Summary: (With appreciation to John T. Dugan who wrote ‘The Crucible’)
Word Count: 6600
PART 1 – THE ENCOUNTER
The noisy bustle of San Francisco’s streets was bittersweet music to the ears of Adam Cartwright as he walked from his hotel to the stage depot, his traveling bag in his hand. His periodic trips to the city, normally combining business with pleasure in the most efficient way, usually left him feeling satisfied at the thought of tasks well accomplished and renewed by the opportunity to indulge his taste for the fruits of the wider world. This time, the business part of the trip had run into snags, which, though they had finally been properly untangled, had forced him to leave the pleasure part of the trip shortchanged. And with the winter season’s questionable weather fast approaching, he didn’t know when he would have the opportunity to make up for it. He would have liked to stay for another couple of days, but he knew how much work there was waiting for him back at the ranch, and he would not be a shirker.
As he approached the depot, he saw that there was only one man standing at the ticket window, speaking to the clerk inside. The man was tall and strongly built with short grizzled hair, simply dressed in dark blue pants and jacket over a lighter blue shirt. As Adam neared the window, the man turned his head slightly, allowing a glimpse of his face. And that one glimpse caused Adam to freeze in his tracks, almost dropping the bag from his hand in shock.
For it was the face of Peter Kane. Kane, the man at the center of his worst nightmare. Kane, the man who had taken him in when he was stranded in the desert and then proceeded to torture him past endurance in a sadistic attempt to prove that even the most rational and civilized of men could be reduced to a killer. Kane, the man who had driven him to the very brink of losing his sanity. In the end, it had proved to be a twisted attempt on Kane’s part to escape his own bitter failures by somehow proving himself ‘a better man’ than his victim. Adam had come to the very edge of the line that Kane had marked, but in the end he had stepped back from crossing it. Miraculously, his family, almost ready to give up their search for him in despair, had found him, delirious, making his way out of the burning wasteland. The nightmare had ended with his collapse into his father’s welcoming arms.
Even as the memories threatened to overwhelm him the sheer impossibility of what he was seeing struck him with full force. It could not be Kane! Kane was dead and buried, having succumbed to exposure and the failure of his will to survive, even as Adam attempted to drag him along out of hell. It could not be!
But the man he saw now was certainly Kane’s exact double. What was happening here? Though the very idea of approaching the man caused him to shudder inwardly, he knew he had to find out. Taking a deep breath and tightening his grip on his bag, he stepped up behind the man.
A not too friendly exchange was taking place between the ticket agent and the man concerning whether the man had received the correct change along with his ticket…to Virginia City. With the matter finally resolved the man slipped his ticket and his change into his pockets and moved to stand a little way off. Adam, the next in line, obtained his ticket with no problem and determined that the stage would be leaving in just a few minutes.
Adam Cartwright was not normally the kind to approach an unknown person and attempt to strike up a casual conversation, but these circumstances were extraordinary and the need to learn more was overwhelming. Stepping up next to the man he cleared his throat and did his best to keep his voice even as he began to speak. “I couldn’t help overhearing you back there. It sounds like you and I are headed in the same direction.”
The man raised his eyes to look straight at Adam, but there was no hint of recognition in them. “Is that so?” he said. The look and the sound of his voice made Adam uncomfortable. They were too much like…too hauntingly familiar. “Yes. My family has a ranch outside Virginia City. Are you by any chance planning to visit relatives there? There’s a pretty good chance I might know them.”
The man’s expression turned wary. “You’re mighty curious, aren’t you, mister?”
Adam’s discomfort was only increasing. “Sorry. I meant no offense. I only thought that since we’ll be sharing the coach for such a long ride it might be good to break the ice a little.”
The man continued to regard Adam with the same intent stare until his stiffness eased just a little and he held out his hand. “Fair enough. The name’s Ethan…Ethan Kane.”
Adam hoped that his stunned reaction wasn’t too obvious. Attempting to appear as normal and casual as possible he reached out to take the offered hand. Ethan Kane’s skin was rough and weathered, his grasp almost painfully tight.
“I’m Adam Cartwright.”
“Adam Cartwright” this other Kane repeated, as if trying to commit it to memory. Was it only Adam’s imagination or had his eyes showed a reaction to the name?
