Reflected Images (by EPM)

Summary:  This story stands on its own but would be made richer if my story “Laugh in the Dark” was read first.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,200


Fall had given way to winter and the snows laid heavily upon the ground. The harsh weather had kept all but the most essential travel to a minimum. The four Cartwrights found themselves riding out early each morning, checking to see if the stock had enough feed and supplying it if they didn’t. It made for long hours.

After barely touching his dinner, Adam made his way upstairs to his room. Even with the best of intentions, he knew that he would never begin the new book he was carrying. He put the lamp down on his bedside table. The light reflected in the glass covering his mother’s picture. Adam looked at it as he did almost every night but something about tonight was different. The picture seemed to reflect not only the light but also his own loneliness. Most times, he was past wondering if he’d ever be with a woman who’d fill that void. But tonight—there was something about tonight. Must be overtired he thought. He stripped out of his clothes and lay naked under the covers. He smiled to himself. Even on the coldest nights, he refused to wear anything while he slept, much to the annoyance of his father. He moved down in the bed and brought the blankets up high around his shoulders. He fell asleep almost immediately, too tired to dream.

*****

The next day dawned clear with a bright, warming sun. Ben Cartwright’s three sons sat at the table waiting for their father to discuss the day’s work with them. Ben kept his head down and

continued eating. There was complete silence. Joe and Hoss looked at each other. Hoss than peered over at his older brother with a questioning look. Adam just shrugged but knew he was expected to say something to their father.

“Well Pa, what’s on the schedule for today?” Adam looked up from his plate and directly at his father.

Ben’s reply was short. “Nothing!”

Both Joe and Hoss repeated what their father had just said. “Nothing, Pa?”

“That’s right boys, nothing today.” Ben couldn’t keep the smile he had been holding back away from his face any longer.

Adam looked up at his father without moving his head. “What’s up, Pa?”

Ben’s smile turned to a grin. “We all deserve a day off. It’s been a hard winter and we aren’t half through it. So after barn chores, everyone is free.”

Joe and Hoss immediately decided that they could make it to Virginia City with little trouble on this bright, sunny morning. They left for the barn, laughing and pushing each other like two adolescents. Adam turned to his father and gave him a wary look.

“What’s wrong, son — can’t accept a gift?” Ben sipped his coffee.

“Sure Pa, but…” Adam hesitated. “Well, don’t misunderstand but they don’t come up that often.” Now it was Adam’s turn to grin.

Ben put on his best indignant face but couldn’t maintain it. Instead he reached over and squeezed his oldest boy’s arm and said, “I know it’s hard working a ranch. I think some times, harder on you than your brothers. This is all they know and they love it. You on the other hand have seen so much more, enjoyed different things but for all that, I think you love it too.”

Adam stood up. “You’re right, Pa; I do love it. But winter closes in on a man. It’s a solitary time and I have a tendency to think too much.” He gave his father a shy smile.

“You’ve been like that since you were a little boy, Adam. Always thinking—pushing deeper to try and figure things out. It’s all right most of the time but once in awhile you might want to give yourself some room not to think! Just to accept and enjoy!” Unashamed, Ben’s face showed the deep love he felt for this firstborn son who stood before him.

The warm smile was returned. “I’ll try, Pa. Maybe I should start by letting Hoss and Joe “talk” me into going to town with them.” Adam’s deep golden brown eyes sparkled. He put on his heavy coat, hat and gun belt.

“Sounds like a good start to me,” his father replied. Adam walked into the bright light of an early November morning.

*****

Joe and Hoss were still chattering on when Adam entered the barn. He walked to Sport’s stall and spoke softly to his equine friend. “Hey Adam, how about going to town with us? I’ll even buy the first round.” Joe stepped toward his brother as he spoke.

“Ok. When did you want to leave?” Adam kept rubbing Sport’s neck.

“Huh—what did you say Adam? Joe’s surprise was evident.

“I said, when did you want to leave?”

Hoss too walked toward his older brother and said, “Did you say you wanted to go to town with us, Adam? You don’t want to stay home and read or draw up some building plan? “

“Now you two don’t make a fellow feel too wanted.” Adam looked from one brother to another.

“Ahhh Adam—you know better’n that. It’s just you don’t say yes too often to just have’n fun. You surprised us, is all.” Hoss’ tone was apologetic.

“Yeah, Adam. Just doing nothing’s not like you!” Joe was trying to justify his middle brother’s words.

“Ok, I get it, you two. I’m not good at having fun. Well, maybe I need to change.” Adam started doing the chores that needed to be done in the barn.

Both brothers stared at him, open-mouthed. Hoss’ courage kicked in first. “Little brother, I swear I just heard our older brother say he needed to change, but maybe I didn’t get my ears cleaned out good this morning.”

“Oh no, you heard it alright—you just don’t believe it.” Joe’s eyes were bright and his smile invited more comments from Adam.

Adam ignored them both until he had a fork full of hay. With one quick movement and no words, he tossed the dried grass on top of them. Before any of them knew it, they were rolling on the barn floor.

Ben heard the commotion as he entered the barn. There were his three adult sons rolling around on the barn floor, trying to bury each other in hay. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited. Hoss was the first one to see his father. He sat still between his brothers as they continued to fight over the top of him. Hoss pushed his massive arms out to the side, throwing each brother aside as he did. Adam and Joe both sat up, becoming aware of Ben’s presence. All three boys looked shyly up at their father.

Joe started to speak. Ben held his hand up for silence. “No, no–that’s all right. If my sons choose to roll around in the hay on the only day off they’ve had in weeks, than so be it. Have a good time, boys!” Incredulous, Ben turned and walked back toward the house, shaking his head as he went.

*****

Cleaned up and changed, the Cartwright brothers made their way into town. “Pa must think we done lost our minds,” Hoss sighed.

“Well who can blame him. Three grown men rolling around on a barn floor throwing hay at each doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.” Adam shook his head as he spoke.

All was quiet until Joe spoke up. “But it was fun, wasn’t it.” A broad smile broke out on his face. All the brothers laughed and picked up there pace toward town.

*****

They stabled their horses than headed for the Silver Dollar. Even though the weather was cold, the beer tasted good. The bartender caught them up on the local goings on. While Hoss and Joe joked with Sam, Adam’s eyes scanned the room. He wondered if Maggie would be in soon. He hadn’t seen her for several weeks and he missed their friendship or relationship or what ever it is he thought to himself. Adam Cartwright was a man who liked things defined and logical. Whatever was between he and Maggie was neither. A frown formed on his brow. Hoss noticed the change in his brother’s mood. Quietly he asked “You alright, Adam?”

“Yeah, I’m fine —-just thinking.” Oh, hell, I promised Pa I’d try to do less of that, Adam thought. His frown deepened but after seeing the concern on his middle brother’s face, he smiled to reassure Hoss that everything was ok. “Really, I am fine. Let’s have another beer.”

The saloon doors opened allowing in a burst of cold wind and loud laughter. Six men from one of the neighboring ranches pushed through the doors and came straight to the bar. “Whiskey and keep it coming.” The Cartwright brothers found themselves surrounded. Without saying a word, they picked up their beer and moved to a table. The hands were a rough lot. They worked for the owner of the Bar B, a man who kept himself just within the law. There had been some speculation as to whether that might be a generous description.

All six of the cowhands turned and faced the table. “Look here boys, the Cartwrights are too good to drink with the likes of us.” The man who spoke was Tom Jordan. He had been fired from the Ponderosa last summer when Hoss and Adam had caught him mistreating a horse. The men with Jordan snickered but said nothing. Joe started to rise. Adam put a hand on his arm and shook his head slightly.

Not getting a response, Jordan tried harder. He liked the odds tipped in his favor and six to three seemed about right. “Hey you, big man. Take care of any sick horses lately?” His laugh was ugly.

Adam saw Hoss’ fists clench as he tried to control himself. Again he reached toward a brother, this time placing a hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “They’re just words and this man is a fool. Don’t let it spoil your day.” Adam’s words were soft. Not getting what he wanted, Jordan turned back toward the bar, cursing loudly for anyone to hear.

He really is a fool. Adam thought of Jordan trying to start something with Hoss. Why would anyone be stupid enough to pick on a mountain? “Since you two so generously asked me to join you, how about I treat you to an early dinner?” said Adam. Hoss and Joe readily agreed. The lure of the Silver Dollar had suddenly disappeared. The three men said their good-byes to Sam and left. Laughter from the bar followed them into the street.

