Summary: Adam puts an acquired skill to good use.
Word Count: 2682
When he was thirteen, Henry Allen Atherton had bet him that he could not saddle his horse blindfolded. He had accepted the bet, but not until he had practiced and knew he could do it. He had won a fine secondhand skinning knife and realized that he had acquired a useful skill. If he could saddle a horse blindfolded, he could saddle a horse in the dark. Two weeks later he had taken his first night ride. Every few months for the three years since, Adam Cartwright had saddled his horse in the dark and then ridden out into the night. His pa had discovered what he had done exactly three times. Each successive time the price he paid was higher, but it had yet to be high enough to keep him from the next ride.
Adam led Sport into the moonlit night. He had received the gelding for his sixteenth birthday, and this would be their first night ride together. Adam moved stealthily and prayed that nothing would wake his father. The last time he had been caught was his baby brother’s fault. Little Joe had awakened crying in the night. That had drawn his pa and stepmother from their bed. While Marie quieted the three-year-old, Ben had looked in on his older boys. He had found Adam’s bed empty. Adam had discovered his pa waiting for him on the porch when he walked his horse back into the yard. Well, sometimes when you danced, you had to pay the piper. The exhilaration he felt when racing through the night was beyond price. Sometimes he craved it in his soul. Besides, Joe was now four and generally slept through the night. Deciding he was far enough from the house, Adam slipped into the saddle and sunk his heels into Sport’s sides.
The lake shimmered in the moonlight. Adam dismounted and rubbed Sport’s neck. “You’re a wonder, boy. Yes, you are,” he murmured into the equine ear. He led the horse to the water’s edge and allowed him to drink. A breeze cooled Adam’s face and brought the smell of water to his nostrils. He picked up a flat stone and sent it skipping. Then he saw a movement and knew he was not alone.
Someone was treading water a few hundred yards in front of him. His hand went to the pistol at his hip. In one fluid motion he stood and drew.
“Who’s there? Come out of the water.” Adam’s voice was far more commanding then his sixteen years should have allowed, and even though he had been wearing the gun for only two months, his hand was steady.
“I can’t.” The answering voice was undoubtedly feminine. “Not with you watching.”
Fear left, but embarrassment flooded him at the image the words conjured. His hand trembled, and he holstered his gun. “Where are your things?” His voice betrayed him.
“On the large rock,” the words were tinged with amusement.
Adam took a few steps back and turned away from the water. “I won’t watch.” It was too dark for him to see much if he did look, so the girl emerged and dressed quickly.
“Adam Cartwright, whatever are you doing here?” Adam swung around and stared down at the girl that had walked up behind him.
“What am I doing here?” he sputtered, “This is Ponderosa land. Just what are you doing here, Hannah?”
“Swimming.” Hannah Covington answered simply.
“Swimming! Alone in the middle of the night miles from home. What in blazes were you thinking?” The tone he used when reprimanding his younger brothers crept into his voice as thoughts of what might have happened to the girl if someone beside himself had come upon her filled his head. “You little fool! Do you even know what could have happened to you? Well, DO YOU?” His bellow echoed in the darkness.
“Do you expect me to answer, or do you want to yell a while longer?”
Adam’s voice dropped in volume and temperature. His tone was icy cold as he stated, “Do I want to yell some more? No. I want to turn you over my knee and teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget!”
“A lesson about running off and riding around without permission in the middle of the night, I suppose.” There was not enough light for Adam to see the wry smile on her face, but he heard it in her voice. He could feel the second blush of the night staining his cheeks, and was glad it was too dark for her to see it.
“Touché!” His tone told her his anger was gone.
“I suppose that means you’ve realized that the pot shouldn’t call the kettle black.”
“I suppose it does. What are you doing here, Hannah?” This time his tone was gentle. Hannah reached for his hand and drew him with her as she went to the large boulder and used it as a bench.
“Same as you, most likely.” She patted the rock. “Let’s talk, Adam.”
He sat down beside her. “So do you do it often?” he inquired.
“From time to time. How often do you run away into the night?”
“I’m not running away.” Adam’s tone was adamant.
“Okay. How often do you go racing through the night?”
“From time to time,” he answered.
She remained silent, and he returned the favor. He had a known Hannah since the start of the Virginia City School though he had not spoken to her since he had finished school at the end of the last term and started studying privately with a tutor. Not that he had spoken to her that often when they were schoolmates. Hannah was a year younger and had always been a quiet, serious student who Adam would have described as shy and timid up until tonight. A brown mouse with glasses was how Henry Allen had once described her.
