Summary: Written for the 2017 Missing Man Challenge on Bonanza Brand — Add Adam into any Season 7-14 episode as if he never left. WHI for ‘To Die In Darkness’ (season 9).
Word Count: 14,737
In the original episode, the scene opens upon the Nevada State prison. There we learn of the release of John Postley after serving 1&1/2 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Later at the Ponderosa, a discussion reveals that the jury convicted Postley upon Ben’s testimony — Ben saw him near the site of the crime on the night in question. Ben feels terrible about this, and Joe tries to convince him that there was nothing else he could have done, as he accurately reported what he saw.
Postley comes by the Ponderosa later to see Ben, and tells him that he holds no hard feelings. They visit for a short time, and when Ben offers help to Postley if needed, Postley indicates that he would appreciate a dinner invitation. Hop Sing is away but Ben obliges, and tells Hoss, Joe, and Candy that they will need to cook a great dinner for Postley — chicken, dumplings, the works.
(In the original, Hoss and Joe are sent to check the line camps and must miss dinner. Ben’s original co-detainee is Candy, and I would like to include a shout-out for David Canary before beginning. He did a bang-up job in this episode.)
Adam let Hoss mourn the lost chicken and dumplings for nearly a full minute and a half before his middle brother’s disappointed pout overcame his desire to draw things out. Laughing, he leaned back into his chair and stretched his legs.
“Pa, I think I can take care of those line camps. No need for Hoss to miss a chance at dumplings.” Ben Cartwright didn’t cook many things well, but their pa had learned dumplings at Inger’s hand and they were generally exceptional. Adam would be a little disappointed to miss them, himself—but he’d been feeling crowded lately, as he did every now and again, and a couple of days’ solitary riding really did seem like just the thing. Hoss brightened.
“Ya mean it, Adam?”
“Yes, Adam,” their father intoned around his pipe, frowning. “Are you certain? You went the last time, if you remember.”
Hoss frowned anxiously, but Adam only grinned. “Yeah, I’m sure. Wouldn’t mind a chance to get out on my own for a while.”
“Your own?” Joe, who had been slumped across the settee chewing morosely at a thumbnail, straightened. “Does that mean I get to stay too?”
“Joseph …” Ben started, but Adam nodded.
“Don’t see why not.”
This time, it was Adam pinned by the dark gaze. “This is usually a two man job. I don’t—”
“It’ll be fine, Pa.” Adam waved away his father’s concern. “It’s not a hard ride. Weather’s been good, I don’t expect any trouble.”
Ben hesitated only another few seconds, then shrugged and settled back into his chair, taking another long draw on his pipe. “All right, son. If that’s what you want.”
“I do, thanks.”
“Yippee!” Hoss crowed, bouncing on the settee and squashing Little Joe against the far corner. “Chicken and dumplings!” He grinned across the room. “Thanks, Adam, I sure owe you.”
Adam offered a half-smile in response, as Joe used his feet to shove Hoss back onto his side. “Yeah, thanks, big brother.” The youngest Cartwright’s grin flashed. “I’d offer to save you some, but with Hoss at the table there probably won’t be any left …”
Hoss chuckled, fending off Joe’s feet. “Now, Shortshanks, that wouldn’t be sportin’ of me, would it—not after older brother here offered to take my place an’ all. We can put some back for him in one of the coffee cups before we eat.”
“Thanks,” Adam murmured dryly, peering at the dainty china cup in his hand before taking another swallow of coffee. Ben leaned forward.
“Joseph, get your feet off the couch!”
“I can’t! Pa, he won’t—” Hoss had trapped both of Joe’s booted feet in one hand, and was in the process of slowly shoving his younger brother headfirst over the arm of the settee. Joe yelped, trying to brace himself. “Pa! Get him off me!”
Adam closed his eyes, wishing that would block out Joe’s distinctive cackle as well. He loved his brothers, but they made so much noise … Ben Cartwright snorted softly, shook his head, and reached for his own coffee cup. “Son,” he murmured to Adam, taking a sip, “if I didn’t have a dinner guest tomorrow night, I’d consider joining you.”
He favored his pa with a rueful grin, and continued their previous conversation beneath the racket of his brothers’ play. “Actually, I thought I’d take Candy along. See what I can find out.” In truth, that plan had only just occurred to him … but now that it had, he couldn’t dismiss it, no matter how much he’d been anticipating some time to himself. Their foreman was a good man, but he had a restless streak that made Adam feel positively settled—and by all accounts, seemed lately as though he was ready to drift again any day. Ben nodded.
“Yes, good idea.” The elder Cartwright hesitated. “He’s an excellent hand, I don’t want to lose him permanently. If you do manage to get him talking, and you think a couple of months off would help matters …”
He had been thinking the same. “Thanks, Pa. I think it might.”
Joe finally hit the ground with an indignant yelp, landing hard enough that the room shuddered and set the chandelier to jingling. Hoss’s loud guffaws echoed against the walls around them. Ben retreated into his chair, muttering around the stem of his pipe.
Adam closed his eyes, took another long sip, and ignored them all.
“You said you had some encouraging ore samples?”^
Ben took a sip of coffee and watched with satisfaction as John Postley continued to plow his way through the pile of chicken drumsticks, dumplings, and mashed potatoes on the man’s plate. A good meal couldn’t make up for nearly two years of suffering—Ben cringed inwardly again at the thought that he had helped, unwittingly though it had been, to put an innocent man in a prison cell—but it did his heart good to see Postley enjoying his food. Having known other men who had spent a length of time confined, Ben knew that pleasures such as a good meal were not to be had there, and with Postley cooking for himself out at the mine now, the man probably didn’t have much but jerky and beans on any given day of the week. If Postley was willing (and it seemed that he was), Ben would have to see to it that he was invited to eat at the Ponderosa on a somewhat regular basis.
Was he trying to salve his own conscience? Possibly. His feelings of guilt regarding his own part in this mess were still fresh, no matter how many times Little Joe pointed out that Ben had only told the truth of what he had seen that night. The jury had made the final decision that had sent Postley to prison. Surely, though, Ben could not be faulted for offering a good meal every now and again, no matter what the motive.
“Maybe.” Postley shrugged. “Kinda hard to tell, really. Looks good to me, but it ain’t like I’ve ever done this before.”
That was true enough. “You could have somebody come in, get another opinion.” Such things cost money, of course … but in the long run, it would surely be better for Postley to know now if he was throwing time and money into a spot that would never yield him anything in return. Ben hated to think that Postley might find out too late he’d wasted even more years of his life.
The man had turned down that little piece of land Ben had offered him, but Ben would hang onto it for now. It might be that Postley would change his mind.
“Yeah, but you never know. If things do look good, I might end up fightin’ off claim jumpers. It’s just me up there, I ain’t got the manpower or the ammunition for it.”
That was true enough, and an unfortunate risk that any man took in asking for outside help with this kind of thing. There were honest men to be found in the Comstock, certainly, but just as many reprobates who would stoop to dishonest means to get their hands on a valuable vein—including claim jumping and worse. Ben nodded and returned to his coffee. Postley made to dig in again, but stopped suddenly, looking up.
“You know mining, right?”
Ben chuckled. ‘Mining’ was stretching it. Digging around in a hole in the ground would be closer to the truth, and it had never been his primary concern … He shrugged. “Only a little.”
“Still, though.” Postley’s shoulders straightened, and he turned hopeful eyes toward the head of the table. “What about you come on out? See what you think I’ve got.”
“It’s been a long time …” Ben started to demur. Joe leaned in from his spot to Ben’s right and thumped his father’s shoulder, cutting off the protest.
“Couldn’t hurt to take a look, though, could it, Pa?”
“Yeah, Pa.” Hoss paused his attack upon the chicken and dumplings. “And if ya can’t say after you’ve had a look, well, then Mr. Postley can think about bringin’ in an expert.”
It made sense—and if he could save the man any money or trouble, Ben supposed he owed Postley that much.
“Well, sure, I’ll come out if you like.”
Postley grinned. “I’d sure appreciate that, Ben. I surely would.”
It was hard not to respond in kind, and Ben grinned back. “All right, then. Just let me know when, and I’ll be there.”
“Ain’t no time like the present.” Postley wiped his mouth and stood. Ben stared. “It won’t be dark for a while yet, would ya come out tonight?”
The man was surely anxious to get going. Still, Ben couldn’t blame him. There was no time like the present, indeed. Besides, an evening ride and a few minutes poking around an old mine didn’t sound like the worst way to pass his time. “Well, why not?”
Postley nodded. “Thank ya, Ben.” He pinned Joe and Hoss with his enthusiastic gaze. “What about you boys? You want to come along?”
“Wouldn’t miss it!” Joe grinned, wiped his mouth, and dropped the napkin onto the table. “We’ll get the horses saddled.” He rose, slapping Hoss’s broad shoulder as he passed. “Come on, brother.”
Hoss stuffed a last forkful of dumplings into his mouth, eyed the still half-full serving dish sadly, and then followed.
How had Postley manipulated him so easily? Was he really as gullible as all that?