*****

Always amazed at the amount of food their middle brother could pack away, Joe and Adam just shook their heads and laughed. “Now fellas, I’m still just a grow’in boy,” Hoss said as he eyed his second piece of apple pie.

Joe answered, “You’re grow’in all right, but which way?” Hoss made a face at him and went back to his pie.

The doors to the café opened, letting the slender figure of a woman pass through. Adam looked up as Maggie entered. A surge of warmth moved through him and he smiled. He rose as she walked to the table, kissing her cheek in greeting. “Sit down, gentlemen; don’t let me interrupt your dinner.”

‘Yer not interrupt’in us, Miss Maggie. It’s nice to have something pretty to look at instead of these two.” Hoss gave her a shy smile.

“You can’t be talking about me. Everyone knows I’m the handsome brother.” Joe’s green eyes sparkled.

“I wish I’d had brothers and sisters. I’ve missed what you three have.” Maggie was glad to be able to share in a family even for a little while.

‘Be careful what you wish for, Maggie. They could have been like these two”, Adam replied.

“I’ll take them off your hands anytime,” she said, patting both younger brothers on the back.

Adam turned to Maggie. “How about I sit with you while you eat?”

“I’d like that, Adam. I have something I want to share with you anyway. I was hoping I’d see you soon.” Maggie seemed excited but for some reason Adam was wary and he felt his gut tighten in anticipation of what she had to say.

Hoss and Joe gave each other a knowing look and excused themselves from the table. “Guess we’ll head back to the Silver Dollar. Maybe them skunks done left by now. It was nice to see you, Miss Maggie.” Hoss smiled and walked toward the door.

Joe took Maggie’s hand and kissed it. “Anytime you get tired of older brother, just give me a yell.” He quickly joined Hoss.

“I’ll meet you two later. Try to stay out of trouble, please.” Adam tried to look stern but failed.

“Skunks?” Maggie gave him a questioning look.

“Just somebody with a big mouth at the Silver Dollar. Nothing to worry about.” Adam took her hand. “Was there something you wanted to tell with me?”

The waitress arrived and Maggie ordered dinner while Adam got a refill on his coffee. She put her other hand on top of his. “Adam, you know how I said I would eventually get out of the Silver Dollar?” Well, I’ve done it and I’ve done it on my own without any help from anyone.” Her smile was brilliant and she could hardly contain herself.

Adam didn’t know why but for some reason he felt hurt. He pulled his hand away. “I couldn’t be happier for you, Maggie. You always said you’d do it on your own and looks like you have.” He hoped he was giving a good performance.

Maggie’s smile faded. “What is it, Adam? You’ve been telling me to get out of there forever. Now you sound as if you’re unhappy about it.”

“No Maggie, I’m eternally glad you’re getting out of there. It’s just….” Adam stumbled over his words. Something he rarely did. His face wore a look of confusion.

“Let me help you,” she said. Her voice was stilted. “You are glad I’m getting out of the Silver Dollar but you’re not glad I didn’t let you help me? Am I right?” Her voice began to hold the strains of anger. “Is it all men or just you inparticular? No, don’t answer that. It is all men. You think because I’m a woman, I can’t take care of myself and I can’t have my own dreams without a man behind me. Well, let me tell you Adam Cartwright, there’s a difference between wanting to and having to. I always thought what we share was wanting to. Her anger had turned to hurt.

Maggie started to get up. Adam took her elbow and pulled her back down, a little more forcefully than he had intended. “You’ve had your say. Now it’s my turn. Yes Maggie, I wanted to help you but not for the reason you think.” His voice matched hers. “I didn’t do it to make you dependent on me. God forbid, that would be the worst thing in the world for you. No, I did it because I wanted to help a person I care deeply about.” He took a deep breath, trying to slow his breathing and get a hold of his thoughts. He lowered his voice but the pain was evident as he spoke. “You twisted my intentions, Maggie. I’m sorry you didn’t understand them.”

Maggie’s eyes were filled with tears and regret. As she closed them, the tears spilled onto her cheeks. Shaking, she got to her feet. “I have to go to work now.” She left before he could say any more.

*****

Adam sat quietly, sipping the cold coffee he really didn’t want. How did this happen he thought? If I had been more open with her, told her I wanted to help her because I cared then maybe none of this would have happened. He got up and went to join his brothers. All of a sudden, he just wanted to go home.

Before Adam entered the Silver Dollar, he heard the noise and music from the street. As he went through the doors, the crowd and smoke kept him from finding his two brothers right away. He had decided that he was going to ride back to the Ponderosa now whether his brothers were ready or not. They could just come when they wanted to—actually that might be better, he didn’t feel much like talking. He spotted both of them in a corner, watching a poker game. As he walked toward them, he became aware of Maggie trying to pull away from a man who was holding on to her wrist. It was Tom Jordan.

Adam crossed the floor with determined strides. He stood close to the cowboy, his eyes holding Maggie’s captor with a stare. “Take your hands off her, Jordan. Now!” His voice was icy cold.

Jordan let go of Maggie’s wrist and turned to face Adam. “Oh, sorry, Cartwright. I forgot that Maggie’s your whore.”

Adam lunched himself forward, knocking Jordan backward over a table filled with glasses. Both men were equal in stature but Adam was fueled with an anger that took over any rational thought. All he knew was that he wanted to see this man lying at his feet, beaten and bloody.

But before he could make that happen, he heard his brother Hoss’ voice in his ear. “Stop it, Adam. You’ll kill him!” He struggled to get free of the arms that held his back. Than he heard Maggie’s voice. “Adam, please.” He stopped. His chest heaved as he struggled to suck in the air he needed. The sweat stung the open cuts on his face and his hands were bloody and already swelling. Tom Jordan lay in a heap surrounded by spilled beer and broken glass.

Joe spoke to Jordan’s friends. “Get him out of here.” The five cowhands picked him up and carried him outside. He walked over to Adam. “You ok?”

Adam’s reply was short. “Yeah, I’m just dandy.”

He walked to where Maggie stood. “Did he hurt you?” His voice held no emotion nor did his eyes. He might as well have been talking to someone he didn’t know.

Maggie drew herself up and answered in kind. “I’m fine. Thank you for helping.” She turned and walked away.

Joe and Hoss exchanged confused glances. Adam announced “I’m leaving. If you two want to come now fine; if not, I’ll see you at the house.”

“I think we better go with him, Joe; he looks kinda peaked.” They followed their brother through the swinging doors and to the livery stable. The ride home was a quiet affair. The sun had gone and the night brought the threat of snow once more. All three men huddled down in their coats and pulled their hats down low.

Adam’s thoughts were of Maggie. He wanted to stay and talk things out but —his pride, her pride; it all got in the way. As the adrenaline cooled in his blood, the effects of the fight began to become apparent. His ribs on the right side hurt whenever he tried to take a deep breath, his swollen hands ached and he wondered if the left one was broken. That didn’t even take into consideration his bruised and battered face. The worst part will be trying to explain this to Pa he sighed to himself. His discomfort mounted as they neared the ranch.

*****

“Go on in brother, we’ll take care of the horses. Hoss took Sport’s reins out of Adam’s hand and he and Joe headed for the barn. Adam smiled his thank you and walked toward the house. It was too early for his father to be in bed he thought. Maybe we should have stayed awhile longer. He saw his father sitting before the fire, seemingly engrossed in the paper.

“Hello, Pa.” Adam lowered his head hoping his father wouldn’t notice his condition right away.

An involuntary groan escaped as he struggled out of his coat. Ben was on his feet immediately, heading toward his son.

“Adam—Adam, what is it?” Ben placed his hand under his son’s lowered chin and gently raised it. He gasped at what he saw. In a strangled voice he asked, “What happened?”

Suddenly Adam was very tired and refused to be treated like an errant schoolboy. His words were simple and straightforward. “Someone was hurting Maggie. I stopped it. That’s all there was to it.” He started for the kitchen. “I’ll just go clean up.”

Ben followed him into the kitchen and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry that happened, Adam. Maggie is a nice person. Please sit down son and let me help you.” Adam welcomed the warmth in his father’s voice and did as he was asked.

He sat at the small table while Ben poured warm water out of the kettle and into a pan. He carefully cleaned his son’s face and hands. “I don’t like the looks of that left hand son. Maybe you should let Paul look at it in the morning.” Adam winced as his father submerged the hand in the water.

