The Cry of the Dove (by Debra P.)

Summary:   (With appreciation to E. Jack Newman, who wrote ‘The Hopefuls’.) 
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,700


I:   SUMMONED TO SLATERSVILLE

Hop Sing entered from the kitchen with a platter of roast beef and placed it on the dining table. His eyes glanced over the table, confirming that everything was ready and in place. Then, with a nod of satisfaction, he stepped around the table. “Dinner ready,” he announced.

Over by the fireplace, the three Cartwright sons were gathered. At Hop Sing’s words, Hoss rose from his place by the hearth, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. His two brothers smiled at him and they all began to move toward the table. Ben Cartwright, sitting at his desk in the alcove, raised his eyes from the letter he was reading. Then he stood up and, carrying the letter with him, he went to join them.

In just a couple of minutes, the men had settled into their places and a brief grace had been said. As the boys began to pass the dishes of food among themselves, Ben continued to peruse his letter.

Adam looked over at him curiously. “Something interesting there, Pa?” he inquired.

Ben laid the paper down next to his place and his eyes shifted to Adam. “Actually, it is something that I think you’ll find interesting son. Adam, you remember that bid we submitted to provide the timber for the army’s planned renovations at Fort Churchill.”

“Of course. That’s a pretty big project.” An eager anticipation had taken over Adam’s expression. “So, did we get the contract?”

“A final decision hasn’t been made yet,” Ben replied. “It seems that after the bids were already in, the Army decided that there were some changes that needed to be made to the plans. There were three parties who virtually tied for the low bid. We were one of them. Now the officer in charge of awarding the contract — a Colonel Norris — wants to set up a meeting with the three low bidders in order to go over the changes and have them revise their bids accordingly. Once that is done, he will consider the revised bids and go ahead with awarding the contract. Adam, since you did most of the work on our original bid, I assume you will want to be the one to represent the Ponderosa.”

“You assume correctly,” Adam returned. “Where and when is this meeting going to be held?”

“It’s set for next Friday morning in Slatersville. A rather out of the way location, I suppose, but one that means about an equal distance to travel for everyone involved, and apparently that’s why it was chosen. Here, you can read it for yourself.” Ben picked up the letter and held it out to his son.

A look of surprise came into Adam’s eyes. But there was something more too, something that Ben couldn’t quite identify. It was almost as though Adam was looking at a ghost that had been suddenly conjured up before him. The look troubled his father.

“Is there something wrong, son?” Ben asked

“No, of course not.” Adam seemed to shake himself free of whatever vision he had been caught up in. He reached out to take the letter. Then he stood up, pushing his chair back somewhat abruptly. “I think I’ll go up to my room for a little while,” he said. And he quickly turned and headed for the stairs.

Ben looked after him in concern and confusion. As soon as the sound of Adam’s door opening and closing was heard from above, Ben turned to Hoss and Joe questioningly. “Do either of you know what that was all about? Did I miss something?”

“Pa, I reckon you musta forgot about Slatersville…about what that place would mean to Adam,” Hoss said quietly.

“What do you mean, Hoss?”

“Don’t you remember, Pa? That’s where Adam and I went with that wagon train a little over a year ago. Them folks we was escortin’ wound up settling not very far away from there. And that’s where Adam had to say good-bye to Regina Darien.”

Suddenly it all came back to Ben. Regina Darien. Of course. The image of the modest yet strong willed Quaker woman with her golden hair tucked up beneath her neat white cap came before his mind’s eye. Adam had encountered her when the wagon train led by her father, Jacob Darien, passed through Virginia City and he had been immediately drawn to her. Wanting more time with her, Adam had decided to accompany the train and Hoss had gone with him. Ben had been deeply concerned by the obvious attraction between his son and this woman whose background and beliefs were so very different. He had actually feared that his son might cast his lot with Regina’s people and never return home. Adam had returned, but he had come back with a wounded arm…and a wounded heart. His effort to recover the Quaker group’s stolen money had ended in violence, and in the aftermath of that incident, Adam and Regina had reluctantly concluded that it was not meant for them to be together. Ben had been relieved, but he had been ashamed of being so, seeing the pain in his son’s eyes. With time, Adam had seemed to get over it. Ben hadn’t heard him mention the affair in many months. But now the mention of Slatersville must have brought it all back to him.

“How could I have forgotten?” Ben murmured as he shook his head regretfully. “I saw the name of the town and I was so caught up in thinking about the business to be conducted that I didn’t even recall its significance. That was so thoughtless of me.”

“Don’t make too much of it, Pa,” Hoss admonished him. He rose from his chair, setting his napkin down beside his only partially eaten meal. “If ya don’t mind, I think I’ll go upstairs for a bit too.”

Hoss turned away from the table. But as he began to move toward the stairs, his father’s voice called him back.

“Hoss.”

Hoss turned his head. “Yeah, Pa?”

“Hoss,” Ben began hesitantly, “has Adam said anything to you…I mean…do you think he’s still hurting over what happened with Regina Darien?”

Hoss lowered his eyes. “Pa, I ain’t gonna answer that question. ‘Cause I’m afraid the answer is somethin’ that you’d rather not know.”

As Hoss began to ascend the stairs, Ben stared down at the table. “You just gave me the answer,” he whispered sadly.

*****

Hoss stood in front of his older brother’s door and knocked on it gently. Hearing a quiet “Come in” from within, he opened it and stepped inside. He found Adam lying on his bed, his hands clasped behind his neck, staring at the ceiling.

“You all right, Adam?” Hoss inquired.

“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well now, seein’ as how the name of Slatersville came up kinda unexpected, I just thought you might be thinkin’ about some things that wouldn’t make you too happy. You know Pa feels right bad about springin’ it on ya that way. He just didn’t remember is all.”

“I don’t blame him,” Adam said quietly. “Oh, the name did bring up some rather painful memories, but it’s just something I have to cope with. It’s not anything for him…or you…to worry about.”

Hoss smiled down at him. “Well that’s good to hear.” He paused briefly. “I know you ain’t gonna let this interfere with the business you got to do there. I’d bet on that.”

“Of course not. There’s no reason why there should be any problem. I may be going back to the area, but I’ll be too busy to be thinking much about it. And it’s not as though I’m likely to actually run into Regina. The odds of that are really pretty slim.”

“I reckon you’re right,” Hoss agreed, relieved at his brother’s attitude. “Well then, you think you might want to come back downstairs? We could play a game o’ chess if ya like.”

Adam smiled back. “Maybe later. Right now I could use a little time alone.”

“Sure thing, Adam. I’ll be waitin’ whenever you’re ready.” And with a comforting pat on his brother’s shoulder, Hoss turned and left the room.

Adam settled back and stared up at the ceiling again. He thought about Regina, the gentle touch of her hand against his face and the warmth that flowed through him as his lips pressed against her palm. Yes, the odds of running into Regina in Slatersville were definitely slim. But what if, against the odds, he did happen to encounter her? How would he react to seeing her again? And how would she react to seeing him?

Adam closed his eyes with a sigh. “That, my friend,” he told himself “is probably something that you would rather not know.”

*****

II:   THOU ART STILL A STRANGE WOMAN

It was a little after noon on the following Thursday when Adam Cartwright rode into the small town of Slatersville. There seemed to be more activity going on along the main street than he remembered from the last time he was there. He pulled his horse up for a moment as he was caught up in a sudden vision of the same street, almost empty, with only himself and Sam Bord facing each other down and Bord falling to the ground amid the haze of gunsmoke. Then he determinedly forced the vision to the back of his mind and urged Sport forward again.

It wasn’t difficult to find the hotel, which appeared to be the only establishment of its kind in the town. Leaving Sport at the livery stable across from the hotel, Adam quickly checked in and determined that neither Colonel Norris nor either of the two other competitors for the army contract had arrived yet. His room turned out to be clean enough, if somewhat shabby, with a broken mirror above the dresser and slightly frayed curtains at the window. He idly hoped that the broken mirror wouldn’t prove to be some sort of omen of bad luck. The bed looked reasonably comfortable and Adam eagerly flopped down on it for a short rest. But he found it difficult to settle down, and after a few moments, he got up and retrieved the papers with all of the information relating to the army project which he had brought with him. He soon realized that there was little point in going over the information again. He knew it virtually by heart already. Still restless, Adam determined to take a walk around the town and see whatever there was to see. He put the papers away, grabbed his hat and slipped out the door, locking it carefully behind him.

*****

The young woman in the plain, dark dress and white cap moved quietly and purposefully down the sidewalk until she found herself in front of the General Store. She paused, glancing in the window, then went inside. With measured steps, she approached the counter where the store’s owner awaited.

“Hello, Miss Regina. What can I do for you today?” the owner asked politely.

“Good day to thee, Mr. Elliot. I would like to see fabric to make a cloak for the winter, please,” she replied in a gentle voice.

“Well, let’s see what we have here.”

