Doppleganger (by BettyHT)

Summary:  A What Happened Instead for the episode “Death at Dawn.”  What if Ben wasn’t returned as expected by his sons and was killed as Bryant threatened, or was he?

Category:  Bonanza

Genre:  Western

Rated:  PG

Word Count:  38,600


 

Ben Cartwright was grabbed, pushed, and shoved until he was in a Virginia City livery stable facing Sam Bryant. His hands had been bound behind him but were loosened as Sam watched and smirked. When McNeil finished with the restraints, he pushed Ben forward. The patriarch of the Ponderosa stumbled and nearly fell except Sam caught him and pushed him up against the post of a stall. Sam informed him that he was being held to force his sons to give up his man, Farmer Perkins. Sam told him that all he had to do was write a note to tell his sons and Sheriff Biggs to release the man instead of hanging him in the morning.

“I raised my sons to make their own decisions.”

Ben’s captors smiled at that remark because all of them expected Bryant’s plan to work. McNeil was sent back out to keep a watch on the jail. Then two other men came out of the shadows. They grabbed Ben and forced him to the back of the stable where he was stripped of his clothing. He was dressed in a plain shirt and hat and given some plain boots to wear as well as a gray slouch hat. He no longer looked much like the man who had entered the stable. He was tied and forced out the door at the back of the stable. In the dark alleyway there, he was blindfolded and loaded into a wagon that was driven away into the night. In the stable, another man entered and was given Ben’s clothing to wear.

“Now we’re gonna make a big show of you looking like Ben and agreeing to whatever I say out there tomorrow morning when they let Farmer Perkins go. You’ll say yes, yes, and yes as often as I need it. Then when everyone has heard you agree that I’m the mayor and McNeil is the new sheriff, I’ll tell them that I’m holding you until the Cartwright boys leave town. I’ll say Ben will be released in two hours. Then we’ll switch you with old Ben after we haul him back here.”

“Why not keep him here?”

“Because you and the two who drove him away are the only ones who know what the plan is. McNeil and the others don’t know. It’ll work better this way.”

Bryant’s plan might have worked except Ben was correct. He had taught his sons to make their own decisions, and Adam especially had learned that lesson. The next morning, the sound of the gallows trapdoor dropping and Perkins’ weight stretching the rope echoed through the street of the otherwise silent town. Adam stood at the base of the gallows and had to look away. It wasn’t just the ghastly result of a hanging that repulsed him. It was the fear that the same fate awaited his father if he was wrong. In front of the jail, Hoss and Joe had flinched hearing the noise. They waited too and prayed that their older brother had correctly analyzed the situation.

“Hoss, what are we going to do if Adam is wrong?” Joe couldn’t bring himself to say that their father might die.

Looking down the street, Hoss was unable to look at Joe because he might let Joe see the fear he had. His glistening eyes would give it away. He knew that their father would want them pulling together no matter what happened. He said a quick prayer that Adam’s plan had worked. Adam had argued that Bryant was a bully and a coward but wasn’t stupid. He wouldn’t risk the gallows for Farmer Perkins and would release their father. At least that was the theory.

In the stable, Sam Bryant was shocked. He had never figured in the possibility that the Cartwright sons would actually hang Perkins. He dropped his head and tried to think of a new plan on very short notice. What he came up with wasn’t perhaps a very good plan but was the best he could manage on short notice.

“Get up on that table and put that noose around your neck again. When McNeil and the others get here, I want them to think I still have Ben Cartwright.”

The imposter climbed up on the table as requested and slipped the noose around his neck. Once it was secure, Sam walked to the table and kicked it out from under his now former accomplice. “Sorry about that, Neal, but right now I need a dead Ben Cartwright.” Neal kicked and swung back and forth as his tongue protruded from his mouth and his eyes got bloodshot as his face and lips began to take on a bluish tinge. As the noose tightened with the man’s weight, he grabbed at the rope, breaking fingernails and trying to somehow save his own life. Sam walked away from him unable to watch. Within less than two minutes, he heard McNeil yelling. He stepped out of the stable.

“They killed him. They hung Farmer. You said they would never do that.”

“McNeil, I said if they did, I would hang Ben Cartwright, and I did. Look inside. You’ll see his body.”

“I don’t care. Farmer is dead. It’s your fault.” McNeil drew his pistol and shot Sam. The Cartwright brothers and many others from town were running to the stable as well. When McNeil fired, a number of others fired too, striking him and killing him. When Joe got to Bryant, Sam pointed into the stable. Sam knew he was dying. The blood pouring out of him made that clear. He smiled a little smile knowing that he had taken someone else with him, and he hoped his partners would kill the real Ben Cartwright when they found out what had happened. His plan to put fear back into the heart of the townspeople had failed. It had been a desperate plan, hatched without much thought. As Sam died, he shook his head a little. He should have known that McNeil wouldn’t accept Farmer’s death. Sam had no more thoughts then as his heart stopped.

Inside the stable, Joe had righted the table and stood on it to cut the rope holding the dead man he thought was his father. When Joe cut the rope, Hoss took the body in his arms and laid it gently on the floor. Joe dropped down and put his head to the chest of the body praying that there would be a heartbeat. Hoss knew there wouldn’t be one. The condition of the body told him there was no hope.

“Joe, let’s get him over to the doc’s.”

“Yeah, maybe Doc can do something.”

“Joe, there ain’t nothing nobody can do.” Hoss knelt down and gently removed the noose, although it took much of his strength to do it as the knot had pulled so tightly around the neck.

“But Hoss, it’s our Pa!” Joe dropped his head to the dead man’s chest and sobbed.

Reaching down to put a hand on Joe’s back, Hoss couldn’t hold back his own tears. In a shaky voice, he told Joe what they had to do. “I know, I know, Joe. Let’s just get him over there.”

Adam was by their side. He reached down to help but Hoss shoved him out of the way so that he could pick up their father’s body. Joe’s fierce glare let Adam know that he felt that Adam had killed their father. Adam watched as his two younger brothers carried their father’s body out of the stable and down the street among a silent throng. Joe’s words from the night haunted him then. “What if you’re wrong, Adam? Would you go out to my father’s grave and say ‘I’m sorry, I made a big mistake?'” Hoss had not disagreed with him. Now Adam stood frozen and watched his brothers carry away the body. A number of townspeople looked at him and turned their backs to walk away as well. Adam reached down and picked up the noose stained with blood. He walked to the back of the stable and bent over as he retched and retched, though there was nothing in his stomach. Adam felt a hand on his shoulder and stood up to lean against the stable wall. It was Sheriff Biggs.

“Roy should be back soon. His leave of absence is almost over. Maybe he can make some sense out of all of this. I’m real sorry. I never would have guessed that Sam would dare kill Ben Cartwright.”

“He didn’t kill him.”

“Of course he did, Adam. Nobody else was here to do it.”

“No, you’re wrong. I killed my father. How can I live with doing that?”

As Adam pushed himself away from the wall and walked off into town toward the doctor’s office, Biggs did nothing and let him go. There would be no words that were solace for the man for some time. He would have to come to terms with it one way or another. It was that or the bottle or taking his own life. Biggs didn’t know Adam well but was fairly sure he wouldn’t use the last two options, so it was a matter of learning to live with it, including the guilt and regret that would probably never go away.

At Doctor Martin’s office, Paul had to complete a job that was probably the hardest he had ever had to complete, and it had nothing to do with the broken leg that had kept him from his practice for two weeks already. No, he stood with the aid of his crutches and examined the body of the man he had known as a friend for over twenty years. Ben was one of the first to welcome him to Virginia City and had funded his first office so that he had a place to see patients. Now he was filling out a death certificate for one Benjamin Cartwright and had to call on every bit of his professional training to remain dispassionate and complete his job. He wished that Roy was back from his leave of absence. He thought he was going to need a drink and a friend before this day was through. He had wondered where Adam was, but the terse replies from Hoss and Joe that it didn’t matter let him know there was more going on here than he knew. While the brothers were out making arrangements, Adam walked into the office and stood staring at his father’s body. Paul finished the death certificate, and by then Hoss and Joe were back with a wagon and a coffin. Hoss carried the coffin into the office.

“Hoss, I’ve cleaned him up as well as I could, but the clothing is soiled. Would you like me to wrap him in a blanket or a sheet? You can dress him when you get home then.”

“Thanks, Doc; that would be appreciated.”

Joe dropped into a chair and put his head between his hands. His shaking back was all anyone needed to see to know he was crying again. He couldn’t seem to stop.

Hoss put a hand on his shoulder. “Joe, can you go ask a couple of our friends to come help? We need two more to carry Pa out to the wagon.”

Ignoring Adam, Joe nodded, and without a word, left the office to do as Hoss had requested. Paul had never seen Hoss so grief-stricken as he was once Joe left, and he could let his guard down.

Adam wanted to reach out to Hoss but feared the reaction. He had thought that being shoved away in the stable meant that Hoss agreed with Joe. He turned to leave. He had some concerns about what had happened and wanted to take a look at the stable again. He remembered that as he had been retching, he had seen deep wagon tracks in the alley behind the stable. Now he wanted to see what other tracks there were.

“Hoss, what about Adam? Where is he?”

“Doesn’t matter.” Joe had come back quickly with two men. He had seen Adam walking away from the doctor’s office.

“Yes, it does. Ben was his father too.”

“Couldn’t tell that by what he did last night and this morning. He knew he was going to probably get Pa killed, and he had to go and do it anyway. I don’t want to see him right now, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to see him without wanting to smash him in that face of his. He isn’t always right, and this time, it got Pa killed.”

“Joe, that ain’t fair. Bryant might have killed Pa no matter what Adam did or didn’t do. Bryant was a bully and a coward. I think Pa would have been proud that his sons didn’t give in to such a man.”

“Well, you can think what you will, but I told you how I feel. I’m not about to change my mind on that. Now, if you would help me get Pa into this, then we can get Pa home.”

Hoss had wanted to protect Joe from the image of their father being lifted into his coffin. It was awful enough to see his bruised face and neck. It didn’t hardly look like him anymore, but the woman who had brought food to the livery stable said she had seen Ben Cartwright tied up in there. He had said nothing, but eyewitness identification had verified what everyone thought. Sam Bryant had hanged Ben Cartwright because Adam Cartwright hanged Farmer Perkins. Then Sam had been killed by his own man who was furious that Sam had not saved Farmer’s life. Sam’s dream of continuing to terrorize Virginia City died with the McNeill’s bullets, and McNeill was then killed by multiple shots too. That was the story, and no one saw a reason to question it.

Standing at the dark shaded end of the alley behind the livery stable, Adam had no reason to question it, but he did. Something didn’t add up, but he couldn’t explain what it was. He thought back to all of the events, replayed his conversations with Biggs and with his brothers, and remembered everything he knew about Sam Bryant. He had been so wrong and still could not understand how he had failed so miserably to understand the situation. His brothers blamed him for their father’s death, and he blamed himself. There was no one else to blame. He heard Hoss’ voice at one point as he rented a wagon and a team of horses. Then later he heard Hoss and Joe as they came by to pick up their horses. He had started to walk back to the stable to talk to them, but what he heard made him freeze at the back door of the stable.

“Sport is still here.”

“Hoss, far as I’m concerned, he can stay here too. I don’t want to see Adam today or tonight, and I’m not sure when I’ll ever want to see him after what happened. Well, he likes to talk about leaving. Might be a good idea for him to do that now. Either that or he can eat his pistol.”

“Joe, don’t talk like that. You shouldn’t talk like that. We had one family member killed today. We don’t need to talk about losing one more.”

“Well, Hoss, I don’t care. To me, he’s not part of my family any more. Gone or dead is about the same for me right now. Either one would give him the justice he always likes to talk about.”

“I know you don’t mean that. There weren’t no justice done here, but Adam didn’t make it happen all by himself. Let’s get moving now. I want to get Pa home before it’s dark. We got a lot to do before tomorrow too. Lots of people gonna be there to pay their respects. We owe it to Pa to be good hosts to all his friends and neighbors who come to say goodbye.”

“I wish they’d been here to help us so we wouldn’t have to say goodbye. Oh, Hoss, what are we going to do without Pa?”

Anything else that was said was muffled as Hoss wrapped his arms around Joe to share a moment of grief with him. Adam stood there alone and aching until he was sure they were well on their way. He returned his attention to the tracks and thought it looked like someone had been forced into the wagon. He had to wonder who that could be and why it had happened. Then, remembering every detail of the body in the doctor’s office, he got Sport and saddled him up for a ride. He needed to talk with Doctor Paul Martin and then he was going to go talk with his brothers or at least with Hoss if Joe wasn’t willing to talk.

*****

Early that morning, a man had ridden fast into the yard in front of a closed mine. The depressed price for silver had meant a lot of the mines with the lower quality bullion had closed, at least temporarily. It gave Sam Bryant a convenient place to stash Ben Cartwright until he needed him. It wasn’t far from town, but no one went there anymore. Inside the comfortable office, the man guarding Ben looked out the window wondering why the other man seemed to be in such a hurry.

As soon as he burst inside, the man blurted out what had happened. “Larry, you ain’t gonna believe it. Adam Cartwright hung Farmer Perkins. Sam hung Neal right there in the livery stable.”

“What?”

“I don’t know what he was thinking, but he did it. He hung Neal, and everybody thinks he hung Ben Cartwright. Then McNeill killed Sam, and a bunch of people shot McNeill down right there in the street too.”

Sitting and bound to a chair there, Ben was shocked. “Why would they think it was me? I know you had my clothes, but surely my sons could tell it wasn’t me?”

The older of the two men looked at him in misplaced anger. Here sat Ben Cartwright, unharmed and healthy, while Sam and the other accomplices were dead. Their plans to rule Virginia City and rake in more money were gone. “Maybe because Neal looked so much like you that if you looked at him, you would have thought you were looking in a mirror. Dressed in your clothes and as mashed up as he must have been from the hanging, even your sons wouldn’t know. Maybe we oughta kill you. It would even things up a bit, now wouldn’t it?” Looking back at the other man, the older man started to get thoughtful. “Of course, no one knows we was part of this. No one knows Ben Cartwright is still alive.”

“Larry, what you thinking?”

“Daryl, step on outside. We got some talking and some thinking to do. Maybe we can get something from this after all. Maybe we get ole Ben Cartwright here to sign over the Ponderosa to us.”

“He won’t want to do it. We gonna beat him until he does?”

“No, Daryl; remember, people think he’s dead. We’re gonna have to bring him to town nice and healthy like to swear he did sign over the Ponderosa to us.”

“Well, why would he do that?”

“Because he’s got three sons. We’ll get one of them and use him to convince ol’ Ben to sign a paper giving us the Ponderosa.”

“Larry, ain’t nobody gonna believe that. He wouldn’t take it away from his sons like that. Everybody knows he’d rather die than do that.”

“Well, if he won’t do that, maybe he pays us fifty thousand dollars. You think they’d believe that?”

“Why would anybody believe that he would give us that much money?”

“Well, Daryl, he’s going to tell them how we saved his life and he’s so grateful, he’s going to do it to pay us a reward.”

“Well afterwards, he could say we forced him by beating on his son, and then we’d be in a lot of trouble. Hey, maybe we kill him and his son after we get the money.”

“No, I don’t think we’ll have to do that, but we might need to get rid of whichever son we use to convince ol’ Ben to go get that money for us.”

“Why would we do that?”

“Daryl, if he says we forced him to do it because we were hurting his son, well, then he’d have a pretty good case if his son turned up all hurt like.”

“Wouldn’t it be worse if he turned up dead?”

“If he’s just missing, he’s got no proof. We just have to make sure nobody finds that body until it can’t be identified at least.”

“Yeah, we could do that. There’s lots of places we could dump a body.”

“And Daryl, based on what you said, which son do you think would most likely end up missing?”

“Well, Larry, how would I know that?”

“Which son is feeling mighty guilty right about now, and probably a lot of people pointing fingers at him blaming him for his daddy dying.”

“That would be Adam, wouldn’t it, Larry. Yeah, that’s right. But how do we get him here?”

“Only one way. You keep your eye on ol’ Ben here, and I’m going to go hunt me another Cartwright. I never did like that Adam. It’s going to be a pleasure hurting him. He fired me from the Ponderosa. Well, he’s going to find out I don’t forgive so easy. I’ll be back when I get him. It could be late. Don’t light any lanterns. We don’t need anybody nosing around here now.”

Larry went off then to saddle his horse and go hunt a Cartwright. He wanted Adam because that would be their best cover story, but he was willing to take one of the others and take his chances if it came to that. As it was, he was lucky and spotted Adam riding slowly in the direction of the Ponderosa. He seemed distracted, and Larry assumed he was very sad and maybe even frozen with grief and feeling very guilty too. Larry followed Adam for a short time until he was sure of the direction he was going. Then he kicked his horse into a run and headed for a good spot to ambush his target.

As Adam rode toward home, he wondered what he would say to his brothers. If he voiced his doubts about what had happened, would they think he was only trying to absolve himself of blame? He had asked Doctor Martin to come out to the Ponderosa and take another look at the body to see if there was any evidence that it was not their father. Paul had looked at him with sadness and tried to convince Adam that he had to accept the truth, but he finally had agreed to do as Adam asked. Adam told him that there was no logical reason for Bryant to kill Ben Cartwright once Farmer Perkins was dead. It didn’t make sense to Paul either, who told Adam to go home and talk with his brothers. As Adam rode, he had so many thoughts in his mind that he hardly noticed the road. Luckily, Sport was so used to this route that he proceeded as if Adam was directing him to go home.

About a mile ahead of where he had left Adam, Larry settled behind a tree with his rifle in hand. He had his horse tied securely about twenty yards away and behind some large shrubs. He knew that they were close to the Ponderosa ranch house but hoped there would be no gunshots and therefore nothing to bring any curious men from the ranch. He wasn’t quite as lucky as he wanted to be. As Adam approached, Larry stepped out partially from the tree with the rifle pointed at Adam. “Stop. Drop your pistol.”

Instead, Adam saw the rifle and reacted instinctively and out of shock. He drew. Larry fired and Adam grabbed his thigh and dropped his pistol. Larry ran forward and grabbed the reins of Adam’s horse as Adam grabbed at the pommel of his saddle so he wouldn’t fall off.

“Now that was stupid. You’re supposed to be so smart. Why would a smart man draw on a man with a rifle pointed at him?”

Grimacing in pain, Adam grasped his thigh as blood seeped between his fingers and dripped down his saddle and into the dirt. “What do you want?”

“I want to take you to see your pappy.”

“You’re going to kill me? Why?”

“I’m not killing you, you idiot. Now don’t give me any more trouble or I might.”

Holding a hand to the wound on his thigh and another on the pommel, Adam was in no condition to give anyone trouble. The hot searing pain of the bullet invading his body had been bad, but the pain that shot up his leg took his breath away. He was bleeding but not too badly so he knew that at least he hadn’t been hit in an artery. He had a survivable wound, but he needed attention soon. The other shock was that the man talked as if Ben Cartwright was alive. Adam had suspected that remote possibility but could not yet accept that it might be true. The evidence of the body was so great that he could make no sense out of any of it so he concentrated on putting pressure on his thigh to try to stop the bleeding.

At the ranch house, several men noticed the gunshot. They wondered if they should go check it out, but the foreman said it was probably just a hunter, especially with only one shot being fired. They had a lot more serious concerns at that moment as they were cleaning up the surrey for the purpose of carrying their boss’ coffin out to the lake for burial in the morning. They had to clean up the whole area too, as they were expecting a lot of people to attend the service. Inside the house, Joe and Hoss were working with Hop Sing to clean up the body and dress it in Ben’s best suit. No one knew where Adam was, and after hearing what had happened, and except for Hop Sing, they weren’t much concerned about that either. Many wondered if Adam would show his face on the ranch again. Some thought he would because he didn’t run from a fight, but this fight was with family and friends, so it did change things. Hoss walked outside several times to ask the men if they had seen Adam yet. No one had.

Inside the house, Joe couldn’t speak. He nodded or shook his head to all queries. He never thought that he would ever be doing this. He knew that the west was a dangerous place, but somehow, his father had seemed invincible as did Hoss and Adam. They got hurt, sometimes very seriously, but they always pulled through. Joe was finding it so hard to accept that this time his father wasn’t invincible.

Hoss struggled to tie Ben’s tie. “Damn that Adam. He ought to be here by now. He ought to be helping.”

“I don’t want him here.”