“It’ll be ok, Pa.” Adam tried to smile even though his face hurt. As he started to stand up, a sharp pain stabbed at his right side. He clutched his ribs and took a quick breath. He steadied himself against the side of the table.

Ben moved quickly to his son’s side. “Adam, what is it?”

“Must be I hurt my ribs a little more than I thought. Could you help me upstairs, please.” Ben knew Adam must have been hurting more than he was admitting or he most certainly would not have asked for help. He put his arm around his son’s waist and helped him through the living room to the staircase. Just than, the door opened and Hoss and Joe entered. “Hoss, help me get your brother upstairs. Joe, get some bandages and liniment please.” Their expressions turned from startled to worried.

Hoss helped his brother sit on the side of the bed and unbuttoned his shirt. Once again, Adam did not protest. He and his father looked at Adam’s right side. A narrow band of deep purple and red bruises spread from the center of his chest to the curve of his side. “Lordy Adam, we didn’t know you was hurt that bad or we woulda made ya go see Doc Martin.”

Ben closed his eyes for a moment than put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell somebody, boy?” Ben said in a strained voice.

“I didn’t know it was that bad until we were half-way home; besides I wasn’t about to stay in town. Look Pa, I appreciate the help but I just want to go to sleep.” The pain wouldn’t allow Adam to draw a normal breath. He hung his head and took short, shallow breaths from the top of his chest.

Ben was about to go look for Joe when he came through the door. “What a time for Hop Sing to be away,” Ben grumbled. “Adam, listen son—we need to put some liniment on your ribs then wrap them. I know it will hurt but when we’re finished you’ll feel better. I promise, son.”

“Go ahead—do it.” Adam had whispered the words. Mercifully, he had passed out quickly once

Ben started to pull the bandages tight. The three men finished wrapping him and removed the rest of his clothes. Carefully they laid him on his back. Ben settled down next to his son and wiped the sweat from his face. “I’ll sit with him, boys. We’ll send for Doctor Martin in the morning. You go to bed now.”

Both Joe and Hoss knew better than to argue with their father. “Ok Pa, but come and get us if you need us,” said Joe.

“I will. Good night, boys.” Ben leaned back and watched his son continue to breathe in a shortened pattern. But at least he’s quiet and his color is good he thought. You just had to go and rescue someone, didn’t you? But not just someone—Maggie. I once told her I didn’t pretend to know what was between you but I was glad she was your friend. Ben’s eyes became heavy and he finally gave in to sleep.

Ben awoke to the sounds of his son trying to cough. Adam’s attempts were feeble. He helped him to sit on the side of the bed. At least he could splint his injured ribs better in that position. “Here son, drink a little water.” Ben handed Adam the glass. Even in the dim light, he could see the random bruising on his son’s face and the prominent swelling of his left hand.

“What time is it?” Adam managed to ask.

Ben helped him lay back down and covered him carefully with blankets. “Almost dawn,” he answered.

Adam’s eyes were beginning to close. “Pa, go to bed. I’ll be alright.”

Ben leaned over and ran his hand lightly along the swelling of Adam’s left cheekbone. “I know you will son.” He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes too.

Adam was sleeping quietly when the rest of the house started to stir with morning activity. Ben met his two younger sons downstairs at the table. The boys had managed coffee, eggs and bread for breakfast.

“How is he, Pa?” asked Hoss.

“He’s sleeping now but he had a restless night. Hoss, I want you to go into town for Doctor Martin. Joe, would you please check the herd in the South pasture.” Ben saw Joe look at him with a question in his eyes. He knew what it was without asking. “Come home for lunch, son; you can see how your brother is then.” Ben smiled at his youngest’s concern for his older brother’s welfare.

*****

Hoss rode into town and went straight to Doctor Martin’s house. Knocking than entering quickly, Hoss was confronted by Doctor Martin emerging from his surgery.

“Good morning Hoss. What brings you here so early in the morning? Not feeling poorly, are you?” Paul couldn’t see any obvious injuries to the man who stood in front of him.

“No, it ain’t me, Doc. It’s Adam. He got hurt last night in a fight and Pa thinks you should have a look at him.” Hoss twirled his hat nervously in his hands. He was anxious to get back to the ranch.

“Adam in a fight? Now that’s kinda hard to believe. More likely that younger brother of yours than the older one. What seems to be the problem?” Doctor Martin took a seat and motioned for Hoss to do the same.

“Well, Pa seems to think his left hand might be broke and his ribs are bruised. Thinks they might be broken too. Can we go now?”

“Must have been quite a fight! Hey, wait a minute now—was Tom Jordan in this fight with Adam?” the doctor asked.

“Uh-huh—hey, how did you know that doc?” Hoss didn’t think the doctor was interested in local gossip.

Paul frowned. “They brought Tom Jordan in here last night. I though he got run over by a stampede. Adam did that to him?” The doctor had trouble believing that Adam Cartwright would inflict that kind of injury on any man. It just wasn’t in his nature.

“Adam had his reasons doc, believe me. But I understand why yer having a hard time believing it. I ain’t ever seen him that mad before. I had to pull him off Jordan.”

“Ok Hoss, I’ll get things ready. Why don’t you go to the livery and get my buggy. I’ll be ready in a few minutes. You can tell me more on the way.”

*****

Hoss left and walked toward the livery. As he entered, he saw a woman standing with her back to him. She was in one of the box stalls, brushing down a beautiful chestnut mare. She startled at the sound of someone entering and turned quickly around.

It was Maggie. “Morning, Miss Maggie,” Hoss said. “I didn’t mean to scare ya none.”

“Oh, good morning, Hoss. You didn’t scare me. I’m just use to having this time mostly to myself.” She gave him a warm smile. “You’re in town awfully early.”

“Yes mam, I am. I came to get Doc Martin.” His eyes fell to the floor. He didn’t relish the task of telling Maggie why they needed a doctor out at the Ponderosa.

Maggie turned back to the horse and started brushing again. “Somebody get hurt, Hoss?”

“Ah—yes mam. Somebody’s been hurt.” He hesitated and cleared his throat.

Maggie stopped brushing in mid stroke. Cold fear twisted inside her. She was afraid to move. In a quiet voice betraying no emotion she asked, “Is it Adam?”

“Yes mam, it’s Adam.” Hoss started toward the stall where Maggie was working.

Maggie felt herself sway. She caught herself heavily against the side of the stall. The mare shifted away in a nervous dance. Hoss moved in and helped Maggie out of the stall and onto a bale of hay. “How bad?” she whispered without looking at Hoss.

“Maggie, I didn’t mean to alarm ya. We don’t think it’s too bad but you know Pa. He won’t be satisfied until the doc checks him out.” Maggie visibly relaxed. “Come out with us, Maggie, and see for yourself.”

“No Hoss, I can’t do that. Adam and I had ——well, a misunderstanding.” She looked at him with pleading eyes. “I need to know how he is. Would you tell doc to let me know when he comes back?” Tears were close to the surface.

“Sure Maggie, I’ll tell him. But I know Adam would be glad to see ya and you know you’re welcome at the ranch.” Hoss got up.

“Thanks Hoss. You won’t forget to tell doc?”

“No mam, I promise.” Hoss knew there was no use in asking Maggie again. She was the only person he had ever known who could match the stubbornness of his older brother.

*****

Joe came back to the ranch around noon. As he entered the barn, he saw his middle brother loading grain into the feed bin. “That all you been doing this morning?” Joe’s attempt at humor fell flat. Hoss stopped what he was doing and sat down on the remaining sacks of grain.

“Doc Martin is with Adam now. Pa’s helping,” Hoss said.

“Helping do what?” Joe’s voice started to become defensive.

“Wrap up his ribs. Several are busted and his hand is too.” Hoss looked away. “I had to leave Joe. I ain’t never heard Adam cry out like that.” He wore a look of guilt on his face.

“There’s nothing you could have done, Hoss. Mad as Adam was last night, he would have run over you too. If you want to be mad, be mad at Tom Jordan. He started this whole thing.” Joe was angry enough for both of them.

“Now don’t go gett’n all crazy, Joe. Seems as if Jordan wound up in Doc Martin’s office last night. He wasn’t in very good shape either.” A look of satisfaction crossed Joe’s face. “Come on Joe, let’s go in,’ Hoss said.

As they entered the house, their father and the doctor were coming down the stairs. “Glad you’re here, boys,” said Ben. “The doctor says Adam will be fine. Just needs time to heal.”

