The Trust (by EPM)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9600


The dense pinewoods filtered the sunshine and scattered the beams onto the forest floor. The dark earth, covered in a layer of browning needles, left a tangy odor in the air. Adam Cartwright loved this place. He sat on a boulder overlooking a clear-running stream. It had been a haven for him since his adolescence. It was not that the rest of his family wasn’t aware of its existence. It was more that they respected it as a place Adam needed to be every once in a while. A place to relax and think—-or not to think. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. He closed his book and remembered well the first time he found this refuge.

*****

“I’m only a child when it’s convenient for you!” shouted fifteen-year-old Adam Cartwright. He had never spoken to his father this way. Not only because it was disrespectful but because he honestly loved and admired the man. He stood as tall as he could. The growth spurt that would soon push him just past his father’s height had not yet started. Tears of rage and frustration stood ready to spill over and his hands were balled into tight fists.

Ben Cartwright was more surprised than angry. He had seen the sparks of rebellion before in his adolescent son but never had they been displayed so blatantly. This was his eldest. The boy who had been at his side every step of the way from the beginning. But right now, he seemed more stranger than kin.

“Would you care to repeat that, young man?” Ben’s voice was deceptively quiet; always a warning of more to come.

“You know what I mean Pa.” Adam was still filled with anger.” When there are cattle to herd or fences to mend or Hoss and Joe to look after, than I’m a man but when I want to do something, than I’m a boy again. I do my share and more!” Suddenly his tone softened. His voice and eyes asked for nothing more than understanding. “All I want is some time alone, to think— or not to think but I get to decide.”

“And why do you believe that going off hunting by yourself for a week makes you a man?” Ben responded, still agitated. Until now, he had not noticed his two younger sons sitting at the top of the stairs. Both boys were obviously distressed by the harsh words exchanged between their father and older brother. Joe sat huddled in Hoss’ lap.

Adam saw them at the same time. Leaving his father, he swiftly mounted the stairs. Joe reached out and Adam lifted him into his arms. He sat down next to Hoss and the three brothers spoke in soft whispers. Ben could see that his two youngest seemed soothed by whatever their older brother was saying. Funny, he thought, sometimes he acts just like a second parent to those two. The realization of what he had just thought struck hard. Just like a second parent—just like a second adult. How could I have been so blind! He climbed the stairs to join his sons.

****

“Remember what we said now—three days hunting, than back home.” Ben stood next to his already mounted son. “Be careful.” He squeezed his son’s leg.

“I will sir. I promise.” Adam looked over at Joe and Hoss and waved. Hoss smiled and waved back. Joe buried his head in his middle brother’s side. He wasn’t old enough to understand what “three days” meant. All he knew was that his cherished older brother was riding away.

Adam’s days of freedom let him wander at will and he began to see the Ponderosa not just as land that supported their financial interests but as a trust. The natural beauty and resources of the land needed to be protected and the Cartwright family stood by that trust. It was during this first outing by himself that he came across the beautiful little glade.

*****

The smile that was tugging at the corner of his mouth now became whole. Lord, had it really been thirteen years? At twenty-eight, Adam felt sure of himself and his place on the ranch but these little pieces of solitude served to strengthen him. He walked to Sport’s side. “Come on, old man. Time to head out.” He scratched his mount behind the ear and Sport responded by leaning into Adam’s hand. “Doesn’t matter how old I get, Pa’ll still worry.”

After tacking up and breaking camp, Adam headed toward home at a leisurely pace. The only thing he heard was the tune in his head and the soft tread of Sport’s hoof beats. Their quiet trip home came to an abrupt halt when the sound of a distant blast rent the quiet morning air.

Adam pulled up and waited. He needed something more that would help him identify and place the sound. Nothing came. He thought the muffled blast had come from the direction of some low foothills in the northern section of the ranch. He turned Sport and headed that way.

As they climbed into the rockier terrain, Adam noted a cloud of dust in the distance. It seemed to be settling back to earth. Not knowing what he would find ahead, Adam removed the leather tie that kept his gun in place. He urged Sport slowly forward. Further on, he saw the clear water of the stream that he had been following, had turned a milky brown. It was filled with branches and other debris. Adam sat still in the saddle, his right hand on his gun. Someone had dynamited the stream at its headwaters. He knew whoever had done this was probably looking for gold. The only outward sign of the anger that boiled within him was a tightening of the muscles around his mouth and eyes. Part of him wanted to find the intruders now but his innate common sense took over, knowing that it could be dangerous or more likely, futile.

Sport shook his head, impatient to be on the move again. Adam took another look around but saw nothing that looked out of place. Nothing if you didn’t count a stream that was now forever diverted from its original course, he thought. His rational mind knew that the stream’s new path would clear again and that there would still be plenty of water for the cattle below. But part of him sensed that it wasn’t over. Gold seduced a man’s mind and once captured, rarely ever let go.

*****

“That’s all I know, Pa.” Adam had arrived home and went straight to his father. He stood still in the middle of the great room while his father paced in front of the fireplace.

“How dare they!” Ben bellowed. “They come onto our land and destroy it— all for gold.” His face was becoming increasingly red as his anger escalated.

“Now just calm down, Pa, before you hurt yourself. Let me take Hoss and we’ll go see if we can pick up their tracks.” Adam tried to keep his voice quiet and composed, hoping it would relax his father. “You can let Roy know what’s going on.”

Adam knew his father would want to join them. But he also knew Ben was supposed to meet Joe outside of Reno to look at some horses. “Pa, just go meet Joe like you planned. Hoss and I will have a look around and you can join us when you get back.”

“I don’t know, Adam. I don’t like you two riding into those hills alone.” Ben had stopped pacing and his tone softened to concern. “Who knows what these men are capable of! You’ve seen gold fever before.”

