Not Such a Stranger (by Debra P.)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   14,000


 

As Adam Cartwright emerged from the Virginia City Post Office, he noticed that the stage was pulling in across the street. It was always a matter of interest to see who might be arriving in town, and Adam looked on curiously as the door of the stage opened and a single passenger emerged.

He was a young man of average height and build with short blond hair. There was a paleness about his skin which suggested that his life recently had been passed primarily indoors rather than in the open air. He wore a simple brown suit of slightly dated and worn appearance. This stranger in town seemed a bit lost and confused as he glanced around him, apparently looking for something and not finding it. The driver threw down his bag and the young man started as it hit the ground next to him. He reached down to pick up the somewhat dilapidated bag, then continued to stand there uncertainly, not knowing which direction to go.

A pang of sympathy caused Adam to decide that he should at least ask the stranger if he needed any help. After all, if the man simply continued to stand there in the street he was all too likely to be run over! Slipping the mail he had just picked up into the inside pocket of his jacket, Adam crossed the street to approach the young man. “Excuse me,” he said, with just a slight hesitation. “I hope I’m not intruding, but you looked as though you might want to ask directions of someone. If you need any help I’d be happy to do what I can.”

The young man eyed him warily. “Thank you. Actually, I was expecting…or at least hoping…that someone would meet me. But he hasn’t shown up and, quite frankly, I’m not sure what to do.”

“Well, I know pretty much everybody around these parts,” Adam told him. “If you’ll just tell me who you were expecting to meet, I should be able to point you in the right….” But before Adam could finish his sentence the young man appeared to become dizzy and started swaying on his feet. Adam reached out a hand to steady him. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Maybe the first thing you should do is see a doctor.”

The stranger shook his head and waved off his concern. “I’m all right. It’s just that I haven’t had anything to eat all day. I’m sure that as soon as I get some decent food in me I’ll be fine.”

“There’s a place called Miss Mamie’s over in the next street that has pretty good home style cooking at reasonable prices,” Adam suggested. “I’m due for something to eat myself. Why don’t we go there? We can get a good meal and you can tell me all about whoever it was that never showed.”

The man hesitated, and for a moment Adam wondered if there might be a problem with his having enough money on him to pay for a proper meal. But then the young man nodded his head. “That sounds good. I really am famished,” he said.

A few moments later Adam and the stranger found themselves seated at a table in Miss Mamie’s cozy little establishment waiting for their orders of  meatloaf and chicken respectively. Adam settled back in his chair, put his fingers together and eyed his companion with interest. “Well, now that we have the chance perhaps we should introduce ourselves,” he ventured.

The other man nodded briefly. “My name is Bradley Girard,” he said.

“And I’m Adam Cartwright. Nice to meet you,” Adam said extending his hand.

Bradley Girard ignored the offered handshake. A look of astonishment had taken over his face. “You’re Adam Cartwright?” he stammered.

His reaction aroused Adam’s curiosity. “Yes, I am. Is there something surprising about that?”

Young Girard took a deep breath. “What’s surprising is that I should have encountered you the first moment I arrived in Virginia City. You see, I happen to have heard quite a bit about you.”

That caused Adam to raise his eyebrows. “Oh? How is that?”

“A relative of mine lives here in Virginia City. He writes me lots of letters. At least he used to. He was always writing about you. About the whole Cartwright family, actually, but about you more than any of the others. He seemed to have a very high opinion of you.” Bradley paused. “He’s the one I hoped was going to meet me when I arrived.” He averted his eyes. ”I suppose it’s really not surprising that he didn’t…considering what’s happened these last few years.” The last sentence was spoken under his breath, which made it seem as though he were talking to himself.

Adam leaned forward. “Just who is it you’re talking about?” he demanded in a low, intense voice.

“His name is Roy Coffee,” Bradley Girard replied. “The last I heard he was still the sheriff around here.” He looked up and met Adam’s eyes. “And he’s my uncle.”

Adam stared at Girard with unconcealed surprise. “I never knew Roy had a nephew,” he said. “In fact, the only family I ever heard him mention was his wife Mary, and she died many years ago.”

Bradley nodded. “Mary had a sister named Martha who married Louis Girard. I’m their son.”

“So how long has it been since you’ve seen your uncle?”

“It’s been a long time,” the young man answered wistfully. “The last time Uncle Roy had visited us was ten years ago. I remember because I celebrated my sixteenth birthday while he was there. The occasion turned out to be something of a disappointment. Uncle Roy and my parents weren’t exactly on the best of terms.”

“And why was that?” Adam asked him.

“I never really understood it,” Bradley replied. “They all seemed to be reluctant to talk about it…tried to avoid the subject. There was very little contact between them.”

“And yet, you said he had written to you frequently…or that he used to.”

Bradley gave an ironic little laugh. “The letters we exchanged weren’t exactly outpourings of affection. He would ask me about how I was doing in school and about what other activities I was involved in and I would answer him. Somehow the answers never seemed to please him. He was always after me to try to do better…to make more of myself.”

“And is that such a bad thing?” Adam interjected.

“Maybe not. I guess it depends on how far it’s taken. Uncle Roy seemed to have awfully high standards.” Girard raised his eyes to meet Adam’s. “That’s where you come in. He was always holding you up as some kind of an ideal for me to emulate. It made me feel that I could never measure up. I always got the impression that he wished you were the one he was related to…not me.”

Adam didn’t quite know how to respond to that. They sat there in silence for a moment, until the waitress arrived with their orders. She put down the plates in front of them and withdrew quietly. Neither man immediately made a move to begin eating. Adam decided to change the subject. “You eventually stopped corresponding?”

Bradley Girard did not reply. He sat there staring into his cup of coffee with a pained expression on his face.

“What happened?” Adam pressed him.

The young man finally spoke, with an obvious effort. “Three years ago I went to prison,” he said.

Adam caught his breath in surprise.

“It was for embezzlement,” Girard continued. “I had a job as an accountant for a respected firm. I liked it there   I was doing well.” His voice began to tremble. “I was even planning to be married to a woman I loved very much. She became ill and needed expensive medical treatment. Neither of us could afford it. So I used my position at the firm to get the money. In the end, it didn’t make any difference. She died anyway.” At that his composure broke, he covered his eyes with his hand and began to weep softly.

“I’m sorry,” Adam said quietly. And he gazed at the young man sympathetically until he had regained enough control to go on.

“I intended to pay the money back…I really did. But before I had the chance, there was an unscheduled audit and I was found out. Doesn’t it always happen that way?” Girard gave a short, bitter laugh. “I pled guilty and got a relatively lenient sentence, due to the circumstances and the fact that I had never been in trouble with the law before. Still, prison was hard. The worst part was the loneliness. My father had died a couple of years earlier. I doubt that he would have been very supportive if he were alive. My mother did write me a few letters and came to see me once, but she seemed to find it difficult to cope with the situation and every contact with her just made me feel more guilty about causing her pain.”

“And your uncle?” Adam inquired.

“I had hoped that he might understand, that he might offer me some support. But I guess he’s just too much the lawman. He wrote me one very brief note right after I was sentenced to say that he was sorry I’d gotten myself into that kind of trouble, and then I never heard from him again. Apparently he was just too ashamed of having a relative who was a convict.”

Adam shook his head sadly. Knowing Roy’s devotion to the law he could well imagine his consternation at his nephew’s plight. But to turn away from him so completely? That didn’t quite sound like the Roy Coffee Adam knew and respected.

“So, why did you come to Virginia City now?” Adam asked

“When I got out a few months ago, I first went to stay with my mother in St. Louis. But things were strained between us, and I wasn’t having any luck finding a job. Very few people seem to be willing to give a man who’s been in prison a decent chance. I hoped that I might find it easier to get a new start if I came out here, and that Uncle Roy might be willing to give me some kind of help. I wrote to him, telling him when I was coming. I never got any reply. But he didn’t tell me not to come, and my situation back in St. Louis was becoming intolerable, so I took the chance and came anyway. You’ve seen how that turned out. My uncle chose not to meet me. And I really don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

Adam leaned back in his chair and considered for a moment. “I know where to find Roy,” he said thoughtfully. “After we finish eating, I think I’ll go and have a little talk with him…see what I can do.”