Dr. Martin continued,”The most important thing is for him to rest and for all of you to encourage him to cough and take some deep breaths. I know it will hurt him but he has to keep those lungs working.” Paul reached for his hat. “I’d like to stay and visit Ben but I need to get back to town.”

“Wait a minute doc, I’ll walk out with you” Hoss said. They moved toward the door.

“Thank you, Paul. We’ll make sure he does what he should,” said Ben. The relief was evident in his voice.

Hoss walked the doctor to his buggy explaining to him that Maggie would be asking about Adam. “I’ve known for a long time there was something between them but I never thought it was my place to ask.” The doctor shook his head. “They’re both stubborn fools if you ask me but I’ll bet neither of them will ever ask.” He smiled sadly at Hoss and picked up the reins.”Come on horse. Let’s get along.” The buggy moved off toward Virginia City.

*****

Hoss was sitting with Adam while Ben rested and Joe went back out to the South pasture. The effects of the pain medication were beginning to wear off and Adam started to stir. The pain in his ribs intensified as he shifted position causing him to utter a soft groan.

“Hey, about time you woke up. Me and Joe are ready for another roll on the barn floor,” Hoss said. Adam let out a slight chuckle followed by a gasp of pain.

“Please don’t make me laugh. It hurts too much. Pa resting?” His words were pushed out in short sentences.

“Yup—took some fast talk’in but I got him to lay down for awhile. How you doing?” Hoss reached over to feel his brother’s forehead for any signs of an impending fever. There were none.

“Not bad now.” He frowned and said “can’t say much to recommend having broken ribs wrapped though.” He shuddered at the memory.

“You better take some more of this pain medicine. Paul made us promise to have you cough. Said it was important for your lungs.” Hoss poured the medicine into a glass and helped his brother drink it. After he was sure it had taken effect, he sat his brother up and encouraged him to do as the doctor ordered. Exhausted, Adam lay back down.

“Adam, there’s something I got to tell you.” Hoss hesitated, deciding the best way to say what he wanted. He dropped his eyes and looked away from his brother.

“What ever it is, the best way is probably just straight out.” Adam smiled his encouragement.

Hoss relayed what had happened when he saw Maggie at the livery. He watched as Adam’s eyes took on a look of sadness. “I’m tired now, Hoss; help me turn over, please.”

Hoss helped his brother lay on his uninjured side. He watched as Adam became drowsy from the medication. The sun had started its decent into the western hills and Hoss lit the lamp on the bedside stand. Adam opened his eyes and saw the light reflected in the glass of his mother’s picture. “Maggie,” he sighed and closed his eyes to dream.

*****

The snows seemed to be holding off for now and that made the rancher’s lives easier. While there was always plenty to do, the coming holiday season always added tasks to the list. Adam was much better now and was able to resume all but the more strenuous work. He left that for Hoss and Joe, at least for now. His ribs were no longer wrapped but his broken hand still wore tight bandages.

Sport took a slow and steady pace for once and Adam was glad for it. Guess you’re out of shape too, huh boy he thought. This was his first trip into Virginia City since his conflict with Maggie and the subsequent confrontation with Tom Jordan. Hoss and Joe let him know whenever they saw her. There were always polite inquiries as to the status of his health and the transmission of greetings. This is all nonsense he muttered to himself. Maggie and I are acting like two little kids who hurt each other and now don’t know how to say I’m sorry. He made up his mind he would see her today and somehow they would work it out. He missed her; missed her more than he imagined.

As he walked Sport down the main street, he saw Roy Coffee wave to him. He reined Sport in the Sheriff’s direction. “Good morning, Roy. Hope all is well.”

“It is Adam. Thank you for asking. How ya feel’in these days?” Roy had come upon Adam’s fight with Tom Jordan too late to stop the damage that had been done to both parties.

“I’m fine, thanks. Almost back to normal but don’t tell Hoss and Joe. They’re still giving me a break on the chores,” Adam said with a smile.

“Adam, I’d just like have a quick word with you, if you got a minute. You don’t even need to get down.” Roy knew that Adam’s ribs must have still been giving him some pain by the way he sat his horse. “Tom Jordan’s been runn’in off at the mouth, saying he’d settle his score with you when you came into town. Now, I’ve talked to him and told him I won’t put up with anything from either of you. And if he ever touched Maggie or any other woman in Virginia City again without their permission, he’d be spending time as a guest of the Virginia City jail.”

Adam remained silent until Roy finished. “I’m not interested in seeing Mr. Jordan again, Roy. As long as he keeps his hands off Maggie, you’ll get no trouble from me.” He glanced toward the Silver Dollar. “Anything else Roy?”

“No Adam. It’s nice to see you again. Take care of yourself now.” Roy watched as Adam Cartwright headed for the saloon.

Adam secured Sport and walked through the doors. He headed for the bar. “Hi, Sam. Miss me?”

“Hi Adam, sure have. Heard you were feel’in kinda poorly. Better now?” the bartender asked.

“Yes Sam. Thank you for asking.” No use waiting Adam thought. “Maggie around?”

“Maggie? Why I thought you knew, Adam; she don’t work here no more. Haven’t seen her in quite awhile.” Feeling awkward, Sam busied himself with cleaning the already clean bar.

Adam’s head came up quickly and he could feel his heart rate quicken. “Where is she, Sam?” His voice was quiet but the tone demanded an answer.

“Why she bought the old Clark place. You know where it is—just a few miles out of town, head’in toward the lake.” Sam hoped this conversation would be over soon. He liked Adam Cartwright except on those rare occasions when he lost his temper.

“Thanks, Sam.” Adam turned and headed toward the door. In the back of the room, a shadowed figure had watched and listened to the whole interchange between the barman and his patron. Tom Jordan did not emerge until Adam left the Silver Dollar. He watched as Adam mounted his horse and headed out of town. I can wait Cartwright, he thought. The evil smile he wore twisted his features.

*****

Smoke rose from the chimney of the old Clark homestead. It was a nice little spread, over looking a small lake. That’s what she was trying to tell me Adam thought. And I had to spoil it. Discussed with himself, he wondered if Maggie would be better off if he just rode away. But he couldn’t make himself do that. He needed to see her even if she wasn’t too crazy about seeing him.

Getting down from Sport, Adam took a deep breath and headed for the front door. He knocked. Maggie answered and they stood looking at each other for a moment. Adam interrupted the stillness. “It’s good to see you, Maggie.” His voice was soft and warm.

“You too, Adam.” Maggie had wondered if he’d come and now that he had, she wasn’t sure how to react. She knew what she wanted to do but her head and her pride kept her heart in check.

Adam held her eyes with his. “May I come in?”

She turned away from him. “Yes, yes of course—please do.” She led the way to the brightly burning fireplace. It was a simple home but well made and comfortable. Adam could see that Maggie had worked hard to bring it back to life. He took off his coat and hat and hung them beside the door.

“You’ve worked hard. Maggie. The place looks wonderful.” He hesitated. “This is what you were trying to tell me that night, isn’t it?”

Tears were close for Maggie. “Yes Adam, it was. I was so proud of myself. I did it. Finally, I

accomplished what I’d worked so hard for—.” She stopped and swallowed a sob. “But you weren’t there anymore and for some reason the dream didn’t seem so important.” She turned to walk away but felt a restraining hand softly hold her.

“No Maggie, please don’t walk away. I wish there were some way I could tell you how sorry I am. You were so happy and I ruined it for you. I have no excuses. None that make any sense anyway.”

She turned and faced him. “You want to make it up to me?” said Maggie. Her voice was strong and clear now. “Than tell me Adam—tell me what that was all about?” She gave him no quarter.

“I owe you that Maggie—I’ll try.” Adam sat in the big rocker at the side of the hearth. Maggie sat on the stone in front of him. She wanted to reach out and take his hand but she knew better. He wouldn’t want that and with his touch she might tell him everything was ok and it wasn’t. She kept her hands in her lap.

“Look Maggie, I don’t quite know what it was. All I know is that something wonderful had happened in your life and I wasn’t a part of it. You were right; I always wanted you out of the Silver Dollar. But not because it’s a saloon, Maggie, but because you could get hurt there. We both know what can happen. Tom Jordan made that pretty clear.” It was Adam’s turn to stop and take a breath. “I don’t want to lose you Maggie.” He put a hand on her cheek. His voice cracked as he went on. “I’ve lost too many people who were close. I can’t take it again and survive intact.”