“Well, Mr. Cartwright,” Kane continued, “to satisfy your curiosity, I’m not going to Nevada to visit relatives but it is family business of a kind. You see, I had a brother who died about a year and a half ago. I was on a trading ship in the South China Sea, and by the time the news finally reached me and I was able to make arrangements…well, with one thing and another it’s taken me this long to manage to get back here. There are matters that have to be resolved in connection with his death, and Virginia City is where I have to go to do that.”
Ethan Kane looked directly into Adam’s eyes, and in that moment Adam knew without a doubt that this man was aware of his identity, and, more than that, the man intended to cause him trouble. What kind of trouble he couldn’t tell, but Ethan Kane had the look of being potentially as dangerous as his brother. A chill crept through his body at the thought. He tried not to let it show.
“I’m sorry to hear about your brother,” Adam said quietly. Kane was obviously not going to confront him right here and now, and Adam thought it wise to join him in holding back from openly acknowledging all that was unspoken between them.
“I’m sure you are, Mr. Cartwright,” Kane returned with a trace of sarcasm so slight that no one but Adam would have detected it.
At that moment, the stagecoach they were awaiting rounded the corner and pulled up noisily in front of the depot. There were two other passengers, a man and a woman, who were also taking this same stage. The driver jumped down and began to help with the loading of the passengers and their bags. The woman boarded first, followed by the man who was with her. Then, with a final glance at Adam, Ethan Kane disappeared inside the coach. For one moment Adam was sorely tempted to declare some last second excuse that would let him miss this stage and take the next one. This trip home was threatening to become a stage ride from hell. But he knew that the situation he found himself heading into was not going to be resolved that easily. Squaring his shoulders resolutely, he placed his foot on the step of the coach and lifted himself inside. A minute later the doors were closed, the driver mounted to his seat and took the reins, and with a shout to the horses, the stagecoach was headed on its way.
PART 2 – THE MESSAGE
It was Halloween night, and the two men sat together before the crackling fire, each absorbed in thoughts appropriate to the occasion.
Ben Cartwright could not refrain from casting anxious glances in the direction of his oldest son, who sat on the settee beside him. He was deeply concerned about Adam, and had been since the young man returned from his latest trip to San Francisco. In the week since then, Adam had seemed unusually preoccupied. He had thrown himself into his work on the ranch with even more than his usual single-mindedness, as though trying to keep too busy to think about something. And his father was well aware of how fitfully he had been sleeping.
Ben could hardly blame him. The revelation that a brother of Peter Kane had come upon the scene had shaken him too. Ben remembered so vividly the heartbreak of the prolonged search for his missing son, seeming to grow more futile with each passing day. He shuddered to think just how close they had come to giving up and missing finding him…forever. He shuddered even more as he recalled the account Adam had finally managed to give them of his treatment at the hands of Peter Kane. His son’s struggle to overcome the ordeal and regain his emotional balance had been painful for the family to watch, but they had thought that it was finished and done with. Now Adam’s chance encounter with Ethan Kane at a San Francisco stage depot had brought it all down on him again. It was such a stunning turn of events, such a bolt from the realm of the unexpected!
For his part, Adam was indeed thinking of his meeting with Ethan Kane and the stage ride that had followed. Through the entire long, dusty trip Kane had hardly spoken a word to him. The two of them had spent almost the entire ride eyeing each other warily, silently estimating each other…and speculating. Altogether, it had been the strangest stage ride that Adam could remember. Even the man and woman traveling with them had seemed to find the atmosphere disturbing. After a few attempts at conversation, which had been rebuffed, they too had more or less settled into silence, speaking softly only to each other. When the stage had finally pulled in and unloaded at Virginia City, they had hurried off without a word as quickly as they could.
Ethan Kane, on the other hand, had lingered for a moment. Coming up behind Adam, he had tapped him on the shoulder, causing Adam to turn around abruptly.
“Good-bye, Mr. Cartwright,” he said in a low, gravelly voice; “It’s been a pleasure meeting you.”
“I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again,” Kane added with an insinuating tone and a meaningful look. And without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked away.
Adam had headed straight to the sheriff’s office to talk with Roy Coffee. Roy knew the whole story of Adam and Peter Kane, and he was sympathetic, but there was very little he could offer as far as dealing with Ethan Kane. “Adam, I’d like to help ya, but the man just got into town. He hasn’t done anything to give me reason to bother him none. I can’t just go around harassing a man for no cause!”