“Yes, I know, Pa.” He smiled wide enough for the dimples to show. “And your baby boys will be careful.”

Ben raised an eyebrow and looked at his oldest out of the corner of his eye. “Be sure that you do,” he said brusquely. He walked to Adam’s side and put a hand on his shoulder.

*****

Hoss took the lead as they ascended into the rocky foothills, looking carefully for any sign of the intruders who had been on the Cartwright land.

He was by far the best tracker in the family and Adam watched intrigued by the way his brother read things anyone else would have overlooked. “Hoss Cartwright—you are an amazing man,” he said. Adam smiled at his middle brother with genuine fondness.

“Ya know Adam, I been tell’n people that for years but they just don’t seem to believe me. Can you imagine that?” Hoss’ grinned and his face reddened a little, even at his own false compliment.

Adam’s smile faded and he said “More fools they, younger brother, more fools they.”

After a pause, Adam’s smile returned and he said in his best baritone, “Lay on, Macduff!”

“Oh Adam, please don’t start with them writer fellas. I have a hard enough time understand’n ya sometimes anyway without you quot’n them,” Hoss pleaded.

Adam just laughed and waited for his brother to start the search once more.

They continued on until Hoss stopped abruptly. His gaze was intent upon the ground. “Sorry Adam, there’s just too much rock. I can’t see anything more ta follow.” He looked at his brother with disappointment in his eyes.

“Don’t worry about it Hoss. I’m surprised we got this far.” Adam dismounted and started to untack Sport. “They’ll make a mistake.”

“Guess we’d better stay the night. Wouldn’t get home until almost morn’n anyhow.” Hoss started the same ritual with Chubb. “Hey, maybe we can find ourselves some trout in that stream.”

They quickly set up camp and left for the swiftly flowing water. It was late afternoon and the sun was low on the horizon. “Ya know older brother, we would probably have more luck if we was in the middle of this old creek. They’re probably hid’n in some of them deep holes out there.” Hoss looked at his older brother.

There it was, Adam thought. That big silly grin he used to give me when he was a kid and wanted something. Not that Hoss ever asked for much. And when he did, it was most likely help for some poor benighted creature he had brought home. “Let’s go, younger brother,” he said. “I’ve got a taste for trout.”

Both were glad that they always kept hooks and line in their saddlebags.

They sat on the bank and removed their boots, socks and gun belts. They knew their pants would be soaked through before their fishing expedition ended but they could always hang them to dry on the nearest bush. The stream took on a different feel when they waded out into the swift rapids. They steadied themselves as the current tugged at their legs.

The pair laughed as both remembered some of the shared experiences of their not so long ago childhood. Neither was prepared for the blast that literally shook the ground on which they were standing. Their surprise froze them in place. Both looked upstream to see a wave of muddy brown water filled with remnants of shoreline trees, come rushing toward them.

Adam shouted above the roar. “Get out, Hoss — now!” Trying to move quickly in deep water was impossible. Without warning, Adam felt the rocks under his feet disappear and he vanished beneath the surface. He felt his ankle give way as ligaments separated from bone. The pain tore a silent scream from him but instead of air, water rushed into his lungs. His mind told him all of this had taken place in only a few seconds but it seemed forever since he went under. Suddenly, he was being pulled from the silence beneath the water and thrust toward the shore. He felt strong hands lift him onto the bank where he coughed and struggled for air.

Looking back, Adam saw that Hoss was beginning to pull himself out of the water. The roar became louder as the approaching wave overtook him. A tangle of branches caught his legs and pulled him back into the now angry current.

Adam heard himself screaming, “No—Hoss, no!” Despite the pain of his injured ankle, he ran along the shoreline and watched as his brother was dragged down the streambed, still caught in the branches. The same words kept repeating in his head—no, not Hoss, please no, not Hoss. His brother’s head remained above the water and Adam could see that he was trying to free himself. The floating nest snagged on an even larger branch and it came to an abrupt halt. The current began to return to its normal flow. The only evidence of the blast remaining was the still riled water and the scattered limbs of desecrated trees.

Adam called out. “Hoss– can you hear me?” There was no answer. He could see his younger brother; his lower half submerged in the water, his head above, resting on his arms. He went for his rope and walked into the stream once more. Swimming out to his brother, he grabbed onto the twisted pile of limbs.

The blood ran freely from a gash along the right side of Hoss’ head. His eyes were half-open and he was shivering. Adam asked softly, “Hey brother, you with me?” His heart was pounding from the exertion and fear.

A whispered response rose above the sound of the rapids. “I’m here.” Hoss lifted his head. “Wherever here is.”

Adam’s head dropped forward onto his chest and he closed his eyes. The relief at the sound of his brother’s voice left him weak and shaking. But he knew he couldn’t stop. He had to get them both out of the water. He could feel his body temperature dropping and knew Hoss must be even colder.

Adam quickly dove under the mass of limbs to make sure Hoss wasn’t tangled in any of the branches. Surfacing, he tied the rope to his brother’s large frame. “Hoss, listen to me. I’m going to swim to shore and pull you in. You don’t have to do anything. Just try to relax and don’t pull against me.”

“I hear ya, big brother. Go ahead.” Hoss tried to focus on Adam’s face, but his vision was blurred and Adam’s outline had lost its definition.

Once on the bank, Adam tied the rope around a large sturdy tree and pulled. His muscles were stiff from the cold of the water but he worked through the pain. Hoss’ body floated free and was drawn onto the rocky beach. Adam collapsed next to his brother.

*****

“A fine bunch of horses, Joe. You did a great job.” Ben and Joe rode side by side, taking the same trail followed earlier by the elder Cartwright boys.

