Word Count: 14,827
“Pa!” Ben Cartwright watched his oldest son lean back and groan. Hoss looked at is older brother and shook his head sadly. Little Joe grinned at the look on his eldest brother’s face and barely suppressed a giggle.
Ben had known that Adam would find his announcement disconcerting at the least. “Adam, it’s been over five years. She was just a child.”
“A child! Hardly. A demon. An imp of Satan sent from…”
“Adam! Enough. She was a child. A little willful perhaps.”
“Willful? Pa, you weren’t here for most of her willfulness, as you call it.” Adam arched his eyebrow and let a sneer curl his lips. “I still have her mark on me,” he continued and rubbed a small scar on his left hand.
“Now, Big Brother,” Hoss interjected, “she’s gonna have grown…”
“Grown even more intolerable, mean-tempered…”
“Adam, I’m sure she’s grown up and is a young lady we’ll all be able to tolerate while she is a guest here on the Ponderosa.” Ben’s tone made it clear that this was an order, not an observation.
“Actually, Pa, I’ve been thinking that I should take a trip up to…”
Joe could hold back no longer. The loud cackle of his laughter drowned out Adam’s proposed destination. “Adam running away from a girl!” he gasped, doubled over, and shook with more laughter. Hoss’s soft chuckles joined Joe’s hoots.
Anger flashed through Adam. “I’m not running away!” he spat out. His eyes shot fire at his youngest brother.
“And you’re not going anywhere either. I need you here. Joseph, finish your breakfast.” Ben’s tone ended the discussion, and Little Joe swallowed the rest of his laughter with his remaining eggs and ham.
Walking out to saddle Cochise, Joe chuckled to himself. For the past five years, just the name Abigail Warner could make Adam wince, and now she was actually coming to the Ponderosa again. Joe couldn’t wait. The first round of Abigail versus Adam had been delightfully entertaining for his youngest brother, and Joe looked forward to witnessing round two. Some people would have ruled the first match a draw, but Joe considered Abigail the only female he knew who had bested Adam Cartwright.
Back then Little Joe had been the one protesting when Pa had announced the Warners’ visit and his expectations. Twelve-year-old Little Joe had not wanted to spend any of his precious vacation from school trying to amuse some spoiled city gal just because they were the same age and their fathers were doing business. It had turned out that Abigail Warner had even less interest in spending time in his company. Having already turned thirteen, she had considered Joe simply a grubby little boy unworthy of her attention. Sullen and spoiled, Abigail had spent her first two days at the Ponderosa complaining constantly. Nothing seemed to merit her approval. Then her father decided that business responsibilities required him to accompany Ben on a round of the logging camps from which the timber that his company needed would come. Obviously they could not take a little girl. At least it had been obvious to every one except Abigail. She had pleaded and pouted and nearly succeeded in getting her father to agree that she could go, but Ben had stood firm in his instance that the camps were far too rough and dangerous for a child. Ben had insisted that Abigail would be much better off with his boys at the Ponderosa under Adam’s care. Twenty-three-year-old Adam had assured Mr. Warner that his experience riding herd on his younger brothers made him entirely capable of safeguarding Abel’s daughter. Because Adam had frequently watched his youngest brother wrapping their father around his finger, Adam had become adept at undercutting just the sort of maneuvers Abigail was using on her father. Abigail rightly attributed her failure to get her way to Adam’s interference and decided to make him regret it.
After demurely and tearfully saying good-bye to her father with proclamations of love and promises of good behavior, Abigail had defied Adam before the hour was out, shrieking back at him when he raised his voice, cursing, and brushing his head with a plate she shattered against the wall. Anyone with slower reflex’s than Adam Cartwright would have been hit squarely in the forehead. Things had gone down hill from there, for Adam anyway. Actually, Joe felt he owed Abigail. Adam had been far too busy dealing with Abigail to pay much attention to his little brother. It was the only time Joe could remember when Adam had been in charge and all lapses in Joe’s own behavior had gone unnoticed. In fact, it had been weeks after the Warners’ departure before Adam’s admonitions and remarks about his youngest brother’s faults had risen back to their normal levels. Compared to Abigail, Joe had been the “good child”. Of course, he had been far too engrossed in watching Abigail’s antics to engage in any pranks of his own.
To be truthful, Joe had been amazed at his brother’s self-control. The fact that Abigail was a guest, a female, no relation, and a business consideration had tied Adam’s hands for nearly a week. Far longer than Joe had thought possible when he and Hoss had laid bets as to how long it would be before Abigail received what Adam felt every spoiled child deserved. Little Joe had been very glad he was there for the final confrontation.
The Cartwrights had been surprised that a city girl like Abigail could ride. Her father had supplied a sidesaddle for her, and Ben had given her the use of a small, gentle mare called Penny. Abigail had considered her a far too docile animal and demanded a more exciting mount. Adam had then warned all of the hands to saddle no other horse for the girl. That morning Abigail had simply saddled Wildfire herself.
Joe and Hoss walked out of the house. Hearing a horse whinny, they looked toward the sound. There was Abigail Warner leading a stallion out of the barn. The sidesaddle on Wildfire’s back signaled the girl’s intention to ride the horse. Joe gasped. His father would not even allow Joe to ride Wildfire. There was no way Adam would have given permission for Abigail to ride that horse.
Hoss stepped back and shoved the door open. “Adam!” he shouted, “Get out here quick!”
Abigail had glanced over her shoulder at the sound of Hoss’s voice, turned back toward the horse, and placed her foot in the stirrup. Adam emerged from the house just in time to see her swing herself onto the stallion’s back.
“What in blazes! Abigail!” Adam brushed past his brothers. Adam’s shouting caused Wildfire to shy back, prancing out of control. The time it took Abigail to settle the horse allowed Adam to reach them. Placing his hands on the girl’s waist, Adam pulled her from the stallion’s back. “No way, little girl, No way!”
“Let me go.” Abigail spat out the words as she wrenched herself from Adam’s grasp and spun to once again face Wildfire.
Adam reached around her, pulled her back, and pinned her against his chest. He held her with her feet dangling inches above the ground. “Be still,” he hissed. Joe glanced at Hoss. When Adam’s anger went from a roar to that dead, flat half-whisper, his brothers knew to back off. Abigail Warner did not back off; she attacked. She dipped her head and sank her teeth into the flesh between Adam’s thumb and pointer finger. She bit down hard, breaking through the skin and drawing blood. With a howl, Adam dropped the girl to the ground. She scrambled to her feet, turning to face Adam, and spitting his own blood across Adam’s shirt. Joe and Hoss held their breath watching their older brother stare down at the girl in front of him. Abigail lifted her head to stare back directly into to Adam’s eyes. “Keep your hands off me.”
Joe heard Hoss groan and turned to look at his brother. Hoss’s eyes widened. Joe turned to see that Adam had once again lifted Abigail off her feet. Both boys stepped back as Adam carried a struggling Abigail into the house kicking the door shut behind them. Hoss hurried forward. Just as he opened the door, a high- pitched yowl reached the boys’ ears. Through the open doorway, they could see Adam sitting with Abigail face down across his lap with her skirt and petticoats pushed up to revel her white cotton pantalets. Adam’s hand came down again, and another yowl of pain filled the air followed by a string of curses. Hoss shook his head, and Joe wondered where a girl like Abigail had learned to swear like that. Accepting the situation was out of their hands, they watched Adam deliver a series of blows to Abigail’s backside. Joe knew exactly how hard his brother could wallop. Abigail should have been dissolving into sobs, but she continued to struggle and curse. Hoss called out, “Adam, she’s just a little girl.”
At his brother’s words, Adam Cartwright’s hand stopped in mid-air. He looked at his brothers, stood still holding Abigail firmly, and carried her into the downstairs guestroom. Walking across to the double bed, Adam dropped the girl onto the mattress. Staring down at her, anger still radiating from his every pore, Adam stated flatly, “If you set foot out of this room, I’ll finish this with my belt.” Spinning on his heel, Adam stalked out of the room putting an exclamation point on his sentence with the slamming of the bedroom door.
The thought that Abigail would do anything but sob herself to sleep did not cross the mind of any of Ben Cartwright’s sons. Adam had sat at his father’s desk working on some ledgers. Hoss and Joe had gone about their chores speaking of the earlier incident in only whispers and wondering what would happen when their pa and Mr. Warner returned. Not seeing Wildfire in the yard, they had assumed that one of the hands had seen to the horse. Hours latter when Hoss went to take Abigail some supper, he was shocked to find the bedroom empty, and the curtains at the open window fluttering in the wind.
Abigail had left by the window minutes after Adam slammed the door. Going around the outside of the ranch house, she had mounted Wildfire and ridden into Virginia City. Locating the sheriff’s office, she had marched in demanding that Adam be arrested for assault and battery.