“I know that, Roy, and that’s not what I’m asking. All I want is for you to keep your eyes open and notice if he starts behaving suspiciously at all.”
“Well, I’ll do my best, son, and I’ll sure let you know if anything comes to my attention, but you know I can’t guarantee anything.”
“Of course, Roy. I’ll really appreciate anything you can do.”
But in the ensuing days, there had been no report from Roy Coffee, and Ethan Kane had not attempted to contact Adam in any way. The uncertainty of the situation was unsettling to say the least.
It was the feel of his father’s hand on his shoulder that brought Adam back to the present. He turned his head to look into the dark eyes of the man who knew him and cared for him the best.
“Are you all right, son?” Ben was saying. “I had some trouble getting your attention there.”
“I’m sorry, Pa. I guess I am pretty distracted right now. I just can’t understand why Kane hasn’t made any kind of a move. I’m driving myself crazy trying to figure out what his intentions might be. I’m beginning to think that maybe I should force the issue – go into town and confront him directly.”
Ben blanched a little at the idea. “I don’t think that would be a very wise idea, Adam,” he began.
But before he could go any farther, a strange wild scream was heard coming from somewhere outside the house. It rose in the night like the cry of a wounded animal, eerie and blood-curdling, then faded away, leaving an echo of pain hanging in the air. Ben and Adam rose as one and, with a look at each other, headed for the door, grabbing their jackets along the way. Once outside, they looked around quickly, but saw nothing that was not as it should be.
“Could you tell where it was coming from?” Adam asked tensely.
Ben shook his head. “I was hoping you could tell me,” he replied. A thought occurred to him and his face grew fearful. “It’s about time for Hoss and Joe to be getting back from supper at the Andersons. You don’t think….?”
Before Adam could answer, the noise of horses’ hooves could be heard and seconds later the two younger Cartwrights themselves were seen riding swiftly around the corner of the barn and into the yard.
“Are you two OK?” Joe asked as he pulled up in front of his father and brother. “We heard the most awful yell a minute ago. It sounded like someone was in real trouble.”
“We were just taking a look ourselves,” Adam told him. “You and Hoss can help.”
With that, his brothers dismounted and the four of them began an intensive search of the whole area surrounding the yard, including the buildings. But they found no trace of whoever had uttered that terrifying cry. Finally they decided that it was too dark to pick out footprints or other such clues and it would be better to try again in the morning. Hoss and Joe led their horses into the barn to take care of them while Ben and Adam hurried back inside the house, out of the chill air. They hung up their jackets and, rubbing their hands together to warm them, moved to retake their seats in front of the fire. As they did so, Adam noticed a piece of paper lying on the table in front of the settee. He picked it up, observing with a start that it was addressed to him He unfolded it and began to read.
Time to tell the truth, Cartwright. You know who I am and I know who you are. To be specific, you are the man who dragged my brother’s dead body out of the desert. The authorities from Eastgate forwarded to me what I suspect to be a highly edited version of the statement you gave them concerning everything that happened between you and the circumstances of his death. You’ll understand if I have difficulty accepting it at face value. Whatever they say, it seems to me that my brother would not be dead if it were not for you, and if the authorities are not prepared to hold you responsible for that, I am. You will see me again at a time and place of my choosing and the issue will be settled between us. Until then, I wish you pleasant dreams.
Adam’s eyes widened and he looked up to his father who was staring at him with questioning concern. He handed Ben the paper.
“It looks like Kane has finally made his move,” he said as their eyes met.
PART 3 – THE CONFLAGRATION
Adam Cartwright lay staring at the ceiling for a long time during another restless night, Two things were revolving in his mind – a profound wish that he had taken the autumn trip to Boston that he had contemplated earlier in the year, and a fanciful musing concerning the ironic possibilities contained in the words “pleasant dreams”.
The letter left by Ethan Kane in which he declared his intention of calling Adam to account for the death of his brother had ended by mockingly wishing Adam pleasant dreams. But in the two weeks since Adam had received it, a series of unnerving incidents had ensured that his dreams were anything but pleasant.