Elliot moved to the back of the store where there were a number of bolts of fabric. He selected three of them, returned to the counter and laid them out for her inspection. Regina examined the fabrics carefully, beginning to frown slightly as she fingered them. “Is there nothing heavier?” she asked.

“I have some heavier material on order, but I’m afraid it will be a couple of weeks before it comes in,” he answered.

“Very well. I will check with thee when I come to town again. For today, may I just have a pound of coffee and a pound of sugar, please?”

“Certainly. I’ll get them right away.” Elliot nodded and turned aside.

Regina watched as he set about fulfilling her order. Behind her, a tall, dark figure appeared in the open doorway of the store, but she did not notice. Until…

“Thou art still a strange woman, Regina Darien,” the rich, melodic voice intoned.

Regina froze. She knew that voice. She had not heard it in well over a year, but she knew it. The very sound of it sent a tremor through her. And the words evoked memories and feelings from a place within her that she had kept carefully shut up.

Slowly she turned. And there he was, leaning against the side of the doorway, his arms crossed, his hazel eyes regarding her with a question that she wasn’t quite sure how to answer. The sight of him still affected her in a way that no other man ever had. But it also reminded her of all the reasons why they had decided to part.

Finally, hesitantly, she moved toward him, and he moved to meet her. They faced each other, looking into each other’s eyes. Then Regina spoke. “Adam…I had not thought to see thee again,” she said quietly.

“I didn’t come here to seek you out,” he told her. “I have business here in town. I honestly thought there wasn’t that much of a chance of running into you. But I was just taking a stroll around town when I caught sight of you walking down the street. I saw you come in here…and somehow…I couldn’t NOT come after you.”

“I understand, Adam,” she replied. “If I had caught sight of thee I doubt I could have resisted following after thee either.” The admission was hard for her.

“I’ve thought about you so many times,” Adam continued. “Wondering what you were doing…how you and your people were getting along. And wishing that I could know for certain that you were all right.” He reached out to gently grasp her hand. “Regina, I…”

“Please, Adam,” she interrupted him. She wanted to withdraw her hand from his, but she found herself unable to. A visible blush was coming to her face. “Before thou sayest more, I must tell thee.” She gathered up her courage to come out with it. “I am betrothed…to a man of our community named Timothy Godsey.”

She looked directly at him and saw his eyes widen with surprise…and perhaps something more.

*****

III:   YOU CANNOT RUN AWAY

Adam continued to stare at Regina as if trying to read something in her face. Regina was made uncomfortable by the scrutiny and lowered her gaze. It only took a few seconds for Adam to compose himself. He reached out his free hand and very gently lifted her chin so that they were looking into each other’s eyes again. “So, tell me…” he began quietly.

But he was interrupted by the voice of Mr. Elliot from behind the counter.

“Miss Regina, I have your things ready,” the store owner said.

Regina took advantage of the distraction to pull her hand and her gaze away from Adam. Quickly she turned and stepped back to the counter. She felt the dark eyes still focused on her as she paid for her purchases, gathered them up and exchanged polite good-byes with Mr. Elliot. When she turned again, she found the imposing figure of Adam standing in her way.

“Let me take those for you,” he said.

Almost without thinking, Regina complied, handing over her packages to him. He tucked them under one arm while, with the other, he carefully grasped her elbow and steered her toward the door.

When they got outside, Regina attempted to turn down the street but Adam’s hand on her arm held her back. She looked at him and saw clearly that he wanted to resume their interrupted conversation. And the thought of where that might lead disturbed her.

“I must be going home, Adam,” she said, in a soft but firm voice. “I have much to do. My buggy is waiting around the corner. Please give me my packages and I will go.”

Adam considered for a moment, then, without a word, let go of her arm and handed the packages back to her. She took them gratefully and turned to go on her way. Adam followed only two steps behind her. They walked toward the corner in an uncomfortable silence.

When they had almost reached it, Regina glanced up. She stopped abruptly, raising her hand to her mouth with a little gasp. Adam’s eyes followed her gaze and he saw two men on horseback coming up the street. The one in the lead had a badge pinned to his shirt. Evidently, the sheriff. He must be fairly new to the job, Adam thought to himself. It wasn’t the same man that he had dealt with in regard to the incident with Sam Bord. The sheriff was leading the second horse on which sat a man of unkempt appearance. The man looked as though he hadn’t been eating much lately. His hair was tousled, his face unshaven, and his eyes sunken. His clothes were torn and showed traces of blood. His hands were bound tightly in front of him. Most disconcerting was the helpless, trapped expression in the man’s eyes.

Adam watched Regina as she watched the sheriff and the man. Clearly she was troubled by the sight. He stepped up behind her and laid a hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong, Regina?” he asked.

“I know the man the sheriff is bringing in, Adam,” she replied. His name is Scott Preston. He was very helpful to us when we first settled here. He was one of the few who openly welcomed us. To see him this way….” Her voice trailed off.

As the riders drew near Regina stepped out into the street to meet them.

“Mr. Preston…Mr. Preston,” she called as she approached them. The rider on the second horse turned his head away and gave her no response. Regina turned toward the other man as he brought his horse to a stop.

“Sheriff Raleigh, what has happened to Mr. Preston?” she demanded.

”Well, ma’am, I’m sorry to say that Mr. Preston here is being charged with the murder of his wife,” the sheriff replied. Regina stared at him in shock.

“It seems he’s been quite depressed ever since their child was stillborn,” Raleigh continued. “Talked to the doctor and the preacher about it, but it didn’t seem to do him any good. This morning a neighbor of theirs rode over to see them and found Mrs. Preston dead of stab wounds. Preston himself was just sitting there, his head buried in his hands, the bloody knife lying on the table next to him. So the neighbor called me in. When I started to question him about it, Preston admitted that he had done it, but then he just seemed to clam up and he hasn’t hardly said a word since.”

Regina’s face paled at this account. Adam, who had come up next to her, watched her with concern.

“Now I’m sorry to be the one to tell you about all this, ma’am,” the sheriff concluded. “I know he’s been a friend to your people. Sometimes there’s just no accounting for how something like this can happen. But right now I really need to get him over to the jail and get the formalities taken care of. So if you’ll excuse me, please.”

Raleigh briefly touched his hand to the brim of his hat, then he gathered up his reins and the lead rope and urged the horses forward. Regina stood staring after them as they continued up the street. Then she abruptly turned and briskly made her way back to the sidewalk and around the corner. Her movement took Adam by surprise, but he quickly gathered himself and set off after her. By the time he caught up with her, she had reached the place where her horse and buggy stood waiting. As she prepared to step into the buggy, Adam once again laid a hand on her arm.

“Regina…wait.”

She faced him, her brown eyes filled with emotion. “Adam, I must go. I ask thee please…”

“You know this won’t do any good,” Adam interrupted her pointedly. “You can’t run away from the tragedy that your friend has been caught up in, or the violence.” He lowered his voice. “And you cannot run away from me either.”

There was a long pause as she contemplated his words with her eyes lowered. When she looked up at him again her usual calmness seemed to have returned. “Thou art right, Adam,” she admitted.

“Now that we have met again, there are some things we need to talk about,” Adam ventured. “You haven’t told me anything about this man you’re going to marry except his name. And there are so many other things.”

“Yes.” Regina nodded her head. “As before, we have need of time…to talk…to settle things between us. But I cannot do it now.” She regarded him hopefully. “Thou will be free to meet tomorrow?”

Adam frowned slightly. “My whole morning will be taken up with business. I’m not sure how late that will run. And there will probably be some work that I need to do later on. But I should be able to make some time in the early afternoon. Where would be the best place to meet?”

Regina’s expression turned thoughtful. “There is a mill by a small stream about three miles outside of town, on the road to the west. It is easy to find, and I know that the man who operates it is out of town this week so there should be no one there.”

“That sounds fine,” Adam said. “So we’ll meet there at, say, two o’clock?”

“That is good.” Regina nodded her agreement.

A smile crossed Adam’s face. “You don’t think there will be anything improper about us meeting alone?”

“But we will not be doing anything wrong…will we?” she answered, returning the smile.

“Of course not,” Adam replied. He took her hand to help her into the buggy, and gave it a brief squeeze as she took her seat. “Good-bye until tomorrow then, Regina,” he said. “Sleep well tonight.”

“The same to thee, Adam,” she returned. “God bless thee.” She picked up the reins and, with a final smile in Adam’s direction, she drove away with him looking after her until the buggy disappeared from sight.

*****

Despite the good wishes they had exchanged, that night was a sleepless one for both Adam Cartwright and Regina Darien. Adam tossed and turned, his mind jumping from thoughts of the next day’s business meeting to visions of a pair of warm brown eyes gazing into his. Regina lay awake, unable to put aside the image of a darkly handsome face under a black hat that kept returning to her despite her efforts to focus her mind on other things.