“Would you, Mr. Cartwright? I’m sure that if anyone could have any influence on him, it would be you,” Girard said gratefully.

“Well, I’ll give it a try anyway. And, by the way, you can call me Adam.”

“Thank you…Adam,” Bradley Girard replied.

*****

The next morning, following breakfast, Adam Cartwright was sitting at the dining table sipping on his second cup of coffee. His brothers had already left to begin their day’s work and his father had retreated to his desk to sort through the mail that Adam had brought back the day before. But Adam remained sitting there, a preoccupied look on his face as he set the cup back down on the table.

He was thinking about the guest he had brought home the previous evening. Bradley Girard’s story evoked his sympathy even as it troubled him on some level. But what Roy Coffee had told him when he spoke to him just complicated the situation further. Adam gave a sigh, feeling that he had taken on more responsibility than he had intended to. And he had a decision to make. What was he going to do about the young man now? The one idea that came to mind was something he would need to discuss with his father, and he was not all that certain of what the response would be. Well, he could only try.

Hop Sing came down the stairs, carrying a large, heavily laden basket. Today was his weekly washing day and he had evidently been collecting the clothes that needed laundering from the rooms upstairs. As he passed by the dining table on his way toward the kitchen Adam stopped him briefly. “Hop Sing, have you got my best white shirt there? I’m going to want that cleaned for Saturday night.”

The Chinaman nodded. “I remember what you say. Find it in corner of closet.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing. I appreciate it,” Adam said. His eye was caught by an unfamiliar piece of clothing lying on top of the load   He reached out his hand and lifted it from the basket. The striped shirt was one that he didn’t remember seeing before. Adam looked at Hop Sing inquiringly, and Hop Sing understood the unspoken question.

“That belong to guest you bring home yesterday…Mr. Bradley.” Hop Sing found it difficult to pronounce the name Girard and preferred to use their guest’s first name. “I ask him if he have anything to wash. He very grateful.”

“I’m sure he is,” Adam replied abstractedly, and he dropped the shirt back into the basket. “Very good, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing hurried off on his way through the kitchen and out the back door to where his tub and washboard were set up. Adam leaned back in his chair. The shirt had been just one more reminder of his dilemma regarding Bradley Girard. His mind turned back to his not very satisfactory conversation with Roy Coffee the previous afternoon….

*****

Adam leaned against the door of the sheriff’s office with his arms crossed, watching Roy Coffee, who was sitting at his desk sifting through some papers. Finally, the sheriff became aware of his gaze and looked up at him.

“Well, howdy, Adam. What can I do for ya?”

Adam straightened up and came over to stand in front of the desk. “I noticed that you weren’t there when the stage came in this morning. I know you usually like to keep track of who’s arriving in town…part of your job you’ve always said. So I was just wondering why you missed today.”

Roy peered through his glasses at him with an annoyed look. “Well, Adam, for all that it ain’t really none of your business, I’ll tell ya anyway. Just so happens I was occupied with some other parts of my job, like fillin’ out some necessary paper work.”

Adam leaned forward and placed his hands on the desk. “Come on, Roy.

You know what I’m talking about. Your nephew was on that stage. You knew he was going to be. And you deliberately chose not to be there. Now what’s going on?”

Roy shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “And just how do you know about my nephew, might I ask?”

“I saw him get off the stage,” Adam answered. “He looked a little bit like a lost sheep so I took it upon myself to ask if he needed directions. We ended up having lunch together and he told me quite a bit about himself. Naturally, I was quite surprised when he told me that you were his uncle. I’m finding it hard to believe that you’re ignoring him this way. He’s your flesh and blood, Roy!”

“My wife’s flesh and blood,” Roy returned reluctantly.

Adam gave an exasperated little sigh. “Well, you and your wife were one flesh, weren’t you? So it seems to me that makes him your flesh and blood too. In any case, he’s apparently about the closest family that you have. I would have thought you’d be glad to see him.”

Roy lowered his eyes. “Adam, he’s a convict. He spent almost three years in prison.”

“He told me all about that. And he told me how it happened. He embezzled money for his fiancée’s medical treatment, isn’t that right?”

Roy nodded.

“Now I’ve always believed that when a man did his time he deserved a chance to make a new start,” Adam continued. “And I thought that you believed the same way. Or is there some special exception for the relatives of lawmen? Are they to be denied that chance because someone in their family wears a badge? Even if there are mitigating circumstances?”

Roy seemed to hang his head, and his shoulders slumped. “If it was just a matter of his havin’ been in prison, you’d prob’ly be right,” he admitted. “But the situation is a little more complicated than that. And there’s some painful family history involved…history that I’m partly to blame for.”

“What do you mean, Roy?” Adam said, feeling that they were close to reaching the crux of the matter.

Roy hesitated, obviously finding it difficult to discuss. But he looked into the eyes of the young man who had been such a good friend to him and decided that if there was anyone he could explain this to it would be Adam Cartwright. “Well, ya see Adam, folks have always thought that Bradley was the son of my wife’s sister, Martha and her husband, Louis,” he said.

Adam’s eyebrow went up slightly. “And isn’t he?”

“No he isn’t. Louis Girard was not his father. His father was a man that Martha…well…that she had an affair with.”

There was a brief pause before Adam spoke. “Roy, you said that you were somehow partly to blame for what happened. How is that?”

“Because the man was a friend of mine that I introduced to them.” There was a strain of bitter self reproach in Roy Coffee’s voice. “When it was discovered that Martha was pregnant, she and Louis came near breakin’ up over it. You see, Louis knew he couldn’t be the father. They finally decided to stay together for the sake of the child and to avoid open scandal. But it caused an awful strain between them. They were never really right together after that. They never told Bradley the truth. In fact, they were real tight about it and there was hardly anybody that knew. Mary and I were about the only ones. Now my wife was a wonderful woman, but she did have kind of a moralistic streak about her and she found it hard to accept what her sister had done. And my part in the whole affair, unknowing as it was, just added to the problems among us. Mary and I hardly ever saw Martha and Louis after Bradley was born.”

“He said that you weren’t on good terms and he never really understood why,” Adam said.

“Well, that was it,” Roy responded.

There was a brief silence, interrupted by the ticking of the clock on the wall. Then Adam spoke quietly. “Roy, you couldn’t know what would happen when you introduced your friend to them. And Bradley may have made an unfortunate choice that got him into trouble with the law, but he isn’t to blame for the circumstances of his birth. You’ve often told my father that you regretted never having any children of your own. I know that there have been times when you’ve been lonely. Well, Bradley could be like a son to you if you’d let him. When he wrote and told you he was coming you didn’t tell him not to. I think that somewhere inside you want to reach out to him. And I know that he needs you to reach out. Can’t you somehow get beyond the problems of the past and do it?”

Roy shook his head. There appeared to be moisture welling up in his eyes. “I know all that, Adam. I know it in my head,” he said, his voice beginning to tremble. “But feelin’ it with the rest of me and bein’ able to act on it…well, that’s a whole different thing. When I think of that boy and everything that’s happened, all the pain that there’s been, and all my own guilt…well, I can’t. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”

Adam straightened up. He looked down sadly at his friend. “I’m sorry too, Roy,” he said.

And he turned and walked out the door.

*****

Slowly Adam got up and walked over to the alcove where Ben still sat at his desk perusing the mail. He stood there waiting silently until his father looked up, noticed him and smiled.

“Something on your mind, son?” Ben asked.

“As a matter of fact there is,” Adam replied. “I was just thinking about Bradley Girard’s situation. He’s in a rather difficult position at this point…and he doesn’t seem to have a lot of options.”