“Oh Adam, if you’d only told me.” She put her hand over his. He reached out and pulled her forward and into his lap. They held each other in silence. The rocker’s movement helped soothe away the unease they both had carried since that night in November.

*****

Much later, Adam shifted his weight to relieve the strain on his still healing ribs. Maggie sensed his discomfort and sat up. “You’re still hurt! Why didn’t you tell me instead of letting me lean on you like that?” said Maggie sternly.

His smile held the old sense of mischief and teasing she had missed. “Because woman, I like it when you lean on me.”

“You are hopeless,” Maggie said and laughed. She stood up. Than helped him to stand. He winced as she did. “Come out to the kitchen with me. I think I have some liniment somewhere.”

“No, no—that’s ok. Between Pa and than Hop Sing, my poor ribs have been painted with every remedy around.” Adam started to back away from her.

“Oh, stop being a baby and come here.” Maggie led him to a chair and sat him down. She put the medicine and a clean cloth on the table than kneeled down in front of him and started to unbutton his shirt. Maggie gave a tiny gasp when she saw the yellowish remnants of the bruising that spread across his chest. She looked from the bruising to his face. “Oh, Adam no wonder you hurt! For some reason she couldn’t explain, Maggie leaned forward and tenderly kissed his battered body.

Adam’s head went back and he took a sharp intake of breath. Not from the pain, there was none, but from the touch of her lips on his chest. He reached out and took her by the shoulders, pulling her up until she faced him. He leaned forward and kissed her as tenderly as she had kissed him. Maggie wrapped her arms around his back and responded.

Adam rose from his chair and pulled her up to stand with him. He reached out to touch the side of her face, tangling his hand in her dark brown hair. She leaned into him. Without words, he picked her up and carried her through to the living room. He stopped and looked around until he saw the only closed door. He approached it and without taking his eyes from hers, opened it and stepped through. The sun was beginning to set and the light reflected off the small lake, bathing the house in reds and golds.

*****

“Hey Sam, you haven’t seen Adam have you?” Joe Cartwright hoped the bartender would say no and leave it at that. He hated the fact that his father had sent him to town looking for his missing older brother. No matter what happens, I’m going to be right in the middle of this one he thought. If I’d told Pa Adam was too old to be treated as missing just because he didn’t come home last night, I would have been treated to a lecture. I can hear it now— it doesn’t matter how old you boys are, I still worry about you! And Adam—wait ’til he finds out I’ve been running around town like an idiot asking people if they’ve seen him. I shoulda just stayed in bed!

“I saw him yesterday, Joe. He came in looking for Maggie. He didn’t know she’d bought the old Clark place. Seemed surprised when I told him.” Sam poured Joe a cup of coffee.

“Guess I didn’t know it either but we’ve all been sticking pretty close to home lately. Think he rode out there?” Joe asked.

“Now Joe, the last thing I want to do is get into your older brother’s business. Adam is one of the nicest fellas I know until he loses that temper of his.” Sam shook his head.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I’ve been on the receiving end of that temper more than once and I hope today isn’t another one of those times.” The trepidation was clear in Joe’s voice.

They both turned as they heard someone come through the doors whistling. It was Adam. “Joseph, what are you doing in town so early? I saw Cochise tied up outside and knew you had to be in here. What’s up?” There was no anger in Adam’s voice.

Joe felt doomed. “Now Adam, I’m just doing what Pa asked. He sent me in to see if you were all right. Don’t get mad at me.” Joe took a step backward.

“Why would I be mad at you? You were just doing what Pa asked. I should have known he’d be worried. Let’s get on home so he can stop stewing.” Adam smiled at his brother and put an arm around his shoulder.

Joe gave his brother a sidelong glance. “You alright, Adam?”

“Yes Joe, I’m just fine. Now let’s go home before Pa sends Hoss out to find both of us. Come on boy, time’s awast’in!” Adam started whistling again as he walked out the door. Joe and Sam looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders at the same time.

*****

The weather seemed to be cooperating with the holiday season. There was just enough snow to make it festive but not enough to block the roads and trails that led to and from the Ponderosa.

Routine chores plus Christmas preparations kept the Cartwright household even busier than normal. Adam’s almost daily visits to Maggie’s became customary and very little was said about them. Ben had tried to speak to his reticent son about his seemingly blooming relationship with Maggie but Adam made it clear he would not discuss his private life, even with his father. He felt as long as he carried his share of the ranch work and future planning, than what he did on his own time should remain just that; his own. And so, even though Adam would not discuss his relationship, it was clear that it had brought him great joy. Ben watched, as his oldest son seemed less tense and more tolerant around his younger siblings. They too, noticed the changes in their brother. Hoss had said it best. “He’s just easier to live with; not just for us but for himself too. He’s just more comfortable in his own skin.”

Just before Christmas, the three Cartwright sons kept a long held tradition by going out and finding the very best tree they could. Each had found the one they wanted and marked it well before Christmas. Now it came down to arguing about whose was best.

“I’m telling you, that big, bushy tree’ll hold more candles and stuff than that skinny little nothing you picked out”, said an incensed Hoss. He was aiming his words at his brother Joe.

“Oh yeah, well that big old fat thing you picked won’t even fit through the door. What are we gonna do, leave it on the porch and have Christmas out there?” Joe stormed back.

“Now Joe, you’re gett’in me really mad. Course we ain’t gonna—-.” Joe held his hand up to silence his brother.

“Hey, where did Adam go?” Joe turned around in his saddle and looked for his oldest brother.

“He probably got tired of hearing us arguing about these trees.” Hoss did the same.

They both turned at the sound of a horse coming through the snow, not far from them. Adam returned dragging a little tree about six foot tall and perfectly shaped.

“It’s a nice tree, Adam,” said Hoss, “but just too small for the house. What’d you cut it for?”

“It is perfect, isn’t it.” Adam’s eyes sparkled. “It’s not for the house. It’s a gift for somebody I know.”

“Ah-huh–anybody we know?” Joe asked innocently.

“Maybe boys, just maybe. Can we make a decision; I’d like to deliver this gift before Christmas.”

Adam was anxious to head for home.

‘Well, you need to help,” said Hoss. “I want the big, bushy one and Joe here wants that little skinny one. You need to make a choice.”

Adam smiled indulgently at both his brothers.” Now boys, you couldn’t possibly ask me to pick between big and bushy and little and skinny, now could you?” He rode off toward the ranch, dragging his tree, while both brothers looked after him with puzzled stares.

*****

Adam arrived at Maggie’s house about sunset. He untied the tree and shook the snow from its dark green-black branches. Setting the tree in front of him, he knocked and ducked back behind it. Opening the door, Maggie saw the first Christmas tree for her new home. Parting the branches, she saw Adam’s smiling face. “Oh, it’s wonderful” she said. The thrill of Christmas was in her voice.

Adam thought how much she looked and sounded like a little girl just now. He came out from behind the tree. Maggie threw her arms around him and kissed his entire face, saying thank you as she went. He looked at her and opened his eyes wide in fained innocence. “Oh, I’m sorry. There must be some mistake. This tree is for the lady down the road.”

Maggie pushed hard on Adam’s chest and he and the tree both went over in a heap. Maggie laughed at the normally dignified Adam Cartwright lying in the snow with a Christmas tree on top of him. “Well maybe I can leave it here,” he said, giving in.

They put the tree on the porch and went to the barn together to stable Sport. “This fellow’s been a good boy today. He’s not use to hauling things on a rope except for ornery cattle.” Adam untacked his horse and began to brush him down. Maggie had gone into the stall with her mare.

“Ahh, Adam—I have a favor to ask.” She seemed a little nervous and he couldn’t think for the life of him what might be coming. He didn’t answer; just looked up at her,waiting for her to continue.

“Well you know how I’m trying so hard to be self-sufficient here.” He continued to look at her without expression. Maggie stumbled over her words. “Well, I was wondering if you would let Sport cover Sunny?” Her words came in a rush now. “It’s just that it could be a really incredible foal. And who knows maybe the beginning of a really great band of horses. All started from Sunny and Sport. What do you think?” She looked at him in anticipation.

Adam felt her enthusiasm and was glad she was making him part of it. “Sure Maggie—just consider it a Christmas present from Sport.” A hint of mischief entered his eyes. “And now that I think about it, it can be your present to him.”

Maggie came over and rubbed the stallion’s neck. “You’re welcome big boy.”