“Joe, no matter how you feel right now, it’s his place to be here. We’re gonna have to figure out how to go on, and Adam is part of that, no matter how you’re feeling right now. I’m upset, but I guess I got to thinking how Adam must feel about now. With what we said and done, we made sure he took all the blame on himself.” Hoss did his best to shoulder some of that blame so that Joe wouldn’t get too defensive. He needed to talk him down from the peak of his anger.

“Well, it is his fault that Pa’s dead!”

“Joe, is it? We could have overruled him on that. Sheriff Biggs coulda overruled him on that. We let him do it. Why? Because it seemed like the right idea at the time, or at least it was the best one we had then. How was he to know that Bryant would do what he did? How could anyone know that? I’m hurting real bad too, but I’m thinking I’m feeling bad for my brother who’s hurting just as much as we are because he lost his Pa too and I know the guilt he’s carrying. He’s got to be hurting something fierce. He’s gonna punish himself for the rest of his life. There’s no need for you or me to add to it and give him more pain.”

“Hoss, I don’t know if I can forgive him.”

“You know as well as me that Pa would want us to do just that. He’d want us working together. Now, when Adam gets here, I want to tell him what I told you, and I don’t want you arguing about it. Just let it ride and give it some time. We’re all hurting here.”

*****

Miles away, Larry led Adam into the mine yard. He dismounted and told Adam to do the same. When Adam’s foot hit the ground though, his leg buckled beneath him, and he fell. Being careful because he was worried that Adam was faking, Larry approached him and grabbed an arm pulling him up. He made Adam hop the last few feet to the steps of the office and pull himself up on the handrail. He moved ahead and opened the office door, pushing Adam in ahead of him, causing Adam to fall to the floor grabbing his leg with the agony of the wound taking his breath away. On his chair, Ben called out to his son. Adam turned toward him because, even with that terrible pain and the weakness of the blood loss, he recognized his father’s voice.

“Pa? How can it be? I saw your body.”

“You saw a man who looked like me and wore my clothing. From what I’ve heard, the hanging did its usual damage to his face. A mother would have a difficult time identifying a hanged man. I’m not surprised that even you boys were fooled.” Looking at Larry, Ben scowled. “You didn’t have to shoot him. He needs a doctor.”

“Oh, he’s going to need a doctor a lot more by the time we finish with him, I think. Now we got a proposition for you. You sign over the Ponderosa to us and then you go to town and register that at the land office. Then you come back here, and we tie you up to give ourselves a nice head start. How about it?”

“Larry, ask him about the fifty thousand too.”

“Daryl, not now.”

“Don’t do it, Pa. They’re gonna kill both of us anyway.”

Larry kicked Adam in his injured leg, and then he and Daryl pulled the wounded man up into a chair and hit him several times in the face and abdomen. Turning to Ben, Larry asked again. Ben said no. He trusted Adam’s logic, although it pained him a great deal to see his son hurt like that.

“Well, maybe we need to be a bit more persuasive.” Larry and Daryl tied Adam to the chair, then with his arms behind the chair tied at the wrist and another rope around his chest, holding him to the chair.

“Wait, wait, maybe we can work something out.”

“No, old man, it’s our way or more of this.” Larry plunged a finger into Adam’s wound causing him to yell out and writhe in pain. Ben wanted to turn away but couldn’t. If Adam looked at him, he wanted him to see the respect in his eyes. After a few minutes of the abuse, Adam passed out.

It was getting late in the day. “Daryl, let’s let him stew on it tonight. We can go to town and have a nice meal and a few drinks with the money we got from their wallets. We’ll come back in the morning to see if he’s changed his mind, sitting with his son all night watching him bleed and suffer.” Larry and Daryl left, and Ben had to wait for several hours before Adam awakened.

“Where are they?” Adam’s voice was weak, but Ben was relieved that he was lucid and hadn’t succumbed to the effects of blood loss and fever yet.

“Adam, I want to tell them I’ll do it. I’ll sign over the Ponderosa and give them fifty thousand dollars too. It will be so outlandish that any sane person would know that something was very wrong. They won’t get anything. We can testify to the coercion. They’ll go to prison.”

“Pa, they could kill us instead.”

“Son, I know that, but I don’t see a better way out of this. When they come back, I’ll agree to all of it.”

“Good, Pa, and when you’re in town, make sure you don’t come back here. That’s when they would be able to kill you too.”

*****

At the ranch, Doctor Martin arrived and was greeted by Hoss, who wondered what he was doing there. Paul explained Adam’s request but was also surprised that Adam wasn’t home as he had left well before Paul had been able to get away. Hoss said that Adam probably needed some time to himself as he usually did when he was troubled.

“He’s capable of taking care of himself. I guess he’ll be here in the morning.”

After examining the body again, Paul knew that it was probably Ben but the hands were not callused as much as he expected, and he did note that the boots were tight. Other than that, he could find nothing to support Adam’s worry that this might not be his father. Paul told Hoss what he had found. Joe hung in the background and said nothing although he hoped and prayed that perhaps Adam was correct about this. Paul didn’t give them much on which to hang that hope, though. Once Paul left, Hoss and Joe spent most of the evening sitting quietly, and then the night in their rooms trying to sleep and failing.

*****

In the morning, when Larry and Daryl returned to the mine office, Ben agreed to their demands. “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. Just don’t hurt him anymore.” The agony in his voice was real. It had been a very difficult night with Adam in and out of consciousness and in great pain.

In order to make it seem more plausible, as agreed, Adam protested. “Pa, no.” It was all Adam could manage to say. He was in such pain that he wanted to retch again but couldn’t even manage that.

“Adam, I can’t let them hurt you anymore. I’ll get the money for them. It’s your only chance.”

Nodding, Adam did his best to get control of the pain again. It wasn’t possible. The pain was overwhelming his other senses and caused him to pass out for a time. When he awakened, Ben was seated at a table writing out an order for fifty thousand dollars. He already had authored a deed to the Ponderosa.

“Pa?”

“Don’t worry, Adam. They have to have me go into town with them. No one would believe I signed this otherwise. Remember, everyone thinks I’m dead, including my sons. No, I have to do this. It’s a small price to pay to get help for my oldest son.”

“Pa, they’re not interested in having me live.”

Hitting Adam once more, Larry yelled at him to shut up before he turned and addressed Ben. “Yeah, and no tricks, old man. There’ll be no water, food, or bandages for him until we get back. And if I don’t come back with you and the money, Daryl there knows what to do. Don’t you, Daryl?”

While Ben had been writing and Larry had been threatening, Daryl had been poking in the stove to keep the small fire going in there. He pulled the poker out and raised it near Adam’s eyes. He looked like he was enjoying himself, thinking about what he might get to do later. “I think I’ll start with the eyes first. Even if he’s still alive when you find him, he won’t be worth much anymore. The eyes, the ears, the nose, the lips — all burn so easy. It’d make quite a mess of your son now, wouldn’t it?”

“I’m going to get you the money. Don’t hurt him anymore, and you’ll have your money.”

Adam had one last thing to say. “Pa, no matter what happens, know that I loved you.”

Ben put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed softly. “We’ll get you help, Adam. I’ll be back for you.”

A short time later, Ben and Larry rode for town. Ben was blindfolded as he had been when he was brought to the mine office. Daryl cleaned the small coals out of the stove and put them in the ash bucket. Then he went outside and returned with a bucket of water that he used to wash the blood stains away. He wrapped a piece of rag around Adam’s thigh to prevent any more blood falling to the floor before cutting Adam loose. He handed him a shovel handle to use to walk.

“Get up. I’m gonna put you in the mine in case a posse comes back instead of Larry with the money.”

Adam noted that he said Larry and didn’t include his father. He had cleaned out the stove too, when he had said he was going to burn Adam if Larry wasn’t back soon enough. He had cleaned up the bloodstains too and put a crude bandage on Adam’s leg so he wouldn’t leave a blood trail anywhere. Even in Adam’s weakened state, he had a fair idea of why Daryl was doing these things. He was going to be cleaned up too, so there would be no evidence to back up his father’s claim of being coerced into handing over the money. He had suspected that from the moment he had heard Larry explain the plan. He knew then that he was the weakness in their plan. He was the evidence that his father had been coerced and not rescued. He had held a slim hope that Larry and Daryl didn’t understand that, but that faint belief that perhaps things could work out well was gone now.

“How are you going to explain me missing when my father claims that I was tortured to make him get the money?” Walking with his wounded thigh was slow and very painful for Adam. Daryl did nothing to help. He walked behind Adam with a pistol prodding him in the back occasionally to get him to move along faster.

“Whooee, you are the smart one, aren’t you? Well, don’t hurt none to tell you, I suppose. I’m gonna set you free. Yessirree, I’m going to set you free. Right in that mine when we get there. Course, you’re gonna be down a mineshaft, but I won’t kill you. Nope, neither of us want to risk getting caught for that and standing up on a gallows. No, I’m gonna leave you in the mineshaft. People are just gonna think you run off cause you was so sad about getting your pa killed. I hope you can hang on for a few days. It’ll do my heart good knowing you was suffering for a while.”

“Leaving me to die is the same as killing me.”

“No, now, you see it’s not. You run away when I wasn’t looking and went to hide in the mine. I was looking for you and couldn’t find you at first because you done fell down a mineshaft. Pretty good, huh?”

“But I’ll still be dead. My family will find you somehow.”

“You sure about that? They sure turned on you fast in town. You sure they want you back? Don’t seem like they like you much, turning on you like that. Then your pappy leaves you here. He must have had some idea what we might do to you while he’s gone. He’ll be safe, though, so maybe that’s what he really cares about. Not you.”

Developing a fever and suffering from excruciating pain his leg because it was so aggravated by having to walk and jarring his wound with each movement, Adam’s thoughts were becoming muddled. Seeing how upset Adam was looking, Daryl was enjoying this taunting of the wounded man.

“Yeah, that’s it. You left him to die at Sam’s hands, so he’s letting you here to die at my hand. Yeah, now that’s fair, dontcha think? A real eye for an eye kind of thing it is. Yessirree, it surely is.”

Daryl laughed then and again frequently as Adam struggled to walk. Adam thought briefly about laying down and refusing to move, but he feared what Daryl would do then. The man enjoyed being cruel. As they entered the mine, Daryl lit a lantern to light their way. About twenty feet inside, there was a shaft to the right that dropped away into darkness. Daryl pushed Adam to the edge of the drop.

“Now you can climb on down or I can push you.”

“How can I climb down? I can’t see anything.”

“All right, then, you done made your decision.”

Stepping forward, Daryl shoved Adam toward the shaft, but Adam was somewhat ready for that. He dropped to the edge and grasped for handholds as he slid over the side. It wasn’t enough, and he fell several times grasping for handholds in the shaft shoring, but then, it was old and broke with his weight each time. It did slow his descent, though, and he hit the bottom of the shaft at less than fatal velocity, although the landing jarred his leg so badly that he passed out.

At the top of the shaft about twenty feet up, Daryl called Adam’s name several times. Hearing nothing, he smiled again and walked out of the mine, scooping up some of the soft dust that had blown in from outside. He planned to spread that around the office to make it look like no one had been there for some time. He had already cleaned up most of the evidence of what had happened. He needed to get rid of the bloody chair where Adam had been tied, and then spread the dust. The idea was to make the office look like no one had been there for some time. Then he planned to ride to the rendezvous point and wait for Larry and the money. He had no fear of Larry because he knew Larry was a bit afraid of him. No, Larry would be there with the money. They could split it up there and go their separate ways. If Larry wanted to try to take over the Ponderosa and fight battles in court, well, he’d let him do that. He wasn’t interested. He was beginning to see too many problems with that, starting with the fact that there would still be three Cartwrights left. He didn’t think they would buy the story that Adam left and disappeared too. He smiled again, remembering what he had done to the man and regretted that he had not tortured him with that poker before dropping him down the mine shaft, but he had to clean up the scene so Ben Cartwright would have nothing to back up his version of events.

*****

As Larry neared town with Ben, he had the older man stop and then he removed his blindfold. “Now, there’s gonna be a lot of commotion when we get to town. You just act as natural as you can and file that deed and get me the money. Then we’ll ride out of town and you can go home to your boys and pack up, after you have a tearful reunion, that is. Me and Daryl will be out there later to take over our ranch.”

“What about Adam? You said he would be freed once you had the Ponderosa and the money.”

“Of course; I meant you would get Adam and then go home. Now let’s get going to get that deed filed and the money outta that bank. Your boy’s bleeding back there. You wouldn’t want him to have to wait any longer for help, now would you?”

Sensing that something was very wrong in this scenario, Ben couldn’t think of what it could be. He thought back over all that had happened, and then he came to one startling conclusion. Perhaps they were not taking him back to the mine office. Perhaps Adam was being killed to hide the evidence of what they were doing, or perhaps they would kill him as soon as Larry returned with the money. Suddenly, Ben realized he was not likely to be taken back to that office. He didn’t even know which mine office it was because he had been blindfolded when taken there and then blindfolded again today. But they had not blindfolded Adam. They had not hid from him where he was. The animosity that the two men felt toward his son had been apparent too. Ben had thought it was because he had tried to fight back and because he had told his father not to do what they wanted.

Beginning to worry a great deal, Ben wondered if Adam had understood all of this when he said he was going to be killed anyway. Adam had said too that no matter what happened, he had loved his father. It had been the past tense. Adam knew better than to make such a mistake so he meant that to be the way he said it. Ben had thought at the time that is was his son’s fatalism and natural suspicion that caused him to think that way, but perhaps he did know. By letting his father ride out, Adam was making sure that Ben survived, but maybe at the cost of his life. Adam had said ‘That’s when they would be able to kill you too.’ It was that ‘too’ that was suddenly so ominous. Adam did expect that he would probably be killed when his father left. He knew and had watched his father ride away, protecting a family member at the risk of his own life. Ben shuddered a little to think about that and tried to come up with a way to get back there and save Adam. He thought about telling the truth, but any delay in getting back could mean horrendous torture for his son. His best bet was to get Larry the formal notarized copy of the deed and the money, and then somehow follow him back to where Adam was.

As expected, Ben’s arrival in town caused a shock to the citizens and then a ripple followed by waves of reaction throughout the community. Many came to ask what had happened. He followed Larry’s script. He told those who asked that Larry and Daryl had rescued him from where Sam Bryant had hidden him away. He also said a double, who had been Sam’s partner, had been killed and it had been made to look like Ben Cartwright had been killed. There were many smiles and congratulations to Larry for rescuing Ben.

Sheriff Biggs was there quickly. “Ben, your boys are very broken up about this. I’m surprised you didn’t head for home first.”

“Sheriff, I had to get the reward for the two men who saved me. Larry’s going to take the legal papers and the money and meet up with Daryl at one of the mines where they’ve been staying.”

Larry didn’t like all the information that Ben was giving out, but he had not specifically told him not to say anything. It was another hole in his plan. He hoped there weren’t any more things he had neglected to anticipate. At the land office, Ben caused a shock when he turned in the deed to be filed and was told it would take a few minutes. He waited and then the formal deed was handed to Larry even as the clerk there stared at Ben, wondering what he was doing. At the bank, he had to get the bank manager to come out to handle such a large transaction. When the manager got there, again there were congratulations after the surprise as well as another request for the story of what had happened. Then Ben had a question too.

“Don’t I have to sign a withdrawal form for this money? Isn’t that the usual procedure? With how important this is to me and Adam, I don’t want to make any mistakes.” It was an odd request but the bank manager played along. Like Sheriff Biggs, who was walking to Doctor Martin’s office to tell him the news, he was thinking there were several things that were quite odd in this whole conversation. He too wondered why Ben had not gone home first. Then Ben slid the withdrawal form back to him.

Don’t react. Adam is in grave danger. Sheriff must follow this man no matter what.”

With only a second of hesitation, the bank manager responded. “Yes, it looks like everything is in order. It will take a moment to count out this much money. The teller will have it for you in a few minutes, though. I have a client in my office, so I need to get back there and tell him that it will be a few more minutes.” The manager went into his office and opened the window, waving to a man he knew. He handed him Ben’s note and told him to get it to the sheriff as quickly as possible. He stood back up and talked as if he were speaking to a client. “Yes, Ben is a valuable client, but so are you. It will be only a few minutes, and you will have my undivided attention.” Then he took a deep breath to calm himself and walked back into the main lobby of the bank to see the end of the transaction between the teller and Ben.

Once Ben had the money and handed it over to Larry, Ben thanked the manager and walked out of the bank with Larry. The two mounted up and rode to the edge of town, where Larry told Ben to dismount, when he saw the sheriff riding toward them with two deputies. Larry grabbed the horse’s reins and took off riding as fast as he could, believing that his plan had failed. He wanted to get to Daryl, who was supposed to meet him just outside of town after disposing of Adam and any other evidence they left behind. Soon, Sheriff Biggs and the deputies were in hot pursuit. Ben stood there wondering what he should do next, and decided to go to the livery stable and get a horse. While the liveryman was saddling the horse, Biggs and the deputies rode back into town with Larry and Daryl. The deed and the money in the saddlebags were on Biggs’ horse.

“Ben, he only rode as far as where this other fellow was waiting for him just outside of town. They claim they rescued you, and you promised them the money and the Ponderosa. Now what’s your side of this story?”

“I don’t have a story. I have the truth. They tortured Adam and threatened worse unless I would give them the Ponderosa and get them this money. They told me Adam would be released once they had the money and Larry and I returned to the mine office.”

“Which mine office?”

“I don’t know. I was blindfolded when I was taken there and blindfolded when I left.”

“Ben, there’s a lot of mines around here. It could take a day or more to check them all. Which ones do you want us to check today?”

“Sheriff, what about us? There’s no proof that we did anything wrong. He wants to go back on the deal he made for the Ponderosa, that’s fine, but this is our money. He gave it to me freely. I was gonna give Daryl his half, and we were gonna be leaving.” Larry was acting as an affronted citizen. “He promised us that money and the land, but now that he’s safe, he’s trying to back out of his offer, and that just ain’t right. We should at least get the money.”

“Ben, he’s right about one thing. I need more evidence if I’m going to hold them for more than a day, but unless we find some proof, it’s your word against theirs. Just riding off isn’t proof they did anything wrong. I’ll have to let them go.”

“But they’re criminals, and they may have even killed Adam.”

“Ben, I believe you, but I’m sworn to uphold the law, and that means I need evidence in order to hold somebody. Two men against you isn’t going to sit at all well with the judge if that’s all I have to show him.”

“Let’s start checking then as soon as I send someone with the news to the Ponderosa to tell Hoss and Joe. They must be so worried, thinking I’m dead and Adam’s missing.”

“All right, you do that while I get these two in a cell and put the money in my safe. I’ll meet you back here then, and we’ll go out looking.”

When the liveryman brought Ben his horse, he had something to say. “Your boys was pretty broke up thinking you was dead, but I don’t think that younger one is missing your oldest much.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Well, ‘cause he blamed him for you being dead, or for it looking like, well…they thought you was dead, and Joe especially blamed the oldest one. Said it was his fault for hanging Farmer Perkins. They pushed him away, and, well, most of the townsfolk kinda looked at him the same way. He rode out a lot later than them other two who drove out with the coffin.”

Suddenly, Ben realized that his sons had thought him dead and had that body in a coffin on the Ponderosa, and Biggs told him that a funeral service was to be held early that afternoon. But Ben was more upset thinking that either of them may have turned on Adam in their grief. He shook his head, wondering why Adam had said nothing, but they really hadn’t had any time to talk. Ben knew it was going to take a lot to heal the wounds in his family, but first the priority was finding Adam. He could only pray that it wasn’t too late.

As soon as the sheriff returned, he and Ben and several deputies headed out to the closest mine to check. By dark, they had checked several and found nothing. None of the offices showed any signs of being used recently. Ben went to the general store and bought some clothing and a razor before heading to the hotel. There was nothing more he could do that night in the darkness. He planned to head out early the next morning as soon as there was enough light to ride.

Dejected by his failure to find his oldest son who needed him so much at this point, Ben walked up to the hotel. Hoss and Joe stepped out with joy and rushed to him. Ben was pleased to see them and to know that they were safe, but he held back too because he was upset with them.

“Pa, when that man came to the Ponderosa to say you was alive, I nearly wanted to kill him. But he swore up and down that he had seen you, and then he told us what he knew of the story. Pa, I’m so glad to see you.” Hoss couldn’t stop smiling.

Joe couldn’t speak because he was so overwhelmed by emotion. Ben gave him a brief hug but then walked up the steps to the hotel.

“Pa, you upset with me and Joe?”

Ben turned slowly. “Hoss, do you know where your other brother is?”