Ben leaned back in his chair, his expression serious. “And I imagine you’ve come up with some idea to help him.”

Adam sighed. “Am I that predictable?”

“Well, you do have a history of trying to help people that you believe have been dealt a tough hand. And, if you’ll remember, the results haven’t always been what you hoped,” Ben pointed out.

“I still think it’s worthwhile to make the effort, even if it isn’t always successful,” Adam responded quietly.

Ben locked eyes with his son for a moment. Then he nodded briefly. “And just what do you have in mind for young Mr.Girard?” he asked.

“Actually,” Adam began hesitantly, “I wondered how you would feel about giving him a job doing our bookkeeping.”

A glimmer of teasing humor came into Ben’s eyes. “Trying to get out of some of your workload, are you?”

“Come on, Pa,” Adam answered. “You know very well how much I have on my plate even without the bookkeeping. And you know how things get at the beginning of the month when it’s time to settle accounts from the previous month. I tend to get rather grouchy from lack of sleep for a few days”

“I can’t deny that,” Ben admitted smiling.

“So, don’t you think it might be worthwhile, for the sake of family harmony if nothing else, to get someone else to do that job?” Adam’s eyes took on a glint of humor to match the glint in his father’s.

“There may well be justification for taking someone on,” Ben acknowledged, his face turning serious. “But I do have a couple of questions.” He paused.

“Such as?” Adam prodded him.

“First of all, this is a man who has actually spent time in prison for embezzling from his employer. Are you really sure you want to take the responsibility of putting him in such a position? Because the responsibility will be yours if he should prove not to be trustworthy.”

“Pa, I explained to you last night about his history and why he did what he did. I’m convinced that, given a chance for a fresh start, he’ll do his best to perform well and honestly…out of gratitude if nothing else. And I believe he deserves that chance.”

“Well and good. But there’s something else I’m concerned about. He is also Roy Coffee’s nephew. And apparently Roy doesn’t want anything to do with him. Don’t you think it may cause a good deal of awkwardness if he sees us going out of our way to help the young man when he is unwilling to? Might he not see it as a kind of slap in the face? Adam, Roy has been one of our best friends for many years. I would hate to see that friendship undermined because of something like this.”

“Frankly, Pa, I’m disappointed in Roy’s attitude about this. Somebody needs to give Bradley a break, and we’re the ones who are in position to do it. If Roy should choose to take offense, well, I’d be sorry about that, but I don’t think that should keep us from doing the right thing here. Actually, I’m kind of hoping that if Bradley stays here in the area eventually Roy’s attitude might soften and the two of them might get together.”

Ben looked down at his desk thoughtfully. “Well, son, I gave you authority to hire hands and such some time ago, and I’m not going to take it back now…whatever reservations I might have. I understand your desire to help the young man. I just pray that, on this occasion, everything will work out for the best.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Adam replied

*****

Later that morning, Adam went out onto the porch and found Bradley Girard sitting there watching the activity going on around the yard. With his tub and washboard set up outside the kitchen door, Hop Sing was still working on the weekly laundry. Hoss was walking a horse that he was treating for a minor leg injury around the yard to see how well it was healing. Bradley appeared quite interested in everything that was going in. But there was a trace of the pensive in his expression as well.

“Enjoying yourself?” Adam asked casually as he sat down beside him.

“Yes, very much,” Bradley replied. “I’ve been a city boy for most of my life, so this is all quite new and interesting to me. But I must admit it leaves me feeling rather useless to just be sitting here while everyone else seems so busy. Your father and younger brother rode off a little while ago. I think they said something about moving some cattle to a better grazing area.” He looked curiously at Adam. “And what about you? Somehow I doubt that you’ve been idling since breakfast.”

Adam laughed lightly. “You’re right. There really isn’t any room for that on a ranch the size of the Ponderosa. But not all the work is so physical. There’s a good deal of paperwork involved in running a place like this. That’s what I’ve been up to for the last couple of hours. In fact, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“What do you mean?” Bradley asked him.

“It so happens that I do most of the bookkeeping around here, and, with all the other jobs I have it can get to be rather overwhelming,” Adam answered. “My father and I have agreed that it would be a good idea to hire someone to take over that task. Would you be interested in the job?”

Bradley looked at him as though he could hardly believe what he was hearing. “Would I be interested? Adam, it would be the answer to my prayers!”

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Adam told him. “Now there’s one thing I have to ask you.” He leaned forward and his eyes locked with Bradley’s. “I’m putting my neck on the line to some extent trusting you this way. Can you promise me that you won’t do anything to betray that trust?”

“Adam, I swear to you that I will be a faithful employee and that I will never do anything to cause you to regret taking me on.” Bradley spoke with earnest intensity.

“Good. You can consider yourself hired. Most of the books for the ranch are here at the house in my father’s study. But there’s also a small office up by our sawmill, and that’s where the books for the lumber operation are kept. We’ll take a ride up there in the buggy right after lunch. I can start showing you what you’ll need to know about the operation, and we can discuss the details of your salary and working arrangements.”

“That sounds fine. Adam…I don’t know how to thank you for this,” Bradley said.

“Just do a good, honest job. That’s all I ask. Oh, and, if you should ever get in a bind, promise you’ll come to me to work things out instead of doing something foolish.”

“Of course, Adam. I promise.” Bradley offered his hand, Adam took it, and they shook to seal their bargain.

“And, like Pa said, I just hope that this works out for the best,” Adam thought to himself.

******

The pine forest was almost silent, with only the occasional twittering of a bird and the gentle rustle of branches in the breeze to disturb the quiet of the early evening. The forest seemed to be starting to settle down for the approaching night. Then, out of the silence, there came the sound of footfalls and a young man appeared strolling down the path. Bradley Girard stopped for a moment, closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the pine laden air. It had become a habit for him to take a stroll along this forest path at about this time each evening. He was growing to love the beauty of the majestic trees and the invigorating freshness of the mountain air. And it gave him the chance to think about all of the changes in his life since he had begun working for the Cartwrights.

Three months ago, he had been at loose ends. Having been only recently released from prison he had been frustrated that no one seemed willing to take a chance on him. He had become estranged from the only family he had, his mother and his uncle, Roy Coffee. He did not know where to turn. Now here he was, settled in a new home and a steady new job that suited him, with a new set of friends to take the place of the family he could no longer count on. Sometimes thinking about it all made him shake his head in wonder.

At first the challenge of learning his new duties had left him feeling rather like a schoolboy again. Like any similar business concern, the Ponderosa had certain ways of doing things that were unique to itself. But it seemed that whatever was unfamiliar to Bradley turned out to be quite logical and easy to catch onto once explained. And he had a good instructor in Adam Cartwright.

It was also Adam who solved the problem of where Bradley would live. The Cartwrights had been perfectly willing to allow him to board with them, but Bradley was reluctant to impose on their hospitality, and he was concerned about maintaining a proper employer/employee relationship if he stayed under their roof. Finding a place in Virginia City and having to ride out to the Ponderosa on an almost daily basis promised to be too inconvenient for a permanent solution. It was Adam who thought of the small cabins built near the sawmill for the use of the men who worked there, not all of which were being used, and suggested that one of them might be fixed up for Bradley. That way he would be living very close to the office by the sawmill where he would be doing a good share of his work. And it would be an easy ride over to the ranch house when his duties required him to work there.

And so, with the enthusiastic help of the two younger Cartwright sons, the cabin had been turned into quite a cozy abode. An advance on his salary had gotten him some new clothes appropriate to his new surroundings. He even had a horse of his own, selected for him by Hoss Cartwright, which he was paying for by the deduction of a few dollars out of each paycheck.

But perhaps the most important change that had come into his life was the sense of acceptance that came with his growing friendship with the Cartwrights. On the days when he worked at the ranch house, he frequently wound up staying for dinner with the family, and that was always a treat, not just because of the quality of Hop Sing’s cooking, but also because of the enjoyment he took in their company and the atmosphere of warmth that prevailed around their dinner table.