“Ow! Joe, you’re steppin’ on my—”
“Well, if you’d quite movin’ around so much—”
“I got to, or you’d step plumb offa me!”
Ben couldn’t see his sons, trapped in the pitch black as they were, but their bickering didn’t give him much hope that Joe was making any headway in climbing out. He closed his eyes, hoping to ease some of the strain and dusty dryness, and leaned his head back against the side of the shaft. Yes, he was, apparently. Postley had planned this from the start, and he’d walked right into it. Not only that, but he’d dragged two of his sons along with him.
“Well, what about it?”
“Ah, it’s no use.” Joe’s voice was both angry and defeated. “There’s nothin’ to get a grip on. Postley sure did a good job with this shaft.”
“Come on down, then, ‘fore ya cut my shoulder completely off with them boot heels of yours. I’da never thought, just from lookin’, you’d weigh as much as a—”
“Hold on, would you!”
It hadn’t seemed so odd, Postley telling them to go ahead while he went for another lantern. Joe had gone first, then Ben, and finally Hoss, muttering all the way about rope ladders and dark places. His middle son had never been fond of dark places …
And here they were. Down a shaft without a ladder.
“Joe, hang on a second, I ain’t got—”
A startled yelp sent Ben bolting upright. “Joe?”
“Yeah, Pa, I’m …” Joe coughed, unable to finish, but even those words from his son calmed Ben’s racing heart. Hoss’s voice completed the thought.
“He slipped off, but I got him before he hit. Mostly.”
“Mostly,” Joe gasped, and Ben heard the scuffling of his sons settling onto the ground.
“Nah.” Joe released a loud breath, and then came a thud and a grunt, as if his youngest had thumped or punched his brother’s shoulder. “Scraped the side, is all.”
“Are you bleeding?”
A silence, and then, “Don’t think so.”
There was no way to know if Joe was lying, but Ben chose to take him at his word. “Good.” He rubbed his jaw. “The last thing we need is an infection setting in down here.”
“You think we’re gonna be here that long?” Hoss’s tone was both hopeful and apprehensive, and Ben hated that his response would do nothing but feed his son’s nerves.
“No one knows we’re here.”
“Adam’ll be looking for us, eventually.”
“Yes, but Joe, why would he even come out this way? We’re not on Ponderosa land, there’s nobody out this direction we visit or do any business with. It’s not on the way anywhere. There’s no reason at all for us to be here other than Postley.”
“Yeah, and he ain’t gonna be no help,” Hoss muttered darkly.
No, it didn’t seem that way.
“But once he can’t find us …”
“Yeah. Once he can’t find us.”
Ben fell silent, wondering what his oldest son would think when he returned to an empty house—Hop Sing still in San Francisco, the bunkhouse empty for the moment, and none of the family to be found. How long would it take for Adam to realize that something was wrong? That his father and brothers were not out working, or in Virginia City, but missing? How long would he look for them himself before getting Roy involved, rounding up the hands and the nearby ranchers and maybe even some of the townsfolk for a broader search?
What were the chances that Adam or anyone else would actually find them, tucked away in this little hole on the backside of an out-of-the-way ridge nowhere near anything?
How would his son cope with the knowledge that his entire family was simply gone? Adam was good in a tight spot, calm and a thinker and not easily distracted by emotion or outside influence … but it was all of them. How long could any man hold himself together in such a scenario?
“Postley …” Ben growled, clenching his fists. It had been a terrible thing, a terrible mistake, and maybe John Postley was justified in seeking his retribution, but he was not justified in including Ben’s sons—not the two with him in this pit, not the one left behind. His boys had no hand in the trial, hadn’t been witnesses. They hadn’t even been in town on the night in question.
In no way was this their fault, and yet they would suffer along with him.
Ben didn’t realize he had spoken aloud until a scrape sounded nearby and Joe’s hand gripped his shoulder. He jumped, and Joe laughed without humor. “Sorry. But Pa … you know this isn’t your fault.”
“How is it not my fault?” Ben bit off. “I gave the evidence that sent the man to prison for a year and half, innocent though he was. Can you blame him for being bitter?”
“Now, Pa.” Hoss was still against the far wall, then. Ben hated not being able to see his sons. “That ain’t fair. You didn’t—”
“It doesn’t matter, though, does it? In the end?”
“Pa, stop it!” Joe snapped. His youngest thumped down beside him. “All right … no, I can’t blame him for being bitter. I can’t even imagine what he must be feeling.” Joe shook him, fingers digging into Ben’s arm. “But I can blame him for this. This isn’t the act of any sane man.”
The words dropped into the darkness like a rock, and their truth nearly strangled him. He and his sons were at the mercy of a madman. Even if Postley was perfectly sane in every other way, even if the man never broke the law again in his life …
“Adam’s gonna find us, ain’t he, Pa?” Hoss’s voice was more that of the little boy he’d been than the man he’d become.
Would he? If Ben was brutally honest with himself, he just wasn’t sure of Adam’s chances.
All right, then. There was only one thing that they could do, one help they could offer. Ben drew in a long breath, and lifted his eyes to the sky they could not see.
“I think we’d do well to ask the Lord to guide your brother’s steps.”
He returned home alone, as he had expected. In fact, Candy had readily admitted that he was considering moving on. It hadn’t been as difficult as Adam had feared, though, to convince him to return after a couple of months’ leave—no matter the pull of drifting, Adam got the distinct impression that the pull of having someplace to go when he got tired of it held almost equal sway for Candy. Maybe things had always been that way, or maybe his time at the Ponderosa had started to give him roots. Whatever the reason, Candy had left him after the last line camp (‘Nah, there’s nothing back at the house I really need.’) and Adam had gotten the nice long solitary ride that he’d wanted from the beginning. All in all, he was feeling satisfied with himself when he entered the house, hung up his hat, and placed his rolled up gun belt on the credenza.
“Anybody home? Pa?”
He’d been a little surprised by the lack of lights when he rode into the yard. It was late in the day and getting dark. Everyone was usually back home by this time. Buck, Chubb, and Cochise were all stabled up nice and tight, though—a little low on feed and water, which was odd, but Adam had filled them up along with Sport before heading for the house—so he expected to find at least someone home regardless of the dark house.
No one answered.
Adam poked his head around the corner, and finding no one in the alcove at his father’s desk, he walked over to the foot of the stairs. “Joe? Hoss?” No response, but Adam went upstairs anyway, taking the steps two at a time. The upper hallway was deserted, and the bedrooms empty.
It didn’t necessarily mean anything—there were other places that they could be—but his gut tightened as he jogged back down the stairs and toward the kitchen. There were other places they could be … but this was odd.
Halfway through the room, he found something a little more than odd.
There were used dinner dishes still on the table. In all his years, Adam had never known Ben Cartwright to leave meal dishes untended. And … that was leftover chicken and dumplings—the meal from two nights ago, unless something had changed after he rode out. He noted absently only three sets of dishes on the table (Postley hadn’t come? One of his brothers had to miss after all?), but ignored them on his way through to the kitchen. He was disappointed but unsurprised to find it, too, vacant.
They weren’t home. But the horses were.
Well … it was unusual that all three would take a wagon out, either for ranch purposes or to Virginia City, without at least one of them riding alongside, but not impossible. Adam went back to the alcove to check Ben’s desk for notes. Nothing. He placed his hands on his hips, blew out a long breath, and stared down at the empty desk. It wasn’t like his father (or his brothers, Pa had taught them all to follow his lead in this as in so many other things) to allow a son to come home to an empty house without some sort of explanation—especially when that empty house was unexpected.
So. No one home. Horses stabled. Old dinner dishes. No note.
He was starting to be genuinely worried.
He went back outside, grabbing his hat and (after a moment’s hesitation) his gun belt before stepping out into a yard that was now deep in twilight. A quick check accounted for all the wagons and the buggy, and another twenty minutes’ searching accounted for all of the harness horses and the extra saddle horses. If they had gone somewhere, they had done it without taking a single one of their animals along with them.
He didn’t believe that. Adam couldn’t think back on any time when the entire family had been gone and all of their stock had remained.
Unless they didn’t go of their own free will …
The thought came from nowhere, and though Adam chided himself for jumping directly to ridiculous conclusions, it still unsettled him. He stuffed it into a back corner of his mind and returned his thoughts to something constructive. There were a few more outbuildings within walking distance that he could check yet tonight—though he didn’t have much hope that all three of them were really crammed into one of those, having a brandy or playing checkers—and there was always the chance they were in Virginia City overnight. He considered riding in tonight yet if the outbuildings didn’t turn them up, but decided against it. He was tired, Sport was tired, and by the time he reached the city the only people still awake would be drunk or gambling (or providing booze for the drunk and gambling crowd). He’d have better luck trying to track them down in the morning, when people were out and about with a clear head and he wouldn’t be forced to roust Roy from his bed.
Not that everything in him wouldn’t rather ride out now and start checking saloons and hotels until he found his wayward family and gave them a piece of his mind.
Still, time enough for that tomorrow.
At least, that’s what he desperately hoped would happen.
It was going to be a long night.