“Thanks, Pa. They should make a great addition to our string of saddle horses, and be ready just in time for the next roundup.” Joe looked around at the beautiful wild county they had entered. He lost his smile and stared intently into the hills. “It’s hard to believe someone would try to destroy this, just on the chance that they might find a little gold.”

“People never think of it as a little gold. They know the big strike is in the next stream, the next mountain.” Ben looked into the same hills as his son.

“Money is power, Joe, and power is what drives some people to do anything. Destroying the land means nothing to them.”

Joe turned and looked at his father. “I guess I still don’t understand, Pa,” he said.

Ben smiled at his still young son and said, “And I guess I’m glad you don’t.

Now how about we go find those brothers of yours.”

Ben knew his two older boys would start at the stream where Adam had heard the first blast. From there, he hoped they’d be able to pick up their trail. Ben rode one side while Joe rode the other.

“Hey Pa, over here!” Joe shouted.

Clear tracks of two horses stood out in relief in the soft ground of the stream’s bank. They spent the better part of the day trying to follow tracks that seemed to disappear into ground layered with broken shale. “Ok Joe, we better look for a place to bed down for the night. Even if there were some signs, it’s getting too dark see them. We’ll catch up with them in the morning.” Ben dismounted and started to unsaddle his horse. He stood still for a moment, looking over Buck’s back, into the shadowed hills beyond. I wonder, he thought to himself, do they ever get old enough for the worrying to stop? Answering his own question, he shook his head and smiled–no, never.

*****

Adam woke himself up shaking with cold. For a brief moment, it wasn’t clear where he was or what had happened. Than he saw his brother, shaking with the same cold. He pulled himself up to his knees, hitting his injured ankle on the ground as he did. He cried out with the sudden pain and fell forward onto his bigger brother. Hoss groaned and opened his eyes. Adam pulled away and steadied himself once more on his knees.

“Hang on, Hoss. I’ll go get some blankets than I’ll build up a fire.” Hauling himself upright, Adam knew no matter how much he needed to help his brother; he wouldn’t be able to do it until he did something about his ankle. By the little light that was left to the day, he forced himself to hobble back to where they had set up camp. The sweat of pain forced itself through the cold of evening.

Adam knew that once he put his boot back on, removing it would be impossible. Grimacing in pain, he pushed it on. He took one of the blankets and cut it into strips. He began to wind it around his foot and up across his ankle, to the top of his boot. He pulled the strips of cloth tight hoping it would keep any movement to a minimum. The firm pressure alleviated some of the pain. He pulled his rifle from its scabbard, emptied it and used it to help himself to a standing position. Gathering the things that he needed, Adam made his way back to his brother.

“Hoss, I need to get a blanket under you. I’m going to roll you on your side.” On his knees once again, close to his brother; Adam pushed until he could get the blanket almost all the way under. He pulled Hoss toward him, reached over and pulled the blanket the rest of the way through. At least he has something between him and the cold ground he thought. He layered the rest of the blankets over the top of his trembling brother.

“Thanks Adam, that feels better already. You ok?” Hoss asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just hurt my ankle a little bit. Your eyes clear up any?”

“Well, you ain’t looking quite so blurry, like before. But I got to admit, my head sure does thump some.” He raised his hand and placed it over the gash in his head.

Adam reached up and took his hand away. “Just leave that alone now. I’ll clean it out after I build a fire.” Hoss closed his eyes.

It didn’t take Adam long to have a strong fire going with a pot of coffee started and water heating. He took care of Sport and Chubb and moved back to Hoss. The pain in his ankle was becoming too much to ignore. He knew he had to sit down soon. He took some of the heated water, ripped off the tail of his shirt and began to clean the wound on Hoss’ head. After all the blood was gone, he found the wound didn’t look as bad as he originally thought, but it would still need some stitches.

“Am I still purty, Adam?” Hoss asked. A smile lit his pale face.

“Just as handsome as ever.” Adam smiled back. “Think you could eat a little bit? I can turn the beef Hop Sing sent along into a broth.”

“Well, I can’t be feel’in too bad cause that sounds kinda good. Help me sit up,” Hoss said.

Adam managed to prop his bigger brother up against his saddle. After the broth was cooked up, he handed Hoss a cup and took one for himself. They both sat in silence, sipping the hot liquid. He was grateful that Hoss had stopped shaking and that it looked as if he was going to keep down his meager dinner.

“I’ll be fine to ride in the morning,” Hoss said. “Looks like it may be a little while before we can go after them again.” His eyes were starting to close as he spoke.

“Let’s not worry about them right now. We need to get you home and have the doc take a look at your hard head.” Adam wasn’t sure Hoss had heard anything he said. His soft snores intruded on the normal sounds of the night.

Adam put more wood on the fire than leaned into his own saddle. His ankle throbbed and he wished desperately that the pain would just disappear. He wondered how much sleep he’d get this night. He reloaded his rifle and put it within easy reach. The events of the day finally caught up with him and despite the pain, he fell into a light sleep.

*****

Adam awoke to the sound of a gun being cocked next to his ear. His first instinct was to reach for his rifle but common sense ruled and he froze in place. “Now that’s a good boy—just don’t move.” Adam couldn’t see the owner of the voice but the man’s meaning was more than clear. He looked at Hoss, who was just beginning to stir.

“Git over there and see to that one,” came from the man pointing a gun at Adam’s head.

Adam watched as a man older than both he and Hoss approached his brother. “Leave him alone,” Adam said. The implied treat hung in the air.

“Or what, boy?” Adam felt the barrel of the gun touching the side of his head. The second intruder poked at Hoss with his rifle.