Her voice broke into his thoughts. “Were you planning on swimming?”
“Were you planning on swimming, because if you were, I’ll promise not to watch?” Her tone was serious without a trace of mockery.
“No! “ His tone became chiding as he continued, “I don’t swim alone at night. It’s a foolish and dangerous thing to do, Hannah.”
“True. Myself, I never race my horse at night because it’s a foolish and dangerous thing to do and risks injury to the rider and the innocent horse.”
“Touché again, ” he muttered wondering if Hannah had changed so dramatically or if he had simply never seen this side of her before.
After a few moments silence, the girl spoke again, “If you’re not running away, Adam Cartwright, why are you risking your father’s wrath?”
Adam avoided answering by asking, “Aren’t you risking your folks’ wrath?”
“Not really. Not until you arrived, anyway.”
“They don’t care if you ride about alone at night?”
“As long as I don’t sass him, do my chores, and don’t spend time alone with a boy, my stepfather doesn’t really care what I do.” Hannah said flatly.
“And your mother?”
“She’s busy with my little half-brothers. She leaves it to him.”
“Certainly she doesn’t…”
“I remind her too much of my father, ” she interjected. She slid off the rock and walked to the water’s edge. Adam followed.
She turned swiftly to face him, and the moonlight made her smile visible. “You didn’t think a little brown mouse would venture out in the dark. Why, Adam, you know that’s exactly when mice are brave enough to scurry about.” She saw surprise on his face and continued, “I saw it. It was very good, you know. You could tell it was a mouse, and you could tell it was me. Very clever!”
Adam blushed for the third time but with shame not embarrassment. He had been bored, and Henry Allen’s description had caught his fancy. He had drawn the picture absentmindedly, and that really was not what caused his shame. He was ashamed of showing it to Henry Allen and some of the others boys and ashamed of the laughter it had generated. “You couldn’t have,” he sputtered, “How did you?”
“It doesn’t matter, Adam. It was years ago.” She shrugged dismissively.
Adam felt the need to apologize, “I’m sorry, Hannah. I shouldn’t have done it.”
“If you saw it, why didn’t you tell Mr. Keller?” Keller had been the teacher then. A strict and disapproving man with a heavy hand who Adam knew would have relished punishing him for such behavior.
“I liked you a great deal more than I liked Mr. Keller. He didn’t like you, Adam. He worried that you were smarter than he was. He would have enjoyed it too much.”
“You could have told my pa.”
“Everyone knows how strict your pa is, Adam. I wasn’t that angry, really.”
Adam bit his lip at the thought of what his father’s reaction would have been to discovering his son had been involved in ridiculing another student. “I’m sorry if I hurt you, Hannah,” Adam said softly.
Hannah reached up and brushed his jaw gently with her fingertips. “You’re forgiven, Adam, really you are.” Then her hand dropped, and she asked, “Am I forgiven for trespassing?”
“Of course, Hannah, why…”
“Then we’re even.” The girl laughed gently and turned once more to face the lake. She dropped to the ground and sat with her arms wrapped around her knees staring at the moonlight water.
Adam stood behind her also staring at the lake. He felt slightly disconcerted yet had no desire to leave. For a time they remained silent; each lost in thought. Then Hannah’s voice broke into Adam’s reverie.
“I thought perhaps you were running from your stepmother.”
“My stepmother mother! Why in blazes would I be running from Marie?”
Hannah tossed a small rock into the lake and watched the ripples spread before she answered, “You changed your mind then, did you?”
“Changed my mind?” Adam shook his head as if to clear it.
“Well, your feelings really.”
“You’re not making sense, Hannah.”
She turned her head and looked up over her shoulder at him. “I heard you tell Hoss that he could love her if he wanted but that you never would. That you would always want her gone.”
Anger flickered in Adam. Anger at himself for the thoughts he had once harbored and anger at the girl for knowing about them. “It seems you spent a great deal of your time eavesdropping,” he stated icily.
“Lots of people don’t pay much notice to little brown mice,” she stated simply. “Do you love her now, Adam?”
“Yes.” The word was spoken vehemently.
Hannah sighed. “I’m glad for you.” She sighed again. “Really I am.” There was an echo of despair in her voice.
A new thought entered Adam’s mind. “Are you running away from your stepfather? Are you, Hannah?”