“How long you think we been down here?”
It was a good question. Ben had thought a little light might trickle in from the mine entrance during the day, but they were far enough back (and around a corner) that they had no such luck. If only Postley had been starting from scratch … but he hadn’t. He’d picked up an old, established mine with plenty enough tunnel to make sure they might never see the light of day again.
Ben shivered, and returned his attention to Hoss’s question. “I doubt it’s been as long as it seems.”
“Seems like forever.” His middle son’s voice was gloomy, and who could blame the boy?
The man. Ben knew well that his sons were men—and good ones—but old habits died hard.
“He can’t keep us down here forever,” Joe snapped, and Ben suppressed a sigh. How the boy (man) could pace in pitch darkness was a mystery to him, but somehow his youngest had figured it out—and was driving Ben far nearer the brink of insanity than the dark mine shaft had so far managed.
He scrubbed a hand along his jaw. “I’d say it’s been two or three days.”
“Naw,” Hoss protested. “It’s been way longer than that.”
“Check your beard, son. Two or three days.”
Hoss fell silent for a long moment, then a vague muttering that Ben couldn’t quite make out drifted from that corner of the shaft. The echo of Joe’s footfalls increased.
“He can’t keep us here forever.”
“Joe.” This time, Ben allowed the sigh—and huffed it loud enough to be heard. “What’s to stop him?”
“Adam!” Joe snarled. “Adam’s to stop him!”
Quite possibly, and he was Ben’s great hope as well. Still … “And if he can’t find us?”
“Pa …” Hoss groaned.
“I’m not saying he won’t, or even that it’s likely he won’t. But realistically—”
“If he doesn’t, there’s gotta be something we can do!” Joe burst out. Ben ignored the fact that his youngest had just cut him off. They were all under a lot of strain.
“What do you suggest?”
Joe must have reached the far side, because his voice and footsteps drifted closer again. “Well, we’ve got nothin’ but time to think, do we?”
That was certainly true enough.
“Sure seems like we been down here a lot longer than two days,” Hoss muttered.
Ben sealed his lips tight before he could say something to either of his sons that he might regret.
“Adam!” Roy stood as Adam entered the sheriff’s office, coming around his desk to shake hands. “Ain’t seen you in a while. You just get in?”
Adam nodded briefly. He hadn’t slept well last night, jumping at every noise—hoping against hope that his pa and brothers might come stumbling in late, that they would laugh and tell him it was all a misunderstanding and that his worry had been a stupid overreaction. It hadn’t happened, and when he’d ridden out before first light his head had been pounding with the stress and fatigue. Roy seemed to notice something off, because he leaned back against his desk, folding his arms.
“This ain’t a social call?”
Adam shook his head, removing his hat and running the brim through his hands. It was a strange, uncomfortable feeling , this lingering uncertainty. Adam Cartwright wasn’t a man who usually wasted time second guessing himself. His instincts were good. He was proud of them, he trusted them, and he acted accordingly—even when he stood alone. He’d rarely had reason to regret that.
And he wouldn’t regret it now. Adam settled his hat firmly back into place, crossed his arms, and leaned onto one leg. Whatever was going on, it was darned irregular and he didn’t like it.
If he was being an overprotective maiden aunt, Roy Coffee wouldn’t be shy about telling him.
Roy frowned. “Who’s gone?”
“Pa and the boys. I was out for a couple, three days checking on line camps with Candy, and when I got in last night they were just … gone.” Adam shrugged. Roy shifted, frown sharpening. Adam took his friend’s silence as invitation to continue. “Their saddle horses are there, all the wagons are there, all the stock is there. There’s no note about them being out overnight. The dinner dishes from two nights ago are all still sitting on the table.”
The sheriff scrubbed at his chin. “You, uh … know what they had goin’ on while you were gone? Anything out o’ the ordinary? They headed out anywhere? Any visitors comin’ in?”
“Business as usual. John Postley was supposed to come over to dinner.”
“Postley!” Roy straightened, surprised. “How’d that happen?”
He’d been a little surprised himself, in truth … but Adam had seen his pa make peace with a startling variety of men and women, of all different walks and backgrounds, and in far more onerous circumstances than these. He’d learned, over time, not to question it. “He and Pa seem to have made their peace with each other. At least, Pa said they’d talked and Postley got a dinner invite.”
Roy shook his head. “Well, your pa sure don’t fail to surprise, I’ll say that much. I wouldn’ta thought it, not after it was Ben’s testimony put Postley in prison like that … but I guess stranger things have happened.” Adam nodded curtly, feeling that they were wandering slightly far afield. In the next breath, Roy returned to the task at hand. “All right. Why don’t we ask around at a few places, find out if anyone’s seen them recently. Then we can ride out to the house and I’ll take a look around. After that we’ll see about tracking down Postley. You know how to get to that mine of his?”
“Yeah, me either. Well, we’ll see what we can do. He ain’t been in town for a while, not that I seen anyway—could be he’ll come in for supplies and save us the trouble. In any case, maybe Postley saw something while he was out to the Ponderosa for dinner, or your pa might’ve mentioned somethin’ that’ll clear things up.”
Maybe. It was a place to start, anyway. “If he was even out to dinner.” Adam strode after Roy into the hot morning sun, relieved to be taken seriously—especially after his own doubts. Roy lifted one eyebrow in his direction. “Not enough plates for them all. Of course, Pa probably made enough for two days—we’ve been cooking a lot at once and eating leftovers, with Hop Sing out. They could be last night’s dishes, I guess.”
“Well, we’ll just ask around and see what we find out.”
Adam blew out a long breath, clapping the sheriff on the shoulder. “Thanks, Roy.”
“Don’t you worry. We’ll find that family of yours.”
They didn’t, though. The general store, the bank, the hotels, the livery, the lawyer, three restaurants, and ten saloons (it would have taken hours to check all one hundred forty-three*, so in order to save time they agreed to stick to C Street) all agreed that neither Ben, Hoss, nor Joe Cartwright had been seen in Virginia City for nearly a week. This was nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Although Ben grumbled that it sometimes seemed they rode to Virginia City and back twice a day—“How are we supposed to get any work done around here with everyone always on their way into or back from town?”—the truth was that they often spent long stretches of time without leaving the Ponderosa. Given the work currently facing them at home, it was more than possible that none of them had ventured in while Adam was away.
He was disappointed, then, but not surprised.
Their trip to the house did not turn up anything new either. Roy nodded silently and with grave attention as Adam pointed out his findings, then poked around some himself, but came up with nothing more. “Well, I don’t see any signs of a struggle or a fight, at least—no bullet holes or blood anyplace.” Adam favored the lawman with a sour glare, and Roy lifted his hands. “Adam, that’s a good thing, believe it or not.”
He did, but it also didn’t get them anywhere.
“What now?” They were standing in the yard beside their horses, the silence of defeat and of a hot summer afternoon pressing in on them. “Postley?”
Roy chewed his lip for a moment, then shook his head. “I’ll tell you, Adam … I think you ought ta get back out to those line camps, rustle up your men, and get them out there lookin’. I don’t have any idea what’s goin’ on here, but I don’t like it.” He forestalled Adam’s protest before it was spoken. “I’ll chase down Postley on my own—I’m gonna head back to town and see if anybody knows anything about where that mine of his might be. I’ll send some more men out this way, but I think we need to get some search parties out there sooner rather than later.”
Somehow, that made it more real. His family was actually missing—it wasn’t just some overblown concern in his own head. Adam hesitated for a bare instant, then nodded. “All right, Roy. If you think that’s best.”
“I do.” Roy swung into the saddle. “I’ll let you know if I manage to—”
The thud of packed dirt beneath hooves drew their attention, and Adam huffed out a surprised breath as John Postley himself rode into the yard on an elderly mule. The little man pulled up near them, nodded to Roy, and directed his attention to Adam.
“I, uh …” Postley hesitated, glancing between Adam and Roy as if he sensed something amiss, then continued. “I wanted to see your pa. Is he around?”
The spark of hope that Adam had barely allowed himself to acknowledge withered and died. He scrubbed at his aching eyes, leaned heavily against Sport, and crossed his arms over the top of the saddle. “No, he’s not.”
Roy pulled his own horse around. “John, when you were out here to dinner the other night, did Ben or the boys happen ta say anything about what they had planned for the next couple of days?”
The bushy grey eyebrows dipped. “Actually, I come to apologize because I never did even make it out to dinner. Got busy at the mine and plumb forgot. Was feelin’ bad about it, Ben bein’ so generous about invitin’ me out and all, and I wanted to stop by and make it right.” Postley’s eyes strayed between them again. “Something goin’ on?”
“Well, we don’t rightly know.” Roy sat back. “Ben, Hoss, and Joe weren’t here when Adam got home last night, and we ain’t seen no sign of ‘em today neither. We was hopin’ you might know somethin’, but it don’t seem like that’s the case.”
John Postley’s lined features sagged with distress. “Well hey, I’m right sorry to hear that.” He looked back to Adam. “You gettin’ a search party up? I could join up for a while, help out.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Postley.”