Common sense fled. Adam slapped the gun away form his head and in one movement, turned and swung blindly at the man threatening them. His fist connected with the man’s jaw and sent him lurching backward. He was about to continue the assault, when the other gunman shouted, “You best stop or your large friend here gets a bullet. Your choice.”

Adam turned and faced the second attacker and his brother. Hoss was fully awake now. Standing on one leg, Adam let his shoulders sag and unclenched his fists. Risking his own life was one thing, but he wouldn’t risk his brother’s. He had no warning when the first blow struck him across the back. It staggered him and he went down on his knees. The second hit the right side of his face, snapping his head backward. He fell in a heap, his whole body jolted by the exploding pain.

Hoss rose quickly from his bedroll. He swayed, trying to regain his balance after yesterday’s episode in the stream, than hurried to Adam’s side. Seeing his brother treated so brutally made him forget that there was a rifle trained on his back. He lowered himself to his knees and gently turned his brother over. “Oh Lord, Adam,” he uttered aloud. Blood covered the right side of his older brother’s face, trickling down his neck only to be hidden beneath his collar.

Through a haze, Adam could hear and see his brother but most of all he felt the gentle hands gather him close. For a moment, he just wanted to rest against Hoss’ broad chest but the reality of the situation intruded. “You all right?” Adam murmured.

“It should be me asking you that, big brother. Think anything’s broken?” He once again felt the gentle hands as they explored his face than his ribs.

“Don’t know yet. Need to catch my breath.” Adam closed his eyes and concentrated on making the pain manageable. In his mind, he pushed it out of the way so he could focus on the situation at hand. Both he and Hoss were hurt, although it seemed their injuries were not life threatening. Two armed men, probably the ones who had been dynamiting the streams were desperate enough to attack them—and what, what did they want?

Adam opened his eyes and saw Hoss’ concerned face. “Don’t look so serious. I’m still here,” Adam said trying to smile despite the pain in his face.

“Get him up and both of ya go sit by them trees.” The man who had hit Adam pointed toward a thicket of pines.

Hoss looked up with a smoldering anger in his eyes. “I’ll get him up but don’t you touch him again. Ya hear? Don’t ever touch him again.”

“It’s alright, Hoss. Just give me a hand to get up,” Adam said, trying to get his brother’s attention away from the gunmen. He knew that it took along time for Hoss to get angry, unless it had to do with family. And that anger was something he didn’t want to see unleashed. Hoss won’t be thinking and not thinking could get him killed. “Come on brother, I can’t seem to do it alone.” Adam took in a sharp gasp of air as he tried to stand up. Hoss turned back to Adam.

“Easy there, Adam.” The anger in Hoss’ voice had faded to concern for his struggling sibling. “Let me help ya.”

“No argument from me,” Adam responded. They leaned on each other as they walked toward the pines.

Watching closely, the first gunman said, “Now just sit down and shut up.” The two men started to rummage through the supplies Adam and Hoss had brought for their trip. “Just what are you two doing up here?” he asked.

Adam shot the man a look from beneath furrowed eyebrows and said, “We live here, but I might ask you the same question.”

“You might, smart mouth, but I’m the one with the gun. Why are you tracking us?” The man was becoming agitated and Adam regretted irritating him.

“Hey Winters, look here.” The second man held Adam’s rifle in the air, pointing to the silver inlay on the stock with his initials.

“Lemme see that.” Winters grabbed the rifle from his partner’s hands.

“AC—let’s see now. That wouldn’t stand for Adam Cartwright, now would it?” His face twisted into a cynical sneer. “And the big one there is your brother, right? I seen you two in town before.

“Well if you’ve seen us and know who we are, then you know why we’re here and you know you’re on Ponderosa land.” Adam stopped and took a deep breath. “Let me guess; you think by dynamiting the streams, you’ll turn up a strike. Am I correct?” Adam kept his voice cool but his eyes took in every movement.

“Smart boy. And we’re gonna keep at it too. Bound to hit it eventually,” said Winters. He liked feeling superior to the Cartwright sons.

“Well Mr. Winters, I wouldn’t count on it. Gold can be an elusive mistress. Not to mention the fact that we’ll soon be missed,” said Adam.

Hoss added, “Why don’t you just ride out and don’t stop until you’re clear of our land.”

Winters obviously had a short fuse. “Cause there’s gold here,” he shouted “and we’re gonna get our share. And there ain’t nothin you two are gonna do about it.” He waved the gun around in the air to emphasize his prisoner’s helplessness.

“Johnson, tie these two up. I got to think this out.” Winters went to his horse. He hauled a bottle from his saddlebags and pulled the cork. After taking a long drink, he wiped his mouth and smiled cruelly at his bound captives. He moved over to sit on a fallen log.

Johnson had tied the two brothers securely and joined his partner for a drink. “What are we gonna do with these two? We didn’t plan on runnin’ into nobody–especially the owner’s sons.” He voice sounded scared as he reached for his partner’s bottle.

“Don’t panic, Johnson. They ain’t gonna cause any trouble.” Winters glanced at the Cartwright brothers and laughed. “I think we need to take one with us for a little insurance. We’ll leave the other one here.”

Winters got up and stood in front of Adam and Hoss. A look of smug superiority was on his face. “Now boys, who wants to go for a ride with us?”

Adam spoke first. “Are you really dumb enough to kidnap the son of one of the biggest ranchers in the territory? Think about it. If you take one of us, my father will stay on your trail no matter how long it takes. If you leave us and our land, it’ll be over.” Adam’s eyes didn’t move from Winters’.

Adam didn’t see the fist that snaked out and drove into his stomach. He just felt the result as he automatically rocked forward to lessen the effects. He had tried to tighten his muscles to help absorb the blow, but it had been too late to do any good.