And there was at least one other person in the area of Slatersville who spent a sleepless night. In the jail, Scott Preston lay on the cot in his cell, staring at the ceiling. His mind was consumed with guilt over the violence in which he had taken part, fearful visions of the retribution that awaited him at the hands of the hangman, and the frantic determination that somehow, whatever it might take, he must escape it.

*****

IV:   BENEATH THE ASPENS

On Friday morning, Adam Cartwright was to be found in a back room at the hotel, attending the meeting regarding the contract for the army project. Colonel Norris, who had called for the meeting, proved to be a grizzled veteran who brought to mind a slightly older, smaller version of his father with a thick handlebar mustache. Adam was well acquainted with the other two competitors for the contract. Daniel Shaffer and Malcolm Easterbrooke were both very capable, shrewd businessmen who would cut as close to the line as they could get away with to gain an advantage. Adam knew that if he were to come out on top he would have to be at his best, alert and focused. But forcing himself to concentrate was proving difficult.

Colonel Norris had given each of the bidders a copy of the report detailing the changes that the army was making in the requirements for the contract. He then spent considerable time going over each individual item. As the Colonel’s voice droned on, Adam found his mind drifting to thoughts of his planned meeting with Regina in the afternoon and wondering at the power that she still had to disturb him. It took the interruption of the Colonel’s presentation by a question from Easterbrooke to call Adam’s attention back to the matter at hand

When Colonel Norris had finished his presentation and answered all questions from the three bidders, he announced that they had until noon on Saturday to submit their revised bids. They were to be left at the front desk and he would pick them up just before leaving to return to Fort Churchill. The revised bids would be considered and the competitors would be notified of the final decision by telegram within two weeks.

“Is everything satisfactory, gentlemen?” Norris asked

Adam, Shaffer and Easterbrooke glanced at each other warily before each of them nodded.

“Very well then. I shall be available in my room should any of you need to consult me. Good luck to you all.” And with that the meeting was adjourned.

*****

The stream flowed smoothly past the old mill, and its gentle gurgling was almost the only sound to be heard. The mill itself was silent, its wheel unmoving. Just downstream from the mill, a pair of graceful aspen trees grew along the water’s edge. Beneath them rested a wooden bench which, at the moment, was occupied by the figure of a man dressed in black.

Adam Cartwright drew out a pocket watch, glanced at it and sighed. It was twenty minutes after two and Regina Darien had not yet appeared. Had she changed her mind and decided not to come after all? Somehow he doubted that. He felt instinctively that Regina needed to talk to him as much as he needed to talk to her.

Often the choices we make seem to be dictated by forces beyond our control. And the choice that he and Regina had made to part from each other fell into that category. At the time it had seemed that neither of them really had a choice. But seeing her again had caused him to question whether that choice had really been the right one. And now she was planning on marrying another man. Would that choice truly make her happy? He felt that he could not part from her again without knowing for sure.

A gentle breeze caused the leaves of the aspens to quake, and their rustling obscured the sound of approaching footsteps. With his head bowed in deep thought, Adam sensed nothing until the newcomer was almost upon him. Finally he looked up and saw Regina standing there. She had a slight blush on her cheeks. Whether that was caused by her haste or arose from whatever emotions she was feeling, Adam couldn’t be sure.

“Forgive me for being late, Adam,” she said.

“I was beginning to wonder if you were going to show up.” He paused. “I’m glad you did.”

“I would not break my word to thee,” she assured him. “I had to wait until Matthew had gone to help our neighbor in his fields before I could leave.”

“Matthew?”

“My uncle, Adam. I make my home with him now.”

“Of course. I remember him well,” Adam replied, bringing to mind the lean and sober image of the man who had stood close to Regina’s father, Jacob, and had stepped into the position of leadership when Jacob was killed. He gestured to Regina to sit down and, after a second’s hesitation, she came and took the place beside him.

“I was a little surprised when I heard that your people had chosen to settle down here,” Adam began, thinking it better to start with a little casual conversation before leading into more serious subjects. “I thought you had intended to go further.”

“We had thought to. But, as we had told thee, we feared that the land we had in mind would be sold before we got there. We saw that there was good land here which was suitable to our needs. And….” She lowered her eyes, seemingly wondering if she really wanted to say more.

“And?” Adam urged her.

“There was some dispute concerning the money that was to be used for the land,” Regina continued reluctantly. “Because of the deaths that had come about for it — and the way that it had been returned to us — there were some who questioned whether it would be right to use the money at all. In the end it was decided that it could be used, but that it would be best if the money left our hands as soon as possible.”

“I see.” Adam couldn’t help but feel at least a little insulted at this revelation. After all, he had risked his life in order to return the Quaker group’s stolen money to them.

“Tell me, Regina,” he resumed after a moment of silence, “just what would your people have done if you had not gotten the money back? You would have had nothing with which to buy land, or necessary supplies for that matter. So what would you have done?”

She looked up at him with a direct, serene gaze. “Adam, this may be hard for thee to understand, but for us it was a matter of faith. We believed that we were following God’s will by coming west to settle. And because of that, we believed that, whatever befell us, in some way — perhaps we knew not how — but in some way, God would provide.”

“Did it occur to you,” Adam responded in a quiet voice, “that perhaps God was providing for you by sending you someone who would do what you could not do and get the money back for you?”

“There were many who felt that way,” Regina hastened to assure him. “That is why it was finally decided that the money could be used after all.”

“What about you? Did you feel that way?” he asked her.

“Yes, Adam,” she answered softly.

Another light breeze arose, rustling the leaves of the trees once more. When it died down, Regina spoke again. “Adam, I cannot stay much longer. And I think there is something else that thou would ask me.”

“Indeed there is,” he replied. “Tell me about this man you’re going to marry, Timothy…Godsey, wasn’t it?”

Regina nodded, and a smile touched her face. “He is a fine man Adam. He builds and repairs wagons, buggies and carts….”

“So he’s a cartwright…with a small ‘c’,“ Adam interrupted her, a gleam of amusement in his eyes.

Regina was startled for a second, then, taking in his meaning, she smiled back at him. “I had not thought of it, but that is so.”

“There’s just one thing I really want to know about him,” Adam said.

Regina regarded him curiously and Adam looked straight back at her.

“Do you love him?”

She seemed to consider her answer carefully.

“We understand each other, Adam. We have known each other since childhood and we share much in common.”

“That’s all very fine, but it’s not quite what I’m asking you.” Adam put his hands on her shoulders and forced her to face him directly. “Do you love him?”

Regina gathered all her strength of will to answer him. “If thy meaning is do I have the same feelings when I look at him as I do when I look at thee, then the answer is no. But do not think that my feelings for him are not very strong and very real. He and I can make a life together…and thou and I cannot.”

“Are you really so sure of that? Regina, what if you and I could go someplace far away, someplace where the rest of the world could never bother us? Would you rather stay here with him than go and be with me?”

“No,” she admitted in a strained voice, shaking her head sadly. “But is there any such place, Adam?”

“Maybe not. But…what if…what if I made the decision to stay with your people and live by your ways? What would you say to that?”

“Oh, Adam,” Regina answered breathlessly, her brown eyes growing wide. “Thou art ready to do this?”

“It would be an awfully big step. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel about another woman the way I feel about you. And right now I don’t know if I could ever say good-bye to you again.”

He began to draw her closer and suddenly they were folded in each other’s strong embrace and their lips were meeting in a passionate kiss. In that moment Adam felt a sense of completeness that he had never known before, and he reveled in it.

But then Regina pulled away. Her eyes were frightened, and the blush on her face had become intense.

“This is wrong…I should not have agreed to see thee…I am breaking faith with my betrothed!”

She got up and began to turn away. Adam grabbed her hand, but she attempted to pull free.

“Adam, please…I cannot do this…I must go…I must go.”

Seeing the pleading look in her face and the tears threatening to spill from her eyes, he loosened his grip. Regina pulled away and fled up the slope to where her horse and buggy waited.

Adam stood and stared after her, wanting desperately to follow her but knowing that, at this moment, it would only make things worse. His eyes continued to follow Regina as she got into the buggy and hurriedly drove away. Then he sat back down on the bench, bowed his head and buried his face in his hands.

*****

V:   THREE UNSETTLED MINDS

As Regina drove her horse and buggy up to the house where she lived with her Uncle Matthew, she was hardly aware of what she was doing. Her mind was still in turmoil after the scene with Adam. She was troubled with remorse at having allowed herself to fall into such a situation in the first place. But when Adam had hinted at the possibility of becoming ‘convinced’ and joining the community, she couldn’t help feeling something leap inside of her. And when they had kissed, it had, for a moment, driven all thoughts of Timothy from her mind. Then the reality of what she was doing had hit her and shame had taken over. She still felt the warm blush of it in her face.