“Well, no, he didn’t come home with us yesterday. I kinda expected him by last night, especially after he sent Doc out, but he never showed. He didn’t come home this morning either. When he finally shows up, he’s gonna be tickled plumb pink too to know you’re alive.”

“Hoss, he knows. He was shot and then tortured so that I would give some money to my kidnappers and sign over the Ponderosa to them.”

“What? What happened? We didn’t know any of that.”

“He’s out there somewhere, wounded, alone, and probably feeling as much hurt in his heart as a man could feel. I have to say that I’m a bit ashamed of you two right now. How could you have turned on your brother like that? He needed you, and you weren’t there for him. I’m getting a room, and then tomorrow, I’m going out to look for my son again. You two do whatever you think you ought to do, but I truly do not want your company right now.”

“Pa, Hoss didn’t turn on Adam. I did, but I know I was wrong to do it. I want to help find Adam so he can know how sorry I am.” Even though he had been shocked by what Ben had said, Joe was taking responsibility for what he had done, but the tremor in his voice spoke of his knowledge that he might not be forgiven for what he had said and done. He had been emotional, impulsive, and insensitive. If anyone had acted that way toward him, he knew he would have a difficult time forgiving them. He could only hope that his father would, and he prayed too that they could find Adam too.

Hoss hung his head. He was grateful for Joe’s words, but he knew he had offered comfort to one brother and not the other. He could see why his father was so upset with him. He was plenty upset with himself. He should have gone out looking for Adam when he didn’t return. Adam would have done that for him in a similar circumstance. He had failed the test, and like Joe, could only hope and pray he would have a chance to tell Adam how sorry he was.

*****

In the mine, Adam had awakened to silence and darkness. He was warm and suspected he had a fever, but it wasn’t yet debilitating, so he took a little time to explore. He had hoped that the shaft was an air shaft, but it had been rather large for that. Instead, there were no openings at the bottom, so the shaft was a sump. With all the dry weather, it was dry too. In some macabre sense of humor, he wished it would rain. Then he could float to the top or drown, but at least he would have something to soothe his thirst and cool his body.

When he first awoke, his leg had not been hurting much. He had pulled the sleeves from his shirt and used one as a pad and the other as a bandage. The bullet was still in there but he couldn’t do anything about that. However, as he moved around the base of the shaft, even though that required only minimal movement, the pain returned as it was when he was first shot. He realized that the bullet must have shifted inside. He sat down and leaned against the wall of the shaft and hoped it would not bleed too much. He had no way of knowing the time. He had been unconscious, and that could have been ten minutes or ten hours or any other amount of time. He didn’t need to relieve himself so he thought it was probably less than five or six hours. If so, it was probably getting dark outside as well. If they had not found him yet, that probably meant he was going to be alone for another ten or twelve hours at least.

“Well, if I’m going to get out of here, I should try to see what I can do for myself. The shaft is shored, so there may be a way to climb.” Carefully standing so as not to jar his wounded leg, Adam reached for the next layer of shoring above his head. His fingers were abraded because of his attempts to grab the shoring on the way down. As he searched for a handhold above him, they began bleeding again. When he found a handhold, he thought about how he could manage to get his foot secured to push himself up so that he could get the next handhold in the shoring. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. As soon as he pulled up, the shoring began to splinter. It was too old and dry to hold his weight. He fell backwards, jarring his leg once more and causing him to lose consciousness once again. The next time he awakened, he knew the fever had him in its grip. He was nauseated but thirsty and had a pounding headache. He tried to think of something he could do to help himself, but couldn’t put a coherent thought together. He leaned back and hoped to fall asleep. It was his only escape from the pain.

*****

In town, Hoss and Joe couldn’t escape their feelings of guilt. Both knew they had acted emotionally and badly. Joe especially felt awful because of what he had said. They walked their horses into the livery stable as they talked.

Joe had only one consolation. “At least Adam didn’t hear the things I said. I don’t think he could ever forgive me if he heard what I said.”

“He heard.” The liveryman walked into a stall and used a fork to loosen the straw in the stall.

“Who heard?” Hoss had a terrible feeling he knew what that answer was going to be.

“Your brother. He heard you talking. I thought he was gonna come in here and talk with the two of you that day, but you was so busy talking with each other, you never saw him. When he heard what you was saying, he froze like a statue and looked real pained. Can’t say as I blame him, now that I know what really happened. You two pretty much laid all the blame on him. ‘Course, so did most people in town here. Lotsa people carrying some guilt around about that now that they know your pa’s alive. He rode out of here about an hour after you left, and he was looking mighty glum. I guess he musta been thinking he not only lost his pa but his brothers too, and probably his home as well. It’s a lot for a man to carry when he was just trying to do his best.”

Joe sank down on a bale of straw and dropped his head into his hands again. This time Hoss wasn’t there to comfort him because he was feeling the pain he had inflicted on his brother.

“Dadburnit, I never shoulda said nothing ’til I calmed down. By the time we got home, I was thinking better about it all and knew I shoulda never let anyone blame Adam for what happened or at least what we thought happened.”

“Hoss, you would have figured that out sooner if I hadn’t been so all fired ready to let Adam take the blame for anything that went wrong. If I hadn’t killed that man earlier, we would have found out a lot sooner what was going on. I ignored what I did or didn’t do, and only thought about what he did or what I thought he did.”

“We need to go talk with Pa and get things straight with him. We’re gonna be eating a lot of crow, but we need to find out what happened so we can help find Adam. You ready for this?”

“As ready as I can be. Let’s go.”

At the hotel, Hoss asked the desk clerk for Ben Cartwright’s room number. He looked at Joe, took a deep breath, and headed to the stairs. He knocked on the door when he got to room four but there was no answer. He knocked again and waited. Finally he spoke to the closed door knowing his father would hear him.

“Pa, we need to talk. Please, we need to find out what happened so we can help you find Adam tomorrow.”

Hoss waited again. Joe was thinking their father wasn’t in the room when the door opened. Their father wasn’t there to say anything. Hoss pushed the door open and entered letting his eyes get used to the darkness. He saw his father then standing by the window and looking out on the street. Joe came in slowly behind Hoss and gently pushed the door closed. There was silence for several minutes until Ben started talking. In the dark room, it was almost spiritual with his deep voice coming out of the darkness.

“I don’t even know if he’s alive. If there had been a way to search through the night, I would have. He was shot in the leg. It was bandaged, but the bullet was still in there. By now, he probably has a fever. They hit him too, but I don’t think that did too much serious damage. His face was battered but his eyes were open, and he was lucid.” Ben paused because the next part would give him nightmares if he fell asleep. Even while fully awake, he shivered slightly as he remembered the threats and how anxious Daryl had looked when he thought about doing it. “They threatened to burn his eyes and face if I didn’t get them the money. I had to do what they said, but now I think I should have insisted that Adam come along with us. I’m afraid they may have killed him when I left. He knew it too. I know that now. I never should have left him behind, but Adam encouraged me to go.”

“Pa, why would they kill Adam if they was getting the money.”

“Hoss, because without Adam, it’s my word against two men who say they rescued me, and that I promised them a huge reward. I have no proof, no evidence without Adam. Right to the last, he was doing his best to protect me, while I was so intent on my plan, I didn’t hear what Adam was trying to tell me. He is the only evidence of what was done to get me to write and sign those papers. They’re claiming that Adam probably left because everyone blamed him for my death. Well, I’m not dead, but if that had been me, I would still feel the same. Adam did his best, and he did the right thing. No one can give in to a bully like Bryant. Many more people would have died if that man kept control of this town. Farmer would have killed again on his behalf. Everyone should have known that.”

Ben didn’t have to use any names. Hoss and Joe knew that last part was directed at them.

“Pa, I’m really sorry. I let my temper take over again. I was stupid. Do you think that Adam will forgive me?”

“Of course he will, if he can. It’s what families do, but Joe, it will change your relationship forever, I’m afraid. He can forgive, but how can he forget something like that? He was blaming himself, I’m sure. What he needed was support and help. What he got was condemnation. I’m surprised he didn’t leave then and there, but I suppose his sense of responsibility wouldn’t let him.”

“But he didn’t seem that upset. He didn’t yell or complain or anything.”

“Joe, when you are upset, we all know it. You have a fiery temperament, and your feelings burn hot. You yell, you complain, and sometimes you cry. Well Adam is like that too, except his feelings are inside. He has a fiery soul, but the outside can be hard as rock. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings. He has powerful emotions but has learned to control them, at least most of the time. He feels great joy and great pain, perhaps even more than you do, but he hides a lot of it. Often he lets the pain sear his soul, but on the outside, he stays strong so he can help others. But who will help him?”

“Pa, we’ll have to help him and work that all out when we find him. What can you tell us about where you were so we have a better idea on how to do that? You know I can track just about anything. I’ll find him. I swear, I’ll find him.”

“Hoss, I thought it was the Annabelle mine. I was blindfolded except when I was tied to a chair facing the back wall so I couldn’t be sure. But when we went there, it looked like that office hadn’t been opened in months. It was dusty and there were no signs of anyone being there. The furniture looked about right, but I couldn’t be sure. Things weren’t in the same places and there was only one chair when the office where I was held had two wooden chairs. We checked out the two mines closest to Virginia City after that, but there was nothing even vaguely familiar about those two. My mind keeps coming back to the Annabelle mine, and I don’t know why.”

“Well, maybe we oughta start there tomorrow. If it ain’t the right one but looks a lot like the right one, then it will give us an idea what we’re looking for.”

“Hoss, Joe, I’m sorry for being so short with you earlier. It’s not much of an excuse, but I was so upset at not finding Adam and knowing how badly he was hurt. It made me short-tempered.”

“Pa, you had every right to be angry with me and Hoss, especially me for how I acted and what I said. But there’s only one thing that really matters now, isn’t there?”

“I can’t sleep. If you want to use the bed, go ahead. I plan to sit in this chair. If I manage to nod off at some point, that will be fine, but I can’t lay down. I would be too restless.”

“Pa, me and Joe will go and get the horses ready later so we can ride out with first light. It’s a straight shot to the Annabelle so we don’t need much light to get there.”

Suddenly Ben turned to stare at his sons in the dark room. He couldn’t see much and neither could they, but if they could, they would have seen Ben nod in sudden knowledge and understanding. “It has to be the Annabelle. I was blindfolded but we never veered left or right until we got to town. That’s the Annabelle, isn’t it? Go to the edge of town and take the road to the left. It goes straight there. Hoss, do you think you could get us there in the dark?”

“I sure could, Pa. We might have to go a bit slow, but we’ll be there in just over an hour. C’mon, Joe, we got to go get some horses ready.”

“Boys, I’m going to go tell the sheriff where we’re going. I’ll meet you at the livery stable.”

In less than an hour, Ben and Joe were following Hoss out of town with the sheriff riding with them. He wanted to find Adam almost as much as they did. All of them were willing to do without sleep if it meant they found him. What each was thinking but afraid to say was that they wanted to find him alive. It took much longer to reach the mine than it had in the late afternoon. Ben went up to the office again and this time he and the sheriff took a close look.

“Now, seems to me, Ben, that this chair might have had some ropes tied to the arms. See the wear marks. They look fresher than anything else in here. The other thing is ,even with lantern light, I can see that the dust looks more like sand got spread in here. We were in such a hurry earlier and you said it wasn’t the one that we hurried too much.”

“But where is the second chair? The one Adam was in. There was probably blood soaked into the seat of that one.”

The sheriff looked around the room and there was no second chair. Looking around the small office, Hoss said only one thing. “Sheriff, check the stove.” The sheriff pulled open the door of the small stove and there was the second chair. It had been smashed up and stuffed in the stove except for the seat. “Sheriff, I bet if we was to look outside when it’s light, we’d find the rest of that chair.”

Joe grabbed a lantern and headed out into the darkness. It didn’t take him long to find the chair seat which had been tossed into the weeds at the side of the building. He yelled and held it up. Even in the lantern light, he could see the blood dried onto the seat surface, especially on the right side. He carried it back to the office where the other three men stood on the small porch.

“Well, where would they put him so we wouldn’t find him?” The sheriff asked the question but they were all looking at the mine entrance.

“All right, now everyone just hold on a second. Let me take a good look to see if I can find any tracks.” In front of the office, the tracks that might have once been there were trampled by the horse and foot traffic of that afternoon and now by the four of them and their horses. Once Hoss got closer to the mine, though, he found three sets of footprints. One was a man using a stick or cane and partially dragging one foot. He didn’t come out of the mine. The other prints went into the mine and then came out. Hoss explained to the group what he had found and then again asked them to stay behind him. Swinging the lantern in a slow arc, Hoss illuminated the footprints going up to the mine and inside. He started to see some spots that were probably blood. He didn’t say anything but assumed the others might see them too. About twenty feet into the mine, the tracks stopped. The one with the stick or cane ended at the edge of a shaft. The other prints turned and exited. “This is the spot.” Hoss leaned over the side of the shaft and called Adam’s name. Joe did the same. There was no response.

“We need some rope. There’s no telling either how far down this goes. We may need a lot of rope.”

“I’ll go get the ropes from our saddles. We can splice them together.”

Hoss called again and still there was no response. Soon Joe was back with the ropes and they began tying them together. Joe volunteered to go down into the dark shaft.

“I can carry a lantern to work my way down. I’m the lightest so it makes sense. The three of you can lower me, and then pull Adam up if he’s down there.”

“Joe, he’s down there. The tracks stopped right here.”

“Well, if he is down there, how can we get him out? It must be twenty or thirty feet down that shaft.”

Joe was going to drop a small stone to check how long it took to hit the bottom, but Hoss grabbed his arm. “Think, boy, think. Adam’s down there. If you drop that, there’s a good chance you’d hit Adam.”

“Sorry, Hoss, I wasn’t thinking.”

“There’s been a lot of that lately. It’s time to start thinking now. Pa, was that wound bleeding when you last saw Adam?”

“Some, but not much. Why?”

“Well, I don’t see any blood here anywhere here. I was just wondering.”

Except both Joe and Ben knew what Hoss was wondering. They were thinking that if Adam wasn’t bleeding, he might have succumbed to his wound and everything else that had been done to him.

*****

With a bloody noose in his hands, Joe was advancing on Adam. Hoss was next to him with a rifle. “C’mon, now, older brother, you gotta pay for what you done. You gotta pay.” Adam grimaced with the images in his nightmare and flinched each time he heard Hoss or Joe say his name. He was backing up but there was nowhere to go except down a mine shaft into darkness and pain. He wanted to beg forgiveness but no longer knew what he had done wrong. He whimpered with the pain and wondered what hurt so much if they hadn’t attacked him yet. Then he heard his father’s voice. How could that be? Wasn’t his father dead? No, he wasn’t. He was here to save him from his fate. He had to let his father know where he was. He tried to talk, but his mouth was so dry no sound emerged. He tried again and then again. He said it once, and then twice. Why didn’t his father answer him? Had he left again?”

“Pa, Pa, shh; everyone be quiet. Pa, I’m sure I heard him. I heard Adam. He said ‘Pa’ twice. Call down to him again. He wants to hear your voice.” Hoss was leaning over the side of the sump shaft but couldn’t see anything more than about ten feet down even with the lantern. Joe was tying the rope around his waist and preparing to be let down into the shaft.

Very carefully, Ben leaned over the shaft and called Adam’s name several times. He waited, almost not daring to breathe, and then he heard it. Just like Hoss had said, Adam said ‘Pa’ again. He sounded weak, but he was conscious and recognized his father’s voice. “Sheriff, we’re going to need the doctor. Could you ride for him, please? Once we get Adam out of here, we’re going to need a wagon too.”

Leaning over the side of the shaft once more, Ben called down to Adam again. “Adam, hang on. Joe is coming down to you. He’ll get a rope around you so we can pull you up. Hang on, Adam, help is on the way.” As Joe prepared to go down the shaft, Ben hurried out to get the canteen from his horse and grabbed the one from Hoss’ horse too before heading back to the mine. When he got inside, Joe was already being lowered by Hoss. Joe had a lantern in one hand and was using the other hand to keep himself from banging into the wall. “Joe, I have water. Once you untie the rope, Hoss will haul it up and we’ll send a canteen down. Adam sounds like he needs water. Now remember, don’t let him have too much.”

With the rope around his waist and a lantern in one hand and fighting his fear of falling, Joe had stepped back into the shaft, and using Hoss as his anchor, walked down the wall, using the shoring as footholds. Several times, the shoring cracked or splintered, and he fell against the side but protected the lantern instead of his shoulder. He guessed he would have a few bruises before reaching the bottom, which he could see once he was climbing down. Grateful that the shaft was only about twenty feet deep, he was concerned that Adam did not respond to his descent.

Finally, Joe reached the bottom and found Adam propped up against the side opposite of where he had come down. In the lantern light, he could see the crude bandage on Adam’s thigh. Joe quickly slipped the rope from around his chest and knelt by Adam who cringed away from him. Reaching out a hand, he encountered Adam’s hand pushing him away, but even that slight contact let him know how feverish his brother was. He called up for a canteen and the rope was quickly pulled up so that a canteen could be lowered. Once he had it, he handed it to Adam, who looked at him warily but drank. Joe moved to pull the canteen away from him before he could drink too much, but that caused Adam to be very defensive and agitated.

“Pa, I think he’s a bit out of his head with a fever. I don’t think he knows who I am.”

“Well, get the rope around him then so we can get him out of there. There’s no room for either of us to come down there too. You need to do this.”

Joe took the rope and made the loop at the end much larger. When he moved toward Adam with it, Adam yelled out a ‘No!’ and became even more defensive. In his mind, it was a noose. He was still caught in the memories of his nightmare. He put his hands in front of him to push Joe away when he got too close. His panicked moves caused him pain and he grimaced in the physical pain as well as the emotional apprehension. Moving as far from Joe as he could, he jarred his leg even more and cried out in pain.

“Joe, what’s wrong? Why did Adam cry out like that?”

“Pa, he won’t let me do it. He looks like he thinks I’m his enemy. Maybe you can talk to him and get him to let me put this rope around him.”

Leaning even further over the edge of the shaft, Ben called down to Adam as Hoss put a protective hand in his father’s belt to prevent him from slipping over the side. “Adam? Adam, can you hear me?”

Looking up as if uncertain of anything at that point, Adam could only manage to say one thing. “Pa?”

“Adam, I need you to let Joe put that rope around you so we can pull you up out of there. You want to get out of there and get up here by me, don’t you?”

Confused, Adam stared up at Ben who smiled down at him. Adam was deeply confused and wondered what he should do, so Ben called down more encouragement.

“Adam, I’m waiting up here for you. I need you to put your arms straight up and let Joe put that rope around you so you can come up here with me. Can you do that? I need you to do that, Adam.”

That confused Adam even more. “Was his Pa dead? Did he want him to let Joe get on with the hanging so that he could join his father in heaven? Was this a dream or was it real?” He could not tell. However, he was so used to accepting his father’s requests of him, to accommodate Joe’s request, he raised his arms when Joe hesitantly approached him and asked him to do that. Wisely, Joe said nothing more as Adam cooperated.

However, once he got the rope around Adam, Joe knew it was going to be a difficult task to get his brother to the top of the shaft. “Pa, he’s got that bad wound in his leg, but he looks a bit banged up from being pushed down here. I don’t think he’s going to be able to help at all.”

It was a bit worse than that. As Joe helped Adam to the other side of the shaft ,which was only about eight feet away, Adam nearly collapsed from the pain of his injuries and weakness. The fever, as well as the pain and lack of food and water, had taken his strength away. As Hoss and Ben began to pull him up, he cried out in pain several times and then was silent. All three men had tears in their eyes in response to that but worked to complete the rescue as quickly as possible. Once they pulled an unconscious Adam over the edge at the top, Hoss quickly pulled the rope from him and dropped it to Joe. It was quick work getting Joe to the top while Ben did his best to assess his oldest son’s condition.

“He doesn’t seem to have any serious injuries other than this bullet wound, but that is looking very bad. It’s badly swollen and hot. We need to get him out of here and hope the doctor and the wagon are here soon.”

Hoss slid his arms under his unconscious older brother, grateful at that point that he wasn’t conscious because otherwise he would have had to bear hearing him call out in pain because of what was being done.

Once outside, Hoss lay Adam down as soon as Ben got a blanket and spread it on the ground. Ben was thinking that he needed to pay that liveryman a bonus for thinking of it.