Roy nodded. “Tell you what, John. Why don’t you ride on into Virginia City with me, and we’ll see what we’ve got, how many parties we can manage.” He looked back down at Adam. “You go get those hands of yours on the hunt, you hear?” Adam nodded, suddenly bone tired. It was too surreal—he could barely believe this was happening. “Meet me back here this evening. We’ll get things organized, make sure we’re coverin’ ground and not just goin’ in circles.”
“Sure, Roy. Thanks.”
The sheriff reached down to grip his friend’s shoulder. “We’ll find ‘em, Adam.”
He hoped so.
Adam leaned against Sport and watched Roy and Postley ride away. His chest ached as if a boulder sat on it, and his brain whirled. How was this possible? How could he leave for less than three days, and return to find that everything looked the same but had changed completely?
How could three grown men just disappear into thin air? How?
Adam pulled in a long breath, let it out slowly, and then heaved himself into the saddle. Standing here asking himself questions with no answers wasn’t doing his family any good. No. The sooner he reached the Ponderosa hands, the sooner the search could begin in earnest.
Even the dim lantern light sent a spike of pain into his head. Ben squeezed his eyes shut and wished vaguely that he presented a better image than the one Postley must actually be seeing, exhausted and disheveled and cowering from the light.
“Hey there, fellas. How’re the accommodations workin’ out?”
Joe lunged before Ben could get a hand on him—either the boy’s eyes adjusted more quickly or his youngest was working blind. “Postley, let us out of here!”
A chuckle drifted down. It held real humor, and Ben wondered sourly just what about this whole mess the man found so funny. “Is that any way to talk to the man bringin’ your food and water, boy?”
“Postley!” Ben forced his eyes open and lurched to his feet. His first quick glance was for his sons, a sight for which he had longed in the hours of darkness. Joe, true to his nature, glared up at their captor with rigid fury, fists and jaw clenched. Hoss was dragging himself upright as sluggishly as if the whole weight of the mine pressed down on him, and Ben spared a second worried glance for his middle son before returning his attention above. “Postley, this is madness. Let us out!”
Postley settled on the edge of the shaft, legs dangling. “Ben, I already told you I couldn’t do it.” His tone was conversational, as if the two of them were drinking coffee on the porch at the Ponderosa rather than buried in the bowels of an old mine. “You gotta see. You gotta understand what it was like, bein’ shut away all that time for no reason.”
No amount of arguing had convinced Postley when he’d first trapped them down here—though in truth, the man had walked away before they’d had much of a chance to try—and Ben knew that nothing he said now would do any better.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t going to make the attempt.
“Postley, we talked about this! It was all just a terrible case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even you don’t dispute that you were in that alley, right where I said I saw you!”
“Nope, I don’t dispute it.”
“Then you know I had to tell them, when they asked!”
“But Mr. Postley—” Hoss started. The little man cut him off.
“Sometimes we have to learn lessons we wish we didn’t.” Postley’s tone had lost its congenial edge. “I learned that our system of law fails us, and now you’ll learn the consequences of that failure, too. It’s only fair, don’t you think, Ben?”
“No. I don’t.”
“Postley!” Joe bellowed again. “You can’t—”
Ben grabbed his son’s shoulder, cutting him off mid-stride. “Postley, at least let my sons go.”
John Postley laughed. A double protest rose up from either side of Ben. “Pa, you can’t—”
“Can’t do it, Ben.”
Of course he couldn’t. Once Hoss and Joe were free, they would go directly for help. Ben couldn’t bear to think of his boys, though, rotting away down here with him. He tried again. “My sons don’t have anything to do with this! This is not their fault. How is that fair, in your estimation?”
Their captor sighed. “It’s not, and I’m right sorry about that, Ben. I am. Weren’t no way around it, though.” Incredibly, his regret sounded genuine. Ben forced back a snort of exasperated laughter, reminding himself that Postley was at least partly insane. There was no telling what was going on inside the man’s head …
“Pa, we wouldn’t leave you here,” Joe snapped. As the entire argument was academic—Postley would not release his sons, so what they would or wouldn’t do in that eventuality didn’t really matter anyway—Ben didn’t bother to respond. His youngest swung back around. “Adam’s still out there. He’ll be lookin’ for us.”
Postley nodded. “He is.” Ben’s heart leaped. Adam was searching for them … “I rode in one of the search parties for a while, even—helped them look.” One bushy eyebrow lifted. “He’s a bit prickly, that oldest boy of yours.”
Adam. Although he, Joe, and Hoss were the ones trapped here, his absent son was being dragged through this ordeal as well. The anger and frustration roiled in Ben’s gut. He couldn’t imagine what Adam must be going through. To return home and find them all missing …
“He knows you came out to dinner. They’ll—”
“I washed up my dishes that first night, told him and the sheriff I never made it out. Besides that, so what if I was? Don’t mean I had anything to do with anything.”
It was true. Ben stared up at him in mute frustration. Not only was there nothing (to his knowledge) to connect Postley to their disappearance, but the man was going so far as to help with the search efforts! Even if Adam or Roy or the any of the others did stumble across Postley’s mine, there would be no reason for them to enter it—not with Postley offering assistance as he was.
A thump at Ben’s feet jerked his thoughts back to the present, and he saw that Postley had tossed a bag down. “Food and water. Make it last.” The man stood, turned, and shuffled back from the edge. The lantern light dimmed as it went with him.
“Postley!” Ben snapped, but their captor did not return.
“Postley!” Joe howled, to no avail.
Hoss sighed and settled himself back into a corner of the shaft.
Once again, the light failed.
Adam rode slowly into the yard, his gaze skimming the house and the porch and the stable without actually seeing any of it. Two weeks and three days. Two weeks and three days since he had come home to an empty house. One week and three days since the greater number of the searchers had gone back to their own homes and businesses. One week since he had sent most of the Ponderosa hands back to work. Three days since Roy had called off the official search.
“I can’t justify it anymore, Adam. We’ve looked everyplace we can think of—most of ‘em twice. Lookin’ in ‘em a third time ain’t gonna get us anywhere.”
“We’ve wired every sheriff’s office from here to San Francisco.”
“They have to be somewhere.”
“Your reward notices are in the papers. For a thousand dollars, if anyone does see anything they’re sure ta let us know.”
“And just what do you suggest in the meantime, Roy? Sit at home and wait? Run cattle and sell timber like nothing’s changed? Hope that in a year or two, somebody might find a body in a creek or a gorge and at least let me know, even though it’s too late to do anything?”
“Adam … your pa’s been my friend for a lot of years, but … chances are it’s already too late. You know that, right son?” For some reason, his friend’s compassion made him angry. Of course, everything right now made Adam angry. Roy sighed. “You pray, boy, and you go back to work, and you let me know if you come across anything new.”
He couldn’t give it up yet, though.
Roy knew that. The sheriff no doubt understood even as he rode out of the yard that Adam would be out on his own the next day, and the next. There was nothing the other man could do about it, though, and he didn’t try. In the end, Adam decided it was just as well. Without Roy and the other searchers, he could begin earlier, take shorter breaks, stay out later. Cover more ground. And for three days now he had done just that, from before sunup until after sundown. He’d be out still today, had he not discovered a crack in Buck’s shoe and been forced to bring the gelding home.
The problem was, Roy was right. There was no limit to the number of nooks and crannies tucked throughout the Sierras, and no way for him to search them all. There was no telling whether his family remained in the area. And there was no assurance that they were even still alive—no guarantee that Pa and the boys weren’t all three lying in shallow graves he’d never see.
In fact, that was the mostly likely scenario, if he was honest with himself.
Adam’s gut lurched, and he shoved that vision firmly away. The time to deal with that reality was coming. Soon enough, he would be forced to face facts, halt his search, and return his attention to the Ponderosa’s neglected needs—but not yet. Not. quite. yet. He dismounted and led Buck into the stable, patting Chubby and Cochise absently on the way past. Sport snorted from across the aisle and he dug up a shallow grin, scratching the chestnut behind the ears before untacking his pa’s buckskin. “Jealousy does not become you, boy.”
He’d been switching between the four horses on a daily basis, to keep all of them exercised and to ensure himself a fresh and rested mount. It was proving less easy to keep himself fresh and rested. There just didn’t seem any point in wasting time on cooking and personal grooming, not when the search was so much more urgent. He hadn’t shaved or bathed in over a week. He’d been eating trail rations and little else since the search began—beans, jerky, coffee. His body ached from long days in the saddle. He was able to sleep only briefly at any given time, and what he did manage left him as tired as when he’d started out.
Fear and rage had risen close to the surface during these days of silence and fatigue. His manner and appearance would have startled anyone who knew Adam Cartwright—usually so calm, cool, implacable—but it didn’t matter now.
He was alone. There was no one else to see.
Anger surged, spilling fresh energy into his limbs.
They had left him alone.
It was ironic—funny, almost. He had craved the solitude, when he’d volunteered to check those line camps for Hoss. Less noise. Some time to himself.