Hoss struggled against his bonds. “I done told ya what would happen if you ever touched him again.” The cold fury in Hoss’ voice made the man take a step backward. “There ain’t a place you can hide that I won’t look. And when I find ya, you won’t be hittin’ a man who’s tied down.”

Winters recovered and hid his fear with a laugh. “Well, big man, we’ll see about that. Yer older brother here is coming along with us and I’d suggest you tell yer Daddy to back off or I’ll put a bullet in him. Johnson, get the horses ready. Then untie smart mouth so we can take him with us, and we’ll be on our way.”

Adam was just recovering his breath but had heard the exchange between Hoss and Winters. “Hoss—Hoss, listen to me. Just get yourself free and find Pa and Joe.” He winced as he took another breath. “I’ll be alright. They aren’t about to let anything happen to me. I’m too valuable to them right now.”

“Shut up, Cartwright,” said Winters as he untied Adam. “Now get on your horse and don’t give me no more trouble. I may want you alive for the time being but that don’t mean I won’t beat you til yer barely breathing.” He shoved Adam forward.

Adam’s ankle could barely support his weight and he felt the joint rock with each unsteady step. He mounted Sport, groaning at the extra stress on the injured limb. He straightened his shoulders and looked back at his brother. His voice took on a quiet strength. “Stop them, Hoss. Do whatever it takes.”

Hoss watched as Adam disappeared into the heavy morning fog. The blood crept down his wrists as he continued to battle against the ropes that held him. He kept thinking what a man like Winters could do to his brother and he fought harder to free himself.

*****

Ben and Joe woke up early and broke camp. The morning fog gave way to a clear, sunny day. Once again they found the tracks of two horses that stayed close to the widening stream. In the distance, they could see a thin wisp of white smoke as it rose lazily into the morning sky.

“Look Pa,” Joe smiled and said as he pointed at the smoke. “Do you suppose they have a pot of coffee going?”

Ben smiled back. A sense of relief filled him as he responded, “If I know your brother Adam, the coffee is on the fire.”

They eased their horses into a ground-covering canter toward the spot where they hoped the Cartwright brother’s were camped. The sounds of their arrival made Hoss lift his head and with a frantic cry, he called to his father. “Pa, Pa—over here.”

“Hoss” cried Ben as he ran toward his helpless son. Joe had reached his brother first and cut the ropes. Ben saw the gash on his son’s head and his torn and bleeding wrists. “My God boy, what happened to you?”

“They took him, Pa. They took Adam.” Hoss’ tone was a desperate mixture of fear and anger.

Ben was momentarily confused by what Hoss was trying to tell him. He looked around for his oldest son. Finally the words sunk in and cold fear grabbed at Ben’s gut. “What do you mean somebody took him—who took him?” Ben took a deep breath, trying to steady himself.

Joe retrieved a canteen from his saddle. Hoss swallowed hard than told his father and brother everything that had happened. “Than they rode away Pa and they took him. The last thing Adam said to me was stop them—he said, do whatever it takes. But if we go after him, they said they’d kill him.” Hoss stopped and looked down. Almost whispering he said, “they told me to tell ya they’d put a bullet in him if we followed.” Hoss looked at his father, not knowing what else to say.

“Pa, you take Hoss to the doctor. I’ll go after Adam.” Joe couldn’t stand the inaction any longer. Every part of him needed to move forward. All he knew was that both of his older brother’s had been abused by two men who thought gold was more important than a human life and he was angry.

“Joseph, you will not go after anybody. Do you hear me?” Ben’s eyes stared into Joe’s. “I have one son under the gun. I’ll not have two.”

“But Pa—that’s Adam out there. We can’t just leave him. You know they won’t turn him loose.” The overwhelming fear Joe was feeling showed itself in anger and impatience. “I can’t just stand around and wait while we talk about what to do. And neither can Adam!”

“Now you listen to me,” Ben hissed. “You will wait until we figure out the safest way to get Adam back. These men won’t hesitate to kill your brother. I want my son back alive and I won’t have you getting yourself or him killed because you went off half-cocked.” Ben stopped than added. “Is that understood?”

The defiance in Joe’s eyes burned for another moment before it was replaced by resignation. “Yeah, I understand.”

Ben turned back to Hoss. “Can you ride son?”

“Yeah, I’m ok Pa—really. How we gonna handle this?”

“We need to have a doctor look at you first,” said Ben but before he could continue, Hoss interrupted him.

“Pa, you weren’t here. These men—especially Winters, they’ll hurt him. We got no choice. We got to go after him.” Hoss stood up.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Ben asked once again.

“I told you, Pa,” Hoss said in a determined tone, “I’m fine. Adam asked me to stop them and that’s just what I’m gonna do.” He went to his horse and started to tack up. He turned back and faced both his father and younger brother. “Pa, Adam pulled me out of that stream. If it weren’t for him, I’d be dead. Now I’m gonna return the favor.” He turned back to Chubb and continued. “He was more concerned about what they was doing to the land than himself, but I tell you Pa, I don’t give a damn what they do to the land; I want my brother back.” Hoss mounted and started following track.

*****

There was no conversation among the trio of men who rode further into the hill country. The longer Adam stayed in the saddle, the more his ankle throbbed with pain. Right now, he’d give anything if he hadn’t put his boot back on. Winters finally stopped beside a swiftly flowing creek that tumbled down among boulders worn smooth by time.

“Ok Cartwright, get down,” Winters said as he dismounted.

Adam dismounted, carefully trying to avoid putting any stress on his ankle.