Hoss removed the crude bandage around Adam’s leg and cut open the pants. The wound was infected, red, and swollen. There was no bleeding, but Hoss thought that the doctor was likely to want to open that wound and drain it before going after the bullet that was clearly still in there. He wet his handkerchief to clean around the wound but that pain pulled Adam back into consciousness and agony. His cry of pain halted any other attempts to clean him up. They needed the doctor and his medications before they could proceed. All they could do at this point was to give water to Adam and hope that he wouldn’t retch. That was the only good thing in that was all the water he had drunk had stayed down.

In between sips of water, Adam looked to his father, and in a weak, hoarse voice spoke from his heart almost breaking his father’s heart. “Pa, I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right, Adam. It’s all over now.”

“I did what I thought was right. I tried to do my best.”

“I know you did, Adam. You always do.”

“It wasn’t good enough.”

“It was good enough, son. It’s all done now.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Adam lapsed into unconsciousness again before Ben could say any more to relieve his son’s worries. Adam seemed to still be under the impression that something terrible had happened. Reality and nightmares had become intermingled.

Joe hung his head because he knew that, in his distraught state when he thought his father had been killed, he had not been a good brother. He had let his grief and his anger rule his mind and his mouth. He was determined that Adam would know how deeply sorry he was about that.

It was a great, albeit temporary relief, to have Doctor Martin arrive in his carriage, and a wagon was driven in right behind him. In a whirlwind of activity, Doctor Martin assessed the wound and opened it as Hoss had expected. As it drained, they loaded Adam into the back of the wagon for a trip to town and the removal of the bullet. That went much better than the earlier moves because Adam was given a dose of laudanum once it was determined that he had no head injury nor breathing difficulties. Doctor Martin rode in the wagon with Adam and sent Joe on ahead to tell his wife to prepare the surgery room for a bullet extraction and for cleaning an infected wound. “She’ll know what to do, Joe. Just help her any way she asks.”

By the end of that day, Ben was exhausted. The opening and draining of Adam’s wound, the trip to town, the surgery, and the waiting at his oldest son’s side used all the energy he had. He had been sleep-deprived before it all began. He didn’t want to sleep before Adam awakened, but he had to do it. Paul told him to use the rocking chair in the room, and before Paul’s wife returned with a blanket to cover him, Ben was asleep. Paul pulled up a stool to sit beside Adam and monitor his condition. Hoss volunteered to take his place.

“No, you and Joe should get some sleep too. Right now, I want to keep a close watch on him. If I have to do more with that wound, I want to do it quickly, with no delay. The risk of that infection spreading or getting worse is still too much. If he’s all right in the morning, I’ll need you to help keep watch over him.”

“Paul, I need to tell him how sorry I am for not helping him out right away when we thought Pa was dead. I didn’t back him up like I should.”

From a few steps behind Hoss, Joe expressed a similar idea except that he had far more to ask Adam to forgive him.

“No, neither of you should do that. Adam needs to remain calm. What you want to do is to get forgiveness for yourselves. What Adam needs is for you to allow him the peace and quiet he needs to recover. Put him first until we know he’s out of the woods, and support your father any way you can until then.”

“Doc, dontcha think it would help him to know that we were wrong and he was right?”

“Hoss, yes, in time, that would help, but right now, I don’t want him to get upset at all, and reminding him of that situation and everything that happened would upset him. Save your apologies for when he’s stronger and able to face what happened.”

Accepting the doctor’s advice, Hoss and Joe headed to the hotel to get some sleep. There were numerous people who wanted to talk about what had happened. They tried to politely decline, but even Hoss got a bit surly after dozens of requests to explain what happened. As they walked into the hotel, Dan DeQuille approached them calling their names.

Rather curtly, Hoss tried to dismiss him. “We don’t want to talk about it. We just want to get some sleep.”

“I’m sorry, but I think that people are going to continue to ask you. There are a lot of rumors circulating and more and more people asking questions.”

Joe turned to Dan too. “It’s not our problem. What happened to our family was a crime, and the criminals are locked up.”

“It could get a lot more peaceful for you if you would tell me the story. I know some of it already. I’ll get out the whole story tomorrow, and people won’t be badgering you for answers.”

Briefly, the two brothers thought about that and looked at each other to gauge the reaction. Nodding, they turned to Dan and invited him to come with them to their room. A half hour later, Dan was in his office writing up the story as his editor waited for it so he could start the typesetting. In the early morning hours, everything that had happened would be spelled out in detail in the paper. Dan was careful to quote the brothers exactly and not do anything to anger them. They had been excellent sources, and he would hate to do something unintentionally to alienate them. When Dan finished the story, he read it over one last time and decided that even Ben and Adam Cartwright would have no complaints about his objective reporting.

The next morning, when Hoss and Joe got to the doctor’s office and entered the room where Adam was resting, they found their father holding Adam’s hand and talking softly to him. When Hoss and Joe approached the bed, both sets of dark eyes turned toward them. Pale and with his face showing the strain of all that he had endured, Adam looked back to his father then and very softly made a request, making it clear that he didn’t want to face his brothers at that moment. “I’d like to go back to sleep. I’m so tired.”

“Yes, lie back then.”

Ben pulled the blanket up to Adam’s shoulders and then signaled to his other sons that he wanted to talk with them outside as Adam closed his eyes and fell into a healing sleep.

Once outside the patient room, Ben turned to Hoss and Joe. “He wants to forget about what happened. He has no desire to talk about any of it. He gave a statement to Sheriff Biggs, and he’ll probably have to testify in court when those two go on trial, but for now, that’s it. At some point, he will need to talk about it with each of us, but for now, Paul and I have decided to accept his request. We’ll concentrate on his physical healing. The rest of it will have to wait until he is stronger.”

So that was mostly what happened. Adam rested and recuperated in Doctor Martin’s care for over a week. When Doctor Martin finally released Adam to go home, Ben was there with a carriage. He helped Adam into the carriage and helped him get settled into the seat. Then he pulled a blanket and placed it over Adam’s legs. Hoss and Joe were there to offer support. Adam smiled at them and asked when they were going to get going.

“Now that you’re recovered, you should think about forgetting about complaining. Too many complaints and I’ll have you out chopping firewood regardless of what Paul said.” Ben was smiling with such joy to have Adam coming home that no one would think his complaint was serious. Adam smiled at his father and said nothing more.

Adam went home with his family, and it seemed that all was returning to normal. A week after Adam got to go home, he was summoned back to town to testify at the trial of Larry and Daryl, who were each sentenced to life in prison.

For a time, it seemed that the whole episode was behind them, but there were some things that had changed, and those changes would affect the relationships among the brothers as well as Adam’s attitude toward their friends and neighbors. Ben noticed Adam’s curt responses to people in town when they were there for the trial. Adam was still limping at that point, reminding everyone who saw him about what Adam had endured. Many came up to apologize for not helping him and not realizing that he was doing the right thing.

“Adam, they’re trying to make things better. Just like your brothers who have apologized to you a number of times. Why can’t you accept that and let it go?”

“Why is it up to me to make other people feel better? Shouldn’t that be their issue and not mine? I have had enough to do without taking care of how others feel.”

“Can’t you forgive them?”

“What is forgiveness? Is it saying that what they did was all right? It wasn’t. Or is it forgetting about the past that can’t be changed and thinking only about the future where I do have some say in what happens?”

“You can’t forgive them then?”

“I have. I have let go of all feelings of resentment and vengeance. I’m not angry or acting indignant. Isn’t that enough? What I can’t do is forget what happened. I don’t know that I ever will. I can’t destroy the memories I have. They invade my thoughts every day and my dreams at night. Memory is a powerful thing.”

“Yes, it is a powerful thing, and it can hurt relationships and hurt your family too.”

“Can it hurt any more than what actually happened? Pa, I made mistakes, but for a while, everyone seemed to think that the whole mess was my fault as if the failure to act by the citizens of town wasn’t far more important. People I needed weren’t there when I needed them most. You know I’ll always do my best and do what I think is right. What’s changed is that I have doubts about what others will do when I need their help.”

“I suppose the only answer to that is to see what happens if there is another problem where you feel the need to put yourself on the line again. Then we’ll see what happens.”

“Yes, then we’ll see, but I won’t have the confidence I once had that help will be there when I need it.”

“Son, I am so sorry you feel that way, but I do understand why you feel the way you do.” Ben put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed letting him know that his father, at least, would be at his side no matter what. Adam smiled and their conversation on that topic was dropped.

 Ben knew that Adam was still haunted by what had happened. He hoped that with time and the love of his family, he could eventually put it in the past, but there were still nights when he cried out in nightmares. When Ben or one of his brothers went to his room, Adam always said he didn’t remember the ‘dream’ and didn’t know why he had cried out, but they knew. Adam had carried a fear of abandonment since childhood. Being on the outside as others, especially his youngest brother, condemned him made him feel isolated and alone. Later, he was isolated and alone, as well as hurt and wounded, in the sump shaft of the Annabelle mine for nearly a day. Adam was a strong man physically as well as emotionally, but the experience of those couple of days and the long painful recuperation had changed him. Ben hoped the changes were not permanent but feared that they were.

*****

“Adam, I surely wish I had been here. If I hadn’t taken a leave of absence to go see my sister before she died, I would’ve been here. I don’t want to seem too proud, but I would never have let Sam Bryant get so powerful. I hate knowing what you had to go through because of all that happened.”

“Roy, there’s no need to feel badly about it. It all worked out, now didn’t it? The Bryant gang’s control of this town is over. The criminals who kidnapped me are in jail. Everything is fine. Everything is back to normal.”

But Roy knew that everything was not fine. Adam wasn’t the Adam he had known before he had been kidnapped and dumped down a sump shaft. He didn’t argue or complain about things that would have bothered him before. Telling Roy not to worry was as close as he got to arguing, and that just wasn’t the usual Adam. Adam avoided going into saloons and eventually even into town, because so many people came up to say they were sorry about what happened to him and sorry they hadn’t helped him out when he needed it. It was clear he was very tired of talking about that and did his best to steer any conversation away from that topic as fast as he could. Paul had told Roy that he had tried to get Adam to open up about what he was feeling but with no success. Like many, Paul apologized for not being of more help to Adam, but as with all the other apologies Adam got, he very quickly, briefly, but graciously accepted and then either walked away or talked a bit about something else, making it clear that any conversation about the Bryant affair and its aftermath were not things he wished to discuss with anyone.

Unfortunately, that avoidance included not wanting to discuss it with his two brothers. Hoss wanted to talk it over with Adam to find how he felt about what happened, but Adam avoided every lead that Hoss made to try to discuss it.

When Hoss tried to apologize for what he didn’t do, Adam had much of the same reaction he had with everyone else. “Hoss, it’s all right. I understand that your grief at thinking Pa was dead made you unable to offer any comfort to me. I couldn’t offer any to you either. I was in shock too. Everything turned out fine.”

“But, Adam, it didn’t. You got hurt real bad. That wouldn’t of happened if I had looked for you and told you to ride home with us. We shoulda been together. We shoulda been pulling together instead of apart.”

“It’s over now.”

“No, it ain’t over. It can’t be with you still feeling that we let you down and that we’ll do that next time there’s a problem.”

“I can hope that next time things will go better.”

“But you don’t believe it. What can I do to make you believe that I’m sorry enough to never let that happen again? I won’t ever turn on you again. It wasn’t right this time, and it won’t ever be right to do that.”

“All right.”

But like his father, Roy, and Paul, Hoss knew it wasn’t all right. He could tell how Adam had changed but felt helpless to make things any better.

Joe fared even worse because he got angry when he got the same answers as Hoss and anyone else who tried to talk with Adam about what happened. After that first encounter, Adam would respond the same way to every apology that Joe made. “I accept your apology. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, please.”

Frustrated, Joe tried to calm himself and come up with a better way to apologize, but Adam would tell him it was unnecessary. It was clear that Adam had been changed fundamentally by what had happened. Being coddled while he recuperated seemed to only make him more withdrawn. Roy and Paul thought that Adam was becoming somewhat bitter about it. For two months, even his family had that reaction.

A change occurred as a result of a fairly simple directive from Ben to his sons.

“There are three things that have to get done soon. That brush has to be cleared from the steams that drain the lower pastures before we get rain. With the low rainfall, a lot of brush has grown into those and could create some flooding if we get a heavy rain. We need to inventory our supplies and then restock everything that is low. Finally someone has to spend three days in Carson City with me picking out some stallions and some bulls to improve our stock. So any volunteers or any suggestions as to how these jobs should be assigned?”

“Well, Hoss and I have been doing most of the tough chores for the last two months. Neither of us has had much of a chance to go to town. I think we ought to be the ones considered for the trip to Carson City.” Joe looked at Adam, wondering if he would object. He didn’t. Joe was starting to get worried. Adam didn’t complain about anything. So far he probably had little to complain about as his family did their best to give him time to recover fully, but the lack of fight in him was starting to make Joe uneasy, and unbeknown to Joe, Hoss and their father felt the same way and were even more concerned. Adam just wasn’t like himself since he had been rescued from that sump shaft but none of them knew what to do about the situation.

“Adam, what do you think about that?” Strange as it may have seemed, Ben wanted Adam to be upset about possibly getting the only dirty job of the three. He wanted to see some of that fire in Adam’s eyes again.

“I don’t like it much, but it seems fair. I’ll clean out the gullies. Hoss and Joe deserve the chances to go to town. I don’t have much interest in doing that.”

There, it was done. Now, with no way to change it without making it seem as if they were still treating Adam as if he was recuperating, Hoss and Joe had to accept his statement, no matter how much that bothered them and took quite a bit of the fun out of the prospect of being able to go to town. If Hoss hadn’t been with Adam a lot over the previous two months, he would have thought it was some ploy by his older brother in one of those schemes of his. Adam had never schemed like Joe, but when he had, he tended to make it work out just the way he intended. What worried all three was that it was possible that Adam had worked things the way he wanted them to go. He didn’t seem to like going to town any more. He spent a lot of time out riding by himself. When he was in town with any of them, inevitably people came up to say how sorry they were about how Adam got treated in the Perkins and Bryant affair, and of course, they also always asked him if he was fully recovered from what Larry and Daryl had done. Adam was unfailingly polite, telling anyone who asked that he was fine, but to his family, it was clear that he didn’t like those encounters.

As Hoss and Joe went through the motions in making the decision as to who got to go to Carson City for three days and who got a short time in Virginia City picking up supplies and probably doing some socializing at one of the saloons before heading home, Adam sat quietly. Joe got the Carson City trip, but Hoss smiled just a bit. He would do the supplies and have a little fun in town. However, he fully intended to spend the rest of the time helping Adam clear that brush. Maybe in that setting, Adam would open up about how he felt about things. He had not said anything negative about what happened after Farmer Perkins had been hanged. Hoss knew it had to be on his mind, and he wanted him to start talking about it. Adam was so calm and quiet about everything that he didn’t seem to be the same man any more. Hoss was sure that the old Adam was in there somewhere, and he needed to find a way to bring him out.

As Ben watched his sons, he noted Hoss’ small smile at Joe getting the Carson City trip. That almost made Ben smile too, as he assumed Hoss would be helping Adam once he got the supplies restocked. If anyone could get Adam to open up, Ben assumed it would be Hoss. He had to hope that a couple of days working together, sweating together, and having to assist each other might give the two men a chance to talk. He packed for three days away as well as for the trip, and the next day when he went to the stable, he found that Buck had already been saddled. Joe was so anxious to go that he had taken care of both Cochise and Buck.

“I do want you to get a haircut as soon as we get to Carson City. If we’re meeting with sellers and negotiating prices, I want you to look like more of a businessman than a riverboat gambler.”

“Pa, I just had a haircut about two months ago.”

“Yes, and that’s exactly why you need one now.”

“Pa, maybe it would be a good strategy for me not to look like a businessman. They could think they were pulling a fast one on me, but we would both know that I’ve done this before.”

“Except I will be doing the negotiating this time, and I don’t want any son of mine to look like less than he is. You will get a haircut.”

Conceding defeat, Joe hung his head just a bit. “Yes, sir.” But he couldn’t be too depressed about it. He was spending three days in Carson City, and there were no stock shows and no negotiating at night. As the two mounted up to ride out after saying goodbye to Hoss and Adam, Joe noted how much his father was frowning. He guessed it was worry about Adam. His wound had healed and he no longer walked with a limp, but he hadn’t fully recovered. Their father had said that their relationship would be changed by what Joe had said and what Hoss had not done, but neither of them had thought it would change so much. Joe had expected Adam to be angry with him. However, he had accepted Joe’s apology very gracefully and never said a negative word about what Joe had done. For Hoss, it had gone much the same way. Joe and Hoss had discussed the situation frequently, but neither could think of what to do to mend their relationship with their older brother. Both knew too that their father was just as concerned. There was no complaint they could make to Adam though, and that was exactly the issue. He was unfailingly polite and cooperative even when he should have been perturbed.

Just a few days earlier, Hoss and Joe had been roughhousing, even after their father had told them not to do that. Finally, Hoss had given one last shove to Joe who lost his balance and fell into Adam, who was coming from the kitchen with a fresh cup of coffee. After Joe apologized and asked if he had hurt Adam in any way, Adam had simply replied that Hop Sing at least wouldn’t have to worry about the coffee stains because he had been wearing his usual all black clothing. He had taken to doing that more and more. As Adam walked up the stairs to discard the damp clothing and get a clean shirt and pants, both Hoss and Joe had looked to their father, who shrugged. If Adam had said something critical at that point, it would have been fully justified. His lack of response had all of them worried. They had to wonder if Adam had lost that edge. It was something that made him a dangerous adversary for their enemies, but also a great ally as his responses to danger and trouble were often what had saved one or more of the family as well as himself from serious injury or death.

Joe was thinking about it so much that Ben noticed as they rode and asked him for his thoughts.

“Pa, I know I’ve complained about it so many times in the past that I can’t count them, but I would like Adam to boss me around some and complain about how I act and how I do things. I’d like him to be the way he was. This calm Adam just doesn’t sit right with me.”

“I can understand that feeling. Adam used to challenge me. He wanted the best for the Ponderosa and his family. Now he’ll go along with anything I say or even what his brothers think is the best plan without offering any alternatives or the slightest criticism. It just isn’t like him. I have to wonder if it’s all building up inside of him or if the fight is simply gone.”

“I’m so sorry, Pa.”

Ben didn’t have to ask why because he knew the guilt that Joe carried for what had happened with Farmer Perkins and after. Several times already, Joe had tearfully admitted how much he wished he could take back those words and deeds. He had hopefully learned a valuable lesson, but Ben feared it was likely temporary. Joe was so impulsive and emotional, he often said or did things that he regretted once he had a chance to review his own actions. But changing that meant changing his whole personality, which wasn’t likely. All Ben could do was support each of his sons and hope they could weather each crisis. This one, though, had him baffled, and he didn’t know how to help Adam, which meant he couldn’t help the other two sons either.

Ben did feel a need though to try to reassure Joe. “Joe, I’m no longer so sure that what you said and did and what Hoss failed to do in supporting his brother is the major problem here. Adam made one of the most important decisions of his life, and in doing the best he could do, he thought, at least for a time, that he had caused my death. That’s a very heavy burden to bear. It’s shaken his confidence in himself, and Adam being sure of himself has been a big part of his character for a long time. He’s apparently now questioning everything.”

“What do we do?”

“We have to wait until he can find a way to come to terms with it, or otherwise we’ll never see the man that he was. It may seem like a very long time to us, but it’s only been two months. We need to give him more time than that, and remember for much of that time in those early weeks, he was still in great pain and very weak.”

Later that same morning, Adam was beginning to cut out brush from one of the gullies his father wanted cleared. He worked hard all morning and had only cleared a small section. He looked down the length of that gully and looked over at the other two gullies that needed clearing. There was more work than one man could do in three days. He hoped that somehow he could manage to get most of it done. He hated the thought of going to his father to tell him on his return that he wasn’t able to do this task. His father should have assigned more men, and Adam had suspected it when the tasks were first being handed out to the brothers. However, he said nothing because he was unwilling to take a guess, even a guess based on experience and analysis, and be wrong again. Now he faced some arduous work and long days without a good chance of succeeding. He shook off the negative feelings and tried to blank his mind so that he could do the physical labor. That night, there was little conversation at the dinner table. Hoss talked about his day, but Adam was exhausted and only wanted to eat and then rest because there were two more days of difficult and long labor ahead of him.

“You could talk. It ain’t like it was my idea for Pa to send me to town and take Joe with him to Carson City leaving you to the dirty job.”

“I’m sorry. There just isn’t much to say about cutting brush. I did listen to everything you said. It sounds like you did a great job. Thank you.”