Now she was faced with a decision. Her conscience demanded that she should be honest with Timothy. But exactly what should she say to him? However much she revealed, it would no doubt cause him disappointment. But would it be enough to make him turn away from her? And then there was the somehow even more unsettling possibility that he would prove understanding and forgive her lapse. Knowing him as she did, that seemed not at all unlikely. Having acknowledged to herself the strength of her feelings for another man, could she now accept Timothy’s forbearance, if he offered it, and go ahead with their plans to marry? The answer was far from clear.

As she pulled up in front of the house, she raised her eyes, spied the figure sitting on the porch, and sighed. At any other time she would have welcomed the sight of Timothy, but at this moment she felt the need for time to gather her thoughts before she faced him. Unfortunately, it seemed that she was not to be granted that opportunity.

Timothy rose from the chair and moved to meet her, his tall, lanky figure showing a grace that always surprised her. He removed his hat and ran a hand through his curly brown hair, while a warm smile of greeting crossed his open countenance. He approached the buggy and grasped the horse’s bridle.

“Greetings, Regina!” he said with a pleasant voice. “I had wondered at thy absence.”

“Must I tell thee every time I leave the house?” she replied, forcing herself to adopt a teasing tone. “And what of thee? Thou art early for supper indeed.”

“I finished work on Hosea’s new wagon earlier than I had expected.” Timothy’s smile grew wider. “I would tell thee what a fine job I did on it, but that would be the sin of pride.”

His expression changed as he noticed something in her face that she could not hide. “Does something trouble thee, Regina?” he asked with concern. “I would help thee if I can.”

“There is something that we must talk of,” she answered quietly, “but I think it is best if we do it a little later…after we have eaten.”

“Very well, then,” Timothy said, curiosity taking over his expression. “Let me take care of thy horse. Thou can go in and begin to prepare supper.” He reached out to firmly grasp her hand and help her from the buggy.

“Thank thee, Timothy,” she responded as she gently landed on the ground.

Regina turned and moved toward the house as Timothy began to lead the horse away toward the barn. When she reached the door, Regina paused before entering. She glanced back and watched as Timothy stroked the horse’s neck. And she thought with regret of the way that she was going to have to hurt him.

*****

Back in his hotel room, Adam Cartwright settled down to work on the revised bid for the army project. He was well aware that Shaffer and Easterbrooke had probably both set to work almost immediately after the meeting that morning and he had the uncomfortable feeling that he was already falling behind. There was little enough time to complete the task as it was. But there had been no help for it. There simply was no way that he could have passed up meeting with Regina. The problem was that, instead of settling things between them, that meeting seemed only to have left them both upset and wrestling with conflicting feelings. Adam found it nearly impossible to concentrate as he needed to as his mind kept turning to his last glimpse of Regina fleeing from him and driving hurriedly away. He felt sorry for his part in causing her distress. But even more than that, he was profoundly uncertain as to his own feelings. He himself had been surprised at the impulse that caused him to raise the possibility of his staying with Regina’s people. It had clearly caught her off guard as well. Was he truly now prepared to make such a complete change in the course of his life? The depth of his feelings for Regina was not really in question. He cared for her as he had cared for no other woman. But would even that make it possible for the hawk to make a nest with the dove? That was the real question. And it was a question that he was not going to be able to give adequate consideration to tonight.

With grim determination Adam turned back to his work, vowing that he would complete the job even if it meant staying up all night.

*****

Over at the jail, Scott Preston was still laying on his cot. His position had changed very little since he had been placed in the cell. He had only gotten up briefly to partake of the meals that the sheriff brought to him or to attend to necessities of nature. Then he had gone back to the cot and resumed staring at the ceiling with his mind working feverishly. He spoke hardly a word. Neither Sheriff Raleigh nor the doctor nor anyone else guessed at the obsession which dominated his thoughts…the obsession to escape. And now his plans were almost settled. He knew when he would act, and how. Early tomorrow morning when the sheriff brought his breakfast, he would use the belt which he had carefully removed from the loops on his pants in order to overcome him and break out. Even at that hour, there were sure to be a couple of horses tied up in the street outside. There would be the sheriff’s own horse, at least, if there were no others. He would take one of them and ride away as fast and as far as he could. When he had gone far enough, he would find someone who would take him on as a new hand on their farm or ranch. He would use a different name and disguise himself, so that he would not be recognized as a missing murder suspect.

But before he went too far, he was going to need some supplies — food and water and maybe a change of clothes or a little money. What was he going to do about that? Suddenly the image of a woman appeared before his mind’s eye, the woman he had seen in the street the day before when Sheriff Raleigh brought him in. Miss Regina. Gentle Miss Regina. Surely she would be willing to help him. After all, hadn’t he helped her and her people before?

That was it then. Satisfied with his plans and knowing that he needed the rest, Scott Preston finally closed his eyes and allowed himself to go to sleep.

*****

VI:  IN THE CHILL OF THE MORNING

There was a chill in the air befitting the beginning of a day at the start of autumn. The tentative rays of the rising sun trying to break through the cloud cover were not enough to dispel it. It would have raised gooseflesh, had there been anyone in the street to feel it.

In the still uncertain light, the door of the jail edged open slowly and the figure of a man emerged. Dressed only in a long sleeved shirt, he began to shiver slightly as he glanced nervously up and down the street. Seeing only a single horse tied up in front of the jail and no human passers by, Scott Preston sighed with relief. So far his plans seemed to be working out as he expected. Appearing asleep when Sheriff Raleigh came to check on him upon his early arrival, Preston had managed to catch the sheriff completely off guard. Raleigh now lay unmoving back in the cell with Preston’s belt around his throat. And his horse was there for the taking.

Cautiously, Preston moved out of the doorway of the jail and approached the horse. After a few steps he stopped abruptly. He felt a sudden need for some kind of liquid refreshment to warm him before starting on his way. But where was he to find that at this hour? Looking over at the hotel, which stood next to the jail, he had his answer. He knew where the hotel kept their stock of liquor.

Preston hurried over to the side door of the hotel and ducked inside, closing it gently behind him. He was in the middle of a narrow, dimly lit hallway. Across from him, an open archway led to a steep set of stairs. Careful not to make much noise, Preston sidled down the stairs, ending up in the wine cellar of the hotel.

Casting his eyes around the space, he noted that nothing much seemed to have changed since the time not that long ago when he had worked as a waiter in the hotel’s restaurant. There were still several racks in the middle of the cellar holding various varieties of wine, most of which were drinkable but hardly outstanding. On shelves along the walls rested bottles of other kinds of spirits. Preston began to walk around the room examining them. At one point, he stopped and stared at one of the bottles. He picked it up, examining the label closely, and his mouth formed a soundless whistle, while his eyes took on a covetous gleam like that in the eyes of a pirate upon finding a treasure chest. What was this bottle of truly first class brandy doing in the cellar of this less than first class hotel? Not that it really mattered. It was there, and as far as Scott Preston was concerned, it was just what he needed.

In a moment he had the bottle open and was taking a swig. He stood there savoring the taste and feeling the effect of it as it went down, then took a second swig. At that point it occurred to him that he didn’t have the time for this, that he needed to be on his way before people were stirring. Already feeling a little unsteady, he made his way back up the stairs, taking the bottle with him.

He pushed open the door to the outside just enough to peer out and check that there was nobody watching. He hastened over to where the sheriff’s horse still waited and untied the creature. With some difficulty, he managed to mount. The horse tossed his head, wary of this stranger on his back. But Preston gathered in the reins and managed to get the animal turned in the direction that he wanted. Some urging with his heels got the horse going at a good pace and very quickly they were headed out of town in the westerly direction.

Behind them the sun continued to rise and the street began to stir as people arrived to open up the various establishments and begin their day’s business. None of them had seen the figure on horseback that had fled the town so hurriedly.

*****

The sun was a little further up in the sky when its rays caught the lanky figure of a young man approaching the plain wooden house at the edge of the Quaker settlement. As he strolled down the lane, he saw a young blond woman come out onto the porch with a wooden bucket in her hand. Seeing her, he paused for a second with a sober expression crossing his face. Then he continued on. The young woman caught sight of him as he neared the house. Somewhat hesitantly, she came down the steps and moved to meet him.

“Good morning to thee, Timothy,” she said quietly. “I had not expected to see thee today…after what was spoken last night.”

 “I had promised Matthew to help him with the painting of the barn today,” the young man responded. “That does not change because thou and I are no longer betrothed, Regina.”

She looked at him sadly. “Timothy, I am sorry for the pain that I have caused thee….”

“Say no more, Regina,” he interrupted her. “If thy feelings are as thou told me last night, then it is better that we should not marry. I want thee, Regina, but I want thee content, not wishing to be with another man and pining that it cannot be.”

“It is not fair to thee, Timothy, I know,” Regina said.

“At least it is honesty on thy part,” he replied. “It would be worse if thou had withheld this from me and I had only discovered thy feelings after we had married. I can accept this because I must. Just do not expect me to be happy about it.”