It started with his visit to the sawmill to check on the progress of processing the lumber for their latest contract, when a pile of logs came tumbling down on the spot where he had been standing. A couple of days later it was a large boulder that came rolling down the rocky hillside next to where he was riding and landed in the path behind him, spooking his horse. Most serious of all, a shot had been fired in his vicinity as he knelt beside a stream to refill his canteen. In none of these cases could Ethan Kane be directly tied to the event. The falling logs and boulder could have been purely accidental; the shot might have been from a poacher who was unaware of his presence. And none of these “close calls” had truly been so very close. There had always been a margin of safety. If these things were being deliberately done, it seemed that they were intended to rattle him and keep him on edge rather than to cause any real harm.
But there was one incident that could only be attributed to Ethan Kane. Two mornings ago Adam had come out of the house and begun to cross the yard to the barn when he was brought up short at seeing the words “SOON CARTWRIGHT’ scrawled in large uneven letters in the very dirt itself.
All this had, of course, been duly reported to Sheriff Roy Coffee. Ben and Adam had sat in his office and discussed the situation at length. “This letter he wrote you could sure enough pass for a threat,” Roy said. “And that alone would be enough for me to bring him in and ask him some questions, like maybe where he was when all these other things happened.” He leaned back in his chair. “That is, if I knew where to find him,” he added reluctantly.
“You don’t know where he’s been staying?” Ben asked with a touch of impatience that showed just how concerned he was.
“That’s just the thing. The day he came into town, Kane went to Emma Daniels’ boarding house, but it seems he checked out of there three days later, leavin’ no forwarding address, and nobody I’ve talked to seems to know where he went from there. And believe me, I’ve talked to just about everybody. Jim over at the General Store sold him some supplies….”
“What kind of supplies?” Adam broke in.
“Basically, everything he’d need to camp out for quite a while. Only he didn’t happen to say where he was plannin’ on doin’ it and Jim didn’t know to ask.”
“They had gone on to talk about. Roy’s examination of the scenes of the various incidents and how little real evidence had been found. All in all it had not been an encouraging meeting.
Adam continued to stare up at the ceiling while his too active brain kept spinning with the same question. Just what did Ethan Kane have up his sleeve now? Finally, hoping that a breath of fresh air would help, he got out of bed and padded over to the window. He opened the window and peered out into the cool November night. Everything seemed still and peaceful, with an overcast sky subduing the light of the moon and stars leaving the yard enfolded in a murky darkness.
His eyes detected a slight trace of a glow which seemed to come from somewhere behind the barn. As he watched, the glow began to grow and intensify, taking on a flickering quality.
Suddenly realizing what it meant, Adam caught his breath and abruptly turned away from the window, grabbing the pants that hung from the back of his desk chair. A moment later he was out in the hall, pounding on the doors of his father and brothers and shouting “Fire! Wake up! Fire out by the barn!”
Hurrying outside as quickly as possible the Cartwrights joined up with a number of the hands from the bunkhouse who were already responding to the fire. The flames, which had broken out in a small, little used shed behind the barn, were now beginning to spread to the larger structure. A line was quickly formed to pass water from the large trough in the yard. Hoss and a couple of the other men ran inside to attempt to bring out the horses. The shrill neighing of the alarmed animals combined with the shouts of the men and the crackling noise of the fire itself to create a frightening din. The smoke rising from the flames choked the lungs and blurred one’s vision, adding to the overall chaos.
It took some time to extinguish the fire completely, but finally it was done and the exhausted, grimy men were able to take a rest. Ben, Adam and Hoss gathered in front of the barn and attempted to assess the damage.
“It’s repairable,” Ben was saying with a frown, “but it’s going to take some time, and the winter weather will soon be coming on. We’ll have to make some temporary arrangements for the horses. It’s just lucky that all of them were gotten out safe!”
“Sure is,” said Hoss, frowning at the idea of losing his faithful Chubb.
Adam’s eyes were darting here and there, looking for something. Not finding it, he turned to his father in concern. “Where did Joe get to? I don’t see him around anywhere.”
“I don’t know, son. Last time I saw him he was with the men taking care of the horses, but that was some time ago. Maybe he wanted to check on Cochise again.” Ben found himself shivering. “Let’s go back inside and try to get a little rest. We’ll need it tomorrow. I’m sure Joe will be around very shortly.”