She heard the sudden frantic concern in his voice and rose shaking her head. Small drops from her wet hair landed on his cheek. They felt like tears. “No, Adam, no. At least not in the way you’re thinking.”
“In what way, then?” Adam’s tone was demanding.
She took his hand and pulled him with her to the ground. They sat there facing each other in the dark. “Can I talk to you, Adam Cartwright, like a ghost in the night?”
“Am I to be the ghost, Hannah, or are you?”
She laughed then. “We’ll both be ghosts, and when the sun rises nothing we say tonight will be real.”
He nodded. That was easy. Nothing that had happened since he arrived at the lake seemed real anyway.
Hannah took a deep breath, “It’s not him really. My stepfather’s not a bad man. He just doesn’t have much use for girl children especially not another man’s whelp.”
“Has he called you that?” Adam asked softly. He couldn’t imagine either of his stepmothers ever referring to him as another woman’s whelp.
“It doesn’t matter, Adam. Stepparents don’t always love their stepchildren. If I was a boy and could be a real help on the place, well, then it would be different.”
“But your mother…” Adam began.
“She should have married someone like my stepfather the first time. Like I said, she thinks I’m too much like my real pa.”
“Didn’t she love your pa?”
Hannah paused to consider Adam’s question. “For a while, I guess she must have, but it didn’t last long. My pa was a dreamer, not a doer. Ma needs a doer.”
“Your little brothers, surely,” Adam ventured.
Hannah shook her head. “When they were babies, maybe, but now, well, they’re the spittin’ images of their pa.”
Adam told himself the girl must be exaggerating. Everyone got to feeling unloved and misunderstood sometimes. She had probably had a fuss with her folks.
Hannah stood up and darted to the water’s edge. “So, sometimes I come out in the night and wash it all away in the lake. Then it doesn’t matter for awhile.”
“But, Hannah, it’s still dangerous. If something should happen,” Adam chided softly.
She twirled to face him, “Then I’d become one of the night things. Do you ever want to be a night creature, Adam?”
Adam shook his head. “Hannah, I’m sure your family loves…”
“You can’t believe it, can you?” Hannah turned her back to him. “It’s just as well, I suppose.” She turned to face him again. “Why are you here, Adam Cartwright?”
Adam swallowed. “When I ride at night I feel, well, I feel free.”
“Free of what, Adam?”
Several moments passed before he answered, “Responsibility to anyone but myself.”
Still facing away from him, she mimicked the town gossips, “My goodness, that Adam Cartwright is such a responsible boy!” She turned then to face him. “So you want to be irresponsible, do you, Adam Cartwright?”
“Not exactly,” Adam muttered, “just not so responsible.”
“It is irresponsible, though, this racing through the night.”
“I suppose so.”
“So, here we have an irresponsible Adam Cartwright and a, a, well, a Hannah Covington who is not a mouse. What shall we do with the two of them?”
Adam cleared his throat. “We need to go home, Hannah. If I’m to see you home and get…”
See me home,” she interrupted, “You’ve no need to see me home.”
“I have to, Hannah. I can’t let a girl ride off alone through the night.”
“Why ever not?” she demanded.
“I just can’t.” Adam hesitated and bit his lip. “I’d worry, and if something happened, well, I’d blame myself.”
A sardonic grin curled the corners of her mouth. “You’re not responsible for me, Adam.”
“I’m taking you home, Hannah.” His voice was firm.
Hannah shrugged. Neither one spoke as they located and mounted their horses. When they reached the rise above her house, Hannah stopped. She slipped from the saddle and waited. Adam dismounted and stood beside her.
“What’s the matter, Hannah?”
“You can’t come any further, Adam.”
Hannah placed her hand on Adam’s arm. “Please, if my stepfather knew I was with you…” She let her words drift away in the dark.
As long as I don’t sass him, do my chores, and don’t spend time alone with a boy Adam heard Hannah’s earlier words in his head and realized why he could not risk taking her any further. “I’ll watch you from here.”
Hannah’s soft laugh held no mirth. She reached up and touched Adam’s cheek. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“I ruined it for you. No freedom from responsibility tonight.”
“You didn’t ruin anything, Hannah.”
She smiled. “I knew I liked you better than Mr. Keller or even Henry Allen.” She mounted and rode toward home. Adam watched until light appeared in the cracks of her barn. He checked the position of the moon and mounted Sport.
“Get us home quick, boy,” he whispered to the horse and sunk his heels into Sport’s flanks. Luckily Little Joe had slept through the night.