He saw her cast down her eyes.

“Regina, dost thou truly believe that Adam Cartwright will stay and live as one of us?” he asked her.

“I do not know,” she admitted. “He spoke of the possibility, but it was not a firm commitment. I am not sure if he could be content doing so. I only know that, feeling as I do, I cannot wed another man.”

“Regina, I hope that all works out for the best for thee…and for him. Believe me when I say that I wish only thy happiness.” Timothy regarded her with sympathy.

“I believe thee, Timothy,” Regina answered softly. “And I thank thee.”

There was a brief silence between them. Then Timothy caught sight of the spare figure of Matthew emerging from the house. With a nod to Regina, he stepped past her and went to meet him. Regina watched him for a moment. Then, resolutely, she turned and made her way to the well in the yard to draw water.

*****

Back in Slatersville it was now mid-morning. Adam Cartwright stood in front of the hotel in deep thought. He was feeling both weary and satisfied at the same time. He had not in fact been forced to stay up all night in order to complete his work, but he had only managed to get about three hours sleep. The distraction under which he was laboring had made it necessary to double or even triple check all his calculations in order to make sure he had not made any serious errors. Still, he had finished the revisions and turned in his bid at the front desk for Colonel Norris well within the deadline.

Now he was faced with a decision. His business in Slatersville was done. He could simply pack up and head for home. Or could he? He shook his head. No. There was still the unfinished business with Regina. He could not walk away from that…from her. He had to see her again. And then what? The time had come when he must find his answer. Could he…should he…adapt to an entirely new way of life to be with the woman he loved?

Engrossed in pondering all this Adam didn’t even notice the dark haired man on a bay horse who came riding up the street. The man stopped in front of the jail, dismounted, tied up his horse and went inside. Barely a minute later he came hurrying out again, extremely agitated and pale.

“Somebody get the doc!” he shouted. “I think Sheriff Raleigh’s dead!”

*****

VII:   PURSUIT AND COMMITMENT

The six men rode down the trail with only the steady beat of their horses’ hooves to break the silence. The rider in the lead was Deputy Ken Worley, who was pressing the group to a brisk pace with an air of grim determination. At his right shoulder rode Adam Cartwright, with an equally determined expression. But though the expressions of the two men were similar, the thoughts running through their minds were very different. Deputy Worley was focused on the death of Sheriff Raleigh, the man who had been his friend and mentor, and the burning desire to see the fugitive who was responsible brought to justice. Adam, on the other hand, was concerned primarily for the woman whose image filled his heart and mind, and the possible danger to her that the fugitive represented.

Adam thought back to the scene when the deputy had come running out of the jail, shouting in agitation. He and four other men had quickly gathered around the distressed young man, attempting to calm him and to find out what had happened. The local doctor had been summoned and had arrived almost immediately, but he could do little more than confirm the obvious — that Sheriff Raleigh had been strangled. When it was realized that the sheriff’s horse was missing, the conclusion that the escaped prisoner had stolen it seemed equally obvious. But which way had he gone?

One of the men, examining the street in front of the jail, found marks made by a horse that had evidently been tied there for some time. There were marks, apparently made by the same horse, that led out of town toward the west…in the direction of the Quaker community. At that revelation, Adam had felt a chill of apprehension run through him. He remembered the disturbed look of Scott Preston when he had seen him being taken into custody only days ago. He remembered that there had been a relationship of friendship between the man and Regina and her people. And he was suddenly afraid for her. When Deputy Worley had called for men to join him in pursuing Preston, Adam had immediately volunteered.

Now, as they neared the Quaker settlement, Adam found his uneasiness growing. The noonday sun shone down brightly, but still did not completely dissipate the slight chill in the air. The trees along the side of the road were just beginning to show traces of the change to fall colors. Birds flittered from tree to tree with occasional chattering calls to each other. Adam thought he spied a white dove among them, and it reminded him of Regina. He hoped fervently that she was all right.

As they rounded a bend in the road, Deputy Worley held up his hand and brought the group to a halt. He pointed farther down the road to where a lane branched off to the right and led down a gentle slope toward a simple wooden house and a group of farm buildings.

“That place belongs to Matthew Darien, the leader of the community,” Worley said. “Let’s check it out.”

His words caused Adam to look at the place with special interest. Worley urged his horse forward and the rest of the group followed.

As the riders turned down the lane, Adam caught sight of two men walking from the barn toward the house. The one man, thin and gray bearded, he recognized as Matthew. The other, tall and lanky with curly brown hair, he didn’t know. But it wasn’t that wild a guess that a younger man who looked like he was helping out on the Dariens’ farm could be Timothy. Adam’s eyes followed him with curiosity. Then he felt his breath catch as he saw Regina come out onto the porch of the house. It looked as though she might be coming out to call the two men to lunch.

Regina and the two men met in front of the porch. The sound of the approaching horses reached them and caused all three to turn and look up the lane. Regina’s eyes grew wide and she blushed slightly as she spotted Adam among the group.

There was someone else who also noticed the approach of the riders. From behind the hen house near the barn, Scott Preston peered out and watched as the posse neared the house. With a whimpering snarl like that of an injured animal that feels itself cornered, he drew back and pressed himself against the wall of the building. He had known that they would be after him. He had hoped that it would not be quite this soon. He berated himself for lingering so long waiting for an opportunity to speak to Miss Regina. He had managed to sneak onto the place and hide himself, though not without difficulty. But then the two men had come out and started working by the barn, and he could not approach the house without being seen by them. He had hoped that Regina’s chores would bring her out to the hen house and give him his chance, but that hadn’t happened. Now he could only hope that he would escape detection by the deputy and his band.

Over by the house Matthew was stepping forward to greet the newcomers. “Good day, friends,” he said courteously. “What may we do for thee today?”

“Mr. Darien,” Worley answered a little curtly, “I know you had heard that Scott Preston was arrested for the murder of his wife. Well, he escaped this morning and he killed Sheriff Raleigh in the process.” At this, the faces of his three listeners registered stunned dismay. “There were indications that he came in this direction, and, knowing that he had befriended you at one time, we thought it possible that he might try to contact someone in your group for assistance.”

Matthew shook his head soberly. “We have seen nothing of Mr. Preston this day. Thou art welcome to search where thou pleasest, but I fear thou wilt find nothing.”

“Well, I think we’ll just take you up on that, Mr. Darien,” Worley responded. He got down from his horse and motioned to the others to do the same. After a brief consultation, four of the men dispersed to look around the grounds and buildings.

Adam and Worley turned to Matthew.

“Hello, Matthew,” Adam said simply.

Matthew’s expression turned into one of surprise, and he nodded in greeting. “Adam, I did not notice thee at first. Regina had told us that she had seen thee in town. Still, I would not have expected to find thee with the deputy.” He looked at Adam curiously.

“I just happened to be nearby when the escape was discovered,” Adam replied. “I wanted to do what I could to help.”

“Mr. Darien,” Worley interrupted, “is there a cellar of some sort where a person might try to hide?”

“Yes, we have a cellar,” Matthew answered. “The entrance is in back of the house.

“Can you show me?”

“Certainly. Come with me.”

Matthew and Worley walked off together, leaving Adam facing Regina and Timothy. There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Regina…” Adam said softly, and he glanced warily at Timothy.

“Thou art brave to join the search for Mr. Preston, Adam,” Regina said, covering the awkwardness. She turned to the young man beside her. “Timothy, this is Adam Cartwright that I have told thee of.” She glanced back at Adam. “Adam, this is Timothy Godsey.”

Timothy gave Adam an appraising look and hesitantly held out his hand.

“Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam returned the look and took the offered hand, also with some hesitation. “Mr. Godsey.”

Timothy’s eyes went from Adam to Regina and back again. “I think I had best see that those men do not wreak havoc in the barn,” he said finally. “Please excuse me.” And with a nod, he moved off.

When he was out of hearing, Adam grasped Regina’s arm. “Regina, I had to speak to you again,” he said urgently.

But she held up her hand. “Adam, let me speak first. I must tell thee…I have broken my engagement to Timothy.”

He regarded her with astonishment. “You did that?”

“Yes, Adam,” she answered softly. “It would not have been right to go ahead with the marriage. Timothy is disappointed, and I am sorry for that, but he understands. I know there will be talk in the community. Matthew knows only that we have decided not to wed after all. He does not know all the circumstances, though I suspect he understands a good deal without being told.” She gazed at the man before her and in her eyes there was an open confession. “I could not wed another man…feeling as I do for thee.”

Adam gazed back at her and he suddenly felt that a whole new world was opening up before him. He took her hand. “Regina,” he said, “I had made up my mind…and what you have just said shows me that I was right.” He took a deep breath. “I am ready to make the commitment to join you and your people…if you will have me. Will you?”