They turned and headed for the house. As they approached the front door, Ben was the first to notice that something was nailed there. When he was able to recognize it he felt a sudden lump rise in his throat. It was one of the kerchiefs that Joe liked to wear around his neck. Ben hurried forward, followed by his two sons. He grabbed the piece of cloth and pulled it down from the door, revealing a piece of paper that was nailed up behind it. Ben pulled that down too, and his face turned grim as he saw who it was addressed to. He turned to his oldest son and held it out to him. Adam reached out slowly to take it. He opened it up and stared wide-eyed at the now familiar writing.
“I’ve chosen the time and the place, Cartwright. If you value your younger brother’s life, you will come to the old mine they used to call the Strike Back at noon tomorrow. Do not attempt to take any action before then and do not bring anyone else with you (especially the estimable Sheriff Coffee) or the consequences for your brother will be dire. Ethan Kane”
Adam looked up into his father’s fear-filled eyes and felt the same fear coursing through his own body. “Oh God,” he whispered, his voice unsteady. “In all the confusion…somehow…Kane’s gotten his hands on Joe!”
PART 4 – THE CONFRONTATION
The sun, nearing its zenith, threw a cool light upon the bleak autumnal landscape. But for Adam Cartwright it might just as well have been blazing down on desert sands with mid-summer fury. As his horse picked his way carefully up the rocky path toward their destination, Adam was paying little attention to his immediate surroundings. His mind was elsewhere. At one moment he saw before him the smirking face of Kane. But was it Peter or Ethan? Adam couldn’t say for sure. Then that disturbing vision would be replaced by another one – the face of his father as Adam had set off a couple of hours ago to meet his would be nemesis.
Finally that picture gave way to the image of his brother Joe with laughter in his eyes and on his lips.
The discovery that, in the confusion surrounding the previous night’s barn fire, Ethan Kane had abducted Joe produced a good deal of agonized indecision among the rest of the family. It was hard to decide if it was riskier to obey Kane’s instructions, leaving Joe in his hands and taking no action until the time he had appointed, or to defy his threats and make at least some attempt at locating them right away. They had finally concluded that the best course was for Adam to go meet with Kane, as instructed, with Ben and Hoss following shortly after, accompanied by Sheriff Coffee.
As Adam had mounted his horse and prepared to leave that morning, his father had reached to take hold of Sport’s reins and looked up at him with an open entreaty clearly written in his face.
“Don’t worry, Pa,” Adam quietly answered the unspoken plea. “I‘ll see that Joe gets back all right…whatever it takes.”
Ben’s eyes grew even darker with worry. “Just remember, son,” he replied, fighting to keep his voice under control, “I want to see you BOTH come back.”
Adam nodded with understanding and, turning Sport around, headed on his way.
Now, as he rounded the last bend in the path approaching the abandoned mine once known as the Strike Back, Adam thought how appropriate the name was for the place that Kane had selected as a site for revenge. Adam pulled Sport up in front of the entrance to the mine, looking around carefully, and dismounted, drawing his gun from his holster as he did so. Taking a deep breath, he stepped through the opening.
The entrance shaft of the Strike Back was a short one, going only about twenty feet before opening into the mine’s first chamber. Adam could see light from the chamber spilling into the shaft, illuminating his path. Keeping his gun ready he came up to the chamber opening and peered into it. What he saw set him to trembling.
At the center of the chamber was a large vertical beam. Tied to this beam was Joe, apparently unconscious, his face badly bruised, a gag in his mouth. A lantern hanging from a hook attached to the beam above him was the source of the light.
Adam quickly holstered his gun and hurried to his brother’s side.
“Joe. Joe, can you hear me?” Adam spoke low and urgently. He began to loosen the gag in his brother’s mouth.
“I wouldn’t do that, Cartwright,” another voice intruded. From out of the shadows along the far wall of the chamber a figure emerged, tall and imposing with burning eyes, holding a gun pointed straight at Adam. The older Cartwright cursed himself for having put away his own gun in his concern for his brother.
“All right, Kane,” Adam said, his voice edged with anger. “You’ve used my brother to make sure I would come to you. Well I’m here. You don’t need him any more. Let him go!”
“Can’t do that, Cartwright,” Ethan Kane replied, holding his gun steady. “At least not until we settle a few things.”
“And exactly what is it you want out of me,” Adam demanded, his anger growing.
“I want to hear you say that you killed my brother.”
“And then what?”
“Well then, of course, you pay for it.”
“A life for a life, is that it?”