By the time the boys had searched for Abigail and found Wildfire missing, Sheriff Coffee had arrived with Abigail “to investigate these accusations.” Minutes later Ben Cartwright and Abel Warner had also reached home. The two men had conducted their business with as much haste as possible and ridden hard to rejoin their offspring. Ben walked into to his home pleased to have returned so swiftly only to see Roy Coffee standing between his eldest son and his young guest while they both shouted angrily. Unable to catch the sense of anything that was being said, Ben had summoned the command voice he acquired as first officer aboard ship and roared, “What is going on here?”
In the silence that followed, everyone in the room had turned to stare at Ben Cartwright and Abel Warner. Then Abigail had darted dramatically into her father’s arms exclaiming, “Oh, Papa, he beat me!” With her head buried in her father’s vest, she had then started sobbing.
“Who beat you?”
“Adam.” Abigail’s sobs had stopped long enough for her answer to be clear and audible to everyone in the room.
All three of his sons had watched Ben Cartwright stiffen with anger. Adam had given an all too familiar shrug of his shoulders and stated that he had spanked, not beaten the girl. Without saying anything, Ben had walked over to Adam, grabbed him by the upper arm, and walked him out the door. Abel Warner had picked up his daughter and carried her into the guest bedroom. Hoss and Roy Coffee had sunk into seated positions on the hearth, and Joe had maneuvered himself so that he could see Adam and his father through the front window. Thinking back, Joe realized that it was one of the few times he could remember Adam looking younger than his true years. Joe had not heard his father’s tirade about self-control, hospitality, and lost business, but he had watched its effect on his eldest brother. Afterwards, Adam had walked in and knocked on the guest bedroom door. Mr. Warner had stood in the doorway with Abigail behind him while Adam had softly but clearly made his apologies. As he watched Adam walk up the stairs, even Little Joe had felt a wave of sympathy for his oldest brother.
Sheriff Coffee had risen and said with a grin, “I take it there won’t be any charges, Mr. Warner.” When Abel Warner shook his head, the sheriff had taken his leave and departed. Ben had then sent his two youngest into the kitchen to eat.
Mr. Warner had separated any personal feelings from his business decisions, signed the final contracts that night, and departed with Abigail early the next morning.
Adam’s anger had simmered for days. He was angry with Abigail, angry with her father for spoiling her, angry with his father for his attitude, but most of all angry with himself. He had failed to control the situation, failed to control a little girl, and failed to control himself. Adam viewed the entire incident has an unmitigated failure on his part, and Adam Cartwright despised failure.
Adam leaned against the stage depot and stared at the scar on his left hand. The Warners were arriving on the Sunday afternoon stage. All of the Cartwrights had simply stayed in town after church to meet them. There had been no gracious way Adam could withdraw from the reception committee. His dislike of the situation would not have been apparent to anyone watching his nonchalant posture, but every member of his family had sensed the tension underneath and noticed his eyes were more black than hazel as he looked in the direction from which the stage would approach.
Abel Warner exited the stage first calling a greeting to Ben. Then he turned to extend his hand to his daughter and help her down. Abigail stepped toward Ben.
“Mr. Cartwright, how nice to see you again.”
“Why, Abigail, I wouldn’t have recognized you. Welcome to Virginia City, young lady.”
Abigail did look quite the young lady. She had “put her hair up and her skirts down”, as folks said. She wasn’t a beauty, not even exactly pretty, but she was neatly attractive, Adam thought as his gaze swept over her. He watched her turn to his middle brother who swept off his hat and smiled.
“Hoss, you didn’t stop growing,” Abigail said tilting her head back to look up into his face. “And you, Little Joe. Silly me, here I was thinking of you as a boy and never expecting the man. Papa will be envying your strong sons, Mr. Cartwright.”
Adam saw how his brothers, especially Joe, preened at her comments. Apparently Abigail had decided to catch more flies with honey this trip.
“If you point out your bags, Mr. Warner, I’ll get them in the buckboard,” Adam said turning his attention to the stage. As Abel Warner pointed out their bags, Hoss volunteered to help, and they soon had the luggage loaded. Taking his place on the seat of the buckboard and picking up the reins, Adam waited silently. Joe brought up the buggy. Ben and the Warners joined him while Hoss took a seat beside Adam. Conversation swirled around the buggy the entire journey back to the ranch, yet it barely surfaced at all in the buckboard.
“Mr. Cartwright.” Adam turned as Ed, one of the Ponderosa’s hands, walked up. “Your guest, the lady, she asked me to saddle Star for her. Thing is she uses a sidesaddle, and Star ain’t never had one on his back. Now he’s not the sort for change. Makes him skittish, you know, so I thought I’d better check. Didn’t want to tell a guest no, but…” He looked expectantly at Adam.
Adam glanced around. Little Joe was never around when he might really be useful. In fact, none of the other Cartwrights were about, which is why Ed had come to him.
“I’ll see to it, Ed,” he answered. Spying Abigail standing by the barn, Adam walked over. “Miss Warner, Ed said you wanted him to saddle Star for you.”
“Is that a problem, Mr. Cartwright?”
“Well, Star’s never worn a sidesaddle. It’s a bit different feeling for a horse, and Star doesn’t deal well with the unfamiliar. Ed thought another horse,” Adam replied and watched Abigail stiffen. “He wasn’t questioning your ability, just the horse’s reaction. Sable might be a better choice.”
“If you think that’s best, Mr. Cartwright. Sable looked like a fine horse.”
“I’ll saddle him for you.”
Adam handed Sable’s reigns to Abigail. “The Ponderosa’s a big place, Miss Warner. A person unfamiliar with the land can easily get lost. It might be best if you didn’t ride too far alone.”
“I wouldn’t want to take anyone away from his work.”
“I’m sure we could spare someone — say Joe — from time to time.”
“Your little brother.” Her cool tone darkened Adam’s eyes with anger.
“My little brother is an expert rider, could travel the Ponderosa blindfolded, and can be an entertaining companion, Miss Warner.”
“I didn’t mean to disparage your brother,” Abigail said tersely. “I’ll stick to the roads and well-marked trails today, and speak to Joseph over supper.” Abigail ignored Adam’s move to help her mount and swung unaided onto Sable’s back.
Adam watched her ride away. He looked down at his left hand and rubbed the scar between his thumb and pointer finger. “I better remind Joe that those sweet-looking lips hide one sharp set of teeth,” he mused.
“Thank you, Joe. It’s been a lovely ride.” Abigail sat on a rock outcropping looking out over an upland meadow. They had stopped to rest the horses before riding home to the ranch house.
“I should be thanking you. I could have been fixing fences or pulling strays out of mud holes. I assure you that I much prefer a pleasant ride with a pretty companion. Anyone would.” Joe turned and smiled up at her from his seat on the grass below.
It had been a very pleasant ride, and Abigail was surprisingly good company. She was an excellent rider, yet Joe had been unusually cautious about the trail and the pace. The last thing he wanted was to be responsible for the girl getting hurt while in his care
“I can think of one person who wouldn’t,” Abigail sighed. “If I come back in another five years, do you think Adam might have stopped hating me?”
“Hate’s any awfully strong word.”
“But appropriate, right?”
“Now, has Adam done something?”
“Adam has been unfailingly polite, but we both know he’d like to throttle me. Of course, he has good reasons. It’s just… does he hold this tight to a grudge with everyone?”
“My eldest brother can be a stubborn cuss.”
“Actually, I should be surprised that any of the Cartwrights were willing to give me a second chance.”
“No, Joe, I know how I acted, and I’m sorry. You’d be surprised to know I didn’t act that way my entire childhood, not even most of it really. There were reasons — not excuses, mind you — but reasons.”
“You don’t need to explain to me or apologize; I’ve always enjoyed my memories of your last visit.” Joe grinned widely. “In fact, Miss Abigail, I have long admired you from afar.”
“Just what could have caused that admiration?”
Joe tipped up his hat and leaned back on his elbows. “Well now, I’ve never heard anyone, male or female, let out with a finer string of curses.”
Abigail giggled. “Would you believe my papa has never heard a curse word escape my mouth? Anything else?”
“You never backed down to Adam, and, lord girl, how ‘d you mange to ride all the way to Virginia City and back? The last place I ever wanted to be when Adam walloped me was on the back of a horse. “
Abigail leaned back and laughed. “Rage, Joe, rage and pure cussedness. I was just too mad to care how much it hurt. Don’t tell Adam, but I paid royally for that ride to the sheriff. What do you think Sheriff Coffee would have done if our fathers hadn’t arrived on cue? “
“Don’t know. I wish I could have seen his face though when you walked into his office.”
Abigail giggled again. “I suppose I really need to add him to my list.”
“Of people I must apologize to.”
“Don’t bother. I ‘m sure he thought the look on Adam’s face was worth the trip. Not many people manage to crack my brother’s unflappable demeanor quite so thoroughly. I, of course, am on that short list with you.”
“I’m beginning to think, Joseph, I missed the opportunity of a formidable ally when I chose to ignore you.”
“That you did, little lady, that you did!” Their laughter mixed.
“I suppose I’m on several of Adam’s short lists.”