He started to walk toward a rocky outcropping but finally the unsteady joint gave way and he fell to the ground. Unable to hide the pain, he held his ankle and grimaced until he was once more in control. The sweat broke out on his brow and his color faded to a pasty white. He dragged himself along until he reached a rock to lean against. Breathing hard he looked at Winters and said, “Now what?”

“Now we’ll see if we can find some nuggets in this pretty little stream,” Winters said as he reached into a pack for dynamite and blasting caps. “I wouldn’t stay there, Cartwright, unless you want us to give you back to yer Daddy in pieces.”

Winters and Johnson descended into the stream and put the explosives in a place that would disrupt the natural flow of the creek. Adam pushed himself upright with the help of the rock he had been leaning against. Using the ledge for support, he moved away from the area of the blast.

Winters and his partner scrambled out of the water and took cover. The explosion sent tremors through the ground they stood on. Being that close to the blast caused a temporary pain in their ears and left them all with a short-lived hearing loss.

Adam coughed out the dust that he had breathed in. His eyes watered and his ears thundered with the lingering sounds. As the air cleared, he made his way toward what had once been the shoreline. The blast had uprooted trees and split the granite giants that had randomly dotted the waterway. Once again, the water ran brown with mud and debris, following a new path. He wondered if his family had heard the blast.

“Hey Winters, why can’t he dig, instead of us doing it?” Johnson said in a voice more befitting a five-year-old than a grown man.

“Get down there and start digging,” Winters growled as he threw a shovel at Adam’s feet.

“If you want me to work, you better let me do something about this ankle.” Adam didn’t move. He tried not to let his voice give away the pain he felt.

Winters was tempted to strike out at his captive again but he wanted Adam in good enough shape to work. “Alright Cartwright, go ahead.”

Adam sat down and removed the wrappings. He knew the swelling would keep him from pulling his boot off. Adam looked up at Winters and said, “I need a knife.”

Winters was about to protest when Adam continued. “Look, I’m not going to be able to do anything until I split this boot.”

Winters took a hunting knife from the protective cover at his waist and threw it at Adam’s feet. “Hurry it up Cartwright and don’t try anything.”

“I wouldn’t think of it.” The words flowed out of his mouth before Adam thought about what he was saying; someday I’ll think before I speak. He hoped his snide tone wouldn’t anger Winters further. He used the knife to open his boot to just above his ankle. It instantly relieved some of the pressure from the swelling. He would have liked to take the boot off completely and put his foot into the cold water of the creek. But he knew what he wanted made no difference.

“Alright Cartwright, leave the knife and start diggin.” Winters sat down and watched as Adam descended into the now drying streambed. Creatures that once lived in the cold, deep water lay dead or dying in tiny pools drying inward from the edges. A deep sadness entered Adam’s eyes as he took in the devastation. A silent promise kept echoing in his mind; he’d stop them, no matter what he had to do. Somehow, he’d stop them.

*****

The three Cartwright men lifted their heads; they all knew what it was. They rode hard toward the sound that conflicted so harshly with the peaceful surroundings. Hoss slowed Chubb to a walk and watched the ground for more signs. Suddenly, there they were again, tracks of four shod horses. “Look Pa,” he said. “They ain’t even trying to cover their tracks. Figured we wouldn’t follow them as long as they had Adam.”

“Four horses?” Joe said with a question in his voice.

“Yeah Joe, they had a packhorse with them,” Hoss said. “These tracks are pretty fresh. If they was blasting a creek again, they gotta be pretty close. Morgan’s Creek. I’ll bet they’re at Morgan’s Creek,” he exclaimed.

Both sons looked at their father, waiting for some direction. Ben hesitated. What if we catch up with them and can’t get to Adam before they hurt him? I’ll never forgive myself, he thought. But what’s the alternative? They’ll use him as a hostage, but they’ll never let him go. Ben turned in the direction of Morgan’s Creek. God help me make the right decision he implored.

His face set, Ben turned back to his sons. “Mount up. We’re going to get your brother.”

*****

Adam had trouble concentrating. He was exhausted from the combination of no water or food and the pain. Every time he lifted another shovel full of dirt, his bruised back and ribs cramped. Finally, he just stopped working, not caring for the moment what the outcome might be.

Winters and Johnson had been sitting on the stream bank, killing another bottle. Winters looked at Adam through squinted eyes. “What’s your problem, Cartwright? Keep work’in.”

Adam knew he was close to his physical limit and if he didn’t stop soon, he’d just collapse. He also knew that what he was about to say probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do but he said it anyway. With a nonchalance he didn’t really feel, he said “No.”

“Cartwright, I told you before. I might want you alive but almost dead still counts.” The liquor Winters had consumed just made him meaner and gave him the false courage he needed to face a man he knew was a superior adversary.

Adam didn’t move. He leaned against the shovel, trying to take the weight off his ankle. He had nothing more to say, so he just stared at his tormentor.

Winters got up, pointing the rifle at his recalcitrant hostage. “Get out of there, Cartwright,” he snarled.

Using the shovel as a crutch, Adam was able to move across the drying streambed and up the bank. Johnson got up and stood next to Winters.

“Go get a rope, Johnson, and tie smart mouth here to a tree.”

Johnson obeyed and pushed Adam in front of him toward a huge, old pine. He tied Adam securely, arms bent backward around the rough trunk. He watched as Winters approached.

“You think you’re so much better than us, don’t ya. You got all this land and don’t care if anybody else gets their share.” Winters moved within striking distance. Adam tensed. He could smell the alcohol and knew it fueled the man’s anger.

“Well let me tell you Cartwright, there’s gold here and I don’t give a damn if it’s on your land or not. And I don’t care how many streams and trees get blown up while I’m look’in for it.” By now, Winters was yelling. His hands were clenched and he was shaking with rage.