“Well, tomorrow, I have to put away everything. I thought I did it today, but Hop Sing said he didn’t think I did. Once I finish that, I’ll come out to help you.”

Adam said nothing. He didn’t understand why Hoss made that offer. To him, it seemed no one trusted him to do a job correctly. He nodded in agreement, though, because he didn’t want an argument with anyone. He fell into bed that night and thought again about how seriously he had misjudged the situation with Bryant. He thought about how his father had taken Joe to negotiate the purchase of bulls and stallions. Usually, Adam had done those things, and sometimes went with Hoss and sometimes went with Joe. His father had trusted his skills in negotiations, but this time he had been cut out of that task altogether. It was another one of those things that convinced him that he couldn’t do things well, and that his family thought that about him. He slept fitfully and woke up nearly as tired as he had been when he had finished working the day before. He dressed and went downstairs to grab breakfast before saddling Sport and heading out to another exhausting day.

After Hoss finished his tasks and had lunch, he headed out to see if Adam needed help. He rather hoped he would because Hoss had not had much time with Adam lately and hoped to break through whatever barrier he had put up to find what was troubling his older brother.

Once he arrived at the site where Adam was working, Hoss rather jovially addressed his brother. “This all you got done? Heck, Joe coulda done this much. You’re losing your touch, older brother.”

Those statements were more blows to Adam’s confidence. “I’m sorry. I’ve worked as hard as I can, but when I cut, I have to carry out the brush so I can get at the next bunch. I guess it will take me more than the three days Pa allotted.”

“Dadburnit, don’t start talking that way. I was only joshing with you.”

“Sorry; I thought you were upset that I got so little done.”

Noting the piles of brush already cut as well as how thickly the brush had grown in, Hoss was apologetic too. “I’m the one ought to be sorry. I didn’t realize how thick this brush had gotten. Pa probably didn’t realize it either. This isn’t a one-man job. There should be several men working here. I’ll help today, and tomorrow we’ll get more men out here to help.” Hoss resisted the urge to ask why Adam had not asked for more men to help him. The way he was now, he would take that as another criticism. Like their father, Hoss was beginning to realize that it wasn’t just that Adam was upset with him and with Joe. Instead, his self-confidence had been shaken to its core. Unlike his father, though, Hoss did think he should blame himself. If he and Joe had been supportive of Adam, then the fact that he believed he had risked his father’s life and could have caused his death would not have hit him so hard. Hoss also thought that the injury and pain Adam suffered probably contributed to his feeling that he couldn’t do anything right. Hoss also suddenly understood that being sent out to do the dirty job while Joe got to participate in negotiations with his father had only reinforced Adam’s lack of confidence.

“I’ll carry the brush away as you cut. We should be able to move along a lot faster that way.”

For the rest of the afternoon, the brothers worked together. By the time they finished for the day, a lot more of the brush had been cut away and stacked away from the gullies. That night at dinner, Adam was again exhausted but at least made an effort to have a conversation with Hoss, who was grateful to see at least a sign of Adam coming back. The next morning, two of the hands were brought out to help. Unfortunately, Adam had not slept well again, and after two days of strenuous labor, he was overtired. He slipped at one point and slashed his own leg instead of brush. Hoss decided that he needed to see the doctor, so with a crude bandage on his leg, Adam mounted up for the ride to town. He seemed a bit unsteady so Hoss decided to ride with him.

In town, Paul cleaned up the wound and stitched it closed. It was a shallow wound, but long enough that Paul insisted that Adam needed to stay off the leg as much as possible for a few days until it began healing well. Hoss decided that the first place Adam should rest his leg was in the saloon. Adam hadn’t been in one for nearly two months. The brothers got two beers and sat at a table where Adam rested his wounded leg on a chair. Soon two of the ladies were there to sit with them. One was very close to Adam and wrapped her arms around his left arm as he drank with the right. Hoss signaled the bartender for two drinks for the ladies. He knew the drinks were mostly tea, but seeing Adam interested in some socializing was too good an opportunity to miss. There were a few men in the saloon who were jealous that both saloon girls were with the Cartwright brothers and began some mild taunting of the brothers. There was a slight scuffle, which was quickly broken up, but Hoss was in a good mood. In the dispute, Adam had stepped up to his side, or as well as he could do that with his injured leg. Hoss was certain, though, that if there had been a real brawl, Adam would have helped him. He had Adam put an arm around his shoulders to help him walk, and the two swaggered out of the saloon only to see the setting sun and their angry father who had seen their horses outside tied to the rail.

*****

As Hoss and Adam walked from the saloon, they met their father and younger brother who had left the Carson City auction because there was nothing there they wanted to buy. Ben was terribly frustrated because he had been unable to get any decent bulls or stallions in Carson City as he had planned, and his temper heated to its boiling point when he saw the horses of his other two sons tied in front of the saloon on a day when they should have been working. He stalked over to the saloon even as Joe tried to get him to understand that there must be a good reason for it. Smiling and with Hoss supporting Adam, the two brothers exited right into their angry father’s path.

“Hi, Pa, you’re back early.” Hoss saw no reason not to be open and friendly and wondered why Adam stiffened up so much at their father’s glare. They had done nothing wrong.

“I set some work to get done, but I find you walking out of a saloon?”

Adam was immediately apologetic and pulled away from Hoss doing his best not to limp. He mounted up and turned his horse to ride out of town.

“I better go with him and make sure he doesn’t fall off. Dadburnit, Pa, why’d you hafta go and do that? Adam was just breaking out of that shell a mite. Now I gotta go see if I can get him to relax about it.”

“Relax about it? What about explaining it?”

“Adam had too much work to do. He got tired and he hurt his leg. I brought him to town to see the doc, who fixed it up. We had a beer, and we were gonna ride home together. That’s it. Now I gotta go see about my older brother.” Hoss mounted up, wheeled around, and followed Adam out of town.

Ben’s apology was said to a departing back. He turned and looked at Joe who shrugged. “Maybe the best thing would be to follow them and you can apologize to both of them for jumping to conclusions.”

Normally Ben would have chafed at being reprimanded by his youngest son, but he knew he deserved that one. He nodded, and the two of them got their horses to follow Adam and Hoss out of town.

As they rode out, two men who had followed them from Carson City stayed a discreet distance behind them and followed them out of town as well. Those two men watching Ben and Joe leave town tried to do it as unobtrusively as possible. “They never went to the bank. They gotta still be carrying that cash so we still got a chance at them.”

“What if they get all the way home without giving us a chance at ‘em? They were sure careful riding back from Carson with that money in their saddlebags. Two would be hard enough to handle. I don’t want to face all four of them.”

“If they get home, it might be easier. You know they’ll likely take off their guns when they go in the house. We get in there and demand the money. We’ll tie ‘em up then and be off before they can do anything. We’ll be in California before they get loose.”

“Cal, you sure plan well. I just don’t know how you think so fast all the time.”

“Lester, you just follow me, and we’ll have plenty of money without working too hard for it.”

As Lester and Cal followed Ben and Joe, they stayed at a discreet distance. With their focus on Hoss and Adam, Ben and Joe were not as alert but did meet up with some Ponderosa hands on the road who were headed to town for some supplies.

“Why would you need supplies? I thought Hoss restocked everything.”

“Well, we have so much brush to burn, we want to use coal oil to speed things up so it isn’t burning all night, and there wasn’t enough for that.”

“You’ve been clearing brush?”

“Yes, sir. Hoss had us go out there to help him and Adam. We worked most of today finishing that last gully after Hoss had to take Adam to the doctor.”

“How bad was he hurt? Was it a deep cut?”

“Yes, sir, Adam cut his leg bad enough that Hoss figured he ought to see the doc and probably get some stitches. It wasn’t so deep as it was long. It was bleeding a lot.”

“Well, go ahead then and be sure to stop for a beer before you go back. It’s hot out here and you deserve one. Mind you, I said one.”

“Yes, boss. Thank you, boss.”

As the two men rode off with smiles, Ben looked at Joe. “I’m the one who’s going to be eating some crow this time. As Hoss would say, dadburnit, and Adam looked so happy when he first walked out of that saloon. When am I ever going to learn to curb my temper and find out the facts before I react?”

“Ah, don’t ask me, Pa.”

As Ben looked at Joe with his smug look, he had to shake his head. He knew he had given that exact advice to Joe on innumerable occasions. “Let’s ride fast enough to catch up. Adam’s hurt, and even if he’s upset, he’ll have to slow down.”

It didn’t take long to catch up to Hoss and Adam. As they neared the pair, it was clear that Hoss was talking earnestly to Adam, who didn’t seem to be reacting.

Once they got there, they got a glare from Hoss that caused Ben to raise his hands in surrender. “I know I reacted badly. I’m sorry for everything I said.”

The words did little to soften Hoss’ glare, but Adam accepted graciously. Hoss knew they had taken a step backward just when he had hoped they were moving forward in bringing Adam out of that dark funk he had been in.

At least, Ben’s next words helped. “We just saw Mel and Ray. They told us how hard that work has been clearing the brush and how Adam got hurt. I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I never went down there to check out the situation. Some of the men told me that brush was clogging those drainage gullies, and I had no idea that it was a four-man job. I never should have sent you out there to work alone, Adam. I’m just glad you had someone with you today.”

As the four rode the rest of the way home, Ben and Joe talked about the poor quality of the stock available at the sale in Carson City. Ben suggested that perhaps Adam might consider taking a trip to California with either Hoss or Joe to try to do what he and Joe had failed to do in Carson City. Anyone paying attention would have seen Adam sit a bit taller in the saddle with that comment. Hoss noticed and realized that he had been correct in thinking that it had been a mistake for their father to take Joe with him to Carson City. He filed away that information, because it was likely to be useful in the future and was something that he and his father could discuss later. Adam explained what happened with the brush removal, and Ben apologized again for putting him in that situation. As usual in the past, Adam said it wasn’t that bad and that he had made good progress even if he wouldn’t have finished in three days.

Upon arriving home, Ben told Adam to go in the washroom and clean up while they took care of the horses. Approaching the ranch a short time later, Cal and Lester watched as the three men exited the stable later and wondered where Adam was.

“Maybe he had something else to do, Lester?”

“Maybe, but we’ll wait a few minutes to be sure he doesn’t come riding in shortly. It’ll give them a chance to get comfortable inside anyway. Looks like the hands aren’t back from the day’s work, so this is perfect otherwise.”

In the washroom, Adam was cleaning up and removed the bandage from his leg. Hop Sing came in and cleaned the area around the wound and applied a clean bandage as well. He had brought clean clothing for Adam right after he had gotten him some warm water and clean towels. When the two of them heard strange voices barking orders in the house, they started to take action. It was less than a minute probably after Cal and Lester had invaded the house through the front door and ordered Ben and his two younger sons to raise their hands. Their pistols were on the credenza so they had no choice but to comply.

“What do you want?” Ben was not easily cowed.

“We saw you in Carson City. Some there said since you didn’t buy nothing, you would be taking a lot of cash back to Virginia City. Well you never stopped at no bank so you gotta still have it. We want it. You give it to us and we’ll tie you up nice and neat like before we head on outta here.”

“Yah, we’ll be in California before you get untied.”

“Cal, shut up. Now you done told ‘em where we was a going. We’ll have to shoot ‘em now.”

“You mean kill ‘em?”

“Well, maybe not kill ‘em, but enough to slow ‘em down so they don’t come chasin’ after us.”

“All right, I can do that, but I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t want to hang. I been locked up, and I could do that again if I had to.”

Ben was ordered to open the safe and get out the money. As he knelt and dialed the combination to open the safe, Lester stood over him with a pistol. As the safe was opened and Ben removed the money, Adam walked out into the great room and looked surprised to find two strangers there. Both men whirled and pointed their pistols at him.

Adam acted surprised. “Who are you, and what do you want?”

“You ain’t asking the questions. We got the pistols, so we ask the questions. Where the hell were you?”

“I was in the washroom getting cleaned up.”

When Adam had gone into the washroom, he had been wearing his pistol. Hoss and Joe wondered where it was.

Adam was ordered to stand with Hoss and Joe. He stepped backwards toward them, forcing Joe to move to his right. Joe scowled, but Hoss had to fight a smile. Tucked into the back of Adam’s belt were two pistols. His was angled for Hoss to draw it, and the other was set for Joe to draw. He had forced Joe to his right so that Joe could do a left-handed draw. Adam stayed about a half foot ahead of his brothers so that Joe noticed the weapons too. Ben was standing at the corner of his desk and handed the envelope of money he had removed from the safe to Lester, who looked down when he saw the money and then stepped toward Cal to show him. At the top of the stairs, two men with pistols pointed at the would-be robbers suddenly appeared and ordered the outlaws to drop their pistols. As Lester and Cal turned to face that threat, Ben drew the pistol from the desk and Hoss and Joe drew the pistols that Adam had hidden at his back tucked into his belt. Hearing pistols cocked to the side and back of them, Lester turned to run but instead dropped his pistol and froze. Hop Sing was at the dining room table with a shotgun pointed in his direction. It wasn’t worth dying to try to fight to escape being arrested.

“Cal, drop your pistol. If you don’t, you’re going to die right here.”

Quite used to taking orders from Lester, Cal dropped his pistol, and the two men from upstairs came down and several more hands came in the front door to take charge of the two who had been foolish enough to try to rob the Cartwrights in their own home. Ben told the hands to take the two into town and turn them over to Sheriff Coffee. Ben was still amazed at the smooth precision of the operation that had occurred to take down the two robbers without anyone getting hurt.

“How did the two of you think of going upstairs in order to surprise those two?”

“We didn’t think of it. Adam told us to do it, and he told us what else was gonna happen. We just did our part. We took off our boots and climbed up on the porch roof and went in the bedroom window there. After that, it was easy.”

Ben looked at Adam, as did Hoss and Joe. Adam shrugged but there was that little crooked smile that they had not seen in two months. All three knew it was because Adam was proud that he had managed to come up with such an excellent plan in a very short time, and then it had been executed perfectly. Hoss handed Adam’s pistol back to him and squeezed his shoulder in appreciation before going outside to make sure that the two outlaws were secured and to assign men to take the two to town.

Joe nodded and asked Adam where he got the second pistol.

“I got it from Hank. He said he never shoots it so I did a quick check to make sure the barrel was clear, just in case you had to shoot it.”

“Well, older brother, thank you for being considerate. You did a great job.”

Walking to his oldest son, Ben put his hands on Adam’s shoulders. “I’m glad it was you out there in charge of our rescue. You are unmatched in the ability to work out a rescue plan so fast and covering so many angles. Thank you. I am so proud of you.”

Nearly overcome by emotion and relief, at first, Adam could only nod. But for the first time in two months, he felt pride in his actions. He had made a decision, enlisted the help of others, and then carried out the plan successfully. It had been exhausting because, again, he knew that not only was his father at risk but Hoss and Joe were also in danger. If the plan had failed, they could have died. “Pa, I was lucky that it worked this time. If it hadn’t worked, our family would have been devastated.”

“Adam, you and I have taken many risks through the years. There were many times that things could have turned out badly or worse than they did. We’ve always known that a mistake in judgment could cost lives. Why is what Bryant and the others did so much worse for you?”

“Because you could have died, and I would have been the reason.”

“No, if I had died, it would be because criminals were using me to achieve their objectives. You should know that. You did what you had to do. It was what I would have done. Now, can you accept that?”

Dropping his head, Adam thought about all the things they had discussed. “I’ll try, Pa. I’ll do my best. That’s all I can promise.”

“I know. Thank you.”

A few weeks later, for the first time in a long time, Adam and Joe had an argument. It was, of course, about horses, a topic of which Adam was very knowledgeable and Joe was passionate. It was that combination that usually set off sparks between them in the past.

“Adam, you’re not always right!”

Looking down at his youngest brother, Adam smirked. “I’m right a lot more often than you are.”

“Oh, yeah, and when was the last time that I was right and you were wrong?”

“Can’t think of one instance of that right now, Joe. Care to enlighten me?”

Frustrated, Joe climbed from the chute onto the horse he had selected to break against the advice of his oldest brother. The horse did seem highly agitated ,causing Joe some concern, but he was unwilling to let Adam be right again. He rode the horse well with Adam watching. Ben and Hoss had come to the breaking corral to see what was happening because there had been cheers and yelling for an hour. Adam and Joe were breaking horses and, of course, trying to outdo each other in the process. So far, Adam was up one horse as far as success in that, and there were fewer horses waiting to be broken which meant their choices were limited.

Joe had decided on a roan that Adam declared was too high-strung and needed some calming before anyone tried to ride him. Joe had said that Adam was afraid to ride him and Adam had agreed that was true because he said he didn’t need to spend any time in bed with broken limbs. That apparently was all Joe needed to hear, because if he could break this horse after what Adam had said, the men there would certainly see him as the better horsebreaker. Just as Hoss and Ben arrived, Joe brought the horse to a standstill and looked over in triumph at Adam who still had a very worried expression, which surprised Joe. Then, just a moment later, the horse dropped his head and began some bone-jarring jumps that challenged every one of Joe’s riding skills as he did his best just to stay on the bucking horse. Getting him off that way didn’t work, so the horse charged the corral fence.

“Jump, Joe, jump off. Now, jump!” Adam’s desperate yell to his brother had the desired effect. Joe jumped because he was so used to taking Adam’s orders that he didn’t dare disobey when he heard that tone of voice. He landed awkwardly just as he heard a terrible crash. He felt hands checking him over and brushed them away only to discover his father’s gruff voice demanding that he cooperate. He did then and was allowed up only when his father declared that he had no serious injuries. Hearing a gunshot, both turned to look to where Hoss and Adam stood with the other hands. The roan had crashed into the fence in its frenzy and broken two legs. Adam had shot the animal, who was in great pain and thrashing about. No horse would ever recover from such devastating injuries. The only solution was a quick death for the horse.

Limping a little, Joe walked over to the break in the corral fence. He looked first at the roan. He had been a great looking horse but wasn’t any longer. Joe hung his head and felt an arm around his shoulders.

It was Adam. “I’m sorry, Joe, but it wasn’t your fault. No one can know when a horse is going to go berserk like that.”

“You knew, and now this horse is dead because of me.”

“No, I didn’t know he would do that. I only thought the horse was too agitated and unpredictable because of that. There was no way to know it would become homicidal. You did a good job of getting off of him when you realized that.”

“I didn’t realize anything. I heard your voice yelling at me, and I jumped off just like you said to do.”

“But, Joe, I didn’t yell for you to do that. I was running for a horse to get in there with you and try to calm that beast down.”

Surprised to hear that, Joe looked at Adam and saw no guile. He nodded. “I guess I must be so used to your advice that I guessed what you wanted me to do and did it. Thanks for being my older brother, Adam. You’ve taught me a lot. Now I need to get up to the house. I think Hop Sing may have some ice and salve that will help.”

As Joe walked rather gingerly to the house, Ben and Hoss stepped closer to Adam flanking him as he watched his youngest brother walk away.

Ben squeezed Adam’s shoulder. “Thank you for that. Joe needed to think he made that decision, or he would have been leery of breaking horses again, and we know how any doubt can put you in a bad spot breaking a horse.”

“Yes, I do know how losing self-confidence can hurt. I wouldn’t want that for Joe. He would lose too much of himself if he lost that cocky self-confidence he has.”

Hoss smiled and squeezed Adam’s shoulder. “And we’re all dadburned happy you got yours back too. Life is a whole lot better around here now.”

Adam smiled but it didn’t go all the way to his eyes. Ben and Hoss saw it. They still had the feeling that the relationships in the family had been forever altered by what had happened because Farmer Perkins murdered a man and was sentenced to hang. In that crisis, Adam’s commitment to justice had soured his relationship with his youngest brother and made his middle brother question him. Adam wasn’t yet sure of his brothers’ trust, although he acted much the same way he had always acted. He made snide and snarky remarks and helped out when he was needed, but inside, he seemed to have changed. This argument with Joe had seemed to be a signal that all was returning to normal, but then his comments negated that thought. As Adam went to talk with the men about disposing of the horse he had been forced to shoot, Ben and Hoss began to walk to the house.

“Pa, when we pulled him out of the sump shaft, are you sure we pulled out Adam? It almost seems sometimes that maybe it was like what happened to you, and that’s just someone who looks like him. What do you call that again?”

“A doppelganger. Hoss, I know what you mean but he’s getting closer to being back. He’s been able to forgive, but he just can’t forget what happened.”

“I don’t expect that he’d forget all about it. I just want him to be able to let it go.”