“Some have only your name. You’re the only female Adam ever spanked, at least the only one I know of, and you’re the only one who left her mark on him.”
A puzzled looked crossed Abigail’s face. “What do you mean?”
“I guess you wouldn’t know. He has a scar from where you bit him.”
Abigail gasped, “It left a scar!”
“Well, a little one. It wouldn’t have except it got infected. He had trouble with that hand for weeks.”
“Well, no wonder he thinks I’m a monster.”
“Not a monster. He always says…” Joe suddenly thought he’d better not repeat Adam’s favorite moniker for Abigail to the girl.
“What does he always say?”
“Never mind. It’s nothing.” Joe sprang up and extended his hand to Abigail.
“Joe, tell me!”
“Well, in the past mind you, he has referred to you as, well, as an imp of Satan.”
“An imp of Satan,” Abigail repeated. Joe watched as anger flickered through her eyes to be replaced by amusement. She gazed back at Joe and smiled slowly. “You best beware, Joseph Cartwright; your brother might just be right!” Taking his hand, she rose and walked over to her horse.
“We’d better be getting back for lunch. I promised Hop Sing we wouldn’t be late.”
Abigail allowed Joe to help her mount and watched him vault into the saddle.
“You know, Joe, I really can handle this horse. How about a race?”
Joe gazed across the meadow. “Just to the creek.”
Abigail nodded and dug her heels into the horse’s sides.
The next day Abigail stepped in front of Adam. “Can I speak with you?”
“I have some things that need my attention.”
“I won’t keep you long.”
“Whatever can I do for you, Miss Warner?” Adam’s tone was terse, and the muscles of his jaw tightened.
“I haven’t had a chance to speak to you privately. I just wanted to apologize, to say I’m sorry for everything, for how I acted during my last visit.” Abigail waited for his answer, looking directly into Adam’s eyes. Instead of them softening, she watched them grow darker.
“As I’m sure you recall, I made my apologies five years ago,” he stated flatly. “If there’s nothing else?”
“No, there’s nothing else.”
“Then I’ll be going.” Adam walked into the kitchen. Suddenly he felt a large hand grab his arm bringing him to a halt.
“Wait a durn minute, Adam.” Hoss had been standing unseen in the doorway watching the exchange between Abigail and Adam. “That gal just apologized to you.”
Adam’s eyes flashed. “So now I should what? Forget all and invite her to the church dance. She may have wrapped you and Joe around her finger, but I know what she’s really like, and I’m not likely to forget.”
“Joe’s right. You are an old granite head! Can’t you just…”
“No, I can’t! And you can just stay out of it.”
“Stay out of it! You durn fool. Ain’t you noticed yet, you’re the only one still fighting!”
Adam pulled away from his brother, stomped across the kitchen, and slammed his way out the backdoor.
Hoss shook his head and turned to see that Abigail, having followed after Adam, had witnessed their confrontation. “Abigail, Adam didn’t really mean…”
“Hoss,” Abigail stopped him, “he meant every word he said. He thinks inside I really am a terrible person, and he’s not going to change his mind.”
“Adam just doesn’t give up on an idea easy. If he understood why you acted the way you did, well, then he’d come around.”
“Do you think he’d understand that I was mad with my father and the entire world just because he had told me he was getting married?”
“You were mad because your pa was going to get married?”
“My mother had been dead less than two years, and I couldn’t understand how he could just forget her and love someone else. I felt afraid and alone but most of all angry, very angry. One of the reasons my father brought me along was to humor me into a better frame of mind. Then he left me here. I couldn’t make him pay for abandoning me, so I guess I decided to make Adam pay. I was childish and wrong, and I’m terribly sorry.” Abigail stopped, drew in her breath, and tried to control the tears welling in her eyes.
Hoss’s tender heart prompted the shy man to place his arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Now, Miss Abigail, you might be surprised at how well brother Adam could understand those reasons for acting like you did. See, when Pa married Marie — that’s Joe’s mother — Adam didn’t cotton to the idea at all. He was a handful himself then. Got in more trouble that year then in all the years before or since. Things worked out, though. He wound up loving her like he would have his own ma. Did your father marry?”
“Yes. She was a good person and loved the both of us. We lost her last spring to a fever.” Abigail looked into the big man’s eyes.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he stated simply, his eyes filled with empathy.
Abigail reached up, put her arms around his neck, and hugged him. Stepping back, she replied, “Thank you, Hoss.”
“I’m gonna find that brother of mine and talk some sense into him. When he hears…”
“No, Hoss, please. I’ll tell Adam myself if I ever feel he’s ready to listen.”
“I still think…”
“Promise me, Hoss.”
Hoss gazed down at the girl, and his resistance melted. “Sure, little gal, I promise, but ya tell him soon now, you hear me.”
The church dance was being held to raise money for the missionary fund. Hoss had agreed to take Bessie Ann weeks before. Joe had kept his options open and was free to ask Abigail. Adam, in his current sour mood, had thought to just stay home and so asked no one. Then his brothers’ pointed references to sulking goaded him into going alone at the last minute.
Adam leaned against the wall watching Joe and Abigail dance. He had spent far too much of the evening watching the couple and sipping spiked punch. It was obvious to him that the two of them were having a good time. The more they smiled and laughed; the darker his mood had become. A stranger would not have noticed much amiss, but Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe were all aware of Adam’s blackening mood.
Abigail looked past Joe’s shoulder as they danced. She had sensed Adam’s eyes on them all evening and could see he was watching them now. Like a storm cloud over a picnic, his presence had hovered over an otherwise pleasant evening. She had noticed concern on the faces of the other Cartwrights whenever they looked at him. “Enough already,” she thought as the current song ended. Sending Joe on an errand to the punch bowl on the other side of the room, she walked swiftly over to Adam. “Could I speak to you privately?”
Adam gestured toward the open side door, and they walked outside stopping about a hundred feet away.
“You had something you wanted to say?” Adam arched his brow and looked down his nose at the girl.
Abigail stared back. She was tried of feeling guilty, tired of his condemnation, and tired of caring what Adam Cartwright thought of her. He was angry; well, so was she! She could feel it welling up inside, and she was just too tired to hold it back.
“You sanctimonious ba…” She swallowed the rest of her epithet. “Why don’t you quit hovering like some vulture? You hate me. Well, fine, hate me, but don’t poison everyone’s evening with it.”
“I suppose you would like me to leave, so you can charm my baby brother into…” Adam paused.
“Into what, Adam? Just what harm do you think I plan for Joe? My God, do you really think I’m some satanic foe you have to protect your family from? Well, you’re wrong!” Abigail’s thoughts coalesced. “That’s it; isn’t it! If I’m not evil incarnate, then you’re wrong, and Adam Cartwright can’t bear to be wrong. Adam Cartwright can never be wrong.”
“Oh, I admit I can be wrong. I’m just not wrong about you.”
She wanted to wipe the sneer from his face. She raised her hand and swung toward his cheek. Adam saw the blow coming, caught her wrist, and held it.
“Don’t, little girl. Remember last time.”
Abigail swung with her left hand, but Adam was once again quick enough to block her attack. He held her with vise-like grips on both her wrists. She drew in a deep breath and raised her left foot.
“What in blazes! Adam, what are you doing?” Little Joe shouted as he came running out the door.
“Leave it be, baby brother, the young lady and I…”
Joe bristled at his older brother’s appellation. “Get your hands off her, Adam!”
Joe grabbed Adam’s arm. Adam pulled away without releasing Abigail’s wrists.
“Behave, Joseph, I wouldn’t want to spank two naughty children tonight.”
Abigail saw Joe’s hands clench and his fists rise. So did Adam, who released her, and prepared to deal with his brother.
“No, Joe!” Abigail stepped between the two brothers and placed her hands against Joe’s shoulders. “Please don’t.”
Almost the same height, Abigail’s eyes were level with Joe’s. He watched her tears fill them and spill down her cheeks.
Joe stepped back and unclenched his fists. Abigail turned and dashed away from them both.
Abigail ran half-blinded by tears and darkness with no thought of where she was going. She simply wanted to get away. She ran until she collided with another dark figure hurrying through the night.
Five men had decided that the night of the church dance was the perfect night for a robbery. Every able-bodied man in town would have his mind and hands occupied by some girl, and none of them would be wearing his gun. Abigail had run headlong into their midst with Joe and Adam following close behind. The whole struggle was over in a matter of minutes. Abigail had been grabbed and begun screaming. Adam and Joe had run up automatically reaching for their guns only to realize that they were not wearing them. A second and third man had stepped from the shadows. Joe collapsed as the butt of a rifle hit the side of his head. Adam managed only one blow before a fourth man felled him with the handle of a pistol to the back of his head. Realizing that screams would never draw attention over the music of the dance, Abigail grabbed the gun hand of her assailant and shoved it upward. The man’s trigger finger pulled back instinctively, and a shot rang out. The man swung at Abigail. Having never learned to take a punch, the girl crumpled to the ground. The outlaws looked down at the three unconscious bodies. One of them raised his gun and took aim at Adam Cartwright’s head.