“That’s the standard payment, isn’t it?”
Adam was just about ready to explode. “Well I didn’t kill Peter Kane! Oh, I came close all right. He actually tried to make me do it! Do you understand that? He was a twisted, bitter man who couldn’t cope with the fact that everything he tried went bad. If he could get me to kill him, then he would at least die knowing there was someone he could feel superior to. He thought he had done it! But he started to gloat too soon, and when he did that, I stepped back! That was his final failure. It broke his will, and that, along with exposure is what killed him!”
Ethan Kane looked at him, the fiery intensity of his gaze as unwavering as the aim of his gun. “And just why should I believe one word out of your mouth?” he asked, his voice deepening in an anger to match Adam’s. “You’d say anything to get you and your brother out of here.”
“Well, if you aren’t willing to believe me, why do you care at all what I say? What on earth does it matter?” Something clicked in Adam’s mind then and he looked back at Kane with a kind of resignation. “It really doesn’t matter, does it? You’ve got your mind made up and whatever I say it won’t make any difference. You intend to kill me in any case.” He took a couple of steps toward his antagonist. “So why don’t you just go ahead and do it? Don’t you have the guts?” he challenged.
“Adam, no!” It was Joe’s voice. He had been roused by the sound of voices, and had somehow managed to throw off the loosened gag. The sound of the voice he had not expected to hear startled Kane for a second and that gave Adam his chance. He lunged forward, slamming Kane back against the wall of the cavern, and causing the gun to fall from his hand. As Adam drew his arm back to deliver a blow, Kane managed to twist away from him and push him backward. Adam fell to the floor and a second later Kane was on top of him. They rolled on the floor together, each trying to get his hands around the other’s throat and being repulsed in the attempt. Finally, with a convulsive shove, Adam threw Kane off of him and scrambled to his feet. Kane was up quickly too and came charging back at him. But Adam was ready for him and absorbed his assault. They stood locked together for a moment until Adam was at last able to get Kane slightly off balance. As Kane attempted to right himself, Adam got in a hard blow to the side of his head that sent him to the wall again. He slid down the cavern wall and wound up sprawled next to it, unconscious.
Adam paused just long enough to catch his breath, then moved quickly over to Joe and began to free him from his bonds. It took a minute, and when it was done, the two brothers fell into each other’s embrace. When he pulled back, Adam gestured with his head toward the shaft that led outside. “Get out of here, Joe,” he said hoarsely.
The older brother shook his head. “Just get outside. Pa and Hoss and Roy should be coming any minute now. Wait for them.” He looked over to where Kane lay. “I’ll take care of him.”
With a long look at his brother and a silent nod, Joe reluctantly obeyed.
As Adam picked up one of the ropes that had bound Joe and moved towards Kane, he saw with surprise that the man was rousing himself. His hand scrabbled along the floor, finding the gun that had fallen there earlier. As Adam’s eyes widened in alarm, Kane, barely conscious, raised himself to a half sitting position and took aim.
“No!” Adam shouted
Kane got off his shot and, not even noticing its result, fell backward. A few seconds later he heard a rumbling noise, and he looked up in horror at the cracks that were spreading rapidly across the ceiling. His scream was drowned out by the noise of the rocks that were beginning to come crashing down on top of him.
PART 5 – THE AFTERMATH
Joe Cartwright came stumbling out of the mine entrance, panting hard. He stood there for a minute, bent over, with his hands on his knees and took several deep breaths that turned into a choking sob. Finally he stood up and cast his eyes down the approaching trail with a kind of desperation. At that moment three men on horseback appeared, coming around the final bend. As he recognized the riders as his father, his brother Hoss and their friend Sheriff Coffee, Joe felt a great sense of relief flow through him. He stifled his sobbing and hurried forward to meet them. “Pa! Pa!” he shouted.
The terrible apprehension that lay heavy on Ben Cartwright’s heart seemed to drop from him as he caught sight of his youngest son, only to return in full force a second later as he took in the boy’s disheveled appearance and obvious distress. He and his companions reined in their horses and hurriedly dismounted. As Joe came within reach Ben held out his arms and grasped him by the shoulders.
“Joe…son…are you all right?”
Still short of breath, Joe nodded. “I’m OK, Pa, but Adam…,” he choked out.
His father’s grip on his shoulders tightened, and his brother looked on in fear.