It was true that his new mode of life was rather quiet and somewhat isolated, but Bradley liked it that way. It gave him the opportunity to get his bearings and to really think about his life and some of the decisions he had made. He actually avoided going into Virginia City any more than was necessary. When he did go, he was almost sure to run into his uncle, Sheriff Coffee, and that always created a rather awkward situation. When they caught a glimpse of each other, even from across the street, they would stop and stare at each other for just a few seconds. Then, invariably, Roy would give Bradley a curt nod and pass on without speaking. Roy showed no sign of wanting to establish a relationship with his nephew, and that caused Bradley some pain. But that was about the only dark cloud in his sky at the moment. All in all he was quite content with his current situation. And he was very grateful that he had happened to meet Adam Cartwright that first day that he arrived in Virginia City.

While thinking about these things and enjoying the early evening air, Bradley had headed back down the path, passing the sawmill and the office next to it on the way back to his own cabin. He was almost within sight of home when he spied a man in the shadows next to one of the tall trees, leaning against the trunk. Bradley couldn’t see the man’s face, but he was suddenly filled with the uneasy sense that the man was waiting for him. He slowed his pace slightly, and, in response the man straightened up and began to saunter in his direction.

As the man came near, Bradley got a better look at him. He was a tall, thin fellow with long reddish hair under a wide-brimmed hat. Piercing blue eyes stared out of a clean shaven face while a dark coat fell from his slim shoulders. He had a swaggering gait and manner that Bradley found intimidating.

“You got a minute, Mr. Girard?” the man said. But the tone in which he spoke made it more a demand than a request.

Bradley stopped. “Excuse me,” he ventured hesitantly. “But just who are you? And how do you know my name?”

“I’m Rudy Masters.” the man replied. “You may not have noticed it, but I’ve been keepin’ an eye on you for maybe three weeks now.”

“But why?” Bradley said. He was growing more and more uneasy.

Masters chuckled. “Well now, you’re the fellow that handles the books for this operation here, aren’t ya? Pretty new at it, I understand. Still, you’re the one. And that puts you in a position to help me and a couple of friends of mine with this plan we’ve got in mind.”

“What are you talking about?” Bradley swallowed nervously.

“Oh, it’s something you can make a profit from too, provided you’re smart enough to see it our way,” Masters replied.

Bradley felt himself shivering all over, and it wasn’t because of the temperature. “Look,” he said, “if this plan of yours involves anything illegal, you should know right now that I have no intention of having anything to do with it.”

Masters scowled at him. “I didn’t imagine you would be so scrupulous. After all, you’ve spent time in prison, haven’t you? That’s what the gossip says anyway.”

“I made a big mistake,” Bradley said. “But I’m making a new start. And I don’t want to do anything to ruin that. I won’t do anything against the Cartwrights.”

With a sudden movement, Masters grabbed his arm. And within seconds Bradley found himself with his back against a tree, with Masters’ arm across his throat and a gun waving in his face.

“Well now, that’s just too bad,” Masters said. “‘Cause I really don’t think you’re going to have any choice in the matter. I can’t very well let on to you what we’re planning and leave you free to maybe tell somebody about it and ruin the whole thing, can I? So let me put it this way. Either you tell me right now that you’re in on it with us…or you’re not going to make it out of these woods alive.”

And the blue eyes behind the gun barrel glared at Bradley menacingly.

The pressure of Masters’ arm against Bradley’s throat increased, making it difficult for him to breathe. There were many confused thoughts whirling around in his mind, but none of them seemed to offer a clue as to how he might extricate himself from this situation. The last thing he wanted to do was betray the Cartwrights, especially Adam, and in the process ruin the chance at a new life they had offered him. But how could he avoid it?

The voice of his assailant cut through his confusion, calling his attention back to the brutal reality of the moment.

“I want an answer, Girard,” Masters snarled. “Now are you in with us, or do I blow your brains out right here and now?”

His desperation sent a rush of adrenalin surging through Bradley’s body. He managed to reach up and get a hold on the wrist of the hand in which Masters was holding his gun. He attempted to shove the gun aside and, surprisingly, his action actually managed to throw Masters off balance. Masters fell backward onto the pine needle covered ground, pulling Bradley down on top of him as he did so. They rolled together on the ground for some moments, struggling for possession of the weapon. At one point, Bradley found himself on top of Masters again with the gun pressed between them. And then, without warning, the gun went off and the blast resounded through the forest. Bradley felt Master’s body go limp. Pushing himself up onto his knees, he stared down at the gaping hole in Masters’ chest and noticed the expression of surprise on his face. There was no movement of the chest, nothing to indicate that he was breathing. Bradley reached out a trembling hand to check at his neck for a pulse, but there was none. A mixture of fear and relief overcame Bradley as he realized that the man who had threatened his life was himself dead.

Bradley stood up on shaky legs and glanced around him. Dusk was finally falling, and the shadows lent the dead body lying before him an even more sinister appearance. He felt a sudden overwhelming desire to get away from the sight. As quickly as his unsteady legs would allow, he hurried down the forest path in the direction of his cabin. By the time he reached it a few moments later, he was panting. He climbed the three steps to the cabin’s porch, pulled open the door, stepped inside, slamming the door shut behind him and leaned back against it closing his eyes. Finally, he made his way over to his washstand, poured some of the contents of the pitcher into the bowl and splashed his face with some of the cold water. Having caught his breath, he sat down heavily in the chair in front of the fireplace and began to think.

What should he do now? He had acted in self defense in order to keep Masters from killing him. But would he be believed? The question was made more complicated by the fact that the person he would have to convince was the estranged uncle who wanted nothing to do with him. Knowing Sheriff Roy Coffee as he did, Bradley had grave doubts about what his reaction to this incident would be. What if he said nothing and simply left the body to be discovered by whoever would stumble across it first? He ruefully thought to himself that in his flight from the scene he had almost certainly left an easily visible trail, and quite possibly other evidence as well. In any case, it seemed futile to hope that by remaining silent he could avoid being implicated in Masters’ death.

So where did that leave him? As he continued to mull over the situation a memory came back to him…a memory of his conversation with Adam Cartwright when Adam had hired him and the promise that Adam had asked of him.

“If you should ever get in a bind, promise you’ll come to me to work things out instead of doing anything foolish.” That was what Adam had said. And Bradley had given him that promise, not really expecting that he would ever have occasion to fulfill it. Well, now it seemed that the occasion had arisen. He would go to Adam now and tell him exactly what had happened. Adam would know what to do.

With that thought, Bradley found himself becoming calmer. He got up from the chair and hurried outside. He went around behind the cabin to the shed where his horse was kept. Quickly he saddled the horse and mounted him. And with both hope and trepidation in his heart, he rode off into the gathering night in the direction of the Ponderosa ranch house.

*****

Adam Cartwright leaned back in his favorite blue chair and closed his eyes. It had been a trying day, and he was more than ready for it to end. It had all started when Adam overslept that morning, something he almost never did. And somehow the late start had seemed to throw his whole day off. When he had hurried downstairs, he had found Hop Sing already clearing the table from breakfast, and he was left to grab a quick cup of tepid coffee and a cold biscuit while the cook muttered disapprovingly about people who couldn’t be bothered to turn up on time for meals. Then, hurrying through his chores to try to catch up, Adam had gotten his foot stepped on by one of the horses. Nothing was broken, but there was a lingering soreness that had left him limping slightly for the rest of the day. In the afternoon, he had been forced to intervene to break up a fistfight between a couple of hands and the incident had left him with a headache to go with his sore foot.