“Wait. Those are two of the Cartwright brothers. Kill them and their pa and brother will never stop hunting us down.”
“The rich Cartwrights that own that big ranch?”
“Maybe the night don’t have to be a total loss. He’d pay to get his boys back, now wouldn’t he? Get um up onto the horses.”
“What about the girl?”
“That dress is silk. Imagine somebody will pay for her too.”
After leaving town, the outlaws stopped to tie up their captives. None of the three became fully conscious as they were bound hand and foot then laid face down across a horse and tied on just as they would have been had they been lifeless bodies. Each of them wished that this had remained true as they slowly regained their senses. Pain radiated down from their shoulders due to their hands being pulled behind them, and their head-down position over the galloping horses created wave after wave of nausea. Their noses, throats, and eyes burned from the continual assault of the dust raised by the horse’s hoofs. They rode through the night and next day, passing in and out of conscious. Finally the group stopped to make camp. Joe and then Adam were taken and thrown down on the ground next to each other. A third outlaw took Abigail and tossed her down. She landed half against Adam with a shrill scream.
Adam pushed himself up into a half-seated position against a tree. He looked first at his little brother and then at the girl beside him. “Joe?” he forced the word from his parched mouth.
“Okay,” Joe managed to reply.
“Abigail?” Adam watched as the girl turned her face up toward him. She moved her lips silently, ducked her head, curled against him, and began sobbing.
The outlaws watched, laughed, and then set about making camp. A shudder passed through Adam. How would he get them out of this mess? They were both his responsibility, and he had to think of something. The sound of Abigail’s sobs tore at him. Then he felt something like a tugging sensation at his wrists. Slowly he realized what was happening. Her head against his half-turned back, veiled by her long hair, Abigail was chewing at the ropes that bound his wrists. Hope flickered into a blaze. If she could get his hands free, there was a chance. Adam lay watching the outlaws, listening to their remarks, and praying that their attention would remain elsewhere. The men glanced at their captives only occasionally. Time moved slowly. Lying next to Adam, Little Joe listened to Abigail’s intermittent sobs and whimpers with despair and anger. Adam had not dared to speak to Joe of what was really happening, and he believed Abigail’s spirit had been broken.
Their captors bedded down for the night leaving one man on guard. The guard sat with his back half-turned from them more concerned with who might be approaching then with those who lay bound and helpless outside the warmth of the fire. Adam kept pulling cautiously against the ropes at his wrists. Suddenly he felt them give and loosen. He had been planning and reacted with deliberate care. Easing his arms forward slowly, he fought the pain that surged through him. Abigail shifted to lean her back against his chest. Adam realized she was trying to shield him from any glance that their guard might give them and position her own wrists where he could reach them. Carefully he worked to free her hands. When that was accomplished, he curled his body toward his brother and let out a soft “Shh” against his ear. He nudged him until Joe turned, and Adam could begin to unite his hands. Adam was capable of great patience, and he worked with extreme quiet and as little movement as possible. Finally Joe’s hands were also free.
“Slowly,” Adam breathed the word into Joe’s ear and prayed his little brother would find the patience to move carefully and not do anything to arouse suspicion.
Giving Abigail and Joe time for the pain in their arms to fade and movement to become surer, Adam considered whether the next step should be attack or retreat. Unarmed, weak from lack of water, their muscles stiff and cramping, there was little hope they could overcome five armed men. The fire and their five captors were between them and the horses, so there was no chance of acquiring mounts. Could they slip away into the darkness? Could they make their escape on foot? How long or far would these men pursue them? There were no answers. Their captors had not planned on a kidnapping and were unsure how to proceed, but the men’s comments had convinced Adam that even if a ransom was paid, these men had no intention of letting them live. There was only one viable option. Motioning to the others, Adam leaned forward and began untying the ropes at his ankles. Abigail and Little Joe did the same. This was the critical period. If their guard saw them now, their chance of escape was gone. Luck held. All three managed to free themselves.
As they waited for the pain to subside and movement to become possible, Joe’s eyes fell on the canteen lying near the campfire. They all needed water desperately, having not had any since before their capture. Joe had played at stealth as a boy. He would often sneak up on his brothers to eavesdrop or play a prank. He used his long practiced skill and eased forward, carefully slid the canteen to himself, and rejoined his brother and Abigail. The three then inched further and further into the surrounding darkness.
They moved quietly through the night, stopping only to sip from the canteen and to listen for sounds of pursuit. Shortly after dawn, they heard some. Knowing they could never out run mounted men, three sets of eyes searched for some form of refuge. Further up Adam spied a gash in the mountainside. Pointing it out to the others, he led the way. The entrance to the abandoned mine was grown over with small bushes. They pushed their way into the darkness beyond hoping they had not been spotted by their pursuers.
Their ration of luck gone; the sun glinted on the silk of Abigail’s party dress catching the eye of one of the outlaws. He called out, and swiftly the pursuers rode up coming to a halt in front of the mine. They shouted for their prey to come out and debated how best to recapture them. Then the leader grew weary of the whole business and decided to cut their losses. He reached into his saddlebag, extracted a stick of dynamite, lit it, and tossed it into the entrance of the mine.
Adam, Joe, and Abigail had gone deeper into the mine and stood silently pressed against the wall. They saw the projectile with its burning tail land on the dirt floor. Adam realized the danger, grabbed Abigail’s arm, shoved Joe, and dove deeper into the mineshaft. The explosion was deafening. The entire entrance of the mine collapsed.
Joe opened his eyes. He was sure he had opened his eyes, yet the darkness was no different then when they had been closed. Joe realized he was in the darkest place he had ever been. Then he felt something touch his ankle, and before he could stop it, a scream escaped from his throat.
“Joe!” It was Adam’s voice, and Joe realized it had been his big brother who had touched him.
“I’m okay, Adam. I’m okay.”
Adam, who had scrambled forward in reaction to Joe’s scream, collided with his brother. Grasping Joe to him, he ran his hands over his brother’s body searching for any injury.
“Adam, I said I’m alright,” Joe declared pushing his brother’s hands away. “What about you and Abigail?”
“I’m okay. Abigail?”
“I’m here. I’m fine. Well, I’m not hurt anyway.” Abigail sensed Adam’s movement toward her and was not surprised to feel his hands on her. She realized that as close as he was to her the complete absence of light made seeing anything of either man impossible.
They moved carefully about in the deep darkness and then settled themselves against the wall of the mine. Adam knew that as a child, Joe had been terrified of the dark. Even now, though the boy would never admit it, being alone in the dark made Joe nervous. Adam sat close enough to him for Joe to feel his brother’s presence and know he was not alone. On his other side, Abigail was close enough for him to place his hand over hers. He hoped it would reassure the girl. Were they now worse off then they had been before? If they died here, would their bodies ever be found? Would their families forever wonder about their fate? With these thoughts, Adam felt despair settle over him.
“I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.” Abigail’s voice was shaky.
“No, it’s my fault. My responsibility.”
“Adam Cartwright! You just have to take credit for everything, don’t you?” Abigail did not really know why she was suddenly so furious.
Adam snapped back, “It is my fault!”
Joe groaned. “Dadburnit, Adam, no wonder I’m not an uncle.” Joe’s odd statement silenced both Adam and Abigail.
Adam wondered if Joe was losing his grip on reality. “What?”
“I said it’s no wonder I’m not an uncle. You’re next to a pretty girl in the dark, and all you can think to do with her is fight.” Joe giggled. Then Abigail giggled too.
“And there is only one thing you can ever think about when you’re with a girl, in the dark or the light.” Adam gave Joe a light punch in the arm and then laughed himself. If they could laugh, they had not yet given up. He would not give up either.
A few minutes later Joe spoke again. “Adam, it’s not as dark farther back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look. Really look.” Adam felt a hand pushing against his cheek and turned his head. The darkness did seem slightly less, more gray than black, deeper in the shaft. Adam started to move forward. Abigail and Joe followed. They inched along keeping their hands in contact with the wall. Adam realized that they were moving at a slight angle and that the shaft was slowly turning. Then they could sense the space before them opening up. The mineshaft led into a natural cave. They realized they could see darker forms in a grey void. They could even make out the figures of their companions. They looked around for the source of the faint light. Locating it, they moved like moths to a flame.
They sat in a small alcove off the main cave. High above their heads, an opening let in both air and light. The wall leading to the opening was too sheer to climb, but the air was fresher, and they could see each other. They had passed around the canteen while giving thanks that Little Joe had carried it tucked inside his shirt. They all knew they were still trapped with little water and no food, but the light filtering in from above still seemed a beacon of hope.
“Adam, how tall are you?”
“How far above us do you think that opening really is?” Abigail had risen and stood staring at the opening.
“Why? Too far for any of us to reach it.”
“Yes, too far for any one of us to reach it, but six plus five plus five.”
Joe jumped up. “If you held me up, and I lifted Abigail.”