They left the barn arm in arm and entered the house. Before Maggie could take her coat off, Adam pulled her close and kissed her deeply.

“Now what’s all this,” she said softly. “Did you miss me that much?”

Adam’s tone was serious when he answered.” More and more Maggie, with every day that passes.” He pulled her close again and repeated the kiss they had just shared. She broke away from him. Taking off her coat, she hung it up and headed for the kitchen. He did the same and followed her.

He watched as she busied herself with supper. “Ok, what is it Maggie? We’ve never had trouble talking before.” A frown appeared on his face. “Well almost never. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Never one to indulge in games, Maggie decided the best way forward was straight ahead. “Ok, Adam—you want to know, I’ll tell you.” She took a deep breath. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so easy anymore. “Everyday, all the time, I think of you. I try to concentrate on other things but you’re always there. I find myself getting more excited as each hour passes and I know you’ll be coming. I want to see you, be with you. Not just when we make love, but when we read together or talk or just sit and hold each other.” Tears rose in Maggie’s eyes. She stopped and lifted her hand to touch his face. “And it’s not the having to, Adam, it’s the wanting to.”

Adam took the hand that caressed his face and kissed the palm. He looked into her beautiful green eyes, now blurred by tears. “Oh, Maggie. Don’t you know I feel the same way? It is the wanting to, Maggie mine.” With that, he picked her up and walked toward the big rocker before the fire. He sat and held her. The light from the fire reflected in Maggie’s shining eyes. He took her face between his hands, running his thumbs softly across her lips. “I love you, Maggie. I love you now, I’ll love you then.”

*****

Ben Cartwright tried to contain his anger. After all, it was Christmas Eve. But somewhere out there in the night was his oldest son. His responsible, levelheaded son who would not keep the family waiting for Christmas Eve dinner. “Where is that boy?” Ben hissed. Joe and Hoss tried not to do anything that would attract their father’s attention. Any movement would mean they might become the next targets. Both sons knew that most of Ben’s anger was really fear. Too many things could happen when the weather was this bad.

Hop Sing entered the living room. “Dinna be spoiled soon. Hop Sing work hard to make special meal for family. Why oldest boy not here?” He did not wait for an answer but retreated to his kitchen, mumbling to himself.

Just as Ben was about to start on another tirade, the front door opened. Moving quickly out of the cold night, Adam and Maggie entered. All three Cartwright’s came to their feet at the sight of this unforeseen guest. “Pa, Hoss, Joe—I’m sorry for being late and for holding up dinner. It’s worse out there than I thought.” Adam helped Maggie from her coat as he apologized to his family.

Ben walked to where Adam and his guest stood. Maggie felt as if her heart might leave her chest. Why am I so afraid she thought? They’ve always been kind to me in the past.

“Welcome to the Ponderosa, Maggie,” Ben said. “We’re so glad you’ve come. Please, come in by the fire. You must be frozen.” Ben took Maggie’s arm and led her toward the fireplace. Adam excused himself and left for the kitchen.

“Thank you Mr. Cartwright. I’m so sorry we are late. I hope my being here doesn’t disrupt your plans.” Maggie’s heartbeat began to return to its normal rate as Ben’s charm made her feel at ease.

“I’m sure glad you’re here, Ms. Maggie. You fit right in with all the pretty Christmas decorations.” Hoss’ face colored at his own words.

Joe’s face showed his surprise at his middle brother’s words. “Maggie, I want you to know that this is the first time my brother has said something better than I could.” He gave Maggie a kiss on the cheek.”

“Now why am I not surprised at seeing that?” Adam raised his eyebrow at Joe as he walked back into the room. “You never could resist a lovely lady.”

“I keep telling her I’m available when she’s tired of you, older brother.” Joe gave his most brilliant smile.

“I think that’s enough, gentlemen,” Ben said. “Maggie, may I escort you to the table?” He took her arm and led her to the dining room. He asked for God’s blessing and thanked him for those things they already possessed.

The festivities had ended and it was decided that Maggie would spend the night in the guestroom instead of she and Adam taking a chance with the weather. Everyone had gone to bed as Adam helped Maggie settle into her room.

“Now you better listen close, Adam Cartwright, because you may never hear this again.” Maggie had his full attention. “You were right and I was wrong.” She screwed up her face as she said the words. “Your family is wonderful and they made me feel as if I was a part of them.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, Maggie mine.” Adam’s smile was warm and the look in his eyes held hers. He reached out and surrounded her with his arms. She let her body fold into his. His voice was sweet and deep as he added,” God knows, you’re a part of me.”

*****

Man and beast were glad for spring that year. The winter had seemed never-ending and the advent of long, sunny days was welcomed by all. Once again, the workload on the ranch increased, but no one seemed to mind. They were just glad for the final break in the weather.

Adam was hot and dusty and a bit saddle sore as he rode to Maggie’s that night. He needed to get use to the cow pony he was now riding in place of Sport. He saw a light on in the barn and went to investigate. Maggie was singing softly to her mare as she brushed the already shining coat. “Do you think you could spoil that mare anymore than you have already?” he said.

“I can try,” Maggie replied. “Besides, she may already be somebody’s mother. You’d want me to be nice to a prospective mother, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh absolutely, but you might be putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.” He almost laughed at his own humor. “Let’s give old Sport a break. He just started breeding her this week”

“You just have to have faith, Adam Cartwright. I’m sure these two will make a beautiful baby.” She put the brush down. “You look done in, cowboy. Come on in and let me at least feed you.”

“No argument from me. I’m exhausted.” They left the barn and headed for the house. Both washed and Maggie made Adam sit down while she fixed something for them to eat. “Adam, you don’t need to come over every night. It’s just too much with everything else you have to do.

I’d miss you but it’s better than having you fall out of the saddle asleep.”

“My head knows your right, Maggie, but my heart wants to be close to you.” His tired eyes looked up at her.

“Well this time, I think your head should win. Now let’s get you something to eat before your head hits the table,” she said. They ate in companionable silence. After dinner, Adam moved to the living room, where he fell asleep in the rocker.

Sometime later, Maggie joined Adam in the living room. She looked down at this man that she loved and thought how much joy he had brought to her empty life. Not just since they had been lovers, but always. Unashamed tears came to her eyes. Adam stirred and his eyes opened. A smile spread across his face as he saw her standing before him. He reached out and brought her into his lap. They wrapped themselves in each other’s arms and were content to stay that way.

*****

Virginia City was bustling that morning as Maggie rode in. She had several stops to make before she headed back home. It was almost noon when she entered the Silver Dollar. Her intentions were to say a quick hello to Sam and be on her way. “Hello Sam,” she said gaily as she entered.

“Well Maggie, it’s good to see you. Why, you look happy enough to bust. Must be ranch’n agrees with you,” said Sam.

“Oh yes, it agrees with me and I couldn’t be happier, Sam.” Maggie’s smile faded and she became serious.” Not that I didn’t appreciate everything you did for me–I did”

Sam laughed at Maggie’s contrite face. “I know Maggie, it’s alright. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Oh Sam, thanks but I need to get back home. There’s something I have to do,” said Maggie.

“Wouldn’t have anything to do with the oldest Cartwright son, would it?” Sam winked at her.

“Yup–it most definitely would.” She put her head back and laughed. “Most definitely.”

Suddenly, a shadow passed between Maggie and the Silver Dollar’s bartender. Tom Jordan stood close to Maggie and smiled down at her. “Why, Ms. Maggie, he said, it’s been along time since we’ve seen you in here.” His voice dripped sweetness. “Where you been pretty lady?

Maggie moved away and fixed him with her eyes. “Didn’t you learn anything the last time?”

The smile left his face and he snarled. “Why you—.” Sam interrupted him before he could finish.

“Leave her alone or take it outside, Jordan.”

Maggie turned her back on Jordan and faced Sam. “I’ll be going now, Sam. It was nice to see you again.” She gave him a warm smile and left the saloon.

Maggie refused to let the encounter ruin her mood. She rode hard to get home. Suddenly, there was no place on earth that was more important to her. She wanted—-needed to be with the man she loved. As she crested the hill, her little home came into view and she couldn’t help but smile.

Maggie stopped for a moment to look. The bright spring sunshine played upon the water of the little lake, reflecting off the glassy surface. A shot rang out, disturbing the silence. Maggie’s riderless horse continued down the hill toward home.