And the evening had been going no better. They had a guest for dinner, and for understandable, though regrettable reasons, the atmosphere around the table had been somewhat strained and uncomfortable. After dinner, Ben and their guest had settled down in front of the fireplace to play chess, but neither of them really seemed to have their full attention on the game and there was very little of the normal easy conversation accompanying their moves. Hoss and Joe had started to watch the game, but before very long the tension in the air seemed to get to them, and the excused themselves, saying they needed to check on a sick animal out in the barn. Adam had picked up a book and settled himself to read, but he found it hard to concentrate. He caught himself glancing over frequently to check on the progress of the game. He noticed that both his father and his opponent were making some fairly obvious mistakes, and he couldn’t help but wonder what each of them was thinking.

And then, following one of the uneasy moments of silence that seemed to keep cropping up, a tentative knock was heard at the door. Curious as to who would be turning up at their door at this hour, Adam rose from his chair and moved to answer it. He opened the door and started to smile as he saw Bradley Girard standing there. But his expression quickly turned to one of concern as he noticed how Bradley was trembling all over and how abnormally pale his face was.

“Bradley…are you all right?” Adam said. “You look like you’re upset about something. Come in and sit down.” And he reached out to gently grasp Bradley’s arm to draw him inside.

“Adam, I really need to talk to you,” Bradley blurted out as he took a couple of steps into the room. “Something’s happened, and I don’t…” His voice cut off abruptly as he caught sight of the two men over near the fireplace. They had risen at his entrance and were looking on curiously. Bradley’s eyes widened in stunned surprise and his face became even paler, if that were possible.

“Uncle Roy..?.” Bradley stammered out, his voice trembling.

Ben Cartwright’s chess opponent looked back at him with stern eyes and spoke in a grim voice.

“Bradley? Now what the devil are you doing here?” Roy Coffee said.

Bradley’s eyes shifted from Adam, who stood next to him, still gripping his arm, to his uncle, who stood over by the fireplace, next to Ben Cartwright, and back again. Both men were eyeing him with great curiosity, though Adam’s seemed more sympathetic while Roy’s seemed more skeptical. Their scrutiny only increased the nervous tension Bradley was feeling. He was momentarily paralyzed by indecision. Could he go through with his intention to tell Adam everything? What else could he do?

Bradley looked into the face of the man to whom he owed so much, and he suddenly realized that the question was already answered. He knew without a doubt what Adam would say he should do. Adam would advise him to tell the sheriff…Uncle Roy…the whole story. And he was right. Uncle Roy was going to find out about it anyway. It would be better to be up front about it. He hadn’t done anything except defend himself after all. Holding back would only make it look as though he had done something wrong.

Having made up his mind, Bradley took a deep breath to steady himself and spoke in a calmer voice. “As I was just saying,” he began, “something serious has happened that I need to talk to you about.” He looked over at the sheriff. “And Uncle Roy, you need to hear this too.” His eyes went nervously back to Adam. “Could we please all sit down? My legs feel as though they might go out on me at any moment.”

“Of course,” Adam replied. “Come over here by the fire.” Adam’s hand on his arm gave Bradley needed support as they moved into the room. Bradley quickly found himself settled on the settee facing the hearth while Adam, Roy and Ben all gathered around, looking at him expectantly and waiting to hear what he had to say. He glanced around at each of them, then took another deep breath and hesitantly began to tell his story.

*****

On the shore of Lake Tahoe two men sat side by side on a large boulder, silently staring out at the moonlight rippling on the water. One of them leaned forward, resting his elbow on his knee and his chin on his hand as he gave out with a deep sigh. His thin black mustache twitched with his impatience.

“What time is it now?” he demanded of his companion.

The other man reached a hand inside his coat and drew out a pocket watch. He opened it and strained his eyes to read the time in the dim light.

“About a quarter after,” he finally replied. “Rudy should have been here over an hour ago.” The moonlight glinted off the large stone of his ring as he replaced the watch in his vest pocket. “You’re sure this is the spot he wanted us to meet him?” he continued after a brief pause.

“Yeah, Ash, I’m sure,” the first main retorted. “We’re right where we’re supposed to be. It’s just Rudy that isn’t.”

“You don’t suppose he’s run into any kind of trouble do you, Eli?” the second man put in reluctantly.

“Rudy?” The man addressed as Eli gave out with a dry little laugh. “Not likely. From what he told me, this bookkeeper fella he was going to talk to didn’t sound like the kind who would put up much of a fuss. No… I expect he’ll be turning up any minute with the bookkeeper fella in tow and all ready to let us in on this scheme of his.”

“Well it’s not like him to leave us waiting like this,” his companion said. “I’ve gotta tell you, I don’t like it. I’ve got a bad feeling about the whole thing.”

“And if I had a dime for every time you’ve had a ‘bad feeling’ about things, I’d never have to think about pulling off another job again,” Eli replied with a sneer. “Look, I’ll tell you what. Let’s wait another fifteen minutes, and if Rudy hasn’t showed up we’ll head over to the lumber camp. Assuming he’s just late, we’ll run into him on the way. That OK with you?”

“Yeah, that’s fine with me,” the other man answered. He would have preferred to start off immediately, but he had no desire to irritate his sometimes cranky partner.

The two men sat quietly for a couple of minutes, watching and listening to the water lapping gently against the shore of the lake. Then the man referred to as Ash got up and began to pace up and down with his hands behind his back. Twice he stopped, pulled out the watch, looked at it and put it away again. When he looked at the watch for the third time his companion addressed him impatiently.

“Do you have to do that every blasted minute?” he said.

“It hasn’t been every minute,” Ash replied calmly, not rising to the bait. “In fact the fifteen minutes are up.”

“Oh all right then. Let’s get going.” Eli pushed himself up from the boulder with a sigh and the two men walked over to where their horses waited quietly, grazing on a thin patch of grass. Without another word, they mounted and rode off, following the trail that led away from the lake as it disappeared among the trees.

*****

When Bradley Girard finished telling what had happened between him and Rudy Masters, he glanced around anxiously to see the reaction of his listeners, especially Sheriff Coffee. The three men were all sitting there thoughtfully, apparently trying to absorb what he had told them. None of them seemed willing to be the first to speak up with a response, and their silence was anything but comforting to Bradley.

“What I’ve said is the truth, I swear it. He threatened me, we struggled over his gun and it went off. You have to believe me!” A note of desperation was creeping into Bradley’s voice.

“Oh, I believe you, Brad,” Roy Coffee spoke up. “I know something about this Rudy Masters fella. He’s got himself quite a record for robbing banks and stagecoaches in several states and territories, and a couple of those robberies resulted in deaths. In fact, I just recently received information that he was believed to be in this area. You say he mentioned a couple of friends of his?”

“That’s right. He said something about their being in on whatever he was planning, but he didn’t mention their names that I remember,” Bradley answered.

“That would be Eli Paulson and Ashley Washington,” Roy continued. “They’re known associates of his. You can be sure that wherever Masters shows up the two of them won’t be very far away. But Masters was apparently the brain behind whatever they did. With him dead, I just wonder what they’ll decide to do next.”

Sitting next to Bradley on the settee, Adam could sense that the young man was still very upset. He reached out to give him an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

“It’s all right, Bradley. It doesn’t sound like you’re going to be in any trouble over this. In fact, given Masters’ record, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a reward for bringing him in… dead or alive.” Adam looked over at the sheriff questioningly.

“I’d have to check into that,” Roy said. “It could be.” He regarded Bradley soberly, gauging his reaction to that possibility.

But Bradley exhibited no enthusiasm at the mention of a reward. Instead he hung his head. “I never imagined myself in the role of a bounty hunter,” he said quietly.

“Not a bounty hunter,” Adam assured him. “Just someone who did what he had to do under the circumstances and, in the process, eliminated a dangerous criminal. There’s no reason to feel guilty about it.”

Bradley smiled at him gratefully.

Adam turned to Roy. “So how do you want to proceed?” he asked.

“Well, I’d say it’s too late to do anything tonight. But first thing in the morning, I’ll ride over there. Bradley, Adam, I’ll want the two of you to come along. We’ll find the body and then we’ll take it from there.”

“Sounds good to me,” Adam said, and Bradley nodded his agreement.