Be careful what you wish for …
Shuddering, Adam looked down and found his knuckles white around the pitchfork. He blew out a long, slow breath, dropped the forkful of hay into Buck’s stall, and set the tool carefully aside. No. This was not his family’s fault. They had not done this to him. In fact, nothing had been done to him at all. They were the ones in danger—Pa, Hoss, Little Joe. They were the ones who were missing. Who were probably hurt. Probably dead.
He had no right to be angry with them.
He was angry, though.
It was … difficult, with no target.
Right, then. Adam took a long breath and shook his head, clearing the cobwebs from his brain. There were several hours of daylight left. He would grab a quick snack, if there was anything to be found in the kitchen, then take Sport out again until dark. Adam rubbed Buck’s nose, swung around, and nearly plowed over Hop Sing in the stable doorway.
The relief and confusion almost buckled his knees … but he managed a nod and a steady tone. “Hop Sing. What are you doing here?”
The cook scowled. “Live here.”
Adam returned that familiar scowl, glad beyond words for even a small dose of normality. “What are you doing back, then? You had another couple of weeks, didn’t you?”
“Honorable sheriff contact in San Francisco, ask Hop Sing come home.” Hop Sing crossed his arms. “Not think it good for Mistah Adam to be alone.”
Adam scrubbed at his face. “I’m sorry.” Of course. He really should have known that Roy Coffee wouldn’t be able to resist meddling. “Roy shouldn’t have—”
“Why you not contact?” Hop Sing stabbed a finger into Adam’s startled face. “Why you think Hop Sing not want to know, come home when family missing? Hop Sing not have right?”
He gaped. “Of course. You know that … but—”
“But now Hop Sing see why.” The cook waved a vague hand. “You not eat, you not sleep.” He sniffed, wrinkling his nose. “You not wash. It no wonder sheriff worried.”
“He hasn’t seen me lately …” Adam protested, but Hop Sing had already turned back to the house.
“You come. Bath water ready, then hot soup and fresh bread.”
Hot soup. He’d been freezing for weeks, despite his hours beneath the scorching Nevada sun. How did Hop Sing always know these things? For the first time since life had flipped inside out, Adam was suddenly ravenous. Still …
“I’m going back out for a few hours. I’ll eat after I—”
“You wash now, then eat.”
“Hop Sing …”
Hop Sing spun back toward him. “You wash now, then eat, then sleep.” The little cook towered over him, despite Adam’s significantly taller stature. “It late in day. You not find anything tonight in land you search half-dozen times already, so close to home. Not help father and brothers, not help you, not help anybody. You come inside now.”
And why did Hop Sing always make so much sense?
He hadn’t spent much time in the house over the past couple of weeks, even when home—it still screamed the presence of Pa and the boys over its suffocating silence. It was another reason (one Adam had barely admitted even to himself) that he had been spending so much time in the saddle lately. It wouldn’t be so quiet anymore, though, not with Hop Sing returned. The emptiness would be overwhelming, but maybe no longer crushing. “I won’t eat in the dining room.”
Hop Sing nodded once. “Happy to have you at kitchen table.”
The kitchen. Yes, he could do that. “Thanks, Hop Sing.”
“Sure, sure. You come now.” The cook tugged gently at his elbow. “You wash, eat good food, then Hop Sing give you shave before you sleep.”
Adam rubbed at his jaw. It really was a bit out of hand. “I can shave myself.”
“No.” The cook was adamant. “You shave self now, you cut throat.”
He snorted a laugh—the first, probably, since this had all begun. “You’re probably right.”
“Of course Hop Sing right. Why you surprised?”
He wasn’t. Hop Sing was right about a great many things. Adam closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and realized that at least some measure of his equilibrium had returned. He owed their cook for a great deal more than hot soup and a good shave …
“All right. Lead the way.”
The commotion jolted Ben out of a light doze.
Ironically, all three had found sleep difficult, buried in unrelieved darkness. Without any difference between night and day their bodies refused to rest on a regular schedule, and the sleep they did happen to catch was shallow, restless. It was also difficult to reorient upon waking. By the time Ben managed to get his feet under him (metaphorically speaking), Joe had scrambled across the tiny shaft and was speaking in a low, steady tone.
“It’s okay, Hoss. You’re okay.” Hoss’s harsh panting came in jolting counterpoint to Joe’s soothing murmur. “Come on, brother, wake up. You’re okay. You can feel me breathing, right? That’s right. Just breathe along with me. Come on now, nice and deep.”
The strained, panicked gasps had calmed considerably by the time Ben found his sons. He felt for his middle son’s shoulder and gripped it firmly, addressing Joe. “How is he?”
“Good. We’re good.” Joe’s voice didn’t break from its calming cadence. “We’re just fine, aren’t we, Hoss? Just breathin’ nice and slow.”
Hoss’s grumble was a relief. “Oh, fine as frog’s hair. Sure enough.” A breathless quality still painted his son’s tone, but it was fading fast.
Joe chuckled, and Ben joined him. “Your sincerity is overwhelming, son.”
“Well, tell Little Joe ta stop askin’ me fool questions, then.”
Joe giggled again, a pale imitation of his usual cackle. Ben heard him thump to the ground. “Can’t help it, brother. What else am I supposed to do to pass the time?”
“Count to a million,” Hoss snapped. Then, “No, count from a million. Backwards. Slowly. Oughta keep ya until at least … whenever.”
There was no time here, only blackness. Their one relief was the short, unexpected bursts from Postley’s lantern when their captor appeared with new supplies. Though at times the man stayed to chat, often he simply dropped the bag and then disappeared without a word.
In truth, Ben far preferred the latter—even if it did mean less light.
“Nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine.”
“Count quiet, Joseph.”
“You didn’t say that. Nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-eight.”
“Well, I meant it!”
“How am I supposed to guess at somethin’ like that? You gotta be clear about these things. Nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-seven.”
“Dadburn it, Joe …”
It was best to nip this in the bud. Their forced proximity had been a source of tension as well as comfort, and Ben had no desire for his two sons to start into each other again. They had enough problems as it was. Add to that Hoss’s new tendency of waking up in a breathless panic—his middle son’s dislike of dark spaces had made itself known in small ways from the beginning, but there was nothing small about these episodes and Ben was worried what this recent development might mean—and the last thing they needed was an all-out fight over something so stupid.
For a moment both of his sons were silent. Then Hoss heaved a sigh.
“How do ya think Adam’s gettin’ along?”
Adam. Ben scrubbed at his face.
His absent son was a subject they had approached only a few times during these dark days. The avoidance had been mostly out of necessity, because any speculation about Adam tended to evolve rapidly into speculation about whatever rescue effort might be underway. That, they had quickly discovered, was a short, quick road to insanity. Still, Adam had never been far from Ben’s thoughts—or, suspected, those of his younger brothers.
What that oldest boy of his must be going through …
“Ole Adam’s probably just enjoying the peace and quiet,” Joe drawled, and Ben directed a fierce frown toward his son. Even unseen, Joe would hear it.
“Pa …” Joe’s wary tone said louder than any words that Ben’s youngest realized he should have kept his mouth shut. “I was only joking.”
“Well, it wasn’t funny.”
It wasn’t funny for Adam, either, Ben knew—and that was really the source of his anger, not Joe’s admittedly harmless comment. His eldest had come through so much in his lifetime with a grace and dignity Ben often envied. To lose his entire family at once, though, and in such a way … how could even Adam, who had learned to cope with tragedy at such an early age, cope with this?
“Aw, Pa. He didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
And how could Hoss, even sunk in the depths as he was, pass up an opportunity to defend his baby brother? Ben chuckled wryly. “I know.”
“Pa,” Joe offered tentatively. “I didn’t mean that Adam—”
“Joe. I know.” Ben forced as much warmth into his voice as possible, an attempted olive branch. “It’s just that … I worry for him.”
“Yeah.” Joe’s voice was soft, and sad. “So do I.”
Hoss blew out another long sigh. “So do we all.”
Some days were worse than others, and paperwork days were among them.
Adam sat in the alcove at his father’s desk, drank coffee, and stared at the records scattered across its polished surface. He had never been fond of the accounts (no matter what Joe claimed, he didn’t actually enjoy boredom), but he understood their necessity and always took them on willingly enough when Ben was absent or unable. Now, though … Now the accounts meant spending a day staring at his father’s handwriting and signature, and often the handwriting and signatures of his brothers as well on some invoice or bill of sale. Oh, that would go away soon enough, as those records were filed in some old cabinet and new ones took their place—but he wasn’t sure that would be any better.
Their signatures were a reminder that they were missing.
No signatures would be a reminder that they were not coming home.
Down deep, Adam supposed he already knew that. Pa and the boys had been gone for a month. The time for clues or ransom notes, or even for his family to walk back through the front door as if nothing had ever happened, was long past. Everyone else in the area had certainly accepted it and moved on—this week’s papers had pronounced his family ‘presumed dead’, and a couple of well-meaning ladies had asked him in town yesterday when he planned on holding the memorial service. They would help provide food, so that Hop Sing didn’t have to cook for that number of people on his own.
He resisted (barely) a blistering set-down, tipped his hat politely, and told them he’d let them know.