*****

As it turned out, it was a slip of a woman, as Hoss would describe her, who brought all of them back together although in a slightly different format. Adam and Hoss went to California to buy some horses. Originally Joe was supposed to accompany Adam on the trip, but the jump from the berserk bucking bronc had done more damage than they had first suspected. Joe had a broken bone in his leg. It had not separated, but each step caused pain. Doctor Martin had splinted it and told Joe to stay off of it for a week or use crutches. So Hoss was riding with Adam. The farm that was their destination was relatively remote located, quite a distance from Stockton, near a small town that bore the same name as the ranch, Mason. That kind of situation always put Adam on edge because it usually meant that the local authorities would always take the side of the local man in a dispute. Being one of the Cartwrights from the Ponderosa didn’t matter much in such a situation.

“You look worried.” Hoss was cleaning up their breakfast. They had ridden on a fairly direct route that bypassed most towns. Hoss didn’t mind because he liked the wild and pretty country through which they were riding, but had noted that the closer they got to their destination, the more worried Adam looked and the less he talked.

“That would be because I am. We’re carrying a lot of cash because we fully intend to purchase horses, but it is known that we’re coming. Any number of people probably know and know too that we’re carrying cash. Isn’t that enough to worry a man?”

“I’m guessing they never expected us to ride cross country. Anybody expecting us is looking for us to pass through Placerville or Stockton. If we don’t, they won’t know where to look.”

Thinking about Hoss’ logic, Adam had to agree. “You’re right, so the only problem could be in Mason itself, and we knew that was a possibility from the start. Hoss, have I ever told you that I’m glad you’re my brother?”

“Well, you have, but that’s the kind of thing a man could stand hearing real often like.”

Smiling, Adam finished rolling up the bedrolls and securing them to the horses as Hoss doused the fire. Soon they were on their way to Mason and hopefully the successful purchase of some horses to improve the stock on the Ponderosa.

As they rode into town, people seemed friendly, and the room at the hotel was clean and comfortable. It was too late to ride to the Mason Ranch that day, so the two brothers went to the only saloon in town to have a drink and dinner because it was also the only place in town to get a meal. There were several men in the bar, but it was a friendly group with no apparent negative feelings toward outsiders. Adam was relieved at that, and Hoss was relieved that they served large juicy steaks.

“So, I suppose you don’t want me to have a good time tonight so I can be fresh as a newborn calf tomorrow?”

“A couple of beers are fine, but, yes, if we are meeting with Mister Mason tomorrow, it would be nice if we didn’t look like we had a big night of drinking. You can drink the night after we make a deal.”

“Well, older brother, you should know that I’m gonna be holding you to that promise.”

“It wasn’t a promise. It was more of a suggestion.”

“I’m holding you to that suggestion then.”

Two men walked from the bar and stood at their table then. Both Adam and Hoss looked up to see what they wanted. “You wouldn’t happen to be the two Cartwrights who were coming here to buy some horses, would you?”

Adam studied the two men as Hoss answered. “We would, and who would you be?”

“I’m Marcus Mason and this is my brother James. Our father said you might be in town by today, although we really thought it would be tomorrow or the next day. You made good time. We were getting supplies and then we were going to get our little brother out of jail before we went home. It’s late to do any business, but we would be pleased if you would have lunch with us tomorrow. We’re bringing some horses in for you to look over.”

Surprised, Adam wondered out loud about that. “I’m Adam Cartwright, and this is my brother Hoss. We thought we would see the horses out at your ranch.”

“Normally you would, but any you don’t buy we’re going to take to Stockton. There’s a big stock sale coming up and we should be able to sell some, although quite a few people don’t like the prices we set.”

Nodding, Adam smiled as he recognized the first steps in the negotiating process. Marcus was good at this, for he sounded genuine in his statements. “All right, then, we would be pleased to have lunch with you tomorrow. Now I know my brother Hoss is dying with curiosity about why your younger brother is in jail.”

Grinning, Marcus pulled out a chair to sit down. “Now that’s a long story. Would it be all right if we sat with you and had a beer while we tell the story?” James pulled out a chair as well as he signaled the bartender with four fingers. “You see, our younger brother is a bit of a wild one. He likes to chase the girls, and he chased the wrong one. She’s a bonded servant and her employer and Davy got in a fight. Davy didn’t have the money to pay his fine. so our uncle locked him up.”

“Your uncle?” It was Hoss’ turn to be surprised.

“Yes, our uncle is the sheriff. He’s a pretty nice guy but Davy has a tendency to irritate him. Uncle Reg likes things to be orderly, and Davy seems to cause disorder wherever he goes.”

“Aw, Marcus, you’re making him sound like a little kid. Truth is, our little brother is a hellion from hell who makes a hell of a lot of trouble for all of us and pretty often.”

“James, you know full well that you two have sometimes gotten into trouble together, and then I had to bail both of you out.”

Grinning again with a smirk at Hoss, Adam had to respond. “Now that sounds very familiar.” Both Marcus and James looked at him expectantly so Adam started to tell them about Joe with Hoss quickly adding in more stories. Time passed quickly for the two sets of brothers, who found that they were compatible. Finally, though, both Marcus and James said they were sorry but they had to leave to get Davy to take him home to their father, who wasn’t going to like what had happened.

That brought the conversation back to the reason Davy ended up in jail. Adam was curious. “What did you mean by a bonded girl and her employer?”

“There’s a storekeeper in town whose wife died about a year ago. He went to some small town up north and paid some family for their daughter. She has to work for him for five years to pay off the contract. Davy seems to think that he’s expecting more from her than working in his store and keeping house for him. He tried to see her and talk with her. That’s what started the fight.”

“Is it true? Is the girl being abused?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen any evidence of it, but Davy claims she told him when he was picking up supplies and begged him to get her away from the man. We told Uncle Reg, but I guess he wasn’t able to find out anything. When he went to talk with the girl, she wouldn’t talk with him. He said she seemed scared, but if she won’t say anything, then there isn’t much he can do.”

Hoss saw how Adam looked with the information they had received. “Adam, now don’t go getting yourself mixed up in that girl’s business. Let the sheriff handle it. Seems he knows what needs to be done.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t do anything stupid.”

Looking worried, Hoss was not reassured by that response. James saw the look and smiled. “Seems we got even more in common. Not only do we have younger brothers who think there isn’t a girl who shouldn’t be kissed by them or a poker game they can’t win, we have older brothers who are all barbed wire justice and want to right every wrong. We can’t help but get in trouble with brothers like that.”

“Well, dadburnit, if you ain’t struck that nail right on the head. It ain’t our fault at all for the trouble we get in. We’re only trying to be good brothers now, ain’t we?”

Adam and Marcus rolled their eyes almost in unison, causing their younger brothers to start laughing. They set a time to meet in the morning, and the Mason brothers left to get their younger brother and head home.

 A few hours later, Adam and Hoss gratefully sank into a soft bed and slept till morning, although Adam would have slept better without Hoss’ snoring. They dressed and headed down the stairs to have breakfast. After breakfast, they had about an hour before the Masons were due to arrive, and Adam began walking to the general store.

Hoss hurried after him and grabbed his arm. “You just have to get into trouble, dontcha?”

“I won’t get into any trouble if you help.” Adam looked at Hoss with a slight smile.

“Dang, what do you want me to do?”

“We’ll go in the store and you ask him to show you all the knives he has because you lost yours and you want a new one. Make sure he knows you have plenty of money.”

“How does that help?”

“I’ll see if the girl who works there will tell me anything when he can’t hear her. If she tells, then the sheriff has both Davy’s word and mine. Then he should be able to do something about it.”

“All right, but what if he puts up a stink if he figures out what you’re doing?”

“I’ll work that out if it happens.”

“Seems to me that there are a few holes in your planning.”

“Maybe, but I only want to get close to this girl to see if she’s being hurt. If she isn’t, then we walk away, and there’s no problem.”

“What if she ain’t in the store?”

“Then we’ll buy you some candy and do this some other time.”

The two brothers walked in the store and looked around for a minute before the store owner approached them asking if he could help them. Hoss went with Adam’s script. “I lost my pocket knife when I was on the trail getting here. I want a new knife, but I’m not sure if I want a belt knife or another folding knife. I was wondering what you got here that I could look at.”

Soon the storeowner was busy showing all sorts of knives to Hoss while Adam meandered through the store. When he got next to the young girl who was polishing canning bottles on a shelf, he asked her a question without looking at her directly. “I heard from the Mason brothers yesterday that you might be being hurt by this man. Is that true? If it is true, I can get the sheriff to get you out of here.”

“I can’t tell you. When Davy went to the sheriff, Parker said if I told anybody else, he would kill me and make it look like an accident.”

“Do you have any proof that he’s been hurting you?”

“No, not really. He won’t let me eat when I won’t do what he wants. He punches me in the stomach when he’s mad at me. What scares me most is that he comes to my bed at night sometimes. I have to do what he wants. I can’t prove anything.” Suddenly the girl looked terrified as she saw a reflection in the bottle she was polishing. “Oh, my God, no.”

“What’s going on over there?” The storeowner was approaching Adam and the girl. “You have no right to be talking to her. She’s my employee, and she didn’t have my permission to speak. Marcella, you know you have to be punished for that.”

Marcella sank back against the shelving unit as her employer stared at her with a look that was a combination of fury and fear. Adam saw the look and knew that what the girl had said was true. He knew too that it wasn’t safe for Marcella to remain here after he and Hoss left. He took her by the elbow and talked softly. “I’ll take you out of here and to the sheriff. There is no possible way that I’ll let him near you again. Do you want to come with me?”

Marcella stared at Adam. She was wondering if there really could be a man who could be trusted. Was there a man like those she had read about in the Bible who cared for other humans and didn’t expect anything in return for their good deeds? She looked into Adam’s eyes and saw only genuine concern. He looked honest and kind. She made a quick decision. If she was wrong, it wouldn’t matter because either way she was going to be hurt, but if she was right, she might be escaping this hell into which her father had plunged her for a payment of one hundred dollars. “Yes, I’ll go with you.”

“You can’t go with him. You’re bonded to me. You owe me over four more years of work.”

As Parker reached for Marcella, Adam stepped between him and the girl. “She’s coming with me. We’ll talk with the sheriff.”

“I have every right to shoot you if you try.”

“I wouldn’t try to do that if I was you, ’cause Adam’s my brother, and I got his back. You try to shoot him, and I’ll shoot you. I can’t miss at this distance neither.”

Adam was very grateful to Hoss for his support but didn’t have time nor was it the place to thank him. He guided Marcella out of the store as Hoss kept his eyes on Parker who followed them out of the store. Once he got to the street, Parker yelled for the sheriff, who was soon there. The Masons were riding into town by that time too and headed for the men who were confronting each other in the middle of the street as the sheriff was trying to sort out what had happened.

“Sheriff, I want this man arrested. He did the same as that Mason boy who tried to interfere with my bonded girl.”

Davy was incensed hearing what Parker said. “She’s bonded to work for you, not to take your fists or anything else, and everybody here knows what I mean.” Roger Mason grabbed his youngest son’s arm to get him to let the sheriff handle it. Marcus and James sat on their horses unsure of what to do but willing to help their uncle if he needed help.

The sheriff looked at Adam. “Parker here is right. She is bonded to work for him. Do you have any proof that he’s been abusing her?”

“No, but her word ought to be enough.”

“If it was, every bonded servant out there would be complaining that they were abused so they could get out of their contracts.”

“Can I buy her contract?”

Turning to Parker, the sheriff hoped that perhaps a solution could be worked out with a payment. “Parker, how about it? He pays you the balance of her contract, and you let her go with him?”

“No, she’s mine. It’s your duty to force him to follow the law and return my bonded girl to me.”

Sighing, the sheriff looked thoughtful for a moment before turning to Marcella. “Marcella, how old are you?”

Barely able to speak, Marcella answered in almost a whisper. “I’m eighteen, sir. I was seventeen when he bought my bond, but I had a birthday since.”

“Parker, I want to see that labor contract you have on this girl, and you better have one or I’m going to let her go.”

Looking smug, Parker turned and walked back to his store. He knelt behind the counter and opened the small safe he had there. When he stood, he had a paper in his hand that he gave to the sheriff who unfolded it and read it over.

The sheriff looked at Adam then with an unreadable look. “Parker’s right that you have no right to interfere in his contract. There’s one way you could, though. I’m sure he never thought anyone would defy him and try to use this, but it’s in a lot of the standard contracts here. If you were the husband of the girl, you could pay off the bond and take her with you. Parker wouldn’t have any legal recourse if you did that.” Leaning close to Adam and whispering, Reg had one more bit of information. “You could always get the marriage annulled once you got back to Nevada. Parker wouldn’t even know you had done that.” Then Reg stepped back and waited to see what would happen. He watched Adam as he tried to remain impassive but couldn’t because he was watching the hopeful face of the girl. Parker had turned red in the face but hadn’t thought of anything he could say because he knew the sheriff was correct. Then Adam looked away from Marcella and at Hoss who smiled.

“Don’t worry, Adam. I told you. I got your back on this one. I’ll back your play, whatever you decide to do.”

Finally after another few minutes that seemed more like an hour to those who had been waiting, Adam spoke as he looked only at Marcella. “Marcella, will you marry me? I’ll take you out of here and away to where you can be safe.”

Marcella could only nod. The sheriff smiled. “Now, Adam, I can marry you right here in front of all of these witnesses if you like?”

As Adam looked back to Marcella again, she nodded. “Marcella, I need you to say it so the sheriff and everyone can hear. If you want to marry me, you have to say it.”

Hesitantly and softly, Marcella did just that and then smiled at Adam. His heart nearly burst with joy seeing her smile. He knew he was doing the right thing, and it felt very good. Within a minute, they were married. The sheriff had conducted the simplest marriage ceremony that he knew how to do. Then he told Adam to hand over eighty-five dollars to Parker, who snatched it out of his hand with a snarl and then stomped back to his store.

“Adam, you come over to the office and I’ll get you a marriage license to prove you married Marcella.”

Adam offered his arm to Marcella, who hesitantly slipped her arm through his. She wasn’t sure she had done the right thing and was wondering what Adam would expect of her now that she was married. She had heard what the sheriff had said but didn’t know what annul meant.

A short time later, Adam and Marcella walked out of the sheriff’s office. Adam had a marriage license, signed, notarized, and folded in his pocket.

Hoss was waiting for him. “How we gonna get her home? And just what are you gonna tell Pa?”

“I’ll tell Pa the truth. He’ll understand. And I guess we have to buy a horse now. Marcella, do you know how to ride?” She nodded and Adam did his best to smile reassuringly at her. “We have to buy some horses, and then we’ll head for home. I live in Nevada on a ranch called the Ponderosa. We’ll go there and I’ll have the marriage annulled. You’ll be free then.”

“Annulled? What does that mean?”

“It means that the marriage never happened. You’ll be free to marry whomever you want to marry.”

“But I want to be married to you.”

“Marcella, you don’t even know me. I’m twice as old as you are. You can find someone better suited to be your husband.”

Marcella nodded because it seemed to be what he wanted, and all she wanted to do was to make this man happy. She didn’t know much about him, but he was devastatingly handsome, and he was kind and honorable. She couldn’t imagine anyone better suited to being her husband other than this man. She finally asked a question. “Adam, what’s your last name?” He told her and she smiled again. “So, I’m Marcella Cartwright now. I like that name. It’s a good name with no bad memories.”

A bit distracted by what he had done, and thinking about how he would tell his father, Adam didn’t see the look that he received from Marcella as they walked toward the stock yards and corrals at the edge of town.

Hoss saw it. He smiled. Adam might find that this was a situation that wasn’t going to work out just as he planned it. Hoss decided that this was going to be great entertainment.

When Adam and the others got to the corrals, the Masons were there talking over what they had witnessed that morning. Davy was all grins, having been vindicated, even if his method had not worked at all in protecting Marcella.

Roger approached Adam and shook his hand. “I don’t know if I just saw a fool or a wise man out there this morning, but either way, it took a heck of a lot of guts. We’ve decided to sell you the six horses you want, and we’ll give you the best price we can.” When he quoted the price, Adam had to smile. It was a far better price than he could ever have negotiated so he accepted as soon as he looked at Hoss who nodded. They had accomplished a great deal already, and it was only midmorning. Within a short time, Adam had signed the bills of sale and handed over the payment. He bought a saddle and tack so that Marcella could ride.

Then Adam had another thought. “I would guess that we won’t be able to get your clothes from Parker. Do you have any personal possessions there that we should demand he hand over?”

Marcella said she didn’t own anything. Adam and Hoss both were surprised and saddened by that.

Roger suggested he had a solution. “Reg’s wife could go in the store and buy some clothing. It won’t be much because Parker would get too suspicious otherwise. We can see if the minister has clothes at the church that he could give her. You can get some saddlebags at the livery stable. He always has extra and you can get a saddle blanket there too.”

Hoss grinned. “Adam, it’s a darn good thing you got those horses for such a good price. It’s gonna take a lot to get all of that.”

Adam shook his head at Hoss in exasperation. Suddenly Hoss realized that Marcella might feel bad about Adam having to spend so much money in addition to what he had already done. He tried to back off that statement, but Adam shook his head. It was probably better if nothing more was said about spending money.

By midday, they were ready to leave. Adam rode out first leading three horses and with Marcella riding beside him. Behind them, Hoss led the other three horses they had purchased and a pack horse with supplies for the trip. Adam had sent a telegram to their father telling him they were headed home. As he rode, he tried to think of the best way to explain all of this to his father, but he couldn’t help feeling good about what he had accomplished.

*****

“Adam, I’m cold. Can I sleep with you?” It was the first night on the trail, and Marcella was resting in the bed roll that Adam had placed opposite his at the campfire.

“That wouldn’t be right. I can give you my blanket.”

“Why wouldn’t it be right? We are married.”

“I’ve tried to explain that to you. I married you to get you away from Parker because it was the only legal way to do it. Once we get to Virginia City, I’ll have the marriage annulled. So we can’t do what a married couple would do normally because then I couldn’t get the annulment.”

“Good, I don’t want you to get the annulment anyway.”

“Marcie, I don’t love you. You don’t love me. We’re getting the marriage annulled.”

With that tone of voice, Marcella knew better than to argue with him. She simply showed her disappointment and then shivered. After picking up his blanket, Adam laid it over Marcella’s bedroll, but she didn’t have the heavy jacket he had and told him she was still cold.

Hoss laughed getting a scowl from Adam. “Older brother, you know we’ve slept side-by-side to stay warm sometimes when we been traveling. Seems to me you could do that for that little slip of a gal there and protect yourself from her at the same time.”

That earned Hoss another scowl, but finally, Adam conceded defeat on that point and allowed her to slip into his bedroll. He pulled her blankets over the two of them. Soon both of them were very warm as Marcella rested on her side and pressed her back up against Adam. He wrapped an arm around her and did his best to relax so that he could sleep. He kissed the top of her head before closing his eyes and trying not to think of the warm body pressed up against his.

Marcella smiled too. She was falling in love with him already or at least she thought she was.

Hoss watched and listened and did his best to hide his enjoyment of the whole situation as Adam fought his attraction to the very young woman, and Marcella did everything a mostly innocent young woman could to make that difficult for his older brother to accomplish. They had been on the trail only half a day. Hoss assumed there was going to be even more great entertainment for him before this was all over.

In the morning, Adam hung a blanket over a rope between two trees and told Marcella she could go behind that screen to take care of her morning needs. It seemed to take a very long time, and Adam had to ask her if something was wrong.

Frustration was evident in Marcella’s voice as she answered. “This dress they bought for me has the buttons in the back. I can’t reach them all. I don’t know what to do,”

“If that’s all you need, do you want me to come back there and help?”

For a moment, Marcella was frightened, but then as she struggled to breathe normally and not panic, she knew that if Adam intended anything more, he could have done it while she slept beside him. “Yes, please, I could use some help.” A short time later, Hoss saw Adam pull down the blanket with some force and roll it with his bedroll.

As Marcella packed her things into the saddlebags Adam had purchased for her, Hoss walked up to his brother and talked softly. “You don’t have to get so angry with her. She’s only acting that way cause she’s falling in love with you.”

“No, it’s not about Marcella. Well, it is, I guess. Hoss, she has scars on her back. Thin scars, but scars from a whip. That bastard whipped her. I wish I had shot him.”

“Why’d he whip her?”

“She wouldn’t say what happened but only that Parker is the one who did it. I can guess, though, by the way she looked when I asked her about them. I was a bit insensitive to just blurt out a question that way, but I was shocked. The poor girl’s been through so much already.”