Ben Cartwright spoke up at this point. “Roy, Bradley, you’re both more than welcome to stay here tonight.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” said Bradley. I’d appreciate that very much.”

Ben rose from his chair. “Come with me then, son. I’ll show you to your room.”

Ben and Bradley headed upstairs as Roy and Adam looked after them. Adam noticed something in the look in Roy’s eyes. “You’re not questioning his story are you?” he said.

“Not really,” Roy replied. I just wish I could be sure that his meeting up with Masters in the first place was as innocent as he’s making out. I just wish I could be sure.”

*****

Eli Paulson and Ashley Washington knelt over the body that they had discovered lying under a tree as they neared their destination. Ashley’s face showed shock.

“It’s Rudy all right,” he said. “My God, he’s dead! What do you suppose happened?”

Eli Paulson’s expression was more one of anger. “Looks to me like that bookkeeper fella turned out not to be quite the easy touch he was expecting.”

“So you think that bookkeeper…his name was Girard, wasn’t it…killed him?” Ashley’s voice had a tremor in it.

“I do.” In the moonlight, Eli Paulson’s eyes shone like those of a wild animal. “And he’s going to pay for it.”

*****

The clip clop of horses’ hooves echoed in the early morning air as the three steeds and their riders wound their way along the path through the woods. The branches of the pines swayed gently in a light breeze, and that same breeze caused the men to shiver slightly. Bradley Girard led the procession on a graceful gray mare. Adam Cartwright’s tall, spirited sorrel followed, tossing his head. On a quiet, sturdy brown horse, Roy Coffee brought up the rear.

The three men were silent as they  rode along, each absorbed in his own thoughts. Bradley was nervously contemplating the prospect of seeing once again the dead body of Rudy Masters, and the look of astonishment on the face that he had seen last staring so frozenly up at the sky. Adam was noticing with concern how the closer they got to the scene of the previous day’s confrontation the more unsettled Bradley seemed to become. And Roy was hoping that his nephew’s story would check out without any hitches so that his own nagging concerns might be put to rest.

They were getting close to the lumber camp when Bradley suddenly pulled his horse to a stop and stared at a spot just a little ways off the trail. His face showed surprise and dismay. Adam urged his horse forward to stand next to Bradley’s.

“Is there something wrong, Bradley?” he asked.

Bradley raised his arm and pointed. “That’s the spot right over there. But there’s no body! I don’t understand!” There was a tremor in his hand, and in his voice.

“Take it easy, Brad,” Roy said as he rode up beside them. “You’re sure that’s the right place?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I remember that it was just this side of where the path makes a turn there. And that’s definitely the tree that Masters had me backed up against. The body should be right under it!”

Bradley got down from his horse and hurried over to stand beneath the tree, looking around him in bewilderment. Roy and Adam both dismounted more slowly. They looked at each other questioningly and Roy shook his head. “It couldn’t be simple, could it?” he said. “I was afraid there was gonna turn out to be somethin’ fishy about this.”

“Don’t go jumping to any conclusions, Roy,” Adam said quietly. “Let’s just go and see what we can see…all right?” And the two of them moved to join Bradley near the tree.

As they walked up Bradley turned to face them, his expression troubled. “Masters’ body was here…I know it!” he insisted. “Somehow it’s just disappeared. And I swear I have no idea how that happened!”

Adam was looking at the ground with great interest. He stepped past Bradley and knelt down right next to the tree. “There seem to be some rather confused traces here,” he said. There’s a spot where it looks like something may have been lying for long enough to flatten out the grass underneath it. There are some footprints, fairly faint ones, but I can’t tell if they were made during the incident yesterday or if someone else has been around here since then.” He stood up and took a couple of steps. “And over here…Roy, what do you make of this?”

Sheriff Coffee came up to stand beside Adam and looked where he was pointing. “Looks like maybe something was being dragged,” Roy opined.

“That’s what it looks like to me too,” Adam confirmed.

“So someone dragged Masters’ body away?” Bradley Girard was grasping for some explanation which would end his confusion.

“It could be,” Adam replied non-committally. “Let’s see if these traces lead anywhere.”

The three men moved off deeper into the woods, trying to follow the marks on the ground. But the light and the condition of the ground were not favorable and the task was difficult. It wasn’t very long before they reached a spot where some cutting of timber had been done very recently, and the traces disappeared amid the marks that had been left by the men who had been working in the area. Adam, Roy and Bradley stopped and looked at each other in discouragement.

“What are we going to do now?” Bradley asked anxiously. “We have to find out who took Masters’ body…and where.”

“Oh, I think I can make a pretty good guess as to who might’ve done it,” Roy said. “I don’t think it’s stretchin’ things to suppose that those two partners of his, Eli Paulson and Ashley Washington were somewhere not too far away when Masters was killed and that they could’ve been the ones who found the body. What do you say, Adam?”

“I’d say you’re probably right,” Adam replied. “But as to what they might have done with it…” He looked around, frowning. “There are a lot of places in a woods like this where a body could be buried or hidden. It could take quite a while to conduct a thorough search of the area.” He paused briefly. “I think that the best thing for us to do right now is to head over to Bradley’s cabin. I, for one, am getting kind of chilly and I could use a good cup of coffee, if Bradley would be so kind as to make some up.”

“Sounds good to me,” Roy agreed. That’ll give us a chance to discuss what to do next. That sound OK to you, Brad?”

“Sure,” Bradley answered, smiling wanly.

So they made their way back to the tree which had been their starting place. Their horses were still waiting patiently near the spot. The men gathered them up and started walking down the trail in the direction of the cabin.

In just a few minutes they were passing the sawmill and their destination came into plain sight. At that point Roy spoke up. “Brad, why don’t you go on ahead? I’d kinda like to talk to Adam here in private for a minute if you don’t mind.”

“OK, Uncle Roy. I’ll go and get the coffee started.” Bradley’s face showed a nervous questioning, but he raised no objection. He simply grasped his horse’s reins more tightly and led the animal more quickly down the path while Adam and Roy remained behind.

“What’s this about, Roy?” Adam asked.

Roy sighed as if reluctant to say what he had to say. “Thing is, Adam, I’m still not sure there isn’t somethin’ fishy about Bradley’s account of all this. Now if Masters’ two associates are involved as we suspect they are, then I just hafta wonder. Could Bradley possibly be cooperating with them in some way? Or could he be in danger from them?

Roy and Adam stared at each other, thinking about the possibilities.

Meanwhile, Bradley had made it to the cabin. He tied his horse to the rail in front  and quickly hurried inside. His thoughts were anxious as he moved over to the fireplace and picked up the coffee pot. He had definitely gotten the impression that his Uncle Roy was having doubts about what had happened between him and Rudy Masters. And he didn’t know what he could do  about that.”

Suddenly he heard a noise behind him. He turned around quickly and saw two men stepping out of the dark shadows in the corner of the room. The smaller man with the thin black mustache raised a gun and pointed it at Bradley.

“We knew you’d be coming back here eventually, Mr. Girard,” he said. “And we’ve been waiting to have a little talk with you.”

As he heard the man’s threatening tone Bradley felt a shiver go through him. The coffee pot fell from his trembling hand and clanged on the floor.

“What is it you want with me?” Bradley said.

The man with the thin black mustache advanced toward Bradley, his gun still leveled at the trembling young man. The larger man, whose curly brownish hair and somewhat dandified dress contrasted starkly with his companion, backed him up with his gun also drawn.

“You can start by answering a couple of simple questions,” the first man said bluntly. “We know that a friend of ours was coming to talk to you about a little business proposition. He had planned to meet us afterwards, but he never turned up. So we came to look for him, and what do you suppose we found?”

Bradley stared at him but said nothing.

“You don’t want to guess?” the man continued with a sneer in his tone. “Well I’ll just have to tell you then. We found our friend lying out there under a tree…dead. Suppose you tell us just what you know about that.”