The thing was, Adam had no intention of holding a memorial any time soon. He might accept that they were … gone, but he didn’t plan to make it official. Not yet. Maybe he was just putting off the inevitable, delaying his own healing along with it, but he wasn’t ready.
“Roy and Doc Martin think I’m in denial,” he had told Hop Sing over breakfast that morning, hunched on a stool at the kitchen table. He had not eaten in the dining room since this had all started, not unless some visitor had been out to check up on him. The silence around the table was too loud with memories—Joe’s cackle, Hoss’s appetite, Pa’s booming voice. It was better not to take it on, because he generally came out the loser. As for the visitors—he knew that the sheriff and the doctor and old Mrs. Thompson and the half-dozen others who’d been out meant well, but he wished they wouldn’t.
It was odd. The enforced solitude was eating him alive, but he didn’t want their company.
Probably, because they weren’t the right company.
Hop Sing was already puttering with lunch preparations, though noon was hours away and Adam wouldn’t be much hungry when it arrived. He looked and felt better on the outside since Hop Sing had returned, and Adam freely gave credit where it was due. The cook-turned-only-family-member’s aggressive pestering regarding such things as shaving and sleep and mealtimes had been at once annoying and a Godsend. Still, none of it could made him hungry again. As long as he ate at least something at each meal, though, Hop Sing seemed satisfied and help his tongue. That didn’t stop him from going all out with each small dish he prepared, however, in the hopes that this would be the one to tempt Mistah Adam’s appetite.
It was an intricate balancing act, but they were managing.
“No. I know they’re not coming back. But I’m also not ready to see my name at the top of the Ponderosa’s deed. Is that so wrong?”
“Not wrong. However Mistah Adam need grieve, not wrong.”
His gut rolled, and Adam pushed back his plate. “See? Even you can say it.”
“Hop Sing not say it. Don’t know what you hearing.”
“Not talk about family, talk about Mistah Adam. Hop Sing say you grieving, and is true no matter if Mistah Ben and Mistah Hoss and Little Joe dead or not.” The cook put down his knife, wiped his hands, and approached. “There big loss in here,” he tapped Adam’s chest gently with one finger, “right now, even if family come back tomorrow. Grief not only for death.”
No, but …
“But they are.”
Hop Sing sighed, looking suddenly twenty years older. The dark head nodded, and he moved back to his chopping block. “Seems probably so.”
Seems probably so. It was as good a theme for the day as any.
He was drifting. Adam took another swallow of coffee and was about to dig into the next file when a loud knock pounded at the door. Hop Sing was out back with the laundry, so Adam pushed away from the desk and went to answer.
Candy stood on the front porch.
“I just heard.” Their wayward foreman brandished a paper, stepping past Adam into the house. “Came as soon as I could. I don’t …” Candy shook his head, removing his hat to run distracted fingers through his tousled mane. “I don’t even know what to say.”
It was … very good to see him. Adam closed the door and motioned Candy toward the great room. “There isn’t anything to say.”
Candy settled onto the settee, dropped the paper onto the table, and leaned forward. “Tell me what’s been happening.” He hesitated. “Unless you don’t want to talk about it.”
“No, it’s fine.” Adam waved aside Candy’s concern and sank into his own blue chair. “It might actually be good to go through it all front to back—I haven’t even done that with Hop Sing.” He offered a wry grin. “He just showed back up and jumped in like he’d never left.”
Candy had always been a good listener. He didn’t offer many interruptions as Adam spun the tale, beginning with his return home from their trip out to the line camps and ending with the present state of affairs. Their foreman shook his head when Adam had finished, stretching his legs and scrubbing thoughtfully at his unshaven jaw.
“I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Adam grimaced. “I only wish I hadn’t.”
“Yeah.” Candy nodded slowly. “I bet you do.” They were silent for a long while, and then Candy ventured, “You know I’ve got another month off yet.”
“I think I did know that.”
Candy flashed that grin, the one that could mean eight different things or nothing. “I’m thinkin’ maybe about a slow ride through the nearby Sierras.”
Adam looked away, not sure how to feel about that. “We searched for weeks, and I looked on my own for even longer than that.”
“You said it yourself.” Candy shrugged. “Still a lot of uncovered ground.”
“Candy, it’s not that I don’t … but they’re …” Still, he couldn’t say it. If he’d been alone, Adam would have growled aloud in frustration. Candy cocked his head to one side, expression unreadable.
“Yeah, probably. But, it’s my time to spend.” He leaned forward again. “Look, will it bother you if I do some lookin’ around?”
Would it bother him? No, not at all … and that was the point. Everyone kept telling him that it had been a month, that he needed to be facing facts and getting on with life. He knew they were right—he’d probably be telling others the same thing if the situation was reversed—yet still all Adam wanted to do was shove the blasted paperwork back into a drawer, saddle Sport, and spend the next week crawling through the wilds of Nevada.
How was he ever supposed to move forward if he kept looking backward?
Then again, was ‘forward’ really looking so great that he needed to rush to get there?
“No. It won’t bother me.” Adam offered a faint grin. “I might even join you.”
Maybe he was in denial. Or maybe Hop Sing was just right (Hop Sing usually was), and there was no wrong way for him to grieve.
At the moment, he was okay with either one.
“It’s a beautiful mornin’, fellas.”
Ben squinted against the lantern light, shading his eyes from the source sitting beside John Postley at the edge of their shaft. He knew the flame was probably turned so low as to be useless to any normal person, but for he and his sons even a tiny flicker was overwhelming.
He and one son, at least. A quick glance showed him that Hoss hadn’t bothered to look up from his huddle in the far corner, and a headshake from Joe confirmed that Ben’s middle son hadn’t even stirred at Postley’s pronouncement. His youngest remained shoulder to shoulder with Hoss, as he had been since his bigger brother had stopped speaking some time back, and Ben knew that it was only for Hoss’s sake that Joe wasn’t already on his feet railing at Postley. Joe was a hothead, but the boy’s (man’s) love and fear for his brother were both fierce.
“Postley!” he snapped, stumbling to his feet. “Postley, you have to let us out.”
Their captor sighed. “Ben …”
“Look at my son! He’s not even … he can’t …” This wasn’t going to get him anywhere. “At least give us some light! Even in your cell, you had some light, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Postley admitted. His conversational tone never broke. “That I did.”
“Then give us some—”
The man shook out a newspaper. “Cartwright and sons missing for … oops.” Postley grinned wryly down at them. “Can’t tell you that. But, Cartwright and sons missing, presumed dead.” He lifted one bushy eyebrow. “Hear that? They think you’re dead.”
Oh, Adam …
He didn’t have time for that now. “Postley, we need light!”
“Course, it ain’t been made official yet. But that’ll come. Don’t you worry.”
It was too much for him.
“Postley, you’re insane! You know that, right? This is insane!”
The grin disappeared, and Postley slowly closed the newspaper. Joe squinted between his father and their captor, tensing. Even Hoss sluggishly raised his head.
“You think that, do you?” Postley pushed back from the edge and stood. “That I’m a little shy of all there. That I’m missing a few cards from my deck.”
It was too late to take it back, and Ben couldn’t honestly say he wanted to. It might not have been wise to yell it aloud, but he’d wanted to for … well, for what felt like years.
“If I am, whose fault is that?” their captor barked. “Whose fault is it that I spent a year and a half in that cell, that I had no one and nothing to …” Postley’s voice faded, and he backed out to sight. Ben exchanged a glance with Joe. What would the man do? Would he just leave? He hadn’t taken the lantern, though, and they’d heard no retreating—
A sparkling stream of light arced down into the shaft. For a heart stopping second Ben gaped at the lit stick of dynamite lying between him and his sons, then he scrambled after it.
Too late. Hoss launched away from the wall and scooped it up, ignoring Joe’s startled yelp. For a moment Ben thought his son intended to toss the dynamite back up and out … but as his middle boy stared at the explosive, dilated eyes fixed raptly on that single spark, Ben knew.
Hoss did not intend to throw that dynamite anywhere at all.
Joe sprang forward and wrestled with his brother, trying to pry the dynamite from those big hands. The fuse whipped wildly, leaving a bright, burning glow in its wake. Ben hurried toward them, forcing as much authority as he could muster into a single bellow.
“Hoss, let it go, boy! Now!”
Hoss’s head whipped up. Those blue eyes cleared, and unfeigned horror took his expression as Ben’s son realized what he was doing. Taking advantage, Joe snatched the dynamite away, but it was too late to do more than toss it toward the opposite side of the shaft. He flung himself over Hoss as it landed, and Ben dropped down on top of both his sons …
Cautiously, Ben looked around. The spark was gone, but the explosive had failed. He exchanged a baffled glance with Joe, then crawled off of his sons. He reached the unexploded dynamite, seized it gingerly, and broke the stick in two.
“Sand,” he gasped hoarsely, as it poured onto the rough stone floor. Ben’s heart pounded, and his hands shook with reaction. “It’s just sand.”
Joe glanced frantically between his father and Postley, who had reappeared at the edge. “Why? Why would you do that?”