Winters’ fists caught Adam with muscles tensed but the blows still took their toll. His face and ribs took most of the punishment. There was nothing he could do but try and breathe between the punches. Finally Winters’ ire seemed to cool and he stopped. He backed away from his victim. He looked down at his bloodied hands, a smile of triumph on his face. He knew the blood wasn’t his. “Still think you’re so much better, Cartwright?”

Adam picked his head up and looked toward the sound. Both his eyes were beginning to swell, making it hard to see. Blood ran freely from his nose and mouth. He knew he was at the end of his strength. He felt the sting of something that had always been so foreign to his nature; helplessness. Helpless to keep the promised trust and helpless to do anything for himself. But helpless or not, his pride was still intact and he’d be damned if he’d let this coward see what he was feeling. He looked into Winters’ eyes, smiled and said, “Always.”

The gunman was now infuriated and he drew his sidearm. He held it out straight in front of him, aiming at Adam’s chest. “I’ll take my chances with your old man,” he said.

With little time to think, Adam smiled at the picture in his head of he and Hoss standing in the middle of the deep, cold stream; laughing and telling stories. God, I’ll miss him he thought. I’ll miss them all. He dropped his head and waited for the shot that would end his life.

Johnson heard the sound of approaching horses. His partner was too intent on ending Adam’s life to hear anything. “Winters!” he shouted. Somebody’s comin.”

Winters looked away from his victim. “Quick”, he said. “Get behind those rocks.” They both scrambled for cover.

When the shot didn’t come, Adam lifted his head. He heard the sound of horses and knew it must be his family. He turned his head back to Winters and Johnson in time to see them retrieve some dynamite from the packhorse. He immediately knew their intention.

Ben signaled for his sons to spread out. They slowly moved forward, guns drawn. Hoss was the first one to break into the clearing. Adam watched as his brother approached and knew he was completely unaware of the two men hiding behind the rocks.

Hoss spotted his brother, bound to the pine. “Adam,” he whispered and briefly closed his eyes against the site of his battered sibling. His gun dropped to his side.

Without warning, Winters stepped out, dynamite in hand, fuse lit.

Adam struggled against his restraints and shouted his brother’s name. “Hoss, no—get back.”

Before Hoss could raise his gun, Winters threw the ignited missile toward the man who had taunted him. The man he couldn’t break. A smile twisted his lips as the explosion shattered the air.

Hoss watched as the scene unfolded in front of him, powerless to stop it. His brother was now hidden from him behind a cloud of smoke and dust. With an enraged howl welling out of him, he launched himself at the man he intended on destroying.

Ben and Joe came into the clearing together, just in time to see Winters throw the explosive. Both fell to the ground. Momentarily stunned, they gathered their senses and rose to their feet.

Ben ran to Adam. Joe turned to Hoss. He saw Johnson come out of hiding and raise his gun to fire but Joe was quicker and his bullet was deadly accurate.

Joe watched as his middle brother shook Winters as if he was a rag doll.

“I told ya,” Hoss said, “there ain’t no place you could hide that I wouldn’t find ya.”

Forcing himself into action, Joe tried to pry Hoss’ fingers away from the man who was no longer struggling. “No, Hoss, stop. You’ll kill him!”

“Leave me alone, Joe. I wanna kill him,” he replied, his voice cold and emotionless. “He killed Adam.”

Joe knew he couldn’t come close to matching his brother’s strength. There was only one appeal he could use. “Hoss ,please, we need to help Adam,” he said, his voice trembled.

Hoss still held on to Winters but he had stopped shaking him. He looked at Joe than over at where Adam now lay on the ground, his father bending over him. He dropped Winters and went to his injured older brother.

“Pa?” Hoss breathed.

“I don’t know. He’s unconscious.” The only thing Ben could see was Adam’s beaten body, his chest rising with shallow breaths.

Joe spoke up. “We’ve got to get him help but the ranch is too far and so is town.

Hoss shook his head as if trying to clear away everything that had happened. How could they be laughing and happy one minute than suddenly thrust into a nightmare?

Ben roused. “Joe, ride for the doctor. There’s a line shack a couple of miles south of here. You know the one. Hoss and I will take him there.” Ben looked at Joe. “Be careful, son,” he said.

With a reassuring smile for his father and a gentle squeeze for Hoss’ shoulder, Joe took one last look at his oldest brother and was gone.

“Hoss, I’m afraid to move him onto a horse. Besides, we’re all too big to ride double. We’ll have to make a travois.” Ben’s voice was tight. He had to keep himself together. Breaking down now wouldn’t help his son. Later, there would be time for that later.

Hoss did as his father asked. Ben tied Winters to the same tree that had held his son. “You can’t leave me here, Cartwright,” Winters moaned. “I need a doctor. He almost killed me.”

“If my son dies, Mr. Winters, you won’t have to worry about the ‘almost’,” Ben replied. Winters knew the threat was real.

“I’m ready to move him, Pa.” With the help of his father, Hoss hooked the travois to Buck. He was a steadier horse and less likely to spook than Adam’s much loved Sport.

Cautiously, they started to lift in tandem but abruptly stopped when Adam cried out in pain. “Adam, we need to get you some help and to do that, we have to move you. I’m sorry, son.” Ben’s voice was strained with guilt and regret as he gently stroked the side of his boy’s face.

Adam opened his eyes and saw his father and middle brother looking at him. He couldn’t smile, his abused face won’t allow it but he looked at Hoss and whispered, “Lay on, Macduff.” Blessedly, he passed out.