“Oh, Adam!” She threw her arms around his neck. “Thou art sure? It will mean giving up so much.”

“I know that. And I know that it will sometimes be difficult.” He gave her a smile that set her to trembling. “But whatever I will be giving up, I realize now that I will be gaining even more.” He drew her close. “I will be gaining my happiness.” He spoke it softly in her ear and wrapped his arms around her.

They stood there briefly, held in each other’s embrace, feeling their hearts beating close to each other. Then he slowly bent his head to kiss her, gently and sweetly. And in that moment the world seemed to melt away from them, so that nothing else existed but their love for each other and their joy in sharing it.

Then, all too quickly, their moment was shattered by the voice of one of the men calling “Hey! Over here! I’ve found something!”

*****

VIII:   A CHANCE…AND A TEST

Adam and Regina glanced over and saw one of Worley’s men standing by the corner of the henhouse. Reluctantly they drew apart.

“I guess we’d better go and find out what’s happening,” Adam said quietly, and Regina nodded. Adam took her hand and together they moved quickly toward the henhouse. Also attracted by the shout, Worley and Matthew appeared from behind the house and followed close behind them. Two other men came from the direction of the barn, accompanied by Timothy. Soon they were all gathered around the man who had called out.

“What is it, Art?” Worley demanded eagerly.

“Somebody’s been standing back of this building here.” The man called Art waved his arm. “The ground is all trampled up”

“You’re sure the marks are fresh?” Worley prodded.

“Yeah, they’re fresh all right,” Art responded. “The ground’s kind of soft and you can see real clear.”

Worley stepped forward and examined the ground intently with Adam peering over his shoulder.

“Look there.” Adam pointed to footprints that led away from the trampled area toward a fence some feet away that ran along the edge of a field.

“So do you think he went over the fence into the field?” Worley frowned.

“I don’t think so.” Art had followed the fence line a little farther. “There are a couple more footprints along here. An empty brandy bottle too. Looks like he kept to the fence.”

“Then he can’t be too far away,” Worley said grimly. He drew his gun and checked to make sure that it was fully loaded. “We’d best be ready for anything,” he added.

Art and the two other men drew and checked their weapons also. Matthew and Timothy appeared distinctly uneasy. Regina looked to Adam questioningly and he saw the concern in her eyes. He took his hand off the handle of his gun, leaving it in his holster, and she smiled at him with gratitude.

Checking out the group assembled before him, Worley became aware that one member of his posse was unaccounted for.

“Where’s Ricky?” he asked urgently.

At first no one responded. Then, finally, Art spoke up. “I think he was going to check out the storage shed on the far side of the barn. I guess he must not have heard me.”

“Well, these tracks are leading in that direction,” Worley replied. “Hopefully, we’ll meet up with him. Let’s go.” He moved off, following the tracks by the fence, with Adam and Regina behind him and the rest of the group trailing after.

They kept close to the fence as it ran behind the barn. No one spoke. Glancing alertly from one side to the other, Adam spied something curious in the field. A fully-saddled horse was attempting to forage amid the short grass that had sprung up on the fallow land. He tapped Deputy Worley on the shoulder and quietly drew his attention to the animal.

Worley stopped abruptly and his breath caught. “That’s Sheriff Raleigh’s horse all right,” he said, his voice tight with anger. “Preston must have tied him up somewhere along the fence here and he got loose. We’ll have to take care of him later.”

As the group continued on the back of the shed beyond, the barn came into view.

And so did the figure of a man lying next to it.

It was Regina who spied it first. Her hand went to her mouth to stifle a small gasp. Then Worley saw it, and he hurried forward to kneel beside the man.

“It’s Ricky,” he confirmed as the others gathered around them. He reached out his hand to check for a pulse at the neck. He held it there for a moment, then slowly withdrew it as he bowed his head. “He’s dead,” he said, his voice starting to waver.

Adam crouched next to Worley and began to examine the body with care. “It looks like he took a hard hit to the back of the head,” he reported.

“You think maybe this did it?” Art chimed in. He bent down and retrieved an object from the weeds next to the shed, then held it up for all to see. It was a hammer with obvious traces of blood on it.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” Adam replied dryly. “It probably was taken from the shed.” He and Worley both got to their feet. Worley’s eyes held a dark gleam.

“Well, that makes Preston’s third murder,” the deputy said. Looking down at the body, his attention was caught by the empty holster strapped to the victim’s thigh. “And it seems he’s taken Ricky’s gun too. So we know he’s armed…and extremely dangerous.”

Adam noticed how Worley’s words seemed to cause Regina real distress. Without a word, he laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, and once again she regarded him with a look of gratitude.

There was a brief silent pause as Worley appeared to be pondering just what to do next. Then, through the clear, crisp air, there came the piercing sound of a horse’s neighing. It caused everyone to turn their heads and look out into the field. There they saw the horse that they had noticed earlier moving about restlessly as a man attempted to mount him.

“It’s Preston! He’s trying to get away!” Worley cried out. “Come on! Let’s get him!” Brandishing his gun, he hurried over to the gate in the fence, pushed it open and rushed out into the field with the others hastening after him.

Scott Preston and the recalcitrant horse continued to engage in what appeared to be a game of cat and mouse. Every time Preston moved in to try to put his foot in the stirrup, the horse would shy away, snorting and neighing. Preston cursed as he attempted to tighten his hold on the reins. Then he heard the sound of the approaching party. He whirled to face them, dropping the reins as he did so, and allowing the horse to move a little way off.

“Hold it right there, Preston!” Deputy Worley shouted. “Now put your hands up!”

Preston did not obey. Instead he pulled out the gun he had stolen and held it out in his trembling hands. “Don’t anyone come any closer, or I’ll shoot! I mean it!” he called back

Worley and his group stopped. The deputy cocked his gun and aimed it at Preston, preparing to fire. But before he could do so, Regina Darien stepped forward and confronted him.

“No!” she pleaded. “Has there not been enough violence…enough killing?” She paused and took a deep breath. “Deputy, please let me try to speak to him.”

Worley’s eyes widened at the suggestion…and so did Adam Cartwright’s.

“He knows me as a friend,” Regina continued, her voice all earnestness and urgency. “He will trust me. I can persuade him to put down his weapon. I am sure of it.”

Worley shook his head hesitantly. “He’s facing a hanging and he knows it.”

“He is trapped and desperate,” Regina responded. “He can see there is no way out for him. But there must still be something of the good man I have known left in him. I can convince him not to do any more harm than he has done already.” She turned to face Adam, who had come to stand directly behind her. “Adam, please tell him to let me try.”

Adam saw the flush of excitement in her cheeks, and he could just about read what was passing through her mind. This was a pivotal moment for them. It was her chance to show that the way of nonviolence could work. And it was a test of his commitment to join her in following that way. He looked into her eyes and saw there all her love, all her hope, and the need she had to do this. And he knew what he had to do. He turned to face Worley. “Let her do it,” he said.

The deputy shrugged slightly, lowering his gun. “All right then, you can try it. But I’m going to be ready in case anything goes wrong.”

“Thank thee, Deputy.” Regina’s words were for Worley, but the smile she gave as she turned away was for Adam.

Regina began to move slowly and cautiously toward Scott Preston. He continued to hold out his gun unsteadily.

“No closer I said!” he called, in a voice that betrayed his nervousness.

Regina paused. “Mr. Preston, it is me…Regina Darien,” she called back gently.

His eyes scrutinized her face carefully. “Miss Regina?”

“Yes, Mr. Preston. I would do nothing to harm thee. I wish only to speak with thee. Wilt thou allow me?”

The confused brain of Scott Preston finally registered her face and her voice. Slowly he lowered the gun.

Regina continued to draw nearer. “I know these have been troubled times for thee,” she went on in her most soothing tone. “I know thou art in a great deal of pain, and I am sorry for that. But thou must know that to harm anyone else will only make thy pain worse.” She paused, smiling at him. “I remember when we first came here. We were strangers…uncertain in so many ways. Thou welcomed us and showed us kindness. Much has happened to thee, I know. But thou art still the man that did those things. And that man is not a man who wishes to harm others. Too much harm has already been done and it cannot be taken back. I believe the only way for thee to find peace is to acknowledge thy faults and seek God’s forgiveness.” She held out her hand to him. “Please, let there be no more violence. Please, give me thy weapon,” she concluded softly.

Scott Preston stared at her for a long moment. Then, slowly, he began to raise the hand that held the gun.

And, from behind her, Regina heard the click of a weapon being cocked.

*****

IX:   I LOVE THEE…AND I ALWAYS WILL

Adam had watched tensely as Regina moved toward Preston with her hand extended. The very idea of her looking down the barrel of Preston’s gun sent a chill through him. He heard her speaking gently to Preston, like a mother trying to calm a frightened child, but he could not make out all the words. And he saw how Preston seemed almost mesmerized as he hesitantly lifted the gun and held it out toward her.