Postley held Ben’s gaze. “Maybe I am a little insane, but I’m not the only one now.”
He was too enraged to speak. Words failed utterly.
Instead, Ben watched Postley shuffle back out of sight, and heard Hoss’s soft sobs, and listened as Joe held his brother tight and whispered words that Ben couldn’t hear. After a moment, he dropped the fake dynamite and crawled slowly back to his sons. He settled against the wall and stroked Hoss’s hair with a shaking hand. His middle son—his strong, kind boy—looked up, face wet with tears.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinkin’, I just—”
“It’s all right, boy,” Ben murmured, though it wasn’t and would probably never be again. “You don’t need to apologize, this is none of it your fault.”
“Don’t know what I was thinkin’ …”
Hoss’s voice trailed away as he buried his head in his arms once again. In that moment of silence, a metallic clatter sounded nearby. Ben looked around, and found a lantern sitting beside him, tied at the end of a long rope.
“Ain’t promisin’ another.”
He couldn’t manage a thank you, and was quite sure Postley didn’t care. Ben worked the knot free, and the rope slithered away. As Postley’s footsteps receded into the darkness, Ben set the lantern between him and his sons, lit it, and trimmed the wick until the flame nearly died.
It wasn’t much, but it was far better than what they’d had.
Hoss’s shudders stilled, and he turned his face toward the tiny light. Rather than disentangle himself, Joe merely relaxed where he was, resting his head between his brother’s shoulder blades. Ben stretched his legs, sagging back against the shaft. For a long while they sat silent around the tiny flame, basking as though a bonfire warmed them.
They found John Postley beneath his wagon near the bottom of a little ravine they had been following for two days. The man had apparently been filling his water barrels in the stream when the wagon had rolled back over him, pinning him half in and half out of the water. There was no way to know how long he’d been trapped there, and what had caused it Adam couldn’t say—maybe the mule had been startled and lost her footing, maybe something else.
In any event, it didn’t really matter. The damage was done.
They unloaded the full water barrel, then Candy lifted the back wheel while Adam slowly eased Postley’s broken body out from beneath. Candy came to kneel beside them while Adam peeled the man’s shirt aside to assess the damage.
“Doc?” Candy whispered, though he could see as well as Adam that there was no point. Adam shook his head. Postley’s chest was damaged beyond repair, and pink froth painted his mouth. He didn’t have much time left. In truth, Adam was surprised the man was still alive now—he had fully expected to be rescuing a corpse. The shallow, rattling breaths and dull eyes had been a shock.
“John. What happened?”
He knew Postley wouldn’t be able to respond, but wasn’t sure what else to say. It was a shame, Adam thought, for Postley to survive what he had only to die of a stupid, senseless accident less than two hours from civilization. The area was untamed—not much there but rock and scrub and a few trickles of water—but they weren’t that far from either the Ponderosa or Virginia City.
Postley attempted a response. Adam didn’t catch it at first, and leaned close. “Water,” the man rasped, and Adam looked around.
“Candy, can you—”
“No.” The man batted at his sleeve. “Water.”
“You were getting water?” Postley nodded sluggishly. “I see.”
Candy appeared with a canteen. Adam tried to help Postley drink, but the older man pushed the water away. “All right.” Adam set the canteen aside, reluctant to force water when it might do more harm than good. Already Postley’s breathing was growing more ragged, and he wondered if moving him might have been the final push.
It couldn’t be helped. It wasn’t as if they could have left him there …
“John.” Adam took the trembling hand in his. “I want to say thank you for all you did to try to help find my family.” The rheumy blue eyes flew open, fixing on him. “I know my pa regrets … regretted what happened.” Candy frowned across Postley’s body, and Adam avoided his friend’s eyes. It wasn’t so much an admission that Ben Cartwright was dead, he told himself, as an admission that he would need to get used to referring to him—to them all—in the past tense. “You might have been bitter, but you weren’t, and he was relieved you forgave him.”
Silence fell then, nothing but the sounds of the water and wind and the birds around them. It was a soothing silence, so unlike those at home for the past weeks, and Adam relaxed into it. Those blue eyes never left his face, though, strangely intense for a dying man, and suddenly the calloused hand seized weakly in his own. “Mine.”
“Your what, John?” Adam frowned. “What do you need?”
Postley’s grey head flopped side to side. “In … mine.”
In mine … He frowned toward Candy, who shrugged. A moment later, though, the foreman’s head came up. “You want to be buried in your mine? Is that it, Mr. Postley?”
The old man seemed to have lost the ability to move, but his eyes looked past them, up the faint trail upon which they rested to a jagged outcropping above.
“Is that where your mine is, John?” Adam nodded. “We’ll bury you there. Don’t worry.”
That was, it seemed, all John Postley had strength for. He slipped into unconsciousness several minutes later, and within half an hour he died.
After the fake dynamite incident, Postley didn’t return. It might not have been so long, in truth—none of them could say, and they no longer even tried to guess—but in the commotion of their captor’s last visit he had not left new food or water. None of them were terribly hungry, so the food didn’t really matter, but the water had been gone for some time now. Ben was beginning to suspect that Postley had no intention of returning before they died of dehydration.
In some ways it was probably for the best, but he had wanted better for his sons …
They lay together in one corner now, sluggish and parched as the lack of water began to tell. Hoss, who had been already in a weaker state than Ben or Joe, had been unconscious for … well, for some time. Joe had curled around his brother as Hoss slipped away, sparing a moment to reach blindly for Ben. “The light, Pa. Turn on the light.” Tears flooded Ben’s eyes as he complied, turning the flame as high as it would go despite his aching eyes, and spilled over as his youngest snuggled into Hoss’s back, whispering, “It ain’t dark anymore, Hoss. You ain’t gonna die in the dark, brother.”
Yes. His boys deserved better.
Ben was … surprised, to tell the truth. After all this time, after that last conversation—argument, whatever—with Postley, he had not expected the man to just leave them to die. It didn’t seem to Ben what John was after. Another miscalculation on his part, he supposed.
Ben’s life had been full of them—whose wasn’t—but some mattered more than others.
He settled beside Hoss and Joe, sprawled against the wall within easy reach. One hand stroked Joe’s bushy, overgrown curls, one hand Hoss’s fine, thinning locks. The touch was a comfort to him—and, he hoped, to them as well.
He was so tired …
The light flickered and danced, driving away the darkness.
They buried Postley right outside the mouth of his mine, piling rocks over the grave to discourage scavengers. It had been a straightforward trek from the creek, with Candy driving the wagon that held the old man’s body and Adam riding alongside, leading Candy’s horse. Candy sat down for a rest and a drink when they had finished, but Adam was too restless to relax. He wandered into the dark cave instead, curious what Postley’s mining efforts had amounted to. The mine was in a good location if a man didn’t want his claim found by others. As far as whether it was good for silver—he doubted it. At least, Adam hadn’t heard of any legitimate strikes in this particular area.
He wondered if Postley had truly been after silver, though, or if he had just been seeking solitude and wide open spaces, after his time in prison. He wouldn’t have blamed the man. Adam had toured the Nevada State Prison once (where John Postley had been incarcerated) and couldn’t imagine being forced to spend months or years there.
If only the same thought deterred real criminals.
He wandered farther back from the entrance. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of support beams or structure, but this mine had been built into a natural cave. The timber wouldn’t be needed until the actually digging began. The passage twisted ahead of him, and Adam realized that he would either need to go find a lantern or just give up this little exploration. He was becoming curious what kind of mine such a cave had produced, though, and had just decided to go find a lantern when he noticed a faint—very faint—glow in the darkness ahead of him.
Had Postley left a lantern burning? He was surprised it hadn’t run out of fuel by now.
Adam pushed ahead, and upon rounding the corner found himself staring down upon a large square shaft dug straight into the ground. The flickering light came from within. He shook his head, edging forward for a look. It was deep, that was certain, and had probably come mostly intact with the old claim—surely Postley could not have done all of this on his …
The full floor of the shaft came into view, and Adam stumbled, almost pitching forward into the looming hole. He caught himself, stared dumbly with his heart in his throat for the space of three long heartbeats, then shook free from the shock and crashed to his knees beside the shaft.
“Pa! Hoss, Joe! Can you hear me?” Ben stirred, but did not respond. Hoss and Joe lay still. Adam scrambled up and yelled toward the mouth of the cave. “Candy! Candy, bring the canteens! Bring water! Candy!”
His searching eyes landed on a rope ladder tangled beside the shaft. He threw it down, barely waiting for it to straighten before scrambling onto its rungs. As soon as he was close enough, Adam leaped the last few feet to the ground. He was crouching beside his father when rapid footsteps announced Candy’s arrival.
“Adam? What—” The sight below struck their foreman momentarily dumb, but he recovered quickly. “Catch! I’ll go back for the other one.” He tossed his own canteen down and Adam snagged it out of the air, shaking his pa gently as Candy raced back for Adam’s.