*****

Adam stared with empty eyes at the lifeless body that had been laid out before him on the bed. Everyone had left him alone. He was suppose to be saying goodbye but he knew that whatever it was that made him a man would be buried in the ground with Maggie. He had once told her that if he lost her, he would not survive intact and it was so.

Hoss had ridden with his brother to Maggie’s that afternoon. Adam had asked for his help in fixing a fence that Sport and Sunny had managed to kick down. They both knew that was only an excuse. Hoss had really just wanted to see what Maggie had done to the place and Adam was glad for his company. He never could have imagined the tragedy that awaited them as they rode to the top of the hill.

Ben, Hoss and Joe stood in the middle of Maggie’s living room in stunned silence. No words seemed appropriate so the silence remained. All three men had shed tears for the needless death of this wonderful young woman. And all three knew that the man who emerged from that room would not be the same son and brother that they had known and loved. Their grief was for both of them.

Roy Coffee and Doctor Martin arrived together. “Ben—boys, where is she?” asked Paul. Ben nodded toward the closed door. “Paul–Adam’s in there with her,” Ben said in a voice strained and hoarse from emotion. The doctor nodded and stepped into the room.

Roy Coffee spoke up. “I just don’t know what to say. I can never get use to this kind of senseless killing. Not in all my years as a lawman.” He hesitated as he thought of Maggie smiling and laughing. “Can one of you boys show me where you found her?”

“I’ll go Roy. I was with Adam,” said Hoss. They headed for the door. Joe put his hand on his father’s arm and Ben responding by covering it with his own. They both continued to wait.

The door opened and Paul Martin stepped through into the living room. “She died instantly. I know that doesn’t feel like any comfort but Maggie did not suffer.” Ben looked stricken. “Please Ben, he encouraged, come sit down.” Dr. Martin sat across from his old friend and said,” It’s Adam that we need to be concerned about now. He didn’t say a word while I was in there; he didn’t look away from her face. Just held her hand.”

“What can we do for him, doc.?” Joe felt if they didn’t reach Adam quickly, they would not reach him at all. His heart ached for his oldest brother. Finally Adam was happy and someone took it away from him. Joe’s sorrow began to turn to anger. He knew Adam would turn inward again, leaving his family to mourn his loss as well as Maggie’s. He wanted his brother as he was not as the husk he would become. “Pa, I can’t stay in here any longer. I’m going to find Hoss,” Joe said. He put on his hat and looked at his father.

“Go ahead son,” Ben said. He turned his attention back to the doctor.

“Ben, right now Adam’s body is in shock and he doesn’t even know it. Quite frankly I’m not sure he would care if he did. He’ll go on until his body makes him rest.” Paul stopped. “I don’t think you have any choice but to let it happen. Just be there when it does.” Paul rose and put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Ben, I’d like to tell you everything will be fine in time but I can’t do that. The heart, the spirit doesn’t heal as the flesh does. I’ve left some sleeping powder in case you can get it into him.”

“Oh, Paul—why Adam? He’s been through so much in his life. Why him?” Ben’s voice was desperate and the tears streaked his face.

“Don’t look for answers, Ben; there are none. You of all people should know that,” was the doctor’s reply. Their attention was diverted as Roy, Hoss and Joe re-entered the house.

Roy said, “We found the tracks of a single horse and an empty rifle casing. Too dark to track tonight but we’ll go out first thing in the morning. I’d like to talk to Adam. Maybe he has some idea who had a grudge against Maggie—or maybe himself.”

“Roy, you’ll never get anything out of Adam now, believe me,” Paul Martin said. “Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. I can’t guarantee anything.”

Roy frowned. He knew the longer they waited, the less chance there was to catch the killer.

“Ok doc, Ben—I’ll wait.”

“Doc, I’ll go get your buggy ready,” said Hoss as he started for the door. “Won’t take me a minute.

Dr. Martin joined Hoss in the barn after trying to reassure Ben that at least Adam would be physically all right. “Thank you for the help, Hoss,” he said.

“It’s ok; at least I can help someone. Lord knows I can’t do anything for Adam.” His blue eyes bespoke his sorrow.

“Yes, I know, son, and she never got to tell him.” The doctor stopped speaking abruptly. He looked at Hoss hoping he won’t pick up on his verbal mistake.

“Tell him? Tell him what, doc?” Hoss wore a confused look.

“Oh Hoss, I never meant to say anything. It was just a mistake.” Doctor Martin was rarely upset. Hoss knew something was terribly wrong.

“Tell me —what didn’t Maggie get to tell him.” Hoss’ voice held a tremor.

The doctor steadied himself. “Maggie was carrying Adam’s child. I just confirmed it this morning. She was coming home to tell him.” Tears were bright in the doctor’s eyes.

Hoss shivered and closed his eyes. This would certainly drive his brother over the edge. Tears ran freely down Hoss’ face. “Please doc, please—you got to promise me. You’ll never tell him. You’ll never tell anybody.” Hoss was shaking now. “We’ll never get him back if he knows. Please.”

The doctor moved forward and took Hoss by the shoulders. “Hoss, look at me. No one will ever know except for you and me. I promise. Telling Adam would serve no earthly purpose that I can see.” He squeezed Hoss’ shoulders and let him go.

Hoss brought himself under control. “Thanks doc. I got to find a way to help him—I just got to. He’s my brother and I love him.”

“Just tell him that, Hoss; it may be enough.” Guess I’ll get along now. Call me if you need me.

Roy had left the house and the two men road back to Virginia City together.

*****

Adam had refused to leave Maggie’s side. His father begged him to rest but his only answer was an emotionless stare. As Doctor Martin had predicted, Adam’s body finally gave out. Arrangements were made for Maggie’s funeral while Adam fell into the sleep his body demanded. Beyond exhaustion, no dreams came to disturb his rest.

Hoss and Joe had brought Maggie’s stock to the Ponderosa. They would be cared for there until some decisions could be made. They had locked and boarded the house; hoping it would be left alone.

Adam had Maggie buried overlooking the little lake on her land. She had worked so hard to buy this ranch and now she would become a part of it. He had said very little to his family. He knew that they were terribly worried about him and it’s not as if he didn’t want to speak to them, it was just that he had nothing to say.

The morning after Maggie’s burial, Adam rose early, dressed and went downstairs. He was buckling on his gun belt when his father appeared. He wasn’t looking forward to the confrontation he knew was coming.

“Adam?” Ben’s voice was soft. “Going out for an early ride?”

“Pa, you know where I’m going.” His voice too was soft.

“Listen to me son, please don’t—. Adam interrupted him.

“No Pa, don’t tell me about letting the law handle it or vengeance being God’s. Please, just don’t tell me anything—just let me go.” He choked back a sob, turned and walked out the door.

Ben didn’t try to follow. He knew nothing he could say would reach his devastated son. He leaned his forehead against the closed door and whispered, “be careful my son and please come home again.”

*****

Sport had been reluctant to leave Maggie’s mare. Adam’s patience did not run toward amorous horses and for once, he was none to gentle in convincing his mount that it was time to move on. He arrived in town and went straight to the Silver Dollar.

Sam saw Adam walk through the doors and knew he was carrying trouble with him. “Good morning Adam. What can I do for you?” The man before him bore little resemblance to the man he had known for years.

“Roy tells me Maggie was in here the morning she was murdered. Said Tom Jordan tried to get friendly again. Is that true?” Adam asked. His question was brief and it was clear he wanted the same kind of answer.

“Yeah Adam, it’s true. But Maggie put him in his place and she left him standing right here. Than she left.” Sam was uncomfortable with the empty eyes that seemed to stare through him instead of looking at him. “He left right after she did.”

Adam turned and walked out without another word. He headed out of town toward the ranch where Tom Jordan worked. He rode hard and finally Sport tossed his head in protest. Adam slowed his pace and settled himself back in the saddle. All his thoughts were focused on the man he believed killed Maggie and destroyed his life.

As he approached the main house, the owner of the Bar B stopped and waited for him. “Cartwright, what are you doing here?”

“Where’s Tom Jordan?” Adam wanted no conversation, just answers.

“What’s it to you?” he stood facing Adam. No fear showed on his face.

Adam dismounted and moved very close to the man who stood facing him. “Don’t make me ask you again.” His voice remained quiet and controlled. His hand rested on the butt of his gun. The man’s lips quivered and fear now showed in his eyes. “Gone, he’s gone. Left the day after your woman was killed.” He hesitated and looked away.