“Adam, she’s no girl. She’s a young woman, and she has feelings for you already. You got yourself a plan for dealing with that?”

“No, I don’t. I thought she would see me like a father, or what a father should be like.”

“Don’t even try to tell me that you aren’t attracted to her. Heck, if you wasn’t gonna let her get warm with you last night, I was ready to offer.”

“Hoss, don’t make this any more complicated than it is.”

“Oh, I won’t. You know that. It’s just that I can’t not think about her. She is a pretty little gal. If I was you, I’d seriously consider letting things ride for a while and seeing where they go. You might just surprise yourself.”

“No, the plan was to have this marriage annulled and free her to have the life she wants.”

“Did you ever think about what she thinks she wants? Being brought to a strange town and then being freed from the only man who ever looked out for her without wanting something for it might not be anything she wants. Men are naturally gonna be attracted to her like bees to honey. How you gonna protect her then?” Hoss walked away not expecting an answer. As he saddled his horse and got the lead ropes ready for the others in his charge, he looked over at Adam a number of times and could tell he was deeply in thought.

About the time that they were ready to leave, Marcella walked up to Adam with her eyes downcast. “I guess now you really do want to do that annulment thing. After you saw my back, I guess you wouldn’t want me. I guess only men like Parker would want me now.”

Adam wrapped his arms around Marcella and pulled her close. She buried her head against his broad chest and began to cry. Adam held her until he felt the sobbing diminish and stop. Pushing her back slightly, he pushed her chin up with his index finger. “Marcella, look at me. I want you to see that I’m telling you the truth. When I saw your back, I didn’t feel anything bad about you. My heart went out to you for all that you suffered. The look of anger and revulsion that I had was for Parker. I told Hoss that I wish I would have shot him. If I had known this before, I might have done it too.”

“You told Hoss about my back?”

“Marcie, I tell Hoss almost everything. Don’t worry. You can trust Hoss with anything including your life. He’s a strong man, and he protects those for whom he cares.”

“He cares for me?”

“We both do. We’re going to do our best for you.”

“Adam, you already have. I guess I shouldn’t ask any more of you. I should just say thank you, so thank you, Adam.”

Pulling Marcella into a hug again, Adam asked if she was ready to go. She was. She had especially enjoyed that last hug. Adam was showing that he did care for her already. She hoped that Hoss caring for her wouldn’t create a problem. She didn’t understand how a man could care for a member of his family and not want anything for it. She had to wonder if Hoss was another one of those men like Adam. As she rode that day, she began to think that Hoss was the type of brother that anyone would like to have.

At lunch, she thanked him too for helping Adam get her away from Parker.

“Aw, shucks, missy, I just had to do it not just for you but for Adam too. I think he needed this as much as you did.”

Marcella wanted to know why, so Hoss gave her a brief version as Adam was taking care of the horses and Hoss took his turn at making lunch and coffee. Adam walked up from watering the horses and hobbling them so they could graze and saw how close Marcella was sitting next to Hoss, listening to every word he said. He felt a pang of jealousy then but quickly tried to squelch it. He walked over to the campfire with an impassive face.

“Hey there, older brother. We’ve been talking here a bit. I think I like having Marcella in the family. You sure you want to do that annulment thing?”

“Hoss, don’t start with me, and you shouldn’t be building up Marcella’s hopes either. Once we get the horses home, I’ll head to town to find out what I need to do to get an annulment started.” Adam was surprised to see Hoss’ look of disappointment match Marcella’s and realized that his brother had been sincere in his sentiments. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been so insensitive. I know I can be a jackass sometimes with my comments. I’ll try to curb what I say in the future.”

With eyes downcast, Marcella nodded. She didn’t like hearing all of those references to an annulment. More and more she wanted to stay married to Adam, and hoped that he might begin to like that idea too. She didn’t know how to get him to think like that, and in her innocence, she didn’t realize that just by being herself, she was having that effect on the man. Adam saw how sad she looked and was at a loss for what to do. Hoss stood saying he needed to take care of business, and as he passed Adam, he pushed him toward Marcella. Startled Adam looked at Hoss who pointed at Marcella making it clear that he thought Adam needed to offer the young lady some comfort. Walking next to Marcella, Adam dropped down next to her and balancing by resting his elbows on his knees, talked softly to her.

“I’m sorry if I upset you. That was not my intent. I only wanted you to know that I fully intend to go through with the annulment and that I do not expect anything of you.”

“Oh, why do you have to say that word over and over? Is it so hard to think about being married to me?” Marcella stood and walked away from Adam. She couldn’t bear to hear him say annulment even one more time.

At first, Adam was thinking that he didn’t know what to do, but then he admitted to himself that he did know what he should do but was afraid to do it. He was worried that any concern he showed to Marcella would be interpreted by her as him falling in love with her. He probably was but wasn’t ready to admit that to anyone including himself. He walked over to stand behind her as she stared into the distance. “I am truly sorry. My comments must seem hurtful to you. I haven’t changed my mind at all, but I will not talk about it again if it makes you so uncomfortable. I do want us to be friends, and I want you to enjoy the trip to Virginia City. We’ll be riding through some beautiful country.”

“Thank you. Maybe I should ride next to Hoss. I could lead the pack horse for him.”

Again stabbed with a bit of jealousy, Adam recovered quickly and agreed that perhaps that would be the best way to handle the afternoon trek. Soon they were on their way. As Adam rode that afternoon, he heard talking and laughter behind him the whole way. He tried to sneak looks when he could, but it was difficult when leading three horses. Hoss noticed though and mentioned it to Marcella who watched then and smiled when she saw it too.

“He does care, doesn’t he, Hoss?”

“More than he wants to admit, Missy. He has a difficult time trusting people these days after what happened. He’s getting better, though. You’re good for him. You’re making him examine his feelings and his thoughts.”

“Do you think he loves me?”

“I don’t know. I guess he’s the only one can answer that.”

“I think I love him. I don’t really know what love is, I guess. But when he held me last night to keep me warm, I felt safe. I never wanted to be anywhere else but with him holding me. I wanted him to kiss me. Is that love?”

“I guess I ain’t much of an expert on that, but you’re the one who knows what’s in your heart. I guess if you think it’s love, then it is, but is it the kind of love a woman gives a man in marriage? He can be nice and he’s probably the bravest man I know, and he’ll do anything to help somebody who needs it, but he can be kinda mean sometimes in what he says and he can be darn grumpy too. So, are you sure that you love him, and if you do, is it enough? I mean, are you ready for what a marriage to Adam would be?”

Quiet for a couple of minutes, Marcella looked at Adam with a much more serious expression. “I don’t know.”

“Now, I got a few more Adam stories if you want to hear them.”

“I’ve heard the two of you mention things about how you thought your father was dead but then found out he was alive. How could you not know if your own father was alive or dead?”

“Well, it’s a long story, but a man who looked like our father’s twin got hanged by a man who said it was our Pa. Now I don’t know if you ever saw a man after a hanging, but a man hardly looks like himself after that.”

“I saw a man lynched once. His eyes were all puffed out and his tongue stuck out. His face was all mottled too.”

“Yeah, it was like that. I couldn’t hardly stand to look at my own father thinking he was dead, and we had no reason to think it wasn’t him. Then things got worse.” Hoss spent the next hour talking about what had happened to Adam, how his father was freed, and finally how they rescued Adam but how he had changed too.”

“That’s very sad. So much pain caused by greedy men. Is Adam better now?”

“He’s nearly back to himself. The way he stepped in to help you is just like Adam. Now he’s not so sure what to do next, and that’s Adam too. He always wants to do the right thing, but sometimes has a tough time thinking on what the right thing is. Now I got some fun stories to tell you.”

With Hoss telling all sorts of stories to Marcella, the afternoon passed very quickly for them. By the time Adam signaled that it was time to stop for the day, Hoss was almost talked out, but Adam was perturbed, not only because Marcella had spent hours talking with Hoss but also with himself because he had let that bother him. As he was grumbling about little things as they made camp and Marcella had gone off to clean up, Hoss couldn’t resist.

“I don’t know what you’re so all fired grumpy about. A brother-in-law’s got a right to get to know his new sister-in-law.”

“It’s not a real marriage, and you know it.”

“Well, it could be, couldn’t it, if you was to take a liking to her. instead of acting like you can’t wait to get rid of her.”

“It’s not that I can’t wait to get rid of her, but I only married her to get her away from Carter. You know that. Now don’t make something out of nothing.”

“That what you’re gonna tell Pa when we get back?”

“Of course it is, because it’s the truth.” Adam paused then to think. “It is possible that he may not agree with my method of helping her. I’ve been thinking about that. How are people in Virginia City going to treat her if they learn that I annulled my marriage to her? I may have to try to keep that a secret.”

“You know that ain’t gonna work. You bring a young woman to the Ponderosa, then you go see a lawyer and a judge, and then she shows up in town. You know it’s gonna look bad, and one slip of the tongue and rumors will be flying. You know how they like to talk about us, especially when they think they got some good story to tell on us.” Seeing the downcast look Adam had, Hoss softened his remarks. “Now don’t go feeling sorrowful about this. You done the right thing. People can fault you for how you did it, but they weren’t there, and they didn’t see the fear in that gal’s eyes. She was afraid that Parker was gonna kill her, just like he said he would, and I ain’t asked her how bad he treated her, but I can guess. If you hadn’t up and married her to save her, I might have done it. You did it, though, and she’s safe. Now whatever happens next is all worth it just for that. You know what I mean too.”

“Thank you. I needed to be reminded of that. I was only looking forward to the trouble I might have and forgot what kind of trouble she had already faced.”

“She’s falling in love with you too. You know that, don’t you?”

“It’s just gratitude. Once she’s safely away from Parker, she can get a better idea of why we can’t be together. Once she gets over being emotional, she’ll be able to see that realistically, there is no marriage or obligation between us.”

“Now who’s going with his emotions instead of his head. She agreed to marry you without knowing you, even though she had been through so much hell with a man who took her from her family. She saw things in you that she liked and wanted. I’m guessing that’s a big start to loving somebody.”

“But I’m not in love with her, and she’s too young for me too. I could literally be her father.”

“Aww, don’t try to fall back on that old line. You know as well as I do that some young gals marry men a lot older than you. With so many men to choose from, lotsa gals like a man who’s already settled with a good home. She ain’t looking at your age. She’s looking at the kind of man you are and the life you lead.”

With no idea how to answer that, Adam got busy with laying out bedrolls as Hoss fixed dinner. The horses were all settled for the night, and as soon as Marcella got back to camp, they ate their dinner and prepared for sleep. Adam took off his jacket and wrapped it around Marcella, telling her to slide under the blankets he had doubled over her bedroll and his which was beside hers. As soon as he took care of what needed to be done, he slipped under the blanket beside her. She snuggled up to his side hoping he would hold her as he had the night before.

“You can’t be cold.”

“No, but I feel safer if you hold me.”

“I can’t. You’re warm, so let’s get some sleep.” Adam rolled on his side leaving his back to Marcella, who paused just a few seconds before she snuggled up to his back and closed her eyes. At least his proximity was comforting to her, but it was disturbing to Adam. It made him examine his feelings about the young woman, and his conclusions were a mixed bag.

The next day, Adam told Hoss they were detouring toward Placerville to do some shopping. There they bought some warmer clothing for Marcella including a split skirt and a heavy jacket. Just to be safe, Adam bought an extra blanket. He asked Marcella if there was anything else she needed, but she said he had already spent too much on her. He did see her looking at some hair ribbons so he had a few of those added to their purchases. Hoss got some candy and made sure to include peppermint because Marcella had told him it was her favorite.

That evening, as they made camp, Marcella was very quiet until after dinner when she asked for their attention. She looked at Adam first before alternating between the brothers. “When you said you would marry me to save me from Parker, I was worried that you and your brother might plan to hurt me too, but I thought that nothing you did could be as awful as being killed. Then you were so kind and gentle, and Hoss, you were the same. It only took a very short time for me to know you were both special men. Today, you were both so generous to me, and you want nothing for it. It makes me want to cry, and there’s nothing I can say that would tell you how thankful I am for both of you.”

As Marcella turned away from them overwhelmed by emotion, it was clear that she had started crying. Hoss pushed Adam toward her. Adam turned with a scowl, but Hoss simply pointed at Marcella and said one thing. “She needs you now.”

Adam went to her then and wrapped his arm around her. “It’s going to be all right. You don’t have to cry. We’ll work things out so that you’re safe and as happy as you can be.” Adam tried to think of a way to do that and still do the annulment. He didn’t think of anything that would work.

*****

Doing his best not to respond until he heard the whole story, Ben Cartwright stood on the porch of his home and listened to his oldest son explain how he had come home married when he had left on a trip to buy horses and bulls. Ben had come outside when he heard the sound of horses. He had been very surprised to see a young woman with his two sons. Adam had introduced Marcella to him, and then Hoss had escorted her inside to introduce her to Joe and Hop Sing and get her settled in a guest room.

When Adam finished the explanation, Ben had one thing to say that he knew was more important than anything else he could say. He was honest, though. “You did what I would have expected you to do if you found a young woman in such distress. I’m not sure I would have used your method if faced with the same dilemma, but I can fully understand why you thought that was the only legal option you had. You did the right thing.”

“I sense a qualifying statement coming up.”

“No, I mean what I said. My concern is what happens next. When are you going to file a petition for an annulment, and how is this young lady going to react to you doing that? Is she in agreement that this should happen?”

Dropping his head, Adam rubbed his neck which was as much an answer to his father as his answer that came next. “No, she wants to stay married to me. She’s grateful for what I did, and she can’t separate her gratitude from what she thinks she’s feeling for me. I’m sure she will agree to the annulment, though. She knows I only married her to save her.”

“What if she can’t tell her gratitude from her feelings? Don’t sell yourself short. You have many admirable qualities, and any woman would be lucky to be married to you. I know you would like to marry a woman of your own choosing, but perhaps you have. Have you considered that possibility? You talked about her feelings, but what about yours?”

“I want to take care of her, no more. I want to see that she is free to have a good life and not be terrified by any man nor abused as she was.”

“To have a good life and not be terrified and abused by any man; perhaps that’s what she wants too, and she sees you as her future that is safe and loving.”

“You sound like Hoss. He was trying to convince me too that I should stay married to her. Pa, I don’t love her like that. I’m also nearly twice as old as she is. She’s almost young enough to be my daughter.”

“I’m not trying to convince you to stay married to her. I’m only trying to see how you truly feel. If you feel that you must do what you originally said you were going to do, then that’s what you should do. If you have doubts about what you should do, then it might be best to wait for a short time to come to a reasoned conclusion. Regardless of what you decide, she’s probably going to be staying here with us for some time, isn’t she?”

Surprised that his father would think that, Adam had no quick answer. Finally he stated that he thought he would get her a place in town.

“Do you think that’s a good idea? This young woman has been through a lot. She needs some people she knows and trusts to be there to support her until she’s ready to face what lies ahead. Putting her in town with strangers might be cruel at this point. You said she has told you that she doesn’t want to go back to her family, and I fully understand that. But then this is the best place for her, don’t you think?” Adam looked worried then. “Son, we’ll all help. It will be nice to have a ‘daughter’ in the house for a change. Now let’s go in for dinner and see what your ‘wife’ has to say about all of this.”

That earned Ben one of Adam’s scowls, but he smiled in response to his son to let him know there was no rancor in his statement. It was simply teasing. Adam shook his head, and the two men walked into the house ready to work together. Ben noted how Adam seemed more like the Adam of old. Putting Marcella’s issues at the top of his priority list had allowed him to push back the other unpleasant memories. Ben wondered if perhaps that was the solution they had all been seeking. If there were things more important for Adam to face, he would put less and less thought into what had happened to him because of the hanging of Farmer Perkins until it was a small memory. It wouldn’t be gone, but it would no longer drive his behavior. He thought he had one more reason to be pleased that his son had ‘married’ Marcella.

Inside, things were calmer than Ben had expected. By this time, Hoss and Marcella had apparently explained everything to Joe, who looked both concerned for Marcella and a bit amused at his brother’s predicament. Adam expected teasing when Joe turned to him to say something.

“I have to say that I do find it funny that you’re married but not married. The one thing I want to say, though, is I’m as proud as I can be of my oldest brother for doing what you did. I think that I probably would have just shot the guy and hoped a jury would understand. Your method is legal and no one got hurt.” Joe stepped up to Adam and wrapped him in a hug. Adam stood a bit stiffly unaccustomed to such praise from Joe, but hugged back as he realized it was heartfelt. Joe was feeling more than pride at that point. He felt that Adam had done something that only the Adam he knew would do. To him, it seemed that Adam was back. “Thank you for being my older brother. I couldn’t have a better example to follow.” Joe had decided to go with sincerity instead of humor because he felt that Marcella needed it as much as Adam.

Smiling broadly, Marcella was very pleased. She knew how worried Adam had been about bringing her home to his family and wondering how they would react, and all she could feel was joy seeing how well Adam was treated by his family. Soon Hop Sing called them to the table. He had not known they would be home for this dinner, but he had been anticipating that they would arrive within a day or so and had prepared a large ham that he held in reserve for the first meal he would feed Hoss when he returned. The meal was a feast, therefore, of beef with gravy, ham, potatoes, fried apples, and biscuits. As Marcella ate with the family, she felt as warm as safe as she had when Adam had slept with his arm around her. She wanted so much to stay within this family as Adam’s wife, but was slowly becoming resigned to the fact that Adam was going to have their marriage annulled, so her expression was both happy and sad. After dinner, Adam and Hoss wanted to show the new horses to Ben, who had only seen the horses being put in the corral, and Joe, who hadn’t seen them yet. Both were impressed by the quality of those six horses and Ben was especially pleased by the price paid for them.

“Yessiree, when ol’ Roger Mason saw what Adam done, he was pleased as could be. His youngest, Davy, had tried to help her but ended up with a day in jail and a fine instead. He liked it that his son was proved right about things, and he liked how Adam stepped up to do something about what happened. When we went to look over his horses, well ,that was the deal he offered us. We didn’t have to haggle or nothing. It was slick as can be.”

“It was slick as can be except for Adam having had to marry Marcella.” Ben was very concerned about that situation. He could tell how troubled Adam was by it, and he worried that if it didn’t turn out well that Adam would lost that self-confidence he had seemed to regain over the previous couple of months. “She seems like a very sweet young lady. It seems that some people are able to handle adversity without letting it make them bitter and angry. She seems to be one of those. Inside her is the heart of a tiger.”

“She sure is a sweet one, Pa. We had a lot of chances to talk on the way here. She never complained about sleeping on the ground or having to eat a lot of beans and bacon. She even made biscuits for us after we stopped in Placerville, and she asked if we would get the ingredients so she could do some of the cooking. She made real good biscuits too. I wonder if she could help Hop Sing in the kitchen while she’s here. It would give her something to do and help her keep her mind off her predicament.”

All of them kept an eye on Adam as the conversation progressed. They knew he was troubled by the situation.

Joe wondered what they could do. “If you’re going into town tomorrow to ask for an annulment, maybe we ought to come with you to help.”

“Joe, how could you help? I have to file a petition and get a judge to grant it. I don’t foresee that I need any help with that.”

“Well, maybe Hoss and I could be there for Marcella then. I get the feeling she isn’t going to be too happy to have to do this.”

“Adam, I agree with Joe. He and Hoss and I will go with you to town. That way if there are any questions or issues, we’ll be there to help. If we aren’t needed, well, then it will be a pleasant excursion for the family together. We can show Marcella around town and introduce her to some of our friends. That way there won’t be so much attention focused on you being with Marcella. In fact, I doubt that most people would even notice it.” Ben was being overly optimistic but didn’t realize that.

The next morning, Ben, his sons, and Marcella walked into the lawyer’s office and asked to speak with him privately. Adam told him what he wanted and why.

“We can do that this morning. I know the circuit judge is at the courthouse, and there’s nothing on his docket this morning. He’s hearing a case of two mines who each claim a particular plot of land that happens to have high grade silver ore but that’s not until one. Let me write it out and we can go present it to the judge.”

Within an hour, Adam had signed the petition for annulment and Hiram had asked the judge to rule on it. It was supposed to be a relatively simple procedure.

“Now, Mr. Cartwright, I understand the circumstances were such that you had no intention of sustaining a marriage with Miss Winslow?”

“Yes, Your Honor. It was, as I explained, only an expeditious and legal way to rescue a young woman from abuse.”

“Sir, I have to ask you. Did you consummate your marriage with the young lady.”