Then, from next to him, Adam heard a clicking sound. He turned and saw Deputy Worley pointing his gun at Scott Preston and preparing to fire.

“Wait!” Adam shouted. And he reached out his hand to grab Worley’s arm.

Hearing his cry, Regina whirled to face them, turning her back on Preston.

Adam’s attempt to divert Worley was too late. The deputy’s gun spoke with a loud crack and Scot Preston was struck in the head. As Preston began to fall backwards, his finger tightened reflexively on the trigger of his gun, causing it to fire.

Regina Darien gave a gasp of pain as the stray bullet struck her in the back. For a second or two, Adam stood frozen in shock as he saw her slowly crumple and fall face forward onto the ground. Then he suddenly found himself rushing forward and falling to his knees at her side.

“Oh God, no! Regina….” He started to reach out his hand to touch her, then he caught his breath as he saw the blood seeping from her wound and staining the back of her dark dress. He had seen wounds such as this before. And he was all too aware of what the outcome was likely to be. Forcing himself to maintain control, he looked up to where Matthew and Timothy stood behind him with ashen faces.

“Where is the nearest doctor?” Adam asked. Even as he asked it, he feared that, whatever the answer was, it would make no difference.

Matthew shook his head sadly as he looked down at his niece. “There is no one closer than back in Slatersville. One of the deputy’s men is leaving to fetch him, but….” The unspoken conclusion of his sentence seemed to echo Adam’s fears.

As Adam turned back to Regina a feeling of despair was threatening to overwhelm him. As carefully as possible, he turned her over and gathered her into his arms. A soft moan escaped her, but she made no other response. The white cap had fallen from her head and her golden hair was in disarray, with a number of strands falling across her face. Adam gently brushed them back and allowed his hand to softly caress her cheek.

Timothy made a move as though he intended to kneel down next to them, but Matthew restrained him with a hand on his arm and a slight negative shake of his head. Timothy accepted the subtle message and simply remained standing there with his head bowed.

Regina’s eyes fluttered open and she looked up at Adam with a calmness that shone through her pain.

“Adam…” she said softly.

“Yes, Regina. I’m here, and I’m going to stay with you. Just rest easy now.” Adam had to swallow a lump in his throat when he finished saying it. He felt Regina relax in his arms.

“I am sorry, Adam,” she said. And the look in her eyes took on an undeniable sadness.

“You have nothing to be sorry about.” he said to her.

“But I was wrong. It was foolhardy of me to try to confront Mr. Preston,” she replied. Speaking was becoming more difficult for her.

“You weren’t wrong,” he tried to assure her. “It was going to work. What has happened…it’s not your fault. You must believe that.”

At that moment Deputy Worley came up to stand near them. When Adam had hurried to Regina’s side, he had gone to check on Scott Preston. Now the expression on his face declared the result even before he spoke it.

“Preston is dead,” Worley announced quietly.

Adam looked up at him with a cold glare. “What did you think you were doing?” he demanded with anger in his voice. “Couldn’t you see that she had Preston persuaded…that he was going to hand her his gun?”

Worley was taken aback. “It looked to me like he was getting ready to shoot her,” he insisted defensively.

“Well, he did that anyway, didn’t he? Only it wasn’t intentional. It seems to me you’re the one to thank for that.” Adam couldn’t keep the edge of bitterness out of his voice. In truth, he didn’t want to.

Worley hung his head, turned, and moved off to be by himself.

Regina stirred, bringing Adam’s focus back to her. Weakly, she managed to raise her hand to touch his face. “Adam, the place thou spoke of…a place where the world could not bother us…I wish we could have found such a place.”

“So do I,” he answered…

A look of peaceful serenity came into her face. “But I think there may yet be a place for us,” she said. “It may not be in this world, but I feel that there must be such a place. I love thee, Adam, and that love must always be with thee. And thou will be able to feel it…if only thou wilt try.”

Her hand began to slide away from his face. He quickly grasped the hand to hold it there and turned his head to press his lips hard against her palm, concentrating everything that he was feeling into the kiss.

“I love thee, Regina…and I always will,” he whispered.

A smile crossed her face and her warm brown eyes looked deeply into his. Then she took a deep breath and her eyes drifted closed. Adam felt her hand go limp in his, he saw her head fall to one side, and he knew she was gone. He gently laid her hand down and bowed his head in grief.

*****

X:   THE DOVE TAKES FLIGHT

The following afternoon was overcast and threatening rain as the Quaker community assembled to bury Regina Darien. A small clearing behind their meeting house had been set aside as a burial ground. The freshly dug grave around which the group was gathered was only the second one to appear there. The people stood listening quietly with bowed heads as a stoic Matthew led the simple service. Beside him stood Timothy Godsey, the expression on his face more openly revealing of his sorrow.

Slightly apart from the group, Adam Cartwright stood, some late wildflowers that he had gathered along the side of the road earlier in the day clutched in his hands. His eyes stared straight ahead. He hardly heard the words of the service. One question kept revolving in his mind. Could he have prevented this?

What if he had objected when Regina sought to confront Scott Preston? Could he have held her back? And, if he had tried, would she be alive now? That possibility haunted him. But the more he thought of it, the less likely it seemed. Even without his support, Regina would still have made the attempt. Her action had been a deep reflection of who she was. And a failure to support her on his part, especially any outright attempt to stop her, would have constituted a betrayal of everything that there was between them.

Could he have stopped Worley from firing at Preston in the first place and triggering the fatal reaction? He had actually tried, but Worley’s action had simply been too unexpected and too quick for him to intervene. Adam himself considered Worley’s questionable judgment to be primarily responsible for the tragedy, and something in him longed for the deputy to be held accountable. From a legal standpoint, he knew that there was no chance of that. He was convinced Worley was wrong in insisting that Preston had been about to fire, but others might well see it differently, and the matter was far too uncertain for any legal resolution that Adam would consider satisfactory. He had fleetingly considered if there might be any action he could take on a personal basis, but he quickly dismissed the idea. Regina would tell him not to seek any kind of personal satisfaction, and any attempt to do so would be another kind of betrayal.

 No, in his mind Adam had to acknowledge that there didn’t seem to be any way he could have changed this outcome. But in his heart he couldn’t help feeling that there should have been.

Matthew led the group in a final prayer and spoke some quiet words of dismissal. Adam continued to stand there as the group began slowly to disperse. Matthew and Timothy lingered momentarily by the grave, speaking quietly to one another. As they turned to leave Matthew noticed Adam, hesitated briefly, then moved toward him with Timothy following.

“Thou would be welcome to join us at luncheon, Adam,” Matthew said as he came up to him.

“Thank you, Matthew. That’s very kind of you,” Adam replied. “But…I really think I need to be on my way.”

“Thou will be returning home now?”

Adam nodded. “My business…everything that might have kept me here…is finished.”

Matthew regarded him understandingly. “If thou should pass this way again…”

“I don’t think I could do that,” Adam interrupted him. “When I left you the last time, Regina and I agreed that seeing each other again would only cause pain. When I came here this time, it was only supposed to be for business. I didn’t mean to come back into her life. But it happened. And… it seems we were right. You see what the result has been.”

“I know thy heart is sore now…as are ours,” Matthew responded in a kindly voice. “But there has not been only pain…has there? Did not Regina and thee also share something of joy?”

“Yes, we did,” Adam replied softly. The look in his eyes grew far away as he thought of those moments when he had declared his commitment to her and the world had seemed to open up before them. “So much so that I wanted it never to end.”

“All earthly joys end…as do all earthly sorrows,” Matthew resumed. “But love does not. Remember that Adam. The love that was between Regina and thee has not ended with her death. Cling to it, Adam…and let that comfort thee.”

Moved, Adam found it difficult to speak. “I will remember,” he managed finally.

Then he paused. “As for ever coming back here, I’m still afraid that would be a bad idea. Somehow it seems that, whenever I cross your path, misfortune follows.”

“That is not of thy doing, Adam,” Timothy interjected quietly. “Thou must not take blame for this upon thyself.”

“I’m grateful to hear you say that, Timothy,” Adam said. “You’re probably the one who has been hurt the most by my appearance here, and I genuinely regret that.”

Timothy shook his head. “Regina was a free woman and she made her choice according to her own heart.” His voice grew wistful. “And, even if she had chosen me, in the end it seems I was not destined to have her. I bear no ill will to thee, Adam.”

Adam looked at him with admiration and gratitude. “Thank you, Timothy,” he said simply. He offered his hand and Timothy accepted it graciously.

“We must join the others now,” Matthew said. “Good-bye to thee, Adam. God bless thee and grant thee a safe journey home.”

“Good-bye, Matthew,” Adam returned. “God bless you and your people as well.”

With nods of farewell, Matthew and Timothy moved off, leaving Adam alone. Slowly he moved over to Regina’s grave. He stood there for a few seconds, his expression one of sorrow, then knelt down and carefully placed the flowers which he still held in one hand on the grave.