“Where?” came the curt reply. “Now, tell me now,” Adam shouted. He grabbed the man’s coat and pushed him down on his knees. “Living means nothing to me so killing you is just a matter of pulling the trigger.”

“Said he wanted to move on; go to California. Headed into the mountains by Boulder Pass.” Adam let him go and turned to leave.

“Cartwright” he said! Adam stopped but didn’t turn around.” I don’t hold with kill’in a woman. Jordan bragged in the bunkhouse how he finally got back at you and your—.” The rancher stopped speaking.

Adam mounted and headed out toward Boulder Pass.

*****

Adam knew the climb would take its toll on his horse if he didn’t go slowly. He kept a steady pace with stops for rest and water for his mount. He tried to keep from thinking about what he had lost so he could concentrate on what he had to do. He made camp at sundown, fed Sport and made coffee for himself. The weather was warm and the spring breezes brought the smell of rain. Reluctant to sleep but knowing his body demanded it, he lay down and closed his eyes. Visions of Maggie crowded his mind.

He was up early and once again he set off on his hunt. The winds finally blew in the rains that had threatened. The steep trail became slippery and slowed his progress. But if the weather slowed him down than it also slowed Jordan down. Hopefully the man didn’t count on Adam following him. This day had been like the last only wet and slow going. The terrain had turned into huge rock formations with a narrow path seemingly splitting them in two. That night, he made a cold camp. If he was getting closer, he didn’t want to give away his position. He pulled some jerky from his saddlebags and sat down, leaning against the smooth face of a rock wall. Finishing the jerky, he pulled his hat down over his eyes and tried to rest. As he fell into a light slumber, he dreamed of Maggie. Not as they had been, but as they might have been. Living on their own land, working hard to build their dream together. He saw flashes of the two of them, laughing and happy, content in knowing they would always have each other. The dream ended. He became restless and awoke.

The sun was still below the horizon when he got up but the sky was beginning to turn from black to gray. Adam walked to Sport’s side. “I’m sorry boy for pushing you so hard. I haven’t been very

thoughtful, have I?” He rubbed the stallion’s soft muzzle. It occurred to him that this was the first time since Maggie’s death that he showed any kind of emotion other and anger and sorrow. He leaned into the horse’s neck and took solace from the closeness.

Adam raised his head and looked over Sport’s back. In the distance he saw the light of a campfire. He packed what little he had and moved out. He rode as close as he dared. Stopping, he tethered Sport to a tree. He placed his hand on the chestnut’s nose and whispered “easy son, I need you to be quiet now.” He climbed to a ledge overlooking the open area surrounding the fire. Partially hidden in the shadows lay a man, unmoving. His horse was picketed not far away.

The bitter taste of hatred returned to him as Adam carefully climbed down toward his quarry. His movement in the semi-darkness must have alarmed the picketed horse. He sounded his fear. Adam crouched down close to the rock surface. The man emerged from the shadows and into the light of the fire. It was Jordan. He shouted at the restless animal. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

Seeing Jordan blinded Adam to anything but wanting the man below him dead. He rose up and drew his gun. “Jordan,” he said in a voice just loud enough to be heard.

The unsuspecting victim of Adam’s vengeance looked up in shock. “Cartwright,” he hissed. Tom Jordan didn’t move.

“You killed her. You killed Maggie for no reason. Now I’m going to kill you except that I have a reason.” Adam aimed his gun at Jordan’s heart. One shot—one clean shot. Just like he killed Maggie.

“No you won’t Cartwright.” His smile turned to a sneer. “Your kind don’t shoot down a man. They let the law handle things and the law’s got no proof I killed that whore of yours.”

The shot hit Jordan in the shoulder. It spun him around but he stayed on his feet. “Are you crazy Cartwright?” he screamed.

Yes was the only answer he received. Adam started down the ledge keeping Jordan in his sites. The late spring rains had made the rocks loose and the ground slippery. Adam lost his footing and went down, losing Jordan from his sight. When he regained his balance and looked up, Jordan was gone.

Adam moved forward carefully, cursing himself for falling. He had unwittingly given Maggie’s killer the advantage. A bullet hit the rock next to his head. Small pieces of granite became missiles that torn into the soft flesh of his cheek. Although bleeding freely, he was fortunate the slivers of rock had missed his eyes. It was still dark enough for the light from the bullet’s exploding powder charge to give away a man’s position. Adam holstered his gun and moved silently behind Jordan’s position.

He could see Tom Jordan clearly now. The man was unaware of his presence. Adam picked up his gun and aimed it at Jordan’s head. Just squeeze the trigger he thought to himself, he deserves to die. He took a steadying breath and moved forward. The snap of a twig caused Jordan to drop and roll to the side. He fired as he moved. Adam returned fire and Jordan lay on his back, his arms spread out at his sides.

Adam walked to the gunman’s side and looked down at him. Blood pump steadily from the killer’s chest. He was trying to form some words but no sound came out. Adam’s face held no

sympathy for the dying man and he watched without emotion as the light faded from Tom Jordan’s eyes.

*****

It was late afternoon two days later when Adam Cartwright rode down the main street of Virginia City. Tom Jordan’s body lay face down across his saddle. Adam stopped in front of the Sheriff’s office. Roy walked out to meet him. “Want to tell me what happened, Adam?” Roy’s voice was calm.

Adam replied, “He tried to kill me but I was faster and my aim was better. There really isn’t anymore to say.” His usually resonant voice seemed weak.

Roy knew Adam must be exhausted from his ordeal with Maggie’s killer but something else just wasn’t right. He had noticed the blood on Adam’s face. Looked like his cheek had bled quite a lot but not enough to drain the color from this normally robust man. The difference between the inky black hair and the stark white skin was a startling contrast. Then Roy saw it. Adam’s left forearm and hand were covered with blood. His shirt was crusted over with the same.

“Adam, you’re hurt. Let me help you.” The sheriff moved forward.

“No—-no I don’t want any help. Do you need anything more from me?” He started to sway as he spoke.

“No, not now. We’ll talk again later.” He watched as Adam moved toward Sport. Roy spoke to Adam in a quiet, soothing voice. “Adam, boy, listen to me. You need help. Your father and brothers are down at the mercantile. I’ll send somebody for them.” Roy signaled for his deputy to go and get Adam’s family.

Hearing that his family was close made Adam stop for a moment. He leaned his head against the seat of his saddle. Family, home he thought. God, it sounded so good. But my chance at a family and home are gone. Buried by the little lake. He lifted his head and started to mount. Once again, his body betrayed him and fell next to his horse.

Roy ran to the fallen Cartwright son and turned him on his back. The only sound was of Adam’s ragged breathing. “You hold on boy, your Pa is coming” he pleaded. A small crowd had begun to gather. Ben, Hoss and Joe pushed their way through. Roy moved out of the way as Ben fell to his knees next to his son. Joe and Hoss were at his other side.

“Adam–Adam, it’s Pa. We’ll help you now.” Ben felt a mixture of fear and relief as he cradled his son in his arms. Fear for his son’s injuries but relief that he had come back home.

Adam’s dark lashes opened and he stared up at his family with eyes that mirrored his grief. “Pa…” he pushed out on a frail breath. His eyes closed again and his head fell against his father’s chest.

*****

Spring turned into summer and Adam had recovered from the bullet wound and subsequent infection that very nearly cost him his life. His family had been sensitive and tolerant of his moods. Once he was strong enough to ride, he made the daily trip to Maggie’s grave. He didn’t

seem to be able to cry. He just sat there looking out over the lake that she had loved so much.

“Hello Adam” came the almost shy greeting. Adam looked up to see his middle brother standing there. “Mind if I sit down?” Adam didn’t answer. Hoss sat down on the ground next to his brother and looked out over the lake. “Pretty here, ain’t it? No wonder Maggie loved it so much.” Adam shuttered at the sound of Maggie’s name spoken aloud.

Sharing the companionable silence with his brother brought comfort to Adam’s saddened heart. Suddenly, the tears came unabated. He kept staring at the lake with unseeing eyes. Finally, he took a deep breath and said, “She touched my heart.”

Hoss reached out and put his arm around his brother’s shoulder. There was no response to be made. They continued to sit together watching as the sun began to dip lower in the sky. The light reflected through the clouds turning the sky into a brilliant sunset.

Finally, Hoss rose to his feet and put his hand out to his brother. “Come on Adam, it’s time to go home.” Adam looked up and held out his hand.

***The End***

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