“No, sir, I have not.”

“Now, Miss Winslow, do you agree with that statement that there was no consummation of the marriage?”

“I don’t know, Your Honor. I don’t know what that means.”

“It means that you did not sleep with Mr. Cartwright.”

“Oh, yes sir, we slept together twice.”

Knowing she was going to say that before she did, Adam had leapt to his feet trying to get the judge’s attention but failed. The judge turned an angry look at Adam who struggled to explain. “Your Honor, on the trail, she was cold until I could buy warmer clothing and an extra blanket for her. She slept beside me to stay warm. That was it.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I hope that’s true, but I need to ask more questions now. Miss Winslow, do you wish your marriage to Mr. Cartwright to be annulled?”

“Oh, no, Your Honor. I want to stay married to him, but he said we had to do this.”

Adam dropped his head into his hands as the judge asked more questions. “Where are you living right now, Miss Winslow?”

“I’m staying on Adam’s family’s ranch. I have a bedroom there.”

“Yes, now has Mr. Cartwright ever seen you in a state of undress?”

“Well, he came and buttoned up my dress once when I couldn’t do it.”

“I’m not ready to rule on this petition. I have another case that is complex, and I need to read all the pertinent materials that have been submitted. I’ll be back here in a week to hear arguments in that case and hopefully to make a ruling. If the two of you can get your stories straight by then about what you want, certainly I would consider ruling in favor of the annulment. The way it stands now, if I was pushed to decide, I would rule against it. That’s all. Good day, everyone.” With that, the judge stood and walked back into his chambers.

Marcella looked at Adam and was frightened by the dark look that he had. He turned and walked out of the courtroom without looking back. Hoss and Joe went with him as Ben turned to Marcella. “You were simply speaking the truth, weren’t you?”

“Yes, so why is Adam mad, and why didn’t the judge give him that annulment he wants so much anyway?”

“The judge is questioning whether Adam is being truthful. Adam takes great pride in his integrity, his honesty. To be questioned like that was humiliating for him. He’ll get over it when he realizes it was simply that you answered honestly as you thought you should.” Marcella nodded. She was relieved that Ben wasn’t angry with her because he did frighten her a bit. “Now, what I would like to know is why you want to stay married to Adam.”

“Gosh, you’re his father. I figured you would know. Hoss knows why, and I think even Joe knows.”

“Yes, I think I know but I need to hear you say it.”

“He’s the most wonderful man I’ve ever known. He’s kind and gentle. He makes me feel like I’m a valuable person. He looks at me, and I want to make him happy. When he grins like he does sometimes, it makes my heart beat faster. I know Hoss said he can be mean or grumpy sometimes, and I know that, but he doesn’t really mean it. He would never hurt someone on purpose. I don’t know that I could ever love another man now that I know him.”

“You love him?”

“I think so. I’m not real sure what love is, but I want to be with him. If I couldn’t be with him, I would be very sad. I feel like a better person when he’s there.”

“What do you think you could offer my son?”

Marcella frowned a bit before answering. “I would love him no matter what. I would love him when he was happy and when he was sad. I would go with him wherever he wants to go. He said something about how he might like to travel, and he said a traveling man is alone because a woman wouldn’t want that kind of life. He said a woman likes a home. Well if he wanted to travel, I would go with him because wherever he is, that would be home. I know I have a lot to learn but he could teach me. He taught me a lot already.”

“Well, my dear, the two of you have a week to work this out. I have to say that I wouldn’t mind at all if there was no annulment because you are a wonderful young woman, but I also know that my son has to be happy with his choice for it to work. He can be very stubborn too so if you think you can win his heart, know that it could be very hard work if he has set his mind against it.”

When Ben and Marcella walked out of the courthouse, Adam was there mounted up on Sport and ready to go home. Joe and Hoss stood beside him holding the reins of the other horses. Ben decided that despite what had happened with the judge, they were going to introduce Marcella to some of their friends in town.

“Adam, if you get the annulment, she’s going to have to live in town and work. She will need help from our friends.”

“It’s when I get the annulment, and fine. We can walk around town and pretend that everything is fine.”

“Good, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Adam scowled but Hoss and Joe had to suppress grins. Marcella looked worried though. She had not meant to make Adam upset. She walked up to him and told him just that.

“Adam, I never meant to make you upset. I thought I was supposed to tell the truth so I did. You never asked me not to.”

“I thought we had an understanding that the marriage was to be annulled?”

“You kept saying that was what you wanted. I told you that I didn’t want that. I guess I made a big mess of things. I’m sorry. I guess you wish you had never married me.”

“No, never say that. Getting you away from Parker was worth a lot more trouble than this. It will be fine. It’s my fault that I never sat down with you to talk over what had to happen here today. We can do that now. We have a week to get things straight so that the judge will grant an annulment. Will you do that? Will you agree to have the marriage annulled?”

“If you want that next week when the judge is here, then I’ll make sure it happens. I only want to make you happy. You deserve it. We’ll get this marriage annulled so I suppose I better get to know people in town so I can take care of myself when that happens.”

Once more, Adam was beset with doubt. When she talked like that, his heart nearly broke, and he wanted to forget all about getting an annulment. He didn’t want to admit it to anyone, but he wasn’t at all sure that he wanted an annulment. He had thought he would just go through with it and move on so that he didn’t have to examine his feelings and his thoughts too closely. Now that opportunity was gone. He would have to spend a week thinking about this and discussing it with Marcella. Spending time with her was going to make this decision even more difficult for him, but he had no choice in the matter. Unfortunately, he would not have privacy either.

Some boys had been playing next to the courthouse and heard the whole story through the open windows. So even though the courtroom had been closed to the public, the public soon knew. They didn’t know which Mr. Cartwright because the boys could hear but not see into the courtroom. As the Cartwrights and Marcella moved through town, though, the way she looked at Adam and the way he talked quietly with her made it quite obvious which Cartwright had somehow gotten married and wanted it annulled. There was a lot of speculation as to why that might have happened, and rumors were rampant by evening, suggesting all sorts of sordid events that might have led to Adam needing an annulment of a marriage. His friends were confused, and those who didn’t like him were having a great time trashing his reputation. No one knew much about the young woman he had married, so the gossip centered on Adam.

*****

For the rest of the day, Adam avoided Marcella. Finally after dinner, he asked her to walk outside with him so they could talk privately. Wisely, his brothers said nothing until he left with her.

“Pa, do you think Adam is gonna change his mind and stay married?”

“Hoss, I don’t know. He seems determined to have the marriage annulled, and you saw how upset he was when it didn’t work out this morning. I can see arguments to support both positions, so I can understand how torn he must be at this point.”

“I like the idea of Adam being married to her. She’s been good for him, and it’s pretty clear what he did for her. He’s so much more like the Adam we remember, but with a softer edge. He’s not so quick to anger or criticize.” Joe had been on his best behavior since Adam had brought Marcella home. Ben hoped it would last because the worst thing now would be for Adam to face any ridicule about his actions and the situation in which he found himself. A considerate and reasonable response by Joe was also going a long way toward healing the breach between his youngest and oldest sons.

Outside, the first part of the conversation was much like what Ben had expressed. Adam walked with Marcella to a bench away from the house so they wouldn’t be overheard. “Marcella, I’m sorry if I upset you in town this morning. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I know I helped to create that situation. I should have talked with you more about what you see for your future and what I see. So we need to rectify that right now. If you weren’t married to me and you were here free of Parker, what would you do?”

At a loss for ideas, Marcella tried to think of what she could do. “Adam, I don’t know. All I’ve ever done was cook and sew and things in the house, and then I worked in the store stocking shelves and cleaning. I guess I’d have to get a job working for someone who needed some help with those kinds of things. But Adam, that’s too scary. I don’t ever want to be held by someone like Parker again.”

“You won’t. First of all, you have to know that I would watch out for you and so would my whole family. We wouldn’t let you ever get in a situation like that again. An even more important thing to know is that you don’t have to sign a contract to work for someone. The men who work for us are free to quit any day they want to quit. We hope they don’t, so we make the working conditions and the wages good enough that almost all of our hands want to stay. You could work that same way. I like hearing that you can sew because there’s a real shortage of seamstresses out here. Anyone can clean, and a lot of people can cook, but sewing is a talent that could make your future a lot brighter.”

“How would I do that?”

“We have friends who would help, and I’m sure that it would work for you. So you see, you don’t have to be married to me in order to be safe. There are many who would help you, and you could earn your own living.”

“But what if I want to be married to you? You are the most handsome and noble man I’ve ever known. Davy Mason was nice, but he was just a boy. You’re a man.”

“Don’t you think there are other noble men out there? There are good, honest, hard-working men who would appreciate you so much. You’ve never known good men so you have so little with whom to compare. Most men are not like your father and Parker.”

“I’m beginning to understand that now. I’ve never talked with men like I have with you and Hoss, and even your father talked with me after I got over being scared of him. Adam, I have a question for you now. Why haven’t you ever kissed me? I mean you hug me and you kissed the top of my head, but you never kiss me like a man kisses a woman.”

Smiling, Adam turned to her and looked at her innocent face earnestly awaiting his answer. “Marcie, it’s another reason why we can’t be married. You are so innocent about the world, despite the things that you have endured. You don’t know how attractive you are, and you don’t know that looking at you is enough to rouse the blood of any man. You are beautiful and desirable. I can’t kiss you because it might tempt me to give in to my desire for you.”

“But what if I want you to be with me? What if I desire you too?”

“Because it would be wrong. I would be giving in to my physical desire when I know that I don’t love you and that I don’t want this marriage.” Marcella got tears in her eyes then that Adam could see with her eyes glistening in the moonlight as she looked at him. “I don’t want to hurt you, and it’s come down to this where I can only hurt you by what I say or do. I care for you and I love you but I’m not in love with you. I want to help you, and I want to see you happy, but I’m afraid I don’t see that happiness happening with me. I will be a bit jealous of any man who wants to be with you, and I’ll be watching carefully to be sure that man treats you well.”

There was a lot for Marcy to contemplate, and much of what Adam had said, he had said to her before. She guessed that she better accept it, because he wasn’t the type of man to lie. However, most of what he said made her sad too. “Maybe we could go inside now. I think I want to spend a little time alone, so I’ll go to my room if that’s all right.”

Adam stood and offered his hand to Marcella. She stood and then wrapped her arms around him to hold him and hoped he would hold her. He did, and they stood that way for a long time. “Adam, promise me that you will always be my friend, no matter what, and that I can come to you for help whenever I need it.”

“Always. You’ll always be mine.” And in his heart, Adam knew that he would have enjoyed being with her, but he believed that Marcella should finally have a chance to learn and choose her own life after being used by her father and abused by Parker. He knew he did want the best for her. There was a part of him though that would always regret not giving in to his desires for this woman who wanted him to do just that. He walked her back to the house and inside to the hopeful looks of his family. After Marcella went into the guest bedroom, Adam turned toward them to tell them that he and Marcella would get the marriage annulled. “I’m going to need some time over the next week to get her ready to accept it. This is a very frightening prospect for her. I hope that all of you can continue to be as understanding as you have been. I appreciate that very much.”

The next morning, Adam hitched up the carriage to take Marcella to town once again. This time, Adam had a plan. There were several key people he wanted Marcella to meet, and he wanted to see if there was a boarding house where she would like to stay. He had to grin just a little knowing that his first choice was likely to make his father cringe every time he thought about it, but he knew that Clementine Hawkins was just the right kind of woman to teach Marcella about the town, about men, and about having a job. Clementine had done well in her life and was anything but naive, yet retained an engaging personality and charm. He planned to make that their first stop. He got quite a lot of stares as he drove Marcella into town and wondered why people were so curious. It didn’t take long to find out.

“Now, dearie, are you the poor little lady that Mr. Cartwright here is treating so shabbily?”

“Uh, no, Adam has been very nice to me.”

“But I heard from at least a dozen people that he married you and now wants to toss you out. I can’t say that I understand why that is happening. He seemed such a nice young man until now.” Clementine was ignoring Adam and speaking only to Marcella. She wasn’t ever rude, so Adam had to assume that she had heard something about the annulment but had no idea how that could be.

“Mrs. Hawkins, perhaps if I could intrude. What have you heard?”

“Now, you know exactly what I heard. I heard what you are planning to do, and it is just so despicable. I can’t see how my Benjamin is allowing you to do it.”

Adam had not wanted to tell all of Marcella’s story, but now it seemed his hand was being forced. He looked at Marcella who had a shocked expression. “Marcella, I think we may have to tell Mrs. Hawkins the whole story and let her help us. She can tell the gossips in town a brief story of how you came to be married to me temporarily without letting out too much information.” Her look to him asked as plain as words if they could trust Clementine Hawkins. “She’s a very smart and a very nice lady. Yes, we can trust her. She knows how to be discreet, and she would never hurt you or anyone else.” Adam’s words had the desired effect of calming Marcella and in gaining Clementine’s aid, for she could never resist the praise of a handsome man.

“Oh, now, is there a sad tale behind this that I should hear? There’s many a sad tale, I could tell you, so know that nothing you could say would shock me. Please, do go on, luv.”

So Adam explained much of what had happened ,with Marcella adding details to the parts with which he was less familiar. She talked more of her life with her family before she was contracted by her father to work for Parker. By the end of the story, Clementine was dabbing her eyes and had moved next to Marcella to hold her hand. They had an ally.

“Now, dearies, we have to work out the story that I’ll be telling once you leave here. It’s got to be good enough to spread like the wildfires they have out here, but not so much as to harm our dear girl’s reputation. We do want her to find a nice young man to love, don’t we, ducks?” Clementine saw the melancholy look that Marcella had to that statement and realized the young woman was in love with Adam. There was nothing to be done about that, though, for she knew how stubborn those Cartwright men could be so if he had decided on this course of action; there would be no swaying of him. As nice and as pretty as Marcella was, Clementine was sure there would be suitors, and hopefully one of them would stir the heart of this young lady, though why she hadn’t stirred the heart of the handsome young man that was sitting there with them was a mystery to her.

“Now I have a few errands to run. Mrs. Hawkins, would you be so kind as to talk with Marcella and let her know what kind of opportunities there are for a seamstress in town.”

“Now, luv, you can call me Clementine. You’re a dear boy, you are. When you get back, we’ll have tea and biscuits all ready for you.” As Adam exited the house, Clementine watched until she was sure he wouldn’t hear. “Now, luv, why is that man is not wanting to stay married to you? He seems a right fine choice for a husband, and you are such a dear.”

“Adam doesn’t think I’m in love with him. He says I’m grateful for what he did, and that with time, it would be a problem that we don’t love each other. He says he’s too old for me too. And he wants to travel, and he says a woman wants a home with a husband.”

“Ah, that one has a bit of the wanderlust, he does. As for age, that’s not important, but knowing if you’re in love, now that is the most important of all. Why do you think you love him?”

“He’s kind and brave and very gentle and nice. I can’t imagine being with anyone but him.”

“What if you met a brave, gentle, nice, kind man who wanted to court you? Would you say no because of Adam?”

“I don’t know.” Marcella frowned as she realized that she might like the attention of another man.

“There, now, don’t be upset. That’s why our young Cartwright doesn’t think you love him, and perhaps you don’t love him the way he needs to be loved. You haven’t ever been in love, and dear me, but the men you’ve known have been scoundrels. Love can hit fast, but it still needs to grow. If you’re not sure of it, well, now it could wither and die. Me and ‘arry, now we had a love that grew and grew. That’s what you want to find. Now let’s go get some tea and biscuits and we’ll chat.”

By the time Adam returned, there had been several developments. First of all, Adam was angry. He had been taunted by several men as he completed his errands for the Ponderosa, but was most surprising to him was that Marcella wanted to stay with Clementine.

“Adam, we were talking, and Clemmie thinks that there will be less nasty talk if I stay here with her. You wanted me to board here anyway, so today is as good a day as any to begin my stay here. You’re not upset with me, are you?”

“No, I want you to be happy, and if that is your choice, then I agree. I can bring the rest of your things in tomorrow. Would that be all right?”

Surprised to be given a choice, Marcella had nothing to say for a moment. “I guess so, but whatever you want or think is best.”

“Marcie, you have to start making decisions for yourself and not worrying so much about what others will think of them. Do what feels right for you and makes you the most comfortable.”

“Yes, then I would like my things tomorrow. Adam, do you think it would be all right for Hoss to bring them?”

Surprised at the request but glad to see Marcella thinking for herself, Adam nodded. “I’m sure Hoss would appreciate the opportunity to go to town and for the chance to visit with you again. He thinks of you as his little sister, and there’s no better man to think of you that way than Hoss.”

As Adam walked to the door, Marcella waited for him to turn to say goodbye. She knew he would. When he did, she had only one thing left to say. “Thank you.”

“You’re most welcome.” Adam left, pulling the door closed behind him. Marcella went to the window to watch. She thought he walked like he was a little down and she could swear that his eyes had glistened when she said thank you.

When Adam got home, he gave a short rendition of what had happened. “People in town know about the annulment. Clementine is going to let them know just enough of the background story so that they don’t think ill of Marcella or of me. Hoss, would you bring Marcella’s things to town for her tomorrow. She’s at the Hawkins boarding house.”

Ben was surprised. “Marcella is staying with Clementine then?”

“Yes, I thought that Clementine would take Marcella under her wing, and she did. She’ll help her get to know the other women in town, and she’ll help her find work as a seamstress. And when any suitors come calling, Clementine is a good judge of character. She’ll make sure that anyone spending time with Marcie is a good man.”

“Any regrets, son?”

Pausing to make sure he had good voice control when he answered, Adam appeared to be thinking. “Regrets, yes, but aren’t there always regrets. I regret that I wasn’t ten years younger or Marcie wasn’t ten years older. As it is, though, I did a good thing in bringing her here, and now I need to make sure that the next steps go well.”

The following Monday, the annulment was granted rather reluctantly by the judge who thought that the marriage could have worked but wouldn’t force the couple to take that chance.

Afterwards, Marcella cried and Adam gave her one last hug. “It will be all right. I’ll still see you as a friend. Perhaps now you can make more decisions and decide what kind of life you would like to have.”

“I guess I have to do that, don’t I. I’ll miss you, Adam.”

“I’ll miss you too, Marcie. You take care now.”

Adam let Hoss and Joe walk Marcella back to the boarding house where Clementine invited them inside for tea and cookies. Ben walked with Adam to their horses and to accompany him on the ride home.

“I’m all right, you know. I knew what I had to do, and I did it.”

“I know, and you are more than all right. I’m proud of you, son. You did what you thought was right, and made sure that young lady walked away with her pride and hope for the future. I can’t imagine anyone handling that better than you did.”

Arriving home later, Joe and Hoss came inside to say that Marcella was holding up well. “I’m sure, older brother, that you was real worried about her, but she’s got some iron in her. She handled it all as well as anyone could. How you doin’?”

“I’m fine.”

The message was clear to the others. He was anything but fine at that moment, but over the next year, the pain at the separation faded away to nothing, and there were many more events and crises for the family to face. A knock on the door on a summer’s day brought a big surprise. Marcella was there with a young man.

“Adam, Wyatt and I are getting married, if you think it’s all right. I told Wyatt that since he couldn’t ask my father for my hand, he had to ask you. He’s kinda scared, though, so could you please not make it too hard on him?”

Grinning at Marcella, Adam suddenly got a serious frown on and walked out to speak with Wyatt. A short time later, the two men walked into the house smiling. “Marcie, Adam said he gives us his blessing. So, you gonna ask him the other thing?”

Turning toward Marcella, Adam cocked his head to the side as if asking what it was she wanted to ask. Marcella smiled and walked to him taking his right hand in her hands. “Well, you gave Wyatt permission to marry me. Now I don’t have a father here, so I was wondering if you would give me away at the wedding? You kinda did bring me into this world of Virginia City, and you’re my friend and, I guess you’re about the closest thing I have to a real father. Would you?”

So six weeks later, Adam walked Marcella down the aisle at the church and placed her hand in Wyatt’s. “You be good to her. I’ll be watching.” Wyatt gulped and nodded. He had a difficult time speaking when he started to say his vows but got courage from Marcella who placed a hand on his forearm and smiled up at him.

In the front row, Hoss leaned over to Adam. “He looks scared to death. You threaten him if he ever hurt Marcella?”

“No, I only told him to be good to her and said I would be watching.”

And Adam lowered those brows and his lips formed a thin line. Hoss almost laughed out loud but had to be content to chuckle to himself. Now that was the Adam he remembered. This was no doppelganger. This was his older brother at his best.

***End***

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