Bradley swallowed as his mind turned in circles. These were obviously the two men that his Uncle Roy had spoken of…Rudy Masters’ partners in crime… Paulson and Washington, wasn’t it? It was also clear that they suspected him of being responsible for Masters’ death. What did they intend to do about it? They looked to be ready to administer a severe punishment. And was there anything he could say that could influence them in his favor? Looking into the cold eyes of the men facing him gave him no encouragement. Then he remembered that Roy and Adam were somewhere outside, not very far away. They could turn up at almost any moment. And Paulson and Washington were not aware of the fact. That gave Bradley a glimmer of hope. If he could stall things, keep these men here talking until that happened….

But then, if Adam and Roy simply walked in without any warning they also could be in grave danger. Washington and Paulson already had their guns drawn. Somehow, Bradley thought, he had to try to let them know what was going on. But how?

“If the friend you mean was Rudy Masters, I came across him out in the woods,” Bradley finally began. “He started talking about some scheme he had that he wanted to involve me in, but he never did explain what he had in mind. It was pretty clear that, whatever it was, it wasn’t anything the law would approve of and I told him I didn’t want anything to do with it. Then he got nasty and threatened me if I didn’t do what he wanted.” Bradley was gradually raising his voice, hoping that it would carry outside and catch the attention of his uncle and his friend…if they were in fact approaching. “He had me backed up against the tree and was waving a gun in my face. I tried to push it away, we wound up in a scuffle and it ended up going off while it was pointed at him  .I was just as surprised as he was. I never meant to kill him. I only wanted to stop him from threatening to kill me. He brought it on himself. And that’s the truth. I’m sorry if that’s not what you want to hear.” Bradley glanced nervously at his interrogators

The curly haired man spoke up. “Eli, do you suppose this fella always lets his voice get loud like that when he’s scared?”

Eli Paulson turned his face toward his companion. “It kind of sounds that way, doesn’t it?” Then he turned back to face Bradley again. “So you just left him to lie there until somebody else happened to stumble across him. Now that certainly wasn’t very kindly of you. When Ash and I found him, we didn’t think he should just be lying exposed like that for the birds to peck at him. So we just dragged the body off a little ways and hid it where we thought it would be safe, at least for a short while. But he still has to be buried proper. We thought we’d get you to help us with that. And then….” Paulson grinned evilly. “Well, then we’ll have to decide what to do with you for your part in his death.”

Bradley thought to himself that they had probably already decided what his fate was to be. And somehow he didn’t think it likely that they meant to leave him alive when this was all over. He shivered slightly and bowed his head, feeling a kind of resignation come over him.

Ashley Washington produced a piece of rope — Bradley didn’t quite catch from where — stepped around behind Bradley and proceeded to tie his hands behind his back. Eli Paulson came up to him and roughly grabbed his arm.

“Come on,” Paulson growled, and he began to drag Bradley toward the cabin door.

Bradley and Paulson emerged onto the porch of the cabin with Ashley Washington following close behind them. Together they came down the steps. Then the pressure of Paulson’s hand on his arm caused Bradley to stop and the others paused as well.

“What do you think?” Paulson asked his partner. “Should we get the horses from behind the cabin?”

“Heck, it’s not that far to where we left ol’ Rudy,” Ashley Washington responded. I’d just as soon walk. I can use the exercise.”

Paulson gave a slight shrug. “Fine with me.” And he pushed Bradley forward, starting down the path that led into the woods.

And then they heard a voice from behind them, calling out “Stop right there!” All three men abruptly turned and saw two figures stepping out from around the corner of the cabin. Bradley felt almost weak with relief. It was his Uncle Roy and Adam, both with their guns raised. They must have heard him!

With an angry snarl, Eli Paulson raised his arm and got off a shot in the sheriff’s direction. A brief but blistering exchange of gunfire erupted, leaving both Paulson and Washington sprawled on the ground. Bradley was left standing there dazed as the gunsmoke around him started to dissipate. Unthinkingly, he shook off the rope that had loosened around his wrists. Adam and Roy were still standing next to the cabin. Roy seemed to be holding himself a little stiffly and Adam was absorbed in examining what appeared to be a slight graze on the sheriff’s upper arm. Neither of them noticed when Eli Paulson managed to painfully raise himself to a sitting position and point his gun in their direction.

But Bradley noticed. “Look out!” he cried, and he stepped forward just as Paulson’s gun went off. The effort was too much for Paulson, and he collapsed back onto the ground with his eyes closed. Bradley felt a searing pain as the bullet pierced his abdomen and, with a moan, he sank to his knees, his hand clutching at the wound.

With stunned and anxious faces, Roy and Adam both hurried to Bradley’s side. With a supple movement Adam knelt down next to him and helped him lie back on the ground. He quickly examined the wound, then pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and used it to try to stop the flow of blood. His whole demeanor testified to the seriousness of the situation.

Roy Coffee stood there looking down at his nephew and his own eyes filled as he saw the young man’s eyes looking up at him filled with pain. He was suddenly overwhelmed with the deepest feeling of regret that he had ever known. Regret that he had been so hard on the boy. Regret that he had refused the help that had been sought from him. Regret that he had never managed to develop with his nephew the kind of caring and supportive relationship that they might have had.

“Stubborn old fool!” he chided himself as he slowly knelt down at Bradley’s other side. He reached out an unsteady hand and grasped his nephew’s, squeezing it with all his might.

“You listen to me now, Brad. You’re gonna be all right. Everything’s gonna be all right. So you just hang in there,” Roy said. And as he said it, he prayed that he wasn’t lying, that Bradley would in fact survive and that he would be granted the chance to redeem all of his regrets and make a new beginning.

Roy looked on anxiously as Adam continued to apply pressure to Bradley’s wound. “How does it look, Adam?” he asked in a strained voice, not wanting to interfere with Adam’s efforts to help his nephew but needing to know.

Adam looked back at him with eyes that were dark with worry and spoke in an urgent voice. “Roy, he needs help as quickly as he can get it. The fastest way would be to try to get him onto a horse in front of one of us and ride for town. But I seriously doubt that he could take the trip. Or we can get him settled in the cabin and one of us can look after him while the other rides for the doctor. It would take a good three hours to get there and back, and that’s assuming Doc Martin is available immediately, but Bradley might have a better chance of holding on that long than of surviving the trip on horseback.” He paused for a second, then continued in a gentler tone. “Roy, you’re the only family member available, so I guess the decision is up to you. What do you think we should do?”

Roy looked down at his unconscious nephew, whose face was even paler than usual and whose breathing was disturbingly ragged. How ironic it was that after avoiding any real involvement with the young man for so long he should now be faced with such a decision on his behalf. The possible consequences of choosing wrong frightened him. But he couldn’t dawdle over it. The seconds were already ticking away. He looked back up at Adam.

“It looks to me like you’re right that he’d never make it on horseback. And you’d prob’ly be able to ride for the doc faster than I could.” Roy took a deep breath before voicing his final decision. “I think I should stay with him here and let you go.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do. For what it’s worth, I think that’s the right decision.”

“That’s worth a lot, Adam,” Roy said feelingly.

“All right then, let’s get him into the cabin,” Adam replied.

Very carefully, they lifted Bradley, carried him inside and gently laid him on the bed. Roy grabbed a chair from beside the table, moved it next to the bed and settled down on it. Adam quickly moved toward the door. Just as he reached it, he paused to look back. “I’ll be back as fast as I can, Roy,” he said.

Roy nodded to him without words and Adam disappeared out the door.

The next three hours or so would stay in Roy Coffee’s memory as some of the most difficult he had ever spent. Bradley did not regain consciousness, and neither did he simply rest quietly. His frequent restless movements and the low moans of pain that escaped from him caused real distress to his vigilant uncle. Very soon Bradley began to run a fever, which seemed to increase as time went on despite Roy’s efforts to wipe him down with cool water. The bullet had passed completely through Bradley’s body and the entrance and exit wounds were both continuing to slowly ooze blood, though not as much as they had at first. Immediately after Adam had left, Roy had set about bandaging the wounds as best he could, using strips of a spare sheet that he found. But the effort had clearly caused Bradley even more pain, and Roy hoped fervently that it would not be necessary to repeat the process before the doctor arrived. During the interludes when Bradley was relatively quiet Roy would sit beside him and take his hand, speaking to him soothingly, assuring him that help was coming soon and constantly encouraging him to hold on. There was never any response.