“We’re not acrobats, Joe.” Adam had risen also.
“No, but if we braced ourselves against the wall…”
“If you don’t think you’re strong enough to hold up the both of us…” Abigail’s voice chided softly.
“Of course I could!” Adam snapped, “But if you lost your balance, the fall might kill you.”
“At least it would be a quick death,” she stated flatly.
Adam pondered the idea. There was just a small possibility that they could get Abigail out of that hole, but what then? She would probably die wandering alone in the wilderness while he and Joe died here in the dark. Someone might find her in time. One less death would be a small victory. “We could try. Maybe we can save her, Joe,” Adam said turning toward his brother.
“Save me! Save all of us.”
“Of course. That’s what I meant.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Abigail had been so intent on how the opening might be reached that she had not considered what would happen if they managed to get her out of the cave. She could hardly reach back down and lift Adam and Joe to safety. She had no idea where they were or what direction to go for help or if she could ever find the cave again once she lost sight of it. She sat back down. There had to be a plan that would work. One just had to take the time to think it out. She reached up and started to twist the ends of her hair around her finger. The gesture always helped her to concentrate.
“If we had a rope…”
“Yes, Joseph, why don’t you just look around and find the rope conveniently left behind by some miner with the foresight to plan for unexpected guests.” Adam’s bent toward sarcasm put a sharp edge on his words.
“I know there’s not a rope; it’s just…if there was a rope…”
“Quit going on about a rope. We don’t have a rope.”
“We can make one,” Abigail interjected.
“Make one. Out of what, pray tell?”
“My skirt. My petticoat. Strips of cloth plaited together. Silk is strong. If we do it right.” Abigail’s voice filled with excitement.
“It just might work.” Adam stared at the yards of material contained in Abigail’s party frock. “If we figure things carefully… long enough and strong enough.” Adam put his fingers to the bridge of his nose and pressed.
Recognizing the gesture, Joe urged, “Get to figuring, college man!”
Adam muttered to himself as he grabbed Abigail’s skirt, tugged the fabric, stepped back, and surveyed the wall. “Dress, petticoat, shirts, cotton mixed with silk, overlap. There’s a chance. It’s worth a try. First we tear all the strips.”
“Then which of you gentlemen is going to play lady’s maid?” asked Abigail.
“Lady’s maid?” Joe inquired.
Abigail turned her back to Adam and Joe. “I didn’t bring my button hook.”
Adam and Joe looked at the long row of tiny buttons from Abigail’s neck to her waist. Adam stepped between Joe and Abigail. “I’ll take care of it.” He started nimbly unbuttoning her dress.
“My, he certainly seems to do that easily. Had some practice, older brother?”
“I did enough of your buttons, baby brother.”
“Seems you kept in practice since then.”
Adam turned his head to glare over his shoulder at Joe. Joe started to giggle. Adam snorted and deftly finished his task. Abigail stepped out of her dress and handed it to Adam. “Show us how wide.”
Eventually Abigail’s dress was reduced a pile of cloth strips. She then stepped out of her flounced petticoat, and it too was ripped apart.
“Joe,” Adam said quietly to his brother as Abigail ripped the last of her petticoat,”are you wearing drawers?”
“Am I what?” Joe stared at his brother.
“Well, are you?”
“Then give your pants to Abigail.” Joe’s mouth dropped open. Hearing Adam’s final remark, Abigail stared also. “I’d do it, but mine would fall off her in a minute.”
Abigail began, “I don’t understand…”
“You’re… um…your pantalets …they won’t stand up to climbing over that ledge and through the brush. You need Joe’s pants.” Looking at his little brother’s face, Adam added, “If we use the pantalets for the rope, you can keep your shirt.” Joe’s shirts always hung long on his slight frame.
Seeing the common sense of Adam’s observation, Abigail chided, “Now, Joe, I’ve already thrown all modesty aside for the sake of survival.”
“Alright!” Joe’s face flushed red as he took off his pants and handed them to Abigail. She excused herself and walked into the darkness beyond the alcove. Returning dressed in Joe’s pants, she started tearing her pantalets into strips. Adam did the same with his shirt. With the raw materials assembled, the three started to plait the rope according to Adam’s directions.
Everything ready, the three stood facing the cave wall. Then Adam turned to look at the pair beside him. Joe stood barefoot in his white dress shirt and red drawers covered in dirt with his curls corkscrewing about his head. He looked like a naughty toddler. Adam shook his head, fear creeping around the edges of his mind, yet he knew Joe’s slight frame was wiry with strong muscles. Next he surveyed Abigail. Her feet were bare also, the better to climb her human supports. Joe’s pants, too loose at the waist and too snug across the hips, bulged at the pockets where her stockings had been stuffed. Her dancing slippers had been shoved into her waistband and were held to her body by the plaited cloth rope of rose and white that had been carefully wrapped around her torso. A scrap of silk too small for the rope held her long hair in a tail down her back. It seemed incredible that two people about to undertake such a serious task could look so silly.
Seeming to read Adam’s mind, Abigail said, “You don’t look too heroic yourself, Adam Cartwright.”
Joe giggled at his shirtless, grime-covered brother. Adam looked back at Joe and laughed himself, easing the tension building inside. They passed the canteen around. Then Joe fastened it to his waist, tucking it securely into the waistband of his drawers. “Ready!” he announced.
Adam centered himself directly beneath the opening in the cave wall, planted his feet, and leaned back into the rock. Locking the fingers of his hands together in front of him, he called,” Come on, boy!”
Joe placed his foot in Adam’s hands. A combination of movements by the brothers ended with Joe standing on his brothers wide shoulders, back against the wall.
“Your turn, girl.”
Abigail took a deep breath and placed her foot in Adam’s hands. With slow, smooth, and deliberate movements, the three managed to move Abigail onto Little Joe’s shoulders.
Facing the rock wall, she tilted back her head to spy the opening above. Stretching up her arms she reached for the ledge. “Almost,” she gasped.
Adam grasped his brother’s ankles more firmly, and Joe did the same to Abigail’s. Summoning more strength from a surge of adrenaline, Adam pushed upward. Joe echoed his brother, and Abigail felt her fingers slip up to and over the edge. She dug her fingers into the soil and tried to pull her body upward. Her hands started to slip. When she suddenly felt something beneath her hand, she grabbed and pulled. Slowly she levered her body upward and over the edge of the hole that meant freedom.
Disbelief filled Abigail as she realized that she lay on the ground outside the opening to the cave. For a minute she was too stunned to move. They had actually succeeded in getting her out. She sat up, turned back to the opening, and shouted. “I’m out. Watch for the rope.”
She started unwinding the plaited cloth from her body. Abigail looked about for something on which to anchor the rope. Nothing close enough seemed strong enough to hold. Finally she knotted the end of the makeshift rope around her own waist. Positioning her body as far as possible from the opening, she dropped the rope into the cave, and sat down bracing herself as best she could.
Little Joe had dropped to the ground as Abigail’s body left his hands. He had put on his boots and waited. The two brothers now watched the rope drop down toward them.
“Your turn, little buddy,” Adam said giving his brother a hug and then a boost up. Joe grabbed the rope and climbed. Abigail groaned and fought to keep from being pulled back into the hole. Finally, Joe’s head appeared, and he pulled himself to freedom.
“Two out, one to go,” he called.
Seeing that Abigail had had to use her own body as the support for the rope, he positioned himself behind her. They moved as close as possible to the opening. Joe wrapped his arms around her waist and planted his feet on either side of the girl. Abigail once again tossed the rope down the hole.
Adam reached up, but found the rope ended beyond his fingertips. He took a deep breath and jumped. The second time he grasped the rope and began his climb. Above Joe and Abigail fought to support his weight. Then the tension on the rope eased as Adam crawled out of the opening to lie beside them.
“Thank God!” thought Joe, “at least we won’t die in some dark hole in the ground.”
Now what? Adam looked around, trying to orient himself. It was late afternoon. They had not eaten in over two days, and had little water left. They needed to find help or to get where help could find them before all three of them collapsed.
Adam looked at Abigail. She had a dark bruise on the lower half of her face, and her lips were raw from gnawing away the rope at his wrists. Her camisole offered little protection from the sun, and the dancing slippers she had replaced on her feet would not stand up to many more miles of the rugged terrain ahead.
The swelling from the blow that had felled him showed clearly on the right side of Joe’s head. Adam’s own head had a lump the size of an egg. The dress boots Joe and he had worn to the dance had not been designed for hiking and had already blistered their feet on the trek to the cave. They were in terrible shape to begin an arduous journey, yet both young faces held a smile of triumph.
“Let’s get moving,” Adam ordered.
“Wait,” Abigail replied, “help me rewind the rope. We may need it.”
They traveled until darkness made it too dangerous. Finding no real shelter, they curled up together against an outcropping of rock. Sleeping fitfully from exhaustion, they woke at dawn and began walking again. Adam continually scanned for something edible or some sign of water. Finding nothing, they trudged on. That night they stopped in a small clump of trees.