“I wanted a white rose for you,” he said softly. “But I couldn’t find any place back in town that had one…or a rose of any other color. I know you loved wildflowers wherever you found them, so I hope these will do.” He paused. “I promise you, Regina, that I will remember what Matthew just said. I’ll remember the last thing you said to me. And I will try. Right now I can only feel the loss. But I trust your word. So I will try. And, before too long, I hope I will be able to feel the love again…as you said.”

Adam remained kneeling for some time with his head bowed and his eyes closed. When he eventually got to his feet, the sun was just breaking through the clouds. The threat of rain had passed without being fulfilled.

There was a tall birch tree in one corner of the clearing. Adam noticed a white dove perching high up in its branches. He wondered if it might be the same one that he had seen the day before. The bird emitted a low, mournful cry which echoed across the clearing and seemed to Adam to reverberate in his very bones. As he watched, the dove took flight, circling the clearing then rising into the sky. Adam’s eyes continued to follow the dove as it soared higher and higher toward the sun until it finally disappeared from sight.

“Good-bye, my love,” he whispered.

*****

XI:   AND ALWAYS WILL BE

As Adam Cartwright rode down the trail taking him the last few miles back to the Ponderosa, he found himself, almost unconsciously, tightening the reins to slow down his horse. Sport snorted and shook his head impatiently, not understanding. Adam wasn’t quite sure he understood himself. What reason could he have for wanting to delay arriving home? In one respect, home with his family was exactly where he longed to be. And yet… As he continued riding at a slower pace and thinking, it came to him that going back home meant taking up his usual life again…and somehow he didn’t quite feel ready for that yet. Things had changed for him since he had left for a simple business trip to Slatersville. He had changed. And he needed time to deal with that reality. He could only hope that his family would understand and respect that need.

Very shortly, Adam found himself rounding the corner of the barn and entering the yard in front of the ranch house. He saw his brother Joe sitting on the porch, drinking a cup of coffee. Evidently Joe was watching for his brother’s arrival, because as soon as he caught sight of Adam he got up, went to the door and called out something that Adam wasn’t yet close enough to hear. Seconds later, Ben and Hoss joined him at the door. Adam wasn’t surprised. He had sent a wire before he left Slatersville, with a terse account of what had happened and the approximate time he anticipated arriving home. He had more or less expected his family to be waiting for him.

Adam pulled Sport up in front of the house and slowly dismounted. He saw his father standing there with a sympathetic look in his eyes and moved to meet him.

Ben stepped forward and wrapped his son in a strong embrace. “I’m so sorry, son,” he said softly in Adam’s ear, and Adam simply nodded in acceptance.

Ben’s arm went around Adam’s shoulder and they turned to go inside. Hoss fell in at Adam’s other side, gently grasping his brother’s arm. Joe gave Adam an encouraging smile as he took his place in front of him, ready to push the door open for him. And together they brought him home.

*****

Ten days later, Adam was sitting on a large rock at a spot overlooking the lake, watching as the setting sun painted the sky in glowing pink and orange and sent its rays dancing across the surface of the water, setting it to sparkling. This was one of Adam’s favorite places, especially when he felt the need to be alone and think. That had happened several times since he had returned home. He had tried to get back into his normal routine, but it had not been easy. He would be going about his business when suddenly the tone in which his father was speaking to him or a look that one of his brothers gave him would make him feel the smothering weight of their sympathy. He would set aside whatever he was doing and excuse himself, simply saying that he needed a break. Then he would come up here and sit until he felt composed enough to go back. There was never any objection. And when he returned, he was sure to find his interrupted task completed. He was grateful to his father and brothers for their understanding and patience. Still, there were moments when it simply became too much.

Hearing the soft pad of approaching footsteps, Adam looked up to see his father coming to join him. Ben sat down on another rock close to his son. They stared out together at the splendor of the sunset.

“Glorious, isn’t it?” Ben ventured quietly.

“Yes, it is,” Adam replied. “I was wondering when you were going to turn up here,” he added after a brief pause.

Ben smiled at him. “I’m your father, Adam. I know you’re hurting…and I want to help. Is there anything wrong with that?”

“Of course not. I appreciate it. It’s just that, occasionally, the kindness of my family can be a little stifling. Maybe it would be best if you yelled at me a little for neglecting my work.”

“Be careful what you ask for,” Ben answered, shaking an admonishing finger at his son. But his tone was kindly. “I might just give it to you.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, simply appreciating each other’s company.

“Adam, I got the telegram today about the awarding of the army contract,” Ben said, finally.

A look of intense interest came to Adam’s face, and he leaned forward. “Well?” he said, as his father seemed to hesitate.

“I’m afraid we didn’t get it, son,” Ben told him reluctantly. “The contract was awarded to Daniel Shaffer’s company.”

Adam sat back again, clearly disappointed. “So I don’t even get the cold consolation of thinking that at least the business part of my recent trip was successful.” There was bitterness in his voice. “I just hope we didn’t miss out because I made some kind of a careless miscalculation.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t that, son,” Ben assured him. “Reading between the lines, I get the distinct feeling that our friendly rival Mr. Shaffer may have bitten off more than he can chew. I think he’s going to find it very difficult to fulfill the contract at the figure he submitted.”

Adam regarded him gratefully. Then, as though he had just thought of something, Adam reached into his pocket and drew out a silver coin. He began to rub it between his fingers. “I guess I’m going to owe Joe this silver dollar,” he said thoughtfully.

“What’s that, son?” Ben asked curiously.

“Oh, it’s just a little bet we had going,” Adam replied. “Before I left, Joe was teasing me some, saying that, with the contracts I’d gotten us recently he figured I was about due to lose out on this one. Well, I had to defend myself, so I offered to bet him that I’d win this one too, and he accepted. The stakes were small. The loser has to pay the winner a silver dollar and buy him a drink the next time we visit one of the saloons in town. That’s all. It was just the principle of the thing.”

“Well, I’m just glad that you didn’t lose any more than that.” Ben chuckled lightly.

Something in his words had an unexpected effect on Adam. The look in Adam’s eyes suddenly turned distant and troubled. “Oh, I lost a great deal more than that,” he said softly, with a catch in his voice.

Ben felt a chill pass through him as he realized what his son meant. He didn’t know what to say.

“I loved Regina, Pa,” Adam continued in the same soft voice. “Loved her with everything that’s in me…just the way you loved each of our mothers. I know you never liked the idea of my becoming involved with her in the first place…”

“Son, I did have concerns about the two of you and whether you would be able to reconcile the differences in your backgrounds,” Ben acknowledged. “But I never questioned the depth of your feeling for her or doubted that she was worthy of your love. Adam, you must know that my only desire is for your happiness, and if, in the end, that meant your staying with her…I would have accepted it.”

“I was going to do it, Pa. I was actually ready to commit myself to her that way. And now… “ Adam looked straight into his father’s eyes. “Pa, you’ve lost three women you’ve loved…and somehow gotten through it….”

“By the grace of God. And with the help of the sons they left me,” Ben interjected, remembering past pain and longing to ease the pain he saw his son suffering now.

“Well, Regina and I never got as far as having any children,” Adam said in a wistful voice.

Ben got up slowly, moved to stand behind Adam and gently placed his hands on his son’s shoulders. “What’s important is what you did have together. The love you shared is something you can never lose. Treasure it, son. That’s what will see you through.”

Adam allowed himself to lean back against his father for a moment. He felt something inside him stir as he heard his father echo what Matthew and Regina herself had said to him. Ben felt his son relax slightly under his hands.

“Are you ready to go back to the house now?” Ben asked him.

“I think I’d like to stay here for just a few more minutes,” Adam answered.

“Very well, then. Just don’t make it too long. I’m sure Hop Sing will be having supper ready very shortly.”

Adam nodded. Ben gently gave his son’s shoulders a final squeeze and began to move off. After taking a few steps, he turned back. “Adam, don’t let your heart become closed off. The world has so many possibilities for love, and you never know when one will come your way…quite unexpectedly. I know that from experience. And don’t shut yourself off from those of us who care for you and want to help you.”

“You’ve already helped, Pa. And thank you,” Adam answered quietly.

Satisfied for the moment, Ben continued on his way.

Adam felt a tiredness steal over him, and his eyes began to drift shut. Then he felt what seemed to be the gentle touch of a hand brushing his cheek. Startled, he opened his eyes again. And, looking toward the sun as it slipped below the horizon he would have sworn he could make out the figure of a woman, framed in the shimmering light…a woman with golden hair and a slender form. It disappeared almost before he was aware of it, but for that brief moment it was unmistakable.

Adam rose to his feet. A smile crossed his face, as he felt the grief he had been carrying begin to lift just a little. “You were right, Regina. The love is still there…and always will be,” he thought to himself. “Thank you…my dove.”

***The End***

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