As it came close to the time when Adam might reasonably be expected to return with the doctor Roy began to keep his ears cocked, listening for any sound that might indicate their approach. A couple of times he even got up to look out the front window of the cabin, but he did not see what he was so anxiously hoping to see. Once again he wiped Bradley’s face with a cloth dipped in cool water, then settled back in his chair. After a little while, exhausted from the tension, he allowed his head to drop forward and his eyes to close.

He was abruptly jolted back to alertness only a few minutes later when the door of the cabin opened and Doctor Paul Martin came hurrying in, followed closely by Adam. With a quick nod in the sheriff’s direction and a quick “Hello, Roy,” the doctor approached the bedside. Roy stood up and pulled his chair aside, allowing the doctor to come closer. For several minutes Doctor Martin bent over his patient, removing the makeshift bandaging and examining the wound closely while the other two men observed his actions silently.

Finally, Roy could stand it no longer. “Well, Paul?” he said, and swallowed hard.

The doctor turned to address him. “Roy, I just don’t know”, he replied with a sober expression. “This is a bad wound, and there’s serious internal damage. You were almost certainly right that he wouldn’t have survived if you had tried to carry him into town. I’ll do my best…you know that…but whether it will be enough I really can’t say. That will depend on a power beyond my control.”

*****

Forty-eight hours later Roy and Adam still remained in the cabin keeping watch over Bradley, who stubbornly refused to wake up. Dr. Martin had done what he could as far as trying to repair the damage to Bradley’s body, but he had remained non-committal as to what the outcome would be. The doctor had stayed with them for some time, but a few hours earlier a messenger had arrived to report that an elderly man, a long-time patient of his, had been taken ill with what was suspected to be a heart attack, and he had been forced to leave them.

Adam and Roy sat together silently, both staring down at the now motionless figure on the bed. Bradley’s fever had abated and he no longer moved about so restlessly. But he showed no sign of regaining consciousness, and that was troubling. Finally, Roy broke the silence.

“You think he’s ever gonna wake up, Adam?” he asked in an unsteady voice.

Adam laid a reassuring hand on his friend’s arm. “There’s every chance that he will,” he said. “It’s just going to take some time. You heard what Paul said. These things just can’t be rushed.”

“He also said he couldn’t make any guarantees. I just keep thinkin’, Adam. I can’t get it outta my mind that he stepped in front of Paulson’s gun and took a bullet to protect me. And after the way I’d been treatin’ him….”

Adam patted his arm. “You know, Roy, it might have been me he was trying to protect. Did you consider that?”

“And just maybe it was both of us. How ‘bout that?” Roy replied, a sad little smile touching his face.

Adam nodded. “I’d say that’s the most likely.”

“I just pray I’ll get the chance to thank him proper,” Roy continued.

And then a sound came from the direction of the bed. They turned their heads and saw Bradley’s head moving from side to side. Then the young man’s eyes slowly fluttered open, and he stared at them as if surprised to see them there.

“Uncle Roy?” Bradley said weakly.

Roy leaned forward and grasped his nephew’s hand as he had done so often in the past couple of days.

I’m right here, Brad,” he said. “And so’s Adam. Thank God you’re finally awake. How do ya feel, son?”

“Not so good,” Bradley answered. “What happened anyway? The last I remember….” Then his eyes widened as it all came back to him. “Are you both all right?” he asked anxiously. “What happened to those two…?”

“We’re fine,” Roy assured him. “Those two friends of Masters’ are both dead. Masters’ body was found by some o’ the men from the lumber camp and all three of ‘em have been taken away. They won’t be botherin’ you again.”

Bradley closed his eyes and sighed with relief.

“I’ve got some news that should make you feel a little better,” Roy went on. “You remember Adam here suggested that there might be a reward for bringin’ in Rudy Masters…dead or alive? Well, my deputy came out from town this morning with the latest official mail, and lo and behold there was a notice that the reward for Masters had been raised from one thousand to five thousand dollars. And that money is gonna be yours, Brad. What do ya think about that?”

“That’s nice, Uncle Roy,” Bradley responded, but there was no great enthusiasm in his voice. “You know, I just wish I knew exactly what Masters intended when he tried to rope me into whatever scheme he had. I suppose it doesn’t really matter now, but somehow it nags at me. I’ll never find out now.”

“I guess that’s one of those things that is destined to remain a mystery,” Adam interjected. “There are a lot of things in life that we’re simply never going to know, and sometimes we just have to accept that.”

“Exactly,” Roy added. “The important thing is that you knew he was up to no good and you refused to get involved. I’m proud of you for that, Brad.”

Bradley looked at him with tears beginning to well up in his eyes. “That’s something I never thought I’d hear you say,” he said softly.

Roy decided that this was as good a time as any to make the statement that he had been rehearsing in his mind. “Brad,” he began quietly, “I’ve just gotta say I’m sorry for the way I’ve been actin’ to ya. When you came to town I treated ya just like a stranger. I should’ve been more understanding about what happened and realized you deserved a second chance. I should’ve been there for ya when you asked for help. But all I did was turn my back on ya. And I’m ashamed o’ that now.” A tremor had crept into his voice. “Well, I don’t want you to be such a stranger any more. Can you find it in ya to forgive a foolish old man and maybe see if we can’t start over…get to know each other the way we ought to?”

“I think maybe I can.” Bradley smiled. “I’d like us to be closer too.”

“Thank you, son. I’m glad to hear you say that.” Roy smiled back at his nephew as he laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Now once you’re back on your feet I’d like us to spend more time with each other, starting with having dinner together once a week. We could trade off hosting dinner. How does that sound?”

“It sounds good to me, Uncle Roy.”

“Fine then. Now it seems to me that the best thing for you right now is to get some rest. So why don’t you just lay back and shut your eyes. I’ll be here if you need anything.”

Obediently, Bradley settled back on the bed and closed his eyes. Within a few minutes his even breathing confirmed that he was asleep. Roy and Adam watched him for a few moments. Then Adam arose and donned his jacket and hat.

“Well, Roy, thankfully it looks as though Bradley is going to be all right,” he said. “And I’m glad…very glad…to see that the two of you are determined to make a new beginning with each other. I really hope it works out. The only bad thing I can see about this is that it looks like I’m going to be stuck doing the books again until Bradley  recovers. But I suppose I can live with that. For right now I really should be getting home.” He paused. “Tomorrow maybe we can talk to Paul Martin when he comes back about getting a couple of people to come in and help take care of Bradley. You can’t stay with him twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. And he’s going to need someone with him constantly, for a while at least.”

Roy nodded. “I was thinkin’ of that too. I’m sure the doc can recommend somebody.”

Adam’s face was thoughtful as he looked down at the sleeping Bradley. “Roy, do you intend to ever tell him the truth about his mother’s affair, and about his real father?”

Roy sighed and shook his head. “I don’t see as any good would come of it. Why should I complicate his relationship with his ma, or spoil his regard for the man he thinks was his pa?”

“Why, indeed?” Adam responded, his face indicating approval. “Well, good-bye for now, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye, Adam, and thanks for everything you’ve done…for both of us,” Roy said.

Adam raised his hand to his hat in acknowledgement as he closed the door behind him.

Roy sat beside his nephew’s bed, gazing thoughtfully at the young man who had turned out not to be such a stranger after all. After a moment he leaned back in the chair and settled himself for a long vigil. He would remain in that chair through the night, and he would still be there when Bradley awakened to the touch of the sun on his face at the breaking of the new day.

***The End***

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