Abigail woke with her head on Adam’s chest. The first thing she noticed was how hot his skin felt against her cheek. She sat up and looked down at his face. She softly shook his shoulder. “Adam, Adam?”
There was no response. He was burning up with fever. She turned to look at Joe. “Joe.”
His body moved restlessly, but his eyes remained closed. She placed her hand on his forehead. His skin burned dryly beneath her fingertips. Sometime in the night each of them had slipped into a fever induced stupor. Neither of them would be going any further. There was no decision to make. She took the canteen and shook it. They had left three swallows to start the morning. Abigail closed her eyes and moved her lips silently. She bent over Joe, lifted his head, and poured half the remaining water carefully into his lips. Dipping her finger in the moisture that trickled from the corner of his mouth, she made the sign of the cross on his forehead. Then she repeated the same acts with his brother Adam. She stood and unwrapped the cloth rope from her body and tossed one end over a branch of the tree above so that it hung blowing gently with each breeze. Afterward she sat down between Ben Cartwright’s sons, maneuvering each of them until his head rested in her lap. Then she waited.
The rider noticed something in the distance. “Sam, look there.”
Something moved in the breeze and glinted slightly in the sun. “Wonder what on earth that could be?”
He veered and rode over. A funny sort of rope appeared caught in the branches of a tree. Riding up, he saw something on the ground below.
“Sam, Sam, come quick,” he shouted as he realized three bodies lay on the ground below the trees.
“Are they alive?”
“Yeah, but all three of ‘em’s in a bad way. Who could they be?”
“You don’t reckon it could be the three they was talking about in town?”
“They did say a big, black-haired man, a chestnut-haired kid, and a brown-haired gal.”
“They said something about a reward too!”
“Reward or not, we best get them into the wagon and back to town.”
Roy Coffee rode out to the Ponderosa with the telegram that said Adam, Joe, and Abigail were alive but ill in a small town to the south. Ben, Hoss, and Abel Warner rushed to the town; their feelings alternating between great joy and equal fear that their loved ones were still in danger.
Thankfully the town had a doctor. He and his wife tended the Cartwright brothers and Abigail in their own home. Ben, Hoss, and Abel arrived on the second day. Doctor Bentley explained that all three of the former captives suffered from exposure and dehydration. Ben’s boys were fighting raging fevers, and pneumonia threatened to cut off Abigail’s breathing. Ben and Hoss spent the next three days almost constantly in the same room with Adam and Joe. Abel left his daughter’s bedside only when the doctor’s wife tended to her most personal needs. Each time any of the three slipped into consciousness, they asked repeatedly about the welfare of the other two. Their families reassured them while praying that the reassurances were not lies.
Adam’s fever broke first; Joe’s a few hours later. The doctor announced that while they were both weak with a long recovery ahead, his expectations were for a return to complete health.
“You’re awake. Here, son, drink this.” Hoss slipped his arm behind Adam’s shoulders and lifted his head. Ben placed a glass to Adam’s lips. Adam drank, and Hoss eased him back against the pillows.
“Joe? How’s Joe? Where is he?”
This time Ben could smile as he said, “Just over there. He’s still sleeping. His fever broke a few hours ago. You’ll both be fine!”
“She’s in the room across the hall.”
“How is she?”
Ben knew Adam had regained enough of his senses to spot a lie or evasion.
“She’s still pretty sick, but she’s fighting. The doctor still has hope.”
“She won’t give up, Pa. Not that girl!”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
“You all gave us quite a scare, older brother,” Hoss softly chided.
“Gave ourselves a scare, big brother. How did we get here, and where is here by the way.”
Ben gave Adam a short explanation of their rescue while Hoss got some hot broth for Adam. They asked him a few questions while they spooned the broth into Adam’s mouth. He then slipped into a restful slumber. They repeated much the same conversations and actions when Joe awoke a few hours later.
Ben opened the door to the room across from his son’s room. Abel Warner sat at his daughter’s bedside with his face buried in his hands. A boiling kettle filled with water and pine needles filled the air in the room with moisture and a pungent aroma meant to help ease Abigail’s breathing. Ben walked over to Abel and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. Ben looked down at the unresponsive girl and listened to her tortured breaths.
“I can’t loose her, Ben. I just can’t.”
It was not the first time Ben had heard Abel speak those words since their children’s abduction. He knew the despair this man was feeling. He had just faced losing two of his sons. He did not think he could have gone on living if they had died, but he would have forced himself to try if only for Hoss’s sake. If Abigail died, Abel would have no reason to even try.
“Don’t lose hope, Abel. God has answered two of our prayers; I don’t think He’ll deny us the third.” Ben knelt down next to Abel, and together they prayed again for the life of the young girl before them. Abigail’s improvement was very gradual, but by the next day, it was significant enough for the doctor to say that she had rounded the corner and should eventually recover.
“Walk me over to Joe,” Adam instructed Hoss who had helped him to stand and supported him has he made use of the chamber pot.
“Just for a minute, brother, then it’s back to bed,” replied Hoss. He understood Adam’s need to survey their baby brother’s condition for himself. The two brothers stood over Joe’s bed looking down at him as he slept.
“The kid barely looks seven let alone seventeen,” Adam stated. He smiled; he was relieved to see the color in his little brother’s face and his undisturbed slumber. Joe was going to be all right.
“With his face, people are gonna think of a boy when Joe’s fifty.”
“And I’m sure he’ll still use that to his advantage when necessary.” Adam’s remark carried an edge that told Hoss his older brother was truly returning to normal.
“Always has, always will,” Hoss laughed and steered Adam back to his own bed.
Two days later Joe looked across the room to see Adam attempting to stand unassisted. Adam swayed and put his hand on the bedstead to steady himself.
“What are you doing, big buddy?
“Getting dressed.” Adam reached for the pants lying on the dresser beside the bed.
“Who do I remember always telling me to follow doctor’s orders and stay in bed until he gave the okay? If the doc had said you could be up and dressed, Pa or Hoss would be here to help.”
“Don’t need any help,” Adam snapped as he sat down on the edge of the bed and struggled to place each leg into his pants. Then he paused for breath before he raised himself into a standing position once more and slid the pants up over his hips. “I’m not staying in this,” he continued as he pulled his nightshirt over his head. “Or this…” he threw the offending garment down on the bed, “a minute longer.”
Joe took a deep breath and tossed the bedcovers off his body. Sitting up and slowly swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he chuckled. “I’m with you!”
The two slowly managed to dress in pants, shirts, and socks. Their battered feet, blistered raw during the hike to and from the cave, were still too tender for boots and there were none in the room. There were no belts about either, and Adam wondered if Joe would be able to keep his pants from slipping off. His brother’s slight frame had lost more pounds than he could afford to spare. The brothers supported each other as they made their way out of their room and knocked at the door of the room across the hall.
“Come in.” For the first time since the fever had over taken them, the brothers heard Abigail’s voice. They opened the door and walked in. Abigail was sitting propped up by pillows and the bed’s headboard. Her nightgown was pink and ruffled with lace. Her hair hung loose around her shoulders. Her eyes looked huge in her pale face, and a smile turned up her lips as the Cartwrights entered.
“God,” Adam thought, “she looks about six.”
“Adam. Joe,” she called, her hands reaching toward them. They smiled in return and walked over to her. Adam sat in the chair that Abel usually occupied, and Joe settled himself on the foot of the bed.
Abigail giggled. “When I convinced Papa that he should go with your father and Hoss for a decent meal, I wondered if you’d manage to come.”
“Oh, did you now?” Adam arched his eyebrow but also flashed his dimples.
“Hoss said he’d soon have to start sitting on you if he wanted to keep you in bed.”
“He must have been speaking of Little Joe.”
“No, he said that about you. Said he’d leave Little Joe to your pa since he was still young enough for a good tanning to keep in place.” Abigail laughed as she watched Joe bristle.
“Why… I’ll… that big galoot…” Joe sputtered.
“Settle down, Joseph.” Adam was sounding like his old self again. “Truth is Pa might consider it when he finds you out of bed.”
“He ain’t going to be any more pleased with his oldest.” Joe shot the words at Adam.
“So true, so true,” Adam sighed with an exaggerated wince.
“Who would think I’d be the only obedient one,” Abigail said pointedly.
Adam rolled his eyes. “No one would ever have even considered it.”
“Now, Adam, I thought you might have forgiven me.”
Adam reached over and took the girl’s hand into his. “Abigail, I want you to forgive me. I treated you abominably. I deeply regret my insufferable behavior and beg your pardon.”
Abigail stared directly into his eyes. “I forgave anything there was to forgive many days ago.”
“Hoss told me about your step-mother and how things were. I should have realized.”
“He shouldn’t have. He promised he wouldn’t.” A frown settled on Abigail’s lips.
“He thought it was time we knew, and that you might not…” Joe stopped before completing the thought, not wanting to remind any of them how close they had each come to dying.
“Well, I suppose I’ll just have to forgive him too.”