“Pa? Pa, can you hear me?” Ben stirred, and Adam swiped viciously at the wetness suddenly staining his cheeks. Now was not the time. “Here, Pa. Have a drink.” He tilted the canteen against Ben’s lips, relieved beyond thought when his father stirred, reaching up to grasp at the canteen. “Easy, Pa, easy,” Adam murmured, tilting just a little more water into Ben’s mouth and over his lips before removing it gently from his father’s grip. “Take it slow. Easy.”
Ben’s eyes blinked open, and for a moment he stared. Then, “Adam?” Candy returned, and began his own scramble down the latter.
“Yeah, Pa. It’s me.”
Ben seized the nape of Adam’s neck, squeezing tightly. “Adam.” Tears tracked his own cheeks, into the overgrown beard that spread across his face and down his neck. “Adam, we didn’t …”
Candy had managed to rouse Joe, and was rationing his water in a similar fashion. Adam reached back and pressed his pa’s hand, then gently pulled back. “I need to check on Hoss. How is—”
“Hoss!” Ben breathed hoarsely, lunging past Adam toward his large son. Adam followed, worry churning his gut. “He’s not been doing well, he’s been unconscious for …” Ben blinked, his eyes shadowed with a confusion Adam had never seen from his steady, rock-solid father. “I don’t know. Son …” He gripped at Adam’s wrist. “How long has it been?”
“Just over a month.” Adam settled beside Hoss and shook him, not really expecting a response. Ben’s head snapped up, and he stared.
“Only a month?”
It was the way he felt, too, yet he imagined that things had been so much worse for his family, trapped here in Postley’s … John Postley’s mine.
John Postley. And he had thought …
They had all thought.
He had no time for that now—dealing with that news would have to come later.
“Thirty-four days, to be exact.”
Ben sagged. Adam couldn’t do much for him, busy with Hoss as he was, but Candy turned from Joe and caught his employer, settling the older man gently before he could collapse. Adam’s big brother was breathing, and he thanked the good Lord for that, but still unresponsive. He finally managed to coax a little water down Hoss’s throat, and repeated the effort until his brother had taken in several mouthfuls. Joe had revived enough to pull himself over to them, and was dividing his stare between his two brothers.
“Where’d you come from, Adam?”
“Long story,” he replied, reaching across to grip Joe’s shoulder, “and it’ll wait until we get you all out of here.” He squeezed tight. “It’s good to see you.”
“Hmm,” Joe mumbled, patting vaguely at Adam’s hand. “Good to see you, too. Thought we were gonna … be in the dark forever. Thought we’d already been in the dark forever.”
“I bet so.” Adam checked Hoss’s heartbeat and breathing again, and decided he was satisfied for the moment. “No more lanterns for you, though. You’ll be out in the sun again in no time. We might need to shade your—”
“No lantern most of the time.” Joe fumbled for the canteen again, and Candy rationed him a few more sips of water.
“What?” Adam looked up, startled.
“It was dark most of the time. He only gave us the lantern the last time he …” Joe squinted. “You sure it’s only been a month?”
“Dark? You were in the dark this whole time?”
He couldn’t keep the initial horror and anger out of his voice. A second later he forced himself past it, pulling on the calm façade that had always served him so well. This was definitely not the time for a temper tantrum—not while his family was still here, sprawled in the bottom of the mine shaft that had been their prison for so many weeks.
No. That would have to wait until everyone was safe and he was away from prying eyes.
Adam caught Candy’s eye, and the foreman moved to help Joe rise. Adam checked Hoss again, ensuring that his unconscious brother would be fine for the moment while they helped the other two up the ladder, then moved around behind Ben.
“Come on, Pa.” He gripped his father gently, drawing Ben to his feet. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”^
Dr. Martin waved Adam back into his chair as he wearily descended the stairs. Shaking his head, he crossed to the settee and sat, rubbing his face with both hands. Hop Sing appeared on silent feet, leaving a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie on the table. Paul lifted his head, stared, then snorted softly and lifted the coffee, sipping deeply.
“Hop Sing is a wizard.”
Adam smiled faintly. “That he is.” He took a long breath, then lifted an inquiring brow. “So?”
“So.” Dr. Martin shook his head again. “If I didn’t see if for myself, I wouldn’t believe it.”
“You and me both. But how are they?”
Paul leaned back. “First of all, Adam, understand that most of what I’m about to say is extrapolated from experience with miners who have been trapped underground for some period of time. Never this long, of course, and I can’t guarantee how much of a difference that will make … but that’s the closest I can come to this situation.” Adam nodded once, and the doctor continued.
“So. I from what I can see, their eyes are undamaged.” Relief flooded him, and it was all Adam could do not to sag back into his seat. In the dark. His family had been in all but complete darkness for a month, and they had all been afraid … But no. Adam offered another curt nod and Paul smiled faintly, as though he understood. Probably, he did. “Their eyes will tired easily for a while, however, and they will all need to keep some sort of eye shading close to hand—even inside the house.”
“Did you tell them that?” Adam asked, trying to imagine forcing eye protection on an unwilling Joe. Dr. Martin laughed aloud.
“I did … but good luck to you.”
“Thanks for that.”
“Oh, you’re most welcome.” The doctor took another long sip from his cup. “I have no idea how long it will take their sleep cycle to naturally adjust. I’ll leave a light overnight sedative for your pa and Joe. Have them take it for the first week, and then we’ll reevaluate.”
“What about Hoss?”
“Hoss.” Paul rubbed at his eyes. “His case is different. Given his current physical and mental state, I would prefer to forgo the sedatives for a few days. He doesn’t need them for the time being, in any case—he’s still unconscious, and I don’t expect him to wake yet tonight.”
“But, he will wake up?” Adam didn’t try to hide his anxiety, not from Paul. They had known each other too long for that.
The doctor nodded emphatically. “Most definitely. Have no fear of that.” Paul sat back. “We’ll see where he’s at in the morning. I don’t want to make any decisions about his treatment until then. I have left a low light burning in his room. Don’t put it out. From what your pa and Joe have said, I think it will be a good idea to keep it burning overnight for the foreseeable future.”
He remembered when Hoss had finally overcome his fear of the dark as a child. His brother had been so proud … Adam shook his head fiercely, and nodded toward the spare room. “Candy put your bags in the spare room for you.”
“Thanks.” Dr. Martin stood. “I think I’ll go ahead and retire. If anything comes up overnight, you know where to find me.”
Adam stood as well, and offered his hand. “Thank you, Paul.”
The doctor shook, smiling briefly. “Adam … I know it’s a lot to deal with, but I want you to know how much it means to me to find your family is alive and relatively well.”
“Thank you, Paul.”
Dr. Martin hesitated. “Also … Joe’s already asleep, but your father wanted to speak to you before taking his sedative. He asked me to send you up.”
“Did he say why?”
Paul snorted softly. “He did not, and I expect it’s none of my business.”
“Right.” Adam quirked a wry grin. “Thanks, I’ll head up.”
“Good night, Adam.”
He did not head up right away, though. Adam stood before the fire for a few long minutes, attempting to sort through the day’s events—the month’s events. He was exhausted, and angry, and confused. Ben and Joe had detailed the bare facts on the way home, and he still couldn’t believe that he had so misjudged John Postley. For now, he would have to be content with his father’s assertion that Postley was an ill, injured man who was not fully in control of his faculties … but eventually, Adam would have to decide for himself what he truly believed.
John Postley had seemed quite sane to him.
He didn’t want to think about Postley anymore tonight, though. More than anything, he wanted to bask in the knowledge that his pa and brothers were home, and to somehow convince the ache that had not quite left his heart and gut that it was no longer needed.
The last month did not seem to want to leave him as quickly as he would like.
His pa was waiting for him. Adam took the steps two at a time, and halted outside each brother’s room as he passed, listening until he heard the steady sound of breathing. That done, he crossed to Ben’s room and knocked softly.
“Come in, son.”
Adam pushed the door open, slipped inside, and shut it quietly behind him. When he turned toward the bed, he was struck anew by the very impossibility of the sight before him—his father, Benjamin Cartwright, presumed dead, now tucked into his own bed and recovering. He hadn’t wanted to admit that they were dead, but he hadn’t truly believed that they were still alive, either …
He focused. “Sorry, Pa. Did you need something?”
Ben just looked at him for a long moment with those piercing eyes that Adam had thought he would never see again, and suddenly he knew that this request wasn’t about his father at all. He shifted uncomfortably, and was considering whether he should attempt to divert the conversation when Ben suddenly opened his arms wide.
“Come here, son.”
Adam battled with himself only briefly. He was not a touch-oriented person. He had never needed the same hugs and pats and physical signs of approval and affection that his brothers craved. It had been such a long month, though. He had missed them, and he had been so deeply alone …
Loosing a shuddering breath, Adam crossed the room in three long steps, sank onto the bed, and allowed himself to be folded into his father’s embrace.
+ Title phrases taken from “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel
^ Quote taken directly from the episode.
* In 1876, Virginia City was home to roughly 150 saloons. My number of 143 is a rough estimate, based on inexact numbers and a few years’ difference. 🙂 [Taken from the Virginia City page of the legendsofamerica.com web site.]
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