*****

Ben and Hoss knew the night would be long. Adam never moved nor spoke while they carried him into the little cabin. They washed the cuts and bruises that covered his body and removed what remained of his boot. Blood had accumulated in the soft tissues surrounding his ankle causing them to swell and turn a deep shade of blue. Hoss raised his foot up on several folded blankets and placed cold, wet compresses on the injured limb.

“Pa, I know you won’t sleep but why don’t you at least close your eyes for a little while? I’ll watch him.” Hoss became more worried as he watched his father become increasingly restless.

“I’m alright, son, but thank you.” How like Hoss to think of everybody but himself thought Ben. “I can’t rest until I know…” He stopped in mid-sentence and placed the back of his hand on Adam’s forehead than ran his fingers down one bruised cheekbone. “All for gold. They beat my son and destroy the land for gold.” He knew he’d never understand.

Dawn’s first light found them both keeping the long vigil at Adam’s bedside. Hoss got up and went outside to check on the horses. He breathed deeply of the new morning air. He had always loved this quietest of times. Unwilling to give in to his exhaustion, he picked up a bucket and walked to the stream.

He bent down and looked at the clear, swiftly flowing waters. The image of his brother’s laughing face as he stood in another stream just yesterday crowded into his mind. “Please God,” he asked, “all my brother did was try to protect me and the land. Don’t take him away.”

The welcome sound of hoof beats broke Hoss’ reverie. It was Joe. And with him were the doctor and the Sheriff. Just seeing that help had finally arrived gave him hope.

Paul and Roy entered the line shack while Joe went to greet Hoss. “Any change?” Joe asked.

“No. He hasn’t moved since we brought him in.” Hoss looked toward the cabin. “He did wake up when we first tried to move him onto the travois.” Hoss hesitated than continued, struggling to keep his voice from cracking. “He was quot’n some writer fella; you know how he does.” Tears slide down his face and he made no move to wipe them away. Joe wanted to ask more but waited for Hoss to offer. They walked to the shack in silence.

Paul examined his patient on the narrow cot that butted against the wall. He asked Ben what he knew of Adam’s injuries and how they had occurred. All the information fed into his estimate of the young man’s condition. The uneven pupils confirmed what the doctor had suspected. A definite head injury but whether only a concussion or complicated by a fracture, he did not know. Finally, he drew the cover up over the still body on the bed.

Paul Martin turned to see distressed faces that stared at him with questioning eyes. “He has a head injury, Ben. Probably caused when he was forced back against the tree by the blast. Believe it or not, his other injuries are not as terrible as they seem.” Ben looked doubtful. Paul put a hand on Ben’s arm. “I know. They look awful but it isn’t anything that won’t heal. He does have some cracked ribs.” Paul moved back to Adam’s side and placed a protective hand on his shoulder. He said softly,” I don’t know if that happened before or after the explosion.”

Ben drew himself up, straightening his shoulders. “Can we take him home, Paul?” For some unknown reason, Ben felt that if he could just get his son home than everything would be alright again. Adam would be surrounded by the things he loved and by the people who loved him.

A slow, sad smile crossed the doctor’s lips. “No Ben, not yet. Let’s see how he does tonight and I’ll know more in the morning. Right now, I don’t want him to have any extra movement or noise. Just rest.”

Paul sat at Adam’s bedside while Ben went to make coffee. Hoss and Joe followed the sheriff outside. Joe had told Roy the entire story, including where he could find Winters and the body of his partner. “Don’t you boys worry about nothin’; I’ll take care of this Winters fella. He’ll be behind bars in no time.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Joe said.

Hoss had remained silent during the conversation, until now. “You keep him safe, Roy. Cause if anything happens to Adam, he’s mine.” He walked back inside.

Joe dropped his head than looked back up at the sheriff. “He’ll be ok, Roy. He’s just hurtin’, is all.”

“I understand, Joe. Can’t say as I feel much different myself.” With that, the sheriff left to pick up his prisoner.

*****

Ben, Paul and Joe sat outside on the porch, watching the last light of day fade from the sky. Hoss sat inside with Adam.

“This time you need to listen to me, older brother,” Hoss started. “Now I ain’t about to go through life without you to help me out. I know Pa would always be there but there’s just some things that’s easier to talk to a brother about than a Pa.” He watched Adam for a response. The ink-colored lashes remained still. “And Joe, well Joe’s just too young yet. And we both know he’s more likely to steer me into a mess than out of one.” Hoss couldn’t help but smile at the thought of his impish younger brother. “Come on now, Adam. You promised Ma you’d always be there for me. You can’t break yer word to her.” He stopped and waited once more but there was no response. He sighed and dropped his head into his hands.

Softly whispered words broke the silence. “I could never deny her anything, especially a promise to take care of what she loved most.” The utterance coming from Adam had been muted but clear.

Startled by the sound of Adam’s voice, Hoss raised his head and stared into the face of his now conscious sibling. “Welcome back, brother. You were beginning to scare me.”

“Sorry. I don’t remember just what happened after you came into the clearing.” Adam closed his eyes and furrowed his brows. Hoss knew the gesture was one of trying to keep the pain at bay.

“Don’t matter now. You just rest. I’ll get Pa.” Hoss rose. But before he went to get his family, he took a moment to look up and say thank you.

*****

Adam was glad to finally get away by himself. His recovery was unremarkable but his over-anxious father had kept him close to home for some time. Not wanting to upset him further, Adam had indulged his father’s protective instincts. But finally, his independence couldn’t be stifled any longer.

He sat on the boulder and looked around. The little glade had been spared, at least for now. He knew there would be others who sought to cut down the trees or foul the water or destroy the land, all in the name of money and power and progress. But at least while he and his family lived, the Ponderosa would be safe. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth before he dropped his eyes once again to the open pages of his book.

***The End***

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