Joe looked at Adam and then turned back toward Abigail. “The man told Pa it was the rope in the tree he noticed, or they would have ridden past. You thought to hang it there?”
“I woke up and you were both unconscious with fever. I don’t know if I could have moved one of you; there was no way I could get you both moving. I knew… well, I prayed, and I knew that God would just have to send someone. The rope was the only thing we had that I could think of to use as a signal.” Abigail paused and then smiled. “Actually, I did consider Joe’s red drawers, but decided he needed them.”
Adam looked at his brother’s face and started to laugh. “Well, he doesn’t always feel that he does.”
“Enough about my drawers!” Joe glared back at Adam.
Abigail did not want Joe’s temper to boil, so she interposed, “I suppose you two have told your father and Hoss all about what happened.”
“Basically. And you’ve filled your father in on all the details?” Adam looked at Abigail. A shadow crossed her face.
“Well, not all of the details,” she answered more seriously than Adam expected.
“Even without the details, it will make some story to tell your friends back home.”
“I don’t think I’ll be telling them anything except that we were detained because I was sick.”
“Why? Don’t you think they’d be impressed? Your daring escape from outlaws,” Joe interjected.
“Joe, I think they’d find the story very interesting. I escaped from outlaws, spent days and nights alone with two young men, and when we were found, the three of us were in various states of undress. I had on my camisole but not my bloomers. Of course, I did have on the younger man’s pants which he wasn’t wearing.” Abigail spoke with increasing tension.
“Abigail, it wasn’t like that!” Little Joe looked at his brother expecting him to reinforce his statement and then back at Abigail.
Adam’s eyes grew thoughtful and then dark. “Abigail knows what it was and wasn’t like, Joe. She’s trying to point out that how it will look to others depends on who is telling the tale. Give some people a simple story, and you won’t recognize it when the gossip comes back around to you.”
Joe understood what rumors and gossip could do to a woman’s reputation. His own mother had suffered from whispered lies and twisted half-truths. He turned to his big brother. “Adam?”
“I think Abigail is right. The story of our abduction and escape is something we just aren’t up to discussing. Besides, little brother, I’m sure Pa told you that a gentleman is always very discreet about what happens when he is alone with a lady.”
Joe looked at Abigail. “Adam and I can be real good at keeping things to ourselves. Pa and Hoss too,” he said reassuringly.
Abigail smiled and settled more comfortably into her pillows. Wanting to lighten the atmosphere once more, she said, “I think I just made another of those short lists, Joe.”
Adam looked at his brother, saw a huge grin, and asked, “Just what is she talking about?”
“Well, I told her she was on some short lists. The list of girls who bit you, the list of people you’ve spanked. She is the only girl you’ve spanked, isn’t she?” Joe shot an inquiring look at his brother.
“The only one you’re likely to know about, boy. And just what short list have you recently placed yourself on, Miss Abigail?”
“Why, the list of people who have managed to make both Joe and Adam Cartwright blush.” Abigail looked at them sweetly and then started to giggle.
The heightened color in both brothers’ cheeks came this time from a fleeting desire to throttle the girl giggling at their discomfiture
“Anyway, if we convince Papa that discretion is enough to salvage my reputation, he won’t have to insist on the other option.” Abigail gave the brothers a wry smile.
“The other option?”
“Yes, the one were he gets his shotgun and a preacher and forces one of you into doing the honorable thing by me.”
Adam raised an eyebrow and joined in.” Well, Joe and you are of an age.”
Joe decided not to be outdone. “Now, Adam, Mr. Warner wouldn’t want his daughter to settle for an irresponsible boy when she could have the older, wiser, more respectable son to provide her with marital bliss.”
Adam decided it should be Abigail’s turn to squirm. “Yes,” he agreed arching an eyebrow and giving Abigail a patronizing smile, “he would want someone who could keep a strong hand on the reins. A child bride takes a firm hand.” Adam flexed the fingers of his right hand.
“Haven’t you learned, Adam Cartwright, that…”
Abel Warner opened the door to his daughter’s room. Spying Adam and Joe, he called to the men behind him. Abel, Ben, and Hoss entered the room ending the previous discussion.
“Just what are the two of you doing out of bed!” Ben Cartwright demanded.
“Well, now, Pa, actually I am on a bed,” Joe replied cheekily. Seeing his comment failed to amuse his father, he continued sheepishly, “Actually it was Adam’s idea.”
“Was it now?” Ben glared at his eldest son. “Adam, the doctor said…”
Hoss, having looked both of his brothers over, spoke up. “Pa, none of this bunch looks to have come to any harm. Why, Miss Abigail’s roses are coming back to her cheeks. It’s not like they tried to make it downstairs or over to the saloon.”
Ben had been studying his sons also. It was true. They showed no signs of added strain, and the pallor on their faces seemed lessened. Abel noticed the brighter sparkle in his daughter’s eyes and encouraged Ben to relax and have a seat. Hoss brought two chairs from the boys’ room for his father and Abel. Then he leaned on the back of the chair in which Adam sat. The following discussion was relaxed and friendly. Ben told his sons and Abigail more about events while they were captive and the as yet fruitless search for the men who had taken them. Plans were made for when the doctor would release his patients into the care of their relatives. Ben then ushered his sons back to their beds to rest.
Four days later, the six of them started a slow journey punctuated by repeated stops to rest. Their arrival at the Ponderosa two and half days later was a joyous homecoming for the Cartwrights. Hop Sing prepared all of Adam’s and Joe’s favorites, and that night dinner was a feast. Abigail and her father would be staying until the doctor felt she could safely make the longer and more arduous journey home. Adam and Joe were under orders to do nothing strenuous until Dr. Martin pronounced them totally fit.
The following days of recovery were easy-going. The three convalescents spent a great deal of time together while Ben, Hoss, and Abel returned to work. Joe and Adam’s relationship, while always filled with love, had repeatedly swung between extremes of closeness and argumentative confrontation. Ben and Hoss had worried before the abduction that Abigail was becoming a wedge between the oldest and youngest Cartwright brothers. Since their return, she seemed to be the one who kept their teasing gentle and tempers cool. Hoss was certain Adam had smiled more and Joe had bristled less in the past two weeks then in any two weeks of their lives.
Still, the three seemed to avoid any mention of their shared experience, and Ben went repeatedly to Joe’s room in the middle of the night to awaken him from nightmares.
Hoss found Joe alone in the barn currying Cochise. Joe realized his big brother wanted a private conversation when Hoss closed the barn door behind him.
“Hey, Short Shanks, where’s your two bookends?”
“Playing chess in the house. They take so long considering moves the game may last until Christmas.”
“That Abigail’s one smart little gal.”
“She gives even our eldest brother a run for his money, that’s for sure.”
“Doc says in a few days all of you will be fit as a fiddle and ready for work.”
“Truth is, I’m ready now. But, hey, if the doc says no chores, then no chores it is.” Joe wondered when Hoss would get around to whatever it was he had come to discuss.
“The Warners will be leaving shortly then.” Hoss watched Joe’s face for his reaction.
“Sunday stage most likely.” Joe finished with Cochise and came around the horse to stand in front of his brother. “This time next week everything will be back to normal.”
“Gonna kind of miss that little gal, though. Got sorta use to her being around.”
“Me too.” Joe looked at Hoss. “What’s on your mind, brother?”
“Well, now, Joe, you know, for the past couple of years, every time you’ve spent more than a few minutes talking to a gal, you’ve done come home with stars in your eyes. Seems falling in and outa love just comes natural to ya.”
“So now you’ve been with Abigail hour after hour, and you ain’t said a word about love.”
“I’m not in love with Abigail.”
“That’s just it, Short Shanks. How come you’re not in love with Abigail Warner?”
Joe thought about his brother’s question as he walked over to lean against a stall. “I guess… I mean, if everything had gone right at the dance, I probably would have come home in love again, but, well, with everything that happened. I don’t know. I love Abigail, but I know I’m not in love with her. It’s more like…not a sister…a cousin, maybe. Do you understand, Hoss?”
“Yes, I think I do. Good, I thought…never mind, some of us do have chores to do.” Hoss turned to go.
“Hoss, what did you think?” Joe put his hand on his big brother’s arm.
“Just…” Hoss hesitated then continued. “I thought maybe you were holding back because you knew, well, that Adam wanted Abigail or Abigail wanted Adam.”
“Abigail and Adam! Hoss, she’s barely eighteen.”
“You spend half your time trying to convince us that you’re a man full-grown; now you want to tell me Abigail’s too young.”
“No, she’s grown, but Adam’s twenty–eight.” Joe’s tone indicated he expected senility to set upon Adam by age thirty.
“Joe, there were quite some years difference between Pa and Marie when they married.”
“Yes, but… Do you really think Adam and Abigail might be in love?”
“I was asking you.”
“Me? I’m the last person who ever knows what Adam’s thinking. You read his mind better than me.”
“I thought with all the time you’ve spent with them, you might know something. Truth to tell, little brother, we probably won’t know Adam’s in love tell they read the banns in church. What about Abigail?”