“What about Adam?” Ben managed to get out.
Joe made an effort to collect himself and get out the story between gasps. “He’s trapped in there, Pa…..a cave in…Kane’s brother is in there too…they had a fight…
Adam knocked him out…untied me…he told me to come outside…wait for you…
I just got out…there was a gunshot…I started to run back in…there was a scream and everything started coming down…the entrance to the chamber …it’s blocked up solid…I started trying to dig through…didn’t have any tools…and there’s so much rocks and dirt…Pa, I don’t know if we can get through in time!”
Ben looked past him, his eyes shifting to the mine entrance with dark determination. “We can,” he said in a voice that allowed for no contradiction.
“And we will. We have to. Now let’s get going.”
The Cartwrights and their friend hurried down to the mine entrance and disappeared inside.
Ben Cartwright stood up and stretched to ease the ache in his back. He had no idea how long they had been digging. He seemed to have lost all track of time. The light spilling in from the entrance to the shaft was barely enough to work by and progress was discouragingly slow. Roy Coffee had left them early on, saying with real regret that he thought the best help he could provide was to go and bring back some extra men and tools. The look in his eyes as he said it showed plainly that he didn’t believe there was very much hope and that he was deeply saddened at the thought. How long ago had that been? Not long enough for him to get back. More than that Ben couldn’t say.
In truth, it was hard to hold onto hope. In their time, the Cartwrights had seen too many cave-ins similar to this from which no one had emerged alive. They knew the odds. But the odds meant nothing to Ben Cartwright. From the moment he had set foot in the mine, he had resolved that he would not abandon the effort to reach his son until there was absolute certainty regarding his fate…one way or the other. His love for his son demanded no less. Ben was still haunted by the fact that, when Adam was lost in the desert, they had been on the verge of giving up their search at the very moment that he came into sight. He vowed that such a thing would not happen again.
Looking over at Hoss and Joe, Ben was gratified to see them continuing to toil with dogged persistence. Their love for their brother would not allow them to quit either. Wearily he told himself that it was time for him to go back to work too. Bending down, he pulled a large rock from the spot where it was wedged and lifted it to cast it aside.
The voice came so softly that at first he wasn’t sure if he was only imagining it. But a quick glance showed that Hoss and Joe had their ears cocked too. They had all heard something.
Then it came again, just as softly. “Pa.”
Finally pinpointing where the voice was coming from, Ben quickly turned to look back toward the mine entrance. His eyes grew wide, he drew in his breath and the rock fell from his hands as they began to tremble.
Framed in the entrance way stood a familiar figure, leaning against the side of the opening. He was dirty and bedraggled. There was a trickle of blood running down the side of his face from a wound near his right eye. And Ben had never been more happy to see anyone in his life.
“Adam!” Ben breathed.
Ben’s legs seemed to take on a life of their own and, without conscious thought, he found himself hurrying toward his son, with Joe and Hoss at his heels calling out their brother’s name in their excitement. Eagerly he reached out to grasp Adam by the shoulders. Then he could let himself believe that this was real.
“Son…you’re hurt.” Ben found his voice as he raised his hand to the wound on Adam’s head.
Adam seemed somewhat dazed, trying to brush away his father’s hand and mumbling something that sounded like “It’ll be OK.”
Ben would not be deterred. “Adam, how did you get out here? We thought you were trapped back there.”
“Yeah, older brother, how did you ever get out of that mess?” Joe echoed, waving his hand toward the rubble that still blocked off the chamber entrance.
Adam was definitely having difficulty focusing, but he made a valiant effort to respond. “A side tunnel,” he said hesitantly. “Barely had time…to get into it…before everything came down. Just big enough to crawl through. It came out on the other side….”
“And Kane?” Ben almost whispered it.
Adam could only shake his head. Finally, the effort was too much for him. His head dropped forward as his eyes closed. And then, as he had done once before, Adam Cartwright fell, unconscious, into his father’s arms.
As he had done once before, Ben Cartwright lowered his son carefully to the ground and knelt there, holding him close and rocking him gently while a silent prayer of profound gratitude rose from his heart. Joe and Hoss hovered over them, their eyes never leaving their brother. And in that moment, the scene in the dimly lighted entrance of an abandoned mine became the perfect echo of a tableau that had once been seen on burning desert sands.
It was over.