a rider so Ben took turns riding double with Joe and Roy. When Roy split off to go back to Virginia City, Ben and Joe were left alone to finish the trip together.
Joe rode behind, giving his exhausted father an easier ride. Ben fell silent but Joe knew where his thoughts lay. “Pa, you always told me it was better to talk things out than to keep them festering inside.”
A faint smile spread across Ben’s weary face. “You always believe everything I tell you?”
Joe grinned back. “Yup—you always told us we should. I don’t figure anything’s changed.”
“I wonder if your oldest brother would agree,” Ben said. His answer sounded wistful and far away.
“There aren’t too many times when Adam would disagree with you except for maybe this time.” Ben tried to interrupt. “No Pa, listen—it was an accident. It could have been me at the end of that gun or Hoss. Who knew that Hassett was gonna break in that night or that Adam would still be up? But whatever it was that caused all the pieces to fall into place, it wasn’t you.”
Joe stopped. When his father didn’t try to answer, he went on. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to put your own child’s life in danger. You’ve spent a lifetime building up the Ponderosa for Adam and Hoss and me. Do you think everything you’ve been to Adam can be destroyed in an instant? You have to know your own son better than that.”
Joe felt his father’s body slump in resignation. The voice that answered was ragged with fatigue. “I could have killed him. I could have ended the life of the man and boy who’s been by my side since the beginning.”
“But you didn’t, Pa. Adam’s still with us and he needs you to be there for him, just like you always have.”
Ben signaled for Cochise to stop just as the top of the ranch house came into view. Smoke from the chimney curled into the chilled spring sky. Neither Cartwright had anything more to say.
Ben took a moment to gather himself before he disappeared into the house. Joe watched him from across the yard. He had done everything he could, said everything he could say. Whatever happened now was between his brother and his father. Joe led the tired horses into the barn.
Ben shed his coat and gun belt. The heat from the fireplace was a welcome greeting, chasing away the damp and cold. When he turned away from the fire, his eyes were drawn to the safe. The picture in his mind brought on another chill and he shook from the cold of it. He rubbed his tired eyes. Would it ever end? He walked toward the stairs.
Ben approached Adam’s open door. Before he entered, he heard Hoss’ voice. He stopped and listened. “Adam, I sure wish you’d open them eyes and give me one of them lopsided grins of yers. I know you hurt but you need to wake up and take some water. Just for a little bit. Please, Adam, Pa’ll be home soon.”
Ben heard Hoss’ voice break. He walked into the room and placed a hand on his son’s broad shoulders. “Pa’s home now, son.”
Hoss turned around, a look of relief flooding onto his face. “I’m sure glad, Pa. Adam’s started with a fever. Doc says there ain’t much more he can do.” Hoss let out a breath and turned back to rinse the cloth in the cool water of the basin. “He mumbles some then…well, and then he calls for you.”
“It’s alright, Hoss. Why don’t you go help Joe in the barn? Buck’s hurt his front legs. I’ll take over here.” Ben took the cloth out of Hoss’ hand. He got up and let his father take his place.
In a restless attempt to pull the blankets from his body, Adam managed to aggravate his wounded side. A sharp cry tore through the room. “I know you’re hot, son, but you’ve got to lie still.” Ben reached out. Touching his boy was the final assault on Ben’s emotions. He could no longer hold back his own pain. “Adam, I don’t know how to say I’m sorry….for what happened and for walking away from you.”
Adam’s mind fought for control. He heard a soft weeping. Something had to be terribly wrong. As his vision cleared, Adam saw his father— head bowed, hand covering his eyes. His throat was dry and he had trouble forcing the words out. “Pa…what is it, Pa?”
“Adam,” was all Ben could manage to say.
Sweat covered the injured man’s body as his fever broke. Adam reached out and covered Ben’s hand with his own. His words faded as he fought back against the encroaching darkness. “Stay with me, Pa—just stay with me.”
A warm spell had driven away the harshness of early spring. It had been four long weeks since the Cartwright household had been thrown into disarray and today Adam was being allowed his first walk outside. Hop Sing had returned and taken over any “mothering” that the oldest son would allow and some that he didn’t.
Carefully, Adam made his way to the corral. The pulling in his side reminded him that he wasn’t ready to manage much more than a slow walk. Buck stood in the corner munching on a few flakes of sweet hay. The swelling in his knees had disappeared but the small scars that marred his otherwise clean legs would never fade away. Adam reached up and touched his side. He knew it would be the same for him. He hadn’t heard his father come up behind him and he jumped a little when Ben spoke. The unexpected movement caused him to splint the still healing wound and take in a quick breath.
“I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Ben said.
“That’s ok, Pa. Just didn’t hear you.” Adam’s gauze went back to Buck. “He seems to be coming along just fine. A few scars but nothing that should cause any permanent damage.”
“And you Adam—what about you?” Ben asked.
“Guess it’s the same for me—a scar for a reminder but no permanent damage.” His father looked away. “And it should be the same for you, Pa. You won’t ever forget it but you’ve got to let go. Otherwise, you’ll change things between us forever. I don’t believe you want that.”
Ben put his hand on Adam’s back. He smiled and said, “I don’t mind a few scars as long as I still have my son.”
Adam smiled back and put his arm around his father’s shoulder. “How about treating your son to a cup of coffee and a few of Hop Sings cookies?”
Contented to be in each other’s company, the two men walked toward the house.