“Abigail. I have to work at following what she’s saying sometimes. She’s as bad as Adam, and besides she’s a girl. How many men ever know what a girl is really thinking?”
“Too few, brother. Now, if Pa had seen fit to give us a sister, she might have been able to get us an answer. As it is, we’ll just have to wait and see,” Hoss stated with a shrug of acceptance.
Abigail leaned against the corral watching the horses. She spotted a stallion that looked a great deal like Wildfire. A wicked desire filled her. She tried to ignore it. Of course, no one had said she could not ride the stallion. If she did not ask, no one would, and if she did not tell anyone about the ride, no one would be caused any worry. They were leaving day after next, so tomorrow morning early would be best. She bit her lip and considered what Adam had told her about some horses’ reactions to sidesaddles. She did not know this stallion well enough to ignore the possibility that riding him sidesaddle might be true recklessness. She had no desire to injure herself. She would simply have to borrow one other thing beside the horse. She entered the house and ascended the stairs. Knocking softly at the door to Joe’s room, she slipped inside when she received no answer. She walked to the dresser, opened a drawer, and extracted a pair of pants. Then she carefully went to her room and hid the pants among her things.
Adam was often the first Cartwright to rise in the morning. He was also the Cartwright most easily awakened. An odd sound or fragment of a dream would steal his slumber. If it was anywhere near dawn, he would simply get up, dress, and start his day. He did not know what had wakened him so early this time, but he had dressed and gone down stairs. He considered working on some ledgers, but decided it had been too long since he had watched the sunrise. He walked out and stood on the porch breathing in the cool morning air. He stiffened as he saw someone leading a horse out of the barn.
Abigail swung herself into the saddle easily without the encumbrance of skirts. She took a moment to settle comfortably into the saddle astride the powerful horse.
“Wait a minute, young lady.” Adam caught the stallion’s bridle. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Abigail cursed silently to herself. Then her lips curled in a smile. “Going for a ride,” she said sweetly and leaned closer to Adam. “Want to come with?” she invited.
Adam arched his eyebrow and then smiled. “Sure do! Wait while I saddle Sport.”
Adam kept an eye on Abigail as they rode. She had no problem handling her mount. Adam’s expertise on a horse came from practice and experience, but he recognized natural ability. Abigail, like Joe and Marie, was a natural rider. He relaxed.
They stopped to rest the horses at one of Adam’s favorite spots beside Lake Tahoe. Adam dismounted and quickly went to assist Abigail. She let him swing her easily to the ground. Adam stared down at her. Her color was good, and her face showed no signs of strain or fatigue.
“Go ahead, Adam, feel my forehead and take my pulse,” Abigail said extending her wrist.
“Was I that obvious?”
“Not really. I’m just extraordinarily perceptive,” she said cheekily. “Anyway, I was watching for it. You’re a mother hen, Adam. You can’t help it. Is it instinct or habit?”
“Probably some of both,” Adam admitted. “Joe and Pa never admit when they’re sick.”
Abigail had expected him to bristle at her appellation and was surprised at his mood. “I’m fine, you’re fine, and Joe’s fine. Your Dr. Martin is satisfied, so you can quit worrying. We all survived!” she declared.
“And none the worse for wear?”
Abigail decided to be as open as Adam. “Joe’s not the only one with nightmares.” She saw the question on Adam’s face. “Even downstairs I can hear his cries, but don’t tell Joe. I talked to Hoss about it.”
“Joe never could hide his nightmares.”
“Not like his brother can?” Abigail did not wait for the admission she doubted would come. “Joe sleeps so soundly someone else has to wake him from his nightmares. When you get to the point where you’d cry out, you wake up. I don’t cry out because part of the nightmare is that I can’t even scream.”
“I hadn’t realized quite how perceptive you are.”
Abigail moved away from Adam and sat on a large boulder looking out over the lake. She drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around her legs. “I was scared, Joe was scared, and you were scared. Hell, only a crazy man or a fool wouldn’t have been afraid!”
“Pa has always said a brave man is not a man without fear, but a man who goes on despite fear.”
“We all went on, and we’ll keep going on.” She sighed. “Maybe we’re better not the worse for wear.”
Adam came to stand beside her. He leaned against the boulder, took off his riding gloves, and fingered the curls hanging down Abigail’s back. “I’m sorry it happened.”
“Don’t, Adam!” Thinking she didn’t want to be touched, Adam quickly withdrew his hand. “No, I didn’t mean… I meant, don’t blame yourself. If you have to lay blame, blame the men who chose to attempt robbery and take three unconscious people captive. As for the rest, all three of us made choices.” She turned to stare into his eyes and gripped his arms tightly. She desperately wanted to make him understand what she had come to accept lying awake after her own nightmares. “Adam, I could have run back into the dance, not down a dark street, but that doesn’t make everything my fault. You could have been forgiving; Joe could have held his temper; we could have just waited to be ransomed, we could all have stayed home from the dance. There’s a million could haves, Adam. They just don’t really matter.”
“I led us into that mine.”
“Because you didn’t listen to us warn you that he’d dynamite the entrance closed?” Abigail’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “You saw a place to hide. We all ran there. You didn’t drag us in. We made the best decisions we could. You did the best you could.”
“Your idea got us out.”
“We got each other out!” Abigail shook with frustration. “It took all of us, Adam. It took all of us to get to that cave, and it took all of us to get out. You’d never take all of the credit, so don’t be arrogant enough to take all of the responsibility, all of the blame.”
She watched his eyes. He was listening, really listening. More softly, she continued, “You’re not responsible for taking care of everything and everyone, Adam Cartwright. Sometimes we get to help take care of ourselves.”
“I don’t know about that, little girl. Some people have a reckless streak.”
“Sometimes we’re all reckless, and sometimes being careful doesn’t help.
Adam, how many times have you been thrown from a horse? Two, three, or three hundred?”
“Not three hundred. A lot, I guess; when I’m breaking horses, it happens. But what does that have to do with anything?”
“How many times was Marie thrown after she came to the Ponderosa? Was she thrown as many times as you or Joe have been in a single week? No? She rode her own horse into her own yard, too fast maybe, still… Adam, I was thirteen. I galloped a seventeen-hand stallion I’d never ridden before all the way to Virginia City, yet I’m here, and she’s not. My stepmother went shopping, came home feeling poorly, and five days later, she was dead of a fever. You walked how many miles without food or water before the fever set in, but you’re alive.”
“So we just do whatever comes to mind and the devil take the rest?”
“No, I’m not saying that. I’m trying to say we all calculate our own risk. If we see danger, we walk away. If we see danger for others, we call the warning, but sometimes there is no warning. Warning or no warning, reckless or careful, in the end what happens happens, and you best ask God for the strength to deal with it and go on.”
“What if it’s something you can’t deal with? If we had died in that mine, could your father have lived without knowing, without the comfort of a body to bury? How many years would he have spent searching with my pa? If Joe had died, do you think I could have ever looked into my father’s eyes again? If he had died, do you think I could have gone on?” Adam’s voice had become a harsh whisper.
Abigail watched the fear that haunted him so often fill his eyes. Then she added herself to another very short list as she became one of the few women who ever watched Adam Cartwright cry.
“You can’t play God, Adam. Some things have to stay in His hands.” Abigail put her arms around Adam. Like a young boy, he buried his head in her lap and sobbed. She stroked his hair and murmured softly. Adam had seldom known this type of feminine comfort in his life. Still, he allowed himself only a limited indulgence before pushing away from the boulder and walking over to the lake. Kneeling by the water, he rinsed his face and wiped it with his kerchief. Abigail waited until he turned and walked back to her. He reached out his hand, and she slid to the ground.
“We’d better get back before someone starts to worry, or Joe discovers his pants missing.”
“I only borrowed them. Actually I’m thinking of buying a pair of my own.”
They walked back to the horses. Adam swung Abigail into the saddle and then mounted Sport. “Joe isn’t the only one you talked about with Hoss.” It was a statement and not a question.
“Hoss is a very perceptive person too. You should talk with him more often.”
“Oh, should I?”
She saw anger flicker across Adam’s face. “Adam, Hoss loves you. Nothing he said was a betrayal. He would never have said anything if he thought it would become gossip.”
“Are you telling me that a lady is always discreet about what happens when she is alone with a man?” Adam asked with a wry smile.
“The very soul of discretion.” She took her pointer finger, placed it against her lips, and then made the motion of a cross above her heart.
“Abigail, will you ever come back to the Ponderosa?”
“I think so. I won’t avoid coming, at any rate.”
“Your father may never allow you anywhere near here again,” said Adam only half teasing.
Abigail looked at Adam from under lowered lashes, smiled, and said, “Now, Adam, Papa doesn’t blame the Cartwrights or the Ponderosa. He knows that an imp of Satan has to take an occasional trip to hell and back.” Laughing, she dug her heels into her horse’s flanks and raced away. Adam’s sputtering grew into deep laughter as he followed.